‘Ohhh, Kate, this is just too perfect,’ antique shop owner Clare Twohig cooed, trundling her bag along the gravel path between forty-foot-high balsams and through the door of the massive log cabin. ‘This place just oozes charm. And inspiration.’
‘I think you’ll find’ – Sarah Kingston swiped her finger on one of the logs and peered at it – ‘that what Payne Lodge is oozing is sap.’
Sarah and I owned Uncommon Grounds, a coffee house in Brookhills, Wisconsin, roughly six and a half hours southeast of where we now stood. Payne Lodge was ‘Up North,’ as we Wisconsinites put it, almost to the tip of the ring finger of our mitten-shaped state and nearly touching Lake Superior. I hadn’t been this far north since I was a kid and, from what I recalled of that visit, northern Wisconsin hadn’t changed much. It was . . . woodsy. And animally. And – I slapped at my leg – buggy.
You might say I’m not an outdoorsy person.
‘Property backs onto 860,000 acres of national forest,’ Kate McNamara was saying as she came up behind me. ‘When Lita told me her grandparents had left her the lodge and she wasn’t sure what to do with it, I knew it could be just what the Brookhills Writers’ Club – hell, any writer or artist – needs. A retreat – a creative workspace away from the distractions of everyday life.’
Kate McNamara was the editor of our weekly newspaper, the Brookhills Observer, and president of the Brookhills Writers’ Club. From what I could gather, her friend Lita had given her a great deal on the lodge for the weekend. Which explained why the writers were retreating all the way up here, rather than to a nice bed and breakfast in our own little town of Brookhills or even a conference facility in Milwaukee, just fifteen miles to our east, or Madison, sixty miles to our west.
It’s not like we didn’t have ‘creative workspaces.’ They just weren’t plunked down in the middle of the woods. Which, honestly, was exactly how I felt right now.
Something unseen rustled through the underbrush by my feet and I backed away from the door, nearly colliding with Kate, who pushed around me with an exasperated sigh. I was sure she also rolled her eyes, but I was too busy dodging the fir-tree branches she sent snapping back at me in her wake.
‘Well, let’s just hope bears and wolves are conducive to creativity,’ I grumbled, trying to center my red wheelie bag on the gravel walkway so as not to disturb whatever deadly fauna might be lurking in the likely poisonous flora.
‘I would hate to get mauled for nothing.’
‘Stop being a drama queen, Maggy,’ Kate said, turning. ‘The most dangerous animal up here is the mosquito.’
Somebody had been reading the Middle-of-Nowhere Chamber of Commerce’s hype, apparently. Me, I had opted for a deep dive into the black hole of the Internet before embarking on this trip. ‘That’s because they carry Lyme disease,’ I retorted. ‘It doesn’t mean there aren’t vicious—’
‘You’re both half right.’ Clare liked to keep the peace, her sweet vintage glass eternally half-full.
Mine on the other hand, remained half-empty. At least today. ‘How is that?’
She smiled. ‘It’s deer – or deer ticks, to be precise – that carry Lyme disease, which would probably make the tick the most dangerous animal in Wisconsin.’
‘Ticks.’ I ducked away from the overhanging branches and ran my hand through my hair, searching for the ugly little bloodsuckers. ‘I think I would prefer bears.’
At least with bears you had the whole ‘don’t have to outrun the bear you just have to outrun the guy with you’ thing. And with us, we not only had a couple of senior citizens but also Kate who, despite the black leggings and white dry-fit T-shirt, I didn’t fancy as a runner.
Kate picked up on the theme. ‘You might want to have your roommate do a tick check before bed, Maggy.’ She grinned. ‘Just in case.’
Roommate? Would this hell never end? ‘We don’t have our own—’
Kate interrupted before I could get my question out. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Maggy. I know you’re not a participant in the workshop, but please try to get into the spirit of the weekend.’
‘Yeah, Maggy.’ My partner, of course, had to give us her two cents’ worth. ‘The whole idea is for us to get out of our comfort zones, per se.’
‘I am definitely that,’ I said, pulling a twig from the handle of my suitcase.
‘Per se or not.’
‘Case in point,’ Kate said, gesturing at my now dirt-smudged wheelie. ‘You brought a roller bag to the woods, when there’s nothing really to roll it on.’
‘But I say good for you, Maggy,’ Sarah chimed in again. ‘This is how we learn.’
I wasn’t sure if she was trying to help in her own perverted way, or simply piling on. I was leaning toward piling on.
