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CHAPTER 5

HI, SUNSHINE, MASON FIELDS SAID AS HE crossed the empty dining hall to our table. Im guessing by your open mouth that you werent expecting me.

The cleaning crew was beginning to put the chairs on the tables and sweep the floor. Masons expression clouded over. Looks like I missed dinner, huh?

Youre right on both counts, I said, still looking at him with disbelief. Dinah greeted him with a nod and a smile, and he gave her a wave.

How come you never told me you do tai chi? I asked, feeling a little unsettled.

Mason laughed. You never asked. Sunshine, theres a lot you dont know about me. Tai chi brings balance to my life, though Im not quite a master at it. Your boss made me sound better than I am. My teacher, Master Riki, was supposed to do the weekend, but he broke his leg. Nothing to do with tai chi, something about a slippery waxed floor. I was already coming up to Santa Cruz this weekend for my aunts eightieth birthday. I heard you were going to be running this workshop weekend, and I didnt want to leave you hanging. He glanced at Dinah and me and the empty table around us. Wheres the detective?

Barry didnt come, I said. We were getting looks from the two men doing the chair moving and sweeping. Who could blame them? They wanted to be done and go home. Maybe we ought to take it outside, I said.

Besides his apparent skill at tai chi, Mason was a well-known criminal lawyer. Well-known because he was the one celebrities in trouble turned to. He was known for keeping them out of jail. He also had a self-deprecating sense of humor that was endearing.

We had sort of a flirty friendship. Mason had wanted it to become something more, and during the time Barry and I had broken up, it almost had. Mason and I seemed to be on the same page relationship-wise. We both wanted something casual. Only his definition of casual turned out to be too no-strings for me. Even so, we had stayed friends. And since I seemed to find myself mixed up in murders, it was handy to have a criminal attorney around just in case.

Outside, the air was so thick with moisture that it had a texture. And it was dark. I asked Mason if hed checked in; he nodded and mentioned his room was in Lodge. I think my room is right down the hall from yours, he said with a devilish smile. Did I mention that Mason was still hoping for more than friendship?

Sorry Im so late, but my flight got diverted to San Jose because of the fog, and then I had to drive from there. Are there any restaurants in this place? He gestured toward the grounds that were mostly invisible thanks to the fact we seemed to be in the middle of a cloud.

No, and theres no room service. Have you been to your room yet? I asked.

Yes. I noticed there was no television, no telephone, and not much in the way of luxurious amenities. Personally, I like it for a change. When I come here, I usually stay at one of the resorts in Pebble Beach, he said. Now, there must be some place to eat in the area.

I suggested we check with the registration desk, and we headed up the walkway to the administration building. As we were climbing the stairs to the deck, Nora Franklyn appeared out of the darkness, pulling a white windbreaker around her.

Have you seen Bennett? she said with an edge in her voice. She glanced past us toward the empty dining hall.

Last time I saw him, he was walking out with the others. Why dont you call his cell phone?

Nora appeared dismayed. I would, but he left his cell in the room. She looked around the dark area. This place is impossible at night with all those winding paths.

I wanted to say it was her idea to move to a building at the edge of the grounds. I wanted to, but didnt. It would only irritate her more.

Instead, I tried acting sympathetic. Im sure hell show up. Maybe you just missed him. I gestured toward the path ahead that disappeared into the fog. If we see him, Ill tell him youre looking for him. Nora didnt fly into a tirade, but she didnt seem pacified either, and I thought I heard her mutter something about leaving in the morning.

She doesnt seem happy, Mason said, watching her go.

I hope shes not serious about leaving in the morning. What am I going to do if they go? I have people arriving whore expecting an acting workshop with a known actor.

Itll be okay, Mason said. Shes just upset. Ive had clients like Bennett. You see these people on TV shows acting like they can run the world, but in real life theyre clueless. She probably has to take care of everything all the time. He gets to be the nice guy and she has to be the hammer.

Do you think I should help her look for him? She was almost out of sight. Dinah grabbed my arm.

Snap out of it, she said. Hes not that helpless. Hell find his way back to their room even without his phone and in the fog. And she wont leave in the morning. It seems to me shes been threatening something since the moment we first saw her.

Dinahs right, Sunshine, Mason said. Lets get back to finding some food.

We went inside the administration building and Mason talked to the redheaded clerk. Meanwhile, Dinah and I checked out the long table set up for morning registration. Sheila and Adele had left the boxes of folders under the table along with a check-in list. I opened a random folder and was glad to see it had a schedule, map, name tag, and meal ticket.

Apparently theres only one option, Mason said, leaning against the pool table as I put the folder back and pushed the box under the table. The nearby restaurants are already closed, but theres a market still open. As we headed toward Masons rental car, which was parked near the gate, Commander Blaine caught up with us, and when he heard where we were going, he asked if he could tag along.

