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Molly Masters Series

Death Comes to a Retreat

Death Comes to a Retreat

Chapter 1

Nevermore

One look at this place and the women will kill me, I thought as I viewed my surroundings. In front of me, the cabin, composed of unpainted clapboard precariously balanced atop cinder blocks, looked like the combined efforts of the two less enterprising little pigs. Then again, that was an insult to the pigs.

I straightened the shoulder strap of my duffel bag and glanced behind me down the pine-needle-laden path. Currently on a starvation diet and unaccustomed to the altitude in the Colorado Rockies, my best friend Lauren Wilkins was already winded. Our eyes met. She gave me one of her winning smiles as she pushed her brown hair back from her round, flushed cheeks. "The kids are busy arguing over who..." Her smile faded as she stared past my shoulder at our cabin. She stopped beside me. "Are you sure this is the place, Molly?"

"This is it. Unit three of the Red Fox Resort. Interesting interpretation of the word 'resort,' isn't it?"

She tilted her head. "Maybe it's nice on the inside."

"I'll believe that when I see filet mignon sold in rusty, dented cans." I grabbed my cellphone. "Damn it! There's no signal here, either!" We'd already discovered the lack of coverage back at the dirt parking lot for the lodge itself, which had been misrepresented in the brochure as one of the cabins.

While we waited for our children to catch up, my disappointment turned into anger. Half a dozen women had already paid Celia Wentworth, my so-called business partner, to have me conduct a greeting card workshop here this weekend. Celia supposedly ran conferences for a living. This "resort" in Evansville was only a forty-five minute drive from Boulder. She should have checked out the place before she made our reservations. And I should have checked Celia's credentials before handing her ten percent of the proceeds. I'd merely taken a mutual friend's word on Celia's qualifications. Allison Kenyon, the mutual friend in question, was one of the women coming up today.

Behind us, the children's voices grew louder. "...my turn to carry our suitcase!" my son, Nathan, was saying as they rounded the bend with Lauren's daughter, Rachel, calmly leading the way.

"You didn't have to yank it away from me," my daughter, Karen, snarled. "So, fine! You can carry everything by yourself!" On that note, she tossed an armload of jackets and sweaters on top of him.

With his typical priorities, Nathan first smoothed his hair back into place—he used mousse to plaster down his curls, then growled and lunged at Karen.

"Hey!" I called. "Remember what I said about fighting?" They froze.

"We're not fighting," they cried simultaneously, then retrieved their belongings—though Nathan managed to step on Karen's jacket in the process.

That had been their standard response ever since I told them that each minute of fighting delayed our upcoming trip to an amusement park by one hour. My parental bribe/threat was inspired by the fact that Lauren was sacrificing her weekend to watch them as well as her own daughter while I conducted the workshop.

Karen and Rachel darted past us, Karen's fine sandy brown hair bobbing in time with Rachel's white-blond curls. "Is this cabin ours?" Rachel asked her mom in passing.

Eight-year-old Nathan, his tall, wiry frame built for speed, dropped everything on the ground and took off at a dead run. The three reached the cinder-block step at the same time. Rachel flung open the plywood flap that served as a door and rushed in after Nathan, a step ahead of Lauren and me.

"Yuck!" Nathan cried. "It smells like your socks!"

"It does not!" Karen said. "It smells like your underpants!"

A whiff of stale, moldy air reached me, and I silently agreed with both of my children, which said more about my laundry habits than I cared to assess. At a quick glance, the interior was even uglier than the exterior.

"What am I going to do, Lauren? These women have each paid two hundred dollars for a writer's retreat. I doubt any of them thought that included retreating from all physical comforts."

"Mo-om!" Karen called. "I thought you said we'd be staying someplace nice."

"Well, that's what I was led to believe, but apparently the woman making the arrangements didn't check it out first."

"I guess not. This place stinks. Literally."

I glared at my daughter, annoyed at how much she sounded like me. If she wanted a role model, I would much rather have her choose Eleanor Roosevelt.

With a giggle, Rachel joined Karen in the doorway and whispered something in her ear. Though they were both ten years old, Rachel was half a foot taller than my petite daughter.

