Sam Painter was a great guy and good community leader. Woman loved him, men respected him…
But someone hated him…Enough to murder him.
Lily, LauraLea and Kenzie are devastated over the death of their friend Sam Painter. Sam, an expert skier and former Olympian, had planned a full day of skiing on Massanutten Mountain’s Diamond slope until he was stopped. Moments later he was dead in his tracks. Lily and LauraLea help medical examiner Kenzie Z. investigate the crime, but a series of twists, turns and evil keep them guessing far longer than they liked.
Release date: December 7, 2019
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing, LLC Harrisonburg, VA
Print pages: 272
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The Most Slippery Crime of the Year: Death on the Slopes: A Massanutten Tale
His heart froze in his chest. The outside air made no difference. The trees flew by in a blur. He couldn’t see anymore. He was blind. Somehow, he’d been blinded. He raced at the speed of light and lost control. He soared through the trees and tore through the forest, tree branches ripping through his gortex ski wear. He realized he was off the slope when he hit a tree, he lost his pole as he veered to the left. He had no control. Twigs and limbs stuck to his jacket. His heart throbbed with fear. He knew his life was over. He careened through the air, struck something and then there was nothing.
It was freezing. The mercury registered 11°F on Sam Painter’s dashboard. He knew it’d be colder at the top of Massanutten Mountain, but he wasn’t concerned. He had the best outdoor wear available, and he knew he’d stay warm during his full day of skiing. Sam turned right onto Route 33 and drove his truck as quickly as weather conditions allowed. The last thing he needed was another speeding ticket. Sam, a good public servant, was often at odds with the local police.
Sam was a Southern Baptist deacon, hardworking and a law-abiding guy, except for his desire to drive fast which had gotten him in trouble a few times. He owned a large dairy farm just off Route 42 below Dayton, Virginia. A widower for several years, Sam’s one love in the world, other than working his land, was skiing. Sam loved to ski. He’d been on the Ski team in college and had skied every mentionable ski resort in the United States and most of them in Europe. He’d also trained and been a member of the United States Olympic Ski team but had never competed due to a knee injury. Nevertheless, the mountains and skiing remained his love and every time he could arrange for someone to care for his dairy cows, he went skiing.
Sam Painter liked to go fast – he liked the wind in his face -warm or cold - and he liked to decrease distance-spans as quickly as possible. There was a rumor that he had the most souped-up tractor in the Shenandoah Valley. His obsession with speed had caused him some problems over the years. He’d been the victim of a couple of car accidents for driving too quickly, a few ski injuries from coming down a slope too fast and had even raced his tractor to the point where it lost a wheel, turned over and almost crushed him. Age had mellowed his love of breakneck speed and he was a bit wiser, but Sam still liked to go fast.
But that was in his earlier years. Sam had matured and become a responsible, civic minded man. He was a wealthy dairy man and a community leader with a clear agenda. He’d been appointed to the county planning commission and took his job - particularly that of protecting the land - seriously and often blew the whistle on controlled growth he didn’t see as necessary.
Sam was also the most thoughtful, conservative and environmentally conscious man in the Shenandoah Valley. In fact, Sam had testified before Congress about the benefits and disadvantages of using genetically modified seeds and the importance of care and maintenance of farmland. He abhorred the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers on crops and farmland. He was a man of firm convictions and rarely, if ever, backed down from a fight.
Sam steered his F250 truck carefully up the mountain and smiled to himself. He was excited about a full day of skiing. As a VIP member of the local Ski Club, he had access to the advanced slopes at Massanutten for three hours before they opened to the public every day. He knew he’d be there all three hours and longer if the crowd was mature and knew how to ski the slopes. Massanutten Resort had three advanced slopes, but Sam preferred the Diamond Jim, the highest and most difficult slope.
He turned his shiny teal truck into Woodstone area of the resort, just before the main gate into Massanutten Resort. He needed coffee and pastry before he began his day. He slid into the parking lot of the Woodstone Coffee Cafe next to another lone vehicle. It stood out next to Sam’s immaculate vehicle because it was an old pickup truck, covered with dirty snow and mud.
A blast of heat welcomed him as he opened the door of the almost-deserted coffee shop. Sam knew the coffee bar would soon be jammed as vacationing tourists and condo owners woke up and started their day.
