Grandmas

Families are important in both my Jazzi and Lux mysteries. Jazzi invites her family and close friends to her house every Sunday for a Sunday meal so that they can stay close and catch up with each other. Lux’s parents both died, and she was an only child, so she gets together with her adopted family, the Johnsons. The loves them, and they love her. When the third Johnson brother–Keon– moves in with her, they claim her as their own.

Because the families are so close, I’ve ended up with a grandma in each series, too. Jazzi’s grandma taught her to cook on weekends she spent at her house when Jazzi was growing up. She and Gran enjoy being together, even though when Gran gets stressed or too tired, she can get confused these days and thinks Jazzi’s her dead sister, Sarah. Gran has two special gifts. She can tell when a woman’s pregnant, often before the woman herself realizes it. And she has the “sight.” She sees things, even if what she sees doesn’t make any sense to anyone at the time. And she’s always right.

Lux isn’t close to her grandparents, hardly knows them. But Keon was forced to spend time with his grandmother, helping her mow her yard and doing chores around her house. There’s no love lost between them, and for good reason. His grandma is downright mean. She’s rude and manipulates people.

It was interesting writing them to make them so different. In place of a grandmother, Lux has Cook–the woman who lived in her parents’ huge house and prepared all of their meals. Cook let Lux pester her in the kitchen. She’s the perfect stereotypical grandma, baking cookies and goodies and fussing over Lux when she needed cheering up.

This is the season I think about family more than usual. All of my grandparents are gone now. So are my parents. But the traditions they passed down are still alive, and they bring back happy memories. We’re celebrating Christmas late this year, so that my grandsons can quarantine before they come to see us. My daughter in Florida can’t make it because she doesn’t want to risk flying home. But all of us are going to do our best to have as happy of a holiday as we can. I’m wishing you the same.

Mystery Musings

Preferences. We all have them. When we glance at book covers, some catch our eyes more than others. When we read blurbs, certain things hook us while others don’t. Some genres appeal to us more than others. But what else sways us when we make decisions about which book to read?

I have to be honest. As soon as I see the words “love triangle,” I’m turned off. Don’t like them. For me, the only time they work is if one of the guys vying for the girl is a jerk, and she finally chooses the nice one. But that had better happen sooner rather than later, or I lose interest. And what happens when I’m rooting for my favorite, and he’s NOT the one she settles on? A BIG downer. Nope, triangles aren’t my thing, even though they appeal to a lot of people.

I have a friend who asks every time I love a book, “Female protagonist?” “Kickass?” “Intelligent?” And I know, that even though she reads lots of books of all types, those are her favorites–even though we both fell in love with Jorg in PRINCE OF THORNS, and she’s zipping through the Harry Dresden series. And it made me wonder. Does the gender of the protagonist matter to most readers? Do men prefer male protagonists and women prefer females? I read both, and since I love cozies, I read more female protagonists than males, but I’m more than happy to read a Louis Kincaid. Does it matter to you who your protagonist is?

I have another friend who writes in first person, present tense; and I love the immediacy it brings to her writing. But I’ve read reviewers who love first person and others who prefer third, past tense. As long as it’s done well, I like either. Does that matter to you?

Are there other things that push your buttons? Does a certain historical period tempt you to buy a book? What about tone? Wise-ass, humor, dark, or snarky? Lots of description or the bare minimum? Straightforward, concise writing or lyrical and poetic? Romance or not? What grabs you when you choose a book? And what turns you off?

Or are you eclectic, like me? Variety keeps things interesting. Marketing wizards, I’m sure, study all of these things. I only think about them occasionally and write what I’m driven to write. But I’m sure they make a difference. So, is there something that makes you pick up a book to look at the back blurb and then buy it? Something that makes you put it back on the shelf and avoid it? What hooks you, and what doesn’t?

A Muddy River Christmas Surprise

Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

Christmas Surprise

by

Judi Lynn

I woke to static ringing in my head.  My wards were blasting an alarm, but not because of danger.  That would set off warnings impossible to ignore.  All of Muddy River would hear them.  This was more of an urgent call.  To me.  Personally.  I frowned.  I’d never had anything like this happen before.

Raven lay in bed beside me, his long, strong body turned to the opposite wall.  He was deep in sleep, so I tried to slide out of bed without waking him, but my fire demon instantly turned to me, alert.  “What is it?”

“My wards are sounding, but it’s not anything serious.  No enemy.  I’m not sure what it is.”

He swung his legs over the side of the bed.  “I’m coming with you.”

There was no point in arguing.  I’d do the same if he were going to check on something new.  “I don’t know what we’ll find,” I warned.  “I’ve never experienced a warning like this before.”

“Even more reason for me to go with you.”

We dressed quickly, and as we left the room, my familiar, Claws, padded behind us.  It was late December, close to Christmas, and bitter cold outside.  We pulled on heavy coats, boots, and gloves.  My coven and I spelled the pavements in town to melt the snow, but the roads outside of our wards would be covered with drifts.  I’d have to melt them as we drove.

As we pulled out of our drive, Raven asked, “Where to?”

“Past the Dark Forest, to our border.  Someone’s trying to cross it and won’t quit.”

Once we left town, Claws sat up in the backseat of my SUV.  He stared into the inky darkness.  We had streetlights in town but not out here.  A pregnant moon provided only enough light to show shapes of trees and bushes—charcoal shadows etched against a gray background.  As we neared our border, I followed the vibrations and pointed to a spot.  We’d have to trudge through a woods to reach it.  “Over there.”

Raven parked the car on the side of the road, and we traipsed through a blanket of snow.  Twenty minutes later, we reached the invisible ward and stared, watching a young girl, palms spread, feeling her way along the border.  She couldn’t see it but could feel it, and it wouldn’t let her pass.  A long coat nearly came to her ankles, billowing around her.  No gloves.  No hat.  No boots.  Her feet had to be half frozen.  Her legs were unsteady, and she collapsed every few feet.  “No magic.  She’s a mortal.”  When she fell again, I started toward her.  “She needs help.”

Raven’s skin shimmered with fire.  “Be careful.  This might be a trick.  She could be hiding anything under that coat.”

Claws padded in front of us to check her out.  He sniffed, then planted himself in front of her, blocking her way.  She gave a short cry of fear and turned to run.  No one expected to see an ocelot in southern Indiana.  That’s when we saw her face.  And her body.  Both eyes were nearly swollen shut.  Her lip was split, oozing blood.  Bruises covered her cheeks and forehead.  And her stomach protruded.  I pressed my lips in a tight line.  Someone had beaten a pregnant woman.  

Raven growled.  “What monster would leave that girl like this?”

She was staring at us, clearly frightened.  She glanced at the only direction open to her, but before she could run, I said, “We won’t harm you.  How did you get here?  How can we help?”

She sank to her knees, tears running down her cheeks.  “Hank got mad at me.  Used his fists, then threw me out of the car.  I’m lost, and I’m hungry.  I don’t have a cellphone.”

Raven started toward her.  “If I ever find Hank, he’ll wish he were dead.  Can you make it to our SUV?  We can drive you to the nearest town.”

She struggled to her feet.  “I’ll try, and thank you.  How did you find me?”

I couldn’t tell her my wards had led me to her.  “Just luck,” I said.  “But let’s get you in a warm vehicle.  You have to be cold.”

I took one side of her and Raven the other.  I waved a hand for the wards to let her pass.  We were half carrying her when her knees gave again and she gasped in pain.  “No, please, not now.”  She shut her eyes, panting for breath.  “The pains keep coming.”

Raven glanced at me, looking as worried as I felt.  “Is that why you kept falling in the snow?”

She nodded, gritting her teeth.  “I think the baby’s coming.”

The nearest town was so small, it didn’t have a clinic.  I didn’t think it even had a doctor.  “We need to take you to our hospital.”

Raven stared.  “She’s a mortal.”

The girl was moaning too loud to hear him.  I didn’t think we had much time.  “We can’t leave her here, and we can’t knock on someone’s door and wish her luck.”

