Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
When the body of a wealthy restaurateur is discovered on the roadside, Detective Nick Vargas must marshal his forces—a handful of outcasts banished to a barrier island’s tiny precinct—and overcome police bureaucracy, Russian mobsters, a determined hit man, and his own issues to get to the truth.
First 10 Pages


Nick Vargas pointed the nose of the venerable old Boston Whaler toward the pass and gave the throttle a nudge. Sam had taken up her usual position in the bow, the wind ruffling her fur, the rhythmic swing of her tail testament to her excitement. Nick smiled at the memory of Sam as a puppy, dwarfed by an oversized canine life vest and unsteady on her legs during her first outing in the boat. At the time, he had scooped her up and placed her between his chest and the Whaler’s console, where she promptly had gone to sleep.

Traffic in the sound was light. The serious fishermen had left well before dawn, their big twin diesels throbbing as they headed out for a day on the Gulf.

Nick waved as he passed a pair of kayakers paddling along close to shore. He slowed as he approached a shallow no wake zone. A runabout lay anchored in water as clear as gin.

A man in plaid swim trunks raised a beer in salute as Nick idled past. Only a few minutes past six a.m. The guy was getting an early start to the holiday.

Nick shook his head and laughed to himself, thankful for once that he wasn’t a marine cop.

Upon reaching deeper water, Nick pushed the throttle forward and picked up speed. A few hardy boaters already had begun congregating at Robinson and Bird islands, and Nick could hear rock music blaring from one of the boats. He maneuvered the Whaler into the pass and immediately felt the chop of the Gulf in the narrow passage. Sam dropped onto the main deck and made her way back to Nick on steady sea legs. She sat on his left foot and leaned against his leg as Nick pushed the boat through the chop. Once past the jetties, the boat settled down on the gentle swells.

Nick laid in a course for a wreck located in fairly shallow water. It was a good dive site, and the hunting was usually pretty decent. The sun on his shoulders, the wind in his hair, and the salt spray on his face all felt good, and he goosed the throttle and adjusted the trim tabs. The Evinrude was old, the boat older, but Nick worked to keep them both in good serviceable condition. Sam looked up at her human, giving him an open-mouth grin. She enjoyed going fast in the boat, too. Overhead, a string of brown pelicans made their way eastward, their ungainly bodies looking anything but aerodynamic. Sam spotted them and barked at the birds until they were far astern. A couple of porpoises picked up the boat and raced alongside, riding the bow wave, their wet skin glistening in the early morning sun. Nick ran the boat for about ten minutes before a large area of disturbed water twenty-five yards off the starboard bow caught his attention. He throttled back, and the nose of the Whaler dropped into the water. Nick turned to port, away from the disturbance, as he grabbed the pair of rubber-coated Zeiss marine binoculars from the cockpit. He dropped the throttle into neutral as he glassed an area of water that was now dead astern, now off the port quarter, as he continued to turn the boat. A collection of pelicans and terns were working the water, too.

Nick looked down at the dog. “Baitfish, old girl, and where there’s baitfish, hopefully, there’s mackerel.”

He nudged the boat a little closer to the patch of roiling water, drawing to within about twenty yards.

Nick watched the birds diving for a couple of minutes before he dropped the anchor and slipped his dive buoy over the side of the boat. From the storage locker at the bottom of the console, Nick retrieved a collapsible rubber water bowl. He emptied a bottle of water into the bowl and gave Sam a Busy Bone to chew before setting up a canvas shade for the dog. He checked his Hawaiian sling and from his gear bag pulled a mask and snorkel, fins, and a waist D-ring fitted with a fish stringer.

“Back in a few, Sammy. Guard the boat,” and he was over the side, the rubber tubing of the spear fitted around his right elbow. He swam on the surface, using just his legs and the fins to propel himself toward the school of baitfish, his left arm trailing behind, the spear pointed ahead in his right hand.

A few yards out, Nick took a deep breath through the snorkel and ducked beneath the waves. Three strong kicks, and he was about twelve feet down and studying the scene before him. He hovered in the water, awed by what he saw. Thousands of nearly translucent glass minnows—anchovies—were swirling around and around in a huge column, darting frantically in an attempt to escape the Spanish mackerel that were knifing through them from below.

Occasionally, a bird would crash into the scene from above, surrounded by a burst of air bubbles and causing the small fish to scatter in panic. Nick exhaled as he rose to the surface and then swam against the current until he was on the far side of the feeding frenzy. Once positioned, he cleared his mask, blew out his snorkel and readjusted the sling on his arm.

Nick sank face down in the water into a dead man’s float and let the current carry him toward the teeming mass of glass minnows and the school of mackerel below them.

