Zoe Donovan is a cozy mystery series with enduring friendships, memorable characters, an enchanting setting, and a generous dollop of romance.
Halloween Hijinks: Amid a backdrop of zombies on the run and Halloween festivities, animal control officer Zoe Donovan is faced with losing something she loves in order to save someone she loves when she finds a dead body in the basement of a haunted house just two days before Halloween. With the help of her best friends, Levi and Ellie, and her dog Charlie, she delves into a mystery as complex and multilayered as the feelings she develops for her ex-nemesis Zak Zimmerman. Halloween Hijinks is the perfect recipe, combining holiday fun with a touch of humor, a pinch of romance, and a dollop of murder.
Zoe's Treasure Hunt: Zoe and Charlie meet a mysterious stranger at the hospital while doing therapy dog rounds. The man is in town to look for a 70 year old treasure. When he is unable to continue the journey into the past himself, Zoe and Charlie take over the quest with the help of Pappy and a few of his friends.
Release date: August 29, 2014
Publisher: Kathi Daley Books
Print pages: 213
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It was the week before Halloween and the alpine town of Ashton Falls was decorated festively for the annual Haunted Hamlet: a four-day event comprised of a haunted barn, spooky maze, zombie run, kiddie carnival, and pumpkin patch. Known as the event capital of the Timberland Mountains, Ashton Falls is a quaint village, nestled on the shore of a large deepwater lake, surrounded by hundreds of miles of thick evergreen forest.
Like many small towns across the country, Ashton Falls is a village with a big heart but a tiny local budget. While our forefathers tended toward rugged isolation, the younger generation has discovered that the answer to funding luxuries such as a free public library, volunteer fire department, afterschool sports and activities and, my personal favorite, wild and domestic animal control and rehabilitation, is a steady inflow of tourist dollars from the larger cities in the valley below. After much consideration, the town council decided that the best way to accomplish the aforementioned transfer of funds was the frequent hosting of an array of celebrations and events. As a result of this constant state of preparation and implementation, the Ashton Falls Events Committee, of which I am a member, was formed.
My name is Zoe Donovan. I’m a third-generation Ashtonite (our unofficial name for the citizens of our little community). The by-product of my wealthy mother’s single act of teenage rebellion, and my locally beloved but financially lacking, blue-collar father’s tender act of love, I’ve overcome my scandalous entry into the world and carved out a satisfying and peaceful existence. While some of the crustier old geezers in town would say I have a tendency toward the absurd, I like to think that I’m actually a normal and well-rounded twenty-four-year-old with a few adorable quirks that make me, me.
According to my Facebook page, which I share with Charlie, my half terrier/ half mystery dog, we’re in a relationship with our two cats, a huge orange tabby named Marlow (after detective Phillip Marlow) and a petite black beauty named Spade (named for Sam Spade and not the playing card suit.) We are avid joggers and mystery buffs who work for the Ashton Falls branch of the Timberland County Animal Shelter. When we aren’t rescuing animals and placing them in homes around the community, I volunteer at the senior center, where I horn in on their book club, and Charlie volunteers at the hospital, where he’s a therapy dog. I like to wakeboard in the summer and snowboard in the winter, while Charlie prefers chasing a Frisbee on the beach or hiking the miles of unmarred forest around the lake. We both like to relax by curling up in front of the fire with a good book in the converted boathouse we call home.
I suppose I should mention that, although I tend to be verbally creative and a bit long-winded, I’m not a physically impressive individual. In fact, at five foot two (okay, five foot nothing) and just under a hundred pounds, I’m considered by most to be both vertically challenged and physically derisory. I inherited my dad’s stick-thin frame, speckling of freckles, and thick curly hair, a deep chestnut brown that most days is a wild mess that I braid or just pull back with a large clip. I’ve been told I have nice eyes, sort of an intense yet unusual piercing blue, and I did manage to inherit my mother’s long, thick lashes and wide, full-lipped smile.
I guess the only other thing you should know is that, while I’m somewhat high strung in general, I tend to go more than a little nuts if the equilibrium in my most important relationships is disturbed in any way. I’m not sure where my neurotic need to maintain homogeneity originated, but I suspect it had something to do with my mom’s desertion when I was just a baby.
My story begins on a sunny Tuesday in October. Although the temperature was unseasonably warm and the air delightfully calm, I knew, intuitively, that a storm was brewing. The storm wouldn’t be a traditional sort, embodying rain and lightning-streaked skies but a different type, born of the tangled threads of iniquitous secrets and ravaged lives.
