She’s on her own once more, living day to day on her beloved Wind Dancer, anchored near a quaint little Gulf Coast town in the Florida Panhandle. But when the son of a fishing client ends up dead, the father’s employer hires Charity to find the person responsible.
Intrigue mounts faster than the list of suspects and Charity finds new purpose and direction, and possibly a guide. But will her new outlook make her fall prey to the local crime boss? Very few know of her abilities and many have come up short in trying to take her. Will this be Charity’s final downfall from grace?
Release date: May 1, 2022
Publisher: Down Island Press
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Elusive Charity: A Charity Styles Novel
Saturday, April 23
The Forgotten Coast
The abandoned farmhouse was the perfect location. It was isolated, sitting far down a long dirt track. The property was several hundred acres, backed by a slow-moving river, and the nearest neighbor was a mile on up the desolate county road.
The overgrown track was barely visible from the two-lane highway, as tree branches were growing low over the opening. The mailbox was long gone, and grass and weeds had broken up and hidden the asphalt entry.
It was perfect, Lucas thought, looking around. You could set off a bomb and nobody would bother to come see what happened. There was even a pond with a short dock, so the kids could cool off.
Lucas and two other young men were busy clearing the long dirt drive using rakes, shovels, loppers, and a buck saw. Not exactly the proper tools for the job, but the only ones they could lay their hands on.
The sun was already behind the trees to the west, and it would be dark soon. The track didn’t need to be neat and perfect, just clear enough so cars could get through without ending up in one of the ditches on either side.
Lucas looked back at his best friend. “Kenny, what time’s everyone coming?”
One of the others stopped what he was doing and glanced over. “Nine o’clock is what was on the invites. We still have an hour or so.”
“This was such a cool idea,” the youngest of the three said. “There’s lots of old places like this all around the county.”
Lucas and Kenny had gone to school together since kindergarten but had both dropped out a year earlier, halfway through their junior year at Franklin County School, the only public school in the district. Marc was a year younger—a junior—and still going to school. He was planning to join the Army after graduation the following year.
The abandoned farm was just off Highway 67, nine miles north of the small town of Carrabelle, where the three young men lived. The dismal stretch of two-lane was in the northeast corner of the county, far from any of the small towns along the Forgotten Coast. About a hundred yards behind the farmhouse, the dark waters of the Ochlockonee River flowed southward.
As the three young men got back to work, knocking back the weeds and small trees and bushes that were slowly reclaiming the land, the sound of a car slowing down on the highway beyond the woods caught Lucas’s attention. The three looked back down the freshly cleared track and soon a pair of headlights appeared. The three accent lights just inside the headlights gave the car away—a Mustang.
The driver gunned the engine, breaking the Mustang’s rear tires loose; it drifted sideways, with the rear tires about to slide into the ditch. The driver eased off and corrected, then slowly rolled towards them.
“It’s Leo and Karin,” Marc said.
Lucas smiled in the gathering darkness as the car stopped and the window came down.
“Hey, guys!” Leo said. “Great place you have here.”
Kenny jammed his shovel into the soft, sandy soil. “Just needed a little sprucin’ up,” he said. “Have any trouble findin’ it?”
“Nah, man. The GPS numbers was a good idea. And the beer cans marking the entrance made it easy.”
Kenny had spread the word through social media, giving only a precise position of the entrance and the words “Double Dos.” The big twenty-four-ounce green and yellow Dos Equis beer cans with a bright red XX on them would be easily spotted by headlights.
Lucas bent over and smiled at Leo’s sister. “How’s it goin’, Karin?”
She opened the door and got out, looking at the three younger boys over the hood of her brother’s car. “Well, I’ve been here for like ten minutes and nobody’s offered me a beer.”
“Pull over there toward the pond,” Lucas said to Leo. “We have a bonfire all set and two coolers loaded.”
“Then let’s get this party started!” Leo shouted, dropping the car into gear, and bouncing over the uneven terrain. He spotted the coolers and turned around, so he could back up to the fire pit. Leo always wanted to park where he had a clean exit.
Tossing their tools into the back of Marc’s pickup, they followed after Leo on foot, with Lucas and Karin hanging back a little.
“Are you sure your guy’s gonna come through?” Lucas asked.
Karin glanced over at him, tossing her long brown hair over her shoulder. “He’ll be here,” she assured him. “Don’t worry about that. Got any weed out here in the weeds?”
Lucas laughed nervously. Karin was almost twenty-one, two years older than him. He’d had a crush on her since sixth grade, but she’d been an eighth grader and wouldn’t have given the time of day to anyone still in elementary grades. She’d dropped out, too, and had taken off with her boyfriend Phil for California, vowing never to return to Apalach.
