Fifth Night, book 5 in the Writer’s Retreat Series publishes on January 25. Here is a preview if you are interested.
Monday, January 22
“Hi, everyone,” the young woman with a rounded belly on a stick-thin frame, long blond hair, and large haunted eyes, began. “My name is Abby Boston. Brit asked me to come here tonight to tell my story.” She nervously glanced at Brit Baxter, the youngest member of the Mystery Mastermind Group, which met every Monday evening at the Gull Island Writers’ Retreat. It looked like the poor girl might flee, but Brit smiled encouragingly. Abby nodded at her, and then turned once more to face the group. “As you may know, my husband, Bobby, died six months ago, leaving me to care for my nieces and nephews on my own.” Abby rubbed her huge stomach. “Baby Tammy, to be named for my late sister, will be joining us shortly, and I’m terrified. You see,” Abby glanced around the room, her eyes filling with tears, “after Bobby died, I got behind on my mortgage. I received a notice from the bank last week saying I either needed to get my loan up to date or vacate the house.” Abby’s eyes met mine. My heart was breaking for the young woman who had lost first her sister and then her husband. “I don’t have the money to pay the bank and I don’t know where the kids and I will go if we lose the house. I spoke to Brit about my dilemma and she said you all might be able to help.”
“Are you looking for a donation?” asked Alex Cole, a fun and flirty millennial who made his first million writing science fiction when he was just twenty-two.
“No, sir.” Abby shook her head vigorously. “I’m not looking for a handout. The kids and I will find a way to make it on our own.”
“So why are you here?” asked Victoria Vance, a romance novelist and my best friend.
“Bobby had an insurance policy. He took it out when my sister was killed and her kids came to live with us. He worked as a firefighter, and a fisherman on his days off. Both are high-risk jobs, and he wanted to be sure we’d be taken care of if anything happened to him. The problem is that the insurance company is refusing to pay. There’s a stipulation in the policy that they won’t in cases of suicide.”
That seemed a pretty standard condition to me. “What exactly are you asking?” I wondered.
“I need for you, Ms. Hanford, and your group, to prove Bobby didn’t commit suicide. I need you to prove he was murdered.”
I paused to consider her request. I didn’t know a lot about the case, but I did remember when Bobby Boston died. It seemed Deputy Rick Savage, Vikki’s boyfriend and a friend of the group, had been the one who investigated, and he’d determined there was no evidence to rule the case anything other than a suicide. Of course, I hadn’t known Rick back then; I’d just moved to the island when Abby’s husband had been found dead, so I didn’t have the background to have a firm opinion about it.
“I know Jill and the rest of you probably think it will be a long shot to prove a man who died by asphyxiation after leaving a suicide note was really murdered,” Brit added. “But it’s the only shot Abby has. She shared with me the details relating to the series of events leading up to her husband’s death and I really think she may be on to something. It does appear as if he might have been set up to take the fall for the real arsonist.”
“Okay.” I looked around at the people gathered. I could sense their sympathy for the young woman who seemed to be shouldering the weight of the world; and their trepidation at becoming involved in a case that, certainly on the surface, appeared to be cut and dried. “I’d love to help Abby, but I think we should hear the rest of the story before we decide.” I looked at Abby. “Please continue.”
Her face became even paler than before. I could imagine how she must feel, standing in front of our group pleading her case while we decided whether we believed her story. I hadn’t meant to make her feel like she was on trial, but I was pretty sure that was exactly how she did. “On second thought,” I glanced at Brit, “maybe you should tell us what you know, and Abby can fill in where necessary.”
Brit smiled at me with a look of thanks. “That would probably work the best.” She turned to Abby. “Why don’t you sit down next to me so you’ll be close by if I need to verify anything?” Abby looked like she’d been granted a reprieve and did exactly as Brit had suggested. Once Abby was seated, Brit looked around the room, making eye contact with each of the seven people present before she continued. “Abby’s husband, Bobby, worked as a firefighter for the Gull Island Fire Department. Beginning in May of this past year, there were a series of fires, which eventually were ruled to be arson. In all, there were five fires that burned down five structures over a six-week period.”
“I remember that,” said Jack Jones, my boyfriend and the owner of the Gull Island News. “Initially, he was referred to as the gentleman arsonist because all the fires were set at insured and unoccupied structures. While the fires caused inconvenience, the sites seemed to have been selected to cause minimal harm.”
