Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery) (2 page)

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
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“That’s why you’re such a talented writer,” Olivia said. “You’re fearless in life and on paper. You have the courage to be you, but you’re also willing to be vulnerable. That’s hard when you’re used to wearing armor. Believe me, I know.”

Millay shook her head in disgust. “What kind of crack was in that chocolate you ate? Don’t go all fortune cookie philosopher on me, Olivia. Hurry up and finish that whiskey. You need to wash that sugar out of your system.”

Smiling, Olivia complied. Millay immediately refilled her glass while a man sat down in the vacant stool to Olivia’s right.

He lifted the faded John Deere cap from his head and said, “Evenin’, ma’am.”

“Good evening, Captain Fergusson.” She gestured at her tumbler. “Would you join me?”

“Reckon I will. Thank you, kindly.”

When Millay had poured two fingers of whiskey, he turned to Olivia and she raised her glass. “May the holes in your net be no bigger than the fish in it,” she said, reciting one of the fishermen’s traditional toasts.

He nodded and replied with one of his own. “May your troubles be as few as my granny’s teeth.”

Sipping their whiskey, they fell into easy conversation about the commercial fishing industry. Captain Fergusson supplied both of Olivia’s restaurants with shrimp and had recently expanded his operation. He was now her primary source for blue crab and flounder as well, and she often met his trawlers at the dock when they returned with full cargo holds. Olivia would chat with the captain and his crew as she made selections for her restaurants. She liked Fergusson. More importantly, she trusted him.

Fergusson had been casting off while it was still dark to fish the waters around the North Carolina coast for the past forty years. And it showed. He was grizzled, his pewter-colored beard was wiry, and his eyes were beady and sunken from decades of gazing into the horizon. He was gruff, blunt, hardworking, and fair, and Olivia had grown quite fond of him.

As they spoke, other fishermen drifted over and inserted themselves into the conversation. Olivia bought clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, and a dozen different fish from many of them. Before long, she called for shots of whiskey for the entire motley crew. In between swallows, Olivia praised everyone she recognized for the quality of their seafood, and the men and their wives shared their predictions about the summer harvest. This naturally led to a discussion about the weather, and Olivia realized that to a bar filled with fishermen, construction workers, farmers, and yardmen, each day’s forecast had a direct effect on their livelihood.

“You’d best get ready for a hot, dry summer,” one of the women told Olivia.

Another woman, clad in a lace-trimmed tank top that was several sizes too small for her generous chest, pointed a cherry-red acrylic nail at a man chalking the end of his pool cue. “Boyd said his pigs have been lying in the mud for weeks.” She cocked her head at Olivia. “Do you know about pigs?”

“Only that I like bacon.” Olivia smiled. “But I didn’t think it was unusual for them to roll around in the mud. I thought that’s how they kept cool.”

“Sure is,” a second woman agreed. “But it ain’t normal for them to do it all the time. See, when they carry somethin’ around in their mouths—a stick or a bone or somethin’—then you know it’s gonna rain. When they just lie there in the dirt for days on end, a dry season’s comin’.”

A man wearing a black NASCAR shirt elbowed his way into the group. “The ants are all scattered too.” He looked at Olivia. “When they walk in a nice, neat line like little soldiers, then we’re gonna have a storm. I got a big nest right outside my front door, and they haven’t lined up in ages. It’s no good.”

“Woodpeckers aren’t hammerin’ neither,” another man added.

Someone else mentioned that the robins had left his yard weeks ago and he was certain they’d gone west into the mountains. “The animals know things we don’t.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, and then one of the women turned to Captain Fergusson. “What’s the sea been tellin’ you?”

“She keeps her secrets close, but the moon says plenty.” He put his whiskey down. Cupping his left hand, he raised it in the air, palm up. “We got a crescent moon right now, and she’s lying on her back like she’s waiting for her man to come to bed. We won’t see a drop of rain until she gets up again. Mark my words.”

The women tut-tutted and murmured about summers gone by. Summers of unrelenting heat. Long days of dry wind and parched ground. They talked of how the land had gone thirsty even though the ocean was close enough to touch. The salt had clung to people’s skin, making them sticky, short-tempered, and lethargic.

Olivia spotted a local farmer, Lou Huckabee, on the fringes of the group. He’d been listening to the exchange closely. “I’ll still get you all your produce, Miss Olivia,” he said above the music. “Don’t you fret.”

