Suspense

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.

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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

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

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

CoverTitleWHISTLE BLOWER AND DOUBLE AGENTS

Author: Ruth J. Anderson

Publisher: The Peppertree Press

Genre: Thriller/Espionage

Release date: July 2016

Purchase at Amazon and B&N

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

CHAPTER 1

A loud persistent buzz of the telephone awakened Jim Miller

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

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

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

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

preferred to waken slowly—dozing several times before greeting

the day.

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

other end teased.

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

didn’t awaken me,” Jim lied.

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

a command than a query.

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

from the President of the United States.

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

went dead on the other end.

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

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

turned his head slightly to observe the familiar white building to

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

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

business of politics. Through the ages, numerous families had

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

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

Jim entered the White House and turned the corner leading to

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

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

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

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

eyes, permanently creased at the corners, complemented a wide

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

understated single-breasted gray suit, complemented by a dapper

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

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

taste, while his boyishness depicted youth and energy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

schools and parties.

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

wealthy and society-conscious family opposed their engagement

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

stores, headquartered in New York City. Despite their ostentatious

background, Nancy did not come across as the average snobbish

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

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

had carefully factored in her support and guidance to assure that

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

fine asset to the clan.

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

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

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

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

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

Her good friend, Sarah, distinctly contrasted in personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

epitome of old money, handed the financial management of their

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

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

dry up and pass away.

Fortunately, during this financial deathwatch, Sarah approached

womanhood. Their adolescent daughter grew into a ravishing

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

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

gathered what was left of their substantial fortune and situated

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

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

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

wife’s family to languish in pauperism.

When Sarah married George Keannealy, it was the happiest day

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

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

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

families together once and for all.

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

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

lawyer, not particularly successful, who died from the ravages

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

raised by a doting mother and grandfather. His mother worked

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

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

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

whom he adored.

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

boy became enthralled with the military. His grandfather encouraged

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

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

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

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

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

curriculum stressing mathematics, science, and engineering.

Simultaneously, it would focus broadly on shaping his character

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

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

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

eagerly, considering the superiority of his grades and his outstanding

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

at the Point, graduating second in his class.

High school and college football along with years of rigorous

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

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

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

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

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

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

this diplomatic facade, however, was an aggressive nature that

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

and temperament could occur in precise seconds.

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

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

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

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

added to his presence.

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

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

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

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

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

Connecticut, where George and Sarah had purchased an imposing

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

swimming pool, and a small compact runway to accommodate a

private plane or helicopter.

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

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

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

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

wonderful smile that had ultimately won him the election. He

pointed abruptly to an overstuffed chair, upholstered in a striking

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

Jim slid quickly into the comfortable chair designated for him.

Leaning forward, he eagerly anticipated what the president would

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

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

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

bite to eat.

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

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

President. Shall I send in the steward?”

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

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

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

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

of him.

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

butter and jelly.”

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

been peanut butter and jelly served with lunch and sometimes

breakfast. But it almost seemed bizarre to have it served

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

the foods George liked—tuna fish salad and homemade vegetable

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

and jelly.

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

“Jim, there are some openings at the Atomic Energy

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

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

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

your background in engineering, you should be quickly confirmed

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

can trust in that position.”

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

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

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

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

he was often found there inhaling the peaceful quietude, particularly

during troublesome times when the burdens of the office laid

heavily upon his shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

a concern to peace in the world.

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

stare out at the garden.

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

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

processing plant located in Axion, Pennsylvania, which has a

consistent and unexplained MUF in its accounting records … you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

material could equal several good-sized atomic bombs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

waiting there for his bidding.

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

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

The man who entered through the Oval Office portals had light

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

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

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

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

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

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

that were the real focal point of his face.

After the usual introductions and handshakes, Herman Glover,

director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, slowly moved his

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

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

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

to open the meeting.

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

position, Herman will be sending you several undercover FBI

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

to him.”

Herman Glover looked straight at Jim and grinned—a grin

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

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

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

 

Categories: Suspense, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Casey’s Last Chance, by Joseph B. Atkins

casey'slastchance800pxTitle: Casey’s Last Chance

Genre: Mystery

Author: Joseph B. Atkins

Website:

http://www.laborsouth.blogspot.com

www.sartorisliterary.com

Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group

Purchase on Amazon 

About the Book: Tough, gritty, and atmospheric, Casey’s Last Chance unfolds against the backdrop of a treacherous, race-torn 1960s South that’s ready to explode with civil rights workers challenging an organized resistance itching for combat. The central character, Casey Eubanks, is a small-time North Carolina hustler on the run after an argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin dead. A crony steers him to a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a shadowy former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren hires Casey to do a hit on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who is stirring up trouble at one of Duren’s mills. Things go wrong, and Casey’s on the run again, this time from Duren’s goons as well as the cops. Enter Martin Wolfe, a freelance reporter investigating Duren’s operation. He tries to solicit Casey to help him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher bring Duren down. Casey dumps Wolfe, steals his car, and returns home to Orella. A bloody shootout with a Duren goon, however, convinces Casey to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. The three take off back across the South to execute a plan to destroy Duren. Everything works until the explosive end…but will anyone emerge unscathed?

CHAPTER 1

July 1960 …

The night sky broke just as the Greyhound crossed the Tennessee line. Down came a blinding deluge that forced cars and trucks off to the sides of Highway 72 and under the shelter of the overpasses, but not the Memphis-bound bus that carried Casey Eubanks. He stirred through the troubled sleep that overtook him after the stop in Decatur, and stretched his arm across the newspaper in the seat next to him. He heard none of the rain that beat against the windowpane, only Clyde Point’s voice in his dream.

This is your last chance, Casey Eubanks.

The bus braked to make the left onto Union near downtown. It was a half-hour early.

I’m already way out on a limb talking you up to my boss like I did. He’s telling the Big Guy, the Big Mahah, you’re the right man for the job, but are you man enough to take the job?

Casey woke to the lights leading up to the crest of the hill where Union crosses Front and then descends toward the Mississippi River. People huddled in doorways and under awnings. As the bus pushed through the sheets of rain, he spotted two platinum blondes at the entrance of an open garage. Their lips worked feverishly as they stabbed the air between each desperate drag of their cigarettes.

He could still hear Clyde’s voice.

You get a new life, a new identity, the cops off your back, plenty of cash in your pocket, and maybe, someday, that pool hall you used to tell me was your big dream. And you get to forget the woman who put you in this mess.

Casey had been to Memphis before—when the sidewalks swelled with uniforms, drunk, swaggering GIs forcing the black zoot-suiters spilling off Beale Street to move to the side. He’d come with an AWOL high roller from Fort Bragg who promised to back him in a nightlong set of three-cushion, one-pocket, and straight pool at $200 a match. The high roller disappeared after he lost the second round of one-pocket, and the last thing Casey remembered was getting his head split open with a blackjack. He woke the next morning at the bottom of the levee, the Mississippi River to one side and Cotton Row to the other.

He climbed off the bus, groggy and in a bad mood.

Do it right, and both you and me reap the rewards.

He wanted his hotel room and his bed. Other than a few travelers and a Commercial Appeal hawker, the station was dead. He stopped to buy a paper. CUBAN STREET FIGHTING read one headline. His eyes moved across the page. KENNEDY OUTLINES PHILOSOPHY ON LABOR. He turned to the pages inside—EXOTIC DANCER OPENS AT THE SULTAN CLUB—then flipped from front to back, and back to front again. No news about the killing of Bux Baggett in Jonesboro, North Carolina, the woman who caused it, and the curly-headed fool who did it and who’s on the lam, a hustler and pool shark with a tattoo of Rita Hayworth on each arm.

Your last chance, Casey Eubanks.

Casey stood at the station entrance and checked out the street. The rain had subsided. Streams of neon red and yellow reflected off the pavement. The blondes were walking eastward, their heads side-by-side under a parasol, still gesturing with their cigarettes.

In the glass window to his right, just close enough to catch the corner of his eye, he saw another fake blond, himself, an alien named James Thompson, the burial insurance salesman who’d snatched his body back in Phenix City. He studied his new self, the dyed hair, the oversized gray suit Clyde Point had given him. For a moment he felt as if he were high. High on reefer. Like the time he dropped his favorite cue stick and watched it slither across the pool table. He knew it was no snake, but he never touched that stick again. Never even looked at it.

He thought of the woman who put in the dye, the scowl in the bathroom mirror, the stubby fingers that dug through his hair like grub worms.

“Curly, you gonna look weird as hell as a blond,” she’d told him. “You too dark to be a blond.”

He stepped out into the steam and made his way up Union, past the golden glow of the Peabody Hotel, through the airless night, when it’s a struggle even to breathe, toward what Clyde called a “little, easy-to-miss street named November 6,” where he’d find his hotel.

What he found was an alley lined with trashcans and fire escapes. At the far end of it was a neon sign: Hotel Paris. The alley served the side door exits for every building on it except the hotel itself, four stories of stacked brick, a lean-to with nothing to lean to. It was just wide enough for three windows on each of the three floors above the lobby. As he walked toward the hotel on the oily strip of tar and asphalt, he heard the scramble of claws against the pavement.

Casey jumped the puddle in front of the entrance and opened the door. Inside was a stretch of darkness broken by a lone bulb hanging over the counter at the other end of the lobby. A clerk in a navy blue shirt and dark pinstriped vest scribbled on a notepad. A young guy, early twenties. A cigarette dangled from his lips as he stopped to hum a few notes before jotting something down. Nearby was a black vinyl couch. On the wall behind it hung a photograph of a city boulevard on an overcast day—no people, no cars, only deserted sidewalks and empty cafés. A Swastika hung from the roof of a building. Beneath the photograph, in gold letters, was Champs Elysées, Paris, 1941.

An overhead fan buzzed. By the couch was an unlit stairway. You been a small-timer all your life. Now you get to play in the big leagues. The big leagues. A bus ticket to a cheap flophouse in a back alley.

He approached the counter.

