NYC MIDNIGHT – SHORT STORY CHALLENGE 2019

I’m competing in NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge again this year. You have one week to write a short story (2500 words) on a topic they provide. This year I was given crime caper, setting was funeral home, and character is chocolatier. This seemed perfect for Phee and Juliet to tackle since they had just been on a crime caper with Nellie Jo to dispose of Mike’s ashes.

Double-dipped Disaster

“Nellie Jo told me how you helped her out with Mike’s body down in Louisiana,” Chantal said. She pronounced it loozy anna.

“Did she also tell you we almost got killed trying to dump Mike’s ashes in the bayou?” I grimaced at the memory of the alligator that had almost made me into its dinner. “I’m a librarian, not a detective. If I’ve happened to stumble over a dead body or two in the course of retrieving a few overdue library books, it was more a case of bad luck than crime solving.”

“Please, Phee, I don’t know who else to ask. I just need you to get that recipe book before they bury Uncle Henri,” Chantal pleaded, tears threatening to fall. “It’s my legacy, and Carl had no right to take it. The funeral is tomorrow morning. I’m out of options.”  

My gut told me to walk away and hope she could find somebody else to help her, but my marshmallow heart was toast. “Fine. I’ll help, but only if Juliet agrees. I’m not breaking into Nash and Slaw’s on my own.”

Chantal wiped her eyes with a tissue and smiled. “Thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate this. I’ve been pacing the floor like a caged panther trying to figure out another way. If Carl wasn’t such a snake who has my mama fooled six ways to Sunday…well, I say never trust a man who goes sockless with leather loafers. He thinks me going into the chocolate business is a waste of time and money, and now Mama agrees with him. Uncle Henri left me that money to continue his chocolate shop. The recipes in that book are my family’s heritage. Carl thinks it all needs to be buried and forgotten because Uncle Henri was Daddy’s brother. Carl wants to take my inheritance and invest it in something safe. Safely in his pockets, I’m sure.”

After Chantal left, I called Juliet. She agreed to meet me at Odd Couple’s Diner after she finished teaching her last yoga class. I spent the rest of the day cataloging books and researching how many years I would serve in prison for breaking into a funeral home.

 When I got to the diner, Juliet was already seated in a corner booth. Tall and slim, no one would ever guess she was my sister. Juliet’s blonde hair would have made Goldilocks envious. I was short and fluffy with red hair. Fortunately, I had inherited the brains.  

I waited until our food arrived before I gave her the lowdown. Juliet operates better after she’s eaten a double order of fries and a chocolate cherry shake. I stuck with my oh-so-tasty house salad.

“Chantal needs us to take the book and replace it with a fake,” I said, pushing a limp lettuce leaf around in an oily substance with flecks of oregano in it.

“So why do we have to put a fake one in its place? How will they ever know? It’ll be buried six feet under. Unless Henri comes back as a ghost and tells all.” Juliet’s eyes widened, and she gave a slight shiver. “Haunted by a chocolatier. Sounds like the title to one of those cozy mysteries you read all the time.”

“They’re having a final open casket viewing tomorrow before leaving for the cemetery. There won’t be another chance. It’s not like we can snatch the recipe book out of his cold, dead hands while we pass by and pay our respects. We’re going back tonight after closing.”

“Break into a funeral home? In the dark? With dead bodies? We’re supposed to be crime stoppers, not crime committers!” Juliet’s voice rose in pitch and volume, and a few of the diners turned to look at us.

“Shush!” I whispered. “The word is criminals, not crime committers. Anyway, we’re technically not stealing anything. We’re righting a wrong. Henri would have wanted Chantal to have those recipes. If only he had given her the book before he died, but I guess he thought he had a few more good years.”

“Funeral homes are bad juju. We’ll have dead people cooties on us and that will mess up my aura.”

“It’s just dead people. There’s nothing to be afraid of, you ninny.” My sister is a firm believer in the afterlife, ghosts, and any other New Age woo woo crap that was hot for the moment.

“Why can’t Chantal do it?”

“She has to be with the family tonight. No one will ever suspect it’s us, and she’ll be in the clear. We’ll go to the viewing and get the layout. It’s a funeral home, not the Tower of London. It should be easy.”

