Conceding Grace: a HWG MS 10 Winner
Winner 2010 Houston Writers’ Guild Manuscript Contest for Mainstream Fiction
Sequel to Leaving Annalise…SPOILER ALERT…
Katie, Nick and Annalise return for more crazy island adventure.
Conceding Grace is an 80,000-word novel of “women’s fiction:
With a dead pig on the dining room table, a dead man in the driveway, and dead people under her jumbie house Annalise, Katie fears losing what little of her mind she has left. Twin baby daughters and a hyperactive three-year old son had killed off most of her brain cells already. Then her investigator/surfer/pilot/bass player husband Nick takes on the dead guy in the driveway case and disappears without a trace. Her perfect life with the guy of her dreams on the tropical island of St. Marcos may not be so magical after all.
One hundred pounds of squealing pig juked left and went right. My husband fell for the fake. Literally. Mud splashed over his head and splattered the face of our three-year old son, Thomas, who watched with me from outside the pen. Coconut palms did “the Wave” in the distance, lending support to the swine, one island Local to another.
“More, Daddy, more!” Thomas assumed that man and pig performed this routine solely for his amusement. He hopped up and down, hands gripping the middle rail above his head. He looked like the 102nd Dalmatian in the mud-covered white shirt I had dressed him in. What can I say? I’d been a mother less than two years, since the time his birth mother, Nick’s sister Dorothy, had died.
A loud chuptz sounded behind me, as the pig’s soon-to-be-former owner sucked his teeth derisively. He peered under the hand shading his eyes from the sun, across his yard, over the top of a rusted-out Buick and some wandering chickens. His voice belied faith in the pig-catching abilities of a mere Continental.
“You got to get your arms around the neck and behind the shoulder, meh son. Lock your hands around your wrists. Like this.” He demonstrated with his clasped hands over his head. “Then you slip the rope over he head.” With this pronouncement, he turned his back on Nick and went about his business of doing nothing, or “limin’” as they say here on St. Marcos. Strains of Jimmy Cliff singing “The Harder They Come” spilled from his radio.
Nick caught my eye as he rolled his. “Yes, sir. I think I’ve got him this time.” He stuffed the twine back into his waistband, smearing more mud or something worse on himself in the process. Luckily we had driven separate cars, although I still had the slightly-less-filthy Thomas to put in mine.
Not for the first time I wondered how I had gotten from there to here so quickly: “there” was my old life in Dallas as a single attorney with a penchant for Bloody Marys; “here” was my new life as a mother of three on a Caribbean island married to my former co-worker, Nick Kovacs, living in – I might as well just say it and get it out there – a “jumbie” rainforest house named Annalise. Jumbie as in voodoo spirit. Yeah, that kind of jumbie.
I knew firsthand how precarious this crazy-happy life could be. My parents died in a one-car accident when I was not yet out of my teens. We had lost Dorothy, a Marine, when she stepped on a landmine in Iraq. And a few months later, Thomas’ birth father had held a gun to my head, only minutes away from taking Thomas and me to Mexico on a cigarette boat from Corpus Christi, when Nick and my older brother Connor showed up at just the right time.
“But for the grace of God,” I said to myself, repeating the words my mother often chanted to herself when she felt especially blessed. Then she would hug me very tight. I hugged Thomas, who squirmed free immediately. I was messing up his view of the man-pig standoff.
Now I looked like a Dalmatian, too.
I tried to refocus on Nick’s efforts to capture our pig. So far, the animal still had the upper hand. Maybe he knew his fate: tomorrow he would be the main course at the christening party for our three month-old twin daughters, Jessica and Olivia, or Jess and Liv, as we already called them. On St. Marcos, it wasn’t a party without roasted pig. That necessitated a visit to the Pig Man to buy a pig, but first you had to catch it yourself.
And Nick appeared to be closer to doing just that. Thomas now cheered on the pig, the little traitor, but the animal looked tired. Nick lunged again, following the Pig Man’s instructions, and finally he slipped the makeshift halter over our swine’s head.
“One hour and seven minutes,” I called out.
“I spotted him the first half hour,” Nick replied.
I stifled the smirk tickling the edges of my mouth. The alternative to Nick catching the pig would have been for me to be in that pen. Supportive, appreciative and awestruck seemed the way to go.
“Woo hoo, Nick, I am so impressed. You caught the baby pig. We’re roasting Wilbur.” Well, I tried. Sort of.
“Daddy caught Wilburn,” Thomas announced. He turned to me and asked, “Can we keep Wilburn?
“Now you’ve started it, Katie,” Nick said as he moved in for a kiss. I must really love this man, because, at the risk of further deposits of the contents from the pigsty on my clothes, I let him. I patted him on the behind, too. Why pass up an opportunity, even at the risk of a little muck on the hand?
The Pig Man nursed a rum and coke and continued limin’ while Nick wrestled the pig into the small trailer we had borrowed for our livestock hauling needs. I applied some spit and elbow grease to Thomas’ smelly spots. When Nick closed the trailer’s door with a clang, the Pig Man roused himself.