“Name?” the clerk asked, ashes dropping from his cigarette onto his notepad. He blew them off to the side.

“James Thompson.”

The clerk checked his ledger and reached below to grab a chain with a single key. He dangled it in the air. “Welcome to the Hotel Paris,” he said, dropping the key into Casey’s open palm. “Suite 13. Your lucky number. Bathroom’s at your end of the hall.”

 

He flipped the light and climbed the stairway to the third floor. The kid was right. His suite was next to the bathroom.

Categories: Crime, Mystery, Suspense, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Hidden Element, by Donna Galanti

?????????????????????????????????????????????Title: A Hidden Element

Genre: Paranormal Suspense

Author: Donna Galanti

Website: www.ElementTrilogy.com

Publisher: Imajin Books

Purchase on Amazon

In A Hidden Element evil lurks within…

When Caleb Madroc is used against his will as part of his father’s plan to breed a secret community and infiltrate society with their unique powers, he vows to save his oppressed people and the two children kept from him. Seven years later, Laura and Ben Fieldstone’s son is abducted, and they are forced to trust a madman’s son who puts his life on the line to save them all. The enemy’s desire to own them—or destroy them—leads to a survival showdown. Laura and Ben must risk everything to defeat a new nemesis that wants to rule the world with their son, and Caleb may be their only hope—if he survives. But must he sacrifice what he most desires to do so?

CHAPTER 1: The Beginning

Silent dark hung under a star-filled sky.

The dark deepened as they headed into the forest. Ancient conifers towered over them, blocking out the moon. Rain fell cold and lifeless. The nearest town of Benevolence, Oregon, was five miles northwest.

Caleb Madroc’s father stood across from him, waiting for his people to gather their belongings. Their pale faces glowed like orbs within gray hooded robes as they waited for his father’s instruction.

“We head toward town,” his father ordered. Caleb opened his mouth, but there were no words for his feelings of anger and loss at suddenly leaving the only home he’d ever known. It raged inside him, a tumult of emotion he must quell for now. At least his own black hair, like his face, was a constant reminder of his mother to his father. This made him glad.

Caleb shut his mouth and nodded, stepping in behind his father. Rain fell cold and lifeless. He fell behind as he helped the womenfolk with their bags. One young female sent him a furtive, desperate look as she touched his hand in passing.

I’m so scared. What will happen to us?

He smiled at her. Keep your thoughts to yourself. It’s safer this way. All will work out once we settle. She bit her lip, her eyes full of tears, and nodded looking back down at her feet.

“Father, how much further? Some of the younger females are struggling,” Caleb said.

His father’s eyes stung him through the mist rising up from the forest floor. They were eyes so different from his, and from his mother’s. Caleb had often seen sadness and pity for his father in his mother’s eyes. The day he had found her dead in the well her eyes held only nothingness.

“Can’t we stop and rest, Adrian?” A few in the group grumbled. They looked wet and tired, a sea of gray flowing before him. His father glowered at their weakness. As Caleb scanned the sodden crowd a female smiled at his father, holding the promise of submission. Perfect for his father, who wanted to breed another son to take his place. A worthy son.

“We do not stop.” His father’s voice rose over the line of people before him, and he smiled back at the female and a strange sense of relief washed over Caleb. If his father did create a new prodigal son to groom it might remove his first born from his watchful eye.

With that thought, anguish over his mother’s absence hit him fresh again. At eighteen and bigger than his father, he still needed his mother. She had been his kindred spirit, like Uncle Brahm. But now he was alone in this strange place. No longer did he have someone to be his true self with. He must step carefully.

His father continued to scan his flock. They stood still and silent, conveying their subservience. He nodded, apparently satisfied with their response. “You all took the oath to come here. Hard work lies before us in breeding our new community. Understood?”

They nodded in a collective wave.

Just like you bred with Aunt Manta while your wife lay dead? Caleb spewed out in his head without thinking.

His father moved closer, until his flaring nostrils touched his. Caleb stepped back, but his father gripped his arm. Dozens of eyes watched their battle.

Do not ever mention my brother’s wife’s name again, Son.

His father’s fingers pinched him hard and his hot breath pulsed across his face, but Caleb couldn’t stop. Mother’s dead because of you. And what about Aunt Manta? Did you kill her, too?

I didn’t kill anyone. And your mother should have been more careful.

You let her travel alone. She fell and died because she was alone.

It was your well, Caleb, she fell into. Your hideaway you carelessly covered up. Your fault.

His father’s accusations stabbed him with painful truth. He sucked in his breath. My fault. Yes. My fault.

He looked around the watchful crowd as his head reeled with the agony of what he had done. His people stared back at him, their thoughts hid behind blank faces. Why did they come? Didn’t they have dreams and wants and needs of their own, too? Or were they all obedient drones of his father?

His father thrust his arm away and turned around, plunging faster through the woods. Caleb hesitated then followed behind, trying to keep up. He envisioned himself standing still until everyone glided around him, leaving him to remain alone under a watchful moon.

Branches snagged his robe shooting him back to reality. His father’s people followed in silence. If they didn’t obey there would be consequences. As Caleb knew. He had no special privilege here as Adrian’s son.

At last his father stepped out onto a paved road. It stretched far into the distance, where welcoming lights beckoned them across the final mile. They reached the main intersection of town. A car flashed by. A radio blared. Faces stared out at them. He stared back. They were so different from himself and yet…not.

He broke his gaze realizing how out of place this group looked late at night. The people here wore jeans and shirts, the shapes of their bodies outlined under tight clothes. The female’s curves called to him, unlike his people who clothed themselves in shapeless robes to discourage free sexual thoughts. They were now to breed only with those chosen for them.

His father led them single file down the sidewalk. A handful of people sat behind windows drinking. They pointed at them as they walked by. “Gillian’s Bar” flashed in neon green above the doorway in the late evening hours. A man and woman, heading into the bar, stepped back from the sidewalk to watch them pass. Freaks, he heard the man say. And his father erased the memory of the encounter from these strangers’ minds in the seconds it took to pass them.

“Father,” Caleb whispered in his ear. “Where are we going?”

A large building rose at the far end of a parking lot. “Ray’s Lots” blinked over and over.

“Here is where we go.”

A woman pushed a cart filled with bags to her car, the only car left in the lot. She stopped and stared at them. Her hair framed her face in tight curls. A blue and white striped dress strained to contain her breasts and belly.

“Good evening, brothers,” she said with a hesitant smile.

His father motioned for them to stop. He smiled at her. She smiled back.

“Good evening, madam,” his father drawled.

“God bless you.” She grabbed his father’s hand. Caleb swallowed a laugh at the way his father looked at her with such a serious, doting face.

“And God bless you, my child.”

“What church are you with?” The woman fingered a cross at her neck. “Are you having an event in town?”

His father had said a church was the perfect cover. One of the many cultural ways learned before infiltration. All part of his father’s master plan.

“It’s the Church of Elyon,” his father said.

The woman took her hand away and frowned. “Never heard of it. You’re not one those crazy cults are you?”

Caleb stepped to his father’s side. Let me work her mind, Father. “What’s your name, Madam?”

“Sally.”

“I’m Caleb Madroc.” He shook her hand hoping his father didn’t have some depraved mission in mind. Caleb wanted to get food for their hungry group and shelter and have as little interaction with these town people as possible. “We’re simple folks. Our bus broke down outside of town. We seek food and a place to stay nearby. Can you help us?”

“What a nice young man you are. Of course I can help you.” She abandoned her cart and pulled Caleb toward the store. “My cousin runs this store and can stock you up with food. And the Mercenary Motel is down the street.”

He didn’t understand her eagerness as she dragged him along then it was made clear by his father’s mirthful laugh. His father had probed her mind and now controlled it—she would do whatever he commanded.

Caleb followed her into the store. Their people streamed in behind. Sally dragged him to a counter where a short red-faced man scowled at them. “Ray, these folks are here in town from a wonderful church. Their bus broke down and they need food.”

Within seconds Ray’s frown changed to a wide grin as Caleb’s father continued his mind games. “Come in, come in. Time to close up anyhow.” He flicked the sign on the front door and shut off the lights outside.

“Thank you,” his father said. “I need food here for my flock before we find a place to stay.”

“Help yourself to anything you want.” Ray ran his hands over shelves. “Pretzels, baked beans, cereal, Ding Dongs. We even sell the word of the Lord.” Sally and Ray beamed at them.

His father directed everyone to gather food and drinks. Sally and Ray stood by the counter, their minds blank except for what his father put into them. He dared not combat his father’s powers. Not here. Not now. But someday.

“Ray, I need all your money now,” his father said.

Ray clapped his hands together. “Of course.” He pulled money from a nearby metal box.

When his father’s bag burst full of items he handed it to a community member and cocked his head at Ray and Sally. “Time to go now, my new friends.” He motioned his people out the door. Ray and Sally stood with stupid smiles on their faces as the group filed out into the parking lot. All, except his father.

“Come on, Father,” Caleb pleaded, the dark knot in his stomach hardened. “Our job here is done.”

“Not quite.” His father moved toward the smiling cousins, a book in his hand. The Holy Bible. He thumbed through it to a passage and looked up smiling. “As for God, his way is perfect, is it not?”

“The word of God is true,” Sally sang out, clutching Ray’s hand. Her cousin nodded.

“Ray, isn’t Sally lovely? Look at her.” His father pointed at the heavy set woman.

Ray turned to Sally. His pants bulged and Sally’s eyes widened. She tugged on her dress top.

“Have your way with her Ray, you know you want to.”

“Father,” Caleb whispered, clutching at him but his father stayed his hand.

Ray licked his lips and nodded.

“Sally, unzip your fine dress and show Ray what you’ve got.”

Sally stepped out of her dress in a motion more fluid than one would have thought possible given her size. Her belly oozed over her thighs and her bra cut into her mountainous breasts. Ray panted, tapping his hands against his skinny legs.

Caleb moved toward the door.

“Stay, Son, I want you to watch this.”

“I won’t.”

