Thursday, July 16, 2015



As a mystery writer and criminal defense attorney I deal with death on an almost weekly, if not daily basis. However death is always in the abstract, not real, only something on paper. Today, I witnessed death up close and personal.

I was on my way to court in the city of Riverside, California when I saw something in the roadway that did not make sense. It was moving, and was not a color that I associated with a blowing plastic bag or paper. As I slowed down I realized it was a cat that had more likely than not been hit by a car, but was not yet deceased.

Horrified, I drove for another block before realizing I could not let that poor animal remain on that busy street and be hit again, or worse yet, cause an accident as other drivers hopefully swerved to avoid it much as I had. I did a quick U-turn and drove back to the scene. Another quick U-turn and I pulled my car to the side of the road where the cat struggled. With no cars coming I immediately jumped from my car and ran to the cat, picked it up and took it to the grass on the parkway by the side of the road.

As soon as I picked up the cat I knew it was probably a feral cat and was definitely in its death throws. The cat’s fur was dirty and his body was thin, with the trauma to its head most likely mortal. One of his eyes was dislodged from its socket, and his skull was partially crushed. But yet, he struggled to survive, his instinct was to run, but the signals to his legs only strong enough to cause them to stretch and contract. It broke my heart, yet I could not leave him alone to die.

I whispered quietly to the cat, and stroked his fur, imagining that I was the first human hand that had given him this sign of affection and security. To my amazement he began to purr, his last breaths coming with his brave attempt to prove he was still strong. Seeing that his death was near I found myself crying, and then praying that God would take this blessed animal and bring him into His loving arms. With the prayer sent to Heaven, the cat’s breath came slower, the contractions in his legs stopping, with one last breath expelled as a purr, he transitioned to God.

Seeing his blood on my hands, and knowing that the cat was now beyond pain or hunger or fear, I felt my tears stream down my face, my strong impersonal persona of criminal defense attorney crumbling. Yet, even with my tears I heard the voice without a voice tell me that I had acted in his stead this morning. I was this animal’s angel in death to help him transition with at least one loving hand on him as he passed.

We never know when we will be called to be that angel. Just know that every living thing needs love and a loving hand when it passes. Just remember it is truly blessed when you are the one called upon and know you have the strength.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The itching located on my right abdomen just beneath my bra was driving me crazy. That was almost overshadowed by the burning pain on my right collar bone. Only twenty-three minutes into a 24 hour torture of wearing a portable heart-monitor and the leads to device were making me a basket case.
Mind you, it wasn’t the actual monitor, or even that the doctors were still trying to find my heart that I kept telling them the California State Bar required I leave by the door in order to get my Bar Card to practice law, it was my dire allergy to the adhesives used to connect the monitor to my body.
AAARRRGG! Twenty-three hours and thirty-seven minutes to go. . .
Scratch, scratch, scratch, tap, tap, tap, don’t disturb the leads Mary Jo.
How was it that I found myself now in a position of going from one doctor to another as they tested me and prodded me to find out why I was so tired and why my heart was doing rapid salsa dancing in my chest?
Come on, really?
For those of you have ever had to stand in front of a crowd and give a speech, only to feel the floor drop out from beneath you. Or let’s say you have just seen a horrible accident and wondered how you could help, only to be tortured by dreams for days. Or, a favorite friend or loved one finds themselves in desperate trouble and turns to you for help with the burden of finding a way to help them on your shoulders, that, my friend is what being a practicing criminal defense trial attorney is like on daily basis.
Now, after more than twenty-eight years in the courtroom, my body is finally giving out, and no longer willing to take the stress, never mind the steady diet of adrenaline, caffeine, sugar, and fats.
But, I try not to despair, as I transition to a better life and lifestyle. I am trying yoga—does my body really bend that way? Donuts, caffeinated coffee, diet soda, and red meats are no longer my friends and comfort. But, I do have kale, broccoli, fresh green beans, and I am becoming extremely fond of Sabra Hummus.
And, the brightest light of all as I transition to a new life is that I get to spend time with my beloved dogs—Fina and Scruggs; my cats—Samantha and Boo Bear; and of course my dear husband Prince Charming. I also get to spend more time with my favorite fictional characters of my books—Detective Jake Swanson, Melissa Sanchez, and new ones Kelly Landrieu, Prax Desmett, and Jason Carson.

