Exclusive Excerpt: Last Room at the Cliff’s Edge (A Detective Linda Mystery) by Mark McNease

 

Blurb:

Retired homicide detective Linda Sikorsky and her wife Kirsten McClellan head to Maine for a long weekend of rest, relaxation and rewrites as Kirsten finishes drafting her first novel. Bad weather alters their plans, forcing them to stop for the night at the Cliff’s Edge, a motel known for secrecy and indiscretion. Something murderous goes bump in the night, sending the women on a search for justice when a young reporter’s body is found dumped and violated on a back road. A road Linda must now go down, no matter where it takes her, or what it reveals.

mark-mcnease

Exclusive Excerpt: Part I

CAYLEY DREES was nervous. She hadn’t heard from her confidential source for two days and she was supposed to meet him tonight. The timing could not be worse. A storm had made land the past six hours, covering Maine in thickening sheets of rain. She’d not had far to drive, just from Wathingham, where she lived and worked, to the outskirts of Lonesome Pointe, but the driving had been slow and treacherous. Drivers, including herself, had pulled off the highway at intervals to let the rain slow enough for them to see again. Visibility for parts of the 90 minute trip (now closing in on two and a half hours with weather delays) was approximately zero. She was relieved and curious to finally see the fading billboard announcing the Cliff’s Edge Motel just two miles up the road. At the rate she was going it would be a long two miles, but she was comforted to know her destination was in sight.

facia of the car and drops on the windshield
facia of the car and drops on the windshield

At twenty-three Cayley was already among those young achievers who made names for themselves on “30 Under 30” lists and nods to up-and-comers that appeared annually, praising the next generation’s best and brightest. She was going places, and like others of her type, she was the first to declare it. A natural journalist, Cayley had ignored the probability of an internship at the Boston Globe or the Philadelphia Inquirer, choosing instead to learn her reporting chops at little Wathingham, Maine’s, All Pointes Bulletin. But she had her reasons: she was a small pond girl at heart, and she intended to be the biggest fish in it. Had she gone with the Globe or the Enquirer she would be covering news that mattered to much of the world, but she would be the fourth journalist down on the left, in a cubicle listening to a hundred other journalists talk to sources and crank out stories with bylines nobody noticed. The ladder they climbed was steeper, and much more crowded. This way she could move back to Wathingham where her family lived and be a star. It would take time to reach the top, but not as much time. The All Pointes had a staff of only seven, including the part-time receptionist. It was a fiefdom she could find herself running in just a few years.

She wasn’t happy being assigned the obits, but it was part of the game she had to play. Everyone had to start somewhere, and it was the kind of assignment a new reporter was expected to do. The paper’s publisher and editor, a no-nonsense woman named Lucille Proctor, had taken a liking to Cayley when she’d known her casually as a high school student in town and Cayley’s journalism class had spent the day shadowing All Pointes reporters. Lucille accepted her internship application the day after it arrived. She could have said yes that same afternoon, but why seem too eager? Few young people as talented and determined as Cayley ever returned, and certainly showed no interest in internships at the All Pointes when they could cover celebrity drug overdoses for the L.A. Times, where it also happened to be warm most of the year.

Cayley had been reporting on dead people for almost a year now. She covered other things, too: local festivals, some interviews, and an occasional movie review for which she was reimbursed the cost of one ticket, a soda and a small popcorn. It was the opposite of glamorous. There was a time during the summer when Cayley questioned her decision to return to Wathingham. She’d posted a dozen death notices, contacted a few next of kin when something they’d submitted was questionably written or, in one case, to determine if the deceased was truly dead, since she swore she’d seen the man in the pharmacy the day before.

And then it happened: the call from her source. He sounded nervous—in fact, he sounded nervous every time she subsequently spoke to him, as if someone might hear them. They never emailed. He insisted all emails were read by the government, or at least by the employers of everyone sending them. He wanted nothing in writing, he said, he just wanted her to know what happened. But first, about that obituary you ran for Russell Drover …

“Russell Drover?” she’d said, trying to remember which one it was and when it was published.  She had been sitting at her desk rewriting copy when the call came in, the last of the day to be transferred by Rudy, the part-time office guy. (Rudy was sweet, distracted and more interested in finding a girlfriend than furthering his career, which was why he was a part-time receptionist at twenty-six.)

“The old guy who owned the Cliff’s Edge outside of Lonesome Pointe,” the voice said, sounding as if he’d cupped his hand over the phone.

“The Cliff’s Edge …”

“Are you a reporter or a parrot?”

She’d almost hung up on him then. She’d been pranked a few times, always by kids who thought annoying strangers on the phone was hysterical. But something in his tone, his nervousness, made her take a deep breath and refrain from snapping.

“I’m a reporter, Mr …?”

“Never mind that,” he’d said. “I just called to tell you that you got it wrong.”

“Wrong?” she’d said, immediately regretting repeating him again.

“Yes, wrong.”

“How’s that?”

She was sitting up now. She’d taken a pencil from an All Pointes coffee cup she used for them and poised it over a thin white reporter’s notebook. Something told her this was different, this had substance.

