A Body on Fitzgerald's Bluff
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Miriam Webster’s a woman with a few secrets—can she keep them after she and her spirited Dalmatian, Domino, find a body on Fitzgerald’s Bluff?
When Miriam Webster moves into the Seaview Cottages active adult community, the last thing she expects is to find a body on the bluffs nearby. The mystery takes a quick detour when Miriam and her friends return to Fitzgerald’s Bluff with the Deputy Sheriff. The dead woman’s gone, but not for long. Where the body turns up is only one of the surprising twists the mystery takes for Miriam and her friends.
>>>Tracking Down the Killer
Convinced that the local deputy isn’t up to the task of finding a killer on the loose, Miriam and her gang of Grand Old Lady Detectives [G.O.L.D.] set out to discover the truth about a body on Fitzgerald’s Bluff.
>>>Can they solve the mystery without becoming the killer’s next victim?
To find out, grab your copy of book 1 in this new cozy mystery series by USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, Anna Celeste Burke. Recipes included.
>>>Free to read with Kindle Unlimited!
Scroll Up and Grab Your Copy Today!
Release date: December 3, 2018
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 248
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A Body on Fitzgerald's Bluff
Anna Celeste Burke
A Body on the Bluff
“Call 911! Call the police!” Marty Monroe was out of breath as she ran into the Seaview Cottages community clubhouse and shrieked that command. “There’s a body on the bluff!”
“Which one of us is it?” Carl Rodgers hollered. Marty blinked a couple of times without responding. The tall, lanky man in his eighties is a joker. I figured he was kidding, but Marty had come to a complete standstill as if pondering his question. I tried not to plow into her or the other women who were on her heels.
“Not you, obviously, Carl!” Midge Gaylord replied as she veered around Marty and hurried to the reception desk. “You’d better calm yourself down, Marty, or there’ll be a body in the clubhouse. I’m calling Deputy Dervish. It’s too late for 911. She’s already dead.”
“No way!” Exclaimed Rosemary Pfeiffer, the receptionist, who had jumped out of her seat. I hadn’t seen the cheerful middle-aged woman move that fast since I became a resident a few months ago. She’s what folks out here on the West Coast call “laid back.” Understanding what “laid back” means is only one of the adjustments I’m trying to make after moving to California from Ohio. I’m not in SoCal—southern California—but north of Santa Barbara on the so-called American Riviera along California’s Central Coast.
“Don’t tell me it’s the newcomer who moved into the Hemingway Cottage a while ago. The woman who wrote the dictionary.”
“No, it’s not Miriam Webster. Good grief, Carl, I hope you’re trying to be funny and not losing your marbles. Miriam’s standing right there in the entryway, and she didn’t write the dictionary. That’s a mnemonic she gave us to help us remember her name since it sounds so much like the famous Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.” Midge glanced at me and shook her head in exasperation. That didn’t stop Carl.
“I don’t need a pneumatic to remember names. What good would a drill do anyway?” Carl gazed at Midge straight-faced, his mouth hanging open a little as if he might genuinely be confused. Midge wasn’t buying it. She looked skyward as though praying for strength not to wring his neck.
“Will someone please give Carl a mnemonic to help him remember what a mnemonic is?” Midge was on the phone dialing the local police. She’d tried to call from the bluff area where we’d found the body but had given up. The reception is hit or miss out there amid the sandy hillocks and sparse brush at the edge of a sprawling coastal dune preserve. We’d rushed to the community clubhouse to use the landline instead.
“I haven’t written anything, Carl. I’m an aspiring writer,” I said as I darted past him trying to catch up with Midge. My dog, Domino, still on her leash, pranced along beside me. Our morning walk had taken a bizarre turn adding to the growing tally of twists in my life over the past year.
“Then it’s a good thing you’re not dead yet, isn’t it?” Carl tugged at a towel draped around his neck. His ruddy complexion was more flushed than usual. He must have just come from the fitness room.
“That’s not funny! Miriam’s fur baby is standing right there listening to you. Dogs understand more than you might believe. Domino’s probably already traumatized since she found the dead woman lying out there near Fitzgerald’s Bluff.” Penelope Parker spoke in a chiding tone. “Charly” as she preferred to be called in honor of her favorite writer, Charlotte Brontë, was always at the ready to tame Carl’s wild side.