Hmm, so as I itch, scratch, tap and try to be patient, I decide that maybe this transition won’t be so bad—once this damnable heart monitor is removed!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

CHAPTER TEN SCRUGGS COMES HOME—THE GREETING (40th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(40th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

With my new dog sprawled all four legs pointing in different directions, horrified I crawled toward my new dog. In the meantime, my other two dogs heard the commotion coming from the house.  Hearing the desperation in my involuntary cry to Scruggs, Tara, the full-blooded Rottweiler, started growling and jumping against the sliding glass door.  She threw her considerable weight against the door, willing it to move, trying to rescue me from whatever was causing my distress.  Fina, on the other hand, more accustomed to using cunning rather than force, used her paw to slide the door open.  Evidently, when I had been home earlier, I had left the door unlocked and Fina had used it to her advantage, allowing both dogs to run into the house.
This was not the initial greeting I had planned.  Oh, hell no.  I had planned on leaving Scruggs behind the gate in the laundry room, allowing the dogs to sniff each other while he regained his strength.  I did not want a face-to-face meeting while Scruggs was not physically able to stand.  With Tara weighing 116 pounds, and Fina a lighter seventy-eight pounds, I didn’t want them hurting Scruggs with the sheer force of their weight.
But, once again, I misjudged my dogs.  They came charging into the kitchen area where Scruggs and I had landed.  Tara, who was still on high alert, ran right by me.  But Fina immediately sighted on Scruggs and slowed as she saw me gather him into my arms to hold him.  She skidded to a stop, sniffing the air, searching my face for clues.
“Fina, baby,” I said, trying to use my most soothing voice.  “Remember him?  This is Scruggs.  He’s joining our family.”
Fina inched a little closer, sniffing Scruggs as she came.  Scruggs had the good sense to wag his tail, his tongue still lolling out of his mouth.  He smiled his happy grin at Fina, and she stopped dead.  Then her little stump of a tail began to wag furiously.  She grinned back at him, and came over to give him a good sniff.  He lay quietly while Fina sniffed him from head to toe. Then she turned her attention to me. She sniffed my face, my head, and finally my hands as I held the new dog.  Satisfied, she lay down next to us, putting her head on my knee.
Tara, though, continued to search the house.  She went to the front door to check for danger, and then ran upstairs to make sure the danger had not escaped up there.  She finally came down to me, her tailless butt wagging as she came.
 “Good girl, Tara,” I said.  “Good girl, you make sure Mommy’s safe, huh, my baby girl.”
Pleased with herself, she came over to the scrum of human and dogs sprawled on the kitchen floor.  She danced around us, her bottom wagging furiously as she circled us, trying to figure out what game we were playing.  It was only when Fina warned her with a sharp bark that she stopped to look at us.
“Huh?” she seemed to say.
“Tara, gentle, baby girl,” I said.  “This is Scruggs.  Gentle so you don’t hurt him.”
Immediately my Rottweiler stopped her dancing.  She held steady as she tentatively reached her nose out to sniff the dog being held in my arms.  Scruggs took that instant to furiously wiggle out of my arms and stand upright.  He stood nose to nose with a dog that not only outweighed him by seventy pounds, but one who was not under the influence of anesthesia.

But even with the strange dog in her house, Tara held steady.  She didn’t move as I held my breath.  Tara waited as the groggy dog staggered toward her to give her a good welcome sniff.  When Scruggs had gone over her head to tail, she did her own greeting.  Soon, my kitchen was filled with wagging butts and tails, and twelve paws danced around me as I struggled to find my own feet.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

CHAPTER TEN SCRUGGS COMES HOME—COMING THROUGH THE DOOR (39th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(39th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

