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Running on Empty

Running on Empty, April 2011
Main Street Murders
by Sandra Balzo

Severn House
Featuring: Daisy Griggs; AnnaLise Griggs
192 pages
ISBN: 0727869817
EAN: 9780727869814
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"This group of eccentric characters living in a small town environment will elicit laughter and tears."

Fresh Fiction Review

Running on Empty
Sandra Balzo

Reviewed by Suan Wilson
Posted March 28, 2011

Mystery Amateur Sleuth | Mystery Woman Sleuth

Wisconsin journalist AnnaLise Griggs receives a phone call from a flustered friend in North Carolina informing that her mother made an almost tragic mistake at the local blood drive. She nonchalantly drained three pints of blood from a society matron. AnnaLise hurries home to find her mother, Daisy, rational but occasionally adding odd comments to their conversation. While AnnaLise tries to make sense of her mom's health, she visits with old friends stirring up good and bad memories among the group.

When the former sheriff is found murdered and that death is quickly followed by the murder of a Japanese businessman, AnnaLise dives into the investigation. She loves a good mystery and AnnaLise does not want to face her mother's problems. Her search opens up old gossip and wounds that the killer wants kept secret. Suddenly, she and her mother become targets. AnnaLise races to expose the killer before Daisy becomes the next victim.

Ms. Balzo, author of the Maggy Thorsen mysteries, begins a new series with a group of eccentric and quirky characters in a small town environment that elicits laughter and tears as it draws readers into their complicated world. The plot offers plenty of surprises and it will catch readers completely unaware at the startling conclusion.

Learn more about Running on Empty


The first in a new series by the author of the Maggy Thorsen mysteries.

Life on Sutherton's Main Street has always been inexplicably hazardous. Like the student who bet he could paddle a beer-filled ice chest across the lake. And lost. Not to mention the occasional tourist who wandered into the mountains, never to wander back out. But the day Daisy Griggs siphoned three pints of blood from poor Mrs. Bradenham seemed to set a new standard. Now more and more people are dying and unless Daisy’s daughter, AnnaLise Griggs, can figure out why, her mother may be next.


Life on Main Street has always been inexplicably hazardous, no matter the season. The skier who choked on her gum halfway down Deer Slope, arriving at the bottom still standing, if not breathing. The fishermen squashed like road-killed possums by a Toyota Land Cruiser against the front of Lucky's Bait Shop. The skinny-dipping White Tail Lodge hostess, dead from hypothermia. And that didn't count the odd tourist or two each year wandering into the mountains, never to wander back out to our High Country version of civilization called Sutherton, North Carolina.

Nonetheless, the day Daisy Griggs reportedly siphoned nearly three pints of blood out of poor Mrs Bradenham during the town's annual volunteer blood drive is generally acknowledged to stand above them all.

It's also what was sending me, Daisy's daughter AnnaLise, back to Main Street .. .


AnnaLise Griggs stood in a Wisconsin courthouse when she picked up, on the first ring of her cellphone, the call every adult child dreads.

'AnnieLeez? This is Mama,' her mother's oldest friend said on the other end of the line.

Mama was the only person in Sutherton – or anywhere else – who seemed constitutionally incapable of pronouncing AnnaLise the correct way: 'Ah-nah-lease'. But, as surrogate- daughter had all her life, AnnaLise let her surrogate- mother's butchering of the given name ride. 'I just have a second, Mama. Is everything all right?'

'Pretty much. Excepting Daisy, she went and drained all the blood out of Mrs Bradenham.'

Well, maybe not the call every adult child dreads.

'My mother what?' AnnaLise yelled.

Other occupants of the century-old, cavernous lobby turned, en masse, to give the newspaper reporter a dirty look. They themselves might be junkies or prostitutes, purse-snatchers or axe-murderers, but blare into a cellphone and everybody becomes Miss Manners.

AnnaLise pivoted to face the dirty beige wall, still keeping one eye on a courtroom door in case Urban County District Attorney Benjamin Rosewood emerged through it. The prosecutor had just filed charges against a sixteen-year- old girl whose car skidded on wet pavement and jumped a curb killing her friend.

Tragic, yes. But vehicular homicide? Not in AnnaLise's mind, but reporters weren't supposed to have opinions. Which is why AnnaLise buried hers in a personal journal, thereby keeping the top of her head from blowing off.

At least, until now.

'Your mother,' Phyllis 'Mama' Balisteri continued, 'she was working the blood drive like always, her being a lobotomist and all. But Daisy made a terrible, terrible mistake this time.'

Despite her occupationally imposed if personality-driven need to edit , AnnaLise also let ride 'lobotomist' versus 'phlebotomist' and cut to the car chase: 'Is Mrs Bradenham OK?'

'Oh, sure.' If anything, Mama sounded a bit disappointed. 'But there was blood all over the floor from running out the tube. Daisy up and cut it in the wrong place, you understand?'

