Skinny Dipping with Murder by Auralee Wallace is the first in the new Otter Lake Mystery series introducing Erica Bloom who returns to her mother's spiritual retreat for women, Otter Lake, just as some childhood bullies start turning up dead (Available March 1, 2016).
Erica Bloom is in no rush to return to Otter Lake, the site of her mother's spiritual retreat for women. Erica met her inner goddess years ago and she's happy to have forged a new identity on her own, thank you very much. But her new-age-y, well-meaning mother is losing her grip on the business, and needs Erica's help. So she heads back to her New Hampshire hometown, where nothing much has changed-except for maybe the body in the well…
When Erica was a teenager, she fell prey to a practical joke that left her near-naked in Otter Lake's annual Raspberry Social. The incident was humiliating, but it wasn't like anyone got killed-until now. Those who were behind that long-ago prank are starting to turn up dead, and Erica's appearance in town makes her a prime suspect. To make matters worse, the town sheriff just happens to be Erica's old nemesis, Grady Forrester…who also happens to be hotter than ever. Can Erica find a way to dig up the truth-before someone digs her grave?
Any minute now.
Any minute I’d hear the distant hum of my mother’s boat. I glanced at my watch as the dock swayed gently beneath my feet. Now if I could just believe that, maybe the vein in my forehead would stop throbbing.
I scanned the distant shoreline. Home. Otter Lake, in New Hampshire, “Live Free or Die.” Camp country. Our town had everything the postcards promised. Long docks stretching into the water. Nights with a billion stars. Rustic cabins nestled into pines. Summers were spent on the lake and winters on the snowmobile trail. Paradise for some fourteen hundred citizens. For me? Well, let’s just say Freud would have had his hands full helping me figure that one out.
The walk from the bus stop had taken less than ten minutes, but it had left me drenched with gritty sweat. Even though the lowering sun was dragging the day into late afternoon, it was still stinking hot. I stood at the edge of the dock, staring longingly at the water. Sure, it smelled faintly of rotting fish and lake muck, but it had to be cooler than the heavy air.
Summer at the lake. Happy words, right? Cicadas buzzing. Midnight swims. Crackling campfires. So that had to be excitement I felt in my belly … yeah, butterflies just barfing with excitement.
The sun forced me down to sit on the edge of my suitcase, and I counted fifteen minutes tick by on my watch. I thought again about my cell, but I already knew it was a lost cause. The battery had died about six hours back.
I should have seen this coming.
My mother. Summer Bloom. A woman who loved me with a passion that could only be described as delusional. A woman who raised motherhood to a level of mythic proportions. And a woman who could never seem to remember I was sitting somewhere at the end of a dock waiting for her.
In her defense, details were not her thing. She’d leave herself sitting on a dock too.
At first glance, it would probably surprise a lot of people to know that my mother had an instinct for business, but it was the truth. Women from all across the world flocked to my mother’s island retreat, Earth, Moon, and Stars, to get in touch with their inner goddesses, and it was all because of her authenticity. In fact, my mother’s inner goddess was so robust, I’m pretty sure she’d absorbed mine in utero like some parasitic twin.
I gathered the hair slicked against my neck and twisted it into a ponytail. The view of the distant trees rippled in the heat as my eyes stayed focused on the spot from which my mother’s boat should emerge.
Back when I was a teenager, this was the type of thing that really would have bothered me, but I was an adult now. So what if it had been almost eight years since I’d been home, and it took about twelve hours of traveling for me to get to this very spot? This was part of the being home experience … and it wasn’t like I was stranded.
I looked over the edge of the platform to the canoe knocking lazily against the stakes of the dock. Normally, my mom paid Red, Otter Lake’s local electrician, whose hair hadn’t seen red in about thirty years, to cart the retreat’s guests back and forth in his pontoon. Red liked to keep busy, and even though he wasn’t much for small talk, he probably would have done the job for free. My mother left the canoe for the times when Red wasn’t available. That’s the type of place Otter Lake was. I suppose someone could have stolen it. But why?
I sighed heavily, hot breath streaming through my lips.
I could do this.
I just needed to see my mom, do the one mysterious favor that apparently only I could do to save her business, stay off the lake radar, and get the hell back to Chicago.
Not many sane people would travel across the country without knowing the reason why. But those people probably didn’t have recurring nightmares of their mothers practicing Wiccan rituals in their one-bedroom apartments because said mother got booted off the island … literally.
Then I heard it.
A motor humming in the distance.
I jumped up from the suitcase, ignoring the sweat dripping down the backs of my calves.
She had remembered. This was a good sign. Maybe things had changed. A lot of time had passed.
