Murder on the Heartstrings
A Falcon's Bend Series Novella
Lieutenant Pete Shasta takes his lovely wife Lisa on a romantic vacation, promising her no mysteries, no crime, and certainly no murder. But, not long after arriving in the middle of a blizzard that has shut down the entire town below the luxurious inn, a body is found stuffed into a janitor's closet. Lisa's only resort is to join her husband in sleuthing so she can get back to her Valentine's Day agenda.
"The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone."
~Milan Kundera, Immortality
"Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things."
~Robert Louis Stevenson
"Each suite has a private, deluxe bath, two-person Jacuzzi, fireplace, daily maid service and a full breakfast. Guest accommodations include a heated, indoor pool, hot tub and sauna, fitness equipment, spa and massage services..."
Pete Shasta felt his beloved wife of five years glance at him from the passenger's seat. Lisa read from the brochure for Honeymoon Haven Inn, a romantic hideaway in the woods in upper northwest Wisconsin that attracted skiers and honeymooners. But he didn't take his gaze from the winter-slick roads.
The blizzard had started slowly that morning until it'd worked itself into a winter squall. By either luck or curse, he'd gotten behind a snowplow a few miles into town. Because Pete was following the plow, the road was in much better condition than those driving before it. That wasn't saying much under the circumstances. The stress of following the vehicle in the blizzard howling around them had him so on-edge, he didn't feel comfortable glancing away from the road ahead for an instant.
"You want a massage, baby, I'm your man," he murmured. They passed another car that had gone off the road, but a police officer had already arrived to help.
Lisa chuckled, continuing to read out loud about the full service restaurant, access to ice fishing, seven miles of cross-country skiing on groomed trails and snowmobile trails. Pete didn't intend to take advantage of anything beyond the privacy of their romantic suite. And maybe room service when they needed re-fueling. If we ever get there.
Just before he passed through a bright orange gate similar to those parks used to close up for the night, the plow turned off the road, leaving him to his own fate. They were almost there now. Slow and steady wins the race.
He was taking Lisa to the luxury resort for her Valentine's Day birthday. He'd timed his annual vacation with the dual holiday. He wasn't fond of travel--especially in a blizzard--so he rarely got far from his home in Falcon's Bend, Wisconsin. He'd worked as a detective on the Falcon's Bend Police Department for almost twelve years. He knew better than to stick around town on vacation days. If he did, one way or another, he'd be called back in. Nope, he was planning on spending the next seven days and nights in the arms of his angel. Crime wouldn't get in the way this time. He'd made certain of that by choosing this secluded spot near the top of the hill, nestled in the trees. Still, he couldn't shake the premonition that he wouldn't escape so easily. He never had before.
The snow coming down in thick, wet clumps was only part of his trepidation. Even the tantalizing memory of the scraps of lace and satin he'd glimpsed in the brown shopping bag before Lisa packed it last night couldn't quell his worries. Grateful as he was that they were nearly there, the road up was steep and treacherous. He could barely see the road leading to it--the snow covered the road and had accumulated several inches. The windshield wipers did a poor job of keeping up with the fierce, blowing snowfall.
"What a beautiful place," Lisa said on a sigh, turning to put one arm over the back of his seat.
He could hear how laidback she sounded--a direct contrast to the tension he felt. He knew she thought that merely arriving here signaled nothing could go wrong and she'd soon have her man away from his mistress. At times, his job did feel that treacherous. When he was solving a mystery, little else could break his concentration. Somehow, Lisa--unlike his first wife--put up with it. Accepted it. Still loved him. Thank you, God.
Soon, he could reward her patience. The woman who always held his heart would have his undivided attention. He could hardly wait.
Only when the chained tires on the car cleared the hill and he pulled up under the reception-overhang of the rustic wood-and-stone structure did the tightness in his chest relax. He glanced around, seeing a large building with an oversized garage door set back from the inn.
When Lisa's fingers slipped into his hair, he looked at her. Her gesture brought back the one thing that had kept him going for the past few weeks. The anticipation of being alone with her, preferably naked, for the next seven days. The state of semi-arousal he'd been in at the mere thought of giving Lisa her birthday gift returned. She leaned close to him, her sienna-colored eyes filled with love and promise.
