St. Nick—an uplifting Christmas tale

St. NickNick Pappas is a San Diego police officer who was involved in a shooting that injured a young girl. Currently under investigation for his role in the shooting, Nick is finding the holidays to be anything but cheery. When he receives a call from an old friend who is the Director of Security at a local mall, and is offered a job helping to stop muggers who are terrorizing shoppers, Nick reluctantly signs on as a mall Santa.

Over the course of his assignment, Nick is plagued by holiday shoppers, pushy parents, crying kids, and an all-to-cheerful elf. The elf is his main helper and her constant joyful spirit grate on Nick’s grumpiness. The elf’s infectious attitude begins to make Nick realize there might be more to Christmas than he’d thought. His helper even talks him into fulfilling two challenging Christmas wishes from children.

One of the wishes is from a young girl who wants Santa to know he missed her the previous year and she desperately wants to see him this year. The only thing Nick has, however, is the girl’s first name. The other wish is from a dying boy who wants to see it snow in San Diego.

Nick knows he can’t change the weather. He also realizes that finding a girl named Laura in a city the size of San Diego will be nearly impossible. Nevertheless, he takes on both assignments, all the time wondering if he will succeed or fail.

“St. Nick” is filled with emotional highs and lows. It’s the kind of story that fits beautifully with the holiday season, filled with impossible wishes, including Nick’s own, that of personal redemption.

Technical foul—when the technician is the hacker

Business UnderworldReader Celeste G. recently needed help upgrading an Apple device. She wrote, “I couldn’t get into my contacts list because they were in my device and it was closed until I upgraded. I thought AHA! My laptop! I’ll look up Apple on there.” Celeste had the right idea, but this is where she got anxious and called one of the first numbers she found.

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“I called it and there were so many red flags, yet I was so desperate for help I ignored them all!! The guy never asked my serial number (which is usually first question) but he told me to let him in my computer using that virtual help, but where they see and can mess with your computer. He kept telling me reason I couldn’t download the new upgrade was that I had all these ‘hackers’ using my wifi.”

Things went from bad to worse and Celeste found herself in a bargaining session with the person on the other end of the phone. He lowered his original price to fix her device from $300 to $125—another red flag—but it was too late. By this time, Celeste had lost control of her computer. She said, “I refused to pay him, hung up phone, and in the meantime he messed with my HP laptop. It was so messed up I never could have figured it out.”

Celeste was fortunate because the person she was talking to didn’t lock her computer and she was able to contact HP. She said, “HP talked me through the fix in about 5 steps—free of charge.”

There were other people talking in the background when Celeste was dealing with the “tech.” They, too, were being quoted prices to have computers fixed. When she said something about it, the man replied, “No, they’re not fixing computers, they need something else. I don’t know what you heard.”

Celeste says she’s pretty sure of what she heard, others being scammed, just like her.

12 Scams of Christmas could drive a Santa to drink

IMG_1252The 12 Scams of Christmas are enough to drive a Santa to drink. With everything from viruses and malware being distributed via email and websites to good old fashioned liars and and cheats, the Naughty List is huge. I hope my list will keep you entertained and informed and above all, safe, this holiday season. You’ll find all of these topics covered on Criminal Element. Just click any link to view the topic in a new window. I’ll update the list as new topics are added.

Terry’s 12 Scams of Christmas List

12) Soggy Security

11) Mystery Shopping

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10) Scrooge Wants More Money

9) Bogus Coupons

8) Counterfeit Cheer

7) Santa’s Spyware   

6) Coal-deserving Charities

5) Grumpy Greeting Cards

4) Sly Shipping Notifications – coming!

Plus more to come! Keep following to get them all!

Review of ‘The Talk Show’ by Joe Wenke

Wenke-TalkShowFRONTCOVR-RGB300dpiJack Winthrop is hired by Abraham Lincoln Jones to help launch a new campaign called “The Emancipation Tour,” which is intended to bring radical change to America by meeting directly with the people. When a gunman tries to kill Jones, Winthrop becomes concerned that his unconventional family, which includes an LGBT activist, strippers, and a vegetarian bouncer who seldom resorts to violence, might also be targets.

Soon, Jack is being stalked by the gunman, whom he realizes is Speck, a man who hung out at the “Tit for Tat,” the strip club jack calls home. Jack receives threats against his life and that of Abraham Lincoln Jones. When Jack writes an article about the shooting, it becomes front-page news and unleashes a barrage of media inquiries and publicity for the tour.

