Snow Place for Murder

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Chapter One

Misty Murphy


FUTURE SITE OF THE RETREAT ON BLUE RIDGE – AN ADVENTURE CAPITAL RESORT. The huge sign loomed over the two-lane mountain road, its colorful paint at odds with the subdued browns and grays of the surrounding late-fall forest, the modern luxury hotel depicted thereon an existential threat to the pines, hemlocks, and ubiquitous beech trees that gave Beech Mountain its name. A trio of does tip-toed past us. One doe glanced at the sign, twitched her tail, and snorted, as if offended by the project that would require her and her graceful, brown-eyed friends to find a new path through the woods to drink at the Elk River.


I felt a twinge of guilt in my gut. I’d soon host the developer of this project at my lodge, plus more than a dozen potential investors. Maybe I’d agreed too quickly. But I’d been flattered a venture capitalist from London had discovered my humble lodge and wanted to fill every room for five nights with guests. Mid-week, too, Sunday through Thursday, nights that usually garnered only a few bookings. A hawk swooped overhead, its caw-caw-caw sounding as if it, too, were chastising me for my part in destroying thirty-five acres of pristine forest.


            Biting my lip, I turned to Rocky, who stood beside me. As of recently, the handsome handyman at my Mountaintop Lodge had become a romantic partner, as well. With his graying sandy hair, the light beard spanning his cheeks, and the well-developed shoulders rounding the fabric of his plaid flannel shirt, he resembled an anthropomorphized mountain lion. “Did I make a mistake allowing Nigel Goodwin to pitch this project at my lodge?”


Rocky’s blue-gray eyes, the same color as the distant peaks, locked on mine. His face clouded with conflict. “Hard to say. This resort would be good in some ways, bad in others.”


“But mostly bad,” came a deep male voice from the woods to our right.


We turned to see a brawny beast emerge from the shadows. If not for the fact that he’d spoken, I might think the big, burly man with the bushy brown beard was a sasquatch. He wore boots with toes covered in dried mud, nylon hiking pants with an abundance of zippered pockets, and a puffer vest over a long-sleeved T-shirt. Atop a head of unruly hair sat a khaki camping hat, its chin string disappearing into the man’s beard. He carried a fancy camera with a long lens attached. A camera bag was slung over his shoulder. He headed our way, offering a pleasant, gap-toothed smile and stretching out a meaty hand when he reached us. “Hi, folks. I’m Gus.”


            “Misty,” I said, taking his hand and giving it a shake.  


            He repeated the routine with Rocky. When introductions were finished, he cocked his head and eyed me. “Did I hear you say Nigel Goodwin is coming to your lodge?”


            No sense denying it. “That’s right. He’ll be pitching this project to potential investors.” In fact, Goodwin would be footing the entire bill for their five-night stay.


“You own the Mountaintop Lodge, right? I believe I saw you out front a while back.” He chuckled. “You were engaged in battle with a scarecrow.”


            I cringed. How many others had witnessed me wrangling that straw-filled rascal? “Yep. That was me.” With the recent high winds that had battered the mountain, keeping the decorative scarecrows in place had been challenging. Fortunately, when Thanksgiving was over a week from now, I’d be able to take the autumn adornments down and replace them with winter and Christmas-themed decorations.


            The man’s fuzzy, friendly face turned serious. “Take a look at this.” He turned his camera so we could see the images displayed on a small screen on the back. He scrolled through them. There were deer galore, mostly does and fawns but a few antlered bucks among them, too. Several lone groundhogs. A pair of playful skunks. A frolicking fox. Many of the photos depicted the animals coming to the bank of the Elk River to drink.


            When he stopped scrolling, I looked up at him. “Are you a wildlife photographer?”


            “Photographer. Researcher. Rescuer. Rehabilitator. If it’s got anything to do with the animals around here, I’m involved in it—other than hunting that is. I believe we should live and let live.” He removed the lens and slid the camera and attachment into his case. The equipment secured, he pulled his cell phone from a pocket on his hiking pants and showed us a series of videos. Many were grainy and dark, taken at night. “All of these videos were captured right here.” He gestured around us. “With this acreage being on the river, the wildlife is very active.”


            I pointed to the screen, which played footage of a black bear ambling along the riverbank in the dark, his eyes shining like flashlights. “How long did you have to wait to spot that bear?”


            “I didn’t have to wait at all,” Gus said. “My trail cam caught this footage. I’ve got cameras situated all around this area. There’s one right there.” He pointed to a nearby tree. The camera’s camouflage cover was designed to make it blend in with the foliage, and it took me a few seconds to make out the device attached to the trunk. A sad frown claimed his face. “Lots of animals cross the road here. If that resort is built, there will be untold amounts of carnage.”


            My stomach tied itself in tight knots. Collisions with deer were common in the mountains and accidents involving bears happened frequently, too. The incidents weren’t only dangerous for the animals, they posed risks to the vehicle’s passengers, too. Adult bears could weigh three-hundred pounds or more. I made a mental note to suggest that Nigel Goodwin include wildlife warnings on his resort’s website, maybe even install signs around the resort to remind guests to drive slowly. And wondered again if it was a good idea to be hosting these people at all.


            The rumble of a diesel engine drew our attention to the road, where a mud-splattered black pickup eased to a stop behind my Subaru Crosstrek. A man sat at the wheel, a baseball cap shading his face. He cut the engine and climbed out. Now that he was outside, I could see that his cap bore the image of a deer skull with an impressive rack of antlers, a symbol for trophy hunters. A gun rack was mounted inside the back window of his truck. Though the rack currently held no hunting rifles, the man wore a handgun holstered at his waist. He was cleanshaven, with eyes as flinty as stone. He slammed the door behind him and strode our way, wordlessly but with purpose. He jabbed a finger in the air to indicate the sign. “Y’all involved in this bullshit?”


