EXCERPT: The Woman from Planet X

Chapter One

An elbow pressed into my side. “Come with me if you want to live,” a masculine voice rumbled.

Slowly, I turned my head.

He wore a pinstriped suit like a 1920s mobster. His black hat set off his square jaw and tanned skin. And he looked delicious beneath the antique lights that glowed golden in the old theater’s high, beamed ceiling.

“With a palooka like youse?” I shook my head, and the beads on my ivory flapper dress shimmied faintly. “Nice try, buster.”

My boyfriend Arsen grinned, his hazel eyes twinkling. He adjusted his fedora. “A guy can dream.”

The red velvet curtains drifted shut on the stage’s speakeasy scene. Voices rose, the guests mingling with the actors in the dining area.

I sighed and drew a triumphant exclamation point after a name on my voting sheet. “I knew the wife was the killer.” It was too bad the only prize was the satisfaction of a job well done. Alas and alack, such was the life of an amateur detective.

But the drive alone over the mountains into Nevada had been worth it. The road trip had been glorious—late-blooming wildflowers unfolding across Sierra meadows. And Nowhere, Nevada was... unique.

“I thought the killer was the one-eyed man,” Arsen said ruefully.

“You can’t trust people who look that suspicious. Villainous looks are almost always a red herring, unless they’re playing a double game.” But what were the odds? With roughly two hours to solve the mystery, the players didn’t have time for quirky twists and turns.

I adjusted a stray tendril of hair that had fallen from my chignon. I’d put my blond hair up and hoped it looked twenties enough. Pin curls would have been more elegant, but I knew my fashion limits.

A waitress in a crimson flapper’s outfit wove through the crowd in the old-timey dinner theater. She carried an enticing silver tray with flutes of champagne.

And though my bladder was bursting, I edged toward her. I’d just reward myself with champagne.

“Did you have fun?” Arsen leaned in and kissed me lightly. The bristles of his five-o-clock shadow scratched my cheek, and a hummingbird fluttered inside my chest. He smelled of soap, and on him, that clean, simple scent was enough to make me melt.

“Investigating a murder when no one’s actually been killed?” Heart thumping, I looped one arm around his waist. I leaned against his muscular form, wrinkling his suit. “It’s perfect. I needed this break.” The last year had been an unfolding series of disasters, and those didn’t include my B&B’s ancient roof that I still couldn’t afford to replace.

But tonight… Tonight had been perfect.

My insides lurched. Everyone knows you never think that. Just when you think it, something goes wrong. It’s a universal rule or something.

Not that I’m always obsessing about things that can go wrong. Much.

Arsen pulled me closer and rested his chin on the top of my head.

The waitress flashed past, out of reach, the red feather in her headband swaying.

“Maybe we should have invited Sheriff McCourt,” I said lightly. “She would have loved it.”

Sheriff McCourt, I should explain, is one of those tough, no-nonsense, independent types. I admire her tremendously. But like a hero in a Greek tragedy, that which makes her great is also her biggest weakness. She has a hard time accepting help.

Arsen’s face spasmed. “Didn’t she threaten to arrest you the last time you saw her?”

“She didn’t mean it. Civilians aren’t supposed to be a part of her team. She only said that to keep up appearances.”

“Yeah,” Arsen said slowly, releasing me. “I’m not so—”

One of the actors, a slender young woman with liquid brown eyes stopped beside us. “Congratulations on catching the killer.” She smiled tremulously. “Is it ridiculous I’m glad that I wasn’t accused?” Her near-black hair was cropped, dark waves loose against her head.

“Never.” Arsen removed his hat and set it on a nearby table. “And you played the part of the ingenue perfectly.”

She ducked her head. “Thanks so much. Where are you two from?”

“Doyle, California,” I said. “Just over the—”

“But I’m from Doyle,” she said excitedly and blushed. “Sorry, I interrupted.”

