by Alicia Gael
On a cloudless summer day, ghostwriter Phyl Long and educator Virgie Campbell meet as they wait for a private boat to Castaway Island. The attraction between the two is immediate, as is the excitement of a relaxing weekend getting to know each other. But once they arrive on the island, Phyl and Virgie discover things aren’t what they should be. After meeting the other guests, they realize the staff are confused, there’s no Wi-Fi, and the phone coverage is spotty. And there’s no way to leave the island.
A charged accusation. A death. Another death, and then another…and another… As their fellow island occupants are murdered one by one, Phyl and Virgie realize their only hope of escaping is to work together to unmask the killer. But how does each know that the other isn’t using their budding romance as cover for a very twisted plan?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"When I was twelve, I started writing stories on my father’s manual typewriter. They were about my friends and their celebrity crushes. I guess I was writing fan fiction before fan fiction was a thing. Over the next forty-five years, I tried numerous times to write a novel. I have at least a dozen first chapters in a file cabinet. Then, in 2020, I gave NaNoWriMo a try and finished with a 50k first draft of Murder on Castaway Island. It’s a modernized, queer take on one of my favorite books, Agatha Christie’s, And Then There Were None."
Debbie B. - Good book! This book had a bit of everything! It had suspense, Action packed, intrigue, mystery, murder, revenge, a great who done it, great plot twist, and some crazy twists and turns! I definitely recommend reading this book as it was well worth reading!
Shimere A.. - I thoroughly enjoyed this murder mystery…
Jude S. - I didn’t count how many times I had to remind myself to breathe. I was on the edge of my seat almost from page one and only sat back comfortably after I’d read the last sentence.
Betsy T. - Wow, I loved this book. I couldn't put it down. An amazing debut for Alicia Gael. Murder on Castaway Island is a retelling of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None but with a completely sapphic take. Even though I have read the book and watched every movie based on the book I was still completely engrossed in this one. Ten people are brought to an island each for different reasons. It becomes clear quickly that not everything is as it seems and that their lives are in danger. This is a fast-paced mystery. That is very much worth the read.
Bonnie K. - This is like a modern day Agathe Christie. A well written fast paced, engaging and entertaining mystery. This will have you guessing who did it until the end. Well done Alicia Gael.
Friday, Just before Noon
Sitting alone on the ferry, she knew the others were nearby. A smile played across her face as she looked out the grimy window at the choppy blue-green water. The day of reckoning was at hand. The plan had fallen into place as easily as pieces of a child’s jigsaw puzzle. She and the others would be assembled on the island by five o’clock. All of them had accepted their invitations or offers of employment. She chuckled to herself. Greed and desperation made for easy marks.
She crossed her legs, glanced around the cabin, and located six invitees. She narrowed her eyes and gazed from one to another, her foot bobbing up and down. She fumed silently; they had gotten away with their transgressions for far too long. They needed to be held accountable. The dead deserved justice—they deserved retribution. She would make sure they got it. All nine would pay with a pound of their flesh. An eye for an eye. She would take the sword of Themis, the goddess of justice, into her hand and punish them herself, sending a warning to others: if you took a life, you would reap the consequences.
Tamara Miller sped down Highway Three, going twenty miles over the posted limit. She passed cars with the thinnest of margins, zipping back in line at the last second, her sun-bleached blond hair blowing wildly in her wake. She lived on the edge; she loved speed and wasn’t afraid to take risks. No boring life for her. And with her daddy’s money, she had the means to get the adrenaline high she craved. Life’s too short to be boring. It was a motto she lived by.
She had spent the past week in Provincetown, surrounded by beautiful women wearing bikinis in every size, style, and color. She was a regular on the lesbian East Coast party circuit. When she’d received the engraved invitation at her Upper East Side Manhattan flat from a sorority sister she couldn’t remember, who invited her to a weekend blowout on a private island, she jumped at the chance. She’d heard of Castaway Island and knew that movie star Grace Taylor had owned it until recently. Too bad it still wasn’t hers. Those Hollywood people knew how to party.
