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The Trouble with Charlie
By Merry Jones
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2013 Merry Jones
All rights reserved.
Bottles glowed amber and jade along the mirrored wall. Toned bartenders did their signature dance: reaching, pouring, swirling. Gliding along the narrow, dimly lit alley of spigots and glassware, serving up alcohol-laden concoctions to a thirsty crowd clustered along the bar. Music amplified to too many decibels pounded percussion without melody. Happy Hour at a mostly singles bar. What diabolical cynic had come up with that name? Dubbing as "happy" the dire, loneliest moments before dark, the time when people cling to each other in primal desperation.
I was no exception that night; I was among them.
"You have to start sometime," Becky had nagged me. "You can't just sit home forever."
It had only been a few weeks, I'd argued.
"It's been almost three months."
But I wouldn't know how to act, what to talk about. Hadn't been out on my own in a decade. I was rusty. Didn't know how to flirt.
"Just be yourself. You don't have to flirt. Just let go. Dance.
Great. I hated dancing, wasn't good at it. I reminded her.
"Don't be so defeatist. What else will you do — stay home and watch NCIS reruns?"
Why not? Mark Harmon was kind of hot, for an old guy.
"Fine. Don't complain when you're eighty and dying alone. Remember what you told me after I broke my engagement?"
"Very funny, Elle. But any of them — all of them. You said, 'The best revenge against a man who breaks your heart is to celebrate your life without him.'"
She was right. I had said that. Good advice, too.
"So now it's your turn. Come out with me. Celebrate." She'd kept it up, having an answer for each of my excuses until I'd caved, and there I was, standing in a bar, staring at glowing bottles, feeling clumsy and conspicuous and not very successful at celebrating my life. The Miller Lite in my bare wedding-ringless hand was empty again. I waved for another over the pounding music, its thumping bass relentless, reminding me with every slamming beat, of sex. Which, with Charlie out of my life, I might never have again. But that was absurd. Of course I would. Someday. Right?
The bartender put another bottle in front of me and I put a few bills in front of him, still thinking about sex with Charlie, his bare chest and shoulders poised above me in bed. Trying to stifle the images. Lord, I could kill him. Sometimes fantasized about it. Had even discussed it with various sympathetic girlfriends, most recently at lunch just the day before.
"You'd have to make it look like an accident," Susan had admonished. She was a criminal defense attorney, always practical. "Overdose him on his blood pressure meds. It'll look like a heart attack. And an autopsy would be inconclusive. They couldn't prove he didn't accidentally OD." She'd forked grilled tuna to her mouth, brows knit, thinking.
"No. Make it look random. Like a mugging or a carjacking." That had come from Jenny. Blonde, a body that poured into her clothes, eyelashes so long you could trip over them, a voice like silk. "Shit, if I was going to kill Norm, that's what I'd do." Jen's husband Norm owned things, including most of some NBA team. Or was it NHL? Her fingers glittered with diamonds. "I'd definitely shoot him and make it look like an RGB.
RGB. I'd had no idea.
"RGB?" Susan had apparently no idea either.
Jen had rolled her eyes. "Robbery Gone Bad." As if the meaning were obvious.
"Shooting's too violent." Becky had lowered her voice, looking around cautiously. "But remember, women usually use poison." I'd wondered how Becky knew that. She was a kindergarten teacher. How did she know this about poisons? Was it common knowledge that had somehow passed me by? I'd watched my share of cop shows, had learned my share of forensic science. "So don't poison him."
"And if you stab him, remember to restrain yourself." Jen spoke with authority. "Be efficient. Too many wounds looks like a crime of passion, not just random."
"And have a good alibi. Cops always assume the spouse did it."
They all nodded and agreed. My best girlfriends: a lawyer, a teacher, a rich housewife. Experts on murder.
"But even if she gets arrested, no jury will convict her once she tells them about Charlie —"
Somehow they'd begun talking about me as if I weren't there. The conversation had stopped involving me, had become about me. "Right. They'd let her off with time served. How many years were they married? Ten? That's a long enough sentence."
