The Val & Kit Mystery Series

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Real Power of the Pen



The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. So said Oscar Wilde. Another way to think about it comes from the 1942 movie Bambi, where the wise and forward-thinking Thumper said, “If you cant say something nice, dont say nothing at all.”

Bad reviews are a pain, they hurt, and they can be cruel or plain old nasty. No matter how many good reviews we get (and the vast majority of our reviews are plain old wonderful), the occasional bad ones stick with us. They are impossible to forget, or get rid of, like when you step in something and now you can’t get it off the sole of your shoe. You might forget your social security number, the date of your wedding anniversary, or how your spouse of twenty years takes his coffee, but you can quote verbatim the bad review you got ten years ago and the name of the bad reviewer.

While researching this blog, we learned that many books considered to be classic literature, by iconic authors, received at least one bad review. To name just a few: For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Okay, we get it; not everyone likes everything, but to slam Harper Lee? Come on.

So, while we don’t quite put our novels into the above category, it does make receiving a stinker review on Amazon a little bit easier to take. Some people just don’t like us; we get that too. But a good review, with five stars displayed next to our title, makes us giddy with joy (and relief). A bad review, with the dreaded one star, can be devastating. When that happens, we are lucky to have each other to commiserate with. Wonder who Harper Lee called?

As avid readers ourselves, we turn to our astute and perceptive pink-nosed rabbit friend, Thumper, when it comes to writing reviews: If you can’t say something etc. etc.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Empty Nest (for Now)

Our baby is all grown up, and it’s time for her to leave home. And by baby, we mean the sixth novel in our Val & Kit Mystery Series. Her name is Foreign Relations, and we are excited to send her out into the world.

Even before she was conceived, we had many of our loyal readers asking when she would arrive. Her five siblings have paved the way, but as her creators, we are eager not to disappoint. As always, our creative process has been an exciting and rewarding journey: many Skype sessions between the two of us (since we live at opposite ends of the country, Wisconsin and Texas); many, many long phone calls; thousands of e-mails; and a rare-but-treasured in-person work session. And most of all, a lot of laughs. 

When our journey began, we had little idea where we were going, but as our plot formed, our story took on its own life, and in many ways took over. We merely had to steer Val and Kit in the right direction, admittedly stopping in several pubs and English restaurants along the way. While in Little Dipping, our imaginary and bucolic village in the heart of the English countryside, Val and Kit made their first foray into the theatrical world. Kit took to the stage like a duck to water, or should we say a sixteenth-century noblewoman to the Italian Renaissance. Val, not so much. At the same time, news from back home in the USA was often in the forefront of our heroines’ minds, and they also had an unwelcome American visitor show up. Eventually, mysteries were solved and loose ends tied up, and Val and Kit returned home to Downers Grove, Illinois.

Since Foreign Relations is set in England, the first trip abroad for our protagonists, Val and Kit, we turned to family in the UK for much of our research. What type of tea do the Brits drink? Does sherry come in a corked bottle? Do Brownies still wear brown uniforms?

Roz's Brownie niece Jennie, circa 1987

Roz's Brownie grand-niece Emily, 2017

Now, after much rereading, editing, and Skyping (thank goodness for Skype), Foreign Relations is finally done, and we have to push her out the door, into the world, so she can take her place alongside the others that went before her. Her cover is beautiful. Pre-orders were good (whew!). We are proud.

As always, we are so thankful for our wonderful readers who make the whole process worthwhile. We hope you enjoy reading Foreign Relations as much as we did creating her. In the meantime, while we anxiously await reviews, we also begin thinking of our next baby. She’s in there somewhere.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Daddy’s Day 1974

“I’m wondering what to get my dad for Father’s day,” I said to Kit. We were lying on chaise lounges beside her pool, listening to The Temptations and sipping wine spritzers (minus the wine) from tall glasses. We liked to pretend they were the real thing.

“I assumed you were going to get him a sombrero,” she said from her supine position. “Ya know, to match that Latin scarf thingy you gave your mom on Mother’s Day. You saved that receipt, I hope.”

“Yes.” My mom had exchanged her gift for a trash can that had wheels.

“I got my dad a bottle of Glenfiddich single malt whisky,” Kit continued. “My mother suggested it.”

I was impressed with my thirteen-year-old pal who knew her malts. “I couldn’t buy my dad alcohol,” I said glumly, as I heard my mom’s voice in my head. Why don’t I just call the Betty Ford Center and reserve you a room? “It’s back to Ross Dress for Less for me. I’ve only got about three bucks to spend.” I’d blown my savings on a Genesis album.

