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A Body to Die For
by Kate White
Warner Books, 2003

CHAPTER 1


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When I think back on everything terrible that happened that autumn—the murders, the grim discovery I made, the danger I found myself in—I realize I probably could have avoided all of it if my love life hadn't been so sucky. Or let me rephrase that. Nonexistent. Late in the summer, I'd been kicked to the curb by a guy I was fairly gaga over, and though my heart no longer felt as raw as a rug burn, my misery had morphed into a sour, man-repellent mood. It was as if I had a sign over my head that said, "Step any closer and I'm gonna bitch-slap you."

So when I was invited to spend an early fall weekend free of charge at the Cedar Inn and Spa in Warren, Massachusetts, I grabbed the chance. Trust me, I wasn't expecting to meet anyone there—except maybe a few rich women in pastel sweat suits and fanny packs who thought having their bodies slathered in shea butter would miraculously vaporize their cellulite. I should also admit that I've generally found spa stuff pretty goofy. I once had a complimentary prune-and-pumpkin facial, and when it was over I kept thinking that I should be stationed on a sideboard between a roast turkey and cornbread stuffing.

But I do go nuts for a good massage, and I was hoping that a few of those and a change of scenery would improve my mood as well as jump-start my heart.

Unfortunately, soon after I arrived at the inn, all hell broke loose.

I pulled into Warren just before seven on Friday night. A reasonable arrival time, but three damn hours later than I'd originally planned. A combination of things had thrown my schedule into a tizzy. I'm a freelance journalist, specializing in human-interest and crime stories, and an interview that I was scheduled to do with a psychologist for an article on mass hysteria got pushed from morning to midafternoon. I would have liked to just blow it off entirely. But the piece was due at the end of the following week, and I was feeling under the gun. I didn't hit the road until three-thirty, guaranteeing that I'd have a good chance of getting caught in a rush-hour mess somewhere between Manhattan and Massachusetts—and I did. In addition, I was undone by a smoldering car fire on the southbound side of the New York State Thruway, which caused people on my side to practically crawl by on their haunches so they could get a better look. You would have thought the front half of the Titanic had been dredged and deposited along the side of the road.

If I'd arrived on schedule, I would have been welcomed by the owner of the inn, Danielle (aka Danny) Hubner. She was the one treating me to an all-expenses-paid weekend. An old college friend of my mother's, Danny had been pleading for me to visit the inn since she'd opened it three or four years ago. But I'd always been too crazed with work—or too caught up in the stages of grief that followed the demise two years ago of my flash fire of a marriage: heartache, healing, and manic horniness. This fall, because of my snarky mood, I'd finally said yes.

It would be great, I figured, to not only be pampered 24/7, but also to spend a nice chunk of time with Danny. She was really my friend, too, and she had a slightly offbeat personality that I found absolutely refreshing. I got the sense my visit would also prove beneficial to her. My mother had called right before she flew to Athens for a Mediterranean cruise to say that Danny had seemed in a bit of a slump lately, but she didn't know why. My mother was worried she might be having troubles with her second husband, George, whom I'd yet to meet—and whom my mother didn't seem wild about.

Since I arrived so late, I'd missed Danny. According to the desk clerk, she'd driven into town on business she could no longer put off, but she'd left word that she would check in with me later. I was given a brief tour before being shown to my room.

The inn, a rambling, clapboard building probably erected in the mid-1800s, was really quite smashing, even more so than in the pictures I'd seen. Instead of dripping with the cutesy country charm that you so often find at a restored inn, the decor was elegant, pared down—lots of beige and cream tones and brown-and-white-check fabric. And there wasn't a whirligig, weather vane, or wooden swan in sight.

Since I was late, I figured I'd blown any chance of getting a treatment that night, but my guide explained that Danny had arranged for me to be squeezed in for a massage at eight—before a late dinner. The inn's spa, which also operated as a day spa for the area, stayed open until ten.

I had about fifteen minutes to catch my breath before the massage. My room was maximum charming, a suite, actually, with a small living area. It also sported checks, but in red and white and paired with several quirky print fabrics. I unpacked the clothes most likely to wrinkle and hung them in the closet. (I'm a contributing writer for Gloss magazine, and I read in a recent issue that you should roll your clothes in tissue paper before packing them in order to prevent wrinkles, but I'd no sooner take the time to do that than I would to iron my underpants.) Next I took a very quick shower, letting the spray of hot water do a number on muscles achy from a long car ride.

