excerpt, Upcoming release

Excerpt: I’ve Got This (Joy Universe Book 1)

IveGotThisFS_v1I just can’t help it—I sing loudly to myself and the cars around me as I drive to work. Well, considering the speed traffic is moving at, it’s unlikely anyone in those cars can hear me, but I like to think that maybe I’m brightening someone’s morning with my off-key warbling along to the radio. Everyone should be as happy to face the morning as I am.

Admittedly, I have a pretty great life. I’m thirty-seven and have great parents who live far enough away that I don’t have to see them too often. I’m also financially independent, with friends around the country—the world, actually, thanks to my employer’s propensity for hiring talented people from around the globe—and generally get along with everyone. I can recognize the good things about myself—and the not-so-good things, but why would I want to tell you about those?  Let’s call it confidence. I’m confident in myself. And that means that most mornings I wake up happy to face the day.

Some people hate their jobs. Not me. I’ve worked damned hard since graduating college, and now I’m in the enviable position of being an assistant director at the second-largest entertainment complex in the world—the youngest ever assistant director. For those of you who don’t know, that’s Joy Universe, a resort and theme park complex in southern Georgia , not far from the Florida  state line. JU has four theme parks, twenty-six resorts and three campgrounds, and a shopping and entertainment village that rivals anything on offer anywhere else.

The downside? The complex is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, except for the town that was established to provide housing and services for staff. It’s called Joyville, and is now a thriving small city, actually beginning to attract residents who don’t have any connection to JU—although, as a long-term resident myself, I don’t know why. Still, the University of Georgia  recently decided to build a campus in Joyville, so I guess it’ll keep on growing.

I’m just turning in the entrance of the JU complex when my phone rings, cutting off the musical talents of whatever pop star the radio was playing. I flick a glance at the in-dash display.

Fuck.

It’s Dimi, my assistant. He’s an ambitious overachiever, so he usually beats me to the office, despite the fact that I get there at seven thirty and he’s not required to start work until eight. The point is, he knows exactly when I’m due to arrive, so the only reason for him to call is if there’s an emergency.

I’m just about to hit the button to accept the call when sirens shatter the morning calm.   peek in the rearview mirror shows two police cars, lights flashing, tearing around the corner from the highway. They zip past me as I answer. “Are those sirens for us?”

“Murder at Tiki,”  Dimi says tersely.

Double fuck.

A horn blares through the speaker, and Dimi swears. He’s in his car, probably headed from the office to the resort. We don’t get deaths too often, let alone murder—on average less than five deaths a year in the whole of JU, which considering how many million people visit each year is pretty amazing. Most of the deaths are from natural causes—like heart attacks—or accidents because people don’t follow safety instructions. Only twice in the history of the complex, which is fifty-seven years, has the fault for a death been found to lie with JU. Murder is even less common—in the last ten years that I’ve been working here, we’ve had one. Our security in the parks and the village is intense, and in the public areas of the resorts too, but there’s only so much we can do in the guest rooms.

“I’m five minutes away,” I tell him, hanging a U-turn. It’s a lie, or would be normally, since Tiki Island Resort is halfway across the complex from where I am now, but I don’t plan to adhere to the posted speed limit. Thank God it’s early and there’s not too much traffic on the complex roads. “Tell me what you know.”

“Not much, sorry, Derek,” he says. “Resort housekeeping got a call about thirty minutes ago from one of the deluxe bungalows, requesting a linen change, so they sent a housekeeper over. We’re not entirely sure of the details from that point, because the night manager says she’s hysterical, but apparently there’s blood everywhere, a dismembered body on the bed, and another guest acting like nothing’s wrong.”

Fuck fuck fuck. Could this get any worse? Our housekeepers for the deluxe bungalows are pretty unshakable. They see a lot of weird shit, because those rooms go for over a thousand bucks a night and rich people can be eccentric—hence the reason nobody batted an eye at the request for a linen change before seven in the morning. But a dismembered body… yeah, that could freak out even the most jaded housekeeper.

“Is the situation contained?” The road is completely clear, so I press down on the accelerator. Our security team actually monitors the roads for speeding drivers, since guest safety is one of our highest priorities, but security should already be aware that we have a grisly murder on our hands and will likely not stop me from getting there as soon as fucking possible.

“As much as it can be. The housekeeper hit her panic button and got the hell out of there. Security found her about twenty feet away, hiding behind a tree. They say she was pretty composed when they first got there, but then fell apart. They’ve got eyes on the door and have quietly evacuated the guests on either side—thank God it wasn’t a standard room.”

