Mandy Breen is a recently unemployed crime reporter with a refined palate and an addiction to therapy. After losing her job and totaling her car (again) she feels she has nothing left to lose when her old friend Chance offers her part-ownership of his restaurant on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She accepts the offer, intent on moving to paradise and starting a new chapter in her life.
Shortly after landing on island, she finds Chance’s murdered body in the restaurant’s freezer and worries that his death was her fault. Topping the list of suspects are an old boyfriend and a former VI-PD police lieutenant who attained that “former” status due to Mandy’s reporter handiwork. However, as she sorts through the few leads she can find, she discovers Chance had been dabbling in a variety of activities that may or may not have been legal, and that may or may not have put her at the top of the list as the next victim.
While compelled to find the murderer, Mandy must also juggle the responsibilities of running the restaurant and planning a memorial, both of which she is ill-equipped to do, particularly while lacking the couch of a good shrink. However, she is surrounded by people who seem like they can help: a transplanted restaurant general manager, an Islander who is possibly an attorney, a sexy detective with the VI-PD, and a housemaid and witch doctor (or so they say). With them by her side and sometimes stumbling at her feet, she struggles to follow through on her responsibilities all the while wondering if she’ll live long enough to see their completion.
Targeted Age Group:: 16-65
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
This is almost embarrassing — back in 2000, I had received a gift in the mail that was wrapped in newspaper. It was a holiday ornament. In subsequent years, each time I pulled out that ornament to hang on a Christmas tree, I’d unwrap it and re-wrap it form that same newspaper. Keep that in mind and let me fast-forward a decade or so . . .
Many years later, while researching and planning a trip to St. Thomas, I was inspired by the culture (and the driving there) to write a book. Anyone who has ever commanded a motor vehicle on that island knows the craziness I describe in the book is pretty accurate. I cannot drive there. I suffer a mild form of amaxophobia (fear of being in a car), so my husband does most of the driving and he did ALL of it on St. Thomas. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself and several times, while on island, I joked with him that he should be grateful he’s driving because the right side of my car at home as many “mysterious” scratches and small dents so could he imagine what it would look like if we lived there? The idea brought the character Mandy to me while was relaxing on the beach with a drink in my hand while I was still on island.
Back at home, while mulling over Mandy’s story, I couldn’t quite figure out what the perfect murder weapon would be that would fit the quirkiness of the book. Until the day came when pulled out our holiday ornaments. I smoothed out that newspaper and for some reason, for the very first time, I actually looked at what was printed on it. There was a Garfield cartoon (by Jim Davis) where Garfield and his owner Jon are having a pepper eating contest. Jon wins after Garfield eats a Peruvian Death Pepper.
Dying via hot pepper seemed quirky enough.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
My characters just “come” to me. I’m not sure how but I often know why, or at least what triggered them. I love to people watch and eavesdrop on conversations when I’m in a public place. Yes, I’m aware that that could be considered nosy, but I’m not intrusive nor am I judgmental. I just like to see how people behave and I often wonder what makes them tick.
Sometimes my mind will kind of get stuck on something I see and I’ll start asking questions about it. Why did they think they needed to carry an umbrella that day when there as no chance of rain? What would cause a person to risk life and limb to change lanes on the highway so quickly to take an exit off? Does that other person think magenta is a neutral color? Those kinds of questions will just pop into my head.
Eventually, when I’m doing something that take a little mindfulness but not much (cleaning, cooking, drinking on the beach) those questions will make a character come to me with their own answers and even more information about them.
Mandy was inspired, as I mentioned in the previous question, by my own fear of driving and also by a very pretty blond woman I met on a different island who was a TV reporter and joked that her dream job was being a bar owner in the tropics. Ginger, another character in Revenge Café, was inspired after overhearing a woman in an airport tell someone that the best thing about being divorced with grown children was that she could finally live just for herself and live wherever she wanted. I wondered what that would feel like and where would someone want to go?
Most who visit the U.S. Virgin Islands can easily attest to the natural beauty of the landscape and the easy friendliness of the people who live there. Those who are more sensitive can feel the almost palpable vibrations left by the myriad souls who had made the islands their home, either intentionally or unintentionally, since pre-Columbian times.
A unique characteristic that is plainly evident, though, is the way the Islanders have transformed the English language to fit them and their unique style. To honor their distinct use of the language, I sought input from Islanders on pronunciation and even spelling to do my best to reflect it in this work.