Maybe fine wasn’t the right word to use when telling Prince Charming I would be ‘okay’ to get Scruggs into the house at home. Maybe I should have used a phrase like:
 “I’ve always wanted to ride a tornado;” or
“dancing with a whirling dervish sounds like fun;” or even
“I’ve always wanted my arm jerked out of my socket by a psychotic dog.” 
All of those phrases would have been more appropriate than fine.
Needless to say, I was whirled and jerked and pulled by the poor dog all the way to my SUV.  Then I poured the reluctant dog into the back compartment of the vehicle.  But since the rear hatch was electronic, I couldn’t slam it shut.  Every time I pushed Scruggs into the back and hit the button to close the hatch there was enough of a delay that he had enough time to try to jump out. The gate would hit his head, and then reopen. This went on for at least four tries until I decided to put him in the back seat.  Unfortunately for me, this left him free to put his head between the front seats and drool copious amounts of slimy stuff all over me. By the time we got home, I was drenched.
The trip into the house was even worse.  From the minute his little white paws hit the tile flooring of our entryway he started skidding and sliding.  He ended up sprawled, spread eagle, on the floor, each leg heading in a different direction—his face flat on the floor, with his eyes rolling in different directions.  But Scruggs did not whimper or protest.  He just lay quietly thumping his tail.
But when I tried to pick up the front legs, the back legs slid away, and when I went around to his back to pick up the rear legs, his nose and front legs plowed forward onto the tile.  He moaned softly, and his tail did a slight wag.  I tried to lift him from the side, but even with his underweight forty-five pounds, he was too heavy for me to get his four paws beneath him.  We twirled and swirled around on the entryway tile for several minutes, but there was no way I was able to get enough purchase on him to lever him into a standing position.  Worse yet, he did not seem to have either the strength or will to do it himself.  After about five minutes of struggling, I gave up and sat with his head in my lap.  He smiled up at me like a drunken suitor, happy just to have his head in my lap.  As he panted, his tongue lolled out of his mouth and drool dripped from it, creating a puddle that grew as the minutes passed.
Sitting with him while he gained strength, I was able to really look at the dog I had just adopted.   I looked at his soft, dark brown eyes, the pretty white blaze down the front of his face, and the weird wiry whiskers that traveled up from his nose and almost obscured his vision.  I remembered how from the first time I saw Scruggs at the Humane Society I believed he was a golden retriever mix of some sort.  He was a deep rich golden color, had a beautifully plumed tail, with feather-like wisps of long fur on his front and rear legs.  More importantly, he had a loving and sweet disposition, which led me firmly in the direction of golden retriever.  The whiskers on his face and the wiry hairs sticking out all over his body gave me some concern as to his daddy’s heritage but, overall, he was definitely a retriever mix. 
The interlude in the tiled entry also gave me a chance to quietly consider where Scruggs would fit in my life and in my heart.  He had captured it when I wasn’t looking.  He had held it when I had almost stopped believing in miracles.  But where did he fit?  Why had he come to the de la Peña household?  How would this scruffy retriever mix fit into a household of Rottweilers?  He appeared to be a high-energy dog, while the Rottweiler’s ideas of a hard afternoon were moving from the couch to the floor several times, and maybe following me up and down the stairs.
 My husband and I considered ourselves to be a predominately Rottweiler household.  We loved the breed and had a deep understanding of what was needed to keep them happy and balanced.  But this dog was an enigma.  I had no way of knowing if he would be happy as primarily an outdoor dog or be more like Tara and Fina, couch potatoes with spurts of outdoor activities.
So, as I sat musing about Scruggs and his future in our home, his panting slowed, his eyes closed, and his breathing became regular as he fell into a deep sleep.  I sat with him until my legs had lost all feeling and my tailbone screamed its distress.  I could feel myself turning into a cripple the longer I sat cradling the dog’s head in my lap.  Movement was critical or I most certainly would have faced living the rest of my life in a wheelchair and paralyzed from the waist down.
“Scruggs,” I said, trying to gently displace his head.  “Scruggies, Mommy has to move, or her legs are going to fall off.”

As I shifted his weight, the dog suddenly sprang to life.  He jumped up from his prone position in the entryway only to bolt toward the back door.  Unfortunately for Scruggs, there were three steps leading down to the lower level of the house.  He missed them completely and again was sprawled face down, all four legs pointing in different directions.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

CHAPTER TEN SCRUGGS COMES HOME—PICKING UP SCRUGGS FROM THE VET (38th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(38th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

