I grew up loving mysteries. The Box Car Children, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew. When I was in middle school, I read all 80+ Agatha Christie’s novels. Eventually, I graduated to PD James, Elizabeth George, Mary Stewart…I lived for PBS Mystery series. And then real life happened. I witnessed tragedies. The world became darker, scarier, and I couldn’t watch Sunday night mysteries on PBS. I couldn’t read mysteries any more. And I certainly couldn’t write one. (Although, I had written a few by then.)
But what I love about mysteries isn’t the horror or the dark side of the soul, I love the puzzles. The who-dunnits and red herrings. And all mysteries are essentially morality tales. In most, if not all, of Agatha Christie’s stories, the victim deserved to die. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone should get to play God and take it upon themselves to end a life. (And no, I’m not going to argue about the death penalty…this is not that kind of blog. I’m basically a-political.)
So what made me return to what was essentially my first literary love? An idea…a really great idea. The kind of idea that won’t be ignored. Here’s the first chapter of The Miss Mabel Mystery.
THE MISS MABEL MYSTERY
I crept through the dark forest, mindful of every snapping twig beneath my feet. If someone should apprehend me, I had a list of reasons for my loitering in the woods outside the main house. All of them lies.
A pair of French doors opened onto a deck from the master bedroom. I stole up the stairs so I could peek in the window and watch Doris prepare for bed. A cool breeze blew through the room, ruffled the curtains, and carried Doris’s voice and lavender scented face cream.
Her beauty, long faded, had shrunk like her frail frame, but she still held her bony shoulders has straight as hangers and moved with the grace of the ballerina she’d once been.
“Oh, my love, thank you,” Doris said when she spotted a single red rose and a chocolate candy lying on her pillow. She hummed a tune—a favorite about true love. She knew little of true love or devotion. Doris was as sentimental as the Hallmark station but as clueless to real human emotions as a Barbie doll. My stomach clenched as she picked up the rose and placed it in the glass of water holding her dentures. Pulling back the covers of her bed, she slid between the sheets, slipped the chocolate into her mouth, and switched off the light.
I glanced at my watch knowing that convulsions should start in one, two, three…wait. Was she snoring?
Frustration mounted as I waited. My breath curled in front of me like smoke and fogged up the window. But Doris, ever oblivious, slept. Her snores mocked me. Clenching my fists, I stood rooted in my hiding place on the deck waiting for death that refused to appear.
Put your back into your work, apply that spit and shine, and conjure up some elbow grease…A combination of physical exertion, endurance, and mental dedication to a menial task is good for the soul…not to mention the maintenance of a smooth running inn.
At least this is what I told myself.
The sun was warm, the breeze blowing in off the ocean cool, the sound of children’s laughter floating in from the beach heavenly. I had every reason to be happy as I wielded my broom. Of course, because I preferred being on the patio than vacuuming, mopping, cleaning toilets, or spritzing mirrors…I typically saved the patio for the last of my chores. The cherry on top.
The Hemingway Home was one of the Writer’s Away Inn most luxurious suites. It had windows on three sides and two balconies—one overlooking the beach and the other the pool. Each room in the inn was named after a famous author. My working here was fortuitous—not only because the inn happened to belong to my Aunt Victoria, but also because I had literary ambitions of my own. Because of yesterday’s rain, water mixed with sand and dust had pooled on the balcony. I swept the sludge over the edge.
“Hey!” A man shouted from below.
I paused my broom.
Horror swept over me. What to do? I considered slinking back into the suite, but honesty pushed me to the ledge.
A wet man stood glaring up at me. With his hair slicked back, he looked like an angry Antonio Banderas—a little like Zorro right before he wielded his sword at Don Rafael Montero. It didn’t take a Ph.D. to know what had happened. He slapped at his arms and chest, brushing himself off.
“Sorry!” I called out.
His lips twisted in a sneer. “Get a dust pan,” he grumbled, “and a clue.”
I gave him what I hoped was a friendly and apologetic wave and slunk back into the suite, wishing that that was what I’d done in the first place. Not that I wanted one of the other maids to take the blame, but if he hadn’t seen my face…not that I regretted seeing his. What did he look like when he wasn’t frowning?
I peeked back over the ledge. He’d moved to a chair on the opposite edge of the pool and lounged with a novel in hand. I wished I could read the cover. Could he be one of those rare combinations of beauty and brains?
I slipped back into the suite and closed the literal patio door and the figurative door on my disloyal thoughts. To distract myself, I did some mental math. The three hour time difference between New York and Shell Falls would put Andrew on the stock exchange floor. I itched to call him and tell him of my sweeping mistake. I wanted to hear him laugh and tell me it wasn’t a big deal. Everyone does stupid stuff sometimes. Besides, it didn’t really matter. In a few months, we’d be getting married. And shortly after that, I’d start my new job at the music academy, and I’d never have to sweep a balcony again unless I wanted to.
