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Patricia McLinn

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Read the start of DEATH ON THE DIVERSION
Book 1 of the Secret Sleuth series

DEATH ON THE DIVERSION
Patricia McLinn


PROGOGUE

Call me Sheila M.

At this moment, I’m walking circuits on the deck of a cruise ship called the Diversion on its two-week repositioning cruise from Barcelona, Spain to Tampa, Florida. I’m being passed by runners, joggers, and faster walkers. That’s all fine with me. I’m enjoying the air and the sun and the peace.

I’m watching people. Eavesdropping a little.

Thinking about the past fifteen years.

Wondering about the next fifty-plus.

I’m about to find a dead body.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Sheila M. is not the name you might know me by if you read a certain kind of book, listen to a certain kind of interview, watch a certain kind of TV talk show. Or if you were not in a cave protected from all news about blockbusters — book and movie — fifteen years ago.

But Sheila Mackey is the name I’ll use in the life this story leads to. Might as well start now.

Besides, I’m leaving behind that other person, the one with the name you might know.

This moment in time I’m taking you to occurred while I was transitioning to my current circumstances and transitioning from the life I’d lived the previous fifteen years. Contrary to what most might guess, that past is the boring part. So, let’s get it out of the way.

Back when I was finishing college, I said yes to a job offer.

No big deal, right? It’s what lucky graduates do after college. My friends said yes to job offers with tech firms, oil companies, charity foundations, and the FBI, among other things.

I said yes to my great-aunt.

At that point, Aunt Kit — we left off the great most of the time — had been a working fiction author for more than thirty years after a brief stint in journalism. She’d written mysteries, science fiction, romance, horror, westerns, and more. She’d written under her name and five pen names. She’d ghost-written for celebrities. She’d supported herself with her writing all through those years. Nothing grand, just, as she would say, a working stiff mid-list author.

Then she wrote Abandon All.

A departure for her. A book that bridged the commercial and the literary. A book with huge potential.

A book no one in publishing would buy from her.
That’s not a proven fact, since she never submitted it to any publishers. It was a conclusion she drew from decades of experience in the business.

For this book to reach its potential, she told me during that strangest of job interviews, it needed to have been written by a young, attractive woman from the Midwest. Which she was not. At least not any longer.

“But you are, Sheila. Young, very attractive, from the Midwest, with brains and freshness. You are perfect to be the author of Abandon All.”

I’d laughed. “I can’t be perfect to be its author, because I didn’t write it. I’ve always wanted to write, but I haven’t actually written anything. Much less a novel. Specifically, one called Abandon All.”

“You don’t need to write it, because I have. You need to be its public face — face, figure, and voice. I am, essentially, your ghostwriter. I’ll provide what you need for the public role and pay you.”

There was a good deal more discussion, but the bottom line is I said yes. I was, after all, an English major with an undergraduate degree and no idea what to do next. If Abandon All drew interest from publishers, Aunt Kit would front the money for a trip to New York for both of us.

It did.

She did.

There was an auction for the right to publish the book — that’s where publishers bid against each other, though there’s no fast-talking auctioneer with a gavel — that set my head spinning.

Abandon All was not just a hit, it was a phenomenon, a cultural icon. The day an interviewer called it this century’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I thought I’d faint right there on live TV.

The movie was even bigger.

In less than a year, Aunt Kit and I moved into a brownstone on the Upper West Side. She paid for it outright.

Over the rest of the fifteen years, my name, face, and voice remained the public front for Aunt Kit’s writing. She wrote eight more books for that persona — me. (Sometimes I forgot it was me and thought of that person as separate.) None reached the Olympian heights of Abandon All, but they did fine financially. She paid me thirty-five percent of the author’s earnings — saying I did more for those books than the agent, who took twenty percent off the top — plus provided my housing, “author” clothing, food, and transportation.

Perhaps more important, she invested my money. Aunt Kit was careful and shrewd.

She also wrote another twenty-five books in her old genres for “fun” and published them independently. That income was all hers, as it should be. Though she argued with me, focusing on the brainstorming I’d done with her, particularly for the mysteries. She would set up a scenario, then we’d sit together and brainstorm how her character would approach figuring out whodunit.
I argued back that it was fun.

She’d snorted. “Might be fun. It’s still work. You’re good at characterization and you, especially, have an excellent grasp of how a character would follow clues. You—”

“Because I’m nosy.”

“—should be writing yourself. Nosiness is a great trait for a writer.”

“Maybe I will write someday.”

