For laugh-out-loud fun, an irreverent look at Florida culture and spine-tingling suspense, include Phyllis Smallman’s Highball Exit in your holiday hamper or E-reader. Phyllis Smallman is a multi- award-winning author.
Sherri Travis is a captivating, in-your-face bartender with a sassy mouth and a gritty sense of humor who has managed to survive life-threatening adventures for four books; Highball Exit is the fifth book in the series. Set in Jacaranda, an isolated barrier island town in western Florida, Highball Exit can certainly stand by itself as an entertaining read, but I am glad that I had read some of the earlier Sherri Travis mysteries – if only to keep up with Sherri’s ongoing hilarious feud with Bernice Travis, the former mother-in-law from hell. The time period is Florida after the housing collapse and Sherri is three months behind in her mortgage at the Sunset Bar & Grill, “pirouetting on the edge of bankruptcy,” when Aunt Kay arrives with an offer that might solve her problem. Aunt Kay will make the mortgage payments if Sherri will spend a week with her, investigating the death of Holly Mitchell, a flighty, model/actress wannabe who had worked briefly for Sherri as a waitress (at Aunt Kay’s suggestion, of course). Holly had been a terrible waitress– always dreaming and talking about fame and celebrities, instead of doing her job. It seems that Holly committed suicide by taking a highball of drugs – thus “The Highball Exit.”
Aunt Kay is a sweet, pudgy little old lady – a Miss Maple-type who could con her way into the most private buildings and then end up having tea with cranky managers who confided everything. She has two main questions: “Was it suicide or murder?” and, “What happened to Holly’s baby?” Holly had taken tiny Angel to visit Aunt Kay just months earlier. She even asked Aunt Kay to care for the baby temporarily. The police, landlords and Holly’s real mother insist that no such baby ever existed, implying that Aunt Kay is suffering from dementia.
As Sherri and Aunt Kay investigate Holly’s past, their quest leads to the underbelly of Florida society – escort agencies, the dangerous murky world of sex workers, drugs, and celebrity perversion.
Smallman’s writing style is snappy, funny, intelligent and as current as today’s headlines. She’s such a talented storyteller that you can not only see her characters, but smell them.
Highball Exit concludes in an explosive climax that could only happen in Florida.
Targeted Age Group:: 12 and up
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Characters walk around in my head and I either have to give them a home or take massive amounts of drugs. And then there is the news. Did you ever read an article in the paper and wonder what happened next? Or wonder why it came about in the first place? Imagination takes over and I start constructing a story to explain these events. Champagne for Buzzards came about when I saw a television news article about buzzards returning to their natural breeding grounds to find new houses had been built there. Buzzards were sitting on children’s play sets, boats and garden furniture. What if you woke up one morning and saw buzzards sitting on the cab of your red pick-up? What if… words that inspire me.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Characters seem to come with the story. Real people who move in and take over my life, I often feel I know my them better than I do the people I call friends. Sometimes they have the personality traits of people I’ve known but most of the time they come from my imagination.
It was Sunday morning and I was out on the lanai of my borrowed beach house, sprawled in a canvas lawn chair, with the Sunday Herald discarded at my feet. The bright Florida sun was giving me a headache but I couldn’t find the energy to make myself get up and go inside to the air conditioning or even move into the shade from the house. I’d surrendered to lethargy and given up on everything but breathing.
The September air was heavy with humidity. It was ten o’clock in the morning and already the temperature hovered around ninety with the forecast for worse to come. Overhead small white clouds, eager to be gone, rushed across the sky, leaving nothing behind but the drought that wouldn’t end.
Elvis flew in with wings extended, neck out and long legs dangling, and came to a running stop. He stepped delicately onto the listing concrete squares and stood there with his head twitching right, then left, and then back again.
“What, do you want… applause?”
He cranked his neck around and gave me the evil eye.
“I’m no tourist. I knew you could do it.”
Elvis tilted his head to the side.
“Go away you moocher. I’m the only one getting a handout today.”
He lifted a stick leg and paused before he set it gingerly down and inched closer.
“There isn’t a scrap in that fridge.”
He cocked his head, one yellow eye considering me, and his fine white feathers quivering in the light breeze.
“If there was a hotdog in there I’d eat it myself.” Elvis was the only egret in all Florida who preferred hotdogs to fish. He couldn’t abide those disgusting things no matter how hungry he was.
“Get lost, freak.”
Elvis decided I was serious about my lack of charity and lifted off with a squawk of protest to fly north across the sand dunes, back towards Jacaranda, looking for people more benevolent than me.
Since this tiny aqua bungalow was built closer to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico than the new laws allowed, sand dunes and beach grasses were pretty much all I could see from the patio. It didn’t matter. All the other beach houses would be empty until the season started after Thanksgiving. I was alone in paradise, solitary and miserable.
Even the chartreuse gecko, darting in and out of the clay pots full of dead flowers, couldn’t lift my mood. My business…no my life, the Sunset Bar and Grill, was running on borrowed money and the fumes of my dying dreams.
The winter before the tourist trade had been down, leaving me pirouetting on the edge of bankruptcy, and now I’d reached a crisis point. The Sunset needed an infusion of cash or it wouldn’t survive.
I kept telling myself that everything would go back to normal when the long line of cars with out of state license plates started arriving. If I could last until after Thanksgiving, two more months, I stood a chance of keeping the bank from stepping in.
But this nasty, nasty little voice in my head kept saying, “And what if the tourists don’t come? What if this is the new normal…the new state of things?” God, I hate that little voice. It keeps insisting on pointing out truths that I’m quite capable of avoiding.
I tried to think of someone to tap for money, considered all my options, and discovered that there weren’t any. When you grow up in a trailer park on the edge of a swamp, you just don’t make the right social connections to stave off insolvency.
Try as I might, ignoring reality was no longer working. It was time to make a new plan and decide what I was going to do when it all went down the tubes. I’d read every line in the “help wanted” section of the Herald but nobody wanted bartenders, my only marketable skill.
Changes had to be made. I was identifying the expendable, which server I’d let go and what supplier I could string out a little longer, when I heard a car drive in the crushed shells of the driveway. With a sigh of relief, glad to be distracted from my misery, I went inside to see who my visitor was.
A police car was parked outside the kitchen window.
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