Chapter Reveal: The Accidental Art Thief, by Joan Schweighardt

TheAccidentalArtThief_medTitle: The Accidental Art Thief

Genre: General fiction

Author: Joan Schweighardt

Website: www.joanschweighardt.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Find The Accidental Thief on Amazon.

For a quarter of a century forty-five-year-old Zinc has worked as a caretaker for a wealthy old man, living in a small casita on his ranch in New Mexico. She doesn’t make much money, but she has the old man, her dogs, and gorgeous views of the mountains. She is basically a very content recluse who doesn’t invest much time thinking about what she might do if her circumstances change. So when the old man dies suddenly, and his daughter all but throws her off the property, Zinc is forced to reinvent herself—and quickly.

With a touch of magical realism and a collection of offbeat characters, The Accidental Art Thief explores the thin line between life and death and the universal forces that connect all things.

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THE ACCIDENTAL ART THIEF

a novel

by

Joan Schweighardt

Chapter 1

Zinc had hung feeders all along the boughs of the trees, mostly cottonwoods and piñons that she could see from the window of the casita where she lived. This way when she needed a break from the work she did at her desk, she could look up—a small window was right there—and drink in the bird life, albeit at some distance. There were greenish-brown hummingbirds and red-brown finches to be seen three seasons of the year. Sometimes there were piñon jays, their blue bodies as vivid as the desert sky overhead. At least once a week she caught sight of the local roadrunner, whom she had named Steven, after someone she had loved once, someone who had broken her heart. And once—mystery of mysteries—a peacock dropped out of the sky, spread its resplendent blue-green feathers, turned its head in the direction of the window behind which Zinc stood with one hand over her open mouth and her eyes brimming with tears of joy, and looked right at her before disappearing into the scrub. Now that was a day to remember.

But lately Zinc had begun to wonder what it would be like to work facing the mountains rather than the cottonwoods. In fact her casita did have windows facing east, but the main house, where the old man lived, obscured her view. She wondered what it would be like to work outdoors sometimes, where she might see jack rabbits running in the scrub, or maybe even a lone coyote reigning proud from some rocky outcrop. She mentioned this desire to Smith, the old man’s sometimes driver, and Smith said she should get a laptop. Smith told her there was a second-hand computer store on Central. The owner was a real geek, he said; he picked up obsolete models for next to nothing and gave them new life. His prices were extraordinarily reasonable, as if he labored merely for the love of it.

For the love of it. Zinc liked that.

*

On a Saturday Zinc walked down the dirt road from her casita to San Dominic Road, and from there she walked to the bus stop on Bonita. She preferred not to talk to strangers if she didn’t have to, so she carried with her a Macy’s shopping bag into which she’d stuffed the bathrobe she’d removed from her body earlier that morning. It still smelled faintly of the coffee she’d accidentally spilled. When the bus came, she took the seat behind the driver. Then she watched out the window, and sure enough, before long she saw the second-hand computer shop storefront, wedged in between a coffee shop and a new-age gift store that featured a large limestone Buddha in its big front window.

She took the bus a mile or so farther and then got off and awaited a return ride. This time she knew where to look and she was able to gather in more information. The computer store was called Timothy’s Second-Hand Computers, and what Zinc recognized as a very old Mac model sat in the center of the window—a bookend (in size and positioning if not in eminence) to the Buddha in the shop beside it. The Mac’s screen and the innards that should have been behind it had been removed, replaced with a roll of toilet paper, the end sheet of which stuck out from what had once been its floppy drive opening. Timothy had turned the old Mac into a toilet paper dispenser!

Zinc could drive of course, and she had a junker to prove it—a seventeen-year-old Pontiac Firebird that her brother, Frankie, had given her two years earlier. But she didn’t drive it unless she absolutely had to. Just looking at the orange-red beast with its long raised snout and angry flared nostrils, parked as it was as far from her casita as the old man would allow, seemed like a bad idea. And so the following week, late in the afternoon, she took the bus once again, this time throwing a pair of jeans and a paperback into her Macy’s bag, and getting off at the corner just before the second-hand computer store. Then she stood, hidden behind sunglasses with lenses the size of fists, her wild brown curls stuffed beneath a NY Yankees cap, leaning against the stucco wall of the Central Ave Bank, cattycorner from Timothy’s, at the point where she could see the door but could not be seen herself, attempting to determine how busy the place got. When she felt quite sure there wasn’t much traffic (in fact, the door hadn’t opened once), she crossed Central and marched in.

A little brass bell on the door announced her arrival, but Timothy, who had his back to her, only mumbled, “How ya doing?” and didn’t turn around. The table he worked over was full of computer parts, illuminated by a green goose-necked desk lamp, the bulb of which was close to the table surface.

“Fine,” she heard herself say. It came out sounding like a child’s voice. Well, that was her voice; it was high-pitched and there wasn’t much she could do about it.

“Can I help  you?” he asked, and he looked past her for a second, perhaps searching for the child he thought he’d heard.

“I’d like to buy a computer. A laptop. A used laptop. An inexpensive used laptop.” She smiled nervously.

Timothy was old, perhaps in his mid seventies. But it was only the skin on his face, which fell over his bones like carelessly hung curtain swags, that gave him away. He was trim and—she noted as he got up to round the counter—spry and surefooted. She raised her hand to her sunglasses, but then dropped it just before her fingers made contact. A moment later her hand came up again, and this time the glasses came down with it. Timothy stopped in his progress to stare into her eyes, tipping forward from his waist for the briefest moment. “The laptops are over here,” he mumbled, and he turned to show her the way.

Timothy spent the next several minutes describing the virtues of each of the four second-hand models he had available. Two were so old they didn’t even have modems. “What do you want it for?” he asked, turning toward her suddenly.

Zinc swallowed. This is what she hated. The sudden question, the switch in focus, and then the inevitable journey the interrogator always took into her eyes. Years ago, when her skin was smooth and tight, people only said, “What an unusual color your eyes are.” But now she was forty-five and there were tiny lines around her eyes, making them somehow more—not less—prominent, or so she felt. Sometimes it seemed as if they were doorways, with doors that strangers could throw open easily and walk on through. Where did they go?  What did they do in there all that time?

Caught off guard, there was no chance to come up with a lie. And the truth was Zinc was a terrible liar anyway. “I write poetry,” she said.

“For a living?” asked Timothy, sounding alarmed.

“No, I keep house.”

“For a living?” This time he chuckled.

“For an…a…man.” She’d almost said “an old man,” how she and Smith referred to him, a term of affection for them.

“Your husband?”

“My employer.”

“Full time?”

“Part time…the housekeeping. Well, actually, it’s more than that. I do other things for him. And then the poetry. I make some money now and then from that too. So if you put the two together….”  She realized she was rambling and stopped abruptly.

Timothy turned back to the computers. “You’re under the radar,” he mumbled. “One of those people who can’t manage a real job. A lot of you here in Albuquerque.”

The color came to her face immediately, a flash flood. She loved what she did. She loved her life. Why did everyone assume that if you didn’t make much money or didn’t do something glamorous, you were a loser? And wasn’t he under the radar too, working at rejuvenating dead computers in a store that nobody visited? She squared her shoulders. For the love of it indeed. But all she said was, “No.” And then she thought better of it and forced a chuckle. “Well, maybe.”

“You shouldn’t admit it,” Timothy said, turning to hand her one of the laptops. She could see in his eyes that he was serious, that he meant well. “If you make your money cleaning house for someone,” he expounded, “you should tell people you’re a personal assistant. It’s almost true if not exactly, and it sounds much better. Saying you keep house….” He shook his head. “People will make assumptions. You’ll never get anywhere. You’ll clean houses forever.” Again he took the journey into her eyes, but this time he returned much sooner. “But then you’re not all that young, are you?”

Although she wanted nothing more than to escape, she forced her feet to stay planted just where they were, because, second to escaping, she wanted a laptop. And, as Timothy had so kindly pointed out, she wasn’t a child anymore; she had learned to control her impulses. Ultimately, she chose the laptop that was least expensive—an old modem-less IBM that Timothy guaranteed would work for the next five years if she was kind to it—and took the bus home.

So lost in her thoughts was Zinc that she was briefly startled when she opened the door to her casita and was immediately charged by two dogs, her dogs, Paddy and Orlando. Paddy was six years old and appeared to be mostly golden retriever with some chow mixed in—a furry yellow dog with a black tongue that was always hanging sideways out of his mouth. Zinc had found him at the end of the dirt road that led to the property when he was a puppy. He was half starved then, and the gash on his leg indicated that a larger animal, probably a coyote protecting her pups, had tried to warn him away. (If a coyote had really wanted to hurt him, it would have gone for his throat, and given his size at the time, Paddy would not have survived.) Paddy was sweet and intelligent, but he was also suspicious when there were strangers about, generally up at the old man’s house as Zinc didn’t get visitors herself. Orlando was a beagle mix, about four years old. He had come from a shelter just over two years ago. This was back before the old man’s legs had gotten so bad, back when he could still get around with a cane on one side and someone’s arm on the other. He’d heard that his neighbor’s dog had run away, and since the neighbor was in worse physical shape that he was, and didn’t have a driver to chauffer him around, the old man volunteered to have Smith take them both to the shelter to look for the Doberman, Gilly. Gilly wasn’t there, but the old man saw Orlando dancing at the bars of his cage, and he imagined that the beagle would be the perfect companion for Paddy, that Paddy might relax if he had a younger dog to play with. So he brought him home and told Zinc if she didn’t want him, or if Paddy wouldn’t tolerate him, it wasn’t a problem; the shelter would take him back. But both Zinc and Paddy fell in love with him immediately and that was the end of that.

Once she had greeted her dogs, given them each a biscuit and let them out, Zinc let the “under the radar” remark go down the drain, literally. It was a trick her father had taught her when she was a child (back in rural upstate New York, a couple hours north and west of New York City) and would come home crying because someone had teased her or called her a name at school. He would drag a wooden bench over to the kitchen sink and have her step up on it. Then he would turn on the faucet and Zinc would repeat the words that had hurt her so (“weirdo,” “mute,” “witch eyes,”) and together they would wash them down the drain. They had done this so many times and with such zeal that both believed that they could “see” the insults swirling drainward. “Go play, now,” her father would say, and she would, skipping outdoors, her curly brown pigtails flying out on either side of her head, calling out her brother’s name, Frankie, Frankie, who, her father hoped, would watch after her after he and his wife were gone—because a sixth sense told him they would never reach old age.

Zinc had been working for the old man and living in the casita behind his house for twenty-five years now, since the year after her parents died, the same year Steven left, and she did not love the place any less. It had been built over one hundred years ago, from adobe. Although it had been upgraded with central cooling and heating, Zinc seldom needed temperature control. The adobe stored and released the heat slowly, keeping her little house cool in summer and warm in winter, except when the temperatures were extreme. It was almost as if she were living in something that was alive itself.

Her little casita was beautiful in its simplicity; all the walls were painted a warm white and all eight-hundred square feet of flooring was covered with a red-gold Mexican saltillo tile. Her furnishings had all come from the old man’s house over the years, odd pieces that he no longer needed, and all of it was Mexican as well. And then there was the art. The old man was a collector, and each time he brought new paintings into his house, he would pass the old ones on to Zinc. His daughter, whose name was Marge, liked to carry the smaller ones over herself, probably, Zinc thought, so that she could remind her each time that some of the paintings were of considerable value and that Zinc must never never come to think of them as anything but a loan. As if Zinc could ever forget that.

Zinc did not have a land line or a cell phone. She did not have a TV or an MP3 or an iPod or a digital camera. She had a radio. And she had a computer, now two of them, and while the new one was modem-less, the Internet that worked through her desktop model had become her connection to the world. She had even made a few friends over the Internet, most of them editors of literary magazines who considered—and sometimes accepted—her poetry for their quarterly or biannual publications.

She opened her new used laptop on the kitchen table and plugged in the charger. In addition to the Word program that she planned to make good use of, there were a half dozen others. She was delighted to see that one was a chess game, and that you could “zoom” it up to be the size of the screen. She and the old man played chess all the time. She couldn’t imagine playing chess with a computer herself, but the old man might enjoy it. He got so lonely sometimes. And now his eyes were so bad that he could no longer read. She read to him frequently, but never for more than an hour at a time, because she was prone to sore throats. He listened to audio books, but he said it wasn’t the same. They made him sleepy. He hated to sleep, because he had nightmares much of the time.

Zinc thought he must have read more books in his life than any ten people she knew, not that she actually knew ten people. He could remember everything too, even information from books he’d read back when he was quite young. Although his tastes ran toward histories and biographies and hers toward fiction and poetry, they could spend hours talking about books; they could spend hours talking, period.

While the computer charged, Zinc heated leftovers from a casserole she’d made for the old man the evening before: artichoke hearts, spinach and chicken tenders. She called the dogs in and fed them and let them out again. When she finally allowed herself to look at the digital indicator on the computer screen, she saw that the charging had progressed only to fifty percent of capacity, but it would have to do.

Zinc pulled out the cord and closed the laptop and hurried out of the house. Her breath caught immediately and she stopped in her tracks, the laptop crushed to her chest. There was a moment every evening when the setting sun was exactly opposite the mountains, and if one were lucky enough to catch it, one could see the Sandias (sandia meant watermelon in Spanish) turn pink. Not just light pink, but if conditions were right, shocking pink, a kind of otherworldly fuchsia that made the heart pump faster.

Almost as soon as it began it was over. The mountain turned gray and the sun was on its way again, descending over the volcanoes to the west. The spectacle moved Zinc to run, something she did occasionally when no one was around. Orlando and Paddy, who had been resting together under a pine tree, saw her and rose simultaneously to join in the fun. With the dogs at her heels, Zinc ran across the yard, along the slate path through the garden, and started up the slate stairs. The stairs were beautiful. The old man had built them himself, years ago, back when his wife was alive and his children were young. They were encased in stone and featured stone risers. He had gathered the stones himself, from multiple hiking trips taken into the mountains with his loved ones.

Zinc was almost to his door when the toe of her leather sandal caught and she fell forward. Of course she had to drop the computer to keep from landing flat on her face. She sat up and immediately burst into tears. Her new computer—which had cost her two trips to town and half of the money she’d saved in the glass jar she kept on top of the refrigerator—had to be broken. There went sitting outdoors facing the mountain. There went who knows how many poems about coyotes, about jack rabbits running through the brush. Orlando licked her. Paddy moaned as if he knew exactly how she felt.

Under the radar.

 

The door opened slowly beside her. She looked up expecting to see the old man looming over her. She always praised him when he came to the door with his walker instead of waiting in his wheelchair for her to open it herself. He needed more exercise. He was a small man now, the size of a twelve-year-old boy. He suffered from, among other things, kyphosis, a hunched back. A very hunched back. It made him look like a troll. But it was not the old man’s troll face that Zinc found herself staring up at. It was his daughter, Marge. “What are you doing on the ground?” she asked impatiently, in a shrill voice. “And why are you crying? And where were you this afternoon?”

