mystery with a touch of murder
an Author's Life - Plotting & Writing
an Author's Life - Plotting & Writing
When interoffice mail delivered my pink slip, I cried and remained an emotional wreck for days. My parents smothered me with “there-theres” and useless but well-intended advice, while my go-to person, Great-Aunt Julia, repeated one of her maxims. “Count the signs, sweetie. If you get to three, bad luck might be in the cards.”
I wasn’t a superstitious person. Not at all, but it was understandable why people in my family were. We were a history of theater people. Actors, prop designers, costume designers, screenwriters, playwriters, makeup crew, cameramen—it was a very long list. Theater people were typically dramatic, imaginative, and superstitious. Some might consider these traits as a stereotype. However, my view was to take each situation in life as it came. Sometimes, the signs weren’t signs, and sometimes, well, let’s leave it at that.
At the top of the next grade, the dense woods cleared a bit. I smiled as rooftops of stores on Sierra Pine’s Main Street came into view. While cruising through the first intersection, I considered my career options for the umpteenth time—how life was so unfair, and what did I do to deserve this—when a dark, blurry blob sprang into the street. I stomped on the brake pedal of my SUV rental, tires screeching, and barely missed the cat as it sauntered across the road. A black cat. My hands gripped the steering wheel as I leaned closer to the windshield and squinted. Not completely black. It had white paws and a white chest. Maybe this was one of those nothing-to-worry-about moments. Then again, if I was to believe such a thing… I shook my head as one black tail swished in the air and the jay-walking kitty stepped into Lucinda’s Beauty Parlor.
I rubbed to soothe the knots in my neck. After leaving New York’s LaGuardia Airport this morning and flying for hours to reach Sacramento International Airport, I was exhausted. Adding to that was the hour-long drive to town. I struggled to keep my eyes open. In another block, I’d reach my destination, Sierra Pines B&B and a much-needed visit with Aunt Julia and the Bellwethers. I chuckled. If I told them about the cat, they’d fuss and might want to do something hokey like hold a séance or perform an exorcism to banish any bad omens. Maybe I’d not mention it. Why ruin a perfectly fine reunion? It had been a year since my last visit. We had a ton to catch up on, and, right now, I ached for any conversation that didn’t include the words pink slip.
Sunlight burst from behind a cloud and played its beam across the pavement. Fallen autumn leaves in rustic colors splashed along the sidewalk, giving the scene a warm glow. In the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains outlined a majestic background. I loved the town and the quaint shops, with their scalloped canopies and clever names like Bagels and Buns and Meeka’s Mementos, all nestled together in three short blocks. The people were kind here. They always had nice things to say. This slow-paced, easygoing atmosphere gave me peace.
The lift car swayed again as we came to a stop. Ralph jumped down and held my hand as I followed.
Wind whipped through my hair and a spray of snow stung my face. I placed the goggles over my eyes and took a deep breath. Cold air traveled into my lungs and invigorated me. From up here the world below and everyone in it seemed so small and insignificant. Somehow, I felt stronger.
“Are you ready to go, Miss Winston?” Ralph nudged me.
To answer, I pushed off with my poles and, leaning forward, schussed down the hill. The force of cold air tingled my skin as I picked up speed. A rush of adrenaline ran through me and, for a moment, surprised me. Up to now, all my concentration had been on keeping the proper stance so I wouldn’t lose my balance and fall. This feeling was so much better. I laughed out loud as I shifted weight to my outside leg and slalomed across the slope. Amazed at how the movement came without effort, I tried again, turning to the opposite side which came closer to the expert slope.
Wind whistled in my ears, yet somehow, I heard a mournful, high-pitched cry echoing from the line of pines on my right. As if my gut instinct took over, I slalomed toward the trees and that sound, ignoring Ralph who shouted my name again and again. Maybe I acted paranoid. After witnessing the dramatic and confusing displays back at the lodge and the anxious mood they put me in, who could blame me?
With a sharp turn of my skis, I stuck my poles in the ground and came to a stop. I held my breath and, for a few seconds, heard only the soft rustle of branches swaying in the breeze. Could the sound have been the screech of a bird or wildcat? Plenty of wildlife lived in the Sierras.
