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Pat Browning

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Absinthe of Malice: A Penny Mackenzie Mystery
by Pat Browning   

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Publisher:  Krill Press ISBN-10:  0982144318 Type: 


Copyright:  2001-2008 ISBN-13:  9780982144312

Krill Press

Old crimes come back to haunt a small California town. Absinthe of Malice introduces reporter Penny Mackenzie and a supporting cast of colorful characters whose lives turn upside down when chance discovery of a skeleton in a cotton field leads to murder--and romance.

The little town of Pearl hasn't changed much in the hundred years since Simeon Swann built it with gold he dug out of the Klondike. But was Simeon a thief and a rascal? Is one of his descendants a murderer? Reporter Penny Mackenzie gets more than she bargains for as she ferrets out the identify of a skeleton found in a cotton field, and tries to catch a killer.

Read the first two chapters here!

Absinthe of Malice

Publication date, Dec. 1, 2008, Krill Press

© 2001 - 2008, Pat Browning

Use of the sample chapters below may be made for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 2001 - 2008, by Pat Browning. All Rights Reserved.

Otherwise, reproduction or transmission of these sample chapters in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission in writing from the publisher is forbidden.



Chapter 1


“My back’s broken,” I said. “I’m too old to sit in a cotton field in the middle of the night.”
We’d hunkered down behind an irrigation standpipe for what seemed like hours. Investigative journalism, Maxie Harper called it.
Lifestyle was my beat at The Pearl Outrider, and there I was, sitting in the dirt . . . chill air seeping through the closely woven fibers of my sweatshirt and jeans.
Maxie gave me a small kick with her boot. “I can’t ignore a tip that eighth graders are doing devil worship out here. I have to check it out.”
“You get that tip every time there’s a full moon. I must have been out of my mind to let you talk me into this.”
“Stop whining.” Maxie shifted her position to look down at me.
I could barely see her face. The night was pitch black, with low clouds blanking out the moon. The field smelled dank, like rusted iron and wet rope, but the air felt bone dry. I settled myself flat on the ground, digging the heels of my tennis shoes into the dirt.
Maxie was built for stakeouts—short, wiry, collapsible. I was more regal, a former star of stage and screen . . . okay, eighth grade talent show . . . Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Penny Mackenzie . . .
I stood in the spotlight wearing bangs, a skinny black dress and long white gloves, pretending to be Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Awful. But I was medium-tall and thin, with big brown eyes . . . not quite so thin now, but still medium-tall and big-eyed, staring down middle age, sitting in a cotton field . . .
“Where the toot are they?” Maxie stood up to peer over the top of the standpipe. “If they don’t show in five more minutes, we’ll call it off.”
I struggled to my feet and tried to rub the crick out of my back, listening for a human sound, straining to see something besides shadows and black holes.
On a cloudless summer day Digger Potts’s cotton field was a thing of beauty. Dense and green, with bits of white fluff popping out of the bolls, it stretched from Peach Orchard Road to a line of cottonwood trees overlooking a dry slough.
On a dark night, it was just plain scary.
Looking toward the far end of the field, I could make out Digger’s old two-story house, its front porch light glowing like a small yellow eye.
The light was half a mile away, straight up the cotton rows, but from where I stood it looked like the ends of the earth.
I thought longingly of Maxie’s red Saturn sports coupe parked on the road that ran past the house.
Maxie elbowed me in mid-whimper, dropped to her haunches, and yanked me down beside her. A blade of light sliced through the darkness, wobbled, and wavered off through the trees.
A sudden breeze picked up errant sounds that became muffled voices and smothered guffaws trailing the light. Shapeless shadows I took to be big-footed gangbanger wannabes in blousy-legged pants with pockets down to the knees.
Maxie dug a boot into my hip as she tried to climb up for a better view.
I clutched my shoulder bag—a good blunt instrument, if it came to that—and squashed myself against the standpipe, trying not to breathe. I slid my face along the pipe and took a one-eyed peek at the devil worshipers.
The flashlight lay on the ground, beaming through the trees toward the slough. Shapes and voices ebbed and flowed around a huge tree stump. Were they chanting something? I strained to hear.
“What are they doing?” Maxie whispered.
The breeze brought a whiff of marijuana.
“Next question.” I wriggled my nose, then pinched it hard. “I hate that smell.” All this trouble to catch kids doing pot instead of human sacrifices. I got on my hands and knees and poked my head around the edge of the standpipe.
Suddenly the light swung up and around, revealing a kid with a shovel. The shapes and shadows moved away from the tree stump toward the slough bank, and the kid with the shovel began to dig.
The noise level sank to a steady murmur. The stakeout settled into waiting. Waiting in the dark. Way past my bedtime. Close my eyes and sneak a few winks without Maxie knowing . . .
An odd sound, murmurs at first and then a kind of keening, rose choir-like from the dig site. Sudden silence. The shovel went flying, and the light fell to the ground.
The boys faded into the trees. We heard crashes and oaths, mingling and trailing them up the slough in the direction of an access road.
When everything fell quiet, we got up out of the dirt in stages. We moved cautiously away from the standpipe, edging toward the trees, and made a run for the stump of the fallen cottonwood. Light beamed steadily from the abandoned flashlight.
