And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Billy Ray Coleman had never fucked a girl in Florida, and that was going to end tonight.
In Kentucky, he had lured one behind a Stuckey’s, and things had gotten a little dicey, the little Asian bitch clawing like a feral cat until he finally shut her down. In Tennessee, he pulled off at Jellico just over the state line and befriended the redhead at the Arby’s not more than a few blocks from the interstate. It was okay, but it wasn’t the rush he’d gotten from his final act on Sally Wong, as he affectionately called the Stuckey’s girl.
In Georgia, he started to panic when he was running out of boiled peanut signs without having met his objective. What a long-ass state, he thought. Didn’t some bumfuck burn it during that war? What was his name? Whatever. Didn’t do a very good job, did he? He pulled his 2000 two-door Honda Accord with $284,000 stuffed in the trunk off at the West Hill Avenue exit in Valdosta. He knew that if he went any farther, he’d have to do a U-turn and suffer the whole damn state again. He sure as hell wasn’t going to do that. He found her at a fast-food joint less than a mile from the interchange. She said no. He dragged her behind some self-storage units, although he had to work hard to find an area that wasn’t covered by security lights. When he pulled out, a pothole the size of a West Virginia strip mine nearly claimed the front end of the Honda.
Billy Ray figured that his brothers, once they saw that Junior and the cash were gone, would hightail it after him. He also knew he’d head for Fort Myers Beach, same haunt they’d always gone to. No big deal. By the time they arrived, his grand slam would be over, and he planned to floor it out of the state. Might even take a Florida girl with him. There’s a thought. I’ll get me a Florida girl. Like you see in those magazines. Billy Ray was torqued. Nail me a magazine girl.
His right hand came up and rubbed his temple, and he shook his head as if he were trying to get water out of his ears. Billy Ray’s head was like a radio station in which the DJ had taken a long piss break, and two car ads were running over a song.
Just north of Sarasota, he pulled in for gas. He spotted a blonde with wide white sunglasses. Her breasts, like horizontal tent poles, pushed her thin tank top out so far that the bottom of it hung around her waist without touching her stomach. Billy Ray swore he saw the fabric move in the breeze that lifted off the hot blacktop, as if a stovetop burner had been left on. He hesitated. He rubbed his head. His hand came away covered with sweat. No way, José. I’m hittin’ the beach. Get a plan—work the plan. Yes, sirree. Pity. Sunglasses will never know what she missed—a real national tragedy.
Ninety minutes later, he crested the Matanzas Bridge to Fort Myers Beach and took a hard right. Billy Ray checked into the same motel he and his brothers had always used, but he didn’t go to his room. He tossed his shirt into the Honda and set out to hike the seven-mile beach. The sun fried his Irish-white skin as if he were a solitary egg in a black iron skillet suspended over a bonfire.
He spotted the girl from a good hundred feet away. She had straight brown hair and a brilliant blue bathing suit with sparkles. She looked better with every step. The woman by her side, in a white two-piece, was up for consideration as well but was probably knocking on forty. Billy Ray stopped and chatted with them. Introduced himself—super proud about that. It wasn’t easy with Tom Petty beating the living shit out of his head. “Jenny Spencer,” Sparkles replied. The older one didn’t give her name, just gave him that look he was accustomed to receiving. Screw that. He moved on.
Jenny Spencer, Billy Ray thought. Now there’s a fine name for my first Florida fling. And that smile. That’s magazine material. Oh, my head. My goddamned screaming head. He slapped his head. He downed a couple of beers at a beach bar, where the bartender gave him some lotion and advised him to stay clear of the sun. He emptied the remains of the bottle into both hands and slopped it over his body. He kept his eyes on the girls on the beach. When they got up to leave, he stayed well behind.
They walked a few blocks, and Billy Ray noted the house they entered. He knew he had a few hours until dark, so he trudged back up the beach. At sunset, he drove his Honda down Estero Boulevard and parked in a public lot large enough to accommodate only a few cars. He watched the house. Billy Ray planned to wait until total darkness to yank magazine girl out. He wasn’t sure what his plans were for the older girl, nor did it matter, for Jenny emerged on her own. She headed toward the beach. Billy Ray followed.
They met at an edge of mangroves just beyond where an inlet forced walkers to forgo the coastline and track on higher land. She wasn’t difficult to follow, as she carried a small flashlight.
Jenny stepped hesitantly onto the sand. She picked her way through the mangrove roots that poked through the mashed-potato surface and threatened to impale her feet. Stray sticks littered the ground. She came upon a deserted orange towel and figured someone had either forgotten it or had discarded it for a nighttime stroll. She reached a clearing and spotted Billy Ray as he waded out of a tidal puddle.
“Hey, there. Remember me?” he said.
