Hip and funny, Saulnier's style recalls Jen Banbury's Like a Hole in the Head (Little, Brown and Company, 1998), and a starred review in Kirkus calls heroine Alex Bernier "delightful, " comparing her to Stephanie Plum, the main character in the eponymous New York Times bestselling mystery series (St. Martin's Press).
Saulnier's previous Alex Bernier mysteries include The Fourth Wall (Mysterious Press, 1/01), Distemper (Mysterious press, 2000), and Reliable Sources (Mysterious Press, 1999).
Beth Saulnier is well-known in the Ithaca, New York, area as a movie reviewer for the Ithaca Journal and a film commentator on local television.
Reliable Sources was the number one bestseller in Ithaca, New York, in 1999.
About the Author
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By Beth Saulnier
Mysterious PressCopyright © 2003 Beth Saulnier
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAugust in a college town is its own special brand of torture. The living is easy, the weather is still gorgeous, and the students have been gone so long you have a hard time remembering what the place is really like nine months out of the year. You have these vaguely distasteful images of crowded restaurants and SUV-driving frat boys and gaggles of tummy-shirted coeds, but none of it seems real. You soak up the delicious moments-when you get a parking place right smack in front of the multiplex, say, or you go out for a drink without having some postadolescent moron comment on your cleavage-and you fantasize that maybe, just maybe, they're never coming back. Maybe the leaves will stay on the trees forever, and the streets will always be open and empty, and the new semester will never come.
But deep down, you know it will. Damn it all, it will-and it always does.
It used to be that October made me feel wistful, what with impending winter and the smell of decay in the air and the knowledge that you weren't going to get to wear shorts again for a very long time. But since I moved to Gabriel five or so years ago, my wistfulness threshold has been pushed back a good two months. Maybe it's just because people around here are too smart to ever really be happy, but we townies tend to start feelingblue three weeks before Labor Day, and we don't really shake it until graduation.
I mention all this by way of explaining that although late summer/ early fall in this ZIP code can be a tough pill to swallow, by all that's holy, last August should've been comparatively jolly. I was, after all, celebrating the fact that I had recently avoided being killed on three separate occasions within a matter of weeks-rather a nifty accomplishment, if you ask me. The newspaper where I work was, for the first time in recent memory, fully staffed. And-here's the cherry on the sundae-my boyfriend, who I'd been fearing was about to move away and break my little heart, showed every sign of staying put. Even the imminent return of fifteen thousand undergraduates couldn't put the kibosh on my good mood.
If I tried to put my finger on when everything went to hell, well ... it wouldn't be too hard. That would be when I walked into the newsroom around eleven on a Wednesday morning in mid-August. I'd walked out of there precisely ten hours earlier, after covering a particularly pissy county board meeting that went until nearly midnight, then scrambling to slap together three (mercifully short) stories by my one A.M. deadline. Then I'd gone home to hold the crying towel for my roommate, Melissa, whose boyfriend had recently-you guessed it-moved away and broken her little heart.
So it was without a whole lot of sleep that I went back to work, toting a bagel with diet olive cream cheese and blissfully unaware of how much my life was about to suck. I poured some coffee into my big Gabriel Police Department mug, one of several recent gifts my aforementioned boyfriend had proffered to celebrate the fact of me not being dead. Then I sat down at my desk and tried to figure out which of the county board stories was going to need a follow-up for the next day's paper.
I'm not sure how long it took me to figure out something weird was up. I do recall that my first clue was that I was the only reporter on the cityside desk; come to think of it, I was the only reporter in the entire newsroom. It was way too early for the sports guys, but there should've at least been someone else around somewhere; as it was, though, the owner of every single Gabriel Monitor byline was nowhere to be found.
To round them up: There's Jake Madison (aka "Mad"), the science writer and my best buddy; Cal Ochoa, the cops reporter and one moody hombre; Lillian, the elderly-but-steely schools reporter; Mar-shall, the Dixie-born business writer; and-both last and least-Brad, an ambitious, scandal-mongering young fellow who's on the towns beat, and whom I avoid whenever possible.
Where was everybody? In a word: hiding. And if I'd known better, I damn well would've been hiding too.
But there I was, sitting at my desk with the kind of clueless-but-doomed expression you see on a cow peeking out of the airholes in a livestock truck. At some point, my catlike instincts must've registered the fact that someone was breathing down my neck; when I looked up, there were three of them.
Three editors. As any reporter can tell you, there was no way this was going to end well.
