Book 7 in the Sherri Travis series.
A trip to Key West turns deadly when Sherri's friend Marley goes for a drink with an Elvis impersonator and doesn't return for last call. The police won't take a missing person report until Marley has been gone seventy-two hours. With a hurricane barrelling toward the Florida Keys and the town evacuating, Sherri is running out of time.
Here is Chapter 1 of Sherri's next adventure:
Thursday, May 18th - 96 hours before Hurricane Alma hits Key West
Lunging into water up to my knees, I threw myself into the canoe, tipping it wildly until it threatened to roll. The paddle cracked against the side, signaling where I was. A yell went up in the dark, "She's here!"
Beside me, Marley screamed, "Slow down."
I gulped air. The terrifying memory of the Everglades receded and the sun shone again, but my heart still hammered in my ears and fear still trickled sweat down my body.
"Shit, Sherri, you're going to kill us. Pay attention!"
"I am," I said, but she knew it wasn't true. Terrifying images, dangerous waking nightmares, were a daily part of my life since Clay's murder. I glanced over at Marley. She had her bare feet braced against the dash, one hand locked to the back of my seat and the other one clutching the door, ready for the crash. The freckles she hated stood out on her pale face. Trying to make light of her fears, and diminish any fault of mine, I waved at the empty road in front of us where only a mirage of heat danced on the fiery asphalt. "There's no one but us out here. What are you afraid of?"
"Dying, you idiot."
The speedometer was closer to one hundred than it was to ninety. I backed off a little and took a deep breath. All the crosses and plastic flowers along the road said she might have a point.
"Pull over," she said. "I'll drive."
I eased up a little more on the gas but I didn't pull over. We'd come down the west coast of Florida from Cypress Island, and now we were going east on Alligator Alley toward Miami. "You drove to Fort Myers so I drive the rest of the way. That was the deal," I said. Ahead of us, a flamingo flew low over the road, racing us toward the Atlantic. "Relax and enjoy the scenery." I needed to be in control. I was the only one who could deal with the disaster when it came, and my head was in a place where the only thing coming was disaster.
The Everglades, mostly flat grasslands, looked peaceful and benign as they flashed by the car window, but I knew all about the alligators, boa constrictors and psychopaths waiting out there, knew it only takes one small mistake, like the one I made, to change your life forever. The night my pickup was hijacked, and I was left alone in the Everglades, all the violence that followed was because I hadn't been paying attention. I know now that life and death can depend on small things. I watch for those things, try and keep control of the situation so I stay safe. Well, at least that's what I tell myself I'm doing.
Shaking her head Marley said, "You really gotta get a grip, Sherri. Lexi is counting on you. You can't let her down." She raised her hands, palms out, as though she was bestowing a blessing. "Don't look back. It's over." It wasn't true. For me it would never be over. "Let it go," she added.
Normally, Marley wants everything laid out - beats that dead horse until her arm falls off. Not this time. For Marley, Clay's murder was something to bury and forget.
"I just want you ..." I started but she interrupted with, "I know. And I do understand." Her voice was loud and angry. "I should. You've told me enough times." She turned away from me to stare out the window.
Marley didn't know shit about what I was feeling… didn't know that when I closed my eyes I saw the astonishment on Clay's face, surprise that was quickly replaced by incredible sadness at the knowledge that he was dying.
I fought for coolness, kept my voice level. "Being in the Everglades again…well, it brings it all back."
Her hands flew up to her head and buried themselves in her short red curls as if she truly intended to tear her hair out. "Brings it back? As if it ever went away." She took a big gulp of air, fighting to be calm. "Tell you what. For the next two days, let's not talk about the past. No reality until we head north again. Agreed?"
"Sure." Even to my ear the word lacked conviction.
She twisted on the seat to face me. "You think you can go two days without talking about money, work, or Clay's murder?"
"No problem." She snorted in disbelief. "Let's put a little money on it. Every time either of us talks about real life, we pay the other five bucks."
"Hah! You can't do it." She was probably right. Lockjaw was my only chance of staving off bankruptcy.
We left the Everglades behind, past Homestead heading for the Keys. Marley reached out and played with the radio dial. "How much trouble is Lexi in?" The dial swung to a news bulletin from the National Hurricane Center in Florida. The statement informed us that a tropical disturbance, south of the Bahamas, was becoming better organized and forming into a circular shape and now it had been given a name. The first named storm of the season, it was being called Alma. With the Gulf stream three degrees hotter than normal there was a very high probability of it turning into a hurricane. Residents of Florida were advised to listen to their news channels for further bulletins.
You couldn't tell there was any danger from the weather by looking out the window. It was a perfect Florida day, in the nineties with high cumulus clouds and light winds, but when we crossed a short bridge the foam-capped waves, racing ahead of the storm, were higher than normal.
