Spending a week with her estranged sister in Winterport, Florida, isn’t exactly Sydney Brennan’s idea of a vacation.
The Tallahassee private investigator anticipates seven days of intense dysfunction, leavened only by moments of painful boredom. Instead, the two women are caught up in a violent crime, and the brother-in-law Sydney has never met remains strangely absent, leading the local sheriff to suspect him of murder. Meanwhile, Sydney’s sister just can’t let family history lie, even with a hurricane bearing down on central Florida.
Vacation or not, it’s up to Sydney to figure out what her brother-in-law has gotten himself into and track him down. Because without Sydney’s help, he really does have No Safe Winterport in a storm.
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The sun had set, and I could see a hint of pinky-orange color as I walked around opening the windows at Cooper’s Bar. It was a little muggy, and a few degrees warmer than I’d prefer, but mid-way through September it was worth the discomfort to forgo the air conditioning whine. Glenn had poured me a cold Abita beer in an icy glass straight from the freezer, and it sent a pleasant shock through my hand as I picked it up. He asked me the question I knew he’d ask—that he always asked lately—and I took a sip before answering. I was feeling smug, and I hoped a foam mustache would hide it.
“I’m afraid I can’t start training this week,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to sound both disappointed and apologetic. “I’m flying to Orlando to see my sister tomorrow.”
Glenn grunted, picked up my beer and its coaster, and wiped down the bar again. It felt like we were alone, in part because Tuesday nights tend to be slow, but also because Glenn isn’t the kind of bar owner who engages in excess idle chit-chat with customers. Unless you’re Sydney Brennan, PI extraordinaire, and even I was pushing my luck now.
“How long you been saying you’d do this?” he asked.
I pretended to misunderstand. “We were supposed to get together later this year, but Lisa called a few days ago and asked if I could come down now instead.”
Glenn had meant meeting with his martial arts buddy, which I’d promised I’d do a couple of months before. His patience was wearing thin. An imposing looking guy, Glenn isn’t gifted with patience in abundance to begin with. He must have been feeling magnanimous, though, because he let it slide. He even set my beer back within reach.
“This the sister you haven’t seen in forever?” he asked.
Forever being over a decade. “One and the same.”
“Change of scenery’d probably be good for you, then.” He planted an elbow on the bar and stared me down. “Or is this one of those nights when I’ll have to call you a cab?”
I glared back on principle. Now that he mentioned it, drinking myself under the table was tempting. Was that really why I’d gone to Cooper’s tonight? The man was entirely too perceptive sometimes. Probably a hazard of the job.
I pointed out, “You’ve never had to call a cab for me.”
“That’s true,” he said, “but there’s always a first time.”
The anxiety I’d been ignoring since hearing my sister’s voice over the weekend fluttered in my guts and soured the amber beer in my mouth. “Maybe it won’t be that bad. It just feels weird because I don’t even know who my sister is anymore. I just know who she was when we were kids.”
Glenn settled his denim-clad bottom on a stool behind the bar and reached for his own glass of corrected Coke. He stretched his bottom lip up to strain all the liquid from his ruddy mustache before speaking. “It’s been my experience . . .”
“Oh God,” I said, “here we go.”
He knew that sometimes I had to remind him I’m not afraid of his bad-ass, former biker self (except, of course, I am, because I’m not an idiot), and gave me a grizzled, condescending smile. “In my experience, people stay who they were when they were kids. As we get older, we learn to hide the bits we don’t want others to see. And maybe for some people, they hide things so long and so deep, the person they appear to be really is a person they’ve become. Mostly. For others, the difference between the two—who they are and who they want people to think they are—makes them crazy.”
Now I’d definitely gone off my beer. After all, there was a reason—reasons—my sister and I were estranged. Not necessarily good reasons, but reasons.
“On that cheery thought,” I said, setting cash on the bar, “I’m going home to pack. I’ll see you sometime next week.”
“Me and my buddy Vince. I’m counting on it.”
His eyes danced with mischief. I’ll bet he was. Sadist. Various rude remarks and gestures ran through my head, until his face softened and he smiled.
“You, too,” I said. I could never resist Glenn’s ursine grin.
∗ ∗ ∗
The matte red of the engine against the gray wing made the turboprop look like a child’s painted toy, even while I was sitting inside it. No wonder—at just over thirty seats, the plane practically was a toy, complete with buzz-whirring noises as we accelerated and made an unsteady track down the runway, lurching from side to side. It was like being inside an unbalanced washing machine, especially since the woman next to me, elbow hanging over the armrest to invade my personal space, smelled so strongly of perfume that she could be a dryer sheet in disguise. I turned my head to the window and saw boot prints on the wing, presumably left there by a mechanic. Maybe he’d forgotten to tighten a bolt, and we’d fall from the sky.
The evening flight from Tallahassee to Orlando was just over an hour. Coincidentally, that’s the maximum amount of time I could ignore my space-pillaging neighbor by staring out the window introspectively without actually engaging in any introspection. Now was not the time for navel-gazing, but rather to continue my state of denial. I’d spent the day at the office and driven straight from there to the airport, as if hopping on a plane was just a continuation of my commute home. I refused to believe I was on my way to spend a week in Central Florida, a special level of hell Dante was privileged to have been spared.