Zinc got up slowly, lifting the laptop from the slate as she did. She could feel movement, things inside slipping around. She glanced over her shoulder at the driveway. Usually when Marge was there she parked out in front of the house, where a delivery person might park—which made sense because she never stayed any longer than a delivery person would. Now Zinc saw that Marge’s car was beside the workshop. She could see the bumper of the dark red PT Cruiser. If she had known Marge was there, she wouldn’t have run across the yard, and then she wouldn’t have dropped and broken her new computer. “He’s all right, isn’t he?” she asked.

Marge folded her thin arms beneath her small breasts. “No,” she snapped. “He’s not all right.” She looked upward and took a breath. “He took a fall. Down the stairs. Right here. Where were you all afternoon, Kathryn?”

“What do you mean, he took a fall? How?”

Marge unfolded her arms and thrust them out, exasperated. “He must have been feeling badly. I don’t know. He must have wanted something. He must have tried to get you on the intercom and then gone outside to see if you were in the yard. And he must have tripped.” She took another swallow of air. Her arms fell to her sides. “Peter found him. He’s dead.”

* * *

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Chapter Reveal: ‘The End of Healing,’ by Dr. Jim Bailey

end_of_healing_bookTitle: The End of Healing

Genre: Suspense

Author: Dr. Jim Bailey

Websitewww.endofhealing.com

Publisher: The Healthy City

Purchase on Amazon

SUMMARY:  

Dr. Don Newman, a resident physician at the renowned University Hospital, awakens in a windowless call room in the middle of the night to the screams of his pager. As he runs to a dark ward to attend to a dying woman strapped to a bed, Don realizes that despite having worked long and hard to become a doctor—and having sworn to do no harm—harm has become his business.

So begins Dr. Newman’s quest to become a healer in a system that puts profits ahead of patients. Abandoning his plans to become a cardiologist, Dr. Newman enrolls in an Ivy League graduate program in health system science, where an unorthodox professor promises to guide him ever deeper into the dark secrets of the healthcare industry. Along with fellow students Frances Hunt, a sharp and alluring nurse practitioner, and Bruce Markum, a cocky, well-connected surgeon, Dr. Newman begins a journey into the medical underworld.

When Dr. Newman unearths evidence of a conspiracy stretching from the halls of Congress to Wall Street and even to his small campus, his harmless course of study becomes deadly serious. Will he be silenced? Or will he find a way to save his patients and others from needless torture? One thing is certain:  the path to healing is fraught with danger. Will this path lead Don to a dead end?

Prologue

I know what it is like to be out of place, to be an idealist in a world of pecuniary traitors, to be hated for doing what is right. And so I know something of Dr. Don Newman’s story. He starts his journey much as I did, a disappointing protagonist and unlikely hero who finds himself in a dark place where the straight way is lost.  He discovers treachery, torture, and killing where he least expects—in the sacred halls of healing—the hospitals, pharmacies, operating rooms, and intensive care units where your generation places its greatest hope and trust. He is ill-equipped to deal with the world he inadvertently uncovers. You can justly call him idealistic, naïve, even foolish.

History does repeat itself. Old temptations present themselves in new and surprising ways. Our best stories ebb and flow through time in tides of glacial speed and periodicity. Dr. Newman’s story is an ancient one. It has been told in many tongues and many lands; it is my story and your story. Just as my Comedy captured the critical events of our time, displayed the underlying currents for all to see, and turned the tide of history, Dr. Newman’s story will reveal the hidden darkness of your time.

Therefore, let me beg your indulgence for our unlikely hero. Travel a little while with this unseasoned young man. Bear with him as he discovers he has stumbled into hostile territory, succumbed to base influences, and benefited from the very corruption he loathes. Our most innocent ones often bear the curse of seeing things as they really are. So it is with young Doctor Newman. He seeks to be a healer in a world where true healing has nearly ended.

With him, perhaps you can find a way out of darkness into paradise. I entreat you to follow him and behold: everything necessary to find the right path through the perils of modern healthcare—the path to true health and healing—is available to Don Newman all along.

Let us go with him and see.

Dante Alighieri

1 

The Dark Ward 

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno 1, 1 – 3

Dr. Newman dreaded the task ahead. Like countless others in these so-called halls of healing, Sibyl Bellamy was more victim than patient.

He’d been on the night shift three months earlier—the first time she was brought to the emergency room. He’d admitted her to the hospital and worked her up for the team that would care for her starting the next morning. He’d known at once she had suffered a very big stroke. It didn’t take a genius to see that. She couldn’t move anything on her right side, her mouth drooped and leaked drool from the right corner, and she couldn’t speak or squeeze his fingers. Mucus rattled in her windpipe with every breath and she showed little inclination to cough it up. Her eyes were wide open and filled with fear. Cords of muscle in her good arm strained against the padded leather strap around her wrist.

Her panicked daughter had rushed into the room and launched a battery of questions: “What’s going on, Doctor? What’s wrong with my mother? Why can’t she talk? Can you help her? Will she be okay?”

He took a deep breath before answering. “I’m Dr. Newman. Your mother is very sick. Could you tell me what happened?”

Words erupted in a breathless rush. “I found her this morning in her house on the floor and I don’t know how long she was there but she was fine when I saw her yesterday morning—she had gone to the bathroom on herself and she couldn’t move so I called the ambulance and they brought her to the emergency room about ten this morning—I’ve been in the waiting room ever since and no one has told me anything!” Tears filled the wells beneath her eyes and overflowed. “What’s wrong with her, Doctor? Was it a stroke?”

The physical exam left no doubt—yes—she’d suffered a large middle cerebral artery stroke. The left half of her brain was dead. She would probably never walk, talk, or eat again. But he was trained never to give a diagnosis until the history was complete and all test results were in.

“Let me ask you a few questions first. Does your mother have high blood pressure or other medical problems?”

“Yes, she takes medicine for high blood pressure. It runs in our family.”

“What medicine was she taking?”

“Well, she used to take a water pill, I think.”

“Hydrochlorothiazide?”

“Yes, that’s it! She took it for years.”

He nodded and noted it in the chart. Hydrochlorothiazide prevents strokes better than anything. “Go on,” he encouraged.

“Mom stopped taking it when the doctor gave her free samples of a new medicine. Norvasc, I think it was. She didn’t like the new medicine because she said it stopped her up but the doctor told her it didn’t have any side effects.”

“When did she last see her physician?”

“Four months ago. That’s when the receptionist said the doctor couldn’t keep seeing her since she didn’t have insurance anymore. He was nice enough to give her those free samples but she couldn’t go ask him for more after that lady told her not to come back and she didn’t have the money to fill the prescription. The new drug cost over fifty dollars for a month’s supply so she just quit. Her old pill had worked fine and it only cost five dollars.”

“She lost her insurance?”

“We are not fancy people, Doctor. My mom has worked every day of her life, mostly two jobs. She’s worked right here at the University Hospital as a housekeeper for years. You know they outsourced housekeeping five months ago, right? The new cleaning service company kept her on but dropped her health insurance.”

He did know. The hospital had signed a management contract with New American Healthcare in July 2000, right at the beginning of his third and last year of specialty training in internal medicine. Contracting out the housekeeping service was one of the ways New American Healthcare was helping the University Hospital save a little money. Mrs. Bellamy might not have health insurance for a simple doctor’s office visit, or a prescription to control her high blood pressure, but now she was so sick no hospital could legally turn her away. She’d be declared disabled, Medicaid would kick in, and the expensive hospital tab would get paid—courtesy of the American taxpayers.

The daughter’s body shook with silent, heaving sobs. Dr. Newman put his hand on her shoulder and waited. She took a deep breath to steel herself, shook off his comforting arm, and looked him hard in the eye. “What is wrong with my mother?” she demanded again.

He’d tried to give her the straight scoop. Pulling two molded plastic chairs over alongside Mrs. Bellamy’s gurney, he motioned for the daughter to sit down across from him. He reached out, took her hand in both of his, and spoke slowly. “I think your mother has had a very large stroke. I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m afraid she will never recover no matter what we do. Your mother is dying.”

The daughter’s face was blank, flat, as if she hadn’t comprehended a single word of what he just said. She wasn’t ready to process the horrible news. After all, her mother was lying nearby, asleep and breathing on her own.

“There is a slim possibility that dehydration is a contributing factor,” he offered. “Perhaps with fluids, feeding, and rehab, your mother might be one of the lucky few to partly recover.”

He intended his words to comfort the daughter just enough to tide her over until she was ready to process the grim reality that her mom was essentially gone. Once the words were out, however, it was too late.

Mrs. Bellamy’s daughter’s eyes lit up and she clapped a hand to her chest. “Oh, Doctor, please, I want you to do everything possible to save my mama!”

Everything possible. The magic words. That was all it took to set the gears of the hospital machine in motion to grind out a whole slew of hopeless interventions and procedures, or—as Sibyl Bellamy would call them if she could speak—torture.

Mrs. Bellamy had fought against every intervention. The GI team hadn’t inserted a PEG tube to funnel food directly into her stomach because she would have ripped it out with her good left hand. Instead, they had stuck a feeding tube down her nose, which she could pull out without really hurting herself. As expected, she had pulled the feeding tube out of her nose again and again. Each time, the team had shoved the greased tube back through her nose and down the back of her throat. They had alternated between drugging her up—a medical form of bondage politely termed “chemical restraints”—and tying her left hand to the side of the bed.

Her second week in the hospital, she regurgitated and inhaled some of the blue liquid nutrition formula they pumped through the feeding tube into her stomach. She had nearly drowned in the blue food, which damaged her lungs and resulted in a severe case of pneumonia. She had survived only with the help of powerful antibiotics. After fifteen more days in the hospital, she had been discharged to a nursing home, where they kept her alive with more artificial feeding and hydration. Three more times she had returned to the University Hospital for lung infections caused by breathing in the spit she couldn’t swallow, and each time she was discharged on another round of antibiotics. Don had followed her course from afar, glad he was not responsible for her hopeless case.

Until today. It started like every other call day. He slept in until 6 a.m. On his way to the hospital he stopped at Caffe DiMartino for a double cappuccino at 6:25 a.m., as he did each fourth day when he was on call. The coffee bar on the Italian North End near Don’s one-room apartment had served the best espresso in Boston since 1932.

The barista looked up and smiled. “Ciao Dottore. Buongiorno! On call today?”

Don smiled back as he leaned on the marble bar, “For the hundredth time, Giulio, call me Don. Yeah, on call. Every fourth night—the worst.”

“Your mamma would want me to tell you that you have dark circles under your eyes, Dottore. How ‘bout you sit down over by that window, and taste your latte for a change?”

“Not today, Giulio, gotta go,” Don said.

“Okay, Dottore, just this time, I will give you the best cappuccino in Boston to go. But you must come back when you are ready to enjoy life.”

“I’ll do that Giulio. Grazie,” he said, completing the charade Giulio always required before he’d allow Don to take his steaming espresso to go. Don grabbed the tall frothy drink and headed out the door.

By 6:45 he was walking into the hospital, and by 6:50 he was finishing his cappuccino as he scanned labs on the hospital computer for the fourteen patients on his service. He figured he could discharge at least three before the onslaught of new patients that evening.

His day was unremarkable—examining patients and writing notes from seven to ten, rounding with the attending and team from ten to twelve, noon conference with a drug company lunch, stabilizing a patient who crashed and had to be transferred to the ICU, dictating three of the five discharge notes for the day, aspirating a swollen joint. Before he knew it, it was already 5:00 p.m. and his team was on call for the night.

At 5:05 his pager went off—he glanced at the number—the emergency room. He wasted no time in getting there. In minutes his long strides brought him face-to-face with the automatic doors before they opened. He had to stop short.

Looking through the glass window across the crowded emergency department, he spotted Sybil Bellamy strapped to a sheet-covered gurney in Exam Room 8. His heart sank. A quick review of her chart revealed the depressing details of the heroic measures the hospital staff had taken to keep her alive. The resident physician’s notes from that first admission documented the daughter’s insistence they “do everything possible.” Apparently, the original care team hadn’t been able to get the daughter to hear the hard truth, either.

Now she was back again, her congested lungs cultivating yet another crop of drug-resistant bacteria. Sibyl Bellamy was a spunky woman who might withstand the daily blood draws, intravenous lines, and tube insertions for months before being blessed by a resistant infection that antibiotics couldn’t cure. Or maybe one time she would be lucky enough to arrive at the hospital too late to be forced back to this brutal reality. But on this night Dr. Newman was on call, she was still among the living, and he would do his job.

He was glad he didn’t need to take a history. Sibyl Bellamy couldn’t speak. As he walked up to her gurney he heard secretions rattling in her throat as she struggled to breathe. Her eyes locked on his.

Dear God! She recognized him. He was sure of it.

Her wide eyes accused him. Her irises disappeared, overmatched by her dilated pupils and the whites of her eyes, and she opened her mouth wide to scream.

AAAAAAAAAA!       AAAAAAAAAA!       AAAAAAAAAA!

He had committed no crime, but her stare and mandrake screams unnerved him as if he had.

Don managed to complete a brief physical without meeting her eyes again. The exam added nothing to what he already knew. The chest x-ray showed her lungs were cloudy where they should have been clear. Aspiration pneumonia again.

He couldn’t reach the daughter and suspected the usual—the daughter thought she was doing the right thing keeping her mother on artificial feeding and was angry the greatest hospital in the world couldn’t cure her. Who wouldn’t be angry? People had come to expect the great hospital and its brilliant doctors to bring life from death. And no one, including Dr. Newman, had been honest enough to tell Mrs. Bellamy’s daughter the whole, unvarnished truth: the help of the hospital in Sybil Bellamy’s case was a joke and no doctor possessed the power to make her well again.

It would have been kinder to tell the daughter everything, keep Mrs. Bellamy clean and comfortable, and allow her to die with dignity. Instead everyone strung her along, encouraging vain hopes of an impossible recovery as they rushed to accomplish the business of prolonging Sibyl Bellamy’s death.

After admitting Sibyl Bellamy and seven more patients, Dr. Newman had finally crawled into the hard twin bed in his windowless call room at one-thirty in the morning. His body ached all over. Having worked up patients nonstop for nineteen hours, all he wanted was a good night’s sleep. He was out the instant his head hit the pillow.

AAAAAAAAAA!       AAAAAAAAAA!       AAAAAAAAAA!

Her siren screams set his heart pounding before morphing into the earsplitting screech of his pager. He groped for it on the nightstand, silenced it, and hit the light switch on the wall above the narrow bed. The stark call room materialized in a buzz of artificial light.

He shielded his eyes and squinted at the clock. Three-fifteen. Less than two hours sleep, yet he felt a stab of guilt for indulging in the luxury when a pile of admission paperwork and progress notes from the previous day’s parade of new patients awaited his attention. He forced himself upright and dialed the number on the pager.

