The Outsmarting of Criminals (and I) at Book Expo America (BEA)

This year I’ve been invited to attend BookCon at Book Expo America (BEA), one of the largest gatherings of book lovers and professionals in the world. This year, the convention will be held at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City.

I’ll be signing copies of The Outsmarting of Criminals at BookCon on Saturday, May 31st, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. I don’t think there will be HUNDREDS of free copies, but there should be at least a few dozen free copies. Whether you’re a bookseller, librarian, industry professional, or casual or devoted reader, I’d love to meet you.  Please stop by Booth # 2621, which is the the booth for Partners Publishers Group, which is the distributor used by my publisher. 

Maybe we will get some of the “spillover” traffic from Grumpy Cat!  Hope to see you in NYC.



The Deadliest of Ink

For mystery fans in the tri-state area (and beyond), you might want to check out the Deadly Ink conference, which will be held this year in New Brunswick, NJ, on August 1-3.  For those who aren’t too familiar with the environs, New Brunswick is centrally located on the Amtrak line, which makes it accessible from not only New York but also points south, like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC.

When my first book, Who Gets the Apartment?, was published in 2006, everyone at Deadly Ink could not have been nicer or more welcoming. Deadly Ink was my first mystery convention, and it introduced me to the mystery-convention ethos of voracious readers, daring writers, and audacious panels and panelists.  This is a smaller convention (not on the scale of, say, Bouchercon or Malice Domestic), but that’s what makes it fun. You get to meet and talk to a lot of different people.

Great writers (and people) I’ve met through the conference include (but are not limited to — I’m terrified I’m going to leave someone out) these fabulous folks (in alphabetical order):

  • Annamaria Alfieri, who writes historical mysteries (like City of Silver) whose research requirements would send me to an early grave
  • Sandra Carey Cody, author of the very pleasant Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor series
  • Jeff Cohen (a.k.a E.J. Copperman), author of the Haunted Guesthouse series
  • Jeff Markowitz, author of the Cassie O’Malley series
  • Roberta Rogow, author of multiple historical series
  • Ilene Schneider, author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen series (and, I just learned, quite a devoted birdwatcher)
  • Cheryl Solimini, author of Across the River and frequent columnist for Mystery Scene magazine
  • Dennis Tafoya, who writes great edgy, noir, including Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park (and I see he has a new book coming soon, too)
  • E.F. Watkins, who writes cross-genre thrillers that I could never pull off

In fact, I pay tribute to many of these writers on page 64 of The Outsmarting of Criminals, when Miss Prim reflects on some of her favorite books and writers.

Writers: Come for the camaraderie. Readers: Come to make your voice heard about what you like to read. Hope to see you there!

Miss Prim (and I) on Mystery News

Fans of the mystery genre are undoubtedly familiar with Omnimystery/Mystery News, a diverse, curated Website filled with a wealth of goodies for mystery lovers, including the latest hardcovers and paperbacks, reviews, mystery games, and a blog by the man who runs it all, Lance Wright, who also tweets and Facebooks. I don’t know how he does it all, but he does a great service to the mystery-reading and -writing community. 

Today, Mystery News features an interview with me, discussing a bit about Miss Prim, including the secrets of my research techniques (or lack thereof), the inspiration behind some of the characters’ names in The Outsmarting of Criminals, and my general ignorance of media.  You can read the interview here.  




Cozy Appreciation #3: Dr. Lawrence Kingston

In the ongoing series of appreciations for the cozy, I wanted to take an opportunity to write about a cozy series with a male protagonist: Anthony Eglin’s “English Garden” series. Eglin’s hero is Dr. Lawrence Kingston, a retired botany professor, who finds himself reluctantly drawn into mysteries (as so many amateur sleuths are).

Eglin’s books move beyond the cozy into Da Vinci Code territory sometimes, in that they often include puzzles, cryptograms, and so on. For example, in Garden of Secrets Past, the author mixes the traditional cozy elements (particularly a strong emphasis on gardening) with thriller-esque puzzle solving and codebreaking.

