I plan on entering this in an upcoming contest and would love some feedback. It's 27 pages, double-spaced and shouldn't take very long. I would love some pointers! Originally, it was written in Ariel's first person, POV, but I switched it and now have three POV characters, so please be on the look out for incorrect pronouns. THANKS IN ADVANCE!
The Drop of a Hat
I crept through the dark forest, mindful of every snapping twig beneath my feet. If someone should apprehend me, I had a list of reasons for my loitering in the woods outside the main house. All of them lies.
A pair of French doors opened onto a deck from the master bedroom. I stole up the stairs so I could peek in the window and watch Doris prepare for bed. A cool breeze blew through the room, ruffled the curtains, and carried Doris’s voice and lavender scented face cream.
Her beauty, long faded, had shrunk like her frail frame, but she still held her bony shoulders as straight as hangers and moved with the grace of the ballerina she’d once been.
“Oh, my love, thank you,” Doris said when she spotted a single red rose and a chocolate candy lying on her pillow. She hummed a tune—a favorite about true love. She knew little of true love or devotion. Doris was as sentimental as the Hallmark station but as clueless to real human emotions as a Barbie doll. My stomach clenched as she picked up the rose and placed it in the glass of water holding her dentures. Pulling back the covers of her bed, she slid between the sheets, slipped the chocolate into her mouth, and switched off the light.
I glanced at my watch knowing that convulsions should start in one, two, three…wait. Was she snoring?
Frustration mounted as I waited. My breath curled in front of me like smoke and fogged up the window. But Doris, ever oblivious, slept. Her snores mocked me. Clenching my fists, I stood rooted to my hiding place on the deck waiting for death that refused to appear.
Put your back into your work, apply some spit and shine, conjure up some elbow grease…A combination of physical exertion, endurance, and mental dedication to a menial task is good for the soul…not to mention the maintenance of a smooth running inn.
At least this is what Ariel told herself.
The sun was warm, the breeze blowing in off the ocean cool, the sound of children’s laughter floating in from the beach heavenly. Ariel had every reason to be happy as she wielded her broom. Of course, because she preferred being on the patio than vacuuming, mopping, cleaning toilets, or spritzing mirrors…she typically saved the patio for the last of her chores. The cherry on top.
The Hemingway Home was one of the Writer’s Away Inn most luxurious suites. It had windows on three sides and two balconies—one overlooking the beach and the other the pool. Each room in the inn was named after a famous author. Ariel’s found her work here fortuitous—not only because the inn happened to belong to her Aunt Victoria, but also because she had literary ambitions of her own. Because of yesterday’s rain, water mixed with sand and dust had pooled on the balcony. She swept the sludge over the edge.
“Hey!” A man shouted from below.
Horror swept over her. What had she done? What to do now? She considered slinking back into the suite, but honesty pushed her to the ledge.
A wet man glared at her. With his hair slicked back, he looked like an angry Antonio Banderas—a little like Zorro right before he wielded his sword at Don Rafael Montero. It didn’t take a Ph.D. to know what had happened. He slapped at his arms and chest, brushing himself off.
“Sorry!” Ariel called out.
His lips twisted in a sneer. “Get a dustpan,” he grumbled, “and a clue.”
Ariel gave him what she hoped he would see as a friendly and apologetic wave and slunk back into the suite, wishing that she’d done just that in the first place. Not that she wanted one of the other maids to take the blame, but if he hadn’t seen her face she wouldn’t have to duck every time they crossed paths. Although she couldn’t regret seeing his face, because even angry, it was really lovely. She tried to imagine him without a frown.
Ariel peeked over the ledge for another glance. The man had moved to a chair on the opposite edge of the pool and lounged with a novel in hand. She wished she could read the cover and wondered if he could be one of those rare combinations of beauty and brains.
Like Andrew. Her boyfriend and soon to be husband.
Ariel slipped back into the suite and closed the literal patio door and the figurative door on her disloyal thoughts. To distract herself, she did some mental math. The three hour time difference between New York and Shell Falls would put Andrew on the stock exchange floor. She itched to call him and tell him of her sweeping mistake. She wanted to hear him laugh and tell her it wasn’t a big deal. Everyone does stupid stuff sometimes. Besides, it didn’t really matter. In a few months, they’d be married. And shortly after that, Ariel would start her job at the music academy, and she’d never have to sweep a balcony again unless she wanted to.
