Tag Archives: suspense

Profile: Donna Galanti, Author of ‘A Human Element’

Donna Galanti writes murder and mystery as well as middle grade adventure fiction. She is an International Thriller Writers Debut Author of the paranormal suspense novel A Human Element, the short story collection The Dark Inside, and the forthcoming Joshua and The Lightning Road.

Galanti, Donna 2An avid reader as a child, Galanti grew up in a nurturing environment, immersed in books such as The Hobbit,Little House in the Big Woods,The Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of The Mountain, Call of the Wild andWhite Fang. “My favorite author was Roald Dahl and my favorite book of his was Danny the Champion of the World,” says Galanti, whose dark imagination ran wild from the start.

From her early years in England to her later work in Hawaii as a U.S. Navy photographer, Galanti always dreamed of becoming an author. She wrote her first murder mystery screenplay at the tender age of seven. She had a career in writing for marketing and communications and ran her own resume writing service, but it wasn’t until her mother died five years ago that she began writing novels out of her grief. Eventually, that grief turned to peace, when she fully realized what it was she truly loved to do: becoming a storyteller. In addition to being a full-time author, Galanti also works part time as a freelance copywriter for an advertising agency.

“I write from the dark side with a glimpse of hope. I am drawn to writing the hero’s journey – more so the tormented hero, and tormented villain. I enjoy creating empathy for both by blurring the lines between good and evil,” states the author, whose first two books in The Element Trilogy, A Human Element and A Hidden Element (Imajin Books, August 2014) are both full of murder and mystery with a dash of steam, and both have their own tormented hero and villain. “I slay my own demons through my writing – and I highly recommend it!” she says.

A Human Element, just released by Imajin Books, is the thrilling, unrelenting page-turner story of Laura Armstrong. Her friends and family members are being murdered and, despite her unique healing powers, she can do nothing to stop it. Determined to find the killer, she follows her visions to the site of a crashed meteorite in her hometown, where she eventually unravels a terrifying secret that binds her to the killer.

The book has already garnered excellent praise from New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry and international bestselling author M.J. Rose.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00067]Galanti lives in an old farmhouse – sadly, with no ghosts – with many fireplaces where she often curls up to create her page-turners. Other times she works in her office overlooking the woods. Throughout the year she meets weekly with a women’s writing group at a café where they write together and share advice and their success stories.

“When I am creating a new book I love to sit outdoors overlooking the woods with a pen and notebook and handwrite my ideas. My thoughts are slowed down this way as my brain connects to pen in hand, and it opens my mind up to brainstorm,” says the author, describing her creative process. “There is nothing more freeing creatively to journal story ideas and throw all sorts of ‘what if?’ questions out there to find the kernel of a good story you want to pursue. Then I create character worksheets and type up a ten page synopsis of the book. I do all this before I write that first word of the story. And I always create a title first! It’s what drives my inspiration for the story.”

Galanti began writing A Human Element seventeen years ago from a vision she had while driving to work one day. She wrote two chapters and shelved them for over a decade. When she finally decided to continue the story, she wrote Monday through Friday from 4:30am to 6:30am. After seven months she typed THE END.

All writers have their stronger and weaker points, and for this author, revision is her favorite process. That’s where she can make her story shine. “Knowing how important this process is has been one of my strong points,” she says. “There are many layers to a story to be found after you write that first draft, and that’s what I love to do: peel back the layers.” One area she struggled in for a long time was to slow down her writing. She can be a very fast writer, creating pages and pages of words that often would need to be trimmed down. She has since then learned to slow down her writing and craft her words with care as she writes them, so she doesn’t have to spend so much time on revision.

In an era when small presses, the good, the bad and the ugly, abound, Galanti’s experience has been nothing but positive. “My experience with Imajin Books has been amazing!” she says of her Canadian-based publisher. “Imajin Books is dedicated to working with me to help my books succeed. The owner, Cheryl Kaye Tardif, is a bestselling author in her own right.” Imajin Books was very responsive and provided in-depth editorial guidance as well as marketing plans, not to mention fantastic book cover designs. The publishing industry is notorious for being slow-moving, but in the case of The Element Trilogy, Imajin Books made the process quick and efficient.

As with many authors, Galanti finds starting a new book most challenging. The first blank page can be a scary thing, until the story takes over, propelling your main character into his new unbalanced world toward the ultimate end. However, being an author can be extremely rewarding. “When it comes to readers, there is nothing more thrilling than reading wonderful reviews about your book that you spent months, or years, creating and shaping,” she says. “It’s from that private place in your heart, where you love the most – and hurt the most – that you pour out pages to show the world. And it’s all worthwhile when you discover that others have been touched by your story, just as you were touched while you were writing it. Second, it’s rewarding to pay it forward to up-and-coming authors. There is a wonderful feeling that comes from speaking to writers about your publishing journey and sharing advice and techniques on how to find success as an author, and hope that they do.”

Galanti is currently working on the idea for the third and final book in The Element Trilogy called, A Healing Element, and gearing up to release book 2, A Hidden Element, on August 28th. A native of upstate New York, the author now lives in Southeastern Pennsylvania with her family in an old farmhouse. It has lots of writing nooks, fireplaces, and stink bugs, but she’s still wishing for a castle—preferably with ghosts.

Connect with the author on Facebook Twitter and her Blog.

This profile was originally published in Blogcritics

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The Lords of Hanrahan by Darrell Tooker Book Blast – Win a $25 Amazon Gift Card!

ABOUT THE LORDS OF HANRAHAN


The-Lords-of-Hanrahan-200x300Title:
 The Lords of Hanrahan

Genre: Paranormal/Suspense

Author: Darrell Tooker

Publisher: iUniverse

Pages: 364

Language: English

Format: Ebook

Rumors circulate that the old McPherson place a couple of miles outside of Framingham, Connecticut, is haunted. But one summer day, fourteen-year-old Laura Mueller and her three friends summon the courage to go there. Just because old man McPherson committed suicide there a couple of years ago at age ninety-three doesn’t mean it’s been overtaken by ghosts. But Laura has no idea what the old house has in store for her in the future, and it’s not going to be a pleasant experience. That house, which haunts unsuspecting young women when they are the most vulnerable, chooses Laura to receive its horrific powers. Worse, it waits until the opportune time—years later, when she’s married and is expecting her first child. When she is seven months pregnant, Laura is summoned back to the old McPherson place by some mysterious and evil force. Held captive in a strange place, she wonders if she’ll ever find her way back to her former life.

iUniverse

ABOUT DARRELL TOOKER

Darrell Tooker served twenty years in the US military and is a retired maxillofacial surgeon. He also drove the Friendship Boats at Walt Disney World for ten years, retiring in 2008. Tooker now lives in Clermont, Florida, with his wife, Jennie.

Pump Up Your Book and Darrell are teaming up to give you a chance to win a $25 Amazon Gift Card!

Terms & Conditions:
  • By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
  • One winner will be chosen via Rafflecopter to receive one $25 Amazon Gift Certificate
  • This giveaway begins February 3 and ends on February 14.
  • Winners will be contacted via email on February 15, 2014.
  • Winner has 48 hours to reply.

Good luck everyone!

ENTER TO WIN!

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First Chapter Reveal: THREADING THE NEEDLE, by Gabriel Valjan

ThreadingtheNeedle_3D-523x600Title: Threading the Needle

Author: Gabriel Valjan

Publisher: Winter Goose Publishing

Genre: Mystery/suspense

Purchase THREADING THE NEEDLE on Amazon / B&N

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

ROMA SERIES: Book 3

Threading the Needle

-Gabriel Valjan

L’Italia è l’antica terra del dubbio.

Italy is the ancient homeland of doubt.

—Massimo D’Azeglio

1

 

This was a bad idea from the start.

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

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

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

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

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

She ordered something from her table outside.

Nobody seemed suspicious.

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

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

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

That must be him.

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

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

This must be him. Farrugia knew that worried expression.

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

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

This was a bad idea from the start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too late.

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

“Police. Put your weapons down.”

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

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

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

Farrugia repeated himself. “Weapons down.”

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

The gun went off.

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

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

 

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

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

One of those shots may have been for Farrugia.

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

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

But she was most worried about Farrugia.

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

She had to move.

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

She saw Farrugia.

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

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

She needed to call Dante.

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

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

 

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

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First Chapter Reveal: Anselm, a Metamorphosis, by Florence Byham Weinberg

Anselm_medTitle: Anselm, a Metamorphosis

Genre: metaphysical fantasy

Author: Florence Byham Weinberg

Website: http://www.florenceweinberg.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Purchase the book on AMAZON

 

Chapter 1

Transformation

I grinned at Sally, the dean’s attractive secretary-receptionist, eyeing her cleavage spilling out of a crisp, white blouse. She stood, leaving her desk to cross the small but neat outer office to the filing cabinet in the corner. She turned to give me a better view of her seductive nylon-sheathed legs and her shapely hips in a tight yellow skirt. She glanced over her shoulder, rolling her eyes with a playful head-toss. I knew she liked what she saw, and I reciprocated. She pulled a file, swiveled those hips and returned to the desk.

“What does the dean need me for, Sally? It’s Saturday.”

“Don’t know, Eric . . . uh, Professor Behrens. You’ve been naughty, it seems. He was grumpy when he called me to come to work and told me to contact you.”

“I hope this won’t last long. I’m on my way to play a round of golf with Jim Stevenson.”

“Oh, yes, Professor Stevenson. He . . .” She was interrupted by the buzzer. She picked up the phone. “Yes . . .? Yes, he’s here. I’ll send him in.” She looked at me, holding her hand over the receiver. “He’ll see you now. Watch out; he sounds angry.”

“Uh . . . thanks, Sally.” I hesitated on the threshold of the wood-paneled and carpeted inner office.

Bernard Graham, Dean of Woodward State University in upstate New York, stood facing the window as I entered. He swiveled, his face in shadow, his stocky outline silhouetted against the bright October day. His greeting was brusque. “Sit down, Professor Behrens.”

I was surprised at his terse greeting and took the chair facing his tidy mahogany desk. “Thank you, Dean Graham. May I know why you called me in? Did the draft board contact the University? Are they drafting professors for Vietnam?”

“No, no, Behrens. Nothing so simple—I almost said nothing so honorable.” The dean took his seat behind the desk, his square face severe. “I hate to say this to any of my faculty. But you’ve violated our university’s moral code. I have to ask you to tender your resignation.”

My hands clutched the arms of the chair and a roar thundered in my ears. I managed a few words. “Wh-what? I’m sorry, but . . . but I don’t understand, sir.”

“Does the name Diana Gregg mean anything to you?”

“I . . . I . . . She was a student in my summer literature survey course.” I began to sweat.

“Did you know that her father, Durwood Gregg, is the chairman of the Board of Trustees?”

“Not at first, sir.”

“He tells me you seduced his daughter. She’s an undergraduate!” Graham shook his head, his expression a blend of anger and reproach. “For God’s sake, man! You know the rules: no fraternizing with undergrads. And you must have gone further . . . a lot further . . . . What do you have to say?”

Scenes from the previous summer flashed through my mind: the poolside party where it all began, the clandestine meetings at the riding stable, rides into the woods, making love in forest meadows, at the lakeside. “It’s true. I can’t deny it. We had an affair, and she wants me— wanted, I guess—to marry her. I said no; said we’d have to wait.”

“Durwood demands that you wait forever. You’re Protestant, aren’t you?”

