The tropical paradise of St. Thomas is shut down as the FBI seizes control of the island to apprehend government officials on bribery charges. Tourists and locals are stranded until FBI agent Gabe “Friday” Stein can find the missing governor and two senators who have eluded capture.
Innocent of any crime, Senator Julia Sanchez can only escape wrongful arrest with the help of eccentric Senator Bobo. As they try to blend in with increasingly hostile locals and make their trek across the island to safety, Senator Sanchez is only just beginning to realize the extent of the corruption behind the island’s idyllic façade…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Cats and Curios Mysteries
Mysteries in the Islands
St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
~ 1 ~
THE GOVERNOR STOOD on the balcony outside his office, surveying the city spread across the hillside below. A breeze brushed against his cheeks, the up-flow of the trade winds kissing off the sea.
This was his frequent perch. The three-story neoclassical building that housed the territory’s executive branch provided an expansive view of Charlotte Amalie and the island’s busy south shore.
For centuries, the rulers of St. Thomas had monitored their realm from this elevated location. The Government House balconies offered vantage points of ships sailing in and out of the harbor—and of citizens scheming on land.
The Governor rubbed his round chin, pondering the view.
At first glance, the town presented a typical Caribbean setting, a colorful mix of wood, brick, and mortar, overlaid with the humid layer of grit that accumulated between rainstorms. Tropical greenery laced its leafy fingers around doorways and windows, an insidious landscaping that without constant pruning rapidly engulfed entire buildings.
Down along the waterfront, street vendors plied the sidewalks, hawking T-shirts and kitschy trinkets to a few meandering tourists. Inside the air-conditioned alley shops, jewelers and watchmakers waited for the surge of day-trippers from the cruise ship docked at the nearby deepwater port. Drawn like sharks to fresh chum, gangs of pickpockets circled both areas with ease.
On the east end of the shopping district, old men set up backgammon boards on shaded picnic tables inside Emancipation Park. Dice began to warm in shaking cups as checkers were lined up across their proper points. With the first sips of coffee, grayed heads bent to discuss the latest news.
Beyond the regular bustle of gossip, commerce, and graft, however, historic events were about to unfold.
The scene that morning was anything but ordinary.
The Governor shifted his gaze to a flagpole whose mast trimmings waved a few feet above his balcony.
Over the ages, the posted symbols had reflected various shifts in control over this region of the West Indies, the change of colors an age-old measure of which country’s influence was in ascendancy and which was on the wane.
With a grimace at the Stars and Stripes fluttering near his head, the Governor let out a rueful grunt.
Considering the size of the US Navy vessel that had pulled into the cruise ship terminal, the odds were stacked against his regime’s future longevity.
THE GOVERNOR PLACED a hand over his brow, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun as he once more focused his attention on the city streets below.
A number of black-clad federal agents skulked along the harbor’s curving edge, rapidly closing in on the Legislature Building. Armed with arrest warrants for all fifteen of the US Virgin Islands’ sitting senators, the team aimed to sweep through the meeting chambers and apprehend as many of the indicted suspects as possible. It was a deft plan of attack, one designed to shut down the government in a single blow, without casualty or bloodshed.
Despite their attempted stealth, the invaders were easy to pick out. Their dark uniforms made a stark contrast against the harbor’s sunny water and the sidewalk’s flowering bougainvillea.
No amount of subterfuge could mask the swiftness of their movements. Not even the arrival of a mega cruise ship loaded with cash-bloated tourists inspired such energetic activity among the island’s long-term residents.
The Governor squinted at a second group of agents advancing toward Emancipation Park, about five hundred yards south of his balcony.
These were the men who had been charged with infiltrating Government House—the men who were coming to arrest him and several members of his cabinet.
He had sent the other targets home to their families. The dispersal of the administration officials would delay their incarceration by a few hours and, he hoped, spare them the humiliation of a public capture.
He had afforded himself no such luxury.
Sucking in his breath, the Governor straightened his posture, bracing for the coming raid.
Inside Government House’s white-painted brick-and-wood structure, the remaining staff had been briefed on what to expect next. The First Lady, ensconced in the Governor’s Mansion on an adjacent hill, was prepared for the worst.
Any minute now, all transport on or off the island would temporarily halt. Air traffic control would be ordered to close the runways. Navy personnel would board the ferryboats that connected St. Thomas to its neighboring islands and prohibit the vessels from completing their routes.
Cell phone communications would be interrupted, landlines would fall silent, and traffic would grind to a halt.
