I can't promise that bits of this won't change when the final book is released, but I feel like you should have something to read, something to indicate what the heck May is all about (even though this chapter might tell you nothing...), and something to show that the book will indeed be released this year. So here is chapter one. Enjoy!!!
An Old Murder in May
Beyond the sliding glass door, in the exact center of our backyard, was an excavated pit, a blunt reminder that we’d stumbled upon a woman’s long dead remains last month. The setting sun, instead of being rosy, cast mustard-colored rays on piles of dirt and reflected off the dust-encrusted living room window, rendering the scene outside akin to the aftermath of a nuclear explosion and making it nearly impossible to see through the glass.
“We have to move,” Maxie Peters, my best friend, said. She angrily pulled her blonde hair into a ponytail, almost hitting me with her elbow. “Dust is on everything. In everything.”
“I thought you were enjoying the mystery of the dead woman in our yard,” said Olivia Parker, my other close friend and my boyfriend’s sister.
“I learned all I needed to know,” Maxie said. “Her husband was deranged. Educated, sure, but completely off his rocker. If I ever go off the deep end like that, tie me to a tree in the desert.”
I laughed. “A middle school music teacher.” I pointed to myself. “And a florist.” I pointed to Olivia. “Will try and tie you, a specially trained military sharpshooter, to a tree when you’re insane. That sounds not even remotely doable.”
“I wasn’t a sharpshooter,” Maxie said.
“It took us forever to find this place,” Olivia said. “Not to mention the fact we like our neighbors. We might not get so lucky next time. And why are you complaining, Maxie? You don’t have to live here. You have another house. Now that your kitchen is fixed you can go home, right?”
Maxie looked at me.
I shrugged. “She’s right. You can leave anytime. Olivia and I can deal with the pit of doom. I know I haven’t shown off my skills recently, but when I was a kid my mom called me the dust master.”
“You were an only child,” Maxie said. “You were probably the vacuum master and the sponge master, too.”
“That explains so much about my childhood.” I made a mental note to mention it to my mom when she called on Thursday. “But, seriously, if this craziness bothers you, why are you still here?”
Someone cleared her throat behind us. “I would like to know that, too.”
We turned around to see Maxie’s grandmother slapping her umbrella rhythmically into her palm. She was a small, fierce woman who looked ten years younger than she actually was, although none of us knew her exact age.
“Gram,” Maxie said, warily.
“Your friends are right, Max,” she said. “You should come home.”
Maxie sighed. “Being in the same house as my mother is not a good idea.”
“What makes you think I enjoy living with her? Your mother is cuckoo.”
“This morning she told the mailman I was single and had a good figure,” Maxie said. “Since Bernard, our mailman, is married and plays Santa at the mall, it’s not even relevant.”
“That’s nothing,” Grandma said. “She threatened to drop me off at senior day care so I could meet people. Who am I going to meet? Regis Philbin? No thank you.”
Maxie shook her head. “Yesterday she bought me laxatives, because she thought I looked bloated.”
“She bought me adult diapers, because she had a coupon.”
Maxie paused. “That is…actually worse. You win.”
“You bet your ass I do.”
“I can hear both of you.” Marianne Peters, Maxie’s mother, entered the living room. She smiled indulgently while wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “But we’re having a good day. No reason to spoil it. I cleaned your kitchen and took out the trash. It took hours, but it’s done. I found grime on top of grime. Doesn’t help that the construction workers are sending mountains of dust up into the air all day.” She bent down, searching around the furniture, a frown on her face. “Where is that dog?”
Goliath, the beagle we’d been babysitting for my mother’s best friend, spent his time hiding under the furniture whenever Maxie’s mom was over. He worked very hard to keep from being swept up in the hurricane of housekeeping. Today we took pity on him and sent him to our neighbor’s house.
“Robin has him,” Olivia said. “She’s probably feeding him fish and coconut milk…which sounds delicious. I’m starving.”
