Getaway With Murder
Read the Excerpt
I went to the woods because
I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life, and
see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not,
when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
—Henry David Thoreau (1854: Walden)
I’d just finished signing the divorce papers when my trim, tanned husband walked into the conference room, carrying a paper cup. He sat the steaming chai tea latte in front of me. The barista had written “Miss T” rather than “Misty” on the cup, but I supposed that name wasn’t heard often anymore. It belonged to ladies of a certain age—ladies like me, who’d turned fifty years old this very morning.
As I sipped the delicious brew, both my stomach and heart warmed. I gave Jack a grateful smile. “Maybe we should rethink this divorce.” We shared a chuckle. It was no secret I wasn’t a morning person. If not for my snowy-white cat standing on my chest and demanding her breakfast each day, I’d sleep until noon. Jack, on the other hand, liked to rise with the sun. Our biorhythms weren’t our only difference. Jack couldn’t get enough of the Outer Banks but, while I enjoyed the sandy beaches, North Carolina’s notorious riptides terrified me. I preferred the mountains in the western part of the state. I loved altitude and everything that went with it. Hiking in dappled woods. Long-range views from a mountaintop. Snowflakes falling in a peaceful hush. Unfortunately, Jack felt carsick on the winding roads up the mountain, cursing every hairpin turn. He never got the hang of skiing, despite several lessons. He feared frostbite if the thermometer dipped below fifty degrees, even if dressed in a parka and fleece-lined boots.
Opposites attract, but sometimes the attraction doesn’t hold forever. Still, while Jack and I had agreed to go our separate ways, we had no regrets. We’d enjoyed two decades together and raised two wonderful, well-adjusted sons, but our relationship had run its course. So, here we were, “consciously uncoupling.” We’d easily agreed on the division of our property. Jack would keep the house in Raleigh. I’d get the anniversary clock we’d bought to celebrate our first year of marriage, plus the investment accounts. I’d reinvest the funds in a new venture this very afternoon.
Mitchell, our younger son, sat at the table with us, playing games on his phone while Jack signed the paperwork. Both boys had my pale freckled skin, dark brown hair, and hazel eyes, but their physique was all Jack, tall and lean. My body was rounder and softer, more so each year despite brisk daily walks. But if the price of aging was a few extra pounds, I’d gladly pay it. Growing old had its downsides, but it sure beat the alternative.
I turned to Mitch. “Good thing you’re grown so we don’t have to fight over you.”
“I’d let you have him,” Jack teased, “and all his laundry, too.”
Mitch rolled his eyes. He knew Jack and I couldn’t be prouder of him and his brother. Both had been honor students in high school, and members of the marching band. They’d landed in occasional trouble that could be chalked up to kids being kids, but who’d want a perfect kid anyway? I was glad they had minds of their own. While our older son Jack, Jr., or J.J., was a sophomore at Duke, Mitch would start his first year at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill very soon. In fact, once we finished here, Jack and I would move Mitch into his dorm. It was mid-August, and classes would begin in just a few days.
Fortunately, our boys had been neither surprised nor upset when we’d told them we were calling it quits. J.J. had put it best when he’d said, “You two seem more like roommates than a couple.” He wasn’t wrong. I couldn’t even remember the last time Jack and I had engaged in marital relations. Maybe after his office holiday party last December? But even though our marriage didn’t last, we’d always hold a special place in each other’s hearts. Jack finished signing and set the pen down. Our mission here complete, we thanked the attorneys and stood to go. An hour later, the three of us were in Mitchell’s dorm room. I made my son’s bed for what I both hoped and feared was the last time.
While tears filled my eyes, Mitch champed at the bit, wanting his parents to leave so he could stroll the halls and meet the other new Tar Heels. I wiped a tear from my cheek, plumped his pillow, and glanced around to determine if we’d forgotten anything. “Where’s your phone charger?”
“Right here.” Mitch pulled the cord from the front pocket of his jeans.
I took it from him and plugged it in at his desk. “Keep your phone charged. I worry when I can’t reach you.”
My son groaned. “Trust me. I know.”
It was Jack’s turn to question him now. “Got your electric toothbrush?”
“Yes!” Mitch snapped. “Five tubes of toothpaste, too. Enough for the whole semester.”
Jack worked in sales for a dental equipment supplier. “What about floss?”
