Authors: Dorothy Howell
HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE
PURSES AND POISON
SHOULDER BAGS AND SHOOTINGS
CLUTCHES AND CURSES
TOTE BAGS AND TOE TAGS
EVENING BAGS AND EXECUTIONS
BEACH BAGS AND BURGLARIES
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
With love to David, Stacy, Judy, Brian, and Seth
The author is extremely grateful for the love, support, and encouragement of many people. Some of them are: David Howell, Stacy Howell, Judith Branstetter, Brian Branstetter, Seth Branstetter, Martha Cooper, and William F. Wu, Ph.D.
Many thanks to Evan Marshall of the Evan Marshall Agency, and John Scognamiglio and the talented team at Kensington Books for all their hard work.
ou booked us on Alcatraz,” Bella said.
I gazed across the ocean at the island shrouded in fog—or maybe it was cloud cover, or haze, or smog. I don’t know. This was the California coast. It could have been anything.
“I didn’t book us on Alcatraz,” I told her.
“Is it Skull Island?” Bella asked.
I looked again at the outline of the stone hotel and the thick vegetation on the hills rising behind it. Yeah, okay, it did kind of look like Skull Island.
Bella and I were standing in the valet line outside the Rowan Resort welcome center. We’d just caravanned from Los Angeles, our friends Marcie and Sandy following us.
Two cars had been required for the trip because each of us had brought multiple suitcases, garment bags, totes, and duffels, all of which were absolutely necessary—I mean, jeez, we were staying a whole week.
We were all dressed in the latest resort wear. I had maxed out an impressive number of credit cards for the occasion.
I was willing to do more, of course.
magazine had declared the Sea Vixen—a gorgeous polka dot beach tote—the
bag of the season, and I absolutely had to have one. In the last few days I’d scoured every high-end shop in L.A. and hadn’t located one. It was majorly disappointing, but no way was I giving up the search.
Sandy jumped out of Marcie’s car, while Marcie sat behind the wheel fiddling with her cell phone.
“Wow, Haley, this is totally awesome,” Sandy said. “I can’t wait to get there!”
According to the itinerary provided by the travel agent, we would relax in the comfort of the VIP lounge until we were picked up by a limo and driven to a helicopter for the flight to our all-expense-paid vacation at one of the world’s most exclusive locations. The Rowan Resort catered to the every whim of A-list celebrities, royalty, and millionaires, offering privacy and seclusion amid ultra luxurious accommodations.
So you might be wondering why I, Haley Randolph, a part-time salesclerk at the I-don’t-tell-anyone-I-work-there Holt’s Department Store—although I’m quick to mention my way cool job as an event planner at L.A. Affairs—could afford such a fantastic vacation for not only myself but my three BFFs. Honestly, the whole thing was a bit hazy to me, too.
Not long ago I won a contest at Holt’s—long story—and the grand prize was a seven-day cruise. I’d also won yet another contest at Holt’s—again, long story—but the so-called prize required that I work at the Holt’s corporate office, something I had no interest in doing, so I’d put that whole thing on ignore.
Anyway, when I called the travel agency to ask about booking the cruise, I was told the prize had been upgraded to a week at the Rowan Resort, which was cooler than cool, of course, and that absolutely anything and everything was mine for the asking.
I had no idea why the prize had been changed, but I rolled with it.
Seeing no reason not to take advantage of the situation, I immediately asked my three BFFs to come with me. I mean, really, who else would I invite?
Marcie and I had been friends forever. We’re both twenty-four years old, but that’s where any resemblance ended. She was short and a blonde. I was a five-foot-nine brunette.
We could pass for a ventriloquist act.
I’d met Bella—standing side by side we looked like piano keys—and Sandy—a redhead whose mother had, apparently, identified a little too closely with Olivia Newton-John in
—about a year ago when I took the salesclerk job at Holt’s.
So you also might be wondering why I didn’t have a boyfriend to take with me on this fabulous vacation. Actually, I had a boyfriend. His name was Ty Cameron. Ty was the fifth generation in his family to run the chain of Holt’s Department Stores. He was handsome, smart, and generous, and he looked great in an Armani suit.
We broke up.
I’m not thinking about that now. I’m on vacation.
An army of valets swarmed around our cars—even though Marcie’s Toyota and my Honda weren’t the Jaguars, Porsches, and Mercedes they were used to seeing here at the welcome center—as a woman in a burgundy suit greeted us. A gold name tag that read M
was pinned to her lapel.
