This isn't the first time Sabrina has seen a dead body, and the island police are well aware of that. Thanks to her checkered history, not to mention the fact that she was the last person who saw Carter alive and far from entirely clothed, she finds herself marked as the prime suspect.
The U.S. Virgin Islands may be the sort of place where even defense attorneys wear flip-flops, but the laid-back life is over for Sabrina unless she can clear her name. So, she sets out to solve the crime, only to find herself caught in a tidal wave of adultery, kidnapping, identity fraud and murder in No Virgin Island, C. Michele Dorsey's outstanding mystery debut.
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Sabrina Salter was a woman who didn’t like surprises, even nice ones. Surprises were setups at best and almost always meant to benefit the donor. That was why the sight of the villa guest’s rental jeep, still parked in the driveway, made Sabrina’s stomach clench.
He should have been long gone. Checkout was at 10:00 a.m. That was the rule. It was already 10:35. But why should she expect him to follow the rules? St. John was a magnet for rule breakers, including her.
She pulled her ridiculous gecko-green-colored jeep behind his black-forest-green model, the color Sabrina had wanted to buy for the business, and decided not to bring in her cleaning bucket just yet. She got out, noticing that at least his duffle bag was in his backseat. But there was no sight of the large camera bag or backpack he’d had with him when she had picked him up on arrival. Maybe he was getting a couple of last shots.
She hesitated for a moment but then approached the gate to Villa Mascarpone, bracing for a fight she didn’t want to have. Sabrina hated conflict. But she had new guests arriving later that afternoon and plenty to do to get the house ready for them.
Inside,” she called, using the island greeting to let him know she was entering.
No response. She tried again. Nothing. She pressed the latch to the periwinkle blue gate and pushed it open.
Sabrina knew the man in the hammock was dead because she knew what dead looked like. The bull’s-eye red stain in the middle of his Skinny Legs Bar and Grill T-shirt was a giveaway, not to mention the insects swirling around his sagging body. He was lying crooked, his sunglasses half slung off his eyes, as if he had been blasted by force back onto the hammock. He looked nothing like the rugged, handsome, bearded man who had booked an entire villa just for himself at the last minute.
Sabrina felt her spine arch as she looked to the left of the pool area where the hammock hung between two pillars that were part of a pergola, designed to offer shade from the blast of heat the tropical sun delivered each day. Seagulls and frigatebirds hovered above the pergola, which protected the corpse like an open-air mausoleum. Standing just inside the gate to the pool area, her flip-flops glued to the tile, Sabrina looked over to the other side of the pool, where the villa’s sliding glass doors were locked with a padlock, just as she instructed all guests to do upon departure. She doubted anyone was in the house because it was built into a steep cliff, as most houses in St. John were, and the only entrance was through the sliders. There was no escape down the side of the cliff, where only goats could navigate the vertical slopes. The sole sound came from the surf crashing below.
Sabrina refused to move any closer to the body. He was dead and there was nothing she could do for him, poor soul. Her only contact with the local police since she had moved to St. John had left her reluctant to do anything that might antagonize them.
In the sliver of an instant, Sabrina knew her life had changed forever, simply because she had the bad luck to find the dead body of a murder victim. This was so incredibly unfair. She had just begun to feel like she had a life in St. John and was beginning to make friends, which she hadn’t dreamed possible after Nantucket. She’d even been invited to join a book club and had actually accepted the invitation. Now that was all slipping away along with the spirit of the dead man on the hammock.
Sabrina knew she should call the police immediately, but the thought of dialing 911 frightened her more than the idea that the killer might still be present, which she doubted. She knew one short telephone call would end the new life she had struggled so hard to create. It wasn’t a lavish life; why couldn’t she just be left alone? All she had wanted to do was to clean Villa Mascarpone, one of ten villas she managed on the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands.
Her partner, Henry Whitman, had implored her, as only Henry could implore, to take this villa cleanup from his schedule because he’d happened to get lucky” with a hot date that he was certain would last through this morning. Even though she had nothing to do with the death of the villa guest, the cops would want to connect her to this mess. They hated her being on their island. But she knew that she had no choicethat if she left and waited for someone else to discover the body and the police found out, it would look even worse. She dialed 911 from her cell phone, which the gods of the Caribbean had deigned to provide her with reception, for once. A dispatcher named Lucy Detree informed her the call was being recorded.
I’m up at Villa Mascarpone in Fish Bay,” Sabrina said.
What do you want, ma’am?” the female dispatcher asked, sounding bored by the call. Sabrina hated being called ma’am.”
I’ve found a dead body. He’s lying in a hammock. He’s got blood on his shirt,” she said.
Are you sure he’s dead?” Detree interrupted.
Was she sure? He looked as dead as her late husband had the night a bullet had blasted through his belly.
