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Chapter reveal: The Prom Dress Killer, by George A. Berstein

ThePromDressKillerprintcover5.5x8.5_BW_30018mar2017Title:  THE PROM DRESS KILLER

Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Author: George A Bernstein

Websitehttp://www.suspenseguy.com

Publisher: GnD Publishing

Find out more on Amazon

Beneath the blazing sun and sizzling streets of Miami, a cold-blooded killer is at work.  His victims?  Young, auburn-haired women—four, so far—kidnapped and murdered.  These victims show no signs of trauma, but all bear the distinct hallmarks of a serial killer.  And this serial killer leaves behind a sickening calling card:  each victim is found clad in a prom dress.

Homicide detective Al Warner is on the case but this killer has left shockingly few clues, leaving Warner with more questions than answers.  Why were these girls taken…and then killed?  Is this psychopath intent on killing redheads, and why?  What, if anything, connects the victims?  Why were the bodies arranged in peaceful repose, wearing prom dresses?  How does that square with his leaving these carefully-arranged bodies in dark alleyways, discarding them as if they’re trash? And how long until this killer strikes again?

Sadly, one question is answered quickly when promising young attorney Elke Sorenstan captures the killer’s deadly attention and becomes the fifth victim. All signs say the killer is escalating—and that can mean only one thing:  the killer is bound to strike again, and soon.  With the stakes mounting and every tick of the clock marking that fine line between life and death, Al Warner doggedly pursues the ruthless killer before another victim falls prey. Warner’s worst fears are realized when newly-minted Realtor Shelly Weitz finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Al Warner will have to act fast: the clock is ticking in this deadly game…and Shelly Weitz is dangerously close to dancing with the devil himself—a dance that will surely be her last.  But as Detective Warner gets closer to stopping the madman behind these murders, he’ll risk losing everything—including his life.

A mesmerizing Miami mystery that ratchets up the suspense from page one, The Prom Dress Killer will leave readers breathless. Resplendent with pulse-pounding action, nail-biting suspense and unexpected twists, turns and surprises, The Prom Dress Killer is an outstanding new mystery that takes readers on a high-octane quest to catch a killer.  George A Bernstein has crafted an eerily real, masterfully- plotted mystery that delivers thrills and chills from beginning to end.

George photo

About the Author: A native of Chicago, George A Bernstein is a retired president of a Chicago manufacturing company. After leaving Chicago for South Florida, George started a world-wide fishing and hunting tour service, Outdoor Safaris. He is a world class fly-fisherman who has held 13 IGFA World Records and authored the definitive book on fly-fishing for pike and musky, Toothy Critters Love Flies.  He and his wife of 57 years, Dolores, live in South Florida. George is also the author of two previous Detective Al Warner suspense novels, Death’s Angel and Born to Die. He is currently at work on the next Detective Al Warner novel, as yet unnamed.

 www.suspenseguy.com / http://facebook.com/georgeabernstein /                                    https://plus.google.com/114243818981488647845/ /                             http://twitter.com/georgebernstein

Chapter 2

“What d’ya got, Jack?” Al Warner asked, settling his lithe, hard muscled six-foot frame on the corner of his ex-partner’s desk.

“Not much, Al. The criminalists swept the entire area of the parking lot, but they didn’t come up with anything.” Jack Harris flipped through his notebook, shaking his head.

“We know for sure she was snatched in the lot?” Warner asked.

“Yeah. Security cameras picked her up, entering from the library. There’re two cams on every deck, but unfortunately, Miss Williamson was parked where there was no real coverage, and we never saw her leave.”

“Terrific!” Warner said, his fingers gently probing the spot at the back of his skull, more itchy than tender now, under the mat of thick curly black hair.

“That whack on the noggin still bothering you, Al?” Jack asked.

“Nah, not really. Just habit. Good thing I got a hard head.” Warner picked the crime scene report from Harris’ desk.

“Yeah, lucky for you. Not so lucky for the guy who beaned you … or his two nasty partners.” He grinned, delivering a little punch to Warner’s arm. Harris marveled at the steel hardness of his friend’s forty-year-old body.

“Easy, there, bud,” Warner said, his lips ticking upward. “So no video of the snatch …?”

“If it was one. I ain’t so sure.” Harris stood, coming around the desk.

“The third redheaded gal to go missin’ in the last three months? No longer a coincidence, Jack.” Warner self-consciously dropped his hand from another visit to his itchy scalp.

“If it’s the same perp,” Warner continued, “which now seems damned likely, we got five, maybe six days to find her alive. This guy’s got a timetable, and he sure doesn’t waste much time between vics. He drops one in an alley and has usually swiped the next within two weeks, max.

“Did the cameras at least pick up auto traffic in and out? We need something, Jack.”

“Sure, they got every vehicle coming and going. Problem is, we don’t have an exact timeline when she went missing. She left the library at about five p.m., and we got no shot of her leaving the garage.”

“Let’s review the tapes, startin’, say, at four-thirty, through about six. Look for the same vehicle comin’ and goin’ durin’ that time. He had to drive in and out. Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Warner said.

“Okay, boss, but he coulda followed her there and just waited for her to come back.”

“Good point. So look for her arrivin’ about three p.m. ID the next three or four vehicles behind her, and then look for one of them leavin’ right after we think she was snatched.”

“That’s kinda thin, boss … and it’s gonna give me a lot of sore eyes.”

“What else we got, Detective? Put one of the techs on it, if you’re gettin’ too old,” Warner said with a mischievous grin.

“Shit, you think I’d leave something like that to some nerd punk. I got a bottle of Murine.”

“Yeah, I figured. So get your lazy ass in gear. Let’s try to find this gal before the sands run out. I’m gonna zip by the parkin’ lot again, just in case we missed something. Her car been towed to the lab?”

“Yep. The Tech boys are about done.” Harris had returned to his desk, tilting his chair back. “I thought you might wanna take another peek at the scene. It’s still taped off, all the markers in place, and we got two full-time blues on the spot, so nothing gets disturbed.”

“Okay. Give me a copy of your interview notes of the lot’s attendants, and get on that film ASAP.” His voice raspy, he leaned forward, balancing on his arms, fingers spread like claws braced against the top of the desk.

“I don’t want a third pretty young corpse, all dolled up in a fancy prom dress, lyin’ in an ally somewhere. Not the goddamned Angel of Death, all over again.” Warner’s face contorted, as he slammed his fist down hard enough to spill the pencil container.

“Easy, boss.” Harris pushed away from his desk. “We’re doing the best we can, with what little we got.”

“Well it’s not fuckin’ good enough.” Warner straightened, catching himself from reaching for his last head wound again.

“I’m goddammed sick and tired of serial-killers around here. Three in the last three years is three fuckin’ too many! Let’s get this bastard before this last gal becomes his third vic, and before he takes a fourth.”

“We’re doing what we can, Al. He’s gotta make a mistake soon. I just hope we can do it this time without ya catching a bullet or rock off the noggin. Ya gotta stop playing those sympathy cards.”

Warner glared at the smaller man, but couldn’t contain his laughter, bubbling up, erupting like a ruptured dam … which in a sense, it was.

“Goddammed little shit! You always know how to cool my fuse when it gets too hot.”

Harris grinned. “Someone’s gotta chill ya out. You’re the best cop I know to solve these things, if ya don’t get too emotional about the vics. Never knew a detective who cared as much as you do, boss.”

“Thanks for the bucket of cold water, Jack. I get too wound up and I could miss something. Can’t afford to do that, ’cause this perp’s on a serious mission. I’m pretty sure bodies of pretty young redheads are gonna keep pilin’ up if we don’t nab ’im soon.

“Anyhow, get on that film, and get one of the techies to help. Two sets of eyes are always better. I’ll be back in a couple of hours. I‘ll wanna go over the patrol canvas reports, too.”

“Gottcha. Is Doc Guttenberg working on a profile?”

“Not yet. I’ll see Eva tonight and see if she can come up with something that might help.”

“Right. That’s real tough duty!” Harris grinned. “At least you two getting together is one thing good coming outta the last caper.”

Warner smiled. “Always lookin’ for the silver lining, huh.”