"Almost two o'clock. We're here earlier than I expected, but it felt like it took forever," he said, grinning sheepishly because he knew she'd sensed his stress.
Her breath was warm and chocolate-scented. He'd given her a giant, heart-shaped box of her favorite candies that morning.
"You're not getting away from me for the next week." A boatload of determination laced her words.
"Thought that was my line."
Pete slid his fingers into her long, silken brown hair, cradling her face in his hand as he did so, and closed the inches between their lips. Semi-arousal turned into full-on need when her mouth opened against his and her tongue touched his. Want her, need her, gotta have her now...
Lisa'scar door opened, shocking Pete as the exuberant voice, accompanied with an equally exuberant face, cried, "Welcome, welcome! We are so pleased to have you here at the Honeymoon Haven Inn. I am Felippo Theoclymenus, but you may call me Flip. I will be assisting you during your stay."
The middle-aged bellhop, who might have been Greek or Turkish, put his hand out, his smile reaching megawatt levels. Lisa had no choice but to get out of the car. Pete groaned, but then figured the faster they got checked in, the quicker he could get back to that kiss.
He stepped out while Flip led Lisa to the double doors. He opened one for her, then turned to Pete, bowing. He had a shock of black hair that was sprinkled liberally with gray. His deeply tanned face had numerous moles and dark spots. "If you will allow me, sir, I will park your car and bring in your luggage while you check in."
Muttering his thanks, Pete handed him the keys. At the least, he had to concede that the resort was living up to its promise of luxury. He joined Lisa inside the cozily warm reception area, and together they went to the front desk. The man there with an extravagant moustache that would have done Hercule Poirot proud inclined his dark head to them. "Good afternoon. I'm Stephen Mendez, manager of the Honeymoon Haven Inn. How may I help you?"
Pete told him his name.
"You'll be happy to know your suite is ready for you, Mr. Shasta. I can check you in early."
Pete had figured they'd take longer getting here, with shopping or lingering over lunch, so the three o'clock check-in wouldn't be a problem. He was relieved now that they wouldn't have to wait in the lobby for over an hour.
Lisa walked around the expansive lobby filled with fancy furniture and strange artwork. In the opposite corner away from the front desk was a sitting nook bracketing an immense fireplace with a crackling fire that chased away the chill.
"You have a spa?" Lisa asked while Pete signed the papers Mendez lay before him.
"I must apologize," Mendez said, and Pete noticed then how nervous he looked. His dark eyes darted between the two of them. "Our spa manager called in sick today, so services have been canceled for the day. Additionally, massages must be scheduled in advance." He handed Lisa a form to reserve the masseur. Pete glanced at it to see they offered in-room massages. He didn't like the idea. "Our dining room should open at 3:30. However, our chef and restaurant staff still haven't arrived. I fear the weather is preventing them."
"Aren't blizzards common this time of year up here?" Pete asked. He'd seen something to that effect on the inn's website. There'd been a warning about roads in and out being closed until blizzards were over and the pass could be cleared. At the time, it'd sounded like a benefit to him. Pete remembered the orange gate he'd passed on his way up the steep hill. It was probably what they used to prevent anyone from going up, or down, the hill when conditions were dangerous.
"Yes. That's true. The weather can turn on a dime. If the local law enforcement decides it's no longer safe to travel this way, they'll close the gate on the road here. They'll also stop plowing the roads until the storm abates."
Maybe seeing Lisa glance at the restaurant next to the front desk, Mendez added, "Food service will be minimal should our staff not arrive, but we have contingencies for this situation."
Flip came in, dusting the snow from his head and coat.
Pete turned back to the manager. "You think the roads might close soon?"
"I can't be sure, Mr. Shasta, but we will alert our guests if that happens." Mendez handed him a receipt with two keycards. "Flip will take you to your suite."
With his previous enthusiasm, Flip gathered them and ushered them toward the elevator on the opposite side of the lobby from the front entrance. On the way, he pointed out the observation lounge with huge glass windows that overlooked the forest leading higher up the hill. When they returned to the hall, Pete saw their luggage on a rolling rack next to the elevator, no doubt brought in from the door next to the elevator that led outside the parking shelter.
