Smile Beach Murder

Smile Beach Murder

by Alicia Bessette
Smile Beach Murder

Smile Beach Murder

by Alicia Bessette


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From author Alicia Bessette comes an all-new mystery series featuring Callie Padget, a former reporter turned bookshop clerk in the Outer Banks who is pulled into a deadly web of secrets when a mysterious fall at a lighthouse echoes a tragedy from her past.

When Callie is laid off from her reporting job, she returns to her hometown of Cattail Island and lands a gig at the local bookstore—the same one where she found comfort after her mother died. 

In fact, the anniversary of her mother’s infamous death is approaching. Years ago, Teri Padget tumbled from the top of the lighthouse. As islanders are once again gossiping about the tragedy, devastating news strikes: the lighthouse has claimed another victim. Eva Meeks, of Meeks Hardware. 

The police are calling it suicide, but Callie does not believe Eva jumped any more than she believes her mother did—especially because Callie knows that before her death, Eva had dug up a long-forgotten treasure hunt that could have put a target on Eva’s back. 

In Callie’s search for answers, she enlists the help of some beloved books and several new friends, including the handsome local martial arts instructor, Toby Dodge. But when another death rocks Cattail Island, Callie must face her fears alone. As she earns enemies in pursuit of the truth, Callie knows she will either uncover the killer or become a victim herself.

Mystery Writers of America’s Lilian Jackson Braun Memorial Award nominee

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593336885
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/10/2022
Series: Outer Banks Bookshop Mystery , #1
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 542,423
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Before authoring the Outer Banks Bookshop mystery series, Alicia Bessette worked as a reporter in her home state of Massachusetts, where her writing won a first-place award from the New England Newspaper & Press Association. A pianist, published poet, and enthusiastic birdwatcher, she now loves living in coastal North Carolina with her husband, novelist Matthew Quick.

Read an Excerpt



I ran for Smile Beach with the tangs of summer in my nose and an ache in my heart. The parking lot smelled like sunscreen and cedar trees and French fries. I breathed it all in, trotting past the burger truck parked in the shade, past the rows of cars steaming in the sun, and onto the sand-strewn ramp. Overhead, purple martins somersaulted against an impossibly blue sky. I heard the tling-tling of a bicycle and, farther south, the bellow of the ferry as it bumped the rubber-edged dock in the harbor.


Cattail Island.


My mother had loved it.


I wanted to love it too.


"Hey, ma'am!" A dad was passing me on the ramp, leading his cute family to the burger truck. "It's called Smile Beach," he said to me as he pulled a T-shirt over his furred belly. "Not Frown Beach!"


His kid's floppy hat cast a pink glow on her single enormous front tooth. She erupted in giggles when the mom tickled her. The mom then shot me a smile like the one I'd seen on many a summertime visitor over the years. A smile brought on by chilled wine and vitamin D absorption. "Is this place paradise or what?" she asked.


"Paradise," I said.


"It's just like that old chamber of commerce slogan. What was it? Cattail—the isle worth your while."


"Something like that." It was actually the downhome isle that's worth your while, but I didn't feel like getting into it, so I gave the woman a friendly little wave before turning onto Smile Beach. The gentle curve of it suggested a half-moon or a crescent—or a smile, which is what the founding Cattailers went with. I slowed to a walk so I wouldn't kick sand onto the families as they sprawled on towels and reclined in beach chairs. Parents held tablets above their faces. Teens took selfies. Kids became entirely encrusted in sand.


Cattail Island is known for its beaches. The east-side ones evoke the covers of summer escape novels—windswept dunes sloping to fine sand and, beyond, the vast gray Atlantic. The west-side beaches, including Smile Beach, feature the shallow, gentle waves of the Pamlico Sound. Unless, of course, there's a storm.


