The Gail Force, by Robert Lane

Gail Force Cover Art.jpgThe Gail Force

by Robert Lane

Mason Alley Publishing – Release date: September 20 2106

Available in trade paper (ISBN: 978-0692670446, $14.95) and eBook ($4.99) editions

 “a consistently entertaining crime thriller…The plot crackles with energy and suspense. The writing is crisp…clever.” –Kirkus

“Charm and humor permeate the pages of the surprising thriller. There’s little chance that anyone will turn the last page before developing a craving for the next installment.” –ForeWord Reviews

Award-winning novelist Robert Lane, who has drawn comparisons to John D. MacDonald, has created one of the most compelling characters in mystery today.  PI Jake Travis is tough, smart, wise and wisecracking. He’s hailed as “a winning hero”—and this time, Jake has an elaborate knot to untangle.

While trying to expose a corrupt Miami art dealer, Jake goes undercover for the FBI. The gallery’s owner, Phillip Agatha, is more enchanted with murder than he is with art. Aboard Agatha’s luxury yacht, the Gail Force, Jake is taken with Agatha’s hospitality—and with his alluring assistant, Christina, a woman who harbors her own secrets. Unknowingly, Jake plays into Agatha’s hands and initiates actions that could cause an innocent girl to die.

As Jake struggles to save the girl, unearth a rogue FBI agent, and bring Agatha to justice, his greatest challenge is to stay loyal to his girlfriend Kathleen—and to withstand the Gail Force.  As Jake himself observes, “After all, everything’s a game. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you don’t know what game you’re playing.”  This game is on…

The Gail Force is crime fiction writing at its finest.  With a storyline that races from the opening page, characters that stay with readers long after the final page is turned, and the wit, wisdom, lust for life, and cynicism of Jake Travis, The Gail Force will leave readers breathless.

 

The Gail Force 

1 

The Fat Man 

Karl Anderson knew he’d made a mistake when he got a sex change and neglected to inform his wife.

“What the—”

“It’s me, babe.”

“What the—”

“Hey, you know we talked about it and—”

“Karl, you dumbass. What—”

“It’s Colette.”

“What?”

“Colette. You know, French. Thought we’d make a cute couple. Whatdaya think?”

“Oh, babe.” Riley Anderson put down her grocery bag of fresh produce, fish wrapped in white paper—she suspected the paper was not as fresh as the fish it wrapped—and a loaf of French bread. She strode over to her husband and combed her hand through his hair, tenderly tucking a few renegade strands behind his left ear. “You’re a blonde, babe. We talked about it? Remember? You’d look so much better as a brunette. Besides, a French blonde—they even make them?”

“Don’t know why not.”

“Name one.”

“One what?”

“French blonde. Come on, Karl. They don’t exist. It’s like a happy Eskimo or—”

“Catherine Deneuve.”

“Cather—OK, so you got one, but dead or alive, right? And look at your shoes. You got to start thinking differently.”

“I’ll be fine. Pretty sure she’s still alive. Born in forty-three.”

“You didn’t, you know,” Riley said with a coy smile, “touch the private equipment, right?”

They stood in a seaside bungalow, the late afternoon sun filtering through the slats of the venetian blinds, casting shadowed lines on the wall. A spiritual sea breeze swept through two sets of open patio doors, ushering in air that hung heavy with the gummy fragrance of saltwater. The front doors faced the Caribbean, and the side doors the courtyard and pool, one floor beneath them. “Some island south of Florida,” the government man in the buttoned dark suit had retorted in response to Riley’s earnest question as to where they were. That was three nights ago when they’d been dropped off at 2:00 a.m. in the middle of a weed-infested runway.

“No shit, Corky. Which one?” Riley had demanded.

“Brig-a-fuck-a-doon.”

“Gotcha. Hey, thanks for the heads up. Now give me my phone.”

“We’ve been over this. They can trace you. No phone.”

“How long am I gonna be here?”

“Until you leave.”

“Yeah? Well, let me tell you, if you come knockin’ and I don’t answer, it means I’m finally showing signs of intelligence. Got it, Corky?”

“Don’t call me Corky.”

“Corky, Corky—”

Karl had stepped in before Riley got wound up. He was always calming her emotions and outbursts, like throwing a blanket on a fire. He believed his wife’s bravado stemmed from her diminutive stature, but he wasn’t the type of man who gave thought to such trivial things. He simply loved her every way times ten.

“You know I didn’t,” Karl replied to his wife’s question and gave her their last kiss. “It’s just another precaution. We might even have fun with it.” Their first kiss had been outside the prefabricated junior high classroom in Marion, Indiana, when they were fourteen years old. It’d been building for three days until finally, on the fourth day, Karl nearly knocked her head into the side of the building before attacking her lips with his own.

He folded her, all five feet and one inch, into his chest. She jerked back. “Boobs?”

“Little fakies. I’m thinking this might be a pristine opportunity for you to see if you swing both ways, you know, snuggle up to Daddy Big Tits, might find it rocks your boat. Make a real sorority girl out of you.”

Riley smiled, glanced up at her husband, and said, “I don’t think so, baby. You’ve been rocking my boat ever since the day you grabbed my shoulders, banged my head, stuck your lips on mine, and then dashed off like the Easter bunny being chased by a pack of starving coyotes.”

While not poetic, and certainly not the finely crafted lyrical notes she would, if presented the opportunity, have chosen, nonetheless, it was a fine thing for Riley Anderson to say to her husband, as they were the last words he would hear her say. The last words she ever heard him say were coming around the corner like a downhill runaway truck.

Karl Anderson, who towered over his wife, gathered her back in his arms. He faced the open patio door. Riley, before looking up to his face, eyed the grocery bag on the kitchen counter. She wondered how she should prepare the fish but knew that Karl would likely step in and cook dinner. Maybe she’d slice up the French loaf, make garlic bread and croutons. Karl Anderson loved crispy croutons. Later, she would wonder if she hadn’t glanced at the damn groceries if she would have seen the panic—the sadness—in her husband’s eyes a split second sooner, and if that split second, of all the seconds the screwed-up world had ever known, would have made a difference in their lives.

When she did glance up, Karl Anderson was not looking at the object of his heart, but at the open patio door where a rotund, unwelcome guest stood blocking the salt air, the sun, the view, their future.

Karl, like a Polish weight lifter, jerked his wife over his head, took a giant leap toward the side patio that fronted the pool below, and heaved her over the patio rail and, with luck, into the pool’s deep end.

“Run, baby, run,” he screamed, praying that for once in her life, the little fireball would do the sensible thing and listen to him. That was assuming he didn’t miss and Riley went kerplat on the concrete pool decking. Karl spun and dove for the shelter of a desk. Like a runner on third knowing he was cooked, he closed his eyes, thinking it would be less painful when the bullet found him.

It wasn’t.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” the Fat Man said on entering the villa. He glanced behind him. “Find her. Go.” Two men were with him. The one who had shot Karl sprinted down the concrete stairs.

Mr. Anderson.” The Fat Man took several steps into the room. “Might I be mistaken or have you sprouted a pair of shapely—although the right one seems to be slightly off-kilter—breasts since our last meeting?”

“Eat me.”

“Yes, yes, yes. If only you knew. Why not now, Johnnie, while he’s still breathing?”

Johnnie Darling, who resembled the product of an incestuous relationship, slithered around his boss and snapped away with a Nikon D810.

“Fat little twerp,” Karl Anderson blurted out. His left hand grasped his Tommy Bahama shirt that Riley had sprung on him yesterday as a present. He tried to stem the bleeding that was turning the gold silk shirt into a rust-colored premonition of death.

“Why the animosity?” The Fat Man tapped his cane on the floor. “Is that what the end brings you, tied up in a bow? It is different with all of us. You should understand. Our minds are so similar in some departments, but apparently—and this, most unfortunately does not bode well for you—sadly different in others. But what a marvelous picture you make, especially now that you’ve made yourself such a conflicted creation. You know how I feel about art. It stimulates our senses. That which we are rarely exposed to, that which we dream about and participate in only through the voyeurism of our dreams, stimulates us the most. So considerate of you and, I might add, so utterly unselfish, to be our objet d’art.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Hmm…yes. Imagine the disastrous effect on the survival of the species if one could indeed finagle such an act.”

            Click. Click. Click.

The Fat Man prodded Karl Anderson’s shirt with his cane. He nudged the blond wig off to the side, taking care to keep a piece of it on Karl’s head.

            Click. Click. Click.

“This is exquisite. Exquisite indeed. Death comes to what? A man? A woman? We don’t know, Johnnie, what Mr. Anderson is trying to be. Perhaps one of your own. Death does not care, does it Mr. Anderson?”

            Click. Click. Click.

The Fat Man stepped around Karl and toddled into the kitchen, his back to Karl. “I thought we were getting along splendidly. The beauty of numbers—their simplicity and brutal honesty. It’s disappointing when those we trusted, our confidants, turn and drive a spike into our hearts. So sad. All of this, brought about by you.”

Karl groaned.

The Fat Man picked up the bag of groceries. He positioned a chair before Karl, sat, and bent over, his face close to Karl’s.

“Look at me,” the Fat Man said.

Karl did not. Karl Anderson decided to go deep inside himself, to choose his place of death, to envision the dimpled face of his sweet Riley as the last thing he would see. Did I throw her too far? I was afraid of coming up short. A short putt never goes in—oh God, please, I hope she hit the water.

The Fat Man poked Karl’s chin with his cane. “I said look at me.”

Karl did not.

“Very well then.” He leaned back and propped his cane against the side of the chair.

            Click. Click. Click.

The Fat Man gave a dismissive gesture with his hand, his fingers trilling the air. “Be done, Johnnie, until the closing shot. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why couldn’t you let me go? I told you that if you kept our secret, you would live. If not, you would create this egregious situation. What part of that simple statement did you not comprehend?”

Karl curled into a fetal position and coughed up blood.

“Now you understand, don’t you?” The Fat Man continued, undaunted by Karl’s lack of conversational participation. “And your little Riley? My! What a throw that was. My guess is that she’s bleeding out on the pink pool paver bricks. Pink. Pool. Paver. Bricks. What do you think, Karl? Or is it Pink. Paver. Pool. Bricks? Do you recall our number games? Of course you do. I got it right the first time, didn’t I? Words with the fewest letters lead the way. We resort to the alphabet for a tiebreaker. ‘Pink’ before ‘pool’ as ‘I’ comes before ‘O.’ Remember? We constructed whole sentences in such a manner, although paragraphs were beyond the scope of even our advanced minds. I will miss your stimulating company. I digress—Riley.

“Perhaps that wasn’t her fate; there’s always the cabana, a somewhat softer ending. You know which one I’m talking about, don’t you, Karl? Yes, that’s right. The one where the lady in the black bathing suit was spreading oil on her breasts yesterday as if she were making love to them. Remember now? Judging by the trajectory, I think that is where your little trinket might have landed. Johnnie, would you be so kind as to glance out the door. Take a few shots of Mrs. Anderson. Show them to Mr. Anderson in your viewfinder.”

Johnnie Darling went to the side patio door and peered down. He shook his raisin head at the Fat Man.

“Not there? Really—quite an amazing throw then. I’m sure Eddie will rope her in. Pity for her that she didn’t hit the bricks. Didn’t think of that, did you Karl? Really, have you nothing to add?”

Karl tightened his position, his arms and legs drawing into his center, as if in death, life compresses into you, growing small, dense, and close. Then, like a flickering flame reacting to a kindly puff, it was no more.

The Fat Man picked up the grocery bag. “I greatly admire your courage to control your last moments. Superb, actually. One never knows until the bitter end what kind of strength lies dormant in a man. With you, it is bottled animosity and structured silence. Think of the picture in his mind right now, Johnnie. The greatest art is that which we never see. Pity. Karl, are you tuned in?”

He reached into the bag and rummaged through the items. “I shall dine on your wife’s shopping tonight. Let’s see, Johnnie, French loaf, fresh produce, kiwi—excellent—such an integral component for a Caribbean salad.” He unwrapped the fish. “Yellowtail snapper. Enough for two, which means just enough for me.” He discarded the fish and stood, as if he’d instantly lost interest in it all. “I fear we’ve overstayed our visit, and we do want to be going before the police arrive; although I told them to give me an hour. One shot, Johnnie. With both instruments. Don’t cheat and rely on the camera.”

The Fat Man turned to leave.

“Shwell ill you.”

He turned and was surprised to see Karl Anderson’s eyes nailing his own. “Pardon me.”

“Riley,” Karl said with the greatest of effort, for he recognized his last breath. With that breath, he said, “She’ll kill you.”

“I think not. Johnnie.”

Johnnie circled the corpse twice and settled on a position. He took his time with the Nikon. Johnnie Darling always took his time with the last shot.

            Click.

 

 

Categories: Thriller, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: ‘Joe Peas’ by Samuel Newsome

joe-peas-jpegTitle:  JOE PEAS

Genre:  Fiction/Inspirational

Author: Samuel Newsome

Website:  www.drsamnewsome.com

Publisher: Lulu

Purchase here.

An extraordinary tale about life, love, faith and friendship, Joe Peasillustrates how the most important life lessons sometimes come from the places we least expect.

About Joe Peas:  Who is Joe Peas?  Is he a simple Italian immigrant house painter, or is he a complicated man with much to hide, even from himself?   When the aging painter develops health problems, his life intersects with that of family physician James King. Dr. King is drawn to the curious Italian, whose life is a stark contrast to his own orderly life.  The free-spirited painter and doctor forge a unique friendship—a friendship that only grows when Joe breaks a hip, and becomes a patient in a long-term care facility where he does rehabilitation under Dr. King’s care.  As Joe interacts with other residents at the facility, he learns of their struggles, their triumphs, and witnesses their close relationships with their families.  The spirited little Italian enriches the lives of the other patients—and encounters with the residents change Joe in ways he never expected.   Through these interactions, Joe realizes just how much he missed in his own life.  While Joe struggles to come to term with his past, Dr. King faces his own struggles living in a community that values conformity over individual expression.  Eager to help his friend, Joe hatches a plan.  But that plan—as colorful and vibrant as Joe himself—sets in motion a chain of events that sheds light on the secrets of the enigmatic painter. Things are not always what they seem on the surface. Could there be more—much more—to Joe Peas than meets the eye?  And will the truth about the mysterious painter finally be unveiled?

An extraordinary story that will stay with readers long after the final page is turned, Joe Peas is irresistible. Tender and touching, thoughtful and thought provoking, Joe Peas is filled with unforgettable characters that come to life within the novel’s pages.  Informed by Sam Newsome’s experiences as a physician and educator, Joe Peas is a powerful story about true healing.

////////////////////////////

Joe Peas

by

Sam Newsome

Copyright 2015

Prologue

February 16, 1944

The Battle of Monte Cassino, sometimes referred to as the Battle for Rome, was as intense as any combat in the Second World War. Axis troops guarded the mountains and controlled the Rapido, Liri, and Garigliano River valleys. They controlled the old Appian Way access to Rome. While the German forces did not occupy the Abbey of Monte Cassino, they did control the surrounding hillside. Allied forces were uncertain of the strength of the Axis defenders and whether the abbey was under Axis control or not.

On February 15 alone, a massive barrage of 1,400 tons of bombs was loosed upon the abbey and its environs.

American soldiers of the Fifth Army witnessed the Allied bombardment as they steeled themselves for yet another assault on the enemy stronghold. The smoke and mist rolled down into the valley from the hills.

Most of these weary, battle-hardened soldiers were veterans of the North African campaign. They had not seen their wives and families for months, if not years. They knew that nothing or no one could survive such a barrage.

On February 16, as the smoke began to dissipate and the irritation of the GIs’ eyes cleared, a patrol noticed a new and unexplained feature on the landscape of no-man’s-land. A closer investigation revealed what appeared to be only a smoldering pile of cloth, perhaps a sack. On closer inspection they discovered the cloth to be the burned and tattered shirt and trousers of a small child. And they were surprised to find that the waif inside the clothes was still alive. The child was no more than smoke-stained skin and bones. His hair was filthy and scorched.

The soldiers snatched up the child and got him out of harm’s way. Over the next few days, he gained strength but appeared to be mute. The medics couldn’t tell if this was shell shock or a more serious medical condition. The homesick GIs refused to hand the boy over to the authorities. As he gained his strength, he was more or less adopted by the mess hall personnel.

Eventually the boy learned a few words. His main word was “Joe.” He probably had heard the term “GI Joe” so often that, when asked his name for the hundredth time, he said, “Joe,” and the moniker stuck.

The time came for the Fifth Army to move on. Joe had become a fixture at the mess hall and had won the hearts of the GIs, but they couldn’t take him with them to the next deployment. He was classified as a displaced person. When the aid worker asked for his name, he said, “Joe.” As for his last name, he had no idea. After an uncomfortable period of silence, he saw the cook opening a can of black-eyed peas. Joe had become fond of them as a staple of his new diet, so he said, “Peas.”

The aid worker asked, “Your last name is ‘Peas’?”

“Peas.”

And so it was. At least that was one version of the story.

 

Chapter 1

“You guys don’t know how to paint a house. You got to scrub, and I mean really clean the shit off! You don’t do that, you just wastin’ you time! Then you scrape that sucker plenty good! You don’t scrape and you just wastin’ you’ time! And then you prima it.” He used the word prima, instead of prime. “Then the paint. You got to use that good paint and none of that shit you get at any hardware store. You gotta know you’ paint, man.”

All this was overheard above the usual cacophony of the Waffle House. The customers in the surrounding booths, the chatter of the counter traffic, and a jukebox with the usual repertoire of country offerings provided a constant din that completed the diner experience. The high-speed, enigmatic counter orders shouted by the waitresses, and the clatter and motion of Freddy, the short-order cook, completed the symphony of a morning at the King’s Mill Waffle House.

The atmosphere was not one suitable for meditation, but it was great for a quick breakfast with a genial ambience. And with the bonus of a little time to read the daily paper, it was hard to beat. There was also something to be said for the old-fashioned diner experience that allowed the patron to see the food prepared.

