eye of the storm ~ chapter eleven

For the record.

Chapter 11 

Brandon, Florida 

Claire pondered her diminishing options for years. If she had only herself to worry about, it would be easy. She would work at her job until one day there was a hit and run, or a drive by shooting. At least she could continue taking care of the babies in the neonatal unit at the hospital and maybe do some good right up until she was killed.  If she were the only one in the picture, she would have taken her chances and contacted her parents years ago. Maybe. But even that would have likely put them all in danger. She went over it in her head a thousand times, trying to figure a way out of this mess. 

Sometimes a young person makes a decision that irrevocably changes the course of their life forever. That day twenty-five years ago when she ran away with Pete Hunsicker was such a move. Claire was 17, a junior in high school, and pregnant, the latter a fact that she did not share with Pete until they were well away from Waynesville, North Carolina and living in a third-floor walk-up apartment in New Orleans near the French Quarter, where he worked as a bartender and ran the illegal video poker room at a dive off Rue Morgue. 

Claire thought running away to New Orleans with Pete, a good-looking, slick-talking older guy, a friend of her Uncle Rory, would be a romantic adventure. She had dreams of becoming a writer or an actress, and figured this episode in her life would be a fun lark, something she could tell her grandchildren about someday. 

Besides, her parents were consumed by building their company, Berringer Software, and probably wouldn’t miss her, anyway. Such were the thoughts of a lonely 17-year old. 

Pete blew up when Claire told him about the baby. He gave her enough money for an abortion, but when she refused, he told her how dumb she was and that he had no intention of being saddled with her and a kid, slapped her, and said “You will take care of this. Tomorrow, okay?” She worried about it all the next day, but couldn’t bring herself to go to the family planning clinic and kill her baby. Pete went a little crazy with her when he found out she didn’t go. He shook her, got right in her face and told her if she didn’t go the next day, he would take her himself and then throw her out on the street. So she promised she would go. 

When he was at work that night, she packed her one small bag, wrote Pete a note telling him he wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore and left. There was enough cash from the abortion money to rent a cheap room in another parish across town. She got a job a waiting tables at a café next door. It was a local place with a trade that mostly included the drunks that came from any one of several neighboring bars to get cheap omelets, beignets and chicory coffee. 

Claire poured herself a tall glass of vodka over ice and muttered to herself as she walked around the house making sure all the doors and windows were locked. She took the bottle of liquor and a small ice bucket to the bedroom, turning off lights as she went. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Hot tears collected behind her eyes. No. The time’s past for that, idiot. Time to protect Grace if you can. 

Claire had been preparing for this day ever since she got the first anonymous threatening card more than twenty years ago. She hated lying to Grace all these years, hated the mess she made of her own life, hated the bastard that made her life a living hell, hated Pete Hunsicker, and hated herself. 

She especially hated lying to Grace on their last phone call. She wrote the points she wanted to cover on a small sticky note which she flushed down the toilet after they said good-bye. 

Claire researched how to check if your telephone was bugged. Pretty simple, really. When she found the bug three weeks ago, she couldn’t stop shivering. She was so mad she wanted to rip it out of the wall and drown it in the bathtub. 

That’s when she knew “he” – whoever “he” was – wouldn’t quit until she was dead. She had to convince him or them that she never told Grace who she really was. And she hadn’t. So she needed to concoct a little bit of theatre for the listener’s benefit and then cut off any potential of a future leak at its source, which, sadly, was herself. 

Claire’s access to substances from the hospital would guarantee a quick, certain, painless result. She cautiously gathered them for months. She sensed there was a narrow window of opportunity to do this thing once Grace graduated from law school, took her after-graduation trip to Italy with her friend Ariel, came home to pack up all her belongings, and moved to her new job in Pensacola. But she couldn’t drag it out. She was convinced she was a dead woman either way. At least by following her own script there was a chance she could save Grace. 

The one dumb thing she had done was to send the bear made out of flour sacks, Elisha Walter, “E.W.,” with Grace. Putting the big stuffed bear in the Grace’s car was a last minute irresistible impulse. She still didn’t know what she hoped to accomplish, and hoped her rash act never endangered Grace. 

E.W. held a secret in his belly. Claire used a surgical scalpel to make an incision along one of the flour sack seams on his back. She carefully removed part of the packing material and inserted a thin scroll of papers into E. W.’s mid-section, re-stuffed him, and resealed the seam with tiny stiches. 

