I climb harder, but rain weighs down my clothes and stings my eyes. The downpour slicks decomposing leaves beneath my feet so that I slip and stumble up the hill. My thighs burn. My chest is hot and tight. I want to stop and catch my breath, but his footsteps crash steadily through the undergrowth below me.
Close. So close.
Inches from my head, a banana leaf jumps and rips apart. Half a breath later, a bullet splinters the palm trunk beside me. I drop to the ground, the sound of my scream caught in my throat. I swear I can feel the vibration of his footsteps coming nearer.
If only I could rewind the past three days, I’d do everything different. I would tell Seth I’m sorry. I would protect Bianca. I would do whatever it took to see my mom one last time before I die.
Until last week, my most pressing concern had been getting ready to visit my friend Cami back home in South Carolina. On Friday, all of that changed. Not the part about going to see Cami; I still planned to do that. Let’s just say I picked up a few more concerns along the way.
As days go, Friday had been normal . . . the last normal day I can remember. But with Friday evening came a string of events that, while they may have seemed unremarkable at the time, changed my quiet island life forever.
It all started when my dad had asked me to meet a new guest at the helipad. Nothing unusual about that—although we don’t get many of them in the off-season. Guests, I mean. The late July heat can be brutal on the island, and those who know usually wait until the trade winds return before they flock back to the resort. Still, a new arrival here and there was to be expected.
I stood, sweltering in my uniform, even as the sun hung low on the horizon, waiting for her on the hilltop as the helicopter set down.
Frank—our pilot—saluted as he brought the landing skids down inside the painted circle. I sighed with relief at the breeze created by the wash of the rotors and waved back at him. Because of our remote location, the only way to and from the resort is by helicopter, so Frank is like our lifeline to the city. He delivers everything—mail, supplies, and guests.
I tried to smooth my hair as the rotors wound to a stop. Frank climbed from the cockpit. “Hey, darlin’! You doin’ the honors tonight, eh?”
“You got it.” It’s not like he had to ask; the new guest was a lady from Japan, and as Frank knew, my Japanese was much better than my dad’s. In fact, I served as the liaison for most of our international guests—owing to the fact that I can speak more than five languages, whereas my dad is fluent only in French. I’ll admit that most of what I know is pretty basic, but it’s enough to check someone in.
Frank helped the lady from his helicopter and retrieved her suitcases from the cargo hatch while she stood, predictably, admiring the view. It’s the first thing any new arrival does.
The helicopter pad rests atop a hill overlooking the property, and, I have to admit, our resort makes a very good first impression. It sits on a remote stretch of shoreline sandwiched between jagged black mountains draped in rain-forest green and a cerulean ocean that stretches to an impossibly wide horizon. I remember the first time I saw it, the beauty of it made me want to cry. Or maybe that was because my mom wasn’t there to share it with me.
I stiffened and raised my chin. Four years and the confusion about my mom’s decision still clung to me like a sour smell. I wasn’t going to let it ruin another otherwise beautiful evening.
Frank and the lady approached the cart, and I bowed in greeting. “Konbanwa. Yokoso.” Good evening. Welcome.
She clapped her hands. “Oh! You speak Japanese, ne?”
“Sukoshi. Very little.”
She introduced herself with a bow of her own. “I am Shimizu, Hisako.”
I bowed again. “Hajimemashite. Pleased to meet you, Shimizu-san.”
“Please, you must call me Hisako.”
Frank loaded the bags into the back of the cart while we settled in the front. He stepped back when he was done, touching a finger to the brim of his old blue-and-gold navy cap. “Enjoy your stay, Miz Shimizu.”
Tossing a good-bye wave to Frank, I swung the cart around for the return trip. “So, what brings you to our island, Hisako-san?”
“I study botany. I am interested in the number of plants unique to these islands.”
“Oh, yes. I just did a plant unit in my biology class, so I know more indigenous species than I care to remember.” I steered the cart around a bend in the path. “If you’d like me to take you around sometime . . .”
“Yes. I believe I would like— Oh!” She threw out a hand. “Please, stop here!”
I coasted to the side of the path, where we could see the entire resort stretched out below us, backlit by deep corals, reds, and golds. The sun hovered like a flame orange ball atop the ocean and then sank quietly behind Technicolor waves. Hisako-san brought one hand to her heart and murmured in Japanese, “It is perfect.”
I smiled in agreement and bowed to thank her. Not that I was personally responsible for the view or anything, but I did feel a certain amount of pride, being the owner’s daughter and all. Of course, the resort was his dream, not mine, but no sense in letting reality spoil the moment. I forced a smile. “Just wait until you see the stars from your veranda.”
The steward delivered Hisako-san’s luggage to her villa while I signed her in at the Plantation House. As usual, Dad took over from there and took our new guest to her villa while I watched the desk.
He hadn’t been gone two minutes before the French doors slammed open again. I jumped and reached for the two-way radio from the desk in case I needed to call security, but I relaxed as soon as I saw who it was—our resident aging rock star, trying to wrestle a suitcase away from his latest girlfriend.
This, again, was nothing out of the ordinary. The girl was just the latest of a long string of girls he’d brought to the island, but she was by far the smartest of the lot—which is probably why she was constantly threatening to leave him. We’d nicknamed the pair Mick and Bianca, since both had declined to register under their real names.