These happy feelings carried Ariel to the service closet where she hung up the broom and took off her apron.
Later in the early evening, Victoria met Ariel in the foyer and swept her gaze over Ariel. Victoria flinched when she spotted Ariel’s practical shoes. “Can’t you put on some heels?” she asked in a hushed whisper.
Ariel had two jobs at the inn—housekeeping and piano playing—and they each required a very different sort of uniform. No one cared how she dressed while she mucked out the rooms, but when she played in the dining room, Aunt Victoria liked her to look her best. She typically wore a black cocktail dress, lacy hose, and low-heeled black shoes. She had tried to explain to her aunt she needed a comfy pair of shoes to work the suspension pedal, but Victoria liked to her to be as beautiful as the surroundings. This was a tall order since the dining room had massive floor to ceiling windows and a sweeping view of the ocean.
Tonight, Victoria seemed more on edge than normal. “Miss Mabel McKnight and her cohorts are here.”
Ariel’s pulse quickened. Miss Mabel, Shell Falls very own Jessica Fletcher, lived in a mansion at the edge of town. She’d written more than eighty mystery novels, and was the local reclusive celebrity.
“They say it’s been years since she’s been out in public,” Aunt Victoria said. “And she’s here!”
Ariel glanced over her aunt’s shoulder and caught sight of a tiny figure sitting at a table with a cluster of well-dressed and expertly groomed elderly women. She recognized her from the picture on the back of her book jackets. Ariel’s breath caught when she spotted the Zorro look-a-like sitting beside her.
Aunt Victoria squeezed Ariel’s hand. “Play Vivaldi,” she whispered.
Ariel smiled back and tried to look more confident than she felt. Even though she’d been playing at weddings and other events since she was thirteen, had a Ph.D. in music therapy, had graduated with honors, and had an amazing job lined up for the fall, she still suffered with imposter syndrome and stage fright.
She didn’t question her musical abilities.
But she seriously doubted her ability to face the man sitting beside Miss Mabel McKnight.
Ariel told herself he wouldn’t recognize her. Very few people expected the maid to also be a concert pianist. She crossed the dining room, lifted the piano lid, settled on the bench, and launched into Vivaldi’s.
The dying sun cast the room in an amber glow. The spring equinox was just weeks away already the days were melding into a continuous round of sun, sand, and warmth. Within minutes, she lost herself in her music. Her fingers touched the keyboard, but her thoughts flew to New York. And Andrew.
“You’re really playing.”
Ariel glanced up at the Zorro standing behind the piano, his gaze on the keyboard and her fingers.
“I thought this might be a Disklavier or something.” His warm brown eyes met hers. Up close, he was even better looking than she’d thought.
“You didn’t think the maid could also play the piano?” she shot back.
Immediately, Ariel regretted her words when his eyes widened. Disbelief faded into recognition. Humor followed.
“You’re the girl who dumped water on Brandt?” A voice brittle with age asked.
Ariel’s fingers faltered as she twisted to look over her shoulder at Miss Mabel. She was older and smaller than she would have guessed from her pictures. Although her eyes were swimmy with age, they were still intense and inquisitive. In her younger days, she’d been an Audrey Hepburn beauty—petite, dark-haired, pale but pink-cheeked, large brown eyes. My dad had once said Miss Mabel was like a poodle with razor-sharp incisors. Her deceptively dainty demeanor made her dangerous. Her intellect made her lethal.
“It wasn’t exactly a dumping,” Ariel spoke without missing a beat, a skill she’d developed from years of practice.
“I wouldn’t be critical if that’s exactly what happened,” Miss Mabel said.
“That is exactly what happened,” the man muttered.
“Brandt could use a good dumping,” Miss Mabel said.
“Then I did you a favor.” Ariel wondered how the two were related. Did he work for her? “You’re welcome.”
She felt the man stiffen while Miss Mabel chuckled.
“What’s your name?” Miss Mabel asked.
“And you know who I am?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?” But she didn’t know who the man beside her was and the mystery was killing her. He wasn’t her son. Long ago, Celeste had once pointed out Miss Mabel’s only son, Douglas McNight. He’d been middle-aged then, a David Hasselhoff wannabe lurking on the beach and chatting up teenage girls. Rumor had it he’d been married a number of times, and Ariel had seen him tooling around town in his cobalt blue Maserati on numerous occasions. But even though she had lived in Shell Falls her entire life—aside from her years at Julliard—she had never seen Miss Mabel.
