The widow of a mystery author and a cat who thinks he’s a dog are launched into their own investigations in this first-in-series cozy mystery.
“Denise Jaden delivers fun and charming mystery in Murder at Mile Marker 18 that every cozy lover will want to have on their shelf.” – Readers Favorite 5-star review
“The mystery is fast-paced and kept me reading through the night. The ending was a surprise and all the pieces fit together perfectly! I can’t wait for the next visit with Mallory and Hunch!” – Jerri Cachero from Cozy Mystery Corner Book Reviews
“This was a cute story with lots of humor throughout. I liked the characters, their interactions, and the pacing of the story line.” – Emily Pennington, Amazon Top 500 Reviewer
Perfect for fans of Molly Fitz and Christy Barritt…
An unlucky amateur sleuth, an adorable cop, and a cat with a hunch…
If anyone had told Mallory Beck she would become Honeysuckle Grove’s next unschooled detective, she would have thought they were ten noodles short of a lasagna. Her late husband had been the mystery novelist with a penchant for the suspicious. She was born for the Crock-Pot, not the magnifying glass, and yet here she is elbow deep in fettuccine, cat treats, and teenagers with an attitude, the combination of which lands her smack-dab in the middle of a murder investigation.
Maybe she should have thought twice about delivering a casserole to a grieving family. Maybe she should have avoided the ever-changing green eyes of her seventh-grade crush—now the most heart-stopping cop in town. Maybe she should have stopped listening to the insightful mewls of her antagonistic cat, Hunch, who most likely wants her to be the town’s next murder victim.
Whatever the case, Mallory Beck got herself into this investigation, and she has a distraught teenage girl counting on her to deliver the truth.
Start reading this new cozy culinary series today!
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I had been co-writing cozy mysteries with author Lee Strauss. Once I got the hang of plotting a good mystery, I was hooked and wanted to jump right into plotting my own solo series.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The first character I came up with for the series is Hunch, the cat, who thinks he's a dog and always turns out to be a great help with murder investigations. Hunch is loosely based off of my own cat, who sniffs each new item that comes into the house, as if it might hold clues as to where it's from, and growls at visitors at the door.
The next character I came up with was sarcastic teenage Amber Montrose. I come from a background of writing and reading young adult fiction, and once I added a teenager to this story, it started to feel like it was taking on a life of its own.
My main amateur sleuth, Mallory, has a love for good food, like me. She never thought she'd be the person solving mysteries, as her late husband had been the mystery author, but Mallory is turning out to have a lot of tricks up her own sleeves…
The wife of a war correspondent or a fighter pilot or even a venomous snake milker (yes, there is such a thing) might expect to be a widow at twenty-eight, but certainly not the wife of a novelist.
And yet here I was, learning how to live life in the oversized house, in a small West Virginia town we settled into only a year ago—alone. To be fair, I hadn’t done much in the way of living in the last eight months since Cooper died, but after an offhand comment from my sister about me being under great threat of becoming a cat lady, I was determined to start today.
Being a cat lady wouldn’t be so bad if the cat I’d inherited didn’t loathe me.
I swung my legs out of Cooper’s black Jeep and did a little hip shimmy to straighten my skirt as I stood. Picking out clothes this morning had been about as difficult as choosing between cake and pie (no one should ever have to make that choice). What does one wear that says, I’m fine, just fine, and I haven’t been moping around my dark house for the last eight months, nope, not me, but nonetheless, please, keep your distance?
Even though it was the middle of August, I had settled on a black skirt with the tiniest of polka dots and a light cornflower blue blouse with matching pumps and a headband that pulled my in-need-of-a-trim bangs back. It didn’t spell out the last eight months of my life, but it did the job in making me feel tidy and unapproachable. My coffee-brown hair fell halfway down my back now, full of split ends, but it actually didn’t look half bad today for how many months it had been matted against my living room couch.
I strode for the church, the same one I hadn’t stepped foot inside since Cooper’s memorial service. Church had always been Cooper’s thing. I’d gone along to play the part of the good wife but didn’t spend too much time considering how I felt about God or how He felt about me. At least I hadn’t before He decided to snatch my husband from me.
Two greeters in their mid-forties stood at the closest open glass doors—a man in a gray suit and a woman in an apricot summer dress. Thankfully, I didn’t recognize either of them. I’d chosen this as my first big public outing because, at more than three hundred people, I figured our church was the one place I might get in and out of completely unnoticed. As I approached the greeters, though, the woman leaned into the man and whispered something.
I gulped. Apparently, this was how it would go: People would recognize me, remember Cooper, and not know what to say. Why, again, had I gotten out of bed this morning? There had to be at least one Netflix series I hadn’t binged yet.
The woman at the door pasted on a bright smile as she turned back to me, just in time to say, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” I murmured back, but my voice came out hard and crusty, like bread out of a too-hot oven, or like I hadn’t used it in more than a week. Come to think of it, other than talking on the phone with my sister, I probably hadn’t. My tone, at least, had the desired effect, and the greeters let me pass without another word.
