eBook: 9781942052548 ($3.99)
Trade Paperback: 9781942052555
Housewife assassin Donna Stone's mission: go under deep cover in order to investigate the resurrection of known terrorists where were thought to be long dead and buried.
Drop Dead Gorgeous
Nobody wants to drop dead.
And yet, for some odd reason, the rest of us are all the more upset when someone young and gorgeous is “taken before her time.”
“Why her?” we lament. “She had her whole life ahead of her!”
On the upside, she also avoided wrinkling and withering into a little old lady—not to mention having her spouse leave her for some young chippy.
She will not feel dismayed on birthdays by those who patronizingly proclaim, brightly if not sincerely, “You don’t look a day over (fill in the blank) ha, ha! Everyone, let’s give her a big hand…”
I purposely mix metaphors when I say “age before swine.”
Should you have the choice to either flame out as a bright young thing, or age honestly and gracelessly, do yourself a favor: choose the latter.
Truth is, the longer they know you, the harder it is to forget you—and that’s your true endgame, isn’t it?
Dying young is SO overrated.
* * *
“Quit gawking.” I don’t have to move my sunglasses, let alone open my eyes, to chastise my husband, Jack.
“Why would you even assume I’m staring?” Hearing his deep chuckle, I suppress a grin. His question serves as a challenge.
“We’re on a beach in Biarritz,” I remind him. “Of course you’re staring at someone. Someone who is more than likely topless.” With my eyes still closed, I point toward our left. “C’est-là.”
Jack shifts in his lounge chair so that he can lift the brim of my hat in order to stare down at me. “How the hell did you know?”
Before opening my eyes, I sigh, then remove my sunglasses and look left.
As I suspected, three comely filles, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old, lay on beach blankets a few yards away. One is on her back. Her naked breasts are already reddened by the glaring sun. Another is on her side. The plum of her comely backside, topped with a tramp stamp of entwined hearts and split by a thong, is pointed in our direction.
The third girl, a waifish gamine with white blond hair and a deep tan, is raised in a cobra pose on her beach blanket. Her naked breasts, now gravitationally erect, resemble over-inflated zeppelins flying in tandem.
Even our nineteen year-old cabana boy, Jean-Pierre, pauses the vigorous shaking of our mid-day martini in order to hear my answer.
In all honesty, I had a fifty-fifty chance that Jack was looking left as opposed to right. Luck of the draw. Not that I’ll willingly admit it. “Simple deduction. You’ve been too quiet for much too long. At the same time you haven’t turned a page in your book.”
“It’s Moby Dick. It takes at least an hour to fathom each damn paragraph.”
“Liar. You were reading—and I use that term lightly—the latest swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated.” I glance in the direction of Jean-Pierre. “Admit I’m right, or else I’ll ask our manservant to give me another massage.”
“Busted,” Jack’s reluctant apology comes with a sly grin. “Sorry. Poor choice of words.”
“I’ll write it off to topless-of-mind awareness.” I lower my shades so that he can see my wink.
“You know, you could cut me some slack.” He too nods toward Jean-Pierre.
I don’t mind that Jack thinks the kid has a crush on me. But I know it’s because I’m a good tipper, so I shrug. “Done. I do concede, however, that prime beefcake trumps three cream puffs any day.”
Up until now, Jean-Pierre has been ignoring the girls. French society’s blasé attitude toward nudity has made him immune to their all too obvious attributes. But now that he’s taken a better look at them, his face turns bright red—to my relief, not because I’ve embarrassed him. “Merde! The one at the far end—she is Nicolette Beauchamp!”
“Who?” I ask.
“I am sorry.” He shakes off his anger. “She is…an old friend of mine.”
As red as his face just turned, I’m sure she is more than that to him still.
He answers my questioning eyes with a shrug. “A long time ago. We were merely enfants. In the meantime we’ve grown up, and apart.” He shifts his gaze in her direction. His longing is all too obvious. “Her mother is Martine, a chambermaid here at the hotel. Should she see Nicolette sunbathing sans un maillot de bain, she will be—how do you say…livid? Our hotelier looks down his nose on any impertinence from the staff or their families. The guests…” He bites his lips. “Well, one may get the wrong idea, n'est-ce pas?”
I nod. “To put it mildly. I know I’d feel the same way if it were my daughter.”
Jack picks up a pair of binoculars. “Looks like we have company.”
He’s right. Just beyond Nicolette yet another super-yacht is jockeying for position amongst the many that dot the calm turquoise waters just a few hundred feet from these golden shores. At four hundred or more feet in length and six bridges high, the ship could be mistaken for a small aircraft carrier, easily dwarfing the other behemoths around it. The bow of the lower bridge has been hollowed out, exposing a swimming pool surrounded by chaises and an outdoor bar.
Scrolled on the stern is its name—Divide and Conquer—and its homeport: Antibes.
Jean-Pierre frowns. I can barely make out what he mutters under his breath. However, the phrases “brûle en l’enfer,” “fils de pute,” and that classic standby, “merde,” are all recognizable.
I feel my brow arching. “I take it you know the yacht’s owner.”
“Oui, Madame. He is a very wealthy Saudi Arabian.’” His sneer comes with an eye roll. “He built that monstrosity over there.” He points to a mansion on a cliff over a strip of beach on the right of us.