So, why do I enjoy these books so much? First, as a man who has written a cozy, I think we need to admit that yes, men have a cozy side to them — we too have a need to escape the stressful world into a kinder place (except for the murders, of course). Eglin gives his books a “dude” quotient, too; for example, there’s often talk about classic cars.

But what I particularly like is Kingston’s friendship with his close friend, Andrew. The two men have a close friendship, with the typical bickering you expect among longtime friends. I like that Eglin acknowledges the need for friendship among men – that’s not something that U.S. society has typically been very good about (you know, the macho culture thing and all). Many years ago, I read Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, which I loved. That book has a very strong message to it: The only “acceptable” emotion for men is anger, which is why so many of men’s emotional needs get funneled into and through that anger channel. Eglin’s books demonstrate men’s need for camaraderie while also weaving a suspenseful tale.

I see friendship between men everywhere I go, and I enjoy “eavesdropping” on it a bit (good for character development). For example, I go to a health club to exercise, and I often see workout buddies there, going through their routine together. I get a huge kick out of some of them.  For example, there are two guys – You’d never know they are the best friends, because all they do is argue about politics (one seems to be quite conservative, the other quite liberal) and put each other down. But they’re joined at the hip – you don’t see one without the other.  A lot of younger guys from a local college go to the same club; I’ve heard them say that they go there to hang out and get away from their girlfriends.  Like these guys, Kingston and Andrew have their own dynamic, and it just feels very real to me.


Curiosity #1: KNIT ONE, PEARL TWO

I know blog posts are supposed to be short, but I couldn’t resist sharing this. (Word of warning: It’s the equivalent of 18 typewritten pages.)

True story: Several years ago, my good friend Cheryl Solimini, author of the fabulous 80s-retro (my era!) mystery Across the River, told me that a friend of hers, who was an editor with a large New York publisher, was looking to buy a “vampire knitting mystery series.” Vampire knitting, you say?  “I can do that,” I thought, and proceeded to whip out the first chapter on spec. The idea was that Cheryl would send it to her friend, who would of course love it. So off it went into the ether, and shortly thereafter the editor got fired, and that was the end of that.

The title, for the record, was KNIT ONE, PEARL TWO: A Knitting Mystery Featuring Pearl Plantagenet.

For anyone interested in reading the first chapter of this never-to-be-published work, read on. Of course, if there are any editors out there who now simply must have this book, you know where to find me.



Chapter 1

The Knits of the Round Table

            “Valentina, would you kindly pass me a bottle of the Diet Red?” I asked, looking up from my half-finished antimacassar. Did anyone actually use these things any more? They’d been quite big in Victorian days, and I’d knitted more than my share of them during my time in London, but I have the distinct sense that the only people who buy them now are tourists looking to spend their money on things they’d never buy while at home. But Clarissa had requested one as an engagement gift, and she’d chosen the colors, and I thought that being somewhat married to my son was going to be challenging enough, so she might as well have nice things in her home ….

            Valentina, seated closest to the heating unit that keeps the beverages nice and warm, handed me a bottle, not bothering to hide her distaste. “Pearl, how do you drink this stuff? It’s simply wretched.”

            There’s no arguing with Valentina’s pronouncement, but you do get used to the taste after a while. Regular Red is much more like the real thing, but it is also much more calorie-laden; and unlike the diet version, it is filled with cholesterol, another thing I don’t need, especially after spending several centuries feasting on very rich meals. The old wives’ tales inaccurately claim that we don’t get older, that we remain forever the age at which we were converted. Myth #1! We do age, though much, much more slowly than everyone else, and when I look at the portraits of me with my dear Henry, even though they were painted more than 500 years ago, I can see how much smoother my skin was and how much trimmer my waistline. Hence the Diet Red.