Maxie’s mother pursed her lips. “Milk will give him the runs. Watch him tonight. And wipe his paws before he jumps on the furniture. He really needs a bath. And maybe spray him with perfume. I bought some deodorizer for the furniture. Can you use that on dogs?”
“Mother,” Maxie said, then took a deep breath before she continued. “Why are you still here?”
“To finish the job.” Marianne looked outside. “Good Lord, did the sun set already? Spring sunsets are brief. In the fall, the sun seems to linger. Apparently there’s a study that shows how watching the sunset can make you produce more eggs. It’s like an ovary intensifier.”
“Please stop talking,” Maxie said.
“In case any of you wanted to start having babies.”
“Stop your yapping!” Maxie’s grandma yelled and snapped the umbrella to her side. “I’ve been standing still too long. Got to keep moving or my muscles seize.” She threw open the front door. “Maxie. Walk me out.”
Maxie growled, but joined her grandmother. Marianne gave us each a warm hug and then followed them out the door.
“Do you think the part about the sunset is true?” Olivia asked.
Marianne popped her head back in. “Sunday dinner at our house to celebrate. I’m expecting everyone. I called your mother, Sam. Your dad is going to grill on Maxie’s new barbecue. Olivia, if I knew your mother’s number I would call her, too.”
“My mother? Oh, please don’t,” Olivia said. “She’s super busy. Probably out of town. Maybe out of the country.”
“MOTHER!” Maxie yelled from outside. “TIME TO GO!”
Marianne smiled. “Okay, well, we’ll miss meeting her, but I understand. See you Sunday then. Bye.” She waved and then shut the door behind her.
“What are we celebrating on Sunday?” Olivia asked.
“I have no idea,” I said. The past few weeks had been a blur. I tried to pull up a mental calendar. Being a teacher meant that I had an inner datebook with specific days highlighted, the most important being the last day of school and the start of Christmas break. I knew there was something on Sunday, but couldn’t remember what it was. “I’ll call my mom.”
Olivia shuddered. “I’m really glad she doesn’t have my mother’s number.”
Maxie stormed back into the house and slammed the door. “Ninja night run. Five minutes.” She blew past us, down the hall.
Olivia grabbed her purse off of the couch. “I can’t run tonight—”
“You never run,” I said.
“I used to.” Olivia pulled out her keys. “In high school I ran a sixteen-minute mile and failed PE. The shame scarred me for life. But I have a flower design class at the Oak Valley Adult School tonight. It starts at six.”
“They have classes on flower arranging?”
“Cut flowers, specifically. It’s essential for my business. Apparently there’s an entire science behind it. And since I now own a shop on Main Street I probably need a class in building rehab as well. I thought it was going to be simple. Buy property, put pretty flowers in the window, boom, I’m a florist. They didn’t say anything about the peeling walls, pipes that haven’t been updated since the forties, or the mold. Have I mentioned the mold?”
“Yes. I thought Frito was going to help you fix it up.”
“He was, but he’s been busy. New job and all.” She sighed. “Okay, I’m off.”
“You’re leaving me alone…at night…with an angry Maxie?”
“If anyone can handle her when she’s this pissed, it’s you.” Olivia gave me a quick hug and left.
“Is a sixteen-minute mile bad?” I asked the empty room.
“It’s ridiculous!” Maxie yelled. “Get ready!”
I grabbed my phone and called Robin.
“Hello, lady,” Robin said cheerfully.
“Maxie and I are going for a run and Olivia went to a class. Can you keep Goliath for another hour?”
“Of course. He’s no trouble. I fed him rice an hour ago and he’s sitting on the couch watching Bonanza. It’s his favorite show. I think he likes the horses. Is Frito with you?”
Frito was Robin’s twenty-four year old son. His real name was Luis, but none of us called him that. He’d been hired as a bartender last month. “Maybe he’s at the Wicked Piñata.”
“Aye, don’t say the name of that vile place. I can’t stand it. Why couldn’t he have been hired at a respectable company, or been an accountant?”