That thin scroll was the only evidence in the world that proved Claire Ringer was born Ann Mathis Berringer, only child of Troy and Mary Alice Berringer, billionaire founders of Berringer Software. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter four

for the record

Chapter Four 

Brandon, Florida 

As soon as Grace disappeared from sight, Claire walked slowly back into the house, locked the door and threw the dead bolt. Thank God she’s gone. If Grace knew the truth, she would want to stand and fight. But I never said a word. Claire lit a cigarette and drew the smoke in with a shaky breath. Then she looked around the living room as if she had an audience and shouted, “Hear that, you bastard! I never said a word.” 

She walked through the living room and down the short hall to Grace’s sunny yellow bedroom. It exuded her personality. The rest of the house was completely anonymous. On purpose. Grace had never known about her efforts to hide in plain sight. Not that it mattered anymore. She had been found ten years ago. Her efforts to be invisible all these years had failed. 

Claire sat down on Grace’s neatly made bed and put her face in her hands. Her cell phone chirped. Claire fished it out of her jeans pocket. Grace. She’s barely been gone a half hour. 

After their brief conversation, Claire stood up and smoothed the covers on Grace’s bed, then went back to her own bedroom. She didn’t pull back the covers, just lay down on her back and fell into a deep sleep, even though it was nearly mid-morning. She barely slept a wink the night before, fretting about everything. 

Claire slept straight through until dark, when she awoke with a start and grabbed for the cell phone on her bedside table. There was a message from Grace. “Hi Mom, it’s me. Just wanted to let you know I got here safe and sound. I’m at the apartment and in for the night. Talk to you later. Love you. Bye.” 

Claire showered, dressed for work, and microwaved a frozen dinner, which she washed down with hot coffee. She didn’t mind working the graveyard shift in the neonatal intensive care unit at Brandon Hospital. Nurse burn-out rate was high. Happy outcomes for the high-risk infants there were not assured, and it was considered a tough place to work. Not for Claire, though. She had been on the unit twenty years, ever since she arrived in Brandon as a young nurse with a toddler of her own. She understood more than most that once you’re born, it’s too late. Life itself is a high risk proposition. 

The NICU unit was Claire’s home. Her work there felt like a calling, a duty, maybe even a penance. She had spent many nights just like this one, where even with all the high-tech equipment, the low-tech remedy of holding a premature, sick infant in your arms in a rocking chair and humming “Hush Little Baby” was still the best medicine in the world. 

Claire left her station shortly after 11 for a quick break. She was in the nurse’s lounge with hot coffee and a cinnamon roll when her cell phone chirped to alert her to an incoming text message. “Love u. Wish u were here.” Claire pushed #1 to speed dial Grace’s cell. 

 “You won’t believe this, Mom. I am sitting out on the balcony of the condo watching a full moon over Escambia Bay. I can see three beautiful sailboats and a huge shrimp trawler that looks like something out of another century. It’s incredible.” Claire had never heard her daughter talk so fast. 

“It sounds amazing. Did you get some supper?” 

“Sure did. I picked up a frozen veggie pizza at Publix. There’s a little round glass-top patio table and a couple of chairs out here, so I sat in one, propped my feet in the other, and enjoyed my dinner while I watched pelicans dive-bombing the bay for their dinner.” 

“That’s wonderful, Grace. You’ve earned it. Makes me happy to know you’re happy. Enjoy the rest of your weekend before you start work Monday.” 

“I will, Mom.” 

“Well, time’s up. I’ve got to get back to work..” 

“Okay, Mom. Hope the rest of your shift goes well.” 

“Thanks, honey. Oh, and Grace?” 

“Yes ma’am?” 

“Don’t forget to keep an eye out for strangers.” 

“Well, Mom,” Grace laughed, “that’ll be pretty hard to do. Everybody here is a stranger to me right now.” 

“You know what I mean. There are friends you haven’t met yet, and then there are strangers.” 

“I know, Mom. Don’t worry. You raised me right. Besides, I’ve been pretty much on my own for quite a while, now, and I’m not a kid anymore. I’m always careful.” 

“Twenty-four years old and a lawyer. You really are almost a fully-grown bear, aren’t you?” 

“Just about.” 