            I set the half-finished thing aside, accepted the bottle, and used my teeth to pop the top off. Among this group of old friends, none of us stand on formality. In the larger world, of course, I would have delicately used a bottle opener, or asked some handsome young gentleman to pour the contents into a lovely crystal tumbler; but such social niceties are unnecessary among these ladies, some of whom have been around for centuries long than I have.

            “Why don’t I bring some Blue next time?” Clarissa asked coyly. “I have a—friend—who knows where to get it. Besides, I deserve a treat for finishing this afghan.” And indeed, it looked as if she was within a few hundred stitches of finishing up her virgin project. None of us pointed out how lopsided it was, or how the colors all ran together, as if a set of watercolor paints had been left out in the rain and transferred to a ratty old blanket used by a homeless person.

            Valentina gasped. “Who are your sources, Clarissa? I haven’t had a good Blue in ages.” She licked her lips in anticipation, the verboten quality of the offering making it all the more alluring to her. This has always been Valentina’s trouble; she simply doesn’t know what’s good for her or when to call it a day. She overindulges, makes too much of a spectacle of herself, takes the wrong people into her confidence. And before you know it she is fleeing to a new country, literally only a few steps ahead of an angry mob, which is usually led by jealous wives, ready with a multitude of wooden stakes to make sure she can no longer dally with their menfolk.

            “And you shouldn’t now, either, Valentina,” I put in, amazed at how prim and prudish I was sounding, for it would certainly be hypocritical of me to imply that I hadn’t had my share of fun over the years. “You know how addictive the stuff is, and we all know that after you take one sip, you’ll be out every night looking for more, and when you can’t find it you’ll move on to the real thing, and you’ll get caught or blackmailed, and the rest of us will get found out, and we’ll all have to go somewhere else.” That was exactly what had happened in Flanders in 1649, and we’d made it out by the skin of our teeth. To be on the safe side, we’d gone our separate ways for a couple of centuries before finding ourselves back in England near the start of the Victorian age, a horrific time when I’d been forced to wear some of the most constricting and uncomfortable clothes I’ve ever had to suffer on my body. Then, of course, after a few halcyon decades Valentina had gone on a bender and it had happened all over again. It hadn’t helped that the Gothic craze had been sweeping England for a few decades by that point, with fuel added to the fire by that insufferable little Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which had people seeing ghouls and ghosties everywhere.

            Now, here we sat in Willow Grove, New York, in one of those overpriced Westchester suburbs of New York City. The whole place had been farms the last time I’d passed through, a couple of hundred years ago, on a wild goose chase for Maurice, who’d actually turned out to be in Australia instead of America—I hadn’t been able to read my informant’s chicken-scratch handwriting; had seen the capital A at the beginning and small a at the end of the word, and my mind had filled in the intervening letters incorrectly.

            Perhaps it was the Diet Red, but I pined a little for Maurice at the moment. I did hope he’d show up for Etienne’s commitment ceremony with Clarissa, but one really can never count on Maurice, ever, for anything, and I did hope that poor Etienne wouldn’t be too disappointed. He is a sensitive boy, and Clarissa is going to be enough of a handful without him having to worry whether his Father Figure will show up for the ceremony, which is relatively new to our little community, one that the younger generation has started and that we older folk find totally incomprehensible. And with this thought my romantic memory of Maurice dissipated and was replaced with my much more common reaction to that infuriating man, a mixture of frustration and anger and that never-to-be-overcome but impossible hope that someday he would “change.”

            “Really, Valentina, do try to exercise some self-restraint,” said Bubbles. “I’ve just gotten comfortable here and I would like to stay a while. This is an interesting time to be in America, what with the new President and the Internet and all. And I like my house more than I like the last ten I’ve lived in. I don’t want to leave yet.”

            And I knew why she didn’t want to leave—it was hanging off her lap at the moment. Several months earlier, she’d had a nighttime visit to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park—just down the Saw Mill Parkway into Upper Manhattan, an easy drive by day, an easy fly by night—and she’d decided that the museum’s Unicorn Tapestries are highly overrated, in addition to not being in the best shape. Her goal is to recreate them while improving upon them, and then offer them as a gift to the curator, on whom she has a serious crush. She also plans to expand on the cycle but has been a bit coy about her exact plans, so we all just sit and watch the tapestries take shape, not asking too many questions.