We took ourselves on a tour. The living room furnishings were rejects from a flea market, complete, no doubt, with fleas. To the left of the entrance, the kitchen area—as defined by the orange carpeting giving way to warped and stained yellow linoleum—housed a mini-refrigerator, small range, and a gray Formica tabletop built into the wall. Past the living room, the main bedroom was in decent shape with two newly made queen-sized beds, but the second bedroom, just off the kitchen, had obviously once been the bathroom. Bunk beds were located where a bathtub had once been, with the sleepers' view of the commode blocked by a partition.

"Eew. Sick," Karen said as she studied this bedroom. "Come on, guys. Let's put our stuff in the other bedroom before Mom sticks us with this one." The three of them rushed off.

"Ah, well." I dropped my bag on the bottom mattress. The bedsprings squeaked in protest. "Tonight while I'm unable to sleep, sickened by the thought of how I've ripped off people trusting enough to hire me, I'll be able to vomit in the toilet without having to get out of bed."

"Maybe the other cabin is nicer," Lauren said, ever the optimist.

With the sleeve of my navy blue cardigan. I rubbed at a filmy pane on the window of our bathroom-cum-bedroom and pointed with my chin. "Unit four. That's it there. Looks identical to ours." I wanted to stomp my foot in frustration but was afraid I'd crash through the floor. "I can't do this. It's one thing for me to ask my family and friends to put up with this place, but I can't mistreat strangers like this. If all else fails, I'll refund everyone's lodging costs and move the retreat to my house in Boulder."

"But meals at the lodge are included, right?"

I winced. "I forgot about that. The only food at home is a tray of ice cubes and a can of Cheez Whiz. That won't hold off eight adults and three kids for long. Still, it beats staying here. I'm going to go see if I can find the manager."

Nathan had returned with the suitcase and now stood in the doorway, listening. His eyes were mirror images of Karen's, but his newly acquired adult teeth were uneven, which gave him a bit of a cocksure grin—the snails and puppy-dog tails to Karen's sugar and spice. "Karen," he called, "want to come watch Mommy get mad?"

Lauren put her hand on Nathan's shoulder and escorted him to the living room. "I'm sure we can find something more entertaining to do than that, if we all put our heads together."

"How can we have any fun with our heads stuck together?"

Forcing myself to allow Lauren to handle Nathan, I left.

Strange how sensible this trip had sounded in theory and how convoluted it all seemed now. My husband, Jim, was in Dallas on business for three weeks. School had just ended back in our present home, Carlton, New York, which meant Karen and Nathan would each in turn be trying to become an only child. Our former house in Boulder was between renters and temporarily unoccupied. Lauren's fiancé, Tommy Newton, was out of town at a week-long police-training course. They were getting married soon, and Lauren was nervous and in need of a distraction. My idea of two weeks in Colorado, partially funded by a workshop, had seemed to be a perfect solution to all of our problems.

I took a deep breath of the brisk, pine-scented air. Birds chirped merrily. Deep blue, white-crested mountains in the distance met with the brilliant blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. It was hard to be in a foul mood, surrounded by the sensations I'd so missed in the last three years. I made my way down the mountainside of craggy rocks, sparse grass clumps, and lodgepole pines.

A black Suburban kicked up a dust cloud as it rounded the dirt road below and headed toward me. It looked like Celia Wentworth's van. That was odd. She wasn't supposed to be here. Yesterday she'd told me that my friend Allison would be driving up with the five other attendees. I strained to look through the tinted windows and grinned with relief at the realization that Celia must have learned our accommodations were atrocious and come to get this mess straightened out.

I waved and trotted down the path toward the road. Celia, easy to spot with her teased, frosted hairdo and heavy makeup, stuck her head out the window and called, "There's been a slight change in your roster, but I'm on top of it."

"Oh, okay," I murmured, distracted by an image of Celia standing on top of a roster. For some reason, that led me to the even sillier thought of her sitting on a rooster. This was an evil side effect of writing greeting cards for a living: wordplay sometimes sidetracked me at the worst possible moments.

"I'm taking your participants to the other cabin." She gestured back into the recesses of her large vehicle, where a number of women were seated. "We'll meet you at yours in ten minutes."

"Wait. There's a major problem. I'm going down to speak with the manager."

