Black Widow (Doc Ford Series #15)

Black Widow (Doc Ford Series #15)

4.1 37
by Randy Wayne White
     
 

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"Revenge becomes very personal for Doc Ford, in the stunning new novel by the New York Times-bestselling author.

It was a simple exchange. Clean.
So why did things go so terribly wrong?

It went against all of Ford's instincts. When his goddaughter, Shanay, called one day, he assumed it was with details of her imminent wedding, but the

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Overview

"Revenge becomes very personal for Doc Ford, in the stunning new novel by the New York Times-bestselling author.

It was a simple exchange. Clean.
So why did things go so terribly wrong?

It went against all of Ford's instincts. When his goddaughter, Shanay, called one day, he assumed it was with details of her imminent wedding, but the news was anything but cheerful. She and her bridesmaids had thrown a pretty wild bachelorette party, it seemed, on St. Arcs, in the Windward Islands-and someone had secretly videotaped it. Now that person was threatening to blow up her future unless she came across with enough money. "But don't worry, Doc," she said. "I negotiated it down. All I need you to do is make the exchange. Please?"

Ford knew it was a mistake-a mistake to trust the extortionist, a mistake for her not to tell her fiancé-but he agreed. And now one of the bridesmaids is near death. The blackmailer took the money and released...

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Bestseller Ford's 15th Doc Ford thriller (after 2007's Hunter's Moon) may baffle newcomers with a backstory relating to the murder of Ford's parents. Ford, a marine biologist and covert operative who lives on Florida's Sanibel Island, is busy serving his shadowy U.S. government masters by researching the potential use by terrorists of jellyfish and other venomous sea creatures when he receives a desperate appeal for help from an old friend. Shay Money, a successful 26-year-old businesswoman who's about to be married, fears her future happiness is in jeopardy because an extortionist has videotaped her and three female friends in sexually compromising situations. While Ford manages to get the tape in exchange for a sizable payment, his suspicions that the criminal isn't done with Money are soon confirmed. His efforts to protect her lead him to the Caribbean and a sophisticated blackmail racket with a lengthy list of victims. Despite some awkward prose ("The combination of flesh and death, the orderly geometrics of my wound, struck me as indefinably profound"), series fans should enjoy the ride. Author tour. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Associated Press
A fast-paced page-turner.
Tampa Tribune
White's talents shine in black widow.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Intriguing.
Kirkus Reviews
Blackmail overshadows Sanibel, Fla., in a way that poses a special set of challenges to marine biologist extraordinaire Doc Ford, making his 15th appearance (Hunter's Moon, 2007, etc.). The smarts of Einstein, the courage of Rambo, the sensitivity of Dr. Phil and the noblesse oblige of Galahad: Marion Ford, as his fans know well, is a man of parts. It's the Galahad part that kick-starts him. Usually, the obligatory lady in distress is leggy, bosomy and a sucker for the Ford charm. This time, however, the lady happens to be Shay Money, his goddaughter. Just before her wedding to rich, handsome, socially prominent, politically ambitious Michael Jonquil, Shay and three of her bridesmaids-to-be decide they owe themselves a bachelorette party at Saint Arc in the Caribbean. As it turns out, Saint Arc is a terrible place to cut loose, and now there's a videotape that demonstrates explicitly how out of hand things can get under tropical skies. Ford's assignment is to persuade a covey of no-goods that extortion has a downside. In Saint Arc, he encounters the customary ration of leggy, bosomy, susceptible ladies, plus a macabre reason to view blackmail in a scary new light. Starts intriguingly, then descends into a welter of aimless episodes, derivative characters and suspense-killing digressions. Fans will be put to the test.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781410405753
Publisher:
Gale Group
Publication date:
03/18/2008
Series:
Doc Ford Series, #15
Edition description:
Large Print Edition
Pages:
565
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Epigraph

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

 

EPILOGUE

ALSO BY RANDY WAYNE WHITE

Sanibel Flats
The Heat Islands
The Man Who Invented Florida
Captiva
North of Havana
The Mangrove Coast
Ten Thousand Islands

Shark River
Twelve Mile Limit
Everglades
Tampa Burn
Dead of Night
Dark Light
Hunter’s Moon

NONFICTION

Batfishing in the Rainforest
The Sharks of Lake Nicaragua
Last Flight Out
An American Traveler
(An Introduction)
Tarpon Fishing in Mexico and Florida
Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook
with Carlene Fredericka Brennen