“I’m glad we could talk, Grace. Sets my mind at ease, for now anyway. Love you, baby girl. Talk to you soon.” 

The rest of Claire’s shift was uneventful. She moved from the bright fluorescent lights of the hospital as the sliding front doors whooshed her into the cool morning air. She crossed the street to reach staff parking at the back of the lot, then slid behind the wheel of her small silver car, started the engine and turned onto the nearly deserted road. It was a few minutes after 6 a.m. 

Claire drove past the Waffle Shop. It was a brightly lit rectangle in the still-dark landscape and looked inviting. Half a dozen cars were in the parking lot. She could see people in booths and at the counter through the big plate glass windows. Memories of the seductive aroma of yeasty waffles, crisp bacon, butter pecan syrup and stand-you-up coffee seemed to invade her car. She almost stopped in for breakfast. She longed to immerse herself in the comfortable chatter of strangers who lived in a safe world, but she drove on by. 

She was still thinking about the sickest baby in NICU and murmuring a little prayer for him when she turned at her road, South Bryan Circle, and pulled up onto the concrete pad of her carport. She moved her small Lady Smith and Wesson 350 magnum pistol from her purse to her right hand, held her keys in her left hand and walked the short distance to her front door on the narrow sidewalk. She wasn’t expecting a problem, but it had become a habitual precaution. The sky was growing lighter by the minute, and she hoped to be in bed asleep before full sunrise. 

Claire smiled when she saw the neon pink flamingo stuck in the ground by the front door step. Even in the dim light of approaching morning, it was hard to miss. That was Grace’s doing, and it was the one touch of whimsy in the minimally landscaped yard. Grace brought the garish souvenir to Claire from Pensacola, when she went there to interview. 

Claire spent the last two decades trying to get Grace ready for the moment when she could launch out into the world, far away from Brandon, mostly far away from herself, from anything or anyone who might harm her. She would miss Grace, but she was glad 500 miles separated them now. 

Claire bent to unlock the front door, both key lock and dead bolt. She simultaneously opened the door and wiped her feet on the mat. Something hard and jiggly grabbed her. It rattled and moved as she screamed. “Let me go! Let me go!” She almost fell over backward as her right arm jerked when her pistol fired. Whatever it was that had hold of her let go and fell to the floor with a noisy clatter. Breathing hard, nearly hyperventilating, Claire flipped on a ceiling light with the butt of the pistol on the light switch just to the right of the front entry. 

A skeleton. Damn it. It’s a toy. The white plastic skeleton was a Halloween prop. It was suspended by the foyer light fixture with fishing line. Some of the hideous bones were still dangling from the light. Claire looked at the mess at her feet. She saw the skeleton’s bony hands were wired to hold a large rectangle of stiff white card stock which now had a bullet hole through the middle of it. Her shot hit the card a few inches below the message, which was printed in large black block print stick-on letters: 

IF YOU TELL HER, I WILL KNOW. THE GIRL WILL DIE. 

Claire turned on the porch light and looked around to see if any neighbors were reacting to the gun shot. She didn’t see anyone, so she came back inside, double-locked the door, and walked through the rest of the house, turning on lights as she went. 

He’ll never quit as long as I live. He’ll never believe I won’t tell Grace who she really is. By the time Claire completed her search and satisfied herself that no one was in the house, she knew what she had to do to stop this. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter 3

for the record

Chapter Three 

Brandon, Florida 

Something about the little red pickup truck out there on the used car lot with all the beige sedans tugged at her. “Me! Pick me!” 

She set the GPS for 702 Balconies on the Bay, Pensacola, Florida, her new home some 500 miles northwest, interstate all the way, and then went back in the house to get the rest of her stuff. 

After four years in nearby Gainesville at the University of Florida, where she came home about once a month, and another three years of law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, she had been nearly on her own for seven years. Chapel Hill was more than 700 miles from Brandon, a small town near the bulls-eye middle of Florida; much too far to come home often.  

Life in a small apartment near the campus there had felt like moving from darkness to sunlight. She loved her mom, and she knew Claire was devoted to her. God knows, she had sacrificed her life to see that Grace had everything she needed, from clothes and piano lessons, to the extras at college that scholarships didn’t offer. It’s just that her mom seemed so lonely, unhappy and anxious. Grace remembered awakening to the sounds of her mother crying even when she was in high school. But Claire resisted all of Grace’s efforts to learn why she was so sad and isolated. 

