Today I’m posting the first chapter of my mystery novel. I’d love to hear what you think of it. Would you keep reading?
Focused on Murder – A Spirit Lake Mystery
I pushed my half-eaten cinnamon roll the size of a dinner plate toward my brother. “Why the smug look?”
Little set the plate in a bin under the counter. He peered over his black-rimmed glasses, a snowy owl ready to swoop down on its prey. “I’m remembering when a certain person picked on her younger sibling for leaving teaching to move back here.”
More was coming.
“A year later, here’s the scoffer, a former big fish living in a big pond, now a small fish in a really small pond.” He pushed his glasses back into position and rubbed at a coffee ring. The barest hint of a smile tugged at his mouth.
I let him enjoy his moment. There was always payback.
My brother’s real name is Jan Jr. As a baby we called him Little Jan and then just Little. It wasn’t an ironic name. He didn’t make it past five-foot-five and he still looked like a kid at thirty. I took after our six-foot-two, viperous old drunk of a father, now deceased.
Little’s partner Lars rattled the newspaper from his perch on the next stool. “Hey, Britt, sweet picture you took of the Branson U hockey team getting trounced.”
A fringe of pinkish hair stuck out from Lars’ stocking cap, covering a mostly bald head. The former U of M English prof now favored plaid flannel shirts and suspenders. Circus clown meets Paul Bunyan.
Little raised an eyebrow at Lars. “It’s the first week of January. I doubt she’ll make it through an entire winter up here. Shall we make a wager?”
Lars nodded, “Yah, Britt missed the real weather last year.”
“One, stop talking in front of me as if I’m not here, and two, remember the blizzard?”
“Jazus, you’re right,” said Lars. “First a blizzard almost gets you, and to top it you get shot.”
I regretted bringing it up. “A rare convergence of bad luck and poor timing. Never happen again.”
Baiting me was their favorite winter sport, especially when the restaurant business was slow. Little’s taunts carried an undertone, though. He knew I was restless. I thrived on change and Little hated it.
“Mock me all you want, boys. I’m here to stay.” I set my cup on the counter and zipped into my ski jacket. Wrestling with stocking cap, wool scarf and insulated gloves, I pushed out the door amid a wave of regulars arriving for their morning gossip break, stamping snow and shedding coats. Lars lined up coffee cups.
Soon the row of knotty pine booths along the windows facing the lake would fill. In case a customer forgot they were in prime fishing country, glass-covered tabletops displayed maps of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Framed photos of fishermen with prize-winning bass lined the walls. Fishing never stopped here. In winter, ice houses dotted the lake.
The aroma of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, a Little’s Café specialty followed me out the door. Four years younger than me, Little was the one who’d gotten his life together. He’d quit teaching and moved up here with Lars to transform what had been our tension-filled Johansson family home into a warm and inviting gathering place for locals and strangers.
Rock waited outside, tail wagging. I strapped on the sleek new Atlas Elektras I had left propped against the side of the restaurant. Snowshoeing saved me. I used to be addicted to work, then vodka. These days, without much work to do and alcohol taboo for me, I took the edge off with exercise.
“C’mon, Rock. Winter in Northern Minnesota is not for the weak of spirit.” I’d inherited the black and white spattered mutt as well as my cabin on Spirit Lake from an old friend, who took me in when I was a confused and angry teenager, guided me and loved me. I ached with her loss, but felt her presence in my loyal companion.
We crossed the street, skirted eight-foot- high piles of snow cleared by plows after the last storm, and veered onto the Paul Bunyan Trail. Used by snowmobilers in winter and hikers and bikers in summer, it ran fifty miles from north to south through forests and lakes. Fueled by caffeine and carbs, we left the trail and navigated through dense woods and undergrowth along Spirit Lake.
After an hour, I took a different route back just to change my routine. Deep snow and thick brush turned the trek into hard work. I had to push my poles into drifts and pull forward. The sky dimmed to a leaden gray heavy with snow. Weak light might filter through, but we wouldn’t see real sunshine for months.
The guys were right in their assessment of how I was handling winter. But the LA Times wouldn’t take me back and deserting Little again was not an option. He’d helped me through a rough divorce and kicking alcohol last year. I owed him.
Daydreams of beaches and 80-degree temps entertained me until my left snowshoe jammed into a snow-covered log and sent me face first into a drift. Using my glove to wipe snow from my face only deposited more. My left ankle twinged. I stood. It held my weight. Falling in snow is better than crashing into concrete.
Rock barked at a brush pile next to the log. He scrabbled in the snow, his behind high in the air.
“What have you found, Rock?”
Rock’s bark changed to a high-pitched tone. “Watch it, whatever’s in there might take a chunk out of your nose.”
He backed out. A multicolored mitten, pink and dark red dangled from his mouth. My radar went up. An odd place to find a mitten.
“Drop it, boy.”
It was a white mitten, blood-stained.
Adrenalin pumping, I grabbed my camera and parted the brush. A body, about five-six or seven, covered with several inches of snow lay in front of me. I gently blew the white powder away revealing a young woman’s frozen face. Dark curls tumbled around it. Long, black lashes rested against white skin. Snow White.
Her boots had tripped me, not a log. Dread seeped into my bones, colder than the sub-zero air. I’d witnessed death in urban back alleys and on a battlefield. A dead girl in the middle of the natural world surrounded by pristine whiteness and Christmas trees was an unexpected violation. The cinnamon roll started to come up. I swallowed, focused my camera and photographed her from every angle. Then I checked my cell phone for a signal.