Charlie and I were on our way to the regular Tuesday morning breakfast meeting of the Ashton Falls Events Committee when we noticed two of the members of the Ashton Falls Bulldogs (rugged, blue-collar-raised mountain boys with a tendency toward mischief) hanging a mannequin in the town square dressed in a jersey they stole —I later found out—from the locker room of their arch rivals, the Bryton Lake Beavers (think upper class preppy in a tries too hard, middle-class sort of way). This year, for some maniacal reason, the biggest football game of the decade was scheduled the same weekend as the annual Haunted Hamlet, one of the town’s biggest fundraisers of the year. While the pregame psych-out is a time-honored tradition in our little corner of the world, this year, with the matchup of historical rivals, both undefeated, the pranks, it seemed, had been steadily escalating for days.
I made a left hand turn in front of Trish’s Treasures—think touristy-type establishment selling a variety of objects with ASHTON FALLS branded on the front—when I noticed my best friend, Levi Denton, talking to the boys in question. Levi is the coach at the local high school. An athletic jack of all trades, he coaches football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. Levi and I, along with the other member of our triad, Ellie Davis, have been best friends since kindergarten, when everyone sat at round tables of three, alphabetically by last name.
“Trouble?” I asked as Levi approached the parking lot where I had pulled in next to his 4Runner. Although he looked tired, Levi is a handsome man: six foot two, thick brown hair, sun-kissed skin from the hours he spends outdoors, and muscles that prove he walks his talk and pays a visit to the gym almost every day.
“Warren Trent was in an accident last night.” Levi referred to his star running back. “He’s going to be okay, but he broke his leg in three places, so it looks like he’ll be out for the season.”
“Some idiot in a truck swerved toward him while he was riding his bike home from practice. Warren tried to avoid a collision and ended up in the drainage ditch that runs along the highway. The moron in the truck didn’t even stop to see if he was okay.”
“You don’t think…” The biggest game of the season and the teams’ star running back is involved in an accident?
“I don’t know. I hope not. But maybe.” Levi sighed.
I frowned as I noticed the worry lines around his dark green eyes making him look much older than his twenty-four years.
“The guys on the team think it might be payback for the skunk incident,” He added. “Skunk incident?”
“Monday, after the guys saw the field, one of the guys on the team caught a skunk and locked it in Kirby Wall’s gym locker after stealing his jersey. I guess it completely destroyed Kirby’s gear, as well as stinking up the whole locker room.”
I knew that Kirby was the starting quarterback for the Beavers, and one of the most obstreperous idiots in the whole county. Kirby had been trash-talking the Bulldogs for months. I really wasn’t surprised that the guys had chosen Kirby as their victim, but I wasn’t thrilled they used an innocent skunk as their weapon. “Field?” The entirety of what Levi had just said finally hit home. While the dance to gain one-upmanship was, as I said, a time-honored tradition, it looked like the familiar waltz was taking an early toll on the normally energetic and enthusiastic coach.
“The guys from Bryton Lake painted a giant beaver giving the one-finger salute over the top of the Bulldog in the center of the field.” Levi sighed again. “Principal Lamé isn’t happy about any of this and is threatening the suspension of any and all students involved if the pranks continue.”
I knew that Principal Joe Lamé—pronounced La-mae with an exaggerated accent—was new to Ashton Falls this year, a transplant from a school in the valley who apparently woke up one day and decided to embrace the mountain way of life. While I understand the desire one might have to live in this beautiful place I call home, I’m afraid the yuppie simply doesn’t get our small town ways. The difference in perspective has resulted in a sort of low, humming tension, between the man and his staff and students.
“I’ve tried talking to the boys,” Levi continued, “but honestly, I don’t think my warnings of ‘severe consequences’ for random acts of vandalism are really sinking in. If you want my opinion, I think the guys are intentionally trying to raise lamebrain’s blood pressure.”
“So who exactly started the whole thing?” I tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear as I tried to work out the sequence of events in my mind.
“I think I may have.”
“You?” I was surprised. Levi is an easygoing sort of guy who normally isn’t inclined toward bellicose acts of unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Not intentionally,” Levi defended himself. “Last Friday I was a guest on that morning show, Wake Up Timberland, and I made a sarcastic remark about the Beavers new wide receiver, Samantha Collins.”
I knew that Samantha was the first female in the county to play high school ball after her parents had challenged her right to do so in court and won.
