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A Kiss Gone Bad
By Jeff Abbott
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A death rocks the Gulf Coast town of Port Leo, Texas. Beach-bum-turned-judge Whit Mosley is summoned to a yacht where the black-sheep son of a senator lies dead. Was it suicide, fueled by a family tragedy? Or did an obsessed killer use the dead man as a pawn in a twisted game?
When Whit defies political pressure and conducts an inquest, he and Detective Claudia Salazar expose a nest of drug lords, con artists, and power-hungry sharks – all out for blood. With their careers — and their lives — at stake, Whit and Claudia must unearth a lethal trail of passion and deceit that lies buried not in the warm sands of Port Leo but in the icy recesses of the human heart.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Inside Man
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WHEN THE BLADE (as he secretly called himself) felt blue, he liked to relax behind the old splintery cabin, where his three Darlings were buried, and feel the power of their vanished lives pulse through him. It was quiet in the shade of the laurel oaks, and on lonely evenings the Blade pretended that his Darlings lived with him, with their cries and pleadings and wet, fearful eyes. His kingdom was small, twenty feet by twenty feet, and he ruled over only three subjects. But he ruled over them completely, life and body and soul.
Today, with his portable tape recorder playing a worn Beach Boys cassette and the clear harmony of "God Only Knows" drifting up into the oaks, he sat down between two of the unmarked graves: one of the mouthy carrot-topped girl from Louisiana who had fought so hard, the other the young woman from Brownsville who had cried the whole time and hardly deserved to be a Darling at all. He had selected a new Darling, a prime choice. But fear made his spit taste like smoke, because he had never wooed near Port Leo, much less wooed anyone… famous.
He had followed her for a daring ten minutes yesterday, sweat tickling his ribs, idling near her in the grocery store while she shopped with the big-shouldered boyfriend who had brought her to Port Leo. The Blade didn't like the boyfriend named Pete, not one bit, although he liked to think about all the mischief that Pete had been up to, starring in those nasty movies. The Blade had eavesdropped in the grocery, pretending to inspect the jug wines while the couple selected beer. She fancied Mexican beer, one that folks drank with a lime slice crammed down the neck of the bottle, and he wished he knew its taste; but Mama didn't let him drink. The Blade hoped they would talk about sex, being their vocation, but Pete and his Darling talked about grilling shrimp, the rainy autumn, how irritating his Godzilla-like ex-wife was.
His Darling's voice sounded edgy, and impatient. I'm tired of us sneaking around this town and you pissing off these idiots. Let's go to Houston to write your movie. I'm in big favor of Plan B. The hint that his Darling was making a movie, here in Port Leo, tightened his throat with desire. The boyfriend muttered no. Then she'd said, Let this crap with your brother go.
The sweet agony of being close to her flamed into fear. He'd grabbed a gallon of cheap cabernet in terror and bolted for the checkout lines, crowded with new winter Texans. He'd fled to the cereal aisle and shoved the jug behind the Cheerios and waited until his Darling and her boyfriend left the store before venturing out.
They hadn't seen him, known him.
Pete was writing a movie? He didn't think that the films those two did involved screenwriting. Didn't they just point the camera, clamber on the bed, and do their artful moaning and thrusting with all the sincerity of professional wrestlers?
Last week he had driven into Corpus Christi when he learned that his soon-to-be Darling did movies, of an extremely dubious sort. He frequented adult bookstores, driving the two hours to San Antonio or the thirty-odd miles to Corpus Christi, avoiding the few establishments that were too close to Port Leo along the ribbon of Highway 35, never going to any single store too often, paying with bills worn thin from lying under Mama's mattress. He never asked the clerks for recommendations—he didn't want to be remembered—and tried to fit in with the faceless men who wandered the too brightly lit aisles of the porn stores. He was unremarkable: just another lonely guy with eyes only for the bosomy models on the video covers.
