Once Upon a Thriller CHAPTER ONE
“COME ON. HURRY UP AND let’s go!” I called to Bess and George as I popped open the trunk of my car. I had parked in front of George’s house and was in a rush to get going.
“Leave it to you to be right on time, Nancy,” Bess teased as she and George walked down the front steps of the porch and headed toward me, overnight bags in hand. George glanced at her watch.
“Whoa, Bess is right!” George said. “It’s nine a.m. on the dot.” She grabbed Bess’s bag and tossed it and her own into the trunk before slamming it shut.
“Well, that’s when I told you I’d be here,” I answered. “And I’m really looking forward to getting to the lake early so we can settle into our cabin and go for a hike before it gets too hot.”
“Ugh,” Bess groaned. “Not a hike! You and George promised me this would be a relaxing weekend.”
“And it will be,” I said. “A short hike this morning, followed by a canoe ride this afternoon. Then tomorrow we can sleep in and read and relax before we go waterskiing after lunch.”
Bess rolled her eyes at me. I could tell she would have preferred spending the entire weekend doing nothing but sitting on the shores of Moon Lake with a magazine and a bottle of nail polish to touch up her manicure and pedicure. But there’s no way I could manage that—I would get way too antsy.
Besides the outdoor activities, I also planned to read the latest Miles Whitmore mystery, Terror on the Trail. Lately, I couldn’t get enough of his books. I never figured out “whodunit” till the very end, and I’m an amateur detective. That’s how crafty a writer he is.
I pulled away from George’s house and maneuvered my car toward the highway. Once we got going, it was only about fifty miles to Avondale, which is where Moon Lake is located. If we didn’t hit any traffic, we’d be there in under an hour.
“We’ll make it up to you, Bess,” George said. “You have complete control over music for the entire weekend.”
“Really?” Bess asked, incredulous. “I’m not sure I believe you. You always hate any group I like.”
“Really. I promise,” George said. I was impressed. George can be incredibly opinionated when it comes to music. She and Bess are my best friends, and they also happen to be cousins. But the two are as different as Beethoven and The Rolling Stones. Sometimes it’s hard to believe they’re related.
“Well, I suppose that’s something,” Bess said with a sigh. She plugged her MP3 into the radio and out blasted Grayson & James, her latest favorite group.
I saw George in the rearview mirror, and I knew she was working hard to restrain herself. I saw her putting on her own headphones to drown out Bess’s music.
“I know, I know,” Bess half apologized, sensing George’s frustration. “But this is great driving music, isn’t it, Nancy?”
“I actually like this song,” I admitted sheepishly. I was trying to keep the peace between my friends, but I was also being truthful—the song was catchy and fun. And with that, we all settled in to enjoy the ride.
We pulled up to our rental cabin on Moon Lake almost exactly an hour later. Towering green pines surrounded the cabin, and the setting looked inviting. I couldn’t wait to get started—within minutes, the car was unpacked and our hiking boots were on.
“I promise it will be a short hike, Bess,” I told her as I pulled my hair into a tight ponytail. “Let’s just do one loop around the lake. We’ll be back in time for lunch.”
“All right,” Bess grumbled. “Let’s get this over with.” She tightened the laces on her boots and the three of us headed for the trailhead, which happened to be just a few paces from our cabin.
As we hiked, I took in the beautiful scenery and tried to let my mind wander. That can be tough for me, as I always have some mystery on my mind—a real one or one in a book.
But this weekend at the lake I really planned to focus on my friends and the great outdoors.
“Right, Nancy?” I heard George say. She was looking at me as though she’d been talking to me for five minutes without a response. Which, come to think of it, was quite possible.
“Oh, uh, sorry, George,” I replied. “I guess I was lost in my own world.”
“I said, that’s our cabin right there, isn’t it?” George repeated, pointing to the little wooden structure peeking through the trees a few hundred yards ahead of us.
“It is,” I replied, glancing at my watch. “Wow, that was quick.” It had taken us less than an hour to hike the three-mile loop around the lake. Even Bess agreed that it had been pleasant and not particularly taxing.
“Great!” George said. “Because I’m ready for Hannah’s lunch.”