"You needn't do that. I'll handle any problems. That's my job, after all."

"Well, but I'm not willing to—"

"Hi, Molly," interrupted a woman who'd emerged from the passenger seat.

I stared at her as she rounded the car. "Allison! You're here!"

Her voice was the same, but my friend had changed radically in the last three years. Perhaps inspired by her recent divorce, she'd dyed her light brown hair blond, and she'd lost quite a bit of weight. This should have been the stuff of magazine makeovers, but even at a glance, her facial features looked almost haggard.

We greeted each other with a hug, then Allison called over her shoulder to Celia, "I'll walk back up with Molly."

I hesitated but decided my talk with the manager could wait; Celia had gotten us into this so she really should be the one to get us out. "How've you been?" I asked Allison, trying to keep the concern from my voice.

"Great. Splitting with Richard was the best thing I ever did for myself." Her voice was unconvincing. Her face was pallid and her eyes bloodshot.

How to inquire tactfully about her health? "That was some flu bug that went around this past spring, huh?"

After a glance at Celia's car, now rounding the bend above us, Allison grabbed my arm. "Listen, Molly," she said, lowering her voice, "I misled you by recommending Celia. She's loused everything up. She got the dates wrong. She just discovered the mistake last week. I was the only registered attendee who could make the switch. Everyone else backed out."

"What? You mean—"

"Celia got four last-minute replacements. Five, counting herself."

"But I just met with her yesterday. She didn't say anything about this."

"You have to know Celia. She'll rewrite the entire rulebook rather than admit to an infraction."

"How could she possibly find four women interested in writing greeting cards on such short notice?"

"She promised them a luxurious weekend in the mountains."

I froze, a knot forming in my stomach. "Oh, dear Lord. Was that a direct quote?"

"Yes. Why?"

"You could call this place rustic. Austere, maybe. Shitty, for sure. But not 'luxurious.'"

We climbed the steep course to the cabins at a quick pace, my concern for Allison momentarily forgotten. Having opted for a weekend in the mountains, my new "students" wouldn't be willing to switch venues to my house in Boulder. I could wind up having to make full refunds to them, plus pay for unused cabins and meals.

A woman cried, "This place is a dump!"

"Someone noticed," I muttered to myself. There went my last hope: that Celia's four last-minute replacements were all blind.

"That's Lois Tucker," Allison whispered as we got within sight of an irate woman emerging from cabin four. "Lives in that tan house between my house and Celia's. Did you ever meet her?"

I shook my head as I eyed the sturdy-looking black-haired woman. Her thick, dark eyebrows were drawn into a fiery glare.

My first impression was that this was not someone I wanted to cross. She looked ready to kill someone.

"She always has to have her own way. She was a manager at IBM till she quit to home-school her son. Claimed once he reached middle school, his classmates were all thugs and junkies."

At the moment, all I wanted to know about the mob of indignant women was if any of them were armed. Not surprisingly, during the ensuing moments, they began throwing the phrase "luxurious weekend" back at Celia and me. In the meantime, Allison wandered into the cabin to see for herself.

Celia, who by all appearances had not yet seen the cabin, held up her palms and barked, "Ladies! Please!" She made a parting-of-the-seas motion to Lois and the three other women I hadn't met standing in the doorway. Wordlessly they stepped aside. She marched inside, came out moments later, and said, "Not bad."

This touched off another round of complaints. A strawberry blonde with a ponytail said, "Actually, I think the place is kind of cute." She looked some ten years younger than the rest of us, which is to say she was in her late twenties or early thirties. Though her makeup was tasteful, she wore black stretch pants and a bare midriff T-shirt. Under the weight of everyone's stares, she shrugged and said, "Who cares what the cabin's like? It's beautiful up here, so peaceful and pretty. Take a deep breath and smell God's air."

That certainly wasn't "God's air" inside the cabins, but I kept the comment to myself.

Celia broke the silence to state, "I need to have a word with Mrs. Masters." The others joined Allison in the cabin to grouse about the conditions, and Celia took my arm and led me a short distance away.

"Molly, as Allison may have told you, there's been a slight change in plans. Originally, you'd told me you wanted to do this next weekend, so I—"

"No, I didn't. I've told you it was this weekend since day one."

