The joy of filling your head with stories

When I was eight, I declared it to my dog, the world, and the stuffed animals on my bed.

I was going to be a writer. 

I read everything. I read the back of the cereal box as I ate breakfast. I checked out books in my school library and devoured them through the week like cans of Pringles. 

I poked through my parents’ bookcases and read my mom’s old literature textbooks, since, like me, she’d taught high school English. I read my dad’s books on European history, even though I didn’t understand all of them—I loved the stories, the heroes and the battles. 

Yep, I read this entire Will and Ariel Durant series of my dad’s – from the age of 8 to 12.
It’s history written as stories, and I was sucked in.

I had no idea of what I should be reading, as a third grader, so I read everything. Fiction, nonfiction. 

I was a young little sponge. At a time where there were difficult things going on in my family, reading brought me joy. I read curled up on my bed till late at night, or tucked myself under the overstuffed chair in the living room, or holed up in the fort I built in the woods behind our house. 

I didn’t usually reread books as a child.
This series was an exception.

At one point, I felt so filled, so inspired by stories, that I started writing my own. Illustrated, of course. It was my response to what I’d read, all I’d taken in. It was part homage, part that naive ballsiness that kids have—I can do this!

Stories in, stories out. 

This weekend, I listened to a talk by Lori Rader-Day, teacher in the MFA program at Northwestern, and former president of Sisters in Crime. One of her steps to re-connecting with your writing project is to fill your brain with stories. Read the best books in your genre. Read things in your genre that are a little different than what you write. It will all percolate in your brain, and you will begin to write again. And your writing will get better. 

That’s kind of what I was doing as an eight-year-old. 

I don’t read as voraciously as I did back then. I fall too easily into the black hole of social media. I get sucked down internet rabbit trails. Not to say that all of that is bad—part of it is research. But it’s the kind of quick skimming that doesn’t produce the same results as sitting down with a good book and giving it your full attention for a few hours.

My goal is to reduce that time I spend on my phone, where I’m easily distracted by snippets of information. My iPhone conveniently tells me how many hours I’ve spent on it each day. It even congratulates me when I’ve reduced my daily time. 

I’m going to enlist it as my ally in this.

I want to feel that joy of stories percolating in my head again. 

Getting through your *%&;$! first draft

Two weeks ago, I finished the rough draft of my second book, Across the Red Sky.

It was, like all first drafts, a mixed bag. Some really good twists, some so-so scenes. There are plot holes big enough to swallow SUVs.

But it is done.

Those plot holes are BIG.

As a perfectionist, I’ve always had a hard time with that “write as fast as you can without stopping” method. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a big challenge for me.

The idea of spilling out a stream of imperfect words onto a page and letting them sit there is torture. But if I wasn’t forced to sit down and do exactly that, I would never write.

Having written three books now (the first I didn’t publish), I am starting to see that the first draft helps you work out something very important.

The shape of the novel.

I have an artist acquaintance, Kevin Courter, who is a brilliant painter. A few years ago, he showed what one of his paintings looked like before color, details and textures were added. It was beautiful in itself, but it was an underpainting–outlines of the painting to be. Trees, buildings and hills, sketched on the canvas in dark, transparent paint.

Over the next few days, the painting came to life. Colors, textures, lighting, depth. It was fascinating to see the full beauty of the painting revealed.

I think of the rough draft that way. It’s giving you the outlines of your novel as it emerges from your head. After you’ve got your shape, you can tweak it. Maybe you’re not satisfied with your protagonist’s arc and want to add some challenges. Maybe you want to switch events around to optimize the tension. After you’ve got your basic shape, you can make changes before you commit to writing all the rich detail. It’s easier and faster to make changes in this rough draft.

Be careful of your self talk during your first draft. This is, as Anne Lamott says, your shitty rough draft. It’s a sketch of what your final novel will be. Yeah, there are probably writers who toss off achingly beautiful first drafts, but rest assured they’re also critical of their work at this point.

Everybody writes a shitty rough draft.

So write like your life depends on it. Like you’re being chased by a pack of hungry wolves. Don’t go back and look at what you’ve just written. Look only at the path ahead of you, asking what happens next?

They’re coming for you. Keep your eyes on the path ahead.

Keep going, even if you’re tempted to stop. You are the only one qualified to write this book.

