an Author's Life - Plotting & Writing
Cryptic messages and their voices with stories from the past lead the journey to help solve a mystery.
Sarah Mackenzie enjoys helping her Uncle Chaz with his writing. As his research assistant, she's made plenty of interesting discoveries, but sometimes those turn out to be unpleasant, even frightening, like the open grave she'd found in Cornplanter Cemetery last summer. Her uncle's latest project is to write about local artists, past and present. When Sarah makes a routine trip to retrieve a box with some valuable items belonging to the now deceased jazz musician, Sam Slimwell, the trip turns dangerous as she's confronted by a hijacker who steals Slimwell's possessions. Only minutes later, the thief ends up murdered, and the local sheriff has his judgmental eye on Sarah as a suspect.
To find the missing box and answers to the crime, Sarah discovers more about Slimwell's untimely death in a plane crash and his message about his lover which is hidden in a secret code that will reveal more than she bargained for. Unfortunately, others are desperately looking for the same answers and will stop at nothing to get what they want, even if that means harming Sarah. Her journey takes Sarah from the rural country surrounding her home, near the Kinzua Reservoir, to the city museum in Philadelphia. Fierce and undaunted, she's determined to find answers, and not even the threat of death by the hands of a killer will stop her.
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.
Renville hopped off the podium stand and sat down in the chair next to the paint booth while everyone clapped and cheered him on. How he managed to express such a pleasant disposition in public yet act so vindictive disturbed me. He had most people fooled. Too bad the nice guy had a dark side.
Lyla placed pads on Renville's eyes then applied a base with a damp sponge. Once done, she dipped a thin brush into a can of purple paint, which was actually lavender. She was the artist and thrived on accuracy. Carefully, she outlined the face then switched to a broader brush and began covering his entire face.
"Ursula! Ursula!" Students, mostly from the high school, clapped and chanted as Renville was transformed.
Lyla stood back and smiled. She reached behind her and pulled out a white wig, then handed it to the school board president.
Renville's smile quivered as if he struggled to keep his pleasant expression in place. Hesitating only a few seconds, he removed his ball cap and tugged the wig over his head.
Laughter broke out, along with whistles and cheers, followed by someone shouting words that were difficult to comprehend. Soon, others joined in the chant.
I chuckled as I figured out what they were saying. "Poor Unfortunate Souls. Sing it. Sing it."
"Do you think he will?" Gladys stepped alongside me.
"Well, he's gone this far. What's a line or two of a song going to hurt?" I grinned. "All in the name of school spirit. Isn't that what he said?"
Renville held up both arms to quiet the crowd. "I'm afraid I don't know the lyrics. How about our school victory song instead? We can sing it together." Without waiting for a response, he belted out the first line of the spirit song but almost immediately stopped to clear his throat. "Could someone please get me a cup of water?"
By now, he was coughing uncontrollably, and his face turned bright red. He stumbled several yards away from the booth before stopping to bend over and clutch his throat.
Lyla quickly pulled a water bottle out of her cooler and popped the lid. She hurried to Renville and handed him the bottle.
I raced to where they stood, with Gladys right behind me. "Please stand back, everyone," I said. "Give the man room to breathe."
"I'm calling for the EMTs." Lyla's hand trembled as she pressed the button on her phone.
"Maybe he'll be okay. The water seems to help." I tried to calm her but kept a wary eye on Renville. The coughing had stopped, but his breathing became labored as his mouth gaped open to gulp air.
"Yes. Please come to the Sierra Pines festival grounds. A man seems to be in distress. I'm not sure what's wrong, but please hurry." She covered the phone and stared at me unblinking. "I don't understand. He was fine. Laughing, joking. I don't get it." She pressed the back of her hand to her lips. "Oh, my gosh." Her eyes widened as she pointed.
I turned to follow her gaze. Renville lay on the ground, eyes closed. His chest moved up and down in a rapid pace.
"Is he dead?" A young woman cried out.
"No. Look. Isn't he breathing? I mean, sort of." Someone else said.
A siren screamed in the distance and grew louder. I hugged Lyla. "It's going to be okay. You'll see." I whispered without an ounce of confidence.
By now, Renville's face looked distorted. Tiny blisters covered his cheeks, and his eyes looked puffy. Whatever happened came on fast and with not explanation.
