100 podcast episodes. Nearly 100 amazing mystery authors.
Welcome to episode 100 of It’s a Mystery Podcast. I’m thrilled that we’ve made it to this milestone. :-)
To celebrate, this week I’m reading from one of my own books, Horse With No Name, a historical mystery set in 1890 in British Columbia. In the intro I discuss what it is about this era that draws me to write about it and where the idea for amateur sleuth and schooleacher Julia Thom came from.
It is a thrill and an honour for me each week to host this show and I plan to continue for a long as I can. I have loved meeting all the authors who have been on the show and it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to some books you might not have otherwise heard of.
I personally am so grateful to every author who takes the risk of putting their heart and ideas on the page and sharing those things with the world.
Here’s to another 100 episodes!
This week’s mystery author
Alexandra Amor writes mystery novels about love, friendship and the search for truth.
At the moment, she is working on the next book in her Freddie Lark mystery series.
Alexandra began her writing career with an Amazon best-selling, award-winning memoir about ten years she spent in a cult in the 1990s. She has written four animal adventures for middle-grade readers, set on a fictional island in the Salish Sea, several historical mysteries set in 1890 in frontier British Columbia, and a cozy romantic mystery.
To learn more about Alexandra and all her books, visit AlexandraAmor.com
Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher, Android, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, and Spotify.
Chapter One from Horse With No Name
Millie Jones’ hand was like a vice around Constable Jack Merrick’s wrist. Julia understood how he felt; her own wrist was being crushed by Millie’s other claw.
The schoolhouse where Julia worked was doubling as a dance hall this evening because it was the only building in town that could hold most of the inhabitants at once. This was Julia’s first dance in Horse since she’d arrived six weeks earlier. She was having a lively chat with one of her student’s parents when the mayor’s wife, Millicent Jones, dragged Constable Jack Merrick over.
“Come on now, you two,” Millie said. “Don’t be shy. Have a dance with each other. That’s why we’re here.”
Merrick looked at Julia with a mixture of terror and mortification in his eyes. She had never seen the big policeman look afraid of anything, and here he was being reduced to a quivering mess by the suggestion of a dance.
“I’m a terrible dancer,” he said to Julia, almost pleading.
Julia didn’t get a chance to let him off the hook.
“Nonsense!” Millie shrilled, “It’s a wee country dance. You’ll have no trouble, Constable.” Though Millie never lifted a hand unless she had to, she seemed to have the strength of three men; she managed to pull Julia and Merrick together by their arms and push them toward the dance floor.
As they reached the floor Merrick self-consciously wiped his palms on his trousers and then held them out to Julia. His expression was pained. “I apologize in advance,” he said, “I wasn’t being modest before. I really am an awful dancer.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Julia smiled at him reassuringly and took his hands.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t wrong. His movements were stiff and awkward, and he obviously wasn’t familiar with the waltz. She could hear him counting under his breath, which made her want to laugh. They moved around the floor, occasionally bumping into other couples. Merrick apologized each time, and then returned his gaze to watching his feet. Julia had never seen him blush before; now, his face was red like a fresh tomato. She felt sorry for him.
They made it through, and with only minor damage to Julia’s toes. She was relieved when the song came to an end, and she could see in Merrick’s face that whatever relief she felt, his was probably ten times greater.
“Thank you, Merrick,” she said. “That was lovely.”
He smiled for the first time in many minutes. “You’re a poor liar,” he said.
Sadly, this moment of connection was lost almost immediately. When they left the floor, Millie was there waiting for them, her eyes shiny with purpose.
“I was right. You two make such a handsome couple. Go again. Go on.” She made shooing motions with her hands, trying to turn Julia and Merrick around.
“I’m a bit out of breath, Mrs. Jones,” Julia said. “I think I’ll take a break.”
