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The Black Squall
An excerpt from the new novel

by Lori Stone



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.......When I look back, it all seems kind of unreal. The murders, the car chase, the big con, the boat explosion. One day I'm living contentedly in Ohio, and the next afternoon I find myself in south Florida, running with the jet set, playing private eye, fighting off hoodlums and stealing just to stay alive. With a telephone call and a plane ride, I went from the tranquil life of a suburban professional to the random existence of an anxious fugitive.

.......It all started on the 12th, a Tuesday. My structured world had been spinning cozily along in the lazy, hazy, dog days of summer, and then everything changed, my entire life got rearranged, forever. I was minding my own business, tending pampered animals at my veterinary clinic, and looking forward to joining friends at an alfresco performance of the local Pops orchestra that evening. Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, timeless Gershwin show tunes, a medley of Scott Joplin ragtime. Some of my favorites. Streaks of platinum sunlight were lancing through cracks in the miniblinds, making the central air conditioner feel less effective than usual, and the mid-August swelter had reduced the chorus in the kennels to an occasional sharp yap. My attention was fixed on a fresh set of x-rays that were clipped to a fluorescent screen behind the broad teakwood desk that my husband, Peter, had given me to celebrate our second wedding anniversary, and the opening of my practice. The films provided full anterior and lateral views of the lower left foreleg of a three-year-old thoroughbred that had pulled up lame the day before. The problem was obvious, a condition called splints, and the treatment was simple. An injection, cold compresses, a tightly wound bandage, lots of rest, and the normally frisky colt would be jumping low rails in a month or so.

......."Dr. Pearson," barked my assistant's voice on the intercom, "there's a Mr. Rehm for you, on line two, from Florida."

......."Thank you, Angie," I replied, swiveling my lavender high-back chair to face the desk once again. "And while I have you, please tell Dr. LaRusso that I concur with his diagnosis of Ms. Poynor's gelding. Ask him to initiate a standard corticosteroid regimen as soon as convenient."

......."Oka --" came the truncated reply as she released the key too quickly. It was an annoying little habit that I had tried more than once to have her correct, with obvious lack of success.

.......I removed a cloisonné, clip-on earring-pierced earrings can be dangerous when working with animals-and picked up the lightweight cameo handset. The stylish little phone was of Italian design. They do wonderful things with plastics.

......."Hello, Mr. Rehm. What a pleasant surprise!"

......."Good afternoon, Dr. Pearson," he began. "I trust that you're well?"

.......The sun-soaked, Florida drawl on the other end of the line belonged to an attorney with my father's bank in Fort Lauderdale. I didn't know him all that well, but the strain in his voice was obvious.

......."I'm just fine. Thank you." I said as some dreadful premonition made a chill race down my spine.

......."How are things on the Mosquito Coast?"

......."Well, I'm afraid that I'm calling with some rather unpleasant news," he said. "There's been an accident, you see. A boating accident. Early this morning. Involving your uncle's cabin cruiser. There was an explosion of some sort, and a fire. The Coast Guard is investigating, of course. They haven't issued a formal statement yet, but in a brief conversation with their Public Relations Officer twenty minutes ago I learned that the Search & Rescue divers have recovered sufficient evidence to confirm that your father was aboard."

.......He took a long, ragged breath, then cleared an obviously dry throat. The suspense was unbearable.

......."There weren't any survivors, Dr. Pearson," he finally continued. "I'm afraid that your father is... gone."

......."Dad's dead?"

......."It would appear so. I'm terribly sorry."

......."And Uncle Bud?"

......."I'm afraid that he's gone as well." The lawyer's voice was choked with emotion. "I don't know any more than that, and I'd prefer not to speculate. We've requested that the Coast Guard and Medical Examiner fax copies of their reports to the bank as soon as possible. We'll know more tomorrow. I assume that you'll be coming down to make the arrangements. When can I expect to see you?"

