Oh how I love a rag-tag bunch of characters!
In this episode Catriona McPherson reads to us from Scot on the Rocks, the third book in her Last Ditch mysteries. She and I share a love of stories with a rag-tag bunch of characters. (Examples that spring to mind for me are the TV shows Firefly and Parks and Recreation, and the movie Saving Grace, to name a few.)
This is not something you find every day in mystery novels because sleuths tend to work alone or with one partner and the characters change with each book because the mystery changes. But Catriona explains how, in the case of these books, the characters moved in and stayed, much to her delight.
This Week’s Mystery Author
Catriona McPherson is the national best-selling and multiple award-winning author of 27 novels. She writes a historical detective series in the tradition of the British Golden Age, contemporary standalone psychological thrillers, and has recently begun as series of comic mysteries about a fish-out-of-water Scot in California “fighting crime and kale”.
In an amazing case of life imitating art, Catriona is Scottish but immigrated to northern California in 2010.
To learn more about Catriona McPherson and all her books visit CatrionaMcPherson.com
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Excerpt from Scot on the Rocks
“It’s the most lud-i-crous taaaaiiiiime of the year!” I sang to myself as I traipsed through the streets of downtown Cuento en route to the Yummy Parlor Szechuan Restaurant and Takeaway.
When I was a kid, back in Dundee – or Dundee, Scotland, as they call it here – St Valentine’s Day meant a card if someone fancied you, knew your address, and had a stamp; a bunch of flowers if you had a boyfriend who hadn’t worked off whatever he did at the New Year’s Eve Party; or a white furry teddy bear with a red satin chest if you were really slow on the uptake and the kind of sickening Christmas present you get from someone who’d buy a teddy bear for Valentine’s Day hadn’t made you dump him in time. Maybe some wives put love notes in the lunch boxes of some husbands. Maybe some husbands put chocolates on the pillows of some wives. My dad bought my mum a card once. She opened it at the breakfast bar, frowned, said “For crying out loud, Keith” and ripped the front off to use for a shopping list.
She would keel over in her tartan slippers and hit the ground stone dead if she could see Cuento tonight. Every shop window had a mammoth eruption of bright red and bright pink – two colours that newsflash do not go – and it didn’t matter whether the eruption was balloons, ribbons, fabric, flowers, table linen, stuffed animals, stationery, garden tools (because of course the hardware store had got in on the act) or iced cakes, the result looked like a giant shiny haemorrhoid. A new kind of giant haemorrhoid that could also give you a migraine if you looked at it too long.
The bars and restaurants were worse than the shops. Every table on every covered patio and in every show-off window was set for two, with a cheap red candle already dripping wax onto a fake red rose and two deluded numpties gawping at each other across a hiked-up plate of dodgy oysters while a server twisted the cork out of a hiked-up bottle of domestic fizz.
Some of the girl numpties were ripping open tiny pink and red packages and popping the velvet lid inside with the practised flick of a gel tip. To be fair, these scenes could be quite entertaining. I stopped at La Cucaracha and pretended to look at the menu purely to watch one of them play out. The gift in question was silver earrings and either the male numpty who had bought them or a sociopath in the jewelry shop had been dumb enough to put them in a very small, square, white-and-gold for God’s sake box that looked, even to my inexpert eye, like it had been conceived and manufactured expressly to house a diamond solitaire. She held it, still closed, against her heaving chest, gazing at him with shiny eyes. He realised – a second too late – what she was thinking. She saw him realise – also a second too late, just as she was lifting the plump, white lid on its little gold hinge. And there they were, the pair of them: dismayed, mortified, furious, resentful, ungrateful, hate in their hearts and still a whole evening to get through. Happy Valentine’s Day!
It was almost enough to make me glad I was headed for the Yummy Parlor to get myself Chinese for one and go home to watch The Repair Shop. Almost.
But the rot had spread even here, to my favourite of Cuento’s eateries. I loved this place. For a start there was the glamour – irresistible to all foreigners – of Chinese food in one of those waxy little decapitated pyramids just like the movies. Truly it made me feel like the lost seventh Friend to pluck one from my fridge, sniff it, wince and eat it anyway. Also their meals were blistering hot. I had got mightily sick of lukewarm, litigation-avoiding food in the just over a year I’d lived here and I’d come to appreciate deeply the way the cooks at the Yummy Parlor handed over soup that would still be bubbling when you got it home, seeming to say “Sue us if you like, ya wimp. It won’t put the skin back on your tongue.”