“Nonsense,” Millie said, undeterred and most definitely immune to picking up on subtle social signals. “You’re young! Get back out there and enjoy yourself.” She grabbed Merrick by the elbow and once again tried to drag him toward Julia, but she might as well have tried dragging an oak through the forest by its branches.
When Julia glanced at Merrick, there was something akin to sorrow in his eyes. She briefly wondered if he was missing his wife. And so she tried to let him off the hook. Unfortunately her good intentions didn’t make it all the way to her tongue. “Thank you for the dance, Constable Merrick. I’ll let you go. I’m sure you have other things to attend to.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized they sounded ungrateful and curt, and as though she didn’t want to dance with him again. Which wasn’t true.
Hurt flared briefly in the man’s eyes, and then was gone and replaced by the cool, professional demeanor she so often saw in them. He made a small bob of his head, “As you wish, Miss Thom.” He pulled his arm out of Millie’s raptor grasp and walked away.
“Stupid, stupid woman.” Julia wasn’t sure if she was cursing herself or Mrs. Jones as she lifted her skirt and trudged down the front steps of the schoolhouse.
She reached the ground and spun on the heel of one buttoned boot to walk back the length of the building to the outhouse that was positioned several yards beyond the schoolhouse, among some young birch trees.
Night had landed with a thump. She hardly noticed the sparkly blanket of stars above her head as she strode along the path. The darkness was so absolute that her eyes might as well have been closed, although that didn’t matter. She walked this path several times a day and did it without thinking. Her feet followed the route without instruction.
Millie Jones’ interference tonight irritated Julia, but more than that she was angry at herself for hurting her new friend, Jack Merrick, albeit unintentionally. A small part of her recognized as well, though she was loathe to admit it, that Merrick affected her more than she was comfortable with.
Since she had arrived in Horse, her relationship with the tall and stoic police constable had been fraught with tension. She, with a quick mind and a judge for a father, had been denied her dream of attending law school. But this hadn’t prevented her from getting embroiled in a little mystery involving one of her students a few weeks earlier. Constable Merrick had initially been reluctant to accept Julia’s help, but eventually surrendered, as one does to the tide or the seasons. He recognized that fighting her would probably only cause him suffering. They’d reached a mutual detente and recently even seemed to be approaching something like an uneasy friendship. Now, though, she was afraid she’d destroyed whatever goodwill had been building between them.
She swung the outhouse door open and stepped inside, turning to latch it behind her. The chiding continued while she attended to her business, and then also as she closed the door behind her and began the walk back to the school. The music had started up again inside the building. It floated out of the open front door and swirled around her in the yard.
She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she almost slammed into a man standing on the path. “Oh, excuse me,” Julia said and stopped, expecting him to step to the side and leave the path to her.
“You’re Miss Thom, aren’t you?” the man said. The strong smell of whisky reached Julia’s nose.
She took a better look at his face, his features murky in the dim-to-non-existent light. Without answering his question, she said, “Who are you?”
“Hear that, Bill?” the man said, with a mocking tone in his voice, “This little gem wants to know who we are.”
Julia jumped slightly, suddenly realizing there was another man standing at her right elbow, so close she could hear him breathing. Even so, she refused to yield. “Excuse me,” she said again, “I’d like to pass.”
“Be my guest,” the first man said, remaining stock still, standing on the path.
She couldn’t step to her right because of the second man there. And she couldn’t step to her left as the path at this point in its journey hugged tightly against a large maple tree before arching out again in a lazy curve. Julia wondered if these men had chosen this spot to wait for her deliberately. Of course they did, idiot, she chastised herself.
As any woman would do in this circumstance, Julia felt herself beginning to panic but worked hard to stay calm. She knew any sound she made would not be heard by anyone in the school; the building was still fifteen yards away. As well, the din of chatter, music and laughter had only increased as the evening progressed. Julia could scream herself hoarse and never be heard.
She could try to push through the men, though she expected that was exactly what they wanted. And the thought of touching either of them made her skin crawl.
