Authors: Kathi Daley
Pumpkins in Paradise
A Tj Jensen Paradise Lake Mystery
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Katherine Daley
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
This book is dedicated to my friend and mentor Paul Dinas, without whose guidance, patience, and inspiration, the book would not have been written.
I also want to thank Christy for her feedback, Ricky for the webpage, Cristin for the encouragement, Paul Dinas and Randy Ladenheim-Gil for the editing, and last but not least my super-husband Ken for allowing me time to write by taking care of everything else.
“I’m afraid there’s not much I can do.
” Zachary Collins took a step back and considered the form on the table. “I hate to do this, but I think it might be time to throw in the towel and call it.” Glancing at the clock on the wall, Zachary bowed his snow-white head, lowered his voice, and somberly uttered, “Time of death: eleven thirty-eight.”
Tj Jensen’s bright blue eyes flashed with annoyance. “This is serious. Maybe some duct tape?”
Zachary lifted one red, white, and blue‒striped arm and let if fall limply to the table
. The matching arm was frozen awkwardly to the side. “I’m afraid, my dear, that this time duct tape isn’t going to do it.”
“There must be something you can do.
” Tj ran her hand through her long auburn curls as she paced back and forth in front of the workbench.
Leaning over the lifeless form, Zachary squinted to focus eyes weakened with age.
“Please,” Tj pleaded. “I’ll owe you. Anything you want.”
The only thing the aged and reclusive Zachary Collins ever wanted was time with his young and energetic friend
. In the fourteen years he’d known her, she’d managed to push past his grief and bring light to his otherwise dark life. The fact that she was so frantic about a life-size mechanical Uncle Sam only served to bring amusement to his otherwise dreary day. “How much time do we have?”
“Maybe a few hours. We still need to get him mounted and posed.”
Straightening his gnarled and wrinkled form, Zachary shuffled over to a cabinet at the bottom of the stairs
. He opened the paneled door and considered its contents.
A master “tinkerer,” as Tj referred to him, there must be something he could do
. Old Sam, as citizens of the small alpine town of Serenity, Nevada, referred to the life-size dummy, hadn’t missed a single Patriot’s Day Parade in the forty years the mountain hamlet had been holding the event. During those forty years, Zachary had never once attended the celebration; still, he could imagine the festive atmosphere created as the mile-long caravan of floats and marching bands wove their way along the sandy lakeshore, past the fishing bridge on the north end of town, then toward the quaint mom-and-pop shops lining the highway.
“If I remember correctly, we rigged the motorized unit in the arm with bailing wire last year?
“Yeah, and the year before that my grandpa took everything apart and lubed it
. The motor comes on, but it won’t move the arm. I’m pretty sure the waving mechanism is fried.”
“What if we reattach the leg, glue the hat back on, and move the arm into its most extended position
. I’m sure I can figure out a way to secure it. He won’t wave, but he can ride on the float.”
“Could work,” Tj agreed
“Give me until four
. I’m not promising anything, and I might need some help maneuvering the arm into place. My upper-body strength isn’t what it once was.”
“I’m supposed to meet Tyler in an hour
. I’ll text him and let him know I might be late.”
” Zachary frowned. “I thought you decided to sever your relationship with that particular young man?”
. “We made up.”
” Zachary shook his head in disbelief. “Weren’t you sitting in that chair”—he pointed to the recliner near the old stone fireplace—“not two weeks ago crying your eyes out because the scum-sucking bottom feeder, your words not mine, had taken off with his friends and left you sitting alone in a restaurant on what was, if I remember correctly, your one-year anniversary. And didn’t you say to me that you never, ever, under any circumstances, wanted to set eyes on the insensitive blow hole as long as you lived?”
. “I guess I was being a bit overdramatic. I realize that Tyler has the emotional maturity of a fruit fly, but he’s also sweet and adventurous and fun to be around. He apologized and explained that it was guys’ night out and he’d meant to tell me but forgot.”