Miss Mabel’s laughter deepened. “I knew I’d like you. You remind me of my younger self.”
Ariel felt flattered the older woman had noted their resemblance. It was something people had been telling Ariel for years and Ariel capitalized on the likeness by wearing vintage clothes and her long hair tied back in a chignon. Now, Ariel gazed at her fangirl crush wondered if she would look like Miss Mabel in some sixty-odd years.
From across the room, Victoria sent Ariel a warning glance. Ariel took the hint and plunged into the sonata’s climactic finish. She felt slightly shaky by the time she lifted her fingers from the keyboard.
“Miss Guthrie, that was breathtaking!” Miss Mabel gushed.
Had they been introduced? Ariel couldn’t remember, but she twisted on the bench to get a better view of Miss Mabel and her Zorro-friend. “Thank you.”
“Are you busy next weekend?” Miss Mabel asked.
Ariel studied Miss Mabel, trying to read her. “Do you need a pianist?”
“No, a companion.” Her eyes sparkled as if she knew a humorous secret.
Ariel lifted her chin at the man beside her. “You don’t want to take him?”
“Brandt? Heavens no. He’s much too clever. I don’t want to work that hard.” She cocked her head and studied Ariel. “Do you?”
He did seem worth the effort, but a mental image of Andrew flashed in her mind and she lowered her gaze to hide her flushed cheeks.
“Good! It’s settled then. You’ll accompany me to Doris’s birthday bash. It’s next weekend in Lake Arrowhead. You’ll have your own suite, of course. Doris has this ridiculously mammoth lodge with plenty of rooms. We can take my car, but you’ll have to drive. You do drive, don’t you?”
“Me too,” she said. “But I’d rather not tackle the snow and the possibility of needed chains.
Beside her, Brandt grumbled, but Miss Mabel ignored him and patted Ariel’s shoulder. “Well, I need to get back to my friends. Why don’t you come by tomorrow and we can chat over lunch? Discuss the details—like your fee.” She winked. “I’m very generous and I’m sure you’ll find your compensation to be well worth your while.” She glanced back at her table of cohorts and flashed Ariel a smile. “My friends might be old, but I think you’ll find us entertaining.”
Miss Mabel moved away, but Brandt remained, hovering over Ariel. She stood, just to feel less intimidated by him, but it didn’t really help. He still had at least six inches to her five foot five. For the first time ever, she wished she’d listened to Aunt Victoria and worn her heels.
“I suppose I should thank you for taking her to Doris’s, but I will warn you—I have my hesitations.”
“My grandmother is…” He searched for a word
“Well, of course…that goes without saying. After all, she just picked you up off the street without knowing a thing about you.”
This made Ariel feel like one of those cute but obnoxious puppies one might find in a cardboard box in front of a grocery store wearing a large FREE sign. Maybe she shouldn’t have come across as so pathetic. I could have said something like, I’ll have to check my calendar, or let me see if I can rearrange my schedule. But the terrible truth was that since she’d moved here a few weeks ago, her calendar was as empty as an alcoholic’s whiskey bottle.
“It’s only a weekend,” she told him. “And it’s not as if I could persuade her to join a cult or invest in a shady business deal.”
He narrowed his eyes at her to tell her he disagreed.
“You what?” Rainy voice squeaked when Ariel told her about meeting Miss Mabel. “But when are we going shopping?”
“Not next weekend. You told me you had rehearsal.”
Rainy was suspiciously quiet.
“You do, don’t you?”
“Of course, I do.” Rainy’s pause was almost imperceptible.
Ariel leaned back against her bed and picked up a pencil and a scrap of paper. She doodled while Rainy went on about a new guy she’d met. He was in a band—played the drums—and sounded exactly like the last guy she’d dated. Frankel something. Rainy must have noticed Ariel’s less than enthusiastic response because she shifted the conversation back to shopping—something they both agreed on.
“Technically, I’m not engaged,” Ariel reminded her sister.
“But isn’t that the whole reason you’re here? To save money and plan the wedding?” Rainy emphasized the word wedding in her Hollywood voice.
“Well, yes, but…you know it won’t be official until Andrew talks to Dad.”
“Ugh. That’s so last century!”
Because she was sick of defending Andrew to Rainy, Ariel said, “I’ll have more money after my weekend with Miss Mabel.”
