A Different Kind of Mystery

Shifting and Shenanigans by Elizabeth Pantley Banner

Shifting and Shenanigans Virtual Book Tour October 10-21, 2022

Fiction—and mystery fiction in particular—opens the door to fascinating places where everyday life takes a backseat to adventure in a journey through the unknown. And when that journey includes talking cats, eccentric characters, and paranormal elements, the result is a spiced-up cozy mystery that delivers a storyline full of twists and turns before building to an unexpected conclusion. If this sounds like something you’d find entertaining, then the Magical Mystery Book Club might just be for you!

In Shifting and Shenanigans, the first of the three-book series, the internationally bestselling author Elizabeth Pantley introduces us to just-divorced Paige and her free-spirited Aunt Gloria. Together, the intrepid duo discover Paige’s great-grandmother Gee-Gee has bequeathed to them the Snapdragon Inn, a long-time favorite vacation spot in Cascade Valley, Colorado.  And while inherited properties, family adventures, and book clubs are often found in cozy mysteries, this author takes a unique approach to these plot elements. The first big twist comes when Paige and Gloria venture down into the two-story library built beneath the inn—space that’s been locked and off-limits all their lives. Access to the library is limited to the eight book club characters, including Zell, a feisty octogenarian and a talking cat named Frank, who were part of Gee-Gee’s adventures in the past and who guide Paige and Gloria as they find others to join their club. Readers familiar with cozy mysteries will recognize some common themes, including the tradition of sharing food and drinks before settling into a discussion of the book the club has been reading. Those similarities carry over to this story, with each character contributing skills and supplies in addition to gathering meals in local restaurants.  A shared passion for good food is just one of the multiple bonds developing between club members.

Similarities soon give way to the quirky and unexpected when the group explores the library, which is exclusively devoted to cozy mysteries. The discovery that each title is presented in a packaged set of eight books leads Zell and Frank to explain the more esoteric features of the book club—an explanation that is cut short when Paige impulsively grabs a copy and reads the first page aloud. In a flash, the phrase “let’s get into the book” turns to reality as the group—and the Snapdragon Inn—are magically drawn into the book and become characters in the story. Together, this eccentric group must find a way to work together and uncover the community’s secrets that led to murder before they can get out of the book and find their way home again. The suspense builds to an unexpected and totally satisfying ending, leaving the reader eager for more.

The author—who has written other paranormal books as well as popular non-fiction—combines the classic elements of a cozy mystery and paranormal fiction to create a unique series that’s an enjoyable read. I look forward to seeing how both characters and storylines develop in the second and third book of the series, which are now available for purchase.  

Synopsis:

Paige and her adventurous Aunt Glo inherit a country inn from eccentric GeeGee. They pack up and hit the road, arriving at the charming place they both loved since childhood. Finally! They can get into the secret room in the basement that GeeGee kept locked! They discover it’s a wonderful library filled to the brim with mystery books. But more than the room was a secret – it’s a magical place that houses enchanted books. Paige and Glo find themselves smack-dab in the middle of a murder mystery, along with a motley group of book club friends. The club will need to work together to solve the case in order to get out of the book and back to their home.

Praise for Shifting and Shenanigans:

Judi, Amazon Reviewer: “A book club cozy mystery with a wonderful twist!”

@mullanewayne: “I’m ravenous for the next book!”

Book Bites: “The concept is nothing short of brilliant!”

JACW, Amazon: “A must-read mystery!”

Cozy Up with Kathy: “A unique twist to the cozy mystery genre! I was enchanted.”

