Lost Charity: A Charity Styles Novel
After a long hiatus, Charity Styles is itching to get back into the fray. She’s had a succession of minor assignments, none of which provided her with the action she craves.
After months of recharging and rethinking her position in the Armstrong organization, she’s on the verge of walking away, returning to what could be a more normal life. But what’s a normal life look like for a former covert assassin?
Then she gets two assignments, which have nothing to do with each other. The first is to ferry a group of people out to a large mega-yacht. When it turns out that one of those people is the girl she thinks of as a niece and the mega-yacht is captained by an old friend, she sets her sails and is quickly underway.
What the second assignment is, will not only test Charity’s abilities as an undercover asset to the giant Armstrong Research conglomerate, but will also assess her ability to keep a lid on her emotions when faced with the type of people she most loathes.
From the Cayman Islands to the Eastern Caribbean, the coast of Brazil, and finally, the U.S. Virgin Islands, her mental state is constantly being tested. Will she find the one person who is at the head of a vast sex trafficking operation? Or will she become just another victim to the traffickers? Will she even be able to restrain her inner demons when she encounters the worst of the worst of human society?
Release date: November 29, 2021
Print pages: 264
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Lost Charity: A Charity Styles Novel
August 11, 2021
Hull Bay, St. Thomas, USVI
Detective Sergeant Joseph Hodge stood in the shade and looked around at the tranquil setting. Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he removed his sunglasses, squinting at the scene in front of him as he mopped his brow. The sun was hot, as it was on most mid-August days, even at mid-morning.
The sand was blinding, the waters of Hull Bay, a sparkling turquoise, yielding to the cerulean depths of the Atlantic Ocean beyond the mouth of the bay.
The juxtaposition of the pristine beach and the body lying in the sand jolted his sense of order. It, as well as the yellow police tape around the scene, could not be overlooked.
A group of gawkers stood outside the taped-off area, kept at a distance by uniformed officers of the U.S. Virgin Islands Police Department.
Stepping out of the shade of a cluster of coconut palms, Hodge put his sunglasses back on and made his way down the sloped dune, walking awkwardly in the loose, powdery sand to prevent getting any into his shoes.
He wore a white, short-sleeved shirt, his tie loose around his unbuttoned collar. Over his left arm, he carried his suit coat. On the front of his belt sat his detective shield, and his sidearm, which he’d only ever fired at targets, was clipped to his right hip.
He ducked under the tape, nodding at one of the uniforms, and approached another uniformed officer—this one wearing sergeant’s stripes.
“Any idea who she is, Anthony?” Hodge asked.
The older sergeant looked up from his note pad. “No ID on the body, Detective,” he replied. “No purse or anything.”
The woman lying dead on the sand was wearing a short, tropical-print dress—muted flowers of orange, yellow, and pink on an off-white background. The fabric was silky looking, but not real silk.
No pockets to carry anything in.
Hodge squatted next to the body, examining it carefully. He avoided the face, as he knew a death face altered appearances, and altered appearances clouded judgment.
The body lay twisted, the shoulders flat on the ground, while the hips were turned at a slight angle, legs askew. One arm was extended above the woman’s head and the other draped across her chest. Her head was turned, exposing just the right side.
She wore a gold necklace made of very tiny links, a small rectangular pendant on the end, resting in the sand.
Hodge took a pen from his pocket and moved the pendant around. Something was inscribed on the front in fanciful letters.
He bent closer. It read Candy.
She wasn’t very tall, maybe five-three or five-four, with a slight, almost girl-like figure, though the dress and the one high-heeled shoe she still wore seemed at odds with her youthfulness.
Her arms and legs had probably been dark tanned in life, but in death, the color had leached out. An island girl, perhaps. The dress hugged her form, accentuating the narrowness of her waist.
The way the hair and body were arranged, Hodge felt sure it’d been washed ashore during the early morning’s high tide, then rolled around by the waves until it rested in its present position.
