Book Cover: Bombshell

Sassy, sexy new heroine for the What Doesn’t Kill You series, USA Best Book Award-Winner, Cross Genre Fiction.

If you like your mysteries exotic and fast-paced, then Ava’s your girl, and Bombshell’s the novel for you!

Temp worker by day, lounge singer by night, single mom Ava is having a hard time breaking up with her long-distance boyfriend and making it without the support of her parents on the island of St. Marcos. Things improve dramatically when she lands a too-good-to-be-true job at a virtual currency exchange, where she meets a seriously sexy man, and goes to work for a boss so incredible he sponsors her on a trip to New York to record a demo. But when Ava stumbles across the raped and murdered body of a young woman, she recognizes her from a shared trauma back in their school days. Ava is devastated and throws herself into avenging the girl's death. From that moment on, it’s one bombshell after another, going off closer and closer to Ava and the people she cares about most.

>>> See why Pamela's novels have won contest after contest.

  • 2016 WINNER USA Best Book Award, Cross Genre Fiction
  • 2015 WINNER USA Best Book Award, Cross Genre Fiction
  • 2014 USA Best Book Award Finalist, Cross Genre Fiction
  • 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-finalist, Romance
  • 2013 USA Best Book Award Finalist, Business: Publishing
  • 2012 WINNER of the Houston Writers Guild Ghost Story Contest
  • 2012 WINNER USA Best Book Award, Parenting: Divorce
  • 2011 WINNER of the Houston Writers Guild Novel Contest, Mainstream
  • 2010 WINNER of the Writers League of Texas Manuscript Contest, Romance

>>> Once Upon A Romance calls Hutchins an ""up-and-coming powerhouse writer."

>>> The series reviews are in, and they're good. Very, very good.

“Immediately hooked."" — Terry Sykes-Bradshaw, Author of Sibling Revelry

""Spellbinding."" — Jo Bryan, Dry Creek Book Club

""Fast-paced mystery."" — Deb Krenzer, Book Reviewer

""Can't put it down."" — Cathy Bader, Reader

""LOVED IT!"" — Marcy McKay, Author of Pennies From Burger Heaven

>>> Check out the entire What Doesn't Kill You romantic mystery series.

Hardback, paperback, ebook, and audio versions available soon.

Excerpt:

Chapter One

I’m getting too old for this shit.

The Outlook Calendar warns me it’s Monday, June 22, exactly one month away from my thirty-second birthday. I can’t make ends meet as a singer without this crap temp-agency job, still only getting by with my parents’ help and an occasional boost from public assistance. My nearly-toddler’s sperm-donor father is long gone, along with any hope he’ll ever help out financially. For once I agree with my mom: I need a real job, a grown-up job, and those are few and far between on the island of St. Marcos.

I open a browser and pull up the St. Marcos Source news site, thinking I’ll scan the classifieds for something better. The lead story stops me: LAND PIRATES WAYLAY TOURISTS IN WEST END RAINFOREST. Not again.

READ MORE

How many times do these low-life road thieves have to hijack a carful of day‑trippers before the Department of Tourism passes out flyers at airport baggage claim? Rule One: no bathing suits except where there’s water. Rule Two: keep your fancy-ass cars on the east end of the island.

I click on my horoscope instead of the classifieds, my talon-like nails forcing my fingers flat against the mouse. Before I can process today’s guidance, I hear the unmistakable sound of support-hose-clad thighs rubbing together, feet padding along toward me in closed-toe ballet flats. That’s McKenna. She runs ABC Temps for her parents, even though she’s way overqualified.

I want to tell her she’s better without the hose and little-girl shoes, but I don’t.

I close my browser. My phone vibrates and I glance down, quick. It’s a text from Collin, the Santa Fe cop, muscle-bound and too Top Gun cute for his own good: Why aren’t you answering me?

Collin is my best friend Katie’s brother. A notorious player whose clothes I seem to rip off every time we’re in the same zip code. He can’t take the hint to let me go. Maybe because we burned up the sheets every weekend for two months, pretending the thing between us was going somewhere. I’d told him then I couldn’t make any promises. He told me he didn’t need any. He should have believed me. I shouldn’t have believed him. Now he thinks he knows me, but he doesn’t. And that’s for the best. Keeping our relationship a secret from Katie is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and if I break up with him now, she’ll never know.

