371 rave reviews!
“Excellent, suspenseful read with some great twists…Wow! Very impressive…”
If you like edge-of-your-seat thrillers laced with humor, you’ll love the Manny Williams crime thrillers. Discover this entertaining series while Book I, Caribbean Moon, is just 99 cents!
by Rick Murcer
in its Audible Audio Edition, Unabridged!
Small-town detective and workaholic Manny Williams is thrilled with the prospect of finally taking the long-awaited vacation he had promised his wife, Louise.
The couple’s exotic getaway begins in sunny Puerto Rico, by attending the June wedding of a fellow Lansing police officer, followed with an incredible week-long Southern Caribbean cruise on the glamorous Ocean Duchess. Tropical paradise appears to be a perfect recipe for some desperately needed R&R…until the first dead body.
A bizarre, seemingly random murder in their posh San Juan Hotel, and the heinous cruise ship deaths of two of Lansing’s law enforcement family brings Manny and his unique skills out of cruise mode and headlong into the FBI-led investigation. Manny soon discovers that in this killer’s twisted perception nothing is off limits, prompting a race against time that could cost him everything.
5-star praise for Caribbean Moon:
Suspenseful and wonderful
“The characters…are well-developed, the dialog is realistic, and the setting is captivating. I’m looking forward to reading many, many more books by Rick Murcer.”
“Stayed up way too late reading and finished reading with my morning coffee. The suspense and story line were so well written that I was lost in the story…”
an excerpt from
by Rick Murcer
“I’ll need to see your ID, sir.”
“What?” Manny Williams stared at the pretty, Latino barmaid. He must have looked like a deer in headlights because she started to grin, rescued her composure, and asked again.
“Uh, I’m thirty-eight years old. I don’t . . .”
“Having trouble gettin’ served, Williams?”
Glancing to his left he noticed Sophie Lee, his diminutive partner as she stood a few feet away wearing one of her famous gotcha grins.
“I should have known . . . and don’t you have something else to do?”
“Why no, no I don’t.” Sophie sat down on the nearest bar stool and crossed her legs. “And you should have known what?”
“That you put the poor girl up to this. Does she know that even in Puerto Rico you can be arrested for messing with a cop?”
The barmaid’s face raced from smiles to the south side of unsure.
“Don’t listen to him. He has anger issues, plus he’s a workaholic.” Sophie lowered her voice to a whisper, drawing closer to the barmaid. “And well, among his other issues, he does the little blue pill thing.”
The young woman’s dark eyes grew large. “Really? But he seems so . . . I mean, well, look at him.”
“Blue pill thing?” said Manny, shaking his head.
Sophie ignored him. “I know. He’s all blond and blue-eyed and hot. Sad, isn’t it? You just can’t tell these days.”
“Ladies, I’m right here.”
“Think of his poor wife.”
“He’s married with that . . . problem?” the barmaid said.
“Yep. It’s like having the candy but you can’t get the wrapper off, in more ways than one.”
“Seriously, I haven’t left.”
“He’s in denial, but he’s starting to realize he has to talk about it, find out what’s up, er, isn’t,” continued Sophie.
“You’re right, it is sad. His wife must be miserable.”
“Okay, I’m getting out the cuffs,” said Manny.
“Wow. Does he like that kind of stuff?” asked the barmaid, now with a glint in her eyes.
Sophie nodded. “I think that’s why he wanted to be a cop, you know?”
Manny reached into his tuxedo pocket and quickly slapped one cuff on Sophie’s wrist, the other to the brass rod running under the teak wood bar.
His partner stared in disbelief at one hand, then the other. Her stunned look was worth a million dollars to him, and Manny couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her anywhere near speechless.
He turned back to the barmaid. “I’ll take that pina colada now.”
“Yes sir. On the house.”
Manny didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone mix a drink faster.
“Hey. Williams. Are you nuts? I mean you brought cuffs to a wedding reception?” marveled Sophie.
“You know me. I’m always prepared. And look at that, they came in handy.”
He grabbed his drink and began to walk away.
“Manny! You can’t leave me like this.”
“I can. But say the magic word and you’re free.”
Letting out a breath, her pretty face displaying her Chinese-American heritage, Sophie answered. “No.”
“Okay. I’ll come get you in the morning, if I remember.”
“Wait. Wait. Damn you. All right. Please let me out of these.”
He tossed her the key. “Good girl. It’s nice when people address me with manners.”
“I got your manners right here . . . and this ain’t over, Williams. Understand?”
Waving her off, he left the ball room and walked through the double doors of the reception room, his grin growing wider. “I still got it,” he said out loud.
Continuing through the lobby, taking his drink with him, he was intent on harvesting his share of the fresh Caribbean air. He pulled open the crested glass door, strolled to the stucco patio, and leaned over the wall of the posh hotel on San Juan’s Condado Strip. It was humid, and the damnable tuxedo upped his discomfort. Dots of perspiration multiplied above his lip. But that was okay. This was for Mike and Lexy’s wedding, and he’d survive. Getting married in beautiful San Juan, followed by an elaborate reception, was the wedding that dreams were made of. Not to mention the seven-day cruise that would start the next day. He hoped his fourteen-year-old daughter, Jennifer, would opt for something much less exotic when she tied the knot.
The full moon’s pale reflection rippled across the waves as they tangoed toward shore and, ultimately, into the hotel’s barrier rock wall. He’d seen a thousand full moons, but none matched this Caribbean version. Magnificent and serene. He felt some of his perpetual tension flow away.
Setting his drink on the ledge of the wall, he pulled out his wallet and touched his Lansing Police Department ID.
Manfred Robert Williams, Sergeant Detective, Lansing Police Department.
After eleven years, it still gave him a kick to see his title in print, almost as much as seeing his real name. His sometimes-eccentric father had pulled the name Manfred from where-the- sun-don’t-shine because he had wanted his only son to be different.
His strong fingers loosened the black bowtie, and he released a pent-up breath. It felt good to get away, but there were cases to solve. The thing is there would always be too many cases, too many sickos, and not enough hours. Walking hand-in-hand with that was the fact he had no real sense of when enough was enough. It all added up to a workaholic’s perfect storm. Sophie had hit that nail on the head.