“That’s true,” Brit confirmed. “Until the last one. On the fifth night, a home was burned to the ground. The family who lived there were away on vacation, and it was assumed that, like the other four fires, the fifth would result in no casualties. The problem was, a friend of the family was staying in the house, seemingly unbeknownst to anyone on the island. He died of smoke inhalation.” The group remained silent while we waited for Brit to continue. “A week after the fifth fire, Abby found Bobby dead in their garage when she got back from shopping. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, with a note claiming responsibility for the death of the man who’d died in the last fire beside him. The note said he was unable to live with the guilt of having been responsible for the man’s death.”
“And you don’t think that was what happened?” asked George Baxter, Brit’s uncle, a mystery writer and the most senior member of our group.
“Abby’s certain her husband would never set the fires or willingly leave her to raise five children on her own. She believes the person who was really responsible for the fires killed Bobby and made it look like he was the one behind them. I can’t claim to have any empirical proof one way or the other, but after speaking with Abby, I have reason to believe she may be on to something. That’s why we’re asking the Mystery Mastermind Group to look in to the situation.”
The group had been formed to look in to old cases that had been closed but seemed to still have unanswered questions. Abby’s case seemed like a worthwhile one to take on, but I wanted to leave that up to everyone. It was going to be hard to discuss the case with Abby sitting among us, so I called for a break, at which time I suggested to Brit that it might be best if Abby left. We would make a decision and Brit could let her know the following morning.
I put on a fresh pot of coffee while Brit walked Abby out to her car. The case with which they’d presented us had the potential to become a highly emotional one for everyone involved. I hoped everyone, if they agreed to take it on, would be up to the task of finding the truth, even if it turned out it wasn’t what we were looking for.
“What do you think?” I asked after coffee cups had been refreshed and the group had reconvened.
“My sense is that Abby’s telling the truth,” Clara Kline, a self-proclaimed psychic, spoke up. “I don’t have a sense about her husband and his role in the arson cases, but if you’re asking if I’m voting to take on her case, I say we should.”
I glanced at my half brother, Garrett Hanford, who was sitting next to Clara. He wasn’t a writer, but he owned the resort where the retreat was located and was therefore an honorary member of the group.
“I’m not sure if I should get a vote, but I’m in if I do. I don’t have any idea whether Abby’s husband killed himself, but I can’t help but ache for her and the huge burden she has to bear. If there’s a way to help, I’m up for doing whatever needs to be done.”
“I’m in as well,” said George.
“Me too.” Vikki glanced around the room with a look of determination on her face. I could sense Abby’s story had torn at her tender heart.
I saw Alex turn to look at Brit. He was a great guy, but he tended to be a bit more analytical than the rest of us, and slower to commit. “Abby’s in a tough spot and I think we all want to help her, but is there any evidence at all to support a conclusion different from the obvious one?”
“I have no idea whether Bobby killed himself or if, as Abby suspects, he was murdered and then framed for the arsons. But I do know Abby’s a very nice woman who has been through a lot and is in a tough spot. If our looking in to her husband’s death gives her even a small chance of saving her house, I think we should do it.”
Alex leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, taking a moment to contemplate the situation. “Was the suicide note handwritten?” he eventually asked.
“Typewritten,” Brit replied. “There was a signature that did appear to be Bobby’s, but we all know there are ways to forge signatures without much effort these days.”
Alex narrowed his gaze. I could sense his hesitation and I was certain Brit could as well.
“Please? For Abby,” Brit added.
Alex shrugged. “Okay. I don’t have a lot going on right now. I’m in.”
“I’m in as well,” Jack said. He sat forward in his chair, resting his forearms on his thighs. “It seems the first order of business should be to deal with the bank. We need to buy ourselves enough time to look in to things. I’ll talk to the bank manager tomorrow.”
I smiled at Jack, who was sitting across the room with his new puppy, Kizmet, at his feet. He was such a wonderful, caring man who really put himself out if he came across a person in need.
“Okay,” I said, “I guess we have our first case of the new year. Jack and I will do some preliminary work tomorrow, and then we’ll get together again to assign tasks. Can everyone meet back here tomorrow evening?”
“Oh, I can’t do tomorrow.” Brit flinched. “I have my writing class. I can do Wednesday.”