He passed an older, scruffy long-haired man with a cup of coffee who sat at a corner table reading the morning paper. The man glanced up at him and Sam raised his index finger in greeting. He recognized him. It was Ty Shiflett, the former boss of the notorious Hillbilly Mob, a gang of hoodlums who stole cars and sold them for their parts. The Mob also had a chop shop and sometimes engaged in serious crime. He’d read where Ty had recently been released from jail. The old man looked awful. His color was sallow, and his jacket hung off him. He’d lost a lot of weight.
Sam shook his head. Looked like Ty had lived his best years. He checked his watch. It was half past seven in the morning. He’d been up since four. He’d had to milk his cows and feed the animals before he could leave for the day. For a second, his brain flashed to his broken tractor and other maintenance tasks that waited for him in his equipment barn. He quickly dismissed them. This was his day and he’d spend it skiing. The conditions were perfect. The day promised to be sunny and cold. There was an excellent base, forty-two inches of natural and man-made snow, and all slopes were open on the mountain.
"Double espresso, double sugar, and two bear claws,” he said quietly to the sleepy teen behind the bar. The young man, eyes half closed, handed Sam his coffee and a complimentary copy of USA Today. He mumbled something about bear claws and pointed towards the table laden with cream, sugar, and other coffee condiments. Sam dumped his change in the tip jar, walked over to the condiment bar and added a touch of cream. He placed his coffee and newspaper on the table and headed towards the men’s room.
Two more guys entered the coffee shop. One of them was a tall dude, over six feet dressed in ski attire. The other guy was short and heavy. He was dressed for a day at the slopes as well. The tall skier rubbed his hands together. He was frozen. He nodded at the old, scruffy man who gave him a thumbs up sign.
“Waz up, Ty?” the tall skier asked.
“Nuttin,” Ty replied as he reached for his cup. “Trying to stay warm and out of jail.”
“Yeah. I heard you just got out. Did they treat you okay?”
Ty shrugged his shoulders. “I guess so. I got real sick in there. There’s a lot of germs in jail.”
“Humph. Good place not to go then,” the tall skier grinned as he grabbed two cups of coffee, moved to his table and sat down. “Take care of yourself, old man.”
No one noticed when the second skier, the shorter man, moved quickly to Sam’s table and dropped a white powdery substance into Sam’s coffee cup. He stirred it quickly with a plastic spoon.
The tall skier pushed a cup of coffee to his friend and jabbed his finger in his shorter friend’s ribs. "Let’s watch our goody two-shoes boy drinks his coffee!" He smirked at his friend. Ty watched them with interest. Ty knew most everyone in the Shenandoah Valley, and was pretty sure who these guys were. He was also sure they were up to no good.
His short friend jerked his head around and looked at Sam Painter as he quietly drank his coffee and read the newspaper. "Enjoy your coffee, Sam, you cocky do-gooder. It'll be the last cup you ever drink,” he snarled as he looked over at his friend and smiled.
I was freezing! It was a little after two in the afternoon in early January when I heard the sirens and saw the ambulance. I’d just signed my newest novel for one of my favorite readers and given him my brightest smile.
“There you go, Hank. I hope you like it.” I beamed as I handed him the book. He winked at me as he walked over and looked out of the gallery window into the cold, frozen lawn beyond.
“Lily, what do you think that is? There are two ambulances headed up the mountain and a fire truck.” Hank’s brown eyes were pools of worry as he turned to face me.
I bent down and scratched Vino’s ears. Vino was the gallery’s wine-drinking dog who’d decided to spend the day inside due to the painfully cold, Arctic temperatures. This was our second polar vortex of the season and Vino, and Rembrandt, the gallery cat were snuggled up together next to my feet taking a snooze. I’d brought Vino in for the day. He had a broken leg and seemed depressed at home. I suspected he missed his friends at the galley. I figured that Gawd Almighty, the possum would come in soon for shelter.
I shrugged my shoulders and poofed up my newly highlighted hair with my fingers. “I don’t know, Hank.” I shook my head. I didn't really want to know. “It could be anything. An auto accident, something at the snow tube park… It's hard to say this time a year."
The man nodded. "I hope it's not on the ski slopes. My thirteen-year-old daughter is skiing the bunny slope for the first time. I'm pretty stressed about it," he said as his index finger flipped through his new book. “I’m not sure I’m crazy about skiing. Lots of dangers in skiing and snow-boarding.”
My stomach flip-flopped as I smiled at him. I shook my head. "Oh, she'll be okay,” I said in my convincing voice. “They really watch out for them there. What we worry about up there are those yo-yos that hot dog on the advanced slopes – you know those guys that ski three or four times a year and think they’re the best. They’re the ones that cause most of the danger and I can assure you that they’re not on the bunny slope."