Another snort, conveying she knew I didn’t believe it.
She stuck to her point. “In the meantime, I should pay you for your input.”

“No. You pay me more than enough for the other.”

She stopped arguing, which meant she planned to see I got that money one way or another.

For the “job” for which I did accept compensation, I did appearances, I spoke at literary events, I walked red carpets, I offered writing advice (culled from Aunt Kit), I was videoed and photographed, and I gave interviews.

No one except the two of us, my parents, and siblings knew I wasn’t writing the books. To the outside world, I was offering a home to my aging relative, instead of vice versa.

I’d said yes on a lark.

I ended up being tied to a lie.

For fifteen years.

Could I have left? Should I have left? Certainly. Probably. I didn’t. So, what’s the use of thinking about it? (An Aunt Kit-ism: You can’t change the past.)

Then, six months ago, she said she was retiring.

She might continue writing her fun books as she felt like it, but she was tired of the literary pretensions Abandon All taught readers and critics to expect when my name was on a cover. She probably also was tired of hearing the author should write another Abandon All. She said one should be enough.

She — she was always kind enough to say we — had earned enough and under her guidance we were both set for life. Plus, there’d be ongoing royalties.

She bought a place on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which I was invited to visit at any time, but was not to be my home.

She was pushing me out of the nest.

This cruise was a cushion for my landing and Aunt Kit’s idea for a low-key farewell performance as the name you’d probably recognize, though no one else knew it was a finale.

One good thing I’d done at the start, more out of a kind of shyness than smarts, was to use one of my middle names and my mother’s maiden name — also Kit’s last name — on the books. That left me other parts of my legal name to use in my new life. Not wanting to return completely to my pre-Abandon All name, I decided on Sheila Mackey, taken from pieces of other family names.

As for the “author” of Abandon All… Time would pass without a new release. If enough questions were asked, a statement would be made about retirement and the desire for privacy. The word recluse might pop up. If it added to the sales of the existing books, we wouldn’t complain.

So that was me, walking around the ship, in mid-air after the push out of the nest.

Would I fly? Would I crash?

Step one: Figure out how to flap these things sticking out at my sides.

No, I take that back.

Step one: Figure out how I got blood on my finger from touching the woman wrapped up in the pool towels.

How’s that for a start on a new life?

Bloody woman and I’m about to become a sleuth with a secret identity.


CHAPTER ONE

“I could kill her.”

It all started when those words floated up to us as Petronella and I walked onto the cruise ship in Barcelona in early November, ten days before I found the woman who’d stopped breathing.

I need to explain about Petronella. Possibly about me, a single woman in her mid-thirties, taking a two-week transatlantic cruise, too.

Aunt Kit explains both.

Petronella was the daughter of Kit’s long-dead fiancé’s cousin from his mother’s side. Welcome to Kit’s world. I got to the point where I referred to everyone as Kit’s relative. It made it easier. Though it did confuse our Guatemalan housekeeper at the brownstone when I introduced her as Kit’s relative to a visiting acquaintance.

Aunt Kit took me on my first cruise shortly after the Abandon All auction and then at least once a year since. Always transatlantic, always from Europe back to the United States, as they moved the ships into place for winter cruises to the Caribbean. (Yes, you can take more than one a year that fit those requirements…with planning.)

“They’re long. They’re frequently out of range of the internet. Low percentage of the passengers attempt to stay as drunk as possible for the duration. You gain an hour about every two and a half days,” was her explanation for choosing those cruises.

I agreed with each point. Also, the author of Abandon All went largely unnoticed on these cruises. A major bonus.
Kit booked this cruise as my transition, and here I was.
But I lied.

Or, more accurately, I was an unreliable narrator in saying it started when Petronella and I boarded the ship. (And notice I didn’t mention Aunt Kit boarding the ship.
Yes, she abandoned me on this trip. More — much more — on that later.)

It — the dead woman in the deck chair — started well before I found her body.

If I were Sam Spade, I’d say it started when the dame walked onto the ship. And that would be true — from my POV. POV is author talk for point of view — which character is steering the bus for that part of the story, so the reader experiences it through his or her mind and senses.

From the point of view of the woman dead in the deck chair, it started much earlier. At some point in her life when seeds took root that grew into someone killing her.
For me, it started with that voice carried on an air current up the boxy zigzag of the gangplank.

“I could kill her.”

I looked over the railing to the series of switchback ramps below us that created easygoing boarding for the Diversion. Fellow passengers strung out behind us among the early arrivals that Sunday afternoon. A daisy chain of gray heads interspersed with determinedly not gray heads and sunhats, male and female.