Rainy let out a happy squeal. “How much more?”
“I’m not sure, but she said it would be worth my while.”
“Do you know who would be worth your while? Her grandson.”
“She has a grandson? Is his name Brandt and does he look like Zoro?”
“Brandt? No, I thought his name was Zach.” The sound of clicking computer keys sounded over the phone. “Oh, he’s cute, too.”
“You googled her grandsons?”
“Yep. She has two, but oddly enough, they’re not brothers. Brandt—who you’ve met, and Zach, who I’ve met. There’s one for each of us!”
“I thought you were in love with…” Ariel searched her memory for Rainy’s latest’s name.
“Marcus? Oh, I am,” she said in a sad voice.
Ariel’s phone buzzed with an incoming call. Her heart sped when Andrew’s picture flashed on the screen.
“I have to go,” she told Rainy. “Andrew’s calling.”
“Oh, Andy…” Rainy said in a singsong tone.
Ariel didn’t have to see her sister to know Rainy was making the face she always wore whenever they talked about Andrew.
“Love you,” Arial said, ending the call. She immediately responded to Andrew but saw he’d hung up. She shot him a text.
Ariel: WHERE’D YOU GO?
Andrew: CAN’T TALK. JUST WANTED TO TOUCH BASE BEFORE GOING OUT.
Going out? It was ten here, making it nearly one a.m. there.
Andrew: CALEB GOT US INTO CLUB 99.
He answered her unasked question.
Ariel didn’t like Caleb—one of Andrew’s co-workers. He worked hard but partied harder. She considered him a Wall Street wolf—a cliché of the money driven, woman hungry, and status seeking. But Andrew, for whatever reason, liked him.
Ariel: LOVE YOU.
He sent back on emoji of a heart.
Ariel dropped the phone in her lap and gazed at her doodling. She’d drawn a caricature of a boy in a band. Not knowing what to make of it, she crumbled up the paper and got ready for bed.
“Do you know what this is all about?” Zach asked as he took a chair opposite of Brandt.
“No.” He glanced at his watch. Zach was late, but not as late as his grandmother. None of this was a surprise. Mabel liked to make dramatic entrances. Zach, like Brandt, hated to waste time. Brandt sighed and looked at his watch again. The numbers remained unchanged. “She said it was important, but Dad’s not here.”
Zach’s eyebrow shot up. “Was he invited?”
“Why wouldn’t he be?”
Zach’s lips formed a straight, terse line.
“You’re wearing your lying face,” Brandt said.
“It’s called attorney–client privilege.”
“Hmm, we have something like that in my profession, too.”
“Okay, so we both have secrets.” Zach leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.
Brandt guessed Zach liked his secrets about as much as Brandt liked his.
Beatrix’s nails clicked as she pranced across the stone floor. Grandma Mabel followed closed behind.
Brandt stood and Zach slowly climbed to his feet. Mabel embraced first Brandt and then Zach before taking a chair across the table from them. Beatrix plopped down at her feet with a heavy sigh. Mabel stretched her bony arms across the table and held her hands open. Brandt and Zach both put their hands in theirs and Brandt hoped they weren’t about to hold a séance.
“Thank you for coming,” Mabel said. She wore a colorful caftan and her gray hair wrapped up in a turban. Her outlandish clothes were in sharp contrast to her serious expression. “I’m afraid I have some…news. And I have hinted at it to both of you, but I feel the time has come for me to get this off my chest.”
Brandt skated a glance at Zach. He still wore his lying face.
“You know all those murders I investigated?”
Zach and Brandt both nodded.
“I’m not sure. It’s so hard. My memories are hazy, but I think I may have been responsible for—”
“What?” Zach exploded.
“Impossible,” Brandt breathed.
“Why?” Mabel’s cornflower blue eyes went wide. “You haven’t even let me finish my sentence and yet you must have an idea of what I’m going to say. You know that in every case, the true victim was also a villain who deserved to die.”
“Grandma!” Zach stood and began to pace around the room. “I can’t listen to this.”
“He always was the weak one,” Mabel told Brandt.
Brandt squeezed her hand. “Tell me, why are you afraid you…are resp--” He choked on the word responsible.
“I didn’t kill them all, of course.”
Zach paused his pacing. “I hope you didn’t kill any of them!”