A nurse picked up before the first ring. “Will you please come see Mrs. Bellamy right away? She’s thrashing around so much I had to put her in restraints to keep her from falling out of bed. She lost her IV and I can’t get it back in.”

After four years of medical school and nearly three years of residency, Dr. Don Newman was annoyed to be woken up in the middle of the night to do medical student scut work. He started to tell the nurse to call his intern, Edward, but the reason she had skipped protocol was obvious. Don was the third-year resident physician in charge of the medicine service for the night. It would not be easy to get the needle back into Mrs. Bellamy’s vein, and Edward—who was in the seventh month of first-year training—would end up calling him for help anyway.

He stepped out of bed right into his Nikes, splashed cold water on his face from the sink in the corner, and burst through the door into the hallway of the half-abandoned old hospital. Someone had removed the fluorescent tubes in every other fixture. He ran down the half-lit hall under the stripes of light and dark toward the new hospital, his ears still ringing with the screams of the pager.

AAAAAAAAAA!       AAAAAAAAAA!       AAAAAAAAAA!

He ran like Dr. Joe Gannon, the doctor in blue scrubs he had admired as a boy in television reruns of Medical Center. Dr. Gannon always ran and he always arrived just in time to rescue his patient from the brink of death.

Of course, this was the real world. Fewer than one in six CPR recipients survive to leave the hospital, and many of those survivors are pretty messed up. He knew that now. Nonetheless, from old habit he emulated Gannon’s heroic dash to the bedside.

He ran into the unbearable bright light of the new hospital, following the painted blue line contrived by some diabolical Daedulus-architect to lure people into the maze. The blue line snaked through a labyrinth of hospital corridors, past countless procedure rooms and operating rooms, down the stairs and past the radiology suites and laboratories, through billing and administration, then past pharmacy and central supply. To anyone who saw him run by, he appeared to be a confident young doctor eager to get to the patient’s bedside. Little did they know how he dreaded what he was expected to do to poor Mrs. Bellamy.

He considered the options. There were a couple of ways to get an intravenous line in without patient cooperation. He could give her a painful intramuscular shot of Demerol, but it would be tricky to administer enough to knock her out without impeding her breathing. Or, he could get the nurse to pin her down so he could stick the line into her arm, neck, or groin, while she fought and screamed and stared at him with her damning eyes.

The nurse shot him an exasperated look as he entered the room. “Oh, I thought you’d never get here!” she said. “What do you want to do?”

He went to Mrs. Bellamy’s bedside and pulled the covers back. The overpowering stench of diarrhea hit him like a wave. A stained hospital gown was twisted around her midsection. The head and foot of the adjustable hospital bed were elevated, causing a pool of liquid stool to cradle between her thighs. The greenish-brown slime covered her lap and bottom. An IV in the groin was clearly out of the question; it would surely get infected.

“Why don’t we clean her up, for starters?” he said in a businesslike voice. He silently cursed the nurse for not having washed her before he got there.

The nurse rolled Mrs. Bellamy over like a dead log and wiped the raw bedsores of her backside with a wet rag. The translucent skin of her pale arms and hands was scarred, swollen, and mottled purple. Her thin skin and mutilated veins wouldn’t take another IV. It would have to be the neck.

Damn it! Mrs. Bellamy was only fifty-seven years old. Worst of all, the thinking part of her brain was alive. Her furious stare indicated she was keenly aware of her desperate state.

But she had no control, no choice. She was the hospital’s prisoner. She jerked her good hand and struggled against the leather shackle binding her wrist in a vain attempt to reach the tube in her nose. She writhed in the foul sheets as violently as if she were having a seizure, but she did not meet the diagnostic criteria for a seizure. She was fighting. She looked straight at Dr. Newman. Her eyes demanded recognition and begged for mercy.

He hung his head and looked away. He was sure Sibyl Bellamy regretted surviving her stroke three months earlier. She wanted to die but couldn’t verbalize it. All she could do was to glare at her doctors and try to pull out the tubes that kept her alive.

“Give her that Demerol, now!” he heard himself shout at the nurse. “Where is that central line kit? Let’s hurry up and get this done!”

He was relieved when the narcotic began to kick in and Mrs. Bellamy grew calmer. Gently turning her face away from the side of the bed where he stood, he stretched wide cloth tape from one side of the bed frame to the other, strapping it across her temple to hold her head to the side. He painted her neck with Betadine and covered her head with a large blue paper drape. The blue shroud had a window cut out, leaving only a portion of her stained skin exposed.

For a quiet moment she was just a neck. He numbed the skin with a bee sting of lidocaine, studied the anatomical landmarks to find the right spot, and stabbed her neck with the three-inch needle. She screamed beneath the drape. Dark blood shot from the hub of the hypodermic. He passed a long stiff wire through the needle into the jugular vein and deep into her body.

The pager started screeching again but he couldn’t reach under his gown to turn it off. A voice in his head whispered the oath he had taken at the beginning and again at the end of medical school: and at least I will do no harm. Bullshit! Harm is my business. How could any good ever come out of what I’m doing here to Sibyl Bellamy?

His bloody gloved fingers worked to thread the Silastic tubing over the wire, through her soft skin, and down to the first chamber of her heart. Sibyl Bellamy began to whimper.

Out of nowhere, water filled his eyes and blurred his vision. What was this? It wasn’t like him to become emotional while dealing with a patient, and he bristled with irritation at the sudden unprofessional display. He blinked hard, hoping the nurse didn’t notice the single drop that spilled from the corner of his eye and trailed across his cheek and around his mouth to balance on the tip of his chin.

Mrs. Bellamy had once been a beautiful woman. Something about her reminded him of his own mother. Momma was gone now, and he had done nothing to help her, either. As he struggled to suture the line into place, the tear dropped off his chin. It landed on the sterile blue drape and spread into a dark circle over Sibyl Bellamy’s heart.

AT EIGHT the next morning he dragged himself to Grand Rounds at the University Hospital auditorium. Dr. Desmond, Medical Director and Chief of Cardiology—renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge as well as his bowtie collection—would not abide any of his residents missing this weekly pompous lecture. Per Desmond’s rule, he had donned brown leather loafers, a dress shirt, and a necktie, as scrubs and tennis shoes were not tolerated during normal work hours. Don Newman admired Dr. Desmond, but he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a bowtie.

Don collapsed in a seat near the back next to Sarah Moore, his intern from the previous month. A faint yet familiar scent of jasmine stirred about her, calming his nerves. His eyes met hers in a millisecond of recognition. How did she always manage to look so good, even after a long night in the hospital?

Sarah was a good doctor, too. Her kind voice would have comforted Mrs. Bellamy and eased the pain. Their month working together had been incredibly busy, yet Sarah had handled the pressure far better than most first-years, making another month of hell a little easier for Don to bear….

A deep voice rumbled through the auditorium like an earthquake tremor and commanded Don’s attention.

“You are in the trenches! You know the problems in American medicine are serious! Almost one-fifth of Americans have no health insurance and no preventive care, but they still get expensive emergency and hospital care after things go bad. Americans pay a ridiculous tab for these end-stage medical heroics…and nearly a third of our healthcare dollars pay for bureaucratic paperwork.”

The speaker slammed his fist on the podium, making everyone jump.

“That’s right, we pay middlemen a third—middlemen who make more money if they deny people the basic, preventive healthcare they need most.”

The lecturer looked out of place. He wasn’t wearing a suit like most Grand Rounds speakers—not even a white coat. Just a blue shirt with sleeves rolled partway up his broad arms, a dark tie, and black horn-rimmed glasses. He inspected the crowd coolly, as if he faced an angry army of Philistines.

Resolute, he rumbled on. “A conscientious doctor has a tough time making his practice economically viable because the system discourages a focus on preventive care—even though most fatal diseases are preventable. The payment system pressures doctors to pack more and more visits into every hour, perform as many surgeries, tests, and treatments as possible, and speed patients out the door. Procedures and hospital stays, whether they’re needed or not, generate profits. Doctors and hospitals get paid more for complications. Should it surprise us that waste and serious medical errors are routine? Did you plan on a career in an assembly line that produces so much needless suffering and death?”

Don sat up straight in his chair. Was he hearing this right?

“My question for you today,” the speaker said pointedly, “is the same one Rosie Greer put to his crack-addicted friend Richard Pryor: ‘What are you going to do?’”

Sarah nudged Don with her elbow and whispered in his ear, “This is exactly what you keep talking about! What are you going to do?”

He turned to look at her. Sarah’s light brown eyes met his and she smiled, raised her eyebrows, and nodded her head, intimating the question was meant for him.

Don shrugged and looked back to the speaker, trying to appear unfazed. The truth was, he was quite taken aback. In all his years of training, Don had never heard any attending physician talk this way. Doctors were trained—brainwashed, really—to believe they could fix any problem. They might gripe about this and that, but he had never heard anyone condemn the entire premise of the health care system in this way.

The plainspoken words rang true and intensified Don’s gnawing sense that he was no Dr. Joe Gannon, that the idyllic medical center where everyone was healed was a television fantasy. At the same time, the speaker’s question hinted at the possibility of liberation and planted a fledgling idea in Don’s brain: there might be another path.

The speaker dimmed the lights and began his slide presentation. He detailed the major causes of premature death and disability in America and the evidence-based treatments most proven to help. He shared concrete data from study after study showing how little money Americans spend on care proven to save lives—and how much we spend on services that do more harm than good. He concluded with the heretical claim that most healthcare spending is misdirected and does little to encourage health.

“But,” he said, turning the lights back up, “there is hope. My colleagues and I are working with legislators in Washington, D.C., to reorganize American medicine. I am helping the Senate Health Committee draft revolutionary legislation to reform the way we pay for healthcare. We want to incentivize prevention and patient safety. The proposed Medicare Quality Improvement Act is the first step toward creating a healthcare system that would serve health before profit.”

The cold dark pit of the lecture hall faded away. Dr. Newman stood on a high green hilltop under the warm sun amongst the greatest healers of his knowledge and memory. Drs. Gannon, Welby, Kildare, Schweitzer, and Holmes stood beside him, and Sarah was there too, all bathed in golden sunlight. They greeted the arriving people with gentle words and stood together on the summit, healers and healed, caressed by a balmy wind in the full midday sun. Don felt warm, content, at peace with himself….

His head fell back and he snapped it forward with a jerk—back to the lecture hall and the draft of forced hot air from the vent above his head. What was he thinking? The new healthcare system the speaker described was pure fantasy. It was ridiculous to think American medicine was about to be reorganized. What was it Dr. Desmond always said? The best way to fix healthcare is to work in the trenches and give people the best care you can. You have to learn to work the system.

Yes, Dr. Desmond was right. During his first two years of residency Don had copied the way Desmond worked the system and admired how he rounded late into the night to make sure his patients got the care they needed. Don could pretty much do it all now: penetrate any vein, artery, or organ in the body with a needle, catheter, or intravenous line, and run a code so systematically he restored circulation of the blood more often than any other resident. He could keep the dead alive—whether they wanted to live or not.

He’d learned to push away the nagging reality that most of the patients he coded never lived to walk from the hospital, that most of the “survivors” were left with severely damaged brains from the lack of oxygen. He couldn’t allow himself to become discouraged by that. The important thing for him was to do his job.

His interns and his teachers knew he was good. Dr. Desmond had just offered him a coveted cardiology fellowship position at the University Hospital. Everyone knew it was the best program in the country. Don was thrilled. After that, he could go wherever he wanted. With only a couple more years in training, he would be doing cardiac caths for a cool half million a year.

He pictured himself working in the North Shore Cardiovascular Institute, that cool, mirrored-glass building on Lake Michigan near Loyola University. He had borrowed an obscene amount of money for medical school and residency, so he couldn’t afford to do primary care with its long hours and low pay. Why not do a little more training, focus on something simpler than primary care, and earn four or five times as much money?

He contemplated a life of days and nights in the cardiac catheterization lab. Cut the skin over the blood vessels in the groin and insert a big plastic tube right into the pulsating artery. Ram a long, thin, tubular wire through the artery and up the great aorta, the biggest artery in the body. Hope and pray not to knock loose any calcified cholesterol lining the aorta and cause a stroke. Finally, with the help of x-rays that give as much radiation as a year in the sun, twist that wire into the little coronary arteries and squirt in the poisonous dye.

He would be a hot shot in the cath lab. He would control the greatest technology modern medicine has to offer. Of course, occasional strokes and collateral kidney failure were an unfortunate cost of doing business—he knew he would have to accept that—and his authority to decide who needed testing would be limited. Like a trained monkey, he would stab and twist wire again and again, maybe four to ten times a day. Day after day, month after month, year after year…he began to imagine the fright-filled eyes of countless Sibyl Bellamys hidden beneath the great blue drapes….

Polite applause at the lecture’s end startled him out of his stupor. His heart pounded, his palms were sweaty, and the ideal health system the speaker had conjured had evaporated like a phantom. Obviously, this guy was one more in a long line of idealistic, ivory tower academics. He sounded good, but Don knew he had to work in the trenches and just do the best job he could for each patient.

He started toward the door, remembering the hospital wards and the giant stack of paperwork awaiting him, but Sarah held his arm.

“Come on,” she said, “let’s go talk to him. He’s a friend of my father. Remember Dad telling us about his training program?”

Sarah’s dad was a doctor. He had bought them coffee in the hospital cafeteria one night in the winter when Sarah’s parents were visiting from Minnesota, but Don couldn’t remember anything they’d talked about.

Sarah steered Don down to meet the speaker before he had time to object. “Hello, Dr. Sampson,” she greeted him.

“Well, if it isn’t Dr. Sarah Moore! It’s good to see you. How are your parents?”

“Oh, they’re doing well. You know Dad. He’ll never give up his patients. He seems to keep working harder than ever.”

The speaker was shorter than he had appeared from the back of the room, but he had a commanding presence, like an aging warrior captain. His arms and legs were thick as tree trunks. His hairline receded beyond the shiny crown of his head, encircling it with a ring of dark gray hair. His deep gray eyes looked from Sarah to Don.

“So, this must be Don Newman.” The speaker’s deep voice reverberated from his broad chest. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” He thrust out a thick hand and gave Don a vigorous handshake.

“You know my name?”

“Oh, yes. Sarah has told me of your interests.”

“My interests?”

“I’m always on the lookout for kindred spirits. I don’t find many among your generation. Guess I’m just a contrarian old doctor, born into a time known as the golden age of medicine.” He laughed. “For over twenty-five years I’ve been telling people who did not want to hear it that modern medicine isn’t nearly as good as it’s made out to be.”

“Don always gives us articles on how dangerous healthcare is and how many people get tests and treatments they don’t really need,” Sarah informed him.

“You’re a third-year resident?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And your plans?”

“I’m thinking cardiology.”

“After what Sarah has told me, I am surprised to hear that. Why are you planning to labor on the assembly line of an outmoded industry? You must see the writing on the wall. Why don’t you consider doing something to help change healthcare in America?”