"Shit," Marley said. "Key West is no place to be in a big gale."
"We'll be gone long before it hits. Don't worry about it."
"If I didn't worry, my brain wouldn't see any action at all."
I laughed and for a moment the tension between us eased.
She said, "Seriously, with all those little causeways, how do they evacuate the Keys in a storm?" "Slowly, very slowly."
Highway one, the only road to Key West, is a two-lane highway running down to the tip of Florida. The road is built on a string of small outcrops of land called keys. Bridges and causeways connect these keys, Sugarloaf Key, Indian Key, Islamorada and Key Largo, bits of land so small that sometimes it feels as if you're driving on water when you're crossing them. With the Gulf of Mexico on the right and the Straits of Florida on the left, you rise over turquoise water like a bird flying into a painting of Paradise, hang suspended between heaven and earth, and then swoop down onto a green hummock of land before rising again. My spirits lifted with each mad dash into the sky, but Marley was right. The two-lane road is the Main Street of all the small towns along the way. In an evacuation, the roads would be clogged. It would be hell getting out ahead of a serious storm.
"Let's just make sure we're gone before there's a problem," she said and switched the dial to Conch Country at 98.7 FM. "This country music will get you in the mood for the Rawhide Saloon."
"Oh, I'm ready." It was true. Normally by this time of the day I'd have a nice buzz going and sustain it until closing time, when the real job got done. "But we don't need all those hurtin' songs - songs of leaving home, missing home or wanting to go home. We don't want to hear anything about home. Find something else."
So, with Taylor Swift exhorting us to shake it off, we headed down to Key West for a little fun. Even with that thought, a cloud passed in front of the sun.
Book 2 in the Singer Brown series.
After her life on the streets Singer Brown figures only a dance with an orangutan could still shock her. The music is playing and the waltz begins when the body of a teenage girl is discovered on Ghost Island. Singer identifies the remains, attacked first by man and then by nature, from a blue butterfly tattoo. Suspicion, toxic and dangerous, begins to poison the small community of Kilborn, corrupting relationships and leaving no one without fear or guilt.
Here is Chapter 1 of Singer's next adventure:
Glenphiddie Island, Canada, 1995
In May, at the forty-eighth latitude on the eastern rim of the Pacific, at the very edge of a continent and straddling the border of two countries, morning comes early. By four-thirty the sky begins to brighten. The light can be blocked out but not the cacophony of birds greeting the dawn. Better than any alarm, they set the small world of Glenphiddie Island stirring long before anyone plans on rising.
While the inhabitants of the town of Kilborn snuffled and moaned, burrowing down beneath the covers to steal a few more minutes of sleep, a dinghy pulled away from a thirty-foot sloop anchored at the mouth of Kilborn Harbor. The yawning sailor steered toward Ghost Island while his trembling whippet stood with her front paws on the edge of the rubber vessel and whined in anticipation. Before the boat settled on the rocky beach, the dog leapt into the rolling surf and dashed on shore to relieve herself. She was still squatting when the wind changed. Her head went up and her ears went back. Keening with fear, and before she finished emptying her bladder, she was running away from the stench of death.
"Ginger, Ginger!" the man yelled. He turned off the engine and lifted it out of the water. He stepped out of the boat. Holding on to the encircling rope, he pulled the small craft up above the lapping waters. "Ginger," he called once more, with little hope that the excitable beast would return. He waited. Ten minutes passed and Ginger still hadn't come back. "Stupid dog." He sighed and began to walk carefully over the moss-covered rocks. It was his wife's dog but of course she was tucked up tight in bed. "You go, Howie," she always said, as if early morning dog walking was one more thing she deemed a man's work.
"Stupid bitch." He'd be hard put to say whether it was his wife or the dog he was referring to. They were equally annoying.
He'd only climbed six feet toward the crest of the island when a rock rolled beneath his rubber boot, twisting him sideways. His gaze was caught by a flash of color below him. He froze in shock while his rebellious eyes took in what he didn't want to see. And then his brain tried to make sense of it. When it did, he spun away from the horror and vomited.
Singer Brown woke at first light with the rest of the island and listened to the raucous birds. Beside her Louis Wilmot yawned and stretched before he rolled over to cuddle up against her back, nuzzling his face against her bare shoulder. His hand cupped her belly and his breath felt hot against her skin. A strange feeling of joy and security came over her. He was here with her, in this small cocoon of safety. No matter how long it lasted it was hers, one last chance to get it right, and she would hold on to it with her whole being. She reached out to cover his hand with her own. It had been a long time since she felt part of a couple.
A couple. The word brought back the intimate exchange she'd witnessed the day before. On the edge of sleep, she murmured, "What's Ghost Island?"