No telling where the words came from. Not even a hundred percent a woman spoke them. More like sixty percent. Maybe fifty-five.

And what did it matter? We’ve all said the same thing how many times in our lives?

Except something in the voice made me look.

Then I forgot about it, because it was our turn to be welcomed onto the Diversion.

In the background stood a young woman dressed in a crisp white shirt with insignia and nametag over navy slacks, holding balloons and a sign bearing Petronella’s name.

I nudged Petronella with a smile. “Look.”

She clasped a hand to her throat. “Oh, God. Someone’s died.”

“I doubt they’d carry yellow and red balloons to notify you of a death.”

The tears in her eyes apparently blocked her hearing, because she didn’t relinquish her panicked horror as I dragged her toward the smiling young crew member.

“This is Petronella,” I told her.

The young woman’s smile flickered, but she handed an envelope and the red balloon to Petronella. “Hope you enjoy your treat, miss.” She looked at me more shyly. “And I believe this is for you? We were asked not to use your name publicly because… because of who you are.”

Or were.

I didn’t say that aloud. I thanked her for both of us, took the envelope and yellow balloon, and dragged Petronella out of the mainstream of boarding passengers.

I ripped my envelope open. She shook, tears sliding down.

“It’s from Kit,” I said brightly.

“Oh, my God. Kit’s dead!”

“Not unless she’s writing to us from heaven.” Or elsewhere. I loved Kit dearly, but I didn’t see her getting a direct ticket through the pearly gates. “She’s booked manicures for us—” I checked the clock. “—in ten minutes. To get us in the mood and pass some of the time before we can settle in our cabins.”

When you embark on a cruise, your main luggage is whisked away to appear outside your cabin door at some point in the future. All very nice, but that point in the future frequently ends up being unpredictable.
Kit taught me to carry a go-bag to make waiting for the magic more pleasurable.

The go-bag held all the necessities for several hours of relaxation, from sunscreen and sunglasses to reading material and headphones to a few munchies and a thermos of cold water Petronella insisted on filling for me. Today wasn’t hot, but quite warm in the sun.
November on a cruise from eastern Spain to Gulf Course, Florida can be variable. But it’s not November in the Midwest, where I grew up, or Manhattan, where I’d spent the past fifteen years.

In those places you’re more likely to need gloves, hats, scarves, boots, and hot chocolate than sunscreen, sunglasses, and cold water.

But my summery-here supplies were on hold, thanks to Kit arranging for these manicures.

“Are you sure? Maybe my envelope isn’t the same…”
Petronella brought out the worst in me. I so wanted to say, Yeah, you’re right. Kit sent me a balloon and a manicure, but you she sent a balloon and the news that one of your nearest and dearest has died.

With more determination than grace, I said, “I’m sure. Open your envelope.”

While she did, I attached both our balloons to a nearby railing — railings are nearby almost everywhere on a cruise ship.

With still-shaking hands she removed the card.

“Oh. It’s for a manicure,” she said in astonishment.


CHAPTER TWO

“Did you hear? The she-devil is onboard.”

“No.”

“Shh.” The whispered order from the spa receptionist to her coworker was banished with a perfect, professional smile. “May I help you?”

She-devil? Had I heard correctly? I wasn’t supposed to have heard. It seemed such an unlikely word, especially in the bright and shiny spa of the Diversion.

“I’m Sheila Mackey—”

“I will do your nails, miss.” The mahogany-skinned young woman who’d exhaled that distressed No smiled at me.

I smiled back. “—and this is Petronella—”

“Yes, ma’am,” said the receptionist. “We have detailed instructions. Everything has been spelled out precisely. Right this way, Miss Petronella.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly. This is too much.” Petronella had protested all the way to the spa — up several decks — and wasn’t done yet. “I shouldn’t…”

“This way,” the receptionist kept repeating, leading us past an open area to our left with a hallway straight ahead. The receptionist gestured to the hallway’s first door. “Right here for you.”

Petronella put on the brakes. “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly.”

Another smiling young woman came out of the room and told Petronella, “The instructions specifically said you were to have a private room.”

This smiling young woman also wore the uniform of the ship’s spa. She had an Eastern European accent and a firm hold on Petronella’s arm.

Were Kit’s reasons for this arrangement to spare me? Or more Machiavellian?

At the moment it was moot. Petronella wasn’t budging.

