Amateur sleuth Kendra Clayton has enough on her plate without adding murder to the mix.
Author and librarian Angela Henry introduces us to her Kendra Clayton series, reading from the first book in the series, The Company You Keep.
If you’d like to try more of Angela’s work, she’s bundled together excerpts from the first three books in this series and you can sign up to receive them here.
In the introduction, I go a little inside baseball about book covers, how impressed I am with Angela’s (and the fact that she designs them herself!) and the multiple jobs a book cover has to do to attract a reader’s attention.
In the interview portion of the show, Angela and I talk about how important it is for young readers to see representation of themselves in literature, including Black authors like Angela and characters like Kendra.
This week’s mystery author
Angela Henry is a librarian and the author of six mysteries featuring amateur sleuth, Kendra Clayton, as well as the Xavier Knight Urban fantasy series, and the thriller The Paris Secret. She also writes middle grade fantasy adventure under the pen name Angie Kelly.
When she’s not working or writing, she loves to travel, is connoisseur of B horror movies, and a functioning anime addict. She lives in Ohio and is currently hard at work trying to meet her next deadline.
To learn more about Angela and all her books visit AngelaHenry.com
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Excerpt from The Company You Keep
I drove back to Archer Street. My mind was racing. Could Jordan really be dead? Then it dawned on me: Bernie hadn’t said anything about Vanessa. Was she dead as well?
By now the rain had stopped and the streets were enveloped in fog. I turned onto Archer Street. Was the fog heavier on this street than any of the others I’d driven down? Given the circumstances, I was probably just being paranoid. I mentally kicked myself for watching so many scary movies. I made my way slowly down the street. When I came upon Bernie’s car, I pulled up alongside and looked in. Bernie was sitting behind the wheel with her head in her hands. Her head jerked up when I honked my horn. I parked in front of her and got out.
“Thank God!” she said as she jumped out of her car and ran up to me. We both stood staring at the house for what seemed like a long time.
“Did you call nine-one-one?” I asked finally.
“Yes. They should be here any minute now.”
“Bernie, did you see Vanessa in the house?”
She looked for a second like she didn’t know who I was talking about. Then the realization of what I’d just asked hit her.
“Oh, my God! I forgot all about her! She could be in there too!”
“That is her car in the driveway, isn’t it?” I asked, pointing to the red Mustang.
“Yes,” she said, looking confused. “That’s her car. But I don’t know if she’s in there, Kendra. I didn’t see her!”
“It’s okay. Try and relax. I’m going inside to check and see if she’s in there.”
Bernie’s look of horror wasn’t lost on me. I wished I felt as confident as I had just sounded about walking into what could quite possibly be a murder scene.
“Vanessa could be in there hurt or unconscious. I have to go check to make sure.” I wondered who I was trying harder to convince, Bernie or myself.
“Kendra, this is a job for the police. If she’s in there, a few more minutes aren’t going to make much difference.”
“If she is in there and she’s hurt, I’m not going to have it on my conscience if she dies when there was something we could have been doing until help arrived,” I said impatiently.
Bernie gave me a look that told me I was on my own and went back to sit in her car. I walked around to the back of the house. I figured the door must still be open. I noticed how neglected the backyard looked. The grass was overgrown. The high wooden fence that surrounded the backyard and separated it from the alley was in need of painting, and the wood was warped in places. I also noticed that the gate that led out to the alley was open. Bernie said she had heard someone going out the door. The alley would be the quickest way to get away from the house.
I stood at the back step and looked at the door. It was slightly ajar, and I could see that the kitchen light was on. Maybe Bernie was right. I certainly wasn’t feeling very heroic at the moment. If a crime had been committed, I’m sure the police wouldn’t want me traipsing through the house and messing up evidence. On the other hand, if I were Vanessa, I wouldn’t want to be alone in the dark with only a dead body to keep me company. My mind was made up. I nudged the door open with my elbow, carefully avoiding touching any part of it. As I stepped inside, I was immediately struck by a foul smell. “Good Lord,” I said aloud and put my hand over my nose. I tried hard not to think about the probable source of that odor.
The kitchen looked much the same as the last and only other time I’d been in the house, which was a few months ago. I’d helped Bernie get the place ready for Vanessa to move in. The walls in the kitchen were painted a bright gaudy yellow. The cabinets were white with the center panel painted in the same yellow. White lace curtains hung in the window over the kitchen sink.
I could see that Vanessa had added her own personal touches to the kitchen. Plants lined the windowsills of the two windows that faced the backyard. The front of the refrigerator was covered in magnets that look like mini pieces of fruit and held a dozen or so snapshots in place. A few of the pictures were of children of various ages. The rest were of Vanessa with different people. In one picture she was with a group of women dressed in hospital scrubs and white uniforms. Vanessa was blowing out the candles on a birthday cake as everyone looked on. It must have been taken at work. Bernie had told me once that Vanessa was a nurse.