I shake my head in awe. “Interesting. And I thought that was just another hotel!” An honest mistake, considering that it is larger than any other structure flanking the beach.
“If only, Madame. The citizenry of our little town is…how do you say in English…‘up in arms’ because he has requisitioned the beach in front of it for his private use. He has an entourage of over a thousand friends and family.”
“It looks as if his security detail is a third of it.” Jack gazes at the empty wedge of beach sprawled under the rocky shoreline. A battalion of guards are lined up, perpendicular to the shoreline. If anyone attempts to go around them, they are shooed away with batons.
One of the girls—Thong—has also noticed the yacht. She nudges Nipples, who then sits up straight.
The tweet of a cell phone sends Nicolette rolling onto her back. She reaches for her beach bag and reads her text, then raises her sunglasses above her eyes in order to scrutinize the yacht’s crew as they ready the onboard helicopter for their boss, a broad-shouldered man in a suit. The whirlwind caused by the helicopter’s rotating rudders cause his keffiyeh to flap around his shoulders, but it doesn’t deter him from texting on his cell phone.
Nicolette and he seem to tap off simultaneously. The reason for this becomes obvious when she waves at the copter as it hovers over her—and us—before alighting on the concrete deck adjacent to the cordoned-off sand.
She doesn’t rise to greet him. Instead, she waits for one of his cronies to fetch her and her friends. Before sashaying off, she tosses on a tight T-shirt. Then she turns and smiles at Jean-Pierre.
He drops his head in defeat.
Nipples follows her. Thong, however, hesitates. She glances over at Jean-Pierre and blushes. Noting his scowl, she still blows him a kiss.
“She’s quite beautiful,” I point out.
“Gigi Marchand likes to pretend that she is in love with me,” Jean-Pierre mutters. “Nicolette and the other girl—Suzette Caron—encourage it.”
“And you don’t want to play along?” Jack counters.
A ghost of a smile alights on Jean-Pierre’s lips. Still, he shakes his head. “We all have our fantasies, eh?” His eyes are drawn to Nicolette and her lover.
So are everyone else’s on the beach, for good reason. Their embrace is so erotic that heads of passersby seem to pivot a full three hundred and sixty degrees.
The man finally lets her go in order to lead her and her friends toward the helicopter.
“They aren’t going into the grand villa?” I murmur to Jean-Pierre.
Jean-Pierre shakes his head adamantly. “He would not want his mistress to run into his wife. The yacht is his domain solely. ”
“What did you say his name was?” Jack asks.
Jean-Pierre mutters, “al-Sadah.”
Jack turns toward me. His stare mirrors mine. Salem Rahmin al-Sadah was a recent titular head of the Quorum, a terrorist funding organization.
He is also recently dead—thanks to moi.
Trust me, I had good cause to take him out. He’d plotted to infiltrate an anti-terrorism summit hosted by the president of the United States, Lee Chiffray, in order to murder those in his region who seek peace.
He also tried to rape me on the eve of my wedding. I’d say I owed him a very long good-bye.
Salem could not have survived it. I know, because I watched him die.
Jack lays his hand on my arm. “Probably a brother, or a cousin. Remember, it’s a big family.”
I shiver, not because of any chill—after all, the sun shines overhead—but because it felt as if someone walked across my grave.
Or crawled out of one.
Just then, the helicopter takes off. It swoops low over us before arcing back over the water toward the yacht.
In its wake, my sunhat flies off, skipping over the sand before landing in the tide.
It floats downstream, toward al-Sadah’s palace.
“Oh, hell,” I mutter. “It was my favorite. Now it’s ruined.”
Jack laughs as he takes me by my wrists in order to lift me off my chaise. “Don’t worry. I’ll buy you a new one—but not now. It’s siesta time.”
This is code for our afternoon delight. It is part of a daily ritual.
Our hotel was once a private villa. Its greatest feature is that it is small in comparison to the others along the beach, and that it has a handful of private cabanas staggered along the beach.
Ours juts out over the ocean. During high tide, when the waves slap against the pylons beneath our room, we feel as if we’re floating out on the sea.
A large round bed is centered in the room, which is glassed in on three sides. Two face either end of the beach, while the third affords us a straight-on ocean view.
Wall-to-ceiling drapes give us complete privacy from the beach sides, if that is what we desire. We’ve yet to open them. Needless to say, we’ve been sleeping like newborns, partying like co-eds during Spring Break, and making love like the newlyweds we are.
So then, why do I feel as if our honeymoon is over?
“You’re not here with me,” Jack murmurs, despite the fact that I am nestled, naked, in the crook of his arm.
As usual, his intuition is spot on. My mind is a million miles away—in this case, the Beverly Wilshire on the day of my rendezvous with Salem Rahmin al-Sadah. My game plan was to retrieve intel secreted in his ring bearing the crest of the Quorum. His was to dominate me into sexual submission.
I got the ring. He got a bullet to the heart.
Now, I wonder: did Salem survive my kill shot? And, if so, how?
Under normal circumstances, post-coitus isn’t the best time for post-op analysis. Still, Jack asked, so in for a dime, in for a dollar. “Hearing the name al-Sadah spooked me, I guess.” I lift my head so that I can gauge his reaction to what I say next. “Jack, don’t you find it strange that Salem’s death was never made public? Why have we never heard a word about it?”
