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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.

“Be right there,” Charlie called over his shoulder. “If I don’t fix that toilet, the stage manager will have my head. See you around.” Pivoting, he wove around the round tables and toward the hallway, packed with costumed women.

“Do you need to change out of your costume?” I asked Lilyanna.

“No,” she said. “But would you mind if we left now?” Her gaze flicked uneasily toward the high, wood-beamed ceiling. “I hate to stay out too late.”

Arsen glanced at me, and I nodded. There had to be a free bathroom somewhere along the way.

We ambled through the double doors onto the dark street. The mountains to the west were jagged, purple shadows, and I shivered in the chilly August night.

Arsen stopped short. “Whoa.”

Staring, I sucked in a breath and bumped into his broad back.

The head of a lawn flamingo loomed over the bowling alley in front of the theater. Spotlights lit the pink bird from below, giving it a vaguely sinister air.

“How did I not notice that before?” he said.

“Let me guess,” Lilyanna said. “You arrived at dusk? The spotlights don’t get turned on until it’s full dark. A lot of people get taken by surprise when they leave the theater.”

His brow creased. “It’s a four-story flamingo. But I guess I was distracted.” He smiled down at me.

I hadn’t noticed it either. I wasn’t sure what was more disturbing, the fact that I’d missed an oversized flamingo, or the sly curve of its beak.

“Have you seen the other Big Things?” Lilyanna asked.

“We haven’t had a chance,” I said, taking Arsen’s arm and enjoying the feel of his hard muscles against mine.

“Most everything’s on Main Street.” Lilyanna bounced on the toes of her pink slippers. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

We walked through the parking lot and past the bowling alley. At the corner, we turned onto the old silver-mining town’s Main Street. The flamingo stood half hidden between a low brick building and its town hall.

Arsen rubbed his chin. “I wonder if anyone’s climbed it?” he mused.

I shot him a wary glance. We’d driven to Nowhere in Arsen’s fully stocked Jeep Commander. “Fully stocked” included emergency overnight gear for two, a spotlight, a surveillance kit (suitable for humans and alien entities), and climbing gear. We were prepped for everything from a breakdown to a black op.

“I don’t think so,” Lilyanna said. “It’s too bad the bowling alley’s closed by now. But if you’re here tomorrow, you should stop in and see the world’s largest bowling pin.”

“We will be.” Arsen grasped my hand.

We continued down Main Street, and Lilyanna motioned toward a closed and forbidding wooden door. “Speakeasy. A lot of people go there after the theater. Do you want to...?”

“No, thanks,” I said, though it must have had a bathroom. While Lilyanna made a wonderful tour guide, she obviously wanted to get home. I hadn’t missed her nervous glances toward the night sky.

“You should work for the Visitors Bureau,” Arsen told the actress.

She blushed. “Am I selling Nowhere too hard? But I do love it. It’s weird and funny and the people are… Well, it’s just special.”

I nodded, my gaze losing its focus, the edges of the old-west buildings turning misty. I felt the same way about Doyle. If I squinted and ignored the giant flamingo, Nowhere could almost be Doyle, though this town had more brick buildings.

She motioned across the street, toward the lit windows of a yarn shop. “And Knitwits has the largest ball of yarn. I work—used to work there. It’s great for photos, but they’re closed, too, at this hour. How long are you staying?”

“Until tomorrow,” I said.

“Oh, that’s wonderful.” Lilyanna pointed out the world’s largest corkscrew, in front of the Dog and Wine. “It actually works. Try it.”

Arsen grinned. “I did when we dropped Susan’s beagle, Bailey, at their doggy daycare earlier today.”

She nodded at the dog bowl outside. “They only opened the daycare a few months back for people going to the theater.”

“Do you mind if we stop to collect Bailey?” I tilted my head toward the door.

“Not at all.” She smiled. “I love dogs. I have one myself at home. She’s a mutt, but she’s wonderful.”

We walked inside the wine bar, which also had a huge line for the ladies room. There had to be a free bathroom somewhere. Frustrated, I collected Bailey, and we continued down the street.

The aging beagle stopped at a giant straw, bolted to the wall of an ice cream parlor. He sat on the sidewalk with an irritated huff. I bent to scratch behind his graying, floppy ears.

“The straw’s not the world’s largest,” Lilyanna said. “But it’s big. Oh! The Pizza Wheel is open, and it’s dog friendly too. You’ll never guess what they have inside.”

She ushered us inside the tomato and pepperoni-scented pizza parlor. Lilyanna pointed at a giant pizza cutter against one wall. “World’s largest pizza cutter.”

Right now all I wanted to see was a ladies’ room. And since Lilyanna had dragged us in here… “Do you think they’ll mind if I use their bathroom?” I asked. “The theater—”

“Say no more,” Lilyanna said. “The manager’s a friend. She won’t mind.”

I hurried into the ladies’ room. When I returned, Arsen was spinning the wheel on the pizza cutter. “Good thing the blade’s dull,” he said, “or someone could hurt themselves.”

The three of us plus Bailey returned to the sidewalk. Lilyanna stopped at the entrance to an alley, sunk in gloom. She pointed to a giant paperclip, affixed to the side of the old brick building.

“World’s biggest paperclip,” she said. “It belongs to the stationary store.”

My heart beat faster. The store might have planner paraphernalia. I loved all things planner. I’d left mine in Arsen’s Jeep, since it wouldn’t fit in my sequined clutch. I felt a little naked tonight without it.

