Author Archives: thedarkphantom

Chapter reveal: Changing Faces, by Barb Caffrey

portrait in gardenTitle: CHANGING FACES

Genre: transgender fantasy-romance (contemporary)

Author: Barb Caffrey

Website: http://elfyverse.wordpress.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Purchase links: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N3CQKWJ/

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/changing-faces-barb-caffrey/1125707044

Allen and Elaine are graduate students in Nebraska, and love each other very much. Their life should be idyllic, but Elaine’s past includes rape, neglect, and abuse from those who should’ve loved her—but didn’t, because from childhood, Elaine identified as transgender.

When Elaine tells Allen right before Christmas, he doesn’t know what to do. He loves Elaine, loves her soul, has heard about transgender people before, but didn’t think Elaine was one of them—she looks and acts like anyone else. Now, she wants to become a man and is going to leave.

He prays for divine intervention, and says he’ll do anything, just please don’t separate him from Elaine…and gets it.

Now, he’s in Elaine’s body. And she’s in his. They’ll get a second chance at love.

Why? Because once you find your soulmate, the universe will do almost anything to keep you together—even change your faces.

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

Chapter 1

Picture this:

It was the middle of July in Nebraska. Sweat started dripping down my back even before I’d stepped foot outside my apartment. My hair was already sticking to my neck, and I didn’t know how I was going to play my clarinet. And I had to do that, because my best friend Jolene Harris was marrying her long-time partner Paula Adelson today.

You see, this wasn’t just a wedding. Paula and Jolene had waited for years to get married, and until recently, they couldn’t. But the Supreme Court of the United States made up their mind a short time ago that same-sex couples are like anyone else—if they want to marry, legally, they should be able to do so. Of course I agreed with this. Anyone who ever saw Jolene with Paula and their son, Adam, for longer than two minutes would agree, if they had any sense at all.

Fortunately for me, my boyfriend, Allen, completely understands. He’s coming with—and he’ll be playing his clarinet, too. (He’s going to play Ave Maria at Jolene’s request.) Allen, unlike me, identifies as straight, but he’s no bluenose—he’s even walked with me in Lincoln’s Gay Pride parade.

Yes, I know I need to tell him…everything. But must it be today?

The sun was shining. The birds were chirping. We’d even seen a rare double rainbow last night, after a brief but intense thundershower. Most people probably would’ve thought that today was absolutely perfect for a wedding, if they didn’t mind having to stand outside in 90-plus degree weather.

Allen and I made it to the car, we stored away our clarinets and music stands, and started driving. Considerate as always, he turned the air conditioning on and let me bask in it a few minutes before he spoke.

“I wish it were our wedding,” he said wistfully.

Oh, no, not that again, I couldn’t help but think. I loved Allen—truly, I did—and I wanted no one but him. But…

“I’d rather get married in the winter than the summer,” I told him, trying to keep it light. “It’s way too warm right now for my liking.”

“Are you sure you’re from Florida?” he half-joked back.

“Hey, it’s humid there, but it rarely hits the triple digits.” At his cocked eyebrow, I added, “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”

He laughed, as I’d intended, and the subject was defused. For now.

Somehow, I had to tell him what I really was. But I didn’t have the words just yet.

* * *

I snuck a peek at Elaine as we set up our music stands. She looked gorgeous, as usual, though by her standards she was a bit dressed-down for such festivities in a burnt orange blouse, dark slacks and low heels, with an orange flower in her hair for the sake of whimsy. Chestnut brown hair cut short for the summer, bright brown eyes with flecks of gold only I could see, when she was particularly happy, high cheekbones…a beautiful woman, inside and out.

Who cared that she, like me, had been known to look at women from time to time before we met? Not I. (And no, I’ve never had that whole threesome fetish thing going on, thank you. I’ve always refused to share.)

Because it was hot, I’d worn dark slacks, a long-sleeved white dress shirt, and a tie with musical notes on it. (Jolene had told Elaine it was to be a less formal wedding, so what I was wearing should be more than good enough.) My glasses were starting to slide down my nose—occupational hazard, on a day as hot as this—but I knew the music well. Even if my glasses fell off, I’d be able to play and no one but Elaine should notice.

The caterers were still fussing with the food, and neither Jolene nor Paula was anywhere to be seen. It was an hour and a half until the ceremony, so this wasn’t entirely a surprise. Elaine and I liked to be early, to get ourselves acclimated, whenever we played a gig—not that we’d played a ton of weddings, but we’d certainly played at enough other places that this should not be much of a stretch.

We started with the Telemann Canonic Sonatas, easy enough pieces to play as they hadn’t been designed for the clarinet’s three-octave range. They were fun, though, and suited the day well…after a while, I noticed Adam, Jolene’s son and a burgeoning clarinetist, watching us avidly. His two-toned blond head bobbed to the music, and he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. But he wasn’t dressed for a wedding; instead, he wore a t-shirt and ratty old jeans with shoes that looked two sizes two big.

When we took a break, I nodded toward him and asked Elaine, “He seems happy, don’t you think?” Of course, I wanted to say, What on Earth is he wearing? But I was far too polite.

“He’s probably glad I didn’t assign him to play these pieces,” she said with an arched eyebrow.

I stifled a laugh. “He’s still a beginner, so he doesn’t need to worry about that yet.”

“Ah, but does he know that?”

After we put our clarinets down, Adam came over and handed us each an ice-cold bottle of water. “You two sound great!”

“Thanks, kiddo.” I resisted the urge to ruffle his hair, taking a sip of water instead. “Are you wearing that to your mothers’ wedding?”

Adam shrugged. “They’re worried about what they’re wearing. I didn’t think they’d care what I wore…”

“Try again,” I said kindly. “I’m sure they’ll have someone taking pictures, as they’ve waited a long time to get married.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is. They’ve been together since I was a baby. Do they really need a piece of paper after all that?”

Before I could say anything, Elaine jumped in. “Yes, having the relationship matters more than the piece of paper. But they want that piece of paper. They’ve dreamed about having that piece of paper. And you, Adam, are going to go in the house and find yourself something to wear that shows you made an effort, or I’ll give you five extra scales next week.”

“And if you don’t find something better than that,” I added, “I’ll have to come in and help you.”

Adam shuddered dramatically. “Okay, okay already.” He went into the house.

The minister had arrived, a cheerful, fortyish woman. The food had all been brought out. The guests were starting to assemble, so Elaine and I played some more duets. The music flowed out of me, and I became so caught up in that that I didn’t care how hot it was. It was just me, Elaine, and the music.

Life was good.

By the time I looked up again, it was fifteen minutes until the ceremony. Jolene, tall and resplendent in a bright blue satiny long dress, was chatting with the minister, but Paula was nowhere to be seen. Then Jolene came over to us, murmuring, “Paula’s nervous. Says she can’t find anything to wear. And we went over this yesterday—I can’t believe this is happening.” She bit her lip, adding, “Maybe she wants to back out.”

“I’m sure it’s not that,” I put in, trying to settle her down. “She loves you to distraction.” My words were absolutely true. I’d never seen a more devoted couple.

Elaine sighed. “Let me guess. She won’t let you see her, because of that old superstition about brides—even though I’m sure you don’t care—”

“Got it in one,” Jolene said, nodding.

“And I can’t go to her,” I put in.

Both women looked at me like I’d grown a second head. “Of course you can’t,” Elaine snapped. Then, her eyes silently apologized…she must’ve realized I’d been joking. “I’ll go.”

“Would you?” The look Jolene gave her would’ve melted an iceberg—that is, if it hadn’t already melted due to the heat.

Elaine touched my hand, and was gone.

I turned back to my clarinet, and started playing the Miklos Rosza Sonatina, ideal for today as it required no accompaniment. Before I immersed myself fully in the music, I prayed that Elaine’s errand would not take too much time.

I didn’t get nearly enough time with Elaine as it was.

* * *

I went down the hall to Paula and Jolene’s bedroom, and knocked.

Paula let me in without saying a word. She wore a bra and a half-slip, but nothing else. The last time I’d been here, the bedroom had been painfully neat but a bit cluttered; now, though, it was as if a tornado had hit the place. Black pants were draped over the wooden headboard along with a shiny silver bolero; a red dress was covered by a bright yellow swath of something in the middle of the carpet—had I ever seen either Jolene or Paula wear yellow? I didn’t think so—while I saw green, brown, white, and checkered blazers, pants and skirts all over the place.

And a lonely light blue dress sat in the middle of the bed, crumpled as if Paula had thrown it.

Before I could say anything, Paula beat me to it. “Feeling femme today, Elaine?”

I blushed. “You two are marrying. It doesn’t matter what I feel like.”

“Then why the flower in your hair?”

Paula was the only person who’d guessed that I wasn’t simply bisexual, though I was certain Jolene knew something was off, too. Paula knew what I was in its entirety—I’m a gender-fluid person, and some days I feel female, others male. But I’ve never felt fully comfortable giving in to my impulses, not the way I was raised…

I realized I was woolgathering. “Who cares why? I’m here to help you. Jolene’s a mess. I think she’s afraid you’re going to call off the wedding.”

“No, never,” Paula said with a faraway smile. “But I have to have something to wear. And the blue dress that I was going to wear must’ve shrunk at the cleaners.”

“Are you sure this isn’t just bridal jitters?”

“Jitter me this,” Paula snarled, and put on the blue dress. Despite Paula’s tiny frame, the dress didn’t fit over her slender hips, much less meet in the middle of her back. “Could anyone wear this?”

“Maybe a dwarf could, but certainly not you.” I shook my head, and sighed. “You didn’t want to try it on yesterday, why again?”

“It’s a tradition in my family that we don’t wear our wedding dresses between the time we try them on and actually are about to get married. My parents are out there, and I figured they’d know—” She looked like she was about ready to cry.

“I understand that you want to be as traditional as possible,” I said gently. “But isn’t it more important that you wear something that you might actually feel good in on a day like today?”

“Point.” Paula smiled ruefully. “I certainly can’t wear this. And everything else, except for one outfit, I’ve already worn…and that isn’t very festive.”

“Show me the outfit,” I told her.

Paula pulled a charcoal grey sleeveless top with a bit of shininess to it out from under the pile of clothes on the floor, and grabbed a grey pair of pants. “I’d intended to wear this to dance with Jolene later. But it’s not good enough to wear now!”

“Put it on, and let’s see.”

After shrugging off her slip, Paula got into the outfit. The top fit well, but wasn’t too snug; considering it was at least ninety-five degrees in the shade, I didn’t see a problem with it. And the grey pair of pants looked comfortable and easy to move around in.

“To my mind,” I said, “this is the right outfit. Wear your best black shoes, and maybe add a black or white scarf? Or do you have a statement necklace, something that will visually draw the eye?”

“Who knew you knew this much about fashion?” Paula teased, as she got out her shoes and a white, fringy scarf. Once the scarf was draped, she added a chunky pearl-and-onyx brooch that went perfectly with the outfit, almost as if it had been designed for the thing.

“Don’t tell anyone,” I advised her. “It might ruin my reputation.”

As we laughed, I took her arm, and escorted her outside to her waiting father.

“Dad, this is Elaine,” Paula told him.

“I saw you playing the clarinet before, didn’t I?” But before I could answer, he added, “Thanks for your help.” He took my place at Paula’s side, and walked her down the flower-strewn path toward Jolene and the minister.

Allen started to play Ave Maria. Before he got four measures in, I saw people dabbing at their eyes.

Of course, Jolene and Paula both looked beautiful, Jolene tall and buxom in blue, Paula petite and dainty in grey and white. So that might’ve been it…but I still think Allen’s playing had a great deal to do with it, too.

I went to Allen, unnoticed in the crowd, and squeezed his shoulder. He put his clarinet down, and grabbed my hand; as I had been about to hold his hand, I had no problem with that at all.

We could barely see Paula’s blonde head back here, due to the crowd, but it didn’t matter. We were ready to play again long before Paula and Jolene shared their first kiss as a married couple, and before the audience had finished applauding, we were playing recessional music—Mendelssohn, I thought—that Allen had arranged for two clarinets.

After a while, everyone had gone toward the refreshment table but us. But before we could go get something, Jolene came up to us and insisted that we get our pictures taken. I hate having my picture taken, as my outer self doesn’t always match my inner self…and even on a day like today, where I felt more feminine than not, I still hated having the flower in my hair memorialized for all time.

Still, Allen’s kiss on the cheek was nice, and my smile at him was genuine. He was truly a good man, the best person I’ve ever known…someday soon, I’d have to tell him the truth about me.

And if he still wanted to marry me then, I’d let him.

* * *

Later on, after we’d stored our clarinets away and the food had been cleared out, I took Elaine back out to the yard again. Toward the back, there was a patch of green grass near the fence that I didn’t think anyone had stood on today; an untrammeled bit of grass, if you will. The sky was breathtaking, all bronzy red and pinkish orange, fading into the deep twilight blue I’d only ever seen in a Nebraska summer sky. It was a sky Maxfield Parrish might’ve painted, had he the chance.

“Such beauty,” Elaine breathed.

“What better omen for a wedding,” I added.

For once, Elaine didn’t give me a reproving look. Instead, she looked soft, touchable, feminine in a way I rarely saw…I knew I couldn’t waste this moment.

As Jolene and Paula were saying goodbye to their guests, we were quite alone. Our temporary solitude suited me well.

I went down to one knee on the grass, and said, “Elaine Foster, will you marry me?”

Elaine bit her lip, which wasn’t the response I wanted.

So before she spoke, I tried again. “Look, Elaine. We are meant for one another. I love you to distraction. I want you to become everything you have always wanted—a great writer, a great educator. You’re already a great person, and the only woman I want to be with. Will you please put me out of my misery and say yes?”

At that, Elaine laughed, pulled me up, and kissed me. When I broke away again, I looked down at her shining eyes and said, “So, is that a yes?”

“It’s a yes,” she murmured. “But…”

Before she could say anything more, Adam came barreling out into the yard. “My mothers told me to come and find you.”

As we went inside, I thought, This is the happiest day of my life.

* * *

I loved Allen. So I said yes, when he asked me this time—hoping I’d be able to explain just who and what I really was, after. And it made Allen so happy, for a time, I basked in his reflected happiness, and felt transformed.

If only we could’ve stayed in that moment forever.

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The Right Wrong Number, by Jim Nesbitt

edearl56-300dpi-3125x4167Title:  THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER

Genre: Mystery

Author: Jim Nesbitt

Website:  www.jimnesbitthardboiledbooks.com

Publisher: Spotted Mule Press

Purchase link:  www.amazon.com/author/jimnesbitt

About the Book:  

When the phone rings long after midnight, it spells trouble of the lethal kind for Ed Earl Burch. A cashiered homicide detective with bad knees, a wounded liver and an empty bank account, Burch has been hired to protect an old flame after the disappearance of her husband, a high-flying Houston financier who ripped off his clients, including some deeply unsavory gentlemen from New Orleans.

It’s a simple job that goes wrong fast, plunging Burch into a ruthless contest where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. Money and sex— twin temptations served up by the old flame, a rangy strawberry blonde with a violent temper and a terminal knack for larceny and betrayal—tempt Burch to break his own rules. But when his best friend gets murdered by hired muscle in Dallas, Burch blames himself and grimly sets out for vengeance.

Bristling with relentless action, a pulse-racer of a plot, a solid storyline, and a colorful cast of characters, The Right Wrong Number is hard-boiled detective fiction at its finest. With his pitch-perfect voice and keen eye for detail, Jim Nesbitt uses the skills honed over decades of deadline journalism to create an extraordinary story centered on a protagonist like no other: the deeply flawed but wildly compelling Ed Earl Burch. A taut, tense, uncompromising tale of revenge and redemption, The Right Wrong Number is a damned good story exceptionally well-told.

 

THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER 

An Ed Earl Burch Novel

 

 

ONE 

It wasn’t San Francisco or London, but the fog was thick and flowing — like tufts sucked from a bale of cotton, carrying the muddy tint of a used linen filter. It made him think of trench coats, lamp posts and the low warning moan of a ship’s horn sounding somewhere out on the water. Rolling across the flat fields, it made dark gray ghosts of the trees that huddled along the far fencelines and left cold beads of moisture on his skin and memories of old black-and-white movies in his mind.