A shudder runs through me, a terrifying flashback to three officers killed in the line of duty in the last few weeks. Collin’s safe, but I can’t stand worrying some fool is going to shoot him down. I’m black, and I hate cops killing so many black people for no good reason or not enough of one—but Collin’s life matters, too. Yeah, he’s got serious potential to break my heart in more ways than one.

I think what I don’t type: It was a fling. I’m not who you think I am. Get over me.

Instead, I run a finger over my ring, a gift from my parents when I turned sixteen, gold inset with chips of ruby. It’s supposed to give me courage. My mom hoped that would be the courage to remain chaste and pure (she’d already missed that boat) and possibly, someday, fulfill her dream that I become a true “bride of Christ” (she was sorely disappointed on that one, too).

I don’t know why I still wear it, but I do. I give it a few seconds, but no burst of courage overtakes me, so I ignore Collin’s text, again. Like I have the other four. Honestly, I’ve never understood why people treat receiving messages like they’re obligated to respond immediately. Free will, baby. Or, as I like to call it, RNO: response not obligated.

Who am I kidding? Ignoring him is harder than I make it sound. I turn my phone facedown to help me stay strong. I wipe sweat from my brow. It’s stuffy and musty and just plain summer hot. ABC can’t afford AC.

McKenna brushes past me, escorting a woman to the front door. “We don’t keep plants here. Sorry.”

The woman is small and Asian and smells fresh, like lemongrass and lavender. She’s wearing a white T-shirt that says GREEN THUMB across the front. “I understand.” She hands McKenna a card. “In case you change your mind.”

The door opens and closes. McKenna slips the card into her skirt pocket.

She comes back my way, plants herself in front of my desk, her arms crossed over her ample bosom. “Ava girl.” Her calypso accent is thick, and she’s smiling at me like she’s reggae Santa Claus or something. “I sending you to the West End today. Pack up.”

St. Marcos is only twenty-six miles long and seven miles across at its widest point. You can drive from the eastern tip all the way to the west coast in less than an hour, and most of us locals live mid-island. I’ve lived in the States. I’ve commuted half an hour, even an hour to jobs. But it’s different here. Here, we moan and groan if we have to drive ten minutes. On-island—that’s how we describe the state of being present on St. Marcos, with off-island meaning we’re anywhere but here—the West End is half an hour and a different time zone from here.

I chuptz, long and loud, sucking a generous amount of spit through my teeth. I make a show of loading my purse with office supplies.

The thought of the drive almost makes me long to return to the cheesy “bar tour” that my fly-by-night manager booked for me last spring—which is how I came to be gigging in New Mexico and reacquainting myself with Collin, after meeting him at Katie’s wedding a few years back. The tour turned out to be an endless series of swingers’ parties. I got a lot of propositions for threesomes, but no recording studio producer appeared out of the woodwork offering me a deal. I canned the manager and came home.

Because, yes, this slice of heaven in the Caribbean is my home and the place of my birth. This haven for the brilliant-green iguana, the churring mongoose, the bright-winged macaw, and flowers of every color and description. Of rum, endless coconuts, fragrant mangos, and passion fruit.

It’s also an inbred cesspool of politricks as usual, dog fighting, domestic abuse, and desperation. A refuge for drunkards, layabouts, and fugitives.

I feel a sudden temptation to call the manager and beg him to rebook me, even as a glorified lounge lizard. I won’t, though. The saving grace of being home is that I’m not spending time away from my too-rapidly aging parents and my one-year-old daughter. I have a few on-island gigs lined up this summer, but they’re just the same ole, same ole. Tourists drinking themselves blind on cheap rum while no-count men with more baby mamas than sense make plays for me.

McKenna cuts her eyes at me slow, getting the meaning of my chuptz. “Girl, I mean it. And you’re welcome. I hook you up with one of them EDC companies.”

I brighten. If she just tells me it’s a job as an assistant to a music producer or even a fashion designer, my day is made, even though I know it won’t be. My phone vibrates with another text. Collin again. I feel a tug at my heart. I could be in love with him if I let myself, but I’m not the love type. I’d thrown my I Ching coins that morning and asked only one question: “Will this man lead to pain?” Well, they gave me my answer, and the coins don’t lie.

I’m going to have to talk to him sooner or later, though, since his hint-taking skills are less than optimal. I opt for later.

“Thank you.” I blow McKenna a kiss. “What they do, and what I doing for them?” I sling my bag over my shoulder, already moving, my pulse thrumming with renewed hope.

