Two days ago...
Deputy Sheriff Owen Brady dialed up the volume on his shoulder mic. “Can you hear me now, GRACIE?
"FORENSICS is bringing the head up now.”They want to take it to Lewis, but I’m pretty sure the body’s down in Albany. You want to get back to me on that?”
The dispatcher snorted a laugh. “You talking dirty to me, Brady?”
“I said up and down, not in and out.”
“You are talking dirty to me.”
The ends of his mouth curled slightly. “Check that location for me?”
Wisps of fog snaked in and out of the dry gulch. Crime scene workers dressed in protective coveralls picked their way up the steep cliff. One of the lab boys carried the cooler with the head in it.
Owen switched devices so he could play back his mobile’s voice recorder. “Sometime after eleven p.m. on May sixteen, Henry J. Hazlitt, of Hazlitt Hollinger Entertainment Group, was traveling east on Route 74, when his vehicle, a Mercedes Benz S450, veered off the road between mile markers 19-20. The vehicle traveled a hundred and twenty-five feet through dense forest before careening off the cliff into Griggs Gulch.”
He held down the record button. “No skid marks. No tire tread impressions. No road kill or animal tracks.”
A crumpled car door poked up out of the mist and winked in the morning light. Rescue had used the jaws of life to remove the body. Hazlitt was pronounced dead at the scene, and transported to the Medical Examiner’s office. Took them another day and a half to find his head.
“Poor bastard.” Owen styled it like a benediction.
The young deputy could only imagine what it must have been like to drive that Benz over the ridge. Had to be as thrilling as one of Screaming J. Hazlitt’s theme park rides, only deadlier.
He predicted another strange week ahead for the Essex County Sheriff’s Office. Except for a boating accident on the lake last summer, he couldn’t remember another suspicious death in this part of the county.
Owen turned around and trekked back through the woods. Just one of these old growth trees could have stopped the vehicle cold but there wasn't a mark or scrape to be found. Underbrush had been beaten down, twigs scattered around, along with a splintered branch or two. He followed the narrow path of destruction back to the highway.
For the second time this morning, he examined the curve of paved road and found no signs of a loss of vehicle control. Hazlitt may have tried to avoid a collision with another vehicle or even a person on foot, but whoever had been involved in the freak accident was long gone.
The victim’s state of mind, his health, and his blood alcohol content were other factors. He wouldn’t know much until they got the pathologist’s report.
Owen peered up and down the blacktop. Even at peak hours, Route 74 was a lonely stretch of road.
Most of the businesses around the lake were looking forward to the largest waterpark in the state being built on the north shore. Screaming J Hazlitt had touted more than fifty rides, including thirty-two water slides. The Sun Community News had recently included the groundbreaking ceremony in its event calendar.
He climbed into the Tahoe and answered a call from dispatch. “Got something for me?”
“Still checking on Hazlitt’s body. A few calls came in last night around midnight. All of them from locals. Strange lights were seen over the west end of the lake…” Gracie rattled off names and addresses.
Glowing balls of light hovering over Grass Island always turned out to be ball lightning. Annoyed that he had to deal with UFO sightings, he turned the SUV around and headed toward the village.
“Welcome to Paradox Lake,” he grumbled.
She knew people talked behind her back.
“Elsbeth Moonflower,” townsfolk whispered, “has never had a particularly firm grip on reality.”
“Quarrelsome young woman,” Nate Goodson of Goodson’s Greengrocery, complained.
Rumors circled the village like a kettle of vultures. “An odd one, that one. Thinks she’s faerie kin just like her mother.”
Even her friends, what few there were, called her a free spirit.
Elsbeth wasn’t bothered by most of the talk.
For one thing, the villagers were sleepy and unaware. And she could be quarrelsome at times, especially when Nate Goodson tried to gouge his customers. And she was odd—just like her mother. An attribute she struggled with and was finally learning to embrace.