I walked through the kitchen to the small dining room and stopped dead in my tracks. Lying halfway between the dining room and the living room was Jordan. He was lying on his stomach facing the wall with one arm flung over his head and the other by his side. Bernie hadn’t exaggerated. The back of his head was a mass of blood, bone, hair, and what I assumed to be brain. Dried blood stained the carpet underneath his head, as well as the back of his neck and white shirt. Thankfully, I couldn’t see his face, as it was turned toward the wall, which was also splattered with blood. The smell that had greeted me when I came in was much stronger here. Jordan must have released his bowels at the moment of his death. I swallowed hard to keep from throwing up as I hurried away from the sight in front of me. I backed right into a metal serving cart that was against the wall. The sharp corner of the cart caught me right in the back, sending a jolt of pain through me.
At that moment, all of my Good Samaritan intentions left me. I fled the house. I sank down on the step and breathed in great gulps of fresh air that smelled of rain-soaked dirt and somebody’s recently cut grass. Did I really think that I could walk into this house and step over a dead body for any reason? Lord only knew what I would have found if I’d looked through the rest of the house. Who the hell did I think I was, Christy Love, or maybe one of Charlie’s Angels? Or more likely a female Barney Fife, only this wasn’t funny. Bernie was right. This was a matter for the police.
Almost as if on cue, I heard the sound of approaching sirens. I got up to walk around to the front of the house when I caught a glimpse of something white lying in the grass between the step and the overgrown shrubbery. I stooped to pick it up. It was a soggy wet envelope. Before I could look at it more closely, I heard the sound of voices. Without thinking, I stuffed the envelope in the pocket of my blazer.
The voices were coming from inside the house. Bernie had let the police in the front door. I walked around to see what was going on. I didn’t care if I ever saw the inside of that house again.
Bernie and I gave our statements to a rumpled-looking detective named Charles Mercer who looked more like a department store Santa Claus than a police detective. I guessed his large stomach and ruddy complexion must be indications of a fondness for rich foods and alcohol, with an emphasis on the latter. But, despite the lateness of the hour and the fact that he’d been roused from a sound sleep, he was very kind and patient with us. Especially with Bernie who, upon seeing Jordan’s body being wheeled out in a body bag and taken away by the coroner’s wagon, became hysterical.
As for Vanessa, I needn’t have bothered. She wasn’t in the house or anywhere to be found for that matter. The police searched the house from top to bottom with no luck. Vanessa had disappeared, leaving an unspoken question on everyone’s mind as to her role in all of this. Was she a victim, too, or the killer?
The night air had become very cool, and I pulled my blazer around me. By this time, many of the neighbors had come outside to watch from across the street. I watched them whispering among themselves and shaking their heads in disgust. Some were already turning to return to their houses. No doubt they were horrified that the violence that they saw daily on television and read about in the papers had now come to their neighborhood.
I looked around for Bernie and saw her standing by her car talking to Detective Mercer’s partner, Trish Harmon. I could tell from where I was standing that the conversation was not a friendly one. Bernie kept looking from her car to Detective Harmon and back again. If looks could kill, there would have been another homicide on Archer Street. I started to walk over to see what was going on when a hand touched my shoulder. It was Detective Mercer.
“I’m sorry, Miss Clayton, but I’ll have to ask that you and Ms. Gibson stick around just a little longer until our forensic tech arrives. You’ll both need to be fingerprinted.” He noticed my shocked expression and continued before I could raise an objection.
“It’s just a routine procedure so we can identify and eliminate any fingerprints we find in the house.” I remembered how careful I’d been about not touching anything when I entered the house. But in my haste to get out, who knows what I’d touched. I imagined that Bernie’s prints would be all over the place.
“Do you know how much longer it’ll be?” I asked. “I’d like to get home, and I know my friend would too. It was horrible for her finding Jordan the way she did.” I looked over and saw that Bernie was still talking to Detective Harmon and was still looking pissed. What were they talking about?
“Miss Clayton, do you know of any reason why Mr. Wallace would have been at this house?”
Why was he asking me? I wondered. Bernie and I had given our statements separately, and I assumed she’d have told him about Jordan and Vanessa.
“I couldn’t say, Detective Mercer,” I began and hoped I didn’t look and sound as untruthful as I was about to be. “I remember Bernie mentioning that Jordan had done some repairs for Mrs. Brumfield, but other than that, I don’t know,” I said innocently. Technically speaking, he did ask me if I knew of any reason. I gave him a reason, just not the right one.
“Do you know Vanessa Brumfield?” he asked.
“We were in the same graduating class in high school but we weren’t friends.” That was putting it mildly. Vanessa Cox, as she’d been in high school, and I hadn’t exactly hung with the same crowd. She’d been homecoming queen. I’d been in the library club.
“And you dropped Ms. Gibson off here at the house so she could get her car, is that correct?”
“Yes, that’s right.” I was feeling uneasy. What had Bernie told him?
“Did you think it was strange that Ms. Gibson called you before she called the police?” The thought had crossed my mind, but who’s to say what I’d have done in her shoes.