It wasn't the first time I'd wondered what it would have been like to go on a beach vacation with my parents. To have rubbed sunscreen onto my mom's shoulders. To have tossed a football with my dad, whoever he was. To have dozed so hard I forgot my name, then galloped for the water like a wild Outer Banks mustang.


I walked toward the old Smile Beach fishing pier, which sagged ten feet above the Pamlico. The sad old thing had missing railings and crooked pilings and looked as though the next stiff breeze would send it toppling into the chop. That didn't stop anglers from casting out, trying their luck for speckled trout or bluefish or flounder.


Past the pier, the Elder Tree came into view, its branches beckoning as if wind had blown them into that shape. And wind had, over the centuries. At the northernmost point of Cattail Island, the live oak's trunk measured fifty feet around. Shade engulfed me as I followed the path curling from the beach into the woods.


I could still climb like a local. Scaling the queenliest tree on Cattail involved making use of a rotten fence remnant. Hopping, I grabbed the pickets and crept up until I could hook an arm around the giant branch paralleling the ground. My fingertips caught the lip of a teardrop-shaped cavity. I wriggled and grunted and heaved and soon was seated, legs dangling. Sweat trickled down my temples, my back, my shins. I must have sweated away my sunscreen, because my skin felt like rugburn.


If heat had a sound it would be waves crashing and insects clicking and leaves stirring in undetectable breezes and, from someone's portable speaker, Carrie Underwood snarling about taking a Louisville Slugger to both headlights.


This barrier island, nine miles long, is shaped like a cattail, whip thin except for the wide part, three miles across. The wide part's where most of the dwellings are, bungalow-style rental cottages and modest cedar-shake stilt homes. The southern end of Cattail Island curves slightly westward, allowing a glimpse of the lighthouse even from where I sat in the Elder Tree. All these years later and the sight of that hometown landmark poking above the treetops still made my chest hollow, as if someone had taken an icy scoop and cored out my heart.


I shifted so that a clutch of Spanish moss blocked the lighthouse from view.


In addition to its beaches, Cattail Island is also known for being difficult to access. No bridges touch its shores—which means a long drive no matter what direction you're coming from, followed by a long wait for the ferry.


Whenever I visited home, I felt marooned.


"How's the job search going?" a voice boomed.


My uncle appeared on the path. He peered up at me, his beard like pine shavings springing out in all directions, his sea-green eyes twinkling.


I took him in—his dusty overalls, his cannonball belly, the water bottle in his big hand. A nugget of confusion knocked around inside my chest. I wanted to throw my arms around him and hightail it back to Charlotte. Back to my old life. My adult life. My real life.


"How'd you find me?" I asked him.


"Drove around for miles looking for the only person crazy enough to go for a run at high noon." Hudson was one of the hundred or so remaining Cattailers who still spoke what was known as the Outer Banks brogue, in which miles sounded like moiles and high came out hoi. It was strange and charming, a southern drawl lilting with an English accent.


"I needed to get outside," I said. "I might be in a tree right now, but the past couple days I've been all over this glorified sandbar, looking for work. I won't be living in your loft for the rest of my life. And I won't be staying on-island very long either. That, I can guarantee."


"Cattail really is a prison sentence to you, isn't it?"


"Please don't take it personally." I slid down from the branch and landed hard, knees crackling.


"You do realize it's two-thirds of the way through June. Seasonal work's been arranged for months. What's your plan? Go back to waiting tables at the diner? Vacuuming rental cottages on change-over days?"


"What do I look like, a college student?" That was who got those jobs. Not thirty-eight-year-old laid-off newspaper reporters with crackling knees. "I'll find something," I said.


"Obviously the Cattail Crier isn't an option."


"Obviously." My complicated history with the editor in chief made working for the local weekly an impossibility.


"What about the MotherVine?" my uncle asked.


"The bookshop?" I pictured it. The tall windows and pine-plank floors. My mother, curled in her favorite armchair, an open book in her lap . . . "Not my speed," I said.