“Gotta be some perks in this job. I’ll call ya if anything comes outta those videos.”

Warner nodded, scooping up the file from Jack’s desk and heading out of the Miami-Dade Homicide Department. Something had to break, but time wasn’t on his side.

It never was, with a nut out there, killing innocent victims. Three years ago, it was teenagers. A year later beautiful young women … almost including Sharon. Now this nut— just sixty days after he snagged the perps with all those SIDS infants dying … and him taking a small boulder on the noggin in the process.

It’s redheaded women this time, meticulously groomed and dressed to the nines. Each was smothered, dying peacefully while apparently in a chloroform daze. It looked like the Unsub didn’t want them to suffer, but that seemed at odds with him laying them out in dark alleys like so much trash.

He hoped Eva could come up with something other than the killer seemed conflicted over his vic’s care. If nothing else, the lovely doctor would at least manage to drain off his tension.

He grinned, in spite of his anger. How was he so lucky to have that beauty love him? He thought briefly of Sharon, fleeing to Buffalo after her near deadly encounter with the Angel of Death. And then the blonde angel, Casey, consumed by the SIDS deaths of all those baby boys. That case eventually brought him to lovely Dr. Eva Guttenberg … and how lucky was that!

Will love last this time? He didn’t give it freely, and was too hard-case to receive it back very often. He was using up a lifetime of opportunities, and he didn’t want to screw this one up.

Unlocking his gray Dodge Charger coupe, he slid in, tossing the file on the passenger seat. He lingered, eyes focused on some distant, invisible spot, fingers tap-dancing on the leather cover steering wheel, considering the current serial lunatic.

This psycho wants something specific from these girls, and when they can’t feed his need, he discards them, cleaving to some unique, personal ritual, and looks for another. The fact they are in their twenties and redheads of similar size and build has a special meaning, but so far nothing has conjoined these gals except age group and hair color.

He sighed, firing up the engine, enjoying the rumble of its power.

“Better figure it out soon,” he mumbled, “or more bodies are gonna start pilin’ up. We’re one or two redheads away from city-wide panic.” Shifting gears, he drove out of the police lot, shaking his head.

They needed a break … and soon.


 

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THE FIVE MANNERS OF DEATH, by Darden North

The5MannersOfDeath_coverfinalTitle:  THE FIVE MANNERS OF DEATH

Genre: Mystery

Author: Darden North

Websitehttp://www.dardennorth.com

Publisher: WordCrafts Press

Find out more on Amazon

About the Book: The Five Manners of Death is a taut, tense, and gripping tale about a long-buried secret that once unleashed will begin a countdown of the five ways to die.  For Mississippi surgeon Diana Bratton, the novel’s protagonist, pages torn from a 1960s college yearbook reveal that murder is a family affair…

About The Five Manners of Death:  When a construction worker unearths  a decades-old human skull on the campus of the University of Mississippi, he sets in motion an eerie chain of events that leaves one  woman desperate to rewrite history and another woman desperate to find the truth.

After the discovery of her Aunt Phoebe’s 50-year-old note detailing the five manners of death, surgeon Diana Bratton is surrounded by bodies.  Suicide, accident, natural cause, and one death classified undetermined are soon crossed off this grisly list—leaving Diana to believe that only homicide remains. But the police prove her wrong:  Phoebe is linked to murder—not only by those skeletal fragments uncovered on the University campus but also to the recent deaths of two local men. Diana is torn:  should she try to prove her aunt’s innocence or accept police theory that her beautiful, beloved aunt is a woman who harbors dark and deadly secrets?

Stealing precious time from her young daughter, her surgical practice, and her hopes for a renewed romance, Diana launches a pulse-quickening quest to clear Phoebe’s name.  However, as she searches for evidence, Diana finds that her desire to reach the truth may be eclipsed by Aunt Phoebe’s need to rebury the past. When reality finally emerges, Diana faces the cold fact that murder is a family affair.  After all, things aren’t always what they seem. And some things never die…

With the precision of a surgeon, Darden North has crafted a confident and chilling tale about lies, secrets, deception and the conflict that erupts when the past and present collide.  Meticulous plotting, richly-drawn, engaging characters and a shocking storyline combine to create an extraordinary thriller resplendent with twists, turns, and the unexpected.  A unique but realistic story teeming with the right mix of medical authenticity, The Five Manners of Death plunges readers deep into the minds of the novel’s characters as each learns that no one can be trusted—and that everyone has his own agenda. With this sensational, skillful and highly suspenseful tale, Darden North claims a solid spot among today’s finest thriller writers.

About the Author: A board-certified physician in obstetrics and gynecology, Darden North writes murder mysteries and medical thrillers. His novels have received national awards, most notably an IPPY in Southern Fiction for Points of Origin. A native of the Mississippi Delta, Darden lives with his wife Sally in Jackson, Mississippi, where he practices medicine

Connect with the author on the web:

www.dardennorth.com

Instagram and Twitter: @dardennorth

https://www.facebook.com/DardenNorthAuthor

https://www.linkedin.com/in/darden-north-9b71749

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

http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/351136.Darden_North

https://plus.google.com/107211094415566347824

http://blog.dardennorth.com/

CHAPTER 1

     Phoebe struggled against the sheets, pushing up with her arms. The glass of water on the silver tray rocked back and forth on the bed.

“Is the funeral home here?” she asked and settled against the pillow.

“No, because you’re not dead,” Diana said. “At least not yet.”

Diana blotted the sweat from her aunt’s forehead—skin hot enough to singe fingertips. She jerked away from the rattling cough that followed. Diana could not be sick too.

Phoebe managed to cling to the bed sheets instead of rolling to the floor. She shook her head when the hacking passed. “I told you to use one of the linen handkerchiefs, the ones with my initials.”

“Forget the Emily Post,” Diana said. “Here, take a sip of this.” She put the fresh Waterford tumbler from the nightstand to Phoebe’s lips. The red mane swung free of the pillow, strands of hair matted on Phoebe’s forehead. Diana bent and tried to fluff the pillow back into shape. The satin felt moist, almost gummy. She gave up and flipped the pillow over to the unused side.

“For heaven’s sake, please fill that glass with something besides water,” Phoebe said, swallowing hard. She almost floated back against the padding. Despite the cigarettes abandoned a few years ago, cocktails every afternoon, and a two-day fever racking her delicate frame, Diana Bratton’s aunt remained beautiful. No one judged her a day over 40, much less over sixty.

“Vodka and soda is in the rosewood cabinet inside my dressing room,” she said, handing the glass of water back to Diana. “Get it, please, and refresh the philodendron in the corner with this.”

“You should have listened to me about that flu shot,” Diana said.

Phoebe took the monogrammed linen handkerchief from her. “This is a family heirloom—my family. It belonged to my mother.” She blotted her forehead, then tossed the handkerchief atop the used pile near the lamp.

 

“I’ve never been much for free advice, even from you, Dr. Bratton,” Phoebe said. She reached for a fresh piece of linen from the Chinese porcelain tray near the bedside table, one of the pieces of china left uncrated for the move.

“I should have sneaked that syringe of flu vaccine out of the office and popped you with it myself—a real freebie.” Diana shielded her face just as more coughing and hacking racked Phoebe’s body. “It’s never too late for the pneumonia vaccine, but I give up.”

Diana opened the drawer in the bedside table and unwrapped the small package underneath the magazines, ink pens, and note pads. “Will you at least take a breathing treatment?”

Phoebe grabbed the nebulizer, inhaled twice and sputtered. “You mentioned your office—makes me think of your surgery partner. A woman I play bridge with calls men like that arm candy.”

“Brad’s been real busy. We just had our seven-year anniversary.”

“Should have been a wedding anniversary, my dear.” She grabbed an extra puff on the nebulizer. “Not long ago, you and your Doctor Brad Cummins were all but married—except for the ring.”

“I’ll ignore that,” Diana said. “Here’s a fresh handkerchief.” She dodged the path of the next coughing spell.

Arm candy,” Phoebe gasped. “Just thinking about that Dr. Brad Cummins makes an old lady feel better.”