The cruise ship passengers would be blocked from disembarking their ship, much to the dismay of the diamond dealers, the watch salesmen, and the sharp-eyed pickpockets.
If needed, the initial swarm of federal agents would be followed by a squadron of National Guard troops. Before long, the main government structures in downtown Charlotte Amalie would be seized by the US authorities.
The Governor had anticipated the operation’s basic structure. The only question had been when the invasion would occur—and now the timing had been revealed.
He had done everything in his power to prevent today’s action. He’d spent hours with the head of the local US attorney general’s office. He’d granted interviews with the federal investigators assigned to the case. He’d flown to Washington to speak in person with the justice department officials overseeing the matter. He’d tried desperately to convince them to drop their meritless claims, to no avail.
The heady wheels of opportunism and advancement had gained too much momentum. An unseen force had pushed the judicial process past the point of no return. No one within the president’s administration had the will or the political clout to stop it.
In recent days, a grand jury sitting in the district court for the US Virgin Islands had received the results of the attorney general’s bribery investigation. The jury’s decision to indict had triggered a court order granting the US federal government direct control over the Caribbean territory until the charges could be adjudicated, the alleged corruption flushed out of the islands’ local institutions, and new elections held.
The Governor released the pent-up air from his lungs. His shoulders curved forward, bowed by the magnitude of the occasion.
It was a takeover of epic proportions, and he was helpless to stop it.
WHILE THE GOVERNOR remained on the balcony, solemnly tracking the developments in the harbor, his closest aide paced back and forth inside the office.
The typically unflappable young man had worked himself into an agitated state. Muttering under his breath, he scanned the top sheet of a clipboard, as if searching for some tidbit of new information or a pending task with which to busy himself, but he had already read every piece of writing at least a dozen times. He had only one duty to complete that morning—the interminable wait.
He glanced down at his watch, cursing the second hand’s slow movement.
A ringer sang out, and the aide pounced on the desk phone. A colored button on the handset indicated the call emanated from a secure line in Washington, DC.
Fresh beads of sweat broke out across his forehead as he spoke into the receiver.
“This is Cedric.”
He listened to the voice on the opposite end. Then he pressed the mute button and turned toward the balcony.
“Sir,” he called out tensely. “It’s the attorney general for you.”
Silently, the Governor shook his head, declining the call. The communication was a false courtesy, a last-minute request that he voluntarily relinquish his leadership position before it was forcefully taken away.
He would not give Washington that satisfaction.
The Governor’s sturdy hand gripped the balcony railing. Despite the dire situation, he remained calm. He was ready.
With a gulp, Cedric set the receiver on the cradle, terminating the connection.
Almost immediately, there was a sharp knock at the door. The sound ricocheted through the office, causing the aide to jump like a nervous rabbit.
The Governor looked over his shoulder and nodded.
“Let them in.”
Ashen-faced, Cedric straightened his tie. He tugged on his suit jacket lapels, smoothing the tailored seams. Then he grabbed the handle, turned it, and swung open the door.
The lone individual standing in the hallway bore no resemblance to the federal agents storming the city from the harbor.
He was a thin man in a golf shirt and khakis. His clothing hung loosely from his frame, as if the garments were two or three sizes too big for his body. His narrow face was flushed pink from exertion, and circular wet marks soaked the armpits of his shirt.
A visitor’s pass hanging from his neck identified him by a single name: FOWLER.
It took Cedric a moment to recognize the unexpected visitor. The last time they’d met, the man had been about two hundred pounds heavier—and his name certainly hadn’t been Fowler.
Throughout the Caribbean, when powerful figures ran into trouble, be it financial, criminal, governmental, or otherwise, they called on a nebulous figure known only by the service he provided: the Fixer.
Today’s mission had required a less obvious pseudonym.
Cedric frowned, puzzling over the man’s presence. He had been with the Governor practically every waking minute for the past two weeks as they strategized, fruitlessly, on how to avoid the looming crisis. There was no way his boss could have contacted the Fixer—or Fowler, as the case may be—without Cedric’s knowledge.
The Fixer was a recourse of last resort, one that the aide had argued strenuously against on the grounds that his involvement would negate the Governor’s asserted claims of innocence.
Not waiting to be invited in, Fowler pushed his way through the entrance and crossed to the balcony.
“Let’s go, Governor. There’s not much time.”
~ 2 ~
THE GOVERNOR TURNED away from the balcony railing, relief on his face.
He didn’t seem the least bit surprised by the Fixer’s arrival, Cedric noted, his own concern deepening by the second.