Maxie snatched it up, and clicked it off. “No use letting the whole world know we’re here.”
“What world? Look around. We could be on Mars.”
“What’s this?” She retrieved a penlight from her fanny pack, and moved it over the top of the stump.
The beam of light came to rest on a small plastic cream cheese tub. The tub rattled when she picked it up and pulled off the lid.
I peered at some tiny clods. “Big hairy deal.” Dirt of some kind. Ugly little rocks. Flakes, chips . . .
“Gold,” Maxie said. “They were digging for gold.”
I stared at her, my mind trying to process that piece of news. California’s Gold Country is two hundred miles north. The town of Pearl—population 14,000 and counting—is in the middle of the state, in the dead center of the San Joaquin Valley. Farm country. Cotton, grapes, almonds ...
“There’s no gold here,” I said.
Maxie moved the light away from the stump, looking for the shovel, found it, and slowly swung the light back and forth. Next thing I knew, we were looking down at a foot, a skeletal foot.
“Yeecch!” I said, when I got my breath back. “Is this some kind of sick joke?”
Maxie squatted down for a closer look, brushing away dirt with one end of the penlight. The fine sandy loam fell away easily, exposing a longer bone.
“I don’t think so.” She stood up suddenly, and snapped off the light. She jiggled the plastic tub thoughtfully.
I made the connection. “Grave robbers! Let’s call the cops.”
Maxie laid a hand on my arm. “Wait. It’s not like this is an emergency.” She looked down at the bones. “I mean, that has been there a while. The cops will tromp all over it, and post it off limits, and ruin any chance I have of getting the devil worship story.”
I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. “Are you nuts? Let’s get out of here.”
“Jeez, I’d just like to snoop around first,” she said. “Check out old issues of the Outrider for stories about suspicious disappearances. Nose around the PD for unsolved crimes. I have a source at the PD ... ”
“I don’t care if you have a DNA kit. Those kids are way ahead of you. They’ll blab it all over town. Let’s go!”
We didn’t bother with the access road, but took off at a trot straight up the furrows, stumbling, twisting left and right to avoid cotton plants clutching at us from either side, kicking dirt in all directions. By the time we reached the road, we were gulping air.
“Coffee, my place,” I gasped.
Maxie blew out her breath, panting like a dog. “Aren’t you even curious?”
“It’s a job for the cops. I just want a bubble bath and my bed.”
“Sheesh. Well, come on, Cinderella, let’s see how fast this pumpkin will go.”
She spun the Saturn off the gravel shoulder onto the road, and turned it toward town.
As we sped through darkened, tree-lined streets, I closed my eyes and let my thoughts drift to headlines. Reporters Tell Bizarre Tale . . . nah . . . Cotton Field Gives Up Skeleton, Gold Nuggets . . . Police Baffled . . . big deal.
The gang at the Pearl Cafe might buzz about it for a couple of days. If the Outrider ran true to form, the story might fill up an inch under Briefs, unless our new editor was made of sterner stuff than our esteemed publisher, who looked at the world through rose-colored glasses.
Personally, I hoped it was a nothing story that the wire services could ignore. I did not need fifteen minutes of fame. I couldn’t imagine getting up at three o’clock in the morning to appear on Good Morning America.
Maxie slowed for the turn onto Lovers Lane, and rolled to a stop in front of the old Colonial-style house where fate apparently meant for me to live out my days.
Lights shone upstairs and down. Not that my mother waited up for me. No, she would be in the kitchen, rehashing the day’s events with Barney Press—our neighbor, the chief of police. No matter the hour, Barney always stopped by for coffee with Tess.
“I’ll skip the coffee,” Maxie said.
I climbed out, and walked around to the driver’s side.
Frowning, Maxie leaned her head out the window. “Promise you won’t open your yap.” Her face darkened.
I hesitated. We’d been friends forever, and I didn’t want to tangle with her, but this was not a secret that could be kept.
 While she’d never been a model for sweetness and light, lately she was snappier than a turtle on steroids. I wondered if it could be the onset of menopause. I didn’t dare ask.
“Aren’t you even curious about those bones?” she demanded.
“Probably Indian remains. Let the authorities handle it.”
“Indians didn’t camp here. They stayed in the foothills. Listen, all I want is one big story, something the wire services can jump on, and I’m outta here.”
“Goodbye and good luck. I’ll stay where I am, thank you very much.”
“Why not? You’ve got it made, with your mom paying the bills and waiting on you hand and foot.”
“Hey, I do my share.”
Maxie ignored me. “That paltry sum I make at the Outrider barely covers my car payments. I’d sell my house if I could get a real job somewhere else.” She paused. “Indian remains, my eye.”
“You’re going back out there, aren’t you?”
“First thing in the morning.”
I knew better than to argue further.
Her fingers drummed the top of the steering wheel. “We’ll see what our new editor’s made of when he hears about this.”
“I don’t think he’s a guy who makes waves.”
“We’ll see,” she said, and off she went.
Shivering in the night air, I watched the Saturn’s taillights disappear down the street, then turned and walked slowly up the sidewalk.
The front door was unlocked, as usual. I let myself in quietly, pausing at the foot of the stairs. Light streamed down the hall from the kitchen. I listened for a moment to the murmur of voices before slipping upstairs to my bedroom.
Anything to keep Maxie happy. I wanted a cup of coffee, but bypassing the kitchen meant I wouldn’t have to answer anyone’s questions.
News of the skeleton would be all over town by sunup. I just didn’t want anyone pointing to me as the source.




