Sunday, August 29, 2021

Sample Sunday: Excerpt from One of Us: A Tower District Mystery by Lorie Lewis Ham

Please welcome Lorie Lewis Ham to the blog today as she shares an excerpt from her new novel, One of Us: A Tower District Mystery


A woman starting over. A gossip website. A handsome playwright with a dark side. A director with an explosive temper. And a murder without a motive. It’s a mystery set in the historic Tower District—Fresno's dining, arts, and entertainment hub.


One of Us: A Tower District Mystery by Lorie Lewis Ham




Two years ago-


I was fed up with other people controlling my life and ignoring me, and I was fed up with trying to please them. I wanted to be more like my favorite TV character Blair Waldorf. She always seemed to come out on top and she was brilliant at manipulating people. I wanted to be more like her. Blair didn’t care about pleasing others, she cared about the one thing you can control—making people fear you.



Chapter 1


I couldn't believe that I was moving to Fresno! Seriously, Fresno? I was leaving my wonderful little California coastal town of Ayr to move to Fresno. But then life hadn't left me any other choices.


My roommate, Lindsay, had gotten married and moved her black cat rescue to Sacramento, and I couldn't afford the house on my own. My publisher had dropped my book series, so I essentially no longer had a job. Sure, I had a community podcast but that wasn’t paying the rent. Life sucked. I was starting all over again at thirty-five.


The reason I had chosen to move to Fresno was because my cousin, Stephen Carlucci, had a spare room—which he said I could have for as long as I needed. Stephen had just moved into a house in the cultural oasis of the desert that is Fresno, the Tower District. He also had his own Private Investigation firm where I could work if I couldn’t find anything else.


So I had turned the house in Ayr over to a renter—I wasn't about to sell it. What if someday I could come back? And, if I was ever desperate for money, I could probably get a bundle for it. In the meantime, the rental money would provide me with at least some money to live on while I figured out what to do with the rest of my life.


My small animal rescue was now disbanded—all of my hamsters, rabbits, and pet rats had been placed with Rattie Ratz rescue in the Bay Area. All except for Merlin, my beautiful, blue dumbo boy. He was the one that had converted me to a love of pet rats. Merlin was going with me. If wild rats are the only kind of rats you know about, you are missing out. Domesticated rats are awesome pets, and dumbo rats, well they don’t even look like the same species. Think big ears like Dumbo the elephant, and a furry little animal with a much rounder face and smaller nose than your average rat. I have learned to love all pet rats, but dumbos are flat-out adorable. If they can’t win a person over, then they are hopeless.


I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the positive. At least I was moving to the Tower District—easily the place with the most character and the most theatre in the entire town. That was some consolation. The Tower District was the only part of Fresno that I had enjoyed spending time in when I visited Stephen, and the brief time after college when I worked for his P.I. firm.


A yellow BMW M3 pulled up in front of the house and out stepped my tall, handsome cousin. He had always had great taste in cars. Stephen flicked a stray lock of blond hair from his eyes as he headed my way, and I nearly laughed. Stephen had been doing that since we were teenagers, and the girls always loved it. It probably started out as flirting, but was so much a part of him now that I doubted he even realized when he did it.


"Hey there, Roxi, ready to head to beautiful Fresno?"


"Oh yes, I'm thrilled and can hardly wait to get there," I answered, each word dripping with sarcasm.


He laughed. "It's not really all that bad. Granted it's no coastal town like Ayr, but it has its own charm."


Stephen had actually just returned to the area himself a couple of months ago. Before that, he'd spent three months in Europe trying to get over losing the love of his life, Alex, to another man. Now that she had moved to Santa Cruz, he was ready to return home.


"Did you have any business left after leaving it in David and Tommy's hands for all those months?" I asked him. David Lawrence had been Stephen's assistant for years, and Tommy Walters was ironically enough Alex's little brother. After getting tired of being on the road with his musical family, Tommy was rebooting his life as a P.I. I'd met him last year, and he was cool. When Stephen returned to the Valley and bought the house in the Tower District, he let Tommy have his apartment in Donlyn, thirty miles away. Stephen had also opened up a second office in Fresno.


We headed toward the house to grab the last of my stuff and Merlin. "Tommy is actually a natural, they did fine. Granted they don't have my connections to organized crime—but then that's not always a plus." A darkness briefly crossed Stephen's gray eyes as he thought about his mobster father, my uncle Antonio. Uncle Antonio was now firmly entrenched once again in the San Joaquin Valley crime scene after several years of a supposed retirement.


