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Best Laid Plans
A Lake George Mystery

by Anne White

ISBN #1-59133-169-2 Hardcover
ISBN #1-59133-170-6 Paperback

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Best Laid Plans
A Lake George Mystery

by Anne White

Chapter One

It wasn’t the first trouble I’d found myself in as mayor of Emerald Point, but it could easily have been the last.

More than a year after the election, I was still proceeding—as the sign at our town’s entrance advised visitors—with caution. I’d softened the take-no-prisoners style I’d honed during my years in New York, survived a run-in with a secret consortium of area businessmen trying to advance its own plan for the town and adapted myself to the laid back atmosphere of our sleepy little community. At least I thought I’d adapted.

As Emerald Point struggled to rebuild after a freak tornado the summer before, I immersed myself in filing grant and loan applications and investigating every kind of financial aide available to us. That winter with more funds still needed, I reactivated a plan the town had kicked around for some time—a community center, designed to help us attract a larger share of the lucrative Lake George tourist trade.

One blustery March night I proposed an updated version of the idea to our local Chamber of Commerce. “John Roberts has agreed to let us use a building on his hotel grounds for a nominal fee,” I told the members. “This will give us an excellent location for a center and adequate parking. With a little redecorating, we’ll be able to showcase cultural activities, celebrate the area’s history and—here’s the bottom line—lure tourists away from better-known vacation spots on the lake.”

As always, luring tourists proved the magic phrase. The Chamber members responded with enthusiasm. I organized a committee and hit the ground running. No laid-back approach for me this time. Convinced this was our last best hope of competing with other communities on the lake, I raced full speed ahead into micromanaging the effort.

On a warm May afternoon, with the summer season hurtling toward us at full throttle, I was perched on a stepladder, painting a wall in the center’s anteroom, when I looked down to find Don Morrison staring up at me.

“Do you realize it’s almost five o’clock? Quit for the day before you work yourself to death and I’ll take you for a pizza,” he said.

“Out in public? Like this?” I pointed to my paint-splattered jeans and shirt.

“You’ll clean up great. You always do. And if you don’t… Well, you look good to me, paint and all.” He offered the slow, sexy smile which had the power to melt my firmest resolve.

I caved immediately. Don, in sharply pressed khakis and a green Polo shirt which accented his dark blond hair and beard to perfection, was a guy any woman in her right mind would hang up her paint brush for. “Okay. The rest of the workers have taken off anyway. Let me finish this section and I’ll quit too.”

“Tell me something I can do to help, preferably a job which doesn’t involve wet paint or dirt.”

Don surveyed the entrance area with distaste. The inside renovations were nearing completion, but the place looked like garbage central. Brown paper wrappings, empty paint cans, discarded drop cloths, even boxes the supplies had been packed in littered the floor.

Clean jobs were in short supply, but I came up with one. “Take a look at the computer on the admissions desk. There appears to be some kind of glitch, and we need it ready for the opening.”

While Don fussed with the computer, I dabbed paint onto the last remaining section of the bilious green wall I was transforming into a masterpiece of taupe and ivory and pronounced my work done for the day. I closed the paint can, threw a rag over it and tapped the cover down—a trick an experienced painter had taught me after he saw me splashing paint all over myself as I struggled to close a lid. I tucked the can and my drop cloth into a corner and carried the brushes to a nearby bathroom for cleaning. Water-based paint. I’d discovered, proved a godsend to the unskilled.

“Give me ten minutes,” I called to Don.

Once I’d washed the brushes, I went to work on myself. The special soap I’d bought quickly dissolved most of the paint from my hands and arms. I shed my work clothes, hung them on a hook and slipped into the fresh shirt and slacks I’d brought with me that morning. My short, brown hair, already curling from a day of slaving over a hot brush, fell easily into place. A few swipes of lipstick and I was ready.

“Wow. That’s what I call a change.” Don, impressed by the transformation, upped his offer to a more elegant dinner at one of the town’s classier restaurants.

“Pizza at Mario’s is exactly what I’ve been thinking about,” I assured him.

The cheerful little pizzeria provided a home away from home for most of Emerald Point. Food—consistently good. Ambiance—delightful. Patrons—friendly. Even my most disgruntled constituents usually shelved their complaints about my mayoral shortcomings while under Mario’s spell.

Don suggested wine with our pizza. I tried to relax, but I couldn’t shake a bad case of center-mania. “Tommy Porter. Can you tell me why I believed that man could paint and get other people to paint? As far as I know he’s never managed to do anything right.”

“The guy’s a screw-up, I’ll grant you that,” Don said with a smile.

“I thought when Tommy and his Monty Python crew volunteered we wouldn’t have to cut into our dwindling reserves to hire professionals. How difficult could it be to slap a coat of paint on a wall, I asked myself.”

“And you learned the answer to that the hard way?”

“Starting when they arrived this morning. Understand, I took it all in stride for a while. I overlooked spills, goofy jokes, even a damaged section of carpet. But by afternoon, I’d had it.”

“Did they quit or did you send them packing?” Don asked.

I seized a sausage-topped slice of pizza from Don’s side of the plate and gobbled it down. “They left around three o’clock. I didn’t have anything to do with it except to offer up a prayer of thanksgiving as they went out the door.”

“Loren, cut yourself some slack. It’ll all work out.”

“Easy for you to say. You’ve got a much longer fuse than I have.” I reached for another slice of Mario’s specialty.

“Not when somebody eats from my half of the pizza I don’t.” He grinned and tapped the back of my hand.

“Sorry. I do seem to be in a state.” Don and I had long since established that when we split a pizza, he ordered sausage on his half and I asked for mushrooms on mine. No crossovers.

“You must be upset if you can eat hot sausage without noticing. The work will get finished sooner or later,” he said.