Five Things to Remember about your Shitty Rough Draft:

1. Everybody’s first draft is shitty.
2. DO NOT edit till you’re done.
3. You’re creating the shape of your novel, not its final form. I find it helpful to think of my novel in three acts as I write, visualizing it like a movie.
4. More detailed ideas will come to you later.
5. You can do this, so don’t give up.

Now, after a few weeks’ break and a road trip, I’m settling down to make revisions. I know there are things to be fixed. I’m actually looking forward to my book improving.

To see how a visual artist handles a similar process, take a look at Kevin’s blog demonstration:

https://kevincourter.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/days-end-the-progession-of-a-painting/

Good luck with your first draft!

Sneak peek: Across the Red Sky

I’m happy to give you a peek into the upcoming sequel to Swift Horses Racing. And tell you a little bit more about the book.

I’m a big fan of historical mysteries, but I also love to explore issues in modern life. In SHR, actions from 80 years ago had a huge influence on characters in the present.

It makes me think of this quote from William Faulkner (my mom’s literary idol): The past is never dead. It’s not even past.


In Across the Red Skies, I go back to a more recent past: the year 2000, during the dot com bust
in Silicon Valley, a time when internet companies failed quickly and much of the country feared that Y2K would wreak havoc on life as we know it.

Four young Stanford graduates start a tech company that turns out to be more successful than they could possibly imagine. But the secrets of these four people—who call themselves The Fantastic Four—surface twenty years later, as what happened in the desert outside of Las Vegas now threatens all of them.

Investigating the murder of the company’s CEO are detective James Ruiz and his young partner, Daniela Grasso, who is heading up her first murder case. Dani Grasso loves video games and is dealing with the unpleasant fallout of her decision not to take her place in the family grocery business. As Ruiz deals with his struggling marriage, Dani finds herself without her wise mentor—on a real-life hero’s quest of her own to solve a crime rooted in the past.

For fans of Swift Horses, Detective Mario Flores does make an appearance in the new book!

Tana French is one of my favorite writers. I love how her books weave in and out of the lives of different Dublin Murder Squad detectives. Her books have been an inspiration to me in writing this series.

I look forward to sharing more with you as the book gets closer to release!

If you haven’t yet read Swift Horses Racing, now’s your chance!

Ebook on Amazon: https://amazon.com/dp/B08ZMDL9X3

Paperback order: https://www.amazon.com/…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_glt_fabc…

Writing myself out of a corner

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It happened with my first book, and it’s happening with the second.

I plunge into writing my book gleefully, without an outline. I love creating an interesting cast of characters and putting them into painful, impossible situations to see what they do. And what they think.

I am a discovery writer to a certain point.

Then I get stuck. I can’t “pants” my way out.

I remember hearing author Louise Penny say once that she started with writing mysteries because they have an expected format. It is definitely easier when you sit down to write, to know you’ll have a murder near the beginning and a denouement at the end.

Nobody does a denouement like Poirot.

There are conventions you’re expected to follow when you write a traditional mystery, such as introducing the killer in the first third of the book (I played with that a bit on my first book and a few of you did notice).

Writing the first book, I forged my way through about seventy percent of the story, feeling good about my direction. Then, I got stuck. The ending I was foreseeing wasn’t a good payoff for the story I’d set up. I had to completely step back and look at what I had.

I set it aside for a week, then came back and tried to view it as a reader would. I also reviewed all my info on story structure, which I keep in my files and, since I teach literary analysis in my high school English classes.

I decided to create an outline of major events in my story, then chop it into three acts, so I had categories for beginning, middle and end.

It took me a while, and yes—it pulled me away from the writing part, which I love. But at this point, I was able to rearrange things strategically, according to where they would make the most impact in the story.

Taking time to do this helped me tell a better story.

Once I set up the three acts, I reevaluated how to lead into the ending. I discovered there was a better, more natural culprit behind the murder!

You did it, lady. I just realized it.

So I went back and did some rewriting and some seeding of clues. Then the way was clear for me to write a dramatic ending that I felt very good about.

With my second book, I’ve started this process earlier, at the halfway mark. It’s not gratifying in the short term to step back and not be writing! But I know from experience that it’s worth it.

Book two is moving along. Look for the cover reveal soon!