“You will or you know what will happen.”

Caleb stopped and sighed, looking down at the floor. Eyes watched from the parking lot.

“Look.”

Caleb focused on the dirt in the floor cracks. His muscles twitched with anger. His father thrived on his hate, wanted him to hate—wanted his son to be a Destroyer like him. They had hidden their true selves for so long and now were free here to unleash it. Not Caleb. He refused to give in to the dark inside. He tried to release the hate for his father, but it now filled his every pore. He made a vow right then and there, he’d never allow himself to be controlled. No matter the consequences.

He finally looked up. His father nodded, pleased, and turned back to his playthings. Ray massaged his crotch. Sally moaned, squeezing her mammoth breasts, and stepped out of her underwear.

“Take her, Ray. Bend her right over the counter. Dive into all her lushness.”

“Lush, yes.” Ray moved toward Sally, fumbling to unbuckle his pants. She squealed with glee and bent over the counter to receive him, her white bottom rising like a pitted sea of blubber. Ray mounted her, forged a path through her two white mountains, and slapped up against her in his glory.

“Lordy, Lordy,” Sally sang out as she bounced up and down.

“Now that’s wholesome entertainment.” His father jabbed him. Caleb jerked away. “They’re both enjoying it.”

Caleb clenched his fists and shoved them in his pockets. “Can we go now?”

“Yes, Son, only one more thing to do.”

His father pulled out something that looked like a handle. He flicked it open to reveal a small knife he must have picked up in the hardware section. He placed it next to Ray on the counter. Sweat flicked off the red-faced man’s forehead as he plunged into buttery flesh.

“Ray, enjoying yourself?”

Ray grunted and grabbed on to Sally’s hips, sinking into her expanse. She moaned again in delight as her buttocks shuddered.

“Good. When you’re done fucking, kill the bitch.”

His father strode out the door, pulling Caleb along with him.

“Father, no.” Caleb struggled against him as his father shoved him hard through the door. Caleb spiraled his thoughts into Ray’s brain. Stop, Ray! She’s your cousin, your family!

Ray stopped his thrusting as if listening to Caleb, but his father’s punch to his face ended his brain probe. Caleb staggered back, blood gushing from his nose. Ray straightened his head and rammed into Sally with a loud groan. Caleb drew his hand back but his father’s fingers crushed his forearm. He fell to his knees. Blood spattered down his gray robe. The flock widened their circle, silent and watching. His father led as both law maker and enforcer.

“These lowly forms of life must be controlled,” his father said. “We’ve studied their ways. Now, this first act is how we begin their demise and our rule. We will grow in number with our selected breeding and thrive as these useless beings die out. Watch this historic moment, Son, for anyone who turns away will be marked weak…and unworthy.”

All eyes turned to the inside of the store as the desperate carnal scene played out to the end.

“I hate you,” Caleb whispered, watching the forced lovers before him.

His father smiled at him in satisfaction.

Ray arched his back with a moan and finished his business. Sally squealed and pressed up against him. And when Ray raised his knife and plunged into Sally in new ways, she squealed again. And again. Her blood ran onto scuffed tiles and still she squealed. And then she stopped.

Tears filled Caleb’s eyes and he closed them against the evil scene.

His father laughed. “Don’t you see, Son?” He shook The Holy Bible at him. “I am their Way, their Truth, their Life—and Death.”

Caleb did not answer. He remained inside his dark prison and swore someday he would end his father’s rule.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Supernatural, Suspense, Thriller | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

First Chapter Reveal: Hitler’s Silver Box, by Allen Malnak

ATT00002Title: Hitler’s Silver Box
Author: Allen Malnak
Imprint: Two Harbors Press
Page Count: 328
Price US: $16.95
Genre: historical thriller

Novel’s WEBSITE

Purchase the book on Amazon and B&N.

A modern day historical thriller set in Chicago, begins with an elderly bookseller and Holocaust survivor, Max Bloomberg, being brutally murdered in his own home by a trio of thugs. Max’s closest relative, Dr. BRUCE STARKMAN, chief ER resident at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital is shocked when he learns his Holocaust survivor uncle is dead—his body already cremated, a violation of Uncle Max’s Orthodox Jewish views. A change in the will shortly before Max’s death provides a clue, allowing Bruce to find a hidden journal in Max’s handwriting detailing his uncle’s ordeal some fifty years before, during which Max is ordered by a Waffen SS Colonel to craft a silver box which is to be a birthday present for Hitler. The silver box contains a document written by Nazi leaders, which if discovered will lead to a worldwide Nazi resurgence. Max manages to hide the birthday gift after a strafing run interrupts their journey to Berlin to present the box.

Bruce decides to try and find the box and to solve the mystery of his Uncle’s untimely demise. He and a gorgeous Israeli female companion are followed by the thugs, who turn out to be present day Nazis intent on reviving the Reich.

The novel leads from Chicago to Paris to Prague in swift, hair-raising turns. And the novel concludes with a nearly heart-stopping climax.

The full journal of Max Bloomberg is included in the book and alone, is worth the cover price.

————————————–

PROLOGUE

Moscow: Wednesday, October 12, 1994

Daylight was fading on the late autumn day as Vasilevich made his way up from the subway and plodded the five blocks to his modest apartment in the Petrovka district.

The file clerk took the rattling elevator to the tenth floor, unlocked the heavy door, and began peeling off his coat. He momentarily wondered why there was no pleasant odor of shchi, his wife’s delicious cabbage soup, when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a tall stranger holding a handgun.

He carefully raised his hands and turned to face the man, forcing himself to move slowly and keep his breathing even. It was probably just a robbery, not unusual with the soaring number of drug addicts in Moscow. He’d give the man what money he had, and probably be fine.

But the intruder was too well dressed, too clean to be an addict. He waved his weapon and placed a finger over his lips. “Put down your hands and sit.” Passable Russian, but with a heavy German accent.

Vasilevich sank slowly into a large armchair in a corner.

“I’m not here to harm you,” the man said, “but don’t provoke me. You are Danislav Vasilevich, and you work for Rudolph Pikhoia?”

Vasilevich’s mouth became dry, and he had trouble forming the words. “Who are you? Where’s my wife? What do you want?”

The intruder waved his hand in a calming manner and spoke softly. “It’ll be better if you just listen and answer my questions. Then, perhaps, I’ll answer yours.”

Vasilevich took a deep breath to try to calm himself. Something strange and deep was going on here, but it left him with no choice but to obey. He lifted his chin. “Director Pikhoia is the chairman of the State Archival Service of the Russian Federation. While I work in the archives office, I’ve only met the director once. I’m just a clerk … a clerk. You must need someone higher up.” Knots formed in his stomach, and a wave of nausea hit. “Please, where’s my wife?”

The stranger smiled. “Svetlana is a lovely young woman. Don’t worry. No harm will come to her. Not if you pay attention to what I want.”

The gunman knew her name. And his. And where he worked. What were they doing to her? Vasilevich stood and took a step toward the armed man. “If you harm her … .”

The intruder waved the automatic again and said in an almost-kindly manner, “Sit back down and listen. My needs are simple. We know you have access to many German documents from what you Russians still call the Great Patriotic War.” The man pulled out a small notebook. “They are kept in the … Central State Special Archive, division 14B, room 2.” He returned the notebook to a pocket. “We need a small amount of information. If you obtain it without letting anyone know what you have done and deliver it to me, you’ll have enough rubles to enjoy a nice seaside vacation. With your wife.”

“My Sveta. You’ve not harmed her? Please don’t. She’s … very sensitive.” He heard a quiver in his voice but was beyond embarrassment.

“The Soviets captured a camp in the Czech Republic called Theresienstadt.”

“I mostly file old documents. I’m able to read some German, but I usually only read enough to get an idea of the contents, so the papers can be properly classified. Our great Soviet armies liberated a number of concentration camps. I can’t remember hearing that name before. Frankly, I’ve never paid much attention to what happened such a long time ago.”

“That’s not important. The Soviet NKVD grabbed many records from the camps, and we’ve discovered these documents are now in your Archives of the Russian Federation. We need you to find certain information and bring it to us. Quickly. You must start your search tomorrow.”

The Russian shook his head and was on the verge of tears. “Not easy. We need special permission to enter areas we aren’t assigned to.”

The German’s face registered no emotion. “I’m sure you can deal with that. I don’t want to spell out what will happen if you fail. Listen carefully now. No notes. Nothing ever in writing, except copies of the information I need. Back in 1945 an SS Colonel Steinhauser had a prisoner make a silver box while in Theresienstadt. I must know the name of that silversmith. It has to be in the archives here. My countrymen kept excellent records. I need any and all information about this prisoner. Everything. Understand?”

“But, what if—?”

The German speaker didn’t allow Vasilevich to finish. “Better you should not think of that.”

The man reached into his pocket and handed the Russian a cellular phone. “Tomorrow at this time, I’ll call you. Let the phone ring without answering. Then go at once to the Cafe Gallery. You know the place?”

“I know where it is. Not far from here.” He frowned and shook his head. “Never been there. Too expensive a restaurant for people like us.”

The intruder handed the young Russian a small stack of rubles. “Order a meal and start to eat. Sit near a window. While you’re eating, I’ll call you again. If you have the information, simply say ‘I’m busy.’ Otherwise, just say, ‘You have the wrong number.’ Better that you be busy. Understand?”

Still shaking and still sick to his stomach, Vasilevich simply nodded.

“I’ll give you instructions about delivery tomorrow. Remember, not a word to anyone if you want your lovely Sveta back home unharmed. Now sit on the floor and face away from the door.”

Unable to think of any other response, Vasilevich obeyed.

As the German opened the door, he murmured, “Remember, your wife’s life is in your hands. We have informers everywhere, so don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

And he was gone.

A few minutes later, just as he calmly exited the building, a shiny black Mercedes pulled up alongside. He jumped in before the car came to a full stop, and was whisked away.

“And so, Gerhard, did it work out?” the driver asked in German. “Can he do it?”