Domino was anything but traumatized. She’d growled when she made that gruesome discovery, and then barked wildly which got my attention. I wasn’t the only one who had responded to her barking. Domino’s urgent cries had summoned several members of the Seaview Cottages Walkers Club who were within earshot. Marty, Midge, Charly, and her dog, Emily, had rushed to join us.
“Don’t worry, Charly, Domino’s fine. She’s still a little wound up given all the excitement.” Not as hyper as Emily. Named for another Brontë sister Charly admires, Emily was doing a little tap dance trying to get Domino to play. Domino crouched and kinked her tail, ready to respond to the invitation when Charly scooped Emily up into her arms.
“I would take her back to our cottage, but I don’t want to miss anything.” By cottage, Charly meant the Brontë Cottage, another in the Writers’ Circle of cottages named after famous authors.
Our Writers’ Circle is only one of the residential “Circles” that comprise the Seaview Cottages community. Other Circles honor artists, crafts persons, and luminaries of the theater and cinema. They all pay homage to the “Dunites” who once lived nearby in what is now the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex.
The utopian artists’ community of Moy Mel, Gaelic for pastures of honey, has all but been erased by sand and time. Once the dunes became a preserve area, a founder’s cabin and other remnants were moved to Oceano, so visitors wouldn’t damage the dunes.
Oceano is another small town founded on big dreams. At one point, it was slated to become the “Atlantic City of the West” by entrepreneurs aiming to turn it into a vacation mecca. I feel wistful about all the longing and ambition that was never realized. It does make the place I’ve landed in midlife intriguing, though, and I’ve just begun to explore its history.
Charly and I must have been as tightly wound as our hounds. We both startled at the sound of a booming voice. Charly yipped making a noise much like the one her excited little Jack Russel Terrier made moments ago.
“My lumbago is killing me!” Joe Torrance griped as he stepped into the enormous lobby from the hallway Carl had traipsed down minutes earlier. Joe held a towel wiping what looked like grease from his hands. “It’s always a sure sign there’s trouble ahead when the chain comes off the bike.”
Shorter than Carl by half a foot, Joe was muscular by comparison. His dark hair and black eyes stood out in contrast to Carl’s sandy-gray hair and pale gray eyes. “The odd couple,” as we referred to them. The physical differences were only one of many between these two pals.
“That can’t be true,” Carl huffed.
“Why not? That chain comes off at least once a week now and, for some reason, the rest of my day is usually whacko after that happens.”
“Your lumbago can’t be killing you. You had it removed last year.” Joe didn’t say a word. Instead, he shook his head and changed the subject.
“Who’s not dead yet?”
“Hemingway,” Carl said, pointing to me.
“You’re losing it, amigo. That’s not Hemingway, it’s Miriam who helped write one of the great American dictionaries. I carried a copy of that book with me when I was learning English about a hundred years ago.”
Marty, who was now sitting in a comfy armchair waving a brochure back and forth to cool herself, tsk-tsked. Joe’s lips twitched as if suppressing a smile. We had another joker in our midst. A quirky sense of humor is one of the things Carl and Joe have in common.
“If you read it about a hundred years ago, how did Miriam help write it? She wasn’t even born then.” I gulped, hoping the matter of my age wouldn’t draw any attention as both men stared at me.
I adjusted the reading glasses I wear, trying to hide the worry in my eyes. Glasses, not covering my gray hair, and going without makeup are strategies I’ve adopted to appear older. I’ll bet I’m one of the only women around who doesn’t dye her hair or wear makeup to avoid looking younger. That’s part of my strategy to blend in now that I’ve taken up residence in a fifty-five plus community even though I’m not that old yet.
When my husband, Peter Webster, died unexpectedly last year, he left me in an awful fix. The house we’d lived in for more than twenty-five years was mortgaged to the hilt. Most of our savings were gone, including the money in Pete’s IRA that he’d put into “speculative investments.”
According to our accountant, his wild schemes had nearly bankrupted us. Neither he nor Pete had bothered to discuss the situation with me. Not even after I lost my job as a bookkeeper when The Pastry Palace shut down.
Maybe Pete had been too embarrassed to discuss our financial difficulties. I know I am. I haven’t told a soul about how close to the edge I’m living—another of the secrets I’m keeping. Not using makeup or dying my hair has another advantage—it saves me a few bucks.
Domino tugged at her leash, literally pulling me out of my reverie about the shock and misery of becoming a widow. Emily yelped, and Domino woofed. Joe hadn’t said anything in response to Marty’s question, but he’d given that towel a snap, putting the dogs back into hyper mode. Emily was squirming so much that Charly had to put her down.