Dr. James King and his wife, Betty, frequently slipped in for a Sunday breakfast before hospital rounds. This morning the paper took second place to the bantam man monopolizing the counter conversation. He had a dark, olive complexion; a pate of slick black hair; and a pencil-thin mustache. He appeared to be of an advanced age, but his animated speech and gestures suggested he was very active. Doc and Betty had lived in town all their lives, but they didn’t know him, and yet the small man was literally holding court with a cadre of local laborers as though he was a well-known local craftsman. Doc knew that a couple of these men had been lifelong painters, but they and the younger men listened when the speaker harangued them as though he was the resident house-painting expert.

“Lemme tell you ’bout paint. You paint a house like you court a beautiful woman. You don’t think Joe knows women? Lemme tell you guys. All the world’s best lovers, they’re Italian. All the best painters, Italian. You think that may be an accident?” The little fellow gestured widely with both hands, ending up with his thumbs inside his suspenders.

“You see a beautiful woman, you size her up. You got to find her blemishes. She may bebellissima outside, but she will have secrets. She got a jealous lover, or even a husband, you gotta know.”

He looked over at Betty, and she could have sworn that he winked at her. “That house you paint. It’s a got problems, you gotta know ’bout it. It got dry rot or hidden wasp nest, it can hurt a fella.

“That woman, you got to court her; you offer her flowers and candy. Flatter her and tell her she’s a so special to you! Give her all the attention she needs. She’ll say she doesn’t want it, but never you mind. She’ll eat it up. Make her believe she’s a you’ only one.

“That house, you got to court it too. Clean it like it’s a you’ best friend. Give it attention; take care of its special needs. It’ll pay off, guaranteed!

“That woman, now you better close in on the next step. You got to get physical contact. Now you guys know physical contact.” He looked around, giving his audience a knowing look. “A li’l touch and a li’l kiss and you on you’ way. Now you get to know her. She let her veil drop. You learn what she want or not want.”

Again, Betty sensed the Italian’s eyes on her. She could not help but wonder if it was more of a leer than an innocent glance. He was, after all, an Italian!

“That house, you ready for the next step. You get more physical with that house. You place the best prima you got. A simple kiss, a preparation for the real amore.” As the little Italian said this, he seemed to blur the comparison of house painting and a romantic liaison.

“Gents, it’s a now time to consummate the affair. Be gentle, be thorough.” He looked around to see if the entire diner, even Betty, was listening. They were. Then he continued.

“Take you’ time. You be simpatico with her and she be kind to you. Remember, you ’mericans, you always hurry. You take you’ time here. Smitty, none a’ dis wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am! Make you’ time with you’ lady count!

“That house, now it’s time to complete the act. Use you’ best paint. You no grab the brush like a bat. You hold it gently; caress it like a fine lady’s hand. You do slow, so slow, even passes, gentle strokes, feel the moist paint being stroked into the rough wooden surface. Soon the surface becomes moist, pliable—sexy. The strokes, they become more rhythmic, hypnotic—even erotic. You take you’ time, jus’ like with that bellissima woman. You do a slapdash job, you paint no good.”

As the fellow warmed to the sensual aspects of house painting, he actually lost part of his broken English.

“After that, you stay. You call that what? Afterglow! You stay. You be kind. You stay. You no run off and you see what it’s like to have real, real…”

“Intimacy.”

The little Italian and everyone in the diner turned to see who had said that. Dr. King and Betty looked around too, till they realized that the now red-faced Betty had volunteered the statement.

Joe continued, “Buono, intimacy. That lady deserves you’ best. That house deserves you’ best. You got it painted, then you look at the family. You see the look and feel of the family who live in the house. That’s a so good!”

One of the painters, Smitty, looked up from his third cup of coffee. “I need a cigarette.”

Abner, Smitty’s partner, decided he’d better call his wife and see if she was ready for their regular “date night.”

Dr. King and Betty had lingered longer than usual over their coffee as the little Italian and his band of painters entertained them. As Doc and his wife left the restaurant, they heard Joe ask his audience, “Who is that guy?”

“Why, he’s my doc,” said Smitty. “Fixed me up real good when I hurt my back last year.”

Categories: Fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Death Steals A Holy Book, by Rosemary and Larry Mild

cover-artTitle: Death Steals A Holy Book

Authors: Rosemary and Larry Mild

Release: September 2016

Publisher: Magic Island Literary Works

Available at Amazon

Husband-and-wife mystery novelists Rosemary and Larry Mild have created a tightly woven, cleverly plotted and supremely suspenseful tale in Death Steals A Holy Book.  Resplendent with action, intrigue, wit, and a to-die-for cast of characters, Death Steals A Holy Book is bound to delight.

Reluctant sleuths Dan and Rivka Sherman yearn for a tranquil life as the owners of The Olde Victorian Bookstore in Annapolis, Maryland. But when the Shermans acquire a rare volume, they find themselves embroiled in a firestorm of deceit, thievery, and violence.

Israel Finestein, renowned restorer of old books in Baltimore, has just finished his work on the Menorat ha-maor, “The Candlestick of Light.”His life is brutally snuffed out and the book disappears. What makes this rare text so valuable that someone is compelled to kill for it? Two Baltimore detectives find a puzzling number of suspects. Is it the controversial woman whom Israel plans to marry? The rare book agent who overextended himself in the stock market? Israel’s busybody cousins who resent his changed lifestyle? Or the wayward lad who thinks a gun is the way to big bucks?

This case could be one for the books…

Chapter 1

Loss of Innocence

Monday, January 8, 2007 

A wooden sign over the door read “Fine Old Books Restored.” The tiny shop at 59 Beuller Street reeked of fermenting leather, neatsfoot oil, and musk—exuding from rare tomes and the noble attempt to resurrect them. Could such an unusual stench follow the dreadful journey of two rare manuscripts?

The shop’s small front room served to greet customers. Beyond it lay the inner sanctum, the artisan’s hallowed workroom. A man in a yarmulke, a black knit skullcap, sat hunched over his large work table, deep into the project before him: a rare ancient manuscript he had just restored. No longer any sign of mildew—the pages more pliable—their stains now barely perceptible—the cover and binding newly supple. With a tweezer-like tool, this fifty-two-year-old artisan carefully tugged at a frayed re-weave of the original stitching. His cotton-gloved hands and sinewy forearms moved with a deftness and assurance that only an experienced and loving craftsman might display. No ordinary shopkeeper or tradesman here. Nothing was bought or sold here. He simply provided a valuable, singular service.

A broad blue mask with thick binocular lenses hid the upper half of his angular face, while its strap disappeared behind his head into ridges of bristled, gray-black hair. The skullcap personified his belief in the ever-presence of God above him. Beneath a generous coffee-stained mustache, his thin lips exposed a hint of protruding pink tongue, a boyish gesture suggesting the deep intensity required by the task at hand. There, almost finished, he thought.

The tiny bell above the street door jingled, startling him. He’d flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED several hours earlier at 5:30. He wasnt expecting any customers this late. Ah, it’s probably my lovely Peggy schlepping my supper. He had left the shop’s door unlocked for her. She’s such a good woman, a friend like I’ve never had before. A little meshugge with all that Goth makeup and jewelry, but I’m in love with her anyway—God forgive me.

He heard footsteps in the dark front room, and wondered why she wasn’t calling to him.   Pushing his chair back, he stood up, eager to receive her. But actually seeing who had entered was impossible with the magnifying aid in place. As he slipped the mask up his forehead, a gold-monogrammed briefcase caught his attention. It dropped to the floor near the table. Without warning, the business end of a Saturday Night Special loomed into his view from out of the darkness. Before he knew who or why, Israel Finestein heard a shot and looked down to see blood pouring out of his own chest. He never heard the second shot, nor the abandoned .38 caliber revolver falling with a thud on the vinyl floor. Israel slumped first into an awkward heap. Then gravity slowly leveled him out flat.

The killer picked up the tan leather briefcase, set it upright on a corner of the table, and undid the buckles on the two straps. Black-gloved hands removed a chamois cloth and spread it out on the table. The dark-clad figure gently closed the rare old text and laid it in the middle of the cloth, wrapping it securely before tucking it into the briefcase. After buckling the straps, the killer turned off the lone lamp and exited quickly to the faint sound of the doorbell jingle.

* * * *

Peggy Fraume was on a happy mission: to bring her lover his supper. In her left arm she cradled a tuna-noodle casserole inside an insulated bag. Under the streetlights, she began walking to his shop only a few blocks away. Izzy had entrusted her with the keys to his apartment. It was his supper she carried—in his yellow crockery bowl, prepared by him in his kosher kitchen, and merely reheated by Peggy in his oven.

Peggy worried about him. He often skipped meals or ate them unheated, so a few times each week she took his own hot food to him at his shop, enough for a couple of days, knowing that he sometimes slept in that old schleppy recliner in a corner of his workroom. This woman with short, punk, black hair and wild gypsy eyes felt far more than compassion for her friend. Peggy and Izzy lived in adjacent apartments on the eighth floor of a quiet Baltimore City neighborhood. They had immediately connected when they discovered they both played chess. After several months of casual dating and hours-long chess games, fondness had bloomed into passion to the point where they were planning a most unlikely marriage. They had even sent out save-the-date notices without considering all the contrasting consequences. They were blindly in love.

As Peggy approached the first-floor shop, she hesitated. Why is it so dark inside? Could he have left early without letting me know? She looked at the illuminated dials of her watch: eleven minutes past eight. The hairs at the nape of her neck bristled. She tried the door. Surprisingly, it wasn’t locked. She stepped inside and flipped on the front room light switch next to the door. Without looking about, she lifted the yellow crockery bowl out of its insulated bag and set it, along with her purse, atop the nearest display case. Only then did she venture into the darkness of the workroom.

Peggy moved cautiously. This is so strange. Where’s Izzy? Is he okay? She fumbled for the overhead light switch on the wall to her right, and while she adjusted to it, she heard a muffled moan. It came from behind the massive work table. She followed the source of the faint uttering. Izzy was sprawled out on his stomach, with the left side of his head on the floor and his face turned toward her. She knelt beside him. He wasn’t moving, but his mouth whispered what sounded like the Sh’ma, the prayer at the heart of Judaism, a pronouncement of the Oneness and Greatness of God. Then he mumbled something she couldn’t quite discern. The letters M-P-S or N-T-S maybe. Peggy knelt closer. Did he say “briefcase”? Then she thought he was asking for the police. As soon as the pitiful mumblings ended, her Izzy died.

As the pool of blood rapidly expanded, Peggy, still on her knees, backed away until she encountered something hard under her left shin. Reaching down, she grabbed the uncomfortable object—and screamed. She had retrieved the murder weapon. Realizing she’d left her fingerprints all over the grip, she gathered up the hem of her long skirt with the intention of wiping away those prints.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said a booming voice behind her. “Just lay the damn gun on the floor and get up. Slowly now, woman! Keep your hands where I can see them. It’s murder all right, and I’ve caught you red-handed.” A stocky, red-faced, uniformed police officer stood over Peggy with his service weapon pointed directly at her.

“But…But I found him this way!” Peggy screeched. “Izzy was already dying.”

“His name was Izzy?”

“Israel. Israel Finestein, but I called him Izzy. Officer, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t kill him. He was my fiancé! I loved him. Why would I kill him?”

“Put both your hands on the arms of that recliner,” the officer commanded. “You have the right to remain silent…,” he recited while frisking her one-handed, clumsily, near her breasts and down her hips and legs. Satisfied with the search, finding no additional weapons, and having finished with her Miranda rights, he seized and cuffed each of her wrists behind her back and pushed her into the front room. The officer followed so closely she could smell his cheap aftershave.

Nodding toward the yellow crock on the display case, she decried her innocence once more. “I was just bringing my fiancé his supper. See there on the counter? It’s a tuna-noodle casserole. I just heated it up for him. Doesn’t that make sense to you?”

But Officer James Francis O’Mera wasn’t listening. He was busy reporting a crime, speaking into his shoulder microphone. “Yes, sir! A woman yelled out a second-floor window at me. Said she heard shots in the shop downstairs, and I responded….No, sir! I didn’t get any names yet. Found a woman perp hovering over the male victim with a recently fired gun in her hand. Yeah, she’s in custody. Got ’er cuffed. Sure I read ’er her rights….No, I didn’t touch anything….Okay. I’ll wait for the detectives and transportation.”

Letting go of the transmitting button, Officer O’Mera turned to his prisoner. “What’s your name, lady?”

“Fraume, F-R-A-U-M-E, Margaret Fraume. But I tell you I’m innocent. You’re letting the real killer get away.”

“Sure, sure, I got it all wrong. That’s what they all say. I got you dead to rights, ma’am. You got any ID, Fraume?”

“My purse,” she said, tilting her head toward the counter and indicating the black cloth shoulder bag sitting there. She watched him upend the purse contents onto the countertop: lipstick, compact, cell phone, keys, handkerchief, a Kleenex mini-pack, and a vinyl wallet. He flipped open the snap and spread the wallet until he saw her driver’s license in its compartment window.

“Ah, Margaret Fraume it is. Age forty-eight. You don’t look it, lady.”

“Thanks, but I—”

“So who’s the poor slob on the floor in the other room?” Officer O’Mera began to write in a small notebook he’d taken from his breast pocket.

“His real name is Israel Finestein, but everybody calls him Izzy. And don’t you dare call him a poor slob. I love him. He’s a wonderful, hard-working mensch, and the proprietor of this shop.”

“Does he own the joint?”

“He rents from some lady upstairs. I don’t know her name.” Peggy shuddered. She suddenly realized she was talking about her beloved as if he were still alive.

Vehicles screeched to a halt out front and car doors slammed shut. “Homicide!” the first man through the door said. “Officer, I’m Detective Sergeant Shap and this here is Detective Sullivan. He’s assisting me in this investigation. Anything appear to be missing from the shop? Cash or something else valuable?”

“Nothing obvious, sir. I haven’t had much of a chance to look around yet.”

“Good thing,” said Shap. “Wouldn’t want you lousing up my crime scene now, would I?”

“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir. Didn’t touch a thing.”

The two detectives perused the crime scene room for about fifteen minutes before calling in the lab people. Then Shap called Peggy into the workroom and sat her down in the recliner. He stood before her in a leather jacket and black pants, almost six feet tall, with a clean-shaven, handsome face and wavy walnut-brown hair brushed back with no part.

“Ma’am, I’m Detective Sergeant Shap. Did you know Mr. Finestein well?”

“Very well. We are—I mean, we were—neighbors and best friends. More than that. He was my fiancé, for heaven’s sake.” A sob caught in her throat. “The only reason I’m here is that I brought Izzy his supper, in that yellow crock in the front room on the counter. I didn’t kill him. I couldn’t do anything to harm that lovable man. Did you know we were engaged?”

“No, I didn’t know?” he responded sarcastically. “How could I?” Shap circled behind her, and examined her cuffed hands. He saw two rings on her right hand, one a carved silver rose, the other a black onyx stone. “So where’s the diamond ring if you’re engaged?”

“We hadn’t gotten around to that yet.”

“I see,” said Shap. “And if you were engaged, why would Officer O’Mera believe you murdered your lover? Was it a lover’s quarrel?”

“No, no, no!” Peggy, near tears now, said, “I’ll explain everything, but can’t you take off these horrible cuffs? They’re cutting into my wrists and my shoulders are getting sore.”

“No way.”

It occurred to her that the detective was enjoying her misery. She had no choice but to relate her whole story, beginning with finding the shop dark and ending with the attempt to wipe her fingerprints from the murder weapon. At several junctures she proclaimed her innocence. She was so despairing, so distraught that Izzy’s final utterings had completely slipped her mind. She offered them now.

Shap said, “You say you found the room dark. Why would Finestein be working late in the dark?”

“That’s just it,” she replied. “He wouldn’t be in the dark. He’d be working late to finish the rare holy book for Rivka and Dan Sherman. They’re supposed to pick it up the day after tomorrow. The book is gone! It should have been on the work table with the light over it. That’s why I became so concerned.”

“Who are these people, the Shermans?”

“They own The Olde Victorian Bookstore in Annapolis and they’re good friends of mine as well.”
“So where’s this so-called holy book now?” asked Shap.

“I just told you—it should have been on the work table. Otherwise, it would be stored in the locked cabinet for safekeeping.”
“In there?” he pointed. The steel cabinet’s door was slightly ajar, indicating that it had been left unlocked. Shap swung both doors open wide and saw two books and a rolled papyrus parchment. “One of these?” He gestured with his open hand.

“No!” Peggy said. “The Shermans’ rare book was at least twice the size of either one of those. And much older.”

“Just how holy was this book?” Shap pressed on. “It’s obviously not the Bible or the Torah or Haftarah.”

Peggy eyed him with curiosity. “How would you know? Are you Jewish?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Shap was once Shapiro. My father’s idea entirely.”

She’d never met a Jewish cop before. “Well, Detective, it’s the Sefer Menorat ha-maor.”

“Never heard of it.”

Sefer means book. Menorat ha-maor means The Candlestick of Light. The way Izzy explained it to me, it’s a precious book of religious truths and ethics. This copy is in Yiddish and there are other translations, too. It was the most popular book in Jewish households in the Middle Ages. How the righteous should live their lives.” She steadied her voice, praying that she was appealing to his more rational side. “So you see, robbery is the real motive here, and I don’t have the book. Ergo I am innocent.”

“Not so fast, lady. You could have had an accomplice. Mrs. Fraume, I—”

“It’s Ms. now since my divorce and I don’t have any accomplice.”

“Ms. Fraume, while your version of what transpired here may well be plausible, there are circumstantial facts sufficient to cast doubt on your explanation. Enough for you to remain in custody, at least for the time being. The question of your guilt or innocence may well rest with the courts. You may be able to get bail fixed at your arraignment.”

In the front room, Officer O’Mera shifted from foot to foot. He was alone and had nothing to do. He’d worked with Detective Shap before, arrogant SOB, and right now O’Mera’s stomach grumbled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything since two doughnuts on his morning coffee break. He lifted the lid of the yellow crock, plus a corner of the Saran wrap, and sniffed. Mmm! Smells good and it’s still warm. It’ll go to waste if it just sits there. Besides, it can’t be evidence. Who’s gonna miss a coupla mouthfuls anyway? He took another sniff and checked to be sure nobody could see him. Using three fingers, he scooped up a small bundle of tuna and noodles covered with cream of mushroom soup, and popped it into his wide-open mouth. Delicious. He faced the door so no one would see him chew and swallow. With nobody watching, he repeated the procedure until only a quarter of the casserole remained.