He gave a quick nod but didn’t look happy.  Neither was I.  But I wouldn’t abandon her like her boyfriend had.  We got her to the SUV and loaded her on the backseat, Claws curling beside her.

She bit her lip, staring at him.

“Don’t worry.  He’s friendly,” I said.  I didn’t add “if he likes you.”

We got in the car and when Raven started to pull away, I whispered, “Hurry!”

My fire demon loved speed.  He smashed his foot down on the accelerator once we’d turned back toward town, and we flew down the pavement I’d just cleaned.  The girl’s pains were coming so close together by the time we reached town, Raven squealed to a stop in front of Muddy River’s hospital.  I’d called Caree to warn her we were coming…with a mortal.

Raven scooped the girl into his arms and carried her inside.  Caree motioned to the nearest empty room.  She laid her palms on the girl, and her pain instantly subsided.  She removed her coat, had her lay on the narrow examining bed, and felt her abdomen.  “Breech.”  She looked at us.  “Karl will be here soon to assist me.  You might want to wait in the lobby.  This might take a while.”

Raven looked relieved.  I was, too.  Neither of us wanted to watch a baby’s birth.  Karl was a shifter who’d lived in Muddy River for a long time.  He’d served as a medic during the Civil War, so knew his stuff.  He didn’t have the healing magic witches had, but he was a great assistant.

He rushed through the hospital doors ten minutes later and nodded at us.  He’d been attacked and changed when he was in his early thirties, so his hair was still sable brown, and he was tall and lean.  “Hey, guys, nice to see you.”  Then he dashed into the room with the girl and Caree. 

We sat there another half hour before we heard a baby cry.  A while later, Caree stepped into the hallway and motioned us toward her.  “Do you want to see the little boy you saved?”

“We saved the girl,” Raven said, “not the baby.”

She shook her head.  “The baby was breech.  If she’d have gone into labor out there, he wouldn’t have survived.  She probably wouldn’t have either.”

“Thanks for helping a mortal,” I said.  “I didn’t know what else to do but to bring her here.”

Caree smiled.  “It’s almost Christmas.  The season of giving.  Besides, I took a vow to heal and didn’t just specify supernaturals.  She hasn’t realized what we are.  Hopefully, she won’t before we send her home.”

“So, they’re both going to be okay?” Raven asked.  “Both her and the baby?”

Caree nodded, but her expression hardened.  “No thanks to her boyfriend.  I could heal her black eyes and split lip, but then she’d wonder how I did it.  She was asking about you.  Go in and see her.”

When we stepped inside the room, Karl was holding the baby, and the girl was lying against her pillow, her eyes closed.  When she heard the door open, she turned to see who was there and smiled at us.  “I don’t know who you are, but thank you.  You saved us.”

Karl came to show us the red, wrinkled, little boy.  “Isn’t he perfect?”  His dark eyes glowed, gazing down at the infant’s thatch of dark hair.  He glanced at the girl.  “He looks like his mother.  Her name’s Miriam.  She’s from a small town in the Appalachian Mountains.”

I stared.  “That’s a long way from here.”

Miriam gave a tired nod.  “I ran away with Hank.  We were going to California.  He wanted to be as far away from home as we could get.  We’d saved our money, but it ran out faster than we thought.  We only had enough gas to make it through Indiana and to the Mississippi River.  When it looked like I was going to have the baby, Hank lost it.  He didn’t know what to do, blamed me for getting pregnant.”

“It takes two.”  Karl cradled the baby closer.

She blinked at him.  “I didn’t tell him I was pregnant when we left.  I didn’t want him to leave me behind.  I wanted to leave as bad as he did.”

Raven grimaced.  “That’s still no reason to beat you and dump you in the middle of nowhere.”

She shrugged.  “I should have told him.  He was feeling desperate, but so was I.”

I narrowed my eyes, studying her.  The girl didn’t expect much out of life, that was for sure.  Karl reached and squeezed her shoulder.  “Well, you’re here now, and you’re going to be okay.”

She blinked away tears.  “Not sure how.  I don’t have any money.  I can’t pay you for taking care of me and the baby.  I’ve got no car, no anything.  I can’t even buy diapers.”

Karl gazed at her, then the baby.  “You can stay with me for a while, just until you get on your feet.  I have two spare bedrooms.”

Raven’s brows dipped in a frown.  “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Karl said.  “But it would be all right.  I live outside of town.  That’s why it took me a while to get here.  No close neighbors.  And I’d buy everything they need and take it home.”

He was telling us he wouldn’t bring them into town.  That our secret would be safe.  But the longer they stayed, the higher the risk.

“You can’t just toss them out,” Karl said.

Raven crossed his arms, upset.  “One month.  That will give you time to figure things out.  Maybe we can raise money to help them on their way.”

Karl nodded.  “Fair enough.”  He looked at Miriam.  “What do you think?”

“I’ll cook and clean for you.  I’ll earn my keep.  I have nowhere to go.”

Caree watched the two of them.  Then she smiled.  “It’s time for me to go home to my husband.  You two can spend the night here with the baby, and you can take Miriam to your place tomorrow, Karl.  I know you’ll keep a close eye on her.”  She turned to walk us out with her.  Once out of earshot, she said, “We’re either going to have to let Miriam stay and live with us, or we’re going to lose Karl.  He’ll go with her when she leaves.”

“They just met.”  I was extra cautious about choosing a mate, I knew, but would Karl decide on a stranger in one month?

“Karl was married to a mortal when he served in the war.  A southern girl.  She was pregnant when he left to fight.  When he returned home, she’d died during childbirth.  He’s never taken another woman.  But when he held that baby, and looked at that girl, he was doomed.”

“And the girl?” Raven asked.

“She’s never had a man be kind to her, protective.  She looked like she’d found heaven.”

Raven rubbed his forehead, troubled.  “They’re both mortals.”

“But they’ll live with Karl.”  Caree touched his arm.  “They need each other.”

We pulled on our coats to walk outside, Raven still stewing over what to do, and rays of moonlight beamed down on us.  Claws came to sit by my feet, purring.  I looked up at the night sky and sighed.  “Should we let them stay?”

A halo formed around the moon, a lovely gold-colored circle, and I smiled.  “There’s your answer.”  My coven and I didn’t recite the Christmas story every year, but we knew it.  “A child is born,” I said.

Raven nodded.  “And we took him in.  It feels right.  They can stay.  A Christmas miracle.”

On the drive home, I texted my fellow witches to tell them about our night.  We’d see them at our house a few days from now for our annual Yule tide meal.  Muddy River was home to many supernaturals, but now we’d include two mortals in the mix.  And that was all right.

A Little Distracted

Our daughter, Holly, is a traveling nurse. She lives in Indy, but for this assignment, she took a job at a hospital close to us. The good news is that she can stay with us on the days she works, and she’s insisted on paying for the nights she stays–part of the rules of being a traveling nurse. They have to pay for lodging. We’re just happy to see her. She usually works two or three days, then has two or three days off. Not always, but most of the time. On days off, she drives back to Indy to stay in her apartment and see her cats, grown kids, boyfriend, and friends.

She’s been working the med surge floor, so she has COVID patients, but none on ventilators. It’s made my sister nervous, so she’s asked us to stay away. I understand, and luckily, we’ve helped her with everything that needed done when my sister with heart problems died in May. Patty’s house has sold. We moved everything out of it and sorted through things. The majority of the paperwork is done. So things are in good shape.

I have to say, though, it’s been hard to find any kind of schedule or set writing time for months. And that’s not going to change for a while. I have to write whenever I get the chance. The distractions are worth it, BUT, they’ve made me a lot more sympathetic to blogs about how hard it is to find writing time, how hard it is to concentrate and churn out pages with one distraction after another. It’s easy to say make time to write. Harder to do in actual practice. I’ve written three short holiday stories lately because it’s easier to hold a short story in my head than all of the things that go into a novel.