Chapter 2 


“My hands are tied.” Elmo Finn, the Outrider’s new editor, stood in the doorway of his office, arms akimbo, a scowl on his face. “The publisher was specific. That story about bones being found out at the slough is embargoed for the foreseeable future.”
“At least we’re consistent,” Maxie said. She was dressed for the bush in a safari jacket, cargo pants and hiking boots. Frustration moved like a dark cloud across her thin, sharp features. “They don’t call this ‘The Weekly Wind’ for nothing.”
It was a play on the name of our publisher, Walter Wynd, who lectured us periodically: We do not print gossip or speculation or news that would upset our friends and neighbors.
“That story’s the talk of the town,” Maxie said. “The cops have the slough end of the cotton field blocked off, and some anthropologist from Fairfax State is sifting dirt. You’d think it was King Tut’s tomb.”
“For now it’s a non-story,” Elmo said.
Maxie plopped down in her chair, turned on her computer, and glared at the monitor, sending out vibes so hostile I wanted to crawl under my desk.
Elmo’s mind seemed to be somewhere else. I feigned boredom, trying to size him up without getting caught in the act.
I assumed that he’d burned himself out on a large metropolitan daily before coming to rest at the Outrider. Many J-school graduates took an editor’s job on a small newspaper for the experience, something for the resume when they wanted to move up.
Elmo looked a little too old to be upwardly mobile. Either he’d lost his touch or he was running from something.Or somebody. Probably an ex-wife.
He wasn’t much to look at—tall, spare, lived-in face, basset-hound eyes—and if he’d ever earned big bucks, he hadn’t spent them on clothes. Still, his rumpled, slightly distracted look seemed about right for a small-town newspaper editor.
He snapped out of his reverie, and walked over to look at my desk calendar. “You have anything going on for the weekend edition?”
“A feature on scents—perfumes, herbal oils, stuff like that.”
Maxie stopped fiddling with her keyboard, shooting me a sour little smile before turning her attention to Elmo. “She found somebody’s survey of favorite smells on the Internet. A man’s neck was high up the list, just below beer breath.”
Elmo’s mouth twitched. “Is there a local angle to this fast-breaking story?”
I shuffled papers, looking for my notes and photos. “The Women’s Club had a program on scents. One of the members has a grandson who sells—fragrances—as they’re known in better department stores. He brought samples, and showed us how to sniff out top notes, heart notes and base notes. He said I have a good nose.”
Before Maxie could make a crack about my nose, a pressman appeared at the newsroom door, crooked his finger at Elmo, and melted back into the hallway. Elmo dropped my calendar, which slid under my desk as it hit the floor, and hustled off toward the back room.
I leaned down to retrieve the calendar, a maneuver that made my head swim. Maxie cleared her throat loudly enough to be heard in the next block. I sat up and looked into a pair of dark blue eyes. Thirty years flipped by in a heartbeat.
“Hey, babe,” Watt Collins said. “How’s it going?”
He was as ruggedly handsome as ever. Face just a little thinner maybe, dark hair smudged with gray, same long, thick eyebrows above eyes still hot enough to melt wax. His expensive white cotton shirt was open at the throat, sleeves turned back at the wrists. Faded Levi’s hugged his hips.
“Forgive me for staring,” I said finally. “My life just passed before my eyes.”
He flashed a smile, took a business card from his back pocket, laid it on my desk. Watt Collins Investigations. A toll-free number, nothing else.
“Investigations? Sounds mysterious. What brings you to Pearl?”
“Family business. I grew up about ten miles from here, remember?”
What family? All dead, if I remembered correctly. And why would he look me up after ... was it this life or the last?
I rummaged through a drawer, located a card and handed it to him. Penny Mackenzie, Lifestyle Editor. The Pearl Outrider, Central California’s Best Little Newspaper, Between the Mountains and the Sea. Local phone numbers—office, home and cell phone. There it was, in black and white, proof that I had no life of my own.
“Lifestyle Editor. I’m impressed.” He tilted his head to sneak a peek at my left hand, looking for a plain gold band, a sparkly engagement ring, a white band left by a previous ring on a tanned finger.
