Death Stalks a Small Town: Welcome to Magnolia Bluff

Magnolia Bluff is a small town in the Texas Hill Country. It’s like any small town, filled with gossip, rumors, secrets, and mysteries.

On May 20, I will be officially releasing Book Two in the multi-author Magnolia Bluff Crime Chronicles: Eulogy in Black and White.

CW Hawes ignited the series in April with Death Wears A Crimson Hat.

Don’t look for Magnolia Bluff, Texas, on a map.

It’s not there.

But it’s real.

At least it is in the minds of ten authors who are creating the nine-book series. We will be publishing one book a month through December. I will make sure you know as much as I know about each mystery before each new novel hits the bookshelves.

Magnolia Bluff is a small town in the Texas Hill Country. It’s like any small town, filled with gossip, rumors, secrets, and mysteries.

Occasionally somebody dies.

In Eulogy in Black and White, the good people of Magnolia Bluff are dreading  May 23.

An excerpt from my book explains why.

Caleb Pirtle III

Sampler:

THE NEWSROOM OF the Magnolia Bluff Chronicle smells like ink and paper. This morning’s ink. Last week’s paper. Some swear all news smells, and I won’t argue with them. Everybody wants the truth. Very few are willing to tell it. And those who do are generally run out of town. Let’s all live a lie, and none of us will get stung. Let a poor boy go to jail, and it’s front-page news. Let an advertiser have a closed-door meeting with the judge, and the report of his indiscretions wind up in the trash, burned and the ashes scattered somewhere in the next county. A man may bury his conscience, but it will always come back to haunt him. I know. I live with the ghosts.

Nobody, with the exception of Rebecca Wilson, bothers to look up when I walk through the door. She’s tall. She’s brunette. She could have walked in from the cover of some magazine, wearing a deep blue dress that looks like silk or satin. Rebecca was probably a cheerleader and quite possibly the Homecoming Queen a few years back. She was definitely a heartbreaker but stayed around while most of her classmates left town for college or better-paying jobs, and then she looked up one morning and realized there were no hearts left in Magnolia Bluff to break. I’d be willing to let her break mine, but I’m not sure my heart made the trip back from Afghanistan when I did. I’d at least appreciate Rebecca looking for it, but what would either one of us do if she found it? She wouldn’t want it, and I’d just throw it away again.

Rebecca is the receptionist, the society editor, and the head of advertising sales. You want your daughter’s wedding picture on the front page? Buy an ad. Want a photograph of your grandchild’s graduation tucked prominently in the newspaper and above the fold? Buy an ad. Want Rebecca to throw away the cell phone shots of you dancing naked at a biker’s bar in Austin? Buy an ad. Rebecca Wilson is a top-of-the-line sales lady. She makes more money than the publisher and deserves every cent she can stuff into the bank. She knows who’s having a shotgun wedding, who’s getting divorced, who’s involved in which extracurricular activity at the high school, which preacher has given up booze for smack, who’s pregnant, and who the real father is.

Rebecca winks, and her smile can light up a dismal room. She’s not flirting. It’s her way of saying hello without breaking the cold, deadly, morning silence of a newspaper office that has all the personality of a funeral parlor.

“Lose your umbrella?” she asks quietly.

“Didn’t think it was supposed to rain.”

Her laughter sounds like the black keys on a piano. “Where’d you get that idea?”

“Read it in the newspaper somewhere.”

Neal Holland grunts loudly. He’s the owner, publisher, editor, and guiding genius behind the Chronicle. He’s bent over the twenty-four-inch screen of his ink-stained IMac Pro, either writing the news or making it up as he goes. I’m told he’s good at both.

“Sounds like insubordination to me,” he says without looking toward me.

“That’s what my Colonel said.”

“He shoot you?”

“He tried.”

“Close range?”

“From one side of the room to the other.”

“That’s the reason,” Neal says.

“Reason for what?”

“Reason we can’t win a damn war.” He stops typing long enough to straighten the ragged end of his white mustache. “Damn brass can’t shoot straight.”

Neal Holland is as close to being a legend as anyone who has ever walked the town square of Magnolia Bluff. He must be in his sixties, but maybe he’s older. His very presence can strike fear into the self-appointed power brokers of Burnet County. Mister Holland is a little too short, a little too round, and his face looks like a rock boulder after sparring with a stick of dynamite. His white hair is always in need of a good trim. His white mustache is a little too shaggy. His eyesight is failing. His dark-rimmed glasses are coke bottle thick. But nobody wants to get on the bad side of a small-town editor who loves nothing better than a good fight.

He’s dug up dirt on politicians who have wallowed in a lot of dirt, had the chief of police arrested, the district attorney disbarred, and I know at least three members of the city council who always find out before the meeting which way Neal Holland wants them to vote. They may get out-voted from time to time, but none of them is ever crucified in front-page headlines or skinned alive in print. They have learned the golden rule of small-town journalism. Don’t ever pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel and will use as much as he needs to soundly whip you as often as he needs on page one.