With a dad like Greg, Patty's granddaughter Anna Lydia
has every reason to celebrate Father's Day!
On the big day we went to the country club for a special Father’s Day brunch. My older brother, Buddy, put a box (wrapped in the same Christmas paper he’d used on Mother’s Day) in front of my father. Then he sat back in his chair, looking smug as my dad picked the box up gingerly and shook it next to his ear.

“I don’t hear anything ticking,” he said.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, just open it, will you. I want to order.” My mother did not enjoy suspense.

So Dad complied, taking great care, until eventually he pulled out a white coffee mug with the words Keep on Truckin’ stamped across it.

Really, Buddy?” My mother glanced at the mug and quickly began placing her napkin on her lap. “You didn’t buy that at an actual truck stop, I hope.”

“Thanks, son,” my dad said. “It’s great.” Now he began holding it up to the light as if it were Waterford crystal.

“Good grief.” My mother slammed her palm into her forehead. “Valerie, for heaven’s sake, give your Dad his gift before I go insane.”

“Okay. Daddy, I decided to write you a poem.” I watched him lean back in his chair in awe over my creativity (but definitely not my extravagance). “Can I read it to you?”

May I read it,” my mother wearily corrected me. She lives in formal-grammar land.

I held up the poem I’d taken from my purse (and intended to get framed very soon) and began. “Dad, this is my day to thank you for the following: teaching me to skate—”

“You call that skating?” (from Buddy)

I continued. “Taking me to see Young Frankenstein

“What? Why didn’t I know that?” my mother interrupted, looking up from her menu.

Again, I continued. “Explaining to me how football works (although I’m still not sure I get it).”

“Man.” Buddy rolled his eyes. “It’s got like three rules; what’s not to get?”

I continued yet again. “Playing with me and my Easy-Bake Oven for hours on end—

“Isn’t it about time you learned how to use a real oven?” (Buddy again)

“Obviously, I meant when I was younger.”

“Valerie, we were all much younger when you started this poem,” my mother said. “Please get on with it. The eggs Florentine are always good here.”

I continued. “For all the times you helped me with my homework, even though you were so tired when you got home from work—

“How come I didn’t get to see Young Frankenstein?” I knew Buddy wouldn’t let that one go.

“You were at a hockey game. Happy now? Shall I continue?”

“Please do,” my dad said, but I could see that even he was eyeing the menu.

And most of all, for giving me permission to go to Tish’s party last week, even though there were no adults there, but plenty of boys, and I drank six wine spritzers.” I stopped and looked at my audience. My parents were now both deep into their menus, and Buddy seemed to be trying to mold his napkin into something obscene. “Did you hear me?” I asked.

Dad closed his menu. “Yes, honey, you were the only girl at an all-night party at a frat house in Istanbul and you drank twelve wine spritzers. Hope you didn’t drive home. How about you read the poem to me later, when were not surrounded by these philistines?”

“What’s Palestine got to do with it?” Buddy had stopped re-creating his napkin and now tucked it into his shirt front like he was an eighty-year-old man.

Without even looking up, my mother whipped it from his shirt and dropped it on his lap.

“Okay, Dad, I’ll read it later. But can I just read the—”

May I read,” my mother interrupted again.

I continued. “Daddy, you are the best father in the world, and I’m the luckiest daughter.”

“I thought a poem was supposed to rhyme,” Buddy said.

That’s why you’re a Palestinian.” I handed the poem to my dad and watched the slow smile form on his face as he read my words silently. I made a mental check mark: job well done. Perfect gift. And certainly better than a coffee mug.

Who buys a loved one a coffee mug?



Monday, May 1, 2017

Many Happy Returns


May 1974

There was a light tapping on my bedroom door, followed by, “Valerie, honey? It’s Dad.”

“What do you want now?” I replied in a very serious tone.

“I have just one more question, Ma’am. Where were you at midnight?”

“Why, Detective Columbo, I spent the evening at home playing gin rummy with Clint Eastwood.”

“Can anyone confirm this, Miss Caldwell?”

“Apart from Clint, you could ask David Cassidy. He was there all night making Harvey Wallbangers.”

I heard my father chuckle and take an imaginary puff of his invisible Columbo cigar. “I’m coming in, Miss Caldwell; I got a warrant here.” When the door opened, he stood there in his tartan robe, belted at the waist over wrinkled pajamas.

I patted the empty spot at the end of my bed. “Come sit here, Detective.”

“You’re getting pretty good at this, Valerie. I’m gonna have a heck of a time busting your alibi.”