“No, I’m new…Oh, yeah, sure, from this afternoon. Billy…Billy…”
“Nice out here at night, isn’t it, Jenny?” They stood within four feet of each other.
“Can you believe how warm it still is? Is it like this in Georgia?” She felt an odd twinge, like low volts going through her, over his casual mention of her name.
“Isn’t that where you said you were from?”
“Oh, yeah. It can be hot up there. Sherman! Yeah, that’s his name.”
“Nothin’. What are you doing?”
“Looking for turtles. My aunt says they come up this far.” Jenny shone the light around the sand.
“That was your aunt? Whoa, she’s hot too.” Billy Ray slapped his head.
She’s hot too? Jenny thought. Did he just slap his head? Her body stiffened. She flashed her light into his face and took a step back. His red hair was dull compared to his blazed skin. Lotion smeared his face. And his eyes—they looked like he had no idea where he was.
“Ooooh, girl. Get that light out of my eyes.”
“My aunt’s a little behind me,” Jenny said, but it came out in a different voice.
“No, she ain’t, magazine girl. I saw her drive away earlier.”
Jenny hesitated. He watched us? Should I run? But what she would have eventually decided to do was of no consequence, as he was upon her and tugging at her cheer shirt.
Jenny screamed. Billy Ray threw a roundhouse that deadened her. He stripped off his shirt and shorts and shredded her shorts and panties. His hands groped her left breast, and his mouth found her right breast. He bit hard. She shrieked.
“Don’t make a ruckus, or I’ll do it again. You understand? We’re going to have us a good time. I got enough cash in my car to last us years. Just a block away is two hundred eighty-four thousand big ones, baby. Ain’t nothing wrong with us doing a little traveling, is there? Ooooh…what a fine trophy. They never going to believe I got me something like this.”
Jenny frantically tried to fight back into the game. She attempted to roll over, but Billy Ray’s left fist found her forehead and knocked her mind half out of her head. Jenny felt herself shut down and ignored her body like a rock ignores a crashing wave. He can’t hurt me.
Billy Ray pushed himself up with his hands, his knees digging into the sand between Jenny’s parted legs. “Hell-ooo, Flor-ee-da. Uncle Billy finally enters the Sunshine—”
Jenny reached out. Her hand found a stick.
I was flat on my back on the deck of my boat, Impulse, when my phone, as if it were in the final scene of Don Giovanni, rang and vibrated. I was replacing a boat speaker and realized the guys who do it for a living are underpaid. The previous speaker had taken a bullet. Better it than me.
“Piece of shit,” I muttered for the forty-second time that morning as I stretched in vain to find the wire coming from the radio box. And I’d been doing so well. My New Year’s resolution was to drink expensive wine, eat more fatty foods—they really do taste better—and reduce my profanity. Six months into the year, and I was slipping. But what the hey? Two out of three ain’t bad.
The phone stopped its obnoxious buzz on the fiberglass deck. I leaned back, relaxed, and took in a gulp of air so humid that it counted as a drink. Enough for one day. Tomorrow I’d let my neighbor Morgan give it a go; his arms make fish lines look like telephone poles.
“Jake, you look like you sweated away the Gulf.” Kathleen stood on the dock and peered down at me. She, being the smart girl she is, had sat under the shade of the canvas while she sipped her morning coffee, spotted dolphins, and read a book. Why can’t I do that? Kathleen ran in the mornings, but only in October through April. In the summer, she switched to beach yoga. She claimed the rotation gave her balance. I find that obsessions leave no room for balance.
“Speaker’s been out a year, and I could have done this in January, but no, not me.” I started to rise up but bonked my head hard on the aluminum underside of the center seat and went down for the count.
“Golly gee willikers,” I said.
“See, you can do it. ‘Oopsy daisies’ is another one that’s vastly underutilized. But if I were keeping track, I’m afraid you’d be failing miserably.”
“No. I’m failing gloriously. There’s a difference.”
“Not everybody needs to dig bullets out of boat speakers.”
“Pity them. Most men do lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“And go to the grave with the song still in them, or something like that.”
I cautiously rose, and my phone started to do the floor jig again. I grabbed the bottom of my T-shirt and wiped it over my forehead, but it was a wasted effort. I hoisted myself over the side and landed on my composite dock. Kathleen took a step back. I got it; I was a sweaty mess.
“That’s exactly it,” I said. “How’s the book?”
“You going to answer it?”
“It’s not you.”
“Worth the dough?”
That didn’t warrant a verbal reply but a right jab to my shoulder. Kathleen favored hardback books, and a first edition of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge rested on my bench. A “Hooked on Books” bookmark protruded out of the first third. It cost her a factor of a hundred compared to an e-book. She also favored physical replies over verbal.
“Well worth the dough. And it’s wonderful reading it out here—where you read and the conditions that surround you affect your experience. Why don’t you answer your phone?”