I dried myself off with a thick Egyptian-cotton towel. Thanks to a towel warmer, it was as toasty as a baked potato. As I buffed my body with it, I noticed a small earthenware jar on the bathroom countertop. It was filled to the brim with amber-colored bath salts, and a little tag announced their availability for sale in the spa. They were a blend of sandalwood and sweet orange aromatics with a hint of frankincense, prepared, the tag said, so I could "surrender to a state of total enchantment and emerge with a primitive power." God, just what I needed. Was it actually suggesting I could get both in the same weekend? I glanced up, into the mirror above the sink. I'm five six, with short, brownish blond hair, and blue eyes, and I'm considered pretty in a slightly sporty way, but there was no denying that at this moment in time, I looked weary, even burned-out. It was going to take a helluva lot of bath salts to leave me feeling enchanted and empowered.

I arrived downstairs at the spa with just a few minutes to spare. It was actually a large addition to the inn, abutting the eastern edge of the building. The decor was Asian inspired: beige walls, cracked stone floors, bamboo plants in large putty-colored pots, and hallways lined with sheer beige curtains that poofed outward from the breeze that you created walking by them. It was very different from the decor of the inn, but because they both featured such muted tones, it all seemed to work together.

I undressed in a spacious dressing area and then waited for ten minutes in the so-called relaxation room. Haunting Asian music played in the background, water gurgled over stones in a small fountain, and the scent of green tea wafted from two flickering candles. I tried to let go and relish it, but I felt a little silly. It was as if I'd somehow stumbled into a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Fortunately, it was only a few minutes before I was led to a treatment room. I could barely wait for my massage to start, for the chance to have those sore muscles unknotted. My only concern was that it had been so long since I'd had any physical contact with another member of my species that I might begin to whimper at the first touch—like a poor little pound puppy. Unfortunately, on a scale of one to ten, the massage was no more than a seven. My "therapist," a red-haired woman in her thirties, was skilled enough and had plenty of strength in her hands, but she seemed distracted, pausing at odd moments as she worked. It was enough to make me wonder if I had something weird happening on my butt—like a humongous boil—that was forcing her to stop and gape in horror. I was almost relieved when I was finally back in my suite and could totally veg.

After ordering a club sandwich and a glass of Merlot from room service, I unpacked most of the rest of the stuff from my bag, sticking my underwear and shirts in a dresser. In the early days that I'd traveled, I used to wonder who actually used hotel dressers, but lately, at the ripe old age of thirty-three, I'd come to discover that I prefer not having to forage through my suitcase each time I get dressed.

My food arrived within twenty minutes and, ravenous, I devoured it. Then, after opening the window a crack, I undressed and turned back the thick white duvet on the bed. I was looking forward to reading between sheets that felt as if they exceeded a three-hundred-thread count.

As I lay between said silky sheets, though, I could feel my mind itching to go places it shouldn't. In other words, it was dying to ruminate about my most recent love trouble. His name was Jack Herlihy, and he was a thirty-five-year-old professor of psychology from Washington, D.C., whom I'd met in May after he'd come up to teach a summer course in New York. At the time, Jack had come across like a breath of fresh air compared to most of the guys I'd been meeting. He was great looking, nice without being a wuss, and an amazing listener (well, he was a shrink), and he managed to be all of these things without ever showing up, like some New York men, with too much product in his hair. He seemed like a straight shooter, not the kind of guy who promises to call the next day but doesn't for weeks, giving you reason to believe that he calculates his time in dog years. Jack didn't like games—or at least that's what I assumed before he started playing them.

Most of my Jack ruminations generally involved trying to figure out how I'd blown things. Admittedly, our romance had gotten off to a slow start, but he'd seemed okay with the pace, and it was certainly fine with me. I'd been fairly skittish since my ex-husband—the attorney-at-law and gambler-at-large—had fled the scene. Jack and I had some fun nights in the Village (he was hoping to eventually relocate to New York), one glorious day on the beach on Fire Island, and a night of half-naked groping in his apartment, during which I explained I wanted to wait a little longer for the full-frontal variety.

