COLD AS DEATH

This book is the fifth in the Mira Morales series. It was originally published by Kensington Books. Kindle, $3.99 and Nook, $3.99

Chapter 1

Hill House

The hillside looked as if a giant in the midst of a temper tantrum had torn across it, knocking down trees, ripping bushes out by the roots, trampling everything in its path. Here and there, Mira Morales passed pines or banyans that still stood, but most of them had been stripped of needles and leaves and their trunks had been sheared of bark. On one area of the hill, a dense copse of pines had survived the hurricane relatively intact, trees huddled together like orphans, the top branches leaning left, blown that way by the wind.

On the street below her, piles of debris waited at curbsides to be hauled away—vegetation, broken fences, sheets of aluminum, chunks of concrete. Some of the piles stood five or six feet high and included mattresses, doors, sofas, chairs, rolls of moldy carpet, broken refrigerators, stoves, tables. Even now, five weeks after Hurricane Danielle had roared in, her winds in excess of 155 miles an hour, Tango Key still looked like Hiroshima, but without the bodies.

Mira paused to catch her breath. The air was so still that birds didn’t sing, branches didn’t stir. The speckling of clouds in the vast blue field of sky resembled tiny white sailboats stuck in the doldrums. The air smelled scorched, as if an iron had been held too long to a wardrobe of shirts. The extreme heat and humidity caused her T-shirt to cling to her. Her denim shorts, soaked through with perspiration, felt like they weighed fifty pounds.

She pulled her thick black hair behind her head and snapped an elastic band around it, getting it off her neck. She was tempted to pour her bottle of cold water over her head, but decided she was much too thirsty to waste it. She twisted the cap and drank down half of it.

Question: Why had she ventured out on a morning in late July when the temperature already stood at a muggy ninety and it wasn’t even seven yet?

Well, that was easy. She couldn’t stand the reality of what she faced, another day of struggling to piece her bookstore back together. The boxes of books she had salvaged were now housed in the yoga room at the back of the store. Each day, she opened boxes and checked each title against a master inventory list. She figured she had saved only a third of her entire inventory, but remained absurdly hopeful that the statistics would improve.

Hurricane Danielle had crashed ashore at high tide. The water had exploded upward through the wooden slats of the Tango pier, collapsed the concrete pilings, and swept through the downtown with the power of some ancient, enraged god. At its peak, the water at the front of her store had reached six feet and when it receded, it left behind a soggy beach of mud, sticks, stones, and shells. As the mud dried, creatures crawled out of that dark, erratic landscape: fire ants, snakes, skinks, spiders, roaches, worms, mice, rats, a regular zoo.

For some reason, the yoga room at the back of the store, separated by a wall and a metal door, had remained relatively dry. The books she had stored in there and those she had taken to her house were all that remained of her inventory.

The exterior of the store had sustained major damage-holes in the roof, dry rot setting in to the wooden front door and the floor, trees still down, the fence collapsed. The storage shed, crushed like a tin can, still had an uprooted banyan lying across it. The work crew that was replacing most of the store’s roof would be hammering and pounding today, another crew would be laying tile on the eastern side of the store, and someone was coming out to remove the banyan and the remains of the shed.

Yet, her store and home could be repaired and rebuilt. Other people had not been as fortunate. With nearly a third of the buildings on Tango completely destroyed, hundreds of people were homeless and dozens of businesses had been wiped off the map. On her bookstore’s block, only two buildings out often remained: her bookstore and Mango Mama’s, a restaurant that had withstood hurricanes since the early 1940s. The Tango bridge, the island’s connection to the rest of the world, had lost six miles of concrete and steel and wouldn’t open again for another year. The only ways to or from the island were by air or ferry.

Since eighty percent of the island was still without power, they lived under a curfew and what amounted to martial law. For looting, they were told. To keep people safe, the officials said. No alcohol was being sold on the island as long as the curfew was in effect, so a black market now flourished. On a given day, a bottle of ordinary California red wine—five bucks at your local grocery store—could be had for thirty to fifty dollars a bottle. A six-pack of beer was going for about fifteen bucks. A bottle of hard liquor—any hard liquor, regardless of its quality—began at about seventy-five dollars.

