Sequel to "The Novel Mystery" Copyright 2000

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centerChapter One/center

"There you are, dear," said a soft voice from the porch. I was surprised. I hadn't even reached the elegant Southern porch yet, and already people were welcoming me. I kept walking towards the porch, where the only light came through the floor-to-ceiling windows, looking around as I did so and peering into the shadows. I didn't see anyone, and the ghostly trees in the distance and the cool summer breeze against my skin didn't help my nerves. I had gained a phobia of disembodied voices in the past three months.

iMust be how they make introductions in New Orleans/i, I told myself sternly. iNow just shut up and be polite./i After all, my mother had taught be the proper manners, which you need in order to be a resident of Montgomery, Alabama. Of course, I was slightly out of town, and out of state, but really, not by much. New Orleans was only about two and a half hours away, if you rushed. Of course, it took other people close to five hours when doing the speed limit.

Just to explain things a bit, it was May. Lou, my boyfriend from New York, had been surprised when he had seen people wearing T-shirts and tank tops in April, but this was the South. In Alabama, we would be having temperatures in the high 90s and low 100s for the next four months. The way I figured it, the hot weather was good for two things: 1) Lou needed to get used to the heat. 2) I needed a tan.

"Hello," I said politely as I walked up the steps. I could now see the woman who had called to me in the dim light. The dress and the voice were all that told she was a woman. She was standing alone on the porch, and I walked over to greet her. She stayed where she was, and I stopped, for some reason deciding that this was more like the "X-Files" movie than a party for Southern authors. In this heat, most of the people had retreated inside to the light and the air conditioning; I could see them eating, drinking, talking, and laughing through the windows.

"Eve Harding, I presume," the woman said. Although she was trying to use the high-and-mighty voice most pompous authors used, I could still detect a trace of Southern dialect slipping in every now and then. My own accent was slightly British. Born in the States, spending most of my time in London at an impressionable age. Well, hey, at least I stood out from the crowd, right?

"We all heard about your..." the woman faltered for words. That was something I did myself when I wanted something or was trying to suck-up to someone without letting them know. "Your... episode," she finished, looking at me calmly.

iHell,/i I thought. iShe probably wants something/i and iwants to be my new best friend. Crap./i

I nodded silently, pretending to be scarred forever by the event. It hadn't been that bad. I mean, who doesn't go through life without having a former classmate with the IQ of a four-year-old and an anonymous accomplice try to kill you? Honestly- It could happen to anybody!

All right, all right. So maybe I was a little scarred. Just a little. Being starved nearly to death, having enough sleeping drugs to drag down the Rock ("What's your name?" "Well, I sure as hell wouldn't tell you, Mr. Rock- sir.), and being an inch away from being murdered outside while tied to a tree on a cloudless winter's night kind of takes it effect.

Just the slightest bit.

The woman approached me. I let her, but only because I couldn't run away screaming at the top of my lungs (although- trust me- I wanted to). I could tell right away she was one of those pompous people as soon as she stepped out of the shadows. She had a purple dress that trailed on the wooden porch made of silvery satin; splinters had already made a few fuzz balls. She had long gray hair, more white than gray, tied into a bun in the back of her head. Her blue eyes twinkled as much as the plastic tiara on top of her head did. Although she must have been well over fifty, her arms were nearly as smooth as my own twenty-some-odd ones; only hers had a better tan. Her arms flew from under a the long purple scarf which was wrapped around her neck and flowing towards the floor.

"Oh, darling," she said as her arms enwrapped me. I sternly reminded myself that I was not claustrophobic and ordered myself not to fake it. "We're iso/i sorry it happened. Whenever an occurrence like this happens to one of our own, we grieve. Come inside, we'll make sure you are properly nourished here- you mark my words."

All I could do was blink in my own stupid way as she dragged me inside. Besides people, I saw that we were in the front hall, with a crystal chandelier hanging haphazardly above us. The walls were wood; probably genuine oak. There was a doorway to the left, and from what I could see, it had been painted antique pink. People were giggling and snorting at the few CDs there. Or maybe they were snorting over the champagne in their hands. In front of me, I saw a staircase with at least 30 steps rising above me. I looked and made certain that it was facing the front door. iThat's bad feng shui,/i I thought. To the right, I saw a large hallway, stretching up eight or more feet. I'm five foot two myself; I couldn't really be relied on to tell the heights. I saw three doors leading into other rooms.

