Mystery Musings

Thought I’d write a little short-short story for you:

Seth pulled on his line, but it was stuck on something.  He scanned the water near the shore.  No fallen log that he could see.  Maybe it was submerged.  He pulled harder and whatever he’d snagged started to move.  He reeled in his line and noticed a red sweatshirt rise within sight.  A body soon became visible, floating face down.  Whoever it was, he was so bloated, Seth didn’t recognize him until he reeled him into the shallow water.  Even then, he might not have known who it was except for the flame tattoos reaching up his neck to his hair line.

Billy Sanderson.  The meanest know-it-all in Dillard County.  Seth walked closer to get a better look at him.  The back of his skull was cracked open–a long, narrow gape like maybe he’d been hit from behind with a crowbar.  Seth was no expert, but it looked as if he’d been in the water a while.  He thought back to remember when Billy had gone missing.  Two months ago?  In early spring?

There’d been a ruckus for a while, and the sheriff had questioned Billy’s wife, Lizbeth.  Her black eye and bruises attested to Billy’s handiwork.  He’d asked her when she’d last seen her husband.

“Two days after he beat me.  He said he got a job out of town, and he wanted me to move with him.”  She shook her head.  “If I left Dillard, and he didn’t have to answer to my brothers, he’d beat me every time he felt like it.  When I told him that, he said he was gonna give me a better whopping than usual so I’d remember him and mind my manners till he came home.”

The foreman at the quarry where Billy worked, and where Seth was fishing, told the sheriff that Billy had strutted into his office the day he went missing and quit.  “Told me he had a better job with more money, and he didn’t need to put up with me anymore.”

He’d told Carrie Mae the same thing when he stopped in the diner for lunch that day.  No one saw him after that.  The sheriff asked Lizbeth’s brothers about Billy, but they swore he stayed clear of them, because he knew what was coming if they saw him.  Lizbeth’s brothers were built like grizzlies.  Why a  man would risk their tempers, Seth didn’t know.

Seth glanced at Billy’s body again, then rubbed his chin, thinking.  He started to reach for his cellphone but stopped.  He liked Lizbeth’s brothers.  The foreman here, too.  And he’d always felt sorry for Lizbeth.  He didn’t particularly like Billy’s parents or family, and they didn’t seem to miss Billy all that much.  If he called this in, someone would probably be punished for bashing in Billy’s head and dumping him in the quarry, but Seth was pretty sure Billy had probably deserved what happened to him.

A rowboat was tied to the pier a little ways away.  Employees took it out to fish once in a while.  No one was here so early on a Sunday morning, so Seth walked down, got in the boat, and rowed it to where Billy floated.  He pulled in close to shore, got his pole, and started rowing out to the deepest part of the quarry, dragging Billy’s body behind him.  A little island jutted from the water, and he pulled the boat to land there.  Rocks littered the ground, and he stuffed as many of them as he could under Billy’s sweatshirt, even pushed them under his jeans.  Then he got back in the boat, rowed the short distance to the deep water.  That took some effort, since the body wanted to sink, but his fishing line held, and he didn’t cut it until he’d reached the spot he was looking for.

He watched Billy sink out of sight.  Hopefully the fabric of his clothes would pin him to the bottom until enough flesh had rotted from his bones that he wouldn’t float again.  That done, Seth rowed back to the pier and tied the boat in place.  He got his fishing pole and tackle box and decided to call it a day.  As he loaded his pickup and drove back to town, he heard the church bells ringing at the end of Sunday service.  Lizbeth and her brothers never missed a week.  Neither did the quarry’s foreman.  But Seth didn’t feel one twinge of guilt for playing hooky this time.  Instead of worshipping, he’d performed a good deed.  And hopefully, on the Lord’s day, good deeds did go unpunished.




This comes from my Muddy River short read, UNDER SIEGE.  Once you read it, you might understand why I chose the cover I did for it.  It’s only 99 cents now.

I sent birds ahead of us to search for the hospital van. An hour later, a flock returned to us on the country road Strike knew they’d taken. Swooping and cawing, they led us to the vehicle. Both the driver’s and passenger’s doors were open. Deep grooves lined the soft dirt at the side of the road. It looked as though Tianne and Hans had been dragged into the tall grasses. We followed the trail and stopped short when we saw their bodies.