“Well, that’s just the thing, I can’t be sure.” Mabel squished her eyes shut. “I wish I could remember,” she wailed. “But it was all so long ago, and in every case, I would think—there, that one deserved to go. The earth is a better place without him.”
“But you solved the crimes,” Zach said. “You sent the real murderers to jail.”
“But did I?” Mabel asked him. “Or did I just rid society of another member who didn’t belong? You know every murder mystery is a morality tale. Not only did the victims deserve to die, but the villains also deserved their punishments.”
“Grandma,” Brandt said gently, “you haven’t told anyone else these…fears, have you?”
“Of course not.”
Zach shot Brandt a look. “You can have her tested for dementia and Alzheimer?”
Brandt nodded. “We can also run some neuropsychological tests, brain imaging.”
“All confidential, of course?”
“So, Grandma,” Zach settled back into his chair. “Exactly why are you telling us this?”
She sniffed. “I’m getting old. I don’t want to die and face all those murder victims unless I can be sure I’m not responsible.”
“Why would you think you are?” Zach asked again.
“Why would you ask again?” Brandt asked.
Zach glared at him. “I didn’t like the first answer. That’s one of the first principles of cross-examination—keep asking until you get the answer you want.”
“No one is cross-examining Grandma,” Brandt said.
“They will if she admits to eighty murders!” Zach exploded.
Beatrix raised her head and woofed a reprimand.
“I know I didn’t commit all of them.” Mabel blew out a sigh. “Just thinking of it makes me so exhausted.”
“This is ridiculous,” Zach said, angling away from them both. “I can’t even listen to this.”
“It’s not unusual for the elderly to confuse movies or books with memories,” Brandt told them both. “I’m pretty sure that this is what’s happening.”
“Really?” Mabel asked. “That would be such a relief.”
“But she’s not confusing anything else,” Zach said.
“Think about all she’s witnessed. All those deaths. It’s amazing she hasn’t displayed signs of PTSD long before this,” Brandt said.
“Please don’t talk about me as if I’m not here,” Mabel said.
“She seems perfectly sane. Or at least she did until today,” Zach said.
“Well, I did confuse the hemorrhoid cream with the toothpaste,” Mabel said.
“I’ll get the tests lined up,” Brandt said.
“Please do it quickly,” Mabel said. “I really don’t want to die and have to face all those nasty people in hell.”
Zach smirked. “You’re not going to hell.”
“I am if I committed all those murders!” Mabel said.
An eight-foot high stone wall separated Miss Mable’s Mediterranean estate from the rest of the world. When Ariel pulled her V.W. bug up to the ornate wrought iron gates, she wasn’t quite sure what to do until a screen embedded -n a stone pillar flashed to life. “State your name, please,” an electronic voice sounded.
The gates whirred open and Ariel rolled her car past the manicured lawn. Topiaries sculpted into giraffes, elephants, and dolphins lined the drive leading to the grand staircase and pillars flanking the massive wooden front doors. Not quite sure where to park, she pulled to the side of the house where her car wouldn’t look like such a beetle among silkworms.
Smoothing down her black blouse, she got out of the car and braced her shoulders. The opportunity to spend time with Miss Mabel was so amazing, Ariel would have taken the job even if there wasn’t compensation. Just the chance to chat with Miss Mabel and catch a glimpse of her brilliant mind at work would be worth her weekend. Ariel wanted her opinion on…just about everything.
Ariel sucked in a deep breath and hoped she wasn’t setting myself up for disappointment. She’d failed at hero-worship before. For years, she’d looked up to and emulated Kate Hatstring, the renowned pianist. Ariel had idolized her until they met one evening at a charity fundraiser. Miss Hatstring looked as beautiful in person as she did on the stage, but all her beauty faded the moment she began to speak. She was loud, brash, and opinionated. It didn’t help that Miss Hatstring’s political views contrasted with Ariel’s own and Hatstring threw out racial slurs like peanuts to elephants. Ariel had a hard time listening to the woman’s music after that.
But Miss Mabel wasn’t Kate Hatstring. At least Ariel hoped not, or else she’d never be able to read another Miss Mabel Mystery. Straightening her shoulders, she marched up the wide steps to the castle-worthy doors, lifted one of the giant lion-headed knocker and rapped.
A woman about Ariel’s mom’s age answered. She gazed at Ariel through horn-rimmed glasses. “You must be Arial,” she said in a husky voice and held the door open. “I’m Elaine Caldwell, Miss Mabel’s secretary.”