Grace looked around her bedroom one last time. The white chenille bedspread with yellow throw cushion, stuffed animals, books and other childhood mementoes arranged on a bookcase beside the bed.  Lots of memories here. It looks like the museum of child who will never return. Grace sighed and slipped out the door. 

“Mom?” I’m just about ready to go.” 

“I’m in the kitchen, honey.” 

Grace found Claire standing at the kitchen sink. She was holding a cereal bowl in one hand and a dish towel in the other. She stood with her slender left leg cocked and balanced against her right knee, unmoving, leaning in slightly and looking out the window as though she saw something far away. Grace wondered for the thousandth time why her mom had never married or even had a boyfriend. No dates. No friends. Not even church. All she did was work at the hospital and come home. 

She had been so pretty, too. Still was, except for frown lines that had developed on either side of her mouth, and the way her shoulders hunched, making Claire look shorter than she was. 

Suddenly, Grace didn’t want to go. 

“Come with me, Mom?” 

“Oh, Grace Ann, you know I can’t.” 

“But, Mom, Pensacola is a regional medical hub. You could get a great job there in a heartbeat. I’ll bet you would love the beach, maybe even have some fun for a change. Besides, you’ll be here all by yourself.” 

“Well, not exactly by myself. You found out I do have a life, after all, right?” 

Grace put up her hands in self-defense. “Okay, okay. You got me.” They both laughed. 

“Besides, those little babies in neonatal need me, plus I’ve got young nurses to train as they come along. I’m old school. You know that. Anyway, hey, my life is almost done. Yours is just beginning. You’ve got to go find your life.” 

Almost done? At 42? She almost had me convinced until she said that. Grace tried to fathom who this secretive person really was. 

“Well, at least promise me that now I’m off your payroll, you’ll make some friends and learn how to play and have some dreams of your own. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.” 

Claire’s sad-eyed smile reminded Grace of the paintings she had seen in books and on the internet of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It was equally enigmatic. “Come on, now, and give me a big hug before you go.” 

Grace figured she was too much of a loner to ever marry or have children, but she sure didn’t plan to live like her mother did. No way. She planned to make her own money, travel the world and play with some gorgeous men, but never fall in love. 

Big talk for a little girl. Here she was, headed off for her first job with her newly minted law degree. She hadn’t even passed the Florida Bar yet. 

“Okay, Mom. Are my sandwiches in the fridge?” 

“I stuck them on top of your little cooler. It’s right here,” Claire said. “I’ll take it out to the car.” 

“Great. Thanks.” 

They finished loading the hatchback together, then shared one last hug. 

Claire stood straight, shoulders back, and looked intently at Grace. “I’m so proud of you, daughter. You’ve worked hard for this. You’re going to make a fine lawyer, my beautiful girl.” She ruffled Grace’s short, copper-colored hair in a gesture of affectionate dismissal. Claire folded her arms over her chest. “You have a long drive and a lot of work ahead of you, sweet-pea. Better get going.” 

“Come see me soon?” 

“Soon,” Claire said. She threw her arms around Grace and held on tight. “Don’t you ever forget I love you,” she said, her voice suddenly thick. She squeezed Grace hard, then took a deep breath and stepped away. Her face closed like a heavy, hardback book. She laughed and gave Grace a little push and a pat on her bottom. “Now off with you.” 

Grace turned the key in the ignition and lowered the driver’s side window. 

“One more thing.” Claire’s voice had turned sharp, her demeanor tense. “Look in the console.” 

Grace cocked her head at Claire, then turned away from the window and opened the console. She touched the hard surface of a black hand-gun and jerked her hand back. “What the hell, Mom?” 

“It’s a nine millimeter Beretta. Loaded. Point and shoot. Soon as you get situated in Pensacola, sign up for classes and get yourself a concealed carry permit.” 

“Good grief, Mom, don’t you think this is a little over the top?” 

“Just do it, Grace. Indulge a crazy old woman, okay? And that canister beside the gun is pepper spray. Steer clear of strangers, stay awake and aware, and call me when you get in. I’ve got the night shift, so I’ll sleep from about 2 this afternoon ’til around 8, but I’ll have my cell phone close by.” 

 She looked again at the pistol, and then closed the console, making sure it clicked securely. She wondered what demons ran around in her mom’s paranoid brain. Time to get out of Dodge, all right. 

