SHE FLOATED on the face of the pool like an exotic water lily. Her hair fanned out around her head, undulating, a silken lily pad to drift on. The sheer layers of fabric that made up her dress skimmed the surface, backlit by the pool lights, purple and fuchsia, the shimmering skin of a rare sea creature that came out only at night in the depths along a coral reef.
She was a vision, a mythical goddess dancing on the water, her slender arms stretched wide to beckon him.
She was a siren, tempting him closer and closer to the water. Her blue eyes stared at him, her full, sensuous lips parted slightly, inviting his kiss.
He had tasted her kiss. He had held her close, felt the heat of her skin against his.
She was a dream.
She was a nightmare.
She was dead.
He opened his cell phone and punched in a number. The phone on the other end rang . . . and rang . . . and rang. Then a gruff and groggy voice answered.
“What the hell?”
“I need an alibi.”Chapter Two
I AM NOT a cop. I am not a private investigator, despite all rumors to the contrary. I ride horses for a living but don’t make a nickel doing it. I am an outcast from my chosen profession and I don’t want another.
Unfortunately, our fates have little to do with what we want or don’t want. I know that all too well.
That February morning I walked out of the guest cottage I had called home for the past year, just as the sun was beginning to break. The eastern horizon was color-saturated in stripes of hot orange, hot pink, and bright yellow. I like that hour before most of the world wakes. The world seems still and silent, and I feel like I’m the only person in it.
The broad-leaved St. Augustine grass was heavy with dew, and thin layers of fog hovered over the fields, waiting for the Florida sun to vaporize them. The smell of green plants, dirty canal water, and horses hung in the air, a pungent organic perfume.
It was Monday, which meant I had the peace and quiet of absolute privacy. My old friend and savior Sean Avadon, who owned the small horse farm on the outskirts of Wellington, had taken his latest amour to South Beach, where they would oil themselves and roast in the sun with a few thousand other beautiful people. Irina, our groom, had the day off.
All my life I have preferred the company of horses to people. Horses are honest, straightforward creatures without guile or ulterior motive. You always know where you stand with a horse. In my experience, I can’t say the same for human beings.
I went about the morning routine of feeding the eight beautiful creatures that lived in Sean’s barn. All of them had been imported from Europe, each costing more than the average middle-class American family home. The stable had been designed by a renowned Palm Beach architect in the Caribbean plantation style. The high ceiling was lined with teak, and huge art deco chandeliers salvaged from a Miami hotel hung above the center aisle.
That morning I didn’t settle in with my usual first cup of coffee to listen to the soft sounds of the horses eating. I hadn’t slept well–not that I ever did. Worse than usual, I should say. Twenty minutes here, ten minutes there. The argument had played over and over in my mind, banging off the walls of my skull and leaving me with a dull, throbbing headache.
I was selfish. I was a coward. I was a bitch.
Some of it was true. Maybe all of it. I didn’t care. I had never pretended to be anything other than what I was. I had never pretended I wanted to change.
More upsetting to me than the argument itself was the fact that it was haunting me. I didn’t want that. All I wanted to do was get away from it.
I had lost time thinking about it. The horses had finished their breakfast and were on to other things–hanging their heads out their windows or over their stall doors. One had grabbed a thick cotton lead rope left hanging beside his door and was swinging it by his teeth around and around his head like a trick roper, amusing himself.
“All right, Arli,” I muttered. “You’re it.”
I pulled the big gray gelding out of his stall, saddled him, and rode off the property.
The development where Sean’s farm was located was called Palm Beach Point–which was neither a point nor anywhere near Palm Beach. All horse properties, it was common to see riders on or along the road or on the sandy trails that ran along the canals. Polo ponies were often jogged along the road three and four abreast on either side of an exercise rider. But it was Monday, the one day in seven most horse people take off.
I was alone, and the horse beneath me didn’t like it. Clearly I was up to no good–or so he thought. He was a nervous sort, highstrung, and spooky on the trail. I had chosen him specifically for that reason. My attention couldn’t wander on this one or I would find myself in the air, then on the ground, then walking home. Nothing could be in my head except his every step, every twitch of an ear, every tensing of a muscle.
The trail ran straight with the road on my right and a dark, dirty, narrow canal on my left. I sat, bumped the gelding with a leg, and he jumped into a canter, pulling against the reins, wanting to run. A small group of white ibis browsing along the bank startled and took wing. Arli bolted at the explosion of bright white feathers, leaped in the air, squealed, bucked, and took off, his long legs reaching for as much ground as he could cover.
A saner person would have been choking on terror, hauling back on the reins, praying to survive. I let the horse run out of control. Adrenaline rushed through my veins like a narcotic.
He ran as if hell was closing in behind us. I stuck to him like a tick, sitting low over my center of gravity. Ahead, the road made a hard turn right.
I didn’t touch the reins. Arli ran straight, leaving the road, staying with the canal. Without hesitation, he bounded across a small ditch and kept running, past the dead end of another dirt road.
He could have broken a leg, fallen on me, thrown me, paralyzed me. He could have stumbled hard enough to unseat me and dragged me by one foot caught in the stirrup. But it wasn’t the horse that frightened me, or the potential for injury or death. What frightened me was the excitement I felt, my euphoric disregard for my own life.
It was that feeling that finally made me wrestle for control–of the horse and of myself. He came back to me a little at a time, from a dead run to a gallop to a canter to a huge prancing trot. When he finally came more or less to a halt, his head was up in the air, and he blew loudly through flared nostrils. Steam rose from his body and mine, both of us drenched in sweat. My heart was racing. I pressed a trembling hand against his neck. He snorted, shook his head, jumped sideways.
I didn’t know how far we had run. The fields were long behind us. Woods stood on both sides of the dirt road. Tall, spindly pine trees thrust themselves toward the sky like spears. Dense scrub choked the far bank of the canal.
Arli danced beneath me, nervous, skittish, ready to bolt. He ducked his big head and tried to tug the reins out of my hands. I could feel his muscles quivering beneath me, and it dawned on me that this was not excitement he was feeling. This was fear.
He snorted again and shook his head violently. I scanned the banks of the canal, the edge of the woods on either side. Wild boar roamed through this scrub. Wild dogs–pit bulls set loose by rednecks who had beat them into meanness, then didn’t want them around. People had reported sighting the occasional panther in the area. Rumors always abounded that something or another had escaped from Lion Country Safari. Alligators hunted in the canals. My body tensed before I could even process what caught my eye. A human arm reached up out of the black water of the canal, as if stretching out for help that was far too late in coming. Something–a bobcat, perhaps, or a very ambitious fox–had tried to pull the arm out of the water, but not for any benevolent reason. The hand and wrist had been mangled, the flesh torn, some bone exposed. Black flies hovered and crawled over the limb like a living lacy glove.
There were no obvious tire tracks leading over the bank and into the water. That happened all the time–too much to drink, asleep at the wheel, no common sense. People plunged to their deaths in South Florida’s canals every day of the week, it seemed. But there was no sign of a car here.
I took a hard grip on the reins with one hand, pulled my cell phone from my belt with the other, and punched in a number. The phone on the other end of the line rang twice.
“Landry.” The voice was curt.
“You’re going to want to come out here,” I said.
“Why? So you can kick me in the teeth again?”
“I’ve found a body,” I said without emotion. “An arm, to be precise. Come, don’t come. Do what you want.”
I snapped the phone shut, ignored it when it rang, and turned my horse for home.
This was going to be one hell of a day.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag. Copyright © 2007 by Tami Hoag. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.