“YOU SHOULD LOOK AT THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY,” Dinah said. “You said yourself that Mrs. Shedd is spending less and less time at the bookstore, and to back out of this weekend at the last minute-” Dinah looked me in the eye. “I’d say it’s only a matter of time until she turns over running the whole place to someone. And I’d guess you’re at the top of her list.”
My son Samuel had just dropped us at LAX, and we were walking into the terminal along with throngs of early afternoon travelers. Samuel had assured me I didn’t have to worry; he would take care of the dogs, get the mail, and water my flowers. I wasn’t worried because my older son, Peter, had assured me he would take care of the dogs, mail, and plants. Barry had promised to do the same. What can I say? I had asked all three to take care of things in my absence. Each of them was busy and not used to having a couple of dogs depending solely on him. I figured the worst that would happen was the dogs and plants would get too much care.
“You could be right. But she could turn over the bookstore to someone else. Or she and Mr. Royal could decide to shut the place down altogether,” I said as we stopped at one of the self-service kiosks and got our boarding passes before heading up the escalator to security.
The line snaked around, and as people moved forward, they were already removing their computers from their bags, kicking off shoes, and sliding off belts.
“Rats,” Dinah said, looking at the line.
“I know what you mean. It’s such a hassle going through security.”
“No,” Dinah said. “Well, yes, it is a hassle, but that isn’t what my comment was about. I saw all the laptops and realized I didn’t bring mine. You didn’t bring yours, by chance?”
Dinah reconsidered her comment almost before the last of it left her mouth as she remembered I got along with only a desktop model.
“It’ll be okay. I’m sure you can live for a weekend without checking your e-mail or going on the Internet.” We had reached the conveyer belt and were loading our shoes, purses, tote bags, scarves and sweaters into plastic trays.
Once we were through the checkpoint and had ourselves back together, Dinah followed me toward the escalators that led to a waiting area level with the tarmac.
Adele and Sheila had left early in the morning because they were driving up. I still had the rhinestone clipboard, but they had taken the box of folders for the workshop leaders along with the packets for the retreaters. One of the workshop leaders had left a box of supplies for them to bring up, too. I had already heard from Adele that they had arrived.
Dinah noticed the furrow in my brow. “You’re still worried about the weekend, aren’t you? I’m telling you, you’ll do fine.”
“I just keep thinking if this weekend goes badly, it might be the thing that pushes Mrs. Shedd and Mr. Royal to close down.” Dinah knew how much the job meant to me. I loved going to work and putting on the events.
After my husband, Charlie, passed away, working at the bookstore had been a whole new beginning for me. I finally had an identity. For so long I had been known only in relation to someone else. I was Samuel and Peter’s mother. I was Charlie’s wife. Or the She La La’s Liza Aronson’s daughter. At the bookstore I was just Molly.
Dinah tried to calm my concern. “It’s going to be great. I’m looking forward to working with my memoir writers. We’ll be out of the heat for a few days, and no matter what Adele says, I bet even with your responsibilities, you’ll have some time to crochet and enjoy yourself. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
Dinah’s last statement made me uneasy. It sounded like she was tempting fate. We took the escalator down and walked into the waiting area.
“But they assured me there would be no problem.” A woman’s shrill voice rose above the din of conversation, and I looked toward the commotion. She was talking to the airline employee who was checking in passengers.
“I don’t know who you talked to, but here’s our policy. We can’t guarantee anything,” the uniformed employee said in a restrained tone.
“Do you know who he is?” the woman demanded in a loud voice, pointing at a man standing off to the side.
He had nondescript looks with close-cropped, frizzy light hair and a benign expression. I looked at him-and then looked again. An “Oh no” escaped my lips, and Dinah gave me a funny look. The man was Bennett Franklyn. I absolutely recognized him from the rerun of the Raf Gibraltar show I’d watched on a cable channel the night before.
CeeCee’s description of him floated through my mind. “People always think they know him from somewhere, but they can never place where. Usually they think they went to school with him.”
Apparently the airline employee didn’t recognize him, though, and this set the woman off even more. By now I had figured the plain woman in the denim pantsuit must be the wife/manager, Nora, CeeCee had mentioned. Dinah noticed me staring.
“Obnoxious isn’t she?” Dinah said, jutting her chin toward the confrontation. “But not our problem.”
I smiled weakly. “Maybe it is. I’m pretty sure that’s our substitute acting instructor, Bennett Franklyn, and his wife, Nora. Since they’re on the way to the workshop, they’re kind of my responsibility. Maybe I should step in.”
Dinah grabbed my arm to keep me from moving. “Your watch starts when the retreat does.”