I need to get some things for my session tomorrow, Commander said. Dinah didnt join in as Mason and I invited him along. I was really going to have to find out what was up with her. The street outside was very dark, and we followed the clerks directions. A few blocks up, we passed some businesses and a restaurant. All closed for the night. I was relieved to see cars in the grocery store parking lot. At dinner I had been too busy being concerned about everybody to eat, and I was very hungry.

We each got a basket and started going through the aisles. Mason headed off to the prepared foods, Dinah and I went on a cookie hunt, and Commander headed for parts unknown.

I pulled Dinah into the aisle with the toothpaste and cat food. Okay, whats with you and Commander Blaine? He brightens up like a three-hundred-watt halogen bulb every time he sees you, and you look at him like hes dust. Whats the problem?

Dinah shook her head so vehemently that her dangle earrings began to jangle. Theres no point in encouraging him. Hes not my type. Did you look at his jeans? And the shoes! And did you listen to him?

I had to admit I hadnt been paying attention to his pants or footwear. We slipped around the aisles until we looked down and saw Commander reading the labels on the olive jars. At first I thought Dinah had lost her mind, then I got it. His jeans had creases so sharp you could probably cut butter with them. The shoes were tasseled loafers that were polished to perfection. The kind I called party shoes.

Too fussy, Dinah said, coming up behind me. I bet he wears boxers, and theyre probably starched and ironed.

Down the aisle out of earshot, Commander looked up from an olive jar and waved us over to ask our opinion on whether to get the plain olives or the pimento ones. I wasnt sure what the olives were for.

Sorry, he said, I should explain. I had a few boxes of things shipped up here for the workshop, but I always forget some things and I also always like to add some fresh things.

I looked at the jar of olives again. Are those for your gourmet smores?

Commanders eyes lit up as he laughed. No. I dont go that far outside the box with the smores. Olives and chocolate. Even for the most adventuresome palate that sounds like a bad combo. Part of my workshop is teaching people how to use vegetables to make amusing table decorations. Its along the line of radish roses, but a step up. I make palm trees out of crookneck squash and cucumber peel, and stick olives on as coconuts.

While he was talking, Dinah was behind him, rolling her eyes. Maybe he was a little too excited about the details of his workshop. Actually, until that moment I hadnt really thought about the content of his workshop.

So, your workshop group puts together the smores? I asked.

No, no. The smores I do personally. The group will be helping set up some of the other activities. And my people will be doing the food and decorations for the final party. The rest of the workshops provide the entertainment.

At the moment the closing party seemed a long way off, but I was glad he had it covered.

Mason showed up carrying some kind of sandwich and a container of lemonade. Commander glanced from Masons dinner option to our empty baskets. Are you gals hungry, too?

Dinah and I said something about dinner being a little heavy for our liking but we were thinking about a snack.

You can just pick up some food and go back and eat it in your room, or we can make something out of it. My personal philosophy is to make an event out of everything. I love impromptu get-togethers. How about it?

Im in, Mason said. The sandwich would have been okay, but your idea sounds much better.

I looked toward Dinah, expecting something negative after what shed said about Commander.

You know, I feel that way, too. Why not have some fun? Dinah actually smiled at him, and they all turned toward me. I got it. As the holder of the rhinestone clipboard, I was the decision maker.

Go for it, I said, catching some of Commanders enthusiasm. Mason replaced his sandwich and drink and came back with a cart. Dinah and I abandoned the baskets, and we began to follow our party leader through the store.

Ive got a perfect idea, the silver-haired man said as he headed for the bakery. He picked up a long French baguette and put it in the cart. He kept going, stopping along the way to add more items. By the time we headed for the checkout, we had bread, sliced cheese, cartons of soup, and a flourless chocolate cake for our late-night meal, and trail mix and cookies to keep for snacks in our rooms.

We paid, then headed out into the darkness, already having fun. Even the fog made our excursion more exciting. By the time we went back through the gates of Asilomar, we were all laughing. I didnt even realize how tense Id been until the tension fell away.

Cmon, lets go to the fire circle, Commander said as we passed the administration building. I didnt know what he was referring to until we got to an area on the edge of the grounds. I had passed it before, but it had been empty and plain, and hadnt made any impression on me. Now there was a fire in the pit in the center, though no one was sitting around it.

They built the fire for the bird groups farewell, Commander explained. A low wall with a glass layer on top formed the enclosure and protected it from the constant wind. We put our packages on the benches and sat around the fire. The warmth felt good and the brightness was reassuring. Commander said he had to get some equipment from his room.

The man might have too-sharp creases in his jeans, but he knew how to pull together a last-minute meal. He came back with a box of supplies, and within a few minutes he was holding some kind of contraption with the bread and cheese inside over the fire. Dinah was holding the long wire handle of the pot the soup was heating in.

