Sample first 3 chapters

The first novel in the Trent Jones series, WHO KILLED 20G?





Chapter 1



My smug rival launched the deathblow: a sizzling 2-iron second shot that flew long and true toward the flagstick on the sixteenth green. The ball landed as softly as a damp sock within inches of the hole. It was all over but the pouting at Resurrection Bay Golf Club.
I applauded the quintessential tap-in eagle, mostly because it had been unnecessary. A birdie would have ended the match on that uphill par 5, but that would have been dull…for His Smugness.
I took the remaining hundred-dollar bills out of my wallet and waited by my cart. Three days of poor decisions on the card table, too much scotch, and not many birdies painted a harsh self-portrait. I suppose I could have just handed Randy Andrews my $5,000 when I first met him, but why spoil the fun? 
Grover R. Andrews, to be precise. He’d flown from Seattle into Jacksonville, Florida, for a few days of match play on Fleming Island with 7-Stud as a chaser. He’d be returning west with nearly $4,700, and most of my self-respect.
Andrews appeared to be in his late thirties, and even in a strong wind, each hair on his puffed-up head stayed in place, as if shellacked. I think he sucked in his cheeks to project a lean and hungry look, and maybe tone down his smirk.
“That was a nice one, wasn’t it, Jones?” Andrews said when he grabbed the bills in my hand. “Not your day, is it?”
Andrews strutted to his cart and drove to the green to retrieve his golf ball.  I didn’t move. I sat in my cart and waited for this pest to disappear, but he wasn’t about to leave the stage without a curtain call.
Andrews retrieved his ball, turned toward me some two hundred yards away, and took a long bow. When Andrews waved as he marched off the putting surface, I imagined a mammoth bird of prey swooping down and hauling him to its carnivorous nest.
Oddly enough, the sky remained vacant of famished winged creatures. Reality demanded stronger measures, and I chose a reliable soothing mechanism, my flask of Johnny Walker. I drained the final drops, and that meant the time had come to return to the parking lot, pack up the clubs, restock the flask, and figure out what to do with the three hundred bucks that were still mine.
I pressed the cart’s accelerator, but nothing happened. I switched the lever back and forth from forward to reverse. Sometimes those controls would stick. Not this time. The battery had died. Perfect. Maybe the girl in the beverage cart would come by. I could use a ride and a cold one.
I unstrapped my golf bag from the cart and started walking up the long hill in front of me on a hot, muggy, late-March afternoon. Sweat soon poured out of me and gushed into my eyes. I used my North Carolina Tar Heels golf towel to dry off and resumed the journey to the parking lot. 
 Twenty-five minutes later I stood in front of my black Prelude, which I’d left in the first row near the clubhouse. My shirt was drenched, and I needed air conditioning. I put the golf bag down and groped for the car keys in my shorts. I found nothing but golf tees and change, and while fighting off the first phase of panic, I checked all of the pockets in the golf bag, but the keys weren’t there, either. Sweat burned my eyes again, and for good measure, I bit my tongue. Within moments, the flavor of stale penny invaded my mouth, while my tongue throbbed and continued to trickle blood.
For a dark moment I feared I’d lost the keys somewhere on the golf course. The drama in my mouth distracted me from the panic button that I could have easily pushed in less painful circumstances. It felt like I’d bitten my tongue in half. To view the damage, I used the driver’s side window as a mirror and glanced at the dashboard. 
The car keys were still in the ignition. What a nuisance – but not a problem. I carry a small pin that can be used to pick most locks. Doors. Handcuffs. Cars. A friend of mine in New York City taught me a variety of emergency skills, and though I’d been skeptical at the time, those lessons have saved me time and money. I pushed the pin into the lock on the driver’s side door as Andrews came out of the snack bar. 
“Boosting a car, Jones?” Andrews snickered as he walked toward me. “It’s not your week. You could at least choose a car from this century.” He waved a business card at me and then stuck it in the top pouch of my golf bag. “Call me any time for a rematch.”
Can’t say I’d turn that opportunity down. Andrews had rented a gold Cadillac, and he made sure I noticed him one final time before he left Resurrection Bay.
It took me just a few seconds to unlock the door and pop the hood. I looked into the radiator, and it was low. This had been a problem the last 100,000 miles. Okay, it was an old car. But I loved it. Couldn’t afford to change. So I kept a five-gallon gas can full of water to keep filling the radiator, which needed fluid every two or three thousand miles. I poured in some water, and wished I had a cold bottle for me.
I put the clubs in the trunk and looked for a fifth of Johnny Walker, which I found, but for some reason, it was bone dry. A lightning bolt of clarity hit me. If you’re the only one playing Indian Poker, by the time you look in the mirror, it’s too late.
***
Dread ruled the first hundred miles as I drove north on I-95. One universal trump card remained at my disposal, but there was a rub. I’d relied on this bailout too many times already. It was worse than calling family. I needed a favor from my closest friend. Again.
To brace myself for the journey and next conversation, I bought a six-pack of beer near the Florida line. Three Buds later, I called Frank in New York on my cell when I approached Savannah. His secretary put me on hold, and a few miles passed before he came on the line.
"What happened?" Frank asked. “How much did you lose? Are you sober?”
My silence said it best.
“Damn it,” Frank said. “You blew it all in a week. Don’t you get sick of that shit?”
“Can’t blame you a bit.”
“My fault,” Frank insisted. “I arranged that missing daughter case for you. It was a snap, right?”
“Found her in St. Augustine,” I said. “Her mother gave me a bonus. One thing led to another.”
“So cash is the problem? Where are you?”
“Just passed Savannah.”
“Okay. That’s what you need to hear, right? Okay, you can stay at Tranquility.”
He hung up before I could say thanks, and he had every right to be pissed. A couple of weeks ago I’d tapped out and called Frank from Orlando. I’d wanted to borrow a couple of hundred bucks, but Frank had found a better answer. One of his clients lived in Jacksonville with a fifteen-year-old daughter who craved Harleys, older guys with tattoos, and tequila. Frank’s client didn’t want to go the cops, and that led to my being hired. I’m not licensed. But no one wanted an ID or badge for a discreet operation. I don’t look for this kind of work. But if Frank arranged a job, I’d do it. Frank’s jobs were compensated with cash at the discreet rate, meaning that you paid for quiet.
It took three days. I found her in a Motel 6 with a bag of opium and a fifty-year-old greasy-haired biker with prison tats and a sour disposition when I left him on the bathroom floor. I hauled the kid to my car and drove her home. Her mother was a piece of work, too, but she took out of a drawer a stack of hundreds that briefly came into my acquaintance before heading west to Seattle.
Easy come, and easier go. 
That was one of the reasons Frank and I never quite stayed in sync. He turned a law degree and cat burglar’s instincts into a lucrative career as a sports and entertainment agent. Me? I liked to go with the flow on a card table or a golf course.
I preferred an easy pace, while Frank thrived in the fastest lane in New York City. But from time to time, Frank recharged his batteries at his vacation retreat in Tranquility, a gated golf community just past Georgetown and south of the madness that defined Myrtle Beach. We’d enjoyed some great times at TQ, as the members say, but not lately. 
It had been almost six months since I’d seen the huge swamp that served as the north border to the Tranquility compound. There was only one gate into the community, which was protected by electric fencing on its west and south sides, while the Atlantic Ocean took care of the east. Once you passed through the gate, you drove for almost two miles before you saw the first residence. 
I popped the top on the fourth beer and wondered how far I could drive before needing to piss.
***
The rain picked up when I passed Georgetown on U.S. 17, and I almost missed the right-hand turn into Tranquility. When I pulled into the visitor’s side of the gate, a chunky security guard with puffy cheeks and piglet nose trudged toward my vehicle in his rain slicker. He flashed me a hard look, and his tiny, darting eyes and stubby fingers made me think of Ancient Age, barbecue, and good old boys gone wrong.
"Name?" His tone served as a warning.
"I'm visiting Frank Williams."
"Name?"
“Trent Jones.”
 “Frank Williams is in New York,” the guard said. “He told our staff said that he wouldn’t be coming back to Tranquility until next month.” 
“I’m house sitting.”