They'd laughed. They'd gone on, concocting detailed scenarios. I was to lure Charlie over in the dead of night, shoot him, and claim that I'd mistaken him for a prowler. Or hide in his condo's parking garage until he came home, shoot him, and take his wallet and his watch. Or hire someone to do it for me. All the ideas seemed familiar, like Law and Order reruns, but I'd drifted in and out of the conversation, watching from various distances as my friends had brainstormed from salads through coffee, offering and amending ideas with enthusiasm and delight. Not one had expressed disapproval at the thought of my killing Charlie. Not one had seemed the slightest bit appalled or surprised. They'd seemed comfortable with the idea, regarding Charlie's murder as a reasonable, even a positive alternative to divorce.
But, of course, the conversation hadn't been serious. It had merely been lunchtime amusement. Entertainment, like the bar's pounding music. Except the music was more painful than entertaining. It shook the floor, hurt my head. Made me remember what I didn't want to remember: the rhythmic whamming and thrusting of Charlie's pelvis. Damn.
Above me now was no pelvis, just a big screen playing football highlights.
Happy Hour. Did other people feel as self-conscious as I did? Or did they think this was fun? I looked around. Saw toothy smiles and drinks. Body heat. Commotion. Mostly I saw need. Maybe I was projecting. Lord, I felt uncomfortable.
The place was called Jeremy's. On Main Street in Manayunk, pronounced "Mannyoonk," a Native American word meaning, "the place to go to drink." And, for many professional single Philadelphians, it was. People were. I stood at the bar like a grinning stunned doe, watching people wander and cluster. I gulped Miller and nibbled carrot sticks from the array of free munchies, trying to pretend that I was in fact having an excellent time and that anyone who talked to me would also have one. With a cheerful semismile pasted onto my face, I determined not to look like a wallflower as I watched Becky wag her hips to the music and shimmy and shake with a skinny guy who had fashionable facial hair. She smiled at me, gesturing that I should join in. "Come on, Elle. Dance with us."
Becky was in her comfort zone. Happily single, twice divorced, she was cute, breezy. Short. With a pert little nose, wide grin, breasts like big feather pillows. Men flocked to Becky, and she took care of them as she did her kindergarteners, a mother duck with swarms of hungry ducklings.
Not me. I stood untalked to. Undanced with. At five foot nine, I was too tall to be "cute." In fairness, though, a few guys did approach me. One was stocky, wobbly on his feet, as tall as my chin, wearing a thick-lipped grin. His gaze fixed on my chest. "I'm Pete. Wuzs yrr name?"
He watched my bust as if he thought it would answer.
"Wann' dance?" He shouted over the music, his voice gruff.
My breasts didn't reply, but Pete didn't notice. Already distracted, he craned his neck to ogle some other woman, rotating so that his back turned to me. I stepped away, looked for Becky. Again, she waved me onto the dance floor. I shook my head. The music pounded on, jangling my bones. I stepped out of myself mentally, viewing the bar from above. Saw myself, a woman out of sync with her surroundings. Gawky and out of place.
"Nothing can be that serious. Come on. Give me a smile."
The guy had a strong jaw, broad smile. I felt a jolt, something like fear?
"Oops, look at this —" He reached out, lightly tapped my earlobe, and produced a quarter. He feigned surprise. "Here. This was in your ear!"
The stranger had shiny, playful eyes. Too shiny, too playful. Maybe dangerous. I felt the urge to run. But he held the quarter out, watching me until I took it. Then, eyes still on mine, he cupped his hand and — poof — produced a red chiffon scarf, looped it around my neck.
Wait. He was a magician? The place had a floor show? Oh Lord. I thanked him, stuffed a couple of dollars into his pocket, lifted my beer in a silent toast.
He frowned, retrieving the cash. "Hey, I don't want money. All I want is your smile."
