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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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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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First Chapter Reveal: The Guilty by Vincent Zandri

The GuiltyTitle: The Guilty
Author: Vincent Zandri
Publisher: StoneGate Ink
Genre: Thriller
Pages: 465
Format: Ebook
Language: English

Purchase at AMAZON

Jack Marconi is back. In The Guilty, Jack finds himself investigating a local restaurateur who’s not only obsessed with the sexy, dark romance novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, he’s accused of attempting to murder his school teacher girlfriend. As the now brain-damaged young woman begins recalling events of that fateful winter night when she was allegedly pushed down the front exterior stairs of a West Albany mansion, she becomes the target of the angry foodie/sex-obsessed boyfriend once again. Only this time, he’s cooking up a plot to keep her silenced forever.

In the Beginning…

…she falls for him as fast and hard as a plane crash. He has that devastatingly immediate effect on her, and she swallows up everything about him, like a woman dying of an incurable thirst. 

But then, he is so different from her now, ex-husband.

This man…this ambitious young man…he is so different from the tight, pit-in-the-chest-loneliness relationship she’s endured for six long years. This man isn’t at all like the man she married. This man is kind with his words, caring in his actions, tender with his touch. When he makes love to her, he does so unselfishly and with a power so focused on she and she alone, it takes her breath away.

There are other wonderful things about him.

He is kind to her little boy. He’s the kind of man to buy the little guy a train set for no reason at all other than it’s a beautiful sunny Sunday. He plays with the boy. Cowboys and Indians. Reads with the boy. Carts him off to the movies. Shares Happy Meals with him. In some cases, he is more dad than his real dad.

He is exceptionally handsome, in possession of the deepest green eyes she’s ever before seen on a man. A tall, slim but not skinny, muscular build, and thick, wavy, red/blond hair that just screams for her to run her hands through it. She considers herself an attractive young woman with her shoulder-length brunette hair and deep-set brown eyes. But not deserving of a man with his out-of-this-world looks. She feels blessed.

Unlike her ex, who is a writer, time to him is not a commodity or something to be greedily horded. His generosity and selflessness seems to know no bounds, as if God placed him on this earth for she and she alone.

It’s the same when it comes to money.

He’s taken her places her husband couldn’t begin to afford. Weekends at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City. A full week in Paris. Deep sea fishing and nude sunbathing in Aruba. Dinner at the most expensive restaurants, and shopping at the best stores. Garnet Hill, West Elm, Bloomingdales, Prada…He even bought her a new car. A fire engine red Volvo station wagon which he claimed would be a safer ride for she and her little boy than her five year old Toyota Carolla.

For the thirty-eight year old grammar school teacher, he is like a green-eyed dream come true. A knight in pure shining armor who has rescued her from a life of never quite making ends meet, from a husband who chooses career over family, from days filled with boredom and nights chilled by despair. For the first time ever, she has snagged the man of her dreams and she is not about to let go. She will do anything for him.

Anything.

But then things change.

Not in a dramatic, earth shattering way. But subtly. He begins to ask her to do things for him. Things that surprise her when they come out of his mouth. Especially when he asks her to do them with a smile on his face.

That. Smile.

She’s never before heard of people doing the things he’s talking about. Correction…she’s heard of them before, but only if she’s happened to see them on late night cable TV or read about them in some shady, bestselling erotica novel. But then, the things he’s talking about are worse than those things. They involve other things besides human flesh on human flesh. They involve tools of wood, glass, leather and steel. They involve chants and pain and spirits summoned from anywhere but heaven. He doesn’t demand for her to do these things with him. He merely asks her to explore the idea of them with him. To explore the possibilities. To explore the depths of her sensuality. In a word, he feels the need and the want to share her.

She feels at once shocked and afraid. But then she feels confusion too. She reasons with herself that perhaps he is just being playful. Deviant, but playful. That there is no harm in what he is suggesting. She’s an adult and so is he. So long as it happens amongst consenting adults, what harm can come of it? Still, she resists.

But he keeps asking her to share herself. Day after day. Night after night. He never lets up. Her beautiful man, he is determined.

Other changes begin to occur.

Physical changes.

His already thin physique becomes thinner, more veiny, his muscles more pronounced. The retinas in his striking green eyes always seem to be dilated now. As if he were secretly experimenting with some new drug or drugs. He rarely trims his fingernails, preferring now to grow them out like claws. And his teeth: He’s doing things with his teeth. Having his incisors sharpened so that when he opens his mouth, he resembles a vampire.

