<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> The 1,203 residents of Mango Key never knew what to call <i>it</i> or how to refer to it. For the most part, in the beginning, they called it a castle, then they switched up and called it a fortress. As it neared completion, they became puzzled at the high brick wall and the massive iron gates that sparked if they were touched and simply referred to it as <i>that place</i> at the end of the island. <p> The residents didn't know who lived in <i>that place</i>, but they speculated that maybe it was some aging film star who didn't want anyone to see their lost looks. Or perhaps it was some drug lord trying to hide out from the law since the only activity seen or heard came late at night. <p> The residents of Mango Key were simple folks and earned their living selling their mangoes, oranges, and grapefruit to the boats that came into the Key once a week, and they didn't really care about the phantom people who maybe lived or maybe didn't live in <i>that place</i>. They had never seen a soul in the light of day since <i>that place</i> had been completed five years ago. For the most part, they forgot that it was even there because it didn't affect them in any way. <p> In truth, there were 1,204 residents of Mango Key, but the additional resident wasn't a native, so the residents more or less ignored Patrick Kelly the same way they ignored <i>that place</i>. But that hadn't been the case when he had first arrived on Mango Key. <p> Even Patrick Kelly, known to old friends as Tick, although those friends were long gone, ignored the place, which was three miles down the beach from where he lived. <p> The reason he'd ignored the construction was because he was in a drunken stupor for the two years it took to build, and the third year, he was just more or less coming out of his stupor. And the least of his worries was someone building a house, a castle, a fortress, or <i>that place</i>. It simply held no interest for him; it was all he could do to get through one day so that he could go to sleep, wake, and struggle through the next. Today, seven years after the fact, he still had no interest in what he considered an abandoned structure he happened to see when he walked the beach, swam, or fished. <p> It was a beautiful August day on Mango Key. But then most days were beautiful except during hurricane season, and those exceptions usually lasted only a day or so. The sun was startlingly bright, warming Tick's body as he walked out of the ocean. He had his dinner in a net—a fish he couldn't name. Nor did he care if it had a name. He called all fish dinner. A few wild radishes, some equally wild onions, a few mangoes, and maybe an orange, and dinner was ready. A great diet. He'd dropped twenty-five pounds since arriving at Mango Key. He weighed 170 pounds, the same weight he'd carried when he was twenty-eight and in top form. Now pushing the big four-oh, at six foot two, he still carried the weight easily. He was brown as a nut, living in cutoffs and sandals. He couldn't remember the last time he'd worn a shirt. Maybe hurricane season last year, when the temperature dropped to sixty-five degrees. <p> Patrick Kelly, hobo, derelict, beach bum, drunk, former homicide detective, ex-father, widower, rich best-selling author, and recovering alcoholic. <p> Tick stopped two hundred feet from the place he'd called home for almost seven years. His abode, that was how he thought of it, had been little more than a lean-to with iffy rusty plumbing and an even rustier generator when he arrived. It had stayed that way for close to three years, until he'd woken up one day and knew that his drinking days had to come to an end or he would die, which had been his purpose all along. But that particular morning, with the sun warming his bloated body, he'd taken his best friend, his only friend, Jack Daniel's, and dumped him in the ocean. <p> He wasn't sure now, but he thought he'd had the shakes, the crawlies, the hallucinations for a full week before he had shed all the bad toxins from his system. Then he'd reared up like a gladiator and taken a few steps into the land of the living. After which he took a few more steps and headed for the mainland, where he ordered all the lumber and nails he would need to redo his house, which he worked on from sunup to sundown. He'd made two more trips to order furniture, generators, appliances, a new laptop, a printer, scanner, cell phone, and anything else he thought he might need to make his life easier. The renovation took eleven months. He now had a skimpy front porch, with a swing and a chair. He'd christened the finished product with a bottle of apple cider. He'd even given his new abode a name. He called it Tick's Tree House because he'd rebuilt the structure on stilts. He loved it as much as he could love anything these days. <p> Tick headed up the steps that led to his porch and started to laugh when the parrot who came with the house began to squawk. At least he thought it had come with the house, but with his foggy memory, he couldn't be sure. He couldn't remember if the bird was in residence when he had arrived or if it came later. He marveled at the bird's vocabulary and couldn't remember if he'd taught it to talk or it learned from somewhere else. He called it Bird and had no way of knowing if it was male or female. Bird ruffled his feathers, and said, "You're late." <p> "Am not." <p> "Five o'clock." <p> Tick looked down at his watch. It was four thirty. "It's four thirty. Four thirty means I'm not late." Bird rustled his feathers, then swooped down and perched on Tick's shoulder. <p> "Five