Don was taken aback by these comments from a perfect stranger. Most people were impressed when he said he was thinking of cardiology. What in the world had Sarah said about him?

Don’s eyes wandered to the blackboard behind the podium, where the name DR. GIL SAMPSON was written in large block letters. He hadn’t noticed it from his hiding place in the back of the hall.

Oh, crap! This was the Dr. Sampson who authored the famous papers on variations in care for coronary artery disease. The Dr. Sampson that proved whether you got medicine, stents, or bypass surgery depended more on how many cardiologists and heart surgeons there were in your town than it did on which treatment was most likely to help prevent a heart attack. Sampson had made a career of studying why medical care varies so much across the country. His work had helped father the field of health services research in America.

“I just realized—you are Dr. Gil Sampson,” Don admitted. “I’ve read many of your papers and admire your work. Forgive me for not making the connection. I just had a horrible night in the hospital—how can you be a good doctor these days?”

Don was surprised to hear himself revealing his true feelings to this man he hardly knew.

“If you want to be a good doctor, you have to either work outside the system or work to change it. Either way is hard.” Dr. Sampson glanced around to make sure no one was listening and lowered his voice. “I’m sure you would make an excellent cardiologist. But you must see that cardiology will only pull you deeper into the current system. The procedural subspecialties like cardiology are flush with cash, and they draw the best and brightest into their ranks. The prestige and hefty paychecks quiet the voices screaming in their heads that much of the work is useless and vain. The champions of healthcare reform will address real health care needs and seek to eliminate the copious waste that is especially common in the procedural disciplines.”

“I want to be part of the change; I just don’t know how,” Don replied, looking down. “All I know how to do any more is put in IVs, catheters, and chest tubes. There’s no time to think.”

“If you are sincere in your desire to be part of the change, you must take another path. Why don’t you do a general medicine fellowship and become a health services researcher? There are many training programs you could consider, but the best is the one I run at Florence College, a short distance away in Florence, New Hampshire.”

Everyone knew of Florence College. One of the top Ivy League colleges in the country, it had a reputation for free thinking and intellectual rigor.

“I must go now to meet with Dr. Desmond and the faculty,” Dr. Sampson said. “Meet me this afternoon. Five o’clock in the Social Medicine annex of the School of Public Health.”

It sounded more like a command than an invitation.

“If I can get free from the hospital I’ll try to make it,” Don heard himself answer.

Dr. Sampson gathered his papers and walked with Sarah up the narrow stairs, out the back doorway, and into the hall outside the auditorium. The audiovisual staff dimmed the lights from front to back as everyone filed out. Don bounded up the stairs two at a time and headed back to the hospital.

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Excerpt reveal: ‘Silk,’ by Chris Karlsen

Silk HighRes (2)Title: Silk

Genre: Thriller

Author: Chris Karlsen

Website: www.chriskarlsen.com

Publisher: Books to Go Now

Purchase on Amazon

SUMMARY

London-Fall, 1888

The city is in a panic as Jack the Ripper continues his murderous spree. While the Whitechapel police struggle to find him, Detective Inspector Rudyard Bloodstone and his partner are working feverishly to find their own serial killer. The British Museum’s beautiful gardens have become a killing ground for young women strangled as they stroll through.

Their investigation has them brushing up against Viscount Everhard, a powerful member of the House of Lords, and a friend to Queen Victoria. When the circumstantial evidence points to him as a suspect, Rudyard must deal with the political blowback, and knows if they are going to go after the viscount, they’d better be right and have proof.

As the body count grows and the public clamor for the detectives to do more, inter-department rivalries complicate the already difficult case.

EXCERPT:

Events of the day and the potential satisfaction of giving Napier a bloody nose dwindled. Questions about the murder crept back into Ruddy’s thoughts. Morris joined him at his table in the rear of the pub with a Guinness, the popular beer of choice in hand. “You’ve got the look of a man whose thoughts are a long distance from London.”

“No, sadly my thoughts are fixed here in the city. I’m trying to figure out a clue. Ellis’s roommate said she’d sometimes meet with a well-dressed man, a man of means the victim indicated. They’d meet up at the fountain by the British Museum.”

“Don’t know the spot but then the museum isn’t my cup of tea.”

“Not the point. I’m saying it’s odd. What member of the upper class chooses to stroll through a public garden other than Hyde or Regents, where they can see and be seen by one of their own?”

“I agree the wealthy prefer the parks filled with others of their kind but it doesn’t mean a man can’t enjoy someplace different.”

“We interviewed the guard again. The one that discovered the body walks that half of the building. He told us the majority of their male patrons are natty dressers, but he never saw a man like that loitering by the fountain.”

“My guess is: the man is married and can’t afford to run the risk of being seen by a friend of his wife’s. Or, he might live or work in the area and the spot is convenient.”

“Or, he’s a murderer who’s noticed the victim walking through the park on a regular basis, saw it as an opportunity and cozied up to her.”

Ruddy took another swallow of his ale, mentally debating the merit of each theory. “I don’t think he lives in the area. If so, he’d have cut through the park more and been seen by the guards. Not sure about the married man having a tryst idea.”

To Ruddy’s way of thinking, if the man was married and looking for a tumble, he’d have met her someplace other than the gardens and at a better hour.

Instinct drew him back to his original sense of the culprit and crime. “I feel like this was a crime of opportunity. I’ve thought it all along and can’t shake the sense.”

“If he was just seeking a victim, then why haven’t you had more murders like this?” Morris asked.

Ruddy downed the rest of his beer and put his tankard on the edge of the table where June would refill it. “Everyone has to start somewhere. She might be number one.”

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The Mark on Eve, by Joel Fox

Cover (3)Title: The Mark on Eve

Genre: Suspense

Author: Joel Fox

Website: http://www.joelfox.com/

Publisher: Bronze Circle Books

Purchase on Amazon  

California Governor Judith Rhodes is well on her way to becoming the country’s first female President.  But at a campaign rally in Los Angeles, Governor Rhodes’s campaign is nearly thwarted by an assassin’s bullet—but for the quick thinking of Eve, who single-handedly foils the attempt on the Governor’s life. It seems almost miraculous that Eve survived….but things, especially as pertain to Eve, are not what they seem.

Eve, after all, is anything but what she seems.  Jealously over the love of an 18th century New England pirate prompted a powerful witch to cast a spell on Eve.  While she doesn’t age, Eve is condemned to an endless—and often tortured—life, cursed to remain on earth until she kisses the lips of the pirate lover who went down with his ship in the waters off Cape Cod in 1717.

Meticulously guarding her past by not residing anywhere too long or forming any lasting relationships, Eve has somehow reached present day, her secret intact. But after having wished for death a thousand times over, now Eve has a reason to live.  And that reason is to see Governor Judith Rhodes become President of the United States.  Throughout her interminable, often intolerable, existence, Eve watched women suffer, struggle, and fight to improve their position in society throughout American history.  But now, in a strange twist of poetic justice, Eve is helping a woman run for President. However, Eve soon finds herself where she never wanted to be:  in the spotlight. After centuries of keeping her tightly-guarded secret, Eve’s carefully-maintained life could start to unravel—inadvertently dooming Governor Rhodes’s quest for the White House.  Dogged by a tenacious reporter who senses there is much more to Eve’s story than meets that eye, Eve will find that not just her secret—but her life, and the course of history—may be in jeopardy.

Brilliantly crafted and mesmerizing, The Mark on Eve grabs readers from page one. Seamless, suspenseful, and sensational, The Mark on Eve is an extraordinary tale rich with history, mystery, and intrigue.   The Mark on Eve is destined to leave its mark on readers. Novelist Joel Fox, whose thirty plus year career in politics informs his latest novel, delivers a taut, tense, uncompromising tale. 

Excerpt:

Eve felt Sansone touch her lightly on the arm to gain her attention. “Remember now, no jokes,” he said.

“Jokes?”

“People are here to see the next President of the United States. They don’t want a sideshow from anyone else at the mike.”

“I’m not at the mike. I’m a producer; I never get out front.”

“What d’ya mean? You helped arrange this event. Who better?”

“Not me. Never me.”

Sansone edged closer to Eve and lowered his voice, keeping the cutting edge unsheathed. “A presidential race is a team sport. You’re part of the team pushing toward the goal. If you’re not part of the team, you’re dead weight. Either push or get lost.”

Eve did push. She pushed Sansone easily with no force.

“A word to the wise,” Eve said, “don’t shove me away. I’m going to be with Judith Rhodes when she’s elected president. I’ve waited too long for this to happen.”

Eve stepped back. Had she put too much emphasis on one little word? She would not be denied this moment in history. However, she must not be found out.

Their staring contest ended only when Judy Rhodes walked over to them. “Let’s get this show on the road,” she said.

Eve joined Governor Rhodes and Walter Sansone as they walked into the tunnel. A typical warm October day disappeared in the cool tunnel. Police cars and an ambulance were lined up in the center of the tunnel, allowing people to pass on either side.

Secret Service agents, wearing earpieces and speaking into wrist microphones, strolled behind them. Eve looked ahead out of the tunnel at the huge white screen, maybe twenty feet high, standing behind the stage and blocking the view of the field. However, from her position, she could see on each side of the screen the colorful clothing of those in attendance sitting in the top rows of the stadium. The stands were splashed with golden October early evening sun.

From the front side of the screen the final stanza of “God Bless America” was being sung by a country-western star, accompanied by thirty thousand or so other people. What a great day for the Rhodes campaign. Nothing would stop the march to the White House, Eve thought.

Walter Sansone was talking to the governor but Eve only heard bits of what he said. Judy responded with perfunctory nods. Going over the speech, Eve guessed.

From the corner of her eye, Eve saw a movement, a gangly Highway Patrol officer walking more swiftly than anyone else. He was on the other side of the cars parked in the center of the tunnel. When he reached the spot where a police car and the ambulance met, he looked down and saw the bumpers were touching. His face showed anger. He continued walking swiftly toward the field end of the tunnel, disappearing from view behind the truck-like ambulance.

Eve continued to walk with the governor. Sansone was on the other side of Judy, still exhorting her. Eve watched Sansone’s earnest eyes searching his candidate’s face to see if his instruction was received. For her part, the candidate continued with her practiced nod. Eve could not tell if the governor was absorbing the lecture.

Eve sensed they were approaching the end of the tunnel. The light was brighter. She looked up. The gangly Highway Patrolman stood at the end of the tunnel, his hand on his holster flap.

Why was he in such a rush to get ahead of them? she wondered.

He lifted the holster flap and started to draw his gun.

Eve felt panic grip her. She turned her head, looking for support. Nothing. No one else was reacting. Not the Secret Service agents. Not the candidate and her campaign manager. No one else saw any danger.

The gun cleared the officer’s holster. He was bringing it up to shoot. Who?

Instantly, Eve knew the target: Governor Judith Rhodes.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through Eve’s body. She lunged in front of Judy. She saw the flash from the gun and heard a boom like a cannon echoing inside the tunnel.

CHAPTER 3

New England, 1717

Eve felt the musket ball smash against her chest. The impact knocked her back and she crumbled to the ground, dust billowing around her. The forest trees seemed to swoon in a circle above her. Pain surged across her chest in waves like ripples in a pond flowing from the place where a rock struck the water.

She slapped at her chest as if beating out a fire. She pulled and tore at the strip of leather that kept her deerskin shirt closed, tearing it open to her breast. The iron ball rolled over the mound of her right breast and dropped into her hand. She squeezed the ball and looked at the purple-orange-blue mark just above the breast. The ball hit her with such force as to sketch a steeple-like peak on her skin.

A shadow crossed her face. She looked up at a man’s dirty face partially covered by a scraggly beard. Long hair fell to the shoulders of his weathered coat. He smelled like the animals of the forest. He scowled, showing brown teeth and emitting a sour breath when he spoke. “Why ain’t ye dead?”

The question sent a shock through Eve’s system the same as the bullet had. The ball hit her hard yet bounced from her skin. A cough sent a spasm of a dozen knives cutting inside her chest. She should be more than pained; she should be dead.

Starting from the spot that throbbed on her chest, a shiver raced through Eve’s body. Could this mean the words of Tinuba Tam were true? She thought back to that awful day just one week before when she dared approach the only person she thought could help her: Tinuba Tam, the witch of Cornell Harbor.

Eve crashed through some bushes, a shortcut to Tinuba Tam’s lean-to. A branch caught against her chin and cut deep. She cried out, her hand slapping at her face. She could feel the wet—not rain, thicker. She looked at her hand and saw the blood from the wound. No time to stop now. She had to save Marcus.

The lean-to made of logs stood in a stand of cedar trees near a small clearing. The open end of the lean-to, covered with the remains of an old square-rigger sail to keep the rain out, faced east away from the prevailing wind. A puff of smoke curled from a hole cut in the roof.

Eve would not wait for a proper invitation to enter. Without a holler of greeting or a fist pounding the log siding, she flipped back the corner of the sail and stepped inside the lean-to.

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Chapter Reveal: The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy, by Graciela Limón

ximenaTitleThe Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Author:  Graciela Limón

Website www.gracielalimon.com

Publisher:  Café Con Leche

Purchase on Amazon 

The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy follows the story of a woman from very early life to maturity.  Her tale takes place in the early to mid-twentieth century unfolding first in her native Mexico, and ending in Los Angeles, California.  It is a story of love and revenge told against the historical events of Revolution, Repatriation, War and Peace.  When Ximena Godoy falls into the abyss of crime, she faces the punishment demanded of that crime.

The Beginning

XIMENA GODOY stood in the empty cocktail lounge, struggling to catch her breath. It was just before daybreak, on an early December morning, She had sprinted up the stairs to glare out the window at the commotion below. After a moment, Ximena opened her fur coat, fumbled to feel the wetness, then jerked her hands away and wrapped the coat tighter to cover the blood. On impulse, she reached for a cigarette and her lighter, but when she flipped the lid, the metallic click was so chilling that her hand shuddered violently. Once the cigarette was lit, she sucked in a long drag, inhaling deeply into her lungs, and waited for the jumpiness to pass.

Ximena tried to shake off the terror gripping her, but her mind slipped and staggered as she relived the moment when Camilo’s body had crumpled onto the street. She still felt the impact of falling onto her knees and hunching back on her heels, holding his bleeding head on her lap. Now, trembling, she looked out the window and muttered, “It’s done.” She took another drag on her cigarette, but the steadying calm she needed from the cigarette still didn’t kick in; the earthquake inside her continued—it just would not go away. Again, she glanced out the window and this time saw the coroner’s ambulance pull up next to the man’s body sprawled on the street.

Los Angeles 1950

The nightclub faced Sunset Boulevard, on that half curve4 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

just before it intersected with Alvarado Street, so from her vantage point Ximena could see up and down the street. As she watched, it filled with cops piling out of black-and-white patrol cars, cherry lights whirring, splashing the damp pavement with flickering shadows. Some of the officers were busy writing; others exchanged words about the killing that had happened less than an hour before. On the opposite side of the street, a couple of newspaper reporters haggled over a camera and the pictures they had taken.

