A new collection of linked short stories from Charlaine Harris, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse books, the basis for HBO’s True Blood, and the Midnight Crossroad series, the inspiration for Midnight, Texas on NBC. Principal Anne DeWitt knew her past could catch up with her, but she didn’t expect it would make her late for school. Killing a man does take time though; so does disposing the body . . . if you do it right. After three relatively quiet years at Travis High School, it seems Anne is in danger of being exposed—even the baseball coach knows more about her former life than she ever imagined. Now, she must find out who else holds her secrets and who wants her to pay for them. . .without letting it make her tardy again. Anne still has a school to run, parents to manage, and a few students who might benefit from her unique—and deadly—experience. Collected together for the first time in Small Kingdoms and Other Stories, “Small Kingdoms,” “Sarah Smiles,” “Small Chances,” and “Small Signs” are sure to delight fans of Charlaine Harris.
|Publisher:||JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Charlaine Harris is a New York Times bestselling author for both her Sookie Stackhouse fantasy/mystery series and her Aurora Teagarden Mystery series, now a series of movies on the Hallmark Movies Channel. She has lived in the South her entire life. Visit her on the Web at charlaineharris.com and facebook.com/CharlaineHarris.
Date of Birth:November 25, 1951
Place of Birth:Tunica, Mississippi
Education:B.A. in English and Communication Arts, Rhodes, 1973
Read an Excerpt
The origin of Anne DeWitt was as random as most ideas are. I noticed one day that I washed myself in the same order every day. Face, then arms, etc. I wondered how many little routines we employ daily, without being aware of them. Since I'm a writer, I then wondered what would happen if those routines were violently interrupted. Most of us wouldn't be able to cope with the shock.
But what if we were?
What if one woman was more than capable of defending herself with vigor?
It would have to be a woman with a blameless job and reputation — an orderly and disciplined woman. Hmmm. How had she acquired that discipline, that physical and mental toughness?
Gradually the world of "Small Kingdoms" began to take shape. I decided Anne needed a partner, and Holt Halsey was born.
I've now written several short stories about Anne DeWitt (initially known as Twyla Burnside) in the past few years, and I've thoroughly enjoyed writing every one. With each new story, I've tried to show a different side of Anne. I hope you enjoy her adventures. And I hope she's not the principal of your child's school.
On this particular spring Tuesday, Anne DeWitt was thrown off her regular schedule. Between brushing her teeth and putting on her foundation, she had to kill a man.
Most mornings, Anne was as accurate as a precision watch. Between the moment she rolled out of bed and the moment she got into her car, attractively groomed and dressed, Anne used a total of forty-five minutes. Following a fifteen-minute drive, during which she reviewed the day to come, Anne walked in the front doors of Travis High School at ten minutes before eight o'clock. Her secretary had better, by God, be sitting behind her own desk when Anne's heels clicked on the office floor.
But this Tuesday morning was not like most mornings, due to the short struggle and the longer effort of body disposal.
On the drive to work, she figured he'd scaled the roof while she was asleep, broken in a dormer window in the attic, and let down the attic steps while she was in the shower. (She'd noticed some specks on the carpet under the attic opening. Insulation?) Anne wasn't pleased that she hadn't foreseen this possibility, but she tried not to be too hard on herself, either. A woman had to sleep. A shower made noise.
It was her fault, however, that she hadn't included the attic windows in her security system. She'd rectify that immediately.
It was Anne's good luck that she was looking in the mirror. If she hadn't been, she might have missed the flicker of movement as he came through the bathroom door, might not have realized the man was there until the wire cinched around her neck.
It was the would-be killer's bad luck that Anne was standing before the mirror naked, trimming a few errant hairs in her bangs, scissors in her hands. She pivoted instantly, her knees bent, and drove the sharp points upward into his throat, the two blades sinking in with a minimum of effort. Anne never bought inferior steel. Anne's hand came away, leaving the scissor blades in the double wound to minimize the inevitable leakage.
As a bonus, the dying man landed on the cotton bathmat with its no-slip rubber backing, which soaked up the trickles of blood.
