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  • Right from the Gecko
  • Written by Cynthia Baxter
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  • Right from the Gecko
  • Written by Cynthia Baxter
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Written by Cynthia BaxterAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Cynthia Baxter

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List Price: $7.99

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On Sale: March 27, 2007
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-553-90354-6
Published by : Bantam Bantam Dell
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Surf’s up . . . and so are the stakes when veterinarian and amateur sleuth Jessica Popper escapes to the land of hula, hibiscus, and geckos for a professional conference. The last time she and boyfriend Nick Burby touched down on the island of Hawaii, Nick caused a volcanic eruption when he unexpectedly popped The Question to commitment-phobic Jess. But this trip proves just as dangerous when Jess befriends an ambitious young reporter whose body later washes up on the sand . . . and someone thinks Jess holds the clue to the killer’s motive.

There’s no end of suspects among the exotic flora and fauna, from the victim’s journalistic rivals and a mystery boyfriend to an eccentric beachcomber and a governor’s aide with ties to a controversial biotech firm bringing progress to paradise. One of them is a killer with the chameleon-like ability to stay hidden—and if Jessica doesn’t uncover hula-dunnit in time, she’ll be saying aloha . . . permanently.

Excerpt

Chapter One


"When a cat adopts you there is nothing to be done about it except put up with it until the wind changes."—T. S. Eliot


Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the seat-belt sign. Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts, as we expect to encounter some turbulence. . . ."

I looped my thumb under my seat belt to double-check it, then glanced over at Nick, who was crammed into the seat beside me. Even the flight attendant's warning hadn't motivated him to look up from his guidebook. Then again, he'd pretty much buried his nose in the fat paperback the moment our plane had taken off from Los Angeles. The only time he'd come up for air had been complimentary beverage time, when he'd ordered pineapple juice after expressing his extreme disappointment that mango juice wasn't on the menu.

"The Penny-Pinching Traveler's Guide to Maui says there's a great snorkeling spot right behind the Royal Banyan Hotel," he announced, passing along his eighteen-hundredth travel tip since we'd boarded the plane four and a half hours earlier. "And you can go on a sunrise bike ride on Haleakala, the volcanic crater, that's a thirty-eight-mile ride downhill–"

"Sir?" the flight attendant interrupted. "Please fasten your seat belt. We're expecting things to get a bit rocky."

"Sorry." Nick pulled his seat belt low and tight across his lap, nestling it between a pair of khaki cargo pants and a black T-shirt he'd assured me would be replaced by the brightest, most outrageous Hawaiian shirt he could find as soon as we landed.

"I'm glad you're so excited about this trip," I commented.

"Are you kidding?" Nick exclaimed. "Ten days in Hawaii is the best possible antidote to law school. After the total nightmare of exam week, I need a few days of snorkeling on some fabulous beach with a mai tai in one hand and a papaya in the other."

I didn't bother to point out that drinking mai tais and snorkeling at the same time probably wouldn't work all that well. Or that, complaining aside, Nick had managed an A in every one of the courses he'd taken during his first semester at the Brookside University School of Law. Not when I was as happy as he was to be embarking on a ten-day vacation on the Hawaiian island of Maui, combining the American Veterinary Medical Association's annual conference with what I hoped would be a romantic getaway.

I was equally pleased that I'd come up with the idea of giving him a plane ticket for Christmas. True, flying nearly six thousand miles from Long Island to Maui was a bit of a luxury, one that not every vet I knew had opted to indulge in. Suzanne Fox, for example, a close friend from vet school whose practice was on the island's East End. Of course, she was still recovering from a brush with the law she'd had a few months earlier. Frankly, I didn't blame her for needing time to get over the trauma of having the police peg her as their number-one suspect in the murder of her ex-husband's fiancee.

Another local vet I knew, Marcus Scruggs, wasn't going either. He had the distinction of being Suzanne's boyfriend for a while–an episode in Suzanne's life I still considered incomprehensible. In fact, given the messy way their relationship had ended, I wondered if they'd both decided to skip the conference because they were afraid of running into each other.

But I was convinced that Nick and I deserved to splurge. Taking a real vacation was my way of saying, Let's celebrate the fact that we both made it through your first semester of law school. Of course, his return to studenthood after years of a successful career as a private investigator was in addition to me running my busy veterinary practice, tooling around Long Island in my twenty-six-foot clinic on wheels with the words Reigning Cats and Dogs: Mobile Veterinary Services, Large and Small Animals stenciled on the side.

On top of that, for the past few months I'd been hosting a weekly TV spot on a Long Island cable station, discussing various aspects of pet care and answering callers' questions during a phone-in segment. Then there was Suzanne's brush with the law: I'd helped figure out who really murdered her ex-husband's fiancee and had almost been shoved off a cliff by the killer. So a vacation-for-two was long overdue, and I was absolutely ecstatic about this trip.

