Thanks for coming by to read this preview of How to Square Your Grouper, sequel to How to Sex Your Snake.
I was hung over.
And on a boat. That much I knew without opening my eyes. I could feel the deck sway below me, and a light breeze scented with salt and decaying fish guts was spritzing my face with drops of ocean. Somebody close by was fishing. I needed to sit up so I could call them over and puke on them.
I peeled open an eye, lifted my sunglasses and squinted at the black blob that hung in the air just above my face. Eew. Nobody was fishing. A greyhound was breathing on me. The blob bounced on the end of its muzzle and a fat wet drop of nose juice slid off the tip, splashing on my cheek.
Blast. There was only one person I knew who ran with a greyhound.
“Morgan?” I croaked. My throat was scratchy and my tongue felt like it was wrapped in sticky layers of cotton.
“June! You’re alive.”
A pair of neon green swim fins slapped into view. I opened my other eye and lifted my head. There was Morgan, my brother’s best friend and until recently my arch nemesis. He was wearing a black diving suit unzipped at the chest, those abs still looked rock solid for such a skinny guy, and holding a mask in one hand, and a funny looking backpack in the other. His wiry brown hair was back to normal and sticking out in every possible direction. A few weeks ago, I’d nearly scalped him with a jumper cable clamp, resulting in a partially shaved head and a whole lot of stitches. In my defense, I’d been stuffed in the trunk of a car and had mistaken him for the crackpot who’d kidnapped me. In the end, he’d been a good sport about me trying to kill him.
“I’d about given up on you for the day,” Morgan said.
Just past him, I could make out my reflection in the sailboat’s white fiberglass hull. Blast. My thick black hair, normally controlled in a long ponytail was loose, and thanks to a healthy dose of salty sea air, had achieved frizzying heights I’d never dreamed possible.
I propped myself up on elbows, fought the urge to spill my guts, and realized I was wearing a teeny tiny bikini. I stared down in horror at all my exposed flesh. “Am I wearing sunscreen?”
“Of course,” Morgan said.
I let out a little sigh of relief. Thanks to a chunk of Greek my misplaced father had grafted onto my family tree I didn’t burn as easily as my red-headed lily-white mom. Still. I didn’t want to end up with leather for skin in thirty years.
“I put it on you myself,” Morgan added.
And the horror returned. I didn’t want him touching my…wait…what was Morgan doing here? He was the reason I’d come to Key West. Thanks to a recent mishap, that was all his fault, I’d become a reluctant YouTube star and I was currently on vacation and not hiding out at all.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him.
He got a canister labeled CO2 from a nearby storage bin and began to hook it into the backpack. “You invited us.”
That didn’t sound like me.
“You called and said I should get my butt down here pronto. And to bring Cyrano.”
The greyhound let out a whiney little roo and a drop of nose juice hit my shoulder.
“Then I heard you order a shot of Zacapa,” he continued, “and the line went dead.”
Blast. That sounded like me.
When some people drink, they get silly. Some get mean. I get friendly. Not in the I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours kind of way. Though that has happened. But more in a let’s go shopping and do lunch kinda way. For some reason, alcohol made me want to be friends with people I normally avoided. Like my mother. And apparently Morgan.
If I’d called him, I must have been drinking for at least a week. I had a vague notion of a cabbie taking me straight from the airport to Duval Street. And then nothing. Maybe I needed to lay off the Zacapa for awhile.
“What day is it?” I tried to lean out of the path of Cyrano’s dripping nose.
Wow, I’d been drinking for a week and a day. Which explained my throbbing headache.
Then he grinned and added, “The 27th of April.”
Blast. Make that one day. I’d arrived on the 26th. It really was time to lay off the Zacapa. I didn’t want to wake up someday and find myself on a month long European river cruise with my mother.
“How did we get a sailboat?” I asked. “Did I buy it?”
Another sometimes side effect of my drinking.
“Who?” I know I’d never heard that name before.
“He’s one of the lawyers with the show,” Morgan said. “You’re staying at his house. Though, it looks like you slept on the boat last night.”