Tianne’s eyes and mouth gaped wide in horror. Flies walked across her eyeballs, flew in and out of her open lips. I couldn’t stand it. I sent a stiff breeze to blow them away. Her abdomen was ripped open, an empty cavity, the flesh torn off her limbs. Blood pooled on the grass and weeds beneath her. I pressed a hand to my stomach. I refused to retch. I didn’t want to sniff for magic, but there were no other marks on her that I could see, so I made myself. Disgusting. But I only smelled fear and blood. I had just as much trouble looking at Hans. His head had rolled a little away from his torso, leaving only a bloody stump for a neck. He’d been chewed on, but nothing like Tianne.

Strike’s face drained of all color, and he turned away. I couldn’t imagine what he must be feeling. It’s bad enough losing a sister, but to see her like this? I shivered and rubbed my arms. He could never UN-see it. It would stick in his memory forever. Amaris laid a hand on his arm, trying to soothe him. Brown and Raven’s hands were curled into fists. Meda had turned her face away.

Finally, Raven rasped, “Let’s spread out to look for evidence of who or what killed them. Maybe we can find out what we’re up against.”

Gratefully, we turned away from the remains and started our search. Claws stayed close to my side. If something or someone had surprised the other victims, they wouldn’t catch my ocelot off guard. He’d smell them before they were close. I passed a few scrub bushes and frowned at faint marks in the soft dirt. Stooping, I studied the ground more closely, then called, “I found paw prints.”

The others came to see.

“Not big enough for any Were I know,” Brown said. “I’ve never seen any shifter this small.”

“A coyote?” Meda asked.

“Maybe, but if it was this size, it couldn’t kill someone with any kind of magic. Was your sister powerful at all?” Brown asked Strike.

His voice unsteady, Strike said, “Powerful enough. She was half vampire.”

Claws bent his head to sniff the ground and started following the scent. We trailed behind him. I took the front so that if we came on something, I could throw up a fast, protective shield while the others got ready to fight.

Raven pointed to the trampled grass and weeds. “We’re dealing with a good-sized group. I’ve seen a few footprints. Someone’s traveling with whatever animals there are.”

Strike’s fangs had slipped past his lips, and his nails had grown and curved into vicious claws. He was too upset to control them. If we met his sister’s killers, he’d bulk up even more. It would be a blood bath.

I tugged the zipper on my heavy coat higher. The area was so open, the wind hit us full blast. I pulled my knit cap out of my pocket and yanked it over my ears. I wished I’d brought my gloves. Then Raven touched me and sent heat through my fingers and palms. My fingers could move again, less stiff. There were advantages to living with a fire demon.

We tramped up a small hill and then down it into a ravine. We followed that for a long time. Raven asked Strike, “Does someone have a vendetta against your family or the settlement you left?”

“Not that I know of. We lived in peace with the mortals we knew. I never expected the predator to follow us. I thought it was picking us off because we were convenient prey.” His gaze scanned the area, his muscles bunched, ready to spring into action.

Raven turned to me next. “If this was a monster, you’d smell some kind of magic, wouldn’t you?”

My nose started to drip, and I had to press a Kleenex to it. “I haven’t gotten one whiff of magic of any kind.”

We kept walking and finally came into a clearing. A fire pit surrounded by stones sat in its center. A large rectangle of grass and weeds was matted down.

“The size of a tent.” I sniffed again. This time because of the cold, but also to look for a scent. “No magic. I think we’re dealing with humans.”


The End

I just finished the first draft of my 6th Jazzi Zanders mystery.  I pushed pretty hard to give myself plenty of time to send it to my critique partners so I can work on their feedback before my May 4 deadline.  I’m excited about this one.  The fifth book comes out September 22, so this one won’t come out until spring 2021.  That’s close enough to Easter that I’m ending it with Jazzi’s Easter meal for her family at her house.

Writing about an amateur sleuth means that I need to have a good reason for Jazzi to be involved in each murder case.  For this book, I planted a dead body in her sister’s shampoo chair in the salon Olivia and her mom co-own.  Worse yet, the killer used Olivia’s favorite, expensive scissors to stab the new hairdresser she’d hired.  And since the shop hadn’t opened yet, and it was Olivia’s scissors jammed in Misty’s chest, she’s the prime suspect.

My daughter was a hairdresser before she went back to school to become a nurse.  And she swears that being a beautician made her a better RN.  She learned to handle any kind of client that sat in her salon chair, just as she now needs to handle every patient who ends up in one of the beds she has to cover.