The changes cause more and more anxiety in her. But she chooses to ignore it. He is still so kind to her. To her boy. So loving and protecting. She doesn’t want to ruin what they’ve built together. She doesn’t want to break the spell. She decides to keep her mouth shut and carry on like her life is all wine and roses.

Then one day he reveals a secret.

He takes her by the hand, leads her downs the stairs into the basement. There he reveals a hidden room.

The. Room.

He reveals the room to her and all the room contains.

It makes her dizzy at first. So dizzy she thinks she might pass out. There are the four windowless, red-painted walls, the concrete floor with the drain positioned in the middle, the strange devices hanging on metal hooks, the video cameras, the lights, and the strangest thing of all: a large, heavy wood, spinning wheel balanced atop a ball bearing-topped pilaster. A wooden wheel with four heavy leather straps attached to it that can accompany a fully grown human being. Standing inside the door opening, she feels as if she is looking into a medieval dungeon.

“I had this constructed for us,” he whispers. “Because I love you.”

Her knees grow weak, her legs wobbly.

She fears she will faint.

But then he takes her into his strong arms and smiles that smile. That’s when he tells her wants to show her something else. Something very special. Releasing her he raises up the sleeve on his right arm to reveal a long, white, gauze bandage held in place with strips of white surgical tape. Reaching out with his left hand, he slowly, tenderly, peels away the bandage. What he exposes is as shockingly wonderful as that room is shockingly frightening.

It’s a new tattoo.

But not just any tattoo.

This tattoo contains no artistic rendering. No red hearts with arrows piercing them. No Indian heads. No tribal insignias, wings, crosses, dragons, stars, or angels. This tattoo contains only a name.

SARAH…inked in deep black, with rich scarlet droplets of blood dripping from each letter.

For her, the tattoo isn’t just decorative body paint. It is instead a declaration of the purest love. The tattoo means he is declaring his devotion and his love for all eternity.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want,” he says, his blue eyes shifting from her, to the sex room, and back to her. “I’ll understand completely. If you like, I can close up the secret room for good.”

She slowly turns away from him, focuses on the heavy wood wheel, and as much as it pains her to even contemplate being strapped to it with other people watching…watching and doing things to her and themselves…she can’t help but begin to feel a hint of excitement beginning to run through her veins and between her legs. It’s as if in the revelation of this basement space, along with her lover’s new tattoo, a tiny door inside her has been pried open. The room and all it contains, might still bring out the fear in her, but her love and desire for him is so much stronger.

“If it will please you,” she whispers, “I will do it for you.”

With that, he once more takes her into his arms, holds her hard against his chest, his hands forming tight, angry fists, his sharpened incisors biting down into his lip, piercing the flesh, drawing blood.

“Till death do us part,” he whispers into her ear.          

Chapter One

Harold Sanders didn’t look like a world renowned architect who was said to be richer than God. He looked more like the grand master or head priest for one of those new, pray-for-profit, storefront Christian churches you see springing up all over the suburbs these days.

But then what the hell did I know?

I was neither world renowned nor was I rich and I only believed in God when it was convenient. Like when someone had the business end of a pistol barrel pressed up against the back of my head for instance.

I guess, in some ways, not being rich or famous made me feel sort of sad, but in other ways provided me with an odd sense of comfort. As if in all my anonymity and humble earnings was planted a kind of peace and, dare I say it, Zen. Who wants to be rich anyway and not have to work for a living? I wouldn’t know what the hell to do with myself.

I was still trying to convince myself that it would suck to be rich and failing miserably at it when Harold Sanders crossed his long thin legs and cleared his throat. Not like it required clearing. More like he was insisting upon my undivided attention without having to actually ask for it. And considering he was the only other person occupying the room besides myself, and knowing how deep his pockets must be, I gave it to him.

“Naturally, I’ve done some checking up on you, Mr. Marconi,” he said with a tight-lipped smile, his tone patronizing. Like an elementary school principal to a newly arrived fifth grade transfer. For a brief instant, I felt like reaching across my desk and backhanding that smile right off his cleanly shaved face. But then I once more reminded myself of those deep pockets.

We were sitting in my first floor converted warehouse office space/apartment with the door shut and the view of a sunbaked Sherman Street looking positively magnificent through the old floor-to-ceiling, wire-reinforced, warehouse windows. It hadn’t rained all summer long and what had originally been termed a “temporary dry spell” by the Albany meteorologists had evolved into a full blown drought, complete with a lawn watering moratorium and hefty fines or, even jail time, for those who broke them. It was so hot and dry in the city that the drug dealers who almost always hung outside my front door rarely bothered coming out during the overheated daytime hours. A situation which must have pleased the very rich and very accomplished Mr. Sanders upon his arrival to my downtown address in his brand new black BMW convertible.

