A Counselor’s Toughest Job

Her eyes still fixed on the computer screen, Barb frowned and reached for the jangling phone. She had to leave for her meeting in half an hour and this was the third phone call. When would she ever get their monthly budget laid out if people kept interrupting her.

She glanced at the Caller ID screen, then sat up straight in her chair. The County Police wouldn’t be calling to pass the time of day. She pressed the Talk button, averting her eyes from the distracting screen. “Hey, Tammy. What’s up?”

“We need your counseling skills, Barb. A 19-year-old girl went missing from River Bend College yesterday. One of the teachers says she saw this girl walking in the parking lot around 11:30 am, likely going to her car, but she hasn’t made it home. Her family’s contacted everyone she knows and no one’s seen her. Now they’re frantic.”

“I would be, too. Any leads?”

“Not yet, but we’ve got a number of officers out searching the local hangouts around town, vacant lots, the side roads, abandoned buildings. And we’ve notified the boys from Forestry in case she’s wandered into the national park and gotten stranded.”

Barb raised her eyebrows. “Stranded?”

“That’s the word we’re using now. We can always hope she’s lost herself somewhere, or has holed up with a friend. But the family could really use your counseling skills right now. Will you talk to them, go over the “what ifs”? Try to keep them upbeat and hopeful, but prepare them…just in case…” Tammy’s words trailed off.

She voiced our worst fears. “There are fifty-four paroled sex offenders classed as “apt to re-offend” within a two-hundred mile radius of RBC and we’ve got officers checking on them all.”

Barb grimaced as she thought of her own children going to and from school every day. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Let me grab a pen and jot down the address.”

She shut down her accounting program. Her family budget woes had just evaporated.

A Highland Tale

“Oh, it were sich a sorry time for Scotland, ye ken,” the white-haired  storyteller began, “Those were the days of the dreadful Highland clearances, when the English were drivin’ the tenants off their crofts and fillin’ the whole land wi’ their sheep. The highlanders were sorely oppressed. Forbidden tae speak the Gaelic, they were, or tae wear the tartans, or play the pipes.”

Though most of them knew it by heart, the town lads were gathered round him, eager to hear the tale told again of the brave chieftain’s son who died trying to keep his precious bagpipes safe from the British soldiers patrolling the land.

“Down in yon glen is a cave, ye ken, where stout-hearted young Donald was sure he could hide his pipes the whiles, thinkin’ someday the Sassenachs would give up and go home. By the light o’ the full moon he and his best friend snuck down that lane ye’re seein’ there — course it was nae but a wee path then — and stashed his pipes in a safe place inside the cave.”

The local lads squirmed with delight, each envisioning himself as the fearless friend accompanying young Donald down the moonlit trail.

“But some spy had betrayed them…” The storyteller paused to look at his audience with a stern glare. “The lads were but a short way from the cave, headed for home and safety, when they were attacked by half a dozen soldiers. Oh, they were stalwart highland sons and they put up a fierce fight, but they dinna have proper swords and were hopelessly outnumbered. Before long the two were mortally wounded.

“They managed to crawl back intae the cave, but there they died, and there the English left them lie. But young Donald had the last laugh: never did the soldiers find his bagpipes. Legend says his spirit lingers in that cave tae this day, and on bright moonlit nights he comes out tae play his pipes. Many a soul has told of hearin’ them skirlin’ in the night. Some even say they hear the clank of swords as if the lads are still battlin’ the soldiers.”

“I dunna believe that” one young skeptic spoke up.

His friends turned and stared at him, aghast, but he was unrepentant. “There’s nae sich things as ghosts playin’ pipes.”

No one else had words to rebuke such heresy, so the group of boys broke up and went about their business.

That night happened to be a bright moonlit night. A shadowy form made its way down the old lane, taking care to blend in with the shrubs. Soon the old storyteller, a sack in one hand, was entering the cave.

He set down his sack and rummaged around in one of the old shafts until he found a bundle wrapped in old blankets, muttering to himself as he did so, “Great-great-grandpa were a smart man tae make up that nice little tale o’ poor Donald and his friend. Folks needed a bit of superstition tae keep them from snoopin’ here, but it’ll be coming to an end soon enough, I’m fearing’.” He shook his head. “Lads these days are sich skeptics.”