Just as Peggy and the two detectives emerged from the workroom, the crime scene investigators arrived in a long white van. At the door, gloves and cloth footies were distributed to the team. Soon both rooms were taped off, leaving only a narrow passage from the entrance to the workroom. They even covered that with heavy brown paper. A crime-scene announcement prohibiting entry to unauthorized persons was posted on the window next to the shop’s front door.

No one noticed Shap lifting the cover off the yellow crock. He peeked under the Saran wrap, smiled, and nodded. Just as I thought. “Let’s get out of their way so they can dig up some more juicy evidence,” he said to Sullivan. His sidekick shrugged. Blue-eyed, with a crew cut, he tended to be an obliging sort.

“What about my purse?” Peggy blurted out as Shap guided her toward the black unmarked cruiser.

“Your purse is now inventoried evidence. It will be returned to you as soon as the lab people have cleared it.”

“But it’s my whole identity,” she protested.

“Sorry, miss,” replied Shap, his voice hard and not at all sorry. He pushed down on her head as she reluctantly entered the rear seat of the unmarked police car.

 

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Chapter reveal: The Moreva of Astoreth, by Roxanne Bland

moa-cover-lighter-1

In the world-building tradition of Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K. LeGuin, The Moreva of Astoreth is a blend of science fiction, romance, and adventure in a unique, richly imagined imperialistic society in which gods and science are indelibly intertwined. It is the story of the priestess, scientist, and healer Moreva Tehi, the spoiled, headstrong granddaughter of a powerful deity who is banished for a year to a volatile far corner of the planet for neglecting to perform her sacred duty, only to venture into dangerous realms of banned experimentation, spiritual rebirth, and fervent, forbidden love.

 

Buy Links:      Amazon | B&N | Kobo 

 

Chapter One

“I could have you executed for this, Moreva Tehi,” Astoreth said. My Devi grandmother, the Goddess of Love, scowled at me from Her golden throne in the massive Great Hall of Her equally massive Temple.

Sitting on my heels, I bowed my head and stared at the black and gold polished floor, trying to ignore the trickle of sweat snaking its way down my spine. “Yes, Most Holy One.”

“You blaspheme by not celebrating Ohra, My holiest of rites. And this one was important—the worthiest of the hakoi, handpicked by Me, celebrated with us. ”

“I can only offer my most abject apologies, Most Holy One.”

“Your apologies are not accepted.”

“Yes, Most Holy One.”

“Where were you?”

“I was in the laboratory, working on a cure for red fever. Many hakoi died last winter—”

“I know that,” my grandmother snapped. “But why did you miss Ohra? Did you not hear the bells?”

“Yes, Most Holy One. I heard them. I was about to lay aside my work when I noticed an anomaly in one of my pareon solutions. It was odd, so I decided to investigate. What I found…I just lost track of time.”

“You lost track of time?” Astoreth repeated, sounding incredulous. “Do you expect Me to believe that?”

“Yes, Most Holy One. It is the truth.”

A moment later, my head and hearts started to throb. I knew why. My grandmother was probing me for signs I had lied. But She wouldn’t find any. There was no point in lying to Astoreth, and it was dangerous, too. Swaying under the onslaught from Her power, I endured the pain without making a sound. After what seemed like forever the throbbing subsided, leaving me feeling sick and dizzy.

“Very well,” She said. “I accept what you say is true, but I still do not accept your apology.”

“Yes, Most Holy One.” I tried not to pant.

A minute passed in uncomfortable silence. Uncomfortable for me, anyway. Another minute passed. And another. Just when I thought maybe She was finished with me, Astoreth spoke. “What do you have against the hakoi, Moreva?”

The change of subject confused me. “What do you mean, Most Holy One?”

“I’ve watched you, Moreva. You give them no respect. You heal them because you must, but you treat them little better than animals. Why is that?”

The trickle of sweat reached the small of my back and pooled there. “But my work—”

“Your work is a game between you and the red fever. It has nothing to do with My hakoi.”

I didn’t answer right away. In truth, I despised Her hakoi. They were docile enough—the Devi’s breeding program saw to that—but most were slow-witted, not unlike the pirsu the Temple raised for meat and hide. They stank of makira, the pungent cabbage that was their dietary staple. From what I’d seen traveling through Kherah to Astoreth’s and other Gods’ Temples, all the hakoi were stupid and smelly, and I wanted nothing to do with them.

I did not want my grandmother to know what was in my hearts, so I chose my words carefully. “Most Holy One, I treat Your hakoi the way I do because it is the hierarchy of life as the Devi created it. You taught us the Great Pantheon of twelve Devi is Supreme. The lesser Devi are beneath You, the morevs are beneath the lesser gods, and Your hakoi are beneath the morevs. Beneath the hakoi are the plants and animals of Peris. But sometimes Your hakoi forget their place and must be reminded.” I held my breath, praying she wouldn’t probe me again.

Astoreth didn’t answer at first. “A pretty explanation, Moreva. But My hakoi know their place. It is you who do not know yours. You may be more Devi than morev but you are still morev, born of hakoi blood. You are not too good to minister to the hakoi’s needs, and you are certainly not too good to celebrate Ohra with them.”

I swallowed. “Yes, Most Holy One.”

“Look at me, Moreva.”

I raised my head. My grandmother’s expression was fierce.

“And that is why you let the time get away from you, as you say. You, Moreva Tehi, an acolyte of Love, are a bigot. That is why you did not want to share your body with My hakoi.” She leaned forward. “I have overlooked many of your transgressions while in My service, but I cannot overlook your bigotry or your missing Ohra. I will not execute you because you are too dear to My heart. The stewardship for Astoreth-

69 in the Syren Perritory ends this marun on eighth day. You will take the next rotation.”

My hearts froze. This was my punishment? Getting exiled to Syren? From what I’d heard from morevs serving in Astoreth’s other Temples, the Syren Perritory in Peris’s far northern hemisphere was the worst place in the world to steward a landing beacon. Cold and dark, with dense woods full of wild animals, the Syren was no place for me. My place was Kherah, a sunny desert south of the planet’s equator, where the fauna were kept in special habitats for learning and entertainment. As for the Syrenese, they were the product of one of the Devi’s earliest and failed experimental breeding programs, and were as untamed as the perritory in which they lived.

But I knew better than to protest. Astoreth’s word was law, and it had just come down on my head. “Yes, Most Holy One,” I said, my voice meek.

“Mehmed will come to your rooms after lunch tomorrow so you can be fitted for your uniform.”

“My uniform, Most Holy One? I will not be taking my clothes?”

“No. As overseer of the landing beacon, you are the liaison between the Mjor village as well as the commander of the garrison. Your subordinate, Kepten Yose, will report to you once a marun, and you are to relay the garrison’s needs to Laerd Teger, the Mjoran village chief.”

“Yes, Most Holy One.”

“I will make allowance for your healer’s kit and a portable laboratory, but you are not to take your work on red fever. I am sure you have other projects you can work on while you are there.”

“But—”

“No, Moreva. It is too dangerous.”

“I can take precautions—”

“No. That is My final word.” Astoreth leaned back in Her chair. Her eyes narrowed. “One more thing. You will be the only morev in Mjor, but that will not prevent you from observing Ohra. And you will do so with the garrison stationed there. Go now.”

I stood on shaky legs, bowed, and backed out of the Great Hall. Once in the corridor, I turned and fled to my quarters. I threw myself on the bed and sobbed. It was bad enough to be exiled to the Syren Perritory, but Ohra with the garrison? Only the hakoi served in Astoreth’s military. I felt dirty already. And not allowing me to work on my red fever project was punishment in itself.

A few minutes later I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Tehi, what’s wrong?” a worried voice said. It was Moreva Jaleta, one of my friendlier morev sisters.

“I-I’m being sent to the Syren Perritory to steward Astoreth-69,” I wailed.

Jaleta sat on the bed. “But why?”

I sat up. “I missed the last Ohra and n-now Astoreth is punishing me.”

Jaleta gave me an unsympathetic look. “You’re lucky she didn’t have your head. Be thankful you’re Her favorite.”

I sniffed but said nothing.

Jaleta patted me on the shoulder. “It won’t be so bad, Tehi. The year will be over before you know it. Come on, it’s time to eat.”

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Excerpt Reveal: THE STRANGER, by Anna del Mar

the2bstranger2bfinal2bcoverTitle: The Stranger

Genre: Romantic suspense

Author: Anna del Mar

Website: www.annadelmar.com

Publisher: Carina Press

Purchase on Amazon

When her sister runs away with a guy she met on the internet, a warmth-loving Miami architect chases her reckless sibling to Alaska and finds her life in danger from more than the elements. Only a stranger, a wounded warrior who is also Alaskan tycoon with a quarreling family as complicated as her own and no time for a lady in distress—let alone one who has a secret bound to get her into big trouble—can save her from disaster. Together, two strangers from different worlds and opposite spectrums of the thermometer must unravel the intrigues that threaten their lives to chase after a new dream, in majestic Alaska.

Amazon    Carina Press    BN    Kobo     Google Play

Short Excerpt/First Kiss:

“I think we’d be better off accepting what’s happening here.”

“And that is…?”

“That I want to kiss you.” I hit the point of no return. “And that you want me to kiss you.”

Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “It’s not true.”

“It’s true and you know it.” I ran my thumb over the soft expanse of her cheek. “So I propose that I kiss you now and get it out of the way. One kiss. Then we go to sleep and I mean just that, sleep, together, on my bed.” I held my breath. “What do you think? Is it too much to ask?”

She opened her mouth and closed it. A storm brewed in her eyes. She wasn’t sure. I knew it was a long shot, but I wasn’t one to hold back for fear of failure. Her nostrils widened, taking in my scent as if sniffing for danger. The seconds ticked by, minutes, hours, centuries. And then…surprise. She nodded ever so slightly.

I didn’t wait for her to change her mind. I kissed her, a connection that my body celebrated with fireworks. I put my arms around her waist and tasted her lips, her tongue, her breath. Glory. My body resonated with the memories of our night together.

I kissed her, as I’d wanted to do for two days, and the kiss confirmed that the connection that tugged on my senses was real. I held her face between my hands and kissed her some more until we were both out of breath and I hovered at the edge of no return. I made a huge effort to climb out of a very steep drop before I screwed everything up.

“Christ,” I rasped when I finally managed to tear my lips from hers.

Her breath came in short gasps, her eyes sparkled and her face flushed as if she had overexerted herself.

“Hell, I could kiss you all night.” I tucked a strand of hair behind her ear before letting go. “But this little taste of you is going to last me ’til morning.” Body screaming in protest, I took a step back. “Now go in there, get in bed, and don’t be scared. Okay? I’ll be along shortly.”

Her lips wavered, then a new smile birthed in her eyes and spread to her face, a mischievous grin that turned those luscious lips up at the corners and warned of all kinds of trouble.

She leaned into my space and, approaching me slowly, delivered her own kiss to my lips. The kiss was like an arctic wallop, but scalding; like a blow to the senses, but soft. Her tongue swiped a little taste of me. I gasped when she cut me off without warning, leaving me reeling, rock hard and without a trace of oxygen flowing to my lungs.

“Erickson?” she said before she sauntered off. “I don’t think you understand.”

“Understand what?”

She halted at the threshold and looked over her shoulder. “I’m not scared of you anymore,” she said. “I’m scared of me when I’m with you.”

 

Long Excerpt: Complete Chapter One

 

Trouble welcomed me to Alaska. It ambushed me in the guise of an invisible patch of black ice that launched my car spinning into a triple Lutz. I pumped my brakes. Nothing. My rental careened over the ditch and bounced down the steep ravine. The rocks pummeling the undercarriage rattled my brain. I was distantly aware that the shriek piercing my eardrums came from my throat. My headlights illuminated the spruce that materialized before me, down to the huge, corrugated trunk that collided with the hood, bringing my involuntary detour to a jarring stop.

Silence. Only the sound of my ragged breath and my pulse, pounding in my temples, interrupted the atmospheric quiet. I pried my fingers from the wheel and stared at my shaking hands. They flickered in and out of focus until I managed to even out my breaths.

The good news? I was alive and, although the wreck had probably relocated some of my internal organs, nothing seemed broken. The bad news? The air bag hadn’t gone off and pain throbbed in my thigh and somewhere behind my ear. Crap. I’d come to Alaska to find my wayward sister, but my search had hit a major snag. Time to figure out how bad of a snag it was.

My hand was still quaking as I reached into my purse and found my cell. Zero bars. I groaned. What was the point of technology if it never worked when you needed it most? I snatched my purse and pulled on the door handle. The door refused to open. I scooted across to the other seat and opened the passenger side door, grateful to crawl out in one piece.

The cold hit me like a slap to the face. My nostrils flared and my lungs ached with the arctic wallop. To a tropical gal like me, the air smelled as though someone had stuffed a live Christmas tree in the freezer. Delicate snowflakes floated in the air like tiny speckles of silver. This was the first time I’d seen snow in real life. It was pretty, kind of magical really, but the cold crawled under my skin, stiffened my muscles and clung to my bones. I pulled my hood over my head. Had it been this cold when my plane landed in Anchorage?

My wrecked rental was wedged between the slope and the spruce like a deflated accordion. I had no prayer of backing it up the hill. I tackled the ravine, scrambling on all fours, and followed the wheel ruts up the slippery incline. It wasn’t easy. I wore a narrow pencil skirt under my Burberry trench coat, and a pair of four-inch heels I now wished I’d never bought.

It served me right for allowing my stepmother to choose my outfit for the Darius project presentation. Louise was a sucker for shoes—the taller, the better. Note to self: never again relinquish your feet to someone else’s sense of fashion when it’s you—and you alone—who has to suffer the resulting torture.

I’m not sure how long it took me to climb back to the road, but by the time I reached the top, my toes had gone numb, my hands ached and my fingertips had turned white. The road I’d been driving on looked totally benign, not like the camouflaged skating rink that had hurled my vehicle into the ravine.

I clapped my hands together to warm them up. The sound echoed for miles around me. Stuck in the Alaskan wilderness. Unreal. It was an unlikely predicament for a gal who’d much rather be at the beach. Shark attack? Sure, it wouldn’t surprise me if that ended up being part of my obituary. But frozen alive? Only if it involved a freak accident in Publix’s frozen food section.

“Summer Silva, get your act together,” I said out loud to break the eerie silence. My father hadn’t clung to a capsized raft for three days in the Florida Straits in order for me to die on my first day in Alaska.

I straightened my coat, shoved my hands into my pockets, and began to walk. A layer of slush-covered ice crackled beneath my heels. Crap. My feet slid every which way and my legs wobbled. Steady, Silva. I could handle the unwieldy shoes…on firm, unfrozen ground. The only ice I’d ever dealt with came out in little cubes from the automated dispenser in the freezer door.

Five minutes later, the cold skewered me and not a single car had made an appearance. I leaned into the bitter wind. I wasn’t made of sugar and spice. I was tough, and I meant to get out of this one, but I was majorly pissed. I was so going to give Tammy a piece of my mind when I found her.

I envisioned my sister lying on a white pelt in front of a roaring fireplace. I mouthed off into the deepening darkness. I was the levelheaded one. I was the one who always followed the rules, cleaned up the messes, did the responsible thing. And yet, right now, I was the one freezing my ass off on a desolate Alaskan road.

The headlights caught me by surprise. They sprang out from behind the curve and pierced the dusk. I waved my hands to flag down the speeding vehicle. As it got closer, I made out a Ford F-450 Super Duty, black as night, the type that would’ve made my truck-obsessed sister drool with envy. The truck drove right by me before the taillights lit up and it skidded to a stop, then accelerated in reverse.

The window whirred down to reveal the warmth and comfort of the softly illuminated cab. The leather-scented, heated air wafted from the window and teased my frozen senses. A man sat at the wheel, enveloped in a black thermal jacket that I would’ve gladly traded a thousand bucks for, on the spot. His face might have been handsome, if it hadn’t been distorted by the scowl that wilted my poor attempt at a smile.

He more or less growled. “Who the hell put you up to this?”

“Excuse me?” I clutched my hood against a sudden burst of wind.

“You better come clean right now,” he bit out in a tone that matched the frosty temperature. “A name. I want to know who the hell hired you and what you were expected to do.”

“Hired me?”

“Don’t play dumb with me.” He eyed me like a wolf eyed a meal. “Who was it? Was it someone related to me? I swear, if you don’t tell me this goddamn minute, you’re going to be sorry.”

I stared at the man in the cab, unable to comprehend his rage. What on earth was he talking about? The fury blazing in his striking amber eyes frightened me. As it was, I was so cold I couldn’t think, let alone make sense of what he was saying. I rubbed the sore spot behind my ear. Maybe I’d hit my head harder than I thought. Maybe this was a dream or a nightmare. Oh, God. My stomach clenched. I really hoped I was awake. I shoved my hand up my sleeve and pinched my arm. It hurt. In fact, a lot of me was either throbbing or aching. A good sign, yes?

“Well?” he said. “Are you going to speak up or are you dumb, deaf, and mute?”

“Um, no.” I rubbed my arms. “I usually have a lot to say. It’s just that…well…I’m cold and you—I’m really sorry to have to tell you—but you sound like a crazy person.”

He launched another blistering glower in my direction. “For the last time,” he said, his tone intractable, “who the hell put you up to this?”

“Nobody,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. My car skidded off the road and I’ve got no cell reception.”

“Your car?” He looked up and down the road. “I don’t see a car. Where is it?”

“Back there somewhere.” I’m not sure whether my treacherous heels slid on the ice or if fatigue did me in, but my feet went out from under me and, though I clung to the window, I landed on my knees. “Ow,” I might have said aloud.

“What the hell?”

I let go of the window and my dignity at the same time. I surrendered to the elements and settled precariously on the frosty ground. The cold iced my shins, traveled up to my core, and chilled my spine. I was about to pass out from exhaustion. I’d been up for over seventy-two hours. On top of that, I was suffering from a bad case of jet lag. If all of that wasn’t enough, the wreck had jarred my senses. I wasn’t in good shape and I knew it.

