Writing a series

Writers may use several methods for tracking their characters and plot lines for a series. Some prefer Scrivener or spreadsheets to track their story. Others, myself included, are Luddites and stick to notebooks chock full of notes and research.

When I write a novel, I create what I affectionately call my “murder book.” I have the printed pages of the novel that need editing in the front followed by a tab for each character. With each character, I list their role, relationships with others in the novel, motive for murder (if a suspect) and other supporting details. I have a tab for the victim and how each person relates to him/her. I have a tab for the crime itself and all clues that need to be revealed throughout the novel in order for the detective (and the reader!) to solve the crime.

Chapter One of Murder at the Bijou Theater


I create a sketch of the town, or if it is a real location, I include a map of the area. For example, I’m currently working on a 1920s mystery set in Richmond. I printed out a map of the city from that time period. I also found a home in Zillow that is similar to where my main character, Evie, would have lived in as a middle class woman in 1922. I printed pictures of the interior and use that as a guide for writing scenes.

Next, I have a tab for slang, clothing, cars of the 1920s, and other relevant research so that I can easily reference the information.

Newspaper article for research

Article from 1922 Richmond Times-Dispatch

My murder takes place in a theater that is now the home of the Library of Virginia. I had a difficult time locating interior shots of the theater before it was torn down. I contacted the state archives, and an archivist found blueprints from a theater that was nearby and sent me photographs of the prints so I could understand what the interior layout might have been. Those photos are now printed and in the murder book.

My final tab is for plain college-ruled notebook paper. This is where I can scribble ideas and keep track of them for later inclusion in the novel.

I’m always fascinated by authors’ various methods of writing and compiling information and notes. I hope this gives you a small glimpse into the world of a mystery writer.

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Bad Bayou Business: A Phee & Juliet Short Story

“I can’t believe you lost the body.”

“Keep your voice down,” I said. “First of all, it’s not a body. It’s cremains. And for your information, I didn’t lose them. They were stolen.”

“Lost. Stolen. Tomato. Tomahto. It doesn’t matter, Phee,” Juliet said. “Nellie asked us for one favor, help her spread Mike’s ashes in the bayou, and we messed it up. We have to get those ashes back before she finds out.”

I poked at the limp green leaves on my plate. The grease-splattered menu had touted it as a Gator Caesar Salad. It may have been alligator, or it may have been chicken, but it was making my stomach roll from the oil sliding off the deep-fried chunks of meat and pooling on the brown-tinged lettuce leaves.

“The last thing I remember was sitting down at the wake next to Tucker and his wife, Carla Ann. She was telling me some story about how Mike was related to some famous Louisiana politician through his grandmother’s cousin’s mother. I must have dozed off.  When I woke up, the urn was gone, and everyone had already left to go to the Shakin’ Bacon.”

“I think you were drugged.”

I rolled my eyes. Juliet and her farfetched scenarios. “Doubtful. I was exhausted from the drive. Carla Ann droned on and on about who was related to this second cousin or that uncle, and I fell asleep. Now we need to track down who snatched the urn. Maybe they simply moved it to a safe place.”

“We need to return to the scene of the crime,” Juliet said. She bit into her hamburger then licked a smear of ketchup from the corner of her lip.

I eyed her lunch. It sure did look a heck of a lot tastier than mine. I snatched a french fry from her plate. Pointing it at her, I said, “Fine, but you can distract Tucker while I chit chat with Carla Ann and look around the house. He seemed particularly fascinated with your derriere when you bent over to pick up your keys.”

“It is one of my finer assets.”

I tossed the fry down and ate my salad. Unfortunately, my rear wasn’t my best feature. I inherited the brains, and Juliet received the beauty. Not that I was a beast, but my love of dark chocolate and good wine had made me suck in my belly this morning to button my pants.

After I called it quits on my salad, I called Nellie’s phone. It went straight to voicemail. Cell service was spotty in the bayou. She was probably swapping Mike stories down at the Shakin’ Bacon and would meet us back at the motel later.

Juliet and I drove the fifteen miles back to Mike’s hometown. It wasn’t so much a town as an old gas station housed in a dilapidated shotgun shack with white paint that was now a distant memory. A couple of trailers perched on their cinderblock foundations nearby. One of them listed dangerously to the left. Vines and moss replaced the paint on their metal sides, rusty streaks leaked down between the growth. Two miles later, cracked asphalt gave way to gravel. I turned down a weed-choked dirt road that led to Tucker and Carla Ann’s double wide. I remarked how Mike, from these humble backwoods, had reinvented himself as the pickle king.