Wilmot kissed her shoulder, his whiskers harsh against her skin. "That small island at the mouth of Kilborn Harbor." He pulled her closer.
"Why do they call it Ghost Island?"
He yawned. "Because the winds out there do strange things to fog, dividing it, spinning it. Like gossamer ladies dancing across the water-ghosts dancing."
"That's beautiful." He never failed to surprise her. "Poetic even." Seeing gossamer ladies swirling across the water, she fell back into sleep.
The phone rang. Wilmot cursed softly and rolled over to pick it up before it could ring again and wake Singer. "Wilmot." He tucked the receiver under his chin, and rolled back to snuggle against her warmth.
"It's Duncan. We've got a body."
A jab of annoyance. Boating accidents were only one of the many forms of human stupidity the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the policing unit for the Gulf islands, dealt with during tourist season. Sure that some drunken fool had fallen overboard in the harbor, he said, "I start the midnight shift tonight and you know Fridays are always hell. Can't you handle it?"
"Sure, but I hate to have all the fun. It's a dead woman."
"So-o-o, her head was battered in. It's unlikely to be natural causes."
He grabbed the phone off his shoulder and swung his feet out of bed. "Where?"
He was reaching for the trousers he'd thrown on the chair the night before when Duncan answered, "Ghost Island."
Wilmot turned back to face the bed.
After a long silence, Duncan asked, "Are you still there?"
"I'm here." He took a deep breath and asked, "How do I get out there?"
"The search and rescue launch is at the dock waiting for you."
He dropped the receiver back in its cradle. "Singer."
She turned over, nestled into his pillow, and mumbled something indistinct.
He zipped his trousers and reached for a clean shirt. "I've been called out."
Her eyelids fluttered but she didn't answer.
He shrugged the shirt up onto his shoulders and then crossed to her side of the bed and leaned over her. Her wild hair spilled darkly across the pillow. Even in sleep her face was compelling. High cheekbones, a long thin scar on the right one that she would never explain, full lips that mocked the world and eyes that went from hazel to rich caramel. It was a face he never got tired of examining, and she often caught him staring. With her hand going up to her face, she'd ask, "What is it?"
"Nothing," he'd answer, when in truth it was everything. This woman took him out of his comfort zone, throwing him off balance while making him feel alive in a way he'd never experienced before. Louis Wilmot was no fool. He knew it couldn't last. Singer was a woman who was planning on leaving the moment she said hello. She'd warned him at the very beginning of their affair that she was only on the island until she could prove her residency and sell her house.
He shook her shoulder gently. "Why did you ask about Ghost Island?"
Her eyes stayed closed and her breath whispered softly between half opened lips. He reached out his finger and removed a strand of curls from the corner of her mouth, then he leaned over and kissed her forehead. There was time enough later to find out why she was asking about Ghost Island.
The next book in the popular Sherri Travis Mystery Series
It's nearly midnight when Sherri Travis turns onto Last Chance Road and into a run-down service station. Instead of the routine stop she expects, her pickup is stolen and she is left stranded in the Everglades. Sherri is desperate for help, but the men who show up are just as dangerous as the swamp she is forced to flee into. When she stumbles upon a gruesome murder, she must depend on her wits to escape.
Martini Regrets, the sixth in the series, is Sherri's most frightening and spine-tingling misadventure yet. It will transport you from a gritty crime scene in the Florida Everglades to a black-tie masquerade ball in Sarasota, before reaching its shocking conclusion on a remote island in the Gulf of Mexico.
Here is Chapter 1 of Sherri's next adventure:
Florida Everglades are a place of serene beauty and sudden death. Spread across one and a half million acres, they're a wilderness where snakes and alligators rule-out there, mistakes can be fatal. It wasn't a place where I, Sherri Travis, ever meant to end up alone late at night.
And it isn't just nature you have to fear in the Glades. The people living in this inhospitable place can be just as dangerous. Down here we call them swamp rats, men who know every gator hole and every way there is to turn a dollar, both legal and illegal. They use the Glades to strip down stolen cars or use their airboats to pick up drugs dropped from the sky. And there are guys who find the swamp the perfect place to make unwanted people disappear. There's not much evidence of a crime left after a body passes through an alligator or a python. The wetlands of Florida are a depository for all kinds of unwanted things, living and dead, a spot to hide a multitude of sins.
When I was eighteen I made my first solo crossing of the Glades, and my father, Tully Jenkins, laid out the rules for traveling Alligator Alley. Tully's first rule was, "Never travel through the river of grass after dark. Leave it to the crazies and criminals." This decree was followed by "Always keep your doors locked, and always have a full tank of gas." And then there was the most important rule: "Don't stop for anything."
