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When the Sandpiper Calls
By Peggy Darty
Random HousePeggy Darty
All right reserved.
Monday, February 16, 2004
Hellooo, Mystery Lady!"
Christy had just stepped out of her car onto the concrete parking lot of Frank's Steak and Seafood Restaurant. Hoisting tote bag and purse, she turned with a smile, knowing who owned that voice.
"Hey, Bonnie. It's good to see you."
Bonnie Taylor sat behind the wheel of her l990 baby blue Cadillac, her dark face framed by the open window. Beneath the window, How Sweet It Is swirled in red cursive across the door.
"Wait a minute, honey." The long blue car floated past and turned into the parking spot in front of the No Parking sign.
The door flew open, and Bonnie unfolded from the car, a huge red purse swinging from her arm. It always amazed Christy that a woman almost six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds could move with such grace A feathered red hat and purple pantsuit announced her attendance at the Red Hat luncheon with her chapter, Sassy Snowbirds of Summer Breeze.
The chapter had originated with a group of ladies from Canada and the northeast who wintered in the Florida Panhandle, bringing news of the Red Hat Society from their hometowns. Their red hats had captured the attention of locals, and as a result, the ladies of Summer Breeze had joined Sassy Snowbirds in spreading fun, friendship, and good deeds.
Christy reached up to give Bonnie a hug, inhaling cinnamon and cloves. It was fun to hug Bonnie because she always smelled of spices from her famous pie kitchen. "Bonnie, I assume you saw the No Parking sign."
"Yeah, but my knees are hurting today, so I take special privileges." Her lips spread in a wide, wicked grin. "I'm big. I'm black. And I'm a woman. Frank's afraid I'll yell discrimination. Or he's just afraid of me, period."
Christy laughed. "I don't think Frank's afraid of anything."
"Heard you were our guest speaker, so I made a special effort to be here. But hold on a minute." Bonnie's hand shot into the huge purse and whipped out a compact, popped it open, and held it in front of Christy.
Christy faced her reflection and winced. Her mascara was
smudged, leaving a glob beneath her left eye.
"Here." Bonnie handed her a Kleenex.
"Thanks." Christy scrubbed the smear, leaving a red mark instead. She blinked, peered into the mirror, and surveyed her reflection with a critical eye. Her blue eyes seemed too big for her oval face, and her lips looked too thin. Well, not thin exactly. Just not full enough. And the pink gloss felt sticky on her lips. Nerves- she just had a case of nerves.
Which was why she had lost a page from her carefully typed speech.
She smoothed her brown hair, a layered cut that twirled around her face and waved to her neckline. Sun streaks were natural, but those who hadn't known her long thought she paid a hairstylist for the look she took for granted.
Otherwise she appeared normal. But she didn't feel normal. She hated making speeches.
She sighed, thinking it wouldn't be the first time she'd had to wing it. She looked up at Bonnie. "Better?"
Bonnie grinned. "Now you look terrific."
"You should see me when I crawl out of bed. I worked hard for this." She waved a hand from her face down the straight, pink linen dress.
"You'd look good in a straw hat and overalls, but listen..."
Bonnie paused, glancing around. "This may not be the best day for your speech."
Christy stuffed the Kleenex in her purse and surveyed the crowded parking lot. "Why is that?"
"Some of us are upset with Marty. You know Marty McAllister, the Realtor?" "Sure. I bought my house from her. What's up?" "Marty volunteered to find us a small office where we could plan our get-togethers and such. She invited us to her house for dinner last night. Couple of the girls canceled other plans, and I made pies. The house was dark, the doors locked. She didn't even leave us a note. Instead of Marty, we were greeted by her big dog, overfed and overfriendly. He knocked me down and gobbled up the lemon pies before we could stop him."
"Oh no!" Christy tried to look horrified, despite a humorous flash at the picture of Bonnie overcome by Marty's Saint Bernard, lapping up lemon pie. Then she thought of the perky, five-foot redhead whose driving ambition had won her Realtor of the Year.
"Does Marty belong to your organization?"