"You are newlyweds?" he asked, his tone friendly.
"It's my birthday tomorrow," Lisa told him, wrapping her arms around Pete's at the elbow. "Pete surprised me with this romantic getaway."
Flip nodded, smiling like a lunatic, murmuring, "Very good, very good" before he asked whether Pete was on vacation from his job.
"Pete's a police detective. He doesn't get vacations. He escapes."
Flip chuckled heartily.
Pete put his arm around his wife, and she raised an eyebrow at him, a smile on her lips. Together, they entered the elevator with the luggage. Flip rattled on about the weather and Mendez's nervousness about schedules and missing employees. He also mentioned that the couple in the suite on their floor, the Stoddards, had intended to check out on the 15th. The weather would, no doubt, prevent that. "That will please Mr. Stoddard to no end. He is a retired photographer, but seems to have an eye for the younger ladies." Flip waggled thick, salt and pepper eyebrows. "He spends a great deal of time in the observation lounge, to see the view. His poor wife though." Flip shook his head, his face falling. "I suspect that his obsession with the younger women is what makes her so self-conscious. Babs she prefers to be called. She is a beautiful woman in her own right. So sad. So sad. But it is not my place to say anything."
A little uncomfortable with the amount of information this man was giving them concerning total strangers, Pete asked Flip about the absent chef and restaurant staff.
Flip nodded. "It happens here. Somehow, we always get by on minimal staff. There is nothing to worry about, I assure you, sir."
He went on to talk about the guests who'd just arrived today and those they were still expecting. A fashion designer with her New Zealand model boyfriend, a former Olympic skier who'd just married and was coming in for his honeymoon, and a dear old couple celebrating their sixty-third wedding anniversary.
Pete started to worry they wouldn't get rid of the guy easily. And all he wanted was to be alone with Lisa to see where that kiss would take them.
The elevator arrived on the second floor, revealing a plush, navy blue carpet that went well with the lightly stained, wood walls. More weird modern art adorned them.
Muttering to herself, a big, sturdy maid wearing latex gloves appeared in the hall in front of the elevator, entering just after they exited. She wore a navy blue uniform that did nothing for her abundant bosom, waist and sausage legs.
"Odelia," Flip told them with a kind of reluctant relish that told Pete their bellhop knew all, saw all and loved to gossip even as he feigned an unwillingness to talk about what wasn't his business. "Her second shift maid staff has not arrived and she let the first shift go early. With the weather, the new shift may not get through. She is not happy about this."
"Mendez didn't seem sure whether the roads would close."
"Oh, they will, sir. Most definitely. I have seen this weather before. Soon, the roads will close. The gate will close and the plows will cease. It is for safety that they must."
"For how long?"
"As long as the blizzard lasts. The weathermen, they are predicting this one will last several days. Possibly three or four."
Much as he'd been looking forward to secluding himself in a luxurious suite with Lisa, the idea of being stranded wasn't an appealing one to Pete.
Flip opened the door to their suite, one of two on the second floor. The first room in their suite was a huge sitting area with a massive fireplace, plush furniture, stereo, a large television in a closing cabinet, and a full bar. Flip proceeded to bustle around, unloading their luggage, stoking the fire already blazing in the fireplace, talking constantly about lovers and interesting jobs in undiminished enthusiasm. Pete finally tucked a five dollar bill into his pocket and pushed him out the door, all the while he bowed and said, "Very good, Detective. You must call if you need anything."
Pete closed and locked the door. Lisa was grinning when he turned to her. "It'll be cozy," she said while he drew her against him. "Just the two of us. No interruptions."
She was right. His uneasiness was unfounded. When he reached for her and she came without hesitation, he realized that, in his ripe old age of 32, he could think of much worse things than being in an extravagant suite with a huge bed and the most beautiful woman in the world.
They made love with a swiftness that made him chuckle out loud when it was over...but then the sound of loud, angry voices and a door slamming nearby jolted him from his hedonist focus.
"You hear that?"
Lisa reached for him, pulling his mouth back to hers.