Deadline with Death (Time-Slip  Mysteries, #1)

The first book in a new Irish cozy mystery series!

Deadlines can be deadly…

Dee Flanagan loves Irish history, bad rom-coms, and red lipstick. Dead clowns, injured time travelers, and shoot-outs don’t make it onto the small-town reporter’s Top Ten list. After the bullets stop flying in Dunleagh Castle’s courtyard, it’s up to Dee to convince people she didn’t imagine a gunfight played out between two centuries.

With the body count rising, and no one willing to believe Dee’s time travel theory, she’s forced to team up with a man who’s either a bona fide fruit cake or a police officer from the year 1919. Using her expert knowledge of the Irish War of Independence, Dee sets out to solve a century-old crime, plus a modern-day murder.

 EXCERPT FROM DEADLINE WITH DEATH

CHAPTER ONE

Dunleagh, Ireland

The morning the clown croaked at my feet began with a cockfight and ended with a corpse. Neither covering the fight nor discovering the body was on my to-do list. After five months of juggling my job at the Dunleagh Chronicle, a volunteer position at the museum, my history video blog, and looking after my grandmother, I finally had a free day.

Until I didn’t.

Courtesy of a virus sweeping through our offices, two of the Chronicle’s reporters were out sick. With press day looming, my penny-pinching editor was desperate enough to pay me time and a half, and with a mountain of bills on my nightstand, I was desperate enough to agree. I swapped my cozy bed for Mavis, my scarlet scooter, and faced the elements of a rainy Irish summer.

Under different circumstances, a spin through the countryside might’ve been pleasant. Today’s ride was anything but. I steered Mavis through driving rain, gale-force wind, and potholes the size of mainland Europe. The crowning glory was a near collision with a herd of cattle that’d taken up residence in the middle of the road. I seriously should’ve held out for double pay.

By the time I pulled up outside the tumbledown farm where the cockfight was being held, the organizer had gotten wind that the cops—or Guards as they were known in Ireland—were on the way. In a spectacle of flying feathers and bouncing beer bellies, both the contestants and the spectators were fleeing the coop. I dry-heaved my way through the stench of birds and unwashed men, snapped a few shots of the mayhem, and hopped back onto my scooter. I now had less than an hour to reach my desk and write an embellished account of the non-event, so Mavis and I broke several rules of the road on our return journey.

The clock in the town square chimed ten as I hung a right and chugged up the steep road that led to Dunleagh Castle. In fifteen minutes, the Chronicle’s grumpy subeditor would emerge from his lair, demanding to know why my article wasn’t on his desk. I swore under my breath and pressed hard on Mavis’s sluggish accelerator.

At the top of the hill, the castle loomed, dark and magnificent against the stormy sky. The sight of its gray walls and tall towers never failed to thrill my inner historian, even when I was in a hurry. From its clifftop perch, Dunleagh Castle had cast a menacing glare over the harbor for the last six centuries. While most of the original outer wall was gone, and the outer courtyard had been repurposed as a parking lot, both the castle itself and its generous gardens remained intact. Today, it housed the newspaper, the mayor’s office, the museum, a small café, and several lovingly restored rooms that were open to the public. Working for a penny-pinched weekly rag wasn’t the glamorous career I’d envisioned at university, but it paid the bills—well, some of them—and I had the privilege of working within the castle walls four days a week.

I wasn’t alone in my admiration for the fortification. It had earned a well-deserved place as one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. Even at low season, buses braved the steep incline and disgorged tour groups in front of the wooden drawbridge. At high season, as it was now, the stream of tour buses seemed endless.

One such bus spluttered its way up the road in front of me, moving at a painful pace. I swerved to overtake it and narrowly missed mowing down a man who was crossing the street. He leaped sideways to avoid me and landed in a puddle.

“Hey,” he roared, glowering at me under bushy red eyebrows, “watch where you’re going.”

“Sorry,” I said on autopilot.

The word caught in my throat when I recognized the guy I’d almost rendered roadkill. Charles O’Rourke, better known as Mr. Chuckles, was a popular street performer whose clown routine delighted children and tourists alike. He was also the dude I’d kneed in the nuts last month. I doubted I’d make it onto his Christmas card list, but then, he wouldn’t make it onto mine.

Ignoring Mr. Chuckles’s squawks about my reckless driving and general tendency to harm his person, I zoomed into the parking lot and deposited Mavis in a free space. I pulled off my helmet and yanked up the hood of my jacket. The downpour was turning into a deluge, and the brief moment between removing my helmet and getting my hood in place was all it took to turn my hair into a sodden mess.