But I couldn’t allow myself to go unconscious. No, sir, no way in hell. I knew the risks of passing out in front of a stranger too well. I just needed a moment to gather my strength, defrost myself and get my act together. I leaned my forehead on the door and, basking in the warmth radiating from the undercarriage, forced myself to stay alert. Surely, I could get some help, the crazy man would go on his merry way, and I could move on to finish what I’d come to do.

The engine quit. The truck quaked with the slam of a door. Angry steps crunched on the road. A pair of hiking boots parked by my side. I looked up and cringed. The man’s scowl pummeled me. From my perspective on the ground, he soared above me, tall and imposing, a giant really. His knees cracked when he crouched next to me.

“Did Alex hire you?” he said. “Alex Erickson?”

“Who?”

“Are you telling me you don’t know who Alex Erickson is?”

“I don’t.”

His breath came out in angry puffs that condensed in the air. “Do you know who I am?”

“No clue,” I said. “Am I supposed to know?”

“You tell me.” He looked like he was about to spit fire. “If no one put you up to this, then what the hell are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“Not taking a walk in the park, that’s for sure.”

My throat made this weird noise, a cross between a sob and a giggle, a sound that combined confusion with hilarity, fear with absurdity. But I wasn’t going to cry. No freaking way. I wasn’t going to panic either. The part of me that felt utterly ridiculous kneeling on the frozen pavement in the middle of nowhere won out. I pressed my hand over my mouth, but the quiet giggles leaked out anyway.

The man rubbed the back of his neck and frowned, a dip of full eyebrows that screamed vexation. “Do you think this is funny?”

“Funny?” I couldn’t stop giggling. “No, not funny, more like hilarious.”

“Jesus Christ.” He raked his fingers through his longish hair, leaving a bunch of straight, flaxen strands in disarray. He didn’t know what to make of me, but he sure knew how to scowl.

The shivering, combined with his radioactive glower, stifled my giggle attack. I forced myself to pay attention. Determination whetted the man’s features and set the line of his jaw into a straight angle. A shade of stubble covered the lower half of his face, imbuing him with a golden glow that echoed the gleam in his eye, but there was nothing soft in his stare, not a hint of humor or friendliness.

At least he looked clean and groomed, unlike the rugged, hygiene-challenged bunch I’d met in the back-to-back episodes of Alaska’s Bush Men I’d binge-watched on the plane. Alaska had never been on my long list of places I wanted to visit, and after watching the show, I’d questioned my sister’s sanity along with that of people who lived away from even the most basic human comforts. Now I wondered about this surly stranger too, the first off-the-grid Alaskan I’d met.

“Is your cell working?” I said. “Could you please call the police?”

“There’s no reception on this stretch of road.” The copper-hued eyes probed my face. “If you really need help, I’m all you’ve got.”

Great. Just great. The world whirled around me. I steadied myself against the truck. Three days ago, I’d been in the middle of the most important presentation of my professional life when Louise had called to tell me about my stepsister, Tammy. I’d already been short of sleep and high on stress, but since then, I’d been on the go, trying to get to Alaska.

The earth beneath my knees shifted again. I tightened my grip on the truck and took a deep breath. I wasn’t one to fall apart so easily. To bad weather , a brave face , my father used to say, quoting an old Spanish proverb. I might be out of my comfort zone, but I hadn’t given up on my pride just yet. I straightened my coat and, balancing carefully on one knee, planted one foot first, then the other. I rose slowly from the iffy crouch.

“Oops!” My heels skidded in opposite directions. I fell, bounced on my butt, and ended up sprawled on the ground all over again, rear smarting from the impact. I cursed under my breath.

“Dammit.” The man hooked his hands under my arms, lifted me up, and set me upright. “There. Do you think you can stand on your own?”

“Maybe,” I mumbled, rubbing my ass. My legs buckled, but I steadied myself on the truck and willed my feet to stick to the ground.

“You’re shivering.” He opened the car door. “Get in.”

“No, thank you.” Even if I was freezing, there were rules about cars and strangers. “Can you please call for Roadside Assistance?”

The man actually scoffed. “No reception, remember?” He eyed me impatiently. “Lady, you do know that there’s a storm barreling down on south central Alaska, right?”

“The clerk at the airport did mention that.”

“But did he mention that anytime now, a Bering Sea superstorm is expected to bring blizzard conditions with winds in excess of sixty miles an hour?”

“Yeah, no.” I swallowed a dry gulp. “He didn’t put it quite as bad as that.”

“It’s going to get a hell of a lot colder,” the man said. “Emergency services went on lockdown about fifteen minutes ago.”

Fabulous, just fabulous.

“What I’m trying to tell you,” he explained in a strained tone obviously intended for the dimwits among us, “is that—assuming you’re not a trap—I’m your only option at the moment. So get in the damn truck, before you freeze your ass off.”

Dressed in his black jacket and blue jeans, glinting with all that gold in his eyes and hair, he looked perfectly normal. Minus the scowl, he might have even been good looking. But his bad temper and my flash-frozen brain made for a bad combination. Plus, there was a good chance he was more than paranoid and grouchy. Maybe he was off the grid in more ways than one.

“Look,” he said. “I’ve had a long day and I’m in a shitty mood.”

I rolled my eyes. “No kidding.”

“I wasn’t expecting this. You. Whatever.”

I perched my fist on my hip. “Do you think I was expecting you?”

“Just get in, okay?” He gestured to the cab. “I want to get indoors before the storm hits.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” I considered both, the brawny guy and his burly truck. “Where I come from, hitchhiking is dangerous.”

“Too bad,” he said. “In Alaska hitchhiking is a common form of transportation.”

“As far as I know, you could be a serial killer.”

“So could you.” He held the door open for me. “And my risk is higher than yours since, according to the Discovery Channel, female serial killers have been proven to be more dangerous than male serial killers.”

I’d either met my match or found the only other person in the world who watched as much Discovery Channel as I did.

“Get the hell in,” he said impatiently. “We’re running out of time.”

The weather was getting colder. The wind had picked up and the snow fell in bigger, wetter chunks. I was shivering violently, but still, I hesitated.

“Can you please take me to the nearest gas station or hotel?” I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering.

“The nearest gas station is sixty-five miles that way.” He stuck out his thumb and pointed behind him. “The nearest motel is seventy-eight miles in the opposite direction. There’s no time to get there. My cabin is close by and I have the full intention of being there by the time the storm hits in…” he paused to look at his watch, “…anytime now.”

The mention of the word “cabin” did nothing to appease my fears. I’d seen plenty of “cabins” in my reality show marathon. I didn’t want to spend a moment—let alone hours—chewing on squirrel parts in a rustic shelter without heat, electricity, or plumbing, especially in the company of a pissed-off guy whose actions so far put the strange in stranger.

“What is it going to be?” he said. “I’m willing to play the female killer odds if you decide you don’t want to turn into an icicle. It’s your choice, but I’m hauling ass right now.”

What’s the use of choices when one has none?

I said a little prayer, shuffled on the ice and, balancing carefully on my unwieldy heels, climbed into the front seat. He helped me up, shut the door, and walked around the truck. My head began to hurt, pangs of pain stabbing behind my eyes. Not good.

The man climbed in next to me in the cab. “Strap in.”

He switched on the ignition, pressed on the pedal and accelerated down the icy track as if truck skating was an X Games signature event and he was going for the gold. My knuckles tightened around the door handle. I bit down on my lips, but the backseat driver in me was out of control. Whether he was a serial killer or not was irrelevant. We were both going to die today.

He glanced in my direction. “You got a name?”

“Yes.” I pressed my frozen fingertips against the heating vent, reveling in the blessed heat.

“Well?” he said in that demanding tone of his.

I stared at him, mystified by his persistent state of grouchiness. “Well what?”

“Are you going to tell me what your name is or what?”

“Oh.” I was close to frozen stupid. “My name is Summer, Summer Silva.”

“Summer in Alaska?” He stared at me for an instant, then burst out into quiet laughter. “You’re a little late. Summer arrived in Alaska just in time to meet winter.”

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I hadn’t slept in a while, but yeah, no. He wasn’t going to laugh at my expense. I narrowed my eyes on him.

“That’s quite the glare.” He suppressed another round of laughter. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“Well, you are rude, a lot rude in fact, accusing me of God knows what and acting like a total jerk.”

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s just that… Summer in Alaska.” His lips twitched. “You’ve got to admit. It’s pretty damn good.”

“Are you drunk?” I said. “Because if you are, maybe I should be doing the driving. I imagine they’ve got laws in Alaska, including some about drinking and driving?”

“You’re turning out to be a piece of work,” he said, smirking. “Bossy too, for someone riding in my goddamn truck. Here I am, doing you a favor, not letting you freeze off your pretty little stuck-up ass and yet you’re being a smartass and giving me attitude.”

“Are you for real?” He had a lot of nerve calling me a smartass. “You’re not exactly attitude free yourself.”

“And yes,” he added, ignoring my comment, “we do have some laws here in Alaska, although not nearly as many as they’ve got in the lower forty-eight. As to your question, nope, I’m not drunk, haven’t had a drop all day. Should’ve, but didn’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean that if there was ever a good day for drinking, today was it.” He stomped on the clutch and shifted gears. “But no, unfortunately, I’m not drunk. That and the shitty day probably explain why you’re getting a double dose of sarcasm.”

“Sorry about your shitty day,” I said. “But you need to mellow out. Do you always go around trying to bully people into doing whatever you want?”

“Pretty much.” He flashed what could’ve been a semi-contrite glance in my direction. “Look, I apologize for my lack of manners.” He offered his hand. “My name is Seth, Seth Erickson.”

I shook his hand, mostly because, sarcasm aside, he was making an effort to be civil. Plus, he was a fellow Discovery Channel watcher. His hold was firm, hot, and supremely comforting to my fingers. My entire body wanted to shrink into his grip if only to bask in his radiant heat. My fingertips tripped against the unusual texture at the bottom of his hand. I spotted a patch of mangled skin scarring his palm, crawling up his wrist and disappearing into his sleeve. He caught me looking and covered most of the scar with a self-conscious tug of his sleeve.

“You’ve got some icy fingers there.” He tapped on the console’s screen and punched up the temperature of my heated seat. “Tuck them under your thigh. Trust me. It’s the quickest way to warm up those puppies.”

He was right. Trapped between the heat of my body and the seat, my fingers began to thaw.

“Where the hell are you from?” he asked. “Miami.”

“Ah.” He smirked. “That explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Your inability to cope with ice. And the outfit.”

I looked down at myself. “What’s wrong with my outfit?”

“No gloves, hat, boots, or a proper coat,” he said. “When I first saw you I thought you were either crazy or—well—you know.”

“No, I don’t know.”

“I thought maybe you were a plant, someone looking for attention, or more specifically, my attention.”

I stared at him for a full thirty seconds, unable to figure out what he meant. “What are you talking about?”

“Nobody in their right mind out here wears skirts and high heels on the roads, except the occasional call girl, playing a pre-ordered role or meeting a very specific customer…”

“Oh no you didn’t.” What was wrong with this man? “You thought I was a whore?”

“I couldn’t see beneath the coat…”

“Are you like…freaking insane?”

He cleared his throat. “It was probably the heels that gave me the wrong impression…”

“You’re out of your mind, you know that?” I snapped. “First you think your family is out to get you. Then you think I’m…what? A prostitute? Which implies that you think someone in your family was going to set you up with a…Jesus!” I rubbed my temples, wishing that I’d never come to Alaska and also that I’d ditched those damn shoes. “I really want to go home.”

“Don’t get upset.” His eyes betrayed a hint of concern. “I would’ve bought the look if I’d seen you down in, say, Ketchikan getting down from one of them fancy cruises. For future reference, Alaska 101: dress warm, keep dry, stay warm. That coat might look fine for a fall afternoon on Fifth Avenue, but in Alaska? It’ll kill you faster than a dip in the Bering Sea.”

Great. Advice from Mr. Sunshine himself. His condescending tone annoyed the hell out of me. “Okay, fine, maybe I’m not properly dressed for the weather, but that’s only because I had no time to plan for this trip. I’m not as stupid as you’re making me out to be.”

“No offense,” he said, “but all the tourists are gone. What the hell is someone like you doing all the way out here at the end of September?”

“It’s kind of a long story.”

“I don’t know why,” he muttered, “but I’m itching to hear it.”

“If you must know,” I said, “my sister ran away with a guy she met on the internet. He’s from Alaska and I came to find her.”

He flashed me a skeptical look. “Is your sister stupid?”

“No,” I said, but at times like these, I wondered. “Tammy is just…impulsive.”

“Has she done stuff like this before?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s not really her fault.”

“What do you mean it’s not her fault?”

“She struggles with bipolar disorder.”

“Hey, lady, Summer—right?” he said. “There’s no excuse for stupidity. I’ve met people with all kinds of injuries and disorders who know better than to run away with a stranger they met on the internet.”

“I know, but Tammy is…”

My cell rang to the tune of chirping birds. Reception. I had reception! I groped through my purse until I found the phone.

“You might get a minute or two if you’re lucky,” Seth cautioned. “After that, nothing for a while.”

My tepid fingers fumbled over the keypad, accidentally hitting the speaker in the process. “Hello?”

“Did you find Tammy?” Louise’s voice blared in her best Brooklyn accent, shrill, loud, and capable of busting an eardrum or two. “Where is she? Is she okay?”

“Calm down.” I tried to turn off the speaker but my stiff fingers succeeded only at increasing the volume. “I’m on my way to find her now. There might be an itsy-bitsy delay. The weather is not cooperating, but don’t worry, I’ll find her.”

“Are you locked in a fancy hotel room?” Louise demanded. “You won’t find Tammy from behind a bolted door.”

“Of course not.” Louise could be such a witch when she was anxious. “I promised you I’d find Tammy and I will.”

“I sure hope you’re not enjoying room service while your sister is gone and I’m here, suffering, imagining all the terrible things she could be going through…”

“Please, don’t be a drama queen,” I said. “We don’t have any evidence to suggest that Tammy is in immediate danger.”

“Find your sister!” Louise’s voice flickered in and out of range. “Find her! I don’t care what you have to do, just do it…”

The phone lost all its bars again and the call dropped. The narrow reception zone had ended. Part of me was grateful for the reprieve. The other part knew I was cut off again. The headache throbbing behind my eye intensified. The sights blurred before me.

“Hey,” Seth said. “You okay?”

“Fine.” I dropped my cell in my purse and straightened my back, fighting the exhaustion.

“Who was that very loud woman?”

“My stepmother.”

“Is she right in the head?”

“She’s just worried about Tammy.”

“Something’s not adding up here.” He rubbed his wide back against the seat like a great big bison scratching against a tree. “Your sister’s an idiot. Your stepmother demands that you drop everything and go chase her. Your family? Sounds like a major clusterfuck.”

“Look who’s talking.” I sniffed. “My family may be a little different, but we love each other. We don’t hire people to try to set each other up. Sure, we can be loud and a tad dramatic on occasion, but honestly? Your family sounds a million times more screwed up than mine.”

His mouth twisted into the sarcastic smirk he favored. “You might have a point there.”

“Yeah, you bet I do.” I leaned back on the headrest. After a two-day journey, a three-hour drive, and a car wreck, I felt as if someone had taken a bat to me.

“You’re looking very sleepy there,” he said. “Talk to me. Are you all right?”

“I’ll live,” I mumbled, rubbing the knot behind my ear.

“Are you hurt?” He turned on the cabin lights and leaned over to inspect my head as he continued to drive. “Is that a bruise behind your ear? Hell, I didn’t notice before.” The truck swerved in the road. “Did you hit your head when your car went off the road? Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Just concentrate on driving straight, please.” I inched away from his touch and switched the cabin lights off. “I’m a little tired, that’s all. I haven’t slept for a few days.”

“A few days? That’s not good.” He groped behind the seat, opened the top of a small cooler and, after grabbing a bottle, handed it over to me. “Here you go.”

“No, thanks.” I wasn’t about add alcohol to my troubles.

“It’s not for drinking.” He pressed the cold bottle to the side of my head. “It’s to keep the swelling down.”

“Oh.” I took the bottle from him and held it against the lump.

“Hang on tight,” he said. “That’s a real nice handcrafted lager. I wouldn’t want it to go to waste.”

“Got it,” I said. “Hanging on to the brew over here.”

He smiled, a genuine, eye-lightening grin that eased the angles on his face and radiated charm and warmth. Could a guy who smiled like that really be a jerk or a serial killer?

The world around us turned into a white maelstrom. The wind wrestled with the truck. The road became invisible under a new layer of snow. Seth geared down and kept his eyes on the road as we negotiated some hairy turns and the road’s deteriorating conditions. In all my twenty-nine years of life, I’d never seen weather like this.

“We’re not beating the storm, are we?”

“This is just the beginning.” He tilted his head and surveyed the sky. “It’s going to get bad soon, thirteen hours of very nasty wind, snow, and ice.”

My timing sucked. “And I thought this was bad.”

“This is nothing.” He slowed down to maneuver over a bridge. “I don’t suppose you get blizzards in Miami. But don’t worry, we’re almost there.”

“Goody,” I mumbled.

I knew my chances of getting to a hotel tonight were nil, but I needed to keep it together, at least until we got to the cabin. With a little luck, it might be a two-room cabin, with a door and a lock between me and the rest of the place. A door chain would be nice, but I could always improvise.

I eyed the man riding next to me. Maybe under all that hubris, he’d turn out to be a decent human being. After all, he had stopped to help me. I toyed with the idea of giving him a quick rundown of my condition, but my hackles went up. No way. He was a stranger and a guy and maybe even a little off, with all that paranoia. I knew from experience what would happen if I warned him. No need to add premeditation to humiliation.

All of a sudden, my vision narrowed. My thoughts slowed down to a crawl. My body slacked and my eyelids slammed over my eyes like hurricane shutters. I ran out of time and energy at the same moment. Oh, crap. I knew exactly what was happening to me.

“Hey, Summer.” Seth’s voice came from far away. “We’re almost there.” He shook me softly. “Wake up. Stick with me, girl.”