Finally, he moved up to her face. It was a pale shade of blue-gray, bloated slightly, giving it a rounder appearance, like that of a person who was several pounds overweight, yet she was rail thin. There was a clear ligature mark around her neck, rising up along her jawbone toward her right ear. She had pierced ears, but no earrings.
“Robbery, maybe?” Sergeant Anthony Vanterpool asked.
“You noticed the multiple piercings, huh?” Hodge asked, moving the dead woman’s hair away from the side of her face, where the ligature mark disappeared. “No way to tell yet. But the chain around her neck looks like real gold. You already call the ME?”
“Should be here any minute.”
Hodge stood up and looked around at the growing crowd of onlookers, many of them snapping pictures with their phones.
“You can cover up the body,” he said.
The uniformed sergeant nodded to another uniform, who shook out a lightweight white sheet and covered the corpse.
Hodge studied each person in the crowd in turn, moving only his eyes, which were shielded by his sunglasses, so as not to give away the fact that he was looking for the killer.
He knew that all too often, a murderer would hang around after the deed was done, getting some sort of sick excitement over the commotion he’d caused.
But nobody in the crowd stood out.
A white van backed up to the beach access, the markings on the back identifying it as belonging to the medical examiner. A silver-haired man who Hodge immediately recognized got out of the passenger side and started down the dune toward the yellow tape. Hodge moved toward him.
Doc Fergus was in his early sixties, prematurely gray for over a decade, now without a single strand of his once-dark hair left.
“Good morning, Joseph,” he said, ducking under the tape. “What do you have for me today?”
“Young woman,” Hodge replied. “Early twenties, maybe. Dark hair and skin—an islander, I think. No identification. Possibly strangled.”
“Well, let’s have a look.”
Hodge strode back to the corpse and, with his back to the crowd, lifted the sheet so the ME could examine the body. He made sure to shield her from the onlookers.
Sick fucks, he thought. Who wants to take home vacation photos of a dead girl?
The doctor turned the woman’s head, looking closely at the marks around her neck. Then he discreetly lifted the hem of her dress. The woman wore nothing under it.
“Very close in your assessment,” Doc Fergus said. “But I don’t think she was strangled. Notice how the ligature mark turns up toward her ear?” He rolled the body onto its side and lifted the hair on the back of the neck. “Here, as well,” he said, pointing to a matching, angled abrasion of the skin on the other side. “If I had to guess, I’d say this woman was hanged.”
He moved the head back and forth. “Not in the traditional sense, where the victim is dropped, so the neck breaks for a quick, humane death.”
He opened one of the woman’s eyes and Hodge was surprised to see that it had been green. The color there had faded also, but she certainly wasn’t the typical, brown-eyed Hispanic or West Indies island girl. Around the pale green iris, Hodge could see red spots.
“Yes, yes,” Doc mumbled. “Petechia of the conjunctiva, just as I suspected. You may write in your report that I said the manner of death is as yet undetermined.” He paused and looked up. “But the cause of death was manual asphyxiation. I won’t know if the manner is homicide or suicide until I get her back to the lab.”
“You’re sure about that, Doc?” Hodge asked.
“There are other ways in which you might find hemorrhaging of the conjunctiva, but coupled with the ligature marks, that is my initial determination. If it was suicide, well, she didn’t untie the noose herself. Once I get her on the table and open her up, if I discover anything else, I will let you know.”
“Any idea about time of death?”
“She hasn’t been in the water long,” Doc Fergus replied. “Certainly no more than a few hours. I’ll have a more precise time of death when I get to the lab.”
Doc Fergus opened the woman’s mouth, moving her lips to expose her teeth and gums. “Oh, my,” he muttered.
“What is it, Doc?”
“Your assessment of age is considerably off,” the ME said, then took the sheet and dropped it back in place, before standing.
Hodge looked the older man in the eyes. “Oh?”
“No third molars at all,” he said, looking down at the covered body. “And the second molars in the lower jaw have only erupted in the last year or so.”
“What’s that mean?” Hodge asked, not really wanting to hear the answer he knew he was about to get.