“Acme cleaned up behind us.” Hearing the wariness in my tone, he adds, “Would it make you feel better if I called Ryan to confirm?”
“No, no—don’t! I mean…well, we’ve been gone almost two weeks now, and we’ve held to our vow to stay away from work and home.” By the time I’ve flipped over onto his chest, I’ve got a smile on my face. “I guess I’m a little bored…not to mention homesick.”
Hearing this, his left brow almost hits the ceiling. “Oh, really? Despite having all of Hilldale on twenty-four hour surveillance?”
Okay, he’s right. As far as my three children are concerned, I’ve not exactly gone dark. I’m monitoring Mary, Jeff, and Trisha’s comings and goings, as well as those of our legal ward, Evan Martin.
“A parent can never be too diligent.” Even to my own ears, my retort sounds a bit defensive. To make my point, I add, “Have you forgotten they’re with Aunt Phyllis? It’s akin to leaving the craziest inmate in charge of the asylum!”
Jack shrugs. “Granted, she’s been lax about the amount of TV they watch, and the number of video games they’re allowed to play—”
“To say nothing about late bedtimes and the number of sleepovers she’s allowed,” I remind him. “Our home is now Hilldale’s teen party central! And let’s face it: she turns a blind eye to the obvious attraction between Mary and Evan. Since we’ve been gone, their flirting has become a full-court press.”
“Donna, doll, you’re jumping to all kinds of unfounded conclusions—”
“Unfounded?” It’s my turn to hike a brow. “They’ve been sneaking off to the playhouse in the back. It’s the only place on the property that doesn’t have a webcam.” Suddenly, I sit straight up in bed. “Oh, my God! There’s a bed in there! Granted, it’s only a twin—”
He pulls me back down into his arms. Gently, he puts a finger against my lips. “It’s only natural that they feel empathy toward each other. They’ve both suffered public humiliations: parents who committed heinous crimes, as well as the personal tragedies of a parent’s death. In Evan’s case, both his father and mother. How many kids their age can say that?”
I flinch, knowing that my mother’s fight with terminal breast cancer still haunts me. I was only eleven when she died.
Noting my reaction, Jack traces the curve of my face with his index finger. He has always been tender with me after lovemaking. But since his escape from Mexico, sadness deepens his already dark green eyes.
I concede with a nod. “You’re right. I’m overreacting. I guess I’m antsy because I’m not use to just being…well, happy.” I sigh. “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Jack’s kidnapping, on the night of our nuptials, almost killed us, and I mean that quite literally. While his sadistic captor pitted him in a series of death matches against other prisoners, I was at the beck and call of another of the Quorum’s notorious leaders, Eric Weber.
Eric promised to release Jack if I followed through on a series of tasks that, when completed, would have marked me as a domestic terrorist. I did the tasks, but I had help. My team at Acme Industries shadowed my every move so that any intel I passed was black propaganda, and the kidnapping of an aeronautic scientist working on a top secret government project was extracted into WITSEC—the US Marshall’s Witness Security Program.
Granted, there was one screw-up: my final mission was to exterminate my boss, Ryan Clancy.
Eric’s directive was delivered at a time when I was naked, both in the Biblical sense and in the vernacular of our business—that is to say, I had no backup, and therefore no way to warn Ryan that I’d be gunning for him.
To save Jack, the hit had to take place.
So, yeah, I killed my boss and mentor.
As it turns out, Acme had my room bugged. Without my knowledge, Ryan’s death was faked. I would say “all’s well that ends well” except for the fact that despite jumping through all those hoops, I still almost lost Jack, both physically and emotionally.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend the rest of our honeymoon reliving the worst day of our lives.” If Jack’s vow echoes my very thoughts, his actions speak louder than words. He kisses me: first, fiercely; but soon his actions become a drawn out achingly gentle game of touch and feel.
He’s in it to win it.
He gains big points as his lips slide down my neck and between my breasts. There, he pauses for a moment. His eyes shifting to my right breast, then to the left, like a kid who has landed on a Candy Land game board and doesn’t know which way to turn.
The left proves the luckier of the two.
His mouth seems to swallow it whole. Instinctively, I brace for the tingle due to come from the feel of his tongue on my nipple. Soon, I’m moaning from the pleasure of his touch. But in no time he has circled back down into the valley of my bosom and over to my right breast, licking my nipple until it too goes taut.
His lips meander. The stubble on his cheek tickles the slight swell of my belly. He takes my frenzied groan as the signal to quit teasing me.
He’s right. It’s time for the main event.
As Jack enters me, his body, cantilevered by his thick muscled arms, hovers over mine.
His eyes open wide in rapturous adoration. The late afternoon sun’s rays, streaming through the undulating curtains, fan out behind his head, crowning him with a halo.
Am I imagining it? No. He is my protector.
The one true love of my life.
His thrusts, steady and deep, fill my heart with joy. As Jack’s ecstasy swells within me, all thoughts scatter from my mind, like crispy leaves whipped out of reach by a brisk autumn gale.
Finally, spent, he shudders as he collapses onto me.