For this book, though, besides Jazzi’s sister, I wanted to pull in another character, someone from her past–her ex-fiancée.  Chad has married since they broke up, and he and Ginger have been happy until she tells him that she can’t have kids.  He was honest when they met and told her his big dream was to be a father.  When she confesses that will never happen, he feels tricked, cheated, and he’s not nice about it, but when Ginger disappears, he regrets how he treated her and wants her back.  Unfortunately, after the police start searching for her, they find her body close to the town where she grew up.  And…of course, Chad is the prime suspect because spouses always are.

No one in Jazzi’s family has anything good to say about Chad, and Ansel’s only heard how horrible he treated her.  So when Chad asks for Jazzi’s help, he’s not keen on it.  I liked the interplay between them while Jazzi tries to convince him that Chad needs her.  He’s not jealous of Chad.  He just doesn’t like him, but he finally reluctantly agrees.

And for the first time in the series, I have Gaff and Jazzi respectfully disagree on where the clues lead.  That was interesting to write, too.

There was enough going on in this book, I had to be more careful than usual trying to pull all the threads together before the last chapter.  I’d planted clues, introduced characters, and they all needed to be there for a reason.  My fear was that I might have forgotten one of them.  I don’t think I did, but my critique partners will notice if I messed up.  There were more twists than usual near the end of the book, and I worked harder to make them land at the right places.  All in all, when I wrote the last scene, it felt good that everything added up and came out the way I hoped it would.  At least, it feels like it did.  Like I said, if it didn’t, my CPs will use more red ink than usual:)

Mystery Musings: My Brain’s BioRhythm

I’ve finally made it to my book’s last quarter, and as always, I looked at my plot points, and there weren’t enough to fill enough pages.  That’s a usual.  I think when I’m plotting, my brain can only come up with so many ideas and then it fizzles.  Pfft!  And I always overestimate how many pages I’ll get from each plot point.  WHY can’t descriptions flow for pages for me like some of my friends’ writing can?  Not padding.  All good.  But no, I write tight and can’t seem to expand as much as I’d like to.  So, it’s always back to the drawing board…or my version of an outline.  And I always have to reach the point where I panic before adrenaline makes my TINY gray cells think of a new twist or a little distraction to finish the story.

And just when I’m irritated with my Muse and my brain, it offers me a consolation prize.  Yup, last night, while I was fiddling with a scene, Ta Da!, an idea came for book 7 in my Jazzi series.  Then an idea came for book 8 and another one for book 9.  I scribbled them down and meant to push them away for another day, but book 7 wasn’t finished trying to tempt me.  And bless my subconscious, three different ideas came together in a swoop.  And a new character sprang to life to introduce as a recurring part of Jazzi and Ansel’s lives.

I’m crediting C.S. Boyack for the new character.  He’s been writing a series about the archetypes in stories for Story Empire’s blog, and his last post was about the Trickster.  You can find it here:

Now, forever ago, I wrote urban fantasy as Judith Post, and I wrote a three book series about a fallen angel.  Enoch was sent to Earth to clean up after his friend Caleb, who meant to join Lucifer’s rebellion, but Enoch tackled him and stopped him, thinking he’d save him from being thrown in the pit with the other rebels.  And he did save him from that, but Caleb was punished anyway.  He was thrown to Earth instead, and had a wonderful time spreading trouble and creating a new race of vampires.  The thing is, it’s hard to hate Caleb.  He’s a self-absorbed, careless Trickster, and I had a wonderful time writing him, so when C.S. Boyack did a post on them, I decided I wanted one in my cozy mysteries.  And bless my mysterious brain, it sent me a fun one to add to Jazzi’s stories.  If I can pull it off.  Tricksters aren’t so easy to write.  But I’m willing to give it a try.

I think every writer’s brain works with different chemical or inspirational impulses, but mine seems to work best when I least expect it.  Or when I panic.  Whatever triggers yours, I hope you find ideas and inspiration.  And happy writing!


This snippet is from Muddy River Three:  ALL THE MISSING CHILDREN.  Prim Tallow, a Fae who lives in Muddy River, married the town’s bartender, Derek–a vampire.  They’ve been sending money to help a new supernatural community that’s started up on the Mississippi River.  Prim grows worried when she can’t get in touch with anyone there for three days.  She convinces Hester and Raven to drive there to check on them, and she and Derek go with them.  They join a supernatural law enforcer for the area to see what’s happened. 