But here she was, walking right beside him and talking to him. Lucas reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He flipped the top and handed her a joint, already rolled, as if it were nothing.
“Cool,” Karin said.
She stopped, took it from him, and lit it with her own lighter. When she drew the smoke deep into her lungs, her chest swelled and pointy nipples pushed against the confines of the tank top she wore.
In the glow of the joint, Lucas stared longingly at her breasts for a moment. To say Karin was hot would be an insult. She was small, a little over five feet tall, and Lucas doubted she weighed much over a hundred pounds. Her chestnut-colored hair was wavy and bouncy, but when it was wet, it hung to her bikini bottom.
“Cat got your tongue?” she asked, passing the joint toward him, and blowing the smoke seductively up into the night sky.
“Yeah, um, it looks like it’s gonna be a great night.”
He puffed on the joint, inhaling the pungent smoke.
She smiled at him in the darkness as he passed the joint back. “That the best compliment you can come up with, Skywalker?”
Though his given name was Luke, the result of parents who were addicted to Star Wars movies, he preferred Lucas. Did she know?
“The moon makes you look hotter than ever,” he stammered.
She laughed, then hit the joint again. “You’re cute, Luke. The moon won’t be up for hours.”
“Um, well, you still look hot.”
She handed the nearly finished joint back. “Keep these coming and I might let you see more.”
She turned and trotted toward the others, her hair bouncing loosely. Another pickup came down the long dirt track and parked beside Leo’s Mustang.
Lucas got a plastic bottle of lighter fluid from the back of his old Ford pickup, stabbed it with a Buck knife and let the liquid pour over the wood they’d piled up. A match was struck and within seconds, the bonfire was crackling.
Karin hopped up beside Lucas, sitting on the tailgate of his truck.
“Why do you hang around here?” she asked, reaching into his shirt pocket as more cars pulled in.
She opened the pack and took another of Lucas’s joints out, holding it up with a questioning look, as the firelight danced across her face, accentuating her high cheekbones, tiny nose, and full lips. Once Lucas produced a lighter and flicked it, Karin puffed a few times, getting it going, then took a long pull, inhaling deeply.
“I’ve been asking myself that same question since I quit school last year,” he replied, accepting the joint from her.
Karin’s bare, tanned thigh pressed against his leg, and he could feel the heat through his jeans, wishing now that he’d worn shorts instead. She’d been the prettiest girl in school and now, she was even prettier—an insanely beautiful woman.
“California’s great,” she said, putting her arms behind her to lean back and stare up into the sky. She began kicking her feet alternately back and forth as Lucas tried to see down her tank top. “Palm trees, clear blue sky, the ocean, and the weather’s always perfect.”
With each small kick of her left leg, Lucas felt the muscles in her thigh rubbing against him. He could also feel a stirring beginning in his groin.
“Why’d you come back?” he asked, adjusting the bottom of his shirt to hide his hard-on.
“It’s also real expensive out there,” she replied. “We ran out of money and Phil got arrested.”
“How’d you get back?”
“Drove his car and bummed gas money from people in rest stops.” She turned her head, as if listening to something. “There it is again.”
She pointed out behind the house. “Every now and then, I hear water back there.”
“It’s the Ochlockonee,” he said. “It’s just across the backyard of the house.”
“Come on,” she said, jumping off the tailgate. “Show me.”
After taking another drag on the joint, Lucas was quick to follow her, and once they were outside the circle of light from the fire, she turned to the right, moving behind the old house, where concrete steps led up to a back door.
“Ever do a shotgun kiss?” she asked, taking the joint back from him.
“I breathe smoke out while our lips are almost touching, and you inhale.” She took a big drag, then motioned him closer.
Lucas, who was several inches taller, had to bend his knees awkwardly to get to her level. She grabbed his head in both hands and put her lips close to his. When she exhaled, he inhaled, drawing most of the smoke into his lungs.
In such close proximity, holding her narrow waist to keep his balance, he was fully excited. It wasn’t just the weed that was making him woozy.
“Here,” she said, handing the stub of the joint back to him. “You do me now.”
“Okay,” he said, “but a lot of smoke missed my mouth.”
“I’ll fix that,” she said, stepping up onto the first step of the back porch. “Now we’re level.”
Lucas drew the hot smoke from the roach in short puffs, inhaling deeply. This time, when he moved his mouth close to hers, she grabbed the back of his neck and head and pressed her lips firmly against his.
Lucas’s dark-brown eyes went wide, and he wrapped his arms around her tiny waist, barely remembering to exhale as she inhaled. She practically sucked the air out of him.
