As the newest member of the Rose Avenue Wine Club, Halsey wants to expand her palate—not solve murders. But when a neighbor is found dead, it’s up to her to pair the culprit with a deadly crime . . .
Leaving behind a failed marriage, New Yorker Annie “Halsey” Hall is ready to begin the next phase of her life in coastal Southern California. From the moment she arrives at her new digs on cozy Rose Avenue, she looks forward to joining the neighborhood ladies for their weekly Wine Club gathering. With only a rambunctious yellow lab puppy to keep her company, Halsey could really use a confidant—and a glass or two of her favorite white wine . . .
Unfortunately, she finds nothing but red at the Wine Club meeting—and judging by the dead woman lying face down in the backyard, it’s not spilled merlot. Halsey accidentally stumbled into the wrong address at the wrong time, and with suspicions about her past on the rise, she must prove that she isn’t a killer. Enlisting the eclectic talents of the Wine Club ladies, Halsey searches for the true criminal at large. But separating friends from foes isn’t easy on Rose Avenue, and as she racks up a suspect list, Halsey can’t shake the feeling that someone in her inner circle has a taste for murder . . .
About the Author
Christine E. Blum was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio. At the age of seven, her parents moved to Europe and luckily took her with them. Christine grew up in Paris, Brussels, and finally London, and along the way developed her unique brand of humor. She lives in Southern California where she’s allowed to share a house and pool with her famous yellow Lab, Bardot, who just happens to be able to dive 10’ underwater, has appeared on Animal Planet, and was featured in the New York Times bestseller, Underwater Dogs. When not signing paw-tographs, she can be found lounging by the pool and solving murders. Readers can visit Christine’s website at christineeblum.com.
Read an Excerpt
You're a long way from home, Dorothy.
I finally had time to think about what I had just done. As I passed the Santa Monica Airport, my car loaded down with the few belongings too precious to trust to any mover, I was overcome with a stomach sinking anxiety. Which was hilarious because I had pretty much landed in paradise. My nine-month-old yellow Lab, Bardot, (think Brigitte), was taking it all in with unchecked wonderment. I was taking deep breaths and trying not to dry heave.
New lives don't happen overnight. I needed to give myself some slack. Heck, I'd already bought the house on Rose Avenue. So it was clear across the country. No biggie.
The neighborhood I'd moved to was just south of the Santa Monica Airport. It is located about two miles from the Pacific Ocean in Southern California and has a rich history.
It was originally called "Clover Field," named after Greayer "Grubby" Clover, a First World War aviator.
"Greayer" or "Grubby"? It's an embarrassment of riches.
The airport blossomed in 1926, when it became the home of the Douglas Aircraft Company, known for developing the air travel innovation the DC-3. In its heyday the company employed some forty-four thousand people, and to keep them productive, built housing on the undeveloped grasslands of the airport's perimeter. Today, the airport hosts hangars for small planes, a dog park, sports fields and, much to the locals' chagrin, private jets owned by celebrities and business CEOs who would otherwise be taking off over the hill in the dreaded Valley.
Just south of the airport sits Rose Avenue. This suburban cocoon, with its homey California bungalows built up as the original owners made way for a younger, more affluent clientele, was now my new permanent address. Rose Avenue begins at the top of a hill and rolls down as it makes its way to the ocean. The closer you are to the top, the more of a sea breeze you'll enjoy. Mine was one of the lucky "upper berth" houses. I was promised that I would never be too hot living there, and rarely too cold.
My alter ego "Dorothy's" real name is Annie Elizabeth Hall. I am the only child of lovely parents who innocently gave me a perfectly fine name, unaware that Woody Allen had already claimed it as his own. Luckily people had started nicknaming me Halsey early on, so apart from events like jury duty, I am saved the bad Diane Keaton impressions.
I think of myself as average. I'm five foot eight, not fat, not thin, have brown hair that I highlight when I have the time and funds, and a pleasant but unremarkable face. I'd be hard to pick out of a police lineup except for one feature. I have Kelly green eyes. And they tend to turn to sea foam from the salt when I cry. Believe me, I know.