A half hour later, we set off, Raven driving my SUV west toward the Mississippi. Claws curled on the backseat, and I fell asleep with my head propped on a pillow, pressed to the passenger window. Raven had told me once that he could go days without sleep when he was on a case. Witches might not have to sleep, but I sure enjoyed it. And I was a lot less grumpy when I could get my eight hours.

That wouldn’t happen tonight. Raven didn’t know a speed limit, so we’d cross the Mississippi into Missouri sooner rather than later. My night’s sleep would feel more like a nap. But I’d be with Raven. And that’s what mattered.

Nyte was waiting for us at the ferry crossing. His name fit him. Longish, ebony hair framed a lean face. His eyes were so dark, they looked black. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but compelling. About the same height as Derek, he was still inches shy of Raven’s height.

He strode forward to shake hands with my demon. “Haven’t seen you for a while.”

“Maybe three years? Probably a good thing. We only work the worst cases together.” Raven introduced all of us and when he included Claws, Nyte’s black brows rose in surprise.

“Your group is quite a mix. Did the new settlement have this many different types of supernaturals?”

Prim shook her head. “Most of them were shifters and vampires with only a few witches. The witches were all younger, not very well trained. I was hoping to travel here with Hester someday so that she could teach them more spells and potions.”

I’d wondered why the town wasn’t protected by wards and shields to fend off whatever had attacked them. From what Prim said, maybe they didn’t know how.

We boarded the ferry and rode to the far side of the river, then Nyte drove off, staying in the lead to guide us to the settlement. He drove as fast as Raven, zipping alongside the banks of the Mississippi so fast, I couldn’t make out much of anything. I could smell the river water, though, heated by the early August sun. A combination of fish and murky mud. We only headed north a few minutes before a dozen small houses came into view. Every one of them was built shotgun style, long and narrow with a second story. Only three buildings formed the town center—a market, a gas station, and a school.

As we clamored out of our vehicles, I frowned. “A school? How many young children lived here?”

“Every family had kids,” Prim said.

Nyte turned to stare at her. “I didn’t find any kids’ bodies. I didn’t find any kids period.”

“No kids?” Prim marched toward the too-still town. No voices drifted from the houses. No lawn mowers broke the quiet. No kids on bicycles pedaled on the sidewalks. “That’s not possible,” she called over her shoulder. “I’ve talked to every adult who lived here at one time or another. They all had children.”

“Follow me.” Nyte hurried to catch up with her and led her to the last house on the street. He had the smooth, easy glide of all vampires. Opening the door, he led us inside. Claws padded behind us, then arched his back and hissed. My ocelot wasn’t fond of dead bodies.

Prim glanced at the house number as we entered. “White Tip and her husband lived here, a shifter and a vampire.”

Nyte motioned us up the stairs and led us to the first bedroom on the right. A man lay on the floor in pajama bottoms and a woman lay next to him, dressed in a long nightgown. Nyte bent to turn them over, and we saw the bite marks covering their faces, necks, and shoulders. Claws growled deep in his throat and backed up so that he was half in, half out of the room.

Raven pressed his lips together in a tight line. I waved my hand over the bodies, looking for residual magic. “Serpent bites and venom from some supernatural being. Nothing I can identify.”

Nyte scrubbed a hand through his dark hair. “There are so many bites. I thought it must be a swarm of something that attacked them.”

“Flying serpents?” I asked. “Are there any such things?”

“I’ve never dealt with any.” Raven started to another room. We followed him. Empty. A pink comforter with kittens prancing on it lay rumpled, half on the bed, half on the floor. He went to the last bedroom. It was empty, too. This comforter was blue, covered with toy trains. He looked at Prim.   “How old were their kids?”

She leaned into Derek, and he wrapped her in an embrace. Voice strangled, she said, “Auriel was five. Tad was seven.”

The names made it more personal. The comforters bothered me even more. Every school day, I taught kids aged five to eighteen. I had a thing for them. Loved watching them grow into their potential. Where were these two? What had happened to them?

Raven yanked a piece of folded paper out of his back pocket and a pen. He handed them to Prim. “Let’s start listing names of the dead and the missing.”

We went from house to house, and Prim told us the name of each parent and names of their missing children. True to her word, every house had kids’ beds or cribs. My stomach started feeling queasy. Too many dead bodies. And too many horrible possibilities of what had happened to the kids. I tried to push fears out of my mind, but they crept into all of the unguarded crevices of my psyche. I shut them there. I didn’t want to think about them.