I also tried hard to stick to the real geographic layout of St. Thomas, but I did use a little poetic license for this book. The Revenge Café is a fictional restaurant. The Villa Olga estate, however, is a real place that also happens to have a real restaurant on premises, one with amazing food, views and (rumor has it) there might just be a ghost there, too. But the similarities stop there. All people, events, and even menu items are figments of my imagination. And Villa Olga in the book sits in a slightly different place than it does on the real island so that it can be seen from a (fictional) sundry shop.
Chapter 1: In Search of a Key Ingredient
A Rastafarian man I’d never met held a cardboard sign with my name scrawled across it in black marker. Wearing dark sunglasses, wrinkled green khakis and a bright yellow T-shirt, he leaned against a trashcan in the arrivals pickup area of the St. Thomas airport in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“That would be me,” I said, pointing to the sign. “I’m Mandy Breen.”
“Welcome!” He smiled like a Cheshire cat and lifted his sunglasses to look at me below their rims. “I am Charlie.”
He took my carryon and led me past the taxis and courtesy car shuttles. We crossed a throughway, entered a rental car lot, meandered our way to a set of stone steps in the back, climbed up and then proceeded down a road. Eventually we stopped in front of an illegally parked, once white but now mostly rusted pick-up truck.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I think there’s been a mistake. A man named Chance Abbott was supposed to arrange a car for me.”
“No mistake.” Charlie threw my carryon into the truck bed. “I’s taking you to Chancey.”
“You?” I rubbed a spot of powdery rust on the hood. My finger poked through. “In this?”
“Yeah. I drive you to him.” Charlie jumped over the tailgate and into what appeared to be leftovers from a garage sale piled in the truck bed. His waist-length dreadlocks swung behind him like wind-whipped tree branches. Or maybe like tentacles reaching out to capture prey.
“That’s a good one.” I forced a laugh. “I don’t know what Chance put you up to, but the joke’s over. Where’s my real ride?”
“No joke.” Charlie stood straight. “I take you to Chancey.”
“Chance hired you to drive me?”
“Chancey needed a favor.” He shrugged. “I owed him one.”
“Oh God.” I leaned against the truck and rummaged through my purse for my cell.
“You sick?” Charlie asked.
“Not in the way you mean it.” I rammed my hand through every nook and cranny of the bag until I unearthed my phone. Chance’s end rang only to be answered by voice mail. I hung up without leaving a message and threw the phone back in my purse.
“So did Chance mention anything to you about my condition?” I asked.
“Condition?” Charlie stopped rearranging his loot and looked at me. A shadeless lamp was tucked under one arm.
“I suffer from something called amaxophobia. Ever hear of it?”
He straightened and shook his head.
I cleared my throat and swallowed my pride.
“It’s the fear of riding in cars.”
Charlie’s mouth twisted into a shape that suggested there might be bad fish nearby. “What you mean?”
“I mean I get scared, really scared, and for what most people think is no reason, when I’m a passenger in a car. Sometimes I get so scared I kind of freak out.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “I get it. I don’t like snakes. I’s afraid of dem and freak out when I see one.” He set the lamp on top of my carryon, which was on top of an old tool chest. “No worries. I be careful.” He bound everything together with a fraying bungee cord and gave me a thumb’s up before jumping out of the truck bed.
“Don’t supposed I could drive, could I?” I asked. “I usually don’t have a problem when I’m the driver.”
“She got a touchy clutch. You good w’ a stick?”
I shook my head.
“Like I say. I be careful.” Charlie’s smile was wide enough and bright enough for me to believe he meant what he said. He fumbled in his cargo pockets, presumably looking for his keys. I watched him and took long, deep, calming breaths. Sometimes they were aptly named. Sometimes. Sometimes they made me hyperventilate.
With keys in hand, Charlie manually unlocked the passenger door and opened it for me.
“H’yeh,” he grunted. I wasn’t sure if he’d said “hey you,” or “here,” or if he had simply hiccupped. Every time I’d been to the Virgin Islands in the past, I’d picked up a little of the dialect, but I had a long way to go before I could say I was fluent. “Fo’ true. I be careful,” he added.