The guard grunted and hauled his 280 pounds of flab into the gatehouse and returned with a cell phone. He dialed in front of me, and it was odd that Frank picked up. Did this swine have Frank’s cell number? 
"Mr. Williams? This is Barney Johnson with Tranquility Security. Sorry to bother you. I have Trent Jones, who claims he's house sitting for you.”
Barney paused a few seconds. “You did? I must have missed it on the list. Yes, I’ll do that. Sorry for the bother.” He snapped the cell shut, and it took a couple of moments before Barney looked back at me. 
“Must be hard to keep up with the Joneses these days,” I said.
“I work two jobs, Ace,” Barney snapped. “I’m also a deputy with the Georgetown Sheriff’s Department. Have you been drinking? On second thought, open your trunk.”
"What?”
"Do it."
So I went out in the rain, which picked up again, and unlocked the trunk. Barney brushed me aside and shifted my clubs and dirty clothes to find the empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black. He thrashed around for several more minutes and gave up. 
  "What did you expect?” I slammed the trunk shut. “Heroin?”
Barney looked into the Prelude. “I’m giving you a break on those beer cans. Keep it under twenty-five, Ace. We have lots of folks on bikes here."
Meanwhile, a black limo pulled up to the automatic gate for members. I glanced through an open window in time to see someone I recognized from ESPN. It was Wellington University head basketball coach Kenny Kincaid, known in some circles as 20G. Kincaid smoked a cigar and yapped at someone in the back seat whose face I couldn't see. I thought about the $500 I’d lost on Wellington last week in the NCAA tournament, and wanted to yell, “You suck.”
Tranquility seemed tame for 20G, who had been known to put serious weight on a horse at Saratoga, spend sixty hours straight at a casino table, or maybe hand an AAU coach a wad of hundreds. There were scads of rumors about 20G, and while nothing had ever been proven, it was the thought that counted. In my view 20G earned his nickname honestly because it was tough to say who should have been more interested in him: the NCAA or the IRS. And if it turned into a race, 20G would place a bet.
The limo driver flashed a card in front of the scanner that opened the members’ gate, and as the stretch eased into the property, Barney's shoulders sagged.  He watched the vehicle disappear from view as it headed down Fox Meadow Drive to the heart of the Tranquility community. After a two-mile straightaway, Fox Meadow Drive turned into a huge circle inside the compound, and it connected with every side street. There was one way in and one way out.
I wondered if 20G had come to Tranquility because of the 7-Stud game in The Snead Room, one of the entertainment centers in the massive clubhouse that served as host for Tranquility dining and diversions, as well as providing a pro shop and spacious locker rooms.  
Barney’s porcine fingers waved me through the gate, and I drove into TQ with a sense of impending comfort. But that feeling of coming home didn’t last. A burgundy and gold helicopter flew low to the trees and headed toward Tranquility’s helicopter landing pad, snapping the momentary spell.
The limo reappeared, and I slowed down to watch as it angled into the landing pad parking lot. Kenny Kincaid and a blond woman stepped out in the rain with umbrellas to greet two men, one of them quite tall, when they climbed out of the helicopter with the name Air G on the side that faced me. Another man came out of the helicopter and scurried to the limo with two small suitcases, which he stuffed in the trunk. I noticed two more women in the limo when the doors opened, and everyone climbed in. The limo followed the circular path back onto Fox Meadow Drive and glided away.
As the limo disappeared around a curve and into a grove of Spanish moss and pines, the sounds of gulls clacked in the distance. I caught a whiff of the ocean and felt serene, as if I’d earned my way into this community and belonged. But that changed when I turned off Fox Meadow and onto Francis Marion Avenue, and a Tranquility patrol car put its nose on the back of my Prelude.
 I looked back and recognized Barney just before the blue light flashed. I stepped out again in the rain. He did, too.
"I told you to go twenty-five,” Barney said, holding a clipboard close to his chest, trying to keep it dry.
"What was I doing?"
"Thirty."
"It’s a crime wave."
Barney moved closer and said, "License."
I took out my wallet and handed Barney my North Carolina driver’s license. When the rain fell harder, I retreated to my car, while Barney went to his vehicle to begin the paperwork. It took almost five minutes before Barney plodded back to my car. I waited an extra beat and then lowered the window, which was juvenile but fun to do.
"This is a Georgetown County Sheriff's Department citation,” Barney said as he tore off my copy. “Remember. Obey all traffic signs and speeds in this complex.”
 "No trial?"
Barney grunted, more of a snort this time. "I hope to see you again soon."
"Me, too.”
Barney returned to his patrol car and turned off the spinning blue light. He tossed me an icy glance and drove away.
***
Most houses at Tranquility face the ocean, regardless of the lot’s location or its proximity to the water. This means that the front of some homes, in order that they look toward the Atlantic, can’t be seen from the road. The first time I saw Frank’s three-story home on Francis Marion Avenue, I thought it had turned its back on me. And when I had followed the driveway around to the three-car garage, I’d discovered that the back of the house was the front and vice versa. Most Tranquility homes had front doors on both sides of the house, a quirk that Frank loved.
Frank said he’d picked a raised Florida Beach design because of the tropical themes that ruled the design of the exterior, the three picture windows on the main floor, and the two screened-in porches. 
Inside, there were four huge bedrooms, each with its own flat screen TV. The living room featured two of the picture windows that faced the third green and fourth tee, while there were photos in the dining room of Ben Hogan hitting that one-iron in the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, and Jack Nicklaus making the birdie putt on the seventeenth hole at the 1986 Masters. There was a large kitchen with an island gas range, and you’d find a monster widescreen in the living room with DVR and Direct TV. 
My favorite room was Frank's den, where signed photographs of Arnie, Jack, and Tiger were displayed on one wall, and Entertainment Tonight on the other. You've heard these people sing and watched them in films. There was a signed photo of an Academy Award winner in the right corner of the den that claimed a place of tribute above a Butler Fossil Stone Game Table. The actress knew the owner of the company, and for one of Frank’s birthdays, a solid mahogany chess table with fossil stone top, as well as rosewood hand-carved chess pieces, arrived in time for the party that summer at Tranquility. When Frank learned that it had a drawer that opened when you tapped the side of the table, he looked like a ten-year-old. That was right up Frank’s alley.
Several young ladies had stayed with Frank – including that actress – in his apartment on the East Side or down at TQ. He’d never married, but that was not to say he never came close. I don't think he wanted to get too close, but who was I to talk?
I found the house key under the left foot of the statue that stood on the side of the house facing the fourth tee. It was supposed to be a golfer, and it was, sort of. Frank said he wanted something with character, something distinctive. I wasn’t sure where he’d found a bronze monstrosity that looked like E.T. with a Titleist visor. Most people would have put the statue where visitors would be more apt to see it when they stopped by, but not Frank. 
Frank's den featured a bar with a mini fridge, icemaker, a case of Lagavulin, and a mammoth leather armchair that had been a gift from an NBC producer. It wasn’t long before I’d eased into the most comfortable spot in the house with a movie theater-sized Jeff Gordon drinking cup full of single malt and maybe four ice cubes.
The phone rang, and happily, I reached it without having to move. Of course it was Frank, and he went right to the point. "Let me guess. You’re already hitting the scotch. Do yourself a favor – go easy. I don't mind if you drink it all, but for your own sake, take a break."
I heard a twinge of something I couldn't gauge. "What's up with you?"
Frank coughed. "It's been a busy stretch. I'm working on a couple of things that won't come together."
"Why don't you pack it in and get down here? We play golf in the afternoon. Watch the NCAA tournament at night. Maybe play a few hands."
"That sounds perfect," Frank said. "I just can't put this stuff down now. I mean it about taking it easy. I'm worried about you. Call it a night early for a change."
My face felt warmer. "I'm doing okay."
"Think about it.”
I poured a fresh drink. Then I had another, which I took with me to the Prelude and drove to The Snead Room. Sometimes I can’t stay away from a card game. To be honest, I can’t stay away from scotch, either.
***
I found a spot in the parking lot and walked up the driveway and into the clubhouse. Took a left into the bar, where members and guests of all ages were getting primed for a night of college basketball. Most of the focus in the room pointed toward 20G, who wore one of his trademark three-piece suits that had cost several thousand dollars. The Armani charcoal gray with a tiny white pinstripe, off-white dress shirt and burgundy-accented tie reminded me of the suits that the character Gordon Gekko wore in the film Wall Street. Gangster also crossed my mind, but that was probably because I hadn’t resolved my bitterness about the NCAA bet I’d lost.
