A New York City literary agent returns to her Indiana hometown for a funeral only to get pulled into a murder investigation in this series opener.
Allie Cobb left home for the literary circles of Manhattan to make her name out from under the shadow of her legendary father. Now his death brings her and her rescue cat Ursula back to the southern Indiana town of Rushing Creek, population: 3,216. But a tragic new chapter hits the presses when the body of her father’s hard-drinking, #1 bestselling client is found under the historic town bridge. The local police suspect foul play, and their prime candidate for murder is the author’s daughter—Allie’s longtime friend.
Determined to clear her bestie, Allie goes into fact-checking amateur detective mode while trying to ignore the usual rumormongers. Those with means, motive, and opportunity include the vic’s ex-wife, his rejected girlfriend, the mayor, and a rival agent trying to mooch clients. With a rugged genealogist distracting her and the imminent Fall Festival about to send tourists descending on their once-peaceful hamlet, Allie needs to stay alive long enough to get a read on a killer ready to close the book on a new victim: Allie . . .
Praise for A Literal Mess:
“A lovely, entertaining read. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series already.” —Rhoda Baxter, author of Snowed In
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It's a universal truth that a phone call at 2:00 a.m. brings only one kind of news — bad with a capital B. One of two people would be calling, either my brother or sister. Mom would be in no shape to break the news to me. I glanced at the number. It was Luke.
"When did he go?" I had to choke out the last word. My father, my hero and role model, was dead. A plane ticket was on my dining room table, a grim reminder of challenges distance created in life. I was supposed to fly home Friday and spend the weekend with the family and, most importantly, see Dad before he slipped away for good.
Now I'd never be able to speak to my father again.
"He took a sudden turn around eleven and passed about a half hour ago. I'm sorry, Allie." Luke sucked in a long breath. "He asked about you this morning. Wanted to know if you'd sold any books recently."
Even through the tears, I laughed. My father had been a literary agent. Over the course of thirty-five years, he'd represented hundreds of authors and sold thousands of books, a good number of which had become bestsellers.
He'd instilled in me my love of all things bookish and hugged me when I told him I wanted to follow his footsteps into the wild world of book publishing. Since then, we'd joked about who sold more books, got their authors bigger advances, or found the next Stephen King or Janet Evanovich.
I'd spoken with Dad a day and a half ago. He'd promised me he was okay, that he had a book he wanted to finish editing. As recently as twelve hours ago, Mom had texted to let me know he was weak but stable with good vital signs.
And now he was gone.
"Hey, Allie? You still there?"
"Yeah." I wiped the tears from my face. "I'll get a flight this morning. Should be in Rushing Creek by late afternoon. Give Mom and Rachel a hug for me. Love you guys."
"Love you too, Allie. It'll be good to have you home again."
As I set down the phone, I grabbed the tissue box stationed on the nightstand and wiped away more tears. It had been there for weeks, standing at the ready for the moment it was needed. I was nothing, if not prepared.
A sleepy-eyed Ursula got up from her spot at the end of the bed and stretched. After a few licks to make sure her tortoiseshell coat was perfect, she padded up to me and bumped my hand with her head.
I scratched her ears while I used my phone to search for a flight. Sure, I could have fetched my laptop, but my little girl's purring, which rivaled the decibel level of a car without a muffler, was a soothing tonic for my shattered heart.
From the moment of Dad's cancer diagnosis, I accepted he was going to die sooner rather than later. Pancreatic cancer was a devil of a diagnosis, after all. But he sounded fine when we'd Skyped on Sunday and had gotten excited when I told him I'd be home Friday night.
Yet, here I was, in the middle of Tuesday night, or was it Wednesday morning, booking a flight home for his funeral. There were always happy endings in the romance novels I sold, but there sure weren't any in my life.
* * *
By the time I was in the air, with Ursula snug in her Sherpa kitty carrier underneath the seat in front of me, I'd gotten my emotions under enough control to have a good talk with my boss, Natalie. She and Dad had known each other for years. In a gesture that blew me away, she told me to take the next ten days off.
That was way more than the measly three days the employee handbook said employees could take off for the death of a parent. Though, admittedly, the only reason I knew that was because I'd edited it for grammar in my early days working at her literary agency. Not the most exciting task, but it was another step along the path toward my goal of owning my own literary agency.
Just like Dad had owned his.
You could say I was Daddy's little girl and you'd get no argument from me. I remember one time when I was little, Rachel blew her stack at me over something trivial and called me "Little Walterette." It was meant as an insult, but I responded by saying thanks and running off to tell Dad that Rachel thought I was just like him.
Contrary to popular opinion among the locals, I didn't hate my hometown of Rushing Creek, Indiana, population 3,216. I left my hometown because I wanted to follow in Dad's career footsteps, and it was a lot easier finding a job in the book biz in New York City than it was in Southern Indiana. A lot of folks didn't see it that way, though. They liked to say I turned my back on my dad and my hometown, a sentiment that only grew in intensity after he became ill.
Now it was time to face those people.