My lucky day, his smile said."You look sensational.”
“Oh, please!” I couldn’t remember my last diet. Exercise? Who, me? Shaggy hair—too late now.
He looked at my card again. “So you’re still Penny Mackenzie. Does that mean I wasn’t the only one dumb enough to let you get away?”
He’d lost plenty of sleep over it. I could tell by the absence of bags and shadows under his eyes.
“Married to the job,” I said. “Life couldn’t be better. I don’t cook, I don’t iron, and I sleep in the middle of the bed.”
I jerked up one hand to push hair out of my eyes, knocked a couple of phone directories to the floor, kicked them under the desk, and smiled up at him. “Home, sweet home.”
Elmo hurried into the newsroom. He brushed past Watt, shot me a curious glance, and disappeared into his office, giving the door a little slam.
Maxie cleared her throat loudly, and rolled her chair away from her computer. The fax machine gurgled and began to burp paper. Phones rang in the outer office.
“You’re busy,” Watt said. “Let’s catch up over dinner this week. I’m at the Hotel Pearl. I’ll call you.”
Before I could reply, he was gone. I turned to look at Maxie, ignoring her lascivious grin.
“So,” she said. “Who’s the love muffin?”
I shrugged. “An old flame. More of a flicker, actually.”
“Uh-huh.” She leaned forward, dark eyes dancing. “I’ve known you since first grade. When did this great flaming or flickering romance take place?”
“Hmmmm.” I pretended to search my memory. “Must have been when you went off to Montana U and left me to fend for myself at Fairfax State.”
Maxie drummed her fingers on the desk, pursed her lips,waited.“Highlights are fine. Leave out the good stuff if you must.”
“Oh, all right.” I could tell her now or tell her later.“College romance. Heated up, cooled down. End of story.”
“Sure. That’s why your face kept turning red. You looked like a traffic signal shorting out.”
I stuck out my tongue. “I’m a fool for a cleft chin. So sue me.”
She threw me a critical glance. “If you want to grab the brass ring this time, buy some clothes that don’t hang like cobwebs. You dress like a fortune teller. And for Pete’s sake, do something with your hair. What happened to your Audrey Hepburn bangs?”
She rolled her eyes, and waved her hand dismissively. “Clueless. Absolutely clueless. What did that hunk ever see in you? Must have been your pliant personality.”
“My what?” I sputtered, my face burning. Usually her barbs bounced off, but that one hurt. Before I could unscramble my fight-or-flight instincts, marshal my defenses, mount my attack—oh, what the hell—Elmo came out of his office and laid a book, Pearl, The Little Town That Gold Built, on my desk.
The book was a tribute to Simeon Swann, who built Pearl with gold he hauled out of the Klondike in 1898. The author was Dabney Brewster, retired English teacher and self-styled local historian. I’d written a column about it two weeks earlier.
“Nice column,” Elmo said.
Maxie snorted. “The book’s a puff piece. Layton and Merrily paid Dabney to write it so they could drum up business for the centennial. Pure baloney, every page more bolonious than the one before.”
“That reminds me,” Elmo said. “Walter sprang for tickets to that Chamber of Commerce dinner tonight. Have they been delivered?”
As if on cue, the click-click-click of high heels announced someone’s progress up the hall toward the newsroom.
Merrily Swann walked in, looking like a million bucks in a white linen suit with matching tote bag and slingback pumps, blonde hair framing her soft features in a perfect pageboy curl.
Rumor was that she’d had a facelift, but I doubted it. If her skin had pores I’d never seen one, and believe me, I’d looked. Her smoke-gray eyes were as clear as a five-year-old’s.
“Helloooooo,” she purred, advancing on Elmo. “I’m Merrily Swann.”
“Of course you are.” Maxie jumped up, stepped forward to shake the proffered hand.
I held my breath. Maxie had dated Layton all the way through high school, then dumped him, complaining that the sex was interesting but basically he was a shallow twit. Perversely, she had never forgiven Merrily for marrying him. He was the last of the filthy-rich Swanns. Owned everything in sight, never let anyone forget it.
