A frantic chase. A drowning. A hit-and-run. Someone’s targeting CW McCoy and it’s not about real estate. That becomes abundantly clear from the first chapter of Permanent Vacation, the fourth in the McCoy series of crime novels set in the sunny paradise of Spanish Point, Florida.
IT HAD RAINED forever. With two months left in hurricane season, we’d suffered two indirect hits and a half-dozen soakers, including the latest tropical storm, which stalked Spanish Point like an internet troll.
Noah would have been impressed.
When people think of Florida storms, they picture high winds and palm trees doing the hula. But most of the damage lately had come from water. And with relentless development filling the coast, the water appeared everywhere. Gushing from storm sewers, flooding shops, stripping beaches of their sand.
The state depended on those attractions, and the media that hyped them. Good publicity attracted tourists who flocked here on holiday before deciding on a permanent vacation. Buy a piece of paradise and live the dream. They’re happy. We real estate agents are happy. It was a win-win situation.
Until it poured. As it had for the past week.
Which made my decision to ride the Kawasaki on slick roads a questionable one. But, I argued with myself, I had cabin fever, it was my last weekend before reporting to my new agency and the sun coast had negotiated a temporary ceasefire with the weather. So of course I headed for the water.
Cirque Nouveau looked the polar opposite of Rae Donovan’s former bar a few miles down the road. Where the old place had clung to the pier like a barnacle, this one looked polished, themed and expensive. Its architecture consisted of a train car built on an enormous scale, with the entire western wall open to the bay. At the entrance, a big top announced the name with the words “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The interior hosted a collection of circus memorabilia, from stuffed parrots to gilded parade wagons to a miniature clown car—a supersized tribute to a nostalgia no one could remember.
While the place appeared full—floral shirts and strappy sandals de rigueur for the touring class—I had no trouble spotting Rae. Towering over the crowd, she wore a red tuxedo jacket with velvet lapels and a bowtie. Juggling a half-dozen bottles, she poured drinks for a bar overrun with millennials.
She greeted me with a shout and leaned over the bar for a one-armed hug and a buss on the cheek, attracting the attention of a pair of crackers a few stools away.
“What brings you to my humble abode?”
She had a voice like rust. I’m sure the crackers had no trouble hearing it.
“Time to see your new digs.” I took in the space—the wait staff in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, TVs hanging like acrobats over the bar—pointed to the speakers in the ceiling and shouted, “Where’s the country?”
“We traded Hank for Jimmy Buffett. What’s your poison? I’ve got a special on mai tais, or would you prefer a margarita?”
She twirled a stemmed glass. My lower lip buckled.
“Yeah, I know. It’s pretentious as hell, but the high prices more than make up for it.”
I slid onto a seat near the end of the bar and ordered a beer. In the mirrored wall, the bay swelled with moonlight and bashed the seawall. The restaurant sat along the Intracoastal Waterway a few miles north of the marina. The few boats tied to the dock banged their hulls against plastic bottles the owners had strapped to their craft. Never a good sign.
“Don’t you miss your old place?” I asked. “I was sure you’d rebuild.”
She ran a cloth over the bar top. “Can’t afford to, not in this town.”
I took in the fake palm trees, the circus posters, the trapeze dangling from the ceiling. “You all right, working for someone else?”
“Hell no, but my brother’s the boss. Some things never change.”
“Eddie owns the restaurant?”
“It’s a franchise, or can’t you tell?” She raised a hand. “And before you say it, it beats unemployment. Speaking of which, when do you start the new job?”
“About returning to work for Casey Laine?” Over the summer, I’d worked for a boutique agency until a violent death forced me back to what agents affectionately called factory real estate—the rules, regulations and steady paycheck of the largest brokerage on the Gulf Coast. Rae wasn’t the only one who thought almost any work beat unemployment.
She compressed her lips, her version of a commiserating smile. “I hear she’s a tough old bird.”
“Let’s just say she’s exacting.”
As illogical as it seemed, I surveyed the restaurant to make sure my new boss wasn’t listening. Not that the queen of real estate would condescend to a tourist trap like this. What I did see was an abundance of circus décor—posters of the Ringling Brothers, a high wire net spanning the ceiling—and the two crackers appraising us with wide eyes and knowing grins.
They looked in their early twenties. One had skulls and demons tattooed over bulging arms and hair that looked like a paintbrush. The other had a long snout, like a bottlenose dolphin. As if to call attention to the shape, he’d pierced his septum with a horseshoe hoop whose double balls resembled frozen snot.