Then, in the beginning of July, Jack announced that his younger sister had meningitis and he was going to be going home to Pittsburgh each weekend to help his family. Since his life was about to become insane, he wanted to put our relationship on hold for the next few weeks—until he and his family were through the worst. I promised to be there when his life returned to normal.

We'd stayed in phone contact through July and the first week of August, and then suddenly I stopped hearing from him. I told myself to be patient, that he was caught up in the crisis. But after several weeks had gone by and he was still incommunicado, I started to panic. Since I didn't have any reason to believe he'd entered the Federal Witness Protection Program, I suspected that I'd been given the boot.

But wait, things get worse. Just before Labor Day, as I was cruising the Village in search of fall shoes, I spotted him from a distance with a couple of cute female student types—he seemed talky, flirtatious, Mister Not-a-Friggin'-Care-in-the-World. As I'd ducked on wobbly legs into a store to avoid being seen, it was finally clear that it was o-v-e-r.

The only question left in my mind was why? Had he not been that interested in me to begin with and his sister's illness had become a good excuse to put distance between us? Had he met someone else in the weeks we'd been apart? Had my request to take the sexual part of the relationship slowly discouraged him despite the fact that he had sounded okay with it?

Just as I was about to travel this tiresome ground in my mind for the millionth time, the phone rang.

"Bailey, it's Danny. I didn't wake you, did I?"

As she spoke, I could see her in my mind's eye. She was in her early sixties, pretty, or rather handsome, I'd say, with blondish gray hair lightly curled. And she was tiny—only about five feet tall and as slim as a candlewick.

"No, no, I'm just lying in bed with a book," I said. "Danny, your inn is absolutely gorgeous. You've done an amazing job with it."

"Thank you so much, dearest. How has your evening been?"

Well, for the last twenty minutes I'd been tapping a freshly scabbed emotional bruise, seeing if I could make myself squeal—but I spared her that sordid detail.

"Terrific. I had a lovely massage and then a light dinner up here in my room—or should I say my suite fit for a princess."

"Who was your massage therapist, do you recall?"

"A woman. Redhead. Name started with a P, I think."

"Piper. She has wonderful hands, don't you think?"

"Yes, definitely." I wasn't going to get Piper in any kind of trouble by saying her heart hadn't been totally into her work tonight.

"By the way, I've set up a meeting for you and Josh, the spa manager, at four tomorrow—if that's still okay with you."

I write a few travel articles each year—it's a free way to see the world and also a nice break from the crime grind—and Danny was hoping that while I was ensconced at the inn I could provide some ideas on how to better pitch her place to editors and travel writers.

"Of course," I said. "But when do I get to see you?"

"How about breakfast together tomorrow morning?" Danny asked. "Would nine work for you?"

"Absolutely, though I still may be in a stupor from my massage."

She laughed lightly, like someone jangling her keys. "Well, you know what I always say—too much of a good thing is wonderful. Just wait till you have some of the other treatments I've got booked for you. Have you ever had a massage with hot stones before?"

"No—but I'm game for anything as long as it doesn't involve colonics."

"Oh, Bailey, you always make me laugh," she said. "Well, I'm going to turn in now because my head is throbbing for some reason. I'm staying here at the inn tonight, by the way, in case you need to reach me."

"Do you do that to see things from the guests' perspective?"

"Partly. But also George is out of town and I hate staying alone. Our house isn't far from here, but it's very secluded. Shall we meet in the lobby, then?"

"See you then. I can't wait."

And I meant it. I felt a tremendous debt to Danny. She had been so good to me when my father died the year I was twelve, taking me on all sorts of little adventures and day trips at a time when my mother was struggling so much that it was hard for her to comfort me. Danny must have sensed early on my fascination for the macabre, because one of our excursions had been to Salem, to learn more about the witch trials. My mother had looked slightly agog at both of us when she'd learned where we'd ended up that day, but it had been pure heaven for me.

My family eventually lost touch with Danny, during a period when she'd lived out west in a bad marriage. But after she moved back to Massachusetts (with a new husband) to open the inn, she and my mother had reconnected. Though I was only now paying a visit to the inn, Danny and I had spoken a few times on the phone, and I'd had lunch with her once in New York when she'd come to the city on business.