His research uncovered that she had acted in only a few movies; she had directed far more. He almost felt proud of her. On his last jaunt, off the sale table, he bought a video she had headlined five years ago, her last acting job. She went by the name Velvet Mojo, an appellation the Blade found tasteless. The tape was called Going Postal. He suspected the post office would receive a satirical treatment. Perhaps even a deliciously violent treatment. But the movie disappointed. No violence. And while his Darling was versed in erotic tricks involving stamps that made his tongue go dry, her friend Pete performed with her, which seemed… wrong. The Blade watched them couple again and again until the world's edges grew soft and his mind napped. He heard Mama cursing. When he awoke, he felt bleary and offended. She deserved rest with the pleasure of his company.
He could save her from this sordidness. He would.
That little shady spot under the old bent oaks, it would be perfect for her. But winning her would be tricky. Wooing other Darlings and avoiding suspicion had been easy. Louisiana and Brownsville and Laredo were far away. She was within a mile or so. And he would have to wait. He could not truly enjoy her now, but he could in a few days. His hunger sharpened, and he imagined her lips, speckled with her own blood, tasted of copper and strawberries.
The Blade stood with resolve. He would make her his. But first he would have to make sure that no one cared if she was gone.
THE PHONE JARRED The Honorable Whit Mosley awake at ten-thirty at night, out of a dream that melded campaign signs, incomprehensible legal mumbo jumbo, and his stepmother in a sheer nightgown. He cussed quietly and grabbed the receiver.
"This is Judge Mosley," Whit croaked.
"This is Patrolman Bill Fox, Judge. Sorry to wake you, Y'Honor, but we got a dead body we need you to certify."
Whit sat up in bed. "Where?"
"At Golden Gulf Marina."
Whit blinked and stretched. Golden Gulf was the rich-boy marina in Port Leo—no boats under fifty feet need apply. "You got ID?"
"According to a driver's license his name is Peter James Hubble."
Coldness settled in his stomach. Oh, no way. No way.
Fox took his silence as an invitation for details. "A girl showed up at ten, found the fellow dead, shot in the mouth."
Well, this would make a splashy headline. All over the state of Texas.
"Okay, I'll be there in a few minutes." Whit got up out of bed, a book tumbling to the floor. He'd fallen asleep trying to charge his way through the Texas Civil Practice text, the world's surest cure for insomnia.
"I'm wondering if this guy might be related to Senator Hubble," Officer Fox mused.
You think, Sherlock? Whit wanted to say, but Fox was a smiling, amiable man and he said nothing. Fox was also a voter, and Whit needed every vote he could muster. "Pete's her son. He's been away for several years." Whit managed to keep his voice neutral. "If we're sure it's him, someone's got to call the senator."
"Yes, sir. I'll talk to the chief about it."
"Okay, thanks, Bill, I'll be there in a few." He hung up.
Call the senator? How about calling the dead guy's ex-wife? He picked the phone back up, started dialing Faith Hubble's number, and stopped. No point in freaking her out until he was sure it was Pete.
Please, don't let Faith have had anything to do with this.
Whit pulled on the wrinkled khaki shorts, a clean T-shirt, and the parrot-covered beach shirt he'd worn earlier in the day. He locked up the guesthouse behind him, hurried barefoot across the cement decking around the pool, and by the back door to the main house found a worn pair of Top-Siders in a pile of pool accessories. Through the windows Whit saw his father assembling a sandwich in the kitchen, no doubt needing nourishment for another bout of nuptial bliss. His father noticed him rooting for the shoes and opened the back door.
"Who called?" Babe Mosley asked. He wore a silk robe Hefner would have approved of.
"Dead body, Daddy," Whit answered.
"Ah," Babe said, watching Whit. "You're not wearing that, are you?"
"Why?" Whit stuck his feet into the old boat shoes. A hole at the front of one showed a sliver of his toenail.
"Well, son, there might be some voters there. A crowd. You ought to look more judicial. Maybe a suit."
"Daddy, I don't have time to change." Whit kept his voice in check. Thirty-two and still his father lectured him. "The corpse sure isn't gonna care what I'm wearing." He pushed past his father and pulled a beaten navy baseball cap that commemorated a Port Leo fishing tournament (PRAY FOR MARLINS) off a hat tree on the kitchen wall.
