September 2023: How It Starts: Favorite Beginnings

The best laid plans . . . Life intervenes. Sometimes unexpected things get in the way of plans we have. Such as the plans to write about a specific subject for the September newsletter. We wound up deciding to give you a glimpse of favorite beginnings for two of our books, Cold Trail and Booth Island. For October we will write our 700-word mysteries and the theme is voodoo!

Cold Trail

Janet Dawson


That’s a word Oakland private eye Jeri Howard doesn’t want to hear, especially when it refers to her younger brother, Brian.

It’s been four days since anyone has seen him. As the book opens, Jeri is in the last place she wants to be.

The county morgue.

Cold Trail—the first 500 words

I felt cold, and it wasn’t only because of the morgue’s temperature. The pathologist, a middle-aged woman in green scrubs, walked to the oversized stainless steel refrigerator and opened the door. She pulled out the drawer that held a covered body.

“You know there was a fire,” the pathologist said, by way of warning.

I nodded, glancing at Griffin and Harris. They were detectives with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Coroner Unit. They’d met me here on this sunny Tuesday in August and they had prepared me for the condition of the corpse I was about to view.

“The body was burned,” the pathologist said. “That’s why we weren’t able to get fingerprints. But the damage is mostly to the lower part, the legs, the hands and forearms. The head and chest are . . . Well, you’ll see.”

“I understand,” I said. “I’m ready.”

The pathologist reached for the sheet that covered the body. My hands tightened into fists. I shoved them into my pockets. I breathed in the scents of formaldehyde and decay as the pathologist uncovered the dead man’s head and torso. I stared at the face, willing myself to move past emotion and examine what was there. 

The dead man had thick brown hair that fell past his ears. The ends looked singed. So did his eyebrows and eyelashes. His eyes were open and staring, a pale blue. His mouth was open, too, his teeth exposed in a disturbing rictus. The teeth were stained by tobacco. His skin had been reddened by the fire, but I could make out a faint crescent-shaped scar on the man’s lower left jaw. His earlobes were long and fleshy, and they’d been pierced.

He hadn’t died in the fire, though. He’d been shot. The bullet had entered his chest near the heart.

I let out the breath I’d been holding. I shook my head.

“It’s not him.”

“You’re sure?” Griffin asked.

I nodded, relief and disquiet washing over me, as I concentrated on cataloging what I’d seen and what I knew. “You told me this man is six feet tall and a hundred eighty pounds. That matches my brother’s description. But the hair is too long and too dark.” I raised a hand to my own short auburn hair. “Brian’s hair is like mine, a bit lighter. And it’s thinning on top. His eyes are blue, but darker. He doesn’t have a scar on his chin. Or pierced ears.” I gestured at the dead man’s open-mouthed grin. “Brian has a crown on the upper left side of his mouth, and his two upper middle teeth are slightly larger than the others. This guy’s teeth are more even. And they’re stained. That tells me this guy was a smoker.”

I looked at the pathologist. She nodded. “Definitely a smoker,” she said. “The victim doesn’t have any crowns. Just fillings. He’s missing a tooth on the upper right, way at the back.”

“I don’t know who this man is,” I said. “But it’s not my brother.”

Booth Island

D. Z. Church

Boo Treader needs closure for her and for her brother…

It’s been nine years since Boothe Treader summered at her family’s island. Twelve since her brother died on its rocky shore. She’s never forgiven him for leaving her alone, her parents for divorcing, or the dark-eyed stranger who watched her brother drown.

Old friends line up to welcome her back—or do they? Once back on the family island, Boo doesn’t know who to trust, and neither will you in this suspenseful and thrilling mystery.

Booth Island—the first 500 words

My clothed body bumps off granite rocks as it descends into the frigid depths of a Canadian lake. A swirl of red drifts on the bubbles escaping my lips. I watch each pocket of air grow smaller as it ascends toward the surface. A concussion rams my hip against a cement post. I glance to my left. Another body bobs next to mine. Recognizing it, I reach out…

I woke with a jolt knowing I was out of my depth again. I chose to believe that was the message of the dream. The nightmare, really, had haunted me at random intervals since my brother, Roy, drowned at the age of seventeen. I was fifteen at the time. We had been a team.

Roy died on Booth Island. Our family-owned island sits in a long bay that hooks off one of the largest inland lakes in the Canadian province of Ontario. Booth Island divides the long, cove cluttered body of water into Upper Bay and Lower Bay. The quarter-mile passage to the east of the island is charted as Lapp Strait. The much narrower channel to the west is Beaver Course, inhabited by its own industrious beaver. The beaver lives on the banks of Booth Island in a tidy lodge built of sticks, chinked with mud, and anchored to the steep rocky shore.

On occasion, the wind drives the waters down the three-mile reaches of Upper Bay with such ferocity that as the bumptious water passes through the two channels, Booth Island appears to steam into Lower Bay like an ocean liner. When we were still a family, we would run en masse to a wooden jetty at New Landing on the north of the island and hold hands as though we were on the deck of a passenger ship. Say the RMS Lusitania. Torpedoed like our family.

My smartphone chirped its distinctive ring from the nightstand next to my bed. The photo card I had received yesterday rested against my clock. My eyes locked on the image of my brother, forever young, leaning on the railing of the deck my mother had built after his death and christened Roy’s Deck. I robo-answered my phone, knowing Roy’s photo had sparked my dream.

“Boothe Treader speaking.” My mom added the e to her surname, Booth, to make my given name feminine. Dad called me Baby Girl until I was twelve. My brother, Roy, called me BG to annoy me, now my dad does it for the same reason. Everyone else calls me Boo, like the note inside the photo card, scrawled in my brother’s distinctive hand: Boo!

The card had been sent from a photo service in California. The return address printed in the left corner read: Roy Treader, Booth Island, Ontario, Canada. It was true he resided there under a handmade marker of cement with words etched in it by my father.

“Hey, Boo, Penny Withers, here.” As though I knew more than one shiny Penny. “I know it’s early,” she rattled on, “I know you’re due to arrive the day after tomorrow, but…”