When perky novice writer Tiffany Scott knocks at her door holding a towering manuscript, Mikki expects another debut novel plagued by typos and sloppy prose. Instead, she finds a murder mystery ripped from the headlines of Lenape Hollow’s not-too-distant past. The opening scene is a graphic page-turner, but it sends a real chill down Mikki’s spine after the young author turns up dead just like the victim in her story . . .
Mikki refuses to believe that Tiffany’s death was accidental, and suspicions of foul play solidify as she uncovers a strange inconsistency in the manuscript and a possible motive in the notes. Then there’s Tiffany’s grandmother and husband, who aren’t exactly on friendly terms over the local area’s planned rejuvenation efforts . . .
Unable to convince police that they are focused on the wrong suspect, Mikki must rely on her keen eyes to catch the truth hidden in Lenape Hollow. As she gets closer to cracking the case, only one person takes Mikki’s investigation seriously—the cunning killer who will do anything to make this chapter of her life come to a very abrupt ending . . .
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"I don't know, Cal. It doesn't look good."
Always the silent type, Cal stared back at me with big green eyes and an enigmatic expression.
"You should be concerned," I said. "If I can't pay the bills, both of us will be reduced to eating cut-rate cat food."
That earned me what we used to call "the hairy eyeball."
"What do you know?" I muttered. "You're a cat."
Cal is short for Calpurnia. She's a seven-year-old calico. I'm Mikki Lincoln, her sixty-eight-year-old source of food, affection, and a warm place to sleep. She stretched out next to me on the loveseat as I once again scanned the handwritten numbers on the notepad on my lap. The totals hadn't changed. I'd committed myself to spending more than the sum of my various retirement incomes. I'd also well and truly burned my bridges, leaving me with a cat and a hundred-and-ten-year-old, three-story house to support.
In difficult situations, indulging in fantasy is a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism. I considered that as good an excuse as any for pretending that Cal and I were carrying on a conversation. Yes, I knew full well that I was talking to myself. I just wasn't ready to admit it.
"Come on, Cal. Help me out. Surely I have some marketable skill."
Desperation is the mother of inspiration, or if it isn't, it should be. Calpurnia had no useful suggestions to contribute, but the minute those words left my mouth, the proverbial light bulb went on over my head.
"That's it!" I hauled ten solid pounds of calico cat into my arms and gave her a celebratory hug. "There is something I know how to do!"
Calpurnia kicked me in the stomach, forcing me to release her. She jumped from the loveseat to the floor and stalked to the far side of the room. There, ignoring me, oblivious to the fact that relief and anticipation had replaced my earlier dismay and despair, she sat, lifted her back leg, and began to wash her nether regions.
Two Months Later
I'd forgotten how harsh our doorbell sounded until it broke the peaceful stillness of mid-morning, after the children attending the parochial school across the street were all snug in their classrooms. I wasn't expecting anyone. The contractors had finished giving me their estimates. The men hired to do the next batch of renovations wouldn't start work for another ten days.
Although I am not by nature a timid person, I took the precaution of peeking out through the drapes covering the picture window in the living room. For the past few months, I'd had to keep reminding myself that I was a woman of a certain age living alone. It didn't make sense to take foolish chances.
The line of sight was poor, but it was sufficient to let me see that the person standing on my front porch looked harmless. A short, plump, pretty blonde in designer jeans and a bright orange turtleneck sweater and boots with three-inch heels took a step back, shifting her weight from foot to foot as she waited for me to answer the door. Young and eager were my secondary impressions, and I couldn't help but notice that she had a bulky mailer, almost certainly containing a manuscript, securely tucked under one arm. Odds were good that I wasn't about to admit an ax murderer into my home.
"Ms. Lincoln?" she asked when I opened the door. The hopeful note in her voice was a match for the cautiously optimistic expression on her face. "I'm Tiffany Scott. I understand you're a book doctor."
That description always sets my teeth on edge. I schooled my features not to betray my distaste for the term and said only, "I edit manuscripts for a living," as I waved her into the hallway. "Excuse the mess. I'm remodeling."
Glancing into the living room as we passed the archway that opened into it from the hall, I winced. In preparation for the work to be done upstairs, it currently contained twice as much furniture as it should have. Teetering stacks of cardboard boxes added to the obstacle course. I'd tripped twice on my way to peek out the front window.
"This is a great old place." Tiffany sounded sincere. "My husband insists that everything in the house he built for me be brand-new. Sometimes I visit my grandmother just to remind myself how lovely antiques can be."
Since I was old enough to be Tiffany's grandmother myself, I chose to take this as a compliment. In my own mind, of course, I am much younger than my chronological age and definitely not an antique!
"I bought it while I was still living in Maine."
Her eyes widened. "Sight unseen?"
"Not in the usual sense. I lived in this house until I was seventeen."