The call from Danny had managed to take my mind off Jack, and I picked up the book I'd taken into bed with me. It was of all things a decorating book. Lately I'd been feeling in desperate need of a change in my Greenwich Village apartment. After my divorce, I'd jettisoned all the modern stuff my ex had encouraged us to buy and introduced a Sante Fe feeling—with the help of cinnamon-colored walls and some cheap baskets. But it was suddenly boring me, adding to my burned-out feeling. Last week I'd asked the Gloss decorating editor for some guidance and had been forced to watch him recoil in horror as I described my place to him. You would have thought I'd announced I'd just installed wall-to-wall shag carpet.

"Sante Fe is totally stupid to do east of the Mississippi," he'd said. "The light is all wrong for it. Besides, who wants to see another turquoise coyote with a kerchief around its neck."

He'd suggested I go "minimal" and had pulled a book from his shelf for me to consult.

I'd gone through four or five chapters, covering everything from the value of white space to the pure evil of tchotchkes, when I instinctively glanced at my wrist to check the time. My watch wasn't there.

I felt a tiny swell of panic. It had been my father's watch, an old stainless-steel Rolex I'd started wearing shortly after he died. My mind raced, trying to recall where I'd left it. It had been on my wrist during the drive to Massachusetts because I recalled checking it. Since it was waterproof, I never took it off when I showered. The massage. Rather than leave it in the locker, I'd worn it into the treatment room and placed it on a small stool in the corner. I would never fall asleep if I didn't retrieve it.

I dialed the spa number, which was listed on a panel on the phone. As I counted the rings, I leaned out of bed and glanced at the digital clock on the bedside table: 10:25. I wasn't surprised when no one picked up.

Plan B. I'd just head down there. There might still be someone on-site, cleaning up and not bothering to answer the phone.

I threw off the covers and dressed in the same clothes I'd worn earlier. My room was on the second floor of the inn, not far from a back staircase that ended near a side entrance to the spa. Hurrying along the corridor, I was surprised at how deadly quiet it was—no murmur of voices, no hum of TVs, and definitely no headboard banging. Guests here obviously preferred getting loofahed to getting laid.

The door to the spa was solid glass, and I could look directly into the small reception area that was reserved for the use of the inn's guests. It was dark, except for a backlight in a case of spa products. I tapped on the door and then tried to open it. No luck. As I turned away, though, I thought I heard a sound, something thudlike that I couldn't identify, from deep within the spa.

It sounded as if someone might still be there, but I was going to have to try the main reception area, which could be reached only from the outside. Walking along the ground-floor corridor, I found an emergency exit and let myself out. I was on the edge of the parking lot, dark except for a few perimeter security lights and a big puddle of moonlight. I headed around the edge of the building toward the main entrance of the spa.

I was surprised at how cool the night was. The early October temperature had hovered around seventy earlier in the day, almost balmy, but it had dropped at least twenty degrees. There was a stiff, choppy wind, making the tree branches shake. This was one of those nights that told you that if you'd been hoping the summery weather would last forever, you were a fool.

Before I even reached the door of the spa, I could see I'd wasted my time. There was a narrow window alongside each side of the front door, and it was dark inside. There were no cars at this end, not a soul in sight. It was totally silent, too, except for the wind and the faint yawning of cars speeding along a far-off highway. I felt nervous all of a sudden, standing out there in the darkness all by myself.

I quickly broke into a jog and crossed the distance of the parking lot to the front of the inn. There were about twenty cars at this end, obviously belonging to guests. The front door was open and I walked into the reception area, where a girl of no more than twenty-five was sitting at the front desk, staring at a terminal screen. Like my massage therapist, she had bright red hair, held off her face with a tiny blue clip. Without giving her time to inquire if she could help me, I explained the situation to her and asked if she could open up the spa.

"I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to let anyone into the spa," she said. "But they open at seven. I can leave a note under the door asking them to look for your watch as soon as they get in. Who was your therapist?"

"Piper."

"Oh, I'm sure she saw it and put it up someplace. There's no need to worry."