“I don’t recognize the number.” I lied; it was Susan Blake’s number. She had called earlier while I was running and had left a voice mail. No way was I going to explain to Kathleen my relationship with Susan. I wasn’t too sure of it myself.
The phone, like a dead moth, finally surrendered. Ziggy Marley came through the good speakers. The osprey that likes to crap on my boat’s hardtop watched from atop Morgan’s lift piling. It let out its distinctive series of screeches in the event that I’d forgotten about him. Feathery little prick.
“I think I’ll use that in my class this fall.” Kathleen taught English literature at the local college.
She sucked in her left cheek between her teeth, a primitive sign of deep thinking. She favored that side. Chewed on that side. Stuck her tongue into her port cheek when she thought no one saw her. “No.” She strung the word out. “The reading experience. Where one reads being instrumental in forming one’s opinion of the work. I’ll divide the class into two groups, have them read the same book but in controlled environments, and then have them rate the work. Are you listening?”
I looked up from my toolbox, where I’d unsuccessfully fumbled around for needle-nose pliers. Morgan. I think he borrowed them. “Not in the least. But I was pretending to. Any points for that?”
“Half the class will read the book under Spanish moss in the shade of a tree. Maybe in Straub Park in downtown St. Pete. The other half will read the same work in short intervals, several times a day, in windowless air-conditioned rooms, and in different locations.”
“Have we ever done it with Spanish moss waving above us?”
She tossed me a quick smile. Kathleen smiled every day, every hour, every few moments. She smiled like other people breathed. She ignored my Spanish moss inquiry and instead said, “I’m leaving. My best to Morgan.”
She stayed a safe distance, landed a kiss on my cheek, and took off down my dock with a mug in one hand and Maugham in the other. I gathered my tools and went into my 1957 blockhouse on the bay. I was famished. I’d run five miles in the Florida sauna before I’d sweated away in the boat—the heck was I thinking? I took some of last night’s trout Morgan and I had caught off my dock, cut it into pieces, and sautéed it in olive oil with chopped chives. I whipped up three eggs and scrambled them in a separate skillet. At the last moment, I added chunks of sharp cheddar cheese. Eat more fatty foods.
I always operate best when I possess clear goals.
I took my breakfast out to the screen porch and lowered the sunshade. I lived on an island, off another island, and my bungalow faced the morning sun. The beach was a half-mile from my front door, and the pink hotel, built on the sands of the Gulf of Mexico, was another half mile beyond that. I was especially fond of the hotel and, in particular, its beachside bar, where several bartenders depended on me for their livelihood. It was my contribution to trickle-down economics. We do what we can.
I finished breakfast and was stymied in my effort to get cold water out of the outdoor shower at the side of the house. I put on a clean-dirty T-shirt; it was pockmarked with permanent olive oil stains, fish residue, and every chemical I’d ever rubbed on Impulse in vain attempts to combat the sun and salt air. I remembered I’d left my phone recovering from a seizure on the deck of my boat, and that I had lied—it sounds worse than it was—to Kathleen about not recognizing the number.
I’d spent a single two-hour dinner with Susan, yet every minute, every look, and every touch of that evening lingered with me. I tried to wash her away, but like a well-waxed surface of a car, my feelings for her were protected and harbored from any attempt to erase, alter, or expunge. That was more than a year ago. I drove away that night vowing to never cross her path again. I was just starting to wonder if Kathleen was the mythical one for me, and Susan Blake, in many ways the opposite of Kathleen, was kick-ass competition. I didn’t need or want that.
Susan had put herself through college then realized her brain wasn’t wired for her ass to be in a chair all day. She took a job pouring liquid dreams, enlightened the bars’ absentee owners on how to run a profitable operation, and subsequently became part owner of three watering holes in Fort Myers Beach. I couldn’t imagine why she was calling me.
Nor could I imagine why she was now sitting at the end of my dock.
She must have arrived when I was showering. That would have been a close brush—too close—with Kathleen. I headed down my hundred-foot dock and broke back into a sweat halfway there. I picked up the pace. I’d forgotten to put shoes on. Walking on coals would have been cooler. I sat next to her—not too close, not too far.
“Hey, Susan. How are you?”
“Hey, Susan. How are you?” Good grief, man—that’s the sum of your parts? I whip off The New York Times—
“Didn’t you get my messages?” she demanded.
“No. I didn’t recog—”
“I need your help.” Her interruption saved me from a second lie in one day over the same phone number. She turned to me, her dark eyes trapped under her bangs. The one evening we’d spent together flooded over me like a tsunami.
By the end of our leisurely dinner, my schoolboy heart had been radioactive, and no, it wasn’t just the grapes. We had faced each other in the parking lot on a Florida night so thick you needed a snowplow to walk down the street. Susan was close to a foot shorter than me, but in no manner did that diminish her stature. I had just rejected her invitation to stroll on the beach and look for sea turtles.