The aide watched, perplexed, as his boss bounded into the office.
Given the sedentary nature of his leadership position and the frequency of job-related eating engagements, the Governor wasn’t in great physical condition. The combination of inactivity and constant eating had widened his already bulky form. He suffered from innumerable aches in his joints and muscles and saw a chiropractor, acupuncturist, and a masseuse with regularity.
None of these oft-cited infirmities appeared to hamper his mobility on this occasion. Cedric had never seen the big man cross a room with such vigor.
“Thank you for coming.” The Governor glanced at the name tag and added with a smile, “Fowler.” He clasped the newcomer’s shoulders and gave him a firm hug. “I’d almost given up hope.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Fowler replied with a glance toward the harbor. “You’re not out of the woods. Not by a long shot.”
“Let’s get going, then.” The Governor reached for a hanger attached to a hook on the back of the door.
Fowler stopped him before he could slip on his suit coat.
“You won’t be needing that, Guv.” He lifted a tote bag from his shoulder, reached inside, and pulled out a T-shirt, shorts, and a pair of worn tennis shoes. “Better change into these. You need to be less conspicuous, and, uh . . .” He looked skeptically at the Governor’s wide girth. “We might have some hiking to do.”
As the Governor loosened his collar and unfastened his cuff links, Cedric resumed his worried pace around the office. The aide was unnerved by the sudden change in circumstances. The situation was spinning out of control—and he wasn’t referring to the incoming feds.
Fowler folded up the Governor’s shirt and slacks and tucked the clothing, along with his loafers, into the tote. As the Governor stood from tying his shoelaces, Fowler handed over a white visor printed with the logo from a New York–based tennis tournament.
It wasn’t much of a disguise, Cedric thought, surveying the improvised outfit. The Governor’s chubby figure was well known throughout the territory, particularly in Charlotte Amalie. He wouldn’t get more than a block or two from the building without being identified and called out.
Fowler was far more confident in the costume’s chances of facilitating evasion. With an approving nod, he cracked open the door and peeked down the hallway. The Governor leaned forward, anxiously peering over the other man’s shoulder.
Cedric stopped his pacing and stared at the pair crowded by the doorway. He shook his head, stunned by the rapid turn of events.
For the past six years, he had run the Governor’s schedule, overseen his legislative obligations, and managed almost every aspect of his daily life. He’d been invited to family events and had dined regularly at the Governor’s Mansion. He had been the only aide trusted to babysit the First Lady’s beloved Chihuahuas. He’d been an essential part of the politician’s very existence.
But if he didn’t act fast, his services were about to come to an abrupt end.
With difficulty, Cedric swallowed his pride. He would have to set aside his qualms about the Governor’s accomplice—no matter how much he disliked the thought of involving the Fixer.
“How can I help?” he asked meekly.
The Governor turned his head back toward the office and shifted the visor so he could see out. The tone of his voice matched the incredulous expression on his face.
“Aren’t you coming with us?”
THE TRIO CREPT down the hallway, with Fowler taking the lead, the Governor following cautiously in the thin man’s footsteps, and a bewildered Cedric bringing up the rear.
The group hugged the corridor’s right-hand side so they wouldn’t be visible through the opposite wall, which opened to the floor below.
A quiet hush rose through the building’s empty center space, the collected bated breath of the Government House employees waiting for the raid to commence. Cedric veered left to peek down through the slats in the hallway’s side railing.
Like most offices, theirs was a fractious workplace, particularly behind closed doors and turned backs. Feuds were often fueled by jealous speculations about who was in favor and who had fallen out.
As the Governor’s trusted aide, Cedric discreetly monitored the building’s verbal traffic. He could usually squelch the most damaging rumors before they reached the newspapers.
Over the years, he had overheard countless disgruntled discussions from hidden positions on back stairwells, inside bathroom stalls, and behind copy room doors. The complaints ranged the gamut, from perceived inequities in pay and workload to suspicions about the administration’s ethical policies and practices.
But at this moment, none of that rancor was in evidence.
As Cedric looked down at the employees gathered in the lobby below, the faces reflected back a wall of undivided loyalty. Their innate aversion to the imposition of foreign troops combined with the Governor’s attempt to elude the invaders had forged a temporary unity.
That allegiance wouldn’t last more than thirty seconds after the big man left the building.
At least, that’s what Cedric was counting on.
In recent months, the trusted aide had turned on his employer.
He was now the star witness in the federal government’s case against the Governor.
FOWLER THREW BACK his hand, halting the train of followers behind him. From the top of the building’s central curving staircase, he angled his head to see through to the front lobby.