There had been too many tears recently, and I was done with that. At thirty-six I was starting over. And the wounds were fresh, so I'll quickly summarize. I left behind a failed marriage in New York City to a self-absorbed, meagerly talented writer whose most seductively crafted line to me was, "I love you like shit."
I've been told that I am "smarter than the average bear," and I am certainly no pushover. How could I have forgotten this the minute I saw his tight jeans and dimpled smile? I missed every sign, distracted with creating the perfect romantic life in my mind rather than in real life. Maybe it was because of my lack of training being an only child and all. Or, maybe I just don't play well with others. Or probably, he was a better liar than I'd realized when we first met.
The day he came home from work and passed up playing with a soft, wiggly puppy whose head was stuck in a shoe and stifled the aromas of my coq au vin with his fetid bong, I knew I was done.
Equally so, I had had my fill of my business partner of the last three years. Starting a software apps company after the bubble was a Sisyphean enough task without having to play "mommy" to the person who was supposed to be sharing the burden. Questions like, "Can we get paid today?" or "Is it okay if I go home?" were not going to contribute to building the next high tech empire. Since I could technically work from anywhere, I took my toys, my puppy, and my intellectual property and followed the sun to the left coast.
I pulled into the driveway and took a deep breath. The smell of jasmine and freshly mowed grass had a calming effect.
Was it too early for a glass of wine? A nice, crisp Sancerre?
Before I hopped out, I shut the engine and sat and stared at my home. Who would have guessed that I'd be moving to a quiet, Chinese elm-lined street, and living in a dream California Craftsman? It was so suburban. It made me think of running barefoot, listening to the "sssssssh-chk-chk-chk" of the sprinklers, and waiting on a tire swing for the ice cream truck. I looked down at my navy Talbot's shift dress and matching striped espadrilles and felt like the one chocolate in the box that nobody wants to eat. I couldn't wait to change, this time I was going to fit in, damn it.
Next door, of course, Marisol was outside and pretending not to prowl. I'd been warned about her when I'd come out to finalize the purchase. At the time I wondered why Vincent, the previous owner, had listed Marisol in the disclosures statement of the property sale. Typically, my realtor explained, a seller steers clear of disclosures, unless forced to by extreme conditions such as when a murder had occurred in the house, it sat upon sacred Indian burial grounds, or there was a clear image of the Virgin Mary in the wallpaper and the Vatican had been called. Vincent was a bit of a character, so I chalked this up to some real estate tomfoolery.
To look at her she seemed harmless enough, watering her lawn in a denim housedress while eyeing the neighborhood. She kept her head down pretending not to notice me. Thin and a bit frail, she had chin length hair that she kept out of the way with small combs. It was blue black but betrayed by a band of gray at the crown.
Time for Clairol #124, Marisol.
I pictured her standing at the sink, an old towel around her shoulders, applying a wand of purple touch up goo to her roots. All the while using the vanity mirror to check on the backyard next door.
My car was bouncing like a monster truck because Bardot was impatient and excited to get out and start exploring. The two of us stepped onto the front lawn and were suddenly face-to-face with Marisol.
How did she make her way over here so fast?
"My name is Mrs. Marisol Ysabel Rosario Priscila Cordoba," she announced without extending her hand. "I hope there is not going to be any trouble like the last people," she added, laying down the residential gauntlet.
Does she know I own this house now?
Bardot cocked her head at Marisol and then stuck her nose up the woman's housedress. Today's exploring had begun. I'd have to ask Bardot later what she'd learned.
I was about to apologize and reply when I realized that Marisol was gone.
How does she do that?
A flash of light hit my face as her metal-screened outer door opened and closed, blinding me for a minute. I made a mental note to recheck my disclosure statements.