FICTION AS RANDY STRIKER

Key West Connection
The Deep Six
Cuban Death-Lift
The Deadlier Sex
Assassin’s Shadow

G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA • Penguin Group
(Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of
Pearson Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL,
England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books
Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia
(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre,
Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale,
North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin
Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Copyright © 2008 by Randy Wayne White

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned,
or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada

ISBN: 978-1-4406-3011-8

Sanibel and Captiva are real places, faithfully described, but used fictitiously in this novel. The same is true of certain businesses, marinas, bars, and other places frequented by Doc Ford, Tomlinson, and pals.

In all other respects, however, this novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

For Wendy, again, and my pal, Dr. Brian Hummel

AUTHOR’S NOTE

I called upon experts in various fields who kindly provided information used in writing this novel. I take full blame, in advance, for any misunderstandings that may have led to factual errors.

Thanks to Dr. John Miller for the ingenious idea of using shrimp as weapons of terror, and to Dr. Brian Lapointe for many years of advice related to marine biology and Marion Ford. Capt. Peter Hull and dolphin expert Kim Hull of Mote Marine once again provided valuable counsel.

For insights into massage, and the massage industry, I called upon several people, including old friends Nick Swartz, head athletic trainer, Kansas City Royals (and MLB American League All-Star selection); Dr. Brian Hummel, M.D., FACS; and Dr. Dan White, DC. Jean Baer, consultant to spas and resorts in Florida and the Bahamas, provided valuable information that was not available through conventional sources—but should be.

For information on Freemasonry, I called upon Col. Gerry Bass, Ralph Benko, and Matt Hall of Captiva, as well as Barry Thrasher at Tropical Lodge #56, Fort Myers, Florida, where, in 1985, I was raised as a Master Mason.

For general information on fishing, life, and interesting beverages, the following people were incredibly helpful: Mark Marinello, Marty Harrity, Greg Nelson, Dan Howes, Brian Cunningham, Kevin Boyce, Steve Carta, Stu Johnson, Scott Fizer, Gary Terwilliger, David Osier, Capt. Jeffrey Cardenas, Capt. Chico Fernandez, Capt. Flip Pallet, my uncle Phil Byers, my sister, Kay White, and Bill Spaceman Lee.

I would especially like to thank Nick and Karolin Troubetzkoy and the staff at Jade Mountain and Anse Chastanet, Saint Lucia, in the Eastern Caribbean. It is among the most beautiful and brilliantly designed nature-oriented resorts I have seen. While I was writing there, Della Thornille, Jondel Bailey, and Peter Jean-Paul were unfailingly helpful, as were my friends Karyn and Michael Allard.

As usual, I wrote parts of this novel while on the road, and I want to thank staff at Dave Taylor’s Cypress House, Useppa Island, and Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar and Grille for their input, kindness, and forbearance: Jean, Lindsey, Rachel, Michelle, Liz, Allyson, Matthew, Alex, Khusan, Millie, and Kevin.

Finally, I would like to thank my sons, Lee and Rogan White, for once again helping me finish a book.

For a great bachelorette party, try planning a weekend getaway at a spa or tropical resort. Get pampered, go sightseeing, dance with dashing foreign men who don’t speak English. Pack a survival kit . . . including a disposable camera. The pictures you take at the bachelorette party will come in handy when you need to blackmail the bride later!

—ADVICE TO MAIDS OF HONOR www.ForeverWed1.com

“My grandfather was a powerful Houngan, a vitch [voodoo priest] known from Nassau through the islands. Now I’m a Houngan, keeper of that knowledge. I will tell you about assault obeahs, blue stone, fire, blood spells, and the lost Books of Moses. But you cannot write everything I tell you.”

—VICTOR SMITH Free & Accepted Mason, Queen Esther Chapter #2 Cat Island, Bahamas (in conversation with the author)

1

IT WAS A SIMPLE EXCHANGE. Clean. So why did things go so wrong for the determined young bride?

I flew to the Caribbean on a Wednesday, and Thursday morning gave the blackmailer’s bagman a routing number to an account containing $109,000. The bagman gave me a video shot secretly at a party thrown by my goddaughter, Shay Money, for her bridesmaids.

In the sepulchre chill of a cubicle provided by the Bank of Aruba, I popped the cassette into a minicamera long enough to confirm its contents before nodding at the teller.

