Bobbing along in shallow water, occasionally plunging his head beneath the surface, Tom McCauley thought he remembered what it felt like being in the womb. He emerged from the churning Gulf with a gasp and a grin. Scrubbing saltwater from his eyes, he dug his toes into the sand, using the ocean’s energy to propel himself forward.
At 42, it was Tom’s first trip to the beach. Becca had spent half her childhood on this same strip of sand. “Twenty years ago, it was nothing but driftwood and seaweed,” she’d remarked on the trip down. “Now it’s 100-percent commercial. You have to sign on the dotted line just to get a tan.”
He spotted her on her chaise, about 10 yards from the waterline, 39 years old and sexy as hell, tanned the color of caramel, her long, languid limbs soaking up rays. Tom knew guys looked at her. You didn’t bring a woman like Becca to the beach without expecting to draw their attention. Tom chuckled. Good thing he wasn't the jealous type.
Not that he wouldn’t slam a guy through a window for taking it too far. Once these middle-aged dudes (and a few of the teenagers) got an eyeful of her fella, they gazed longingly elsewhere. A career cop, Tom was built like an athlete, with bulging biceps and strong, sturdy shoulders. Together, he and Becca made quite the sight: physical specimens born for the beach.
She waved to him lazily, barely lowering her paperback. (Becca did most of her reading on a tablet, but had enough experience to know a book made better beach reading.) He could tell by her careless grin that the book was just camouflage; she’d been dozing in the hot sun. Tom waved back, edging away from a circle of friends tossing a ball. At high noon, Orange Beach was filling up.
Tom tried switching off the cop part of his brain, but it was too much fun assigning ages, income sources and other characteristics to his fellow bathers. Most were sun-fried beachcombers who either lived here year-round or in states close enough to make regular visits possible. These folks trudged along, their noses chalk-white, eyes hidden behind impenetrable shades. They saw the Gulf as frequently as Tom saw pine trees and dirt roads. There were also plenty of teenagers, either escaping the drudgery of high school on Spring Break, or burning the parental credit card on a weekend getaway.
As to their potential for criminality, that was harder to guess. Most of these folks, so far as Tom could tell, probably lived regular lives, held regular jobs. They paid their mortgage and car notes. They were tall and thin, short and squat, old and young. No movie stars or runway models. Some of these men had no business going shirtless; some of their wives had no business in a bikini. All seemed to know how to work a beach. They aligned beneath parasols, clustered in tents, strolled, played frisbee, tossed footballs, or just absorbed the sun. He dunked his head back underwater, becoming one of them.
It was the third day of their impromptu "escape." Ten hours of driving from Little Rock had ended in Tom collapsing on a couch, with no interest in the beach. Becca had known not to push too hard, though to her, the beach was everything. Tom, however, needed to rest. The investigation was pushing him in directions neither of them had foreseen. He never knew, from one day to the next, what IA might hand down, who might open their mouth, or what the prosecutor might request. Then there was Mr. Bunn and all the trouble he stirred up. They had learned to take things on a daily basis.
Chief Purtle had recommended the R&R. He knew Tom wasn’t going anywhere -- not permanently, anyway -- but even the strongest officers have a breaking point. After the incident last week in the bullpen, Tom had obviously reached his.
“Get outta here,” Purtle had said, catching Tom in the parking lot. “I mean it. You can’t go on like this. No one can.”
Tom had protested, but to no avail. “It makes perfect sense for you to take a break,” Purtle had replied. “I got your back. Take Becca and go recharge the batteries.”
She required no convincing; they had dropped everything and hit the road three days later. Becca was as sick of the tension as anyone. An officer-involved shooting was nothing but trouble, even for the officer who didn’t actually pull the trigger. Tom had told his side of the story dozens of times; there was nothing to do but wait.
He pressed his feet down, feeling thousands of tiny shells needle his skin. The sheer amount of material on the sea bed amazed him. Last night, he and Becca had gone crab-hunting, wearing headlamps to illuminate their search. They’d come up with more shells than anything, but Becca had found one crab large enough to marvel over. Later, from the balcony, they had sipped margaritas and watched other hunters inspect the shore, their lamps flashing in the black expanse.
Becca returned to her book, her skin shiny with lotion. Tom drifted in the current. They were three years into a marriage that seemed to only get better. He figured if nothing else, he owed her this getaway. They needed to wash the shit off. More importantly, they --
A large wave clouted him on the neck, tossing him like a sock in a washing machine. He sucked in his breath, watching the white cap surge past him to break up on the shore.
“Wow!” he exclaimed.
The kid bobbing next to him grinned. "That happens, you know," he cracked.
They’d eaten out the past two days but tonight Becca decreed they would dine in. Tom knew what that usually meant. Since the troubles at work started, their sex life had hit the skids -- too much worry, not enough spare energy. He hoped Becca wanted the same things he did from this trip. Tom had been married once before; he had no intention of becoming a two-time loser.
The resort was filled with restaurants Becca loved, but tonight she wanted to grill steaks downstairs. Tom had spotted the communal grilling area on Day One, as they trundled their suitcases across the parking lot. “We’ll do a cookout one night,” he’d promised. Becca wasn’t one to forget.