Merrily drew back her hand without batting an eyelash, and moved toward Elmo, who half-sat on the edge of my desk. As she parked her small round derriere next to his, I got a whiff of herbs—lavender and something I couldn’t quite place. Lemon verbena? Basil?
I slumped back in my chair and listened while she briefed Elmo on details of the dinner.
Item: Cocktails at the old Swann mansion, empty for years but now spruced up and ready for visitors.
Item: A buffet spread in the Hotel Pearl, recently restored by Layton.
Item: After-dinner drinks and dancing at Egg Foo’s Bar and Grill, formerly the city jail.
The theme was Dinner in the Round. Since each site was within strolling distance of the others, by the time we got to after-dinner drinks we would have made a circle, more or less, for Dinner in the Round.
“We’re expecting a really big write-up with lots of pictures in Saturday’s paper,” Merrily said to Elmo. “I have your tickets right here.” She fished through her tote bag, pulled out the tickets, and handed them to Elmo with a killer smile.
Then she leveled a hard look at Maxie. “This is a formal affair, you know. I trust you have something suitable to wear.”
Elmo looked limp as a rag when she left. He dropped tickets on my desk and Maxie’s, went straight to his office, and closed the door.
Maxie doubled over laughing. “I might have worn something half-fancy if she hadn’t insulted me. Now I think I’ll go just as I am.” She examined her ticket. “Dinner in the Round. Clever, those Chamber folks. Free drinks—now that is clever. That’ll pull a crowd.”
She rolled her chair away from her desk. “In the meantime, I’m going to find out what’s going on with those old bones. I’m going back to the slough to see if the PD has dug up the place yet. Then I’m going to pump Digger for information. Layton, too, if I can find him.”
“Better leave it alone, Maxie. You’ll get yourself into big trouble.”
“For doing what? A little basic investigating? Picking up a little information here and there? Putting two and two together, and getting a big story? Come on, Penny, live a little!”
“I do. Occasionally.”
“Saving your breath for what? Better use it, you can’t take it with you.” Maxie turned off her computer, stood and stretched. “By the way, I’ve got a home and garden feature for you.”
“What kind of home and garden feature?”
“Container gardening. I just bought something called a wallflower. Jake at the Pearl Nursery said it blooms itself to death in about three years, and this one’s time is almost up. I may shoot some plant food to it and wait for it to explode.”
I laughed, as she knew I would. We had worked together so closely and for so many years that we bickered sometimes like an old married couple.
Maxie never apologized for her sharp words or insensitive actions, but I knew her mood had lifted when she said something to make me laugh. I always went along with it.
“Sounds better than anything I’ve got so far,” I said. “When can I see it?”
“This weekend. That’ll give me time to repot it.” She hoisted her knapsack, and looked at Dabney’s book. “Mind if I take that literary masterpiece with me? There might be a real story buried under all the hype. I’m going to look for the dirt.”
“Be my guest.”
She stuck the book into her knapsack. “I’ll see you tonight, fill you in on what I find out about those bones.”
“Later,” I said, but she was gone, her footsteps echoing briefly in the hallway.
The clock on the wall said eleven. I heard Elmo’s voice, muffled by the closed door, glanced at my phone, saw that his private line was lighted. Time to fold my tent and slip away before he came charging out of his office with a nasty assignment.
I turned off my computer, hitched up my shoulder bag, hurried down the hall. In the gloom of the cavernous back shop, the offset press crouched like some prehistoric monster.
 I pushed open the back door and went out into the parking lot, yawning, sucking in air so fresh you could almost forget it was toxic, climbed into my bronze Pontiac Sunbird, and nosed it out of the lot.
I wanted lunch and a nice long nap, but first, I had a small chore to take care of.
Editha Kluck, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, wanted me to stop by and pick up a list of volunteers who had helped with tonight’s Dinner in the Round.
Rosie, the Chamber of Commerce secretary, was putting a CLOSED FOR LUNCH sign on the door when I arrived. “You just missed Editha,” she said, “but I can find the list. Come on back.”