“This thing isn’t doing you much good, even if overused,” Diana said. She tossed the nebulizer at the oxygen tank. It landed near the head of Phoebe’s four-poster mahogany bed and slid along the floor to behind the drapes.

“You sound worse.” She dug a digital thermometer and stethoscope out of her purse. “Inhale and exhale, deep,” she ordered.

Phoebe obeyed with deep breaths and release. “Where’s that other thing going?”

“In that know-it-all mouth of yours,” Diana answered. She put the stethoscope aside and placed the thermometer under Phoebe’s tongue. “Your lungs sound horrible—like a tornado—not to mention that your temp is still up.”

“I probably have pneumonia.”

“That’s another vote for the vaccine; and instead of a hearse, I’m calling Metropolitan for an ambulance.”

“Please, please, Diana, don’t. This is such a close-knit neighborhood, lots of busy-bodies. Sirens will cause such a stir.”

“You’re moving out of this place. You don’t care what the old neighbors say,” Diana said.

“Thank goodness we closed on the new house before I got sick, and I’m glad that I bought a place in town.”

“Regardless, I should have insisted you go to the hospital sooner,” Diana said. “Except for Kelsey, you’re the closest thing I have to blood kin.”

“I give up. Maybe you’re right.” Phoebe reached for the thick white cotton robe at the foot of the bed. The new silk one from Neiman Marcus remained boxed in her closet. “Here, help me with this thing and then get me to your car. Seeing your beautiful daughter once I’m settled into my room would really cheer me up.”

Diana wrapped the robe around the sheer pajamas, moist from sweat. Phoebe’s skin felt clammy. “Covering up is probably wise. This slinky outfit may get you arrested when we roll through admissions,” Diana said. She eased Phoebe into the silk slippers waiting on the Oriental rug. “Better yet, maybe we should change you into something less provocative. I’ll check your closet.”

A long row of cocktail dresses and tailored suits on hangers lined the walls to the left and right of the master bedroom closet. A built-in bank of drawers was located at the end of the space. Diana searched and found a pink fleece set neatly folded in the bottom drawer.

“I’m glad everything is not already boxed up,” Diana said. “Let’s slip you into this.”

“No, no. I’m much too weak to change clothes.” Phoebe stood, unsteady at first, then grabbed her purse from the dresser, clutching it to her chest. She coughed and sputtered as they moved down the hall toward the living room. “Doctors and nurses make note of expensive pajamas. I won’t part with these,” she said.

Diana caught Phoebe before she stumbled over the stuffed boxes and cartons piled in the entrance hall. “OK, you win. We’ll go as you are, but once I turn you over to the hospitalist, I’ll come back and pack a bag for you,” Diana said. “You won’t need much. The gift shop will have toiletries.”

She took Phoebe by the elbow and guided her out through the front door, past the white columns that anchored a wraparound porch extending across the front and along the sides of the house. Down the steps, at the foot of the narrow driveway, a dumpy, red-faced man in his sixties stopped to fumble with a plastic Wal-Mart shopping bag.

“Wouldn’t you know it,” Phoebe whispered under her handkerchief, “that fool, Carvel Eaves.”

“Afternoon, ladies. Lots of tidbits on my afternoon stroll,” he said. Like a pendulum, he swung the bag stuffed with empty soft drink and beer cans, crumpled fast food bags, and gum wrappers in Phoebe’s direction.

She frowned and opened the door to Diana’s car. “Interesting hobby you have, Carvel—keeping our Belhaven neighborhood free of litter during your walks. But I don’t have time for …” (The comment was stalled by another round of coughing, topped off with a protracted wheeze.) “… time for your nonsense today.” She slid inside the car into the passenger seat.

Carvel Eaves leaned toward Phoebe. “Never know what people will toss out into the streets,” he said. “Most of the time it’s teenagers throwing beer cans out the window before mom and dad see or discards flying out the back of their pickups. Sometimes it’s just careless trash collectors.” Carvel took a second look at Phoebe. “Looks like you’re a little under the weather, Miss Phoebe.”

“You’re not listening, Carvel,” she said. “My niece and I are in a terrible rush.”

“A rush? Just like during last Saturday’s bridge tournament?”

“That wasn’t me with the mistakes. Your game was off,” she answered. “When I trumped you and closed you out, I was just trying to end the misery for us all.” Phoebe tilted her head past him through the window for an even longer, deeper coughing episode—this time punctuated with two wheezes.

Diana opened the driver’s door and tossed her white jacket out of the way to the back seat. She patted Phoebe on the back until the coughing and wheezing ceased. “Tell Mr. Eaves goodbye. We need to get to the hospital,” Diana said.

“You do sound rough, Phoebe,” Carvel said. “Guess you’ll miss this weekend’s bridge tournament and your master points?”

“Seems I will. My niece thinks I’m on death’s door and insists on the hospital. She’s a doctor, you know … a surgeon.”

“Everybody knows that, Phoebe. She fixed my golf buddy’s hernia.” Eaves reached low for the plastic cup lid and drinking straw spotted near the curb and stuffed his bag. He smiled. “No complaints since.”

“Carvel, we have to go. Start the car, Diana.”

Diana pushed the ignition switch.

“Funny you said something about death’s door,” he said. Carvel leaned closer, then seemed to think better of it. He smoothed the piece of paper. “Let’s see … The paper is old. It’s some type of list … The printing is a little smeared and definitely faded, but at the top it says The Five Manners of Death.” Carvel tipped his Ole Miss baseball cap. “Better be careful at that hospital, Phoebe. Seems there are several ways to go.”

“My God, Carvel. Those were notes from a college English composition class, creative writing. I found that when packing for the move and threw that ancient garbage away,” Phoebe said. “Even now, I can’t seem to get rid of those papers—thanks to busybodies like you.”

He spotted a weathered, rolled-up newspaper flattened against the curb across the street. “I better get that. Newspaper decomposes quick.” Carvel stuffed the sheet of paper back into his makeshift trash bag and headed across the street.

“Unique little man, that Mr. Eaves,” Diana said and closed her door. Forgetting the car was already running, she again pushed the ignition, then placed her cell in a compartment on the console.

“Never mind that old fool. He tried to convince my bridge partner to go to the golf party at the country club last Christmas, practically begged her to date him.” Phoebe fished a fresh disposable tissue from her purse, which nearly disintegrated under more coughing and hacking. Then there were sneezes. “Her husband hadn’t been dead a month.”

“Maybe you should just rest quietly,” Diana said. “Let your seat back with that button between the seat and the door.”

Diana reached for her cell but remembered the Bluetooth. “I better give a heads-up to the hospitalist at Metropolitan,” she said. “He won’t mind; he gets paid per admission.” Diana pushed CALL on the steering wheel and spoke the name.

A voice blared from the stereo speakers. “Dr. Bahrain here.” Startled, Diana swerved to miss the edge of a brick pillar marking the entrance to a driveway.

“Diana!” Phoebe screamed. “Is it too late for that ambulance?”

Diana straightened the vehicle and slowed at the four-way stop to turn the corner. She took a deep breath and answered the hospitalist. “Ahmed, this is Diana Bratton. Can you take a look at my aunt? She’s not any better. I think pneumonia has complicated her asthma.”

“Sure, Dr. Bratton. Bring her on in. I’ll expedite the admission and fix her up in no time.”

“Thank you. We’re 15 minutes away.” They ended the call just before Phoebe started to wheeze and cough. Diana reached behind to rummage through the pockets of her lab coat in the back seat. “I think there might be an extra inhaler in here,” she said, “a sample from the office medicine closet.”

“Diana!” Phoebe grabbed Diana’s shoulder. “Something’s ahead in the street.”

Diana dropped her lab coat and swerved to miss the crumpled mound lying on the pavement. She slammed the brakes, the shoulder straps jerking them against their seats. Diana checked the rearview mirror, unbuckled her seatbelt, and sprang from the car.

Several aluminum cans, a rolled newspaper, and a plastic sack were nearby. It was Carvel Eaves. The note in Phoebe’s handwriting lay next to him.