I flashed on a business card with fancy gold lettering. “Oh yeah.” Matfei…something or other works for the production company that owns Gone Herpin’, my twin brother’s TV show. I’d needed to get out of town and he’d had an empty house. I tried to picture the address written on the back of the card. Which I hoped was still in my purse. And then I tried to picture my purse. Or rather its location. Lately, I’d had a bit of a problem keeping track of it.
“Are you staying at Matfei’s too?”
Morgan’s face lit up with a lopsided grin. “Would you like that?”
“No.” I tried not to look at his abs. Life had been so much easier when he’d been my arch nemesis.
“I’ve got a room near Mallory Square.”
“Oh.” Wait. Something about this didn’t feel right. I leaned on my left elbow and pushed Cyrano’s nose away with the other. “I called you yesterday?”
“How you’d get here so fast?” We lived in the same sleepy little town in southern Arizona and a last minute flight had taken me thirteen hours and three connections on two different airlines to reach the island.
“The jet,” Morgan said.
Yeah, that would do it.
Thanks to the popularity of Dewey’s TV show, The Roar and Soar Network had given him unlimited use of a fancy jet. Of course, it hadn’t been available when I’d needed to get out of town.
“Is Dewey’s with you?” I tried to look around Cyrano’s nose, which was back in my face.
“Nah, he dropped me on the way.”
“To where? He doesn’t have anything scheduled.” And I would know. I’m his assistant. I set up his appearances, answer his fan mail, and run interference from his weird hardcore fans, the Dewzers. Currently, Dewey’s show was on a three month hiatus. And when my brother wasn’t at work, he was out hunting the snakes and other creepy crawlies that he talked about on the show. There was nothing else in his life. I couldn’t imagine where he might have been going.
Morgan shrugged. “He didn’t say. I didn’t ask.”
I’d have to call Dewey when I got back to land.
“Are we done diving?” I asked. I felt done.
“We’re having too much fun,” Morgan said as he struggled into the oxygen-toting backpack.
“I’m having fun?” I was pretty sure I wasn’t.
“You are. You’ve been watching Cyrano.”
“Really?” I couldn’t imagine how. It wasn’t like I was in any shape to stop her if she decided to jump in after her daddy.
“I’m gonna get in a couple more dives before the sun goes down. Don’t sail the boat away.”
“Right,” I said. I didn’t think I could. Even if I’d wanted.
I craned my neck to watch Morgan’s green swim fins slap across the teak deck toward the back of the boat. There was a whirring noise, and a chunk of the back began to lower itself toward the water. Huh. That was convenient. Kinda like the tailgate on my pickup.
I let my neck drop back onto my pillowy hair, and stared up through the poles and wires that normally held the sails. How many dives was a couple more? I lifted my sunglasses. And then let them drop right back into place. The fiery red ball was still pretty high in the sky so a couple more dives probably meant a couple more hours. Which was actually a good thing. I could get in a hangover reducing nap.
There was a splash and Cyrano let out a sad little greyhound roo and a couple of drops of nose juice splashed on my stomach. And then she poked me with her nose. So much for my recovery.
I drew up my knees, grabbed the underside of my thighs and ever-so-slowly rocked myself up into a sitting position. And got a better look at Morgan’s greyhound.
Some sort of orange foam thing covered her back, clipped under her chest and featured a convenient carrying handle on top. I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to carry a Greyhound around like a piece of luggage.
Then I noticed a rope dangling from the handle. My eyes followed it down her side, onto the desk and over to my foot where the other end was tied around my right ankle.
Blast. No wonder she’d stayed on the boat. Morgan was using me as a greyhound anchor.
Cyrano rooed a couple more times and I rubbed the soft brindle colored fur on her neck. “It’s okay, sweetie. Your selfish jerk of a daddy will be right back.”
She laid her long nose across my shoulder and purred. Not unlike a cat. Or a motorboat. Wait. I squinted past her at the ocean. It was a motorboat. Headed our way. Fast.
It zoomed around to Morgan’s diving spot and I used Cyrano’s handle to pull myself to my feet. And kept holding on as the waves hit, rocking us from side to side.
Down in the motorboat, three white guys who looked like they’d just stepped off the set of a hair-banging music video, clung to the edges of a black tarp that covered a massive bumpy shape in the center of the boat.
