Retirement is a word that has always frightened Fred Carver. One of Orlando’s finest, he retired early—when a criminal’s bullet shattered his kneecap and made him unfit for beat work. Since then he hasn’t been able to relax, and fills his days and nights investigating cases the local police aren’t willing to touch. Now one of those cops has come to him with a problem that only a private detective can solve.
It takes Fred into the heart of Florida’s retirement community: a spacious estate called Sunhaven where the elderly can finish their lives in luxury. But it seems that some of them are dying before their time. When the residents speak of murder, are they telling the truth, or are they simply confused? Unraveling the mystery will take Fred Carver into a place where death is seldom the result of natural causes.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of John Lutz including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
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By John Lutz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
It was late afternoon but still hot. Carver had poured two glasses of lemonade from the tall pitcher Edwina kept in the refrigerator.
He watched the breeze ruffle the fringe on the umbrella sprouting from the center of the table on the brick veranda. The sun sparked silver off the ocean swells that curled in on themselves to form whitecaps as they neared the shore. Due to the lay of the land, he couldn't see the beach from where he sat, but he could hear the slap of the waves and the rush and roar of surf. Far out at sea something dark, a boat, a bit of flotsam, something, was drifting. Whatever it was, it looked lost and lonely.
Alfonso Desoto sat across from Carver, his back to the sea, his glass of lemonade untouched before him and resting in a circle of dampness on the white-enameled table.
His handsome Latin features had an intense cast to them this afternoon, like those of a bullfighter contemplating grave danger. Desoto was dressed neatly as ever, in a well-tailored cream-colored suit, pale blue shirt, and mauve tie. His gold watch glinted on one wrist, a bulky gold bracelet on the other. He wore a gold diamond ring on each hand, pinkie ring on the right, ring finger on the left. He looked too prosperous and flashy for a cop, but he was a cop. And a good one. A lieutenant in the Orlando department.
He was here in Del Moray because Carver was his friend. Because he was worried. It wasn't like Desoto to worry. Or seem to worry, anyway. It made Carver uneasy. He watched the sea behind Desoto, kept an eye on whatever it was out there drifting.
"Where's Edwina?" Desoto asked casually.
"Out selling condos someplace."
Desoto sighed and sat back. "Not a bad way to earn your bread, amigo. Doesn't depend on crime, like our professions."
"You haven't seen some of the condos."
Desoto didn't smile. "What we do for a living, dealing with the kinds of people we see every day, it makes you cynical. Makes you get suspicious when maybe you shouldn't."
"Or when maybe you should," Carver said.
He waited for Desoto to get around to whatever he'd come here to say. The breeze kicked up and snapped the umbrella against its metal frame; the table moved an inch, as if its sail had been filled with wind, scraping over the hard bricks. Carver wondered why the breeze never mussed Desoto's glossy black hair.
Desoto picked up his glass and sipped his lemonade. Put the glass back down and rotated it smoothly in its circle of dampness. He said, "I want to talk to you about my uncle Sam Cusanelli."
The Italian name didn't throw Carver. He knew Desoto wasn't Cuban, as many people assumed. His father had been Mexican, his mother Italian, even though Desoto looked like classic Latin nobility profiled on a Spanish coin. Carver tapped a finger on his own damp, cold glass of lemonade and nodded.
"I never saw much of my father when I was a kid," Desoto went on. "He was always off somewhere doing whatever mining engineers do—if he really was a mining engineer. It was actually my mother who raised me, amigo. My mother and Uncle Sam."
He grinned, perfect white teeth a shock in his dark features.
"When I was very young I used to think he was the real 'Uncle Sam.' He did nothing to set me straight."
Carver waited. A gull flapped by overhead, screeched wildly, and then soared in a graceful arc toward the ocean to pursue another gull.
"I grew up," Desoto said. "Learned the truth about Uncle Sam. Both of them." He added sadly, "My own Uncle Sam got old, amigo."
"We all get old," Carver said. That oughta help cheer up Desoto. Carver sipped his lemonade; it was bitter but he figured he deserved it and took another sip.
Desoto smiled, his dark eyes somber. "From time to time I have doubts that you'll grow old, my friend."
Carver rested his hand on the crook of the hard walnut cane that was leaning against his chair. He remembered the noise and muzzle flash, and the pain of the bullet that had smashed his kneecap and ended his career as an Orlando police officer three years ago. There were times, brief, endless seconds of undeniable mortality, when he wanted nothing so much as the opportunity to become old. "So what happened to your uncle?" he asked.
Desoto shifted his weight and looked uncomfortable. "He stayed with my mother for a while, then after she died he lived alone at an old residential hotel in South Miami Beach. It was a clean place, and Sam was happy there. Then his legs got bad—a circulation problem. Wasn't long before his mind began to slip now and then, but nothing serious. I drove down to see him one day and found out he'd been moved to a retirement home. His sister, in Saint Louis, had arranged for it and was paying the bills."
"That'd be your aunt," Carver said.
Desoto nodded. "My Aunt Marie. Only met her a few times, when I was a kid. She never got along with Sam or my mother."