“Okay, Mom, will do. Thanks for everything. I’m gone. Love you.” 

Claire stepped away from the truck and gave Grace a thumbs-up that turned into a wave. “Bye! Drive careful!” 

Grace backed up, pulled out of the driveway of the white concrete block house and watched as the waving figure of her mother grew ever smaller in the rearview mirror. 

“My life is almost done.” What on earth was she talking about? Sometimes her mother drove her crazy. She was so full of contradictions. Every time Grace tried to ask her questions about her background, Claire just gave her a song and dance about being an orphan herself and that that’s why she had adopted her. As for no husband or friends, Claire insisted she was married to her job and had just never found the right guy. 

Claire had never been a real drinker, but sometimes she would drink Tennessee bourbon and get a little weepy. Grace found her this way once when she came home a day early from Gainesville. By the time she was away at law school in North Carolina and didn’t come home nearly as often, every time she came home, she noticed that bourbon and rocks was Claire’s constant companion, and a new cigarette was lit from the end of an old one. The straight vodka was a new wrinkle. She remembered reading somewhere that vodka was the drink of choice for alcoholics. 

Grace asked her to see somebody she could talk to, but Claire just blew her off. It scared Grace and made her angry, too. And then this thing with Randy, or whatever his name was. 

Grace suddenly realized her hands had such a death grip on the steering wheel her knuckles were white.  Turn around. Go back. Turn around. Go back. She felt hot tears stinging the back of her eyelids. 

A huge 18-wheeler right on Grace’s tail shook her awake and she realized she was going several miles per hour under the speed limit. The truck zigzagged dangerously around her. 

Grace pulled off onto the next exit. She pulled into a parking space at a gas station supercenter and pushed a speed dial number on her cell phone. 

“Grace, is everything okay?” 

“Sure, Mom, I just wanted to hear your voice.” 

Claire laughed. “You’ve only been gone a half hour.” 

“I know. I stopped to get gas and some coffee and a cookie for the road and, well, I guess it dawned on me that I really am going off to make my own home, now. This isn’t like going away to college.” 

“You’re going to have a good life, Grace. Now get after it.” 

“Yes ma’am. I’m on my way. Love you, Mom.” 

“Love you, too. Drive careful.” 

She said “Bye,” but Claire had already broken the connection. 

She topped off her gas tank and got a big black coffee for the road a few blocks from her house. When she returned to the car, she chuckled at Elisha Walter buckled into the passenger seat, looking straight ahead like a docile pet. 

Grace shook her head and laughed. Mom, again. Elisha Walter was a big teddy bear made from the flour sacks of a long-closed fabric mill somewhere in North Carolina. “E.W.” had been around as long as she could remember. A gun and a stuffed bear. Maybe Mom really is nuts. Grace smiled over at the bear, accelerated onto the interstate ramp and cranked up the radio volume on an oldies station. Beach music. Perfect. 

It was late afternoon when Grace exited I-10 onto the I-110 spur to downtown Pensacola. She stopped off at the Publix grocery store on 9th Avenue for a few items for supper and breakfast, and then drove on to her new home at Balconies on the Bay. 

She had really lucked out with the condo. It belonged to one of the partners at her new employers, the Hansen, Brautigan and Lee law firm. Opal Lee had inherited the condo from her late mother, and she had been trying to sell it for months. She made Grace an offer she couldn’t refuse. If Grace would agree to keep the nicely furnished, waterfront condo in “show” condition and let realtors continue to show it, then Opal would rent it to her for much less than market price. Then, if it sold while Grace was living there, she would have 90 days to find a new place, plus Opal would pay her a $500 bonus on the way out. When her friend Ariel got word she’d been hired by the University, she and Grace made a deal to split the rent on the condo. 

Grace pulled into the condo entrance and tapped in the key code for the gate. It rose slowly and she drove through to her designated parking space. Opal had sent Grace keys plus a packet of written details on the condo. Grace filled her arms with her store purchases and entered the lobby. Beautiful. She took the polished-brass elevator to the seventh floor, and found No. 703, a waterfront end unit.  

She opened the door to the two-bedroom unit that exceeded her dreams of the perfect waterfront apartment. It was decorated in colors and textures that stylistically evoked the beach and tropical warmth. Ocean blue and sea grass tones were punctuated with splashes of the corals and reds of a Gulf sunset. Wow. Feels like I tripped and fell into somebody else’s life. 