I’m pretty sure. Do you want me to get closer to check? I know you guys don’t like people getting too close to the scene of a crime,” she added, desperate not to irritate the cops. She still wanted to be the good girl, the one who played by the rules and didn’t upset people, even though it had never really worked. Whether she aimed for perfect or invisible, she still managed to be in the way.
Why do you think he’s dead?” the dispatcher asked.
Sabrina described the amount of blood and the insects and mentioned that a couple of seagulls and frigates had begun swirling above the man.
Okay, he sounds dead. What’s your name?”
Sabrina Salter.” Silence lingered in the air.
You stay there. Do not leave the scene. Do not touch anything, anything at all. You understand me, Ms. Salter? I have my men on their way, you get this?”
Yes, yes, I follow you,” Sabrina said, looking over at the gulls laughing at the prospect of lunch in a hammock and wishing she could just turn the clock back and pretend this wasn’t happening.
You got a lawyer on island, Ms. Salter? You might want to give him a head’s up,” Officer Detree said.
Instead, Sabrina called her partner. Henry was the one man on the planet Sabrina trusted. They had met during Sabrina’s frequent flights from Boston to New York, when she was working as a television meteorologist and Henry was working first class as a flight attendant for Allied Air. Henry would tease Sabrina about forecasters never getting it right. Slowly, after countless conversations during flights, they became friends. When Sabrina’s world fell apart, Henry called her to offer support. He had been the only one. Sabrina reciprocated when Henry had to resign from Allied Air after a scandal that nearly destroyed him. She remembered she was not the only person who came to St. John to escape and hated telling him there had been a murder at one of the villas they managed.
Why are you calling me? You said you’d cover,” Henry said, mumbling into the speaker, which Sabrina pictured lying on a pillow, barely aimed at his pouting mouth.
Yeah, I said I’d cover for you and clean this place for the next set of guests coming this afternoon. I didn’t say I’d cover for you and discover the last guest had been murdered here,” Sabrina said, feeling angry with Henry for something she knew wasn’t his fault. She didn’t care. This wasn’t her fault either, but she knew it wouldn’t matter after the cops and the media were done with her. They would have her all over tabloid television again.
Murdered?” Henry said, now sounding alert.
Henry, get up here quick. Please, the cops are on their way. I don’t want to be here with them on my own.”
I’m on my way, honey. Don’t let them bully you if they beat me there. Don’t say anything.” Sabrina could hear clothing rustling and him whispering good-bye to whatever lucky guy he’d been with.
I won’t,” she said through the lump in her throat. Thanks.”
Just tell me so I know what we’re dealing with, sweetie. Did you do it?”
Sabrina stood in the driveway of Villa Mascarpone. Even with the midday tropical sun beating down on her, she felt chilled and wished she had a hoodie in her jeep. Don’t touch anything.” Call your lawyer.” The words of the dispatcher repeated in her ears, as if she had murdered the man, as if she’d done anything to him besides discover his body.
She heard the sound of Henry’s motor scooter in the far distance rounding the sharp curves on the dirt road leading to the villa, which sat at the top of a bluff with two others. It was a dead end. You could go no farther on St. John from this point without a boat or a pair of wings. She looked over at the other two villas, saw no one, no cars, nothing.
She was terrified. Not of the dead man. Not even of the person who had killed him. Sabrina had grown to consider her life in two segments. There was Before Nantucket, when she’d scrambled from a hellish childhood into a modicum of success and normalcy. And there was After Nantucket, when she’d lost everything except her freedom. She was damned if she was going to let anyone threaten it now.
If there was anything good about her experience in Nantucket, it was that she had experience dealing with the police. She had a choice and needed to decide fast whether she would continue to play the good girl and sit on her hands while she waited for Henry and the cops or whether she should grab the next few minutes while no one was around and see for herself if there was anything the police would find that might complicate her life further. She didn’t believe there was anything that might implicate her, but she wasn’t sure what she might find. If she didn’t act now, the opportunity would be lost forever. She needed to conduct the search before Henry arrived to witness it so he wouldn’t be put in the position of having to lie to the cops about it.
Sabrina grabbed the vinyl gloves from her cleaning bucket out of her jeep and slipped them over her shaking hands. She walked over to the man’s rental jeep and opened the door. She grabbed the duffle, placed it on the seat, and unzipped it, rummaging through shorts and T-shirts and what smelled like sweaty socks. She found nothing of interest, although she wasn’t sure what she was looking for. She just knew she didn’t need any more surprises in her life. The jeep was otherwise empty, with only a sprinkle of sand on the floor by the driver’s seat. The guy hadn’t spent much time at the beach, which was odd, considering all the fancy camera equipment he came with.
Where was the camera bag? Was it with the backpack, which was missing as well? Sabrina doubted he’d left them in the house, but she wasn’t going to leave it to chance. She knew she had at least another five minutes before Henry or the cops arrived. While she was convinced the house was empty, the idea of confirming her theory was frightening.