But there were no ships in the harbor, no waterside buckets of blood, no Rick or Ilsa. Just lightless farmhouses, barns, open-sided equipment sheds and squat corrugated feed bins for cattle, all cloaked by the fast-moving fog, glimpsed only if the wind parted the curtain of stained white wetness as you rolled by.

And it wasn’t the Left Coast or Britain. It was Texas and the scrubby coastal country north of Houston, beyond the Intercontinental and its roaring planes. Take a left off the farm-market road with the four-digit number. Find the third dirt road on the left, take it for three miles. Splash through the potholes and set your teeth against tires juddering across the washboard track. Hit the T of another dirt road. Look for a faint gravel trail at your 10 o’clock. Rattle over the cattle guard. Close the gate behind you.

Easy to remember. Hard to do with visibility down to zero. Even with the window rolled down and the Beemer’s fog lamps flipped on. Nice car. Leather seats the color of butterscotch taffy. Mahogany inserts flanking the instruments and fronting the glove box. Killer sound system and a cellular phone. Shame to bang this baby along back roads, splashing mud and gravel against its polished flanks of forest green.

Not his car. Not his problem. Fog and time were. He was already a half hour behind schedule when his contact finally drove up with the car, the briefcase of bills and directions to the meet. Fog was adding more minutes to his travel time. He had to double back when he missed one turnoff and that made him slow and leery of missing another.

Not good. Not good. Patient people weren’t on the other end. They never were. But they would wait because he had the money, they had the product and both sides wanted this deal closed tonight. And if they were pissed and wanted to wrangle, he could deal with that; a matte-chrome Smith & Wesson Model 6906 with thirteen rounds of 9 mm hollow point nestled in a shoulder rig underneath his black leather jacket.

Always the chance of a wrangle on a run like this. Rip-offs were a run-of-the-mill business risk, even between long-time associates. But on this deal the probability of gunplay was low. He was just nervous about running late. It wasn’t professional. He thought about using the cellular phone but shook the idea out of his head. Not something a pro would do.

And not something his people would appreciate. They were security-conscious and worked the high-dollar end of the street. No cowboys. Pros only. Running a well-oiled machine. Not that he knew them well. He was strictly a cutout man, a well-paid delivery boy who made it his business to stay ignorant about those who hired him and their business partners.

He wasn’t totally in the dark about his paymasters; no prudent pro ever was. But he kept his curiosity in check and his focus on the amount of money he was paid and the demands of the night’s job.

It was a relaxing way to make a living. A phone rings. A voice on the line gives him the name of a bar or cafe. A man meets him with an envelope and instructions. And he goes where he is told — to deliver money, to pick up a truck or car loaded with product, to put a bullet through the skull of someone he doesn’t know.

Command and control. Just like the Army and those over-the-border ops in Cambodia. Project Vesuvius. Studies and Observations Group. Words both grandiose and bland to cover what he and his comrades did. Slip over the fence, gather the intel, slit a few throats along the way. Set up the Big Death — from the air and on the ground. Operation Menu. Operation Patio. Operation Freedom Deal. Cambodian Incursion. More bland words for killing the enemy in his safest sanctuaries. Parrot’s Beak. The Fishhook. The Dog’s Face.

A sputtering string of electronic beeps startled him. The car phone. He glanced down and saw a red pin light flash to the time of the beeps. He pulled the receiver out of its cradle.

“Talk to me.”

“Where the hell are you?”

“You don’t want me to say.”

“You’re late and that’s making some people nervous.”

“Your man was late and this phone call is making me nervous. It’s not very smart.”

“We decide what’s smart. We pay you to get things done and be on time. How long till you get there?”

“Ten.”

“Get there.”

He snapped the receiver back in place and shook his head. Not good. Not good. Lots of snoopers scanning these cellular circuits. A pro would know this and wouldn’t risk a call unless the other side was making a ruckus. Made him wonder if the players in this game were as big league as he thought they were.

Those thoughts rode with him as he wheeled the Beemer down the dirt road, looking for the T intersection. There it was. He looked for the gravel trail, slowly turning the car to the left and letting the fog lamps cut a slow sweep across the far side of the road. There. At his ten o’clock. Just like he was told. He stayed alert, but his nagging nervousness and doubts started to fade.

The trail led from the gate and crossed the field at a sharp angle. He crept along, easing the car through ruts and washouts. He saw the shrouded form of a tin shed and weaved the car so the lights would pan across its open door. The yellow beams caught the wet metal of an old tractor and two men in dark slacks and windbreakers — one tall, bald and lean, the other short, squat and slick-haired.

He stopped the car, fog lamps still on. He pulled his pistol, letting his gun hand drop to his side and rear as he stepped out, keeping his body behind the car door.

“Wanna cut the lights, guy?”

A purring voice from the short guy, coming from a full, sleek face that made him think of a seal.

“Not really. Let’s keep everything illuminated. Makes me feel safe.”

“You’re among friends, guy. Nobody wants monkeyshines here. We just do the handoff and the call and we can all get the hell out of this fog. You’re late and we’re cold.”

“No arguments from me, my man. But let’s do this by the numbers.”

“Numbers it is, guy.”

He stepped away from the car.

“Money’s in the front seat. Have your buddy do the honors.”

A nod from the talker. His companion walked to the passenger side of the Beemer and leaned in. He heard the latches of the briefcase pop open.

“Looks good to me.”

“Make the call. That okay with you, guy?”

“By all means. Make that call. Tell Mabel to put a pot of coffee on.”

A laugh from the talker. He could see the other guy reach for the cellular phone. Somewhere across town, a phone would ring. Assurances the money was in hand. Somewhere else another phone would ring. Product would change hands. Then the Beemer’s cellular would ring again and the night’s business would be done.

He was alert but relaxed, ready to wait, the screw-ups behind him and the deal running smooth and professional now. He had a clear view of the talker and his companion. He had his gun in hand. He was thinking about a cup of coffee when the baseball bat cracked across the back of his skull.

“Cut those damn lights. Secure the money.”

A nod from the companion. The talker moved toward the third man, the man with the baseball bat, a hulk with the arms and shoulders of a lineman and the on-the-balls-of-the-feet stance of a third baseman. They stood over the slumped body.

“Give me a hand with this sumbitch. He’s heavy. Get that gun, Jack.”

“Got it. Who’d this guy piss off?”

“Nobody you need to know about, guy. Or me. He’s just a poor soul somebody wants whacked.”

“Awful lot of trouble just to whack a guy. What the fuck are we stagin’ this thing for, Louis? Why not just pop him and get it over with?”

“Not your worry, guy. Just muscle him into the driver’s seat and let me dress him up pretty. Bill, did you wipe your prints?”

“Does it matter?”

A glare from Louis. The companion shrugged, pulled a bandana from his back pocket and leaned into the Beemer. When done, he hoisted the briefcase and walked back toward the shed.

Louis kept his eyes locked on the bald man as he walked away, his head swiveling like a table-top fan, his eyes popped with anger. He broke the stare and fussed with the body, pulling the head back, reaching into the mouth, then his pocket, then back into the mouth. Jack watched and shook his head.

“Bill!”

“Yo!”

“Get me that bundle, guy. The jacket and the trench coat. And bring that bag with the stuff in it.”

“Yo.”

Bill hustled to the car. Louis patted him on the shoulder, thanking him in that purring voice, his face soft and placid again. He turned back to the body, peeling off the leather jacket and unfastening the shoulder rig. He fished through the pockets, pulling wallet, keys and a checkbook, leaving loose change. He replaced these items with wallet, keys and a checkbook he pulled from a crumpled brown paper bag. He pulled a ring from the right hand and a fake Rolex from the left wrist, digging a wedding band, a class ring and a real Rolex — an Oyster Perpetual Datejust — from the bag.

The jacket and trench coat came next — a nicely tailored Burberry, pity the waste. Louis started to sweat as he pulled and smoothed the clothes onto the body. He unbuttoned the shirt down to the navel, then reached into the bag and pulled out a squeeze bottle, the kind with the thin nozzle that could poke through the bars of a footballer’s facemask. He squeezed water onto the body’s chest then reached under the dash to pop the hood of the Beemer.

“Jack — hook up those cables, guy.”

“Jesus.”

“I know it’s unpleasant, but just do it for me, guy.”

Louis fired up the Beemer’s engine then waited for Jack to hand him the twin clamps. Clamps to the body’s chest. The smell of burning flesh and electrified ozone.

Again. Again the smell.

And again. Clamps to Jack. Engine off.

“Bill. The acid, guy.”

A glass bottle of sulfuric acid. A small glass tray. Fingers and thumb from one hand in. Then the other hand. He handed the tray to Bill.

“Careful with that, guy. Dump it.”

“Yo.”

Louis turned back to the body. He pursed his lips as he lined up the shoulders, the head and the arms to stage the proper angles of a kill shot.

The head was the difficult part. Without a helping hand to hold it in place, it rolled about and wouldn’t stay upright. Louis pulled the hips forward then shoved the shoulders deep into the folds of the leather seat, pressing them into place. The head was now resting lightly against the butterscotch leather padding of the headrest.

That’s how it would line up. He stood up and pulled a snub-nosed Colt Agent in .38 Special from the paper bag with a gloved hand. He eyed the angle for another second then nodded Jack away.

Louis eased the pistol barrel into a sagging mouth, eyeing the angle one more time. He pulled the trigger, blinking at the pistol’s flash and sharp report. He dropped the gun to the floor.

The bullet had blown off the back of the man’s skull, obliterating the pulpy mark of the baseball bat and spraying a dark stain of brains, blood and bone shards across the light-colored leather seats. The impact canted the body across the console and gearshift, head and shoulder jammed between the seats.

“Jesus, Louis.”

“What?”

“Christamighty, it’s one thing to whack a guy up close like that, another to do all that shit with the battery cables and the acid. But to have to fish out his dentures first? They’d have to pay me double to do that.”

“They are, guy. They are.”

“Whadja have to do it for?”

“They were making his gums sore. He needed a new pair.”

“Like he’ll need ’em where he’s going.”

“You never know. Blow the car, Jack. We gotta get us back on home, guy. Get us on the outside of some gumbo down to Tujague’s.”

“I’m for that. A shame though. This is a nice car.”

“That it is, guy. Blow her just the same. Make it burn pretty.”

“Lotta noise. Lotta flash. Cops’ll be here like flies on a dead fish.”

“Do it quick then, guy. So we can be long gone.”

 

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NASHVILLE: Music and Murder, by Tom Carter

cover-low-resTitle:  NASHVILLE:  Music and Murder

Genre: Mystery

Author: Tom Carter

Website: http://www.authortomcarter.com

Find out more on Amazon

About the Book:

Set against the backdrop of Nashville’s thriving country music industry, Nashville:  Music and Murder introduces an unforgettable protagonist: country music’s reigning queen for over two decades, legendary vocalist Maci Willis.

When the novel opens, Maci Willis has taken the stage at Bridgestone area. Performing an unbelievable string of hits to legions of adoring fans, Maci is back for her fourth encore…until a gunshot rings out in a shocking attempt on her life.   But who would want country music’s queen dead?  And why?

Beloved to fans, but widely known offstage for extraordinary talent and unnecessary drama, Maci miraculously escapes with her life—a life that quickly begins to spiral out of control.  Eager to do damage control for the scandalized starlet, Maci’s record label launches an extensive publicity tour in the wake of the shooting. But when an overzealous fan gets way too close for comfort and dies under dubious circumstances, Maci is forced to flee.

Out of the spotlight and on the run, Maci has to face the music.  As her carefully-constructed façade crumbles, Maci realizes just how empty, hollow, and meaningless her life has become.  But soon, Maci discovers a shocking truth:  there’s something sinister behind the music, and beneath the glittery veneer of fame and fortune lurks an unseemly underbelly of greed, deceit, and deadly intentions.  Could it be that Maci Willis is worth more dead than alive?  Seems like someone is poised to make a killing in country music…

Will Maci finally come to see the light?  Or will she even live to see the light of day?

About the Author: 

Bestselling author Tom Carter is a longtime Nashville who lives with his wife, Janie, a few miles from Nashville’s legendary Music Row.  

Connect with the author on the Web:

http://www.authortomcarter.com/

https://www.facebook.com/authortomcarter

https://www.instagram.com/authortomcarter/

Chapter One

Singer Maci Willis faked another smile, then gazed wearily across a sea of 18,000 jubilant fans. Twenty years ago, she would have given her heart and soul to

draw a crowd this size. But tonight, the demanding masses were draining her of everything she had.

As her eyes scanned the room, she heard not the adulation of an army of admirers, but the deafening roar of a thousand lions that had just spotted a solitary gazelle named Maci.

Looking down, she told herself that she could hold her composure together for a few more minutes. The rhythmic stomping of feet told her what she already knew – that people were hungry for more musical manna – and were hoping for a third encore.

With her nod to the band, the opening chords of one of her signature hits filled the arena. Then, as a sea of smart- phones flashed at her, she waved her hand, a gesture to stop the music.

“You probably heard I’m not too big of a fan of these phones,” she said.

A few hundred fans who had seen the previous month’s tabloids hooted in approval. They’d read the story of how Maci, while dining at a riverside restaurant, was approached by a fan who tried to force her into an unwanted selfie. In one swift, nearly choreographed motion, Maci snatched the boy’s phone and threw it into the river. When the press called the next day, her only comment was, “I don’t know why they call it a smartphone when there always seems to be an idiot attached to the  screen.”

Now, in front of a capacity crowd, Maci decided to double down. Rather than address the entire audience, she turned her attention to a pudgy teenage girl in the front row, who was still squinting into her phone as she recorded Maci.

“Darlin’,” she said. “You. Open your eyes. You’re sitting beneath a thirty-foot Jumbotron. Me and my band are standing here in front of you, larger than life. And your mama paid two hundred dollars for that seat. And now, you want to squeeze us all down into a teeny, tiny, four-inch screen.

“Well, I’m waaay too big for a four inch screen!”

The crowd roared in support of Maci. When the Jumbotron captured the image of the young offender, it finally dawned upon her that she was the target of Maci’s  remarks.

“Honey, just look at yourself,” said Maci in a voice that blurred the chasm between sarcasm and concern. “You’re scarcely fourteen years old, and you’re already at least thirty   or forty pounds overweight, maybe more. That ain’t living, darlin’. Put down that stupid phone. Throw it out. Get out of your chair. And get up on your feet and   dance!

“In fact, everybody, put down your phones!” Maci yelled  to the audience. “Get up on your feet! You  didn’t come here   to see Samsung! You didn’t come here to see Apple! You came here to see the greatest female singer alive—and to hear the best songs in the history of country music! Now get up and dance!”

The band instantly ripped into the opening bars of the third encore. Maci had worked the crowd into such a frenzy that only a few noticed the glistening tears rolling down the chastised girl’s reddened face. Just as two other teenagers left their seats to console her, the Jumbotron cut away from her and back to Maci, and the cries of the crowd reached a new crescendo.

Winding down from two hours of singing and shuffling across a 40-foot stage, Maci took a deep breath. The sprawling screen above the platform magnified the sweat that beaded on her brow. Her normally erect posture was slightly bent, as if she carried not just the weight of the night’s performance, but of the entire world’s.

“Maybe not the entire world,” she thought to herself. “Just thousands of fans, a production crew of sixty, and five truckloads of equipment. Plus a sizeable part of the country music industry.”

Outside, additional Jumbotrons on the façade of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena thrust Maci’s voice and image out to the throng of fans without tickets. Throughout the evening, she’d intermittently talked directly to the sidewalk followers, who for the most part were a bit more drunk that those inside. A drone-mounted camera occasionally panned the crowds who came to life each time they saw themselves on the massive screens. One man shot the moon to his fellow fans and a few women flashed their  breasts.