"No. She's just hoping to make some money on us." "Woo-hoo!" The voice of Aunt Dianna reached Christy as she and Bonnie climbed the steps of the rambling, white stucco restaurant. They waited for her to catch up.
Aunt Dianna was in charge of this month's program and had invited Christy to talk about writing. The publication of Christy's first mystery novel had been a success; she was now completing the last two chapters of her second novel.
"Hey, Bonnie." Dianna smiled, then turned to Christy. "And how's my wonderful niece?"
"Fine. And you look great."
Dianna struck a pose for them in her wide-brimmed red hat, red feather boa, and purple dress. With auburn hair and a friendly smile, she had captured the attention of a guy parking his Harley.
As he climbed the steps, he turned to stare.
"Aren't you a bit overdressed?" he teased, looking at Dianna.
Christy caught her breath, wondering how her aunt would respond. She had always been the spark in her father's family.
"No, I always dress well. But I need your jacket."
Determined to be a good sport, the guy whipped off his leather jacket and handed it to Dianna.
Bonnie nudged Christy. "This'll be good. If anybody's still poutin' with Marty, Dianna will make them forget it."
"She'll do her best."
Fascinated, Christy followed the two women and the Harley guy into the driftwood lobby, past the decorative palms and hanging ferns, through the arched doorway of the party room. A lively group of ladies gathered around the tables, decked out in their
charming red hats of all sizes, all shapes, all designs.
"Dianna, what in the world are you doing?" Maryann called.
Maryann was the pretty blond Queen of Sassy Snowbirds.
"Do you like my outfit?" Dianna twirled, showing off the jacket. Every face broke into a smile, and then laughter cascaded over the room as she gave a bow, removed the jacket, and returned it to the Harley guy, who chuckled as he shook his head at the group, then disappeared.
Dianna motioned to Christy. "Just take a seat beside me at the head table. Maybe we can get this crew settled down."
Christy left her tote bag next to the podium, then joined her aunt. Her eyes scanned the crowded room, then she gazed at a painting on the wall.
An artist had expertly captured their beachside community with its sugar white sand, emerald waters, and pastel beach houses set behind white picket fences. Studying the painting, Christy thought about their cozy little seaside village.
Summer Breeze stretched from the Gulf of Mexico back to Highway 98 in the Florida Panhandle. Sandwiched between some of the more affluent communities along the Emerald Coast, Summer Breeze belonged to its inhabitants in a special way with neighborly front porches, community barbecues, and church socials. It was a place where everyone knew everyone else and helped when there was a need.
Maryann welcomed everyone, acknowledged their special guest, then announced there was only one item of business to discuss. While Christy stared at Maryann, pretending interest, her mind shot back to her early morning trip to Shipwreck Island and the antique bottle she had found half-buried in sand at the shoreline.
She glanced at the tan tote bag that contained books to pass out. Beneath the books, wrapped in tissue, lay the bottle-with a frightening note tucked inside. She still hadn't figured out if someone was playing a joke on the mystery writer...or if she should
have stopped to show Big Bob, the local deputy.
"Does anyone have suggestions for our float this year?" Maryann asked, pulling Christy back to the moment.
Maryann began to describe a float that she and Dianna had seen at the National Peanut Festival. She thought it would be fun to have a Sassy Snowbird float in the Fourth of July parade.
Various opinions were discussed, and Christy tilted her head, pretending fascination, while she made a mental dash back to the island. She had been headed to her car when she spotted a lone sandpiper pecking at something green in the sand. At the sound of her footsteps, the little bird lifted its head and softly peeped.
She approached, and the sandpiper flew across the sand like a motorized toy. It stopped a comfortable distance away to observe.
She leaned down and gently wedged the green bottle from the damp sand, brushing away the grit. Back at home she had pried the cork loose and read the startling note...
"Hey, lady!" Valerie Moore, the town's favorite hairstylist, took a seat beside Christy. She was wearing purple jeans and a matching sweater, with a red cowboy hat tilted at an angle on her strawberry blond head.