One of her legs came up high and locked around his as she pressed herself tightly against him. He put his hands under her butt, and she literally climbed up his body, scissoring both legs around him and locking her ankles together.
She broke away first, dropping to the ground. In the darkness she put a small hand on the front of his jeans and smiled up at him as she rubbed up and down.
“Now that’s a shotgun,” she said, with a sigh.
Lucas reached for her breasts, but she stopped him.
“Plenty of time for that,” she said, taking his hand and leading him back around the corner of the house.
More cars and pickups had arrived. Karin pointed toward a guy standing beside a BMW, apart from the other cars. “That’s Antoine. I told you he’d come. Do you have the money?”
“Yeah,” Lucas said, a bit dejected. “Five hundred bucks.”
“You’re gonna clean up,” she said, leading him toward the man with the BMW. “Over here, Antoine,” she called out.
The man looked toward them and nodded, then moved to the back of his car.
He was small, maybe an inch shorter than Lucas’s five-seven, and he was well-dressed. The car was a newer model, probably costing more than any three of the cars parked closer to the fire.
“Did you get it?” she asked, as she and Lucas came around behind the black sedan.
He opened the trunk without a word and produced a plastic jar filled with little white pills.
“How many?” she asked him.
“A hundred hits,” he replied. “Just as you asked. Five hundred dollars. Got the money?”
“Pay the man,” Karin said, taking the bottle and opening it.
She dumped a few into her palm, looked at them, then looked at the label by the firelight.
Lucas produced a small roll of twenties and handed it to the man. He didn’t have to count it—he knew it was the agreed-upon amount.
Antoine, however, did count it. Satisfied, he put it into his shirt pocket and smiled at Karin. “Pleasure doing business with you, cara.”
Then the man got in his car and started to back out.
“Cara?” Lucas asked. “Did you give him a fake name?”
Karin smiled and said, “He’s Italian. Or at least his folks are. He was born in P’cola. Cara is Italian for ‘dear.’”
She put the little pill bottle in her shorts pocket, then they returned to the group and sat together on the tailgate of Lucas’s truck, the cap’s hatch open above their heads. Kenny came over and asked if that had been Karin’s delivery guy who’d just left.
“Yes,” she replied. “The party favors have arrived.”
“Whatcha got?” he asked her.
She leaned against Lucas to dig the bottle out of her tight cutoffs, then held it up. “O.C. Hillbilly heroin.”
“How much for five?”
Karin shook five of the oxycodone tablets out of the little bottle and held them out in her hand. “For you, just fifty dollars. But if anyone else asks, it’s twenty bucks a pop.”
Kenny produced the cash, and she gave him the pills. After he’d gone back over to the fire, she scooted closer to Lucas.
“See?” she said, stuffing the money into his pants pocket and finding him still firm. “Thirty dollars profit, even at the friends and family rate.”
More cars arrived. A few people had trouble finding the place and Marc had to walk out to the county road and flag some of them down, but within an hour, there were dozens of vehicles and nearly a hundred young people drinking beer and dancing around the fire to music coming from Leo’s Mustang.
The pill bottle was nearly empty and as Karin had promised, Lucas had more than tripled the five hundred he’d started with. She held it up and looked over at him. “Do I get a freebie?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Lucas said, starting to feel the buzz from the three beers he’d already had. “Maybe we can work out some sort of a trade.”
Karin took one of the pills and seductively moved it to Lucas’s mouth. “Are those bean bags back there under the bed cover?”
Lucas let her put the pill into his mouth, then washed it down with the last of his beer. He looked over his shoulder into the darkened recesses of the covered truck bed. The cap had windows, but they were dark tinted.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Two big ones.”
“Let’s kick back and smoke another one with the tailgate all closed up,” Karin suggested.
Lucas wasted no time and scrambled backward. When Karin joined him, giggling and squealing, he leaned out and, after a couple of hard tugs, got the tailgate up. Then he reached up and pulled down the cap’s hatch and locked it.
Little light from the fire reached the interior, but he could clearly make out Karin sitting on one of the bean bags, her legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Her long hair lay sprawled across the yellow bean bag and down over her breasts.
She opened the little container and shook out the last two pills, then twisted her body back and forth seductively, sinking further into the velvet-covered bean bag.
“Two freebies?” she asked, smiling at him.
“That won’t be too much, will it?”
“No, I’ve done two at once a bunch of times.” She popped them in her mouth and washed them down with a can of beer.
“Would you take my shoes off for me?” she asked, uncrossing her ankles, and moving one leg over toward where he was still crouched on his hands and knees.