            And I have to admit that she was doing a lovely job of it thus far. I suppose artistic types find it easy to cross over from one art form to another. Bubbles had given up opera in a fit of pique after an affair with a director in Vienna had gone sour, and I think she is using the tapestry-making to fill the void until she gets back into singing. The last time I’d suggested that she try out for a performance at the Met, I’d been treated to a diatribe about how the world is now in love with vapid coloraturas, how the opportunities for a true dramatic soprano are few and far between, and so on (I’d been knitting a dog cozy for one of my neighbors and was at a point that demanded my full attention, so I’d tuned the rest out).

            Artesia, who sat quietly working on her trivets—she never did quite get them, or potholders, mastered, and had vowed not to give up until she’d finished one that could be given as a proper gift without embarrassment—threw down her needles in frustration. “If a Blue would help me get these stupid things right, I’d gladly drink a six-pack by myself.” She said it for the shock value of it, and she succeeded. Even Valentina—perhaps the most experienced one of us—was aghast.

            For, you see, Blue is the real thing. Red and Diet Red are 100% synthetic, though Red has the benefit of having at least a few natural ingredients from mammals thrown into the mix for that delicious sweetness and protein, while Diet is all-artificial down to its last drop. Both were created by a woman who really felt we should have more options as we entered the modern age, and she’d of course made a fortune by selling the stuff (not that any of us need more money). It’s available via the Internet only, though you can go to her manufacturing plant somewhere in the middle of Indiana if you want to buy it in person—but then you have to get it home, which means you have to drive, which is really so tiresome when it’s much easier to fly long distances. And I need not tell you that it is exceedingly tough to fly from Indiana to New York carrying a case of Diet Red. With the Internet, the nice UPS man delivers the cases, gets your signature, and moves on, not even thinking about what’s in the boxes.

            Red may not be fully satisfying—in the same way that friends tell me a turkey or veggie burger is never as delicious as an honest-to-goodness hamburger—but it does the trick and is good enough, especially on those nights when you just don’t feel like flying around in search of nourishment. Most of us try to find stray dogs, sheep, and the like, but even they don’t give us everything we need, so we occasionally have to do what previous generations did without any remorse—we find ourselves a human and either drain them dry or convert them. We’ve become very cautious about the conversions, because a lot of recent fiction has romanticized this life, and on any evening of the week we can find literally thousands of teenagers standing with their necks to their bedroom windows, hoping one of us will pay them a visit. But the “lifestyle” is a lot more complicated, and much more of a hassle, than it’s made out to be. So, instead of having a really satisfying meal of young, pretty Tiffany from White Plains or young, manly Michael from Dobbs Ferry, we have to search along the railroad tracks and back alleys of the Bronx and Manhattan for those homeless folks or tramps whom no one will miss and whose deaths will have no attention paid to them.

            These meals are far from enjoyable; Red at least tastes good. Bums and other outcasts are in such bad health that they taste terrible, like a mixture of vomit and urine with a good helping of mud thrown in. But the same way liver and onions may taste disgusting to humans but offer the required nutrients, so do the carcasses of these otherwise Untouchables.

            But Blue—ah, Blue! I have had it on half a dozen occasions over my Undeath, and it’s easy to see why it can be addictive. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some of us worked in morgues and drained the bodies of these vital fluids prior to embalming, then stored them in opaque jars in cool, dark sub-basements. Community members in hiding could thus remain underground for months and know they’d have a source of nourishment that would last until they could make a safe escape. (Clarissa herself had found herself in such a situation in the not-too-distant past, but more on that later.)

