BVC Announces Orcas Illusion by Laura Gayle

Orcas Illusion by Laura Gayle
Orcas Illusion

The Chameleon Chronicles 4
by Laura Gayle

CAMILLE TATE HAS FINALLY FOUND HER STRIDE…

…but is it all an illusion?


Just when life should finally be settling down for Cam, new challenges arrive to knock her off balance again.

Lisa Cannon has returned after being off island all winter, and Cam is both excited to be her new personal assistant, and nervous about showing her the play she’s written. But Lisa’s return is accompanied by much more trouble than that.

JoJo Brixton, that charming rascal, is back, and determined to win Cam’s forgiveness with his usual blend of humor, insouciance, and charm. Then there’s Colin, who has had just about enough of the friend zone. Kevin and his Intruder, Paige Berry and her air of mystery, pets, raccoons and play revisions add plenty of chaos too. But then a stranger comes prowling, a friend falls deathly ill, and Cam finds herself embroiled in Orcas intrigue again.

When Cam and her friend Jen in deep to resolve all these mysteries, both the law and other more shadowy figures go to surprising lengths to keep these “amateurs” out of their business, and away from the truth.

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Chapter 1

Seemed like I was always moving house.

Since I’d moved to Orcas Island last November, I’d lived two—well, three—okay, technically four—different places, and now I was packing up to find new digs again.

Two of those places had only been for a night or two: the Brixton main house, my first two nights; and Jen’s place, when I was recovering from my kidnapping and gunshot wound.

But now I was leaving the house I’d been in the longest: Lisa Cannon’s. Which wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In fact, I was actually pretty excited, because of the reason I was moving out: Lisa was coming back!

At long last, nearly four months after she’d left, she was returning to her home on Orcas, where I’d been caretaking.

Today was the first of April, so it might just have been an April Fool’s joke—but I kind of didn’t think so. The “fooling” had already gone on all winter, as Lisa had repeatedly let me know of her impending arrival, then canceled at the last minute due to more vague, unspecified complications back in Bermuda, or Seattle, or South Dakota, or wherever else all her vague, unspecified business had taken her these last few months. “I’ll bring you in the loop, Cam, I promise,” she’d said any number of times. “If you’re going to be my assistant, you’ll need to know all these things. But not right now—it’s better done in person, and besides, I have to scoot!”

And she’d just kept on scooting while I went on caretaking. Taking care. Taking care of her large, fancy, yet comfortable home perched high over the rocky beach of Massacre Bay.

At first, there had been some actual caretaking to do, as I oversaw the repair of that broken water heater, and the reconstruction of a good deal of floor and part of a wall that had been damaged in the resulting flood. And of course there’d also been the repair of the garage door opener, which had mysteriously broken at the same time—all under the feeble supervision of Marie, Lisa’s previous caretaker—who was now caretaking next door. For the Brixtons. My old employers.

Backstabbing, job snatching; it was a regular little Gossip Girl around here.

Marie, who had not in fact left the island after all (despite having told Lisa that she had), was continuing to suffer—or create—all kinds of dramas and emergencies over there, though things had finally settled down in the last month or so. I had more or less trained her to take over there after JoJo, that dark-hearted traitor, had vanished just as soon as he’d gotten me fired. Well, yes, I’d quit, technically, but only to have the satisfaction of doing it before Diana Brixton could fire me, because she had been so going to fire me, if I hadn’t.

Since all that dust had settled, I had been living in this nice house, playing with my cat and raising my rabbit…and writing my play—which was done now!

I’d written the final scene a week and a half ago, then reread the whole thing, resisting the urge to tear it apart and reshape it yet again. I had to admit to myself that it was actually pretty good.

At least, I hoped so. The true test would come when Lisa read it.

Lisa, who coincidentally was now actually on a ferry, heading to the island!

Which was why I had to move again. Yes, there were plenty of bedrooms in this house, but I’d learned by now that caretakers don’t live in main houses with their employers. Diana Brixton had been fairly opaque about her guesthouse before I arrived, so I’d spent a few nights trying to make myself at home in her huge McMansion before I found the appealingly cozy place Marie was currently occupying. I hadn’t known that was a thing, here, the separate quarters, but Lisa had blithely assumed that I would choose one of the several guesthouses on her property. “Just look around and see where you think you might feel most comfortable,” she’d told me. “It’s entirely up to you.”

