Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery) (4 page)

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
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“Let him have his day,” Olivia whispered to her.

Millay’s dark eyes flew open wide, and then she nodded slowly. “I will.”

The women watched in anxious silence as the boats lined up at the starter buoys. When the blast of an air horn signaled that the race had begun, Laurel leapt from her chair. Screaming and clapping wildly, she cheered for Harris without pause.

Millay remained seated until Harris’s fantasy craft tacked around the final buoy. On the last stretch of open water, the contestants battled ferociously. Harris had broken away from the rest of the pack, but his lead was slim. The Viking longboat, the yellow duck, and the pirate ship were riding closely in his wake.

All the spectators were on their feet now, including Olivia and Millay.

“Come on, Harris,” Millay muttered, gnawing at her thumbnail.

Harris pulled ahead by half a boat length and the crowd roared. He stopped rowing for a moment, waved, and yanked on a rope hanging from the wyvern’s neck. A stream of green fire burst forth from its mouth, whipping the spectators into an even greater frenzy. However, during those few seconds in which he’d stopped rowing, the Vikings had caught him and now the two crafts were in a dead tie.

With only six lengths to go, Harris’s boat caught fire.

It happened without warning. At first, there was a lick of green flame on top of the wyvern’s head, and then a loud
whoosh
echoed across the water. Both the gryphon and wyvern were on fire, their heads and torsos engulfed in orange and yellow. All signs of the magical green fire were gone. Now, traditional flames blackened the intertwined creatures, melting them together as bits of charred cardboard dropped into the ocean.

“Get out!” a woman cried, but Harris wasn’t abandoning his burning vessel. Even after the fire raced along the gunwales and his first mate dove overboard, Harris kept rowing.

Laurel reached for Millay’s hand and clasped it tightly. “Why doesn’t he jump? He’s going to get burned!”

Olivia’s heart was in her throat. What was Harris thinking? There was no longer any chance of victory, and without his crewmember, he couldn’t even row straight. He was dashing from port to starboard, slapping his paddle into the water and giving it a furious push before switching sides. He had to stand to row in order to avoid the flames, and no matter how valiant his efforts were, they were utterly futile.

“He’s sinking!” a man shouted, and Olivia saw that it was true. The heads of the warring beasts had collapsed, inviting a rush of salt water into the shallow hull.

Harris hurled his oar away and stood completely still as the Vikings flew toward the finish line.

“What the hell are you doing?” Millay murmured. Her dark eyes were fearful. “It’s over. It’s over, you idiot.”

As if her voice had carried across the harbor, Harris turned to the shore. He folded himself over in a deep, courtly bow. And then, he put his palms together and dove into the water.

The Viking longship severed the golden ribbon tied between a pair of buoys, and the blasts of multiple air horns cut through the air. The crowd resumed its raucous cheering, but Olivia, Laurel, and Millay sat in anxious silence.

Horns continued to sound as the second and third place boats crossed the line.

“They’re pulling him out.” Laurel had her binoculars pressed to her eyes and was pointing to the spot where Harris’s boat had been. It was completely gone from view. “Do you want to look?” she asked Millay.

“No,” she said. “I’m out of here. He’s going to be totally mortified by what happened, and my being around will just make it worse. See you tonight.”

Laurel watched her go and then sighed. “That was such a romantic gesture. He almost won with a boat he built in his girlfriend’s honor, and then it burned and sank. Poor Harris. I can’t even imagine what he’s feeling right now.”

Olivia stared out at the water, “He probably believes that everything was riding on that race and he blew it. Actually, it was already too late, but he doesn’t know that yet.” Before Laurel could ask what she meant, Olivia folded up her chair and gestured toward the dock. “Come on, let’s wrap our boy in a towel and take him home.”

• • •

Supper at The Bayside Crab House was a subdued affair. Millay was a no-show. She texted Harris to make sure he wasn’t hurt and then asked him to save her a seat at the storytelling event later that evening.

