From acclaimed author Charlie Donlea comes a twisting, impossible-to-put-down novel of suspense in which a filmmaker helps clear a woman convicted of murder—only to find she may be a puppet in a sinister game.
The Girl of Sugar Beach is the most watched documentary in television history—a riveting, true-life mystery that unfolds over twelve weeks and centers on a fascinating question: Did Grace Sebold murder her boyfriend, Julian, while on a Spring Break vacation, or is she a victim of circumstance and poor police work? Grace has spent the last ten years in a St. Lucian prison, and reaches out to filmmaker Sidney Ryan in a last, desperate attempt to prove her innocence.
As Sidney begins researching, she uncovers startling evidence, additional suspects, and timeline issues that were all overlooked during the original investigation. Before the series even finishes filming, public outcry leads officials to reopen the case. But as the show surges towards its final episodes, Sidney receives a letter saying that she got it badly, terribly wrong.
Sidney has just convinced the world that Grace is innocent. Now she wonders if she has helped to free a ruthless killer. Delving into Grace’s past, she peels away layer after layer of deception. But as Sidney edges closer to the real heart of the story, she must decide if finding the truth is worth risking her newfound fame, her career . . . even her life.
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
USA Today bestselling author Charlie Donlea was born and raised in Chicago. He now lives in the suburbs with his wife and two young children. Readers can find him online at charliedonlea.com.
Read an Excerpt
Hewanorra International Airport St. Lucia March 2017
Ten Years Later
Sidney Ryan finished tapping on her computer, saved her file, and folded the laptop closed. She reached under the seat and slipped it into her carry-on. The popping in her ears told her they had started their descent. She pulled a thick folder from her bag, opened it, and removed the maiden letter that had started her journey.
It's been a while. Fifteen years? Congratulations on all your success. I've followed your career, as you can imagine, quite closely. You are a champion for those who cannot help themselves. As I'm sure you are aware, your accomplishments have echoed far beyond those who have directly benefited. For those like myself, whose fates have long ago been determined, you give hope that somehow things can still change.
I'll assume you know my story. And I hope this letter makes it into your hands. You are, quite literally, my last chance. I've exhausted the appeals process. It is different here than in the States. I've learned the St. Lucian justice system well over the last decade. There are no more loopholes to find, and no more formalities to follow. From this point forward, I can count on only one thing to help me — a re-examination of the evidence. Without it, I will spend my life here. And with each year that passes, it feels as though fewer and fewer people are looking at my case. Lately it seems that no one remembers me besides my family.
I'm writing you, Sidney, to ask you to consider helping an old friend. Of course, I understand no promises can be made. And I'm able to offer nothing in the way of compensation. Yet, I still find myself writing to you. I have no one else to ask.
My attorney and I can provide you with every bit of information about my case. Perhaps, if you look through it all, you will see what so many others have missed.
Thank you, Sidney, for anything you can do for an old friend.
Yours Sincerely, Grace Sebold
Sidney folded the letter and looked out the window. The plane was on a gentle glide and ready to set down in the ocean when a runway reached out and grabbed the Airbus A330 to pull it safely onto dry land. A five-minute taxi settled the plane on the tarmac just outside the terminal doors. Everyone onboard opened overhead compartments and gathered bags. Sidney walked through the plane's exit door and stepped onto the landing of the staircase, where the humid Caribbean air quickly worked her skin to a glistening shine. She took the stairs to the tarmac and felt the heat of the pavement rise in invisible flames around her. The camera crew sorted their equipment as she headed into the terminal. Through customs thirty minutes later, she bounced in the backseat of the taxi van as the driver navigated the rolling mountains of St. Lucia and the twisting roads that cut through their slopes.
Hills lush with rain forest filled the windows of the taxi for most of the sixty-minute ride. Eventually the driver shifted to a lower gear and the van strained to climb a steep bank. As they crested the precipice on the outskirts of the Jalousie Plantation, the ocean came into view across the valley. In the middle of the afternoon, the water carried an emerald brilliance, and from such an elevated vantage point looked almost cartoonish as it smoldered bright cobalt in the area near shore, melting to a deeper navy farther out to sea.