.......So I dropped everything, of course, left Dr. LaRusso in charge of the clinic, and caught the earlybird flight from Youngstown at 6:03 the next morning-not the sanitized, soporific boredom of jet travel, but real flying on a nineteen-seat Air Midwest Beech 1900 commuter. Its twin Garrett turboprop engines alternately hummed and roared as they clawed their way through the rain squalls that were troubling the upper Allegheny Plateau, and we flew so low over the iron gray ribbon of the Mahoning River that I could actually see the fruited orchards as we hedgehopped past New Castle and Beaver Falls. Then, after switching planes in Pittsburgh, I suffered a leg-cramping US Airways MD80 down to Lauderdale. I spent most of that time staring at puffy Stratus clouds, floating through wispy memories, and studying my reflection in the double-pane Lexan window, searching for echoes of Dad in my golden hair and Nordic features, or of Mom in my slender frame and level mouth. But try as I might, I couldn't find even a trace of their strength. Not then, anyway. I felt like a frightened little girl, all cold and hollow inside, and I flipped my compact mirror open over and over again to inspect every molecule of makeup. It was pristine, perfect, every time I looked. But cosmetics couldn't hide the tension in my tight-pressed lips, or the fact that my pewter eyes had dulled to ash. And I wept when I remembered that Uncle Bud used to call me handsome.

****

.......A split second after the big jet's tires thump-squealed on the runway, the reverse thrust deflectors flared on the engine exhausts, pitching me forward in my seat. Fighting the momentum, I pushed myself back into the narrow burlap cushion, pinched the bridge of my nose and yawned hard to break the residual pressure in my eustachian tubes, until my ears finally popped. Then, as soon as the sleek, aluminum Boeing came to a halt, I watched in wonder as the other passengers jumped to their feet in time-honored tradition, so that they could all stand still in cramped procession for another five or ten minutes. They never cease to amaze me. Lemmings, every one. Eventually, there came the mad stampede up the jetway, and the rude biological shock of Florida's summer heat: 103 degrees, 98 percent humidity. The terminal was somewhat cooler, but not a great deal more inviting, for the nape of my neck started itching, and that always means trouble. Somewhere, someone was watching me. The anonymous stalker made me feel menaced, hunted, so I hurried on my way. Little did I suspect that I'd soon be running for my life.

.......Next to television, airport terminals have become the great cultural levelers of our age. Atlantic or Pacific, north or south, they are all built to the same rigid specifications; of concrete slabs, exposed steel beams, acoustical tile ceilings, recessed lights, featureless carpets, and endlessly boring cattle chutes of perpetually exhaust-streaked glass. If you travel regularly, as I did, lecturing on equine gastroenterology, you soon discover that one terminal is much like any other. Regional flavorings have been assiduously purged by the architects of mass culture. Geographical cues have been carefully erased by the scions of globalism. A terminal punctuated by IHOP, Pizza Hut, two newsstands, three bars and a video arcade can be found anywhere on the continent. In fact, it is. It's the same thing everywhere you go. And the passengers in their perpetual hurry to stand in unmoving lines don't give you a clue. There are ten-gallon Stetson hats in Portland, Rastafarians in Duluth.

.......The baggage claim area was crowded with sullen, steamy passengers, and I found that I really didn't want to be the self-sufficient feminist. I didn't want to elbow my way through the intransigent mob, and I had absolutely no desire to assert my independence by shouldering heavy luggage. Instead, I wanted to be pampered. I wanted to be cared for. So I caught the eye of a skycap, gave him my yellow FLL claim stubs, and asked him to meet me at the curb. A spotless Chevy Suburban from the Riverside Hotel was waiting for me there, its engine idling quietly, the air conditioner excreting a lazy stream of water which dribbled across the tarmac to the gutter. But as I made my way toward the Chevy a stringy-haired young man in faded bluejeans and engineer boots banged into me at full gallop. I saw the glint of stainless steel as he whipped a butterfly knife open and slashed my shoulder bag strap, then disappeared into the crowd.

.......The Suburban's Hispanic chauffeur tumbled out of the driver's seat. "Madre mio! Are you o-chay, Miss?"

......."I'm fine, just fine," I lied, rubbing my undamaged shoulder, and trying to steady my knees.