Shelving the bottles, Rae wedged a pair of pilsner glasses between her fingers, worked the tap and slid the beer in front of the guys. When she returned, I tilted my head in their direction and, despite the clatter of silverware and plates, lowered my voice.
“Who are those beauties?”
“Paying customers. Try not to piss them off.”
“When have I ever pissed off anyone?”
With her fingers, she ticked off a litany of names. “The mayor, the chief of police, every boss you’ve ever worked for. And let’s not forget Junior Darby, our resident firebug.”
Skulls and Bottlenose smiled—at least they’d retained most of their teeth—and raised their glasses, as if thanking us for the round.
Rae nodded. I dipped my head and took a sip—after another ninety-degree day, the foam felt cool against my lips—and massaged my forehead. “Can we talk about something easy, like disarming North Korea?”
“Sure. What’d you do to your hair?”
“What do you mean, what did I do?”
She chuckled. It sounded more like a snort. “Are those highlights? I thought you hated blondes.”
“I don’t hate blondes. I used to work for one.”
“She’s the one who went after your boyfriend, right?” Rae must have read a sour look on my face. “OK. How about politics and religion. They’re safe.”
I glanced at the TV screens. Three were broadcasting sports but a fourth, tuned to the local twenty-four-hour news channel, featured a candidate promoting prayer in school. “I’d skip religion if I were you.”
Rae swiped the bar with a towel. “OK, you want to talk politics? How do you explain this? The city approves Tommy Thompson’s plan to build this monster development along the bay without a peep, then backs it with taxpayer money. It doesn’t matter if you own anything in the way, like a restaurant that draws in the tourists. It’s grow big or go home.”
“You’re starting to sound like the mayor.”
“That is the mayor,” she said. “His favorite tagline. Face it, the man’s gaslighting us.”
“The city has to do something with the old performing arts center.”
“Everybody knows this whole strip from here to DeSoto Park sits below the waterline. The Gulf’s rising, we’re getting more rain, bigger storms, and the city’s handing out permits like jelly beans at Easter.” She tipped her chin to indicate the dock, where the bay took another crack at parking the boats inside. “At least we have a seawall. Not that it’ll matter once the city levels this place for the new boat launch.” She snapped a bar rag. “All for the greater good.”
“It is what it is.”
“Catchy expression,” she said. “One of yours?”
“A friend of mine.” I sighed. I hated these discussions, as if newcomers weren’t entitled to the same benefits we transplants had acquired.
Rae hooked a thumb in the direction of InSpire, the newest condominium on the bay and the one I’d start selling next week. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but you pedal that stuff, right?”
“Those towers are built to withstand a Cat 4 storm.”
“If they don’t sink.”
“That’s why God invented engineers.”
She gave me her famous fisheye, the one that said I was full of something other than beer.
“All right,” I said. “It bothers me, too. You happy now?”
She dried a glass. “Question is, are you?”
“I’d be happy with a change in leadership.”
“You mean once the mayor and his rubberstamp are gone.”
“Please don’t get me started on Phil Cunningham.”
She pointed to my glass. “Freshen that?”
“Always the optimist.”
“No, thank you.” I checked my phone. It was almost two. “I’d better sign off.” I glanced at the pair holding down the end of the bar. They waved, pointed to their beer, then at me. I forced a smile, pressed a palm over my glass and hoped that would end any late-night flirtation.
“Last call!” Rae yelled and worked the length of the bar, settling everything from memory, no tabs even when the customer had ordered food, cash flowing into the register like a river. When she returned, she placed a fresh glass in front of me and shook her head. “They say you look like you could use another.”
I glanced in their direction. Both nodded.
“Tell ’em thanks but no thanks.”
“Like my nephew,” she said. “More confidence than brains.”
“You have a creepy nephew?”
“Ryan’s a little footloose since he was let go from his job. You probably read about him. The cops caught him trying to scale that condo tower you’re trying to sell. Then get this. Last week he got busted for racing his bike on Baywalk.” She pointed toward the surging Intracoastal. “That promenade or whatever the marketing people are calling it these days.”
I shook my head. “Is he all right?”
She snorted. “You kidding? He’s an adrenaline junkie. He loves the attention. Now he wants to surf the jetty off Spanish Key.”
“That’s nuts. The riptide will tow him halfway to Mexico.” I knew that breakwater, a heap of broken stone with pockets deep enough to swallow a boat. “I thought the city declared it off limits.”