I had no time to explain. “Make sure you lock the door,” I mumbled, before I conked out.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Romantic Suspense, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Write to Die, by Charles Rosenberg

cover-2Title: Write to Die

Author: Charles Rosenberg

Publication Date:  July 26, 2016

Category:   Mystery/Thriller

Formats:  Trade Paper, ISBN:  978- 1503937611, $15.95,  Kindle, $3.99

Page Count:   498 (approximately)

Publisher:   Thomas & Mercer

Publicity Contact:  Maryglenn McCombs  (615) 297-9875 maryglenn@maryglenn.com

Book description: Hollywood’s latest blockbuster is all set to premiere—until a faded superstar claims the script was stolen from her. To defend the studio, in steps the Harold Firm, one of Los Angeles’s top entertainment litigation firms and as much a part of the glamorous scene as the studios themselves. As a newly minted partner, it’s Rory Calburton’s case, and his career, to win or lose. But the seemingly tame civil trial turns lethal when Rory stumbles upon the strangled body of his client’s general counsel. And the ties that bind in Hollywood constrict even tighter when the founder of the Harold Firm is implicated in the murder. Rory is certain the plagiarism and murder cases are somehow connected, and with the help of new associate Sarah Gold—who’s just finished clerking for the chief justice—he’s determined to get answers. Will finding out who really wrote the script lead them to the mastermind of the real-life murder?

Chapter 1

SUNDAY

The story began when his phone rang.

He struggled out of a deep Sunday morning sleep, fumbled the phone to his ear, got out “Hello” and heard a deep voice say, “Rory, Joe Stanton. I need to see you.”

“Joe, I just saw you on Friday.”

“Well, so what? I need you again. My office. Five o’clock.”

Rory wanted to say, “It’s Sunday, and I have plans.” But he knew he had no real choice. Joe’s studio, TheSun/TheMoon/TheStars, was his firm’s largest client. Joe was the general counsel—the guy who distributed all of the litigation work on which Rory’s law firm feasted. But even as he stifled his real thoughts and said, “Okay, see you there,” he realized Stanton had already hung up.

***

Rory had been on the studio lot so frequently in the past few years that they had finally caved and given him a drive-on pass, something unheard of for outside lawyers. He flashed it at the guard gate—the security camera would later document that he drove through at 5:06 p.m.—and made his way, via the fake streets used to film cityscapes, to the oddly named Executive Office Structure. There were a few other cars around, but not many, and Rory amused himself by sliding into the slot reserved for the studio head.

Joe’s office was on the top floor, and Rory took the steps up, the better to add a little more exercise to his day. His bad knee always did better going up than down. It had surprised him that the entry door into the stairwell was unlocked and annoyed him that he was out of breath by the time he got to the top.

The door to Joe’s assistant’s office was wide open, and nobody was at the desk—amazing in itself because when Joe was in the office, an assistant was always there, too, day or night. The door to Joe’s own office was to the right of the assistant’s desk. It was closed.

Rory knocked. When there was no answer, he knocked again, louder, eased the door open and peeked around the edge. Joe was sitting in his leather chair, behind his over-large black granite desk, his body tilted slightly to the left. An ugly black-and-blue bruise spanned his neck from ear to ear, and his swollen tongue protruded from his mouth. Blood clotted in his hair.

What went through Rory’s head was remarkably rational, considering that his heart rate had accelerated to twice normal speed. If I go in there, I’ll get my fingerprints and probably my DNA all over everything. And the guy’s clearly dead, so I can’t help him.

He closed the door, but not all the way, called 911 on his cell, calmly reported the body and its location and waited. While he waited there in the assistant’s office, the door to Joe’s office swung entirely open again on its own. He wanted to turn away, but he had the odd feeling it was somehow disrespectful to the body to do that. So he just stared at it until suddenly a breeze, or something, slammed the door shut again.

The 911 call had apparently alerted studio security as well as the city’s emergency system, because within a few minutes a studio cop showed up, out of breath from running up the steps. Rory pointed to the door and tried to say “Dead,” but all that came out was a croak. He tried again and got the word out.

“Anyone else in there?”

“Don’t think so, but I’m not sure. I opened the door, but then it closed again on its own. The wind, maybe.”

The guard motioned him away, drew his gun, flattened himself to the wall beside the door and, while turning the doorknob with his spare hand, kicked the door wide open. Crouching slightly and holding the gun straight out in front of him, he cleared first the open doorway and then, moving inside, the space to each side of the door. Rory thought it a brave thing. If somebody had been inside with a gun or a knife, the guard could’ve bought the farm.

“The room’s clear,” the man said. Then, as if he had not yet really focused on the corpse in the chair, he added, “Oh my God.”

Rory heard the sirens as the police and paramedics arrived, and he watched LAPD uniforms stream out of the stairway, consult the studio guard and go through the same routine of clearing the room, guns drawn. Within ten minutes, there were six more people, including men and women wearing white coats with LAPD insignia stitched above the pockets. Suddenly, yellow crime scene tape was everywhere.

Rory heard the studio guard on his walkie-talkie telling the front gate, “Don’t let any media in here . . . No, nobody, even if they’ve got a pass . . . They’ll be coming soon, they’ve probably already heard about it on the police scanner. And post somebody on the walk-in gate on the back lot.”

A Detective Johnson, according to his name plate, a big African American guy who was actually taller than Rory’s own six foot five, and maybe heavier, too, emerged from Joe’s office wearing white booties and latex gloves. He peeled the gloves off and took out a small notebook. “You the guy who found him?”

“Yeah.”

“The other detectives will want to talk to you later. I’ll get the basics from you now.”

It didn’t take long. Rory answered that he didn’t know if Joe had any enemies, in part because he didn’t know the victim very well.

“Any idea why he wanted to meet with you?”

Rory shrugged. “I’m an outside entertainment lawyer representing the studio in a big copyright case. There’s a court hearing going on about it right now. Maybe he wanted to talk about that. But he didn’t say. Just said he wanted to see me today.”

“I see.”

“So, Detective,” Rory said, “is there any way he could have . . . choked himself, somehow? Is that possible?”

“Not unless you can strangle yourself and make the rope disappear afterward.”

“No sign of it?”

He shook his head. “It was good you didn’t go in there. A lot of people would have. How did you have the smarts not to?”

“A long time ago, I was a deputy DA. You learn stuff in that job.”

“And now you’re—what did you say? An entertainment lawyer?” Without waiting for Rory to confirm, he rolled on: “Hey, have you heard this one?”

Here we go, Rory thought. Even in the middle of a gruesome crime scene.

“What’s the difference between a dead lawyer and a dead armadillo in the road, Counselor?”

“I don’t know. What?”

“No skid marks in front of the lawyer.” He guffawed at his own joke.

Rory had been thinking up good responses to lawyer jokes for years. Maybe this wasn’t the time to try one out, but then again, maybe it was.

“That’s funny, Detective, but what about this one? How many clients does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

“Uh, I dunno.”

“Well, no one knows, because clients always call their lawyers to come over and help.”

“Huh?”

“It’s a client joke.”

“I gotta think about that one.”

“Yes. Do that. May I go now?”

“Yes.”

“You have my card. If any of the other detectives need to talk to me, please tell ’em to give me a call.”

“I expect they will.” He paused. “Say, do lawyers often tell each other client jokes?”

“Nope, but they should.”

Rory left Detective Johnson, walked back to his car in the parking lot and opened the door. Then he turned around and threw up on the asphalt, getting some on his pants. When he felt like it wasn’t going to happen again, he drove home, cleaned up and tried to eat something. But he wasn’t hungry. Then he tried to sleep but found it hard. He finally got up, rummaged in his medicine cabinet and found a bottle of Valium that an old girlfriend had left behind. He took one and fell into a troubled sleep.

 

Excerpted from WRITE TO DIE with permission of the publisher, Thomas & Mercer. Copyright 2016 (c) Charles Rosenberg. All rights reserved. 

 

Categories: Thriller, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal:WHISTLE BLOWER AND DOUBLE AGENTS, by Ruth J. Anderson

CoverTitleWHISTLE BLOWER AND DOUBLE AGENTS

Author: Ruth J. Anderson

Publisher: The Peppertree Press

Genre: Thriller/Espionage

Release date: July 2016

Purchase at Amazon and B&N

About the bookDuring a visit to the CIA on a safeguards inquiry, an Atomic Energy Commission nuclear scientist finds that the safeguards program of his agency was flawed and allowed for nuclear material to be stolen from within the nuclear plant and passed on to other countries.  Deeply alarmed, he reported this finding to the AEC, and later to the U.S. Congress and the President.  But when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman falls in love with a beautiful female undercover CIA operative, what follows is a pulse-quickening, globe-spanning page turner that will leave readers wondering where truth ends and fiction begins—if at all…

CHAPTER 1

A loud persistent buzz of the telephone awakened Jim Miller

some time before six o’clock in the morning—a telephone used

strictly for official business. When it rang, it usually meant trouble.

His wife Nancy referred to it as the ‘hop’ line, because it was

the only time Jim moved swiftly from a lying-down position. He

preferred to waken slowly—dozing several times before greeting

the day.

“Good morning, Jim, hope I didn’t wake you,” the voice on the

other end teased.

“Good morning, Mr. President, nice of you to call and no, you

didn’t awaken me,” Jim lied.

“Lunch in my office today at noon?” The question was more of

a command than a query.

Jim Miller knew quite well, no one turned down an invitation

from the President of the United States.

“Yes, sir!” his enthusiastic answer met deaf ears as the telephone

went dead on the other end.

The brutal heat of a steamy summer day hit the black top of

the limousine like a hot torch touched to a metal instrument. Jim

turned his head slightly to observe the familiar white building to

his left as it came into view. Strangely enough, everyone referred

it as the ‘House’ even though its main purpose was business—the

business of politics. Through the ages, numerous families had

been sheltered here. Allegedly, the ghosts of many great men still

walked its halls, lingering in the darkness to observe the living.

Jim entered the White House and turned the corner leading to

the hall, which led to the Oval Office. It surprised and pleased

him to see George Keannealy standing in the doorway as if awaiting

his arrival. The tall, handsome man—young for an American

president—was exactly the same age as Jim. His laughing blue

eyes, permanently creased at the corners, complemented a wide

mouth always eager to smile. Impeccably dressed, he wore an

understated single-breasted gray suit, complemented by a dapper

white dress shirt with a striking dark rose silk tie sprinkled in a

fleur de lis pattern. His appearance bespoke of wealth and good

taste, while his boyishness depicted youth and energy.

In the deep pockets of his memories, Jim recalled how he had

first met George and his wife, Sarah, now the First Lady. Indeed,

Jim had known Sarah before George. In her late teens, she had

dated Jim’s roommate at West Point. As he thought back to those

days, he realized how indebted he was to Sarah, since she introduced

him to Nancy Forsythe, his wife. From high school on,

Nancy and Sarah had been close friends, attending the same prestigious

schools and parties.

When Jim and Nancy became seriously involved, Nancy’s ultra-

wealthy and society-conscious family opposed their engagement

at first. Her family owned a string of very fine department

stores, headquartered in New York City. Despite their ostentatious

background, Nancy did not come across as the average snobbish

debutante. Early in their courtship, she had seen in Jim the potential

to be a good husband, father, and a successful man. She

had carefully factored in her support and guidance to assure that

success. And had skillfully convinced her family he would make a

fine asset to the clan.

Although not beautiful by a model’s standard, Nancy certainly

would be considered pretty. Or perhaps ‘stylish’ would be a better

word to describe her. She wore her streaked blond hair pulled

back severely in a French twist—the fashion of the day. Ringlets,

slipping out across her delicate face, created an aura of sweet serenity.

Her good friend, Sarah, distinctly contrasted in personality

and looks to Nancy, a different breed altogether. In her early days

at Smith College, Sarah earned the name ‘party girl.’ Whenever

she could escape the confines of the staid old institution, she could

be found drinking, dancing, and sinning with the best or worst of

them. The dark-eyed, redheaded beauty had young men swarming

to her side, like honeybees to a savory hive. Her family, the

epitome of old money, handed the financial management of their

company to a slow-witted heir, who knew little about stocks and

bonds. Like all things old and neglected, the money soon began to

dry up and pass away.

Fortunately, during this financial deathwatch, Sarah approached

womanhood. Their adolescent daughter grew into a ravishing

beauty in both form and grace. In a last ditch attempt to salvage

their good name from the disgrace of poverty, the Lacroix family

gathered what was left of their substantial fortune and situated

her in one of the best schools in the country to mingle with the

wealthy and influential. Hopefully, she would find a rich husband,

one generous to a fault, who could not conceive of allowing his

wife’s family to languish in pauperism.

When Sarah married George Keannealy, it was the happiest day

of their lives. At last, her family was connected to the moneyed

gentry, if not by blood, by marriage. They hoped and prayed for

an early issue of this marriage. Children, after all, would bind the

families together once and for all.

In contrast, Jim’s family was about as middle-class as a suburban

Chicago family could be. His father had been a small town

lawyer, not particularly successful, who died from the ravages

of alcoholism when Jim was a teenager. An only child, Jim was

raised by a doting mother and grandfather. His mother worked

in a hospital as a nurse’s aide, while his grandfather, a widower,

held a minor position in the state government. He devoted his

spare time to the proper guidance and disciplining of his grandson,

whom he adored.

Growing up during the years before World War II, the young

boy became enthralled with the military. His grandfather encouraged

him. Pragmatic in his reasoning, he supported Jim’s desire

to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point, New

York. He accepted long ago that no financial way was available

for him to send his gifted grandson to an Ivy League college. West

Point would offer Jim a four-year college education, with a basic

curriculum stressing mathematics, science, and engineering.

Simultaneously, it would focus broadly on shaping his character

around the ideal of its motto—duty, honor, country. And that

pleased the old man very much. Over his mother’s protests, Jim

applied for, and was accepted into the military academy. Accepted

eagerly, considering the superiority of his grades and his outstanding

abilities on the football field. Always an overachiever, Jim excelled

at the Point, graduating second in his class.

High school and college football along with years of rigorous

training in the army, had kept Jim physically fit. Broad shoulders,

narrow hips, and muscular arms and legs fitted nicely on his 6 foot

3 body. He was more rugged looking than his friend, the president,

as a broken nose during some of his combatant situations on the

field saw to that. Nevertheless, he was polished in personality and

mannerism, and adroit in all of the formal niceties. Underneath

this diplomatic facade, however, was an aggressive nature that

could be called upon at will. Indeed, a complete change in character

and temperament could occur in precise seconds.

At the Pentagon, where he was stationed now, women found

him far more attractive than his wife could appreciate. Perhaps it

was the splendid military uniform—the high rank of a four-star

general—and the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that

added to his presence.

While a great deal of Jim’s service had been abroad, where

his knowledge of several languages had been an asset to his military

career, he and Nancy had not lost track of George Keannealy

and his wife, Sarah. Indeed, whenever time and purpose allowed,

they visited each other in foreign lands or in the US, especially in

Connecticut, where George and Sarah had purchased an imposing

estate, which was linked with its own golf course, tennis courts,

swimming pool, and a small compact runway to accommodate a

private plane or helicopter.

“Lighten up! You don’t have to stand at attention here, particularly

behind closed doors. We’ve known each other far too long,

and I’m not about to be pretentious around you,” the president

chided. “And for god’s sake, call me George,” he smiled—that

wonderful smile that had ultimately won him the election. He

pointed abruptly to an overstuffed chair, upholstered in a striking

black-watch tartan. “Sit,” he said, “and let’s get down to business.”

Jim slid quickly into the comfortable chair designated for him.

Leaning forward, he eagerly anticipated what the president would

tell him, since he had not given him the slightest inkling over the

telephone. He knew it would be something important, otherwise,

George would not have asked him to the Oval Office solely for a

bite to eat.

Just as George started to speak, the door to his office swung

open, and an attractive female head announced “Lunch is here Mr.

President. Shall I send in the steward?”

“I’m famished,” replied George. “Bring it in.”

A small dark mahogany table in his office was opened to full

length and spread evenly with a crisp white-linen cloth. As the

table was set, Jim could not contain the laughter building inside

of him.

“Go ahead and laugh,” George said. “I’m still having my peanut

butter and jelly.”

Jim knew that at the president’s country estate, there had always

been peanut butter and jelly served with lunch and sometimes

breakfast. But it almost seemed bizarre to have it served

within the stateliness of the Oval Office. The meal consisted of all

the foods George liked—tuna fish salad and homemade vegetable

soup, and of course, the ever-present and important peanut butter

and jelly.

After lunch, George began to divulge what was on his mind.

“Jim, there are some openings at the Atomic Energy

Commission, and I’d like to nominate you for the chairmanship.”

His hand went to Jim’s shoulder to quiet him. “Now hear me out,”

he said firmly. “You have all the qualifications for the job. With

your background in engineering, you should be quickly confirmed

on the Hill. And, from a selfish standpoint, I also need someone I

can trust in that position.”

The president left the small dining table now; moving to the

French doors, which led to the White House residence and the

Rose Garden. The garden was in full bloom this time of year and

adorned in resplendent beauty. It was a catharsis to George and

he was often found there inhaling the peaceful quietude, particularly

during troublesome times when the burdens of the office laid

heavily upon his shoulders.

“I am flattered, George, that you would consider me for this

high position, and grateful for your trust in me,” Jim said, almost

reverently. He wondered privately, however, why he would be

pulled out of the Pentagon and moved to the AEC at a time when

disturbing forces in the Far East were becoming more and more of

a concern to peace in the world.

“That’s the key word, ‘trust’,” George said, as he continued to

stare out at the garden.

“I’ve chosen you to tackle a very grave and important problem

that has arisen in the nuclear industry. You see, there’s a nuclear

processing plant located in Axion, Pennsylvania, which has a

consistent and unexplained MUF in its accounting records … you

know what a MUF is, don’t you?” he asked.

“Yes, it stands for, Materials Unaccounted For,” Jim replied.

“That’s right,” the president interrupted, “and the MUF we are

talking about here appears to be a diversion of weapons’-grade

uranium, the kind from which you can make atomic bombs.” He

paused dramatically, and then continued, “A substantial amount is

missing from this plant. AEC officials are still checking, but I’m

told that, given the right circumstances, the amount of missing

material could equal several good-sized atomic bombs.”

“I presume the FBI and CIA are on board with this?” Jim asked.