Complicating things even more were the results of his wife’s last mammogram. There was something there, an anomaly that the doctor couldn’t quite figure out. Louise had assured him it was nothing, that they would review the test results with the doc when they got home from this trip. But it didn’t sound like “nothing.”
Louise had insisted they not cancel this trip for a plethora of reasons, and she was right with most of them. Besides, his need to chill out had become as obvious as an elephant in the kitchen.
He sipped the drink—coconut aroma strong even if the drink was not—and tried to enjoy the scene in front of him. But his thoughts wandered again, this time to the job—what else—and his latest case. So much for relaxing.
“Good God, I’ve got the attention span of a two-year-old,” he growled. But the grisly homicide involving the murdered wife of a prominent psychologist clung to his hip, refusing to let go. The details of the murder stormed his senses. He tried to shove them away, but they hung in there like a door-to-door environmental activist. Who knows? Maybe he didn’t want to stop the thoughts from coming. He winced. Now there’s a question for the department shrink.
Sylvia Martin’s eyes—lifeless, posed in a glassy, haunting stare—were the picture the killer wanted no one to forget. Only the brutality of the attack matched its senselessness. The suspect had played out a host of sexual fantasies with her—postmortem, according to the CSU report. Not just sex either. He had lain waste to the corpse with such force that much of the upper torso had become a purple-and-black teething bar.
Alex Downs, the department’s head Crime Scene Investigator, could only remember one case with similar brutality. Eleven years prior, a psycho named Robert Peppercorn had attacked four young women and had raped, beaten, and bitten them repeatedly, falling just short of killing the victims.
After he had acted out his malefic fantasies, Peppercorn had congenially handed each of his victims a long-stemmed, red rose and thanked them for a good time. Sylvia Martin’s killer had left a black rose draped across her ravaged torso. Manny suspected it was no coincidence. The LPD wanted to talk to Peppercorn pronto. But he had been deemed cured by his psychological team and, after his release last year, had moved on. In fact, no one had heard from him since, not even his mother.
Manny rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. There were differences. Men like Peppercorn were motivated and controlled by impulses, disorganized, but the killer in the Martin case was a cold, calculating psychopath. Alex and his Crime Scene Unit saw obvious similarities to Peppercorn’s “work,” but said forensic dentistry was just not that reliable, and there were only fragmented bite marks, not clean ones from which to make a partial mold. Alex said it was like the killer had varied his marks on purpose. And that was a detail Manny didn’t think Peppercorn was capable of manipulating. He just wasn’t that bright. Still, if they could locate him, Peppercorn would be a good place to start.
His thoughts ran deeper as he passed a hand through his hair, an old nervous habit from adolescence.
Was the whole world going crazy? What kind of animal does that to another human? It made Jack the Ripper seem like Captain Kangaroo.
It was more than a random act; he felt it in his bones. The investigation could use him now, his intuition.
Let it go, man. The department can handle things for a week. You’re on vacation. Louise needs you; concentrate on her for a change.
Again, he switched focus to the coconut delight in his hand while he tried to bum rush the overwhelming nuances of the job.
Sometimes these nuances loomed like unholy apparitions and hung on with a life of their own. He pushed again, and they scampered to some recluse corner of his head. No more work. Not here. Not now.
That’s when the ear-splitting scream interrupted paradise.
Eli Jenkins heard the shriek echo from somewhere beyond the pool, but didn’t care. Hell, it might provide a small, well-timed diversion. He stayed focused on the newlyweds sauntering toward the shadowy northwest corner of the hotel’s courtyard, their arms around each other’s waists.
They giggled and bumped playfully as they moved near the wall, past the steamy, chlorine-filled Jacuzzi. Alone and in love.
Except they weren’t alone.
Mike and Lexy Crosby were so absorbed with each other, and with the night, that it would have been impossible to notice the towering figure standing in the opaque shadows. Unless the couple had been looking for him. Really looking. Which they weren’t.
Jenkins stood mere yards from their eventual destination, hands clenched in powerful fists. He could do it now. He could tear them apart, and no one would see.
With three long strides, he moved through the shadows and locked in on the newlyweds. He would destroy the groom and then help himself to the fine, young fruits that Crosby’s new wife flaunted like a Las Vegas whore. Then he’d steal her soul, and if time allowed, he would make sure it happened with a slow, excruciating process. Anyone who hooked up with Crosby’s ilk deserved that kind of communion with the Grim Reaper. He would make her dance an agonizing waltz with fear, turning her mind to Play-Doh. She would beg him to kill her. They all would.
His heart rate strutted with anticipation. He wanted to see her face as she checked out, as her life-light faded like a dying star. Then, at just the right moment, he would catch her soul and keep it for his own. She would be part of him forever, like the others in Michigan. Just like that. They were with him, even now. The more the merrier.
Migrating closer to the unmindful lovers, he could barely contain his thoughts. There was no rush like the hunt. Nothing compared to the thrill of the chase as unsuspecting prey, shadowed by a merciless predator, lived in ignorance regarding their advancing fate. It was how it should be.
Twenty feet. He could feel their insignificant lives being crushed and snatched from them by his greedy hands. The man-mountain was now completely out of the shadows.
One stride left.
Slowing, his dark eyes tracked the small beads of sweat that slid lazily down Lexy’s neck toward her partially exposed cleavage. His nostrils flared with her scent.
He was judge, jury, and, of course, executioner—the very best part.
Abruptly, his anticipation turned to a limitless rage. It coursed through him as an endless resource, like black in outer space. The rage had been his constant companion, his life partner. Their mutual intimacy gave them purpose, like a symbiotic parasite and its helpless host. And now, they were both ready.
He returned his focus to the doomed bride and groom, taking one last, long stride that would ensure his immortality. This was it. All he had to do was reach out and they were his, eternally.
Until death do us part.
The scream erupted again, to his left. Manny’s insides leapt somewhere past his throat, as he whirled to locate the source of the raucous shriek, reaching for a weapon he’d left locked in the safe of his Lansing home.