I’ve written a few new chapters for Jazzi 7, but I’m on chapter 28, and I need to keep track of everything that’s happened before that and keep in mind everything that comes after it. I need to see the entire storyline, where everything fits in it. Not so easy lately between getting ready for the holidays, more phone calls than usual, and people coming in and out. But I’m adapting, and soon, I’ll find a different rhythm, one that works better for the time being. And then it’s back to pounding out pages.

December’s one of those months. It gets busy. I hope you find moments to sit down and write. And if not, I hope the month fills you with inspiration for the winter months when it’s more tempting to hibernate and hit those keys.

Happy December, and happy writing!

A Lux short Christmas story

HH and I paid a decent amount of money for a pre-lit tree that didn’t light this year. It’s only a few years old. We’re not happy, but he thinks it’s the remote, so we decorated the tree anyway. It’s beautiful, but it would be MORE beautiful if it lit. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I wrote a short mystery for Lux about a tree lighting ceremony. I hope all of your lights worked this year, and happy December!

Lighting the Tree

(a Lux Christmas story)

by

Judi Lynn

I heard the mail truck and pulled on my winter coat.  Our mailbox was at the end of the driveway, a short walk, but it was snowing and the wind had an edge to it.  Keon usually sprinted out to grab the stack of ads and letters, but he was upstairs changing into his drawstring pants and chef’s coat for work.  I sifted through the envelopes as I returned to the house.  Most of them ended up in the trash, but there was one in fancy stationery that I saved for Keon.  When he came downstairs, I handed it to him. 

He frowned at the return address.  “I don’t know anyone in Everton.  Probably some kind of advertisement.”  But after he opened it, his frown grew deeper.

“What is it?”  I took off my coat to hang in the hall closet, then wrapped my arms around myself.  The house was warm, but the cold dampness had sunk into my bones.

“A country club south of here has invited me to represent Seafood & Catfish at their tree lighting ceremony for the holidays.  They want to have samples from well-known chefs for people to try during the celebration.  One of their local chefs agreed to provide BBQ ribs, the guy who owns The Cellar from downtown Summit City is making etouffee.  Claus, the owner of the Rathskeller. is doing sauerbraten and German potato salad.  The chef who volunteered for fish or seafood had to back out, though.  Some kind of emergency.”

“So they want you to take his place?”

Keon nodded.  “It’s really short notice.  The event’s on December first, only one week away.  They need an answer now.”

“Do you just provide the food, or do you need servers?”

“Just food stations set up on long tables.  Someone would have to stand behind the table to dish up portions, though, and answer any questions.”  He raised a dark eyebrow at me.  “You’re good at that at the community center.”

I grimaced.  His brother, Tyson, talked me into volunteering there more than I wanted to.  Keon and I were doing a holiday meal there the Monday before Christmas.  We always chose Monday or Tuesday, since Keon had them off at the restaurant.  We had to cook and serve that food, too, but we had so much, and those people had so little.  How could we turn Tyson down when he couldn’t get anyone else?

Keon grinned at me, guessing my thoughts.  “My restaurant’s new enough, it might be nice to get some publicity from out of town.”

I snorted.  “You were voted best new seafood restaurant in the newspaper food column.”

His grin grew wider.  He was proud of that.  Had every right to be.  “That was nice, but Everton’s only forty-five minutes from here.  If people decide to drive to town for a fancy dinner, we’re on the south side.  They might think about checking us out.”

“What day is December first?”

“A Saturday.  The restaurant’s going to be busy.  Mark and I are already planning a special December menu for the month.”

“I want to see what you come up with.”  I’d bet they were offering some great holiday dishes.  “If you decide to do this tree lighting event, what would you serve?”

“They want to keep the costs low enough, they’ll make a profit to give to local charities, so I can’t get too extravagant.  They’ll reimburse us for the ingredients, but that’s it.  So I need something that’s special, but not too expensive.”

“Fried calamari?”  I loved the stuff when it was done right.  Sadly, that didn’t always happen.

“I’m leaning toward shrimp beignets with a dipping sauce.”

“I need to pinch myself.”  Beignets with seafood in them?  I might buy every one he made just for myself.

He laughed.  “I’ll make some on my night off for you, but we’ll need a lot of them for Everton.  We’ll give each person three.”

As long as I got some, I was fine.  “So you’re going to give this club a call and help them out?”

He nodded.  “I’ll talk to Mark about how to work it into our schedule.  Maybe we’ll serve them at Seafood & Catfish that night, too.  December’s going to be a mad scramble, but this will be good publicity.”

He was giving me the look he always used to get what he wanted, but what the heck?  He was right.  This would be good for his business.  I sighed.  “I’ll serve at the country club while you and Mark handle the restaurant.”

He pulled me into a hug.  There was nothing better than being surrounded by muscle and sex appeal.  Why had it taken me so long to make this man part of my life?  Then he let me go.  “Sorry.  I have to get to the restaurant.  We’re doing oyster dressing with oysters Rockefeller as our special tonight.”

I wrinkled my nose, and he laughed.  “I’m glad not everyone hates oysters as much as you do.”  And then he was off.

I glanced at my watch.  It was only a little after one.  I had plenty of time to work on my freelance article due the middle of December—My assigned topic:  Are Small Town Americans Really Rednecks?  I wondered who’d thought up this one.  I was a little nervous about it.  I’d grown up in Chicago before I moved to Summit City.  I wasn’t sure I could really grasp the feel of a small town, its mindset.  But I was doing more research than usual, and I’d been visiting towns nearby.  I intended to do my best to get it right.  At the moment, though, small towns felt like everywhere else.  There were liberals and conservatives, free thinkers and knee-jerk fatalists.  Cities had those, too.

###

On December first, I drove to the restaurant at six to help Keon pack all of the food he’d made into his van, then followed him to Everton in my yellow Bentley.  We found the country club on the north side of town, a half hour drive from Summit City.  Together, we began to carry in the metal serving pans and began to set up our spot.

Two stations down, Claus lit the heaters under his sauerbraten.  “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

Keon gave him a friendly salute.  “I wasn’t scheduled, but the person who was, had to cancel.”

Claus gave him a look.  “I don’t blame him.  I would have canceled, too.”

I felt a frown forming and asked, “Why?  Did something happen?”

Claus turned to us, ready to explain, when the manager of the club came through the door and started toward us.  Claus grimaced.  “Good luck.”

Good luck?  Why did we need luck when we were providing food for the event?

The manager’s eyes widened when he saw Keon, and he stopped in his tracks.  “You’re not white.”

Keon stared at him.  “Never have been.  Most chefs who serve catfish aren’t.  Does it matter?”

“I thought. . .”  He faltered to a stop and glanced farther down the line to a chef we’d never met.  Must be the local guy.  “The last seafood chef from Summit City wasn’t white either, was going to serve a fish fry.  Brendan, our BBQ chef, told me about the write-up in the paper for your place, more upscale.”

I tried to smile to smooth things over, but something about the man threw me off. “Keon made shrimp beignets.  Are those upscale enough?” 

“A perfect choice.”  The man hesitated.  “But if a black chef is standing behind the table, no one will try them.”

Keon crossed his arms over his chest.  “I’m black.  I can’t change that.  You reached out to me, not vice versa.  And I tried to come through for you.”

“I appreciate it.  I really do.”  The manager ran a hand through his graying hair, clearly agitated.  “But this is Everton.  People are more conservative here.”

“Conservative or racist?” I asked.

“Not one black family who comes here, stays here,” he said.

I could feel my anger rise, but Keon reached out and touched my shoulder.  “We didn’t come here to talk race.  We came to supply good food and get publicity for our restaurant, and to earn money for charities.  I have to get back to the restaurant anyway.  Are you still okay serving the food?”

He was telling me to let it ride, but it was hard.  How could this not bother him when it bothered me?  But Keon always looked at the big picture, and I tended to nitpick more.  I knew I sounded agitated but couldn’t help it.  “What do you want me to do?”

