Read an Excerpt
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.” She leaned down and picked up the tote bag. “I have books for you, but first I want to show you something.” She lifted the wrapped bottle and held it up. “This morning I went over to Shipwreck Island. As you know, that’s where I get my inspiration for stories of pirates, stolen gold, and murder.”
“Excuse me,” came a voice from the back, “but I’m new to the area. What happened there? Did a ship run ashore?”
Christy began to explain. “In the late eighteen hundreds a Spanish galleon loaded with rich cargo got swept up in a powerful hurricane that drove the ship inward. Then as the hurricane gained momentum, the ship was hurled onto a deserted island that became known as Shipwreck Island. Over the years it has been explored and searched with metal detectors.”
“In other words,” Bonnie spoke up, “that hurricane blew stuff for a hundred miles, and folks still hope to find treasure and get rich. Nobody’s been that lucky.”
Christy agreed, and everyone laughed. “This morning at the shoreline, I found this bottle half-buried in sand.”
Maryann, seated next to her, studied the bottle. “Says it was made in Scotland.”
“Maybe the bottle came off the ship; maybe it’s been lying on the ocean floor for years,” Dianna suggested. “We had wind and rain yesterday.”
Someone in the crowd spoke up. “Christy, I saw a bottle like that one in your mom’s gift shop. Did you ask her about it?”
“Not yet. But what puzzles me most is the note.”
No one moved for a split second. Then someone called out, “What note?” and everyone began to fidget.
Christy’s eyes moved slowly around the room, watching carefully for any indication that someone was pulling a joke on the mystery writer. She met only interested, inquisitive faces. She sidled a look at her aunt. Dianna appeared to be as fascinated as Maryann. Besides, that type of joke wasn’t typical of Dianna.
This was the kind of prank her younger brother would pull, then hide in the woods and watch with glee while she took the bait. But Seth was in Australia. And there were no footprints in the sand, as there would have been if someone had seen her white convertible, sneaked out to the beach while she was back in the woods,
and left the bottle in her path.
“Tell us about the note!” an impatient voice prompted.
Christy hesitated, knowing she was about to ignite a blaze of speculation.
“When I got home, I found a corkscrew and began to work on the cork. It popped right out. And inside the bottle was this little piece of paper.”
“Well, don’t keep us in suspense!” Bonnie shouted. “What does it say?”
She looked from the ladies down to the small strip of paper. “It reads…‘Call the police. Someone is trying to kill me.’ ”
A collective gasp ran through the group.
“Wait a minute. Wait…a…minute!” Bonnie sprang to her feet, startling everyone with her speed. “A tourist was murdered over in Panama City last week.”
“That’s right,” Valerie spoke up. “One of my customers had eaten at the seafood place where he was found. A worker on the late shift found him in his car.”
Christy took a deep breath. This was getting way out of hand.
“Well, I don’t think this note has anything to do with that. Either this is a warped joke”–she waved the small strip of paper–“or…somebody threw it from a boat.” She frowned. That didn’t make sense either.
Chairs scraped over carpet and one toppled as the ladies crowded around Christy.
“Look!” someone cried. “The capital C is only half-formed. And there’s that wide loop inside the e.”
“Hey, Sassies!” Dianna pounded her iced tea glass against the table like a judge with a gavel, trying to restore order. “What are you talking about? Is someone taking handwriting analysis at the community college?”
“It’s her handwriting.” Peggy Sue emerged from the huddle, her eyes wide beneath her Southern belle hat. “I made an offer on a condo, and she wrote up the contract.” “Whose handwriting?” Christy asked, alarmed by the panic spreading over the room.
Valerie pushed everyone aside to plop her handbag on the table. “Marty McAllister writes like a kid–half print, half cursive. I have a check from her that I haven’t deposited.” She scrambled through her handbag, dug out her wallet, and removed a wrinkled check. “Here, look at this.” She unfolded the check and laid it on the white linen cloth.
Everyone stared at the childish-looking, print-and-cursive letters on the check. Christy compared the note and the check and tried to suppress her emotions. But Valerie was right. The C appeared to be exactly the same. And on the line that spelled out the amount of the check, the e in fifteen was a dead ringer for the ones in the note.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Bonnie towered over the group. “Come on, let’s go!”