Ximena was taking it all in; she wasn’t about to miss anything. She watched when the rear panels of the ambulance swung open and two orderlies jumped out to help ease the gurney down next to the corpse. She stared as they paused, took a breath and then heaved the body up onto the stretcher, and just then she took a good look at Camilo’s blood-soaked head and shirt. His tie hung limply around his neck, and that sight made her hand shake so hard that the ash from the cigarette flaked onto the front of her coat.

The lounge was dark, lit only by the flickering reflections that bounced up off the street and smeared onto the ceiling. For a moment Ximena looked around at the rows of cocktail tables piled with upside-down chairs. At the end of the room, glittering in strange reddish shadows, was the long bar that had been so jammed with carousing, smoking customers just a few hours before. Nervously looking for an ashtray, Ximena moved closer to the bar, and for an instant she glimpsed her reflection in the darkened mirror behind the rows of colored bottles. She took a hard look and saw an angular face, its sharp features drawn by a startled expression.

It didn’t cross her mind that most people thought her looks were very special, even now at fifty. Maybe it was her smooth skin, or that pile of black hair, that made her so attractive; or it could have been the way she strutted on those high-heeled platform shoes; or perhaps the way her shoulders shimmied just a little when she spoke. On the other hand, she was actually more striking than pretty. When she glanced at a man, he got the message right away, and could be enticed to be by her side in a split second. Women, too, responded to her looks. They saw that she had a certain allure, a natural glamour and grace that

GRACIELA LIMÓN 5

made her striking. They knew that it came from inside her, and it made her different from other women.

Some people knew that despite her good looks and what they saw on the outside, the real Ximena Godoy was a closed book. Others said all sorts of things about her, especially that she didn’t know how to love, and that her life’s path was littered with withered love affairs. Well, that might have been so, but who really knew? Maybe it was just that she was reserved and solitary, or maybe the truth was that no one really knew her, and so they had no right to talk.

Ximena’s mind was fixed on her mirrored image when the flashing lights suddenly jerked her back to the scene down below. She turned, still searching for an ashtray, but she couldn’t find one so she let the ashy butt drop onto the floor and then absentmindedly squashed it with her foot.

“Mrs. Ibarra?”

The detective called out Ximena’s name twice before she turned to look, but it took her a moment to make out the man moving toward her. He was dressed in the style of the times: dark flannel suit with a matching tie and vest; a fedora pulled low on his forehead, an unbuttoned raincoat over his suit. In general, the detective cut a heavy-set figure, maybe a little out of shape.

When Ximena didn’t answer, he repeated, “Mrs. Ibarra?” She finally spoke up, “Miss Godoy.”

“What? Sorry! I didn’t catch what you just said.”

“I said, I’m Miss Godoy.”

“I thought you were… ”

“Married to the dead guy? No. We were partners, not married. My name is Ximena Godoy.”

“Right! Well, miss, I’m Detective Poole with Homicide. We need a statement from you. You’ll have to come with us to the station.”

“Why? Don’t you get the picture? There was a holdup and my partner was shot dead. We were robbed. What more do you need?”

“A lot more, Miss…”

“Godoy!”

“Right! You’re the only witness. We need to ask you some

6 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

questions and get a signed statement from you.” “Now?”

“Yeah!”

“How will I get home?”

“Someone will drive you when we’re finished.”

Ximena leaned against the bar as she reached for another

cigarette, but when she held the lighter to its tip she, realized that her hand was shaking even more than before. She glanced at the detective and caught his sharp eyes taking in her nervousness, so she hid one hand in her pocket and tried to steady the one holding the cigarette.

“All right, let’s go.”

Once in the vehicle, she crouched into a corner; she was scared, and the dark streets didn’t help her get hold of her nerves. It was December in Los Angeles, with one of those drizzles: just enough rain to muddy pavements and cars. Inside the car, the swishing sounds of tires on the pavement and the back-and- forth rhythm of the windshield wipers broke the eerie silence.

The patrol car reached the precinct entrance and pulled up to the curb. When the vehicle stopped, Ximena pulled the collar of her coat high around her neck, stepped out and quickly climbed the steps to the front door. Inside she found Detective Poole waiting and ready to open a door into a small office. Without saying a word, he motioned with his head for her to step in. When she did, he followed and then pointed to a chair facing another man sitting behind a desk. The seated man was wearing a hat but not a jacket; his tie was loosened at the collar, and his face showed signs of serious fatigue.

“Thanks, Poole, and that’s it for now.” The man turned to Ximena, “Sit there, Ma’am. I’m Detective Tieg, Poole’s partner.” Then he reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette, lit it, and Ximena did the same. He spoke with a drawl, as if perhaps he was from Texas, or maybe Oklahoma. He then pushed back his hat, giving her a clear view of his face: lean and craggy with flinty blue eyes.

The room was dim, lit by an overhead fluorescent light that cast a grayish tint on their faces; even Ximena’s coffee- toned complexion looked ashy. The bad lighting was made worse by heavy cigarette smoke, so it took her a few minutes

GRACIELA LIMÓN 7

to see that over in the corner was another cop sitting behind a typewriter, evidently ready to take down her statement. Tieg slid a form toward Ximena: “Fill this in. We need your full name and address. When you do that much, then we can get to your statement.”

Ximena filled in the blanks and then pushed the sheet back toward the detective who was rubbing his face, evidently trying to get new energy. He muttered, “Okay. Let’s start at the beginning. About what time did it happen?”

She said, “About three.”

“What makes you think that?”

“We usually close the club at two in the morning. We had

already done that.”

“What happened during the hour between closing time and

when the robbery came off?”

“Camilo and I stayed behind to have a nightcap. We

do…did that all the time.” With that, Ximena turned to look at the man tapping out the questions and answers and wondered how he kept up, but she knew from the clicking and pauses that he was catching every word. Then Tieg asked, “What happened next?”

“As always, we closed the place and headed for the car.” “Where was it parked?”

“Around the corner.”

“Where did the robber jump you guys? Were you in front of

the club or down the street?”

“We had just come out so we must’ve been in front of the

club.”

“Where did he come from? The side? Or maybe from another

doorway?”

“I’m not sure. I think he came from behind us.”

“Did you see his face?”

“I turned when I heard his voice, but I couldn’t see his face

because it was covered.” “Covered?”

“Yes. He had a handkerchief tied over his nose down to his chin. And his hat was so low, all I made out were his eyes.”

“Is that when he pointed the gun at you?” “Yes.”

8 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

“Right or left hand?”

“I didn’t notice.”

“You said that you heard his voice. Was there anything about

it that caught your attention? Anything like a funny accent or drawl?”

“No. All he said was ‘Gimme the satchel.’ His voice was ordinary. Nothing different about it.”

“What about his eyes?”

“What about them?”

“Well, were they slanted, like a chinaman’s?”

“No they were regular.”

“What does that mean?”

“I mean they were round.”

“Was the guy a metzican or a negro?”

“He wasn’t a negro. If you mean mexican, then maybe he

was, but then maybe he wasn’t.”

Tieg made a sour face. “What about his size? Short? Tall?

Fat? Skinny?”

“He looked about six feet and he wasn’t fat.”

“Was he dressed like a bum, or like just another gigolo who

might’ve been in the club dancing and drinking?”

“He wasn’t a tramp. He was dressed in a dark suit and overcoat.” And after a pause Ximena said, “What do you mean,

‘gigolo’?”

“Never mind! Was there anybody else with you and Mr.

Ibarra? The barkeep, or maybe a waiter?” “No.”

“Why not?”

“Camilo didn’t think he needed anybody tonight.”

“Okay, let’s go back to when the guy ordered Mr. Ibarra to

pass the satchel. What then?”

“Camilo snapped, ‘No!’ Then the guy grabbed the bag, but at

the same time Camilo tried to rip off his mask.”

“Did he rip it off?”

At that point Ximena seemed out of breath. She finally

mumbled “No!”

Although he noticed that she was shaky, the detective still

pushed for more information. “Go on!”

“They fought over the bag, real hard, going back and forth.”

GRACIELA LIMÓN 9

Her voice was rough with strain but she went on. “Then I grabbed the guy from behind, by the collar, and I made him lose his balance. He nearly fell. Then the gun went off.”

“Went off? Like, an accident?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. There was a shot. That’s all I remember.”

“And then?”

“And then he pulled the bag from Camilo’s hands and ran away.”

“In what direction?”

“I don’t know. Away from us.”

“Then what did you do?”

“The next thing I remember I was on my knees with Camilo’s

head on my lap. He was shot through the head. He didn’t stand a chance.” At that point Ximena was finding it hard to breathe so she clammed up. The tapping of the machine stopped. Everything stopped. Even Detective Tieg let up on the questions, but after a while he went on. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I have to ask questions about you and the victim. What was he to you?”

“He was my partner.” Her voice was a whisper.

Tieg glared at her and then asked, “What kind of partner?” “Business,” she answered.

“Is that all?”

This time, it was Ximena who glared at him and said, “What

do you mean?” Tieg squirmed a little. “I have Mr. Ibarra’s driver’s license here, and it shows the same address as the one you just gave on this form.”

“Yes, we lived together.”

“Then I’d say that he was more than a business partner.” “And you want to know if we slept together.” Ximena’s retort

was quick and wrapped in sarcasm.

Tieg countered, “Well, you said it, I didn’t, but now that it’s

out, what about it? Did you or didn’t you?”

“Yes, we slept together. What’s that got to do with the

robbery and Camilo’s death?”

Without hesitating he snapped back, “I can’t tell right now,

maybe later.”

“Look, Detective, I’m tired and real upset. I’m going home.” “Just a couple more questions before we finish. How did the

10 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

thief know that Mr. Ibarra had money in the bag?” “I don’t know.”

“How much was in the satchel?”

“About ten thousand.”

Tieg whistled through his long front teeth. “Christ! That’s a lot of dough! Was that just one night’s work?”

“No. It was money that came in during the week. We kept it in a safe until Sunday when we took it home for Camilo to deposit Monday morning.”

“Is that what you always did?”

“Yes.”

“Besides you, who else knew your routine?”

“I don’t know if Camilo told anyone.”

“How about you? Did you ever tell anyone?”

“No.”

Tieg stared at Ximena, and she guessed that his eyes were

snooping for scraps of information that she might be holding back. When she sensed that he was trying to catch her in a lie she shut up and waited until he spoke. “Okay, ma’am, that’s it for now. Don’t leave your place in case we have to reach you.”

A short time later the patrol car slid through the now- awakening streets off Sunset Boulevard. When the vehicle pulled up to the curb in front of her house, Ximena didn’t wait for the driver to come around to the door before she pushed it open, jumped out onto the walkway leading to the front of her house, and in moments she stood facing the front door. “Jesus, why did I let Tieg rattle me? He saw through me, and I let him do it,” she muttered until she finally reached into her bag for the key, but because her hand was shaking so hard she fumbled around for a while before she found it.

When she finally made it through the door the house was shrouded in early morning shadows, but Ximena didn’t put on a light. Instead she kicked off her shoes, slipped out of the coat, stripped away the bloodied dress and let it fall on the floor. She kicked it aside. The place was cold so she headed to the bedroom to find something to pull on, and there she found the robe she had left on the bed the night before.

Thinking of Camilo, she absentmindedly put on the wrap and waited to warm up. Ximena returned to the front room

GRACIELA LIMÓN 11

where she lingered in the long shadows creeping in through the windows. She went to the liquor cabinet, poured a drink, helped herself to a cigarette, lit it, and then she went to the sofa where she sat trying to put things together, all the while smoking and exhaling thick coils of smoke that spiraled up toward the white plaster ceiling. Unmoving, she stared at the shadowy patterns inching across the floor. Daylight was making its way into the room.

Ximena scanned the room: high ceiling, bricked fireplace, polished wood floors, plush woven rugs. She sipped while taking drags on the cigarette, and when it burned down she lit another one, and yet another one. All the while she was lost in thought, reliving the events of the night that ended with Camilo shot through the head. Then, too agitated and nervous to sit, she got to her feet and paced the room while she drank, smoked and thought. The cops will wise up. They’ll track down Chucho Arana, and he’ll talk. The thought of her lover made her stomach churn. I’ll disappear. Just become invisible. Who’s to know? Then, suddenly struck with another thought, she stopped. Wouldn’t that prove that I’m guilty? With that idea Ximena returned to the couch; she decided to take a chance and stay put.

Ximena felt alone and scared as she sat in the gloomy room staring at nothing, but relieved when after a while she felt herself calming down. Maybe to escape those fears and anxieties bearing down on her, or maybe searching for a way out, she shut her eyes and let her memory take flight back to the beginnings of her life.

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‘A Decent Woman,’ by Eleanor Parker Sapia

PUBLISHED BOOK COVER (front)Title: A Decent Woman
Author: Eleanor Parker Sapia
Publisher: Booktrope
Genre: Historical

Purchase on Amazon

Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in La Playa. Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children, who marries an older, wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor. Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.

Chapter One

La Conservadora de Asuntos de Mujeres ~ The Keeper of Women’s Business

Playa de Ponce, Porto Rico  ~ July 1, 1900

On the morning of the Feast of the Most Precious Blood, Serafina’s waters discharged and labor pains commenced. Ana Belén hurried along the dirt road as ominous storm clouds rolled in from the east, threatening to obscure the last of a hazy sunset. The only sound on the deserted street, save for the bleating of a goat in the distance, was the rush of the ocean. When the winds picked up and the first ta-ta-ta sounded off zinc roofs, Ana was nauseated, all part of the familiar heaviness she now experienced before every storm. She lowered her head as the first raindrops dotted the dusty road ahead and noticed cool rain droplets glistening on her ebony skin. Pulling the heavy linen skirt up to her knee to avoid the splatter of mud, Ana picked up her pace. Inside the black leather satchel she gripped tightly, the steel instruments jingled with every step.

Heavier raindrops pelted the dirt street and bounced before settling into the warm, wet earth. That’s the way it always was; the rain formed narrow streams in the parched riverbeds that created fast-flowing creeks. A few days later, the water would find its way back to the sea–the source–or dry up. What a waste of energy, thought Ana. In a few days the streets of La Playa would return to dry, cracked earth. When the wind switched direction, a palm frond flew by, inches from her face, and rain soon followed the wind. The acrid smell of burning sugarcane reached her nose; always a reminder of her childhood in Cuba as a slave.

A black dog with white markings around the eyes barked, startling Ana as she approached the small, white clapboard home of her client. As was her custom before a birth, Ana removed a small knife with a one-inch blade from her pocket. She placed it under the house to keep away evil spirits, and to hopefully cut the length of labor for her client. Ana knocked once on the weathered front door, and stepped back, surprised by Roberto Martínez clutching a squawking chicken by its scrawny neck. He hurried out and then looked back at her. With a quick jerk of his head, he flicked curly, black hair away from his eyes, and motioned for Ana to enter the house. She nearly shouted out to save the chicken carcass for Serafina’s first meal of broth following the birth, but decided against it when a flash of lightning struck over Ponce harbor. Before Ana could ask how his wife, Serafina, was getting on, Roberto had disappeared around the house.