“Her age at time of death was certainly between thirteen and seventeen,” the ME replied. “I’d say closer to the former—perhaps fourteen years old.”
August 15, Cayman Brac
The sun hung high above the western horizon, still an hour from setting. Yet it was already painting the far-away clouds with its glow. Pastel colors of orange and pink, yielding to purple and lilac. They had the appearance of fluffy sorbet, floating above Grand Cayman Island, a hundred miles over the horizon.
A white sand beach sparkled in the sun’s radiant glow. Beyond it, houses were painted in bright island colors, with gently rustling palms, and hundreds of flowers along the dune.
Everything seemed to take on a mystical hue in the last hour of daylight. Colors were more vibrant, and the low angle of the sun gave everything a calming, ethereal look.
An antique, forty-eight-foot sloop swung at anchor over a shoal about twenty feet deep. It looked as if it and the landscape on shore all belonged to another time—one long since gone.
The shoal was just up the beach from the town of Creek on the island of Cayman Brac. Earlier in the day, the sloop had been farther up the coast, having spent several days tied to a mooring ball over a popular dive site.
It was customary for cruisers to not spend a lot of time moored to the more favored dive sites, as it upset the dive boat operators. The easy fix was a long mooring line to allow a dive boat to tie up closer to the ball. That, and a friendly smile and wave to the boat captain.
The people of the Caymans were, for the most part, accommodating and friendly. Particularly when the dive boat operator was a young man and the person doing the smiling and waving wore a bikini.
But there were no dive boats on this particular day, it being a Sunday. The previous week’s visitors had left, and incoming tourists were unpacking.
And it was late in the day.
Below the ancient sailboat’s boom hung a colorful hammock. In it, a woman relaxed with a bottle of water, relishing the evening’s light show.
She’d moved the boat to this shallower spot, so she’d be closer to the small town. Also, she’d tired of having to flirt with every dive boat captain to keep her spot.
Several had returned in smaller boats.
Just to talk and say hi, they usually said.
Charity Styles was getting bored with paradise. And that was usually a recipe for disaster.
“Maybe I should head back to the Yucatan,” she said softly, though there wasn’t anyone to hear her voice for at least half a mile.
She’d met a fisherman there once, but that’d been more than ten years earlier. Still, he’d been one of the few she’d told what she did for a living back then. It wasn’t such a big deal these days. Now, she was a trouble-shooter for an oceanographic research company. That’s what one of her business cards actually read. She had several, all different for her several aliases. But her previous job was a bit more complicated to explain. Telling someone you were an assassin for the CIA was a whole different story, requiring a good deal of trust.
She wondered briefly where the mild-mannered fisherman, Juan Ignacio, might be now and if he ever thought of her. Was he still fishing? Was he married? Did he have kids?
She pushed the notion from her mind. It was unlike her to dwell in the past. She was better off alone, living in the now.
Over the years, she’d occasionally sought out male companionship; a willing man wasn’t hard to find in most tourist towns around the Caribbean. She’d taken physical refuge when the need was there, usually leaving them exhausted and babbling like love-starved puppies.
But she always left.
It’d been months since her last assignment and over a year since the last one of any consequence. Waiting wasn’t something Charity did well.
Between assignments, she’d kept busy doing daily chores aboard Wind Dancer. Her boat was a cutter-rigged sloop built in Boston in 1932 from a John Alden design. It was forty-two feet on the deck, with a six-foot bowsprit made of the same material as her mast and boom—Sitka spruce. She was a graceful-looking boat, with fine lines and detailed woodwork.
Charity also killed time by exercising—swimming up to two miles a day, or by flying tourists from one of the Cayman Islands to another in her helicopter, which she kept on Grand Cayman.
Deep in her heart, Charity knew what she really wanted to do—go back to Florida. To see old friends who were now doing the same thing she was, and for the same company. Their paths rarely crossed, which was sad in a way.
Working with Deuce Livingston and his team was the only time she’d felt like she’d had any real connection with anyone since twenty years earlier, when her father had died, changing her life.
