Currents of Sin
The garage door wasn’t opening fast enough for my level of impatience, so I bent at the waist to squint into the dim interior. The blast of superheated air that hit my face was nearly as oppressive as the boiling miasma outside. The forty-five-minute air-conditioned drive from Southwest Florida International was pleasant enough, but as soon as I stepped out of the rental car, there was no doubt about where I’d landed.
In the middle of June and despite the efforts of the nearby gulf to spread a cooling breeze across the land, Marco Island could do nicely as a sauna. Still, I love the island and this three-bedroom peach-colored Florida-style home that backs up to one of the town’s many canals. Adjusting my vision to the dim interior, I stood up and approached Sunny with one arm outstretched. Head down, peering closely, I took my time probing along her hot body for telltale marks—indications of abuse. Grateful, I let out the breath I’d been holding. She was in the same shape as when I left her. My bright yellow 2003 Mustang GT was still my baby even though she was trapped down here at the bottom of the country while I was living in DC.
Stepping around her to enter the house, I was already on the phone. “Hey, Darcy, you made it?”
“Yep, I’m here. Thanks for taking good care of Sunny, Tom. She looks fine.”
“No problem.” He chuckled. “I love driving her too. Should I come over?”
“Sure, why don’t you pick up something cold to drink on the way?”
I hadn’t seen Tom Smythe for months, and I’d missed him. He’s a dear friend who suffered a number of personal setbacks, not to mention physical injuries, over the past few years. I hated to admit that all his troubles were due to his involvement with me to a greater or lesser extent.
His apartment on Bald Eagle Drive was only a mile from the house, so he arrived fifteen minutes later, carrying a six-pack of Corona and a lime. We embraced, then exchanged small talk pleasantries while I cut up the fruit.
Soon he drifted toward the living room. I watched his back as he gazed at the yard through the large sliding glass doors. I decided he looked fit and relaxed in shorts, a loose Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops. With a deep tan and sexy spiked hair, he seemed a million miles and years away from the dowdy uptight ship’s security chief I first met nearly five years ago.
I had to admit the screened lanai with its colorful tropical print furniture beckoned invitingly. Beyond the patio, the lush densely landscaped yard sloped to the canal and the unused boat dock. I too thought the little slice of paradise was a lovely sight. He turned from the view and smiled, nodding at the window.
“Kinda hot out there, I guess.”
“Yes, let’s opt for air-conditioning, if that’s okay.”
He came back to the kitchen. After opening our beers, he pushed a lime wedge into the neck of each bottle. Handing me one, he returned to the spacious living area and looked back at me for direction.
“I don’t care. Anywhere is fine.”
We settled next to each other on the seafoam couch, and I sat back to take in the room’s pastel ambiance. It wasn’t my style. I prefer a more neutral palette with primary splashes over this hopelessly dated peach and green décor. The look still belonged to Mick’s mother.
Mick’s parents were killed in a freak winter accident in Colorado about seven years ago, and he’s done nothing with the interior of the house they left him. I supposed he would not mind me making changes, but considering the little time we’re down here, I wasn’t sure if or when I would get around to it.
Thinking of my husband brought down my mood a little, which would be out of the ordinary to anyone who knows us. In fact, since meeting Mick, I’ve been happier than I deserve to be. We’ve faced a few obstacles along the way, but we’ve been able to overcome them . . . until now.
I glanced at Tom and realized he was studying me as he sipped his beer. I peered into the kind gray eyes, a little more hooded than I remembered. Graying brown hair and weathered features suggested his age, but his physique looked strong, his stomach flat.
“You look really good, Tom. Still working out?”
“Yeah, doing a little running over on Tigertail too if I can get up early enough to beat the heat.”
My thoughts flipped to the beautiful stretch of beach estuary near the north end of the island with its resident egrets, cranes, pelicans, storks, eagles, cormorants, and ibis, not to mention the plethora of fish and small mammals. This entire area really is paradise for nature and wildlife lovers, and that was a reason for my being here. Ever since Mick introduced me to this populated nature preserve, I’ve found that it provides therapeutic solace.
“And how is work, Tom? Everything okay over there?”
“Going well, after the rocky start.” He chuckled and leaned forward to set his nearly empty bottle on the coffee table.