“Mike’s deal with the Cajun mafia must have given him his start in pickles,” Juliet said. “Otherwise, he and Nellie Jo would probably still be living here with a passel of children and nothing to show for it. I’m surprised she even wanted to bring his ashes back to Louisiana. If my own family had bumped me off, I would want my cremains spread on the other side of the country.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I keep you alive for your scintillating insights into human nature and bad seventies cop lingo, little sister. Anyway, that was Mike’s daddy’s family. This is the Hebert side, his mama’s family. From what Nellie said, they are all God-fearing folks that don’t dabble in crime. I’m sure someone simply put the ashes somewhere in the house thinking they would get knocked over at the wake.”

I parked the car under a cypress. Tucker’s red Chevy pickup was under the carport. I knocked lightly on the front door. A moment later, I knocked harder. “I don’t think anyone’s home. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

Juliet nudged me out of the way. She pulled a credit card out of her wallet and slipped it between the metal door and its frame. She jiggled the handle, and it popped open. “Told you watching cop shows would pay off. As much as I enjoy male appreciation of my many charms, I prefer not to come back here. I want to scatter Mike’s ashes and head back to Miller’s Cove. The humidity is murder on my hair.”

She slipped into the dark trailer. I hesitated, but the mosquito that buzzed near my nose finished my internal dilemma for me. I followed her inside.

The casseroles and cakes from earlier had been cleared from the counters. I checked in the cupboards and even peeked into the fridge. No urn. I was about to follow Juliet down the hallway to scour the bedrooms when I heard a muffled thump.

“What the–” Juliet grabbed my arm. “It’s a gator coming to eat us. Phee, I’m too young to die by reptile.”

The thump sounded again followed by a faint cry. I hesitated, listened again, and when a third thump sounded, I walked over to the coat closet and yanked it open. Nellie sat trussed up like a Sunday chicken, a red bandanna stuffed in her mouth.

“Nellie!” I pulled the rag from her mouth and dropped down to untie her. “What in the world is going on?”

“They’re crazy, Phee! Plum crazy. Untie me. I gotta go get Mike and get the hell out of this swamp.” Nellie stood up and cocked her head left to right to work out the kinks from being stuffed into the small closet.

“Mike’s dead,” Juliet said, taking a tentative step towards her, hand outstretched.

“Hell’s bells, Jul, I know that. I ain’t got time to waste. Follow me.” Nellie yanked open the door and bounded down the metal front steps. Baffled, Juliet and I trotted behind her. “Pop the trunk.”

I pushed the button on the car remote. Nellie rummaged around in her suitcase. A moment later, she reappeared, a gun in her hand.

“Whoa! What in Sam Hill are you doing with a gun in the car?” I backed away from her and edged a little closer to Juliet. Maybe Mike’s death had finally unhinged Nellie. Grief does strange things to people.

“Protection. If I learned one thing from Mike’s murder, it’s that a gal can never be too careful. You two stay behind me. I’m going to get Mike’s ashes back.”

Nellie charged towards the back of the trailer, a dangerous smile on her face. I wanted to call the police, but when I pulled my cell phone from my back pocket, it showed no service. Dang it. I jogged to catch up, Juliet on my heels.

I caught a flash of Nellie’s blue shirt as she slipped through the kudzu. It was getting dark, and I wanted to stop her and get back to town before nightfall. Whatever feud she had with Mike’s family could wait until morning. “Nellie, wait up!”

I fought my way through the thicket of brambles and branches. I tripped over a vine that I swear moved on its own. I held my cell phone up as a flashlight and stumbled after Nellie.

“Shush,” Nellie hissed. She had stopped on the edge of a clearing. I crept up beside her.

Juliet clutched my hand. “Phee, what’s going on?”

In the clearing, a fire burned in a metal barrel. A cast iron pan rested on a makeshift grate and overturned plastic crates served as chairs. I squinted through the smoke and spotted a couple of people, I’d met earlier at the wake. Off to the left of the burn barrel, Carla Ann sat with a silver urn clutched to her chest.

“My sister-in-law has got a screw loose in her tiny pin head is what’s going on,” Nellie whispered. “She started rambling about summoning something to seek revenge against the other side of the family. It all got a little hazy after I drank a sip of her punch.”

“Told you it was drugged.” Juliet gave me a smug smile. “It’s a good thing I had to take Rosie for a walk and get her kibble, otherwise, we would have all been up the bayou without a pole. Saved by a seven-pound chihuahua with a weak bladder.”

