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Milkshakes, Mermaids, And Murder
By Sara Rosett
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Sara Rosett
All rights reserved.
I checked the display on my ringing phone and muttered, "This can't be good." Mitch, my air force pilot husband, should not be calling me right now. He should be in the air, flying back from a two-week military exercise in Europe so we could depart later today for our family Fourth of July vacation to Sandy Beach, Florida.
It was all timed perfectly, with military precision, in fact. Mitch was scheduled to land in three hours. By then, I'd have finished packing the minivan, and we could hit the road, escaping the muggy humidity of central Georgia for the sea breezes of the Gulf Coast.
Be optimistic. Maybe he's early, I thought as I answered. "Hey. I didn't think I'd hear from you until later. Are you down early?"
"Ah—no," Mitch said, and I knew from his tone our plans were about to change. "We broke. We're in Goose Bay."
"You're in Canada?" I said incredulously.
"Oh." I surveyed the beach chairs and suitcases wedged into the back of the minivan. "So, how long before you take off again?"
"Well, that's the deal. We're not sure. I delayed calling you because maintenance thought they had the part we need, but they don't. They're going to have to fly it in."
"Okay. Well, if it's just a day's delay, we can wait until tomorrow to leave," I said, watching our youngest, Nathan, who was walking around the driveway with his new sand pail on his head, pretending to be a robot. Our daughter, Livvy, in an unexpected burst of big-sister devotion, was playing along with him, poking him in the chest, pretending to "program" him. Livvy wore her swimsuit under her shirt and shorts. The ties of her hot pink tank peeked over the collar at the back of her neck. She had on her kid-size purple sunglasses and wore flip-flops with huge sunflowers near her toes. She was ready for the beach.
"I'm not sure I'll be back by tomorrow," Mitch said reluctantly.
"Really?" I asked in dismay, thinking of our prepaid hotel and all our plans: our days playing in the surf, the dolphin tour, the southern plantation surrounded with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, not to mention visits with two relatives who lived in the area. Mentally juggling our agenda, I tried to calculate what could be rescheduled. I'd already dropped our dog, Rex, at the kennel where he was romping with the other dogs in the "playroom," and I'd made sure to clear my schedule of appointments with my professional organizing clients for this week. "Where is the part coming from?" I asked finally.
"Yeah, they're tracking it down now. So it could be a day or two. You and the kids should go on. I'll catch up as soon as I can. We're supposed to meet Summer tonight and Ben tomorrow—you don't want to miss that."
"You're right. I'd have two sad kids on my hands if they miss their sleepover." Mitch's sister, Summer, had a share in a condo in a town a few miles south of our hotel. Summer lived in Tallahassee where she worked as a congressional aide, but she spent several weekends a year at the two-bedroom beach condo, and she'd especially coordinated time off work to be there this week. She took her role as Aunt Summer very seriously. Because distance prevented the kids from seeing her frequently, she'd offered—practically insisted—they spend the first night of our vacation at her condo for a sleepover. She'd spent quite a bit of time on the phone with Nathan and Livvy, making extensive plans. I knew cookies, Disney movies, and kite flying were just a few of the things on the agenda.
The Gulf Coast had practically turned into "relative central" for us. My brother Ben, who had followed in Mitch's footsteps and become an air force pilot, was stationed at a military base about an hour away from our hotel. His assignment in the spring had been one of the reasons we'd planned the beach vacation. He wouldn't have much time off, but he had promised that he'd be able to get away for at least a day, maybe two, so we could spend some time together.
Nathan turned in a stiff-leg circle and set off on a path toward the mailbox. Livvy fluttered along in his wake, jauntily swinging her own pail. I sat down on the bumper of the minivan with a sigh. I knew the kids would have a great time with Summer. Their time with her was supposed to be a little interlude just for them, at the beginning of the vacation. We wanted the bulk of our time to be spent together as a family. Mitch and I spend so much of our time separated—sometimes for a week or two, but other times for months on end. The stop-and-go schedule made family time precious, and that's what we wanted this week off to be—time together. "I really wanted this to be a family vacation."
"I know. I did, too. I'll get there as soon as I can," he repeated.
"I know you will. It just won't be as much fun until you get here."
A FedEx truck rolled to a stop at the end of our driveway. Livvy and Nathan stopped playing and watched the deliveryman sprint toward me. Mitch said he'd call when he had more news, and we hung up. By the time I'd signed for the box, the kids were hovering.
"Who is it from?" Livvy asked.
"Who is it for? Me?" Nathan demanded. Because we lived far from our relatives, a package delivery usually meant it was close to someone's birthday or a major holiday.