Unfortunately, ecstasy wasn't the only emotion I was experiencing.

Deep down in the pit of my stomach–an inch or two below the tingle of ecstasy–lurked a low-level feeling of anxiety. Sure, I was looking forward to our vacation in paradise, everything from gorging on coconut-flavored shave ice to watching tacky hula shows to taking those long walks on the beach that people in search of romance are always talking about.

What I wasn't looking forward to was returning to the scene of the crime.

Not a real crime. More like a crime of the heart. Almost a year and a half earlier, Nick and I had flown to Maui for our first real vacation together. And it was wonderful, until I found out he'd planned an activity I hadn't seen listed in any guidebook: proposing marriage on an isolated stretch of beach as the sun was just about ready to dip below the horizon.

It turned into one of the biggest fiascos of my entire life.

In fact, the results were so devastating that they had torn us apart. It took a murder investigation to bring us back together–but that's another story. Nick and I finally managed to patch up our relationship after spending nearly three months apart, but not until Ms. Commitmentphobe here was able to admit both to him and to myself that I didn't want to live without him.

I'd made major progress since then. He and I had just finished a three-month trial period living together in my tiny cottage in Joshua's Hollow. And I had to admit that having Nick as a roommate and live-in lover went a lot better than I'd expected. Once I got over the initial shock of having another person around all the time–which, it turns out, is very different from living with two crazed yet severely codependent dogs, an aging feline with arthritis, a tiger kitten who thinks she's Marie Antoinette, an ever-silent Jackson's chameleon with amazingly expressive eyes, and a mouthy blue and gold macaw who has the colorful vocabulary of a sailor–I actually enjoyed it.

Still, the anguish caused by what had happened the last time Nick and I went Hawaiian hadn't been forgotten. In fact, it hovered above us as we flew the five and a half hours from New York's JFK Airport to LAX in Los Angeles, then continued on a second five-hour leg to Maui. It was as much a presence as the overhead luggage compartment that Nick banged his head against every time he stood up to let me go to the bathroom.

But we were determined to make the best of it. Or ignore it. Or at least work around it. At any rate, despite whatever worries may have lingered from our last trip, I was looking forward to a long, leisurely break filled with sun, surf, and sand, with a little intellectual stimulation thrown in courtesy of the veterinary conference.

And hopefully as little turbulence as possible.

***

As Nick and I emerged from Kahului Airport, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of Auntie Em's house after the tornado dropped it in the Land of Oz. Gone were the dreary gray skies of the New York winter, the piles of slushy snow sprinkled with black soot, and the icy winds that stung any and all exposed flesh without mercy.

Instead, the landscape was lush and inviting. All around us were palm trees topped with long, spiky fronds and bright pink, red, and yellow flowers with ridiculously huge blossoms. The giant yellow blob of a sun was so wonderfully warm that I immediately tore off the sweater that had seemed so inadequate back on Long Island. Even the air smelled different, sweet and wonderfully fresh.

As if he'd read my mind, Nick said in an awed whisper, "We're not in Kansas anymore."

I just smiled. And then I whipped out my brand-new digital camera, Nick's Christmas present to me. I snapped at least a dozen photos before tucking it back into the small flowered backpack that was serving as my pocketbook on this trip.

The same feeling–that we'd just received a mandate to relax–permeated the lobby of the Royal Banyan Hotel. The fact that it had no walls to speak of helped, as did the tremendous bouquets of tropical flowers and the old-fashioned Hawaiian ukulele music piping in from hidden speakers. Two women sat at a long table, one making leis by stringing together fragrant flowers and one weaving hats and baskets out of grass. Behind them hung a display of Hawaiian quilts in pastel colors. Next to the hotel bar, the White Orchid, was a sign advertising a poolside demonstration of Polynesian music and dance every evening at six. A second sign advertised the hotel's luau, claiming it was Maui's Finest.

"Aloha," the dark-haired woman at the front desk greeted us. She was dressed in a loose-fitting muumuu made of deep-purple fabric splashed with big white flowers, and she'd tucked a white hibiscus into her hair. "Welcome to the Royal Banyan."

As she punched the keys of her computer, Nick commented, "Everybody's so friendly here."

The woman smiled. "It's what we call 'aloha spirit.' " Then she added, "That's a term that refers to the warmth and sincerity of the Hawaiian people, which comes from coordinating the mind and the heart. We try to think good thoughts and convey good feelings."

"I remember that term from the last time we were here," I said.

"Maybe we can bring a little back to New York," Nick commented. "As in, 'Yo! How about showin' a little aloha spirit over here?' "

Laughing, the woman said, "To fully understand it, you have to experience the magic of the Hawaiian Islands." She handed us our key cards, saying, "Mahalo. That's Hawaiian for thank you."