She passed the car in front of her and almost missed the entrance to the ferry building. She pulled into the parking lot and took up two spaces. Let them give me a ticket. She wasn’t taking any chances that her beautiful red Corvette would get dinged.
As Tamara stepped out of the car, heads turned to look at her, and she relished the attention of both sexes. She stretched, and fluffed her hair, flashing a smile at the two young women who looked at her with interest. Tall and well-proportioned, she paid her fitness trainer a pretty penny to keep her toned and shapely. She didn’t give a fig about the men who stopped and stared at her as if she were a goddess put on Earth for their pleasure. Chuckling, she flashed them a well-practiced fake smile and silently laughed at the men ogling her.
She positioned herself for a photo op with the ferry behind her, pulled out her phone, snapped a selfie, and sent it to her half-million Insta followers. Life was good if you were Tamara Miller.
Doctor Emery Brennan was exhausted. Success had its drawbacks—lack of sleep was one. But it also had its rewards, such as the hundred-thousand-dollar Lincoln Navigator she currently drove. Although she could own something sleek and sporty that turned heads, she preferred the size and weight of the black SUV. It was a fortress, a layer of protection.
Today, she left her Boston medical office at noon and was headed south on Highway Three. Letting her shoulders relax, she lowered the windows and filled her lungs with fresh Atlantic air, not caring that the wind played havoc with her short, sandy-blond hair. The ninety-minute drive gave her time to reflect on her career and how she’d ended up at the top of her profession by the age of forty. Of course, skill played a part, but she’d also been lucky that the right patient had walked into her office at just the right time, and lucky she’d recognized the little-known, little-understood condition the woman suffered from, and even luckier the woman was married to a well-known politician. Saving the woman’s life generated a lot of attention and appreciation from the woman’s husband, a well-connected East Coast senator. Her reputation had skyrocketed. She became the doctor women clamored to for treatment of “women’s issues.”
She’d become very successful, but it had taken its toll. Although her practice thrived, she had little time for herself. She hadn’t been on a date in over a year and couldn’t remember the last time she’d had sex. Her last vacation was to an unmemorable medical convention in Denver over five years ago.
She leaned back against the headrest and thought about the certified letter from Mr. Knowles. He’d asked her to come to his home on Castaway Island—all expenses paid—to treat his wife’s mysterious medical condition. Enclosed was a check for ten thousand dollars and a ticket for the afternoon ferry on September sixteenth. Curiosity won out. She was throwing caution to the wind and heading to Hyannis to catch the afternoon ferry to Nantucket. It wasn’t exactly a vacation, but a few days on a private island would be a welcome break.
As she flipped the turn signal to enter the ferry building’s parking lot, an ear-splitting blast from a car horn cut through the quiet morning. A young blond woman behind the wheel of a souped-up blue BMW cut in front of her from the opposite direction and raced into the parking lot ahead of her. “Fucking idiot!” she yelled out the window. Emery hated people who took unreasonable risks and didn’t appreciate how fragile life was. She knew all too well that one wrong move, one blink, and it could all be gone.
Retired Professor Darcy McDonald gazed out the window of the Nantucket-bound ferry at the blue-gray ocean. Ferries were a damn slow way to travel, in her opinion. They were inefficient and uncomfortable to boot. Nantucket was only thirty-two miles south of Hyannis Port, but it would take at least another hour to arrive at the rate they were going. Then she had to take another boat to Castaway Island. She hoped those seats were padded. The plastic benches on the ferry were hard as a rock. Looking at her reflection in the salt-stained window, she noticed a few new wrinkles on her forehead. Surprisingly, only a few strands of gray invaded her shoulder-length black hair. She wondered if she should color it once it became more noticeable. Silently, she laughed at herself and shook her head. No, she’d let it turn gray. Plenty of sexy women had gray hair. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.
She looked out across the water and blue skies and reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out her phone, and read the emailed invitation from someone named Knolles.