“Now’s not the time, Juliet,” I said. “Why did they steal Mike’s ashes?”

“Near as I can tell, Carla Ann joined some new religion. If you ask me, it sounds like she’s mixing her hoodoo with her holy gospel. Like I said, she’s crazy. I came to in the closet and overheard her telling Tucker that she’s going to bind Mike’s ashes into some charm that will cause whoever wears it to have horrible luck.”

“Like a reverse rabbit’s foot?” Juliet asked.  

“Kind of. It’s all a bunch of hogwash, but you can’t tell Carla Ann that. She was as close to Mike as a tick on a coon hound’s ear. She blames her daddy’s side for the bad blood, and she aims to get vengeance. She’s going to give the charm to Eddie Johnson’s mama, Connie. She’s like the mafia godmother now that everyone else is in jail.”

“Couldn’t we just leave the ashes here? I mean, it’s not like they’re actually Mike anymore,” Juliet said.

“I am not leaving my man in that cuckoo woman’s clutches,” Nellie said, her jaw tightening. “You’re either with me, or you can head on back to the car and wait. Anything happens, Phee, I want you to take Rosie. I know you’ll give her a good home.”

I closed my eyes. I should have listened to Clint when he said it was a bad idea to head to the swamps of Louisiana. Nellie was my friend though, and she needed me. I squelched down my nerves and gave her a nod. “I’m in. What do you need?”

“Crap. I’m in, too.” Juliet grimaced at me.

“I need a distraction. I need to keep her from dumping Mike into that pan. Once she’s dumped him, he’ll be like dust in the wind. I aim to spread his ashes in the swamp by our first trailer like he would have wanted even if it kills me.”

I spotted a shotgun leaning against one of the milkcrates. If this went south, we could all end up dead in the swamp. Before I could express my concerns, Juliet sauntered out from our hiding place and towards the burn barrel and Carla Ann.

“Yoohoo.” Juliet waggled her fingers at one of the men sitting on a crate, a six-pack of beer tucked between his feet.

He pushed back his baseball cap and spat on the ground next to him. “Who are you?”

“I’m Nellie’s friend. I came to pick her up and got a little lost. Do you know where she is?” Juliet dropped her purse. Its contents spilled across the ground. “Oh! I’m just the clumsiest thing.”

I cringed as my sister giggled like a school girl. She turned her back to the man and bent over to retrieve her belongings. The man’s grizzled eyebrows shot up to his hairline. He jumped up to help her.

Nellie tugged at my shirt. “Come on.” She slipped out of the cover of the woods and skirted around the edge, keeping to the shadows. I tiptoed after her.

“Stop,” Carla Ann said.

I froze in mid-step. Carla Ann walked over to Juliet and the man. She wasn’t holding the urn.

“Claude, roll your tongue back into your mouth and sit down.” She turned to Juliet. “Juliet, isn’t it? Nellie ain’t here, and this is a family only meeting. Head on back to town and when I see her, I’ll let her know you was looking for her.”

I eased my way towards Nellie. She was within a few feet of where Mike’s ashes rested. She reached out. A loud crack shot through the dark. For a moment, I thought I was shot, but I realized I had stepped on a large twig and snapped it in two. I felt everyone’s eyes turn towards me.

“Grab her!” Carla Ann ran towards the urn. Nellie leapt forward and tackled her before she could reach it. Carla Ann’s chin smacked the dirt as Nellie hurled her to the ground, her gun flying across ground.

I looked around for a moment before realizing all the men were transfixed by two women wrestling in the dirt. I ran and snatched up Mike and the gun. I held the gun up in the air and fired.

Everything stopped. Even the bugs stopped buzzing. A moment later, chaos began. Nellie jumped up and ran towards me. Juliet grabbed her purse and whacked the ballcapped man in the head. I leapt over the crate and crashed through the woods, Carla Ann screeching after me.

I ran as fast as my short legs could carry me through the brambles and vines that reached out and snared my clothes and hair. I had no clue where I was running. I offered up a silent prayer to Juliet’s many spirit guides to point me in the direction of the rental car.

I broke through a particularly sharp and painful batch of saw grass and felt my foot sink and slide in the marsh. The gun slipped out of my hand and into the dark water. I stopped and glanced around for someplace to hide until Carla Ann gave up and went back to her swamp crew. The moon was peeping through the trees, and I saw what I hoped was a log moving through the swamp water towards me.

