Snowed In with Murder by Auralee Wallace is the 3rd book in the Otter Lake Mystery series (available February 7, 2017).
There’s no retreat and no surrender when Erica Bloom finds herself stuck in a snow storm with a stone-cold killer…
Erica has returned to Otter Lake, New Hampshire, to rekindle her romance with Sheriff Grady Forrester at her mom’s island retreat, currently closed for the off season. Just ahead of a rapidly advancing storm front, Erica arrives to discover Mom has rented the lodge to a reality TV show. They’re filming the wealthy but awful Boatright brood, who’ve been summoned here by their patriarch because—so he says—one of them wants to kill him.
“You have arrived.”
I wiped a drop of icy rain from my cheek with my gloved fingers. “I’m sorry?”
“My GPS always says that,” the voice on the other end of my phone explained happily. “And now I can’t stop saying it. It’s like finally even technology sees that I’m destined for great things. You have arrived. It feels good. Try it.”
“No, I will not.” I smiled though. If nothing else, my best friend Freddie Ng knew how to make life interesting. I attempted to pull my pea coat even more tightly around my body without letting the strap of my duffel bag slip off my shoulder. I knew I should’ve worn my parka. Stupid March. Oh sure, spring was just around the corner, but no one could tell you with any certainty where that corner might be, especially not in Otter Lake, New Hampshire.
Most of the year, my small hometown was postcard-perfect. Sparkling lakes in the summer. Rich, colorful trees in the fall. Fluffy snow in the winter. But early spring? Well, there was mud. Lots and lots of cold mud. Nope, there was nothing really fun about this time of year, other than maybe snuggling under a blanket with a hot, hot sheriff waiting for better weather to come.
Yeah, that might be nice.
Too bad mine had dumped me.
“I can barely hear you. Are you outside?”
“Yup, I just got off the bus. I’m standing on the dock praying my mother remembered to tell Red to come and get me.” My eyes darted over the slate-colored lake. Nothing. “So, uh, did you get the—”
“Oh, I got your steaks all right. A bunch of them actually. They’re in the freezer of your mom’s fridge. I’m tired of you always begging for meat at my door.”
“By the sound of your voice, I’m guessing I owe you one?”
“Summer made me pray for the cow’s soul, Erica. For ten minutes we prayed for the cow’s soul. And then we had to do it all over again because there were a bunch of steaks and she couldn’t be sure they were from the same cow.” He made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “I’m not even sure who we were praying to.”
I sucked in some air through my teeth. Yup, that sounded like Summer Bloom. Vegan. Misplaced flower child. Business woman. Mother. Mine to be exact. She ran a retreat called Earth, Moon, and Stars where women, and sometimes men, could heal their souls with nature, yoga, and psychological slash spiritual teachings. It was where I was headed now, but thankfully the retreat was currently closed for the season.
“It totally ruined the hamburger I had for lunch that day,” Freddie went on. “I mean I still ate it, but it wasn’t the same.”
“Sorry,” I said blinking away the mist droplets freezing to my eyelashes. “I’m thinking I owe you maybe more than one? Two? Maybe three?”
“You don’t owe me anything. Just move home already.”
I sighed. “Freddie—”
“Big things are happening with the business. I need you.”
I sighed again. Louder. Maybe this time it would make an impression.
Last summer Freddie had come up with the idea of starting a company called Otter Lake Security after the town experienced its first murder in about fifty years. He certainly had the start-up capital. His parents were rich in the way most mere mortals couldn’t conceive. But as far as I could tell, all the company really amounted to was Freddie walking Otter Lake’s main street in a ’70s-style state patrol uniform and harassing teenagers for loitering. Yet, despite all this, he thought it was time to take on a new employee. Me.
“I’ll take that noise to mean that you can’t wait to hear all about it,” he said with enough enthusiasm for the both of us. “So, today I’m interviewing personal trainers. That’s why I couldn’t pick you up. I have him making me a smoothie as we speak.”
“Because I’m hungry.”
“Not the shake,” I snapped, making a chipmunk squeak. “Why do you need a personal trainer for the business?”
“Don’t you mean, why do we need a personal trainer for the business? Because we’re fat!” he yelled loud enough that I had to pull the phone back from my ear. “Well, you’re not fat in the big sense, but you have a remarkable lack of muscle tone. Whereas I need to chisel and sculpt and—Do you not remember how many times last visit we were literally chasing a hot lead, and we had to stop to catch our breath?”
“Um.” I screwed up my face as though that might help me remember. “One?”
“God, I hate you sometimes.”
I chuckled. He loved me. Our relationship was like that.
“Anyway, this guy specializes in parkour!”
