m struggling with my current work in progress. I’m about 130 pages in and I’m worried my mystery reads too much like a romantic comedy. A few months ago when I asked my newsletter readers if they would read a mystery if I wrote one, I got an overwhelmingly positive response.
So now I’m asking, do you like mysteries with a romantic comedy feel? And can you think of an author who does this sort of thing well? I love Rhys Bowen, but her books are historical. I’m afraid I’m trying to straddle two horses who could at any moment gallop in opposite directions…
In any case, here’s the first chapter, and no, the love interest hasn’t been introduced…yet. I would love your honest opinion. (Also, this hasn’t been scrubbed clean by my awesome editor.)
Stone pillars flanked the drive. The weak morning sun sparkled through the trees’ canopy while a low hanging mist blew just over the top of the tall grass. We rounded a bend and suddenly the house, Despaign’s Folly came into view. Large, imposing, slate roof and limestone walls, its monochromatic coloring matched the gray sea stretching beyond the bluffs. I braked too harshly, and Gawain’s carrier skittered over the seat. Shooting out my hand, I saved him from a tumble.
He yowled a complaint and I agreed with him. “This was a terrible mistake. What was I thinking?”
In front of the garage carriage doors, a woman in a pink pantsuit stood beside a silver Lexus. She jingled keys in one hand and carried an attaché case in the other.
I pulled my Subaru up beside her. The impatience I noted in her expression just moments ago disappeared behind a well-rehearsed smile and she extended her hand as I climbed from the car. Now that I was closer and could see the crows-feet wrinkles around her eyes and her pinched and dry lips, I decided she had to be my age or older.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” Monique Ward said, gripping my hand in her cold one.
She swept her gaze over me, her eyes telling me she didn’t like what she saw. She would dislike me even more when I told her I couldn’t stay.
I opened my mouth to offer her excuses. This house is much too big for one person. Too remote. Too eerie. But the sound of water below called and I itched to see the view.
Monique followed my gaze. “Let me show you the property,” she said before striding across the lawn.
I followed her to the cliff overlooking the Sound. A lone boat bobbed on the horizon. The fog turned the sky and water into a sheet of gray and the boat appeared to be floating in space.
A riotous tumble of blackberries bushes marked the cliff’s edge. The berries were hard, small, and purple. They would ripen before my lease was up.
But I couldn’t stay here.
I turned and faced the house. Shadows moved in the windows. A buzzing saw ceased and the sudden silence was startling and it reminded me of how far I’d traveled. My apartment in Seattle was filled with noise—the hum of the refrigerator, the tick-tock of a clock, my neighbor’s jazz playlist, the roar of the traffic below my window, jet planes overhead.
“Tell me again about your conference?” Monique interrupted my thoughts.
“Edenbrook? A women’s artist retreat on Whidbey Island. You haven’t heard of it?”
She tinkled a laugh and admitted, “I’m not much of a reader, but I did look up your books. Culinary cozies…what is that, exactly?”
“I write murder mysteries and my characters eat…a lot.”
Monique slid me a glance and pulled her blazer tighter. “Murders, huh? Sounds grisly.”
“It’s more about the puzzle than violence.” I eyed the house. It was the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie or Daphne du Maurier novel. Even the name spoke of gothic stories, damsels in distress, and dastardly villains. But who names houses in this generation? But this house wasn’t of this generation.
“That’s good, I suppose.” Her words brought me back into the here and now. She cocked her head to study me. “But why rent Despaign’s Folly when you’re conference is on Whidbey Island?”
“The retreat is only a few days. I’m staying here through October to finish my latest book.” And to escape.
“Come on inside, you’ll love the kitchen.” She shot me a glance over her shoulder. “I assume you, as well as your characters, like to cook?”
She trilled a laugh. “What’s that saying, never trust a skinny cook? If that’s true, I should be doubting you.”
I smoothed down my cotton top, not knowing how to respond. It was true, I’d lost a lot of weight since the accident.
The dew-soaked lawn seeped through my shoes. I followed Monique up a small flight of stone steps and across the patio. We passed a pair of French doors that looked in on a room lined with book-shelves and comfy sofas and chairs. She paused in front of a Dutch door and fumbled with a key.
