" A murder mystery set in Tidewater claims the prize for the third annual Best Unpublished Novel Contest, sponsored by James River Writers and Richmond magazine. Head judge Susann Cokal says she forgot she was reading Kathleen Kay Chalmers' Murder in a Good Neighborhood for judging "and just began to enjoy the story in its own right." She adds that the novel's engaging world and protagonist suggest a "long-lived series in the future." We received 100 manuscripts this year. The two finalists are Nicole Anderson Ellis of Richmond (Kinlock Shelter) and Kirsten Lopresti of Oak Hill (Bright Coin Moon). We congratulate the three authors.
WEB EXTRA: How the Judges Judge
Normally I wouldn't encourage my beloved husband to look at a naked, nubile, young woman, but this particular young woman was dead and Bud isn't kinky.
Wonderfully imaginative, mind you, but definitely not kinky.
I sensed his powerful presence behind me and heard a soft wolf whistle. Maybe I spoke too soon.
"She's dead, Bud." I stressed the "D" word.
"Well, God bless America."
Bud Flowers is a retired Naval officer, fighter pilot, and bona fide war hero. He is nothing if not patriotic.
"Are you sure, Rox?"
I crossed the second-floor bedroom of the two-story townhouse, stopping next to a king-sized bed where the young woman lay sprawled, face down, on a tropical-print bedspread. I lifted her right wrist for the second time in as many minutes. Still no pulse. This time I also moved a handful of dark curly hair aside to check for a carotid pulse.
"I'm sure." Boy, was I sure. "It looks like someone cut her throat, Bud." I was staring at a dark pool of blood, and at a deep red line that encircled her throat like a necklace. She had obviously been a very pretty girl while alive. Now she looked more like a macabre display in a wax museum. "There's nothing we can do for her now. She's still a little warm though, and fairly soft."
"She ought to be soft if she's a regular user of all these potions," Bud said, shifting a cumbersome box of Forever Young Cosmetics products from one arm to the other.
"I meant there's no rigor. And don't set that box down in here. You know how fussy the police are about crime scene contamination."
"I know what you meant, Roxi, and what a warm body tells me is that whoever murdered her could still be nearby. Now, let's get out of here."
"Okay, just give me a minute to take this in. You know the police will ask us questions, and I want it clear in my mind."
The bedroom furniture was inexpensive rattan, which clashed with the formal style of the luxurious townhouse. There were no photos in view, no stacks of mail, absolutely no items of a personal nature at all, with the notable exception of a skimpy bra and panty set lying on the floor beside the bed.
"Roxanne, come on."
"Coming," I insisted. I darted into the adjacent bathroom instead. The bathroom was quite elegant, with gold-plated fixtures and an expensive tile floor. Once again, there were very few personal items in view. The marble countertop surrounding the sink held a brush and comb set, a mascara wand, one tube of lipstick, a clear plastic bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss, and a couple of pamphlets on oral hygiene marked "Courtesy of Dr. Fred Spitz." Catchy name for a dentist. I wondered if he'd made ‚Ä®it up.
I turned to leave, then remembered to check the wastebasket. It was white wicker, lined with a pink plastic shopping bag. I peered inside. Nothing but a used length of dental floss and what appeared to be a used white tissue.
"Roxi, hurry up! We've got to get out of here and report this. My phone's in the car," Bud boomed. He sometimes talks a little louder than necessary due to a slight hearing loss. Thirty years of flying Navy jets will do that to a fellow. I was starting to feel just a teensy bit guilty for leaving him holding that heavy box, anyway.
"I'm coming," I assured him, rushing back into the bedroom.
"She took good care of her teeth."
"No psychotic killer hiding behind the shower curtain?"
"No shower curtain."
"Well then, let's get out of here in case he's hiding downstairs."
"I'm sure he's long gone, Bud. Murderers only hang around the scene of the crime‚Ä®in the movies."
That's when we heard heavy footsteps coming up the stairs.
I turned around with some trepidation, and found myself looking up at a tall, handsome man with jet-black hair and eyes as blue as the Mediterranean sea. He wasn't smiling.
"What are you doing here?" We all three spoke at once.
"I'm here because someone called in a tip about a dead body. What's your excuse, Mom?" Marc crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at me, his cop face firmly in place.
"I'm here doing a job, too."
Marc looked skeptical.
"Well, doing Margie's job. You remember my friend Margie, don't you?"
Nary a flicker of an eyelash.
"She sells Forever Young Cosmetics, and she had an invitation to go to Japan for two weeks with her new beau, Mr. Yakamora. I didn't want her to miss out on the trip, so I told her I'd make her deliveries for her while she's away."
