The danger lies not in the water.
As a veteran of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, Talmon Bonnett usually holds his PTSD at bay. When a wealthy couple hires him to spy on Rusty Wing, the man responsible for building the Mourning Island’s new resort, Talmon injects himself into Rusty’s inner circle. Lying about his intentions, Talmon gets to know Rusty’s troubled fiancée Claire, his sinister Cuban first mate Santos, and Marlene, Rusty’s alluring sister.
Talmon and Marlene begin a torrid affair; then someone is murdered, and Talmon learns that two Cuban mobster brothers are the money behind the resort. Talmon forces the couple to divulge the real reason they hired him. Everything is connected to the murder, Rusty’s circle, the mobster brothers, and Claire’s vanished father, who might know something vital.
Talmon’s lie threatens the life he envisions with Marlene. Violence erupts because of a dispute between the brothers, with Rusty’s circle as targets caught in the middle. Talmon desperately seeks Claire’s father, while the two brothers maintain their collision course.
The Mourning Islands is an electrifying story that fuses mystery, passion, and tragedy against the serene beauty of Florida’s coast.
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Read an Excerpt
If you hungered to live in a world that was bright, pink, and mostly glass, this was the house for you. It rose out of the sheer whiteness of two sand dunes that stood like bleached walls between the highway and the ocean. Built on four cylindrical concrete pillars, it perched above those same dunes, its backside overlooking the Florida Atlantic on Fernandina Beach. As you advanced on the house from down the highway, it looked like a fat, headless flamingo about to take flight.
Other than their last name and an affinity for pink, all I knew about the people inside was that they might have a job for me. Maybe I figured they were rich too.
When I came to a stop on the crushed shell drive in front of the house, the sun bounced off the walls and bathed the hood of my ten-year-old white Chevy pickup in muted pink, turning the rust spots blood red.
I climbed out of the Chevy and up the steps to a door that was oak with an oval cut-glass window. I pushed the button. The door chimes sounded like the bell in a buoy's warning system. After an eternal minute, I saw the distorted face of a man move behind the oval window. He opened the door and said flatly, "Yes?"
He was about six two or three — he had at least four or five inches on me. His hair was thinning, combed over to the side and shot through with gray. I guessed him to be in his late forties, maybe early fifties. He wore pleated shorts and a sport shirt with diving marlins on it. His shoulders were slightly stooped, the shoulders of someone who worked at a desk. His face, arms, and legs were tanned. His eyes were dime-sized and light brown, and he sported a look intended to spook me, but I could tell it wasn't his native war face.
"My name is Talmon Bonnett," I said. "I answered the ad you put in the paper. Whoever I talked to said to come to this address at one o'clock today. It wasn't you I talked to." I hated sounding so damn loopy, but I was playing it as foxy as I could until I found out what was going on. You grow fond of your suspicions, and it's hard to let go of them easily.
"It was my wife you talked to," he said unhappily. "Come on in." He moved aside to let me through.
As I stepped inside, he closed the door and quickly extended his hand in a reflex gesture that reflected more of his upbringing than his gladness to meet me.
"Conrad Barbour," he said.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Barbour," I said, smiling tightly and taking his hand, trying to be socially appropriate. I needed this job, and I'd already told myself I was going to take it — as long as they didn't want me to kill someone.
"My wife's in her studio. It's out this way." He turned and led me past a great room with a cathedral ceiling that looked more majestic than some churches I had been in. I glanced in at the pine flooring, built-in pine bookshelves, and paintings hanging on every inch of wall space. There were two fireplaces at either end, and the entire east wall was a window that gazed out over the dunes and the deep blue beyond. Five or six sculptures thrust up around the room the way fan coral rises out of a reef.
We went down another hall, and Conrad stopped before the entrance. He faced me and declared in the same flat tone in which he greeted me at the front door, "Before you meet my wife, Mr. Bonnett, suppose you tell me how it is that you're currently unemployed."