I’m standing there with floodwaters dripping off my denim jacket. My jeans are soaked. And the toes of my boots are smeared with mud and charcoal. My hair is plastered dark like shoe polish against my head. A puddle is forming around my feet. And nobody cares. I was hired to sweep the floor, mop it when it’s wet, push a button on the old Web-Offset Press every Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning to print six thousand, four hundred, and twenty-two newspapers, then clean the presses before I go home each day. Doesn’t pay much. But I only work as hard as I want, and Mister Holland pays me enough to eat twice a day at the Silver Spoon Café and rent a place to stay in Nell Walker’s three-room boarding house over behind the football field. On most nights, it’s quiet. In May, it’s so quiet you can hear the mosquitoes mating. But on Friday nights in the autumn, when football is as holy and sanctified as a ladies’ prayer meeting at the First Baptist Church, it sounds like an Assembly of God Revival meeting: music, madness, and mayhem.

“You know where the mop is,” Mister Holland tells me.

“Pressroom closet.”

“Might as well put it to work.”

The rain grows louder as it peppers against the building’s tin roof. Sounds like a snare drum. I know. I live behind the football field.

The newsroom is about as spare as a room can get. Big plate glass window across the front, looking out on the stone columns of the old rock courthouse, has the name of the newspaper printed in bold white letters with a tagline that says: “The Truth, The Whole Truth, And All The Truth That’s Fit To Print, So Help Me God,” which is a glorified way of saying: “In this newspaper, you’ll find all the news that Neal Holland and his ad-selling assassin believe is fit to print.”

The office is no larger than a good-sized bedroom, just big enough for Mister Holland and Rebecca to each have a desk with a third computer perched atop a World War II surplus table in the back corner. It’s only used by Thomas Hedrick, owner of the Firestone Tire Store, who writes the game stories about the Magnolia Bluff Bulldog football team on Friday nights. They have not lost a game during the last five years, although time did run out on them twenty-two times.

Hedrick is given forty-two column inches for each game, not counting the statistics, of which there are legion. The Kennedy Assassination had a total of twenty-six column inches, and the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers scratched out thirty-four column inches. Magnolia Bluff’s heart lies in football, not politics, and any story that takes place as far away as twelve miles outside the city limits is considered political and probably a conspiracy theory, not worthy of Neal Holland’s trouble.

As I run the mop beside his desk, I can tell the day did not start well, nor will it be ending well. Mister Holland has broken two yellow pencils with his hands and is chewing on a third as if it were a toothpick. His face is red, his eyes narrowed to a stare as sharp as the pointed end of a scalpel. He leans back in his chair, and his gaze moves across the ceiling from one spider web to the next. I offered to sweep the webs away the first week I was on the job, but Mister Holland said no. He likes the spiders. They may be, he says, the only ones in town who truly understand him. Perhaps he’s right. He sleeps in the newsroom as often as they do.

Rebecca shoots a frayed rubber band that slaps Mister Holland upside the face. His head jerks around. He’s scowling.

“What’s wrong, boss,” she says.

He waits to see if she is laughing at him.

She isn’t.

Mister Holland’s shoulders are sagging. The veins are pulsating in his temples.

He picks up a calendar and turns the page. “You know what Monday is,” he says.

“I’ve been dreading it for months.” Rebecca turns away. She has the glint of fear etched in her eyes. The blue has turned to mud.

I wait for somebody to say something.

Nobody does.

I wait a couple of minutes more.

It seems longer.

Nothing but silence.

Rebecca and Mister Holland are lost in their own little worlds.

“What’s Monday?” I finally ask.

“May Twenty Third.”

“God help us,” whispers Rebecca.

I barely hear her.

“What happens on May Twenty Third?

Mister Holland turns slowly around.

His face is pale.

His eyes have turned to water.

His hands are trembling.

He drops the calendar on the floor.

“Somebody dies every May Twenty Third,” he says.

“Somebody dies somewhere every day.”

“The last one was Judge Amos Fitzsimmons. Drowned in the baptismal tank down at the First Baptist Church,” Rebecca says.

“And the one before the judge was caught on the fifty-yard line of the high school football field and shot point blank with a shotgun in the back of the head. Hardly found enough of his skull to bury.”

“Here in Magnolia Bluff?”

“Every year for the last eight years.” Rebecca has a tear in her voice.

Mister Holland stands and walks slowly to the front door. He watches the rain a moment, then says. “We know there’s a funeral coming,” he says. “We just don’t know who’ll be lying in the casket.”

Please click HERE to pre-order your copy of Eulogy in Black and White on Amazon.

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