“That only encourages him. He calls it performance art.”
I would have called it stupid but he was Rae’s nephew and I didn’t want to offend. “You said he was let go?”
“From that new development the mayor just approved.”
That new development would be a showcase for my new employer, and a moneymaker for her agents.
“Did Ryan work for Thompson Partners?” I asked.
“For a sub, doing site prep.”
“Nobody gets laid off in this economy, especially in Florida. What’d he do? Or shouldn’t I ask.”
“He said some numbers didn’t add up in some report and when his boss wouldn’t listen he went over his head.”
She waved the bar towel. “Some study the sub was doing.”
“Who’d he talk to?”
“Somebody in city hall. His boss found out and now he can’t find a job.”
The restaurant had cleared except for a waiter and waitress stacking chairs on tables and the pair anchoring the near end of the bar. They’d stopped smiling at us. I leaned toward Rae. “You think the mayor had Ryan fired?”
“He’s Mr. Business. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
I glanced at the nearest TV. Leslie Ann Roberts, the star of the Gulf Coast News Network, stuck a microphone in the face of Charles Palmer and asked him about the long rebound from the Great Recession. For the better part of the summer, Palmer had seized every opportunity to promote the stock of Thompson Partners Inc., the developer of DeSoto Park and its next phase, the thirty-four-acre ribbon of property that stretched between InSpire and Cirque Nouveau.
Palmer claimed status as the region’s leading attorney and wealth manager. Of more importance to me, he’d sired Mitch Palmer, my former boyfriend, the man who’d dated my former boss. With the noise of the bar, I couldn’t hear the elder Palmer but I could read the crawl. Given the rapid growth along Florida’s Gulf Coast, he had a buy recommendation on TPI stock.
The interview switched to Phil Cunningham. The footage must have been shot before the storm blew through, because the mayor appeared relaxed in short-sleeves and slacks, a sunlit bay polishing his sandy hair. Echoing Palmer’s assessment, he rattled off a list of seventeen condo projects in the downtown core alone that had started or were in the planning phase. With a radiant smile, he spoke of more to come.
The segment ended with Cunningham’s trademark line, the one he was using in his campaign for the Florida statehouse. “It’s good to see cranes in the air.”
It felt odd to watch the mayor promote Tommy Thompson’s company, no matter how generic his remarks. By all accounts, except the official ones, Cunningham had an affair with Thompson’s estranged wife, Susan, the head of the Spanish Point Visitors Bureau. Pregnant, she’d been shot and killed in a carjacking gone terribly wrong. Cunningham blamed a mythical war on tourists. I blamed the mayor. I had no idea what Tommy Thompson thought.
The screen faded and programming switched to a roller derby match.
Rae collected tips and swiped the bar top with a rag. “Could be your chance to finally nail the bastard.”
It took me a second to reorient. The state attorney had declined to file charges. The mayor had an alibi, an election-eve campaign event. He had a hundred witnesses, including me. “I tried. I got stonewalled.”
Rae’s eyebrows danced, a sure sign she wanted to rope me into something dicey. “You want to talk to my nephew.”
“Can I ask why?”
From her back pocket she extracted a phone. “I’m texting his info. Meanwhile.” She snapped the bar rag and yelled to the guys at the end of the bar, “Guys, we’re closed. Time to hit the road.”
The pair tossed some bills on the counter and bumped the back of my stool, not hard enough to trigger a fight but enough to make a point.
I heard the words bitch and dyke overlap, as if they couldn’t get their stories straight.
Without turning, I gave the pair a one-finger salute.
Shoving the cash into the register, Rae said she’d been called worse.
“Have you seen them before?”
“No,” she said. “You?”
“I’ve seen their type.”
“And they’ve seen yours.”
“Independent,” I said.
“Ungrateful,” she said. “Hell hath no fury like a young buck scorned.”
“Poetic,” I said.
“The hell with poetry. You don’t still carry, do you?”
“Not since I left the force.”
Over their shoulders, the pair treated us to a hard stare before slipping onto Baywalk and into the night. I asked Rae what I owed, laid some money on the bar and doubled the amount for a tip. After having to deal with the likes of those two, she deserved it.
She used the back of her sleeve to wipe her forehead. I offered to walk her to her bike, a classic Indian Chief with a 1,200cc engine. It could hit eighty-five in third gear and peel the skin from the roof of your mouth. The image brought a wave of jealousy.
“It’ll be a long walk,” Rae said. “Damned thing’s in the shop again.”