A second or two later, my stomach sank as I watched a slick boat bounce its way across the lake, chrome finishings glinting in the sunlight.
Not my mother.
Things at the lake definitely had changed. Nobody I used to know could afford that kind of boat.
Slowly three hazy figures came into view.
It couldn’t be.
It just couldn’t.
I was a good person.
“Hey!” a voice shouted. “Boobsie Bloom!”
I closed my eyes.
This was happening.
“Hey guys,” I called back, squinting underneath the hand I had shielding my eyes. Yup, a little thicker all over, but it was definitely them.
The three fluffateers. Actually the first part of that name was another f-word—their choice—but it was best not to think too deeply on that.
Any hope I had that things around the lake had changed faded before the vision of grubby baseball hats and tank tops drooped over fledgling beer bellies.
“We heard you were back, and just in time for the Raspberry Social.”
That was Tommy, leader of the three and Grady Forrester’s cousin.
Who’s Grady? Only the guy every girl was in love with back in high school, myself unfortunately included. He was beautiful back then. Cartoon-prince beautiful—not the kind who likes glass slippers and balls, but the kind who’s a bit of a jerk, and a starburst dings off his teeth every time he smiles. Yup, everyone in Otter Lake had at least one story of a near miss with a moose, and all the single females? Well, they’d all had at least one head-on collision with Grady Forrester. Mine had been nearly fatal … metaphorically speaking. Tommy looked a lot like Grady, but was nowhere near as good-looking. I could only imagine that must have stung a little.
“Yup, here I am,” I said, struggling to keep my voice neutral, adult.
A loud belch blared in response.
Dickie. Less evil than Tommy, but more perverted.
“This calls for a beer! Here’s to Boobsie Bloom being back in town.” All three cracked open a can and chugged in unison. I’d like to say I was shocked by the drinking and boating, but I’m not that good of an actress.
“Thanks, guys. That’s, uh, real sweet, but should I be calling you in?”
Dickie slapped his beer over the right side of his chest. “Nonalcoholic. Swear to God.”
The vein in my forehead throbbed again.
“Right.” I bent slightly at the waist and grabbed the handle of my suitcase. “Well, it was great seeing you guys, but—”
“Erica Bloom, where are your manners? We were just catching up. The eight-year anniversary of that fateful night is almost here. It can’t go by unnoticed.” Tommy smiled and elbowed his minions. “Men, let’s take a moment to remember that special night from so many years ago and pay it the respect it deserves.” All three whipped off their hats and held them to their chests.
I was trying to hide the fact that they were getting to me. I really was. But they knew. I might as well have had steam coming out of my ears. And when I saw the amused glint in Tommy’s eyes, I also knew I couldn’t stop what was coming next.
“Look out, boys! She’s going to blow!”
And there it was.
The nightmare chant of my childhood.
I had almost forgotten.
I’m not going to say I left home and completely reinvented myself … but I left home and completely reinvented myself. And then within minutes of being back, all my hard work was gone. I swear, you bite one kid on the shoulder in the first grade after he calls your mom a space cadet, and suddenly your anger becomes legendary. And yes, that one kid was Tommy.
I pointed at him and laughed halfheartedly. “Good memory, Tommy. That’s me. Watch out. I might blow.” I caught myself giving some warning jazz hands.
God, make it stop.
All three laughed, shooting looks of admiration back and forth.
No. No. This was not happening. I was not the Erica Bloom of all those years ago. I would not be baited by beer-swilling man-boys who’d left their best years back in high school. I was a calm, confident woman—who needed to end this conversation now.
“Aw, don’t look so sad, Bloom. We’re messing with you,” Tommy said, putting on a pouty smile. “In fact, if we had known all of that business at the social would make you leave, well, we might not have done it.” He paused for a second then slapped the other two on the shoulders. “Who am I kidding? We totally would have done it.”
My face burned hotter. “You know that’s not why I left, right, Tommy? I—” I caught myself just as that slow Grady smile slid, once again, across Tommy’s face.
That settled it.
It didn’t matter that I could feel blood pulsing behind my eyeballs. I was better than this. I would not let these guys faze me.
“You know what, Tommy?” I said, inhaling hot air through my nose. “It was pretty funny.”
“What? That’s it?” Tommy looked at me sideways, smiled, and turned his bare shoulder toward me before chomping his teeth together.
I’ll admit it. Things could have gone badly for me in that moment. I saw myself launching off the end of the dock. I saw me clotheslining Tommy into the water. I saw me going to jail for his semiaccidental drowning. And yet, it still seemed worth it. But then I heard, “I like your hair, Erica.”