"Who knows? One of those reasons you never tell kids, I guess. All I heard were whispers." He curled the left half of his upper lip in a sneer. "Apparently there'd been a reconciliation."
"Happens in families," Carver said. "People grow up, see time dwindling away, and tend to forgive things that happened when everybody's blood ran hotter."
"The home Marie and her husband put Sam in was Sunhaven."
Carver knew the place. A rambling building that looked like a series of pastel cubes or children's blocks clustered at random near the coast highway. Pale cement with lots of tinted reflecting plastic or glass. There was a fancy wooden gate that was sometimes opened, sometimes closed when Carver drove past. Room, board, and medical attention couldn't be cheap at Sunhaven, but it didn't look to Carver like a good place to be while the golden years melted away in the Florida sun. On the other hand, old Sam had to be better off there than in some fleabag art-deco hotel in south Miami. What was Desoto complaining about?
"Aunt Marie must be well off," Carver said.
"Medicare picked up much of the cost," Desoto said, as if eager to minimize Marie's contribution.
"But not all of it," Carver said. Fair was fair.
"No, amigo, not all of it."
Carver was suddenly aware that Desoto had used the past tense. "You said 'picked' up."
"Yes," Desoto said. "Two days ago Sam Cusanelli died."
Carver wasn't sure what to say to this. "How old was he?" he asked.
What now? Well, he led a long, full life? The pain on Desoto's face concerned Carver. There was a lot more to this than an old man dying on celestial schedule in a nursing home.
"About six months ago Sam began writing me letters," Desoto said. "He knew I was a policeman, but I'm afraid he had exaggerated ideas of my sphere of influence and authority. He wanted me to investigate what was wrong at Sunhaven."
Carver ran his fingertips lightly over the warm, smooth table. "Wrong in what way?"
Desoto shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure. The letters were vague. He was an old man, and it's true his mind wasn't what it had been." Above the pale blue collar and neatly knotted tie, Desoto's Adam's apple bobbed. "I'm afraid I didn't take him as seriously as I should have, and now he's dead."
Carver thought he knew where Desoto was taking the conversation. "Dead how?"
"Oh, natural causes. A cerebral hemorrhage. A stroke, in other words. He'd had them before, and finally a massive one killed him. I talked to the doctor, saw the death certificate."
"But you're not comfortable with the situation."
"I'm not," Desoto said.
"When your uncle was alive, you ever go to Sunhaven to visit him?"
"Sure, lots of times."
"Anything strike you wrong about the place then?"
Desoto's features hardened. "Plenty. But it was like all those places: storehouses for worn-out human beings. Tear your guts out sometimes just to walk through the lobby." He gazed out at the vast Atlantic, older than the oldest Sunhaven resident. "Ah, Jesus!"
Carver shrugged. "Seventy-six. And his mind was slipping, you said. He might get suspicious, maybe a little paranoid, cooped up in a place like that."
"Might," Desoto admitted.
Carver decided to be direct. "You don't think his death was natural?"
"I think it probably was."
"Then what's troubling you?"
"'Probably' isn't enough, amigo. But even if Sam's death came when it was ordained, he was still convinced something wasn't right about the place. I can't get it out of my head there might be something to his suspicions."
"It's normal you should feel that way," Carver said.
"Normal? There's a word shouldn't be tossed around. You and I both know there's no such thing."
"Well, whatever it is, maybe you're just gonna have to live with it."
"Maybe," Desoto said. He flashed his sad white smile. "Or maybe I could hire you to look into things."
Carver didn't like the idea. In his grief, Desoto was probably more suspicious than he should be, searching for reason in a random universe. Old people could get the way he'd described Sam Cusanelli. Thinking there was a plot to steal their socks or cheat them out of a prune at breakfast. Damn shame, but it seemed part of growing old. Part of life and death at the places like Sunhaven that dotted the reassuringly bright Florida landscape.
But he felt sorry for Desoto. And what would a few days on this hurt? A few questions asked in order to put Desoto's mind at ease? Carver didn't have anything else to do right now except collect the disability pension for his bad leg and make love to Edwina here in paradise by the sea. And what was Eden without a serpent?
"I'm way over in Orlando," Desoto said, trying to persuade Carver. "I can't snoop around here on the coast. Not my jurisdiction. Listen, amigo, I intend to pay."
A sleek yellow speedboat skipped past a couple of hundred yards from shore, buzzing like a hornet furious at being pinned to water. Within seconds the angry snarl became a receding, rising and falling drone, as the boat headed straight out to sea and the prop cleared the surface between waves.
"I won't let you pay," Carver said. "I'm doing it in the service of Uncle Sam."
Out beyond the boat, whatever was drifting had disappeared when he wasn't looking.CHAPTER 2
When Carver awoke the next morning Edwina was leaning over him and kissing him lightly on the lips. He stirred, gripped her shoulders, and drew her closer. Kissed the other side of her neck, her ear. Thought about other places he might kiss.
She said, "Umm," and pulled away from him, smiling.
