Authors: Pamela Fagan Hutchins
Tags: #Mystery and Thriller: Women Sleuths, #Fiction: Contemporary Women, #Romance: Suspense
Leaving Annalise Copyright 2013 Pamela Fagan Hutchins
All rights reserved.
2014 USA Best Book Award Finalist
2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-finalist
2013 USA Best Book Award Finalist
2012 Winner of the Houston Writers Guild Ghost Story Contest
2012 USA Best Book Award Winner
2011 Winner of the Houston Writers Guild Novel Contest
2010 Winner of the Writers League of Texas Romance Contest
The Katie & Annalise Series
“An exciting tale . . . twisting investigative and legal subplots . . . a character seeking redemption . . . an exhilarating mystery with a touch of voodoo.” — Midwest Book Review Bookwatch
“A lively romantic mystery.” — Kirkus Reviews
“A riveting drama . . . exciting read, highly recommended.” — Small Press Bookwatch
“Katie is the first character I have absolutely fallen in love with since Stephanie Plum!” — Stephanie Swindell, Bookstore Owner
“Engaging storyline . . . taut suspense.” — MBR Bookwatch
The Emily Series
“Grabs you by the throat from the get-go for a suspenseful, rollicking ride.” — Ken Oder, author of
“Full of heart, humor, vivid characters, and suspense. Hutchins has done it again!” — Gay Yellen, author of
The Body Business
“Hutchins is a master of tension.” — R.L. Nolen
“Intriguing mystery . . . captivating romance.” — Patricia Flaherty Pagan, author of
Trail Ways Pilgrims
“In my book . . . the makings of a great novel: cheating husbands, murder, and hot cowboys.” — Melissa Algood, contributing author,
The Michele Series
“Immediately hooked.” — Terry Sykes-Bradshaw, author of
Spellbinding.” — Jo Bryan, Dry Creek Book Club
“Fast-paced mystery.” –—Deb Krenzer, Book Reviewer
“Can’t put it down.” — Cathy Bader, Reader
“Full of real characters and powerful emotions.” — Rhonda Erb, Editor
is a work of fiction. Period. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, things, or events is just a lucky coincidence.
I don’t know why on God’s green earth I said yes to it.
I was taking my star turn as master of ceremonies for the Mrs. St. Marcos pageant. That’s right, I said Miss
, not Miss. I had the honor of hosting the old married ladies’ pageant. Forgive me for saying so, but I’ve never been much of a pageant person in general—despite my dear friend Emily’s insistence that her Miss Amarillo title helped pay for her degree from Texas Tech University—and these Mrs. pageants took me to a whole new level of “huh?”
Yet there I was. Half of the population of the island came, too. The rowdy half. I was sure that the object of my unreturned and supposedly buried affections, a guy back in Texas named Nick, would have said they were acting like they were at a tractor pull, not a beauty pageant. Or so I imagined, as we hadn’t spoken in many moons.
Jackie, the pageant director, hiked her low-slung blue-camouflage pants up over her considerable bana, almost covering her two-inch thong-panty-T, and gushed, “I can’t believe we so lucky someone as talented as you gonna do our pageant.” In her island lilt,
and grammar took on a much simpler and present-tense-oriented role.
I nodded at her, but she couldn’t fool me. She was just relieved to have found a big enough sucker to do the gig at all. She had tried to book my singing partner, the sultry Ava Butler, after seeing us perform together one night at The Lighthouse on the boardwalk downtown. Jackie liked our banter and stage presence, but she preferred Ava’s status as a bahn yah (born here) local to mine as a continental transplant. Ava, wisely, had found an excuse not to do the pageant, and recommended me. I would make her pay for that.
The pageant officials were holding the event in an “open-air” theater, which was a genteel way of saying un-air-conditioned. The wooden doors and shuttered windows were propped open, but no discernible light or breeze penetrated the interior. The event was running on island time. Warm bodies sardined too long together were making for a stifling environment, even backstage. Living on St. Marcos, I had learned to appreciate the cleansing properties of sweat, but the other things heat brought, like flies and ripe body odor, not so much. I swatted at a fly.
My sort-of-boyfriend Bart, head chef at and one of the owners of the popular Fortuna’s Restaurant in Town, was sitting somewhere out there in that people soup, whether I wanted him to or not. A girl could only eat so much of his signature mango-drenched Chilean sea bass before growing gills. I wasn’t even sure why he’d come, since he’d found his new kitchen manager dead that morning. I would have thought he’d have things to do, but apparently not.
Lately it felt like I never quite got outside his field of vision, and I was going to have to fix that. Like right away. I wanted to time travel into the next day, past the part of the evening where I told him that he wasn’t Prince Charming and my life was no fairy tale. Maybe. If I got my courage up.
I parted the red velvet stage curtains half an inch and peeked through, but I couldn’t find him. I let the slit in the curtain close.
Jackie spoke again. “Move your things over there, mind.” She was tugging at her black tank top, which clung to the individual rolls around her middle and the indentations carved by her bra. Her tugging better revealed her lacy bra straps, but at least they matched her shirt. Her red doo rag didn’t.
It was hard to take her seriously looking like she did, but I tried. I lugged my overstuffed wardrobe bag across the plank floor to the back corner, sweating my makeup off within those twenty seconds. My bag held the many outfits I had brought at Jackie’s explicit instructions. She decreed that we would change clothes each time the contestants did, to “keep it interesting.” That meant five changes, Lord help me.
Jackie walked toward a dressing room marked with a glittered aluminum-foil-covered star with one cardboard point exposed. Her flip-flops slapped the floor with each step. I checked my watch. We were now officially thirty minutes beyond the announced start time. Jackie blamed her delay on the day’s drama, which she had inserted herself into. The dead kitchen manager, she had informed me, was her third cousin on her mother’s ex-husband’s side.