"Well, we can't help who we have for family." My father had been in the family business as well. However, as far as I knew, it was always on the fringes. He had run the family winery in Paso Robles. That is until he and my mother were killed in a car crash when I was fifteen. They were the one perfect couple I'd known in my life. While it was horrible to lose them, I was glad they had gone together and I liked to believe they were together in heaven, or whatever came after death.


We grabbed my suitcases and tossed them into Stephen's small trunk. I put my well-worn copy of The Once and Future King into my purple messenger bag with Scooby-Doo on the flap, put my Excalibur replica sword and collectible set of Sherlock Holmes books on his backseat, then took Merlin in his travel carrier and slid into the front seat. So much could be said about me by looking at what I’d just brought out to the car. “Let’s get headed to hell."


Stephen laughed as he got into the driver's seat. "Now, Cuz, don't be dissing my town, though it may feel like you're in hell during the summer. And, well, it is summer now."


He looked over his shoulder and shook his head. "I can honestly say I've never had a sword in my car before. You couldn't have packed that in the moving van?"


I raised an eyebrow. "I saved forever for Excalibur; no way I'm trusting it to movers."


My obsession with Camelot had led to my learning how to use a sword in college—I used it as an outlet for my wilder darker side that had gotten me in trouble as a teen. Two years ago, I'd saved up enough money to finally purchase a replica of Excalibur—it was one of my most precious possessions. It was heavy, and I'd worked up some nice arm strength practicing with it by sparring with my friend Lucas Shum, who has a sword of his own. Though it isn't Excalibur.


Stephen smiled and shook his head. “You have been hung up on King Arthur and Camelot ever since we were kids.”


I shrugged. “Blame it on my parents taking me to see the musical.”


I had fallen in love with that whole world when I saw the musical as a kid, and with Lancelot. It wasn’t long until I was reading every King Arthur book I could find. Then I discovered The Once and Future King and that had become my constant companion. The one positive thing the Mafia world had going for it was honor, at least in the old days, and I think that was one of the things that had drawn me to Camelot. The idea of honor had become very important to me—it still was.


“Let’s get out of here.”




After three hours of driving, we pulled up in front of a cocoa-colored, early Mediterranean style house with a small front porch, and a big, brown wooden door. I had to admit the place had character. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. There was a small yard in the front as well, with some neatly trimmed bushes and flowers.


I stepped out of the air-conditioned car and immediately took any positive thoughts back. I looked at the temperature on my phone. It was 107 degrees! It was indeed as hot as hell. Even Merlin seemed to shrink from the heat, and I'd swear he was giving me a dirty look for bringing him here.


Stephen, however, in his five hundred dollar black Italian suit, didn't even flinch as he got my suitcases and headed for the front door. He noticed I wasn't following and turned to frown at me. "You know the house has a great AC, but it doesn't reach the sidewalk."


I glared at him, and then Merlin and I rushed for the cool air inside. Thankfully, Stephen had instructed David to have it turned on earlier in the day.


The house was wonderful. Wood floors. A tiny entryway that led to a small living room with a fireplace—which implied it did get cold at some point. The walls in the living room matched the cocoa, almost rust color of the stucco outside. The furniture was charming and comfortable. A big brown leather couch faced the fireplace, an oak coffee table sat in front of it, and two comfy brown and red chairs were to the right of the couch. It wasn't big, but it was big enough. The walls were decorated with beautiful paintings of horses. Stephen had always loved horses and now owned several Arabians and Thoroughbreds that he raced. The coffee table had a couple of big books on it, one was on Sinatra—a love he and I shared, and come on we're Italian. The other book was an opera one. I really hoped Stephen didn't blast his opera music loudly—that was a love we did not share.


To my left was Stephen's music room, which held a black baby grand piano and big picture windows. As we walked forward, we went through a doorway into the dining room. It had a medium-sized dining room table with four chairs, and a desk in one corner with Stephen's laptop.


From there I could go to my left into the guest room, or straight into a small, but well-equipped, kitchen. Stephen was an excellent cook when he had the time. We turned left to go into the hallway and he showed me the rest of the house before leading me into my room. First, there was a nice bathroom with a tub and shower. Next was Stephen's room, which had another private bathroom and a door that led into a cozy little backyard with a Jacuzzi.


We turned back around to head to my room, which was completely decorated in purple and black. I smiled, knowing Stephen had done that just for me. There was a twin bed in one corner and a nice black desk by the window. A chest of drawers, also black, sat next to the door and there was enough room to set Merlin's carrier down on top.


"This is wonderful Stephen, thanks so much." I gave him a quick smile. I wasn't good at expressing emotion—blame that on my parents. They'd never as much as said I love you to me once I hit thirteen and was considered in their eyes to be an adult. The outgoing affectionate Italian families you see on TV and the movies do exist—it just wasn’t my family. Uncle Antonio was the same way.