And even a dozen years later, I didn't take that crossing for granted. I thought I had it all under control until that night when things went so horribly wrong.
I'd been down in Miami for a long-overdue weekend with a girlfriend, a situation that had created considerable tension between my fiance', Clay Adams, and me. He didn't understand the need to catch up with friends. He wanted me to buckle down and plan a wedding, the sooner the better, while he worked eighteen hours a day selling real estate. You see, for him, life wasn"t about enjoyment and good times but about winning. I'm not exactly sure what he was trying to win, but it had a lot to do with using money to keep score. The man had a plan and a driving need for us to improve ourselves. He was all about business, while I was all about partying. Right away you can see the problem.
Sunday afternoon, I called Clay to put off my return to Jacaranda because Kelly's friends had suggested a sunset booze cruise. He wasn't happy.
I promised Clay I'd be home before midnight, but then, when I was already late leaving Miami, Kelly suggested a martini at a hot new club. What's another hour? Besides, how many holidays did I take in a year? This was the first time I'd gone off on my own since Clay and I moved in together. I deserved it. At least, that's what I told myself.
When I left Miami, not quite sober, it was already nearly twelve. I was well behind schedule. I checked the gas. Half a tank if I looked at it optimistically, just over a quarter if I broke the mold I came from and was honest. Okay, even with a quarter of a tank, it should be no problem making it to Naples, the first spot for gas on the west side of the Glades. After all, it wasn't like the old days when Dad's crapped-out piece of junk got ten miles to the gallon. A quarter of a tank was enough. I'd be fine.
As the lights of civilization faded to the darkness of the wilderness, kamikaze bugs threw themselves against the windshield. I turned on the wipers and sprayed a weak stream of water at their bodies, turning them into a gelatinous smear of mush. "Shit." The windshield washer was nearly empty of fluid from the trip over, insects being one more of the nasty things that live in the big swamp. I should have refilled it. I sighed out loud at this further evidence of my failure as a responsible adult. I turned off the wipers, which were just making the huge smear worse, and cursed my failure to prepare, but no way was I turning back. I was already late and needed to make up time. I drove a little faster just to compound my stupidity. Not entirely comfortable with my decision, I glanced down at the gauge. Definitely well below the line. Tully's warning buzzed around in my head like a demented bee, calling me a fool. A weathered billboard loomed out of the night and proclaimed, last gas before Naples. It probably wasn't true.
Billboards in Florida aren't known for truth in advertising. What really caught my eye was the little white add-on at the bottom: open 24 hrs. I slowed, trying to decide. I was at the turnoff before I really made up my mind.
It was the name of the road that caught me and pulled me in. It was called Last Chance Road. Silly and laughable-last chances don't come with signs-but I braked and pulled onto the narrow strip of pavement leading away from the highway, hoping for one final opportunity to get it right.
Only inches above the water, the long dark road was a narrow chute through six-foot-tall grasses. Devoid of buildings and leading nowhere but to the gas bar, it had an ominous and lonely quality. It made me feel trapped.
Red eyes shone in my headlights. A gator. I slowed, barely at a crawl as I went by him. If I hit the twelve-foot-long monster . . . not something I wanted to think about. When I was a kid, alligator sightings were much rarer. Now, after thirty years as a protected species, they're everywhere, including the roads. I drove on towards the faint light glowing above the grasses to my right, wary and cautious. A litany of scary possibilities could be waiting at the end of Last Chance Road. If the station was closed, I'd have wasted precious resources. There was no place to pull over or turn around. Going back wasn't an option until I got to the end. Last Chance came with no choices.
I was half expecting the sign to be lying, but when I swung into the small clearing, created from a mound of shells scooped out of the swamp, I saw two pumps and a small store. The lights were on; it seemed a normal, everyday gas station. While the bright neon was reassuring, there was no vehicle anywhere on the parking apron. Was the building empty? Were the pumps working?
The sound of gas actually running into the tank brought a heartfelt sigh of relief. I hadn't made a mistake. I congratulated myself on getting something right for a change. While the tank filled, I pulled my top loose from my body, shaking it to let the hot night air circulate over my skin, and then leaned back against the pickup to study the soft spring night.