Unfortunately, in the fifty-one year interim, a series of owners had neglected to upgrade the wiring or plumbing or make significant repairs to the roof or to interior walls and floors. The old wooden siding had been replaced with aluminum at some point, removing the need for periodic scraping and repainting, but otherwise little had been done to modernize the structure. I shuddered every time I thought about how much work needed to be done to make the place fully habitable.
I'd already had a new roof put on. There hadn't been much choice about that, not when there was so much evidence that the old one leaked every time it rained. Now my contractor had lined up an electrician and a plumber to bring the basics up to code before winter set in. After that, there would be a million and one small renovations to complete, but I was hoping I could do some of them myself.
When Tiffany rang my doorbell, I'd been enjoying a second cup of coffee in the alcove off the kitchen that my mother always called "the dinette." It was as good a place as any for us to talk.
"Something to drink?" I indicated the coffee maker I'd bought right after I moved in. Most of the K-Cups I had on hand were the blend I drank every day, but I still had a few of the samples that had come with the machine — tea, hot chocolate, a half-caff, and a super dark roast that was way too strong for my taste.
"No thank you. Ms. Lincoln, I —"
"Better make that Mikki." Tiffany might be at least forty years my junior, but the relationship between writer and editor is a partnership best approached on equal terms.
Once we were both settled at the small, square table that filled most of the alcove, a little silence fell. I'd barely established a presence online and hadn't done any advertising locally. I didn't plan to, either. Potential clients were supposed to contact me by email. Having one show up on my doorstep was a trifle disconcerting.
To gather my thoughts, I stared out at my backyard through two side-by-side windows. Very little light made its way in. What I remembered as a lawn with one big spruce halfway to the back property line was now a small forest. The lot wasn't all that big, but someone had planted trees — lots of trees of many varieties — in every available spot. I like trees. I used to live in Maine. But this was a bit much even for me.
"Mikki?" Tiffany's tentative tone of voice brought me back to the table and the manuscript she still clutched.
"If you don't mind my asking, how did you hear about my editing service?"
She relaxed at once. "Oh, you were easy to find. I did an online search for freelance editors, and when I saw you were based right here in Lenape Hollow, I knew you were the perfect one to help me. It was meant."
Tiffany's tendency to gush made her seem alarmingly naïve. I suspected that, like many novice writers, she was unaware of how easy she would be to cheat. She needed to be wary of bogus publishing companies and agents who charged a "reading fee," and those dangers were just the tip of the iceberg.
"Are you certain you don't want to query other editors before settling on me? It makes sense to compare prices and evaluate the various services available before you —"
"I want you." As if to prove it, Tiffany released the death grip she'd had on her oversize mailer and slid it across the table toward me.
"Here's the thing, Tiffany. Even though you seem certain I'm the right editor for you, I can't agree to take on a project until I know more about it. There are some genres, science fiction for instance, that I would hesitate to tackle. I'd be a very bad choice if that's what you've written."
"It's not science fiction. I've written a mystery novel. Your web page said you work with crime novels and women's fiction."
Feeling a bit more comfortable, I eased the manuscript out of the mailer and set the latter aside. "Do you want me to do copyediting, line editing, developmental editing, or all three?" "I'd like you to read my novel and tell me what to fix so it will sell." She leaned closer, her voice earnest and her insecurities about her writing on full display. She looked heart-wrenchingly vulnerable. If I'd known her better, I'd have given her a reassuring hug.
"If I do developmental editing, that means I'd make suggestions for changes. After you revise your manuscript, maybe more than once, I'd do line editing, which is just what it sounds like, and then, finally, copy editing, which is checking for typos, grammar and punctuation errors, and the like." I waited until she met my eyes. "All that could get expensive."
"I've got money. And I want you."
"Well, then, let's see what we have here." I wasn't quite ready to commit myself, but I was encouraged by Tiffany's attitude.
I treated the thick stack of printed pages as gently as a mother with a newborn. Measuring by eye, I estimated that she'd used almost a full ream of paper for the printout — five hundred pages. At about two hundred fifty words a page, that came to around 125,000 words. Unless every word was golden, she would have some cutting to do.
"Most writing needs to be trimmed," I warned her, and lowered my gaze to the first page.
After the words "Chapter One," Tiffany had added a dateline — 1937. That her novel was historical would present additional editing challenges. I'd have to be alert for anachronisms as well as for grammar and punctuation problems.
"I'm not an expert in this time period," I warned her. "It's your responsibility to make sure the details are right."
"I've done tons of research," she assured me.
I began to read. My eyes widened as an exceedingly graphic description of a murder unfolded. The writing was ... vivid.
I love words, and Tiffany had chosen hers well in these first passages. She'd also avoided making any grammar or usage errors, something that would have jerked me right out of the story.
When I looked up, I saw that Tiffany's hands were clasped together so tightly that the knuckles showed white. I know that's a cliché, but it was also the literal truth. My client was scared to death that I might hate what she'd written.
I have to admit that I'm not fond of reading about blood and gore, but I could stomach a good deal of violence if her prose was all this memorable. Besides, her business, and the advance I was going to ask for, would be very welcome.
