NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge
Assignment: 1,000 words
Location: A recording studio
Object: Cheddar cheese
Cassandra Lane loved solving murders.
She wasn’t a detective, but she was the next best thing: an audiobook narrator specializing in murder mysteries. Over the past twelve years, she’d narrated hundreds of books about everything from murderous housewives to vengeful ghosts, and Cass adored every one.
Cass was on her way to the recording studio to meet with Detective Jack Nunez about Annabelle Stone, her biggest client. She released a new novel every year, and Cass had narrated eight of them. They tended to be grisly, but Cass loved them because they were smart. Annabelle’s books were not predictable, no matter how many of them you read.
Annabelle had just completed her sixteenth novel, and though she hadn’t confirmed or denied it, this was rumored to be her last book.
It made sense. In Nothing but the Truth, Annabelle had killed off all three of her main characters and sent Norah Haughton, the strappy, whip-smart detective that played the leading role in all sixteen of her novels, off to the beach in retirement. That had pissed off her fans, of course. Cass wondered if Annabelle cared.
But she’d never know because Annabelle Stone was dead. Presumed dead, at least. No one had seen her or spoken to her in almost two months, and her silver Honda Prelude was found abandoned on the side of the road, her wallet discarded on the backseat.
Cass had taken a few weeks off, mostly to stay out of the way of the investigation going on at the recording studio. She hadn’t seen it, but the gruesome details of the crime scene—blood scattered throughout the studio, the contents of Stone’s purse dumped on the floor, wallet and car keys missing—had been published in the paper. It was straight out of one of Annabelle’s novels.
After they found the missing car and wallet but no body, Cass went back to work. She owed it to Annabelle to finish recording Nothing but the Truth. Detective Nunez had jumped on the opportunity to question her again.
“So, what . . . you think she staged her own murder?” Detective Nunez sounded doubtful.
“I know it’s a crazy idea. It’s this book.”
Cass had resumed recording Nothing but the Truth, and it wasn’t long before she found herself looking for clues. Crazy as it was, she thought she might have found something.
In the final scene, Norah, Annabelle’s flinty detective, kicks back on some unnamed beach in Central America, surrounded by crowds of beachgoers, sipping a martini and sampling little squares of cheddar cheese from an enormous charcuterie platter. It was very unlike her. The character detested crowds, adamantly limited her exposure to the sun, and restricted herself to a vegan diet that did not include alcohol or dairy.
Norah hears her phone ring. It’s her daughter calling over Facetime. Norah hesitates only a moment before answering.
“Mom?” Bea asks, sounding scared. “Why haven’t you been answering your phone?” The events leading up to this scene had Detective Norah wrapping up a particularly horrific investigation that left three of her colleagues dead. No one had heard from her since. “Are you on the beach?” It wasn’t hard for Cass to relay the incredulity in Bea’s voice when she’d recorded the line—she could hardly believe it herself. “You hate the beach!”
Norah pauses, “Hon, I’m sixty-three years old. I’ve seen a lot of horrible things. It’s time I start enjoying some of the things I hate and letting go of some of the things I love.”
“Okay,” Bea responds, holding back tears. “But when will I see you again?”
“Come see me anytime. Do you remember the one place I hated when you were growing up? Where your father insisted we go every summer?”
Bea laughs through her tears. “I remember. It’ll take me a couple of days, but I’ll be there.”
“Good,” Norah says, and hangs up. And that was the end: an aging woman relaxing on a beach and enjoying her well-earned retirement over a martini and a platter of cheese.
After Annabelle’s disappearance, Cass couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to that final scene than she had originally thought. Especially because—like Bea—Cass knew exactly what beach Norah was referring to.
When Cass was first hired to work on book eight, she’d received an advanced copy along with a postcard from Annabelle. The inscription on the photo said San Pedro, Belize, and the single sentence scrawled on the back read, “If I ever die, bury me here.”
Cass told Detective Nunez none of this. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s crazy. I’m just having a hard time letting her go.”
Three days later, Cass sat on a beach in Belize, sipping martinis with Annabelle Stone.
“What about the blood?” Cass asked.
“What about it?” Though Annabelle was pushing seventy, she looked sharp in a black one-piece bathing suit, a large sun hat covering her steel-gray hair, oversized sunglasses obscuring her dark features.
“It matched your DNA. How did you pull that off?”
“It was mine! I spent a month fighting my phobia of blood to get enough of it out of myself to splatter around that damn studio. I nearly fainted—twice.”
“You—you’re afraid of blood?”
“Ever since I was a child and watched my brother cut his little finger off on a chop saw.” Annabelle shuddered.
Cass was speechless. The idea that Annabelle Stone—famous author of slasher mysteries—was afraid of blood was possibly the most ridiculous part of this whole thing.
“You can’t tell anyone,” Annabelle said. “This is my life now.”
“What about your fans? Don’t they deserve to know what’s happened to you?”
“Are you kidding? I gave them exactly what they wanted: an unsolved mystery. You can’t get much better than that.” Annabelle offered Cass the charcuterie platter.
Cass grinned at Annabelle and popped a square of cheddar cheese into her mouth. “You’re right. It’s the perfect ending.”