Hitting the road, post-lockdown

After 18 months of lockdown, last week we took our first family road trip in almost two years.

I was one of those people who didn’t mind so much being trapped inside during the pandemic. I loved having my family around me, and I enjoyed not having to drive places. I read lots of books. I wrote a lot. Teaching? Boot up the computer. Get-togethers and meetings? The same. I suddenly found myself in the odd position of being on time to things.

But travel is a big deal for me, and I was missing it. We were set to go on a trip to Disneyland the week that the Bay Area (and the amusement park) shut down in March 2020. And while I could have found a way to travel during lockdown, we chose to follow the fairly strict recommendations of my county.

With long Spotify playlists and bags full of not-too-healthy snacks, all of us vaccinated people set out for Seattle to visit my oldest son and his wife, whom we hadn’t seen in two years. This time, we had a little dog with us, which turned out to be easier than I thought it would be and more entertaining. There are lots of pet-friendly hotels! And at least one coffee shop.

The pup, with booties to protect nice, hardwood floors

In our case, months of deprivation led to appreciation. I looked on things with fresh eyes—the northern Central Valley with its fields of sunflowers and almond trees wasn’t just a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else; it looked beautiful to me. Oregon’s rivers seemed so exotic—we don’t have legit rivers in the Bay Area. And the Seattle area, with its ferry boats and miles of deep, green forests was stunning. We took a ferry boat over to Bainbridge Island to visit a friend and loved that we could drive onto a boat and get off and drive wherever we wanted on the other side.

Oregon’s Willamette River, looking very exotic to my Bay Area eyes
Sunflower farms in the northern Central Valley.

But the best thing? Hugs. We could hug each other. We could talk and see each others’ expressions without masks–and not through a video screen. Zoom kept us from complete isolation, but we were made to see, hear, feel and connect with each other in person. Nothing substitutes for that, long term.

My husband and I are big fans of British comedy. On a show called That Mitchell and Webb Look, there’s a repeating skit called “After the Event,” in which contestants play a game show after a fictional apocalyptic event has decimated their society. It’s obvious that this event has maimed and deeply affected the contestants. The audience is warned to “REMAIN INDOORS” and not to think about “The Event.”  

Will COVID be our “Event”?  It’s possible that something worse will come along in our lifetime. But now, most of us have the ability to go outside, hug one another, see each other in the flesh, and travel (to most places). I’m going to enjoy it as long as I can.

Have you taken any big trips, post-lockdown? What was it like?

All together after almost two years

I have to clarify (because he will read this) that my husband Pete (third from the left) chose to fly to Seattle rather than do the road trip portion with us. And that’s okay! He loves both us and trips, but long car rides with very talkative people and loud singing along to playlists are not his thing.

When the bad guys got a free pass

One of the inspirations for my novel Swift Horses Racing was a program after World War II that helped Nazi scientists emigrate to the U.S., while scrubbing their Nazi past.

The full details of this program, called Operation Paperclip, weren’t fully revealed to the American public till the 2000s.

As I mention in Swift Horses, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union amped up after the war. The USSR moved through Europe snapping up countries along with scientists who’d worked for the Reich.

The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

They recruited over 2,000 scientists and engineers—in such fields as chemistry, aeronautics, medicine, and biological warfare. The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

Wernher Von Braun

The fact that many of these scientists were Nazis and had committed crimes against humanity was not as important as the determination that their expertise could not fall into Soviet hands. The scientists were brought to the U.S. and their records were wiped clean of any Nazi involvement.

The program was considered a necessary evil if the U.S. was to win the Cold War.

One big area of U.S. recruitment was the German rocket program. In 1942, the Germans sent an A4 rocket higher than any manmade object had ever gone—outer space. This program would produce the V2 rocket, which would bring destruction in bombing raids on London.

The architect of this rocket program? Wernher Von Braun, who emigrated to the US after the war and went on to create the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo missions.

As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

Von Braun was a member of the Nazi party and Hitler’s SS. He oversaw the V2 rocket factory Mittelwerk, in the tunnels under the mountain of Kohnstein, where at least 20,000 concentration camp slave workers lost their lives. Because of the fear that the workers would revolt, digging tools were prohibited and workers had to dig the tunnels by hand.