“Will you all please keep it quiet? I’m trying to get Deputy Dervish—” Midge quit speaking mid-sentence and held the phone away from her ear. I could hear the deputy’s voice from where I stood a couple feet away. I couldn’t make out his words, but I could guess what he was saying. Domino picked up on the tone of the conversation and stepped closer to me. She’s a sensitive creature and doesn’t like expressions of anger.
“It’s okay, girl,” I whispered, reaching down to pat her. That set her tail wagging again and put a big doggy smile back on her face.
Midge donned a wicked grin. Then she arched an eyebrow, devilishly, and her brown eyes sparkled. The smile lit up her face ringed by hair that looks like gold-tinged cotton candy. Tormenting the local Sheriff’s deputy is one of her favorite pastimes. I’d already witnessed her in action several times. Deputy Devers was no doubt protesting her use of the nickname she has for him. It drives him nuts.
“Why do you call him Deputy Dervish?” I’d asked shortly after I moved in and witnessed my first round of the ongoing sparring match between Midge and the deputy.
“You’ll find out soon enough. He’s a dirt devil, whirling like a dervish, and stirring up trouble wherever he goes. Ask anyone in Duneville Downs. They’ll tell you what a pompous, snot-nosed, no good, troublemaker he is. Not to mention he’s ageist, sexist, and every other ‘ist’ ever invented.” That had been Neely Conrad speaking. Neely is short for Cornelia Conrad.
“Now tell us what you really think. Come on! Don’t hold back,” Midge had said, hoping Neely would continue her rant. Then Midge had offered input of her own about the deputy. “The good thing about all the ‘ists’ is that it makes him easy to fool. The daffy old dame routine works every time. If you get in a fix, just stand there looking helpless and confused and he’ll let it go with a ‘Women!’ or a ‘Save me from screwy old broads!’ statement.”
I hadn’t seen the plump, bespectacled Neely yet today. That isn’t too surprising given that she’s a self-proclaimed night owl. “Nothing good happens before noon,” she’d said when Midge and a couple other women in the Walkers Club had tried to get her to join them for their morning walks.
An occupant of the Christie Cottage, Neely, loves to read about murder and mayhem into the wee hours of the night. She’s not a dog owner, either. Domino would never let me sleep in even if I had stayed up half the night to finish a book.
When Midge spoke again, I hoped it meant she was ready to end the torment and get on with the business at hand. Dirty business, I presume. It’s not likely the young, attractive woman we’d found had died from natural causes.
“Look Deputy, I didn’t call you to argue. We’ve got a dead body on our hands.” She paused. “No, it’s not one of us,” Midge said a moment later, rolling her eyes. Then she abruptly quit speaking, put a hand on her hip, and tapped her foot. “Yes, I’m sure. This one’s lying behind a bluff down below the Fitzgerald Cottage. A good-looking blonde. Young, too.” Midge turned to look at me as she listened to the voice on the other end.
“How do we know what killed her? That’s why we called the police!” The deputy must have finally gotten the message. “Uh-huh. Sure. We’re in the clubhouse.” With that, she hung up the phone and reported to us.
“We’ve been warned not to go anywhere. Dudley Do-Wrong is on his way.” Deputy Dervish obviously isn’t Midge’s only misnomer for the local lawman. I haven’t witnessed her lampoon the name of Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right to irritate the deputy, but I can imagine steam coming out of his ears like a cartoon character! “It won’t be long since he was out on the highway arranging to have an abandoned vehicle towed.”
Midge had barely finished updating us when Neely stumbled into the clubhouse. It appeared as if she’d thrown on a jacket over her pajamas. She wore slippers and her hair needed to be combed. She scanned the room, looking at each of us before spotting Charly. Even with glasses, Neely’s distance vision isn’t great.
“Charly, what’s going on?” She asked. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to the phone in time when you called.”
“Not even the second time,” Charly said interrupting her. “I take it you did get my voicemail message.”
“Yes. I got here as soon as I could. What’s this about finding a body?”
“What?” A woman cried out after bursting through the doors. Another resident I recognized strode into the clubhouse moving quickly on a collision course with Neely. It’s as if she hit an invisible force field when she heard the word “body,” coming up short before running over Neely. Then she looked Neely up and down, zeroing in on her fluffy bedroom slippers with a look of disgust. “What body? Not here in our community, right? Greta’s got an open house scheduled for today!”