My brow furrowed again. “Parkour? The building jumping?”
“Why say it like that?”
“Like you’re selling it on an infomercial.”
“Because it makes it more exciting,” he replied in his most exaggerated isn’t it obvious? voice. “Parkour! You really don’t know how to enjoy life do you?”
“I’m pretty sure parkour! isn’t something—” I cut myself off, questioning whether or not this was a rabbit hole I really wanted to dive into. “You know what? Never mind.”
“No. You know what?” Freddie asked. “Forget Grady. I’m about to dump you.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head.
“I can only ask you to the dance so many times, Erica. God, this is just like prom.” My mouth opened. I almost took the bait. Back in the day, Freddie had wanted us to go to our big dance dressed like we were trying out for Dancing with the Stars, but when I told him I wouldn’t do it, because, one, we weren’t stars, and two, I didn’t want to glue my outfit on, well, let’s just say our relationship barely survived. Nope, I couldn’t let Freddie go down the prom tangent. I might freeze to death before he was through. Our relationship was like that too.
“The business is real,” Freddie went on. “You wouldn’t believe the phone calls I’ve been getting after we nabbed Otter Lake’s last murderer.”
“No. No. You do not say nabbed,” I said shaking my head and pointing at my chest … all alone in the forest with nobody but the woodland creatures to see. “Not with me. I am not Scooby and you are not Shaggy.”
“You’re right,” Freddie muttered. “Scooby’s more fun.”
I huffed a laugh.
“Anyway I’ve been getting a ton of calls now that spring’s coming, and I—”
“Freddie, I really don’t want to see another dead body in this lifetime. Not one. Every time I come home someone dies. That’s not normal.”
“Not murder calls, silly!” he said. “Security calls. For events and such.”
“What events?” I asked, tipping a bit of thin ice into the water with the tip of my boot. I was doing my part to help spring along.
“Town dances. Community … stuff. Farmer’s markets!”
“Farmer’s markets?” I asked with all sorts of skepticism. “Farmer’s markets need security. Really?”
“Hey, I think you overestimate people’s ability to control themselves, which is hilarious seeing as you’re the one always causing riots at bingo halls,” he said with a chuckle.
“One time. And it was not a riot.”
“Only because I was there to stop it from becoming one,” he said. “But it’s not just security. I’ve been getting all sorts of calls about cheating spouses. That’s where the money’s at.”
I took a deep breath, inhaling air tinged with distant wood smoke. “Freddie you are not a licensed private investigator. I am not a licensed private investigator. Weren’t you the one who said there were all sorts of regulations about that? We can’t just go taking pictures of people doing it in motel rooms. We will go to jail for … for being creepy.”
“Is that the legal term, Ms. Court Reporter?”
“Hey! I know all the classification codes in Chicago. New Hampshire’s weird.”
“Whatever. I’m working on the whole legalities thing. We may have to take someone on who is licensed. I’m just not keen about dealing with another employee. Look at the trouble you cause me,” he said. “But we can still do security.”
“I’m sorry, but every time I think the words, I’m going to be a private investigator, or even a … what? Security guard?” I asked, eyeing the still empty lake through the fog of my breath, “It feels like a joke. It’s ridiculous. It’s too like—”
“Your mother,” Freddie finished. “Man, why didn’t you just become an accountant? That would have shown her how boring you could be.”
“Can we just leave off the whole me working for Otter Lake Security for a while? Please? I’m already in crisis mode with Grady. I need to make tonight perfect.”
“I thought he already dumped you?”
Yes, Grady—sheriff, die-hard local, love of my life from teenage years to present with just a few blips—had technically dumped me.
Over the phone.
Just when things were getting good!
We had spent an absolutely epic Christmas together. The kind of Christmas that certain cable networks modeled Made for TV movies after … and then he went and dumped me! Over the phone! That was a bit of a sticking point for me.
Okay, so fine. I had been kind of dithering on the question of whether or not I was moving home. But in fairness, there were a lot of unanswered questions I still had to figure out. What about my job? I was pretty sure Freddie wasn’t offering dental. I wasn’t even sure he was offering a salary. And what if Grady and I didn’t work out? We had always been a little fiery. What then? Did I still want to live in Otter Lake? And where would I live? With my mother? Could I go back to living in a baconless home? These were real questions that required serious thought.
All that being said, if I were to be completely honest, I think Grady could have hung on while I worked through all these questions … but then there had been the thing that had happened. At the airport. Just as he was leaving …
I shook my head looking at the distant shoreline of hazy trees. “He’s coming over isn’t he?”
“Are you ever going to tell me what exactly went down with you two? Something must have tipped him over the edge.”