Martini Regrets is now available for pre-order;
A new series from the author of the popular Sherri Travis Mysteries
Singer Brown's life takes a nosedive after the suspicious death of her lover, Michael, a roadie for a rock band called Vortex. Twenty years later, she is looking for revenge. In a thick fog, a ferry docks on Glenphiddie Island and Singer's decrepit van unloads. The homeless singer is there to find the man who destroyed her life all those years ago. But she arrives too late. Someone has already killed Vortex's lead singer, Johnny Vibes. And now the murderer is coming after Singer. Each of the former band members is hiding sins, both old and new-secrets worth killing for. But Singer has one potential ally: Johnny Vibes's wife, who has just as much to lose as Singer. While trying to clear her name and solve the mystery of Michael's death, Singer enters a dangerous and deadly world of jealousy, greed, and murder. Set in the Pacific Northwest, this series follows Singer Brown, a musician who sings on the streets for coins and watches life ebb and flow around her. With a knack for being in the right place at the wrong time, Singer is one of society's invisible people. And being unseen is an incredible advantage to have when you're digging for secrets.
Some scenes from Glenphiddie Island
Here is Chapter 1 of Long Gone Man:
Chapter 1The singer leaned towards the dash, straining to see the road. The fog, which had hovered just above the road at the bottom of the mountain, now obscured everything beyond the six feet of pavement directly in front of the van. The swirling veil lifted for a brief moment to reveal a sharp curve to the left and the tips of evergreens growing a hundred feet below the roadway.
She pulled hard to the left, away from the edge, as the fog closed in again.
A loud screeching of metal on rock filled the cab as the van reached the curve and scraped the jagged rock face. She jerked the wheel to the right.
She edged a little farther to the right, to where she thought the road should be. Had she moved over far enough? Impossible to tell how close she was to the rim, and if she made a mistake the trees growing below the road were the only thing that would slow the van's plummet down the face of Mount Skeena.
A soft mewling sound alarmed the singer until she realized it came from her. She forced herself to breathe deeper, to relax her locked fingers and fight the panic that would make her overreact and cause a disaster. She eased farther left, terrified to be in the path of downward traffic but more afraid to lose the road.
She cursed. The hate that brought her to Glenphiddie Island had driven her beyond caution. You waited twenty years; one more night would have been nothing, she thought. But hatred is an emotion that ignores prudence.
The singer hadn't planned on being so late. She thought she had perfectly calculated the time needed to make the three ferries necessary for the trip from Vancouver to Glenphiddie Island, an island so small that it wasn't even on the map of Canada that was mounted on the wall of the ferry terminal. Only a dotted red line out into the Pacific showed the Island Queen's destination. Stuck on the dock in Sidney, watching and worrying as fog rolled in, delay seemed like the worst possible thing that could happen. And then, for a brief space of time, she'd felt jubilant, as hers was the last vehicle loaded onto the car carrier before the red barrier went down.
As the Island Queen moved slowly through the fog, sounding its horn, she realized she would rather have been back on the dock waiting for morning and the next sailing. Her apprehension had sent her out into the fog to walk the deck, straining to see anything on the water, any obstacle waiting to ram them.
It was close to ten o'clock when they finally docked safely in the harbor. She joined the thin conga line of cars clattering down the ramp to begin the drive over the toe of Mount Skeena towards the small town of Kilborn ten miles north.
The fog had eased during the crossing. It seemed like a portent of good things to come. She counted three roads on her left before she turned. She'd never been on Glenphiddie Island before and was going on a stranger's instructions on how to find the shortcut up to the top of Mount Skeena. The guy had told her it would save her going into Kilborn and doubling back, cutting at least half an hour off her trip. He hadn't told her that the gravel roads had no signs and it was impossible to tell farm lanes from public roadways.
Her old van rattled down narrow rutted tracks that ended in front of darkened houses. Inside the houses, a light would come on, or a curtain might open, as she made a cautious turn before driving back to the road to try another narrow, twisting path.
Well and truly lost and searching for a safe place to park for the night, she found, quite by accident, a narrow switchback road that led up the mountain. Arriving late at night would give her the added element of surprise. This time she knew she was going to triumph.
That's when the fog closed in and her terror began.
In the fifth Sherri Travis novel, Sherri is barely surviving the economic downturn. Tempted by her Aunt Kay's offer of payment of her mortgage arrears on the Sunset Bar and Grill, Sherri isn't left with any room for mistakes in dealing with a dead woman, a missing baby, and a paranoid meth addict.
It was Sunday morning and I was out on the lanai of my borrowed beach house, sprawled in a canvas lawn chair, with the Sunday Herald discarded at my feet. The bright Florida sun was giving me a headache but I couldn't find the energy to make myself get up and go inside to the air conditioning or even move into the shade from the house. I'd surrendered to lethargy and given up on everything but breathing.
The September air was heavy with humidity. It was ten o'clock in the morning and already the temperature hovered around ninety with the forecast for worse to come. Overhead small white clouds, eager to be gone, rushed across the sky, leaving nothing behind but the drought that wouldn't end.
Elvis flew in with wings extended, neck out and long legs dangling, and came to a running stop. He stepped delicately onto the listing concrete squares and stood there with his head twitching right, then left, and then back again.