Several hours later, I eased Velma, my ‘sixty-eight VW van, into a side street a block from the Victorian house that served as our local funeral home. We had paid our respects to the family earlier that evening. Chantal had been jumpier than a mouse at a cat show when we had shown up. When we passed through the line to pay our respects, I had given her a small thumbs up, and she seemed to relax a little.

I handed Juliet a black ski mask. I slipped mine over my head. I had bedazzled it with a cursive “L” in the middle of the forehead for librarian. Juliet’s sported a “Y” for yogi. If I was going to get arrested for body tampering, I wanted to be stylish.

Juliet rolled her eyes at the mask, but she slipped it on. I tucked a penlight into my bra and motioned for her to follow me. We crept along the wrought iron fence that surrounded the cemetery and slipped through a gap in the hedge.

When I saw the backyard was lit up like a football stadium, I stopped. Juliet plowed into the back of me. I tumbled into the grass. Rolling over, I stared up at the night stars and counted to ten.

“Oh, my goddess! Are you okay?” Juliet reached down to grab my hand.

“Yes,” I whispered. I brushed my hands off onto my pants. “Listen. Here’s the plan. I’m going to run across the lawn to the back. You count to thirty then follow me. Got it?”

Juliet gave me a thumbs up. I sprinted across the yard, then squatted down behind a large rhododendron near the back. Thirty seconds later, Juliet began to run across the yard to join me. She would have made it in record time with those long legs of hers, but when she was almost to me, a jet of water shot up from the ground and hit her in the butt. The automatic sprinklers had started. She squealed, did a pirouette, then a jig, and finally cartwheeled into a rose bush.

“Juliet!” I hissed. No response. Crap. I was going to have to rescue her.

I slid along the side of the building until I reached her. My sister had faceplanted into a teacup rosebush. She groaned and stood up. She plucked a thorny stem from her mask.

“I’m fine. Let’s just do this and get out of here.”

I tugged on a basement window. It resisted for a moment then opened. Juliet eased through the narrow space. I followed her, but my bountiful bottom decided to stop me. I was stuck between the window and the frame.

“Pull me,” I said. I reached my hand out to Juliet. She gave a mighty tug, and I popped out of the window like a champagne cork.

“Perhaps Chantal could give you some sugar-free chocolate as a reward,” Juliet said. She gave me a toothy grin.

“Perhaps we should hurry up and get out of here before we’re discovered,” I said, giving her the evil eye. “We need to find out how to get upstairs.”

I pulled the penlight out of my bra. The narrow beam provided just enough light for me to see we were in a storage area surrounded by coffins.

“This is the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Juliet said. “I want to be a tree.”

“What the–a tree? What in Sam Hill are you talking about?” I demanded.

“Promise me that when I die, you won’t put me in a coffin. Have them make me into a tree or pressed into a diamond, but no coffin. Promise?”

“Fine. I’ll make you into a tree and plant you. There’s a door.” I shone the flashlight across the room. “Maybe it will lead upstairs to the viewing rooms.”

Juliet skirted past the coffins making sure not to touch them and opened the door. She slammed it shut. “Nope. Not doing it. I’m outta here.”

I reached out a hand to stop her. “What’s behind the door?”

“Dead people. I see dead people, Phee!”

I sighed. Maybe I should have asked someone else to be my sidekick. “We’re in a funeral home. They have dead people.”

I yanked the door open and glanced inside. In the middle of the floor on a metal table was Mrs. Sampson. I’d heard that she’d died. I hadn’t been saddened to hear of her passing. She was old, plus she had threatened my dog, Watson, with her cane when we were at the park the previous week. Unfortunately, her dead body lay between us and the elevator to the upstairs. I had to get Juliet to pass by her.

“Close your eyes and hold on to my hand,” I said.

“I can’t do it, Phee.”

“I’m your big sister. I promise I won’t let you get dead people cooties on you. Do you trust me?”

Juliet nodded and squeezed her eyes shut. She held her hand out, and I grabbed it.  I led her around Mrs. Sampson and hit the button for the elevator. A moment later, it groaned to a halt and the doors slid open.

“You can open your eyes. We’re going up.”

It was more like a large dumbwaiter than an elevator. I suppose it’s how they were able to get the bodies upstairs after they were prepared. When the doors opened, we were in a hallway. The Blackbird Room where Henri was laid out was to our right. I pointed to it with my chin and motioned for Juliet to follow me. Inside the room, the casket was closed.

“I can’t look,” Juliet squeaked.