My father’s favorite TV show was Columbo, and one of my favorite pastimes was watching it with him. We’d invented a game where he would arbitrarily turn into the famous detective and I was challenged to come up with an unbreakable alibi.

“So, what are you doing here?” he asked, going back to daddy mode. “Counting your money?”

My pink ceramic pig was turned upside down on my bed, the plug in its plastic tummy removed, the contents laid out on my bedspread. “Yep. I have nearly six dollars.”

“And what are you planning to do with all this money?”

“Getting Mom a gift for Mother’s Day.”

He smiled sweetly and leaned across the bed to pinch my cheek. “You’re a good girl, Valerie.”

“So, help me; what should I get her?”

“Hmm.” He scratched the top of his head. “Doesn’t she loves hummingbirds? You could get a ceramic—”

“She hates hummingbirds, Daddy. She calls them flying insects, and they give her a headache.”

“Okay, perfume. How about that?”

“I bought her the deluxe supersize bottle of Jean Naté for Christmas, and it’s still half-full.”

“Okay, I got it. A book. Doesn’t your mother love to read?”

Love to read? Dad, have you even met Mom? The only thing she ever looks at is Reader’s Digest.”

He nodded in agreement as he stood and reached into the pocket of his robe. “Here, take this.”

“Dad! Ten dollars! I can’t—”

“Of course you can. Get her something really nice. She’ll love whatever you pick.”

“Thanks, Daddy. I’ll bring you change. Kit and I are going shopping today, so I don’t suppose you could—”

“Drive you? It would be an honor.”

***

My dad waited in the parking garage, reading his newspaper, while Kit and I scooted into Saks Fifth Avenue. With her father’s credit card, my pal headed straight to the counter that sold evening purses. After a very brief glance at the display shielded behind glass, she pointed to one item. “That one,” she said, sounding way more grown-up than her thirteen years.

The saleslady seemed amused as she gently took the purse, covered in gold beads, from its resting place. “This one is three hundred ninety-nine dollars,” she said, probably expecting us to faint. She was returning the bag to its perch when Kit held up a hand to stop her.

“I’ll take it.” She slid her dad’s card across the counter. “My father has an account here, and I’m a signee.”

“Oh.” The woman’s expression changed. “Then let me gift wrap it for you.”

“Your mom will love that; it’s so gorgeous,” I whispered to Kit, as the saleslady vanished.

“Not really. She’s got several that are very similar. What she wants is to be able to return it for cash.”

“Can she do that?”

“She does it all the time.”

How sad, I thought. At least my mom had never returned a gift from me.

Next, my dad drove us to Marshalls. My choice. Once there, I spent seven dollars on a polyester shawl. It was embroidered with birds and edged with a sixteen-inch gold fringe. So glamorous. Then later, after we had dropped Kit off at her house, Dad asked to see my purchase.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You are very clever. You know, a scarf like that—”

Shawl, Detective; it’s not a scarf.”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Daddy/Columbo apologized. “But an item just like that was reported stolen by Charo, along with several million dollars’ worth of jewelry.”

“Really, Detective? That’s strange, because Goldie Hawn herself gave this to me for my birthday.”

***

On Mother’s Day, my little family gathered in the kitchen. My dad was making breakfast, and my mom, who was wearing her pink chenille robe with matching pink curlers in her hair, was seated at the table. My shawl was wrapped and ready to go, but before I could present it, my sixteen-year-old brother, Buddy, breezed in looking way too pleased with himself. He handed Mom a package wrapped in Christmas paper.

“This wrapping is so adorable, Buddy.” She obviously didn’t notice it was about five months too late for Santa and his crew to be sleighing across rooftops. The gift inside was a book, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. “Oh, Buddy!” she said, as if he’d given her The Gutenberg Bible. “This is marvelous. I’ve been eyeing it since it came out.”

Really, Mom, you’ve been eyeing it for EIGHT years?

She opened the book, but before she could actually begin reading, I handed her my package, wrapped in pink-and-white polka-dot paper and tied with a red ribbon.

“Oh my, what is this?” She pulled out the shawl, and I could clearly see that some of the painted pink things flying around the fabric were hummingbirds. The fringe I had thought so striking now looked like the tangled mane of a wild horse.

“Try it on,” my dad said from the stove.

Reluctantly, she slowly wrapped it over the shoulders of her chenille robe and then ran her fingers through the long fringe. I figured she couldn’t wait to chop it off.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s very . . . unusual,” she said. Then her face brightened as an idea occurred to her. “I’ll save it to wear to a Quinceañera.”