"See, this hat's all civic. I'm set," Whit said.
"Whit?" Irina called to him from his father's bedroom. He crossed the kitchen and glanced down the hall. She stood in the doorway, sporting a flouncy little peignoir that a hearty sneeze would send drifting. Living at home was a bad idea, and as soon as the election was over he was so out of here.
"Who rang, Whit?" Voice like warm caramel drizzled on skin.
"I got to go certify a dead body," he answered, not looking at her.
"Tell him to put on a suit," Babe hollered from the kitchen.
"A dead person? Who is it?" Eet, she said. Her Russian accent grew more feathery in sleepwear. She came from a cold climate. Didn't she believe in flannel?
"I don't know," he white-lied. If the son of the most powerful woman in the Texas Senate lay dead on a boat, Whit wasn't going to breathe one word before any official announcement.
His stepmother—twenty-five—gave him a smile that nipped the edges of his heart. "Shall I make you some coffee to take with you? A sandwich?"
Yeah, if he was going to work a corpse with a bullet blasting open its head, he wanted a snack. But he smiled, grateful for the kindness.
"No, thanks. Be back in a bit." Whit jingled his keys in his pocket.
"Be careful," Irina called as he stepped out onto the grand front porch. Good advice. The previous three nights he'd dreamed of Irina in the most unmotherly ways. Be careful, right. He might mumble Irina in his sleep, and Faith Hubble would justifiably castrate him with her bare nails.
The night sky glowed with far-off lightning. A freshly brewed storm hovered over the western Gulf of Mexico, scudding dark clouds over Port Leo. The October air blew heavy with the promise of rain.
Whit eased his Ford Explorer down the crushed-oyster-shell driveway. He sped down Evangeline Street, past the old Victorian homes, till he reached Main Street, then headed north, threading through downtown, toward the marina.
The Port Leo storefronts catering to the winter Texans and tourists stood dark. He sped past Port Leo Park and its attendant curves of grass and beach; past the dour, guano-grimed statue of St. Leo the Great, the town's namesake because of his reputed ability to calm storms; past a line of trendy galleries selling the wares of the town's many artists. The large shrimpers' fleet docked at the downtown marina bobbed at rest. A couple of nightclubs, with cheesy names like Pirate's Cove and Fresh Chances (for what, Whit wondered—to catch syphilis?), remained open, strobe lights flashing against the windows, but few cars were parked in the lot.
A red Porsche 911, blaring K.C. and The Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man," bulleted past him. In his rearview mirror, Whit saw the wink of the roadster's solitary taillight as it braked to swerve onto a side street. See you in traffic court soon, and I may double your fine for your music, Whit thought.
Main Street merged into Old Bay Road, which snaked alongside St. Leo Bay. A modest strip of grayish white beach, the color of dirty sugar, lay along the bay's rim, then there was the road, and then a line of rental cottages and retiree homes. Across the expanse of St. Leo Bay the jeweled lights of several pleasure boats cruised past. Whit lowered his window and breathed in the coastal perfume of dead fish, weathered wooden docks, and salt wind caught in high grass. A clump of signs along the road read ELECT BUDDY BEERE JUSTICE OF THE PEACE.
Campaigning sucked. Whit hated it. Election Day loomed just over two weeks away and Buddy, his esteemed opponent, had littered Port Leo with enough flyers and signs to endanger a forest. Whit had slapped several magnetic signs on his Explorer (Whit rechristened his car "the Vote Mobile") and erected twenty small post signs at major intersections around the county. He had not made time to phone, knock on doors, and shake hands for votes, hating the idea of begging strangers to put him in a job. If Buddy Beere—who Whit considered to have an IQ lower than a swarm of gnats, even a big swarm—defeated him, Whit's local career options included scooping ice cream, working a fishing boat, or frothing lattes at Irina's.
He drove past a huge sign asking him to REELECT LUCINDA HUBBLE TEXAS SENATE. The pictured Lucinda waved with her trademark big red hair and her bright blue eyeglasses, simultaneously evoking a kindly aunt and a confident leader.