“What we’d planned, stand behind the table and pass out food.”

I wanted to throw it at the people who came through the line, but that wouldn’t do.  I took a deep breath.  “I can do that.”

He reached for me and gave me a quick hug.  “Sell the food and my restaurant.  Forget the rest.”

I gritted my teeth and nodded.  He went to shake hands with Claus and wish him a good night, and then he left to return to work. 

Once he’d gone, the manager came close to talk to me in a low voice.  “Do you work for him?”

“No, I live with him.  We’re engaged.”

He stared.  “How do your parents feel about that?”

“Hard to tell.  They’re dead.”  I locked gazes with him.  “And you’re annoying.” 

He blinked and glanced out the door.  “Is that your yellow Bentley out there?”

“Why?  Are you prejudiced against the color yellow, too?”

“I’m just trying to understand why a girl who’s pretty and rich would end up. . .”

I put up a hand to stop him.  “Don’t say it.  It’s none of your business, but the truth is, I haven’t met a man who can measure up to Keon.  Do you want me to serve his food or not?”

He winced.  “It’s not me.  I just know my clientele.”

I wasn’t so sure about that.  Glancing at the clock, I said, “Make a decision.  Do I stay or go?  Isn’t it about time to get started?”

He glanced toward Brendan again, who’d given a sharp shake of his head.  They locked gazes.  Then he looked up and down the line, rubbing his forehead, agitated.  “Stay.  We need you, but I’d better get ready.”  He hurried into his office.

I sighed with relief when he left, and Claus gave me a sympathetic look. 

“Stupid, isn’t it?  I started in the business in New Orleans and learned from some of the best black cooks down there.  This guy drove Rufus away.  He makes some of the best fried fish I’ve ever eaten, but he wasn’t welcome here.  He wasn’t too happy about it either.”

“Why would he be?  Is it the manager or the members of the club?” I asked.

Claus shrugged.  “Don’t know.  Don’t care.  I’m just glad they like Germans at the moment.”

I laughed.  I’d read Summit City’s history and during World War I and World War II sentiment wasn’t friendly toward anyone with a German background.  The German bank in town even changed its name to Lincoln National.  Prejudice wasn’t anything new.  The Japanese didn’t fare any better during World War II. 

A few minutes later, the manager went to open the doors of the club, and people poured in.  Two bars were set up, and while some people found seats, others went for drinks.  The lighting ceremony was the first thing on the agenda, and everyone flocked back outside around the huge tree near the entrance.  Christmas music set a festive mood before the manager gave a welcoming speech and flipped on the myriad of lights.  Cheers rose, and people began to drift back inside.  The ceremony over, it was time to try the food.  “It’s for a worthy cause,” he announced.  “All of the profits go to our local charities.”

People flowed toward us, and Keon’s shrimp beignets had a long line that kept me busy the entire night.  Comments were enthusiastic. 

A man with silver hair who looked distinguished got back in line again.  “These are so good, I bought another ticket so I could have seconds.  They remind me of New Orleans.  I order them from my favorite black chef every time I go there.”

I smiled.  “The chef of Seafood & Catfish is black, too.  He likes to make expensive seafood with a southern comfort twist.”

“Works for me.  Tell him they’re delicious.  Does he have them on the menu?”

“Not all the time.  He changes his specials every month, but he’s serving them tonight.”

The man rummaged in his pocket and pulled out his wallet, handing me a business card.  “If he makes them again, and you’d be kind enough to give me a call, I’d drive up to order them.”

“It doesn’t bother you that he’s black?”

“Why would it?”  And then he grimaced.  “You’ve talked to the club’s manager, haven’t you?”

“He asked Keon not to stay to serve here.”

“Ridiculous, but that’s Farlington.  A big fish in a small pond.  He isn’t living in the real world.  He’d probably look down on royalty.”

I added an extra beignet to his plate.  “You’re a winner.  Have a nice night.”

He bit into one as he was walking away and gave me a thumb up.  But he’d made me think.  I couldn’t judge the entire community of Everton by the way the club’s manager treated us.

###

Chefs were starting to pack up their food to leave when a man ran into the club, yelling, “Farlington’s body is under the Christmas tree!”

The room got instantly quiet.  We all looked toward the door. 

“Did you call the police?” I asked.

The man nodded.  “The back of his head is caved in.  It’s all bloody.”

“Did you check for a pulse?”

He frowned at me, trying to focus.  “His pulse?”

I left the line and started outside.  Farlington’s body was crumpled to one side of the tree.  I knelt to feel his wrist.  Nothing.  I pressed my fingers against the pulse point at his throat.  People circled me, watching anxiously.  “I think he’s dead.”

“But how?  We were all inside,” someone said.

I shook my head.  “He’s so close to the building, anyone could have slipped in and out without being noticed.”

People glanced nervously at one another.  We were beginning to move back inside when two police cruisers pulled up and parked.  The officers followed us in, and the older of the two called out, “We don’t want anyone to leave the building until we get to question you.  So why don’t you take your seats, and we’ll get through this as fast as we can?”

Some of the people headed to the bar to order more drinks.  Others glanced at the food table.  I shook my head.  Every beignet was gone.  I glanced down the line at the other stations.  They were empty, too.  Usually, a sign of success.  The club members liked everything we’d served.  I looked around the room.  I’d been on my feet all night, and they were beginning to hurt.  I meant to find a chair to sit down when the older cop pointed and motioned to me.  “You first.  Let’s go in the manager’s office to talk.”

Why me?  I started to follow him, my nerves twitching, when he said, “Let me introduce myself.  Jason Newsome.  You’re a friend of Pete’s, aren’t you?  He and that pretty girl of his were at my place tonight, having supper with us, when we got the call.  He was pretty sure you’d be here, serving food.”

Pete, our detective friend who’d moved in with Keon’s sister.  I nodded.  “Gabbie’s my best friend.  We’ve known each other since grade school.”

“Pete said you’d be the one to talk to, that you’re an ex journalist and notice things.”

People were listening, but I realized he meant for them to.  He didn’t want to make me look like a suspect but a witness.  “I’ll try to tell you everything I had time to see.”

He nodded and patted me on the back.  “Good girl, we’re going to need some place to start.”

Once he had his pen and paper ready, I told him about Farlington’s reaction to Keon and Rufus. 

“And Claus said Rufus didn’t take being dismissed very well?”

“That’s what he said.  I wasn’t here.  I almost thought Farlington was going to send me away, too, when he learned I was living with Keon, but he kept glancing down the line at the local chef, Brendan, and decided to have me stay.”

“Because Brendan wanted you to?”

I frowned.  “I don’t know.  Brendan didn’t look like he could make up his mind, but he was the one who’d recommended Keon’s restaurant.”

“Anything else?”

“Farlington kept insisting that sending Keon away wasn’t anything personal, that it was because his clientele wouldn’t approve, but the nicest man came through my line and laughed at that.”  I dug out his business card.  “Winston Fisher.  He was charming.”

Jason smiled.  “He’s one of our local doctors.  Lost his wife a while ago.  Travels once a year to do charity work in underprivileged countries.  One of our best.  Glad you met him so you don’t think everyone here’s like Farlington.”

“You’re not if you invited Pete and Gabbie to your house.” 

He smiled.  “Well, thank you.  I grew up in Everton but spent some time working vice in Summit City before I came back.  That’s how I met Pete.”

Vice was a tough job.  I’d covered it for the Chicago paper I’d worked for before I moved to Summit City.  “Hope things are quieter for you here.”

He shrugged.  “Mostly, but every town has its moments.  Thanks for talking to me.  You’ve helped.  If you want to leave now, feel free.”

The younger cop was questioning people who’d attended the tree lighting, so Jason called for Claus to talk to next.  As I walked to the serving table and stacked empty metal pans together to carry to my car, Brendan frowned at me.  “Is he letting you go?”

I motioned to the husband and wife who were tugging on their coats to leave, too.  “As soon as they’ve questioned you, you can head home.”

