Excerpt reveal: ‘Silk,’ by Chris Karlsen

Silk HighRes (2)Title: Silk

Genre: Thriller

Author: Chris Karlsen

Website: www.chriskarlsen.com

Publisher: Books to Go Now

Purchase on Amazon

SUMMARY

London-Fall, 1888

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

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

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

EXCERPT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Mark on Eve, by Joel Fox

Cover (3)Title: The Mark on Eve

Genre: Suspense

Author: Joel Fox

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

Publisher: Bronze Circle Books

Purchase on Amazon  

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

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

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

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

Excerpt:

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

“Jokes?”

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

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

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

“Not me. Never me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instantly, Eve knew the target: Governor Judith Rhodes.

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

CHAPTER 3

New England, 1717

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ximenaTitleThe Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Author:  Graciela Limón

Website www.gracielalimon.com

Publisher:  Café Con Leche

Purchase on Amazon 

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

The Beginning

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

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

Los Angeles 1950

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

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

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

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

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

GRACIELA LIMÓN 5

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

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

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

“Mrs. Ibarra?”

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

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

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

“I said, I’m Miss Godoy.”

“I thought you were… ”

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

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

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

“A lot more, Miss…”

“Godoy!”

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

6 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

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

“Yeah!”

“How will I get home?”

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

Ximena leaned against the bar as she reached for another

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

“All right, let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

GRACIELA LIMÓN 7

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

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

She said, “About three.”

“What makes you think that?”

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

already done that.”

“What happened during the hour between closing time and

when the robbery came off?”

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

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

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

“Around the corner.”

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

the club or down the street?”

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

club.”

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

doorway?”

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

“Did you see his face?”

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

because it was covered.” “Covered?”

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

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

8 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

“Right or left hand?”

“I didn’t notice.”

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

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

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

“What about his eyes?”

“What about them?”

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

“No they were regular.”

“What does that mean?”

“I mean they were round.”

“Was the guy a metzican or a negro?”

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

was, but then maybe he wasn’t.”

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

Fat? Skinny?”

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

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

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

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

‘gigolo’?”

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

pass the satchel. What then?”

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

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

“Did he rip it off?”

At that point Ximena seemed out of breath. She finally

mumbled “No!”

Although he noticed that she was shaky, the detective still

pushed for more information. “Go on!”

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

GRACIELA LIMÓN 9

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

“Went off? Like, an accident?”

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

“And then?”

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

“In what direction?”

“I don’t know. Away from us.”

“Then what did you do?”

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

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

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

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

“Is that all?”

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

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

“Yes, we lived together.”

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

was quick and wrapped in sarcasm.

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

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

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

robbery and Camilo’s death?”

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

maybe later.”

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

10 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

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

“How much was in the satchel?”

“About ten thousand.”

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

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

“Is that what you always did?”

“Yes.”

“Besides you, who else knew your routine?”

“I don’t know if Camilo told anyone.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

GRACIELA LIMÓN 11

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

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

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

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‘A Decent Woman,’ by Eleanor Parker Sapia

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

Purchase on Amazon

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

Chapter One

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

Playa de Ponce, Porto Rico  ~ July 1, 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre:  Various

Author:  Anne K. Edwards1

Websitehttp://www.AnneKEdwards.com

Publisher:  First Realm Publishing

Purchase on Amazon 

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

IT HAPPENED IN KANSAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” I wanted to know.

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

Grampa Milt laughed and led me out the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at him. We were alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase at Amazon

EXCERPT

Seasons of Empowerment for Teens 

Spring Season 

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

DarkoftheHeart_ebookcoverTitle:  Dark of the Heart

Genre:  Dystopian

Author:  Anne K. Edwards

Websitehttp://www.AnneKEdwards.com

Publisher:  Anne K. Edwards

Purchase on Amazon 

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Emily shivered in the sunlight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She heard voices arguing through the open front room window.

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

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

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

Emily shivered.

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cooler Than Blood, by Robert Lane

Cover ArtTitle: COOLER THAN BLOOD

Genre: Mystery

Author: Robert Lane

Website: www.robertlanebooks.com

Publisher: Mason Alley

Purchase on Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

“Staff?”

“Yes?”