As I exited the parking lot, my phone vibrated with an incoming call. My hand went to my pocket on reflex, but I pulled it back and kept moving. It was wet out, and I was late. Whoever was calling me could wait.

Before I stepped onto the road, a second tour bus pulled up to the curb opposite. If I wanted to dodge a swarm of geriatrics, I needed to pick up my pace. I speed-walked across the road and then broke into a run. With a wave of greeting to the guard on duty, I bounded over the castle’s wooden drawbridge and entered the courtyard. The cobblestoned ground was slick with rain, and puddles formed in patches where the stones needed to be replaced. Standing beside one such puddle was none other than my good pal, Mr. Chuckles. I swallowed a groan. He must’ve reached the courtyard just before me. Seriously, why couldn’t I catch a break this morning? With my deadline imminent, the last thing I needed was an argument with the clown.

I surveyed my surroundings. A gaggle of elderly tourists huddled in front of the castle’s main entrance, all wearing bright orange raincoats emblazoned with the name of their nursing home. If I zigzagged past them and ran the rest of the way, I’d be at my desk in five.

In spite of the slippery surface, I accelerated into a sprint. I’d almost reached the door when the clown stepped in front of me, forcing me to stagger to a standstill. He was dressed in full regalia: baggy polka-dotted pants, luminous green shirt, wide yellow sash, fire-engine red wig, and a shiny, red plastic nose. The addition of a leopard-print rain poncho completed the look. I tried to dodge the guy, but at that moment, the second influx of tourists trundled over the drawbridge and swarmed into the courtyard en masse, nixing the option for me to sidestep my adversary. Before I had time to react, Mr. Chuckles was up in my face, yelling and shaking a fist.

To the casual observer, we must’ve appeared a comical pair. Last time I’d checked, the average Irish male stood five-feet-nine-inches tall. I barely missed the six-feet mark. I’d inherited my considerable height, sturdy build, and masses of blond hair from my father, an American with Swedish roots. The clown, in contrast, must’ve been descended from leprechauns.

The little man gesticulated wildly, jumping up and down to emphasize his points, none of which were flattering and several of which would’ve required a bleep censor.

“You came through the incident unscathed.” My gaze dropped to his mud-strewn legs. “Apart from your pants.”

He moved closer, still eye level with my chest. “I ought to call the cops on you, Flanagan. You’re a menace, on and off the roads.”

A hushed silence fell over the elderly tourists, and I sensed several pairs of eyes upon me. I ignored them and focused on the clown. “Calling the cops didn’t work out so well for you the last time. As I recall, the encounter ended with you receiving a formal warning for sexual harassment.”

A gasp of excitement rose from our audience, but the clown appeared to be oblivious to the onlookers. “That cop is your friend,” he muttered. “She’d believe any pack of lies you fed her.”

I rolled my eyes. “Dude, there was CCTV footage of you groping my butt before I kneed you in the groin. Sergeant Healey didn’t have to take my word for it.”

The clown moved closer, and my stomach roiled. Everything about this creep made my skin crawl. I took a step back to regain some semblance of personal space and sought an escape route. The old folks spilling over the drawbridge surged toward the main door. Unless I wanted to shove octogenarians out of my way, my best bet was to take a detour via the museum, where an upstairs corridor connected the building to the castle. First, I had to get the clown to back down and let me get to work.

“Look, I’m in a rush…” I tried to bypass him, but he blocked my attempt and jabbed me in the chest with a chubby finger.

“If Dunleagh had a proper cop in charge,” he snarled, “you’d have been arrested for assault.”

“If by ‘proper’ you mean ‘male,’ I doubt even the most chauvinistic man on the force could ignore the evidence on the tape.” A churning panic warred with my rising anger, but the sneer that stretched his painted lips tipped the balance. I gritted my teeth and cast an exaggerated glance at my watch. “Fun though this has been, I gotta get to work. Unless you want a replay of last month’s nut-crushing incident, you’d better let me past.”

Red-hot rage flickered across his face, and the knuckles of his fists turned white. The misogynistic pig would love to hit me, but he didn’t have the guts to do it in front of witnesses. What he did have the guts to do was to keep blocking my way.

I bit back an oath and thought fast. In a flash, I opened my backpack and extracted a small can, careful to conceal the logo. “Well now, would you look at that. Is this pepper spray lurking in my bag?”