20G still retained the look of a man in his early forties, but that was courtesy of facelifts and expensive haircuts. ESPN analysts insisted that his dark hair, bright blue eyes, perfect features, and passion for basketball radiated timeless Hollywood charisma. But in truth, 20G had raced in the fast lanes too long, and the first sign that he was running out of road had been his ineffective coaching in critical games that past season. He needed a big year, and didn’t get it. Like I said, he cost me 500 bucks.
There were two men sitting with 20G at a table that was stacked with beer bottles. Each man held a shot glass, and they passed around a fifth of what looked like tequila. The man on 20G’s left might have been in his late thirties, or maybe he looked that young because he was tan, very fit, and wore an even more expensive suit than the coach. The third man, really a kid with a Boston Red Sox baseball cap on backwards, wore tan shorts with a lime golf shirt. 
20G drained his beer chaser and shouted at the bartender, “Can we get another round of Miller?”
The bartender nodded and put three bottles of Miller on a tray, which he delivered himself. There wasn’t a waitress, which surprised me because the NCAA Tournament games would start soon.
I moved to an open spot at the bar. “You still have Lagavulin?”
The bartender snagged a bottle of the good stuff from the top shelf. “How do you want it?”
“Double. One cube of ice.”
 “You a member? Haven’t seen you before.”
“Guest. Put it on Frank Williams’ tab.”
The bartender smiled. “Should have known. He drinks the same brand.”
My buzz built momentum in the next hour, and I lost track of how many drinks I’d put on Frank’s tab. I tried to avoid staring at the well-known basketball coach across the room. After all, famous people are just like us. Aren’t they?
The next time I glanced 20G’s way, three young women had joined his party. They knocked back shots, too. When the kid in the baseball cap stood up to pour another round, I was surprised by his height. Maybe he’d played some ball somewhere. 
The atmosphere grew more and more festive. Most of the tables were full, and there was now a crowd at the bar. In fact, two gorgeous women were close enough to smell, and they smelled damn good. 
I tried smiling at them, but they had too much sense to acknowledge a guy getting hammered alone in a crowded room. I sucked what was left of my current ice cube and thought I heard a Rolling Stones song.
“Can we turn that up?” I suggested to the bartender when he walked by.
“Wish I could,” the bartender said. “Club rules. We’re at the max now.”
“Why play it if you can’t hear it?”
The bartender moved to fill another order, and I must have stood up too fast because I slipped and fell. Laughter came from the direction of 20G’s table. 
I caught the bartender’s eye. “Going to The Snead Room. Can I get a double to go?”
He sighed, “Okay. But this will have to be it.”
I grabbed my traveler and realized I needed to hit the men’s room. I meandered down the hall, and the door opened as I reached for it. 20G came out, almost colliding with me.
I dodged him and said, “You cost me 500 bucks.”
20G ignored me and put a small vial back in his coat pocket. He sniffed a couple of times and walked away. Three guesses what was in the vial.
Come to think of it, a couple of lines wouldn’t hurt. But the men’s room was empty, and moments later, I swerved out to the hall and took a left into The Snead Room. There were six men and a dealer at a table with eight chairs. A stunning woman with blond hair in her late teens/early twenties sipped a Corona, holding the back of the empty chair. She might have been the same woman I’d seen at the helicopter-landing pad with 20G; I couldn’t say for sure. She wore a Wellington tank top that didn’t reach the top of her tight shorts, so that her perfect abs and a cactus tattoo near her navel could be seen, and perhaps admired. I admit giving the artwork a second glance.
“Room for one more?”  I asked. I shot the girl a grin, but she ignored it. In fact, no one at the table acknowledged my presence. I asked again, just as 20G hurried into the room, brushed past the blond goddess, and took the last open chair. 
“Kenny Kincaid. Basketball genius,” I said. “You are Kenny, right?”
He ignored me, so I moved closer to him.
“What brings you to Tranquility?”
“Do I know you?” 20G said with a cold tone. He looked at me with wild, distracted eyes. I shook my head. 
“Then why don’t you leave me the fuck alone?”
“Harmless question,” I said.
“I’m here to get lucky. Is that what you want to know?”
I sipped my drink and watched the game. 20G hunched over his cards while the goddess held onto his chair and leaned her body so that her breasts brushed 20G’s face. Her right hand rubbed his neck and then moved slowly down to rest on his shoulder, almost as if she were protecting him.
20G paid her little mind. He was too busy chasing that luck. 
After a series of big bets and losses, 20G abruptly rose from the table, just as I moved behind him. He bumped into me, and as I was about to apologize, he shoved me hard with both hands.
But that wasn’t enough. 20G pushed me again. “Get the fuck out of my way.”
He started to walk away but turned and threw a punch that grazed my left forehead. I shifted my weight and hit him hard with my right hand. 20G clutched my shirt as I grabbed his arms, and we staggered into the table, knocking glasses and chips onto the floor. 
By now, 20G had his hands on my throat, and I tried to push him off of me. When he started panting, he had to pause to catch his breath. I thought a coach would be in better shape, but then again, management rarely worked as hard as labor. What a scene. We were a couple of drunks knocking the shit out of each other for no reason. Frank would have been proud.
We separated. 20G threw a wild punch, and I landed a hard right that flattened his nose and hurt my hand.
“Do something. Fuck this asshole up,” 20G barked, as blood ran down his face.
Two players at the table grabbed me, and one of them hit me from behind. I shook loose and shoved the guy who had hit me. I hit him twice and was about to add to the total when Barney and a deputy in the Georgetown Sheriff’s Department raced into the room. 
The deputy pulled his nightstick and tried to put a large dent in my head, but I ducked under the blow. The deputy lost his balance long enough to give me an opening, and I gave him my Sunday best – a stinging jab that spun him around, making his legs wobble. I went after Barney, but someone hit me with a bottle or a hammer, I don’t know which. I fell to the floor and then felt a sharp pain in my side. I think someone kicked me. I tried to roll, but at least three sets of hands held me in place while Barney grunted and cuffed me. 
At this point everyone involved was breathing hard. They hauled me to my feet, and Barney and the deputy led me out of the room.
“Is he staying here?” the deputy asked as went down the hall past the line in front of the men’s room.
“Yeah,” Barney said. “We’ll take him in my car.”
We lurched outside, and they shoved me into the back of a patrol car. Blue lights flashed, and we spun away from the clubhouse. 
Darkness beckoned and took me down. I fought the gravity as long as I could, and sank like a hot coal in fresh snow.





Chapter 2




When I opened my eyes, I thought I’d been jailed. But that notion passed when I spotted the digital clock that read 3:15. I was in one of the downstairs bedrooms at Frank’s place and found the light switch on the wall. I made my way to the kitchen, where I ran my hands along the wall, looking for another switch. I finally felt a small lamp and turned it on. 
I opened the fridge, seeking cold water. Mercy. There were two bottles of Poland Springs original flavor sparkling water. I drank half a bottle, despite the carbonation sting that burned my throat and punctuated my endeavor with a long belch. Then I went back to the bedroom and happened to glance at the mirror as I walked through the door.
Three citations had been taped to the glass, courtesy of the Georgetown Sheriff’s Department. Public drunkenness. Assault. Resisting arrest. And a note that read, “Leave the Tranquility community as soon as possible. Out of respect to Frank Williams, we did not take you to jail last night. You have twenty-four hours.”
Ah, Barney and that Georgetown deputy. I wished I could remember clearly what had happened, other than that I’d made a strong impression on local law enforcement as well as those in The Snead Room, particularly 20G. My right hand throbbed, and that made me smile. 20G was feeling it today, too.
I went back to the bedroom that I’d used and drifted in and out of sleep. At one point I heard sirens and tried not to care. I put the pillow over my head to drown out the noise. But it was no use. I was awake enough to worry that there might be a major fire nearby.
