“Ah, this is more like it.” Patricia McKay beamed, soaking in a warm sun while sitting on a remote tropical beach. Sure, she was alone, and the island Edna, her boss, had assigned her to explore wasn't the grandest. Actually, the area was small and not even designed to attract tourists, but so what? Patricia had no problem lying on a warm beach towel wearing a colorful t-shirt and a pair of tan shorts while digging her little toes into white sand as gentle waves brushed up against the beach from a beautiful blue ocean. “Okay, maybe that was a little overboard.” Patricia laughed to herself as she applied more sunscreen to her nose and adjusted the straw hat she was wearing to cover her pair of cheap sunglasses. “Or maybe not. Who cares?”
She reached down and grabbed a bottle of cold water out of a picnic basket she had brought along and looked around. Palm trees and white sand stretched out before her eyes, hugging a beach that had taken a little while to hike to. The beach could only be reached by hiking down a steep hill into a rocky area of the island and then following a thin trail of rough rocks around the bottom of a high cliff. The tide had to be out, and a person had to be careful to leave the beach before the tide arrived or they would spend the night. The thick jungle lying beyond the palm trees abruptly ended at a rock wall that prevented anyone from leaving the beach. “I've got an hour before the tide rolls in,” Patricia reminded herself, then took a sip of water. “Right now, I want to sit here and enjoy the view...the peace...the quiet...and…”
Movement in the water caught Patricia's eyes. “A dolphin!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet.
Three happy dolphins appeared in the ocean, playing and acting silly. Patricia ran to the waterline and waved at the dolphins. “Hey, babies, over here! See me waving to you? Hey!”
The dolphins saw Patricia but didn't swim close. Instead, they continued to play and swam away, traveling farther north.
“Oh drat. Well, bye!” Patricia yelled and walked back to her beach towel and plopped down. “Ah, this is more like it. Wait, I already said that.” She laughed. “Okay, I might be getting a little bored and a little...lonely. I wish Mrs. Nillins would fly to the island already. I can't leave until I interview her, and Edna is getting a little impatient. But it's not like she's spending a fortune for me to be here, right? The little hut I'm staying in doesn't cost a fortune to rent each night. Leave it to Edna to find a hut that costs five dollars a night.”
“Huh?” Patricia turned her head and looked down the beach. She spotted a woman in her late fifties easing onto the beach in the far distance, carefully exiting the rock trail. Patricia didn't recognize the approaching woman. She stood up on careful legs and offered a friendly wave. “Uh, hello!”
Norma Nillins waved back with one hand while lugging a picnic basket with the other hand. “I was told you were here,” she called out as she hurried down the beach to Patricia. She smiled under her baggy pink and yellow beach hat that hid long gray hair that was once pretty and brown. “You're Patricia McKay, right?”
“Are you Mrs. Nillins?”
“Ms. Nillins,” Norma confirmed and sighed. “I'm recently divorced, but life goes on. Husband gives you the pink slip, you move on. Sometimes the dead get what they deserve while a pretty woman moves on with her life.”
Patricia took a few quick seconds to soak in Norma's appearance without soaking in the woman's statement. Norma, it appeared, looked like an aging 1950s actress—she was still pretty, but time was taking its toll on her. However, Patricia admired that the woman still had good taste in dresses. “Well, if your ex-husband saw you in that dress you're wearing, he'd realize what kind of mistake he made.”
Norma smiled. “Yellow and pink have always been my colors. Uh...no dress for you, I see?”
“I burn easy,” Patricia explained. “I have to guard my face and shoulders. A good old t-shirt and a pair of tan shorts aren't very fancy, but they work.” She nodded toward the ocean. “When I return home, the man I'm dating will be eager to take me to dinner and hear all about my adventure. Can't risk getting a terrible sunburn and having him make fun of me,” she joked.
“Ah, young love. So grand.” Norma smiled. She put down the picnic basket she was holding and fished out a beach towel. “Well, you are as pleasant as Edna said you would be, so why don't we sit down and conduct our interview?”
Patricia glanced at Norma and moaned. “Edna fussed at you, didn't she? That's why you hiked this far out?”
