Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery) (3 page)

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
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Olivia nodded. She knew her friends were right, but had no idea how to empower someone who was in essence a slave. She turned to Rawlings, letting him see the look of appeal in her eyes.

“What does Kamila really want?” he asked softly. “Security? A baby? To be loved by this man? If those are her goals, then I think you’re writing historical romance and not historical fiction.”

“No, I am not,” Olivia objected. “I don’t know anything about romance. I want my heroine to matter, for her to push the limits of a woman’s place in society. I want female readers to view her as fierce and strong.”

Millay gestured wildly with her beer bottle. “But she’s neither of those things. She’s spent sixteen chapters reacting to her fate, not creating it. You don’t have a boring bone in your body, but Kamila is limp as a noodle. I’m sorry, Olivia, but I’ve kind of been hoping an asp would slither onto her sleeping mat and bite her in the ass.”

After a moment’s pause, Olivia burst out laughing. “At least that would breathe life into my deflated plot.” Her smile vanished. “I don’t know how I lost sight of what I wanted for Kamila. There’s nothing at all heroic about her, and I’m not sure how to change that.”

“I am,” Laurel said. She helped herself to another slice of pizza, keeping them in suspense until she settled back on the sofa.

Millay gave Laurel a mock salute. “Our star reporter has all the answers. You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Laurel cocked her head. “You’re comparing me to the Virginia Slims slogan?”

“Totally. The other day I saw this sweet tote bag decorated with an iron-on of a woman smoking while her laundry was being blown off the line by the wind. She didn’t give a damn. Just stood there, looking all gorgeous and cool and smoking. You’re like that now. I can picture you letting the dirty clothes pile up to the ceiling while you sit at your computer hammering out award-winning articles.”

Beaming, Laurel poked Millay in the shoulder. “You’re the one who’s signing with an agent, remember? You’re the star.” She turned back to Olivia. “Anyway, what I was going to suggest was that we all go to see Miss Violetta Devereaux at the library next Saturday. We can watch Harris race in the Cardboard Regatta, grab a bite at The Bayside Crab House, and then head over to the library. It’ll be a memorable day.”

“Who is Violetta Devereaux?” Rawlings asked.

“She’s a storyteller. A whole bunch of them will be in town next week for their annual retreat,” Laurel explained. “They’re mostly spending time with each other, honing their craft and exchanging new versions of old tales and such, but the
Gazette
and Through the Wardrobe are sponsoring a few events for the public too.”

Laurel didn’t add Olivia’s name to the list of patrons, and Olivia was relieved that Flynn had heeded her request to let her donation remain anonymous. She was about to ask Laurel for more details when Harris raised a finger.

“Will it be more like a ghost story or a one-woman play?” Harris said. “I’ll go to anything as long as there are no puppets. I’ve got a thing about puppets.”

Millay nodded in agreement.

“Listen,” Laurel said. “Violetta is quite possibly the most famous storyteller of our time. Apparently, she tells such a compelling tale that you’ll forget where you are when she starts speaking. She’s inspired dozens of novelists, poets, and songwriters—not to mention other kinds of artists. People say it’s impossible not to be forever changed after attending one of her performances.”

Harris was clearly intrigued. “Whoa, that’s serious.”

“Hell, yeah,” Millay agreed and sent a fleeting smile his way. “I bet this Violetta could teach us a thing or two about building drama. I’m in.”

Laurel looked at Olivia. “What do you think?”

“It sounds like she’s taken the key components of fiction and boiled them down until only the most essential elements are left. That’s what I need to figure out. What is it that pulls the reader in and then refuses to let go? If Violetta can show me how to do that, then I’ll listen to her all night long.”

• • •

The day of the Cardboard Regatta began with a hazy sky and cloying humidity. Olivia skipped her walk altogether, hoping to grab breakfast at Grumpy’s before the tourists filled every booth and counter seat.