Zachary scowled in disapproval
. Tj was the kindest and most giving soul he’d ever met. Anyone who made her cry was not okay in his book, and this Tyler of hers sounded like a real piece of work.
“Besides,” Tj added, “he helped me paint my entire apartment, a grueling activity that sort of made me like him again
. By the way, it’s yellow.”
“My apartment; I painted it yellow. You know, it’s really starting to feel like home. I hung new curtains and brought some of my furniture from my old room. I’m even thinking of getting a new bedspread and maybe some pillows. I’d love it if you could come and see it.”
“You know I can’t.”
“Yeah.” Tj sighed. “I know.” She had long ago reconciled herself to the fact that Zachary battled with demons whose presence in his life kept him trapped inside his mausoleum of a home. “I’ll take some pictures and bring them with me next time I come.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about you letting your young man off the hook quite so easily, but I have to admit you seem happy.”
“I am.” Tj leaned against the wall, her deep aqua eyes shining with joy. “Things are just going so well. I got promoted to head of the physical education department at the high school, resulting in both a raise and an elevated level of control over the school’s athletic programs. I have great friends, a beautiful place in which to live, and a fun and uncomplicated boyfriend who, I might add, is a total babe. Life is good. I mean really good. Did I tell you …”
As Tj rattled on, Zachary thought back to the carefree man he’d once been
. It seemed like only yesterday that he’d been handsome and lighthearted, an heir born to a life of privilege. Unlike Tj, who with the exception of her infatuation with Tyler, had seemed to have made all the right choices in her twenty-six years, the choices he’d made as a young man had led to a lifetime of solitude and remorse.
“Tyler says that this is our time to have fun and not sweat the small stuff,” Tj continued as she pulled her hair over one shoulder and began twisting it into a sloppy braid
. “We’ve finished college, established our careers, and have yet to take on the responsibility of marriage and children. He says it’s our time to step away from our responsibilities, defy the rules, and live life to the fullest.”
Zachary touched the extensive network of scars on his once handsome face
. He knew better than anyone that no matter how hard you tried, you could never really run from life’s rules or consequences.
“And now that Grandpa has recovered from his stroke and can help Dad at the resort”—Tj referred to Maggie’s Hideaway, the lakefront resort that had been in her family for three generations—“all I have to do is make sure the Patriot’s Day Parade comes off without a hitch. Then I’m totally, gloriously free for the entire summer
. I can’t remember feeling this unencumbered since I was a child. Just last week…”
As Tj continued with her story, Zachary couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to spend even one moment of his life unencumbered by the burden he bore
. Perhaps Tj was right. Perhaps in every life there came a time to defy the rules and ignore the consequences. He’d lived with his choices for so long. It had been more than sixty years since he’d locked himself away with a secret too painful to bear. Maybe the time had come to send for them. It would take a few months to arrange things. A meeting in the fall? More than once he’d thought of telling them. They deserved to know the truth and perhaps, with the telling of it, he’d finally be free of the demons who tormented his every breath. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine their reaction. Would they understand his remorse and accept his offer of penance, or would they look at him in horror at the things he’d done? In the end he supposed it didn’t really matter. Before he could offer penance to the others, he’d first have to confess his sins to her.
“Did you fall asleep?
” Tj interrupted his thoughts as she pulled a rubber band out of the pocket of her cut-off shorts and secured the braid she’d fashioned.
“Just resting my eyes.
” Zachary took a deep breath and looked at her. He smiled. “I guess I’d better get started if I’m going to have any hope of resuscitating Sam in time for your shindig. Help me fetch my tools and we’ll see what we can do.”
Tj carefully parallel parked her Four Runner on Lake Front Road in front of Tiz the Season, the retail store where she’d brought her half-sisters, Ashley, eight, and Gracie, five, to buy their Halloween costumes. The entire downtown section of the lakefront community was decorated for the upcoming Halloween festivities. Bright yellow aspen trees lining the sidewalks were draped with orange and white twinkle lights, while hundreds of scarecrows and huge orange pumpkins were displayed in front of brightly lit shops inviting the casual passerby in from the crisp fall air.
