A Cozy Mystery
James J. Hill Days Celebration
Stood up again…
The pungent aromas of sizzling bratwurst, wood-roasted pizza, and sugary sweet mini-donuts permeated the early evening air, causing Stephanie’s stomach to growl as she jostled her way through the dense, interminable crowd of happy festival-goers. She’d planned to arrive an hour ago, but her ride never showed up, forcing her to make a last-minute call to Uber.
Thousands of people attended James J. Hill Days, a tribute to the historic figure who had once owned the Great Northern Railroad in Minnesota and who had built the Wayzata rail depot, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The annual event was always held on the first weekend after Labor Day. Tents and trailers housing a unique display of food, retail items, arts and crafts covered a four-block area of downtown Wayzata along East Lake Street. Country music blared from a large bandshell. As Stephanie passed the vendors selling hot food, her mouth watered at the thought of nibbling on a hot, crispy cheese curd or a pork chop on a stick, but she didn’t have time to stop.
She was due to meet the girls in her book club at Main Street Books tonight at six o’clock for their monthly get-together. Unfortunately, the community celebration underway had drawn so many people, they knew it would be impossible to find a quiet corner in the bookstore for their group of six to congregate. So, they decided to meet as planned and enjoy the festivities instead.
“Watch it, lady!”
In her haste to get to the store, she accidentally bumped into a short, burly man, causing his large, clear plastic cup of craft beer to slosh over his hand. It splashed onto the zippered top of her new shoulder strap purse and dripped down the side. Great. It wasn’t bad enough being late, but now she had to deal with a wet, sticky handbag that smelled like beer, too.
It’s just one more thing added to the problems I’ve had today, she thought glumly. First, Jock doesn’t show up, making me late, and now this…
The red brick building housing Main Street Books loomed in the distance. Stephanie pressed on, maneuvering her way through the crowd until she reached the store. As soon as she opened the door, the bittersweet aroma of fresh-roasted coffee beans surrounded her like a fragrant cloud. To her surprise, she found only three of the girls of the Romancing the Lakes Book Club—Violet, Nora, and Gwen. They were browsing in the romance section.
At least, I’m not the last one to get here.
“Katie had trouble finding a parking space,” Gwen said, slipping her phone into her purse, “but she’s on her way.” Her dark sunglasses were perched on the crown of her head, holding back the thick curls of her chestnut hair.
Stephanie started to explain the reason for her tardiness when suddenly, the glass front doors whisked open and Katie breezed through the crowd, heading straight for the group. “Sorry, I’m late!” Katie’s dark hair looked windblown, as though she’d been walking a long way. A couple of strands were twisted around the black, square frame of her glasses.
“I just got here myself,” Stephanie said as she dodged a small child charging past her. “This place is a madhouse.”
“You’re lucky you don’t have a car,” Katie replied in her usual dry humor and yanked on the hair caught in her glasses. “The parking lot is like a war zone. Did Jock give you a ride?”
“No.” Stephanie let out a tense breath. “He was supposed to pick me up from work, but he never showed up and I couldn’t get him to return either my calls or my text messages. I finally had to call Uber.”
“You should have called me,” Katie stated in her bold, matter-of-fact way. “I would have given you a ride.”
“I figured you were already here,” Stephanie replied, “so it was quicker just to get one on my own.”
Katie shrugged, but at the same time, the corners of her lips turned up in a slight curve. “Ah, the continuing saga of your on-again, off-again boyfriend.”
Stephanie snorted. “And right now, he’s off again!” This time, maybe forever. She’d had it with him. He’d stood her up before and each time he’d promised he’d never do it again. So, what had distracted him tonight? A blonde, a brunette, or a redhead?
Though Katie didn’t comment further, the look in her eyes said loud and clear, When are you going to dump that loser? He’s not good enough for you.