We lay there for some time, chest to breast. His heart pulsates in tandem with mine.
As it should be.
A scream us wakes from our post-coital slumber.
The wailing doesn’t stop, but only gets louder, more agitated. A moment later, voices are raised in raucous accusations.
The chorus of shouts also gets louder as time goes by.
Jack groans. Still, he unfurls his arms and legs from me in order to ease himself from our bed. His small nod to modesty is to open the curtain only partially, in order to view the ruckus.
It is evening. Right now the only light is coming off the super yachts. The glow, mirrored in still waters, casts long shadows on the man who still thrills me. It darkens his soulful eyes, heightens his cheekbones, and etches the sinews of his muscular physique. If his curls were alabaster instead of naturally dark brown, I’d swear he was a sculpture by Michelangelo.
My newly piqued lust quickly dissipates under the singsong blare of police sirens. I leap out of bed, too, scooping up a fallen robe and wrapping it around me before joining Jack at the window.
From what I can tell, a crowd has gathered on the beach a mere hundred yards from our terrace. Police officers seem to have taken control, shooing away the gawkers.
“A drowning?” I wonder out loud.
I’ve barely had time to take note of the action when we hear a rap on our door. I tie my robe tight around my middle while Jack slips into loose sweat pants and a T-shirt. When I see he’s fully clothed, I open the door.
Two policemen face us. Jean-Pierre stands between them. He is wet and smeared with sand. Tears and fear brighten his red-rimmed eyes.
What the hell is going on?
“Oui, les agents?” Jack’s nonchalance doesn’t betray his own shock and awe.
As he asks, the nose of the older and bulkier of the two officers twitches. Perhaps he has noted our post-coital musk. “Pardonnez-nous, Monsieur and Madame Craig. May we have a moment of your time?” Switching to English is a courtesy proffered by most public servants along the French coastline, which is heavily trafficked by British and American tourists.
“But of course.” Having lived in this country for many years, Jack’s French is excellent, but for my benefit, he responds likewise. He leans forward in order to read the officer’s nametag. Noting it, he nods. “How may we help you, Captain Duclos?”
The younger officer hides his smirk in a cough. Perhaps it has something to do with Jack’s generous promotion for his partner, a mere beat cop.
“Jean-Pierre Gambon claims he has spent the last few hours here, with you. Can you confirm this?” Duclos’s way to silence Jean-Pierre before he says anything is to clamp his hand so hard on our cabana boy’s shoulder that he winces.
Jack looks to me, then to Jean-Pierre.
Jean-Pierre’s eyes say it all: Help me.
Before Jack opens his mouth, I purr, “He gives wonderful massages, Captain. You should try one some time.”
Duclos’s response to my suggestion is a wary glare. “This is not a joking matter, Madame. Jean-Pierre was found on the beach, clinging to the body of a dead woman: Nicolette Beauchamp.”
Jack’s smile fades. “But—if she has drowned, why detain Jean-Pierre?”
Duclos shakes his head. “Drowned? Non. She was strangled. The coroner will soon determine the time of death.” Duclos turns to me. “I ask you again, Madame: when exactly did you receive your massage?”
Jean-Pierre’s mouth gapes open, but nothing comes out. His eyes implore me to save him.
To believe him.
For some reason, I do. When Jean-Pierre looked at Nicolette, his eyes were filled with adoration. With love.
And, sadly, regret.
He has so much more to regret now.
“Jack’s massage was first. It ran over an hour, didn’t it, Jack?” I turn innocently to my husband.
His eyebrow arches. Still, he nods his head. “Yours was immediately afterward. And about the same amount of time.” His tone leaves no room for doubt.
The younger officer takes a pad from his pocket and scribbles this down.
Duclos scowls. “Again, Monsieur, what time were these massages?”
“Well…” Jack looks skyward, as if searching his memory. “Jean-Pierre left only, say, a half hour before the sirens began.”
“And only because I asked him to walk out onto the beach. I’d misplaced my sun hat. It’s black, with a white band around the rim,” I add. I tilt my head in Jean-Pierre’s direction. “By the way, did you find it?”
Slowly, Jean-Pierre shakes his head. Still stunned, he says nothing.
Inspector Duclos is no idiot. He realizes his number one suspect has not just one alibi, but two. His grip loosens on Jean-Pierre. With a tip to the brim of his hat, he growls, “Good night, Madame and Monsieur.”
“Wait! Officer, aren’t you going to ask us what we might know about Nicolette’s whereabouts?”
This stops Duclos in his tracks. “Oui, Madame. And what may that be?”
“Late this afternoon, the young lady was sunbathing beside us, along with two of her friends. When a humongous yacht dropped anchor, they ran over to the owner’s helicopter and flew back to it with him—what is his name again? You know, the Middle-Eastern gentleman that owns the big pink monstrosity on the hill?”
The color drains from Duclos’s face. “Salem al-Sadah?”
So, it is Salem after all.
But how could that be?
“Yes, that’s the man,” I assure him. “She welcomed him on the beach. Everyone around saw it. In fact, she was talking to him on his phone as his helicopter landed beside us. I remember this because I lost my hat because of it.”