Hell, yes. Standard rooms at Tiki are in long buildings and share walls with each other, whereas the deluxe bungalows are completely separate and actually have about fifteen feet of space between them. If this had happened in a standard room, JU policy dictates that security would have had to evacuate the entire building—fifty rooms, and up to two hundred guests. A nightmare.

I turn down the side road that leads to Tiki and one of my other resorts. Dimi’s car is about a hundred feet ahead. “I’m behind you,” I tell him. “See you soon.” I disconnect the call.

So what exactly do I do that I love so much, even on a day that starts with a murder? Well, JU is divided into five administrative districts, four of which include parks and a bunch of resorts. The fifth also has resorts, but instead of a park, it includes the village—which is officially called Joy Village, but we just call it the village. We’re real creative like that. Each district is managed by a JU assistant director—that’s me. They tell us the districts are of equal importance to JU, but that’s bullshit. Mine, I’m happy to tell you, is the most profitable. I look after six resorts and Planet Joy itself, home to Joy Bear, the space-traveling cartoon bear that started the whole Joy Incorporated crazy journey. Joy and her zany spacefaring  friends can be seen every day at Planet Joy, along with a variety of other characters and experiences Joy In . has developed over the last fifty years.

That’s what the marketing brochures say, and my team and I do our damndest  to make it true. Especially when shit goes wrong.

My phone rings again.

Quadruple fuck.

The director.

I answer immediately. “I’m about a minute from the resort, Ken,” I tell him, because of course he knows what’s going on. Anytime the police are called, an alert is sent to his assistant. Calling the cops because of murder would have had her interrupting him no matter what time it was or what he was doing, even if it was his sacrosanct weekly golf game—which thankfully isn’t today.

“What do you know?” he demands. He doesn’t like negative headlines associated with the complex, and murder tends to be the most negative of all.

I run down the situation quickly, finishing just as I turn into the Tiki driveway with a little too much speed and pull the car to a stop right behind Dimi and the police cars in the forecourt. “I’m at the resort—I’ll call you back as soon as I have more information.” That isn’t exactly the truth. I’m planning to call him back when I can tell him the situation has been resolved. Hopefully that will be soon, or else he’ll be calling me again.

He hangs up without answering—such charming manners—and I leave my car, tossing the keys to the valet because I know there’s a busload of guests due from the airport soon. I wonder if the cops will let us move their cars? I catch up to Dimi quickly, and we stride together into the lobby, where we’re met by the assistant manager, Carol, who looks a bit frazzled. She’s technically not even supposed to be on shift yet—hell of a way to start the workday.

“Derek, thank God! This way.” She races toward the north door, and Dimi and I jog along with her.

“Do we have the guest information?” I ask, and she fumbles in a pocket and pulls out a sheet of paper. I frown, because I was expecting her to say it had been sent to my virtual inbox. The JU staff app on my smartphone means that all information can be flagged for my urgent attention right from any computer terminal hooked up to the intranet—which is all of them.

Dimi takes the paper and flashes me a glance that clearly says he’s on it. We’ve worked together long enough that he knows I’m thinking about staff refreshers on properly using all the tools available to us.

He reads aloud from the paper as we run past the main pool. At this time of morning the lifeguard is not yet on duty, so it’s pretty much deserted. “Peter and Kylie Rutherford, married, repeat guests, and members of the Forever Joy vacation club. There’s no past incidents on file. Both late forties, in on April 20 and due to check out tomorrow. Deluxe dining plan for both of them, and they’ve charged several bottles of high-end wine to their account, as well as a considerable number of purchases in the parks and the village.”

There’s a crowd around one of the deluxe bungalows up ahead. What looks like most of the resort’s security team, the night manager, the not-yet-on-duty resort manager, and four cops. We skid  to a halt among them.

“Gentlemen, you can’t be here,” one of the cops says, but Link, my manager, looks so relieved to see me, he’s on the verge of tears.

“This is our assistant director,” he tells the cop.

“Derek Bryer.” I offer a hand. “What are we doing here?”

“Officer Higgins,” the cop says, shaking my hand briefly. “The plan is to break through the door and neutralize whoever’s on the other side. Do you have the guest information? The assistant manager was going to get it.”