While I waited, I glanced around at the vegetable garden gone to seed, the row of apple trees heavily burdened with fruit, and a quivering maple. Wondering why the tree shook, I glanced up and spotted a giant cat pacing on a branch high above my head.
The door swung open and Monique motioned for me to enter. I hesitated. Something told me if I went inside, I may never leave. A chill traveled through my shoes, up my legs, and settled in my belly. I froze in the kitchen, my feet rooted on the kitchen’s checkerboard tiled floor.
The buzzing saw returned.
“I wonder why the workers didn’t turn on the heat.” Monique frowned and strode from the room, but this time I didn’t follow her. I stood fixed in the center of the airy kitchen, hungrily surveying the gleaming industrious-sized appliances.
Monique reappeared and a flush of warm air blew around us. “It’s a beauty, isn’t it? This room was the first to be remodeled. I hope you won’t mind the workers, but they’re only here on the weekdays and for just a few more weeks. I’ll introduce you to them when we reach the turret.” She waved at the dimly lit hall to our right, but I made no move to leave.
“Shall we?” she pressed.
I left the kitchen with dragging feet and passed through a dining room to the two-story living room with its soaring fireplace, scattered tapestry rugs, and large inviting overstuffed furniture. The jammed-packed bookcases tempted me, but I promised myself quiet evenings curled up with a book and quilt in the chair beside the fire.
“You were lucky to snag this place at such a great price,” Monique said. “Mr. Anders knows the construction will be a pain, but they’re doing a great job, aren’t they?”
I nodded, but I barely heard her. Her words were as faint and as relevant as a buzzing gnat. A seascape hanging above the mantle captured my attention. A ship tossed in a storm. The swirl of blue and purplish clouds like Turner’s paintings hanging in London’s Tate Museum.
Monique shivered. “Do you know why they call this area Deception Pass?”
I shook my head.
“The bay was thought to be a safe harbor, but the waters here are deadly. You don’t sail, do you?”
She tinkled her laugh again. “Then you’re probably safe.”
“Let me show you the upstairs bedrooms. The view from the master is breathtaking, even on a cloudy day like today.”
I wanted to pause in the entry and stare up at the crystal chandelier but Monique was already climbing the stairs. At the top of the landing, hung another painting of a ship. A small gold plaque affixed to the frame read, The Amelia. “It was named after his wife.”
When I glanced at her with questioning eyes, she elaborated. “Sadly, that’s the ship he was on when it was lost at sea.”
“When was that?”
“Did his wife stay here without him?”
Monique’s eyes widened. “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that before. Doris Baird at the history museum might know.”
“It’s just such a lonely and remote spot to be here all alone. Did they have children?”
She held up her hands, palm up and shook her head. Then she laughed. “But you are staying here all alone without husband and children.”
Monique pushed open a door, revealing a room swathed in morning light streaming through the windows. The sun had finally burst through the clouds and the distant Sound sparkled. A mammoth four-poster bed dominated the room. A river rock fireplace on the wall opposite the bed, a rocking chair with a quilt draped over the back stood beside it.
A portrait of a black-haired beauty hung above the fireplace mantle.
Monique’s gaze flicked between me and the painting. “She could be your sister.”
I flushed from the compliment, because I knew it was true. Although, Amelia—if it was Amelia—was soft and curvy, while I, in the last few months, had turned lean, angular, and, as my editor Felix had pointed out, hungry-looking. “Is that Amelia?” I cleared my throat, wondering why I was whispering.
Above us, something clattered. Footsteps thundered down the stairs. A man running sped past the open doorway, his face white.
“Goodness, I wonder what that’s about,” Monique said. “I assure, typically, Ned and Harris are the ideal—”
Ted or Harris began to yell. I went to the window. The two men stood around an open pit, staring at something—or someone.
“Maybe we should go and see—” I began.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.” Monique dropped the keys on the dresser. “Remember, if you have any questions, I’m just a phone call away.”
I followed her down the stairs, but when she went right to the driveway, I turned left to join the workers standing in the yard beneath the shade of a cherry tree. Ripe and rotten fruit dotted the smashed grass. In the distance lay the open pit.