“Welcome,” she cooed. “How was your drive, Miss Randolph?”
I had no idea how she knew who I was. Maybe searching guest info on the Internet was part of the service.
“Is Brad Pitt here? I saw online that he was here,” Sandy said. “Oh my God, I’d die if I saw Brad Pitt.”
Millicent gave Sandy an indulgent smile, then ignored her comment and gestured toward the doors of the welcome center. “Your lounge is waiting.”
Bella cast another glance at the island. “We’ve got to fly to that place?”
“The Rowan Resort is a quick flight—”
Millicent stopped midsentence and did a double-take at Bella’s hair.
That happens a lot.
Bella’s goal was to be a hairdresser to the stars—she worked at Holt’s to save for beauty school—and she practiced on her own hair. Today, in keeping with the tropical theme of our vacation, she’d styled a dolphin atop her head.
Millicent recovered and said, “It’s a quick flight in one of our luxury helicopters.”
“There’s no bridge?” Bella asked.
Millicent displayed yet another indulgent smile. “The island is miles from the mainland. A bridge across that expanse of the Pacific Ocean is an engineering impossibility.”
“What about one of those ferry boats?” Bella asked.
“A ferry once took guests and family members back and forth, but that was many years ago,” Millicent explained. “Now our guests fly in using one of our helicopters.”
“That’s the only way to get on and off that island?” Bella asked.
Millicent gave her an I-give-excellent-customer-service-no-matter-what smile, then said, “A dock is located on the north side of the island where supply boats come in. But you needn’t concern yourself with them. Our security personnel are on duty at the dock and helipad, ensuring complete privacy during your stay.”
Millicent didn’t hang around to answer more questions. She headed inside, leaving us to follow.
“Haley, this is so cool. We’re going to see all kinds of celebrities, I just know it,” Sandy said as she hurried past me.
Bella threw another look at the island, then followed Sandy inside.
Marcie finally got out of her car, her gaze still glued to her cell phone.
“Did he text you?” I asked.
She looked up. “What? Oh. Oh, no. It’s—it’s something else.”
We walked inside the welcome center, a large room that looked as if somebody’s great-grandmother had decorated it. It was filled with statues, paintings, and if-you-weigh-more-than-eighty-pounds-don’t-sit-here furniture.
My Sea Vixen beach bag would have definitely brightened up the place.
Millicent held open a door on our right and said, “Your lounge.”
We filed inside. The dimly lit room was cool and quiet. Accent lighting beamed down on black-and-white photos mounted on the walls. Several seating groups were scattered around. A guy in a burgundy vest and tie stood behind a bar, and a cart filled with food was nearby.
A man and woman had claimed the comfy chairs closest to the bar. They were gray-haired, a little thick around the middle. Definitely not celebrities. More like a couple whose kids had treated them to the trip of a lifetime for their wedding anniversary.
Marcie, Sandy, Bella, and I sat down, and the bartender was on us immediately. He rolled the food cart over and took our drink orders.
“That’s him,” Marcie said, nodding toward one of the photos on the wall. “That’s Sidney Rowan. I saw his picture on the Internet. He bought the mansion and the island back in the day, and later it was turned into a hotel and resort.”
In the photo, which from the depicted clothing, hair, and makeup looked like it had been taken a few decades ago, Sidney Rowan had on a tuxedo and stood between two young women decked out in evening attire. He was tall, thin, and handsome in an old-school way, and kind of looked like that guy who danced all the time in those black-and-white movies.
“Yes, that’s right,” Millicent said, suddenly popping up in front of us. “Mr. Rowan amassed an empire that reached every corner of the globe, then purchased his home on the island for occasions when he needed to get away from it all.”
The bartender served our drinks, and we loaded our plates with delicacies from the buffet cart.
“Looks like he knew all the big stars back then,” Sandy said, pointing to the photographs.
“That’s Elizabeth Taylor,” Bella said. “How old is that guy?”
“He’s a recluse,” said the woman seated near the bar. “He hasn’t been seen in decades. Nobody knows if he’s even alive now.”
Millicent smiled her I’m-ignoring-that-comment smile and said, “The main structure was built in the thirties. After Mr. Rowan purchased it in the sixties, additions were made to accommodate his growing family, and guest bungalows were built for his many friends and business associates. Receiving an invitation to the island was highly prized.”
Millicent’s comments started to sound like a history lesson. I drifted off.
That happens a lot.