I followed her through the small lobby into Editha’s private office. A big brown box with a Priority Mail label sat on her desk. The box was stamped LIVE PLANTS PERISHABLE.
I leaned to one side to read the address label while Rosie slammed desk drawers open and shut. The box was from a place in Ohio called Green’s Thumb, and a small sticker read PASSED CALIFORNIA AGRICULTURE.
Rosie looked up from the drawer she was searching. “Seeds, bulbs, herbs, some darn thing. Editha and Merrily Swann are dreaming up stuff for centennial souvenirs.” She rolled her eyes. “They’re trying to extract oils from herbs to make hand cream, drying herbs and flowers for potpourri, stuff like that.”
“I didn’t know Editha and Merrily were pals,” I said. ”I keep hearing rumors about Editha and Layton.”
Rosie’s expression became guarded.
I pushed a little. “You probably know Editha better than anyone. Any truth to those rumors? Could that be why Merrily has her growing herbs, to keep her out of the cookie jar?”
Rosie’s smile said her lips were zipped. “I know noth-ing, noth-ing.” She closed a drawer and waved a sheet of paper at me. “Here’s the list.”
I folded the paper and slipped it into my shoulder bag. “Will you be at the dinner tonight?”
“Who do you think’s in charge of cleanup? The conference room is full of oysters, for Oysters Merrily. Editha picked them up at the fish market in Fairfax a little while ago. Now she’s gone to round up the oyster shuckers. Merrily’s making the goop that goes with them. Not sure I’d want to eat one. They sound yucky to me.”
I thought about it driving home. Trust Merrily to do something tricky, like making Oysters Merrily for a crowd. Of course, if anyone got food poisoning, the Swanns would handle it. Pay the medical bills, send flowers, ignore it. It would never make the Outrider, so it would not be my problem or my story.
My story was the froth and foam of a fund raiser called Dinner in the Round. And if I could find out whether Merrily’s recipe called for liquor and spinach, maybe even get the recipe itself, then I’d have a nice sidebar for the story.
Happiness was a story with a nice sidebar. Who was I kidding? My occasional life was fulltime boring. Bor-ing. Nothing, absolutely nothing, loomed on my horizon, unless . . .
But why would I waste any more time on Watt Collins? I’d spent years forgetting him . . . the bitter parting . . . the long silence . . . news that he’d passed the bar and was getting married . . . nothing more until now. Damn him anyway.
I blew through a red light. Horns blared, tires screeched. I pulled over to the curb, and sat there until my heart stopped pounding. My hands gripped the steering wheel. I slumped forward to rest my head on my arms—and sat up again, staring at the long, floppy sleeves covering the steering wheel. How long had I been hiding in these flowing, billowing, draping, voluminous garments?
Maxie was right. I dressed like a fortune teller. Too bad I didn’t know one. I’d give a year’s salary for a glimpse of my future.
When I got home, I went straight to my room and stuffed those revolting clothes into a wastebasket. Then I showered, went downstairs to my mother’s bedroom, and sat down at her dressing table to see what I could do with my hair.
Tess never threw away anything. Some of her combs and jewelry were older than I was. I rummaged through the lot and came up with a spectacular brooch. Diamonds, rhinestones, who knew? It glittered, and I wanted glitter.
Using combs, hairpins and bobby pins, and working from memory of that eighth grade talent show when I impersonated Audrey Hepburn, I built myself a spectacular hairdo. I stuck the glittery brooch right at the top of it. God help me, I was gorgeous, and I laughed until the tears ran. It was fun to contemplate, but it wouldn’t work.
A towering hairdo just wasn’t me. I wasn’t an Audrey Hepburn impersonator in an eighth grade talent show. I was a reporter going to a Chamber of Commerce dinner.
My hair was too long and heavy to hold the combs and pins. They would jiggle loose while I tromped from place to place. The glittery brooch would fall off, get kicked under a table, and be lost forever, and my fabulous coiffeur would end up hanging in strings.
I dismantled my tower of hair, let it fall loosely down around my shoulders, and brushed it until it shone. Then I traipsed back upstairs, and started going through my closet for something to wear.