“Go where?” Christy’s heart was racing. She’d had no idea that the little blaze she had hoped to ignite would go off like a stick of dynamite.
“To Shipwreck Island to look for Marty!”
“But Christy thinks the bottle washed in,” someone spoke up.
“If it washed in, why did the cork pop out so easily?” Maryann asked. “And how do we know it washed in?”
“Hold on, everyone.” Christy had regained her composure. “I don’t know if the bottle was tossed from a boat or if this was a cruel joke.”
“Excuse me, ladies.” Frank had been standing in the doorway, listening to the conversation, but now he was striding toward the table. “Marty stopped by here yesterday–I think it was just past the rush hour–and ordered her usual seafood salad. She told me when she left here that she was headed to Destin to show a beach house.”
He inclined his head toward the bottle. “I heard you say there were no footprints in the sand, so it sounds to me like that bottle washed in from the ocean. Probably some bored sailor wrote it”– he shrugged his large shoulders–“who knows when?”
Christy nodded. “You could be right, Frank. Still, I think I’m going to show this to Big Bob. Can’t hurt.” Big Bob was the local nickname for Deputy Bob Arnold, who ruled the seaside community and answered to the sheriff in Panama City.
“Christy, take the check with you,” Valerie said. “I may not want to cash it after all. It could explain why nobody has heard from Marty.”
The ladies wandered back to their seats, sat down, and stared into space. Then Dianna reached over and touched Christy’s hand. “What a strange twist to your speech on writing mysteries.”
“I never got to the speech,” Christy said. She lowered her eyes to the wrinkled note, the plea for help. Dianna was right. Her little talk about writing a mystery novel had taken a bizarre twist.
And now, it seemed, the real mystery had just begun.
Christy said her good-byes and excused herself after the luncheon as the ladies lingered over coffee. She had reached the front door when her aunt called to her. Christy turned. Dianna was hurrying toward her, looking down at her shoes, the way she often did while composing her thoughts.
“Hon,” she said, laying a hand on her arm, “could you do me a favor?”
“Never make another speech?”
“No, silly. Your speech was great, but I wish you’d drive over to Marty’s house, see if she’s home.”
She studied her aunt’s serious face. “Sure. If she is, you want me to tell her something?”
“No, just call me on my cell.”
“Okay. Do you really think she might be missing?”
She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m not sure.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “I’ll explain something later.”
“Fine. I’m on my way. But first I’m gonna give Big Bob a call.”
Dianna nodded, then walked back to the party room.
Christy hurried to her car, beeping to unlock the door. Thrusting her tote bag and purse in the passenger’s seat, she opened the glove compartment, grabbed her cell phone, and dialed Big Bob.
“This is Bob.” Suddenly the words were muffled, as though he’d placed his hand over the phone, but Christy heard every word. “Two eggs over light with grits. And an extra order of Shorty’s hickory smoked bacon.”
The sound of happy chatter rose amid the clatter of dishes.
“Bob? This is Christy. We need to meet.”
“What’s going on?” His deep voice rattled the earpiece.
“I want to show you something. Then we’ll talk about it. If you’re eating Shorty’s bacon, you must be at the Sunny Side Up.”
She was referring to a local coffee shop.
“I’ll wait for you.”
“Be there in five minutes.”
One had to think fast to follow Big Bob, but she’d managed to track him in the past. If he wasn’t chasing crime, she knew the places to look.
Christy started her car and headed for Middle Beach Road. True to her promise, in less than five minutes she had covered the short distance to Sunny Side Up. She reached for the bottle, then hesitated.
If Big Bob kept the bottle and note, she’d have nothing to ponder. She reached into the backseat for her digital camera. Christy opened the bottle, unfolded the note, and made a couple of pictures. She dropped the note back in the bottle and replaced the cork. She snapped three more pictures of the bottle, then returned everything to her tote bag, including the camera, and hopped out of the car.
As she entered the coffee shop, the aroma of fresh ground coffee and bursts of laughter greeted her. At the end of the long diner, she spotted Big Bob, seated in a booth with a couple of regulars.
As though she had just stepped onto his radar screen, he shot her a look, then sidled out of the booth.
He stood at least six foot five and was built like a Hummer. A large nose and wide mouth balanced a round face capped with short gray hair. Big Bob had a personal interest in keeping Summer Breeze safe since he and his wife Judy were raising five children here.