"I won't lie to you, Mr. Barbour," I said stiffly. "I've been knocking around a bit, doing temp jobs, anything that was available. Before that, I was in a hospital for a year."
Barbour's voice and expression stayed flat. "A year?"
"I was in a VA hospital."
"What was wrong with you?"
"They said PTSD."
His tone didn't rise an inch, like he wasn't afraid of anything. At least that's what he wanted me to think. "You weren't violent, were you?"
He started to say something, but then he hesitated out of an uneasiness customary for people who don't know a lot about PTSD. Maybe if I had a venereal disease, we could talk about it all day over Pina Coladas.
"You must have been in the service," he said.
How astute of him, I thought. "I was in the army."
"Uh huh. Mogadishu."
"Oh," Barbour said, almost purring. He liked that answer. "That was a bad one. Any connection between Mogadishu and the hospital?"
"That's what they said.
"Well," he said at last, "can you be more specific about the nature of your illness?"
"I didn't want to get out of bed," I answered. "Depression and Detachment Disorder. I can get out of bed now."
"Do you take medication?"
"I'm all done with that."
"Uh, okay," he muttered, stalling. "Uh, what happens if you suffer a relapse of this illness?"
"Then I'll get back in bed."
A bare thread of a smile unraveled along Barbour's mouth. He nodded. "And how long have you been out of the hospital?"
The house's air conditioner kicked on, and I felt a wash of cool air across my face. "A couple of years." The questions were getting old. "Look," I said. "I'm okay now. It just took time. I got an honorable discharge from the army, and I have my hospital papers, if you want to see them."
Conrad nodded. "So, why did you come here today?"
"I've been down in Jacksonville cleaning boats and checking newspaper ads for a better job. I saw yours, and I called. There was a woman's voice and the promise of money."
"You have any education?"
"Not much," I answered, already weary of his third degree. The shit you go through to get a job." High school. The local community college gave some extension courses at the hospital. I took a couple."
Conrad's eyes brightened. "Really? In what?"
"You know, stories, poems, things like that."
"You're kidding," he said, forgetting his war face. "What did you read?"
"I can't remember," I said. "I just went to kill the boredom."
Conrad pasted the face on again. "Anyway," he said, "You have to know something about boats for this job. You do know boats, right?"
"Like I told the lady over the phone, my father ran a marina near Crystal River back in the day," I answered. "I grew up on boats."
"And you know the Gulf, then?"
"I've gone to and fro in the Gulf and have sailed up and down in it."
Conrad grinned. "Well, you can paraphrase the Bible, but that's a reference to Satan."
"He's in the Bible, isn't he?" I replied. "Everything in the Bible is supposed to be okay."
Conrad grinned. "All right, Mr. Bonnett. Will you show me your documents?"
"They're out in my truck."
"You can get them after we talk," he said, pivoted, and tapped lightly with his knuckle on the door.
"Come on in," a woman's voice said from within.
Barbour pushed the door open and stepped inside in front of me as if he were running interference. As I entered the room, his wife was wiping paint from her hands with a paper towel. She stood before an unfinished canvas portrait of a young woman draped in chiffon robes. The background was partially colored in a blend of blue and crimson running along the bottom, with the remaining upper two thirds still an unpainted white. Barbour's wife was scrawny and frail looking, but her hair was a wild, vibrant orange, about the color of a tangerine rind, and her eyes were electric blue with sparks in them that nicked at you from across the room. She completed the wiping job, tossed the crumpled paper towel into a waste can, wiped her hands on her old paint-smeared shorts, and stepped towards me, her hand outstretched.
"This is Mr. Talmon Bonnett," Barbour said.
"I'm Dallas Barbour," she greeted me softly, smiling half shyly. "I guess we spoke on the phone."
"Pleased to meet you," I said, shaking her thin hand. "I like that painting you're working on."
"What do you like about it?" Conrad asked as if it were a test question.
"I don't know," I answered. "Maybe it reminds me of someone."
