The award-winning diva, C, has got a big problem: someone wants her dead. A team of mercenaries attempts to gun her down in Kuala Lumpur. Lucky for her, Lowcountry Private Investigator, Blu Carraway, is already on the job there for a different client. Double-lucky for C, they make their move when she’s chit-chatting with him in a bar. Unlucky for the mercenaries, four of them end up dead.The hunt is on now for the mega-pop star. Where does she go to hide out? The sleepy islands around Charleston, South Carolina—Blu’s backyard. He’s already proven himself once, so C hires the Blu Carraway Investigation Agency to protect her for real. The job takes Blu halfway around the world and several cities in between. The search for the truth reveals what could drive a person to want someone else dead. And Blu Carraway ends up right in the way.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Mid-July, Saturday late night
Blu Carraway, Private Investigator and sometimes, like at present, private security consultant, handed off his client to her boyfriend’s security team. In truth, there wasn’t an actual handoff. It was more of a formality since Jennifer Kincaid started seeing Mandel, the industrialist’s son. His security team was rivaled only by the Secret Service. The exclusive club they were in had several levels, each with their own VIP list. Thanks to being a one-percenter and the aforementioned wealthy boyfriend, Ms. Kincaid was at the top of every list which meant Blu was at the top of every list. He parted the strings of beads hanging down as a curtain that was some decorator’s bad idea of kitsch and entered the innermost bar, a darkened room made up of marble, mahogany, gold, and leather— the best of materials. The only other person in the room was the bartender, a pretty- boy type with short, styled hair, a trimmed beard, a starched white shirt with knife-edge creases, and a nod. He said, “What can I get you, Mr. Carraway?” It had been a long thirty-six hours. The last batch of Millennials, those currently in their early twenties including his client, apparently did not sleep. Blu had been on the job the whole time along with Mandel’s team. Even with exclusive VIP lists, he did not trust his client’s protection to anyone else while in public places. Blu took a seat at the bar, the soft leather stool offering comfort for his tired glutes. “Black coffee—iced.” “You got it.” This being the
club in the city and Blu being on the list meant he could do pretty much whatever he wanted. Right now he wanted—needed—nicotine. As the bartender set a glass of chilled coffee in front of him, Blu pulled out his vape pen and took a few hits. The coffee and the vapor had been the two things keeping him going but he knew he was set to crash soon. The bead curtains parted again and C walked in. Twenty-seven years old, shoulder length hair an unnatural shade of orange, various tattoos down her arms, and the prettiest face Blu had seen all evening, C was the reason he was at this particular club. Ms. Kincaid had talked her boyfriend into contracting C for a private show. As the girl whom Rolling Stone called the hottest act of the decade with Grammys and platinum albums, C was in high demand. Here, this morning, at what Blu felt was the end of a hellacious run, the pop star was alone. With a loud sigh she took the seat next to him. He was not really a fan of her music, some form of synth pop with a mixture of Arabian and Latin influence. He preferred eighties alternative and punk, but she had talent and a pretty face. To the bartender, she said, “Get me a Guinness, Jesse.” Blu took another hit on his vape pen, realized he was staring, and stopped. She said, “I saw you with Jennifer and Mandel. I’m Ariel.” C was her stage name. He shook her offered hand. “Blu.” Jesse the bartender set a pint of dark liquid in front of her with a perfect shamrock in the head. Raising her glass, she said, “To new friends and quiet bars.” As he clinked her glass of stout with his iced coffee, Blu said, “To the end of a long night and a soft bed with my name on it.” With a smile, she said, “We’re both on the job, aren’t we?” Something wasn’t right about the scene, and if Blu hadn’t been so exhausted he would have picked up on it sooner. She was alone. Twenty million albums sold, two Grammys, and no personal security at the moment. She had a unit assigned to her. Blu knew the man in charge of her safety, didn’t like him, but thought he was competent. Except that he didn’t have her covered at the moment. It was not professional and left an opening for something bad to happen to C. With as much subtlety as he could muster, Blu checked to make sure he still had his Glock. As he did that, a clipped sound came from