Even if I hadn’t been able to see her, I would have known by the shrill tone of her shrieking voice that it was Alyssa Gardener speaking, half of “The Gardeners.” She and her husband, Alfred, love calling themselves that given the prize-winning orchids they raise in a greenhouse behind the Potter Cottage. That’s not Potter as in Harry Potter, but Beatrix Potter, the beloved writer of Peter Rabbit and other children’s stories. Their “Potter’s Shed,” as they call the greenhouse, is a destination on Greta Bishop’s real estate tours with potential homebuyers.
Whoever said gardening was a relaxing hobby sure got it wrong in Alyssa’s case. She’s the biggest worrywart I’ve ever met. Even her husband, who prefers to be called Alf, had given up trying to get her to cool it when her hair is on fire. The long-suffering man was at his wife’s side in an instant. Like the tortoise and the hare, Alf was often a few strides behind his more frenetic spouse.
A panicky harangue might have been in store for us, except that a series of soft gongs sounded. Chef Tony’s breakfast buffet was open. Most days, I prefer making my own breakfast and eating it on the front porch while taking in my view of the Pacific Ocean. It saves money. Chef Tony is a great cook, though, and many of the six hundred or so community members enjoy dining in the Dunes Club more often than I do.
That’s especially true for golfers with an early tee time. The Seaview Cottages Dunes Course is now a public course. Opening the course to the public was a measure taken to cover the costs associated with its upkeep. It also brings townspeople and tourists to the restaurant. Hungry diners had begun streaming in the moment the restaurant opened as if someone had rung an old triangle chow bell outdoors.
“We’d better go eat, dear, so we don’t keep Greta waiting,” Alf said, speaking in a calm even-handed tone to his wife, Alyssa. “Can someone fill us in on what’s going on?”
“Come on, amigo, it’s time to eat.” Carl seemed hesitant, but Joe slapped him on the back. “The ladies will catch us up later, won’t you?” Midge opened her mouth to speak, probably with some smart aleck retort about his reference to “the ladies.” She put a lid on it, though, when the clubhouse door opened again, and a police siren could be heard growing louder by the second.
“Come on Alyssa, we’ll tell you what’s happened so far,” Carl offered. Alf nodded, and a look of relief spread across his face as Alyssa stepped toward the dining room.
“Please keep it down, will you?” Alyssa snipped. “All we need in this community is for word to get out that people are dropping dead here.”
“It’s not one of us,” Carl said. He also said something else that I couldn’t hear, but Alyssa did.
“A murder?” She asked in a loud, alarmed voice. A foursome of golfers turned and gazed at her.
“So much for hush-hush,” I muttered as she and the men with her disappeared around the corner and down the corridor to the dining room.
“Yeah, I’d say we’re all in for more attention like that until this dead body thing gets sorted out,” Neely said as she joined Midge, Marty, and me where we stood near the reception desk. “I probably shouldn’t run around in my pajamas, should I?” She asked.
“It’s too late to go home and change now. You need to stick around to get the details about what’s going on,” Marty said as the door swung open and Deputy Devers stormed into the lobby. He spotted us and swaggered our way with one hand on his holstered gun as if he might need to draw on us.
“The cavalry has arrived. Try not to swoon, ladies,” Midge commented in a low voice drenched in sarcasm.
“Brace yourselves for Deputy Devers’ version of the third degree since you found the body,” Charly added. She gripped Emily tighter as the little dog squirmed.
Great! I thought as I let out an enormous sigh. More attention is just what I don’t need. I did a quick reality check—something I’d done many times in the past year, trying to keep myself centered in a world spinning out of control around me. I heaved a mighty sigh. At least I’m still alive, unlike the poor dead woman on the bluff.
“Where is it?” Deputy Devers asked.
“It was right down there!” Midge exclaimed. Several of us scanned the area below from a vantage point up above the rolling dunes. The trail we were on leads from the overlook where our cottages sit, over the roadway via a small pedestrian bridge, and then down, around, and through a network of smaller bluffs and seaside dunes. It ends at the beach and the blue Pacific Ocean.
“Great! You find a dead body, and then you lose it. Why am I not surprised?” The ever-exasperated deputy took his cap off and wiped his face and then his bald head with a handkerchief. The exertion of walking from the clubhouse, along the pathways that lead out the gates, and down to the bluffs was getting to him.