“He didn’t shoot himself like they said.”

“We didn’t say that either, Sir. Suicide never reads well in an obituary.”

“You think I’m playing with you, is that what you think?”

His sharpness startled her. She sensed she had to be careful if she wanted him to keep talking.

“Are you telling me he was killed by someone else?” she asked, still not recalling the obituary in question but certain it had said nothing about suicide. Families preferred to say “a sudden illness.” It didn’t matter now. She was being offered something she knew was bigger than the obituary beat, something people would talk about.

“He was murdered, yes,” the man said. This time his tone was flat, almost sad.

She waited a moment, letting him breathe while she decided how best to proceed. “Is there more, Sir? Is there something you’d like to tell me, like … who you believe killed Mr. Drover?”

“Oh, I know who killed him.”

Cayley felt the chill through the phone. Yes, she thought, yes, I’m sure you do know, but will you tell me? Pretty please? Or will this be difficult

“And I know why,” he said. “It was because of what happened.”

“What happened?”

“Yeah, what happened.”

Very carefully now: “When?”

“A long time ago.”

Excerpt Part II

LINDA SIKORSKY wasn’t looking forward to the drive to Maine but she would not tell Kirsten. It would take at least six hours, much of that in a storm the weather service had been warning about for the past week. She’d thought of suggesting they postpone the trip, but she knew the price for it would be days of sulking by Kirsten, delivered with a large side order of disappointment. Her wife had been planning this trip for two months, convinced it would be just what she needed to finish her first mystery, whose central character was transparently modeled after Linda. “The Rox Harmony Mysteries” had become Kirsten McClellan’s obsession. Linda was so relieved Kirsten had found a calling in retirement, even if writing was an avocation Linda thought put food on very few tables, that she withheld her reservations about a fictional lesbian detective based on her. Nor did she speak to Kirsten of the ego deflation that surely lay ahead in mixed reviews, unpredictable book sales and that small matter of finding a publisher. None of these things were worth causing Kirsten to fret more than she normally did. For Linda, just driving to Maine in terrible weather, after an unexpected delay caused by her mother’s emergency in Philadelphia, provided stress enough.

The women lived in a small house in Kingwood Township, New Jersey, that Linda had inherited from her Aunt Celeste. Her mother’s only sibling, Celeste had died on the back porch the spring before last, watering the flowers she’d kept for years in plastic beds hung from a wrought-iron railing surrounding the small space. There was just enough room on the porch for a table and four chairs. Linda had spent many Sunday mornings having coffee with her aunt after driving from New Hope, Pennsylvania, across the river into Jersey. She usually visited her mother the day before, making those weekends a sort of twofer: visit Mom one day, Aunt Celeste the next, and promise to be back in two weeks, three tops if something came up to delay her.

That “something” was sometimes homicide. Linda was then on the New Hope Police Force as its only female detective. She’d put in nearly twenty years, the last six in homicide, when Celeste died and left her the perfect place to retire: five acres of wooded land, a mile’s drive on 651 from the Delaware River. Timing, as Linda knew, was everything. She’d met Kirsten McClellan that January, inherited the house in September, and married Kirsten the following March. Now they were living very rural lives and slowly but surely adjusting to them.

Excerpt Part 3

On their way to a B & B in Maine, Linda and Kirsten are forced by the storm to stop at the Cliff’s Edge Motel.

LENNY SAW the car pull in. It was 7:30 p.m. now, dark and drenched outside as far as the eye could see, which was not far given the driving rain that had brought traffic to a standstill. The storm did not have a name but it was strong enough to be called something besides a Nor’easter. It deserved more respect than that. While it wasn’t an Irene or even a Sandy, it was a nasty one and it packed a punch. That’s why the Cliff’s Edge was almost full. Lenny had worked the front desk for the past six years and had only turned on the “No Vacancy” sign three or four times. This just wasn’t a place people looked for or added to their travel websites’ favorites list. It was exactly what he saw tonight: a place folks ended up because they had to. Just like the two women who came in as he watched from his stool—wet, unhappy and stamping their feet as if the water were snow they wanted off them.

“Evening,” Lenny said. “You ladies get stuck in the storm? Everybody else did.”

“Yes, we did,” Linda said. She regretted not bringing their rain ponchos, or at least a couple trash bags to put over themselves. Her jacket was soaked just getting from the car into the lobby, if it could be called that. It looked more like the front room in a house that should have been torn down decades ago.

“Well, you ladies are lucky tonight, let me tell you. I got one room left.”

Kirsten hung back. She was still stewing over not driving on to Cape Haven. She’d been relieved to get a cell phone signal in this weather, knowing it was hit and miss. It wasn’t great but it was good enough for her to tell the desk clerk they had to stop two hours short of Serenity House and they’d be there first thing tomorrow. The clerk curtly told her she would have to charge them for the night. Kirsten said go ahead, then filed it away for her Yelp review. She had no problem being charged, but she didn’t care for being spoken to as if she’d inconvenienced someone with nothing else to do.