A woman had been posted to serve as lookout for the approaching federal agents. She stood next to the security scanners in an area dedicated to a display of the territory’s past leaders. The lobby’s homage included portraits of both elected and appointed governors, going all the way back to the Danish Colonial era. On the near wall hung a pair of Pissarro paintings, a tribute to the famed Impressionist artist who was born on the island in 1830.
From her position in the lobby entrance, the woman had a clear view of the narrow one-way street running in front of Government House as well as the public gardens that dropped down the slope from the opposite curb.
Fowler puckered his lips and sent out a low whistle.
At the sound, the woman leaned forward for a last check through the glass doors. Then she glanced up toward the unseen trio and subtly nodded.
With that signal, Fowler ushered the Governor forward, and the group began a mad dash down the red-carpeted staircase, a wild scramble of thumping, slipping feet.
Cedric considered faking a fall that might slow their departure. But before he could gauge a safe tripping distance, a heavyset man with a build similar to the Governor’s chugged up the steps to meet them.
Fowler hit the brakes, nearly causing a collision. As Cedric struggled to regain his balance, Fowler reached into the tote bag and tossed the man the Governor’s formal clothes and shoes.
“Hold them off for as long as you can,” the Governor said gratefully, patting the doppelgänger on the back.
Cedric turned to watch the man continue up the stairs and along the hallway to the Governor’s office. Once more, he found himself wondering how all of this subterfuge had been arranged without his knowledge.
Clearly, the Fixer’s sudden appearance wasn’t the only unforeseen wrinkle in the day’s schedule.
The aide hesitated on the stairs as the other two resumed the charge to the bottom. It was an unsettling sensation, being so uninformed and out of the loop. He had no idea what to expect next.
Even after the Governor’s earlier urging, he wasn’t sure how far he was invited to join in this improvised escape.
Swallowing his anxiety, Cedric trotted down the remaining steps. No matter what bizarre tricks the Fixer had up his sleeve, he couldn’t afford to lose track of the Governor’s position.
Not now. Not when he was so close to achieving his goal.
He caught up with the pair on the first floor, falling in line as they passed the receptionist, who buzzed them through a security gate leading to the rear of the building.
They were moments away from fleeing into the surrounding residential neighborhood.
Cedric straightened his tie, trying to convey a look of confidence, even as his mind reeled with anguish.
Months of careful planning had just been thrown out the window.
~ 3 ~
CEDRIC TRACKED HIS boss through Government House, following the man’s bobbing visor down a series of narrow corridors. Up ahead, Fowler took off into a maze of tiny rooms, an indirect but, Cedric presumed, less conspicuous course to the rear exit.
The building’s floor plan had been modified numerous times since its original Danish construction, the 1860s format being incompatible with the functions of a modern-day office space. The resulting layout contained several odd-shaped hallways and closet-sized cubbyholes, the squeezed-off remnants from efforts to create a center open area.
Fowler’s winding path took the three men through a servant’s quarters that had been converted into a copy center and across a galley-style kitchen that now served as a break room.
It was a frantic pace, and Cedric found himself struggling to keep up. The Governor’s bulky frame flashed in and out of view, moving with surprising swiftness and agility.
“Where did the Guv get all this energy?” the aide panted, but there was no time to ponder the question. In all the twisting and turning, Cedric temporarily lost sight of the hefty politician.
He stopped in a hallway intersection, puzzling at the circuitous route.
The Fixer must be lost, Cedric reasoned. He allowed himself a modicum of hope. Maybe they wouldn’t make it out of the building after all.
But when he reached the exit a few minutes later, he found the two men kneeling on the floor, peeking out the door’s upper screen.
“Where to next?” Cedric whispered, crouching beside the Governor’s visored head.
Fowler replied with a raised finger to his lips.
The federal agents had reached the lobby and were conversing with the woman who had been stationed by the security scanners. One of the men demanded impatiently to be let through.
After a tense back-and-forth, the lookout stepped aside. She spoke loud enough to be heard across the first floor.
“The Governor is upstairs in his office.”
Scraping chair legs and shuffling feet communicated the agents’ progress through the building. Once the uniformed men started up the central staircase, Fowler pushed open the screen door and crept outside.
The trio tiptoed through a courtyard and across a path leading to a gate in the high-security fencing that encircled the back side of the property.
Surely, the feds would have covered the building’s rear access, Cedric thought, internally exasperated.
But the area appeared to be clear. Fowler unlocked the gate and eased himself through to the other side. After checking around the far corner of the building, he waved for the others to follow.