“I’m sure what my wife said can be verified by Mademoiselle Beauchamp’s cell phone records,” Jack adds. “Since Mr. al-Sadah may have been the last person to see her alive, why don’t you start your investigation there?”
Duclos’s lips pucker at this new information, and no wonder. If what Jean-Pierre said earlier—that the local police are paid to look the other way at al-Sadah’s indiscretions—I assume he’s not too eager to poke at that bear.
Well, too bad. It beats blaming an innocent man.
Finally, Duclos shrugs. “The gentleman is having a private party on his yacht, as we speak. A masked ball! But of course tomorrow morning we will inquire as to any such rendezvous.”
“Mr. al-Sadah does not like to be bothered before noon,” Duclos’s partner reminds him. “In fact, the captain mentioned that the Divide and Conquer leaves port early in the morning.”
His honesty earns him a scowl from Duclos.
“Seriously, you’re just going to let him float away?” I taunt him. “You have a dead woman on your hands—for that matter, maybe more than one. Nicolette’s friends accompanied her and al-Sadah. Have you questioned them? What will you do if two more bodies end up on the beach?”
“If you’re implying that Mr. al-Sadah had anything to do with this tragedy, I assure you, Madame, nothing could be further from the truth.”
Jack steps so close to Duclos that they are face to face. “You don’t know if you don’t ask.”
Shame rises in a red blush on Duclos’s face. Still, he says nothing.
“If you’ll excuse us, now, it’s the cocktail hour.” Jack’s nods toward the suite’s fully stocked bar. He takes out a twenty-euro note and sticks it in top left pocket of Duclos’s jacket. “Thanks for returning our cabana boy. If we can think of anything else you may want to ignore, we’ll be sure to give you a call.”
I link one arm into Jean-Pierre’s in order to draw him inside the room. The other arm firmly closes the door behind us.
“They thought I killed Nicolette. Don’t they realize…” Jean-Pierre stares at the door as if he expects the long arm of the law to punch its way back in and pull him out.
“That you love her? A crime of passion always provides a possible suspect, Jean-Pierre. But you didn’t kill her.” Jack’s tone insists that Jean-Pierre confirm this.
“Mais non, Monsieur! You must believe me!”
I pat his arm. “We do, Jean-Pierre. And since we are now your official alibi, you must tell us the truth about your whereabouts since we left you this afternoon, up until you were found with Nicolette on the beach.”
He thinks for a moment. “The concierge told me there had been a request I retrieve the suitcase for another guest from his room and take it in the luggage room. The man was checking out soon. When I took the bag from him, I mentioned I was also the hotel’s masseur. He asked that I accommodate him after dropping off the bag. Of course, I did.”
“Then this guest could contradict us as to your whereabouts,” I point out.
“No! He has…what I mean to say is…” He runs his fingers through his thick curly blond hair. “He will be…discreet. He has too much to lose.”
Jean-Pierre shakes his head. “It is not what you think at all! You see, he too does not want others to know he is here. He is spying on his wife, who is here with her lover.” He shrugs. “Then again, he was here with his lover.”
“How very French,” I murmur.
“Not at all,” Jean-Pierre replies. “From his accent, he could be Austrian.”
The joke is on me, I guess. “What is the man’s name?”
“Smith. John Smith.”
“An old Austrian moniker if I ever heard one.” Jack shakes his head. “How did you end up on the beach beside the body?”
“After Monsieur Smith’s massage, his lover requested one as well. In the meantime, he went for a walk on the beach. When he returned he realized he’d taken off his sunglasses while watching the sunset. Because they were running late to catch their flight, he asked me to retrieve them. I found them a few meters from where Nicolette lay.” He takes the glasses out of his pocket and holds them up. “I would have mentioned them to the police, but while I was being questioned, I noticed their limousine drive off.” He hesitates then adds, “It was an imposition to use your names, but I had no choice! You can see this, oui?”
“Oui,” I mutter. “How convenient that his glasses were practically in the exact spot as Nicolette’s body.”
Jean-Pierre’s eyes open wide. “Do you believe he had anything to do with her death?”
“It is an obvious coincidence,” Jack concedes. “Tell us, Jean-Pierre: what did Monsieur Smith look like?”
Jean-Pierre thinks a moment. “He is a short man, and almost bald. His manner is a bit nervous. Surprisingly, despite the temperature, he chose to wear a wool suit. He also wears glasses—the ones that are circular in shape and tortoise shell in style.”
At that moment, there is a knock on the door.
I open it. A bellhop hands me a suitcase. “Pour Monsieur Craig. Compliments d'un vieil ami.”
“This was sent from an old friend?” I turn to Jack. “But no one knows we’re here. Were you expecting anything?”
He shakes his head.
The bellhop shrugs and walks away, leaving me holding the bag.
And it’s ticking.
Jack hears it too. He grabs it out of my hand and runs toward the door leading out onto the terrace.
Shocked, I watch as he slings the case with all his might toward the sea.
It drops into the water—
Just in the nick of time. Still, the explosion deafens us.
A tidal wave hits us. Jean-Pierre and I are thrown backward, like rag dolls.
My head slams into the wall. Before I pass out, the last thing I remember is Jack flying through the air toward me.
Everyone has at least one ghost story.
