CHAPTER ONE 

I bet there’s more than one man on this earth who considers a string bikini a lethal weapon.  After what I personally witnessed here in Miami, I’m in their camp.

As I sit poolside nursing the last piña colada I’ll enjoy for some time—I’m flying home to Ohio in the morning—my mind cannot help but return to the events of the last week.  They include homicide, a run-in with an extremely ill-tempered crocodile, the successful crowning of a new Teen Princess of the Everglades, a rather fraught ocean voyage aboard a luxury sportfisher, a bout or two of salsa dancing, and a truly amazing ghost story.

That last involved Mario Suave—pageant emcee, reality-show host, and temptation of the highest order.

But I digress.

Events spiraled out of control on my second day in Miami.  At the time I was explaining to Trixie Barnett, the reigning Ms. Congeniality and a prime BFF, how the aforementioned Mario had requested my presence at this sultry outpost to get him out of a bind.

Trixie flipped her copper-colored bangs away from her hazel eyes.  If memory serves, she was wearing a strappy black floral chiffon maxi dress—very flowy and featuring a high/low hem.  “What in heaven’s name is up with these Teen Princess of the Everglades pageant people?”  She threw up her hands.  “Mario’s daughter is competing!  They should know he might be able to help organize the pageant but he certainly can’t judge it!  Or emcee it!”

You and I both know Trixie is rarely exasperated.  But the poor thing is going through a rough patch back home and is majorly stressed.  That’s why I invited her to join me in Miami.  This beauty queen knows there’s nothing like a change of scene to get a new lease on life.

Anyway, we were sitting in the theater venue suffering through rehearsals for the pageant’s opening number.  The finale was set for the next night and Mario’s 16-year-old daughter Mariela was one of seventy or so girls struggling to master what anyone with two brain cells to rub together would know was over-complicated choreography.

“These poor girls started practicing yesterday afternoon and they’re still totally confused!” Trixie shrieked.

“Can you believe the choreographer has them wearing sunglasses?”

“It’s way too dark for those!  The only light in here comes from the colored spotlights!”

Which might be why pandemonium reigned onstage.  The contestants could barely see but were being forced to perform a synchronized dance while carrying around gigantic cardboard cutouts of the Florida state animal symbols.  Which by then I knew included the porpoise, manatee, loggerhead sea turtle, and cracker horse.  Not to mention the American alligator, which might be what ticks off the crocodiles.

“The music’s lousy, too!” Trixie cried.  “Why couldn’t they at least pick a song with a beat?”

A wail emanated from the stage.  A contestant toting a gigantic cutout of a largemouth bass slammed into an empty-handed bystander.

“Why is that girl carrying around a humungous cardboard fish?” Trixie screeched.  “Anyhoo”—she got a grip on herself—“Mario asked if you could fill in for the judge who dropped out?”

“Even though it was big-time short notice.  She pulled out just two days ago.  Crisis at work or something.”

“Mr. Cantwell gave the A-OK?”

“Sure did.”  Our pageant owner might be facing felony tax-evasion charges but he is back to presiding over the Atlanta headquarters.  “He even made it an official appearance.”  Meaning my expenses are paid by the Ms. America organization.  This is one of the many perks of being the titleholder: I am called upon to represent the pageant at events across our great nation at no cost to me.  Have tiara; will travel.

I will also admit to you, dear reader, that Miami held the additional lure of one Mario Suave, whom I knew would be on site cheering his daughter’s pageant efforts.  Unfortunately his daughter’s mother Consuela is on site as well, and she is what my mother would call “a piece of work.”

Jostling occurs a few rows behind us.  I twist in my seat to spy the male judge—a sizable Samoan individual—attempting to disappear up the aisle.

“That’s Lasalo Dufu,” I whisper to Trixie.  “He used to play for the Dolphins and now owns a car dealership here in Miami.  Dufu Dodge.  And that’s the other judge all the way to the left over there.”

“The woman with the long hair who has on as much makeup as we do?”