“I know you will, Lou. And every piece of fruit will taste like it was plucked from the richest soil on earth, washed by the freshest rainwater, and delivered straight to my kitchens still tasting of summer sunshine. That’s why I won’t serve my customers anything else. You have a knack for growing things like no one I’ve ever met.”

Lou dipped his head at the compliment, flushing from neck to forehead. “It’s a callin’, to be sure.”

“To farmers,” Olivia said and held up her glass.

“To farmers!” the men and women around her echoed.

Next, they toasted fishermen, fishermen’s wives, an array of different types of laborers, Millay, Olivia’s mother, and on and on until Olivia was dangerously close to being drunk. Despite the close air and the way the whiskey heated her body, she was too content to leave. And when Captain Fergusson began to tell a tale about a pod of dolphins changing into mermaids, she became as immediately enraptured as the rest of his inebriated audience.

While the old man spoke in a voice as weathered and worn as his face, Olivia thought about the note Flynn had given her. She glanced around at the people in the bar, reflecting on how each and every one of them had grown up listening to the stories of their parents and grandparents. Their elders passed down folklore on the weather, animal husbandry, treating ailments, courting, raising children, and more. And here they were now, sharing those same stories. Old, well-loved, and oft-repeated stories.

They are as much a part of us as our DNA
, she thought. She knew that in the small, coastal town of Oyster Bay, the local legends centered on the sea. She’d heard them over and over since she was little, and she was curious to discover new tales, such as the kind Flynn’s storytellers would share with them.

A burst of laughter erupted as Captain Fergusson reached the end of his story, and then the woman in the tank top took a long pull from her beer and said, “Them mermaids might not be real, but my daddy saw the flaming ghost ship last September. Said it came out of the fog like somethin’ sneakin’ through the gates of hell. He was supposed to bring his catch into Ocracoke that night so it’d be fresh for the mornin’ market, but he sailed home with it instead.”

No one laughed at her. Millay wiped off the bar and poured another round. “I’ve heard the name of that ship before. Would you tell me the whole story?”

The woman nodded solemnly, but there was a gleam of excitement in her eyes. Olivia saw it and smiled to herself. She’d seen the same spark in her mother’s eyes every night at bedtime. Without fail, Olivia was sent to sleep with a spectrum of wonderful images and words floating through her mind. And though her childhood was long gone, a good story was no less magical to her now.

“A long time ago, a ship full of folks from England sailed to Ocracoke,” the woman began.

Olivia turned away from the storyteller, so she wouldn’t see her take out her phone. She quickly sent a text to Flynn, telling him she’d be glad to help defray the costs of the retreat, and then turned the phone off and put it back in her purse.

When the woman was done with her tale of murder, robbery, and revenge, the talk returned to the weather, as it so often did at Fish Nets.

“It’s hard to prepare for a dry season,” Lou Huckabee told one of the fishermen. “I can irrigate, but nothin’s the same as real rain.”

“That’s true enough,” the other man agreed. “Much easier to get ready for a storm. You know they’re comin’, and you know that, by and by, they’ll pass on through.”

Olivia sighed. “Still, we’ve had enough storms to last us a lifetime. I hope the big ones pass us over this year.”

Captain Fergusson covered her hand with his, and Olivia sensed that he knew that she wasn’t referring to hurricanes, but to the number of violent deaths that had occurred in Oyster Bay during recent years.

She squeezed his hand. “I could use a season of peace and quiet.”

“It’s all right, my girl,” he said as tenderly as possible. “Life ain’t always easy and it ain’t always fair, but there’s beauty in every day. You just gotta know where to look.”

Olivia considered this. She looked around the room and decided that he was right. Tonight, the beauty had been in a rough place filled with rough people. It had been in their lore and their legends and the way in which their stories bound them all together, weaving a spell that could never be broken.

On impulse, Olivia told the captain about the storyteller’s retreat. “They’ll bring energy and tranquility and a little bit of magic to our town,” she said, smiling widely.

For a long moment the old fisherman didn’t respond. Then he rubbed his bristly beard and slurred into his cup, “Outsiders tend to bring us things that we don’t want. Sure, stories can be like a fire on a cold night. But they can burn too. There ain’t nothin’ can cut deeper or sting with more poison than words can. You’d best keep that in mind, Miss Olivia. Words have power, and all things of power are dangerous.”