“But why not keep you longer?  You’re the only one here who argued with Farlington before the dinner started.”

I stared.  “If I recall correctly, Farlington harassed me.  I only asked if he wanted me to stay to serve or not.”

“But you were angry with him.”

“That doesn’t mean I killed him.  Besides, I never left this room.”

“Can anyone vouch for that?”

“I can.”  Winston Fisher stood up.  “I was keeping a close eye on her table, hoping she wouldn’t sell out so I could come back for seconds.”

Brendan scowled at him.  “You watched her every second?  That’s hard to believe.”

“I watched her enough that she wouldn’t have time to sneak outside and bash Farlington over the head.  Besides, look at her.  There are no blood spatters anywhere.  None on the white apron she’s wearing and none on her clothes.”

“Maybe she took off her apron to kill him.”

I removed my apron.  “No blood.”  Then I put it back on.  When I loaded the dirty pans, I knew I’d need it.

Jason had walked out of the office with Claus and studied Brendan.  “Where’s your apron anyway?  Why take it off when you have all of those pans smeared with barbecue sauce to load?”

“I spilled sauce on it.  It looked bad.”

“Can we see it?”

Brendan looked around his table.  “I don’t remember where I put it.”

Jason’s glance swept the room.  “No worries.  We’ll all help you find it.”

People glanced at each other, then got up to search.  A man came out of the men’s restroom waving it in the air.  “It was in the bathroom trash.”

Jason went to open it.  Splotches of blood covered it.  He motioned to the younger cop.  “Cuff him.  Let’s finish this discussion at the station.”

Brendan turned on me.  “Farlington shouldn’t have let you stay.  You’re worse than your boyfriend.  He can’t change the color of his skin, but you chose to live with him.  It’s against everything sacred.”

Jason’s lips pressed together in a tight line as he grabbed Brendan’s arm and marched him to the squad car.  Winston Fisher came to stand next to me. 

“Don’t let Brendan bother you.  People tend to interpret the Good Book according to their own world views.”

He was such a nice man.  “People like Brendan don’t bother me.  And people like you give me hope.”  I dug out his business card and winked at him.  “I think you’ve earned a supper at our place, though, and we’ll make shrimp beignets as an appetizer.”

“You and your husband will cook for me?”  He gave a small sigh.  “I’ll enjoy that.  Holidays have been a little lonely since my wife died.”

Keon and I weren’t married yet, but we were getting there.  And if we could make this man happy for a night, it would be our privilege.  “I’ll give you a call and set it up.”

Jason returned to the room after watching the young cop drive away.  “Let’s break this party up.  Time to go home.  The techs are here, and we want you out of our way.”

I pulled on my coat and put my pans on a cart to push to my car.  After loading them in the trunk, I started for home, cranking up the heat on the way.  Keon owed me a special supper for the work I did tonight.  But not beignets.  I didn’t want to see any of them for a while.  Not until we had Winston Fisher to our house to eat supper. 

I turned on the radio, and Christmas music filled the car.  December.  It could be hectic, and holidays didn’t make everything right with the world, but they made life more wonderful.

Literary is built on characters

When I asked my good writing friend, Rachel Roberts, to contribute a story to our murder anthology, she bravely said “yes,” and then panicked. Rachel doesn’t think about PLOTS. She thinks about CHARACTERS. Both of my daughters love to read literary novels more than genre writing. I’m the opposite, but I appreciate a really good literary writer when I discover one. And I’ve admired Rachel’s writing for a long time. So I sent her a Q & A about how she writes, and if you’re driven more by characters than plot, you might enjoy her answers. Here’s Rachel:

Author Judi Lynn posed questions about my writing of “Swallowtail” for the MURDER THEY WROTE anthology. Her questions were intelligent, perceptive, and insightful, and I enjoyed thinking about them. I will answer them now.

1. You wrote the mystery SWALLOWTAIL for the MURDER THEY WROTE anthology. I know you’d never written a mystery before. What was your biggest concern?

When I was invited to contribute to MURDER THEY WROTE, I felt overwhelmed. I had never written a mystery, and I didn’t know what, who, or how to commit a crime and/or reveal it. I began with a character, Lorraine, and let her sensibilities lead me toward “something.”  I tried to follow her discoveries and moods.

2. You’re a literary writer. Characters drive your stories. Do you have a special technique for developing them? How did you create Lorraine Hepplewhite?

Literary fiction is my genre. I think it may be because I come from a large family where personalities, intentions, and deeds regularly got analyzed.  Plotting a story is hard for me because as I develop a character, I find he/she doesn’t always want to follow my linear plan. Lorraine Hepplewhite reflects no one I know. Somehow the idea of an innocent but gifted person with few opportunities falling into what some people would call “luck”—marrying well, being well-off financially etc. — might not be the great result most people would expect. In her new life, Lorraine gets all sorts of opportunities to flourish and she does, but her situation imprisons her as well. Crazy with boredom and loneliness and without emotional support, she experiments with theft—mostly out of curiosity.

3. Lorraine’s mother is unusual, to say the least, and she caught me by surprise. Lorraine’s dead husband’s mother is a bit unusual, too. How did you create them?

Lorraine’s mother is complex. She loves her daughter, but she too is rudderless. Her husband abandoned her, although he provided for her. She is a dreamer and longs to travel and to live fully. She focuses on what is necessary to survive, gets a job and even moves up in her work. After Lorraine leaves home, however, she isn’t emotionally attached. She sends her daughter money or a card from time to time to show that she recognizes her daughter’s life events, but that’s about it.

Lorraine’s mother-in-law, Sybil, also is a figment of my imagination, the idea of a talented artist who has faced so many devastating changes in her life; she closes herself away from everyone to grieve, that is, everyone except her priest. She is emotionally deprived, but eventually accepts Lorraine enough to see her as a friend.

4. Did you have to do research about the prized swallowtail in your story?

Yes, I did a great deal of research about butterflies, and especially the rare swallowtail butterfly.  I initially wanted the butterfly to sell for a great deal more money on the black market than it does, but although it is rare and does sell for a lot of money, it wasn’t enough to warrant killing someone for it. What to do?  I went over this part of the story many times.

5. Most of the story takes place in the Hepplewhite’s conservatory with the narrow pool. It made a great focal point for the events that happen. Do you love water? Swimming? You made the room come to life

I was given the game of CLUE to consider when I was invited to write a story. I selected the conservatory as my place for the crime because I could put a pool in there and have that work as the place of interest. For Quinton Hepplewhite, conservatory was a place to be enjoyed; for FM, it posed a challenge to maintain, and for Lorraine it was both a puzzle and a place for escape. Personally I enjoy and swim regularly; therefore I could easily imagine Lorraine swimming back and forth trying to figure out what to do.

6. You also write plays and scripts. How did you get interested in those?

I write plays and scripts because I like to develop characters and consider the drama of their dilemmas. I especially like theater, and I can reveal characters by what they say and how they say it. Writing dialogue seems natural for me.

7. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Your media links?

I write a blog about once a month, and it is on my website. I am listed in Author Central, and my plays are on New Play Exchange. I am a member of The Dramatist Guild of America.

My email is: robertswriter@hotmail.com

My website is: www.rachelsroberts.com

A Jazzi Christmas Story

Jazzi loves celebrating anything and everything with her family. This year for Christmas, Ansel’s excited because his brother Bain and his wife AND his sister Adda and her husband are driving from Wisconsin to celebrate with them, too. His excitement hits a hiccup when Bain calls to say that their mom and dad have decided to come, too. His dad loves to spread misery, and this year, he spreads more than usual:

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

A Holiday High and Low

by

Judi Lynn

The house was decorated.  Jazzi and Ansel had bought a fat, eight-foot, pre-lit tree for their huge living room.  Another tree was in a corner of the sitting area in the kitchen/dining area.  A poinsettia was centered on the long, wooden table.  And the refrigerator and freezers were crammed with food.