The driver began the descent into the valley toward Sugar Beach Resort. Contrasting the journey to this point, which had been defined by a series of steep inclines barely conquered by the taxi van's straining engine, the ride down into the valley came with the constant squeak of brakes and slow turns around hairpins. The deeper they ventured into the basin, the higher the twin volcanic plugs of Gros Piton and Petit Piton rose on either side of them. The prehistoric nature of the precipitous mountains gave Sidney the sense of heading into Jurassic Park.
Finally the van made the last turn and tall iron gates parted as they approached the entrance to the resort. The humidity again mugged her when the door slid open and Sidney climbed from the van.
"Ms. Ryan," a staff member said, extending a basket of ice-cold hand towels. "Welcome to Sugar Beach."
Sidney draped the towel across the back of her neck.
"The staff will manage your bags," the woman said in a pleasant Caribbean accent. "Your firm has already arranged check-in, so your room is waiting."
Sidney nodded and followed the woman onto a path lined by Lansan trees, the shade of which offered a reprieve from the heat. The staffer pointed out landmarks as they walked.
"The spa is that way," she said, pointing. "It's world renowned and highly recommended. Built directly into the rain forest."
Sidney smiled and nodded, surveying the tree-house–like structures built within the forest and the wooden staircases that twirled down to the ground.
The woman pointed in the other direction. "This path will take you to the beach."
Overhanging branches of palm trees cocooned the long cobblestone walkway. Their heavy fronds rustled in the ocean breeze toward the far end of the path, where a spot of bright sunshine and surf was just visible from where Sidney stood.
They made one more turn. "And here is your cottage."
The woman keyed the door and allowed Sidney to enter the posh room, the furniture of which was white and immaculate. Dark cherrywood floors shone brightly with afternoon sunlight that spilled through the windows and French doors.
"The bar is stocked with anything you might like — water, juice, and soda. Spirits as well. Your bags should arrive shortly."
"Thank you," Sidney said. She glanced at the placard outside the door: 306.
"Yes," the woman said, recognizing the question in Sidney's eyes. "This was the room she stayed in."
"Please call if you need anything," the woman said.
Sidney closed the cottage door and allowed the air-conditioned interior to cool her body and unstick her shirt from her skin. She looked around the room, moving her gaze from the shining wooden floors to the lush bathroom accommodations, to the sun-drenched patio, and finally to the plush four-poster bed, with its brilliant white comforter. She ran her hand over the thick blanket before sitting on the edge.
Ten years earlier, Grace Sebold had slept in this very room the night Julian Crist was killed.CHAPTER 2
The tropical gardens were plush and green as sidney and her crew walked along the resort's serpentine paths that wound toward the beach. Once past the pool, her tennis shoes sank into the sand of Sugar Beach. Around her, the twin peaks sprouted into the sky. On her right and to the north, Petit Piton; on her left and to the south, Gros Piton. Laid between the summits was a two-hundred-yard stretch of sugar-white sand that glistened under the hot sun. Closer toward the water, the sand was darker, where the surf washed over it and bathed it into wet caramel.
"Ms. Ryan?" a young Caribbean man asked as he approached.
"Sidney." She reached out and shook his hand.
"Darnell. I'll be guiding you and your crew today. Are you ready?"
Sidney nodded. She looked back to her camera guys and pointed to the Pitons. "Get these," she said to her crew. "A few stills from the base to the peak, with a clouded sky above. Maybe time-lapse it to get a tropical storm moving through. Might be a good promo, beautiful scenery one minute and a ferocious storm the next. Aerials would work well, if we can budget it." She looked back to Darnell. "Is the hike difficult?"
"To the summit?" He smiled. His teeth were broad and white. "Yeh, man. To the Soufriere Bluff? Easy."
"Easy?" Sidney asked.
"No problem." Darnell pointed to Sidney's bicep, then flexed his own and let out a jovial laugh. "Trust me. No problem."