Kate was surveying me. ‘Lesson one. If you’re so afraid of a little mosquito or big, bad tick – oh, and don’t forget poison oak and ivy – then wearing short-shorts up here wasn’t your best . . .’ she grimaced, ‘. . . fashion choice.’
‘They’re not short-shorts,’ I snapped, willing myself not to pull down the crotch of my blue shorts. They admittedly had been a little shorter than I remembered when I pulled them on this morning. Tighter, too, making the long van ride up uncomfortable enough without Kate rubbing it in, too. ‘Since it’s unseasonably warm for September, I—’
‘Whatever, Maggy.’ Kate flapped her hand, dismissing me and my shorts as she turned away. ‘But you are in your forties now.’
Yes, but not exactly dead yet. And I would damn well wear what I wanted to wear, including shorts. Even if they crawled up my butt.
I scrunched sideways and gave them a discreet tug.
‘Lift your leg much?’ Sarah’s voice was in my ear.
‘What is your and Kate’s fixation with my legs all of a sudden?’
‘They are very, very white.’ She stepped back to take in the entirety of me.
‘It’s kind of hard to look away.’
I stared her down.
Sarah rolled her eyes. ‘I was speaking figuratively, and you know it. I go to the trouble of arranging this gig – with all its possibilities – and all you can do is lift your leg on it.’
As the proud owner of Frank, male sheepdog, and Mocha, dominant female chihuahua who lifted her own leg on everything Frank marked, I understood the concept. ‘Fair enough, but this “gig” is for Tien and me.’
Tien Romano provided the food and baked goods at our shop and had agreed to do the same at Payne Lodge this weekend, thank God. As pretty much anybody who knew me would attest, I could brew coffee, but cooking was not my thing.
And ordering out didn’t appear to be an option up here.
‘But not to worry,’ I continued, ‘you just go ahead and write your little stories with the rest of the kids, and we’ll work.’
‘Please,’ Sarah said. ‘My stories will not be “little.” They will be tremendous works of great literary worth.’ Unable to keep a straight face, she let out a chortle that turned into a cough.
As I pounded my partner’s back, Clare glanced back uncertainly at us.
I gave a little wave to assure Clare that no one was choking to death – yet – and she turned her attention back to Kate, who she had been chatting with. Or at least listening to.
Sarah had gotten her breath back and was talking again. ‘There’s nothing to say you can’t participate in the workshops. Or at least some of them.’ She snuck a look at Kate. ‘If it’s all right with Kate, when you’re not working.’
‘Are you afraid of her?’ I was a little surprised. Sarah wasn’t afraid of much.
‘Her bark is—’
‘Her bark is plenty bad,’ Sarah interrupted again, lowering her voice. ‘She’s quite capable of tearing anybody in town to shreds with it. Take Harold Byerly.
He blames her for his being forced into early retirement and he’s probably right.’
Kate’s editorials in the Observer had been less than forgiving when County Worker Harold left his snowplow for a bathroom break and said plow went rogue.
‘But that’s what I don’t get – why is Harold here? And Gloria, too. The Observer’s coverage wasn’t exactly sensitive when her husband was killed in that hunting accident.’
Gloria Goddard and her late husband’s pharmacy had shared the same strip mall as Uncommon Grounds until we moved to the train depot.
‘You think?’ Sarah asked. ‘Kate insinuated Hank was drunk and not where he should have been.’
‘Which may have been the case,’ I pointed out. ‘Deer hunting and alcohol are not mutually exclusive up here.’
‘Which is what Kate’s editorial was campaigning against,’ Sarah said. ‘And I don’t disagree that drunks toting rifles in the woods is a bad idea. It was just that she used Hank as an illustration. It didn’t go down well in the community.’
‘People loved Goddard’s Pharmacy and Hank and Gloria,’ I said. ‘And so, I ask again, why would Harold and Gloria want to come this weekend? I doubt it’s because Kate asked them nicely.’
‘People think twice before saying no to Kate,’ Sarah said. ‘They’re afraid of her.’
I would say ‘not me,’ but I was nearly four hundred miles north of where I wanted to be, so I couldn’t talk.
‘But I’m thinking Harold is here because he’s bored,’ Sarah continued. ‘He just moved into Brookhills Manor, and I’m not sure senior living is what he thought it might be.’
‘She’s fully recovered from her stroke, so she’s been stepping out lately, I hear.’ Sarah’s expression told me she was leaving something unsaid.
‘Are you insinuating there’s something going on between the two of them?’ I asked, glancing back toward the van where the rest of our party, including Harold and Gloria, were sorting out their luggage.