Still think hes too fussy? I said under my breath to Dinah after the food had been served. She was too busy eating one of the chewy toasted sandwiches to speak. The nod of her head said hed definitely earned some points.

This is going to be a great weekend, Mason said, smiling at me as he toasted everyone with a mug of the hot soup.

Mason, Dinah, and I ate the chocolate cake with our hands, a messy choice that gave me a case of the giggles. I dont know if it was because of our sticky fingers or it was just the final release of all the tension Id built up in the day. Our party organizer would have earned more points with Dinah if he hadnt eaten his cake with a plastic fork and a napkin.

I jumped when my cell phone began to vibrate, then ring, and tried to swallow my laughter, but that only made it worse.

I answered, trying to keep the chocolate crumbs off the phone and the giggle out of my voice. I failed at both.

Hi. I called to say good night, Barry said. I managed to get out what I thought was a serious sounding hello as I stood to collect myself. Then I took a few steps away for privacy. Commander had produced some marshmallows and long forks, and the rest of the group had started roasting the white puffs over the fire.

You sound funny. Is everything all right? Barry said. I swallowed a few times and tried to think of something serious to get the giggles to stop, but I couldnt keep the laughter out of my voice as I attempted to tell him everything was fine.

Where are you? I hear voices in the background. Barry never turned off his detective skills. I moved farther away, hoping to muffle the sounds, but it was too late. I heard Commander call Mason by name and comment on his marshmallow roasting technique. Barry heard it, too.

Barry had a basic animosity toward Mason Fields based on their work. In Barrys mind, lawyers like Mason helped criminals run free. Barry didnt like it that Mason and I were friends, either. I suppose his guy radar saw a threat. I could see his point.

Whats Mason doing there? Barry demanded. I could picture him suddenly sitting upright and then standing and pacing, probably running his hand through his short, dark hair. And his usual hooded expression was probably blown.

The giggles finally went away. Mason is one of the presenters, I began, and then carefully explained that Mrs. Shedd had merely told me she got a replacement tai chi teacher, but not who. I didnt know he was coming when I told you to stay home, I said, wincing. I hoped Barry would leave it at that, but Mr. Detective had picked up on the fact that there was some kind of fun going on. He wanted details. It was useless to try to gloss over it. Barry is very good at interrogation.

I promise this was just accidental fun, I said, hoping to pacify him.

Okay, then, he said at last. So, youll be too busy with your rhinestone clipboard to spend any more time with him this weekend, right?

I uh-huhed in answer, and he said there was another reason for the call. Were you expecting any deliveries? When I said I wasnt, he mentioned some sealed boxes on my front porch. Are you involved in something you havent told me about? he asked in his interrogation voice. I knew he was referring to a special delivery Id gotten in the past-a dead mackerel with a marzipan apple in its mouth, meant as a warning.

My life is an open book. No murders. No dead bodies. No warnings, I said, pleased that it was true. Barry still wasnt sold on the idea of putting the boxes in the house and wanted to open them, but I convinced him to leave them shut and put them in the garage until I got back. Just before he signed off, his voice softened. Miss you, babe.

Me, too, I said, and meant it.

The phone call put a damper on things for me. I felt guilty about having a good time and uncomfortable that Id been caught. I didnt want to ruin the rest of our little groups picnic, so I said I wanted to get back to my room and go over the schedule again. Both Mason and Dinah offered to go with me, but I told them to stay and enjoy the fire. It was hard to shake my feeling of responsibility for everything and everyone. It didnt seem right that I should be giggling around a campfire.

After I had gone only a few steps, the fire pit area slipped into oblivion thanks to the cloud sitting on the ground. All my worry over being in charge had already come back with a vengeance, and I almost walked into the figure ahead of me on the path.

Bennett, I said with surprise. Nora is looking for you.

I couldnt see his expression, but it seemed like he was rolling his eyes and shrugging. I took it as a so-what-else-is-new kind of gesture.

I was playing a solo game of pool. He gestured in the direction of the administration building.

Then everything is okay, I said, putting on my leader-of-the-pack voice.

Was she giving you a hard time? he asked.

Why not clear things up? I mentioned her talking about leaving in the morning and being less than thrilled with everything.

Dont worry, were not leaving in the morning. You have to understand: Noras a great manager. Shes always looking out for my best interest and wants me to be treated like a star. He let out a chuckle. I, however, know Im just an actor. His self-deprecating manner won me over, and we walked the rest of the way to Lodge together. I started to go in, and he continued on the path toward their accommodations. Yes, Bennett was pleasant and reassuring, but I couldnt help thinking of what Mason had said about actor clients hed had. They played the nice guy and let their spouse be the hammer.


CHAPTER 4 | A Stitch In Crime | CHAPTER 6