Not wasting any time, the Governor jumped through the opening, joining Fowler on a sidewalk attached to a flight of stone steps that led up Government Hill. The public stairs cut between Government House and an adjacent structure, another Colonial-era building that served as the parsonage for a local church.
Cedric proceeded more cautiously through the gate, expecting that at any second he would hear the sharp whistle of an arresting federal agent.
To his dismay, he too crossed to the outer sidewalk unimpeded.
He poked his head around the edge of the building and looked down toward the waterfront, still in disbelief at the ease of their escape. Craning his neck to see over the intervening neighborhood, he scanned the shoreline.
By now, he reasoned, the watchful residents of Charlotte Amalie would have noticed that something was amiss. The cruise ship traffic in and out of the harbor was closely scrutinized by the island’s taxi drivers, tour guides, jewelry shop sales force, restaurateurs, and everyone else tourism-employed in the up-slanted town. Many were no doubt wondering why the day-trippers had yet to disembark—and why a navy vessel was moored in the deepwater port beside the fancy cruise ship.
Cedric grimaced at the scene below.
Frustrated citizens stood on the sidewalks, waving their disabled cell phones in the air, grumbling about the sudden loss of signal.
Confusion reigned among the street vendors. Many of them had given up for the day and had begun packing their mass-produced goods into the plastic bags provided by the moneymen who financed their shilling operations.
A truck drove through the downtown streets, cruising at a snail’s pace with its windows rolled down. The vehicle’s radio had been set to an earsplitting volume. The speakers pumped out the broadcast of a local station whose transmitter had so far avoided being shut off.
Cedric couldn’t make out the broadcast words, but the message was heard loud and clear across Charlotte Amalie’s lower downtown area.
The backgammon players pocketed their dice, gathered their checkers, and folded their game boards. The remaining street vendors rolled up their wares. In the high-end alley shops, staff and storeowners scurried to secure the iron gratings used to protect their merchandise at night. The pickpockets had long since disappeared into the back streets, keen to avoid the surge of federal agents.
In the distance, ammunition began to pop through the air, reminiscent of the island’s annual New Year’s Eve ritual when celebratory gunfire peppered the sky. The regular January barrage was scary enough, leaving citizens hunkered on the floors of their houses, fearful of stray bullets flying in their windows.
Cedric listened to the reverberations, counting the rounds. A scattering of police cars ventured into the streets, but the local officers wouldn’t make much of a dent in the gunfire. As with the incidents that took place at New Year’s, there simply weren’t enough resources to track down every report of randomly fired shots.
Cedric had warned there would be unrest during the execution of the arrest warrants, but the woman at the local attorney general’s office had dismissed his concerns. Her superiors in Washington were reluctant to bring in extra manpower.
The aide gripped the corner of the white-painted wall, staring at the movements along the waterfront.
He hoped the feds were prepared.
They were about to receive a warm island welcome.
“PURE CHAOS,” CEDRIC said, pulling his head behind the building. “And getting more so by the minute.”
His words hit the concrete sidewalk without reaching human ears. Fowler and the Governor were no longer standing behind him.
Startled, his eyes swept up the hillside steps.
He nearly laughed aloud at the sight of the Governor scrambling over a window ledge into an unoccupied residential building that was under renovation. The roof had been torn off, and the frame had been stripped down to a concrete shell. The Fixer crouched on the ground beneath the Governor, laboring to heft the larger man through the square portal.
What was he so worried about? Cedric thought with a grin. The plan had been thoroughly vetted. There was no chance the Governor would escape capture. He just had to keep track of him until the feds caught up.
What could possibly go wrong?
He sprinted up the steps.
“Hey! Wait for me!”
Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility and Detention Center
St. Croix, US Virgin Islands
~ 4 ~
A HAZY INLAND swelter sank into a low valley on St. Croix’s southern flank, the location for the largest incarceration facility in the US Virgin Islands.
The Golden Grove detention center occupied a flat field that had been scraped down to bare dirt and the occasional patch of short weedy grass. Concrete walls stood behind ten-foot fencing topped with looped barbed wire, an intimidating but ineffectual barrier that enclosed an underfunded, overcrowded prison dormitory.
The center’s squalid living conditions had been the subject of multiple investigations, lawsuits, and court orders, but as yet none of the issued legal remedies appeared to have improved the physical infrastructure, stemmed the violence among the inmates, or slowed the notorious influx of drugs.
