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 &
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
"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
"You're along to provide reassurance in
case she's skittish. Another gal in the room will do that, and she's into
"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,
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
A general groan. Nell joined in. "What kind
"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--"
"--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
"Please, let's do."
"You're not into superstition," said
"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
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
"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
Copyright 2011 P.N. Elrod
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