My words had an instant effect. The clown’s beady eyes widened. He leaped back, colliding with a group of tourists.

“Why don’t you juggle a few balls for our visitors?” I winked at the open-mouthed seniors. “No pun intended.” Giving the clown a look laced with contempt, I squeezed past. This time, he didn’t try to stop me.

Courtesy of the spectacle Mr. Chuckles and I had provided, the old folks parted to let me through, sparing me the necessity of a detour via the museum. A few of the tourists even clapped. I reached the door to the main entrance in record time, executed a mock bow, and bounded into the castle.

Larry, a fellow member of the Historical Murders Club, was on the phone at reception. He nodded to me as I dashed past and mouthed, Morning. I gave him a thumbs-up and climbed three flights of stairs to the North Tower, home to the Dunleagh Chronicle for the last one hundred fifty years.

I burst through the modern glass door and tumbled into the newsroom, panting, sweating, and dripping with rain. Even in my out-of-breath state, it took me less than a millisecond to register that chaos ruled supreme. A workman kneeled by the printer, surrounded by power tools and pieces of machinery. Behind the wreckage, splatters of ink stained the wall, as though the staff of the Chronicle had engaged in a frenzied game of paintball during my absence.

“I don’t know which circle of hell I’ve walked into,” I announced to the room at large, “but I think I’ll leave you guys to it.”

“No, you won’t.” Marcus, the subeditor, emerged from behind the towering pile of papers on his desk. He was short and chubby and adorable. What was left of his brown hair stuck out in wild tufts from the sides of his shiny pate. His black-rimmed glasses were askew, and his tie looked as though it had survived a nuclear war. I was enormously fond of Marcus, in spite of his Grinch-like persona.

“You’re in press day mode,” I said, stating the obvious.

“And you’re late.” Marcus drew his bushy eyebrows together and tapped his watch. “I needed that story five minutes ago, Dee. Even your mother got her horoscopes in on time this week.”

Well done, her. “Give me another ten and you’ll have it in your inbox, complete with a photo of stampeding poultry to plaster across the front page.”

His gloomy expression deepened. “It’d better be spectacular. We’ve got nothing else worth printing this week, let alone make our lead story. With our circulation numbers dwindling, we can’t afford to have yet another filler story on the front page.”

“Leave it to me,” I said cheerily, faking a confidence I didn’t feel. “Why don’t you have a coffee while I type? You look exhausted.”

Marcus grunted and scratched his shiny pate. “I might just do that.”

With my subeditor appeased, at least temporarily, I covered the last couple of meters to my desk. Aido Lafferty, the Chronicle’s other junior reporter, sat at his side of our shared desk. His green-tipped hair, piercings, and psychedelic color choices contrasted with my black-and-white wardrobe. My one nod to color was my rocking red lipstick collection. Today, I was wearing my favorite brand of liquid lipstick in the shade Oxblood. I’d completed my look with black trousers and a plain white blouse. Not exactly fashion forward, but that was how I rolled.

I dumped my bag and helmet on the floor and struggled out of my wet jacket and waterproof pants. “My morning is a classic example of ‘no good deed goes unpunished,’” I whispered as I slid onto my chair. “I should’ve let Cian’s call go to voicemail and stayed in bed.”

Aido twirled a pen between his fingers, and a slow grin spread over his handsome face. If I were five years younger, I’d have fallen for his charm and good looks, but I was pushing thirty. Bitter experience had taught me that guys like Aido were best kept in the friend zone.

“I take it the cockfight didn’t go according to plan,” he said, his grin widening.

“Seamie Dean got tipped off that the Guards were going to raid the place. By the time I arrived, everyone was scrambling to get away. I got a few shots of the stampede, and that was the extent of my coverage.” I screwed up my nose. “Then when I got back to town, I almost mowed down Mr. Chuckles.”

Aido laughed. “I’d love to have seen that.”

“He threw an epic tantrum.”

“He’s not exactly your greatest fan,” my friend said dryly.

“I’m not his, either. The guy’s a creep. And he made me even later getting to the office.” I opened my laptop and fired it up. “Fabulous. This piece of excrement is insisting on installing updates. Estimated time, ten minutes.”

“Write what you can in the time you have,” Aido advised. “If they get desperate, Cian said he’d run a piece by your mother. Something about chakras and crochet. Apparently, it’s her most popular class.”

I groaned. “I still have people asking me to explain that article she wrote on reincarnation and knitting.”