At thirty, Jock Tanner wasn’t a loser, but even so, he was far from perfect. A certified gemologist and jewelry designer, the guy was smart, creative, good-looking, and charming, but he had a tendency to stretch the truth when it suited his purposes and he occasionally changed his plans without telling her. Jock co-owned Majesty Jewelers, a successful jewelry store in downtown Minneapolis, and when the shop was busy, he often had to work late, but that didn’t excuse him from not making a quick call or a text to let her know. He couldn’t use that excuse tonight, however, because he’d taken the day off. So, where was he?
Her thoughts were interrupted when Inga, the last member to arrive, approached the group. Inga’s natural flaxen hair and blue eyes attested to her Scandinavian heritage and her beauty. Every male along her path turned in her direction, gazing at her with curiosity as she sauntered through the store. “Am I the last one to arrive?”
The girls chuckled. Inga was usually the last one to arrive.
They were discussing where to go from there when someone tapped Stephanie on her shoulder. She turned to find an older, white-haired woman smiling at her.
“I believe you dropped this,” the woman said and held out her hand, showing Stephanie a gold hoop earring adorned with four tiny diamonds.
With a gasp, Stephanie automatically reached up and touched her ear. The earring was gone. Jock had given the pair to her last month; a peace offering for reneging on an important date. “Oh, my goodness!” She took the hoop from the woman and slipped it back through the hole in her ear, making sure the clasp had fastened tightly this time. “Thank you very much.”
“C’mon, Stephanie!” Gwen looked back and waved Stephanie on as she and the rest of the girls strolled toward the front entrance. “We’re going to the Rails and Ales area to sample craft beers.”
Stephanie hurried to catch up with her friends. As she neared the entrance, she saw an older gentleman in khaki slacks, a beige, short-sleeved shirt, and a plain brown bill cap, browsing through a Field and Stream magazine. Peering through wire-rimmed glasses, his sharp gaze followed her as she hustled by.
Dirty old man, she thought disgustedly. Gawk at women your own age…
They left the store and slowly made their way down the crowded, tent-lined street, stopping at a large food stand to buy mini-donuts. At the bandshell, they watched a rock band pounding out a Guns ‘n Roses tune, filling the air with pounding drums and screaming guitars. After that, they browsed along the two-block area of arts and crafts vendors on their way to the beer tents. While the rest of the girls were shopping for handmade jewelry, Stephanie wandered toward a tent selling organic honey and solar-powered lawn ornaments. She loved gardening and was attracted to all things concerning her flowers, especially hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. She purchased a small set of handmade windchimes and stuffed the bag into her purse.
At the end of the street, they came upon a gypsy wagon. Tucked in between two towering oak trees, the dark brown “cottage-style” coach had a bow top and intricately carved scrollwork in orange and gold covering the front. Above the entrance, a sign hung under a small light that read Fortune Teller.
A large wooden A-frame sign on the ground next to the wooden stairway had the word “Palmistry” printed at the top. Underneath, the board displayed a full handprint in dark blue with the words “Know Your Future” printed in the center of the palm in white letters. At the bottom of the sign, she read, “Palm and Eye Readings on Premises.” A palm reading cost ten dollars.
“Look,” Inga said as she pointed toward the sign. “I’ve never had my palm read.” Her straight flaxen hair slipped past her shoulder as she turned to the girls. “Have you?”
No one else had, either.
Violet pulled a ten-dollar bill from her pocket. “Then let’s do it!”
Stephanie stared at the sign in dismay as the girls laughed over what a hoot it would be to have their fortunes told and discussing who would go first.
Are you kidding me? She thought cynically as she stared up at the open café-style doors, beckoning unsuspecting suckers to come into the wagon to get what amounted to a verbal fortune cookie. What a con. No one can actually tell your future by looking at your hand!
She turned away and pretended to be busy looking at a display of stained-glass ornaments at a neighboring tent to keep from laughing out loud.
Her friends weren’t the least bit skeptical. They enthusiastically discussed the idea while pulling out their money. Inga went in first, then Katie and each girl took her turn until every person had received her fortune—except Stephanie.
“You’re the last one,” Katie said to her. “Hurry up. Esme is waiting for you.”