Rather than answer his dad, Mitch pointed to the door. “Go!”
I stepped toward him. “Not without a goodbye kiss.”
He made a gagging sound, but suffered through me giving him a peck on the cheek. Jack ruffled his hair. “Stay out of trouble, dude.”
Jack and I stopped at our cars in the parking lot, and he turned to me. “Your birthday gift is waiting for you at the lodge.”
“What is it?” Jack was a famously thoughtful gift giver, always finding the perfect thing. Over the years he’d surprised me with a seat warmer for my car for ski trips with the boys, high-powered binoculars to enjoy the birds and views on my hikes, and a pair of spiky metal crampons to attach to my snow boots so I wouldn’t slip on the ice.
He grinned. “You’ll see.” He stepped forward and enveloped me in a tight hug.
I hugged him back, my throat tight with emotion. “There’s no one I’d rather be leaving.”
Taking my words in the spirit intended, he concurred. “We had a darn good ride.” He cleared his throat, overcome with feelings too. After a last squeeze, we released each other.
As Jack headed off on sales calls, I swung by the house to round up Baroness Blizzard. My boys nicknamed her Yeti for her ice blue eyes and bountiful white fur. She’d skitter off if I grabbed at her, so instead I crouched and held out a treat. “Here, girl! It’s tuna! Your favorite!”
She swished her tail and eyed me suspiciously.
I raised the treat to my mouth. “If you don’t want it, I’ll eat it.”
Her smug expression said Go ahead. Eat it. I dare you. She’d called my bluff. As I reached for her, she leaped off the couch and bolted. Luckily, I’d had the forethought to close all the doors. She found herself trapped at the end of the hall. I snatched her up, squashed the wriggling cat against my chest, and ran for her carrier. I shoved her in, tossed the treat in after her, and fastened the lock. “Off we go!”
All good things are wild and free.
—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” (1862: The Atlantic)
How dare Misty shove me into this box! Normally, being forced into the carrier meant Yeti would be taken to the veterinarian for poking and prodding. But, surely, they’d passed the vet’s office by now. Misty had slid a plush mouse through the bars, too. But the cat wouldn’t fall for the ploy no matter how strongly the nip called to her. She refused to be kidnapped and catnipped.
Yeti put her front paws on the bars and raised up to look out the window. All she could see were trees. If Misty thought she could cart Yeti off to who knows where without getting an earful, the woman was sorely mistaken. Yeti gave Misty a piece of her mind. Meowww! When Misty failed to respond, Yeti escalated the conversation. Hisss! Still nothing from Misty. This situation calls for the full-blown growl-hiss combination. Rrrowwwl! Hissssss!
Misty eyed Yeti in the rearview mirror. “Drama queen.”
Though Yeti didn’t know precisely what the words meant, she could tell from the tone she’d been summarily dismissed. The nerve of that woman!
What a noble gift to man are the Forests!
What a debt of gratitude and admiration we
owe to their beauty and their utility! How
pleasantly the shadows of the wood fall
upon our heads when we turn from the
glitter and turmoil of the world of man!
—Susan Fenimore Cooper (1850: Rural Hours)
Three hours, 175 miles, 5,000 feet in elevation, and a fifteen-degree drop in temperature later, I was making my way into the Blue Ridge Mountains of northwestern North Carolina. I’d stopped briefly in Boone to sign more legal documents and pick up the keys to the mountain lodge I’d purchased. The Watauga River tumbled alongside the road, the tumultuous water topped with whitecaps, fueled by a recent downpour. After turning onto the winding road that would take us to the mountaintop, I switched into a lower gear to increase power to the engine. My ears popped as we weaved our way up the steep switchbacks. Finally, we reached the pinnacle, flattened out temporarily, and cruised past the business district and the sign declaring Beech Mountain’s claim to fame as the highest American town east of the Rockies.
My dashboard clock read 6:03 as I started down the backside of the mountain, approaching my destination. The air vents delivered the delicious aroma of the all-day, all-you-can-eat pancakes offered by the Greasy Griddle Diner across from the lodge. My heart soared like the hawks above as I turned into the parking lot. With wings stretched out on either side of a vaulted foyer, the log-cabin-style lodge appeared to be welcoming me into an embrace.