"Alex," one of them said, and way too brightly. "You're here." This from the shorter and rounder of the two women. Her name is Sondra, and she's the editor of (among other things) Pastimes, the paper's deeply mediocre arts-and-leisure magazine. Except for the weekly processing of my movie review column, I don't have a lot to do with her; she mostly lives in her own little universe, eternally beset by underpaid freelancers.
She was already making me nervous. Standing next to her were both of my bosses-Bill, the city editor, and his own overlord, the managing editor. Marilyn is not short, and she's in no way round; in fact, she has a black belt in tae kwon do.
"Um ...," I said, "where is everybody?" "My office," she said. "They're all in your-" "Come into my office," she said, and turned her well-exercised tail on me.
I followed, with Bill and Sondra bringing up the rear. In retrospect, they were probably trying to make sure I didn't make a run for it. "Um ...," I said when we'd sat down, "so where is everybody?" "Alex," Sondra said, sounding even more scary-friendly than before, "what are you doing for the next few days?"
"Huh?" I looked to Bill, who was taking a passionate interest in the pointy end of his necktie. "You mean, what am I covering?" Sondra nodded and leaned in closer, so I had a clear view right down her blouse to her tattletale-gray minimizer bra. "Today? Maybe a couple follows from last night's board meeting. Tomorrow ... I think another stupid Deep Lake Cooling thing. Why?"
"And do you have any plans for this weekend?" Uh-oh. Say something clever. Say ... you have to donate a kidney to homeless mental patients.
That's what one side of my brain told the other. But I wasn't quick enough on the uptake, so all I said was, "Um ... No." Sondra squeezed my upper arm, harder than I would've thought she could. "That's great." "Huh?"
"Alex," she positively cooed at me, "I was hoping you could do me this teeny-tiny favor...."
Now, at this point my hackles well and truly hit the ceiling. Because when an editor asks you for a teeny-tiny favor, it generally means you're about to get screwed without so much as a box of chocolates. "Listen," I said, "I'm actually pretty busy at the moment, so-" "You're covering Melting Rock," Marilyn said, sounding nowhere near as nice as Sondra, but considerably more genuine. "Starts today.
So-" "What?" "Haven't you heard of it?" Sondra chirped at me. "You know, the official name is the Melting Rock Music Festival, but lots of people just call it-"
"Hell yes, I've heard of it. But what do you mean I'm-" "Freelancer flaked out," Marilyn said into her mug of terrifyingly black coffee. "Chester says we gotta deliver the goods. So go." Chester is our publisher-and there are guys in the pressroom with better news judgment. Things were not looking up. "Go where? You mean go now? And where is everybody, anyway?"
I must've sounded either very desperate or very pathetic, because Bill finally took pity on me. "Here's the deal," he said. "You know Sim Marchesi?"
"Er ... I dunno." "He covers pop music for me," Sondra offered. "I mean he covered it. Right now I wouldn't hire that miserable-" "Listen," Bill said, "Marchesi pitched us this story, and when Chester got wind of the thing, he ate it up-promoted it up the wazoo. Then Marchesi bailed."
"Bailed how?" "He was gonna cover the days and nights of Melting Rock, camp out there with the rest of the freaks and send us dispatches from the front. It was on the budget at the cityside meeting yesterday.
Remember?" "Vaguely." "So the thing starts today. He was supposed to get there last night to cover the setup-was gonna file right before deadline for today's paper." "And he blew it off?" "Blew it off?" Marilyn growled with a whack of mug onto desk-top. "Little prick flew the coop."
"You mean he hasn't filed yet? But maybe he just-" Sondra waved me off. "He never even came by to pick up the lap-top or the cell phone we were lending him. I tried his apartment and the number's disconnected. Then I tracked down the fellow in charge of the Melting Rock campground and ... it looks like he never showed up yesterday."
"So spike the story," I said. It turned out to be a poor choice of words. "What are you, deaf?" Marilyn said, segueing to something resembling a snarl. "We can't spike it. Don't you think I wish we could spike it? Chester's really got his undershorts in a twist. He thinks it's gonna be the goddamn miracle cure for our circulation with the under-thirty crowd. He's been flogging this thing all over cable commercials and house ads and mother-humping rack cards.... Don't you even read the paper?"
"Er ... Yeah, sure I do. I guess I've been kind of busy." "Okay, here's how it is," she said. "Chester's been promoting this package like it's the Second Coming, you got it? Marchesi's AWOL, so somebody else's gotta cover it. And that somebody would be you."