Agatha Raisin

I’m a fan of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mysteries.  Having a laidback constable who’s happy doing his job and staying where he is, with no pretentions of ambition, even though he’s devilishly clever and always solves a case, is a novel twist.  People often underestimate him, and that  works to his advantage.  It’s refreshing to read about someone who’s perfectly satisfied with his life.  At least, so far.  I’m way behind in the series.

M.C. Beaton also writes the Agatha Raisin mystery series, which can now be seen on Acorn TV.  Way back, when the early books first came out, I bought a couple and tried them.  And Agatha annoyed me so much, I couldn’t make myself read another one of them.  I went right back to my clever, amiable Hamish.  But recently a funny thing’s happened.  I ran out of shows in the Shakespeare and Hathaway series I enjoyed so much.  Ditto for the series Rosemary and Thyme.  The Queens of Mystery was even shorter with its witty narrator and sly humor.  I enjoy Longmire, but HH and I only watch one or two of those shows a week.  So we tried Bosch, but that show’s so depressing, we’re going to finish the first series and swear off it.  That led us to try Agatha Raisin on TV.  And we really enjoy it.

I was younger when I first tried Agatha.  I’m not sure if my sense of humor has changed, or if the TV shows appeal more to me than the books would.  And for me, it doesn’t matter.  I think I’ve found a good balance, watching Agatha and reading Hamish.  It lets me enjoy both sides of M.C. Beaton.

What about you?  Have you read M.C. Beaton?  Do you enjoy Agatha and Hamish, or do you prefer one over the other?


Mystery Musings

Okay, I’m a writer.  Which means that when I read a book, I can’t help editing in my head as I go.  That doesn’t affect how much I enjoy a story.  I separate my editing brain from my reading pleasure, probably to the point that I don’t comment on things that bother me because I know how hard it is to write a book.  I also know how subjective my tastes are.  Things that other readers love don’t always hit me the same.  So I err on the side of focusing on the positive.  But then, that’s what I do in general anyway.  It’s who I am.

I do often think about what would happen if the author I’m reading came to Scribes, my writing group, and read his manuscript there.  Our group is eclectic.  It has a Regency romance and fantasy writer, a YA fantasy/horror writer, a newspaper columnist, an ex-addict writing a memoir to unglamorize drugs, a retired cop/philosophy teacher who’s writing about his experiences, two thriller writers, two literary members who write plays and poetry, a children’s writer, and a humor writer, among others.  And they’re the toughest critics I have.  I get nervous every time it’s my turn to read, but I’m so lucky, because each of them focuses on something different.

The last time I read, I took the first chapter of a new mystery series I want to try.  Not every member was there.  We only have a few rules and attendance isn’t one of them.  I really wanted feedback, and I got it.  I can go around our table–in my mind–and remember what each person commented on, because I know what they look for, and they don’t miss much.

The YA fantasy writer:  Where are the smells?  The description?  I want to be able to place myself in the setting, to see it.  I want more internal dialogue to know how she feels about what’s happened.

The poet:  You used too many general word choices instead of specific words.  I liked the active verbs and this phrase…  I liked the tone and voice, too.

The playwright:  You introduced too many characters too soon.  I had trouble keeping them straight.  Maybe hold off to introduce a few of them later, but good job on the dialogue.  It felt real.

The Regency writer:  I got the romantic interest right away even though you kept it subtle, and I liked the interaction between the characters.  You made the story’s big question clear.  I know where the story’s going.  This isn’t exactly a cozy, though?  Won’t you have to appeal to a different market?

The ex-cop:  You made the youngest brother a drug user.  I know that’s going to be a plot complication later.  The first chapter didn’t have the big hook, but I can see it coming.

The memoir writer:  I like how all of the characters are close and care about each other.  I can tell what happens to one of them will affect all of them.

The thriller writer:  I didn’t get bored.  It held my interest, but I like a big hook at the very beginning, something that grabs me.  I can see that this might appeal to some readers, though.  I hope pretty soon, you pick up the pace, give us something juicy.  Nothing really happened in this chapter.  It’s all set-up and hints.

The newspaper columnist:  It flowed well.  Nothing too abrupt.  The transitions made the writing smooth, but I got confused with all the characters.  Make them more distinct.

I’ll stop there.  You get the idea.  But I often hear their voices when I read someone else’s book.  Or I’m writing my own:)