Shore To Please

Gulf Shore, Book 3

Annette Mardis

 

Chapter 1

Paul “Flipper” O’Riley backed away from the note as if he expected it to somehow lunge at his throat. The outrage, disgust, and, yes, he’d admit it, fear he felt at reading the vile threats composed on the single page of common white printer paper had his stomach roiling ominously.

The letters of each word had been cut from what looked like a glossy magazine and glued on like a ransom note from a classic crime drama. If the message hadn’t been so loathsome, Flipper might’ve laughed at how cartoonish it looked.

But the warning had been nailed to the front door of the cottage he rented across the street from the beach, and that in itself represented an alarming development. It meant, of course, that the animal rights crusaders who’d been hounding Flipper’s employer now knew where he lived.

With a hand he fought to keep from shaking, he drew his cell phone out of the case attached to his belt, scrolled through his contacts, and pressed a familiar number. It rang several times before the person on the other end answered with an impatient huff.

“Jo?” Flipper asked. “Is that you?”

“No, it’s the queen of England. What do you want?”

Joanna Tompkins’ characteristic grumpiness and brusque manner usually amused him, but Flipper wasn’t in the mood for her tough-chick act right now.

“I’ve got something here at my place that you need to see. Can you come over?”

“How many times do I have to tell you, Fish Brain? Even if you show me yours, I’m not going to show you mine. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.” She gave a chuckle that he didn’t appreciate, given the circumstances.

“Hilarious, but I’m serious. Another of those nasty notes came, and this one’s even more personal than the others.”

Jo’s tone immediately changed into her no-nonsense cop voice. “It mentioned you specifically by name?”

“No, but it’s nailed to my front door.”

“At your cottage?” She sounded even more concerned now.

“Yes.”

“Don’t touch it. I’ll be right over with a tech to dust for fingerprints.”

“I know the drill. I’m hanging up now and calling Kenshin.”

“See if he can meet me at your place. That’ll save me a trip to the aquarium.”

“Okay.”

“And if you’re still on your doorstep, haul your happy ass inside right now and lock the door until I get there.”

“Seriously?”

“Did you call me for help or not?”

“All right, all right. You’re the boss.”

“And don’t you forget it.”

Wary now, Flipper looked around before doing as she ordered. Then he called his boss, Kenshin Hamasaki, supervisor of marine mammals at Gulf Shore Aquarium, and filled him in. Kenshin promised to drop what he was doing and be right over.

Flipper looked around his cozy living room—with its bland, impersonal furnishings straight from the rental property decorators’ manual—and then moved to his front windows to fully close the mini blinds. He wasn’t too proud to acknowledge Jo’s admonition had freaked him out, and he was too antsy to sit. Not that he’d feel safe settling onto either the loveseat or his favorite recliner, both near windows. He yanked his hand through his hair, annoyed with himself for letting the situation unsettle him and pissed off at whoever was disrupting his life this way.

Who would’ve thought being a dolphin trainer carried such potential for danger?

Flipper paced around his living room, mulling that ridiculous circumstance until he heard a car pull up outside his cottage. He peeked through the blinds and, seeing that it was his boss, threw open the door so Kenshin didn’t touch it to knock. The other man stared at the note, which stood out against the forest green paint job Flipper’s landlady had approved with great reluctance, as if she’d been doing him a supreme favor. She’d wanted to paint the door and the trim a bright peach, but he’d talked her out of it, thank the good Lord above. His cottage was the only one of her properties that didn’t sport pastel candy colors, and for that he felt thankful.

The potential for unmerciful razzing alone would’ve made his life a veritable living hell. Which brought his mind back to the unpleasant topic at hand.

“This is the worst one yet,” Kenshin remarked after reading the message. “They’re getting bolder. This could mean they’re escalating.”

“You sound like Jo. Maybe you should quit watching so many cop shows.”

“Don’t give me that crap. I know you’re worried. It’s written all over your face.”

Flipper tried, too late, to pass off a blank expression, but then gave up with a shake of his head when he saw his boss wasn’t buying it.

“Hell, yes, I’m concerned,” the trainer confirmed. “What if they try to do something to our dolphins, whales, or manatees to ‘end their suffering,’ as that nut-job note warns?”

“There’s no way they could hijack them from the property to release them without our knowing about it.”

“That isn’t what I’m talking about. ‘End their suffering’ just as easily could mean putting them out of their misery.” Moisture pooled in Flipper’s eyes at the thought and, with an irritated swipe of his hand, he dispensed with the tears. Now wasn’t the time for maudlin emotions.

Kenshin blanched. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. But we’ve already stepped up security at the aquarium, especially around Dolphin Inlet and the rehab wing. It wouldn’t hurt to post somebody at Manatee Haven, too. If it makes you feel better, I’ll talk to Wesley about other steps we can take to protect our animals. Right now, though, I’m more afraid for you.”

“Don’t be. I’m thinking of getting a gun, taking a firearms training class, and applying for a concealed weapon license.”

“Might not be a bad idea, but you should talk to Jo before you do anything.”

“I will. She’s offered several times to take me to the firing range and I’ve never taken her up on it. I’m sure the offer still stands, especially given what just happened.”

* * * *

Trailed by a white crime scene van, Detective Jo Tompkins of the Gulf Shore, Florida police department pulled up in an unmarked car and parked along the curb about twenty minutes after Kenshin. Jo spent time perusing the lawn and the concrete driveway and sidewalk before striding up to examine the porch. She shook her head in obvious disgust as she looked at the sheet of paper and then went inside, leaving the technician to photograph the scene, dust for fingerprints, and enclose the note in a clear plastic bag.

