Friday, February 24, 2017

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit: Part 25—Yew



The Yew tree (Taxus baccata) is a conifer with bright red berries. It's native to Europe but was used as a shrub in a lot in landscaping in the neighborhood of suburban Connecticut where I grew up in spite of the fact it's highly poisonous.
                  
Yew berries aren't poisonous, but the rest of the plant is.

I don't remember anybody warning me that the shrubs were poisonous. Luckily the flesh of the plump red berries is not.

But almost every other part of the plant is deadly. 



Yew Poisoning


Yews can be either male or female. The male tree is highly allergenic in all its parts, and the pollen is rated a 10 on the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale of 1-10. But the female tree does not produce pollen and actually produces anti-allergens. But both genders contain poisons.


Even though the berries are harmless, the seeds inside them are highly toxic—as well as the dried needles and bark and most other parts of the plant. They all contain taxin, a complex of alkaloids which is rapidly absorbed by the body. They also have ephedrine, a cyanogenic glycoside (taxiphyllin) and a volatile oil.

If people or animals eat the berries and swallow them whole, they may be perfectly fine, but anyone who chews the seed can ingest a lethal dose with as few as three berries. 


Most parts of the plant retain their toxicity even long after the tree itself is dead.

When animals or humans are poisoned there may be no symptoms and death may follow within a few hours. When symptoms do occur, they include trembling, staggering, coldness, weak pulse and collapse.


Longevity


Yew trees can live for five hundred years or more. Ten yews in Britain are said to be as much as 1000 years old. One, the Fortingall Yew in Scotland, may be from 2000 to 5000 years old. 


In 2015, scientists discovered The Fortingall Yew is changing its gender from male to female after all these millennia. Who knew that trees could be trans? 

The Fortingall Yew in Scotland

But measuring their exact age of a yew is problematic, because the boughs often become hollow as they age, which makes ring counts impossible. 


Usefulness


Yew wood is classified as a "soft" wood, but is harder than other softwoods and is very elastic, so it has many uses.

Yew was highly prized for making longbows.

Yew was so highly prized as material for longbows in the middle ages that yews became an endangered species, and Richard III ordered that every ship bringing goods into England had to supply ten bowstaves for every ton of cargo.

Medieval luthiers also considered yew the wood of choice for lutes and other stringed instruments.

I can't find any mention of medieval luthiers or bow makers protecting themselves from the wood, but modern wood turners are warned to take precautions. Woodworkers have been hospitalized after inhaling dust from yew wood.

People are also advised not to make cutting boards or other food serving utensils out of yew. I couldn't find any documented cases of death by yew wood cutting board, but it could be an interesting plot point in a mystery novel.



Mythology and History


The yew is interwoven with the history of early Europe and is surrounded by rich mythology. The tree was sacred to many cultures.

One of the world's oldest surviving wooden artifacts is a yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-Sea, in the UK. It's estimated to be 450,000 years old.
Yews are often found in churchyards


Julius Caesar tells of the chief of the Celtic tribe Eburones who poisoned himself with yew rather than submit to Rome.

The yew was sacred to the pre-Christian Celts, and reverence for them has survived in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Normandy and Wales, where yews are often found in churchyards. Their longevity and deadly nature probably contributed to their myth as trees of power and magic.

In traditional Germanic paganism, Yggdrasill—the tree of life—may have been a yew tree rather than the ash as more recent tradition would have it. Most scholars now think the tree was most likely a yew. This comes from a confusion of the words for yew and ash in Old Norse. Yggdrasill is described as "evergreen" but the European ash is deciduous.

Also, the yew releases a mildly toxic gas (taxine) on hot days that can cause hallucinations.



This might relate to the story of the Germanic god Odin, who had a revelation (the wisdom of the runes) after hanging from a branch of Yggdrasill for nine days. This myth is thought to be related to the Tarot card The Hanged Man, which shows a serene man hanging upside down from the branch of a tree. 