So, with mixed emotions, I guided my rental through the twists and turns of the treelined highway that led to Rushing Creek. Sure, it would be good to see Mom and Sloane and my sibs, but I'd never see my father living, breathing again. That hurt worse than when a bookcase fell on me when Iwas in college.
"There it is, Ursi. Home, sweet home." I scratched Ursula between the ears and gave her a kitty treat as we crested a hill and the Rushing Creek Valley came into view. At a scenic observation area, I wrangled Ursula into her harness and we got out to enjoy the breathtaking view.
The scene was right out of a travel magazine. With the leaves just beginning to turn, we were treated to swaths of green interspersed with touches of glorious yellows, fabulous oranges and heart-stopping reds, my personal favorite. I took in a long breath. The air was clean and sweet, with just a hint of woodsmoke. Not even a trace of exhaust fumes lingered in the air.
I focused on the stream at the south end of town and imagined I could hear the water rushing over limestone rocks as it wound its way through Brown County before eventually emptying into the Wabash River. From my perch, the water appeared high for this time of year. Dad had told me September had been rainier than normal. The creek was the proof.
After snapping a few photos to send to my New York buds, I let Ursi, safely tethered to me by her leash, wander around a bit. The New York cat was used to concrete and fire hydrants, not dirt and plant life, so she had a ball chasing leaves that had already fallen to the ground.
While she played, I went through my e-mails. I was waiting to hear from an editor who was interested in one of my clients' historical romances. Even in challenging times, I owed it to my clients to keep their projects moving forward. It was a lesson Dad taught me, and I intended to make him proud by staying on top of things while I was in Rushing Creek.
"Okay, girl." After fifteen minutes spent on e-mails and text messages, I scooped up Ursi and kissed her on the head. "I know you want to put your inner huntress to work, but we've got things to do and people to see."
It broke my heart there was one less person to see.
My parents' house was on the northern end of town. Since the highway ran through the southern edge, I enjoyed a slow drive through town on Washington Boulevard, the main street and tourist strip. I hadn't been home in six months and was curious to see what was new. While many of the storefronts on the boulevard, like the Brown County Diner and Renee's Gently Used Books, had been there for years, businesses were always coming and going.
One new business that piqued my curiosity was an herbal supplement shop occupying the long-empty space next door to Ye Olde Woodworker. Ozzy Metcalf, the proprietor of the Woodworker, had a reputation as a difficult neighbor. I couldn't wait to meet the person brave enough to open a business next door.
A few blocks after the storefronts came to an end, I turned right onto McMaster Road and came to a stop in front of my parents' home. Despite the late-afternoon sunshine, I broke out in goose bumps as I put the car in park. With the lights in Dad's first-floor office off, the house, a two-story Colonial that had provided so much warmth and happiness over the years, seemed cold, too.
I gathered Ursi in my arms and headed for the house, willing myself not to cry. Rachel opened the front door and greeted me with a sad smile and a hug.
The toll the last few days had taken on my older sister was unmistakable. Her shoulder-length blond hair, which normally looked like spun gold, lacked its usual sheen and had been pulled into a messy top knot. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her blue-green irises were cloudy. She even seemed several inches shorter than her height of five feet, eight inches.
"Thanks for getting here so quickly." She let Ursi sniff her hand. "Who's your friend?"
"Her name's Ursula. I got her from a rescue shelter about six months ago. You know, when Mom suggested I needed a friend close by to help me with," I shook my head, "all of this."
"I don't think a cat was what Mom had in mind." Rachel raised an eyebrow and, after a second, we both laughed. It wasn't a gut-busting laugh, and it didn't cure my somber mood, but it felt good, nonetheless.
"Allie, is that you?" Mom came out of the kitchen and stopped a few feet away from me. She looked twenty years older than her age of sixty-one and her eyes were red-rimmed, but every strand of her gray hair was in place. And she was smiling.
"Hi, Mom." I let Ursi down as my mother and I embraced. And the tears fell again.
A little while later, Mom, Rachel and I were in the dining room reminiscing when the doorbell rang. Mom closed her eyes as her chin dropped to her chest. In the two hours since I'd arrived, three casseroles, two lunch meat trays and a case of Rushing Creek wine had been delivered. The town was great at taking care of their own, but Mom needed a break from the well-wishers.
"I'll get it." I nudged Ursi off my lap and, on the short jaunt to the front door, checked my phone. I'd received a handful of text messages and e-mails from coworkers sending their condolences, but nothing from the editor. Nothing from Lance, either. Some boyfriend.
Lance was an attorney specializing in contracts who had come to work at my agency four years ago. A shared passion for Asian cuisine led to a date where we found we enjoyed each other's company. He loved sports, which I did not, and tended to get loud when he was excited, but he made me laugh and was a good listener. After a year of dating, we were happy, and I was beginning to envision a future together.
Then Dad got sick.
Ever since that day I broke down in tears while I gave Lance the awful news, he'd become more and more distant. He'd reassured me more than once he was simply trying to give me space during a tough time. My doubts about his sincerity, and his commitment to us, had grown over time. If he couldn't be there for me when I needed him the most, would he ever be there for me? The answer was becoming more obvious by the day, but it was one I wasn't prepared to face. Not right now.