The jealousy faded. “You need a lift?”
“You bring the Kawasaki?”
Compared to modern machines, its 500cc displacement seemed underpowered, but the bike could leap tall buildings in a single bound when pushed. “Always,” I said.
“Should only take us a week to get home.”
A man who looked like a homeless person emerged from the kitchen and pulled down the shutters.
“The cook,” Rae said. “In case you change your mind about a date.”
We waved and left through the backdoor, reaching the lot as a car backfired. The hair on my arms stood at attention. I’d parked the Kawasaki close to the building, an old habit to keep it from getting bumped. The only other vehicle in the lot was a dark Jeep Wrangler with black-rimmed tires and a tow winch in front. The engine was running but the lights were off.
“You still have that cottage on the keys?” I asked.
“Until some developer tears it down for a high-rise, no offense.”
I offered my helmet. She raised her hands.
“There’s no visor,” I said. “You can still pick the bugs out of your teeth.”
“Tonight,” she said, straddling the back, “I’m going commando.”
I donned the headgear and threw a leg over the seat. She looped her big arms around my middle and we crunched over the loose shells of the parking lot. I’d pulled dead even with the Jeep when it lurched forward, giving me a second to hit the brakes and spill us or try for the highway.
It was a no-brainer. Cranking the throttle, I flashed before the Wrangler, my stomach lurching as the front wheel threatened to go airborne. But the bike held its ground and, in the mirror, I watched the Jeep disappear in a cloud of blue smoke. Between the close call and the break in the rain, I gave in to the urge to run at full bore, the G-force stretching my insides as we raced south along the Trail.
The guys in the Jeep must have taken offense. Within a block, the Wrangler caught our tail, weaving in and out of the lanes to play catchup. At one point, the Jeep edged so close I thought it would ram us headfirst into the stack of cars.
Between Baywalk and the condos, there was little room to maneuver. Flooding had reduced six lanes to two. While the rain had stopped, the right lane remained under a foot of water, judging by the wake created by the cars. If we hit the light at the bridge, we’d be sitting ducks. If we detoured into town, we’d lose speed but gain agility.
I had to turn my head to hear Rae.
“Slow down, Hoss! I want to make it to next week!”
“What’s next week?” I yelled, taking a hard left for a run along First Street.
We skirted the big blue office building where the mayor and the Palmers held court before blowing through the first intersection. The Jeep clung to my tail. There was no way anyone would take this route unless they were going to the theater, and those guys hadn’t looked like patrons.
Time to fly. Gearing down, I redlined the machine through the next two lights, flying past the dark office of Laine & Company, hugging the traffic circle at Main so low I thought my helmet would clip the curb. The grip on my stomach told me Rae was still there. She knew the drill, leaning into the curve to keep the bike from throwing us across the sidewalk.
Even as we shot from the roundabout, the Jeep gained speed. I hit Main Street for two blocks, then doglegged to regain the Trail, followed only by the screech of tires. No car could match a motorcycle on a straight stretch and yet there it was, dogging us past the damned concert hall.
“Hold on!” I yelled. “Time for evasive maneuvers!”
Rae tightened her grip as we powered between the steel bollards that blocked cars from entering Baywalk. There was no way the Jeep could follow. With rising satisfaction I watched its lights shrink as we fled south, past the skateboard park and amphitheater.
By the time we reached DeSoto Park, we’d lost them. Leaving the walkway, I raced under the banyan trees toward InSpire and its unfinished twin to rattle the bike up the granite steps of the high rise. The restaurant that occupied the first floor appeared deserted. Through its glass walls, rows of tables with white tablecloths glowed in the exit lights. Staying here would risk complaints from residents, but the spot offered a good vantage—the better to see the Big Bad Wolf, my dear.
Below the condo, the Intracoastal slammed the seawall. Even in the dark I could see water gushing from the storm drains, forming psychedelic pools of light at the intersection of the bay and the bridge. And this from the brush of a tropical storm. What would happen if we took a direct hit?
I turned to Rae. “You all right?”
Her hair resembled pictures of Medusa with the snakes sprouting from her head. “I got to say, lady, you’ve got chops.”
I hadn’t made the license plate but the chase had angered me enough to report the bastards. Dragging my phone from a pocket, I’d started to punch in the county’s non-emergency number when an engine revved and I turned to watch the Jeep vault the steps. We had enough time to clear a leg over the bike when the Wrangler clipped the Kawasaki and launched us through the window.