She was already dressed and had been kissing him good-bye, he realized. There she sat on the edge of the bed, in her tailored blue suit and with her long, dark hair pinned back, her gray-green eyes holding her smile even after her facial muscles had given up on it. She looked crisp and efficient; she was ready to tilt with the world and do real-estate business, all right. She was fierce about her career; it had given her solace and rescued her from the depression of a catastrophic marriage and divorce, and she would give it up only when they pried the condo listings from her cold dead fingers.
"Gotta go," she said. "Beachfront property to show."
"I'll make it more worth your while to stay," he told her, waking up further. The temperature outside was still bearable; the bedroom window was open and he could hear the ocean sighing beyond the swaying sheer curtains and the screen.
Edwina stood up and smoothed her skirt over her thighs. Commerce today, not sex. "I'm sure you would," she said.
Carver had an erection. "You wouldn't be sorry."
"But I might be sorry later, when another agent sells the property."
"You could afford to lose a commission."
"It's not the commission."
Carver ran his palm over his bald pate, as if arranging nonexistent hair. "Yeah, I know." There was a distant click and a low whirring sound. The central air-conditioning unit kicking in to begin its day's valiant effort of holding the heat at bay. It was a long war that one summer would end with a burned-out fan motor or broken-down compressor; the heat would prevail. Cool air from the vent wafted over Carver's legs.
"I just remembered, I passed Desoto's car yesterday on the coast highway," Edwina said. "At least I think it was his. Was he coming here?"
"Uh-huh. He wants to hire me."
Edwina cocked her head to the side. This interested her.
"Wants me to look into Sunhaven Retirement Home," Carver said.
"That place about ten miles outside of town? Looks like some building blocks dropped out of the sky?"
"That's the one. Desoto's uncle was in there for a while. He died three days ago."
Edwina ran the tips of neatly manicured fingers along her smooth jaw line. She did that when her mind was turning over. "Does Desoto think there's something wrong with how he died?"
Carver sat up, his stiff left leg extended straight out in front of him. He scooted forward and swiveled until he was sitting on the edge of the mattress. He reached for his cane and leaned on it. "It's not that, exactly," he said. "The uncle, Sam Cusanelli, told Desoto several times there was something not right about Sunhaven. But apparently he couldn't define exactly what was wrong. Desoto didn't take it seriously enough to look into it, even though he and the uncle were close when Desoto was a kid. Cusanelli was seventy-six and his mind played tricks on him sometimes."
"But Desoto takes it seriously now," Edwina said. "Why?"
Carver shook his head. "I dunno. Guilt, maybe, over something he doesn't even remember. Grief, I'm sure. Way people's minds work."
"You going to look into it for him?"
"Starting today," Carver said. "Soon as I get myself up and around."
"You said the uncle died three days ago," Edwina said. "We should send flowers."
That was something that hadn't occurred to Carver. He wasn't good at the amenities. "I'll find out where they should go," he said.
"Never mind," Edwina told him, "I'll check the Gazette-Dispatch obituary page. You said, 'Cusanelli'?" She didn't ask it as if she were surprised. She knew Desoto was half Italian. She'd asked Carver about him. Women were always curious about Desoto.
"Cusanelli," Carver confirmed.
She reversed her wrist and shot a cool gray glance at her watch. "Damn! Gotta go."
"Good luck," Carver said.
She was already out the door and in the hall when she called back to him, "You, too."
Carver sat still and listened to the outside door open and shut, then the vibrant hum of the automatic garage-door opener. It sounded like a tenor with a sore throat.
The overhead door hummed closed, and briefly he heard the precision growl of Edwina's Mercedes as she low-geared it down the curving driveway. She'd be heavy on the accelerator when she reached the highway. She was on intimate terms with speed.
After a few minutes Carver got up and limped with his cane into the bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face to come fully alert. He slept nude, so he had only to sit on the bed again and work into his swimming trunks, and he was ready for his morning therapeutic swim.
After making his way down the rough wooden steps to the beach, he walked with difficulty over the soft sand to where the surf was fanning white, grasping hands of foam on the shore. The sea had always wanted the land.
He moved closer to the ocean and stuck his cane like a spear in the damp sand. Then he lay down on his stomach and, using his arms and good leg to propel himself, inched backward into the cool water. When a particularly large wave roared in, he scooted into it and let its ponderous reverse momentum lift and carry him seaward until he was floating free.
Carver felt exuberant in the water. His upper body had become amazingly strong since he'd been supporting his weight with the cane and had come to rely on his arms and torso. Nature's way of compensating. And here in the ocean, kicking from the hip, he was as mobile as anyone and more powerful than most.
He swam far out from shore. Then he turned his body and treaded water, bobbing on the gentle swells and staring in at Edwina's house with its red tile roof, perched atop the rise where the Army Corps of Engineers had built up the beach with rocks and the developer had graded the land to afford a better view. The sun was like flame on the back of his neck.
After about five minutes he stroked toward shore with his peculiar but graceful Australian crawl.
Excerpted from Kiss by John Lutz. Copyright © 1988 John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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