The office phone rings. I ignore it, but when no one else picks it up after four rings, McKenna’s stare finally breaks me. I pick it up. “ABC Temps.”

A nasally female voice assaults my eardrum. “We’re down from the City for the summer. I must have an assistant. Transfer me to someone who can make this happen ASAP.”

Well, la-di-da. “No problem. Right away, ma’am.” I switch over to my yank speech style without even thinking about it, dropping my island accent and talking with a stuffed-up nose like a continental, which is one of the nicer things we call people from the fifty United States. It’s like breathing to talk local with locals and to yank with yanks. Like how my friend Katie picks up a slow drawl when her Texas friend Emily comes around. Whatever my outer speak, it’s always just me inside my head, a black woman with a white father who’s spent most of her life repressing her island roots like the good little chameleon she is.

I transfer the call to McKenna’s voicemail.

McKenna is doing me a solid with this EDC assignment. EDC stands for Economic Development Commission, a business-incentivizing program offered by our local government in cooperation with the Feds. Translation: the US Virgin Islands are allowed to lure in people who have enough money to start a business here. It’s attractive, with generous tax incentives. It comes with a price, though, more than just the assumption propagated from popular media that rich people only move to the islands to engage in criminal activities and scurrilous tax schemes.

To gain the benefits, the off-islander must establish full residency (difficult), be subject to our Water and Power Authority (notoriously unreliable and gallingly expensive), and hire local (slim pickings). McKenna, knowing this well, is offering me up to them, because I’m local and NYU educated. Even if it is just a theater degree with a minor in classical studies. Lead roles in community theater productions are good for the ego but don’t fatten the purse, and I haven’t discovered how to make money yet from Greek and Roman mythology.

“General office work for a company with it own virtual currency. One that own a lot of other companies.” McKenna says this in a tone of awe.

To me that sounds like Greek. “Virtual current, what?” I say it like “wah.” We have a tendency to drop our ending consonants when we talk in local island accents.

“Virtual currency. It digital money, using blockchain technology. Fast, anonymous, and no regulations. People say it the future.”

“Oh yeah, sure. Blockparty. Technology of the future. And how you know all this, Miss Virgin Island Bill Gates?”

She sniffs. “Stanford MBA. I intern for a company into cryptocurrency.” And I just thought she was overqualified before. “You got no idea what blockchain is, do you?”

“None.”

She pushes wire-rimmed gold spectacles up her nose. “Blockchain a digital ledger of linked virtual currency transactions, like in a chain. It protect against fraud and the like, because it all encrypted and one link build on another.”

“That clear it right up for me.”

“You a smart girl. You figure it out.”

“Yah mon.”

“Show up on time and you be fine. And pull you top up,” she adds.

She’s the one who booked me last time for a seven a.m. job after the night I’d gigged until three in the morning. What does she expect? I glance down at more brown cleavage than I expected to see. I roll my eyes and hoist the girls. Lime green fabric slips up and over them. Next time I date a rich man, I’m getting a lift. “Jealous, much?”

McKenna, wearing a charcoal circle skirt and round-neck white top that covers all her business, hands me a slip of paper with a name, address, and phone number on it. “You gonna find yourself on the wrong end of attention you don’t want, girl, and I’ma remind you ’bout this conversation.”

“You blaming women dem for bad behavior of men?” I play it cool, like I’m joking. But I learned about sexual attention as a plaid-clad innocent in grade school. Just because a Catholic school hires a man doesn’t make him holy, and the same goes for women. Since then, I’ve seen no evidence to change my mind. And I may not be loaded with money, but I have a whole lot of something with very real value. Yeah, it’s currency, and there’s nothing virtual about it.

A chill comes over me, and I freeze for a moment. A memory of Father Jerome and the unspeakable things he did to me during my school days bubbles to the surface, but I bury it deep again, fast, with all the other bad things in my life, like too many pills and too much booze, like finding my lover Guy with his throat slit and a bad man trying to frame me as a Jezebel who murdered Guy for not leaving his wife. Guy—Guy Edwards—was a Virgin Islands senator, and if it weren’t for my friend Katie, I might have spent the rest of my life in jail for a murder I didn’t commit, with too much time to fight off ugly recollections of Father Jerome and his ilk. As it was, my already-not-sterling reputation took a permanent hit. Repression is my friend.