 

Book Details:

Genre: Paranormal Cozy Mystery

Published by: Indie

Publication Date: July 15th 2022

Number of Pages: 210

ASIN: B0B3WLF7CW

Series: Magical Mystery Book Club #1

Book Links: Amazon | Goodreads

 

Read an excerpt:

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said the locksmith. He took a step back and scratched his head. He’d been at it for twenty minutes and still hadn’t opened the door. “It doesn’t make sense. This takes a skeleton key. It should be a simple task. People can do it with a couple of Allen wrenches. I’ve even done it with a pair of paperclips.” “So, what do we do now?” Glo asked. “Best thing is to contact a carpenter. Since the hinges are inside, he’ll have to drill the lock. It’ll destroy the lock and damage your door, though.” “We don’t have much choice. We want to get into the room, so we’ll have to do it,” I said. After the locksmith left, we looked up a couple of local contractors, but any openings were days away. We texted Theo but hadn’t heard back from him yet. We decided to start the day by sorting out the kitchen. There were plenty of dishes and dry goods, but the organization was an absolute mess. “How in the world did she work in this disaster?” Glo mumbled. “You’d spend half your time searching for things!” She was emptying out a cabinet. She pulled out an odd assortment of dishes, pots, cleaning supplies, and canned goods. She started to laugh and held up a hundred-piece puzzle in one hand and a shoeshine kit in the other. “Now this makes perfect sense.” She was snorting. “Make dinner, clean up, shine your shoes and do a puzzle.” I held up a few treasures from the cabinet I was working on. “And here you go. In case you need a spare pair of socks, a stack of plastic containers – no lids – and printer ink.” “It’s like a treasure hunt! It’s good for us to sort through all this anyhow.” “True,” I agreed. “Then we’ll know what we’ve got. Let me find some paper and a pen and we’ll start a list of things we need.” I began to sort through the typical drawers most people would use for things like pens and scratch paper, then groaned. “You know what’s in her junk drawers? Talcum powder, coffee creamer, clothespins, and aha! The soup bowls!” “Where’s the very last place you’d look for a pen and paper? Try that first,” snickered Glo. “Probably the bathroom,” I joked. “I’ll just make a list on my phone.” I opened another cabinet and groaned at the stack of boxes and plastic containers jammed into every inch. They were filled with random stuff. I took them to the table and dumped them out. “Holy Toledo! Glo, look at this!” I stood up and did a little dance around the kitchen. I shimmied over to her, then held up a very old-looking skeleton key. ~ ~ ~ “I feel like we should have a drum roll or a trumpet fanfare—” “—or fireworks!” laughed Glo. “At least a countdown. Five … four … three … two … one! Blastoff!” I turned the key and heard the click as it unlocked. “Houston, we have liftoff.” I twisted the knob and pushed the door open. There was a set of stairs to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs was another door. We opened it. Impossibly, there was another set of stairs. At the bottom of those stairs was yet another door. It required a skeleton key to open. I stared at the key in my hand. “You better work,” I told the key. The key worked smoothly, and I opened the door. Our jaws dropped and neither of us spoke. You could have heard a cotton ball drop. Finally, Glo broke the silence. “Holy macaroni! This is insane!” “How could she have kept this secret our whole lives?” I wondered. “WHY did she keep this secret?” Glo added. “This room is the size of the entire house! It’s enormous. Ginormous!” I whistled. “This secret space is underneath the inn! How is it two stories high? Is that even structurally sound? This is bizarre.” The room was indeed two levels high, connected by a brass spiral staircase. In the front area, where we were glued to the spot, was a large seating area with eight cozy floral patterned armchairs. A beautiful wooden coffee table sat in the middle. There was an antique globe on a brass stand, and a stone fireplace like the one upstairs. This one had an intricately carved wood mantle and a stone hearth. A large statue of a woman holding a book was centered on the mantle. “Look at all these books!” exclaimed Glo, spinning in a circle. “This is the library GeeGee referred to in her will! Remember? She said she’s putting us in charge. That it’s priceless!” “I am beyond confused, Paige. How is this even possible? GeeGee was just a sweet little innkeeper. She was the lady who baked us cookies and homemade stew. And she was hiding all this right under our feet?!” *** Excerpt from Shifting and Shenanigans by Elizabeth Pantley. Copyright 2022 by Elizabeth Pantley. Reproduced with permission from Elizabeth Pantley. All rights reserved.