His lips twitched. “I never did grasp the connection there, but then, I find her weekly horoscopes indecipherable.”

“That’s Bliss. She specializes in vagueness and empty promises.” This attitude also extended to motherhood, an observation I kept to myself.

Aido’s lips twitched. “I take it her prediction for your love life hasn’t panned out?”

“The one about the dark-haired dude in uniform?” I rolled my eyes. “She’s been saying that for years. I pay no attention.”

“Larry at reception has dark hair,” Aido said with a sly grin. “And he wears a uniform.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Larry is thirty years my senior, not to mention the fact there’s a Mrs. Larry in the picture.” While my laptop laboriously installed its updates, I checked my phone. The missed call was from my sister, and she’d followed it up with three text messages.

The first read as follows:

Can you bring Nana to her hospital appointment? Cliona’s throwing up and Jack’s screaming the house down. The appointment’s at eleven-thirty with Dr. Sanyal. Thanks! River xx

Sent five minutes later:

Yo, sis. Did you get my message about Nana?

And the most recent:

Dee????? I’m getting desperate here. Bliss isn’t answering her phone. You’re my last chance.

Acid burned in my stomach. Of course Bliss was incommunicado when she was needed. Our mother—a self-proclaimed New Age hippy—was too busy “finding herself” to bother with such banalities as looking after her elderly parent. She was currently away on a yoga retreat, a fact she’d obviously failed to mention to my sister.

I glanced at my watch. It was twenty past ten. Yikes. I’d barely have enough time to write my story and get to Nana’s. I drummed an impatient rhythm on my desk with one hand and typed a response to my sister with the other.

“Problem?” Aido peered at my laptop. “Is the computer giving you trouble?”

“It’s still updating.” I grimaced. “Looks like I’m on taxi duty. Nana needs a lift to the hospital, River’s bailed, and Bliss is away. I have to skedaddle once I get this story written.”

“Smart move in any case.” Aido jerked a thumb in the direction of our editor’s office. “Cian wants you to read his play again.”

I pretended to bang my head against my desk. “Just kill me now. I never thought I’d regret specializing in 1920s Irish history, but A Fighting Man might break me.”

Cian’s latest dramatic masterpiece was set during the Irish War of Independence, the topic of my doctoral thesis and the main focus of my history video channel. The War of Independence, or Anglo-Irish War, was fought from 1919 to 1921 between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British forces. The British side included members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (the police force of the day), the British Army, and various paramilitary factions.

Cian’s play allegedly focused on events leading up to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the subsequent end of the war, but was in fact a tale of doomed love. The last thing I wanted to do was wade through his turgid script for a fourth time, especially as I’d be forced to sit through the opening night. In spite of being at least fifteen years too old for the role, my mother had bagged the main female part.

“Our beloved editor is a determined man with a ruthless streak,” Aido continued. “He’s counting on you being so grateful for your job that you’ll agree.”

This statement was an accurate summary of my predicament. Cian had given me a job when I’d been desperate to find work in Dunleagh. Although I’d run my history channel for the last few years, I had no formal training in journalism. I owed the guy, and we both knew it.

“He doesn’t listen to my feedback,” I grumbled. “Last time I read the play, I spotted the same historical inaccuracies I’d flagged during the first two readings.”

“He enjoys having a historian vet his script,” Aido said. “It makes him feel like a professional playwright.”

“Dee won’t be a professional anything if she doesn’t get moving on her article,” Marcus shouted across the room.

“Hold on to what’s left of your hair, Marcus. I’m on it.” I winked at Aido. “Duty calls. Thanks for the heads-up about Cian.”

My friend waved a liberally ringed hand. “No problem.”

I put on my headphones and spent the next half hour pounding out a four-hundred-word plea for an end to animal fights and harsher punishments for their organizers. It was heavy on the hyperbole, but it got the point across. I read it over one last time, nodded in satisfaction, and emailed my article to Marcus.

Once I’d hit send, I removed my earphones and leaned back in my chair. “Done and sent, complete with a horrendous photo of Seamie Dean’s toothless grin. If you hear Marcus scream, you’ll know why.”

“It won’t be the first time he’s screamed this morning.” Aido’s smile was wry. “The exploding printer made him blow a gasket.”

I pushed back my seat and pulled on my still-wet rain pants and jacket. “Sorry to love you and leave you, boys, but taxi duty calls.”

Marcus looked up from his desk, and his eyebrows formed a hairy V. “Off so soon?”