And with that, he tossed back the last swallow of whiskey, slipped off his stool, and stumbled out into the night.

Chapter 2

Find out what your hero or heroine wants.


R
AY
B
RADBURY

T
he predictions of drought voiced by many of the locals at Fish Nets turned out to be true. Weeks passed with no rain, and Oyster Bay felt like it had been covered in a layer of salt-tinged dust. Plants withered and trees drooped. Even the grass in irrigated yards turned brown and brittle.

The beach was more crowded than ever. People yearned to submerge themselves in the cool water, to wash the heat and sweat from their bodies. They floated, weightless and happy, in the lulling arms of the tide. They didn’t care if their noses and cheeks burned. They didn’t care if they were late for work appointments or dinner reservations. They only wanted to be wet and buoyant for a little while.

Children splashed in the shallows and then lined up with their parents outside the Big Chill, where they pleaded for double scoops with rainbow sprinkles and extra cherries. They’d bounce with impatience on the sidewalk while their mothers and fathers complained about the wait and wondered if the thermometer would reach a hundred degrees by midafternoon. They’d gulp down low-fat yogurt smoothies and frown as dripping cones of rocky road ice cream soiled their kids’ new souvenir T-shirts.

The locals tried to maintain an air of relaxed normalcy, but a drought put pressure on the businesses, and prices were already on the rise. Everywhere Olivia went, whether to the docks, her restaurants, or to Grumpy’s Diner, the talk was all about rain. There wasn’t a man, woman, or child in Oyster Bay who couldn’t name the date of the last significant precipitation, and the television meteorologists offered no hope for any in the near future. Anxious exchanges between women at the grocery store were made in low whispers so the tourists wouldn’t overhear, and fearful expressions were instantly transformed into polite smiles whenever a visitor drew close.

“When are we gonna get a storm?” a woman asked the cashier at the hardware store. She was in line in front of Olivia and had a plastic rain barrel in her cart.

The man glanced around to make sure no out-of-towners were present before replying. “Dunno. The wife says not ’til after the Cardboard Regatta anyhow,” he said, mentioning the popular boat race that took place during the first weekend of July each year. “She’s lived here all her life, and it’s never once rained for that race. That’s a good thing too, seein’ as cardboard and strong rains don’t mix.”

The woman paid for her purchase and turned to Olivia. “You can smell a storm comin’ before the rest of us, seein’ as your place is out on the Point. Is anythin’ brewin’ out there? Anythin’ at all?”

Olivia thought about her early morning walk. As was her custom, she and her poodle, Captain Haviland, had gone treasure hunting on the beach. They’d passed under the shadow of the lighthouse and meandered half a mile north before Olivia had unslung the metal detector from her shoulder and turned it on. The sand had refused to yield a single trinket, however, and the sun had risen so quickly and with such intensity that Olivia had turned for home without finding so much as a bottle cap.

“There’s nothing on the horizon. Even the breeze felt dry,” she told the woman. “There was no scent to it at all. It was like all traces of water have been burned away.”

The woman nodded. “We’ve got to wait a spell, that’s all. Most of us have been through this before. We didn’t shrivel up and die then, and we won’t now.”

The conversation continued until Olivia was nearly late to her weekly meeting of the Bayside Book Writers. Fortunately, the group had chosen a supper of pizza and cold beer, so there wasn’t much she needed to do to prepare the lighthouse keeper’s cottage for their arrival.

Chief Rawlings volunteered to bring the beer, and Pizza Bay would deliver the pies, so all Olivia had to do was turn on lights and set out plates and napkins.

Millay was the first to arrive. She walked into the living room where the writers usually gathered, tossed her skull and crossbones messenger bag onto the sofa, and pulled a crumpled paper from the pocket of her sequined miniskirt. With a heavy sigh, she held it out to Olivia. “I got this in the mail the other day.”

Olivia took a moment to study Millay’s face, but her friend’s expression was unreadable. Taking the letter, she smoothed it flat and read the single paragraph. After rereading it once more, she laid the letter reverently on the counter.

“You’ve been offered representation by a literary agent? This is amazing.” Olivia shook her head in wonder. “When did you get this?”

Millay shrugged and averted her eyes. “Two days ago.”

Surprised, Olivia said, “Have you researched the agency? Is it bona fide?”