I was raised near Orlando, the dichotomous land of Mickey Mouse and sex shops, of magnificent herons wading in blue-dyed water next to manicured golf courses. My father and sister still live in the area, but I hadn’t flown to Orlando in years. As the cloud banks fell away on our descent, I was surprised by the amount of water. It decorated the land’s surface in strips and lines and blobs like piped icing on a sandy, subtropical pastry. Scraps of wetlands and forests hung on bare-knuckled, but the closer we fell to earth, the more fabricated the contours became. Wedges of houses stacked around sharp-edged water features, with buffering spaces so uniformly green they could have been trimmed from a pool table and glued on. Palm trees stood like tufted spears, their tousled heads the only acceptable hint of disorder.
I slid my sunglasses from the top of my head to my face as the plane touched down. Looking like a drug addict was a small price to pay if it discouraged friendly revelations from my fellow passengers while we taxied on the runway. We disembarked directly onto the tarmac, the late-day sun low enough to shine right in our eyes, making me look well-prepared rather than antisocial. Inside the terminal, the sunglasses were part of my airport privacy mode, ignoring everyone and everything not directly in my path. Apparently, they worked too well.
“Sydney?” Someone called my name as I emerged from the tunnel-esque secured areas into the broad expanse of consumer utopia open to all.
I turned to look—several times—before I finally recognized my sister.
“What, are you a celebrity now?” Lisa asked.
“I have a medical condition,” I said, waiting for her to call me on the lie as I shoved my sunglasses back into my hair.
The distance between us slowly narrowed, and Lisa reached toward me. I hoped I didn’t flinch.
“You still have Mom’s hair,” she said, tentatively touching a mass of messy red curls where they brushed the top of my shoulder. “Skank.”
“And you still have Dad’s pigment, which can’t be bought in a bottle. I’ve tried,” I said, gripping her tanned forearm. “Loser.”
I watched Lisa’s eyes fill with tears until I couldn’t see them for my own, then pulled her into an embrace. People walked around us, expecting that sort of thing in an airport. I was not. “What are you doing here?” I asked, brushing my eyes with my shirt sleeve.
Lisa sniffed. “Well, I know you said you’d get a rental car, but it’s a pain to get in and out of Orlando, and I figured you didn’t need the extra expense, so I came to get you instead.”
And so it begins, with my sister’s control freak nature firing the first shot. Deep breath. “That’s very sweet of you, Lisa, but I will need a rental car.”
“Why? I can take you anywhere you need to go,” she said.
“I’m not actually flying back to Tallahassee. I’ll be picking up a few boxes of files to take with me—for work—so I have to drive.” Plus, most of the available return flights the next week went through Fort Lauderdale, turning an hour of flying into more than four. By the time I’d done the airport security dance, I could have driven home anyway, and skipped sitting next to a dryer sheet.
“Well, then, we’ll just rent you a car when you need it. Let’s get your bags.” Lisa power walked toward baggage claim. Fortunately, everything was in that direction, including parking.
“I don’t have any other bags,” I said.
Lisa stopped, staring at me in disbelief from beneath perfect, angle-cut bangs. “Seriously?” she asked.
I shrugged a purse-laden shoulder and lifted the handle of my carry-on. “Yep, this is it. I travel light.”
Lisa continued to look at me like the Sister from Another Planet.
“I like the highlights,” I said, raising a hand toward my hair to demonstrate, and whacked myself in the chest with my purse in the process.
“Me too,” she said, telling me about her hairdresser and the experience in detail on the walk to the parking lot, as I knew she would. Conversational distraction was the mature, skillful strategy I planned to use dealing with her over the next week. (Hair pulling, my childhood fallback, didn’t go over well in public outside of reality TV.) And I did like the highlights. Lisa had my father’s straight, dark brown hair, and the honey tones worked with her tan skin to make her appear more carefree than I’d ever known her to be.
Lisa popped the back when we reached a shiny, charcoal Lexus SUV. She took my bag from me and fiddled around the vehicle’s interior to get the perfect arrangement. I left her to her perpetual, obsessive-compulsive tendencies (that hadn’t changed) and settled into the passenger seat, its leather caressing my bottom in an unexpected massage. “Nice car.”
“Thanks,” Lisa said, adjusting her mirrors for probably the tenth time that day. “It’s a lease. Graeme gets a good deal on them from a friend, and we trade out every couple of years.”
“How much is a good deal?” I asked, out of sheer curiosity, being perfectly happy with my little Cabrio, Cecil.
“I don’t know. Graeme takes care of all that.”
Of course he does. Lisa paid the parking attendant, then casually negotiated the lanes and exited without reading the signs.
“Speaking of Graeme,” Lisa went on, “he’s out of town this evening, so I got us a hotel room in Orlando tonight. Even mid-week, the traffic’s bad, and I thought you might not want to drive another couple of hours. This way we can just relax and drive home in the morning when we feel like it.”