“Everyone’s going to be here this year,” Ansel said.  “Even Radley and Elspeth, since we moved our celebration to the Sunday before the actual day.”  That way, their friends and families could celebrate Christmas morning in their own homes or at the homes of other family members.  Walker and Didi were driving to his mother’s house with their kids.  Olivia and Thane were going to celebrate with his mom, since his dad had passed.  Gran and Samantha were staying at the farm and inviting widowed friends in to celebrate.  But Jazzi knew what was making her Viking especially happy.  Bain and Greta were driving down from Wisconsin to stay with them.  And even better, so was his sister Adda and her husband, Henry, even though Adda was eight months pregnant.

Jerod, her cousin and their partner in their house flipping business, had suggested they take the entire week off before Christmas to get ready for the holiday.  No work at the fixer-upper.  He had three kids, and his wife, Franny, was one of the worst cooks they knew.  She’d invited her entire family—her parents, three sisters and their families, and a nephew and his family—to their big, old farmhouse for a potluck, so he was as busy as they were, preparing food ahead.

Jazzi always made Christmas cookies to pass out as gifts after their family meal.  It had taken her and Ansel two days to bake and package them all.  Then they started on the pies and cakes for dessert.  There’d be twenty-five people this year, counting themselves.  But they’d made two apple pies, two pecans, a yule log, and a coconut cake.  Elspeth was bringing two of her famous chocolate swirl eggnog pies, and Didi was bringing a cranberry upside-down cake.  Today, they were going to start on the sausage stuffed sweet potatoes, make-ahead gravy—since they needed lots of it—and the potatoes gratin.  They could reheat those on Sunday morning.

They’d turned on Christmas music, and the cats were scampering underfoot while George supervised from his dog bed, when Ansel’s cellphone buzzed.  He glanced at it, pressing his lips together.  “Bain.  I hope they can still come.”

Jazzi turned down the music while he answered the call.  He listened, then glanced at her nervously when he said, “Who’s going to milk the cows?”

Uh-oh.  They’d invited Ansel’s parents, but Dalmar had refused to come because someone had to milk his dairy herd, holiday or not.  And as shameful as it was, Jazzi had been relieved.  Ansel’s dad was a pain in the rear, more to Ansel than to her.  She didn’t have to pretend to like him, but Ansel did his best to be courteous, even when his dad acted his worst.  Jazzi liked his mom, Britt, but Dalmar kept her firmly under his thumb.

Ansel listened a little more before disconnecting the call.  He hesitated a moment before saying, “Mom and Dad are coming for Christmas, too.”

Oh, joy!  But she put on a smile.  “We have plenty of room since you finished the basement.  Your mom and dad can take one spare bedroom, Bain and Greta the other.  Your sister and Henry can sleep in the trundle beds in the basement.”

“They’re narrow, and she’ll be huge by now,” Ansel said.

“They’re super comfortable, and they’ll have their own bathroom down there, and some privacy.  When Didi was that big, she visited the bathroom a lot.”

He thought about that, then nodded.  He tried to look happy about seeing his parents but didn’t quite succeed.  “Dad’s going to be in a mood.  He voted against coming, but Mom told him she’d ride with Bain and Greta.  That aggravated him enough, he decided to come, too.”

That’s what had happened when she and Ansel got married.  His dad had come in a foul mood and sniped about anything and everything.  But now she knew what to expect, and he wouldn’t throw her off.  Her family would take him in their stride, too.  She shrugged, “At least the Grinch should have a good meal.  We’ll work around him.”

Ansel’s shoulders relaxed.  “We won’t let him ruin the day.”

“He’ll try, but he won’t succeed.  Come on.  We need to cube up a lot of bread to let it dry for dressing.”  She turned up the music again, and they puttered together, getting things ready.

“Do we need to do anything with the meat?”  Her husband, the carnivore, didn’t consider a meal complete without meat in it.

She shook her head.  “Christmas is easy.  I put the big ham in the oven before we go to bed and let it cook on low all night.  I’ve already put the rub on the turkeys to let them dry brine in the refrigerator.”  She always made two smaller birds instead of one big one, since they had plenty of oven space.  She’d have to get up early to put them in the oven, but she’d go back to bed.  “I wish your family would have come today to spend the night.”

He snorted.  “This way, they can milk tonight and tomorrow morning before leaving.  Since Dad’s coming, that’s fine.  I’d love more time with Bain and Greta, Adda and Henry, but not him.”

He had a point.  Why push their luck? 

###

Jazzi went back to bed after she put the turkeys in the ovens, but they still ended up starting their day earlier than usual.  They had a lot to get done.  She was scooping the filling into the deviled eggs when Bain’s pickup pulled into the drive with Henry’s SUV close behind it.  Thankfully, everyone had agreed on no gift exchanges except for the kids, so they didn’t have to haul in presents.  Ansel went to the door to greet them. 

Bain, six-feet tall and stocky with dirty blond hair and pale blue eyes, slapped him on the back.  “Hey, bro, thanks for inviting us.”  He hadn’t gotten the “yowza” genes Ansel and Radley had, but he was still attractive.  His Greta was skinny and plain but had a beautiful smile and an even more beautiful spirit.

Greta came next to hug Ansel, and then his mom, Britt.  Henry waited while Adda wrapped him in her arms and gave him a messy kiss on the cheek, having to wedge sideways to embrace him, she was so pregnant, carrying the baby in front of her. 

Ansel clung to her a minute.  “I’m so happy for you.” 

His dad, Dalmar, tried to squeeze past them and couldn’t.  “Get moving already.  You’re blocking my way.”  When they parted, he walked past them into the kitchen, his lips turned down,  “Got anything to eat?  It was a long drive here.”

Jazzi followed him and motioned to the kitchen island.  She knew better than to offer him anything too fancy.  He’d complain.  She had a veggie platter and a cheese board and crackers on the butcher block.  Dalmar grabbed a stack of each before Ansel led everyone to their rooms.  Then she started the coffee urn and put out more glasses near the tub filled with ice and cans of sodas.  The rest of their guests would start arriving in a half hour, and she still had a few things to do. 

When Adda and Henry drifted back into the kitchen, Adda’s blue eyes sparkled with excitement.  “I love what you did to the basement.”

“Did you try the bed?” Ansel asked.  “Is it comfortable enough?”

“It’s perfect.”  She touched a hand to his cheek.  “And I get to see you before my baby’s born.  I love it.  I might not be up to traveling this far after I have Lorelei.”

“It’s a girl?”  Ansel’s whole face lit up.  “And you’re going to name her Lorelei?”

Henry put an arm around his wife’s waist, beaming.  “You like the name?”

“I love it.  It sounds beautiful, like my sister, and like I’m sure her daughter will be.”

Bain and Greta had come to join them in time to hear the news.  Greta clasped her hands, grinning.  “This is wonderful news!”

“We haven’t told anyone else that I’m having a girl or the name we chose for her,” Adda said.  “But we don’t see you often, and I wanted to share it with you.”

Jazzi couldn’t help but smile as Ansel glanced at her, puffed up with happiness.  Then she glanced at the clock. “Sorry, but I have to start putting food on the island.  People will be here soon.”

“We’ll help.”  Bain went to grab hot pads, and he carried the ham over for her.  Ansel got the turkeys and began carving them.  Greta carried over the green beans with onions and tomatoes.  And Jazzi brought the dressing, scalloped potatoes, and twice-baked sweet potatoes.  The food was stacked and ready to serve before Dalmar and Britt came back down. 

Dalmar shook his head.  “You two sure don’t give a care about money.  Your grocery bill had to be horrible.”

Jazzi motioned to a Mason jar near the coffee urn.  “Everyone pitches in on the cost every Sunday.  No worries.”

But he gave a disdainful snort.  “I doubt they cover all of this.”

They didn’t, but Jazzi didn’t care.  This was Christmas, and she wanted to splurge on extras.  Luckily, before Dalmar could grump about it more, Jerod and his family gave a quick knock on the door and walked into the kitchen.