The house had a museum feel—hushed and beautiful with everything from the grandfather clock against the wall to the grand piano in the living room artfully arranged. Ariel’s fingers itched to try out the piano and she wondered if it was a Steinway. She secretly hoped she’d have a chance to at least look at it.
Elaine motioned for Ariel to follow her down the wide planked wood floors, past the living room and the gorgeous piano. Pastoral paintings lined the walls. Were they originals?
They paused at a pair of French doors.
“Today is a good day,” Elaine said, her voice held a warning. The unspoken message was don’t spoil it. Elaine’s hair color matched her skin tone. A beige person—Celeste’s term for the faded and nondescript. Elaine’s wheat colored button-down blouse, khaki slacks, and nude pumps didn’t help. Her only jewelry was a gold chain holding a cross.
“She has bad days?” Ariel asked.
“Frequently.” Elaine closed her hazel eyes as if shutting out unpleasant memories. She slowly opened them and met Ariel’s gaze. “You should also know I think your being here is a mistake.” She waved her hand as if she wished she could dismiss her. “I’ve called Zachery Benoist, her grandson and attorney. He’ll have you sign a confidentiality agreement. If you say one thing about Miss Mabel—even if it’s as benign as what she had for lunch—the family will sue.”
Her open hostility surprised and frightened Ariel until she realized that was Elaine’s intention. “You must love her very much,” Ariel said.
Elaine narrowed her eyes, studying Ariel as if she was an unrecognizable insect that needed to be squished. “I’ve been in Miss Mabel’s employ for thirty years.”
“You must have been quite young, then, when you started.” Ariel tried to flatter her.
Elaine made a grunting noise and pushed open the French doors. Miss Mabel sat at a wrought iron table in a patch of sunlight amid a glass-enclosed atrium. Flowers spilled from the planters lining the walls. Ferns sprouted from waist-high urns and Fichus trees groomed to look like giant lollypops flanked a stone fireplace.
A lazy poodle sitting on a rug beside Miss Mabel, lifted her head, looked Ariel over and let out a warning bark.
Miss Mabel smiled and patted the cushioned seat beside her. “Come here, dear.”
It was a relief when Elaine turned and strode from the room but she left the doors open, probably so she could eavesdrop on their conversation.
Ariel sat as instructed. The dog rose to sniff her over, deemed Ariel harmless, and flopped back onto his rug.
“This is my pretty Beatrix,” Miss Mabel said as she ran her fingers through the dog’s fur. “Say hello.”
“Huh, hello.” Ariel leaned down and offered her hand for the dog to sniff. Beatrix placed her paw on Ariel’s and gazed at her with watering eyes.
“Now, before we get down the nitty-gritty,” Miss Mabel said, “I want you to tell me about yourself.”
“What would you like to know?”
“Tell me about your sisters.”
Had she previously mentioned her sisters? “Celeste is the oldest. She’s married to a dentist and has three little boys.”
“I love little boys but I detest dentists!” Miss Mabel emphasized her words with a small shudder.
“Yes, well so do I in general, but I do love Robbie, my brother-in-law.”
“I mean, what would make a man wish to spend his life with his fingers inside someone’s mouth?”
“It could be worse. He could have chosen to be a proctologist.”
Miss Mabel barked a sharp, surprised laugh.
Elaine poked her head through the door. “Everything okay, Missy?”
Miss Mable wiped away a laughter tear and nodded.
After giving Ariel the stink-eye, Elaine went back into hiding mode.
Miss Mabel leaned forward and whispered. “She calls me Missy. I hate it. I don’t know why I put up with it.”
Ariel shot a glance over her shoulder fairly certain Elaine was listening and watching. “Just tell her you don’t like it.”
“How can I do that? She thinks of it has a term of endearment. It’d be like telling someone you despise their gift. It’s just not done. Besides, she prepares my meals, and she makes the gooiest chocolate cake.” She gave a happy sigh. “I’ll have to ask her to make us one for lunch. Oh, I hope it’s not too late.” Miss Mabel cleared her throat and raised her voice. “Elaine?”
As Ariel suspected, Elaine instantly poked her head around the door.
“Is it too late to prepare a chocolate cake for lunch?”
Elaine glowered at Ariel but said, “No.”
“Good. We’d like a chocolate cake for lunch.”