“Please call me, Keeper,” I said while painting on my best shiny happy smile. “All my friends and enemies do.”

“You survived the Attica uprising as I understand it,” he said, re-crossing his legs. Like I said, he dressed himself in the manner of a new wave priest or maybe even a successful pop culture artist like Richard Prince. But not poorly. If I had to guess I would say his black leather lace-up boots, matching black gabardine slacks, and cotton blend T-shirt didn’t originate from the local Gap outlet. More like a high-end clothier in Florence, Italy. The same place he would have purchased his round, tortoise shell eyeglasses, and maybe even the same place his thick, shoulder-length salt and pepper hair was coiffed. I tend to notice these things since giving up the prison warden life to become a laminated license-carrying private dick.

I leaned back in my swivel chair, locked my hands together at the knuckles, brought them around the back of my head for a head-rest.

“I was just a kid fresh out of high school. A brand new corrections officer. Attica was the largest American versus American slaughter since the Civil War. Not counting the abominable Indian wars of course, which were much worse. From a genocidal point of view.”

He smiled. Probably because I’d somehow managed to use the words abominable and genocidal in the same sentence.

“Why so young?” he asked.

“I didn’t feel the college path was right for me, and I definitely didn’t want to go to Viet Nam, so my dad pulled some strings.”

Sanders smiled, like we were both a part of the same old boy crony circuit of which I most definitely was not. What I didn’t tell him is that I would go on to score an undergrad degree in English. Took me six years of night classes, but I got through it.

“Sometimes it pays to have parents who can afford us a proper start in life, even if that start is on the nice side of a set of iron prison bars.”

“My dad was a construction worker,” I said. “He used to get drunk and lose at poker to the guards from Coxsackie Correctional.”

Sanders smile melted into a sour puss, like he’d just farted by mistake. Made one wonder if he was as liberal as he appeared. Or maybe he just liked to portray himself as a liberal.

“Just as well,” he said. “Both my lawyer and the Albany police force spoke highly of you. Said you were a fine prison supervisor and now you are a very competent and very mature private detective.”

“Awe shucks. Now you’re embarrassing me.”

“They also said you were a bit of a jokester.”

“You mean like a wise ass.”

“Yes, indeed. Must be a requirement in your profession.”

“You have no idea,” I said, bringing my hand around and adjusting the ball knot on my tie so that it hung Lou Grant low under my white, open-necked button-down. “So how can I be of service today?”

He reached down towards his black booted feet, took hold of a leather briefcase that didn’t have a handle or a shoulder strap. He flipped open the fine leather lid and slid out a collection of newspaper clippings bound together with an alligator clip. He handed them to me from across the desk. I leaned forward, reached my hand over the desk and took them from him.

“You’ve no doubt heard about my daughter, Sarah, and her recent troubles,” he said. “Troubles with her fiancée, the restaurateur, Robert David, Jr.”

I knew that if I told him I had not heard about his daughter’s troubles that he would find me ill informed, and therefore no longer a candidate for whatever job he wanted me to take on. So, considering his expensive tastes and the fact that he might consider laying a hefty retainer on me, I played along.

“I’m sorry,” I said, taking a bit of a gamble. “I know how hard things must be for you as of late.”

“Thank you,” he said, genuinely pleased with my reaction. Score one for Keeper Marconi, former English major.

While we were quiet for a reflective moment, I did my best to speed read the first couple of graphs on the top-most clipping which bore the headline: MANNY’S OWNER UNDER INVESTIAGTION IN FIANCEE HEAD INJURY CASE. It was about Sarah Levy, now divorced from the local writer, Michael Levy. Seems she’d taken up with the aforementioned young restaurant owner and gotten herself into some trouble which culminated in her landing in the Memorial Medical Center in a coma after suffering severe head injuries.

Truth be known, I had indeed heard about this case after all. It made the local vine not necessarily because of Sarah’s injuries, which were very bad, but because of the suspicious nature under which they might have been sustained on the property of one of Albany’s richest and most eligible bachelors.

“You think Robert David Jr. hurt your daughter on purpose?” I posed to Sanders.

He nodded.