 

Author Bio:

Elizabeth Pantley

Elizabeth Pantley says that writing her Mystery and Magic book series is the most fun she’s ever had at work. Fans of the series say her joy is evident through the engaging stories she tells. Elizabeth is also the international bestselling author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution and twelve other books for parents. Her books have been published in over twenty languages. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, a beautiful inspiration for her enchanted worlds.

Catch Up With Elizabeth Pantley:

www.NoCrySolution.com

Goodreads BookBub – @DestinyFalls Instagram – @destinyfallsmystery

Facebook – @DestinyFallsMysteryandMagic

 

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GIVEAWAY:

This is a giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Tours for Elizabeth Pantley. See the widget for entry terms and conditions. Void where prohibited.

 

 

 

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A Berkshire Hilltown Mystery

Wolf Bog by Leslie Wheeler Banner

Wolf Bog

by Leslie Wheeler

July 1-31, 2022 Virtual Book Tour

Synopsis:

Wolf Bog by Leslie Wheeler

It’s August in the Berkshires, and the area is suffering from a terrible drought. As wetlands dry up, the perfectly preserved body of a local man, missing for forty years, is discovered in Wolf Bog by a group of hikers that includes Kathryn Stinson. Who was he and what was his relationship with close friend Charlotte Hinckley, also on the hike, that would make Charlotte become distraught and blame herself for his death? Kathryn’s search for answers leads her to the discovery of fabulous parties held at the mansion up the hill from her rental house, where local teenagers like the deceased mingled with the offspring of the wealthy. Other questions dog the arrival of a woman claiming to be the daughter Charlotte gave up for adoption long ago. But is she really Charlotte’s daughter, and if not, what’s her game? Once again, Kathryn’s quest for the truth puts her in grave danger.

Praise for Wolf Bog:

“Wheeler’s deep sense of place—the Berkshires—illuminates a deftly woven plot and a quirky cast of characters that will keep you glued to the pages until the last stunning revelation. It’s always a pleasure to be in the hands of a pro.”

Kate Flora, Edgar and Anthony nominated author

“When a long-lost teenager turns up dead, a cold case turns into hot murder. A deliciously intriguing Berkshire mystery.”

Sarah Smith, Agatha Award-winning author
of The Vanished Child and Crimes and Survivors

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery/Amateur Sleuth/Suspense
Published by: Encircle Publishing
Publication Date: July 6, 2022
Number of Pages: 336
ISBN: 164599385X (ISBN-13: 978-1645993858)
Series: A Berkshire Hilltown Mystery, #3
Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Read an excerpt:

Charlotte’s brow furrowed as she stared at the bog. “There’s something down there. A dead animal or…?” She raised her binoculars to get a better look.

“Where?” Wally asked. She pointed to a spot on the peat at the edge of the water. Wally had barely lifted his binoculars when Charlotte cried, “Oh, my God, it’s a body!” And took off toward it.

“No, don’t go there!” Wally grabbed at her, but she eluded him. When Charlotte was almost to the body−−if that’s what it was−−she began to sink into the bog. She waved her arms and twisted her legs, trying desperately to get out, but her struggles only made her sink deeper.

Kathryn’s heart seized. They had to rescue Charlotte, but how without getting stuck themselves? Brushing past Wally, Steve started down the slope. Wally caught him, pulled him back, and handed him over to Hal Phelps. “You stay put. Everyone else, too. I’ve had experience hiking around this bog, and I think I can get her out. Stop struggling and try to keep calm,” he called down to Charlotte. “Help is on the way.”

Wally made his way carefully to where Charlotte stood, caught in the mire. He tested each step before putting his full weight on it, backtracking when he deemed the ground too soft. When he was a few yards away, he stopped.

“This is as far as I can safely come,” he told Charlotte. He extended his hiking pole and she grabbed it. Then, on his instructions, she slowly and with great effort lifted first one leg, then the other out of the muck and onto the ground behind her. Wally guided her back to the others, following the same zigzag pattern he’d made when descending. Charlotte went with him reluctantly. She kept glancing back over her shoulder at what she’d seen at the water’s edge.