And, no, I don’t let anyone blame women for the bad things men do.

McKenna, not one for lingering, rolls her eyes at me and walks off. Support hose grinds together again. I shiver. Save the planet—say no to synthetic undergarments, I think.

But I don’t say it. I’m in a hurry. I have to drive all the way to the West End to meet some blockchain heads.

***

I veer left, driving my dad’s gas-guzzling beater truck—sorry, Mother Earth, it’s my only option—faster than I should. There’s a maze of potholes (more like field of landmines) on Centerline Road. It’s hard to see them through the lightning storm of windshield cracks that appeared magically a few days after a shoddy island replacement Dad had done recently. Mom’s rosary beads are swinging from the rearview mirror, and I’m feeling more hopeful than I have in donkey years. The reason the EDCs are so attractive here to locals is that they’re the only decent jobs outside of working in tourism, for the government, or at the oil refinery. No, thank you, no, thank you, no, thank you. The refinery has all but closed up now, too, making everything on-island direr, and it was close to desperate before. Temping at a new EDC is usually temp-to-hire, and they always have air conditioning.

I have to land this assignment. I’ll treat it like an audition, which means I should run through my lines. I’ve already found plenty of motivation for my character.

“I Ava, from ABC Temps. Anything you need, we here to help.”

Or I could yank. I try it, watching myself in the rearview mirror. “I’m Ava, from ABC Temps. Anything you need, we’re here to help.”

BAM! My forehead slams into the steering wheel, and all the air is knocked out of me in a whoosh. Sometime later—seconds? minutes?—I realize the truck isn’t moving. What the hell? I put a hand to my face. Warm. Sticky. I look at my fingers. There are more of them than I remember. My hand is like an octopus. A red octopus. I waggle my fingers, and they’re red octopus arms, undulating underwater. I say it aloud. “Undulating underwater.” I like how that sounds and try a few more, making up my own alliteration exercises and mouthing them with exaggerated motions like we had in my theater classes. Sipping cider by the seashore. Taking tea in Tipperary. Gah, I’m tired. I close my eyes and drop my head back.

“You dead?” a dry, quivery voice says from just outside the driver’s-side window. I glance at it. It’s coming from a man with a white afro—now that’s a look, meh son—over wizened skin, his sharp, black eyes fixed on me. “You bleeding.”

Something’s wrong. There’s no window between us. Aha, it’s broken. I peek around the interior. It’s covered in shards of glass. The front windshield is gone, too. And I’d hit the steering wheel—air bags weren’t standard when this truck was built.

“I know you?” the old man says, drawing my attention to his face, which reminds me there’s an electrified cotton ball atop his head.

I squint at him. “Yah,” I say, but then pain clouds my thoughts. “My head hurt, I sorry.”

He nods. “You Gill Butler’s girl. I work with he, years ago. Chappy Nelson.”

“Mr. Nelson. Of course.” Roger “Chappy” Nelson. A down-islander. Barbados? He’d been old even then when Dad brought him on his regular construction crew. Most island men have nicknames, and my mind floats, trying to place the reason for his. Chapped lips. Getting chapped over things. Being chaps with everyone. I’m feeling woozy, a little baziddy.

“This he truck you mash up?”

“Uh-huh.” I mashed up my dad’s truck, and I have no idea how or why. This isn’t good. “What happen?”

“You crash in a pothole.”

Only on St. Marcos. Our potholes are epic. Like vehicle-swallowing sinkholes in the States, except here they’re the result of greed and graft instead of natural disasters. Money changing hands for inferior materials and shoddy workmanship. I should have been watching better where I was going.

I move my head and glass falls in my lap. I know I’m supposed to be somewhere. Directive thinking is painful, but I give it a try, and it works. West End. ABC Temps. A job I can’t bomb. I rest my forehead on the steering wheel, ignoring the immediate sharp pain.

“Ava?” A familiar voice. Also male, but younger, with a Texas accent.

“Huh?” I groan without looking up.

The door opens beside me. Nelson says, “I call the police?”

“No.” My voice cracks. Police mean a job-costing delay, a hassle, an insurance claim, rates going up. Hands grasp me, and I look up. Katie’s husband, Nick, scoops me off the seat and out of the truck.

Nick says, “Thank you, sir. I’ll get her taken care of.”

“You know he?” Nelson asks me.

“Yes. It all good.”