If this dead guy was Pete Hubble, mess wouldn't begin to describe it.
Whit wheeled into the crushed-oyster-shell parking lot of Golden Gulf Marina. The main building was a faded sea-green with white trim, now ablaze in the spinning red-and-blues of the police cars. This death had drawn an array of authorities: Port Leo police, Encina County sheriff's deputies, Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife cruisers, and the highway patrol. It looked like a law-and-order convention. The Hubble name must've gotten mentioned over the police bands and all came running for a quick peek.
Whit cursed under his breath.
A small crowd of marina residents had been ousted from their boats and milled in the lot, dressed in robes and shorts, watching the proceedings in the glow of the mercury lights.
Whit parked and grabbed a notebook full of JP forms, a pair of latex gloves, and a flashlight from the death-scene kit he kept in his car. Fox, the patrolman who had summoned him, stood watch by a swath of yellow police tape and nodded.
"Hey there, Judge Mosley." Fox blinked at the tropical shirt and disheveled shorts. "Come from a party?"
"No." Whit grimaced. "Down there?" At the farthest tip of the docks, an officer climbed off a hefty cruiser.
"Yes, sir. Damn nice boat."
Whit ducked under the yellow police tape. Maybe I should have worn the suit.
WHIT HAD SERVED as justice of the peace for only six months, since the previous justice died in a car crash after several years in office. He'd accepted the appointment from the county commissioners, all cronies of his father's, because he needed Direction. Over the past five years since he'd shuffled back to Port Leo, his jobs shared only their brevity: photographing sports part-time for the paper, managing a defunct fifties-themed ice cream parlor with the ill-advised name of Shimmy Shimmy Shakes, and running a messenger service that never delivered profits.
His father measured success by oil leases, acreage, investment income, and wifely pulchritude, and believed in Direction (especially for English majors who had cost him fifty thousand dollars to educate at Tulane). Babe cajoled his buddies into appointing Whit to the remainder of the dead JP's term. Whit decided to give it a shot. Judge would make the most respectable addition to his crazy-quilt résumé.
Whit pored over justice court law but felt awkward and stupid every time he had to consult a book during a hearing, impatient litigants tapping their feet. He bought some dime-store eyeglasses to smarten his appearance and cut his blondish hair short but wore his beach-bum clothes (polos, shorts, and sandals) beneath the black sobriety of the robe. To Whit's surprise he liked the work: he adjudicated small claims and traffic court, which could be dishwater dull or raucously entertaining (depending on the cases), but he also issued arrest and search warrants, magistrated the arrested into jail, signed commitment orders for the insane, ordered autopsies, and conducted death and fire inquests.
With Encina County too small for a medical examiner of its own, Whit served as the first line of forensic defense. So far in his six months this unpleasant duty had reared itself four times: once with a car crash at the edge of the county, twice with drownings on St. Leo Bay, and once for an elderly suicide who, his insides gnawed with pancreatic cancer, washed several fistfuls of Valium down with a fifth of vodka while listening to Hank Williams CDs.
Another death, and the whole county would be watching. All the attention could make or break his anemic campaign. Great. Your lover's ex-husband is dead, and you get to rule on cause of death. Congratulations.
Whit headed past the long line of docked boats on the T-head, most shrouded in bright blue coverings. Weekend boaters from Corpus Christi or Houston owned these craft. A few folks lived on their boats full-time, retirees or trust-fund babies. Whit ducked under another banner of crime-scene tape taped right at the boat's stern.
"Hello, Honorable." Claudia Salazar, a Port Leo police detective, stood on the deck of Real Shame, watching him scale the ladder. A gust whipped her dark hair around her face, and she yanked it back over her ears. She looked decidedly more official than he did in her black slacks, white blouse, and a PLPD windbreaker.
"Hey," Whit said. "I heard this may be politically testy. No press yet?"
"We have a short grace period before they swarm, once it gets out that Senator Hubble's son is dead," Claudia said. "Get your quotes ready."