......."I'll call the policia!" he yelled in indignation.

......."No," I insisted. "Don't bother. All he got was a cheap canvas bag, a bagel and copy of Ms. Let's just go, shall we?"

.......I wanted to get as far away from there as possible.

.......The chauffeur opened the side door for me, with a sweeping, solicitous flourish, and I gave three dollars to the skycap before climbing into the chilled luxury of crushed velour and tinted glass. Seconds later my luggage was loaded in the back, the tail gate bumped shut, and the van pulled smoothly away.

.......Coconut palm trees, multicolored stucco, and Spanish language business signs flitted by the windows as we drifted into town. I was the only passenger, so I asked the driver to swing down Seabreeze Boulevard, across the Brooks Memorial Causeway, and past the enormous yacht basin where Dad and Uncle Bud always kept their boats; but in the endless confusion of fly bridges, fishing poles, masts, rigging and antennas, I didn't see a single familiar thing.

.......So I checked in at the Riverside-it is a charmingly dignified hotel offering old world hospitality, warmth and elegance-and after the porter showed me how to open the drapes and turn on the bathroom light, I sat on the divan and kicked off my shoes. My knees still hadn't stopped shaking after the purse-snatching incident at the airport, so I pulled my ankles up underneath me to calm my legs, closed my eyes tight, and let my mind drift in a whirl of subjective reflection.

.......Somehow, none of it rang true. Dad and Uncle Bud were dead, or so I'd been told, and the very thought of it made me feel nauseous. I remembered that I had just sat there in my office for the longest time after Carl Rehm had hung up, stunned and silent, trying to fathom the imponderables of eternity, listening to the ghostly quiet of a dead telephone line. Then the earpiece crackled briefly, the dreadful smoothness of the dial tone returned, cybernetic life was restored, and I struggled through the swirling fogs of confusion to full consciousness. Yet the world was suddenly different, frightfully strange. It was smaller, less courageous, less virile. It was lonely. It was empty.

.......I remembered reaching out to touch the shiny brass nameplate on my desk. Dad had presented it to me right after I'd graduated from Ohio State's School of Veterinary Medicine. He'd been so very proud of me that carefree Saturday morning. It had shown all over his face. Tough old salt though he was, tears of joy had actually fallen from his gray, weatherworn eyes, and for the first time I had told him that I loved him. That had been five years ago. A lifetime ago.

......."There I am," I'd heard myself mutter as I picked up the nameplate, and held it like a priceless jewel. "There I am, memorialized for all time in carefully etched metallic letters, filled with black enamel, and burnished to a fare-the-well. Dr. Jean Margaret Pearson, D.V.M. And now I can add a few more lines to complete this drab résumé. Twenty-nine. Widowed. Orphaned."

.......I heaved a painful sigh, pulled myself up from that bitter reverie, and changed out of my travel clothes into a simple black sheath and low heels. That's when I noticed that the tiny red message light on the bedside telephone was blinking.

......."Hello, Dr. Pearson," said the digital recording. "It's Carl Rehm. Welcome to Fort Lauderdale. I'm sorry that you've had to come on such unpleasant business. I'm calling to confirm our appointment. I have prepared a few papers for your signature, and I've received a faxed report from the Medical Examiner. If you feel up to it after your flight, please drop by my office this afternoon, anytime after two. At your convenience, of course."

.......As he'd hung up, the recorder had caught Rehm saying, "I hate those damned voice mail machines." Then the phone clicked, twice.

****

.......Though presenting the impression of stolid independence, Carl Rehm's legal firm was a wholly owned subsidiary of the bank. Thus, the offices of Marhead, Guyler, Rehm and Carp were on the twenty-first floor of one of those tall, mirrored monstrosities that define North America's postmodern cityscapes, and make you wonder what all of those conservative financiers are doing that they don't want people looking in on them. His executive secretary, Ms. Euladine Varga, showed me to the inner sanctum as soon as I arrived, and Rehm ushered me to a teal wing chair at the head of an oversized butler's table. The atmosphere was thick with elaborately structured pomposity-English walnut paneling, a Jacob Mallord William Turner watercolor, an intricate Kermanshah rug over antique red oak flooring, Shang dynasty bronzes, nicotine-stained meerschaum pipes in a scalloped delft rack, and oodles of smug self-satisfaction.

