At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic.
I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves.
The impact tore off her silk skirt, blouse, panties, wristwatch and sandals, but Joey remained conscious and alert. Of course she did. She had been co-captain of her college swim team, a biographical nugget that her husband obviously had forgotten.
Bobbing in its fizzy wake, Joey watched the gaily lit Sun Duchess continue steaming away at twenty nautical miles per hour. Evidently only one of the other 2,049 passengers was aware of what had happened, and he wasn't telling anybody.
Bastard, Joey thought.
She noticed that her bra was down around her waist, and she wriggled free of it. To the west, under a canopy of soft amber light, the coast of Florida was visible. Joey began to swim.
The water of the Gulf Stream was slightly warmer than the air, but a brisk northeasterly wind had kicked up a messy and uncomfortable chop. Joey paced herself. To keep her mind off sharks, she replayed the noteworthy events of the week-long cruise, which had begun almost as unpromisingly as it had ended.
The Sun Duchess had departed Port Everglades three hours late because a raccoon had turned up berserk in the pastry kitchen. One of the chefs had wrestled the frothing critter into a sixty-gallon tin of guava custard before it had shredded the man's jowls and humped snarling to the depths of the ship. A capture team from Broward Animal Control had arrived, along with health inspectors and paramedics. Evacuated passengers were appeased with rum drinks and canapés.
Later, while reboarding, Joey had passed the Animal Control officers trudging empty-handed down the gangplank.
"I bet they couldn't catch it," she'd whispered to her husband. Despite the inconvenience caused by the raccoon, she'd found herself rooting for the addled little varmint.
"Rabies," her husband had said knowingly. "Damn thing lays a claw on me, I'll own this frigging cruise line."
"Oh, please, Chaz."
"From then on, you can call me Onassis. Think I'm kidding?"
The Sun Duchess was 855 feet long and weighed a shade more than seventy thousand tons. Joey had learned this from a brochure she'd found in their stateroom. The itinerary included Puerto Rico, Nassau and a private Bahamian island that the cruise lines had purchased (rumor had it) from the widow of a dismembered heroin trafficker. The last port of call before the ship returned to Fort Lauderdale was to be Key West.
Chaz had selected the cruise himself, claiming it was a present for their wedding anniversary. The first evening he'd spent on the fantail, slicing golf balls into the ocean. Initially Joey had been annoyed that the Sun Duchess would offer a driving range, much less a fake rock-climbing wall and squash courts. She and Chaz could have stayed in Boca and done all that.
No less preposterous was the ship's tanning parlor, which received heavy traffic whenever the skies turned overcast. The cruise company wanted every passenger to return home with either a bronze glow or a crimson burn, proof of their seven days in the tropics.
As it turned out, Joey wound up scaling the rock wall and tak- ing full advantage of the other amenities, even the two-lane bowling alley. The alternative was to eat and drink herself sick, gluttony being the principal recreation aboard cruise liners. The Sun Duchess was renowned for its twenty-four-hour surf-and-turf buffets, and that's how Joey's husband had spent the hours between ports.
Pig, she thought, submerging to shed a clot of seaweed that had wrapped around her neck like a sodden yule garland.
Each day's sunrise had brought a glistening new harbor, yet the towns and straw markets were drearily similar, as if designed and operated by a franchise. Joey had earnestly tried to be charmed by the native wares, though many appeared to have been crafted in Singapore or South Korea. And what would one do with a helmet conch clumsily retouched with nail polish? Or a coconut husk bearing a hand-painted likeness of Prince Harry?
So grinding was the role of tourist that Joey had found herself looking forward to visiting the ship's "unspoiled private island," as it had been touted in the brochure. Yet that, too, proved dispiriting. The cruise line had mendaciously renamed the place Rapture Key while making only a minimal effort at restoration. Roosters, goats and feral hogs were the predominant fauna, having outlasted the smuggler who had been raising them for banquet fare. The island's sugar-dough flats were pocked with hulks of sunken drug planes, and the only shells to be found along the tree-shorn beach were of the .45-caliber variety.
"I'm gonna rent a Jet Ski," Chaz had cheerily decreed.
"I'll try to find some shade," Joey had said, "and finish my book."
The distance between them remained wide and unexplored. By the time the Sun Duchess had reached Key West, Joey and Chaz were spending only about one waking hour a day together, an interval usually devoted to either sex or an argument. It was pretty much the same schedule they kept at home.
