Monthly Archives: April 2015

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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