"Everyone," the woman announced. The noise stopped, or at least most of it- the people with the CDs were now snorting a bit more loudly. The woman ignored them. "Eve Harding is here."

A distinct murmur went through the crowd.

People started to come over and shake my hand while I stood there, dumfounded. Suddenly, everyone was introducing themselves. "I'm Mary Emboli, writer of mystery novels and owner of several hot bestsellers. Nice to meet you."

"Hi, I'm Mardi of Mardi's Publishers. Interested?"

After fifteen more introductions somewhat like the first two, I began to think that something was wrong. It seemed that ieveryone/i was trying to be my best friend. People were sucking up to me left and right. And since I was so short, they were doing it above me, too. I bit my lip and suddenly wondered why Lou had practically forced me to come.

"It will be good for you," he had said. "Hanging out with your own kind for a while. Now, what's wrong with that?"

I had neatly countered him. "So the fact that you're on a new case has absolutely nothing to do with it?"

He had held up his fingers and shown me the gap between them.

I was going to give him hell as soon as I could get to my cell phone without being noticed.

"Come along, dear. The kitchen is right this way." The woman led me down the hall to the second door and walked through. The looks and stares followed until we got to the kitchen. When we reached the white and cheerfully painted kitchen, the woman set me down on a stool at the square kitchen island in the middle of the room and said, "Now you just sit right there, dear, and I'll bring you a nice big bowl of salad. It will soothe your stomach after all that you went through."

"Thank you," I said politely, trying not to let it show that I was sick of salads and disgusted with merely the name. Ever since my brush with whatever it was, Lou had made me eat nothing but salad for every meal for three straight weeks. I had gotten him to graduate to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but he didn't seem thrilled with the idea, to put it quite frankly. I also didn't bother to mention that after three months, my stomach didn't need much soothing; it needed chocolate and shakes, ice cream, Cokes, cookies, cheese puffs, chips, nachos, and basically anything but so-called "healthy" stuff. Hadn't anyone I'd ever met been told that too much healthy food was bad for you?

The man on the other side of the woman sitting next to me shouted in a slurred voice to Goldie Hawn in her "First Wives' Club" role, "So who's this you've brought to us, Martha?" He let loose the loudest hiccup I'd ever heard and took another swig of something or other from his canteen. He looked like the perfect picture of a drunk.

The woman next to me turned. "Don't worry about him," she said politely. She shoved a wisp of limp brown hair out of her face, making her face seem paler than it already was and making her deep brown eyes seem monstrous somehow.

"Eve Harding," Goldie, now known as Martha, said.

"Holy crap!" the woman next to me shouted in my ear. I flinched.

The drunk stared at me. "Don't you know-" hiccup "-that you aren't supposta'-" hiccup "-go that deeply into yo' research?"

I shrugged. "I didn't plan it," I said. Who was I kidding? Instead of the Nobel Peace Prize, I'd just won the "Most Pathetic Excuse Award."

"Hush," said the woman next to me. She glared at the man until he looked away after a few more hiccups. Then she stared into space. "I think it would be marvelous," she said dreamily. "To be involved in something so adventurous! Imagine!"

I wanted to tell her the more gory details, but I kept my mouth shut and watched Martha prepare the salad. She was only just now cleaning the lettuce. I sighed.

"I'm Kat," the woman said, extending her hand. I shook it. "I'm the Kat of 'Kit and Kat Jones,' the authors of the 'Frank and Frankie' series. My husband, Kit, is around here somewhere." I nodded, smiling politely. "He," she said, waving an arm to indicate the man who had just passed out on the counter, "is Tim McCoy. He supposedly writes the 'Westing Wayside' series- If you count that as actual literature."

I smiled, beginning to warm up to Kat already.

"So," she began, setting her elbows on the counter and looking at me with a look between avid attention and a young puppy craving for attention. "What was it like?" she asked. She added hastily, "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."