I frown again, because any of the security or management employees standing around would have been able to access the guest profile from their JU-issued tablets. The cops shouldn’t have had to wait. Dimi hands Officer Higgins the printout Carol gave us, then pulls out his tablet and taps at the screen, probably making notes about the staff training I’m going to insist on. I turn to Link.

“Where’s the housekeeper who found the body?” The answer had better be that she’s in the staff room with one of our staff EMTs, and a doctor and a counselor on the way. “Oh, and what’s her name?”

“It’s Maya. She’s over there.” He points about fifty yards away, where a middle-aged woman in a housekeeping uniform is sitting on one of the benches the resort has scattered around for guests to sit and enjoy the scenery. I mentally add management training to my list. Sure, Link’s shaken up, but dealing with a crisis is something he’s been trained for, and there’s a process for a reason. At least there’s an EMT with her.

“Do you need me here, or can I go talk to her?” I ask the cop, and he shakes his head.

“She’s pretty shaken up. We couldn’t get anything out of her,” he warns me, but I wave him off and shoot Dimi a look. He nods, and I know he’ll monitor the situation and call me over before any action can take place.

I approach the bench slowly, making sure to make noise as I walk. No way do I want to scare a woman who just found a dismembered body. Also, no way do I want to be dealing with a lawsuit because of her trauma. JU is going to do everything possible to make sure she can sleep at night.

The EMT looks up. “Derek’s here,” he tells the woman softly, and she turns her head to look at me. She’s shaking, and her eyes are red-rimmed and puffy.

“Hey, Maya,” I say, speaking just as softly as the EMT, whose name tag says Pat. “Shit start to the day?” I hold my breath, wondering if maybe that was crossing a line, but she huffs a watery laugh. “Can I sit?” I give her the control in this situation—something I learned in one of the many management seminars I’ve been on.

She nods, and I perch on the bench beside her. “Is there anything I can get you?” I start, raising an eyebrow at Pat. He shakes his head slightly, telling me that Maya’s basically okay and doesn’t need to be taken to the hospital. Maya is looking at her hands in her lap, but she answers me.

“I just want to go home.”

“Yes,” I assure her. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to drive, though, so we’re going to have a car take you, and someone will bring your car back to you. First, I’d really like it if you let the doctor see you—she should be here soon.” She’d better be here soon. If it turns out that Link and his team haven’t called her, there is going to be a serious management reshuffle at the Tiki Island Resort.

“I spoke to her on my way here,” Pat says. “She’ll be here any moment.”

“Well, in that case, why don’t you and Maya head back to the staff room? You’ll probably meet her in the lobby. As soon as she’s seen you, you can head home. Take the rest of the week off, with pay, and we’ll have a chat with you later about when you think you want to come back to work.”

Maya sniffles, then nods. “Thank you,” she whispers.

I reach out to pat her hand, but stop, hovering midair. Who knows if she wants to be touched right now? “Don’t thank me. I’m so sorry this happened to you. We’re going to do anything you need to make you feel comfortable at work again.”

She grabs my hand and holds on tight, giving me a tearful look. I squeeze her hand. This has to be so hard for her—I mean, a dismembered body? Really?

Crap. The cops are going to want to talk to her.

“Maya,” I begin hesitantly, “the police are going to have questions for you.” Her grip tightens, threatening to bruise. “I’m going to tell them you’ve left, whether you’re still here or not.” The pressure on my hand lessens, and blood rushes back to my fingers. “Hopefully they’ll be so busy today they won’t come to you at home, but they will eventually want to talk to you. They don’t know anything about what’s happened.” Yeah, pretty sure that was crossing a line, but probably not as much as what I’m about to say. “Is there anything you can tell me that I can pass along, maybe get you a reprieve?”

Her nails are digging into my skin, but I figure I deserve it. She takes a deep, shaking breath.

“She opened the door in her nightie,” Maya whispers, her voice shaking. “I couldn’t see into the room, but it was dark. She told me she needed the bed changed, then went into the bathroom. I walked into the room and went to turn on the bedside lamp. It was… sticky.” Her voice breaks, and Pat frowns.

“Maya, you don’t have to say anything else,” I assure her. The rest seems pretty self-explanatory, really. She nods again, and I tip my head at Pat.

“Come on, Maya, let’s head back to the staff room. I’ll make you a nice cup of tea while we wait for the doctor.” He helps her up, and I squeeze her hand one last time before I let go.