 

 

 

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Little Girl Gone, by Margaret Fenton

LGGcoverTitle: Little Girl Gone

Genre: Mystery

Author: Margaret Fenton

Websitewww.margaretfenton.com

Find out more on Amazon

About the Book:

When Little Girl Gone opens, it’s September in Birmingham, Alabama, and Claire Conover is steeling herself. September—with its oppressive, unwelcome heat, back-to-school newness worn off, and skyrocketing reports of abuse and neglect—is a time of year Claire has come to dread.  As the crime rate increases, so increases the work load for Claire and the Jefferson County Department of Human Services Child Welfare Division. Seems this year is no exception.

When she takes into custody a 13-year-old girl found sleeping behind a grocery store, Claire is swept up in a case that turns out to be far more complicated, and far more dangerous, than initially meets the eye. Struggling to piece together the young girl’s identity, Claire finds herself with few answers and no shortage of questions.  Is the young girl a runaway?  An abuse victim?  Or something else?   But things go from bad to worse when the young girl’s mother is found murdered—and then the girl disappears.  Claire soon discovers that the mother was involved in an illegal gambling industry in Birmingham.  But even with this clue, the case becomes more complicated.  Could the young girl have pulled the trigger?  Is that even possible?  And where could she have run?  Did she run at all? In the midst of all the questions, only one thing is certain: Claire has to find the answers, and the girl, fast.

A swiftly paced, suspenseful, and shocking story, Little Girl Gone earns Margaret Fenton a solid spot among today’s best mystery writers.  Masterful plotting, extraordinary character development, and a pulse racer of a plot combine to create an extraordinary mystery resplendent with twists, turns, and surprises.  An unforgettable story informed by Fenton’s near decade of experience as a social worker, Little Girl Gone also shines a light on the plight of at risk children and the dedication of those tireless and compassionate workers who serve them.  A stellar entry into what Booklisthailed “a promising new series,” Little Girl Gone is mesmerizing.

About the Author:

Margaret Fenton grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and moved to Birmingham in 1996. She received her B.A. in English from the Newcomb College of Tulane University, and her Master of Social Work from Tulane. Fenton spent nearly ten years as a child and family therapist before taking a break to focus on her writing. Her work tends to reflect her interest in social causes and mental health, especially where kids are concerned. She serves as planning coordinator of Murder in the Magic City, a one-day, one-track annual mystery fan conference in Homewood, Alabama. She is President of the Birmingham Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of the Mystery Writers of America. Margaret lives in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover with her husband, a software developer.

Connect with the author on the web:

https://www.margaretfenton.com/

https://www.facebook.com/margaret.fenton

Chapter One

            I dread September every year.  The summer heat lingers, oppressive and unwelcome.  The kids in Birmingham have been back in school for two weeks, long enough for the excitement of new teachers, clothes, and school supplies to wear off.  Classes and homework have become things to be endured.  The lush green hills surrounding the city begin to fade to an unappealing dull brown, and it seems the crisp cool nights and the red and gold foliage of fall will never arrive.

Other typical late summer colors emerge, too.  Like the black and blue of bruises on a child’s legs, peeking out from under a pair of shorts at recess.  There’s the chalky complexion of the child who never gets enough to eat in the cafeteria, or the rusty skin of the one who never gets a bath.  Reports of abuse and neglect made by teachers skyrocket in September, swamping the Jefferson County Department of Human Services, Child Welfare Division, where I work.

To no one’s surprise the murder rate also spikes. The woman found in the ravine was the area’s forty-fifth homicide of the year.  I’d like to say the news of the poor woman’s death was more than mere background noise read by the perky morning anchor while I half-dried my hair in my usual scramble to get to work.  I’d like to say I paid attention.  Paused for reflection, a moment of silence, a prayer, anything.  But I didn’t.  It was Tuesday, the first of September, and another school year was well underway.  It was the busiest time of the year for me, and I was struggling every day just to keep my head above the flood of new investigations and everything that went with them.

I parked in the lot behind our downtown office at five to seven.  Russell, my cubicle-mate, trudged in ten minutes later.  As usual, his highlighted blond hair was still wet from the shower, his newspaper was tucked under his arm, and he clutched a cup of to-go coffee.

Russell and I are not morning people.  Both of us usually start out in a bad mood, but lately his had stretched into a day-long thing.  His boyfriend of nearly a year, Heinrich, moved back to Germany recently to be with his family.  They were trying to decide whether to maintain a long-distance relationship and Russell was miserable.  I was on the verge of placing a call to Munich and begging Heinrich to get on a plane back to Alabama.

I updated my To Do list for the day as Russell settled himself at his desk.  Every day he sipped his coffee, perused the paper, and read me little bits of news before he checked his voice and e-mail messages.

“You hear about the body they found?” he asked, skimming the front page.

“There was something about it on TV.  She was found in a drainage ditch or something?”

“Uh-huh.  Behind that fancy new golf resort they’re building in Homewood.”

“Russet Ridge?  Strange place for a body.”  The half-completed complex would feature a world-class golf course, five-star restaurants, and a hotel with a shopping area and a spa.  It was going up in one of Birmingham’s more affluent suburbs where murders weren’t supposed to happen.

“Yeah, it doesn’t sound like the usual stuff.”

The “usual stuff” was drugs and domestic violence.  They were two of the most common causes of death in Jefferson County.  And two of the most prevalent reasons why caseworkers like me and Russell took children into the State’s custody.

Russell continued reading.  “It says here she was shot in the head at close range.  Found by some kids out playing over the weekend.  Poor things.  If she was in the water in this heat for more than a day, even it was shallow–”

The bagel with cream cheese I’d wolfed down for breakfast suddenly lurched in my stomach.  “Russell, please.”

“What?”

“I don’t really want to hear the details.”

“I didn’t know you were squeamish.”

“Can I at least finish my first cup of coffee before we discuss decomposing bodies?”

“Sorry.  Anyway, your boy Kirk Mahoney wrote this story.”

At the mention of Kirk’s name, an uninvited image of his spiky black hair and blue eyes flashed into my mind.  I felt a strange tightening in my chest and a tingling sensation just in front of my left ear where he’d kissed me last.  I rubbed the spot, then tucked a strand of blonde shoulder length hair behind my ear.  “He’s not my boy.”

Kirk was anything but my boy.  More like my nemesis.  One who had dogged me relentlessly after the tragic death of one of my young clients this summer.  He’d turned out to be quite an ally, though, when it came to putting the pieces of that case together.  I hadn’t seen him in over a month.  “Besides, I have a boy, remember?  Grant.”

“Oh, right.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

Grant was my boyfriend.  As much as he could be.  We hadn’t seen much of each other lately due to my thirteen hour days and his computer firm being awarded a contract to outfit an entire new medical clinic.  Grant owned a company called High Tech, and they were installing all of the facility’s new PCs and other equipment.  We’d squeezed in a handful of dates in August before the days got so crowded.  Our relationship now consisted of a lot of sleepy late-night phone conversations.

I focused again on the list of tasks in front of me.  I prioritized it into things I had to get done today, things for tomorrow, and stuff I’d get to when I could.  Russell logged on to his computer, and I picked up the phone to arrange some IM’s with clients.  IM’s were intervention meetings, during which the caseworker and the clients worked toward addressing the problems that had led to the department’s involvement.  Strict guidelines dictated when they had to be done, and I was falling behind in scheduling them.

I was on my third phone call when Jessica, our unit secretary, appeared in the doorway of the cubicle.  In her hand was a thin brown folder.

“Claire.”

“Oh, no.  Come on.  You’re kidding, right?”

“Sorry.  You’re next on the assignment rotation.”  She said it with a smarmy smile.  Jessica was the type of person who enjoyed giving people bad news.  “Mac says tag, you’re it.”

Mac McAlister was my boss, the Unit Supervisor.  He and I have kind of a love-hate relationship.  Okay, maybe not that strong.  More of a like-dislike relationship.  His somewhat tepid support of me after my client’s death in June still rankled.  I had no doubt that if that case had gotten any uglier, he would have thrown me under the bus.

“Damn,” I muttered, and held out my hand for the file.

“He’ll be by in a minute to give you the rundown.”

“Thanks so much.”