......."Would you care for something to drink?" asked Rehm.

......."Perrier over ice would be fine," I replied.

......."Certainly," he said, signaling to Ms. Varga. "I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am about all this."

.......Rehm was a slight, fiftyish, balding man, who spent way too much time indoors. His freckled skin was almost pasty, his hands flacid. He peered over the half lenses of gold-rimmed reading glasses, pushed a pro forma letter across the little table, and handed me his personal Waterman fountain pen. I reviewed the letter carefully, and signed it in dark blue ink, establishing my claim to act as the executrix of Dad's estate. Then came the first surprise.

......."As meticulous as your uncle was concerning matters legal and financial," Rehm said, "he made no recommendation in his will regarding the appointment of a contingent executor. He had stipulated that your father administer his estate, but that, unfortunately, is no longer practicable. An officer of the bank's Trust Department could step in to fill the void, of course, but such arrangements are somewhat impersonal, and rather costly to the heirs. By law, three percent of the estate's established net value goes to the executors as compensation for services, you see. Therefore, I have discussed the matter with Judge Holloway, and he has agreed to ratify a petition from you, should you choose to submit one."

.......I just stared at him blankly.

......."Will you consider assuming this additional responsibility?" asked Rehm. He pushed another paper across the table in front of me. "It would mean arranging for you uncle's memorial as well."

......."Yes, of course," I agreed. "Dad and Uncle Bud were the closest of friends. A shared funeral would seem particularly appropriate under the circumstances."

.......I gripped the fat Waterman pen once again, and the scratching of the 24K gold nib as it looped across the linen paper brought it all home like a thunderclap. Dad and Uncle Bud were actually dead. I felt the sudden heat of tears welling up in my eyes, but before I could reach for my purse Rehm produced a big box of Kleenex with practiced efficiency. Then Ms. Varga placed a small, open bottle of Perrier, and a crystal tumbler filled with quartermoon ice cubes, on crisp paper napkins in front of me. The napkins were neatly embossed with a Mylar impression of the bank's logo.

.......Rehm waited patiently for my sniffles to subside, and then handed me a stack of color-coded folders.

......."The dark blue file contains a copy of your father's last will and testament," he explained, "and the light blue file has copies of stamped and sealed certificates of death. The dark and light green folders hold your uncle Bud's will and certificates, respectively. These will be useful when applying for life insurance and annuity disbursements, real estate transferals, boat and vehicle title changes, veterans benefits and the like. You'll want to review all of these documents at your leisure, of course, but you'll be interested to learn that you are named as the sole beneficiary of your father's estate, and as the primary beneficiary of your uncle's."

......."Uncle Bud's?"

......."Yes. Evidently, your uncle had no other family. Your father was listed as the principal beneficiary of the estate, but that point is now moot, so everything will go to you, with the exception of a few odd mementos that your uncle intended to leave to a friend here and there. However, since he resided aboard his cruiser it must be assumed that most of those things are irretrievably lost."

......."And the red folder?"

......."It contains copies of the Medical Examiner's preliminary reports on the post mortem examinations. I'm not at all certain that I should have had them faxed here. The certificates of death will prove quite sufficient for your needs."

......."Is there something wrong with the M.E.'s reports?"

......."No," Rehm hedged. "There's nothing wrong with them, per se. They are quite professional, and thorough. It's just that they're so detailed. I would not recommend that you actually read them."

......."I understand. But there is one question that I feel compelled to ask. Are the authorities absolutely certain that the bodies found on the boat were Dad's and Uncle Bud's?"