“I thought I was being funny, but I guess Coach Griswold didn’t see it that way. Later that morning he called my office and left me a scathing phone message,” Levi continued.
Coach Griswold had spoken out quite passionately during the court hearing in opposition to Samantha’s inclusion on the team. I had to admit that I was impressed that he was sticking up for Samantha in spite of the fact he’d been quite vocal in his campaign to have her removed from the team.
“I realized that my joke, while not intended to be malicious, was actually mean spirited and uncalled for,” Levi continued. “I called Griswold and apologized. I thought that was the end of it until we showed up at practice on Saturday and saw a giant beaver where our bulldog used to be.”
“So the kids on your team put a skunk in Kirby’s locker and stole his jersey as payback for the graffiti,” I guessed.
“Sounds about right.”
“And you think Warren was run off the road as a return of the symbolic volley?”
“Personally I can’t imagine that anyone would do such a thing, but Warren remembers the vehicle that swerved into him was a white truck, and Coach Griswold drives a white truck. Everyone knows Griswold is a narcissist who will do anything to win.”
I wrapped my arm around Levi’s waist and laid my cheek against his chest. “I’m sorry. Anything I can do?” Levi isn’t just a babe; he’s sweet and thoughtful and considerate as well. There are those in town, including my father, who don’t understand why we haven’t moved our relationship to a more intimate level. The thing is, I love Levi way too much to risk screwing up what we have with a messy romantic encounter. Besides, with Ellie in the mix, a three-way friendship is an easier dynamic than a couple and a third wheel.
“No, but thanks for asking.” He kissed the top of my head. “How about you? Any luck finding zombies for the run?”
“Afraid not,” I said. “If there’s anyone who could use a zombie apocalypse right about now it would be me. I’m not sure what I’ll do if I can’t scare up some willing brain eaters.”
This year I’m in charge of the annual zombie run. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this awesome event, it’s sort of like a regular 5K fun run, except you’re chased by hungry, merciless zombies who want to eat your brain. You’re given flags at the beginning of the race that the zombies want to steal. If you lose all your flags, you’re dead. Only the most cunning and agile can make it out alive. Normally the guys from the football team are happy to tap into their inner zombie and chase willing participants through Black Bear Woods, but this year, with the big game scheduled for the same weekend as the run, most are too preoccupied to sign up.
“I’ll talk to the guys and see if I can get a few volunteers,” Levi offered. “Thanks. I’d really appreciate that.”
“How many do you still need?”
I thought about it. So far the only walking dead I’d managed to round up were a few of the guys from the senior center, and half of them would be chasing runners using walkers and oxygen tanks. “As many as I can get,” I answered.
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do. I need to get back to the school, so I’ll be a few minutes late to the committee meeting. Can you order me a mountain man special and tell the others I’ll be along shortly?”
After Levi walked away I turned to Charlie, who had been waiting patiently on the passenger seat. “I think it’s going to be a tough week for everyone. What do you say we invite Levi and Ellie to a BBQ at the house so that everyone can forget the insanity that has befallen our little town for a few hours?”
Charlie barked in response. Second only to me, I think Levi is Charlie’s favorite person. Not only does Levi always greet him with a kind word and a vigorous scratch on the belly, but my friend, on more than one occasion, has slipped him a piece of his steak or burger when he thinks I’m not looking.
After Levi got into his vehicle and drove away, Charlie and I carefully maneuvered the mammoth we drive out of the tightly spaced parking lot. I drive a truck: a big one. A four-wheel drive, heavy duty, extra cab, lift-kit enhanced, long-bed monster. Although it takes a leap worthy of a pole vaulter for me to enter the beast, and parking is a problem more often than not, I find its size necessary given the fact that I live and work in an environment in which half of the miles I log each year are spent plowing through waist-deep snow or jolting along rutted dirt roads. A big, heavy truck is essential. The truck is black with tinted windows and a raised, camper type shell built specifically to safely store animal crates of different sizes, which, thanks to my dad, are secured to the bed of the vehicle to avoid sliding.
I carefully executed a twenty-point turn and pulled out of the parking lot and onto Main Street, which was decked out for the upcoming weekend celebrations. The school colors for my alma mater are black and gold, chosen by my forefathers to represent the inky blackness of the deep underground mines our ancestors worked and the ever elusive gold few were lucky enough to find. Luckily, this color scheme works equally well for the Haunted Hamlet, necessitating only one set of decorations for both events.