An electronic buzzer pulsed, followed by a blinking red light, signifying that a prisoner was about to be released. The screech of sliding metal sounded across the front courtyard.
The guards manning the entrance stepped back from their posts. Their heads dropped in a show of respect for the man in the orange jumpsuit who strode casually through the gate.
The facility’s administrator slid a paper bag across the checkout counter to the departing inmate. The bag’s top third had been folded over and stapled shut, but the paper was crumpled along the edges and had obviously been opened and restapled. A few items had been added to the prisoner’s possessions in the thirty minutes since the center received the call ordering his release.
“Here you go, Nova. Everything should be in there.” Tentatively, the administrator held out a pen and a sheet of paper. “If you could just sign the form.”
The exiting inmate scooped up the sack and tucked it under his arm. With his free hand, he grabbed the pen and scrawled a barely legible signature—not his birth name, but the moniker by which he was known throughout the island.
He took far more care in his parting smirk, a superior gleam that confirmed his dominance over the administrator and everyone else who worked at the correctional facility.
His brief stint at Golden Grove hadn’t diminished his confident swagger. His stance was that of a triumphant prizefighter.
No one could touch him. He was invincible.
In his thirty-three years of life, Nova had seen plenty of death. He had smelled its rank finality, tasted its thick splatter on his tongue—and wielded its force with his bare hands.
But he had never once feared it.
This wasn’t his first stay at Golden Grove. It wouldn’t be his last.
“See ya next time, Larry.”
Nodding casually at the guards, Nova turned for the walkway leading out through the barbed wire fencing.
The morning sun streamed across his smooth brown face, illuminating the amber flecks in his eyes. High cheekbones, perfectly parted lips, and a nose with a delicate bridge that, despite numerous fistfights, had never once been broken, completed the picture. His muscles were sculpted into the type of toned physique artistically emulated by the ancient Greeks.
The effect was one of unnerving physical beauty.
True to his nickname, Casanova had no problem attracting female attention. Countless Crucian women had fallen for his handsome looks. They found him irresistible—despite his bad-boy reputation, his violent temper, and the menace behind the mask.
SWINGING THE STAPLED paper bag, Nova sauntered onto the main road outside the detention center and headed toward a beat-up taxi van parked on the gravel shoulder.
He pulled on the handle of the van’s side passenger door and deftly slid it open.
“Nevis, you’re right on time.”
The driver looked anxiously over his shoulder as the man in prison garb climbed into the van. Reaching into his shirt pocket, the driver pulled out a cell phone and silently passed it back.
“You seen those Coconut Boys around lately?”
Still mute, Nevis shook his head.
The two homeless men had been missing for weeks. No one had seen the hapless fugitives since Nevis dropped them off on St. Croix’s rugged northwest coast. In so doing, the taxi driver had inadvertently aided in the pair’s escape from Nova’s clutches.
During Nova’s incarceration, his extensive Crucian network had learned of the taxi driver’s role in the getaway. As punishment for this offense, Nova had sent word to Nevis that his taxi would serve as his personal transportation until the two runaways showed up and Nova exacted his revenge.
Leaving the driver to fret behind the wheel, Nova squeezed around the first two bench seats and flopped onto the third cushioned row. Ripping open the sack, he changed out of the jumpsuit and into the clean clothes that had been added by the prison administrator. He had just zipped up a pair of brand-new designer jeans when the cell phone dinged with an incoming text message.
“Nevis, it looks like I’ve got a call coming in. You don’t mind if I take it back here, do you?” With a snide chuckle, he answered his own question. “No, of course you don’t.”
The phone rang seconds later. “Hey there, lovely lady. How are things in Charlotte Amalie . . .”
The driver kept his attention fixed on a metal charm hanging from his rearview mirror. The chicken-shaped trinket pivoted on its string, glinting as the tooled surface reflected the bright sunlight. He had no wish to overhear any aspect of the one-sided conversation taking place in back of the van.
Despite the driver’s efforts to tune it out, Nova’s voice carried to the front seat.
“I figured you had me bailed out for a reason. What’cha got in mind?”
The inaudible reply generated a rumble of laughter, a maniacal sound that made the driver cringe.
“I’m on my way.”
Nova pushed a button, severing the connection.
“Get this bus moving, Nevis. We’ve got some errands to run.”
Drumming his fingers across the second-row seat back, Nova began mentally assembling the crew he would take with him north to St. Thomas.
Still organizing his thoughts, he reached into the paper bag for one last item. The shiny black semiautomatic pistol had been well maintained by its previous owner, who likely hadn’t yet noticed its theft.