For his part, Harris was unusually sullen. Despite the fact that people kept stopping by their table to congratulate him on the most exciting and theatrical race in the history of the regatta, he was unable to recover his sense of humor. Strangers bought him drinks and asked to be photographed with him. A pretty young woman even begged him to sign her bare shoulder with a black marker, but he still remained moody and taciturn.

“Miss Violetta will help you forget about today,” Laurel assured him after the woman had run off to show her friends Harris’s signature. “That’s what she does. Transports people with her stories.”

Harris produced a small smile for Laurel’s benefit. “I hope she’s as good as you claim, because I’m really not in the mood for ‘once upon a times’ tonight.”

Though she felt sorry for her friend, Olivia had been anticipating the storytelling event far more than any of the rest of the day’s activities. She wanted to get to the library at least thirty minutes early in order to secure front row seats, but Rawlings, who’d just finished his shift at five, wanted to savor a platter of crab legs and a cold beer. Admonishing her to relax, he cracked his first crab claw with gusto.

Foiled, Olivia called the head librarian, an old friend of her mother’s, and asked her to reserve five seats. Leona Fairchild had known Olivia since she was a baby and was more than happy to oblige, thus allowing Olivia to enjoy her meal of flounder in a lemon-garlic butter sauce with a side of steamed rice and green beans almondine.

When the four friends arrived at the library, Millay was waiting in the lobby. She slugged Harris on the arm and praised him for not going down without a fight. He was smiling and making jokes about his sunken boat by the time Leona escorted them into the conference room.

The room, an unremarkable space filled with rows of gray chairs and a stage area with a lectern and a retractable projector screen, had been transformed. The overhead lights had been dimmed, and Olivia thought the soft, white orbs looked like dozens of small, glowing moons. The stage was dark and empty, save for two wooden chairs. These had woven cane seats and Shaker-style backs and appeared handmade.

Olivia and her friends took their seats and spent the next ten minutes whispering to one another. For some reason, the presence of the vacant chairs had them speaking in low, hushed tones, though Olivia wasn’t sure why.

Other attendees entered and sat down. They too were quiet and subdued.

“How can a pair of chairs create atmosphere?” Olivia asked Rawlings.

He thought for a moment. “There’s an air of mystery in here. The dim lights, the old chairs, the anticipation. It makes me feel like a kid. Remember what it was like to sit in a movie theater in those long seconds before the projectionist began playing the film reel? Every part of me was tuned into that screen.”

Olivia nodded. “Those chairs are our movie screen. And we have no idea what we’ve come to see.” She noticed Dixie skating to an empty seat near the end of the row in the middle of the room and waved at her. Dixie tossed a phonebook on the chair, climbed onto it, and blew Olivia a kiss before curling her short legs inward to allow Grumpy to scoot past.

Grumpy’s was the last available seat, and once he’d settled into it, the audience grew nearly silent. People looked at the stage, over their shoulders, and at one another. Their faces were filled with curiosity and nervous excitement.

These feelings heightened until, finally, a dwarf stepped onto the stage. He moved slowly, using both hands to drag a large trunk from one end to the other. When he reached his destination, he paused and fitted a key into the large silver padlock and unlocked the trunk. He lifted the lid, tossed the lock inside, and dusted off his hands.

“That must be Lowell, Dixie’s cousin,” Olivia whispered to Rawlings.

The dwarf was dressed in tan pants with patches on both knees, a charcoal-gray T-shirt, and a blazer of plum-colored corduroy. He wore a yellow bandana around his neck, and his hair was sandy brown and shaggy.

“Who cares about stories anymore?” he asked the audience, and perched on the edge of the low stage, as if this were the beginning of a casual conversation. When no one answered, he uttered an exasperated sigh and leaned back on his palms, swinging his legs a little and glancing up at the ceiling. He looked like a bored child.

“The story is everything,” came a voice from the darkness. It was a woman’s voice, deep and resonating. It echoed through the room, and Olivia felt it curl around her shoulders like a heavy shawl. “Stories last longer than deeds,” the voice said. The woman wasn’t speaking loudly, but her voice was almost a tangible entity, seeping over them like a powerful current.