“I’ll check in with you later in the week, Maya, but if there’s anything you need, just call.” I pull a card from my wallet, one of the ones with my cell number on it. “Call me direct.” She takes it and clutches it to her chest, and Pat leads her away toward the main building.

I watch them go for a moment, then jog back over to where the cops seem to be preparing to break into the bungalow. They’ve been joined by a few more of their colleagues, which I assume is the reason this is taking so long.

“Did she say anything useful?” Officer Higgins demands. I don’t love his tone, but I guess he needs to know.

“She’s been deeply traumatized, Officer.” I keep my voice level. “The door was opened by a woman, I assume Mrs. Rutherford, who asked Maya to change the bed and then went into the bathroom. The lights weren’t on when Maya went in, but she turned on a bedside lamp—she said it was sticky, I assume with blood. I don’t know if the lamp is still on.”

The officer grunts, and I make a mental note of it. I’m not that impressed with him—for one thing, I just sent his only witness away, and he doesn’t even seem to have noticed. Dimi taps at his tablet, probably making an actual note. It’s kind of scary the way he and I think so much alike. I probably won’t be able to keep him as my assistant for too much longer—he needs to be promoted soon, or he’ll be headhunted away from JU. Losing him will be hell.

The officer sighs and looks at his watch. “We wanted to wait for the detective to arrive, but he said not to, so I guess we better get in there.”

Yeah. Definitely not impressed.

Things move pretty quickly after that. I’m glad, because the later it gets, the more guests will be wandering around. Carol has pulled herself together enough to go and get a master key for the bungalow, so the cops don’t have to actually break down the door. They stand there in all their gear, counting down with their fingers, and then swipe the card. The lock disengages, they shove the door open, and they’re bursting into the room with shouts of “Police!” and “Hands up!” I wince and glance around to see if the noise attracted any guests.

Within a few minutes they have Kylie Rutherford in handcuffs and are escorting her out to the cars in front, while yet more cops arrive, one who quickly takes charge, and some with tackle boxes full of equipment. Someone is here from the medical examiner’s office, too, I guess to remove the body parts, since it’s pretty clear Mr. Rutherford is dead. Unlike the suites in the main hotel building, the bungalows are open-plan, and I manage to sneak a peek through the door before the cops usher me away. It’s gruesome, and I wish I’d managed to restrain my curiosity. Even though I knew he was dismembered, I was still expecting to see a body. I’m not going to be able to look at raw meat for a while—just thinking about it turns my stomach.

Dimi is totally on top of things, as usual, and has given orders to the valets to direct the cops to the resort’s west parking lot, which is not only closer to the bungalow and more convenient for them, it’s also not at the front entrance of the resort. It’s very bad for business when guests arrive and see a half dozen police cars parked out front. He’s also talking to HR about getting Maya whatever services she needs—a counselor, for one thing.

I gather Link and Carol together. I’ve already sent the night manager home with a reminder to schedule a session with one of our staff psychologists. “Right,” I tell them. “Today is going to be a shit day. Do I need to call people in to cover for you?”

Link gulps and looks me in the eye. I hope he knows that if he tells me he’s not up for dealing with this, I won’t fire him. Maybe give him a less stressful job, though. My resort managers need to be able to deal with anything, and it’s not like he was the one to walk into that room.

“I’m fine,” he says. “I can work today. We’ve already relocated the guests who were in the nearest bungalows. They’ve been upgraded to executive suites in the main building, and their stay has been comped.”

I nod approvingly. True, those guests really haven’t been inconvenienced, but we want them telling their friends how amazing their stay was, not that they were roused from sleep because someone was murdered.

“I’ll call in one of the off-duty concierges to act as liaison with the police and ensure they have everything they need,” he goes on. “And make sure that security set up a manned barrier around this area. I’ll put on more staff to deal with guest questions, too, and… and… and all the guests will receive a free drink at the resort bar tonight.”

I clap him on the shoulder. “Good idea. Make sure all the staff know not to talk about this—the official line, whether to a guest, their family, their friends, and especially to the media, is that there was a situation, the police were called, and any questions are to be directed to them or the media office. Got it?” Fuck, the media will be all over this. I can’t believe they’re not here already—how am I so lucky?

Link and Carol nod, and I decide they can probably handle things. “Call me if you have any questions or anything comes up that might possibly become a problem later. We need to stay on top of this. The bungalow will probably be a crime scene for a while, so have someone rearrange reservations if necessary—no guests are to stay in this area until you have my go-ahead.” I smile, although it’s the last thing I want to do. We may end up having to tear down this bungalow. People can be weird about rooms that were the scene of grisly murders—and other people don’t want to stay in them.