The two men glanced up when they heard my approach, their expressions wary and hooded.
“Vivi Hamilton,” I said, extending my hand.
The elder of the two took my hand. “Ted Penndel.” He lifted an elbow at his accomplice. “And this here is Harris.”
Ted had the weather-beaten face of a sixty-year-old who had spent a lifetime outdoors and the lean build of a marathon runner. Harris was a much younger version of Ted, making me wonder if they were a father and son team.
“So, you’re the new renter, huh?” Ted asked.
He and Harris flashed a glance at each other.
“Sure you want to stay?” Harris asked.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
A siren blared. I turned to watch a couple of patrol cars rattle down the long driveway. The sound grew as they approached, making further conversation impossible. The tires spewed gravel when the cars lurched to a stop. Two policemen from each car plus a giant German Shepherd emerged.
Without a word, all five of them paced to the pit.
“Who found the body?” The largest and most imposing officer asked Ted.
Harris stepped forward. “I did.”
Curiosity drew me to the site.
“Stand back!” A small man with almond-shaped eyes held up a traffic-stopping hand. The German Shepherd curled his lip and a growl rumbled in his furry and barrel-sized chest.
Body? I mouthed the word to Ted.
He answered with a solemn nod.
I plopped down in a handily-placed red Adirondack chair to watch. The German Shepherd studied me with a steady brown-eyed gaze that said twitch and I’ll attack.
The cat I’d spotted earlier, clearly braver than me and less intimidated by the dog, also came to watch. He perched on the branch above me, flicking his tail.
“Any way to tell how old the bones are?” the small officer asked.
“I bet they’re old.” The stocky officer bent and plucked a small disk from the mud.
“Mortenson!” The large officer bellowed. “You know better than to disturb a crime scene.”
Mortenson rubbed the object between his fingers. “It’s a coin,” he said, awe touching his voice. “I bet it’s really old, too.”
“It could have been planted there to throw you off.” I couldn’t help myself. I pressed my lips together to prevent any further outbursts.
The largest officer squinted at me as if he didn’t like what he saw. “Who are you?”
“The latest tenant.”
He strode toward me. “Yeah? When did you show up?”
“Shortly before Harris made his discovery.”
“Coincidence?” he asked with a sneer.
I answered with a raised eyebrow.
“You think you know something about police work?” he asked.
He rocked back on his heels. “Yeah?”
“I’m a crime writer. I do a lot of research.” In Seattle, I had a lot of friends on the police force, but I didn’t need to share this. I didn’t have a lot of weight to throw around.
“Well, this is real life. Not fiction. You need to stay out of the way.”
“Where am I supposed to go? This is my home.” Even though it hadn’t felt like it a few minutes before, now there was no way I was going to leave.
Gawain yowled when I lugged his carrier inside. He became increasingly loud and offended as I shuffled my suitcases from the car to the house. “I’m sorry,” I told him on my third trip past his carrier. “Even after that monster and his goons leave,” I referred to the Shepherd and the police still milling about on the lawn, “you won’t be safe. This is coyote country. While we’re here, you’re an indoor cat. Get used to it.”
His noise let me know he had no intention of being at peace. He hated it when I acted like I was the boss.
It took me quite a while to schlep my things inside. Because I’d parked near the back door, I was able to bypass the police and the newly arrived medical examiner in the side yard. But their voices floated around me and I’d catch snatches of their conversation through the open windows.
Once I was sure I’d made my final trip outside, I bolted the door, released Gawain, and settled into the tedious task of unpacking. Gawain stalked around the kitchen; his tail pointed skyward.
“Your box is in the washroom,” I told him.
He headed in the opposite direction—down the hall.
“Don’t bug the construction guys!” I called after him.
I found the shelves already full, making me curious as to why the last renter would leave without taking her vitamins, breakfast cereal, or Valhalla coffee. Because the closest grocery store was eight miles away, I had stopped to stock the kitchen before arriving. Now, I loaded my things next to hers, idly wondering why I was so sure the last tenant was a female. For all I knew, the previous renters could have been a family of six, or a pack of bachelors, or a…definitely a woman, I decided when I found a container of birth control pills tucked behind a jar of cashews.