"Your opening certainly grabs the reader's attention," I said.
A smile blossomed on Tiffany's face, turning her cheeks pink with pleasure. "Oh, I'm so glad you like it."
I wouldn't go that far, I thought, but I could see how this book might appeal to fans of the hard-boiled end of the crime novel spectrum.
"You have a strong voice, Tiffany, and appear to have a good command of the English language. You've obviously taken the time to learn the basics of formatting a manuscript. That said, until I've read the entire novel, I can't offer specific suggestions for improving it. Tell me, do you belong to a critique group?" She shook her head and her smile vanished. "Hardly anyone knows I write in my spare time."
"Not even your husband?"
She shook her head and avoided meeting my eyes. "No one in my family has a clue."
It was rare, these days, for someone to complete a book-length manuscript in a vacuum, but Tiffany appeared to have managed it. On further questioning, she admitted to reading how-to books and Writer's Digest, but she had never shared anything she had written.
"You're the first person ever to read my work."
"Okay, then. Tell me — why did you choose to focus on 1930s gangland killings?"
She shrugged. "It's part of the history of this area. If you grew up here, you must know that."
"Before my time," I reminded her, "but, yes, I have heard of Murder Incorporated."
Back in the 1930s, New York City gangsters regularly used our part of Sullivan County as a dumping ground for their murder victims. The body in Tiffany's scene had been killed with an ice pick, bound with sash cord and ignition wire from an automobile, tied to a rock and to the frame of a slot machine, and thrown into a local lake.
"Did you use details from a real crime?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. It's important to be authentic."
"You might want to consider losing the slot machine. What's true isn't always believable in a novel."
Her face puckered up as if she might burst into tears. To my relief, it cleared again the next moment. "Is that like 'kill your darlings'?"
"Exactly." I sent an encouraging smile her way. "Can you deal with the possibility that some of your favorite passages may be the ones that need to be cut?"
I could see she was torn, but she put on a brave face and stuck out a hand. "If you take me on as a client, I promise to listen with an open mind to all your suggestions."
We shook on it.
Having sealed the deal, we got down to basics. Although she had already seen my rates listed at my website, I went over those details again as I entered them into the simple contract a lawyer friend had helped me devise. Tiffany didn't even blink when she wrote a check for half the estimated cost of her developmental edit.
After we'd agreed to meet again the following week, I escorted her to the door. Then I did a happy dance all the way back to the kitchen. I celebrated my acquisition of a new client by taking myself out to a nice restaurant for lunch and bringing the leftovers home for Calpurnia.
Three days later, Tiffany's manuscript sat beside my laptop as I typed. I was on my front porch, comfortably settled in a well-padded wicker chair. I was supposed to be working. Instead, I was sending jpegs to my sister-in-law.
Fall colors had just started to appear on the trees. No one could deny the scenic beauty of pictures that showed mountains and lakes. I felt certain Allie would also be struck, as I had been, by the similarities in terrain between the foothills of New York State's Catskills and the western part of Maine where I had lived for most of the last fifty years. I hoped that realization would reassure her that I knew what I was doing.
The entire family thought I was nuts to uproot myself at my age and start over somewhere else. They didn't understand how difficult it would have been to stay put.
The final photograph I attached to my email showed a particularly brilliant sunset over Chestnut Mountain, a good-sized hill in the western part of Lenape Hollow. If I hadn't known better, I'd have thought it was the view from the road approaching our weathered farmhouse in Maine. I'd always thought that panorama quite lovely, especially in autumn.
As I pressed SEND and exited the email program, I debated whether or not to snap a few pictures of the village to go with my next message. To my delight, I'd discovered that downtown Lenape Hollow was looking pretty dapper. Many of the buildings had been newly painted. Although a few of the storefronts stood empty, signs in their windows read OPENING SOON rather than BUSINESS PROPERTY FOR RENT.
The signs themselves were a good indicator of increasing prosperity. One of the new businesses in the village was a state-of-the-art sign company. Their prices were high, but the results were stunning, large and durable and featuring easy-to-read lettering and clever graphics.
Only last week, the local newspaper reported that the town had approved spending nearly fifty thousand dollars to hire a public relations firm to market it as an ideal location to establish a small business. The new casino might have been awarded to another municipality, but Lenape Hollow was centrally located in the county and therefore well placed for economic growth. All in all, the future looked promising. Next time I went downtown, I would definitely take pictures.
The only place I was not prepared to share in photos was my house. There was a good reason for that. I was on the front porch with my laptop, at least in part because the room I intended to use as an office was not yet fit for human occupation. Although I was able to do some home repairs myself, there was too much that needed to be fixed for me to tackle it all. I meant to limit my activities to the small upstairs room where I'd already ripped up moldy carpeting to reveal a scarred wooden floor.
Excerpted from "Crime & Punctuation"
Copyright © 2018 Kathy Lynn Emerson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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