I channeled my inner-red engine and took a step toward the truck. After another long inhalation, I ducked inside and sat down on the bench-style seat, which happened to be held together with peeling silver duct tape. Charlie closed the door and I exhaled. On the next in breath, I reached for the seatbelt over my shoulder. There was none. Fear bubbled up from my bowels. My fingers scrambled along the floor, near the door. No belt. I slammed myself upright and opened my mouth to speak. But I couldn’t make any noise with all that breath whooshing in and out.
Next thing I knew, Charlie was in the driver’s seat. The truck’s engine was gunning and we were pulling out into traffic.
Within seconds, I was in a full-blown panic attack. Yet, Charlie drove like he had not a care in the world. With one hand on the steering wheel and the other waving in the air, he crooned to a Reggae beat and bewailed the dangers of island politics as if that were all we had to fear in this world.
“Use both hands!” I screamed, batting at his free arm.
Thunk! The truck slammed into a pot hole. I bounced hard in my seat. My head bumped against the dashboard.
“Jesus! You’re going to kill us!” I yelled. “Slow down!”
But Charlie was deaf to my screams, unaware of my pleas to be careful, oblivious even to my fingernails digging into his arm and thigh. My ears tingled, my cheeks burned: tell-tale signs I was on the verge of fainting. Frantic to stay conscious, I threw my head between my knees and clutched the bars on the underside of the seat.
I rode in that almost fetal position for the rest of the ride. My tears splashed the filthy floor boards and I swore I would kill Chance. I would tackle the British bastard, wrap my hands around his neck, and squeeze until he turned purple and died, or until my arms gave out.
A lifetime later, the truck slowed to a stop. I heard the gears shift and the engine shut down. With the caution of a snake handler, I lifted my head and dared to look out the window. Much to my relief and surprise, we were not dangling over a cliff. We were in a parking lot edging a harbor and all four of the truck’s wheels were touching the pavement.
Relief washed through me as I recognized the area. In front of me, the port city of Charlotte Amalie spread in a half-circle around Long Bay. Just beyond the sea wall was a busy strait separating St. Thomas from Hassell Island. Off to its right was Water Island. The tiny, emerald green, palm-tree dotted isles created a postcard backdrop for the cruise ships and luxury yachts sailing in the dark blue water around them.
The boats glowed ethereal white in the early evening sun, like transporters from heaven anchored in the harbor for a Caribbean holiday. The smoothness of their languid dance as they glided past each other soothed me. My breath slowed. The pounding heartbeat in my ears faded. The adrenaline oozed out of my system.
“We here,” Charlie announced after a few minutes of me not moving. I heard his door squeak when he opened it to step out of the truck.
I exited my side. Grateful to be in contact with the earth again, I stretched, arching my back until it cracked. The Rasta’s eyes zeroed in on my chest. “So, uh, where’s Chance?” I shrugged into a slump.
“Probly up dere, in de restaurant.” Charlie tilted his head toward a set of stone steps climbing a hill. “Yeah, Chancey be here. Dere’s his Jeep.” He pointed to the end of the lot where a newer, dark green, Jeep Grand Cherokee was parked.
It was the closest to love at first sight I’d ever experienced. As part of the deal for me to move to the island, Chance had promised I could drive his car until I bought one of my own or found a place to live within walking distance to the restaurant. I’d been dreading his old Jeep, an abused, ancient, rag-top Wrangler. But this beauty had potential. It looked capable, rugged, reliable, tough, almost safe.
Charlie pulled my carryon from the truck. “Eh, why you no go w’ me to Duffy’s?” he asked. “I go dere now, you know. Maybe you could ha’ a drink an’ relax some ‘fore you meet up w’Chancey.” His eyes returned to hover below my neck.
“No, thank you.” I took my bag, amazed yet again, by the power of boobs. Nothing rivals their ability to make a man overlook truly pathetic qualities, even bizarre phobias, in a woman. “I need to meet up with Chance. I’m sure you’re right and he’s just inside.”
“OK. But I be dere if you change yo mind.” Charlie returned to his truck.
I headed over to the stairs and glanced back at the Grand Cherokee. Now that the initial rosy glow of my crush had passed, the Jeep bothered me. It looked lonely there in the lot. And I found it odd that Chance hadn’t mentioned buying it. Its shiny and obvious newness suggested he’d only had it a short while. It would have been smarter of him to buy it after I was done using it. Cars don’t stay shiny and new very long for me. I wondered how long I’d be able to keep it pretty and whether or not Chance would renege his offer after the first scratch.