He searched frantically through the dim glow of the courtyard. It took a minute, but it soon dawned on him that it hadn’t been a scream of horror, or even alarm, but a piercing laugh coming from a boisterous, vacation-clad group of young women., The ladies were clearly enjoying the cash bar, though a little too loudly for him. Or maybe he was just wound too tight.
One of the women stopped walking and turned to Manny. “Sorry if we startled you.” She moved closer. “I think I could make it up to you if you wanted to come to my room.”
“What a wonderful offer, but my wife wouldn’t approve.”
She grinned. “Lucky woman.”
The young ladies continued to stampede past, and he realized they could probably teach him a thing or two. Living in the here-and-now wasn’t a bad thing.
He ran his hand through his hair, concentrating on bringing his heart rate down to 150 mph.
The word is “relax,” Detective Williams.
Leaning against the railing, he looked past the two pools adorning the verdant courtyard and noticed the stars of the night, talking and laughing through the shadowy confines of the trees. This splendor was such a contrast to the gruesome, Hell-spawned scenes that he had become far too intimate with.
The bride and the groom stood in the shadow of the rock wall fifty yards away. She was still wearing the white, rhinestone-studded wedding dress that danced against the light whenever she moved. He guessed she wanted to wear it as long as she could.
Lexy had chosen wisely. Mike was a good man, strong, with a sense of purpose.
Manny had been a twenty-three-year-old rookie when he partnered up with Mike’s dad, Gavin Crosby. Mike had been just twelve. Good kid then and a fine young man and excellent cop now, just like his dad.
Gavin had been a great mentor, a clever detective, and a perfect choice as Lansing’s Police Chief. He had always been firm but fair, and Manny loved him like a big brother. To see Gavin’s son marry a wonderful woman like Lexy Castro was truly a pleasure. He felt like a proud uncle.
The small, stone bridge that led across the waterway to San Juan’s venerable old fort, San Cristobal, caught his eye, hovering above and beyond the bay. He followed the lit skyline to the cruise ship wharf where they would board the Ocean Duchess in the morning. Her lighted frame and distinctive exhaust stack towered above the pier district of San Juan, creating a striking silhouette, especially at night.
“Manny Williams. What are you doing out here alone? You could be accosted or something worse.”
He looked to the sky and smiled. That voice was unmistakable. Liz Casnovsky, Lansing’s accomplished DA, took a couple of awkward steps toward him and settled at his right. She was dressed in a silver, sequin-littered designer gown. Her black Prada heels and matching handbag topped off a sensational look.
She hooked her lean arm through his and gave him a peck on the cheek. Her breath was tinged with Kahlua, and her eyes held a slightly glazed quality.
“Well, if that happened, I guess I’d know who to hire to put the bad people away.”
“Damn straight, you would. Besides, no one gets to accost you but me, got it?”
“Got it,” he mused. “Where’s Lynn? Did you ditch your devoted husband already?”
“Devoted my ass! Whatever,” she slurred. “Do you know that he actually had the audacity to say I’ve had enough to drink and that I should go to bed before I hurt myself?” Liz straightened as to shuck away the words spoken by her husband, swaying a little too far to the left.
He steadied his good friend.
The tall woman peered into his face, “I have, haven’t I?”
“I would say any more Black Russians would intensify the morning’s headache.”
“That’s what I like about you detective; you never lie to me. Kind too. Not like other men.”
“Shhh. You’ll ruin that whole tough-guy rep I’ve worked hard to acquire.”
They gazed silently in the direction of the moving ocean, and he patted her arm. Manny knew that Lynn and Liz had had a problem or two, but it seemed they wanted to iron things out. He hoped they stuck with it because sometimes the castle in the sky can slip away like a dream at dawn.
Liz turned her head. “Do you think I’m pretty?”
“You’re gorgeous. If I weren’t happily married, wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”
Liz giggled. “You’re such a smooth talker.” She gave him another kiss on the cheek.
“Okay, I’m going to my room. Lynn was right . . . this time.” Liz moved to the door, working hard to keep her balance.
“Do you want some help?”
“No, no, no, no. I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” Liz hesitated and then switched her bag to the other hand. “I love you, you know.”
“I know. I love you too, Liz. Now get your ass up to bed.”
“Yes sir.” The Lansing DA saluted with the wrong hand and disappeared inside the hotel.
Laughing out loud, he wondered about how much coffee she was going to need in the morning.
He finished his drink and stole one last look at the newlyweds standing in the shadowy courtyard.
Enormous hands extended toward Mike, then snapped back like a recoiling snake.
“Evening, folks,” slipped from his mouth. “Sure is warm, isn’t it?”
He watched as Mike and Lexy gasped in perfect accord, whirling to see who had spoken to them, who had interrupted their private kissy-face session, scaring the bejeebies out of them in the process.
Just your destiny.
The couple searched for his face. They had started a foot too low, but eventually found it. Their eyes widened in surprise. Jenkins was aware of how he looked, how intimidating. He would use it to his advantage.
All the better to kill you with.
Their undivided attention was all his. He smiled at the newlyweds with the disarming grin of a priest.
“Yes-s-s it is,” Lexy stammered. “You scared the heck out of me, er, us.”
“You’re pretty light on your feet. We never heard you,” said Mike.
“Aw, I think you were lost in love. I could have been a herd of runaway elephants, and you wouldn’t have heard me.”
The couple caught each other’s wide-eyed looks and laughed.
“You got us there. Wedding night, you know,” said Lexy.
“Well, I hope you don’t typically wear what you’re wearing on date night.” He bent low and whispered. “People might think you’re strange.”
Mike smiled. “Got us again.”
The conversation wound down as he asked the right questions about their special night, about them. They answered with gusto and naive honesty. He was so damn easy to talk to.
Besides, everyone loves to talk about themselves. Self-absorbed morons.