Carefully he unwrapped the bagpipes and carried them outside the cave. He took the instrument in his arms, pumped the bag full of air, and began to play. Soon the wail of the pipes was rolling down the lanes and fields.

A mile back down the lane three lads were creeping along, flashlights in hand. Their leader, the chief heretic himself, was telling the others in low tones, “I know there’s nothing to that old tale.”

A moment later they heard the distinctive wail of the bagpipes. They stopped in their tracks and stared at each other, then all three turned and hightailed it back to town.

After half an hour of playing the pipes, the old storyteller lovingly wrapped them in the blankets and stowed them away. Then, with his sack in one hand and his torch in the other, he made his way along one of the shafts until he found his pick axe. He took it up and began chipping away at the rock around the vein of amethyst.

Very likely someday someone would get up enough nerve to explore this old abandoned mine, but until then he’d carry on profiting from what his great-great grandfather had found.

My response to the Word Press daily prompt: superstition

Over There, They Say

sea.sky
.

.

.

.

.

 

Over there on that island you see the sun is always shining,
the old folks say. All kinds of exotic fruit trees grow, they tell us.
You just have to reach up as you pass and pluck the juiciest fruits dangling in front of you. And the birds, some say, are almost tame.
You can stand and watch as they flutter among the branches all day.
Perhaps even reach out and have one land on your hand if you stay still.

Over there, some declare, are magnificent caves one may explore,
secret spots where pirates in olden days may have stashed their loot.
A vein of silver may be uncovered with just a little digging, they say.
Or gold nuggets might gleam in the streams, just waiting to be picked up.
A man could soon get rich over there.

Ah, if we could only get there, they sigh.

But think of the dangers over there, others remind.
Fierce beasts with razor-sharp claws and teeth, ready to tear a body to bits.
Venomous snakes hanging from every tree and slithering through the tall grass. Moreover,
what if some hostile tribe has already discovered that paradise?

Perhaps, as we stand here gawking, they are busy
sharpening their spears, preparing to defend their island against all invaders.
They’d boil us in coconut oil and eat us for dinner.
And even if they’re peaceable, their customs would surely be bizarre.
Who knows what kind of clothes they wear over there?

So here we linger on the beach, speculating
and dreaming of that land. Imagining its beauties,
quaking over its terrors. For better or for worse,
how can we know, except we go?

Who’ll be the first to build a boat?

Both Sides of the Coin

Those of you who follow my main blog, Christine ‘s Collection at christinegoodnough.com will be seeing this first book review for the second time. I decided to post the second book review for the sake of contrast. these are my opinions, for what they’re worth, and you may totally disagree. Please feel free to leave a comment giving your own thoughts on either book.

Only last week I learned that Amazon offers 100 free e-books every month, so I took a chance and downloaded Marcy McKay’s new book. And since this story is all about a feisty, nervy girl, I’ll link it to today’s Word Press prompt.

Pennies From Burger Heaven
by Marcy McKay
SkipJack Publishing

If you desire a compelling, suspenseful, poignant story with lots of twists and turns in the plot, this will definitely fill the bill. Life on the streets of Remington, Texas, is rough and raw at best. It becomes sinister after Copper’s Mama, a homeless prostitute, disappears one morning. Her eleven-year-old daughter, Copper, blessed with determination — and a good deal of scared — sets out from their cemetery “home” to find her. She heads into the inner city they know so well, slowly untangling the web of her mother’s past involvements, hoping one of the threads will lead to Mama.

If the reader doesn’t want to be dragged through the mire of a ghetto — the crime, drugs, gang wars, predators and hookers — then don’t read this. Language isn’t a stream of profanity, but there’s enough realistic dialogue. God, Jesus and religion get a lot of bad press among the destitute. There’s your stereotype phony televangelist, weak in the area of “lust of the flesh.”

That said, McKay has been accurate in her portrayal of the living conditions among the homeless and the people who prey on them, as well as the religious confusion that exists among the unchurched. Coming from a non-religious background as I do, I see the thinking of my own people in this story.