But I’d put it off, and put it off, and put it off, rationalizing that Lisa’s house needed to stay occupied—what if the water heater broke again? Or something else? Now I couldn’t put it off any longer. She’d texted me from the ferry line. It was really happening this time.

She’d probably have let me stay in the big house with her, if I begged. But I didn’t want to appear pathetic to my newish employer.

“Come on, James,” I said to my cat—no longer a kitten, my orange beast had achieved what I at least hoped was his full height, though he was still scrawny as a stray, despite all he ate. I’d even had him tested for worms, though Marliese, the vet, assured me he was just a growing boy.

“All teenage boys are like this,” she’d said, “whether human or feline.”

My brother had been a relentless eating machine in his teen years, too, so she was probably right. “As long as you’re sure I’m not starving him or anything,” I’d said to Marliese. But I was relieved to know James was healthy. Healthy, and hyperactive, just a bundle of broomsticks covered in fur, all whiskers and legs and sharp claws, with an inquisitive nose poked into everything I tried to eat, or read, or wear. Yes, he was more and more like my brother as a teenager, though I missed my brother. How did that happen?

“Let’s go figure out our new home,” I said to James now as I headed to the front door.

He rose from Lisa’s white sofa, stretched ostentatiously, and jumped down to follow me.

I’d walked around the property before, of course, when I’d first moved in, and once or twice after that. I’d wanted to get a sense of the scope of my responsibilities, though a crew came in to take care of mowing, edging, pruning, trimming, beating back the growth of greenery in the Pacific Northwest. And, honestly, I’d been sneaking around Lisa’s property ever since I’d arrived on Orcas, one way or another. I’d even fled a kidnapper across her lot. It was nicer to explore the entire property in broad daylight, with no fear of being chased, or of accidentally erasing myself by chameleoning. It was nicer still to get paid to snoop around.

It took some time to explore it all. I had walked the beach just for fun. Imagine, fifty-plus yards of waterfront, all to yourself. Lisa had something like ten acres—two lots, undivided by a fence of any kind. Some of these structures still gave me the creeps. I’d escaped from one of them in the dark of night, though I still wasn’t really sure which one it had been.

I was fairly sure it wasn’t the biggest guesthouse. I would start there.

I headed down the path through the woods, heading away from the Brixton estate. Another point in its favor. Neither Diana herself, nor either of her eccentric offspring, had been back to Orcas Island since our falling out. Even so, I wanted to stay as far from my old digs, my old job, and my old employers as possible. Marie was welcome to them all. I still had issues with Marie, I just couldn’t help it.

James and I hiked up to the big guesthouse with its own driveway down from Deer Harbor Road, and a newer path from Lisa’s house. My boots squelched in the mud; it had been raining for weeks now, only clearing up long enough to gather its breath for another downpour. The Pacific Northwet indeed.

Cats aren’t supposed to like water, but the muck didn’t seem to bother my cat. He’d never known anything else, had he? He darted into and out of the woods, returning at one point with a dead leaf on his nose. “James, you’re such a goofball,” I said, leaning down and flicking it off. He darted away again, this time up to the front steps of the guesthouse.

I should have been checking on these houses more regularly, I supposed, but the few times I had, there’d been nothing broken, or leaking, or damaged; no dangling roof gutters or raccoon break-ins; just empty houses in the woods. This one had the advantage of a nice, dry little attached one-car garage to park in, and of course the privacy of its separate driveway. Not that I really craved more privacy…honestly, I was going sort of crazy, waiting for Lisa to come back.

I pulled the set of keys out of my pocket and opened the door, wiping my boots on the mat as James ran in ahead of me, hopefully not leaving muddy little paw prints all over everything behind him. The air inside the house was clammy and cold, so I checked the thermostat. Hm, it was off. I cranked it up a bit. I could hear the electric baseboard heaters come to life, and smell the strangely comforting smell of heated dust as I explored.