Generators were also in great demand. For a basic unit that would power a refrigerator, a few lights, and maybe a TV, the standing price was $1,200 cash. Without gas, though, generators were useless and only one gas station on Tango presently had power. Most mornings, its supply was sold out before breakfast.

You could leave the island to buy any of these items, but only if you had enough gas to make it somewhere. Forty percent of the power in Key West had been restored, yet it was as sporadic and unpredictable as true love. Most of Sugarloaf Key, fifteen miles north of Key West, supposedly had gone back online four days ago. But according to the grapevine, dependable power, continuous, uninterrupted power there was a pipe dream. Between Sugarloaf and Key Largo lay an electrical wasteland where life languished in the Dark Ages.

To find anything being sold in the black market on Tango, you had to drive two or three hours to Miami. Only the courageous, the stupid, or the owners of VWs, hybrids, or other models that got great gas mileage even attempted the trip. In a state where SUVs, Hummers, Suburbans, and other gas-guzzlers proliferated like mosquitoes in a swamp, she figured that maybe five to ten people on Tango were making it as far as Key Largo or Miami for liquor, food, generators, and gas. Even though there were laws against price-gouging in the aftermath of a hurricane, no one in Key Largo, the nearest place with steady supplies of gas, had been arrested for charging five bucks or more a gallon.

Here on Tango, people whose homes had been torn apart had banded together to keep watch over each others’ properties because looting was still a problem. And, like tribes of old, they also shared supplies, food, and water. In this regard, Mira considered herself fortunate as well. While the extensive reconstruction of her home was under way, she was living in a trailer on her property that belonged to two of her long-time clients and friends. Until the hurricane, Ace and Luke had been evening street performers on Tango’s pier. With the pier gone, they now did odd jobs on the island and had become her extended family while her daughter, grandmother, and three cats were staying with friends in Miami, where there was power.

Unplugged from the grid, life in the Florida Keys and especially on Tango Key had screeched to a halt. All the rules had changed. It was a whole new universe.

In the weeks since Danielle had turned Mira’s life into a parody of survival and a search for the most basic items—ice, bottled water, canned food, gas, propane—she had forgotten who she was. The who had become irrelevant.  What she could do and when she could do it were all that mattered. And so, during those times when she couldn’t face the stink or the mess in her store any longer, she went walking.

Every day, at various times of the day, she ventured to a different part of the island and invariably discovered areas on Tango she had never seen before.

Neighborhoods tucked away in the hills, coves on the west side of the island where dolphins frolicked, old buildings that had withstood time and hurricanes. On these walks, she understood what had driven men like Magellan.

And on these walks, she thought a lot about global warming, the gradually rising temperature of the planet’s oceans, the shrinkage of the ice shelf, the wetlands that the current administration had opened to developers, the loss of barrier islands that once had provided buffers from monster storms. There would be more storms, bigger storms, monstrous storms that would make even Danielle look insignificant. And then the coming global oil crisis would bring about the collapse of an era of unbridled greed, lies, and corruption.

She walked faster, as if to outdistance this line of thought. Right now, she had to focus on her little corner of the world.

Her thighs and calves had gotten tan, lean, hard as rock. She had dropped eight pounds. Freckles now dotted her cheeks and crossed the bridge of her nose. Physically, she felt stronger and healthier than she had in years. She supposed her psyche was healing too, but she had some serious doubts about her heart.

Five years with Wayne Sheppard had ended in the bleak hours when Danielle had moved on, ended out there in a wind-ravaged grove of trees. The door had slammed shut with resounding finality shortly afterward, when he had moved out of her place and in with his partner, John Gutierrez. Annie, her teenaged daughter, was furious with her. She loved Sheppard like a father and as far as she was concerned, the whole thing was Mira’s fault.