“No thanks.” Stephanie laughed. “I’ll pass. I don’t believe in that stuff. Besides, everyone is anxious to check out the craft beers and eat pizza. Let’s go.” She started to walk away.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Katie grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her in the direction of the gypsy wagon. “You’re doing this. You need to hear something positive today. Like a prediction that a new man will come into your life tonight.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes. Yeah, right. Much to her chagrin, she found herself pushed up the steep wooden steps and into the wagon.
“I figured you’d try to weasel out of it, so I’ve already paid the fee,” Katie said with a sly grin, standing behind her. “No need to pay me back.” Katie nudged her deeper inside the trailer.
Stephanie stared in amazement as she took in one of the most fascinating micro-homes she’d ever seen. Nothing she’d viewed on cable TV had ever prepared her for this—the arched, gilded ceiling, elaborately carved woodwork and burgundy velvet drapes. On her right, a tufted velvet bench in burgundy lined the wall. On her left, shiny copper pots placed on a miniature cast iron stove nestled inside a tiled alcove served as a tiny kitchen. In the back of the trailer, fitted from wall to wall, she glimpsed a wide, platform bed covered with a handmade quilt and a small, paned window. Every inch of space was covered with small curio cases and ornate shelving holding crystal glassware, china, framed photos, and unique trinkets. The scent of candle wax and lavender filled the air.
Esme, the raven-haired gypsy sat behind a tiny oval table containing a crystal ball and a stack of Tarot cards. The middle-aged woman wore a white, off-the-shoulder peasant blouse edged with colorful embroidery and elbow-length, bell sleeves. Layers of bejeweled necklaces circled her slender, creamy neck. A burgundy and almond-colored paisley scarf covered the crown of her head.
“Sit down, Miss Jones.” She motioned to a wooden folding chair in front of the table. A half-dozen assorted gold bracelets jingled on her narrow wrist.
Stephanie frowned. How did she know my name? Did Katie tell her?
Esme’s kohl-lined gaze held hers. In the dim light, Stephanie obediently complied as her tension dissipated and an odd sense of calm washed over her. The gypsy made a beckoning motion. “Give me your hand.”
Stephanie meekly held out her cold, clammy hand and the woman slid her smooth fingers over it, turning it over. A strange and foreboding stillness filled the atmosphere of the small space as the woman studied her palm. Overhead, the crystals hanging from a glass lampshade began to vibrate, tinkling like wind chimes in the sudden breeze moving through the cabin.
Esme’s brows furrowed, her intense gaze locking on Stephanie’s eyes. She began to whisper…
“I implore you, beware of this warning;
a death occurred before morning.
Your life is in danger, watch out for the stranger—”
Startled, Stephanie wanted to bolt from her chair. She tried to pull her hand from the gypsy’s grasp, but Esme held it tighter. The gypsy leaned closer, looking deep into Stephanie’s eyes…
“Dark days ahead are dawning…”
Stephanie sat like one of the statues in the curio cases on the wall, frozen with shock as her mind processed the woman’s cryptic advice. What death? What stranger? What did she mean by ‘dark days?’ Is it going to storm this weekend or something?
Slowly, she pushed her chair away from the table and stood then numbly turned away. Gripping the doorframe with both hands, she left the trailer and stumbled down the narrow steps. The sun had gone under a heavy cloud, darkening the sky. The roar of the dense crowd, tinny music from the kiddie carnival rides, and the shrill screams of little riders melted into a blur as she struggled to make some sense of what just took place with the fortune teller.
She had absolutely no idea what this crazy woman was talking about, but even so, she didn’t believe a word of it. Warnings and a stupid weather report—what a joke. Katie had just wasted her ten bucks.