Medicinal Uses


Like many poisons, the yew has always been prized for its healing as well as deadly
The Pacific Yew
properties. Even in modern times.


In the 1960s, the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) was discovered to contain anti-cancer agents. Environmentalists feared the tree would become endangered by medicinal harvesting until a synthetic version, taxol, was invented in the early 1990s.

What about you? Did you know the yew is deadly poison? Have you ever read a mystery where yew is used as a murder weapon? 


Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series



BOOK OF THE WEEK

No Place Like Home: Camilla Randall Comedy-Mystery #4
(But it can be read as a stand-alone)

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Until the end of February, 2017

Wealthy Doria Windsor is suddenly homeless and accused of a murder she didn't commit. But Camilla, with the help of a brave trio of homeless people, the adorable Mr. X, and a little dog named Toto, is determined to unmask the real killer and discover the dark secrets of Doria’s deceased “financial wizard” husband before Doria is killed herself.



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Friday, January 27, 2017

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit: Deadly Daffodils



Those pretty golden daffodils and their cousins, paperwhites, jonquils, and all the other members of the narcissus family are as dangerous as they are attractive.

Sort of like human narcissists.

 
Echo and Narcissus by John Waterhouse
All parts of the narcissus are poisonous to humans—also to lot of animals, and even other flowers.

The symptoms are usually fairly minor allergic reactions like runny nose, itchy eyes, breathing difficulties, rash and hives, but in concentrated doses they can cause a numbness of the whole nervous system and eventually, paralysis of the heart. 

Because of the numbing effect, the ancients used narcissi as an anesthetic for wounded soldiers, but since dosage was unpredictable, Socrates was said to have called them, 'Chaplet of the infernal Gods'. You might feel better, but your heart could stop. Other cultures even believed they could cure baldness or serve as an aphrodisiac. (Maybe for people with zombie sex fantasies? 
Sounds like a really bad idea.)

Jonquils

The flowers contain some nasty alkaloids including masonin and homolycorin. These, together with calcium oxalate crystals cause nasty sores. People in the flower-growing and fragrance industries have to be very careful when dealing with them.

Florists can develop a kind of dermatitis they call "daffodil itch" from contact with the sap in the daffodil stems (which contain a concentration of calcium oxalate.) Doctors usually recommend a steroid cream or ointment for temporary relief, but suggest florists wear gloves to keep from re-infecting themselves.

But the most dangerous part of the plant isn't the flowers, but the bulbs. When eaten, the bulbs can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain as well as severe irritation of the mouth.

They are not good for livestock, either. In the Netherlands during the Second World War, starving cattle were fed daffodil bulbs and fatally poisoned.

Mostly people don't die of daffodil poisoning, but they do suffer severe symptoms. Daffodil poisoning generally happens when people eat the bulbs by mistake, thinking they were onions. Unfortunately, they're fast acting and you don't need to eat a lot of them to do severe damage. 

Narcissus
The UK website The Poison Garden has dozens of stories of people poisoned by daffodils after mistaking the bulbs for onions, occasionally on purpose.

Like the student who was so terrified he'd fail and exam that he ate a daffodil bulb so he'd get sick during the exam and was able to re-take the exam when he was better prepared.

And there's the story of the daughter in law who was pleased to find a bag of onions her mum-in-law had left, so she cooked them into a family meal. It wasn't until after dinner she listened to her voice mail where her mother in law asked if she'd planted the "daffs" yet, that she realized she felt a little queasy and maybe they should all
 make a visit to the hospital.
Paperwhites

In 2009 an elementary school in the UK used onions grown in the school's own vegetable garden to make soup in a class project. Unfortunately, a daffodil bulb got mixed in and most of the children got sick. Twelve children taken to hospital and others were treated at the school but they were all well enough to go home later the same day. But that was only one bulb.

I couldn't find any contemporary stories of people who died from eating daffodils. Mostly they just suffered a lot of unpleasant symptoms. There have been reports of dogs dying from ingesting daffodil bulbs, although this is rare.