I nodded but decided enough had been said in the past about the scary situation we faced a couple of years ago. Tom was charged with the attempted murder of a deputy sheriff just after he started work as the administrative officer for the Geneva County Sheriff’s Department. Thankfully, we sorted that problem out after a few months, and he settled into the new position.
“Do you want another beer?” I asked instead.
“Sure, but I’ll get us both another one.” He was already heading for the kitchen.
“Do you ever think of leaving Marco Island and moving closer to work?” I called.
“Sure, the forty-five-minute commute gets old, but I love it here near the coast. Besides who would keep an eye on this place and Sunny for you?”
“Right, and I don’t blame you for wanting to stay. I love it here too.” I glanced around the room and didn’t bother to suppress a sigh. After handing me a beer, he plopped back down on the couch and squinted over the top of his bottle.
“Sure, Darcy, I know you do. But I can tell something is going on with you. You don’t seem as happy and, you know, effervescent as usual.”
That made me laugh. “Is that what I am? Sounds like the description of a bubbly teenager.”
He was clearly embarrassed. I reached over and touched his arm. “Thanks, Tom. I guess you know me pretty well. Of course I’m here to check on the house and relax for a few days, but you’re right. There’s something more personal, I’m afraid.”
He stared at me for a moment, then looked at his lap while I collected my thoughts. There was no question that I was going to confide in one of my closest friends. It was hard, though, because every instinct I possessed told me not to say out loud what I’d been thinking for the past few weeks. I knew if those words and feelings lived outside of me, they would become real—tangible—and I would have to face them. And then what?
Denial becomes harder to maintain when the issues are open for discussion. After all, we don’t have to worry about anything that isn’t part of the real world—even when it’s buried in our minds because, well, it doesn’t seem real.
In any event, I didn’t want to spill a lot of detail about my marital relationship. On the other hand, I knew from past experience that Tom could be a great sounding board. I leaned back and gulped my Corona before it got too warm.
“Okay, you’re right. Mick and I are in a little bit of a rough spot, or I should say he’s in one, and I’m probably not handling it as well as I should.”
Tom slowly brought his eyes back up to mine and shook his head. Almost in a whisper, he asked, “Is it the PTSD again?”
I shook my head a little too vigorously. A sharp pain shot across the back of my eye—the residual remnant of an injury I sustained months ago in Seattle at the hands of a vicious murderer who was threatening some dear friends.
“No, not that. He’s been fine for, what, almost three years now? This is something else, and it’s so damn strange because it’s as if there’s a role reversal or something. I mean I’m the one who should be struggling with what’s happening.”
He leaned back. “Ah, Rachael?”
“Yes, have you heard from her?” I knew how much my daughter liked Tom, just as I did, and I could envision her staying in touch with him.
“She called me just before she left Kenya to go to Australia. Sort of a formal goodbye is how it felt at the time.”
I nodded in agreement. “I know what you mean. We hear from her every month or so. Of course we can call or Skype anytime, and I have. The thing is, something happened to Mick when she took the baby and went to live with her parents.”
I explained how we initially thought her trip to Africa was no big deal. We knew she wouldn’t want to raise little Anna there despite the presence of Anna’s father, Gerald. But when she decided to relocate with her folks to Australia that was something entirely different.
Last year on a cruise down under, we saw firsthand how great Sydney and other Australian cities are. The Alosas, my biological daughter’s adoptive parents, will be stationed for a number of years at the US consulate in Sydney. I can’t blame her for deciding to stay there with them.
“Who knows how old Anna will be when we see her again.” I hated my own whiney tone.
“I understand, but I’m sure a lot of people don’t get to see their grandchildren as much as they’d like.”
“I know that, and I can get over it.”
“So you’re saying Mick is more upset about losing Anna than you are?”
“I hate to admit it, but yes, that’s putting it mildly.”
I had difficulty explaining Mick’s attitude to myself, never mind to someone else, but I tried. “You know, now that we’re into our forties, we’re not going to have other children. You also know very well how we found each other and overcame so much trauma over the past few years. And of course I found Rachael after eighteen years apart from her, which was an amazing thing in itself.”
I had to stop and think about the root cause of my husband’s problem. “I think Mick deeply bought in to the dream of us being a family. He and I, Rachael, and sweet little Anna. He loves that baby so much, Tom. He works hard, and he’s such a good person. He deserves to experience having a family. It’s just that . . .”