“Does Wednesday work for everyone else?” I asked.
“Are you cooking?” Alex asked.
“I’d be happy to.”
“Then I’ll be here. Right now, however, I have a date.”
“A date?” Brit asked. “Is there a new special someone in your life?”
Alex just winked, then left the room.
After everyone had returned to their cabin or room in the main house, Jack and I took Kizzy for a walk on the beach. She was an adorable golden retriever puppy Jack and I had found on the beach just before Christmas. While we didn’t know her exact age, we estimated she must be around five months old. I’d never been much of a pet person, and adopting a dog hadn’t been anywhere on my radar, but in the month Jack and I had shared parenting responsibilities for the easygoing yet rambunctious pup, she had firmly wormed her way into my heart.
“Kizzy did really well at the meeting tonight,” I said as we walked hand in hand. “She didn’t try to chase Agatha once.” Agatha was Clara’s cat, who didn’t have a lot of patience for people, except Clara, or other pets.
“I’ve been working with her. She’s a smart little girl. I think she’s going to turn out to be something very special.”
I watched Kizzy run up and down the beach ahead of us. It was such a peaceful evening. It had turned chilly, but the sky was clear, and there were a million stars overhead. The Turtle Cove Resort, where I had established the Gull Island Writers’ Retreat, had been in Garrett’s family for generations. While the resort initially had been run as a family vacation spot, I’d changed things up a bit after Garrett had his stroke and he asked me to run things. The writers’ colony was situated on a peninsula that featured ocean and sandy beaches to the east and marshland to the west. It truly was an exceptional piece of property, and I considered myself lucky to live here. I currently lived in the main house with Garrett and Clara, while George, Alex, Brit, and Vikki each had their own cabin. Jack, who had more money than he knew what to do with, lived in a huge mansion overlooking the sea, but he had plans to build his own cabin on the grounds so he could be closer to the rest of us.
In addition to the members of the Mystery Mastermind Group, there were three other writers living in cabins. Nicole Carrington is a reclusive true crime writer who initially insisted on being left completely alone but has recently begun to soften up a bit and has even occasionally joined us when we get together for dinner. We also have two temporary residents, a historian who’s staying with us while he completes a book on the area, and a romance writer, who rented one of the newly refurbished cabins for the winter to write the first in a series of steamy novels.
“Do you really think you can convince the bank manager to hold off on the foreclosure while we investigate?”
“I do,” Jack answered. “It may take some negotiation, but in the long run, the bank has nothing to gain by proceeding with the foreclosure process and everything to gain by working out a way for Abby to resume the payments and remain in her home.”
I lay my head on Jack’s shoulder. “It’s nice of you to go the extra mile. I know you’re already superbusy this week with the remodel of the newspaper office.”
Jack slipped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close. “It’s not a problem at all, but I might need you to be available to babysit if both the paneling guy and the cabinet guy want to show up at the same time again.”
“Are they still arguing over who should have access to the lobby and conference room first?”
“Like eight-year-olds. I’d hire someone else, but there aren’t a lot of choices on the island.”
“Doesn’t it make sense that the paneling should go in first and then the cabinets should go over the paneling?”
“Makes sense to me, but the cabinet guy insists he needs to install the cabinets on bare wall minus the paneling, and the paneling guy says if the cabinets go up first, he’ll have to cut around everything. I think I’m going to shop around a bit before I make a decision about who to hire when I build the cabin.”
“How are the plans for that going?” I asked. I hadn’t been sure it was a good idea for Jack to sell his mansion and move into a small cabin on the beach, but the more we talked about it, the more excited I’d become. Not only would Jack be living only footsteps away from me, but I would have more access to Kizzy as well. Of course, the downside of that living arrangement was that I’d recently started working with Jack at the newspaper. Would there be a point at which so much togetherness evolved into too much togetherness?
“They’re going well,” Jack answered. “If all goes according to plan, I should be able to break ground next month. I want the shell up before the turtles arrive. I figure I’ll take a break from the construction during nesting season, so they won’t be disturbed.”
“I’m sure the turtles will appreciate that, as will the members of the turtle rescue squad.”
Jack picked up a stick and threw it for Kizzy. “I’m not in a hurry, and I’m committed to doing this project in as environmentally conscious a way as possible. That reminds me: did you ever get the interview you were hoping for with the developer who wants to build condos over the wetlands?”