Yes. She could transfer the funds.

Bagman and teller conversed in patois French as I stowed the cassette in a briefcase, focusing on details to mitigate my nausea. Inside the men’s room, I filled a marble sink with water, then lathered face and hands, but the taint was subcutaneous, associative. Soap couldn’t cut it. I had helped Shay with high school homework. I’d fielded her homesick letters when she was a college freshman.

After leaving the bank, I pulled my rental around the block, waited, then followed the bagman’s Fiat to a waterfront bar. Big round man, big round head. I battled the urge to snatch him from the parking lot, then drive to a secluded place.

I’m no longer authorized to do that sort of thing.

Eight hours later, I landed at Miami International, then caught a commuter flight to Fort Myers Regional, a forty-minute drive from my home and laboratory on Sanibel Island, southwest coast of Florida. Shay, now twenty-six, with a master’s in business, was waiting.

“Did you check luggage?”

I was carrying the briefcase and a recent issue of Journal of Invertebrate Pathology.

“Never.”

“Ah . . . I forgot. All those research trips, studying fish in foreign countries. What’s the secret to packing light?”

“Simple. Wear dark clothes, and always save your second pair of socks for the flight home.”

The girl laughed as we hugged. “Doc Ford, the mysterious biologist. I picked the right guy.”

I said, “It’s been awhile. We’ll see.”

Shay had her arm around my waist, shoulder wedged into ribs, thumb hooked to my belt. She was her usual affectionate, alpha-female self, body docked to mine so she could steer me efficiently toward baggage, or her awaiting car. But there was an intensity to the way she hugged close. This was a frightened women desperate for asylum. Had I provided it?

Life may be a chemical-electrical process, but living is a procession of uncertainties, one damn thing after another. Somehow, that truth makes lying easier.

“Did everything . . . go okay?”

“Couldn’t have gone smoother.”

“You feel good about it?”

“Better than expected. Very businesslike. We’ve been dealing with pros.”

“The money transferred from my account fast enough. I checked. Geezus, one hell of a chunk. Were you . . . surprised by the amount?”

Not surprised, shocked. But I replied, “A lot of money.”

“My entire savings.”

“You’ve saved that much since college?”

“Well . . . plus Daddy’s life insurance.”

“Insurance? He didn’t seem like the type.”

“I know, I know—a man like him being thoughtful was as unexpected as him dying. I thought I told you about the check. After the honeymoon, Michael and I could’ve—”

“It’s done. You said you weren’t going to beat yourself up when I got back. I’m back.”

“You’re right. You know the way I ought to see it? Like it’s an investment in the future. I have to keep reminding myself. Our future, Michael and me.”

We exited the terminal into the sodium glare of asphalt and Everglades heat. It was a Thursday in June, a little before midnight, less than ten days until the girl’s wedding. There were stars up there above palm trees.

“So he gave you the . . . thing.”

“Yes.” The briefcase was on my opposite shoulder, and I tapped it. “In here.”

I felt her body stiffen. “The only copy?”

“I don’t know. That’s the deal you made. But it’s his game, his rules.”

“Do you know why . . . why I paid the money?”

“I have a pretty good idea.”

“So you watched.”

“Just the beginning. You and your bridesmaids were on a patio by a swimming pool, a view of the ocean below. With three men I assume were locals—so the party was just getting started. That was enough.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Another lie. The video had been queued to footage that was unambiguously graphic. I’d watched for a few seconds, skipped ahead, then couldn’t hit the power button fast enough.

Yes, we had been dealing with a pro, but there were also symptoms of pathology. Voyeurism plus cruelty. Her blackmailer enjoyed humiliating his victims.

Shay laughed to disguise relief. “Thanks for being a gentleman. Not that there’s anything really bad. Just stupid. The sort of things we did in college—smoke grass, smooch with strangers. But Michael wouldn’t have understood. None of our guys would, even though it seemed harmless at the time. We tried to turn the clock back—Liz, Corey, Beryl, and me—and have one last fling . . . only now, I wish we’d never heard of that damn island. By October, we’ll all be married. And we’ve got professions. We’re grown-ups now, not sorority girls.”

I’d just lied to Shay, so why did I find it so irritating that she was lying to me? My own moral code varies with time zones and border crossings, plus I do not accept the premise that human behavior can be separated neatly into columns of right and wrong. So who the hell am I to judge? But I am neither so jaundiced nor naïve that I don’t know the difference between a kiss and a blow job.