“I guess she just panicked and didn’t know what else to do. It’s not every day you find a dead body.”
He gave me an odd look and started to ask another question when a uniformed officer came over and whispered something in his ear.
“Thanks,” he said to the officer and then turned his attention back to me. “Well, Miss Clayton, our forensic tech just arrived. It shouldn’t take too long and then you and Ms. Gibson will be free to go home.”
“And then what happens?” I asked, knowing that this couldn’t be all there was to it.
“I’ll need for you and Ms. Gibson to come to the station sometime tomorrow and go over your statements and sign them.”
Great! I’m scheduled to work tomorrow morning at the restaurant, and now I’d have to find someone to cover for me for who knew how long.
“Now, if you’ll just follow Officer Howard, he’ll take you on over.” Detective Mercer gave me a curt nod and headed back toward the house.
I followed the stocky blond officer over to the curb where a white van was parked. Inside sat a very angry Bernie, who was having her fingertips cleaned with a cotton ball by a tired-looking bald man with glasses and a wrinkled shirt. Detective Mercer wasn’t the only one who’d been dragged out of bed.
“I was told we could go home after this, Bernie.”
“I’ll have to trouble you for a ride home again. That detective’s little sidekick told me they’re impounding my car for evidence! Said she could have a police car run me home. Now that’s all I need is for my neighbors to see me brought home in a police car!”
Bernie’s mother, Althea Gibson, had been the first black realtor in Willow. When she couldn’t get a job with the white-owned real estate companies in town, she’d started her own company, Gibson Realty, and had been very successful. She had also been the first black person to build a house in the affluent, all-white area of Willow known as Pine Knoll. Bernie had never felt completely comfortable living in Pine Knoll and was always worried about what the neighbors thought.
“Of course, I’ll give you a ride home,” I assured her. But my assurance didn’t wipe the anger from her face, and I knew from experience that I was about to get another earful.
“It isn’t their keeping my car that pisses me off,” she started and then glanced at the bald man in front of her, thought better of it, and didn’t say any more. Instead she lapsed into a stony silence.
I knew I’d be getting the lowdown in the car on the way home, so I didn’t press her for any more details.
Once again I found myself driving Bernie home. It was well after midnight and, except for an occasional person here and there, the streets were deserted. Bernie was rattling on about her encounter with Detective Harmon, which was good because her voice was the only thing keeping me awake.
“I just don’t like the way she talked to me,” Bernie said again. I didn’t miss my cue and dutifully asked what Detective Harmon had said.
“It’s not just what she said, it’s what she implied. When I asked why they had to keep my car, she acted like I was hiding something. Then she started asking me questions about Jordan’s family. When I told her I didn’t know anything about them, she acted like she didn’t believe me. Said she thought it was strange that we’d been living together for almost a year and I didn’t know anything about his family.”
I thought it was strange myself but didn’t comment. “I thought you said he was from Columbus.”
“He is… I mean was,” she said sadly as if she had momentarily forgotten Jordan was dead.
The neighborhoods were becoming more expensive and the houses bigger with each passing street. Pine Knoll is located on what used to be—you guessed it—a pine forest. The streets have names like Pine Cone Drive and Pine Forest Lane. Bernie lives on Conifer Circle. In the twenty-odd years since the Gibsons had moved to Pine Knoll, there were only three other black families living there now, one of whom is Bernie’s late brother Ben’s family who lives three blocks away on Blue Spruce Trail.
“You know she killed him, don’t you?” Bernie asked as matter-of-factly as if she’d said, “you know it’s raining, don’t you?”
“Who, Detective Harmon?”
“No, I mean Vanessa,” she said slowly through gritted teeth as if she were speaking to an idiot. “She’d probably just done it when I let myself into the house. She must have panicked and ran out the back door!”
I couldn’t help but wonder if Bernie was right. But the timing was wrong. “When was the last time you saw Jordan?”
“Around eight o’clock this morning, why?”
“Because his blood was dried, meaning he had to have been dead a while. He couldn’t have been killed right before you walked in.”
“Well, then she killed him in the morning and is probably long gone by now!” she said irritably, which told me she didn’t like me poking holes in her theory.
“If you feel this way, then why didn’t you tell Detective Mercer about what was going on between Jordan and Vanessa? He asked me if I knew why Jordan would have been at the house.”
“And what did you say?” she said in a shrill voice that set my teeth on edge. I could hear her panic, and it bothered me a lot.
“Don’t worry,” I said, glancing over at her. She was so tense she looked like she would shoot right through the roof of my car if anyone said boo to her. “I told him I didn’t know. I figure it’s your place to tell him.”
“Like hell it is! If I told him, it would point everything right back to me. He would automatically think I did it because I was jealous. You can forget it, Kendra. I’m not saying a damn thing!”
“Bernie, it’s not like they aren’t going to find out.” I may as well have been talking to a wall. Bernie had turned away from me and was staring out the window.