Though the afternoon at the law office had been frantic, my fear of getting to the Humane Society’s vets office was overblown. Prince Charming and I arrived at the Humane Society with time to spare. The yard was still bustling with activity, and there were still a large number of people waiting in line at the counters. I was too anxious to wait—and afraid of another run-in with one of the princesses—so I made a bee line for the intake counter at the front of the shelter.  The volunteer was more than happy to point us in the direction of the animal hospital at the back of the grounds.
The vet tech at the hospital smiled when she read the paperwork I handed to her. 
“You’ve come to get that precious gold dog and black kitten,” she said. “The kitten is doing just fine. She’s still a little groggy, and probably needs a sheltered place to recover but, all in all, she’s fine.”
“And the dog?” I asked.
Her smile got wider as she answered, “He’s a little loopy from the anesthesia but also doing well.”
I handed her the collar and leash for Scruggs while my husband handed her the cat carrier for Samantha.  The tech took the items from us and disappeared through a closed door.  As the door opened and closed I could hear a wail coming from the back.  It was low and keening, like a death knell. 
My husband and I exchanged looks.
“You think?” he asked me, staring hard at the closed door.
I rolled my eyes back at him. “I hope not,” I answered.
We waited for what seemed like a century, both of us holding our breath, afraid of what would come through that closed door.
Soon we heard the distinctive sound of claws crabbing on the tile floor.  The sound was excited and frantic.  There were a few bumps against the closed door, a soft command to “wait,” then the door opened.
Scruggs came through the door, dragging the tech with him.  I stepped in front of him to block his rush toward the low window with its view of trees and grass.
“Scruggs,” I said, grabbing his collar.  “It’s okay, boy.”
As soon as the tech saw I had the collar, she let go of the leash. With less pressure on his collar, he put more energy into his plunge toward the outdoors.  It was enough to catch me off-guard, and we both ended up on the floor with Scruggs sprawled on top of me, drool running from his mouth like a leaky faucet.
My husband caught my eye. His eyes were twinkling, and a smile played at the corner of his mouth.
 “Need some help?” he asked.
“No, no,” I answered, trying to roll over on my side to stand up, while pulling my skirt down to keep from exposing my not-so-fancy underwear.  “I’ve got it.”
The tech stood still as she watched me struggle to my feet.  I looked hard at her, but she averted her eyes rather than meet my irritated stare.  Instead she turned to Prince Charming.  “The kitten needs a few more minutes.  She won’t be ready for about other ten or so minutes,” she said to him.  “The vet wants to check her again before discharge.”
By that time I had struggled to my feet, and was doing the same Maypole dance the volunteer did the day before.  Scruggs was circling mindlessly around me, trying to tie me up with the leash as I played it over and around my head.
“You want to wait?” the prince asked laughingly as he ducked out of the way of the pacing dog and me.  “Or do you want to get Scruggs home and settled?”
The irony was not lost on me.  Waiting was out of the question.  The dog needed to get home and settled.  I knew the sooner I could get him home, the sooner we could begin the delicate task of settling him into our home.
Because Scruggs was not a puppy he had already been imprinted with someone else’s mode of living.  From looking at him I had presumed he had been an outdoor dog for a long time and was not used to being inside.  Or, worse yet, he may have been a street dog not by choice, but because he may have been abused or abandoned.  Either of these would leave him even more in need of repetitive structures and commands, thus making the first few days in our home crucial.   We were going to need to be firm and consistent until Scruggs felt secure in our environment by knowing we were in charge and he could trust us.  Getting him home and settled was therefore imperative.
“I’ll take him now,” I said.  “You can follow with Samantha. I need to get him quiet.”
“Okay, but do you need some help getting him to the car?”
“No, no,” I answered, “I’ll be fine.”

Yeah, right. . .