Grace found the kitchen and quickly stashed her purchases, then ran all seven floors down the stairs to the lobby, where she found a cart and used it to make several trips unloading the Escape.  She checked out the bedrooms and picked the master for herself. It had a set of sliding glass doors onto the balcony and a nice set of windows looking out over the bay. 

With the last load, it dawned on Grace that she hadn’t even opened the drapes to check out the view. When she did, the sight of a sailboat drifting in the bay, gulls and pelicans wheeling, and a gorgeous sunset greeted her. Incredible. I hope this place never sells and I get to stay here forever. Ariel’s gonna love it. 

Grace turned on the oven to pre-heat, and then changed into a pair of comfy old jeans and a black t-shirt she pulled from her suitcase. She pulled the cork on a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir, an inexpensive, but mellow and tasty red wine, and took it out to the balcony to sip on while her veggie pizza cooked. She remembered seeing a fat candle in a glass hurricane shade in the kitchen, and went back inside to get it and some matches. 

Grace put the candle on the small round patio table, lit it, and said a silent prayer of thanks for her new home and job. Even a law degree from a prestigious school didn’t guarantee a good job these days, and the chance to live in solitude in paradise was icing on the cake. Grace was humble enough to know she was living under a lucky star. 

Grace ate her pizza slowly, and raised her glass in a toast to the moon shimmering on the water over the placid bay. She stepped inside for a couple of Dove dark chocolates and her cell phone. She just had to call her mom and share the moment. 

eye of the storm – chapter one

for the record

Chapter One 

Biloxi, Mississippi 

Rory Mathis was a Swiss Army knife, a whirligig of moving parts and an inveterate thrower of dice. He corkscrewed into the hard crust of the world and scooped out the earth’s warm heart. A blunt instrument, he was coarse by temperament, silky smooth by devious intent. It cost him to put a lid on it. Rory raged in the night, then filed his teeth, cleaned his nails and folded himself up into a well-tailored pocket square for the corporate board room. 

Rory liked to get away from his Aunt Mary Alice and her loyal spies at Berringer Software at the home office in Asheville, North Carolina and go to Biloxi as often as he could. He liked to hop a big bird and fly to Vegas, too, but Biloxi was best. He was a big fish in a small pond there, and they treated him like some minor potentate. Or at least they had until Boots Manero started getting on his case for overdue markers. So far, Boots had only rattled privately. The staff still had orders to comp him on everything, even the big suite. He needed to wrap up this Berringer mess to be sure the joy ride continued. 

Anytime Rory got the urge, it took him less than an hour to call the Beau Rivage, throw a bag into his big black 2008 Lincoln Town Car, and head for the coast. Lincoln stopped making Town Cars in 2008 and so he pampered and petted his and planned to keep it forever. He stored a brand new 2008 clone of this one with zero mileage in an air-conditioned garage. He figured the two of them would last the duration. 

It was just breaking dawn when he left Waynesville. He cruised nearly straight south, a nine-hour slide from the Smoky Mountains down through the urban core of Atlanta, the sprawl of Montgomery and Mobile, to Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

He liked having time alone on a long drive to figure out his next move in the game he called “shark chess.” The goal: remove any and all remaining obstacles that might keep him from owning every single share of Berringer Software. 

He arrived at 3:30 and was pleased to see that the twenty-nine story Beau Rivage was looking impeccable as ever. He slowed to take in the huge bubbling fountain surrounded by gorgeous gardens designed with trimmed boxwoods, cone-shaped evergreens and thousands of hot pink pansies. A state-of-the-art computerized slideshow marquee assured him that he had indeed arrived at one of the major temples of the Good Life. 

He didn’t care that just across the street there was a closed, rusting out gas station, the roof over the pumps hanging at a crazy angle, a souvenir courtesy of Hurricane Ivan nearly twenty years ago. Or that next to it was a derelict apartment building, windblown trash collecting along one wall, the windows boarded up and a crooked for sale sign out front. 

Literature for the Beau Rivage Casino and Hotel boasted that it was where the “spirit and excitement of the French Riviera blend with the traditional elegance and comfort of the American South.” 

My ass, Rory thought as he pulled in under the wide portico. 