He could charm the habit off a nun, and he played it to the hilt. His amiable wit was infectious as his face animated with real warmth. It was easy for him to pretend to be the friendliest man on the island, and Mike and Lexy responded. They never suspected that he longed to tear them apart, to watch them die horribly painful deaths, begging for his mercy in pathetic whimpers. They would see the real him when he was ready, when his will said so.
The trio enjoyed a few more seconds of light conversation. Then he politely said his good nights and turned back toward the ten-story hotel. As he distanced himself from Mike and Lexy, a confident smirk spread across his sculpted face.
That’s why I’m the master. Self-control. Discipline. This wasn’t the right time. But soon. Justice is a bitch not to be crossed, especially mine.
The counterfeit grin disappeared like that of a kid whose candy had been stolen by the school bully. He was fully aware of ways to accomplish revenge. He had learned things in prison . . . ways. He absolutely understood the old adage that there are worse things than death, far worse.
They would feel what he felt and that would be a special reward for them. It’s always a treat to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
He slowed his pace and raised his head to the sky. Memories of his punishment and seemingly endless sentence flooded his consciousness, threatening to overpower him. The imprisoned lunatics’ oblivious, never-ending screams had attacked his sanity, his very soul. There had been times that he thought he would poke out his eardrums.
Vomit, week-old urine, and excrement had painted the concrete floors like some cage at the zoo. The mingled stench had been as repulsive as anything he’d ever endured—and that was just the beginning.
The oppressive guards had treated most of the inmates like garbage, less than caged animals. Except for him.
It had been his good fortune that much of the circumstances surrounding his captivity had been at least bearable. The guards would say little to him, preferring to keep their distance. The jerk-offs had been terrified of him. They’d been wise to be afraid. Very wise.
He glanced over his shoulder, targeting the couple one last time.
Bon voyage, bon voyage, my lovelies.
Manny sprinted down the two flights of stairs, adrenaline rushing his heart, feeding like a hungry animal off his fear. That moving tree meant to hurt Mike and Lexy.
Halfway to the rock wall, he stole another panicked look in their direction, slowed his mad dash, and eventually stopped, staring intently in disbelief.
The threesome was no longer three, but two: Mike and Lexy. He scanned the yard, but the big man was nowhere to be found. It was like he had evaporated into thin air.
For the third time, Manny looked at Mike and Lexy and noticed how they stood so very close together, unconsciously swaying in perfect rhythm with the endless, cavorting waves. Not threatened, but in love.
His eyes dropped to his feet and then back to the animated duo. A full-throated laugh drifted through the Puerto Rican night. Mike had said something clever, something that belonged to just the two of them. He felt like some foolish eavesdropper.
Add busy-body grandmother to your repertoire.
Damn it. Would he always struggle with the never-ending process of unwinding? And this time, he came within a hair of looking like a complete idiot.
There is nothing worse than an overreacting cop.
But he could have sworn he saw a man behind his friends, arms raised and hands outstretched. Threatening. Menacing. Hadn’t he? Manny threw his hands in the air.
Shadows can cozen the mind, even that of an experienced cop. But he wasn’t in the habit of seeing things. Maybe it was the drink or the stress of worrying about Louise. Maybe he was rationalizing his slavery to his work, again.
This always-on-duty thing needed to stop before it killed him, or his marriage. Always on alert, on the watch. He was beginning to loathe that part of himself. The Guardian of the Universe—his daughter’s favorite nickname for him—was on vacation, and he needed to act like it.
He walked back up the steps and stood over the iron guardrails spiraling from the balcony. He was facing the ocean, but barely saw the moonlit waves as his thoughts turned darker, inward, accommodating another self-evaluation session.
He was frustrated with his workaholic tendencies, but was almost helpless to change. It was easy to mask his compulsion with noble thoughts—like owing the good people of Lansing an appropriate return on their hard-earned tax dollars, or that he was merely being a good cop. But earning his paycheck wasn’t the real reason, or at least wasn’t the only one. Good cops don’t let partners die, do they?
Harsh guilt welled up and attacked like a shark smelling blood. This was about Kyle Chavez, his second partner, his dead second partner. He closed his eyes. If Manny hadn’t played in that damn golf tournament . . .
He had taken an afternoon off to tee it up, and a few hours later, Kyle had been shot at a domestic. Kyle had been just twenty-seven years old with a wonderful wife and two beautiful kids.
Manny fought hard to ward off the demons, but they had the key to the door and, for now, they were staying.
The news of Kyle’s death had brought a suffocating weight to bear on Lucy Chavez, who had buckled helplessly to the hardwood floor of the couple’s home. The memory of her anguish still caused the hair on his arms to stand. No one should have to tell another that the love of their life had just been used for target practice. Not even cops.
Responsible or not, he felt like he had let Kyle’s family down, that he had donned the black executioner’s hood himself and pulled the lever. The fact that Kyle had broken protocol and gone on the call alone brought no consolation.
The counseling sessions with the department shrink helped (not as much as the ones with Louise). Ultimately, he knew it wasn’t really his fault. However, there are times when the mind understands, but the heart couldn’t care less. It was a torturous, unforgiving ordeal, and he had sworn that it would never happen on his watch again.
The lobby door opened behind him, and the loud music brought him back.
Manny refocused on the view a bit longer before slinking back inside the hotel, grateful Mike and Lex hadn’t seen him.
The rhythmic sound of the talented Latin band, playing across from the casino on the second floor, dominated the atmosphere inside. The lead singer was a tiny, energetic woman, whose throaty resonance soaked the room.
“Nothing like good music to soothe the head-case cop,” he rued.
The escalator ended at the second floor, and he walked past the thriving casino toward the elevator. He stopped for a moment and took in the compelling sounds of electronic bells, bongs, and sirens emanating from the “sin pit.”
Steely-gray smoke hovered above velvety gaming tables like it owned the place, and the pungent aroma of Cuban cigars and expensive cigarettes filtered to the lobby. Vegas had nothing up on this place.
Inside the elevator on his way to the fifth floor, he drifted back to the scene in the courtyard. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. The sizable man with the deceptive demeanor had sparked a singular thought in his mind. What if . . .?
Manny bit his lip. Not tonight. Besides, he was tired, far too tired to make character evaluations that mattered.