“In this world, you have to be able to nod and smile and drink a little too much, and take selfies of your ass and say how awesome your date was, even if it wasn’t. In this world, I’m not enough,” she’d grumble then sigh.
For one thing, she preferred books made out of paper. She also argued that smartphones made everyone dumber, not smarter. But—and this was a big but—to not own a mobile phone in the twenty-first century was to risk total and complete social isolation.
Smartphones were also the new alarm clock.
She reached for her iPhone and pressed the snooze button.
What time was it?
Elsbeth grabbed a pillow and pulled it over her head. She blamed Netflix for the three extra episodes of Jessica Jones last night.
She lay in bed and thought about changing her ringtone from Waves to Air Horn—that would jolt her out of bed in the morning. Then again, binge-watching streaming video was America’s favorite pastime. And sleep deprivation made her more relatable and less…odd.
From the age of sixteen on, it was evident to Elsbeth that reality had her over a barrel. As much as possible, she’d tried to normalize herself in school. Ticonderoga High School being the modern-day equivalent of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell.
Take limbo for instance: Simple, everyday examples of high school limbo would be things like tardies, silent study halls, and sub-zero fire drills.
Lust was all about cock teasing, blow job negotiations, and virginity and/or slut shaming.
Gluttony had taken on many different forms: Compulsive Overeating. Binge Eating. And the queen of eating disorders: Bulimia.
Greed was everywhere.
Even heresy was enjoying a new vogue. While burning witches at the stake was no longer politically correct, the sin of heresy was still going strong in many areas of the world. Reprisals taking the form of car bombings and severed heads.
And violence? Take your pick of wannabe gangsters, school bullies, and active shooters.
Fraud surfaced in the form of nasty gossip on Facebook or Snapchat rumors.
And treachery was still as treacherous as ever. Rampant drama. Bitchy popular girls. Boyfriends sharing sexts or naked selfies. And algebra.
Elsbeth stepped out of the shower and wiped the fog off the bathroom mirror. If only she could do the same with high school flashbacks.
She frowned. “Morning, Little Miss Sunshine.”
She fired up her blow dryer and plugged in the flat iron. Today she was going for shiny, stick-straight hair. She rarely spent more than ten minutes on beautification. Mostly because she had zero skills in the art of glamor make-up. She usually gave up rather easily, opting for a smudge of smoky eye shadow, mascara and lip gloss.
Most days she’d have ended it there, but this morning she curled her eyelashes and gave them a double coat of mascara. She also applied a rose lip stain under her everyday peach lip gloss.
She pressed her lips together, smooshing the gloss with the stain to surprising effect.
Elsbeth had never fit in, not in school anyway. And after a while, she hadn't even tried. Perhaps the oddest thing about her oddness was that she’d grown into her peculiarities and began to like herself.
Aunt Esme had encouraged her. “You’re quirky, strong-willed and spontaneous. You’re in for a hell of a ride, my dear.”
By the end of her junior year, she'd turned it around. Any new friends she made, liked her for who she was—odd and quirky. They’d even formed a clique of their own, the Mutant Freaky Four, and survived senior year together.
After graduation, Elsbeth had gone to design school. She’d also fallen in love with New York City. Not surprising really, after growing up in Paradox, where everyone was in everyone's business. She loved the noise and the crowds and best of all, the invisibility.
She’d melted into the city like butter on warm toast.
Speaking of which—Elsbeth popped the slice of bread out of the toaster just in time. She scraped a pat of butter over crisp sourdough. What was with her this morning? Another reality wave of emotional paralysis swept over her.
She was alone in the world.
When mother got sick, she’d kept her illness under wraps. Barely a mention at first, and nothing about a prognosis. Her mother’s focus had never wavered from Elsbeth and her studies. And Elsbeth’s phone calls from the city had been filled with the joys of urban design, discovering Starbucks secret menu and buying pizza by the slice.
It wasn’t until the end of her second year that she’d left Cooper Union and returned home. Winter had come early that year. Mother died between holidays.
Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.
Two years had passed, and yet images of the funeral and snippets of condolences still came and went.