Dixie Weaver, the diner’s waitress and proprietor, was a dwarf. She zipped around the restaurant on a pair of roller skates with purple wheels. Her clothes came from the junior’s department at Walmart, and she had a little girl’s love of accessories and makeup. As a result, she usually wore too much of both, but no one dared comment on her fashion sense for fear of being barred from the diner, which would be a serious punishment as Grumpy made the best breakfasts in Oyster Bay. Dixie’s coffee was also legendary. Rich and bold, it fortified both vacationers and locals for a long day.

Olivia sat at her favorite window booth dreaming of Dixie’s coffee. She craned her head in search of her friend while Haviland mirrored her movement. Olivia knew the poodle was also hoping Dixie would appear soon. After all, breakfast at Grumpy’s meant eggs scrambled with ground beef, and Haviland loved to eat from a platter beneath the table.

Dixie skated out of the kitchen and spotted them instantly. She waved, and after handing a bottle of syrup to one of the customers at the counter, zipped to the front of the diner. “Do I have news for you!” She planted an affectionate kiss on Haviland’s black nose, put a ceramic mug on the table, and filled it to the brim with her strong, dark brew.

“Coffee, divine coffee,” Olivia murmured. She stirred in a dollop of cream and took a quick, gratifying sip.

Dixie slid into the booth next to Haviland and tugged her rainbow-striped kneesocks back into place. She wore a dozen multicolored bracelets on her left arm and a sparkly black wristband on the right. Her hair had been feathered and shellacked into place with half a can of Aqua Net in order to showcase her earrings. Made of turquoise and silver beads, they fell to the top of her shoulders and brushed against the straps of her American Idol tank top.

“I didn’t know you were a fan of the show. I thought you were all about Andrew Lloyd Webber,” Olivia said, waving her hand to indicate the diner’s decorations. Every inch of available wall space paid homage to the composer.

“No reality show could hold a candle to Broadway,” Dixie said. “But I love to listen to these kids singin’ their hearts out. The whole thing’s probably rigged, but I don’t care. I sing along with every song. You should hear how my dogs start to howl!” She laughed and rubbed Haviland behind the ears. “I know you’re waitin’ on me, Captain, so I’ll put your order in and then come back with my big news.”

Olivia shook her head. “You’re such a tease.”

“Why do you think Grumpy and I are still married after all this time?” Dixie grinned saucily. “You wanna order or just let the chef fix you somethin’ special?”

“I’ll leave my meal in Grumpy’s capable hands,” Olivia said. “And I’d try to worm more info from you, since you’re obviously bursting to tell me something juicy, but the woman at the
Cats
booth has her placemat raised in the air like it’s a white flag.”

Dixie scowled. “She’d better be surrenderin’. That harpy has run me ragged. She took one sip of water and then asked me for a refill. Demanded crisp bacon and then told me it was too crunchy to eat. Ordered white toast and then wanted to know why I didn’t serve her wheat. Bet she’ll leave me a crap tip too.” She stood and gave her tank top an irritated tug. “She’s lucky I’m not the type of waitress who spits in people’s food.”

She skated off, leaving Olivia to read the
Gazette
. Haviland looked out the window and seemed perfectly content to watch the passersby.

The paper was filled with short articles about the day’s boat race and included numerous photographs of previous winners and their vessels. The regatta had increased in size each year, and because local merchants contributed to the cash prizes, the competition had grown fiercer than ever. So many entrants had tried to circumvent the construction rules that each craft had to be vetted by a special committee within twenty-four hours of the race.

This event was almost as well attended as the actual race and hundreds of bets were placed the moment the boats were unveiled. Of course, the authorities couldn’t openly condone gambling, but Chief Rawlings and the rest of the force had chosen to pretend that they didn’t know about the money exchanging hands on the docks, in the bars, and in the back room of the hardware store.

“Which horse are you gonna back?” Dixie said as she returned with Haviland’s food and a frittata for Olivia. “Harris’s? That boy sure knows how to build a boat. Oh, Grumpy wanted me to tell you that you’ve got cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, fresh basil, and corn mixed in with your eggs. Enjoy.” She put Haviland’s plate on the floor. After he jumped down to eat, she took his seat, folded her hands, and wriggled a little with excitement. “My cousin’s here for the storyteller’s retreat. I haven’t seen him for ages. Probably because he’s been in and out of jail since we were kids.”