“No problem,” she called as she walked back to her desk.

I could feel stress tightening my shoulders.  Mac entered the cubicle and leaned his own beefy shoulder on the filing cabinet.  His ring of white hair needed a trim, and his out-of-style tie hung inches too short.  He fingered the cigar in his pocket, no doubt longing for the good old days when he could light up at his desk.  I picked up the folder Jessica had brought me and read the highlights while he talked.

“One of the Homewood police officers found her sleeping under a cardboard box behind the Piggly Wiggly on Highway 31.  They thought for a second they had another body on their hands. The reporting officer, Mary Nobles, thinks she’s about thirteen.  The girl won’t give her name or address.”

“Runaway?”

“That’d be my guess.  Or a throwaway.  That’s all I know for now.  Go over to Homewood and pick her up, get her something to eat and see what you can do with her.”

“Wonderful.  I suppose HPD can’t be bothered to bring her here?”

“I didn’t feel like arguing about it.  They said they were busy.”

“Like I’m not?”

“Touch base with me after you get her some breakfast.”

“Okay.”

I kissed my plans for the day goodbye and gathered my purse and briefcase.  I drove my aging white Honda Civic to Third Avenue North and made my way to the Red Mountain Expressway.  The morning commute traffic was at its peak, but I was headed south out of the city so it didn’t slow me down.  I took the expressway and within ten minutes pulled up to the square, beige-bricked police department headquarters.

I checked in with the officer at the desk, and as I was signing in I heard a familiar voice.

“Well, hey there, Miss Conover.”

I looked up from the sheet to see an officer enter from the back of the station.  He was in uniform, his gun dangling from his right hip.

“Oh, hi, Officer Ford.”

“Chip, please.”

“Chip,” I repeated with a nod.  Chip and I had worked together on a couple of pickup orders, taking kids into custody.  He loved his job as a cop, worshiped his badge, and probably slept with a loaded gun under his pillow.  He was a big ball of us-against-the-scum-the-earth, Dirty-Harry-movie fueled testosterone.  I couldn’t stand him.

Chip ran a hand over his dark blond high-and-tight.  “You here for the girl?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s in the break room.  I’ll take you back.”

I clipped a temporary pass to the pink and white lanyard around my neck that held my DHS ID and entered the back of the station with Chip leading the way.  “She’s not real talkative,” he said.

“So I hear.”

“Mary’s one of our best officers and she hasn’t been able to get jack out of her.  I told the girl that if somebody had messed with her, all she had to do was tell me and I’d take care of him. Put him under the goddamn jail, you know what I mean?”

I winced in frustration.  Chip had just made my job a hell of a lot harder.  If this girl was a victim of sexual abuse, the last thing in the world I wanted him to talk about was what could happen to the perpetrator.  First, prosecution in most cases was unlikely, and second, most kids didn’t want the abuser to go jail, especially if it was a loved one.  For many kids the thought of putting daddy or uncle in prison was too much to bear, no matter what he’d done.  I needed to figure out what had happened first, make sure she was safe, and let justice sort itself out later.

A small room off the narrow hallway held two tables and a couple of vending machines. An old color TV was perched on top of a humming refrigerator.  A fluffy morning talk show played with the volume muted.

A uniformed black policewoman sat in silence at one of the tables, writing on a thick clipboard, next to a teenaged girl.  The girl had an open can of Diet Coke in front of her.  Standing in the doorway of the break room, I got my first look at my new charge.

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘The Bronx Kill’ by Philip Cioffari

CioffariCoverColorTitle: THE BRONX KILL

Genre:  Suspense/Literary

Author: Philip Cioffari

Websitewww.philipcioffari.com

Publisher: Livingston Press

Find out more on Amazon

When Danny Baker returns home after a self-imposed exile, he finds himself face to face with what he’d run away from. On a hot August night five years earlier, a teenage brotherhood called the Renegades—Danny, Charlie Romano, Johnny Whalen, Tim Mooney and Julianne Regan, the lone female of the group with whom they were all in love—set out on a misguided and ill-fated effort to swim the East River from the Bronx to Queens. Under questionable circumstances, Tim Mooney, known affectionately as Timmy Moon, and Julianne both disappear in the failed attempt. Timmy washes up the next day, but Julianne’s body is never found. In the initial police investigation, the apparent drownings were ruled “accidental.” But Timmy’s older brother, Tom, has recently been promoted to the rank of detective in the NYPD—and he’s decided to re-open the case. Convinced that the death of his brother was anything but an accident, he’s determined to bring the surviving Renegades to justice by any means possible.  Now Danny must fight not only to preserve his childhood friendships but also to save himself and his friends from the detective’s vigilante brand of justice.  And that will mean having to confront the truth about what really happened on that hot August night…

With its richly-developed characters and seductive, suspenseful storyline, The Bronx Kill is a thoughtful, thought-provoking, exquisitely crafted tale.  Gritty, dark, and ominous, The Bronx Kill is an intense character-driven thriller that plunges readers headfirst into the mean streets of the Bronx. With characters that come alive within the novel’s pages, a plot that draws readers in from page one, and its poignant exploration of such universal themes of friendship, loyalty, loss, and redemption, The Bronx Kill is destined to stay with readers long after the final page is turned.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

phil in b&W

Philip Cioffari is the author of the novels: DARK ROAD, DEAD END; JESUSVILLE;  CATHOLIC BOYS; and the short story collection, A HISTORY OF THINGS LOST OR BROKEN, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His latest novel is THE BRONX KILL (Livingston Press, 2017). His short stories have been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies, including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He has written and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His Indie feature film, which he wrote and directed, LOVE IN THE AGE OF DION, has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is a Professor of English, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at William Paterson University. www.philipcioffari.com

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Categories: literary fiction, Suspense, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter Reveal: Echoes of Terror, by Maris Soule

EchoesOfTerrorFrontTitle: Echoes of Terror

Author: Maris Soule

Genre: Mystery

Publisher: Five Star

Websitehttp://marissoule.com 

Find out more on Amazon

The latest release by award-winning novelist Maris Soule, Echoes of Terror is a taut, tense tale about secrets, deadly intentions, and what happens when murder hits way too close to home.   Set against the backdrop of Skagway, Alaska,Echoes of Terror introduces protagonist Katherine Ward, a Skagway police officer who finds herself thrust in extraordinary—and extraordinarily frightening–circumstances when her past, present and future threaten to collide in a most dangerous way.

About Echoes of Terror:  Rural Skagway, Alaska’s small police force is accustomed to an occasional crime–a stolen bike here, a DUI there.  But when a teenager goes missing, the Skagway Police force is hardly prepared, especially with its Police Chief  in the hospital and an officer missing. Officer Katherine Ward is assigned the case, never expecting it to parallel her own kidnapping experience seventeen years earlier.  Soon, Katherine realizes what originally appeared to be the case of a rebellious teen runaway is anything but.  There’s something—or someone—sinister at work in this usually quiet town and a teenager’s life is in danger.

But missing teen Misty Morgan isn’t your average teenage girl:  she’s the daughter of a billionaire.  Misty thought running off with a college boy would get her father’s attention, but now she and another kidnapped teen are praying for their lives at the hands of a ruthless kidnapper. Stuck in China on a business trip, Misty’s father suspected his daughter was up to something and asked his longtime friend, Marine veteran Vince Nanini, to fly to Alaska and stop Misty. Problem is, Vince arrives too late to stop the kidnapping, and the police aren’t eager to let him help find the missing teen.

When Katherine realizes the same man who kidnapped and raped her years ago is the one holding Misty and the other teenager, the terror of those months in captivity resurfaces.  Together, Katherine and Vince must figure out where the kidnapper has taken two teenagers, and fast.  But nothing is at it seems in this race to stop a madman before he kills again. The clock is ticking—and this time, the past is close behind. Dangerously close behind…

Brimming with tension, filled with twists and turns, and resplendent with pulse-quickening suspense that reaches a dramatic and shocking crescendo, Echoes of Terror is a bone-chilling tale that grabs readers and doesn’t let go. Award-winning novelist Maris Soule delivers a briskly paced, masterfully plotted, spine-tinglingly realistic thriller that will leave readers gasping for breath.