“That be one hundred and fifty dollar.” He held out his hand. Nick filled it as we bid the man “good day.”
The Pig Man lived even further up in the rainforest than we did. We pointed our vehicles – both of them four-wheel drive – back down the one lane dirt road. The drive took us along a ridge overlooking the northwestern shore of the island. Rock cliffs fell away to crashing blue waves, below. The sea whipped into a meringue where it met the cliff base. Home, rugged home.
Nick’s banged-up Montero pulled to a stop. A small wooden barricade blocked his path. It had not been there before when we passed going the other direction. Neither had the wild-eyed man who appeared from within the “bush,” a Heineken in one hand and a machete in the other. His hair stood away from his head in a patchy Afro. His camouflage pants and ragged Jam Band t-shirt hung on his bony frame. I rolled down my window so I could hear. This should be good.
“Dan-Dan, how are you doing?” Nick said.
“You got to pay the toll to pass.”
“No problem. I’m paying for the lady in the next vehicle, too.”
“That’s two beers. You got to pay me two beers.”
Nick pulled out two of the four beers he had stashed in his console for just this reason. Dan-Dan must have been sleeping off yesterday’s collections earlier; we had made the roundtrip for half price today.
“Here you go.” Nick handed him the beers and a sack lunch of fry chicken and Johnny cake we had picked up earlier at, coincidentally, Norma’s Pig Bar. As a recovering “whatever I was” (I refused to say alcoholic), I insisted we give him food, too, even though I honored the requirement of the beer. Hopefully Dan-Dan would eat it. “You take care of yourself, now.”
Without another word, Dan-Dan pulled the barricade aside just long enough for our vehicles to pass, and then hustled it back into place. I waved at him as I drove by, but he gave no sign that he had seen my gesture.
Thomas waved, too, and shouted, “Hi Dan-Dan!”
This brought the man’s head up, and he smiled, showing his snaggly teeth. Dan-Dan motioned me to stop. He ran into the bush, then back to my truck.
“For the boy,” he said, and pressed a wooden carving into my hand.
“What do you say, Thomas?”
“Thanks, Dan-Dan!” Thomas took the carving from me. “Look, Mama, it’s a dolphin.”
I turned to say thanks to the man, but he was gone, back into the bush. Some people feared the old guy, but he was all bluster and had never harmed anyone. He was just an eccentric part of the ragtag assortment of personalities that made St. Marcos so delightfully unique, to us. And a reason that tourists and Snowbirds avoided this part of the island. I considered that a good thing.
My phone rang. Nick.
“I’m headed into Town to the abattoir.”
“I’m so glad it is you and not me.”
“I have my uses.”
“Yes, you certainly do.” The tone of my voice left no doubt as to his other uses.
“Hold that thought for later.”
“I will. I love you.”
Nick turned left at the next fork and Thomas and I stayed to the right, headed back to Annalise. I never tired of driving under the canopy of green vines and pink flowers, past ruins of an old sugar plantation, and up to her gate. An orchard of tropical fruit lined her drive – with amazing smells that often had me rolling down the windows and driving slowly to breathe them in – and when the trees parted to reveal the sight of her, Annalise stood tall and proud on the crest of a hill, overlooking a forest of mango trees arranged for her viewing pleasure on the valley floor.
The crazed barking of our pack of dogs broke my reverie. We had started with six of them but were down to five after one dog succumbed to a swarm of bees. The rainforest could be as brutal as it was lovely. Our dogs acted as security as well as greeters, and they did both jobs well. Today they alerted my live-in in-laws to our presence, and Julie met us at the door.
“Hi ‘Lise, hi Gramma,” Thomas said to the house and Julie. Done with them, he showered our German Shepherd, Poco Oso, with the full force of his attention. Oso and Thomas were best pals.
“Shhh, Kurt is putting the girls down for their nap,” Julie said. “Did you get a pig?”
“Wilbur is on his way to slaughter.”
Julie and I shared a laugh and a grimace. Really, I found nothing wrong with buying meat from a grocery store and pretending it never walked (or swam) the earth. A vegan lifestyle even appealed to me at times, mostly because I abhorred touching raw meat. However, the girls came into this world on St. Marcos, and their christening deserved the full St. Marcos wingding. Our guests would expect nothing less than lechon: lechon along with stew fish, fungi, pigeon peas and rice, sweet potato casserole, macaroni pie, fried plantains, Johnny cakes, and, my favorite, spicy Jamaican-style beef patties. We would keep dessert simple: white layer cake with mango filling topped with an assortment of our own fruits. Except for the roasted pig, all the food would come from Miss B’s Catering, which we had arranged for two hours earlier than we needed it, in the hope that it would then be on time. Life ran at a slower pace here.
I tiptoed into my daughters’ room. Kurt rocked Liv in our yellow and blue plaid glider; Jess already slept in her crib. Soft mewling sounds slipped from Jessie’s lips. I kissed my fingertip and placed it on her cheek. She better hope those dainty mewls didn’t become the growly snores of her father some day. I stroked her head, enthralled by the fuzz of the hair she almost had.
