Dead Letter Office, Parish Mail #1

A contemporary southern gothic mystery series about a teenager who discovers a cache of centuries-old letters containing clues to crimes happening in the present day.

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Synopsis

When Celia’s father is killed in Afghanistan, she moves with her mother to New Orleans, the city where her father grew up. Struggling to adjust and haunted by troubling dreams, Celia finds comfort in new friends like Tilly, a practicing witch, and Donovan, the son of police detective. On Halloween, bizarre supernatural occurrences rock the city. Celia meets the mysterious Luc and finds a letter, over a hundred years old, apparently addressed to her.

The paranormal repercussions of that night continue when Celia learns that Luc is in fact the restless spirit of a young man murdered in 1854, only able to assume solid form at night. And then, to her shock, Celia finds that the letter, which describes the suspected murder of a man in 1870, contains uncanny parallels to the present-day death of Abel Sims, a homeless veteran.

With help from Luc, Tilly, and Donovan, Celia races to solve the murder using the letter and both magical and forensic clues.

A vengeful spirit appears to be haunting Celia, Luc’s murderer may have returned from the dead, and many more letters have appeared, all asking for Celia’s help.

What’s Cool from Coliloquy: Kira has written Parish Mail like a TV series–there are over-arching mystery and romantic story arcs that extend between the episodes, while each episode has a smaller case that is presented and solved. Along the way, she asks you, the reader, to make several small decisions as you read. These choices do not impact the overarching storyline, but certain combinations “unlock” clues to the series’ mystery, which are embedded in the text.

Kira also asks you to cast a vote at the end of the episode, to get additional feedback from her fans about their preferred love interests in future episodes.

Excerpt

We arrive at the cemetery. It doesn’t look like the cemeteries I’ve seen before, rolling green lawns dotted with headstones. This one looks like a city of marble: narrow lanes surrounded by aboveground graves and tombs, gleaming white in the sun. A city of the dead. And it, too, looks old, many of the stones cracked or crumbling. Even from the car, I can make out the dates on some of them: 1917, 1875, 1798.

The rest of the funeral party is already outside. They stand in front of an immaculately maintained tomb shaped like a temple. The name Macarty is carved in simple, elegant letters below the angled roof. The coffin, draped with an American flag, rests on sawhorses in front of the tomb’s iron gate. The gate stands open. Waiting.

We go to join the other mourners, who greet me and Mom by name, but there’s not one person there we know besides my grandparents, Hunter and her husband Jefferson, and their kids, who are about my age. Who are all these people? Friends of the family, I guess, people who knew my Dad when he was younger. A Presbyterian minister from my grandparents’ church starts speaking. Almost immediately tears well up in Mom’s eyes and she’s fumbling for a new tissue from her purse. Jane and my grandfather listen with stoic, impassive expressions, but I see that they’re clasping hands, so tightly that my grandfather’s knuckles are white. Suddenly I feel like a jerk for thinking unkindly of Jane’s fussy demands, what with the flowers and the choice of coffins and church service or no church service and hating my Mom’s dress. At the heart of all of that is the fact that she and my grandfather are burying their son. And that’s got to hurt in a way I can’t possibly understand.

It’s hot and still, the moist air barely moving as the minister pauses in his speech. There are more people in uniform here, men and women I don’t know. Two of them remove the flag and fold it into a tidy triangle that they hand my mom. She takes it and clutches it to her chest, like she’s hugging Dad for the last time.

Then several of the men hoist the coffin and carry it into the tomb. I feel dizzy. Maybe it’s the heat and humidity, maybe it’s the drone of the minister’s voice, but all I know is that I have to get out of there. This is wrong. It’s too quiet and too sad. Dad loved music and noise. Laughter. They are going to close that iron gate and lock him away in a never-ending silence and that will mean it’s over, he’s really and truly gone and I’ll never get to say the things I should’ve said, or take back the things I did say. The crazy idea fills my head that if I don’t see the gate close maybe it won’t happen.