Perhaps yours includes a relative, not long deceased, who rose from the dead in order to give you some cryptic message that still stymies you to this day. (You can’t wait to run into her again in the netherworld, if only to discover what the hell she was talking about.)
Or maybe you spent the night in some haunted hostelry, only to discover that your suite came equipped with a king bed, free HBO, a mini-bar, and its very own apparition!
Yada, yada, yada—we’ve heard it all before. If you really want to impress us, you’re going to have to embellish your own tale from the crypt with some hair-raising anecdotes. Here’s how.
First, come up with a bigger, badder spook. A run-in with Casper the Friendly Ghost is a snore.
Next, ratchet up the suspense. Set the mood and build to the actual sighting. In other words, do whatever it takes to get them to lean in, listen up, and freak out.
And finally, make it a happily ever after—for you, not the ghost.
* * *
“Donna…Donna, please, wake up!” Jack’s anxious pleas rouse me from my black oblivion.
My eyelids flutter open to find his face hovering over mine. Concern for me is etched deeply in his brow.
There is a bruise on his forehead. When I touch it, he flinches.
I shake my head, angered that I’ve hurt him. Droplets fall onto my shoulders. I shiver at the memory of the wave that washed over me. Then I realize I’m shaking because I’m wet. Oh, my God—it wasn’t a bad dream after all.
“When the wave hit me, I slammed into you,” Jack explains. “We knocked heads.”
“Ouch! I’m sorry, Jack.” Instinctively, I reach up again, but I stop myself just in time. Jean-Pierre! Is he…”
“I am here, Madame.” I turn to find Jean-Pierre sitting on a chair behind us. He holds a damp compress over his eye. “There is much damage to the room. All of your things are ruined.”
I frown. “It’s the least of my worries. Someone wanted to kill us. I’d like to find out why.” I rummage through the ruins of our room for something to put on that isn’t sopping wet. As luck would have it, a pair of my shorts are hanging off a torchiere lamp. I salvage that, along with one of Jack’s button-down shirts hanging in the closet, and then snap my fingers at Jean-Pierre, indicating that he is to turn around while I dress.
He obliges with a blush.
Not Jack. He flops down on the bed, which was pushed by the wave against the back wall, and takes in the view—me, as opposed to the shoreline. “If we’re going to catch Mr. Smith, first we have to know what he looks like. Jean-Pierre, what are the chances of us viewing archival footage from the hotel’s security cameras?”
“I will take you there now. At least once a week I am asked to relieve the hotel’s security guard; therefore, I’m allowed to access it.”
The only shoes I can find are heels, so hey, they will have to do. But before I can bend down to strap my foot into it, Jack is kneeling at my side. Without a word, he takes it out of my hand. Gently, he places my foot into it.
When he feels the touch of my finger behind his ear, he looks up at me. There is no smile on his face, just adoration.
He is my Prince Charming.
More importantly, he is my life partner.
Yes, I trust him with my life.
My fairy tale spell is broken when Jean-Pierre beckons me from the door. “This way, Madame.”
The honeymoon is officially over.
* * *
“It can’t be him,” Jack murmurs.
A chill goes up my spine. “Who is it?”
“Pinky Ring.” Jack is so shocked that he lowers himself into a chair.
I’ve never seen him so awestruck. I touch his arm to bring him back to the here and now. “I…I don’t know who you mean.”
“He’s a former East German Stasi colonel who was recruited by the Quorum. I chased him down years ago, in London. When he came west, he hid under an alias. Acme never discovered what it was.” Jack frowns. “I watched as he was hit by a bus and then again by a car. By the time I got to him, he was dead. I took his Quorum ring. It contained intel about the Los Angeles attack that put us together.” He freezes the video frame before leaning in for a closer look. “Looks like he’s gotten ahold of another ring.” He points to the man’s hand.
The ring is the twin of one I took off Salem: bling given to only the highest-ranking members of the Quorum. Unlike Salem, who wore it on his right ring finger, this man wears his on the smallest finger of his right hand.
Salem died, as did this man. So, how could it be that we’re seeing them now?
The man is exactly as Jean-Pierre described him: short, fidgety, and immaculately, albeit inappropriately, dressed for Biarritz’s sweltering climate.
On the other hand, the posh woman with him would turn heads in any part of the world. A white sundress drapes her tanned, slim body, which glides along on her four-inch heels as if floating on a cloud. Unfortunately for us, she wears large sunglasses and a hat that covers her hair, obscuring any obvious identifying features.
Still, there is something familiar about her.
After the couple is given their suite’s security key by the desk clerk, they make their way onto the beach path that leads to the cabanas.
“I think I know her—but I can’t put my finger on it,” I point out to Jack. “How about you?”
“You’re right. I wish we had a better shot of her. Jean-Pierre, can you move to a different security feed?”
With a click of a button, we watch as they reach the door to their cabana. As it turns out, it’s just two away from ours.
Pinky Ring’s hand alights on the woman’s shoulder. She shrugs it off.
All this time the bellboy has been waiting patiently behind them, suitcases in tow. His mouth rises into a smirk.
Angered that the bellboy witnessed the rebuff, Pinky Ring waits until the bellman puts their bags into the room before tipping him at the door: a single Euro.
The bellman waits until the door closes, then proffers the greatest insult: hitting his bicep with a Spanish slap.