If you weren’t so weird, Mom, if you weren’t always so certain you’re right. . . In other words, Mira thought, bend like a straw and you can keep your man. Never mind if you have to compromise yourself or what you know to be true. Five years might be just spit in the huge cosmic soup of things. But it was five years of loving the same man, of being accustomed to the solidness of his body next to you in bed at night, five years of habits and quirks and memories that were tough to obliterate. She and Sheppard had hit dry patches before in their relationship, but never had come upon something that felt as final as this did.

Mira started climbing again, moving more quickly now to escape the pity party her thoughts had become. She realized the hill was steeper than she’d thought, strewn with fallen trees, uprooted vegetation, the old trail obscured. She kept climbing; the air grew warmer. She spotted a lizard dozing on top of a rock in the hot sun. As she passed it, the little thing opened its eyes and watched her. Lizard, lizard. What message did the lizard have for her?

Camouflage. Slow down the pace of your life. Be still, watch, observe.

 

Yes, okay. That fit.

Nadine, her grandmother and business partner, understood completely what had happened between her and Sheppard. She never came right out and said Mira was better off, but Mira suspected Nadine was thinking it. Nadine and Sheppard rarely agreed on anything. There will be other men, Nadine assured her.

Oh? That was supposed to console her? She considered herself lucky to have loved twice—Sheppard and her husband, Tom Morales, dead now for ore than a decade. She had invested so much of herself in these two relationships that she doubted she had the fortitude to go through yet another.

Forty-one and your sex life is over.

 

Mira finally reached the top of the hill and sat down to drink in the view. The Gulf of Mexico spread out far below her, an unbroken vastness a deeper shade of blue than the sky. The heat released the sweet scent of grass, the thick humidity of the July air.

Distantly, like a voice in a dream, she heard someone screaming for help, a woman. Her voice—wild, frantic, desperate—hammered the stillness. Mira shot to her feet, listening hard, and heard it again. She ran toward the voice, arms hugging her sides, hands fisted. Her vision turned strange, blurry one moment, clear the next; then she was racing through a world as black and white as a photographic negative. She tore around a pile of dried bushes and gnarled branches, crashed across a collapsed wooden fence, and finally saw it, there on top of the hill, a burning house.

Flames leaped from the windows, tongues of fire licked at the roof, fat plumes of dark smoke curled toward the dome of gray sky, swollen with thunderheads. And she saw it all like a negative. A woman stumbled down the driveway, waving her arms frantically, her clothes on fire. Before Mira reached her, an old Buick raced away from the side of the house, tires kicking up dust and gravel.

The car was between Mira and the woman. Even in this strange black and white world, it shimmered and quivered like a mirage. Mira shouted and waved her arms wildly, trying to flag down the driver. She jumped a low hedge and ran fast across a lawn, trampling recently planted flowers, and reached the driveway just yards in front of the car.

She saw a boy’s face pressed to the glass, his eyes wide, dark, horrified. He clawed at the window, his mouth opened wide in a scream she couldn’t hear. The car didn’t slow. It bore down on her at an alarming speed—and then passed through her, ghostlike.

Mira felt the car’s passage through her blood and bones. It shocked her so deeply that she looked down at herself like some actress in a bad movie, almost expecting to see a huge hole in her abdomen. She was intact, but her knees buckled and she went down.

It seemed she lay there for half a lifetime, her face in the dirt, the gravel biting into her forehead, her cheeks, her heart hammering, the center of her chest seized up. Heart attack. I’m in cardiac arrest and just hallucinated all that.

 

Something wet and warm slid up the side of her cheek. She raised her head and there sat a fluffy Himalayan cat, its soft blue eyes regarding her with frank curiosity. Mira rolled onto her back, sat up, and the cat scampered off.

Color had returned to her world, but she didn’t see a car. Or a woman on fire. No burning house or terrified kid. Her ticker was still ticking. Only one explanation fit: She was locked inside a full-blown mental meltdown.

Jesus God, she was a mess. Mira got shakily to her feet, feeling disassociated, not quite here, as though she’d left part of herself back in the vision of the fire, the fleeing car. She turned slowly in place. Tasted dust in her mouth. Felt it caked on her hands, her face. The light was bright, the sky wasn’t overcast. The house looked peaceful and serene and different.