Back at the cabin, I went into the kitchen to get the basket Hannah had packed for our weekend. Hannah Gruen is my dad’s housekeeper, and she loves to keep all of us well fed and nurtured—she’s got lots of love to share. I couldn’t wait to dig into some of her famous fried chicken and homemade coleslaw.
But the basket was nowhere to be found. Suddenly an image of it popped into my head. It was sitting on the counter—the counter at my house in River Heights, that is.
“Bad news,” I groaned. “I left the lunch basket Hannah packed for us at home.”
“That’s because you were rushing like crazy to get up here,” George said. “What’s my stomach supposed to do?” she joked.
Bess smiled broadly. “I guess we’ll just have to make a trip into town, then,” she suggested. “It’s not far away, and I’m pretty sure Avondale has a bunch of cafés and cute stores.”
She emphasized the word “stores,” and knowing Bess, she was eager to squeeze in some shopping along with lunch.
“Great,” I agreed. “Because I also left Terror on the Trail at home, so now I have nothing to read. Hopefully there’s a bookstore in town too.”
“Terror on the what?” George asked. “Do you ever stop trying to solve mysteries?” She tapped her tablet, which was perched on a nightstand. “You know, Nancy,” she continued, “you wouldn’t have this problem if you weren’t so resistant to e-books. You could take ten books with you at once.”
“As long as she remembered to actually bring the reader,” Bess pointed out.
“Ha, ha,” I said drily. “But you know what? When it comes to books, I like the feel of the pages in my hands, and even the smell of them.”
“That’s Nancy,” George teased. “Always with her nose in a book—literally. Now let’s go—I’m starving!”
Ten minutes later we pulled into the town of Avondale. And Bess was right—there were plenty of quaint stores and shops. But that’s not what caught my attention. Two fire trucks were stopped in the middle of the street, and an acrid smell filled the air.
We parked and quickly made our way toward the crowd that had formed.
“Was there a fire?” I asked a man with a golden retriever close by his side.
“Looks that way,” he replied, shaking his head and gesturing toward a nearby building. A sign in front of the shop was in the shape of an open book. “And at Paige’s Pages, of all places.”
Nearby, three young women had their heads together, whispering—but loud enough that we could hear them.
“And now we won’t get to meet Lacey O’Brien,” one of them said.
“I can’t believe it, Carly!” another replied. “And I’ve read all her mysteries.”
That word got my attention. I moved closer to the girls.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know what happened? We’re just here for the weekend, but what’s going on here? I was trying to get to the bookstore, but it looks like that’s going to be, uh, difficult.”
“We were here for the bookstore too,” the first girl replied. “Lacey O’Brien was supposed to do a reading and a book signing—you know, the mystery writer?”
“I’ve heard of her, sure,” I replied.
“She’s like a local celebrity around here,” the second girl, who had dark, curly hair, said. “Well, except that people hardly ever see her. I heard this book signing was the only one she was doing all year.”
“And now we’re out of luck, aren’t we, Mandy?” the third girl added. “No signing today.”
The girls continued chattering, and I took a few steps back. But I could still hear them clearly. In fact, everyone around us could. A firefighter near us was talking with a distraught-looking woman with graying hair who was pointing to the store.
“Did you realize there was a fire in her latest book, Burned?” Mandy whisper-shouted to her friends.
“You’re right!” Carly answered. “That’s a weird coincidence. You don’t think Lacey had anything to do with this fire, do you?”
“Well, at least something finally happened here. Nothing exciting or mysterious ever happens in Avondale,” Mandy said.
I wouldn’t be so sure, I thought. That’s what everyone thinks until something actually happens.
At that moment, one of the other firefighters approached us.
“Everyone, please step back,” he announced. “We need to get our equipment out of the store.”
“Sure, no problem,” George said. We all moved back, but Mandy had ideas of her own and went right up to the fireman.
“What happened?” she demanded. “We really, really wanted to see Lacey O’Brien today. And now we might have to wait another year until we do.”
I could have sworn the fireman rolled his eyes. But he patiently answered her question. “From our initial investigation, it looks like some faulty wiring in an old chandelier,” he replied. “That happens a lot in older buildings like this one.”
Mandy gasped. “It does?” she asked, an amazed look on her face. “Because that’s exactly how the fire started in Lacey O’Brien’s last book! Except the wiring in the chandelier hadn’t really caused the fire. It was arson!”