My what? My face got red-hot. I steadied myself. Why was my adrenalin pumping? He stared at my mouth, waiting. I smiled. Actually, I laughed. Nervously.
"Success!" He grinned, put the money back on the bar. "I'm Joel." He yelled above the din.
His eyebrows rose. "Elf?"
I blinked, shook my head. Charlie called me Elf. No one else ever had. "Elle. Like the letter."
"Your face lights up when you smile, Elle."
More blushing. More inexplicable panic. In the dim light, maybe he couldn't see. "So you're not the house magician?"
"No, no." A broad grin. "I create illusions for fun. To cheer people up."
"And help you meet women?"
He laughed. Nice lips. Strong jaw. Good teeth. Carnivorous. "Sometimes."
I smiled. "So. Does it work?"
"You tell me." His eyes twinkled. Playing.
I looked into my beer, drank. Tried to think of a clever response. Couldn't.
"You seem tense." He studied me, as if reading my body language. "Recent breakup?" his voice roared above the music.
He could tell just by looking at me? Oh Lord. I hesitated, not wanting to admit it. I rubbed my temple. "Just a headache."
His eyes softened, sympathetic. For a heartbeat, they reminded me of Charlie's. Odd, since Joel's were grayish and danced, and Charlie's were dark brown and dared. Their eyes looked nothing alike. Maybe it was that he'd called me Elf.
"Press here." He took my hand to show me. His touch was warm, firm. Unfamiliar. "What happened to your hand?"
I looked at the bandage. I'd cut myself earlier, had forgotten about it. A kitchen knife had slipped while I was cutting fruit, slicing my palm. And it must have been deeper than I'd thought because blood had seeped through the gauze. "No big deal. I got attacked by an orange."
As if from the ceiling, I watched myself talking, smiling. Letting a man touch her bandaged hand. Seeming to enjoy herself. Flirting.
Joel smiled and, avoiding the gauze, squeezed a precise spot, just between my forefinger and thumb. And poof — magically, the pulsing in my head eased. "If you press this spot, you relieve pressure. You slow the blood flow to the brain. Something like that."
"You're a doctor?" We were shouting in order to be heard.
His smile was sly. "No. Not a doctor. Just intrigued by anatomy."
He let go of my hand. The headache started up again. Immediately. I set my beer on the bar, began squeezing the spot. Relief. Amazing.
"I'm pretty good at reading people, Elle. Know what I see when I look at you?"
I didn't answer.
"I see a beautiful woman who's very sad."
He did? I looked at his eyes, didn't know what to say.
"Remember, life's full of surprises. Everything can change suddenly — presto. Like magic." From thin air, he produced a single red rose. He held it out, his eyes still on mine. "It's for you. Take it."
I did. Impressed. And unsettled.
Somebody jostled me on his way to the bar, and I glanced away, regaining my balance.
"See you around, Elf. I mean, Elle." Joel squeezed my shoulder, then moved on, disappearing into the crowd, leaving me shaken. A rose? A single, long-stemmed rose? It was another coincidence, nothing more.
Alone again, I stood sandwiched between warm bodies at the bar. Holding a beer and a rose.
Okay, I decided, I'd done enough for one night. Had taken the first step, proved I could go out, even talked with a hot guy. So I could go home. With luck, I'd get there in time to catch the end of NCIS. I located Becky on the dance floor and waved to her, mouthed the words, "I'm going."
"Behind the bar." She pointed to the ladies' room.
"No," I moved my lips. "Home."
"What?" She cupped her ear, gyrating. The guy she was dancing with now was swarthy and buff, mesmerized by her backside.
I made my hand into a telephone, held it to my face. "Later."
She looked disappointed. "You're leaving?"
I nodded and, before she could protest or pout or even miss a grind, I'd pushed my way through the crowd, dashed out the door, and escaped into the chilled evening air. At the corner, I hopped into a taxi, thinking of Charlie who, until that night, had been the only man ever to give me a rose.