I shrugged and stepped to bring my skis around, pointing toward the slope, when a scream pierced the silence. I tensed. The frightening sound came from beyond the pines and in the same direction as before.
Without hesitating, I pushed off to steer around the grove of pines and find a path. In several hundred yards, I came to a clearing, which led to the more difficult slope, but I didn’t stop to consider any other option. Those screams might be a cry for help. I couldn’t ignore that.
The path descended. Soon, I spotted a sign that warned skiers of the drop-off ahead. Catching my breath, I kept going, only at a slower pace. The clearing grew narrower, and I could see another cluster of pines up ahead. I pulled to a stop. Shielding my eyes from the sunlight, I scanned the area from left to right. Movement far off to my right made me freeze. Red parka and black cap. My heartbeat skipped then raced faster. Nathan wore a red parka and black cap. I pushed off with the poles and skirted around the trees to reach him.
He stood with his hands clasping the back of his head. Shifting his upper body side to side, he let out a mournful cry.
“Nathan?” I stepped behind him and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “Nathan?” I spoke softer. “What’s wrong?”
In a slow and awkward gesture, he raised his arm, trembling as he pointed to the drop-off.
I swallowed and leaned over to peer into the ravine. A tiny whimper escaped my lips. A florescent pink jacket stood out against the background of white. Arms and legs spread in awkward directions. And a fluffy fur hat lay to the side. I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them wide. The image hadn’t disappeared. Gripping Nathan’s coat sleeve, I steadied my wobbly knees. “Isadora?” My voice whispered, carried away by the wind. In all the dramatic fashion she’d be proud of, Isadora had given her final performance.
Swerving around the last hard hat and work truck, I picked up speed along the road that bordered Chautauqua Lake. Rays of evening sunlight sparkled like tiny jewels on the cobalt blue water. I glanced at the tranquil scene of boats and bathers lazing on their docks along the shore. Lifting my chin, I sniffed the fresh piney air. For a brief moment, I wondered why I ever left, but then remembered my dream had been to conquer New York.
The sudden shrill ring of my phone blasted from the car speakers and made me gasp. Seeing the name on the screen, I grinned and pressed the button on my steering wheel. “Hi, Izzie.”
“Hi, yourself. What’s taking you so long? You should be on our doorstep right this minute so we can be talking face to face.”
I laughed. “Calm down. I’m only five minutes away.”
She hiccupped. “Thank goodness. I worried you’d changed your mind.”
“Sweetie, I swear New York City and all its baggage are only unpleasant memories, and I’m sure as heck glad I left all of it behind.” At least, I kept telling myself as much.
Around the next bend, a welcome sign announced my arrival to Whisper Cove, New York, population four hundred thirty-nine. I smiled. The number hadn’t changed in two years, which was fine with me. Staying here for a while, surrounded by familiar sights, folks I’d grown up with, and a cozy atmosphere would be a huge relief.
“You’re a life saver, Chloe. I’ve mentioned that, right? Of course I have.” Izzie hiccupped once more. “Sorry. My nerves are frazzled, and my brain’s turned into goo. Did you know four out of five businesses fail in the first year? I do. I researched it. Yet, here I am, taking the leap, and that's huge for me. Lord, I hope this isn’t a huge mistake.”
I swerved to miss a fallen branch. “Take it from me, the queen of huge mistakes, your plan is practical and well thought out. You were stuck in a rut at the bakery, working part-time and only snagging a commission here and there to paint somebody's portrait. Besides, you’ve got Mom and Dad backing you, and don’t forget about me. I’ll be your dutiful servant for however long you need.” I chewed on my bottom lip. I projected as much enthusiasm as possible. “Your shop will be the biggest hit since Gwen Finch opened Go Fly a Kite twenty years ago.”
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At the end of Sail Shore Drive, I turned left on Whisper Cove Boulevard and parked in the lot next to the dock. Near the shoreline, a dozen or so geese were pecking at the ground for crumbs left by visitors. As we stepped closer, they squawked and flapped their wings before scattering to the south end of the lake. The giggles of children erupted as they played several yards away from the dock, scooping sand with their shovels and buckets.