“I just don’t see Special as staff.”

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

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

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

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

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

“A strange question from a man like you.”

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

“None.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I seem to recall something about that.”

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

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

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

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

“What about the car?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We say such things in times of—”

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean Charles Dodgson?”

Screw this guy.

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Not All Americans Are Racist, by Nicole Weaver

american (4)Title: Not All Americans Are Racist

Genre:Nonfiction Essay

Author: Nicole Weaver

Website: www.nicoleweaverbooks.com

Publisher: Nicole Weaver

Purchase on Amazon

SUMMARY: In Not All Americans Are Racist, Nicole Weaver recounts her experiences with racial discrimination and the non-racist white individuals who made it possible for her to attend and finish college. As an immigrant from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, she is thankful for the opportunities America has offered her.

EXCERPT:

I hated saying goodbye to Mrs. Smith. I loved her with all of my heart. She represented all the good America had to offer to its immigrants, even if they were not white. Mrs. Smith saw potential in me that I myself did not see. Back then, I was just a black Caribbean girl thankful to have food to eat and a roof over my head. My mom at the time was single with the responsibility of working two jobs in order to feed and clothe my older siblings and me. I will never forget the day Mrs. Smith called me into her office to give me a pep talk about the importance of going to college. Honestly, I was scared to venture out on my own and go live on campus with people I had never met. Her coaching and encouragement helped me keep the fear at bay. Now, I was eager and ready to start the new chapter in my life as a college student.

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Between these Walls, by John Herrick

HerrickBTWTitle: Between these Walls

Genre: Christian/New Adult

Author: John Herrick

Websitehttp://johnherrick.net/

Publisher: Segue Blue

Purchase link: http://www.johnherrick.net/betweenthesewalls/buybook.htm

SUMMARY:

The latest release by best-selling novelist John Herrick, Between These Walls is an extraordinary tale featuring an unforgettable protagonist, Hunter Carlisle.

About Between These Walls:  At 26 years old, Hunter Carlisle has a successful sales career, a devoted girlfriend, and a rock-solid faith. But Hunter also guards a secret torment: an attraction to other men. When a career plunge causes muscle tension, Hunter seeks relief through Gabe Hellman, a handsome massage therapist. What begins as friendship takes a sudden turn and forces the two friends to reconsider the boundaries of attraction. Along the road to self-discovery, Hunter’s secret is exposed to the community. Now Hunter must face the demons of his past and confront his long-held fears about reputation, sexual identity, and matters of soul.

A story about fear and faith, grace and redemption, Between These Walls braves the crossroads of love and religion to question who we are—and who we will become.

CHAPTER 1

Had Hunter seen what he thought he’d seen? Had he given Hunter a second glance?

At twenty-six years old, after so many years, Hunter wished the temptation would release its grip on him.

Hunter’s heartbeat increased at the possibility of mutual attraction, but he steadied himself.

Surrounded on three sides by frosted glass walls, the conference room sat in an interior section on the fourth floor of a suburban professional building. Pipeline Insurance Corporation offered extensive packages for life, home and automobile coverage. Its customers ranged from individuals to small businesses to large corporations.

Hunter had pursued this potential client by phone for three months, trying to get one foot in the door to explain the benefits of his own company’s products.

Two weeks ago, he had secured an appointment for ten o’clock this morning with Jake Geyer, a manager in the technology services department.

Hunter had expected a few Pipeline staff members to attend the demo session, but at the last minute, the others had canceled. This occurred often with Hunter’s cold-call appointments and, after four years in sales, Hunter had learned not to take offense when it happened.

Side by side, Hunter and Jake sat at a large, mahogany table, facing the frosted glass walls. The polished surface of the table cast a reflection of Hunter’s laptop computer.

“So the program offers dynamic address formatting to satisfy postal standards,” Hunter explained. “The program is Internet-based and interacts live with our central server. As you know, to obtain discounted rates for bulk mail, the postal service has strict requirements that vendors must meet. Our program ensures compliance at the point of entry.”

Jake stroked the stubble beneath his chin as he examined the sample data-entry program on Hunter’s laptop screen. With one arm bent at the elbow, the sleeve of his polo shirt wrapped taut around his bicep, revealing enough shape to suggest Jake worked out. Jake wore stylish, olive-green glasses, which blended well with his dirty-blond hair and enhanced the color of his green eyes. Hunter estimated Jake was only a few years older than he. Thirty years old at best.