Kathryn trained her binoculars on that spot. Gradually an image came into focus. A body was embedded in the peat. The skin was a dark, reddish brown, but otherwise, it was perfectly preserved. Bile rose in her throat.

Charlotte moved close to Kathryn. “You see him, don’t you?” Her face was white, her eyes wide and staring.

“See who?” Wally demanded.

“Denny,” Charlotte said. “You must’ve seen him, too.”

“I saw something that appears to be a body, but–” Wally said.

“So there really is a dead person down there?” Betty asked.

“It looks that way,” Wally said grimly. “But let’s not panic. I’m going to try to reach Chief Lapsley, though I doubt I’ll get reception here. We’ll probably have to leave the area before I can.”

“We can’t just leave Denny here to die,” Charlotte wailed.

“Charlotte,” Wally said with a pained expression, “whoever is down there is already dead.”

She flinched, as if he’d slapped her across the face. “No! I’m telling you Denny’s alive.” She glared at him, then her defiant expression changed to one of uncertainty. “Dead or alive, I’m to blame. I’m staying here with him.”

***

Excerpt from Wolf Bog by Leslie Wheeler. Copyright 2022 by Leslie Wheeler. Reproduced with permission from Leslie Wheeler. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Leslie Wheeler

An award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, Leslie Wheeler has written two mystery series. Her Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries launched with Rattlesnake Hill and continue with Shuntoll Road and Wolf Bog. Her Miranda Lewis Living History Mysteries debuted with Murder at Plimoth Plantation and continue with Murder at Gettysburg and Murder at Spouters Point. Her mystery short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Leslie is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and a founding member of the New England Crime Bake Committee. She divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Berkshires, where she writes in a house overlooking a pond.

Catch Up With Leslie:
www.LeslieWheeler.com
Goodreads
BookBub – @lesliewheeler1
Twitter – @Leslie_Wheeler
Facebook – @LeslieWheelerAuthor

 

 

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Land Schemes and Scoundrels

While researching Arkansas land purchases for Dangerous Deeds (the next in the Waterside Kennels mystery series), I came across some fascinating information. Although my initial intention was to simply research property deeds stretching back to the days of the Arkansas Territory, I soon became immersed in historical references to land surveys. As Robert Logan wrote in his article “Notes on the First Land Surveys of Arkansas” published in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly:

When the first settlements took place in the United States no one realized the vastness of the empire lying before the settlers nor saw reason for careful survey and description of wilderness land that was literally as free as air and seemingly as abundant. Out of this pioneer carelessness came descriptions that to this day puzzle and confuse alike surveyors and abstractors, lawyers and courts. Descriptions by “Metes and bounds”—that is by measures and courses or directions from a specified beginning point—start from “the forks of the branch,” or “from a stake set in the ice,” . . . . or “from the corners of a red barn.” . . . . Mrs. Jim Greer of the Greer Abstract Company, Fayetteville, remembers this description in an abstract that came through her hands: “Beginning at this rock on which I sit . . . .”  

The use of natural landmarks when creating land descriptions can be found in myriad old land surveys, deeds, and other property-related documents. One such example is the image at the top of this post, which shows part of an old survey in which the surveyor described “acres of Land” as being “situated near the River.” Imagine the confusion such language likely caused in the event of legal challenges and boundary disputes!

Decades after Logan’s work was published, professional surveyor T. Webb presented a historical overview of survey practices used in Arkansas through much of the 19th century and highlighted what he called “the wild and wooly land grabbing in territorial Arkansas.”

In the Arkansas Territory the singular interest of both the common citizen and the ruling elite was to shake the federal money tree and harvest the resulting shower of wealth that fell in the form of land warrants. A whole menagerie of frauds and schemes resulted. Land speculators hired straw men to file and witness bogus preemption certificates and questionable colonial land grants. . . .