the other side of the beads just before they parted around a suppressor, the kind screwed on the end of a firearm. Blu had his Glock out and aimed. To Ariel, he said, “You better follow me.” She saw the look in his eyes and did not question. Because the entrance covered by the beads faced the right side of the room, and he and Ariel were seated at the front, he had time to take Ariel’s hand and guide her to the other end of the massive wood bar. They ducked. The suppressed automatic fired twice, bullets ricocheting off the bar’s marble surface. Blu leaned out from the lower part of the bar, sighted in a figure in a black suit holding the gun, and fired. His Glock barked twice and the figure, a young Asian man, went down. A second figure, another twentyish male, dove for cover on the other side of the bar. Blu climbed onto the marble surface to give himself a better sightline. Jesse the bartender lay on the floor behind the bar, two red holes in his chest. His eyes were open but not seeing anything anymore. The second figure rose up. Blu saw him first and blew him away. An alarm sounded from somewhere in the club. Hopping off the bar, Blu asked, “Where’s your security detail?” Ariel, obviously in shock by the blanched color of her already white skin and bloodshot eyes, shook her head. She sat on the floor. This wasn’t good. “We need to move,” he said. “In case they have friends.” “Friends?” she asked. “More guys with guns,” Blu said. With an arm around her waist, he lifted her up and guided her to the side door of the club, the one he’d seen on the architect drawings of the building when he’d scouted the place two days ago. He kept his gun pointed where he looked, glancing back periodically to watch their six. Another alarm started blaring when he kicked the door open but he didn’t care. They needed to get out. Who knew how many of the gunmen there were? Through the door, they found themselves in a narrow landing with stairs leading up and down from where they stood. Blu closed the door behind them and led her down, his gun pointed directly ahead. No one met them as they descended the stairs. Blu pulled out his phone and hit redial. The call was answered with, “Yo, you on your way or what?” “I need a car at the back entrance to the club. Now.” “What? I thought Goldilocks left with the baby bear?” He didn’t have time for this. “Give me an E.T.A. Now.” “Yeah, um, hold on.” What the hell? His team had been on point the whole day and a half. An hour off the clock and they fell apart? The man came back on the line, “We’re on our way. I hope two is enough. Are we coming in hot?” “Safeties off. Don’t shoot until I say otherwise.” “E.T.A. ten minutes.” “Roger.” Blu ended the call. At the bottom of the steps, Blu leaned Ariel against the wall and inched the door open, slipping his pistol out the slight opening as he got a read on the situation. Two men with submachine guns stood guard facing the street along with a waiting van, its side doors open. They were all dressed like the two he’d capped upstairs–nice dark suits, ties, expensive shoes. He fired twice, taking them both out with single head shots. The van took off down the street, its open doors swinging shut. Blu kicked the back door to the club fully open and unloaded his clip into the speeding vehicle as it bucked and bounced around a corner. When the magazine was empty, he ejected it and jammed in a full one. He checked the street which was really an alley, saw no one else around, and slipped back inside the building. Sirens wailed in the distance. Ariel still leaned against the wall. He put an arm around her and guided her to the exit, slipping the door open as before, training his pistol out first. He didn’t see anyone else around besides the two downed mercenaries with the machine guns. The walkie talkie app on his phone chirped with, “We’re two blocks away.” “I’m in the alley on the south side. I’ve got a female with me. Safeties still off. Four unfriendlies down. Maybe more around.” “Roger that.” Thirty seconds later, a black Mercedes SUV charged around the corner and screeched to a stop in front of them. The front passenger, a man with a military build, got out holding a submachine gun. He opened the back door. Blu pushed Ariel inside the truck and dove in after her. The armed passenger jumped back in and the driver accelerated away. The passenger, the one Blu had called on the phone, a man named Colton, said, “What the hell, Blu? I thought we were clear for the night?” Blu peered out the back window. “So did I.” “Who’s th—” Colton looked at Ariel and stopped himself. “You’re C. Jesus, Blu. What the hell is going on?” “Not sure,” Blu said. “Get us to the compound and we’ll figure it out from there.” The driver, a