But if you wanted to kill off somebody who was already frail, a daffodil or two in the stew might do the trick.


Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series



SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2 (But it can be read as a stand-alone)
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Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to kill her.

When Camilla is invited to publish a book of her columns with UK publisher Peter Sherwood, she lands in a gritty criminal world—far from the Merrie Olde England she envisions. The staff are ex-cons and the erotica is kinky. Hungry and penniless, she camps in a Wendy House built from pallets of porn while battling an epic flood, a mendacious American Renfaire wench, and the mysterious killer who may be Peter himself.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Why Not Have our Big Holiday on the Summer Solstice Instead of the Winter One?


Charles Dickens has a lot to answer for. With the publication of his Christmas Carol in 1843, he single-handedly made Christmas our biggest cultural holiday. Before the debut of his (self-published) little novella, celebration of the holiday had all but died out in Anglo-Saxon Christendom. The pen is mighty indeed.
This book re-invented Christmas

A Christmas Carol revived the custom of taking the day off work, gathering for big family feasts and getting generous with gifts—remnants of an ancient pagan Solstice celebration which had been meshed with the Nativity story by some very clever Early Christian Marketers.

It was a great idea in Dickens day. People were stuck in their houses and villages and it gave everybody a chance to gather for some convivial cheer at the darkest time of year.

But I think Mr. Dickens and those early Christians would be appalled to see what the holiday has become. Every year it gets worse: travelers stranded at airports for days...buried in snowdrifts while trying to buy last minute gifts or that extra can of Ocean Spray… imprisoned in grounded airplanes with nothing to eat but rationed packets of Cheez-Its.

All in the middle of flu season.
Why travel at the worst travel-time of year?

OK, Aussies, Kiwis and other inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere: you can ignore this rant or read on and chortle.

But seriously, Northern Hemispherians, what’s up with setting our biggest travel-holiday at the time of year when we can count on the worst travel conditions?

It’s not really about Jesus, is it? There’s nothing in the Bible about Jesus making his fleshly debut in December. And we know for sure this event did not happen in a place with a lot of snow. Or holly, mistletoe, reindeer, or bearded white guys in furry outfits.

the god of Wednesday and proto-Santa
The bearded white guy who was first reputed to reward good children and admonish the bad ones at the winter solstice was a Norse deity called Odin (or Woden or Wotan—whatever you want to call the Wednesday god-guy.) And the rituals involving holly and mistletoe and pointy evergreen trees? Kind of more Druidish than Judeo-Christian.

So do we really need to go through all this suffering to honor a Teutonic war god who slithered down chimneys to put anthracite in the footwear of bad little Vikings?

Not that the Christmas/Druid holiday hasn’t had a good run. But now we’ve got wildly scattered families. And climate change. And sadistically dysfunctional air travel.

So I’m going to suggest a change of authors. Boot Charles Dickens in favor of William Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have our big yearly celebration at the SUMMER SOLSTICE—Midsummer’s Night?
Oberon, Titania and Puck Dancing by William Blake

OK, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t as heartwarming as the Scrooge tale, but who needs warming in the middle of June?

Wouldn’t it be more fun to go home and visit Mom and Dad in the summertime? To barbeque that turkey on a backyard grill? Inspired by the Bard, you could decorate the front yard with inflatable Bottoms, Rude Mechanicals, and any number of sparkly fairies.

Maybe Puck could pop down our chimneys and leave gifts under the potted palm, which could be adorned with little surfboards and beach balls and those lights shaped like chili peppers.

A Summer Solstice Tree!

We could still conduct the same kind of retail frenzy, since that seems to be necessary to the well-being of our economic system, but we could shop on safe, sunshiny streets, with evening light to choose them by.

Or maybe we need another story altogether. What about it, writers? Anybody up for writing some Summer Solstice tales and carols? About Rudolph the Red-Nosed Surfer, maybe? Or Frosty the Slushy Man? Hark the Herald Fairies Sing?