What’s going on? Had she seen something from the past? The future? A probable future? What? Just what the hell had she seen? And why had she seen it in black and white? As far as she could remember, that hadn’t happened before.

Who lived in this house?

Where’s the woman? The car? The kid? The cat?

 

Mira moved hesitantly up the driveway and toward the house, slapping her shorts free of dust. Her face hurt. She’d lost her bottle of water. A sudden terror gripped her. Maybe recent events in her life had caused her grasp on reality to unravel. Stress. Sure. Stress could cause it. Category-five hurricane. House no longer habitable, living in a trailer, store closed, no income, lover of five years gone, her family elsewhere. Rootless.

She pressed the doorbell, listening for that sonorous ring, that melodic hello, but didn’t hear anything. Of course not. No power, no doorbell. She rapped sharply. Run, whispered a soft, inner voice. Run now, while you still can.

The temptation to take off nearly overpowered her. She didn’t want to straddle two worlds anymore—this one and something other. But given the clarity of the vision and the discrepancies with what she saw in front of her—that the house wasn’t on fire—and the fact that a child was involved, she had to check. At the very least, she needed to find out if a child even lived here.

Mira started to knock again, but realized the door wasn’t shut tightly. She touched it with the toe of her shoe and it creaked open slightly, releasing warm air from inside the house.

Goose bumps broke out along her arms, the skin along the back of her neck tightened. Mira hesitated and finally nudged the door with her foot again. This time, it swung wide open.

She called out once more, her voice echoing through the cavernous house, and crossed the threshold, calling out again. She glimpsed the cat as it vanished into a room off the hallway. Then a figure appeared at the end of the long hall, a portly woman in a blue flowered dress. She stared at Mira, hands on her teapot hips.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Mira said, speaking loudly, as though the woman were deaf. “But I was…”

The woman seemed to motion for her to come in, then moved quickly through a doorway on her left and out of Mira’s sight.

“Ma’am?”

No answer.

Yeah, okay. What did that mean? Come in but don’t talk to me? Mira went inside and hurried down the hall, past an exquisite display of island art, then an original Salvador Dali, a pen-and-ink Picasso, an original Andy Warhol. An art collection already worth more than everything she owned.

She paused in the doorway of the largest kitchen she had ever seen. Light spilled through a pair of skylights and a double bay window that overlooked a large screened pool with a curved slide, a Jacuzzi at one end and an explosion of colorful plants at the other. The woman stood at an island in the center of the kitchen, looking around with an expression that revealed profound confusion.

“Listen, I’m really sorry to intrude like this, but can you tell me if a child lives here?” Mira asked.

The woman didn’t hear her. She ran her hands over her face, then smoothed them over her dress, and suddenly thrust out her plump, fleshy arms. She turned them this way and that, examining them, her confusion deepening. She lurched forward with sudden, shocking swiftness, crossed the kitchen—and dissolved into the wall.

Aw, shit, she looked so real. Who was she? Not the woman from the vision.

Mira lurched forward and ran into the room on the other side of the wall through which the ghost had vanished. Mira glimpsed her moving down a hallway, the blue flowers on her dress bright and vivid enough to attract butterflies. Mira’s internal alarms shrieked. The muscles in her legs, her shoulders, her jaw had gone tight, tense. Leave, the inner voice warned.

The woman melted through a door at the end of the hall, on the north side of the house. Mira loped after her, shoes pounding against the tiled floors, and threw open the door. In a single, sweeping glance, she determined the bedroom belonged to a teenaged boy with some unusual interests—poster-sized photos of dolphins and whales covered one wall, a large model plane hung from the ceiling, the ceiling looked like outer space. The only hint of normalcy lay in the movie and music posters that covered another wall. The ghost in the blue flowered dress stood completely still, staring down at a woman in voluminous pajamas who was sprawled on the floor. Blood stained the front of her pajama top; her eyes gazed vacantly at the ceiling.

The Himalayan raced past Mira’s legs, screeched to a stop like a cat in a cartoon, its back hunched, fur going up. It started hissing.