He practically leapt onto the other beanbag and she draped her right leg over his. Reaching down, he lifted her calf, bending her knee so her foot was within reach. Then he did the same with the other foot.
“How long’s it take?” Lucas asked.
“Not long.” She smiled and moved closer to him. “You’ll start to feel it by the time we finish the next joint.”
They smoked another about halfway down, their bodies close together.
“Another shotgun?” Karin asked, her voice a bit slurred.
“Sure,” he said, handing her the joint.
She took a deep pull, inhaling and arching her back. Then she motioned for him to come over to her. When Lucas rolled over, propping himself with his hands on either side of her head, she spread her legs and pulled him down on top of her.
Their lips met and she slowly exhaled, pushing her hips up toward him. They soon forgot all about the joint and the party, which was by then in full swing. They kissed and pawed at each other’s clothes in a clumsy effort to each undress the other, both laughing as they hurriedly managed to accomplish the task.
She got on top of him first, moving slowly and moaning softly.
Finally, as he felt he was nearing the edge, he rolled her onto the other beanbag, thrusting harder and harder. She moaned in the darkness, and he could see her eyes roll back. Her body fell limp as he moved faster and faster, finally arching his back as he finished.
Exhausted, sweating, and breathing hard, Lucas flopped over onto the other beanbag, spent. When he looked over, Karin’s eyes were fixed on the roof of the cap. She, too, looked totally wiped out.
“Karin?” Lucas asked tentatively. “I hope I didn’t finish too fast.”
She didn’t reply. At first, he thought she was just pretending, so he reached over and cupped one of her breasts and squeezed the nipple between his fingers. She’d squealed with delight when he’d pinched her that way earlier. But he got no response this time.
“Karin?” he said, a bit more urgently. “Are you okay?”
Not getting a reply, he moved his hand lower, feeling for her chest to rise and fall as she breathed. Finally, he rolled over and put his ear to her chest.
Sunday, May 1
St. George Island, Florida
The sun was drifting toward the western horizon as a little blue sports car raced southbound onto a long causeway, far exceeding the posted speed limit.
The bridge was over four miles long, mostly raised ten feet above the water on concrete pillars. But it soared higher over the Intracoastal Waterway near the southern end.
The sports car, a Fiat 124 Spider, was the only vehicle on the bridge. The driver stepped on the pedal and after a moment of turbo lag, the little car accelerated even faster.
The bridge was only two lanes, but it had been built much wider than just its travel lanes. There were narrow breakdown lanes between the outer fog lines and the concrete barriers on either side.
Rush hour commuters, what few there were even during the busiest hours, were already sitting at their dinner tables this late on a Sunday. Or maybe they were lounging at their pools with drinks during the last hour before sunset—the Golden Hour. As the sun dropped lower in the clear blue sky, its rays filtered through more and more of the atmosphere, giving everything a rich, warm glow that made colors appear more vibrant.
Many of the homes on the barrier island were vacation rentals, but it was still a while before summer vacationers would arrive and most of the winter snowbirds had left. So, the road was empty.
The top was down on the Fiat. The woman behind the wheel wore large sunglasses, her blond hair streaming back over the headrest. The car approached the hump where the bridge rose sixty-five feet over the ICW and the speedometer showed that the low-slung two-seater was traveling at nearly one hundred miles per hour. Fast, but not the little roadster’s top speed, by any means.
Half a mile ahead, another car topped the high span coming in the opposite direction. Though she recognized the grill instantly as a Jeep Cherokee, she lifted her foot anyway and started to slow.
No sense blowing a local off the road, the woman behind the wheel thought.
She started up the incline at just under eighty. As she and the SUV streaked past one another, she saw a flash of blue light on the dash.
“Dammit!” she exclaimed, pounding the palm of her right hand on the gear shift.
In the mirror, she saw the brake lights come on and the Cherokee did a three-point turn at the bottom of the arched part of the bridge, unhindered by any traffic. Then it disappeared from view as the roadster went over the hump and headed downhill.
Highway 303, locally referred to as Franklin Boulevard, was the only way on or off the barrier island, so there was no other option for her but to pull over. Sure, the little sports car could outrun the SUV, but with no place to go, it was pointless.
The Spider continued down the high span as the Jeep with the flashing blue light topped the hump and closed the gap. At the foot of the bridge was a small beach access with a couple of park benches. The blonde downshifted and turned into the small park.
She angled her car to the left, exposing the driver’s side, knowing the cop would likely be pretty pissed that she was driving that fast, and she didn’t want to cause him any more angst when approaching an unknown car. She remembered being that cop, angry at the carelessness of people, but having to remain calm and careful when approaching a stopped motorist.