"What, do you want applause?"
He cranked his neck around and gave me the evil eye.
"I'm no tourist. I knew you could do it."
Elvis tilted his head to the side.
"Go away you moocher. I'm the only one getting a handout today."
He lifted a stick leg and paused before he set it gingerly down and inched closer.
"There isn't a scrap in that fridge."
He cocked his head, one yellow eye considering me, and his fine white feathers quivering in the light breeze.
"If there was a hotdog in there I'd eat it myself." Elvis was the only egret in all Florida who preferred hotdogs to fish. He couldn't abide those disgusting things no matter how hungry he was.
"Get lost, freak."
Elvis decided I was serious about my lack of charity and lifted off with a squawk of protest to fly north across the sand dunes, back towards Jacaranda, looking for people more benevolent than me.
Since this tiny aqua bungalow was built closer to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico than the new laws allowed, sand dunes and beach grasses were pretty much all I could see from the patio. It didn't matter. All the other beach houses would be empty until the season started after Thanksgiving. I was alone in paradise, solitary and miserable.
Even the chartreuse gecko, darting in and out of the clay pots full of dead flowers, couldn't lift my mood. My business, no my life, the Sunset Bar and Grill, was running on borrowed money and the fumes of my dying dreams.
The winter before the tourist trade had been down, leaving me pirouetting on the edge of bankruptcy, and now I'd reached a crisis point. The Sunset needed an infusion of cash or it wouldn't survive.
I kept telling myself that everything would go back to normal when the long line of cars with out of state license plates started arriving. If I could last until after Thanksgiving, two more months, I stood a chance of keeping the bank from stepping in.
But this nasty, nasty little voice in my head kept saying, "And what if the tourists don't come? What if this is the new normalâ€¦the new state of things?" God, I hate that little voice. It keeps insisting on pointing out truths that I'm quite capable of avoiding.
I tried to think of someone to tap for money, considered all my options, and discovered that there weren't any. When you grow up in a trailer park on the edge of a swamp, you just don't make the right social connections to stave off insolvency.
Try as I might, ignoring reality was no longer working. It was time to make a new plan and decide what I was going to do when it all went down the tubes. I'd read every line in the "help wanted" section of the Herald but nobody wanted bartenders, my only marketable skill.
Changes had to be made. I was identifying the expendable, which server I'd let go and what supplier I could string out a little longer, when I heard a car drive in the crushed shells of the driveway. With a sigh of relief, glad to be distracted from my misery, I went inside to see who my visitor was.
A police car was parked outside the kitchen window. The back door of the cruiser opened. A swollen ankle in a white sneaker appeared below the door. A few seconds later the second foot followed but it took a few more minutes for the stout figure to pull herself to her feet.
I gripped the edge of the sink and stared as my world went tilt.
Overweight, maybe even obese, Aunt Kay's two black raisin eyes peered out of her rice pudding face and her salt and pepper hair sprang up from her head in an uncontrolled tangle of steel wool. Her face was even paler than usual and shining with sweat. Holding onto the top of the door with both hands she stepped around the door and slammed it behind her.
She was dressed in cropped beige pants with a square cut orange flowered blouse, an outfit that did nothing to enhance her appearance. But looks had never been the important thing about Auntie Kay. She had something far rarer than beauty; she was easy to love.
Everything outside looked so bright and sunny and ordinary. But I knew the truth. Elderly ladies don't come visiting in police cars. Aunt Kay was here to deliver bad news.
Frozen in front of the window, I watched her uneven gait as she made her way to the house. My brain was doing a quick survey of potential disasters and came up with too many possibilities to make speculation worthwhile.
When she reached the carport and disappeared from my sight, I rushed to the kitchen door. I stepped out onto the small stoop, holding the screen door open with my butt, and waited as she pulled herself up the rickety wooden steps on knees that no longer bent.
Auntie Kay stopped at the top, gave me a weak smile, and turned to wave at the police car. The cop saluted and reversed out onto Beach Road.
"What are you doing here?" I reached out and kissed her smooth cheek and hugged her , smelling the familiar odor of rose scented talc. The fragrance brought back memories of comfort and safety.
"What's happened?" Suddenly, I was desperate to hear the worst, needing to know the full extent of the nameless horror about to crash into me. "Why is a cop delivering you to my door and how did you know where to find me?" Questions fell out of my mouth in a frantic jumble, leaving her no room to respond. "I'm sorry I didn't call and tell you I'd moved." I took her hand. "What's happened?"
I tried to hug her again but Aunt Kay shook me off and went, "Oh for goodness sake, Sherri, give me a minute."
I held the door while she went inside, dropped her bag on the table, took a deep breath, and then let the air out all in a rush. "I wanted to tell you before you heard it from someone else." She stopped talking and stood there, head down, staring at the floor.