Leaving the elevator, he shuffled to his room, stripped off the penguin suit, which stuck to him like a second skin, and crawled between the cool sheets next to his slumbering wife.
Closing his eyes, he felt his body begin to reject the tension.
Not tonight. Not this week. You’re on vacation. Remember?
Juanita Henkle was having a pisser of a night. She had lost a hundred bucks to those damn slot machines—mechanical, blood-sucking heifers. To add insult to injury, her friend, Sarah Cummings, who had brought her down to spend a week on the island, had disappeared with some local muchacho.
“He better be the real deal,” she muttered.
It had only gotten better. Her luggage had arrived late to the hotel from the airport, and it was beat to hell. And some of her clothes were missing— her favorites, of course. Even though the airline promised to reimburse her for the trouble, where was she going to find an affordable clothing store on Sunday morning, particularly on San Juan’s Condado Strip? After all, she was a twenty-eight-year-old working girl, and money didn’t grow on trees, especially in Zanesville, Ohio.
Juanita lit a cancer stick. She wanted her old clothes back, her comfortable clothes, but she realized she was the only one who really cared.
The smoke dancing across her eyes caused her to squint. Shit happens, but it seemed like she was always out of toilet paper. Not to mention, she had been hit on by some of the most narcissistic drunks in Puerto Rico: Latin Don Juan wannabes who sought to “charm” her with stale beer breath, unfocused eyes, and dicks practically out of their pants. Soaking one’s self in cologne must be the thing down here; they all wore enough to clear up any serious sinus affliction. She had turned them all down, flat. The big “L” was stamped on each of their foreheads. Maybe on their chests too. She didn’t want to know.
The institution of marriage was gaining considerable creditability for her. She wanted someone to hold, and to be held. Someone to grow old with. To have babies with. To even fight and make up with. Especially the making up part.
But not just any man would do, not for Juanita Henkle. The predestined man of her dreams would ride in on his great white steed, or at least a Mercedes, and take her away from this bar- scene masquerade. Then they would live happily ever after.
She screwed her cigarette into the scarred ashtray and exhaled one last ring of gray haze. Her man didn’t know her yet, but he would.
Someday my prince will come. Hurry up, boy. These drinks are gettin’ expensive, and I’m not gettin’ any younger.
Thank God the music was good. It was loud, but that chick could sing, and the band was tight. She had heard worse blaring from her car’s radio.
Juanita drained the last of her drink, uncrossed her legs, and decided it was time to exit this fruitless revelry. She was sure Sarah wouldn’t make it back to their room tonight, so she would get a little peace and quiet. Mama said a good night’s rest always helped settle things down. Everyone knows that Mamas are always right.
“At least Sarah’s having a good time,” she breathed to herself.
As Juanita got up, she caught her reflection in the wall mirror, bordered in Corona insignias. She was hot. Her flowing black hair, full cleavage, and shapely hips were more than a package, more like The Package. The red, low-cut Gucci dress (she had saved hard for it, and at least the airlines hadn’t lost this one) accented her “attributes” just the right way.
Any woman who looks this good has the prerogative to be picky, right?
She was about to leave when she noticed the tall, well-built man at the end of the bar, sizing her up.
Hold the phone! Good God, look at that.
He was a little older, but wow. He had perfect hair, and he must be six-four or so. A slow grin crept across her face. She knew what tall meant.
The stranger got up and came straight toward her. “I’m Eli Jenkins. What might your name be, young goddess?”
Juanita felt electric heat radiate through her. Hot and suave.
What the hell. No reason to beat around the bush. He just might be the happy ending to the day that she needed.
“My name is Juanita. Are we going to cut through the bullshit and get to the point here? I don’t need a drink or any more conversation. I’m in room 586, and I’ll be there in about five minutes.”
The band had begun an old Elvis tune, and she watched Eli flash a smile that would melt an ice witch’s heart. This was going to be good, maybe better than good.
Without waiting for his response, she spun on two-inch heels and walked across the glass-enclosed bridge that connected the two sides of the hotel.
Jenkins leaned back against his bar stool and scrutinized the waning bar crowd. No one seemed to take note of his encounter with Juanita.
He signaled the flabby bartender and ordered another bottle of water.
“She shut you down, compadre?” he asked. “Don’t feel bad. She’s sent everyone away from her all night. She is very picky, no?” He drew out “picky” in two long syllables.
The nosy peckerhead had noticed him and Juanita. Not what he’d hoped for, but fixable. “Shut down, yes, you are right, my friend. I never had a chance. But there is always another senorita, no?”
The bartender nodded an approving look. “Indeed, there is, especially for a man such as yourself.”
“Hey, Miguel, more beer” echoed from the other end of the bar. The bartender raised his eyebrows and was off toward the pleading din.
Jenkins wondered if the simpleton would remember him. Even after he, and Juanita, shook this rich-prick hotel to the very foundation. It made no real difference. It would be too late anyway.
He finished his water and picked up his black-leather travel case, flinging it over his shoulder as he crossed the dance floor, happy to leave the sour tang of spilled beer and cheap perfume hanging in the air.
There wasn’t a soul on the mullioned glass bridge, leading to the south wing of the hotel, as he crossed it with seven long paces.
Exhilaration ruled his insides.
Juanita was fine, and she had never recognized him for what he was. Certainly not that twit. But she would be worthy of what he had planned for her, and of course, for him. He had found the perfect warm-up “playmate.”
A roguish grin settled across his face as he knocked at room 586. He glanced to his left and saw no one in the semi-lit hallway. Perfect.
Juanita came to the door wearing only a short, red nightie and a mischievous gleam. “Don’t you know that you shouldn’t keep a lady waiting? It’s a good thing my roommate’s gone for the night,” she teased.
“My apologies. Let me see if I can make it up to you,” he replied in his most charismatic tone.
“I’m sure you can,” she melted.
He slipped the Do Not Disturb sign on the outside of the door, dropping his travel case to the floor. The young woman moved close, pressing herself against him. He felt her excitement, her body heat. She kissed him with an eagerness that, for a split second, took him off his game. But only for a moment.