Gerhard nodded. “Your information on the archivist was correct. I think it’ll work.”

“Suppose he does obtain what we need to know about that Jew,” the driver went on, “how do we handle him and his woman, after we get it?”

“No question about Herr Vasilevich. He has to be erased. An accident. Can you arrange it?” His contact had better be able to, or of what use was he?

“Shouldn’t be a problem. And the lady?”

“That depends. Did she see or hear anything? Has she been touched by your people? You know what I mean.”

“Absolutely not. She was blindfolded and kept isolated. Given food and water. No one has spoken to her, except a few whispers. We even made her wear earplugs. She has a little bell she can ring with her fingers if she needs to use the facilities.”

Gerhard’s expression conveyed indifference. “In that case, no matter how this turns out, just take her somewhere, give her a few thousand rubles, and turn her loose. She’s young and pretty. She can still have a life.”

You’ve entered a different world from the one you knew. At home, we planted gardens. Here we only plant the dead.

Max Bloomberg’s journal

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“I trust these ruffians didn’t harm you, Herr Bloomberg, and the bindings aren’t too tight?”

The tall, well-dressed man projected civility, even benevolence. He was perhaps thirty and handsome in a craggy-faced, broad-shouldered, athletic sort of way. Unlike the cracked and dirty fingernails of the others, the smiling man’s nails were professionally manicured. Speaking in fluent German, he seemed sincerely apologetic that his prisoner, whose arms were securely bound to his leather armchair with clothesline, was being inconvenienced.

Max Bloomberg understood every word, though he hadn’t used his native language in decades. If only he could get a grasp on what was happening here. The men must have crept in during the middle of the night and deftly disconnected the security system. They seemed well-armed, although Max understood little concerning firearms—except the ones that had been pointed at him by guards herding him and his fellow Jews into boxcars, herding them off boxcars, herding them through “processing” at the camp.

But that had been eons ago. Max closed his eyes, squeezing them tight to push away the memories. He opened them, blinked a few times, and glanced around. The home invaders had drawn the drapes before turning on the table lamp. Not amateurs, any of them, he supposed. It occurred to Max that the two rough men who accompanied the well-spoken, well-groomed, well-dressed man relished their work. He’d seen too much brutality not to recognize when someone enjoyed delivering pain.

Glancing toward his accomplices, the elegant interloper continued, “I told them not to gag you, but if you cry out, well, as they say in America, all bets will be off.” The stranger switched to English with only the faintest hint of a German accent. The man almost sounded Jewish, with a few Yiddish phrases thrown in, though Max considered that was probably an act, an attempt to ingratiate himself.

The intruder still spoke softly, but his almost coal-black eyes bore into Max Bloomberg’s own like steel daggers. There was something familiar about the man’s manner, something Max couldn’t help but recognize. He’d seen eyes such as these before—the color was of no importance. He’d heard voices such as this one long ago—the words didn’t matter. The words soothed and the lips smiled, while the hands choked the very life from your throat.

But, how could this fellow possibly know Max? Though he’d encountered the type, Max had never seen this particular man before. And this incident couldn’t be connected to what had happened so long ago. Not possible.

Since Winston, Max’s companion cocker spaniel, had recently died, Max lived alone in this two-story Georgian in River Forest, an affluent western Chicago suburb. Head throbbing, Max found concentration difficult. He’d been having trouble sleeping since finding Winston’s small body sprawled lifeless in the backyard. How long ago was it that his beloved Winnie had died? A week? Two? Max had taken a Seconal only an hour before the rough men, on the German’s orders, had dragged him—an old bookseller, not a rich man—out of bed and down to the small den that served as his library. Now they sat or stood among his treasured books, books Max had accumulated throughout his career and cared for like dear friends, though they had little monetary value. Were these devils here just to rob him? Could he be that lucky?

The other two men were each shorter and not nearly as well dressed as the German. They’d held handguns of some kind when they’d stormed into the bedroom, but the weapons were now out of sight. Standing almost like soldiers at attention on either side of Max, they stared at their leader as if awaiting orders.

A hint of a smile once again crossed the tall intruder’s face. “Bitter cold and snowing tonight. Mind if we light a fire in your beautiful fireplace? Make the room cozy, yes?”

Max didn’t answer.

The heavyset man standing to his left, wearing an old Navy peacoat, said, “Come on, we don’t have time for fuckin’ around. Let’s get on with this shit.”

An American with a hint of a Southern accent. Unusual here in Chicago. As he spoke, “Peacoat” played with a roll of quarters, tossing them from one hand to the other, sometimes grasping the roll tightly in his massive right fist.

The German held his left hand up, palm outstretched. “Now, now. Let’s be civilized, shall we?” He crossed his arms and nodded. “Perhaps—hmm—perhaps, we can even put the heat to some good use. Very good use. Verstehen?”

A pile of dry kindling was stacked in the fireplace.

The man on Max’s right, wearing a worn sheepskin bomber jacket, moved to the fireplace and nodded as well. “Yeah, Ich verstehen.” No southern accent, but not a German speaker, either. “I’ll need some newspaper to light the fire. Or something.”

The leader glanced at Max. “Our good friend won’t mind if we take a few of his old Jew books to use. That’s what they were made for, don’t you think?” Without waiting for a response, he continued, “Remember those good old days when the Führer burned all the Jew books, old man?” The tall stranger’s voice deepened, the tone no longer benevolent.

“Sheepskin” snatched several of the oldest books with Hebrew on the covers and ripped them into chunks, tossing the pieces onto the fireplace with the tinder and the wood. Although he couldn’t make out the titles, Max had placed each book in its slot so often he knew exactly the ones chosen. One was a siddur, a prayer book considered holy to Orthodox Jews. If such a sacred book accidentally fell to the floor during a religious service, the owner would instantly retrieve it, treating it as gently as one would an injured child, and plant a kiss on the cover. Tears filled Max’s eyes.

Soon, they had a blazing fire. The leader nodded to his henchmen. “Bring him closer. Careful not to mark this beautiful floor.”

With Max still bound securely, Peacoat and Sheepskin dragged the chair across the waxed parquet floor, only stopping when the well-spoken German motioned for them to do so. Now Max was so close to the fireplace his bare feet began to feel uncomfortably warm, although he didn’t yet feel any pain.

The German stared hard into Max’s eyes. “You know what we want. So, tell me where the box is. Hmm? Then, we go. We know all about you. You’ve hidden long enough, old man. Too long.”

Max shook his head. “No idea what you’re talking about.”

His aching head began to clear. He kept the rest of his words inside himself. He wasn’t crazy. Something had been going on around him in recent weeks. My God, after all these years. How? How’d they find him?

Max tried to lift his right arm, but was only able to raise his index finger. Pointing it as best he could. “Get out of my home! Now!”

He felt like screaming for help, but knew no one could possibly hear him. The closest house was perhaps fifty yards away, and the windows would be shut during the freezing weather. His house was modest—one of the least expensive on the block—but it occupied a quarter-acre corner lot, carefully landscaped with Northern Accents rose bushes as well as tall red oaks and American elm trees.

He tried to study the men, so he could describe them to the police, but they had handled him roughly when they’d forced him out of bed, and he had difficulty focusing. His heart was pounding. Did that mean the drugged feeling from the sleeping pill was wearing off, or was he becoming even more frightened?

The German simply stood there, allowing Max’s helplessness to sink in. “Oh, you’ll tell me whatever I want to know. Perhaps time has caused you to forget the methods we can use on you Jew bastards? You’ve forgotten the camps?”

Heaven forbid, the camps. That was going back over fifty years. Before these evil men were even born. What could they know about the camps? Only stories they’d read. Max knew—really knew. And, sometimes in the dark, alone at night, his flesh bathed in a cold sweat, he only wished he could forget.

In the next instant, it came to him. His dog, Winston. That was what had happened to his sweet little friend.

“You, you rotten, filthy Nazis. You killed my beautiful little Winnie.”

Now, for the first time, Max began to sob. He became even more short of breath as his chest tightened, and he began to wheeze. Prayers came automatically to his mind. Please, dear God, no time for my emphysema to act up. I’m choking.

He tried to take in deeper breaths, but it didn’t seem to help. If only he had the inhaler with him. But that was still atop his bedside table.

Ignoring Max’s comment and grief, Peacoat lit a Camel, flicking the old-fashioned kitchen match with his thumbnail near his prisoner’s face. The sulfur smell caused Max to cough, and the tightness in his chest increased. The room began to spin as his breathing became ever more labored.

“Go in the kitchen,” the German said. “Get a dish for those ashes, so you don’t leave a mess. No cigarette butts left behind. Verstehen?”

The leader had just confirmed what Max already suspected, since the men wore neither masks nor disguises. When they left, there would be no evidence of their crimes. Alive, Max would be evidence.

Resigned to his fate, Max turned his thoughts to his nephew, Bruce. If Bruce were half as smart as Max knew him to be, he’d find what Max had left for him.

Max silently thanked God he’d been suspicious. And that he’d carefully shredded his notes after finishing the detailed review of exactly what had happened to him so long ago. He had never spoken of it, even to his closest friends or family. But when he finished the journal, he’d hidden the document and left a clue for Bruce, should Max’s worst fears be somehow realized.

The German put his hands on Max’s shoulders and shook him, almost gently. “You haven’t answered. Where’s our box?”

Shortness of breath made speaking nearly impossible “Why … why are you here? Take what you want … leave. I just sell … a few old books.”

Peacoat laughed. “Look who’s asking questions now.” He turned toward the leader. “Better let this Jew vermin know who’s running the show. Before you know it, he’ll be ordering us around. And you’ll probably click your heels and say, ‘Yes, sir, your honor!’ That’s what guys like you are trained to do.”

The leader ignored Peacoat and tapped his right index finger on Max’s head. “Pay attention. I’m running out of patience, and, as you see, my friends here are not as pleasant as I. I must have that box and its contents. Then we’ll leave, and you can get on with your miserable life. You mean nothing, the box everything.”