Safety, though, wasn't my first concern. It was the numbing ache in my forehead. Granted, the pain wasn't at the killer migraine level, but it was close. I carefully left the bed, but the pounding in my head joined forces with the outside noise. This conspiracy halted my progress for a few moments, and then, at last, I felt like I could make it back to the kitchen. I opened the fridge with the hope that I'd seen cold beer. 
There were five bottles of Negro Modelo. I inhaled the first one. Three huge gulps, and I felt primed for the second, which I drank like a normal person. Then I grabbed a third beer.
 Yes, things were looking up. In fact, I felt good enough to notice that it was a pleasant Friday morning in late March. Braced with Modelo optimism, I ventured outside and down to the end of Francis Marion Avenue in time to see an emergency rescue unit race down Fox Meadow Drive with lights flashing. A fire truck followed, while a TV News helicopter from Charleston chugged overhead. I gulped the rest of the third beer and tossed the bottle in the general direction of Frank's recycling bin outside the garage. 
A slender, alluring woman in her late thirties, wearing performance gear, rode her T:Nine Mountain Bike toward me from the opposite direction.
"What's going on?" I called out, and when she looked back, she nearly lost her balance.
"You startled me," she said. “Do you follow college basketball?"
"Sure."
"It's Kenny Kincaid."
"20G? I ran into him last night in the TQ bar. What happened?"
"There was a fire in Kincaid’s condo. My husband Jack is a consultant with the county. He said he just spoke with someone at Waccamaw Community Hospital. Kincaid was so badly burned they needed his dental records to ID him.”
“How did the fire start?”
“They don’t know yet,” she said with a tone that captivated me. The news was horrible, but despite the timing of our meeting, her provocative voice resonated the promise of secret stairs that led to honeysuckle sorbet and satin.
"I'm staying at Frank Williams' place."
"We live just down the street," she said, removing her sunglasses. I looked into sparkling hazel eyes. "We moved here from Asheville a year ago. That was a nice shift for us. I'm Jenny Livingston."
"Trent Jones."
"Nice to meet you. Jack said he’s on his way home now. Are you going to the club? Maybe we’ll see you there."
"I'd like that."
I watched her ride away and almost forgot the citations. I went back inside to find my cell, which rang as I picked it up.
“What the hell did you do last night?” Frank said. “I’ve had three calls already about your little incident. You need to leave. If you don’t, Georgetown Sheriff’s Department is going to press charges.” 
“I screwed up. Sorry.”
“Whatever.” And he hung up.
I didn’t have much to pack, but then I recalled that the Prelude was still at the club. During the twenty-minute walk, I couldn’t get past the feeling that I’d let my friend down again. I’d worked up a thirst by the time I approached my car. For a moment I thought about getting a traveler from the bar but decided that might not be wise.
I drove back to Frank’s and picked up my things. As I walked around the side of the house to put the key back in the statue, I wondered about leaving a note. But what could I say? When would he read it?
Instead of a note, I dialed Frank’s number, hoping the call would go straight to voice mail. It did. “Hey. I’m heading out now. I appreciate your letting me stay here again. I’m sorry I screwed up. I hope we talk soon.”
It felt like my final visit to Tranquility. And if that were the case, it was what I deserved. I’d behaved like a first-class asshole, and I felt the first wave of guilt. 
Those happy thoughts disappeared when blue lights flashed at the same time from two directions, followed by the short blip of a siren.
I turned, expecting to see Barney lumber toward me. But I was wrong.  It was the South Carolina State Highway Patrol, and two officers headed my way. I had strong doubts that this scene involved a traffic violation. When one of the state cops tapped on the glass of the driver’s side window, I pressed the down button.
“Are you Trent Jones?”
“Yes.”
“Follow me.”
That was unusual, but where could I go? One of the patrol cars moved in front of the Prelude to lead, while the other state vehicle trailed behind. The lead car drove to a parking lot near the main gate and pulled in front of the gatehouse adjacent to the building with a sign that read Tranquility Security. The officer leaned out of his window and motioned for me to park behind his vehicle.
I followed him into the building, and we went down a hall into a large room full of equipment and members of the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Department. We moved past the crowd near the coffee machine, and my escort knocked on a closed office door. Moments later, a voice inside the room told us to enter.
“Let me call you back,” said a cop behind the desk, putting his phone down as we came into the room. He was in his early thirties with short, blond hair that didn’t quite match his bloodshot brown eyes that gave away nothing about his mood or intent. We stared at each other for an extra beat, perhaps to see who would give up a read first.
 “I’m Sgt. Wheaton with the Georgetown County Sherriff’s Department,” the cop said. “I’m running the Kenny Kincaid investigation. Please describe your relationship with Kincaid.”
“Don’t have one,” I said. “I lost some money betting on his team, but that doesn’t make me unique. Don’t know him. Met him last night, and we didn’t get along.”
Wheaton’s facial expression softened, and perhaps he stifled a smile. “It would appear that way. We’ve talked to several people about last night’s altercation. What caused it?” 
“I was drunk. I’d say he was messed up, too. Shit happened.”
Wheaton nodded. “You also met Barney Johnson, who works part-time at Tranquility and with my department. Not your best people day, was it?”
I stayed in neutral and waited for Wheaton to get to the point.
“What time did Johnson and another deputy in my department take you home?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know. They shoved me into a car, and I passed out. I woke up in the dark at 3:15 a.m.”
“That’s precise for someone who had been drinking. Why do you remember that?”
“I saw a clock and figured I wasn’t in jail. ” 
“You thought you should have been?”
“I hit a cop. Yeah, I should have been somewhere other than Frank’s house at Tranquility.”
Wheaton stood up, and I sensed a different approach. 
“Did you get up in the middle of the night and attack Kenny Kincaid and then set him on fire?” Wheaton moved closer to me.
“What?”
 “You were taken back to Frank Williams’ residence at 10:45 p.m.,” Wheaton said. “You claim that you passed out. That could be true, or very clever. Do you mind if we take your fingerprints?”
“Not a bit. ”
Wheaton left the room and returned with one of his men, who carried a fingerprint kit. When I’d made my marks and cleaned my fingers, Wheaton said, “Our forensic team is in Kincaid’s condo now. There was a struggle, and it’s a mess. The fire was deliberate. I just took a call from my captain, who told me to shut down entry and exit from Tranquility.”
That was a broad stroke but not that hard to accomplish, considering the natural walls that the swamp and ocean provided, as well as the electric fencing, which reminded me of security at a military installation.
 “You mean the entire community is a crime scene?”
 “In a manner of speaking, “Wheaton said. “Our primary focus is Kincaid’s room, of course, but we think it’s possible the perpetrator is still inside the complex.”
“Why would the perp stay?” I asked, and a tiny light flickered. “Oh, I’m one of the suspects?”
“You’re at the top of the list,” Wheaton said like a gunshot. 
 It felt like I’d discovered a snake crawling up my leg. “That’s absurd,” I managed to say.
Either he had something else or he didn’t. Wheaton waited again for me to give an opening. I sat there thinking about Jenny Livingston.
“You can return to Frank Williams’ residence,” Wheaton said. “You won’t be hard to find.”
I smiled. Round one went to me. “Is this lockdown legal?”
“That’s a chance I’m willing to take,” Wheaton said. His body language and his tone dismissed me. I returned to my Prelude and drove back to Frank’s house. I needed to get back in the house, so I fetched the key. And while I was doing that, I used my cell to leave a message for Frank that I would not be leaving as soon as he wanted. Within moments, my cell buzzed.
“Suspect?” Frank said with a sharp tone. “This is serious. I’d suggest what to do, but I know you’re going to do it your way. I don’t care what you do; just get out of my house.”
“What about the lockdown?”
“Obviously, you can stay until they clear the scene and open the gates. But that’s it. I’m done with this bullshit.” 
He hung up. Considering everything that had happened, I would have hung up on me, too.
I unlocked the back door and went straight to the bathroom. It was definitely time for a long shower and shave. And then? 
Well, as long as I was trapped at TQ, I might as well play some cards.
***
I’d just put my clothes on when the doorbell rang. It was another member of Tranquility Security, and I was relieved that it wasn't Barney. This officer was in his early forties, tanned and fit. He held a clipboard in his hands and offered a polite smile when I opened the door.
"Trent, how are you doing? I’m John Perkins, head of Tranquility security. We met a couple of years ago. You ran into Barney Johnson yesterday?"