“The young man claims that she slipped on the ice outside his West Albany home at two in the morning. Which would be a fine explanation had he immediately called 911. She was unconscious and bleeding from a ruptured cranial cap for God’s sakes.”

Ruptured cranial cap…

“But he didn’t,” I said, staring down at the photo of the happy couple that was published along with the top-most article. He was young and clean looking, with wavy if not curly reddish/blond hair and striking, if not spooky green eyes. She was also bright-eyed, her brunette hair long and lush and parted neatly over her left eye which was brown. The two reeked of optimism and youth, even if the paper cited David’s age as forty one and Sarah’s as thirty eight. Not exactly the youth of the world but then, love is a many splendored thing. Until the splendor spoils. Or in this case, splits it head open.

“Why didn’t he call 911?” I said.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I knew that.”

“Who have you been speaking to at the APD?”

“A detective by the name of, Nick Miller. While they have obvious evidence of a violent event, they have no leads or evidence of a violent crime having been committed. See how that works, Mr. Marconi? On top of all that, the Davids are exercising their 5th Amendment right, which means they have the right to remain silent. That’s exactly why he suggested I contact you.”

“So I can do his work for him,” I said, not without a grin.

“Perhaps that is a secondary motive on Detective Miller’s part. As I understand it, the police force is over-extended these days and the wealthy Davids rather generous in their annual police benevolence contributions.”

“I’m shocked that you’d suggest the Davids purchase their own particular brand of Albany law and order.”

He re-crossed his legs again. Did it with class and more than a little bit of joie de vivre.

I sat back in my swivel chair again. Did it with blue collar toughness and cynicism. Keeper the hard-ass gumshoe.

“Your daughter is recovering from her injuries?” I pressed.

“She is currently in Valley View Rehabilitation Center in Schenectady. She has no short term memory nor any recollection of the event which occurred nearly six months ago now.”

“Is she still engaged to Mr. David?”

“They have since ended their engagement,” he said, his Adams apple bobbing up and down in his neck.

“Who ended it?”

“The young man did. It was the polite thing to do. Under the circumstances.”

“In other words, you’re suing the shit out of him.”

More bobbing of the Adams apple along with some rapid eye blinking. I’d definitely stepped on the architect’s exposed nerve endings.

“Yes, I’ve entered into a civil suit with him.”

“How much you going after?” I said, leaning back up against my desk, grabbing hold of a Bic ballpoint, jotting down the words, “law” and “suit” in neat Keeper Marconi scribble. Felt good putting that English degree to work.

“Forty million,” he said, with all the casualness of a man revealing the score on a Yankees/Red Sox double-header.

“I see,” I said. “Your lawyer’s name?”

“I don’t think–”

I slapped the pen down, raised up my head, my brown eyes locked with his bespectacled gray/blue eyes.

“Look, Mr. Sanders,” I said, “if we’re going to work together, we have to get something straight right off the bat. I’m going to have to trust you and you’re going to have to trust me. I’m going to be asking a lot of personal questions of you, your wife, your grandmother if you got one. I might even interrogate the family dog. For sure I’m even going to interview your daughter for what it’s worth. But the point is, when I ask you a question, I expect a straight answer and I expect it immediately. Got it?”

He swallowed something. It looked like fear or respect or both. I went with both.

“My lawyer’s name is Terry Kindler,” he said. “And I don’t have a dog at present.”

I sat up straight, picked the pen back up, jotted down the name “Kindler” even though I’d personally known the litigator for years. Marconi the conscientious.

“I’m going to need to talk with Kindler right away. Miller too. In the meantime, you have any theories as to what happened on that cold night in February? The love birds been fighting? They not been getting along the way the soon to be betrothed should?”

“I believe Robert David Jr. hit my daughter over the head many times with a blunt object and did so in a heavily inebriated state. He then tried to cover it up by saying she fell on the ice.”

“Why was she trying to leave at two in the morning on a cold winter’s night? She have children from her first marriage?”

“A sweet little boy, Sam. But he was staying with his father.”

“The novelist,” I said.

“Yes, the novelist. I suspect she was leaving because they were fighting. Robert has himself one heck of a temper.”

“That so?”

“Yes, it is so. A devilish temper. I believe he hit her and nearly killed her. But instead of calling 911, what does he do? He calls his father, Robert Sr., who drives to the house, stuffs my daughter into the back seat of his car and then proceeds to the emergency room not at the more capable Albany Medical Center, but to a smaller, very incapable hospital on the outskirts of town.”