I grinned at her. "I'm sure you don't want to hear all the gory details."

Her eyes widened in shock and pleasure. " 'Gory?' " she repeated, excited. "There was gore? Tell!"

I told her the basics- basically everything I had released in the mystery novel I had given to my editor, Gary, shortly afterward. Nothing new.

Still, though, her jaw had dropped as soon as I finished. I looked up and realized that everyone in the kitchen was listening in with rapt attention. Martha hurriedly placed my salad in front of me, and I chewed on the leaves quietly, trying not to throw up. I remembered how I had threatened Lou the last night he had made me eat salad, "One more bite, and I swear I'll spew so many chunks over you..."

"So," I said slowly. I was trying to think of something to say that would change the subject- away from me. "What's the party for?"

"This, my dear," said a deep-voiced man from the doorway, "is the reason." He waved his hand to Martha. Martha blushed and grinned childishly. I got a better look at the man. His eyes were dark and kind; he was the tallest person I'd ever seen- Then again, everybody looks tall to me. His black beard was beginning to let a few gray hairs shine through, though the top of his head was still so black that it didn't take an expert to realize he dyed it. He went over to Martha and kissed her gently on the cheek. Martha grinned again as she rested her hands on the counter. "My dear wife wanted to throw a party for her friends, so we threw one. Are you enjoying it so far?" he asked, peering at me over gold-rimmed oval glasses.

I nodded as I picked at my salad and responded with a firmer "Yes" than I truly felt. In truth, I was wishing that I knew how to get to the table on the far side of the room, where a young-looking man was picking at some sausages, trying to maneuver the monstrous things onto his plate with a toothpick.

God, I'd have killed for some protein. Not only protein, but enough calories to make even my sweet tooth scream, "That's enough, already! Stop it!"

I pictured the moment I got home. Already, I could feel my hands wrapping around Lou's neck. He was never going to get away with this one.

"The barbecue out back is finishing up," the man announced to his guests. "If anyone would like an old-fashioned hamburger or hot dog, come and get it."

Right away, I stood up and started walking after him, carrying the salad in my hands. I munched as much as I could before I couldn't stand it any longer and then set it on the table. My mother and her manners. If I ever met my mother in heaven, I'd whack her so hard she'd become a comet, for crying out loud. Molecular dust particles sub-atomically fused and all that stuff.

As the man put a hot dog on my plate, he gave me an understanding smile, and I grinned back graciously. I turned and saw Kat there, between me and a nice comfy, quiet spot on the porch.

"That looks good," she observed, studying my more than half-charred hot dog. The man wasn't the greatest cook. "I think I'll get a hamburger, Rudy."

Rudy nodded and tossed a burnt, crisp hamburger on a plate, handing it to her with a big grin. "Tell me later what Frank and Frankie will be doing in the future," he told her, and turned to deal with the other people who were now beginning to look like becoming a vegetarian wasn't such a bad thing.

Kat and I made our way to the couch with the nylon covering for when it rained.

"I don't care how disgusting it looks," I commented as we surveyed our meals with distaste. "After what I've been eating, it looks like it's come from God Himself."

"What have you been eating?" she asked, seemingly unconcerned.

"The doctors said I had to take it easy for a while," I told her. "It came from- Well, you know..." She nodded, urging me to go on. "Well, my boyfriend Lou-"

"The cop who saved you?" she asked in astonishment. "Your boyfriend?"

I nodded. "Now that he's off the case."

She clasped her hands together, to shove the hamburger plate over the side of the couch with her elbow so she wouldn't have to eat it without anyone noticing. She failed in both cases, but she still carried a good attitude and a determined look in her eye as she exclaimed, "How romantic!"

I nodded. "Well, he wouldn't let me eat anything but salad for three weeks. I finally got him to let me eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but you wouldn't believe the look he gets when I complain about a migraine. I'm trying to prove to him that I can take care of myself, but that isn't going very well."

Kat nodded. "Men," she agreed, rolling her eyes. She turned around to face the window, watching all the men we could see in the room. "There's Kit," she said, nudging me.