It was about the same size as the Brixtons’ guesthouse, though much older. It had a comfy-looking living room with a retro freestanding fireplace, a dining area with a door that led to the attached garage (with a washer and dryer against one wall, that was nice), and a kitchen with avocado green appliances. I opened the fridge, flicked some pushbuttons on the stove. The chill in one and heat from the other let me know that, yes, these relics were still fully functional. I tried to imagine cooking in here.

Hm. Not so sure.

I turned off the stove, and went down a short hallway that led to three tiny identical bedrooms, each with a double bed, and a tiny bathroom decked out in pink ceramic tiles. I walked through the house wondering, Could I live here? It was a little boxy, bland (except for that bathroom tile) if efficiently laid out, probably built in the 1950s. It had all the necessary comforts, down to the heavy old Revereware pots in the kitchen and stacks of clean sheets set on the foot of each bed.

But it felt like a vacation house for rent by the week, not like a home.

“Gee, spoiled much?” I muttered at myself. If I’d seen this tidy little house when I’d been fresh off the boat from Seattle, I’d have thought I’d died and gone to mid-century heaven. But I’d just spent the winter in a multi-million-dollar mansion with sweeping bay views and a dozen bedrooms, a professional-grade kitchen, and a wine cellar suitable for any five-star restaurant.

“Well, might as well look at all the options,” I told James. I made sure everything was turned off, shut down and locked up, and James and I continued our exploratory mission.

I thought, as I walked, how much I’d have enjoyed looking at these with my mom. Not my birth mother, whom I avoid thinking of, but my foster mom, who’d raised me, and who wanted to fly me home for Easter. I’d made excuses. The play, Lisa’s imminent return(s). But the truth was, I felt rooted to Orcas now, and oddly afraid to leave.

I’d call Mom later, though, and tell her all about whichever place I ended up.

The next few buildings were just generous storage sheds, full of yard equipment and water items. Beyond them was a building I’d been avoiding since I’d first taken over. As I said before, I’d never really seen its exterior the night I’d been locked in a room there, in the dark. But I somehow knew. “I understand that one of them will have certain associations for you,” Lisa had said, and she was right: This was it. This was the place where Sheila had held me, that awful night. The place where sheer terror had forced me to intentionally chameleon for the first time.

Now I stood there, cultivating calm. Yes, I’d been imprisoned here, but this was where I’d freed myself. In forcing myself to chameleon, I had begun to take hold of my power—literally and symbolically—and saved my own life. My friends had come to save me, too, but in the moment of truth, my ability to vanish at will had given me the critical moments I’d needed to get past the gun-wielding Sheila and out of the house.

This house.

I stood at the doorway, keys in hand, unwilling to put them in the doorknob, much less go inside.

It was a plain, unassuming building, painted a dark Pacific Northwest forest green. One of the bedroom windows was covered with plywood. I’d probably been in that one, because not a sliver of light had reached me in there. All I could remember was a dank, sour smell and absolute pitch blackness.

The skin on my arms began to prickle, the telltale sign that I might chameleon. I rubbed them vigorously, and tried to calm my thumping heart.

“No one is here,” I said out loud. “This place is empty.”

This had been Sheila’s house, when she had been Lisa’s caretaker. It was probably THE caretaker quarters; the last house had obviously been for guests. Despite the boarded-up window, this place might be nice inside.

But Lisa had told me I could choose. So I chose to leave Sheila’s grubby old kidnapper-hovel undisturbed. I turned on my heel and walked away, not toward any destination, just in the direction of the water. The water was a fine place to let my brain finish disposing of that night’s events, and all the baggage that came of them.

Sheila had gone from missing to dead to not dead and in custody. She was exposed and incarcerated. She was being charged with who knows what, and I doubted she could ever make the bail they’d set. She couldn’t hurt me now. I was free, I was here, and I was safe.

I lifted my chin and watched the sun glint off the water through the trees. The ground was higher here, and I realized that I was still on sort of a trail, though I couldn’t really see where it led to through the trees.