Stephen on the other hand, was very expressive. He gave me a big bear hug and then stepped back because he knew it made me uncomfortable. I thanked his Spanish mother for that. Isabella had always been very affectionate. "We're family, Roxi. You're about the only family I have besides my mother." The darkness quickly crossed his eyes again as he thought of his father.


Oddly, being born into a Mafia family had never bothered me. Yeah, I know they did things that were wrong, but the ones I knew still had honor—more honor than a lot of non-criminals I'd known. Don't get me wrong, I don't condone crime. I'd even studied criminology, but I could see the grays a bit better than Stephen. And I'd always had a little bit of a thing for the villains. Come on, Loki is way more interesting than Thor. Though I'd take Sherlock Holmes over Moriarty any day—though Andrew Scott who played Moriarty in Sherlock was adorable! But let's be honest, Sherlock Holmes has a gray side as well. More recently, I’d discovered Supernatural, yeah, I know, way late to the party, but at least I got there. As much as I loved Sam and Dean, my favorite character was Crowley and he, of course, was a villain. Yeah, I was messed up—but who wasn’t. Thank goodness for therapy.


"Why don't you get unpacked. The rest of your stuff will arrive tomorrow—there's a storage building in the back where we can put the stuff that you don't have room for in the house. Once you're all settled I'll show you the Tower, and we can get something to eat."


Thankfully, by dinnertime things had cooled off a little. I was done unpacking what we had brought in Stephen’s car, and the only thing I still needed to do was mount Excalibur. For now, it lay on my bed. Stephen had switched to designer jeans and an LA Kings t-shirt when we got there—ever the hockey fan. Now he was lounging on the couch watching the news. He looked up as I walked in.


"Hey there, hungry?"




Stephen got up and headed for the door. "There are a ton of choices in the Tower, and it's only a couple blocks."


I frowned at him. "You're not seriously planning on walking in this heat?"


He laughed. "It's not that bad now, and you better get used to walking. That's one of the many advantages of living here. There's so much we can walk to."


He was right. I didn't have a car anymore just my red mountain bike, which wasn't even here yet. Cycling and walking would be my primary mode of transportation until I had money to change that. I couldn't rely on Stephen to drive me around everywhere—he actually had a life. "Fine."


As we walked to the heart of the Tower and its many shops and restaurants, I felt like I'd gone back in time. I had read in an article that most of the houses had been built between the 1920s and the 1950s. There wasn't a new house in sight—each home had the kind of character only houses built before the 1960s seemed to have. The streets were lined with various kinds of tall trees. Even the sidewalks had a bit of character with its cracks and unevenness here and there.


"So, how are you doing?" I asked, tentatively.


"I'm managing," he answered, barely above a whisper. "Keeping busy. Life goes on. Alex made her choice." He took a deep breath and turned to flash that dashing smile at me. "What about you? Your life has just been turned upside down."


I sighed. I'd written children's books and run a small animal rescue for the last ten years. Then suddenly my publisher canceled my series and, soon after that, Lindsay got married. "I'm trying to look at this all as an adventure."


"That’s why you brought Excalibur.” He laughed. “Any idea what you’re going to do?"


"I have no idea. I have my journalism and criminology degrees. I could apply to some local papers for the crime beat. I have—had—a podcast, but that was local so that’s done. It didn’t make much anyway."


"You could work for me."


He had stopped and I looked into those gray eyes. At five foot ten, I was nearly as tall as his six feet. "Thanks. Maybe. We'll see. But I'd really like to find my own thing." I grinned. "Maybe I'll start my own detective agency."


Stephen frowned and shook his head. "You always were the competitive sort. Let's focus on your more immediate needs. What are you hungry for?"


We stood at the corner of Wishon and Olive Ave. and I looked around me. I hadn’t been here in quite awhile and didn’t really remember much about it, other than this feeling like you had stepped into another world. There was a big theatre called Tower to my right, a dinner theatre called Roger Rocka's behind me and to my left. Down the street, there were restaurants of all kinds, used bookstores, coffee shops, antique shops, and all sorts of delightful things to rediscover. I'd found culture in Fresno, and I suddenly felt at home despite the heat. I noticed a diner called Irene's and pointed. "That seems as good a place as any for my first meal."


"Ah, Irene's. You definitely couldn't have picked a better place for your first meal as a resident of the Tower."


We headed down the street toward the diner and the first of many firsts I would be experiencing over the next few weeks. I had absolutely no idea what was ahead of me, but I was ready for the adventure!



Lorie Ham ©2021 

You can learn more on Lorie’s website


Kings River Life said...

Thanks so much for having me here!

Kevin R. Tipple said...