“It’s my free day. I told Cian I’d cover this story and that was it. Besides,” I added, grateful for the excuse, “I have to take my grandmother to the hospital.”

“All right,” Marcus muttered. “See you tomorrow.”

With a goodbye chorus ringing in my ears, I waved to my coworkers and headed back down the North Tower’s winding staircase.

* * *

When I reached the ground floor, I paused by the empty reception desk to secure my hood. Larry’s booming voice blasted out of the Great Hall. He was lecturing a group of tourists on the history of the castle. The thought of tourists triggered a memory of Mr. Chuckles’s leering sneer. I shuddered. Hopefully, the creep had endured a thorough soaking while plying his trade in this morning’s rain.

I slung on my backpack and opened the heavy oak door. Outside, rain pounded off the ground, and a strong breeze swept through the courtyard. Rain cascaded over me and the strong wind ensured I received the maximum impact from the elements. The farther away I moved from the main entrance, the worse the condition of the cobblestones. Water surged over the broken stones, forming determined streams and forcing me to perform an ungainly dance to avoid them.

I mentally cursed the mayor. The sorry state of the courtyard was his fault. In his determination to gut the top two floors of the castle and turn them into luxury apartments, Mayor Hyland had refused to sanction any repairs on the castle until after the town council voted on his renovation plans. I leaped across another rivulet of rainwater. My best bet to avoid wet feet was to take a detour across the courtyard to the south side of the castle. I swung to the left and picked up my pace.

A high wall divided the courtyard from the armory and soldiers’ quarters, now home to the museum. The armory and barracks were a late-medieval addition to the castle. At the time of their construction, the castle wall had been extended to surround the new buildings. The original border wall was left intact, adding an extra layer of defense within the castle grounds. To form an access way between the two parts of the castle, a gate had been constructed in the center of the wall. Known as the Green Archway, this stone gate was a moss-covered edifice on which flowers bloomed in summer. It was the first point of note on a tour of the castle gardens, and it always drew my eye. Today was no exception. Which was unfortunate, as my lack of attention to the ground landed me in a puddle. Muttering, I shook water off my ankle boots and stepped through the archway.

Without warning, the sky darkened, draining the museum’s courtyard of light. I glanced up and sucked in a breath. Instead of the black clouds I’d expected to see, the sky had turned a curious shade of deep plum, shot through with flecks of gold. The color was mesmerizing. Not taking my eyes off the sky, I slid my phone out of my jacket pocket. I was no pro photographer, but I’d do my best to capture this rare slice of beauty on a wet summer’s morning.

Speaking of wet…

I held out a hand and frowned. Not a drop of the previous rain shower was in evidence. I blinked and checked the puddles for confirmation. No fresh raindrops splashed against their surface, and the water within stood unnaturally still. Ireland was renowned for its stop-start rain showers and strong winds, but I’d never known the weather to go from a blustery downpour to still and dry within a matter of seconds.

Whatever the cause, the sky was a wondrous sight. I opened the phone’s camera app and snapped several shots. Perhaps this week’s issue of the Chronicle would have a spectacular front-page picture after all. Once I was satisfied I had enough photos, I switched to video mode. If I brought back an awesome clip to feature on our website, it’d make my editor’s day.

Suddenly, a mammoth gust of wind broke the stillness. The strength of the gale sent me staggering, and I bashed my head on the side of the archway. Pain sliced through me. Dazed and seeing stars, I slumped against the wall. I lost my grip on the phone, and it fell to the ground with a clatter. The sky shifted and shimmered before metamorphosing into a crackling plum-colored cyclone—a cyclone that was heading straight for me.

An icy sweat trickled down my spine. Fighting the force of the wind, I tried to stand, but I was too late. Purple wisps coiled around my wrists and ankles, holding me prisoner. The sound of my pounding blood rang in my years. I screamed, but the wind whipped my words away. I might as well be shouting into a vacuum.

Breathing heavily, and well into panic mode, I tugged at my restraints. Every time I tried to yank free, the purple coils grew tighter. What was this stuff? Air didn’t turn into shackles. And wind didn’t crackle. Whatever I was experiencing, it couldn’t be real.

I drew in a deep breath. Yes, that was it. None of this was real. I was having a nightmare. That third slice of Nana’s apple pie last night hadn’t been my smartest move. If I stayed calm, I’d soon wake up and this would all be over. I closed my eyes, wincing at the pain in my head, and sifted through my mind for the one and only meditation session I’d ever done.