I was guessing at what they said, of course. And that was the last reason I adored the Yum. The customer service was appalling. They were surly, unbending, pretty sarcastic even in English and obviously hilarious in Cantonese, flinging around judgements about the customers and not trying pretend they weren’t. Whenever the endless beaming smiles and bottomless obliging service of the typical Californian really started to unsettle me, there was nowhere like the Yum to remind me of home. With a curled lip and a rolled eye they could cure my homesickness before they’d licked their pencil and laughed at my order.
So obviously, I had told myself after work, no one would be clueless enough to bring a Valentine’s date here. I could get my honey and walnut prawns and my nuclear soup without any pink, any red, any roses, or any pity.
Ha. What I had forgotten was that, unrelated to the misanthropy of the staff, the temperature of the sauces and the shape of the containers, the food was good. And even on this insufferable day there were a few courting couples in Cuento who cared. The Yum had done their best to make clear the establishment’s contempt for the holiday. The tealights were slapped straight down on the Formica and they’d made ten roses do thirty tables by chopping them into three pieces, crossways. Twenty tables had sections of stalk in shot glasses, while ten had flower heads with no stalk. Truly, pie shops in Glasgow could learn disdain from these masters.
Still, I should have been able to tough it out. I would have been able to tough it out. If only I hadn’t seen in the usually-dead eyes of the Yum’s counter-order taker something that undid me. “Hot sour soup and honey walnut shrimp, please,” I said, translating effortlessly into American.
“For one?” she said and that’s when I saw it. It wasn’t pity, nor empathy, nor kindness, nor concern. But it was, unmistakably, human. And she didn’t shout anything scathing over her shoulder towards the kitchen either.
“No, for tw-” I started to say, then I put my hand to my back pocket and prised out my phone. Yes, I was wearing very tight jeans. Yes, I had changed into them twenty minutes ago. Just in case. “One minute,” I told the order taker, as I put the phone to my ear. “You’re just in time,” I told it. “I was going to get you the same as me. What do you want? Okay. Okay. Open a tinny for me. I’ll be there soon.” I put the phone back in my pocket and said, “The soup and shrimp for one, plus a general chicken and fried rice. Four crispy wontons. Thank you. And two fortune cookies,” I added in case she still hadn’t got the message.
“You’re a sad, sad, sad, sad, sad, sad, sad little sack,” I sang as I traipsed home again, using the tune of “When the red, red robin”. I was disgusted with myself for pretending to have an imaginary boyfriend, for pretending my useless imaginary boyfriend sent me out for take-out on Valentine’s Day, for pretending my useless, uncommunicative imaginary boyfriend ignored all my texts asking him what he wanted, and most of all for pretending that my useless uncommunicative boring imaginary boyfriend ate general chicken and wontons, when I could either have ordered him something lovely that I would have welcomed tomorrow for lunch or something properly awful like congee and frog curry that I wouldn’t be tempted to cram into my lonely bitter face tonight with my second bottle of wine and third rom-com.
I even found myself looking at a man walking ahead of me, alone, not carrying chocolates or flowers, not dressed up or reeking of aftershave and not – I saw the lack of a reflective glint on his left hand as he passed a lighted hairdresser’s salon – married. Was he lonel- No! Was he single too maybe? I knew he was straight, from the clothes – truly pitiful but I didn’t mind a fixer. And he had a walk that said “I’m fine with who I am; ain’t life grand?”. If I overtook him, me in my skinny jeans, then he caught up again at the pedestrian crossing, and I smiled, and he smiled back, and the lights were broken and we were stranded there . . .
He sailed across the road as the walky man appeared and strode into the phone shop on the other corner, going straight through the sales area and into the staff door. That was that then. A phone shop staff member would never look twice at me with my unused apps and over-priced chump plan. Men didn’t want fixers.
As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the downtown florist was still open and, as I passed, a woman in a pink overall with a red ribbon tied round her head and done up in the kind of rosette you can only learn to make from a YouTube video, was putting out a sign saying “Sold Out of Red Rose’s” and I was too depressed at the thought that phone shop guy and me were the only solitary people in Cuento tonight to ask “Red Rose’s what?”