......."It is a foregone conclusion. A pump attendant at Pier 66 observed your father and uncle leaving the gas dock together, aboard your uncle's cruiser, and the accident happened approximately thirty minutes thereafter. I spoke with the Medical Examiner about the identifications this morning. They were made on the basis of general physical characteristics, using drivers' license information in the data bank at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Additionally, to provide additional confirmation, she has contacted the appropriate dental surgeons and physicians, requested various medical records, and will compare specific histories, dental and skeletal x-rays to conclude the forensic analysis."

......."And did they ascertain the cause of the fire?"

.......Rehm reached for his pen and avoided my eyes.

......."The Medical Examiner has listed the deaths as accidental," he said. "It is the Coast Guard's responsibility to determine the precise cause of the fire, and they haven't returned our call as yet. However, your uncle's boat was rather old, and presumably not in the best repair. A Coast Guard investigator asked the bank about it, so I queried the computer files because your uncle had his cabin cruiser insured through our brokerage division. There was nothing unusual. Standard marine coverage. Let me see. I have the notes here somewhere. Yes. A thirty-one-foot Rawson cabin cruiser. Air conditioned. Recording fathometer. New Raytheon radar, GPS chartplotter, autopilot, and VHF/SSB radios. Two gasoline engines. Twin fuel tanks. Now, gasoline engines can be terribly dangerous, Dr. Pearson, because a gallon of gasoline has the same explosive force as ten sticks of dynamite. It is extremely volatile stuff. We have several gasoline explosions every year along the coast. If a fuel tank or line get leaky, or if the bilge isn't properly ventilated, a boat can blow up like a bomb."

.......There was a moment of absolute silence as I imagined what the end must have been like, and the horror of it made me shudder involuntarily.

......."There is also this," Rehm continued as he handed me a white folder.

.......It contained a single piece of creamy bank stationery, listing the name of a local mortuary, and the name of another, thoroughly ambiguous corporation.

......."These are two of the very finest firms in town," he said by way of explanation. "Stanek's is a respected and reasonably priced funeral home. They offer compassionate, traditional services, and they are able to provide you with their best parlor. I am certain that you will find their facilities to be more than satisfactory. On the other hand, Ebb Tide Inc. is an exceedingly discreet concern, which operates a state-of-the-art crematorium just west of Coral Springs. Given the nature of yesterday morning's accident... that is to say, the condition of the remains..." His voice trailed down to a guttural whisper.

.......I nodded in agreement once again.

......."Is there anything else?" I asked.

......."Just this," he said. "Now that your father's and uncle's identities have been officially confirmed, followup stories about the accident will air on tonight's television newscasts. Also, Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald will run feature articles and stock obituaries in the morning papers. There is no way to avoid it. Boating fatalities are big news along the coast. So I decided to capitalize on the publicity. I took the liberty of having Ms. Varga inform the media that the family will hold calling hours at Stanek's tomorrow evening, and that a memorial service would be held the following day."

......."So soon?"

......."Well, you see," he postured, avoiding my real question while staring at his shoes, "the crematorium operates on a very limited schedule; only two nights per week, and then only between the hours of one a.m. and dawn. South Florida has a large, retired Jewish population, you see, and the sight of crematory smoke is, well, quite undesirable. It's an extremely sensitive issue for the community, as I'm sure you can understand. At any rate, since the remains are utterly unviewable, I took it upon myself to have them scheduled for cremation this evening."

......."You did what?!"

......."The next date of cremation is four days away," he explained defensively. "I was merely trying to expedite matters-to be helpful, that is-so that you can complete your obligations and return home as soon as possible. Of course, you are absolutely free to alter these arrangements if you wish, but I'd need to know that now in order to alert the media."

.......I just sat there, angry, but silent. Everything was spinning out of control. Events were moving too fast, too impersonally, as though they were happening to someone else, not to me, and I could feel my anxiety growing.

......."There's one other detail," he continued.

......."What's that?"

......."Your father and uncle each had a safe deposit box."

......."And?"

......."As executrix, you must inventory the contents of those boxes prior to filing the probate audits with the court."

.......My head was beginning to ache.

......."If you'd like," he offered, "we could compile the inventories tomorrow morning. I'll be more than happy to assist you, of course. Would ten o'clock be convenient?"