For me the real hero isn’t so much the I-can-look-after-myself, spit-fire Copper. She is very obviously the victim here as well as the protagonist. Rather, it’s the Detective who tries so hard to grab this scrawny little alley cat who’s clawing, kicking, and lashing out at him and everyone else. He wants desperately to rescue her before she gets tossed under a bus and squashed flat.

Thanks to some supernatural — maybe even divine — intervention, this kitten is granted her full nine lives. On one hand, you somewhat anticipate the ending, yet all the slimy twists and turns — and final revelations — are totally unexpected.

Marcy McKay has penned a sequel to this book; this doesn’t appear to have been released yet. If you’re interested, the book is free on Amazon until the end of March.

On the Other Side of the Copper…

I’ve heard that you can learn a lot about good writing from reading the stuff that doesn’t work. In which case you writers may want to check out this cozy mystery because this story doesn’t work well for several different reasons. (Again, in my opinion. Some reviewers think it’s great.)

Starboard Secrets (Series: Cruise Ship Cozy Mystery Series)
by Hope Callaghan
Self-published

This is a rather short mystery and the writer must have wanted to save time; Millie, the main character, boards the ship for her first day at her brand new job, see a dead body right off, and immediately start making inquiries.

I find this story implausible from the get-go. Not much of the first chapter is devoted to her learning about her new position, rather she dives right into this investigation and trying to ascertain and interview the suspects. By the end of the next day the whole staff knows she’s searching for the killer. Not very bright.

There’s not much character development beyond quick descriptions. Millie’s coworkers seem to be of interest to her — and to the author — only insofar as they can contribute to her investigation. This may be getting right to the point, but it would be nice if there was more interaction apart from Millie’s curiosity.

The story is told mainly from Millie’s point of view, but the writer occasionally tosses us into one of the other character’s minds for minute to show us what they are thinking of Millie. I found this distracting.

As she picks up bits and pieces of info, Millie adds names to her “suspects” list, often at the slightest hint of this person having some discord with the deceased. I find this annoying, like she really doesn’t have a clue how to investigate and is grasping at straws.

For me, Millie doesn’t come across as a very bright or likable person, rather nosy and irritating, with an axe to grind. She’s out to prove to her ex (a private eye who isn’t around anyway) that’s she’s worth something by solving her own mystery. Thus her relating to others on board tends to hinge around her own issues.

Millie is portrayed as a devout Christian, yet her so-often-mentioned resentment toward her ex-husband tells us that “forgiving and letting go” isn’t a big part of her creed — at this point. However, betrayal is painful. Her pain isn’t resolved in this first book of the series; hopefully it will be as the series progresses.

I downloaded this book in the Cozy Mysteries & Mystery Books Box Set. In all fairness the third book in this group, Waves of Deception, is a good, believable, quick read.

Real Grandma Behavior

I just finished a cozy mystery where the protagonist is a spunky 60-ish widow living alone on her farm. According to the story she was babysitting her five-year-old twin grandsons one evening when she glanced out the window and saw a prowler in the semi-darkness. The adult male entered her old barn by a side door and disappeared inside.

The next morning the two boys asked to play in the empty barn, but first Grandma wanted to be sure it was safe. So she left the boys in the house alone and went out to the barn to check for the intruder. She looked the downstairs over, then went to the steps leading to the hayloft. Thinking she may need some defense, she grabbed a shovel that was standing near and up she went.

I myself am a 60-ish woman and there is no way on earth I would:
A) leave the matter of a prowler until morning without reporting it.
B) leave five-year-old rambunctious boys in the house alone while I went to check.
C) enter any building in a remote setting if I’d seen a prowler lurking.
D) kid myself into thinking a shovel would be any kind of defense.

I would be too afraid of what might happen to myself — seeing he may well be armed with something more effective than a shovel. Even if he wasn’t, it wouldn’t take much for him to grab the shovel and bonk me a good one.

My second worry would be what this prowler would do to the children once he had me out of the way. Even if the intruder bopped me and took off, how long would I be out cold and who would supervise my darling grands? (Mine aren’t apt to be such terrors, but the boys in this book sure were!)