“Oh, no, no. I couldn’t possibly…”

If you mentioned Petronella — known throughout Kit’s extended and far-flung web as Poor Petronella — to anyone in my corner of the family, they instantly mimicked, “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly…” Sometimes at the most inopportune moments.

You’d be saying, “I walked up to the casket beside Poor Petronella and—” You’d be interrupted by a chorus of “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly…” instantly followed by chuckles.

According to Kit, this distant relative of her long-dead fiancé had been Poor Petronella since she was old enough to display a personality, which came later than most kids.

If there was a mishap floating around, Petronella reached out and grabbed it like the last life jacket on the Titanic — sorry, not a good image when I’m talking about cruising. But it fits.

Her latest misfortune was getting divorced by the husband who’d been abusing her mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially since before they were married. Yes, before and she still married him.

You should hear Aunt Kit on that topic.

Then how was the divorce a misfortune, you might ask. You and me both. To Petronella, however, it was a tragedy of epic proportions.

Her kids, who loved her for reasons beyond explanation but with the sane caveat of living in distant time zones, begged Aunt Kit to beg me to help her.

They’d thought I would pay for the cruise, while Kit would have soulful, reasonable talks with Petronella.

Instead, Kit paid for the cruise, then bailed on both of us.

“You must go in the room to be happy and for your giver to be happy,” said the young woman who’d been talking with the receptionist when we arrived and said she’d do my nails. South African accent, possibly with English not her native language. Her nametag read Imka.

Between Petronella’s protests, she put one arm across Petronella’s back and the other on her forearm and simply walked forward, scooping along the recalcitrant client. In less time than I could have imagined, Petronella was in the room off the hallway and the door closed.

“Do not worry. Your relative will be very fine.”

“I’m not worried about that. I am a little worried about your colleague and I’m wondering if I could learn that move.”

She slanted a look at me, apparently found me trustworthy, and said in a low voice, “I learned helping with the old ones at home. They don’t always want to go where it’s best for them to go. But it’s not respectful to pick them up and put them like a child.”

“Very true.” Though Petronella wasn’t that old. Chronologically.

Imka waved me to an open area with floor-to-ceiling windows angled out at the top. If you wanted to look almost directly below, you could by leaning out. But why would you want to?

Two chairs in white leather — crossbred from recliners and airline pilot seats — offered the best views of the windows, blow-out stations, hair dryer chairs, and the hallway, depending on which way you swiveled.

One was occupied by a woman around Aunt Kit’s age.
She had mostly gray hair, with dark brown at the back. Laugh lines waited for employment at the corners of her mouth and eyes. They flickered when she smiled, polite but not intrusive, as I was directed to the other chair.

“I’m afraid you have a remedial case here,” I told Imka.
I’m not the best about getting regular manicures — something the publicist reminded me before each TV appearance — but never far enough ahead of time for me to actually get a manicure. Just enough to make me feel insecure about my long, too often raggedy nails.

Imka smiled broadly, rounding her cheeks becomingly. “We will fix you.”

I wished that were true, since that promise seemed to cover more than nails.

The older woman met my gaze and her laugh lines deepened.

I said hello. She did the same. She introduced herself as Odette Treusault. I gave my name — the one known as the author of Abandon All.

She looked at me intently for a moment, then gave a small nod and carried on as if she didn’t recognize the name. She did. Neither of the nail technicians did, or were too discreet to show it.

Quickly, I learned Odette had cruised on this ship multiple times and knew both nail technicians. She was onboard with a group she’d cruised with for decades.
She and I and Imka and Odette’s technician, Bennie, chatted about cruises, cruising, the schedule ahead of us, and excursions.

“We’ve done this so often, I’ve become quite the curmudgeon about excursions,” Odette said. “We’ve done them all multiple times. Are you signed up for any?”

When Aunt Kit ran the show, we seldom joined the excursions. If she was deeply interested in a stop, she’d hire a driver and guide. Otherwise, we tramped around the town, poking into interesting corners, gathering a sense of the place along with a string of factoids, and people-watching. Always, always people-watching with Aunt Kit.

“I don’t know.”

As I said the words, a phrase repeated in my head. When Aunt Kit ran the show.

She wasn’t running my show anymore. I was. I could — had to — decide for myself.

“I’ll have to check them out.” The excursions were a couple days off, when we stopped at a different port in the Canary Islands three days in a row.

“There’s a hike into a volcano that’s breathtaking.”