At that second, the fire crackled and flared, and Max felt a burning sensation in his feet. He did his best to pull them back. His eyes closed for an instant, and he silently prayed. Please, dear God, let me be strong. This may be the last favor I ask.

Max leaned forward as if to whisper something. The German leaned in toward him.

Max spat into his interrogator’s face.

The German straightened, snatched a silk handkerchief from his pocket, and without uttering a sound, carefully wiped the sputum from his cheek. At almost the same moment, with the rolled coins clutched in his right fist, Peacoat punched Max on the left side of the head, knocking him and the chair onto the floor. Max let himself go limp. The pain in his head was excruciating, but he didn’t cry out.

“Pick him up and cut out that kind of thing!” the tall German shouted. “Leave that to me. You’ll kill the old Jew before we get him to tell us what we need to know.”

As the two men lifted the chair along with the apparently semiconscious Max, the German carefully removed three fluid-filled syringes from the side pocket of his cashmere topcoat and laid them on a little table. Max began to groan. The German strolled to a nearby armchair, removed his coat, and folded it over the chair back. He dragged the chair close to Max, who was thinking desperately, trying to dream up some way out of this. Through half-open eyes, Max watched the German sit down and cross his legs.

After a moment, Max slowly opened his eyes and blinked a few times. He shook his head, acting as if he were still trying to clear his mind. His whole body throbbing, he needed a few minutes to figure out if he had any options. From previous experience though, he knew these types wanted people to grovel, to be frightened out of their wits.

Max took a deep breath, sucking in as much air as possible. “Please, don’t hit me again,” he whispered. “I’ll tell you.”

“Speak up,” the German urged.

“Those papers. Burned ’em. In the woods. Didn’t … didn’t make any sense to me. That’s the truth.” Max looked the interrogator in the eyes without blinking. “They important?”

The German nodded. “Sure. And the silver box? What did you do with that?”

“Box? Oh, the box.”

“You know exactly what I mean. You made it. Called yourself a silversmith back then. Where is it?”

Max didn’t hesitate. “Melted … melted it down. Sold the silver.”

Peacoat stepped up to Max and waved his clenched fist, the roll of coins still in it. “You’re a filthy, fucking liar.” He turned toward the leader. “You going to let this piece of shit get away with this nonsense? Look! Let me at him. Leave the room, if you need to. Just give me ten minutes. Probably won’t take that long.”

“Patience, patience.” The German waved his hand. “Now, do me a favor. Take a deep breath and sit down.” Then the German whispered just loudly enough for Max to hear, “We do only what we have to in order to get what we need. Yah? After all, we are not animals. So.”

Peacoat stared hard at his leader, shook his head, and frowned. “Talk. Talk and experiment! That’s what you’re best at. The way you’re going at it, we’ll be here all fuckin’ night. My way will be lots faster. You’re too damned smart. And you know what? That makes you too damned soft.”

“And you never learn how to follow orders. So, shut up and maybe we’ll all learn something besides how strong you are and how brave when your victim is an old man, tied up and helpless, hmm?”

The German picked up one of the syringes. “So. Let us begin.”

Categories: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Political Thriller, Suspense, Thriller | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Buried Threads by Kaylin McFarren

Buried ThreadsTitle: Buried Threads
Genre: Erotic Romantic Suspense
Author: Kaylin McFarren
Publisher: Creative Edge Publishing LLC
Pages: 328
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-1492120469

BUY AT AMAZON

Rachel’s mouth sagged. “You mean you’re really a monk? But how’s that possible? You’re not even wearing a robe, and your hair…”

He simply smiled.

 A disturbing prophecy sends a treasure hunting duo on an urgent race to rescue a country in Kaylin McFarren’s heart pounding new novel,  Buried Threads. Full of erotic suspense and wild adventures, this is one trip that readers will never forget!

Rachel Lyons and Chase Cohen work together as the successful owners of a treasure hunting company. But a seemingly simply assignment – to track down a priceless gem that is believed to buried in a shipwreck deep within the Sea of Japan – takes a starling, and dangerous, turn.

Faced with a monk’s dark prophecy that a natural disaster will soon strike Japan, killing millions, Rachel and Chase must embark on the mission of a lifetime in order to uncover the three cursed samurai swords that can avert the catastrophe.

Chaos ensues as their adventure takes them from shark infested waters and creepy caves to haunted hidden tombs and a confrontation with Yakuza gang members.

Time is running out as the prophecy’s day of reckoning draws near. Will Rachel and Chase succeed before disaster strikes?

Read an Excerpt:

The mystery begins…

Kenji Otadidn’t fit the description of a bloodthirsty killer. Upon meeting him, it would be difficult to believe he’d gotten away with murdering at least twenty-five men. He was intelligent, intuitive and physically attractive. His black hair was kept short and neat, and from the professional manner in which he dressed and carried himself, he could have been mistaken fora television announcer or successful business executive. He socialized in mixed circles – with stockbrokers, politicians and street-smart hoodlums alike – and his charming, larger-than-life personality drew the attention of women everywhere. However, after meeting Mariko Abe, his taste in the fairer sex had been spoiled forever. No one in his mind would ever compare to Kyoto’s most beautiful geishaorbe foolish enough to keep her away from him.

At 8:45 P.M., he stepped inside RAIN, one of the hottest nightclubs in Japan’s Roppongi district with his face hidden behind a katou anime mask. He knew only the “big” people in Tokyo could gain access to this place, and at the age of 29, he was already considered one of the largest. His loyalty to his yakuza family, the Zakura-kai, carried great weight and had earned him three rankings within the Japanese syndicate: Kaito Mitsui’s body guard, his personal advisor, and captain of his own crew of soldiers. Yet his hard-earned promotions were not the result of monies earned, smart business dealings or his ability to entice new, ambitious recruits. They came as the result of his eight-year incarceration on behalf of his boss for a botched extortion scam.

With renewed interest in the noisy scene before him, Kenji pulled off his mask and tucked it into his black studded belt. He ran his hand across the back of his sweaty neck – the irritating result of another muggy August night. Unlike the devoted men in his crew, he shied away from solid black suits by wearing tight jeans and a loose white shirt most days. And although the police had released him only four days earlier, across his back he carried a red wakazashi– a lethal 31” sword.

Associates who were below Kenji’s rank moved quickly aside and bowed in respect as he passed. On more than one occasion he’d proven himself a deadly adversary with his sweeping blade, the most memorable occurring ten years earlier. Boss Mitsui had called a meeting between Katsu Nagura and all the under bosses in the Zakura-kai to discuss territorial issues. Foolishly, Nagura had challenged their supreme leader, bringing him to his feet.

“You’re not even worth killing! You stupid ingrate!” Kaito Mitsui yelled at the top of his lungs.
Dedicated to his mission to protect his boss at any cost, Kenji appeared in front of Nagura in the blink of an eye. He whipped out his sword and slashed the yakuza boss’s face twice across both cheeks. Within seconds, four of his men jumped in and were dropped to their knees with gaping wounds and severed arteries. The ones that could stand scrambledto get out of there. The two that couldn’t were carried off and deposited in a common grave. Strangely, the whereabouts of these men were of no interest to local officials or members of Nagura’s group. Kenji was never confronted for his part in the bloody incident and was left to conduct business as usual in the Zakura-kai with the same unaffected attitude he exhibited tonight.
As he neared the DJ’s booth, the base-infused rock music grew louder. Hundreds of bodies were bouncing to the techno beat. Dresses were shimmering beneath flashing strobe lights and the surrounding bar was filled three deep with thirsty customers. By Kenji’s estimate, it was unusually busy for a Monday night, even with the discounted drinks and Rockabilia theme.

While he continued to eye the club’s glitzy interior, contemplating owning it one day, two girls crossed the dance floor and were heading straight for him.“Ken-chan, come dance with me,” the girl in the skimpy red dress called out. She was swaying her hips to the music provocatively and angling a come-hither look. Her friend in a micro blue skirt joined in, matching her move for move. In his book, with their thigh-high stockings and hemlines barely covering their assets, they looked like Sasebo bar girls. But another quick look around convinced him they weren’t alone in their meat market attire.

“You promised last time,” the girl in red persisted.

Right. Kenji feigned a smile. He knew these girls belonged to Tak – a “family” member who enjoyed cheap whores and spending his money in by-the-hour love hotels.

“He’s not interested in you,” the other girl said, tugging at his arm. “He promised to dance with me. Right, Kenji?”

He didn’t, of course. He had better things to do and would have remembered if he’d made a promise to anyone…especially these two. He pulled his arm free with little effort. “Sorry, Tak’s waiting. Maybe another time.” Kenji could hear their annoying little whines as he stepped away. Hustlers like these were more disappointed in the watered-down drinks you didn’t buy them than the time you weren’t willing to spare.
He edged his way around the crowd and spotted his friend at the back of the room. As usual, the acme-scarred rebel was holding court in one of the club’s high-back chairs with drinks on the table and two girls seated before him hanging on every word.

Categories: Suspense | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Threading the Needle, by Gabriel Valjan

ThreadingtheNeedle_3D-523x600Title: Threading the Needle

Author: Gabriel Valjan

Publisher: Winter Goose Publishing

Genre: Mystery/suspense

Purchase THREADING THE NEEDLE on Amazon / B&N

Milan. Bianca’s curiosity gets a young university student murdered, but not before he gives her a file that details a secret weapon under development with defense contractor Adastra. Guilt may drive her to find justice for the slain Charlie Brooks, but she is warned by the mysterious Loki to stay away from this case that runs deep with conspiracy. Bianca must find a way to uncover government secrets and corporate alliances without returning Italy to one of its darkest hours, the decades of daily terrorism known as the “Years of Lead.”

ROMA SERIES: Book 3

Threading the Needle

-Gabriel Valjan

L’Italia è l’antica terra del dubbio.

Italy is the ancient homeland of doubt.

—Massimo D’Azeglio

1

 

This was a bad idea from the start.