The dwarf was clearly unimpressed by her reply. “We have books now,” he argued. “We have television and movies. We have Twitter and Facebook and the wonders of the World Wide Web.”

“And why do you think you turn to those things?” the voice asked softly, dangerously. “Every tweet, every post, every group of lines that you type is a story. Human beings connect with other human beings through stories. That’s why you stare at the screen for so many hours. You are looking for other people’s stories. And you want to share your own. You want your voice to be heard among all those other voices.”

Shaking his head, the dwarf persisted. “Come on, stories are for kids. Look at us.” He swept his arm out in front of him, incorporating the entire audience in his gesture. “We’re adults. We’ve got no use for once upon a time.”

There was a long pause. It was so long that Olivia grew uncomfortable. Why wasn’t the woman answering? Harris had said nearly the same thing as the dwarf at dinner. So why didn’t the woman hurry up and tell them what they’d all come to hear?

“Once upon a time, on a night so cold that the stars nearly froze in the wide, black sky, a man told a story to his son,” the voice finally said, sounding a little less distant now. Less disembodied. The voice now spoke with a country accent. It was more familiar, more approachable. It was wise without being intimidating. “The son told the story to his son. Back when we huddled in caves and our bellies were never full and we were always cold. So cold. And the dark seemed to last for years. The son told the story to his son. History was born with that story. It told the secrets of survival. Spoke of a code of conduct. All that makes us human, all that separates us from animals came from that story. And we are still telling a version of it, thousands and thousands of years later.”

The dwarf rubbed his chin, considering this answer. “Stories help us through the long, dark nights. Stories are the light of our souls moving out into the world.” He stood up, walked to the trunk, and reached inside for an object. Taking out an oil lamp, he carried it to the front of the stage. Setting it down on the floor, he lit a match and put it to the wick. A blue flame instantly bloomed upward. The dwarf replaced the glass cover, blew out the match, and backed away.

“The story will outlast us all,” the voice said. “But if we’re lucky, we can become part of one.”

A woman who looked to be in her early forties stepped from the blackness at the rear of the stage into the blue circle cast by the oil lamp. Her small frame was clad in a floor-length cotton dress. The fabric was a shade of deep purple dotted by tiny white flowers. She wore black gloves and boots, and waves of black hair tumbled over her shoulders with the exception of a lock of brilliant silver that framed her face. Her skin was ghostly pale in the ethereal light, and her large, round eyes shone like blue fire. Olivia thought she was one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen.

“Once upon a time,” she began, placing a gloved hand on the top rail of the closest chair. Staring out at the audience, Miss Violetta seemed to look every person in the eye. Olivia could feel the intensity of her gaze and was completely riveted by the woman’s larger-than-life presence. As petite as she was, she seemed to loom above them, commanding every ounce of their attention. Olivia wondered if this was what it felt like to be hypnotized.

“Once upon a time,” Violetta repeated, her accent thickening as her shadow stretched and lengthened. It rose up the back wall like a castle tower, and when she lifted her arms, the shadow turned into a tree. Tall and thin and a little frightening.

“Once upon a time, there was a girl who told a story that shouldn’t have been told. Her daddy warned her not to tell it. He said she’d get herself killed if she didn’t keep quiet. But she didn’t listen. Soon enough, she’ll be punished. She’ll turn into a ghost. A haint.” She raised a finger and pointed at someone in the crowd. Someone seated on the other side of the room from Olivia and the Bayside Book Writers.

“But not yet,” Miss Violetta said in a voice as slick and smooth as a river rock. “Not just yet.”

Chapter 4

We dance round in a ring and suppose,

But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.


R
OBERT
F
ROST

V
ioletta didn’t elaborate on that first story. Instead, she told a haint tale about a tiny mountain cabin that hadn’t been occupied for many years. When it was finally sold to a young couple, the woman couldn’t sleep at night because she was continuously woken up by the sounds of a baby’s cry. Her husband didn’t hear the cries, and eventually he began to think that he’d wed a crazy woman. Their marriage suffered. The woman slept less and less. She could hardly complete her chores. She burned the stew, wove crooked patterns on her loom, and failed to tend the vegetable garden. Weeks passed. The house grew dirty, the clothes were unwashed, and her loom sat silent in the corner of the cabin. One day, the husband came home from chopping trees in the forest to find that his wife had hung herself from the rafters.