He leaves without further comment, disappearing into a dilapidated building on the side of the road. Trumpet vines grow out of a cracked HEINEKEN sign over its doorway.

Nick sets me down in his own old truck, newer by at least a decade than the one I’d planted nose-first in the pothole.

“You okay for a minute?”

“Yes. Thank you, Nick.”

He returns to my dad’s truck. Nick is all long legs with a lanky but muscular frame, and he’s a fast mover. Cars pass, heads rubbernecking at my misery, and I pretend I don’t see them. He comes back with my canvas shoulder bag and phone. He places them on the floorboard and begins picking glass off of me. I hold very still and let him, even when he pulls a chunk out of my forehead.

After a few minutes working on me, he says, “Want me to take you to the hospital?”

I shake my head, regretting the motion instantly. “No, no. I have to get to my new assignment.”

“What?”

“For my job. I’m supposed to be on the West End. Now.”

Nick cocks his head, pondering me. I’m sure I look dreadful scary. He, on the other hand, is sexy as ever, something I’m not supposed to notice. Olive skin, wild dark hair, intense eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a distinctive nose. A strong face. Hard not to notice. Hard not to show you appreciate. But Katie’s already forgiven me once for flirting with her man, so I follow the rules.

He grunts, a noncommittal sound. “I’ll take you up to Annalise. If Katie releases you, you can borrow one of our cars to get to work.”

Estate Annalise is the name of the big-ass property he and Katie live on with three kids, six dogs, and his parents. It’s also the name of the teenage slave girl who’s been stuck there in limbo as a jumbie spirit for most of two hundred years. Don’t judge—we buy into voodoo here in the islands. You would, too, if you lived here. It’s as plainly true and hard not to notice as Nick’s sexiness.

He steps away from me, brow furrowed, and pushes his hair back. It stands up a little. Katie says he’s a gypsy by his Hungarian heritage, but his wiry hair isn’t so different from mine. “I’ll call Rashidi. We’ll see what we can do about your truck. Sound okay to you?”

Our mutual friend Rashidi and I are in a good place, so I say, “Irie.” Six months ago, I’d have said no—our breakup was too fresh. Rashidi’s forgiven me for not loving him, but no man takes that easy.

My phone rings. Before I can stop him, Nick picks it up from the floorboard and hands it to me. I all but hold my breath, but he doesn’t look at caller ID. I do. It’s Collin, his brother-in-law, my secret. I take the phone, thinking as hard as I can in my condition. Nick climbs into the driver’s seat. I put the phone to my ear at the same time as I press the button to decline the call and send it straight to voicemail.

“Hello? Hello?” I pause for a few seconds for effect, then put the phone down. “No one’s there.”

But Nick doesn’t hear me. He’s already talking to Rashidi.

Chapter Two

Thanks to an early warning call from Nick, Katie meets us at the side entrance to their big yellow masonry house, Estate Annalise. I smell freshly turned earth and see they’ve planted some juvenile coconut palms in their front yard.

She gasps. “Did you cut your face?”

There’s something old-fashioned about Katie’s kind of pretty, like the movie of her life would be shot in black and white. She’s tall and slender with alabaster skin and long red hair. Today she’s holding it back with a twisted blue bandana. Her nose is smudged, but her blue-jean shorts and T-shirt got the worst of whatever dust devil attacked her.

I push hair off my forehead. “It’s in my eyebrow, right?”

“Right.” She clucks, leaning in to get a better look at my cut. “I think there’s glass sticking to your eye.”

“I don’t feel it. I have my contacts in, thank goodness.”

“You’re sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”

“If I don’t die waiting to be seen, they’ll kill me for sure.” Nobody goes to the hospital on St. Marcos unless they plan to leave in a hearse. My looks are important to me, but I can overcome a scar in my eyebrow. “It’s okay. I can get my contact out.”

We walk into the house together, through the kitchen. Katie’s petite mother-in-law sticks her head around the doorway leading into the great room.

“Hi, Julie,” I call to her.

She waves, her face contorting at the sight of me. “Oh no, poor you.”

I smile at her, which probably makes me look worse.

“Are you okay with the kids while I take care of Ava?” Katie asks her.

“We’re fine.”

Katie’s twin girls are about the same age as my daughter, Ginger. Julie hefts one onto her hip—Liv—and takes Jessie by the hand. They babble to no one in particular and each other and seem so much further along developmentally than Ginger, walking and talking. I push the thought away.