As he approached the fish, Nick took a breath and dropped below the surface once more. He pulled the barrel of the spear back to “cock” it and drifted with the current toward the swarming mackerel. Not one of them was less than fourteen inches in length. It was a phenomenon he had seen again and again: fish tended to school with fish of like size. They all would have measured within an inch or two of one another.

Nick picked out a mackerel in a throng of similar mackerel. There were so many, there was no way he could miss.

He tracked the fish, following it with his spear tip for a few seconds before releasing his grip on the shaft. The spear shot forward, but missed as the column of fish flinched away in unison. Once more, Nick marveled at nature’s sense of self-preservation.

He drifted closer, making no sudden movements as the mackerel concentrated on their feeding. He recognized the folly of his first shot—whenever he thought there was no way to miss, he was sure to do just that.

This time, he concentrated on a single fish, forcing the rest of them from his consciousness. Just the two of them hung suspended in the water. Nick and his prey. Now, he led the fish slightly. He released the spear, felt it strike the fish, felt the fish struggle on the end of the spear.

His lungs about to burst, he kicked toward the surface, exhaling as he went. He held the fish out of the water: a beautiful Spanish mackerel that had to go fifteen or sixteen inches. Nick slipped it onto his stringer and put his face back in the water.

The current had carried him into the midst of the anchovies, which were doing their best to flee from him. He kicked against the current and backed away from the churning water. He wanted one more Spanish.

Nick submerged again and took in the majestic sight of the swirling column of anchovies, the perfection of synchronization, the play of light and colors, green, blue, and silver. If he could have held his breath indefinitely… if he had had gills… Nick might have chosen to remain motionless, suspended in the water and watching the fish for hours, but he was hunting now.

He had a good fish. Now, he wanted the best fish he could find: the longest, fattest Spanish in the Gulf. A fish that would yield a fillet that would make a grown man weep. A fish that he could remember later, describe it to Reggie and anyone else who would listen, a fish he could think about, remember how he approached it, how he made the perfect shot, how it fought on the end of the spear, and how it grilled to perfection later that night.

Nick passed up what looked like sure shots on thirteen- and fourteen-inch mackerel. His eyes were everywhere, searching for the perfect fish.

He became aware of a high-pitched throbbing whine, the unmistakable sound of a boat propeller thrashing the water.

Nick looked up and around. Under Florida law, boaters were supposed to approach no closer than a hundred yards to a diver down flag. Alabama law only stipulated boaters were supposed to stay one hundred feet from a dive flag. Either way, the offending boat was way too close and was approaching the Whaler. The mackerel forgotten, Nick pumped his legs and rocketed toward the surface.

He could hear Sam barking furiously as he broke the surface of the water. Nick pushed his mask on top of his head. He could hear laughter above Sam’s barking, and someone taunting the dog.

“Hey,” Nick shouted. “Hey, what the hell’s goin’ on?” Nick started kicking toward his boat, his head held awkwardly above the water. “Hey!”

Another boat lay on the far side of the Whaler, but because of his low vantage point in the water, Nick couldn’t make out any details. He could hear two male voices, though. Both men were laughing, and one was teasing Sam, barking back at her.

Nick cursed, pulled down his mask and kicked as hard as he could, propelling himself toward his boat. As he neared the Whaler, Nick heard the other boat’s motor kick into high gear.

He raised his head and saw two shirtless men, boys, really, no older than nineteen or twenty, in an older model Sea Ray. Both had that beach boy gone to pot look: suntans, sun-bleached hair mussed by wind and wave, their bellies already showing promise of an impressive future girth.

When they sighted Nick in the water, one of the men raised a brown beer bottle and shouted, “Whoooo!” as the man at the helm cut a circle around Nick and the Whaler before speeding away, both men laughing loudly. The one with the beer in his hand pointed at Nick with his other hand, as if he found the man in the water vastly amusing.

Nick swam to the boat and dropped his sling over the gunwale. Sam was running back and forth, barking at the disappearing boat.

“Sam! Sam!”

The dog turned and looked at Nick, her ears alert.

“Sam, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

Nick clung to the gunwale for a few moments longer, his heart pounding. He finally heaved himself on board.

“Sam, come, girl.”

The dog began licking the salt off Nick. “Okay, okay. All right, that’s enough. It’s okay, Sammy.”

He pulled the dog’s face into his chest. “It’s okay, girl. You’re okay,” making an effort to reassure himself as much as the dog.

Looking across the water toward the shore, Nick saw the flashing blue lights of a police vehicle as it slowed to a stop along the road.


Back at his condo, Nick had just sat down to a breakfast of toast and coffee on his deck when his cell vibrated. He looked at the phone. The caller ID registered the call as coming from the precinct, meaning either a call from Mabel, the dispatcher, or the sole officer on overnight duty.

