A surprise invitation to a luxurious private island
Seven strangers, each harboring a secret
Odd accidents stir suspicion
As one by one . . .
They all fall down
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The Los Angeles International Airport was the worst place to lose your mind in post-9/11 America. Especially if you were a person of color. Especially if you perspired like Kobe Bryant in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Especially if you popped Valium twice a day to combat anxiety. And there I was, standing in the TSA security clearance line at LAX, a sweaty, anxious black woman wearing sweaty green silk, sipping air and blinking away tears.
Miriam, keep it together. They're gonna pull you out of line if you keep on. Calm down. But "calm" was slipping further away, an iceberg on a quick current being pushed by a pod of enthusiastic killer whales.
And so I closed my eyes and I prayed again. God, don't let them kick me out of LAX today. Please help me stay calm.
In my mind, I said, "Amen," then opened my eyes. I forced myself to smile at the gray-eyed TSA agent seated behind the little podium, and hoped that she thought I was a slow blinker and not a terrorist praying one last time before setting one off.
The agent flicked her hand at me and said, "ID and boarding pass, please."
I handed her both without saying a word.
She glanced at me, glanced at my passport — Miriam Macy, Los Angeles, forty-five years old — then she stamped, scribbled, and handed me back each document. "Have a nice trip."
I croaked, "Thanks," just as a teardrop bubbled to the rim of my right eye. I swiped it away, dropped my bag, shoes, and phone into a gray bucket, then sat the bucket onto the conveyor belt. With panic punching at my gut, I stepped into the full-body scanner. Clamped my lips together as imaging beams searched my body for weapons.
"Step through, please." Another TSA agent, this one male and bearded, flicked his hand at me. He waited for the all-clear from the agent at the monitor, then said to me, "Thanks."
I snatched my bag, shoes, and phone from the gray bucket and hurried away from the security clearance area. I'd kept it together. But my prayer had met its expiration date and that calm I'd prayed for was now wearing away like sandcastles at high tide.
You have to respond to her.
You can't get on a plane and leave it like this.
Breathless, I tottered to the nearest bathroom, thisclose to 405 freeway levels of hysteria. I hid in the farthest stall, then shoved my hand deep into my bag. Shaking, I popped off the Valium's cap, then slipped a tablet beneath my tongue, not caring if enough time had passed between this and my last dose just two hours before. I closed my eyes and waited for the drug to untangle the bundles of nerves along my shoulders and neck. Didn't have to pretend for cameramen capturing B-roll here. I could be a loser in the privacy offered only in a bathroom stall.
Outside my cubby, women washed their hands at the sinks, then convinced children to wash their hands, too. They pulled paper towels from dispensers and made the air blowers roar.
So I wept and rocked on the toilet and waited for the drug to work, for the drug to make the world softer.
How long would it take?
How long would I have to wait?
* * *
Valium became a part of my life on the afternoon I lost it on the westbound 10 freeway. It had been last New Year's Eve, and I'd had enough, and I'd stopped the car to wail in the far-left lane. Traffic had built around me, but I didn't care. I'd called my husband Billy, he'd called 911, and I rode in an ambulance for the second time in two months (the first time after I'd confronted Billy about his affair but left his girlfriend's apartment without killing him). Dr. Sandoval, a kind man and Cesar Romero look-alike, diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder and wrote me a prescription for Valium.
A week later, I took a leave of absence from my job as the marketing and communications director for Hidden Treasures, a luxury goods consignment store. I'd loved my job — spinning stories about a secondhand Gucci satchel (Indy stowed that simple cup here without worry ...) or a Chanel brooch (She always said you had Coco's overactive imagination ...) or Louboutin stilettos (At the stroke of midnight, you chose the shoe over the prince ...). Sartorial creativity made me swoon.
But I hadn't been able to create, not with all the drama swirling around me. My boss, Lola, lost all patience and told me that it was best that I left. No more creating something out of nothing for a living. After my departure, the copy read flat, like a bad first draft of an M.F.A. novel set in Nebraska. There were rumors that Hidden Treasures would file for bankruptcy — no one was inspired enough to buy other people's crap (or, as I'd called it, "luxury shared between friends") and no one ordered the catalogs just to read my product descriptions. Their loss — the company and its customers.
* * *
Five minutes of hiding in the bathroom stall had passed — but the world still hurt.
So tired. Last night, after fleeing from my ex-husband's house, after popping ibuprofen to banish the pain in my head, I hadn't slept. There had been cracking and snapping twigs outside my bedroom windows. Slowing cars rumbling too close to my driveway. Shadows lurking up and down my street, some stopping to lean against the palm tree in front of my house. In a state between dozing and awake, I had crept to my living room and perched in the armchair, eyes burning, iPad and cell phone on my lap. Flinching. Tight.
My heartbeat had ticked in my head and I'd tasted sour milk and I'd tried to swallow it but my throat and stomach were too tight, and so whatever it was pooled in my mouth.
A tub of Valium sat on the dining room table.
Drugs would smooth me out, but I didn't want to be smooth then. I had a game to win.
