Nine Days by Minerva Koenig is a debut mystery featuring Julia Kalas, a forty-something former mob wife who finds herself under witness protection in rural Texas and in the middle of murder (available September 9, 2014).
Julia Kalas has had a rough couple of years. Not only did she witness her husband’s murder, endure gunshot wounds, and have to turn state’s evidence on the Aryan Brotherhood—she’s now been forced into the Witness Protection Program and relocated to a tiny town in rural Texas.
Of course, that all happened because Julia was, frankly, a criminal. A mob wife. The launderer of the money her husband and father-in-law made in illegal gun-running. So it’s not as if she was an innocent angel caught in the crossfire. As she says herself:
I hate to admit that I believe in a concept as hackneyed as the Criminal Mind, but I can remember having thoughts like the one I was having now as far back as my memory goes.
And she’s sure not going to just sit back and blend into the woodwork once she hits Azula, Texas. Her handler, the local police chief, sets her up with a job interview at a bar. Which doesn’t make Julia the happiest camper, given her true passion and skill set lies in construction.
But as soon as she claps eyes on her new boss, the hunky Hector Guerra, Julia’s quick to change her mind.
I heard a chair creak, and a short, beefy figure appeared in the hall. As he ambled toward me, away from the light, I got a load of the details: long black hair, big dark eyes, Aztec nose, delicious mouth. The man was gorgeous.
Perhaps this bartending gig won’t be a total loss…
Until a severed hand is found in the alley, anyway.
Guided by an inner radar that’s kept her alive amidst mobsters and racist psychos, Julia starts to dig into Azula’s secrets and discovers there’s much more going on in this small town than an initial glance would suggest.
Just who is behind Milestone Properties, the organization bullying the local business owners—who all happen to be racial or social minorities—into selling their property for dirt cheap prices? Who is the mysterious Silvia Molina: an elderly witch doctor serving up herbal remedies or something more dangerous? Did Julia escape the Aryan Brotherhood only to get mixed up with Mexican drug cartels? And what’s the story behind Hector’s PTSD?
When a body turns up and Julia’s new boss and flame is implicated, is it just a case of a frame-up or could Hector really be involved? Julia’s radar is telling her he’s innocent—of this crime at least—but perhaps her libido has clouded her judgment. All she knows for sure is that she has zero patience when it comes to getting jerked around, and she won’t hesitate to fight back when pushed into a tight corner.
Koenig has created a very interesting cast of characters in this debut. There’s our narrator and heroine, Julia (though of course that’s not her real name), who’s a bit on the heavier side, pushing forty, and loves to lift weights in her spare time. She knows her business, which is construction and criminal enterprise, and doesn’t hesitate to go after what she wants.
There’s the handsome Hector, bar owner and refugee with a violent, tragic past. The police chief, Teresa, promptly dubbed ‘The Amazon’ by Julia, and who may or may not have had a thing with Hector. Mel, the one-handed Jewish shopkeeper; the jovial black diner cook Lavon, who has a daughter named Nefertiti; the lesbian salonist Charlie who dresses like a 1950s Greaser chick; Teresa’s soon-to-be-ex and resident rich asshole, Richard; the redheaded prize-fighter Mike, currently moonlighting as a bartender for Hector; and Hector’s adopted sisters Tova—bitchy owner of the town’s hotel—and Connie, a psychology student.
It’s a grab-bag of personalities and everyone’s got their secrets. Julia’s not quite sure who to trust, but she knows who she immediately dislikes: namely, the cops. Sheriff Maines is a laconic cowboy straight out of a dime western, and the two come close to blows every time they cross paths. Of course, a career criminal and a sheriff are unlikely to make fast with the friendship.
Koenig imbues the entire book with the atmosphere of a dusty, dying southwestern town on the verge of drying up completely. Everything’s got an echoing sense of emptiness and vast space. The roads are long, empty, and meandering. Half of the shop fronts are vacant.
I counted up the number of vacant properties: eighteen of twenty-four. Still showing signs of life were the department store, a corner store directly across the street from where I was standing, the court house, the bar, an indeterminate business a couple of doors down, and a long stone building diagonally across the intersection from that. Everything else seemed coated in graveyard dust, still and blank, like blind mice. The marquee above the theater still advertised a first-run matinee of Pulp Fiction, the plastic letters yellowed and crooked.
There’s simply too much space for too few people, and it makes us empathize with Julia’s claustrophobic, paranoid mindspace. This may be a good place to disappear, but for someone like Julia it might be too easy to stand out.
The mystery itself twists and weaves like a drunken snake. You’re never quite sure what will come next, which makes you turn each page at a rapid-fire pace, breath bated. The entire story unfolds in the space of the eponymous nine days. This would definitely be a good beach or barbeque read; even while working a full-time retail job, I devoured this in little more than two afternoons. And the unpredictable characters mean you’ll be hard pressed to guess whodunit correctly by the last chapter.
Koenig has crafted a helluva fun criminal romp with Nine Days, and a compelling protagonist in narrator Julia. I’m personally crossing my fingers that this will only be the first of many scrapes we see Julia Kalas wriggle her way out of.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.