Sweet, sweet Harry.
The third fluffateer. He was the nicest of the three and had always been taken with a nice head of hair—especially his own. It was probably a good thing that his parents hadn’t been the ones to choose the name Dickie.
“The dark brown goes really well with your blue eyes,” he said, cocking his head. Unlike the other two with their baseball caps, he wore a fishing hat covered with lures. “And the bangs and ponytail? They are so happy. Totally happy. Happy hair.” He chuckled to himself.
Harry. Always so sweet … and so high.
I was just about to say thank you when Dickie jumped in.
“No, I liked that bleached-blond thing you used to do,” he said. “You could have done porn with that hair.” He had the face of a man who had given this some thought.
Suddenly I realized I was knee-deep in water yanking at the rope that tethered the canoe to the dock. Hmm, I didn’t remember leaving the dock. Great, now I was experiencing stress-induced blackouts.
“Okay, guys. It’s been great catching up, but you must have stuff to do?”
All three stared back at me blankly.
“Children? I mean, all of that unprotected…”
“Never mind. Okay, well, my mom’s expecting me, so…”
“We’ll give you a ride, won’t we, boys?” Tommy said, slapping the other two with the back of his hands. They nodded like puppets.
“That’s sweet. Great boat by the way. But you know, I’ve been gone so long. I miss canoeing. Not much of that in Chicago. You understand.”
“Sure. Sure,” Tommy replied, nodding. “But before we go, you’re coming to the social, right?”
I tried to smile, but I probably just managed to look nauseous.
“No, nope, no. I’m only staying the week. I have to be back at work before then.” That was a total lie. I had about three months of vacation days saved up. I was a stenographer back in Chicago, and for the most part, I liked it. Life made sense in court. Stupid people got punished in court. Stupid people who weren’t me.
“Well, if you change your mind…”
A paper airplane shot out of Tommy’s hand. The point hit me right between the eyes before I could bat it away. I tried to ignore the sound of high fives as I unfolded the yellow sheet of paper.
All the particulars of the social glared back at me in bold type, but my eyes zoomed in on the cartoon character hastily drawn on the bottom left-hand corner. It was a beaver posed as a pinup model wearing a raspberry-print bikini and a knit hat.
I could feel even more blood rushing to my face.
“We worked really hard on it,” Dickie said.
Tommy nodded. “It looks like you. Don’t you think?”
I barely managed a weak laugh.
“You sure you don’t want a ride?” Harry asked. “You don’t look so good.”
“No, I’m great. Super, in fact. Just super.”
“Well then, later, Boobsie,” Tommy said.
The boat’s engine roared to life, and Tommy’s up to no good smile slid back across his face. My brain hooked on some memories and tried to pull them into focus in time, but they didn’t quite make it. Before I could duck, the boat fishtailed away, sending a fabulous spray of water smack into my face.
Forty-five minutes later, I guided the canoe alongside the dock leading up to the retreat.
I rested the paddle across my thighs as I took in the view. Tiger lilies framed logs dug into the hill forming steps leading up to the main house. Cedars and pines gave shade to the steep slopes on either side. Little had been done to the property or the cabins since it was built in the fifties, so it gave off a sleepy sense of nature mixed with nostalgia. I had watched hundreds of female visitors stand at the bottom of those steps and, within seconds, their shoulders would drop and smiles would spread wide across their faces. For me, it was a little different. As a kid, I swear every time I climbed those steps, someone in the forest was whispering, chi chi chi ah ah ah.
I quickly pulled the canoe onto the shore and grabbed my suitcase. I then hustled over to the stairs. The sooner I got there, the sooner I could leave.
At the top, I dropped my suitcase to wipe the sweat from my face.
The main lodge stood a couple hundred feet away. The same faded gravel path ran right up to the roughly hewn front steps, and the same overgrown hydrangeas still nestled up against the sturdy wraparound porch, softening the heavy feel of lumber.
So cute. So forest-friendly. So terrifying.
Behind the lodge, twelve cabins dotted the woods. As far as I knew, only five were in working order. And by working order, I mean didn’t leak. None of the cabins had electricity or plumbing. Just beds, curtains, and the sweet smell of cedar. More pebbled paths led from each cabin to a communal washroom outfitted with three composting toilets and three showers connected to tanks filled with sun-warmed water. When I was twelve, I made a vow never to use those toilets, not even in an emergency. A dock spider crawling into your sandal will do that.
I rolled the handle of my suitcase in my palm.
I was going to see my mom for the first time in eight years.
The sun made its final dip below the horizon behind me, cooling my clothes damp with sweat.