“Poor thing, lost your mother so sudden-like,” Edna Gillis had warbled, shaking her head, which made the warble worse. “Just thank the stars you didn’t have to watch her gag on her own vomit like I did with Jim.”
Elsbeth washed her breakfast down with three gulps of Snapple Peach Iced Tea and placed the empty bottle in the recycling container.
She checked her look on the way out the door.
Flower print leggings, cropped sweater, and her hair up in a stick-straight, high-set ponytail. Way more Gigi Hadid than she’d ever attempted before.
She’d taken longer than usual on make-up and clothes this morning. Why was that? Could it be the new sheriff in town?
The fabulous and super hot, Owen Hawkins Brady. Varsity football and track star. Everyone had called him Hawk in high school. And she’d actually fantasized about him more than once. Even if he was arrogant. Even if he only dated cheerleaders and popular girls. Even if he’d humiliated her once during their senior year.
She grabbed her helmet on the way out the door and jumped on the cutest, pinkest Vespa in the entire universe.
Every morning for the past three days, Owen had pulled off the main drag and parked the white Tahoe in The Courtyard. Radio noises squawked out of the SUV painted with large italicized letterforms.
Presumably, the forward thrust of the font suggested speed and a bit of ass-kicking intrepidness.
There was almost a routine to the deputy sheriff’s visits. He’d step out of the vehicle, walk directly into Roaster Joe’s and order Joe’s Special Roast in a commuter cup.
No egg and cheese biscuit. No coffee cake. No cinnamon bun.
He’d glanced over at the flower shop once or twice, even studied her for a second or two. But she couldn’t say there was a glimmer of recognition.
She, on the other hand, hadn’t missed a move.
His sandy brown hair was still cropped short in a tousled brush cut, but his face had thinned, showing off a bit more cheekbone and chiseled jawline.
Not to sound too Anastasia Steele, but—holy crap! He was more handsome than ever.
With his commuter cup in hand, he’d pick up whatever newspaper was laying around on the tables, download his morning caffeine infusion while perusing the headlines. Sometimes he sat down and read for ten or fifteen minutes. Most days he carried his coffee back to the Tahoe.
Elsbeth slowed down as she entered the main drag.
Vespas don’t growl, nor do they burn up the road, but she made the trip from farm to village in less than ten minutes flat.
Long ago, the state had designated Paradox as a hamlet, even though no one ever called Paradox a hamlet. Most of the locals referred to the three blocks of shops and eateries as the village.
What Paradox was, was charming. In fact, the village suffered from terminal darlingness.
Goodson’s Greengrocery & General Store and Knick Knack Paddy Wack Toys & Gifts were two of Main Street’s most adorable shopfronts. In the middle of the block, a quaintness compatible B of A and a Pen & Papyrus Stationers marked the entrance to what was called The Courtyard.
Elsbeth coasted down the narrow street that ended in a pretty square. A large barn, formally the livery stable, and an old boarding house and saloon made up the cornerstones of the shopping enclave. Years ago, the spacious stables had been divided into various shops to accommodate different artisan enterprises. Besides Moonflower Posies & Gifts, and Roaster Joe’s Coffee Bar, there was the Hummingbird Bakery.
Bee Yard Honey was technically a part of Moonflower Posies & Gifts as the infused honey came from the Moonflower Farm bee yard. And finally, there was The Clay Pot—a ceramics gallery and workshop.
The original old saloon and boarding house had been restored and repurposed as a posh destination B&B, The Loon's Nest Inn, and it’s companion restaurant, Sassafras Bar & Grille.
Last year, the shop owners had installed gas lampposts around the village, sending the hamlet’s darlingness quotient off the charts.
She parked the Vespa outside the livery stable’s French doors.
Before she opened the shop and unlocked the cash register, she stopped by Roaster Joe’s and ordered a tall flat white. “Hey, Rosie.”
“Did I miss him?”
Her friend behind the counter shook her head. “The highlight of our day is running late.”