“But you specifically asked for the chicken Alfredo.”
“It’s just chocolate cake doesn’t go with Italian food.”
“Oh, phiff!” Miss Mabel slapped her hand on the table. “Says who?”
Elaine retreated with a grumble knowing she’d been banished from her eavesdrop perch and sent to the kitchen.
“Now, you were telling me about your sister, Celeste. Who is your other sister—Starlette?”
“No, Rainy—but very good. Not everyone picks up on the fact that my father is an astronomer and has a passion for anything heavenly.”
“Why not just call one of you Sky?”
“Rainy was actually something of a compromise. My maternal grandmother’s name was Lorraine, so technically Rainy is named after her.”
“And what if your mother had birthed a male?”
Miss Mabel laughed but stopped abruptly. Ariel looked over her shoulder to see what had caused the sudden shift in mood. A tall lean man in his late twenties or early thirties strode into the room. He had California surfer bleach blond hair and tawny skin, but his sharp inquisitive eyes told Ariel he lacked the surfer laidback attitude. Either that or Elaine had primed him to be on the alert.
“My grandson, Zachary. He’s here to make sure you don’t try and steal my fortune.” She winked at Ariel. “You wouldn’t do that, would you, my dear?”
“I wouldn’t even know how to start,” she said. The thought of pitting her wits against any of the people in the McKnight household terrified her.
Mrs. Mabel waved Zachary over and lifted her cheek. He obediently stooped to drop a kiss before taking the chair beside his grandmother.
“This is Arial Guthrie,” Miss Mabel told him. “She’s from a family of star-gazers. Although, I’m sure there’s more to learn about her, but we haven’t gotten very far. Let me tell you what I know. Arial is a gifted pianist and that’s why she wears flat shoes—suspension pedal—and keeps her nails short. She’s an obsessive personality—”
Ariel made an involuntary strangled noise.
“It’s not an insult, my dear. Being obsessive is an extremely valuable quality. It’s what enables you to dedicate so many hours to your practicing. I myself am also obsessive—it’s what makes me able to write my stories. Most people don’t realize anyone can come up with a story, but very few have the ability to sit alone for hours on end and type one out. You and I are alike because we have the tenacity to dedicate large chunks of time to our talents.” She cocked her head at Ariel. “Am I right?”
“I suppose. I’d never thought of it like that.”
“Hmm. I wonder why not.” She acted as if Arial was a puzzle she needed to complete. “You are involved in a long-term relationship.”
Ariel leaned away from her. “How in the world did you know that?”
“I have two very handsome grandsons and you’ve given them very little consideration.”
Ariel made a face at Zachary. “Sorry. It’s not you.”
He grinned back. “It’s okay. Both Brandt and I are used to Granny’s matchmaking.”
“And this misplaced devotion fits with your obsessive personality,” Miss Mabel continued.
“Misplaced devotion? I—”
Miss Mabel interrupted. “My dear, you are far too loyal. You aren’t one to do things halfway. That’s why it’s so frustrating to you that this relationship isn’t going anywhere.”
“What? That’s not true. We’re getting married.” Ariel sat up a little straighter and the chair squeaked from her shifting about.
“Are you engaged?” Miss Mabel pinned Ariel with a stare.
Ariel looked away and caught the grandson’s smirk. Heat rose in Ariel’s cheeks and she tried to tamp down her anger. “No, but that’s why I’m here in California. That’s why I left New York. I’m to find a venue, a dress, and all that.”
“Hmm…” Miss Mabel looked around. “I wonder how Elaine is coming along with the cake. I’ll just go and see. Excuse me, my dears.” She stood and shuffled from the room.
Ariel waited for a beat of silence before she blurted, “How did she know all that about me?”
“She’s clever,” Zachary said. “But I’m sure a lot of it was guesswork and speculation. You can’t let her play you.”
Ariel stared at him, debating on whether or not she should just leave.
Zachary must have read her thoughts because he plopped his briefcase down on the table, undid the locks, and pulled out a thick document.
“What’s this?” Ariel asked.
“A confidentiality agreement and your proposed salary.” He pointed at a number with a trail of zeros.
“For one weekend?” Ariel’s voice squeaked and visions of wedding cakes, bridesmaid dresses, and floral bouquets danced in her head. A voice of reason told her she should use the money to pay down her student loans, but she silenced that voice, plucked the pen from Zachary’s fingers, and asked, “Where do I sign?”