Taylor, the four-year-old, is on his knees zooming a dump truck along the hallway carpet runner.

“Come on, Taylor, we’re going downstairs to Grammy’s apartment.” Taylor gives no sign he’s heard his grandmother and rams the truck into the wall. “Taylor?” He does it again.

“He’s killing me. I’ll meet you in my bathroom.” Katie sighs. “Taylor, didn’t you hear Gram?” She takes his arm. “Come on.”

He looks up, surprised, it seems to me, and squalls as she pulls him behind her. Their feet clomp down the stairs, punctuated by his screams. I can’t be sure but it sounds like he’s screaming, “Annalise.”

I stay in the kitchen a little longer, stalling on dealing with my contact problem. I grab a glass of water and drink it slowly. Katie finished out this old deserted rain forest house herself, and I love it, the large outdoors-inside kitchen best of all, with its rainforest-green granite countertops and mahogany cabinets. I’d even lived here myself for a time, house-sitting when Katie moved to Texas. But that’s a whole ’nother story—one I don’t mention around Katie, since when I left for New York her house got vandalized and robbed and its sale fell through. Katie ended up back here anyway, with her inheritance intact and a law degree to fall back on if it all went sour, so it worked out fine for her. I was the one that got knocked up in Venezuela and dumped back on St. Marcos still broke, so I’d say I got the raw treatment. But honestly, I felt terrible about what happened then, and I feel bad about it still.

When I get to Katie’s bathroom, I put my purse on the counter and arrange my supplies. I carry spare contacts and a case with solution already in it for emergencies like this, plus a pair of glasses. I’m so myopic I can’t see to cross the street without the help.

I wash my hands good then touch the lowest edge of the contact. If there’s glass or other grit stuck to the surface of the contact, I don’t want to accidentally press it into my eyeball and rip my cornea, so I move slow and gentle. I don’t feel any debris, so I ease the contact downward to my white. I watch myself in the mirror, bracing against a scratching pain that doesn’t come. I squeeze the contact gently between my thumb and forefinger. When it’s off my eye, I squish it around in my fingers. I do feel something sharp. I throw it straight in the trash and repeat the process on the other side, starting with rewashing my hands.

I consider the spares, but what if there really is glass or something stuck to my eye? I decide it’s best not to put anything in them and put the spares and case back in my purse. I wash my bloody face, being extra careful but thorough with my eyes, rinsing them four extra times.

I slip my Coke-bottle specs on, and I’m contemplating the spa-like master bathroom and claw-footed jet tub, wishing I could take a dip for old time’s sake, when Katie appears. Her face is splotchy.

“What’s the matter?” I ask her.

She bites her lip, crouching and digging in the cabinets under the sink, emerging with hydrogen peroxide, cotton balls, Neosporin, and butterfly bandages. Her medicine cabinet is well stocked. On St. Marcos, we don’t dial 911. People have to be self-sufficient. Double that up in the rain forest at Estate Annalise. Katie points at the toilet. I drop the lid and sit. She washes and dries her hands, then wets the cotton ball.

As she blots my wounded eyebrows, I wince, but she doesn’t stop. “Taylor skipped the terrible twos and threes, but he has the fearsome fours down to a T. He won’t listen, he’s uncooperative bordering on flat-out oppositional, and he lies. He’s destructive and sometimes a little mean, more to me than anyone. I worry it’s because I’m not his birth mother, and that he remembers Nick’s sister and misses her. Julie tells me not to worry, but it’s hard.” She tosses the used cotton ball at the trash but misses. She stops, picks it up, and drops it in.

“What was he screaming to Annalise for?”

She continues working on my face. “He talks to her. He says she talks to him. Today, at least she was on my side, telling him to mind his mother. The jumbie doesn’t talk to anyone else, so I have no way of knowing if it’s real, or if he’s just got an active imagination.”

“It’s possible. You see her. Most people don’t. Yet we believe you.”

She sighs. “You’re right.”

“But that’s not what’s bothering you.”

She angles her head, smiles at me. “You know me well. We’re working a case that has me rattled.” She and Nick are private investigators. I like the name of their company: Stingray.

“I know what would help.”

Her mouth hangs open as she concentrates on dabbing the cream into my wound. “What?”