“Give me back my brother!” Carla Ann yelled. She charged towards me, Juliet and Nellie close behind her.

I had nowhere to go. The saw grass would cut through my thin shirt and leave me marked for life. The water was full of critters that I had no desire to befriend. I grabbed the lid of the urn.

“You come one step closer and I will dump Mike into the bayou!”

“Listen, you frizzy-headed harlot, you give me those ashes.” Carla Ann slowed her large frame to a walk. Her face was an unhealthy shade of violet and her gray hair had escaped its tight bun.

“Ta ta ta,” I said and wagged my finger at her. “Name calling will not help your cause, lady. Neither will the fact that you drugged me. These ashes belong to Nellie. She was his wife.”

“She ain’t got Hebert blood. I promised Mama when she died that I would take care of my baby brother. I can’t do nothing about the Johnson blood that runs through my veins, but I can darn sure make sure that the rest of those crooks pay for what they did to my Mikey. Now, I’m done playing. Give me that damn urn!”

Carla Ann may have slowed, but she wasn’t stopping. A few more feet, and she would be close enough to grab the urn. I unscrewed the top. I held the urn over the swamp.

“Do it, Phee,” Nellie said. “Juliet was right. Mike’s gone. Fighting with family and seeking revenge might be the Hebert way, but it isn’t the Nellie Jo Johnson way. Dump him. He’ll understand.”

“Shut your mouth, Nellie. The biggest mistake Mike ever made was marrying you and moving away to Virginia. He should have married Shirley and stayed here.” Carla Ann took another step towards me. “I’m done playing. Give me those ashes.”

I took a second to consider my options. Nellie gave me a teary-eyed nod. I threw the urn as hard as I could into the swamp. Carla Ann screamed and ran towards me. I jumped out of her way and landed face down in a muddy patch of weeds, a blade of saw grass scratching the tip of my nose. My wrist bone crunched painfully beneath me.

Nellie yanked Carla Ann by the arm. “You are crazier than a rabid muskrat. You need to get your butt back into the church pew and get yourself straight. Messin’ with that mumbo jumbo hoodoo. You’re lucky nobody got hurt. You ruined a perfectly good wake and messed up my ash scattering.”

“You’re nothing but a no good Jezebel–”

Nellie pushed her into the swamp. A loud splash muffled the rest of her swearing. “Bye, Carla Ann. Feel free to cross me off the Christmas card list.”

Juliet reached down and gently helped me up. My wrist throbbed. “I think now would be a good time to head back to the car.”

“I have no clue which way it is.” I looked down at my mud-covered shirt. “I don’t think this qualifies as a mud bath treatment.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get the heck out of here. I grew up in these swamps, so I can get us back to the car,” Nellie said.

“I’m sorry about Mike’s ashes, Nellie.” I limped over to her and gave her a muddy hug with my good arm.

She patted me on my shoulder. “It’s okay. I think he would have liked having all these women fight over him.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I would rather solve a murder than ever deal with your in-laws again.”

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A sneak preview of Catalogued for Catastrophe

“I think it’s a mistake to dig up your yard, Phee,” Juliet said, sipping her cup of herbal tea.

“Nonsense,” I replied. “It’s not every day my baby sister gets married. By the time I’m done with this yard, it will be the ideal spot for your wedding.”

Despite Juliet’s protests, I knew she was happy I had agreed to host her wedding in my backyard. Her original plan to hold the wedding at the lake had been thrown out the window when an ugly red algae bloom had taken over the lake and the odor that emanated from the water could bring a grown man to his knees.

The two men I’d hired to tear down the old garden shed in the backyard had loaded the last scraps of wood into the back of their beat-up Chevy pickup. The elder Mr. Gant stuck plugs into his ears and started the jackhammer.

“If the neighbors weren’t already awake, they will be now with that thing running,” I said.

“You want to go running? Since when have you ever wanted to run?”

I raised my voice so she could hear me over the racket. “I said…oh, never mind.”

The jackhammer made quick work of the cement pad. The younger Mr. Gant wheeled load after load of cement rubble to the construction dumpster. When he bent over to pick up a large chunk of cement, he dropped to his knees.

“What’s he doing?” Juliet asked. She stood up and walked off the porch into the yard to get a closer look.
I followed her down the steps and walked across the yard to speak to the men.

“Phee, I don’t think you should come over here,” the elder Mr. Gant said. His wrinkled, sunburned face had a grayish cast.

“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked. I tried to move closer, but he held up his hand to stop me.