Nick looked out at Old River before answering the phone. The water’s surface looked like glass, and as he watched, a black and white osprey dived. The bird’s talons dipped into the water, but came up empty and dripping as the osprey flapped its wings to gain altitude. Fifty yards out, a pair of dolphins broke the surface of the water, one slightly ahead of the other as they came up, took a breath, and disappeared again silently, moving smoothly and in tandem, like part of a machine, a well-oiled piece vital to the secret workings of the morning.


A female voice responded. Officer Stephanie Phillips, one of the two day-shift officers.

“Hey, Loot, we got a body down here at the state park.”

Nick looked out at the river again, but he was picturing Phillips in her black-on-black uniform, blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, blue eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses as she leaned against the black and white.

“Lieutenant? You there?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here.”

He glanced at his watch, wondering why Phillips was on duty this early. “The park’s not open yet, is it? Where’s the body? Inside the park? On the beach?”

“No, up by the road. A little way past the east entrance parking lot. Looks like a jogger. Mighta got hit by a car in the dark.”

“All right. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Call CID. Get ‘em to send the CSU out. Roust out the ME, and see if you can get the park ranger, or host, or whatever he’s called, down there.”

“Got it. You want somebody from Traffic, or are you gonna take it?”

Hit and runs and vehicular homicides normally fell to the Traffic Division.

Nick’s stomach felt sour.

“I got it. No need to shake loose anybody else from downtown on a holiday.”

Nick looked out at the river. The dolphins were long gone. So were his hopes for a quiet Memorial Day.


Nick was pleased to see that Officer Phillips had the scene fairly well under control by the time he arrived.

Recognizing that the precinct had its very first dead body on its hands, Mabel had taken the precaution of calling in both day-shift officers early.

Ephraim Jones, the night shift officer, had no doubt taken advantage of the historic situation to clock out early and head to a breakfast swimming in butter and saturated fats.

Nick was driving his personal vehicle, a restored, dark green Toyota Land Cruiser. The department’s official policy was that every officer was issued a take home vehicle, but the Perdido Key precinct, in existence now for a little less than two months, had been issued only two vehicles: a squad car and an SUV, both painted in the black and white livery used by the department.

In a nod to the precinct’s semi-autonomy—or as a means of distancing it from the rest of the department, Nick wasn’t sure—the vehicles sported the words “Perdido Key Police” in black-rimmed gold lettering on the doors.

Both official vehicles were on scene: Stephanie Phillips had the cruiser, while Officer Noe Morales had checked out the SUV this morning. Stephanie had positioned the vehicles to block rubberneckers’ view of the body from the road.

Noe was standing at the edge of the road, waving on traffic.

Nick stepped out of the Land Cruiser, but not before cracking both windows about six inches.

“Stay here, Sam. I’ll be back in a few minutes. And don’t give me those sad eyes.”

Nick shut the door. Sam emitted a noise like a small groan before making her way to the dog bed in the back of the Toyota.

Nick was wearing an old olive drab t-shirt stenciled with “USMC” in cracked and faded yellow lettering, along with khakis, and a pair of Timberlands. He eschewed the department issued Glock in favor of his personal Beretta 92A1 nine-millimeter clipped to his belt in a nylon holster next to his detective’s shield. He wore a pair of drugstore sunglasses and was popping gum.

CSU had yet to arrive, but Stephanie had been photographing the body from a number of angles with a digital thirty-five-millimeter camera. She looked up at Nick from where she was squatted in the sand next to the body. She wore light blue nitrile gloves. Her exposed arms were smooth, firm, and golden, and in the morning light Nick could make out fine sun-bleached hairs on them as she stood. She was as Nick had imagined her that morning, wearing her hair in a ponytail, the aviators on top of her head while she was using the camera.

“Lose your razor, boss?”

He ignored the comment.

“Whatta we got?”

“Male Caucasian, DOA. Approximately forty to forty-five years of age. Looks like the victim of a hit and run. Probably jogging, based on his clothing and shoes. No apparent wounds other than what look to be abrasions on his face and extremities from where he hit the ground. No ID on the body, but he had this on a lanyard around his neck.”


Kirstie Long Tue, 15/08/2023 - 12:39

I liked this very much; well written, good imagery and I wanted to keep reading.

The tension was built naturally and easily, bringing both background and characterisation into play. Good descriptive elements without being OTT.

Paula Sheridan Thu, 31/08/2023 - 18:22

This is a comment from a publisher judge who asked us to post this comment:

Such a strong start. We love that we get so much of Nick’s personality in this first moment on the boat with Sam- he, unlike many lesser detectives of his genre, clearly is more than just his job. The writing is compelling, and the island setting also sets this book apart from others like it. A really special start to a fascinating mystery.

Kelly Lydick Fri, 01/09/2023 - 05:22

The voice and cadence are right on par for this genre, nice work.