Bud grunted. Anything involving Margie tends to have that effect on him.
"Your father came along to carry the heavier orders." I indicated the large delivery box that Bud, bless his heart, was still holding. I couldn't help but notice that his arm muscles were starting to bulge rather attractively from the effort.
Roscoe Fitzgerald, Marc's partner, had entered the room, checked the body for a pulse, and was now furiously scribbling down every word I said in a miniscule notebook.
Marc turned toward Roscoe. "For the record, she is referring to Margarite Schmidt O'Brian Smith Bookbinder."
Ah, so he did remember Margie.
"If she'd found herself an Italian, she'd still be married." Bud winked at me, all cocksure of himself.
Frankly, I'm not sure that staying married was ever one of Margie's long-term goals, but I kept my mouth shut.
Roscoe chuckled. He's a big fellow, with curly red hair and a smattering of freckles. When he laughs he looks like an overgrown schoolboy.
"Looks like an awful lot of cosmetics for one woman," Marc said, indicating the delivery box his father was holding.
I shrugged. "The company is having a sale. It's mostly massage lotions, bath oils and aromatherapy candles."
Marc raised one eyebrow and nodded toward the bed. "Is she the customer?"
"I don't think so." I reached into the box and grabbed the invoice. "According to Margie's notes, the customer at this address is a woman named Violet Moon. Margie described her as being in her late fifties."
We all looked back at the naked young woman lying on the bed.
"Maybe they are mother and daughter?" I speculated.
"And where is this ‘Violet Moon,' now?"
"I don't have any idea. We haven't seen her."
Marc rubbed a hand over his face. "Then how did you two get up here in the first place?"
"If Margie's customers aren't home on delivery day, they leave their checks taped to the inside of their storm doors. No one answered the doorbell at this address, so I opened the storm door. The check wasn't there, but the front door was ajar. I pushed it open."
Marc leveled his gaze at me and waited for me to continue. I wondered if he got many confessions using this tactic.
"I kept calling out, but no one answered. Your father and I thought we should investigate further." I was stretching the truth a bit there. Entering the townhouse was entirely my idea, but to his credit, Bud didn't contradict me.
"So you investigated all the way upstairs to the bedroom?"
I tried my best to look innocent. "Someone could have been on the floor up here in a diabetic coma. We were just being good citizens."
Roscoe smiled as he wrote that last part down.
Marc sighed heavily. "Okay. Have either of you touched anything other than the doors downstairs?"
"Not me," Bud assured him, shifting the heavy delivery box again for emphasis.
"I touched her wrist and moved her hair a little to check for a pulse."
"Is the body still lying exactly the way you found it?"
"And you haven't seen anyone else on or near the premises?"
Suddenly the room started to fill up with people as the crime scene technicians and the medical examiner filed in. The M.E. gave a low wolf whistle similar to Bud's when he saw the body. "Geez, what a waste."
"Can't you cover her up?" I asked Marc.
Someone started taking photos of the girl's body instead.
Marc led his father and me downstairs and told us to wait in the small living room, then he disappeared without telling us what we were waiting for.
The room was elegant, the sparse furnishings less so. Bud and I each took a seat on a beige sofa that resembled a pile of sandbags. It felt like one, too.
"Why would anyone spend good money on a butt-ugly piece of furniture like this?" Bud said. "It's hard enough to give a person hemorrhoids." He knows more about that subject than most people. It's part of the glamour of being a jet jockey, albeit an unsung part. Recruiters usually fail to mention that pulling G's in a high-performance jet can also pull a pilot's insides right out of his body. It isn't good for business.
I wiggled around on the hard sofa, trying to get comfortable myself, when I noticed a large cut-glass ashtray sitting on the coffee table in front of me. It reminded me of the ashtray my father-in-law kept on the front corner of his desk, the one his own father brought over from Italy. This ashtray was empty save for a gold paper cigar band that had a red circle and three interesting-looking green leaves in the center of it. I could just barely make out the word "Joy." I was leaning forward, trying to read the rest of the label without touching it, when Roscoe came back into the living room waving his arms around wildly.
"You two weren't supposed to sit on the furniture!" Roscoe ushered us outside and onto the tiny front lawn in front of the red brick townhouse where he instructed us to wait. Again. Roscoe took the delivery box from Bud and hurried off to have it officially inventoried.
"I haven't received payment for that yet, Roscoe," I called after him.
True to its name, Dogwood Lane was lined with the delicate, lacy-leaved trees native to southeastern Virginia. Azaleas and crape myrtle dotted the landscape. "This neighborhood must be beautiful in the spring and summer when all of these trees and shrubs are in bloom," I said to Bud.