***

Fast-forward to present day, when you might reasonably conclude that modern methods used by credentialed surveyors put a stop to the illicit “land grabs” described in this post. Unfortunately, the criminally minded have found other ways to acquire property through fraudulent means. As one character in my own Dangerous Deeds explains:

Property fraud happens when somebody submits forged documents to the courthouse and claims they purchased the property. Here in Hogan County, the clerk would record the transfer of ownership, and it’s a done deal. Odds are the real owner won’t even know what’s happened until they try to sell the property themselves or there’s some other reason to check their land deeds.

While my own research focuses on Arkansas, it’s important to know that illegal acquisitions are not restricted to Arkansas. In fact, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, property fraud and mortgage fraud are among the fastest growing white-collar crimes in the United States.

From T. Webb’s description of Arkansas Territory land speculators to tales of present-day scoundrels, schemes to seize property by any means—fair or foul—leave a trail of corruption and greed. In Dangerous Deeds, that trail hits close to home and threatens to change the landscape of the Ozarks and the lives of all who live there.

***

The images included in this post are from the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands website (http://history.cosl.org) and have been used with express written permission.  

***

Sources included in this post and available online in their entirety include:

Logan, R. R. (1960). Notes on the First Land Surveys in Arkansas. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 19(3), 260–270. https://doi.org/10.2307/40030646

Webb, T. (2020). History of 19th century surveys in Arkansas 1815-1883: A lively heritage.  https://www.missourisurveyor.org/images/1185/document/19th-century-surveys-in-arkansas_548.pdf

Crossroads and Choices

Exit Strategy by Linda L Richards Banner

Exit Strategy Virtual Book Tour May 16 – June 10, 2022

When I’m asked what kinds of writing I most enjoy, the answer is “almost anything.” At the top of the list are books that push me out of my own mental comfort zone with plots and characters that keep me reading far into the night. One of those books is Exit Strategy, book 2 of 2 in the Endings series by Linda L. Richards.

Written in first-person POV, Exit Strategy offers a view into the mindset of a nameless middle-aged woman whose life was, at some point in the past, wrenched from a familiar small-town routine and thrust into an underworld of darkness, isolation, and contract killing. It is the very anonymity of the character that resonates with me: no name, no friends, and a home shared with only a Golden Retriever, who also remains nameless through the story.  

The placement of her home–at the edge of a dark forest with no neighbors close, and in a town that is never named–provides us with a glimpse of the private world in which she functions (the act of living seems at times to be almost too much of a burden) and in which she struggles to make sense of the what and why of her present path in life. With only hints of a past tragedy that sent her spiraling down into darkness, we’re left wondering if she can find the strength to remain with the living, or if she will succumb and seek oblivion in eternal darkness.

Even as the temptation to end it all persists, she’s offered an assignment that’s diametrically opposed to the business of contract killing: the chance to protect a high-profile, internationally known target. When she accepts, she finds herself on a path that just might lead to redemption.  

The author does a brilliant job of building suspense through action and leads us into a world where high-tech research and “unicorn start-ups” have the potential to change lives on a global scale. This is an intricately plotted mystery/thriller  that will have you on the edge of your seat and keep you reading to the stunning conclusion. 

Thanks to Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours, I can share a synopsis of Exit Strategy with you. Read on to learn more!  

 

A shattered life. A killer for hire. Can she stop?

Her assignments were always to kill someone. That’s what a hitman—or hitwoman—is paid to do, and that is what she does. Then comes a surprise assignment—keep someone alive!

She is hired to protect Virginia Martin, the stunning and brilliant chief technology officer of a hot startup with an innovation that will change the world. This new job catches her at a time in her life when she’s hanging on by a thread. Despair and hopelessness—now more intense than she’d felt after the tragic loss of her family—led her to abruptly launch this career. But over time, the life of a hired killer is decimating her spirit and she keeps thinking of ending her life.

She’s confused about the “why” of her new assignment but she addresses her mission as she always does, with skill and stealth, determined to keep this young CTO alive in the midst of the twinned worlds of innovation and high finance.