“She has to for work.  She does the weather for one of the Spanish-language TV stations.  Her name is Perpetua Lopez Famosa.  Peppi for short.”

We watch the contestants reassemble to take it from the top.  In short order the pirate-ship prop rises from below the stage floor at such speed that one teen queen gets thwacked in the backside by the prow.  Just as she bursts into tears, the crescent moon prop drops precipitously from overhead and contestants are forced to scatter or get conked in the noggin.

“Somebody could really get hurt in here!” Trixie cries.  “Remember the good old days when pageant people knew what they were doing?  Like when Miss Texas USA did ‘These Boots are Made for Walkin’ ’ for their opening number?”

“That was fabulous!  Texas always puts on a good show.”  I think back to my own pageant triumphs.  “Wasn’t it fun when we did ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby’ on Oahu?”

“Yes!”  Trixie pokes me in the arm.  “But that pageant’s always going to be extra special for you because that’s where you won your Ms. America crown.”

So true.  Sometimes I still can’t believe that the name Happy Pennington will forever be burnished by a national pageant win.  Talk about a glittering place in history.

Trixie and I shamelessly reminisce while matters on stage careen from bad to worse.  One girl trips over the trap door for the pirate ship, causing a fatal injury to the cardboard cracker horse.  Mercifully the choreographer calls a lunch break.

“Thank the Lord!”  Trixie levers herself to her feet.  “I couldn’t take much more of that.  Plus I’m always in the mood to eat these days.  Can you tell I gained a pound and a half?”

Two pounds and it would be a bona fide beauty queen disaster.  “You know what we’ll do?” I say.  “Ramp up our workouts.”  We head up the aisle, my maxi dress swirling about my legs.  It’s a halter-style with stripes of black and burgundy angled to create the effect of a wrap dress.  “Remember how buff we got in Vegas when we were training for the Sparklettes?”

“That was only a month ago but it feels like a lifetime.  I miss Shanelle!”

“I do, too.”  Shanelle and I were roommates on Oahu when she represented Mississippi in the Ms. America pageant and she accompanied me to Vegas when we were both bridesmaids.  Now she’s keeping the home fires burning in Biloxi, taking care of her husband and son when she’s not masterminding the IT department at a bank.

Teen beauty queens stream past us.  “See you this afternoon, Ms. Pennington!”  “Have a good lunch, Ms. Pennington!”  When they cry, “You have a good lunch too, Ms. Lopez!” I realize Peppi’s right behind me.

She winks and leans close.  “I’ve never seen teenage girls be so nice.”

I wish my daughter took a page from their book.  Of course, she doesn’t have their incentive.  I introduce Trixie to Peppi, who I now see is wearing a pink and white polka dot bikini under a black cover-up.  “Are you going over to the hotel for a swim?”

“Are you kidding?  Ruin my makeup by actually going in the water?  No, I just want to lie out and get some sun.  See you later!”  She sashays off.

Sunlight smacks Trixie and me upside the head as we exit the theater but the air is pleasantly warm rather than blazing hot.  Though we’re a few miles from the center of the action—outrageous, anything-goes South Beach—palm trees poke high into the bright blue sky and I swear you can smell the ocean.

Trixie sighs with satisfaction.  “November’s the perfect time to be in Miami.”

“The weather’s great but the high season prices haven’t kicked in yet.”

“Thank the Lord,” Trixie mutters.

I could kick myself for mentioning money.  “You’ll get your job back, Trixie.  Your boss’ll realize she can’t survive without you.”

“I can’t talk about it or I’ll start crying.  Or screaming.  Or crying and screaming.”

Back home in Charlotte, Trixie worked for a bridal salon whose owner decided to replace her number one saleswoman with her can’t-hold-a-job daughter.  Good luck with that, is what I’m thinking.

“Let’s talk about something cheerful,” Trixie says.  “Like when do I get to meet Rachel and your dad?”