As the opening date of the tour approaches, Jack sees himself becoming a tabloid hero. He also is convinced that another brush with death may be unavoidable. The question is, will he be able to help find and stop those out to kill Jones before it’s too late?

“The Talk Show” focuses on gender issues, but also attempts to show how everyone needs acceptance. While set around a strip club in New York, Jack and those around him demonstrate a need for love and family. Most entertaining are the interactions between Jack and Abraham Lincoln Jones himself, which can be uproariously funny, albeit sprinkled liberally with “the f-bomb.”

While more social commentary than hard-core thriller, those who are drawn to LGBT issues may find “The Talk Show” of strong interest.

Atlanta writer discusses latest work—”Shadow of a Smile”

Shadow of a SmileValerie Joan Connors is one of those writers who doesn’t like the traditional mantra of “write what you know.” Instead, she says she’d rather write what she wants to know. For this interview, the Atlanta writer discussed her new book, “Shadow of a Smile,” and why she wrote it.

“I think a story is much more interesting if it has an underlying theme that resonates with people,” said Connors. “In Shadow of a Smile, I address the idea that life choices aren’t always black or white, right or wrong. It’s the grey area in between that I’ve focused on. The story also addresses the impact of decisions made by the heart rather than the mind, and their consequences, which can be far reaching.”

Connors finds that for her, the inspiration for a story can come from an experience she’s had or someone she’s known. She said, “Other times, inspiration is found in a sight, a sound, or even a smell. My first book, “Give Me Liberty,” was based on experiences my mom had as a single mother in the early 1950s. And my second book, “In Her Keeping,” was inspired by a visit my husband and I made to a tiger sanctuary, and the little tiger cub that stole my heart.”

“Shadow of a Smile” is the first book Connors says she’s written “more deliberately.” It was not inspired by a life-changing event or a memory, but asking the traditional question writers often ask themselves. What if? Connors said, “I asked, what if everything you thought was true about where you came from and who your parents are, turned out to be false? And I wondered how that might change you.”

A sense of place is also important to Connors, who said that she wanted to include places she’d lived. Those places include the Midwest, where she was born, as well as Oregon, California, and Washington. She said, “I crossed the country by car a number of times, and started thinking about how much fun it would have been to drive across Route 66 back when it was still fully intact.

“So with the seed of an idea swimming around in my head, I realized that Route 66 begins and ends in two of my favorite places, Chicago, and L.A., and I loved the contrast between the harsh Midwestern winters and the continuous summer in southern California. I also learned that many of the sections of Historic Route 66 don’t exist anymore, and that gave me the idea to have two characters crossing that same part of the country, thirty years apart.”

Connors said she hasn’t been a writer all of her life and didn’t discover her passion for the art until later in life. She said, “I really do believe that, in the words of C.S. Lewis, ‘You’re never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.’ My dream is to be able to write full time, and my goal is to publish a book every year for the rest of my life. I hope to make my readers laugh, cry, and think about the stories long after turning the last page.”

Among her memories from her days in San Diego in the late 1980s are the sunsets. She said, “I still have vivid memories of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. Those visuals were in my head throughout the writing process.” Another of her memories from those days is the traffic. “The first time I found myself in eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper LA traffic in my little Rx7, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it. But, it was good practice, and prepared me for driving in Atlanta.”

By day, Connors is the CFO of an architecture, engineering, and interior design firm. She wrote “Shadow of a Smile” during her vacation time and described her approach. “I’d spend a week’s worth of twelve-hour days doing nothing but sitting at my computer writing.” In between those marathon writing sessions, she thought about the book so when she was able to find more time to write, she could get her ideas down quickly.

Connors also said, “I care about the underdog, and have a serious dislike for bullies. Things rarely go well for them in my books. Mostly, I’d like my readers to know that I put my heart and soul into my writing, as well as a good bit of my own personal truth. I’m really happy when I’m writing, and I hope that it shows in the work.”

More information

Learn more about Valerie Joan Connor on her website at

Tips to avoid online shopping scams

Pictures of Vintage Real Santa Claus carrying gift sackWhat’s the most risky gift you can give during the holidays? If you chose the cell phone, you’d be correct. According to, a consumer awareness group in the UK, there are several items that are most-often used to scam online buyers. The iPhone and Samsung Galaxy rank at the top of that list. Other items on the list included PlayStation 4 and Xbox One game consoles, UGGs boots, Barbour jackets, and iPad minis.