* * *
The night was warm and the cab stale, so I cracked the window, watching couples walking hand in hand or arms circling each other. We inched slowly through traffic on Main Street, passing crowded upscale clubs, boutiques, and restaurants. Manayunk had grown in the hills above the Schuylkill River, had housed mill workers, but now it was gentrified. Populated by young professional types. I lived only a few miles away, near the Philadelphia Art Museum, in the townhouse that had been Charlie's and mine. Now it was just mine, or would be when our divorce was final. I played with my empty ring finger. There was nothing to regret. Nothing left to save.
Nor was there a reason to feel so raw about attending a Happy Hour. There was no shame in being single again. In looking for companionship. Divorce didn't make me a loser or a failure. Or unattractive. It didn't mean I sucked at life. All that it meant was that Charlie and I hadn't worked out. Millions of women were separated or divorced. Millions of men, too. I didn't like bars, that was all. There had to be other, quieter, more comfortable venues to meet men. Like health clubs. Supermarkets.
By the time the cab pulled up to my house, I'd almost convinced myself that I had hope. It wasn't definite that I would grow old lonely, sad, and celibate. I was an educated, professional woman, a second grade teacher. When I stood up straight and held my stomach in, I was kind of stately. I had big hazel eyes and full lips. Charlie used to say I was striking; other men must think so, too. But, then again, finding a new man wasn't the answer. What I needed was a new passion, something fulfilling that I could do alone. Maybe I'd take classes in Italian. Or Portuguese. Or Tae Kwon Do. Or opera or skeet shooting.
I exited the cab with more dignity than I'd entered and stood tall as I unlocked my front door, only to slump again when I stepped inside, confronting what was left of my home. The blank spaces on the walls where Charlie's art had hung, the empty corner where he'd kept his aquarium, the half-vacant shelves that had held his books, the bare corners where his philodendra had clustered. Everything was a reminder that Charlie was gone.
Never mind. Spaces could be filled. I'd redecorate. Get new stuff. I set my bag on the hallway table and took a deep, cleansing breath. Maybe my head was aching because I was hungry, had eaten only carrot sticks for dinner. On the way to the kitchen, I stopped, sniffing. I wasn't imagining it. The scent. I knew it, had lived with it for ten years. The air smelled of Charlie. Old Spice. Had he been in the house? Was he still here?
"Charlie?" I stood still, listening. He still had keys. Our divorce wasn't final; I hadn't changed the locks. Even though he shouldn't and, as far as I knew, hadn't come in, he still could.
"Charlie?" Louder this time.
Silence. He wasn't there. Of course, he wasn't.
Even so, I stepped into the living room again, checking, seeing no one. Nothing out of place. Obviously, I was imagining the scent. Or maybe the house had just held onto it, absorbed it in walls, in floors. I went back to the kitchen, suddenly drained. My arms felt leaden, making it difficult to open a bag of Spring Mix. My hands were stiff, fingers sluggish, struggling to add chunks of bleu cheese. Slicing an onion, forgetting about the cut on my hand, I pushed the knife as if slicing through bone. Felt the wound reopen, a warm gush. What was wrong with me? I stopped cutting, pushed on the bandage to stop the bleeding, leaned on the counter to rest. Sensed movement behind me, a tickle on the nape of my neck. A light kiss —
Excerpted from The Trouble with Charlie by Merry Jones. Copyright © 2013 Merry Jones. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Finding a novel of suspense that delivers the goods is always a pleasure and The Trouble with Charlie is no exception. The whole idea behind suspense, for those of us who love to read mysteries, is to keep us wondering about one or more things in particular. Frequently, it’s about whether the lead character will survive but, in this case, we don’t have to worry about that; since the protagonist is the past tense narrator, she obviously does. We do get to wonder about who is going to be killed and who is going to do the deed(s) and there is no shortage of possibilities. We also get to wonder about motives and, as the story progresses, there are more and more options. What sets this book apart a bit is the author’s use of amnesia. Sometimes we mystery readers think amnesia is a much too convenient excuse but, here, Merry Jones has added the issue of a long-term psychological disorder and we’re left completely baffled by what Elle is really seeing, hearing, smelling, remembering and what is hallucination. Even the fact that she has conversations with her dead husband is puzzling—is he a ghost or is his presence all in her mind? I also have to commend Ms. Jones for her characterizations. Nearly all these people are vivid and easy to identify even when they’re in a group. Whether they’re likeable or not, you understand their essence. Unfortunately, there’s a significant TSTL factor at play and that’s a real shame because Elle is a likeable person. True, she has a lot on her mind but some of her behavior is just beyond rational explanation. I also found it puzzling that she is so very weak when it comes to standing up for herself when she’s face-to-face with people whose personalities are stronger than hers. Despite all that, I did find The Trouble with Charlie very entertaining and I kept right on reading because, well, it’s a darn good story.