“I understand how meeting those standards benefits us,” Jake said, “but our data entry staff keeps a printed document of postal standards on hand. One question my director would ask is, ‘What does your product accomplish that we can’t accomplish ourselves?’”

Hunter had anticipated that question. Every prospective client asked the same question during their first meeting. But Hunter, who worked with the software every day and understood its benefits, had learned to respect his prospective clients and allow them to grasp the concept at their own paces. Moreover, Hunter had discovered that he could read between the lines. Individuals would express their own needs and desires through their comments and questions, which, in turn, helped Hunter customize a case for how his own company’s product offered a solution. For Hunter, the sales pitch focused less on convincing a client of their need than presenting his product as a hero that would save the day. Hunter believed in the product he sold. He viewed his visits as opportunities to enhance the work of others.

“That’s a good question,” Hunter said. “You mentioned on the phone that you enter a large collection of records to your database throughout each day, plus a load of address changes when people move to new apartments or buy new homes. I assume you run quality-assurance reports on those entries?”

“Yes, we deliver the reports to our data entry staff each morning.”

“Do you ever find errors in those updates?”

“Nothing major. The data entry clerk might enter a wrong digit in the street address. They might spell out ‘Street’ or ‘Post Office’ instead of using the postal abbreviations. Things like that.”

“That’s typical for my prospective clients. The benefit our program would bring is to eliminate that second step from your business process. By formatting your addresses automatically upon entry, we eliminate user errors, which increases your efficiency rate and allows your data entry staff to start its day entering new data instead of revisiting the prior day’s work.”

Hunter glanced over at Jake, who nodded. Hunter sensed Jake had absorbed and understood the details.

Shifting in his seat, Hunter scooted so his back settled flush against the back of his chair. For the last few months, he’d felt recurring soreness in his lower back. Though frequent and lasting several hours at a time, the aches didn’t occur daily. The pain level ranged from minor discomfort to occasional bursts that would stab his lower back like a knife. He could sense it wasn’t a medical issue, though, and attributed it to stress on the job.

Hunter continued his pitch to Jake Geyer.

“Plus,” Hunter added, “we receive regular updates to verify the physical existence of homes and buildings, which helps prevent a wrong digit or character in your address. Our data ensures that, yes indeed, a building actually sits at 1234 Main Street and hasn’t been torn down. That would increase your deliverability rates and eliminate the cost of mailing material to addresses that don’t exist. You can take the money that used to go down the drain in returned mail and reinvest it to increase your profit margin.”

Jake glanced over at Hunter, held his gaze for a few seconds, the way he had several minutes ago, then examined the laptop screen again. Though Hunter wasn’t sure, he thought he caught a change in Jake’s eyes during contact. Jake’s pupils had dilated a trace.

Why did he glance at me?

Sure, it’s a normal human response in a business scenario. Yet Hunter couldn’t help but wonder if Jake was focused on Hunter’s explanation of the program, or if he’d used the glance as an excuse to take a quick inventory of Hunter’s eyes.

Jake tapped the edge of the laptop. “So this is the program here?”

“Sure is. I can walk you through a demo if you want.”

Jake slid his chair toward the laptop, leaned in closer to the screen. And closer to Hunter.

Jake set his glasses aside to view the screen, so perhaps he was nearsighted. Hunter noticed Jake’s eyes were closer to olive than standard green.

Hunter picked up the scent of a fresh shower. The scent was pleasant but possessed a sharp tang. Men’s shower gel.

Hunter’s heart rate began to roll with the steady pace of a treadmill. A quiver ran up his thighs. His right arm rested on the mahogany table an inch from Jake’s.

Hunter wished he didn’t enjoy the proximity. Such simplicity would come to his life if he could free himself from the appeal he found in other men.

When in the company of others, often he wondered if he was the only one who struggled like this.

He forced himself to refocus on the screen ahead.

“Here’s a sample program for a magazine subscription company.” Hunter waved his finger over the program window. “The company isn’t real.”