The frenetic sea of Maci’s fans stretched down Broadway for two blocks, nearly reaching the bank of the Cumberland River. From that vantage point, most could neither hear nor see Maci’s show; they’d come primarily to drink and mingle with other folks, and occasionally they’d contribute their own song and dance. Temporary beer stands had taken root in the middle of the road, which had been closed off to accommo- date the crowds. In each booth, bartenders poured a   steady stream of ice-cold lagers for the mob, who had come as much for the beer as for the  music.

“You folks outside should have scooped up some tickets from the scalpers,” Maci shouted into her microphone. “The cost would have been outrageous, but I’m worth the money!” The lilt in her voice hinted that her energy was waning like a jet aircraft leaking fuel. Even so, her little asides ignited smatterings of applause from both inside and outside the arena.

“How much more do these people want from me?” Maci mumbled off microphone. “How much more can I give? Let’s see what the old gal’s got left.”

Lifting the microphone to her lips, she blasted out the first few words of “Come and Get It,” her chart-topper from nearly fifteen years earlier. As the band joined in, the audi- ence once again rose to their feet. Maci crossed the stage, dragging the spotlight with her, toward her steel guitarist. Feigning astonishment, he leapt from his seat on cue, and Maci playfully pushed him away. Sitting in his chair, Maci sloppily played a three-string verse without a chorus, and then jumped atop the borrowed chair where she wobbled back and forth to the delight of her  audience.

Just as she expected, a hefty faction of the crowd mimicked her movements by jumping up and teetering on their seats. Unaccustomed to balancing on their chairs, people were laughing, spilling beer and falling like leaves in a windstorm. Holding her microphone to her waist, Maci made sure her admirers could see, but not hear, her exaggerated breaths, which were worthy of a boxer after going twelve rounds with Muhammad Ali. The theatrics once again worked the crowd

into blistering ecstasy as the lights began to  fade.

“Bye bye, folks,” she thought as the darkness embraced her. “I’m leaving my stage, leaving it without an ounce of remaining energy. Time for y’all to go back home to your bored and boring lives.”

Precisely as the curtains dropped, the room’s semi-dark- ness was shattered by the burst of the arena’s house lights which pierced the air like a thousand tiny suns. Their idol gone from sight, fans squinted into the glare, contorting their faces like animals surfacing from a long winter’s hibernation. Many hummed or sang as they headed toward the exits. Most were smiling, and a few were teary eyed from having finally seen a living legend. The Queen had left her throne. There was no High Princess in the wings. The music had silenced, and so had the listeners’ world.

Or so they thought.

Before the fans could leave, the arena was thrust into total blackness. Scattered exit signs eerily dotted the  darkness like flickering fireflies. Some fans wondered aloud if there had been a power failure. Then, in a flash, the surprised audi- ence released a collective gasp as spotlights sliced through the ocean of black. As the crowd slowly realized what was happening, their murmurings rose from unexpected joy, to unbridled jubilation to outright nirvana.

“Nobody returns to the stage four times!” shouted the announcer through the sound system. “Except for Maci Willis!!!!”

Like shoppers squeezing through a Black Friday turnstile, the departing fans wrestled madly to get back to their seats. “The show must go on—again!” yelled the announcer. “You won’t miss what you don’t see, so you’d better see what

you might miss!”

Shouts, sometimes profane, resounded from fans, espe- cially those bottlenecked inside the exit tunnels where ushers struggled to herd them back  inside.

Then she appeared.

Alone in seven spotlights, Maci stood motionless as she was lifted through the stage floor, bathed in an aura of pastel footlights. Then, as the band played the opening chords of another signature song, she began to frantically dance in place with the fervor of a barefoot child on a tar roof.

“You didn’t think I’d leave without singing my favorite song, did you?” she screamed into her earset microphone. “You ain’t getting rid of me that easy. I’d NEVER leave you!” Separated from their assigned seats, the confused audi- ence shifted like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces had sprung to life. As the band began to play, Maci ripped away her designer gown, flashed her legs beneath her mini-dress and the musical madness became as loud as New Year’s Eve at Times Square. The crowd, startled yet joyous,   unanimously

wondered how long the show would actually go on. Except for one fan. He knew exactly how   long.

Having followed Maci’s touring extravaganza through  three cities, he’d memorized the show down to its smallest detail. He knew this encore was truly the last. He knew just when Maci would strut across the stage,  and  exactly  when and where she’d stop to pose for one last flurry of photos like   a gloating minstrel. Like a legend finally at rest.

Like a perfect target.

While the houselights had sent most of the crowd to the exits, he waded against the plethora of fans, working his way closer to the stage. He knew the arena well; the route back- stage, the nearest exit, the gateway through which he could sink safely and silently into the night.

Like a child seeking a hidden toy, he slid his hand gently under his black, all-weather coat to reaffirm the presence of his .357 Magnum whose steel jacket bullets could penetrate an engine block. Patting the weapon’s cold steel contours, he marveled at its sleeping power which he would soon awaken.

“The entire crowd’ll want to kill me,” he whispered to  no one. “But that won’t be personal. They’ll want to kill me because I killed  her.”

Like a salmon battling its way upstream, he wove his way through the widening flow of torsos engulfing him.

Still too far to see Maci clearly, he repeatedly glanced upward at the Jumbotron as he inched toward the stage. The face he saw no longer had the youthful glow that had filled her early album covers. He could see the streaked mascara and the tired lines on her face that resembled creases on silk. “Maci’s  exhausted,” he told himself. “She needs to   rest.

She needs . . . me.”

He drifted, lost in the crowd, moving slowly but methodi- cally closer to the stage. As the song entered its second verse, he smiled wryly, realizing he could now ignore the Jumbotron and look straight into Maci’s eyes.

“I love you, Maci,” he yelled, his voice buried beneath the blare of the music and the roar of the crowd. “I understand your songs better than all of these simpletons!”

As he continued his journey toward destiny, his excite- ment over seeing Maci was matched only by his disdain for the audience. They were fools. They didn’t understand Maci. They didn’t understand her or her songs. Not like he did. Idiots. All of them.

Maci and four backup singers slipped into an a cappella refrain as the band members raised their hands high to kindle a round of unified clapping throughout the arena. Not content to merely clap, the crowd began to stomp their feet in time with the music. Feeling their cadence through the soles on his boots, he knew the crowd’s emotions were rising. As were his. None of them realized how close they were to the end of Maci’s show, and of her life.

But he did.

An unimpressive row of security ushers, dressed in canary yellow sport coats, stood rigidly a few feet apart from each other, forming what passed for a protective line in front of the stage and the performers standing on it.

“Useless geezers,” he smirked aloud, safe  and  smug  in  the knowledge that his spoken words still could not be heard above the din and fray. He could announce his plans aloud and no one would hear. He shook his head at the inept, unintimi- dating guards. “A Girl Scout could get by you. Maci deserves better than a handful of escapees from an old folks’ home.”

His heart raced. He was now close enough to count Maci’s finger rings, and was more energized than ever. His voice beginning to rasp, he couldn’t hear his own words this close to the stage, no matter how forcefully he shouted.

Realizing he was no longer struggling amid the masses, he drew a deep breath as he turned to gaze at the people in the front row, who rhythmically danced in place. Like the Pied Piper, he would soon abandon everyone on the ground floor before scaling to his lofty perch, and taking his place onstage aside his beloved Maci Willis.

“I’m closer to Maci than anyone else in the hall except her people on stage,” he said, congratulating himself.

His starstruck eyes suddenly filled with lust, he barely noticed the nearby security guard waving at him. For a moment, he was tempted to leap up, grasp the lip of the plat- form, and pull himself onstage.

“Not now,” he told himself. “Move now and they’ll stop you.”

The guard continued to  wave.

“Me?” he mouthed as he pointed to himself, faking confusion.

The glorified usher nodded and signaled for the misplaced man to come to him.

Forcing a smile, he walked slowly toward the yellow coat and the old man wearing it. As if seeing a long lost friend, he thrust his arm around the fellow and pretended to yell into his ear. Moving stealthily, he slid his hand into his coat’s inside pocket. With a magician’s sleight of hand, he quickly found his Taser and dropped the guard.

Maintaining his grasp on his prey, he called out to two of the nearby guards.

“Need some help here,” he shouted. “Looks like heatstroke.”

The two guards discretely eased their companion to the ground, trying their best to not distract attention from the show.

A drunk from the front row, deciding that a dousing of liquid was the best way to revive someone, flung the contents of his plastic cup into the fallen guard’s face. Upon seeing this, two more guards left their posts to drag the drunk away.

With five guards out of the way, half the stage was now  his.

“Hell’s bells,” he shouted, his voice still inaudible to the crowd. “I was expecting a challenge. Seems like you clowns are actually trying to help.”

A shiver ran through him. “Like you’re trying to help,” he said. “Like it’s meant to be. Like it’s   destiny.”

Glancing at his watch, he counted in time with the beat as the music approached its bridge into the third  verse.

“Three . . . , two . . . , one . . . ,” he shouted. “Showtime!” High above the arena, a thunderous cloudburst exploded from the ceiling, raining colorful, vibrant foil confetti    upon

the crowd like blessings from Walmart.

Despite the full saturation of stage lights, he knew the torrent of tinsel would conceal his movements as he pulled himself onstage in one quick, coordinated maneuver.

There, behind the cascade of colored paper, illumination and glitter, he slowly rose, invisible to the audience. While the crowd was swept away by sensory overload, his focus sharpened. His entire world was now reduced to Maci, his gun and his hand.

Her back turned to him, he watched her take her first step to stage right. There, she’d halt to wave goodbye to fans, lingering for a moment in a frenzy of camera flashes. He waited until she struck a photo-worthy pose, which she’d hold for several seconds, just as he’d seen in her last two concerts. Inhaling slowly, he steadied his breath as she hit her mark at stage right. He vowed she’d never make it to stage left.

Holding his breath, he pointed his gun squarely into the back of her heart. His thumb cocked the hammer as he made a mental note to squeeze, not pull, the trigger. Resting rigidly on his knees, he felt his forefinger easing toward him.

The impact of the policeman’s tackle ignited the shooter’s reflexes. His elbow buckled and his grip tightened as the officer collided with his arm. The force knocked the stalker violently to the floor, sending the pistol sliding across the stage.

The officer had acted quickly—but  not  quickly  enough.  As his head hit the platform floor, the shooter saw a spurt of blood and hair from the left side of    Maci’s  head.

Amid the blinding spotlights and the relentless storm of tinsel, most of the audience had failed to see the three-feet- long flash from the weapon’s  barrel. Those who discerned   a policeman wrestling a man to the floor assumed it was another case of an overzealous fan trying to get too close to the star.

But onstage, it was a nightmare come to life. The stage- hands and musicians had been close enough to hear the cannon-like blast of the weapon. A few of them joined in the melee, helping the officer subdue the stalker. Others started to join, but were stopped mid-step by the sight of a fallen Maci Willis, whose head lay in a widening pool of crimson.

On cue, the thicket of confetti stopped. People in the higher seats, along with everyone viewing the Jumbotron, saw the ongoing skirmish taking place on the stage.

And they saw the fallen Maci.

The crowd emitted a bone-chilling chorus of shrieks, as  if the entire arena had been cast into an inferno. The music ceased, the house lights were raised, and everyone under the cavernous ceiling could now see the four-man fracas at stage right, violent and unexplainable.

As the shrieks gave way to shouts, sobs and pandemonium, Maci’s sparkling dress reflected the spotlights that were still swirling in time to the now-silenced music. Only the scurrying of first-responders was able to lower the arena’s volume, and a concerned, unintelligible murmur filled the air. In seconds, Maci was hoisted upward by emergency personnel, while the stagehands and musicians fumbled about helplessly, equally torn between the urge to look and the urge to look away.

From the first row to the top tier, confused and terrified fans fell into a hush. For the first time all night, the arena was silent.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, by Jane Jordan

cover-artTitle:  The Beekeeper’s Daughter

Genre: Thriller

Author: Jane Jordan

Website: janejordannovelist.com 

Publisher: Black Opal Books

Find out more on Amazon and B&N

Beekeeper’s daughter Annabel Taylor grows up wild and carefree on the moors of England in the late 1860s. A child of nature and grace with an unusual ability to charm bees, Annabel follows in the footstep of her mother Lilith, a beautiful witch.  With her closest friend and soulmate Jevan Wenham by her side, Annabel’s life is a life filled with wonder and curiosity. But Jevan, the son of a blacksmith, lives his life on the verge of destruction, and his devotion to Annabel probes the boundaries between brutality and deep desire, passion and pleasure. When Jevan leaves Exmoor to pursue an education in London, Annabel’s world shatters.  Devastated without Jevan, Annabel is sure her life is ending. But everything changes when she crosses paths with Alexander Saltonstall. The heir to the Saltonstall legacy and son of Cerberus Saltonstall, the wealthy landowner of the foreboding Gothelstone Manor, Alex is arrogant and self-assured—and enamored of the outspoken Annabel.  Even though the two are socially worlds apart, that doesn’t stop Alex from asking, or rather demanding, Annabel’s hand in marriage.  But when Annabel refuses, she is forced into an impossible situation. To further complicate matters, Jevan is back—and so are those same desires, that same passion and intensity. But nothing is as it seems, and Annabel and Jevan are in grave danger.  At risk of being ensnared into the dark legacy of the Saltonstall family, Annabel faces the ultimate test.  Will her fledgling powers be enough to save those she loves most? Can she even save herself?

 

Chapter One – Gothelstone Village – 1698

                  The crowd surged forward, straining their necks to get a better view. Venomous whispers carried ominously through the air, and the words on their lips were full of condemnation.  Most of the villagers played their part in this madness. Only a few, saw through the falseness, they prayed silently and held back tears of sorrow. This small number hoped their presence might be of some comfort, they had not come to gloat or gain satisfaction at the spectacle. They came to witness the injustice.

Morning dew was still evident. With the earlier mist nearly gone, weak sunshine penetrated through low hanging cloud, throwing a subtle light across the young woman’s face. Her breath came in sobs, clearly audible to the people closest to her. She could not control the trembling of her body or the cold stark fear that caused sweat to run down her brow. Long dirty streaks, caused by earlier tears, marked her skin. Her hair, which was matted and long, obscured her face further.  Her eyes darted amongst the villagers as disbelief invaded her mind.

There was no justice in the world, and she could not leave on these terms. Lifting her head higher, she shook the hair out of her eyes and stared at the restless crowd in defiance. Reality was before her and fear numbed any more emotion.

From the back of the crowd, a figure pushed through to stand before her.

A coward. She thought, as his eyes refused to meet hers. After a few moments pause, a sudden hush came over the gathering. Then, her accuser’s voice filled the cold stagnant air with terrifying prose from the indictment.

Accusing murmurs mounted, and bile rose in her throat. She stared blindly into the mass, unable to believe they so easily succumbed to the lies. These people were neighbors and friends she had known them all her life, yet, even their betrayal paled into nothingness, compared to her mounting hatred for him.

His voice was booming in her head, drowning out any other noise or sensible thought, his intention to intimidate and threaten. It was incredible that he appeared to be a complete stranger to her now. No longer the man she once loved. As more lies spilled from his mouth, the gnawing sickness of moments before vanished. With his provocation enraging her further, something altered. Her mind let go of the fear, and replaced it with pure unbridled hatred.

In spontaneous effect, she pulled harder against the chains. They were unyielding just as before. In the mob, a few called upon their God to have mercy. It was an illusion; their pious cries did nothing to conceal the suspicion in their eyes.

Another man approached, his identity was of no consequence. Her gaze tore from her accuser and rested upon the fiery torch the other man held. He came closer. The breath caught in her throat, terror rendered her body rigid as he bent and lit the pile of faggots beneath her.

Blood coursed through her veins making her feel light-headed, and her heart pounded so heavily that it brought physical pain. Tears found renewed energy and streamed down her face. The heat seeped up, slowly at first. Then faster, surrounding her legs as the faggots smoldered for a few moments before catching alight.

