Hello everyone, would you like to read a bit of the book?
Stranger Than Fiction
There was a quote in the dedication of RJ Valentine’s latest book, Trouble Eight Days a Week:
“For Trouble. Authors must tell lies to reveal a greater truth.”
For 16 years, whenever anyone asked about her father, Jennifer Valentine told the truth.
The facts were these: she was born on March 10th at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in California. Her mother died a short time later, and Jenny was raised by her Aunt Shelly. Dad was never in the picture. These were all true statements, and yet to tell it like that, leaving out all the good parts, made her a goddamn liar.
Jenny wasn’t above lying when it served her needs, and she liked keeping secrets. She had a big one, too. When her mom filled out the birth certificate, Laura Onishi blessed her daughter Jennifer with the middle name Trouble. It was an old joke between mom and dad, giving a kid a hard-boiled name like Trouble or Danger or the like—how could the kid not grow up to be cool? They weren’t married. RJ Valentine was a literature professor, she was his grad student. According to Aunt Shelly, the affair was a real scandal. Especially to dad’s wife, Valerie.
Valerie Valentine had just given birth to a son of her own, and she refused to let dad even see his new daughter. Laura was determined, though. She packed infant Jenny—then only five days old—into a car seat and took off down Highway 12 on a grim, stormy afternoon. They never made it to RJ. A slippery road and a thick redwood tree got in the way. Or maybe another car forced them off the road? Jenny was too young to remember; it was a miracle she even survived. Mom wasn’t so lucky. After the accident, Jenny would spend her first months in a UCLA dorm room with mom’s sister Shelly. They’d been driving each other crazy ever since.
“Jenny!” her aunt shouted from the living room. “Did you move that box! The fridge guys will be here soon, and they need that path clear!”
Jenny ignored her. She was rummaging in the kitchen for a can of WD-40. There was a bay window in her new bedroom that opened wide enough to fit through. Wide enough for Jenny, at least, who at 16 was still smaller than everyone but her aunt. The window squeaked like crazy, though, which was a highly undesirable feature when you were trying to sneak out at night. Or back in, as the case may be.
They had just moved to Blackbird Springs from Glendale the day before. Shelly had a new job at the local charter school, and Jenny’s grandparents were letting them stay in the family house while they took an extended vacation in Okinawa. Shelly had no idea that Jenny had been mailing her aunt’s résumé to schools up here for two years. It was a close thing, too, since Jenny had just been kicked out of another school in Los Angeles, and Shelly was threatening boarding school.
It was hard enough not being a scamp when your middle name was Trouble, and the book RJ published when Jenny was three certainly didn’t help. My Name is Trouble was a junior readers book about a girl detective named Trouble who solved mysteries in the spooky hamlet of Blackbird Springs, California. And that, of course, was key. Because RJ Valentine lived in the real Blackbird Springs, and now Jenny finally did too.
She was staring at a box cutter she’d found in the junk drawer and wondering if she should take it when the doorbell rang.
“Get that! That’s probably them! And move that box!” shouted her aunt.
Jenny yawned and moped to the entryway. It was only 10:00 AM on a Sunday, and she hadn’t slept well last night. Too excited.
“Ow fuck!” she yelped, tripping over a box of books and stumbling into the door. She yanked it open like she’d planned the maneuver, expecting some delivery men with a new fridge. “Yeah?”
It was some blank-faced old guy in an actual chauffeur outfit.
“Jennifer Valentine?” he asked.
“…Yes?” Jenny said.
“Your presence is requested at Valentine Manor.”
An electric charge coursed down Jenny’s spine. She was in the back seat of the black town car before she knew it. The interior was all rich, supple leather. Was this what dad smelled like? She had totally forgotten to even tell Shelly where she was going. Probably for the best. Shelly’s opinion of RJ Valentine had always been dismal.
After mom died, dad couldn’t see Jenny, so he created a fictional world where they could be together. The pint-sized Trouble in his books never came across a mystery she couldn’t solve, but only before making things ten times worse in the process. Eternally 11 years old, always wearing a purple trench coat that was a little too big, and her father’s red fedora. She was a best-selling sensation. Dad wrote 11 more. Here Comes Trouble, Trouble Always Finds Me, Trouble in Paris… Trouble became a literary rite of passage, a natural stepping stone between Harriet the Spy, Nancy Drew, and Miss Marple. Every little girl read the Trouble books, and RJ made a fortune off the sales and merchandising.
Nobody knew there was a real Trouble too. No one except RJ and Shelly. It had to be that way. Laura Onishi’s car accident was very convenient if you were Valerie Valentine. Maybe too convenient. Dad kept quiet and kept Jenny safe. Aunt Shelly, meanwhile, was determined to discipline the Trouble right out of her. Jenny grew up in anonymous obscurity: RJ Valentine’s greatest plot twist, just waiting for her big reveal. As the driver rolled up the privacy screen, Jenny was sure that moment had finally come.
She could barely sit still, so she tried to distract herself from her anxiety by studying her new stomping grounds as they drove through town. She’d read about this place on the internet, but it was never the same as actually being there.
In the Trouble books, Blackbird Springs was a sleepy one-cop town full of eccentric locals, suspicious characters, and mysteries around every corner. Daily activities ranged from lemonade stands and bake sales to dognapping, smuggling, and jewel-thievery. The murder per capita must have been off the charts.