“Memorial Medical Center,” I say. “North Albany.”

“Indeed.”

“Stinks,” I said.

“Overwhelmingly,” he said. “Positively pungent.” The way he pronounced “pungent” was with a hard G. An English major notices these things.

“Two hundred per day, plus expenses. Under normal circumstances, I request a retainer of twenty-five hundred. I consider these normal circumstances.”

His eyes went wide, but only for a brief second.

“Seems a little…excessive.”

“Not if you’re a world famous architect who makes millions and who’s looking for forty million more.”

We both chewed on that for a while, staring one another down from across my desk. Until he slowly grew a smile, obviously interpreting my crack as a compliment masked in sarcasm. He cocked his head forward as if he was going to have to be good with my prices or else hit the bricks.

“Get what you pay for I suppose,” he said, reaching into leather satchel, pulling out his checkbook and a genuine Mont Blanc pen.

“Money sings like an angel, Mr. Sanders,” I said, “and I love to listen to those angels.”

He wrote out the check, leaned forward, set it onto my desk beside the newspaper clippings. Then he stood back up.

I got up, came around the desk. I asked him for a card. He found one in his wallet and handed it to me.

“My cell is on there. Call me day or night. I’m not travelling right now, so you can find me either at my Albany office or at my home in Bethlehem just outside the city.”

I didn’t need for him to explain where the little town of Bethlehem was located. I knew it as a rich suburban haven filled with upwardly mobile and liberally educated white people like Sanders. I took a quick glance at the card.

Sanders Architects, Engineers, and Interior Designers. Offices in Albany, New York City, and Hong Kong. I thought about my own humble business. Marconi Private Detective Services. Office inside a formerly abandoned Sherman Street warehouse in downtown Albany, where the locals sold cocaine and ecstasy right outside my front solid metal door. But I wasn’t complaining. At least it was all mine. My little kingdom on this big blue bitter earth.

I stuffed the card into the interior pocket of my blue blazer, my hand brushing up against the butt of my shoulder-holstered Colt .45, model 1911.

“I’ll be in touch,” I said.

He held out his hand. I took it in mine and squeezed. Soft, thin, sweaty…Maybe even metro-sexually sweaty.

“Oh my,” he said. “You must work out.”

“I train with weights and run.”

“How often?”

“Everyday.”

“Explains your exceptional shape for a man having solidly reached his middle years.”

“I try and I still feel like I’m twenty one.”

“Keep trying,” he smiled, releasing my hand. “We don’t get any younger.”

“Not unless India is right about reincarnation.”

I was still staring down at the perspiration Harold Sanders left behind on the palm of my hand as he casually exited my office.

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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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Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00071]

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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Book Review: Khost, by Vincent Hobbes

 

I was doubtful when I picked up Khost for review. I’d never read a military horror novel before, though I’ve always been a big fan of the first two Alien movies. The Alien movies are military science fiction, so I thought that perhaps the two genres would be similar. They were.

Well, as it turned out, I had no reason to be apprehensive. Khost was a very pleasant surprise, and I found myself caring about the characters and their predicament and engrossed in the story until the end.

The tale begins in 1984, with the Soviet Union engaged in the bloody war with Afghanistan. Afraid of losing, the Soviets develop a chemical weapon unlike any other in history, one with the power to enhance their soldiers in the battlefield.  They soon put it to the test in the province of Khost, where the Mujahideen hide inside a massive cave complex.

But things go awfully wrong. Instead of enhancing the humans, the chemical mutates them into beings that are way beyond human, into something horrifying and evil.

Move forward to 2010. The USA is at war with Afghanistan. And it becomes increasingly challenging in the province of Khost, where already an elite team of Delta Force Operators has gone missing. That is, except only one survivor, who has an incredible, terrifying story to tell, and whom nobody believes—nobody except the CIA, which soon sends a top-secret team to deal with the situation…

Khost is nonstop suspense, action, and thrills. The story moves at a heart-racing pace. The dialogue and descriptions ring with authenticity, and I was especially impressed with all the military language and details. I also found compelling the dynamic between the characters and their sense of comradeship.

None of them are your regular nice guy, yet they show admirable courage, honor, and responsibility for the wellbeing of their team. The scenes inside the cave are quite graphic and violent at times, but somehow they all felt essential to the story and not gratuitous. In sum, I enjoyed reading this novel and can fully recommend it to fans of thrillers, horror and science fiction, and well as those of you who would like to try something different.

Purchase KHOST on Amazon.