“It’s a skull, Phee. We found a human skull.”

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Phee and Juliet are back!

I put Phee and Juliet on the shelf for the past several months while I dealt with some health issues. One surgery later, and I’m on the road to recovery and back to writing! I’m excited to say that Phee and Juliet will be working on a cold case as they plan for Juliet’s upcoming nuptials. I’ll post a preview of the first chapter this weekend. Thanks for your patience and understanding on the delay writing Catalogued for Catastrophe.

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Browsing for Trouble paperback

Initially, I planned to release the latest Phee adventure only in ebook format. Due to popular demand (and protests from some of my avid readers who hate using a Kindle), I’m pleased to announce that the paperback version will be available later this week!  I’m reviewing the proof copy and once I give the thumbs up, it will be available for purchase.

The next book in the series, Cataloged Under Catastrophe, is slated for an early fall release. I can’t wait to see what happens at Juliet’s wedding and see if Lu changes her mind about including Anthony in her life!

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NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2017

It seems I’m destined to write horror for my challenges with NYC Midnight. My draw on this year’s challenge was horror, substitute teacher and surprise party. I think my short story successfully met each requirement. What do you think?

 

LITTLE GIRLS

“Daddy said Mommy’s head was broken like an egg,” Chelsea said to Amanda. “I tried to wake her up to fix me breakfast, but she just laid there. Now she’s gone, and I don’t have anyone to play with at home.”

“Chelsea. Amanda. It’s time to finish your lunch and put up your tray.”

“Yes, Miss Presley,” the girls said in singsong voices causing goosebumps to appear on my arms.

The two girls stood up and pushed in their chairs. Grabbing their trays, they marched together to dump the remains of their lunch. Their small, blonde heads leaned together as they shared secrets that only other seven-year-olds could know. Chelsea glanced over her shoulder at me and gave me a smile.

It was the end of my first week as a long-term substitute teacher at Mount Holy Cross Catholic School for Girls. Chelsea Pickerall had been my biggest challenge in the classroom. She was sneaky, and I knew she was the kid who had filled my pencil holder with glue. The first grade teacher, Roberta Newsome, told me that Chelsea’s mother had died the previous year, so I knew it was probably normal behavior. Chelsea was processing her mother’s death and acting out. I was a sub though, not a trained psychiatrist. Stuff like this was way above my substitute teacher’s pay grade.

I needed cash, so no matter how much grief these little girls gave me, I had to stick it out until I had enough money to move out of the basement room I rented. Gary, the guy who owned the house, didn’t understand the concept of boundaries and personal space. Two weeks ago, I had caught him rifling through my panty drawer. He had claimed he had spotted a mouse running into my room and was trying to catch it, but I had my doubts. I needed to move before I ended up down in a hole as Gary lowered lotion in a bucket to me.

When I got home that afternoon, Gary the Perv was still at work. I had a surprise party to attend that evening, so I kicked off my sensible shoes and shucked off my kid-friendly, boring brown pants and white blouse. I planned to meet my friend Angie for drinks at her apartment before heading to the party. I wanted to be long gone before my roomie came home.  I showered then slipped into a shimmery black dress. I paired it with some black strappy sandals with heels so high I could almost touch the angels.

I thought I was home-free as I closed my bedroom door behind me and started up the basement steps, but just like most of my life, I was the unluckiest girl in a town full of leprechauns and four-leaf clovers. Gary the Perv stood at the top of the steps, a huge grin on his face.

“You’re looking mighty fine tonight, Morgan. Hot date?” His gray, lizard-like tongue flicked across his chapped lips. His watery pale blue gaze crawled up my legs and took up residence at my cleavage.

“Something like that.” I tried to push past him, but his bulging belly blocked my passage to freedom.

“Stay and have a drink with me before you go. Surely, you can spare a few minutes. I’ve got some cold PBRs in the fridge. A cold beer might cool down some of your hotness.” He smoothed his thinning gray ponytail with his grease-covered hand and wiggled one eyebrow at me.

“Uh, no thanks. I’m running late. Maybe next time.” With a final push, I squeezed past his bulk and practically ran through the living room and out the front door.

“I could give you a night you’d never forget,” Gary called after me.

I slid into the front seat of my trusty old Volvo and fired up the engine. If I could have spun tires getting away from there, I would have, but I contented myself with a small backfire as I sped away.

“You could stay here with me,” Angie said as she poured me another glass of red wine as I related the latest bout with Gary.