“Lutheran. But what has that—?”

“The Greggs are Roman Catholic,” he cut in. “Strict. Under no circumstances would he have allowed such a marriage. I have a form here, a resignation form. I need your signature.”

“But, sir, classes have already begun. I’ve passed out my syllabus; the students are already working on their first paper.”

“Hampton Clarke retired just last year. We’ll call on him to finish the semester while we look for your replacement.” The dean turned to his desk, picked up a sheet of paper and thrust it at me. I scanned it: at least it said nothing about moral turpitude. I could deny nothing. I had violated the rules, thinking I could get away with it. I’d used Durwood Gregg’s beautiful daughter, flagrantly, irresponsibly, and then wanted to leave all that behind; close the summer dalliance like a chapter in a book. I still hadn’t told her. It would have been the old story: seduced and abandoned.

I felt cornered, helpless, and most of all guilty. I felt in my shirt pocket for a pen.

“Here.” Dean Graham’s voice was harsh as he held a pen under my nose.

I placed the paper on the edge of the desk, signed and then stood, my legs trembling. “I guess there’s nothing more to be said.”

“No, nothing. Clear out your office before Monday.”

I moved to the door, turning once to see the dean standing again silhouetted against the sun streaming through the window. I passed through the outer office in a daze, only hearing Sally’s goodbye after I had closed the door behind me.

Jim had waited on a bench just outside the administration building, kicking at the leaves piled there. “So, what did he want?”

“Let’s walk. I’ll tell you.” A dry wind rustled more fallen leaves across the path under our feet and intermittently carried the notes of the tower clock to our ears. Chimes followed by two solemn strokes. Two o’clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon, yet I was oblivious of the beauty of the day, the glowing fall colors and the crisp air: my world had crumbled. I told Jim everything as we shuffled through the swirling leaves toward the chemistry building, my voice shaking with self-pity. Jim made surprised and sympathetic noises, wondering if, rather than the golf course, we should go to Kenny’s Pub near campus to talk over the situation.

We rounded the corner of the chemistry building. Jim stopped by the wall to shelter from the wind and tried to light a cigarette while I walked on and began to climb the long stairway to the upper campus.

In a sudden rage against my persecutors—now including Diana—I raised my fists to the sky and snarled, “Damn them all! Damn the whole world! Satan, take them to Hell and take me, too—just make me into someone else! I’d give anything, even my soul, to be somebody else!”

The surrounding air closed in on me like a smothering plastic film. I gasped and tripped on the next step. Had I been pushed? The fall gave me the sensation of traveling through time and space, and yet I had no time to stretch out my hands. I then realized I was lying in extreme discomfort on the stairs, my head and shoulders propped against Jim’s leg. The first thing I saw was his face. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he saw I was conscious.

“That was a nasty fall! Do you think you’re badly hurt, sir?”

Puzzled by his tone, his words, his attitude, I struggled to my feet, using him as a prop. I weaved as I stood, unable to regain my balance, as everything seemed out of perspective. I blinked, then lowered the hand that had been feeling the wound on my forehead. “N-no . . . I don’t think so, not seriously.”

My voice gave me a violent start. It was a deep, metallic bass, utterly unlike my own light tenor. I cleared my throat, watching to see if Jim had noticed anything unusual. His attention seemed divided between concern for me and some other worry. His brow creased and his eyes searched the campus in all directions as if looking for someone.

“Eric?” he called, almost under his breath.

“Yes?” I answered, again unprepared for that unfamiliar bass.

“Oh, is your name Eric?”

I stared at him, not answering. Was Jim crazy, or was I?

He hesitated, then excused himself, “Well, sir, if you’re sure you aren’t seriously hurt, I must be going—my friend seems to have run off and left me.”

He turned and ran up the steps, stopping once to scan the lower campus and glance at me with a half guilty, half frightened expression. Jim’s behavior should have given me a clue, but I was far from suspecting the truth. My right hand again went to my forehead. Dizziness became one enormous, pounding pain that began at my hairline. My fingers found the spongy, sticky area. I stared at them, now red with blood.

Something other than blood froze my attention. I stretched both hands out palm up, then turned them over. They were large with prominent veins; the long, tapering fingers ended in clean, square-cut nails. On the backs, an orderly pattern of black hair grew from wrist to knuckles and in tufts at the base of each finger. They were powerful and brutal, yet elegant hands, but they were not my own.

The sight of them filled me with creeping horror mixed with curiosity. I must find a mirror to see if all this had some easy explanation. I looked down. I wore some sort of black wool robe with a wide leather belt around the waist. I had obviously tripped on the hem—but where had the black robe come from? I staggered, dizzy and close to nausea, as if I had on someone else’s glasses. By reflex, I felt the bridge of my nose. Perhaps something was really wrong with my eyes, something resulting from the fall? I descended the few stairs back to the chemistry building, the wind flapping the robe against shaking legs, gravity dragging at me with every downward step. My balance point seemed to have shifted; I had to lean farther back than usual to maintain my equilibrium, my body thus blocking a clear view of the next step, forcing me to guess where I should set my foot. The fall must have affected my balance, too. I caught a glimpse of my toes and saw sandals. Sandals . . .?

I arrived at the bottom step and pushed against the side door that opened slowly, as if by itself. The hall seemed dark and stank of sulfur. Perhaps a student experiment had gone wrong. While my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I felt my way to the men’s room where I remembered a small mirror. Inside, I groped to find the light switch, then crossed the room in two strides. The face reflected in that mirror was someone I’d never seen before. I gave an inarticulate scream.

Panting, I ran back into the malodorous corridor.

After a few steps I stopped, shaking all over. I stared down at the black robe, the sandaled feet, and those hairy hands that, independent of my will, fingered the ebony rosary at my waist.

“My God, my God, who is this?” That unfamiliar voice boomed into the emptiness. I shrank against the wall, needing but fearing to look again in a mirror. I must fit the pieces of the puzzle together, somehow.

The faculty lounge on this floor had a wide plate-glass mirror on the far wall. It would show a full-length image. I hurried through the dark hall, exhaling the sulfur fumes that seemed to grow ever more pungent, and entered the brightly lit but deserted lounge. The mirror faced me across the room and I froze with my back against the door.

I should have been around five feet ten, slight, with one of those freckled complexions that often goes with red hair. My nose was average, my eyes gray, and I’d been wearing a pair of charcoal gray slacks, a white shirt, and a pale blue sweater-vest.

The figure cowering against the door was perhaps five inches taller than I was . . . or should be . . . and much heavier. His square figure seemed almost menacing in its potential strength, although his deterioration was clear. A paunch strained the leather belt, caught at the last hole, to its limit; deep buckle marks at each of the preceding four holes gave mute testimony to a recent weight gain. Here was the reason for my difficulty on the stairs: the paunch had prevented me from seeing my feet.

The forward shift of the body’s center of gravity was offset by this man’s hypercorrect posture—militarily correct. He held his tonsured head erect on a muscular neck. His remaining hair, a sort of crown, was black, salted with gray, and totally white above the ears. A bloody gash broke the crown at the hairline above the right eyebrow. The wound dwindled into a purplish weal, still swelling, slanting across the forehead to the left eyebrow.

I moved closer to the mirror to examine the man’s features. He was handsome in a dark, forbidding way. The eyebrows were thick, black and peaked in the center, the nose thin and aquiline. The full-lipped, sensual mouth seemed to express scorn even in repose, its disdainful curves underscored by the square chin. He seemed to be in his fifties: not only was his hair graying, his swarthy skin was coarse. The lofty forehead bore horizontal wrinkles as well as deep frown-marks between the brows. The gold-flecked brown eyes seemed to mock me, to censure my very essence.

I recoiled.

This man, this dark, almost sinister creature was . . . me?

It could not be true—I must be mad. I moaned and hid my face in my hands; I could no longer bear to see that image as it mimicked and mocked my every move.

Amid the confusion of conflicting impulses and ideas, I remembered my half-serious invocation to the Devil. Had he instantly fulfilled my wish to be somebody, anybody, else? Could I have traded the eventual fate of my soul for this new body? I couldn’t have been serious; I didn’t even believe in the existence of a soul. But if there is no soul, what was left of “me” in this stranger? Does the self then reside in memory alone? I’d willed to become someone else and had no one but myself to blame for the results.

An acute sense of loss filled me, many times more painful than the humiliation I’d suffered at being dismissed from Woodward State. Where was I, who was this; what should I do now? I could have been transformed into anyone at all—a shoe salesman, a fireman, an artist—but instead, I’d been changed into a monk!

The irony struck me like a blow: a tremendous practical joke by the Devil to punish me for having slighted and scorned Diana, in the process betraying my better self. I had asked to give myself to the Devil, but was now in the form of someone who had given himself away utterly. To God! Perhaps I was being punished for my irresponsible sensual appetites. In my present form, it would surely be more difficult to satisfy them. Perhaps the Devil is a reformer?

The essence of that outcry on the stairs had not been my invocation to Satan, but my fervent wish to be someone else. Had I precipitated this disaster by wishing it? I remembered Freud’s remarks on “compelling thoughts” that primitives and neurotics believe actually control reality. Perhaps, after all, under certain circumstances, they do?

The only hope of saving the last shred of sanity lay in action: I must care for this stranger. I made my way among the chairs and low tables to the coffee bar against the wall. After removing the pot half full of stale coffee, I stooped over the sink and bathed the gash with cold water. The cut had stopped bleeding and did not seem deep; the greatest damage was caused by the crushing force of the fall. The bruise throbbed at my pressure.

I dried my face on paper towels and cleaned the sink and then began searching my clothing for identification. In a pocket of the robe, I found a handkerchief and a battered wallet containing a five-dollar bill and a familiar card: a meal ticket for the student cafeteria. The name “Anselmus” was scrawled in a bold, black hand at the bottom. I assumed this was my own name—but I now must try to find out who and what Anselmus was, where he was from, and what monastic order he belonged to.

My only association with that name was Saint Anselm, a brilliant theologian of the eleventh or twelfth century. I clutched at my memory of the saint like a drowning man reaching for a plank. Here was something familiar, something removed from the horror of the present moment that might stave off the panic crowding the edges of my consciousness. I’d learned in college that Saint Anselm had invented a clever argument for the existence of God, a precursor to the one Descartes tried centuries later. That’s the one where he notes that we all have an idea of perfection. Since we get all our ideas from an outside source, and yet there is nothing perfect in this world, there must be a perfect Being who implants the idea: namely, God. Therefore God exists. The theory works only if one believes in the absolute reality of ideas.

Could I concentrate enough to recall Saint Anselm’s argument? If my memory was correct, it went something like this: “The fool says in his heart there is no God. But even he would agree that God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived, including all perfections, such as absolute goodness, omniscience, omnipresence, and existence in reality. If one can conceive of God at all, one is forced to concede that He exists, otherwise something greater could be conceived.” Not bad, but after all, merely a slick manipulation of words and ideas. I smiled. At least I could still put two coherent thoughts together. Irrelevant, but coherent. Madmen can do the same, though, can’t they?

Anselm. Anselmus. Yes, maybe I had seen a black-robed figure on campus. Normally, I avoided the school on my off days. Perhaps the monk never came here on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, when I teach . . . taught. But if I, Eric, now inhabited the monk’s body, where was his essence, his “soul?” Now that my “soul” seemed trapped in a monk’s body, I’d have to behave—temporarily, I hoped—like a monk. And how was that, anyhow? Should I be addressed as “Brother” or “Father”? It would be the latter if Anselm—if I—had been ordained a priest.