Link and Carol nod, seemingly buoyed up and ready to take on the challenge of the day. As they head back toward the main building, talking quietly, I pull out my phone and call Ken.

“Derek, you’d better have damn good news after making me wait so long,” he tells me, and I take a breath.

“The police have arrested one of our guests, who has allegedly murdered her husband.” I rush on, not wanting him to dwell on that. “The scene is secure, and not too many guests have realized yet that anything is going on. The cops will be here for a while, though, and we’ve taken steps to ensure guests are disturbed as little as possible.” What else does he need to know?

“Is this going to look bad for us?” he demands.

“No.” At least, I hope not. “I don’t know why she killed her husband, but at this stage it looks to be something between the two of them. We were just unlucky that she chose the resort as the scene of the crime. The staff have been very thorough in ensuring all guests are happy.” That’s true, anyway. Well, except for Peter Rutherford, poor bastard. And Ken really doesn’t need to know that my staff need refresher training on how to cope with an emergency. That’s for me to take care of.

“Okay. Kim is waiting for your call. I want a full report by noon, and updates until this is resolved.”

By “resolved” he means when JU is completely freed of any connection to the police or the murder—which will be a while, with the way legal proceedings go. He won’t actually read the reports, anyway—his assistant might, but in general anytime Ken requests shit like this, it’s because he wants to cover his own ass. But that “okay” is the important part. The rest is just routine boss douchery.

“No problem.” I make sure to smile so it will show in my voice. He hangs up. Yeah, that’s how he always ends calls—total douche, right?

I call Kim, the chief media liaison, next. There are a few alerts on the JU app, indicating my attention is needed, but no red flags, thank God. The rest can wait—it’s not like my morning isn’t completely fucked, anyway.

“Derek, talk to me.” Kim is one of my favorite people at JU. She’s no bullshit, no-nonsense, and because my district rarely causes any problems for her to deal with, she’s always happy to go out of her way to help me. With her backing, we’ve had some really spectacular media coverage of events at Planet Joy and my resorts.

“Babe, I got a dead man who was chopped up by his wife, and a housekeeper who’s gonna have PTSD,” I tell her bluntly, trying not to dwell on what my words actually mean. Work first.

She sucks in a breath. “They said murder, but… what do you mean, chopped up? You’re exaggerating, right?”

I deliberately don’t close my eyes, not wanting to see that image again. “Kim, I wish I was. I got a look into that room, and I’m pretty sure we’re gonna have to bulldoze it, because there’s blood everywhere. The dead man was in pieces, piled up on the bed. I’m gonna be sleeping with the light on for weeks, and I knew what to expect.”

“Right.” She shifts directly into superhero mode. “No one talks about this—not to their spouses, friends, priests, and sure as hell not the media.”

“Done. I’ve reminded the manager, but I’ll have Dimi send a memo to all staff and nudge the manager to reiterate it in the morning meeting.” Speaking of Dimi, he’s coming toward me, moving fast and with an oh shit look on his face.

How many fucks am I up to now? Oh, right. Quintuple fuck.

“Great. I’m calling the police now to see what they’ll tell me, and I’ll talk to legal too, see if someone there knows anyone they can lean on. If anybody gets anything out of the cops on site, pass it along ASAP, yeah?”

“Got it,” I tell her, now slightly distracted.

“As soon as the cops give me the all clear, I’ll issue a statement to the press. It won’t say much. In the meantime, do you have the resort guests under control?”

“Yes. Management here is on it, and I’ll be overseeing things personally.” I hope. Unless whatever has Dimi so freaked is going to take over.

“And HR is looking after the housekeeper?”

“Yeah, Dimi spoke to them already, and I’ll follow up in a bit. I’ll also check in with her.” Dimi comes to a stop beside me.

“Emergency,” he says quietly.

Sextuple fuck. What could be more of an emergency than this? “Kim, I gotta go. Something’s come up. We keep each other in the loop, yeah?”

“You bet. Talk later.” She ends the call, presumably off to work her magic, and I turn my full attention to Dimi.

“What?”

He sucks in a deep breath. “We have no performers for Planet Joy today.”

Fuuuuuuuuuuck.

 

Release date: September 24, 2019

All retailers: https://books2read.com/u/3npOLK