“Aren’t grown-ups also supposed to accept responsibility for their behavior?” I said.

The woman stopped walking for a moment, her expression indignant, then sped ahead. “I don’t care for your tone, buddy boy.”

“Then stop treating me like I’m stupid.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

“Really? You didn’t pay a hundred thousand dollars to spare your future husband seeing you smoke dope and kiss a stranger.”

“I just told you: Michael’s the jealous type. Like most guys, there’s a double standard. It doesn’t matter if it was innocent fun. He wouldn’t have understood.”

“I flew halfway to the equator and back because of innocent fun? Knock it off, Shay. I know better.”

“Damn it! You said you didn’t watch the video!”

The woman slowed enough for me to catch up, eyes searching. The footage I’d seen was disturbing. What I had not seen was there in her eyes, and it sickened her.

I said, “I don’t give a damn what’s on this tape. Whatever perceived sins, your girls’ weekend couldn’t have been any worse than a lot of bachelor parties. Okay? And it sure as hell doesn’t compare to some of the things I’ve done in my life.” I cut her off before she interrupted. “Don’t ask. We’re all entitled to our secrets. The point is, I’m your friend. As of today, I’m also your partner. So no more evasions.

“When you asked me to fly south and make the exchange, I did—no questions asked. Now I expect the truth. Because there’s a chance we’re going to hear from him again.”

Shay stopped and faced me. She took a shuddering breath, and in a voice I hadn’t heard since she was a teen, she whispered, “Oh . . . Ford, I hope . . . I so hope you’re wrong.”

I swept the girl into my free arm and held her, thumping my hand on her back. “Me, too, Shay. But if it happens, no surprises, okay? Because it’s started.”

“What? What’s started? I don’t understand.”

I meant the lie we’d created. It now had a life of its own. Unlike the truth, lies can’t survive independently. They’re quasi matter, like something sewn together in a lab, and require monitoring.

“If we’re not straight with each other,” I told her, “our friendship will be the first casualty. Your marriage could be the second.”

“My God, Doc,” the girl said, pushing away, “don’t even say that. Damn it! I did what I was supposed to do. I paid the money. I’m safe now, aren’t I? We deserve to be safe!”

“This has nothing to do with what you deserve. Fairness isn’t bankable. Right now, the guy may be rethinking your payment schedule because fear has an exact dollar value. He’s a pirate, not an entrepreneur.”

I put my arm around her waist, and we continued toward the parking garage. “You’re saying he’ll want more money after the wedding.”

That’s what I was thinking. She was marrying Michael Jonquil, a third-generation Swiss-American whose family was regal, Lear jet- wealthy, and politically connected—Michael was running for a state house seat in the fall.

I replied, “Possibly. Depends on the fear factor. That’s why you have to be honest. I don’t need details. Just a realistic understanding of how much leverage the man has.”

“Fear, huh?”

“Isn’t that what business negotiation is all about?”

“Guilt’s more like it. Or shame.” She was talking about herself.

I said, “Then let’s hope he didn’t keep a copy of the tape.”

2

IT WASN’T UNTIL WE WERE in Shay’s toy-sized convertible, traveling west, top down, that she spoke again. The long silence suggested a prelude to confession—not without reason.

“Remember the first e-mail demanding money? I told you he sent video samples as an attachment.”

I remembered. It was eight days ago. Less than a week after Shay and friends returned from Saint Arc, an island only a few miles from Saint Lucia, off the coast of South America. Shay had downloaded the video files, but the files were corrupt, she said. The clips wouldn’t open.

I’d urged her to contact the FBI, but she refused. I should’ve insisted. I didn’t.

I asked, “What about the files?”

“They weren’t corrupt. What he filmed was corrupt—things the girls and I did on Saint Arc. I trashed the clips because I knew you’d want to see everything when I asked for help. Like it was evidence.”

“It was that bad?”

“Bad enough. Michael and I won’t be getting married next week if he gets hold of the tape. Beryl and Liz’s wedding plans will be wrecked, and Corey’s husband—he’s such a violence freak—he’d kill someone if he finds out. Maybe he’d kill Corey. And she didn’t even do anything. Not really. Just the fact she was with us, he’d go orbital.”