“… a few of the men and women from NYU are reuniting and would love to see you there to reminisce and share stories.”
As she refolded the paper and returned it to her pocket, she wondered about the sender. She was baffled, unable to remember anyone named Knolles at the university. The person must be a friend of her colleagues Tiger Gibson or Tammy Robertson.
She closed her eyes and leaned back as the ferry continued its journey. It would be good to see them again. She hadn’t heard from her colleagues since she’d retired five years ago. She assumed no one knew what to say after what happened to Robby, her graduate student, and the death of her husband the following year. She let out a breath, relaxed her shoulders and stretched her neck from side to side. No matter. The past was the past. They had reached out now and wanted to reconnect. That was something.
At 12:01 p.m., sixty-year-old Catherine Ames sat on the hard plastic bench of the steamship to Nantucket, her back as straight as a board. She drummed an index finger on her well-worn black Bible that rested in her lap. Why isn’t the ferry leaving? She made a tsking sound with her tongue as a couple rushed up the gangway. Why don’t people care about being on time? It was a character flaw, one she despised. Keeping to a schedule was ingrained in her by her father, who’d been a colonel in the Army before becoming the pastor of his own church. She was responsible and always on time. People today were soft and undisciplined. They were hedonists and heathens, only caring about their own pleasure and beauty. She shook her head; they were sinners. They whitened their teeth, injected Botox into their faces, and had fat sucked out of their rear ends and injected into their lips. And the clothes they wore, especially the women…half-naked, just asking for trouble. She ground her teeth and made a tsking noise again. Indeed, God would hold them accountable.
She opened her Bible and took out the handwritten note. She appreciated that someone else took the time and effort to pen a letter; most people were too lazy to care about such things and sent impersonal emails.
She took the letter out of the envelope and read:
Dear Miss Ames,
I hope you remember me from the Christian retreat a few years ago. We got along so well and had so much in common.
A beloved uncle passed away and left me an inheritance; God rest his soul.
I’m using the money to hold a retreat on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. It will be a place for good Christian women to gather: no alcohol or drugs, no loud music or dancing. Plenty of quiet time and walks on the beach to reflect and pray.
I would like to invite you to come to Castaway Island for a few weeks this summer as my guest, free of charge. I have taken the liberty of reserving a room for you starting on September 16th. The ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket leaves at noon, and we have a boat from there to the island.
Looking forward to seeing you,
She hadn’t been able to make out the name. The signature was poorly written. No one took any pride in their penmanship anymore.
The retreat was two, maybe three years ago? A few nice, respectable women had attended. What was that woman’s name, the one she always sat next to at dinner? Ursula something? Knott? Nottingham? Something like that. Yes, it must be that woman.
She thought about the newspaper articles about the private island in the last couple of years. A Hollywood starlet had recently owned it for a short time. If she remembered correctly, a millionaire bought it from the actress slut.
Now, God was going to clean it up and make it the home of a Christian retreat. And I’m being rewarded with a free vacation! She could not have afforded such a wonderful trip. Her pension barely covered her rent and bills. With the economy in the trash, the dividends from her investments had been few and far between during the last year. Too bad she couldn’t remember who this Mrs. Knott was—or was it Miss?
Thirty-year-old Virginia Campbell removed her red-framed glasses, closed her eyes, and leaned back against the ferry’s orange plastic headrest. She pulled her brown corduroy coat tighter around herself, wishing she could afford a new one. Oh well. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” her grandfather always said. Thank the goddess, this opportunity miraculously appeared. Her savings were almost gone, and she couldn’t secure a teaching assignment anywhere.
A cloud still hung over her head, but it hadn’t been her fault. The child’s death had been a horrible accident. She’d done everything she could, even risked her own life to save the boy, but the ocean had won. Little Kenny, her charge, had drowned. One minute he was a rambunctious, rebellious five-year-old pushing the limits. In the blink of an eye, a monster wave rose up, knocked them both down, and dragged them back into the ocean. She’d fought with every ounce of strength she had to get to the boy, but she was no match against the power of the sea. Barely clinging to life, she’d been rescued an hour later by the Coast Guard. Kenny’s body wasn’t recovered until the next day when it washed up on a beach two miles away.