Two of the them leaped up onto the tailgate thingie that Morgan had dove from, one continued up onto the deck, while a third, still in the motorboat, ripped away the tarp and tossed up a bundle that looked like a brick wrapped in plastic. The guy on the tailgate caught it and tossed it to the guy on the deck. He dropped it by my feet and turned to grab the next one.
Uh oh. Presents from random strangers were never good.
The guy still on the motorboat waved a hand at me. “You shouldn’t let your dog sample the product. It could kill her.”
I followed his line of sight to Cyrano. She had that first brick between her front paws, and her teeth were well into the process of tearing away one of the corners of the plastic.
“Hey.” I snatched it away from her and was smacked in the face with an odor that could only be described as a family of skunks on holiday. I gagged and poked a finger in the hole.
This was not good. I’d been around enough stinky Gone Herpin’ crew members to know what this stuff was.
Less than forty eight hours in Key West and I was a drug runner.
If they find out they’ve made a mistake, they’ll probably shoot you. Stay quiet and let them finish. They’ll go away.
Motorboat Guy propped his foot up on the tailgate thingie of my boat and motioned to his co-worker to take over the tossing duties. “Did she eat any?” he asked bobbing his head in Cyrano’s direction.
Blast. I didn’t want to talk to the guy. That wasn’t going to make him go away.
I tugged my little finger out of the hole and tried to ignore the musky odor while I examined the damage. No crunched up buds in or around the pinky sized tear. Just torn plastic. I gave it a few shakes over an open palm. Nothing came loose. “I don’t think she got any,” I said.
“I’d better fix the damage. Toss it here.”
I did and Motorboat Guy ripped some duct tape off of the tarp. Cyrano scrambled around me to keep her chew toy in sight.
“Maybe you should check her teeth,” he said. “Just in case.”
Anything to get them to leave. I pulled Cyrano to one side of the guys stacking the illegal drugs on my sailboat and attempted to pry open her muzzle.
She wasn’t having any of that.
Her mouth clamped shut and her lips took on a life of their own, wiggling, compensating, and finally forcing my fingers away with a snort and a gust of hot ocean-scented breath. In the end, I never even saw her teeth.
“She’s fine,” I said. Probably. The hole had been tiny and while the smells coming from her face were disgusting, they were typical for her. Chances were slim that she was going to OD.
“So.” Motorboat Guy tossed the repaired brick from one hand to the other and Cyrano bounced on her front feet, ready for a game of fetch. “Do you think you’ll be around after this?”
I felt a breath catch in my throat. Did he mean alive? Was it some sort of challenge?
“Cause maybe we could get a drink later?”
Oh. He was asking me out. Lucky me.
“I’m still recovering from too much fun yesterday,” I said.
I made an I could throw up thinking about booze face, and patted my hair like I was comforting a hang-over. Which I was. As I sunk my fingers into sweaty strands I felt a prick, and a toothpick dropped onto the deck by my feet. Followed by three more. Okay. That was weird. And I might have been more interested in how they’d gotten there if it hadn’t been for the throbbing in my brain. Whoop-whoop. Whoop-whoop. Whoop-whoop. Wait. Was my pain getting louder?
“Coast Guard!” Motorboat Guy screamed.
I followed his line of sight to the red and white boat headed our way. I was saved. The drug guys didn’t share my enthusiasm. The two who’d been stacking scrambled back to their boat, my would-be date hit the gas and they all zoomed away.
Morgan’s hound let out an angry woof, Motorboat Guy still had her brick, and she took off. At full speed.
All I could do was look down in time to see the rope around my ankle go taut and my foot was yanked out from under me. My butt hit the deck and my scream was full pitched by the time I’d slid the length of the sailboat, bounced off the tailgate thingie and hit the lukewarm Atlantic.
Going under, my howl became a gurgle as salty bubbles forced their way down my throat and set my lungs on fire. Thrashing my arms, I pushed my head above the waterline and spit out a mouthful of ocean. Coughing and gasping, I caught sight of Cyrano’s orange life vest. And the toes on on my right foot, as they zipped along the surface of the water behind her. She was going after the motorboat. And taking me along for the ride.