If you closed your eyes and sniffed, you’d know you were in a baby girl’s room: powder, lotion, and the after-aroma of baby wipes and new diapers. I loved the scent of their room. Not that it always smelled this sweet. With twins, you had double the diaper issue, but my slightly-OCD side ensured we took care of all stinkies with dispatch.
We spent the next two hours preparing Annalise for the party – or at least the grown-ups did. Thomas had lunch and a nap. Annalise loved a good party, and we could feel her energy level throttle up.
Now, when I say Annalise is a jumbie house, I don’t mean she is some “Casper the Friendly Ghost” animated movie character.
Annalise is a spirit. She doesn’t talk to us. She doesn’t get up and walk around. She simply exists. She has feelings, strong feelings, which she can project in a number of ways. If you are very in tune with her, she can share those feelings directly with you, even over great distances. Once, when Nick and I had been in Texas fighting for custody of Thomas, robbers burglarized Annalise. I awoke from a heavy sleep to a pounding on my chest and her cries for help.
She can also move objects. Her favorite subject for this trick is ladders and scaffolding; she saved Thomas from drowning by throwing a ladder across the swimming pool, when he was first on St. Marcos.
As my best friend Ava put it, Annalise was our “big guardian angel.” Because Annalise wanted to be part of a family more than anything, my family. I could relate.
The sounds of the youngest members of the household brought me back from my musings into the present. A few minutes into the busy-ness of wake-up time, their father drove up to the house, pulling the trailer. Kurt, Julie and I each grabbed a child and ran out to greet him. It’s not every day Daddy brings home a big dead pig. This would be a spectacle to see.
“Hi, Honey!” I yelled out.
Nick grinned at us, and turned off the ignition. He stuck his head out the open window of his SUV. “Who wants to help me bring in Wilbur?”
“Wilburn!” Thomas said.
“Nick…” OK, I started it, but ewww.
Kurt and Nick carried the dressed pig – covered in innumerable layers of plastic wrap – to the dining room table.
“Oh no, fellas. Not my dining room table. No way.”
“It’s here or the coffee table.”
“Neither! How about the garage floor?”
“You really want to leave a slaughtered pig on the floor of the garage overnight, up in the rainforest? Really?”
I thought of the traps we kept baited for the rodents of all sizes that ventured in, looking for food.
“Maybe not such a good idea.”
Before I could put together a snappy comeback, a thunderous crack whipped our heads toward its sound. With no more discussion, Kurt and Nick dropped Wilbur on the dining room table and ran towards what clearly had been a gunshot, right outside our house.
“You and Mom stay in the house with the kids,” Nick shouted back over his shoulder. “And lock the doors behind us.”
I could hear the pounding of my heart as it pulsed in my burning ears. Two long beats passed before I sprang into action. Julie remained frozen in place, holding both baby girls. I scooped up Thomas and deposited him on the couch in the great room in front of the TV.
“Thomas, how about some Disney Channel?” I clicked it on without waiting for his answer. If the programs were enough to hold this busy child still, it would be a miracle, but the television would at least buy me some time. “Julie, I’ll take care of the doors and windows. Could you find a place for the girls?”
Julie nodded and arranged a blanket for the babies on the great room rug. She spoke soothingly; she had regained her composure and was entertaining the kids now.
I sprinted from door to window to door, closing and locking. Unless the weather was bad, we usually left all our doors and windows open, letting the trade winds cool the house. Today we had opened every door and window as far as they would go. I cursed the design of Annalise: seven doors and 37 windows. This was not a “just go shut and deadbolt the front door” type of undertaking.
“Annalise, I would really appreciate it if you would learn to do this yourself,” I muttered. No response. None expected. Her quietude encouraged me; normally, if she sensed a threat, she transmitted unmistakable agitation.
I had no sooner finished locking up than I heard three raps sounding at the kitchen door.
“Who is it?”
“It’s us, Katie.”
Nick and my father-in-law stood outside, and Kurt’s face was ashen.
This couldn’t be good.
“We need to call the police,” Nick said.
I stood completely still, staring at my husband. Nick is a private investigator by trade, and, in my opinion, a Lone Ranger and borderline-scofflaw. And that’s when he worked in the states. Here, on St. Marcos, no one called the police if they could help it. Cops and perps were nearly indistinguishable. The St. Marcos Daily Source featured bad cop stories on its front page several times a month, with crimes by officers ranging from trafficking drugs to kidnapping and murder.
To add to the severity of the issue for us, Local friends advised us that, as non-natives, we must never harm an intruder to our home, because, if the police got involved, they would always side with the Local, even if the invader was armed with a weapon. Some gave even stronger advice: don’t just “not harm” the would-be burglar/rapist/murderer/kidnapper – kill them; then dump their body offshore past “the Wall,” a 6,000 foot drop less than a mile off the northern edge of the island. Nick and I didn’t think we could go that far, but we agreed that if we had an intruder, we would call our friend Rashidi, not the police. Our protection consisted of five dogs, an aluminum baseball bat, a jumbie house, and a flare gun. We had not had a single incident since we moved back to St. Marcos a year ago. Until today.
“What is it?”