A man’s shout punctured my bubble of forced calm.

My eyes flew open. Still clad in his mud-splattered clown costume, Mr. Chuckles staggered through the Green Archway. Underneath his clown makeup, he wore an expression of abject terror. It took him a second to register my presence.

“Run,” he rasped. “They’ve got guns.”

My stomach leaped into my rib cage, and I struggled to break free. “Who’s got guns? The old folks?” The question was ridiculous, but so was this entire situation. A gun-toting senior might well fit in with this wild tale.

Mr. Chuckles didn’t reply. With a last terrified look over his shoulder, he lurched into forward motion. His awkward gait drew my attention to a red stain on his left leg.

“You’re bleeding.” My voice rose in panic. Had he been serious about the guns? I’d heard nothing. Or had I? Had the crackling sound I’d attributed to the wind been gunfire? I tried to stand, but the purple restraints held me down.

Before the clown had taken more than a few steps, the air around him shimmered and vibrated. Fragmented noises broke the silence: male shouts, heavy breathing, and the unmistakable pop of gunshots. The blow to my head and my shallow breathing had left me sore and light-headed, but even in my confused state, escape was paramount in my mind. I thrashed against my confines, feeling the purple cords bite into my skin. Frustration and fear swelled in my chest as I tried and failed to free myself. Hot tears burned a path down my cheeks. It was no good. I was a sitting duck for whoever, or whatever, was coming through that archway.

Another blast of purple wind raced by me with a deafening roar. Angry voices rose and fell, followed by several rapid reports. Blinded by the force of the wind, I curled myself into a protective ball and prayed for this madness to end.

I didn’t have long to wait. A few minutes after the initial blast of wind, everything fell silent. The pressure around my wrists and ankles eased. I opened one tentative eye and flexed my hands and feet. My restraints were gone. I opened the other eye and looked up. The fabulous purple sky had disappeared, replaced by a mundane gray. The brisk breeze of earlier was back, as was the relentless rain. A scent of burning lingered in the air. Gunpowder? My gaze moved to the ground, and my breathing stopped. Less than a meter away, the clown lay face down, unmoving. His bright red wig floated in a puddle to his right. Scarlet liquid pooled beneath his prone form and mingled with rainwater. A wave of nausea bent me double. Was he dead? And where were the gunmen? Would they emerge from the other side of the archway and shoot me? My eyes darted around the courtyard. It was empty, save for the clown and me, but the Green Archway lay in my blind spot. I had no idea what waited on the other side.

“Mr. Chuckles?” I barely recognized my own voice. “Charles?”

No response.

My stomach cramped with fear. Please, don’t be dead. With shaking hands, I groped across the ground until my fingers closed around my phone. The screen had cracked but the device still worked. I hit the button for emergency services and put the phone on speaker. The dial tone rang while I crawled toward Mr. Chuckles, clutching the phone between my unsteady fingers. I’d have reached the man faster if I’d stood and run to his side, but if Dunleagh Castle was turning into shoot-out central, I figured I was safer staying near to the ground.

I closed the space between the clown and me and checked him for a pulse. Nothing. I rolled him onto his side and recoiled at the sight of a gunshot wound to his chest. I tasted bile. I didn’t need medical training to know the man was dead. Panic spiraled through me, making it hard to think. In my state of shock, it took me a moment to register the woman’s voice on the phone, asking me to state my emergency.

“A man’s been shot in the courtyard of Dunleagh Castle. I need an ambulance and the pol—”

An agonized groan arrested my attention. I jerked around, losing my tenuous grip on the phone. A dark-haired man in a black uniform stood framed in the archway, clutching his upper chest. Blood seeped between his fingers, and his blue eyes clouded with pain. A revolver dangled from his other hand.

I froze for an instant, and then the adrenaline kicked in. My heart pounding, I leaped to my feet. Before I had time to leg it, the man’s grip on the revolver slackened. The handgun hit the ground with a clatter. The injured man took faltering steps in my direction, mouthing silent words. His arresting blue eyes pinned me in place with an urgency I couldn’t ignore.

“Eliza?” He drew out each syllable of the name as though speaking cost him all his energy. “What are you doing here?”

The shock and blood loss must be giving him hallucinations. “I’m not—”

Before I could finish my sentence, the man lost his balance and careened into me, sending us both hurtling toward the dead clown.

From Deadline with Death by Zara Keane, Copyright 2019