If Dickens could write a novel that created our biggest holiday, maybe one of you can write the book that will give us a new celebration that will fit better with our times.

An awful lot of cranky travelers and flu-sufferers would be very, very grateful.

NOTE: I'll be resuming my Poisoning People for Fun and Profit series in the New Year. But I thought we needed a holiday post that didn't involve killing people. 

How do you feel about family get-togethers in the middle of winter? Would you welcome a change to a more travel-friendly time? 


BOOK OF THE MONTH

Roxanna Britton: A Biographical Novel
by Shirley S. Allen

"Jane Austen meets Laura Ingalls Wilder"

roxanna-new-cover-with-italics

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This novel, by my mother, the late Dr. Shirley S. Allen, is a rip-roaring tale of how the West was won. It also happens to be all true. It's the story of my great, great grandmother, Roxanna Britton, who pioneered the Old West as a young widow with two small children.

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Widowed as a young mother in 1855, Roxanna breaks through traditional barriers by finding a husband of her own choice, developing her own small business, and in 1865, becoming one of the first married women to own property. We follow her through the hard times of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to a homestead in Nebraska to her final home in Elsinore, California.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 23: My Past Life as a Poisoner



This poison series was sparked by my research for my WIP, The Queen of Staves, #6 in the Camilla Randall humorous mystery series, which will debut in June 2017.

     
Lucrezia Borgia
Yes, it was originally scheduled for last June and it's way overdue to my publisher. I'm making progress, but it's slow. I have a terrible habit of taking on new challenges, like learning about the Tarot. And poisons.

Research about poisons led to starting this series. Then I let myself get led astray by all these fascinating ways to get away with murder.

I've been intrigued by poisons ever since I had a bizarre experience under hypnosis twenty-five years ago when I was quitting smoking.

I went through a series of hypnosis sessions, and one involved going back in my memory to recall the first time I ever wanted a cigarette.

But the hypnotist's time machine apparently had a major glitch.

I didn't go back to that time at Girl Scout camp when three of us shared a Parliament pilfered from a camp counsellor's locker and I almost didn't throw up.

Or further back to when my kindergarten friends and I bought a pack of candy cigarettes at the corner market and came home to play dress-up in somebody's mom's old formals and high heels so we could pretend to be grown-up ladies. All the grown-up ladies we knew smoked cigarettes.

The Palazzo Farnese in Rome
No. I somehow I zoomed all the way back to the 15th century. So it wasn't exactly a memory, unless you believe in past lives. Which I didn't, until that moment.

Seriously. I'm not making this up.

The hypnotherapist asked me what I was wearing and I could feel a horrible corset thing constricting my torso and lots of stiff clothing weighing me down. My hair hurt with heavy jewelry and netting.

I was in a smallish room in an Italian palace.

Now I know my Italian palaces because I majored in Art History. Mostly so I could spend a lot of time in Italy looking at all those palaces that used to belong to families like the Borghese, Farnese, Barberini and of course, the infamous Borgias.

And there I was in my hypnotic state, standing in one of those palazzi.

But I wasn't enjoying myself in spite of the gorgeous setting. 
I felt cold. And anxious. Footsteps echoed in the hallway outside. I was awaiting the arrival of a man. My fiancĂ©. He was returning from some battle and I was going to get hurt. So were a lot of other people. 

The man and I were enemies and my side had lost.

He stomped into the room—tall and handsome, with fierce, dark eyes and a thick beard. I gave him a big kiss and offered him some wine from a silver carafe. 

Alfonzo D'Este, Lucrezia's Husband #3

He drank and said something cruel and insulting, then drank some more. He kissed me again. I let him. Then I watched as he sat heavily on a brocade chair. 


I gave him more wine and started to feel less afraid.

I pretended to be worried as his face went pale and he grabbed his throat, which made a choking, gurgling sound.

He called for help, but his voice was weak. I pretended not to understand and started to smile as he tried to get up, but couldn't. My sense of relief was overwhelming.