“Sing with me.” Katie had reneged on our chance to record a demo in New York after she married Nick and adopted Taylor. It had been the closest I’ve come to making it big. Holy Mary Mother of Jesus how I want another chance before I have to give this dream up for good in favor of adulthood.

Her mouth twitches, almost a smile. “Those were the days.”

I put a hand on her wrist, holding it, but soft. “I’m serious. We’re good. You’re good.”

She shakes her head and scrutinizes the butterfly bandages. “I can’t. Not the way you want me to. I’m good for the occasional gig, but I can’t throw my whole self into it.”

I don’t answer. The same sadness as always makes it hard to find words.

She inspects my forehead without meeting my eyes, then blows on my cut. It stings. After a few seconds, she squeezes it together and closes it with three bandages. “There. Short of a plastic surgeon, that should do it.”

The atmosphere between us is still awkward. Katie pulls Clorox wipes from under the sink and attacks the countertop sullied by the nursing of my injuries. I assess myself in the mirror. No one’s going to notice the scar I’ll get, most of the time. And Katie was liberal with the clear butterflies. The cut isn’t that long. “Thank you.”

Katie’s pocket chirps. She pulls out her phone, reads, smiles. “I can’t believe it. Emily says Wallace and Ethan set a date, and the Supreme Court only lifted the ban on same-sex marriage a few weeks ago.”

Emily had started out as Katie’s friend and paralegal, but she’s my friend now, too. Through Emily, I’d also gotten to know Wallace, a Child Protective Services investigator in Texas. “That’s great.”

Nick barges in. “Change of plans. We have a vehicle shortage. I can take you down to the West End now, and Rashidi says he can drive you home whenever you need. He’s got a hitch, and he’s going to tow your dad’s truck in to the shop first.”

“That’ll work.” Except for my clothes. “Can I borrow a top?” I ask Katie.

Nick puts his hands up and backpedals out.

I shuck my blood-spotted shirt. It has a built-in bra, so my girls are free.

Katie stares at my breasts. “Ava, you’ve got a lump.”

I look down. “Yah mon.”

“Have you had it tested?”

“Dr. Megahy says it’s nothing.”

“I’ll take that as a no.”

I don’t like where this is going. My lump is nothing, like a mole. Katie always thinks she knows best, like she’s my mommy, but I’ve already got one of those. “Take it as my doctor’s got it covered. Now hand me a top. It’s cold in here.”

She frowns, then snorts. “I don’t think I have anything that will display your assets quite like yours did.”

I slip into Virgin Island patois. “We see ’bout that.”

***

Nick drives fast down and around the curves and potholes, out of the rainforest, his hand drumming on the steering wheel as he sings along with Sean Paul about drawing the longest line for his sunshine. You’d hardly know the man is a freshwater West Indian just two years on-island, the way he handles his truck in full song. On St. Marcos, we drive American cars with the driver on the left, but we follow European driving practices, with the car on the left, too. We keep the ass to the grass, so to speak, which makes left-hand curves exciting as you wait to see what’s coming around the bend on your side of the road, most often a rum-soaked tourist from Alabama or Mississippi.

Despite Nick’s agility, the truck strikes a pothole, and it jars the glove box open. A gun clatters to the floorboard.

I jerk my feet up. “What’s that?”

Nick glances at it. “It won’t bite you, Ava.”

I hate guns. All guns. Yeah, guns are sexy on a cop. Yeah, Emily saved my life with one a few months ago, but they scare me, and they too easily fall into bad hands that do bad things with them. I think about nine dead African-Americans in a Charleston church. It’s more than sobering.

“It’s gonna shoot my foot off.”

“The safety’s on. Can you put it back up for me?”

“Uh-uh. I’m not touching it.”

“Really?”

I cross my arms.

Nick stops in the middle of the road, grumbling. He returns the gun to its place, then floors the truck. We don’t speak, and I scroll through the text messages that had come through while I had signal at Estate Annalise. Service on-island is spotty and mostly nonexistent in the rainforest.

McKenna: Why aren’t you at the client’s offices yet?

Collin: I won’t stop until you answer.

Another Collin: If you’re not dead, call me.

Still another: What the hell have I done to piss you off?

My heart feels funny, bad funny. The man’s a catch. He deserves better than me. Love. Commitment, fidelity. He’d soon figure out I can’t give them to him, if I stick around. He’d have options, and he’d exercise them. Less hurt now is better than more hurt later.