A terrified gasp escaped her lips, as the first wisps of smoke invaded her nostrils. She twisted her body, fighting against the chains that bound her to the stake. The metal links were unrelenting, they cut deeper and deeper into her flesh.  The heat intensified, engulfing her torso and making her cough. The fire took hold quickly, and crackled ominously beneath her. Her tears, now a steady stream, clouded her vision. Then, she felt the first tiny shocks of pain, as the flames licked her soles.

“God save me!” she screamed, panic besetting her.  Frantically, she searched faces in the crowds, still believing someone would show compassion. Somebody would speak up and free her. As her eyes burned into theirs, she saw no reprieve, instead, the crowd grew quieter and settled down. They watched in morbid fascination as her flesh seared and pain surged through her.

Summoning courage, she tried to withstand the pain, but terror thwarted spirit.  The fire began to spew the sparks that caught hold of the hem of her ragged clothes, and an uncontrollable force made her shake violently. Smoke began to billow from the pyre forcing the congregation to move backwards. Only her accuser stood his ground.

“God will not save you!” he cried, “for thou shall not suffer a witch to live!”

A faint murmur of agreement rippled through the crowd. She was unable to look at them anymore. Terror had a firm hold on her psych as flames beat at her feet and lapped her legs.  She screamed again, a terrible sound that rang through the village square. The torture was unbearable. She could no longer stand it.  Blinking the oppressive breath of the fire out of her eyes, she prayed for the end.

Death was not far away. Suffocating slowly, and unable to scream anymore, she was slipping into unconsciousness from the agony. She managed to lift her head one final time and silently beg God for a merciful release. The smoke cleared for a few seconds in front of her face and quite by chance, she caught his eye. It took only a second to register that he was actually smiling.

Rage pulsed through her. She battled against the constriction of her throat and the creeping, burning agony that was melting her flesh. Her heart pounded so violently against her ribcage that it would surely burst from her chest. Then, on the verge of death, her unbroken spirit gave her the power to raise her voice once more.

It was surprising, shocking even, that her words rang so clearly across the gathering. The God fearing peasants clutched at each other, seeking reassurance. Afraid of her words and the unnatural power she appeared to possess. With her final scream echoing through their heads, they watched the hungry flames engulf her body. Some cried out in pity, others uneasily marked themselves with the sign of the cross. Only one looked on in satisfaction.

The witch was dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, Supernatural, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Unexpected Prisoner, by Robert Wideman

coverTitle: UNEXPECTED PRISONER: Memoir of a Vietnam Prisoner of War

Genre: Memoir

Author: Robert Wideman

Website: www.robertwideman.com

Publisher: Graham Publishing Group

Find on Amazon

About the Book:

When Unexpected Prisoner opens, it’s May 6, 1967 and 23-year-old Lieutenant Robert Wideman is flying a Navy A-4 Skyhawk over Vietnam.  At 23, Wideman had already served three and a half years in the Navy—and was only 27 combat days away from heading home to America. But on that cloudless day in May, on a routine bombing run, Wideman’s plane crashed and he fell into enemy hands. Captured and held for six years as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, Wideman endured the kind of pain that makes people question humanity.  Physical torture, however, was not the biggest challenge he was forced to withstand.  In his candid memoir, Unexpected Prisoner, Wideman details the raw, unvarnished tale of how he came to understand the truth behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other people.”

A gripping, first-person account that chronicles the six-year period Wideman spent in captivity as a POW, Unexpected Prisoner plunges readers deep into the heart of one of the most protracted, deadliest conflicts in American history:  the Vietnam War. Wideman, along with acclaimed memoirist Cara Lopez Lee, has crafted a story that is exquisitely engaging, richly detailed, and wholly captivating. Unexpectedly candid and vibrantly vivid, this moving memoir chronicles a POW’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, lost dreams, and ultimately, himself.

With its eye-opening look at a soldier’s life before, during and after captivity, Unexpected Prisoner presents a uniquely human perspective on war and on conflicts both external and internal. An exceptional story exceptionally well-told, Unexpected Prisoner is a powerful, poignant, often provocative tale about struggle, survival, hope, and redemption.

EXCERPT:

The POWs who landed in Hanoi’s prison camps can thank God

their treatment was as good as it was. I know some never saw it

that way. Only seven prisoners died in Hanoi: two stopped eating;

one died from a combination of ejection wounds, exposure,

and the Vietnamese rope treatment; one died during an escape

attempt; and one succumbed to typhoid. I’m not sure what happened

to the other two.

In America’s Civil War, thirteen thousand Union prisoners died

at the Confederacy’s infamous Camp Sumter near Andersonville,

Georgia. In World War Two, the Japanese chopped off two

American heads for every mile of the sixty-five-mile Bataan Death

March. Of the more than twenty-seven thousand American POWs

in Japan, between 27 and 40 percent died in captivity. In that

same war, Germany admitted that three million Russians died in

German prison camps. In turn, the Russians captured ninety-five

thousand Germans at Stalingrad and only four thousand returned

home.

With the exception of some of America’s prisoners in World

War Two, it may be that never in the history of warfare have POWs

been treated so well as we were in North Vietnam. Prisoners held

by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam were another story; I won’t

speak to that because I wasn’t there.

Although I suffered painful physical punishment, which some

call torture, I’ve always had a hard time calling what the North

Vietnamese did to me torture. It was a bad experience, but it could

have been much worse.

Although we successfully established communication at each

prison camp, it was not perfect or consistent. Many POWs later

talked about how we were always able to communicate despite the

North Vietnamese Army’s efforts to stop us, presumably because

of the “great leadership” we had. On the contrary. The NVA leadership

proved they could shut down our communications whenever

they wanted, which they did after the escape attempt. Some

key personnel did not communicate for two months.

It was clear to me that many Naval Academy graduates and

senior officers did whatever it took to please their bosses. Such

sycophants taught me one of the most important lessons I learned

from my Vietnam experience: there will always be people who

pursue power by ingratiating themselves to those in power without

pausing to assess the goals of those leaders. I came to understand

this as a POW, but I have witnessed it in all institutions

since: corporations, bureaucracies, schools, churches, you name it.

My sense is that most pilots had huge egos—me included—

which probably drove us to become fighter pilots in the first place.

The most hardline of the POWs had the most problems in prison.

The North Vietnamese forced them to make the most confessions

and visit the most delegations to feed the Vietnamese propaganda

machine.

It’s well documented that many American political and military

leaders knew we were fighting an unwinnable war but said nothing

because they feared jeopardizing their careers. Those same

leaders demeaned and discredited the courageous Americans

who publicly opposed the Vietnam War, especially big names like

Jane Fonda. When Fonda came to visit us in 1972, we were being

treated well, just like she said we were. We went outside several

hours a day, ate three meals a day, and received regular letters and

packages from home. The barrage of war protests put pressure on

the government to end the war. But for them, we would still be

over there.

When we came home, POWs who supported the war were encouraged

to speak out while those who did not were not encouraged

to speak out. That policy continues today, and is one reason

we have an inflated view of the importance of funding America’s

military might. We primarily receive the viewpoint of those invested

in maintaining power.

After the war, I talked to an Army colonel in Tampa, Florida

who helped plan the Son Tay Raid. He told me that the American

military knew the camp was empty thirty days before the raid, but

our leadership weighed the costs and benefits of going through

with it anyway, and the benefits won. They knew they would recover

no prisoners. Such was the American need to keep its own

propaganda machine running.

A Wartime Nation

Our armed services have not won a conflict since World War

Two, yet we keep waging war as if it were the national pastime.

One reason this happens is because so many of our military leaders

want to perpetuate their power.

Little has changed in the military since we lost in Vietnam.

We continue to pursue costly wars that yield questionable results.

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam, were monumental

blunders motivated by American hubris. Once again, we

have preyed on countries that we view as weaker than ours and

have tried to impose our will on them, only to discover that the

will of other cultures to chart their own course is stronger than

we anticipated.

 

In Vietnam, we supported a Catholic puppet regime even

though 95 percent of the Vietnamese population was Buddhist.

What made us think they would welcome us as liberators? Once

again, we have installed puppet regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan,

only to see fringe groups like ISIS take advantage of the power

flux to inflame those disenfranchised by our interference. The

local populations of those countries now hate us just as the

Vietnamese did.

When I first returned from Vietnam, plenty in the military

refused to let go of the belief we had won, despite the facts.

They said things like: We stopped them…Our bombing campaign

brought them to the table…It was a victory for America. Many bureaucrats

and politicians do the same today, ignoring facts so they

can cling to claims of success in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What’s more, all of these wars have contributed to national

inflation and debt, as well as international economic instability.

President Johnson tried to initiate The Great Society and fight

the Vietnam War at the same time. He had enough money to

pursue one agenda, not both. President Nixon once admitted that

one reason the Vietnam conflict dragged on was because he didn’t

want to be the first American president to lose a war. The reason

we got out of that war wasn’t because the U.S. was ready to admit

defeat but because we couldn’t afford it anymore.

President Carter inherited the inflation caused by Vietnam.

Every economic crisis since has been aftermath. President Reagan

said he would increase employment and kill inflation, even though

economists said we couldn’t have it both ways. A lot of people

were impressed because he did it. How? He put everything on a

credit card. That’s when our debt started to skyrocket.

President Clinton made a dent in that debt, but President

George W. Bush went to war and ran it back up again, from five

trillion to ten trillion. Like the leaders who ignored the facts on

 

Vietnam, Bush ignored the facts on Iraq. Iraq did not perpetrate

the 9/11 attacks. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until after Bush

invaded. There was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction

in Iraq. Bush had an agenda to take on Saddam Hussein, so he

did, despite the facts.

Why would any thinking president take us into Afghanistan?

The British went there and got their butts kicked. The Russians

went there and got their butts kicked. Why did Bush ignore history?

Someone once said, “Afghanistan is a place where great powers

go to get humiliated.”

Some generals warned Bush he couldn’t win in Iraq with his

limited troops, so Bush sought other generals who toed the party

line and put them in charge. How else could General Casey have

become a four-star general with no combat experience?

Meanwhile, the housing bubble burst in 2008 and our debt

went up again. Today it has surpassed eighteen trillion dollars.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to this debt.

The United States spends more on military defense than the

top seven to nine nations combined, depending on which source

you consider. The problem is not Persian warships in Chesapeake

Bay. The problem is American warships in the Persian Gulf. We

just keep sticking our nose into other people’s business.

I’ve learned that almost every modern war is about lining pockets.

I’m all for capitalism, but I know who stands to benefit if we

convert the world to capitalism: big business. We had to kill the

commies because they were going to interfere with America making

money. Now we kill Muslims for the same reason. Nobody

talks about it because it’s not politically correct to ask people to

die for money. Instead, leaders put a spiritual spin on it and make

it a righteous cause.

 

In the military, the desire for money translates into the desire

for power. That thirst trickles down through the ranks. I saw this

firsthand in the POW camps.

It’s popular to talk about these wars as fights for freedom or

democracy, or as battles against political tyranny or religious fanaticism.

It really isn’t about religion or democracy. It’s about rich

versus poor. Of course, if we’re talking about the soldiers on the

front line, then it’s simply poor versus poor. Those are the people

fighting each other.

For Vietnam, we had a draft, but if a draftee’s family had money

he could get around that. We tried to stop that problem with

the volunteer army. But who volunteers? The poor, who have few

opportunities besides what the military promises. Different path,

same result. The poor are the people we fight, and the poor are

the people who fight for us.

Torture, American Style

We’re all aware of the Bush administration’s approval of the

CIA torturing suspected terrorists at black sites around the globe.

According to the Associated Press, the Congressional Record,

Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. military’s investigative documents,

as of 2006, at least 108 POWs from our wars with Iraq

and Afghanistan died in American custody. At least thirty-four

of those deaths were either suspected or confirmed homicides.

That’s more than four times the number of the American POWs

who died in Hanoi.

Bush’s attorneys lined up experts who said that the CIA’s “enhanced

interrogation techniques” were not torture. Those techniques

continued under President Barrack Obama. In 2015, the

Senate Intelligence Committee commissioned a report on the

CIA’s interrogations and concluded that much of what had been

approved does indeed constitute torture.

 

Here are just a few instances of torture that the report identified:

One prisoner froze to death after being left to sleep without

pants on a cold concrete floor. Another was forced to stand in a

“stress position” on broken bones. Others were placed in isolation

or were sleep-deprived until they suffered symptoms of psychosis

such as hallucinations, paranoia, and self-mutilation. Some prisoners

were forced to go through rectal hydration or rectal feeding,

in which water or food was forced into the anus, which can leave

the kind of damage associated with sexual assault. And of course,

we’ve all heard the debates over waterboarding.

I agree with Senator John McCain’s assessment of the report

on two counts: 1) those techniques are torture, and 2) those techniques

do not work. I have a problem with our country torturing

war prisoners, both because it is morally wrong and because it

creates more enemies for America. We call what our enemies do

to their prisoners torture while asserting that we’re a kind, just

people who don’t do that sort of thing. I find it offensive that

some POWs have supported the torture of prisoners in the Iraq

and Afghanistan Wars after whining about their own treatment

by the North Vietnamese.

In any case, there’s no need to go so far. The Vietnamese got all

the information they needed by bringing people to a certain point

of pain and holding them there. Beyond that point, people will

say or do anything. That’s when information becomes unreliable.

Our country has inflicted prisoners with torments well beyond

anything I suffered in Vietnam.

In my opinion, the people who order the sort of torture described

in that Senate Intelligence Committee report are war

criminals, Bush and Obama among them. I consider the subordinates

who carried out those orders guilty too. I believe we must

each take responsibility for the morality of our actions. We need

to try all of them for war crimes.

 

Divorce Epidemic

Not two years after the North Vietnam POWs returned, the divorce

rate among our ranks soared to 85 percent. This high number

was likely a result, at least in part, of post-traumatic stress and

the long separation of husbands and wives.

Pat was 19 and I was 22 when we married. We were just too

young. A few weeks after I returned home and we took our vows

again, we visited another couple. The wife pulled me aside to say,

“Don’t be so critical of Pat.” She was right. I was very impatient

with my wife.

Excessive arguing is a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic

Stress Disorder, which I didn’t know much about at the time, but

which soon became a household word surrounding the subject of

Vietnam War veterans. Pat and I argued so much that our seventy-

pound Doberman Pinscher hid behind the sofa. More importantly,

we had two sons: Eric, born in 1974, and Derek, born in

  1. What did those arguments do to the minds of a two-year-old

and a four-year-old?

In 1976, we left our home in the beachside town of Monterey,

California for Meridian, Mississippi, where I became a Navy

comptroller. The arguments escalated. Neither Pat nor I wanted

to hurt our boys. We soon separated, and in January of 1978 we

divorced.

On My Knees

From long before Vietnam until long after, I didn’t believe in

God. I considered God an imaginary crutch for people too weak to

handle their problems. I realize now that toughing out imprisonment

without any spiritual support inflated my ego.

After I separated from my wife, I knew I needed to talk to

somebody. I thought I had two choices: a minister or a shrink. I

remembered that Thomas Eagleton underwent psychiatric treatment

before he ran for Vice President as McGovern’s running

mate in 1972. The media got wind of that and crucified him as if it

meant he were crazy. That stigma convinced me to avoid psychiatrists

and psychologists. I didn’t want any chance of this difficult

period coming back to bite me. I talked to the base chaplain.

I told the chaplain that I had long ago given up on the idea of

God. He recommended I try a few different Protestant churches

and advised me to read The Gospel of John, a gentle introduction to

the Lord after being away from Him for some twenty years.

I read John, but he made no sense to me, not then. On the advice

of a friend, I added the writings of Carlos Castaneda to my

reading list. Castaneda made me aware of how much the ego is

in charge of our lives, via the constant refrain: “I want.” I not only

studied the Bible, but also read about Buddhism, Judaism, and

philosophy. I saw that everything came down to ego. I noticed

the word “I” rarely appeared in the Jewish teachings of the Pirkei

Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, one of the texts in the compilation

of rabbinical wisdom called the Mishnah. This brought to my attention

that the Jewish people I knew did not use the word “I”

very much. I sought to reduce the use of the word “I,” and found

that my boss and others listened. It was a transformation.