“He took her down and held her close, remembering what she’d been like when he first courted her,” Violetta whispered sorrowfully. “He buried her in the churchyard, and after the service was over he went on back home. The man reckoned his wife had truly lost her mind. He also felt sorry for himself because he was now all alone. But he wasn’t.” She paused to glance over her left shoulder. Peering into the blackness behind the stage, she took a step to the right. Her body went stiff. “That very night, he heard the baby crying. Heard his wife too, calling his name. Clear as a bell ringing over the hills it was. He wrapped a quilt ’round his shoulders and went outside. The moon was hanging low in the sky like a shiny silver coin, and there was his wife standing in the middle of the road. She was wearing her favorite dress and looked pretty as a new bride. She had a baby in her arms.

“The man rubbed his eyes, but she was there, just as real as you and me. She waved to him and then walked off into the woods. He followed her all the way to the river, but she vanished. He stopped chasing after her then ’cause everybody knows that a ghost can’t cross a river. Even a frozen one. The man never saw his wife after that. Never heard that baby cry again neither. Years later he learned that the family who’d lived in his cabin caught the pox. It killed all of them. Folks said that the baby was the last one to die and he cried and cried all through the long night before he finally died.”

Before Olivia could finish absorbing the tragic story, Violetta began another. This one was called Jack and the Giant. As with the traditional fairy tale, Jack was poor and hungry. He and his mother scratched out a feeble existence from the land. Violetta described Jack’s constant obsession with food with the vividness of one who’s known poverty and the hollow ache of an empty belly. In contrast, the giant was rich and feasted like a king. He ate mutton stew, roast pork, brown bread dipped in gravy, and dozens of berry cobblers at a time. He didn’t live in a castle above the clouds, but in a cave deep in the hills. He smoked an enormous pipe and owned hundreds of hearty sheep and fat pigs. Jack, who played the banjo and was as foolish as he was brave, was a likable hero. Olivia laughed when he tricked the giant and sighed with relief when he was able to return to his simple cabin and present his mother with the giant’s treasure.

He’ll finally be able to eat,
she thought happily.
He can stuff himself until he’s good and full
.

But no sooner had Jack escaped the giant than he decided to take on the North Wind. Up until this point, Lowell’s task had been limited to adding sound effects by using a rain stick, tambourine, banjo, and fiddle. He’d remained outside of the circle of blue light. But now, he unfolded a stepladder downstage left, donned a short wig of white curls, and climbed to the topmost rung. Perched atop the ladder, he played a set of high, chilly notes on his fiddle. He plucked the same strings over and over again until Violetta, speaking in Jack’s voice, begged him to stop.

Having transformed into Jack, Violetta appeared to shrink to the size of a child. Hugging herself, she talked of how cold the mountain winters were. How there was a hole in the chinking between the logs next to Jack’s bed. The wind whistled in through this hole, making Jack shiver. Snow snuck in too, covering Jack’s quilts with a dusting of white. Onstage, Jack shuddered and rubbed his arms, and Olivia suddenly felt cold. Because most public places used too much air-conditioning for her taste, she always carried a cardigan in her bag. She hurriedly slipped it on and folded her arms over her chest. The air felt damp. It passed beneath her clothes and chilled her skin. The sensation increased as Lowell continued to play his shrill song and Jack, through chattering teeth, pleaded with him to stop blowing.

After that story, Violetta told a pair of folktales about how the turtle cracked his shell and why the wolf howls at the moon. She finished the show with another ghost story about a hermit who hid his treasure in the heart of a hollowed-out trunk and became so afraid that it would be found that he began to dress up in bearskins and scare off anyone who came near his cabin. Over time, he began to lose his mind. People said his eyes glittered like diamonds and he attached bear claws to his gloves. When he died one winter alone on the mountain, his ghost remained, walking on all fours like a bear. The legend was that anyone who came too near the treasure would hear the man’s growl and be forever cursed with bad luck, sickness, or death.