She and Rosie had recently perfected the art of eyeball-to-eyeball girl talk. Elsbeth attributed their expertise in the art of nonverbal cues to a certain deputy sheriff who’d been assigned to the latest incident of local strangeness.
Paradox had more than its fair share of peculiar happenings. And whenever they suffered the odd bit of oddness the faerie talk would start up—jokes mostly, told by nervous villagers.
“There are dark creatures in these woods. Rock throwers, stick walkers, and the like,” Francis MacLeod would remind everyone. Essex County’s bookmobile librarian and resident faerie expert never missed an opportunity to strike fear in the hearts of the local children.
All this community angst had to do with the unfortunate demise of Henry J. Hazlitt, Entertainment Developer, whose plans had included a gigantic themed waterpark on the north shore of the lake.
Elsbeth had opposed the amusement park, in fact, she'd led the resistance, which irritated most of the other shop owners who stood to make a fortune off the increase in tourism. Residents and weekenders had taken her side, mostly.
Then poof—Screaming J. Hazlitt vanished. Seemingly without a scream, as the joke went.
The village had been abuzz for over a week. First, there was the conjecture over the search for the missing developer. Then once search and rescue had found him, the dead body rumors circulated. Had he been found headless or near headless? Roaster Joe’s had enjoyed a steady flow of customers the past few days. Even the flower shop’s receipts were up. Who knew a suspicious death could be good for business? store owners chortled. It was hard not to grin—just a little—over the black humor.
Elsbeth sipped her flat white espresso and unlocked the flower shop. Task number one was to check the website to see if there were any new orders. There were two emails: A purchase order for a large arrangement for The Loon's Nest Inn. And a query from a mortuary in Lewis.
Perched on a wooden stool, Elsbeth opened a design file. She needed to finish a seed packet design and send the file off to the printer. This one featured Heavenly Blue Morning Glory and Moonflower seeds.
She reread the text she’d written yesterday. Plant Ipomoea tricolor and Ipomoea alba together in a prominent spot, near a kitchen window. The morning glories will greet you with the sunrise, and the perfume of the moonflowers will waft inside during the evening.
“Planting directions,” she murmured, typing out the words in Goudy Oldstyle and adding a colon. “For best results…”
Officers of the law wear a lot of gear, most of it tied to a heavy black leather belt that squeaks when they walk. She heard him well before he cleared his throat.
Her gaze froze on the screen for an extra second before looking up.
She’d forgotten about his eyes. Not gold, not green, not brown‚ but hazel. Possibly the most beautiful hazel eyes ever in the history of the world. Pale green irises, with rust-gold flecks, and an outer ring of deep blue-green.
“Hello, Owen. How can I help you?”
“I wasn’t sure it was you.” Cute grin. Especially cute when one side of his mouth tugged at a perfectly shaped Cupid’s bow. He’d kissed her once, with those lips, then denied it had ever happened in front of the biggest gossipers in school.
“Oh yes, it’s me all right.” She had a hard time loosening up enough to smile. All she managed was a tilt at the ends of her mouth. “I recognized you right away, ever since last Friday.”
“Why didn’t you say something, like hi?” The gold flecks in his eyes teased her.
“Because…I don’t know.” Elsbeth rocked her head and her ponytail swished back and forth. “You seemed preoccupied.”
“With newspaper headlines and your squawky police radio.”
“Just so you know. You can wave or smile or make hand signals anytime.”
Their conversation went on like that, as they both tried to connect. The stilted speech of two quasi-strangers, punctuated by the occasional awkward silence.
Elsbeth sighed. “I heard you got a divorce.”
He stared for a moment, then broke eye contact. Was that a flash of pain in those beautiful eyes? Finally, he nodded. “Eight months ago.”
She suddenly felt awful. “I shouldn’t have—sorry—”
The novella version of Night Bloomers is a part of the Fae Worlds anthology and is available
on Amazon and all major online booksellers.
The full-length novel will release in Fall 2019.