"Twice. The first time when I arrived. The second in The Snead Room.”
 “I’m here about the speeding citation,” Perkins said. “Barney can’t get used to the difference between security and enforcement. A simple warning was all that was required.”
Perkins yanked a piece of paper off the clipboard. "This is the citation Barney wrote yesterday. Don't worry about it. I’ve written a note to Frank, too. I've made sure it won't go to Georgetown or the board of directors. Barney forgot to file the paperwork yesterday. I found it on his desk this morning. Barney was scheduled to work today, but he called in sick at the last minute. That’s a break for you because it was never entered in our computer or filed with Georgetown SCD."
"That's nice to hear," I said. With that soothing news, my focus shifted to the cold Modelo in the fridge. I fought a yawn and lost. 
"Barney ought to use more sense.” Perkins said. “About five months ago, someone wanted Barney Johnson to work at Tranquility. Someone with major pull, and I can’t do a thing about it.” 
"Any idea of a time frame for the lockdown?” I asked. “I’ve worn out my welcome here."
"Can't say. Call the security building if you need groceries. We’re not letting any vehicles in or out. We’ll make daily runs to the Piggly Wiggly on U.S. 17 and call when your order is ready."
"How many folks are in here now?"
"Not that many, which is fortunate," Perkins said. "About ten families, and there are six guests in the Condo Rentals. It’s going to kill the weekend, though. Time to move on. All things considered, hope you have a nice stay here."
***
When I walked into the TQ clubhouse about noon, the dining room was empty, while the bar boasted one customer, a UPS driver, who was eating a bowl of chili.
"I thought they were keeping vehicles out of here."
"They are," said the UPS driver, a wiry, confident-looking guy in his mid-thirties who looked like he took care of himself. “I found a package in my truck this morning that should have been delivered yesterday. Other than that, my truck was empty. I came in here on my way to my base. Thought I was doing the right thing. The police won't let me leave. But it's not all bad. The club is putting me up in one of their guest rooms upstairs. I get to eat down here with a tab I can take to my branch manager. My wife will hate it. I'm supposed to take her to a musical tonight in Charleston."
"Which one?" I sat two stools down and turned to face him.
"The Music Man."
"You don't look disappointed."
"I'm not. It’s just my luck that I delivered a package to the pro shop, and things went nuts.”
 The bartender came over and stood in front of me. It was not the same guy from last night. "What can I get you?"
I felt a twinge of guilt when I said, "I’m staying with Frank Williams. Please use his account number. Heineken." 
Okay, so it was three Heinekens. But I passed on the chili. Johnny Fitzgerald, the UPS driver, turned out to be quite a hoops fan.
 "Coach 20G. That’s one seedy piece of work," Johnny said as he finished a second bowl of what looked to be a fine batch. I could smell the onions and cheese, and I admit that I was tempted, but it was still a little early in the day for me. 
"Could I have another Diet Coke? Thanks," Johnny said. He pushed his bowl away and used a bar napkin to tidy up. "You see that semifinal game at the Final Four last year?" 
“Sure,” I said.
"Absolutely no way Wellington could lose to Pittsburgh,” Johnny said. “Go back to the tape and watch the second half. Tank city. I think three of them were in on it. Had to be. Every time Pitt fell behind by double digits, one of the three guys I’m talking about did something stupid. Pitt scored the last twelve points to win by three. That's crazy. Some big money changed hands before and after that damn game."
Johnny was getting wound up for Diet Coke. He winked at me as he fished out of his pocket an airline bottle of Jim Beam and poured the contents into his glass.
"Company won't pay a bar tab. But they’ll cover food."
The bartender came by. "You can’t use your own booze in here. I don't care, but my boss does."
Johnny grinned. "Gotcha."
"Put his next drink on Frank's tab," I said. 
With his feathers smoothed, the bartender adjusted the TV to a local channel in time for us to see the beginning of Fishing In South Carolina. This episode discussed charter boats, and when Georgetown Harbor came on the screen, Johnny perked up. There were shots of various leisure and commercial vessels, as well as views of the harbor businesses.
"Hey, that's my brother's boat, Float Upstream," Johnny said wistfully. "That's my plan. When I get enough for a down payment, I'm buying a charter boat."
Johnny told us that his family began fishing the South Carolina coast for forty years ago. He’d tried to buck that trend by getting a job with UPS but found out that he missed the sea more than he'd thought he would. Now he counted the days and the paychecks until he could afford his own boat. 
"I could crew for my brother," Johnny said. "But I want to work for myself."
"You guys don't get along?" 
Johnny shrugged. "Too many captains, not enough crew. It’s my fault. It's his boat, and he's let me take it out myself a few times. It's hard not to be the boss when you’ve had a taste of what it's like."
"My friend who lives here owns Reckless Abandon," I said. "He keeps it in the Georgetown Harbor."
"I know that boat," Johnny said. "Doesn't go out much."
We watched the fishing show, which was so tedious that it made me wish I could lie down. I watched Johnny finish his drink and motioned to the bartender to give him another.
"Thanks, but I’m just right," Johnny said, and to prove that point, he knocked his glass over. Then as he tried to pick up the ice, his hand slipped and sent the empty chili bowl scooting across the bar.
The bartender frowned as he picked up Johnny's empty glass and wiped down the bar. Then he snatched the chili bowl and spoon and cleaned that up as well. Johnny watched all of this in a daze. He stood up slowly and said, "That's it for me, boys. I need rest."
Johnny walked as if there were tacks on the carpet, and he’d forgot his shoes. He took slow steps, trying not to make a mistake. I'd been there. Eventually, Johnny made it to the corner and out of the room.
Local news broke into regular programming and provided updates about 20G and the Tranquility lockdown.
I caught the bartender’s eye and said, "Is the club putting the staff up?"
"I wish," said the bartender, whose mood seemed friendlier. “Most of us live here on the property. Next time you’re out on the sixteenth hole, take a long look at the grove of palm trees. They look slightly out of place. The company dorm is in that lot near Albert's Pond.”
Albert, as it turned out, was a ten-foot gator that roamed the property. The pond was his favorite spot, and Albert was feared because of his craving for Tranquility pets.
"Albert's a legend here,” the bartender said. “One summer he hung out near that long par three on the back, number fifteen. Albert would sun himself on the bank of that waterway, and it reached the point no one could make a smooth swing on the tee. Albert is fast. Real fast. You don't want to mess with him."
"I won't. How about another Heineken?"
I put a five on the counter for his tip and wandered to one of the tables that faced the eighteenth green. Now that was a finishing hole. A long par five with water down the entire right side of the fairway. It is usually played into a strong wind coming off the ocean, which makes the hole a graveyard for good rounds because there is also water to the left of the fairway. You need to hit a three-wood or hybrid to get it into play, but if the wind is kicking up, you can't afford to give up the distance. You must hit three good shots. I’d played that damn hole twenty times and could count the birdies I’d made on my nose. 
Even the big boys will hit three shots to reach the eighteenth at Tranquility. Someone said Davis Love III played this course once and shot a sixty-three. Wish I’d seen that round.
I was ready to hit The Snead Room, when a familiar voice said, "Trent?"
It was Jenny Livingston who carried a khaki brown gun case. She wore snug, hand-tailored brush pants, a dark green shooting shirt, a tan Browning shooting vest with pink trim, black Russell ladies boots, and a pinch-front, crushable wool black Stetson.
“What’s in the case?” I asked.
She flashed me a smile. “You shoot?”
“Badly,” I said, “but I’ve handled guns.”
“Let me show you,” Jenny said, opening the case. “This came yesterday, and I can’t wait to go the range in Georgetown. I love it.  It’s a the 30-inch Tri-Star 12-gauge.”
“Beautiful shotgun,” I said.
“Maybe you’d like to go to the range sometime when they let us out of here. I dressed to shoot and drove almost to the gate before I realized that we’d been locked in. Jack can come and go because he works with the county and the sheriff’s department. I followed him to the gate a few moments ago, thinking they’d let me out, too. No such luck. This is crazy. My bridge club is supposed to meet later. I wonder if we’ll cancel. Do you play?"
"Bridge? I have. I’m not very good at it. Poker is more my thing."