Odette chuckled. “In more ways than one. Also, if you’ve never ridden a camel, that is worth doing, even if it is a short ride under the tamest of circumstances. Though sometimes even then…”

Looks flickered among the other three women.

“She is onboard? Your… The, uh, other Mrs.?” Imka asked.

Clearly the other three recognized a connection between a camel ride and Imka’s question. I was in the dark.

Odette asked, “Did you see her last year?” As an aside to me, she added, “I wasn’t here last year. Only one couple of our group was.”

“Yes,” Imka said carefully. “She—”

All four of us broke off to turn toward the noise coming our way.

Summary:

Sheila Mackey is a sleuth with a secret – a past she wants to keep hidden. But after years with her mystery-writing great aunt, she discovers she also has a knack for unraveling the truth behind murders, from the deck of a cruise ship to her new Kentucky home with her rescue dog Gracie. Cozy mysteries with challenging whodunnits, an intriguing romantic interest, sidekicks you’ll love, lots of dogs, and dry humor.   ~~Dive into the Secret Sleuth series with the first FIVE full-length mystery novels . . . Read More
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Summary

Sheila Mackey is a sleuth with a secret – a past she wants to keep hidden. But after years with her mystery-writing great aunt, she discovers she also has a knack for unraveling the truth behind murders, from the deck of a cruise ship to her new Kentucky home with her rescue dog Gracie.

Cozy mysteries with challenging whodunnits, an intriguing romantic interest, sidekicks you’ll love, lots of dogs, and dry humor.

 

~~Dive into the Secret Sleuth series with the first FIVE full-length mystery novels from multiple USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Patricia McLinn to start your sleuthing.~~

 

"I love this book!! (and hey, I really mean it) . . . I finished the book in two reads. You will be loving it by the end. It was really difficult to guess who was the killer. Try if you can guess the right one!" ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


~~**~~

SPECIAL OFFER AVAILABLE ONLY HERE! A $29.95 VALUE FOR ONLY $21.99

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Small-town cozy mysteries with  challenging whodunnits, humor, a fun sidekick, loads of dog fur, and an attractive ex-detective hanging around who could be just what Sheila wants -- and the last person she needs.

 

 Secret Sleuth, Books 1-5

      ☑️  Death on the Diversion

      ☑️ Death on Torrid Ave.

      ☑️ Death on Beguiling Way

      ☑️ Death on Covert Circle

      ☑️ Death on Shady Bridge


      What Readers Are Saying


      "This author has pizzazz!”⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

      Awesome. This is a great story. Mystery and a little romance. Had me guessing who done it. Got to get the next one.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

      “Love the attitude toward the seriousness of deadly crime but allowing for the peculiar, humorous aspects of the great characters & their circumstances -- sorta like real life." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

      "Murder and laughs. Can't wait for more." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

      “The humour, secrets, twists & turns keep this series entertaining”  ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

      "Enjoyable mystery! For some people, life keeps sending things their way. So even though she doesn't go looking for trouble ... it's found Sheila. Just an innocent outing with her friend Clara and their dogs turns into another sleuthing experience."  ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

      "I won't lie I was surprised at the culprit as I already had someone else in mind which is fantastic. Well done!”⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

      "Beautifully combined LOL humour with twist and turn mystery." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

       

       

      Customer Reviews

      Based on 36 reviews
      78%
      (28)
      17%
      (6)
      3%
      (1)
      3%
      (1)
      0%
      (0)
      A
      Anonymous

      Loved the characters and if you've ever been to a dog park, there can be unique happenings there. Those who don't clean up after their dog. Those who start trouble and blame others...saying they're the ones who have bad dogs, and all that good stuff. I've enjoyed both books in this series. Cozy mysteries told from one point of view.

      F
      Farm Jem
      Characters, serious comics, crime

      Love the attitude toward the seriousness of deadly crime but allowing for the peculiar, humorous aspects of the great characters & their circumstances- sorta like real life. Love Ms McLinns work.

      T
      Tobijulo
      Once the crime took place the story picked up

      Took a bit to get into but once the crime was committed the pace /story got really interesting. I won't lie I was surprised at the culprit as I already had someone else in mind which is fantastic. Well done

      G
      G and N Maher

      good story, 3rd time that I have read it

      L
      Laura JoJo Clarke
      Good series

      I enjoyed reading this book and am going to read the other books, as I like these kind of stories that are good and enjoyable to read. I appreciate them and the story was interesting. The characters were well developed and the secondary story about the crew makes you wonder what is going on. I like mysteries that make you think.