“No, not at all.” I hadn’t been about to say anything particularly scintillating anyway.

“I’m Arsen Holiday.” He nodded to me. “This is my girlfriend, Susan Witsend.”

“I’m Lilyanna Gomez,” she said.

I blinked. “Wait. You’re not Mr. Gomez—I mean, Fernando Gomez’s granddaughter, Lilyanna?”

Her luminous eyes widened. “You know my grandfather?”

“We’re good friends,” I said, my chest lightening. “We’re the ones who found his stolen gnome.”

She looked at me blankly.

“He didn’t tell you?” I asked, disappointed. It hadn’t been our usual sort of investigation. The entire affair had been high-level ridiculous. But we’d cracked a massive gnome theft ring wide open. I’d have thought Mr. Gomez might have mentioned it.

The actress flushed. “I don’t call him as often as I should. And I haven’t been back to Doyle since—” She swallowed and looked away, and my face heated.

Mr. Gomez’s granddaughter, Lilyanna, had been one of Doyle’s Disappeared. Over the last century, people had mysteriously vanished from Doyle, sometimes for years. The good news was, most reappeared. Eventually. But they returned with no memory of where they’d been.

In our most famous case, an entire pub and all its patrons had vanished. The patrons—including Lilyanna—had reappeared months later. The pub was gone for good though.

Logical people had come up with all sorts of rational explanations. Gas leak. Fraud. Or simply people getting lost in the woods. Everyone else just assumed aliens had abducted the missing.

Actually, a few thought fairies had taken the people. That was plain silly.

“But I did get a postcard from him last week,” Lilyanna said. “He’s on a Baltic cruise with some friends.”

“A gnome quest,” Arsen said, nodding wisely, and she shot him a confused look.

“They wanted to add to their collection,” I explained. “And it’s wonderful to meet you.”

“So what do you do?” Lilyanna pretended to sip her champagne, then put the glass on the tray of a passing waitress.

Guests trickled out the dinner theater’s double doors. I glanced hopefully toward the corridor leading to the ladies’ room. It had been jammed with women since intermission. The line still extended into the dining area. I shifted my weight.

“I run a security consulting company.” Arsen laughed shortly. “Actually, I am the company. It’s a one-man show.”

“And I run Wits’ End,” I said, “a B&B with a UF...” Oh. My insides shriveled. She’d been an abductee. The young woman didn’t want to hear about my UFO-themed bed and breakfast. “A B&B.”

“Wits’ End?” Lilyanna smiled. “I remember your grandmother when she ran it. She used to give me oatmeal cookies when I visited with Grandfather.”

My muscles relaxed. “Yeah. She was the best.”

The one-eyed man from the show loped toward us. His eye-patch was flipped to his forehead, exposing brilliant blue eyes. “Did you have fun with the mystery?” His longish blond hair was slicked down, his beard neatly trimmed, and he wore a white suit.

“I was sure you’d done it,” Arsen said and gripped his hand.

“Thanks, man.” The actor clapped Arsen’s shoulder. “Hey, Lilyanna, I’m going to have to stick around for a while. The toilet in the ladies’ restroom overflowed. I have to fix it.” He gave me a rueful smile. “I’ve got what you might call a portfolio career.” He put the last two words in air quotes. “Actor by night, everything else by… er…”

“It’s fine, Charlie,” Lilyanna said quickly. “I can walk home by myself. It’s not far.”

“Are you sure?” The actor flicked a doubtful look in our direction.

“We can walk her home,” Arsen said.

“It turns out we’re all from Doyle,” I said.

“Cool,” Charlie’s mouth split into a delighted grin. “Were you abducted too?”

I took a step backward and bumped into a waitress. “Um, no,” I said. “But I do run a UFO-themed B&B.” Crumb. I hadn’t intended to bring that topic up again. But to my relief, Lilyanna didn’t blink.

“Charlie!” a woman shouted, and the actor winced.