Olivia Penn scanned the serene, dark water of Lake Crystal and imagined floating, allowing the surface tension to conform to her body like memory foam. This time last year, she had probably been hustling to grab a pastry and a double shot of espresso for a quick lunch with work colleagues in Georgetown. Routines had regimented her days, and flow charts had depicted her daily schedules. So much had changed.
She had returned to her hometown of Apple Station, Virginia, five months ago to visit her father before a planned relocation to New York. That life seemed distant now. She had eased into days such as this without regret or difficulty. Though her long-term plans still were unclear, she felt more like herself than she had for some time.
Buddy, her father’s beagle puppy, ambled close by her side, secured by a red leash dangling casually from her fingertips. She and her forever friend A.J. had finished their picnic lunch and were walking around the lakefront back to her Expedition to pack up and return to their respective workdays. Inseparable in childhood and now in their thirties, she and A.J. had grown up as neighbors. Each was an only child, and they had become like siblings. A.J. was tall and athletic, and when they were kids, he always encouraged her to tag along when he met with his schoolmates to play pick-up games of soccer and football on the town square. Her agility and quick-thinking made her an asset, regardless of the sport, and she often was selected as a team member even before some of A.J.’s slightly older friends. Now, instead of playing games, they fueled their friendship with these occasional noontime Monday lunch excursions. They always tried to eat outside, but as fall had swept in, the coming, cooler winter days soon would keep their catch-up sessions to cozier confines.
Lake Crystal State Park was located twenty minutes from the heart of Apple Station. The eponymous lake was expansive and accessed from the park’s front side by a trail that cut through woodland. The lake, though, wasn’t visible from the entrance, where the playground, pavilions, and picnic tables were more conveniently staged. Dense forest filled with yellow poplar, white oak, and red maple trees separated the areas and isolated the lake.
On weekends, there was a constant back-and-forth flow of visitors from the lot to the lake, but on this crisp Monday afternoon, she and A.J. had the park mostly to themselves. The only other person they had even noticed was a man standing at the end of a nearby dock, inspecting the kayak launch port.
The dock had been a fixture for as long as Olivia could remember. As a child, she was among the fearless who used the thirty-yard platform as a runway to generate speed and cannonball into the lake. She and A.J. would dash down the dock, holding hands while counting the seconds to their daring leaps. The dock lacked guards or rails, and it had seen better days. Worn, horizontal slats of pressure-treated pine creaked and moaned on their own, even without applied weight. Some wanted it removed, others wanted it replaced. Patchwork repairs, though, were the best the park authority’s budget could do, and so it remained.
Buddy sniffed his way to the water’s edge. Olivia loosened her hold on the leash, letting out some slack and allowing him to linger, as she was in no hurry to get back to writing for her advice column. When she had worked at her office in Washington, D.C., she had been hyper-efficient in churning out her columns. She could sit for hours tapping away on her keyboard, unaware of how much time had passed until her body grumbled, protesting with an achy neck and a tired, sore back. Now that she was working remotely, there always seemed to be a distraction.
A.J. set the tote bag containing their trash and lunch wares on the ground and then grabbed a smooth stone about half the size of a clementine from the shore’s edge. He reeled his arm back and slung the stone fast and low toward the lake’s surface. Skip-skip-skip-skip.
“You were always pretty good at that,” Olivia said.
He offered a theatrical bow. “I would challenge you to a duel, but it wouldn’t be sporting of me to take advantage of your frail arm. I’m sure you’re still rusty from the break.”
She playfully bristled at his faux chivalry and switched the leash to her left hand. “My wrist is right as rain, stronger than ever. I pity the fool who thinks otherwise. Game on.” She selected a perfect triangular stone, about the size of her palm. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She drew her arm back and flung the stone as hard as she could. Skip-skip.
A.J. applauded her with an encouraging, Rudy-inspired slow clap. “Bravo, bravo.” He haphazardly plucked another stone from the shore and slung it, repeating his performance, while adding a bonus skip for flair.
“I give up,” she said. “I concede you’re a better rock skipper. Congratulations.”
“I want that recorded, so I can make it your ringtone.”
She lightly shoved his shoulder. “Sometimes, you’re extremely strange.”
Buddy was minding his business, uninterested in the playful competition between two of his best friends. The man on the dock tested the kayak lift, cranking the handle, and then walked back toward the shore, stopping every few feet to take pictures of the water with his cell. A slight breeze rustled the treetops, and a flurry of crimson, yellow, and orange leaves fluttered to the ground. Soon, decay would litter the trail through the forest, the beauty of the fall colors fading as the leaves dried and died.
“I can’t believe Halloween is on Friday,” she said.
A.J. nodded. “You remember that time when we were kids, and we went trick-or-treating dressed as Bonnie and Clyde?”
“How could I forget? Nobody got it.”
“We definitely looked more like newsies than gangsters,” he said.