Milligan’s Barber Shop, with its old-fashioned red-and-white barber pole and raised barber chairs, displayed cutouts of ghosts and bats in their large picture window, while Wilma’s Old-Fashioned Ice Cream, with its black-and-white checkered floor and white wrought-iron tables, featured man-size scarecrows displayed among a group of expertly carved jack-o’-lanterns
“Oh, look,” Gracie gasped as she climbed out of the vehicle and noticed the huge fall village, complete with an operating train in the front window
. Ashley and Gracie trotted over to watch as the small train chugged, tooted, and smoked its way through the miniature town square. The store’s owner, Rachael Adams, added to the village each season. This year a delightful traveling carnival with a revolving Ferris wheel and a brightly painted merry-go-round were prominently displayed alongside the charming Main Street.
“Okay, we’re in, we’re out,”
Tj warned as she locked the car door and slung her purse over her shoulder. “You need to be at dance in half an hour.”
“There is no dance,” Gracie informed her
Tj turned to look directly at the brown-haired, brown-eyed kindergartener while Ashley walked around the edge of the building to get a closer look at the miniature village
. “It’s Friday. You always have dance on Friday.”
“Miss Marsha sent a note
. I gave it to you on Monday.” Gracie’s ringlets bounced as she shuffled impatiently.
Tj did remember something about a note
“She had to go to the
dynocologist to get a baby,” Gracie informed her.
Tj knew that Marsha and her husband of four years had been trying to conceive, but she was surprised she’d told her students as much
. “She told you she was going to the gynecologist?”
“No. She said she had a
pointment, but Bethany said she was getting a baby from a dynocologist ʼcause she needed to get fertilizer for her eggs.” Bethany Sherwood was a precocious five-year-old who, in Tj’s opinion, was a bit too informed for her age. “Dance is going to be on lasterday.”
Lasterday isn’t a word,” corrected red-haired, green-eyed Ashley as she returned from the window. “Dance class has been rescheduled to tomorrow. Can we go in now?” she asked impatiently. “The place is packed. All the good stuff will be gone.”
“There’s plenty of good stuff.
” Tj grabbed each of her sisters’ hands and opened the front door to deafening noise as excited children ran up and down crowded aisles in search of the perfect costume. Picking up a bright orange hand basket, she pushed her way into the throng.
“Mom said that last year when I wanted to be Hannah Montana and I had to be Strawberry Shortcake,” Ashley complained
. “Do you know how many seven-year-olds went trick-or-treating as Strawberry Shortcake? One,” Ashley continued without waiting for Tj to answer. “My social life was totally ruined.”
“What social life?” Tj teased
. “You were seven.”
Ashley sighed loudly and rolled her eyes, but Tj noticed a teary glaze to which her independent sister would never admit
. While Gracie would curl up in her lap and cry herself to sleep if she was feeling sad, Ashley hid her feelings behind a mask of mature indifference that Tj had rarely been able to crack. Tj paused and reconsidered her hurried approach to the errand. In spite of her best intentions, she’d made so many mistakes with Ashley in the three months since she’d become her legal guardian.
“You’re right,” Tj apologized, blue eyes locking with pale green ones
. “I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to bring you earlier in the month. I’m sure there will be plenty of good stuff, but if there’s not, we’ll try another store.”
“Okay,” Ashley conceded, turning to wipe away a tear before anyone noticed.
“How about witches?” Tj suggested as she tried to lighten the mood by holding a mask with a huge wart on the nose in front of her face.
Ashley placed a crown from a nearby table on her head
. “I want to be a princess.”
“I want to be Belle,” Gracie insisted
“Belle’s too provincial,” replied Ashley
. “I want to be Jasmine.”
Tj watched as her intellectually advanced but socially awkward sister skipped down the aisle toward a table overflowing with dresses and accessories of all colors and sizes. Hurrying to catch up, she pulled a blue dress from the pile. “This looks like your size.”