Juanita tilted back to look at her hot new lover, and he watched the eager smile evaporate from her face like rain on a desert road. She saw death smoldering from his face. Not just any death, but hers. Her one-night stand had become her last-night stand.
Her body trembled with a horror Jenkins knew she had never before felt. How could she have? She had never met him before. The woman’s panicked reaction stoked his arousal.
He clutched her tighter.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “No. Please don’t hurt me.”
Jenkins knew paralyzing fear had gripped her. Her plea was all she could muster before the drug-soaked cloth covered her face.
Whatever dreams she may have possessed about meeting Mr. Right or having perfect babies were obliterated forever. But she was going to be his, and that was special. After all, she was going to be famous.
He watched as precious consciousness slipped from Juanita like a fast-setting sun. He sneered. “I’m your god now. Your soul belongs to me.”
Jenkins towered over Juanita’s plundered body. He studied his grisly, but precise, handiwork. He was satisfied. She hadn’t been the sport he had anticipated, not at first, so he had to “urge” her forward. She’d become responsive enough, though, as the drug wore off, and she’d understood her fate. But then again, they all responded like terrified animals when they realized dying was not just something that happened in the movies or on the six o’clock news.
Closing his eyes, he recalled the precise moment her soul had merged with his, at just the right time, at the instant he’d determined. He was in complete control. He was special. His evolution made him invincible.
Jenkins sponged blood from his mouth and chin with the back of his hand. He couldn’t help himself. She’d looked so damn good. Good enough to eat.
A moment later, he gently placed a black rose across Juanita’s body and then stripped the latex gloves from his hands, careful to avoid any contact with the bed sheet. He stood a long moment over Juanita before finally bending to her. Her expensive perfume, even as it mingled with drying blood, seemed to be everywhere.
He spoke in soft tones bankrupt of compassion, filled with only triumph. “You didn’t think I could let you get away, did you? How could you believe that? You looked so good and, well, it was your time, our time.” He whispered as if she would answer.
The room’s balcony overlooked the wide lagoon on the south side of the hotel, and he went there. The Caribbean moon mirrored against rippling water and caused little spangles of light to dance like fairies in an enchanted forest. The breeze was sweet and clean, possessing an intoxicating quality. Not like Juanita had been, not that enthralling, but it worked.
The upcoming cruise and the carefully designed plan moved across his thoughts. It was time to take what was his and reward them with what they had earned. They were entitled to dine on what he had to serve, all of them.
His eyes reflected malicious contempt, his very soul embracing it. The hatred had boiled long enough. Too long. Juanita had been easy, and she had embodied the last trial he required.
“I’m ready for what’s next, for my destiny,” he said out loud.
What a kick it was to be able to combine his “hobby” with joyous purpose. Taking the souls of women, after they had served their function, of course, was the thrill he always knew it would be. Making the others suffer for their indiscretions would be an even more indescribable pleasure.
Jenkins reached into his back pocket and took out a worn newspaper clipping that he had carefully tucked away. It was creased and faded from years of use. He read each line again. Over and over. He wanted to absorb the faded script, to ensure that he never forgot what was written there or who had written it, that the details were always and forever the same. Though that part was not a problem. He had it memorized years ago, but having it in his hand made it real, fueling his purpose even more.
The fifth line of the article caused him pause while the veins at his temples throbbed.
How could they quote such drivel? Such dog shit.
The source of that citation would pay oh-so-dearly.
Hatred rose higher and higher, and he reveled in it, basked in its purity, its honesty. Why not? It made him feel even more alive, more impregnable. But the rage mustn’t cloud his judgment. He must restrain the intensity of his emotions, or everything would be ruined. The process of learning that truth had been a hard lesson, but realized nonetheless.
Moving back into the air-conditioned room, he meticulously refolded the clipping and placed it safely in his pocket. He stepped closer to Juanita and slowly, like a tenderhearted lover, kissed her cooling, blue lips.
Then he walked out the door whistling a Three Dog Night tune.
Eli’s coming! Eli’s coming!
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty. You gonna lay there all day or are you going to get your butt out of bed and take me on the most wonderful vacation of my life?”
Manny groaned and shaded his eyes from the bright, Caribbean sun that streamed through their room. The pesky clock radio blinked 7:15 a.m. Clocks and vacations were never intended to be friends.
Manny’s eyes flickered back to his wife, catching a glimpse of Louise’s face. It was all he needed to go from annoyed to a step above pleased.
“What are you talking about?” he said. “We’re going home today.”
“You can go if you want; I’ll just find some hairy-chested local who wants to have a week of hot food, hot sun, and hot sex with a well-developed cougar.” Her face was alive with anticipation.
“I have a hairy chest.”
“Why yes, yes you do. You’re a little older than I had in mind, but you might do. Want to be considered for the job?”
“Okay. How do I apply?”
Louise bent to Manny’s face and kissed him gently. She grinned. “Hold that thought. I need time to work out the rest of the interview process. But so far, so good.”
“Great. I’m up for the rest of it . . . well, almost.”
She looked to the ceiling. “I’m taking a shower.”
Louise was truly excited about this trip. For his wife to outrace him to the shower was like a Republican voting for Barack Obama.
Swinging his legs to the floor, he thought again about Louise and her resolve. She was determined to enjoy this trip even though the specter of the mammogram results lingered in the back of their minds. She was one special woman. But he’d always known that.
Louise had started the coffeemaker, and the tantalizing aroma pulsed from the small in-room java machine, inviting him to fill his cup.
He pulled on clean, white briefs (always white because colored underwear wasn’t manly) and started for the balcony. Parading out in his skivvies just might hand the beach joggers their first thrill of the day.
Moving past the full-length, oak-framed mirror, he hesitated and did a double take. Even though his face was scribbled with sleep lines and his hair mussed, he didn’t look half bad for a cop pushing forty. It wouldn’t last forever, but he would enjoy it while he could. He just might get that job Louise had open.
