Happiness Key - By Emilie Richards

chapter one

The old man still wasn’t answering.

Tracy Deloche made a fist and banged the border of Herb Krause’s screen door, wincing when a splinter won the round.

Flipping her fist, she dug out the offending sliver with nails that were seriously in need of the attentions of her favorite manicurist. Unfortunately, sweet-natured Hong Hanh was more than two thousand miles away, filing and polishing for outrageous tips at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, while Tracy banged and shouted and tried to collect Herbert Krause’s measly rent payment so she could put something in her refrigerator and gas tank.

“Mr. Krause, are you there?” she shouted.

“Well, what’s up with that?” she muttered when nobody answered. She could see his ancient Dodge sedan parked behind the house. She’d been sure her timing was perfect. Apparently she was as good at collecting money as she was at everything else these days.

Tracy flopped down on a wooden bench beside three carefully arranged orchids in clay pots. Something green and slimy flashed past her and vanished in the Spanish moss mulch. Florida was like that, teeming with things that darted at you day and night, some with more scrawny legs than a bucket of fast-food chicken.

Happiness Key. She almost laughed.

CJ, her ex-husband, was responsible for the name of the “development” where Herb’s cottage and four others stood. In a rare stab at poetry, CJ had called this hole the yin and yang of Florida. On one side, white sand beaches with tall palms swaying in a gentle tropical breeze; on the other, Florida’s wildest natural beauty. Mangroves and alligators, exotic migratory birds, and marshes alive with Mother Nature’s sweetest music. Who couldn’t find happiness here? Particularly CJ, who had expected to expand his considerable fortune wiping out most of that music when he developed the land into a marina and upscale condo complex for Florida’s snowbirds.

From the side of Herb’s cottage, Tracy heard an air conditioner grinding, and the sound made her teeth hurt. Visiting him was like summering in Antarctica. How long before the ancient window unit ended up in the Sun County landfill, and she was down hundreds of dollars for a replacement? Herb was older than the mangroves that blocked access to the bay, older than the burial mounds at the far end of Palmetto Grove Key, where Florida’s first residents had dumped their dead. No surprise his internal temperature control was out of whack. Tracy was just glad the old man paid his own electric bill. Evicting one of the state’s senior citizens to save a few bucks would get her just the kind of publicity she didn’t need.

She’d already had enough of that in California.

Leaning back against the concrete block wall of the cottage, she folded her arms and closed her eyes. Since rolling out of bed that morning, she hadn’t looked at a clock, but she supposed it was almost nine.

The air was beginning to sizzle. May on Florida’s Gulf Coast might as well be full summer. Of course, she hadn’t yet lived here in full summer, so maybe June was going to be that much worse; maybe June was going to be unbearable. But considering how unbearable her whole life had become since her divorce from CJ, what were a few degrees here and there? Let the humidity condense into something thick enough to eat with a spoon. What did she care? She would take it and make something of it.

That was her new mantra. And she hadn’t paid some West Coast guru or his slavish followers to find it for her. She’d found it all by herself. For free.

A door creaked nearby, and for a moment she thought maybe Herb Krause had found his way across the frozen tundra of his living room. Then she heard what sounded like a broom moving back and forth over concrete. She opened her eyes and leaned forward to see Herb’s neighbor, Alice Brooks, garbed in a voluminous red-and-white housecoat, sweeping her doorstep. It wasn’t the first time. Tracy paid only as much attention to her renters as she absolutely had to, but even she hadn’t failed to notice Alice outside with her broom morning, noon and night.

If her life ever came down to primly snapped house-coats and a stoop clean enough for surgery, she would wade into the gulf until the water was over her head. Then she would simply make herself at home on the bottom and expire.

Alice looked up from her stoop, and her eyes met Tracy’s. She seemed puzzled to find