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

CHAPTER NINE PREPARING FOR THE HOMECOMING—DUTY CALLS (37TH installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(37TH installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)
After making all the preparations to bring home a new dog and kitten, I decided to do my wifely duties and call the law office.
“Law Office,” the Prince answered.
“Why are you answering the phone?” I asked.
“Staff is off getting lunch.  I ordered a fish taco for you, if that’s okay?”  he answered.
I smothered my irritation at his assumption that I would be coming to the office.  I knew I had to go in, but it was the last thing I wanted to do.  As my mind raced around what I had accomplished, I knew there was nothing left for me to do at the house.  But I still yearned to be free from other people’s problems for just that day.  Alas, duty called.  I needed to go to the office no matter how badly I wanted never to enter that place again.
“Yes,” I sighed.  “I’m done here and on my way in.”
“Thank you, little girl,” he answered.
Driving into the office I thought about my husband’s last statement to me on the phone.  His voice had been sweet and relieved.  I wondered what was happening that he needed me.
When I arrived at the office it was in a chaotic uproar.  Every chair in the waiting room was filled, and there were people waiting in the hallway.
I tried to enter the office without drawing attention to myself but our secretary must have caught the movement out of the corner of her eye.  She almost tackled me as I headed to my office to put down my purse and briefcase.
“M. J.,” she said, almost in tears.  “M. J., there’s all these people here, they don’t have appointments, they all want to talk to you and you have all these messages, and what do you want to do first?”
“Where’s my partner?” I asked.
“He’s in his office with clients, and he hasn’t eaten yet, and you know how mad you get at me when he doesn’t eat, and I don’t know what to do,” she said, this time with tears spilling onto her cheeks.
As much as I wanted to choke her, I decided that given the chaos, it wasn’t the time to perfect my murder skills.  Instead, I took a deep breath, grabbed the messages from her hand, and leafed through them.  Most were not urgent, but there were a couple from opposing attorneys that needed my prompt attention.
“Okay, listen,” I told her.  “Let me return a couple of these calls.  Tell the people waiting I’ll be with them in order that they came in.”
My secretary rolled her eyes at me, swiped at her tears, then left me to answer my calls.
My afternoon turned into a blur of activity.  I met with several clients, prepared paperwork for their signature while they waited, returned numerous phone calls, and quieted a sobbing mother whose son had been arrested for robbery.  The phone never stopped ringing, and my headache never abated.
Before I knew it, the afternoon had passed and it was five o’clock.
“Oh, my God!  Scruggs and Samantha!” 
It was my turn for my eyes to tear.  There were still people in the waiting room and the door to Prince Charming’s office was closed.
As the pressure behind my eyes grew, I also felt myself get angry.  He knew how important it was to be at the shelter before six o’clock.  He knew how important it was for him to be there to help me.  Again resentment grew inside me at the thought that, once again, he was leaving me to handle it.
Yet, even as I grew frustrated and angry, a voice inside my head reminded me that I was the one who wanted to adopt the animals.  It was my decision to get a dog and the cat.  It wasn’t my husband who had made this leap, it was me.  I swallowed my anger, replacing it with resignation as I decided I would just go by myself.  We didn’t have time to drop one of the cars at the house before going to the shelter, so I decided I would go on my own, leaving him to join me if he could.
But, as I knocked on the door to his office, he opened it himself.  He was standing, as were his clients.  “M. J.,” he said, “I was just telling these people I needed to leave.  I have an appointment to adopt a dog and kitten tonight.”
He was smiling and his eyes were shining as he said that.  I felt my heart roll over in my chest, and the tears that were starting to fall changed to tears of appreciation instead of disappointment.
He took my arm and winked at me, then turned to our secretary.  “You’ll just need to tell the others that they’ll have to come back tomorrow.  I’m sorry, but my wife and I have an appointment to get a couple of new kids.”
Her eyes bulged out of their sockets momentarily as she stammered her acquiescence.

“Come on, little girl,” he said smiling at me.  “We’ve got to bring Scruggies and Samantha home!”

Monday, June 8, 2015


It pulled me from a deep slumber, the sharp pain crushing my chest, spreading up to my throat and grabbing my jaw in a death grip. From there it spread down through my upper abdomen to my groin area, leaving my body in writhing pain.

Holy Christ! Was this the big one?

I tried to breathe through the pain, taking deep breaths, holding them and letting them out slowly. But no matter how much I tried to control my breathing it didn’t help. I took in the air as gasps and let it out in groans. The pain would not be appeased by my lowly attempts to control it with breaths.


I staggered out of bed, only to be met with a wave of nausea, my undigested diner from the night before catching in my throat.

“What are the symptoms of a heart attack in women?” I kept asking myself as I staggered to my computer.

A quick perusal of I found an article by Dr. Tom Iarocci  from October 11, 2013, which gave me the list of symptoms which include:
  • ·         Angina: pain, discomfort, pressure or tightness in the middle of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and then comes back; sometimes mistaken for heartburn
  • ·         Pain or discomfort in upper body including arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • ·         Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • ·         Cold sweat or sweating
  • ·         Feeling of indigestion, choking or heartburn
  • ·         Nausea or vomiting
  • ·         Feeling dizzy, light-headed or extremely weak
  • ·         Feeling anxious
  • ·         Rapid or irregular heart beats

Hmm, close, but was it really a heart attack?

As it turned out, it was a warning shot over my bow.

My heart was reacting to the unrelenting stress of trying to transition from my law practice into being a full time author. I was doing neither well, and the stress of underperforming was wearing on me and my body.

My choice was clear—leave the practice of law—or DIE!

Whoa! Really? The choice was that clear?

Transitions are never easy. The stress of making the choice to make the leap can be incapacitating. Leave what I have known for more than 28 years, a career in which I have been very successful, and jump into a pond with so many wide-eyed dreamers, but with so many broken hearts and broken dreams?  

Today I took the first step. I swallowed my pride and put the courts and clients on notice—I am DONE!  I can’t do it anymore.

Whew—I get cold sweats just thinking about it. But, my heart doesn’t race when I think about the future. My heart remains calm when I write, and most of all no matter how difficult the transition, the alternative when it includes dying is a BITCH!