Isidore Farrugia sat in a car, watching Bianca from across Via Manzoni. He was off-duty, out of his jurisdiction, and doing the best and worst of all possible things: doing a favor for a friend.

But his gut was telling him this was a bad, bad idea.

She said that she had to meet someone with information, someone who wanted to meet her in person. Not good. Bianca had explained that in the past her drop-offs were anonymous and in public places. A postal box. A newsstand. Never face to face. The ideal was through the computer. Remote and anonymous.

None of them could forget Loki. None of them had forgotten Rendition.

Bianca wouldn’t say what the information was and when Farrugia asked, all she said was that her contact was a man. He didn’t ask her how she knew. Farrugia knew better than to expect a straight answer from a woman. The female brain was wired differently, processing nuances below masculine capability, and the female heart was attuned to the unknown frequency of feminine intuition.

She ordered something from her table outside.

Nobody seemed suspicious.

The waiter delivered her drink. She had ordered something sweet. Rabarbaro? Women and their sweet drinks.

Two university-age kids were sizing her up for flirtation.

Her contact, she said, did not know what she looked like. If this someone was expecting an American in jeans or some gaudy ensemble that American women thought was fashion, then he would be in for a surprise. Bianca fit into Milan with her Aspesi turtleneck, Alessandra Colombo leather jacket with the rose-accent, ruffle fringe, and a pair of Tod’s. He saw that she sensed the two amateur Casanovas, turned her head and dismissed them. Quite remarkable, since she was wearing sunglasses.

That must be him.

Definitely an American. Down the block, about to turn the corner onto Via Manzoni.

He was walking fast, hands in pockets. No messenger bag, no bag at all, so maybe this wasn’t him, despite what Farrugia’s gut was saying. A few meters behind him, two other men followed. Matching camel jackets, matching haircuts. The man in front peered over his shoulder.

This must be him. Farrugia knew that worried expression.

Bianca hadn’t seen him yet. No time to call her cell. Her contact was early-twenties, handsome with a nice navy jacket, although from the looks of him he’d had little sleep for a few nights. He glanced again over his shoulder.

The other two behind him picked up their pace. It was definitely him.

This was a bad idea from the start.

Farrugia opened up the car door. The car was a small rental and climbing in was like putting a sardine back into the metal tin. No typical American could fit in that automobile, and he knew the stubborn strip of fat around his midsection was what made his extraction an act for Houdini or Chaplin. The next risk was crossing the street and not getting killed by a real car or grazed by an angry Vespa.

The two tails on Bianca’s man had that experienced stalking gait. Several notches up from street vermin. Farrugia was thinking contract killers, possibly with a military background. Hair was short and they weren’t neo-Nazis. They were lean, looked foreign, and moved with precision. A career soldier’s walk was never erased from neurological memory. Their jackets were relatively short, so that might mean no shotgun, unless one of them had a sawed-off for the maximum amount of spray while his partner had the handgun for the final shot, usually to the head. Farrugia thought all of this in the seconds it took to negotiate one car horn and one silent obscenity from behind fast-moving glass.

He was on the divider in the middle of Via Manzoni when Bianca saw him.

She stood up and both their eyes drifted to the fast-walking man. Farrugia had hoped she wouldn’t do that. That is, stand up. Everybody knew everybody now.

The two men were almost there. His Beretta Raffica was ready.

The contact walked up to her, turned her shoulders so her back was to his two trackers. Air-kiss to her right cheek, air-kiss to her left. Pause. His hands slid down her hips. He said something to her, kissed her on the lips, then ran inside Bar Gadda.

What the . . .

The two in pursuit graduated from walk to run. They got into the bar before the door closed. Farrugia unzipped his jacket and withdrew his gun. Instinct. He didn’t think about the traffic after the divider. He ran. There was a squeal of rubber. Farrugia realized that he still had functional legs when he reached the pavement’s gray flagstones. Horns blared behind him, but he focused on the commotion inside the bar in front of him.

He slid through the door, eyes searching, and out of reflex said, “Stay calm. I am Commissario Isidore Farrugia.” The customers couldn’t have cared less once they saw the Beretta. Their eyes and a few of their arms pointed the way out back. With his adrenaline flowing as it was, he wouldn’t remember much of what he saw, but would always remember the old lady crossing herself and calling upon the saints and the Virgin. He did the same in his mind.

A restaurant kitchen was always a well-lit trap for a confrontation. Cops and bad guys. Rats or roaches and the health inspector. Illegals and Immigration Services. The Albanians and the Romanians made way for him and pointed. The broken plates crinkled as he stepped on the shards. The chef looked scared with a huge knife in his hand. Farrugia was trying not to look frightened with the pistol in his. Almost thirty years as a cop, pension calculations and the whisper of mortality moved through his head. The Beretta had two settings: three-round burst or single fire. His was set to single fire, and each round would count.

Ahead he spotted the streak of navy blue and then camel. Hunted and hunter. Then the metallic slam of the back door flung open to crash against a hard wall. There was some indistinct yelling. Farrugia’s eyes took it all in while he calmed his heart down with deep belly breaths and moved through the kitchen. His belt was tight. He promised himself that he would lose the stomach if he lived through the day.

The busboy on Farrugia’s right said, “Vicolo cieco.”

Dead end. That door would make him an easy target for two potentially armed men on the other side. He approached the door. He peeked through the sliver of light, since the door had returned home on its hinges. The busboy was right. A wall a few meters to the left, a large, fragrant metal dumpster against it, left you with no choice but a hard right turn and a fast run down an indeterminate alley out to Via Manzoni.

The American didn’t know that. He had turned left. Arms and legs appeared and Farrugia heard pleading.

The saints might not help him, but the Virgin had always been kind. He gripped the gun, breathed in, and trusted his eyes and trigger finger to think for him. In through the door and outside.

Too late.

Man One fired a single shot into the American’s chest. Man Two fired the headshot. Farrugia faced two automatics now turned on him, and the only thing he could do was resort to his lame academy training.

“Police. Put your weapons down.”

In this two-against-one dialogue their likely reply is to shoot him, knowing that at his fastest he could wound only one of them.

A choked siren, the screech of one blue-and-white cop car, its silent blue twirling lights now blocked the alley from Via Manzoni. Farrugia saw the first man’s eyes look leftward again. No weapons had gone down. No concession. Farrugia was the apex of the triangle with his gun, and these two were the base angles pointing theirs at him. Unequal . . . unlikely he’d survive if they shoot.

The car doors down the alley opened and closed. There was a squelch of walkie-talkie exchange. The siren lights played like a rave-party color on the walls.

Farrugia repeated himself. “Weapons down.”

Another leftward look. The second man lowered his gun. Farrugia almost breathed.

The gun went off.

The first man had shot the second in the head and, as Farrugia was about to step forward and pull his trigger, put the barrel into his own mouth.

The two cops walking down the alley stopped when the shot went off.

 

Four gunshots can have a way of ruining a drink. Four.

The orange zest, the hypnotic cardamom and the other curatives in Bianca’s drink suddenly turned sour. Two shots might be a matter of syntax, like a judicious comma and then the full-stop period. Or they could be a call-and-response exchange. But the second set of shots, Farrugia, her contact, and two suspects made four men.

One of those shots may have been for Farrugia.

She had to know before the other cops came. There were already sirens in the distance, she couldn’t tell whose. Here in Milan, ambulances and police cars sounded the same to her, like the European starling with their “nee-nah nee-nah” through the ancient streets. But within minutes Via Manzoni would be covered with screaming sirens, the smell of rubber, bright lights, a cacophony of voices, a multitude of colors, and every type of police, from authoritative uniform to the suited support staff to process the crime. There would be tape to cordon off the bodies, tape to section off each part of the bar and the path to the denouement in the alley, and tape to identify the section where the witnesses had been herded off for questioning.

She was worried about witnesses recalling the American embracing a woman. She was worried whether any surveillance cameras in the shops or on top of the traffic lights might have recorded Farrugia’s transit across the street, his momentary interest in the future victim. She was worried whether any surveillance cameras had captured her.

But she was most worried about Farrugia.

Down the street, a man in an eco-fluorescent uniform and ear protection was spray-cleaning the sidewalk with pressurized water from his l’agevolatore, a moveable, jointed steel arm on top of a truck. A policeman ran down the street and asked him to stop his work. The streets can remain dirty for a few more hours for the sake of preserving the crime scene. The imposing l’agevolatore stopped. The water stopped. Everything stopped.

She had to move.

Navy-blue cars with red pinstripes—the carabinieri—began to arrive as she cut through the crowd. She expected to see women making the sign of the cross and men bypassing the five wounds of Christ to simply kiss their thumbs as a way of kissing the Cross of Christ and acknowledging death. She had seen Italian-Americans do that thousands of times back home. Not here in Milan. She heard murmurs of inquiry, exchanges of speculation, and the confident assertion from someone that three men were dead. She flowed with the crowd to the open mouth of the alley, her head bowed in respect.

She saw Farrugia.

He was speaking to someone from the Omicidi, the Homicide Squad. He was visibly unnerved, but unharmed. She surprised herself by saying, “Thank God.”

There’s was a smaller crowd moving out of an old-style carrelli on Line One, a street tram like the ones in San Francisco. The street was blocked off at both ends.

She needed to call Dante.

She decided on the nearby metro, the Montenapoleone stop. That would lead her anywhere that was away from the noise, away from detection. She would have a chance to think, collect, and determine what was on the jump-key he had slipped into her pocket during that surprise kiss.

She would never forget that—not so much for the kiss, or that he was handsome and kissed well. But that he was young, terribly young, and now dead.