Anne squatted by the body as the man died and looked at him intently. She was mildly surprised to discover she knew him: Bert Sawyer, her neighbor of two months, who'd moved in two doors west. He'd come over to borrow her jumper cables a week before. Anne spared a moment to think about that as she got the extra shower curtain liner, still in its packaging, from the bathroom linen closet.
She assumed "Bert" had had backers. They'd taken time to set this up, time and money. If Bert had been acting on his own, his preparation was even more impressive. This had been a carefully thought-out plan. None of the kids at Travis High School would have recognized their principal as she smiled at the failure of this plan, at her victory.
But it had been a victory by too narrow a margin. Anne's smile faded as she called herself to task. She was alive only because Bert had made stupid choices.
Why hadn't he attacked while she was asleep? Why had he waited until daylight, until she was clearly up and about? She stared down at the body, tempted to give it a kick. She was pretty damn irritated about losing the scissors.
A glance at her wall clock told her she was already running five minutes late, and there was a small spot of blood on her left shoulder. Dammit! She stepped back in the shower and washed herself off in case there were specks she hadn't noticed, careful not to get her hair wet since she'd already styled it for the day. She didn't want to spend the extra time to repeat the process.
As the water beat down, she thought hard about her next step. She was tempted to leave the body where it was until she came home from work, but there was always the chance that they (if there was a "they") would call the police, concoct some story that might compel the police to check out the inside of her house. Heard screams ... saw smoke ... think someone's broken in ... any of those might make a conscientious cop insist on checking out the interior.
Anne puffed out her cheeks in exasperation as she completed her makeup. No, she had to do a certain amount of cleanup. Now she would be late, no doubt about it, and her record at this job had been as perfect as her record at her previous employment. Son of a bitch.
Her jaw set in a grim line, Anne pulled on rubber gloves and removed the plastic liner from its packaging. Anyone might use rubber gloves to clean, just as anyone might keep an extra shower curtain liner. Right? Hindered by the small floor space, Anne (who was very lean and athletic) managed to roll the body and the bathmat onto the clear plastic sheet and began securing it from the feet up, using duct tape from a fresh roll.
She left the scissors in the man's throat with a pang of true regret. She'd looked at many pairs of scissors before she'd selected those, and she'd used them exclusively to trim hair. That was why they'd maintained their great edge.
Well, she thought, it was worth it. She'd wiped off the handles, of course. She was sure any tiny snips of her hair that might have adhered to the blades would be too degraded by the time the body was found to be of any use to criminalists. In time, she'd acquire some more scissors for the rare self-trim job. Before she covered the dead man's face, she took another look.
Like Anne's, Bert Sawyer's hair was thick, though his was sable brown, several shades darker than hers. She wondered if Bert's hair was dyed, like hers; probably. She had another sudden thought and pushed aside the wouldbe killer's hair in a couple of spots close to his ears. Huh. He'd had plastic surgery. She turned his face to the overhead light again, really concentrating on its contours, but there'd been so many faces in those ten years she'd run the school at her previous job.
And that had to be why he'd come here.
Anne deployed the duct tape until Bert Sawyer was encased and leak-proof. She cast a critical eye around the bathroom. There was no blood visible to the naked eye on the vanity or the mirror, but she ran a washrag over them nonetheless. All the while, she puzzled over Bert Sawyer's true identity. But she dismissed her concerns after a glance at her watch; twenty minutes late, and the body to dispose of!
She called her secretary. "Christy, I'm running late today," she said. Anne's policy was never to apologize for things she couldn't have prevented.
"You are?" Christy, the doughy, fiftyish school secretary, couldn't hide her astonishment. "You're sick? Oh, I hope you haven't had an accident?"
Anne said, "My car wouldn't start. It's running now, but I'm behind."
"No problem," said Christy reassuringly.
Anne tried not to snarl at the phone. Of course the disruption of her routine was no problem for Christy; but it certainly was to Anne. "I'll be in as soon as I can. The Meachams aren't due for another forty-five minutes."
"Right," Christy said. "Oh, and Coach Halsey is in here. I'll tell him to come back."
The baseball coach had never come to her office for a one-on-one before. Anne almost asked what Holt Halsey wanted, but it was hardly Christy's job to find out, if the information hadn't been volunteered. "Do that," Anne said pleasantly and evenly.