Manny continued his trek to the great outdoors, but a sudden, rapid pounding on the door said the balcony would have to wait. The knock echoed heavy and hard, like someone wielding a ten-pound sledgehammer, and for a moment, the heavy mahogany seemed ready to splinter into shards. Then silence. He threw on khaki shorts and hurried to see who had assaulted the peaceful beginnings to his morning.
He swung open the large, ornate door, panned one way then the other, seeing no one. The elevator was located twenty-five feet to his right and the stairs only about fifteen feet to his left. Whoever had battered their door was now long gone.
Frowning, he came back inside. That’s when he noticed the white stationery lying on the floor with his name printed on the front. Manny unfolded the paper and read:
Bon Voyage, Detective, Bon Voyage. This will be a cruise that you will never forget.
His glower melted and was replaced with a perceptive smile. Sophie. Always the practical joker, and knowing her, she’d probably been thinking about the prank since last night. Retribution for the cuff thing.
Well, missy, two can play this game.
Putting the note on the dresser, he headed toward the balcony for the third time.
Manny opened the glass door, and the heat engulfed him like the smothering kiss from a worried mother. It felt wonderful. The Caribbean sun must be heaven sent, caressing like no other.
The sound of the ocean lollygagging toward the shore was therapeutic. This is where he belonged. Some mystic, all-knowing voice whispered to him that it was so, and everyone knows those internal gurus are never wrong. Michigan had its pluses, but what could match this? Besides, no one shoveled snow in the Caribbean.
Louise looked intently into the ornately trimmed mirror, wiping away the steam, and wondered how a woman her age could be concerned with the results of a mammogram. It didn’t add up. She was in great shape, not that old, and had no history of any problems in her family.
The mirror spoke, and she moved a little closer, gathering more detail from the doppelganger in the looking glass. She had been a good person, a great mother, and maybe even a better wife. But that’s how this beast howled.
Why would God allow this kind of situation in their lives? Then again, maybe God had nothing to do with it. Maybe there really is an unseen war between good and evil. Maybe humans were collateral damage and cancer was just one weapon that evil used to destroy the hope and peace God promised.
Louise fought the tears and glanced nervously at the unopened letter from her doctor. She began to slide a slender finger under the fold and then stopped. This wasn’t the time. She grinned through her tears as she thought about breaking a nail—that wasn’t going to happen before she got on the ship.
She took one last look, dried her eyes, and put on more eyeliner. Then she stuffed the letter back in her travel pouch. If the enigmatic dispatch was bad news, it would be bad news after the best vacation of her life.
Louise emerged from the bathroom wearing only a black bra and lace panties, just as Manny sauntered back into the room. The coffee had helped, but the sight of his wife brought him fully awake.
They were to meet the rest of the Lansing crew in the lobby in about forty minutes and head over to a small, local breakfast nook, whose reputation for great food was next to none. But she looked so good, and he was feeling his oats.
“I think I’m ready for part two of that interview thing.”
“Manny, I just took a shower, and we have to meet the group soon,” Louise protested without conviction.
“Yeah, but we may never spend another day in San Juan,” he said as he drew her into his arms. “When we get old, we can say we did it in Puerto Rico.”
“True, unless you count next Sunday when we get back from the cruise. But you do seem like a good candidate.”
She pressed closer, teasing him to an even harder state.
He flicked his fingers. Her bra went slack as he pulled it away from her with a sweep of his hand.
“You are good at that,” she laughed. “I think the job’s yours.”
They fell back on the bed in the midst of a passionate kiss. In the enthralling ambiance of Puerto Rico, Manny and Louise Williams made love the way new lovers do.
Fifty-six-year-old Gavin Crosby stood beside his wife Stella, shifting his considerable weight from left to right. He chanced a quick glance at his gold watch. Manny was late.
He couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. But maybe it was a good thing. The boy just might be learning to lighten up.
The colorful tropical fish tank, part of the hotel lobby’s wall, caught his attention. Blue angel fish trimmed in black circled with yellow-striped sergeant fish and narrow pipefish in an endless carousel of motion. He hoped to see some of that kind of wildlife when they snorkeled at Trunk Bay.
His eyes darted around the rest of the room, and he found himself doing a quick exercise observing human interaction.
Alex Downs and his wife Barbara stood near the concierge’s desk carrying on a conversation with the newlyweds. Thinking of the day Alex was hired still made Gavin shake his head. Alex had just earned his PhD from the University of Michigan in criminology and forensic science. Bright man. However, he knew doodle squat about office politics and had gotten his proverbial tit in the ringer more than once. The CSI had come a long way, but kissing fanny was never going to be a long suit.
A short, balding man with an overlapping belly, Alex proved the notion that you can’t judge a book by its cover. He hardly looked like an expert in his field. Hell, in any field. But he was one of the very best.
Alex’s wife of twelve years looked like she belonged on the arm of a Hollywood movie star. Taller than Alex, she was slim with legs that went on forever. But her adoration for Alex was obvious: He was her one and only. Love indeed made strange bedfellows.
He switched focus to his son and new daughter-in-law, chuffing a sigh of relief. They had pulled it off. The newlyweds would never forget yesterday’s ceremony. And that’s what weddings were all about.
District Attorney Liz Casnovsky and her husband Lynn were engaged in a giddy conversation with Sophie Lee, Manny’s partner, and Sophie’s husband, Randy Mason. The group huddled near the glitzy, bronze-and-gold entrance of the hotel, smiling like Cheshire cats. Liz suddenly released an air-splitting laugh. Gavin cringed. Vintage Liz. She sounded like a mad dolphin, but it was always good to hear her laugh. Well, almost always.
The DA was a bulldog prosecutor, and with Lynn’s investment company growing in leaps and bounds, they lived the life of flourishing professionals. Not to mention they looked like a tanned Ken and Barbie. Yet, there was a wisp of sadness that seemed to haunt Liz. He thought it had to do with the appointment with motherhood she never had time to keep.