Some people have to die as she discharges her responsibly to protect this superstar woman amid the crumbling worlds of money and future technical wonders.

The spirit of an assassin—and her nameless dog—permeates this struggle to help a young woman as powerful forces build to deny her.

Fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Dexter will love Exit Strategy.

Book Details:

Genre: Thriller Published by: Oceanview Publishing Publication Date: May 17th 2022 Number of Pages: 320 ISBN: 1608094227 (ISBN13: 9781608094226) Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

Exit Strategy by Linda L Richards

Read an excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

Today
He proves to be a genial companion. I’d never doubted that he would. Across the table from him in a romantic restaurant, I can see his pale eyes are sparked with amber. Or is it gold? Maybe it depends on your perspective. A trick of the light. So much of life, I’ve found, are those things: perspective and also light. Or maybe that’s saying exactly the same thing. He tells me he’s in “finance,” a term that is vague enough to accommodate a whole range of activities. I’ve done some research, though, and I know he is a hedge fund manager; that his apartment in this town is a playpen: weekends only. I know he is based in the City and that he flies down here for the occasional weekend, especially since his divorce, which was messy. He doesn’t say that: “messy.” But when he briefly skates over that episode of his life—the period of time in which “we” became “me” —he makes a face that is unpleasant, like he’s got a bad taste in his mouth. I let it ride. Where we are going, it won’t make a difference. He tells me funny, self-deprecating stories. I reflect that he is someone I would date—in another lifetime. If I dated. If I still had a heart. “This is a fun first date,” he says in that moment, as though he has read my mind. His thick dark hair flops over his eye endearingly, and my heart gives a little flutter. I’d try to stop it, but I don’t hate the feeling. That flutter. It feels good, in this moment, to simply feel alive. “Yesterday, Brett. Wasn’t that our first date?” I ask, more for interaction than anything real. Because, of course, the few moments on a rooftop we shared were not a date by any standard. Especially since I was trying to think how to kill him for part of that time. But he doesn’t know that, so maybe it doesn’t count? “Nope,” he says firmly. “That was a meeting. This,” he indicates our wine and the delicate nibbles between us, “this is a date.” “How does it end?” I ask pertly. Knowing the answer. Knowing he doesn’t. Wanting to know what he thinks. He looks at me searchingly for a moment, then smiles raffishly, a certain boyish charm bubbling through. It’s a practiced look. He’s used that smile before, to good effect, I can tell. He’s probably done that his whole life. I don’t dislike him for any of that. It distresses me slightly that I don’t dislike him at all. It would be beneficial to me if I could find it in myself to dislike him. “It ends well,” he says. A beat. And then: “It ends as it should.” There is more conversation, just like that. An ancient dance. After a while he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. Once he’s out of sight, I slip a vial out of my purse. It contains a powder I made myself. Oleander flowers, dried, crushed and mixed with salt and a few strong spices, intended to cover the plant’s bitter taste. I don’t know how well those spices mask the taste. It’s not as though I can test it, and none of my customers have ever complained. I quickly sprinkle some of this concoction judiciously on the food that remains. I do it using natural motions. Anyone watching would think I was eating. A little OCD, maybe, but it wouldn’t look anywhere close to what is true. I mix it quickly into the salsa, the guacamole. I salt the chips with it. Sprinkle it on what is left of the chicken wings. I don’t dust the calamari. I’d noted he hadn’t been eating that. It will give me a safe spot to nibble, not that I plan on needing much time to eat. All of this will happen quickly, my experience tells me that. Before he returns, I have this moment of absolute indecision. I very nearly call out to a nearby server; have her clear the table. I’m not even super sure why I don’t. All of this is going well. Textbook. And yet, I have qualms. Why? He’s lovely of course, there’s that. But beyond the way he looks or how he looks at me. Not long ago, things had happened that had made me resolve to do my life in a different way. Then I’d gotten an assignment and instinct had more or less kicked in. And it was easy to reason around it and to rationalize: if not me, then someone else, right? There would always be some other person ready to do the job. Viewed in that light, there was no earthly reason for me not to do what I do. But still. I don’t call a server. And the moment passes. He comes