Title: Survival Can Be Deadly (A Discount Detective Mystery #1)
Author: Charlotte Stuart
Genre: Mystery/female PI/humor
An unemployed single mom reinvents herself by taking a job as an investigator at a discount detective agency located in a shopping mall: "Vigilance You Can Afford."
Cameron Chandler's first assignment at Penny-wise Investigations is to locate a runaway girl. The trail leads to a survivalist camp on a remote island in northern Puget Sound. Armed with only a Swiss Army Knife and her quirky on-the-job training as a suburban sleuth, Cameron uncovers more than she bargained for. She soon finds herself in a fight for her own survival.
Chapter 1 – Employed at Last!
It was the only store in the mall that didn’t invite shoppers to take a look inside. Sandwiched between Ye Olde Candle Shoppe and Sew What?, its mirrored storefront looked impenetrable. Images rebounded off the mirrors, challenging passers-by to guess what went on inside. I slowed down to guess.
It was then I saw the “Help Wanted” sign to the right of the pale oak door. Although I had never bothered to check out the place before, the sign drew me like a powerful magnet.
“Hey, watch it,” an angry voice said. An elderly woman in a hot pink sweat suit pushed past me, leaving no doubt that I had violated one of the mall’s unwritten traffic rules. You don’t cut across the wave of bodies, you go with the flow. I mumbled an apology and stepped out of the mainstream.
The name of the shop was painted in a cobalt blue arc that spanned three quarters of the mirror: “Penny-wise Investigations.” Within the arc in smaller, straight line print was: “Discount Detection.” Lower down and to the right was a tiny griffin emblazoned in gold next to “P.W. Griffin & Associates. Vigilance you can afford.”
A detective agency in a shopping mall? Suburban sleuthing for the middle-class consumer? No way, I said to myself. This isn’t for me.
I backed away, sidestepped around a strolling shopper, and found a seat on a glossy faux wood bench next to a long blue planter full of green plants apparently sustained by the fluorescent rays of overhead lighting. I reached out and fingered one of the plants. Artificial. I tapped the heavy looking planter. Plastic, and hollow. Everything fake and empty, like my life.
The bench faced the shopping mall detective agency. I found myself staring at the mirrored storefront wondering how many of the ordinary people rushing about intent on their shopping ever considered hiring a private investigator. That older woman in the black checked polyester slacks with the gray cardigan, for example. Would she go into the agency and ask them to check on her grandchildren to see which one deserved to inherit her house and all of her personal belongings? And what about that woman in the tight jeans and jaunty sweater who looked as though she had just stepped out of a beauty shop—suppose she wants to know whether her husband is cheating with his executive assistant? Or the pregnant woman riding herd on the little girl who was pulling at her tights to keep them up, might she be lured by a conveniently located discount detective agency if her husband ran off with their child?
I sat there, resting my feet, trying not to feel depressed. “Sale” signs and “Specials” leapt out at me like accusing fingers. If YOU had a job, they seemed to say, then you too could be part of the great American consumer phenomenon.
But I didn’t have a job. And in the last few months I’d heard nothing but reasons why I wasn’t a good fit for this job or that. “Sorry, but since you don’t have administrative skills…” “Sorry, but since you aren’t experienced creating Excel spreadsheets and graphs…” “Sorry, you’re over-qualified.” “Sorry, you’re under-qualified.” “Sorry.” My PhD in liberal arts wasn’t a springboard to any of the jobs that were out there. I had reached a professional dead-end that was threatening to make a cul-de-sac out of my entire life.
My eyes went back to the “Help Wanted” sign just an Olympics broad jump leap away. I didn’t know anything about being a private detective. But maybe they wanted a receptionist. The sign didn’t say. I looked away, then remembered the article that had appeared on my refrigerator that morning, held in place by a magnet shaped like a goose wearing a bonnet. The headline read: “Lower standard of living for single mothers.”
It hadn’t taken a genius to figure out that my mother was hinting that I should either get a job or a husband, preferably the latter, from her point of view. Since my husband Dan’s death, Mom was always lecturing me about how I was becoming a statistic, leaving the warnings in the form of articles where I would be certain to see them: “Unemployed PhDs on the increase.” “Women still making less than men.” “Older women less likely to remarry.” “Children of single parent households have more emotional problems.” Etcetera. Sometimes I felt as though every journalist in the country was trying to meddle in my private affairs.
While I had been sitting there, a number of shoppers had stopped briefly in front of the small display window to the left of the detective agency entrance. Finally I got curious enough to go over and take a look. Hanging from the light brown wall was a single shelf about three feet long. On it was a stuffed bear wearing a beige raincoat and a miniature red plaid Sherlock Holmes cap. Attached to his right paw was a magnifying glass pointed in the general direction of a footprint cut out of black paper. Above the toy sleuth was a flier that read: “For the man or woman who has everything—give them the gift of vigilance. Special rates for gift certificate detection services.”
They had to be kidding, didn’t they?
Further down on the window was a sign that listed their services: “Accident investigation, recovery assistance, evidence gathering, domestic and other surveillance, missing persons, background reports, industrial investigation, investigative due diligence, child custody, photography, courier service, and private matters.” At the bottom it said: “Initial interview free.”
I found myself shaking my head. “No way. No way.” Had I said that out loud?
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This is a story you can sit back and relax with, knowing that even when things go sideways, they will right themselves in the end. It’s a lighthearted mystery with a combination of humor and action grounded in the reality of a working mother’s world while taking readers on a fast-paced journey to a survivalist camp on a remote island. Enjoy a front row seat as a newly minted investigator solves not one, but two missing person’s cases.
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In a world filled with uncertainty and too little chocolate, Charlotte Stuart has a passion for writing upbeat mysteries with a pinch of adventure and a dollop of humor. She has three mystery series, all featuring female protagonists. Recently she won a Pinnacle Book Achievement Award and the Speak Up Talk Radio Firebird Book Award for humor. Charlotte has a PhD in communications and is the president of the Puget Sound Sisters in Crime.
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