With a sigh, I climbed the stairs, letting my carryon bang against each step behind me.
At the top I found a walkway flanked by a series of small potted palm trees and covered by a crimson awning. It led to a pristine, white stucco building whose roof matched the awning, as if both were equally burned by the tropical sun. Pink bougainvillea climbed the walls on blue trellises and carved into the hill on one side of the walkway was a limestone patio area, complete with an empty fire pit and unlit Tiki torches.
I headed down the walkway and stopped before a set of closed, oversized, frosted-glass doors. Etched palm trees ran the full height, providing swaths of clear glass that were not quite wide enough to see anything recognizable within. Above the doors hung a lacquered wooden sign: Welcome to the Revenge Café.
“Wow.” I paused for a couple heartbeats with my hand resting on a door handle. Adrenaline re-emerged and sparked throughout my body. This time from anticipation, not from fear. Here it was, framed in a tropical island setting, our, my, dream-come-true.
I was on the cusp of an exotic new beginning. One I’d been fantasizing about for far too long. No longer would I be a TV investigative reporter wearing straight skirts and high heels working in a tough city. Instead, I’d be a restaurateur, working my dream job in breezy tops and flip flops, living in paradise.
I could feel the smile spreading across my face. I was almost tingling with excitement, almost giddy. Only almost, because my reporter’s hackles were raised. The place was stunning and ideally located. I’d been expecting a tiny hole-in-the-wall that was more bar than restaurant. One where Chance and I would probably be the only two people working, maybe the only two dining as well. I wasn’t aware Chance had the means to buy a property of this caliber.
Ignoring the doubt trying to settle on my shoulders, I pulled open a door. No one greeted me.
“Chance?” I hollered. No answer. I walked toward the host’s pedestal. “Yo! Chance!”
Still, no reply.
“Yeah. You should be scared,” I said as I entered the dining room. “After that ride you just put me through.”
I rounded the host’s pedestal on tiptoes, expecting him to yell “Surprise!” at any second. But no one greeted me. The place was empty. Perhaps he was giving me the opportunity to savor the sight. He did, after all, manage to create our ideal restaurant, just as we’d always envisioned. Dark rattan furniture was balanced out with crisp white linens. Brass accents shone as if freshly polished. Ceiling fans rotated in languid circles and live palm trees framed the doors and windows. There was even a gleaming white piano on a tiny stage in one corner. The restaurant was the perfect dining tableau.
Except near the back. Something was wrong. It looked like someone had ripped the cloth off a table, not caring that a candle had toppled over and a crystal vase went flying. Letting go of my carryon, I walked toward it. Broken glass crunched beneath my sandals.
“Chance?” I stopped. “Is everything OK?” I kicked the shards from my shoe and gingerly made my way to the other side of the table.
“Chance?” I tried one more time. I was at the rear of the room and not sure what to do. To my right was what looked like a dark office area; to my left appeared to be the kitchen, where the lights were on. I chose the lighted route and pushed open a swinging door.
Again, perfection greeted me. Red tiled backsplashes gleamed along the walls. Obviously new pots and pans were lined up according to size and hung from hooks extended from the ceiling. Shiny stainless steel sinks and appliances stood next to each other at the ready for service like soldiers at boot camp graduation.
Something smelled delicious—a lobster or crab something. My nose led to me to a slow cooker pot, the kind you’d find in a home kitchen, not in a restaurant. I thought I knew what was inside and unlocked the lid to discover I was right: lobster stew, one of Chance’s favorite recipes. Inhaling deeply, I completely forgave Chance for Charlie and the rickety truck. The stew was good enough to be his penance for just about anything.
On the counter opposite the slow cooker was a large wooden salad bowl surrounded by an assortment of greens and vegetables. Next to that counter was an open door to a refrigerated pantry. By the looks of things, Chance had been frantic to find something and had tossed about fresh produce in a desperate search. Had he realized he was missing something important for our meal and gone out on foot to get it?
“Chance?” I slammed the pantry shut. “C’mon! Where are you?”
I spun around. My sandal slid on something squishy and I lost balance. Reaching out to grab hold of anything to keep from falling, I unintentionally pushed down on a different door handle. That door opened and I discovered Chance hadn’t gone in search of a key ingredient. He was still in the restaurant, in the walk-in freezer to be precise.
And he was dead
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