I see I have a voicemail from him, too. It takes me a moment, but then I remember him calling right after the tumble into the pothole, when Nick had first shown up. I’ll listen to it later, where Nick can’t overhear. Where Nick can’t see the reaction I’m not sure I can hide.

The road flattens out into the lowest section of the rainforest, the part where the hills empty onto the beach. We hurtle past mahogany and kapok trees. It’s pretty, distracting, soothing, and I try to put Collin out of my mind. Greenery and twisting Tarzan-worthy vines, hibiscus blossoms growing wild. The beauty of the island is one of the reasons I moved back a few years ago. I bounced around for years in the States. NYU to study theater, waitressing in Vail, working at a dinner theater in Waco. But my parents were—are—getting older, and I’m an only child. Plus I was sick of following my longtime boyfriend, Zach, from one acting job to another. I finally dumped his cheating ass in Texas and hightailed it home. Then the boy hit it big on one of the CSI shows. Lord knows he’s gorgeous. Even talented. Here’s a tip, though: never date an actor unless you’re prepared to try to forget him with his face plastered all over the TV and Internet.

“Where am I taking you?” Nick asks.

I give him the address.

“Huh.” He says it surprised-like, not a question.

“What?”

“That’s where I’m going.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. He doesn’t look at me, so I ask, “Why?”

“Meeting a client. Harry Darnell.”

I pull the sticky note off the wallet in my purse, the one that McKenna had written on. Mahogany Management. Harry Darnell. “Same guy they’re sending me to temp for.”

Nick shoots me a sideways glance. “What do you know about him?”

I wave the sticky note. “Only what it says here. And that his company owns companies that do some digital money thing.”

He doesn’t respond. I watch him for a few seconds, but he’s as sphinxlike as always, so I don’t bother.

We’re weaving along the beachside road now, and things become more civilized. Danish arches and colorful, peeling paint on masonry buildings signal our entrance into West End. That’s the town’s name. Literally. It’s also the name of the long white-sand beach stretching from the south side of town to the south shore of the island. We St. Marcos folks, keeping it simple.

Nick pulls straight into a parallel parking spot on the main drag.

“This isn’t it.” The address McKenna gave me is on the waterfront. We’re a block off of it.

“We’ll take the alley. I want to leave town in this direction.”

I huff, but I get out. Walking over cobblestones in platform sandals isn’t as easy as I make it look, and I take care. I adjust Katie’s top—which fits my figure nice and tight, especially since I pulled it down snug and safety-pinned it to the inside of my pants. It’s a risky move, but I don’t plan on doing any hip gyrations, so I should be good.

The buildings along the alleyway are seedy. This is where what passes for nightlife in West End goes down. A sign with a buxom woman bent over at the waist, legs spread, looking over her shoulder, reads XXX CLUB, the XXX in the name necessary because the picture isn’t explicit enough, I guess.

But the sign isn’t what catches my eye.

There’s an actual woman sitting with her back to the front door of the club, her chin on her chest. The angle of the sun misses the awning above the door, so the light shines right on her. She must be roasting. I can’t see her face, but from her long black legs splayed in front of her and her supple skin, she’s younger than me but getting closer to skin cancer every second. Her miniskirt is barely covering her tun tun, and her sparkly tank top hangs off one meager shoulder. If her mother could see her, she would not be a happy woman.

“Cheese and bread.” I shake my head. “She’s ass-up and no one’s even moved her out of the sun.” I walk over to her, studying on how I can drag her into the shade.

Nick is right behind me and leans her forward. He hooks his arms under her shoulders and around her chest. She’s limp, and her head falls sideways to her shoulder. I recognize her instantly.

“Oh no.” I fall to my knees in front of her. “Lailah.”

“Who?”

“I used to babysit her. Or, no, she was friends with a girl I used to babysit, but she was always over.” I tap her cheek with the tip of a finger, trying to rouse her. How could the innocent girl I knew end up like the woman crumpled in front of me? “Lailah? Lailah?” She doesn’t answer. I shudder. I put the back of my wrist under her nose for long seconds. “She’s not breathing.” I grab her too-cool wrist and feel for a pulse. Nothing. I probe her neck, not sure exactly what I’m searching for but finding nothing. Nothing except a deep red mark in the crease of her skin. I look up at Nick. He sees it, too.

He sets her down gently, exactly where we found her, and I dial 911 on my cell.

COLLAPSE

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