And yes, the valise that held the bomb was among Pinky Ring’s things.
* * *
Jack shakes his head, still stunned. Finally, he turns to Jean-Pierre. “This is the footage where they arrive at the hotel, am I right?”
Jack taps Jean-Pierre on the shoulder. “Pull up the security camera at the time of their departure.”
Jean-Pierre nods. It takes a few moments to find the approximate timestamp in the feed, but soon he has it up.
Pinky Ring has changed into a tuxedo. However, he is sunburned looking now, much like a lobster plucked from the sea. He trails his lady friend down the steps of the hotel, toward the curb.
Both he and his date wear Venetian facemasks. Her beige armless skintight sheath is sheer, but a spray of diamonds meanders over her breasts and down the center of the dress, front and back, providing some semblance of modesty. It also has a high slit on either side. Her head is wrapped in a matching turban, obscuring any idea of her hair color or its length.
There is certainly something familiar about her. I wish I could put my finger on it…
The bellman struggles with their bags. The one holding the bomb is not among them.
A limo pulls up. The driver jumps out in order to hold the door for the couple, then pops the trunk so that the bellman can stow their bags.
This time, the bellman gets nary a farthing for his efforts.
He lifts his right hand. Two of its fingers are raised into a backward V: the international symbol for “vuck off.”
They drive off, but slow when they are level to the ruckus on the beach. Jean-Pierre frowns at the thought that he may have been set up.
The limo goes another half-mile before turning left onto a cross street. I tap the screen. “There! Why didn’t they turn right, toward the airport?”
“Good point,” Jack murmurs. “Jean-Pierre, where does the left side of the street take them?”
“To the beach pier.”
Jack grimaces. “So that they can access a taxi yacht, to go to, say, the party on the Divide and Conquer?”
I smile. “I’ve always wanted to crash one of Biarritz’s renowned society soirees.”
“But not this one, Madame! The women who attend are strictly there for the pleasure of Monsieur al-Sadah and a select group of his friends, all of whom have ‘la dependence amoureuse.’”
“A love addiction?” Jack’s mouth draws into a smirk.
I can’t help but laugh out loud. “When it comes to al-Sadah, I know how to nip it in the bud.” With, say, another bullet. This time, in the head. It may be messier, but there should be no doubting the result.
Jean-Pierre shakes his head. “I am putting it politely. Every guest brings a putain. She is expected to…er, ‘perform,’ either with the gentleman whom she accompanies, or another guest of his choosing.”
“Orgies?” I try not to laugh. “How perfectly retro!” Well, if that’s the case, my shorts and a T-shirt won’t get me any further than the gangplank. “If we’re going to crash Salem’s party, all I need right now is a gown.”
“You plan on attending?” The question comes at me from both Jack and Jean-Pierre.
“Nicolette was last seen heading for the Divide and Conquer. Her friends may still be there. And now Jack’s pal, Pinky Ring, is on his way there too. When all roads lead to Rome, why not? I assume the hotel’s couture salon is already closed?”
“Yes! I have a key, if you want to make a purchase.” Jean-Pierre looks confused.
“Can you also get us into the hotel’s pharmacy?” Jack asks.
“Good, because we’ll need a few syringes, and some Rohypnol. If we’re going to bring them to justice, we have to take them alive”—Jack grins—“but not necessarily conscious. When they wake up, we’ll get our answers as to how they rose from the dead.”
Jean-Pierre scowls. “If this man—Pinky Ring—is a friend of Monsieur al-Sadah, he will never be brought to justice! As you saw for yourself, the police here bow and scrape to billionaires.”
Jack pats his arm. “Both men are international terrorists. Their crimes are numerous.” Turning to me, Jack adds, “I’m calling Ryan to tell him that we’ll be facing off with a couple of dangerous suspects. I’m sure his move will be to alert Interpol for back-up.”
“If what Inspector Clouseau—I mean Duclos said is true, al-Sadah is shipping out in the morning; we’ve got to move fast, with or without back-up,” I remind him.
“But, if one of those men killed Nicolette…” Jean-Pierre’s eyes open wide. “Madame, you must not be left alone with either of them!”
“Don’t worry, Jean-Pierre; Donna can more than take care of herself. And besides, I’ll have her back.” Jack puts his arm around me.
“So will I.” Jean-Pierre’s face hardens with resolve. He turns to me. “If it will help to find your fantôme and bring Monsieur Smith to justice for Nicolette’s murder, I will make sure you get on that yacht.”
He grabs the keys we need from the hotel manager’s desk and we’re off.
* * *
Jack dials Ryan’s phone number. Goodbye to any more mindless sun-filled days spent sipping great martinis while making slow, intoxicating love.
Do we really need to poke the hornet’s nest of reality?
Too late. Ryan picks up with a click. “Why the call, when you’ve got another seventy-two hours of nuptial bliss coming to you?” His words are playful, but I detect a bit of wariness in his voice.
He knows us too well.
“We’ve stumbled into a situation here, boss,” Jack replies.
Ryan sighs. “If I remember correctly, the last time you were in the south of France, the ‘situation’ involved three blondes, a chimpanzee, and a lobby boy from the Cannes de Croissette.”
