I’ve been working on this story for a couple of years, and it’s been fun and frustrating, and I really hope to sell this book and get it traditionally published. *fingers crossed*
When Oscar Robles is found dead from an apparent insulin overdose or pump malfunction, Charlie Sanders decides to investigate further. Oscar is like an adopted son and his own parents aren’t interested in looking for a suspect. Charlie teams up with Oscar’s neighbor, Ray McGuffin, a retired military police officer and the two uncover more secrets and more questions.
Here’s the current draft of chapter one. I’d love to know what you think. Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I didn’t hate mornings. I hated getting out of bed. The old adage of early birds and worms only made me want to bury myself deeper under the soft warmth of my covers and be the late, uneaten worm. Except, I’d promised myself I’d get up earlier. Eat better. Exercise more. Aging, as my favorite patient liked to say, wasn’t for crybabies. But age had some benefits. I could wear comfortable shoes and no one questioned my fashion sense. I considered my gray hairs a hipster highlighting technique. And myopia made spider webs, dust bunnies, and cellulite disappear.
I rolled out of bed, lumbering like a decrepit zombie. My feet shuffled along the hardwood floors, sweeping a trail of dust motes away like tumbleweeds. I was scheduled to work the evening two-to-ten shift, which meant I could clean the house unless something more important came up. Like Longmire reruns, or researching ways to overcome procrastination.
My coffee cup sat next to the pot prepared with the perfect amount of sweetener and cream and just waiting for the hot coffee to be added because my husband, Joe, loved me, and understood that my comprehension and motivation required caffeine. The rich aroma urged synapses to fire — the instant effect was psychological — as a nurse, I knew that. But the ritual of standing in my kitchen, hot beverage with caffeine in my hand, worked to wake me up.
Okay, I hated mornings.
And yet, like dust, no matter what I did they kept coming. I sat at the kitchen table and read through my emails on my tablet. Perused Pinterest. I pinned two new pork recipes to my board and mentally checked my pantry against the ingredients.
What the heck was lovage?
My phone vibrated and I answered, aiming for a courteous tone. “Morning.”
“Charlie, Oscar hasn’t shown up to work and I have to be in court in fifteen minutes.” The harried voice of attorney Tyler Rigby grated against the caffeine-karmic-calm I’d achieved. Tyler spoke fast in his nasally voice, like he knew he held my attention for a few minutes and then I’d stop listening. “I took him home last night and asked him to call me this morning.”
“Why?” My mom-senses started tingling. Technically, Oscar was my tenant, but felt more like a second son.
“He got sick. I told him I could pick him up this morning, but he hasn’t answered his cell and I have to be in court.”
“I’ll drop by the cabin to check on him.” I brought my cup to the pot and refilled.
“Thanks, Charlie, I was hoping you could. He really didn’t look good last night.”
“Uh-huh.” I refrained from asking the counselor why he didn’t stay to make sure Oscar was okay.
“Have him text me when he’s feeling better.”
“Uh-huh. Bye.” I hung up before Tyler responded.
I tried Oscar’s cell phone, hoping he was just screening his calls. My second call went to voice mail, and my text to Oscar went unanswered. I grabbed my purse and turned off the coffee pot. My breath caught, and I swallowed my fear, covered it in common sense. Nothing was wrong; he probably overslept.
I drove out to our family cabin by the lake past the autumn colored hues of the trees. Kentucky in the fall was stunning, and Forest Forks possessed the very best scenery; fields, mountains, rivers. Our cabin sat on the shore of Ghost Cat Lake, surrounded by 120 acres of unspoiled woodlands. The sky was bright blue, no clouds to blanket in warmth, and frost sparkled in the shadows of the trees.
That horrible itch taunted my brain, the one that came when the kids called and started the conversation with, “Mom, I’m okay, but…” Oscar wouldn’t blow off work. The kid was dependable. Kid… Young man. He was twenty, the same age as Ann, my middle child.
I sped, and the drive which should have taken fifteen minutes, only took ten. I turned onto the private road marked with a No Trespassing Sign, and gravel pinged against my wheel wells, cautioning me to slow down. I parked in Oscar’s empty driveway.