Operation Paperclip is a fascinating moment in U.S. history. As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

If you’re interested in reading more on Operation Paperclip, I recommend Annie Jacobsen’s book, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Company, 2014). Another book that gives firsthand accounts of the slave conditions in Mittelwerk is Andre Sellier’s History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

Ashes, ashes

Maybe it’s the extrovert in me, but I love when people read my book and get back to me with feedback.

My first book, Swift Horses Racing, was released in April, and I waited (not very patiently) for comments and reviews. There’s something satisfying about putting your writing out there and hearing something back from the void.

This week I had someone comment on the last chapter of the book, where aeronautics pioneer Karl Schuler’s ashes are scattered over the Pacific Ocean. A reader commented that he wanted more detail about how that worked.

So I did a little more research. Scattering ashes by plane is a tricky process. You can’t just empty a box of ashes out the window. Because of the speed of the plane and the winds involved, the ashes are likely to come right back at you. Just like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, you’ll end up with ashes on your face–or a plane full of them. One comment I read from a pilot:  You may never fully get that person out of your plane.

Don’t be like The Dude

There are a few different ways to disperse ashes in a way that won’t coat the inside of the plane with them. There are special attachments for the wing that contain and release the ashes. Another homemade method involves rolling the ashes up in a cloth bundle like a sleeping bag. You secure the bundle with rubber bands, then cut a slit in the end so you can grip it. To release, you take the bands off, then unfurl the bundle out the window. The ashes are dispersed far enough away from the plane to not be sucked back in.

The more I found out about this method, the more I decided this process was something that my character Duke Sorenson, tinkerer and lover of aviation, would totally get into. It gave him a chance to interact with another character he’d had a bad run-in with—and it was a bonding moment. It wasn’t a huge change, but it enriched the scene. I was even able to include it in the next printing of my book. The last scene is richer and fuller because of that change.* So, reader—thank you for the feedback.

*If you have a previous copy of Swift Horses Racing, leave your email address in the Contact form (see website menu). I’ll send you a copy of the chapter addition.

Bite your lip. Take the trip.

My first mystery novel, Swift Horses Racing, is now out.

Putting yourself out there is scary. I’ve been writing for years—blog posts, songs, short stories and even a novel previous to this one. 

My book, Swift Horses Racing, posing with my pet bonsai, Kubo

It was hard for me to release Swift Horses Racing into the world. I had lots of reasons why I wasn’t ready to do this. Why I needed more time to work on it.

Fear is persuasive—and kind of a bully.

One day I realized that the comfort zone I was keeping myself in was no longer comfortable.

I’ve been writing stories since I was eight years old. I love holing myself up in my room to write. But at some point, you want to “complete the handshake,” as writer Michael Chabon says. Let what you’ve written connect with another person. 

Last month, when I was still having minor panic attacks about putting my book out there, I was driving and a song came on at the end of my Spotify list. It sounded vaguely familiar. It was Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 vintage soul song, “Move on Up.”  

Bite your lip. And take the trip

It was like the voice of God to me, the final word capping the thoughts I’d had the past few months. Even though you’re afraid, do it. Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip. 

Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip. 

Now that I made the decision, the fear has backed off—like a bully often does when challenged. I’ve learned so much during this process. I’m excited to hear what people think of the story I’ve put out there. Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the follow up to this book.

Since I’m a music person, I’ve created a Spotify playlist for the characters in this book—including Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” You can find it at:  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2gsXELvdvHD690yXetvFme?si=to0k3VfnQlyZpn1ImH1GWw

Enjoy the book, and let me know what you think with a commentor better yet, a review on Amazon, Goodreads or the book review site of your choice.

Goodbye, year that shall not be named

This year’s been crappy. 

Though it feels good to celebrate the end of a year that has constantly surprised us at how low it could go, I don’t think things are going to dramatically improve in 2021.

But one thing I have seen this year: good things don’t just happen in “good” years. They happen all the time. And if you look for them, you will see them. Even in a time of hard and painful things. 

This year in California’s Bay Area, we’ve been in quarantine since the second week of March. We have celebrated my daughter’s 21st, my husband’s, and my birthdays at home. I’ve been teaching my high school English classes online since March. With the current travel quarantine, we had to cancel a Christmas getaway to Seattle, where our whole family would be together for the first time in a year and a half. 

Also, this fall we lived through an unprecedented California wildfire season, with fires in the hills on either side of us. We breathed hazardous levels of smoke on a regular basis for about two months.