And so, I sat there in the living room, forcing down bile and fighting back dizziness, until a shaft of copper light broke past the wooden shutters.
This morning, the show's producer had sent a Town Car to drive me to the airport, and as I strode to the sedan, I ignored the state of my raggedy house and watched a flock of green parrots circle the glossy blue sky. Airplanes glinted like silver bullets en route to someplace better.
That will be me, I'd thought. In Someplace Better. Soon ...
A half hour later, though, here I was, hiding in an airport bathroom.
In Someplace Better.
* * *
It had taken ten minutes for the Valium to work.
And now I felt nothing.
Smoothed out. Empty. Void of emotion.
And that hollowness lived solidly next to my heart and my lungs, that hollowness as useful as my appendix.
I took a deep breath, then found my phone in my purse. I took another breath, then reread my daughter Morgan's text message, the same message that had sent me flying into a toilet stall.
It was a short message.
Just three words.
I hate you.CHAPTER 2
I stayed in that toilet stall a little longer, until my bloodshot eyes were no longer puffy. Until the eye drops whitened my whites again. Until my knees could withstand gravity. Until the Miriam Macy who had sashayed into the airport found her way back into my soul again.
That took a moment. More like thirty minutes. But then, after that half hour, I was ready to face the world.
I studied my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Sea-green silk tunic (airy) and matching silk slacks (luminous); and a signature jade and onyx necklace (At an ancient temple in the lost city of Ping Yao, your hand brushes against a crumbling wall ...) that complemented my green eyes and elongated my short neck. A little lipstick, a little powder ... Boom. You look like a boss again.
Satisfied, I grabbed my black leather bag (They will wonder if this same classic handbag hid Janet Leigh's stolen cash in Psycho ...) and my vintage suitcase (Cuba meets Egypt ...), then strolled out to the gates.
Like a boss.
I placed a final call to my attorney, Phillip Omeke. His phone line rang once ... twice ... and then hit voicemail. Phillip's pretty Somalian paralegal's voice told me that I'd reached the law offices of Omeke Squire and Pierce, that I should leave a message, and that he'd soon return my call. A lie — I'd left six messages in six weeks, and I'd only spoken to his machine, not even pretty Fazia, because Phillip Omeke no longer cared one flip about me.
Still, I obeyed, because I had no other lawyer to call and because I knew in my heart of hearts that he really did care about me. "It's Miriam again. You know what? I'm gonna press charges against Prudence McAllister once I get back to L.A. So ignore my other message, the one I left a little after midnight. That's it. Talk to you soon. Wish me luck."
The invitation to participate in a reality television competition had appeared in my in-box just a month ago. New game show ... filming pilot ... all expenses paid ... Mexico ... Nothing like this has ever been filmed ... Interested? I needed money — legal bills wouldn't pay themselves, and now that I no longer received disability checks, I needed a source of income. So, in my reply to the show's producer, I'd told him that I never flew anywhere coach and that I required monetary compensation for my participation. He had responded with "Of course," and had then informed me that I'd take home at least ten thousand dollars for being on the show. In my excitement, I'd neglected to ask about the grand prize. If I'd receive ten thousand dollars for losing, though, the winner had to take home half a mil. Right?
Throughout the flight to Mexico, I scanned the faces of the other passengers. Who would I be competing against? The pit-faced steroid junkie in the Ed Hardy graffiti shirt? The vacuous big-boobed blonde with more paint on her face than the Berlin Wall? Or the Ryan Seacrest wannabe with the frosted blond tips and the down-market Italian loafers? These were the types of people who bothered me — fake and frosted, wannabe hotties with more air between their brains than the space between heaven and earth.
But no one associated with the game show approached me — not on the plane nor at the taxi stand in front of the Sonoran airport. Guess we were all obeying the order to avoid interaction before arriving to the port. No one associated with the Los Angeles Police Department approached me, either. Good. Cool.
While I had been in the air, though, Detective Giorgio Hurley had left me a voicemail: "Ms. Macy, hi. Just checking in with you. We need to talk, either at your home or here at the station. Sounds like there was some type of altercation last night? Sounds like folks were hurt, you included? Sounds like —"
I hung up before finishing his message.
Detective Hurley would not destroy my fire, nope, not today.
I tapped the camera icon and snapped a selfie of me crossing my eyes with a silly smile. I sent it to my daughter with a text message. The Krazy Lady landed safely in Mexico. A way to say, "No hard feelings, I will always love you no matter what." I shoved my phone into my bag, lifted my chin, and forced light onto my face. Pictured myself on-screen, with that reality-TV synthesizer music bopping as I wandered about town wearing green silk. Sharp eyes, soft smile, and perfectly waxed eyebrows, I was now Black America's representative — hardworking and stylish, persevering against all odds, a believer in fairness and faith and directness ... You can win combined with lift ev'ry voice meets power to the people. Yeah, I saw myself on TV, and that vision of me, strong me, had now carried me from one country to the next, from plane to taxi, and soon, onto the Sea of Cortez.