“It’s just a sunset,” Charity Styles said quietly to herself, as she got her driver’s license, registration, and insurance card from her purse.
When she looked back over her shoulder, she saw the Cherokee pull in behind her and to her left, angled so as to provide maximum protection for the officer, but out of her own field of view in the mirrors.
She put both hands on the wheel, holding her documents in her left, ready to hand them over. The license was a forgery, but even someone at Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles wouldn’t be able to tell. And the phony driver’s license number was actually registered through that agency, though she’d never been to a DMV office. All thanks to a friend in Key Largo.
Charity heard the Cherokee’s door squeak and then the crunch of shoes on the shell parking area. She blew an errant hair off her cheek.
“License, registration, and proof of insur…” a woman’s voice began.
She stopped as Charity extended her left hand. “I’m sorry, Officer,” she said, turning to see a dark-haired woman about her own age, standing slightly behind her door, one hand on the grip of the service weapon on her hip. It didn’t escape her attention that the holster was unbuckled, the flap tucked neatly behind her belt.
Charity took all that in and more, at first glance. Her dark blue windbreaker was open, the right side pulled back and probably tucked into her pants.
A textbook law enforcement approach.
She was dressed in regular clothes—pleated gray slacks and a white blouse, but the lightweight windbreaker she wore had the Franklin County Sheriff's Office star emblazoned on its left side. It didn’t quite go with her outfit.
“Do you know how fast you were going?” the officer asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid I do,” Charity replied, wondering if the cop knew.
A Jeep Cherokee wasn’t exactly department issue, even in a small rural town like Apalachicola, where having four-wheel drive might be an asset to a deputy, and she wasn’t dressed as a patrol deputy, either. A detective using her own car?
If so, the SUV might not even be equipped with radar. She’d seen the Jeep around town, as well as the woman who now stood beside her car. But she didn’t know the woman was a cop.
“I’ve seen you around,” the woman said, looking down at the driver’s license in her hand. “You’re from Homestead?”
“Sort of,” Charity replied. “Right now, I’m staying on my boat, anchored northeast of SGI Airport.”
“Would you mind stepping out of the car, Ms. Styles?”
The driver’s door on the low-slung car opened and Charity slowly unfolded herself from it. She stood and faced the officer, who was quite a few inches shorter. The low angle of the sun made Charity’s shadow, stretching across the ground to the cop’s left, impossibly long.
The dark-haired policewoman was attractive but didn’t flaunt it. She wore minimal makeup and had her curly, dark hair pulled back in a short ponytail.
“Again, I’m sorry for speeding,” Charity offered. “I have no excuse, except I wanted to get back to my boat before dark. I only sped on this long stretch because there wasn’t any traffic.”
The woman glanced over her right shoulder to the long, empty bridge. No cars had passed since they’d pulled in. Then she looked down at the license in her hand again. “It’s still an hour before dark.”
“Yes,” Charity admitted. “I like to watch the sun go down, and I have a trunk full of groceries to get out to my boat.”
“Why are you in Franklin County?” the woman asked
It seemed an odd way to phrase the question—not suspicious, but more akin to disbelief. But Charity had a prepared lie for whenever anyone tried to get too close. She’d used it a couple of times when men in the small town wanted to get to know her better. Most guys didn’t want to deal with drama.
“I went through a nasty breakup recently,” Charity sort of lied. “This seemed like as good a place to hide as any.”
“You’re hiding from an ex?”
Charity could see that it was a somewhat touchy subject for the woman. “It’s pretty remote here,” she said. “He’d most likely look for me in Miami, Palm Beach, or maybe Key West, thinking I’d want to be near what he thought I liked—the big city nightlife.”
“Like I said,” the woman replied, handing Charity’s documents back to her. “I’ve seen you around town, but not very often. The car kind of sticks out. We’re not known for big nightlife here.”
Charity took her things back, relieved that she wasn’t going to get a ticket but also wondering why. “I’m not into that,” she said, looking down at the ground. “Big city or small town. I mostly just stay on my boat, rising and falling with the sun and moon.”
“You were in the Olympics.”
Charity looked up, surprised, then smiled. “Yes, I was. The 2000 Sydney games.”
“A friend mentioned you were in town,” the cop said, smiling. “I remember watching you swim.”
Thanks,” Charity said, always feeling awkward when people remembered her from that part of her life.
“Welcome to Apalach. Try to slow it down, okay?”
“Thanks again, Officer. I will.”
“Lieutenant,” the cop corrected her. “Lieutenant Margaret Hamilton. But my friends call me Maggie.”
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