            The tradition of the “emergency stockpile” continued more or less unchanged for hundreds of years, and we had all accepted it for what it was—a simple nutritional necessity, the equivalent of filling up a bunker with enough wares to help an average person survive a nuclear holocaust, or invasion from Mars, or whatever other paranoid fantasy humans might have. But a few decades ago, someone—nobody knows who—decided to take our tradition and profit from it. The purveyor or purveyors of Blue know that we are sybaritic by nature, and Blue was designed to tap into that part of ourselves over which we have varying degrees of control. This is what makes Blue so dangerous, so addictive, and so deadly.

            You can probably guess where the name comes from. Blue has never been turned red by oxygen; it is pure and 100% unaerated, taken from the victim by some means that nobody knows but is disturbing to think about. And it is taken only from those in the prime of their lives—the young, the physically fit, the wealthy. And for all these reasons it is not only incredibly nutritious—one bottle of Blue can keep you satisfied literally for months—it is also sweet, delicious, intoxicating. It has been described in some circles as “the nectar of the gods,” and Bubbles once joked that Eve must have tempted Adam with a bottle of Blue, not an apple, because most of humanity would not be willing to throw away Paradise for an apple, but would gladly be cast into the pits of Hell for a bottle of Blue.

            “Where do you get the stuff, dear?” I asked Clarissa, offhandedly. I didn’t want to appear overly curious or intrusive, as Clarissa is an enigma, and I always try to tread cautiously around her. Really, you can’t truly know someone until you’ve been around him or her for at least a hundred years, and I have known Clarissa for all of six months—metaphorically, the time it takes moth to beat its wings compared to my lifespan. She carries a dark aspect with her, no doubt the result of being on her own for a couple of centuries, with no friends or community to speak of—until she met Etienne in Paris. Other, savvier boys would have taken one look and known they’d be in for quite a challenge; Etienne just saw a beautiful girl and his heart melted. Before anyone knew it, he’d brought her to live with him—introduced her to me—tracked down Maurice in Burundi—and announced their intentions of being a modern “couple.”

            The way to retain positive relationships with one’s adult children is to respect their wishes, so I welcomed Clarissa with enthusiasm, even though in my heart I find this newfangled desire to imitate “marriage” a step in the wrong direction. I mean, for heaven’s sake, we are different, no matter how much we try to pass for the common run of humanity. Our loose couplehood has served us well over the millennia—when Maurice annoys me, or I him, we simply separate for a few decades and then make our way back to each other eventually. No muss, no fuss, and in the meantime we can dally with other attractive members of the opposite sex. And why shouldn’t we? The single best part of being who we are is that we are completely immune to disease, of the traditional or even the “social” variety. If we’re going to be perpetually Undead, we might as well have some fun, and most of us avail ourselves of those opportunities for a good long time—and then, like Bubbles, Valentina, Artesia, and myself, we grow weary of the hunt and the games, take a step back, and find more enjoyment in each other’s simple company, in sleeping late, in reading a good book, and in knitting useless things for people we like.

            But Clarissa and Etienne aren’t at that stage yet; they’ve got a lot of years ahead of them to figure out how to make it all work. In the meantime, my friends and I are trying to make Clarissa feel as welcome and loved as possible, which is why we invited her into the knitting circle. She has some big adjustments ahead of her, and we thought (as “women of a certain age”) that it would benefit her to have positive role models (and Artesia liked the idea of someone in the circle being even more incompetent than she at even the most basic of stitches). So far, I have the sense that Clarissa enjoys listening to us, hearing stories of our lives and the colorful things we’ve done—tales that would seem like pure fabrications if told by humans. She is completely unaware of our traditions, never having had anyone to share them with her. Even her name is completely wrong—“Clarissa Harlowe.” She’d taken it from the character of the same name in Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century novel Clarissa, which she’d taken into hiding with her and which had taken her the full three months to finish. She was quite proud of herself for having finished what she called “the longest novel ever published in English,” and she was young and romantic enough to aspire to the virtues of the young Clarissa. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Samuel Richardson—that silly fop who had been quite the rage in 1740s London—had written an even longer novel, but one whose name would not fit her gender: Sir Charles Grandison.)

