The Empty Chair by Penny Goetjen
Leaving behind Boston and her domineering, workaholic father, young Olivia Benning goes wheels up on a southbound jet to embark on a journey that not only tests her resolve, but pits her sense of justice against that of a twisted subculture, shattering her instinct of who to trust. Facing the heartache of settling a parent’s affairs, her search for answers ensnares her in a sinister web of crime amidst a breathtaking, yet deceptively tranquil Caribbean backdrop.
Reeling from the tragic news her mother has perished in a boating accident in the Virgin Islands, Olivia is further shaken by the realization her long-separated parents will never have the chance to reconcile. As a child, stuck in the middle between adversaries, Olivia had had no voice and was forced to live with her father in the states to attend school there.
In spite of their distance, Liv Benning had been more than a mother to Olivia; she was a friend and confidante—a special relationship that grew stronger as their time apart grew longer, and one her father detested. She had dreamed of the day she would join her mother on the island in her photography business, if she could wriggle free from her father’s firm grasp. Her mother’s death leaves Olivia grappling with loss on multiple levels.
Upon her arrival on the island, Oliviaquickly learns the police have no knowledge of the boating accident the mysterious caller reported and no record of Liv Benning’s death. The uncertain circumstances surrounding her disappearance compel Olivia to search for answers as she clings to a glimmer of hope her mother is still alive.
After ruggedly handsome Colton comes to her rescue when she’s stranded at the airport, Olivia grows suspicious of him when he seems to show up at opportune moments. He offers to help in the search for her mother, assuring her he’s well connected on the island. While trying to discern his intentions, Olivia struggles with her need to connect with someone who cares for her, and Colton fits neatly into that void at times.
A night out at a local hot spot turns into a bar brawl and unseen hands nearly snatch the camera from her neck. Sustaining a black eye in the melee, she arrives home to find the bungalow broken into and ransacked. Her mother’s studio was clearly the target which begs the questions: what was the intruder looking for and had they found it. When Colton shows up on her doorstep before she can start picking up the mess, his timing seems suspect. She lashes out and sends him away, vowing to find her mother on her own. He continues to offer his help, only to be rebuffed.
When an unexpected visitor bursts onto the idyllic setting at the quaint bungalow overlooking Magens Bay, peering into windows and nosing about, Olivia is forced to retrieve her mother’s gun from under the mattress to defend the property. While suave, smooth-talking Carson claims to be her mother’s lover, a shot rings out striking him down. Whisked away from the grisly scene by the island police, Olivia wakes up in the hospital with the memory she’d shot Carson and discovers her shoulder is seriously injured. Hell-bent on finding her mother, she discharges herself, before police can detain her, to continue her search while staying one step ahead of those intent on taking her out of the picture. She learns later she hadn’t fired the gun. The shots came from the bushes behind her and were meant for her.
When the Coast Guard retrieves the body of an adult woman from the waters off of St. Thomas, Olivia is asked to stop into the morgue to see if it’s her mother. Sickened by the grotesque condition of the body, she is relieved to report it is not her mother but is asked for a DNA sample for verification purposes.
A fire at the bungalow destroys everything of her mother’s, as well as what little she’d brought with her, and is meant to send a clear message. Undaunted, Olivia presses on in her search, continuing to rile an unknown, deadly foe.
Cryptic messages, with no originating phone number, arrive on her mother’s fax machine signed only with the initials CK, urging her on a mission to photograph some sort of criminal activity. In the hopes of picking up where her mother’s trail left off, she follows the illusive CK’s instructions to investigate the landfill.
Under the cover of darkness, while snapping horrific images of dogfighting, Olivia is grabbed from behind and the camera wrestled from her grasp. In the struggle that ensues she manages to narrowly slip away, but not before recognizing Colton among the men. She’s left to wonder if he’s involved in the heinous activity or had he seen her car along the road and come to her rescue. With her instincts of who to trust being tested, she can’t bear the thought of him being involved. Although she’s grateful to have escaped, she laments losing her camera with all the evidence she’d captured. Colton seems to disappear after that night.
