Today I’m excited to host Penny Goetjen. Penny and I met at a Sisters in Crime event and I love her books. I think you will too. Penny has offered us chapter one of her latest novel. Read on and enjoy!
| Chapter One |
At first glance, it looked like she was resting between reps. Wavy blonde hair hung lifeless
several inches below the bench. Her limp arms bent at the elbow, and the tips of her fingers touched the floor. Low music played on the speakers meant for general consumption in an otherwise quiet fitness center.
Elizabeth stepped into the doorway and crept toward her, not intending to interrupt her workout, halting a few feet away. Then she noticed what was very wrong with the picture: the oversized barbell wedged into her neck, carving a grotesque indentation.
Lunging toward the bar, Elizabeth grabbed the stack of circular weights on one end and heaved it up, flipping it off of her. The discs rattled as they bounced on the floor with a thud.
Frantic to find signs of life, Elizabeth splayed one hand on her chest and pressed fingertips on the other under the woman’s jawbone. “Oh, God. No.” Snatching her cell, she punched in 9-1-1 and switched it to speaker before dropping it to the floor. By the time the dispatcher came on and asked the nature of her emergency, she’d performed a dozen or more chest compressions and inserted two puffs of air. In a focused fog, she kept the resuscitation attempt going until EMTs arrived and forcibly removed her from the victim’s side. Stumbling to a vantage point nearby, she looked on helplessly while they continued where she’d left off. Without missing a beat, they moved the young woman to a stretcher and wheeled her away.
Suddenly the music seemed to blare from the corners of the ceiling, so Elizabeth opened the closet that held the electronics and silenced it. She slid onto the seat of a rowing machine near the door. There was no stale sour smell to speak of that was often pervasive in older gyms, just the pungent odor from the new rubber floor. As she waited in the stillness of the room, shook to the core by the grisly image in her head, she slid ever so slightly back and forth on the seat of the erg like a mother trying to soothe a fussy baby.
Before long, the deputy showed up and poked his head through the door, looking to get her story in the awkwardness between former classmates who hadn’t connected in years. Sam Austin was the son of the former chief who’d seen firsthand the heartache the Pennington family had endured over decades within the old walls of the inn.
The deputy’s shoulders drooped as he removed his high-crowned, pinched hat and crossed the threshold, his eyes trained on the weights as he neared the bench, undoubtedly having been briefed on his way over. Except for the errant barbell, nothing looked out of place. Elizabeth was eager to get the abhorrent task over with.
“Please, Elizabeth. We’ve known each other too long. It’s Sam. Just like in school.”
With his close-cropped beard, he resembled a ship captain—just needed a skipper’s hat with a gold embroidered anchor and a pipe sticking out of the corner of his mouth with smoke encircling his head. But she wasn’t aware of anyone in his family who’d earned his living on the ocean. The Austins had a long history in law enforcement.
“Of course, Sam—and it’s Lizzi. I was just trying to—”
“I know. You were just trying to help me feel like I belong behind this badge.” He tapped the shiny gold shield on his dark brown standard-issue shirt.
“Well, of course you do. You’ve earned your way here. Walked in your father’s footsteps. I was addressing you as you deserved to be.”
“Elizabeth . . . you’re an amazing woman. Always kind to me. And I appreciate that. More than you’ll ever know.”
Uncomfortable with where he was heading, she redirected the conversation. “And your father was an incredible man. I’m eternally grateful to him. He saved my life last summer. . . . Happened to stop by to check on the place.” She wasn’t going to confess it was the first time in almost a year she’d returned since the inn had been ravaged by a Category 4 hurricane. “I’d fallen into the tunnel with no way to get out after the stairway crumbled. No one was around. The place was deserted. I was terrified. Thank God your father showed up and got me out.”
“I’m glad you came back. I can’t imagine this place if you hadn’t returned to bring it back to life. It’s so beautiful. It was painful that first year to see it in the condition the storm left it in.”
Wondering how often Sam had stopped in to check on the place, she was surprised to hear him express such fondness for the inn. As a youngster, he had tagged along when his father came around. She wondered if it was the inn or the innkeeper’s granddaughter that kept him coming back.
Nodding toward the conspicuously empty bench, she brought them back to her gruesome discovery. “I met her when they checked in yesterday. Cute couple. She asked about the gym . . . if there were free weights, which I thought was odd for a woman, but then I figured—why not? Good for her.”
She rose from the erg and sized up the barbell lying perpendicular to the bench. Looked like a lot of weight for someone with her frame. Had she been unrealistic in what she could lift? Why hadn’t she known to have a spotter when bench pressing?
“They were here to celebrate an anniversary. I don’t remember which one.” Of course, her grandmother would have recalled. She had a knack for paying attention to details and making connections with her guests. Lizzi had to work on that. “How awful. What a shame for this to happen. I pray she’ll be okay.” Elizabeth knew the situation appeared dismal, but as the inn’s ambassador she had to portray a positive outlook.
