A Miami search and rescue expert and the ex–Navy SEAL she once loved reunite in Key West, plunging into a maze of secrets, lies, and cold-blooded murder
Jennifer Whitmore is the last person Kyle Parker expects to see in his counterterrorism seminar. Fifteen years ago, she was the love of his life. Now a respected member of Miami’s K-9 search and rescue unit, Jennifer is working undercover on an antiterrorism task force. She’s crazy about her partner, Sadie, a droopy-eyed bloodhound. She’s also engaged to another man. But when Jennifer and Kyle join forces to rescue a missing child, their passion reignites.
But someone doesn’t want the lovers to reconnect. When murder rocks the island and Jennifer becomes the prime suspect, Kyle must clear her name before violence claims another victim. Their search for the truth will drive them into a labyrinth of secrets and lies that has its twisted roots in Thunder Bay, an exclusive resort with a dark history.
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By Meryl Sawyer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 M. Sawyer-Unickel
All rights reserved.
Eighteen months earlier
Kyle automatically checked the dark doorways and the even darker shadows in the alley.
Nothing — yet.
It was only a matter of time. Hours, maybe. Not much longer. Then they would attempt to kidnap him. If they were successful, he would be hog-tied and left to sweat in some hellhole until the ransom was paid.
He'd outsmarted all the others, a fact that was a point of pride with him. The key was staying surrounded by people. The police took a dim view of kidnappings — especially in a tourist mecca like Key West. Not that the local cops were worth a rat's ass. Traffic tickets and arresting drunks was about the extent of their capabilities.
"The best place to wait it out is the Sunset Pier Bar," he told himself. A frosty brew and the skin show should help pass the time. If he made it to midnight without being kidnapped, he would have outfoxed them. Again.
He emerged from the alley behind the Hard Rock Cafe and followed the throng migrating down busy Duval Street toward the Mallory Dock for the sunset ritual. People congregated on the dock because it was the best place on the key to watch the sunset. Over the years, the gathering had become a street festival with tightrope walkers, fire eaters, a troupe of cats trained to leap through rings of fire, and God only knew what else. The show was different each night.
"Expect anything," he reminded himself, glancing around.
The only certainty was, the men wouldn't be in disguise. Each side knew exactly who the others were, which was a damn sight better than checking every skirt for hairy, linebacker legs.
Kyle joined the crowd, slogging its way past T-shirt shops and open air bars blaring music at the herd of humanity, hoping to lure a few of them away from the sunset show at the dock. He hunched his shoulders forward, half wishing he weren't so tall. His height and athletic build made him stand out too much.
The telltale hitch in his stride didn't help, either. He should be grateful for the pin that held his leg together. But he cursed it instead, because it kept him out of the action. Worse, it made him easy to spot.
He ducked into a T-shirt shop and quickly purchased a Florida Marlins baseball cap. They were short of XXL tank tops, but he found one with a typical Key West message:
You Obviously Have Me Confused With Someone Who Gives A Shit.
He changed into the tank top and ditched his faded polo shirt in the trash can. With the cap on backward to cover the dark-brown hair that was cinched back at the nape of his neck with a rubber band and wearing shades to conceal his green eyes, he could pass for a tourist.
He was still too tall and he couldn't hide his slight limp, but there wasn't a damn thing else he could do. He hunkered down as much as he could without being obvious and attempted to blend in with the crowd.
He pretended to check the merchandise in Margaritaville's store. Instead, he eyed the passing crowd, examining the people for familiar faces. Nothing.
"Don't you just love Jimmy Buffet?"
Kyle looked down at the cute brunette at his elbow. "The mogul of margaritas is my kind of guy. Remember, Margaritaville is just a state of mind — not a place."
He walked away, half tempted to stay and flirt with her. "Later," he muttered to himself.
Kyle shouldered his way through the group gathered at the Sunset Pier Bar. He grabbed an empty chair and took it to the railing overlooking the channel. The sun was low on the horizon, glistening off the Caribbean blue water. Soon its last rays would fall on paradise.