Because her mouth was full, Olivia registered her surprise by lifting her brows.

“What? Doesn’t everyone have a few thugs hangin’ on the family tree?” Dixie chuckled. “Lowell’s pretty harmless as criminals go. He’s just never been fond of payin’ for things. He’d see somethin’ he wanted, and if he couldn’t afford it, he’d steal it. Most of the time he avoided gettin’ caught, but the older he got, the more darin’ he grew.”

“So how is he involved in the retreat? Is he going to move through the audience picking pockets?”

Most people would have been offended by the question, but Dixie let out a roar of laughter. “Don’t give him any notions, you hear?” She flipped the
Gazette
to the back page, pointing to the list of performer biographies. “See? Here he is. Lowell Reid. He’s Miss Violetta’s assistant. Takes care of her bookings, costumes, and props.”

“That’s a far cry from larceny,” Olivia said. “You must be proud of him for straightening out.”

“I am, but I’m a bit confused too. Last time I heard from his mama she told me that Lowell had been arrested. He was locked up somewhere in the western part of the state, and after he finally got out, this Violetta lady hired him. Lowell’s mama said she was gonna be real famous soon because some college professor was writin’ a book about her and the history of Appalachian folktales. Unfortunately for her, he died before he could finish his work. See.”

Dixie pointed at a photograph of a middle-aged man seated in a cabin in the woods. Clutching a notebook and pen, he appeared to be deep in conversation with a very old woman. As Olivia studied the photograph, Grumpy stuck his head out of the kitchen and signaled for Dixie to pick up an order. She excused herself, leaving Olivia to wonder how the professor, whose name was Alfred Hicks, had died. The paper didn’t mention the cause of death, but storytellers from the Appalachian region were quoted as saying they were shocked and saddened by his loss and were dedicating future performances to him.

As she ate, Olivia continued to read about the participants of both the children and adult programs. By the time she and Haviland had cleaned their plates, Dixie returned with the check.

“Professor Hicks was by no means old. And he must have been in decent shape to be hiking through the Appalachians,” Olivia mused aloud. “It says here that he was in his late forties. Did Lowell mention how he died?”

Dixie nodded. Glancing around, she lowered her voice. “The officials said that his death was an accident. Word has it that he went out at night, lost his footin’, and fell. Broke his neck. End of story. But when I talked to Lowell on the phone the other day, he said there was more to it than that. Somethin’ he refuses to talk about. Somethin’ that scared the tar out of him.”

Intrigued, Olivia stared at her friend. “If Alfred Hicks didn’t slip, then what happened to him?”

“I wouldn’t say this with a straight face if it hadn’t come straight from Lowell’s lips, but he thinks the professor was killed.” Dixie’s face was pinched and humorless. “Murdered by the light of the moon.”

“By whom?” Olivia asked.

Dixie leaned closer and whispered so softly that Olivia could barely hear her say, “By a ghost.”

Chapter 3

The universe is made of stories, not atoms.


M
URIEL
R
UKEYSER

O
livia knew that Dixie was fully prepared to elaborate, but when Grumpy’s face suddenly appeared around the side of the swinging door leading to the kitchen, it was clear that he wasn’t pleased. Scowling, he beckoned for his wife to come into the kitchen.

“Lord, why do the orders have to stack up just when I’ve got somethin’ interestin’ to talk about!” she complained and skated away.

Olivia watched the woman in the
Cats
booth stuff the table’s entire supply of sugar and sugar substitute packets into her voluminous purse before walking out of the diner. Dixie had been right in fearing the disgruntled customer wouldn’t leave a tip, for when Olivia got up to investigate, she saw that the woman had done something far worse than stiff Dixie. She’d left a single quarter sitting in the middle of a puddle of syrup.