And then the tin lid was applied and tamped down all round with the handle of a sturdy screwdriver. I noticed, outside the only residential property on my route – from the Yum, under the railway line to the (literal) wrong side of the tracks, past the police station, drive-through coffee shack and self-storage facility, to the Last Ditch motel where I make my humble home – a pile of what they call yard waste.
It’s a great service provided by Cuento City Waste Management and Recycling. When you’re doing your garden, you just scrape all the crap you don’t want – everything from palm branches to grass clippings – down onto the street and leave it there for someone to take away. It’s a hell of a waste of parking spaces and it’s not much fun for the odd cyclist who somersaults into piles of jaggy stuff but you’ve got to love such a celebration of extreme laziness. It’s right up there with the drive-through bank.
I had never seen anything to trouble me in this pile. Usually it was prunings, punctured lemons, weeds and the odd rotting squash. Tonight though, right on the top, there was a bunch of slightly wilted, not quite decaying roses. I stopped and stared, feeling the tub of soup hit me in the calf with a hot smack. I’d never wondered about the people who lived in this one little house jammed between a fro-yo and the multi-story carpark for the cinema. Students, I’d have guessed. Or maybe an original owner from the fifties, hanging on, shredding the offers from developers that had to come through the letterbox thick and fast now that the zoning was commercial on this block. Whoever they were, I now saw, one of them bought roses for another one so regularly that the old bunch could go out for the binmen when a fresh lot turned up on Valentine’s Day.
So I was in the mother of all slumps when I trudged across the Last Ditch car park heading for the corner where the path led round to the motel’s namesake slough in which my little houseboat sat eddying gently and bugging the life out of the city planners. I purposefully avoided looking upstairs towards Todd and Roger’s room, even though they were bound to be either out somewhere fabulous, or already in bed with lobsters. I even more purposefully avoided looking into the office where the owners, Kathi and Noleen, were bound to be either sharing a loving curry on a card table or having a romantic game of darts and a margarita.
Unfortunately two doors opened while I was right in the middle of the asphalt, not a chance of a getaway. Room 101 was the lair of Devin, a kid who’d moved out of his college accommodation when he couldn’t stand the bullying and moved in here to try to live off the buffet breakfasts for three meals a day. Room 105 was the permanent home of Della and her six-year-old, Diego, as well as two cats, a rabbit, a seahorse and an expanding family of tropical fish.
“He sleeps!” Della was calling along to Devin. She hadn’t even noticed me.
“Cool!” Devin said and pulled his door shut behind him with his foot. He loped along the walkway under the overhang, his arms bursting with . . . looked like some kind of board game . . . and a six pack swinging by its plastic from one finger.
“Oh!” I said. “You two having a game night? You should have told me. I’ve over-ordered Chinese and I’ve got a bottle of . . . can’t remember actually, but I’ll get it.”
“Hi, Lexy,” Della said. She was looking at me with a weird penetrating look on her face that I couldn’t begin to decipher.
“Yeah,” said Devin. Della swung round and treated him to the look now. “I- I mean ‘yeah, hi, Lexy’ not ‘yeah, Chinese food and mystery booze’,” he said. “Hi Lexy. Yeah.”
He always talked like this. Noleen had burst into his room every day before they legalized it looking for evidence of a hydroponic grow, but I reckoned he was just made that way.
“So . . .?” I said. I really did. I was that slow.
“See you tomorrow!” said Della. “Have a lovely evening. Thank you.”
“Wait,” I said. I looked at what Della was wearing and noticed at last that there wasn’t much of it. And I looked at Devin’s armload and realised that the boardgame was Twister. “Wait,” I said. “Are you . . .? Are you two . . . ? Is that even . . .?” Legal I was going to say. Thank God I stopped myself in time. But seriously, Devin was a student, a child, and Della was a woman, a mother.
“Legal?” Della said. “Were you asking is it legal?”
“Jeez, Lexy,” Devin said. “I’m twenty-one.”
“I wasn’t going to say ‘legal’,” I lied. “I was going to say . . . ‘legal’. Sorry. Why not? What’s it got to do with me? Joan Collins- I mean, isn’t Madonna- I mean, Demi Moo-”
“I’m twenty-five,” Della said. “Have a lovely evening, Lexy.”
“Hasta pronto!” I said, even though I know my accent hurts Della’s teeth, then I went round the back of the motel to eat two dinners and try to feel proud because this stupid manufactured holiday really needed a grinch of its very own and I was ideal. Clearly.