Excerpt: A Woman to Blame

Prologue

“Rrrrawk! Repent, you sinner. Repent. Repent!”

Rick Parrish wanted more time to take in the sights and sounds of Pappy’s Crab Shack, to imprint them indelibly in his memory so that he could recall them at will during the next week. Now that Miss Scarlett had squawked his arrival into the second-story open-air bar, his private moment had ended. The regulars sent him a barrage of wolf whistles and catcalls, letting him know they’d seen him. And his suit. Reaching past the Flesh-Eating Killer Bird sign, Rick adjusted the parrot’s red-ribboned boater.

“What’ll it be, Captain Parrish?” Pappy Madison asked from inside the wraparound bar.

More heads turned in Rick’s direction as he pretended serious consideration of the question. Pappy’s query was the same every evening, and so was Rick’s response. Half the patrons in the Florida Keys bar chorused the answer along with him.

“Cold beer, conch fritters, and a gaudy-awful sunset, Pappy!”

“Can do,” Pappy said, pulling a frosted mug from the cooler.

Weaving his way through the crowded establishment, Rick exchanged several irreverent greetings as he headed toward his usual place by the west rail. He spotted one of his marina employees with his arms resting on the tanned shoulders of two attentive blondes. Jiggy Latham winked, flashing two victory signs before lowering his head to receive a kiss from one of the girls. Rick walked on by, trying for a fleeting moment to remember what it was like to be so young. When he reminded himself that he was barely thirty-eight, he hid a halfhearted chuckle in a hasty look around the room.

The tourists were trying hard to blend in with the locals. If their unfamiliar faces hadn’t given them away, the scent of their suntan lotions, the sight of their sunburns, and the fruity daiquiris they ordered certainly would have. He glanced at his watch, then folded his suit jacket and laid it over a chair. With his luggage stowed in the back of his Jeep, a plane ticket in his suit pocket, and the almost desperate desire to drink in the bar’s atmosphere, he felt like a tourist himself.

He looked at his watch again. He had fifteen minutes to immerse himself in the convivial din before he headed for the Miami airport. Fifteen minutes in an open-air bar that had become more welcoming to him than his own living room. And if all that weren’t enough to draw him here, this place didn’t have ghosts. But he didn’t want to think about that right now. One of the waitresses was pulling the plug on the jukebox, cutting off a Motown classic. Before the protests could reach a rioting level, Pappy banged his hand on the bar.

“Behave yourselves,” Pappy warned. “The show’s about to begin.”

The show, Rick noted with pleasure, had begun in the late afternoon when the sun, ballooning with color, began drifting down to the water. Pappy’s patrons assembled for the last act. The grand finale. Chairs scraped the rough plank floor as they were turned toward the west rail. And then, as always, there was a moment of silence when everyone seemed to hold a collective breath. Rick never tired of the dazzling spectacle, a mixture of gaudy melodrama and timeless dignity.

As the show continued, good-natured laughter and the clink of glasses filled the balmy, salt scented air. Over in another corner Tweed MacNeil lifted his guitar, perched himself on a stool, and teased the audience with a few familiar notes.

“Do it to me, Tweed,” a local woman begged, and “Margaritaville” rolled out rich and mellow.

Miss Scarlett joined in, exclaiming in a gravelly voice, “Make a joyful noise!”

After a while Pappy showed up at Rick’s elbow and slipped a basket of conch fritters in front of him. He followed the neat presentation by thunking down two full mugs of beer, their foamy heads sloshing over the tops and onto the table. “Think I’ll join you.”

“I’m going to miss this, Pappy,” Rick said, palming the foam away from the table edge then flicking it over the rail.

“That’s right,” Pappy said, wiping his hands on his shorts before taking the chair next to Rick. “You’re flying up to Philadelphia tonight to see Angie’s folks. No wonder you’re dressed like… you’re dressed.” He strained for a look at Rick’s lap. “Didn’t get any on you, did I?”

Rick gave the old man an easy laugh. “No. I’ve been coming to this place long enough to know when to move out of the way.”

As Pappy’s eyes met his, the old man’s voice lost its bantering tone. “How long has it been since Angie –?”

“Five years,” he said quickly, reaching for the beer and taking a sip. Five years since he’d been coming to Pappy’s alone. Keeping his eyes straight ahead, he cleared his throat when he sensed Pappy was about to ask another question. Too soon he’d be bombarded by memories of Angie, and right now all he wanted was to enjoy his beer, Pappy’s atmosphere, and one more gaudy-awful sunset. He eased back in his chair and looked around him.

Several tourists had balanced their cameras on the west rail and were snapping away in a manic move to capture the moment. Rick watched, keenly aware of their need to have a piece of the place to take away with them. He blew softly through pursed lips, hoping to ease the strange sensations in his chest. This wasn’t his only sunset at Pappy’s. Still, in the pinkish-gold tint bathing Malabar Key, he was never more aware of the earth rolling closer to twilight. Rick shifted in his chair, releasing his stranglehold on the worn wooden armrests. What the hell was he so uptight about? Unless there was a major hurricane about to hit the Keys, Pappy’s Crab Shack would be here when he got back.

“My granddaughter’s coming for a visit.”

“I think you mentioned she was,” Rick said, turning to his friend with a grateful smile. He was relieved to talk about something else. “Don’t think I’ve met her. Have I?”

“Bryn? You’d remember Bryn if you met her. Come to think of it, she usually visits when you’re up in Philadelphia.” With a proud shake of his head, Pappy concluded, “She’s a pistol.”

“A pistol, huh?” Crossing his arms, he leaned them on the damp table. “Too bad I’ll miss her.”

Pappy lifted the front of his fisherman’s cap and scratched his head. “Another time,” he said, as the sun, accompanied by a trilling flourish from Tweed MacNeil’s guitar, disappeared below the horizon.

“Another time,” Rick said, reaching for his wallet. Pappy waved off Rick’s motion. “Put your money away. It’s on the house tonight.”

“Take care, then,” Rick said, knowing his grin was all the thank-you Pappy would accept.

A few minutes later he was headed north on U.S. Highway 1, fiddling with the satellite radio and already counting the days until he could return.


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