Unaware of the ongoing search, Olivia’s father grows impatient as to why it’s taking so long and arrives on the scene to try to speed up the process of taking care of her mother’s assets. During his visit he reveals he is dying from cirrhosis. His lifetime of drinking has caught up to him. Feeling more alone than ever, Olivia vows to continue the search until she finds her mother.
The turning point occurs when Olivia wakes up after being drugged and dumped in a drawer at the morgue. It looks like the search for her mother has come to an abrupt end, and she’s facing certain death. Although her captors think they’re rid of her once and for all, they’re spotted leaving the scene and followed back to where the others are holed up. Their gambling empire begins to unravel.
When Olivia is rescued from the morgue, a pair of aviator sunglasses are found in the drawer with her. At this point in the story, two people were known to sport aviators: Carson, her mother’s purported lover and the Coast Guard lieutenant who asks Olivia to ID the body in the morgue.
After local police take into custody members of the gambling ring who are not from the island, the lingering question is who the local person was—who knew the island inside and out and could enable them to move from place to place to evade authorities. The police focus their investigation on Carson.
Even after the fire, Olivia finds solace by visiting her mother’s yard and gazing out to Magens Bay. She feels closest to her mother there. On one such visit Olivia finds a box taped to the bottom of the chair—The Empty Chair. In it is a note from her mother acknowledging if Olivia has found it, she must have met her demise at the hands of the criminals she was documenting. She apologizes for not being there for Olivia, but is adamant that apprehending them and saving the pups was worth putting her life on the line. Also, in the box is a stash of money—snatched from the men who ultimately killed her. Olivia reasons she’s found the note prematurely, that her mother is still alive. A quick count of the money and it becomes obvious there is more than enough to rebuild the bungalow.
On each visit to her mother’s yard, Olivia is intrigued by the refrigerator in the middle of what used to be the bungalow, until finally she climbs across the scorched rubble to open it. In the meat drawer, she finds a CD her mother had stashed there with the photos she’d taken of the illegal activity at the landfill. It will aid the authorities in prosecuting the dogfighting ring.
When authorities confirm through DNA tests the female body in the morgue is, in fact, her mother, Olivia is devasted, and her reason for being on the island evaporates. With a heavy heart, she heads to the airport with her mother’s remains but without her father, after he got caught up in legal issues of his own. Colton catches up with her and explains he lost his phone during the fight at the landfill, and it took a while to track her down since she was no longer staying at her mother’s. He has with him the puppy she rescued from the dogfighting ring, complete with a travel carrier. Olivia and Colton make plans to reconnect when she returns to the island.
Inching through the line in Customs, it dawns on her she’d been talked into taking her mother’s remains back to the states to be buried there. Her mother would not have wanted to leave her beloved island of St. Thomas, so she bolts out to the ticket counter and demands her mother’s casket be unloaded from the cargo hold. When it’s sent to a local funeral home for cremating, the authorities are able to intercept it to take a look.
Turns out, the thugs involved with the dogfighting ring are also smuggling heroin into the states. The police find a surprising amount of the drug in the pillow under her mother’s head as well as in other hollow areas in the casket. Carson is the common denominator between the funeral home and the criminal ring.
After spreading her mother’s ashes in her yard, Olivia gets a ride to the airport from Colton. On the way, she bumps into the man known only as CK. He owns the local newspaper where her mother was freelancing and is distraught over sending her into the lion’s den to get photos. After he departs, Olivia notices a headline on the local paper: Virgin Island Times Owner Found Dead—Suicide Not Ruled Out. CK had felt compelled to remain until he could connect with Olivia to tell her how sorry he was. She’d never seen a full-bodied apparition before.
After a tearful goodbye curbside at the airport. Colton climbs back into his Jeep and drives away—but not before swatting down the visor to block the sun. The imprint of a pair of aviator sunglasses is clearly outlined in the vinyl.
With the reader left to wonder Colton’s role in her mother’s murder, the dogfighting ring, and Olivia’s attempted murder, the story in The Empty Chair picks up again in Over the Edge where any lingering questions are answered.
© 2020 Penny Goetjen