“So, she was alone in the gym?” Sam asked.
“She was alone when I walked in. Hard to know how long she’d been here or if anyone else came or went during her workout.”
“There are no security cameras?” The deputy glanced to the corners of the ceiling.
“No. We really didn’t think it was necessary in here.” She used the term “we” loosely. It seemed to carry more weight than saying she’d made the decision on her own. So often during the renovations, she had to cut items off the “would be nice to have” list in order to pay for unexpected overruns. It came down to spending money on only what was necessary. “Besides, I don’t think our guests would feel comfortable working out if they knew they were being recorded.”
“Well, it certainly would have helped to piece together the sequence of events . . . and the timing.”
“Sorry.” It was all she could come up with. She regretted the absence of cameras made his job more difficult, but she wasn’t going to put them in after the fact, either. “Do you suspect it might not be as straightforward as a simple accident?”
“I have to consider all the possibilities.”
“Of course you do.”
“Who is she here with?”
Elizabeth gave the officer the name of the woman’s husband and their room number, relieved to have him handle breaking the news, but had second thoughts about leaving the grim task to local law enforcement. After all, it was her responsibility as the innkeeper, no matter how uncomfortable it felt. His shoulders seemed to straighten with her offer to accompany him.
At the top of the stairs, she stepped forward to knock on the door. No one answered right away. Could he still be asleep? There probably wasn’t a worse way to wake a man than with what this guy was about to hear. She pounded harder, producing a yelp from within. Before long, the unsuspecting husband appeared in a white terry cloth bathrobe, courtesy of the inn—Elizabeth’s idea to add a more spa-like feel. The cord of an earbud dangled from one ear; a hand wrapped around an electric toothbrush probed his mustached orifice. His eyes grew wide.
“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Chase—” Elizabeth began.
He held up an index finger. “Hang on.” Leaving the door ajar, he wiped his chin with a sleeve, ducking into the bathroom to drop the appliance inside the door, taking a moment at the sink before reappearing. “Sorry, thought you were my wife. Figured she’d forgotten the room key.” He chuckled, pulling the lapels of his robe closer together.
Elizabeth hesitated, suddenly forgetting the words she’d practiced in her head on the way up. All she could manage was, “Mr. Chase, this is Deputy Austin of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department.”
The young man’s brows narrowed. “What’s this all about?”
Relieved to hear Sam start to speak, she retreated a step, both geographically and mentally.
“Sir, I’m afraid it’s about your wife.”
“My wife? She’s at the gym. Left a while ago. I would imagine she’d be back soon.”
“Yes, sir. I’m afraid there’s been an accident . . . in the gym.” “Wh—what do you mean?” He cocked his head like an old man struggling to hear in a crowded room. “What happened? Is she okay?”
“It appears she may have dropped a barbell at some point during her workout.”
“Dropped it? Dropped it where?”
“Uh . . . on her neck.”
The robed man considered the deputy’s words. “Is she okay?” He wasn’t grasping the severity of the situation.
“I’m afraid not, sir. She’s on the way to the hospital right now.”
Elizabeth imagined this might be Sam’s first time having to deliver such devastating news in his official capacity.
The husband leaned closer, latching on to the door frame with an oversized hand. “So she’s going to be okay.”
The deputy hesitated. “I would have to defer that determination to the medical professionals.”
“Oh God, no.” He burst into sobs that seemed to originate from the depths of his gut, making a sickening, mournful sound. She’d never heard anything quite like it—certainly not from a man.
After Sam offered to drive him to the hospital, Elizabeth extended her sincere best wishes and took her leave. Her heart ached for the couple. It was one of those moments where life reminded you so much was out of your control. And life was not going to be fair, so don’t expect it.
With such a tragic start, she prayed, with a measure of guilt, it wouldn’t cast a shadow on her reign at the inn.
When murder checks in, the inn’s dark past resurfaces
Elizabeth Pennington returns to her roots to reopen her family’s historic inn, which she lovingly restored to its New England charm after a powerful hurricane nearly destroyed it. Unseen forces, however, seem hell-bent on derailing her efforts, or worse—taking her out of the picture.
The untimely death of a young female guest in the inn’s fitness center appears to be a tragic accident until authorities investigate and find there is more than meets the eye. When a second body is discovered, Elizabeth fears the worst—a killer in their midst.
Feeling the strain from a mountain of debt and the pressure to carry on in her grandmother’s footsteps as keeper at the popular inn, Elizabeth is crushed when the town begins foreclosure proceedings, yet remains steadfast in her quest to carry on her family’s legacy—until the killer comes after her.
National award-winning author Penny Goetjen writes murder mysteries where the milieus play as prominent a role as the engaging characters. A self-proclaimed eccentric known for writing late into the night by the allure of flickering candlelight, she often weaves a subtle, unexpected paranormal twist into her stories. When her husband is asked how he feels about his wife writing murder mysteries, he answers with a wink, “I sleep with one eye open.”