"Yo, and mahalo to you too!"

I jabbed Nick in the ribs with my elbow, but lightly, because I wanted to show him that I had already mastered the aloha spirit concept.

"Chill, bro," I told him. "You're in Hawaii now."

"Don't I know it," he returned. "Let's check out our room and then hit the shops. Somewhere out there is an extremely loud shirt with my name on it."

Like the lobby, our room had a relaxing tropical feel. Sliding glass doors opened onto a balcony, which the Hawaiians called a lanai, with a view of both the hotel's lush gardens and the ocean just beyond. The large room's turquoise and purple decor brought the same intoxicating feeling inside, even though it had all the modern conveniences like a minifridge, a hair dryer, and an iron.

We stayed just long enough to pull our clothes out of our suitcases in what could loosely be interpreted as unpacking. I threw the beige canvas tote bag I'd used as my carry-on into the closet, figuring that at some point it could double as a beach bag. Then, as soon as we changed into shorts and sandals and I pulled my dark-blond hair back into a ponytail, we headed downstairs. I was anxious to check in at the AVMA conference and get my badge, program, and all the other essentials for the five-day event.

But first, my shopaholic traveling companion needed a quick fix.

"Hey, check these out!" Nick darted into the hotel gift shop and pounced upon a rack of boxy aloha shirts in loud, colorful prints that featured, in various combinations, palm trees, exotic-looking flowers, parrots, outrigger canoes, and 1950s-era station wagons with surfboards mounted on the roof. He pulled out the loudest one and held it up to his chest. It was splashed with hot-pink hibiscus and orange parrots, neither of which bore the slightest resemblance to any flora or fauna actually found in nature. "How do I look?"

"Like Don Ho on dress-down Friday," I replied. "But somehow, it suits you."

He grinned. "I'll go try this on. D'you mind?"

"Be my guest. And see if they have a matching muumuu for me."

Actually, the idea of doing some shopping of my own was pretty tempting. I wanted to get something for my dear friend and landlady Betty Vandervoort, perhaps a colorful sundress or some unusual shell jewelry. Even though Betty's last birthday cake had had more than seventy candles on it, she'd never outgrown her love of dressing flamboyantly. I planned to bring back a souvenir for Suzanne too, although I had a feeling her taste ran more to a Hunks of Hawaii calendar. I also wanted to stock up on coffee beans, since Hawaiian coffees, especially Kona coffee, were among the finest in the world.

But I figured all that could wait, especially since I'd just gotten here. Glancing across the lobby, I added, "I'm going to see if I can register before the line gets too long."

Fortunately, registration for the conference had just begun, enabling me to walk right up and give my name without waiting in line.

"Popper, Popper . . . Jessica Popper?" the man running the show asked.

"That's me."

He gave me my laminated badge, a thick conference program listing the topics and speakers for all the sessions, and a forest-green canvas bag printed with the name of the conference and the organization's logo. I figured I was all set, but then he handed me a bulky brown envelope so stuffed with goodies it was stapled shut to keep them all from falling out.

"Here's everything you need," he announced. "Enjoy the conference."

"Thanks." I stuck the badge and the program in my backpack. As for the envelope, I'd been to enough of these conferences to know it contained the usual assortment of booklets advertising medications and other items of interest to veterinarians. No doubt it was also packed with freebies from the drug companies, promotional items like pens, refrigerator magnets, coasters, rubber chewy toys in bright colors, and pads of Post-its, all emblazoned with the names of the drugs they manufactured.

This one also had a hard plastic item in it that felt like an audiocassette. I'd gotten these before too. They invariably turned out to be a recording of some James Herriot wannabe reading from a book he'd written, hoping this free sample would entice all of us to buy his masterpiece and put him that much closer to The New York Times best-seller list.

I tucked the envelope inside the green bag, figuring I'd sort through the contents later. At the moment, I wasn't quite ready to focus on my day job. Instead, I luxuriated in the simple act of wandering through the open-air lobby, breathing in the soothingly warm air that was lightly scented with flowers. A nice side effect of all those huge bouquets of exotic flowers, I realized. Even the couches and chairs fit into the tropical feeling. They were made of bamboo and covered in bright floral fabrics.

As I strode by the front door of the hotel, however, I saw that the scene right outside the hotel was definitely lacking in aloha spirit. Crammed near the entrance were trucks from what looked like every one of the island's television stations. They were emblazoned with the call letters of what I assumed were affiliates of the major networks: KHNL, KGMB, KITV, KHON.
Cynthia Baxter

About Cynthia Baxter

Cynthia Baxter - Right from the Gecko
Cynthia Baxter is a native of Long Island, New York. She currently lives on the island’s North Shore, where she is at work on her next mystery.

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