The real Blackbird Springs was nestled in the heart of Napa Valley. Jenny had spotted four wine bars, and she wasn’t even counting for them. She’d seen three police cruisers and a meter maid. Jenny would keep her fingers crossed for a good dognapping or two, at least.
Tomorrow was Labor Day, and the brunch crowd was out in full force for the last good weekend dining of the summer. Bougie hipsters milled around on the corner checking their phones while waiting for a table at Rosie’s. There was a big burly guy pacing on the sidewalk, checking the train schedule. City workers nearby were installing new traffic lights hand-crafted in wrought iron to look old-fashioned and rustic. Women sporting designer workout gear were walking their well-bred pocket dogs. An elderly man with a snow-white beard was climbing out of his Mercedes and handing off the keys to a valet. This town had lots of money. Lots of it. Jenny did not.
As if to remind her of this fact, they left the downtown shops behind and Jenny caught her first glance of Dad’s mansion in the distance. Valentine Manor sat on the low shoulder of a hill covered in golden-green grapevines, just past the edge of town. The villa was only two stories high but sprawled out wide on the property.
Jenny glanced at her reflection in the side window, hoping she looked presentable. Her outfit felt stupid now; she’d worn her purple trench coat over a black shirt and jeans. Trouble’s standard outfit; she couldn’t help herself. She kept her hair in a short pixie cut to make it easier to wear wigs, and went heavy on the eyeliner, as was her manner. The black hair and deep brown eyes she got from her mother’s Japanese ancestry. Her sharp cheekbones and thick eyebrows came from RJ, who was something of a Caucasian mutt. Adults would call her “striking” or “unique” and think they were paying her a compliment. What they really meant was that she was different. She didn’t fit in. That was fine, she didn’t want to. She was Trouble.
The driver turned east off the highway onto Cellar Drive, a smooth two-lane road running between rows of grapevines, following the signs to Valentine Vineyards. After another quarter mile, a pair of massive gates loomed across their path, each sporting a giant ostentatious V in wrought iron. Dad was a dramatic bitch, just like her.
An old-fashioned well marked the center of the roundabout where the driveway ended. Several cars were already parked out front, including a Blackbird Springs Police SUV.
“Why are the police here?” Jenny asked.
“Not sure,” said the driver as he opened the door for her. “But head on in.”
The air smelled sweet and earthy up here, like a glass of grape juice on a freshly-cut lawn. Jenny gawked at the grand entrance to the mansion. The steps were glazed coral flagstone, roughly hewn for that authentic Tuscany look. There had to be at least 20 bedrooms in this place. Was she about to get rich? According to Wikipedia, RJ’s fortune from book sales and licensing was north of $250 million.
She tapped out a quick coded message on her Apple Watch and popped an Adderall before marching up the stairs. Jenny reached out to knock on the heavy mahogany door when it abruptly swung inward, and she found herself face to face with a tall, pretty blonde girl.
“Oh!” the girl shouted in surprise.
Her hair was up in a bun, two thick golden tendrils hanging down to frame her heart-shaped face. Jenny was smitten.
“S-sorry,” Jenny stuttered out, trying not to stare.
“No, I was just leaving,” said the girl.
“Dinah, would you just wait!?” said a male voice, calling from within.
Dinah’s eyes flashed, and she offered Jenny a conspiratorial smile.
“Ignore him. I’m Dinah, by the way. Dinah Black.”
Dinah cocked her head, as though giving her a second appraisal.
“See you around, Jenny.” Dinah smiled and trotted past her as a tall teenage boy in a suit rushed up to the front door.
“Oh, umm hey,” he said, before brushing past her. “Come on, hang on a sec!”
“Forget it!” Dinah said. “I’ll call you later. Maybe.”
“Fine!” Jack shouted.
Dinah got into an Acura and drove off. The boy stood on the porch stewing for a few moments before remembering that Jenny was there too. He was tall and handsome, with dark hair and high cheekbones. He seemed a very serious boy with his furrowed brow, set jaw, and tired, bloodshot eyes. Just now, he was studying Jenny and frowning.
“Have we met?” he asked.
“No,” said Jenny, managing to keep her voice from wavering. Because there was only one person this could be: Val’s son, her half-brother. “It’s—It’s Jack, right?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking past her as though he’d already lost interest. “Um, can I help you?”
“Oh, I’m…” she paused, not sure what to say. “I’m Jennifer—Jenny. The driver brought me here?”
His face gave away no sign of recognition. As she’d suspected, he had no idea who she was.
“Right,” he said, glaring at Dinah’s departing car one last time before taking Jenny by the arm and pulling her inside.
“Something wrong with you and her?” she asked.
Jack began to answer, and then stopped himself. It didn’t matter. Jenny was too busy absorbing every inch of her father’s house, in awe of the subtle wealth on display. The tile was marble, and gold lamé wallpaper lined the walls. All the furniture looked authentically handmade by master craftsmen. It was like stepping into an older, richer, better world.
“Come on, we’re all in the study,” he told her.
“Wow,” was all she could manage.
“Yeah yeah.” Jack rolled his eyes and pulled her under the double-staircase balustrade. Jenny gawked at the oil paintings and fancy wall sconces as Jack marched them briskly down the hallway. In a moment they had turned a corner and stopped at a tall door. Jack pushed it open and gestured inside.
With one last nervous breath, Jenny stepped in, ready to meet her father for the first time in her life.