Mercedes, BMWs, and other luxury vehicles lined the street. Nearly all of them were either black or silver. Tasteful. "If I had a Mercedes, I would definitely want it to be black," I hinted.
"I'll keep that in mind." Bud smiled.
I spotted a middle-aged woman peeking through the upstairs window of the townhouse next door, and wondered if she had phoned in the tip Marc mentioned. She withdrew behind sheer curtains the moment she saw me looking her way. I turned my attention back to my husband.
"I'm sorry for dragging you into this, Bud."
He stretched a strong arm around my shoulders, pulled me tightly against his side, and rested his cheek on the top of my head. "You didn't drag us into this, Roxi. Margie did. And besides, neither one of you could have anticipated a murder."
Bud has always been understanding that way, no matter what kind of mess I've gotten us into. It is one of the many reasons I love him so much. I snuggled up against him and slowly ran my hand over the front of his black knit polo shirt.
"Are we keeping you two from something?"
Startled, I dropped my hand and turned to acknowledge Marc's boss. The sun glinted off her steel-framed eyeglasses and the medals on her heavily decorated dress wool uniform. Juanita Dozier, Eastport's first black female chief of police, was born in Jamaica. She came to Virginia as a military police officer in the U.S. Army before retiring to join the ranks of the Eastport Police Department.
Juanita became chief several years ago after a simple vice squad operation veered tragically off-course and ended with the death of a popular young patrolman. Juanita was in Washington, D.C., attending a Redskins game with her husband, former Redskins' star player Junious Dozier, when the ill-‚Ä®fated operation took place, leaving her the only senior officer on the force untainted by the ensuing scandal. The city manager quickly fired the sitting chief of police and made Juanita interim chief while a national search for a new chief was conducted. Somewhere along the line Juanita's appointment became permanent. I suspect our intrepid City Council members are afraid to cross her. She is sharp as a tack, and privy to the secrets of many of Eastport's most prominent citizens.
"As a matter of fact, Juanita, I did have other plans for this afternoon," Bud answered her.
I'd suspected as much that morning when he'd put a new blade in his razor and dabbed on sandalwood cologne, my favorite. Maybe the afternoon was still salvageable after all.
"It's nice to see you again, Juanita, although I wish it were under different circumstances. How is Junious?" At 6-foot-5 and 350 pounds, Juanita's husband is the gentleman you want with you on the plane when one of your fellow passengers needs to be subdued. He's also a well-respected local college football coach and a genuinely nice human being.
"He's at home today. Sick in bed, I'm afraid. But thank you for asking, Roxi. Now, why don't you both tell me what happened here today."
Bud and I went through our story again. As I got to the part about double-checking to make sure the girl was really dead, I spotted Marc leaving the townhouse with what appeared to be a large red book. He flashed Juanita some sort of hand signal.
"Okay. You two are free to go. I know where to find you," Juanita called over her shoulder as she made her way toward Marc and another man who had joined him.
Removing items from the townhouse meant the police had already obtained a search warrant. That was unusually fast work. Then again, it was highly unusual for Juanita to be one of the first officers at a crime scene, as well.
"Finally. Let's collect that damn box and get out of here before anyone else comes up with more questions for us, Roxi."
Bud and I were on the same wavelength. Being around death had awakened the emotional need to reaffirm life. An intimate lunch, perhaps followed with a little love in the afternoon, would go a long way toward doing that. But before we managed to make good our escape, our dear son ambushed us with one last request. One that completely altered our plans for the rest of the day.
About the Winner
Consider yourselves guinea pigs — you're among the first readers of Kathleen Kay Chalmers' debut novel. Before entering it in our contest, the only person she allowed to take a look was her mother, an avid mystery reader.
"She loved me dearly, but she wasn't one to give me blind praise," Chalmers says. In fact, her mom gave her some tips that improved the book, the 52-year-old Newport News resident says.
Chalmers was preparing to send the book off to the second annual Best Unpublished Novel Contest when her mother suddenly passed away in late 2007. All thoughts of making last-minute tweaks were washed away by grief and the duties accompanying her mother's death. Luckily for us, Chalmers sent her manuscript this year.
An only child in a military family, she was born in Maine and lived in Virginia, Florida, Texas and California while growing up, receiving a bachelor's degree in political science from Corpus Christi State University in Texas. Chalmers is now focusing on a full-time writing career but has freelanced as a greeting-card writer for several national companies, specializing in humorous cards.
As for the novel excerpted here, Chalmers is willing to reveal a little more about the mysterious victim found by "reluctant sleuth" Roxi and her husband, Bud: "I'll say that she came from another country and was working for a madam with very prominent customers."