I am grateful to be able to recommend another mystery to my readers. Mysteries have become the most difficult "good books" for me to find lately, and I was pleased that this one turned out better than I thought. I could have done without the profanity--that is honestly my only complaint. I was relieved to discover that the book ended the way it should have--too many mysteries don't that are written in this day and age. The author is to be commended. This book is written completely from the perspective of Elle. This makes the story sometimes very confusing because her mind tends to wander in stressful situations. I found myself wondering what was real and what was not. I wondered if she was hallucinating or dreaming or what. It was this writing device that kept me reading and quite intrigued. I am also glad to report that there was no gratuitous violence. I grow tired of mystery books that are full of blood, guts, and gore. The descriptions in this book are what you would expect from a mystery book. There is blood, but no guts and gore. And at least the "hardcore profanity" only comes from the "bad guys." If you are looking for a mystery that will keep you hooked and possibly even a little frazzled from the beginning, I would definitely recommend this book to you. The author does an excellent job of getting into Elle's brain, and there is a good chance that you will find yourself second-guessing yourself and wondering what exactly is happening. And I believe that is what the author wants you to feel and think. I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. I was not financially compensated, and all opinions are 100 percent mine.
Sometimes exes won’t leave you alone, especially if they think you’ve killed them. When Elle Harrison comes home from a night out with friends, she finds her soon-to-be-ex-husband Charlie in her den. The big problem is Charlie has one of Elle’s kitchen knives in his back. To make matters worse Elle can’t remember what she was doing during the time he was killed. Despite Charlie being dead, he doesn’t seem to be gone from Elle’s life. She senses his presence all through the house sometimes it’s the smell of his aftershave or a gentle kiss on her neck. Then there’s the rose that moves from room to room seemingly on its own. Now Elle finds herself arguing with a shadow that appears to be accusing her of murder. While she has been diagnosed with a Dissociative disorder causing her to ‘space out’ under stress, it doesn’t prove her innocence. To find out what happened, Elle begins to really look into Charlie’s life. As she searches, Elle discovers more problems than she imaged and numerous suspects with unusual motives. Elle’s investigation puts her in danger as she becomes involved in more murders and a struggle for her own life. Meanwhile, in a strange twist Elle finally comes to understand Charlie even though he’s dead. Author Merry Jones has created a host of zany characters that you can’t help but like. They are well-developed and realistic with strengths and flaws that readers can relate to. She combines suspense, murder, humor, friendship, a touch of romance and a dash of supernatural into a well-balanced story. Narrator Tanya Eby does an excellent job bringing the numerous characters to life, providing a distinct voice for each. She conveys the various emotions of the characters throughout the story with her vocalization and cadence. The story flows at a steady pace with the right amount of twists to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The suspense will have readers guessing did she or didn’t she until the very end. The bits of humor sprinkled throughout the story adds flavor and blends in well. THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE details a story of betrayal and blind commitment that rings true in real relationships. Elle is a protagonist that grows as the story develops to become a compelling character readers will want to visit with again and again. This is a fun read that will keep you guessing. FTC Full Disclosure - I requested this book as part of the author’s virtual book tour. An eBook copy of the book was sent to me by the tour promoter and an audio version of the book was sent to me by the publisher. Both were sent in hopes I would review them. However, receiving the complimentary copies did not influence my review.
what a page turner... enjoyed this novel very much..