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These items are risky because many of the sites set up to sell the products are offering fake or counterfeit goods. Order an iPhone 6 for $100 and you probably won’t get it. Order UGGs from a site you’ve never heard of and you’ll most likely get boots made by a manufacturer you’ve never heard of.

Whenever you go shopping for a deal, you’re getting into dangerous territory. The risk is much higher when you’re responding to an email. Any email you receive, unless it comes from a company you’ve dealt with before, should be suspect. This holiday season is probably the worst to date due to the deluge of emails trying to sell all of the items on the above list as well as a whole lot of others.


As an example, I recently looked into those “Santa letter” emails. I picked the most recent one from my email junk box and looked up the sender. It was a scammer in Poland. I was even more curious when I saw that this Polish hacker owned 63 domain names. I began checking and soon found he was involved in many other online scams. What surprised me most was the range of “businesses” this guy dealt in.

Keep your holidays merry and bright by shopping with reputable retailers on websites you know. You may not get the lowest price, but you will get what you ordered.

Behind the story with New York Times bestseller Cleo Coyle

ONCE-UPON-A-GRIND_Cleo-CoyleCleo Coyle is the pseudonym for Alice Alfonsi, writing in collaboration with her husband, Marc Cerasini. This interview with the New York Times Bestselling team looks at what’s behind the story of “Cleo Coyle’s” latest Coffeehouse Mystery, “Once Upon a Grind.”

Alfonsi and Cerasini have lived in New York for three decades. They said, “We’ve worked in skyscrapers and behind counters; been crime victims and been arrested; ran the marathon and befriended locals running their own businesses. We’ve also interviewed countless New Yorkers from politicians to criminals; gourmet chefs to street vendors. The characters we create are authentic; the settings are either real or based on real places; and our storylines are almost always inspired by actual New York crimes.”

It’s that history and familiarity with New York crimes and the justice system that inspired the couple to write their latest book. Alfonsi said, “One day Marc and I were discussing the way police and prosecuting attorneys use ‘narrative’ to reconstruct a crime and persuade a jury that a particular suspect is guilty. Of course, if you’re a defense attorney, you’re looking for a story that will prove your client’s innocence. But which is the truth? And which is the ‘fairy tale’?

“The moment we said the words ‘fairy tale,’we began to see New York City in a different light—uptown princesses; wolves on Wall Street; girls in red hoodies; and New York Giants. We cast Central Park as a kind of Black Forest, and it became the setting for our first crime scene when a young model is drugged and left to die.”

The writers said that, at its core, “Once Upon a Grind” is defined by the epigram in the beginning of the book. “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.”

“Story is an incredibly powerful thing,” said the writers. “Not only for our justice system, as we mentioned, but in our own lives. Take our main character, Clare. She has settled herself into a particular narrative, but she’s been playing a role for those around her. Clare wants to leave her story and start another, yet she doesn’t want to let down the people she loves. Clare struggles with this decision throughout the novel.

“Likewise, all of us cast ourselves in our own stories, and many of us are unaware of it. But that’s exactly where the power lies. Because it’s only when we see the truths and falsehoods of the tales we tell ourselves—and others tell about us—that we’re finally able to reshape the thing that shapes our lives.”

We all know that change is inevitable, not only for people, but also for places. “Researching our novels is second nature,” said Alfonsi. “My first job out of college was as a cub reporter for the New York Times. In fact, one of my favorite stories, Pizza Chains’Toughest Turf, was a business piece about the beginning of the NYC pizza wars—the influx of chain pizza shops and their impact on the mom-and-pop pizzerias.”

“Our foodie landscape is a reflection not only of our shifting immigrant populations, but also the ebb and flow of our economy, which is why we’ve gone from high-end gourmet restaurants to burger joints, beer gardens, and street chefs. In the Coffeehouse Mysteries, Marc and I try to chronicle it all.”

Despite all that change on a large scale, some individual things are strong enough to survive. The writers said, “In ‘Once Upon a Grind,’ you’ll hear about New York’s Papaya King, an eighty year-old hot dog stand that began the city’s iconic pairing of tropical fruit drinks with frankfurters. And, yes, with ‘King’ in its title, it seemed an apt culinary reference for a New York story about fairy tale murders.”