Another arm squeeze from Sondra. "Because," she said, "you're a really good feature writer. I mean, I know you mostly cover news, but you always have lots of great color in your-"
"Give me a break." I glanced out the window, which is not the kind you can open. Leaping to my death did not appear to be an option. "Listen, like I said, I gotta do some follows on board stuff, so-" Marilyn didn't even blink. "Give it to Brad."
"Brad? You gotta be-" "Anything else?" "Um ... Yeah. There's gonna be another town meeting for Deep Lake Cooling on Friday night, so I really have to-" She turned to Bill. "Who's weekend reporter?" "Madison."
"Perfect. He's been covering the science end anyway. Hand it off to him." She turned back to me. "That all?" "Er ..." I racked my noggin for something good enough to spring me, and came up short. "I guess so." "Super. So be a good girl and go put on your love beads and get the hell out there." "But why can't we just-" "Stop whining and hop to it," she said.
I'm not kidding. That's actually what she said. I decided to get the hell out of there before she told me to shake my tail feather, or worse. Bill, being no fool, beat a hasty retreat to his office. I followed Sondra back to the arts-and-leisure desk, which is at the opposite end of the newsroom from Marilyn's domain. The commute took ten seconds, during which Sondra said, "This is going to be just great!" more times than I cared to count.
Sometimes I think that journalists, like double agents, should be issued a suicide pill.
You may be wondering just why I was being such a baby about this. To put it succinctly: The Melting Rock Music Festival is my idea of hell. Until I was conscripted by the Gabriel Monitor's editorial staff,
I'd been there exactly once, and for a grand total of four hours. It was the summer I'd moved to Gabriel five years ago, back when I didn't know any better. Melting Rock sounded kind of charming, and ... well ... this cute Canadian grad student in materials science asked me to go with him. So I put on a flowy skirt and a tank top to get into the spirit of the thing, and proceeded to experience what was, at least at that time, just about the worst day of my life.
First off, the guy's primary purpose for attending the festival proved not so much to be rocking to the groovy beat but hunting down his ex-girlfriend, whom he'd met there the year before. He didn't actually inform me of this at the time, though I had a sneaking suspicion something was up since I spent most of the afternoon looking at his back as he dragged me from stage to stage.
You might think, therefore, that my negative feelings toward Melting Rock amount to sour grapes. But the fact remains that the whole event gave me both a stomachache and a migraine. I'm not quite sure what my personal "scene" is, but I can tell you this much: Whatever it is, Melting Rock is the opposite.
So what's it like? To start with, it's hot as Satan's rec room, and sanitary facilities consist of overtaxed Porta-Johns and rusty taps sticking out the side of a barn. Consequently, the whole place stinks- not only of urine and sweat but also frying foodstuffs, incense, stale beer, and veritable gallons of patchouli. It's also one of the most crowded events I've ever had the misfortune to attend, so there's no escaping the aforementioned aromas. You're constantly elbow-to-elbow with young ladies who've never heard the words brassiere or disposable razor and gentlemen who equate their shoulder tattoos with the goddamn Sistine Chapel.
The music is okay, I guess, though I can't say I paid much attention to it. It all kind of blended in together to make this incredibly tedious, drum-heavy soundtrack that was impossible to escape; within an hour I felt like the guy from "The Tell-Tale Heart" who goes stark raving nuts because he can't get the beat out of his head.
After about four hours of this, I decided I'd had enough. I told my quote-unquote date that I needed to go home, whereupon he said that was fine with him and went back to searching for his erstwhile lady friend. Which might not have been so bad-if Melting Rock weren't held in a little village ten miles outside Gabriel.
I walked home. Honest to God. It was either that or hitchhike, which is something my mother would not approve of. I got back to my apartment after midnight and jumped into the shower with my stinky clothes on.
These memories were, shall we say, plenty vivid as I sat at the leisure desk listening to Sondra prattle on about what a humdinger of an assignment I'd just been shafted with. To summarize the various points of my misery:
I was not only going to the goddamn Melting Rock Music Festival, I was going there for the next five days.
I was actually going to have to talk to people who frequent such events. Then I was going to have to write down what they said and churn out stories that presumably made it look like I gave a damn.
I was going to have to eat a lot of greasy carnival food. (Okay, maybe this part wasn't so bad.)
Any plans to spend the weekend in the boudoir of a very attractive policeman named Brian Cody were out the window. And, worst of all:
I was going to spend the next four nights in a tent. Four. In a tent.
I was pondering this litany of misfortune when my newsroom compadres finally started filing in. I was on the point of unloading on one Jake Madison when I realized that-big surprise-he was already very much in the know.
Excerpted from Ecstasy by Beth Saulnier Copyright © 2003 by Beth Saulnier
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.