Third Strike is publishing on August 4. It is the third book in my new Writer’s Retreat Mystery Series. I’m providing a partial chapter if anyone wants to see what the series is all about.
Wednesday, November 15
Trey Alderman was Gull Island’s most important claim to sports fame. He was the starting pitcher for the Gull Island Seagulls and went on to stand out nationally among college players while attending the University of South Carolina. It was assumed he would be a top draft pick a year and a half back, and it seemed the sky was the limit in terms of his career. Trey came home on spring break during his senior year and, while on the island, agreed to play in a charity event in Charleston. The game, which featured other draft hopefuls, came down to a single run. It was the bottom of the ninth, the tying run was on third, the bases were loaded, there were two outs, and the tension was high. The pitch was thrown fast and down the middle and the crowd held their breath as Trey swung his bat with all his might before falling to the ground. He was pronounced dead at the scene. It was later determined he died of a heart attack. He was twenty-two, healthy, and, as far as anyone knew, had no preexisting heart condition.
It was later revealed that Trey had arrived at the game feeling dizzy and disoriented. He’d elected to suit up but wasn’t in the starting lineup. He’d begun to feel better as the game progressed, and by the ninth inning he was feeling amped and ready to play, so the coach put him in as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth. The autopsy revealed that Trey didn’t have an undiagnosed heart condition, as everyone had believed, but had been suffering the ill effects of a drug mixture in his system that could have led to a heart attack when combined with extreme stress. The local investigators determined that he had most likely engaged in recreational drug use at a party he’d attended the previous evening.
Alex Cole, a twenty-eight-year-old, fun and flirty millennial who’d made his first million writing science fiction when he was just twenty-two, had decided to write a book about Trey’s life and death and had brought the mystery of Trey’s death to the Mystery Mastermind group made up of people who lived and worked at the Gull Island Writers’ Retreat, which my brother, Garrett Hanford, owns, and I, Jillian Hanford, operate.
“On the surface, it seems as if Trey’s death was the result of his own poor choices,” I pointed out. “I guess my question is: Where’s the mystery?”
“There are those, including Trey’s parents, who believe he didn’t knowingly consume the drugs that led to his death,” Alex answered.
“They think someone slipped him the drugs without his knowledge?” I clarified.
“Exactly. It’s my intention to dig into the twenty-four hours leading up to his collapse and try to determine if Trey’s death really was nothing more than a terrible accident or if he was murdered.”
“You’re suggesting whoever slipped Trey the drugs, if that’s even what happened, knew they would cause his heart to fail?” I asked.
“Not necessarily. Trey’s heart attack seems to have been the result of a very specific set of circumstances that couldn’t have been planned or predicted, so my use of the word murdered is probably a bit more melodramatic than the situation warrants. Still, I do believe someone could have slipped Trey the drugs with the intention of making him ill enough that he’d miss the game.”
“Have you had a chance to narrow down the lists of suspects and witnesses we need to follow up with?” Brit Baxter, a twenty-six-year-old chick lit writer and the newest member of our group asked.
“I have nine names I think should give us a starting point,” Alex said as his long blond hair fell over his bright blue eyes. “Everyone on the list attended the same party Trey did the night before he died, all attended the game, and all had at least somewhat of a motive for wanting Trey out of the way.”
I grabbed a bright red marker and stood in front of whiteboard, prepared to take notes as the discussion unfolded. We’d found that writing everything down permitted us to look at situations from a variety of perspectives and, in the end, helped us make sense of what usually began as a lot of unrelated information.
“I’ll start with the residents of Gull Island who attended the party,” Alex began as the group listened intently. “Fortunately, four of these five people still live on the island and are willing to speak to us when we’re ready to begin our investigation.”
“You’ve already spoken to everyone on the list?” asked George Baxter, a sixty-eight-year-old writer of traditional whodunits.
“I’ve spoken very briefly to more than half the people on the list so far,” Alex confirmed. “I figured it would save us some time if I did a bit of the legwork ahead of time.”
“Okay,” I said, marker in hand. “Who do you have?”
“Heather Granger dated Trey Alderman all though high school. It was assumed Trey and she would marry at some point, and Heather had even applied to the University of South Carolina and sent in her acceptance there as soon as she found out that was the school he’d decided on. Shortly after their high school graduation, Trey broke up with her. He offered the standard we’re-entering-a-new-phase-in-our-lives speech and asked her if she wanted to consider attending one of the other schools where she’d been accepted to make things less awkward.”
“What a creep,” Brit said with a hint of disgust in her voice. “If he didn’t want his old girlfriend to interfere with his groove, he should have changed schools.”
“The University of South Carolina was Trey’s choice in the first place,” Alex pointed out. “Heather was only going there to follow him.”
“Whatever.” Brit rolled her eyes.
“So what did Heather decide to do?” I asked to prevent an all-out argument. “Did she change schools?”
“She didn’t go to college at all. From what I understand, she was pretty broken up when Trey dumped her from out of the blue, and most of the people I’ve spoken to said she sank into a bit of a depression. She has, however, gotten on with her life since then,” Alex assured us, looking directly at Brit. “She’s engaged to a chef she met just after Trey’s death and they’ve bought that old storefront on the wharf and are opening a restaurant.”