According to bestselling novelist Libby Fischer Hellmann, author of the Ellie Foreman mystery series, “The pace and writing will keep you turning pages. And the twist at the end?  I didn’t see if coming. Do yourself a favor and read this thriller now.”

CHAPTER ONE

7:25 a.m. Thursday

“That guy is a frickin’ idiot.”

“Who’s an idiot?”

Brian Bane glanced at the girl sitting next to him before again splitting his attention between the twisting road in front of his Chevy Blazer and the tailgating Ford Explorer. On their right the roadway dropped over a thousand feet. As much as he liked excitement, this Internet-born adventure was not starting out as he’d imagined.

“The guy behind us,” he said, keeping a tight hold on the steering wheel. “He came up out of nowhere. Now he’s all over my ass. Like there’s any way for me to go faster up this grade.”

Misty—or Miss T as she was known on ChatPlace—twisted in her seat to look behind them. Her wild, blonde curls brushed her shoulders, and her mini-skirt showed a teasing view of her inner thigh. “Shit,” she hissed through her teeth.

“What?” Brian said.

“He sent Vince.”

“Who sent Vince?”

“My dad.”

“Your dad?” Brain didn’t like the sound of that. “So who’s Vince?”

“He’s a guy Dad knew in the Marines. He’s supposed to do computer security for my dad’s business, but he keeps acting like he’s my bodyguard. I can’t do a frickin’ thing without him showing up.”

She flopped back against the seat, and crossed her arms over her chest. The fact that her old man had sent someone after her, and the way she was pouting, didn’t bode well. For the first time since he’d picked Misty up in Skagway, Brian wasn’t so certain she was the eighteen years she’d advertised.

“How old are you, Misty? Your real age, I mean.”

She glared at him, and then looked away. “Age is meaningless.”

Meaningless, my ass, he thought. Damn, I’m so screwed. He was about to take an under-aged girl into Canada. No wonder some steroid filled ex-Marine with an over attachment to the boss’s daughter was after him. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t arrested as an International felon.

“Do you think—?”

A thump to the back corner bumper sent the Blazer into a fishtail, and Brian gasped, clinging to the steering wheel as he fought to bring the car back under control. “Jeez, Misty, your dad’s buddy just rammed us.”

“Then step on the gas,” Misty ordered, giving a quick glance behind them. “Outrun him.”

“In this thing?” The old Blazer was tired iron. The first part of the Klondike Highway, from Skagway to White Pass and the Canadian line, was a twisting, turning two-laner that rose from sea level to over three thousand feet. The steep incline was already taxing the engine. They’d be lucky to outrun a snowplow through this stretch.

Again the Explorer rammed into them, this time lurching them straight toward the guardrail as the road turned. Misty yelped and grabbed at the door. Brian swung the wheel. The sensation of the front right fender grating on metal vibrated through the steering column. When they came out of the turn, the Explorer was nearly side by side.

“Your dad’s buddy is nuts! He’s going to kill us.”

“Just go faster!”

“I’m going as fast as I can.”

The powerful Explorer began squeezing them closer to the guardrail. Jaw clenched and muscles taut, Brian struggled to keep his SUV on the pavement. Adrenalin pumped through his body, a bitter taste rising to his throat.

And then his heart nearly stopped.

Just a few hundred feet ahead, the guardrail turned into a twisted, jagged strip of metal that hung limply to the ground. Open air replaced protection. One bump from the Explorer as they passed that broken section of guardrail, and they’d definitely be going over the edge, tumbling down the mountainside.

“That’s it, Babe.”

Brian pulled his foot from the gas and began to brake.

“What are you doing? Don’t slow down!”

“Forget it,” he said in disgust. Man, his friends had been right about this whole hooking up online thing. They’d tried to talk him out of it, but all Brian had been seeing was a summer traveling through Canada with a hot chick. Instead of lots of sex and partying, after this ex-Marine got through with him, he’d be lucky if all of his body parts were intact.

Brian brought the Blazer to a complete stop, his entire body shaking. The Explorer angled in front of him, preventing a forward escape. With a sigh, Brian shifted into park, and then turned toward Misty—the beautiful, sexy Miss T.

The beautiful, sexy, under-aged, Miss T, he mentally corrected. “Wouldn’t you know I’d hook up with jailbait.”

She glared at him. “So it didn’t work out. Stop whining. Vince isn’t going to do anything to you.”

“Oh yeah?” Brian sure hoped that was true. “So, what was this, just a little joy ride for you?”

“What it was is none of your business.” Once again she looked away, out the side window.

Brian stared at her for a second, kicking himself for being such an idiot, then he stepped out of the car. As he looked toward the Explorer, he wondered if he should act angry—after all, Misty had duped him. Or guilty—because he should have known she was under-age.

The other car door began to open, and Brian called out, “Listen, man, I had no idea she was—” He broke off as the man straightened and faced him. He almost laughed when he saw the bear mask . . .

Then he saw the gun.

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MarisSoule2015

Acclaimed novelist Maris Soule is a two time RITA finalist who has won numerous awards for her novels over the last three decades. Born and raised in California, Maris majored in art at U.C. Davis and taught art for 8 years before retiring to raise a family. Maris and her husband divide their time between Michigan and Florida. Echoes of Terror is her 30th book.  Visit Maris Soule online at: www.marissoule.com

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

All That Glitters, by Liza Treviño

Title: All That Glitters – A
Tale of Sex, Drugs and Hollywood Dreams
Author: Liza Treviño
Genre: Women’s Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Koehler Books
Published Date: March 1, 2017
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1633933083
ISBN-13: 978-1633933088

Book Links:

Synopsis:
Alexandria Moreno—clever, sexy, ambitious and, at times, self-destructive. She blazes a path from Texas to Los Angeles at the dawn of the 1980s to make her dreams of becoming an A-list Hollywood film director come true. She and her best friend arrive in Los Angeles with little more than hope and the determination to make it big. Alex, a beauty as dark and mysterious as her scarred heart, stands at the bottom of the Hollywood mountain looking up, fighting for her chance to climb to the top. Will her quest to live fast and take no prisoners on her way to success destroy her in the end?

All That Glitters is a women’s fiction Jackie Collins-type saga that introduces a strong, driven Latina heroine at the center of a rags-to-riches story spanning a decade of action. Along the way, Alexandria walks the fine line separating ambition and self-destruction, and discovers that some sacrifices will cost her everything.

What early readers are saying:

“Treviño tells her story with wit, intelligence, and an undercurrent of sadness at the plight women face to make a name for themselves as human beings instead of strictly as women. Treviño may have cloaked her ideas in entertaining vignettes and snappy dialogue, but underneath is a bite that stays with you.”
— Jonathan Marcantoni, author and publisher of La Casita Grande Press.

“Liza has a way of taking you with her as she tells this very compelling story. She draws readers in with her as she describes scenes and characters with colorful detail and vivid imagination. This story is a testament to it’s title: it really glitters!”
—Reesha Goral, author, The Servant Boy

“With distant echoes of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls in the background, Alexandria Moreno, the protagonist of All that Glitters, chases after the allure of Hollywood, all the time substituting pills, booze and sex for genuine happiness. It is only after she reaches success that she has an awakening leading her to realize the emptiness of her aspiration, and finally accepting true love. Kudos to Liza Treviño for giving us this unique image of the New Latina! I urge reading All that Glitters. You won’t regret it.”