Finally the airline employee handed Nora Franklyn two boarding passes and said it was the best she could do, and let them board the plane first.
“See, they worked out their own problem,” Dinah said as we boarded the small plane. Bennett and Nora were seated in the first row, and I noticed her talking to the people in the seats behind them. No matter what Dinah said, I had the feeling the peace with the Franklyns was only temporary.
A little over an hour later, the tiny plane landed at the equally tiny Monterey airport. Nora and Bennett had deplaned quickly, and I saw them entering the terminal building as we came down the stairway from the plane. I was right about the peace only being temporary. As soon as Dinah and I walked into the miniature terminal, I heard myself being paged over the loudspeaker. Well, I figured it was me, even though the page was for Polly Mink.
If the Franklyns noticed we’d been on the plane with them, they didn’t show it as I approached and introduced myself with the correct name.
“You can tell the driver to pick up our bags. We’ll just go directly to the car,” Nora said, glancing around. I had to explain there wasn’t a driver, and said I’d help them get a cab. Nora appeared exasperated at my suggestion. “I don’t suppose you arranged for a rental car, either?” As soon as she saw the negative shake of my head, she let out a hopeless groan and gestured for Bennett to follow her as they headed toward the rental car counter.
“That went well,” Dinah said with a roll of her eyes.
“Too bad CeeCee had to cancel. She would have gone along with us in a cab,” I said, my shoulders sagging. “What have I gotten myself into?”
Dinah tried to reassure me. “Once they get to the conference center, they’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
We got our bags and headed through the door to the short line of cabs that stood waiting. A fellow passenger followed us outside. “Did I hear someone call you Polly Pink?” the silver-haired man asked me. I nodded with an uncertain smile. Now what, I wondered as he held out his hand.
“Commander Blaine,” he said in an upbeat voice, introducing himself as he shook my hand. He’d caught me off guard, and I struggled to place the name.
“Pamela Shedd called me and told me you’d be taking over for her,” he said to me, but his gaze kept darting toward Dinah and I wondered if he even heard me give my correct name. “And you are?” he said to her. He couldn’t have been more obvious with his interest. If I was a person who believed in love at first sight, that would have been it.
Dinah was divorced and had been trying to meet someone forever. So far she’d met nothing but duds. I wasn’t sure if Commander was his first name, a nickname, or his title, but he appeared a lot more promising than any of the guys she’d described to me. I expected her to pick up on the way his gaze stayed on her and at least smile. Instead, she looked away in a dismissive manner.
Dinah was somewhere in her fifties, though the exact place was a deeply held secret even I, her best friend, didn’t know. After all the wild-goose chases and murder investigations we’d been through, you’d think she would have trusted that I wouldn’t judge her by her age, but she still wouldn’t tell. Dinah is a bundle of energy, and even though I’d just met Commander Blaine, he seemed to have a similar enthusiastic attitude. So why did she seem to be ignoring him?
Not that Dinah’s reaction dampened Commander Blaine’s enthusiasm as he suggested we share a cab. He seemed to pick up on my confusion of how to address him. “You can just call me Commander,” he said, “and I’ll call you Molly.” He turned toward Dinah, and for a moment I thought he was going to say he’d call her Sweetheart or something like it, which I knew wouldn’t have gone over well with her. Luckily, he used her first name and said everyone was informal at the retreats. Apparently even Mrs. Shedd had always gone by her first name. He looked up at the blue sky. “Beautiful here, isn’t it? Smell that air.”
Actually I was a little surprised at the bright sun and warm temperature, but he told me the airport was inland and to wait until we got on the other side of the mountains. “You’ll get plenty of misty, cool air then.”
We caught our cab and in a few moments were on our way. Whoever said men don’t talk much apparently hadn’t met Commander Blaine. He leaned over the front seat and for the whole ride kept a running commentary about the workshop he was responsible for.
“I’ve been coming to the creative weekend for the past three years,” he said as we drove along the twisty road that led between the mountains. “Pamela saw the column I write in the Tarzana Gazette about entertaining.” His tone made it sound like the paper was the New York Times instead of a local freebie. “And she asked me if I’d be interested in doing a workshop.” His expression brightened as he apparently relived the moment. “Would I? But of course. I love entertaining and teaching people how to coordinate activities, decorations, and food. I think a theme really pulls things together. I’d like to talk to your crochet group. I could use the yarn to thread an event together.” He made a face at the lameness of his pun. Good! At least he didn’t take himself too seriously.