I turned and saw the young man from the sausage episode. He had brown hair with a red shine to it, more freckles than I'd had when I was a kid sprinkled across his face. He had shining blue eyes and was wearing something I definitely liked: Cargo khaki pants, a white tank with a Hawaiian shirt.

I scanned the rest of the room and saw Martha, studying a manila folder with distaste and worry wrinkles in her forehead. Through the window, we could hear someone call her name. She put the papers back in the folder and looked up expectantly to see Kit going to her. They started talking.

Kat turned back around; I followed suit, sensing the moment was over. She breathed a heavy, dreamy sigh. "Isn't he wonderful?" she asked.

I nodded. "I've been wondering," I told her.

She looked at me expectantly. "What?" she asked.

"Well, how did everyone find out about my- you know...?"

Kat's brow creased. "Don't you read the papers?" she asked.

I shook my head.

"Watch the news?"

Once again, I shook my head. Seeing her astonished face, I said, "It's too depressing for my taste."

She nodded, understanding. "Well, it was all over the place. Even CNN did a story on it. I heard you were writing a book about it."

I nodded. "It isn't everything in the fullest detail, but it's enough. In this case, I think writing was kind of like therapy."

Kat practically drooled over that one. "Oh, I love that. Writing as therapy. It saves millions to pay for those therapists around here these days. Plus, you can actually make money from it, which deserves a whole lot of points on my scale."

I laughed. After that, we subsided with talk and listened to the crickets and frogs. I watched as the breeze stirred the stiff Spanish moss around from the tree boughs. Silhouetted against the velvet sky without a moon and only dim spots for stars, the scene reminded me of every- or nearly every- murder story I'd ever heard of. Someone always died on a night like this. This was the kind of night people had envisioned when they had said that spirits, ghosts, hobgoblins and God only knew what else walked about in the middle of the night, moaning about their own pathetic lives.

"Perfect night for a murder," Kat and I said to each other at the same time. We grinned at each other and burst out laughing.

When we had calmed down from three more bursts of spontaneous laughing fits, I posed her another question. "Where did you get your accent?"

"I'll tell you if you tell me."

I grinned. "Deal."

"Kit and I are from New Hampshire; we speak Yankee fluently."

We laughed again.

Kat interrupted and said to me, "Now it's your turn."

"You and Kit are from New Hampshire."

Kat looked taken back, thought about it, realized my word play game, and nodded wisely. "Ah," she said, wagging a finger slowly at me but still looking amused. "Tell me where you got your accent."

I grinned and felt a bit of pride that she was using her words so carefully and had caught on so fast. Usually it took people a bit longer. "I was born in the South, but I spent my summers in England."

"What was it like?" she asked, truly interested.

I shrugged and shook my head slowly. "I don't remember much of it, really. I was too young when we stopped going. But by then I had picked up a permanent accent and had learned that pizza in England and Alabama are not the same."

She grinned.

"I'm going to get some wine," I said suddenly. "I think I saw some in there. Want some?"

She nodded, but made no move to get up. She was studying the scenery. "It would be a great book," she said softly.

Knowing from experience that when an author has an idea, it's best to leave them alone and get out of their way, I went inside and found my way to the kitchen, but not before I heard someone say, "iShe's/i Eve Harding? Good God, she's short!" I grinned despite myself.

When I walked into the kitchen, the first thing I noticed was the silence, that no one was there. Then I noticed the bright fluorescent light and the figure under it, studying something. I walked close enough to see what looked like a photo with many people about. It looked like some sort of fair or something. The figure, Martha, raised her head and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"Oh, it's you," she said, staring at me in astonishment.

"I'm sorry to intrude," I said politely. "I just came in to see if there was any wine left. I thought I saw some earlier."

Martha nodded, but she was evidently preoccupied. "Yes, dear. Please, help yourself."

As I got two glasses and an entire wine bottle (after eating all that salad and enjoying the charred meat which even Lou's dog Stevie wouldn't have eaten and was now catching up to me), I wasn't about to go easy on anything. Tim McCoy had the perfect idea: Get so drunk you passed out. At least I'd be able to do isomething/i interesting without Lou trying to stop me.

"Are you all right?" I asked. Martha was looking pale.

"Yes, dear. I'm fine. How's the party?"

"The party's great."