Hudson stepped closer. His hair stuck up in tufts as if he hadn't bothered brushing. Because he hadn't. He smelled like lumber and Irish Spring soap. "Your mother loved that bookshop. You did too, at one time."


The air was suddenly too thick, like paste in my lungs. He handed me the bottled water, and I took a few ice-cold sips. Then I squeezed some water over my head, yelping from relief and shock.


"It's been twenty-five years, Callie," he said.




"The way I see it, your only other alternative is shelling crabs at Cattail Seafood."


"I'd literally rather be a crab at Cattail Seafood."


"City made you special? Above selling books to the good people of Cattail? The people who raised you up? The tourists who put food on our tables?"


I looked away. When he worded it that way . . .




The MotherVine Bookshop's front door shined a candy-apple red. A sign taped to the jamb read: PLEASE MIND THE WET PAINT!


It was annual Paint Your Door Day. Red paint doesn't last on Cattail Island. In less than a year, the sun and gritty wind tag-team to beat all reds into pinks. But many owners of the downtown waterfront businesses had a thing for red front doors. And at the start of every summer, those doors were painted en masse.


Standing on the sidewalk, I took a few deep breaths. The breeze wasn't oceany here on the west side but instead smelled like brine and honeysuckle and whatever enticing specials the bistros were preparing. These few tree-lined blocks comprised the commercial section of Queen Street, which ran the whole length of Cattail Island, from the lighthouse in the south to Smile Beach in the north.


Tourists buzzed around me, ducking in and out of shops. Some paused to lick the ice cream dribbling down their wrists, to greet passengers streaming off the ferry, or to snap photos of the rows of glistening red doors. Across the street, the replica pirate ship was a favorite attraction, docked in the harbor and accessible by a gangplank. Kids climbed the rigging and waged air-sword fights on the main deck.


Before me, the brick bookshop looked enticing. A chalkboard out front promised a visit from a local author later in the week, and inside, shoppers browsed. Every now and then they'd pick up a book and turn it over, or run fingertips across the jacket. Their expressions ranged from delight to curiosity to sheer flight of fancy.


I steeled myself for more rejection. So far, I'd been turned down by just about every on-island employer that hired literature-major types, including Cattail Heritage Garden, which deemed me overqualified to scribble its press releases. Hudson had been right: the MotherVine was my last shot at somewhat-professional temporary employment.


I was about to enter when a passing car slowed, then swerved. It was avoiding a barrel-shaped silver tabby cat, hunched in the middle of the crosswalk, nibbling the remnants of what looked to have been a delicious fish taco. The food must have tumbled from some sorry pedestrian's takeout carton.


I crouched and made a kissy noise, trying to lure the cat out of harm's way. But I was no match for the fish taco. Another vehicle rounded the corner, a vintage Jeep Grand Wagoneer, mint green with a strip of wood paneling, the ultimate surf-mobile. The driver gave no indication that he was going to avoid the cat.


Meanwhile, the silver tabby was fully taco committed and didn't flinch at the oncoming vehicle.


"Hey." I stepped into the street, waving my arms. "Watch it. Look out!"


The Wagoneer still showed no signs of yielding. Neither did the cat.


I shot into the crosswalk, scooped up the tabby, pivoted, and leapt for the sidewalk. The Wagoneer braked, laying rubber and sending out a screech. It came to a stop in the crosswalk, front tires straddling the taco.


A few shopkeepers scurried out onto the sidewalks. "Slow down, mister!" yelled a mother pushing a stroller.


The driver stuck his head out the window. I couldn't see much of him; the sun was dazzlingly bright. But I did see him wave in my direction. "Sure am sorry about that," he called. "You okay?"


"Fine," I said. The trembling cat was so heavy it started slipping, and I had to jiggle it to get a better grip.


"My bad," he said before slowly driving off.