I ultimately landed in a Southern Baptist Church. I knew I

could never toe the entire party line of any organization, but the

Southern Baptists and I were on the same page about focusing

less on “self” and more on “we”—on community.

One day in 1991, I had an epiphany about The Gospel of John: I

could forgive other people’s sins but I did not have the power to

forgive my own. I realized only Jesus Christ had that power. The

day I understood that, I dropped to my knees and forgave everyone

I could think of who I felt had ever wronged me. That had a

huge impact on me.

Among the people I had the biggest beef with were a few of my

fellow prisoners from Vietnam, particularly our leadership. In my

prayers, I forgave all of them, even the ones who wrongly accused

me or humiliated me. Forgiving the North Vietnamese was never

an issue because I always thought they could have treated us so

much worse.

My trials as a POW did not bring me to God. Getting divorced

did. It surprises some people when I tell them getting divorced

was more stressful for me than being a POW.

A Bad Reputation

I first attempted to write a book about my war experience in

the mid-1970s, but I fictionalized it as a novel. I sent a manuscript

to the Naval Investigative Service, because the Navy required me

to get their approval. It turned out that the mere act of seeking

approval was enough to get me in trouble.

Several months later, the Naval Investigative Service sent the

book back, not to me but to the superintendent at the Naval

Postgraduate School. The cover letter called my book inaccurate,

immature, and demeaning to fellow POWs who deserved to be

lifted up. I had done nothing worse than paint all of us POWs as

people instead of saints. What upset me more was that my pages

came back in complete disarray. I had accorded the Navy the respect

of requesting approval, and in return I had received a slap

in the face.

I called the Naval Investigative Service to ask what the letter

meant. The person I spoke to informed me that if I published the

manuscript it would only serve to publicly discredit me.

“According to whom?” I asked.

He said, “We didn’t know what to do with your manuscript, so

we sent it to your roommates and to Stockdale.”

“You did what?!” I had sent my manuscript to the Navy in confidence,

and someone had published it to other people without

my consent.

A few years later, I was passed over for promotion to commander.

When I inquired to learn why, my detailer in Washington

said, “You need to call Stockdale. He told the board you had a bad

reputation.” Stockdale was the head of the promotion board.

“A bad reputation for what?” I asked.

He said Stockdale gave no specifics. I was stunned at the abuse

of power this implied: that the board listened to him despite not

having evidence against me. This was all the more suspicious because

shortly after I had returned from Vietnam, Stockdale had

submitted a fitness report in which he recommended me for promotion.

His change of heart came after I submitted my manuscript

to the Navy.

Years later, in 1996, I called Stockdale and asked if there was

something I should know. He told me that the promotion board

was just a “paper push” and that he said nothing detrimental

about me. He claimed he had never seen my manuscript.

Stockdale and other POWs wrote books about their prison experiences,

but their books painted the military in a more glowing

light. The Navy never sent their manuscripts to me for my

response even though someone sent my manuscript to Stockdale

and my roommates for their comments and approval. The double

standards of my POW days continued.

About three or four years ago, when I was in Pensacola, Florida,

I told the head of the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of

War Studies, “I got passed over for commander because Stockdale

told the board I had a bad reputation.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “I can promise you, you don’t

have a bad reputation among the five or six hundred prisoners

from North Vietnam.”

Years later, I talked to a doctor from the Mitchell Center who

was a friend of Stockdale’s and who made it clear he truly liked

the man, and he told me, “Stockdale would do something like

that.” To this day, many senior leaders are big on protecting their

turf and their reputations and not averse to tearing other people’s

reputations apart to achieve that.

When I talked to the base chaplain about my divorce, we also

talked about the war, and he called me a conscientious objector. I

had never thought of myself that way, but he had a point: I didn’t

believe in the war anymore. I had heard our leaders distort facts to

make themselves look good. I never publicly protested—it was too

late for that—but I got demerits for not agreeing that we achieved

“a fabulous victory against communism.”

In the end, Stockdale’s pursuit of power took him all the way

to vice admiral. Meanwhile, he claimed I had a bad reputation. All

he had to do was say the words, and because he was one of the

highest-ranking officers in the military, people on the promotion

board believed him.

A Changed American Dream

The Navy sent me to the Naval Postgraduate School to get an

undergraduate degree in International Relations. After that, my

superiors urged me to get back in a cockpit, saying that was the

route to make command. The military had not been my dream, so

I pursued a master’s degree in finance. With that, the Navy wanted

to send me to Washington as an auditor. I didn’t want that.

Instead, I went to the Naval Air Station in Meridian, Mississippi

to become a comptroller for seven years.

I retired from the U.S. Navy in 1983 and went to Florida to

work as a stockbroker. I never got over the feeling that prison had

cost me years of time and opportunity, so I went on to earn a law

degree at the University of Florida. I became a prosecutor in 1991,

and a few years later went into private practice. However, the sedentary

nature of that career sent my blood pressure up. Then, in

1996, the Navy made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: I moved back

to Mississippi to become a flight simulator instructor. Flying for

 the Navy had landed me in prison and stolen years of my life, but

training other pilots turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever

had. I worked as an instructor until I retired in 2012. I was 68.

Perhaps one attraction of training pilots was that I never completely

got over my frustration at not becoming an airline pilot,

the dream I had held onto during my six years as a prisoner of

war. Being rejected by Eastern Airlines was more devastating than

anything the North Vietnamese could have done to me.

The Test of a Man

When I consider how capable we all are of perverting the truth,

and when I remind myself that I was a voluntary participant in the

Vietnam debacle, I can only ask: what does it take to be a man?

I submit that a real man is not a sycophant, but is someone who

pursues the truth in service to his values. It’s easy to support the

status quo when self-interest is at stake. It takes character to stand

up for the truth when it’s not in your self-interest—such as opposing

war in the face of threats to destroy your reputation.

It also takes character to apologize when we’re wrong, which is

something the U.S. has yet to do for Vietnam. We invaded their

country and killed more than two million Vietnamese because a

majority of them did not want us to tell them what kind of government

to support.

Best I can figure, humans point their fingers at others when

they need a scapegoat. Usually they point at someone with less

power because that’s easiest, to draw attention away from their

own shortcomings. Once the finger pointing starts, honesty is the

first casualty. When honesty goes, everything goes. To me, this

was not only the dynamic between the leadership and the subordinates

among the POWs, but also the dynamic between the U.S.

and Vietnam. We saw them as less powerful, so we thought they

were an easy target. We were wrong.

 

Despite the pitfalls of ego I saw many military leaders display

in Vietnam, I find it important to remember the exceptions, men

who provided a standard for honest reflection on right and wrong

action, and who were not afraid to engage in criticism—of authority

or of themselves—when honesty called for it. I have tried

to introduce some of those men to you in these pages. Perhaps

some in our POW leadership felt justified in attacking men who

believed in following conscience first and orders second, but what

really made such men targets was that they had no rank and no

power and seemed easy to suppress.

Studying the teachings of Jesus has taught me the importance

of placing truth above pride. Wars go on, but I have found peace

in this: “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love

your neighbor as yourself.” This has been and continues to be

my journey, and it is one reason I’ve chosen to share with you

the sometimes-painful story of my experience as a prisoner in

Vietnam. I hope my story helps open your heart to the challenge

of getting to know yourself, your fellow humans, and the people

who share your world.

Soldiering On

I still think about war and imprisonment, their causes and consequences.

It’s part of being an informed person, and my experiences

have helped to make me an informed person. But my life

has also been filled with blessings: two children, six grandchildren,

true friends, education and the opportunity to pass it on,

fruitful labors, the freedom and means to travel, good health, and

a relationship with the Lord.

Sometimes it’s painful to remember my six years of lost freedom,

being isolated from loved ones while at the same time discovering

the truth behind Jean Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other

people.” Most of the time, those memories remind me to be grateful

for my life now.

 

Categories: Memoir, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Naked Alliances, by S.K. Nicholls

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Title: NAKED ALLIANCES

Genre: Mystery

Author: S.K. Nicholls

Website:  www.sknicholls.com

Publisher: Brave Blue Heron Books

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book: In Naked Alliances, novelist S.K. Nicholls takes readers on a witty, wild, wickedly fun romp that exposes a side of Orlando tourists rarely see. The debut release in The Naked Eye Private Investigator Series, Naked Alliances introduces lone wolf P.I. Richard Noggin.

 When a young immigrant woman and an exotic dancer are forced to flee men with guns and have no place to hide, Richard Noggin, P.I., can’t turn his back—even if helping out makes him a target. Richard plans to impress an aspiring politician by taking on a big white-collar case that could take him from the streets to an air-conditioned office. Instead, he’s handed a cold case and quickly finds himself sucked into a shadowy world of sex, secrets and…murder. Marked for a bullet and stretched thin by his investigations, Richard reluctantly teams up with the unlikely, brassy custodian of the young woman on the run. With bodies piling up, Richard and his companion are forced to go undercover in a most unlikely locale: the Leisure Lagoon, a nudist resort.  Going undercover in this instance will mean going uncovered…but lives are at stake—and this Naked Eye will have to juggle to keep his balls in the air and connect the dots before anyone else is murdered. As his pulse-quickening quest for answers leads from the dark corners of Orlando’s Little Saigon to the sunny exposure of the Leisure Lagoon, Richard will be put to the test. Just how much will this Naked Eye have to bear…or bare? The heat is on in this quirky Sunshine State crime thriller.

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About the Author: S.K. Nicholls’ family owns and operates one of the oldest and largest nudist resorts in the nation located in Central Florida, Cypress Cove. Her experience gives her a deep understanding of the lifestyle choice and how it is extremely different from the sex industry, yet harbors clandestine elements of intrigue and fascination. Social issues are at the forefront of her writing. A former sexual assault nurse examiner, she has a special interest in the subject matter of sex-trafficking. A native of Georgia, she lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband, Greg.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sknicholls/

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CHAPTER ONE

There was only one thing worse for business than not solving cases and that was keeping a new client waiting. Already running late for a meeting, Richard Noggin drove north on Orange Avenue through moderate nighttime traffic in his silver, two-seater Mercedes convertible, the top down and the air-conditioner blowing high cool. As he approached Michigan Avenue, coming into downtown Orlando, two figures darted onto the road from his left.

Swerving and slamming on the brakes, tires squealed as he screeched to a halt. They stood in the light of the headlamps, transfixed, a tall woman and a young girl. An eighteen-wheeler thundered by, its horn blasting him senseless. The woman whacked the car’s hood with a pair of stilettos and jumped, grabbing the girl close.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Richard yelled as cars whizzed past. The woman marched the girl by the shoulders around to the passenger’s side. “Hurry. Let us in!” Releasing the girl, she tried the locked door, then grabbed the window ledge with both hands, shoes dangling.

He eased off the brakes, starting to roll, and looked across the car. Standing in the street in her sequined white halter and miniskirt, the woman looked terrified, panting and wiping her windswept, auburn locks back from her face. The almond-eyed girl even more so, with facial bruises and a busted lip. He took his foot off the gas. Dammit, he couldn’t drive off and leave them there in the middle of the road. Before he could let them in, the woman tossed the high heels and her oversized shoulder bag inside, threw her long, lean leg over the door, and plopped herself into the passenger’s seat. She yanked the young girl over onto her lap.

“Drive,” she screamed. “Drive!”

Richard raced to the intersection.

“Turn left here!” she ordered.

“Isn’t this the direction you came from?”

“Just do it!”

He had a green light and took a hard, fast left in front of oncoming traffic, heading for Orange Blossom Trail, a highway known locally as O.B.T. Then it hit him – these two had come off the hooker trail in the red-light district. This was asking for trouble, but his investigative curiosity took over. “Why are you running?”

“Because standing on the curb waiting on a bus wasn’t an option.” A black car raced past in the opposite direction. She crouched down in her seat, forcing the girl forward. “I don’t think they saw us.”

“How could they have missed you? She’s sitting with her face pressed against the windshield.”

“You’re exaggerating.” The woman sat upright, shifted the girl in her lap to one side, and stroked the dash of the car. “Damn, your payments on this pretty girl must be more than Donald Trump’s monthly tab for hair spray.”

“She’s paid for.” He rolled his eyes and shot her a quick look. “Who are you hiding from?”

“Men with guns. Damn, I hate guns.”

“What men?”

“All I know is I was coming out of the Brown Pelican Lounge on south O.B.T. when this girl came charging across the parking lot next door in front of the Shady Breeze Motel, screaming, ‘Help, men with guns!’ I looked at her and her bloodied lip, and hearing ‘Guns!’ figured we ought to run. I snatched off my shoes and did just that.”

“Why didn’t you take her inside and call the police?”

“Let’s just say there were a few gentlemen inside whose company I didn’t care to keep.”

“So, you ran with her?”

“You catch on real quick. Two guys chased us on foot and two ran for their car.”

“Now what am I supposed to do?”

“Turn right at the light and take me home.”

“You live on the Trail?” he asked, only half-joking. He slowed for traffic at the intersection. Her scent caught him. The voice was mellow and raspy, like a smoker, but her fragrance was cinnamon and oranges, her skin, the color of fine café latte. Arms wrapped around the young girl made her cleavage deepen. She turned to him with emerald eyes sparkling.

“I’m staying at the Parliament House.”

“The gay club?”

“Resort. The Parliament House Resort. I’m a showgirl. Name’s Brandi, formerly Brandon.”

Richard did a double take, swallowed hard, and took a right turn, proceeding north. “Where were you taking her?”

“The twenty-four hour pharmacy on Michigan, to get something for her lip, and let them figure out what to do with her. I dunno. What would you do?”

“I’d probably call the police.” He sped up and passed a few cars ahead.

“I’m sure those guys with the guns would’ve waited for us to do that.” Her sarcasm as strong as her perfume. “I used to be a cop and I know they’re not gonna do a damn thing for her. As far as they’re concerned, she’s just another poor girl walkin’ the streets.”

“Somehow, you don’t strike me as a cop.”

“It was a brief stint.”

He ran through the caution light at Kaley Avenue. “Call the police and have them meet us at the Parliament House. I have an important dinner appointment in Winter Park and I’m already late.”

“And I have a show to do tonight,” Brandi fired back.

“Well, I can’t keep her.” He glanced at the silent girl. “What’s your name?”

“Cara Kieu.”

“Where do you live?”

“I not know much English. Cara Kieu scared.”

Richard gave Brandi a hard look. “Listen, I can’t manage her. You’re going to have to figure this out.” He reached into the pocket of his sport coat. “Here’s my card. Call me later if you can’t deal with her, and I’ll see what I can do.”

She took the card. “Richard Noggin, P.I. Just my luck, I get picked up by Dick Head, P.I.” She tucked the card into her purse at her feet.

“Yeah, I get that a lot.”

He felt her soft touch on his shoulder and cringed, her hand caressing as it moved up his neck. What the hell was he getting himself into?

She nudged him and smiled. “Has anyone ever told you that you have the most striking crystal-blue eyes? They’re really set off by your thick, dark hair.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot, too.”

“I notice things about men.”

“I’m sure you do.” He leaned away, hoping she’d get the message that he wasn’t interested.

They crossed the intersection at West Church Street. A black Nissan pulled out behind them. Brandi jerked back her hand and ducked, pulling Cara down with her. “Holy shit, it’s them!”

“Hold on.”

He took a fast right onto West Central and another onto Parramore. The Nissan followed. He sped through the stop sign at Jackson and turned left into oncoming traffic on South Street, a busy, three-lane, one-way road. Cara screamed and clung to Brandi.

“You’re going to get us killed!”

“Wasn’t that your problem in the first place?” In his rearview, he noted the Nissan cross South Street behind them.

Horns blared as cars roared by left and right. He saw a black Nissan speeding along on the next street over. Dodging angry traffic, he careened past the Amway Center, turning onto yet another one-way at Hughy. With no sign of their pursuers behind them, he plowed through.