Just then, the EMT van steered onto the lot and came within a few yards of us before stopping. Two men jumped out of the vehicle and carried a gurney across the field until they reached us. Once of them knelt down to check Renville's pulse then signaled to the other. He jabbed a needle into Renville's thigh and placed an oxygen mask on his face.
"Is he...will he be okay? I mean, he was fine a few minutes ago." Lyla's voice hitched, and she clutched my arm. "Ali, I have a really bad feeling about this."
I motioned for Gladys to help me guide Lyla to a chair. I couldn't find any words to comfort my friend. In stead, I focused my gaze on the EMTs who knelt down next to Renville. The scene played in slow motion, as if each detail divided into tinier details. Each step they took lasted infinite seconds long.
Yeah, I had a really bad feeling too, and the worry lay heavy on my chest as I struggled to take a deep breath.
"Ali?" Lyla rasped and squeezed my hand.
The EMT who spoke to his partner finally glanced our way. He didn't need to say anything. I could tell by his grim expression. Without waiting any longer, he turned to help carry the gurney to the van.
I heaved my chest, and a quivering breath eased out of me. I knew in my gut. Melvin Renville was dead.
I stood and turned to tidy up and reorganize paint supplies on the shelf by size and color. All the while, my head kept spinning with ideas. We could invite Fiona to dinner, get to know each other, and send a message she was a welcomed addition to our community. I snapped my fingers. “Or maybe we throw her a party on her next birthday! If we show her kindness, maybe she’ll change for the better. Like flies and honey.” I smiled and hummed along to the Stones belting out “Honky Tonk Woman.”
My back pocket buzzed, along with a familiar ringtone. I plastered the phone to one ear while lining up bottles and tubes of paint with the other. “Hi, Mom.”
“Oh, good. I thought your phone would go straight to voice mail like Izzie’s. Listen, your dad and I are going to the Bixbys for a late-night game of gin rummy. When will you be home?”
I glanced at the clock. “I’d say by ten.”
“Well, if you’re hungry, there’s leftover pizza in the fridge. We should return by twelve or one. How’d everything go this evening?”
My hand jerked and bottles of paint tipped over like a line of dominoes. “Dang it all,” I muttered under my breath. “Except for Fiona’s behavior, the event ran like a charm. I’ll share the details later. Thanks for the pizza. You and Dad have a nice visit, and say hello to the Bixbys for me.”
A nanosecond later, before she could ask more about Fiona, I stabbed the end call button and moved on to scrub and dry the brushes and knives. “Shoot. I forgot to mention my idea about the dinner invitation.” I figured the sooner we got started on my strategy, the better.
With the paint tools cleaned, dried, and put away, the only task remaining was to take the trash to the dumpster in the alley. I collected the wastebaskets from the front, the bathroom, and storage room, and emptied everything into one bag. Taking a deep breath, I lifted the heavy load and staggered to the back exit. “Should have used two trash bags.” I dropped my cargo and, with the swipe of my foot, shoved it to one side.
Closing my fingers around the handle, I pulled the door open and shuddered. Dark alleys shouldn’t scare me. After all, I’d been a New Yorker for two years. But that label also meant I kept my guard up to prepare for anything. I flipped the switch to turn on the floodlight. I grumbled then toggled the switch again and again, but the alley remained pitch black.
“Well, that’s just fantastic.” I blew out air and dragged the trash bag across the floor. Lifting the load with both arms, I stepped into the alley. My foot caught on something lumpy. I frowned. Another bag? Izzie wouldn’t leave trash in the doorway. Of course, I didn’t know Willow or if she was lazy or careless enough to do so.
Frustrated, I pulled out my phone and switched on the flashlight app. “Somebody is going to hear about this.” I scowled, waving the light across the alley pavement until it rested directly in front of me. My eyes widened, and the phone slipped from my hand as the floodlight flickered. A scream built in my throat, and I couldn’t stop the sound. A body lay at my feet with arms and legs spread out in a disturbing, awkward pose.
I back shuffled but couldn’t pull my eyes from the horrible sight. A knife protruded from the neck while blood tinged the mop of white hair with red. The curved handle of the weapon looked familiar. So did the body. I cringed and clamped one hand over my mouth to keep from screaming again.
Fiona Gimble was dead, and she’d been stabbed with what looked to me like a painting knife.
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.