......."Why not?" I replied testily. "It would appear that I have little else to do."

.......My petulance was showing, and I really didn't care.

......."Tell me, Mr. Rehm. What of my own account?"

......."Oh, yes, of course. I'm terribly sorry. I looked into that this morning. I should have mentioned it earlier. As you know, your father established a restricted trust some years ago, for the purpose of funding your education and appropriate related expenses. Both he and your uncle were named as trustees. By law, the bank will now assume those duties. However, one condition of the instrument dictates that the trust be dissolved, with all principal and accrued interest being delivered directly to you, upon the attainment of your thirtieth birthday. That will be next April, I believe. You will find a copy of the trust agreement, along with a current statement of balance, in the orange folder. The current balance is inconsequential, but when you study your father's will, you'll notice a codicil which directs that all liquitable assets be transferred to your trust fund in the event of his death. This will have the effect of obviating certain estate and inheritance tax liabilities. In the case of securities, state and federal capital gains taxes may also be avoided. We will request that the Internal Revenue Service draft a letter of determination, establishing whether or not we can transfer your uncle's liquid assets into your father's estate prior to transferring your father's estate into your trust. It is an arcane and somewhat convoluted point, based on the legal theory that your uncle probably predeceased your father by a microsecond, but the potential reduction in tax liabilities could be highly significant. I have an accountant and tax law specialist working on it now."

.......There was a long, awkward pause in the discussion, and then he asked, "Is there any other way in which I can be of service?"

......."As a matter of fact, yes. Would you please send all of these files to my attention at the Riverside Hotel? They're rather bulky, and I'd prefer not to carry them around with me."

......."Of course. I'll have them delivered by messenger first thing in the morning. If there is anything else that I can do, please don't hesitate to let me know."

......."Oh, I think that you've done quite enough already," I said before I could stop myself.

.......I was more than a little upset, but if Rehm was stung by my outburst, he didn't let it show. He merely thanked me and stood up, ending the meeting.

.......We said all of the obligatory parting words on the way to the elevator, and before I knew it the big doors thumped shut in my face. I pushed the plastic L button, enjoyed a smooth, uninterrupted descent, and it gave me a moment to think.

.......Was I being paranoid, or was something out of kilter? A virtual stranger had just scheduled the funerals of my father and uncle without even asking my opinion. Was that helpful and supportive, or highhanded and presumptuous? I wasn't sure, but I didn't like it. I didn't like it one bit. It made me feel manipulated, abused, and more than a little off balance. Was my wounded sense of ego appropriate, or had the purse-snatching incident simply rattled my cage? And was it my imagination, or had Dad's attorney just given me the bum's rush?.

.......The elevator slowed to a stop, and as the burnished steel doors swished open the evening sun blinded me. Carl Rehm's north-facing office had been cool, and relatively dark, but the lobby of this temple of financial chicanery was lined with twenty-foot-high glass curtain walls, and polished pink granite covered every sizzling surface. It was like stepping into the nucleus of a monstrous solar oven. Then, while fumbling in my purse for my sunglasses, a gigantic, hulking darkness overshadowed me...

End of Chapter 1 of The Black Squall,
Published by iUniverse. Copyright (c) 2001 by Lori Stone



Holding degrees in Literature and Education, Lori Stone is a critic, writer and dog breeder who enjoys snorkeling, swimming, rafting, fly fishing, horseback riding (Hey! There she goes!) and reading. In fact, she says, "I grew up in a house filled with books. Theology, history and poetry were mainstays, but my father also kept an enormous collection of pulp fiction. Dashiell Hammet, Mickey Spillane, Alistair MacLean and John D. MacDonald were among his favorites, and they became a passion of mine as well."

Ms. Stone is a devotee of la vida loca, and describes herself as eclectic. She loves Lebanese food, Caribbean music, French wines, Thai silk, African rugs and Pueblo pottery. She is an inveterate traveler, and makes her home between Toronto and Ft. Myers, Florida.

The Black Squall, which introduces Jean Pearson, is her first novel.

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