I opened the door with my eyes still on my phone. Rude, but I was getting tired and was running low on emotional fuel. Before I had a chance to look up, I was wrapped in a hug that forced the air out of me.
"Oh, Allie. I'm so, so sorry. Can I do anything for you? I've missed you so much. Did you bring Ursula? Can I —"
"Hey, Sloane." I put my hands on her shoulders and held her at arm's length. "I'm fine. I mean, given the circumstances. Come on in. Mom and Rachel are in the dining room."
She brushed some strands of her brown hair from her face and pushed the sleeves of her oversized, red Indiana University sweatshirt up to her elbows. Sloane was an elite-class trail runner, so the blousy fit of the sweatshirt emphasized her rail-thin frame. She looked strong, though, not borderline emaciated like so many of her competitors. I had no doubt if I tried to squeeze her biceps or her calves, they would be rock solid. She'd even painted her fingernails a vibrant, sparkly gray that matched her eyes.
Sloane looked good and it lifted my spirits to see her that way.
As I led her down the hallway, my old friend's nervousness radiated off her like a bad sunburn. God love her, she still hadn't overcome her anxiety problems, and situations like this almost incapacitated her. But she came, anyway.
The gesture wasn't lost on Mom, either, as she insisted Sloane join us. We passed the time nibbling on a plate of cheese and crackers the local tourism office had sent. As we chatted, Sloane caught us up on her trail running and Rachel filled us in on the latest exploits of her five-year-old twins, Tristan and Theresa.
After a while, my curiosity got to me and I asked where Luke was.
"He's down at the community center. Said he wanted to clean the place up while he had a chance." Mom sighed. "I think he couldn't stand being here anymore. The last few days have been hard on him."
"They've been hard on all of us, Mom." Rachel tossed her napkin on the table and went to the sink. After a moment of silence, her shoulders began to shake.
"Of course it has, dear. You and your brother have been angels from heaven through all of this." Mom put an arm around her.
I'd always thought of my older sister as prickly as a porcupine and calculating as a criminal. To see her crying left me at a total loss.
And there stood the elephant in the room, too. My sin of leaving Rushing Creek was laid bare. While I was off living the cosmopolitan New York City lifestyle, my siblings had stayed close to home and been there for Mom when she needed them most. Maybe Mom didn't realize how deep her words cut, but they did. All the way to my broken heart.
All of a sudden, the room was too small, too hot and too crowded. I pushed back from the table, escape the only thing on my mind.
"I think I'll go check in on Luke. See if he's okay." I bolted for the door without waiting for a reply.
I was seated on the top step of the front porch, taking long, slow breaths when the door opened with a creak.
Sloane sat beside me and patted my knee. "She didn't mean anything by it, Allie. Your family's hurting right now. Shoot, half the town is. Your dad was a great guy. We all loved him." She nudged my shoulder. "So, do you really want to check in on Luke? If so, I'll drive."
I looked at Sloane, my oldest friend. My best friend, too, even after all the years apart. Her clear, gray eyes were watery.
Sloane and I had been BFFs for as long as I could remember. On the surface, we were as different as night and day. She had long hair. I kept mine short. She ran between five and ten miles almost every day. The only running I did was to catch the subway. She could eat a quart of ice cream in one sitting and there'd be no evidence of it on her rail-thin frame. If I even thought about eating a second scoop of ice cream, I'd have to go get new pants — in a larger size.
Our differences made us such great friends. We took joy in each other's accomplishments. In second grade, I cheered my lungs out watching her beat the boys in our class track meet running events. In middle school, she spent hours drilling me on words for the spelling bee and shed a few tears when I won the district competition in eighth grade.
Even after I moved away from Rushing Creek, we remained as close as peas in a pod. She sent me a bottle of champagne when I signed my first client. I sent her a framed photograph of her atop the podium when she won her first professional trail race. I teased her that the blue nail polish she was wearing in the picture matched the first-place medal's neck ribbon perfectly.
She was the yin to my yang. The peanut butter to my jelly. She made my life better, and I was more thankful than ever to have her in it.
"You'd do that for me?"
She let out a long breath and looked up and down the street. "I don't have anything better to do. And I'll never pass up a chance to ogle your brother while he's working."
"Ewww." I gave her ponytail a playful tug. "That is so gross."
It was no secret Sloane had an incurable crush on Luke, one that she had no interest in getting over. Maybe someday Luke would come to his senses and see Sloane for the woman she was now instead of thinking of her as his little sister's friend. They were both grown-ups, for God's sake.
"Awesome. Let's go." Sloane sprinted for her green SUV. "Last one there's a rotten egg."
Okay, maybe only Luke was a grown-up. I jogged after her, thankful for the moment of youthful silliness. After all, being a grown-up definitely wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
When I visited Rushing Creek, I made a point to support the local businesses, so we took the boulevard through town. I wanted to see if there were any new restaurants I needed to visit. While I was in the mood for a stiff drink, that would have to wait. Seeing my brother to make my mea culpa with alcohol on my breath wouldn't be a good look.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Literal Mess"
Copyright © 2019 J.C. Kenney.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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