“And the giant can of peas?” Arsen nodded toward the 10-foot-tall can, across the street.

“The building next to it used to be a cannery,” the actress said. “And you must have seen the world’s biggest Swedish coffee pot.”

She pointed to a parking lot, down the street. A metal coffee pot with a bluebird painted on the side took up at least eight of its spaces.

“But Nowhere’s real prize is the world’s largest living koi fish.” She frowned. “The tea garden is closed, but you can still see the giant mushrooms in the park. It’s a shortcut to my apartment.”

We crossed the street to a grassy park. Spot-lit metal toadstools as tall or taller than Arsen sprouted between massive pines. An eldrich chill rippled up my spine, and I caught myself edging away from their long, misshapen shadows.

I’d like to say that shiver was a premonition, a warning. A warning would have been nice. But at the time, all I felt was an odd apprehension that something enormous and malignant might slither from beneath the toadstools.

“What’s the story with all the Big Things?” Arsen asked, as we wandered between the oversized toadstools.

“Tourism,” she said. “The town was dying, like so many other small towns. So a local contractor, Marques Washington, brought in an artist. He gave Terrence free rent in exchange for designing the Big Things. Every six months or so they come up with something new. Marques has a factory in Reno that builds them.”

Lilyanna gasped and clapped one hand to her mouth. “Oh, no.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked, tensing.

She pointed.

One of the smaller toadstools was covered in a white knit cozy decorated with colorful fish.

I laughed. “The world’s biggest mushroom cozy?”

“It has to be, doesn’t it? Nowhere has a guerilla knitter.” She dropped her hand and bit her bottom lip. “Terrence isn’t going to be happy about that mushroom though. He’s the artist I told you about, and he takes his Big Things seriously.”

“Let me take a wild guess,” Arsen said. “The guerilla knitter is someone from the knit shop?”

Lilyanna smiled. “No one knows for sure, but I’d say that’s a good guess.”

“How’d they get it over that giant mushroom?” I asked, walking closer.

“The knitter probably used a simple stitch to sew the mushroom into the knitting.” Lilyanna motioned to a four-story apartment building at the other end of the park. “My apartment’s not much farther.” She shivered and looked skyward.

Guiltily, I returned to Lilyanna and Arsen. I’ve had my own struggles with anxiety. Though that dark shadow hasn’t been around for a while, I don’t think I’ve completely beaten it. I’m not sure you can. But to be afraid of things from the sky, and every night a reminder…

Lilyanna shook herself and rubbed her upper arms. “Come on. I’m sure you two want to get back to your car so you can get to your hotel.”

“We’re in no hurry,” Arsen said.

She led us to a winding, gravel path. Lilyanna nodded toward a six-foot redwood fence with an arched gate. “That’s Nowhere’s Japanese tea garden. It’s where we keep Karl with a K, Nowhere’s giant koi.”

Neatly pruned trees and bushes decorated the gravel area outside the gate. Garden spotlights at ground level up-lit the foliage and cast shadows on the high fence. An odd, lumpy shadow flowed along the gravel, and my scalp prickled.

Uneasy, I peered into the gloom for the source of that odd shadow. An oversized pile of knitting lay behind an ornamental bush. The knitting was decorated with more fish.

I like to think of myself as a practical person, and I’m not inclined to premonitions or sensitivities. But something about that shape raised gooseflesh on the back of my neck.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Lilyanna groaned. “Our guerilla knitter again. I’m surprised she left her work lying around like that. She must be nearby.”

Arsen’s muscular form straightened. “Wait here,” he said, words clipped. He jogged toward the knitting.

And then I saw what had caught his attention. Sucking in a quick breath, I pulled my clutch against my stomach. A woman’s tennis shoe stuck out from beneath the yarn. “Oh, no,” I murmured and moved toward Arsen.

“What is it?” Lilyanna asked, shrill. “Shouldn’t we wait like he said?”

“Arsen knows I never do what people tell me to do.”

Dread pooled in my stomach as I hurried to Arsen.

He threw the thick knitting aside, and his broad shoulders stiffened beneath his pinstriped jacket. It should have prepared me for what was about to come.

A red-haired woman in a dark sweatsuit lay twisted on the ground, her knees pointing toward the fence, her torso facing the night sky. A glittering metal knitting needle stood upright in her chest.

About the Woman from Planet X

All Susan wants is some well-deserved R&R in small town Nowhere, Nevada, home to the world’s biggest collection of the world’s biggest things. But when she discovers a murdered mystery knitter who’s been planting her creations around town, Susan, her boyfriend Arsen, and her dog Bailey aren’t about to stick to their knitting. They’re on the case.

These wacky amateur detectives will have to untangle a big mystery and fast. Because if they don’t unravel the truth, a friend-in-need may wind up in jail for life.

The Woman from Planet X is book six in the laugh-out-loud Wits’ End mystery series. A fast-paced and funny cozy mystery, packed with quirky characters, pets, and murder, it’s perfect for fans of Jana DeLeon, Janet Evanovich, and Donna Andrews.

Beam up this hilarious cozy mystery and start reading when it launches on February 28th, 2022! Take advantage of the special pre-order ebook price of .99 cents!

Mobile phone with the cover of The Woman from Planet X, atop a full moon with a UFO and dragon fly in the corners of the image.

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