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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

sneak preview -- my second murder mystery

Murder Bleeds
A Lavinia Stout Murder Mystery

By Tessa B. Dick

Chapter One

I keep my license with me at all times, even when I am outside California, the only state where it is valid. The shiny, officially embossed, laminated piece of wallet-size paper rests inside one of those plastic pouches that are designed to keep your fishing license dry, even if you fall into a lake. My license reads: Lavinia Stout, Licensed Private investigator. My friends call me Livvy, while other people try to stifle a giggle when they call me Miss Stout, a name that evokes an image quite the opposite of my short, thin body.

I never expected to find myself investigating vampires, even though I thoroughly enjoyed that old TV show “Kolchak, the Night Stalker”. Fantasy is fine for entertainment, but a detective deals in facts.

I’ll explain later how I came to be riding on a Greyhound bus from Phoenix, Arizona, to San Bernardino, California. Let’s just say that my dependable old Honda Accord had finally met its end, not due to any fault of its own, but courtesy of a reckless driver who shared the road with me. I would like to point out here that it’s quite comfortable sleeping in the driver’s seat of a Honda Accord when you recline the seat back as far as it will go.

I had arrived at the station about seven in the morning, but the 8:30 bus was already sold out, so I bought a ticket for the next bus to San Bernardino, which was scheduled for 11:30. If I had known how much it would cost me for a one-way ticket with one checked bag, I might have gone to the airport instead. It would have cost about the same to fly from Phoenix to Ontario, a trip of less than an hour. I was slightly annoyed when they weighed my bag and charged me a couple bucks extra for it, as if this were an airline, where the weight of the load would make a real difference in the fuel consumption. It was too late to change my mind now, since I was too tired to navigate the Phoenix bus system and too cheap to pay for a taxi cab. Moreover, Homeland Security rules made the last-minute purchase of a one-way airline ticket look very suspicious, and I didn’t feel up to having my bags and body searched.

I had come a long way since putting up the new sign on my storefront in the strip mall back home: Lavinia Stout, Private Investigator, replacing Madame Lavinia, Psychic Readings. Somehow, my name seemed to fit the psychic reader more than the detective, but there was no going back now. Ever since my adventure with Mark and Doris Bell in Denver, I had no more taste for deception. But I hadn’t expected to get myself into so much trouble by changing careers. I had rescued the victim of a gang attack, only to have him turn on me and try to strangle me, been accused of murdering a man that I barely knew and sent on a fool’s errand to Phoenix in the middle of summer, when the heat was unbearable. It was actually 117 degrees Fahrenheit, with no spot of shade to be found. At least the bus station was air conditioned, but they kept it so cold that I had to wear a sweater.

The 8:30 bus came and went, leaving about a dozen people still waiting in line because the bus was full. I surveyed the other passengers at the Phoenix station, wondering whether I would be riding with any of them – even the thought of the shadowy people that I had encountered back in the mountains sent a shiver through my spine like a cat wrapping itself around a pole. I had begun to believe that vampires were real. They certainly did drink blood, but sunlight didn’t seem to bother them, and they even wore large silver crosses on their black leather outfits. Even so, a few of them did seem to have an uncanny ability to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as mysteriously.

The people in the bus station seemed ordinary enough. I first noticed two young Chinese men who sat on their suitcases conversing in their native language. From their clothing – black slacks and white shirts – I guessed that they were college students. From their haircuts – long on one side and very stylish – I guessed that they were from Taiwan and had money. I wondered why they didn’t rent a car.

A couple with three small children waited in the priority boarding line where you could be assured of a seat and you could get on the bus ahead of ordinary passengers, for a fee of $5 for each adult. If I had small children, I would have thought it well worth the extra money. I also noticed that the woman had another baby coming; she appeared to be about ready to give birth at any moment. I hoped that it wouldn’t happen before we got to San Bernardino.

A blond man with a backpack that looked too heavy for his thin frame explained to me that he had been trying to get on a bus since midnight, but Greyhound had oversold the seats and he kept getting bumped. That sounded like another good reason to pay for priority boarding. I considered it, but my parsimonious nature prevailed.

I made my way to the coffee shop nestled in a room about the size of a cubby hole set into the wall opposite the ticket counter, weaving a path among bags and boxes sitting on the floor and waiting passengers in various poses, until finally I approached the few overpriced items of food and drink that they offered. A standing rack made of folded cardboard displayed paperback books with garish covers. Half a dozen little round, white plastic tables stood just outside the coffee shop, and a few generous people had left magazines and newspapers on the tables for others to read. I bought a small cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll. It cost me almost $6, which I considered outrageous, but I needed the caffeine and calories.

Various announcements came over the loudspeaker from time to time, but it was so crackly that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Passengers lined up and boarded buses for various locations in Arizona and New Mexico, but the line for San Bernardino stayed put. People milled around, talked to each other, watched cartoons on the overhead television set and sometimes sat on the steel benches that had been provided by some twisted sadist. If you had a pillow, sitting on those benches could be made less painful. I did not have a pillow. The waiting time dragged like an abused puppy who is afraid to walk on a leash.

When I first arrived at the station, one of the two overhead television sets had been showing the cable news, but at 9:00 it switched to the same cartoons that were on the other set. I set my bag down on the floor and sat on it, which turned out to be much more comfortable than the steel benches.