“Sorry, Robin,” I said, thinking that all parents dream their children will become accountants. It’s unnatural, and probably the reason there are so few of them. “We’ll check in on him. Make sure he’s all right.”
“That would be wonderful, Samantha. Thank you.”
I hung up.
Maxie emerged from her room dressed completely in black. Even her blonde hair was hidden under a black cap. “You have two minutes,” she said.
“Are we exercising or robbing a bank?” I asked.
“One minute, forty-five seconds.”
I changed quickly, choosing to counter Maxie’s dark disguise with a bright red shirt emblazoned with, “Why Not Wonder Woman?!” printed in gold glitter.
Maxie sighed when I came back into the living room. “Those are pajamas.”
“Not when you wear them to jog. Then they are workout clothes.”
“You’re lucky I like you.” She threw open the front door.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “What’s our route?”
“To Sister’s and back.”
“Sister’s Café is five miles away,” I said. “I’m going to die.”
“Three miles, round trip, and stop being pathetic.” Maxie stalked out.
“I’m not pathetic,” I muttered as I followed her. “In ten minutes I’ll be pathetic. Right now I’m suffering gallantly because you’re bothered by your mom’s interest in ovary intensifying sunsets.” A sudden gust of wind slammed the door shut behind me.
The air was heavy with the threat of a typical Southern California spring rain that would never arrive. I ran through several sprinklers before I gave up the safety of the sidewalk and joined Maxie in the middle of the street.
Fifteen minutes later we’d transitioned from our neighborhood to the community park. Blood was pumping in my ears, I was breathing in wheezing gasps, and every time my feet hit the concrete my ankles sent surrender messages to my brain. I veered off the path, swayed to a stop, and collapsed onto a bench.
“Sweet……fresh……..air………” I tried to suck in oxygen, but it was painful. The full moon stared balefully back at me, completely unhelpful.
“I’m running alone,” Maxie said from somewhere ahead. A dim white glow emanated from reflectors on the bottom edge of her sneakers. It was the only acknowledgement to the fact that it might be dangerous to run at night dressed in the color of tar. She turned around and made her way back to me. “Are you sitting down?”
“This was not a good idea.” I took another deep breath and then found myself yawning.
“Ninja night runs are an excellent way to manage stress,” Maxie said, jogging in a circle around me. “And we’ll be doing more of them. I’m losing my edge.”
“I’m not cut out to be a ninja,” I said.
“I can see that.” She stopped jogging. “Are you seriously going to sit on your ass?”
“I’m afraid to stand. I might pass out. How many miles have we run? Twelve?”
“One and a half.” Maxie checked her pulse. “We’re almost to Sister’s. I thought you’d at least make it there before you gave up.”
“I’m not giving up. I’m resting. I read you’re supposed to take breaks.”
Maxie shook her head. “This from the woman who took on the Doblevs.”
I shuddered, involuntarily at the mention of the Russian mobsters who had tried to kill me. Thinking about that night was something I stridently avoided. “I survived the Doblevs.”
“You’re making my point. Face it, Sam, you’re capable of dealing with a lot of shit. A few miles are nothing.”
She wasn’t wrong. In January Maxie and I had been kidnapped. In February my house was destroyed and an insane, jealous person gunned down Maxie’s boyfriend. In March, a good friend and fellow teacher was shot and killed. And in April, the Doblev patriarch strung me up in a creepy abandoned lab and tortured me. Late at night, when I’m alone in the dark, I worried that May could be worse.
I stood up and tested my balance. My knees felt like jelly and I nearly fell over. “I’m not going to make it. Can we walk the rest of the way to Sister’s?”
“Sam, you can do this. The only thing telling you that you can’t is your brain. Stop listening.” She paused for a moment. “Think about something fun. Think about Ben Parker; that hot, sexy federal agent who loves you. He should be coming back to Oak Valley soon, right?”
I felt my pulse race.