More people walked in behind them, and soon the room was overflowing with family and friends.  Once Olivia and Thane arrived—the last ones, as usual—people grabbed plates and got in line to grab food, then settle down to eat.  Jazzi and Ansel had set up two rows of long tables to hold everyone.  Conversations flowed, and people went back for seconds before starting on desserts.  Everyone lingered longer than usual, then they all moved to seats near the big tree in the living room to watch the kids open their presents.  They took turns, starting with the youngest and moving to the oldest, so everyone could see what they got.  Jazzi and Ansel passed out eggnog, wine, and beer, and people visited a while longer before they started to pull on coats to go home.

Jazzi wasn’t in any mood to rush into the kitchen to start cleaning, so Ansel’s family gathered together and she made a second batch of coffee and tea.  Radley had told a story that got everyone laughing—except Dalmar—when Adda gasped and pushed to her feet.

Jazzi stood, concerned.  “Are you all right?”

She waved the question away and made it to the kitchen before her water broke. 

“Oh, no!  I’m so sorry.”  She looked toward the roll of paper towels near the sink, but Jazzi jumped to support her arm as she doubled over. 

“Don’t worry about the floor.  We’ll get it later.”  Jazzi wasn’t sure what to do, fighting down panic.  “Do you need help?”

She grabbed Jazzi’s arm in such a tight grip, Jazzi gasped.  Henry ran to support Adda’s other arm.  “Should we go to the hospital?”

“No time.”  Adda’s legs gave, and they lowered her to the floor.  She was gasping in and out, obviously in pain.

“I’m calling an ambulance.”  Ansel punched in the emergency number and explained that his sister was having her baby.  When he disconnected, he said, “They’ll take about twenty minutes.  Can you make it that long?”

Adda gritted her teeth and clenched her hands into fists, unable to answer.

“We took classes,” Henry said.  He dropped on his knees by his wife and began saying, “Breathe.”  And he counted between pains.  There wasn’t much time between one and the next.

Jazzi glanced at Ansel.  “What should we do?”

“Get towels,” Britt said, coming to stand behind Henry.  “Lots of them.  Boil water.”

Jazzi raced for the stairs, repeating the same mantra in her mind over and over again—Oh, please, not until the ambulance gets here.

She was rushing down the steps when Dalmar grabbed his chest and began to crumple to the floor, too.  Ansel and Radley caught him. 

“Dad?”  Ansel leaned his back against the kitchen island.  “How can I help?”

But Dalmar’s body went slack as he lost consciousness. 

“Dad!”  Radley looked to his mom.  “What’s wrong?”

She wrung her hands, visibly shaking.  “He stopped taking his blood pressure pills, didn’t like how he bruised so easily, so refused to bother with them.”

Oh, lord.  What were you supposed to do when someone had a heart attack?  Jazzi had no clue.  Her whole body tensed, wanting to do something, anything, but she didn’t know how to help.  It felt like an eternity before the ambulance screamed into their driveway, and she ran to open the door for the medics. 

Before they stepped inside, she heard a baby cry.  She whirled to see Henry holding a bloody, squirming infant.  The medics saw it, too, and hurried toward Adda, but Ansel called, “My dad’s in trouble.  He needs help.”

One medic rushed to Dalmar, the other to Adda.  The one took the baby and cleared its windpipe, then cut the umbilical cord.  The other bent over Dalmar and shook his head.

“I’m sorry.  He’s gone.”

“But he was just standing next to me!”  Radley was shaking his head in disbelief.

The man gave him a sympathetic look.  “It happens like that sometimes.  Really sudden.”

Britt started toward them, staring at her dead husband, and Jazzi rushed to them, wrapping one arm around Ansel and offering her other open arm to his mom.  Radley and Elspeth linked arms, too, and they enfolded Britt into a group hug.  They stood there together for a minute, taking comfort from each other.

The medic cleared his throat.  “We have to take him with us back to the hospital.  Do you want to follow the ambulance?”

“What about my wife?” Henry asked.

The medic working on her and baby Lorelei said, “They need to come to the hospital, too, so a doctor can check them out.  I’ve called for another ambulance.  It will be here in a minute.”

When it arrived, the medics carted Dalmar and Adda into them.  Henry followed Adda’s, and Ansel and Radley drove the others to the hospital behind Dalmar’s.  Henry went with Adda, and they stayed with Britt.  It was a long, trying wait before she’d given the hospital all of the information it needed and made arrangements for his body to be moved to Wisconsin to be buried in the family plot.

On the drive back to their house, Britt sat in stony silence.  Once they were home, and they’d all gathered in the kitchen, she said, “There won’t be an official funeral.  We already made all of the arrangements a few years ago, and Dalmar didn’t want one.”

Typical, the man was going to be antisocial to the bitter end.

“We both asked for graveside services with no minister.  We wanted to keep it private.  Just a few words before they lower us in the ground.”

“If that’s what Dad wanted.”  Radley placed his hand over his mom’s. 

She locked gazes with Bain.  “I don’t want to go home to the farmhouse.  It’s too big.  I don’t want to sit in it alone.  You and Greta can have it now, and I’ll live in the ranch house.”

Bain frowned.  “Don’t you want to take a little time to decide?  You might miss it after things settle down and you feel a little better.”

“No.”  She shook her head.  “I won’t go in it.”

For a woman who always let Dalmar make all of her decisions, she sounded adamant. 

Greta reached to take her hand.  “You’ll come eat supper with us every night, won’t you?”

Britt’s eyes filled with tears and she blinked them away.  “I’d like that, even though I never did that for you.  Dalmar wouldn’t let me.  But Dalmar’s gone now.  I can do what I want.”

Her words shocked Jazzi.  She stared at her.  So did everyone else.

Britt took a long, shaky breath.  “I loved my husband, but over time, it was more out of duty than anything else.  I used to fight with him when we were young, but eventually, he wore me down.  I just gave up.”

Jazzi could understand that.  There was no bending Dalmar’s will.  And with four kids, she probably couldn’t afford to strike out on her own.

Bain scooted close to her and put an arm around her shoulders.  “We love you, Mom, and we’ll be there for you.”

Radley and Ansel nodded agreement.

“I’d like to go to my room now,” she said.  “I’m tired, and we’re driving back after breakfast tomorrow.”

Bain and Greta walked her upstairs, and Jazzi finally went to their farmhouse sink to begin rinsing dishes.  She wanted something mundane to do to take her mind off things.  Ansel came to help her load them in the dishwasher.  It felt good to be working together right now.  It dissipated some of her nervous energy. 

Radley and Elspeth carried dirty serving platters over to them from the kitchen island, and after too much awkward conversation, they decided to head home.  “Do you mind if we come back tomorrow morning to say goodbye to Bain, Greta, and Mom?” Radley asked.

“I’ll call you when we’re going to have breakfast,” Ansel promised.

By the time Bain and Greta returned downstairs, leaving Britt comfortable in bed, the kitchen was clean, and Ansel and Jazzi were relaxing in the living room.

“Is she okay?” Ansel asked, looking up at them.

Bain took an easy chair and Greta took the one across from his.

“When she went to see the doctor the last time, he gave her sleeping pills,” Greta said.  “She took one of those.  She’s emotionally exhausted.  She’ll probably sleep through the night.”

“And you still want to leave after breakfast?” Jazzi asked.

Bain nodded.  “We’ll have plenty to do now when we get home.”

They were still talking when someone gave a quick knock at the back door and Henry came to join them.  His steps had a lift to them. 

“Adda and the baby are doing fine.  The doctor will release them tomorrow, and then we’ll start home.  Thank heavens her friends already gave her a baby shower, so we have a few things, and the rocking chair is already in the nursery.”

Ansel stood and disappeared into the basement.  When he returned, he was carrying a baby crib, then he went back downstairs to bring up a baby buggy.  “I can help you load these before you leave.”