A broad smile spread across Nova’s face as he checked the ammunition chamber. Reinserting the loaded magazine, he caressed the handle.
“Hello, Governor.” He pointed the pistol down the middle of the van, aiming it at the back of Nevis’s head.
“Nice to meet you.”
Departure Lounge for the Last Preraid Flight to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
~ 5 ~
“MOJITO! MOJITO, PLEASE! Does anyone know where can I get a mojito?”
A feeble but persistent voice hollered into the otherwise quiet boarding area for the day’s first flight from Miami to St. Thomas.
The surrounding passengers pretended not to hear the thirsty man in the wheelchair. As the appeal continued, a college student turned up the earphones for his mobile music device. Farther down the row, a businessman hunched over his laptop computer, staring at a spreadsheet while purposefully ignoring the clamor. The rest of the crowd migrated to the opposite end of the seating area.
After several more minutes of the haranguing mojito plea, the flight attendant working the check-in counter hurried over and crouched beside the wheelchair.
“Sir, it’s eight o’clock in the morning.”
The Mojito Man beamed up at her with a crooked grin that revealed swollen gums and whittled-down teeth.
“Is it, now?” he replied. His gaze dropped pointedly to the attendant’s chest and the unhooked buttons at the top of her blouse. Despite the woman’s admonishing tone, he was clearly enjoying her attention.
Lifting an anemic arm, he waved his hand at the wheelchair, gesturing to his thin frame and spindly legs. His muscles had atrophied from lack of use, and the skin sagged from his bones. His narrow ankles looked as if even his diminished weight might cause them to snap should he try to stand.
The back of the man’s head had been rubbed bald from weeks spent lying in a hospital bed. He wasn’t old, at most middle-aged, but his body had worn out. The warranty had expired, and the pieces were falling apart.
“The doc says I have less than a month to live. I can’t be worried about social protocols.”
Self-consciously tugging at her shirt collar, the attendant issued a placating smile. “Just try not to disturb the other passengers,” she said before scurrying back to the counter.
For a brief spell, the frail figure remained quiet. He watched the people milling about the gate. Then he rotated his chair so that he could observe the pedestrian traffic in the main corridor. His eyes began to glaze over, as if he might fall asleep.
But it was only a temporary reprieve.
An unwary author entered the waiting area and, oblivious to the previous outbursts, took one of the many open seats near the wheelchair. She removed a travel magazine from her backpack, flipped through to an article she had started earlier, and resumed her read.
Instantly wide-awake, the man leaned toward the hapless woman and whispered loudly, “Excuse me, miss. Do you know where I can get a mojito?”
~ 6 ~
THE DEPARTURE LOUNGE outside the St. Thomas gate filled to capacity as the time drew near for the plane to begin boarding. Several passengers milled about the entry lanes, maneuvering for position, eager to get space for their carry-on luggage. Others slumped in the rows of floor-anchored seating, yawning as they waited for the next intercom announcement.
There wasn’t an open spot to be found—except in the space immediately surrounding the ailing man’s wheelchair.
“Mooooo-jito?” he called out pathetically, his parched voice rasping.
For those trapped in the departure area that morning, the popular Cuban cocktail would never be the same. The classic image of a narrow glass filled with muddled mint leaves, light-colored rum, sugarcane juice, and a splash of lime was now inextricably linked with that of the alcohol-obsessed cancer patient, for whom any public sympathy had long since dissipated. For years to come, mere mention of the sweet drink would bring to mind the sight of the pestering man, disconcerting in both his overt ogling of every passing female and his corpse-like appearance.
As for the unwitting author who had drawn his attention, her mojito misery was just beginning.
WITH A VULNERABLE target identified and pinned within reach, the Mojito Man refined his approach. His plea was no longer directed to the departure lounge as a whole. Instead, he focused his efforts exclusively on the woman seated next to his wheelchair.
The author had missed her chance to find another place to sit. If she moved now, her only choices were to stand on the crowded floor space or to lean against a wall. Given the limited options, she’d decided to remain next to the wheelchair.
She had tried without success to shrug off her neighbor’s pleas. She avoided eye contact with him, even shielding the side of her face with her hand. At one point, she lifted the magazine she’d given up trying to read, propping it like a fence between them.
This too proved an ineffective barrier.
The raised magazine resulted in a verbal pause from the wheelchair, accompanied by a strained shuffling sound. Seconds later, a twenty-dollar bill folded in the shape of a paper airplane flew over the magazine’s top edge.
“Mo-jito! I beseech thee, beautiful lady. Please, bring me a mojito!”