Cara Kieu screamed again as he swerved to avoid a head-on collision with a city bus. After a couple of blocks and a quick left, he drove around the State Marshall’s Building, then made several fast turns through the downtown neighborhood streets.

With tousled passengers shrieking, he’d made a complete, albeit dangerous, wide circle. Relieved when they reached Orange Blossom Trail in front of the Parliament House, he parked on the corner. “Get out.”

Brandi looked at him in disgust. “You can’t just leave us here.”

“You need to get out and run. I don’t know how long we’ve got before these guys are back on our tail.”

“Okay, we’re outta here.” She opened the door, pushed Cara from her lap, grabbed her shoes and bag, then jumped from the vehicle and slammed the door. “Thanks for the ride, dude.”

Richard watched as they crossed the busy highway. RuPaul’s Raja: Heaven Scent gleamed on the billboard. Beneath all the neon multicolor, Brandi dazzled, looking like she was right where she belonged.

He sped away north up the Trail, and east onto Colonial through Little Saigon, then headed north on Mills Ave, with no sign of the black Nissan all the way to Winter Park.

 

 

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Bullet in the Chamber, by John DeDakis

Cover art Bullet.jpgTitle:  BULLET IN THE CHAMBER

Genre:  Mystery

Author: John DeDakis

Website: http://johndedakis.com

Publisher: Strategic Media

Find out more on Amazon

Gutsy White House Correspondent Lark Chadwick is front-row center when the executive mansion is suddenly attacked.  The president is missing, the first lady’s life is at risk, and Lark is forced to hit the ground running in her new job as White House correspondent for the Associated Press. Her career may be in high gear, but when the man she loves disappears, Lark’s personal life starts to fall apart.  Swiftly swept up in a perilous web of deceit, murder, and intrigue, Lark relentlessly seeks answers.  But her dogged quest for the truth puts her on a dangerous and deadly path. Just how far is Lark willing to go to get the whole story?  And how far is too far?

About the Author:

Award-winning journalist John DeDakis is a former CNN Senior Copy Editor for the Emmy and Peabody-Award winning news program “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” DeDakis, whose journalism career spans nearly four and a half decades, is a former White House correspondent and interviewed such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. DeDakis is a writing coach and taught journalism at The University of Maryland -College Park. DeDakis lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

Connect with the author on the web:

www.johndedakis.com

http://www.johndedakis.com/blog/

https://www.facebook.com/John-DeDakis-and-Friends-152278571506758/?fref=ts

https://www.facebook.com/john.dedakis?fref=ts

Twitter: https://twitter.com/johnDeDakis

BULLET IN THE CHAMBER

By

John DeDakis

 CHAPTER

1

         Have you ever tried to fake confidence?  That’s what I was doing as I stood in Lafayette Square looking at the White House.  It was my first day on the job as the newest White House Correspondent for The Associated Press, the nation’s leading wire service.

Up close, the White House seemed smaller than I expected, but no less magnificent.  Perhaps it’s a subtle magnificence. Elegant.

Intimidating.

I was about to go inside for the first time.  And I felt like I didn’t belong.  Felt like I was an imposter.  Just three years earlier I was a college dropout trying to find out what caused the car accident that orphaned me as an infant.  I could’ve cared less about politics.  But that was then.

You have to be smart to cover the president, but smart is not the way I felt on this Monday morning — Valentine’s Day.  Nor did I feel particularly loved.  The guy I’d been “dating” hadn’t answered my last text in more than forty-eight hours – the entire freaking weekend.

The eleven o’clock briefing was going to start in twenty minutes, and I was running late. I revved up Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” in my head to give myself the psychological boost I needed to cross the Pennsylvania Avenue pedestrian mall and approach the Northwest gate.

By the time I got to the formidable black-barred fence blocking the way to the guard shack, my knees were weak and wobbly and I was shivering in my down jacket. It was a cold-crisp day. I wore tights, but they weren’t doing any good.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t . . . .

“Where’s your ID?” commanded a metallic voice coming from a speaker. Sunlight reflected off the bullet-proof glass so I couldn’t see inside.

“Oh. Sorry.” I fumbled in my messenger bag.  “Here it is,” I called through the bars as I held up my newly-issued, laminated, press pass — white block lettering against a bright red backdrop:

CHADWICK

Lark E.

AP

PRESS

I heard a click come from the doorknob, so I stuffed my pass back in my bag, opened the spear-topped gateway and strode more confidently than I felt to the guard shack.

“ID!” The Voice barked.

“I just showed it to you.”

“I need to see it up close.”

I sighed, pulled it out again, untangled the lanyard and pressed it against the window, my reflection an angry scowl masking the terror I still felt.

The door next to the window buzzed and The Voice said, “Enter!”

Inside, the guard shack was claustrophobic, but at least it was toasty warm.  The Voice sat behind a counter that separated us.  He was mid-thirties — young, cute, and wore a crisp white shirt and narrow black tie.  His badge announced he was a member of the Secret Service Uniformed Division. Two other uniformed Secret Service guards stood off to the side.

A radio newscast was on in the background. “More tough talk from China this morning,” the announcer read.

“Put your bag up here on the counter,” The Voice said.

I did. And so began several minutes of being searched, wanded, magnetometered, and scrutinized that made going through airport security feel like a breeze. Finally, The Voice handed me off to a tall African-American man in his fifties with salt and pepper hair.

“Good morning, ma’am.” His comforting brown eyes were alive with interest and caring.

“Hi,” I said brightly, grateful for his friendliness.

The nametag on his tunic read Crandall. “You’re new here,” he said gently.

“Uh huh. First day. ” I bit my lower lip. “Is it that obvious?”

He simply smiled.  At me.

“Do you know how I can get to the press room?” I asked as I squeezed through a turnstile, clearing the final hurdle.

“Sure,” he said, putting on his uniform cap. He opened the back door and let in a fourth guard who’d just arrived from the White House. “Now that my relief is here, I can show you. I’m heading that way.”

“Thanks.”

Officer Crandall spoke to The Voice.  “I’ll be on break inside, Jim.”

“Okay, Ernie. Thanks for your help.”

Ernie Crandall touched me lightly on the elbow as we stepped out the back door of the guard shack and onto the White House driveway.

I was inside the black bars of the perimeter fence.

I stopped to look at the iconic alabaster building.  It looked bigger from here.

“First time, huh?” he asked.

I nodded, my mouth slightly agape. I felt like a rube from Wisconsin. Oh, wait. I am!

“It never fails to impress me, either,” he said.

“How long have you been here, Officer Crandall?”

“Ernie. The name’s Ernie.” He tipped his hat.  “Twenty years. Been here twenty years. Retiring soon.”

“How soon?”

“Friday,” he beamed.

“Wow.  And then what?”

“Fishin’. A whole lotta fishin’.” He chuckled.

I smiled.  “I’m sorry you’ll be leaving.  I miss you already.  Thanks for being so nice to me.”

He smiled. “You’ll like it here.  Lots of history in the making.  And you’ll have a front-row seat.  Press, right?”

I nodded.  “A.P.”

The driveway where we stood bifurcated.  The left fork curved up toward the imposing north portico of the White House. The president’s front door.  Another asphalt driveway headed straight toward the one-story West Wing and a low-slung doorway beneath a porch held up by several white columns.

“Press room’s this way.” Ernie Crandall guided me along the driveway toward the West Wing.  We walked slowly, like old friends.

“Who was president when you started here?” I asked.

“Clinton.”

“Was he as much of a player as they say?” I asked.

“My lips are sealed,” Ernie smiled, pretending to zip them.

“What were you doing before here?”

“D.C. Metro Police,” he said.  “A cop on the beat.”

“Family?” I asked.

He nodded, but a shadow crossed his face.  “A son in Michigan.  A daughter in California.” He paused and swallowed.  “Wife passed a year ago. Year ago today, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh no!  Valentine’s Day.  That’s so sad.”  I touched the sleeve of his coat.  “I’m sorry,” I said.

I’m only twenty-eight, but I know pain and loss far better than most people my age: I found the body of the aunt who raised me after my parents were killed; my boyfriend, Jason, was murdered just as our relationship was about to take off; and I was sexually assaulted by an English professor I idolized. And all of this happened just within the past few years.

Ernie smiled faintly.  “Life goes on,” he said. “Life goes on.”

As we walked up the driveway, we passed to the left of a long row of about a dozen television cameras, each beneath its own awning-covered workspace crammed with power cables, equipment boxes, and light-stands. I found out later the camera positions – affectionately nicknamed “Pebble Beach” – are where network reporters do their standups and live shots with the White House in the background.

“This is my stop,” Ernie said.  We had come to where the asphalt driveway went around a grassy circle and passed beneath the porch in front of the entrance to the West Wing where a Marine in dress blues stood at attention.

Ernie pointed toward the White House.   “The press room’s that way down this sidewalk.  See the double doors right there?”

I looked. He was pointing at a spot halfway down the sidewalk on the right, an entrance to the West Wing that was far less imposing than the one where we stood – no elegant portico, and no handsome young Marine guard.

“I see it,” I said.  “Thank you, Officer . . . um . . . Ernie,” I said.  “Glad we met.” I held out my hand.

He shook it and bowed slightly. “I am, too.  Maybe our paths will cross a few more times before I move on.”

As I watched him turn toward the West Wing entrance, my phone went off.  I fished it from my messenger bag.

“This is Lark,” I said.

“It’s Grigsby.”

Rochelle Grigsby is my nemesis.  She’s about forty, single, and good looking – way better looking than me. She’s also the deputy bureau chief at the A.P. – my immediate supervisor.

“What’s up?” I tried to sound cheerful but, based on my experience of the past seven months as one of her general assignment reporters, I’d come to accept that she saw her job as trying to trip me up at every turn.

“Heads up, Lark.” I could hear Grigsby’s gum snap. “Ridgeway’s out today.  You’re in the front row.”

Stallings Ridgeway is the long-time and legendary White House Correspondent for A.P.  He’s been there at least thirty years.  Maybe more.

Grigsby plowed on. “I know it’s your first day on the beat, but if you’re the golden girl all the higher-ups think you are, then you’ll be fine.  Me?  I have my doubts.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I replied.

Grigsby merely grunted and hung up.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Sing it, Aretha! A little louder, please, babe.

I turned toward the briefing room. Doug Mitchell stood at the double doors, Nikon at the ready, and flashed me his trademark neon smile that contrasted sharply with his ruddy complexion, dark eyes, thick black hair, and stubble beard. He’s six-two and was looking fine in a navy pea coat, jeans and work boots.

I hadn’t seen him in a week and my heart did an involuntary flip-flop.

Doug is ten years older than I am.  We’d worked together at the Sun-Gazette in Columbia, Georgia, where he was a staff photographer.  We had a thing for each other then, but it never got off the ground because the police were, shall we say, “very interested” in him for awhile, so I backed off.  But, when the police lost interest, mine picked up. And so did Doug’s interest in me.

We both got jobs at A.P. when the Sun-Gazette folded, but right away he was on the road covering Will Gannon’s successful presidential campaign, so we only saw each other off and on.  Mostly off.

Now, after not hearing from him all weekend (okay, forty-eight hours, sixteen minutes, and thirty seconds, give or take — but who’s counting?), there he was thirty yards ahead of me, hatless in the cold, his dark, wavy hair parted down middle and curling slightly over his ears and collar.

Doug raised the camera to his face and began shooting pictures of me.  He wore fingerless gloves and I could hear the rapid-fire chick-koo, chick-koo of the shutter as he squeezed off shot after shot.

My cell phone bleeped again.  The display read Lionel Stone. Lionel is my friend, mentor, and the guy who got me started in journalism.  He earned his Pulitzer decades ago while covering the White House for The New York Times. Since his “retirement,” he’s been the publisher of his hometown newspaper, The Pine Bluff Standard in Pine Bluff, Wisconsin, and he teaches journalism as an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Normally, I’d be glad to take Lionel’s call, but lately he’d been blowing up my phone with all kinds of mansplain texts and links to various online articles.  It all started when I told him I’d gotten the White House gig.

Now Lionel’s living vicariously through me.  And it’s getting old. But I haven’t had the heart to tell him. Yet.

“Hey there,” I said into the phone. “I’ve only got a second.  I’ve just been told I’m in Ridgeway’s front row seat for the daily briefing.”

“Outstanding!” Lionel roared.  “Front row seat on your first day.  That’s awesome, kid.”

I winced.  I hate it when he calls me kid.  I’d told him that when we first met.  It was when I learned from aPine Bluff Standard newspaper clipping about the car accident I survived as an infant.  The crash killed my parents.  I convinced Lionel to let me look into the accident.  What I came up with almost got Lionel and me killed, but instead landed me my first job in journalism with Lionel as my boss.

Gradually, I’d let “kid” creep back into his lexicon.  But now it was grating.

“Yeah,” I said.  “We’ll see just how awesome it really is.  Rochelle Grigsby made it real clear she doesn’t think I’m up to the job.” I sighed. “Maybe she’s right.”

“It’s a tough job.  No doubt about it,” he said, “but you’re tough, too, kid.”

I sighed again, unconvinced. “At least they let me through the Northwest gate.”

“Put me on FaceTime,” Lionel ordered. “Lemme relive the experience of the ole place.”

I took the phone away from my ear and pushed the FaceTime button.  My wide, terrified eyes stared back at me.

Lionel noticed immediately. “I see that deer in the headlights look.  Stop it, Lark.  You’re gonna be fine.”

“So you say.  I almost turned around and went back home to throw up, but one of the uniformed Secret Service agents was nice to me, so I think I’ll keep going.”

Lionel’s face came on the screen.  He wore a white shirt, tie loosened — and, to my surprise, he had a white beard.

“Whoa. Lionel!  When’d you grow the beard?”

He stroked it and preened.  “You like?”

“Very distinguished.  What does Muriel think?”

He frowned.  “She thinks I should shave it.  Says it makes me look old.”

“Lionel.  I hate to tell you this: You are old.”

“Nonsense.  Seventy-five is the new thirty-five.”

“Yeah.  Right.”

“Geez, I wish I was thirty-five again,” he said wistfully, then cleared his throat. “Age is all in your head.  It’s just a number. Did I ever tell you about the time–”

I cut him off.  “Yeah.  Probably.  Look, Lionel, the briefing’s gonna start any minute and I’m late, so let’s get on with this little tour.”

I turned the camera around so Lionel could see, but Doug filled the screen. He was now about ten feet from me, camera at his face, clicking off more shots and adding his own narration.

“Here’s the famous Lark Chadwick about to enter the White House briefing room for the first time.  She’s taken her iPhone from her ear and is pointing it in my general direction.”

I was annoyed.  He gives me nothing but radio silence all weekend then has the nerve to turn up, all jovial, acting as if everything’s wonderful, and then he makes a point of trying to embarrass me. But I couldn’t afford to make a scene.  Not here.  Not now.

I put on my best tight smile and gave his lens a laser stare. “Good morning to you, too, Mister Mitchell.” I hoped he felt the chill from the ice in my voice.  “What you’re looking at, Lionel, is my so-called friend and colleague Doug Mitchell.  Doug is in the process of being exceptionally obnoxious.”

I brushed past him, pulled open the door and stepped into the briefing room.  Doug followed.

“Here it is, Lionel.”  I held the phone in front of me and panned the scene, left to right.  In front of me, a sea of about fifty blue leather folding seats faced to the right. To my left, at the back of the room, TV cameras sat atop tripods and pointed toward the podium at the front of the room.

As I panned right, I noticed that many of the seats were empty, but some reporters were strolling from the back of the room to take their places for the briefing.  The room was much smaller than I expected – barely the size of a swimming pool.  Actually, according to one of the links Lionel sent me, I learned that the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room is built right above the old White House swimming pool where President Kennedy used to cavort with “Fiddle” and “Faddle,” two of his many mistresses.

“Wow.  The place looks great since the facelift,” Lionel exclaimed.

I made a right turn and walked slowly down the side aisle that went along the windows. When I came to the front row I stopped and turned around.  Doug nearly bumped into me.

“Chadwick has stopped now,” Doug narrated.  “It looks as though she’s about to use her phone to get a wide shot of the entire briefing room.”