“There’s a car parked near our gate, out on the road. With a very dead body inside. Fresh dead. ”
A million questions warred with my restraint, eager to be answered. I held back and handed Nick the phone.
He explained the situation, patiently and repeatedly, to the officer on the other end of the line. Better him than me on that call.
“We heard a gunshot near our house. No, I didn’t know that it was a gunshot, but it sounded like one. We live in a remote area up in the rainforest. I found a car parked outside our gate. Why didn’t I call the police? Because I didn’t know if there had really been a gunshot or if anything had happened. OK, well, there’s a dead person inside the car. How do I know he’s dead? Because he has no head; most of it is on the ceiling of the back seat of the car. No, I don’t know who it is. No, I’m not 100% sure it is a ‘he,’ but the dead person is large – I’d guess over-six feet and more than 200 pounds – and doesn’t have a woman’s shape.” And on and on it went, my questions answered as he answered theirs.
Nick looked whipped when he finally hung up the phone with promises from St. Marcos Dispatch that officers were on their way.
“I’m showering before they get here – it could be minutes or hours.”
I followed him to our bathroom.
“Are you alright, Nick?”
He had turned on the shower full blast and at its hottest setting. We were entering the dry season, and a full water pressure splurge when you are dependent on a cistern is usually a sign that you are either very foolish or very upset. Nick was not foolish.
With our windows still shut, the bathroom filled with steam.
I traced “I love you” in the mirror.
“I’m exhausted from chasing that damn pig around, and now we have to deal with this. You know how it will go with the cops.”
“I do. Oh my God, I forgot about Wilbur on the table.”
“Can you put him on ice? I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you much – but I bought several bags of ice on my way home.”
“Ice. I hadn’t even thought of that. Wilbur is decomposing on my brand new dining room table.”
“There’s a dead pig on the table and a dead guy in the driveway.”
“He’s not really in the driveway…”
Nick wrapped himself in a towel, then wrapped his arms around me.
“And we are having a wonderful party tomorrow for our two perfect daughters.”
“And I love you and you love me.”
“I hate it when you ruin a good tantrum. I was just winding up.”
He kissed my lips.
“Are you going to put that nasty stuff on my face or not?”
I managed to keep my smile at bay, but I pulled out the expensive Estee Lauder moisturizer Nick secretly loved and performed my ritual of massaging it into his face, with my own face inches from his.
“That’s better. I could feel wrinkles like the fjords of Norway forming.”
“OK, Methuselah.” I gave his cheek a firm pat to signal that I had finished. “I’ll go take care of Wilbur while you deal with St. Marcos’ finest.”
“Sounds like a good plan.”
I walked out and found Julie and Kurt feeding three young Kovacs, two from a bottle and one from a box of Cheerios.
“Julie, thank you for taking care of the kiddos earlier.”
“I’m sorry I panicked, Katie. I’m better now. Although I’m very disturbed about the dead man.”
I was. More than I dared show or admit. Death, so close to our home and our family. I wondered if a murderer had sped away, or, worse, hid in the forest. Or had the man died at his own hand? Either way, a dead body in the driveway was seriously bad karma. Maybe I had believed karma and voodoo were just hocus-pocus before I moved here, but Annalise and the islands had converted my way of thinking. They had also made me very practical, so I shoved my fears aside and got to work.
Nick went back out to the body to wait for the police, and I tackled the Wilbur project. I went to the dining room to study the problem. Beanie baby-type stuffed animals snuggled “Wilburn” on all sides. Thomas had been busy, as usual. The sweet boy had placed a stuffed pig nearest the dead pig’s head. Well, those toys would be making an anti-bacterial dunk in the washing machine, STAT.
My tabletop was made of glass rather than wood. I had been so close to buying a mahogany-topped table. Mahogany would have been a disaster, now. I did not own a container big enough for “Wilburn,” so I worked a waterproof tablecloth underneath his plastic-sheathed body and tucked rolled towels around him. I laid the bags of ice over him, propped atop the towel roll base. Then I wrapped more plastic around the bags and towels to hold it all in place. And I ducked in the kitchen to jot myself a note to buy more plastic wrap.
I stepped back into the dining room to inspect my work.
“Ah, you have mad skills, Katie Kovacs, mad skills,” I told myself. I just had never imagined I would use them in quite this way.
Hours later and well after the rest of us had eaten dinner, Nick dragged himself back in the house. He looked like he needed another shower. Kurt returned, too, and seemed to be in about the same condition.
Before I could even begin the police-scene post mortem, the door behind them resounded with a knock. Our isolated rainforest home was the hub of St. Marcos today. I assumed it was a police officer with a follow-up question. With Liv poised on one hip, I rushed to answer it to give Nick a break. This maneuver did not work and he fell in behind me.
I opened the door to a complete stranger and total silence. No sound or sign of our dogs. Weird.
Nick stepped in front of Liv and me.
“Good evening to you. May I help you?”
The scruffy Local looked around Nick to the baby and me.
“I’m here to see the Missus.”
“It’s private business. No offense.” He ducked his head forward in an attempt to indicate respect.