"No. This time, it's for me," I said. I recognized the name on the return address—Angela's Boutique, my favorite online source for designer handbags, my weakness. I'm not a fashionista, as my current attire showed: denim skort, sleeveless white shirt, casual sandals. With my hair pulled back in a ponytail, I was ready to pack the van and negotiate a six-hour road trip with two elementary-school-age kids in 90 percent humidity. Cool and functional, those were my watchwords when it came to my everyday clothes. I did dress up a bit for my organizing consultations, but when it came down to the nitty-gritty of actually sorting and organizing a client's belongings, I found that basic work clothes like jeans and tennis shoes were the best options.
My friend Abby, who did have a flare for looking spectacular, lamented my uninteresting clothing choices. "Basic, but boring," she called them. But she couldn't complain about my purses. They were my one indulgence. I loved designer handbags, especially ones that I found at thrift shops and online auctions, like the one inside this box. It was a Leah Marshall, a chic oversized tote. If the exterior cream leather with heavy gold hardware seemed a bit bland, the interior lining of stripes in hot pink, black, and kelly green gave the bag a fun accent.
"Oh, it's just one of Mom's purses," Nathan said with a sigh, and reversed course back to the foot of the driveway.
I pulled the tab on the box as I walked inside, already planning to switch to the new purse before we left. In the kitchen, I pushed the crumpled packing paper aside and pulled out the purse, expecting to inhale the aroma of leather. But all I could smell was ... cardboard? The strap felt stiff as I twisted the purse around to examine it. The leather wasn't leather at all. It was a rough "pleather." The hardware was flimsy, the stitching on the seams wavered about, and the lining was a bumpy black silk that didn't lie flat against the structure of the purse. This wasn't a genuine Leah Marshall—even the name imprint on the small leather tag that dangled from the strap had the designer's name misspelled as "Lee" instead of "Leah." It certainly wasn't the purse I'd paid for. This was a knockoff.
I dropped the purse back into the nest of packing paper and flipped the lid over to check the address. This wasn't like Angela. I'd bought several things from her and had never had a problem. In fact, she'd become a "cyber friend," one of those people I chatted with online and think of as an acquaintance, even though I hadn't met her in person.
I went to my computer and fired off a quick e-mail to Angela495, the e-mail associated with her online boutique. I also had Angela's private e-mail because in the last month or so, she and Ben had dated a few times. I scrolled through my old e-mail, looking for the first e-mail I'd received from her. I found it and clicked it open.
Subject: Question ...
Hi Ellie, I'm Angela Day. You know me as Angela495 from Angela's Boutique. This is going to sound kind of weird, but do you have a brother named Ben? I'm only asking because I met a really nice guy awhile back and I noticed you're listed as a friend on his Facebook account. He mentioned one time that his sister is a professional organizer, so I thought it must be you!?! Anyway, if it's not you, sorry to bother you, and I hope you're loving the Michael Kors purse—isn't it divine?
I added Angela's second e-mail address to the note about the purse, hit SEND and then returned to stowing the essentials in the car, the toys and books that would get us through the drive. As I placed a stack of Nate the Great books in the van, Nathan skidded to a stop beside me. "When are we leaving? How long until Dad gets here?"
I extracted myself from the minivan and leaned down, bracing my hands on my knees. "I've got some bad news. Dad's been delayed. He's not going to make it in today. He wants us to go on."
"Go without him?" Livvy, who was hopping from one crack on the driveway to another, stopped abruptly and spoke through the open door on the other side of the van. "He promised we'd make a sand castle together." Her shoulders dropped and her pail sagged to around her ankles.
"And he will. He's just delayed. He'll get there as fast as he can."
"What about Uncle Ben?" Nathan asked, obviously searching for some male companionship.
"Uncle Ben will still meet us tomorrow." At least, that was the plan. I ruffled his hair and told him and Livvy to get the small string backpacks of toys they had packed the night before. I went inside and packed juice boxes, grapes, and peanut butter crackers for road trip snacks. The computer chimed, indicating I had a new e-mail.
From: Angela495@BagTopiaOnLineAuctions. com
Oh no! I am so sorry! There was a mix-up with the purses. I asked my idiot brother—he's soooo not like your brother at all!—to mail the Leah Marshall bag for me and he sent the wrong one. A friend gave me an imitation Leah Marshall bag for my birthday, and I've been meaning to drop it off at a charity shop for ages, but I never remember .. guess I could use some organizing tips when you come to town! Anyway, Ben says you'll be in Sandy Beach today (so excited!!!) That will be perfect. I'm only a few minutes away in Costa Bella. Call me when you get to town (279-319-4263) and I'll bring you the REAL Leah Marshall to your hotel. Again, so sorry!! Can't wait 2 c u and Ben!