“Has the bar business robbed me of my vanishing youth?” she’d asked.
“You haven’t been robbed of a thing. Her name is Kathleen, and she makes me the luckiest guy in the world, but it’s a close call with the runner-up.”
“I’ll take it. Who is he?”
“Whoever takes that walk on the beach with you.”
That was after two glasses of wine and a beer. Impressive, right? Call me Mr. Monogamy, but if you don’t know what the hell an anchor is for, you’d better get your ass off the water.
When I took her home, she’d given me a light kiss on the cheek then left the truck without a word. I had not walked her to the door. Susan Blake wasn’t the type of woman to ask just any guy to take a walk on the beach unless both sides felt that once-in-a-lifetime tug. But there can only be one once-in-a-lifetime tug.
Sometimes I say that three times in row.
“Tell me…” I shook off the memory and pivoted on the bench so I could face her. I tensed up, which I thought was totally ridiculous. “What brings you north?”
She fidgeted with her fingers. “Nice place.” She gave me a quick glance then dropped her eyes. Maybe she felt she was coming on a little strong.
“It’ll do,” I said.
She paused as if summoning her strength. “I…I need your help.” She looked right into me. “She’s missing.” It came out fast, like water tumbling over falls.
“She’s been gone two days. There’s no way she wouldn’t tell me.”
“Slow down. Take it from the top.”
Susan blew out her breath and folded her hands tightly on her lap. “My niece. Came down to live with me, and I haven’t seen her since Wednesday. That was a day after the police said she killed some guy on the—”
“The police think she killed someone?”
“She did kill him, practically gutted him like a deer…Oh, I shouldn’t say that.” Her speech started to gear down as she apparently realized there was nothing I could do in the next few seconds.
“Can they prove—?”
“I just told you. She killed him. Told me. Told the police. That’s not the problem.” She uncrossed her hands and ran her left hand down the top of her thigh then back up again.
“They got new beach laws down there?” I asked her.
“Self-defense, and they think she did the world a favor. The guy might have killed a girl up in Georgia and maybe another they’re still investigating.” She placed one hand on each side and nudged herself up. She crossed her legs. I looked away. I didn’t want to look at those legs, those eyes, that body. I felt guilty having her there, but what choice did I have? A yellow cruiser with a tuna tower plowed by, and a dolphin jumped its massive wake. We watched as it passed, and then rows of its swelling wake were soon beneath us. They crashed into the seawall like liquid thunder and rolled down the wall.
“How well do you know her?” I said, but I was thinking, How well do I know you? Sounded like her niece had hit the road and was on the lam. Maybe Susan was blind to the obvious, but I didn’t want to ride her too hard.
“She came to live with me less than a week ago. Just graduated from high school.”
I turned back to her. “She from close by?”
“How well do you know her?” I asked again.
“Listen, we’ve spent some time together over the years, but that’s not the point. I know her. I know her very well. She wouldn’t run.”
“We all misjudge. It’s hard to know people, especially—”
“How much time did we spend together, Jake?”
They can sucker-punch you with the flutter of their eyes. Do they even know that? Susan and I had dinner and nothing else. But she was right. We connected so fast that it threw the tides. If it’s ever happened to you, you know what I’m talking about. If not, welcome to Thoreau’s desperation club and take your song to your grave.
“Fair enough,” I said in response to her question.
“You told me you located stolen boats, right? And when we met, you were looking for a couple of guys.”
“Correct.” I saw where this was going and thought of how to extract myself.
“She’s in danger, and I know it. You need to find her. The police say since she’s eighteen, she can go as she pleases.”
“You tried her cell, her—”
“She left her cell behind. You know that’s not right. I covered everything. Called my sister…She had to hear from a friend that her daughter had moved in with me. Her friends, her…She didn’t have anybody.”
“When was the last time—?”
“Are you going to get into that black beast and come help me or not?”
What was on my calendar for the next few days? Work out in the mornings until I nearly collapsed—I just loved that part of the day—fish, read, and after my Tinker Bell alarm clock went off at five, drink. The days I puttered around the house, Tinker Bell—I picked her up at a garage sale—kept me honest in the event I felt like opening something too early. I’d follow all that with a simple gourmet meal I’d prepare for Kathleen and whoever else dropped by. Sleep. Repeat.
My schedule was packed. Might even need to take one of those time management courses.
“Jake?” Softer now. Pleading, as much as someone like Susan would ever plead, as she sensed my hesitation. What kind of person says no?
“I’ll leave as—”
She uncrossed her legs. “I’ll have pictures and arrange for the detective to bring you up to speed.” No gushing thank-you, just straight to the next item. “I need to go.” She stood up. “You remember where I live?”
“I do. One more thing.”
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