“I can’t lift the lid on my own. You need to suck it up and help me. Please.” The ski mask was making me hot, so I yanked it off and tucked it into my back pocket.

We reached over and lifted the lid. Inside, Henri Rocqueville was in a three-piece gray suit with a red silk handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. He looked the same as he had the last time I had seen him in the library. I always thought he was the most well-dressed man in town. I looked down. Clasped in his hand was a small leather book.

“There’s the recipe book,” Juliet whispered. “Did you remember to bring the fake one?”

I reached into my bra and pulled it out. “Of course.”

“What the heck do you have in that bra of yours? My goddess, it’s like a clown car. Things just keep popping out.”

“Ha ha. You’re jealous because you don’t have my voluptuous body. Grab the book.”

“No. Not just no, but hell no. I’m not touching anything in this coffin.”

I pushed her out of the way, grabbed the book, and tucked it into my bra. I was opening his fingers to place the new book into his hands when the lights came on.

“Hands up or I’ll shoot!”

Juliet screamed and collapsed in a faint. I held my hands up and turned around to see old Mrs. Nash standing in a white nightgown in the doorway, a shotgun in her hand.

“Hi, Mrs. Nash. Would you believe me if I said we just wanted to pay our respects?”

“Ophelia Jefferson?” She squinted at me. “Is that you? What in the world are you doing in here in the middle of the night? Is that Juliet passed out on the floor?”

“Yes, ma’am. I can explain.” I put my hands down as she lowered the shotgun.

“Hell’s bells, girl. If you’re standing over Henri’s body, I know it has something to do with the screaming match I heard between that tight ass Carl Shockley and Chantal. I’m better off not knowing. Get some water and toss it on that sister of yours to wake her up.” Mrs. Nash indicated the water cooler that was in the hallway. I did as she instructed. I yanked off Juliet’s ski mask and dowsed her. She sputtered and sat up.

“Am I dead? What happened?”

“You’re not dead. It’s Mrs. Nash.”

Juliet stood up with a sheepish look. “I thought you were a ghost in that white nightgown.”

“Shucks. I still have a few good years left. I sometimes sleep in one of the empty coffins. Ed snores so loud it shakes the entire house. I have to leave and come next door to get any rest,” Mrs. Nash said.

“Are you going to call the police?” I asked her.

She stared at me long and hard. I tried my best to look wholesome and innocent. “I tell you what. I don’t know what you two are up to, but I’ve heard rumors about Carl and how he treats that stepdaughter of his. I also know that Henri thought the world of his niece. I’m guessing you two creeping around here in the dead of night has something to do with Chantal.”

“It does. We’re just trying to do right by Henri and Chantal,” I said.

Mrs. Nash held up her hand to stop me. “If you don’t tell me anything, I won’t have to lie.” She yawned. “I’m awfully tired, so I think I’ll go back to bed. You girls make sure you lock that back door when you finish.”

With a wink and a smile, Mrs. Nash walked away with the shotgun slung over her shoulder. Juliet slumped against me. I reached over and gave her a hug. “Come on. Let me put this book in his hand, and we can get out of here before anything else happens.”

Ten minutes later, we were back in my van. I leaned my head against the seat and let out a laugh.

“What?” Juliet demanded.

“Mrs. Nash sleeps in a coffin. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Juliet grinned. “No crazier than a librarian breaking into a funeral home in the middle of the night. Let’s go home.”

Juliet was right. I fired up the van and headed towards home.

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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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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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What I’ve Learned

I never planned to write a book.  I wanted to write, but fear prevented any attempt to put my fingers to the keyboard and start. Last November, I took the plunge and participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  From those thirty days of writing 50,000 words, the character of Phee Jefferson came to life.  When I was done, I liked the story.  In thirty days of writing, the characters became real.  I could see their relationships and imagine everyday scenarios for them.  I got the crazy idea to go the indie publishing route, so I put the novel together and published it as Death is Long Overdue.  

It’s been a few months since I released the first book.  Along the way, I’ve learned several lessons that I hope will guide other writers who choose to meander down the indie author path. 