“If she has moved on, why is she on your list?” Brit asked.
“Because she hadn’t moved on at the time of the party. In fact, I’ve heard she was quite enraged when Trey showed up with his new girlfriend, Rena Madison.”
“Tell us about Rena,” Brit suggested.
Alex hesitated. “I’d planned to cover the locals first and then move on to the visitors to the island who attended the party.”
“It’s okay. I can hop back and forth between the two lists, and I’d like to hear about Rena as well,” I said encouragingly.
“Okay,” Alex agreed, sorting through his notes. “Rena Madison was a popular cheerleader at the University of South Carolina. She started dating Trey when they were both juniors. From what I could find out, she’s both beautiful and popular, and while she was majoring in communication, she had big plans to make a name for herself in modeling. While she didn’t say as much to me, based on what others have told me, Rena was using Trey to advance her career. I can’t speak to what was actually in her heart, but Trey’s best friend from high school, Hudson Dickerson, shared with me that Trey planned to dump Rena as soon as he was drafted, so in a way it appears they were using each other.”
“Like I said, the guy was an ass.” Brit’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “Why are we trying to find out what happened to him again?”
“You’re helping me write a book based on a set of circumstances I’m exploring. Trey Alderman may not be a sympathetic character, but I do find him an interesting one.”
“Oh, right. Okay, continue.”
I could see Trey’s cavalier attitude toward the women he dated had become a sore spot for Brit. It would appear the blond-haired pixie was a lot more of a romantic than she let on.
“Do we have reason to believe Rena knew Trey planned to dump her?” asked Jackson Jones, a never-married, forty-two-year-old, nationally acclaimed author of hard-core mysteries and thrillers, who was as famous for his good looks and boyish charm as he was for the stories he penned. Jackson currently lived on Gull Island as mild-mannered Jack Jones, small-town newspaper owner.
“I spoke to a woman named Candy Baldwin. She was and still is Heather’s best friend and has lived on the island all her life. She said Rena did know what Trey planned and had told everyone at the party she’d find a way to get her revenge.”
“Do you have the sense Candy is someone whose word can be trusted?” Jack asked.
Alex shrugged “I’m not sure. She’s a nice enough woman who’s since married her own high school boyfriend, Hudson Dickerson.”
“Trey’s best friend?” I clarified.
“Yes. It seems all through high school Trey and Heather and Hudson and Candy weren’t only best friends but best couple friends. It’s been suggested to me that Candy took Trey’s breakup with Heather and the end of their little group almost harder than Heather did. I can’t say for certain yet, but it seems Candy might hold a pretty big grudge against the victim, so I guess I’d take anything she tells you with a grain of salt.”
“Should Candy and Hudson both be added to the suspect list?” I wondered.
Alex nodded his head. “I would definitely consider Candy a suspect at this point. Hudson was Trey’s best friend; as far as I can tell, he didn’t have a motive to want to hurt him, but he was at the party and the game, so at the very least he’s a witness. Add him to the list of people we should follow up with.”
I made a few notes on the whiteboard, then asked Alex to go on.
“There are two locals we haven’t discussed yet,” he said. “Dexter Parkway was a bit of a nerd in high school, went on to pursue a career in computer science, and is currently working on a doctorate at Harvard. While in high school, he was an unpopular geek who saw Trey as something of a hero. Dexter idolized Trey and spent quite a lot of time not only following him around but doing his homework, while Trey treated him like a trained dog.”
Brit didn’t say a word, but I saw her face was quickly becoming an interesting shade of scarlet.
“If Dexter idolized Trey, why would he kill him?” asked Victoria Vance, a thirty-seven-year-old romance author and my best friend.
“I’m not saying he killed Trey, but keep in mind Dexter was in his final year of undergraduate work at Boston College at the time Trey died. The guy’s really smart. I bet by the time he was twenty-two he must have realized his own worth and grown out of his need to idolize an athletic bully. Again, I only spoke to each of the people on my list for a brief time to get a general background, but it seems to me that by the time that party rolled around, Dexter should have been well past the point of being happy being someone’s lapdog.”
“So you think he could have drugged Trey to get back at him for the way he treated him in high school?” Victoria asked.
“I’m not ready to say that, but Dexter would have had a legitimate complaint, and he’s one of the few people on the list who could have had the knowledge to put together the drug cocktail the police believe ended up killing Trey.”
Everyone paused to let that sink in. While it was true you could get almost any information on the Web these days, it sounded like the drugs that killed Trey were pretty specific. I wondered if anyone else on the list had a background in chemistry or medicine, so I asked the question.
“Actually, yes. There’s another person on the list with the expertise to concoct such a drug cocktail. Her name is Quinn Jenkins, but let me circle back around to her. First, I want to mention Coach Cranston.”
“The baseball coach over at the high school?” Jack asked.
“Yes. Coach Cranston has been the coach for a number of years and was Trey’s coach when he was in high school,” Alex said.
“Trey was a star. Cranston must have loved him.”