“Nah. Your apartment’s so small you have to stick your leg out the bathroom window just to shave it. I value our friendship too much to make you share a space with me and my habits.” I took a sip of wine. “I’ve got to get a better job than substitute teaching. There’s the weirdest little girl in my class. I should feel sorry for her because her mom died, but she gives me the willies. Little girls are so creepy.”

“For tonight, forget about Gary and scary kids and just focus on fun. The house where this party is being held is a mansion. The guy that owns it does something with stocks. I’m not really sure, and I don’t really care. I plan to eat, drink and pick up a handsome man and let him have his way with me,” Angie said. She clinked her wine glass against mine. “You in?”

“Most definitely.” I gulped down the remains of my wine. “Let’s get this party started. Whoop whoop!”

An hour later, the taxi was pulling up to the biggest old house I’d ever seen outside of the movies. There were two cars parked out front, but the house didn’t look like it was lit up for a party. “Who did you say this surprise party was for?” I asked Angie.

“Oh, some friend of a friend. Who cares? We’re here to get our drink on and have some fun. Life is too short to sweat the details, Morgan. You really do need to lighten up and live a little. Come on!” She climbed out of the back of the taxi and handed the driver a twenty. “Keep the change.”

I followed behind her as she sashayed her way up the steps to the front door. Angie and I had only been friends for the past few months, but we’d clicked when we met at the nail salon where she worked. She was the ultimate party girl and exactly what I needed after my last relationship crashed and burned so badly I had to leave town and move here to Lawrenceville. Angie opened the front door of the house.

“Ang! Shouldn’t you knock?” I asked.

“It’s a party. Quit being such a stick.” She walked in and left me standing outside on the steps. I hesitated. My mother would have killed me walking into someone’s home unannounced. Mama wasn’t here though. She had died three years ago leaving me with a mountain of debt as my only inheritance. Shaking my head at Angie’s boldness, I walked up the steps. As I stepped into the house, the door slammed shut behind me. Startled, I jumped. A breeze had been stirring the leaves in the trees outside. It had probably caught the door and slammed it shut.

I looked around the entry hall. A few candles set on a long table flickered and cast shadows that danced across the pale walls. A center staircase led to a darkened upstairs floor. Where in the hell was Angie?

“Hello? Where is everyone?” My voice echoed. Maybe they were in a room somewhere else in the house and couldn’t hear me. I walked towards the first closed doorway. Opening it, I peered inside. Bookshelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling. In the center of the floor was a zebra skin rug with what looked to be a stone altar in the center of it. I moved into the room to get a closer look. I laid my hands on the cool grey stone. It hummed beneath my touch. I snatched my hands back.  Peering at the shelves, I noticed that the titles were mostly in Latin or Greek. I wished I’d paid more attention to the nuns as a child. I pulled one of the books off the shelf. It was bound in pale leather. The title, Oera Linda, was embossed in a dark reddish-brown font across the front. The hairs at the nape of my neck stood on end as my fingertips traced the title. I heard a sound behind me and quickly shoved the book back onto the shelf.

“Hi, Miss Presley,” a small voice said behind me.

Turning, I saw Chelsea standing in the doorway. “Why hello, Chelsea. Is this your house?”

“Uh huh. Me and my Daddy’s.” Her wide blue eyes stared at me, unblinking. “What are you doing here, Miss Presley? Did you come to play with me?”

“Um. Not tonight. My friend brought me here for a party. Do you know where everyone is?” I wanted to get out of this room and away from Chelsea. The last thing I wanted to do was spend more time with her after the hell week I endured with her in my classroom.

“Yeah, but I’m not going to tell you.” Chelsea gave me an odd little smile. “If you come to my room and have a tea party with me, then I might tell you where they are.”

Screw this! I thought. I’ve had enough of this kid. I walked up to Chelsea and grabbed her arm. “Where is everybody?” I barked.

Chelsea leaned down and bit my hand. Startled, I released her arm and stepped back in shock. A perfect ring of tooth marks marred my hand “What the–?”

“Miss Presley, come play with me. If you don’t, I’ll tell Daddy that you touched me. He’ll get very angry like he did with Mommy.” She turned and started to leave the room. She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Come play with me.”