“You can bet your sweet ass on that,” George replied, looking

at his watch. “As a matter of fact, the FBI director should be showing

up here any time. I want you to meet him.”

He turned from the garden scene before him, and walked briskly

across the red carpet etched with the great seal of the President

of the United States. He stopped abruptly when he reached his

desk, and his hand laid siege to the red authoritative telephone,

waiting there for his bidding.

“Has Herman arrived yet?” the president questioned annoyingly.

“Well, damn it, send him in,” he ordered.

The man who entered through the Oval Office portals had light

brown hair, graying at the temples, and cut very short all around.

He was obese, so when he walked, he waddled lazily like a duck

emerging from a pond. His 5 foot 7 inch frame struggled to balance

the excess poundage it was forced to carry. Thick black eyebrows,

that met in one long solid line above a small pug nose, was

as unkempt as his rumpled suit, but it was his black piercing eyes

that were the real focal point of his face.

After the usual introductions and handshakes, Herman Glover,

director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, slowly moved his

large mound of flesh to the unfortunate sofa that would be obliged

to hold it. He slid the well-worn, government-issued briefcase

down on the floor near his feet, and waited patiently for the president

to open the meeting.

“Jim, as soon as we can get you confirmed and into your new

position, Herman will be sending you several undercover FBI

agents to work with you. However, they will be reporting directly

to him.”

Herman Glover looked straight at Jim and grinned—a grin

not unlike the proverbial grin on the Cheshire cat in Alice in

Wonderland. If only he would disappear like the cat, thought Jim,

for in his gut, he knew Glover was not a man to be trusted.

 

Categories: Suspense, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter Reveal: ‘Curse of the Blue Vagina’ by Jonisha Rios

blue vagina cover (jpeg) (1).jpgTitle: CURSE OF THE BLUE VAGINA
Genre: WOMEN’S FICTION/ HUMOR 
Author: JONISHA RIOS
Website: CURSE OF THE BLUE VAGINA.COM
Publisher:  Leticia Gomez Publisher/Cafe con Leche Books
I bet you’re wondering why I’m sitting in a cramped
jail cell wearing my wedding dress the morning
of my Big Day. Well, I sorta lost it at breakfast.
Only I would never actually hurt anyone. Besides I’m
Latina. I’m a good person by nature. Contrary to what
most people think, we aren’t all hot-tempered, that is,
unless you did something to seriously piss us off. What
were they thinking locking me up like this? I mean if the
people at the IHOP thought I could kill anyone with a
spork, then they’re crazier than I am. A spork wouldn’t
even pierce the skin. Trust me I know. My sister tried
stabbing me with one after I ate the last chocolate Jell-
O-pudding pop when we were kids.
 
In exactly two hours and forty-five minutes, I’m
scheduled to become Mrs. Ray Lopez. The title of Mrs.
is a big deal in my Nuyorican family because it means
that not only would I escape life as an old maid, but also
that the rumors of me being gay would finally be laid to
rest. I’m set to get married at a low-key chapel called
Saint Luke’s. It’s the only church in town that typically
takes in more funeral services than weddings. Sure,
Uncle Paco and a string of other dead relatives had been
carried down that aisle before me. Who cares? I’m determined
to make my “Special Day” happen come hell
or come high water. Besides, the church was in need of
some money so I booked it for a steal of a deal.
 
I’m running out of time and the officer out there refused
to let me make my one phone call, until I “calm
down,” so everyone at the church will probably think I
went AWOL. Oh well, fuck it, at least now I get to have
some time to be by myself and get to the bottom of my
meltdown.
 
 
 
My relationship with Ray has never been smooth or
easy. In fact, lately it seems like we’ve been apart longer
than we’ve been together. Thing is, despite that, I thought
we had our shit together and were moving ahead. Now I
may never get married, and it’s all because of the Curse
of the Blue Vagina!
 
“What is that?” you ask. To put it simply the Curse
of the Blue Vagina is to women what Blue Balls are to
men. Problem is when men get “Blue Balls”, they are
left physically unsatisfied, which is temporary, and
when women get the “Blue Vagina”, they are left
emotionally unsatisfied, which lasts forever.
 
You may think that this Curse is total nonsense,
but it’s not, it’s very real it causes your vag to turn a bluish-tinted
color that creates a recurring painful sensation that
ultimately leads to heartbreak. And it is not to be
confused with Bacterial Vaginosis or the Blue Waffle
Disease that creates a similar blue discoloration.
No! This kind of BV comes with its own different
set of symptoms along with a plethora of blue shades
to match that ultimately take an emotional toll
on you. To make matters worse, it only seems to
affect a certain portion of the Latina population.
(Mostly those of us who were raised in
conservative Catholic families, where guilt is part of
our natural upbringing.)
It is said when you have BV, not even El Cuco
himself will come and haunt you. You become like a
walking stick of dynamite. Don’t even think about
making yourself all cozy on Abuelitas plastic covered
couch because you’re likely to burn a hole right
through it.
This is not some old wives’ tale either. There’s
a documented history of women out there who have
devastating stories to tell. If you don’t believe me, just
go to your local Santera, and she’ll pull out a dusty old
book, something as fearsome and heavy as the Bible.
In there is where all our sisters have gone astray. If you
don’t pay attention to how you’re living your life, it will
strike you down like the plague.
It’s horrible. Your mind gets all fuzzy and your heart
starts palpitating. Your stomach feels like you have but-
terflies fluttering then dive-bombing to their death.
This ain’t nerves. Your body gets rocked by convulsions
like it’s expelling the very devil himself.
And here is the kicker—apparently I’m stuck
with this unless I find out what caused it, and break the
spell once and for all. The Curse came back to haunt
me last night at my bachelorette party.
Categories: Uncategorized, Women's Fiction | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: ‘What Might Have Been’ by Lynn Steward

NameLynn Steward

Book Title:  What Might Have Been

Genre:  Literary Fiction

Publisher:  Lynn Steward Publishing

As a fashion buyer at one of New York’s most glamorous department stores, Dana McGarry is a tastemaker, her keen instinct for fashion trends and innovative ideas coupled with a razor sharp business sense. But like the elegant and conservative store that employs her, Dana is caught between two eras—between being liked and standing her ground, between playing by the rules and being a maverick. Dana is sensitive and beautiful, but what you see is not what you get.Behind the cool and attractive facade, Dana is both driven by her need to control yet impeded by her expectation of perfectionism. As she competes to replace women at the top of their game, she is challenged by jealous colleagues. And when a wealthy love interest wants to open doors and support her ambition, she embraces Coco Chanel’s mantra of “never wanting to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.” As the women’s movement paves the way, Dana finds a path to the career she wants at the expense of happiness that was not meant to be.

Steward captures the nuances of 70s life in New York City and provides the perfect backdrop for an independent woman determined to make her mark. What Might Have Been is a story that transcends any period.

What Might Have Been

By Lynn Steward

Chapter One

Dana McGarry, on vacation for the first time as a single woman, arrived at the Lansdowne Club at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, just steps from Berkeley Square, in London’s fashionable Mayfair on the morning of April 8, 1975.  Her lawyer had filed papers for a legal separation from her husband Brett in January, and after four months of being under the watchful eyes of well-meaning family and friends, Dana was savoring every moment of her solo trip across the pond.  She and Brett had always stayed at the nearby Chesterfield Hotel, but her beloved Colony Club in New York City enjoyed reciprocity with the Lansdowne Club, where she’d previously attended lunches and lectures while her husband met with clients for his Wall Street law firm.  Undeterred by the steady English rain and dark clouds hanging over the slick gray streets, she stepped from one of London’s fabled black taxis with renewed spirit, excited to think that the distinguished house in Berkeley Square would be her home for the next five days.    After Dana checked in, the hall porter asked her if she would like tea brought to her room and then discreetly disappeared with her luggage, a small, welcoming gesture that stood in contrast to an impersonal hotel.  Rather than immediately taking the lift to her room on the fifth floor, Dana stepped into the entrance hall and surveyed the club’s interior, intending to explore Scottish architect Robert Adam’s stately masterpiece commissioned in 1761 for King George III’s prime minister, the Earl of Bute.  Previously, she had limited herself to the dining room, never taking time to appreciate the club’s historic beauty.  Although rich with finely-crafted embellishments and Neoclassical splendor, the house was clearly showing signs of fatigue, and its understated elegance made the environment that much more comfortable.  Dana knew she’d made the right choice. The club was an oasis of tradition and tranquility affording her the peace and privacy she needed.

When Dana arrived in her junior suite, she noticed a bouquet of flowers sitting on a table in the sitting area. Thinking they were compliments of the club, Dana opened the attached note and laughed out loud.  The flowers had been sent by her childhood friend, Johnny Cirone.  The message read, “Take Phoebe shopping and buy up the town.  Whatever you do, enjoy yourself.  Love, Johnny.”

Dr. Phoebe Cirone, who was in London attending a cardiology convention, was Johnny’s sister.  Their father, John Cirone, known affectionately to Dana and her brother Matthew as Uncle John, was the head of the House of Cirone, a manufacturer of ladies eveningwear.  Having a passion for medicine from an early age, Phoebe had never expressed interest in clothes or haute couture, leaving Johnny to reluctantly carry on family tradition by working for his father.  Dana’s parents, Phil and Virginia Martignetti, had been friends with the Cirones since before her birth.

Dana, pleased to see a porcelain tea service had already arrived, took her cup to the window and sipped the Darjeeling as she observed the new plantings in the courtyard garden.  The peace she’d felt a few minutes ago was gone, however.  Something about Johnny’s note, as thoughtful as it was, unnerved her.  Johnny and her mother called daily to see how she was doing.  Dana sensed their concern, although she felt it was unwarranted.  What did they think—that she was going to kill herself because the divorce would soon be final?  They obviously didn’t recognize her personal strength and resolve.  Dana worked at New York City’s B. Altman, and the previousDecember she’d formed the department store’s first Teen Advisory Board.  She had also succeeded in getting Ira Neimark, the store’s executive vice president, to sign off on installing a teen makeup counter on the main selling floor over the objections of Helen Kavanagh, junior buyer, who thought youth-oriented strategies like those at London’s Biba, were a waste of time and money.   Despite these personal triumphs, she’d taken aggressive steps to further advance her career, leaving her comfortable job in the marketing department for the position of junior accessories buyer.  She had requested time off for this visit to London immediately after settling into the new assignment, and that alone was proof that she knew how to take care of herself.

Dana had been equally aggressive in terminating her marriage to Brett.  Papers for a legal separation had been filed in January by Dana’s lawyer when she discovered that Brett was having an affair with fellow litigator Janice Conlon, a saucy and impertinent young woman from California.  Negotiations for a final settlement were proceeding smoothly, with no protests originating from either Brett or his lawyer lest the firm be apprised of his misconduct with the audacious Conlon.  In the four months since their separation, Dana had realized that Brett’s dalliance with the abrasive Conlon had merely been a catalyst for the end of their relationship since there had been something far deeper and more troubling in their marriage: Brett’s growing neglect of Dana as he vigorously pursued partnership with the firm.  His work always served as a convenient excuse to pick and choose his time with Dana and in the long run, that grim reality had proven intolerable.  Within days of learning of Brett’s infidelity, Dana contacted an attorney and moved from her Murray Hill apartment to a carriage house a few blocks away in Sniffen Court.

Given the decisive actions in her personal and professional life, Dana therefore felt smothered at times by the daily concerns of others.  As for her traveling abroad alone, she felt more than competent to take care of herself.  When Brett had been with her in London, they were rarely together.  He usually spent days working, and evenings meeting with clients, joining Dana for late dinners, if at all.  He was up and out by 7:00 a.m.  She’d always hoped that the next trip would be better, but this was never the case.  Traveling alone?  It was all she knew.

Yes, it had all happened just four months ago, illustrating how the course of a life can change so radically and quickly.  But was she ecstatically happy now that a new phase of her life and career had begun, with Brett being almost surgically excised from the picture?  No, she wasn’t jubilant about anything at present, but she was content, at peace with the decisions she had made to take care of herself and her future.  In the words of her father, she had discovered that she had “a very good life” despite longstanding marital woes and formidable professional challenges.  Many of her friends had urged her to re-enter the dating scene since she was almost thirty and the clock was ticking, but Dana didn’t miss married life in the least and had no interest whatsoever in dating, especially guys described as the perfect match: upwardly mobile professionals, or “Brett clones,” the apt description provided by Andrew Ricci, Dana’s good friend and display director at the store.  Besides, marriage was not the only path to a fulfilled life.  In Dana’s estimation, happiness also resulted from pursuing a creative dream, enjoying good friendships and the myriad interests that gave her immense pleasure, such as travel, literature, films, and lectures on a wide variety of topics.  Being suddenly single was not a condition to be cured but rather an opportunity to be savored.

A line from Dickens came to mind as she thought of events that had altered her life:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Dana had survived the tumultuous weeks of the previous December, when she realized her marriage was over, but surely this was now the best of times, was it not?  She smiled as she contemplated her walk tomorrow morning to Piccadilly for breakfast at Fortnum & Mason, followed by a long and leisurely visit to Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop.  The thought of Dickens reminded her of the delight she took in finding rare editions of the classics, or even first editions of lesser-known authors.  Today, however, she was going to enjoy Richoux’s delicious risotto when she lunched with Phoebe, who was staying within walking distanceat the Grosvenor House on Park Lane.  Filled with a new surge of energy, the blue-eyed Dana freshened up, brushed her short blond hair, and grabbed a shawl and a pair of unlined leather gloves. The clouds were beginning to part, and the steady English drizzle had let up, but it was still a nippy fifty-four degrees—a perfect spring day in London.

Rays of sunshine were reflected by leaded windows in the rows of eighteenth century townhomes Dana passed as she strolled leisurely through Berkeley Square.  It was only eleven thirty and she had an hour before meeting Phoebe at her hotel, enough time for a short detour across Hill Street and Hays Mews to the Farm Street Church, also known as the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception.  Years earlier, she’d been sitting on a bench in Mount Street Gardens when she looked up and beheld one of the church’s open gothic portals that seemed so inviting, beckoning her to enter and pray.  Then as now, it had been a glorious April day, the kind celebrated by Chaucer in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, when spring rains provide rich “liquor” for flowers suffering winter’s drought.

Dana arrived at the church and chose to enter from Mount Street Gardens rather than Farm Street, as she’d done on her original visit.  In the transept to the right of Our Lady of Farm Street statue was the Sacred Heart Chapel, and this is where Dana chose to pray in deference to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who’d taught her for twelve years in her youth.  She knelt in the third pew, said a decade of the rosary, and then sat, looking up to admire, as she always did, the glorious painting of the Sacred Heart flanked by four saints above an inlaid marble altar with three brass reliefs.  But instead of finding peace in this pious setting, the silence suddenly became deafening, and the alabaster walls of the chapel began to feel close, confining.  A wave of emotion engulfed her, and she cried uncontrollably, questioning her impulsive decision to end her eight-year marriage—and without considering her vows taken before God, family, and friends. What a hypocrite she felt herself to be—a selfish hypocrite who had turned her back on the faith that was such an integral part of her life.

Glancing at her watch, Dana saw that it was almost noon.  She needed to pull herself together and be on her way to meet Phoebe.  She took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, and walked outside to a bench in Mount Street Gardens, where she would spend a few moments composing herself.

In the sacristy, a priest was marking the readings for the twelve-thirty mass in the gilt-edged lectionary when he heard anguished sobs emanating from the Sacred Heart Chapel.  Curious, he stepped into the sanctuary in time to see a young woman exiting the side door leading to the gardens.  He followed her and observed her sitting on a bench fifteen yards away.  He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and said a brief prayer.   

*                                  *                                  *

Looking in her compact mirror, Dana wiped away the mascara beneath her eyes and reapplied a bit of powder to her cheeks.  She didn’t want Phoebe to see that she’d been crying.  What could she possibly say in answer to any questions her friend might have?  That she was upset over the abrupt manner in which she’d dissolved an eight-year marriage to an inattentive man who’d cheated on her?  No, the emotions that had spilled forth in the chapel had taken Dana by surprise, and they needed to be processed in private moments of reflection.

Dana had been resting her eyes when she looked up and saw a priest approaching the bench.  The Jesuit, a tall man in his early fifties, walked with a confident gait, and the smile on his face was evident when he was still several feet away.

“Good morning,” he said.  “Lovely day.”  He could tell the young woman was upset and,               in point of fact, she wasn’t the only one he’d encountered on the grounds who needed consolation or, at the very least, a friendly smile.

“Yes, Father, it is,” Dana replied.  “A splendid day.”

“Are you on holiday, or are we blessed to have you as a new parishioner?” he asked.

Dana examined the priest’s face more carefully.  He wore rimless glasses, and pale blue eyes regarded her kindly beneath close-cut salt and pepper hair.  He was dressed in a black clerical suit and looked to be strong and vigorous despite his gentle manner.

“On holiday, Father,” Dana replied. “I come here whenever I’m in London and wanted to stop in and . . . visit.  I was taught by the Sacred Heart sisters back in New York.”

“A New Yorker!” Father Macaulay said. “And a member of the family, so to speak.  May I sit?” he asked, motioning to the bench.

A member of the family, Dana thought, again fighting back tears.  Not anymore.

“I’m sorry, Father,” Dana mumbled, rising to leave.  “I’m meeting someone and I’m late.”

Father Macaulay nodded.  “I hope you’ll visit again.  I’m here in the church or the gardens every morning from nine until I say mass.  If you can’t find me, just tell the sacristan that you’re looking for Father Charles Macaulay.”

“Thank you, Father.  Have a good day.”

Biting her lip to fight back fresh tears, Dana and Macaulay shook hands. The priest watched Dana walk out of the gardens, sensing that she was in distress.  He was a good judge of people, and he thought that Dana would surely return to the church before she boarded a plane for New York City.  Somewhere in her soul, he thought, there was unfinished business.

*                                *                                  *

Wearing sunglasses, Dana walked for five minutes along Mount Street until she reached the Grosvenor House.  Phoebe was waiting in the lounge, and after they exchanged warm greetings, they left the hotel for Richoux, which was two blocks away on South Audley Street.