* * *
Still dazed from her encounter with the gypsy, Stephanie followed the group toward the beer tents. It was nearly seven o’clock and still not a word from Jock. She pulled her phone from her purse and checked it. Nope; he hadn’t called or texted her. Why not? In one of the last messages that she’d left him, she’d told him to meet her at the bookstore as soon as he could get away. She needed to go back to the store one more time to see if he was there. It was probably a waste of time, but…
“I’m going to run back to the bookstore to see if I can find Jock,” she said, catching up to Katie. “Either way, I’ll join you guys at the Nordic Brewing tent in a half-hour.”
Katie rolled her eyes, conveying what an exercise in futility looking for Jock in this mob would be, but she didn’t say so. Instead, she patted Stephanie on the shoulder. “We’ll be waiting for you.” She cocked one brow. “If you’re not there in thirty minutes, you get to buy everyone a beer!”
The girls continued past the kiddie carnival area, heading to the craft beer tents. Stephanie went in the opposite direction toward Main Street Books. She’d made up her mind. She was breaking up with Jock tonight. For good this time. No more on-again, off-again relationship for her. No more leaving her stranded without calling. Her handsome, sweet-talking boyfriend was history.
Under normal circumstances, she could see the log rolling competition on the crystal blue waters of Lake Minnetonka from the street, but not today. The elbow-to-elbow crowd blocked her view. Raucous cheers of an enthusiastic audience watching the event echoed through the air as she made her way back to the entrance of the bookstore.
Preoccupied with angry thoughts, she stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the building, headed toward the glass doors when her wedge-heeled sandal landed on a loose stone causing her ankle to turn. Before she could stop, she lost her balance, and down she went, falling on her hands and knees. Ouch.
Oh my gosh! How embarrassing! That’s what happens when I’m busy stressing out about Jock instead of looking where I’m going!
“Whoa, careful there! Are you alright?”
The deep voice booming above her embarrassed her further and angered her for publicly calling attention to her klutzy mishap. It was bad enough almost doing a complete face plant in front of the store, but did this jerk with a mouth like a megaphone have to announce it to everyone within earshot too?
“Yes. I’m fine.” Before she had a chance to scramble to her feet, strong and surprisingly gentle hands spanned her waist, lifting her upright. Averting her gaze, she pretended to be concerned with brushing loose dirt off her ankle-length sundress, hoping to buy a little time to get her emotions under control. Then, with a deep sigh, she turned to face the man, her cheeks burning. “Thanks for your help. I—I was in a hurry and I didn’t—”
The man’s eyes widened in surprise. “Stephanie? Stephanie Jones?”
She stared into his lean, tanned face, wondering how he knew her because she didn’t have a clue to his identity. The tall, blond man with thick, curly hair and the bluest eyes she’d ever encountered was a total stranger to her. His voice, however, gave her pause. She could swear she’d heard it somewhere before but couldn’t remember where. “Yes…” she replied, studying him intently, “and you are?”
“Shane,” he said sounding somewhat mystified that she didn’t recognize him. “Shane Kingston.”
She blinked, nonplussed. The Shane Kingston she remembered from high school had been gangly and shy, with slick hair, nerdy glasses, and buck teeth. “Wow, you’ve changed so much I didn’t realize it was you.”
He grinned. “You haven’t. You’re still as pretty as ever. And you’re the only girl I’ve ever met with your shade of hair. It reminds me of a new penny.”
She didn’t know why, but his compliment made her cheeks heat up again. “You’ve…fixed a few things.”
He responded with a wide smile, revealing dazzling white—straight—teeth. “I got a summer job in college that offered good insurance. I took advantage of it and got braces. Then I got LASIK surgery so I could get rid of my glasses.”
He’d also grown taller and developed muscles in all the right places…
Dismissing that thought, she cleared her throat and changed the subject. She’d had enough trouble with men. The last thing she needed was to get attracted to another one. “I thought you’d moved out of the state. Are you back living here now or just visiting?”
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, acting as though he had nowhere in particular to go. “I’ve been living on the west coast for the last ten years, but I’m in between jobs so I’m here visiting my family for a couple of weeks.”
“What brings you to the festival?” she asked, hoping he had a date for the evening and had to be on his way.