Virgie pulled the letter Mr. Moore had given her from her backpack, put on her red-rimmed glasses, and reread it.
Dear Ms. Campbell,
An acquaintance of mine, Mary Smith, a past employer of yours, recommended you for a position tutoring my children while we are on holiday.
We recently bought Castaway Island off the coast of Massachusetts. We will be there through the New Year and do not want our two sons, ages five and eight, to fall behind in school. Your lodging will be covered, and I have enclosed a check for your first month’s salary and a ticket for the noon ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket on Friday, September 16th.
A private boat will meet you and take you to the island.
I hope this is acceptable.
Ms. Una Knowly
She couldn’t remember a Mary Smith from any schools where she’d worked, not that she cared. She needed this job, even if it was only temporary. It was a lifesaver. And on Castaway Island, of all places. Virgie was a big fan of the actress Grace Taylor, who had owned the island for a short time, having bought it as a wedding present for her new husband, Buck Something or Other. How exciting would it be to visit the island, to walk through the same halls and rooms Grace had? It was just too crazy to imagine. How did she get so lucky?
At thirty-five, Phyllis Long, Phyl to her friends, was no slouch. Her short brown hair and steel-blue eyes caught the attention of many women, gay and straight. Men, too, for that matter, but Phyl couldn’t have cared less what the men thought.
Phyl eyed the woman across from her. She was attractive, and the red glasses were kind of sexy, in a naughty teacher kind of way. And there was something mysterious about her, but Phyl couldn’t put her finger on it. She shook her head. This was no time to be thinking about her love life. She needed to concentrate on the job.
The ugly little man with a mop of black hair, bushy eyebrows, and a thin mustache had shown up out of the blue at her office and introduced himself as Mr. Moore. He’d handed her a contract to ghostwrite a book about Castaway Island for a woman named Knolles, a check for five thousand dollars, and the promise of ten thousand once the book was done. Phyl had pressed him for more details, but other than the requirement that no one was to know she was writing the book, the little rodent of a man refused to say anything more.
“That’s all the details I can give you, Ms. Long. Take it or leave it,” he said. “Ms. Knolles is a private person and likes to keep things close to her chest, if you know what I mean.”
Phyl could only imagine what the reclusive Ms. Knolles’s chest looked like. She shook her head; for all she knew, the Knolles woman could be eighty.
Moore handed her a ticket for the noon ferry leaving on September 16th, from Barnstable to Nantucket. “A private boat will be waiting for you at the dock in Nantucket and deliver you to Castaway Island.” He replaced a snug black bowler on his head.
Who wears a hat like that in this century?
“Questions?” Moore asked.
Phyl scrunched her eyebrows together and met his gaze. “Would you answer them if I did?”
“Probably not,” the man said as he tipped his hat and shuffled out the door.
It was the strangest book deal she’d ever made. But why not? Spending time on a beautiful island might do her some good. She could work on her tan, breathe some fresh air, and get back to running. God knew she’d slacked off her workout routine while writing the last book. This might be just what she needed.
On the noon ferry to Nantucket, Willie Kerrel opened her journal and reviewed the list of guests she’d be keeping an eye on in her role as private security: Tamara Miller, Catherine Ames, Darcy McDonald, Dr. Emery Brennan, Judge Joan Hathorne, Virginia Campbell, Phyllis Long, and the servants—a married couple named Theo and Rosie Roberts.
She closed the notebook and drummed her fingers on it. As she leaned back, she adjusted the short-barrel revolver holstered on her hip and closed her eyes. This should be easy enough.
Seated on the ferry, recently retired Judge Joan Hathorne, her chin tipped up slightly like she was looking down on the world from on high, read The New York Times’s morning edition. She looked up with a sneer and cursed the snowflakes who banned smoking on the ferry. Going several hours without nicotine made her usual coarse personality even more contentious.
