Sample excerpt

A trio of non-supernatural mystery/suspense tales.



Smashwords Edition copyright 2011 by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Death By Horoscope, edited by Anne Perry, Carroll & Graf, 2001

Dallas, Texas, The Present

       Elbows on the table, Caitlin read from a new paperback with a gaudy cover. "It says you're headstrong, you like challenge, conquest, and pursuit, but bore easily once your objective is achieved. That sounds about right."
       "Only because it means I've finished my drink," said Nick Tarrant, suiting action to word. He polished off his Guinness with relish. "Let's boogie, chickadee."
       She shoved the book in her coat pocket and scooped up her shoulder bag. Tarrant left cash on the table and led the way out of the restaurant, holding the door for her. The Texas sun was bright with the promise of a brutal summer to come, but the early spring air tempered things for the present.
       "We're still in the lion part of March, dammit," Caitlin grumbled, shrinking into her coat against the chill wind.
       They got into Tarrant"s car, a non-descript American product, neutral in color. He drove fast, the pint of beer he'd had with his burger and fries not showing in his reflexes. He felt as mellow as he would ever allow himself to be while more or less "on duty." Taking Caitlin to lunch (for him it was breakfast) had served to settle him into the right mindset for working. He was now fully awake and professionally curious about the interview ahead.
       '"What's this job you're on?" she asked, struggling with her seat belt, trying to get it around her bulging shoulder bag.
       "I'm not on it yet, but it's a Highland Park address, so I can probably charge more."
       Caitlin snorted. "Rich people don't get rich by spending it like the rest of us think they do." She finally snapped the belt into place.
       "We'll size her up first."
      "You'll size her up. I'm not sure what my role is."
       "You're along to provide reassurance in case she's skittish. Another gal in the room will do that, and she's into astrology."
       "You are, too."
       "Not that much. I just read what's on the 'Net when I bother to remember."
       "That's why I got you the book." He referred to the one in her pocket. The cover featured a stylized moon and sun combination favored by New Age shops and garden centers.
       "I'd wondered. If this client is really into astrology she'll know a ringer. I only look when it's flattering or funny. Casting horoscopes is too damn complicated. Tarot cards are better, more focused."
       Tarrant nodded once, respecting her eccentricity, which wasn't as annoying as some he'd dealt with. "Doesn't matter," he said. "If the topic comes up all you do is look interested. The book's just background research. Half the work for landing a commission is knowing what makes the client tick. Before she set the appointment she wanted to know my sign. I think the answer was important to her."
       "But all that stuff on the stars has been debunked." Caitlin pulled out the book again. "The rules were set down back in ancient times; they're all a month out of sync these days."
       "What do you mean?"
       "I read somewhere that they're a month late or early, I forget which. So instead of me being an Aquarius, I'm really either a Capricorn or a Pisces. Instead of being Aries, you're either a Pisces or a Taurus."
       "Now that's funny."
       "The problem is. . ." Caitlin peered at the pages. "You act like an Aries, and I seem to act like an Aquarian. Some of the personality traits for the signs are so general as to apply to anyone, though. On the other hand, maybe we grow into what"s described for us. The problem with that is people like you who aren't into this kind of stuff still seem to run to type. You've got this leadership thing going, and as for your love life, you like to chase and catch, but sooner or later the heat fizzles out of the affair."
       "Not all of them. One or two have exploded quite spectacularly. I was lucky to make it clear with my life."
       "True, but was that because you're an Aries, a son-of-a-bitch, or just overloaded with testosterone?"
       Tarrant smirked, aware of his faults and proud of them. "All three."
       She snorted, putting the book away. "You don't need me on this."
       "Sure I do. While I interview the client, you pretend to take notes like a personal assistant."
       "I won't be pretending."
       "Good, then I won't have to pretend to pay you."


Izzy"s Shoe-In

Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in White House Pet Detectives, Cumberland House 1992