I back away through the gathering. No one notices; everyone’s watching the coffin being situated inside the tomb. I take the first turn I can, heading down an alley shaded by tall tombs and wall vaults, and keep walking. Turning left, turning right, until I’m lost among the graves, far away from the Macarty temple.

The cemetery is quiet and empty. Flowers either fresh or wilted adorn some vaults, while others have arrangements of candles and other curious items that remind me of Franklin’s gris-gris bag. A diagram drawn in yellow powder. A smoking bundle of sage in a silver bowl. Even a dish of red beans and rice next to a bottle of rum.

I don’t feel alone as I walk even though there’s no one in sight. Maybe it’s the stone gaze of all the carved angels around me, but I feel like I’m being watched. I’m not usually creeped out by cemeteries. Dead is dead. And even though this one ranks pretty high on the creeptastic meter, I know that every tomb is just full of bones. The person each one used to be is long gone.

Remembering this makes me feel better. I don’t know what was in that coffin they put in the tomb, but it’s not my dad. Not really. “It’s not him,” I say aloud, convincing myself. “It’s not him.”

In the still air a tiny breeze stirs up. Cool, with the scent of ocean. That’s just bizarre, because New Orleans is on a swamp between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. The ocean is miles away. Carried on the breeze is—music? Yes, definitely music. I catch a few notes before the breeze dies. A trumpet. As I head toward the sound, hot, muggy air surrounds me again. I pick up more instruments, trombone, clarinet, snare drum. Jaunty, cheerful jazz. Turning a corner I see them, a funeral band in crisp white shirts and billed caps of red, leading a parade of mourners I recognize from Franklin’s viewing room. Everyone’s smiling and dancing as they exit the cemetery, the widow most of all. It’s a celebration. I stand watching and listening until they’re gone, taking the music with them.

And I discover that I’m not quite out of tears yet.

I slump against the side of a brick-fronted vault, sobbing like I did that day in our back yard in San Diego, not even caring that I’m getting my new black dress dirty. I cry until I’m gasping. And then I sit there catching my breath until it all subsides. My head pounds; I’m as exhausted as if I’d just run five miles.

And then I feel someone stroke my hair. Just one gentle movement, soft. Someone followed me here from the funeral, someone trying to comfort me. Wiping my face with my sleeve, self-conscious, I turn around, expecting to find Mom or Jane or one of my cousins.

No one is there. Just the empty lane, and row after row of graves with their occasional vase of flowers or glass devotional candle.

I frown to myself, perplexed. There’s no wind. No branch that I caught my hair on. Okay, clearly I didn’t feel what I thought I felt. I’m imagining things, the heat is getting to me—and even as I’m rationalizing it all away, I feel a touch along my back. Unmistakably a caress, as if from someone’s hand.

I leap to my feet, whirling around, finding nobody where every sense is shrieking out that there is somebody. Someone is here. I can feel him right next to me – somehow I know it’s a him, not a her or a them – the way you catch sight of something at the edge of your vision. But there’s nothing. No one.

“Who’s there?” My voice sounds high and crazed to my ears. I feel something dart away behind me. I turn again, and again find myself alone. Down the lane a glass candle tips over with a clink, rolling across the gravestones, then a vase a little further down goes flying, all of it like someone is running away, stumbling as they go. I can only stare. And despite the sun I’m shivering again.

Author

Kira Snyder is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her television work includes the Syfy Channel shows ALPHAS and EUREKA and the People’s Choice Award-winning vampire drama MOONLIGHT, which aired on CBS. Kira’s plays have been performed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Circle in the Square Theatre School, the Burton-Taylor Theatre in Oxford, England, the Bay Area Independent Theatre Fringe Festival, and Stanford University. Also a game designer with a Masters degree from NYU-Tisch’s interactive media program, Kira has produced games for Electronic Arts, Purple Moon, Microsoft, There.com, the MIT Press textbook Rules of Play, and Yahoo, including EA’s seminal alternate reality game MAJESTIC. She is a proud geek and loves sci-fi and videogames, reading and playing when she’s not writing or designing. You can reach virtual Kira on Twitter @sugarjonze.