 

Threading the Needle
COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Gabriel Valjan
Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing

Categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Strings, by Allison M. Dickson

Strings_Cover_253x391Title: Strings

Genre: Horror/Suspense/Thriller

Author: Allison M. Dickson

Website: http://www.allisonmdickson.com          

Publisher: Hobbes End Publishing

Purchase at Amazon

Allison M. Dickson presents a chilling tale of entrapment and greed. Do you have freedom? Do you have control? After four years of turning tricks in a mob-run New York brothel to pay off a debt, Nina is ready to go back to a quiet life in Iowa. Just one more client and the whole nightmare will be behind her, but this last trick turns into a battle for her soul. Meanwhile, the brothel’s sadistic Madam has been hiding away money in order to move up in her family’s organization, and she only wants the half million dollars the reclusive millionaire pays for the girls. But her driver Ramón has other ideas, making off with the money left behind when Nina’s last trick goes unexpectedly awry. The theft comes at a great cost to the Madam, setting off a horrific chain of events that changes them all. The hooker. The driver. The Madam. All of them on a collision course to a place where only madness holds sway. Who is pulling your Strings?

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Chapter 1

Junior

Lady Ballas stroked her pregnant belly as she stirred Hank’s dinner, hoping the smell of beef stew would finally draw her husband out of his study. He had been cooped up in there two weeks now. Not his worst streak yet, but certainly his second-worst. Only once in those fourteen days had he opened the door to snatch one of the dozens of food trays she left out in the hallway. She brought up five trays a day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks, and all of it had gone to waste except one lone meal, a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. She could imagine the amount of agony he’d gone through convincing himself to take it, not only to expose himself to the “bad air” outside his refuge, but also to eat food that had been swimming in it. He’d been on the verge of starving to death no doubt, but with just enough self-preservation left to override the madness eating away at him like a child slowly licking the icing off a cupcake before devouring it all the way down to its soft and spongy center.

Two Sundays ago, she’d been making their breakfast of poached eggs and toast when she heard the heavy maple door slam shut upstairs. She didn’t stop her cooking or even flinch. All the signs of Hank’s condition spiraling out of control again had been there for the last week. They were difficult to miss after twelve years of marriage. It always started with the constant washing of his hands until his knuckles bled and the pads of his fingers cracked open. Then the size of the laundry piles would grow from small hills into mountains as he made frequent clothing changes—six, sometimes seven, different suits and shirts and pairs of socks and underwear a day. He would also spend longer spells working from home instead of going into his office at the new Twin Towers in Manhattan. She could hear him wearing a faded path onto the heavy Oriental rug up in that cursed study as he paced back and forth, barking orders either into the phone or just to himself, which never failed to chill her bones.

There were subtler signs too, like the way his eyes flitted around the room when he spoke to her, as if he were chasing an invisible fly, or the agitation in his voice when she asked if he might like to join her on an afternoon walk and get a little fresh air. All those clues and more would build up day after day like the crescendo of a dreadful symphony until it reached its final note, the percussive slam of that office door. Silence would then flood their big, empty house and she would settle down to spend the next several days living in a void, alone but for the errant kicks and tumbles of her unborn child as she rocked herself to sleep in the newly furnished nursery.

Sometimes the reasons for Hank’s spells varied. Lady sometimes thought they coincided with the state of the bond and oil markets that comprised the bulk of their wealth. Even though she didn’t consider herself an expert in commodities, she’d come from good stock. Her father taught her how to read the newspapers and the quarterly statements that came in the mail when she was a girl. Although Hank never approved of her meddling in such matters, she nonetheless knew things were going quite well for their little trading company right now. Lady had a feeling this particular spell, the worst yet, was due to something else entirely, and it gave her a hard kick right now to remind her of its presence. She patted her swollen belly, which she rubbed with cocoa butter every night before bed.

“There there, little one. All is well.”

The baby would be here in just a month or so, and though he would never admit such a thing aloud, Hank was terrified. And it wasn’t just about potentially passing on his peculiar malady. He was also concerned with all the urine, feces, vomit, and slobber babies brought to the table. His once peaceful and immaculate abode was about to become a toxic waste dump. Lady was prepared for this and had hired the perfect nanny to assist her, a gorgeous Indian woman named Kali who exuded maternal peace and professionalism. After meeting with several candidates throughout the week, Kali was the only one who seemed truly prepared for the task, who would treat their baby like a prince, or a princess if Lady’s deep intuition was wrong. It took some convincing, to say the least. Hank didn’t want to hire a nanny at all. In fact, he tried putting his foot down about the matter in his classic blustery style two months ago when he came home to find her conducting interviews.

“I can’t believe you would consider this without consulting me first. We’ll raise our own child, and that’s final!”

But Lady wouldn’t have it. “You either let me hire a nanny to help us, or you hire someone to help you. If you don’t like that, Hank, I’ll just take the baby to my father’s and let his maid help me out.” And maybe I won’t come back either was on the tail end of that, at least in her mind, but it turned out she didn’t need to say it. Hank didn’t hate anyone on this earth but the one who had walked her down the aisle at their wedding. The two men had been professional rivals since the day Lady brought Hank home to meet him, and Hank would rather die than let old Louis McGinnis get the upper-hand.

Cajoled into submission, a rare place for Hank when he wasn’t fresh off one of his episodes, he sat down and patted her hand. “All right then, dear. You hire your help. But she doesn’t come within a hundred feet of that study when I’m in it. You tell her I have bad migraines and I can’t be disturbed. Is that clear?”

She thought so. With Kali’s help, their lives would be infinitely better and easier. Hank would never have to live in fear of his own son, and Lady would be free and clear to help her husband when his episodes came on.

After removing the rolls from the oven, she gingerly placed two of them on a plate with a pat of butter on top of each. Then she ladled out a large bowl of the stew, added a flourish of freshly chopped herbs, and set it on the tray beside the bread. Next to that she added a tall glass of milk, a tumbler of iced tea with mint, and a wedge of the apple pie she’d baked earlier that morning. The sight of the meal, Hank’s favorite since the first days of their marriage, made her own stomach gurgle, and she hoped it would work this time. It was normally her ace in the hole, the one that coaxed him to emerge most often. She tried putting it out for him late last week, but it had been too soon. She’d acted hastily, that was all. But it was with good reason. What if the baby came early and he was still in there? Even with Kali’s help, she still needed Hank. He was her rock, the reason for everything. And after all the times she had been there for him, it was time for him to return the favor. If he missed the birth of his child, she would be most displeased. The stew would work this time, she was sure of it. Men were like dowsing rods for food. It just took the right meal at the right time.

Careful to balance the heavy tray with her already off-kilter center of gravity, she carried it from the kitchen, down the long hallway, and up the winding staircase leading to Hank’s study, second door on the right. The climb was arduous for a woman in her condition, but being her husband’s part-time nursemaid kept her in good shape. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, she would carry fresh food up and then later in the evening, she would return that same food, cold and congealed, to the kitchen in which she’d cooked it. Steaming and juicy meat had become cold jerky, gravies and broths had either skinned over or gelatinized, bread fresh from the oven had grown stale and lackluster. Along with each morning meal, she left him a fresh pitcher of wash water with a basin, an unopened bar of soap, a new toothbrush with baking soda, and a razor with shave cream. She couldn’t bear the idea of her husband growing filthy, even though that’s what he did every time he locked himself away, convinced his own waste was better than the germs outside. Hank would rationalize that even in their packages the hygiene products were contaminated somehow, just like the food. Long ago, before she knew better, she tried reasoning with him that if the air and the food and everything else outside his study were poisoned, she would be dead by now, but he had an answer for that too: “You weren’t born defective like me, Lady. My skin is full of a billion tiny holes. It lets all the bad things in.”

They’d been through half a dozen doctors, all the latest and greatest in medications and psychotherapy, including shock therapy. They stopped short of a lobotomy, because Hank was worried it would leave him unable to function and provide, just as the medications had for the short time he took them. He also worried his secret would get out; there had already been rumors at the office of nervous breakdowns and possible mania. To Hank, reputation and appearances took precedence over almost everything, which explained why he permitted no one else to enter the house during his spells. There would be no doctors or nurses, not even Carla the housekeeper, who came by twice a week to help with the laundry and the vacuuming, or Barton, their driver and groundskeeper. And most certainly not Kali, who would be living here in the house the day after the baby came.

Lady had grown used to lying to the help, usually saying she and Hank were having a spontaneous holiday in Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons and all time off would be paid. It was doubtful they bought the lies after awhile, but they were professionals and never raised a fuss about it. She hoped Kali would be as elegant about the situation, should she come to find out about Hank’s condition.

Over the years, Lady studied nurse’s textbooks and other manuals on caregiving in order to be as helpful to her husband as possible after he emerged from one of his episodes. She learned how to help him to the bathroom, to take his rectal temperature and other vital signs, to deliver the proper nutrition, and help with calisthenics to build up his strength again. Hank had even rigged up a series of ropes and pulleys around the house in order to make it easier for her to move him around until he regained his strength. He would also use them himself when she was unavailable. After a couple of weeks, he was usually functional again. It was a team effort.

It wasn’t always this bad, of course. If it were, Lady was sure she would have called for her father to swoop in and rescue her years ago. These little fits were like rare blizzards they weathered together in secret. She wouldn’t be pregnant right now with Hank’s child otherwise. Perhaps this was as bad as it would ever get, Hank getting this out of his system once and for all, giving birth to this demon of his in much the same way she would be giving birth to their son in just a few weeks. When Hank Junior entered the world, things would be different. Good, even. She intended to see it that way and no other.

Lady set down the tray outside the door and knocked, her heart full of hope. “Hank? I made your favorite, darling. Beef stew.”

No answer. He was likely asleep. He wouldn’t have energy for much else by this point.

She knocked again, this time a little harder, and proceeded to wait amid the other untouched trays she’d brought up this morning. One with an omelet turned to rubber, another with a now limp BLT sandwich and potato chips. And still the untouched soap and water. He probably smelled like a grave by now. Still no sign of life from inside the study. Now that was a little odd. Questions started filtering into her mind.