Washington D.C. 1933

       At five-foot nothing in her flats, Izzy DeLeon was the tallest of the troop of Girl Scouts milling around her. At twenty-one, she was the oldest by ten years, but trusted that her uniform would provide all the cover required for her invasion of the White House. There was safety in numbers, and she counted four full troops gathered by the iron gates awaiting admittance to the grounds. In a hundred girls the chances of her being spotted as the cuckoo in the nest were small so long as she kept moving.
       It worked well; she circulated unobtrusively until the adults called for order and they smartly marched toward the sweeping curved steps to the South Portico. There they stood under the big awnings. Scant protection against the summer sun, Izzy felt the oppressive heat sucking the energy from her. The other girls were as lively as sparrows.
       A gap-toothed waif of eleven gave Izzy a curious stare. For an instant she wondered if she'd missed a spot when scrubbing her face clean of makeup. Would a lingering hint of powder or lip rouge betray her?
       The girl said, "That's a lot of badges."
       Izzy glanced down at her shoulder sash, which was covered with a number of merit badges, all of which held little meaning to her. Where she'd grown up you didn't earn such things, you learned those skills to survive. "I guess so," she admitted, pitching her voice high.
       "You got a cold?" the girl asked sharply. The troops were here to sing patriotic songs to the president and first lady. Any Scout with a cold would be unwelcome in the chorus.
       Shaking her head vehemently, Izzy then shrugged. "I talk funny, but sing just fine. My mom told me."
       The girl looked dubious and turned away. Good. The less contact the better. Izzy had flattened her chest with bandaging, thrust her size six feet into size five shoes, and bitten her nails down to look right for the part. The uniform offered perfect protection from the adults, but not kids. One observant little girl could raise the alarm and bring an arrest, and Izzy doubted her editor would be sympathetic enough to bail her out.
       Stick to fashion stories, Isabelle. You're female, write female-stuff, he'd say, then send her off to cover a daffodil festival or some other dullness.
       Teeth grinding, she dutifully cranked out copy since that was her job, but craved more exciting, germane, interesting things to write. She'd not fought her way out of the lazy swamps of Florida, earned a scholarship, and worked hand over fist for a journalism degree merely to make a living. Izzy planned to be more than a reporter; she would be a world-famous journalist, destined for honors, applause, and the respect of her peers. . .if she could just get away from daffodil festivals.
       The only way to prove herself worthy of an assignment with real meat to it was to go hunting for one. But strangely, in the heart of Washington, D.C., in the swirl of politics and the passionate vituperations resulting from the clash of one party against another, that proved frustratingly difficult. Requests to interview a senator or congressman always landed her in a parlor with their wives, sipping tea. While she managed to make enough copy to please her editor, those encounters had no national importance. The few wives who would speak to her were concerned with matters like raising children in the public eye or promoting their favorite charity and, in one case, sharing a special fudge recipe. Laudable, but not what Izzy wanted.
       But when Herbert Hoover took office, she mounted a more active campaign on the White House itself. Even if she was fobbed off to Mrs. Hoover, Izzy would count that as a victory. Lou Henry Hoover was extremely well-educated and had traveled around the world with her engineer husband. She spoke five languages fluently, had received medals from other countries for her charity work, survived the Boxer Rebellion--surely she would have tales with real weight to share with the American public.
       But after five months of sending in requests, it became more clear with each polite refusal (carefully typed on White House stationery and personally signed by the first lady) that though a gracious hostess, Mrs. Hoover shunned the spotlight. She was inordinately modest about her many accomplishments--unless it had to do with the Girl Scouts.
       Having served as their national president, raising membership from a ten thousand to over a million girls, she was always ready to talk about them--and entertain them. Thus Izzy hatched her idea to get inside the great sanctum. A routine interview with one of the Scout mistresses sparked things. The woman had proudly mentioned her troop's upcoming visit to the White House and the whole scheme burst upon Izzy's mind in a flash brilliant enough to impress even Edison.
       She bought the largest-sized scout uniform available at a local department store, a tight fit but manageable. With the connivance of a slightly-misled janitor at the local Girl Scout Little House (she bitterly claimed her baby sister had forgotten everything), Izzy got the Scout's schedule, and managed to blend in with the crowd of girls. There had been a few hair-raising moments when she thought one or another of the Scout mistresses had spotted her, but nothing came of it. As she'd hoped, each must have thought her to be with a different troop. Now she was only yards from the great oval of the Blue Room. Even coming this far would make a story, but to finally get inside. . .there. . .she spotted movement beyond the sheer curtains of the French doors: people shifting about in the shaded interior.
       The girls were restless with curiosity, some jumping up to better see. Izzy missed Mrs. Hoover's entrance; had she opened the doors for herself or did one of her four secretaries do the honors or was it a servant? Details like that made interesting color.
Wearing a cotton dress with a green tint similar to the uniforms, Mrs. Hoover greeted the Scout leaders and troops with a friendly smile. She had pronounced eyebrows and a firm mouth. The smile softened her looks, made her more homey. She proceeded them, leading the way through the Blue Room to a wide, pillar-lined hall, taking their giddy, shuffling parade to the right. They ended up in the vast East Room where their concert would take place. Everyone milled through. Though told to be quiet and respectful of the surroundings, the girls gave in to enthusiasm, squealing at the wide echoing indoor space and impressive decor, which included a grand piano. It was irresistible.
       Izzy hung back as much as she dared, torn between the desire to hear everything Mrs. Hoover might utter and the need to look into forbidden areas. Her chance came when a dozen girls surged toward the piano. The room resonated with loud and inexpert renderings--no, make that random pounding upon the presidential keys, much to the delight of the rest. More squeals, screams, and laughter followed. Control was quickly restored, but by then Izzy had slipped unobtrusively through a door at the southern end while the servants and Secret Service man were distracted.