Fuck my life, I thought. Angie will come rescue me from this little terror, and then I’m out of here.  I followed Chelsea as she led me out of the library and up the dark stairs to the second floor. I could barely see to walk. If not for the candles flickering in wall sconces and reflecting off Chelsea’s pale hair, I would have gotten lost. The house was huge. The twists and turns down the dark hallway and up another flight of stairs made it seem labyrinthian.  Finally, Chelsea opened a door at the top of a final flight of stairs and as she did, light cascaded down. I practically dashed up the last few steps in my eagerness to leave the darkness behind me. The room Chelsea brought me to was wallpapered in a dusty pink flowered pattern with white stripes. A small canopy bed occupied the center of the room, and numerous dolls and stuffed animals littered the floor. I practically collapsed in relief at the normalcy of the scene in front of me.

“Come try some of my special honey tea,” Chelsea commanded. She sat primly at a small pink and white table, a doll clutched tightly to her chest.

“Okay,” I said. Anything to stay in this light-filled room and out of the dark recesses of the rest of the house. Surely Angie would come looking for me soon. After all, it was her idea to get me to come to this party.  I folded my adult frame into the child-sized chair and watched Chelsea pour tea from a petite teapot painted with dancing bunnies. When she was done pouring, I picked up the teacup and pretended to take a sip.

“That’s cheating, Miss Presley. You have to really drink the tea, or I won’t tell you where the party is.”

I rolled my eyes at this mini-dictator holding a doll and drank the entire cup of tea down in one gulp. It was surprisingly good. “Yummy,” I said in a saccharine sweet voice. “Where is everyone, Chelsea? A deal’s a deal.”

“You suck,” Chelsea pouted. “I want someone to play with me. I’m lonely since Mommy left. You need to stay here with me forever.” She slammed the teapot down on the table causing brown liquid to splash out of the spout.

My head started to pound. I tried to stand up and leave, but my legs suddenly felt like two sacks filled with concrete. I looked at Chelsea. Her petite features seemed to melt together into a pale blur. Her small, gray tongue flicked out across her chapped pink lips. “Don’t you want some more tea to cool down some of that hotness, Miss Presley?” Her tiny voice echoed Gary the Perv’s earlier words. She giggled.

I grabbed the small table and hauled my body up from the tiny chair. My lids felt too large and heavy for my eyes, and I struggled to hold them open. “Where’s Angie? Where’s my friend? What did you do, Chelsea?” My tongue thickened and tripped over the words as they left my mouth.

“She’s right behind you, Miss Presley. Angie’s my daddy’s new friend, but she doesn’t like to play with me.” Chelsea pointed behind me. “Daddy said I need to have my own friends.”

I slowly turned my head to see Angie standing behind me, her body wrapped tightly around a dark-haired man. One breast hung out of her dress as his large hand pinched the nipple. She arched her back in pleasure, then she moved her face close to mine. “Surprise!” Angie trilled. Her teeth were large and sharp in her red mouth as she laughed.

“What are you–”

“What am I doing?” Angie finished. “Poor Morgie Porgie. You really are a sad sack, aren’t you? It’s simple. You don’t appreciate the life you have. Whine, whine, whine. Your job sucks. Your place sucks. Face it, Morgan. Your life is one big suck festival. Chelsea needs a new playmate. Ding ding ding! You won playmate of the year. Sorry it’s not the kind that gets you a cool car and bunny ears.”

“She’s a little girl, she doesn’t–”

The room filled with laughter, the sound booming in my ears so loudly my skull seemed to crack from the sheer volume of it. I couldn’t hold my eyes open much longer. I stumbled away from Angie. My heel caught on one of the dolls, and I slammed to the floor. Before I sank into darkness, I saw Chelsea creep slowly towards my leg as her mouth widened and her tongue licked my ankle.

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Browsing for Trouble

I hope you enjoy this preview from Chapter One of Browsing for Trouble which is set for release in mid-December.

“No men and no murder,” Juliet declared as she lifted her glass in the air. “This girls’ vacation will be margaritas, Mai Tais and manicures.”

“You won’t get any argument from me,” I said, clinking my margarita glass to hers. “It was awesome of Willow’s parents to let us stay here for free. I plan on relaxing by the pool, reading the latest mysteries from my favorite authors and catching up on my sleep.”

“Uh…can anyone say boring?” Juliet pretended to stifle a yawn. “You can read anywhere, and you can sleep when you get back home. This vacation is all about fun and the sun and spending time with your soon-to-be married baby sister.”

“The sun makes me freckle and what I suggested is fun.”