Add to this, a painful, contentious presidential election season that dragged on way past November 3.

Celebrating our new president

As I read over this list, I realize how outrageously privileged I have been. 

This year I didn’t lose a job. I didn’t lose a business. We didn’t lose our house to a fire. And even though I know people who did, I did not lose a friend or family member to COVID. My husband and I were both able to work from home (which was, on most days, not life threatening).

There were so many good things that happened this year. Some of these were deep things, perhaps more deeply felt and appreciated because they contrasted with the chaos, grief and destruction happening this year. 

1. We and our kids stayed healthy.

2. We learned how to make toilet paper last a long time. 

3. We got creative with our family times to stay connected – did lots of board games via Zoom as well as virtual Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Getting creative with Thanksgiving – Baskets of our traditional family dishes were delivered to everyone, then we Zoomed our meal.

4. I realized I actually like teaching online and have worked to make it more engaging for students with the use of community building and more audio/visual tools.

5. I wrote more this year than I ever have. A lot of support for this came from being in community – with my writers group Highway Writers and my awesome, local Sisters in Crime chapter, Coastal Cruisers.

6. I improved at my craft – and had a story chosen for a mystery anthology that will come out in 2021.

7. My daughter, who had been struggling with some serious issues, is doing much better.

8. I learned more about racial injustice–and about inequalities I never knew existed. We started supporting organizations that work to fix these. I took my daughter to her first protest.

My daughter’s first protest

9. I found out that many things I thought were important—weren’t. 

10. The isolation made me see things I did not like about myself—attitudes and habits I’ve carried with me too long. With God’s help, I am determined to make changes.

One of this year’s themes—because, hey, I’m an English teacher—has been “joy and sorrow deeply mingled.” I can’t remember right now what hymn this is from, but the idea is you can’t separate the good from the bad. They come together. The bright seems brighter because of the darkness that surrounds it. 

The new year won’t be a big level-up to peace, happiness and complete health for everyone. But I have grown up this year and many of my friends and family have, too.

The new year won’t be a big level-up to peace, happiness and complete health for everyone. But I have grown up this year and many of my friends and family have, too.

Whatever comes in 2021, we will be better prepared for it.

And more able to appreciate the good that comes with it.

How has this year changed you?

“The Far Cabin” – a short story

By Victoria Kazarian

In the warmth of the resort office, PI Bee Bedrosian peeled off her damp, cold gloves and rubbed her hands together.

She prayed for a cabin with good wifi and a working heater.

A woman with leathery skin and a grey ponytail emerged from behind the small Christmas tree on the counter, which was topped by a star that read Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.

She printed Bee’s driver’s license and credit card information on the registration card. When she’d finished, Bee noticed the woman had copied the digits of her license wrong.

Numbers had always been her language. She zoomed in on the error and reflexively called it out.

 “You switched the 7 and 9 at the end. The third number is 5.”

The woman gave her a sour look and rewrote the numbers.

The woman’s husband, a silver-haired man with the straight teeth of a denture ad, pulled out a map of the resort and circled the office and her cabin with a pen.

“I’ve got you down for two nights, hon. Checkout’s Christmas morning by 11 am. You’re the farthest cabin on the path. Turn left at the end. We don’t usually rent it, but we’re in peak season. The appliances are in good working order, and there’s a microwave. No phone.”

“That’s fine.” Bee checked her phone. She had four bars. “What’s your wifi password?”

The woman slid a photocopied slip of paper across the orange Formica counter then handed Bee a key attached to a piece of worn wood, DOUGLAS FIR burned into it like a cattle brand.

Bee liked that she’d be a distance from other cabins. No noise from late-night, post-ski parties. Out the front window, she saw snow accumulating on the branches of the fir trees surrounding the parking lot. Under the glowering clouds, the mountains were bright with fresh snow, as if reflecting light from some hidden source.

Under the glowering clouds, the mountains were bright with fresh snow, as if reflecting light from some hidden source.

Bee would be on her own for the holiday. Fifteen-year old Armen was at his father’s for Christmas this year. Each of her neighbors in the fourplex were traveling to family get-togethers, instead of gathering as usual on Christmas Eve for games and dinner.