“Well, Edna might have called my cell phone a few million times, wondering where I was.” Norma laughed. “But I don't mind. This is my favorite spot on this island. I usually like to get here right when the tide goes out. We have—”
“About an hour?”
Norma checked a wristwatch she was wearing. “Fifty-four minutes.” She smiled. “We'll pack up and walk out in thirty minutes. In the meantime…” She placed her beach towel onto the warm sand, sat down, and fished out a cold soda and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from her picnic basket. “You need to ask me about my idea to renovate this little island and turn it into a grand tourist spectacle. So ask away!”
Patricia could tell she would like Norma. Norma was pushing fifty, sure, but the woman still had a child's heart, innocent and sweet—at least it seemed that way to Patricia. First impressions were not always reliable.
“I didn't bring my pen and notepad, but I have a sharp memory.” Patricia sat down and put her hands around her knees. “Before we begin the interview, you realize that I write humor pieces, right?”
“Of course,” Norma assured Patricia. She popped open her soda and took a gulp. “That's why I called my old friend Edna. I plan to turn this island into the funniest island on the planet. My plan is attracting every comedian I can and, in return, attract people who hunger for clean, fun laughs. No alcohol, no tobacco, no drugs—just clean, fun laughs. A place for families.” Norma looked out at the calm, peaceful ocean. “Beyond those waves, there is a hard, cold, evil, cruel world, Patricia. I'm sure you realize that.”
“Yes, I do.” Patricia heard a deep pain grab Norma's voice and then let go.
Norma sighed. “There aren't many places left for families to vacation anymore,” she explained, allowing the pain to resurface again. “When I was growing up, it wasn't so bad. But today, families are forced to spend a fortune to sleep in chain hotels while paying outrageous prices for meals and then go broke paying to ride some lame ride or see some lame attraction. Lines, snotty employees, hot sun…and for what? To relax and enjoy family time together? If that's family time, shoot me already.”
Patricia looked out at the ocean. She saw the waves turn into long, impossible lines at lame amusement parks that cost an arm and leg to get into. She saw greedy hotel chains raising their summer rates. She saw thirsty children begging their parents to pay five dollars for a bottle of water. “I usually wait until it's autumn and visit the local pumpkin farms in my town. I used to like corn mazes, but I don't anymore. Autumn is peaceful. Summer vacations are always so hectic.”
“Exactly,” Norma agreed, taking a bite of her sandwich. “I want to turn this little island into a place of innocent laughter and fun at a cheap price that even the poorest family can afford—if they can afford the plane ticket out to the island, that is.” Norma gulped down more soda. “Patricia, you've been a guest on this island for a week now. By now you know this island isn't…”
Norma nodded. “And I intend to keep it that way. All those little rundown huts that line the beaches will stay the same. I want families to enjoy the beach experience. No phones or internet, just island living while enjoying clean comedy shows each night and island fun during the day. Oh, I suppose I will add a few extra pools and a play center for the children, but it's the island I will turn into a sweet dream. But I need some publicity...and a piece of work that will attract clean comedians who might want to visit my island and make a name for themselves.”
“What will be your pitch?” Patricia asked.
“I’ll pay for airfare, lodging, and food for any comedian who agrees to sign a month-long contract with me,” Norma explained.
“Uh, the food isn't that great. Might want to scratch that part off your list,” Patricia joked.
Norma laughed. “Edna warned me you were a sharp cookie. It might benefit me to pay attention to such grounded advice.”
Patricia was beginning to like Norma. She relaxed, picked up her bottle of water, and asked fun questions. Norma listened and answered each question excitedly. But then it came time to pack up and leave before the tide arrived.
Norma checked the time and studied the beach. “Tide comes in fast if you're not careful. Ready?” she asked Patricia.
Patricia shoved her beach towel into her picnic basket and smiled. “Ready.”
“Let's move.” Norma checked her picnic basket to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything and started down the beach. She had taken no more than ten steps when a red dart came flying out of nowhere and dug into her neck. Norma let out a loud, painful cry, thinking an insect had bitten her. She dropped the picnic basket and grabbed the dart now lodged in her neck.