By this time, I’d reached the main door of the building and paused. I had begun to identify “me” with “Anselmus”—but what else could I do? Before I tried to claim any of my own—of Eric’s—possessions, I must try to discover what had happened to my real self, my body, while I was forced to “be” Anselmus.

I pushed open the heavy main door with such unaccustomed ease that I almost lost my balance. I turned back to peer into the dark hall and a clanging laugh rang out, buzzing in my brain, terrifying me. I let the door close behind me and before I could take three running steps, I realized that I myself was convulsed with mirthless laughter. Had I heard the echo of my own voice, or was my convulsion a reflection of some unseen, controlling power?

I fled up the long stairway to the upper campus, just enough wit left to hold up the skirts of my robe so as not to trip again. The paunch and heavy flesh around my flanks and hips dragged and bounced, resisting every upward step. I’d often run up those stairs before, but this time, once I’d reached the top, I was soaked in sweat. My legs trembled and my breath came in ragged, painful gasps. My heart pounded irregularly in my throat; my head seemed about to explode with the pressure of the throbbing ache. My hand fumbled for the handkerchief and I blotted my forehead gingerly, sweat in the new wound adding to my misery.

I turned to face the door I’d just left below me, expecting to see a formless something appear in pursuit. There was no visible movement about the façade of the chemistry building; everything looked normal in the golden light of the afternoon sun. That something remained hidden, at least for now. I trembled, not just from my exertion, but in terror: not only of that controlling power but of my own possible madness.

Other preoccupations plagued me as well. I wondered what had caused me to be so short of breath and waited until I could breathe comfortably. Surely, my increased weight wasn’t enough to account for all those symptoms. What was wrong with this body?

I must find people, make human contact, or I would indeed go mad. I turned to the student union. As I entered, two co-eds brushed past me. They stared, then one whispered loudly enough for me to hear, “Now there’s a cool-looking dude!”

“He looks like the devil to me,” replied the other dryly.

Were they seeing Eric or . . . Anselm?

The student health service at the end of the hall offered a temporary refuge. I hesitated with my hand on the doorknob. Would the nurse see me as I’d just seen myself in the mirror? Maybe “Anselm” was merely my hallucination. I opened the door with a jerk. At the moment there were no students in the office.

Miss Cunningham, the nurse, sat alone at her station. A tall, bony woman with a horsy face, I’d pitied her as a perpetual spinster. Now, I sought her for comfort. I leaned toward her, my knuckles on her desk. “Miss Cunningham, I wonder, could you spare a couple of aspirins?”

She faced me with a start. “Why, Father Anselm! That’s a nasty bump on your head.”

I sighed both in disappointment and relief. At least I was not mad, but it was terrifying to think that I might no longer have contact with myself. 3

Miss Cunningham brought me two aspirins and a paper cup of water. “Let me clean that wound and bandage it, Father Anselm,” she said, “How did it happen?”

I gulped down the aspirins and crumpled the paper cup in a nervous fist. “I tripped and fell on the steps out there. Could you bandage it? I’d be most grateful.”

I sat in a straight chair while the nurse got out cotton, alcohol and materials for a bandage. She bustled over to me, an alcohol-soaked swab in her hand. “This is going to sting, now, Father,” she said in a singsong.

I closed my eyes, anticipating the smart of the alcohol with a wince. Miss Cunningham went over my forehead well: then I could hear the snip of her scissors as she fashioned a bandage. Her firm yet gentle fingers on my face filled me with longing for my home, my mother. Could I never go home again?

Tears of self-pity must have escaped my closed eyelids, for Miss Cunningham’s nasal voice, filled with concern, broke in upon my thoughts. “Are you in much pain, Father?”

I looked up at her, startled, and brushed the wetness from my cheeks. “No, not too much. I’m sorry, I was thinking of something else.”

“Father Anselm . . . I think you’d better have that X-rayed,” she said as she placed the last adhesive strip, “You might have a concussion and even some bleeding inside there.”

“Perhaps I will, Miss Cunningham.” I stood up, smiling.

“Oh, and Father, don’t forget the sign-up sheet; we keep track of everyone who visits our health services.”

How should I sign? Obviously, I could only write the priest’s name. Taking up the pen, I wrote “Fr. Anselm.” It was as far from my own over-precise Palmer penmanship as possible. The heavy black scrawl was identical with the signature on the card in my pocket.

“Father, are you having trouble focusing?” Miss Cunningham asked in alarm.

“Oh, it’s not that—it’s just my head; I have a terrific headache. I’ll be all right. And thanks so much for fixing me up.” I touched the bandage in a sort of salute, then turned unsteadily and re-entered the hall. I paced up and down the corridor past the student cafeteria that emitted the odors of stale frying fat and onions I usually found nauseating. Today, it smelled good. The obsessive rhythm of one of the Beatles’ recent recordings, “Nowhere Man,” pursued me as I walked. Instinctively, I clasped my hands behind my back in a priestly gesture. What should I do now? I was obviously known on campus—even Miss Cunningham knew me—but how was I to find out who I was without appearing ridiculous?

The door of the cafeteria swung open, and one of the cooks appeared. “Hullo, Father, you here today? And you haven’t come to see us? Hey, what’s wrong with your head?”

“Just a bump, Rudy.”

“Well, hey, you know, it’s late, but we still have plenty of chicken and dumplings on the steam table. Enough for seconds . . . and thirds,” he smirked, glancing sidewise at me.

“Oh, no thanks, Rudy.” My reply was interrupted by a loud growl from my stomach. I closed my arms across my belly to suppress the noise, sheepishly joining in his laughter. “I see I’m receiving contrary orders!”

He winked. “We’ll be open for twenty more minutes; I’ll keep the steam tables hot.”

I shook my head. “Thanks, Rudy, but some other time.”

“Well, it’s there waiting for you, Father, if you want it. Think it over.” He smiled as he moved away down the hall.

Unexpectedly, I felt a light hand upon my arm. I turned and saw that it was Diana Gregg, the source of my misfortunes, looking both sorrowful and more beautiful than I’d ever seen her. She drew me into a small lounge, where we were alone. She raised her face to me. “Father Anselm, you’re hurt!”

“It’s nothing, Diana,” I replied.

Her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “I’m sorry I am burdening you with an unwanted confidence at a time like this, but since you’re a teacher as well as a priest, you can understand the problems better than anyone else. It’s Eric—I’ve told you so much about him—and you know I want to marry him. He wants to wait, but I was still sure I could persuade him. But now Mom and Dad won’t let me. They think he’s irresponsible—unstable, they call him—and besides, he’s a Protestant. I love him and I don’t care. I’d elope with him this minute, but Professor Stevenson says Dad just had him fired and he has completely disappeared! Oh, Father Anselm, I’m so worried! He could be desperate! Can you help us find him? Can you bring him back to me?” She burst into sobs and slid slowly to her knees, then to the floor.

Her words echoed in my ears. Find him? Bring him back? Diana, my lovely Diana, he is here in this room, that man you want to marry!

I suddenly knew I loved, needed this girl I’d been ready to abandon. My desire flashed through me with an intensity I’d never felt before. I shook, vibrating from head to foot, forgetting my situation, everything, in a fury of passion that my new body seemed to intensify. I would tell her everything. She, like no one else, would understand my nightmarish situation; she would quiet my fear. I would carry her away to my apartment where we could be alone, where she could care for my bruised body—and soul.

I stooped and picked her up tenderly, with amazing ease, and cradled her like a child. My forehead, my lips, my body burned in fiery anticipation of her cool kisses, kisses that could only increase my sweet agony. Out of the medley of my violent feelings and turbulent thoughts, only one word, “Diana!” escaped aloud.

Diana, whose shock had at first rendered her helpless, braced her fists against my chest. “Father Anselm, let me go at once! Have you gone mad?”

I set her on her feet, lucidity flooding over me like cold water. I looked down upon us both from a great height. Father Anselm, the chaste, holy monk, had intended to betray his sacred vow and had begun an assault on an innocent and trusting girl who’d come to him for help. The scene was pure caricature. I felt my blush. “Diana, my child, forgive me, please, forgive me! I’m only human, you know. Diana, I didn’t mean . . .”

She gave me no chance to explain. With a toss of her lovely head that expressed her contempt for me and her triumph in an unexpected conquest, she turned and walked majestically away down the hall.

I stood aghast, my body’s fire dwindling to the heat of shame still glowing on my face. With my head bowed, I wondered at such passionate, impulsive behavior. I’d never been like this before: slow to action, I normally had held back, cool and calculating, from any decisive step. Now, I’d nearly succumbed to two deadly sins: gluttony and lust. The body must determine a large share of the personality, but the essence, the knowing essence, seemed somehow independent. I must retire to some less exposed position until I could learn how to live with myself, to manage this body and prevent further injuries to others—especially to someone I loved—or to myself.

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Read-a-Chapter: Strings, by Allison M. Dickson

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the horror/suspense thriller, Strings, by Allison M. Dickson. Enjoy!

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Strings_Cover_253x391

Title: Strings

Genre: Horror/Suspense/Thriller

Author: Allison M. Dickson

Publisher: Hobbes End Publishing

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

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Chapter 1

Junior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hank? What are you doing in there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Book Review: ‘Pelican Bay’ by Jesse Giles Christiansen

 

PelicanBaymedForMayra

An old undersea cemetery, a secret love, mystery and intrigue await you in PELICAN BAY. Jesse Giles Christiansen has written a well-crafted story of suspense that will keep you turning pages!

Part suspense novel, part literary mystery, Pelican Bay is an original story set in a small, forlorn beach town in South Carolina.

The tale begins with our young protagonist, Ethan Hodges, discovering a sunken cemetery just off the beach that could very well be four centuries old. Compelled to find answers, he begins to ask questions to an old, quirky fisherman named Captain Shelby, a man thought crazy by the town. However, it soon becomes clear that the old grandfatherly figure wants the past to remain buried, and he doesn’t waste time in making that clear to Ethan.

Of course, Ethan doesn’t listen, in spite of the fact that “the old man guards that spot like a great secret — a secret perhaps he’d kill to protect.”

Morgan Olinsworth, a beautiful girl Ethan has loved ever since he can remember, joins in the investigation, and soon the young couple begin to unearth secrets, secrets that are better left hidden under the sea…

Then, Captain Shelby is suspected of murder and disappears, and it isn’t long before unsettling discoveries are made, discoveries that shock Pelican Bay.

The South Carolina coast comes to life in this well-written, well-crafted story by Jesse Giles Christiansen. I was engrossed from the start by the sense of mystery, as well as by the magical, eerie sound of the sea. Ethan and Morgan are sympathetic characters and I loved the eccentric wisdom and quirkiness of Captain Shelby. The author did an excellent job with the old fisherman’s mannerisms and use of dialect.

The tone and atmosphere gave me a haunting feeling about old secrets better left untouched. If you’re looking for a different mystery, give this one a try. Recommended.

Find out more on Amazon.

Visit the author’s website.

Read my interview with the author.

My review was originally published in Blogcritics. This review was provided in exchange for a review copy provided by the author.

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Read-a-Chapter: Lakota Honor, by Kat Flannery

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the Paranormal Historical Western Romance, Lakota Honor, by Kat Flannery. Enjoy!