I suppose this is a good place to mention that the original name for the mining camp where Ashton Falls now sits was Devil’s Den. Not a cozy name, to be sure, but probably a bit more accurate than the somewhat pretentious Ashton Falls, a name given to the town by Ashton Montgomery, a multimillionaire and my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. Ashton bought the land where the village now stands and built the town as sort of a touristy tribute to himself (no vanity there.) At one time all the land in the mountain basin where Ashton Falls is located was owned by the Montgomery’s, but, unlike Ashton, his three sons weren’t thrilled with the mountain way of life and moved from the area as soon as they were old enough to hitch their horses to wagons heading west. (Actually, they went away to college, never to return to the isolated mountain town, but I thought the wagon-heading-west analogy was a bit more poetic.)
After Ashton died, his sons, Bryce, Jamison, and Preston—my grandfather— divided the land and began selling it off, keeping in the family only a few prime pieces of property, such as the isolated bay where my converted boathouse sits. Of the three sons, my grandfather Preston is the only one who continued to visit Ashton Falls after his father’s death. Every summer he’d bring his wife, three sons, and daughter —my mother—to the mansion he built overlooking the lake for two months of what he laughingly labeled “rugged mountain living.” That, by the way, is how my mother met my father and yours truly was conceived, but that is a story for another day.
Anyway, as I mentioned what seems an eon ago, the town of Ashton Falls is all decked out in the school colors of black and gold. The main street of our little town is built on the lakeshore, so as you drive through town from east to west, the lake, beach, and landscaped park area is on your left and the row of mom-and-pop shops and restaurants that gives Ashton Falls its quaint alpine charm is on the right. On both sides of the road is a walkway that’s adorned with old fashioned lamp posts donated by my mother’s family for the town’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration. At first I thought the lights—white wrought-iron with fancy, lantern-shaped lights, three to a post—a bit ostentatious for our rugged little town, but as time has passed, these beacons, currently decorated with black and gold ribbons, have grown on me.
If there’s one thing you can say for our little town, it’s that we know how to improvise. Not only are most storefronts along the two-mile main drag decorated for the upcoming Haunted Hamlet, but they’ve adapted their displays in support of team pride for the upcoming football game as well. The barber shop decorated its doorway with black and gold twinkle lights, the bakery has a giant cake featuring zombies playing football in its front window, and the sporting goods store has a football-themed Halloween display complete with various life-size monsters dressed in retired jerseys from several generations of Ashton Falls Bulldogs.
I waved to Lilly Evans as I pulled up in front of Rosie’s Cafe. Lilly, a seventy-two-year-old mother of four and grandmother of twelve, was perched precariously on a ladder in front of Second Hand Suzie’s, hanging a hand painted sign that said BULLISH ON BULLDOGS.
“ʼMorning, Lilly,” I said.
“ʼMornin’, Zoe. You, too, Charlie.” Charlie trotted over to the ladder and sat down to wait for Lilly, dressed for fall in a burnt-orange sweater and a pair of khaki slacks, to climb down. “Guess you heard that Bears and Beavers was hit last night. That makes four robberies in the past two weeks.”
“Same MO?” I wondered. Bears and Beavers is a touristy-type shop featuring souvenirs having to do with—you guessed it—bears and beavers. While many of the items are quite charming, I can’t imagine what the store might stock that would interest a burglar. In the previous three cases, the thief snuck in, stole what seemed to be select yet inexpensive items, and then left, locking the door on the way out. It almost seemed like our late-night bandit was participating in some sort of elaborate scavenger hunt.
“You’d think the sheriff would have caught the guy by now,” I commented. “You’d think, but we are talking about Sheriff Salinger.” Lilly rolled her eyes.
The sheriff of Ashton Falls is really more of a reject from the county office in Bryton Lake. His father was a cop, as was his grandfather, so simply firing him from the force wasn’t really an option. When the mayor of Bryton Lake decided that the socially awkward young recruit wasn’t sophisticated enough for their uppity little town, Salinger was transferred to the satellite office in Ashton Falls. He’d been serving our town for almost twenty years, yet on most days of the week, he lets it be known to anyone who will listen that his time in our “hick” community is nothing more than a stepping stone to bigger things ahead.
“By the way, did Victoria call you about that raccoon in her attic?” Lilly added.
“Yeah. I’ll head over and pick it up after the meeting.” While my primary job—at least according to the county—is to monitor and control the domestic dog and cat population, it’s well known in the area that if you’re having a problem of the wild animal kind, my partner Jeremy and I are the ones to call.
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