“Rachel tonight.”  My 17-year-old has promised to join us for dinner.  “As for my dad, it depends on when he blows into town on his hog.”  I only hope Pop isn’t toting his lady friend on the rump end.  I used the attraction of Florida fishing to pry him away from her.  As far as I’m concerned those two are getting too close for comfort.

“It’s too bad your mom’s not here,” Trixie says.

“You will never believe what’s going on with her.  I’ll tell you about it at lunch.  I’m buying.”  I raise my hands to forestall objections.  “How about we try the Cuban place down the block?”

“When in Rome!” Trixie chirps.

The place is bursting with teen queens and their moms but given my vaunted status as a judge Trixie and I score a table.  We order two entrees to share: Camarones en salsa criolla and Pierna de puerco asada.  Basically, shrimp in tomato sauce with onions and bell peppers and roast pork marinated in garlic and spices.  We wash it down with copious quantities of Coke Zero.

“Will Jason come to Miami like he went to Vegas?” Trixie asks.

“We won’t be here long enough.  Plus he doesn’t want to take off school.”

My Ms. America prize money paved the way for my husband to take a leave from his mechanic’s job to attend pit school.  Now he’s so into it that it’s hard to believe I had to badger him into enrolling.  It may have taken 34 years but Jason is morphing into an ambitious man.  I really miss him while he’s in North Carolina but I’m not complaining about the change in attitude.

Trixie and I are doing a bang-up job of inhaling our delectable repast when a girl’s voice rises a few decibels above the piped-in Latin music.  “Are you telling me you don’t believe she saw it?”  Then a few seconds later: “She wouldn’t lie about something like that!”  Somebody shushes the girl but we hear her again.  “I swear, if those end up being the top five?  I’m going postal.”

“Who is that girl who’s talking so loud?” Trixie wants to know.  She gazes over my head.  “Isn’t that Mario’s daughter?”

I spin in my seat.  “That is Mariela.”

“Wow.  She is gorgeous.”

It is so true.  I must be careful not to favor her but on the basis of looks alone it’s hard to imagine another girl beating Mariela Machado Suave for the Teen Princess of the Everglades crown.  Imagine a teenaged version of Penelope Cruz multiplied by Sofia Vergara and you get the picture.

Of course, we all know that other factors weigh heavily in pageant competition.  Grace, intelligence, poise under pressure …

None of which I’m seeing displayed at the moment.  I watch Mariela half rise from her chair and throw down her napkin.  “I don’t care what you say!  My mom totally saw the list of the top five!  And my name was crossed off!”

She must feel my eyes because all of a sudden Mariela’s looking right at me.  Her jaw slams shut faster than a shark’s after nabbing a seal pup.  She drops back into her chair as her fellow teen queens assume horrified expressions.  “She heard you!” one of them yelps.

She sure as heck did.  As I rise and approach Mariela’s table, all voices hush.  “Is there a problem, girls?”

“Nothing’s wrong, Ms. Pennington,” one girl replies.

“Mariela?  Will you tell me what you were just telling your friends?”

She juts her chin.  With that gesture she could be Rachel’s twin, though the two are about as alike as Lady Gaga and Mother Teresa.  “I think this pageant’s rigged,” Mariela asserts then details her claim about her mother seeing a top five list.  “My mom told Ms. Lopez off about it, too,” Mariela concludes as I note that while lots of moms are in the restaurant, Consuela Machado is not among their number.

I keep my tone measured.  “I don’t know what your mom saw, Mariela, but I assure you the pageant isn’t rigged.  We haven’t even started the preliminary competition.  You know we’ve got swimsuit and evening gown tonight and personal interview tomorrow morning.  No semifinalists will be picked until that’s all done.”

Mariela is wise enough to remain silent but I can tell she’s having none of it.  This is a Pageant Teaching Moment if ever I saw one.

“Girls, remember how important it is to maintain a positive attitude.  That doesn’t just mean believing you can win.”  I make eye contact with every teen queen at the table.  “It also means believing the best of everyone around you.”