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Fate has brought them together…but will a promise tear them a part?

Otakatay is hired to kill the witkowin-crazy women. A deadly bounty hunter, he has found his last victim in timid healer Nora Rushton. Marked as a witch, Nora uses her gift to heal those in need, and the bounty hunter is one of them. Will the desire to complete his promise drive him to kill her, or will the kindness he sees in her blue eyes push him to be the man he once was?

Nora and Otakatay must fight for their freedom in a time when race and discrimination are a threat and innocence holds no ground.

Purchase LAKOTA HONOR on AMAZON US /  AMAZON CA / AMAZON UK 

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PROLOGUE 

Colorado Mountains, 1880  

The blade slicing his throat made no sound, but the dead body hitting the ground did. With no time to stop, he hurried through the dark tunnel until he reached the ladder leading out of the shaft.  He’d been two hundred feet below ground for ten days, with no food and little water. Weak and woozy, he stared up the ladder.

He’d have to climb it and it wasn’t going to be easy. He wiped the bloody blade on his torn pants and placed it between his teeth. Scraped knuckles and unwashed hands gripped the wooden rung.  The earth swayed. He closed his eyes and forced the spinning in his head to cease. One thin bronzed leg lifted and came down wobbly. He waited until his leg stopped shaking before he climbed another rung. Each step caused pain, but was paired with determination. He made it to the top faster than he’d thought he would. The sky was black and the air was cool, but fresh. Thank goodness it was fresh.

He took two long breaths before he emerged from the hole. The smell from below ground still lingered in his nostrils; unwashed bodies, feces and mangy rats. His stomach pitched. He tugged at the rope around his hands. There had been no time to chew the thick bands around his wrists when he’d planned his escape. It was better to run than crawl, and he chewed through the strips that bound his feet instead. There would be time to free his wrists later. He pressed his body against the mountain and inched toward the shack. He frowned.

A guard stood at the entrance to where they were. The blade from the knife pinched his lip, cutting the thin skin and he tasted blood. He needed to get in there. He needed to say goodbye. He needed to make a promise.   The tower bell rang mercilessly. There was no time left. He pushed away from the rocky wall, dropped the knife from his mouth into his bound hands, aimed and threw it. The dagger dug into the man’s chest. He ran over, pulled the blade from the guard and quickly slid it across his throat. The guard bled out in seconds.

He tapped the barred window on the north side of the dilapidated shack. The time seemed to stretch. He glanced at the large house not fifty yards from where he stood. He would come back, and he would kill the bastard inside.  He tapped again, harder this time, and heard the weak steps of those like him shuffling from inside. The window slid open, and a small hand slipped out.  “Toksha ake—I shall see you again,” he whispered in Lakota.

The hand squeezed his once, twice and on the third time held tight before it let go and disappeared inside the room.  A tear slipped from his dark eyes, and his hand, still on the window sill, balled into a fist. He swallowed past the sob and felt the burn in his throat. His chest ached for what he was leaving behind. He would survive, and he would return. Men shouted to his right, and he crouched down low. He took one last look around and fled into the cover of the forest.

 CHAPTER ONE

1888, Willow Creek, Colorado  

Nora Rushton scanned the hillside before glancing back at the woman on the ground. She could be dead, or worse yet, someone from town. She flexed her hands. The woman’s blue skirt ruffled in the wind, and a tattered brown Stetson sat beside her head. Nora assessed the rest of her attire. A faded yellow blouse stained from the grass and dirt, leather gloves and a red bandana tied loosely around her neck. She resembled a ranch hand in a skirt.

There was no one else around, and the woman needed her help. She chewed on her lip, and her fingers twitched. I have to help her. She sucked in a deep breath, held it, and walked the remaining few feet that stood between her and the injured woman. The woman’s horse picked up Nora’s scent, trotted over and pushed his nose into her chest.

“It’s okay, boy,” she said, smoothing back the red-brown mane. “Why don’t you let me have a look at your owner?”

She knelt down beside the woman and realized she was old enough to be her grandmother. Gray hair with subtle blonde streaks lay messed and pulled from the bun she was wearing. Why was she on a horse in the middle of the valley without a chaperone?

She licked her finger and placed it under the woman’s nose. A cool sensation skittered across her wet finger, and she sighed.  The woman’s left leg bent inward and laid uncomfortably to the side. She lifted the skirt for a closer look. Her stomach rolled, and bile crawled up the back of her throat. The thigh bone protruded, stretching the skin bright white, but didn’t break through. Nora’s hands grew warm, the sensation she felt so many times before.

The woman moaned and reached for her leg.

“No, please don’t touch your leg. It’s broken.” She held the woman’s hand.

Ice blue eyes stared back at her, showing pain mingled with relief.

“My name is Nora,” she said with a smile. “I am going to get help.”

The wrinkled hand squeezed hers, and the woman shook her head. “No, child, my heart can’t take the pain much longer.” Creased lips pressed together as she closed her eyes and took two deep breaths.

“Please, just sit here with me.” Her voice was husky and weak.

She scanned the rolling hills for any sign of help, but there was no one. She studied the woman again. Her skin had a blue tinge to it, and her breathing became forced. I promised Pa. But how was she supposed to walk away from this woman who so desperately needed her help? She took another look around. Green grass waved in the wind. Please, someone, anyone come over the hill.  White daisies mingled within the grass, and had the woman not been injured, she would’ve plucked a few for her hair.

She waited a few minutes longer. No one came. Her hands started their restless shaking. She clasped them together, trying to stop the tremors. It would only take a few minutes. I can help her. No one would see. She stared at the old woman, except her. If she helped her, would she tell everyone about Nora’s secret? Would she ask any questions? There were always questions.

Nora’s resolve was weakening. She ran her hot hands along the woman’s body to see if anything else was broken. Only the leg, thank goodness. Lifting the skirt once again, she laid her warm palms gently on the broken thigh bone. Her hands, bright red, itched with anticipation. The leg seemed worse without the cover of the skirt. One move and the bone would surely break through the skin. She inhaled groaning at the same time as she placed her hands on either side of the limb. In one swift movement, she squeezed the bone together.

The woman shot up from the grass yelling out in agony.  Nora squeezed harder until she felt the bone shift back into place. Jolts of pain raced up and down her arms as the woman’s leg began to heal. Nora’s own thigh burned and ached, as her bones and flesh cried out in distress. She held on until the pain seeped from her own body into nothingness, vanishing as if it were never there.  She removed her hands, now shaking and cold from the woman’s healed limb, unaware of the blue eyes staring up at her. Her stomach lurched, like she knew it would—like it always did afterward. She rose on trembling legs and walked as far away as she could before vomiting onto the bright green grass. Not once, but twice. She waited until her strength returned before she stood and let the wind cool her heated cheeks.

The bitter taste stayed in her mouth. If the woman hadn’t been there she’d have spit the lingering bile onto the grass. She needed water and searched the area for a stream.  Her mouth felt full of cotton, and she smacked her tongue off of her dry lips. She was desperate for some water. Had she not wandered so far from the forest to set the baby hawk free, she’d know where she was now and which direction would take her home. She gasped. She’d lost track of time and needed to get home before Pa did. Jack Rushton had a temper and she didn’t want to witness it tonight.

“Are you an angel?”  She turned to face the woman and grinned.

“No, Ma’am. I am not an angel, although I like to think God gave me this gift.”

The woman pulled her skirt down, recovered from her shock and said in a rough voice, “Well if you ain’t no angel, than what in hell are ya?”

Taken aback at the woman’s gruffness, she knelt down beside her. Here we go, either she understands or she runs away delusional and screaming. “I…I am a healer.” She waited.

The woman said nothing instead she narrowed her eyes and stared. “A witch?”

Nora winced. “No, not a witch. I need you to promise you won’t tell anyone what happened here today.” Her stomach in knots, she waited for the old woman’s reply.

“You think I’m some kind of fool?” She stood and stretched her leg. She stared at the healed limb before she hopped on it a few times. “People already think I’m crazy. Why would I add more crap to their already heaping pile of shit?”

Oh my. The woman’s vocabulary was nothing short of colorful, and she liked it.  She smiled and stuck out her hand. “I’m Nora Rushton. It’s nice to meet you.”

The woman stared at her for a few seconds before her thin mouth turned up and she smiled. “Jess Chandler.” She gripped Nora’s hand with such force she had to refrain from yelling out in pain. “Thanks for your help, girly.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever met. Do you live in Willow Creek?”

“I own a farm west of here.”

“How come I’ve never seen you?” I never see anyone, Pa’s rules.

The wind picked up whipping Jess’s hat through the air.

“Max,” she called over her shoulder, “fetch my hat.”

The horse’s ears spiked and he trotted off toward the hat. She watched in awe as the animal retrieved the Stetson with his mouth and brought it back to his master.

“I’ve never seen such a thing,” Nora giggled and patted Max’s rump.

Jess took the hat and slapped it on top of her head.  “Yup, ol’Max here, he’s pretty damn smart.”

“I’d say he is.” She remembered the companionship she’d enjoyed with the baby hawk she’d rescued a few weeks ago. She’d miss the little guy. His feedings had kept her busy during the long boring days at home. “Miss Jess, I’m sorry to be short, but I have to head on home.”

“Hell, girly, I can take you.” She climbed up onto Max and wound the reins around her gloved hands. “Hop on. He’s strong enough for two.”

“Are you sure?” “It’s the least I can do.”  She clasped Jess’s hand and pulled herself up behind her. “Thank you, Jess, for keeping my secret.” Placing her arms around the woman’s waist, she gave her a light squeeze.

“Darlin,” Jess patted Nora’s hand, “you can rest assured I will take this secret to my grave.” She whistled, and Max started toward town.

 

Otakatay sat tall on his horse as he gazed at the lush green valley below. The town of Willow Creek was nestled at the edge of the green hills. He’d been gone four round moons, traveling to Wyoming and back. The rough terrain of the Rocky Mountains had almost killed him and his horse. The steep cliffs and forests were untouched by man.  On the first day in the Rockies, he’d come up against a mountain lion, a grizzly and bush thick enough to strangle him. He used his knife to carve into the dense brush, and his shotgun to defend himself. When he could, he stuck to the deer trails, and in the evening built large fires to keep the animals at bay.

He glanced behind him at the brown sack tied to his saddle. Inside, there were three. This time he’d ask for more money. His bronzed jaw flexed. He would demand it.  The sky was bright blue with smudges of gray smoke wafting upward from the homes and businesses. The weather would warm as the day progressed and the sun rose higher into the sky. His eyes wandered past the hills to the mountains behind them, and his insides burned.  He clicked his tongue, and his mustang sauntered down the hill. Wakina was agile and strong.

Otakatay knew he could count on him always. Over the years Wakina had kept pace with his schedule and relentless hunting. The emerald stocks swayed and danced before him as he rode through. The grass brushed the bottoms of his moccasins, and he dunked his hand into the velvety green weed. He’d make camp in the forest outside of the mining town.  Wakina shook his head and whinnied. Otakatay brushed his hand along the length of his silver mane.

“Soon my friend, soon,” he whispered.

The animal wanted to run down into the valley, but resigned himself to the lethargic pace his master ordered. Wakina tossed his head. Otakatay slapped Wakina’s sides with the loose ends of the reins, and the horse took off down the hill clearing a path through the grass.  The rolling blanket of emerald parted as Wakina’s long legs cantered toward the forest. Otakatay’s shoulder-length black hair whipped his face and tickled his neck as his heart pounded lively inside his chest. It was rare that he felt so alive. His days consisted of planning and plotting until he knew every detail by heart.