It had been months since I’d been at the lake, and the porch needed a coat of stain. I rapped on the front door. My youngest, Drew, disconnected the doorbell several years ago. Above the button Oscar had placed a placard: “For total annihilation, press.” The unnatural quietness hurt my ears and I peeked through the window beside the door into the pristine, dust-bunny-free dining room. Apparently, I was the only resident of Forrest Forks that the housekeeping fairy overlooked.
I knocked again. “Oscar? It’s Charlie.” There was no reply except for my nerves coiling tight. I stepped off the porch and walked around to the back door. I didn’t care if it was rude; I peeked in his bedroom window. Either Oscar made his bed every morning after getting up, or he hadn’t slept in it last night.
The screen door was unlocked. I held it open with my hip and fumbled with the key. I blamed the trembling on the caffeine, not my fear. The key slid in, and I turned the knob.
“Oscar? It’s Charlie. Are you okay?” The small kitchen was tidy, even his kitchen towel hung neatly folded over the handle of the dishwasher. It was like Oscar channeled June Cleaver — and he was too young to even know who she was.
I found Oscar, sitting in the living room recliner, dead.
I reached out to take his pulse, but flinched when I touched his icy cold wrist. My heart squeezed; a crescendo of thumps echoed in my ears and I fumbled with my phone. I swiped at the screen, but my troll-like uncoordinated fingers hit 991, 611, 941. I held my breath and slowed down, tapped 9-1-1 and send. I pressed my finger tips to his neck, prepared for the cold this time, but not the hard lifeless muscle underneath.
“911. What is your emergency?” It sounded like my sister-in-law using her I’m-in-charge-now tone.
“Liz, is that you?”
“Yeah, I’m at the lake cabin. Oscar was late to work, so I came to check on him. He’s dead.” I swallowed against the knot creeping up my throat and threatening to release itself as a sob.
“I’m sending an ambulance and the police.”
I nodded, and then snorted at myself for answering nonverbally. “Good.” I knelt next to the chair, my knees digging into the carpet. “Maybe he’s in a diabetic coma… a really deep coma.”
“Maybe.” I recognized her mom ‘maybe’ tone, meaning no.
I put my hand in front of his nose. “Oscar, it’s Charlie. Honey, you don’t look so good.” There was no response, no breath, no chest movement.
“He’s not breathing,” I whispered, like I was afraid he’d hear me.
“Okay, just hang on. The ambulance will be there in another five.”
I swallowed around the lump in my throat and a low mournful sound escaped.
“Don’t touch anything,” Liz said.
Had I touched anything? I put the key in the lock when opening the door and used it to turn the knob. I fisted my hands, stood, and looked around the cozy cabin where we’d spent almost every summer weekend with the kids, from diapers until Oscar moved in. One thousand square feet, two bedrooms, one bath, and filled with wonderful memories.
“What happened, Oscar?” Wiping the tears from my face, I wanted to shake him, make him to wake up; but I’d known he was dead even before touching him. He was too still.
“Just another minute, Charlie,” Liz said.
It wouldn’t matter.
I waited in the confined space, inches from a dead body that once contained the life of a sweet, lovable, trustworthy man. He looked older in death. Missing was his infectious smile and big brown eyes that could charm an old lady out of her last bingo card. He wasn’t exuberant, perhaps being a gay man, growing up in a small town like Forest Forks, he chose to adopt a serious, steady persona. But he was quick to smile and enjoyed life. And when it was just us he was silly and funny and free to be himself.
An Argyle Sweater daily calendar propped on the television stand with a book of limericks underneath it. The sticker on his tablet proclaimed Kimmy Schmidt for President. His shoes, kicked off in front of the recliner. And his socks were decorated with turkeys and pilgrims.
Where did he find size thirteen pilgrim socks? Did he have matching boxers? Because Joe would look hilarious in those. Am I getting shocky?
The sound of the ambulance approaching startled me. “Tell the ambulance to use the back entrance,” I said to Liz.
“Okay.” She relayed my message.
A moment later a voice called out from the kitchen. “Hello? EMT.”
“In here,” I answered. “They’re here, Liz,” I said into the phone.
“Okay, sweetie. Call me if you need anything.”