Brookhills Writers had moved their monthly meeting to our coffee shop about six months ago, having outgrown the cramped conference room in the Observer’s offices. And Harold Byerly had even more recently joined the group, always choosing to sit in the chair next to Gloria, if it was available. ‘And now she’s saving it for him,’ I mused aloud.
‘Her virginity, you mean?’ Sarah’s face was screwed up. ‘I think that maiden voyage sailed years ago. Or at least I hope it has. Gloria and Hank were married for like four decades. That’s a long time not to have sexual—’
‘No, not her virginity,’ I said irritably. ‘Gloria saves a chair at the writers meetings for Harold.’
‘Probably prefers sitting next to him rather than a poet or memoirist.’ Sarah grimaced. ‘They tend to be either too introspective or too self-involved.’
Sounded like the perfect person to sit next to. Maybe they wouldn’t talk.
‘That’s not the same thing?’
‘No way. The former thinks you’ll be interested in how they feel, the latter in what they’ve achieved.’
‘And they’re both wrong?’
‘If they’re sitting next to me, they are,’ she said. ‘Which is why I sit on Gloria’s other side.’
Three writers sat at each of our tables, so that kept them all safe from their comrades apparently. ‘But back to my question: are Gloria and Harold dating?’
‘And why shouldn’t they?’ Sarah asked. ‘Harold is maybe ten years younger than Gloria, but women outlive men by five years anyway, so this just evens the odds a bit.’
There was a perverse logic in that. ‘Is that why they’re here then? A rendezvous away from the prying eyes of the rest of Brookhills Manor?’ The senior living facility was just a block away from our coffee shop and provided some of our best customers, at least as long as they remained upright.
‘No secret is safe there,’ Sarah agreed.
‘I’m actually surprised more people from the writers’ group aren’t here.’ Attendance at the meetings usually hovered between fifteen and twenty, about a quarter of them seniors from Brookhills Manor. ‘Kate being your fearless leader and all.’
‘This weekend was by invitation only. Kate’s invitation, naturally, for members who want to write crime novels or short stories.’
‘Which is Harold, Gloria and Clare?’
‘And me,’ Sarah reminded me. ‘It’s kind of an honor. Kate is the only published author among us and she wanted us at this inaugural retreat.’
‘Published author,’ I muttered. ‘She publishes herself in her own newspaper.’
‘You know full well that she wrote for television before that. Even you can’t dispute she’s a good writer.’
But I could dispute she was a good human being.
‘Face it, Maggy,’ Sarah continued, ‘Kate is what passes for a bigshot in our little town of Brookhills. Better to be on her good side, rather than her bad.’
‘I didn’t know she had a good side,’ I muttered, having been stabbed in the back by Kate on more than one occasion.
The most memorable pre-dated both Uncommon Grounds and my friendship with Sarah. I was working in public relations at First National, which put on the annual Fourth of July fireworks. An hour before the show was slated to start, a severe thunderstorm rolled in, causing me to cancel the show and send a quarter of a million people running for cover. Kate was the news producer at a local television station but had taken it upon herself to interview me on live television. Her take was that I had done something wrong – neglected to throw a virgin into a volcano to appease the weather gods, I guess. Anyway, as she pelted me with questions – why did I cancel the show or, alternatively, why didn’t I cancel it earlier and on and on – I finally pointed out that I had been in consultation with her station’s own meteorologist when making those very decisions.
That pretty much shut her up and ended the interview, but neither of us had forgotten the encounter.
‘Please don’t screw this up by being pissy because you and Kate have history,’ Sarah pleaded. ‘And she’s not all bad. She helped us catch the killer at that barista competition a couple years ago, remember?’
‘It was three years ago and her film crew taped us catching the killer,’ I said dryly. ‘Jerome actually had the camera and Kate just scurried after him.’
Jerome Vickers was an intern camera operator at the time. He’d subsequently followed Kate to the Observer as a news photographer.
‘You’ve got to relax, Maggy,’ Sarah said. ‘You might even find yourself enjoying a weekend devoted to crime-writing. With all the bodies you’ve stumbled over in the last few years, you would be a natural.’
‘Corpses do seem to throw themselves at my feet.’ I think I blushed. ‘But all my writing has been news releases and corporate reports. And not even that since I quit public relations and opened the coffeehouse.’
‘That’s more professional writing experience than the rest of us have.’ Sarah was trying to flatter me. ‘And you’ve been exposed to the dark side. Kate says in order to write a believable villain you have to get into his or her head and you—’
‘Can’t fathom what kind of anger it takes to actually kill somebody,’ I said bluntly. ‘And I don’t want to.’