“Good afternoon, Mr. Mathis.” 

Rory got out of his car holding a slim attaché case.  “Do you have an envelope for me?” 

“Yes sir.” 

He took the envelope from the kid, gave him ten dollars and stepped toward the entrance. “Park it and bring my bags up right away.” 

“Yes sir, Mr. Mathis.” 

Rory approached the lobby threshold. Enormous glass doors silently slid open as he approached. He felt a whoosh of refrigerated, nicotine-scented air. Off to the right, he saw a growing throng of people standing stoically at a bank of check-in counters. 

He chuckled, glad to have the key to a penthouse suite in the envelope in his hand. The waiting crowd looked like a bunch of refugees from Central Casting. Rory had seen some version of them all before: a group of pudgy, middle-aged nurses checking in for a convention and some guys in polo shirts he immediately typecast as “golfers.” One fellow wore a bright tropical shirt, straw hat, and clenched an unlit cigar in his mouth. His nose was red, bulbous, his eyes bleary. And there were elderly folks, lots of them, grimly leaning on walkers and listing heavily to one side as they lurched slowly forward. 

He never went into the faux opulent shops, but derived a certain satisfaction from the subliminal messaging they delivered. The glitz of Bally, DKNY, The Jewel Box and Tommy Bahama sibilantly whispered, “This can all be yours. Step right up, my friends, step right up.” 

Guests were invited to patronize a gourmet coffee shop where any adult could amend their morning coffee with a shot or two, or three, of whiskey. The bonhomie streamed out like molasses, laid on thick with a feel-good trowel. 

The hotel elevators seamlessly linked the shops and the beating, smoking heart that drew him in: the casino itself. Before going up to his room, Rory passed through a gauntlet of purple-jacketed security officers who expertly checked him out, and nodded him into the casino. The dark lighting and edgy mood was an intravenous drug straight into his bloodstream. 

Rory took a lung-filling breath. He inhaled heady aromas of whiskey, cigarette smoke and sweat, emitting the distinctive pheromones of fear, excitement, and desperation. He was at home in the cavernous chamber filled with electronic slot machines, a twenty-first century version of the old one-armed bandit. Women and men sat trance-like, a thick stack of dollar bills in one hand, cigarette or glass of booze in the other, grimly punching buttons. Their fluorescent casino pallor labeled them as regulars. 

The constant weird noise was standard background in casinos everywhere. It was famed at the top by piped-in oldies soft rock, and underpinned by bubbling up layers of electronic game sounds. Rory cut figure eights through the slots and game tables, picking up on the loser smell. Feels like I’m on the set of a Star Trek the Next Generation set, one where The Borg have gotten people into pods for assimilation. 

Everywhere he looked, someone was looking back. The observers were equipped with headsets, wireless microphones and at least two cell phone/radio devices hooked onto belts and nestled in the small of their back. Are we having fun yet? 

The hive-like humming sound and the overabundance of glassy-eyed, road-kill faded blondes and old people dragging portable oxygen tanks around eventually made Rory claustrophobic, eager for the cool, quiet, intense atmosphere of the private, high-stakes glass-in room set into the walls at a higher level than the electronic pit. 

It was early, though, and the games and players he was interested in wouldn’t be gathering until later in the evening. Besides, he had some work to do first. 

Rory left the casino and took an elevator to his penthouse suite to plan his next move. He walked to the first phone in the opulent suite and dialed room service. 

“Yes, Mr. Mathis?” The server’s unctuous tone was gratifying. 

“My usual.” 

“Yes sir. On its way. Will there be anything else this evening?” 

“No. That’s it.” 

“Yes sir.” 

Rory closed the heavy drapes that opened onto a magnificent view of the Gulf of Mexico and sat back in a black leather club chair in the dark room to think about his strategy and wait for room service. 

Shark chess is a three-dimensional game. As sharks go, Rory was mid-size. His man, Bo Perlis, was small, but fast and lethal. Boots Manero, enforcer for the mob, was a Great White. Missteps were costly. 

He ticked items off one by one on the four fingers of his left hand. One: Uncle Troy’s out of the picture. Two: Aunt Mary Alice is almost in my pocket and has one foot on a banana peel, the old bitch. Three: My pathetic niece, Claire. She’s on the edge and about to topple over. Four: her daughter, Grace. That one could be trouble, but Perlis is on it.