Hank shook his head and I noticed a few grey hairs here and there. Even his short, expertly trimmed beard had grey in it "I'm sure," he said. “I imagine there’s a lot of stuff that goes on up there we never hear about.”
I nodded and shrugged my shoulders but didn’t say a word. I knew there were accidents up there all the time the general public never heard about. "Thanks for getting my book. It's always such a pleasure for me to actually meet my readers here at Massanutten."
“I’ll see you, Lily,” Hank said as he headed for the door. “Send me an email when the next book comes out.”
“You bet I will, Hank. I’ve got a few of them lined up to come out. Just watch my newsletter and have a great vacation,” I said as I gave him a final hug. Once again, a bad feeling overcame me. I shook it off. No sense to worry about what I don’t even know yet. I chastised myself and rubbed the chill bumps that had sprouted on my arms.
I walked into our “wine room” where Denease, our lovely country music singer turned to jazz musician, poured wine for four customers. She looked fantastic, with every hair in place. Her long black hair cascaded down her shoulders. She sported a new statement necklace that coordinated well with her jeans, riding boots and jacket. Denease was as kind and gentle in spirit as she was fashionable. Even though she made me feel like an old frump on most days, I loved her. I noticed a gallery customer slip over and look out of the small 1850s cabin window. The tourist announced that two fire engines were coming up the mountain.
My heart sank. My blue eyes searched Denease's dark ones. We both knew it meant a pretty horrific accident had happened. I knew the slopes were full. The resort was sold out. It was Martin Luther King weekend and we had about a forty-inch base of natural and man-made snow. Last night they’d blown even more snow on the major ski runs. All the hotels, resort facilities, and private homes were rented. The season was the best the resort had seen in several years after the El Niño winter of 2017. Besides, the polar vortex had helped us too. I guess that if you’re young, the freezing temperatures don’t bother you.
Denease shook her head slightly at me. I could see her concerned eyes glisten in the light. We both knew that what had happened was probably bad.
A burst of cold air iced my body as a new group of customers entered the gallery door. It's safe to say that Artisans Galleries Massanutten, was one of the best art galleries in the Shenandoah Valley, if not in the state. In addition to serving some incredible wine, and wine Slushees, the gallery was home to about a dozen fine, impeccably talented artists. Many resort guests visited the gallery every day of their vacation because there was so much to see.
The gallery featured handcrafted pottery, jewelry, wooden bowls, artisan crafted body products, as well as wall and fabric art. I'm happy to report that I'm the watercolor artist here and I teach watercolor classes. I also paint in oil, acrylic, on silk and work in pastels. I sell a lot of paintings. The gallery owner and my artzy pal and soul mate, LauraLea does incredible wildlife art, charcoal sketched drawings and dabbles in every other artistic medium available. Her newest love is acrylic pours, an artistic style that brings back the abstract era of 1960-1970. In the last five years I've taught her to become a consummate silk artist and together we design hand-painted, signature, one-of-a-kind silk jackets under the name of Annika Lexie Silk's. All types of art are available at the gallery, including jewelry, antiques, a section of Christian art, and just about anything else a creative mind can hang on a wall or sit on the table.
I got up from behind my signing table and walked over to the front window and peered through the January gray gloom. Another fire engine raced by followed by a couple of Massanutten’s finest, incompetent police officers.
I walked over to Diane, our saleslady extraordinaire and said, "I hope we don't get robbed today. It looks like every Massanutten police officer has gone up the hill," I smiled.
"They wouldn't do us any good anyway. Let ‘em go," Diane said in her blunt, straightforward, Yankee style. "I lost all respect for them last summer when I called about the snakes in the gallery and the policeman told me he didn't know about snakes because he was from New York City. Fat lot of good that does us," she grumbled.
I nodded and smiled at the memory. Yep, we’d had snakes. But that problem was gone. We were now officially “snake-proofed”. All holes and openings in the 1850s cabin had been patched and repaired. After that, we hadn’t seen any more!
It had been upsetting for Diane though, when a customer had reached for a leather handbag and almost pulled down a snake from the gallery rafter. Diane had been “at heart attack stage” as she self-described the incident. A repeat customer who knew her well said she’d never seen Diane move so fast in her life, especially after her knee surgery. Snakes clearly freaked her out. No question. They freaked me out too, but I tried to stay quiet about it.