Private business? What in Hades could anyone want to talk to me about that Nick could not hear? “How odd,” I thought, but I wanted to hear what the man had to say.
“No offense, but,” Nick started to say.
I interrupted. “It’s OK, Love, you’ll just be a few feet away, in the kitchen. I’ll call you if I need you.” I immediately regretted my words.
The look my husband gave me would freeze blood in the veins of a woman with hair less red than mine. He stalked to the kitchen, his footsteps drumming his displeasure in a deep bass tone. I suspected I would have some making up to do later. I almost called out for him to come back, but I pushed my nerves aside. “Don’t be a wuss,” I told myself. “He is only 20-feet away.”
“Are you with the police?” I spoke my earlier assumption aloud, sure that I was right, since he had appeared so quickly behind Nick and Kurt.
Or not. Which was troubling. “Maybe I should ask Nick to come back out?” I thought. But I didn’t.
“Nothing. Go on.”
“You Ms. Katie that bought this house?”
“I here about the dead.”
I had a chilling thought. Could this be the murderer of the man outside our gate? And here I was, standing at my door, the idiot holding a baby who sent her husband inside?
“You’re here about the dead man in the car?”
“I ain’t here about no dead man in a car, I here about all the dead men dem under the house.”
Liv whimpered. “Shush, love.” I bounced her lightly. She was falling asleep. Not me. The man’s last words shocked my system like a triple espresso. I wasn’t the only one wide-awake. I could feel Annalise rise up. I knew exactly what that meant. She regarded this man as a real threat. The dogs reappeared in the yard. Where they hell had they been? They kept their distance but formed somewhat of a perimeter around the stranger.
“Excuse me?” I spoke loudly, hoping to draw Nick back to me without spooking off my visitor until I heard him out.
“All the dead men and women dem buried under this house. I work here, long time ago, building the house. I saw dem with my own two eyes. The boss man — the bad man — he try to cover it up so nobody know. But I know. He put this house on sacred ground, he disrespect the dead. I standing there,” he pointed into the bush, “half the day waiting until all the cops dem leave so I can tell you.”
Eerie night music filled my ears as thousands of bats’ wings beat the air. They had vacated Annalise’s eaves and begun their evening hunt for food. “Nice timing, bats.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” I said to him.
“This house was built on a slave graveyard. The law say that you can’t go digging up the dead.”
Was it — built on a graveyard? Against the law? I had no idea about either point. Before I could say anything else, he went on.
“Maybe I think you don’t want me talking to the government about this. Give me a little something for disrespecting my people dem and I won say nothing. I going now for a time, but when I reach back maybe you have something you want to give me and my family.” He turned on his heel and walked away from Annalise, toward the bush. As he crossed the yard, the light above the door exploded outward, sparing Liv and me and showering glass in a wide arc. “Well done, Annalise!” I could have told him not to piss off my house. Glass flew at him and the sound chased his back, but if he was hit, he did not flinch. The dogs gave way to him, growling low.
A dead pig on the dining room table, a dead man in the driveway, and a foundation full of “dead men dem.” Not to mention a scary guy in the yard. My mind reeled. I felt Nick’s hand on my shoulder and relief surged through me.
“Wait, what’s your name? How do I reach you? When will you be back?” I called after the man.
His black skin disappeared into the black night, like he had never been standing before me. Nick and I shared an incredulous look, and I hugged Liv’s warm body close, comforting myself. Could it have been only this morning that we had laughed as he chased the pig? A lifetime had passed between then and this moment. I didn’t often wish for a street light out here. I did now.
No surprise – after all of that death and weirdness followed so closely by the strain of hosting a giant pig roast/christening party (where Wilbur had been a huge hit), I needed a mental health day. So did Nick, it seemed.
“Katie, I’m taking the morning off today,” Nick said, on the morning after our Sunday afternoon christening celebration.
My adorable husband. His joy in spending time together as a family touched me. I rolled over onto him and considered how best to reward him for this gesture. It didn’t seem I had his full attention.
“So, Katie, I’m thinking I’ll head over to the airport and get a few hours up in the Cessna before lunch, grab a bite with Rashidi, then put in an honest three hours work and catch some waves on the north shore. Maybe you and the kids could meet me for dinner afterwards?”
I rolled back off of him. Thank goodness I had not gotten any farther into the reward process. Honestly, ever since he and his father took flying lessons and bought that plane, he had become obsessed, a trait he tended towards. Planes, surfboards, bass guitars, and whatever case he currently worked on: Nick had a lot of enthusiasm for his pursuits. Apparently, I hadn’t made the list this morning.
I bit my lip. One should never speak hastily in anger. One should instead plot carefully and act strategically. OK, then, first, one would lull her target into a false sense of safety.
“OK, if that’s what you want to do, Baby, that’s fine with me. I’ll just be here with the kids and your parents. Is there anything you would like for me to do for you today while you’re out, Honey?”
Was the last “Honey” too much? Did I give myself away?
“Are you sure? Because if you are, it would be great if you pick up some wax for me and meet me at the beach with my board. That would save me a ton of time, because you know I can’t leave my board in the hot car or all the wax will melt off.” He nuzzled the back of my neck. “What did I ever do to deserve you? I can’t possibly imagine.”