She glanced at the elderly man across from her. He needed a bath and a change of clothes. She wondered if he was homeless, wasting his days going back and forth across the ocean on the ferry. He appeared to be either asleep or passed out. It was hard to tell. Joan studied him. There should be places for degenerates like him. Workhouses, like in the old days. Put ’em to work.
She returned her focus to the political section of the paper and smiled. If everything went as planned, soon, her name would be in the headlines. She planned to announce her run for Congress, depending on how this trip went. It was a natural next step in her career. She’d made quite a name for herself as the “hanging judge,” tough on crime and tougher on those unfortunate enough to appear in her courtroom.
At first, she wasn’t sure politics would be the right fit. She didn’t like the way people played games in Washington. She thought of herself as someone who shot straight from the hip. She wouldn’t make backroom deals. But Mr. Moore, an assistant to Mrs. Knolles, pointed out how that was precisely what she did with prosecutors and lowly defense attorneys whenever she called them into her chambers, twisting their arms until they agreed to a plea deal. She looked down her nose from high upon her throne, stared menacingly at the accused, and convinced them it was in their best interest to take the deal or risk years in one of Massachusetts’ prisons. Rarely did anyone insist on going to trial. Rarer still were the few who beat the rap.
Joan ran a hand through her steel-gray hair and looked at her blue, Swiss-made Portofino watch. It was still an hour from Nantucket before catching a private boat to the island. She rifled through her leather bag and pulled out the perfectly penned letter Mr. Moore had given her from Mrs. Knolles. Moore had described Mrs. Knolles as a “kingmaker,” bankrolling politicians who shared her conservative ideals.
I’ve followed your career for several years and appreciate your strong stance on crime and punishment. I believe you would make a fine congresswoman.
God knows Massachusetts needs a woman like you in Washington to save us from those liberal idiots.
I would like to discuss putting together a campaign for the next election. Please join me for a few days at my home on Castaway Island, Friday, September 16–19. Take the noon ferry from Barnstable to Nantucket. A private boat will be waiting on the Washington dock to take you to the island.
I look forward to working with you to make Massachusetts something to be proud of again.
It was signed with a flourish, Mrs. U.N. Knolles.
She shoved the letter back into her bag, crossed her arms, and thought about where she was headed. Castaway Island had been in the news often over the last few years. Rumors swirled around its ownership. Bought and sold several times recently, it also had a history of unfortunate events. One owner’s wife died in a boating accident. A year later, a guest of the new owner drowned in a seemingly calm area off the beach. Last year, gossip rags reported that Hollywood star Grace Taylor had bought the island for her new husband as a wedding present. But they divorced six months later, and it went back up for sale. She hadn’t heard much about the new owner, U.N. Knolles, and Mr. Moore hadn’t been much help. He was tight-lipped, only saying everything would be explained at their meeting. Joan uncrossed her arms and leaned back. A feeling of foreboding encompassed her. She didn’t like mysteries.
Thirty minutes later, the ferry bumped against the dock several times as it pulled into Nantucket. The old man across from Joan sat up and stared at her. “The sea is as fickle as a woman!”
Joan ignored him.
The old man belched loudly. “There’s a squall coming.”
“No, no, it’s a beautiful day,” Joan said as she stood.
“There’s a storm ahead. I can feel it in my bones,” the man said with a snarl.
“Perhaps you’re right.” She didn’t want to waste time arguing with him.
The old man stood and teetered back and forth with the sway of the ship. Joan followed him to the exit. Before the man stepped onto the gangplank, he turned around and looked at Joan. “Watch and pray…Watch and pray. Judgment day is at hand.” He fell backward on the walkway and lay spread eagle for a few seconds before pushing himself into a sitting position. “The day of judgment is close. You should take heed.” He stood, squared his shoulders, and limped away.
Joan stood in place, appalled. “What the hell was that?” she said aloud before a gentle push from behind got her moving again.