The writers said they each lost good friends during the writing process, and they agreed that the pain of those losses was written into the book. However, “Once Upon a Grind” contains a good deal of humor. The couple said, “As usual, we have lots of fun in the writing—with the quirky characters and, at times, crazy-funny situations—but we never treat death lightly.”

Alfonsi and Cerasini have been together for more than twenty years and married for fourteen. They’ve worked not only on books, but also on film and television, and believe that their experience helps them to maintain a professional perspective on storytelling.

Alfonsi said, “When we have creative disagreements—and we do have them—we check our egos at the door and argue things out rationally. In the course of the discussion, one of us can usually persuade the other or we’ll find a middle ground. Neither of us cares whose idea wins, as long as it leads to a good story well told.”

And, speaking of well-told stories, what about that fairy tale? The couple said, “The police quickly make an arrest in the case of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ but our amateur sleuth, Clare Cosi, is certain of his innocence, and sets out to find the true narrative—the real ‘Once upon a time…’—behind who put Beauty to sleep. Clare’s investigation leads her into a much bigger crime story, including a cold case that’s been unsolved since the Cold War.

“Like any good fairy tale, Once Upon a Grind will take you through secret doors; play with your sense of reality; introduce you to an array of colorful characters; and while the ending may be happy, not everyone survives.”

For more information

The Coffeehouse Mysteries are now celebrating ten years in print. Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini are New York Times bestselling authors who are also bestselling media tie-in writers. Learn more about them at their online home:

Winners in the December Book & a Latte Contest:

Two copies of “Once Upon a Grind”: Christine A. and Karin

$5.00 Starbucks gift cards: Sally S. & Rita W.

Congratulations to all 4 winners!

Scorched Eggs is the hot new Cackleberry Club mystery

Scorched Eggs by Laura ChildsSuzanne, co-owner of the Cackleberry Club cafe, is getting her hair done when she smells smoke. Upon going outside to find the source, she discovers herself first on the scene to witness the County Services Building explode and be completely engulfed in flames. The fire department is on the scene within minutes, but despite their best efforts, are unable to save Hannah Venable, a long-time employee who is trapped and perishes in the fire.

Suspecting the fire might have been intentionally set; Sheriff Doogie and Fire Chief Finely call in an arson investigator who confirms that an accelerant was used. The Cackleberry Club cafe is humming with citizens wanting to know the latest progress in the investigation. Having been instrumental in assisting Doogie with a prior murder, it’s not long before Suzanne’s asked to talk with the Sheriff and “look into” the case.

Suzanne, who stays plenty busy running the Cackleberry Club with breakfasts, lunches, afternoon tea, and special events, as well as the Book Nook and Knitting Nest, manages to find time to ask a few questions around town. Between her and Doogie they have a handful of suspects to investigate, but not knowing the motive behind the fire or who the intended victim might have been makes it difficult to narrow down the list.

Just when Suzanne starts feeling like time may be running out to get justice for Hannah’s death, strange and threatening events have Suzanne realizing her life may be in danger. Can she figure out who the arsonist is before she becomes the next victim?

“Scorched Eggs” by Laura Childs is the sixth book in A Cackleberry Club Mystery series. This is an easy light read, with a touch of humor and enough mystery to keep the reader intrigued.

FTC Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided by its publisher.

Dangerous liaisons—a true story

Business UnderworldOnline dating scams are one of the easiest cons to fall for. Recently, a friend of mine named Frank sent me copies of emails he’d exchanged with someone who called “herself” Teri. Thank goodness Frank recognized what was going on before he followed through.

It all began when Frank responded to Teri’s online dating profile. He received a reply that began:

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“Thanks so much for the interest! you sound really like a nice man with a good and loving heart of kind, care and honesty..I am so sorry for the late reply… open attachment for my pictures…Distance is not a problem for me….. because i am ready to relocate with my right man…….”

The email, which included photos of a stunning blonde, went on to describe Teri’s background, the fact that she was on a business trip in China, her desire to find an honest man, her desire to establish a friendship before a serious relationship—oh, and did I mention her desire to find an honest man? Indeed, she hit that button three times.

