Sticks & Stones, by R. Franklin James: When Words Can Kill

sticks_stonesIn Sticks & Stones ($14.95, 264 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-919-0), by R. Franklin James, a woman’s efforts to clear the name of her murdered friend put her own life in danger.

Sticks & Stones is the second mystery in a series featuring amateur sleuth and paralegal, Hollis Morgan. Next Up: Return of the Fallen Angels Book Club. The series began with The Fallen Angels Book Club.

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4 Stars: “A fast paced mystery with lots going on…. I really liked the human touches…. Hollis finds a box of letters written to the dead woman in her probate case and I learned a lot about Hollis from the way in which she reacted to the letters. She goes way beyond what was required for her job to see that the outcome of the case is what it should be. Hollis also comes in contact with a young man named Vince, ‘a revering addict on the other side of withdrawals.’ Hollis buys him lunch several times and when he asks her why she is being so nice, she answers, ‘Because I could.’ Readers are sure to be captured by this plot-twisting, exciting mystery. It is a real page turner and I certainly am going to keep reading this series.”  Read more ….

—Cyclamen, Long and Short Reviews

“Who knew a simple nursery rhyme could be so dangerous? Someone knows. Someone has all the answers Hollis seeks. You’ll want to keep turning the pages to see if Hollis survives long enough to uncover the truth.”

–I Love a Mystery Reviews

“Sticks & Stones is a great read, a fun legal mystery about a great researcher who really knows her stuff. Holly is in fact more than a researcher, she’s really quite the detective too …. I enjoyed reading the book, the plot moved at a fast pace, and Hollis was a great character that is easy to like. There was even a light romance, which did not overpower the plot.”  Read more ….

–Mystery Sequels

“Sticks and Stones can break my bones ….” Despite what the old children’s rhyme says, words can cause grievous harm. A lesson ex-con Hollis Morgan, a casualty of her deceased ex-husband’s white collar crimes, knows all too well. Now she hopes to clear the name of a friend accused of libel by philanthropist Dorian Fields, a man whose charitable giving looks a lot like money-laundering. Only problem: the evidence has disappeared and her friend Catherine is found dead. A suicide, they say, although that is quickly disproved. Hollis’ friend was murdered.

Catherine was writing an article about Fields for a tabloid. Hollis and attorney Mark Haddan convince the magazine to let them carry on with the libel defense, but they have fewer than 60 days to prove Catherine’s exposé was well-founded. In the meantime Hollis has other distractions, such as awaiting the results of the bar exam. Now that she has received an official pardon, she is free to pursue her dreams of moving up in the world from paralegal to attorney. She is also helping to settle the estate of Margaret Koch, a rich client of the law firm who died leaving no heirs. And then there are the two men vying for her attention—one a police detective, the other a private eye.

Normally Hollis trusts her built-in lie detector, but in this case, too many people are lying for too many reasons. One of them is not only a liar, but a killer.

Says James, “The germ of this story came from an actual libel case. An article that ran in a supermarket tabloid recounted the exploits of a well-known personality who had sued the tabloid and forced it to print a retraction. The story itself was fairly scandalous and I imagined, since the apology didn’t appear until months later, that all types of personal damage had been done in the interim. I wondered how much insurance a tabloid would need to protect itself. And Sticks & Stones was born.”

R. Franklin James grew up in the San Francisco East Bay Area and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She and her husband currently live in northern California. Click here to find R. Franklin on the Web.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

Less than an hour later an unmarked car pulled up behind a police vehicle. Hollis could only imagine what her new neighbors were saying. She went to open the door.

“Hello, Ms. Morgan.”

Hollis stepped back in surprise and then felt a smile creep over her face.

“Why, Detective Faber, since when does homicide show up for a San Lucian burglary?” Hollis moved aside so he and the female officer behind him could enter.

He motioned to the officer. “Officer Vega is here to get your information. I just heard your address come across the radio. I was in the area and I thought—”

“You thought you would drop by,” Hollis said. She glanced around the room. “Well, I can assure you I’m usually a much better housekeeper than this.”

He stepped into the room and gave her a sympathetic look.

Officer Vega had already slipped on blue disposable gloves and was walking around with a small notebook. She stopped in front of the large desk in the dining room that had been emptied.

“How long were you out of the house?” she asked.

Hollis sighed. “I just got home from work. I was gone most of the day. I actually came home early.”

Vega looked into the kitchen. “You’ll need to make a list of anything you find missing and get it to us as soon as you can.”

Faber walked through the condo, went upstairs and returned to the living room. “I’m not convinced this was a burglary. I think they were looking for something in particular.”

Vega’s eyebrow lifted.

Hollis was taken aback. “Why would you say that?”

He pointed to the floor. “Only papers, books, folders are thrown around. All your electronics are still here. The stuff that’s easy for a real burglar to fence.” He walked into the kitchen and using a pencil, poked at her computer. “Why take the time to destroy your laptop?”

Vega stood in the hall doorway. “It would help if we could take it with us. Was there something important on it?”

Hollis shook her head. “Not really, mostly just class downloads and my study pages for the bar exam.”

Vega picked up the laptop and put it in a large folded plastic bag she pulled from her back pocket. “I’m going to head back to the precinct and write up a report. You can check online in forty-eight hours. You’ll need it for insurance purposes.” She handed Hollis her business card.

“Officer, I have a few more questions for Ms. Morgan,” Faber said. “I’ll meet you back at the station.”

Vega nodded and left.

Faber frowned. “Ms. Morgan, do you have any idea who might have done this?”

“Could you please call me Hollis?” She righted one of the dining room chairs and sat. “No, I don’t know anyone who would care enough about my law school notes and monthly bills to break into my home.”

“Is there a friend you can stay with or someone who can stay with you?”

Hollis shook her head. “No, there’s just me. I’ll be okay.” She sat on her shaking hand.

If Faber noticed, he didn’t say anything. He rubbed his hand over his head. “Okay, all right. Vega will take it from here.” He walked over to the front door. “Actually, there’s another reason I came in on this. I … I bought these tickets to see Yo-Yo Ma on Sunday. I know it’s short notice, but I just got them today and the only person I could think of to ask to go with me was you.”

Hollis looked up to the ceiling.

“Detec—”

“John, call me John.” He laughed.

His laugh caught her off guard. It was surprisingly contagious.

“John, I adore Yo-Yo Ma, and I would really like to go with you—”

“But.”

Hollis nodded. “But someone else already asked me.”

“Already asked you to hear Yo-Yo Ma?”

“I know. What a coincidence!” Hollis slapped her thigh. “I don’t have a date for six … never mind.” She blushed.

John laughed. “Look, maybe some other time then.”

“I would really, really like that. Please ask me again.” Hollis said in what she hoped was her most earnest voice.

He looked her in the eyes and said, “You can count on it.”

After the detective was gone, Hollis just sat, dejected, in the middle of the room. Taking a breath, she started to put the sofa pillows back in place. She didn’t usually cry, but she felt tears were just a few eye-blinks away. Pulling her thick hair back into a ponytail, she began to return books and CDs to their places on the shelves. Who would want to burgle her? She exhaled a long sigh and replaced the dining room chairs around the table.

It took the rest of the evening to return her condo to a semblance of order. She wiped her kitchen counters down with disinfectant and vacuumed the carpets twice.

A folded piece of paper under one of the corners of the living room throw rug caught her eye. It looked like binder paper—the type a child would use in school. It was folded several times until it was about one-inch square. She opened it carefully. She didn’t watch much TV, but enough to know there might be fingerprints.

She froze. It contained her name and address.

John was right, this wasn’t a random crime. She had something someone wanted, but what?

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