But what had sealed her decision to travel was the phone call from her father, a man with whom she had a difficult relationship. He and his new girlfriend wanted to drive up from Glendale and spend the week with her in San Jose. Within five minutes of hanging up, she’d booked the cabin in Stateline, on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Cabin key in hand, Bee picked up her suitcase and hoisted the strap of her laptop bag over her shoulder. It was noon, and the darkened sky was casting shadows over the drifts of snow in the front of the cabins along the path. The cabins looked deserted at this hour, skiers at the slopes, except for a family bundled in puffy jackets and snow pants, toddling down the path with saucer sleds.

The smell of mold and burnt dust hit her as she opened the cabin door. Every cell in her damp, cold body called out its thanks for whoever had turned the heater on before her arrival. She’d put chains on her tires by herself today, rather than pay $50 dollars she couldn’t spare. Her backside was still wet.

The small cabin was laid out optimally, Bee noted appreciatively. To the right, a nook with a drop-leaf table and small kitchen. To the left, a queen-sized bed with a fluffy comforter, a nightstand, and a small desk, where she could write her report and do some research.

Straight back, there was a closet stocked with blankets she might need tonight, and a pocket door leading to a tiny bathroom.

Bee took off her soggy coat, pants and socks, and laid them near the heater, then changed into dry, warm clothes. She started the small coffeemaker on the kitchen counter and put her groceries away in the fridge.

She sank back on the bed’s fluffy comforter and breathed in the aroma of brewing coffee as she thawed out. She thought of her father and his new girlfriend and a more pleasant chill ran over her skin–the delicious feeling that she’d dodged a bullet.

She poured a mug of coffee, opened her laptop and started in on her report. By 4 pm, the cabin had darkened enough that she had to turn on the overhead light. Outside she heard the shouts and chatter of skiers returning from the slopes down the highway at Heavenly Valley.

At 6 pm, with a sense of satisfaction, she finished her spousal surveillance report and sent it off with an invoice to Mr. Drake Burgoine of Saratoga, California. He wouldn’t be pleased with the information. On the plus side, he’d certainly gotten his money’s worth.

As she looked out over the kitchen sink, windows glowed in the cabins beyond, squares of golden light in the blackness. She saw movement in them, and it filled her with loneliness. Armen didn’t talk much, but she missed having him around. She missed her single-mother neighbors and their quirky kids. The sounds of people and activity energized her. Being alone this Christmas had not been her first choice.

She rooted through the odd cassortment of pans in the kitchen cupboards and found a frying pan and a lid that fit. She would cook comfort food she’d made many times: rice pilaf with peppers, onions and chicken. It brought back memories of her mother, who’d taught her how to cook it while she was still in elementary school. She remembered the precise, steady rhythm of her mother cutting vegetables. The sad, ancient tune her mother hummed as she stirred the rice in butter.

She’d just sat down to eat when her cell phone rang. The manager in the resort office.

“A storm’s coming in at midnight. Foot of snow tonight, more tomorrow. There’s a good chance we’ll lose power. They’re closing 50, just so’s you know, hon. Through tomorrow, maybe Christmas.”

What had seemed like a refreshing getaway was turning claustrophobic. She wasn’t about to be stuck in the dark in a strange place in a blackout. After dinner, she put on her dry, warm coat and headed for her car to get a flashlight.

She pulled her snow hat down to cover her stinging ears as she trudged to the parking lot. She slipped the flashlight into her pocket, locked her car and headed back to the cabin. Her footprints from five minutes ago were filling in with snow.

In the howl of the wind, she heard a low rustling near the path. Then a sound that made her scalp prickle. A moan. Almost a yowl. Like the sound cats made in the alley next to the fourplex in San Jose. Mournful and vaguely human.

In the howl of the wind, she heard a low rustling near the path. Then something that made her scalp prickle.

Cats roaming among the cabins. Nothing to worry about. Still, she found herself walking faster through the deepening snow till she came to the end of the path and her door. She shut the door against the wind and turned the lock and deadbolt.

Then she went to her suitcase and slid her hand inside the inner pocket. The Glock was still there.

At some point in the night, a load of snow must have fallen from the trees above. A loud klumpf above her head woke her up.

She realized the clock had stopped ticking.

*    *    *

Grey light filtering in from the kitchen window woke her.