It was a strange place for contraceptives, but it made my heart go out to this unknown woman. Some people like organizing drawers and cupboards. I am not one of those people, and my predecessor was obviously the same. I headed to the bedroom, wondering if I might find another piece of her there as well.
But aside from the blue-eyed gaze of Amelia Despaign staring at me her place on the wall, the bedroom was blissfully my own.
And Gawain’s. He tramped around like a hairball on a rampage, managing to get beneath my feet multiple times while I unloaded the contents of my suitcase into the closet and dresser drawers.
I wandered past the other bedrooms, peeking inside at the quilt covered beds and shuttered windows. I would have expected the house to smell of dust and mold, but a fresh paint odor mingled with sawdust hung in the air.
Sweaty from exertion and the mugginess, I went to the laundry room in search of towels so I could take a shower. Something odd caught my eye. Squatting, I opened the dryer and riffled through the clothes. Panties, T-shirts, shorts, a sundress. Nothing super expensive, but why would it all be left behind?
I held up the J. Crew size six dress—my size—but I couldn’t keep these things. I folded them into a tidy pile and left them on top of the dryer.
When everything was unpacked and in order and I had a towel tucked beneath my arm, I headed to the bathroom, locked the door, and turned on the shower. Soon, steam filled the tiny space and fogged the mirror. I locked the door and double-checked it. I doubted Ted or Harris would try anything, especially since a herd of policemen wandered the yard, but still…I was a lone female in a remote, unfamiliar place that looked like the setting of a Hitchcock movie.
After I’d finished my shower, I settled down with my laptop, determined to accomplish what I’d come here to do.
I scanned my previous chapter. Mrs. Henley was not yet in danger, but of course, that would all change. Her life was about to go to hell in a handbasket as soon as the dreadful Mr. Abbot came on the scene.
But I couldn’t get into Mrs. Henley’s head…she was a wooden character, stiff, unnatural…boring. Even Mr. Abbot, who I loved to hate, skirted on the edges of dull and tedious.
Besides, it was hard to focus on fiction when a real-life drama was unfolding right outside my window. What if the bone body wasn’t alone? What if this house had been built on an ancient Native American burial ground?
My buzzing phone interrupted my flight of imagined terrors. My stomach tightened. I knew who it was without looking at the screen. Valerie. I imagined her sitting at her desk, strumming her fingers, a worried wrinkle on her forehead…waiting for me to answer. But even as I ached to hear her voice, I tucked my phone back into my pocket.
I wasn’t ready.
And I didn’t know if I ever would be.
Standing, I did what I always did when faced with blank pages and malaise. I headed for the kitchen.
When the construction workers trooped past, I was ready. Holding my wooden spoon mid-air, I tempted them. The marinara sauce bubbled on the stovetop; the tomatoey, garlicky odors of goodness filling the air. Zucchini and carrot noodles slathered in butter and dusted with parmesan cheese stood waiting. “Guys! Ted and Harris, right? Want to try my sauce?”
The two men exchanged why-not? glances before shuffling into the kitchen. Sawdust sprinkled their flannel shirts, jeans, eyebrows, hair, and beards.
I scooped two servings of the vegetable noodles and sauce and watched their expressions as they each took a bite. Moments later, all three of us were seated at the table, sharing a bottle of wine and our life stories.
“My parents made me finish law school but I never took the bar,” I told them. “My first book hit the New York Times bestseller list before I graduated.”
Ted and Harris both looked reasonably impressed, but that might have had something to do with the tiramisu. The creamy combination of cocoa and cream with a touch of mocha tended to have that effect.
Ted and Harris weren’t father and son, as I had thought, but uncle and nephew. Both had spent most of their lives in nearby Rose Harbor and were married with two children each.
Ted glanced out the window. “Looks like our friends are finally leaving.”
I watched the patrol cars and the medical examiner’s van rattle down the long drive.
Harris snorted. “Not my friends,” he said around the bit of garlic bread in his mouth.
“What can you tell me about the woman who was just here?” I asked.
“That wasn’t her body,” Ted said.