AnnaLise didn't understand, but Mama wasn't going to give her a chance to request any clarification. 'Henrietta – the other lobotomist? – she said it looked to her like three, maybe four pints.'

Three to four pints? Didn't the average person have only nine or ten total? AnnaLise tented her forehead against the beige brick, trying to ignore both the explicit graffiti on it and the heightened activity in the courthouse lobby. She did register two videographers lift their cameras and train them on the arraignment session door.

'Where's Daisy now?' AnnaLise asked in a tone that already sounded tired, even to her own ear.

'Don't you worry,' Phyllis said. 'I didn't let the chief's police boys take your mother away.'

Assuming 'the chief' was still Chuck Greystone, AnnaLise's high-school sweetheart, he certainly shouldn't have, at least not without calling her.

'She's here at the restaurant with me,' Mama continued. 'But Dr Stanton, he says Daisy might not be quite right.'


Mama lowered her voice. 'You know, like . . . in the head?'

AnnaLise didn't answer, waiting one, two beats, as DA Ben Rosewood burst from the courtroom and, throwing AnnaLise an apparently offhand glance, exited the lobby via another door, all without breaking stride. Shouting questions, a group of her fellow reporters became more like a pack of wolves, running their quarry to earth.

Feeling even smaller than her five feet of height, AnnaLise stayed where she was, a human lean-to against the building's scarred wall.

'I'm coming home, Mama,' she said softly into the phone. 'Tell Daisy I'm coming home.'


Friday, Sept 3, 7 p.m. On the road

Stopped at the Best Western near Middlesboro, Kentucky after a long day of driving. About to order pizza for dinner, then early to bed. Tomorrow, I cross into Tennessee and then Sweet Home North Carolina, arriving Sutherton maybe mid morning. I'm trying to look forward to Mama's cooking and not fixate on what else might be awaiting me.


For nearly as long as AnnaLise could remember, and even after leaving Sutherton for college, she had called her own mother Daisy, and Phyllis Balisteri, Mama.

Half the reason for that was staring the journalist in the face as she waited on Saturday morning while a black Ford Excursion with Florida license plates backed out of a lined space. Above it, the sign read 'Mama Philomena's' in two-foot-high, neon letters.

The original 'Mama' had been Philomena Balisteri, Phyllis's mom. When Philomena died, her daughter took over the restaurant bordering on Main Street, the boulevard rimming the south shore of Lake Sutherton. 'Boulevard', however, was probably too grand a label for the two-lane road with angle-parking on one side and the revered statue commemorating a loyal, local dog on the minimal median strip.

Most of the businesses stood on the same side of Main Street as Mama Philomena's, their front windows facing only the beach and Sal's Taproom across the way. Think of Lake Sutherton – the body of water as opposed to Sutherton, the town – as a figure eight, but with a withered northern loop nearest the mountains. While Main Street lived up to its name, other paved tributaries – like Church, First and Second Streets – fed into it and disappeared.

The driver of the aging but well-preserved Excursion was barely inching backwards from the space, and AnnaLise fought her mounting impatience with the out-of-stater. Growing up in Sutherton, she'd learned that its pace of life was dictated by the ebb and flow – not to mention frequent confusion – of the seasonal population fleeing the oppressive heat and humidity of South Carolina, Georgia and especially Florida.

'Half-backs', they were called, because, as Mama put it, 'They're northerners who go south for the weather, and then come halfway back.'

Half-backs, flatlanders, summer folk – whatever you called the crowds that descended upon the cool, clear lake and ascended into the cooler, surrounding mountains – they were the very reason the town continued to thrive, even during tough times.

Come summer, the population of Sutherton quintupled from a little less than a thousand to 'a little more than bearable' as AnnaLise's high-school friend, Sheree Pepper, would put it.

Winters also brought crowds, but of skiers. There weren't quite the number of tourists as in the summer, but the snow-seekers seemed to take up more room on the streets, wearing their down parkas and armed with skis and poles as they headed toward Sutherton Mountain.

'All tourists, all the time' – another Pepperism.

Not that AnnaLise's friend could reasonably complain. Sheree owned the Sutherton Inn on the far east-end of Main Street. Her thirteen rooms were booked solid the entirety of both seasons. Today was the start of Labor Day weekend and beds in Sheree's inn, stools at Sal's Taproom, or booths in Mama Philomena's would be even tougher to get than parking spaces on Main Street.

But AnnaLise hadn't lived in Sutherton – nor the High Country in general – since starting at the University of Wisconsin, and patience was no longer a virtue of hers. She cautiously reversed her gas-conscious Mitsubishi Spyder convertible to give the Excursion more maneuvering room.