"Has anyone called the senator?"
"Delford is," she answered. Delford Spires was the longtime police chief in Port Leo. He had a full ruddy face and a natty mustache that made him look like a chunky catfish.
He followed Claudia across a pristine deck down to a living area and galley filled with clutter: a thick paperback propped open with a carton of Marlboros and an empty wineglass. On the floor a pizza box lay open with torn cheese and pepperoni glued inside. Two empty bottles of cheap cabernet stood on the coffee table. Each label had been peeled away from the bottles; little curls of paper dotted the floor. On one side of the den a series of windows faced the gunmetal waters of the bay. On each end, small stairs led to sleeping cabins. Claudia went to the aft stairs.
"Here's where he was found." She stepped aside so Whit could enter the tiny stateroom.
The dead man lay naked on the bed, lying on his back, arms and legs spread, the sourness of death-released waste scenting the close air.
"I haven't seen him in many years," Whit said. "But that's Pete Hubble." He did not add that Pete Hubble had skinny-dipped with Whit's older brothers and once you saw Pete naked you were unlikely to confuse him with someone else. "It might be best to get a formal ID from family or friends."
Eddie Gardner, another police department investigator, stood in the corner of the bedroom, snapping photos. An evidence-collection kit lay open at his feet.
"You were supposed to wait for Judge Mosley to get here," Claudia said.
"Sorry." Gardner shrugged. "Just taking some photos. I didn't disturb anything for the judge." Gardner made judge sound like dog turd. He wore his thinning hair pulled in a short ponytail, aiming for and missing the surfer dude look. He was a recent hire from Houston and had tried too hard to go coastal with the flowered shirts and baggy shorts.
"Why don't you get started on searching and cataloging the rest of the boat?" Claudia suggested in a patient tone. Gardner went up the stairs with his smirk.
"Houston know-it-all," Claudia muttered.
"Eddie's got to stop those public displays of affection for me," Whit said. He pulled on latex gloves and switched on an overhead light. A bit of bedsheet was wrapped awkwardly around Pete's upper torso, a gun loosely gripped in his right hand, his mouth a gaping hole. His eyelids stood at half-mast, rimmed with blood.
"This is awful," Whit said.
"Did you know him well?" Claudia asked.
"He was friends with a couple of my older brothers. I knew his brother Corey better than him."
Claudia cocked her head. "Corey. He went missing, didn't he?"
"Yeah. About fifteen years ago."
A hoarse voice called down to Claudia. "I'll be back in a minute," she said.
Whit probed—gingerly—Pete Hubble's throat for a pulse. Nothing, obviously. He poked the paling skin: cool but not cold, and rigor mortis had not yet begun.
The windows were shut in the cabin, but the boats at Golden Gulf were docked in neat succession. Surely someone would have heard the fatal shot. He raised the blinds on the windows. The two berths next to Real Shame were empty. On the other side was the open bay and the long pall of night.
Whit opened his notebook to a blank scene-of-death form. He heard more officers boarding the boat, into the galley and living area, Claudia greeting them, dividing responsibilities. Whit wrote: Oct 12, 10:45 P.M. Peter James Hubble, male, age 40, brown hair, brown eyes, six-six, around 220 pounds, nude except for gold chain with lion's head on it around neck, red-and-green dragon tattoo on right forearm, lying face up on bed, sheet wrapped partially around chest, Beretta 92 in right hand, bullet wound in mouth, blood spray on face.
Whit peered inside Pete's broken mouth, bringing his flashlight to bear on the damage. The tongue, the back teeth, the palate, the uvula, the smooth pink walls looked exploded. The back of the mouth was a gruesome tunnel boring to the brain. Pete had his lips wrapped neatly around the barrel when the gun went off.
"Ate the gun, didn't he?" Eddie Gardner asked conversationally. He had returned with his camera.
"Sheriff's deputies are helping Claudia, so you and I can get the body done." He spooled film into the camera, still smirking. "Love the shirt. Parrots are you."