man named Brack Pelton who’d recently joined Blu’s team as a wheel man, knew to keep quiet. His skills as a mercenary were many, but they paled in comparison to his driving. He hustled the two-and-a-half-ton SUV through the back streets like an ace. Of course it helped that the truck was the AMG model with 600 horsepower. Brack didn’t drink any more but Blu couldn’t say the same for Colton whose reflexes were not one-hundred-percent at the moment. While they rode, Blu called the compound to give the new details. He didn’t begin to relax until they’d crossed the Klang River and were almost there. His client’s father, Adam Kincaid, had homes around the world. With his daughter spending more time here since she’d met the prince charming, he’d reinforced the barriers and increased the security detail. Blu had been contracted to make improvements and had complete authority. Ariel seemed to come out of her shock. She looked over at Blu, then the men up front, and then back at Blu. He said, “You’re okay. We’re going to Jennifer Kincaid’s house.” “Can you take me to my hotel?” “Where’s your security detail?” Blu asked. “I’d feel better handing you over to them.” Looking down at her lap, she said, “I don’t know. I thought they were at the club.” Blu said, “There wasn’t anyone left besides you, me, Jesse, and some of the wait staff.” She looked up. “Jesse? Where is he? Is he okay?” “Jesse didn’t make it.” “Huh?” she asked. “They shot him.” “Oh, God.” With that, she collapsed in her seat again. — The first traces of daybreak peeked out of a halo on the horizon as they arrived. The Kincaid compound was a bungalow in the hills just outside the city. Jennifer had wanted an apartment in town but Blu and her father felt it was safer here. The home sat on the top of a hill overlooking the city. Pelton circled the fountain and eased to a stop at the entryway of the home. Colton got out first and opened the rear door. Blu exited and then helped Ariel get out, her tight dress preventing her from too much mobility. She looked around. “I still don’t know why I can’t go back to my hotel.” Blu said, “Call Teller. Find out where the h—” He caught himself. “Find out when he can be here to collect you.” Jack Teller was supposed to be her head of security. While Ariel made her call, Blu phoned Adam Kincaid and explained what had happened. The man had enough money to fix anything. Four dead mercenaries in a foreign country were no big deal. After Blu explained that Kincaid’s daughter was safe, he described the situation. Adam listened and then said he’d call back after he found out what the authorities were doing. — Jack Teller showed up at the Kincaid compound four hours later. Blu watched him exit an Audi SUV, all six-foot-five of himself, blond hair, blue eyes, and tanned muscle. Blu met him at the door. Before he could speak, Teller said, “I don’t need you butting in on my job, Carraway.” No “thank you for saving my client” or “I’m glad my client is alive.” “Really,” Blu said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you in the room when the two mercs with suppressed automatics came in blasting.” Teller scowled. It seemed to Blu that the man was somewhat embarrassed and was trying to save face, but this was a stupid way to do that. “Where’s Ariel?” Blu motioned toward the sitting room just off of the entryway. The flooring and walls were stone and the ceilings stretched twelve feet at the lowest points. Their footsteps echoed as they walked. Ariel, sitting on one of the leather couches and hugging a pillow, looked at Teller. Without saying a word, she stood up, tossed the pillow to the other end of the couch, and walked past her head of security. Blu hadn’t known her very long, but he got the feeling she was not happy with the service she was being provided. He’d used the opportunity of waiting for Teller to hand her a business card earlier in case she felt the need to make a change. Teller eyed Blu one last time and then followed his client outside. Ariel was waiting at the SUV for someone to open the door for her. That showed a couple of things. The first was she was letting Teller and his men know that they still had a job to do, and opening the door for her was part of it. The second was that she was telling them that she was still willing to submit to being in their care. Blu had dealt with Teller before. He might do things differently than Blu, but he wasn’t known for being sloppy. Ariel should never have been alone in that club. At the sight of the Audi SUV’s exit off the compound and the closing of the gate, Blu turned to Colton and Pelton. “I’m taking a shower and hitting the sack. We are back on in six hours. I suggest you rest up.” And with that, he retired to his room.