—Graciela Limón, author

Read an Excerpt:

Los Angeles
Oscar Night, 1990

When did things start going wrong?
Alexandria Moreno gulped another swig of champagne from the bottle. She picked at its broken gold foil. It was the same stuff she used to buy back in the days when spending more than ten dollars on bubbly was an extravagance. Now she sat in the best limo money could buy, inching along the craggy hillside road waiting for her turn to put in an appearance at the first of many scheduled post-Oscar parties. She was obligated to dole out heartfelt hugs and kisses to any of the beautiful people who might want one. Tonight, everyone was going to want a piece of her. She was the girl of the hour.
Until recently, Moreno had been an unknown writer-producer. She rocked Hollywood, winning Academy Awards for Best Director and Original Screenplay for the lushly violent, low-budget film, Win or Lose. Moreno, widely considered a dark horse contestant in the Oscar race, was the first Hispanic woman to be nominated, and win.
Two golden statues for writing and directing lay on the limo’s floor and the vehicle glided to the top of Hollywood’s heights. Beyond the winding canyon road, the Los Angeles electrified grid shimmered like Moreno’s own personal cauldron of gold. She understood that more than just a movie had won tonight.
She had won.
So why doesn’t it feel better?
Why don’t I feel better?
Despite everything she’d done to reach this moment of glory, Alex understood that none of it mattered. Not one bit. No matter what happened to her, she was still alone and drinking the same convenience-store champagne.
“Want some of this blow, babe?” Nick sniffed and dropped his head back with a slight shake, giving the chemicals a little jumpstart in the brain he liked to say.
“No thanks,” she said, “I don’t want to mix tonight.” Alex turned her attention from the scrubby hillside to handsome Nick Sirianni sitting across from her, casually relaxed in his Armani tuxedo. Though he favored stiff Wall Street suits, Nick was always casually relaxed due to the fact that he was worth millions from a Hollywood Midas touch.
Alex heard Leonard Cohen’s gravel-rubbed, breathless voice floating faintly through the air, crooning his patented melancholy love proclamations, and she couldn’t help but let her eyes wander along Nick’s impeccably tailored suit. Her hands absently grazed the familiar bluish-purple marks on her wrists currently hidden under make-up.
Nick’s thin lips curled into a slow, understanding grin. “Fine, but I have some X for later, and I don’t care what you’ve taken already,” he said in a tone Alex had learned not to question. “I’ve got plans for you, babe.”
“I guess it’s gonna be a long night.”
“The longest ever.”
Alex could tell he had taken off. She absently twirled a lock of her black, shoulder-length hair.
“Hey,” Nick nudged her leg with his polished leather dress shoe, “let me see.”
“Not right now.”
“I’m not asking, Alley Cat. Let me see. And do it right.”
Alex locked eyes with him, but she relented.
She found the fold of her straight wraparound skirt of crepe and beading that draped to the floor. She peeled it back and uncrossed her legs beneath the gown, giving Nick a peek-a-boo of her
narrow ankle and high-heeled foot. She loosened her knees, proving to Nick she’d followed his instructions.
Nick looked her over and loosened his collar.
“Good girl,” Nick said and shifted toward her, the leather seat creaking beneath him. He knelt between her legs and softly traced the length of her pale grey stocking from her shoe, along her leg, up to the matching garter, and over her supple brown thigh exposed between the garter and its straps. Nick kissed her just above where the stockings ended. He breathed in deeply and peered up to her.
“I gotta have a taste, baby,” he said and dipped his handsome face between her thighs.
Alex sighed and sank back into her seat.
How did things get so out of control? Isn’t tonight supposed to be everything I’ve worked for? Everything I’ve sacrificed for? Or, what I’ve sacrificed everyone for?
Alex knew she had purposely cut off anyone who had the misfortune of ever giving a damn about her. And there were such people.
It certainly wasn’t Nick. She’d made her deal with this particular devil nearly a year ago. Things between them were comfortably tawdry. Nick owned her. She knew it. He knew it. They had an understanding.
A flicker nudged her: so many things that could have been. She took another swig of champagne, letting the alcohol’s fizz and burn push everything back into the darkness.
Alex registered Nick’s velvet tongue expertly stroking her crevices, and she couldn’t help but give him all the access he wanted. She felt him smile when she dropped her head back and settled deeper into the limo’s bench. The car halted forward and the lazy, swaying sax turned up the tension in Cohen’s sonic plea for love.
Alex peered beyond the cracked sunroof, searching the starless LA sky for some answers. A corner of the tinted sunroof caught her faint reflection and she saw a vacant-eyed, thirty two-year-old wasted stranger. She’d never known herself less than at this moment. Her passion for work was burned out and, even tonight, she couldn’t muster excitement. Now, everything was just a game requiring too much effort.
She shut her eyes tight and sucked in air sharply, breathing in the car’s mixture of broken-in leather and artificial lemon scents. She clasped at Nick’s broad shoulder, wringing the expensive jacket sleeve as if it were nothing more than a cheap cocktail napkin. After a moment, she relaxed.
Nick brushed a sweet kiss on her inner thigh before he returned the thin black crepe material of her skirt to its full length. He slid back to his seat across from her and smoothed his hair back.
“Damn, you taste good, honey.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“We’re next in line, ma’am,” the chauffeur’s voice crackled through the intercom. The limo moved into place with a definite stop.
Nick grinned. “It’s show time, Alley Cat.”
The cool night air took Alex by surprise as she waded into the sea of people and flashing cameras. She staggered, unsure she could move.
“One foot in front of the other,” Nick said in his soft voice through her hair. “I’ll get you a drink once we get inside.”
Alex smiled serenely and nodded. She focused on the live band somewhere in the distance belting out a Sinatra standard. Her eyes found the majestic Griffith Observatory looming in the distance, hovering above the white party tents.
Inside, the camera flashes kept coming.
“And here we are,” Nick offered as he swiped a couple of champagne flutes from a roving waiter’s tray. “This should get ya right, babe.”
Alex took the glass automatically. Another bulb flashed near her and she saw blue sprinkles. She regained focus quickly, but then her stomach dropped. Across the room was the last person she wanted to see.

◊◊◊

Jamie Douglas stood out in any crowd. Angular looks punctuated by oceanic blue eyes, a naturally lean athleticism, and down-to-earth boyishness had made him a reigning movie star around the world for almost twenty years. And right now, Alex saw Jamie’s eyes find hers through the crowd. When they caught each other, a flash sparked between them like one of those popping camera bulbs. Jamie’s surprised look gave way to a lopsided grin; it was a look so familiar to her.
Alex registered Nick snake his arm around her thin waist and she broke her gaze from Jamie.
“Okay, Alley Cat, time for our victory lap.”
“Perfect timing,” she said.
Timing—everything always came down to timing. It seemed to her that her timing had always been off. Not crazy off, just that extra millisecond that pushed everything either too early or too late. And now, she understood that it was too late.
Suddenly, she couldn’t bear to go through with the whole charade of tonight. Maybe, she couldn’t even bear to go through with the whole charade of her life any longer. Just leave, a soft voice whispered inside her head. There’s nothing written you have to stick around. It’s practically programmed into your DNA that you’ll be checking out of this world early.
All at once, Alex understood that simple fact. She, Alex Moreno, would leave Los Angeles tonight as anonymously as she had arrived nearly a decade earlier. She knew that wasn’t an entirely accurate account of how she’d started.
Now I’m alone, and that’s just how I knew things would always turn out.

Author Bio:

Liza Treviño hails from Texas, spending many of her formative years on the I-35 corridor of San Antonio, Austin and Dallas.  In pursuit of adventure and a Ph.D., Liza moved to Los Angeles where she compiled a collection of short-term, low-level Hollywood jobs like script girl, producer assistant and production assistant.  Her time as a Hollywood Jane-of-all-trades gave her an insider’s view to a world most only see from the outside, providing the inspiration for creating a new breed of Latina heroine.

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Chapter reveal: WHITE WITH FISH, RED WITH MURDER, by Harley Mazuk

WhiteFish_RedMurder Final.jpgTitle: WHITE WITH FISH, RED WITH MURDER

Genre: Mystery

Author: Harley Mazuk

Website: www.harleymazuk.com

Publisher: Driven Press

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

P.I. Frank Swiver accepts an invitation from a wealthy connoisseur to attend a wine tasting on a private rail car. The host, General Lloyd Thursby, entices Frank with an offer of much-needed work, and the other guests with the promise of a pour of a rare California wine, Ravensridge Blackbird Noir.  On board, Frank, accompanied by his secretary and lover Vera Peregrino, finds an old flame, the recently widowed Cicilia O’Callaghan, among the guests.  It turns out that Thursby wants Frank to investigate the murder of his good friend, Rusty O’Callaghan, Cicilia’s late husband.  But all does not go as planned:  General Thursby is murdered before the wine tasting has even begun. Locked into the private carriage and steaming north from San Francisco, the guests proceed to pull some corks and theorize who among them could be the killer. The cops arrest Vera for Thursby’s murder and while she languishes in her cell, Frank’s renewed affair with Cici heats up.  But another murder follows and Frank realizes that his romance with Cici is poisonous.  He’ll have to change his perceptions and find the real killer—or lose both Cici and Vera…and maybe even his life.