“Nope.” I meant it too. I didn’t even want to think about it.
“No. No way.”
“Fine. Don’t tell me,” Freddie said. “I already know what it all boils down to anyway. I don’t care how many times he filled your Christmas stocking. You—”
“Oh my God!”
“Yeah,” Freddie said, sounding equally disturbed. “I was trying to use a euphemism there so that I wouldn’t have to imagine you two having sex, but it came out way worse. Lesson learned. But my point is that you need to move home like yesterday if you want any chance of keeping Grady in your life.”
“Freddie, I can’t move my entire life for a man!”
“Are you talking about me or Grady now?”
“Grady! And you!” I shouted, sending a nearby bird shooting for the sky. “If I move home, it won’t be because either one of you pressured me into it. It will be because I want me to move home. Not because you men want me to move home!”
“Oh, well,” he said with an implied harrumph. “Fine then, Ms. Julia Child.”
I paused a moment, cocking my head. “Julia Child? You do know Julia Child was a chef, right?”
Freddie paused too. “Are you sure? I thought she was a feminist.”
My voice dropped. “I’m pretty sure. I—you know what? I think this conversation has run its course, don’t you?
“Thank you for buying me the steaks,” I said once again adjusting my bag on my shoulder. “I really do owe you one.”
“It’s fine. Anytime. And … good luck,” he said. “I hope it does work out for you two. We all want the same thing after all.”
“I’m not sure—” I cut myself off. Again. Rabbit hole. “Sure.”
“Call me later; or tomorrow if things go well, and—” I heard another voice talking to Freddie on the other end. “Mmm smoothie. Got to go.”
I shoved my phone back into my pocket. Well, this trip was off to a stellar start. Maybe I should just turn around and go back to Chicago before—
“No,” I whispered under my breath. “It can’t be.” Again, I blinked my cold, wet eyelashes. Nope. It wasn’t a mirage. There was Red, in the distance, in his pontoon. She hadn’t forgotten! My mom hired Red, a retired electrician whose hair hadn’t seen red in about thirty years, to ferry guests around. He probably would have done it for free. Red liked keeping busy and puttering around on the lake. He was always among the first to have his boat in the water in the spring. But Otter Lake was the kind of place where the value of work was respected, at least by the older generation, and my mother appreciated what he did for her.
A moment later, he pulled up to the dock.
“Red! Hi!” I yelled with an overly eager wave.
“Yup.” He drawled the word, changing it from one syllable into two.
I hurried my way over the slippery wood planks. “I’m so glad to see you!”
Red wasn’t a big talker.
“I can’t believe my mother remembered to tell you to come get me.” Granted, I had told her about thirty times and texted her about twenty to do just that, but it was still no guarantee.
“You gonna get in? Or we hunkering down till summer?”
“I’m getting in! I’m getting in.” I took Red’s hand and climbed into the pontoon.
“Colder than a witch’s teat out here.”
“Um … sure is,” I said, not at all sure I knew how cold that was, or if I should really agree with that statement on principle, but given that I was freezing, I didn’t care all that much either.
This was a good sign. Maybe the fates were on my side this trip. Maybe—I cut myself off with a mental groan. Freddie had warned me last visit about tempting the universe with … optimism, I guess. I had dismissed it at the time as superstitious garbage, but then two people were murdered—and while I’m not saying those murders were all about the universe teaching me a lesson, because that’s, well, pretty self-involved, I also couldn’t see the harm in being just a little cautious. Then again, as things were pretty crappy already, how much more could the universe do to me?
And I probably shouldn’t have had that thought either.
I yanked my hat down over my burning cold ears and just held it there as Red fired up the engine. My eyes trailed over the water to the shoreline as the boat puttered forward. Okay, so even in March, Otter Lake was still a little bit pretty, what with all of its nature. Despite the depressing dark slate sky, the trees did have a faint glow about them, almost like they were thinking about doing something springlike, and the soft browns and grays of everything else were kind of soothing … and … and that just made everything worse.
I huddled down farther into my seat and wrapped my arms around my chest. Tonight had to be perfect. I needed to fix what had happened. I needed to convince Grady that I was serious about us. Or at least pursuing the possibility of us. Or at least—Gah! This was exactly what he was always talking about.
“Erica,” Red said turning back from the motor to look at me. “You’re getting to be a regular fixture around here. You moving home?”
“Why is everybody always asking me that?!”
Red’s bushy eyebrows jumped up his forehead.
“I am so sorry,” I said hurriedly. “I … I’m not sure why I said it like that.”
“S’all right. Moose are most dangerous during mating season.”