back looking refreshed, like he’s maybe splashed water on his face or combed his hair, which is behaving for now. Not, for the moment, flopping into his eyes. I figure he probably did both—splashed and combed. He looks good. He smiles when his eyes meet mine. A 24-karat smile that lights his whole face. My heart gives a little bump. “Fuck,” I say. But it isn’t out loud. He takes his seat and starts talking again, picking up where we left off. He is easy. Comfortable. But I’m having trouble tracking the conversation; my mind is elsewhere. I’m thinking about what my next steps will be. After. And does it matter what he says right now? Really? If it does, it won’t matter for long. I try not to follow his actions. Try instead to listen to what he is saying. These words will be his last ones, I know that. And part of me thinks I should do him that courtesy. At least. The courtesy of attention. But it’s difficult to follow his words now. I watch one corn chip as he picks it up, dips it into salsa. I watch him consume it, and it feels like all of it is happening in slow motion. All the while I am listening to his words—I am! —participating in the conversation, not wanting to miss any cues. And wanting to honor the small amount of time he has left. It’s all I can do. The chip is consumed. I detect no reaction to the bitterness, so that’s a plus. He picks up a chicken wing, swirls it in the blue cheese dip, which makes me realize that, in my haste, I’d missed an opportunity by skipping doctoring the dip. He consumes the wing while we talk; a slight sucking, the meat peeling gently off the bone, all the while, the words flow, though it doesn’t come off as rude. He seems adept at eating and talking so everything stays and sounds as it should. I listen closely, interjecting as appropriate when I think it’s necessary, all the while watching for . . . signs. I detect nothing until another wing and several chips later. His eyes are suddenly glassy. Sweat stands on his forehead. His hands shake. “Brett, are you all right?” I ask, but it is pure form. I know he is far from all right. All right no longer exists for him. “I don’t know. I’ve never . . . never felt like this before.” I give it another minute. A little less than that. I know it’s all we’ve got. I make the right sounds, the correct motions of my hand. Even when no one is watching, people are watching. Physically, I am unremarkable. A middle-aged woman, so some would say I am invisible, certainly there is nothing about my appearance that makes me stand out. But there will be a future, when questions are asked and people are perhaps looking for clues. I don’t want them to be looking for me. When he collapses, face directly into salsa, I scream, as one does. Not bone chilling, but an alarmed scream. Our server trots over, clearly distressed. The manager is on her heels. All as expected: it’s pretty terrible for business when customers collapse into their food. “My date . . . he’s . . . taken ill . . . I don’t know what to do” etcetera. All as one would expect. I don’t deviate from the script. An ambulance is called. Paramedics arrive quickly. The manager has already pulled Brett from the salsa, but it’s clear he is not all right. They take him away, one of the paramedics offering to let me ride in the ambulance. I decline. “I’ll follow you,” I say, heading for my rental. And I start out following, but a few blocks from the restaurant I make the turn I know will lead me to the freeway and then the airport. My bag is in the trunk and it’s all mapped out: I am ready to go. With this moment in mind, I’d left a ballcap on the passenger seat before I entered the restaurant. It is emblazoned with the logo of a local team. While I drive, I push my hair into the cap and wiggle out of the jacket I know I’ll leave behind. These are simple changes—hat on, jacket off—but it will change my appearance enough. I don’t anticipate anyone will be looking for me, but I like to think forward. Just in case. I have no way of knowing for sure what will happen to him, but I can guess. From the amount of food I watched him consume, I figure he’ll probably have a heart attack before he reaches the hospital and will likely arrive DOA. And at the age and heft of him, and with a high stress job, they will probably not test for poison. And the woman with him at the restaurant? I figure no one will be looking for a girl who doesn’t follow up on the date that ended in hell. From there it all goes like it’s being managed by a metronome: tick tock, tick tock. Arrive at airport. Drop off rental car. Get through security. Get to plane while they’re boarding. Claim aisle seat at the back of the plane. Keep my eyes peeled for both watchers or people who might recognize me from the airport. But everything goes exactly as it should. No watchers this time. No one looking at me in ways I don’t understand. In fact, everything is perfect. Everything is exactly as it should be. Except.