So much for the romantic latitudes, Joey had thought, wishing she felt sadder than she did.
When her husband had scampered off to "check out the action" at Mallory Square, she briefly considered seducing one of the cabin attendants, a fine Peruvian brute named Tico. Ultimately Joey had lost the urge, dismissing the crestfallen young fellow with a peck on the chin and a fifty-dollar tip. She didn't feel strongly enough about Chaz to cheat on him even out of spite, although she suspected he'd cheated on her often (and quite possibly during the cruise).
Upon returning to the Sun Duchess, Chaz had been as chatty as a cockatoo on PCP.
"See all those clouds? It's about to rain," he'd proclaimed with a peculiar note of elation.
"I guess that means no golf tonight," Joey had said.
"Hey, I counted twenty-six T-shirt shops on Duval Street. No wonder Hemingway blew his brains out."
"That wasn't here," Joey had informed him. "That was in Idaho."
"How about some chow? I could eat a whale."
At dinner Chaz had kept refilling Joey's wineglass, over her protests. Now she understood why.
She felt it, too, that dehydrated alcohol fatigue. She'd been kicking hard up the crests of the waves and then breast-stroking down the troughs, but now she was losing both her rhythm and stamina. This wasn't the heated Olympic pool at UCLA; it was the goddamn Atlantic Ocean. Joey scrunched her eyelids to dull the saltwater burn.
I had a feeling he didn't love me anymore, she thought, but this is ridiculous.
Chaz Perrone listened for a splash but heard nothing except the deep lulling rumble of the ship's engines. Head cocked slightly, he stood at the rail as solitary and motionless as a heron.
He hadn't planned to toss her here. He had hoped to do it earlier in the voyage, somewhere between Nassau and San Juan, with the expectation that the currents would carry her body into Cuban waters, safely out of U.S. jurisdiction.
If the bull sharks didn't find her first.
Unfortunately, the weather had been splendid during that early leg of the cruise, and every night the outside decks were crowded with moony-eyed couples. Chaz's scheme required seclusion and he'd nearly abandoned hope, when the rain arrived, three hours after leaving Key West. It was only a drizzle, but Chaz knew it would drive the tourists indoors, stampeding for the lobster salad and electronic poker machines.
The second crucial element of his plot was surprise, Joey being a physically well-tuned woman and Chaz himself being somewhat softer and out of shape. Before luring her toward the stern of the Sun Duchess under the ruse of a starlit stroll, he'd made certain that his wife had consumed plenty of red wine; four and a half glasses, by his count. Two was usually enough to make her drowsy.
"Chaz, it's sprinkling," she had observed as they approached the rail.
Naturally she'd been puzzled, knowing how her husband despised getting wet. The man owned no less than seven umbrellas.
Pretending not to hear her, he had guided Joey forward by the elbow. "My stomach's a disaster. I think it's time they retired that seviche, don't you?"
"Let's go back inside," Joey had suggested.
From a pocket of his blue blazer Chaz had surreptitiously removed the key to their stateroom and let it fall to the polished planks at his feet. "Oops."
"Chaz, it's getting chilly out here."
"I think I dropped our key," he'd said, stooping to find it. Or so Joey had assumed.
He could only guess what had shot through his wife's mind when she'd felt him grab her ankles. He's gotta be kidding, is what she'd probably thought.
The act itself was a rudimentary exercise in leverage, really, flipping her backward over the rail. It had happened so fast, she hadn't made a peep.
As for the splash, Chaz would have preferred to hear it; a soft punctuation to the marriage and the crime. Then again, it was a long way down to the water.
He allowed himself a brief glance, but saw only whitecaps and foam in the roiling reflection of the ship's lights. The Sun Duchess kept moving, which was a relief. No Klaxons sounded.
Chaz picked up the key and hurried to the stateroom, bolting the door behind him. After hanging up his blazer, he opened another bottle of wine, poured some into two glasses and drank half of each.
Joey's suitcase lay open for re-packing, and Chaz moved it from the bed to the floor. He splayed his own travel bag and went foraging for an antacid. Beneath a stack of neatly folded boxers-Joey was a champion packer, he had to admit-Chaz came upon a box wrapped in tartan-style gift paper with green ribbon.
Inside the box was a gorgeous set of leather golf-club covers that were embossed with his initials, C.R.P. There was also a card: "Happy 2nd Anniversary! Love always, Joey."
Admiring the silken calfskin sheaths, Chaz felt a knot of remorse in his gut. It passed momentarily, like acid reflux.