I cocked my head slightly and squinted my eyes. “Right.”
Oh, I could act like I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he knew that I knew that he knew about Grady and me. Or something like that. Everybody knew everything about everybody else in Otter Lake. It was that kind of place.
But there was no time to dwell on all that. I needed to focus. Last time I had been home Grady had prepared a wonderful dinner for me. Fire pit. Wine. Salmon on a plank. Twinkly lights. And I’d messed it up. Now it was my turn to make a grand romantic gesture. My mother was out of the way—doing some downward dogging in the Grand Canyon—and we would have the retreat all to ourselves. Everything was ready to go. I would convince Grady that we were right together. There was no other alternative. It was time to get back some of that magic we had created at Christmas. In fact, it would take an act of God to—
“There’s that Nor’easter they were talking about on the news.”
I squeezed my eyes shut with my whole face for just a moment.
“They say it could turn into one of those superstorms.” Red pointed at some clouds building in the distance just over the tops of the trees.
“I thought … I thought they said it would miss us.”
“Nah, it’s changed paths,” he said with a scary amount of certainty.
“Come on. Seriously? No way. It doesn’t feel stormy. It’s too cold. Cold as a witch’s teat!” Nope, still sounded weird. “You can’t have a nor’easter when it’s that cold. You need a cold air mass,” I said, pointing a finger in the air, “and warm air mass,” I said, adding another. “And this just feels cold.” At least I thought that was how it worked. I hadn’t exactly gone to school for meteorology. Meteorology? Was that even right? Sounded right. And sounding right was just as good as science in conversations like these.
“It’s coming. You can feel it,” he said, looking at the sky. “The air’s cold, but every now and then you catch a wisp of something warm. Tropical. You could even get a twister with that.”
He shrugged, a small smile forming at the corner of his mouth.
“The news always exaggerates these things,” I said. “I doubt it will be that bad.”
“I don’t know. They seem to really mean it this time. Hurricane winds. Snow. Rain. Ice. The whole lot,” he said. “Global warming.” He then revved the engine, letting out a big puff of black smoke.
I eyed the monster clouds in the distance. I was pretty sure I saw a face in one of those clouds. A cloud face with fangs. Laughing at me.
Red turned to me again. “You get your mother to check the fuel for the generator. Those underwater cables can go in weather like this. And the electric company won’t be able to fix it anytime soon, I’m guessing. Make sure everyone’s got what they need.”
“It’s just me this weekend,” I said, but Red had already turned back to the wheel. I doubted he could hear me over the wind. “And Grady.”
Suddenly I felt even colder. If this storm was as bad as Red seemed to think it would be, there would be no Christmas re-enactment … which sounded very wrong. Grady was sheriff. And a storm probably meant that he had to—
No, no, no. Tonight was happening.
Red flipped the boat to neutral as the pontoon drifted toward my mom’s dock. Once he had pulled up alongside, he reached for my bag before I could get to it, placing it on the dock.
“Now, I mean it, Erica. You take care.” As he said the words, I thought I felt a small gust of that warm tropical air he had been talking about. “The wind keeps building the way they say it will, the lake will be too dangerous to cross.”
“Thanks, Red,” I said, climbing out of the boat. “I will.”
“And charge your phone just in case.”
“And you call if you need any help.”
“And stop smiling at me like that.” He furrowed his brow, but the little grin came back to the corner of his mouth. He then flipped me a small salute and shifted the boat into reverse.
Otter Lake was a pretty nice town.
I took a few steps down the dock toward the shore before taking one last look at the clouds churning in the sky. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, there was that eerie feeling of anticipation in the air. That strange excitement that comes with a big storm …
That was totally not going to happen because I had plans!
I clutched my bag to my body and hurried up the steps that led to the lodge.
I had so much to do. Take the steaks out of the freezer. Get some potatoes going. I probably should take Red’s advice and check the propane tanks for the generator.
I crested the top of the hill. There it was. Earth, Moon, and Stars. Nature retreat and spiritual healing facility. Huh, my mom had left some lights on for me in the lodge. That was nice … and totally unlike her. Not that she wasn’t nice. She just hated wasting electricity.
I hurried along the muddy path and up the steps to the wide porch. I reached for the door handle, resuming my list. I also needed to shower, feed my horrible fur-sibling and love of my mother’s life, Caesar, then—
I swung the door open and stopped dead in my tracks.
Yup, I had a lot to do.
Get rid of all the people standing in my living room.
Copyright © 2017 Auralee Wallace.
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Auralee Wallace is the author of the Otter Lake Mystery series which includes Skinny Dipping with Murder and Pumpkin Picking with Murder. She 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.