Henry blinked, surprised.  “Those are the two Adda asked for.  They’re expensive.”

“Adda’s my sister, and Lorelei’s my first niece.”    

Henry pressed his lips together, looking slightly overwhelmed.  “Adda’s going to love those.”

Bain laughed.  “We haven’t gotten her a present yet.  We should have known better.  Our sister never did like to wait to get what she wanted.”

Henry grinned.  “She gets too excited.  That’s one of the things I love about her, how much she loves life.”

Ansel reached for Jazzi’s hand, and Bain reached for Greta’s.  “We all got lucky,” Ansel said, his voice husky.

They didn’t stay up too much later so they’d all get up early the next morning.  Bain always did anyway, used to dairy milking hours.  Ansel called Radley and Elspeth when Jazzi started making breakfast. After they ate, Henry drove to the hospital and returned with Adda and baby Lorelei, and everyone gathered around her.  When Adda saw the crib and baby buggy, tears ran down her cheeks.  “What a holiday!  So many blessings, and then we lost Dad.”  She gave a wary glance to her mom.

Britt just held out her arms for the baby, and her expression melted with Lorelei cradled close to her. 

“I wish Dad could have seen her,” Adda said.

Britt shook her head.  “He had no use for babies, especially girls, but I adore them.  I intend to enjoy yours more than I got to enjoy mine.”

Adda’s eyes went wide.  “Dad wasn’t easy to live with, was he?”

“No, but I’ll miss him.  I’m glad there’s a new baby to lift my spirits.”

Jazzi thought about that as she watched them pull away that morning.  It had been one dramatic, hectic family gathering, but if Dalmar had to die, she was beginning to think it was a blessing that Adda had her baby at the same time.  When next Christmas came, they’d remember that more than Dalmar’s heart attack.  Losing someone over a holiday was hard, but next year, a one-year-old would come to terrorize their house, and it would be wonderful.

December

When the kids and grandkids were little, I was really into the holidays. Then they grew up and moved out, and I turned into more of a slacker. These days, they usually drive up from Indy to see us for Christmas, but that’s not until the 25th, so most years, I don’t bother with the tree and decorations until the second weekend in December, and then I grumble about how much work it is. I even tried to talk HH into a smaller tree, but he wasn’t having it. And that’s good, because for some reason, this year, (maybe because we didn’t get to see the kids for Thanksgiving since they’d traveled), I was psyched about decorating the house. So the wreathes went on doors and the decorations went on shelves the Saturday after Thanksgiving on November 28. WAY early for me.

The rest won’t be far behind. The tree goes up next. Pre-lit, yes, but I have TONS of things to hang on it. Then I want to bake cookies and make candy. I want to have a Christmas Eve meal BEFORE the big Christmas ham and fixings. I’m even in the mood for Christmas music, which sometimes annoys me in early December.

I’m not a Grinch. I don’t want to shut down the holiday. But this is the first time in a while I feel ready to jump into it. My sister and cousin have been watching Christmas Hallmark movies for a long time now, and I’m not so much into those. But I did already get out the Christmas dinnerware to use everyday and the Christmas, quilted placemats.

And then there’s my writing. My mind’s been churning to think of a nice Christmas short story that’s a mystery–you know, something cheerful with a dead body under the tree:) And oops! That thought gave me an idea:)

I’m up to 50,000 words on the Jazzi cozy I’m working on now and need at least 20,000 more, but for my next Jazzi, I want to write a Christmas novel, and I’m excited about that. I’ve never done one before–focused around Christmas so that George can wear a Santa hat on a book cover. Lots of other authors write Christmas mysteries, and this time, I’m motivated. It’s going to happen.

Anyway, the Christmas spirit bit me earlier than usual this year. And I’ve rambled about it long enough, but I hope all of you have a wonderful December, whether you celebrate Christmas or Passover or something else, and whether you’re in the mood to celebrate or not. And I’m hoping a holiday Muse inspires you with lots of lovely words.

So, Happy December! And Happy Writing!

My Least Favorite Thing

I finally finished the final proof pages to send back to Kensington for The Body in the Beauty Parlor. That’s the last time I get to touch my writing before it’s published. And by then, you’d think it would be perfect, but it never is, even though my critique partners have already red-inked it, and I’ve fixed those problems. And it’s already gone through content editing by my wonderful editor, John Scognamiglio, and I fixed those. And it’s gone through copy edits that I have to approve or disapprove or comment on–always more than it seems there should be. Then, last, but not least, I have to go through the final proof before the book’s ready to publish. By then, you’d think it would be as good as it’s going to get, right? Wrong.

There’s something about this last, “this is it” edit that makes me more critical of my writing than I’ve been before. Up until this point, I’m always feeling pretty happy about the book, but this edit does me in. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful that I get to see the book one more time before it’s ready to go. I love finding as many mistakes and correcting them as I can. Better me than a reader. So why am I whining?

Because as I read, I find all of the things that I wish I’d done better. And believe me, I’m my own worst critic, so I ALWAYS find things that make me wince, but I can’t change them. And that drives me nuts.

When I finish going through the manuscript this time, all that sticks in my mind are the things I’m not happy with–the things that weren’t as smooth as I wanted them to be, or as dramatic as I’d hoped they’d be, or ….you name it. It’s a long time before I look at my story again and think, “Hey, it’s not so bad. It might even be pretty good.” But that takes me a while.

The only thing that saves me is starting a new book. Because I get caught up in the new characters, the new plot, and I feel pretty wonderful, like I’m more brilliant than I thought I was. My mind spins, trying to bring the characters to life, to make the plot work. By the middle of the thing, I usually struggle to keep the pacing going, so I applaud myself when I finally finish the last page. Hooray for me! And I’m happy with myself. I’m a wonderful writer again:) …Until I get those final page proofs, and I hang my head in shame. What was I thinking?

If you’d ask me if I’m a good writer, my answer would probably depend upon the day. If I’d just finished page proofs, I wouldn’t rank myself very high. I’d be full of doubts, worried about how I could improve. If it’s right after I finished a first draft, I’d be pretty darned good.

Thankfully, it takes a decent amount of time between turning in a book and having it published. The Body in the Beauty Parlor won’t come out until next March. That gives Kensington time to offer it on NetGalley and to try to get some early reviews. And it gives me time to like it again.

I don’t know if other writers go through the yo-yo of emotions about their writing that I do, but…The Body in the Beauty Parlor’s final proof is done. That, in itself, is a success, so yay for that! And I’m already working on the next Jazzi book, and at the moment, it’s pretty brilliant:) I’ll cling to that while I can. I know it’s a temporary high.

To all of you, just keep writing.

Mystery Musings

I read ISLAND OF BONES by P.J. Parrish, and I’ve fallen even more in love with the Louis Kincaid mystery series. This book’s set in Florida, and the heat and water, mosquitoes and mangroves are an intricate part of the story. What I think I like best about Parrish’s writing, though, is that characters reveal themselves to me a little at a time. One layer opens up to reveal a deeper one, like peeling an onion. I especially loved the character development of Landeta, a cop Louis is forced to work with. What a beautiful unfolding. And Emma’s reveal near the end of the book broke my heart.

The crimes committed keep morphing into unexpected territory. And the ending felt realistic. Life isn’t black and white, and with Louis Kincaid, there’s a lot of gray area. What is justice anyway? Good isn’t always rewarded, and bad isn’t always what it seems.

Most of the book is told from Kincaid’s POV, but occasionally, the author jarred me when she went into someone else’s viewpont. It worked, but it did throw me for a minute. I’m used to the back and forth of multiple POVs, but she chose not to worry about the usual rules and do it her way. Effective, but not expected.

I can’t recommend P.J. Parrish highly enough. She’s an author who inspires me. Her pacing ticks away by constantly throwing me off balance. She feeds me just enough information to make me feel like I know where the story’s going, but then I don’t. Her characters feel real, and this particular mystery was like opening a can of worms. Unusual and messy. I loved it!