Shay paused to turn south, downshifting as she slalomed between slower vehicles, picking lanes then accelerating: a decisive female whose driving mirrored her personality—not always good in an overpowered, undersized car. I no longer lectured her on the dangers of tailgating and accelerating through intersections. Putting my hands on the dash had become my way of saying Slow the hell down.

When traffic thinned, though, she lost her edge. She sat back and let the night sky tunnel above us, thinking things through before giving me her attention.

“Who’m I kidding. Of course you’re right. I wouldn’t let someone con that much money if all we’d done was smoke and play kissy face with the local cabana boys—which would’ve been bad enough as far as Michael’s family is concerned. I was too embarrassed to give you the details. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. It was the smart way to deal with it. At first.”

“Really?”

“Sure. There was no reason for me to know. But now—”

“Okay. So that’s why I’m telling you. Truth is, the three guys in the video? We all ended up in the swimming pool. Naked—except for Corey, but even she took her top off. The cameraman must’ve been hidden on the hillside above our rental house. It looked like jungle, but that’s where he had to be.” Shay lowered her voice to a whisper. “Doc, you’ve got to swear you won’t tell a soul about Corey. Ever. Vance is nuts. Seriously.”

I’d never met Corey’s husband. He was a bodybuilder; a sometimes actor. I’d heard the stories of his steroid rages and cocktail-party dramas. His temper had gotten him fired from his job as a firefighter.

I said, “Don’t worry.”

Shay nodded, concentrating on her driving again. “There were only a couple shots of Corey, but enough to make him crazy. Beryl and Liz took their suits off, too. But most of the close-ups are of me. In fact, the asshole cameraman made me the star.”

Before I could catch myself, I said, “If your girlfriends were nude, why pick on you?”

If the question offended her, she didn’t react. Or maybe she was confident enough to be unfazed. Shay was no longer the pinch-faced teen I’d met eight years ago. The adolescent brown hair was now a luxurious maple, the baby fat was gone, the clothes stylish. She was attractive in a solid, assertive way, but our instinctual perception of beauty has to do with symmetry and proportions. Shay’s facial proportions were off—nose a little too thick, lips too thin, and the columella, the divider that separates her nostrils, was creased.

Her maid of honor, Beryl Woodward, though, was an auburn Grace Kelly who radiated ice when she entered a room, then slowly filled the space with heat. Her bridesmaid Liz made extra money modeling swimsuits. Corey was about to sign a film contract when she met the domineering man who became her husband. Yet the voyeur had singled out Shay?

“Maybe it had something to do with the guy I was with,” she said. “He was the leader . . . that was my impression. He wore a pirate bandanna and was a little too good-looking. Like a fashion model, but nice—or so I thought. He was younger . . . twenty-one. We flirted. He was a good dancer, and dancing is something I never get to do since I got engaged.

“In the pool, he and I . . . the two of us drifted off into a corner and . . . we played around for a while, then . . . and then the three guys got dressed and left. And that’s all that happened.”

She was having second thoughts. This amended version had been assembled as she talked.

There was a bottle of water in the cup holder. I took a long drink, then opened my briefcase and began to separate travel documents from travel trash. We were on Summerlin Road. The causeway that links the mainland with Sanibel was ahead, the new skyway bridge arching into summer darkness. To the south, Estero Island was a yellow necklace of condo lights. We were through the tollgate, halfway across the bay, before Shay broke the silence.

“Why don’t you say something?”

“I was waiting for you to finish.”

“I did. That’s the whole story. Nothing sexual happened because that’s a line we didn’t cross. None of us girls did. Not technically sexual, I’m saying.”

“Technically sexual,” I repeated.

“You know what I mean.”

“Nope, I’m a biologist, and I wouldn’t attempt a guess. But it doesn’t matter. If the blackmailer kept a copy of the video, how much power does it give him six months from now? Or a year from now if Michael’s elected to the legislature? Or in six years if you start a company, and it’s about to go public?”

“Jesus Christ, what a nightmare even to think about.”

“Maybe. But it’s better to deal with it now.”

“Why? I just told you—we didn’t do anything wrong.”

“All right. In that case, there’s no reason to worry.”

“You say that like you don’t believe me.”

“I choose to believe you because you’re too smart to risk giving me bad information. I just explained what’s at stake.”

“You don’t believe me!”

“I’m discussing security. You’re fixating on morality. Why? That’s not my engagement ring on your finger.”