"Hello, ladies!" Frank La Rosa's voice boomed over the party room. All red hats turned in the direction of the burly, rough-cut owner. Tall and broad, he had black hair, a big, square face, and a spare tire around the middle. Along with good food, Frank offered
perks to his regular customers. Today's perk was one of his ice sculptures, skillfully designed and sprayed red to resemble a red hat. Oohs and aahs flew around the room as he placed his masterpiece in the center of the table. With a few sharp tools and a block of ice, Frank could create a work of art.
"You gals are doing a super thing for Ellie Pearson," he said, smiling at the group. "Taking food and running errands while she recovers from surgery."
"Thank you, Frank," Maryann replied. "Has anyone talked to Ellie?"
Dianna leaned over to Christy and whispered, "Thanks for coming, doll. Did you hear what Marty did to us last night?"
Christy recalled what Bonnie had said and nodded. "She stood you up?"
"I couldn't believe she would do us that way." Valerie entered the whispering conversation. "So I called her boss at home last night. Carl said Marty came to the office around noon yesterday and picked up keys to a beach house in Destin. She had an appointment with a Miami businessman and his girlfriend."
"The one who got so mad at her last month?" Dianna inquired.
"According to Carl, Marty wanted to make amends by showing
him a couple of great buys."
"Dianna and Valerie, what do you two think about a float?"
Both turned to stare blankly at Maryann, who had a teasing
grin on her face. It was her tactful way of shushing the buzz from
their end of the table.
"I say we do it!" Dianna replied emphatically.
Seafood salads were placed before the ladies, and everyone dug in. Christy picked at hers long enough to be polite. Then she laid down her fork and touched the linen napkin to her mouth as Dianna went to the podium to introduce her.
Christy gently slid the speech from her purse. One page drifted to the floor. Being way too short to suit herself, she knew if she tried to reach down and retrieve it, her head would end up in the plate. She decided to forget about the typed paper. She knew what she had written, and she might even mention the bottle. And the note inside the bottle...
Christy grabbed her glass and took a sip of iced tea. Remembering the cowlick at her crown, she casually ran her hand over the back of her head, pressing her hair firmly in place while Dianna detailed the facts.
"Christy graduated from Florida State, wrote a best-selling mystery, and is finishing another while teaching fiction writing at Bayside Community College. She's active at Bayside Community Church, sponsoring fishing trips for the youth out at Rainbow Bay." She paused for a sip of water.
A loud whisper sizzled through the crowd. "Anyone who can deal with Jack Watson is a saint. He may own the best fishing spot in Florida, but who wants to put up with him?" Christy lowered her eyes, a rush of tenderness sweeping over her at the mention of Jack's name, the man who loved her like the daughter-in-law she might have been if only Chad hadn't... She swallowed hard, trying not to think about that now.
"...daughter of my brother, Pastor Grant Castleman, and his wife, Beth. So everyone please welcome our brilliant author, Christy Castleman."
Christy tried not to wince at Dianna's dramatic ending. Applause filled the room, bringing the familiar prick of selfconsciousness when all eyes turned to her. Pushing her chair back, she rose beyond her five foot two to a respectable five five, which was why she loved heels. One spike heel ground into the paper she had dropped as she turned and walked to the podium
She smiled around the group, trying to focus her thoughts. "Thanks so much for inviting me today and allowing me to talk about my favorite subject: writing. I've been blessed to live near Shipwreck Island, which allows me to dream up wonderful stories. I've been equally blessed to live in a wonderful community like Summer Breeze.
"But to tell you about my writing-I've always had a vivid imagination. However, it wasn't until college that I began to take writing seriously-when a creative writing instructor encouraged me to pursue my writing with the idea of getting something published. I began with short stories, but all I got from my submissions was a stack of rejection slips. One day I was gathering up overdue books from the library and noticed that all the books were mysteries. I wasn't reading what I was trying to write; I was reading mysteries. When I began to write what I liked to read, everything changed."
"Fascinating," Maryann murmured.
The word spoken softly beside Christy broke her concentration. Her mind went completely blank; panic began to swell in her chest. Then suddenly she thought of the bottle and decided to get some audience participation.
"Since mystery is basically about being a good detective, I'd like some feedback from all of you.&
Excerpted from When the Sandpiper Calls by Peggy Darty Excerpted by permission.
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