I glanced past her property to the next fenced-in yard. A man I hadn't seen before was dressed all in black and sat crouched atop an equally black motorcycle. His tall, sinewy frame formed a perfect "s" shape with the bike. The sleek, mirrored helmet revealed nothing of his face, but I could tell that he was staring at me.
Darth Vader called and he wants his suit back. "Attitude, Halsey," I heard my mother admonish in my head.
I felt a chill in spite of the seventy-five-degree weather. With barely a move he started his bike and it gave off a thunderous roar. I jumped and gasped with surprise. Without looking anywhere but at me, he drove off down Rose Avenue.
All at once Bardot and I were alone, standing on our new front lawn, far away from home and, seemingly, civilization as we knew it.
Was all of this a mistake? I wasn't expecting the Emerald City, but a little bit of a yellow brick road would've been nice.
Then Bardot proudly squatted in front of the entire street and laid claim to our new home. As we headed in, I saw a slat shift slightly from the blinds in one of Marisol's side windows. I stopped myself from picking up Bardot's deposit, something I would never do, and grinned in Marisol's direction as we walked into my house.
A little civil disobedience was always good for the soul.
The modest house I had first seen on the Internet, I later discovered looked pretty much like its photos. The best two features were:
1. It had a completely separate guesthouse for my office and, because it was a corner lot, you could enter from the side street, thereby affording me a separation of work and life.
2. There was a beautiful swimming pool in the backyard.
The closest that I had ever come to that kind of luxury before was if during a blisteringly hot day in the City someone had popped a fire hydrant. I was hoping that once Bardot got used to it, the pool would become her aquatic doggie day care while I worked.
The neighborhood was about as different from my last one as Randy is from Dennis Quaid. I had left a third-floor walk-up in the Village where you could hear parties, fights, and lovemaking all night long for a life in suburbia with neat lawns and the nightly aroma of outdoor grilling. I had hoped that I would spot a pink flamingo or garden gnome so that I could join in the fun, but alas, saw none. People do not appreciate kitsch enough.
A few minutes after I entered the house, I changed and mentally tried to cleanse from Marisol's less than heartfelt welcome and the mystery man-in- black. My iPhone reminded me that I had an important appointment at four today, my introduction to the Rose Avenue Wine Club.
On my last trip out here, I'd been advised by my realtor to get a feel for the neighborhood before sealing the deal. I suspect that the fact that I was from New York City, dressed all in black like a mime, and held my purse tightly over my stomach, may have had him wondering if something on Melrose might be more to my liking.
I took a walk and about halfway down Rose Avenue encountered a striking, statuesque African American woman trimming her roses.
"Hi, I'm Sally," she proclaimed with a smile.
"I'm Halsey and I think I'm about to become your neighbor."
"Welcome to Rose Avenue, although you said 'I think,' having second thoughts?"
I shook my head although I was. When I lived in the City everything and everybody annoyed me at one time or another, but I learned to brush it off because we were all dealing with the same issues. But here, a nosy, mean neighbor and a creepy guy aren't as easily forgotten. Kind of like if you go snorkeling along a reef and see so many tropical fish that you don't really remember any in particular, but if you come across a rock with just two fish they'll more likely leave an imprint in your mind.
If you saw Sally, the first word you would think of is "patrician." She is a tall, lean, golden brown woman in her early sixties, with angular features and elegant long fingers that look like they should be holding a paintbrush in front of an easel overlooking a scenic panorama. She's let her hair go white and that serves to add a halo around her long neck and jaw line. Her lovely oval face and broad smile exude a warm and nurturing aura.
"SLOW DOWN YOU SHITBALL DINGLEBERRY!" Sally screamed at a speeding motorist. "They all think they can race through Rose," she explained to me, regaining her composure.
Pretty sure "shitball dingleberry" is redundant. ...
Sally is patrician, but with balls, one of my favorite combinations.
"Will you be available Wednesdays about four o'clock? Some of the girls on the block like to get together, we rotate houses."
"Oh, gee, I work during the —"
"We usually open a couple bottles of wine," she continued.