Nope, I obviously had not shown my hand. So, step two: after this gentle approach to the target, go for the jugular.
“Let me get this straight: instead of spending time with the kids and me, you are going to go fly and surf half the day, and then fart around in your office on the internet and Twitter?”
Nick’s dark eyes said “uh oh” but his mouth did not form any words.
“And on top of taking care of your children, you would like me to run your errands so you can maximize your non-Katie fun time?”
In my experience, the target will usually make at least one defensive move.
“I did suggest we meet up for dinner.”
“Well, I guess I would have to agree with you then.”
“What do you mean?” Nick’s pupils dilated to their widest setting.
“I can’t possibly imagine what you ever did to deserve me.”
My work was almost done: I would allow the target/husband to recover and find his way back into my good graces on his own.
“Katie, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“I know.” Deep sigh. “I know you didn’t.”
I let the silence work its magic.
“How about we take the kids on a picnic into Ike’s Bay, just the five of us? We can put the girls in the snuggle carriers, and I can carry Thomas in the backpack.”
I resisted, but not too much.
“No, that’s OK, you go fly and surf.”
“I want to be with you guys. We can give my parents a day alone. They won’t know what to do with themselves.”
“I would love to, Nick.”
I rolled back on top of him, putting the reward process back into motion. This was not just about Nick, after all. I have found it is true what they say about a woman hitting her sexual peak in her late 30’s.
Amazing how easy it is for me to make everyone in the family happy. “Truly, you have a gift,” I told myself.
About two and a half hours later, our small tribe rolled to a stop beside the road near Ike’s Bay. During our drive, Nick and I had discussed the events of what we had taken to calling “the Day of the Dead.”
“The cop in charge of the investigation, Tutein? He’s not a nice dude.”
“Dude?” I laughed. “You sound like a teenage surfer from Port Aransas, Texas. And with that hair,” I ruffled the brown waves that always seemed to be a bit too long in the most perfect way, “you look like one, too.”
He ignored me.
“Did I tell you they identified the body?”
“No. Who is he?”
“The guy’s a Petro-Mex employee. I can’t remember his name.”
The Petro-Mex Refinery ranked second only to the local government as an employer on St. Marcos. The Mexican government owned Petro-Mex, a multinational oil and gas company, which in turn owned 100% of the refinery.
“You mean one of the employees escaped the compound?” I regretted the quip almost instantly. “I’m sorry, that’s not very nice of me; he’s dead, after all.”
“It’s true though. That is the most insular group of people you’ll ever see. They’re like a cult.”
The Refinery ran a housing compound of 750 homes. Inside the barbed wire-topped fences surrounding the community lived nearly 3000 people. Their children even went to school within the gates. They had their own restaurant, pool, church, recreation center, grocery store, and, not surprisingly, gas station. I had heard that various residents offered services like day care and hair styling from their homes, too. The residents didn’t have much reason to leave the gates, and they didn’t. When they did venture out, they exuded a Rip Van Winkle-like confusion at their beautiful island surroundings.
Who was I to judge, though? I would feel like I had been asleep for 100 years if I were locked behind a barbed wire fence beside a roaring industrial plant, too.
“It took all I could do to keep Tutein from marching into Annalise and interrogating all of you. I’m not so sure he won’t.”
“That wouldn’t be so awful. I could handle it.”
“Seriously, Katie, he is not a nice guy. I would prefer you and he never even cross paths.”
Nick rarely had such visceral negative reactions to people. I made a note to stay away from Officer Tutein, but I decided not to grill Nick here about what led him to believe Tutein was so nasty, since Thomas was in the backseat. The boy appeared to be sleeping, but I couldn’t be sure.
“I decided to enlist Ava and Rashidi to help me sort out our slave graveyard issue.”
“I’m glad. Have you talked to either of them?”
“Yes; they’re coming out tomorrow.”
“Well, if nothing else, recent events give you plenty of good material for ‘The Story of Us,’” Nick said. He was referring to the diary/scrapbook I kept of our life together. It read increasingly like a thriller. Although, lately, with all the dead bodies, I felt a little “Stephen King” about it.
Out here on the east end of the island, the scenery leaned toward arid. The landscape lacked trees but offered tall cacti in their place. The wind poured across the land, canting all plant life into a permanent western lean. In contrast to our northwestern rainbow, the east end featured two colors: brown with some green thrown in to break it up. The ocean, though, was spectacular. Reefs broke through hundreds of yards off shore. The infinite range of blues sparkled under the mid-day sun.
By now we had parked and were waking up three sleeping mini-Kovacs. We managed to stall Jess and Liv from a feeding. The little beauties fussed some as we transferred them from car seats to frontal packs, but they fell asleep again almost immediately. So far they were such easy babies, although, let’s face it, I had a lot of help: my in-laws lived for the grandkids. Thomas, unlike his baby sisters, unleashed his pent up energy relentlessly, albeit adorably. Today, more of the same.
“Wanna walk, Daddy.”