This review previously appeared in Blogcritics

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Read-a-Chapter: Progeny, by Patrick C. Greene

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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 thriller, Progeny, by Patrick C. Greene . Enjoy!Progeny for mayra

Horror/Thriller

Website: http://www.PatrickCGreene.com

Purchase PROGENY on AMAZON.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A steady breeze in his face, Owen Sterling looked as far up the path as he could see, vigilant as always—and equally nervous—about what might appear there at any moment. Perhaps it was the distant rumbling of thunder, or the prospect of seeing Sylvia again. Whatever the case, Owen found this common task more nerve-racking than ever, as evidenced by his shaking hands.

The wheelbarrow hit a jutting rock, making it shift hard to the side. Reaching out and leaning to catch the load, Owen lost his glasses. With the heavy cloud cover, there was no glint of the sun to help him find them. Owen cursed under his breath as he dropped to all fours to feel about for them in the leaves. He briefly considered just leaving them. He soon found them though, and re-set the wheelbarrow load, pushing at its dense, heavy mass and cursing again when the garbage bag ripped where his fingers dug, squeezing blood out onto his hand.

Thunder rumbled again, an immense wall of sound starting far to his left and rolling toward his right like an enormous sonic boulder. Owen spun his head to look behind him, driving the wheelbarrow ever faster, grunting and sweating, despite his reasonably good condition. Cresting a hill, he spotted the top of the looming oak that was his destination. Its swaying upper limbs and rattling leaves made him gulp down a wad of fear.

He was very close to simply leaving the wheelbarrow where it was and running back the way he had come—but he reminded himself how that would disrupt the pattern he had created. Owen Sterling liked patterns, and this was a very good one; a very safe, reassuring one. And he was fairly sure it was serving its purpose.

The swaying of the treetop was, of course, only the wind that heralded the coming storm, the same wind that whipped at his face with increasing intensity. Judging by the pattern, it wasn’t—it couldn’t be—anything more.

Owen eased his load and inhaled a deep, cleansing breath. He was right. He was alone in the clearing. Looking up into the platform he’d built on the tree, Owen set to work quickly, ripping the bag open at the point where his fingers had punctured it, ignoring the droplets that spattered up from the tearing plastic. Another powerful gust came and went.

But this time, the sound of something large moving in the woods, coming from the other direction, was unmistakable. So much for the pattern—or any reasonable level of predictability. His heartbeat thudding in his temples, Owen worked more quickly, no longer concerned with the blood that soaked his hands and sleeves.

 

Byron Carver was tempted to get some earplugs from under the counter to help him concentrate on his homework. But he knew that this would either offend the very sensitive Abner, or draw mocking questions from Burt. He smoothed the bangs of his short reddish hair forward, as if he could make a curtain of it to isolate himself.

Byron had made a habit of doing his homework at his father’s gun shop since the previous school year, when the many little thorns of his parents’ marriage had begun pricking him instead of them. In a town like this, being a teen boy who stayed home with mommy all the time while your father ran a gun shop was just asking for the kind of reputation that made life very difficult—especially when you’d already been labeled “sensitive”.

The pressure was on; Byron had had to attend summer school, and this was the last week. An elaborate, week-long hunting trip was planned around that fact, which was later in the season than his father would have liked. Pressed for the truth, Byron might have admitted that he secretly hoped summer school would disqualify him from the trip, and leave him essentially on his own, while his father and crew killed things, and his mother sulked and commiserated with her sister on the phone. His father had insisted on waiting for Byron though, choosing instead to punish him for his grades by taking away his television—and other electronic “doo-whatzits”.

All the usual suspects were gathered around the register where Zane Carver held sway, pontificating on the finer or lesser points of any given firearm, or relating colorful stories about animals of rare beauty and majesty, which he was nonetheless compelled to slaughter. Closer to election time, he might have expounded on the evils of the tax code, how he had refused to pay taxes that year, and the results of his heroic actions. But today, the anticipation of preparing for the hunting trip supplied plenty of conversational fuel.

“This ’un here was more interested in beer than deer last time we went out,” the elder Carver said, nudging Burt as he winked at the others. They laughed, Burt nodding with a roguish smile.

Burt, who was a decade or so older than Byron, was his father’s full-timer; a gun enthusiast and shade tree mechanic who took to the gun trade well—and served as one more motivation for Byron to find something else to do with his life. While working in a gun shop was an honest vocation, and being able to fix things was an admirable quality, Burt’s crude sense of humor and complete disdain for seemingly any living thing were not. Worse, Zane treated Burt like a son—often leaving Byron feeling he had failed to fill that role.