His wife had class, no doubt about it. If only she hadn't been so damn . . . observant.
In exactly six hours he would report her missing.
Chaz stripped to his underwear and lobbed his clothes in a corner. Packed inside his carry-on was a paperback edition of Madame Bovary, which he opened randomly and placed for effect on the nightstand by Joey's side of the bed.
Then Charles Regis Perrone set his alarm clock, laid his head on the pillow and went to sleep.
The Gulf Stream carried Joey northward at almost four knots. She knew she'd have to swim harder if she didn't want to end up bloated and rotting on some sandbar in North Carolina.
But, Lord, she was tired.
Had to be the wine. Chaz knew she wasn't much of a drinker, and obviously he'd planned it all in advance. Probably hoped that the fall from the ship would break her legs or knock her unconscious, and if it didn't, so what? She'd be miles from land in a pitching black ocean, and scared shitless. Nobody would find her even if they went looking, and she'd drown from exhaustion before daylight.
That's what Chaz probably figured.
He hadn't forgotten about her glory days at UCLA, either, Joey realized. He knew she would start swimming, if she somehow survived the fall. In fact, he was counting on her to swim; betting that his stubborn and prideful wife would wear herself out when she should have tucked into a floating position and conserved her strength until sunrise. At least then she'd have a speck of a chance to be seen by a passing ship.
Sometimes I wonder about myself, Joey thought.
Once a tanker passed so close that it blocked out the moon. The ship's silhouette was squat and dark and squared at both ends, like a high-rise condo tipped on its side. Joey had hollered and waved, but there was no chance of being heard above the clatter of the engines. The tanker pushed by, a russet wall of noise and fumes, and Joey resumed swimming.
Soon her legs started going numb, a spidery tingle that began in her toes and crept upward. Muscle cramps wouldn't have surprised her, but the slow deadening did. She found herself laboring to keep her face above the waves, and eventually she sensed that she'd stopped kicking altogether. Toward the end she switched to the breaststroke, her legs trailing like pale broken cables.
We've only been married two years, she was thinking. What did I do to deserve this?
To take her mind off dying, Joey composed a mental list of the things that Chaz didn't like about her:
1. She tended to overcook fowl, particularly chicken, due to a lifelong fear of salmonella.
2. The facial moisturizing cream that she applied at night smelled vaguely like insecticide.
3. Sometimes she dozed off during hockey games, even the play-offs.
4. She refused to go down on him while he was driving on Interstate 95, the Sunshine State Parkway or any surface road where the posted speed limit exceeded fifty miles per hour.
5. She could whip him at tennis whenever she felt like it.
6. She occasionally "misplaced" his favorite George Thorogood CDs.
7. She declined to entertain the possibility of inviting his hairstylist over for a threesome.
8. She belonged to a weekly book group.
9. She had more money than he did.
10. She brushed with baking soda instead of toothpaste. . . .
Come on, Joey thought.
A guy doesn't suddenly decide to murder his wife just because she serves a chewy Cornish hen.
Maybe it's another woman, Joey thought. But then why not just ask me for a divorce?
She didn't have the energy to sort it all out. She'd married a worthless horndog and now he'd heaved her overboard on their anniversary cruise and very soon she would drown and be devoured by sharks. Out here you had the big boys: blacktips, lemons, hammerheads, tigers, makos and bulls. . . .
Please, God, don't let them eat me, Joey thought, until after I've died.
The same warm tingle was starting in her fingertips and soon, she knew, both arms would be as spent and useless as her legs. Her lips had gone raw from the salt, her tongue was swollen like a kielbasa and her eyelids were puffy and crusted. Still, the lights of Florida beckoned like stardust whenever she reached the top of a wave.
So Joey struggled on, believing she still had a slender chance of survival. If she made it across the Gulf Stream, she'd finally be able to rest; ball up and float until the sun came up.
She had momentarily forgotten about the sharks, when something heavy and rough-skinned butted against her left breast. Thrashing and grunting, she beat at the thing with both fists until the last of her strength was gone.
Cavitating into unconsciousness, she was subjected to a flash vision of Chaz in their stateroom aboard the Sun Duchess, screwing a blond croupier before heading aft for one final bucket of balls.
Prick, Joey thought.
Then the screen in her head went blank.
Excerpted from SKINNY DIP by Carl Hiaasen Copyright© 2004 by Carl Hiaasen. Excerpted by permission of Warner Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.