            “The proposed resort?” Gus shook his head. “No way, man. I’m hoping to stop it.”


            Rocky’s gaze met mine, flicked to the gun at the man’s waist, then traveled to his face. “We’re not involved, either. Just curious and stopped to take a look.”


            Gus looked askance at Rocky. He probably thought Rocky was being insincere, but he probably also realized why. The man in the hunting cap seemed to be looking for a fight. No sense adding fuel to the fire, especially when he had a firearm in easy reach. Besides, other than hosting the developer at my lodge, it was true that Rocky and I had nothing to do with the resort itself. We weren’t investors or contractors, and we didn’t work for Goodwin.


            Gus cocked his head, eying the man. “You’re not in favor of the resort, either?”


            “You got that right,” the guy snapped. “Come hell or high water, I’ll put a stop to this abomination.” He didn’t elaborate on this hell-or-high-water plan. Rather, he strode back to his truck, slamming the door again after he climbed in. He drove only a short distance before turning into a gravel driveway on the other side of the road. Through the trees, we caught glimpses of his truck as he ascended the steep drive of a rustic cabin on a slope above us. Though we could see the cabin now, it would be fully obscured once the trees leafed out again in late spring. The truck stopped in front of a detached prefab garage and the wide door rolled up, revealing a wide chest freezer and the largest gun cabinet I’d ever seen inside against the back wall. The man parked the truck inside, slid out, and pushed a button on an exterior keypad to close the door. As he approached the cabin, two dogs came down from the porch, a black Labrador retriever and an orange and white Brittany spaniel, both hunting breeds. Given the location of the man’s home, his aversion to the resort made sense. The development would put an end to his peaceful refuge.   


            We bade Gus goodbye and returned to my car. As we wound our way back up the road to the lodge, we passed another herd of deer who stood on the side of the road, staring accusingly at us as they chewed their cuds. I groaned. “I’m getting a bad feeling about hosting Goodwin’s group. I wish I’d done more digging before I agreed to let him use the lodge.”


            Rocky released a long exhale. “If you had said no, he’d have just found another place. You can’t stop ‘progress.’” He made air quotes with his fingers as he said the word. He gave my knee a supportive pat. “Focus on the positive, Misty. You’ve got lots to look forward to.”


            I certainly did. My two sons would arrive from college on Wednesday to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with me. My ex-husband would be coming, too. We’d had a rare, truly amicable split, and were determined to remain a family, albeit a somewhat nontraditional one.


            The smell of pancakes and fried foods greeted us as I turned into the parking lot that my lodge shared with The Greasy Griddle. The old-fashioned diner was owned by a woman named Patty, who’d become not only a business associate but also one of my dearest friends. I parked in my usual spot at the far end of the lot to allow my guests to use the more convenient spots. As Rocky and I headed inside, we passed a couple from Texas who’d just checked out. The Pratts both worked for the IRS. They’d given me free tax advice over biscuits and gravy at breakfast. Their two young children were quite a handful but, despite their high levels of energy, the kids were also well-mannered and absolutely adorable.


            I raised my hand in goodbye. “Safe travels back to Dallas. Hope to see y’all again soon!”


            Mrs. Pratt gave me a smile. “You can count on it. Our daughter has already insisted we come back next summer to see the fawns while they still have their spots.”


            Their inquisitive little girl had peppered Rocky and me with questions about the deer, and we’d told her that the babies kept their spots only for three or four months. Most deer were born in May or June, so they’d lost their spots by this time of year.


            “Wonderful!” I put my hands on my knees and bent down to look the little girl in the eye. “I’ll make sure we’ve got plenty of fresh blueberries for your pancakes.”


            Her eyes widened in delight and she clapped her itty-bitty hands. “Yay!”


            As our departing guests aimed for their car, Rocky and I headed into the lodge. My assistant manager, Brynn O’Reilly, looked up from the reception desk. Brynn was tall and thin, with wavy red hair and a bohemian sense of style. Brynn embraced new age philosophies and practices, and regularly burned sage in the lodge to banish bad juju. The ritual might not help, but it didn’t hurt, either. Besides, I wasn’t about to lose a reliable and hardworking assistant by questioning her beliefs.


            She pointed to the computer. “Three more reservations came in for Thanksgiving weekend. All the rooms are booked.”


            With my prior innkeeping experience at a zero and Mother Nature’s tendency to be very fickle with the weather, buying a lodge in the Blue Ridge Mountains had been a risky endeavor. But, so far, things were going remarkably well. Of course, the success of the lodge didn’t come without a price. I worked twenty-four/seven in an attempt to keep the rooms full and the bottom line in the black. When I wasn’t cleaning or attending to guests, I was online, promoting the lodge on Facebook or Instagram, posting photos to show off the area’s natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and variety of activities.


“We’re full? Woo hoo!” I performed a happy dance right there in the lobby, borrowing moves from the “Cha-Cha Slide” and getting funky. Rocky and Brynn joined in the happy dance, each performing their own moves. Rocky imitated a Russian dancer by crossing his arms and bouncing up and down, kicking out one leg and then the other in the traditional Dance of the Cossacks. Brynn’s happy dance involved turning in a circle while snaking her arms and shaking her hips like a belly dancer. Not only were my staff reliable and hardworking, they were fun, too. We made a great team.


With the last of the non-returning guests having departed, I placed the bell at the desk along with the small placard directing anyone needing assistance to ring it. While Brynn and I rounded up our housekeeping carts, Rocky set off to add weatherstripping around the windows. My guests’ comfort was my number-one priority, but ensuring there were no drafts would also keep the lodge’s electric bill in check. It was going to get very cold very soon in the mountains.