“At least I didn’t squeal when that little bitty garden snake crawled over my boot,” Burt countered, steering the mockery toward Abner. Byron remembered the tiny snake that slithered across Abner’s foot, the sudden shrill scream that frightened then amused the others. He also remembered that despite being so harmless, it still met a grisly end under Burt’s blade, sliced into numerous squirming sections, grossing out Abner and drawing cruel laughter from Burt.

Abner was good-natured enough, when he wasn’t blindly following Zane’s every move. Zane had sort of taken care of the simple-minded Abner during their school days. As a result, Abner often seemed almost overly dependent on Zane.

Still, Byron liked Abner and considered him as much as an uncle. Zane’s portly red-faced friend had always been kind, and had even spoken out on Byron’s behalf occasionally. But Abner knew who was boss, and didn’t challenge Zane beyond a simple singular expression of his opinion. Now, he was content to laugh along with the fellows at his own clownish role in the snake incident.

The only one not laughing was Efrem, who offered only a hint of a smile from beneath his wide-brimmed leather hat. The gaunt six-and-a-half-footer was a former Navy buddy of Zane’s and an expert tracker, with an analytical, ever-alert demeanor that could be chilling at times. If Burt got off on killing, and Zane enjoyed the adventure, Efrem seemed to do it simply out of some remnant vestige of hunter-gatherer instinct. The satisfaction he allowed on his stony, nearly skeletal features spoke of a duty fulfilled, not some great triumph.

Byron sighed to himself, realizing he would have to give up on his homework for the time being. His father’s crew was too boisterous, their enthusiasm at full capacity. Better to stay up late and finish at home than hope to glean any tidbits of knowledge through the rough filter of the pre-hunt ritual.

He eased his English book shut and meandered over to his father’s side, still young enough to occasionally need that feeling of his father’s large, reassuring bulk nearby. This was not lost on Zane, who patted his boy on the shoulder, nearly sending him tumbling face first. “Ol’ Byron here is gonna bag one all on his own, ain’t that right, boy?”

“Yeah.” Byron put on a sheepish grin, enjoying the opportunity to bask in his father’s pride—even if it wasn’t entirely justified.

“Now you know,” began Burt, already wearing a smug sneer, “it’s ’posed to be up in the eighties all week.”

Nobody said anything, but they all knew what Burt meant. Two years before, Zane had taken Byron along on a coon hunting trip during a relatively balmy autumn afternoon. Spotting a chittery fat fellow tussling with a closed box turtle, Zane had quietly lined up a shot, then eased Byron in place to pull the trigger. Byron had been so frightened at the prospect of killing one, or both, of the little creatures that his hands had shaken violently. His father took the gun from him, concern on his face, as he reassured Byron it was okay.

Efrem had mentioned something about getting him checked by a doctor. Byron, his voice quavering, made the excuse that he had gotten a chill, and that was what made him shake. But ever since, his father had been different. Harsher at times, even more determined to see Byron grow up in the hunting and gun culture that defined so many of his contemporaries.

And this in turn had been the catalyst for the problems between his parents. In being harder on Byron, Zane had also become harder on his mother.

“Watch it now, Burt. Byron’s been target shooting all spring, just for this trip. He might just surprise us all,” Zane exclaimed.

Byron cocked his head, praying that they would somehow miss seeing even so much as a chipmunk during the outing—a prayer that would go tragically unanswered.

The bells hanging from the door jangled maddeningly, signifying the arrival of the party’s last constituent, Mick Deere. A tall robust half-native, Mick fancied himself a local lady’s man—and he wasn’t the only one.

A chorus of low greetings met the man whose combination of native good looks, long hair and wild confidence was a source of grudging admiration for both Byron and Burt—and if truth be told, the older men of the group as well. Burt had grown his hair out—even despite the occasional reproach from Zane—but was never quite able to match the robustness and magnetism of the hair or the man now standing before them.

“Who’s ready to hunt?” Mick asked.

Byron wanted to shout “Not me!” Instead, he watched Burt stand taller and puff out his chest. Mick’s contribution to the gatherings usually consisted of innuendo-riddled accounts of his latest conquests, accounts which had grown more detailed and explicit as Byron grew older. This, Zane had apparently decided, would serve just fine as Byron’s one and only source of sex education.

“You’re breaking a lot of hearts, Zane,” Mick said with a bemused look.

“I am?” Zane asked.