Linda looked at the skinny man behind the counter. She hoped he would not call them “ladies” again. She disliked the term and found it patronizing. Coming from someone who looked like his other job was pumping gas at the only station for twenty miles made it seem smug and deliberate.

“We’ll take it,” Kirsten said, stepping up next to Linda. She’d sensed her wife’s hesitation, as if they had any choice but to check into the Cliff’s Edge and get the hell out at sunrise. She just wanted to get into a room, settle in and fire up her laptop for some revisions on Bermuda Shots.

The clerk reached under the counter and brought up a key attached to a diamond-shaped piece of plastic with the number 7 on it.

“Last room at the Cliff’s Edge,” he said. “Lucky, lucky.”

Linda had the distinct feeling their luck had run out, being forced into a rundown motel in the middle of somewhere.

“What town is this?” Linda asked, unsure they were even in a town.

“If it had a name,” Lenny said, “It’d be Unincorporated. Nearest town is Lonesome Pointe, about three miles from here. That be cash or charge?”

Linda was surprised: she’d never stayed in a motel that took cash.

She pulled her wallet from her purse, slipped out a corporate AmEx and handed it to him.

“I’m Linda Sikorsky,” she said. “And this is Kirsten, my … ”

“Friend,” said Lenny, winking at her.

Linda cursed herself and hoped Kirsten hadn’t noticed the exchange. She glanced to the side and saw her furiously trying to get an internet connection on her phone. Good, the conversation had been ignored. She hated it that she was still uncomfortable referring to Kirsten as her wife. It had taken her months to get used to partner, and spouse was just too … animal-husbandry. She had to get past this. What difference did it make that some creepy desk clerk might disapprove of lesbians?

“Something like that,” Linda replied, knowing Lenny had pegged them as a couple.

“Is there WiFi in the room?” Kirsten asked, frustrated at being cut off from the virtual world. The phone call to Serenity House was the last connection she’d had.

Lenny spoke patiently and slowly, as if to an uncomprehending child. “No,” he said. “We don’t have no internet connection here. This ain’t Portland. But we got TVs you can watch. Not sure what kind of picture you’ll get in this rain …”

“So it’s not cable?”

Lenny did not respond, believing he’d made his point well enough. If the Cliff’s Edge did not have an internet connection, why in the world would they have cable for the few people who stayed here? Mostly they came from surrounding towns to have sex with their secretaries or someone else’s husband. Nobody had time for HBO.

“No,” Linda said, answering for him. “I don’t imagine it is. Let’s just get our stuff from the car and settle in. It’s going to be a long night. Isn’t that right …?”

“Lenny,” he said, handing her the credit card receipt to sign. “

“Does Lenny have a last name?” Linda asked.

Lenny felt the hair on his arms rise. The woman was not smiling, and there was an intensity in her eyes he didn’t like. That’s how predators looked at their prey. He knew, he was one. He’d looked at countless teenage girls and a few of the boys that way, usually before he got them high on something and screwed them. And he’d looked at old man Drover that way just before he’d put a hole in his chest. The girl reporter, too. But she was still in the queue. He suddenly didn’t like putting these women next to the room Cayley Drees was in, but he didn’t have any choice. It was the last room, after all. He’d be extra careful when he slipped into #6 sometime after midnight.

“You can just call me Lenny,” he said. He was glad he’d talked Russell out of making him wear a name tag. What did the old fool think he was, a bellboy?

“Lenny it is,” said Linda, handing him the signed receipt and taking the key.

“You ladies have a good night. And if you need anything, come on down.”

“I can’t call you from the room?” Kirsten asked as they were about to head back to the car.

“Phone works sometimes, but there’s no intercom or nothing,” Lenny said.

“Of course not,” Kirsten replied. “Why would there be?”

Linda pulled the door open and held it for Kirsten. Rain flew into the lobby in the moment it took them to leave. Walking back into it was like walking into a powerful showerhead aimed directly at their faces. They got the last room, and they’d taken the last parking space, which meant they had to grab their belongings—none of which Kirsten was willing to leave in the car at this fine establishment—and hurry down the long motel front to room #7. Hopefully nothing would be damaged by the rain.

Lenny watched the door close. It was a lie they didn’t have internet access. They just didn’t have it for anyone but him, in the back apartment where Russell Drover had lived and where Lenny enjoyed his new life alone. Linda Sikorsky. He hadn’t asked for her driver’s license so he didn’t know where she lived, but he could get the state off her license plate. He planned to see if he could find out anything about her online. There was something chilling in the way her manner had changed while they were at the desk, as if she, too, had sensed something about him. Two snakes who’d come upon each other in the tall grass. He had the unsettling feeling one of them would be eating the other. He hoped not; he did not want to draw attention to himself or, by extension, his employer. He wanted to take care of the reporter, see the women off in the morning when they turned in the key, and wait for it all to blow over. There was a fat paycheck and an extended stay in Puerto Vallarta on the other side.

Author Website:

http://www.markmcnease.com/

 

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