“Find anything?” Kenshin asked when Jo pulled out her pen and notebook.

“If you’re asking about tire tracks, footprints, or something the suspects may have dropped, the answer is no,” she replied. “I don’t expect we’ll find fingerprints, either. There weren’t any on the previous letters sent to the aquarium. Whoever’s doing this isn’t careless. Let me take your statement, Flipper, and then I’ll knock on your neighbors’ doors and hope somebody saw something. What time did you go to work, and when did you arrive home?”

As Flipper filled her in and answered her other questions, Kenshin grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and began pacing.

“Will you stop it? You’re making me nervous,” Flipper snapped.

“Stop what?”

“Shuffling back and forth like that.”

“Don’t be so touchy. I’m just making a mental list of everything I need to tell Wesley to update him on the situation.”

Flipper knew the aquarium’s director, Wesley Coffey, Jr., wouldn’t be happy with this latest development. He had a tendency to sweep particularly troublesome issues under the throw rugs of his mind, as if he could will them away by ignoring them.

When the first letters had arrived by mail a few months before, neither Kenshin nor Wesley had acted concerned. Protests from animal rights activists, especially since the release of the documentary Blackfish, went with the territory, and Gulf Shore Aquarium had received its share over the years. Some of the latest missives were signed by an Orlando-based group known as SWADS, short for Stop Whale and Dolphin Suffering. The tone of those messages was far less strident than the anonymous letters, but they all called for GSA to release its six resident dolphins and two manatees back into the wild.

Then, aquarium staffers helped rescue a pod of short-finned pilot whales stranded in Gordon Pass off Naples, about four hours south of Gulf Shore, and ended up bringing three of them back to the aquarium for treatment. The whales—a mother, her male calf, and an older female—still were receiving round-the-clock attention in GSA’s rehab wing. Since the trio’s arrival, the unsigned notes had become increasingly more ominous, promising dire consequences if the whales weren’t set free, too, along with an orphaned baby dolphin named Trident that had become a media darling and a public sensation since he was found beside his dying mother on a beach near Cedar Key.

Jo’s voice caught the attention of both men in the room. “I still haven’t been able to track down Steven Christianson or Jane Childers, and that concerns me. Orlando police and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office can’t locate them, either. I’ll e-mail some of the other agencies in that area and see if they have any information.”

“Tara still doesn’t know where they are?” Flipper asked.

“No, but maybe I need to ask her again. She told me before that she hasn’t seen nor heard from either of them since she broke up with Christianson after discovering his affair with Childers. Public records show Childers’ husband has filed for divorce, and he claims he hasn’t had any contact with her since she moved out of their home.”

“Hmm. Christianson was with SWADS, right?” Kenshin asked.

“Yes,” Jo replied. “He and Tara Langley cofounded the group, and Jane Childers was a member.”

“Is it possible Tara’s covering for her ex-boyfriend?”

“No,” Flipper replied. His certain tone prompted his boss to narrow his eyes, but Flipper ignored him. “Why would she? He cheated on her, and she booted him out of their condo. She doesn’t want anything to do with him or the other woman.”

Now Jo looked at Flipper in question. “Have you talked to Tara lately?”

“She called me a few days ago requesting an update on the whales,” the trainer replied.

Irritation and distrust sparked in Kenshin’s eyes. “And what did you tell her?”

“The same thing we tell anyone else who asks. They remain under twenty-four-hour care at our facility, and no decision has been made about their long-term future.”

“Jo, I know you’ve questioned this Langley woman, but are you sure she’s not responsible for those anonymous letters?” Kenshin pressed. “She’s been awfully interested in what we’re doing. It makes me uneasy. I don’t trust her or any of her kind.”

“Her kind?” Flipper frowned. “You say that like she’s a criminal or some other undesirable.”

“And I take it you think she’s…desirable?”

Flipper snorted. “I didn’t say that. But I certainly don’t think she’s a bad person who’s plotting illegal or subversive acts. Nor do I think she’d ever do anything to harm our animals.”

“Just how well do you know her?” Sometimes Kenshin had the single-mindedness of a great white stalking a seal.

“Why all the questions? What are you insinuating?”

“Nothing. I just couldn’t help noticing how quickly you leaped to her defense. This isn’t the first time you’ve done that, either.”

Flipper could feel his irritation mounting and paused to regain his cool. The last thing he needed was to further arouse suspicion by protesting too much.

“Look, I don’t agree with her politics, but that doesn’t make her guilty of anything,” he insisted. “Before you start judging the woman, maybe you should sit down and talk to her instead of palming her off on the training staff.”

“Sure, let me invite her to lunch like you did. Or better yet, how about drinks and dinner? Maybe a movie while we’re at it. Think she’d like that?”

Flipper flexed his hand, resisting the urge to make a fist. “It wasn’t a date, and you know it. I sat down with her in the aquarium’s café, in full view of anyone who cared to notice, because I thought if somebody took the time to answer her questions she might be satisfied and go away.”

“And did she?”

“No, but—”

“Boys!” Jo interrupted. “Let’s stick to the subject at hand. This situation has become more serious now that Flipper’s received one of these notes at home. We need to discuss safety precautions, for aquarium personnel and for the animals. Kenshin, call Wesley and see if he’s available to meet after I canvass the neighborhood. We shouldn’t put this off.”

Kenshin nodded and reached for his cell phone.