Three days later, Wednesday, Barrier Lowcountry island south of Charleston, South Carolina, Residence of Blu Carraway
“I think it’s Colic. We need to get him to his feet.” Blu Carraway didn’t look at the man who’d spoken to him. He kept his eyes on the magnificent creature lying two feet away from him in the shade by his house. The black horse was older than Blu recollected and he was sick. The man, a local vet named Dick Campbell, knelt by the horse Blu had named Murder and listened to his breathing with a stethoscope. The other horses stood close by. Dink and Doofus, normally on post by the front door awaiting treats, seemed to be making the rounds comforting the other members of their ragtag herd. Blu wiped sweat from his brow. “This horse saved my life.” Without an ounce of condescension, the vet gave him a nod. For most of his life, Murder had chosen to live on the opposite side of the island. Blu’s nine acre plot, depending on the tide, had been the place they both called home. Murder had made it his in his own way, leading the rest of the herd of Carolina Marsh Tackeys. Dick raised himself up. “He’s going to be tough to move, so we need to make him as comfortable as we can where he is. But we need to get him up. Keep him shaded and hydrated. I’ll come back with an I.V.” Blu wanted Murder patrolling their island forever, not lying on his sickbed, which at the moment was a mixture of crushed shells and pine needles. “If you want,” Dick said, “I can get a canopy set up.” Blu felt his head droop. An involuntary sigh came out. He shut his eyes and opened them. “Yeah, okay. That would be nice, Dick. Thanks. How do we get him up?” “If he won’t stand on his own, we’ll have to lift him.” He put a hand on Blu’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. I have some friends who know what to do.” The vet gave him another nod and walked toward his Suburban which was parked in front of the house. Murder’s chest rose and fell. If Blu listened hard, he could hear how labored the animal’s breathing had become. This was not something expected. It seemed like yesterday, this horse led the rest in a stampede in front of the house, running from one end of the island to the other. So full of life. And now this. “Hey, Blu?” Dick called from the tailgate of his truck. “Yeah?” “One of my assistants is on his way with the canopy and liquids. Should be here within the hour. The sun won’t be on that side of the house until later so we have some time.” Blu didn’t think Murder really had any time to spare. It wasn’t worth debating. Whatever’s going to happen was going to happen. And it really sucked eggs. Blu said, “Thanks.” But he didn’t really mean it. At the moment, the rumble of a Harley Davidson could be heard in the distance and getting louder. Mick Crome idled his way across the bridge and onto Blu’s island paradise. He swung the bike in a semicircle and stopped next to Blu’s four-year-old Nissan Xterra. Wearing his normal biker garb of a do-rag to keep his long hair under control and out of his face, aviator sunglasses, handlebar mustache, black T-shirt advertising a Harley dealership in Bangkok, ripped jeans, and biker boots, Crome looked at Murder and then at Blu. “What the hell’s wrong with him?” “Campbell thinks Colic. He’s going to get someone to lift him back onto his feet.” Crome took out a vape pen and inhaled a lungful. On the exhale, he said, “I guess you told him money’s no object. Cause I’m gonna chip in whatever you need.” This vet bill could go real high in a hurry and still not save the horse. Blu said, “Thanks.” Crome put an arm on Blu’s shoulder. “I mean it. Whatever it takes.” Not knowing what else to do for the horse at the moment, and with Dink and Doofus and Sally, another horse from the herd, standing nearby keeping Murder company, Blu felt it was okay to step away. As they turned to go into the house, the crunch of tires on the crushed shell drive stopped them. They waited to see who it was, Blu hoping and then not hoping it was Tess Ray, the woman in his life at the moment. She was great, but made him feel both younger and older at the same time. It wasn’t Tess; at least it wasn’t Tess’s convertible Beetle. The grey sedan had rental practically stamped into the doors and the shock of orange hair on the driver confirmed it wasn’t Tess. Crome said, “I could be wrong, but that looks a hell-of-a-lot like that pop star named C.” “So it is,” Blu said, suddenly concerned because like the first time he’d met her there was no security detail present. She was alone. Ariel waved and pulled in next to Crome’s bike. Blu and Crome waved back. “You listen to C?” Blu asked. “You get a look at