It wasn’t like I didn’t talk to her. She called me every other day at least.
And I never meant for it to be eight years, but all that time had just kind of built up. My mom would have come to visit me, but travel wasn’t exactly her thing. Airplanes were filled with radiation, apparently. Buses, toxic fumes. And after much debate, she reluctantly agreed that hitchhiking probably wasn’t the best option. Truth be told, I think maybe we were playing a game of chicken. I didn’t want to come back to Otter Lake, and my mother really, really did want me to come back to Otter Lake—and for more than just a visit. We both had been holding out to see who would crack first. Guess that had been me. As I watched the first few bats swoop and dip around the roof of the lodge, loads of what ifs began to jostle around in my head. What if she looked different? Really different? What if she had aged? I mean, of course she must have aged, but I was not at all comfortable with that idea.
A light clicked on, illuminating one of the big windows of the lodge. I took a few steps closer.
A figure walked across the room.
There she was.
Her hair was a lighter shade of brown than mine but never could be thought of as mousy. There was too much of it for that. Tonight she had it parted down the middle with two barrettes on either side holding back the waves from her face. We shared the same color eyes, but hers were large and round, giving her the look of someone who was perpetually innocent and slightly startled.
I exhaled slowly in relief. She looked exactly as I had left her—a bewildered, misplaced flower child who had found the fountain of youth in veganism and yoga.
A sudden rustling in the hydrangeas snapped me out of my thoughts. A pair of glowing eyes flashed menacingly at me from beneath the heart-shaped leaves.
“Oh, you can’t be serious,” I muttered to no one.
An enormously fat, orange and white cat shuffled out from beneath the branches.
We stared at one another.
I broke first.
“How are you not dead?”
The cat hissed back at me then turned with the gravitational pull of a medium-sized planet and made his way toward the porch.
Caesar was the closest thing I had to a sibling … a sibling I never wanted and would have happily drowned at birth given half a chance. I sighed. Years back I had added Caesar to the list of things I would not discuss with my mother. Also on that list were the quality of my bowel movements and the importance of the female orgasm.
The main door swung open.
“There you are!” My mother rushed through the threshold, arms flung wide.
I couldn’t stop the smile from erupting on my face. “Are you talking to me or the cat?”
My mother’s eyes darted about the porch until they landed on the fur-leviathan mounting the final stair. “Caesar, how did you get outside? You know you aren’t supposed to be out here after dark.”
The giant beast rubbed against my mom’s leg, nearly toppling her.
“I know. You’re a good boy.”
Caesar croaked at her in return. He always had sounded like a fifty-year-old with a bad smoking habit.
“Still here, Mom.”
“Erica,” my mother said, gliding down the steps in her flowing sundress. “My wonderful girl.” Then I was in her arms, face smothered by her masses of hair.
“Hi,” I said through the thick aroma of lemon grass, mint, and mom.
She rocked me back and forth. “I sensed you coming. Just now when I was doing my evening gratitude prayer.”
Suddenly a new voice called out. “Hah! Too bad she didn’t sense you on the dock!”
I looked over to a dark spot on the porch to spy the women I knew were there.
“Oh, no,” my mother said, leaning back and covering her mouth with the tips of her fingers. “The dock!”
“Hi, Kit Kat,” I called out to the darkness. “Hi, Tweety.” I could barely make out their white permed curls shuddering with laughter.
Kit Kat and Tweety were identical twins, who had to be in their early seventies by now. They lived in the only other cottage on our almost thirty-acre island and were built like wrestlers. They smoked, drank, and lived by the belief that if you didn’t have to kill it, why would you want to eat it? They also found everything my mother did hilarious. They never got tired of it. One of my earliest memories is an image of the two of them rocking with laughter, arms crossed over their bellies.
“Let me look at you.” My mom’s eyes moved over my face, taking in every inch. The eight-year punch of guilt got me in the stomach. “You look tired.”
“It was a long trip.”
“Well, come inside. I’ve got a new blend of tea that will fix you right up. Your room is exactly the same.”
She led me by the arm toward the steps.
“That sounds great, but I thought we could have a little chat first.”
My mother turned to me, eyebrows lifted. “About what?”
“About why I’m here … exactly.”
Copyright © 2016 Auralee Wallace.
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Auralee Wallace has played many roles in her life, including college professor, balloon seller, and collections agent. When this semi-natural blonde mother of three children (and psychiatric nurse to two rescue cats) isn't writing humorous novels about quirky characters, she can often be found pontificating about the Golden Age of soap operas or warring with a family of peregrine falcons for the rights to her backyard.