“It’s all set for tomorrow afternoon. I’ve looked at his project and it’s insane. I can’t understand why anyone would want to build housing over water.”
“He wants to rent the units to tourists. His vision is to build everything up on supports and raised walkways, sort of like the huts over the ocean in places like Bali. I get why he thinks the idea will be popular with tourists, but the environmentalists are never going to go for it. It seems to me he’s wasting his time, but I guess it’s his to waste.”
I frowned. “Yeah, I guess. In my experience, however, most developers are accomplished businessmen who don’t go after projects they know will never fly. Maybe he knows something we don’t.”
“Perhaps. We’ll need to keep an eye on things as they develop.”
Kizzy ran up to us and dropped her stick at our feet. I bent down and picked it up, then threw it as hard as I could down the beach, and Kizzy took off running again. “If he does pursue the project, it’s going to become a hot-button issue, which will probably sell a lot of newspapers.”
“Very true.” Jack turned his head slightly and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “I have some news of my own.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“My agent called to tell me that one of the publishing houses I work with is interested in doing more books in the series I wrote for them. In my own mind, I’d already wrapped it up, so I said I wasn’t interested in doing any more books in that series. Now the publisher is offering an obscene advance, and she’s pushing me to make a commitment.”
“I would think a decision like that should be up to you. I mean, your agent works for you, not the other way around.”
Jack nodded. “In theory, sure. But at times these negotiations can become complicated because…”
“Your agent is your mother,” I remembered.
“Exactly. She’s very committed to getting me to change my mind and has decided to come for a visit.”
“I see. And when will she be here?”
“The day after tomorrow.”
I paused before answering. I had a feeling the way I reacted to this news could be important and I didn’t want to get it wrong. “You have a lot going on, and a visit from either a mother or an agent is probably going to add a lot of stress to your schedule, though I’d be excited to meet your mother. I’m sure if she raised an amazing guy like you, she must be pretty amazing herself.”
Jack lifted a shoulder. “She’s amazing, but she’s also driven and can be relentless when it comes to getting what she wants. I love my mother, and I don’t think I made a mistake asking her to be my agent when I was a young man publishing my first book. I probably owe her my career. But now that I own the newspaper and am building a life here on the island, I realize I need to cut back on my fiction output. The problem is that Mom sees the newspaper as a temporary distraction. She talks like I’m having some sort of midlife crisis and the newspaper is a shiny red Corvette. I’d love to have some time to catch up with Mom, but I have a feeling the entire visit is going to be me battling my agent.”
“You’re in a tough spot.”
Jack let out a long breath. “I really am. I never should have allowed her to integrate herself so firmly into my professional life. I’m afraid if I refuse to do what my agent wants, I’ll lose the fairly amiable relationship I’ve always had with my mother.”
“If there’s anything at all I can do to help, just ask.”
Jack looked toward Kizzy, who was chasing the waves. “I might need you to keep Kizzy while my mom’s here. She’ll be staying at my house and isn’t a fan of four-legged creatures of any kind.”
“I’d love to keep Kizzy for a few days. I’m sure she’ll miss you, but it’ll give us a chance to bond. And if you need a place to run away to, my door is always open.”
“I’m glad to hear that. In the meantime, how would you like to stay at my house tonight? I’m afraid we won’t have much time together once Mom gets here.”
“I’d love to. Just let me grab a few things.”
Jack and I returned to the house, where he wiped the sand from Kizzy’s paws while I ran upstairs to grab an overnight bag with basic toiletries and clean clothes for the following morning. Although I hadn’t let on, I was somewhat nervous about Jack’s mother’s upcoming visit. She was important to Jack and Jack was important to me, so I wanted us to get along. When Jack spoke of his mother, it was with a tone that revealed both admiration and trepidation. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. He’d been just nineteen when he’d written his first best seller. His mother, who had a background in marketing, had quit her job to be his agent. Jack’s writing had always been a huge success, and I was sure at least a part of that was due to his mother’s work, but I worried what an overinvolved mother could do to our still-new relationship.
Jack seemed to be his own man, capable of making his own decisions, but I had enough of my own mother issues to understand that when it came to family matters that should be easy, they could have a way of becoming complicated in no time.