After withdrawing from the white-hot beach, they retreated indoors, showered off and changed into “respectable” clothing (shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops). Tom let Becca drive, hitting all her favorite spots before dropping by the Neighborhood Market for the necessary ingredients. They returned home hours later, sweaty and exhausted from having too much fun.
To their surprise, they fell into each other’s arms and made love on the sofa, the first spontaneous act they'd performed in months.
The dam that had built up between them seemed to finally break.
Later, they poured drinks and set about preparing their meal. Tom tenderized the rib-eyes while Becca chopped carrots and squash. Tom splashed more wine into her glass, singing along to "Hotel California."
“I’ll fire up the grill,” Becca announced, snatching the lighter fluid and charcoal.
“Oh, no,” he replied, wiping his hands on a towel, “you might catch the damn building on fire."
“Okay, asshole,” she laughed, slapping his hand, “now I have to do it.”
“What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
“You can oil the veggies and change the playlist. We got Barry White.”
“Barry White blows.”
Becca sashayed toward the door, shaking her ass. “I hate to see you leave,” he called out, “but I love watching you go.”
She flipped him the bird with her free hand and went out.
He turned his attention to the chopping block. Outside the bay window, the sky acquired a purplish-orange hue as the sun burned its way down toward Japan. He fixed himself another drink.
After 15 minutes, he checked his watch, frowning. He heard the door swing open and shut.
“That took long enough,” he said, turning.
He saw his wife standing in the doorway looking pale, her eyes wide.
“There’s someone downstairs,” she said, her voice carefully neutral. “He wants to talk to you.”
Tom laid down his knife. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know. Some guy.”
He crossed the floor in three quick strides. Her eyes welled up.
“Baby, are you okay? Did he touch you?” He saw no signs of bruising.
“No.” She trembled as he placed his hands on her shoulders. “He just … talked to me, in the grilling area. He’s there waiting.”
Tom gently kissed her forehead. It was clammy and pale. “Okay. Does he know where we’re staying?”
“Well, he obviously knows we’re here, Tom!”
“I mean our floor number?”
“Yes, I’d say he probably does. Are you going to talk to him?”
He saw something flash in her eyes. “Yes.”
“Have you got a gun?”
“I won’t need it. Lock the door, don’t answer if anyone knocks. Keep your phone handy.” He jammed his iPhone in his pocket.
She paused, wiping tears. “Be careful. He’s … a large man.”
He grit his jaw and went out.
The ground-floor elevator opened into mudroom where sandy-wet bathers could drop their stuff and stomp their feet while waiting on the car to arrive. A pair of glass doors opened onto a concrete path leading to the garage. Tom glimpsed the beach as he swung right. He found the grilling area behind a privacy wall. There were five grills, for guest use only. Tom spotted Becca’s stuff on the ground. Anger flared in his chest. Looking up, he saw a tall man in a Harley Davidson T-shirt standing in the far corner.
Tom halted, fists clenched. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yeah, if you're McCauley.”
The man grinned. He shook a cigarette out of a pack and lit it. He had long hair and a shaggy beard. Tom saw two full sleeves of prison tats.
“What do you want?”
The man took a long drag. “We want you to stop what you’re doing.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean the IA investigation. Close your mouth, or suffer the consequences.”
“Who sent you?”
The man’s eyes hardened. “I think you know who.”
Tom nodded. “Well, you go back home and tell those guys nobody pushes me around.”
The man shrugged. “I guess we’ll just see about that.”
“Did you threaten my wife?”
“Is that what she told you? Oh, man. She came onto me.”
Tom coldly returned the grin. Tat Sleeves stood waiting. Tom turned his back and took three steps toward the elevator. He felt the blow coming.
The man’s fist went wide, connecting with the privacy wall. Tom heard a crack as his wrist snapped. Tom spun on his kneel, planted his feet, and drove his right fist into the man’s solar plexus. The man’s breath poofed out his mouth, and he wobbled unsteadily. Without pause, Tom used his right leg to sweep the guy’s feet out from under him. He landed hard on his tailbone.
Tom stood over him, trembling with rage. Tat Sleeves stared up with pain in his eyes. Tom picked up his cigarette and wagged it in his face.
“You tell Mr. Bunn,” he whispered, “that I’ll kill the next son of a bitch who fucks with my vacation.”
Tat Sleeves started to answer. Big mistake. Tom jammed the cigarette between his lips and clasped his jaws together, forcing it down.
They ordered pizza from a local delivery joint, steaks forgotten. Becca stretched her legs on the balcony, staring at the adjoining condominiums. Lit from within, the towers sparkled like vertical jewels. Toward the west, lightning rolled in silent sheets. Tom joined her, a cosmopolitan in one hand and a beer in the other. He handed her the cosmo.
“You shoulda seen that guy’s face when he choked on that Marlboro,” he said.
Becca laughed uproariously. “I wish you’d taken a video.”
“If I see him again, I will.”
He sat down next to her and sipped his beer. “You know,” he said, “it felt good to look my opponent in the eye and finally be able to do something with all this anger."
“I bet,” she replied, wagging one bare foot in the air. A salty breeze blew in, ruffling her bangs. “I just wish I hadn’t run into the guy.”
“Me, too,” Tom answered. “I’m sorry, honey.”
She reached for his hand. “Ah,” she said, “it goes with the territory. That's what love is, right?”
He gazed up at the stars and sipped his beer.