"What can I get ya?" asked the waitress on rollerblades. She swirled around backward in a tight circle while he ordered a Corona with two slices of lime.
He didn't have a chance to rock back in the chair and hoist his feet to the rail before his Brietling beeped him. He cocked his wrist to read the small print. With an incoming call, the watch's face became a small screen where the message was displayed.
"Son of a bitch," he said out loud.
The brass, namely Michael Dowd, needed to speak to him ASAP. Kyle took the battery to his cell phone out of the back pocket of his cut-off jeans and snapped it into place, silently cursing. The cell phone emitted an electronic signal that could easily be tracked by the men after him.
"Parker, here," he said as soon as Dowd answered.
"I'm saving you a place at the Hog's Breath," Mike told him. "Where in hell are you?"
"That's why you're career Navy, and I'm a civilian earning a real living. The Hog's Breath Saloon is right in the middle of town where anyone could find me."
"Kyle, we need to talk."
"How lucky can I get?"
"Be serious. Where are you?"
No way was he going to give his location over a line that wasn't secure. "At twelve o'clock is fifty percent of a celestial water body."
He hung up without waiting for a response and quickly removed the battery from his cell phone. He'd been on less than a minute. If they were tracking his phone, it probably wasn't quite enough time to pinpoint his location.
A full tray balanced in one hand, the waitress skated up with his Corona and put it on the rail in front of him. He squeezed both wedges of lime into the beer, then took a swig as he stared directly across the channel at Sunset Key's most lavish estate, Half Moon Bay. The guys after him hadn't been around Key West long enough to realize that half a celestial water body was an easily broken code for Half Moon Bay.
He'd almost finished his beer when Mike Dowd ambled into the bar. He swung a chair around backward and sat down. Mike wore khaki shorts and an olive-colored shirt. The first few times Kyle had met the man off the base, Kyle had assumed he was wearing the same clothes. Then he realized Mike Dowd owned a dozen or more outfits that were exactly the same. On base he wore a Navy uniform; off base he had his civilian uniform.
He probably ironed his underwear, but who gave a damn? He ran the Counter Terrorism Program efficiently, yet gave Kyle the space he needed to train his men.
"Okay, shoot," Kyle said, his eyes tracking the group who'd come in with Dowd. None of them had the muscular builds and wary, watchful eyes of the men who were after Kyle. Keeping the door in view to check the people entering the bar, he listened to Mike Dowd.
"You're going to find this hard to believe —"
"Why do I have the feeling this isn't good news?"
Mike shrugged, apologetic. "We need to work in a group — tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" After three months of grueling training, Kyle was looking forward to a few weeks off. "Gimme a break."
Kyle usually trained men fresh out of the Navy SEAL program in San Diego. Occasionally, the Navy facility where he worked as a civilian instructor was used by the DEA. Military concerns had taken a sharp decline in recent years. The war on drugs was a growth industry.
"Several police departments have signed contracts with the Navy for antiterrorist training. Miami-Dade's the first."
Kyle slammed his bottle down on the rail. "Miami vice? The Navy's now training policemen?"
"More than half the fleet is in mothballs. Congress cut our budget — again." Mike waved his hand at the shimmering channel where the sun was nothing more than a gleam of light on the horizon. "The Navy owns the best part of Key West. We've got to earn our keep. Who can train antiterrorists better?"
"True, but I hate to see civilians —"
"You're a civilian."
Kyle stared out at the setting sun as it went down in a blaze of red-and-gold light. Rowdy cheers came from the crowd next door at Mallory Dock, celebrating the sunset. He barely heard the commotion; his mind was on his Navy SEAL days.
Like the SEAL graduates he now trained, Kyle had been anxious for adventure and willing to take any risk. Anti-terrorist work seemed glamorous — until you faced reality: Terrorism was usually random, unpredictable. Innocent people died, and too often you couldn't do a damn thing to prevent the tragedy.