My next goal was to make it through the lobby and into the sanctuary without garnering any other stares or attention. This part was not easy. All eyes followed me as I entered the church lobby, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t just imagining it.
My late husband, Cooper Beck, had been a well-known mystery writer, so I was used to recognition. After only five years, I hadn’t been married long enough to get used to this feeling of notoriety, and I guess I had assumed it would have died with Cooper.
Apparently not so. And not only that, but every single person nearby was scanning my body, probably taking in my too-bright cornflower blouse and thinking it inappropriate for someone in mourning, or noticing the tiny polka dots on my skirt, or wondering why I still wore black after so many months, or…something.
While I was lost in my warring thoughts, Donna Mayberry spotted me, at first only giving me a glance, and I thought I might make it into the sanctuary before actually having to speak to her. But then she did a double take, quickly followed by the head tilt of pity. By this point, I knew that look well. That look was why I had taken to grocery shopping and running errands at midnight instead of during the day like a normal person. At midnight, I could safely avoid the head tilt of pity.
“Mallory Beck?” Donna called with an arm straight up in the air, so any stray person in the vicinity who hadn’t yet set eyes on me might do so now. “It’s so nice to see you out!” she said loudly, calling public attention to my self-imposed isolation in only two seconds.
Donna had the kind of long legs that would be impossible to outrun. In fact, I blinked, and she was right there beside me. Donna was long everywhere—from her fingers to the dark, shiny hair that fell past her waist. She wore a summery yellow dress that touched the floor, and I had to wonder what kind of a store made clothes that would look long on someone like nearly six-foot Donna. Whether it was her hair or her stature or her clothes, though, Donna Mayberry always seemed to have a way of making me feel frumpy and underdressed.
Then again, maybe all these people would finally look at her instead of me.
Donna and Marv were one of the first couples Cooper and I had met when we’d settled into Honeysuckle Grove a year ago, and while Marv worked about sixteen hours a day, Donna naturally excelled at everything from shrub carving to Michelangelo-inspired nail design, and seemed to have a little too much time on her hands—time to know everything about everyone.
“How are you doing, honey? Is this your first time back at church?” Again with the head tilt of pity. Even though I doubted Donna could know I hadn’t left my house in thirteen days, somehow her tone confirmed she absolutely did.
“First time, yes,” I replied. No point in denying it.
She angled me away from the imposing stares and nudged me toward an alcove as though she could sense how much the staring bothered me. A second later, a tall, potted plant concealed us in the corner of the lobby, and I had just let out a breath of relief when Donna suddenly started pulling at my skirt.
I grabbed for my skirt and looked down in horror. Was Donna trying to undress me? Was this a bad dream? Maybe I was still sleeping soundly—or as soundly as one could beside a hostile cat while dreaming about being undressed in public.
But as I blinked and then blinked again, Donna held up a pair of beige control-top pantyhose she had peeled off the outside of my skirt to show me. A second later, she tucked them into the outside pouch of my gray leather purse.
“Oh!” I let out a loud noise, something between a yelp and a laugh. “Thank you!”
As I peeked around the plant, it seemed everyone had lost interest in us, thank goodness.
“Well, you’ll have to sit with us.” Donna straightened her own dress and looked down as though something equally embarrassing might have happened to her, but I was pretty sure we both knew that wasn’t how the universe worked. I doubted Marv was here, so “us” likely meant Donna’s gossip posse—that was what Cooper and I used to call them—but as Donna tugged my arm toward the far side of the lobby, a jolt of panic shot through me.
“Oh, I can’t,” I said, pulling away from her eight-tone sunset nails. “I’m, um, meeting someone, and I said I’d be sitting on this side.” The first lie I could think of launched off my tongue. I just couldn’t imagine sitting with Donna’s posse and having them all whisper, “Yes, but how are you really doing?” fifty times throughout the service.
Donna looked to either side of me as though she might regard this mysterious person I could be waiting for. I could have continued with the lie. Said my sister was in town or conjured an imaginary friend or something to put her mind at rest. But I was suddenly just so tired from all of this interaction—the most I’d endured in eight months—and so I simply stood there staring at Donna like my brain had taken an extended vacation.
Eventually, she said, “Oh. Okay then. If you’re sure?”
I nodded as she backed away, leaving me to my social anxiety.
A few more head tilts greeted me as I took my seat near the back of the sanctuary on the right, nice and close to the door. Thankfully, my chosen outfit—sans the sticky pantyhose—did its duty of keeping me mostly unapproachable. The church had rarely filled to capacity when Cooper and I had attended, so I had some confidence I’d have the back bench to myself. The only time I’d actually seen this place full was at Cooper’s memorial service, but most of those were mystery fans and people fascinated with death, not people who had actually known him.
Soon, the service started with singing and then the pastor’s invitation for people to donate and volunteer in any area they were able. Nothing had changed in eight months, apparently. Honeysuckle Grove Community Church still didn’t have enough money in the building fund or enough people to host small group Bible studies in their homes. It seemed so very odd that while my life had been turned on its head, leaving me without a husband or a profession, every person around me seemed like a walking robot, pre-programmed for a life that would remain constant until their pre-determined time of death.