I realized I was witnessing the last battle of whatever conflict raged between his people and mine.


And I was just about to win the war. 

I laughed while I watched the fury in his eyes turn to fear as life drained from his body.

The therapist brought me out of my trance. She looked distressed.

She said she'd just heard me give the most evil laugh she'd ever heard. The voice she'd heard laughing sounded nothing like mine.

I had no idea I'd been laughing out loud. 


She said nothing like it had ever happened in a hypnosis session and she'd been conducting them for twenty years.

There are people who would say I'd experienced a past-life regression. And that maybe I was somebody like Lucrezia Borgia in that past life.

But, as I said, I'm not sure I believe in past lives. And I certainly don't believe we were all famous people like Cleopatra and Ms. Borgia the way those past-life regression stories always go.

Besides, nobody knows that Lucrezia actually poisoned anybody. It's true that her daddy Pope Alexander VI was known for using poison to get what he wanted, which was pretty much everything in Southern Europe. 


Lucrezia was rumored to wear a poison ring, with a hollow space under the stone just right for a dose of the Borgias' favorite poison, arsenic. The symptoms I saw in my hypnotic vision would have been consistent with arsenic poisoning.
Replica of a Renaissance poison ring


But poison rings were probably something of a fashion statement in Renaissance Italy, so we can't be sure. (They were actually designed to hold holy relics which were thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits.)

Many women of Lucrezia's station were known to use poison to get rid of the occasional inconvenient rival or unpleasant spouse. In Italy it was a tradition going back to ancient Rome, when poisonings were rampant. Women passed down poison lore from mother to daughter, and it gave them great power.

At that one moment in my trance, I felt that power. I have to admit it was exhilarating. I don't know when I have ever felt so powerful, before or since.

I have no idea what exactly I experienced. It wasn't as wildly surreal as a dream, but it was far more vivid, say, than envisioning a scene when I'm writing, even when I'm deep in "flow".

There was no control. I could only watch and hang on as I felt the emotions of this person—this psychopath, I suppose you'd call her—who certainly wasn't me. 

It was a little like being an actor achieving that moment when you totally inhabit your role and lose your sense of self.

Only I'd never read the script and had no idea what the character would say or do next. The actor's nightmare in reverse.

A week later, I quit smoking.

Do I have Lucrezia Borgia to thank for the fact I finally stopped poisoning myself with nicotine? I don't suppose I'll ever know.

What about you, readers? Have you ever had a "past life" experience? Do you think you could poison someone if the situation were dire enough? Do you think poisoning an enemy is more evil than shedding blood if you are mismatched as physical opponents?  


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Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to poison her. 



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Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series



Friday, October 28, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit: Part 22—The Myth of Halloween Candy Poisonings



There are lots of things to be afraid of on Halloween. Your kid getting hit by a car while dressed in black as a ninja, a witch, or Severus Snape. Or somebody kidnapping your black kitty and doing him harm. Or somebody eating too much candy and throwing up on the newly shampooed carpet. 


But poisoned candy isn't one of them.  

All of that is completely bogus fearmongering. A lot of the fear was mongered by the advice columnist siblings Dear Abby and Ann Landers. 

Dear Abby and Ann Landers Spread the Panic


According to Smithsonian magazine, on October 31, 1983, advice columnist "Dear Abby" (the late Abigail Van Buren) published a column called "A Night of Treats, not Tricks." In that column, she warned her readers that, on Halloween, "somebody’s child will become violently ill or die after eating poisoned candy or an apple containing a razor blade."

No child has been poisoned by a stranger's Halloween candy

Twelve years later, Dear Abby's sister, advice columnist Ann Landers, also wrote a Halloween article in which she warned that "Twisted minds make Halloween a dangerous time," echoing that concern. She said, "In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy." She even stated flatly: "It is no longer safe to let your child eat treats that come from strangers." Thus making life difficult for candy companies all over the U.S.

And it turns out these "reports" were entirely bogus. 

And every so often something happens that stirs up the stories again. 