The man who had been on the dock walked past them, smiling politely as they exchanged cursory hellos.
“I love everything about fall,” A.J. said. “Pumpkin pie, thanksgiving, pecan pie, hot cider, apple pie.”
“I’m sensing a theme. It sure doesn’t smell like any of those things here. What’s that stench?”
“Dead fish.” A.J. pointed to where Buddy was standing, staring at five fish floating on their sides. “There’s a bloom starting.”
She stepped closer to the lake’s edge as Buddy ceded his front row view of the crime scene. “Algae? I don’t remember that happening here before.”
“That’s because you haven’t lived here for the past ten years. Blooms pop up, especially in the summer when the water is warm. There was one in Lake Anna in August.”
Olivia steered Buddy away from the edge. “Let’s get away from there, little guy.” She reached into the tote bag’s side pocket and retrieved his favorite red ball. Buddy vigorously wagged his tail and barked, noting his approval for what she had in mind. She unclipped his leash, stood tall, cocked her arm back, and faked tossing the ball toward the trail through the trees. Buddy’s eyes tracked the flight path the ball should’ve taken, but he didn’t budge. She squatted, hiding his toy behind her back, and rubbed under his chin. “Where’d it go? Did you see it?”
He barked again, and she revealed the ball. “Look what I found.” She stood and threw it for real this time, clear to the forest line.
“I bet that’s why that guy is here,” A.J. said.
She brushed her hands on her quick-dry hiking pants, wiping off Buddy’s slobber that had transferred from the ball. “The one who passed us?”
“Yeah. Did you notice his jacket?”
“It was really bright yellow.”
He shook his head. “You’re a regular Nancy Drew. I meant the insignia, VDEQ.”
She coiled Buddy’s leash and stuffed it into her back pocket. “Should that mean something to me?”
“Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. In September, Whispering Meadows Country Club hired me to install silt fencing around several project sites. They were upgrading the clubhouse and doing underground maintenance work on several of the fairways. Before I could start, they had to get permits from that agency.” He picked up the tote bag and slung it over his shoulder. “You wanna head back?” he asked.
“Yeah. Let’s get away from this stench.”
Buddy bounded back toward them as they made their way to the trail leading to the park’s front side. The path was only about forty yards long, and years of frequent foot traffic had worn it smooth. Prominent signs on both ends prohibited the passage of motorized vehicles, horses, and bicycles. Buddy lolloped a few feet ahead of them, stopped, and dropped his ball.
She picked it up and glanced behind her. “Last one, Buddy. Make it count.” She threw the ball back toward the lake side of the trail, and then they kept walking.
“You still want to go with me to visit Mary next week?” A.J. asked.
“Sure. Let me know when.”
After A.J. reunited with his aunt last May, he had frequently visited her at the home she shared with her daughter Hope and son-in-law Able. Olivia often accompanied him on the forty-five-minute drive, and sometimes Mary would invite them to Sunday dinners. Olivia had helped A.J. reconnect to his past, and Mary had done the same for her.
They exited the trail and strolled the short distance across the grass to her Expedition. A park ranger’s SUV and a white pickup with the VDEQ insignia were the only other vehicles in the lot. The man from the dock had removed his yellow safety jacket and was leaning against his truck and talking on his cell, gesturing as if giving directions to some place that was far off and to his right. A small orange kayak, secured by ropes and bungee cords, protruded from the bed of his truck, and a silver metallic case was perched on the opened tailgate.
Olivia looked back for Buddy, expecting him to be close behind, but he hadn’t emerged from the trail. She unlocked the Expedition. “Can you throw that tote inside? Looks like Buddy is goofing off. I’ll go get him.”
A.J. opened the front passenger side door and tossed the bag on the floor well. “Hold on, Liv. I’m coming with.” He slammed the door shut and jogged a few strides to catch up.
Buddy was resting on his hind legs near the opposite end of the trail. “Come on, Buddy,” she yelled. “Let’s go home.” She turned to A.J. and lowered her voice. “How has work been? Not too strange being back in that office?”
“I thought it would be at first, but now that it’s my construction company with my name, it feels totally different.” Once an underpaid employee of a general contractor, A.J. recently had leased the suite in town that his former boss had used to run his business.
She glanced back at Buddy, who hadn’t budged, as a child wearing a red jacket dashed behind him across the clearing.
“Whoa! Did you see that?” she said.
She set off, briskly striding back toward the lake. “A little boy just ran right behind Buddy.”
“Where are you going, Liv? I’ll go get Buddy. You stay here.”
“Did you hear what I just said?”
“Okay. You saw a child. Not quite the eighth wonder of the world. I’m sure he’s with someone.”
She quickened her pace. “I’m not seeing anyone else, and why was he running?”
A sharp breeze whipped and whirled along the trail, scattering the dead, fallen leaves to and fro across the ground. The treetops bowed, and the weakest branches bent as a gunshot shattered the silence.