I felt wetness on my cheeks and tried to suppress the tears before I really broke down. I’d been holding in the sadness for months, trying to be strong for Mick. But lately, I was becoming annoyed and disappointed with his inability to move on. Unfortunately, it was a too familiar feeling.
Tom leaned closer to me and scrunched his face into a look of contemplative sadness. I knew I would have to elaborate.
“I guess I think that if anyone should be devastated by finding a daughter, then sort of losing her again, shouldn’t it be me?”
I didn’t mean to say it in that mean-spirited way out loud, and I hated sounding so needy. “Mick is depressed again. That is the bottom line. He’s lost interest in doing things, you know?” Now I was the embarrassed one. “But this time, I think his depression is about this idea he had of being part of a family.”
“I get what you’re saying, but I’m not sure his state of mind isn’t related to the previous problems. In fact, I’ll bet they are.”
I started to speak, but he held his palm in front of my face. “Think about it. He went through terrible times with losing his parents, then nearly dying in South America and coping with his frustration and feelings of helplessness when you were injured. I think when Rachael came to live with you guys and had Anna, the stability and normalcy of having a family really helped him overcome the residual PTSD symptoms. He was emotionally invested in the two of them and in his fatherly role, as you said.”
Tom looked around the room and settled on the view out the window. “At the wedding, it was plain to see how committed Mick was to Rachael and her daughter.” He gestured toward the yard, where Rachael planned and implemented a lovely wedding ceremony for Mick and me.
I swiped moisture off my face and shook out my hair, raking the long strands with my nails. I could already feel the thickening in texture caused by the intense humidity.
I wanted to rise above my own unhappiness to get a better appreciation of what Mick was feeling. Tom already seemed to have a better perspective, but I still didn’t want to admit that the PTSD symptoms might be back.
“Thanks, Tom. I know Mick was alone in the world when we met. So was I, for that matter. Finding each other the way we did was amazing. In fact, meeting you, getting my friend Sid back into my life, and then Rachael—it seems surreal.”
He peered into my eyes, smiling and shaking his head. “What is surreal is the blueness of your eyes when they’re wet.” He caught himself and laughed nervously.
I love Tom as a friend, but that small slip of intimacy gave me a little jolt . . . and a warm comfy feeling. Uh-oh!
He rushed on. “Okay, so look at it this way. Mick is a fairly sensitive guy, don’t you think? Maybe he had a future mapped out that depended on Rachael and Anna being in the picture.” He leaned in a little closer and picked up my hand. Double uh-oh. “Darcy, try not to blame him because it feels as if you’re not enough for him right now. I’m confident that isn’t what this is about.”
I stared at him, trying to suppress the feeling that he was some kind of sexy compassionate mentalist. His hand felt hot, and I gently pulled mine away. “How do you know these things, Tom? I’ve never understood why you are alone. Any guy who is that perceptive should have someone in his life.”
He ignored my inappropriate comment. “You know I majored in psych before I got on with the LAPD,” he said instead. “But to tell you the truth, those years on the streets taught me more about human psychology than the degree did.” He looked down, and a pink glow spread up from his neck.
I wished I hadn’t said anything about his personal life. “Sorry, Tom, your relationships are none of my business. I know you’ll find someone eventually.” I was making it worse. I felt guilty knowing I’d reawakened Tom’s sadness and feelings of betrayal with respect to a woman he thought he knew and loved not too long ago. That ended tragically when she was arrested for attempted murder and sent back to her native Israel.
He blinked a couple of times, then smiled and winked. “There are no secrets after all we’ve been through. If I could find someone to have a relationship with like yours and Mick’s, I’d jump at it.”
A few minutes later, he drained his beer and stood up to leave. I didn’t want him to go, and that gave me something else to worry about.
“Try not to worry too much,” said my mentalist. “Time might be all Mick needs to get back on track. If not, I hope he’ll be open to more counseling.”
“I’ll try.” Maybe being down here will help me gain some perspective, I thought a little too optimistically.
He looked thoughtful. Something else was on his mind. “What is it, Tom?”
“I was just thinking about a puzzling situation we have here in Collier County. It’s a case involving unexplained disappearances of two tagged cats and a state wildlife ranger. Are you aware of the cats’ endangered status and how closely they’re monitored?”
“Yes, of course. One can hardly live down here and not know about them.”