He glanced over the top of her head as if looking for someone. “I was supposed to meet my cousin, Jock, at the coffee bar in the store at six, but—”
“He was supposed to meet with me, too,” Stephanie snapped. “Actually, he’d promised to bring me here. It looks like we’ve both been stood up.”
Questions swirled inside her head. Why had Jock agreed to bring her to the festival if he’d already made plans with his cousin? And just where the heck was Jock anyway? Why wasn’t he answering his phone?
Shane’s tanned face registered surprise. “You’re Jock’s girlfriend? He’s never mentioned you.”
Her cheeks began to burn again, but this time embarrassment had nothing to do with it. She was steaming. “Only for the last twelve months.” Well, off and on…
“Maybe it slipped his mind,” Shane said quickly, obviously trying to spare her feelings. It only made her more upset. He didn’t need to make excuses for Jock.
“Sure,” she replied dryly. “You know how busy he is…”
This conversation was getting worse by the minute. Getting antsy to be on her way, she checked the screen on her phone. “Oh, look at the time. I’d better get going. I should be sitting with my girlfriends at the Norway Brewing beer tent right now instead of wasting my time looking for a guy who doesn’t want to be found.” Beer wasn’t her usual beverage of choice, but right now a glass of cold Viking Blonde Ale sounded pretty darn good. She needed something stronger than Coke to cool off her temper!
“Well, it’s been nice seeing you, Stephanie.” Shane slid his fingers around her forearm, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Let’s not let so many years go by before we meet again. Okay?”
The warmth of his touch made her stomach respond with a strange flutter. What was that all about?
“Okay.” She swallowed hard. “See you around, Shane.” Puzzled by her reaction, she took a step backward to put some distance between them and lifted her hand, giving him a quick wave of goodbye. Then she whirled around and headed through the crowd, steadfastly making her way across the street.
The golden autumn sun dipped slowly toward the horizon, casting crimson rays across the soft ripples of the bay. Stephanie loved walking along Lake Minnetonka this time of day. She made her way to the bike path that ran along the perimeter of downtown to view the lake on her way back to the Rails and Ales area. At the entrance to the bike path, she halted and wistfully gazed across the bay. The balmy evening was so beautiful it would have been nice to take a ride on the lake in Jock’s huge boat. That was the only thing about him she was going to miss…
Suddenly, a familiar sight caught her eye. Speaking of Jock’s boat—
Glancing to her left, she looked toward the public marina and saw the Misty Blue, Jock’s cabin cruiser, moored at one of the public docks. What was his boat doing here? So, he was at the festival and had probably been here all day.
“Why that…” Furious, she marched along, maneuvering in and out of the people on the bike path as she made her way toward the dock. “If he’s in there with another woman, I’ll...” she grumbled to herself, ready to storm into the cabin and crash their little party. No wonder he wasn’t answering his phone; he’d probably turned it off!
Within a couple of minutes, she reached the boat and entered the vessel on the port side. “Jock!” No one answered. “Jock, answer me! I know you’re here!”
Several people congregating on the dock curiously turned and stared at her.
The moment her foot stepped onto the cockpit of the boat an unnerving feeling swept over her. An odd, coppery-smelling odor assaulted her senses, sending goosebumps down her arms and raising the hair on the back of her neck. The door to the cabin stood ajar, but not enough to see inside. Had someone broken in and burglarized it?
Gingerly she shoved the cabin door open with the toe of her foot, but she kept her hand on the rail, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. “Jock! Are you there?” The cabin was eerily silent. Wondering why Jock had taken off and left the door unlocked, she descended the steps and cautiously peered inside.
Her hand clutched the rail with a death grip to keep her knees from giving way as she blinked in shock. Her jaw dropped. A scream caught in her throat. Across the dim interior of the cabin, Jock lay on his back, sprawled across his bed. A reading light above his head cast enough light to illuminate the deathly pallor of his skin, his black hair, the five o’clock shadow darkening his jaw, and the frozen stare in his open eyes.
A silver filet knife protruded like a vampire stake from the center of his chest.
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