I went to her. "Sit down." I pulled out a chair and waited while Aunt Kay braced herself on the table with both hands and settled herself down with a sigh.
I poured a glass of water and set it in front of her. And I waited.
Auntie Kay had been my afterschool caregiver through most of grade school and my weekend minder while my mother worked and Tully Jenkins, my mostly absent father, was either in disgrace or hauling oranges north.
I liked going to Auntie Kay's. It was close to my best friend Marley Hemming's house and there was always a jumble of kids to play with. Later, when I was too old to need watching, and an abusive man moved in with my mother, Auntie Kay's was my safe place to hide from his hands. She never turned me away or pushed me to tell her what was bothering me but just accepted that I needed to be there.
Now I sat down across from her and watched her drink the water, trying to be patient while my hands clutched each other and my mind chased shadows. Someone had to be dead. My first thought was Clay. But he was up at Cedar Key and Auntie Kay barely knew him.
It couldn't be Marley. She was out at Clay's ranch with Tully and if either of them were dead the other would have called. But what if they were both dead? I reached out to touch Auntie Kay's arm. It felt chilled and damp, like her blood had gone cold. "Just tell me."
"Holly Mitchell?" I said the name just to be sure I had the right personâ€¦that I'd heard correctly.
Auntie Kay nodded. "She's dead."
CHAMPAGNE FOR BUZZARDS is the 4th book in the Sherri Travis series. Let's start with the opening:
The back door to the bar opened, filling the Florida night with Zydaco music. Foot stomping and loud, it set the air pulsing with rhythm. A man pushed through the door, stumbled down the single step, cursed and grabbed hold of the tailgate of a red pick-up to stop his forward motion. Slumped against the truck, he swore, gave a loud belch, and cursed again, holding on and waiting for the world to right itself.
Behind him the door opened. The drunk threw his right arm back along the tailgate, swiveling his body to face the new arrival. With arms splayed along the tailgate for support he looked up and demanded "What the fuck do you want?" his voice, slurred and thick, showed no fear.
The new arrival looked down the empty hallway behind him and then reached back inside for the light switch. The alley went black as the exit door sighed shut.
Clay has asked Sherri to go to a decorating shop in Jacaranda to look at the design for the redo of his ranch house. Sherri doesn't know she's carrying an uninvited passenger in the back of her little red pickup.
"I'll just show you the boards. Clay has been a little undecided about this. Bringing me a shallow basket filled with material swatches, all browns and beige and other muddy colors, she said, "These are the materials."
Laura Thorne glided towards the wall covered in pictures while I stared down at the basket full of shit.
"Isn't there any color?" I fingered the nubby coarse materials. "You've seen the ranch house, it's Victorian. It needs color."
She turned to face me, raising one eyebrow in surprise or was it disgust? "Oh? I didn't know you were an interior designer." She stretched her mouth. "Oh, that's right, you aren't. You're a bartender."
Sherri, Marley, Tully and Uncle Ziggy are out at Clay's ranch, getting ready for Clay's surprise birthday part. Sherri does her best to meet the neighbors in the local ranch town of Independence, she does her best to fit in. It doesn't go well. Not only is there a murderer on the loose but one neighbor is a psychopath and another, well let's just say the rest are not a whole lot better.
LAST CALL This is the seventh book in the Sherri Travis series following Dirty Martini. Set in Key West where....
The Ramrod Saloon down in Key West was a swirling kaleidoscope of waiters disguised as cowboys and hookers disguised as ladies. The music, country and western, much of it from a bygone era, was too loud, the laugher was on the edge of crazed and everything was in motion. The wide eyed tourists, fresh off of cruise liners were already thinking how they were going to describe this bar when they got back to Omaha. How do you explain freaks and sideshows? But in truth, that night, it was the tourists from middle America who looked most odd.
"So, can you still pee standing up?" Marley asked.
Cee Cee arched an elegant eyebrow at me.
"Don't look at me," I told Cee Cee, "Marley is flying solo here. I have enough trouble with my own, 'open mouth insert foot,' moments."
Cee Cee gave a resigned sigh and reached out a beautiful manicured had for her wine glass. Even though the hand was a little larger than might be expected, it was still fine-boned and elegant, with jewels sparkling from every finger.
Marley and Sherri have a deal - no reality for the whole weekend, no talk of jobs, love life or family. The penalty for bringing up Jacaranda is five bucks. And there's no calling home. Let the good times roll. But, here in this glamorous tropical paradise, Sherri and Marley are about to uncover a dangerous underbelly.
Marley meets a man, leaving Cee Cee and Sherri to go out on the town without her. The fun is about to end.