The door creaked open and the familiar aromas of fried garlic and onion welcomed her, confirming the hen’s imminent demise and signaling–in Ana’s opinion–the proper first step in preparing every meal.

She shut the door behind her, and soon her eyes grew accustomed to the dim lighting, which emanated from a solitary lit candle inside a rusty, faded blue tin. Pearls of hot wax from the burning candle settled in a small pile near a wood box of white candles. The one-room house was small and tidy with several cast iron pots on the wood floor for catching rainwater–a common sight in hurricane season. Ana laid her satchel on the floor and lit the wick of the oil lamp. She counted ten candles, and was pleased to see a few newspapers on the table and a stack of folded rags on a chair. Roberto had listened well. When she raised the wick, the silhouettes of a bed, a dresser, and a low table were illumined behind a gauzy curtain. Ana replaced the glass globe on the oil lamp, pulled the curtain aside, and found Serafina sleeping in an iron bed. The image of the two small windows on either side of the bed resembled a cross; Ana prayed it was an omen for a short summer storm and a quick delivery.

Ana removed a hinged, tin case with leather handles from her satchel and took out a blunt hook, steel, scissors, and a crochet hook. One by one, she placed the instruments in a straight line on a white cloth covering the bedside table. The smell of birthing fluids permeated the already stifling house, made more pungent by the closed shutters. Hoping a bit of fresh air might also settle her queasy stomach, Ana pushed open the wooden shutters and fanned herself, thinking the codfish she’d had for lunch might have gone bad. Somewhere in the harbor, a lone foghorn lowed mournfully, filling Ana with a sense of dread. Behind her a voice said, “Are you Doña Ana, the midwife?”

For a moment, the voice sounded far away, and then Ana turned around. “Yes, I’m thecomadrona. I thought you were sleeping.” A contraction tightened around Serafina’s abdomen. The young woman held her belly and rolled her head on the thin pillow, clenching her teeth until the contraction subsided. Several gold bracelets graced Serafina’s thin wrist and a gold crucifix hung from a substantial gold chain around her delicate neck. Ana guessed a merchant marine as wiry and young as Roberto Martínez could make quite a bit of money.

Serafina lifted herself onto her elbows. The light from the candle’s flame was reflected in the gold aretes dangling from the girl’s earlobes. “¿Es un huracán?”

Nena, nó; it’s not a hurricane,” Ana said, hoping her voice showed no sign of concern. “It’s only a storm, my girl. How often are the pains?”

“I don’t know…maybe every two or three minutes?”

Ana helped Serafina out of her chemise, soiled with birthing fluids, and dressed her in a freshly laundered slip before placing a layer of newspaper under the sheet. “Why did he wait so long to call me? Your husband, I mean.”

Serafina raised her eyebrows and shrugged. “His sister was meant to be our midwife, but my baby is late. She has her own children to care for.” Serafina studied Ana. “Excuse me for staring, Doña. I’ve never seen eyes like yours. They are green and brown in this light.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that before,” Ana replied as she checked Serafina’s cervix. “You are very close to pushing. Do your best to rest between contractions; it won’t be long now.” Serafina closed her eyes, and Ana leaned out over the windowsill, feeling the dampness on her forearms. Through an embroidered handkerchief, she breathed in el sereno, knowing the night air was not good for her or Serafina. White-capped waves, showcased by the lights of the new wharf, rushed toward the shore, and exploded onto the boulders below. Lightning slashed a jagged path across the night sky, illuminating the craggy rocks near the house and the objects inside a paint-chipped cabinet. As if on cue, mismatched glassware and assorted plates tinkled and rattled inside. A tempest was imminent.

Ana remained vigilant at the open window for the egún, the spirits of the dead. The oldbabalowa-the village priest, whose wrinkled and gnarled body resembled the roots of the ancient Ceiba tree, had told the patakí, the sacred story, of evil spirit soldiers hidden in the waves and the wind. The thick, uneven scars on Ana’s shoulder ached as they always did during the rainy season–a somber reminder of him. Her chest tightened as she prayed that the spirit soldiers, who were determined to collect more souls in service of the warrior goddess Oyá, would not come collecting her debt. Ana had never imagined a new path would open for her the moment El Mulato took his last breath. The last time she’d seen him was on a night of rough seas and despair.

“Oyá, ten piedad,” Ana whispered, asking the goddess for mercy. She straightened her back as a lightning bolt cracked over the harbor. Reaching deep into the pocket of her floor-length, linen skirt, she pulled out a rosary, a gift wrought by her mother’s hands—a rosary made of the deadliest of all seeds, the red precatory. During their days of slavery, Ana’s mother had told her the pecatory bead rosary served many functions–for prayer, suicide, and murder, as mashing one tiny bead could kill quickly if ingested. Ana closed her eyes, made the sign of the cross with the silver crucifix at the end of the rosary, and in a low voice, recited prayers the priests had taught her. Every now and then, she opened an eye, watchful for the egún. The spirit soldiers were known to possess great stealth. She breathed in the dust of her ancestors, and felt fear and restlessness in her heart.

Ana invoked the orisha, the goddess Yemayá, mother of the ocean and all creation, to calm her daughter Oyá, the owner of winds and the guardian of the cemetery. Ponce needed the softer side of the goddess that evening. Deep rumblings of thunder echoed through the small house, alternating with lightning strikes. “Ay, Santo Dios,” Ana said, making the sign of the cross again when the rolling thunder caused the floorboards to shudder under her feet. She brought in the shutters, and felt certain from the looks of the menacing, dark clouds and the sweeping winds, that La Playa would not escape a bad storm.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Serafina looked intently at Ana. In the dim light, the girl seemed younger than sixteen. Ana removed her knitted black shawl and draped it over the back of a wooden chair.

Muchachita, we’ll be fine. Don’t you worry; rest now.” Ana patted the girl’s hand, detectingAgua Florída cologne in the girl’s hair, as long and thick as a horse’s tail. Wide-eyed Serafina bit her lip, and seemed to search the midwife’s face for signs of a lie, or perhaps she smelled Ana’s fear. Ana tried ignoring the thunder and the lightning in the distance, and managed a smile. Couldn’t the goddesses have waited one more day for this baby to be born? The neighbor Ana was mentoring had promised to assist in the delivery that evening, but in light of the weather, she knew the woman would not come.

Ana had considered asking Roberto to move Serafina to the parish church for safety when she’d arrived, but when the skies turned darker, she’d decided against it. The small wooden house didn’t inspire great confidence, but it had survived San Ciriaco. That brought Ana a little comfort. She rested in the hope that young Serafina’s labor and delivery would be quick; besides, the parish church would surely be full of people, offering no privacy for a laboring mother. It was imperative to remain watchful for signs of a hurricane.

When the room grew dim, Ana lit a second candle and set it in the tin. The shadows of the flickering flames danced across the walls, spurred on by a short gust of wind, and then softened by a gentle trade wind. Ana pulled at the sides of her sweat-soaked blouse, shivering against the cool, wet fabric. Her nerves felt as erratic as the flame’s dance. The items she’d asked Roberto for—hot water, clean cloths, and a basin—were in place. Focusing on the task at hand helped calm Ana’s nerves as outside the walls of the humble house, the dance among the wind, the rain, and the ocean began. The fierce winds shifted course, and rain found its way inside the house through cracks in the walls and between the slats of the shutters. Somewhere, the sound of shutters slamming against a house caused Ana to wince. She looked back and Serafina sat up, startled. “Don’t worry; it’s only the wind.”

Ana tugged on a knotted strip of purple fabric someone had tied to the iron headboard for spiritual protection, and she was pleased. Oyá’s color–someone had given the girl good advice. Knowing she couldn’t run from the egún or her responsibilities to Serafina and the baby, Ana tucked a stray, wiry ringlet under her white cotton tignon, and waited for the next contraction, which came quickly. Ana touched her mouth when she tasted blood. She wiped her bloody fingers on her skirt as a dull ache throbbed at her temples. The metallic taste of blood reminded her of him, but this was no time to think of him. She pushed her fear deep inside, and cut her eyes toward the window, thinking of the celebratory cigar she enjoyed after every birth. The thought offered a sliver of hope the birth would go well, but Ana couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding.

Ana mopped the sides of her face with the hem of her skirt as she peered between the slats of the shutters. Cold beads of sweat ran down her back. “Qué loco,” she whispered when she caught sight of Roberto. She touched the beaded necklace around her neck, remembering how cocky and sure of himself he’d appeared when he told Ana he would return to sea soon after the birth. Ana had replied it depended on Serafina and the baby, but now she sensed Roberto would do as he pleased. The young man challenging the wind and rain was headstrong and stubborn.

Recently turned sixteen, Serafina was a pretty girl with hair the color of café colao, eyes like pale green sea glass, and a small mole on the right corner of her full lips that broke the prettiness of her oval face. Serafina, with her perfumed hair and gold bracelets, reminded Ana of the goddess Oshún, the orisha of love. Had this pale, delicate girl with the coffee-colored hair wanted a pregnancy so early in her brief marriage? Ana shook her head, mystified at how many women of La Playa didn’t practice birth control. Had this young couple made any attempt to prevent a pregnancy? More than likely, young Roberto Martínez refused contraception. And now here they were.

Serafina moaned and squeezed her eyes shut during the next contraction. She held her belly with shaky hands. “I don’t think I can do this,” Serafina shouted, struggling to sit up.

Cálmate, cálmate, these are good contractions. Don’t hold your breath. Let’s see where we are.” Ana placed two chairs about two feet apart, facing the side of the bed. “Sit near the edge of the bed and lie back,” she instructed, helping Serafina maneuver into position. ”When you feel the urge to push, I will help you.” Ana wiped the sweat from her forehead with a sturdy forearm. In the area between the chairs, she positioned a large cloth and placed a basin on it, just below Serafina’s bottom. She set a wooden stool between the chairs, just above the basin, and asked, “Are you ready, child?” Serafina shrugged.

With a gentle hand, Ana pushed Serafina’s stiff shoulders back onto the mattress, and pulled the girl forward. She washed her hands, spread lard on Serafina’s inner thighs and labia, and introduced her hand under the slip. She opened the labia, and passed her fingers into the vagina. Serafina winced. The cervix was soft and fully dilated. Ana hoped the baby would pass through the birth canal without incident, and wondered if the young mother was mentally prepared to deliver a child. At this age, they hardly ever were. “It won’t be long now,” Ana said, seeing the bloody show on her fingers. The pinging sound of water dripping into the aluminum pots echoed from the main room.

“I hope this pain doesn’t get any worse! I have to push!” Birthing was difficult for all women, and young girls needed extra coaxing and mothering. Ana prayed the ill-timed storm would not complicate her already delicate task, but whether or not they were ready for the birth was inconsequential; the storm was upon them, and Serafina’s body was ready. The girl sat up, grabbing at the sheet, and cried, “I’m scared! It is a hurricane! I want my mother!”

There it was. The conversation Roberto had urged Ana to avoid–Serafina’s mother’s death. There was nothing Ana could do to ease the girl’s suffering about losing her mother in Hurricane San Ciriaco, but it was critical to distract her now. Ana twirled a mass of Serafina’s thick curls, willing the hair to remain in place, and took Serafina’s face in her hands. “Listen to me, nena. You can do this. Your mami is with you; she will always be with you. But right now, you’re going to push this baby out, and while I’m here, nothing will happen to you or your baby. Do you understand?”

Serafina nodded, but didn’t seem comforted by Ana’s words. It was crucial to bolster the girl’s confidence before she did something like pass out from the pain. Serafina’s petite body shuddered under Ana’s hands as she began pushing.

Ana glanced over at the low table, making sure the scissors were where she could reach them. Outside, something substantial hit against the wall. The women gasped, jerking their attention to the side of the house. Ana moved deliberately around the cot, feigning confidence that was more difficult to muster now that the storm was upon them. She’d vowed to remain calm if the storm got any worse, and at the moment was finding it difficult to keep that promise. Serafina covered her eyes with her wrist, and tears streamed down her pale cheeks. Ana moistened Serafina’s parched lips with a cool rag, hoping the delicate girl held energy in reserve for the decisive moments ahead. The Martínez baby was two weeks late, and Serafina’s waters had already broken; there was now the worry of infection. Ana would have to employ all her skills to ensure a speedy delivery.

The flames of the white candles flickered rapidly, illuminating the garishly painted faces of two small plaster statues—La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Ponce, and La Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of the Canary Islands, where she’d heard Serafina’s people were from. A current of cool air found its way into the house, offering a brief reprieve from the heat, and with it a new threat–total darkness. Virgencita, don’t let the candles go out!” Ana said, forgetting her vow to remain calm. While there was still light, she checked Serafina’s cervix with the sound of waves pounding the rocks, and the whistling wind sneaking through cracks in the walls all around her. Ana wondered where Roberto was. “As if we don’t have enough to worry about,” she muttered. “Roberto!” Her voice sounded less controlled and higher-pitched than she’d intended. Maldito hombre, where could he be? She couldn’t worry about him as well, but deep down she knew she’d need him in case the storm turned into a hurricane. The driving rain, beating on the roof like dundun and batà drums, reminded Ana of her childhood, and made it impossible to hear.

When the next violent pain wracked Serafina’s body, she took a seething inhalation before pushing. “I see your baby’s head!” Ana’s skin tingled with anticipation as it did with every birth. She snatched a clean, white cloth from the bedside table, and dipped two fingers into the can of lard. Ana massaged and coaxed the perineum with her index finger until the baby’s shiny, wet head crowned and was delivered. “Pant, Serafina. Stop pushing for a moment!” A sense of urgency and excitement came through when Ana saw the thin membrane covering the baby’s head and face. Ana gasped softly and whispered, “Oke.” It was a caul. A translucent membrane covering the baby’s head and face; a valuable good luck charm for sea captains and sailors, who believed the caul, would protect them from death by drowning. Ana had never delivered a caulbearer before, and as she struggled to remember what she should do next, Serafina pushed one last time. Ana delivered the shoulders, allowing the baby’s body to slip out into her experienced hands.

Ana lay the infant gently on the bed, and with the utmost care, she peeled the thin membrane off the baby’s face and head, careful not to tug on delicate skin. As Ana dropped the caul in the bowl on the floor, the baby cried. Serafina made the sign of the cross and lay back, shaking from exhaustion. The smell of blood and birthing fluid permeated the small room, adding to Ana’s queasy stomach. She would tell Serafina about the gifts the gods had bestowed on her daughter later, when the time was right.

“I see you, little one,” Ana murmured, clamping and cutting the cord. She swaddled the infant in a warm blanket. “She’s a beautiful baby, Serafina. What’s her name?”