I like page-turners, but don’t really appreciate unrealistic or stupid behavior on the part of main characters, done just to create more tension. Just for fun, I wrote the scene you might sooner see at my house. (Maybe you can understand why I don’t write cozies?)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Officer Blake pounded on the front door again, then sighed. Was this going to be another of these twittery old ladies with an overactive imagination? Then he heard feet pounding down the hallway. Children in the house?

The door creaked open and a little guy barely big enough to reach the knob was peering out at him. Blake gave the boy a friendly grin. “Hey there. Is your Mom here?”

The boy, still staring at Blake’s uniform, shook his head. Another one exactly the same size piped up from behind him. “Our Mom’s gone away. We’re staying with Grandma this weekend. Who are you?”

“Who do you think I am?”

“Are you a fireman? I wanna be a fireman when I grow up,” the second lad answered.

“Hey, that’s great! No, I’m a policeman and your grandma called me. What are your names?”

“I’m Janson,” the second twin told him. “But Dad calls me Janx.

“And I’m Devon,” said the first, still clutching the door knob.

“Is your grandma here right now?”

“She’s in the bedroom,” Devon told Blake in a whisper, obviously still in awe of his uniform.

“Can I come in and talk with her?”

“You’re supposed to say, ‘May I’,” said Janx. “Our Mom always says we have to.” Devon nodded vigorously in agreement.

“Oh, yes. I forget sometimes. May I see your grandma then?”

“Okay. She’s in her bedroom pulling stuff out from under her bed.”

The two boys led the way. “There she is,” said the first, pointing to a pair of feet sticking out from under the bed.

What on earth! Is she alive? was Blake’s first thought. But then he saw the feet twitch.

“Excuse me, Mrs Poule. You called the Station to make a complaint about a prowler?”

The sixty-something lady dragged herself back out from under the bed and sat on her heels. “Oh, Officer! Thank goodness you’re here. Yes, I want you to check it out right away.”

Blake noted the tubs filled with yarn, gift wrap and such lying on the floor around the bed. “Did I catch you doing some spring cleaning, ma’am?”

“Spring cleaning nothing. I’m making a safe place for the three of us to hide in case that prowler turns out to be an escapee from some institution.”

“I really doubt that, ma’am, but I’ll certainly check him out for you.”

Janx stepped up right beside Blake. “Are you going out to shoot him? Can—I mean, may—we watch? We’ll keep real quiet.”

“I don’t want to,” Devon murmured. “There might be blood. Ick!”

“Cool!” his brother shot back.

“No, I’m not going to shoot him. I’ll just shoo him away,” Officer Blake told the boys. “He’s probably just a homeless fellow looking for a place to spend the night.” Then he turned back to their grandma. “Can you give me any description of the man?”

“Well, it was dark, but he seemed really tall. He was carrying a flashlight. The beam shone on his face one time so I did get a look at it. I’d say he looks about how your average axe-murderer might.”

Blake grinned. Well, at least this woman wouldn’t be rushing out and putting herself in danger. He thought he’d better reassure her a bit before he went out to the barn. “You know, it could be he’s just a hunter who’s gotten lost.”

Mrs. Poule stared at him for a moment. “When did hunting season end?”

Blake thought a moment. Whoops! “About two months ago,” he admitted.

“Then he’s really lost. I think you better get out there and redirect him pronto.”

Now Mrs. Poule grabbed Janx and Devon each by the arm and dragged them toward the bed. “Crawl under here, boys. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out.”

Janx wailed in protest. “But Grandma, we wanna see his gun!”

“Hush. Just get under here. I’ll hide in the closet.” She turned to Blake. “Ring the doorbell three times when the coast is clear. If I don’t hear it the boys will.”

“I’m sure they will.” Officer Blake winked at Janx. Then he nodded at Mrs. Poule. “Will do, ma’am.”

He headed back to the front door, all the while hearing the twins protesting. “But Grandma, we wanna see…”

How Cozy Is This Cozy?

I’ve been doing some more fiction writing lately and decided I’d reactivate this site so I can post some of my newest compositions and a few book reviews. So I’ll start with reviews of some recent cozy mysteries I’ve read.