I will definity be reading more from this author. It wasn't what I expected, there was a movie a long time ago with Debbie Reynolds and it eas called Goodbye Charlie. I thought it was like that but it wasn't. But anyway I really liked this some humor and mystery
Boy, this book was not at all what I thought it was going to be about. It is told from Elle's point of view, and with the gaps and fuzziness in her memory, you can't be sure that the information that you are getting is what is actually correct. It really made me feel what Elle must have been feeling. Sort of a disconnect to reality, not knowing who you can trust - or even if you can trust yourself. She has a great group of friends who support and believe her even when the police are closing in. It helps that one of these friends is a lawyer and is able to give her counsel (even though she doesn't always follow it!) So, she is suspect number one in the murder of her husband with even Charlie's ghost (or one of her hallucinations - she doesn't know which) accusing her. She decides that the only way she can prove her innocence is to find out who actually killed him. She doesn't know where to begin, but when her husband's partner Derek shows up asking lots of questions, it begins to formulate some ideas in her head. As she digs, more dead people show up, which just bring more questions. I liked the way the story was told, with us only learning things as Elle learned them. Because she wasn't even sure if she had killed Charlie, I didn't know either. Some of the things that she found out in the end did take me by surprise, and in my mind, not all loose ends were wrapped up - so wondering if we will see more of Elle and her friends in the future. The book was written without chapters, just breaks. Normally this drives me nuts, but I read this book so quickly that it didn't bother me this time!
After ten years of marriage, Elle Harrison is divorcing her lying, cheating, inheritance stealing husband Charlie. But her chance to move forward with her life takes a traumatic setback when she comes home from a night out with best friend Becky at a local bar to discover Charlie sitting on the couch in her den stabbed to death in the back with one of her kitchen knives. Everything turns into a blur for Elle, she doesn't know why Charlie is in her house or how he was killed, she doesn't even remember portions of her day. Could it be that Elle killed Charlie? Has she "pulled an Elle" by zoning out like best friends Susan, Becky, and Jenny claims she always does, or has something more sinister occurred and Elle is the scapegoat? The Trouble With Charlie is an intriguing whodunit that engages the reader in solving the mystery all the while keeping them guessing along the way. Author Merry Jones weaves an entertaining tale of murder, mystery and suspense set in Philadelphia and written in the first person narrative with Elle Harrison taking the reader along for the ride on her zany adventure to uncover the mystery surrounding the murder of her soon-to-be ex-husband Charlie. Mixed with humor, danger, paranormal involvement, potential suspects and enough twists and turns that keeps you turning the pages until the surprising conclusion, you'll find yourself recruited as one of Elle's amateur sleuths on a quest to solve the puzzle that was Charlie's murder. The author weaves a masterful tale that takes the reader in many directions: between the murder mystery, Elle's psychological backstory, Elle's relationship with her best friends, and the paranormal activity, you can't help but try and keep up with this fast-paced riveting thriller. With a quirky cast of characters who are very entertaining: from zany Elle and her hilarious best friends Susan, Becky, and Jenny; to ghostly Charlie who communicates with Elle from beyond the grave; to a host of potential suspects who each have a motive for murder; they keep the reader on their toes wondering who really was Charlie's murderer. With witty and humorous dialogue and interactions; an intriguing storyline that takes the reader on a madcap adventure that alternates between the present with Elle's memory flashbacks to the past; and a richly detailed description of familiar Philadelphia landmarks; The Trouble With Charlie is a tantalizing whodunit that will engage your imagination to the very end!