I came around the counter and studied the pictures she was looking at. Martha tensed as I looked over her shoulder; she obviously didn't want me looking at them. Still, I had already seen them, whether she had wanted me to or not, and it was too late now. I looked at the faces of the people and finally picked out Martha, standing there next to a older, taller man and holding a young child. Martha looked about thirty in the picture.

"You look good," I said. "Who's that?" I pointed to the child.

"My niece," she mumbled.

"Oh. That's nice."

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, I stuttered, "Well, Kat's waiting for me on the porch. She's cooking up an idea for a story, I think."

Martha nodded and didn't say anything as I left.

When I walked out onto the porch, I found Kat sitting on the couch with Kit, her husband. I set the wine glasses and bottle on a small table nearby and perched on the railing.

"iThere/i you are," Kat said. "You've been gone for five minutes."

"Five minutes too long," Kit added, grinning at me.

Kat hit him playfully.

Kit pretended to be hurt and then said to me, "See what I have to put up with? She's already got the whole plot ready and rearing to go."

She grinned at me like a kid caught with her hand caught in the cookie jar. "Well, not the iwhole/i plot. Just the highlights."

I made a face of approval. "Even so, in five minutes, that's quite good."

"You think so?" Kat said eagerly.

I nodded. I spoke to Kit. "Sorry I only brought two wine glasses. If I'd known you'd were coming, I would have gotten another."

Kit shook his head and waved my apology away with his hand. "Don't mention it," he said. "Just pour yourselves a fair amount, and I'll drink from the bottle."

I hastened to correct him. "Not so fast. I have no intention of leaving here sober."

Now Kit nodded with approval. "My sentiments exactly," he agreed.

"Oh, don't you two hog everything! If you think I'm some sort of- of- What's it called?- of designated driver or something, you're wrong! Give me the bottle," she ordered me.

Interested and amused, I handed it over to her.

She pulled the cork out with the skill of someone with plenty of practice, put the bottle to her lips, and looked at Kit stubbornly as she took three huge gulps. I felt my throat burn just from watching her. Kit looked slightly uncomfortable, too.

She gasped and let go of the bottle, breathing deeply. "It's our fourth anniversary," she explained to me. "We've planned to take it up for all it's worth. Which means I get to drink more than he can."

"Oh yeah?" he retorted. "I can do better than that in my sleep."

"That's the point, isn't it?" Kat returned as she handed the bottle to him.

He took three and struggled on the fourth, but got it down. He took the bottle away with a shudder and blinked his eyes, which were rapidly watering. "Is this stuff moonshine or something?" he wondered out loud. "It does wonders."

"And it gets more wonderful by the minute," Kat said as she grasped the bottle.

After five minutes, over half the wine was gone. As a matter of fact, they gave the last three gulps to me. I refused politely, remembering something about the last drop of Coke being 99% backwash.

A woman only a few inches taller than myself, walked through from the front, holding a plate with a bun and a charred burger buried under lettuce, onions, and tomatoes with ketchup and mustard dripping down. I made a face; I hated mustard more than I hated writers' block- And that was saying something.

"Hey, there, Dee," Kat said. She giggled and stole the wine bottle from Kit. Kit let her have it, grinning. "Where's your dad?" Kat asked.

"Home," Dee replied. She stood against the wall next to Kat, shoved her enormous purse out of the way, and held the burger to her lips carefully so she wouldn't spill anything. After she had chewed most of the sandwich, she continued, still swallowing at intervals. "He had a stroke a few days ago."

"I'm sorry," Kat said. Kit and I joined in.

"Don't be," Dee retorted. "It's my mother's fault. She drove him to the point of insanity or something, I'll bet."

"Won't a Coke?" I asked. "I was about to go inside and get one."

Dee nodded thoughtfully.

"Could I get some water?" Kat asked. "I think I've had enough wine for tonight. You?" she asked Kit.

Kit nodded. "Please."

I nodded, thinking, iTwo Cokes, two waters. Easy./i I made my way around the porch to the front and into the mansion.

Right away, I was cornered by an elderly guy, bald, and the hair that he did have (most of it in his goatee) was gray. Still, though, he looked surprisingly young. He also looked surprisingly drunk.