 

EXCERPT:

A few lights were on in the lounge; I could see burgundy wallpaper with dark wood trim. To my right were two dining tables, each with four seats, and on the left an upright piano with a light oak finish. Beyond that, a group of folks sat in the far end of the car. I led Vera partway down, until the man facing us spoke.

“Ah, you must be Frank Swiver,” he said.

“I am, and this is Vera Peregrino.” There were nods and greetings, and the man who had spoken rose. I strode across to shake his hand.

“Lloyd Thursby,” he said. He was an older gent with gray hair and clear, alert blue eyes. He wore a camel hair topcoat draped on his shoulders like a cape, over a dark brown, well-cut suit. He stood a couple of inches taller than me, maybe six foot two, and he carried himself ramrod straight, so he appeared even taller. I had the idea he was fit and powerful for his age. “This is my majordomo,” he gestured at a man standing near the rear corridor of the train car, “Fenwick.” He was younger and three or four inches shorter than Thursby.

Fenwick stepped forward. “I’ll take your bags, sir.”

I gave him my duffel and Vera’s suitcase, and when he reached out his arms to take them, his sleeves slid up, revealing thick, dark hair on the backs of his wrists and hands. He carried the luggage into the corridor, and his wrists stayed down out of his sleeves making his arms appear long and apelike.

General Thursby held out his left hand toward a dame in a chair on my right. “This is Sally DeBains.” She was well dressed and well coiffed, fiftyish, and blond—though I suspected the hair color came out of a bottle.

“How do you do?” she said. She had plenty of ice on her fingers, and I clasped the hand she extended and gave it a light kiss. I thought about biting one of the rings, but she didn’t strike me as a big Three Stooges fan.

“I’m well, thanks,” I replied. “How do you do?” More jewelry drooped around her neck, and she obviously had gained a couple of pounds as she aged. She may have been shaking her maracas a bit lower than she used to, but she had probably been a hot number twenty years ago. For my money, she was still hot enough.

Thursby stepped back toward his chair and extended his right hand. “Over here, allow me to present Marcus Aurelius Wolff, our philosopher, and a fellow collector.”

Wolff was a huge, fat man, whose bulk blocked much of the light from the window behind him. His three-piece charcoal  pinstriped suit oozed polish and quality, and he held a pearl-gray hat in his lap. Although it was cool, and I still had my trench coat on, the fat man was perspiring. He beamed and drew a silk hanky out of his breast pocket, then wiped his bald head.

“An honor, sir, an honor to meet you,” said Wolff.

I assured him the honor was all mine. “A collector of what?” I asked.

“Why wine, Swiver, wine, of course.” Thursby laughed. “That’s what brings our little group together, you know. We taste wine, we savor it, we debate about it.”

“And what do you do, sir?” Wolff asked me.

“I drink it.” I gave him a grin.

Thursby stepped in. “Frank is a writer working on my biography.” Writer was as good as anything. General Thursby had enclosed a hand-written note with his invitation:

 

Swiver,

 

I hear you know a little about wine, but that’s not the only reason I’m inviting you to my tasting. I’d like to hire you. I’ll brief you about the job on the train. You can bring another operative if you like. Make it look as if you’re along for the party—I don’t want to tip my hand. Whether you take the case or not, I’ll pay you for your time and you’ll get to taste some good wines.

 

Thursby

 

That was all I knew; it wasn’t much, but it was enough to get me there. I hadn’t had a case for weeks, other than the contract work at the hotel, and I needed the money. He didn’t want to tip his hand. I would play along.

“Miss Peregrino is my research assistant,” I said. Vera smiled.

And so we circulated around the room and met the guests, and Vera and I shook hands like a couple of politicians at the Orange County Fair.

And then as the introductions were coming to an end, I saw her, to my left, by the piano. A short black dress, low cut, raven-dark hair, emerald eyes that almost glowed, over robust cheekbones—it was Cicilia Ricci, girl of my dreams.

“And last, this is Cicilia O’Callaghan,” the general went on. “Cicilia—”

“We’ve met.” A chill ran up my spine.

“Hello, Frank. It’s been a while.”

“Fourteen years. You look good, Cicilia.” The widow O’Callaghan, formerly Cicilia Ricci. Her hair was cut a little shorter than when I knew her—wavy on top, parted in the middle, and falling down to her shoulder blades in curls. Her dark eyebrows curved high over her big eyes in graceful roman arches. She’d been seventeen when I met her; she’d be thirty-two now. No longer a budding teenager but a woman in her prime, and more ravishing than ever, if that was possible.

“You look well too, Frank.” Her voice was deep, smoky, seductive. It was Cici’s normal voice.

I shook another Pall Mall out of the pack and fumbled with a box of wooden matches like a nine-year-old trying to light up in the schoolyard. “Having a little trouble, Frank?” Vera noticed. She tilted her head down and to her right, and angled an eye up at me, amused. She relieved me of the matches, struck one and held it out, steadying my hand as I lit up.

C’mon, Swiver, get a grip on yourself. You’re on a case. I clenched and unclenched my fists, and turned away from Cicilia to face the general.

 

 

 

WhiteFish_RedMurder Final.jpg

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Chapter reveal: Changing Faces, by Barb Caffrey

portrait in gardenTitle: CHANGING FACES

Genre: transgender fantasy-romance (contemporary)

Author: Barb Caffrey

Website: http://elfyverse.wordpress.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1

Picture this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, but does he know that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life was good.

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

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

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

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

“And I can’t go to her,” I put in.

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

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

Elaine touched my hand, and was gone.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why the flower in your hair?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Show me the outfit,” I told her.

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

“Put it on, and let’s see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“Such beauty,” Elaine breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a yes,” she murmured. “But…”

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

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

* * *

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

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

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The Right Wrong Number, by Jim Nesbitt

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

Genre: Mystery

Author: Jim Nesbitt

Website:  www.jimnesbitthardboiledbooks.com

Publisher: Spotted Mule Press

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

About the Book:  

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

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

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

 

THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER 

An Ed Earl Burch Novel

 

 

ONE 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Talk to me.”

“Where the hell are you?”

“You don’t want me to say.”

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

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

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

“Ten.”

“Get there.”

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

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

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

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

“Wanna cut the lights, guy?”

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

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

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

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

“Numbers it is, guy.”

He stepped away from the car.

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

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

“Looks good to me.”

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

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

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

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

“Cut those damn lights. Secure the money.”

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

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

“Got it. Who’d this guy piss off?”

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

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

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

“Does it matter?”

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

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

“Bill!”

“Yo!”

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

“Yo.”

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

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

“Jack — hook up those cables, guy.”

“Jesus.”

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

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

Again. Again the smell.

And again. Clamps to Jack. Engine off.

“Bill. The acid, guy.”

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

“Careful with that, guy. Dump it.”

“Yo.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus, Louis.”

“What?”

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

“They are, guy. They are.”

“Whadja have to do it for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

NASHVILLE: Music and Murder, by Tom Carter

cover-low-resTitle:  NASHVILLE:  Music and Murder

Genre: Mystery

Author: Tom Carter

Website: http://www.authortomcarter.com

Find out more on Amazon

About the Book:

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author: 

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

Connect with the author on the Web:

http://www.authortomcarter.com/

https://www.facebook.com/authortomcarter

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

into blistering ecstasy as the lights began to  fade.

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

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

Or so they thought.

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

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

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

you might miss!”

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

Then she appeared.

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

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

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

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

Like a perfect target.

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

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

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

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

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

She needs . . . me.”

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

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

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

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

But he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guard continued to  wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the crowd like blessings from Walmart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they saw the fallen Maci.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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