“Yeah,” Millay replied in a thin voice. “They represent lots of well-known YA authors and a bunch of other genres too. That’s why I sent my query to them. I just never thought . . .”

“Millay, I know this is huge.” Olivia saw the vulnerability in her friend’s dark eyes. “Daunting even. But your book is ready. It’s worthy of publication. You’re worthy.”

Millay looked unconvinced. “Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll probably just get my hopes up, and then none of the publishing houses will buy it. It’ll get passed around from editor to editor until it has nowhere left to go. Then what?”

Olivia laughed. “And I thought
I
was a pessimist. Come on, this is cause for celebration. Any one of us would kill for this letter. This offer. Let’s break out the champagne.”

“But this is going to change everything,” Millay said, finally meeting Olivia’s eyes. “Our whole dynamic was about the five of us finishing our novels. I didn’t believe I’d get to this step so quickly.” She sighed. “I don’t want to be first.”

“Who better to blaze into the unknown than you? Give yourself permission to be happy about what you’ve achieved.” Olivia picked up the letter and thrust it at Millay. “Sign with this agency and start working on your next book. Take the leap.”

Millay still hadn’t reclaimed the letter.

Olivia wasn’t one for pep talks, but she wasn’t about to let Millay throw this opportunity away. “Approach this with the same fearlessness you use on drunk bikers or high school bullies or chauvinists or racists. Grab it by the—”

“Hello!” Laurel called out merrily upon entering the cottage. “I hope the pizza’s here! I am
so
hungry.”

She breezed into the kitchen, the folder containing Olivia’s chapter tucked under her arm, and began chattering about her meager lunch. Suddenly, she stopped talking and shifted her gaze between Olivia and Millay. “There’s a charged atmosphere in this room. Are you two arguing?” Without giving them a chance to respond, Laurel continued. “When I was little, my parents made this ridiculous vow never to fight in front of me, but I could always tell when there was friction because I’d walk into a room and they’d be standing exactly like you are right now. Close, but not too close. And the air would be heavy with all the harsh words they’d just spoken. Certain words hang around long after they’re uttered, you know. They have a way of clinging to things.”

The comment was oddly reminiscent of the one Captain Fergusson had made to Olivia a few weeks ago in Fish Nets. “Go on,” she said to Millay. “Tell her.”

Millay rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She waved the letter in front of Laurel. “It’s no big deal, so don’t scream or start getting all touchy-feely like you do, but I got an offer from a literary agency. They want to represent me.”

Laurel said nothing. Her blue eyes glimmered, and her mouth hung open in astonishment.

“Here we go,” Millay muttered unhappily, but Olivia could see a glint of pleasure in her face.

“Oh, Lord!” Laurel squealed. “I can’t believe it!” She put both hands over her heart and drew in a deep breath. When she released it, a torrent of words came tumbling forth. “Actually, I
can
believe it! Your book is
so
good! I know it’s going to sell like crazy, and we’ll get to say that we knew you before you made it big. Oh, man! Does Harris know? Of course he does.” She threw out her arms and advanced on Millay. “What are we doing to celebrate?”

Millay backed off a step and held out a warning finger. “No hugs, remember? And if you try to kiss me, I will go full-out ninja on you.”

Laurel had to content herself with snatching up the letter and retreating to the sofa. Perching on the edge, she unfolded the missive and read it aloud.

The moment she started, Millay grunted in annoyance and gestured at the liquor bottles lined up behind Olivia. “You need to start pouring something. Anything. But get me a drink, or things are going to turn violent.”

Laughing, Olivia moved to fulfill Millay’s request.

As she dropped ice cubes into a tumbler made of hand-blown glass, Rawlings and Harris came in together. They’d barely shut the front door before Laurel was sharing Millay’s news. She jumped up and down with excitement, her blond ponytail swinging, the muscles in her toned legs tensing as she bounced on her tiptoes. To Olivia, she looked every bit the high school cheerleader she’d once been.

Millay had turned her back on the scene and was gulping her beverage without pausing for breath.

“Slow down,” Olivia scolded. “You’re not supposed to guzzle Chivas Regal. It’s not a Slurpee.”

“This is what I look like when I’m celebrating,” Millay said, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She had yet to greet Rawlings or Harris.

And then Olivia realized what was wrong. For some reason Millay hadn’t told Harris about her good fortune, and here he was on the verge of finding out along with everyone else.