As the sun sank toward the horizon, she wondered if Jesse and Savannah were watching it together. Savannah and Flo had joined him last winter and spring for a cruise on his ketch, Salty Dog, which Charity had sold to Jesse for one hundred dollars after she’d found out, following her boyfriend’s murder, that Victor had left it to her.
Charity felt happy for her friends. Flo was a bright girl with a great future ahead of her. Jesse was, of course, the girl’s father. A lot of people had suspected that for a long time even before he or Savannah knew for sure.
Savannah deserved to be happy. and if Jesse could leave his warrior past, Charity knew that he could be the man to give her that happiness.
With a final wink, the sun disappeared over the horizon, and Charity raised her water bottle in salute.
“Until tomorrow,” she said, swinging her long, tanned legs out of the hammock. She stood and turned to look toward the beach. “And the next tomorrow,” she muttered, not seeing anyone. “And the one after that.”
The first quarter moon was past its zenith, chasing the sun westward. It would set shortly after midnight, then the stars would blaze through the night.
In the gathering gloom, Charity started toward the hatch, unbuttoning her blouse as she went. She removed it, letting the cool breeze tickle her bare skin for a moment, then went down the companionway. In the salon, she shed the rest of her clothes, a loose-fitting pair of shorts and a bikini bottom.
Two buckets of water stood in the sink, a hose dangling into one from a valve in the overhead. Above deck, the valve was connected to another hose that continued to a low spot in the sunshade draped over the boom.
The bucket with the hose had about eight inches of water in it from an afternoon rain. She’d taken advantage of the brief storm to shower on deck, wearing just the bottom half of a bikini. Though she was forty-one, Charity wasn’t shy about her body, having only a faint tan line below the waist and none above. Besides, there wasn’t anyone around.
The other bucket was filled with seawater. The water in the two buckets looked exactly the same, since the waters around the Caymans were as clear as anywhere on Earth.
She preferred using rainwater for drinking and also for rinsing her clothes, whenever she could. The water in her tanks came from marinas all over the Caribbean and wasn’t the freshest. She used tank water mostly for cooking and washing down the boat.
After closing the valve, Charity hung the hose on a hook and put her shorts, blouse, and bikini in the bucket of seawater. She rarely wore anything more than a swimsuit under her clothes, especially in summertime.
She moved the clothes around in the bucket, then added a little soap, and washed everything thoroughly by hand.
Satisfied, she wrung the seawater out and moved the clothes to the rainwater bucket to rinse out the salt and soap. Laundry was a simple daily chore, usually taking all of five minutes.
When she finished, she carried the buckets and wet clothes up to the deck, pinning her wardrobe to the main sheet to dry, then dumping the buckets onto the deck, to run off through the scuppers.
Turning, she looked around in all directions. With the sun gone, it had darkened quickly, and only a rusty sky showed to the west. The cool night air pricked at her naked flesh.
Charity dumped the water from the buckets. She didn’t need to collect rainwater. Wind Dancer had a small reverse osmosis unit in the mechanical room under the cockpit deck, but it required energy and she preferred to use as little electricity as possible.
Padding barefoot and naked back down the companionway to the salon, she checked to make sure that everything not needed was turned off as she made her way to the forward berth.
Living on a boat was an exercise in conservation. Fuel, water, food, and especially electricity had to be closely monitored and rationed. The electricity came from batteries and her drinking water primarily from the rain, with the water maker as backup. Much of her food came from the sea, and she rarely needed to start the diesel engine.
She lay in her bunk, staring up through the open hatch as, one by one, the stars became visible. Within a few minutes the sky was full of light.
A gentle breeze came down through the hatch, making her bare skin tingle. She loved sleeping below an open hatch, staring up at the top of Wind Dancer’s massive spruce mast.
“Tomorrow,” she quietly promised herself, “I’ll plot a course around Cuba and head for Florida.”
The light sheet she’d pulled over herself, settled and formed to the contours of her body, and she was soon asleep.
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