“Don’t be nasty.”

“I’m not.”

“Bullshit, buddy-ruff. If you want to draw blood, you need heavier ammo. Maybe you forget I come from redneck country, the toughest and nastiest sort. I’m not bulletproof, but the small-caliber stuff bounces off.”

I smiled. “Oh, I see. So now I’m talking to the real Shay Money. Not the faker who earned scholarships, graduated cum laude, won umpteen awards, and is fast becoming the administrative darling of a Sanibel clothing company.”

“That Sanibel clothing company,” she replied, her tone icy and impatient, “happens to be an international company listed on NASDAQ.”

I said, “Sorry. The founders of Chico’s used to keep me updated. We’ve lost touch.”

“Is that another jab about how I got my job? Maybe I haven’t thanked you enough. Okay, I’ll say it again: Thanks.

I was still smiling. “Do you realize your piney-woods accent comes back when you’re mad? File that tidbit away so all the people you think you’re fooling don’t stumble onto the truth about the real Shay Money. Or have you gone back to using Shanay?”

The woman growled in frustration. “Don’t call me that. You can be such an asshole.”

“It’s the only way I can relate to anal-retentive friends.”

Bridge lights shadowed her scowl in rhythmic panels as we descended onto the island. “Okay, okay. So I’m not proud of what’s on the video. I’ve spent the last seven years trying to become someone I’m not. Maybe the mask finally slipped when we were on Saint Arc. White trash, that’s what the camera captured. Me. Yeah, the real me, and cameras don’t lie. What do you expect from the daughter of Dexter Ray Money?”

The late Dex Money, Shay’s father, was one of the foulest men I’d ever met.

“Excuses,” I said. “Self-pity and excuses—that’s what I’d expect . . . if I didn’t know you so well.”

I watched the girl straighten. After a moment, she whispered, “My God, that’s what I’m doing, isn’t it? I’m acting just like him.”

I pretended not to hear.

A moment later, she said, “Thanks. Thanks for the boot in the butt. Doc, you are right. I may be the daughter of . . . of—” Her voice thickened, then she slapped the steering wheel. “I may be his daughter, but I sure don’t have to behave like that sad, dead son of a bitch.”

I nodded and sipped my water.

“All his life, he did nothing but get trickier and cuter when he was in trouble. He hurt the people who cared for him, and he made excuses—mostly to cops. And you’re no cop. I owe you a lot. You and your sister. The way you two helped when you had no reason in the world to help. I’ve been lying to you, and Ransom, too. If I can’t tell you two the truth, who can I trust?”

Ransom Gatrell is my cousin, not my sister, but I no longer bother correcting people.

Shay sniffled, her voice still shaky, but she got the words out: “Sorry, Doc. Give me a sec?”

I said, “Relax. It’s no big deal.” Then, for some reason, I had to add, “Everything’s going to be okay. I promise.”

3

ON SANIBEL, SHAY DOWNSHIFTED and turned onto Periwinkle, the island’s main drag. She drove in silence, tilting her head so wind could find her hair. The road was narrowed by tree shadow, and I gulped air that tasted of saltwater and asphalt-scented rain. When returning from an airport, after a long flight, the dulled intimacies of home become fresh again. So why did I feel restless?

I’d missed something. Not long flights . . . but elements that were associated with travel.

It had been a while, as I told Shay.

Until that moment, I’d considered the trip an interruption. June’s a good month in Florida. Squalls and heat begin their metrical interplay. Tourism slows, fishing’s superb, mangoes are ripe. The old fish camp marina where I live is at its quirky best because the reduced population allows locals to focus on their own small dramas.

My personal dramas had taken a pleasant turn. A love interest from the past had returned, and I’d been weighing the pros and cons of resuming the relationship. I had unusual projects under way in my lab. My son was healthy, my daughter was growing, and the mothers of each child were happily occupied with their own lives, so rarely caused trouble in mine. And vice versa.

Summer is a favorite time of year, and Florida’s personal little secret. So why travel?

But friendship isn’t a recreational vehicle. It is a covenant. I take the obligations seriously. So I dropped everything when the girl yelled help.

Now I pretended to concentrate on my briefcase as Shay wrestled with the decision to tell me the truth, or stick with her story.

“Okay . . . I’ll start at the beginning and tell you what really happened.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

“Jesus, Doc . . . this is so damn embarrassing. We were so stupid! It isn’t easy to talk about.”