The eagle feather tied to his hair lifted in the wind and soared high above his head. For a moment he allowed himself to close his eyes and enjoy the smells of wildflowers and wood smoke. The sun kissed his cheeks and he tried to hold onto the moment, savoring the last bit of calm before rotten flesh and wet fur filled his nostrils.  His eyes sprung open. He pulled on the reins, and rubbed his nose to rid the smell, to push out the visions that saturated his mind. The scent clung to him burrowing deep into his soul and he mentally fought to purge it from his consciousness. He shook his head and concentrated on the fields, trying to push the memories away. He didn’t want to do this, not now. He didn’t want to see, feel, smell, or taste the memory again.

The rhythmic clanking echoed inside his head, and he squeezed his eyes closed. Sweat trickled down his temples. He clenched every muscle in his body. His hands skimmed the jagged walls of the damp tunnel. He stumbled and fell onto the rough walls, burning his torn flesh. He moaned. Every bit of him ached with such pain, he was sure he’d die. His thin body shook with fever. He reeked of blood, sweat and fear.  With each step he took, he struggled to stay upright and almost collapsed onto the ground. The agony of his wounds blinded him, and he didn’t know if it was a combination of the sweat dripping into his eyes, or if he was crying from the intense pain. His back burned and pulsed with powerful beats, the skin became tight around his ribs as the flesh swelled.  He tripped on a large rock and fell to the ground. The skin on his knees tore open, but he didn’t care. Nothing could ease the screaming in his back. Nothing could take away the hell he lived every day. He laid his head against the dirt covered floor. Dust stuck to his cheeks and lips while he prayed for Wakan Tanka to end his life.

 

 

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Read-a-Chapter: BLACK WATER, by Rosemary McCracken

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the suspense thriller, BLACK WATER, by Rosemary McCracken. Enjoy!

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BLACK WATER by Rosemary McCracken

A Pat Tierney Mystery – book 2
Suspense/Thriller
How strong is a mother’s love?
When Pat Tierney’s daughter, Tracy, asks her to help find Tracy’s partner, Jamie Collins, their mother-daughter relationship is stretched to the limits. Pat heads out to cottage country where an elderly man, who killed Jamie’s sister in an impaired driving accident ten years ago, has perished in a suspicious fire. Unfortunately, Jamie is the prime suspect.
Pat takes charge at the new branch her investment firm has opened in the seemingly idyllic community where Jamie grew up, and her search for Tracy’s missing sweetheart takes her through a maze of fraud, drugs, bikers and murder.
Once again, Pat proves that family can always count on her.
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PROLOGUE

I killed her sister. Can she forgive me?

Lyle gripped the wheel of the black minivan. Beside him, Ross was yakking about the AA meeting they’d just attended.

Will she help me?

A thaw earlier that week had left the highway clear, but the temperature had plummeted the night before. The minivan’s heater was cranked up full blast.

“Crazy weather,” Ross said. “One day, you figure it’s time to dig out the summer clothes, next day it’s colder than a witch’s tit. Must be all that global warming crap.”

Lyle sneezed and reached for a tissue in the box on his lap.

“Bless you,” Ross said.

“Fine thing to come down with a cold today,” Lyle grumbled.

“Yeah, like the missus was sayin’…”

Lyle tuned out Ross as they approached Braeloch. Told the Collins girl I was sorry. But that weren’t enough for her. Wouldn’t let it be. Told her I’d sic the law on her. She backed off then.

Lyle pulled up in front of Ross’s bungalow. “Here you go.”

“Thanks. Be seein’ you next week, then.” Ross stepped out the van and gave a wave. “Take care of that cold.”

Lyle gave him a curt nod and drove back to the highway. He glanced at the dashboard clock. Almost nine. He’d made it back in good time from the six o’clock meeting.

Wish Ross wouldn’t talk so much, but he’s all right. Thank God for the AA fellas. Got me through the worst of it. Confession with Father Brisebois set me square with the Lord, but it wasn’t the same as goin’ over it with the guys. Father, he’s a good man but he don’t understand how the devil can live in a bottle. Pull you in and suck out your soul. The boys do, though. They been there.

Lyle slowed down as his headlights picked out the edge of his driveway.

She should’ve got the letter by now. She’s gotta understand. She’s gotta help me stop this thief from taking from good folks like Pearl. She’s a big-shot lawyer now, so to catch a thief, that’s her job.

He braked suddenly as he pulled into the driveway. He blinked and stared through the windshield.

The garage door was open.

No way. That sucker was down when I left. Gettin’ old but I ain’t senile.

He rolled down his window and stuck his head out. He squinted as he tried to see into the depths of the garage where the headlight beams didn’t reach. Tools on the tool rack, snow blower, lawnmower. All in their proper places as far as he could tell.

“Anyone in there? Show yourself if you know what’s good fer ya!”

He sneezed and reached for another tissue. Just what I need. Damn punks! He rolled up the window and pulled into the garage.

He heard a metallic clatter behind him as he got out of the minivan. He gasped as the wooden garage door slammed down with a thud. He made his way cautiously toward it in the pitch-black garage.

“Hey!” He pounded on the garage door. “Hey!”

He groped to find the chain for the overhead ceiling light and yanked it. In the bulb’s dim glow, he saw a large stain on the floor.

What the…

He touched the walls. Damp.

He held his fingertips against his nose. Gasoline. With my cold, I couldn’t smell it. The place is soaked in it.

He staggered as pain shot through him. He clutched his chest and bent over. Then he straightened, breathing deeply.

He heard a whoosh as he lurched toward the garage door. Flames licked its bottom and side edges. He fumbled for the metal handle then jerked his hand away when he found it. It was hot.

He groped in his jacket pockets, pulled out a pair of gloves and groaned. Wool. No insulation. No leather palms.

He slipped them on but he needed something more for protection. A rag. If I get it around the glove, maybe I can grab the handle.

He stumbled and reached out to the wall on his right. Gotta be one around here. If I could just…

He spilled the contents of a plastic storage box on the floor. Half-full paint and varnish cans clanked as they hit the concrete. No rags.

Flames danced on the door and surged up the walls. He groped for the van’s door handle and pulled himself inside. s1 Get her started. Maybe I can crash through.

He fumbled for his key and stuck it into the ignition. He was about to start the engine when he gagged, clutched his chest and gasped in pain.

He slumped against the steering wheel, unable to lift his hand to the ignition. He knew that when the flames hit the gas tank, the minivan would become a fireball.

Lord, please make it quick.

CHAPTER ONE 

I was chilled to the bone when I got home that evening. An Arctic air mass from Nunavut had moved into central Ontario and held the city of Toronto in a deep freeze. Cars refused to start. Streetcars broke down all over the city. Pedestrians hurried along in down-filled coats with scarves over their faces.

If spring was on its way, there was no sign of it that Friday in March.

Maxie, our golden retriever, greeted me at the door with a rapturous dance. She wanted to play, but I was in no mood for games. A note on the kitchen counter told me Laura had taken her for a walk before she headed out to a party to celebrate the beginning of winter break.

I crumpled up the note. Thank goodness for that! The last thing I wanted to do was walk a dog in sub-zero weather. Or make dinner. Tommy, my youngest, was with his grandmother that night so I had the evening to myself.

On the way to the phone to check voicemail, the hall mirror told me I looked as bedraggled as I felt. Shoulders slumped, mouth a thin slash across my tense face, short blonde hair stuck out like a scarecrow’s. I looked every one of my forty-seven years. Maybe even a few more.

I pressed the button on the phone to activate unheard voicemail. “Good afternoon. This is Detective Inspector Stewart Foster of the Ontario Provincial Police. I’m trying to reach Tracy Tierney.”

I swallowed back the panic that was rising inside me. What did the police want with my daughter?

“Ms. Tierney, we need to speak with you as soon as possible,” the message continued. “I’m in Toronto today. Please give me a call at…”

I jotted down the phone number on a notepad, pressed a button to save the message and hung up.

Is Tracy in trouble? I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. The police wanted to speak to her, so she was alive and well. Nothing had happened to her. The call had something to do with her work. The year before, Tracy had finished law school and she was articling at a Bay Street firm. She must have asked the police for information. I needed to give her the message.

Tracy had moved out four weeks before, which was why I was feeling down. She was twenty-four years old, and I was all for her setting up a home of her own. It was how she’d left that bothered me.

The front door opened and a familiar voice called out, “Mom! You home?”

My heart did a flip-flop and I hurried into the hall.

Tracy had on her good black coat and a red cloche hat, and her cheeks were rosy from the cold. She held a casserole dish in her hands. She gave me a tentative smile.

I blinked back tears and studied my firstborn. Pretty, heart-shaped face. Serious brown eyes—my late husband Michael’s eyes. I moved toward her, my arms outstretched. “Tracy, honey…”

She set down the dish on the deacon’s bench and gave me a hug. “I missed you, Mom.”

I wrapped my arms around her. Tracy is a petite girl. My younger daughter, Laura, towers over her.

I didn’t want to let her go, but she pulled back. She took off her hat and shook her head. Wavy brown hair fell around her face. She picked up the dish on the bench. “Cassoulet. Jamie made it the other night. Have you eaten dinner?”

I moved away at the mention of Jamie—Jamie Collins, a lawyer at the firm where Tracy was spending her articling year. The woman my daughter had moved in with.

“Mom, we need to talk.” She led the way into the kitchen.

I remembered the phone message from the police. “What’s wrong?” I asked as I followed her.

“It’s Jamie. Something’s happened to her.”

I was relieved that Tracy was all right. But as I looked at her troubled face, it hit me that this wasn’t just a friend who was in trouble. Jamie was the special person in my daughter’s life. Her partner. “What’s happened?”

She sat down at the table and fixed her eyes on me. “On Wednesday, Jamie got a letter from a guy called Lyle Critchley. Made her really upset.”

“Something to do with her work?”

“No. Jamie knew Critchley up north, where she grew up. Near Braeloch, one of those towns in cottage country.”

“I didn’t know she’s from up there.”

“How would you?” Her voice rose in irritation. “You haven’t spent any time with her.”

 

I looked up from my computer and saw Tracy and a striking woman with burgundy hair in the doorway to my office

“Mom, can we come in?”

“Of course.” I got out of my chair as they came into the room.

Tracy took the woman’s hand. “Mom, I want you to meet Jamie. Jamie Collins.”

I took a step back. My daughter had been talking about Jamie for weeks. I’d assumed Jamie was a man.

Jamie held out a hand to me. “Tracy thought it was time we met.”

I took her hand and looked at Tracy. She had a smile on her face.

My head was reeling. “Yes, well, I…” I struggled to find the right words.

Just then, Rose, my administrative assistant, came to the door. “Keith Kulas on the line, Pat.”

My CEO. I dropped Jamie’s hand and reached for the phone. Keith’s call would give me time to adjust to this bombshell. “I have to take this.”

The smile left Tracy’s face and she stiffened. “We’ll leave you to it, then.” She took Jamie’s arm. They walked out of the office without turning back.

My heart sank as I watched them leave.

I tried to make amends. Later that afternoon, I phoned Tracy, hoping to get a second chance. “Honey, please don’t be mad. I had to take the call. It was important.”