The Scottish Ploy

Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Murder Most Romantic, Ace, 2002

       Cassie Sullivan slammed her clipboard onto the props table, causing the sword collection that lay there to jump. One fell to the floor with a solid clank. The abrupt noise startled everyone, giving her the undivided attention of the whole cast and crew. "If just one more thing goes wrong, I'm calling an exorcist!"
       Nell Russell left off wiring together tree branches that were to be part of Burnam Wood. "What's happened now?"
       "Trevor Hopewell backed out."
       "What?" Similar expressions of dismay and shock flowed from the others, who stopped work on the set to come closer, faces tense.
Cassie looked at them all before speaking, but this new disaster was no one's fault. The company's poltergeist could not be responsible for this flavor of random bad luck. "Hopewell got a starring role in a straight-to-video horror movie they're shooting in Canada and grabbed it."
       Nell's mouth twisted. "He chose that over the lead in Macbeth?"
       Some of the more nervy members of the cast winced and groaned.
Nell rounded on them. "Oh, get over it! You can say the name of the play out front, just not backstage. Cassie, he can't do that. Why would he want to?"
       "Money. They can pay him more. The option's in his contract." Everyone nodded, understanding perfectly. The Sullivan Theater Company, for all its members' sincere enthusiasm, was small change to an actor like Trevor Hopewell. Apparently his commitment to keeping theater alive wasn't deep enough to survive the lure of film dollars. Cassie herself could side with Hopewell to a degree, but there was such a thing as fair warning.
       Opening night was only a week away.
      "What'll we do for a new Macbeth?" asked Willis Wright, the stage manager. No one groaned, since he referred to the character, not the play.
       "Hopewell's agency is sending over someone named Quentin Douglas as a replacement."
       Cassie shrugged. "He's done some commercials."
       A general groan. Nell joined in. "What kind of commercials?"
       "Who knows? Foot powder, shaving cream, talking sandwiches--I don't care so long as he can project the lines. They said he played Macbeth in college--"
       Another groan.
       "--So he knows the part. If Isabel likes him, he's in."
       "Great. Did he save his old costume?"
       Cassie glowered. "Don't get me started. At this point I may do a nude production."
       "That would sell more tickets. Think of all the sword jokes."
       "Argh!" Cassie looked around for something else to slam or throw, but nothing non-breakable presented itself. The company watched her, somewhat wall-eyed. Her tempers were infrequent and short lived, but infamous for their intensity. Everyone knew to get out of the line of fire for the brief duration, but this time no one seemed to know which way to jump.
       She put her hands palm-out in a peace gesture. "It's okay, boys and girls. I just hate surprises. Chalk this up to the production poltergeist and get back to work. Let's keep it to one life-and-death crisis every ten minutes instead of every five. Okay?"
       A rumble of agreement. They resumed their tasks. Nell hung close, though. "This sucks."
       "I know, and I shouldn't blame the poltergeist."
       "Please, let's do."
       "You're not into superstition," said Cassie.
       "I wasn't, but this show could make me a believer. Much more of this and I'll be tossing salt over my shoulder. When's the foot-powder wonder boy due?"
       "Sometime today. I just got the call from--"
       "Miss Sullivan?" Baritone voice. Rich. Chocolate-smooth delivery. Built-in projection. No need for a body microphone.
       Cassie turned to take in the owner of the voice. Oh, my gawd. Hair like jet, soap opera hero's face, body of a personal trainer, thin line of beard edging his jaw--perfectly in keeping with a Shakespearean character--straight white teeth in a friendly, open smile.
       "I'm Quentin Douglas--the Gilbert Agency sent me?" Hand outstretched. Expecting her to respond.
       "Yes, they certainly did," she murmured, still goggling. She put her own hand out and connected with his firm grip.
       The vision spoke again. "I hope I can work out for you."
       His "hope" momentarily sparked a variety of emotions in Cassie, which she quickly smothered. You're off actors, Cassie-girl, you are immune no matter how gorgeous they are. Anyone that good-looking is going to be attached or gay. "I'm sure you will, Mr. Douglas." She was still holding his hand. Belatedly, she released it.


Continued in the P.N. Elrod Omnibus


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