I shouted out the first syllable of her name before she kicked up a burst of speed and I was dragged back under. I was going to drown by greyhound. If I wasn’t eaten by some sort of sea creature first. Twisting my body, I tried to fold myself in half, my hands sluggish in the thick water as I searched for my ankle. Blast. Where was it?
A sit-up put my head back above water, my eyes searching for my foot. Instead of my toes, I caught sight of the sun. Hurling itself at my face. Wait, was that a….bonk! The floaty ring hit me square on the forehead and back under I went. As I dropped below the surface, my fingers slid down the side and it flipped over my head. I felt pressure around my waist, something had me and I was pushed up through the middle of the ring and gasped at the fresh liquid-free air.
Flashes of red and yellow under the water brought back my screams as a monster broke through the waves. Horned head, giant bug eyes, black paws reaching out to……lift the swim mask from a very human face. I wasn’t being attacked by a sea creature. I was being rescued by a rather good looking guy in a Coast Guard uniform. Chiseled features, rounded jaw, piercing black eyes. Korean maybe. A hottie definitely.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I could only nod. Gulps of salt water and choppy waves from the boat were pushing my hangover into dangerous territory.
Coast Guard Hottie’s mouth broke into a playful grin and I was thankful that I couldn’t move my hands or I would have stuck a finger in one of his adorable dimples. “Not the best way to walk your dog.”
Dog? Hey, I wasn’t tied to Cyrano anymore. I tried to look around for her but I couldn’t get my body to move. Which was okay. Coast Guard Hottie made for great scenery. “Is Cyrano okay?”
“She’s good.” He grasped the floaty ring and gently spun me to the left. There was Morgan’s hound, in her orange life vest, still frantically swimming after the long-gone motorboat and her chew toy. The rope that had been attached to my foot was now attached to a pole held by a sailer on the Coast Guard boat. Cyrano wasn’t going anywhere. And then I was being spun and there was the gorgeous guy again. Since I felt there was a deep personal connection between us, I went for it.
“So,” I asked, “You think you’ll be around after this?”
He gave me another playful grin. “Are you asking me….” And then it was like he lost his train of thought and his head tipped to one side. “Oh my God,” he said.
“You’re June Nash.”
No. This was not happening.
His mouth made a little O and he rapidly patted my floaty ring for emphasis. “Oh my God, I love Gone Herpin’.” He twisted to look back at my sailboat. “Is Dewey Nash with you?”
Blast. The Dewzers were everywhere. The best commentary on the situation was to give in to my stomach’s request and I puked. All over poor Coast Guard Hottie.
* * *
I’d like to say that I remembered about Morgan after they’d gotten me and the hound onto the rescue boat but I was a tad distracted. Seriously, how was I recognized in the Atlantic Ocean, soaking wet and half drowned? Thankfully, Morgan had put a floating hey I’m diving here flag in the water. Somebody had fished him out.
I wanted to make sure he knew it wasn’t my fault that Cyrano’d been a few bites away from death-by-pot but the lady in charge of the boat kept me busy with questions that I couldn’t answer. Like, have you got any ID? Standing there in my teeny tiny bikini, and then later an extra long t-shirt that hit the top of my thighs, I just shrugged. I had no idea where my purse was. Probably still on the sailboat. Which was now gone. While they’d been fetching Morgan, another boat had shown up and had taken it away. I’d heard the words evidence and impound and then we were back in Key West pulling up to the dock.
Coast Guard Hottie gave Morgan and Cyrano a ride to the vet and I ended up in a bland little meet-and-greet style room all alone. Desk. Chair behind it. Chair in front of it. Couch. Coffee cart with a half pot of inky looking stuff in it.
I sat in the visitor’s chair but thought about stretching out on the couch. My hangover was really itching for a nap. I was trying to decide if the stains were enough of a deterrent when a frazzled looking young black woman stepped in. She was decked out in blue camo and looked as tired as I felt.
“I’m Ensign Dyer.” She said as she sank into the I’m-in-charge-chair and tipped a duffel bag over the desk. My purse fell out.