“More important than your daughter and her future?” she asked.

“Of course not. It’s just…”

“Just what?”

Just too much to take in at the moment. I didn’t say anything.

“Mom?” Tracy’s voice rose in a mixture of anger and sorrow. “Say something.”

The call had been a mistake. I should have waited, tried to get my mind¯my emotions¯around Tracy and Jamie.

“Mom? Are you still there?”

“Goodbye,” I whispered.

“Wait! Mom¯”

I placed the receiver in the cradle and began to cry.

I had no inkling of Tracy’s orientation. I’d always considered myself a champion of diversity—religious, racial and sexual. My business partner and friend, Stéphane Pratt, is openly gay. I have gay and lesbian clients. But it’s easy to be open-minded until your kid comes out.

Three days after their visit to my office, Tracy moved into Jamies condo. I threw myself into my work. I didn’t tell my friends about Tracy. I didn’t tell Devon, the man in my life. I hoped my daughter would get over her infatuation. At night, I tossed and turned in bed, sometimes crying into my pillow.

What had I done wrong? 

“Listen to me, Mom,” Tracy said. “I’m talking to you.”

I looked at her. She was right. I hadn’t given Jamie a chance. Sure, I phoned my daughter every couple of days to see how she was, but I called her at the office. I either got her voicemail-my messages went unanswered-or a curt response that she had to run off to an “important meeting.”

“Ten years ago, Lyle Critchley killed Jamie’s younger sister.”

That got my attention.

“Drunk driving. Her family never forgave him.”

I stared at her. I’d have trouble forgiving someone who’d mowed down one of my girls.

“And then, out of nowhere, he writes Jamie this letter. He wanted her help.”

“Legal help?”

“I’m not sure. She’d run the letter through the shredder by the time I got home. She was that mad at him.”

“I don’t blame her.”

Tracy looked surprised, then pleased. She seemed to relax a little. “She spent the rest of the evening on the computer. Yesterday morning, she called me at work and asked to borrow my car.”

“She was going to see Lyle?”

“I don’t know. She said she’d tell me all about it that evening, but she never came home and she hasn’t called. She doesn’t answer her cell. She didn’t take her laptop with her, but I’ve sent her emails because she’s probably hit an Internet café. She hasn’t answered them. And I found a voicemail at home tonight from someone at her office who wanted to know if she was feeling better. She must’ve called in sick.”

Her eyes grew large. “Mom, I watched the news when I got home today. There was a fire near Braeloch last night. Lyle Critchley was killed in it. The police found traces of an accelerant. They’re calling it a murder.”

I gripped Tracy’s hand—hard. That was why the police had called her. Jamie had taken the Honda Civic that was registered in Tracy’s name.

“She has your car,” I said.

She pulled her hand away. “So? She doesn’t have a car. Jamie’s a greenie. Walks and bikes wherever she can.”

“There’s a voicemail for you from505 the OPP. Maybe they found your car and traced it to this address and phone number.”

She went over to the phone and listened to the message. “They want to talk to me.”

She turned to face me. “What if they’ve arrested Jamie? She and her family hated Lyle. But, Mom, she didn’t…Jamie wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“You’d better call them.”

Tracy went to the phone, and I let Maxie out on the back deck. When I returned to the kitchen, she was leaving a voicemail message giving the number at the condo and her cell phone number.

“I’ll heat up Jamie’s cassoulet,” I said when she got off the phone. “Vegetarian?” I assumed the environmentally conscious Jamie wouldn’t eat meat.

Tracy gave me a little smile. “Of course. Beans, carrots, tomatoes. It’s good.”

First I’d heard that she liked vegetarian fare. But then I hadn’t done a very good job of keeping up with her life, had I?

She sat down at the kitchen table. “Look, I handled it badly. I shouldn’t have sprung Jamie on you at your office. I should have sat down with you and told you about us.”

I turned on the microwave and sat down across from her.

She reached over and took my hand. “For a long time, I was pretty confused. I didn’t even come out to myself until my first year at law school. But I’ve come to terms with who I am.” She smiled. “And now it’s wonderful to have Jamie in my life.”

She squeezed my hand. “The old Tracy was unhappy because she was keeping a secret from you.”

And I’d thought we had no secrets. I love my girls and I don’t want them to keep things from me.

Something inside me shifted. I had to show Tracy that I was worthy of her trust. I decided that I’d get to know Jamie. If she was the one for Tracy, I’d stand by her choice.

“You’ve talked to Laura?” I asked.

“She’s cool. Thinks I’m crazy not to be hot for guys, but it’s my life, she says.”

I had to smile at that. Laura had been boy-crazy since she was twelve.

Tracy touched my cheek. “Mom, I’m out. It’s official. Do you good to talk to a friend¯or two.”

My eyes started to tear up. Then the doorbell rang.

Through the front window I saw two men in overcoats on the porch. Both were tall and poised with apparent military bearing. A cold blast of air hit me when I opened the door. I pulled up the collar of my suit jacket. “Yes?”

1505″Ontario Provincial Police,” the older of the two men said with a pronounced Scottish burr. He was in his late fifties, with a gray moustache and gray eyes sinking into the folds of skin around them. He showed me his badge. “I’m Detective Inspector Stewart Foster and this is Detective Lew Anders. We’re looking for Tracy Tierney.”

“I’m Tracy Tierney,” my daughter said behind me.

“We have some questions to ask you. May we come in?”

 

Tracy was the first to speak when we were seated in the family room. “What’s this about?” she asked.

Foster fixed his eyes on her. “Your car was found in Braeloch this morning.”

I studied his face for a sign of what was coming, but he kept it neutral.

“Can you account for your whereabouts around nine last night?” he asked.

Tracy paused. “I got home at seven-thirty. I ate dinner then I watched some television.”

Anders, a big, fair-haired man with a ruddy complexion, wrote this down in his notebook.

“You were home, too?” Foster asked me.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I wasn’t here,” Tracy said. “This is my mother’s home. I was at my place downtown.”

“Tracy moved in with a friend a few weeks ago,” I said. “They have a condo on The Esplanade.”

He frowned. “The address on your car registration is here.”

Tracy made a face. “I haven’t got around to changing it,” she mumbled.

I flashed her my no-nonsense look. Tracy is a lawyer. She should have done the paperwork.

“Was anyone with you last night?” he asked her.

“No. I was alone all evening.”

“A man died in a fire in his garage last night,” he said. “Outside the town of Braeloch in Glencoe Highlands Township. A car similar to yours was seen on his property earlier in the day. Can someone confirm that you were in Toronto last night?”

Tracy was thinking hard. “I was at the office till seven with a couple of lawyers. How long would it take me to get to Braeloch? Three hours? And I’d be caught in traffic leaving the city. I couldn’t be there by nine.”

“Then how did your car get to the parking lot in Braeloch?” he asked.

She just looked at him. The foolish girl was trying to cover up for Jamie.

“You have no idea how your car found its way to Braeloch?” he asked.

She looked down at her hands.

I’d had enough. My daughter was being treated as a suspect in a murder investigation. “Tracy lent her car to a friend yesterday.”

She shot daggers at me with her glare. Foster sat up straighter on the sofa.

“Who is this friend?” he wanted to know.

She didn’t reply.

“Ms. Tierney, we can charge you with obstructing a murder investigation. I will repeat my question. Who did you lend your car to yesterday?”

“Jamie Collins,” she said.

“And where can we reach Mr. Collins?”

“Ms. Collins.” She looked at him defiantly. “Jamie’s the woman I live with. My partner.”

“Is Ms. Collins at home right now?” he asked without missing a beat.

“I haven’t seen her since yesterday morning.” Her voice broke in mid-sentence.

Foster paused for a few moments. “Describe Ms. Collins.”

“Jamie has red hair,” she said. “Burgundy, I guess you’d call it.”

Foster nodded at Anders who scribbled in his notebook.

“Tell them about the letter,” I said.

If Tracy’s look could have killed, I would have been six feet under. Foster nodded at Anders again.

“What about this letter, Ms. Tierney?”

She didn’t answer for a few moments. “Jamie got a letter from Lyle Critchley,” she said slowly. “He wanted her help.”

“What kind of help?”

“I don’t know. She’d put the letter through the shredder before I got in, and she spent the rest of the night on her computer.”

“What day did this letter arrive?” Foster asked.

“Wednesday.”

“And she drove up north in your car on Thursday?”

“Jamie called me at work yesterday and asked if she could use my car. She didn’t say where she was going.”

“You don’t know where she is?”

“I told you I haven’t spoken to her since yesterday morning. But I’ll try the condo now.”

She picked up the cordless phone on the end table and hit some buttons. “No one’s answering.”

Anders took down the address of the condo, Tracy’s phone numbers and the names of the colleagues she was with on Thursday afternoon. He told her that forensics would check out her car, and she could pick it up at police headquarters in Orillia in a few days.

“And we’ll need to take a look at Ms. Collins’s home computers,” Foster said.

“Right now?” Tracy asked. “I was about to have dinner with my mother.”

“The sooner the better,” Anders said. “This is a murder investigation.”

Foster looked at his watch. “We’ll meet you in your condo lobby at nine.”

At the door, he handed Tracy his card. “Don’t leave Toronto without letting us know.”

When the door closed behind them, Tracy turned to me. Anger flashed in her eyes. “Now you’ve done it!”

I opened my mouth to protest when she spat out, “You’ve had it in for Jamie since you met her. So you told them she took my car and you told them about Lyle’s letter.”

“Tracy—”

“They’ll charge her with killing him.”

She held her hands over her face. I tried to put my arms around her, but she pushed me away. “We should have gotten married, then I wouldn’t have to testify against her. We’ve been talking about it. We thought maybe this summer.”

Marriage? That was news to me, but I’d been completely out of the loop. I gripped her elbow and led her back to the kitchen where I sat her down at the table. I pulled up a chair beside her.

“We had to tell the officers who drove your car up there,” I said. “You know that. And it will all work out. I’m sure it was a coincidence that Jamie went up there on the day Lyle was killed. She’ll turn up, and she’ll tell them where she was and who she was with.”

But my brave words belied my thoughts. Anger and other strong emotions can provoke anyone into a violent act. Even someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

“I’m going to Braeloch,” Tracy said through her tears.

“Tracy, the officers told you not to leave city without telling them.”

“I don’t care.”

“And even if they gave you the go-ahead, they’d follow every move you made. They’d think you’d lead them to Jamie.”

She brushed away her tears with the back of her hand. “But they wouldn’t follow you. Mom, will you go up there and look for her? Tomorrow’s Saturday. You’d have the weekend to find out what’s going on. I’ll come over tomorrow morning and stay here with Tommy.”

I was about to say that if I found Jamie, I had no idea what I could do to help her. But Tracy’s pleading eyes were cutting me to my very soul. I had to let her know that she could count on me. Any time. Like right now. It was important that I restore my daughter’s faith in me.

I nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

I gave Jamie’s cassoulet a few more minutes in the microwave. While the dish was spinning, Tracy phoned Jamie’s mother in Braeloch and told her that I’d come by her home late the next morning. Veronica Collins said she hadn’t heard from her daughter in more than a week.

When we sat down at the table, neither of us felt like eating. “Jamie went to see Lyle about something he told her in that letter,” Tracy said, her eyes wide with concern. “So whoever killed him would want her out of the way, too.”