Thirty minutes later, they had completed the necessary paperwork and signed the waivers required to partake in a guided hike up Gros Piton. The trip to the summit was an all-day excursion taking more than four hours. To the bluff where Julian Crist was killed required thirty minutes of walking along a narrow path flanked by heavy foliage, with occasional views of Pitons Bay to the north and the Jalousie Plantation to the east.
Sidney and her crew were halfway to the bluff when they came to a staircase made from boulders and flanked by a makeshift bamboo railing. The structure had been reinforced over the years with additional balustrades and a few odd rocks. The man-made arrangement tackled a steep gorge that would otherwise be too challenging to traverse.
"Darnell," Sidney said as they approached the Stone Age staircase. "Has this portion of the hike changed over the years?"
"No. Same now as it's always been."
"So, ten years ago, this was the same staircase?"
"Yeh, man. Same is same."
Sidney directed her crew. "Get this from bottom to top, and then top to bottom. Capture a first-person account of climbing up the staircase, no one else in the frame. And time me on the way up. Take a few more runs and get an average of how long it takes to walk it, jog it, and sprint it."
Sidney followed Darnell up the boulders, the first vigorous portion of the day's hike. With temperatures in the low nineties and 100 percent humidity, her tank top was soaked by the time she was halfway up the staircase.
A healthy thirty-six-year-old woman in good physical shape, Sidney considered that she was ten years older now than Grace had been when she supposedly made this journey. Sidney needed the aid of the bamboo railing to make it to the top. The steep incline toward the peak required her to grab the bamboo with both hands, one on each side, to hoist herself to the top. Once there, she surveyed the landing and then headed back down. At the foot of the stairs, she grabbed a tripod from one of the crewmembers and extended it to its full length, placed it over her shoulder, and repeated her climb up the boulders with only one hand available to grab the bamboo.
When Sidney was satisfied with her test runs, she found Darnell sitting in the shade of a Lansan. "How much farther?" "Not much," Darnell said, pushing himself away from the tree's trunk. "A few switchbacks."
She followed Darnell along the narrow dirt path until they made one last turn. Then the foliage cleared and a bluff came into view — smooth beige granite that mirrored the afternoon sun. Sidney walked over to it, already visualizing how she could present this majestic and tragic scene.
"Is this it?" she asked as she walked carefully onto the bluff.
"Yeh, man." Darnell was more daring, walking fearlessly to the edge. "He went over right here. All the way down to the water." He pointed over the ledge, then smacked his palms together.
Sidney stopped a few feet from the edge, bent at the waist, and took a hesitant glance over the threshold. Her stomach rose into her throat. It was a long way down. She looked behind her. The camera crew was just now arriving after capturing the staircase from the angles she requested. Sidney walked over to Leslie Martin, her producing partner, turned back to look at the clearing and the bluff and the pristine view of Pitons Bay sparkling with afternoon sun. She put her arms out wide.
"I need a full shot of this view. A first-person perspective, coming around the bend and witnessing the bluff and the clearing and the bay. We'll need to get a shot at sunset as well, with the sun in the backdrop and long shadows creeping toward the camera. That's about the time he was killed."
"I can see the promo," Leslie said. "Gorgeous, but eerie."
Sidney nodded. "Get a blanket up here, too. With a bottle of champagne and two glasses. Low shot, okay? Ground level, with the glasses in the foreground and the setting sun behind them."
"You're a genius. I love it," Leslie said.
"It was a long time ago," Darnell interrupted. "When that boy went over the edge. What is the interest so many years later?"
"For a book?"
"No, a film."
Darnell's bright smile appeared again. "A movie?"
Sidney walked back onto the bluff as her camera crew prepared to film the area where Julian Crist was killed. She enjoyed a moment of solitude as she looked out over the ocean, and then down to Sugar Beach, where vacationers strolled hand in hand, their footsteps melting in the sand.
"Okay, St. Lucia. Tell me your story."