“What a piece of work,” Olivia muttered and dropped a five-dollar bill next to the coin but clear of the syrup. If she left a larger tip, Dixie would surmise that the money hadn’t come from the sugar thief, and she’d be offended.

Having restored balance on Dixie’s behalf, Olivia signaled to Haviland that it was time to leave, and the pair headed down to the docks.

“It’s already so crowded,” she told her poodle, but he didn’t seem to mind the mass of people. His warm brown eyes glinted in the sunlight, and his mouth hung open in a relaxed smile. Olivia grinned at him. “You’re just hoping Diane and the gals who groom you will be here. You’re shamelessly greedy. You just had breakfast and you’re dreaming of treats.”

At the sound of the word, Haviland barked and quickened his pace. Olivia let him walk in front of her. The big black dog cut a path through the throng of merchants and spectators, and Olivia followed in his wake, knowing full well that she’d have to rein him in before they got too close to the shrimp stall. Haviland adored shrimp, but he was restricted to one or two pieces and only if they had been deveined and steamed first. Left to his own devices, he’d gorge on shrimp until he got sick. And because none of the fishermen could resist slipping Haviland a snack, Olivia had to keep a close eye on him.

“Olivia! Hi!” Laurel called from behind a lemonade stand. “On your way to the waterfront?”

Whistling for Haviland to stop, Olivia veered away from the boardwalk to the tree-lined lane where vendors were hawking Cardboard Regatta T-shirts, model kits, and an array of carnival-type food.

“Dallas and Dermot volunteered to help our neighbor sell lemonade before the race,” Laurel explained, smiling proudly at her sons. “The stand is raising money for charity and our neighbor, Bobby, is a Cub Scout. He’ll earn a merit badge for volunteering and when the twins heard what he was doing, they begged to be allowed to assist him.”

The boys exchanged proud glances and then one of them whispered to the other, “Mom’s happy.”

Because they were identical twins with no notable differences such as a birthmark or scar, Olivia could never tell Dallas or Dermot apart. When they were little, Laurel dressed Dallas in blue and Dermot in green, but now that the boys refused to be assigned certain colors, Olivia had no idea who was who.

“Go on.” Laurel nudged the nearest boy. “Try your pitch on Ms. Limoges.”

“Oh, you don’t have to,” Olivia said hastily. “I’m not thirsty at all, so let me just put some money in your jar or shoebox or whatever you have, and I’ll be on my way.”

Laurel shook her head and pointed at her sons. “Their preschool teacher said that they mumble too much. This will help them practice their public speaking.”

Olivia handed one of the boys a twenty. “Okay. Tell me this. Will my donation help someone?”

“Kids with cancer,” he said in a small, nervous voice, and fixed his gaze on Haviland.

“There you are. Succinct and to the point. Well done, sir.” Olivia smiled at Laurel and then gestured toward the harbor, which was filled with cardboard boats performing test runs. “Are you going to miss the start of the race?”

At that moment a woman in a pink and green sundress and a little girl in a matching dress appeared next to Laurel. The woman dropped her designer handbag on the table and declared, “Your relief is here!”

While Laurel handed over the cash box and key, the little girl took the opportunity to stick her tongue out at Dallas and Dermot. It happened with lightning quickness, but Olivia saw the gesture and was annoyed by it because the girl was at least four years older than Laurel’s twins.

“I’m sure your boys did the best they could, Laurel,” the mother said with false sweetness and peered into the cash box. “Oh my. There aren’t many large bills at all. Well, never fear! My Ashley-Grace is going to sell more lemonade than any other child on record! She’s a natural salesperson, and I’ve never met a soul who could say no to her. This exposure will be so good for her already flourishing pageant career.”

The woman beamed at Ashley-Grace who turned to Olivia wearing an angelic smile. “Good morning, ma’am. You look lovely today. Have you sampled our unbelievably refreshing lemonade? Did you know that every glass—”

“Contains lemons,” Olivia interrupted. “I’m severely allergic to lemons,” she lied glibly. “And to most children.”