I’d been thinking along those lines, but I didn’t want to add to her worries. I told her the killer probably didn’t know about the letter. “And whatever Lyle told Jamie might have nothing to do with why he was killed.”

She didn’t buy that. “She knows way too much.”

“She’s dropped out of sight to check up on what Lyle told her.”

“Maybe. And thanks to you, the police are looking for her.” She gave me a sidelong glance. “And when they find out about the feud between the Collins family and Lyle—”

“Feud?”

“There were a lot of bad feelings.”

Of course there were. He killed the Collins girl.

“When they do, they won’t look any farther for Lyle’s killer.”

We were going around in circles. “We don’t know that,” I said. “They may have several irons in the fire by now.”

I pushed my chair back from the table. “I’ll drive you over to the condo.”

 

“What’s Veronica like?” I asked Tracy when we were in the car.

“I’ve never met her. Tonight was the first time I spoke to her.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Tracy had talked about marriage, but she’d never met her intended’s family.

“Jamie doesn’t go back to Braeloch much. Says it brings back memories of her sister…and Lyle. She took Veronica to New York this Christmas.”

“At some point, you’ll have to meet her.”

“I guess. We’ll probably drive up there this summer.”

On your honeymoon? 

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Read-a-Chapter: BLOOD MOON, by Alexandra Sokoloff

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the thriller, Blood Moon, by Alexandra Sokoloff. Enjoy!

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Book II of the Huntress/FBI Thrillers

Twenty-five years have passed since a savage killer terrorized California, massacring three ordinary families before disappearing without a trace.

The haunted child who was the only surviving victim of his rampage is now wanted by the FBI for brutal crimes of her own, and Special Agent Matthew Roarke is on an interstate manhunt for her, despite his conflicted sympathies for her history and motives.

But when his search for her unearths evidence of new family slayings, the dangerous woman Roarke seeks – and wants – may be his only hope of preventing another bloodbath.

Purchase BLOOD MOON

Amazon US / Amazon UK / Amazon DE

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Chapter One

 The dark concrete corridor stretched out before him, smelling of blood and semen and terror.

Roarke had been here before, these stinking hellholes, cellblock rooms barely big enough for a mattress and bed stand. Twenty-five girls to a block, locked in the rooms and drugged to the gills, servicing twenty-five to forty men a day, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Not just ordinary johns tonight: it was a new shipment, private party for the traffickers themselves.

He could hear the shallow breathing of the agents surrounding him, feel the warmth of bodies: four men before him, three in back, encased in camouflage body armor and hoisting riot shields, brandishing an entire armory. Somewhere down the hall there was sobbing, a young girl’s cries. “Mátame. Por favor, mátame.”

Kill me. Please kill me.

The number one man gestured the signal and the team shot forward in formation, then peeled off in a fluid dance, odd men to the right, even men to the left, kicking through doors, shouting: “FBI, drop your weapon! Face down on the floor!” Elsewhere in the corridor, shots blasting, more screaming, heavy thuds and the jangle of cuffs as men were wrestled to the floor.

Roarke covered the agent ahead of him until the tiny room was secure, bad guy kissing concrete. Roarke looked once at the terrified teenage girl cowering naked on the filthy mattress, and said “Es terminado.” It’s over. Then he moved out the door, leading with his Glock, down the corridor, past doorways open to similar scenes of hell.

He kicked open the next closed door and burst in—

A man with his pants half off turned with an enormous, ugly AK 47. Roarke shot twice, straight into his center mass. The man’s chest opened, blooming red, and his body went down, jerking as if tasered.

Roarke stood, his heart booming crazily in his chest.

And then, though the trafficker was as dead as a person could get, Roarke followed procedure and turned the corpse over to cuff him.

As he straightened he saw the girl, tiny and frozen, huddled on the floor against the mattress, her back pressed into the wall, her eyes wide and glazed with fear. This one twelve or thirteen years old at most, dressed in nothing but a cheap, stained camisole. Roarke felt a wave of primal anger he was able to suppress only by telling himself he must not frighten this child any further.

 “Estás seguro,” he told her in the softest voice he could muster through the adrenaline raging thorugh his bloodstream. You are safe. Although he wondered if any of the girls who walked out of this place, this night, would ever feel safe again.

There was movement behind him and he twisted around… to see Special Agent Damien Epps in the doorway. Tall, dark, lithe, and righteously pissed.

“All clear,” Epps reported. His whole body was tense. “Ten of the fucks in custody, three —”

He paused as he glanced down at the dead man at Roarke’s feet. “Four dead.” And his face and body were suddenly tense in a different way. “Nice shooting,” he added.

Roarke felt the jab. He had twelve years of Bureau service and before two weeks ago, he had never killed in the line of duty. The man at his feet was his third since then.

He gave Epps a warning look, nodding at the girl huddled against the wall. He wanted to help her up, give her the shirt under his vest, but he figured she wouldn’t be wanting any man near her for a very, very long time. “Social Services?” he asked Epps quietly. They had social workers waiting in vans outside to take the rescued girls to hospitals and on to a shelter that specialized in support for trafficking victims.

“On their way in,” Epps said.

Roarke spoke directly to the girl. “Mujeres vienen. Usted se va a la casa.” Women are coming. You are going home.

The girl didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge him. He stood for a moment, helpless, knowing he was not the one to help her. He moved to follow Epps out. And then he stopped, his eyes coming to rest on the bed stand.

Just above the gouged surface of the table there was a small drawing on the wall. Roarke stepped closer… to look down at a figure scratched in the concrete, a crude skeleton wearing a flowery crown. Scraps of food and torn bits of lace were laid carefully in front of it.

Epps was staring, too, stopped in the doorway. “What is it?”

“An altar,” Roarke said. “To Santa Muerte.” Lady Death, Holy Death, protector of the lost.

He looked at the girl, still and silent on the floor, with her old and wary eyes, and wondered if somehow her prayer had been answered and the saint had intervened.

 

 

 

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Read-a-Chapter: Before He Kills Again, by R. Barri Flowers

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the suspense thriller, Before He Kills Again, by R. Barri Flowers. Enjoy!

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Before He Kills Again_Cover

From R. Barri Flowers, award winning crime writer and international bestselling author of Dark Streets of Whitechapel and Killer in The Woods, comes a gripping new psychological thriller, Before He Kills Again: A Veronica Vasquez Thriller.

FBI psychologist and criminal profiler Veronica Vasquez returns to her hometown of Portland, Oregon to assist police in apprehending a ruthless serial killer dubbed “The Rose Killer,” who kills beautiful women in pairs, leaving a rose on top of each corpse.

Heading the investigation is homicide Detective Sergeant Bryan Waldicott. Veronica must win him over, along with the entire task force, and prove herself worthy of the job. Since losing her husband three years ago, Veronica had been focused on her work to escape the pain of loneliness and separation. A romance with Waldicott, who has issues of his own, complicates things for them both as they try to stop a serial murderer before he kills again.

When she begins to suspect that the new husband of her estranged sister Alexandra could be the killer, Veronica pursues that delicate angle and, in the process, becomes a target herself.

Before He Kills Again is tense thriller that will keep readers on edge till the very end.

Amazon Trade Paperback / Kindle /Kindle UK / Kindle CA / Barnes and Noble Nook eBook / Smashwords / Kobo

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PROLOGUE

He walked around inconspicuously, nodding in a friendly manner to other shoppers who nodded back and smiled as if they really meant it. There were flowers of every type imaginable—Dutch tulips, pretty campanula, fresh lilies, and magnificent daisies—giving him ample choices. But he already knew what he wanted long before he got to the store. In fact, he had known for months now…the notion was etched in his mind. After a suitable time spent wandering around like a lost puppy, he walked up to the counter and waited to be helped.

The florist flashed him an exaggerated smile and said: “Can I help you, sir?”

“Yes, I’d like a dozen of those white roses,” he said cheerfully, pointing at a large vase behind the counter.

“Sure thing,” she said.

He watched her ass jiggle as she walked over and pulled out twelve long stemmed roses.

“White roses seem to be pretty popular these days,” she commented.

That was exactly what he was counting on.

“With good reason,” he said, pouring on the charm. “I think they are the prettiest roses.”

“I agree,” she told him.

He knew she would have said that no matter what color roses he had chosen to buy. But that was fine with him. She was just doing her job.

The woman pulled out some red paper from beneath the counter, set the roses atop it, and began to wrap them. “Looks like some lucky lady will be grinning from ear to ear this evening,” she said.

He smiled. “You’ve got that right.”

As always, he paid for the flowers with cash, was careful not to touch anything else, and left the store humming. In the parking lot, he walked over to a black van. Once inside, he tossed the flowers on the passenger seat.

“Bought something for you lucky ladies,” he said, glancing in the back of the van at his guests. “But you can’t have it yet. I’m sure you understand. You’re not exactly in a position to show your gratitude right now.”

He laughed, pleased with his dry humor, started the engine, and took off. Within minutes, he was on Interstate 5 heading south from Portland. Dusk had settled in like sand in the desert and he turned on his lights to cut through the newly formed darkness.

In the back, he could hear one of his prisoners starting to moan and squirm, as if this would somehow lead to her rescue. Sorry, but that’s not gonna happen, he thought gleefully. Though her hands and feet were bound securely and her mouth taped shut, he could not get to his destination fast enough. Alerting the attention of a nosey passerby with a cell phone could ruin his plans in more ways than one.

“Save your breath,” he shouted at her, hiding the fact that he could never be totally at ease. Not until the job was done. The bitches had to pay…with their lives. All in good time. “Believe me,” he admonished the moaner, “you’ll need it later when you really have something to whine about. And don’t even think about getting away. Escape is damn near impossible! Hell, there is no way out—at least not in the way you think.”

The prisoner increased her moaning and wriggling with the desperation of a terrified person who knew she had nothing to lose at this point. If she only knew. He turned up the volume and sang along to Louis Armstrong’s gravelly rendition of “Mack the Knife,” effectively drowning her out.

“And the shark bites,” he sang along, “with those pearly white teeth, dear…”

Looking into the rear view mirror, he observed the woman. She was in her late thirties with almond brown skin and thick curly black hair that reminded him of a baby lamb’s wool. Taller than most women and slender in all the right places, she was just the way he liked them. She had on well-worn jeans and a bright pink blouse that was so tight across her large braless breasts he was surprised it had not ripped apart during her valiant struggle to elude capture. Of course, he had been one step quicker, physically superior, and more determined to have what he wanted.

He glanced at the other prisoner. She was motionless, obviously still under from the isoflurane he’d used to sedate her. The woman, in her mid-thirties, was white with permed auburn hair and somewhat on the slim side. She was a few inches shorter than his other captive and wore a faded, oversized jersey and jean shorts. Her bony legs were less than appealing, but he knew she would have to do.

Both bitches would do tonight. They had to pay the ultimate price for what she had done to him.

And that whining bitch will be the first to get it, he thought, eyeing the squirming, moaning black woman.

The speedometer read sixty-five and he was tempted to kick it to eighty, maybe ninety. He loved going fast and feeling the pungent air hitting his face as if to snap him back to life. Instead, he let up on the pedal, bringing his speed down to the limit of fifty-five along this stretch. He couldn’t take any chances that the cops might pick his vehicle randomly amongst the many speeders to stop.

That would certainly interfere big time with his plans for these two.

Not to mention put him on a one-way trip to prison—or worse.