"From their jackets, it's an interesting group."
Jackets? File folders with their personnel records. Why would Dowd even bother to look? Kyle's well-honed sixth sense kicked in. The man was holding back something.
"Interesting is a word people use when they mean crappy. An interesting painting. Translation: looks like something a monkey troweled onto canvas using dog shit instead of paint."
Dowd barked something that might have been mistaken for a laugh by a stranger. "This group is a mixed bag."
A mixed bag meant he would be training men and women.
"I know how you feel about women, Kyle. I —"
"I'm crazy about women, but in the field they're too distracting. They get good men killed." He didn't mention his personal experience with this, yet the anger was there just the same.
"Women are here to stay. Believe me, I don't like it, either, but since Tailhook, we've been under orders to kiss ass." Dowd paused to flag down the waitress and order a Corona for himself and another for Kyle.
"Okay, so they're token estrogen. What else is new?"
"Jennifer Whitmore is a special case."
Jennifer. The name sounded in Kyle's brain with a deafening gong.
It had been over fifteen years since he'd seen his Jenny. Another lifetime, but the memory was seared into his mind as if it were yesterday: Jenny, tears swimming in her blue eyes, begging him to do something to keep them together.
"The Whitmore woman was part of the Miami-Dade County Search and Rescue unit."
"Was?" Kyle asked, reminding himself the world was full of Jennifers. This woman was not Jennifer Barton. Leave the past where it belonged. A memory from his youth — nothing more.
"It seems Spike Roberts believes she has potential."
Kyle threw back his head and laughed at the stars emerging in the dark sky. He hooted for a full minute and Mike Dowd chuckled along with him.
"Potential for what? To do the spread-eagle for Spike?" Kyle shook his head and quickly scanned the room. One of the men at the bar looked familiar, but he wasn't part of the group determined to kidnap him.
The waitress delivered their beers, and Kyle took a swig, his mind on Spike Roberts. He'd met Spike in Panama several years ago. The DEA agent was funnier than hell and had a reputation as a hotshot. He was an ass man, bent on hopping in the sack with anything in panties. It was a miracle the guy managed to stay out of bed long enough to catch any drug runners, but he did.
"Seriously, Kyle, Jennifer Whitmore may have potential. Why don't we go catch her act?"
"Act? Is she playing at one of the bars on Duval?" Kyle rarely went into the open-air bars that lined Key West's main drag. They attracted tourists with bands and singers and drinks with cutesy names like the Hog Snort.
"No. Jennifer is in Bahama Village at the Kat Klub."
Bahama Village. The name alone evoked an image of the dark side of paradise. While Old Town's Duval Street catered to the tourists, the nearby area known as Bahama Village was frequented by a rougher crowd.
Hunker down and wait them out was the cardinal rule in this type of situation. But Kyle was curious, so he agreed to go to the Kat Klub even though he would have to cross the island and risk being spotted by the men after him.
What the hell? He'd been in far more dangerous situations. And lived to tell about it.
"Why is Jennifer Whitmore working in a club if she's part of an S&R team?" Kyle asked as they paid for the beers and left the bar.
"She's doing a little undercover work until training begins."
Outside, Kyle scanned the mobs of people jostling up Duval Street. He didn't detect any sign of the kidnappers, but it was dark and the narrow street had numerous places where one of them could be hiding, hoping to find Kyle. If Mike Dowd noticed he was being cautious, he didn't give any sign.
They headed down Front Street, silently agreeing to avoid the crowds along Duval. At Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum they turned and walked along Whitehead until they came to Bahama Village. Here reggae drowned out the sounds of the other types of music coming from the clubs in the tourist area.
Named for the Bahamians who originally settled the area, the village now had a strong Cuban influence. While Duval Street in Old Town reminded Kyle of New Orleans, Bahama Village seemed more Caribbean to him.
More mysterious and more dangerous.
They passed the Blue Haven, where the chickens were snoozing under the raised foundation, and turned up a dark alley. Kyle cocked his head to glance over his shoulder. Nothing.