"Then I'll make sure that I move in on a Wednesday," I said without skipping a beat.
I was told that we were meeting at Peggy's house today so Bardot and I headed out. The months of clicker training (you look like such a fool doing that) had vanished like the results of Oprah's diets, and my once heeling dog was trying to pull me down the block.
I should explain a little about Bardot. She is not the big, boxy kind of Lab who, for even a scintilla of a treat, will lie contented while the kids dress her up and try to get milk from each of her eight nipples. Bardot is an American Field Lab; they tend to be smaller, much leaner, and built with a Ferrari engine. She is hardwired to run through caustically thorny brambles and crash into pond ice to retrieve whatever form of fowl you have shot out of the sky.
It was a treat to be able to walk down the street at our own pace and smell the flowers instead of the urine of New York City sidewalks. The blue sky glistened from the sun, but that sea breeze kept the air pleasantly cool. The sounds of all kinds of birds punctuated the air in a symphony. This was sweet music, and absent was the grunting and throaty coo of the Manhattan pigeons (rats with wings) that I'd hated on sight.
Gardeners at the house across the street were working on trimming a giant palm tree. The oldest and smallest man was perched close to the peak, held up by one strap looped around the trunk and his waist. He maneuvered using what looked like two planks of wood tied to the bottom of his boots, each had nails sticking out of them.
Next time I'm home I will snag Dad's old golf shoes and sell them at freeway exits. ...
He was wielding a large chainsaw, and I was torn between going back in for a lawn chair to watch the disaster unfold or moving on to spare me the task of having to interview new therapists right away. I opted for the latter.
We passed Marisol's house quickly; I was done with her for the time being. I noticed something in my peripheral vision, looked back and saw that she had dropped bread for the birds on her lawn.
So somewhere in that Clairol-infused body there was a heart?
Not so much. The bread was all scattered close to the opposite side of her yard, next to the motorcycle man's driveway. I had learned from Vincent on my last visit that he was Italian, and did something with cars, but that's about it. Walking Bardot gave me the perfect foil for spying on the guy, and she complied by going in for an extended sniff. There was a slipshod faux redwood fence around the outer perimeter, surrounding what was otherwise a very nice place with a highly manicured yard. The bike was gone and there was no sign of life coming from inside the house. In the driveway were two luxury model cars and several others were parked at the curb. I was starting to suspect that this was Marisol's way of showing her discontent when I saw the bird crap splayed all over a new, plateless Mercedes. I wondered what he had done to deserve her wrath, and if I was in for similar treatment. A whirring sound distracted me and I looked up in the direction of the source. I noticed that a surveillance camera tucked into the eave of the roof was pointed directly at me. Bardot pulled me toward the base of a tree in front of his yard and the camera followed us. In fact, so did the cameras that were mounted all around the roof of the house. I had checked the crime reports before buying my house, and this was a really safe area.
So what's with the intense security? I assumed that the images they recorded were being posted somewhere for remote access. Was he maneuvering the cameras or were they doing this automatically? In either case, ew.
I quickly moved on, feeling his stare once again, even through cyberspace. Deep inside of me a barely healed wound was giving way. Scrutiny was creeping in, and I was feeling like I was being controlled. I'd been at the intersection of "Aiming to Please" and "Losing my Identity" too many times with my ex-husband. In the end nothing I did was right to him and everything I did felt wrong and detached to me. I decided to ignore the cameras and the intrusion but do some further investigating on the neighborhood later for safety's sake.
Continuing on our walk, the view changed to something out of a bucolic Disney movie. A neighbor waved while picking grapefruit from a front yard tree, another loaded the kids into the family van and gave me a welcome smile. At a third doorstep I saw that someone had left a basket of garden fresh-looking squash and tomatoes on the threshold. Now this was more like it. Bardot was sniffing everything in sight and peeing like a camel that had just returned from the desert. She was in snout heaven.
Excerpted from "Full Bodied Murder"
Copyright © 2017 Christine E. Blum.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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