It appeared that Frank had struck relationship gold and replied immediately. “Absolutely a pleasure hearing back from you. Kinda gratifying. I appreciate your position regarding pain, and loneliness. I will do my best to never inflict any type of pain. I will always be straight and forthright. I certainly am not perfect, but I always try to do my best . . .”

Frank went on to tell Teri more about himself and closed with an offer to get together once she returned from her China trip. The following day, Frank had another email from Teri, but this time the tone was different. “Thanks for your respond……Well i have bad trip in China right now.. …..This is my first time i will be visit China….I have a check of $86,000 here with me.. i try to get it cash….. but the bank here told me that, they don’t accept that,…But when i ask them why they did not accept that…”

Teri also asked Frank for $900 to get her out of China and promised, twice, to pay him back when he picked her up at the airport. Sorry, Teri, not happening. Frank wised up. Hope you’re not still at LAX waiting.

Do you have a good scam story you’d be wiling to share? If so, contact me and let’s talk about sharing it.

Behind the story of a controversial new thriller, ‘The Cause’

TheCauseRoderick Vincent is the author of a dystopian thriller titled “The Cause.” For this interview, the debut novelist discussed what drove him to take a huge risk and write a controversial thriller set in 2022.

Vincent said that the book title was inspired by a slogan of the Loyal Nine, a secret political organization formed in 1765 to protest the Stamp Act. The Loyal Nine eventually merged with the Sons of Liberty to stand against a tyrannical England.

The idea behind “The Cause” began with a single question. Vincent described it as, “What one event could have an impact and be the catalyst for a second American revolution, yet still be realistic and not require a huge leap of faith from the reader’s perspective?

“I also wanted to have a counter voice to the revolutionaries. I came up with NSA Director Montgomery and embarked on a hell of a lot of research concerning the NSA. I didn’t want Montgomery to be a stereotype and hope readers will sympathize with his perspective too, which is that anarchy is not the answer either. My hope is the novel might have some inherent debating points.”

Vincent sees himself as a very concerned citizen and felt an obligation to write this book. He said, “Through fiction, authors can make a statement about society and create awareness through entertainment. In that sense, I wanted to take topical issues of today such as financial repression, crony capitalism, militarization of the police, robotics, the NSA and project them into the future. George Orwell wrote about the fully evolved totalitarian state in 1984. My intention was to write something futuristic and dystopian that was pre-Orwellian where the shape of a totalitarian state was still forming.”

“I wanted the story to have topical elements to it, intriguing characters, and finally to blur both sides of the story. One of the characters says, ‘We are living in a world where moral climates have no atmosphere.’ Is he right? Is this what our future will look like. Nowadays, the ‘Tree of Liberty’ is having its leaves pruned with the militarization of the police and the NSA essentially tearing up the Constitution. I’m gazing a bit into the future and taking a somewhat pessimistic, perhaps eerily progressive, view of topical events today.”

Another element Vincent said he wanted to incorporate into the novel was a variety of voices. As a trained classical guitarist, Vincent feels music has helped shape his writer’s voice. He said, “Voice is extremely important to me in finding character. I need to hear the lyricism of a character’s internal thoughts, whether they are soft as snow, or hard as nails. More rounded characters have both.”

That voice and variety, said Vincent, exists in music as well as writing. “The musical voice of composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is very different from the voice of J.S. Bach. But, within the breadth of each composer’s work, one will find differing use of voice, each evoking differing moods within the listener. In that sense, I consider voice a rich instrument to the larger symphony of narrative.”

Vincent describes “The Cause” as an unusual thriller. He said, “It’s brainy, somewhat in the vein of John le Carré. It still has its share of action, but don’t buy it thinking it is an airplane read or you might be disappointed. As well, the possibility exists that this book might draw a lot of criticism. A statement against the status quo has the potential to make one seem unpatriotic. I’m taking that risk, and it’s one I’m willing to take, especially since I’m living outside of the US now looking in.

“I do believe it’s easier to perceive how things are changing for the worse living outside of the US and then coming back. I do believe the US is resilient and can survive through thick and thin. But, some tough decisions are going to have to be made going forward. A lot of America’s problems are still hidden underneath the covers. As the years creep forward, they will be harder and harder to hide. When I do come home one day, I hope it’s not to an America in flames as ‘The Cause’ portends.”

For more information

Learn more about Roderick Vincent on his website at