"You're probably right, but I can't help it," I told her. "The watch has incredible sentimental value to me. Who can let me in?"

"Well, Danielle could, but—"

"I don't want to wake her. Is there someone else?"

She thought for a second, her blue eyes raised to the ceiling.

"Well, the manager had the day off. But I guess I could call Piper. She's an assistant manager, and she's got a key."

"But then she'd have to drive all the way back here."

"No, she wouldn't—she lives right here. There's a building out back where some of the staff stay. I don't think she'd mind coming over."

Natalie—that's what it said on her nametag—glanced at a phone sheet on her desk and placed the call. A machine obviously picked up after five or six rings because she left a message, detailing what had happened and asking Piper to call.

"She must have gone into town for dinner," she said, setting the phone back down. "I doubt she'll be gone long. There's another assistant manager, Anna. . . ."

She let her voice trail off without asking if I wanted to track down her, obviously hoping I wasn't going to push the issue even more.

"I can wait till Piper gets back," I said.

Once back in my room, I alternated between reading my book and fretting. I had just glanced at the digital clock for about the four hundredth time—11:13—when the phone rang. It was Piper.

"Hi, Miss Weggins? Natalie said you left your watch in the treatment room."

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure it's on the little stool in the corner. You didn't see it?"

"No, but then I don't recall looking over there." She hesitated a second. "Why don't I run over and check—I'm just behind the inn."

There was something about her tone—resigned politeness—that told me she was doing it not out of any inborn generosity, but because the inn encouraged staff to bend over backward for the guests.

"God, I hate to put you out, but I'd die if something happened to that watch. Should I meet you down there?"

"I'd be happy to drop it off in your room—but actually maybe it's best for you to show me exactly where you think you left it."

She said we should meet by the inn entrance to the spa. I'd kept my clothes on, so it took me less than two minutes to get down there. I had a five-minute wait, though, before Piper strode down the corridor from the front of the inn. It was funny how different she looked out of "uniform." Instead of a beige T-shirt and baggy beige pants, she was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved green jersey shirt, low-cut with a ruffle. Her shoulder-length red hair, which had been tied back earlier, was spread around her shoulders like a brush fire.

She was courteous enough when she greeted me, but it seemed like that kind of phony politeness she'd displayed on the phone. She already had her keys out, and she unlocked the door, lifting the handle slightly as she pulled it forward, obviously familiar with the door's quirkiness.

She flipped on a light in the reception area, and I followed her down one of the corridors. The scent of green tea still hung in the air, and something else, maybe jasmine. The only sound was our footsteps on the stone floor. It felt kind of creepy to be here alone, after hours.

I wouldn't have been able to recall which room we'd been in, but she seemed sure of it. As we reached the open doorway, she froze suddenly, like a gazelle picking up the scent of something possibly predatory.

"What is it?" I asked.

"There's a light on," Piper said in a hushed tone, using her chin to point down the hall ahead of us. I glanced in that direction and saw a chink of light coming from beneath a doorway.

"Is someone here?" I asked, my voice as quiet as hers.

"No. It's just funny. I swear I turned off the light and left the door open. Why don't you look for your watch and I'll check."

She flicked on the light for me, and as she walked off down the hall, I made a beeline for the stool. I mouthed a big "Thank you" to the gods when I spotted the Rolex lying there, all by its lonesome. As I slid it onto my wrist, I heard a scream.

With my heart thumping, I stumbled out into the hall. Piper was standing paralyzed in the doorway of the room down the corridor, half in the room, half out.

"What's the matter?" I yelled.

She turned to me with a look of absolute horror on her face, unable to form even a single word. I rushed down the hall, pushing past her into the room. It was another massage room, though slightly larger than the one I'd been in. The lights were dim, and at first nothing seemed amiss. Then my eyes fell to the floor.

Lying on the stone floor, absolutely still, was a body, or at least what I thought must be a body. Every inch of it was wrapped up in some kind of silver paper. I could see the outlines of the limbs and the torso and the head, and the outline too of the nose, protruding from the face. It looked like some kind of mummy. Like some horrible mummy from outer space.



Excerpted from A Body to Die For by Kate White. Copyright © 2003 by Kate White. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of TWBookmark.com. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.









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