"It reminds me of someone too," Dallas said. "It's called In the Temple of the Dream Princess. I have a whole series of Dream Princess paintings, but this one is going to be my favorite." She paused as if her mind had gone somewhere else.
"It's a beautiful house," I said absently, still trying to maintain that social appropriateness they used to harp on back in the hospital.
"Yes," Dallas responded, coming back from wherever she'd been. "We built this house for me to paint in. We thought the ocean would provide serenity and inspiration."
"Has it?" I found myself asking instinctively.
Dallas stared at me. "I don't think I'll ever know serenity and inspiration at the same time, Mr. Bonnett. Artists are like that."
Her eyes were hard to face for too long. "I know lots of people who aren't artists who are like that, Mrs. Barbour."
"Such as yourself?"
"I live in this world, don't I?"
Dallas stared at me more severely. It was all you could do not to try to slide out from under her gaze. "You seem to have a tragic sensibility, Mr. Bonnett. I appreciate that."
"Except for you and your husband, no one's called me by last name much in a long time," I said. "I'm used to Talmon."
Dallas turned to her husband. "Con, could you get the newspaper with the photo in it? I left it on the desk in the study. We'll be on the deck."
Conrad nodded grumpily and went out.
"Would you like something to drink, Talmon?" Dallas asked, crossing the studio to a white refrigerator in the corner.
"Cold water, if you have it."
She opened the refrigerator door, stuck her torso in, and emerged with two bottled waters. "I like the view of the ocean. Let's sit outside. I'm a prisoner in here all day."
She moved to a door and pulled it to her, and as she did, the afternoon sun flooded the studio with saffron light. I followed her out onto the deck to a round table with an umbrella in it. Before I sat, I turned my face out over the turquoise Atlantic, the light sea breeze kissing my eyebrows. That day, the ocean seemed motionless, almost like glass. Out on the horizon, two catamarans drifted lazily through the water towards each other like two puffed up water dragons on a slow-motion charge.
"It is a lovely day, isn't it?" Dallas asked, taking a seat.
"I guess it is," I said, doing the same.
She handed me the water bottle and opened hers, swallowing a long draught of it.
I considered asking her more about the job but decided to wait and let her tell me in her own time. She was waiting for Conrad to bring the newspaper. I knew that. I twisted the cap off the bottle and took a drink.
I took another swallow of water as Conrad came out the studio door, carrying a folded newspaper. He placed the newspaper in front of Dallas and went over and leaned against the deck railing, his arms folded across his chest, his face cocked just a fraction towards the beach but not so much that he wasn't watching us. He was protecting her the way many men think their women need them to. I rather admired him for it.
Dallas sipped her water and tapped the bottle mouth against her lower lip. "Before I show you what's in this paper, perhaps we had better make sure you're the right person for this job."
"Mr. Bonnett — Talmon — is more than qualified," Conrad threw in. "I talked to him before I brought him in to you. You should know, however, that he's spent some time in a VA hospital."
Dallas leveled her intense eyes at me again.
"For PTSD," Conrad added before she could say anything.
"PTSD," Dallas repeated. "That's from trauma. I understand trauma very well. It can be caused by many things. Yours?"
"Getting shot at and seeing some friends die," I said.
"He was at Mogadishu," Conrad threw in. He was trying to be helpful, I guess.
Dallas looked at her painting for a moment. "As I said, many things can cause PTSD. Do you know who Dora Maar was?"
"Who's Dora Maar?" I asked.
"One of Picasso' mistresses. She suffered a lifelong depression after he left her. She was only thirty-seven."
"When she died?"
"No. She was eighty-nine when she died. Fifty-two years of living with PTSD."
"Well, they told me I was an unusual case," I said. "Maybe this lady was an unusual case too."
Dallas kept looking at me, but the turbines in her eyes slacked off some. "All right, Talmon," she said. "Are you on any medication?"
"I'm finished with that."
She kept on with the stare. "What have you done since you got out of the hospital?"
Again, Conrad jumped in. "He's told me all about that."