Ashley-Grace’s mother turned bright pink with indignation, but Olivia ignored her. “Don’t be late, Laurel. Harris will look for us during the race. Good-bye, boys.”

Dallas and Dermot were too busy giggling behind their hands to do anything but wave.

Reaching out to scratch Haviland’s head, Olivia whispered, “Our work here is done.”

Once again, the pair walked toward the sea of beach chairs and picnic blankets covering every inch of grass in the small park by the harbor. As soon as Olivia located the set of chairs Harris had set aside for the Bayside Book Writers, she took out a pair of binoculars and began to scan the boats lined up near the water’s edge for her friend.

The captains in the junior race were steering their crafts to the starting buoys, and Olivia examined the vessels with amusement. For the most part, the boats created by the twelve-to eighteen-year-olds celebrated their hobbies and love of junk food. There were several skateboards, two boom boxes, a hot dog, a carton of French fries, three different candy bars, a cell phone, a horse, and a ballet slipper.

As with the adult race, two young men or women meeting certain weight requirements manned the boats in the juvenile division. They were each allowed a single oar. No working sails or motors were permitted.

Suddenly, a flesh-colored object obscured her view. Olivia lowered her binoculars to find Sawyer Rawlings standing in front of her. He was in uniform and cut a handsome figure, but Olivia also thought he looked hot and uncomfortable.

“Do you ever wish you had seasonal uniforms?” she teased. “Navy for winter, white for summer.”

“Everyone would confuse me for the ice cream man,” he said.

She arched her brows. “Ice cream men carry handcuffs and handguns?”

“Hey, we drive through the same neighborhoods. Besides, people would kill for something cold on a day like this.”

“I can point you to the nearest lemonade stand,” she said as he dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. Olivia found the fact that he carried a handkerchief most endearing. Rawlings was an intriguing blend of old-fashioned southern gentleman and liberal modern man. His workdays were spent apprehending criminals, reviewing cases, and balancing budgets while his free time was devoted to painting, reading poetry, writing his novel, and hanging out with his sister and her family or with Olivia and Haviland.

Rawlings was about to speak when something caught his attention. Olivia turned to follow his gaze and saw that a teenage boy was poised at the top of a set of steps, ready to launch himself down. There was a sign reading “Skateboarding Prohibited” two feet from where he waited, the first two wheels of his board hovering in midair. The sidewalk at the bottom of the stairs wasn’t clear of pedestrians, and someone was bound to get hurt if the kid took the plunge. Before Olivia could speak, Rawlings was in motion.

For a big man, the chief moved fast. He had the youth by the elbow before he could leave the ground. Olivia couldn’t hear what Rawlings said to him, but within seconds the boy was nodding deferentially. He then jogged down the stairs with his board tucked under his arm. Pausing at the bottom, he picked a wadded napkin off the ground, tossed it into the nearest trashcan, and turned to give Rawlings a brief wave.

Olivia smiled. Only Rawlings could command such respect using gentle tones and a paternal hand on the shoulder.

“He’s a catch, all right,” Laurel said, stealing up alongside of Olivia.

Irritated by the heat creeping up her neck and cheeks, Olivia asked, “Where’d your trolls go?”

“Steve’s parents are taking them for rest of the weekend, and they are going to have their hands full. The boys are completely hopped up on lemonade.” Laurel smiled and gazed out over the water. “The first race is going to start any minute now. Where’s Millay?”

“I don’t know, but she’d better get a move on.” Olivia lifted her binoculars and scanned the boardwalk. “We’ve never had this many spectators before.”

Haviland made a sniffing noise and Olivia glanced at him. “Do you want to find her, Captain?”

The poodle barked once and trotted off through the crowd. Olivia and Laurel sat in their canvas chairs and exchanged theories as to which boat would win the juvenile division.

“I’m rooting for the French fries,” Laurel said. “You?”

“The hot dog. How could I pick anything else? The captain is dressed as a ketchup bottle, and the first mate is the mustard.” Olivia shook her head. “Those guys must be boiling inside those costumes.”