What had I been thinking? The shawl that had looked so exotic in the store now seemed farcical. And the chances that she’d be invited to a Quinceañera were about as remote as her attending a bullfight in Spain. But I kissed her on the cheek anyway and tried to hide my disappointment over my tacky gift. Quickly, I moved to the safety of my dad at the stove, where he was frying bacon.

“I knew she’d love it,” he said, chuckling and quietly adding, “Señorita! Then he pinched my cheek as we both started to laugh. “Now, about that triple homicide at the tennis courts.”

“I already told you, Detective, at the time of the murders I was out with Harrison Ford walking his dog.”

“Hmm.” He slowly nodded his head. “Yes, you did. But just one more question: what’s the dog’s name?”

“Oh, he doesn’t really have a name. Harrison just calls him Dog.”

“Catchy.”

Much later, after Mom had gone to bed and Dad and Buddy were watching baseball down in the den, I tiptoed past her bedroom to reach my own.

“Valerie, is that you?” I heard her soft words.

I stopped at my bedroom and began walking backwards to reach hers. “Do want something?” I whispered through the door.

“Come in; I want to tell you something.”

I opened the door halfway. She was sitting up in bed. The Latin shawl was draped around her shoulders, and next to the soft light of her bedside lamp, and without her curlers, she looked very pretty.

“I just wanted to thank you again for this.” She ran her fingers through the mangled fringe.

“Really, Mom? Because in the store it looked so much more—”

“Valerie, I love it.” I noticed her look down to her lap, where Buddy’s book was lying open. “Have you read this book?” she asked.

“No, but maybe I’ll borrow it once you’re finished.”

“Oh no, dear. It’s only for grown-ups.”

I nodded as if she was absolutely right, although I had already read it. I’d borrowed it from Kit, who stole it from her mother. “Okay,” I said casually. “Well, good night. Love you, and I hope you had a nice day.”

She closed the book gently. “Valerie, I had a wonderful day. You and your brother spoiled me. I’m the luckiest woman in the world to have such great children.”

I blew the flamenco dancer a kiss and gently pulled the door shut.

Then I heard her voice again. “Valerie, one more thing. I hope you kept the receipt.”

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Val Wonders: Is April Fools’ Day Still a Thing (and if so, WHY?)?

April 1st began with an envelope pushed under my front door. It read: Dear Missus Balerie, sorry very much indeed to be sorry and bring you bad news, but your rent has must been much increased by twenty dollars. All person living in this building must pay for new workings on parking lot. It was signed by Horatio Westminster, someone I’d never heard of, and I doubted a measly twenty bucks would go very far toward improving the parking lot, which had space for only six cars.

I dismissed the letter and put my breakfast bowl in the sink for washing later because my dishwasher had not been operational for months. How about it, Mr. Horatio Made-up-name Westminster? Wanna take up a collection for that? Or was this my first April Fools’ prank?

When I returned to the kitchen, I saw a flashing light on my phone. Two calls I had missed while it was charging overnight. First one was from the Department of Justice. Wait a minute, Department of what? It advised me there was a warrant out for my arrest due to unpaid taxes, and I could expect a visit from the local sheriff (I hoped he could find a parking space).

Next call was from the Downers Grove library advising me that the book How to Train Your Cat to Do Almost Anything was overdue, and an undisclosed amount was owed. Ha! Not only had I not stepped foot in the Downers Grove library for more than a decade, I’d never owned a cat, and certainly had no interest in training one.


Okay, so three pranks, and I hadn’t even left the house yet.

The morning was uneventful since my client Mrs. Karlsson, who looked as though she hailed from Sweden but always wore a colorful sari and had a red dot on her forehead, did not show for our ten thirty appointment. Okay, so that could be real. I used the time to catch up on some important work, like balancing my checkbook. Next, I planned to make my weekly call to my mother. But she got to me first.

“Valerie, this is your mother, Jean.” (So glad she identified herself, because I was concerned she might be one of my other mothers, Diane Sawyer or Oprah Winfrey.)

“How ya doing, Mom?”

“Well, since you ask, I’ve played a huge prank on William Stuckey.” (That would be her husband, whose full name she always uses, lest we confuse him with some other William, like William Devane or William the Conqueror.)

“What did you do?” I asked, still calculating my checkbook balance. How could it be so low?

“Well, I took a pair of his socks—you know, the ones he plays golf in—and cut the toes off.”

“Good one, Mom,” I said, surprised. For most people, that would probably be considered lame, but for my mother, it was an SNL skit. She doesn’t do humor well—or ever. “Bet he’ll get a good laugh.”