“It’s steep Thomas, and I need you to be safe. Let Mama put you in the backpack, please.”
“Wanna walk. Wanna walk. Wanna walk.”
We ignored his pleas as we continued to ready ourselves for the hike into the beach. Big mistake. We knew our error when he went quiet.
“Nick? Do you see Thomas?”
We both caught sight of him at the same time. Off he had gone, down the trail. The scary-steep trail. Nick ripped off his pack-of-Jess and handed her to me before I had even processed the situation. He performed mountain goat leaps as he caught up with the giggling boy. Giggles turned to a scream, however, when Nick hoisted him over his shoulder like potato sack and marched back to the females.
Over Thomas’ shrieks, Nick said, “Hold the pack and I’ll get him in.” I set the now-awake girls down on their backs side by side in the rear seat of the Montero, then put my backpack by Jess and my purse beside Liv to keep them from rolling off the seat. Not that either of them had rolled yet but this would not be an opportune moment for them to exhibit new skills. Like hand-pull lawnmower engines, their lungs came to life in fits and starts until they chorused in a full-blown cry-out with Thomas.
I held the backpack, and Nick stuffed the fighting Thomas in. Nick knelt and slipped the pack on, and I helped him arrange the backpack and tighten its straps. Thomas kicked now, hard, and Nick gritted his teeth.
Then something strange happened to me, something that didn’t seem, on the surface, to match the moment. Yet, down deep, it was a perfect fit.
My breath caught in my chest and wouldn’t come back out. The rush of unexpected feeling paralyzed me. I adored this man. Despite his love of airplanes, surf boards, and the occasional bass guitar, I adored him. Despite his overly long hair and tendency to protect me when he didn’t need to, I loved him. I stood on my tip-toes to kiss him. That’s all it took to bring his smile back and release his clenched teeth.
“Thank you, Nick.”
“For giving me three screaming kids and you.” We kissed again and laughed over the noise of their cries.
“Are you sure?” He cocked his eyebrows at the girls.
“I’m sure. Can you help me with my backpack?”
Nick strapped our provisions on my back. We stashed our belongings in a secret compartment, and then hung the baby girls on our front sides.
“We need this on videotape.”
“I’ll never forget it, but let me snap a picture with my Treo,” I said.
We hiked down the former Jeep trail holding hands. The waves on this side of the island were immense, and their sound masked the noise generated by our brood. After about 10 minutes, they all wore down and surrendered. Tranquility. Nick and I traded off singing songs, line by line: Alabama’s “Feels So Right,” Beyonce’s “Halo,” with Nick adopting an ear-splitting falsetto, and Willie Nelson’s “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” I felt like skipping, except that I had a 12-pound baby on my front and a 25-pound pack on my back. We stopped at the top of the final descent into the “From Here to Eternity”-ish beach to admire the panorama: a crescent of turquoise water rimmed by a mile of white sand, backed by black rocks, reaching up to a tall expanse of wheat-colored hill.
“There’s a lean-to about halfway down the beach. Want to set up there?”
“Yah mon,” Nick said.
We traversed this last hill, which was the most difficult part of the hike. Rocks covered the near end of the beach, and we picked our way across them carefully.
“Yours, I think.”
Nick dug in his pocket for his mobile.
“I don’t recognize the number.”
Too late, I said, “Just let it go to voice mail.”
Nick motioned for me to take Jess and Thomas. I set a blanket up under the lean-to and removed the kids that draped his body like a poncho. I placed them on the blanket. I turned to ask for him to help me with Liv and my backpack, but he had loped down the beach to get a better reception. I couldn’t believe he had a signal at all, out here. “Well, it must be an important call,” I thought.
I got Liv off my front without braining myself with the pack on my back. The pack I dumped unceremoniously to the ground and myself beside it. I placated Thomas with a large handful of purple grapes and a sippy cup of chocolate milk. He sat down, but his feet kept moving. I did not have much time. I rushed to feed the babies, two at once. This feat rated a high difficulty rating under ideal circumstances. I leaned myself against the boulder at the back of the lean-to and made it work, somehow. I felt proud of myself, but I also felt stretched to my limit. I hoped Nick would be back any second.
I heard footsteps, and I looked up eagerly for the face of my husband.
Instead, I got a face full of “oh my.”
As in “oh my, those two older gentlemen don’t have any clothes on, do they?”
Those two older gentlemen on whom gravity and the sun had done their work. I almost clapped my hands over the girls’ eyes, and then remembered they were too young to be scarred by this. Thomas, on the other hand, might be able to hold on to a memory. Maybe he wouldn’t notice? A mom could hope.
“Mama, those old guys don’t have any clothes on,” Thomas yelled. Actually, he said this in his normal volume, but that is akin to yelling anyway.
“Mama, I said those old guys are ‘nekkid.’”
“Shhh, Thomas, I heard you. You are right. But it’s rude to talk about it. Don’t stare. That’s rude, too.”
“Why is it rude to talk about the nekkid men, Mama? Why can’t I look at them?”
Oh God. Where was Nick?
“Good day, Missus. What beautiful babies you have.”