“That’s me,” the woman gasped. “I’m dead.” She looked at the cat. “Dolittle sees me.” She raised her eyes to Mira. “You see me.” Her mouth quivered. “I. . . I. ..”

Static filled Mira’s head. She understood she wouldn’t be able to see the woman much longer, that their connection was breaking down. “Who did this?” she asked quickly.

The temperature in the room dropped so rapidly that the next intake of breath hurt the inside of Mira’s chest. Frost formed on the mirrors, the metal surfaces. The closet door began to glow a luminous blue. The young woman Mira had seen in the driveway emerged from the blue, stepping out of it with a dancer’s grace. She wasn’t on fire now, wasn’t shouting or frantic.

She had a beautiful face and wore loose, khaki-colored pants, a rose-colored shirt, sandals. The cat, Dolittle, apparently saw her too, and took off, a blur of speed. The young ghost slipped her arm around the shoulders of the older ghost, then glanced deliberately at Mira, as if aware of her only now. Both women vanished and the blue glow winked out like a candle.

During this entire episode—which lasted maybe twenty seconds—the room had grown as cold as death. Mira’s teeth now chattered. She blew into her hands to warm them. Her knees creaked and complained as she sank to the floor beside the dead woman. Mira gently shut the corpse’s eyes. Her fingertips tingled, a sure sign that if she opened herself a little more she would be able to pick up information about the woman. But she already knew more than she cared to know. She rocked back onto her heels, noticing that the room was warming as quickly as it had chilled, and struggled against a tidal wave of emotions. Sadness for the woman, deep regret that she herself had gone against her own judgment and entered the house at all. But she had chosen. Only a single option remained. She pulled her cell from her back pocket and punched out Wayne Sheppard’s number.

It rang and rang. Either it was turned off or Sheppard refused to take her call. She left him a message. Just as she snapped her phone shut, an explosion of noise and shouting erupted from the front of the house.

Adam? Gladys?” The man’s voice boomed and echoed through the rooms.

“Back here,” Mira shouted, getting to her feet.

The man loped through the doorway, breathing hard, blinking rapidly, and looked at her as though she were—what? A thief? A serial killer? “Who the hell are you?” he demanded. “Where’s my son? What. ..”

The sight of the corpse eclipsed his raging monologue. “Gladys,” he whispered, and his eyes darted back to Mira. “My son, where’s my… son?”

“I… I don’t know. When I came in here, the body was on the floor, the…”

“Don’t you fucking move,” he yelled, wagging one hand at her and pulling out his cell phone with the other. “I’m calling the cops.”

“Hey, for all I know, you’re the one who did this.” Mira, still clutching her cell, stepped forward.

“Stop,” he hissed, and whipped out a gun and pointed it at her. “Stop right there.”

The sight of the gun triggered an inchoate, elemental dread in Mira. She patted the air with her hands, backed away from him, tried to speak calmly, as though she were dealing with a recalcitrant two-year-old who had found Daddy’s gun. “Okay, okay, I’m sitting down, see?” She lowered herself to the floor beside the dead woman.

He backed up to the door, shut it, leaned against it. “Yes, hello,” he said urgently. “There’s been a murder. . . my son’s gone. . . A woman. . . broke into my house and. . .” His voice cracked and he started to sob. “I. . . I don’t know… At home. .. I’m at home… I…”

The temperature in the room started dropping again and the ghost in the khaki tunic pants stepped out of the wall and looked directly at Mira.

Say something, Mira pleaded silently.

Her skull filled with so much static that her head pounded.

In moments, the room felt like the Arctic again. Mira scooted back until her spine was up against the foot of the bed and pulled the end of the quilt around her shoulders. The man, no longer talking on his cell, looked around anxiously, murmuring, “What the hell. Why’s it so cold in here? Did the power come back on or what?”

Mira didn’t say anything. She was afraid that if she explained there was a ghost in the room, a young woman standing over by the closet, he would lose it completely and start shooting. So she brought her legs up against her chest, pressed her forehead to her knees, and hoped that the cops got here before she froze to death.

 

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