“Wear sunscreen, for Pete’s sake. What are you ninety?” Juliet complained. “I’ve created a list of all the things I want to do while we’re here in Sedona. I want to go on one of the Jeep trips through the desert, go hiking and see the place where gravity doesn’t exist-”

“Gravity always exists here on Earth. There’s no way it can’t exist. If it didn’t exist, we would weigh ten pounds and float,” I said with a skeptical look.

“Look!” Juliet thrust a guidebook under my nose. I grabbed it from her.

“It’s called an energy vortex.” My eyes skimmed through the description. “People come from all over the world on vision quests or missions to feel the energy. Hmm…this sounds right up you and Willow’s alley. A bunch of woo woo healing and crystals. Have fun with that. I’ll be in the spa getting a massage.” I put my sunglasses on and took a sip of my margarita.

“Dang it, Flea! You promised we would have a real girls’ vacation before Wade and I get married. This is my last taste of freedom before I settle down, clean house and maybe make babies one day.” She snatched the guidebook back and glared at me.

“Fine. I’ll go to the healing crystal woo woo vortex if you promise to go with me to some of the museums.”

“Deal.” Juliet grinned. “This is gonna be the best trip ever!”

“Well, before I get blisters on my feet hiking in the desert, I plan on getting pampered. It’s time for our mud bath.”

“Willow said her parents don’t like to call them mud baths. They’re restorative body treatments. I signed us up for the Prickly Pear Garnet treatment. It’s supposed to make your skin soft and silky smooth. Plus, it pulls out all the toxins and bad mojo with the stones they place around you.”

“If they can keep me from having any more murder mojo, I’ll declare this trip a success. My skin is already soft and silky smooth,” I said. I sipped the last of my margarita and stood up to head indoors to the spa.

“That’s not what Clint said,” Juliet snickered. “He told me to make sure you get buffed and bedazzled and to make sure someone takes care of those horse hooves you call feet.”

“What?” I cried. “Look at these toes. These are the feet of a movie star.” I showed her my short, fat feet with the pearly pink toenails.

“If you’re a hobbit.” Juliet laughed. “I’m just kidding. Clint just told me to make sure you had fun. He worries about you, Phee.”

“I know he does,” I said softly. “I’m okay. I worry about Nellie Jo. She seems so sad now that Mike’s gone. He was her whole world and now she has to figure out how to live without him.”

“Nellie is tougher than you think. Did you know she’s signed up for yoga and a college class?”

“No. Really?”

“Yep. She told me she’s going to try all the things she was too scared to do before. She said each time she does something new, she can hear his voice in her head telling her she is being a Nervous Nellie. It makes her smile.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “We should all try new things even if they make us nervous.”

“Um…yeah…didn’t I just say we needed to go to the vortex? Hello? New. Different.” Juliet gave me an incredulous look.

“And we are.” I pulled open the door to the room where Juliet and I were scheduled for our spa treatments. A woman was lying on the table with clay covering her arms and face. The rest of her was covered by a white sheet. “Oh! I’m sorry. I thought our appointment was at two o’clock.” She didn’t move or even acknowledge we had entered the room.

“Maybe she’s deaf,” Juliet whispered.

“If she’s deaf, why are you whispering?” I hissed back. “Ma’am? Is your aesthetician here? I think there’s been a mix up in times.”

The woman still didn’t move. I moved in closer and noticed that she did not appear to be breathing. “Ma’am? Are you okay?” I asked in a loud, clear voice. I turned to Juliet. “Maybe she’s asleep.”

Juliet stepped forward and shook the woman to awaken her. As she did, the woman’s arm fell off and clattered to the floor.

Juliet screamed and shattered the quiet tranquility of the spa. “Oh my goddess! Oh my goddess! It’s some kind of horrible flesh-eating zombie disease and now I’ve got it! I’ve got the plague. I’m gonna lose my arms and maybe my teeth. I’m not going to be able to wear my sleeveless wedding dress because I won’t have any arms!” She hopped around the room flapping her hands and squawking like a hen in heat.

In shock, I looked at the woman who still hadn’t moved. It was then that I noticed something strange about her mud-covered body. I leaned down and picked her arm off the floor and thrust it towards Juliet.

“What in the blue blazes are you doing, Phee?” Juliet screeched. “Now you’ve got the plague! Poor Mom and Dad will be heartbroken!”

“It’s not real,” I said. I tried to hand her the arm, but she just shook her head and backed away from me in fright.

After a moment, Juliet calmed down enough to ask, “So it’s a prosthetic? Is she…dead?”

“Not quite, Jules. What we have here, my dear hysterical sister, is a mannequin. Someone just played a very nasty trick on us.”

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