“How about the colors and layout? Our software application is branded with our logos and a couple of company Intranet links. Is this what the program would look like if we purchased it?”

If we purchased it? When a client started talking about purchase scenarios, Hunter considered it a positive indicator. Hunter smiled with fresh vigor. He stretched his lower back to the left, then to the right.

“We integrate our software into yours. We’ve done it that way with all our clients. Our product is compatible across any format you throw our way.” He pointed to a small icon of a company logo beside the address line. “We incorporate that little icon into your screen in case you’d want to visit our website to research a particular address further. Other than that, you won’t notice a difference onscreen. It’s seamless; everything else gets woven in behind the scenes. We store our data on our own server, so you maintain full privacy of your data.”

Hunter paused to allow the logistics to soak in, swiped his finger along the laptop’s touchpad, then tapped it. “We’ll create a new record for Hunter Carlisle.”

As he hit the keys on the keyboard, Hunter kept his eyes glued to the screen. But in his peripheral vision, he saw Jake tilt his head and run his fingers through his hair, the way you do to make yourself appear casual. But then, as Hunter continued speaking, he noticed Jake had broken his gaze from the computer. Jake’s irises moved toward Hunter’s face and lingered there, assuming Hunter didn’t notice. Hunter felt a flutter in his chest. He could hear the soft sound of Jake’s breathing.

If Hunter could create a product, he would invent a method to read another person’s mind. In times like these, a mind-reading tool would allow him to decipher why Jake studied him with such intentness. For all Hunter knew, Jake could be trying to figure out whether Hunter was an honest sales person who believed in his own product. Yet Hunter couldn’t help but wish for a kindred spirit, someone who struggled with the same attractions he did.

For someone to find him attractive—a mutual attraction.

He wanted to ask but knew he couldn’t mix personal affairs with professional business. Not that he would dare to out himself anyway.

Hunter cleared his throat. Jake’s eyes darted back to the screen.

Okay, he didn’t want Hunter to know he’d sneaked that glance. The question for Hunter was, Why?

Statistics would render chances slim that Jake held any attraction toward Hunter. Hunter knew the percentage of those who concealed homosexual urges was small. But he also knew that percentage wasn’t zero. Hunter remained aware that, with all the people who crossed his path in a year,someone out there harbored the same secret he did.

The question was, who are those someones? For Hunter, attempting to find the answer carried, at minimum, a heavy risk. And Hunter hadn’t sharpened his senses enough to detect those someones on his own.

The what-if scenarios, like the one in which he found himself right now, felt like mental torture: a continual flow of questions never asked and never answered. After all these years, it exhausted him.

“In my mailing address, I typed the full words ‘Street’ and ‘Suite.’ Also, I typed ‘4738’ as our street number—but our address is 4739. There’s no building at 4738,” Hunter said. “Now, keep an eye on that address line when I move to the next field.”

When Hunter moved his arm, he brushed Jake’s arm by accident.

But Jake didn’t move his arm right away. Usually others did. It took Jake an extra second before he even blinked.

With a hit of the Tab key, the cursor moved to the next data field. In the address line, as Hunter had predicted, the street number changed to 4739 and abbreviations replaced the full words Hunter had mentioned.

“And that’s how it works, in real time,” Hunter said. “Without those abbreviations, a piece of mail to that address would not have qualified for a discounted mailing rate. And with a nonexistent street number, unless your postal worker delivered it on his own initiative, the piece of mail would have returned to you, with the cost of postage wasted. And with our program, your data entry staff wouldn’t have needed to correct the address in the morning, despite the address errors typed into the record. Multiply that by the thousands of addresses you enter and use per year, and it can add up to a lot of savings.”

With that, Hunter allowed his words to settle. He would let the prospective client have the next word, to which Hunter would respond.

Jake leaned back in his chair. He crossed his leg, stroked his chin.

“I can see the benefit behind it,” Jake said. “The question for us would be, ‘Does the benefit outweigh the cost?’ That’s the first thing my director would ask. Our data entry people enter 95 percent of the data in its correct format. So for those remaining cases, are we spending more money on data entry hours than we would spend on the cost of the product? Looking at the cost structure you emailed me yesterday—well, I hate to say it, but I just don’t see how we’d end up ahead.”