Author Q and A

Lisa:  Yummy Donovan vs. mysterious Luc vs. bad boy Sloan. I have a favorite. Do you?

Kira:  The diplomatic – and true! – answer is that there are things about each of them that I like, and each has his own complications and baggage. But yes, I also have a favorite. He knows who he is.

Lisa:  I also want Tilly to be my BFF. Oh, and I want a pet raven.  

Kira:  I wish Tilly was real too – I’d love to hang out with her. And you might check with your husband before bringing any magical ravens into the house, Lisa. I don’t think the “It followed me home!” excuse will fly. So to speak.

Lisa:  I love the depth of your supporting characters–I get so excited every time Grandma Jane and Deanna are in the same room–and I wonder if the ability to balance so many characters is a legacy from your screenwriting experience?

Kira:  From writing for television, definitely. In a movie, you only have a couple of hours to get to know the characters, while in TV (if you’re lucky) you have dozens of hours. That allows time for fun subplots, emotional development across episodes, and overall a richer canvas of characters. It was important to me to place Celia and her friends in a world populated with real, interesting people with their own stories.

Lisa:  What about your background as a game designer? Did that come into play when writing Parish Mail?

Kira:  Absolutely. The interactive aspect of Coliloquy was one of the things that attracted me to the project. I literally put together a flowchart as well as an outline before I started writing. Every day of our lives we’re faced with choices, and in a Coliloquy book you can not only help a character like Celia make those choices but experience the consequences with her, and that’s something I hope readers will enjoy. Creating story paths that are equally satisfying with their own surprises and details is creatively very challenging and rewarding. All this plus the puzzle-design aspect of constructing a mystery plot appeals to my game designer brain.

Lisa:  What was your inspiration for this story? 

Kira:  I’m fascinated with urban history, particularly cities where the very new and the very old exist side by side. In America we don’t have many of these places, but New Orleans is one, and is unique in its cultural evolution and everyday acceptance of the supernatural. I also am intrigued by the related notion of history repeating itself, of the ghosts of not just people but events tracking through time. With Celia, I wanted to tell the story of a girl with no real sense of home getting to develop one. That means making real friendships, having real romances, reconnecting with her family, and through solving mysteries giving back to the community in which she lives. That investment earns her a true feeling that she’s home.

Lisa:  Throughout the book, Celia’s sense of displacement as a military kid is a very real part of who she is. I’ve read other books involving military families that feel like exploitative plot devices, but that’s not the case here–Celia has been shaped by her childhood in very nuanced ways.

Kira:  I’m writing partially from experience there: my father is a retired Navy officer and I grew up as a military brat. We moved a lot when my sister and I were younger, but put down roots when we started high school, a conscious choice my parents made. I grew up learning to be very adaptable to new places, and with an appreciation for cultures and experiences outside my own, traits I wanted to give Celia. A military upbringing can lead to sense of displacement and disconnection, as you say: the question “Where are you from?” holds an odd kind of meaning to a military kid, because we’re from all over, and our definition of “home” is not the same for people who’ve lived in one place throughout their childhood. And for Celia, losing her father in war is something else that sets her apart.

Lisa:  Your opening scene at the funeral also felt deeply real to me. 

Kira:  This is a devastating and emotionally complicated loss that I’m trying to portray as truthfully as I can with having never gone through it myself. Supporting military families, service members, and veterans is an important issue to me.

Lisa:  I feel like Parish Mail has incredibly broad appeal. There are elements of horror, romance, and mystery, all grounded in very smart, well-crafted storytelling. Did you write for a specific audience? 

Kira:  Some of my favorite authors play with genre mash-ups, so I guess it’s no surprise that Parish Mail turned out that way. It’s YA urban fantasy spiced with Southern Gothic with a teen girl detective heroine, and I hope the book will appeal to fans of all of those elements: readers who like YA with strong female characters, fans of paranormal romance and light horror, and mystery readers. In addition to each case that Celia solves, there is a larger “mythology” mystery arcing over multiple installments (complete with hints and teases), so I think readers who like multilayered stories and playing detective will particularly enjoy Parish Mail. I hope so, anyway!