her?” The biker said. “Remember those pictures?” Of course. It had nothing to do with the two Grammys she’d earned and had everything to do with the nude photos leaked all over the internet a few months back. “One question,” Crome said. “Why’s someone as famous as she is and worth thirty-million-bucks driving herself anywhere?” “I’m guessing, once again, her security detail has come up short.” “Once again?” Crome asked. “Long story,” Blu said. “The short version is Jack Teller fell down on the job.” “Teller? Really? He’s a tool, but I never thought he was incompetent.” Ariel got out of her car, looked at the horses, and then at Blu and Crome. “I didn’t believe it when I heard you have an island in paradise with a bunch of horses.” She swatted at a mosquito. Dink and Doofus did not leave Murder’s side. His illness had affected the whole island. Blu approached her. “Nice to see you again. Um…” “Why am I here?” she asked, flailing her arms at the full on parasite assault. “Before you answer your own question, let’s get you some bug repellant.” He led her, rather quickly, to his side porch, picking up a bottle of the good stuff. “Are you allergic to anything that might be in this?” She swatted at her legs. “Spray me! Spray me!” “Close your eyes,” he said. She did and he gave her a thorough dousing. Ariel breathed a sigh of relief. She had a few welts forming, but otherwise looked like she did the last time he’d seen her. Crome cleared his throat. Blu said, “This is my business partner, Mick Crome.” Holding out a hand, Crome said, “It’s a pleasure.” She said, “I’m sorry but I don’t remember seeing you at the club. I was kinda out of it.” “He wasn’t there,” Blu said. “Can I offer you something to drink?” Crome said, “He’s got tap water and cold—I mean iced— coffee.” “Anything’s fine,” she said. “What my partner’s trying to tell you,” Blu said, “is he’s got beer in his saddle bags.” She looked at them. “You rode a horse?” “Naw,” Crome said. He lifted the lid on one of the bags mounted on the side of his bike. In it were an insulated pouch of ice and some cans of beer. She took the offered can, popped the top, and took a long drink. Crome said, “Honey, try not to make everything you do remind me of your videos.” Risqué would be a polite way to describe them. Pornographic might be how a certain demographic labeled them. Either way, Crome seemed to enjoy thinking about them. She gave him a smile. “You’re cute.” He popped the top of one of his beers, tapped it to hers, said, “Here’s to your health,” and drank half of it down. “Back to the question you asked yourself,” Blu said. “Why am I here?” She smiled. “Because I fired Jack.” “He leave you high and dry or something?” Crome asked. She looked at Blu. “You didn’t tell him?” “I was getting around to it,” he said. Not giving him the chance, Ariel said, “Your partner here saved my photogenic behind.” Eyeing Blu, Crome said, “You don’t say?” “He shot four men and got me to a safe house.” Blu said, “I meant to ask, where was Teller in all that?” She huffed, took a drink from her beer, and swallowed. “Said he thought I’d told him I didn’t need him anymore. I don’t remember saying that. All I remember is seeing Jesse lying in a pool of his own blood as you shot the second one with the gun. Say, what’s with that horse on the ground over there?” “His name is Murder and he’s sick,” Blu said. “He one of yours?” she asked. “In a way.” Crome said, “They sorta came with the island. Blu might be afraid to, but I’d call them family. We’re worried about Murder.” Still looking at Murder lying on the ground, Ariel said, “That’s sad. Anything I can do to help?” “I appreciate the offer.” Blu pulled out his vape pen and took a quick hit to calm his nerves. “My vet’s the best horse doctor in the lowcountry.” “The what? Lowcountry? What’s that?” “You’re standing in it. The low lands of South Carolina. Marsh and pluff mud and fill dirt. That’s what makes up most of Charleston County.” “Yeah,” Crome said, swatting at a bug. “And parasites like Blu here.” She laughed. “And you, too?” Crome bowed. “At your service, m’lady.” Blu took a last look at Murder and then motioned for them to sit on the chairs on the patio under the working ceiling fan. It was cooler than the inside which did not have air conditioning at the moment. They sat. Blu and Crome watched Ariel. She said, “I guess I need to explain what I’m doing here.” “Only if you want to,” Crome said. “We could always play a guessing game.” As if ignoring him, she said, “Teller is no longer on my payroll.” “Who’s managing your security then?” Blu asked. “You, I hope.” Crome said, “You mean you flew commercial from Malaysia, rented