"Look, you want me to work on your boat or something?" I asked to get things going.
Dallas unfolded the paper, opened it to an inside page, and spun it around on the table so it faced me. The Mourning Islands Beacon, dated May 17, 1997.
"Have you heard of the Mourning Islands, Talmon?"
I nodded. "I've spent some time there."
Dallas looked at Conrad, then back to me. "Good. What do you know about it?"
"When I was a kid, I'd drive up to the Mourning Islands for the Hurri-cane Festival. They throw it every year on the first Saturday after hurricane season begins. They once had their little town on a small island right off the coast, but a hurricane wiped it out it in the late nineteen hundreds, so they rebuilt the town on the larger island and renamed both of them the Mourning Islands in honor of those who died in the storm, but most people still call the small island Hurricane Island. Now they have this festival every year. Every year since nineteen fifty-five."
"Nineteen fifty-four," Conrad interjected.
"Yeah," I said.
"Okay," Dallas said. "See this picture?" She pointed to a five-by-three black and white photograph that displayed a pretty, dark haired young woman sitting on the bow of a large yacht, a sixty-footer, I reckoned. The name of the yacht was stenciled along the bowsprit beneath her. Lorelei, it said. The caption beneath the photo read,
"Claire Joiner is crowned this year's Queen of the Hurricane Festival. Claire is pictured aboard a yacht belonging to her fiancé Rusty Wing."
"We wanted to show you this photo, so you'd recognize the boat," Dallas said after glancing up at her husband. "Rusty Wing used to be a fishing guide in the Gulf. He made quite a bit of money doing it, enough that he managed to raise some capital to finance the building of a resort on the island where the city used to be. There are some other, anonymous, backers, but Conrad and I are the major investors in the project. Rusty approached us through some mutual associates. He started this project last year, and it's near completion, but there have been certain delays, and, well, we're concerned. What we want to do — and this is the reason we ran the ad — is to hire someone to sort of watch over Rusty to tell us what's going on."
"You want me to spy on him," I said.
"Not spy exactly," Conrad answered. "Just observe him."
"That idea doesn't bother me," I assured them. "I don't have a problem doing much of anything. I just want to know how would I pull that off?"
"Pretty easily," Dallas said. "Conrad's firm owns a boat they use for company fishing trips."
"We're selling the boat next year," Conrad inserted. "No one was using it."
"The boat is at the same marina where Rusty's yacht is," Dallas went on. "He lives on it. We thought you could pretend to be on an extended fishing trip. You make up all your own details. We don't care. You could befriend Rusty. Connect with him about fishing the Gulf, that kind of thing, and then just let us know what's going on. Let us know if Rusty's slacking off or going on fishing trips when he should be overseeing construction. The worst-case scenario would be that he might be slowing things down on purpose."
"Why would he do that?"
Dallas cranked up the RPMs in her intense blue eyes. "To run up the cost. His salary is based on a percentage of it. We'd want you to call us once a week."
"How long would this go on?"
"We're not sure," Conrad said. "A month maybe. Could stretch into two. It depends on the resort, on what Rusty's doing, and what you tell us."
"What do I get paid?"
Dallas sipped her water again. "Well, we'll pay all your expenses there, and we thought we'd give you a thousand dollars a week."
"If it goes on for two months, that's a lot of money."
"It's a drop in the bucket compared to our investment," Conrad said quickly. "It's worth it. You want the job, Talmon?"
"Why not?" I said. "How many other people interviewed for this?"
"Several answered the ad," Dallas said, smiling. "You're the only one who made it into my studio."
"I could go to the Mourning Islands and phone in a bunch of lies to you," I said. "I could extend my job that way."
"You could do that," Conrad said. "But we're only paying your expenses until the job is finished. By then we'll know if you've been giving us false reports, in which case, you don't get paid."
I sensed it was time to stand, so I did. "When do I go over there?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Mourning Islands"
Copyright © 2019 Douglas Wells.
Excerpted by permission of TouchPoint Press.
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