Olivia looked at him. Though he was smiling at Laurel and saying, “Yeah, I’m totally psyched for her,” he was unable to conceal the hurt in his eyes. Olivia couldn’t blame him. After all, he and Millay had been dating for months, possibly even a year. Olivia wasn’t good at remembering such anniversaries, but she knew that if Rawlings had received that letter and hadn’t told her first, privately, so they could revel in the news together, she would have felt slighted. The slight would then fester into anger. Over time, it would cause a small rift between them. She could almost imagine a crack forming in the hardwood flooring beneath her feet, a fissure meant to separate Harris and Millay.

Olivia wondered if Millay would try to repair the damage, but there was an obstinate set to her jaw, and she refused to meet Harris’s penetrating gaze.

“This is incredible,” he said to Millay once Laurel had finally danced out of his way to share a gleeful embrace with Rawlings. The police chief had trouble returning the gesture as he was carrying two six-packs of summer ale in his right hand. After patting Laurel briefly on the shoulder, he edged around her so she could continue to bounce without causing damage to the bottles of beer.

Millay examined the chipped purple polish on her thumbnail. “Yeah,” she said. “I thought everyone should find out together since we all started our books at the same time.”

“Except me,” Olivia reminded her. “And at this rate, I’ll never finish mine. It’s becoming dull. If I’m bored writing it, I can only imagine what a reader would feel reading it.”

“Sometimes dull can be refreshing,” muttered Harris, who cast a sidelong glance at Millay and then sank down into a leather club chair. He busied himself with removing his laptop from its case, placing his green ballpoint pen on the coffee table, and tidying the pages of Olivia’s chapter into a perfectly aligned pile.

“Harris,” Millay began, but was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell.

“Pizza’s here!” Laurel cried joyfully. “My treat!”

She returned a minute later and placed a trio of large pies onto the counter while Rawlings dug a bottle opener from his pocket. He popped off four caps, releasing a hiss of cool air and the scent of hops from each bottle, and asked Olivia to put two slices of ham and pineapple pizza on his plate.

She shook her head. “Does your clothing have to coordinate with your food?”

When he wasn’t in uniform, Rawlings had a penchant for dressing in Hawaiian shirts, paint-splattered khaki shorts, and leather sandals. Olivia still hadn’t become accustomed to what she dubbed his Jimmy Buffet duds and had bought him several polos and button-downs, but he refused to wear them. In fact, he retaliated by purchasing three more Hawaiian shirts brighter and more garish than their predecessors. Tonight’s had a luau theme and was covered with leis, hibiscus blossoms, tiki masks, and cocktails garnished with paper umbrellas and pineapple wedges.

Rawlings patted his breast pocket. “This is my attempt to blend in with the tourists. It’s part of a complicated sting operation that I’m not at liberty to discuss with civilians.”

Olivia handed him his pizza and waved away the beer he proffered. “My chapter’s on the chopping block, so I need something stronger than that.”

“Come on, it wasn’t bad. Your writing flows well, your dialogue is in keeping with the ancient Egyptian era, and I can visualize all of your characters. The problem is that I’m not really rooting for any of them.” Millay took an enormous bite of pepperoni pizza and shrugged apologetically, whether for her table manners or her criticism Olivia wasn’t sure.

Laurel spread a napkin over her lap and then immediately began to twist it between her fingers. She was always reluctant to criticize anyone’s work. “I agree with Millay. Olivia, you continue to evoke the setting so vividly, but during the last few chapters I’ve felt like, well, there needs to be more going on with Kamila. She seems to be losing that fighting spirit she had in the beginning.”

Olivia turned to Harris. “What do you think?”

“There’s not enough drama,” Harris said simply. “Or tension. You have a concubine who’s in love with a pharaoh. Okay, cool. Your gal, Kamila, needs to get knocked up to secure her place in the palace. That’s not happening, and so we worry about her fate. Great. Then, the God-King seems to be falling in love with her because she sings so beautifully, but he won’t sleep with her. That’s where you start to lose me. If this guy doesn’t find her appealing, why should I?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of like a bunch of vampires going ape for a girl because of how she smells,” Millay added with disdain. “I want more of
you
in this woman, Olivia. Someone who doesn’t take any crap. Someone who uses her brain to get ahead. I don’t want Kamila to win this guy over with her body.”

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
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