Twenty-five phone calls later, the all- but-worthless New York-born Massanutten police officer had left, leaving Diane to cope with the snake on her own. An hour or so later, LauraLea, gallery owner and self-proclaimed diva, showed up with a bunch of mothballs, peppermint oil, and snake catcher. I watched her search for the snake and decided to move into the kitchen and eat the dip and pretzels someone had left. There wasn’t any way things were gonna get better that day and eating lots always helps on bad days.
Diane found me stuffing my mouth with pretzels. “Wendell Hallet wants to see you. He’s in the front room.” Diane had an irritated look on her face.
A cold shiver slid up my back. “Wendell Hallet?” I was sure my mouth had fallen open. Why would Wendell want to see me? For some reason, the thought dismayed me. I didn’t like the man at all. I chided myself for being unfair and then searched my brain for something good about him. Nothing came to mind. “Why, what does he want?” I was shocked.
Diane shrugged her shoulders. “No idea. Don’t care. All I know is he’s been looking for support for the big shopping mall at the bottom of the mountain. He was at my church meeting the other night.” She smirked. “You know I can’t stand the ground he walks on, right?”
I nodded. I knew there was no love between Wendell and Diane. “But, why does he want to see me?”
Diane rolled her eyes. “He specifically asked for you and LauraLea. I’m sure he wants something.”
I shook my head and remained silent for a moment. “I don’t want to see him. He gives me the creeps.” I hesitated, “LauraLea can handle it. She owns the gallery, and I’m sure whatever he wants concerns the gallery.”
“You know the Diva, Lily. She’s a firm believer that misery loves company. She’s gonna ask you to go,” Diane said with assurance and a nod of her head.
I shook my head but remained quiet. In my mind, Wendell was a crook and a half-cracked mobster. I put him in the same category as the nefarious Hillbilly Mob. The only difference was that Wendell was well-dressed, better educated and drove a Cadillac SUV and not a jacked-up Ford 250. However, Wendell and the members of the Hillbilly Mob both lacked a moral compass, not to mention basic honesty and ethics. I shook my head. “I won’t see him. Tell him I’m not available.”
Diane nodded. “He knows you’re here. You’ll have to see him. But, if this helps, I’d like to shoot him myself. He’s a two-bit liar and a crook.”
I absently patted Diane’s hand and nodded my head. I knew Diane and her children had battled Wendell for several years over some road frontage farm land they owned. Wendell wanted to develop the land and make a cool two or three million. They’d had a court battle and in the end, Diane and her family had lost and Wendell and Company were fatter and happier than ever. End of story. I shook my head. “I hear that, Diane. I hear you loud and clear.”
Diane nodded and smiled as she greeted four new guests who entered the gallery. “I’m over it,” she hissed. “I gotta get to work so you get out there. Just having that creep in the gallery is bad business,” she hissed.
I knew Diane well, and I was sure she wasn’t over it. In fact, she was no where close to being over it. Every day when she left her beautiful old home, she drove through a subdivision of ranch homes that had devastated a forest and interrupted the homes of thousands of forest animals.
I watched Diane walk the customers to the wine-tasting room where Denease stood poised with the wine list. It occurred to me that you all don’t know me.
Oh, let me introduce myself. I’m Lily Lucci. I'm a nurse, college professor, artist, and author. My signature book series is my Alexandra Destephano medical thrillers, but I also have a crime series, The Michaela McPherson mysteries that stars a dog named Angel and an eighty-two-year old fabulously rich Italian Countess Dottie who spends her time as an armchair sleuth when she’s not gun-toting, racing fast cars, or traveling the world. A word of wisdom – don’t ever get in Countess Dottie’s way. She’s a tough old bird. As a matter of fact, I plan to be Dottie when I’m in my eighties. I’ve also begun a new medical thriller series, the Sonia Amon medical thrillers about an army doctor who’s the daughter of an ISIS terrorist and a diplomat’s daughter. It’s a great series. But we should get back to what’s happening in the gallery…
I picked up my books and replaced them on the shelf. I’d decided to leave through the back door rather than meet with Wendell. I’d grabbed my coat just as LauraLea entered the gallery clothed in a fabulous reversible tapestry coat, skinny jeans, gloves and a dark green scarf that matched her eyes. She had a huge bag of food and a long pole with a loop at the end of it.
A snake catcher.
Energy cracked around her.
Oh no, was she gonna hunt snakes again today. I had to get out of her way.