The clock was ticking again, though by the hands on the clock, power had only come back on an hour ago. The room was freezing.

She heard a ping from her phone and picked it up from the nightstand to see the text:

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE, MOM!
Btw dad got me a new game console

He gave it to me early so I have more time to play it here

Bee smiled at the greeting, then just as quickly felt a flash of anger at David, her software programmer ex-husband. Armen did not need another device on which to play games.

She huddled under the warm covers, looking up Caltrans road conditions. They confirmed what the resort manager told her. Hwy 50 would be closed through Christmas.

At 7:15, after heating coffee up in the microwave, she bundled up, laced up her snow boots, and headed outside to explore.

There was a lull in the storm. She stepped off the small front porch and immediately plunged knee high into a drift of snow. Stepping out of it carefully, she made her way to the side of the cabin. She wanted to see if she could spot anything on the roof, an explanation for the noise last night. All she could see was snow on the back side of the roof, through which a vent poked its hatted head.

The cabins and resort grounds were still. With the weather report, everyone had decided to sleep in. The air smelled of wood smoke, and somewhere nearby, bacon. White covered everything, pristine and new. Noiseless. The thick blanket seemed to deaden all sound.

Then, as she made her way toward the office, a volley of gunshots shattered it all.

Bee froze in place, then lurched through the snow as fast as she could toward the front of the resort. She peered into the window of the office. All lights off. She tried the door. Locked.

As she made her way back to her cabin, she saw a lanky man in his late 40s, calmly securing skis to the rack on his Jeep. He looked in her direction and nodded.

“Sounds just like gunshots, doesn’t it? They’re clearing the slopes. They set off charges to reduce the risk of avalanche. I thought the same thing when I first heard it. Scared the shit out of me.”

 Anxiety drained from her limbs.

“Thanks for the tip. I’m not a skier.” She watched him load suitcases into the back of the vehicle and thought it seemed like a lot of luggage for one person. “You leaving today? I thought 50 was closed.”

“There’s a chance 80 will open up. I’m heading North to try and catch the window. I travel through here on business. I get used to being flexible.” The man nodded and began scraping ice off his windshield. “Good luck.”

Bee walked the grounds, keeping near the trees where the snow was less deep. When the office opened, she’d ask about a place for breakfast. Someplace off this stretch of Hwy 50 that she could walk to. A place that served bacon.

By the time she’d completed the path that wound through the cabins, the office was open. The place was warm and cozy, with the beginnings of a fire in the grate. Christmas carols from a radio station played in the background. Straight Teeth was on the phone taking a reservation. He winked, a gesture Bee never understood the meaning of but always found suspect. He held up a hand to show he’d be off the phone soon.

Through the large window, Bee watched the Jeep roar out of the parking lot and turn onto the highway.

“What can I do for you, Miss Be—Bedderson?” People mangled her Armenian name every day. She was used to it.

“Can you recommend any breakfast places I can walk to?” She gave him a friendly smile, an apology for pouncing on his wife’s mistake yesterday. “It’s Bedrosian.”

He pulled out a map and marked some nearby spots along 50.

“The wife usually makes the recommendations. She’s out getting groceries before the storm starts up again. There’s a coffee place down on the corner—they serve pastries. And a nice sit-down restaurant with full breakfasts across the street.”

Bee thanked him and walked out into the cold.

After eggs and bacon at the sit-down place, Bee walked back on the path next to highway, just as flakes began to fall. By the time she reached her cabin, the flurries had begun. She opened the door, eager for warmth.

As she closed the door behind her, she felt it. Someone had been in her cabin.

As she closed the door behind her, she felt it. Someone had been in her cabin.

She scanned the room, looking for anything missing or disturbed. Her heart pounding, she slid her hand into the suitcase. Stupid of her to have left it.  She relaxed as her fingers wrapped around the Glock. She transferred it to her pants pocket. She checked the desk drawer. Her laptop was still there.

She went through the kitchen, scanned every surface, and looked through any personal items she’d brought. All accounted for.

The bathroom pocket door was slid halfway closed. It looked crooked. This was something she dealt with regularly in her apartment. She lifted it up with both hands till it realigned on its track, and she was able to slide it open.

She felt a rush of frozen air. The bathroom window was wide open.

As she went to shut it, she looked down and saw grey hair splayed across the snow below. A pair of open eyes, lashes clumped with snowflakes, looked back at her.