Two men entered and I stepped away from Oscar. I recognized Eddie from St. Lawrence, and he gave me a quick nod.
“Hey, Charlie. How long have you been here?” Eddie asked.
“Ten minutes, maybe.” I sat on the couch, then rose quickly, not sure what I was supposed to do.
“Charlie, maybe you should wait outside,” Eddie said while his partner attempted to take Oscar’s vitals. I didn’t want to watch. This wasn’t like work when an elderly patient died. They’d prepared. It was expected. Oscar was supposed to find love and grow old.
“Alright.” I left through the kitchen with its white appliances and cabinets, and Oscar’s blue towels and coffee pot. I sat on the picnic table bench in the side yard, hugging myself tight. There would be time for emotions later. Glowing amber and yellow danced on the surface of the lake, reflections from the deciduous forest preparing to hibernate.
Please just be hibernating, Oscar.
The deputy’s cruiser parked next to my car. I pushed off the bench and headed toward it. A rush of dread slid down and weighted my legs, making each step heavier than the last.
A closely-shaved square head popped up from the doorway, followed by big shoulders—no neck. The head swung around and a steel-blue gaze I recognized locked on me. “Charlie, you should sit down.” Tom walked over, grabbed my elbow and eased me back onto the bench. “You look like you’re gonna pass out.”
“Eh.” A whimper, not at all confident, squeaked out. My heart and brain refused to cooperate, and I hated sounding wimpy in front of my son’s old soccer coach and Boy Scout leader. “I’d say it’s good to see you Tom, but…”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.” He patted my shoulder. “You stay here, I’ll be right back.” He narrowed his eyes. “You want me to call Joe?”
“No.” Yes, I wanted to call him, knowing Joe’s comfort would be wonderful right now, until the guilt of taking him away from work and his patients rebounded. Sometimes being an adult was annoying. I pasted on my even-tempered always-patient smile. “He’s on-call today.”
Tom gave me a chin-nod, and headed inside the small cabin. I studied the surroundings, anything other than thinking about Oscar. The neighbors to the left, the O’Reilly’s, left for Florida a few weeks ago. To the right stood the McGuffin’s cabin, currently inhabited by their recently retired son, Raylin, or so I’d heard. Both his parents were residents at Sunnyview Villages, where I worked. I hadn’t met Raylin, just heard the stories of Forrest Fork’s Don Juan. A faded car listed forlornly in the driveway, its tires settled into a muddy rut because they’d neglected to re-gravel. A bright blue coupe was parked in the grass next to the front door. McGuffin’s front door opened and a short pixie slid outside and tiptoed to the coupe. She slipped in, looked over, gave me a half wave and drove off, the tires spitting gravel in her wake. She looked familiar.
“Who was that?” Tom stuck his head out the cabin doorway.
My brain tried to put a name to the face, a skill I lacked. “Dana, Darla, D-something. Arlene Carries daughter. She’s around my kids’ ages, older than Drew, younger than Ann.” What was she doing at the McGuffin’s?
Tom walked over and sat next to me on the bench. “I’m sorry, Charlie. The coroner is on his way, but my guess is Oscar died sometime last night.”
The cold reality prickled over my skin. The EMT’s left, heads bowed and avoiding eye-contact.
“If it’s okay, can I ask you a couple of questions?” Tom asked.
“Yeah.” The word creaked out my now rusted throat.
“Why did you come out here today?”
“Tyler Rigby called me this morning because Oscar didn’t answer his phone and hadn’t come into work. He said he drove Oscar home last night because Oscar got sick. Tyler asked if I could check on him. I tried calling and texting, but didn’t get an answer, so I drove out here.”
Was I babbling? I bit my lips closed and watched Tom scrutinize me. We were having a staring contest and I was going to lose.
“You called him?” he asked.
Tom got up quickly. “Do me a favor, Charlie. Call him again.”
I pulled my phone out and called Oscar, following Tom to the kitchen door. We both listened.
“My kids always put their phones on silent,” I said.
“I’ll check out the rest of the house. Hang up when it goes to voicemail and call again.”
I waited in the kitchen, not patiently. I redialed three times, checked out Oscar’s refrigerator — no insulin, no leftovers, no takeout, and lots of green vegetables.