your own car, and drove yourself here all by yourself?” She leaned in and gave him a blank look. “I can walk and chew gum at the same time as well.” “What he’s doing a bad job of saying,” Blu said, “is that someone in your position puts themselves in danger when there is no plan accounting for risks.” She sat back and took a breath. “Sorry. There are a lot of men in this business who enjoy cutting women down. I have a habit of not letting things go.” Crome said, “Apology accepted. I can see you’re tough. But part of the reason me and Blu are in business is because there are some real pikers out there that tend to take things up a few notches. Wouldn’t want that to happen to you.” “So you’ll take the job?” she asked. “What is the job?” Blu asked. “Handling my security.” Before Blu could say anything, but with thoughts of every reason his biker business partner would not want to have a long term commitment like this one, Crome said, “Hell yes.” Blu blinked a few times. Then he said, “What is the timeframe you are looking for, here?” “Permanent.” Holding up a hand, Crome said, “We talkin’ twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week?” “Yes.” He looked at Blu. “I been looking for something a little more long term that our normal jobs. How about you?” This coming from the man who vetoed a similar opportunity guarding a rich banker with six-figure paychecks for both of them and, frankly, a much easier task than trying to guard someone who books hundred-thousand-seat stadiums. “No offense,” she said, “but I want Blu on point. He already proved he’s capable before I offered to pay.” “Of course,” Crome said, and toked on his vape pen. The change in his demeanor was minor, but Blu could sense she inadvertently just threw Crome’s ego in a blender and hit the high- speed button. Blu said, “We work with a few contractors, handpicked by us of course. But without knowing more specifics, I’m not sure I can tell you we’ll be able to handle the job.” Brushing strands of orange hair off her face from the ocean breeze in the air, she said, “What do you want to know?” “If we’re on the hook round the clock,” Blu said, “we need to see where you live, what your studio and tour schedules are, and where you spend your leisure time, if you have any.” “Is that all?” she asked. “No,” Crome said, recovering from the brush off, “we need to know all of your friends and business associates. We like to do background checks on everyone.” “You’re kidding,” she said. “I’m afraid not,” Blu said. “You mean Jack didn’t go through all of this with you?” She said. “With him, I felt like luggage.” Blu inhaled a lungful of vapor, thought for a moment, exhaled, and then said, “How do you feel about handguns?” “I don’t mind them,” she said. “But I’ve never shot one.” “Reason I ask,” Blu said, “is because those guys meant business back at the club. We need to talk about them. And if you’re agreeable, I’d like Crome to take you to the range and teach you handgun safety and how to shoot.” She looked at Crome as if to ask, “Him?” Blu said, “Crome’s rough around the edges—” “Thanks a lot.” “But,” Blu continued, “he’s the last person to pull a handgun in a fight which makes him the best instructor for you.” As if finally getting what Blu was saying, Crome offered, “I’m more of a leg-breaker type.” “I see.” It was clear she didn’t see or understand, but was going along with it. As Blu understood the situation, she was already here and asking for help. It would seem disingenuous for her to back out now, no matter how unsophisticated Blu Carraway Investigations appeared. “Good,” Blu said. “Now, about those four men with guns.” She sunk back in her chair. “I have no idea what they were after.” Blu got the feeling, and it wasn’t the first time with a client, that she was not telling the whole truth. Or at least as much as she knew. He said, “I’m told they were contract killers. Not exactly high end, but killers none-the-less.” Kincaid had gotten the information from the local authorities back in Kuala Lumpur. “Well I have no idea why they’d be after me.” Almost the same thing she’d said before. Blu wouldn’t get more out of her at the moment, but he would eventually. “Okay, then.” He turned to Crome. “Mick, why don’t you take her to Pop’s place and get her started on her training?” “What are you going to do?” she asked. “There is a lot of work even before we review your schedule and lifestyle.” “What about a contract or something?” she asked. “How about this,” Blu said. “We sign on for one week while we figure the situation out. If a lot more killers come knocking, Crome and I won’t be enough and I’ll have to refer you to a bigger shop.”