She went into the bedroom to put on her underwear and went back to the bathroom to check her shoulder-length hair, stepping over the corpse on her way. Then Anne put on the outfit she'd laid out the night before: gray trouser suit, well-cut, with a darker gray silk blouse. Garnet earrings and a necklace with a garnet pendant, small and tasteful. But then she put on sneakers, grabbing the black pumps she'd selected to go with the outfit.
Anne bounded down the stairs, passed through the gleaming kitchen with its block of sharp knives and opened the door to the garage. After placing her high heels on the floorboard of the passenger-side front, Anne opened her trunk, spreading out another plastic sheet (just in case). There was a cheap yellow rain slicker, the kind you could buy in a hanging pouch from the rack of any dollar store, hanging on a hook by the back door. Anne pulled it on, carefully drawing the hood over her chestnut hair. She went back up the stairs to her bathroom to grab the ankles of the plastic-shrouded corpse. Tugging carefully, steadily, digging in her feet, Anne dragged the body down the stairs.
Bert Sawyer's head bumped against each wooden step. Anne, who'd heard much worse noises, ignored the sound.
Getting Bert into the trunk was tricky, but nothing Anne hadn't done before. When the body was completely inside, she pulled off the cheap slicker and stuffed it in with the body. She went into the house one final time to grab her purse and give her hair a once-over look in the mirror. Finally – finally! – she was on her way to work. She'd been thinking while she stuffed Bert in the trunk, and she'd thought of a good spot to dispose of him.
The winding roads and pleasantly rolling hills relaxed Anne, as always. The four-lane was moderately busy, but due to Anne's unwilling delay, there were fewer cars than usual. When she got close to the spot she'd chosen, she drove in the slow lane until the road was clear. Then she whipped right and went down a gravel road just wide enough for her car. Luckily, it hadn't rained recently, or she would have had to make a different choice. But Bert would molder nicely out here. It would only get warmer and damper every week now that spring had arrived in North Carolina.
At the end of this service road was some sort of electrical relay tower, surrounded by a high gated fence liberally posted with warnings. The gate was heavily padlocked, which was fine with Anne, since she had no interest in gaining entrance. Her car was far enough into the woods to be invisible from the four-lane, and she maneuvered Bert's body out of the trunk with the facility of experience. As a bonus, the gravel road was slightly raised for drainage, so she was able to roll the plastic bundle into the forest and then drag it through the pines until it could not be seen from the gravel track. After leaving the body behind a copse, Anne grabbed a fallen branch. On her way back to the car, she swept away the swath the passage of the corpse had cut through the winter leaves and pine needles. She was glad the temperature this morning was in the high fifties; she didn't want to work up a sweat.
Good enough, Anne thought, as she stood by her car brushing her jacket and her pants. She swung the car around on the apron before the fence, and when she returned to the four-lane she stayed back in the tree line until the road was clear.
It was less than two miles to Travis High School, where Anne had worked for four years; two as assistant principal, two as principal. After she'd parked in her designated parking space, she exchanged her sneakers for the high heels.
She looked up at the big wall clock as she entered the school lobby. She was now fifty minutes late. Damn Bert Sawyer, and whoever had recruited him. Anne shoved the anger aside. She would have to think seriously about Bert and his garrote later. No one had tried to kill her for three years.
For now, her head should be in its proper place. This school was her kingdom; she was its ultimate ruler. She relaxed because she was within the walls of her domain.
She got her second surprise for the day when she opened the door to the outer office, Christy Strunk's domain. Coach Holt Halsey was still waiting for her. This surprise wasn't exactly either good or bad; but it was unprecedented. Her respect for the baseball coach, who'd come on board two years ago, was not only based on Halsey's winning record, but also on the fact that Halsey seemed to solve his own problems in a rational way.
Christy looked at her with some apology, and Anne understood that she'd tried to get the coach to return later, with no success. Anne said, "Good morning, Christy."
A few brisk steps took her abreast of Halsey, who'd risen from his chair. It didn't bother Anne at all to look up at him. She was not intimidated by large men. But she hesitated before using his first name, since she'd never done so. "Holt, how long do you need? I have less than ten minutes, if that'll do the job."