“Lorena,” Serafina breathed before retching over the side of the bed.

Ana kissed the baby’s forehead. “You’ve made quite an entrance, Lorena Martínez. I will bury your placenta, and plant a fruit tree in that place, so you will know where you were born, and never go hungry. I will keep your caul safe, and now that I’ve said your name, no one can ever change your orí, your destiny. Like me, you are the firstborn, and your destiny name is Akanni. Welcome to the world of suffering, my girl.”

***

Ana puffed twice on the cigar and threw back a shot of rum. She closed her eyes, enjoying the burn at the back of her throat, and the familiar tingling in her knees, signaling her body was beginning to uncoil. She lowered her jaw to relieve the pressure in her eardrums. Although mother and child were sleeping soundly and Ana was filled with renewed hope, she also understood no one could fully relax–even now, the storm could produce a hurricane. She tore a page out of her ledger, and delicately placed the caul flat on the paper, careful not to stretch it too tautly. She folded the paper in half and finished by tying a string around the small parcel. Did the young couple know about caulbearers, and the exorbitant prices the cauls went for in the seafaring world? Roberto was a sailor, of course he knew, she thought.

Ana put the wrapped caul in the pocket of her skirt, and felt the otánes in the other pocket, recalling her mother’s tear-stained face as she’d placed the three blessed pebbles in Ana’s hand. They’d hugged tightly until her father pulled them apart, and shoved Ana into the bowels of the ship. Ana’s body shuddered at the memory of the ship’s crossing from Cuba to Porto Rico in the middle of the night.

Moments later, Ana’s attention turned to the violent, unrelenting winds that shook the Martínez house, and flying debris banging against the corrugated zinc roof, inflicting mortal terror in her heart. In the parish church, Ana knew the faithful would plead with the Blessed Virgin to spare them, their loved ones, and their homes; the homeless and those who thought themselves less worthy of salvation sought refuge in the same parish church. Saints, sinners, and doubters sat side-by-side, each casting judgment toward their fellow brothers and sisters.

A familiar howling sounded through the cracks and holes in the wooden walls. When the roof lifted and banged down, Ana looked up and froze. Seconds later, Roberto stood in the house. Serafina brought the mewing newborn closer to her chest. There was no need to speak; they knew what was coming. Roberto  pushed the bed into the corner away from the window, and helped the terrified women under the bed. As if hoping his weight would keep the bed from lifting if the roof blew off, he lay face down upon it and covered his head. When the shutters burst open, the women screamed, turning their heads toward each other. Ana didn’t know which ear-piercing scream had been her own, and imagined a huge wave would soon engulf and swallow the house. The zinc roof twisted, groaned, and then ripped clean away from the walls, disappearing into the black sky. Ana prayed Roberto was heavy enough to keep the bed in place as she and Serafina huddled together, protecting the baby between them.

Ana’s muscles cramped, and she would not remember how long they waited in the same positions. What she would remember, opening her eyes for the briefest of moments, was watching the two statues of the Virgin Mary crash onto the slick, wet floor boards and the taste of salt water in her mouth. Small, wet shards of glistening bright blue, white, and yellow littered the floor amidst wet sand and dirt. Ana prayed fervently until the storm veered northeast, and the rain stopped.

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This and That – Collection of Light and Dark Tales, by Anne K. Edwards

This and That 200x350TitleThis and That – Collection of Light and Dark Tales

Genre:  Various

Author:  Anne K. Edwards1

Websitehttp://www.AnneKEdwards.com

Publisher:  First Realm Publishing

Purchase on Amazon 

SUMMARY:  A collection of short stories written in various genres. Among them are Death and the Detective tales, a story about the devil outsmarting himself, the destruction of Earth, a tale of beings part human and part robotic, and others.

IT HAPPENED IN KANSAS

The year I was twelve, my grandfather, Milt Dauerhaus, introduced me to his great pal, Aaron Lazarus. I was visiting Grampa Milt just as I had every summer since I was seven and I knew most of the people in town and his old neighbors who farmed those great stretches of land around Armendagh, Kansas. Armendagh is a small town located in the middle of nowhere on a hot, dusty plain covered with miles and miles of corn, wheat, and sunflowers.

Grampa Milt had sold his farm and moved to town when he turned seventy five. He told me he’d been saving an introduction to Mr. Lazarus until I was old enough to understand that while he seemed a bit different from most folks, he was special too.

Mr. Lazarus had deep lines in his face and his blue eyes sort of looked at you out of slits in his face. Those lines were from his always smiling. My first encounter with him was pleasant and I found him interesting because he’d been a railroad engineer. He told me to come back to see him any time.

A funny thing happened though as we rose to leave. Mr. Lazarus said kind of abruptly, “No, I haven’t found your glasses.”

I looked around but there was nobody there. Just us, and we hadn’t asked him about any glasses. He was looking at an empty chair too.

He caught me gaping at him. Mr. Lazarus had his glasses on so who was he talking to? I kind of thought maybe he was just getting a little silly since he was so old. You know, like he couldn’t remember what we’d been talking about.

Smiling, he said, “Sometimes I forget my manners and speak my thoughts aloud.”

I said, “Oh.” And looked and Grampa Milt who was laughing into his hand.

“She’s had you hunting those glasses since she crossed over. Why does she want them?” Grampa asked.

“Who?” I wanted to know.

Mr. Lazarus raised his thick white eyebrows and shrugged. He didn’t answer my question, but said, “She thinks she needs them to hide behind like she always did. You know, there wasn’t a thing wrong with her eyes. She’ll have to look for them longer if she wants them. I don’t have the time.”

Grampa Milt laughed and led me out the door.

I couldn’t contain my curiosity. “Grampa Milt, what did he mean? Who was he talking about?”

“Well, Ben, he was talking about Mrs. Ganche, a lady who passed on about thirty years ago.” He looked down at me.

I stopped. “Huh? If she’s dead, how can she talk to him and how come we couldn’t hear her? Why does she want her glasses?”

“I don’t think I can explain it to you. You’ll have to ask Mr. Lazarus next time you see him. He’s the only one who can answer that.”

I didn’t see Mr. Lazarus again that summer. We got busy with Gramma’s garden and then, before I knew it, it was time for school. It wasn’t until next summer when I went to visit Grampa Milt that I had the chance to see Mr. Lazarus.

He seemed much older than last year. Grampa Milt had sent me to see him with one of Gramma’s pies. A lady met me at the door took the pie and went into the kitchen.

“Sit down, young fellow, and tell me about school,” Mr. Lazarus said. He leaned back in his lounge chair with his feet up. “I don’t get around so good these days. Got me a touch of arthritis.”

I nodded and sat on the green couch across from him. I hadn’t the foggiest notion what to say to him.

He grinned at me, those deep wrinkles looking like my Gramma’s old washboard. “Would you like to meet some of my other company?” he asked, sweeping his left hand around the room.

I stared at him. We were alone.

“Give me your hand, young Ben.” He leaned toward me, holding out his hand.

I took it. It felt dry and almost weightless. I gaped.

Suddenly the room was crowded with people. They were standing all around us.

“Well, Ben, judging from your expression,” Mr. Lazarus said, “I do believe you have the gift, too.”

I don’t know if I had it or not then, but I sure do now. Everywhere I go, strange people are asking me to do things for them. And they’re all dead.

I learned after Mr. Lazarus crossed over—he came to tell me—that he’d passed the gift on to me so I could help these spirits. Once they had some problem solved, they’d disappear for good. But more would always find me.

So, if you meet me on the street and I’m talking to myself, please have compassion. I’m not crazy. I’m just a young guy who hasn’t learned not to talk to strangers.

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Seasons of Empowerment for Adolescent Girls, by Irene S. Roth

In Seasons of Empowerment for Adolescent Girls, Ms. Roth argues that there are four seasons of empowerment for adolescent girls. Sadly no adolescent girl can simply wake up one day, snap her fingers, and be empowered to tackle the world and all the forces that exist inside and outside. Becoming empowered to be who we are can be truly difficult. This book consists of a step-by-step guide to help adolescent girls achieve self-improvement.

Purchase at Amazon

EXCERPT

Seasons of Empowerment for Teens 

Spring Season 

Introduction

    The spring season is when empowerment usually starts for you. One predominant purpose of this season is to become assertive. This is a time when you have a chance to take steps to become more of your own person and develop your values, beliefs, and unique personality. However, this can also be a very vulnerable time for you, isn’t it?  So, it is crucially important for you to take small steps to assert yourself. This season will lead you one step closer to self-assertiveness. How great is that!

    During this most vulnerable time in the self-empowerment process, it’s important to take incremental steps to assert yourself by watching. Be careful who you hang out with. Many of you still have a low self-image and are pretty hypercritical at this stage, aren’t you? You probably struggle because you don’t feel slim, pretty, cute, popular or outgoing enough, given cultural standards. This is such a hard way of living?

    Well, it’s time to take charge of your life. During this season, you should take steps to stand up for yourself and clearly communicate your needs. This will eventually empower you much more than if you focus on what physical or psychological attributes you don’t have. After all, what you focus on usually grows. So, if you focus on negative things, they will grow and you will develop an increasingly negative self-image. However, if you focus on positive things, this will also grow and you’ll continuously develop a positive self-image over time. So, why not get into the habit of focusing on the positive?

    In this section, I will show you how to assert yourselves in many different ways. This way, you will start empowering yourselves to be the best you are capable of becoming this very moment, without constantly comparing yourselves to others.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roth
Irene S. Roth is an academic and freelance writer for teens, tweens and kids. She has written over 500 book reviews and 1,000 online articles on different topics for teens, tweens, and about the craft of writing. She also teaches workshops on writing and craft at Savvy Authors. She lives in Stratford, Ontario with her husband and cat. Visit her at https://irenesroth.wordpress.com/
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Dark of the Heart, by Anne K. Edwards

DarkoftheHeart_ebookcoverTitle:  Dark of the Heart

Genre:  Dystopian

Author:  Anne K. Edwards

Websitehttp://www.AnneKEdwards.com

Publisher:  Anne K. Edwards

Purchase on Amazon 

SUMMARY:  A runaway son has returned to the Tyles family fold after an absence of several years.  A frightened boy when he left, Joey Tyles has returned a bitter man bent on revenge on the family that made his childhood a hell. Find out more on Amazon.

Chapter One

Emily wiped sweat from her forehead with her fingers before climbing onto the old green car’s rusted roof where Marty Pascellus sprawled. She plopped down beside him. “Them other cars is too hot,” she said as she slid into the shade.

Marty bobbed his head. “Yeh, burnt my arm day afore yesterday on that shiny stuff.” He nodded toward the strip of weather-pocked silver metal running across center of the door below them.

Pushing hair out of her eyes, Emily turned toward the street. “Look at that guy.” She pointed to a trampy-looking man with yellow hair who stood outside the metal fence. “How come he’s watching us? We ain’t doing nothing.”

Marty looked up from making squeaking noises by rubbing his dirty toes on the windshield, green eyes narrowed against the slant of the sun. “I don’t know. He looks kind of creepy.” He shrugged and said, “Me and Ty are gonna go see if that yeller cat had her kittens when he gets here. You want to come? Ma said after they’re born, I can have a kitten. She give me some food for the cat.” He moved to the rear of their perch and slid onto the trunk.

She shook her head. “Can’t. I got to get home or Ma’ll whip me.” Sneaking away to play robbed it of fun. If Ma knew where she went, she’d get whipped with the belt.

Marty nodded and jumped down to join Ty who called to them as he approached.

Wish I could see the cat, but Ma says I got to be home in case she needs me. She’ll get after me with the belt if I ain’t there when she wakes up.

 

Emily shivered in the sunlight.

Sliding off the rear window and down the dented trunk, Emily landed on her feet, raising a small cloud of red dust. Worriedly, she examined a new tear in her stained blue shorts with a grimy hand. She didn’t have any more that fit. If Ma saw the hole, she’d catch hell.

With lagging steps, she headed for the broken iron gates that stood permanently open. They seemed to welcome her to the junkyard that served as a playground for kids like her. The piles of worn-out appliances and old cars offered hiding places for their games and from the severe punishments parents often inflicted. When she could, she came here to pretend to go adventuring with Marty and Ty. Like today.

Pausing to watch a big black bug climb a weed stalk, she delayed going home until the last possible moment. The dirty stranger she’d seen outside the fence came toward her. He walked from Back Street that ran between the railroad tracks and the junkyard. He looked like the men in town who asked people in nice clothes for money. His baggy brown pants and blue jacket were dusty and wrinkled. He needed a shave, too, like Pa always did.

His squinty expression made her step back when he passed. Her teachers said not to trust strangers like him.

He grunted at her and crossed the street, trudging down Blair Avenue in the same direction she was going. She walked slowly behind, stopping once when he turned to look at her, then kept a distance between them. If he turned around, she could run back to the junkyard.

The dirty man didn’t pay her any more attention. He just hunched his shoulders and put his hands in his pockets as he plodded along the broken pavement.

She stopped in amazement when he went up the dirt path leading to her house and stepped onto the porch. Without knocking, he went inside.

Boy, was he going to be in trouble. People never did that, not even Bud’s friends who Ma said were just noisy trash. Pretty soon there’d be a fight and the stranger would leave.

Wanting to avoid her mother, Emily went around to the kitchen. Nobody came in this way but her and flies. She was careful going up the rotting steps and pulling the screen door open so it didn’t squeal, pausing to count the long holes in the bottom half of the screen. She saw a new one. Bud’s dog that was kept tied under the steps must’ve come up to the stoop and been digging at it again.

The hot kitchen smelled like rotten soup that always sat on the stove. An unformed longing for something better in her life filled Emily. Why couldn’t she live in a nice house? How come her house always smelled bad? Like the pee stink from Cooger’s room that got in her clothes so the teacher made her sit in the back at school? The other kids whispered about her behind their hands when the teacher wasn’t looking. They made her hurt inside and want to cry. Like when Lorie and Ted went away.

She didn’t want to think about school or the mean kids. She was too hungry. Sneaking off to play while Ma slept, she’d gone without breakfast. Now her stomach kept rumbling. Shooing flies off the jelly jar lid, she smeared a slice of stale bread with grape jelly. Nobody put the lid on tight so the jelly got thick and lumpy. Flies landed on the jar again and she went outside to share her snack with Bud’s dog, Spot. One of these days she’d get him some good dog food instead of that dry stuff Bud got sometimes. He’d like that.

Licking her hand for the crumbs, the brown and white mongrel waggled his skinny self at her. She patted him on the head. He’d been chewing on his rope and got it all wet. If Bud wasn’t careful, Spot would get loose and run off again. Then him and Jimmy Dowe couldn’t go hunting like Bud always said they would.

She heard voices arguing through the open front room window.

Ma yelled she didn’t want the dirty stranger in her house and he yelled back he’d go when he felt like it.