Mariela looks away but I see her roll her eyes.  As the girl next to her stifles a giggle, I conclude that Mariela could care less about dissing a pageant judge.  Either she’s super confident or a little foolish.

I glance at my watch.  “Pay your checks, ladies.  You’re due on stage in seven minutes.”

Scrambling ensues.  Trixie leans close when I return to our table.  “You handled that really well, Happy.  Those girls need to learn that being a beauty queen isn’t just about what’s on the outside.”

I keep my voice low.  “What in the world is Consuela telling her daughter?”

“Even if she did see a list she should keep it to herself.  Especially the part about her daughter’s name being crossed off.”

I’m intimidated by Mariela’s mother, I will tell you.  Not only does she have a child with Mario—about whom I harbor a fantasy or two—she’s as pretty as J Lo, amazingly fit, and comes off as kind of imperious.  Like me, she got pregnant in high school.  Unlike Jason and me, she and Mario never married.

You can tell I’m having trouble liking her.  I order myself to take my own advice and believe the best of her.

At least until I know differently.

Outside the restaurant we stroll past the kind of pastel-colored Art Deco building Miami is famous for.  “I hope Lasalo and Peppi aren’t pointing the girls based on how they do in rehearsals,” I say as we near the theater.  “Or whether they were nice at the orientation lunch.”

“That wouldn’t be fair at all!”

“Maybe they don’t know that.  Maybe they’re first-time judges.  Maybe the organizer didn’t really explain to them how pageants work.”

“You’re right!  This pageant does seem, I hate to say it, kind of disorganized.  Now if somebody saw a list tomorrow after the personal interviews, that would be different.”

“Sure, once the composite scores from the preliminaries are added up.”  That’s how pageant finales go straight from the opening number to the semifinalists.  “But nobody but the judges is supposed to see the list.  Plus Mariela said her mom saw a list of the top five.”

“That’s not right!”  Trixie sounds truly pained.  “No judge is supposed to pick their top five until the swimsuit and evening gown competitions are conducted on stage in front of the audience!”

We enter the auditorium and re-claim our seats.  The teen queens take their marks.  I glance around but see no sign of Lasalo or Peppi.  I plan to take them aside to make sure they’ve got the 411 on how pageant judging works.

The house lights dim, the colored spotlights come on, and the without-a-beat music once again assails my eardrums.  “Ay caramba,” Trixie mutters.  In short order the crescent-moon prop nosedives toward the cardboard manatee, stabbing it in its plump posterior.  Then the contestant from Opa-Locka does a face plant on stage left.

“What else could go wrong?” Trixie wails.

Sadly, soon we get an answer to that question.  The stage floor’s trap doors spring open and, like a hulking figure in a dark alley, the pirate ship looms into view.

A spotlight rakes the bow.  I catch a flash of hot pink.  I lean forward and squint, then grab Trixie’s arm.  “What is on the front of that boat?”

Trixie gasps.  “Oh my Lord!  I think that’s Peppi!”

With another swipe of the spotlight, there’s no mistaking her.  Propped on the foredeck, black cover-up seriously askew, is Peppi.  She’s half upright and half draped over the prow like a cockeyed bowsprit.  Her eyes are bugging out, her tongue is hanging out, and this beauty queen is getting a real bad case of déjà vu.

I jump to my feet and hurtle toward the stage.  “Stop!” I screech.  “Stop!”

A few teen queens are staring at me and laughing.  But a few others are looking around to see what I’m pointing at.  And a few have started screaming.

Another lurch or two and I am close enough to see that Peppi is no longer sporting the top of her pink and white polka dot string bikini.

At least not in the usual location.  It can be found about a foot or so north, lassoed tightly around her neck, polyester and spandex morphed into a murder weapon.

I try to catch my breath, something the woman in front of me will never again be able to do.

How fleeting is life!  At least for Peppi.  Sun worshiping one minute and gone the next to that gigantic pool deck in the sky.



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