Jenny ordered an iced tea to go and walked off. I kept my eyes on her until she was out of the room and noticed that the bartender stared at her as long as I did. I’d definitely go to the range with her. Or the grocery store. Even the dentist.
I checked my cash status. It came to $303, and that meant I needed to be crazy and lucky. I walked down a long hall with lush carpet and noticed a series of hazy prints that depicted scenes inside Tranquility, such as sunsets on the western side of the property, kids with kites, and dogs running after those kids. I imagined a print with Albert chasing the dogs.
The Snead Room seemed subdued compared to the scene from last night. Today there was no smoke at all, and the sandy colored drapes in front of a huge picture window hugged the walls tight. There were no clocks, and four men sat at the same green-felt table with chairs for eight.
I didn’t recognize anybody, but then again, I wasn’t exactly sharp last night. Maybe the shave and shower gave me some cover. “Room for one more?”
This time one of the players looked up and beckoned me to sit, which I did. The limit was $1, $2, and $5. Not terribly steep, but for me it might be a disaster. They were playing 7-Stud, and it pleased me to find an old school game. I gave the guy handling the chips $275. He handed me in return a modest supply of red, white, and blue TQ-logoed pesos. I stacked them up and tried to ease into the reality of the table.
The player in a Nike visor, the one who’d let me into the game, sat directly across from me. He might have been forty-five or even fifty years old. It was hard to tell because he was tanned and healthy in a natural way. I doubt he'd ever been overweight, and he seemed at ease. To his left sat Small Stack, the guy with the least chips with a pack of Marlboros parked near his dwindling supply and a Navy lighter on top of the smokes that he needed to leave the room to use. Small Stack was in his thirties and could have stood to lose a few pounds. His face and eyes reflected late nights in a manner I knew well. I saw them most mornings in the mirror.
In the third chair across from Small Stack, a man with a tanned face, lean frame and muscular forearms drained his highball glass, a splash of liquid hitting his light blue Adidas Climacool polo. He smiled and brushed the droplet off with one crisp move, and said, "Luther, I'll have another Jack and coke." 
Luther wore a pair of gray herringbone suit pants and a matching vest with an off-white shirt and a nautical plaid tie that brought out the silver in his hair as well as his clothes. I couldn’t tell if Luther had just looked back at thirty, or would turn fifty next month. Maybe the gray in his hair belied his lean cheeks and sharp eyes, and that he moved like a basketball player, easy and sure on his feet, ready to improvise with a quick pass, or just take it to the hoop with a burst of force. He placed the bourbon and Coke near Climacool with a precise competence that led me to suspect there was more to this man than dealing cards and serving drinks. He did a slight double take when I’d walked into the room. My radar said he knew me. Was it from last night?
I caught Luther's eye. "Have you heard anything from the police? Any of you guys know 20G?"  
"Haven't heard a thing," Luther said. "But this game started yesterday afternoon, and it turned into a wild night."
So it was a foursome, with Luther dealing each hand with that same crisp precision. For a moment I took him for a mechanic – someone who manipulated cards for a living – but that wasn’t the case, at least not that I could tell. I wondered what that glance had meant when I walked in. Maybe it had more to do than just seeing me return to the scene of the grime.
 I didn’t have enough chips to be aggressive. I needed to be patient, so I threw away cards that I might have been able to turn into winners. But I couldn’t afford to keep doing that. Even though I’d played soft, almost half of my chips were gone.
Luther broke open a new deck, and when two sevens came my way, I didn’t toss in my cards as I’d done five straight hands. I noticed Nike Visor’s knowing glance that preceded a tight smile as if to say, come to poppa. 
Everyone stayed to see the first card that would be dealt face up to each player. Mine was a seven, giving me trips out of the gate, and I sensed this might be the hand that would take me home or put me on the street. Nike Visor raised the bet with a king of diamonds. Short Stack turned over his queen of spades and left the table, probably to go smoke. Climacool hung around with his ten of hearts, and I stayed in. 
Fourth Street threw logs and gasoline on the fire. Another king went to Nike Visor, while another ten hit Climacool, and an eight came to me. This was a one in a billion sequence. Nike Visor and Climacool did the betting, and I came along for the ride. There was no help for anybody on Fifth Street, but when Luther tossed Nike Visor a third king, Climacool didn't even wait to get his sixth card. He folded. A seven, an eight, and a nine were face up in front of me. God bless Luther. He dealt me another eight. 
I had a full house, but I wondered if it would be high enough. Nike Visor had three kings showing. Chances were pretty good he had a boat – full house – as well.
Nike Visor tried to run me out. If I folded, I’d save about $40 in chips. I thought about throwing it in. I feared Nike Visor either had a higher full house or four kings. One card, a seven, would win the pot for me. 
Should I stay or should I go? 
I pushed all of my chips into the pot and said, “Deal it.”




Chapter 3







    My last card skimmed across the table and stopped near my right hand. I watched Nike Visor look at his final card. He gave nothing away. But there was nothing left for him to take. The betting was finished.
    Nike Visor turned over two threes to go along with his kings, the full house I’d expected he had. I could tell he wanted to rake in the chips, but he needed to wait to see my final card, which remained face down on the table.
    I didn’t peek. I just turned it over and watched Nike Visor’s confident facial expression shift to a combination of shock, dread, and dismay.
    It was a seven. That made four of them. How about them apples?
I allowed myself to grin while Nike Visor tried to stay cool. He had to be pissed, though. He’d just lost to lunacy.
    But in the bigger picture, for the remainder of that session, it was the kind of insanity that worked to my advantage. Now, when I stayed in a hand, no one could be sure. Perfect.
    That was the start of a nice run until Short Stack went dry. The Pro said he’d had enough, and Nike Visor also called it a night, but he’d lost most of his interest after The Big Hand. I figured that he didn’t lose very often, and I admit that I took pleasure in that.
    They left quickly, and Luther started the cleanup. I wanted to chat with Luther without Nike Visor in the room. I was curious. Who was Luther? How did he know me? Did I owe him money.
    I counted my winnings when Nike Visor left the room. As it turned out, I had had a grand time at the poker game. Well, it was a $987 time, to be precise, after I left a twenty on the table for Luther.
    "Thanks," Luther said. "I don't get many tips."
    "Why not? You know what you're doing on a table."
    "Nature of the job. Most players think the club takes care of me."
    "But it doesn't?"
    "Well, it does, sort of. My official job title is Lounge Associate," Luther said. "I get an hourly wage and some benefits. But the bulk of what I make comes from the game. Sometimes I play. Sometimes I don't. Depends on the situation. If I do play, the deal rotates."
    "I bet you do pretty well for yourself."
    "I do okay," Luther said. "But I’ve never had a hand like the one you had. I almost lost it when you turned over the fourth seven."
    "You didn't have anything to do with that, did you?"
    "Not a chance. That was some pure luck right there. That last seven was as big a surprise to me as it was to Runyon."
    "The guy with the Nike Visor?"
    "Yeah," Luther said. "He's on the club payroll as Lounge Consultant."
    "I didn't peg him for an employee."
Luther laughed. "He's retired. Runyon made some strong money in New York real estate. Now he plays some golf and a lot of poker."
    "I can relate to that. Trent Jones." I stuck out my hand, and Luther grabbed it.
    "Luther Franklin."
    "I get the feeling that we've met somewhere."
 Runyon – Nike Visor – returned and said, "Let's give this room a rest." He stared at me, and I realized that I'd been given my cue to leave.
    "Thanks for the game," I said, thinking I'd catch up with Luther another time. I intended to walk back to Frank's, but a beverage urge steered me to the bar. The bartender recognized me.
    "Heineken?"
    "Lagavulin, double with one cube, and a club soda with lime,” I said. "Yesterday, I saw 20G arrive here in a limo. You get a lot of limos here?"
    "We get that one," the bartender said. "Belongs to a fat cat who now owns part of the club."
    Jenny rushed into the bar. Her hand brushed my arm, and I caught a whiff of an expensive fragrance. "Trent. What luck. We need a fourth to finish the last rubber. Debbie had to leave. Will you join us?"
    "I'm not any good," I said, hoping that would work. It didn't. Jenny led me to The Grand Slam Room.
