The Black Squall
An excerpt from the new
by Lori Stone
.......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.
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
......."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!"
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
......."There weren't any
survivors, Dr. Pearson," he finally continued. "I'm
afraid that your father is... gone."
......."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
.......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
......."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
.......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.
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
.......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
......."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."
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
......."Is there anything
else?" I asked.
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."
......."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.
......."Your father and
uncle each had a safe deposit box."
......."As executrix, you
must inventory the contents of those boxes prior to filing the
probate audits with the court."
.......My head was beginning
......."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
......."Why not?" I
replied testily. "It would appear that I have little else
.......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
.......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.
Like what you've read? Head here
for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!
Please direct further comments and
inquiries about submissions to the fiction
editor, or check out this page.
tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man
that likes to talk."
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