“That’s not all. I painted his golf balls with clear glue.”

“Okaaay.” I stopped calculating, not quite sure what to say next. Had my mother turned into Soupy Sales? But I figured there was more.

“There’s more,” she confirmed. Did I want to hear it? Had she replaced his golf clubs with rubber hoses?

“I called the manager of the bar at the club and asked him to reject William Stuckey’s credit card when he tries to buy drinks.”

“Okay, Mom. Enough. Call the manager and cancel that. They probably don’t even take credit cards—”

“They do. I’ve met him there for drinks before. It’s gonna be a hoot.”

Hoot? When did she start saying hoot?  Did she even know what it meant? “Look, Mom, I gotta go. But have fun and don’t try anything else.”

“Okay, dear. But watch out—you never know who’ll try to play a prank on you today.”

Okay, this was getting weird. Perhaps I was talking to one of my other other mothers—Whoopi Goldberg, perhaps, or Lucille Ball. “By the way,” I said. “I’ve had several pranks, as you call them, already, and I’m way ahead of everyone.”

When I got home, there was a short, dark man standing at my front door. I’d never seen him before. “You are Mrs. Balerie?” he asked anxiously.

“Yes, I am; well, it’s Valerie, with a V—”

“That’s what I said. Balerie. I am Horatio Westminster, and I am hoping you got my note about—”

“Mr. Westminster . . . Horatio . . . whoever you are . . . have the owner of the building send me an official letter—”

“I am the owner, and I thought my note was being of the official, but if you would be liking to prefer—”

“Forget it,” I said, taking out my door key. “You’ll get an extra twenty when I pay my rent.” I rushed inside, just as my phone rang. “Ms. Pankowski? I left you a voice mail earlier. This is Phyllis Hoppenstaff from the library; I’m calling about the book How to Train your Cat—”


“Let me stop you right there, Phyllis. I have never taken a book from your library—”

“It seems the book was taken out ten years ago by an Emily Pankowski. And because you signed for her, and the book was never returned, the overdue fees are—”

“Yes, that’s my daughter. Fine, whatever, I’ll send you a check. You know, I thought your call was an April Fools’ joke—”

“I can assure you, we do not play jokes at the library. We take this sort of thing very seriously—”

“Apparently. How much do I owe you?”

“Seven dollars and twenty-eight cents. If you want to appeal—”

“I’ll send you a check. Good-bye.”

Would this day never end? Since I was apparently immune to April Fools’ pranks, there was nothing left for me to do but pour myself a glass of wine and wait for the sheriff to show up and arrest me.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Sandwich Generation

1977
Me: Mom, did you see my report card? I left it on your bedside table.
Mom: Well, for heaven’s sake, Valerie. Why don’t you put it where I can see it?
Me: I thought I had. Let me get it for you. I got an A.
Mom: Only one? Your brother got all A’s.
Me: Where’d he leave his report card?
Mom: Under his mattress, of course. I found it while changing his sheets.

2004
Emily: Mom, here’s my report card.
Me: It’s brilliant. You are brilliant.


1977
Me: Mom, can I go skiing?
Mom: Skiing? Our family doesn’t ski, Valerie.
Me: Please, please, please, say yes.
Mom: Why don’t you just run into a plate glass window? Same thing.

2004
Emily: Mom, can I go skiing? A group of girls—
Me: Absolutely. It sounds like a blast.



1977
Me: Mom, a group of girls from school are going into Chicago to see The Doobie Brothers; can I—
Mom: Why don’t I just save you time and arrange for a gang of drug dealers to sell you into white slavery?

2004
Emily: Mom, Nickelback is playing in Chicago—
Me: You should go. I’ll drive you.



1988
Me: Mom, David and I are thinking of calling the baby Tammy.
Mom: Oh, that’s sweet. She’ll have the same name as that cat next door, the one with a missing eye.
Me: So you don’t like Tammy?
Mom: You have to stick your fingers in your ears when it starts screeching.
Me: So you are not loving Tammy. Any suggestions?
Mom: Well, it’s your baby, and certainly I don’t want to influence you. Anything you pick will be fine, I’m sure.
Me: But?
Mom: Emily. I like Emily.  It says in my baby book that Emily means industrious. What more do you need?

Apparently nothing. Baby Emily was born the following month, working hard to get into the world, struggling and determined. Nothing Tammy-like about her.


Speaking of mothers, their special day is being celebrated March 26 this year in the UK. And speaking of the UK, the next in The Val & Kit Mystery Series, No. 6, is set in the UK!