Her strange tale left the audience reeling in horrified delight. Violetta delivered the last sentence and then simply strode from the stage and into the darkness beyond.

“There’ll be a reception in the lobby when the lights come back up,” Lowell announced when she was gone. “We hope you’ve enjoyed our Appalachian tales.”

The crowd applauded timidly at first, still too stupefied by Violetta’s final story to make much noise. Olivia shook herself from the storyteller’s trance and clapped louder. Soon enough, the room swelled with appreciative noises, including whistles and cries of “wonderful!” and “amazing!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Olivia said to Rawlings. “I could have stayed here all night listening to her. It was like being under a spell. An extraordinary spell.”

“She certainly drew me in,” Rawlings agreed. “I forgot where I was.
When
I was.”

Millay pointed at the oil lantern. “What was with all the blue light? That woman’s eyes were crazy blue, and the skin around her eyes seemed kind of blue too. She must have gotten hold of Dixie’s makeup kit. It was kind of creepy. She looked like an alien.”

“All the better to hypnotize you with, my dear,” Harris said, doing his best imitation of an old crone. “By the time we see her out in the lobby, she’ll probably blend right in with the crowd.”

“She won’t be there,” Laurel said. “She only appears in public when she’s telling stories. And she always performs in partial darkness like she did tonight.”

Olivia studied her friend. “Have you been researching her for an article?”

Laurel nodded. “At first, I was just going to highlight a few of this weekend’s key performers, but Violetta stands above the rest. She’s as strange and mysterious and beautiful as a fairy tale queen. That’s partially why she’s become so well known among the country’s storytellers, though as you saw, she possesses plenty of talent too. She rarely gives interviews. The last one was over a decade ago.”

Suddenly, the overhead lights were turned to their brightest setting, and Olivia blinked her eyes in discomfort. The abrupt flood of light broke Violetta’s spell. People ceased whispering, and the nervous energy they’d held on to all evening burst forth in rapid, animated speech. Gathering their belongings, they filed out of the room. Laurel lingered behind, and because she was seated at the end of the row, none of the Bayside Book Writers could move.

“Why are we waiting?” Harris asked. “They’ll eat all the good stuff if we don’t get out there.”

“The reception is being sponsored by the
Gazette
,” Laurel said. “Trust me, there isn’t anything too impressive. And we’re waiting because I want to introduce myself to Dixie’s cousin. Dixie promised to put a bug in Lowell’s ear about getting me an interview with Violetta.”

They heard a rustling behind the stage, and Lowell came out. Without looking at them, he extinguished the oil lamp’s flame, folded the stepladder, and gently laid it down on the stage floor.

Laurel made her way toward him. “The show was wonderful.”

Lowell turned. “Thanks,” he said and continued to collect his instruments.

“We’re friends of Dixie’s. She told us you were first cousins. I can see the resemblance. You have the same color eyes.” Laurel’s words poured forth like a rushing river. “Listen, I know you’re still working, but I wanted to find out if Miss Violetta had any free time tomorrow. I’m a reporter with the
Gazette
, and I’d love to talk with her.”

“She’s not gonna see you,” he replied as he packed his fiddle into a case. “It don’t matter who you know or what you’re willing to pay. She wouldn’t sit down with God Himself even if He asked her real nice, so you don’t stand a chance.”

Clearly taken aback, Laurel looked at the floor. Her cheeks were flushed.

Olivia wanted to learn more about the intriguing storyteller too, and so she decided to help Laurel obtain an interview. “I sense that Miss Violetta values her privacy,” she said to Lowell. “Would she agree to a phone conversation?”

Lowell shook his head. “She doesn’t do phones. That’s why I’m in charge of her bookings and travel arrangements.”

This gave Olivia pause. Was it possible that Violetta faced strangers only when in her entertainer persona? Did she suffer from a complex social phobia perhaps? “Would it help if Laurel sat in a different room?” she asked on a whim. “They could speak through a crack in the door.”