Though Dinah was looking out the window, I knew she was listening as he continued. “You can thank your lucky stars I’m not a prima donna like that other couple. I don’t know if Pamela Shedd told you, but I always handle the extra weekend social activities in addition to putting on my workshop. Just say the word and I’ll put together a murder mystery event.”
I thanked him but said no. My plan was to stay as far away as possible from murder, even a fictional one.
Dinah couldn’t stand it anymore and turned toward him. She asked him if he made his living putting on parties. His smile deepened when she spoke, and he explained that he had a day job. He owned the Tarzana Mail and Office Center. He conveniently had several coupons available and gave them to us.
As the road began to go through a forest of giant pine trees, the sun disappeared and a silvery mist blew in through the driver’s open window. The temperature dropped, and I pulled on the thick black cardigan I’d brought.
We entered the small town of Pacific Grove, which Commander said was referred to as PG by people in the know. “Too bad the butterflies aren’t here,” he said as we turned off the highway onto a street that seemed to be on the edge of a forest.
“Butterflies?” I said.
“Every year between October and February thousands of monarch butterflies flock to Pacific Grove. There’s a sanctuary over there,” he said, pointing in the distance. There’s something about the microclimate of the area, with its Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees, that makes it perfect for the creatures.” He directed his comment at Dinah. “You really ought to come up when they’re here. It’s magical the way they cluster in the trees.”
Why was Dinah pretending not to be interested?
“Here we are,” Commander Blaine said as the cab slid between two tall stone markers with “Asilomar” emblazoned on them. It felt like we were entering another world. On either side of the driveway there were tall trees with tangled growth below them. The cab stopped next to a low building, and we all got out.
“I thought you said this was a resort,” Dinah said, looking at the rustic building and the forest and ground below that had been left wild. I knew what Dinah meant. I’d been expecting something different, too-something along the lines of manicured lawns, luxurious spa amenities, and maybe high tea served at umbrella-shaded tables. None of that seemed likely here. Commander unloaded our bags from the cab and held the door as the three of us went into what he called the administration building but what the name plate referred to as the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Social Hall. Inside was a huge, airy room with an open ceiling and exposed beams. A sitting area with a small TV was adjacent to a large stone fireplace complete with an inviting fire. A piano, a pool table, and a Ping-Pong table filled the back area, and the other end was given over to the registration desk. It felt like something between the lobby of a hotel and the gathering room of a camp.
Unfortunately, Nora and Bennett were already at the registration desk. Nora looked stunned and marched over to me. “This isn’t a hotel,” she sputtered. She pointed to a freestanding board that listed the day’s menu. “Look at this. There’s not even a restaurant. It’s a dining hall. I can’t eat here.” She let out a big sigh. “If CeeCee Collins had talked to me, I never would have agreed to let Bennett step in for her, but she went directly to him.”
I covered up my own surprise at the place and tried to smooth things over. “Maybe it isn’t what you expected, but why not give it some time? Even the food might turn out better than you expect.” It didn’t work, and she walked off with an exasperated huff sound.
While we waited to check in, Adele Abrams walked in. Walked isn’t quite the right word. Marched is better. With her khaki culottes, matching camp shirt, and brown ankle boots she looked like Smokey Bear’s sister. She had finished off the outfit with a wide-brimmed ranger hat that she said was authentic, proudly showing us the crease on the top that was meant to let falling acorns roll off. Sheila Altman was with her and had a stunned look. Who could blame her? She had just spent six hours or more driving with Adele.
Once we all had our keys, Adele wanted to show us around. “Pink, if you’re going to be in charge, you ought to know what’s what.” She turned back and looked at our feet. “I hope you all have good walking shoes.” Adele walked backward, facing the three of us, as she gave the background of the place.
The layout and camplike feeling began to make sense when she explained that Asilomar was originally built as a YWCA camp. “The grounds are spread over a hundred acres,” she said, turning before leading us up a hilly walkway bordered by golden wild grass. “The area we’re staying in and using for the retreat is part of the historic core.” Adele pointed to several two-story buildings with weathered wooden shingles that had large nameplates identifying them as Lodge and Scripps, and said that was where our group was being housed.
The air was certainly bracing, and I’d read somewhere that this kind of climate was conducive to creative thoughts, but something about the place seemed moody and brooding. Maybe it was the gloomy sky and the fog drifting in. Or all the brown wooden buildings that seemed dark and forbidding. It didn’t help that Commander Blaine kept repeating that we were on a little piece of land at the end of the continent jutting out into the ocean, and the waves were huge and rough.
Even the stately Monterey pines were a scruffy dark green. And the cypress trees with their gnarled trunks and horizontal foliage reminded me of bent old men with wind-blown hair, trying to run away. I looked at Dinah and had the feeling she shared my reaction.