“You need to get out from behind the wheel of your patrol car more often if you want to keep up with us active adults.” Midge’s comment drew a grunt from Deputy Devers who, consciously or not, had put his hand back on the holstered gun at his side.
I couldn’t see a body anywhere as we moved on down the trail that led around another mound of dunes. I checked behind each hillock as we wound our way past it, thinking maybe in our shock and confusion, our memories were failing us. Even when we passed Fitzgerald’s Bluff, we didn’t see a body and kept moving.
A little farther down in front of us, the path widened revealing a view of the beach and foamy waves sliding ashore. That’s when I spotted tracks in the sand as if something had been dragged toward the water. I stopped and held both arms outstretched realizing that if we kept moving, we’d tread on those marks, but there must have been footprints earlier. I couldn’t see any now. The rising tide or a deliberate attempt to erase them left no obvious prints in the sand.
I pointed them out to my companions and explained what I thought they were. Domino tugged on her leash trying to take me back to a spot we’d just passed. I gave in and backtracked to the hillock we all referred to as Fitzgerald’s Bluff which is where I would have sworn we’d seen that body earlier. I checked again. It wasn’t there now. Deputy Devers was still farther up the trail and on his satellite phone bellowing.
“Cancel the call you put into the County. We’re not going to need anyone out here at ‘See-nothing Cottages’ after all. There’s no body.” He paused, apparently listening to the dispatcher. “What do you mean ‘another one?’ I’m telling you there’s not one here. Divert the crime lab guys to Blue Haven.”
“That must be where our body went,” Charly said loud enough for Deputy Devers to hear. Emily yipped excitedly as if in agreement.
Neely stood next to me shaking one foot trying to get the sand out of her slipper. When that didn’t work, she grabbed my arm to steady herself, bent down, and took that slipper off. Sand streamed from it as she turned it upside down.
“It’s not your body,” the deputy snapped responding to Charly’s comment.
“We had it first,” Midge said, smirking as she spoke. She winked at me, signaling she was well aware of the fact that her statement would irk the deputy. “Is it a young blonde woman? If it is, it’s our body. If not, your dispatcher’s right and you have another one on your hands.”
“I don’t have to share that information with you. All I know is that it’s the body of a woman.”
“Then, Midge is right, and it’s ours. That makes more sense than the possibility that we’re dealing with two dead women this early in the morning,” Marty argued. “I’ll bet those folks at Blue Haven aren’t happy, are they? You should have gotten here sooner. This is a much better location for a crime scene than on the beach in Snootyville.”
“Uh, I’m pretty sure this is still a crime scene,” I said as Neely gasped and gave up trying to keep her bare foot out of the sand. When she put it down, she let go of my arm. Then she used the slipper still in her hand to point out an area behind the bluff.
“Deputy Devers, you’d better get the County to send investigators out this way, too,” I added. A woman’s shoe lay in the sand, half-hidden by a clump of wispy grass. Then I went on alert. There were more items beyond that shoe. Domino reacted to my tension with a woof.
“What is it?” Marty asked.
“Our dead blonde’s belongings,” I said. “See? That looks to me like a woman’s canvas tote with leather straps. Someone’s dumped its contents on the sand.”
“Your vision beats mine. I’m lucky I could see that shoe. Everything beyond that point is a blur.” Neely glanced sideways at me, crinkling up her nose as she checked out my glasses. “Maybe your cheaters are better than my prescription lenses.” I gulped. Was it that obvious I was wearing cheap, drugstore reading glasses? I quickly refocused the conversation.
“Body or no body, Deputy, something bad happened here,” I remarked.
“Do you think it was a robbery?” Charly asked.
“That’s a canvas Gucci sneaker and a Marc Jacobs tote—a grand, easy, lying there in the sand. She could have had some money on her,” Marty said as she scrutinized the objects.
“A grand? As in a thousand dollars?” I asked. That would cover three—no, almost four of the car payments I still owe on my hatchback! I felt a tad dizzy at the thought that someone might spend that kind of money on shoes and a handbag.
“Yep! The compact and lipstick are pricey, too, I bet. She could have had jewelry worth stealing, as well as cash and credit cards. I don’t remember seeing any jewelry on her, do you?”
“No,” I responded.
“I don’t either,” Midge added. “So maybe this was the scene of a robbery gone wrong although it’s an odd place for a mugging to occur.”
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