Amy’s Rule #1:  Write it and walk away.  Write the story.  It has a life of its own and needs to take form.  Once the final word is on the page, save it and walk away.  Don’t read it, think about it or talk about it for at least a week or two (longer if you can stand it).  Know that you can’t be objective about your newly born creation. After a few weeks, you become less attached and can review it with a critical eye.  You can slash that awful paragraph you thought was phenomenal when you wrote it but now realize doesn’t move the story forward and is really just taking up space.  I edited Death is Long Overdue immediately after writing it and missed critical errors in grammar (passive voice, overuse of words, etc.) because I was too attached to my infant novel at the time. Since I went the self-publishing route, I corrected the published ebook and paperback in a brutal two week marathon of rewrites this month, but I may have lost future readers due to freshman mistakes. 

Amy’s Rule #2:  Hire a proofreader/editor.  Friends are great for beta readers and for feedback on scenes and the story itself; however, they realize this is your baby and may be tentative to give constructive criticism.  The ideal situation is to hire a professional to proofread for grammar, etc. and edit for story, but if that isn’t a feasible option, invest in one of the myriad of programs available.  I’ve chosen to use ProWriting Aid for my second novel, Summer Reading is Killing Me, and it’s made my self-editing faster and more objective.  The computer doesn’t care that I love a certain word.  For example, I learned I write “just” just a little too much.  It highlights it and prompts me to get rid of at least 4 uses of it out of the 10.  Fortunately, I have a friend who edits for story.  She doesn’t mince words when she reads a scene.  It either works or leaves her flat.  If she’s not sure, she’ll ask “why” so if I can’t justify it, I delete it or rewrite it.  Make sure you have one person in your arsenal willing to do this if you can’t afford to hire someone to edit for content. 

Amy’s Rule # 3:  Read, Read, Read. Read as much as you can about writing, marketing and publish.  Review those darn grammar rules you thought you’d never use after graduation.  I have stacks of books, bookmarked sites and lots of great pins on my Pinterest board to help tighten my writing and guide me through the maze of self-publishing.  I published the first book through Amazon.  Amazon is user-friendly and is a great way to start if you are publishing your first book.  I took advantage of their KDP Select program which allows subscribers who participate in Kindle Unlimited to check out my novel.  You can use it as a tool to build a fan base.  By choosing this route, however, I am restricted to publishing my ebook with Amazon for 90 days. This prevents me from releasing the book to Nook, Kobo, GooglePlay etc. until April 2015.  For the second book, I plan to utilize Aerbook for ebook format and both Amazon and Ingram for the paperback version.  Learn from the mistakes others have made and also from their successes.  The great thing about the indie author crowd is their willingness to support each other.  If I had researched and read before publishing, I would have known to purchase my own ISBN; realized the restrictions of publishing through Amazon; and would have known that if you want people to read your book, you need to learn to promote, promote, promote.   

Amy’s Rule # 4: Don’t be afraid to break the rules:  What works for me may not work for you.  Indie authors are all about breaking free from the rules of traditional book publishing.  At this point, I plan to continue down the indie path for several reasons.  First, I have a stressful day job. I think the pressure I might get from an agent or publishing house would add too much stress and take away the fun I have writing. This may change, but for now, I’m okay with independent publishing. I formed my own publishing company, Bella Lilly Press, so I can publish under my own imprint rather than CreateSpace, etc.  This also allows other independent authors to publish under my imprint in the future. Second, I like having control over my writing as well as how much or how little I market, promote, etc.  Of course, being independent means I do it all myself, but it also means I don’t have to do something I don’t like.  Third, I do this because I enjoy it.  I like my characters. I like seeing what they’ll do next.  One night last week, I was writing and became so invested in the story when I finished the chapter, I raised my fist and cheered.  I was writing it, but even I couldn’t wait to see how it ended.  Crazy!  Thank goodness my Jack Russell Terriers, Watson and Fritz, ignore my sudden outbursts.  I don’t want to lose that “thrill of the write” by compromising for a publishing house’s bottom line.    

I hope you’ll follow along with me as I continue Phee’s attempts to solve crime in the small village of Miller’s Cove. In Summer Reading is Killing Me, Phee stumbles upon a body in Longfellow Park.  The victim is Elody Campbell, famous for being famous party girl and daughter of Senator Richard Campbell. Someone made sure Elody’s party days are over.  Soon, Miller’s Cove is overrun with paparazzi, and the town is in a tizzy.  This time, Phee’s not solving the mystery alone.  Her sister, Juliet, is along for the ride.  Will the two of them catch the killer or will the case be too hot to handle for a small town librarian and her free-spirited sister?   (Release date:  May 1, 2015)

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