o'clock, time to eat. Five o'clock, time to eat!" <p> "No, Bird, it is not time to eat. We eat at six o'clock. I tell you that every day." <p> "Bullshit!" <p> In spite of himself, Tick burst out laughing. He wondered then for the millionth time who the bird had once belonged to. Obviously someone with a salty tongue. "Go on, Bird, I'll call you when it's time to eat." If anyone from his other life saw him dining with a parrot, they'd lock him up and throw away the key. He even set a place for Bird at the table. <p> Tick was sucking on a mango, the rich juice dribbling down his chin, when Bird's head tilted to the side. His feathers rustled as he flew out of the minikitchen straight for the front door. The hair on the back of Tick's neck went straight up when the parrot screamed, "Intruder! Intruder!" <p> Tick slipped off his stool, his bare feet making no sound as he backed up to the small cabinet where he kept his gun. Because he was a cop, he kept the Glock locked and loaded. It felt comforting in his hand. He never got company. <i>Never.</i> If one of the Key residents came around, they always rang the bell out by the oversize palmetto. <p> Bird was literally bouncing off the walls as he circled the small living room, whose door opened onto the little front porch. "Hey, anyone home besides that crazy bird?" <p> Tick blinked. He'd know that voice anywhere. It belonged to his twin brother, Pete. He jammed the Glock into the back of his shorts. "Enough, Bird. It's not an intruder!" The green bird squawked one more time as he settled himself on the back of Tick's favorite chair. Bird's eyes were bright as he watched his roommate walk over to the door. <p> They were the same height, the same muscular build, but there the resemblance ended. Tick was dark haired and dark eyed, thanks to his mother's Italian heritage. Pete was a redhead with blue eyes, thanks to his father's Irish heritage. "I was in the neighborhood," Pete said quietly. "Bullshit!" Bird squawked. <p> "That's my line, Bird. C'mon in, Pete. How'd you find me?" They should be hugging each other, at the very least shaking hands or just doing brotherly things. Instead, they eyed each other warily. <p> "Nice place," Pete said, looking around. "That's a joke, Tick. What, eight hundred square feet?" <p> "More or less. How'd you find me?" Tick asked a second time. "It's been, what, almost seven, maybe eight years, and suddenly here you are." <p> Pete shuffled his feet. For the first time, Tick saw he was carrying his loafers and was in his bare feet. Maybe that was why they hadn't shaken hands. Yeah, yeah, that was probably the reason. <p> "I just got back two weeks ago. Yeah, I know I was supposed to write. You know me." <p> Tick motioned to one of the two chairs in the small room. He noticed that Pete favored one leg over the other. "What happened?" <p> "I got a little busted up on the rodeo circuit. Got a new hip and knee. Met up with this guy from Argentina, and he asked me to go with him to take care of his polo ponies. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Hell, I still think it was the best thing I could have done at the time. The guy paid me ten times what I was worth, gave me incredible bonuses. Everything was free, great lodgings, free food, my own Jeep. I banked every cent of my money. <p> "Listen, Tick, I didn't know about Sally and the kids. If I had known, I would have hopped on the first plane I could find. I went to see Andy, and he told me. Jesus, I walked around in a daze for almost a week. He wouldn't tell me where you were. Good old Andy wouldn't tell me. I couldn't believe it. He wouldn't tell <i>me</i>. I threatened him with everything in the book, and I gotta tell you, he's a hell of a friend and one hell of an attorney; he didn't give you up, Tick." <p> "You're here!" <p> Pete squirmed in his chair. He looked down at his shoes as though he wondered why he was still holding them. He bent over, winced, and set them on the floor. "Yeah, I did a little breaking and entering. Jeez, his office is a house on Peachtree. A ten-year-old could pick that lock. I looked in your file and found out you were here. So, here I am, a little late, Tick, but I'm here now. What can I do?" <p> Tick smiled. "I wish there was something you could do, but there isn't. I'm okay. You can go back to Argentina knowing I'm okay and don't need you or anyone else." <p> Pete leaned forward. "That's not quite true, now is it? You need Andy. I know he takes care of all your finances, I saw it in the files. Seems like you're doing pretty well for an ex-cop turned author. I'm okay with you not needing me, but don't start handing me bullshit, Tick. Jesus, I'm bleeding for Sally and the kids. I know the story, so you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to tell me. I can't go back to Argentina; my boss fell off one of his ponies and got stomped to death. I came back with enough money to go into business for myself. I even brought you a check for that five grand I borrowed from you." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled check. He laid it on the small table next to his chair. <p> "Keep it." <p> "Nah, it doesn't work like that. I always pay my debts. I found a bar and grill on Peachtree. Pop would have loved it. Andy's checking it out to make sure it's as good as it sounds. I have enough to pay cash and will have quite a bit left over. I have a Realtor looking for some digs for me in the area. And, I'm getting married in six months. I want you to be my best man the way I was yours when ... you know." <p> Tick couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. "You're getting married! You?" <p> "Hard to believe, huh? Yeah, I met her in Argentina. She was there on vacation with a few friends. She works for the State Department. Right now she's in England and will be back in six months, then she's quitting. She loves to cook, so we're going to buy the bar and grill together. She's willing to put in half the asking price. So, will you be my best man?" <p> A burst of panic flooded Tick's whole being. Standing up for his brother would mean he'd have to leave his nest. He had to say something to wipe the awful look off his brother's face. He shrugged. "Six months is a long time down the road." He hated the way his voice sounded, all shaky and squeaky. <p> Pete nodded as though he understood. "You might not want to hear this, but I'm going to tell you anyway. I went out to the cemetery. I took flowers. Said some prayers, talked to ... Christ, that was the hardest thing I ever did in my whole life. I sat there on the ground and picked the flowers apart. So I went back and bought some more. They were pretty, Tick. I remembered how Sally had all those rosebushes in the yard. I left a standing order for the flower shop to deliver every Saturday. I wanted to do so much more but, Tick, there wasn't anything else to do. If there's more I can do, tell me, and I'll do it." <p> Tick bit down on his lower lip. He should have done what Pete did. All those years and no flowers on his family's graves. He should have made arrangements to do what Pete did. Oh, no, it had been more important to put his snoot in a bottle and hide out. All he could think of to say was, "Thanks." <p> "You gonna talk to me, Tick? Do I have to drag it out of you?" <p> Tick finally found his tongue. "I'm sure Andy told you all the nitty-gritty details. After the funeral, which I really don't remember, I got in my car and started to drive. I honest to God do not know how I got here. I do know that I was in a stupor for about two and a half years. It's all one big blank. I woke up one morning and knew I was going to die. At first I didn't care. Then I did care. I thought about what Pop told us as kids when we did something wrong. He'd say, `it's time to straighten up and fly right.' The village people must have taken care of me. I have vague memories of people standing over me. There always seemed to be food for me to eat. A boat comes once a week with supplies, so I have to assume I somehow made arrangements to get liquor delivered. <p> "I write books these days. Do you believe that? And, they made movies out of them. Who knew I could do that? Certainly not me." <p> Pete waved his arms about. "So, this is it? The end of the road for you? There's a lot to be said for peace and quiet and tranquillity, but to withdraw so totally, I can't believe that's a good thing. Don't you miss Atlanta and all the action? You had a lot of friends back there on the force. Everyone just said you fell off the face of the earth." <p> "I'm content. For now. Things might have turned out differently if they hadn't caught the punk who killed my family. They gunned him down right outside my house. I would have hunted him down and killed him myself. There's nothing back there for me now." His voice was defiant when he said, "I like it here." <p> "Yeah, I can see that. Kind of small, though. How about I stay around long enough to help you build another room on to this ... stilt house? Remember when we helped Pop build a sunroom for Mom? I'm free as the breeze for the next six months. Let me help, Tick. I <i>need</i> to do something for you. If you're writing another book and need to concentrate on that, I can do it on my own. I was always better at the hammer-and-nails thing than you were. Even Pop said so. A nice big room with wall-to-wall windows so you can see the ocean. Maybe a big fancy bathroom. By the way, do you own this place?" <p> "Yeah. I bought it a few years ago from the village. It's kind of complicated. Everyone in the village is related. Indian heritage. This Key is the result of some kind of land grant. One of the elders came out here one day, and he had this big stick. He asked me to follow him, and he kept dragging the stick; and then he said everything within the lines was mine. He held out his hand, we shook, and I paid him two thousand dollars. That's all he wanted. He signed his name on a piece of paper, and I signed mine. End of story." <p> All Pete could think of to say was, "Uh-huh." <p> Tick remembered that he was a host. "Want a beer?" <p> Pete's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "You drink?" <p> "A beer now and then. I learned my lesson, I know my limitations. I don't crave it, if that's your next question. It's nice to see you, Pete. I mean that. I guess I wasn't very hospitable when you showed up. I didn't quite know what to do. I've been running from the past, then, suddenly, there you were, front and center." <p> Pete nodded. "No social life, eh?" Tick laughed. "I guess what you're asking me is do I miss sex?" He laughed again. "I go into Miami every so often. I bought a cigarette boat. I see a lady there at times. She's one of those people who knows everything there is to know about computers. It's what it is. So, do you want that beer or not?" <p> "Yeah. Yeah, Tick, I do. Having a beer with my brother ... it doesn't get any better than that." <p> Tick looked at his twin for a long minute. "You're right, Pete. And yeah, you can stay, and yeah, we can build the room. It will be like old times." <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Southern Comfort</b> by <b>FERN MICHAELS </b> Copyright © 2011 by MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.