Hunter dreaded that response. As good as his company’s product was, and as much money as it could save a client, their current efficiency rate proved a wild card every time. Hunter had no way of knowing those efficiency rates when he entered into these initial meetings, and clients tended to avoid answering that question if he asked too early.

Jake’s reply wasn’t good. Demonstration meetings like these were uphill battles from the onset, so Hunter entered them prepared to counter a variety of possible scenarios. In each case, he would help the potential client see the long-term value his product offered. But in one sentence, perhaps without realizing it, Jake had all but shut down Hunter’s case. In one sentence, Jake had addressed not only their present situation, but also applied high-level analysis and reached a conclusion. And he also served as gatekeeper to everyone else at Pipeline Insurance Corporation.

Hunter decided to go for the next-best scenario. If he couldn’t sell the full product, he would try to sell one of his company’s smaller products.

“I understand what you’re saying,” Hunter said. “Although the solution I demonstrated for you is our top-notch, flagship product, we also offer a range of other services to help improve efficiency.”

In a halfhearted manner, Jake thumbed through a brochure Hunter had laid on the table earlier. “Do all of your services require integration into the software? Do you offer a standalone product we could use on an as-needed basis? That would reduce our cost of implementation.”

Hunter winced inside. He saw where this conversation was headed, and it wasn’t headed toward a sale. He knew he couldn’t offer a viable alternative to meet their needs. The discomfort in Hunter’s back inflamed further.

“The software-integration aspect is a foundational piece of all our products. In fact, it’s one quality that sets us apart from other data providers because it provides a seamless user experience.”

Jake shifted in his seat. “I’m afraid you’d have a tough time selling that to my director. With the upfront costs that would come with integrating the software, and the work involved by the tech staff on our end … I can tell you right now, he won’t go for it. I can pass along to him anything you’d like me to pass along, but I’ve walked through enough projects with him to tell you there won’t be a sale.” He drummed his fingers once upon the table. “To be honest, I could tell from the literature you emailed yesterday that the software wouldn’t be a good match for us, but I wanted to give you a chance to stop by anyway, in case I’d misunderstood some of the details.”

Jake glanced at Hunter. Hunter caught a twinge of disappointment in his eyes.

“Man, I’m sorry,” said Jake, one young adult to another. “Working together would’ve been good.”

Hunter appreciated the remark. He also wondered if Jake had meant his comment about working together at face value, or if he’d referred to getting to see Hunter more often, had the deal worked out. Hunter couldn’t decipher the answer. Though he would never admit it to a soul, the latter notion incited a longing inside him.

“Hey, I understand.” Hunter bit his lower lip, started shutting down his laptop, and retrieved a flash drive from his saddle bag. “I’ll leave this flash drive with you. It contains a demo of our product for you to pass along to your director. If he expresses interest, feel free to contact me, okay?”

Jake reached out to receive the flash drive. Their fingertips brushed. Jake’s eyes caught Hunter’s again, as if searching for a potential next move. Hunter wanted more time to see what, if anything, hid behind the signals—or non-signals—he’d detected from Jake.

In the end, however, professionalism disallowed either man from asking questions or taking another step. In a social context, or if they knew each other better, perhaps they would have had more flexibility.

But today they didn’t.

Hunter hoped the forlorn expression in Jake’s eyes meant what he wished it did.

Chances were, it didn’t. But the fact that someone like Jake—a peer, an equal, and a handsome one at that—might have looked at Hunter and considered something more …

It left Hunter with a surge of warmth combined with the ache of another letdown.

Whether out of courtesy or a desire to savor the final moments their paths would cross, Hunter didn’t know, but Jake walked him down to the lobby.

They shook hands. They exchanged formal smiles. And Hunter walked out the door as Jake turned back toward the elevator.

Five steps out the door, with more than enough time for Jake to have reached the elevator, Hunter glanced back.

Through the glass walls of the lobby, he noticed Jake lingering at the elevator, glancing back at him.

The elevator door opened. Jake seemed to hesitate for a split second, as if caught between options of what to do next, then turned and entered the elevator.

Hunter nodded.

Another opportunity … vanished.

Categories: Christian Fiction | Tags: | Leave a comment

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