The next Friday, Ariel found Mabel in the eight-car garage surrounded by three suitcases, a bag of puppy chow, and a fluffy pink dog bed. Beatrix sat on her haunches among the collected luggage, a diamond-studded leash attached to her matching collar. Today, she wore a pink and green pastel argyle sweater and a matching ribbon for a headdress. She didn’t look very happy as if she was upset about her outfit and the upcoming trip.
“I’m dithering over which car to take,” Mabel told Ariel. “If it should snow, we’d definitely want to take the Rover for the four-wheel drive, but the Mercedes gets better gas mileage and it’s much more fun. I bought it when I was about your age.”
Ariel glanced at the silver Mercedes convertible. Despite its age, it sparkled even in the dim garage. Ariel itched to drive it, even though she could easily imagine Beatrix’s breath fanning her neck all the way up the mountain, and she wasn’t sure if the luggage and the dog bed would fit in the tiny trunk.
“It’s hard to believe it would snow,” she said, my gaze going out the window to the cloudless blue sky and bright sun.
“The weather in the San Bernardino Mountains can be fickle, and it is March, after all.” She eyed Ariel critically. “Do you know how to drive in the snow?”
She had lived in New York for eight years, but her East Coast travel had been limited to subways, taxis, and buses.
Miss Mabel didn’t wait for an answer but must have read Ariel’s facial expression. “The Rover it is, then.” She clicked a key fob and the Rover’s lights flashed and the horn sounded almost as if it were happy to be selected.
On the two-hour drive from Laguna to Lake Arrowhead, Mabel filled Ariel in on all things Doris. “Doris, like her name-sake Doris Day, had been a Hollywood beauty back in the sixties, but unlike the que sera sera Doris, she abandoned the screen in the seventies to raise her two boys. They’ll be there for their mother’s birthday this weekend. Geoff and Atticus—they were the cutest little things. Sadly, they grew up to be just like their dad, morose and broody.”
“What happened to their dad?” Ariel glanced at Mabel, but only caught sight of Beatrix’s curls. The dog had planted herself on the bench between them and sat upright, her attention fixed on the 91interstate traffic. The backseat couldn’t tempt her and she seemed indifferent to the cars driving past—even the ones with dog heads hanging out the windows didn’t seem to interest her.
“He disappeared eons ago. He went out fishing on the lake and never returned. Terrible tragedy. They found his boat, but never his body.”
“Goodness,” Ariel murmured.
While Mabel recounted the movies Doris had made, they crawled along the congested and smoggy freeways until they reached the base of the mountain. It still seemed hard to believe frigid temperatures waited for them in Lake Arrowhead. It wasn’t until they began the climb up the zig-zaggy roads that the drop in temperature became a reality and patches of snow hid beneath the shelter of pines.
When they reached the wooded town of Crestline, Miss Mabel fell so silent Ariel wondered if she’d fallen asleep.
“Melvin and I honeymooned here, you know,” she told Ariel.
Ariel bit back a laugh. She hadn’t known her husband’s name. Melvin and Mabel. It was too cute. “It’s beautiful,” she said.
“We stayed at the Lake Lodge. We hadn’t any money. Poor Melvin, he tried, but he just wasn’t cut out for the business world.”
“What did he do?”
“As little as possible,” she said with a sigh. “I was forced to take things into my own hands and started with my little mysteries. Of course, my success was terribly humiliating for Melvin. That’s why he left, you know. The bimbo he took up with really had very little to do with our divorce.” She fell quiet again. After a moment she added, “He died in the nineties. Dougie took it hard.”
They didn’t speak as Ariel steered the Rover through Blue Jay Village’s sleepy main street, past the movie theaters and restaurants. The GPS guided them through the tree-lined streets until they reached a pair of stone pillars and a ten-foot high wrought iron fence.
Doris lived in a stately Tudor home on the edge of Lake Arrowhead. Ariel parked the Rover and climbed out. Beatrix clambered out after her. She grabbed her leash to keep her from chasing after the blue jays swooping among the pines and the squirrels chittering in the trees. The brisk cold air reminded her they were in one of the few areas of southern California that wasn’t balmy in March.
While Ariel gathered the luggage with one hand and held Beatrix’s leash with the other, Mabel climbed from the car, put her hands on her hips and gazed around at the view of the lake.
“Such a lovely place for a murder,” she said.