I sent back a quick e-mail saying that she didn't have to meet me at the hotel. I'd mail her the imitation bag after my trip, and she could send me the real bag, but before I had taken two steps from the computer, it dinged with another message. It wasn't a problem. Angela would be in Sandy Beach tonight, right on the beachfront road where all the hotels were, so she might as well bring the purse.
I shrugged and murmured, "Well, if you insist," as I put the box with the purse next to the snacks. I would like to get the real purse, and I wanted to meet Angela face-to-face. I wondered how much of her insistence on bringing the purse in person had to do with her desire to see Ben and how much it had to do with keeping a customer satisfied. Seeing Ben probably won out in that battle.
Nathan came into the kitchen, his string backpack clinking along the floor as he dragged it behind him. "Mom, are you sure Uncle Ben will be there?" he asked, his chin tilted down and his dark eyes serious.
"Yes. He said he would. He'll be there. What have you got in here?" I asked, picking up the backpack. "It's awfully heavy." The string cut into my fingers and metal clanked as I lifted it from the floor.
"Stuff I need," he said matter-of-factly.
I opened the flap and saw a jumble of about seventy-five Hot Wheels cars along with a scattering of various appendages of action figures sticking up through the metal. "Are you sure you want to take all of these? You have to keep up with them and you have to carry this backpack yourself."
He took the backpack from me and slung it on his little shoulders. "Yeah. Uncle Ben said he liked Hot Wheels." He walked out of the kitchen and out to the van.
I studied the ceiling for a moment, debating whether or not I should make him leave his cars at home. Odds were, he would lose some on the trip, which would cause much anguish and tears. And the backpack must have weighed at least ten pounds. I quirked my mouth to the side. Crying now or later? I blew out a sigh. I had to let him take the cars. He'd decided to take them, and he knew he had to keep track of them.
Sometimes letting my kids learn responsibility was as hard on me as it was on them. Well, maybe he'd surprise me and keep up with everything and not complain about the cords cutting into his shoulders. Probably long odds on that one, I thought as I picked up my cell phone and dialed my brother's number.
He surprised me and answered on the second ring.
"Oh. Hey, Ben. It's Ellie. I thought I'd get your voice mail."
"Almost. I'm flight planning now."
"Okay. I'll make it quick. Slight change of plans on our end. Mitch has been delayed, but the kids and I are driving down today anyway. Mitch will join us as soon as he can."
"That's too bad. Where is he?"
"So ... may be a few days."
"Looks like it."
"Well, I've heard they have good beer. There's a German unit up there."
"Great. That's just what I want to hear," I said.
"Aw, you know Mitch will get out of there as fast as he can."
"True. Okay, but you're still good with meeting us tomorrow?"
"Of course. This is my last flight and it's local. I'll be down in a few hours. I'll see you guys tomorrow. I even got a few days of leave and a room at your hotel, too."
"Great! And you're up for playing with Hot Wheels? Nathan packed every single one he owns," I warned.
"Sure. No problem. Tell him to bring his tracks, too."
"Oh no, I think the cars are enough."
"Spoil sport," Ben teased.
"Someone has to act like an adult this week, and I know how you get carried away with those tracks," I said, thinking of how Ben had covered the entire floor of our living room and kitchen with his tracks and cars when he was a kid. "Remember how you ran the tracks over the dining-room table and broke Mom's crystal candleholder?"
"Hey, you're not going to list everything I ever did wrong, are you? You know, as a life lesson kind of thing: don't do this or you'll grow up to be like your Uncle Ben."
"I think you turned out okay. Besides, you can do no wrong in Nathan's eyes—that's a big responsibility. Make sure you use your powers for good, not evil."
"Sure," he said, and I could hear the laughter in his voice.
"Oh—one more thing. Angela is coming by tonight, in case you have a chance to come early."
"What?" His voice changed and all teasing disappeared. "Did you say Angela?"
"Yes, there was a mix-up about a purse I bought from her. She's bringing—oh, it doesn't matter. I just wanted to let you know if you want to see your girlfriend, she'll be there tonight."
There was a beat of silence, then, subdued, he said, "She's not my girlfriend."
"Okay," I said slowly. "She sent me an e-mail, and it sounded like she was looking forward to coming to Sandy Beach. I got the feeling she was interested in seeing you."
"Yeah. Well ... I won't be able to leave until tomorrow anyway." He finished up hurriedly and we said our good-byes.
This was going to be awkward.
"Here is your key to the beach boardwalk," the desk clerk said. "And the complementary breakfast begins at six tomorrow." She slid the packet containing our keys across the counter.
"I hope I'm not awake for that," I said as I hitched my large beach bag higher on my shoulder, pocketed the keys, and grabbed the handle of the rolling suitcase.
"We serve breakfast until nine."
Excerpted from Milkshakes, Mermaids, And Murder by Sara Rosett. Copyright © 2013 Sara Rosett. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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