Well, this little never-before-divulged tidbit in Jack’s past has certainly gotten my full attention.
Jack turns bright red. “Um…yeah, well, this is a bit more serious than that.” I guess he realizes that if there was ever a time to change the topic it’s now. “By coincidence, we’ve sighted a couple of apparitions.”
Ryan is silent for too long. Finally: “We must have a bad connection. Could you repeat that?”
“Dead men walking—two, to be precise: Salem al-Sadah and Pinky Ring.”
“What the…No way in hell! Jack, you were there at both exterminations, and Donna was there for one of them as well!” Even with an ocean and a continent separating us, I can easily envision Ryan’s reaction to our unwelcome news: lumbering back and forth in front of his mirrored window walls while running his hand through the invisible hair on his long-bald head. “This isn’t the Day of the Dead!”
“Ryan, trust me, if we hadn’t seen this with our own eyes…” I hate that my voice trembles as I say this. “An Acme crew did Salem’s wet work. I presume they confirmed the kill before fixing it to look like natural causes.”
“Affirmative.” Ryan still sounds shocked as he mulls over the possible repercussions to this predicament.
“At some point, Salem’s body had to have been discovered by his bodyguards, am I right?” Jack asks.
Ryan thinks for a moment. “We broke the news to POTUS the very next day—your wedding day. Salem’s family departed POTUS’s West Coast compound immediately. But now that you mention it, I don’t remember a formal announcement, either through diplomatic channels, or in the media.” There is a rustling sound on Ryan’s end as he covers the phone with his hand. It barely mutes his muffled yell: “Emma! Pull up everything you can on Salem al-Sadah since his untimely demise—and then get in here pronto. Bring Arnie with you!”
Emma Honeycutt Locklear handles our mission team’s communications intelligence. Her husband, Arnie, heads up tech ops. As always, glad they have our backs.
It’s time that someone shed more light on the man of the hour. “What about this Pinky Ring person’s body?” I ask. “Do we know where it ended up?”
“A pauper’s grave, somewhere outside of London, if I remember correctly,” Ryan replies. “Your illustrious British team member, Dominic Fleming, is there now, to receive the Order of the Bath. I’ll get him to verify the death and burial, and pull DNA samples that can be tested in Acme’s lab.”
“A knighthood? That wanker?” Jack is practically stuttering.
“He’s got to have something on one of the Royals,” I mutter, just loud enough for Jack to hear me. In any event, it’s time to get this show on the road. “Ryan, the party on the Divide and Conquer is taking place now. With your blessing, we’ll infiltrate Salem’s shindig—and if necessary, we’ll secure the suspects.”
“Do it,” Ryan commands. “But have your cellphones with you at all times. That way, Arnie can use your phones’ GPS to track you. He can also hot mic them too, so we can listen in. If one of you gets in trouble, we’ll relay intel to the other.”
“If you can get ahold of a couple of mini Bluetooths, we’ll be able to give you voice commands,” Emma points out.
“Good thought,” Jack replies.
“I’ve pulled up the Divide and Conquer’s deck plan,” Arnie announces. “There are two diesel and two electric motors coupled with gas turbines. Its hull holds a Bentley Azure T and a Hummer, as well as a Hustler 41Razor speedboat. Hey well, whattaya know? Salem’s super yacht also has Green Star certification because its design gives it low power consumption and reduced emissions—”
Emma snorts at this. “One of the world’s biggest arms dealers is into saving the planet? Horse hockey.” She pauses then adds, “Hey, do you think you can get a computer close enough to the superyacht’s WiFi? If so, we may be able to hack its security system in order to guide you through the ship, and to monitor Salem’s guards.”
“Pardonez moi, Mademoiselle Emma,” Jean-Pierre chimes in. “I bring my laptop with us on the hotel’s yacht. You could guide me from there on how to do so.”
“Merci beaucoup, Jean-Pierre,” Emma purrs.
“Donna, since more than likely you’ll be apprehending Salem, please remember: we can’t get intel from a dead man,” Ryan warns me.
In other words, bring the suspects in alive.
* * *
Like Pinky Ring’s and his date’s, the masks Jack and I choose hide only our eyes.
Mine is gold lamé, like the slip of a dress I now wear: sheer, tight, backless, with a front slit that leaves little to the imagination.
I’ve chosen a short platinum blond wig, the exact color and cut of Nicolette’s gamine bob. My goal is to elicit a double-take or two—from her lover, and her killer.
Are they one and the same? I’m bound and determined to find out.
Has my most recent nemesis come back to life? It’s yet another question I hope to have answered tonight.
I spot a gold lamé wristlet clutch that matches the dress. I slip three syringes filled with Rohypnol and my cellphone into it, nodding to Jean-Pierre to indicate that he should put it on our tab…
I guess I should look at the price tag—
Over a thousand dollars?
Got it! I’ll put it on my Acme expense report.
Granted, Ryan will go into cardiac arrest, but hey, the clutch matches the dress so it’s a must-have, right?
Besides, if I bring Salem and Pinky Ring in alive, he’ll be only too happy to let me keep it.
Considering that both targets have proven to be difficult to kill off in the first place, that shouldn’t be so hard.
(c) 2016 Josie Brown. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher, Signal Press (firstname.lastname@example.org).