Celia held up her palms, and I noticed that, though thin and attractive in all other respects, she had gelatinous upper arms. The woman could applaud with them by touching her elbows together.

"As I've already explained, Celia, this is the first time I've tried to offer a class like this. It is extremely important to me. I'm flying back to New York next Friday, and I can't change that now, or it would foul up my friend Lauren's wedding plans."

As if she hadn't heard a word, Celia shook her head and said in a maddeningly calm voice, "Molly, you told me next weekend."

"I did not! I printed the original emails and have them in my car, if you want to see them!"

"There's no sense in us arguing. We can't change—"

She stopped as we saw that Lauren and the children were coming.

"Hi, Mom," Karen said. She rushed up to me and gave me a hug. "Is everybody here? Have they seen their cabin yet?"

"Hello, sweetie," Celia said in sugary tones, leaning to Karen's level. Celia then cocked her head in Nathan's direction and, in a babyish voice, said, "I'll bet you're looking forward to a weekend in the mountains, aren't you, big guy?"

He held her gaze for a moment, then looked at me. "Mom, I want to go home. I'm gonna go wait in the car." He turned on his heel.

Lauren and Celia, who'd met briefly yesterday at my house in Boulder, exchanged nice-to-see-you-agains, then Lauren headed off with our daughters to catch up with Nathan. Over her shoulder, she called back at me not to worry—that she'd "get Nathan to come around." Sure. Nathan was so stubborn he could bring tears to a mule's eyes. In an hour or so I'd have to drag him out of the car and tell him either to obey Lauren or no amusement park afterward.

"Let's continue this discussion in your cabin." Celia marched ahead of me without awaiting my response.

Out of annoyance, I stayed put, but then the perky strawberry blonde leaned out of their cabin and called, "Molly? Just wanted you to know, we're voting on whether or not we stay. My name's Julie, by the way. It was nice meeting you."

Was? Uh-oh. I mustered a smile and a wave, then went inside my cabin. Celia, already seated on the dirty brown-and-gold plaid couch, immediately began, "I've already collected the money from Allison plus your new participants. Unfortunately, that only covered the meals and lodging, and not your fee. Before you ask, I paid the resort in full and it's nonrefundable."

My mind raced through the arithmetic, and this was way out of whack. "But that—"

"You only have to give back four of the hundred-dollar deposits to the original registrants who could no longer attend. I already reimbursed one of them for my slot."

My heart was starting to race as I struggled to check my temper. "Refund the...what are you talking about? Wasn't their money already reimbursed by these friends of yours?"

"On such short notice, I couldn't very well expect them to pay full cost for the retreat, now could I?"

"In other words, you screwed up the dates of the retreat, and now you expect me to take the financial loss? That is not going to happen!"

She rose and wagged her finger and upper arm at me. "I resent your tone of voice! I've done my part. I got replacement attendees! If it weren't for me, you'd be out a lot more than four hundred dollars!" She reached into her pocket. "But here. Here's your check back for my services. I've decided not to accept payment because of our little misunderstanding. So we're even-steven. Neither of us is making any money on this venture of yours."

"You call that even?" I said, accepting what was indeed my original check. "I'm paying four hundred dollars to work this weekend!"

"And I paid for my food and lodging to attend a workshop in a subject I have no interest in! You and your friend get a cabin for free!"

"But it's not free! It's costing me—"

The door flew open and Karen rushed inside, closely followed by Rachel and Lauren. "Potty break," Lauren explained unnecessarily as Karen continued past us into our bathroom/bedroom. "Uh, you may have to talk to Nathan. He's sitting in the backseat and won't say a word to me."

There was a rhythmic rap on the plywood door flap, then perky Julie poked her head in. "Okey-dokey. We've taken a vote, and we decided to give you a chance, Molly. We're all ready to get those creative juices flowing." She accentuated her last sentence with a peppy little fist pump.

"Mom?" Karen called through the wall. "There's something swimming in the toilet."

Probably my career, I thought. Though if that were the case, it would be drowning.

"Come on, Molly," Celia said as she waltzed out the door. "Mustn't keep your students waiting."