The cat—TIN MAN, according to his collar's name tag—squirmed in my arms. But when I scratched his chin, he stopped trembling and pressed into my fingers, purring like a boat motor. "You've got eight lives left, big guy," I told him.


A trim woman darted from the MotherVine, arms outstretched. Antoinette Redfield was the owner of the bookshop and, apparently, the cat. "Tinnakeet Man!" she said. "Oh, my dear sweet Tinnakeet Man."


I passed the cat into her arms, and she cradled him. "Callie," she said, her eyes shining. "I was out back but a customer told me what happened. He saw everything." She kissed Tin Man's head. "Thank you."


"Right place, right time."


"He was a stray. I started feeding him."


"Looks like you haven't stopped."


"He refused to go away, so I had to make him a proper bookshop cat. He usually isn't tempted by the outdoors. Except when it's filled with the scent of fresh, hot mahi-mahi from the taco joint."


"I can relate. Those tacos are narcotizing."


She canoodled Tin Man some more, picking a piece of cilantro from his whiskers. "He seems no worse for wear. What about you? Are you all right? Did you hurt yourself? Are you shook up at all?"


"I'm fine, Ant. Really."


As always, she was dressed sensibly. Plaid button-down shirt, walking shorts, sandals. Her chin-length silver curls retained hints of strawberry. She was still nimble thanks to all the surfing she'd done in her youth, when she would even brave winter's wind-tossed, thirty-degree waves. Her voice had a ringing-bell quality.


She went over to the bookshop's entrance and placed the cat inside. Turning back to me, she asked, "How can I thank you?"


"Oh, you don't have to—"


"I most certainly do."


"Well, actually, I came here looking for work. Did Hudson mention it?" My uncle and Antoinette had been friends for years.


"The island rumor mill mentioned it," she said. "Shame about the big buyout in the city."


"Right. Thanks." I looked down at my feet. Flip-flops were perfectly acceptable for job hunting on Cattail, but I couldn't help feeling suddenly self-conscious—about my chipped toenail polish, hasty ponytail, and dress from several seasons ago, which had started to resemble a large dishrag. But it was practical, cotton with hidden pockets sewn into bias seams, a dress my mom would have approved. And at the moment, it was the best I could do.


The truth was, the Charlotte Times hadn't laid off everybody. Only the sixty-two worker bees who had failed to make themselves indispensable.


Callie Padget, Worker Bee Number Sixty-Two, at your service.


"My high-school helper quit high and dry last week when she realized lifeguarding was more lucrative than slinging books," Antoinette said. "That gives you an idea of my pay scale."


Shading my eyes, I peered straight into her face. "I'm prepared."


"What do you know about working in a bookshop?"


About as much as I knew about quantum mechanics. Newspaper work was my true vocation.


And it was a dying vocation. As was working in a bookshop.


Temporary measure, I reminded myself. My plan, hatched during my post-run shower thirty minutes earlier, was to keep publishing independent articles on my online portfolio in the hopes of attracting a daily newspaper job. I was going to get back to being a reporter ASAP. If not in Charlotte, then in any other city that would have me. "I promise to make myself useful for as long as I'm on-island," I said.


“You know your way around a coffeepot?”

“Like a pro.”


I gestured to a Honda Civic, my trusty two-door steed, parked in one of the coveted spots along Queen Street. The front and rear tires had caught the curb.


“My on-island delivery service is a big hit,” Antoinette said. “Locals put a high value on face-to-face interaction. You can drive, or walk, if you have the time and inclination. I don’t care, as long as people get their books.”

“I’m hired? Just like that?”

She glanced at the bookshop’s front bay window, where Tin Man was sitting, swishing his tail and training his amber eyes on the seagull that had descended upon the abandoned taco. “You earned this job, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “Work whenever you want. My hours of operation are somewhat sporadic, as you probably remember. But we’ll figure it out. Just don’t rack up more than twenty-five hours a week.”

Something like relief washed through me.

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