The two women were shown to a small table in the dimly-lit restaurant owing to the dark wood paneling in the main dining room.  When Dana removed her sunglasses, Phoebe immediately saw that Dana was upset.  Her eyes were puffy and her smile was forced.  Phoebe cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, Do you feel like talking about it?

“I’m fine,” Dana said, brushing aside the concern.  “Nothing worth discussing.  Now tell me about you, how’s the convention?”

The two women chatted over lunch, Phoebe speaking of the lectures she’d attended on anticoagulation therapy, angioplasty, and catheterization for the diagnosis of coronary artery disease.  In turn, Dana described her new duties at B. Altman.  They laughed at Johnny Cirone’s daily calls and continued concern for Dana since her separation, although Dana was reminded yet again of the excessive attention she was receiving.

“We have to get him married off,” Phoebe said, “or at least find him a serious girlfriend.  He’s becoming a mother hen.”  She paused, knowing that Dana was holding back something painful, but decided not to press the matter.  “By the way, my dad has an offer on his house, and he’s in contract to purchase the estate sale on East 79thStreet. It’s a big renovation, so he’s hoping to get approved by the co-op board quickly and start the demo. Johnny is already interviewing contractors.”

John Cirone was moving to Manhattan since his Long Island home seemed far too large since the death of his wife two years earlier.  He’d accepted a seat on the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and Johnny was helping his dad make the long-overdue transition to the city—and to the present, away from thoughts of his deceased wife, Lena.

“It sounds like the convention is keeping you pretty busy,” Dana said.  “Would you like me to pick up Uncle John’s cigars at Sautter’s?  It’s a few blocks from the Lansdowne.”

“That would be a lifesaver,” Phoebe said.  “I have two days of seminars on using something called a stent to open up clogged arteries instead of always resorting to bypass surgery.  It would be a non-invasive procedure, but most cardiologists think it’s still years away.”  Phoebe suddenly burst out laughing.  “And here I am, bringing my father cigars, which is the last thing a cardiologist should do.”

The two women finished lunch, Phoebe heading to the convention for afternoon lectures,

and Dana returning to the Lansdowne Club, where she finished unpacking.

Dana sipped afternoon tea while paging through a book of poems she’d found lying on the end table by the sofa, her thoughts returning to her display of emotion that morning.  Brett had indeed been quickly and surgically excised from her life, perhaps too quickly, and yet she had received no judgments about the decision to do so from her parents.   She was aware, of course, that Virginia had always been a bit leery of Brett, even at the very beginning of their courtship.  As for her father, he was quite unflappable and had reminded Dana that things always work out in the end, which was a part of his lifelong, homespun philosophy that she found so comforting.  And yet Dana couldn’t shake the realization that Brett, despite all of his shortcomings, was a man she’d loved for over eight years.  Should she have given him another chance?  After all, the marriage hadn’t been all bad.  The visit to the chapel, she concluded, had reminded her of Catholic dogma regarding marriage: it was indissoluble.  Mount Street Gardens, the chapel, the brass panels—they’d brought to mind her many years with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, causing her to second guess her decision.

Leafing through the slightly-worn pages—she thought that older books had such character—she saw Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality.”  It was one of her favorite poems.  She especially liked the lines towards the end.

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

The sentiment was essentially that of her father, who had a “philosophic mind” when it came to handling disappointment.  There had been good times in the marriage, but some things were beyond repair, and Dana had indeed retained strength in what remained behind, which was a full life that included friendships and opportunity.  Dana realized how important this trip was—far more than a break from her daily routine or an enjoyable shopping spree.  On her own, she could privately mourn her marriage and process her emotions, opening her mind and heart for whatever lay ahead.  She was at peace again, ready for the rest of her stay in London.  Still, she wondered if Father Macaulay would share her perspective.  The priest had emanated kindness and understanding in the brief minutes she’d been in his presence, and now, feeling stronger, she decided to visit him again before she left London.  He’d demonstrated genuine concern, and she wanted to hear his soothing voice one more time.

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Chapter reveal: ‘The Last Wife of Attila the Hun’ by Joan Schweighardt

Title: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction with a Legendary Component

Author: Joan Schweighardt

Website: www.joanschwweighardt.com

Publisher: Five Directions Press

Purchase on Amazon

Two threads are woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second thread reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission. Based in part on the true history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a thrilling story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue.

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THE LAST WIFE OF ATTILA THE HUN

by Joan Schweighardt

Prologue

            When I was a young girl living at Worms, there was nothing I delighted in more than song. And of all those who lifted their voices in our great hall, there was none who did so as beautifully as my brother Gunner. Were he beside me now, he would rebuke me for the method that I have chosen to relate my story to you. He would insist, instead, on fashioning a melody for my words and singing them to you from beginning to end. He would begin modestly, singing, as he always did, that he had no talent for melodies, but entreating you, nevertheless, to remember his words. And, friend, as there is no bird, no summer breeze, no sweet stream lapping or soft rain falling that could compete with Gunner for one’s attention, have no doubt that you would have remembered them. He would have looked into your eyes while he sang and touched you in a deeper place than he ever touched a man or a woman when he went without his harp.

Though I can never hope to emulate his elegance, let me begin likewise, telling you first that I have no talent either. This thing, this process of setting down one word after the next on parchment, is new to me, and, as a friend once stated, tedious. And in spite of all the pains that I have taken to learn it, I find that I am apprehensive now because I cannot look into your eyes as my brother would have, because I cannot hope to touch you in that holy place where the hearts of all folk are joined together. Still, I would have you remember my words. 

The City of Attila 

1

I fell to my knees at the stream, so eager to drink that I did not think to offer a prayer until afterward, when I was satisfied and my flask was full. I was exhausted. My skin was parched and I was filthy; but according to the map my brothers had given me, I was very near my destination. I continued on foot, pulling my tired horse behind me.

I had not had a full night’s rest since the terrain had changed. The land was flat here. There were no caves or rocky ledges where I could shelter myself. The forests, so sacred to my people, had long since been replaced by endless grasslands. As I trudged through them, I felt that I had left more than my loved ones behind.

When the sky darkened, I used the single live coal I carried from the previous night’s fire to light my torch. I was sure that the light could be seen from some distance. I expected at every moment to hear the thunder of hooves beating on the arid earth. But on and on I walked, seeing no sight other than my own shadow in the gleam of the torch light and hearing no sound but that of my horse plodding along beside me.

When the sun began to rise, I saw that there was a sandy hill ahead, and hoping to see the City of Attila from its summit, I dragged myself on. But the hill was much farther away than it had seemed, and it took most of the day to reach it. And then it was much higher too, the highest ground that I had seen in days. My horse, who was content to graze on grassy clumps and to watch the marmots who dared to peek out of their holes, made it clear that he had no desire to climb. I had to coax him along, and myself as well, for now I was afraid that I would reach the summit and see nothing but more grass stretching out to the far horizon. I imagined myself wandering endlessly, seeing no one, coughing and sneezing in response to the invisible blowing dust, until my food ran out and my horse gave way.

I crawled to the top of the hill and looked down in amazement at the camp of make-shift tents below. In front of one of them a fire burned, and the carcass of an antelope was roasting over it. There were many men about, perhaps two hundred, all on horseback except for the few tending the fire.

It was not until I heard the war cry that I knew for certain that the scene was real and not some trick of my mind. I had been sighted. The entire company was suddenly galloping in my direction, a cloud of dust rising up around them. I forced myself to my feet and spread my arms to show that I carried no weapon. When I saw that the men were making their bows ready, I dropped my head and lifted my arms higher yet, to the heavens, where, I hoped, the gods were watching carefully.

Part of the company surrounded me. The others rode past, over the summit. When they were satisfied that no one was riding behind me, they joined the first group. Upon the command of one of them, they all lowered their bows. I began to breathe again. A murmur went up, and while I waited for it to subside, I studied their horses. Of the two that I could see without moving my head, one looked like the ones the Romans rode—a fine, tall, light-colored steed. The other looked like no animal I had ever seen before. Its legs were short and its head was large and somehow misshapen. Its matted mane hung down over its stout body. Its nose was snubbed and its eyes bulged like a fish’s. Its back was curved, as if by the weight of its rider. Yet its thick neck and large chest suggested great strength.

The murmur abated, and the Hun on the horse I’d been scrutinizing cried out a command in his harsh, foreign tongue. I looked up and noted that he resembled his horse. He was short and stout, large-chested, his head overly large, his neck short and thick, his nose snubbed. The only difference was that while the horse had a long mane and a bushy tail, the Hun’s hair was thin, and his beard, if one could call it that, was thinner yet. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I stared at the identical scars that ran down the sides of his face, wide, deep mutations that began beneath his deeply set eyes and ended at his mouth. “I’ve come to seek Attila,” I said.

The Hun, who appeared slightly amused, looked to his companions. A murmur went up again. While they debated, I took the opportunity to scan the other Hun faces, all hideous replicas of the one who had spoken to me. Of course, I had known the Huns were strange to look upon. Although I’d been hidden away during the siege, I’d had a description from those who had seen the Huns and survived to tell about them. In fact, there were some among my people who mutilated their own faces after the siege, believing this would make them as fierce as their attackers. Still, none of this had prepared me sufficiently to look upon them with my own eyes. Some wore tunics and breeches, not unlike the ones my own people wore. Others wore garments made entirely of marmot skins. With some on Roman horses and others on Hunnish ones, some dressed like Thuets and others in skins, they looked like no army I had ever seen before. Their confusion over how to respond to me only heightened the impression of disorder.

“Attila!” I cried. My brothers were sure I was mad, and when I heard my shout I thought they must be right.

The startled Huns stared for a moment, then they took up their debate again, their voices louder and more urgent than before. Finally the leader nodded, and the man whose argument he had come to agree with rode to my side and took my horse’s reins from my hand. While he started down the hill with the horse, another Hun poked me from behind with his riding whip to indicate that I should follow. Half of the men began the descent with me. The other half stayed on the summit, looking off in the direction from which I had come.

I was brought to the fire, where I reiterated my desire to see Attila. One of the Huns pointed beyond the tents. I followed his finger. There were a few dark clouds converging on the eastern horizon. “Can we ride?” I asked, pointing to my horse. The Hun gestured for me to sit. The meat had been removed from the fire and torn into pieces. The horseless Huns were distributing it among the riders. One of them brought a piece to me, and another brought me a flask of what smelled like Roman wine. I ate the meat—which was tough and bland—and kept my eyes fastened on my horse and the sack that hung from his side. I tasted the wine and, to the amusement of the Huns who were watching, quickly spat it out—for this is what I imagined a woman who had grown up alone in the forest would do.

After the meal, I stood and pointed east. “Take me to the City of Attila,” I demanded. Again, my words caused a stir.

Then one of the Huns said something which quieted the others. He gave a series of commands, and one of the listeners slid off his horse and reluctantly offered me the reins.

I hesitated, unsure what to do about the sack. Gathering courage, I led the Hunnish horse past my guards and over to my own horse. I reached for the sack, but a stout Hunnish arm cut me off. “For Attila,” I said. The man who had stopped me looked to his fellows. Again there was discussion, and after a moment, a decision. The arm withdrew. I swallowed and removed the sack from one beast and secured it onto the other. Then I mounted the Hunnish horse and settled myself as best I could on its hard wooden saddle. The Hun who was to be my escort came forward. Someone furnished him with a torch, and, also, what sounded like a lecture.

Riding at his side, I considered how easily it had gone. The Huns might have insisted that I stay the night in their camp. Or, they might have made me leave the sack behind. And there was much worse that I could think of, too. If I had felt bold before, I felt even bolder now, and, indeed, quite mad. I was already imagining the expressions that would appear on my brothers’ faces when I was home again relating the story.

The comical-looking beast beneath me was as fast as he was strong. He galloped along as if riderless, keeping pace with the Hun’s horse and seemingly oblivious to my touch on his reins. I lowered my head onto his thick dirty mane, and keeping my arms tight around his neck, closed my burning eyes. After a while, the horse’s steps became shorter, choppier, so that I knew the terrain had changed. The grasses were higher now, like the ones I had ridden through some days earlier when the trees had first begun to thin. I relaxed and gave way to the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves. When I opened my eyes again, I thought to find myself riding beneath the stars with the moon on the rise to the south. To my astonishment, the sky was pink, and it was the sun that was rising. My arms, which were stiff and badly cramped, had kept their vigil all through the night.

My companion laughed heartily when I lifted my head. And thinking that my riding and sleeping on horseback would make a fine story for Attila’s ears, I laughed as well. I imagined myself explaining that valkyrias did this all the time. I had trained my mind on the powers I would feign to have for so long that my uncanny slumber made me feel I had actually come to possess them.

Soon enough, the City of Attila appeared on the horizon—a vast tract surrounded by a high wooden palisade. My escort stopped to point it out, and I checked myself for panic. When I was satisfied that I felt none, I nodded, and we began to ride again. Before long we reached the city gates and the men who guarded them. My escort stayed at my side only long enough to deliver his message to the guard who rode to meet us. Then he turned and rode off, taking with him the story which I had hoped to hear repeated to Attila. The gates were pulled open. My new escort led me in.

Activity was everywhere. Clusters of men on horseback were engaged in conversations. Women walked among them carrying baskets or vessels on their heads. They were trailed by small children while older children sat in circles on the ground laughing and teasing one another. Most were Huns, but there were others who were clearly Thuets. And there were some, especially among the children, who appeared to be half and half. The Hun women, like their men, were short and stout. Many were quite fat. Only their lack of facial scars distinguished them from their male counterparts.

Mud and straw huts dotted the landscape. Beyond them, in the distance, was a second wooden palisade, its circumference so great that it appeared to take up half the city. As we approached it, the gates opened. We entered a long tunnel from which I could hear the pounding of feet overhead. There were other smaller tunnels leading off to the left and right, but their doors concealed the chambers they led to.

When we came back out into the daylight, I saw yet another palisade—this one set back on a high grassy mound. Like the city walls and the first inner palisade, it was circular, with wooden towers protruding at intervals. From each tower, guards looked down. “Attila’s palace?” I asked my escort, though I knew the answer even before he nodded.

There was as much activity here as there had been within the first palisade, but my gaze fell on the group of men who tarried on their horses nearest Attila’s gate. This group was more richly dressed than others I had seen. Many wore arm rings and finger rings. Some even had precious stones sewn into their shoes. It was the most heavily jeweled among them that my escort seemed to be eyeing as we approached. Thinking this man must be Attila, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to speak the words I had so thoroughly rehearsed. But when he turned toward me, I saw immediately that he could not possibly be Attila. He was not even a Hun. Though his face was as deeply scarred as those of his companions, he was clearly a Thuet. I had felt no emotion seeing the other Thuets in the village, because I took them to be prisoners, men who had been forced into Attila’s service. But the jewels and dress on this one indicated that he was pleased to live among the Huns, that he had earned Attila’s favor. He glanced at me. If he saw the involuntary look of disdain that crossed my face, his expression did not reflect it. He listened to the words of my escort, then jerked his head to indicate that I should come with him.

To my disappointment, he led me away from Attila’s gates, off to the southwest of his palisade, past a good many more huts and through a large open field and very nearly to the far wall of the inner palisade. There were only a few huts ahead of us now, and unlike the others that I had seen, they were spread apart and faced west rather than east. The one the Thuet took me to was the most isolated of all. But it was built up on a small knoll, and I could see the vast stretches of grassland beyond the tops of the inner palisade and the city walls just behind it—a boon for a woman who had never before found herself enclosed within so many fortifications.

The Thuet motioned for me to dismount. My legs were weak, and I had to hold on to the Hunnish beast to get my balance. When I was able, I made a move toward the sheepskin curtain that covered the doorway of the hut, but I hesitated when I heard voices inside. The Thuet heard them, too, and in what seemed one motion, he jumped from his horse and threw back the curtain, exposing a young couple. In the Hunnish tongue, he admonished them harshly, his riding crop held threateningly over his head. Holding their garments in front of them, the couple backed out of the hut and bolted. The Thuet lowered his whip and laughed as he watched them flee bare-assed across the open field. Then he turned back to me, his expression fierce again. “Get yourself inside now,” he shouted.

I stepped into the hut, and holding the curtain open, watched anxiously as he cut down the sack from the side of my horse. I told myself that I should be pleased to be in the company of one who spoke my language, but my hatred persisted. He threw the sack in carelessly, so that it fell just short of my feet. Then he entered, drawing the sheepskin curtain behind him so that only a little daylight streamed in.

I looked around in the dim light. There was no window, no hearth. A pile of skins were thrown into one corner, and more skins lined the four walls. “I have come to seek an audience with Attila,” I said.

He laughed.

“I must see Attila,” I reiterated. “I’ve come a long way—”

His hand sliced through the air. “You are not to leave your hut,” he said in a voice that was unnecessarily loud in the tiny space. “A guard will be posted at your door day and night. You are not to attempt to speak to him. You are not to speak to anyone. If you try to escape, you will be killed. Do you understand?”

I did not. His declaration was a contradiction to the ease that had brought me this far. I took a step toward him. “What is your connection to Attila?”

He laughed, then sobered abruptly. “I am Edeco, second in command,” he boasted.

“Then let me speak to the man who is first in command,” I hissed.

Edeco drew his lips back, exposing his teeth. His hand came up from his side slowly, and I lifted my head, bracing for the impact. But his hand faltered and hung in the space between us, quivering for a moment. Then it dropped. He turned and went out.

I stood where I was, considering our exchange. At first it seemed to me that things had changed now, that my run of fortune had come to an end. But then I realized how tired I was; my slumber on the racing horse had done little to relieve my fatigue. Perhaps it was best that my audience with Attila be delayed.

I took the sack from the earthen floor and hid it beneath the pile of skins. Then I took a skin from the top and spread it out and lay down. I fell asleep almost immediately—and found myself in the forest behind my brothers’ hall, walking among the birches.

Someone called out my name, and when I turned, Sigurd was coming up behind me, leading his steed. I ran to him. When I was safe in his embrace, I cried, “Oh, Sigurd, I have been so afraid! I am so glad to have found you. Things will go well enough now. You will not let me face Attila alone, will you?”

He smiled. “I will not,” he said. “I’ll be at your side every moment, as I have been all along, whether you knew it or not.”