Abby may be forgiven for falling for the drama in 1983. The 1982 Tylenol poisonings that killed seven people were fresh in everybody's minds. So the idea of a crazed madman who wanted to kill random strangers was not far-fetched. It was easy to merge them with the myths that were already out there about crazed child murderers handing out tainted "treats" to the trick-or treaters.

Some Poisonings That Weren't


Here are some of the incidents that keep the myths alive, as reported by Snopes. 

In 1970, a boy went into a coma from a heroin overdose and heroin was found sprinkled on his Halloween candy.  It turned out he had got into his uncle's heroin stash and his family had sprinkled the heroin on the candy after the overdose.


In 1982 the police in Detroit announced a boy had been poisoned by cyanide in Halloween candy. But medical tests were inconclusive and later FDA tests of the candy turned up no contamination whatsoever. 

In 1990, a 7-year-old Santa Monica girl died of congenital heart failure while trick-or-treating. The police feared a mass random poisoning sent out an alert. Unfortunately the later retraction didn't travel anywhere near as far or wide as the initial false alarm. 


The Halloween Poisoning Sleuth, Dr. Joel Best


For decades, Joel Best a sociologist at the University of Delaware conducted a study of these stories. His findings: He never found a confirmed case of a stranger murdering a child with poisoned Halloween candy.

He did find one case of a father who murdered his own son with poisoned Halloween candy.

This was awful, but it was a one-off act of targeted murder.

In 1974, a sociopath named Ronald Clark O'Bryan took out a large life insurance policy on his 8 year old son Timothy a few days before Halloween. On Halloween, he put some cyanide into Timmy's Pixy Stix and got him to eat it before going to bed. He also poisoned some Pixy Stix he gave out to local trick or treaters, so it would look as if his son's murder was part of a random attack on local children.

Luckily none of the other children ate the candy, partly because of quick reaction from local police, and partly because Mr. Clark had resealed the Pixy Stix with staples that were too hard for a child to open.

Mr. Clark was executed in 1984, and maybe stories of his horrible deeds also sparked the rumors that prompted Dear Abby's misguided column.

Dr. Joel Best has tried hard over the years to destroy the poisoned Halloween candy myth, but he hasn't had much luck. "It's the old problem of trying to prove a negative," he says.



He says his favorite story is the one about the kid who brought a half-eaten candy bar to his parents and said, "I think there's ant poison on this." They had it checked and, sure enough, there was ant poison on it—significantly, on the end he hadn't bitten.

It later turned out the kid had put the ant poison on the candy himself. 

What about the Stories of Razor Blades and Pins in Apples?


These seem to be more of the same.

The razor blades were put there by the kids themselves. Nobody got hurt.

According to author Jack Santino, who's written a number of books on the history and folklore behind Halloween, "pins and needles" (and razor blade) rumors began to supplant "poisoned candy" rumors in the mid-1960s, and nearly the reports turned out to be hoaxes: 

He said, "more than 75 percent of reported cases involved no injury, and detailed followups…concluded that virtually all the reports were hoaxes concocted by the children or parents. Thus this legend type seems to have grown out of a tradition of ostensive hoaxes relying on an understood oral tradition, rather than on any core of authenticated incidents."

So poisoned candy is very much the stuff of fiction, but it has only the most tenuous attachment to fact. As writers, we'd do better to to write about poisoned chocolate Easter bunnies or Christmas candy canes and at least be creative about it.


What about you, readers? Did you believe these stories when you were a kid? Did your parents? Did your parents ban trick or treating because they were so afraid of mad poisoners? 


The first book in the Camilla comedy-mystery series is  FREE

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It's available in paper at Amazon , Barnes and Noble and Walmart

A wild comic romp set at writers’ conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California. When a ghostwriter's plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with a crossdressing dominatrix to stop the killer—who may be a ghost—from striking again. Meanwhile, a hot LA cop named Maverick Jesus Zukowski just may steal her heart.

It's also available in Spanish on Amazon


Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series