“Well, it seems like a good investigative reporting topic. I was just thinking maybe you would be interested in delving into the story.”
“As usual, you’re right. The combination of possible criminal activity and the wildlife angle is tantalizing. Besides, I’m between projects, and it would give me a reason to stay down here a little longer. Do you know a way I can quickly get a feel for the story before I decide?”
He walked to the kitchen and set his empty bottle on the counter. “I can pick you up around eight in the morning for the half-hour drive to the park ranger station in Everglades City. It’s close to where the cats went missing. I’m sure you can talk to someone there. In fact, I’ll call first thing in the morning and arrange something. What do you say?”
I didn’t need to think about it. I could decide after learning more about the subject whether I wanted to pursue an investigation. “That will be great. Thanks, Tom. It would be good to get immersed in a new story.”
What I already knew was that the cats are Florida panthers—Puma concolor coryi, a protected subspecies of cougar or mountain lion. There are few of them left in the wild, and sadly, you often hear about them dead on the road despite numerous panther crossing signs warning motorists. But the disappearance of a healthy tagged animal is probably unusual—two gone missing at once must be unprecedented. Of course the fact that a ranger is also missing points to a criminal element. This could be just the type of story I like.
Caught up in the familiar feeling of anticipation about starting a new story, I realized this could be another nice distraction in addition to my getaway to a place I love. Initially elated at the prospect, after Tom left, my enthusiasm dampened due to a growing uneasiness. Did the discomfort relate to Mick . . . or to something else? I wasn’t sure.
Left alone in paradise, I dusted and vacuumed the house, then went outside to check on the landscaping. The professional gardener appeared to be doing a fine job. The royal and foxtail palms; shiny-leaved Ixora with bright coral pom-poms; yellow, orange, and peach hibiscus; and bright red, pink, and white bougainvillea formed a riotous display around the perimeter of the manicured lawn.
Breathing in the subtle fragrances and filling my senses with the aromatic beauty, my spirits lifted, at least temporarily. Being a biologist—a biochemist, I love plants and all of nature. Despite the heat, I stayed outside among the jungle-like foliage too long. Mesmerized, I watched a large dragonfly zip around the flowers, hovering now and then to pluck seemingly invisible insects out of the air. After a half hour, it felt as if my pigment-deficient skin would soon match the color of the Christmas palm berries.
Back inside, I took a package of tilapia from the freezer to thaw and fixed myself a Ketel One martini, my adult beverage of choice. Sipping slowly, I hoped the vodka would calm my inner chaos.
Seated on the couch under the air-conditioning, I turned on the TV to see what monstrous things occurred while I zipped along at thirty thousand feet, oblivious to the world below. Neither FOX nor CNN reported anything more dramatic than another random shooting with no deaths, but several injuries. Sadly, I chose to consider it good news.
I knew I should spend time thinking about Mick and our issues, but all I wanted to do was distract myself. I knew I should call him, but I wasn’t ready to say the things I needed to and didn’t want to make matters worse.
Tom’s words made sense, and reluctantly, I thought about those awful months before Mick’s PTSD was diagnosed. We almost split then, and it was Tom who finally got Mick to realize what his symptoms meant. Lots of counseling and Mick’s inner strength brought him around over time, and I thought—hoped—it was behind us.
My head was shaking involuntarily. What the hell is wrong with me? I could now see that Mick’s seeming lack of interest in our relationship during the past few months was similar to what happened back then, only not as severe. My heart ached for my depressed husband left alone in DC with his sadness.
Maybe I should forget this and go back home. Setting that thought aside and searching my own motives, I had to admit I was excited about the possibility of starting a new investigative piece that might lead to a saleable freelance article. It was something to occupy my time and thoughts, and after all, it was my work.
Anyway, maybe Mick needed some time alone. I decided to sleep on it and make a decision in the morning about whether to get more involved here or go back to DC in a day or two. I was sure Tom would be okay either way. What a steady rock he is. I halted another budding thought process that would be unproductive at best.
As it turned out, neither option—stay or go home—were meant to be. A few minutes later, my cell phone rang as if in answer to my dilemma. A huge distraction, and change in course, suddenly inserted itself into my plans. As has happened many times since I met Mick, Tom, and the rest, the underlying currents of our connected lives veered in a dramatically unexpected and dangerous direction—if only I’d known just how bad it would be.