Was my sister trying to drive me crazy? I worked to unclench my jaw. Spending as much time on the road in shitty motels as I do, sleeping on corporate sheets didn’t exactly say vacation to me. But the real issue was Lisa making plans without asking me. Deep breath again. It was nearly eight p.m., so it would be dark soon. It’s not like I had anything else to do. And it was too early in our visit to feel so frustrated. I had to pace myself.
“Where are we staying?”
Lisa looked away from the road for an instant to give me an embarrassed smile. “The Delta Orlando. Well, the former Delta Orlando. I’m not sure who owns it now. My treat.”
Her sentimental choice helped me let go of most of the rest of my frustration. Our family had stayed at that hotel after natural disasters, electrical and plumbing disasters, and occasionally just because. (Those were Mom’s words, and come to think of it, she’d been behind the bulk of the non-natural disasters, too.) Lisa reached forward and hit a single button before quickly returning her hands to ten and two. An easy listening station assaulted our ears, so for the remaining few minutes to the hotel I concentrated on not getting carsick or insulting Lisa’s old fogey music tastes.
Lisa had gotten us a single room with two beds. The bag she dragged behind her for a night’s stay was nearly as big as the one I’d brought for an entire week. “Do you have a swimsuit?” I asked.
She hefted the wheeled, flowered monstrosity onto a bed and unzipped it, pulling a dark piece of spandex blend from its depths. “Naturally.”
We had a moment of awkwardness about changing clothes in front of each other. Finally Lisa picked up her swimsuit and said, “I’m going to change while I go, you know …”
“You know” was as explicit as my sister got about anything that went on in a bathroom. I slipped into my own suit and a hotel robe, and she came out a few minutes later wearing a matching robe. We took our awkward silence with us down four floors in the elevator. Darkness had snuck up while we were checking in and changing, and artificial lights marked the path to a large swimming pool. A group of kids splashed in one end, while a couple of adults huddled neck-deep at the other. A single dedicated swimmer ticked off laps.
We kept walking, past islands of tropical plants that gave a sense of depth and privacy to the landscape. Our feet led us to the Hot Tub Grotto that had fascinated us so much as children. The first heated pool was already occupied by a couple whose groping made me glad the water was super-chlorinated. A single elderly man wearing a ridiculous hat sat in the next one with his eyes closed. We joined him, peeling off our robes and laying them to rest on adjacent chaise lounges. I had to laugh. We’d worn the same black, one-piece swimsuit. Mine was for swimming laps; I don’t know Lisa’s excuse. I eased slowly from the concrete edge into the hot water.
“Nature or nurture?” I asked. “Either way, after seeing the butt floss on that chick the next pool over, I think Mom would be proud. Is Dad in town?”
“No. He’s away on a fishing trip,” Lisa said, avoiding my eyes. “Remember the time we stayed here and Allan drew big arrows on my bikini bottom in magic marker?”
I laughed. “Yeah, and you didn’t notice until you were already in the pool. But you started it when you told Mom that he and Chad had skipped school to go see spring training.”
The water was almost too hot, but I submerged to my chin anyway and let my mind drift with the rising steam. Chad Hunter—what pocket of my brain had that name come from? I’d desperately wanted to go with them, and Chad had been pretty tolerant of his best friend’s kid sister. He’d said he’d take me if it were the Red Sox, but he didn’t trust me not to get arrested for sabotaging the Mets. I wondered what ever happened to Chad.
“Of course,” Lisa said, interrupting my reverie. “Allan’s been dead for eighteen years, and you still take his side.”
“Jesus, Lisa, for once can you just give it a fucking break?” My outburst surprised me almost as much as it did the three young women sinking down in the water opposite us. I smiled sheepishly to take the edge off, hoping they’d gotten the raw emotion rather than the actual words.
“I’m sorry,” I said, without looking at Lisa. “I guess I’m more tired than I thought.”
“Sure,” Lisa said.
Our faces flushed and skin pruned, but we were unwilling to leave the hot water and face the reality of the next six days together. The young women across from us spoke German in hushed tones while we sat silently. We have German ancestry on our Mom’s side, and she’d insisted we take a year of the language in high school. (Even though, I might add, Mom spoke not a word of German herself.) The longer I listened to their voices, the more often a familiar word would catch in my mind. Something-something tot? I looked at the elderly man, mouth gaping open, and then at my sister. She’d caught it as well. Maybe the old man was dead. A sudden snore rattled his sinuses and throat, but he didn’t open his eyes.
“Nein, nicht so tot ist,” I said softly.
My syntax was probably off, but they got the gist. The five of us giggled and grinned like schoolgirls. My sister met my gaze, and I caught a glimpse of the child who’d shared this pool with me years ago. Then, we’d been giggling about the older boys roughhousing in the big pool, and the stink-eye we’d gotten from Mom when we strolled slowly past them. What had happened, that now it was so much easier for us to understand strangers speaking a foreign language than it was to understand each other?