            In contrast, the rest of us have the alliterative first and last names that go with being a member of our exclusive club. The “rule” is to choose a first name you like and a last name of someone famous with whom you’ve had dealings, whether a romance, a liaison, a friendship, or a business relationship. Thus I am Pearl Plantagenet, because I have always been drawn to the glowing luminescence of pearls, and because of my long-running affair with Henry III, of whom I still think fondly (his descendent, VIII, is another story entirely). Artesia, the earthy-crunchiest of us, always chooses first names beginning with “A” that have a sound of nature about them—I think she’d been calling herself Arcadia for a while, before changing over to Artesia. Her last name is Alighieri, chosen after she’d spent some time as Dante’s amanuensis and been deeply impressed by the man (whom I’d liked, but did not love). Bubbles Borgia, with her love of opera, took her first name from the nickname of a well-beloved American soprano (ironic, in that my Bubbles would never take the roles for which that other Bubbles is famous) and her last name from the murderous, corrupt Italian family with whose men she had dallied in the 1480s and 1490s, around the time Columbus set sail for what turned out to be America. (She’d actually been friends with Lucrezia at one point and has always believed that poor Lulu had been railroaded.) Valentina is eponymous, having chosen her name based on her long-running affair with Rudolph Valentino in the 1920s (“I still think about the man every day,” she says when feeling sentimental). Since American society requires a lot of paperwork, though, she is required to have a last name so as to avoid a lot of unnecessary hassle. Thus all her mail is addressed to Valentina Valentino.

            Clarissa dodged my question. “Oh, just some guys I knew briefly when I lived in New Orleans. Etienne knows them, too. We were at a gathering one night and one of the guys mentioned he knew someone who could get Blue. I had never even heard of it before, so they explained what it was and I thought, wow, that would be good to have. Etienne got us out of there real fast after that, but before we left the guy gave me his email address. I guess Etienne’s reaction made me curious about it….” Her voice trailed off, and in her words I heard the conflict between her desire to dance on the cutting edge and her desire to please Etienne, whom she saw as her rescuer but who is very inflexible (some might even say doctrinaire) in his beliefs.

            “Clarissa, dear,” I said gently, not wanting to embarrass her, “I understand your curiosity, but you have to realize that there’s more to Blue than just the very disturbing processes that go into collecting and bottling it. You don’t get a bottle of Blue from the suppliers without giving them something they want, and what they want is very likely to create a lot of trouble for you, as well as some serious ethical issues that you’re better off avoiding. You know of the Italian Mafia, yes?” Clarissa nodded. “It’s a bit like that. Once they have you, they sort of own you, and then you lose your will and your ability to act for yourself, without their approval. I don’t mean to lecture you, but this is very serious stuff.”

            Valentina, no stranger to the demands made by the Blue dealers, put in her two cents. “Pearl isn’t right about everything, Clarissa, but she’s right about this. You’re young compared to the rest of us, and you’re going to have live with your choices for an eternity. Everyone in this room has done things we wish we hadn’t”—all heads nodded vigorously—“but this is one thing not to even experiment with. We joke about it, yes, but it’s kind of like the way humans whistle as they pass graveyards. We make jokes because in our hearts the prospect is so disturbing.”

            Clarissa looked about ready to cry, and it would have broken my heart to see those red teardrops streaming down her face. It was time to change the subject.

            I looked at my watch. “Where on earth is Louise? She was supposed to bring the canapés.” Of course the real draw of knitting with Louise—over and beyond her expertise at her craft—is Louise herself, a millennium older than the oldest of us and full of unexpected wisdom commingled with her own special brand of kookiness, which endears her to (almost) all. Everyone knows she isn’t quite right in the head, because after experimenting with opium with a former lover (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom she interrupted while he was writing “Xanadu,” by knocking at his door with a generous supply of the stuff—and the rest is poetic history) she had gone on to try all manner of mind-altering substances. Her last name—Leary—tells you which consciousness-enhancer has become her favorite, and which could possibly explain her absence. For in those dazes, she could sit in her room for days, enjoying the pretty colors and reliving happy memories, and completely forget that she was supposed to help me finish up the antimacassar while continuing her tutelage of Clarissa.