Whit ignored the jab, leaning close to the gun. "Odd. The safety is on."
"I pulled the gun out of his mouth so I could engage the safety. Standard procedure." Gardner explained this in a tone usually reserved for addressing toddlers. "Wouldn't expect you to know."
Great. A Buddy Beere supporter. "Did you take a picture first, with the gun in his mouth?"
"No. Forgot. Just trying to secure the scene, Judge."
Whit wrote in his notebook: Gardner didn't take requisite pictures, mention THAT in the inquest report.
"So you knew this guy?" Gardner asked.
"There's a whole bunch of adult movie videos in a cabinet by the television. And this guy's picture is on some of the covers."
Whit stared at him. "Please be kidding."
Gardner grinned. "Not kidding at all. You could hold a blue film festival with all the porn up there." He pointed at the dead man's prodigious organ. "A horse would be jealous. Makes sense he might make some money off of that."
The son of a prominent state senator starring in porn films. The imagined headlines took a greasy turn in Whit's mind. He wondered if Faith knew.
He watched Eddie Gardner snap photos.
"Eddie," Whit said, "please photograph the gun. I'm going to need those for the inquest." Gardner took several shots of the pistol from different angles. Neither man spoke for a minute until Gardner finished the roll.
"You thinking suicide, Judge? Looks that way to me."
"Why?" Whit asked.
"Big-built guy, no signs of struggle. It's hard to stick a gun in the mouth of a guy this big."
At one corner of the bed stood a sleek video camera, mounted on a tripod, aimed at the bed. Gardner watched Whit examine the camera.
"Maybe he was shooting a home movie with that little gal out there and things got rough," Gardner said.
"Girl that found him. Looks like she's spent her last dime and got no place to go. Dirty, strung out." Gardner laughed. "She might have screamed bloody murder if she saw that"—he pointed at Pete—"coming at her."
"Maybe," Whit said. Gardner had all the appeal of head lice, but he had a point. Whit remembered a tidbit he'd read in a forensics book about bodily fluid residue. He carefully inspected the dead man's genitals with his latexed fingers; the penis appeared dry. There hadn't been immediate predeath sex, he bet, but the medical examiner in Corpus Christi could properly make that determination.
Gardner watched him probe the organ. "If it gets hard, yell."
"Don't worry. I will." Whit felt uneasy embarrassment again. No doubt Gardner would gossip back in the police station: Mosley felt up the dead guy, can you believe it?
Whit noticed a frame turned down on the bedside dresser, and he righted it. It was a photo of a young boy, on the verge of the teenage years, with a scattering of freckles and mischievous brown eyes. Hints of Pete Hubble lay in his face: the square jaw, the crinkled smile, the brown hair. Signs of Faith Hubble were the small ears, the slink of the raised eyebrow. It was an old photo of Sam Hubble, Pete and Faith's son. Sam was now sixteen, a bright kid Whit had always liked. He wondered how on earth the boy would take this news.
"The only suicide I've worked," Whit said, "the fellow turned every family picture to the wall before taking the big gulp."
"Another vote for suicide." Gardner loaded another roll of film. More flashes filled the room.
Still wearing his gloves, Whit flipped open the video camera's housing. No tape inside.
"Was there a videotape in here Claudia took?" he asked.
"Don't believe so."
"Did you take it?"
Gardner frowned. "Nope."
Whit shut the case. Discarded clothing lay piled in the corner of the room. Still wearing the gloves, Whit picked through the mound. In the pile were faded men's jeans, a cowboy belt still threaded through the loops; a white T-shirt; and men's black briefs that must have clinched the family jewels in a vise grip. Nestled with the shirt were a pair of cotton women's panties, decorated with little intertwining violets. Whit hooked the panties with one gloved finger and raised them toward Gardner.
Gardner glanced behind him to make sure Claudia Salazar hadn't returned to the room. "Ought to check to see if the girl's got her delicates. I'll volunteer."
"A hero in her darkest hour," Whit said. "What has the witness told you?"
- On Sale
- Apr 29, 2014
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Grand Central Publishing