“Sorry, lady, but it’s not gonna happen. My boss—”

“I’ll see you.” Violetta’s voice swept over them like a wind. It was cool and strong and musical. “But not here. I need a dark, quiet place, and I gotta be able to smoke.”

Olivia thought quickly. “I have a small cottage on the beach. You’d have to drive there, but it’s private and you can sit on the back porch. The moon is weak tonight so there’s very little light . . .”

Violetta didn’t answer. Millay and Harris exchanged looks as the silence stretched on and on. Lowell had stopped what he was doing and was staring at Olivia in surprise.

“I’ll come,” Violetta finally said. “But I don’t want an audience. Just you, gal.”

“Laurel’s the reporter. I’m just her friend.” Olivia wondered if she should have let Laurel do the talking.

This was followed by another long silence.

“Lowell and I will follow you to this cottage by the sea,” Violetta commanded softly. “Give me ten minutes. I need to collect myself first.”

Olivia looked at Lowell and nodded. Laurel clasped her hands over her heart and scooted into the aisle, gesturing for the rest of the group to pass.

“Do not start jumping up and down,” Olivia warned in a low whisper.

Grinning, Rawlings promised to meet her at her house after the reception. He then congratulated Lowell on a great show and strode from the room.

“Well, since we’re not invited to your private party, I’m going to toss back a few glasses of free booze and then head into work.” Millay saluted Olivia and sauntered off.

Harris hesitated for a moment and then followed her.

Onstage, Lowell closed the lid of the trunk and began to slide it across the floor toward the ramp in the back.

Laurel turned to Olivia, her eyes shimmering with excitement. “You have no idea what a big deal this is! Thank you! Thank you! I have to call Steve and tell him I might be home late and then jot down some key questions. Oh, Lord, I cannot believe it. See you at the cottage?” Without waiting for Olivia to respond, she dashed up the center aisle and disappeared through the doorway.

Lowell had gone outside through the fire exit close to the stage, leaving Olivia alone. She walked to the back of the room and dimmed the lights again. She wanted five minutes to think about how Violetta’s brand of storytelling magic could breathe life into her dying manuscript. Taking a seat in the middle of the room, Olivia could still sense Violetta’s presence. It lingered like the fresh, metallic scent following a summer rainstorm.

Suddenly, she felt chilled again. Rubbing her arms, which had erupted in gooseflesh beneath her cotton sweater, she turned to her right and saw a figure sitting across the aisle.

“There’s always one person who doesn’t leave,” Violetta said. “Somebody like you who wants to soak up the power of the stories for just a little bit longer.”

Violetta didn’t sound the same as she had onstage. Her speech was no longer clear and crisp. It was now the mumbled cadence of her native mountain drawl. It wasn’t seductive or hypnotizing, but Olivia still hung on to every word.

“I was hoping to learn your secret,” she confessed. “I’m writing a novel, and my characters have gone flat. You’re able to inject unique and magnetic personalities into dozens of different voices. We can’t see these characters, and yet they’re there, as real as the people sitting next to us in the audience.”

Dipping her chin to acknowledge the compliment, Violetta focused her electric blue gaze on Olivia. “What’s your story about, then?”

Olivia told her as succinctly as possible. She knew that Laurel was probably on her way to the lighthouse keeper’s cottage and didn’t want to keep her waiting. As she talked without pause, she studied the lovely, enigmatic storyteller. Violetta still wore her old-fashioned mountain dress, boots, and gloves. Her face was remarkably unlined for someone in her early forties. It had such a chalky hue that Olivia assumed she must have been wearing stage makeup.

“That ain’t your story,” Violetta instantly proclaimed when Olivia was done. “Some tramp livin’ in Egypt a billion years ago? You can’t give her a voice ’cause you don’t know her. You want her to live and laugh and sing and weep? Then give her
your
story. Fill her with your joy and loneliness and all the love you’ve found and lost and found again. If you don’t, she’ll always be a paper doll. You want a marionette. You want somebody that can dance at the end of your string.” She mimicked the motion with her small hands. “You’re in control, but she’s connected to you. See?”

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