As though Pastor Jeff could read my mind, he started his sermon with, “We are not robots.”
That was one thing I’d forgotten about church. Pastor Jeff had a great gift for storytelling. He usually started one of his stories with a bold and unusual statement, and then went on a long rabbit trail about his son’s first crack at baseball or about that time he lost his luggage in a Taiwanese airport, but then brought it back around to that first bold statement in a way that made the entire congregation think, Ah, I see what you did there!
But today, I feared I didn’t have the brain capacity to follow his breadcrumbs. He chattered on about what it meant to be part of a family and body parts working together and covering a multitude of sins. At least I had been correct about getting the back bench to myself.
I tuned out for a minute, or maybe it was more than a minute, because the next thing I knew, Pastor Jeff closed his Bible and bowed his head to pray.
I’d done it! I’d made it through the entire service. Okay, maybe I hadn’t taken much of it in, but I’d spoken to an actual person, I’d sat here and proved I could act normal, and I hadn’t drawn a single bit of attention to myself. Well, besides the part where I wore my pantyhose on the outside of my skirt.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you there’s been a recent death in the congregation,” Pastor Jeff said. At first, I expected all eyes to once again turn to me, but then quickly realized “recent” in Pastor Jeff’s books meant something during the last two seasons. “This past Friday, August the thirteenth, Dan Montrose met his death in an unfortunate accident.”
Pastor Jeff resumed bowing his head to pray for the family and their loss. His deep voice boomed with emotion and instantly made me feel like I’d gone back in time eight months. I could physically feel grief for this family I’d never even met, like a two-hundred-pound anchor in my stomach. Pastor Jeff went on to talk about the shock of the death and the wife and children this man had left behind, and because I couldn’t bear the weight of the extra grief, I kept my eyes open and focused on our authoritative, if somewhat frazzled, pastor.
Pastor Jeff wore jeans and a beige button-down today. His hair was more in need of a trim than mine, which was saying something, but in every bit of his countenance, he oozed compassion. I wondered how overworked Pastor Jeff must be to take care of such a large congregation. It must involve a lot of stress for someone who cared so much. After Cooper died, Pastor Jeff visited me three times at the house, until I’d finally donned a face that convinced him I was doing fine, just fine, and didn’t need a fourth visit. In truth, I probably did need that fourth visit, but even then, in the midst of my grief, I had somehow inherently known that I would be doing our overworked pastor a great favor by letting him move on to some other hurting soul within the church.
“Anyone?” Pastor Jeff said, and it took me a second to realize he had finished praying and now gazed over the congregation with his eyes pleading, as he often did at the beginning of the service when asking for volunteers. I had tuned out again. “Can anyone be the arms of this church body and deliver a casserole to these hurting folks, to help out this part of our church family?” He scanned the entire congregation a second time. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.”
He looked to the far side of the sanctuary where Donna and her gossip posse huddled whispering, and then in front of them to where the rest of the church staff sat. The church secretary, Penny Lissmore, let out such a large breath of disappointment, I could see her chest heave from across the large worship center. Pastor Jeff sighed as though admitting defeat to her and explaining telepathically that they’d have to add Casserole Delivery to the long list of things someone on the staff would eventually have to get to.
After Cooper died, I’d had at least a couple of casseroles delivered to me. That time was a bit of a haze, and I definitely didn’t ponder at the time how much cajoling it might have taken to get someone to pick up a casserole at the store—they were the store-bought variety, I remembered that much—and bring it over to my house.
I got it. Approaching a grieving widow was probably near the bottom of most people’s lists of favorite things to do, right below getting a root canal or having a wardrobe malfunction on your first day back at church. But for the first time, I understood how comforting those little acts of kindness could be.
While I was lost in my thoughts again, I didn’t immediately notice the church secretary and an associate pastor look my way, followed by Pastor Jeff. His face broke into a smile that looked as though heaven had just opened and angels were descending right here on this side of the sanctuary.
“Mallory Beck!” he said, and I startled at my name. “I knew I could count on you. Thank you so much, Mallory. The Montrose family will really appreciate this.”
I blinked as I clued in to what he was saying. And that’s when I realized my hand was high in the air.
Denise Jaden is a co-author of the Rosa Reed Mystery Series by Lee Strauss, the author of several critically-acclaimed young adult novels, as well as the author of several nonfiction books for writers, including the NaNoWriMo-popular guide Fast Fiction. Her new Mallory Beck Cozy Culinary Mystery Series will continue to launch throughout the year. In her spare time, she homeschools her son (a budding filmmaker), acts in TV and movies, and dances with a Polynesian dance troupe. She lives just outside Vancouver, British Columbia, with her husband, son, and one very spoiled cat.
Sign up on Denise’s website to receive bonus content as well as updates on her new Cozy Mystery Series. Find out more at www.denisejaden.com
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