These happy feelings carried me to the service closet where I hung up the broom, and took off my apron, before heading back to my room.
Later in the early evening, Victoria met me in the foyer. Sweeping her gaze over me, she flinched when she spotted my shoes. “Can’t you put on some heels?” she asked in a hushed whisper.
I had two jobs at the inn—housekeeping and piano playing. They each required a very different sort of uniform. No one cared how I dressed while I mucked out the rooms, but when I played in the dining room, Aunt Victoria liked me to look my best. I typically wore a black cocktail dress, lacy hose, and low-heeled black shoes. I had tried to explain to her that I needed a comfy pair of shoes to work the suspension pedal, but she liked to me to be as beautiful as my surroundings. This was a tall order since the dining room had massive floor to ceiling windows and a sweeping view of the ocean.
Tonight, she seemed more on edge than normal. “Miss Mabel McKnight and her cohorts are here.”
My pulse quickened. Miss Mabel, Shell Falls very own Jessica Fletcher, lived in a mansion at the edge of town. She’d written more than eighty mystery novels, and was our local reclusive celebrity.
“They say it’s been years since she’s been out in public,” Aunt Victoria said. “And she’s here!”
I glanced over my aunt’s shoulder and caught sight of a tiny figure sitting at a table with a cluster of well-dressed and expertly groomed elderly women. I easily recognized her from her picture on the back of her book jackets. My breath caught when I saw the Zorro look-a-like sitting beside her.
Aunt Vicky squeezed my hand. “Play Vivaldi,” she whispered.
I smiled back at her and tried to look more confident than I felt. I’d been playing at weddings and other events since I was thirteen. I had a Ph.D. in music therapy, had graduated with honors, and had an amazing job lined up for the fall.
I didn’t question my musical abilities.
But I seriously doubted my ability to face the man sitting beside Miss Mabel McKnight.
I told myself he wouldn’t recognize me. Very few people expect the maid to also be a concert pianist. I crossed the dining room, lifted the piano lid, settled on the bench, and launched into my music.
The dying sun cast the room in an amber glow. We were only a few days away from the summer solstice and the days were so long they melded together—a continuous round of sun, sand, and warmth. Within minutes, I was lost in my music. My fingers touched the keyboard, but my thoughts were in New York. With Andrew.
“You’re really playing.”
I glanced up at the Zorro standing behind me, his gaze on my fingers.
“I thought this might be a Disklavier or something.” His warm brown eyes met mine. Up close, he was even better looking than I’d earlier thought.
“You didn’t think the maid could also play the piano?” I shot back.
I immediately regretted my words when his eyes widened. Disbelief faded into recognition. Humor followed.
“You’re the girl who dumped water on Brandt?”
My fingers faltered as I twisted to look over my shoulder at Miss Mabel. She was older and smaller than I would have guessed from her pictures. Although her eyes were swimmy with age, they were still intense and inquisitive. In her younger days, she’d been an Audry Hepburn beauty—petite, dark haired, pale but pink-cheeked, large brown eyes. My dad had once said that Miss Mabel was like a poodle with razor-sharp incisors. Her deceptively dainty demeanor made her dangerous. Her intellect made her lethal.
“It wasn’t exactly a dumping,” I spoke without missing a beat, a skill I’d developed from years of practice.
“I wouldn’t be critical if that’s exactly what happened,” Miss Mabel said.
“That is exactly what happened,” the man muttered.
“Brandt could use a good dumping,” Miss Mabel said.
“Then I did you a favor.” I wondered how the two were related. Did he work for her? He wasn’t her son. Long ago, my oldest sister had once pointed out Miss Mabel’s only son, Douglas McNight. He’d been middle-aged then, a David Hasselhoff wannabe lurking on the beach and chatting up teenage girls. I’d heard he’d been married a number of times, and I’d seen him tooling around town in his cobalt blue Maserati on numerous occasions. But even though I had lived in Shell Falls my entire life—aside from my years at Julliard—I had never seen Miss Mabel. “You’re welcome.”
I felt the man stiffen while Miss Mabel chuckled.
“What’s your name?” Miss Mabel asked.
“And you know who I am?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?”
Her laughter deepened. “I knew I’d like you. You remind me of my younger self.” I felt flattered that she remarked on our resemblance. It was something I’d been told before. I wondered if I would look like her in some sixty-odd years.
What are you doing here?”
“Playing Vivaldi. Excuse me, but I’m coming to the finale and it requires my full attention.” I plunged into the sonata’s climactic finish, hoping they’d be gone by the time I finished. I felt slightly shaky by the time I lifted my fingers.
“Miss Guthrie, that was breathtaking!”
I twisted on the bench to get a better view of Miss Mabel and her Zorro-friend. “Thank you.”
“Are you busy next weekend?”
I studied her face, trying to read her. “Do you need a pianist?”
“No, a companion.” Her eyes sparkled as if she knew a humorous secret.