Professional Reviews

Lesa's Book Critiques
By Lesa Holstine

Pearl, California may appear to be a cute, historic town, but it takes the Lifestyle reporter for the local newspaper to dig out the nasty truth behind the small town in Pat Browning's mystery, Absinthe of Malice.

Penny Mackenzie actually has no plans to move on from her comfortable job at The Pearl Outsider. She's the Lifestyle reporter, while her best friend, Maxie Harper, is the more ambitious one. But, when they hide in a cotton field together one night, and watch a group of teens accidentally uncover a skeleton, it leads to tragedy. For a short time, Maxie stirred up some of the town's old history. However, on the night of a big town event, while Penny waited below in the historic jail turned bar and grille, Maxie died. Now, it's Penny's turn to track down the town's secrets, with the help of an old college boyfriend turned investigator. Pearl's secrets could lead back to the founding of the town, and the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s.

Absinthe of Malice is a difficult traditional mystery to describe, without giving away too much of the plot. I'll just say, Penny Mackenzie is a welcome change from so many women in mysteries. Those of us who get tired of women who rush in by themselves, in the dark, when they know the murderer is out there, have a term for them - TSTL, Too Stupid To Live. Penny is a reluctant sleuth, who doesn't want to investigate friends, but wants justice for Maxie. However, she's not a stupid woman. Accidents happen, but Penny tries to protect herself. My kind of amateur sleuth!

Put together a small town mystery, a terrific amateur sleuth, a little romance, and it's a highly recommended crime novel. Check out Pat Browning's

Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning. Krill Press, 2008. ISBN 9780982144312 (paperback), 244p.

No Name Cafe
Absinthe Of Malice: A Penny Mackenzie Mystery
By Pat Browning
Kill Press, $15.95

Review by Cindy Chow

Penny Mackenzie, a lifestyle editor for The Pearl Outrider, a friendly weekly newspaper in Central California, never expected to find herself crouched in a cotton field in the middle of the night on a stakeout to capture devil worshippers. The blame for her discomfort lies with fellow reporter Maxie Harper, a knockout investigative journalist following a tip and on the hunt for a decent story. While the women do discover the bones of a long-dead corpse, the publisher would just as soon ignore a story that might upset any of the township. Although Maxie refuses to let the story go, before she can investigate she is poisoned by oysters during a Chamber of Commerce dinner. Determined to find out whether her acerbic friend was the victim of accident or malice, Penny enlists the help of her college sweetheart investigator Watt Collins and together they discover that their cozy small town has managed to cover up its share of dark secrets.

Pat Browning aptly creates the atmosphere of a small town and skillfully develops realistic characters. The relationship between Penny and her mother Tess, now dating the town sheriff, proves to be fascinating and believably complex as Penny has never stop idolizing her late father. The romance between Penny and Watt is also nicely rendered and never seems rushed or forced. Penny herself is a funny, down-to-earth, extremely likeable character who has the reader rooting for her happiness. While the title pretty much answers the question of how Maxie died, the characters and charm of the small-town setting make this a very enjoyable read.

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