The author checked her watch, estimating the minutes remaining until boarding would commence. She had just enough time to circle through the nearest food court. Capitulating, she slid the magazine into her backpack.
She suspected she was being sent on a futile mission.
While mojitos were commonly served throughout south Florida, she couldn’t imagine where the man had come up with the idea that the drink would be readily available inside the airport. It wasn’t the type of item served by the many fast-food burger joints and coffee kiosks that operated within the terminal.
She figured her best bet was to try one of the airport restaurants, but it seemed unlikely she’d find a bartender serving cocktails during the breakfast hour—or that she would be allowed to purchase an alcoholic beverage in a to-go cup.
She shrugged her shoulders. Given the harassment she’d endured during the past forty-five minutes, she didn’t much care one way or the other.
She was, however, feeling a tad hungry. Maybe I’ll get something to eat for myself, she mused.
I’ll take a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit plus a mojito—to go, she thought wryly.
“Keep an eye on my seat,” she said out loud, in what she knew to be an unnecessary request. Wearily, she hefted her backpack onto her shoulders and grabbed the handle for her roll-around suitcase. “I’ll see what I can round up.”
The man gave her a crafty grin.
“You’re so kind. Thank you, love.”
~ 7 ~
What People are Saying About This
Praise for New York Times bestselling author Rebecca M. Hale’s Mystery in the Islands series:
Afoot on St. Croix
“Hale's novels are elaborate puzzle pieces where plots at first seem scattered and unrelated, but ultimately weave together into one surprisingly unified storyline. Complex, funny and with darker tones that share more elements with the black-comedy mysteries written by Tim Dorsey than any cozy, Afoot on St. Croix entertains with its many self-centered characters that are flawed, but all too human.”—Kings River Life Magazine
“Readers will be enchanted by the setting, intrigued by the characters and amazed by the writing in this island cozy…a wonderful blend of the Caribbean in every chapter.”—Debbie's Book Bag
Adrift on St. John
“Intriguing…fans who want something different will enjoy being Adrift on St. John.”—Genre Go Round Reviews
“A perfect story to escape into...just when you think you have everything figured out, you don't! Enjoy!!" —Escape with Dollycas
“This was an easy-flowing, narrative tale that took a different path in its storytelling...an intriguing and adventurous jaunt on a tropical island.” —Dru's Book Musings
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rebecca M. Hale continues her Mystery in the Islands series with her latest effort, Aground on St. Thomas. St. Thomas is the setting of this atypical cozy mystery featuring a fictitious government take over due to political corruption. Hale isn't your usual cozy writer and her unique blend of history and mystery always proves for an exciting read. The island locale is fun and inviting and will have readers wishing for a Mai Tai or Pina Colada instead of their customary cup of joe. A good book to add to your island collection! What I liked: Who doesn't want to read about sunny beaches and drinks with little umbrellas? Rebecca M. Hale does a fantastic job with setting in this series. Each book features a different one of the Virgin Islands and has a sort of laid back, island attitude. The characters don't get in too much of a hurry and they solve each mystery with a bit of island flare. It is easy to see that Hale loves this area of the world and has a feel for the way of life and the islander perspective. It adds a very unique air to the books and keeps the reader guessing as to what will happen next. Aground on St. Thomas wasn't the kind of book I was expecting. I have come to keep a very open mind where Hale's writing is concerned because it is somewhat unconventional. The island takeover was certainly a big idea and relatively complex. I wasn't sure she could pull it off and make it believable. Though it does have a basis in fact, this is did not occur on St. Thomas, but Hale certainly can make a reader think it did. I liked all of the political machinations and all of the corruption and details that Hale adds to give the theme credibility and authenticity. It was Herculean task and she impressed me with her handling of it. Now what does a government takeover have to do with a cozy mystery? I know it sounds a little convoluted but if you give it a chance you will see the line of Hale's thoughts and how she works it into the mystery. Senator Sanchez might be innocent of any wrong doing or bribery taking, but she is beginning to see that there was a lot going on behind the scenes as she flees capture with the help of a very eccentric Senator. Hale makes readers believe in this trek to freedom and in proving the innocence of those who were not involved. Bottom Line: It took some big twists and turns and I wasn't really sure where we would end up at the end, but looking back I really liked all the political intrigue. I thought Hale did a great job of taking a huge idea and bringing it down to right and wrong. I liked the island setting an the way the locals helped and hindered the Senators in their escape. It had that island attitude this series is known for and I look forward to seeing what in the world Hale comes up with next.