I lifted my chin at the man beside her. “You don’t want to take him?”
“Brandt? Heavens no. He’s much too clever. I don’t want to work that hard.” She cocked her head and studied me. “Do you?”
He did seem worth the effort, but a mental image of Andrew flashed in my mind and I lowered my gaze to hide my flushed cheeks.
“Good! It’s settled then. You’ll accompany me to Doris’s birthday bash. It’s next weekend in Lake Arrowhead. You’ll have your own suite, of course. Doris has this ridiculously mammoth lodge with plenty of rooms. We can take my car, but you’ll have to drive. You do drive, don’t you?”
“Me too,” she said.
Beside her, Brandt grumbled, but Miss Mabel ignored him and patted me on the shoulder. “Well, I need to get back to my friends. Why don’t you come by tomorrow and we can chat some more over lunch? Discuss the details—like your fee.” She winked. “I’m very generous and I’m sure you’ll find your compensation to be well worth your while.” She glanced back at her table of cohorts and flashed me a smile. “My friends might be old, but I think you’ll find us entertaining.”
Miss Mabel moved away, but Brandt remained, hovering over me. I stood, just to feel less intimidated by him. It didn’t really help. He still had at least six inches to my five foot five. For the first time ever, I wished I’d listened to Aunt Victoria and worn my heels.
“I suppose I should thank you for taking her to Doris’s, but I will warn you—I have my hesitations.”
“My grandmother is…”
“Well, of course…that goes without saying. After all, she just picked you up off the street without knowing a thing about you.”
This made me feel like one of those cute but obnoxious puppies that you might find in a cardboard box in front of a grocery store wearing a large FREE sign. I probably shouldn’t have come across as so pathetic. I should have said something like, I’ll have to check my calendar, or let me see if I can rearrange my schedule. But the terrible truth was that since I’d moved here a few weeks ago, my calendar was as empty as an alcoholic’s whiskey bottle.
“It’s only a weekend,” I told him. “And it’s not as if I would persuade her to join a cult or invest in a shady business deal.”
He narrowed his eyes at me as if these were all things I could be capable of.
“You what?” Rainy voice squeaked when I told her about meeting Miss Mabel. “But when are we going shopping?”
“Not next weekend. You told me you had rehearsal.”
Rainy was suspiciously quiet.
“You do, don’t you?”
“Of course, I do.” Rainy’s pause was almost imperceptible.
I leaned back against my bed and picked up a pencil and a scrap of paper. I doodled while Rainy told me about a new guy she’d met. He was in a band—played the drums. He sounded exactly like the last guy she’d dated. Frankel something. She must have noticed my less than enthusiastic response because she shifted the conversation back to shopping—something we could both agree on.
“Technically, I’m not engaged,” I reminded her.
“But isn’t that the whole reason you’re here? To save money and plan the gala?” She emphasized the word gala in her Hollywood voice.
“Well, yes, but…you know it won’t be official until Andrew talks to Dad.”
“Ugh. That’s so last century!”
Because I was sick of defending Andrew to Rainy, I said, “I’ll have more money after my weekend with Miss Mabel.”
Rainy let out a happy squeal. “How much more?”
“I’m not sure, but she said it would be worth my while.”
“Do you know who would be worth your while? Her grandson.”
“She has a grandson? Is his name Brandt and does he look like Zoro?”
“Brandt? No, I thought his name was Zach.” The sound of clicking computer keys sounded over the phone. “Oh, he’s cute, too.”
“You googled her grandsons?”
“Yep. She has two, but oddly enough, they’re not brothers. Brandt—who you’ve met, and Zach, who I’ve met. There’s one for each of us!”
“I thought you were in love with…” I searched my memory for her latest’s name.
“Marcus? Oh, I am,” she said in a sad voice.
My phone buzzed with an incoming call. My heart sped when Andrew’s picture flashed on the screen.
“I have to go,” I told Rainy. “Andrew’s calling.”
“Oh, Andy…” Rainy said in a singsong tone.
I didn’t have to see her to know she was making the face she always wore when we talked about Andrew.
“Love you,” I said, ending the call. I immediately responded to Andrew but was disappointed when I saw he’d hung up. I shot him a text. WHERE’D YOU GO?
CAN’T TALK. JUST WANTED TO TOUCH BASE BEFORE GOING OUT.
Going out? It was ten here, making it nearly one a.m. there.
CALEB GOT US INTO CLUB 99
He answered my unasked question.
K, I replied, but it really wasn’t. I didn’t like Caleb—one of Andrew’s co-workers. He worked hard but partied harder. I considered him a Wall Street wolf—a cliché of the money driven, woman hungry, and status seeking. But Andrew, for whatever reason, liked him.
LOVE YOU I texted him.
He sent me back on emoji of a heart.
I dropped the phone in my lap and gazed at my doodling. I’d drawn a caricature of a boy in a band. Not knowing what to make of it, I crumbled up the paper and got ready for bed.