"Ah," he said, wrapping his arm around me as if we were in high school and clutching his beer in the other. "So you are the great Eve Harding."

"Well, you got the Eve Harding part right," I said politely.

The man laughed boisterously. "And humble, too. Or is it modest? Oh, who cares? I," he waved his hand to indicate himself, "am Clifford Hoffman, known as Collar D. Moon to my fans." He saw my puzzled look. "Oh, I write science fiction," he said. "I've read some of your work, and I admire it greatly."

"Thank you," I said.

"Perhaps you've read something of mine?" he asked. He took a swig of beer, still managing to eye me through everything.

I swallowed; I hadn't read any books in quite a while. I'd been more caught up in my writing than anything else. "I don't believe so," I said honestly.

He waved a hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it," he said. "I write with a lot of romance in them. My wife helps me sometimes, or my daughter. Rudy doesn't have a daughter, but I hear he helps out Martha with her stories. All of them can get extremely sappy sometimes. The books, I mean."

I laughed and nodded. After more polite small-talk with Clifford, he went away and I was free to look around. I didn't go directly to the kitchen. I had the same idea Kat had; this was the perfect setting for a book.

The people inside had thinned, and I had no problem getting around. I didn't need to get great looks at most of the rooms; they were all pretty much the same. They were all painted in antique colors- Green, pink, blue, ivory, red, and even yellow. By the time I was done looking around, I had decided that if I ever had to take another look at any one of those colors, I'd puke my guts out. Sighing and trying not to think about salad, I made my way into the kitchen which summoned me with the modern white and linoleum floors.

I stepped across the threshold and took a look around, searching for a cooler. Finding it, I pulled two Cokes out and set them on the counter. I grabbed two plastic cups and made my way to the freezer to get some ice. As I opened the door, I stepped in something. I frowned, wondering who had spilt water in the kitchen and had forgotten to clean it up. I looked to see how bad the damage was, wondering if I should clean it up myself.

It wasn't water.

I had stepped in a puddle that was such a dark red, it almost looked brown or black. The fluorescent lights were reflecting off of it.

I set down the plastic cups, already feeling the blood drain out of my face.

Martha was lying on the floor with a steak knife sticking out of her back, a little more on her left than in the center. Blood was still dripping out of the area around the blade, soaking into her dress until it couldn't be absorbed anymore and then dripping down in thin rivers. There were blood spots all over her dress.

I looked at her face, not wanting to but at the same time not being able to help myself. Her face was pale; her eyes were wide open. Her blue eyes were now cold and lifeless, staring straight at me, now crystal. Her face was frozen in an expression of horror.

I looked away quickly, ripping my limbs back into my control roughly. I breathed deeply, repeating to myself at a rate Eminem would have been jealous of, "Oh, God. Oh, God." I thrust my hand into my huge purse, feeling my way around my laptop and a number of other things and managed to grasp my cell phone.

I called the second number that came to mind. 9-1-1.

Would you call me crazy if I said it took me a few seconds to realize that there wasn't an eleven on the phone?

When the operator picked up, I told her what I had found, answering her questions of "Where are you?" and ignoring the way she told me to "Calm down, ma'am." When she had finally hung up after promising to dispatch some people there, I called the first number that had come to mind.

He picked up the phone on the eighth ring.

"Hello?"

"Where the hell have you been?" I snapped.

"Easy, I just got in from shootin' hoops with the guys. What's up?"

"I just found a body with a knife sticking out of it."

I heard Lou spew water out between his teeth and grinned a little as he coughed. "What?" he practically shouted. "Please tell me you called the police this time," he begged.

"Lou," I said calmly. Brilliance reared its beautiful face. "I tried; I swear I did."

Lou groaned on the end of the line.

"-But I can't find the eleven," I added with a wicked grin. I couldn't resist a joke. I needed at least a bit of weak laughter to try to forget about the lifeless body underneath my feet.

"Not funny," Lou snapped. "I'm coming down there."

"All right." I gave and quick jump and spoke back into the phone before Lou hung up. "Lou?"

"What is it?"

"Are you going to shower first?"

Without another word, he hung up.