The angle-parking on Main Street was always good for a daily fender bender or two as the summer folk tried to back onto it. The less charitable of the natives, nursing beers at sidewalk tables outside Sal's Tap, took bets on which vehicle was going to get nailed next. Mercedes and BMWs brought a special joy to the experience.

As AnnaLise finally wheeled into the space, she cringed at the 'vroom-vroom' caused by a small hole in her muffler that had worsened on the thirteen-hour drive from the upper Midwest. Climbing out of the Spyder, she gave Main Street the once-over, glad – even relieved – to see that it was pretty much the same as she remembered.

With one exception.

Until this past spring, most of the ground-floor storefront on the far corner had been Griggs Market . A small grocery and deli, the family business had become increasingly less profitable over the last few years. Finally, Daisy had thrown in the towel and declared herself retired at the age of fifty. She rented the retail space – but not her home, an over-and-under apartment in the same building – to Tucker Stanton, son of the town's doctor, and after months of renovation, Tucker's 'Torch', an upscale nightclub, was now open.

Turning back to Mama Philomena's – or just plain Mama's, as everybody called it – AnnaLise could see her mother through the restaurant's big, plate-glass window.

Daisy was perched on a step stool next to the cash register, feet dangling. The old place didn't have booster seats or high chairs. Kids who couldn't reach the tables sat on the step stool or, when that wasn't available, a pile of ancient phone books.

When AnnaLise was little, she'd climb quietly right to where Daisy was now and watch Mama fill plastic Moo-Cow cream pitchers by twisting off the heads and pouring cream down the plastic cows' throats. Then, if the pitchers were tipped, cream would come streaming out of the animals' mouths.

Which had struck young AnnaLise, who preferred her dishware anatomically correct, as just plain wrong. She'd searched the undersides of the creamers for udders and, finding none, resigned herself to the fact that adults apparently were fine with plastic cows spitting into their coffee.

The Moo-Cow pitchers were considered vintage these days, however, and, as they disappeared at the hands of sticky- fingered customers, Mama had locked up the last three – pitchers, not patrons – in a glass display case along with other treasures beneath her cash register.

'Out! Now!' The barked order interrupted AnnaLise's reminiscences as a man with the itchy look of a corporate bigwig embarrassed to find himself just another schmuck on vacation with the wife and kids, pushed out the door ahead of his family.

A second man, about forty with tousled hair, olive complexion and a local newspaper folded under one arm, had been about to enter Mama's, but stepped politely aside to let the squabbling parade pass by.

AnnaLise, intending to follow him in, leaned out to catch the door as it started to swing closed in his face. The stranger smiled his thanks and waved for AnnaLise to precede him, but she shook her head, preferring to take a moment to absorb the sounds and smells that were uniquely Mama's before . . . well, before she actually saw Mama. And Daisy.

Or, to be more precise, before the two women actually saw her.

Shielded from their view, AnnaLise closed her eyes. The très tacky electric chime on the door. The scent of rye toast and black coffee. The clatter of heavy silverware on industrial-strength china.

When AnnaLise opened her eyes, she was somehow in kindergarten again. After school, Daisy and Mama at the cash register, their backs toward her.

'Meh-tass-ta-sized.' Daisy annunciating each syllable as though it were a word all its own. AnnaLise didn't recognize the term, of course, but she heard the fear in her mother's voice.

AnnaLise's father had been sick for what seemed like her entire childhood. In fact, the daughter's first vivid memory was not of home or parents, but a room. A tiny, shiny room filled with black vinyl chairs and magazine- strewn tables, a television in one corner and a coffee-urn in the other, the acrid smell of the brew not quite covering the human and antiseptic stew AnnaLise would always thereafter associate with death.

AnnaLise always sensed her father was just on loan to the small family. That, someday, they would have to give him back.

'It'll be all right,' Mama had said that day at the restaurant, draping an arm around Daisy's shivering shoulders and giving them a squeeze.

'But AnnaLise is so little. And the store. Maybe I should?'

'You hush.' Mama put her left index finger to Daisy's lips.

'But I—'

'No.' If Daisy was as lost as AnnaLise had ever seen her, Mama seemed at her most determined. 'You're not alone, you hear? You and me, we'll make it right. The two of us.'

And they had, somehow. Two women collaborating over nearly a quarter century to keep both Mama Philomena's and Griggs Market afloat. To keep AnnaLise afloat, as well.

And, in return, the five-year-old had done her best to be brave, to be good. And she'd never, ever, told them what she'd overheard, and instinctively understood, that long- ago afternoon.

The man in front of AnnaLise moved toward a booth and Daisy and Mama caught sight of her. AnnaLise took a reflexive step back as the uncertain past became the equally uncertain present. The confused look in her mother's eyes was unnerving enough, but it wasn't as scary as what AnnaLise saw in Phyllis's. Daisy's in trouble and even Mama doesn't know what to do.

And, though AnnaLise wasn't sure, either, she knew it was her turn to keep them afloat.

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