I got yanked back into reality when Marcie nudged me with her elbow.
“It’s been all over the Internet,” she whispered.
Something was all over the Internet?
“They’re trying to keep it quiet,” she said, “but bloggers and celebrity sites are making a big deal out of it.”
I’ve been kind of out of the loop for a while.
“It’s nothing,” Millicent said. She was definitely in backpedal mode. “Speculation and conjecture, unfortunately, broadcast by people who have no actual knowledge of the event or the facts.”
“That girl might be dead,” insisted the woman near the bar. “Nobody just disappears—not off of an island. The whole thing is suspicious and very mysterious. She might even have been murdered.”
“Was she a celebrity?” Sandy asked.
“Murdered?” Bella demanded. “A girl on that island was murdered?”
“Thank goodness it wasn’t Jennifer Aniston,” Sandy said. “I love Jennifer Aniston.”
“She was an employee,” Millicent said, as if that somehow made her possible death okay. “And nothing definite has been determined. She’s missing. That’s all. There’s no reason to suspect foul play.”
“The police were called in. The island was searched. They can’t find her,” the woman declared.
“There’s no reason to worry,” Millicent insisted. “This happened only yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” Bella echoed. She waved to the bartender. “Bring me a bourbon on the rocks—make it a double.”
“Does JLo know about this?” Sandy asked. “I read in
that she comes to the resort a lot.”
“There’s absolutely nothing to be alarmed about,” Millicent said.
“Nothing to be alarmed about?” the woman exclaimed. “Somebody may have died!”
“Enough!” Her husband pushed to his feet. “It’s nothing but gossip. I’m not listening to another word of this.”
“Get our limo,” he barked at Millicent. “Come along, Geraldine. We’re going to the island, and I don’t want to hear any more of this nonsense.”
Millicent scurried to a door at the rear of the room and flung it open. Sunlight poured inside.
“You ladies can remain here as long as you’d like,” she said. “Your limo will take you to the helicopter at your convenience.”
The couple disappeared out the door. Millicent followed.
“Is that true?” Bella asked. “Did somebody really go missing, maybe get murdered out there?”
“Nobody knows for sure,” Marcie said. “Right now it’s just a lot of speculation.”
“And it wasn’t a celebrity,” Sandy added. “Wow, I wonder if that old guy who owns the resort knows about this? I mean, if he’s not dead, too.”
I kept up on celebrity news, and nearly everybody on the planet knew there had been all kinds of rumors for years about Sidney Rowan. He’d been labeled an eccentric recluse who wielded power over his global, multibillion-dollar empire from a chalet in Switzerland, a Buddhist temple in Nepal, a penthouse in Las Vegas—all sorts of places. There had been reported sightings of him in Paris, Belize, Moscow, most everywhere. But none of them had been confirmed by a legitimate news source—nor had anyone proved whether the old geezer was really alive or dead.
“I don’t like hearing about dead people when I’m on vacay. Gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Bella said. “Plus, I’m not loving that whole stuck-on-an-island thing, especially with all those bushes and trees and snakes and big bugs, and who knows what else.”
“Are you sure you want to go to the resort?” I asked.
Bella stewed for a minute, then stood up.
“Yeah, I’ll go,” she said. “But if we get captured by some psycho jungle tribe like you see in the movies and they demand a virgin sacrifice, we’re in big trouble.”
Millicent came into the lounge, and I told her we were ready to leave. She darted outside again.
“Hang on a second,” I said as we headed for the door. “Remember our pact?”
The four of us formed a circle, and I could see that we were all thinking over the decision we’d made when we undertook this trip.
Things hadn’t been great for any of us, dating wise. Marcie had a first date with a guy who seemed great but hadn’t bothered to tweet, text, call, e-mail, or Facebook her since that night. Sandy’s tattoo artist boyfriend had left on sabbatical without her. Bella wasn’t all that anxious to get involved with a man, fearing he’d distract her from saving for beauty school. I, of course, had just broken up with my official boyfriend, Ty.
“No men, and no men-talk,” I said. “No complaining, no whining, no moaning about the men in our lives. This is a girl trip. We’re going to relax, have fun, enjoy ourselves, and not waste our emotion, time, and effort on them. Agreed?”
“You bet,” Marcie said.
“Sounds good to me,” Sandy said.
“I got no problem with it,” Bella said. “But I brought my lucky panties, just in case.”
Bella and Sandy headed out the door, but Marcie stayed put.