Wasn’t it getting a bit worse every time? Weren’t the episodes becoming longer and a bit more frequent, his overall condition weaker? He was like a rubber band stretched out too many times and no longer able to assume its original shape. When he came out last time after nearly a month, he was withered down to skin-covered bone. His heartbeat, weak and uncertain, reminded Lady of a terrified little bird, flutter-flutter-flutter.  She’d been nearly three months pregnant at that point and still fighting awful morning sickness, but she worked feverishly to bring him around, first administering a tiny pill of nitroglycerin and then spending several painstaking hours giving him sips of water and broth. At that point, she was about to give up and call their doctor. Hank didn’t need light nursing. He needed a hospital and IV fluids. But Hank, who knew her better than anybody and could almost read her thoughts, grabbed her by the wrist with his bird-like talon of a hand, the grip stronger than his overall frailty suggested. His eyes reminded her of eggs sizzling on a hot sidewalk.

“No doctors. Remember our promise, Lady. Remember.”

He squeezed her wrist until it hurt and she finally nodded, understanding if he had the strength to do that maybe he wasn’t as close to death as she thought. He recovered, eventually, but she told herself that was the last time she was going to let him have his way about things. They’d made a promise, but promises could be broken after a certain point. If he came out of the room this time in the same condition or worse, she was going to call the hospital and have them send an ambulance. If he had a problem with it, he could get up and come after her. She was too damn big and unwieldy with this belly of hers to be Super Nurse this time.

She gave the door another knock, firmer this time. “Hank? Come on, now. At least grunt if you can hear me.” Lady pressed her ear to the door, trying to detect even the faintest movement or shuffle. Nothing.

A phantom voice, almost taunting, rose up in her mind: He’s dead.

No. Absolutely not. Hank’s silence wasn’t all that unusual. After twelve years of marriage and nearly twice that number of these odd episodes, she’d seen and dealt with far worse than him ignoring her when she knocked. Like when he would go into one of his ranting spells, screaming obscenities so bald and disgusting she was convinced her otherwise sweet and gregarious husband had been possessed by a devil. Years later some of those words still haunted her. Go away, bitch! I’ll stab your cunt!

And then there was the time he opened the door and threw a bottle of his urine in her face. Worse than the tangy warmth of her husband’s warm piss going up her nose and running down her cheeks was the wild and almost menacing look in his eyes. That hadn’t been her husband, she was certain. Her Hank never would have done something so . . . vile. But what could he be doing behind that door right now? She didn’t want him to be angry with her for knocking again, but his silence was beginning to worry her.

A sharp cramp drew her belly taut and she braced herself against the door to keep from doubling over. No. Not now. Please not right now. “Hush, little baby,” she murmured and rubbed her hardening belly. The pain wrapped around her like a hot cummerbund and she fell against the door. She started pounding with both fists. “Hank! Please open the door! The baby . . . I think he’s coming.”

A distinct shuffling came from inside the study and her mind brightened. Oh thank God! I couldn’t coax him out with stew or just plain begging, but at least he’ll react for the birth of his son. The lock disengaged from the inside and the heavy maple door opened a crack to reveal candlelight and a distinct but familiar odor of sweat and bodily waste. But she couldn’t see Hank in there. A trickle of fear dripped down from her heart and burned in her gut. Another contraction followed, but she felt it only distantly compared to her mounting worry.

“Hank? What are you doing in there?”

A shaky whisper issued through the crack. “Come in, darling. Come see what I’ve done. It’s glorious.”

But she didn’t want to go in there. Hank had never invited her into his study like this, and she couldn’t blame him. It would be like inviting someone into the darkest corner of your mind, where every passing thought of murder and revenge and madness gathered like dust bunnies with teeth. “Sweetie, not now. I need you to come out. The baby—”

“Fuck the baby! Come in here now!” His voice cracked under the strain. Then, softly, almost a whimper: “Please, Lady. I need you.”

Lady’s world broke into prisms as the tears spilled over. He’s lost it, she thought. Gone mad. It had only been a matter of time. The doctors all warned them it might come to this one day if he didn’t get the lobotomy or stay on the medication, but neither of them wanted to listen or believe. They thought they could manage it, and they’d done quite well at it for a while. She had to call the doctors, though. Hank’s first, then hers. Oh, this was not how she wanted things. Not at all.

She backed away from the door and hit something that grunted. Lady shouted and turned around to see Kali standing there in a sari the color of blood. Another contraction rushed forward, and this one obliterated all shock at seeing the nanny she’d hired, unexpected. Uninvited. She felt a pop and warm fluid gushed down her legs, pattering on the expensive rug.

“Kali, help me!” she cried, no longer questioning why the woman was there, only needing the help of someone who hadn’t gone crazy.

“Do not worry, Mrs. Ballas. Your husband called me here. I will care for your son.”

“What? Called you? I don’t understand. He—”

Another contraction doubled her over. The pain was constant now and excruciating. World-eating. She had no idea it would hurt this badly, or that it would make her unable to truly grasp the horrible implications in Kali’s words. I will care for your son. What did that mean? Had the whole world gone mad or was it just her?

“Take me to the hospital, Kali. He’s coming. I can feel it.”

Kali’s eyes, which had been so warm at their meeting, were now like unyielding black stone. “There is no time. We must do it here.” She took Lady by the wrists and started guiding her toward Hank’s office, pushing the door open to reveal the menagerie of lit candles on nearly every horizontal surface. Terror was an icicle through her belly. “What are you doing? Kali, no!”

Another contraction. This one buckled her knees, making her certain her stomach was going to split down the middle like a rotten melon. She hit the rug, immediately smelling piss. A lot of it. The sensation of dampness on her hands soon followed and she realized this was Hank’s toilet. He’d been peeing on the carpet like an untrained animal for days. This was not like him. Not at all. Hank had never been so . . . unsanitary. What she saw next, however, obliterated all other thoughts, even the pain, at least briefly. Illuminated by candlelight were the ropes, presumably from the pulleys Hank had installed to help her lift and move him when he was too weak to help himself. He’d strung them up near the ceiling, from wall to wall like a web. He hung from the middle of the network by his ankles, swinging back and forth. Naked, emaciated, and pale like an albino spider.

“Hank? My God, what is this? What happened?”

“I found the source of all the filth, darling. The floor! I no longer have to touch it! Isn’t that wonderful? I’ve never felt more free!” He spread his arms open, letting out a harsh cacophony of laughter that echoed off the wooden walls and belied the presence of any sanity.

The next contraction was like an ax to the gut and she fell forward as if praying to Allah, pressing her forehead into the urine-soaked rug. She had never before experienced labor, but instinctively knew there was something more to this pain. Something dangerous. More warm fluid ran down her legs and she felt something stick into her neck, like a bee sting. She looked up to see Kali holding a syringe.

“What is that?” Already she felt her body going limp and numb. The pain of her labor was still there, but growing further away as whatever drug Kali had injected her with went quickly to her brain.

“Something to dull your pain, dear,” she said.

Kali gently rolled her over onto her back and she was greeted by the sight of her husband’s face hanging several feet above hers. His eyes were glassy and insane and hungry. The drugs did nothing to alleviate the stench of his waste or her fear of that leering grin gleaming in the candlelight. Lady’s mind began to detach like a blimp from its mooring.

“You are bleeding very heavily, Lady. We must move fast.”

This couldn’t be happening. Her baby coming too soon, maybe even dying, her husband no longer her husband, barely even human by the look of him. “No, get my doctor! Call an ambulance. I need a hospital.” Her tongue felt thick and stupid in her mouth. The words fell off it like logs.

“There is too much blood. Neither you nor the baby would make it,” Kali said. The crimson sari hooded the woman’s face, but Lady could see the whites of her eyes with their coal irises, and they were not the warm, maternal ones from the nanny interview. They were cold and driven, like those of a woman whose long laid plans were on the verge of fruition. “We must take him out right away.”

“Yes, cut it out! Release the filth! Release it!” Hank cried. Or at least the ghoul that used to be Hank.

Lady heard a metallic scrape and a shiny blade gleamed in the dimness, but Kali’s movement was too swift and Lady’s medicated brain was too slow to make a connection between the blade and the woman’s intentions until the eight-inches of curved steel came back up again lacquered with blood. And then, finally, the pain flooded in, overriding the drugs and bringing the certainty that her belly had been ripped apart and set ablaze. The agony made the contractions seem almost quaint. Every system in her body began misfiring. Her vision doubled and then trebled, her ears began to ring, and her skin flushed with the jabs of a million searing needle points as Kali dug around inside her for what felt like hours but must have only been minutes. The pain was so enormous, even with the drugs, it seemed almost separate from her, like a vivid nightmare she was watching happen to someone else. Perhaps all the stress was bringing on a hallucination. And the laughing, pendulous ghoul overhead . . . it couldn’t be Hank. He must have left his study earlier, perhaps to get some fresh air, and this loon slipped in through the window.

But even then she didn’t realize the truth of the agony, the horrible and oh-so-personal robbery taking place, until the room filled with the high-pitched squeals of what could only be her baby.

“It is a boy, Lady. Congratulations,” said Kali, her voice shaking.

He was tiny and so very thin and pale in the woman’s hands. A gooey mixture of blood and amniotic fluid dripped from his gangly white limbs. Something was wrong with him. Lady could sense it not only in the way the child’s skin seemed gelatinous and translucent, or how his tiny ears came to points, or the way his skull looked lumpy and badly formed. It was in Kali’s face, dawning with horror as she glanced down at the newborn.

“What is it?” Lady heard herself ask, though from a distance as the world began to gray around the edges. She was no longer cognizant of her own body being butchered open. Her mind was on her child. “What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with my baby?”

Slow regret and terror filled Kali’s eyes. “I . . . I’m so sorry, Mrs. Ballas.” She turned the child around so Lady could look upon his face. Terror sucked the air from her lungs and reality shrank to the size of a pinpoint as she screamed at the thing—no, themonster—that had been living in her womb all these months.

“What is it? Oh my dear God what is it?” The abomination began to scream too as Hank screeched more laughter overhead.The eye is so huge, she thought, and it was the last clear thought Lady had as she grabbed onto the encroaching darkness like a life raft and let it carry her away to oblivion.

 

 

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