I pointed the camera toward the back of the room.

“Yes,” Doug proclaimed. “That’s exactly what she’s doing, folks.”  He continued to take more pictures. I continued trying to ignore him.

“Show me the plaque on Helen Thomas’s chair,” Lionel said.

“Which chair’s that?”

“Front row center,” Lionel said.  “I miss that old broad.”

I found the seat and put my phone close enough to the plaque so Lionel could read her name on it.

“She sat there for nearly sixty years.  Covered ten presidents.  She’s a legend, Lark.  I wish you could have known her.  She would’ve loved you.”

“Thanks, Lionel.”

Just then a voice came out of a speaker in the ceiling above me.  “Attention, everyone.  The briefing will start in exactly two minutes.  President Gannon and National Security Adviser Nathan Mann will be conducting the briefing. This is your two-minute warning.  The President will be in the briefing room in two minutes.”

“Holy crap.  Did you hear that, Lionel?”

“Yup.  Better take your seat.”

“Which one is it?”

“Front row center.”

“Helen Thomas’s old seat?”

“The very same.”

I gulped.

The sudden announcement that President Gannon would be giving the briefing caused a stampede as dozens of people came running – thundering – into the room, the sound echoing on the hollow floor above the old swimming pool.

Everyone was piling into the room through a narrow hallway in the back. I pointed my iPhone toward the commotion so that Lionel could see.

In the row just behind me the correspondents for Fox and CNN were hastily getting wired up to do their live reports. Each of them faced the cameras at the back of the room. The guy from CNN awkwardly slung himself into his suitcoat while inserting an earbud into his ear.  The perfectly coifed blonde reporter for Fox stood stoically, hand to her ear, waiting for her cue.

The room buzzed with expectation.

“Better sit down, kid,” Lionel urged.

I sat, my pulse quickening. The lectern towered in front of me.

Suddenly, an older, bald man wearing black-rimmed glasses and carrying a long, narrow reporter’s notebook darted toward me from my left.  “You!” He yelled at me and jabbed his thick forefinger dangerously close to my nostrils.  “You’re in my chair.”

From the phone in my hand Lionel said, “Stallings?  Stallings Ridgeway?  Is that you, you old fart?  It’s Lionel Stone.  How are ya, man?” Lionel’s voice was giddy with nostalgia.

For a moment, Ridgeway’s face lost its intensity as his eyes searched in confusion for who’d called his name, but then he focused on the phone in my hand.

“Lionel,” Ridgeway said gruffly, “whoever this is you’re talking to is sitting in my seat.”

“Oh, c’mon, Stallings.  Let the kid have your chair just this once.”

Embarrassed, I stood.  “I’m sorry, Mister Ridgeway. Rochelle Grigsby told me you were off.”

Suddenly, I became aware of a deathly silence. I looked around. The room was full to overflowing, everyone was standing, and all eyes were on me.

I turned around.  Stallings Ridgeway, hands on his hips, glowered at me.  Standing at the podium, an amused look on his face, stood the imposing presence of Will Gannon, the forty-ninth President of the United States.

“Oh, my God,” I blurted.

The entire press corps erupted in laughter.

The president spoke.  “That’s okay, Miss Chadwick.  I’ll wait until you and Mister Ridgeway get things straightened out.”

“I’m so sorry, Mister President.” I slid away from the front row seat and Ridgeway eased into it.  “I’ll call you back,” I rasped into the phone and scurried to the side aisle and toward the back of the room.

I kept my head down, but could hear some clapping and sniggering as the reporters took their seats.

I’d only gotten past the second row when I heard the president say, “I suppose this is as good a time as any to introduce you to Lark Chadwick.  Today marks her first day as a White House Correspondent for the Associated Press.  I met Lark when I was Governor of Georgia campaigning for this job.  Lark is an impressive young woman who wasn’t afraid to ask me some tough questions.  So, welcome, Lark.”

By this time I was in the back of the room, as far from the president and the blinding spotlight as I could possibly get. Fortunately, it was next to Doug. He gently touched my shoulder to comfort me.

“Thank you, Mister President,” I hollered.

There was a bit more chuckling and then the room became silent again as reporters turned their attention to President Gannon.  He’d only been in office a few weeks, but I noticed that the pronounced southern drawl he’d had as a candidate was already beginning to fade.

Behind and to the president’s right stood a nervous, diffident man wearing a dark suit — Nathan Mann, the president’s newly-appointed National Security Adviser.

The president cleared his throat, eyed the TV cameras just behind me, and began to speak.  “During my campaign, I was asked many questions about what my policy as president would be on the commercialization of drones.  As you know, my consistent answer has been that I want to study the issue before coming up with a plan. I’m announcing today my administration’s position on the subject, and I’m announcing our legislative plan to put it into place.  I’ll give you the broad outline of the legislation, then Nathan will stay behind to take your questions.

“First and foremost, as your President, it’s my responsibility to–”

Just then the door to the president’s right rear burst open and a torrent of Secret Service agents swarmed into the room. Ernie Crandall was one of them.

“EVERYONE OUT. NOW!” shouted one of them.  “OUT.  NOW.  SIDE DOORS. MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”

 

Two agents grabbed the president and hustled him out of the room.

Categories: Suspense, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Climatized, by Sally Fernandez

climatizedbookimageTitle: CLIMATIZED

Genre: Thriller

Author: Sally Fernandez

Website: www.sallyfernandez.com

Publisher: Dunham Books

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

She’s been an analyst, a spy, an investigator, and the deputy director of the States Intelligence Agency. After resigning her post at the SIA, Max Ford formally declares her independence when she bursts onto the Washington DC scene as a private investigator. While her new incarnation as PI indulges her penchant for sleuthing, her style remains unchanged. Seems Max is still brash, tenacious, tough—and unwilling to bow down to anyone, including elite and powerful politicians. Right out of the starting gate, Max finds herself embroiled in an unseemly web of mystery, murder andintrigue. When Senator Sherman Spark, a prominent Republican from Florida, is found dead in Lincoln Park, the police quickly rule the death a suicide. But Isabelle Spark, the late Senator’s wife, isn’t buying it and hires Max to prove there is something more sinister at work. Max quickly finds suspicious circumstances surrounding the Senator: two world-renowned scientists died days before they were scheduled to testify before the late Senator’s investigative committee on climate change initiatives. But when she realizes the connection to global warming, big money, deceit, and treachery, Max’s investigation accelerates in a most dangerous way.  No sooner than Max starts to unravel the mystery, a third scientist dies under questionable circumstances. Then a fourth scientist goes missing—and this missing scientist could be the key to unearthing the motives behind the deaths. Against the backdrop of a ticking clock, Max and her partner, Jackson Monroe, launch a pulse-quickening quest to find the missing scientist, and find the truth. This twisty, circuitous path leads them to the powerful organization behind the killings.  But Max Ford might find herself on the wrong side of a lot of powerful people, because what she discovers could have devastating, worldwide implications. And when that evidence is presented to the president, he will be forced to make a crucial decision:  cover up a diabolical plot, or bring down a multi-trillion-dollar worldwide economy…

Suspenseful, spellbinding and sensational, Climatized delivers red-hot action, a sizzling storyline, and a scorcher of a plot.   Briskly paced, steeped in facts, and resplendent with political intrigue,Climatized is an extraordinary—and extraordinarily provocative—thriller.  Sally Fernandez turns upthe heat in Climatized, a tale that will leave readers breathless.

About the Author:

Sally Fernandez is a world traveler and political junkie with a vivid imagination. She and her husband divide their time between their homes in Florida and in Florence, Italy.

Links: 

www.sallyfernandez.com

https://www.facebook.com/SallyFernandezNovelist

https://twitter.com/SallyzSaying

https://www.youtube.com/user/SallyForthPublishing

Chapter 1

UP IN THE AIR

Claus was pleased to see Ernst standing outside the hotel at

eight a.m. sharp. Now they could beat the weekend traffic

and arrive in Saint Léger within the hour. It was an easy drive

from Claus’ home in Avignon, but the weather forecast for the

weekend called for conditions that were unseasonably sunny

with cloudless skies, abnormal conditions for an April day

without rain. He suspected the roads would be cluttered with

families opting to enjoy the various outdoor activities available in

the mountainous region. Most important, the weather was ideal

for rock climbing, one of Claus’ obsessions. He often remarked

that the desire to climb coursed through his veins since receiving

his first Whiz Kid harness and carabiners at the age of five.

What choice did he have? Both his grandfather and father were

avid climbers. Oh yes, with the warm sun and the crisp air, it

promised to be a strenuous but invigorating climb, exactly what

Claus preferred.

Up ahead was the sign for Saint Léger du Ventoux.

They were about to pass through the quaint village in the

Toulourenc Valley at the base of the Mont Ventoux. The

immense mountain, towering six thousand feet into the air,

was well known for casting a permanent shadow on the tiny

hamlet. In another half-mile east and a quarter-mile north

they would reach their destination. Finally, Claus steered

into the sparsely filled parking lot, pleased to see only a few

visitors had arrived.

“How magnificent,” Ernst said, as he viewed the majestic

Saint Léger hovering above.

“She’s got some of the finest crags and some the hardest

routes,” Claus said. Eager to get going, he hopped out of the car

and headed for the trunk. “Help me with the gear?”

As Ernst followed behind he spotted myriad overhangs off in

the distance. “It looks challenging.”

“The route we’re going to take is a single pitch and only

a hundred and thirty feet high up the cliff. But don’t let her fool

you; she’s a tough old crag.”

“So what do we need—just ropes and belay devices?”

“That will do it.” Claus looked at Ernst’s feet and noticed

that they were two shoe sizes larger than his. “Good thing you

brought your own climbing shoes,” he joked.

“I never leave home without them. But thanks for letting me

borrow your other gear.”

“No problem. Let’s get going. It’s a twenty-minute walk from

here to the base.”

As they walked along the narrow path lined with Austrian pines,

Claus explained that the route was one of the most difficult, as well

as one of the least ventured. “There are permanent bolts strategically

placed up the rock face. They’re positioned anywhere from fifteen

to thirty feet apart, so we’ll be able to descend without rappelling.”

They both understood that with or without the bolts that

provided protection, the descent was the most dangerous part of

rock climbing—the part they both enjoyed.

“Hey, Ernst, you never told me what you do for a living or

why you were even at the conference?” Claus was a little curious,

but he was primarily killing time.

 

“I guess our climbing tales did dominate our discussions. No

big secret. I’m a freelance consultant for biotech companies.”

“So why the interest in a climate-change seminar?”

“I was bored.” Ernst grinned. “You gonna let me start the

ascent?”

“I know the route. You don’t, so I’ll take the first pitch.”

Ernst didn’t push. He knew there would be plenty of

opportunities to switch roles back and forth between the lead

climber and the belayer.

“Here we are!” Claus announced as they came around the last

bend. Standing before them was a massive rock towering up in

the air.

Ernst inspected the crag. He noted that the first bolt was

secured approximately twenty feet up the rock face.

Claus noted his expression. “I assume you approve?”

“Absolutely!”

Claus expertly tied off one end of the rope to his carabiner

with a figure-eight knot and then attached the carabiner to his

harness. “I mentioned that this is one of my preferred routes.

It’s a rugged day’s climb that calls for endurance and physical

strength, but it’s not Dangerville.”

“I’m ready to rock and roll!” Ernst said. His eagerness was

apparent.

Claus also deemed it time to get the show on the road or,

rather, up the rock. After double-checking his equipment, he

took the lead and began the ascent. Taking special care, he

inched his way up the rock face as Ernst ran the rope through

the belay device and then clipped the device to his harness.

It provided the necessary protection in case the leader was to

slip and fall before attaching himself to a pre-placed bolt with

a carabiner. The belay device created friction, placing bends in

the rope allowing the belayer to tighten and secure the rope

quickly, preventing the leader from falling beyond the last piece

of protection.

Having maneuvered the rock face without incident and

satisfied with the pace, Claus attached himself to the next bolt.

Then, he took over the belay device and functioned as the belayer.

He watched attentively as Ernst climbed to join him. At that

point they had been ascending for well over an hour, covering

half the distance, with Claus always in the lead.

“Now can I take the lead?” Ernst asked, satisfied he had

proven his athletic prowess.

Claus gave the go-ahead.

Ernst moved upward toward the next bolt as Claus adjusted

the belay. Thus far, the ascent had moved along with a rhythmic

cadence. Then after passing a few more bolts, Claus was once

again in the lead.

“I’m ready!” he shouted down to Ernst but there was no

response. “C’mon, let’s move it!”

“Give me a sec! I’m adjusting my gear!” Ernst shouted back.

Moments later, he resumed the climb.

Finally, they had reached the top of the cliff. They each

detached the rope, removing the tether from their harnesses,

and then stood back to admire the three-hundred-and-sixtydegree

view.

“Breathtaking!” Ernst remarked. “Well worth the climb.”

“Ready for lunch? I’m starved.” From Ernst’s expression, Claus

needed no verbal response. Immediately he opened his backpack

and pulled out an assortment of sausages and cheeses, along with

a crusty baguette.

Ernst grabbed two energy drinks and two protein bars from

his backpack.

They noshed leisurely on their snacks and carried on with

simple conversation while enjoying the refreshing cool air. But

as the hour passed by they agreed to pack up and get off the

mountain before losing the benefit of daylight. Within the next

two hours, the sun’s glow would cast itself on the back side of

the mountain, leaving them hanging off a dimly lit crag. After

a few more moments to stretch their legs, they gathered their

belongings and organized for the descent. As agreed, they would

not rappel, but would climb down together, sharing the roles of

leader and belayer as they had before.

Ernst walked over to the permanent bolt fastened to the rock

face at the edge of the cliff and clipped on a carabiner. He ensured

the knotting on the rope was secure. Simultaneously, Claus tied

the other end of the rope to his harness and descended to the

first bolt twenty feet below. Ernst released the rope at a slow,

even pace through the belay, using the device as a descender this

time. As Claus increased his distance, Ernst kept the rope taut.

“Watch your footing down here!” Claus shouted, paying particular

attention to the patch of scree they encountered on the way up. He

continued to edge his way along the rock face using great caution,

until he arrived at the next bolt. “I’m clipped on!” He attached his

carabiner and waited for Ernst to climb down and take the lead.

“Whoa!” Ernst landed his left foot smack in the center of the

scree, but soon regained his balance as the loose gravel scarcely

missed Claus’ head.

Either Ernst did not hear him or he was not paying attention,

but for whatever reason it gave Claus pause. “Let’s take it slow! We

have plenty of time. Remember—you don’t know this crag—I do!”

“Got it!” After a few deep breaths, Ernst continued.

They regained their cadence, taking special care as they

maneuvered past each other and descended the mountain.

All of a sudden, Claus heard a foreboding snap. “ERNST!” he

screamed as he slid down the rock face, scraping his head along

the way.

With no time to spare, Ernst tied off his rope to stop Claus’

acceleration. Had he not, they both would have plunged over

seventy-five feet to the ground.

Dangling helplessly on the rope thirty feet below, Claus took

a lungful and then exhaled. His ears rang with the sound of

his body scraping against the rocks. It reminded him of a train

coming to a screeching halt on unoiled tracks. A horrible sound,

he thought as he shuddered.

“Find a foothold—and don’t move!” Seconds later Ernst had

him tied off, and the rope was secure. “I need to rappel down

and take your weight.”

For Claus, it seemed like hours, but it only took minutes for

Ernst to reach him.

“What the hell happened?”

Claus tried to regain his breath, but all he managed to utter

was, “The bolt let go.”

“How could the bolt simply pull out of the rock?”

“I don’t know!”

“It was fine on the way up. We both clipped on to it!”

“Let’s just get off this mountain.” Claus was clearly ill at ease.

Given the circumstance, Ernst took charge. “Take a deep

breath; we’ve got only about thirty feet more to go.”