At the end of the alley, half hidden by a giant gumbo limbo tree that hadn't been pruned in years was a large hut with a thatched roof. The neon sign flickered as if it were about to go out.
Kat Fight 2 Nite
"Okay, Dowd, what are kat fights?" Kyle hated the cockfights that were secretly held in the village. For damn sure, he didn't want to see cats clawing each other to death.
"Girls fighting — that's a kat fight. Come on, it's fun."
Kyle had his doubts, but he seemed to be alone. The Bahamian bouncer stationed at the door was holding back a line of men. Dowd told the three-hundred-pound black man that he had a reservation.
"Uh-oh," said a tiny voice in Kyle's head. Who else knew Dowd had planned to bring him here? He looked around carefully, but didn't see anyone he recognized.
Inside, it was dimly lit and rank, with the smell of cigars and tequila suspended in the hot, still air. The ring was more of a runway, cutting through the center of the room. From metal bars beneath the thatched roof, high-powered strobes zapped the runway with blinding light, a stark contrast to the shadowy spectators' area. They were seated in the front row at a table the size of a TV tray.
"This is Jennifer Whitmore's last night here," Dowd told him.
A bleached blond waitress sauntered up to them dressed in a silver metal bra and a black leather thong with a whip dangling from the waistband. A chain of roses with a cobra emerging from the blossoms was tattooed on her thigh.
Only in Key West.
When you checked beyond the sunny skies and the warm sands, Key West's darker heart beat steadily. Kinky sex. Drugs. You name it.
The blonde took two pitchers of margaritas from her tray and deposited them on the table next to the glasses. Even in the dark, Kyle could tell the drinks were watered down.
"Fifty dollars, bay-bee," she said with a breathy voice that was so fake Kyle almost told her to get a life.
"Let Uncle Sam pay," Dowd said when Kyle reached for his wallet. He paid the waitress who'd poured them a drink, managing to slosh much of the sticky liquid over the table.
"Fifty frigging dollars?" Kyle asked after one swig of what tasted like warm piss.
"You have to buy two pitchers instead of paying a cover charge. It —"
A drumroll, then the lights went out. The fine hair on the back of Kyle's neck stood on end. Sweat furrowed down the small of his back. He hated not being able to see a damn thing.
An instant later, the glaring lights illuminated the runway-style ring. In pranced an Amazon of a woman with a mane of blue-black hair and dark, feral eyes. She raised strong arms the way prize fighters did when they paraded into the ring. She kick-boxed along the runway, lashing out at nearby tables with long, powerful legs.
The mostly male crowd jammed around the tiny tables whistled and cheered as the black leather shorts and halter top strained, threatening to burst the seams and expose buns of steel or soccer ball boobs. Something about the woman gave Kyle the creeps.
"Marlene the Marvel," screeched the announcer. "Unnn-deee-feated in twenty-seven bouts."
"Somebody should call for a chromosome check on the Marvel," Kyle told Mike. "I can hardly wait to see Jennifer Whitmore. Wanna bet she needs a check, too?"
"Hee-rez the challenger," the announcer yelled over the catcalls. "Baby Doe Whitmore."
Out of the shadows at the far end of the room appeared a petite blonde with an off-kilter ponytail at the top of her head. Her huge blue-gray eyes framed by long, wispy lashes seemed to be blinded by the intense light. She hesitated, lowering her chin a notch as she slowly walked down the runway.
A hush fell over the room, but Kyle barely noticed. His gut clenched as if the Marvel had kick-boxed him in the groin. His brain kept trying to unscramble what he was seeing.
Jenny. His sweet Jenny all grown up.
Finally, he said, "Her name is really Jennifer Barton."
"How'd you know?" Mike asked. "Her stepfather, Hyram Whitmore, adopted her. It's in her file."
Excerpted from Thunder Island by Meryl Sawyer. Copyright © 1999 M. Sawyer-Unickel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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