Laurel laughed. “That’s why they’re going to lose. How are they going to row in those getups?”

In the end, the ballet slipper won. Its long, delicate prow crossed the finish line seconds ahead of a giant banana. The triumphant shrieks of the female crew carried over the water. “Look! They’re wearing tutus and tiaras!” Laurel exclaimed, peering at them through her own binoculars.

“They should’ve ditched the tutus and worn something unexpected. Camo maybe,” Millay said, settling into the chair next to Olivia as if she’d been there all along. “Thanks for sending Haviland. I had no clue where to go. Harris e-mailed a picture of this spot at like seven this morning, but it looks totally different now. What gives with all these people, anyway? Is this what passes for culture in this town?”

Laurel handed her a Thermos. “Have some lemonade. You seem a little crabby.”

Millay shrugged. “Harris and I got into it last night. I swear—all we do lately is fight. And then I had to go to work all pissed off while he went to sleep. The second I get off work he seems to want to talk about all kinds of heavy crap. I have to mute my phone just so I can get a few hours of shut-eye. The boy is either stupid or has a serious death wish.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Laurel assured her, but Olivia wasn’t as certain. Millay was showing all the signs of a woman who was ready for a change, and Olivia suspected Harris was one of the things she wanted a break from. It wouldn’t be easy to do, especially since Millay and Harris would continue to see each other at the weekly meetings of the Bayside Book Writers. Still, Olivia knew Millay was capable of walling off her emotions. It was a skill the two women shared; one they’d both tried to stop using every time they got close to another person.

“I don’t see Harris,” Olivia said. “Millay, do you know what his boat looks like?”

“He told me it was a surprise,” she said. “Something we’d all immediately recognize.”

Laurel and Olivia swept their binoculars over the line of bobbing boats.

“They’ve gotten so elaborate.” Laurel pointed at the center of the largest group. “There’s a dragon with smoke coming out of its mouth. And a Viking longship. Look! The crewmen are wearing blond wigs and horned helmets.” She continued to describe the vessels. A shark baring several rows of serrated teeth, a dolphin with a bubbling blowhole, a tugboat, a fire truck, a fighter jet, a pirate ship flying the Jolly Roger, a listing ferry, a yellow duck, a Loch Ness monster, and a spotted cow.

Olivia passed her binoculars to Millay. “You’ve got to see the church.”

Millay located the boat with the steeple. The front half of the building was white and bore a sign saying “Sunday.” Stained glass windows had been painted on the cardboard. The rear of the building was black and had a neon sign reading, “Saturday.” In a painted window another sign read, “Bar Open.” The captain was dressed as the devil and his crewmember was an angel.

“Awesome,” Millay said with a grin. “Now that’s original.”

“But not nearly as cool as the boat coming out from behind that fishing trawler,” Laurel said. “Hey! It’s Harris!”

Olivia waited for Millay to hand over the binoculars, and when she met Olivia’s gaze, her face was unreadable. Olivia peered out to the harbor and gasped. Harris had brought a scene from Millay’s novel to life. Her heroine, Tessa, was a gryphon warrior and during the book’s climax, she and her beast battled a fierce wyvern and its rider. Harris had carved the two beasts out of cardboard. Their necks were intertwined, and their green and golden eyes were glimmering with rage and bloodlust as they fought to the death. The gryphon’s feathers had been painted a metallic gold while the wyvern’s were black with a rainbow sheen. Their tails were entangled too—one ended in a tassel of fur while the other was a pointed spade. Glimmering claws skimmed the water, and two sets of wings—one a soft white and the other a deep indigo—reached high into the air.

“Who’s rowing with him?” Laurel asked.

“Some guy from work,” was Millay’s flat reply.

Laurel turned to stare at her. “You can’t still be mad at him. Not after seeing that boat. He made that for you.”

Olivia guessed that Millay wasn’t angry with Harris. She just wasn’t in love with him anymore. That realization made her feel guilty. The guilt led to anger. And Millay had no idea what to do with that anger.

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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