Our secluded location makes us attractive to a lot of fake-namers like them—celebrities just out of rehab, adulterous politicians, trophy wives recovering from plastic surgery, you name it. They know their secrets—and identities—are safe with us.
Mick was one of our regulars—a big spender who kept a villa at the resort and flew in every other month with a different girl on his arm. Either he didn’t think we noticed or he counted on our discretion. Maybe a little of both.
Bianca tugged on her suitcase. “I’m warning you!”
Mick tugged back, whining like a little kid. “Why won’t you even listen to me?”
Not for the first time, I wondered what Bianca saw in him. She was a lot younger than him, but she didn’t seem as star struck as the other girls he’d been with. If she didn’t like something he did, she let him know. Most of the time by packing her bags while he—a rock god who used to smash amps and breathe fire onstage for a living—ran after her like a whimpering puppy.
Bianca finally wrestled her suitcase away from him. “You promised to stop drinking. You’re such a pig when you’re drunk!”
“I did stop. Alls I had was a little nip.” He pinched the air, weaving like Jack Sparrow. Even from where I was standing, I could smell the sickly sweet fermented smell of alcohol on him.
“I’m outta here.”
Bianca marched into the lobby, and he followed unsteadily. “But, ba-a-a-be . . .”
“Don’t ‘babe’ me!” She plopped her vintage leather handbag on the counter. “I’d like to check out, please.”
“Ah, c’mon. No more, I promise.”
He plucked at her arm, but she swatted his hand away. “You promised yesterday. And the day before. You’re pathetic.” She turned to me. “Am I right, or am I right?”
I gave her a neutral smile and pulled her name up on the registration screen, just in case she really did check out this time. It happened that I did think she was right, but I had a strict personal policy about getting involved with our guests’ lives: Don’t. Getting involved led to getting attached, and getting attached led to getting hurt. Eventually, everyone leaves. It’s a lot easier not to care when they do.
It was about that time that my dad—the great mediator—arrived. I was both relieved and disappointed to see him. Despite the fact that we host more celebrities than American Idol, not much exciting happens at our place, and at least the fight was interesting. Dad calmed the lovebirds down, and they all went out to the lanai to talk. The show was over.
He was still out there with them when Mr. Mulo walked into the lobby. Of course, I didn’t know who he was then, but I did know we weren’t expecting any more incoming flights that evening. Or were we? I stood with a pasted-on smile that I hoped would mask my uncertainty. “Good evening. May I help you?”
The man hesitated for a moment, scanning the lobby before he returned my greeting. The way he did that struck me as a little odd—like he was casing the joint or something. My imposter antenna shot straight up, and I watched him closely as he approached the desk.
He was a little taller than average, with salt-and-pepper hair combed back from a wide forehead. His clothes spoke of careless elegance, and he carried himself confidently. But behind his casual air was an unmistakable watchfulness. He was definitely hiding something.
“I would like to speak to Mr. Connolly, please.”
I pressed my lips together. Was I imagining it, or did his midwestern nasal tone sound forced? I thought I could detect an underlying accent, but I’d have to hear him speak a little more before I could determine what it was.
I didn’t get the chance, though, because, at that moment, Dad stepped back in from the lanai. He strode toward our new arrival, hand outstretched, as if he’d been expecting the guy.
“Jack Connolly. Pleased to meet you.” He gave Mr. Imposter his trademark charm-the-guest grin as he pumped the man’s hand. The way he was talking, I wondered if we’d had a last-minute call-in or something, but . . . no, Dad’s smiling eyes betrayed confusion. Had we somehow both missed a reservation? Since Frank was the only pilot authorized to pick up and deliver at our location, and since he would never deliver anyone who wasn’t cleared through us, it seemed the only explanation. And yet none of the stewards were anywhere to be seen. Who had brought the guy down from the helipad?
I picked up the two-way radio to give Frank a squawk. With Mick on the island, it wouldn’t surprise me if this guy was a paparazzo. We should probably check it out before we went handing out any rooms. A slipup like that could cost us a buttload of PR.
But then the man leaned close to my dad and said something in a low voice that I couldn’t hear. The smile faded from Dad’s face, and the color drained right out of it. He glanced over and gave me a small shake of his head. I set down the radio.
What just happened? Did the guy threaten him? Should I call security?
I gripped the radio again, but stopped just short of raising it to my ear. What if I was wrong? Overreacting? I inched closer so I could hear the conversation and make a better judgment.
All I caught was the last part of the man’s final sentence. “. . . just for a few days, until suitable arrangements can be made.”
Dad forced a smile again. “I’ll see what we have available.” He brushed past me to the computer and awkwardly adjusted the flat monitor.
I bit my lip, watching his obvious discomfort. Computerizing the system had been my idea. He would have been much more composed opening the huge logbook and methodically turning the pages, which was something he used to do to buy himself thinking time. It had always bugged me, but now I felt guilty for having deprived him of the ritual.
I sidled up next to him and whispered, “You want me to do it?”
He glanced back at me, but he didn’t say anything. It was like he didn’t even see me.
“Shall I call the concierge to arrange a pickup for his luggage?”
“No. Thank you.” He blinked and seemed to come to himself again. “I’ll take care of them personally.”
Them? I looked up.
Mr. Imposter was not alone.