            “Probably still asleep,” Artesia suggested, though it was 3 a.m. and most of us had arisen hours ago. “Let me give her a call.” She whipped out her cell phone and hit whatever key it was that would ring Louise’s cell. Such devices are sort of ridiculous, and as we all know they are really used by our neighbors as self-esteem and popularity devices rather than for telecommunications—but we’d all learned the secret to a peaceful life, especially when surrounded by the nosy: BLEND. Blend into the surroundings, do what everyone else does, have what everyone else has. Because Willow Grove is what some would call “upscale,” we all drive BMWs and Lexuses, and we all have our cell phones, and our Tiffany jewelry, and our Louis Vuitton bags. As a result, few look at us askance, though recently some pale-skinned teenagers have begun to take an unhealthy interest. (Valentina says I am being alarmist, and perhaps I am a bit on the cautious side, but nothing can ruin a pleasant life faster than an enthusiastic teenager or a nosy senior citizen.)

            Artesia flipped her phone shut. “No answer.”

            “This is inane,” Bubbles snapped. She resents the need to blend more than the rest of us, perhaps because, as a once and future diva, she prefers to be the center of attention at all times. “Let’s just call her our own way. We’re a lot more likely to get through.”

            In silent agreement we all pulled our chairs closer so that we formed a circle. “Clarissa, you join us too,” I said kindly. “This will be a good experience for you.”

            Clarissa looked a bit uncomfortable but did as instructed, dragging her chair between mine and Valentina’s. I felt touched by the gesture, that she would choose to sit next to me in a Circle. It boded well for our future relationship, and I had the fleeting thought that being a sort of mother-in-law might not be so bad after all.

            Bubbles dramatically pulled her knitting needles out of her piece and held one upright in each hand. The rest of us did the same; and what beautiful needles they all were, made of materials that would make the Circle quite powerful indeed. Bubbles’ are pure ivory, made from the tusks of an ancient mastodon. My own are, not surprisingly, reinforced mother of pearl; Artesia’s are pure silver, a gift from one Pope or another; and Valentina’s are obsidian, a remnant of her days in the court of Tut-Ankh-Amun and his lovely wife Nofretete, who was one of us and quite fond of Valentina. Clarissa’s, of jade, had been a gift from me when I invited her to join. Etienne had told me of her fondness for the stone, and I’d had a heck of a time finding needles made of it, but I had succeeded in the end, and Clarissa’s pleasure upon opening the box had been evident.

            We all held one needle in each hand. Valentina stamped her foot once, twice … and on the third time, we tilted each hand slightly—right hand to the right, left hand to the left—so that our needles created an unbroken circle. The obsidian is the strongest, so the bolt of electricity started at Valentina and spread around the circle quickly, with just a momentary blip when it got to Clarissa. The link thus established, Valentina said crabbily, “Louise, we’re waiting for you. Where are you? We’re hungry and you have the canapés.”

            Myth #2! No incantations were spoken in a dialect of ancient Romanian, no Ouija boards were pulled out, no breathy enigmatic riddles were uttered. Calling Louise this way is just like calling someone on the telephone, but a lot more powerful and a lot more direct, because the call goes directly into Louise’s brain rather than having to travel through various manmade circuit boards.

            “She’s sleeping,” I said, as the image of Louise in her damask-covered room sprang into my mind.

            “It seems odd that she wouldn’t acknowledge us, even if it was just to tell us to shut up and leave her alone,” Artesia suggested.

            “Maybe she’s on something more powerful than usual,” Valentina opined, not unsnidely.