Carraway Island south of Charleston, South Carolina
Crome sucked down vapor, wondering how this was all going to work. What started out as maybe something amusing and superficial had turned into a real job and not much of a fun one if you asked him. He thought someone with orange hair and a bunch of tats would be a little less formal when it came to rules and such. But apparently C was more than she appeared. “Okay, Mr. Crome,” Ariel said, “I hadn’t planned on shooting guns today and probably am not dressed appropriately.” “Nobody except the military, cops, crazies or hunters plans on shooting guns,” Crome said, “but I find their wardrobes lacking.” She laughed. “A joker. Now I’m beginning to figure you out.” “As far as your wardrobe,” he motioned to her t-shirt, vintage jeans, and Doc Martens, “it looks like you take lessons from Blu.” “I was trying to travel incognito.” Her signature orange hair prevented her being incognito in any situation unless it was under a wig. Something to think about for later. He said, “How about you hand me your car keys and I drive us to the range?” “You’re not on my rental plan.” Again traces of formality and rules. “I think someone with your credit score wouldn’t need to worry about things like that,” he said. “But if it’ll make you feel better, Blu tells me we have a pretty hefty umbrella policy in case I blow off the wrong person’s head.” “Still,” she said, giving him a smile that almost melted his guts, “I’d rather not risk it.” Crome couldn’t believe it when she instead donned a ball cap, walked over, mounted his bike, raised the kick stand, and started it up. Blu, who’d been silent through the whole exchange, laughed, patted Crome on the shoulder, and walked inside his house. Blu listened as the rumble of the Harley’s engine dissipated in the distance. — The first call he made was to Brack Pelton, a local Charlestonian and the wheel man he’d used in Malaysia. Starting right now, Ariel would no longer drive herself anywhere. She was as safe as could be expected riding on the back of Crome’s bike, especially with no one the wiser that she was in town. While she was strikingly beautiful, she and Crome together looked the part of bikers, or something like that. Pelton answered the call with, “Darcy doesn’t believe me that we had C in the car with us while on the job with Jennifer.” “Listen, Brack,” Blu said. “The last thing I should be doing is giving marital advice. But I’d recommend you let her win this one.” “Why’s that?” “Because you can prove your point when you bring your lovely wife over to my house for dinner tonight.” “Prove my point?” he asked. “What’s that supposed—wait a minute. She’s there isn’t she?” “No.” It was a true statement. “Then how am I going to prove my point?” “Crome took her to Pops’ range to teach her about handguns. They’ll be back for dinner.” “Hot damn.” “Helping you impress your wife wasn’t the goal of my call,” Blu said. “Sorry. What can I do for you?” “I’m not sure yet, but I think Crome and I are going to take over her personal security.” “No kidding? You need a driver?” “Yes, and may need a second home base if things go south here.” “No problem,” he said. “How’s Murder?” “Not well.” “Man, I hate to hear that. Let me know if there is anything we can do for you there. Even if it’s to come and sit with him or whatever. We’re here, okay?” “Thanks, Brack. Right now, plan on coming for dinner. In fact, can you have your restaurant cater it? I don’t normally keep much on hand and don’t have time to go shopping. I’m going to call my daughter. When Tess and Harmony get wind of it, the count’s eight.” “We’ll take care of everything,” Brack said. “Darcy’s gonna love this. Thanks for thinking of us.” “See you at six.” The call ended. With dinner now planned, Blu contacted Adam Kincaid. Unbeknownst to Crome, Blu had signed an extended contract with the Kincaids. The sole purpose was to watch Jennifer Kincaid when she traveled outside of the country, which happened every couple of months. More often now that she was dating Mandel. Blu thought she could do better, maybe someone who wasn’t afraid of actual work. Any kind of legitimate effort would suffice. — Crome congratulated himself on having the foresight to call ahead and ask for the private room. Ariel, or C, whichever name she went under, sold a bunch of albums with her picture on the cover. She’d also done a Super Bowl half-time show and a New Year’s Eve party with a wardrobe malfunction that was broadcast on a major network. There was no way she was going anywhere without being recognized, which brought up another thought—if she flew commercial, people already knew she was in town. That might cause some problems. Plug It and Stuff It
, the taxidermy and gun range Blu and Crome liked to use, had been around a long time. So had its owner, Pops. Crome dropped the kickstand next to a twenty-five-year-old F-150 with new Trump decals and faded “W” stickers on the tailgate. Ariel read the faded wooden sign on the front door: “We can help you load it and shoot it. If your pistol still don’t fire right, see a doctor.”