As if to validate his paranoia, or perhaps ensure that he would not go down without one hell of a fight, he leaned over, opened the glove compartment, and pulled out a .357 Magnum. The cool steel felt good in his hands. He rested it against his face for a moment or two before putting it back in its resting place…knowing it was ready to grab at a moment’s notice.

He took the exit for Hillcrest. Soon he was passing by the familiar gas station and a strip of stores and places to eat. He turned onto an unpaved road and headed down about three miles, made a right, and went past farmhouses, pastures, and pine trees. It was about as far away from Portland as you could get and still be within a short drive of the city.

Soon he reached his destination. He drove onto a winding gravel road that led to his property. The one story western red cedar log cabin sat on two acres of overgrown weeds and tall evergreens. The nearest neighbor was a mile away, which suited his purposes just fine.

He pulled up to a dirt path in front of the cabin that served as a sidewalk and shut off the engine.

“Welcome, ladies,” he told his captives, “to my own little private hideaway. Now it’s your home, too…at least temporarily.” He chuckled nastily.

He dragged the black woman into the cabin first, enjoying her resistance.

“Scream your pretty head off,” he spat. “It won’t do you one bit of good—except maybe give you some pointless satisfaction that you didn’t go down without making your whiny voice heard.” He laughed. “Too bad I can’t understand a thing you’re saying with that tape strapped across your lips.”

In the back room, he left her on the floor with her arms and ankles still secured while he went out to get the white bitch. She had begun to stir, as if coming out of a bad dream.

But he knew her nightmare had only just begun.

She joined the black bitch in the room. He left them to contemplate their fate while he got the roses out of the van. He put the flowers on a small wooden table in the front room. As usual, he needed only two, tossing the others in a wastebasket to rot.

He put one of the roses on some newspaper and grabbed a can of black spray paint. After shaking it, he sprayed it liberally on the rose till it was as black as charcoal.

Perfect, he thought, nodding with approval. Just perfect. It would be nice and dry by the time he finished with his captives. Then the black and white roses could be presented to them appropriately for their cooperation and participation in his game of life and death.

The mere thought of killing them infuriated and excited him like nothing else he could imagine.

Except the thought of his next kill…

And the terror in the eyes of those who would soon become his next victims.

CHAPTER ONE

Veronica Vasquez was admittedly a bit nervous as she waited in the office of Homicide Detective Bryan Waldicott of the Portland Police Bureau. At the Bureau’s request, she had been loaned to the department as a criminal psychologist and profiling member of the FBI’s Serial Killer Unit. She was proud to have earned her stripes as a certified FBI profiler and determined to stay one step ahead of those who would like to see her “put back in her place.”

Her current assignment was to help track down a vicious sexual serial killer terrorizing Portland, Oregon and its surrounding neighborhoods. Dubbed by the press as “The Rose Killer,” the unsub had murdered six women thus far. The murders occurred in pairs, involving a Caucasian woman and a woman of color. The women had all been severely beaten, disfigured, and strangled. Most had also been sexually assaulted.

As grisly and unusual as this was, Veronica’s frayed nerves were not due to the morbidity of the case or being uprooted from her home in Washington, D.C. at a moment’s notice. Nor was she shaky at the prospect of having to deal with a temporary new boss who had once been one of the FBI’s most brash and bright special agents, until he inexplicably walked away from Quantico three years ago.

It wasn’t even the fact that she had just turned thirty-five and was already a widow with seemingly the best years of her life behind her.

No, what disturbed Veronica more than she cared to admit was returning to her hometown of Portland for the first time in nearly eight years. Not too coincidentally, that was the last time she had seen her sister, Alexandra, who was two years her junior. In fact, the two had not seen eye to eye on much of anything ever since their parents died when the sisters were in their late teens.

If the truth were told, they were about as different as night and day in Veronica’s mind, leaving little ground for a stable, steady relationship, much less a bona fide sisterly bond. It had just seemed better all the way around if they went their own separate ways.

Or at least one of them.

And it ended up being her.

Now, against her better wishes, she had come back. She knew she would have to face Alexandra sooner or later to see if they could possibly salvage anything out of their kinship or if they would remain lost to each other forever.

Veronica forced these thoughts aside as she saw a tall, well-built man approaching the office. Even from a distance, she could see that he was handsome and looked to be in his late thirties. Thick hair that was as black as the night surrounded a chiseled face with a long, pronounced nose. When he got closer, she could see that his eyes—never parting from hers as if in a trance—were pools of deep blue with an intensity that probably matched her own green eyes with gold speckles. He wore a navy suit that was only slightly wrinkled, as if to indicate that he refused to go more than a few days without having it pressed. His striped tie was only loosely fastened over a crisp, white shirt.

Veronica immediately sat up in the chair, as if she had been slouching and did not want to make a bad first impression. She had chosen to wear a gray suit that flattered her five-foot-seven inch slender frame, along with a pink shirt, and black low-heeled pumps. Her straight black hair hung across her shoulders, bordering a heart-shaped face.

She rose to her feet as the man entered the office, self-consciously pulling down her jacket. Her mouth opened to a soft smile after she saw him do the same.

Don’t let him see you sweat, she told herself. You’ve done this enough times. No reason to be intimidated now.

“Mrs. Vasquez—?” he asked in a strong baritone voice.

Veronica hadn’t been called Mrs. Vasquez much in recent memory. Not since Daniel died three years ago. Did the detective think she was still married? Had he forgotten that she was an FBI agent and should be referred to as Special Agent Vasquez, if not simply Vasquez? Or, if the conversation was strictly informal, he could just call her Veronica.

Perhaps he was just being polite out of respect. Whatever his rationale was, Veronica realized that the formal title of Mrs. had the effect of dating her current status more than she wanted it to as a single woman. Though she was not looking for love, per se, she was no longer close-minded to it.

She gave a slight nod. “Special Agent Veronica Vasquez at your service,” she said, realizing too late that she had sounded as if it was a military pronouncement. She quickly tried to correct her tone. “And you must be—?”

“Detective Sergeant Bryan Waldicott, Homicide Division, Portland Police Bureau,” he said with obvious amusement. He stuck out his hand, which Veronica shook in an obligatory show of greeting that seemed to last longer than either of them had probably intended. Waldicott was the first to pull away, while giving her a hard look. “Right off the bat, Special Agent Vasquez, I think I should be perfectly honest with you and say that I was initially opposed to calling in someone from the FBI to help with this case. I figured the last thing we needed was to have the Feds looking over our shoulders while we try to get a handle on a murder case that’s strictly local as far as I can tell.”

Veronica thought about the word initially. Why should he, of all people, be opposed to assistance from his former employer? Was there a story there? Did she need to know it? She hadn’t heard specifically that there had been bad blood when he left the Bureau. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t any.

“So what changed your mind?” she asked, assuming that he had made an about face.

Waldicott ran his hand the length of a square jaw and sculpted chin with a deep cleft its centerpiece and sighed thoughtfully. “Well, I guess I came to realize that at this point we could really use all the help we can get. Even from the FBI. We’ve got a ruthless serial killer on the prowl and he’s not only elusive, but he’s frightening the hell out of the women in Portland. And a few of us men, too. So who was I to tell my boss, much less the families of the victims, that I wasn’t willing to do anything and everything in my power to bring this monster to justice?”

“I’ll be happy to do all I can,” Veronica promised, feeling somewhat relieved that she hadn’t apparently made an enemy of the man she had been assigned to work with. “And, just for the record, I’m not here to step on anyone’s toes, Detective. I just want to fit in as part of the team working on this case. Fair?”

He looked at her for a moment as if weighing his options, before cracking a slight smile. “More than fair, Agent Vasquez.”

Veronica flashed a tiny smile of mutual cooperation. So far, so good, she thought. Realistically, she knew there was only so much a profiler could do—no matter her skills and intuition. Yes, she could draw a composite of the killer and the likely victims. She could even tell them all they ever wanted to know about the psyche of a serial killer. But the real blood and guts work was performed by the people who had to follow up on leads, which often went nowhere, and sort through mounds and mounds of evidence and would-be evidence until they ultimately captured or killed the serial killer. Or stood by helplessly as the trail went cold while he continued to evade and taunt them.

“Please, sit down,” offered Waldicott with a sweep of his long arm.

Veronica sat again in the black leather chair. She watched as Bryan Waldicott sat at a desk that somehow seemed too small for a man his size. A file folder lay open on it. Waldicott looked up at her, down at the folder, and up again.

“So this is a homecoming of sorts for you,” he commented with a brow cocked whimsically. “It says here that you grew up in Portland.”

Veronica shivered. “Yes, on both counts.”

Waldicott looked at her curiously. “So why did you leave? In many respects, this seems like the ideal place to live and raise a family.”

Veronica wondered if this was a chauvinistic statement against women being in the work force, much less law enforcement, which was still mostly a male dominated profession. On the other hand, she could also imagine that Bryan Waldicott had a knock against FBI agents, in specific, as a former member of the ranks himself.

As if he sensed the implications of the question, Waldicott answered it himself with a shrug. “Why does anyone ever move away? Usually because they found something—or someone—better elsewhere. So which is it?”

Veronica considered the question and decided to reverse the tables. “Is that why you left the FBI?” she asked bluntly, seizing the moment. Or maybe it was the mystery behind the man himself that made her curious. “Because you found something…or someone better?”

Veronica could see that she had definitely struck a nerve, as Waldicott’s brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed to little more than razor slits. Immediately, she wished she had kept her mouth shut, if only because he was technically her superior. She had placed a courtesy call to the FBI field office in Portland and they had made it very clear that her current orders and assignment came from the man before her. A sinking feeling told Veronica that she had no more right to pry into his personal life than he had to pry into hers.

Waldicott’s mouth had become an irregular line, but then softened. “Looks like you’ve done some of your own homework, Agent Vasquez. I suppose that’s only fair, all things considered.” He took a breath. “If you must know, I left the Bureau because it seemed the best thing to do at the time. I have no regrets.”

Veronica could tell that he was clearly troubled by this, whatever the issue was, but managed to put on a brave face. His smile returned and he seemed to be waiting for her to respond to his original question of why she’d left home and the idyllic setting of the Pacific Northwest for a life elsewhere.

I’m not ready to share the intimate details of my personal life with him or anyone else at this time, she told herself.

After Veronica thought about it, she realized she could be just as succinct and mysterious with her response as he was, while keeping her own little secrets to herself. “I had an offer to join the FBI in D.C.,” she said simply. “And I took it.”

“All right,” Waldicott said. He seemed content to settle for that.

Veronica breathed a sigh of relief. As far as she was concerned, you could ask her anything about her profession or skills and she would be happy to respond, but her private life was to remain a closed book. It was too painful to open. Especially for someone she just met. Even though Bryan Waldicott seemed like he was used to getting what he went after sooner or later. She was determined to be the exception to the rule.

Waldicott closed the folder and stood up in one motion. “I’ll introduce you to everyone you haven’t already met. Then we’ll put your psychology and profiling skills to work—”

Veronica was sure she detected no sarcasm in his tone, which would make it much easier to work with him. She indicated her readiness by standing up. As they locked eyes, she had an uneasy feeling that they had not finished what they started. Strangely, she was not really even sure what that was.

Waldicott proffered his arm toward the door like a perfect gentleman and Veronica walked out ahead of him, lightly brushing against his jacket sleeve. She instantly felt electricity pass between them, causing the hair on the back of her neck to rise. She wondered if he felt it, too.

 

 

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