    There were two bridge tables set up, and commotion erupted when I walked in with Jenny. Two of the ladies were almost as attractive as Jenny. The others weren’t. Jenny introduced me to the group, and when one lady muttered something, the others at her table laughed.
    Three women removed their sunglasses to give me a look, a tired cliché from a B movie. I kind of liked it.
    “You must be new,” said the comedienne, whose frizzy bleached hair upstaged a New York accent. “I’d remember that face and body. Not a day over forty, I bet. You look tired, sweetie. Are you getting your rest? How tall are you?”
    “An inch over six feet.”
    “That’s plenty,” the comedienne said with a husky tone. She whispered loud enough for the whole group, and they howled.
    I felt like a rib eye.
    Jenny pointed toward the empty chair across from a pleasant woman in her early fifties with a great tan. She stood up and said, "I'm Betty Feeney. Thanks for helping us finish."
    "Let me warn you," I said.  “I’m rusty when it comes to bridge."
Another comment at the comedienne’s table provoked more laughter, and my ears burned.
    "You'll be fine," Betty said with a quick grin. "I doubt you could be much worse than Debbie."
    Perhaps Debbie was run off. Well, I didn’t ask to play, and I’d warned them. Betty took it well, though, when she realized that dummy described my bridge game perfectly.
    I suppose some of the allure of bridge centers on the social aspects. I wondered if I had anything in common with these ladies, but that apprehension disappeared when Betty Feeney mentioned the planned party for the Carolina game that evening – right there – in The Grand Slam Room. There would be a widescreen TV set up with plenty of comfortable chairs, a buffet, and self-serve bar. $40. Betty said she knew a lot Tar Heels with homes at Tranquility. The second most attractive lady in the room sat to my right and asked if I would come.
    "Sure," I said, thinking I’d like to know her name. I flashed a smile, and she returned it. I checked her left hand, and there was a small boulder on the wrong finger. Had all the good things been taken?
    Two cards were played, and it was my turn. I tossed down a jack of diamonds, and my partner grimaced when the fourth player's queen took the trick.
    “You finessed yourself,” Betty said. My face remained a question mark, so she added, “When there are higher cards still to be played in a hand, never play a card to win from the third position that can still be beat. Play that card when you have the fourth turn.”
    "I told you I suck."
    "Not at all," my partner said with a hint of ire. "You're rusty. You were brave to join us."
    The ordeal was like enduring root canal in that there was pain but not as much as feared; nevertheless, I didn’t mind giving up my seat. Betty and Jenny thanked me again while the comedienne claimed more laughs. I said my goodbyes and took my leave of the company, the social space, and the building.
    I’d learned what it felt like to be warm flesh near cannibal eyes. In some ways it wasn’t that bad. I wondered how I'd react the next time a woman in a thong walked past at a pool. Maybe I'd look at her face, maybe not. Old habits age for a reason.
    One of my oldest friends once said, "Men is dogs." She was right, of course.
    I enjoyed my stroll back to Frank’s. The day’s activities had produced a profit, and I looked forward to the Carolina game.
Frank and I had different views on most things, but one thing we did share in common was college basketball. Frank had attended Villanova as an undergrad, and that meant he loved Nova and The Big East, while my heart belonged to Carolina and The ACC.
    I also pumped up the volume about Chapel Hill, and in time, Frank came to see that my way. He admitted that when he happened to be on Franklin Street, there was a threat that a great conversation about college basketball could break out at any moment.
    I wished we’d talked hoops yesterday. Who knows when we’d get back to that? Frank rarely expressed anger about anything, but my latest stunt had set him off. Maybe he was under more pressure than usual.
The Tar Heels were scheduled to tip off against Gonzaga at 9:50, and I recalled that Carolina hadn't played the Zags since 2009 when they had met in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
    I’d been a Carolina fan most of my life. We moved to Fayetteville when I was ten years old. My dad was military, and luckily for me, Fort Bragg would be the last stop in his Army career. When he left the military, we moved to Southern Pines, where Dad sold real estate and played golf. I had started playing on the base course but took my first lessons in Pinehurst. I also learned to love to practice. I’d spend hours on the range, and if not there, I played basketball. I loved both.
    Dad took me to my first UNC basketball game when I was twelve. Kentucky strutted into Chapel Hill that weekend and left with a fifteen-point victory. I cried all the way home.
    We'd get to a couple of games each season after that. I never thought of going to a different university. Why? I applied to one school, and The University of North Carolina accepted me. At first I thought I wanted to study history, while my dad argued I should consider the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, as he did. ROTC didn’t do much for me on many levels, and we had spirited discussions about which path I’d follow.
    We went round and round. Finally, I bluffed him when I mentioned RTVMP, and he seemed to think journalism wasn’t that bad a choice when I finally turned that card over.
    But to be honest, I spent more time at the Department of Dramatic Art, which was located next to the journalism department and the planetarium in those days.
    I’d wander over to Graham Memorial, the former student union that had been turned over to the drama department. Sometimes I’d watch dance classes on the first floor or sit in during a lab theater rehearsal in the basement. It didn’t take long before I realized girls in the drama department were crazy and liked to party.
    Dad warned me to get serious. Serious? Of course I was serious, but not about class.
    Those memories faded when I turned into Frank's driveway and hurried inside for a cold beer.
    And then wished I hadn’t. The living room had been trashed. My heart thumped faster and faster as I went from room to room. I felt like an idiot victim in a chainsaw film hoping the creature would go away. My panic increased when I discovered that each room had been torn apart. Drawers from the cabinets were on the floor. Books were scattered. Photos smashed. The couch had been cut, and its fabric, like somebody gut shot in a war picture, covered the carpet.
    A sea of wreckage defined the den, but the scotch, I happened to note, had not been touched. Papers everywhere. Diskettes, notebooks, and files were scattered on the floor. The lens on Frank’s Nikon camera had been cracked, and the back of the camera had been opened and its undeveloped film exposed and ruined. CDs, DVDs, film cartridges, printer cartridges, golf gloves, tees, old phonebooks, pencils, pens, paper clips, and all sorts of mess everywhere. The top of the chess table now had a crack, and there was a scratch on one of the table’s legs. There was broken glass near the bookshelf, and the photos that had been on the wall had been smashed and ripped apart. Nicklaus at The Masters was now in three pieces.
    I wanted to pack, get in the Prelude, and drive. I didn't care where; only that I needed to get the hell out of that house. I kept telling myself to leave as I dialed Frank's number in NYC.
    It must have rung fifteen times. No answer and no machine. Frank always kept his toys plugged in. I called his cell and went straight to voice mail. That spooked me even more. I didn’t think Frank could breathe unless his cell phone was on.
    I decided to straighten up the den but stopped and called the Georgetown County Sheriff's Department. Better to leave everything as it was. I told the dispatcher my name and the address of where I was house sitting. I said the house had been ransacked. I also gave my cell number.
    I needed a drink but thought it would be better to wait until after the cops had come and gone. An hour passed before a patrol car arrived. Two policemen walked up the driveway, and I opened the door as they came up the steps. It was Sgt. Wheaton and an officer who looked familiar, and he had a bruise on his face. I read his nametag. Officer Adkins. So that was the guy I had clocked?
    "Thanks for getting here," I said. "Kind of unsettling to come back and find the place in this shape."
    “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon, Jones,” Wheaton said.       The deputy gave me a cold look and went to search the house.
Wheaton did most of the talking. He asked where I had been during the afternoon.
    "At the club having a few drinks, getting ready to watch some basketball."
    "Any idea what’s missing?" Wheaton asked.
    "Not really. All the TVs are still here. So is the stereo."
Wheaton nodded. "With this kind of vandalism/robbery, there's only so much we can do."
    "You get a lot of robberies in Tranquility?"
    "We’ve had a few, and most of them are still open. It’s impossible to get in here unless you ride in with someone or have a pass code. My guess is that it’s some wild kids who live in the compound, looking for pocket money. Mostly it's high-tech equipment that’s taken, but not this time," Wheaton said.
    Officer Adkins returned from his search. He looked like he was in his early twenties with brown eyes that seemed big for his face, and he reminded me of an owl.  Adkins moved with measured purpose, as if he were paid by the minute.