The world didn't know what was coming, what to expect from Miriam Macy.
Like the two Mexicans working behind the desk at Molinero Ocean Charter Services. They didn't know what to expect, either. The older man with slicked-back hair and the skinny college-age kid with skinny arms inked up to his knobby shoulders were studying a piece of paper. Both wore name tags — "Raul" was the older man, and "Andreas" was the kid, and both assumed that I didn't speak a lick of Spanish.
They didn't know that I'd taken two years of required public school Spanish. Yeah. Hablo un poquito de español. Enough español to figure out that they had just said something about three Americans, that something-something was "dead," and something about cocaine and narcos. Couldn't hear much more than that, not over accordion music now blasting from speakers mounted beneath a taxidermied blue marlin. Didn't bother me, that loud music — I was still riding the diazepam wave.
The waiting area smelled of fresh-brewed coffee, seaweed, and the sour body odor of sweaty hombres who hadn't bathed in days. And two of those sweaty hombres wore bulletproof vests with POLICIA stenciled in white letters. They roamed the dusty sidewalk holding the laziest-looking Uzis in the world. One slowed in his step, tossed me a glance, then looked away ... and then at me again. Classic double take.
Had he been stunned by my beauty, or ...?
My mouth dried and the smile I'd prepared for him froze on my face as I thought of the other possibility. The possibility that Detective Hurley had somehow found a way to reach me all the way in Mexico. The possibility that he had asked the Mexican policía for their help in detaining me.
I shook my head. No. Impossible. Silly, even. Last night, I'd done nothing wrong. Technically. There'd be no reason to spend resources and time to find me and drag me back to America. Let me finish the game at least — that was my prayer.
With weaker legs, I wandered back to the check-in counter. Tried to look natural as I looked back over my shoulder at the policía.
"Estoy leyendo este derecho?" the older man asked the kid.
Am I reading this right?
The kid ruffled his sun-bleached brown hair. "La Serenata took the food and provisions yesterday," he said in English. "Didn't seem like enough for that many people."
I assumed they were talking about the competition — There wouldn't be a lot of food since folks would be voted out of the house. So I cleared my throat and said, "Un momento, por favor."
Both men swiveled toward me. A .45 lived in a holster strapped around the older man's hip. "Sí, how can I help you?"
"Soy el primero aquí?" Am I the first one here?
"You're sailing over to Mictlan?" Andreas asked.
I glanced back at the cops — could they hear this conversation? I glanced at the rotting ceiling tiles in search of hidden cameras — was I breaking a rule by answering his question?
"Mictlan, sí?" Andreas asked again. His eyes also flicked over to the officers.
A nervous smile found its way to my lips. "If that's where Artemis is, then sí."
Raul blinked at me, then glanced at the paper in his hand.
"A few others are around town, shopping," the kid said. "You can relax for now."
I flapped my hands at my face. "Relax? It's hot as hell out here, not that I'm complaining." I chuckled. "Ha. Yes, I am complaining. It's hot as hell out here."
The two men stared at me and said nothing.
I chuckled again — my attempted wit had failed on two men who didn't speak English ... well. Or ... good? Whatever. I shrugged and smiled. "Could you tell me who the other guests are?" Since I was already breaking the rules.
The kid plucked the paper from the older man's hand. "There's Wallace Zavarnella; Eddie Sweeney; Desirée Scoggins; Evelyn Pemstein, R.N.; Franklin Clayton; Javier Cardoza; and ... you are Miriam?"
My stomach hardened — no use in lying, so I grinned and said, "Miriam since 1970."
The old man darkened, muttered in Spanish, then snatched back the manifest.
I leaned forward on the counter. "I heard you two talking earlier, about three dead Americans?"
The kid grinned and his gold molar twinkled. "I hear it was drug-related. That Felix Escorpion was responsible even though he's in jail. Do you hear of him?"
"Oh, sí, sí, of course." Heck, yeah, I'd heard of Felix Escorpion. He was today's Pablo Escobar, killing thousands while smuggling millions and millions of dollars' worth of guns, heroin, meth, and cocaine into America. He now sat in a heavily guarded jail cell in Fort Worth, Texas.
"I hear that he had a room in the big house with hungry dogs," Andreas said. "Dogs who were fed the limbs and intestines of his enemies. I hear that he had marijuana plants and opium poppies growing all over the forest, and that there were men carrying AKs hiding in trees, taking out narcos and federales and —"
"Andreas!" the older man barked. Raul turned to me with a grin that was closer to a grimace. His face was a mixture of glee and gloom, a study in light and shadow. "These were simply rumors, señora." The older man patted, then squeezed the kid's shoulder. "All that narcóticos was a long time ago. Before you yanquis came."
The kid's head waggled. "Sí. A very rich man owns the island now. Bought it for nada, then built the new big house. No more narcos, they say. It is truly paradise now." He nodded and smiled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "They All Fall Down"
Copyright © 2019 Rachel Howzell Hall.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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
We Have a Winner!,
Also By Rachel Howzell Hall,
About the Author,