Gavin rolled his eyes as he watched Sophie interact with the others. She was always the comedian, the official smartass in the crowd. She was from the City, San Francisco, and the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Having moved east to marry the love of her life, the petite detective divorced him a year later after finding him “hanging out” with a couple of guys in a sleazy motel room on Cedar. She joked that she couldn’t compete with the men. Bring on the women because she could, and would, do anything any woman could do. But men, that was incomprehensible to her. Sophie laughed about it, but the scars would never really go away, not completely.
She had met Randy a few years later. And even though she had fallen in love with him, Sophie had changed. She had kept her maiden name because it made her feel secure and independent. No man would take her dignity again, and Gavin applauded that.
He didn’t care for Randy much. Maybe it was because Randy possessed the social skills of a doorjamb . . . or because Sophie’s roly-poly husband, adorned with the red Afro, had never cared for anyone except himself, until Sophie.
The elevator bell rang, and mirrored doors parted like the red sea. Manny and Louise stepped energetically from the elevator. Manny was first, dressed in a loud blue tropical shirt and Ray-Ban sunglasses caught in the nest above his forehead. Louise followed, dressed in a straw hat; blue-and-white-striped midriff shirt; light-blue shorts; and white Tod sandals. They smiled like they had won the lotto.
“Where in hell have you been? You’re four minutes late,” said Gavin, tapping his watch. “And you look like a couple of damned tourists to boot.”
By then, the rest of the couples had migrated to the elevator.
“What’s that saying? You can dress ’em up, but you can’t take ‘em out,” chimed in Sophie.
“Ahh, have you losers looked in the mirror?” Manny chided.
After a quiet moment, laughter rippled through the group. They all looked like tourists.
“Let’s go eat, I’m starved,” encouraged Stella.
No one noticed the big man leaning over the mahogany railing of the second floor balcony. He stared down to the lobby with black eyes and scorn to match. “This is going to be one hell of a vacation,” he said, as he clenched his teeth. “At least for me.”
Sarah Cummings glanced nervously down the fifth-floor hallway. Oh man, she was in deep. Juanita was going to kick her ass up and down the steps of the hotel’s marble stairs. Kick her ass? Juanita was going to kill her.
She had left Juanita sitting in the testosterone-infested bar. Despite Sarah’s guilt and dread at facing her best friend this morning, she gave soul to a no-regret-time-of-my-life grin. Hector.
What a night.
A vision of Juanita’s pissed countenance stabbed across her mind, and the grin disappeared momentarily.
Good going, Sarah. You left her alone the whole night and most of the morning.
Juanita’s first night in San Juan, no less. “I’ll make it up to you, Nita, I promise,” she vowed, picking up the pace.
As she turned down the hall toward her room, the memory of her Latin lover’s amazing performance caused her to stumble over her sandaled feet.
Maybe she was in love. Well, in lust, at the very least. It had been her first encounter with a Latin man, and her eyes must have looked like small breakfast saucers after he’d stripped out of his clothes. She put her hand to her mouth and giggled. She had certainly experienced the full extent of his offering, several times.
Vivid recall caused her temperature to rise. “Woooo! Down girl.”
Then, for a second time, culpability for leaving her friend at the bar rose to the forefront of her mind. Juanita had told her to go ahead, that she would be fine. It’s what most good friends would have said, even if your BFF didn’t really want to be alone the rest of the night. Juanita and she had formed an unmatchable bond since third grade, right after the two girls had beat up that fourth-grade boy. There had never been any bullshit between them. They were like sisters and wanted each other to have a good time.
“Hey, you just got lucky first. My turn’s coming. Don’t worry, I’m a big girl,” Juanita had said.
Sarah stopped moving along the burgundy carpet and searched for her room card in her large handbag, wondering if Hector really would call her. Sarah wanted to see him again. Maybe he was the one. He was definitely brighter than she had first imagined. He was on vacation before he went back to the University of Miami to finish his master’s degree in environmental science. Hector wanted to save the world—well, at least Puerto Rico. It sounded so . . . noble.
The technical stuff that he chatted about had been fairly hard to understand. She had not followed his explanation of biodiversity or habitat restoration, nor had she really cared. Luckily, they hadn’t talked that much. Wooo! Sarah cooled herself with an imaginary fan, feeling like she had spent hours in the warm sun.
She finally located the keycard just as she arrived at room 586.
“Maybe she’s at the pool,” she breathed. Her pulse was racing. If Juanita wasn’t at the pool, maybe she was over to Max’s Grill (the hotel’s excellent restaurant) for brunch. But deep down she knew that Juanita would be inside, waiting like an old Jewish grandmother. Her shoulders slumped as she reconciled that she had it coming.
“Man, this is going to be ugly.” She took a deep breath, fumbled with the keycard, and dropped it on the carpet. “Damn.”
She retrieved the card and scowled at the Do Not Disturb sign dangling limply from the doorknob. She pushed the door and crept into the darkened room. The door caught on the plush throw rug causing it to hang open.
A timely breeze moved the patio door’s blind back and forth, offering the only light source. Her eyes were adjusting to the shadow-infested surroundings when she noticed the smell. She put her hand over her nose to block the sweet, coppery scent. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement. Sarah spun toward the source, held her breath, and waited.
The crimson numbers on the clock radio had changed, and she put her hand on her chest, swearing at the clock. The late night horror flicks might have to go.
Then she saw Juanita. Her unmoving form lay sprawled near the head of the farthest bed.
Moving closer, she found herself wishing Juanita was screaming at her. Her pulse raced faster. Maybe the girl was sick. She took another step, and the smell intensified.
Her ears pounded like a bass drum. She bent with caution, moving closer. Something was wrong, very wrong.
“Juanita? Honey, are you feeling okay? I’m so sorr—” She stopped in her tracks, then quickly tore open the drapes.
She lost all ability to speak or move. Her French-manicured hands clenched and unclenched with unconscious rhythm. The sight of her friend’s ravished body wrenched away Sarah’s grasp on reality. Bloody rivulets meandered down tattered breasts, and Juanita’s plundered neck was caked with maroon patches, her once-beautiful face bitten too many times to count. Her eyes were set with an unearthly, eternal stare that seemed to ask why Sarah had let this happen to her, why had she left her alone.