*     *     *    

It took Bee several tries to get through. She had one bar.

The 911 dispatcher told her the police would be delayed, due to a multi-car accident on Lake Parkway and the difficulty of getting through town until the plows came through.

Bee took a photo on her phone of a muddy partial footprint on the window frame. Then went outside, around the back of the cabin to the woman lying in the snow. Bee could see the holes in the woman’s puffy jacket. Blood poured out, still warm enough to melt the snow. She hadn’t been dead long.

Bee sat back on her heels and looked around her. The snow-covered stretch behind the cabin looked like the dumping grounds for everything the resort wanted to hide:  rusted bikes, a ladder, flattened cardboard Costco toilet paper boxes, and a metal filing cabinet, one of its drawers jutting open like a jaw.

And of course, the body of the manager’s wife.

When Bee heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow, she pulled out the Glock.

“I should have known you were law enforcement or security.” The voice was familiar. There was a smile in it, but not a friendly one. “You had the look.”

The tall man with the Jeep stood to her right, and she heard him cocking his gun. He had a foot and a good 50 pounds on her.

“Give me the gun. You’re going help me get something off the roof.” He angled his head. His breath freezing in the air looked like smoke. “If you help me, I’ll shoot you in the leg and not the chest.”

“If you help me, I’ll shoot you in the leg and not the chest.”

Bee tossed the Glock and watched it sink into the snow next to him. She listened for the sound of police sirens. Nothing.

With his gun turned on her, Bee pulled the ladder out of the pile of debris, her fingers stinging with the cold. With great effort and no help from him, she pulled at the rusty ladder till it wrenched open with a creak. She set it down in the snow on the side of the cabin and waited for him to climb it.

“You shitting me? You’re the one going up.”  He spat the words out, then handed her a rake. “You’re gonna need this.”

“I have no idea what I’m looking for.” Her gloveless fingers ached from the cold.

“There’s a package in the snow. Near the vent.”

She climbed, one hand gripping the side of the ladder, one holding the rake. She stood on the last rung and felt the ladder sway beneath her. She laid her forearm over the edge of the roof to steady herself, then slowly extended the end of rake toward the vent and pulled back. Her leverage was not good. She brushed the top of the clump and the rake flopped to one side.

“Why is this so hard for you?” His speech sounded slurred and unnaturally fast, like someone on amphetamines. “Hurry up.”

Bee gripped the rake harder and laid it next to the vent, feeling the weight of something substantial as she pulled it back. A bundle. Wrapped in cloth and sealed in a large zip lock bag.

She turned to hand it down to him. Once it left her hands, she felt a jolt beneath her feet. The ladder fell away and she toppled into the fresh snow, which wrapped around her like a fluffy comforter. So soft, it flooded her with relief.

Until the ladder hit her.

In the daze of that moment, she punched 911 into her phone. His California license plate was displayed in her head, captured like a screen shot. She recited the number for the dispatcher.

Then she sank back into the comforter and everything went dark.

*     *     *

Three days later, with a hospital pamphlet on concussion care, Bee drove back to San Jose. David had just dropped off Armen, who agreed to leave his game system in the box while he spent the evening with his mom watching Elf.

“The guy kicked the ladder.” Armen stuck a straw into a bottle of Dr. Pepper, his drink of choice. “At least he didn’t shoot you. Who was he anyway?”

“I found out his name is Logan Warner. He distributed fentanyl – a very bad drug you should never take – through Nevada and the Sacramento area. Since the resort didn’t usually rent my cabin, he had been storing shipments there before he delivered them. Apparently he hid them in the closet under the extra blankets.”

“Why did he shoot the manager’s wife?”

 “She caught him going through the bathroom window of my cabin. The Stateline police told me they were able to catch him in Reno about an hour after he left.”

“If he shot her, why didn’t he shoot you, mayrig?” He used the Armenian word for mom, which made her tear up a little.

“Maybe grandma was watching over me.”

Armen looked at her in awe. To this point, no aspect of her PI work had ever seemed to penetrate his impassive teenaged exterior to get a response.

Now he stared at her, his brown eyes shiny with a combination of fear and respect.

“I don’t even do stuff like that in games.”

¨¨¨

Copyright, Victoria Kazarian 2020

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