The Girl of Sugar Beach
"Pilot" Episode *Based on the interview with eyewitnesses from the scene
They were celebrating in St. Lucia and had chosen this morning, the day of their twentieth wedding anniversary, to watch the sunrise. With dark outlines of the twin Pitons rising on either side of Sugar Beach, like broad-shouldered guards on night watch, the couple strapped into their kayaks in the predawn hours. The sky was still dark and the moon was the only light that guided them as its charcoaled brightness fell softly across Pitons Bay. Sugar Beach, situated on the west side of the island, offered the perfect locale for sunsets. To witness the sunrise, vacationers needed to navigate across twelve miles of mountainous terrain to reach the eastern side of St. Lucia. The other option was to take to the ocean. A five-mile paddle over calm water brought kayakers to the southern tip of the island, just past Vieux Fort, and presented an unfettered view to the eastern horizon.
They clicked on their headlamps as they took off through the darkness, hugging the shoreline around Gros Piton. They stayed fifty yards off the coastline, keeping a good pace of nearly three knots. It was a strenuous workout they had undertaken many times before. They maintained a tandem formation, him in front of her so she could utilize his draft. After an hour of paddling, the black inkiness of night melted as a cerulean glow took to the sky. After three miles, he fell back and allowed her to take the lead until the southern portion of the island jetted away from them to the southeast. Here they kept a straight tack that took them farther offshore, a more direct line that eventually rendered a clear sight line to the horizon.
When they made it past Vieux Fort, floating in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, they pulled their kayaks together and drank from their water bottles. Their breathing came under control just as the sun emerged from the ocean. A magnificent sight, the tip of the sun pierced the horizon and the couple leaned over the edges of their kayaks and kissed.
After ten minutes, the sun was bright and its reflection spread from the horizon to capture their kayaks in its glow. They turned and started their journey back to Sugar Beach. The twin peaks in the distance acted as their navigational tool. With a steady northwest current, it took just over an hour to make it back to the base of Gros Piton, where they clung to its structure and paddled around its base. One final turn and Sugar Beach came into view. Still too early for resort life, the beach was empty but for a few early-morning walkers. The huts were vacant, and the bungalows void of activity. A few staff members prepared lounge chairs and hustled dishes and glassware to the beach bar.
She glided the kayak paddle through the water on the left side, then dipped the paddle into the water to her right. She'd repeated the same process for the past three hours. This time, however, her paddle didn't glide smoothly through the water, but instead struck a solid object. She jerked, scaring herself that a sea animal was ready to capsize the kayak. But when she looked into the water, she saw immediately that it was no animal.
Her scream was nearly enough to topple her husband, who was a few yards ahead and preparing to exit his kayak and step into the shallow waters off Sugar Beach. He pivoted in a quick U-turn as his wife continued in hysterics, slapping her paddle at the water in an effort to get away.
When he came up beside her, his stomach turned. The body floated on its stomach, arms and legs outstretched like a skydiver in midflight. A cloudy swirl of blood muddied the crystal-clear waters.CHAPTER 3
"What's the interest, Ms. Ryan?" Inspector Claude Pierre asked.
A tall, thin man with hair so short his scalp was visible, Pierre had run the investigation division of the St. Lucian police force for the past two decades. A native St. Lucian, born and raised, he was a product of the island and the school system, and was an example of how hard work and determination could bring you to the top of your occupation. It was the same here on a small island as in any large city in the United States. Sidney had done her research on Inspector Pierre, and knew him to be a terribly proud man of his homeland and his role within it.
"I'm filming a documentary about Julian Crist, and looking for anyone who had knowledge about the case. Anyone who might be able to offer details."
"What is the nature of the documentary?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Don't Believe It"
Copyright © 2018 Charlie Donlea.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
SUGAR BEACH - ST. LUCIA, EASTERN CARIBBEAN,
PART I - THE DOCUMENTARY,
PART II - THE PITCH,
PART III - A RATINGS JUGGERNAUT,
PART IV - THE OTHER SIDE,
PART V - ON THE ROAD AGAIN,