“What is...” Norma yanked out the dart as Patricia ran up to her. “A dart?” she asked in a confused voice as the world around her turned weak and dark. “I'm feeling very strange, Patricia. Please get me back to the main...”
Before Norma could finish her words, she collapsed onto the warm sand.
Patricia threw down her picnic basket, dropped to the sand, and checked Norma. “Norma, stay with me. Oh, don't die.” Patricia grabbed Norma's left wrist and checked for a pulse. “No pulse, and she's not breathing.” Feeling desperate and scared, Patricia began CPR. “Norma, stay with me. Don't die, don't die.”
As Patricia conducted CPR on Norma, a shadowy figure watched until the tide rolled in, trapping Patricia on the beach. Satisfied that Patricia was now trapped and Norma was now dead, the figure eased back to the rock wall resting at the edge of the thick forest that wrapped around the beach, then climbed up a repelling rope and vanished.
“Don't die!” Patricia cried, feeling hot tears spill out of her eyes as she continued to work on Norma. Finally, after what seemed like forever, she crashed down onto the sand and checked Norma again for a pulse. “No pulse. She isn't breathing. She's...gone.”
The sound of the incoming tide washing up over the rock trail caught Patricia's attention. She struggled to her legs and ran down the beach hoping to defeat the tide, but it was too late. Water is at least waist-deep now. Tide is coming in very strong. It was difficult enough walking in here on the rocks, so there's no way I'll be able to walk out with those waves hitting the cliff wall like that. I'll be thrown around like a rag doll. “I'm trapped for the night,” she said to herself, defeated.
Desperation sank into her heart. She walked back to Norma's body and sat down on the sand. “I'm so sorry, Norma,” she whispered, fighting back tears. “Who would want to kill you? You were such a nice and sweet woman nursing a respectable and admirable dream. Who would do this?” She picked up Norma's right hand and held it. “Norma, I know we barely knew each other, but I promise to do all that I can to make sure that your killer is brought to justice somehow. Please forgive me if I fail.”
Patricia set Norma's soft hand down onto the warm sand, pulled out a long beach towel, covered the woman's dead body, and looked around. “Someone was in the jungle. Only way out is up the rock wall. Juan showed me the rock wall when he brought me to this beach four days ago. The killer must have climbed down the rock wall, shot Norma with the dart, and escaped. That's the only feasible explanation I can see. The dart came from the jungle.”
Patricia considered venturing into the jungle but hesitated. Juan had warned Patricia to stay out of the jungle. “Dangerous insects and spiders,” he’d warned in a thick island accent, carrying a machete in his hands. “What good would it do to go into the jungle anyway?” Patricia asked herself while eyeing an impossibly thick patch of jungle brush sitting behind the palm trees lining the beach. The palm trees had been planted on the beach by an adventurous man many, many years ago—the jungle was now raw, dangerous, and untouched. “Looks like I have to wait until the tide goes out. It'll be dark by then. The tide changes every six to seven hours. It'll be too dark for me to navigate my way back to the main part of the island. I didn't even bring a flashlight. Why would I have?”
With no other choice but to wait out the night, Patricia sat on the beach close to Norma's body and studied the incoming tide with sad, worried eyes. “Why do I always get caught up in murder?” she whispered. “This was supposed to be a fun, simple assignment. Now look—I'm trapped on a beach, the closest law enforcement is on the next island that takes over an hour to fly to by plane—even longer by boat—and anyone could be the killer.” Patricia walked her mind back to the main part of the island and saw a two-story stone hotel standing next to a row of palm trees, a little, unappealing stone restaurant, and countless rows of rundown beach huts lining a beautiful but tired beach. “Might as well make a list of suspects.” She sighed. “Let's see. Juan, Maria, Kelly, Barney, Mrs. Goldman, Greg the cook—he's a strange one—Mr. Holland, the groundskeeper…that's about it. All seven of them. And any one of them could be the killer, or maybe not? Maybe the killer is someone else who's been hiding or followed Norma to the island?”
Patricia hugged her knees and watched the tide come in like a lonely hand covering her heart. She had never felt so alone and scared in all her life.