The old naked men walked all the way to our lean-to. They were talking to me, to us. I prayed for our overly-exposed interaction to end soon.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“I told Mama you are nekkid,” Thomas said to them.
“You are a very smart little boy. You are right. We don’t have our clothes on.”
“Why are you nekkid?”
The two men looked at each other, and I noticed that they held hands.
“God made us this way,” the taller one said.
“Did God make me nekkid?” Thomas asked me.
“Yes, he did.”
“Then why do I wear clothes?” He tugged at his bathing suit.
Nick spared me an answer when he ducked under the lean-to. An answered prayer!
“Good day gentleman.”
“Good day, sir.”
Nick seemed to spoil the atmosphere, because, after a few more pleasantries, the old couple walked off slowly. Thank God.
“Someone told me Ike’s is a nude beach once, but I had forgotten.”
I said, “A gay nude beach at that. I’ll certainly remember, after this.”
Nick laughed and grabbed a sandwich. I still held the girls. Nick wolfed down his food, just as Thomas motored to the water and attempted to drown himself. The boy really didn’t ever stop. Nick jumped up and lifted Thomas by the hand. The two of them walked the surf, stopping to pick up all the interesting rocks and shells. I still held the girls. I would have to do something about this.
“Well, sweetums, what say us chicks take a walk, too?”
I smeared tiny dabs of sunscreen on two soft faces and perched little hats on two fuzz ball heads. “Ready?” They fastened concerned eyes on mine. “What? No faith in Mama?” I tucked one into the crook of each arm. I knew I could only do this for a short period of time, but I longed to put my feet in the water and feel the wind on my face.
I realized this was the first time I had walked in the warm Caribbean waters with my two baby girls in my arms. I struggled to process all the sensations before my arms gave out. Tiny fish darted back and forth in the shallows. Pelicans swooped low over the water searching for food. Only 15 feet offshore I spotted conch shells nestled in ocean grass. Waves crested over the reef that barred the entire bay. The reef kept the largest sea life out in addition to protecting the bay from the power of the rest of the ocean; it was a dazzling place to snorkel.
Unfortunately, our adventure lasted all of five minutes. While it had already been breezy bordering on windy, the wind picked up further and threw sand pellets at our exposed skin, harder and harder. Fun turned to frenzy pretty fast. The children’s tears started again, and Nick and I executed another speed-packing drill. Their carriers shielded their faces from the wind, so once we started our walk out, the kids quieted. But the tranquil joy of the hike in did not return. Nick had gone someplace else.
“What was the phone call about?”
“Oh. The head of Security for Petro-Mex. They retained me to help them determine the cause of death of their employee.”
“Our dead guy?”
“What did the police rule as the cause of death?”
“They called it a suicide. Petro-Mex has evidence that suggests there may be more to it.”
“He just got married. No one believes he was the type to kill himself and especially not now. Supposedly the co-workers think he was deliriously happy, giddy silly happy, if you know what I mean.”
“When do you start?”
“As soon as I help you get these little guys squared away. They want me to come in immediately.”
“I find it peculiar that an employer wants to investigate the cause of a non-workplace death of one of their employees. Was he some big wig?”
“No, he wasn’t. He was an early 30-something engineer. I think they’re just really a tightly knit group; they take care of their own.”
“Is he Mexican?”
“No: he’s non-Mexican and from the States. Not what you’d picture as part of that homogeneous expat community, but he did live in the compound.”
“Aren’t you going to congratulate me or anything?”
“What? Oh, for landing the case. Yes, I’m sorry. Congratulations, Nick.” I couldn’t identify the reason for my lack of enthusiasm, but I felt no more than I showed.
“I think this is going to be a big one for us. It could really establish me in the Caribbean. It would be nice to have local clients.” Nick worked almost exclusively for stateside clients. But he also did mostly computer forensics-type investigator jobs.
“I don’t know. It feels dangerous. You’re the only you I’ve got. I’d like to keep you, safe and sound.”
But that was the funny thing. I wasn’t; I rarely worried about Nick, and the times I had, we learned that my reasons were well-founded. Now, I felt uneasy. It was like the “Day of the Dead” would continue to haunt us.
I looked around as we loaded the car. Total isolation. Just like our house. We relied on each other, and we had only each other. I couldn’t lose Nick. I hated this foreboding.
“Nick, don’t take this job. Please.”
“Why, honey? Is there something I don’t know?”
“You know our sixth sense? How we just know things about each other without understanding why?” He nodded. “I can’t explain it. I’m scared. Please don’t take this job.”
He squinted. “So you have no particular premonition, you just feel scared?”
“That’s right. I’m sorry.”
He sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, too.” He pulled the car door shut and turned on the ignition. He leaned to bridge the distance between our seats and kissed me, soft and long. “Katie, I am listening to you. I hear you. And, I need you to support me on this. I’m taking on this project. But if it goes sideways, I’ll drop it. OK?”
I stared off in the distance, fighting the dread inside me.
It seems I had no choice.
But I knew. I knew something was off with this investigation.
And I didn’t want another dead man at our house. Especially not this one.
I would have to be the one who kept him safe, that’s all.