As she entered the dressing room, Jackie turned back to me and said, “If the police come to talk to me about Tarah, I’ll just be in here,” then closed the door.
The crowd out front grew noisier. I could hear their bodies shifting in the rows of wooden fold-down seats, their makeshift fans swishing back and forth, as small feet ran up and down the narrow aisles of the dark theater. A baby shrieked and I winced. My thirty-sixth birthday was fast approaching, but my biological clock wasn’t keeping pace.
I busied myself arranging my dresses, shoes, and jewelry in order of their upcoming appearances until Jackie emerged from the dressing room. Somehow she had managed to one-up her last stunning ensemble by sausaging herself into a ruffly, too-tight, too-short tangerine number. A toothy smile split her ebony face. “I wore this dress to my own crowning. It still fits.”
“Wow,” I said, and sucked in my stomach.
Jackie was a former Mrs. St. Marcos herself, a tall, beautiful woman, but she had put on forty pounds since her pageant days two years before. Some memories just aren’t made for reliving.
And then it was time to begin. Jackie took the podium and welcomed the audience, calling out attendees’ names individually, starting with the most important people in the room.
“Good evening, Honorable Senator Popo, Senator Nelson, he lovely wife, and they three beautiful chirruns dem,” she said. When she had made it through her list ten minutes later, she finished with “And a pleasant good evening to all the rest of you ladies and gentlemen.”
I was used to this pompous circumstance by now, after moving to St. Marcos in search of serenity all of nine months before—which I had found, thanks mostly to the half-finished jumbie house I’d bought.
Jumbie as in voodoo spirit.
Yeah, that kind of jumbie.
That may sound wacky if you don’t live in the tropics, but everyday life interwoven with the supernatural was something else I’d gotten used to. Estate Annalise was quite famous on island, and between my gigs as half a singing duo with Ava and my association with my house, apparently so was I.
Finally, Jackie moved on to introduce me, and I took the stage feeling awkward without Ava there to validate me. I regretted my long black spaghetti-strapped dress as soon as the thigh-high slit exposed my skinny white gam and got me the first wolf whistle of the night. Not what I’d aimed for. Still, the rest of the crowd laughed good-naturedly at the whistler, and it felt like I was off to a good start.
The contest itself was painful. There were only three contestants, which I found surprising. After the first segment, evening gown, Jackie and I did a quick change together in the dressing room.
“Why aren’t there any more contestants?” I asked as I finger-combed my long red hair and held it up in a twisting fall. Nah. I dropped it and the waves resettled against the middle of my back.
Jackie struggled with the side zip of her asymmetrical dress. The gap seemed insurmountable and the tune to “The River’s Too Wide” sprang into my mind. “It hard to find a Local married woman on St. Marcos,” she said.
I couldn’t argue with that.
Her voice rose, and with it, her index finger. “My cousin Tarah never gone be married now, and all because she give everything to her job.”
The recently deceased Tarah already had her halo and wings.
I went onstage to introduce the fashion segment, then stood to one side. The first contestant strutted out in a long-sleeved cropped top that was completely open in the front. I didn’t close my mouth the entire time she was on stage. The crowd lustily cheered her on. We’d gone from tractor pull to strip club.
Bart’s blond head stood out against the sea of black hair. He caught my eye and pumped his fist in the air.
God, please make this evening end soon, I begged.
Jackie motioned me in for another wardrobe change, but when I emerged in my next outfit, she stopped midstride and put her hands on her hips.
“Katie, change that dress,” she barked. “It too much like what I wearing.”
My, how things had changed since the judges named this woman Mrs. Congeniality. I was hot. I was sweaty. I was reluctantly channeling Nicole Kidman with my red hair and “couture.” I was not happy to be there, and I don’t like people to boss me around. Plus, my Michael Kors slate-blue Grecian dress was my absolute favorite garment, and this was the only foreseeable opportunity I’d have to wear it on island. She was not going to rob me of my one small joy of the night.
“Change yours,” I retorted. “Mine fits perfectly, and your back seam just split.” I turned on my heel and walked to the mirror, stretching to make the most of my five foot nine inches plus three of heel. I stole a glance back at her in the glass.
Jackie was gaping open-mouthed and craning her head toward the guilty seam. Everyone in earshot backstage flashed thumbs-up and OK signs. Katie, the instant hero.
I strode straight to the stage to launch the intellect portion of the competition. First up, one of the contestants used her allotted time to speak on the importance of breastfeeding.
“Sagging is a misguided fear,” she explained to the rapt crowd. “I still breastfeeding my eight-month-old boy, and I no think I saggy, wah you think?”
The audience loved this, and shouted back their high opinions of her breasts (or was that “opinions of her high breasts”?). Whatever it was, it was torture to behold. Not as bad, say, as when I crumbled to the floor and mewled like a kitten during my last trial in Dallas, a moment captured for generations to come on YouTube, but it was still pretty bad. I projected myself to my happy place, imagining the soothing rush of water across the rocks at Horseshoe Bay.
Somehow time passed. We were nearing the end of the pageant after four exhausting hours. I had sweated less in steam rooms. I calculated the small fortune I’d spend on dry cleaning while I waited backstage for the judges’ final tabulations. I changed back into my Michael Kors dress just to torment Jackie and was retrieving my lipstick for a touchup when my iPhone buzzed from the depths of my purse. I picked it up and took a look.
The text read, “I vote for the MC.”
Weird message. Was it from Bart? I looked at the number. Nope. One of the judges? Couldn’t be. It was from the 214 area code, my old Dallas stomping grounds. I looked at the number again, and my stomach lurched.
“Who is this?” I replied, knowing the answer.
I lost my breath and couldn’t catch it.