“Whaddaya think?” he asked. She looked at the weathered and run-down building, the cracked asphalt parking lot that was mostly empty, and the surrounding buildings and lots that weren’t any better. “I love America.” “Pops is good people,” Crome said. “You’ll see.” “You don’t understand,” she said. “These are my people, too. My family runs a hunting lodge in Michigan. Their regulars work in the car factories.” He felt like saying, “You ain’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy,” but thought better of it. She had enough money to buy the rust belt, no matter how much she thought she was just like everyone else. — As Blu ended the conversation with Adam Kincaid, another call buzzed in. It was Tess. He and Tess were, well, he wasn’t sure what they were. Since leaving the now defunct Palmetto Pulse
news organization, she had worked as an independent news correspondent along with her cohort, Harmony Childs. Tess spent most nights on his island home in his bed but was gone by dawn. There was none of the usual new romance rituals of “couldn’t wait to talk to you” or “just thinking of you” phone calls, jittery lunches, candlelight dinners, or bouquets of flowers. Okay, that last one was on him, but she didn’t have an office he could send them to and wasn’t home long enough to receive or enjoy them. All that passed through the black hole that was his brain as the phone rattled and hummed with her number displayed on the screen. It was the middle of the afternoon and they weren’t working on a similar story—the only other reason they talked during the day. He answered with, “Hey, Tess.” She said, “Didn’t you tell me you saved C’s life in Malaysia?” “I did.” “Well, there are several fan-selfie posts with her on a flight to Charleston. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was on her way to see you.” He wondered how many other people knew. “Um…” “She’s already there, isn’t she?” Tess asked. “Not exactly.” “Am I going to have to play twenty questions or are you going to give me the story.” “She’s at the shooting range with Crome. He’s teaching her handgun safety. She came to town to contract me and Crome for her personal security.” “No kidding?” Thinking fast, he said, “The Peltons are bringing dinner over tonight. Call Harmony and come over at six.” “C is going to be at your house for dinner tonight.” She said it as if she were trying to convince herself it was the truth. “That’s right.” “Oh. My. God.” He thought he heard her give a slight squeal. It was times like this, and there weren’t that many of them, when he felt the other side of their twenty-year age difference. Most of the rest of the time he played catch-up, her being so much more mature. “So you’ll be here?” “Can I call Hope?” That one caught him off guard. He wasn’t used to—or better yet—didn’t expect Tess to want to have a relationship with Blu’s twenty-two-year-old daughter. “If you want.” It didn’t come out with a whole lot of confidence, but he hoped she didn’t notice. “Just don’t tell her who’s going to be here.” “Great! See you tonight.” The call ended. — Crome watched Pops help Ariel reload the clip for the thirty-two he’d set her up to use. The old man was patient with her, almost grandfather-like, and she showed him respect that only came with good upbringing. At least, what Crome imagined good upbringing would do. He wouldn’t know for sure. His father walked out when he was nine and his mother worked two jobs just to keep the lights on. He pretty much grew up on his own. Pops wore a ball cap with a confederate flag on the front, a red flannel shirt, and blue jeans and looked every bit of his seventy years. He was a Vietnam vet who chain-smoked cigarettes and Crome and Blu were like the sons he never had. Ariel shoved the clip in, aimed at a fresh target twenty feet away, and put four holes center mass. She clicked the safety on, turned to Pops, and said, “Yes!” Pops accepted the gun from her and put it on the table. She gave him a hug, almost knocking his hat off. When Crome and Ariel had entered through the front door, Pops’ ten-year-old granddaughter smiled from underneath a head of dark curly hair. She received her light-brown skin and African features from her father but she had Pops’ brown eyes. Crome wasn’t sure where the girl’s mother, Pops’ daughter, was. Ariel had been a good sport and a better student than Crome would have thought. It helped that Pops became enamored with the young woman, taking a liking to her immediately, orange hair and all. Crome thought he was going to have to do all the work, but all he had to do was carry a few boxes of thirty-two rounds to the private room where they were. After that, he was free to stand back and vape. Pops lit a cigarette, inhaled, and blew out a puff of smoke. Ariel did not seem to mind. He said, “You sure are a good shot, young lady.” She curtsied. “Thank you, kind sir.” Pops ate it up. He had no clue how famous she was. His granddaughter, recognizing Ariel right away, squealed and tried to explain it to her grandfather but it all went over his confederate cap. Crome said, “So what do we owe ya, Pops?” The old man scratched his five-o’clock shadow. “The thirty- two and three boxes of shells. How about Ms. Ariel signs a poster for my granddaughter? She seems to like your music.” “I’ll be glad to,” Ariel said. “But we’re going to pay you for the pistol and bullets.” “And the lane and instructions,” Crome said. “Hell,” Pops said, “it ain’t every day I got a celebrity in here. Donate some money to the V.F.W. and I’ll call it even.” Ariel kissed his cheek. “You are too much.” Pops blushed for the tenth time. It seemed to Crome as if everyone but him was getting all the female attention. Blu walked into a room and women swooned. Pops gets a kiss from the artist of the year. And all Crome ever got was blown off. What was the world coming to? — Enjoyed this sample? Read more about it and David at http://www.henerypress.com
*** Excerpt from Caught Up In It
by David Burnsworth. Copyright © 2019 by David Burnsworth. Reproduced with permission from David Burnsworth. All rights reserved.
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