Back on solid ground, Ernst inspected Claus’ head. Fortunately,

he had only a few superficial scrapes on his forehead, not worth

a bandage. Then, after a bit of haggling, Claus insisted he was

perfectly capable of driving Ernst back to his hotel. They wasted no

time in gathering their gear and headed for the car. Once underway,

Claus gradually returned to his former self, and their conversation

took on a lighter tone. They chatted about their good fortune until

Ernst proceeded to recount horror stories from his earlier climbs.

All Claus heard was his grandfather’s voice echoing in his

ear. “You’ll never be able to read the mind of Mother Nature,

so you’d better be able to read the minds of those helping you

to challenge her.” They were words he did not heed on that day.

Claus was rarely rattled, but he had never climbed with a stranger

before, only with close friends. But he had to admit that it was

Ernst’s quick action that saved them both.

Ernst was still rattling on about a fall he took until Claus

interrupted. “I’d prefer you to keep those stories to yourself, at

least until after our climb tomorrow.”

“Point taken. So we’re still on?”

Claus nodded, but continued to keep his eyes on the road.

The rest of the drive was relatively silent as they sped along the

winding alpine highway. Finally, Claus spotted a neon sign on top

of a building that flashed the name “Novotel,” and he breathed

a sigh of relief.

Antoinette checked her watch and then checked the wall

clock; they both read 9:38 p.m. “Il a promis.” She soon decided

moaning was useless and thought the Beaujolais wine might

produce a better effect. After pouring herself a glass, she

sauntered into the living room and waited for her husband.

Unfortunately, her favorite Gamay grape from Burgundy was

not doing its magic. She prayed that her worrying would prove

unnecessary.

Antoinette recognized that Claus was an excellent climber.

He had tackled the Matterhorn frequently with his hiking

buddies. But the day hikes by himself or with only one other

person concerned her, especially if she was not acquainted

with that person. All she knew was that Claus had befriended

another attendee during a weeklong conference. His name

was Ernst from Lucerne, who was also an avid climber. They

had made plans to climb Saint Léger on Saturday. She had

approved on one condition—they would be off the mountain

by sunset. That was two hours ago. Once again she checked her

watch with growing concern. The time was 10:15. Suddenly,

she heard a car pull into the driveway and she let out a huge

sigh of relief.

Je sais que je suis en retard!” Claus called out from the kitchen,

apologizing for being late. When he walked into the living room,

he found his wife standing in the center of the room with her

arms folded across her chest. Not a good sign, he thought, and he

moved in to embrace her with a hug, whispering “Je t’aime” in an

effort to stifle any anger.

Antoinette surrendered to his ploy, but when she pulled away,

she saw the bruise on his forehead.

Claus assured his lovely wife that it was nothing and then

rotated his cupped hand as though he were holding an empty

wine glass.

Tu veux un verre de vin?” she asked without a trace of anger,

thankful that he had arrived home safely.

Absolument!” he replied, amazed by her easy acquiescence

and more than ready for the glass of wine she was in the midst

of pouring. Then, he prepared for the inevitable question.

As expected, the moment they sat down next to each other

on the sofa, Antoinette asked, “So how was the climb?”

Claus filled her in on the day’s events, careful to leave out

a few details. It all ended well; what’s the point? he mused. Then,

switching the topic slightly, he began to wax on about how Ernst

was such a great climber, hoping to butter her up for his next

request. “Ernst leaves on Monday and asked if I’d climb the Lou

Passo with him tomorrow. I agreed.”

Antoinette knew that Lou Passo was located in the same

region they had just climbed, but it was a rarely visited crag and

considerably easier than Saint Léger. “Clau—”

Arrêtez,” he said as he held up his hand, stopping her

response. “Je l’ai déjà dit oui.”

So, you’ve already said yes. Then what’s left for me to

say?” she asked with mild annoyance, annoyance that was

rooted in her doubts about Ernst. He was not one of Claus’

close friends.

 

Categories: Suspense, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Poetry Excerpt Reveal: ‘Night Ringing’ by Laura Foley

night-ringing

“I revel in the genius of simplicity” Laura Foley writes as she gives us in plain-spoken but deeply lyrical moments, poems that explore a life filled with twists and turns and with many transformations. Through it all is a search for a fulfilling personal and sexual identity, a way to be most fully alive in the world. From multicultural love affairs through marriage with a much older man, through raising a family, through grief, to lesbian love affairs, “Night Ringing” is the portrait of a woman willing to take risks to find her own best way. And she does this with grace and wisdom. As she says: “All my life I’ve been swimming, not drowning.”

-Patricia Fargnoli, author of “Winter, Duties of the Spirit, ” and “Then, Something

“I love the words and white space of poetry. I love stories even more. In this collection, Laura Foley evokes stories of crystallized moments, of quiet and overpowering emotion, of bathtubs and lemon chicken. The author grows up on the pages, comes of age, and reconciles past with present. Almost. Try to put the book down between poems to savor each experience. Try, but it won’t be easy. -Joni B. Cole, author of “Toxic Feedback, Helping Writers Survive and Thrive”

Plain-spoken and spare, Laura Foley’s poems in “Night Ringing” trace a life story through a series of brief scenes: separate, intense moments of perception, in which the speaker’s focus is arrested, when a moment opens to reveal a glimpse of the larger whole. Memories of a powerful, enigmatic father, a loving but elusive mother, a much older husband, thread Foley’s stories of childhood, marriage and motherhood, finally yielding to the pressure of her attention, as she constructs a series of escapes from family expectations, and moves toward a new life. In these lucid, intense poems, Foley’s quiet gaze, her concentration, and emotional accuracy of detail, render this collection real as rain. -Cynthia Huntington, author of “Heavenly Bodies”

Foley’s voice rings with quiet authority undercut by calamity, examining a life so extraordinary, she seems to have lived several people’s lives, setting a high bar for poetic craft she meets, in great mystery perfectly expressed in the tiny, quotidian, “spent matches pressed on wet pavement,” to soulful beauty, “as wind lifts/every shining wave”; in wisdom rooted in humor, from the deliciously funny “Flunking Jung,” to self-deprecating wit, misreading “poetic” as “pathetic,” reminding us wisdom is love, grown from self-compassion. -April Ossmann, author of “Anxious Music”

Buy Links:      Amazon  / Norwich Bookstore / B&N

Excerpt

Ode to My Feet

 

For years I’ve thought them queer,
hiding them
in steamy boots and sneakers,
but recently, I’ve begun to like
their well-worked lines, blue
veins, tapered,  skinny elegance.
Funny looking, yes, oddly
protuberant, awkwardly angled,
unlike anyone else’s,
models for a medieval statue’s,
ancient granite feet
on a church facade,
thoroughly unmodern.
Yet, how well they climb steep cliffs,
work my slinky kayak’s rudder,
how they tingle, tapping to music
across a wooden floor,
dangling below me
when I sit on high seats,
and turning pink as we wade
the cool mountain pond,
warming, as they carry me
faithfully home to rest.

LauraBeach.jpg

Author Info

Laura Foley is the author of five poetry collections. The Glass Tree won the Foreword Book of the Year Award, Silver, and was a Finalist for the New Hampshire Writer’s Project, Outstanding Book of Poetry. Joy Street won the Bi-Writer’s Award. Her poems have appeared in journals and magazines including Valparaiso Poetry Review, Inquiring Mind, Pulse Magazine, Poetry Nook, Lavender Review, The Mom Egg Review and in the British Aesthetica Magazine. She won Harpur Palate’s Milton Kessler Memorial Poetry Award and the Grand Prize for the Atlanta Review’s International Poetry Contest.

Author Links:  Website | Goodreads 

Website:  http://www.lauradaviesfoley.com/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8402128.Laura_Davies_Foley

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Corporate Citizen, by Gabriel Valjan

5-ccTitle: Corporate Citizen: Roma Series Book Five

Genre: Mystery-Suspense/Thriller

Author: Gabriel Valjan

Website: www.gabrielvaljan.com

Publisher: Winter Goose Publishing

Purchase link: http://amzn.to/2b9E2qE

About the Book:

A call for help from an old friend lands Bianca and the crew back in Boston. On a timeout with Dante, due to revelations in the aftermath of the showdown in Naples, Bianca is drawn to a mysterious new ally who understands the traumas of her past, and has some very real trauma of his own. Murder, designer drugs, and a hacker named Magician challenge our team, and Bianca learns that leaving Rendition behind might be much harder than she thinks. 

 

Excerpt from Corporate Citizen (Roma Series Book 5)

    “Is this Mr. DiBello?” said a woman’s voice through the long-distance connection.

“This is he,” Gennaro answered.

Bianca raised her eyes at hearing him speaking in English. She had just come into the room with their afternoon drinks. She was even more concerned that the call had come to Gennaro’s cell phone and not the house phone. They were apartment sitting for their friend Claudio Ferrero, La Stampa’s top investigative journalist, who was on assignment. This call also threatened their afternoon ritual of talks out on the balcony where they enjoyed the sights below of San Salvario, the neighborhood near Turin’s city center. Gennaro was motioning for her to come over and eavesdrop.

“What can I do for you?” he asked the caller.

“Not for me, Mr. DiBello. I’m calling on behalf of your friend, Diego Clemente. He asked me to dial your number for him. It’s not easy dialing Italy from a hospital phone.”

“Hospital?” Gennaro said, alarmed. His eyes flashed his concern to Bianca.

“I’m a nurse at MGH and he’s my patient. MGH is Mass General–”

“Hospital in Boston,” Gennaro stammered. “I know that. Scusi – I mean I’m sorry for interrupting you, but is Diego alright?”

“He took a fall at home and broke his hip,” the woman seemed to sigh, “slip rugs are dangerous, you know. He can tell you the rest himself. There isn’t much time.”

“Wait, please. Much time?” Gennaro asked, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“He’s due for surgery and I’ve started his IV. I’d say that you have about ten minutes before happy hour.”

Gennaro said, not understanding to Bianca. “IV…and ‘happy hour.’”

Bianca bared her forearm and explained in Italian: “Medication; probably anesthesia.”

The voice on the phone said, “I’ll hand over the phone to him so you two can talk.”

“Thank you, Nurse.”

“You’re welcome.” Gennaro heard the phone shuffle and heavy breathing. The connection improved. Gennaro and Bianca heard the pull of the curtain. “Diego?”

Another moment passed, and more ruffling sounds. Gennaro and Bianca huddled closer around the phone as Clemente spoke, “Slip rug, col cazzo.” Clemente had learned some Italian, but only the choice words. “That’s some hell of a story, from Mason Street to MGH and now a hip-replacement. Jesus, I can feel the drug working its way up my arm already.”

“You’re making no sense, Diego.”

“Gennaro, please listen to me, since I don’t know how fast Nurse Ratched’s cocktail will work.”

“Less than ten minutes. I’m listening.”

“Thanks. My head feels light. Damn.”

“Wait — where’s your wife? You shouldn’t be alone in a hospital.”

“My wife passed away. Look, Virgil showed me the apartment, the dead girl, and it’s a real mess, a real setup, and my life is going to hell. To hell, you understand, Gennaro, in a boat, hole in the bottom, and toothpicks for oars.” The voice was Diego irritated, in hyper mode.

“Slow down, Diego. I’m sorry about your wife. Why didn’t you tell me?”

A deep, relaxed sigh. “I didn’t want to trouble you. What could you’ve done? Send me a Mass card? You’ve been through it yourself.”

Gennaro’e eyes turned downward. He remembered Lucia. “But still, Diego. I’m your friend. Friends do something, and I don’t mean send you the latest self-help manual on grief.”

Bianca swatted his arm, “No time for sarcasm,” she said.

“I couldn’t help myself, he told her in Italian.

“Hello? Help me then.” Diego

“First, I need to understand what you’re telling me,” Gennaro said. “Who is Virgil?”

“I wish I knew, Gennaro. I wish I knew. I think Virgil is one of Farese’s people.”

“Farese?” The name, as it came out of Gennaro’s mouth, made Bianca’s eyes widen.

U.S. Attorney Michael Farese was a chameleon of a character, changing colors when he worked for the Department of Justice, when he handled diplomatic requests for the State Department, and when he worked for the CIA, as they thought he might have been after their last run-in with him during their investigation of the Camorra in Naples.

“Diego? Concentrate. Why do you think Farese?”

“That doesn’t matter. She’s dead and he’s dead.”

“Who? Who is she? Who is he?” Gennaro asked. His voice almost cracked.

“Norma Jean. She had such nice lingerie, too, and that son of a bitch was in such a nice bed.” Clemente’s voice was almost singing as he was speaking. The wonders of pharmacology.

Gennaro rubbed his eyebrows. He was frustrated. “Diego, stay with me. Who is Norma Jean? Who was in the bed?”

“Marilyn Monroe was a sad girl.” Diego giggled.

“He’s giggling,” Gennaro said to Bianca.

“Oh, it’s a party line!” Diego almost shouted. “Who else is there?”

“Bianca,” Gennaro announced. “She is staying with me.”

“You naughty boy,” Diego said. “Put her on, please.”

“Here,” Gennaro handed his cell phone to Bianca. “Talk to him. I think the medication has gotten into his brain.”

Bianca seized the phone. “Clemente, this is Bianca,” she said, hoping that using the man’s last name would snap some momentary sense into the man’s head. “Forget about Marilyn Monroe. Who is dead?”

“Marilyn, of course. Somebody murdered her,” Diego answered.

“That’s right, but who is in the bed?”

“James Guild, former special agent, FBI, scourge of my loins.”

Bianca put her hand over the receiver and repeated, “Guild is dead.”

Porca puttana.” Gennaro stepped in closer to the receiver. “What happened, Diego?”

“Hell if I know. Virgil gave me the tour of hell. I got nice slippers, though. He had a needle in his arm.”

“Virgil had a needle in his arm?” Bianca asked.

Clemente became belligerent. “I just told you Guild had a needle in his arm. He was in that expensive bed. I saw it. No gun, too. Norma was out in the living room. He was in her bedroom. Nice bed, and what a nice view, and did I tell you what a beautiful kitchen she had?”

Gennaro asked, “I couldn’t hear that last part. What did he say?”

“Nice kitchen,” she said in English “He’s getting delirious.”

“I’m not delirious,” Clemente yelled. “I’m serious! Oh, that rhymes.”

“Please focus, Clemente,” Bianca said.

“I saw it. I saw the computer. My life, your life…it all goes to shit.”

Bianca, trying a soothing voice, said, “You saw a computer. What did you see, Clemente?”

“Black, black background,” Diego’s voice was now sputtering.

In a coaxing tone and hoping for more details, Bianca asked, “What else did you see?”

“Big, big.” More sputtering. Bianca closed her eyes.

“Big red R!” Diego said triumphantly.

Bianca and Gennaro understood what they had heard: black background and red R.

She said softly, “Fuck me.”

“Lingerie?” Clemente asked. Bianca handed the phone back to Gennaro. She put her hands to her temples, rubbed them. She thought of Boston, the Sargent case, Nasonia Pharmaceutical, and the body count.

“Diego, this is Gennaro again. We’re coming to Boston.”

“That would be nice. Somebody should feed the floor people. I feel sleepy now,” Clemente said, mewing. Gennaro stared at his phone before he put it to his ear again.

“Get some sleep, Diego. We’ll be there as soon as we can.” Gennaro heard more purring and then the cacophonous drop of the receiver on the floor on the other end. He ended the call on his cell phone.

“Did he say anything else?” Bianca asked.

“He said someone should feed floor people. I think he has cats.”

“How do you know he has cats?” she asked.

“Blame it on hanging around Silvio.” Bianca didn’t question the logic. Silvio was a translator, Farese’s interpreter, their friend, member of the team, and lately, animal whisperer.

“We should go to Boston,” Gennaro said.

“He saw the red R.”

“I know. You should call Dante.”

“Do I really have to?” she asked.

“Yes, and you have to tell him.”

“Which part? Clemente and Guild, or that Clemente saw the red R.”

“Doesn’t matter. Tell him everything,” Gennaro said. “It adds up to the same.”

Red R meant Rendition.

 

Excerpt published with permission from Winter Goose Publishing

 

Categories: Suspense, Thriller, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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