Some ten minutes later, Nathan hated me but was with Lauren and the girls. My participants, who probably also hated me but were more discreet about it, were seated in a circle on the green shag carpet of their cabin. While dealing with Nathan, I had reminded myself that this retreat was an experiment for me and was not intended to turn a profit. I then vowed to resolve the financial ramifications with Celia later, ripped up her check, rapidly unpacked, and made the short walk to the other cabin to join the women's circle.

"Let's begin by introducing ourselves. I'd—"

"We've all known one another for years," Celia interrupted, her painted features smiling, but all the while giving me an evil eye.

"I'd especially like to know what you hope to gain from this workshop. I'm Molly Masters. I worked for a greeting card company in Boulder for five years before my husband's job brought us to New York three years ago. That's when I started Molly's eCards, my one-person company, which specializes in humorous, custom-made eCard greetings."

To my left sat a woman of about my medium height with freckles, her straight auburn hair in an efficient bob. In a fiat, emotionless voice, she said, "My name is Katherine Lindstrom. I'm an English lit professor at C.U. I have no interest in greeting cards per se. I don't send them. I don't receive them. However, I am doing a unit on popular literature next semester. Studying greeting cards allows me to start with the most banal form of the written word."

I studied her for a moment, but she seemed oblivious to the fact that she'd just insulted me. Making fun of my job, as if she were blazing new trails by being a literary snob in academia. Talk about "banal." Plus she dragged out the last syllable of that word in an annoying affectation. Nobody refers to the waterway in New York as the Erie Can-ahlllll, after allllll.

Forcing myself to stay pleasant, I said, "Maybe once we get into this class, you won't find greeting cards quite so banal."

After a pause, the pretty, fortyish woman beside her said, "I just wanted to spend a weekend in the mountains." She had an olive complexion and white, shoulder-length hair. She wore a denim jumper and sandals. "My name is Nancy Thornton, and I'm a therapist."

"A physical therapist?" I asked.

She held my gaze an instant longer than I was comfortable with, then said, "No, I'm a psychologist. Greeting cards is one way people express emotions with low risk. It is so much easier and less revealing to purchase a prewritten card than to write your own letter."

"A thought just occurred to me, Nancy," Celia said out of turn. "Did you ever notice how the word 'therapist' spells 'the rapist' if you put a space between the 'e' and the 'r'?"

A conversation stopper if there ever was one. Nancy glared at Celia and said nothing. As I scanned the circle, it struck me that all of them sat clutching their knees to their chests, as far away from the others as possible in the small room. In fact, the tension in the room hinted at mutual disdain.

Allison?" I prompted with a smile, glad to have one friend present. "What about you?"

She combed her fingers through her dyed hair. "I'm still an electrician, Moll." She frowned and made a slight gesture with one hand. "I used to know Molly when she lived in Boulder. I'm here because I wanted to spend this weekend with her."

"My name is Julie, as you all know," our young happy person said next with no hesitation. "I'm a Zumba instructor, and I also breed dogs. Goldens and Cockers, although my husband has two Dobermans. We have quite the canine menagerie. Unlike Katherine, I absolutely love everything about greeting cards. Lois?"

"I'm Lois," she growled. Adding to her dark, sturdy appearance, she wore a plain black sweat suit She sounded so grim and hostile, she had to have been a no vote for staying. "My son has graduated and moved on. I used to be at IBM but got out of the rat race,"

While she spoke, I scanned the faces and reflected upon what a challenge this would be for me. Professor Katherine, therapist Nancy, and now grouchy mother Lois gave me the impression they'd desert my class in a New York minute if I allowed their interest to wane.

"Writing greeting cards sounded like a possible new career for me," Lois continued. "How much money do you make?"

"This really isn't something I'd recommend people get into as a full-time career. It is fun, though, and you can make a little side income on it." Parking meter change was more like it, but no sense being too honest. Lois's eyes widened in alarm even so.

"How do your potential customers find you?" Julie asked.

I gave a brief explanation of my social-media tactics that allowed my webpage to be easily located, which had my current contact information. "I hadn't realized we'd be in a dead zone for satellite coverage. I brought a portable scanner and fax machine with me, which uses my business line phone number. On the last day of our workshop, I was going to demonstrate how to display and advertise cards on your websites."

"First, we'll have to see if the workshop endures beyond opening day," Katherine said.