“Let’s step outside,” he said. “And this better be worth ruining my breakfast.”
She ignored the latter comment and reached into the tote bag. “I found this bottle on a strip of beach at Shipwreck Island this morning. And I looked around,” she added hurriedly, heading off a rebuttal, “but there were no footprints in the sand. No evidence anyone had been there. The bottle was half-buried right at the shoreline.”
“So…what’s the big deal?”
“The note in the bottle.”
He leaned down for a closer look.
“Read the note.” She handed him the bottle and watched as he yanked off the loosened cork and shook out the note.
Call the police. Someone is trying to kill me.
His gaze narrowed as he looked back at Christy. “Where’s your little brother?”
“Backpacking in Australia. I don’t think it’s a joke, Bob.” She cleared her throat. “I took this with me to Frank’s restaurant, because Aunt Dianna had asked me to be the speaker at the Sassy Snowbirds luncheon. I heard that Marty McAllister had invited the ladies over for dinner and a discussion about a permanent meeting place. Yesterday she took off to Destin and didn’t come home. She didn’t call anyone to cancel the meeting, didn’t leave a note. The house was dark–”
“If she thought she had a sale, she probably stayed over to wine and dine the buyer,” Big Bob said. “Marty’s a bird dog after the scent of money.”
“Yeah, well speaking of dogs, Bonnie told me when they got to Marty’s house, her big dog was running loose. Knocked Bonnie down and–”
“Knocked Bonnie down?”
“And gobbled up the lemon pies.”
“Christy, where are you going with all this?”
She took a breath. This would be the hard part. “Two of the ladies claim the writing on the note is identical to Marty McAllister’s.”
“Aw, come on, Christy!”
“Valerie wanted me to show you this check Marty wrote at the beauty salon a few days ago. Fortunately, Valerie hadn’t cashed it.” She pulled it from her purse and handed it to him. “And Peggy Sue said it matches the signature on a contract Marty wrote for her.”
He looked at the check, held it beside the note, and said nothing for several seconds. Then he turned and walked to his big SUV, unlocked the passenger door, and placed the items in a plastic bag.
“That island’s pretty deserted, isn’t it?” she asked, trailing him. “The lady who sold the ship house moved away, and nobody else has started construction. Of course there’s Buster down at the far end.”
Buster was a recluse, the black sheep of the family who had owned the entire island, then sold off a few parcels. But no one had managed to root Buster out of the eight acres he inherited or the run-down bungalow where he nested with his fishing boat, the source of his enjoyment.
“Do you think Buster…,” she began tentatively.
Big Bob hooted at that. “A bottle made in Scotland? Too classy for Buster. Looks more like somebody’s trying to be funny.”
He slammed the door and turned to face her. “I’ll drive over there and take a look around, check on Buster. Then if nothing turns up, I’m heading into Panama City for a meeting at three. I’ll take this”–he waved the bag–“and see what the guys over there make of it. Let’s give Marty another day before everybody gets all riled up.”
“Valerie said to keep the check. Maybe there are fingerprints on the check that would match…” Her voice trailed as she read the silent warning on his face. “Okay, I’m into your business, I know. But doesn’t it seem weird that she would stay over in Destin and stand the ladies up? And leave her dog outside the fence?”
Big Bob tugged at the end of his broad nose, thinking it over. “Strikes me as odd that she wouldn’t call someone, the way she loves to talk. Every time I’ve met up with Marty, she’s had that cell phone attached to her ear.”
Big Bob placed the bag on the front seat, yanked his belt up over his bulging stomach, and shot a glance at Christy. “Okay, I’ll let you know if anything turns up. Now let me finish my cold breakfast and get going.”
“Okay. Sorry.” Christy pressed her lips together, trying to hold back all the things she wanted to say. “Thanks,” she called after him.
She hurried back to her car, wondering if the entire incident was a crazy prank that somebody would eventually explain or if a desperate soul had written the note, stuck it in the bottle, and thrown it from a boat.
She’d gone to Shipwreck Island to prowl through the woods beyond the beach, looking for the perfect place to hide a body. A pirate’s body. She had snapped some pictures and headed out, satisfied she had the right ending for her novel. Then she’d found a note in an antique bottle with a message that someone was about to be killed. It was almost too ironic to wrap her mind around.