“That’s Sleeping Beauty,” Ashley complained
. “I really want to be Jasmine.”
“Okay.” Tj set her purse on the floor and dug through the disorganized pile of costumes throngs of shoppers had tried on and discarded
. At one point, Tj figured, the delicate outfits, which the sign on the wall promised came with dress, crown, and plastic shoes, had been neatly packaged and organized by princess and size. Today, however, the clothes were piled onto a table in total disarray. “How about this?” She held up a dress and a pair of shoes in front of Gracie.
“Shoes are right, but that’s Cinderella’s dress,” Gracie whined
. “I want to be Belle.”
Wasn’t one princess the same as any other
? Fancy dress, high-heeled slippers, and sparkly crown? Tj set down the pair of shoes on the floor next to her purse, texted an SOS to her best friend, Jenna Elston, and waited for a reply. Tj attributed her lack of knowledge of anything princess to the fact that her mother had deserted her when she was only three years old, subjecting her to an upbringing in an all-male household. Tj conveniently blamed her mom’s desertion on most, if not all, her feminine deficiencies, which, if she were honest with herself, were probably more genetic than environmental. Most days Tj wore her tomboyishness as a sort of a badge of honor. She could outhike, outski, and outrun most of the men in town of a comparable age. But today, waist deep in princess dresses, she really could use Jenna’s help.
Tj’s phone beeped when Jenna texted back: yellow dress, dark hair, B & B.
“B and B?” Tj said out loud.
Beauty and the Beast
,” Gracie informed her as she tossed a bag of Snickers into their basket.
Tj didn’t know how she would have managed when her mother and her third husband died in a car accident three months
earlier, leaving Tj as guardian for two half-sisters she barely knew if it weren’t for Jenna and her unwavering support. It helped that Jenna had two young daughters about the same age as her sisters. Unfortunately Tj’d had to call on Jenna during the past few months more often than she cared to confess.
“Excuse me.” Tj turned and grabbed the upper arm of the high-school
‒aged clerk. “I’m looking for a Belle costume.”
“There’s more Disney stuff at the end of aisle twelve.”
“Thanks.” Tj grabbed Gracie’s hand and turned to change direction.
“Do you have Jasmine costumes?
” Ashley asked before the clerk could walk away.
“I think we’re out of Jasmine, but we have a few Snow Whites left.
“Snow White is for babies
. I want to be Jasmine,” Ashley insisted.
“Sorry. You should have come in earlier
. Just a week until Halloween, you know.”
Ashley put her hands on her hips and shot Tj a glance that said
I told you so
“Besides,” the clerk added, “you really should be Ariel
. Ariel has beautiful red hair like you. I think I might have a costume that will fit you in the back.”
“Yeah, I’ll check
. Just wait right here.”
“He said I was beautiful,” Ashley gushed as the clerk went in search of the costume
. “He said I looked
“You do honey, you do.”
“What about Belle?” Gracie started to dance around in that special I-gotta-go way.
“As soon as the clerk gets back with Ashley’s costume.”
Tj watched as a woman with a crying infant strapped to her chest, a toddler in her arms, and a preschooler on each side, schlepped an armload of princess separates up to the mile-long line at the checkout stand. Tj loved Halloween, but sometimes she wondered what had happened to homemade costumes like the ones she’d worn as a child. Toss a sheet over your head, cut out a couple of eyeholes, and you were good to go. No wading through piles of dresses or spending a month’s mad money on an outfit the girls would wear only once.
“Here we go.” The clerk had returned from the storage room
. “An Ariel costume for my redheaded princess and a Belle costume for my dark-haired princess.” Both girls screamed in delight as the clerk handed them complete unopened sets of the princesses of their choice. Dress, shoes, crown, all matching, in exactly the right size.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Thanks, but I’ll just take the princess costumes for now.” Tj grabbed Gracie’s hand and headed toward the long line that awaited her at the checkout stand.