Though the hotel had been built in the 1950s, the traditional style was timeless. My parents brought me and my siblings here dozens of times on family vacations when I was young. I’d stayed here on college ski-club trips, too. Jack and I even spent half of our honeymoon here. We’d spent the other half at the shore, climbing the lighthouse in Hatteras and strolling the beach. Once the boys were born, we’d carried on the tradition and brought them up the mountain for hiking and river rafting in the summers, and sledding, snowboarding, and snowball fights in the winters.
Throughout my childhood and up to my mid-forties, the place had been operated as The Ridgeview Inn by a jovial married couple. When they’d retired five years ago, they turned the place over to their shiftless grandson, who had little interest in the inn and no head for business. No wonder the lodge ended up in the red. There were several other hotels for sale in the area, too, some of which had gone out of business and languished on the market. Only a handful of inns still operated successfully. With the rise of internet sites like Airbnb and Vrbo, the vacation lodging market had changed. There were plenty of privately owned rental properties available, cabins and condos with full kitchens and multiple bedrooms where families and friends could spread out. With listings easily searched online, competition for guests was stiff. What’s more, weather could severely impact tourist traffic. A bad year for snow meant fewer skiers. Heavy rains, such as those that hit the area over the weekend, deterred even the most ardent outdoor enthusiasts, though they made for great waterfalls afterward.
Buying the place was risky, but I felt certain I could run a successful lodge. I knew the place, the property, and the people well. I knew why vacationers up and down the eastern seaboard chose to come here. I had no doubt I could turn things around. To that end, I’d developed a targeted marketing plan. While cabins and condos offered certain amenities, they didn’t offer a central meeting space or the ability for groups to stay together in immediate proximity. Rather than merely hope individual guests would register for rooms on my website, I planned to actively seek out groups who would enjoy having the lodge to themselves, taking it over as their home base for days at a time. I planned to get in touch with regional hiking clubs, ski clubs, bird-watching groups, you name it. The lodge could even host small weddings, family reunions, and similar events.
I swung around to park in the covered drive-through in front of the lobby and squealed in delighted surprise. Standing next to the front door was a piece of chainsaw art nearly as tall as me—an adorable black bear standing on his hind legs as if to get a better look at something that had made him curious. A bright yellow bow sat atop the bear’s head. It was a perfect gift. Jack has done it again. I climbed out of my car, whipped out my phone, and stepped across the stone walkway to snap a selfie with the bow-topped bear. I sent the pic to Jack with a text that said I LOVE IT! The words were redundant. My smile spoke for itself.
After retrieving my suitcase and my cat, I stepped back to the glass door at the entrance, unlocked it, and pushed it open. The place had gathered dust in the two weeks since it was last cleaned, but otherwise looked to be in good shape. The check-in counter took up the front right corner of the lobby and looked out over an expansive great room with wood flooring and a vaulted ceiling. The gathering space served as the heart of the lodge. Comfortable rustic furniture surrounded the stone hearth, ready for guests to enjoy the cozy fireside come winter months. A colorful rug adorned the floor.
The broker who’d listed the inn had touted it as a turnkey operation and offered to have management continue taking reservations for a seamless transition of ownership. But when the few remaining employees jumped ship, I advised the broker I’d prefer to replace the staff myself. I wanted full control over the operations. The Ridgeview Inn had hosted its last guests two weeks ago. I’d reopen the lodge on my own terms with staff I’d personally selected. I’d purchased the place as is, but only after
having it thoroughly inspected. The lodge needed some minor cosmetic repairs, but the inspector noted only one significant structural item, a rainwater runoff issue. Drainage was a common problem with high country properties, especially in Beech Mountain, which averaged forty-five to fifty-five inches of rain annually. I’d get the matter taken care of right away.
I freed Yeti from her carrier. As she strutted out, I scooped her up and carried her to the plate-glass windows at the back of the room. The view of the treetops and distant peaks was awe-inspiring. The ridges appeared in ever-lightening shades of bluish grayscale as they receded into the distance. The sun had begun its daily descent, slipping soundlessly behind the forested peaks as I gazed out. Though I’d seen the view many times, it never ceased to astound me. I ran a hand over my cat’s head. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Yeti, too, seemed impressed, putting a paw to the glass as she looked out. She purred in my arms as if sensing the same feeling I always had in the mountains. This is where I belong.