Was he a vegetarian? I cringed at the memory of sending him home with beef stew and pot roast leftovers.
Next to the fridge, I opened the pantry finding mac-n-cheese, ramen noodles with chicken or shrimp, and a large jar of peanut butter.
Maybe Oscar only knew how to make pasta and rice?
Tom came around the corner. “What are you doing?”
I closed the pantry door and guilt and embarrassment heated my face. “I’m being nosey?”
“Yeah. And what did you find out?”
“That either he eats better than I do, or he only knows how to make three things. Did you find his phone?” I turned my back to the living room, away from Oscar’s corpse.
“No. But I’ll search his clothes when the coroner gets here. Tell me what happened when you got here.”
“I knocked, no one answered. I came around to the back door and used my key. He didn’t respond when I called out. I stepped into the kitchen and then I saw him, sitting in the chair. I knew something was off. I called 911.”
“Did you touch anything?”
“Just now. Sorry, I forgot. I looked in his fridge and pantry. I also tried to take his pulse, but he was so cold…” I shuddered. Inhaled slowly. Kept the crazy contained. “I know he’s a diabetic, but he’s so careful. He has an insulin pump, too. He’s had it for years.”
“Did he have any enemies?” Tom asked, his voice professional.
“Not that I knew of.”
My eyes snapped wide. I thought everyone knew about Oscar. “Tom, he’s gay. His parents kicked him out when he was eighteen. That’s why we rented the cabin to him.”
“I knew about Oscar.” Tom drawled. “I wasn’t sure if you did.” His lips firmed, the ends curling up, locking in anymore thoughts.
“I understand.” Small towns were good for guarding secrets, too. “He dated a very nice man last year, but they broke up amicably when the guy moved to Ohio for a job. As far as I know, he hasn’t dated anyone seriously since.”
“Ohio’s not that far. Do you remember his name?”
“No. We called him Tom Hardy.”
Tom’s brows knitted together. “Why?”
“He looked like the actor, Tom Hardy.”
Tom studied his hands. “When was the last time you saw Oscar alive?”
That word stung. Alive. As in not dead. I held my breath and released it slowly, letting it take the ache with it.
“About two weeks ago. We had a family dinner and he joined us. Ann and Drew were there. The three of them went to the movies after.”
“Hell… his parents.” He looked up. “Did he still talk to them?”
“He talked to his Mom, but not his Dad.”
“I guess I’ll call her.” He shot me a look, like he wanted me to offer to make the call.
I raised an eyebrow, suggesting he man up.
His shoulders slumped, and he looked around the room. “Anything seem abnormal to you?”
“Other than the cleanliness? No.”
Tom leaned forward, interested, and I realized I needed to dial back the sarcasm, my go-to response to awkward situations.
“I haven’t been out here in months, and truthfully, it was this clean then, too.”
Tom cleared his throat and looked around the room. “You don’t have to stay, Charlie.”
“What happens now?” I hated the idea of leaving Oscar. “Someone should stay with him.”
“The coroner will bring him to the Medical Examiner for an autopsy. We’ll move forward from there.” He shifted his weight and his heavy leather belt creaked. His hand scrubbed the back of his neck. His discomfort seeped into the air, and I inhaled the bitter sorrow.
Oscar was dead.
Tom stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Charlie. I know you loved that boy.”
He patted me awkwardly on the back until I gulped and released the dam that had been holding my tears in place.
“Oh, hell.” Tom pulled me in for a hug, stuffing a kitchen towel at my face, I assumed, to prevent the transfer of snot. Tom always was one step ahead of most folks.
I allowed myself sixty-seconds of emotion and then reeled myself in. It helped that I heard a vehicle drive up, and it was a small town, and my hugging a man that was not my husband was better fodder than Mabel McClure writing bad checks at the Pass-n-Gas.
“I’m okay.” I wiped my face with the towel. I folded it over, damp side in.
“Do you want me to drive you home?”
The knock on the back door announced the coroner.
The idea of Oscar being treated like a body and not a boy was too much. “I’m going to go. Will you let me know what the coroner finds?”
I stepped onto the gravel driveway and looked over at the McGuffin cabin. I wondered, while I may be myopic, was he?