“I heard the examiner say the bones were old,” Harris said before he took a slug of wine.
“That’s good,” I said.
“What else did they say?” Ted asked.
“The bones are old, but they couldn’t say how old without further investigation,” Harris told us. “So they can’t belong to the last tenant who had left just a few weeks ago.”
“Wouldn’t want to stay here if she’d been murdered and buried in the side yard, would you?” Ted asked me.
“Well, even if it wasn’t her, it was somebody,” I said. “And, clearly, I’m still here.”
“But are you going to stay?” Harris asked.
“My lease is up in October.” Coinciding with my latest, and final, deadline. I twirled my fork in my noodles, trying to banish my impatient editor from my mind. “You had met the last tenant, right?”
“Simone?” Ted asked.
Harris chased his tiramisu around his plate without meeting my eye. “Why do you ask?”
“Just curious. I found some of her things, and I’m wondering what to do with them.”
“Maybe give them to Monique Ward?” Harris suggested.
Ted elbowed him.
“Uh, maybe not,” Harris said.
“I thought maybe I’d just hold onto them and if she doesn’t come back around before I leave, I’ll donate them to charity.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” Ted said.
I smile, pleased.
“What’s in this sauce?” Harris pointed his fork at the pasta.
“Vodka.” I lifted my chin at the now half-empty bottle on the counter. I hadn’t used that much, had I? My gaze skittered past the recycling bin holding an empty wine bottle. When had that happened? “It’s my secret ingredient. Do you like it?”
Both men gave me enthusiastic nods.
“It’s almost as good as this tira-thingy,” Ted said.
“Thanks,” I said, warmed by the kind words and the wine.
After the men left, I trudged upstairs. My feet felt heavy, like someone had filled my shoes with lead. But I wasn’t wearing shoes. In fact, I wasn’t wearing anything. I glanced behind me to find my clothes strewn on the stairs. Giggling, I leaned against the cold wall. The chill sobered me…some.
Gawain darted past.
“It’s just you and me,” I called after him. “Alone. In this big house. In the middle of the woods at the edge of this cliff.”
What if I died here? How long would it be until anyone found me? The thought made my tears prick. My thoughts wandered back to the pile of bones pulled out of the ground. What if this area had been a Native American burial ground? Or a centuries-old cemetery? Of what if the person had been murdered?
Now, suddenly filled with melancholy, I shuffled into the master without turning on any lights. I flopped onto the bed and Gawain joined me. After wiggling beneath the covers, I plumped the pillows and inhaled the fresh, clean-scented sheets. My thoughts flashed back to the load of laundry I’d found in the dryer and the woman who had left them there.
Who was she? Why had she left without taking her underwear? Who does that?
Outside, the moon hovered on the horizon and sent reflection’s rays across the water. The boat I’d seen earlier had disappeared. A light flickered in the woods.
But I was too tired and drunk to investigate.
Much later when the moon had reached its zenith, I woke. Gawain stretched beside me, asleep.
I found the silence deafening. Sitting up, I glanced around, disoriented. Then it came back to me. Despaign’s Folly. Rose Harbor. Edenbrook.
Suddenly, I was looking forward to the women’s artist retreat… and to not being alone in this gloomy place with my dark thoughts.
I was just about to lie back down when a movement caught my eye. The rocking chair, rolling back and forth, back and forth.
I closed my eyes and when I opened them, the chair was still. Wilting against my pillows, I put my arm over eyes.
I’m drunk. But even as I entertain the thought, it occurred to me that maybe a shot of whiskey would help me sleep. It’s not an indulgence, I told myself as I stumbled down the stairs, it’s medicinal.
But would my sister, the doctor, agree?
No. But I poured myself a shot anyway and banished all thoughts of Valerie out of my mind. Immediately, the chill I’d felt earlier dissipated. Warmth tingled my fingers and toes. The stiffness in my spine relaxed. Clutching the malt-whiskey bottle, I made my way upstairs
Back in my room, I gave the rocking chair an evil glance. It remained motionless. A breath of cologne I hadn’t noticed before hung in the air. I tried to place it. Musky. Woodsy. Leathery.
I fell asleep surrounded by unfamiliar smells in this strange place.