My boyfriend, Ben, and I had planned on a weekend of camping, but right after my struggle with the Doblevs he’d been called back to Quantico for more training. At least that’s how he’d explained his absence. Nate, his partner, had left, too. Olivia was sure they were working the Doblev case. Possibly from Russia. I tried asking Ben where he was whenever he called, which was too infrequent, but so far he’d only answered with, “I’m on Earth,” which was not at all helpful.
“Come on, Sam,” Maxie said.
I plodded after her. The brief rest helped. As did the rush of emotions I’d felt thinking about Ben. What was he doing right now? What time was it in Russia? If that’s even where he was. Maybe he was taking a shower, raking his hands through his thick, dark hair as rivulets of soap made their way over his muscled shoulders.
I tripped and flailed wildly for a moment to keep my balance.
We were almost near the end of the park when my phone buzzed. I thought it might be Ben, considering that I was currently imagining him naked.
But it wasn’t. Instead, Skipper Turnbuckle’s name glowed on the readout. “You better not be in trouble,” I said when I answered.
Skipper was a private investigator and an old friend. He was also partially responsible for every bad thing that had happened to me.
“There she is!” Skipper yelled, and then his voice became muffled. “She answered the phone. I told you she would.”
“Where are you? What’s happening? Who are you talking to?”
“Everything is fine. It is a beautiful morning here. A bright sliver of sun just peaked over the briny horizon. And my beautiful bride is handing me a Bloody Mary.”
“Briny horizon? Morning?” I took a breath. “Bride?”
“I’m floating in temperate seas over a tectonic plate of ill repute.”
“You’re boating over a volcano?”
“I got married! That’s part of the reason I’m calling you. My love and I met last week. Our bodies and souls have aligned and we are now—.”
I pulled the phone away from my ear. Skipper was obviously sick with some kind of island fever.
“Sam? SAM!” His voice sounded faint.
I raised the phone to my ear and said, “No more talk about bodies aligning. It’s making me nauseous. How are you calling me if you’re in the middle of the ocean?”
“Not the middle of the ocean, my dear, and I’m using a satellite phone, which is costing me a pretty penny so I’d better get down to business.”
Maxie jogged back toward me. “Is it Ben?”
I shook my head and felt a little dizzy. “It’s Skipper. He got married.”
“Was it blackmail? Did she owe him money?”
“Is that Maxie Peters I hear?” Skipper asked. “Give her a hug for me.”
“Not a chance. She’d deck me.” I spotted a bench a few feet away, partially hidden behind a tree and headed toward it. “All right, Skipper. Spill. How did you meet your wife?”
“I don’t have time to get into that,” Skipper said. “Due to the happy event of my nuptials, and a few other things, I’m going to stay here a bit longer. I need you to check in on the Closet.”
“You want me to look in your closet?”
“The Closet,” Skipper said.
I sat down on the bench. It was cool and felt wonderful. “Can’t Harry help you? It seems like he would be closer to whatever is in your closet that needs checking.” My ex-husband, Harry, was Skipper’s current roommate.
“Rialto is barely walking. He’s not yet not recovered from his torture session with the Doblevs last month. And this is something I need you to take care of. The Closet is important to me. There’s no one I trust more.”
“You aren’t making any sense. What the hell is the closet?”
“It’s my office,” Skipper said. “I call it the Closet, because it’s the size of one. My crooked landlord left me a message, saying that people had been leaving things near the door and he wanted it cleaned up or me cleaned out. I’m calling to see if you can go over there and tidy up.”
“You’ve never mentioned your office before,” I said.
“Never had a reason to.”
“Uh, Sam…” Maxie said.
I waved my hand, indicating I needed a few more minutes. I was getting a headache and had a feeling it was going to get worse before it got better. “Where is your office?” I asked Skipper.
“Third floor of the old pickle building downtown. Room 332.”
“We have a pickle building in Oak Valley?”
“SAM!” Maxie shouted.
I heard a moan, felt a hand on my arm, and then the sound of leaves rustling as a body flopped into my lap.