Alex nodded to Jack. “He did then. In fact, he put in a lot of extra time helping Trey hone his skills. He even managed to get him recognition from other coaches he knew in other parts of the country. The issue was, Trey more or less promised Coach Cranston that if he helped him get a college scholarship, he would take Cranston with him when he went pro. He promised to make him his agent. But when the time came to look for an adviser, he decided he needed someone flashier, someone with more experience. It was while he was home on spring break that he told Cranston he’d decided to go a different way.”
“I bet he was angry,” Clara Kline, a sixty-two-year-old self-proclaimed psychic and the writer of fantasy and paranormal mysteries, commented.
“From what I’ve heard, he was. Very angry. He’d stayed in contact with Trey all through his college career, treated him like a son, and discussed their plans for the future on many occasions. Trey’s announcement that he was going with someone he’d just met seemed to come from out of left field. I understand Coach Cranston was not only angry but hurt as well.”
“Have you considered a scenario where they all conspired to drug him?” I asked as the grudges against Trey piled up fast.
“Hang on; I haven’t even gotten to the best suspects yet.”
“Okay, spill,” Brit encouraged. “Who do you think had the strongest reason to kill Trey Alderman?”
“Two other baseball players come to mind. Both were at the party, both played in the charity game during which Trey died, and both improved in ranking with Trey’s death. Jett Strong attended Florida State University and was nationally ranked number two behind Trey. The rivalry between Jett and Trey was fierce, and each felt they deserved the title of MVP. During their four years of college, the two traded the number one spot a few times, but as of the day Trey died, it looked like he was going to edge out his rival and come out on top.”
“And did Jett finish number one once Trey was out of the picture?” I asked.
I jotted down a few notes. “You said there were two rivals?”
“Parker Wilson was the other one. He attended the University of South Carolina with Trey and was his teammate. He was a very good player in his own right, but he couldn’t quite compete with Trey, who always stole the spotlight. Many people felt if Parker had been on a different team he would have been a star, but as Trey’s teammate, he never got the attention he deserved.”
“I bet that sucked,” Brit said.
“I’m sure it did,” Alex agreed.
“Why didn’t Parker just transfer to another school?” I asked.
“It isn’t that easy to transfer once you’re committed to a sports program, plus he was attending the university on a scholarship,” Alex explained.
“Now, what about this Quinn you were going to circle back to?” Brit asked.
Alex shuffled through his notes. “Quinn Jenkins also attended the University of South Carolina and was Parker’s girlfriend. An assertive woman majoring in microbiology who felt Parker was getting a raw deal, she wasn’t afraid to let anyone who would listen know about it. There are people I’ve interviewed who felt Quinn was exactly the kind of person to remove obstacles in her way, no matter what it took. For the rest of the season following Trey’s death, Parker became the star of the team and was drafted by the New York Yankees. I understand he’s building a pretty spectacular career with Quinn at his side.”
I completed my notes, then took a step back from the whiteboard. We really had a daunting task ahead of us.
“Do you have a plan?” George asked.
“I know you’re all busy with your own lives and careers, so I thought maybe you could tackle the suspects who live on the island, while I go after the ones who live out of state. Parker and Quinn live in New York, which is where I plan to start.”
“And Jett?” I asked. “Was he drafted?”
“Yes; to the Florida Marlins. The season is over, so I’m not sure whether he’ll be in Florida, but I’ll track him down.”
“And Rena?” I asked.
“She moved to New York to pursue her modeling career. I’ll catch her at the same time I visit Parker and Quinn. I’m planning to leave for New York tomorrow. I’d love to get the interviews and other research wrapped up before Thanksgiving if possible.”
“Okay; I’m game to jump right in,” I said to the group.
“Me too,” Jack seconded.
“I’ll consult my cards,” Clara promised. “I think this is going to be a juicy one. I can already sense lies and deceit. If I had to guess, the true motive behind Trey’s death is still buried deep beneath the surface of the cruelty and betrayal he left behind. Agatha,” Clara said, referring to her cat, “thinks there may be another player not yet identified.”
“Please have Agatha let us know as soon as she figures out who we’re missing,” Alex said gently.
“Oh, I will, dear. This is quite a task you’re taking on and we’re happy to help. Aren’t we, Agatha?”
“Meow,” answered the cat, sitting primly in Clara’s lap.
“And I’ll dig in with my research,” George promised. “I have several ideas already.”
“I’ll build a social media map,” Brit offered. “I’ve found them to come in handy.”
“I don’t know how I can help, but I’m in as well,” Victoria offered.
“Great,” I said after everyone had chimed in. I looked at Blackbeard, my very opinionated and very intuitive parrot, who seemed to be able to communicate his thoughts and feelings. “How about it, big guy? You up for another mystery?”
Blackbeard didn’t respond, which was uncharacteristic of him.
I turned back to the others, “I guess he doesn’t have anything to say. Can everyone meet back here on Monday evening? That will give us time to do some digging around.”
Everyone agreed Monday would be fine. Jack was going to make some calls the next day, and then he and I would get started with interviews on Friday. Hopefully, once we began speaking to people, a pattern would emerge.