“You found it!” I unzipped my hobo bag and dug out my wallet. “See, I’m June…” The slot that normally held my driver’s license was empty. So was the spot for my credit card. A few of my favorite words might have slipped out of my mouth. They had to be somewhere. I’d flown. I would have had to show my ID to security and my credit card to bartenders in over-priced airport bars. I shook the contents of my bag out all over her desk and began tossing things back in. Hairbrush, pack of hair bands, flip flops that went directly onto my bare feet, headbands, a hat stuffed inside another hat, a plastic lobster tail key ring, and a cardboard receipt of some sort. My captor chuckled.
A-lee…? Oh yeah. The name of the stupid airlines I’d ended up on. “How did you know?”
“That’s an IOU for your luggage.”
I dropped it into my purse and continued the search. Four mostly crushed carb bars, a half eaten pickle in a plastic bag, two lip balms, a giant purple paperclip, my iPhone in its ruby red case and half a dozen burner cells. Some still in their packaging. Some not. A few weeks ago there’d been life and death issues. All because I hadn’t been able to make a phone call. Something I never wanted to go through again. Ever. I leaned back in my chair and shrugged at the lady.
“We didn’t find your ID either.”
“You went through my purse?”
“You were on a boat full of drugs, so, yes.” She went over to a little cart and tipped the pot over a mug.
“Hey, they just showed up,” I said. “I didn’t ask them to start tossing stuff on my boat.” I mouthed no to a cup. “I think they thought I was someone else.”
She stared at me over her coffee cup. Uh oh.
“I would never buy drugs.” I said. I dug through the cell phones on the bottom of my purse looking for mine. “You can talk to Warren.”
Mom had been in some sort of relationship with Warren Mitchel, the sherif in our home town, for about twenty years. He was almost a surrogate…wait. If the Coast Guard lady called Warren, it was bound to get back to mom and I was never going to hear of how I was the reason that Western civilization as we know it was about to end. Better to go to jail.
“Who’s Warren?” She asked.
“This is really a case of mistaken identify.”
Another long stare and she nodded. “That does seem to be the case.” She sat back down and took a sip of her coffee. And then another. It must have tasted better than it looked.
“So, did you catch those guys?” I asked. “Cause they gave me drugs that I gave to you. What if they come looking for me?”
“The thing about drugs runners….” She leaned back in her chair for another sip of coffee. And seemed to forget about me.
“The thing?” I asked. If it involved somebody getting even with me I really wanted to know about it.
“Yeah, the thing is that they use a lot of disposable foot soldiers.” She propped her ankles up on a corner of the desk and yawned into her sleeve. My mouth felt compelled to join in. I stood up.
“So, can I go?” I really needed to get some sleep.
“I did have a couple of questions about all the cell phones in your purse.”
And sat back down. And started blathering about Mexican gangs and tacos. She held up a hand.
“Which were all answered to my satisfaction.”
I wanted to ask, by whom, but I knew better than to open my mouth. If the person with the questions was ready to let you go, you went.
“Can I keep this shirt?” I asked. I wasn’t interested in wandering Key West in my teeny tiny bikini.
“Consider it the Coast Guard’s thanks for your participation in the recovery of illegal drugs.”
Cool. Being a hero had its perks.
“Can I get a ride?”
Another yawn. “Sorry, I can’t spare anyone.”
So much for my hero status.
* * *
Back outside the gate to the facility, I dug a gold lettered business card from my wallet. Matfei Utkin Enterprises, Key West. Madrid. Odessa. My host. Who I hoped was absent. I flipped the card over. 1 Nickel Key. Wherever that was.
I squinted at the map that had been my parting gift. All it did was make my hangover worse. I was in no shape to wander and I couldn’t call a taxi. That left one option.
I got out my phone and dialed Morgan. Hopefully, Cyrano was doing okay and he was in a good mood. My purse began to vibrate and I peeked inside. One of the phones at the bottom of my bag was dancing around and I could see my caller ID on the screen. Blast. I had Morgan’s phone.
“Miss Nash, get in.”
I looked up at the baby blue sedan idling in the street beside me. Okay, things had just gotten worse. The man behind the wheel was an un-welcomed blast from my past.
The book will be out this summer. If you came here from my mailing list, thanks for checking out the preview! If someone sent you this, great. Want to know when the full book is out? Join the mailing list and get a free short prequel to the series.