So she did the only thing she could think of and took a quick step back and then tried to swiftly move around the second man. They had anticipated this, of course. Both men reached out as she moved and each grabbed one of her arms.
Julia froze and mustered her best school mistress voice. “Let me go.”
The first man, clearly the leader of the team, laughed quietly and put his face right up to hers. He looked at her the way a cat looks at a mouse it has trapped. Squeezing her arm tightly he growled, “Not a chance now, Lassie. You’re mine.” He held up the glinting blade of a knife, the razor sharp kind you use to gut animals. With one finger he stroked the hair collected in a bun at the back of her neck.
His compatriot snorted and spat a wad of chewing tobacco onto the ground.
Julia pulled and struggled, trying to break free, but her arms were held fast.
The first man kept his lips close to Julia’s cheek. “This’ll teach you, teacher lady, to go out all by yerself.” His breath smelled of the whisky she had noticed a moment ago, and also of something sour.
First Man pulled back slightly. Glancing quickly over his shoulder, he checked the path behind him and then jerked his head at his partner. “Quickly now,” he said. And then to Julia, “If you make one sound I will cut that pretty face of yours all to pieces.” He nodded once. “No foolin’.”
Julia believed him.
Both men began to walk, pulling Julia with them, forcing her to walk backwards, toward the outhouse. They held her arms so tightly and moved so swiftly that they were basically carrying her. Julia glanced left and right hoping to see the flash of a match or some other sign that someone, anyone, was outside, but there was nothing. The men veered off the path and pulled Julia around the outhouse, into the cluster of trees at the very back of the school property.
The two men were utterly silent.
Julia tried kicking out at their legs, but they dodged the path of her flailing feet, and gripped her more tightly.
If she had thought it dark before, the darkness in the trees took things to another level. The lingering leaves blocked out any light from the stars and moon, and the shadows thrown by the tree trunks and branches were weighted with fear.
The journey into the trees took only seconds, though to Julia it seemed much longer than that.
The knife that First Man held continued to glimmer beside her throat despite the lack of light. The men, without saying anything to one another began to slow. They had chosen their spot.
Julia began to weigh the consequences of screaming and was about to draw breath to do so when a voice came out of the night behind the men.
“Let her go.”
Julia couldn’t see anything. She ranged her head around wildly, but the dark mass of tree trunks was all that she could see.
The two men spun around, letting go of her arms. Julia was unprepared and fell to her knees.
Second Man whispered, “Who’s there?”
Julia rose from her knees and stumbled forward. First Man reached for her arm, trying to grab her again, when the voice came again, loud and sharp, “Do not do that.”
First Man withdrew his hand as from a hot stove and Julia kept moving. She didn’t recognize the voice but walked as quickly as she could toward it. A hand reached out. She saw the tiny flash of flesh in the velvet blackness. She reached and grabbed it; a drowning woman being pulled to shore.
The two men behind her must have recovered their wits and drunken bravado.
“I’ll cut you down,” First Man said and began moving to where Julia was standing.
The stranger’s voice beside her came again. “Stay where you are.”
First man made a scoffing noise, and kept moving, “Piss off.”
A shot rang out, wild and eclipsing in the quiet. Julia jumped as though she’d been bitten. First Man howled and leapt back. His saucer eyes flashed like fireflies.
The voice beside Julia came again, “I said, leave her alone.”
Both men froze. The air fairly crackled in the grove of trees.
“Go, Miss Thom. Go back to the dance.”
Julia turned and finally recognized who was coming to her aid. It was Mr. Hunter, the town clockmaker. He had a tiny silver pistol in his left hand. He took his eyes off the men for a second, “Go on.”
Julia took a step sideways and then heard the whisper of leaves and scuffle of boots. The men disappeared, melting into the darkness. For a few moments, she and Mr. Hunter stood listening, and then the sounds were gone.
The clockmaker turned and offered Julia his elbow. “Let’s go back inside.”