I lifted my head as a cool breeze stirred the dry leaves lying on the ground. A slight chill ran through me. I pulled my arms through the sleeves of my jacket and zipped the front. No one stood on the ferry deck. Besides ours, only one other car sat in the lot. “I don’t see any sign of Dewey. Maybe we’re out of luck.” I groaned. Being late to pick up an order wouldn’t look good for business. I took several steps away from my car, and my foot landed on something soft. Looking down, I found a knit hat. Hesitating only a second, I picked it up. Dewey kept a lost and found box on the ferry since passengers sometimes left behind personal items like this. At the end of the year, anything unclaimed was donated to a nonprofit organization like Goodwill.
“Wait.” Izzie pointed. “I see him. He’s standing at the far end, looking over the edge of the deck.”
Dewey Sawyer was the attendant and pilot of the ferry. Of course, the available times to use this transportation were limited. He was the only employee the town could afford to pay. A confirmed bachelor close to forty, he lived alone just outside of town. The story was that he’d inherited his widowed mother’s house and her modest stock investments. Along with the meager pay to run the ferry, Dewey got by. He kept mostly to himself, and his only weakness was indulging in drinking his favorite beverage, Yuengling Premium, preferably in the bottle. The real advantage, and what made the ferry so popular, was passengers being able to bring their vehicles across the lake with them. If there wasn’t enough room, you’d have to be patient and wait until the ferry returned for a second trip.
As we stepped up on the deck, Dewey was drying his damp face and hair with a towel. The sandy blond curls sprang out like corkscrews when he shook his head. He rubbed his face with one hand and leaned over to peer at the lake water again, as if he hadn’t noticed or heard us.
Izzie whistled. “Earth to Dewey. Are you running the ferry across the lake this morning anytime soon?”
Dewey gasped and sprang to attention. His hand and fingers splayed across his chest. “About to give me heart failure, you did.” His gaze flitted sideways for an instant and straight again to us. “You want to take the ferry?”
“Uh, that’s what we’re here for, and I expect you’re here to take us.” Izzie planted both fists on her hips. “What do you keep staring at, Dewey Sawyer? Your face looks pale and almost white.” Izzie inched closer to him.
I walked alongside her. With a frown puckering my brow, I squinted. “And your hands are shaking like you overdosed on caffeine. Are you on that diet again? The one where you eat next to nothing? I remember last time you ended up in the hospital eating your meals through a tube. Not a smart thing to repeat.” I shook my head. Dewey was as thin as the stem of a rigger paint brush. He couldn’t afford to lose any weight.
As we came to within a few feet of him, Dewey backed away from the edge of the deck and sobbed. I turned for a second. He stuffed his fist in his mouth, and his eyes bulged as if they could pop out of their sockets at any second. Something had upset him, which wasn’t so unusual. Everyone in town knew he was prone to hysterical episodes.
Puzzled and curious, I shifted my attention from Dewey to the lake water. I leaned over, searching exactly at the spot where he had been looking a moment ago. My insides lurched like they’d turn inside out, and I clutched my stomach with both hands. “Good lord.” I strained to speak.
Izzie gripped my shoulder and let go of a low, feeble cry. “Is that really…is she…?”
Even though my brain told me to look away, I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the horrible sight. A body was floating face down in the water near the shore, a woman with long red hair, spreading like tentacles around her head. Her blue wool coat was snagged on a huge tree trunk that had landed in the lake and been left there after lightning struck it down in a summer storm. An inch or two of her red dress showed along with the bottom half of her legs that had turned white and wrinkly. This image was almost exactly like in the painting we’d found left behind at the lodge, only this scene was terrifyingly real. Viola Finnwinkle was dead, and she’d been left floating in Chautauqua Lake. As if my mind finally caught up to what happened, I fumbled in my pocket to pull out the knit hat. I gasped as the hint of what it could likely mean hit me. The knit hat with a narrow brim was purple, and it looked exactly like the one Aunt Constance had been wearing at our event.