“We don’t have until later, remember. It’s almost the end of May. If we’re not ready by Memorial Day…” I didn’t have to go on. Everyone on the lake understood the importance of being up and running when the summer tourists arrived. The Lake George season was short. Businesses had only three months—even less time in cold or rainy summers—to take advantage.

“Things will work out, Loren. You’ll be having the grand opening before you know it,” Don said.

“I wish I had your confidence.”

“Speaking of that, my brother and Elaine want to join us at the opening night party. That okay with you?”

“Sure, although I can’t imagine why. This party won’t be in the same league as most of their activities,” I said.

Don’s brother Stephen and his wife lived sixty miles south of us in Albany and, although we got together with them occasionally for dinner, they usually preferred the kind of elegant social life Don and I both tried to avoid.

“I’m not sure why myself, but for some reason they’re dying to come. My brother’s brought the subject up several times.”

“Tell them they’re more than welcome.” I pushed my plate aside. Too much thinking about the center even affected the taste of Mario’s pizza.

“If you’re finished, why don’t we go to your house? I’ll make you a cup of decaf, rub the kinks out of your neck and have you in bed and totally relaxed in no time. How does that sound?” Don leered expectantly.

“It sounds great.” And it did. So I was almost as surprised as he was when I begged off. “But I’m really beat tonight. Can I get a rain check?”

Don acted appropriately disappointed; I appeared properly contrite; and we left Mario’s on good terms. At least, I thought so at the time.

Since we both had our cars, we exchanged a casual good-bye outside the restaurant, and I headed home. More accurately, I intended to head home. On impulse, I swung north toward the center, thinking I’d sleep better if I made sure Tommy and his gang hadn’t returned for more painting.

By then, it was almost dark. I did a double take when I saw a light in one of the windows, a light I hadn’t meant to leave on. As I parked next to the building, I noticed the front door was ajar. I must have failed to shut it tight.

In the shadows of the anteroom, I could see the ladder and paint cans tucked in the corner where I’d left them. I skirted the contour map and a display of artifacts and switched on the light at the entrance to the main room. On the wall opposite me a large glass case contained life-sized figures of our local hero, Major Robert Rogers, and three of his Rangers. The Rangers, wearing the gray-green homespun our research confirmed was their traditional garb, stood with muskets raised, prepared to fire into the simulated forest at the edge of the display. A placard explained they were waging a new kind of warfare against the combined forces of French and Indians as they struggled to secure the lake and its environs for the British.

In the dim light the four figures looked no different than usual, but something had been added to the diorama. A body, dressed not in a Ranger uniform but in shabby denim, sprawled motionless on the floor of the case a few feet from the other figures. The face was turned away from me, partially obscured by a tangle of thick, dark hair.

“What the hell?” I hurried over for a closer look. Reggie Collins and the other re-enactors who’d planned the exhibit had spent hours debating the merits of including figures of wounded or dead from either side.

Reggie, who portrayed Rogers himself in the re-enactments, had opposed the idea. “Not what we want. Too scary for the kids,” he’d insisted.

“So why shouldn’t they know folks got killed around here since so many of ’em did?” George Tyler, always the dissenter, had argued.

But Reggie had the clout to win the field. No bodies. At least, no bodies until now.

I moved closer and cupped my hands on the glass, struggling for a better look. The body hadn’t been part of the diorama when I left the building that afternoon, I could swear to that. Had Tommy or one of his buddies with a warped sense of humor come back and played a practical joke?

But this wasn’t a joke. The man lying in the display case looked dead, or close to it. I planted my hands on the glass and shoved hard, trying to slide open one of the panels. The glass wouldn’t budge. When I leaned in close, I could see the dowel in the lower track which kept the panel from moving. I hustled around to the door which led to the hallway behind the case. No luck there either. The door was locked tight. Reggie and his crew prided themselves on leaving everything shipshape when they quit for the day. The body must have been put in there somehow after they’d left.

I ran back into the entry and grabbed the telephone off the admissions desk. No dial tone. Lee Daniels, one of the committee members, had assured us two days ago he’d completed arrangements to have the phones hooked up. Apparently, something had gone wrong. If only my cell phone wasn’t sitting home on my kitchen table.

I yanked open the door and rushed outside. Darkness crept out from under the trees and obscured the narrow road. No sign of cars or walkers. A hundred yards up the hill toward the Inn, faint lamplight shone from a small roadside bungalow. Faster not to take the car, I thought, and took off for the house.

The man who answered my frantic knocking on his front door was short, middle-aged, one of the Patterson brothers, I thought, but I couldn’t come up with a first name. He listened to my breathless explanation of a body in a display case, registered surprise, disbelief, then eventually, willingness to help. He called 911 and handed the receiver to me. I took a deep breath and calmed down enough to describe what I’d seen.

“Don’t go back inside the building,” the 911 operator advised. “I’m notifying the sheriff’s department. Wait for them near the entrance.”

“Thanks for your help,” I thrust the phone back into my Good Samaritan’s hand, wheeled around and took off down the hill toward the center. It was after nine now, pitch black, no glimmer of light anywhere. I raced along the road, anxious to be at the center when the sheriff’s car arrived. I knew I was moving too fast, taking chances I shouldn’t have taken, but I kept going. I felt the tip of my shoe catch on a root or branch which reared up at the edge of the pavement. I tripped, pitched forward, tried to slow down, but my momentum proved too strong. Powerless to stop, I staggered a few steps ahead, then sprawled flat on the rough macadam. My head hit against something, cracked against it hard enough to send flashes of light exploding behind my eyes. I wanted to get up, but I couldn’t seem to move.



©Copyright 2005-2012. Anne White. All Rights Reserved.
*Photos courtesy of Lake George Chamber of Commerce
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