            I shook my head in disagreement. “Maybe if just one or two of us were trying to call her, but five of us in a Circle? That’s enough to wake Grant from his Tomb.” I lowered my needles, broke the circle, and the remaining electricity was drawn out the open window of Valentina’s drawing room. It promptly turned into lightning and struck a tree belonging to the house across the street. The lightning severed a huge branch, which dropped onto the car below it, smashing it to smithereens.

            “Now, was that called for?” Artesia asked Valentina.

            “Their stupid dog wakes me up with its barking,” Valentina said by way of explanation without the slightest hint of apology.

            I rose, then put the needles and the antimacassar down on the comfortable overstuffed chair in which I’d been sitting. “I’d better go check on Louise. Something could be wrong.”

            “Do you want me to go with you, Pearl?” Clarissa asked. Was it because she wanted to bond further with me, or because she was afraid that Valentina, Bubbles, and Artesia would eat her alive? Even if the latter, Clarissa needed to learn better how to deal with her own kind, and despite their quirks, my friends wouldn’t harm a fly (provided the fly does not annoy them too much).

            “I’ll be back in a jiffy, dear,” I said. “And you’re doing so well with your garter stitching, I hate to interrupt you when you have the flow.”

            I climbed the two sets of stairs to Valentina’s sumptuously appointed attic—it is always best to depart from the highest possible point, so as to attract the least possible notice—and opened the window facing away from the moon, where it would be darkest. The transformation was instantaneous—everyone more or less masters it after ten years or so—and off I flew.

            The transition from sight to sound is always an invigorating one, though I admit that I had been intimidated by it for a while. As a human I’d always had excellent eyesight; my mother would joke that I could find a needle in a haystack just by looking at the haystack. So, to have my sight taken from me and transformed into a hypersensitivity to noise had truly taken me aback at first, and those first few nights I’d flown into my share of trees. But now I have to admit—I love it. Navigation by sound is infinitely easier, not to mention much more precise. And my sense of hearing in my alternative state is as acute as my sense of sight in my “human” state, which makes it all the sweeter. Myth #3! I did not squeak incessantly while flying about, like some crazed gerbil. I sent out only the occasional peep to help with the navigation.

            The temptation to divert myself from my task and munch on a few of the very tasty mosquitoes trying to avoid me was great. But I was starting to get quite worried about Louise. The more I thought about it, the more disturbed I felt by her refusal (or inability?) to answer a powerful call from us.

            None of the windows of Louise’s house were open, so I had to dip down behind the shed in her backyard and convert back. I marched up to her back door, took the key from the under the mat, and let myself in. Knocking would have been foolish—if she couldn’t hear the five of us summoning her, she certainly wouldn’t hear a knock at the door!

            When I visit Louise I always have to take a deep breath, because she is a pack rat of epic proportions, each room of her house stuffed with souvenirs from every era in human history, stuff with sentimental value whose provenances she cannot remember but with which she still refuses to part. To each her own, I thought, thinking that perhaps my own minimalist décor would benefit from a bit more ornamentation.

            I headed straight for Louise’s bedroom in her attic, which is as crowded as the rest of the house. From the doorway I could see Louise silhouetted against the moonlight, jumbled up in bed, unmoving, silent as a church mouse. This was quite a difference from her usual earth-shaking snoring. (She sometimes nodded out during our knitting circles, and we wouldn’t be aware of it until the snoring began.) As I approached, I wondered fleetingly why she would have taken her knitting needles to bed with her. Of all the needles in our group, I envied Louise’s the most—they are of the purest gold, crafted by artisans to the emperor Justinian, and museum curators would be willing to sell their children in order to acquire them.

            As I approached the bed, I realized with horror that the knitting needles had been shoved straight through Louise’s heart, more effectively than any wooden stake would have been. Louise—my lovely, lively, crazy Louise—had finally been brought to the True Death.

            I sniffed the air in the room. Nothing was amiss, no foul human scent, no lingering odor of feces, urine, aging flesh. Which meant only one thing. No human being had killed Louise. It was one of us.