Cozies: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Or Rather, The Odd:

Probable Claws, Book 2 in the Vanessa Abbot Cat Protection League Cat Cozy Mystery series, written by Nancy C. Davis

I love cats and I enjoy a cozy mystery, but this book didn’t thrill me much. A reader has to be into cat “mental telepathy” to find it enjoyable. The cat owner (and sleuth, if you can call her that) doesn’t have to figure anything out. She simply listens to what her omniscient cats are telling her about whodunit.

Now, if you do enjoy fantasies where cats solve mysteries, this is a great book for you. The mystery itself is valid, though the plot is elementary and the cast limited. The pace could be perked up with less talk, more action, and more emotions brought out in the dialogue. The conversations don’t move the plot along like they could. And the police detective blabbing so much info at the crime scene, discussing the suspects in front of all and sundry, is quite unorthodox.

The So-So:

Have you ever read a book that you thought kind of dragged along to an improbable conclusion, then checked online and found enthusiastic write-ups that leave you wondering what’s wrong with your judgement — or the reviewer’s ?

I recently read Murder in Cottage #6 (Liz Lucas Cozy Mystery Series Book 1) then reviewed the reviews on Amazon. This book has 22 five-star ratings, 1 four-star, and the customer reviews are so upbeat. “An entertaining suspenseful book”; “Loved it”; “Another great read for this cozy mystery series.”

My impression: If you say so. My rating: three-star max. The plot’s okay, though I thought Liz and her friend acted both foolish and out of character toward the end. Actually the last chapter portrays the crook as obtuse as well, if she never twigs onto the fact that she’s being followed all over town all day. I found the dialogue is stilted; no one talks that formally these days.

A good editor could have worked wonders with this one. In fact, the whole story could have been reduced by about 30% just by eliminating all the repetition. For example (direct quote):
Liz couldn’t help but notice the big yellow stain on his shirt. “See you’re lookin’ at that spot on my shirt,” Seth said.
(Well, yeah. The writer just told us that. You didn’t have to.)

The writer has done the character’s thoughts in italics and these tend to repeat the conversation you just read. A lot of stuff like (not an actual excerpt):
He glared at her furiously. “What are you doing here anyway?” he demanded.
Oh, dear, she thought to herself. He’s angry with me for coming. I should have stayed away.

I can’t tell you how many times I read, either in dialogue or thought, that the detective is a hopeless bumbler who will never be able to solve the case on his own. Actually she makes the detective a caricature, a lecherous dimwit. I don’t appreciate that treatment of authority.

I hope that some kind editor has taken the writer of this series, Dianne Harman, in hand and helped her work out the flaws I am seeing (fussy me) so the second book in the series will be much improved.

The Good:

The Dune House Cozy Mystery Series by Cindy Bell. One day journalist Suzie Allen is informed that her long-forgotten Uncle Harry has unexpectedly left her Dune House, a beautiful house on the beach that was once a Bed and Breakfast. She and her best friend, Mary, head for the town of Garber, on the East Coast ( Maine?) to restore the old place. I’ve read three of these books. In ‘chronological order’, they are:
Seaside Secrets
Boats and Bad Guys
Treasured History
Hidden Hideaway
Dodgy Dealings

The REALLY Good:

I’ve been reading Joanna Carl’s series, A Chocoholic Mystery, and am enjoying them immensely. The stories are skillfully told; the plots are believable; the characters are likable. Lee McKinley, the heroine, is brave but not brassy, mouthy, or foolishly dashing into disasters. Plus a few sidebar details about the history of chocolate in each book.

There are about fifteen in all, but so far I’ve read (in the series ‘chronological order’):
The Chocolate Cat Caper
The Chocolate Frog Frame Up
The Chocolate Puppy Puzzle
The Chocolate Mouse Trap
The Chocolate Bridal Bash
The Chocolate Jewel Case
The Chocolate Snowman Murders

So if you’re looking for a cozy to fill a long winter evening, these books are scary but no heart-stopping-terror, some romantic interests but no profanity or erotic scenes.