I clung to him, my heart almost breaking with emotion. “I have the war sword,” I whispered. “I plan to give it to Attila.”

“Let him have the cursed thing,” Sigurd answered. “For all that it shines like the sun, it brought me nothing but trouble.” There was a warm honey-like scent in the air; it seemed to emanate from Sigurd.

“But if the thing is truly cursed,” I asked, “how is it that it had no effect on me in all the days that I carried it at my side?”

Sigurd only smiled. “Have you thought by what name you will call yourself here?” he asked.

“Brunhild,” I answered.

“It will bring you bad luck to call yourself after someone who loved you so little,” Sigurd replied. “Why not call yourself Ildico?”

“Ildico,” I repeated, and I recalled that Ildico had been the name of the valkyria who had befriended my mother many years ago, the same woman who had brought my eldest brother into the world.

            “Ildico,” I said again, but this time I spoke aloud as well as in my dream, and the sound of my voice awakened me.

I remained motionless for a long time. I had dreamed of Sigurd many times since I had regained my health, but always he was at some distance, riding among other men. Or, if he was close, he was silent and oblivious to my presence.

I gave up the notion of falling asleep again and sat up. He was with me; he had said so. No matter what dangers lay ahead, I would be satisfied if sleep would sometimes bring me the sight of Sigurd’s face and the feel of his embrace, from which my skin was still tingling. But the dream puzzled me, too. Ildico: I had never thought to call myself that. And why had I told Sigurd that I was afraid when I felt no fear? When my madness lingered and made me bold?

The curtain was drawn aside. A Hun woman entered carrying a bowl of meats and breads, a cup, and a large wooden vessel of wine. She set everything down and left without once looking at me. I got up and rushed to the curtain, but she had already turned the corner of the hut. I saw only the guard who had been posted outside, and the sun, which was low in the western sky. I had slept for some time.

I ate with vigor, in a manner that I would have once scolded my brothers for. I was determined not to touch the wine, but as I had no water left in my flask, I took a sip. It did not taste nearly as bad as it had the last time I had tried it on Burgundian lands. I drank more.

When the curtain opened again not long afterward, it was the Thuet, Edeco. He left the curtain open behind him and sat down across from me. I studied his face and sipped at the wine, which made me feel light-headed and even more impudent. “Have you come to hear me speak?” I asked.

Edeco laughed. “I did not come to clear away your crumbs.”

I ignored his sarcasm. “Then I will tell you what I tried to tell you before. I have come a long way, riding for days, to see the face of Attila. I have eaten, I have drunk, I have rested. I would be pleased to be brought to him now.”

Edeco threw his head back and laughed so heartily that I was forced to think of Gunner, who also threw his head back when he laughed. Then Edeco’s face changed. “Why should he see you?”

“I carry a gift for Attila,” I said.

“Attila receives many gifts, most so large that they must be carried in carts pulled by oxen and guarded over by many men.”

“Mine is greater.”

“Show it to me.”

“I’ve told you about it. I will show it only to Attila.”

Edeco jumped to his feet, his blue eyes flashing. As there was only one place in the tiny hut where a person might hide a thing, he went directly to the skins and cast them aside one by one until he had uncovered the sack. Then he turned it upside down and shook it so that its contents—my cloak, the wooden bowl that Guthorm, my dead brother, had once played with, and the straw concealing the war sword—tumbled out. Edeco fell to his knees and tore at the straw until some part of the blade was revealed. Even in the dimming light it blazed, as if excited by his agitation. He swept the rest of the straw aside hastily. Then, with his eyes swimming in their sockets, he ran his fingers over the hilt, tracing its intricate engravings. He turned to me and saw, no doubt, my self-satisfied smile, and he immediately lifted his hand from the thing. He cocked his head as if considering something. Then he came back to sit in front of me, though his eyes continued to stray toward the sword.

I got up slowly and placed the war sword back in the sack. I gathered up the straw and shoved it in after it. Then I put the sack in the corner and covered it over with some of the skins. As I went to sit again, I found, to my disgust, that Edeco was just replacing my wine cup. His hand was quaking. “A thing of great beauty, is it not?” I asked.

He looked away. In profile, the deep scar across his cheek looked even more hideous. I seemed again to smell the warm honey scent that had come to me earlier in my dream. Sigurd had to be there, invisible but beside me, just as he had said. The notion made me giddy. Edeco turned back so sharply that I wondered if I had unwittingly laughed aloud. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Ildico.” The power of transformation seemed to lie within the word itself. I was glad Sigurd had suggested it.

“Who are your people?”

I looked aside. “I have none.”

He took my chin and jerked my head toward him. I was pleased to see my composure reflected in his eyes. “I’m a Thuet!” I sneered.

“I can see that for myself.”

“I was separated from my people when I was a child,” I went on. “A band of Romans cut us down while we were traveling. They killed my parents and my brothers and would have killed me, too, had I been older. But I suppose they did not feel it necessary to redden their swords with a small child’s blood when she would likely starve or be killed by some beast anyway. But as you can see, no beast crossed my path. And I did not starve, either.”

Edeco laughed and let go of my chin roughly. “You look half-starved to me.”

“Aye, half. I ate roots and berries. I grew. I learned to steal from the Thuet tribes I came across in my travels. I learned to hunt. There was no excess, but there was enough. And so you see me as I am.”

Edeco searched my eyes. “If there were other Thuets about, why didn’t you show yourself and beg for mercy?”

“When I was younger, I did not because I was afraid. Having seen my people put to death before my eyes, I had no notion of mercy, and I would not have known how to ask for it anyway since I had no language skills then. As I grew older, I did show myself to other Thuets. I stayed with various tribes from time to time. I learned my language and more. But I longed for the way of life I had become accustomed to.”

“How did you come by the sword?”

I sighed and glanced at my wine cup, contaminated now by this Thuet who was a Hun. “It is no ordinary sword. You have seen that. It was fashioned by Wodan himself, back in the days when the gods roamed the Earth as freely as people do now.”

Edeco’s eyes widened. “How can you be certain?”

“The man it once belonged to told me so.”

“And what man is that?”

“He was called Sigurd, a Frankish noble. Perhaps you have heard of—”

“I have not. Tell me how you came by the thing.”

I stared at him. These matters I had planned to save for Attila’s ears. Now I feared that if I told too much to Edeco, Attila would be satisfied to have the story second-hand. But as it was clear that Edeco would not retreat until I answered him, I explained that long ago the gods had lost the sword to a family of dwarves, and that one of these dwarves, wanting the sword for himself, killed his father. To keep his brothers from confronting him, he changed himself into a dragon and took the sword off into the high mountains. Then, years later, one of the dwarf-dragon’s brothers, Regan, promised the sword to Sigurd if Sigurd would accompany him into the high mountains and help him to avenge his father’s death. I made no mention of the rest of the gold. Nor did I mention the curse.

Edeco heard my words with interest, taking his eyes from mine only long enough to raise the wine cup to his lips now and again. Once, when I hesitated in my discourse to catch my breath, he passed the cup to me. I put my hand up to renounce it but then thought better of it and drank, the shared cup being an emblem of camaraderie. Edeco smiled then, and I was satisfied to think that I might easily deceive him into believing that I had come to the City of Attila as a friend. “And how did you come to steal the sword from the Frank?” Edeco asked.

“I did not steal the sword from Sigurd,” I answered. “After he was dead, I stole it from the man who had gotten it from him. Sigurd loved me. He would have wanted me to have it.”

Edeco squinted. I sighed. “You see,” I explained, spurred by his disbelief to give more details than I might have otherwise, “Sigurd returned from the high mountains with only his horse, the sword, and the heart of the dragon. His companion, the dwarf, changed his mind about giving Sigurd the sword when he saw again what a glorious thing it was. And since the dwarf had bought Sigurd’s assistance with the promise of the sword, Sigurd had no choice but to slay Regan.

“I found Sigurd, forlorn because he’d had to kill an old friend, at the foot of the high mountains, not far from the cave where I lived at the time. He was tired, and confused about what he should say to the Franks concerning Regan’s death. Although Regan was not a Frank, he had lived among them for many years, and the Franks loved him. Sigurd was afraid that they would demand the war sword as his man-price when they learned that Regan was dead. Thus he was only too glad to return to my cave with me until he had settled his mind on the matter. He lingered, and I wrote a rune outside the cave to keep the Franks at bay in case they should be looking for him. This rune-wisdom was taught to me by a peasant woman with whom I stayed for a time and made potent by the gods themselves when they determined that I should become a valkyria.”

I hesitated, but Edeco made no comment on my avowed enlightenment. It occurred to me that perhaps being a Thuet who was not a Thuet, he knew nothing of such matters. “We were well matched,” I continued, “me a valkyria with the power to alter events and Sigurd the man who slayed the dragon. And thus it happened that our admiration for each other grew into something more. But before Sigurd and the dwarf set off on their quest, Sigurd had betrothed himself to a Burgundian woman for whom he no longer cared. Still, being a Thuet, he did not like to defile his betrothal vows. And so it was that our intimacy only served to confuse him further. Thus he stayed on with me, vacillating, making himself ill with worry.

“At length, he reached the decision which a man of his word must. He would return to the Burgundian woman, to let her know that he was safe, and then he would ride to the Franks and tell them the truth about the dwarf. But until he had the Franks’ reaction to this news, his desire was to keep the sword hidden. He decided to leave it with the Burgundians, for safe-keeping. Even then I felt that his decision was less than wise, but I was so in love with Sigurd that I mistook my premonition for envy and made no attempt to stop him from doing what he felt he must.

“He’d been safe enough with me, but my powers are mine, and once he was away from me, I had no means to lay them on him. He saw the Burgundian woman, left the sword with her brothers, and then he went home to inform the Franks of Regan’s death. Later he returned, as he felt he had to, to marry the Burgundian. But shortly after their wedding, her brothers began to behave toward him in a manner which was insulting. The elder of the two complained that Sigurd should have offered the war sword to him as part of his sister’s bride-price. Sigurd’s wife likewise became greedy. It was not enough for her to be married to so great a man, a dragon-slayer. She once heard him call out my name in his sleep. And when he reddened the next morning when she asked, ‘Who is Ildico?’ she became enraged. She conspired with her brothers against him. But he grew wise to their conspiracy, and one day he rode out to see me, to tell me all of this and to ask my advice. I looked into the fire that was burning at the mouth of my cave, and I saw that Sigurd’s wife and her brothers were set on killing him, that his life-blood would be spilt as soon as he returned to them. I told him he must never return. But Sigurd’s wife was already heavy with their child, and though he had every right now to break his vows to her, he had no mind to give up the child. He wanted to go back, to offer the sword to his wife’s brothers in return for his life, and then, once his wife had delivered the child, which he hoped would be a son, to steal the child and the sword and return to me. I begged him to see that it was more than the sword these folk wanted. They wanted the glory that Sigurd would have attained, had he lived, in retrieving it. They wanted Sigurd dead so that they could say that they were the ones who had gone off into the high mountains…

“When I told him this, he shook with rage. He could get used to the idea of giving up the war sword, but to know that the brothers would bask in the glory of his acquisition was too much for him. He was set on returning, now to kill the brothers who would do this to him. I begged him not to go. He went. He was killed.”

I hung my head and waited. At length, Edeco spoke, “How did you come to learn of his death?”

I lifted my face so that he could see the tears that had sprung to my eyes. “I knew because I knew. I had foreseen the event in the fire, and I saw it again later, on the walls of my cave as I lay thinking of Sigurd and wishing him back by my side. I knew, but I was numb with sorrow, and for a long time I did nothing. Then, more recently, I came across a tribe of Thuets, Alans, who were traveling to the Western Empire. They spent one night in my cave, and the one who had a harp sang the song of the war sword as he had learned it from the Burgundian brothers.

“I set them right of course, and they promised they would sing the true version thereafter. And when they were gone, I made my plan. I found my way to Burgundian lands, and, at night, when I felt certain that all within were sleeping, I entered the hall of the brothers and found the sword—no difficult task. You saw yourself how the thing catches light in a way which only an enchanted thing may do. The proud brothers had not even thought to hide it. It was there on the wall above the high seat. I took it down noiselessly, and as soon as it was in my hands, I felt how it was thirsty for blood, how it was made to be sated. You know this, too! I saw your face when you touched the thing! It was all I could do to hold myself back from taking it up against the brothers and the woman as well. But I understood also that this sword, Wodan’s war sword, was meant to cut down armies, not a few insignificant Thuets who would suffer a greater loss than life when they learned the thing was gone. I stole a horse. I rode feverishly. You know the rest.”

I sat back on my heels and drained the rest of the wine from my cup. I could feel Edeco’s eyes on me, burning with wonder. I was burning, too, with pride and something more. I had imparted my tale with vigor. It differed from the one that I had rehearsed with my brothers before my departure, yes, but it was no less a marvel. I had not meant to mention the Burgundians by name, and I could not think why I had done so, but I did not see how it would matter one way or another. And most of all, in spite of all my fabrications, I had managed to be true, or nearly so, to Sigurd. His name and his glory were secure, even here, in the City of Attila.

I set down the wine cup and glanced at the doorway, graced now by the lower edge of the descending sun. The light pouring in was golden.

“Why Attila?” Edeco asked softly.

I was prepared for the question. “Have you heard nothing?” I exclaimed, falling forward and planting my palm on Edeco’s knee. “I grew up in the forest alone, living on what I could steal! I stayed here and there, yes, but only for short periods of time, and not one of those I stayed with ever loved me or considered me one of his own. And, in truth, I preferred my aloneness, until I met Sigurd. Only then did I come to learn what it means to walk in the shadow of a great man, to be called friend by someone whose powers are equal to my own!

“Sigurd is dead, and I will never love a man that way again. But I have come here to seek the company of another great man, to lend my powers to a man who is, perhaps, in his own way, even greater than Sigurd. And I have brought with me the thing which only a great man may possess, the likes of which would cause chaos in the hands of a lesser man.”

I jumped to my feet and tossed aside the skins as carelessly as Edeco had earlier. I reached into the sack, and spilling straw everywhere, pulled forth the war sword and held it up by the hilt. When I turned with it, the hot red orb of the sun was lower yet, filling the space now between the top of the doorway and the high palisade beyond it. And thus the sword became a torch in my hand, a wild, flashing thing which put the sun’s light to shame. Edeco, who had bounded to his feet as well, abandoned his pretense of indifference now and let his mouth drop open. He drew back and shielded his eyes from the sword’s fierce glare. Was it an accident, I wondered in my boldness, that the sun had chosen this moment to set? I had seen that it was setting, but I had made nothing of it; I had not planned to retrieve the sword. Again the warm honey scent permeated the little hut, and I fancied that it was Sigurd who had compelled me to take up the sword at just that instant.

My triumph made me giddy. I heard myself laughing wickedly, as the valkyria Brunhild might have done. In response, Edeco’s expression became even more bewildered, his bright blue eyes darting feverishly from me to the sword to the sun and around again. I felt his fear, his awe. I watched, amused, as he struggled to strike an attitude. His eyes still dancing, he brought his hand up from his side and growled, “Give it to me.”

I drew back. “I will give it only to Attila.”

“I will give it to him for you. You have my word,” he said more gently. “Give it to me. I do not want to have to hurt you.”

I laughed in his face, for as I had the sword, the notion was absurd. But the guard, who had halted his horse to learn the cause of the commotion, had seen the thing now, too. I lowered the sword and handed it to Edeco. He took it up as if it were a fragile thing. The guard saw the exchange and began, reluctantly it seemed, to pace again.

“Attila returns tomorrow,” Edeco said, his gaze sweeping along the length of the sword. “I will keep the sword until then. I will tell him all that you have told me. I have no doubt that he will send for you.” He gestured for the sack.

As soon as he was gone, I spread out the skin I had slept on earlier. I was anxious to see Sigurd again, to discuss with him what I had said and done, if only in a dream. His scent was still heavy in the hut; I had no doubt that his phantom would still be available to me. I lay down and closed my eyes, but my mind was racing, and I could not fall asleep. In spite of my efforts to empty my mind, it bustled with my image, with the way I had spoken, the way I had planted my hand on the Thuet-Hun’s knee, the way I had pulled forth the sword and held it up, as if to silence the setting sun.

I saw myself over and over again as I imagined I had looked to Edeco, a small, thin woman laughing sardonically and holding light itself in her grasp. My only regret was that my audience had not been Attila. I marveled at how evil I had become, at how much I had enjoyed my wicked charade.

But the evening progressed, and, gradually, my conceit was shaded by another perspective. I had drunk from the same cup as my enemy. I had laid my hand on him as if he were a brother. I had despised the Huns all my life, and yet I had spent a time conversing with one—for he was a Hun in mind if not in blood—and it had never once entered my thoughts that this Hun, this Thuet who was a Hun, might well have been in Worms when the blood of my people flowed like a river. When I had held the sword up to the sun, I had felt an impulse to strike Edeco with it, but not because he was my enemy. The truth was more that in holding the thing, I had felt myself an extension of it—and thus had been overcome with an urge to experience its power.

The night was slipping by. I could sense the sun yearning to rise again, and still sleep evaded me. The honey scent was gone now, and I wondered whether I had only imagined it earlier. What force had caused me to mention the Burgundians like that? Would it really make no difference? I had taken some pleasure in marking my brothers as villains. How was that possible? I had even taken pleasure in tainting myself.

Perhaps it was not madness after all that had made me feel so emboldened, so oblivious, so giddy—all feelings that eluded me now as cunningly as sleep. Perhaps, I thought, the curse had found a way to reach me. Since the time I had first received the sword from Gunner’s hand, I had amused myself by thinking that I was too good, too much a true Burgundian, to be contaminated. Now I wondered. Now I was ashamed.

I crawled into the corner and trembled with humiliation. I felt alone, afraid, as if I were a marmot without a tunnel on hand, separated from its colony by time and space and allegiance. I was sick with longing for Sigurd, and I tried with all my being to conjure up his presence again, to detect once more his honey scent. But I smelled nothing but my own fear. And soon I came to suspect that the illusion of Sigurd’s presence, like the illusion of my valor, which had been building for days and days, had been yet another trick of the sword. I was sick with fear and self-loathing. I gagged but could not vomit. And when I had spent myself and finally fell asleep, I dreamed of nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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