"Let's begin by brainstorming," I said. "It's June, so let's come up with some card ideas for graduates. Ninety percent of all cards are purchased by women, so you might want to start by—"

"I don't want to write graduation cards," Lois interrupted, folding her arms.

That surprised me, since she did have a son who just graduated from high school. "The topic was just a suggestion. Card companies actually buy six to nine months in advance. So you might want to think of ideas for Christmas cards. It's easier to brainstorm when you narrow your scope, though, such as ...Christmas cards with cats. Then you think of sayings about cats. 'The cat's meow,' 'the cat's pajamas'..."

"'Curiosity killed the cat,'" Allison interjected wryly. "Or vice versa. And then there's 'cat burglar.'"

"Well, that's getting pretty far away from the Christmas theme," I said, perplexed at Allison's attitude.

"I'm allergic to cats," Lois grumbled, "and I'm Jewish."

"Hanukkah with hamsters, then." I set a large salad bowl in the middle of our circle and handed out pens and stacks of small sheets of paper. "Toss captions for cards into the bowl as quickly as possible, without self-editing."

No one moved.

"This first exercise will be kept completely anonymous. I won't pay any attention to who wrote what, and until we're comfortable; I won't read anything out loud. There's no pressure. Just pick up your pens, write a sentence or two on the paper, and toss it into the salad bowl. Even if your sentence is 'I don't know what to write.' Eventually, your right brain will take over and you'll start coming up with concepts for cards."

Celia, I noticed, was writing away furiously. Eventually, the others started writing as well. To keep this anonymous, I doodled instead of watching them. With the concept of writer's block fresh in my mind, I sketched a dark, mustached man in old-fashioned clothes seated in front of a second man at a desk marked "Editor-in-Chief." The mustached man is eyeing a caged bird that's saying "Nevermore. Nevermore. Nevermore. Nevermore..." The other man says, "Mr. Poe, it's a shame about your writer's block. Let me get my blasted raven out of here so we can hear ourselves think."

Three slips of paper were in the bowl when I looked up. I snatched them and read:

Molly, how dare you hold me responsible for what was obviously a simple matter of getting our wires crossed? I'm just as disappointed about our lodging as everyone else. It was misrepresented to me over the phone. That (over)
hardly makes this my fault. You could be a little grateful for all my hard work! I would ask that you stop and think of where you'd be right now if I hadn't gotten my friends to fill in!
C. Wentworth

I'd be running a retreat for a group of people who wanted to be doing this, located in a place where the building wasn't about to collapse. I went on to the next one:

Birds give me fits
tho I kinda like ducks.
This retreat is the pits.
It really sucks.

Meh. Everybody's a critic. The handwriting, though, looked disturbingly like my friend Allison's. My spirits sagging, I looked at the last slip:

Christmas. Graduation. No ideas. Nothing.
I don't want to write cards. I'd rather be home. Scrubbing the toilet with my toothbrush.
Better yet, with my husband's toothbrush.

I grinned, then scanned the room. The downturned faces before me were tense, as if the women were struggling to write Shakespearean prose. "The key to writing greeting cards is empathy. You put yourself in the sender's place and sense what she thinks her receiver wants to hear. Just jot down anything, the faster the better. Let your subconscious do the work for you."

"Unconscious," Nancy corrected.

Dejectedly, I refined my sketch of Edgar Allan Poe. After a few more minutes, I snatched some papers out of the bowl. The first one contained a sketch of a mortarboard and read:

Good luck, son.
I promise not to turn your bedroom into that sewing room I always wanted.

I chuckled and nearly broke my vow not to read aloud. That had some commercial potential, though "slam" cards were often a tough sell. The next two slips had incongruous phrases:

Deck the halls Christmas balls Niagara Falls
Wish someone would wash them walls.

When's dinner?
Gad, this cabin stinks!
I've smelled nicer locker rooms!

This was encouraging. They were starting to get the idea of letting their thoughts flow. Maybe this weekend wasn't going to be a total fiasco after all.

I turned to the last piece of paper in my hand and read:

VIOLETS ARE BLUE. ROSES ARE RED.
ONE OF YOU BITCHES WILL SOON BE DEAD.

© Leslie O'Kane


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