The coach nodded. "I only need a few minutes," he said. She walked over to the inner door, the door to her office, with her name on it. She loved the sight of it, no matter how many times she passed it. That she'd been born neither "Anne" nor "DeWitt" made no difference to her pleasure.
"I'll hold your calls, Ms. DeWitt," Christy said unnecessarily. That was SOP in this office.
"Come in," Anne said. Christy had been in to turn on the light and deposit her messages, but everything was as Anne had left it the evening before. She checked automatically as she moved behind the desk to put her purse in its drawer. She'd carefully arranged the office to make it seem as though she'd led a complete life. There were two pictures of her parents, one of her sister, and one of her deceased husband.
None of these people existed. Of course, she had had parents, but she'd never met them. She'd never been married. To the best of her knowledge, she didn't have a sister. "Have a seat, Holt," Anne said, pulling out her own chair and sitting. There was a handful of call slips lined up beside her mouse pad. It had taken her two weeks to break Christy of the habit of telling her about each call as she entered the office. She allowed the fearful idea that she might have to leave, that there might be another attempt – who had the would-be assassin alerted when he'd tracked her down? With grim determination, she shoved this conjecture back to the corner of her mind.
Coach Halsey was sitting, elbows on knees, in one of the lightly padded chairs positioned in front of Anne's neat desk. Holt Halsey was a broad-shouldered man, a couple of inches over six feet, and he had a face that might have been chiseled out of granite. He wasn't unattractive in a rough-hewn way, but he didn't work that attraction, and he didn't show a lot of emotion. Anne liked both qualities.
"Clay Meacham is a problem," Holt Halsey said, without further ado.
"Odd you should bring him up. His parents are coming in right after I finish talking to you."
The coach's flinty face managed to convey his opinion of the Meachams in a precise, economical tightening of the lips.
Brandon and Elaine Meacham, the parents of Travis High's star pitcher, were active in the Baseball Boosters Club, and they spent a lot of time volunteering at other school activities. Clay was their only child. They didn't miss a single opportunity to support and promote the handsome junior.
If Clay had been as good a young man as he was talented, Anne would have thoroughly approved. Clay's academic and athletic glory was the school's (and therefore her) glory. But Clay was not a good young man, and his judgment was deeply flawed.
"What's he done?" she asked.
"He was messing with Hazel Reid."
Their eyes met while Anne absorbed the implications. She considered wasting time with things a normal woman would have said, like, "How is she?" or "Should we call the police?" None of that was on the table: if it had been, Holt would have led with the worst news. Hazel Reid was mentally and emotionally handicapped. But she was also a physically mature sixteen. Anne said, "How far did it go?"
"He'd taken her shirt off," the coach said.
"In the woods in back of the school. If she hadn't been wearing bright pink, I wouldn't have spotted them."
"So, after school. But on school property."
"Why wasn't she on her bus?" Hazel was supposed to catch the vehicle derisively called "the short bus" to her home.
"Her mom was here for teacher conferences. She'd parked Hazel on the bench outside to wait. Clay saw her when he was walking to his car after practice. I guess he was in a bad mood. Or maybe a good one."
"Does he know you know?" she asked.
"Not for sure. I called him on his cell phone, asked him if he'd seen Hazel in the parking lot, her mom was looking for her."
Anne checked the list of phone calls she'd gotten that morning, and Mrs. Reid wasn't on it. "Hazel didn't tell," Anne said.
"I don't think she minded," the coach said. "But she's not mentally capable to consent or refuse."
"Noted," Anne said. She thought for a moment, and Coach Halsey let her.
Her previous job had been far tougher than this one, and when she'd left it so abruptly, she'd sworn to herself she wouldn't ever get so invested again. But here she was, thinking of Travis High and its reputation.
Did Anne care about each individual student? No. But this was her turf, and she would protect it. She would make it as perfect as she could. When she looked up at the rugged, impenetrable face of her baseball coach, she surprised a look almost of ... sympathy. And for a second ...
"Do I know you?" she asked, with no premeditation.
He smiled. It was like watching rock move. "It's time for the Meachams to get here. I'll hear from you later." It wasn't quite a question.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Small Kingdoms and Other Stories"
Copyright © 2019 Charlaine Harris, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author,
Also by Charlaine Harris,