Ma said Al and Bud wouldn’t want him here neither. Al was Pa. He and Bud both had bad tempers.

The dirty stranger didn’t sound afraid of them or Ma. He sounded mean in that low voice he used.

Emily shivered.

Then their voices got lower and she couldn’t hear what else they said.

Wiping the dog’s saliva on her shorts, she returned inside. She couldn’t go upstairs or she’d get stuck sitting Cooger. That wasn’t any fun. He cried all the time and she got blamed for it. So she sat on the splintery wooden chair by the cellar door, making herself as small as possible. Out of sight, out of mind, she remembered somebody saying.

****

Joey Tyles counted the empty houses and vacant lots he passed. Lots more than he remembered. The Lees and Millers had gone. Like some disease had wiped them out. Town was dying and he’d come home to watch.

Home! The word left a bitter taste in his mouth. He turned onto Back Street that ran along the old railroad tracks. Laughter drew his attention. His gaze strayed toward the source of the sound, the junkyard. Brats played among the wrecks behind a long metal spike fence overgrown by vines and briars. He paused to wipe sweat from his forehead, watching them. One of the places he’d spent his childhood hiding from Ma and Al.

“Damn brats. Whyn’t they shut up?” he grumbled aloud, thrusting hair out of his eyes. He stalked past the weed-choked gates. Bet that dumb watchman still sluiced it down. They better look out for him if he’s still around. Ole Man Smif drank and got meaner’n hell. He hit me with a hunk of cement when I was a kid. Just because I called him a drunk. Ole fart’ll probably be the gatekeeper in hell too. Joey winced at the remembered pain. He’d worn that bruise on his shoulder for weeks.

He tripped over an exposed tree root growing out of a large crack. Righting himself, he cursed.

Bogden hadn’t changed. Confined by two mountains, it remained an uneven sprawl and needed a paint job. How could anyone with any gumption stay in this hole? Place was fit only for the rattlers that thrived in the scraggy woods. A shudder ran over his lean frame. Something he would never understand–why rattlers? Why did Claxton County and Bogden have a stupid annual hunt for them? Anything to bring in the tourists–a rattlesnake fair. He shuddered again.

Wonder if Margie Todder’s pa still tries to bag them. Got bit three times. And Les Pettifer–silly bastard–put one in his glove compartment to keep thiefs out. Two bites–ole fool was stinko. Joey shook his head and turned onto Blair Avenue.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a small girl in blue shorts and red top following a ways behind. He swiveled his head to scowl at her. She stopped and waited, drawing back without actually moving.

Satisfied she’d been properly cowed, he continued walking. Teenage boys in an old souped-up red convertible roared toward him. They gunned the motor. He cursed their origins.

Ancient resentments flamed into new life. He’d had exactly nothing at their age, and they had all of it–money, girls, and hot cars. They jeered at his raised forefinger and disappeared around the corner.

He paused at the dirt path leading to the weathered old shack his family called home. He stared at it. Nineteen Blair Avenue. A garbage pile.

Bypassing a rusting black auto body half-buried in weeds, Joey ground summer-browned grasses to earth. Someone took the motor out and left it to rust. He snorted at the thought of anyone in this family having any mechanical ability. They didn’t know enough to come in out of the rain.

He stepped onto the porch, the old familiar hostility projecting itself toward him. He acknowledged its presence and moved stiffly to meet it.

****

The screen door squealed sadly as Joey shoved it aside. The years fell away. He became again the boy who hated to come home, but had nowhere else to go.

The stuffy living room stank of unwashed people and stale beer. Faded blue-striped rags that passed for drapes were drawn against the morning sun. Piled clothing overflowed two chairs and filled one end of the old green couch. Probably the same crap sitting there the day he ran off all those years ago.

Movement at the side window startled him. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw the figure of his mother. She reclined in her old rocker outlined in the dusty light making its way inside. He paused to watch as she twitched and moaned. Had she ever gotten fat.

She jerked out of her semi-stupor. Swiveling her head in his direction, she glared up at him.

“Hello, ma.” He forced down the old anger.

She pushed herself up on one elbow and demanded hoarsely, “What the hell you doing here? Thought we was rid of you.” She shifted her body into the light so the sun turned her hair a bloody gray. Several empty beer bottles lay scattered about the rocker.

“I come to see you,” he said. “Been a long time.”

“Where you been? Jail?” She got clumsily to her feet, setting the chair to rocking.

“Aw, crap!” he growled in exasperation. “I’m here, that’s all.”

“Well, if you got plans to live off us, you best think again. We ain’t got no money to feed you,” she told him, putting her hands on her hips.

Still sounds like a drunken whore, he thought. Smelled like something rotten, too.

Plainly, she hadn’t missed him. He searched her broad, lined face for some hint of feeling and saw only annoyance. “Got a room? I’m tired from hitching all night. Had to walk the last twelve miles.”

“We don’t want you here,” she said, her voice hard.

“I’m staying,” Joey told her grimly. “I don’t want no arguing from you nor nobody else. I know you don’t want me, and I don’t care.” He saw the rising anger in her expression. “I ain’t gonna be around long,” he offered as a sop. “Now I got to rest. Which room?”

“Your old one’s still there.” She shrugged and turned her back to him.

He understood her. She figured sleeping in the dirty hole he’d shared with Bud as a kid would drive him away. On the cluttered stairs he found a narrow passageway created by filled bags and boxes. He was tempted to push them all down the steps, but resisted the impulse. Stuff would never get picked up and he’d probably break his neck on it later.

At the top he found the stifling air almost unbreathable. From somewhere the stench of urine overflowed into the hallway. He gagged and shoved his head out the open window. “Jeezus!” he screeched. “It stinks up here.”

“You don’t like it, go somewheres else,” she yelled up the stairwell as a baby began to squawl.

“I ain’t,” he yelled back. He intended to stay until his recent cellmates, Rufe and Jube Handler, came to meet him. They had plans–the three of them.

A cloud of dust rose as he opened the door to the corner room. Just like he’d thought. The place looked the same as he’d left it all those years before except the dust was deeper. “She ain’t never gonna clean nothing,” he grumbled and sneezed.

The room failed inspection. Dust coated the garbage dump furniture like a fuzzy fungus. Dust balls rolled across the bare wood floor as he forced open the windows. He sneezed again, making his throat hurt. The ache in his head threatened to return.

Shedding his blue cloth jacket, he flung the mattress over and dropped onto it. The stained, yellowed cover ripped under the weight of his body and the springs squealed as he sought comfort.

Feathers in the old pillow scratched his sweaty face through rough, gray material. He brushed at them with a weary hand, spitting lint. “If Ella hadn’t run off… .” he mumbled, rolling onto his back. But she had, after he’d given her three months of his time. If she hadn’t kept at him about dancing with other girls, he wouldn’t have hit her. She’d have that eye for a long time. Too late, he missed her.

“And ole Sterrat! That bastard owes me. He didn’t need to have me arrested. I’d put the money back when I got paid. Three months in jail for a lousy fifteen bucks. Damn him! I ain’t gonna forget that neither.” Thinking of the injustices committed against him, he drifted into the waiting dark where bad dreams always seemed to lurk.

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Cooler Than Blood, by Robert Lane

Cover ArtTitle: COOLER THAN BLOOD

Genre: Mystery

Author: Robert Lane

Website: www.robertlanebooks.com

Publisher: Mason Alley

Purchase on Amazon

18-year-old Jenny Spencer is missing after a violent nighttime encounter on a Florida beach. Jenny’s aunt, Susan Blake, asks wisecracking PI Jake Travis to investigate.

Susan and Jake had only spent one dinner together, but both felt an instant, overpowering attraction. Jake walked away.  After all, he was—and is—committed to Kathleen.  But having Susan in his life again could be dangerous:   dangerous in more ways than one.

As Jake and his partner, Garrett Demarcus, close in on finding Jenny, they uncover a shocking secret in Kathleen’s past.  Even more shocking is that Kathleen and Jenny’s life are strangely intertwined.

For Jake, this case may hit way too close to home—and what started as a race to find Jenny could become a fight to protect Kathleen.

As the case heats up and the danger escalates, Jake is forced to examine his moral boundaries.  How far is he willing to go for the woman he loves?   At what cost?  And what about that question that has dogged him since the beginning of the case: was there another person on the beach that night?

Chapter One

We paraded a block south to Dangelo’s condo and rode to the tenth floor. Like Kathleen’s, it had its own entrance off the elevator. The Tweedle twins didn’t enter the room—nor did my gun, which they confiscated at the door. I assumed they’d been instructed to make camp outside Dangelo’s door. Perhaps Tweedledum had brought along his music history textbook to study.

Dangelo sat at a desk that made him look big. He didn’t stir when I entered. I took a seat on a white leather couch and flipped through a magazine that told me about ten fantastic Caribbean restaurants I had to dine at before I jumped off the bus. I didn’t look at the article. I did look at the pictures of tan girls in white bikinis. The classics never go out of style. I helped myself to some salted cashews in a cut-glass bowl that rested on top of a glass-topped coffee table with a coral-reef base.

“Jacob.” It came out as he swiveled around in his chair so he could face me. “Have you found my missing funds?”

I finished my chew. “Working on it, Joe.”

“How? By going into one of my bars and informing the staff that I instructed you to talk to this missing girl whom you think I have? Such a childish game.”

“Staff?”

“Yes?”

“I just don’t see Special as staff.”

Dangelo stood. “Our arrangement, in the event that you’ve suffered short-term memory loss, is that you find my missing funds, then I do what I can to help you locate the missing girl, whom you erroneously think I possess.”

“That arrangement didn’t hold my interest. I find Jenny Spencer, and your money won’t be far behind.”

“You think?” He took a step toward me. “Then you are not thinking at all—for if that were the case, and I, as you have accused, am harboring the girl, why are we having this conversation?”

“I said, ‘far behind,’ not ‘with her.’ You didn’t bring me here for this.” I got up and dropped the magazine onto the glass table. “I’ll keep you posted.” I headed for the door.

“I did a little research.” His voice came from behind me. “You served for five years, but your trail gets cold the day you left the army.” I pivoted. He picked up the magazine from the coffee table and glanced at it. “I don’t think I even pay for this anymore. They just keep sending it.” He brought his head up. “Tell me—how does one get involved in your line of work?”

“A strange question from a man like you.”

“I’m curious…” He tossed the magazine, reached into the bowl, and grabbed a handful of cashews. “What chances did my two men have if you decided not to comply with my request for a visit?”

“None.”

Dangelo nodded as if I’d given him the answer he’d wanted, but it was the wrong answer for me to give. I saw it too late. Arrogance is the first step toward self-destruction.

“No,” he said with a tone of resignation, “I suppose not. You know”—he popped a few cashews into his mouth—“we had an incident not far from here about a year ago. We lost four employees, and the locals expressed alarming disinterest in the situation—not, of course, that we pressed them. You understand?”

“Not a clue what you’re talking about.” I started to circle the room.

“Sort of like me, when you bring up your missing Ms. Spencer.” Another cashew met its fate. “It did occur to us, however, that even if we had pressed our cause, the law just didn’t care. As if someone had hushed up the whole scene. ‘Bad for tourism,’ I believe the line was.”

“You can’t have four dead bodies in the sand in a beach town.”

“I never said they were on the beach,” Dangelo said.

“I read the papers.” I passed the front door and with my right hand turned the deadbolt. I kept circling. The distance between us shrank. Time and distance.

“They were good men. One of them was our best. They must have encountered someone who was highly trained, a professional, and not acting alone either.”

We paused. I wasn’t going to lead. At that point, I could do more harm than good—and already had. “There was a lady involved.” Dangelo said it cautiously and in a different tone, as if we had entered the demonic final movement of a musical score. My neck stiffened. My hand tightened into a fist. “Tragically she died on that beach.” His eyes rested on mine. A car honked. “Did you read that as well? In the papers?”

“I seem to recall something about that.”

“We…how shall I put this? We possibly overreacted. We thought at one time that the deceased lady might have knowledge of certain nonpublic aspects of our business. In retrospect, she probably had no knowledge at all. Our judgment was rash, but not nearly as bombastic as our adversary’s.”

Dangelo waited, but I remained silent, until the silence was self-incriminating. I asked, “Why are you telling me this?”

“After your sophomoric theatrics at the Winking Lizard, I had you followed. The car you were driving—”

I was on him in two steps and slammed him into the wall. His head snapped back with a thud then bounced forward so his forehead struck mine. A half-eaten cashew flew out and landed on my shirt. I choked his throat with my right hand. His neck was fat. I wanted to rip off a chunk and stuff it in his mouth. The door behind me rattled.

“What about the car?”

Dangelo took a second to get his breath. He smelled like cashews. The last time I smelled him, it was Swiss cheese and ham. “It’s double-parked, Mr. Travis.” His voice was tight. I loosened my grip. “Find my money, and you were never here tonight. This conversation never took place.”

I dug my fingers into his neck. “What about the car?”

“N-nothing.” I eased up even more on the pressure. “We thought—that is, my associate thought—he might have recognized it from the around the neighborhood.”

“Are you threatening me?” I was ticked that I’d been followed. I should have been more alert. Too bad for Dangelo. I swung him around and pressed his face against the window. “Because I’ll drop you through this window right now. Do you understand that?” His eyes widened in the reflection of the glass. I leaned into his ear and repeated what he’d told me at the deli. “Look elsewhere, Joe. The beach scene wasn’t me.” I gave the lie my best conviction. I like lies. Judiciously applied, they can help your cause more than a standing army. “And,” I continued, “here’s the new plan: find your own goddamned money.” I gave him a shove and stepped back.

“Certainly,” he started and then paused to catch his breath, although he tried not to show it. “Certainly you understand that if we had our money, we would be inclined to fully—no, permanently—support any decision made for the benefit of tourism. Whether or not, or not, you…um—”

“Save it. I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I’m not making any deal with you.”

“We say such things in times of—”

“The man you had lunch with the other day—he give you the script tonight?”

“No.” He regained his posture far faster than I’d thought he would. Dangelo might have been all dressed up, but he clearly had spent some of his youth on the street. “I’m not the puppet you seem to think I am, and spying on me certainly won’t advance your cause. Your reaction, Jacob, was totally uncalled for. All we’re—all I’m saying is that perhaps you can help us out. I didn’t mean to imply any threat. I apologize if you took my comments in that manner.”

But he knew. And he knew that I knew that he knew. Still, his earnest conciliatory tone caught me off guard. I couldn’t get a read on Joseph Dangelo—perhaps, though, through no fault of my own.

Regardless, I’d blown it. It wasn’t my first mistake and wouldn’t be my last. He had no way of knowing my elephant gun was loaded. I didn’t trust myself to say anything else—I’d already behaved foolishly. Dangelo called off the dogs, and I marched out of the room.

“Lewis Carroll would be proud of your career choice,” I said to Tweedledum as he handed me my gun.

“You mean Charles Dodgson?”

Screw this guy.

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