James, of course, dashed ahead, losing himself around a corner. I’d pretty much stopped worrying about him in the woods. But exploring was my job this morning, right? So I followed along behind him, turning the corner myself, and stopped, surprised to discover a tiny A-frame cottage I had never known about. Just a boathouse, maybe? But no, boathouses weren’t perched at the top of a cliff a hundred feet above the water. And they were not nearly this cute.

I walked closer, wondering how I hadn’t known this was here. I was still on Lisa’s property, wasn’t I? Yes, of course I was; in fact I’d turned a bit closer to her house when I’d started heading for the water. So this was definitely hers.

I walked up to it, keys in hand—and yes, one of the keys I’d never used was labeled “cottage”. I tried it in the ornate, clearly hand-carved wooden door, and it worked.

“This is it,” I whispered, as the door swung open to the most adorable space I’d ever seen.

It was tiny, but seemed more than sufficient. Just one room, the back wall of which was a kitchen. The front wall was a kaleidoscope of windows of various sizes, even a few stained-glass ones, arranged in no discernible order. Deeper inside, a table and three wooden chairs sat under a sweet little window by the fridge; a loveseat and comfy chair were arranged by a wood-burning stove just inside the door closest to me. A ladder led to a sleeping loft at the back, above the kitchenette.

“Miaow?” James asked, looking up at me.

“You betcha, kid,” I told him, and stepped into our new home.

orca

The breakers had been turned off. I switched them on and soon ascertained that everything was in working order—tiny stove, narrow fridge, charming lights. A generous stack of firewood sat on the porch beside the front door, complete with cedar kindling and even a pile of old newspapers, all dry under the deep overhang. I was tempted to light a fire, but thought I probably shouldn’t until I was ready to stay here and tend it. Who knew when the stovepipe had last been cleaned? Fortunately, there was also a tiny electric wall heater, which made the small space cozy within a few minutes.

I climbed the ladder to the loft. The triangular roof’s apex left just enough room for the bed—a mattress and box spring set directly on the floor. The mattress label said McRoskey. I didn’t recognize the brand, but it felt very nice when I sat down it. Behind me, James sneezed; I hadn’t even heard him climb the ladder. Or even realized cats could climb ladders.

“What do you think, dude?” I asked him.

He jumped up onto the bed, turned around three times, then lay down and started purring.

“I guess we’re home.”

I climbed back down and found a small closet under the ladder. There were folded sheets, down comforters and pillows, plus kitchen towels and—oh, bath towels.

So…where was the bathroom?

I felt my heart sink. This was the most adorable little dwelling I’d ever seen in my entire life, but if I had to use an outhouse…

Then another little door caught my eye, snuck in on the other side of the fridge from the ladder. I opened it and—sure enough! The bathroom was ship-small, an add-on behind the main structure, but it had everything I needed. I breathed a sigh of relief, but before I could check to see if the water was on, my phone chimed with a text. I pulled it out of my pocket, and found a message from Lisa: Docking now! See you in 15 minutes.

Yikes, I’d taken longer than I’d thought. I started to close the phone and head back to the main house, then glanced back at the screen in disbelief.

Four bars??

I’d changed service providers after asking my local friends how they always had reception when I didn’t, yet mine still hadn’t improved that much.

But this sweet little cabin on the point had robust cell service! Yep, this was the place. I took a quick 360-degree view of it with my phone to send to my mom, so she’d know where I was going to be staying—which I’d have to send later.

Lisa was almost home!

“James? You staying?” I called up to him. I could see only a flick of orange tail over the loft rail in reply. “All right,” I said. “Don’t pee on my new bed.” I wondered if I should leave the door ajar for him, but I didn’t want to lose all the heat just getting established. He’d be good; he hadn’t had an accident in the house since we’d moved to the Cannon estate.

I wrote Lisa a quick reply—Great!—as I headed back through the woods to her house. The tiny cottage was even closer than I’d realized; I’d taken a circuitous route to get here. This was just so perfect. I could be right nearby but also completely private. Lisa would never know I was here either, until she needed me.