“Maybe when there are more people here, it’ll seem a little more cheerful,” she said, then leaned closer. “I bet if you sat around telling ghost stories, a real one might show up.”
“I heard that,” Adele said. “You two are nuts. Asilomar is wonderful.”
By now we’d made a full circle and were back at the administration building. Commander turned toward the plant-covered sand dunes nestled against the property and was about to say something, but Adele beat him to the punch.
“There’s a boardwalk over there that goes through the dunes to the street. The beach is across the street.”
“Maybe we should show it to them now,” Commander suggested.
“No,” Adele said firmly. “Pink needs to know where the locations for the retreat are, like the Crocker Dining Hall.” Adele indicated a building with a covered entryway and lots of tall windows that was just down the walkway.
“They ring the bell on top of the administration building to announce mealtimes,” Commander added. Adele pointed out a few other small buildings where our workshops were going to be held, and then it seemed like the end of our tour. As Dinah and I left them, Commander added that Asilomar meant refuge by the sea.
Dinah and I picked up our bags in the administration building and headed outside. Commander said he would catch up with us-I think he really meant Dinah-later, and went with Adele to get some things she’d brought for his workshop.
We pulled our bags up the steep path, past the golden grass-covered hill, toward the weathered building Adele had pointed out as Lodge. Just inside we passed through a communal living room with overstuffed chairs and a fireplace. We determined our rooms were on the second floor, and we went up the stairs.
As we looked down the dark corridor, Izabelle Landers stepped out of one of the rooms and walked toward us. True to the title of her book, Izabelle wore only a subtle touch of crochet in the form of tiny rose pink flowers around the neck and sleeves of her black wool jacket. When she got closer, I saw there were pearls in the centers of the flowers.
“Your jacket is exquisite,” I said, fighting the desire to touch the flowers and examine the stitches.
Izabelle thanked me. With the puffed-up lips, her smile looked almost painful. Dinah and I had already decided there was maybe a ten percent chance she was born with those lips.
“I’m going to sit by the fire in the administration building and finish crocheting a shrug,” Izabelle said, holding out a small tote bag with her supplies. “It’ll be nice against the chill up here.” I sighed at the mental image. Sitting in front of a roaring fireplace and crocheting sounded very appealing. Maybe, if I was lucky, there would be some time during the weekend when I’d get a chance to do it, too. Izabelle looked at the cards our keys were attached to and pointed toward the front of the building. “Those room numbers are up there.”
We were still on the landing at the top of the stairs when we heard some noise down below. We all looked over the railing. Nora and Bennett had walked into the living room and were looking around. More correctly, she was looking around and he’d dropped into one of the overstuffed chairs.
Izabelle seemed to stare at him.
“I’ll save you the trouble of wracking your brain where you know him from. That’s Bennett Franklyn. He plays the older brother on that Raf Gibraltar show.”
“I know who he is,” Izabelle said, still looking over the railing at him. “It’s just different seeing him in person.”
“He may look like the guy next door, but he has charisma at the same time,” I said. “And he’s certainly the peacock of the family.” I caught sight of Nora’s face. She might make lots of noise, but her appearance was surprisingly drab. She had brown hair you couldn’t attach a fancy adjective to, like mink or chestnut. It was cut in a short, no-fuss, kind of style. She definitely had a light touch when it came to makeup, and though I wouldn’t call her fat by any means, in the size zero world of Hollywood, others probably would.
Nora paced in front of the fireplace, appearing agitated. “This won’t do.”
Bennett stood and touched her arm with tenderness. “Don’t fret so, hon. It won’t kill us to spend a weekend here. And the payoff is worth it.”
Payoff? I wondered what he meant.
Izabelle pushed the tote bag on her arm. “Well, ladies, see you later.”
“I thought we’d all meet up at dinner,” I said. “It’ll give all the workshop leaders a chance to get to know each other.”
“Right,” Izabelle said before going downstairs. She walked up to the Hollywood couple and introduced herself.
I heard her tell Bennett that she liked his show.
“Let’s find our rooms,” I said as we left our post and went down a dark, wood-paneled hallway. Our rooms were adjacent in the front corner of the building. Just before I went inside mine, I glanced down the corridor. A short man with a head shaped like a brick was walking down the hallway looking at room numbers. He stopped in front of a door and rapped impatiently, but no one answered. Dinah noticed him, too. He must have felt he was being watched, because he looked up abruptly and stared back at us. The anger in his expression sent a shiver up my spine.
“Is he one of our people?” she asked.
“I hope not,” I said, opening my door. My cell began to ring as I went inside.