    "They went through the house thoroughly," Adkins said with a long, slow southern accent. "Maybe they thought Mr. Williams kept cash here."
    "Maybe," said Wheaton. But it wasn’t a convincing maybe. They asked me tedious questions to get the information on record. They filled out a report, and I made sure they had the phone number in case they needed to get in touch.
    "Any idea when the gates will be open to leave?"
    "When the crime scene is closed," Wheaton said. "Hard to say how long that will take.”
    The officers left, and my stomach twittered my brain. “Dude. Have not had anything but liquids today."
    So why change now?
    I found my Jeff Gordon beaker, tossed in four cubes, and poured, almost filling the cup. I tried Frank's number in NYC, and again there was no answer. Maybe he was watching the hoops with one of his Chester Heights buddies or a client.
    Carolina had the late game, and I didn't care about the opener, Michigan vs. Oklahoma State.
    I decided to try to put the house back together. I picked up the books and magazines and put the drawers back in Frank's desk. There was an iMac that had been turned on its side and its speakers disconnected. Putting the computer back in working order, particularly the wire hook-ups, forced me under and behind the big desk.
    A recent issue of Golf World, with a Japanese prodigy on the cover, had fallen near the trashcan. I'd missed that issue, and that was all it took to put clean-up patrol on hold. I settled down in my favorite chair with my Jeff Gordon cup and magazine. I turned to find the Ryo Ishikawa feature, and a photograph dropped to the floor.
    It was Frank with Kincaid and three Wellington basketball players, and that surprised me.  I didn't know Frank had anything to do with Wellington. If anything, I’d figured he was anti-Kincaid.
I refilled my cup to game strength and stared at the players in the photo. I could hear Johnny Fitzgerald's voice as if he were standing near me. It was like YouTube, with Johnny doing the voiceover of the three players making the right mistakes at the wrong time.
And there was Frank in a photo with those same three players and my newest friend – 20G.
All of this felt strange. Maybe Frank could straighten this out for me. Maybe he'd answer his damn phone. I turned on his computer and sent him an email.
"Call me!"
Frank never strayed far from a phone. He'd probably call before I made my next drink.
Nope. Not even after the next two drinks.
 Game time approached. I turned on ESPN; two former coaches discussed how Gonzaga would run with Carolina, which I thought would end the game early in UNC’s favor. I was geared to yell at those guys when the image on the screen shifted to a single announcer at a studio desk.
"Tragic news out of Georgetown, South Carolina. It has been confirmed that the burned body found in a resort hotel room was Kenny Kincaid. Coach Kenny Kincaid is dead. Please stay tuned for additional reports.”
    I grabbed the remote and switched to a local station. Channel 17 had a reporter outside the Tranquility gate, and I caught the beginning of his interview with an officer who had now made his second appearance in one day in Frank’s den. But this time Wheaton was on TV, and he even looked like himself.
    "The burned body was identified by our county coroner with the use of Kincaid’s dental records,” Wheaton said. “It was also found that Kincaid had been beaten with a blunt object before he died in the fire. This case has been ruled a homicide.”
    The screen image shifted to footage of Wellington University playing in the NCAA Tournament, and a few seconds later, Wheaton’s face appeared in the right corner as the picture in the picture.
    “We’ve launched a full investigation inside Tranquility. It is a gated community, and the sheriff's department closed off access until further notice,” Wheaton coughed. “Pardon me. We acknowledge that while it is unlikely that those responsible for Kincaid's death are still in the community, this is a measure we must take. We urge everyone to help us."
    I hit the mute button. Who killed 20G? It stood to reason a long list of folks wanted to get rid of Kenny Kincaid. But murder?
20G had fallen from his previous state of grace, and there were many college basketball fans, some of them who pulled for Wellington, who wouldn’t take news of his demise hard.
    College basketball is supposed to be fun, but when a fan base grew accustomed to winning, it was like getting hooked on a drug. The urge to want more takes over, and really, no matter how much comes your way, you still want more. There can be no such thing as a down year.
    And it had become easy to see why some coaches in the usual list of Final Four suspects had grown cynical about fans and even more so about the process. Current rules demanded that a high school player must complete one year of college before he could declare for the NBA draft. The sad part was that one year was not enough school or time for most kids to mature enough to compete at the highest level.
    Reality couldn’t slow down the chase for the dollars, and there were always certain players who would have jumped to the pros right out of high school if they could. The NCAA established the one-year rule, and that was how Kenny Kincaid turned a slacker team into a program.
Wellington became the obvious trampoline for the spectacular kids who had only the league in mind. Class? Who went to class? It was a snap staying in school for two semesters. Just take as many incomplete courses as needed. By the time the academic side caught up with the player, he’d already left town for the bucks.
    I finished my drink. I lurched into the den for more ice and remembered the party at the club. It was too far to walk, and there was no way I would drive, not with cops all over the place and of course, recent personal history. Seemed kind of cold that there might be a party so soon after Kincaid's death. Perhaps TQ was fresh out of Wellington fans.
    The Carolina game began, and by then I’d passed the point of seeing the action for what it was. I slipped into crisis mode fueled by paranoia. Every Carolina foul served as proof of NCAA/CBS conspiracy. The worse UNC played, the more distraught I became. I yelled at the TV, and it didn’t matter if it was the game or the commercials. I played no favorites.
    As the torture continued, I barked at commercials and screamed with each UNC miss from outside the three-point line. Gonzaga took command of the game in the middle of the second half, building a lead that UNC couldn’t cut to less than seven points.
    Things turned drastic when Carolina missed a couple of layups, while Gonzaga converted four free throws. The Heels trailed by eleven points with less than four minutes to play, and I felt the emptiness that always hit me when Carolina lost in the NCAA Tournament. March Madness was an annual spell that you wanted to last for three weeks. And despite the fact that no team made it to the Final Four every year, reality had little to do with the ritual. You hoped until your team was eliminated.
I feared the end was near but still waited for a miracle.
Carolina hit a three-pointer to cut the deficit to eight. Seconds later, Gonzaga’s point guard slipped crossing the half-court line and lost the ball out of bounds. Carolina turned that miscue into another made three, cutting Gonzaga’s lead to five. That seemed promising.
Gonzaga missed a shot from three but claimed its own rebound. Their bruiser took it in low, and his layup pushed the lead back to seven. But UNC’s point guard snaked past two future NBA forwards and made a layup as he was fouled.
UNC pressed after the point guard converted the free throw to cut the margin to four points, and I thought I'd time traveled back to the Dean Smith Era when the Heels picked off a soft inbounds pass and scored a quick layup.
Gonzaga called time with 1:34 to play, leading 76-74. I paced with the Jeff Gordon cup in one hand and the TV remote in the other. I didn’t want to watch the end, but I couldn’t turn off the TV. Not while I could hope.
My heart pounded like I had climbed a cliff. I knew Carolina would press, and we did, but Gonzaga broke it easily and, be still my pounding heart, missed an open layup. UNC grabbed the rebound and called timeout with fifty-nine seconds to play.
    "Don't need a three," I screamed. "Work it inside."
    That was what UNC tried to do, but Gonzaga’s defense stiffened and forced the Heels to keep passing and moving, looking for a decent shot.     Then the shot clock buzzer went off.
    "Damn it."
    Gonzaga had the ball with less than thirty seconds to play and a two-point lead. UNC fouled with seventeen seconds left. Gonzaga missed the front end of a one-and-one, and a Tar Heel grabbed the rebound.
    Good God, y’all.
    UNC, for the first time in its history, was out of timeouts. With four seconds to play, a UNC guard launched one from just right of the circle for three. The ball hit the back of the rim, went straight up and then straight down through the hoop. Heels led, 77-76.
    Gonzaga took a desperate heave from half court that sailed over the backboard.
    Victory!
    Carolina players and coaches hugged on the court. What a game. I poured more scotch, just as the phone rang. I grabbed the phone.           "Frank? Well, it's about time. Did you see that shit?”
    A strange voice demanded, "Who is this?"
    “Trent Jones. Who are you?"
    "Are you related to Frank Williams?"
    "No. I’m a friend, house sitting for him."
    There was a pause. "This is Lt. James Gerbreth. I work with homicide in the Nineteenth Precinct of the NYPD. Frank Williams has been murdered.”