CHAPTER TWO

Last week
I had not planned on killing again. That is, it wasn’t in the plan. That’s not to say it was an accident. You don’t arrive for a date with a poison in your pocket unless you’re preparing to do some bodily harm. But, as I said, that hadn’t been the plan. Not before. When the call came, I had been eyeballing my gun again. A darkness of spirit. A feeling I can’t fight or name. For a while I had spent a lot of time wondering why I kept bothering at all. In recent weeks, there had been darkness all around me. Times that, if it wasn’t for the dog, I wouldn’t bother hanging around. At times I wonder why I am still showing up every morning. For life, I mean. What’s the big appeal? What is the motivating factor? Is there a mirror beyond the darkness? A pool; some reprieve. I don’t know. Here’s the thing, though: at this point, I’m less convinced that I need to hang around to find out. It’s a battle I wage every day. Most days. Before the call comes, there are times it takes me a while to get out of bed. This is new. And when I do get out of bed, it takes a while longer still to orient. Motivating factor, that’s the question. Is there one? What is supposed to be motivating me? I don’t know for sure. So I wait it out. And the call doesn’t come right away. First, and for a long while, everything is very silent. And not a churchlike silence. The sort one dreads when pieces fly together. First there was this and this and it all made sense. Then we added that other thing and we’re done. I don’t know. I can’t figure it out. I mostly don’t bother anymore. Why would one even bother anymore? It wasn’t always like this. Let’s put it that way. There was a time when I didn’t live alone. There was a time when someone loved me. Several people loved me. I don’t remember that time anymore. Not exactly. I’m like a ghost looking back at her memories from a previous lifetime. They are my memories, but they might as well belong to someone else. Let me tell you this as I try to bring you up to speed. I live at the forest’s edge. My house is small and simple. It is all I need. My garden is incomplete, though it is occasionally vibrant. I am alone but for the company of a golden dog. I am alone. These are the things I think about. Vibrant gardens. Forest’s edge. Seasons in motion. The padding about of golden feet. I don’t dwell on the past. I try not to dwell on the past. For the most part, I have released everything that has happened. It no longer has a hold on me. Mostly. I have tried a lot of things to bring some sort of meaning to my life. Attempted. For instance, recently I have begun to keep a gratitude journal. It is a practice I read about somewhere. I try very hard to begin every day with that notebook, pen in hand. In gratitude. It changes the heart, I’m told. It changes the mind. I have charged myself with finding five things every day for which I am grateful. It’s like an affirmation. It is an affirmation. Some days it is easy. Five things to affirm. How hard can that be? I have air. Sufficient food. There is a roof over my head. The beautiful golden dog. Some days there is rain. On others, sun. Both of those are things to be grateful for. The air is clean. The ground is firm. All reasons to give thanks. Most of the time. On other days it is more difficult. On those days I sit there, stare at the blank page. Maybe a tear falls. Or more than one. Sometimes I begin to write and then stop; picking up and putting down my pen. The past is closer on those days, I guess. The past is nipping at my heels; my heart. On days like that I am filled with that unnamable darkness. It is unnamed, but I recognize some of the contents. Guilt. Remorse. Regret. And variations on all of those things that incorporate measures of each. I don’t believe in regret, and yet there it is. Regret does not bother checking in with me about my beliefs. *** Excerpt from Exit Strategy by Linda L. Richards. Copyright 2022 by Linda L. Richards. Reproduced with permission from Linda L. Richards. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Linda L. Richards

Linda L. Richards is a journalist, photographer and the author of 15 books, including three series of novels featuring strong female protagonists. She is the former publisher of Self-Counsel Press and the founder and publisher of January Magazine. Linda’s 2021 novel, ENDINGS, was recently optioned by a major studio for series production.

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