I would have wondered why Sheila hadn’t lived in this sweet little cottage—but of course weird, gruff, spooky Sheila would have chosen the weird, gruff, spooky house.

After rounding the corner of Lisa’s house, I paused to punch in the code on the keypad to reassure myself that the garage door still opened and closed as it should, then headed on to her house. Just inside the front door was the neat stack of things I’d gathered up before going house hunting. Everything I owned was in this pile. Except for Master Bun, of course, still ensconced in his hutch on the back deck. I would have to figure out where to put that…soon. Was there time to carry a load of my stuff over to the cottage before Lisa arrived? Probably not, so I set it where Lisa wouldn’t trip over it on her way in.

I stood in the entryway, looking left into the kitchen and then down the few steps into the living room, trying to see the place through her eyes. I’d kept it tidy while I’d lived here, of course, and had done a deeper cleaning-and-straightening each time she’d told me she was coming back—it was all in good shape. Still, I bounced on my heels a bit, nervous.

This would be the first time I’d seen Lisa since she’d changed my life so utterly last December. That had all happened so fast. What if she changed her mind? What if she got here and decided I hadn’t done the job well enough to merit the ridiculous salary she’d kept sending into my account since then?

Stop it, Cam, I told myself. Everything’s fine, and you like Lisa, and she likes you, and stop making problems where there aren’t any.

It wasn’t easy. I was so familiar with problems, it was hard to get used to their absence.

I was still wandering from room to room checking things when I heard the rumble of the garage door. My heart sped up, and my skin began to tingle. No you don’t, I told myself fiercely, rubbing my arms to soothe them. This is Lisa, and everything is fine. I had clearly become too much of a hermit if even Lisa’s return alarmed me this badly. I shrugged my shoulders hard, pasted a brave smile on my face, and stepped out the front door to greet her.

I didn’t recognize the car pulling into her garage—tiny and blue, with a hard top that looked like it would be removable—but whatever anxiety I’d been feeling vanished as Lisa stepped out of it like a familiar breath of longed-for fresh air. My skin settled right down as Lisa brushed her perfectly tousled hair out of her eyes and gave me her warm smile.

“Cam! Oh, it is so good to see you.”

“You too! Do you need, um, help with anything?” If she had luggage or supplies in that wee little car, I had no idea where they were stashed.

She laughed, gentle and tinkling. I had missed that laugh! It gave me a happy pang to hear it. “No, dear, I keep what I need in the house so I never have to pack much.” She followed my gaze to the car. “Do you like it? I thought I needed a treat after everything I’ve been through. It’ll be fun when the weather gets warm.”

“It’s adorable!”

“If you’re very good, I might even let you drive it.”

Oh yes, I would be very good. My sad little Honda looked even sadder, parked in the wide spot beside the garage. Who had ever thought a car should be beige?

And I’d apparently become a car snob as well as a wine snob and a house snob. Lisa Cannon was ruining me. I followed as she walked into the house with a small bag over one shoulder, not much bigger than a purse: apparently the extent of what she needed to bring with her when she moved house. An even smaller pile than mine.

“Oh Cam, it looks marvelous in here,” she exclaimed, stepping down into the living room and looking around. “I don’t see any water damage, or smell any mold.”

I nodded, feeling proud as I followed her down. “That was all your contractor,” I assured her. “He said things weren’t wet long enough for mold to set in.”

“In this climate, that’s like a magic trick,” she said, smiling. “Especially in mid-winter.” She stepped into the hallway, pausing before the closet that held the new water heater. “The carpet matches perfectly.”

“Yeah. They had it woven to match.” I’d learned so much about carpet while getting this restored; enough to know we walked around here on a fortune of wool.

“Ah, I’ve missed this room,” she said, heading into her bedroom. It was large, and spectacularly furnished; I’d been tempted to sleep there, but, like Marie, had found it too…Lisa. I’d chosen a nondescript guest room, now restored to its former pristine state.

Lisa swept back out again, leaving her shoulder bag. “Well! It’s early for a glass of wine, but it’s what I like to do whenever I get here. Want to join me?”

I grinned at her. “You’re the boss, boss.”

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