I said, “I’ll match my personal stupidities with anyone’s. You’re safe with me.”

“Humph.” It was the sound of reflection. “True. Always have been with you. I remember the first time I laid eyes on you. You were soaking wet, all dressed in black, and I thought you’d come to rob us—”

Patiently, I said, “We were talking about your girls’ weekend in the Caribbean.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Well . . . my bridesmaids deserved a break. Michael and I are having a huge wedding. I’ve delegated a lot of the work to those ladies. Plus, planning a wedding—and this may come as a surprise to a guy like you—but planning a wedding is one of the most stressful things you can imagine. I’ve read it ranks up there with buying a house or dealing with a friend’s death. I was about crazy, and we all needed a break.”

I said, “You’ve always been generous,” letting her get to the truth in her own way.

“I decided on a surprise vacation, just the four of us. I asked around for travel tips, narrowed it down to a couple of islands, then asked around until I found the perfect girls’ hideaway. Our own seaside house, secluded but with shopping, lots of books, yoga, and a private beach for topless sunbathing. A really wicked beach. That’s the way I described it in the invitations. Unfortunately, it came exactly as advertised.”

It wasn’t their first trip. She and her friends liked exotic destinations, away from local gossips.

“We’ve had our secret fun, sure. We trust each other not to blab. The saintly, girly-girl types are a pain in the ass—after all those years in Catholic school? But we are not sluts. And we never came close to getting as wild as we did on Saint Arc. I swear to God, I still don’t understand how it got out of control.”

When Shay sensed me looking at her, she huffed, “I mean it. It was our last night on the island. The last time we’d ever be together free and single since finishing our master’s degrees, and we’d been bawling all day. Life changes so damn fast. We wanted to cut loose and have some laughs. But it was a Sunday night, nothing going on.

“That’s when the men appeared. Three strangers.

“They came strolling onto our private little beach, looking for a party some movie people were throwing. Supposedly. They were polite and funny. We invited them in. They made special margaritas. A little later, we put on music and started dancing. But we didn’t pair off right away. It was more of a group thing.”

Shay told me the guys brought a couple of joints, local grass. She hadn’t smoked since college.

“Because I was high, the whole scene seemed hilarious. But innocent. Us with these good-looking dudes with French or Caribbean accents, passing around a joint. Maybe because they were younger, we felt in control. They didn’t even realize we were laughing at them, so cool-acting. But then it got to be more like a dare between us girls when the guys said they wanted to get in the pool. Who’d be the first to say ‘stop’? Beryl or Liz, Corey or me?”

No one said stop. The night kept going.

Shay leaned toward the steering wheel, no longer guarded. “It was my party, and I let it go too far. I don’t know why, and it’s driving me nuts.”

I said, “You didn’t force your friends. They’re older than you. Beryl’s, what, three or four years older?”

“Four. And she’s the queen of Ice Queens—usually—and she was the first one with her suit off. But it doesn’t matter. I was in charge. I didn’t stop it when I had the chance. Everything felt slow and dreamy. They told us the grass was really strong shit, but man, I don’t know.”

“You think they slipped you something else?”

“I’ve wondered about it. If they did, I hope I never get the chance to buy the stuff because I don’t think I could pass up the chance. The feeling was incredible. Like someone hit the happy switch, and all my stress was gone. It was also like . . . like I got a dose of aphrodisiac down where it counts.”

I turned to her as she turned to me. “You wanted honesty? I’m being honest. Maybe it was the dope. Maybe it was the guys—all muscles and curls. The other girls, they’d have to speak for themselves. But I lost control. What I did was wrong. I knew it, but I couldn’t stop myself. The way my body reacted . . . it was like riding a slow wave. The sensation was unreal. How clinical do you want me to be?”

I was shaking my head as I replied, “You can still be blackmailed, that’s all I need to know—” But she interrupted, saying, “No, I want to tell the rest. I’m not embarrassed now. I don’t want you to be. Maybe a man can make sense of what happened, because I’m driving myself nuts with guilt, trying to figure it out. I love Michael. I’m monogamous by nature. I didn’t even fantasize about other men after we started dating. But now . . . after the way it was that night on the island. My God.

I interrupted. “Ransom’s from the Bahamas. Why not wait and talk to us both?”

“What? Now you don’t want the truth?”

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