I’d do a lot for LauraLea. She was my best friend, but I wouldn’t hunt snakes with that pole!
She moved the snake catcher to a horizontal angle that touched my coat. “Where do you think you’re going? We’ve got work to do,” she informed me as her green eyes raked over my mundane, boring coat, hat and gloves. I was so dowdy next to her.
I shook my head. “Nope. I’m going home. This place is getting too crazy for me,” I replied honestly.
LauraLea rolled her eyes and shook her head, as she stared me down. “No, you’re not. I bought you lunch, and I want to paint this afternoon. There isn’t a class and we can have the back room to ourselves.”
For a moment suspicion blew through my brain. “Lunch?” I was interested. My stomach had embarrassed me twice already. “Lunch from where?”
“Ciro’s. Your favorite. Steak and cheese with the works,” she said with a grin. “Just like you like it,” she taunted. “I know you can’t resist that.” LauraLea winked at me, folded her arms across her chest, and sported her characteristic smirk she always gave me when she knew she’d won.
I sighed. Yes, she’d won. I couldn’t turn down a steak and cheese sub from Ciro’s. Certainly not one with double mayonnaise, fried and fresh onions and everything else. I gazed down at my coat, picked it up and smiled at her. “You win. You know my weakness. Can we eat now?”
LauraLea shook her head. “Nah. I need you to make one trek with me through the gallery on a snake hunt. It shouldn’t take long.”
My mouth flopped open. “What! A snake hunt? Are you out of your mind? I don’t hunt snakes! Besides, snakes tend to hibernate in the winter.”
LauraLea’s eyes sparkled with excitement and her beautifully highlighted hair shone in the lights. “Precisely. They’re hibernating in here. You’re a snake hunter today. They don’t hibernate when they can come in here and curl up by the fireplace. Now, get up and get moving,” she loomed over me. Since she is twice as tall and me, I started to move but changed my mind.
I remained seated and silently prayed someone would want to buy a book and occupy my time for a few minutes. It was in vain.
LauraLea picked up on my hesitation. “Get up and come on, it’ll be fun!” she coaxed.
“Fun? Fun my foot,” I snorted. “No way. Searching for Gawd Almighty with you got me into enough trouble. I almost died that night and I’ve still not recovered. I’m not going snake-hunting with you today!” My voice was strong. I was adamant. LauraLea always got little old me, her older friend, in heart wrenching trouble.
“Yeah. Yes, you are,” she intoned as she flashed me a look. “Besides, we found Gawd, didn’t we, and we didn’t die and now he’s entertaining people on the front porch of the gallery, just like he always has.”
“Yeah. He’s out there in freezing temperatures. I need to bring him in.” I stood to let Gawd in, but LauraLea stuck her hand out and stopped me.
“We’ll get Gawd after we hunt the snakes. Gawd has on a fur coat. He’ll be fine out there.”
“Snakes have no redeeming value to the gallery, but Gawd Almighty did and still does. Not everyone has a pet possum with a sleep disorder. Besides,” I sighed, “Gawd is a pet and we don’t have any pet snakes here to my knowledge!” I finished, my voice indignant.
LauraLea stared at me and fingered the snake catcher. “Get up. Your steak sub is getting cold back there. This will only take a minute.
I sighed deeply and blew off a bunch of carbon dioxide. “What do I do? You’re the one with the snake pole.” I noted as I rose and checked the long pole and roped end from a different vantage point. “Besides, we’ve already had one big snake in here today. Wendell Hallet, and he’s here to see you. Do you really think you can catch him with the little thingy at the bottom?”
“Wendell was here? Ooh. Yeah. I’m pretty good at this,” she assured me. “I’ve been catching snakes all of my life and,” she cut her eyes towards Denease and Diane, “I don’t know why any snake here or there bothers anyone.”
I ignored LauraLea’s dig at her staff. I personally didn’t believe anyone should have to work with snakes, bugs, or bees, but this wasn’t the time to say so, so I took the high road and remained silent.
LauraLea caught the look on my face. “Don’t you dare say what you’re thinkin’. If you want to eat at all, we’ve gotta snake hunt.” She looked down at me, one hand on her hip and the other holding her snake catcher. She looked like a model in one of those weird fashion magazines. Of course, most of those models held a riding crop, not a snake catcher.
I scowled and shook my head. She had me. “Okay, I’ll help, but lunch first. I should’ve known there’d be a catch,” I said as I shook my head. “You’ve never bought me lunch just for being your friend!” My voice sounded disgruntled.
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