‘But it’s a process, like method acting. You know how you feel when you say good morning to somebody all cheery-like and they don’t say it back?’
‘Yes. Like I want to kill them, but figuratively.’ Which admittedly made me then question my motives and whether I truly cared if they had a good morning.
‘Right.’ Sarah seemed delighted I was buying into this. ‘You just need to channel that feeling.’
‘But I would never actually kill anybody,’ I said. ‘In fact, I smile pleasantly and take their order. I mean, when they finally decide to acknowledge my existence and place it.’
‘That’s it.’ She gave a malevolent grin and draped an arm around my shoulder.
‘But when you’re writing, you build on that snarkiness. Amplify. Exaggerate. Delve into the darkest reaches of your mind.’
My darkest reaches told me there was a rat lurking there. ‘What is it you really want out of this weekend, Sarah? I mean other than Tien and me doing the food service and leaving you to suck up to Kate and enjoy your conference.’
She withdrew her arm, feigning she was wounded. ‘Ouch, that’s not fair. I’m happy to help. I’ll even do breakfast on Sunday.’
Which probably would consist of a granola bar handed to us as we boarded the van for our drive home. ‘It’s five-thirtyish on Friday evening, so that’s not a huge help right now.’
‘But there are workshops tonight and all day tomorrow,’ Sarah said. ‘I don’t know what my schedule will be, but I’m happy to pitch in if I have the free time.’
Big of her. ‘I can’t believe this place doesn’t have its own caterer. Didn’t you say it’s a conference center? At the very least they need basic food service, not to mention some very basic maintenance. Is this mold?’
In addition to the sap, I had detected black stains on the logs of the lodge.
‘I told you it’s going to be a conference center.’ Sarah glanced toward both the lobby where Kate stood and the van behind us, presumably to make sure we couldn’t be overheard. ‘And retreat. Kate’s friend Lita inherited the place from her grandparents. It was vacant for a couple of years as the estate went through probate, but now Lita is planning on renovating it. The plan is for Kate to partner with her to turn it into a retreat and convention center. It could be a very lucrative investment.’
‘For whom? I sure don’t have money to invest in anything but Uncommon Grounds, do you?’
‘Not unless the feds find a pot of money Kip Fargo squirreled away.’
When Sarah sold Kingston Realty to kick in with me at Uncommon Grounds, she’d invested the proceeds with Fargo. Unfortunately, Sarah’s money turned up missing – along with that of a dozen other investors in Brookhills – when Fargo died under mysterious circumstances about a year ago.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ashamed to have brought it up. Sarah had every right to dream of investing in something greater than our next espresso machine. Even if she didn’t have the money. ‘What kind of staff is there up here?’
‘Just a caretaker for now, but obviously it’ll be expanded when the project goes forward,’ Sarah said, warming to her subject. ‘The weekend is to see how the facility works as a retreat and how much staff they’ll actually need, plus what functional and code changes will have to be made to the building.’
It occurred to me that Sarah’s vast knowledge of real estate could bring something other than cash to the project.
I sniffed, getting mostly woodsy smells with a side of mold and mildew. ‘Had Kate seen this place before today?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘It’s going to be expensive,’ I said. ‘Not that I have to tell you that.’
‘No, but Lita has money. Inherited, I think, like the lodge. Apparently she’s always on the lookout for good investments. Owns a number of commercial properties.’
I looked at her.
‘I’ve never met the woman, but I hear things.’ Sarah did have her finger on the pulse of the community. Plus, she was an eavesdropper extraordinaire. It astonished me how openly people talk while sipping a latte or cappuccino at our shop. And there was Sarah behind the counter, listening.
‘How do Lita and Kate know each other?’ I asked, confident she’d know.
‘I heard her tell Jerome that they went to school together.’
See? ‘Jerome was at the shop? When? I haven’t seen him for months.’
‘He came by at the end of our writers’ group on Tuesday night to talk to Kate about this weekend. You should have stuck around.’
‘Our’ writers’ group. Once I realized Sarah was ‘sticking around’ for the full ninety minutes of writers’ group each month, I put her on the schedule to close the shop those nights, freeing me up to go home. I hadn’t realized, though, that Sarah had gotten so invested in the group. And, seemingly by extension, this writers’ retreat.
‘So Kate has invited a select few of the writers up here, along with Tien to do the cooking and me to act as sous chef and barista, as guinea pigs?’
‘You must get in the mood, Maggy. This is a crime writer’s weekend.’ Sarah waggled her eyebrows. ‘You’re more like . . . victims.’