"What are you wearing," Cee Cee called from her bedroom.
"One thing I've learned," I yelled back, "You can't compete with drag queens so the best thing to do is to keep it real simple. I'm wearing high heeled sandals, a black sleeveless turtle neck and slim black slacks and a uterus."
"The Sunset's dining room runs along the front, facing west and overlooking the beach, which gives diners an unobstructed view of the sun setting out towards Texas. Originally, back in the early twenties when the building housed a hotel,a balcony ran along the front of the second storey. Later the balcony was closed in with Palladian windows, and in the early nineties the wall between the two rooms was removed. The new space was two steps lower than the old dining room, giving the room a theatrical feel, enhanced by the nightly round of applause as the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. For a few seconds each evening everyone paused to watch the sun dip below the rim of the world, setting the sky on fire with reflected glory."
"I drove through the town of Jacaranda, past houses sheltering under live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, past old Florida-style houses with wide verandas running across the front and metal roofs shining in the sun.There's a whole parcel of white clapboard churches, and everywhere you look scarlet bougainvillea and orange trumpet vine climb on fences and sheds."
Jacaranda was already starting to feel deserted, but for now the sun shone, the air was fresh and satin smooth on the skin and the only hint of what nature had in store for us was the stiff breeze blowing onshore. But I knew what to expect and it made every weather beaten wall, covered in scarlet flowers, heartbreakingly precious. Turning down Banyan Street, the town never looked more perfect. The joy of it caught in my throat.
It was a day designed by the board of trade to lure tourists and their money from the snow up North, a clear fine day, a good day to be out on the water with temperatures in the seventies, warm for January. The incoming tide gently lapped at the shoreline at my feet. I stood there between clumps of seagrapes and searched the water, looking for some sign that would tell me what had happened, why a ball of flame had shot into the sky. A light breeze smelling of saltwater and fish was blowing, but I was sure I could smell gas and burning wreckage. Only the remains of a horseshoe crab at my feet spoke of death. There was no debris. No charred remains of boat or man. No sign left on the water of the Suncoaster, or of Jimmy-just sunlight dancing off water nearly as blue as the sky. A brown pelican flew north up the Inland Waterway towards Jacaranda, its wings going up and down in the same unhurried peaceful rhythm all pelicans seem to use, like they're going to fall out of the sky at any second if they don't hurry up.
The wind grew worse as I crossed to the gulf side of the island and turned south onto Beach Road. Out in the mountainous waves the odd surfer still challenged nature. Some guys live for this kind of surf and the hotdoggers would be the last to leave the sand, risking their very lives to catch crazy-big waves. I clenched the wheel, struggling to keep to my side of the road while the wind raged and blew and danced the pickup around, making it more like tacking than driving. Sand and sea spray covered the windows. Wind bent the palms in half and set the light standards trembling. What was happening here? We should have had hours before the storm got this strong. I told myself it was only because there was no protection. Things would be better on other parts of the island.
From "And a Brewski for the Old Man"
She looked like an unmade bed in a cheap motel; faded, grubby and sagging, and not a good place to stretch out unless you were desperate.
"What you staring at, Miss Uptown Gal?"
"I'm sorry if I was staring."
She took a deep drag on her cigarette.
"You and I aint so different."
And that was what was so frightening. She recognized me right off. Some instinct told her we were sisters.
From Champagne and Buzzards
Twenty-five minutes down the road, at the boiled peanut and veggies stand, I made the turn onto the highway and back into the modern world. The freeway running north south up the western side of Florida separates the two realities, the high rise - high rent area along the coast and the farm towns time forgot to the east. It was like crossing a magic line from the past to the present. Now I stepped on the gas, speeding up to join the world again.
The Town of Independence
He made a patting downward motion with his hand. I took it to mean he wanted me to stay down close to the water. Then he beckoned for me to come. I rolled on my belly and started to crawl through the reeds after him, no longer worried about leeches. Tully pushed the canoe ahead of him. I wanted to raise my head enough to search for the men but didn't. I was going strictly on instinct here, instinct and a thousand adventure movies. Mostly I was following my Dad and trusting to his sixty years of survival. We moved deeper into the reed bed in the shallow bay. Here and there, where it was as much land as marsh, bushes were growing out of the grasses, offering us concealment. We hovered behind them without moving, waiting until Tully decided it was time to move then we went on to the next clump of shrubs, angling toward a denser area, thicker than the last but still I could see glimpses of the lake through it. Tully leaned in close to me, his breath warm on my cheek. "They're waiting for us to break cover." I stayed as still as I could, staring into the emerald green bush in front of me. Five minutes passed and then ten. A red-wing black bird landed on the bush, startling me. Tully reached out a hand to my shoulder. More time passed before we heard them.