“Filling up my weekend dance card,” Mick finished.

With his father’s small squad complete, Byron felt all the more out of place. Their loyalty, born of Zane’s fierce and gritty charisma, would have been terrifying had their focus ever been directed toward anything truly criminal. Byron thanked God that there had been nothing more than token anti-tax rhetoric in a long, long time. Better for a few wild animals to be on the receiving end of the crew’s deadly lead than federal agents.

Their light chatter would continue for some time. Byron counted his blessings; at least they weren’t talking about him anymore.

 

Standing at the broad, rain-spattered airport window, Chuck Sterling watched another plane nail a perfect landing, throwing up great sheets of water from the tarmac, dreaming in his boyish way that he would be able to land a plane one day, along with all the many aspirations that crowd an eleven-year-old’s heart and mind. He saw his mother’s prim reflection in the window as she came up beside him. He knew what would come next. “He’s late,” she stated, tousling his longish, sandy blond hair as if to console him. Chuck offered no response.

“I just hate to see you treated this way, babe. You’d think he’d want to spend every second he could with you.”

“He probably just got busy with his writing. You know, inspired,” Chuck offered.

“Well, whatever one’s priorities are, I suppose,” she sniffed.

“Okay, Mom,” Chuck said with as much sarcasm as he knew would be allowed.

“Please don’t take that tone, Chuck. We won’t see each other for almost five weeks.”

Hearing squeals and laughter, Chuck turned to see a family gathered nearby, clearly re-uniting after some time apart. A toddler girl, her face alight with joyful recognition, clinged at her father’s leg, joining her brother in his arms, as he released his wife from a stout embrace. They all chattered excitedly as they gathered their luggage and moved on.

Once they were gone, Chuck realized he missed them.

His father Owen appeared in the hallway, smiling and picking up his pace when he spotted Chuck. Chuck smiled back and waved, all-too-aware that too much enthusiasm might leave his mother with hurt feelings—which she would store and allow to stew until she picked him up.

Owen jogged to him, taking the boy up in powerful arms that stayed hidden in a loose-fitting casual button-down.

“Hey, Chuckie!!” Owen said, marveling at the changes in his son. “You’re so tall!”

Sylvia stepped to within a few feet, watching with forced patience. “He hates that,” she stated.

Owen stared at her, awaiting an explanation but not willing to ask for it; perhaps not wanting to overtly acknowledge her presence.

“Chuckie. No one calls him that anymore,” she explained.

“Oh. Right. Sorry, Chuck.”

Owen took a long but discreet look at Sylvia as well. She had changed her hair and was much trimmer—obviously doing quite well without him.

“So . . . What happened this time? Did you get stuck behind a tractor?” she queried with subtlety that was supposed to escape Chuck.

Owen did not respond, instead making a show of helping Chuck with his bags.

“Careful with that one, Dad. Video games,” Chuck admonished.

“Of course.”

Sylvia gave Chuck a stout hug. Chuck hugged back, but upon realizing he would be there a while, simply relaxed in her arms. She finally released him. Rubbing his cheeks, misty-eyed, she looked him over as though to perfectly memorize his pre-visit status.

“My return flight is in about an hour. You call me tonight, okay? Let me know you’re all right?”

Chuck nodded and gave her a kiss. Then began the barely concealed parting shots.

“Can you please see that he gets to bed at a decent hour? And that he bathes?”

“He’ll be fine, as always.”

As they began to walk away, Owen examined his son’s face and turned to Sylvia.

“Good-bye, Sylvia,” he ventured.

She allowed him the hint of a smile, then essayed yet another wave solely and pointedly to Chuck.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some dark serendipity plopped a young Patrick Greene in front of a series of ever stranger films-and experiences-in his formative years, leading to a unique viewpoint. His odd interests have led to pursuits in film acting, paranormal patrick for mayrainvestigation, martial arts, quantum physics, bizarre folklore and eastern philosophy. These elements flavor his screenplays and fiction works, often leading to strange and unexpected detours designed to keep viewers and readers on their toes.

Literary influences range from Poe to Clive Barker to John Keel to a certain best selling Bangorian. Suspense, irony, and outrageously surreal circumstances test the characters who populate his work, taking them and the reader on a grandly bizarre journey into the furthest realms of darkness. The uneasy notion that reality itself is not only relative but indeed elastic- is the hallmark of Greene’s writing.

Website: http://www.PatrickCGreene.com

Purchase PROGENY on AMAZON.

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Read-a-Chapter: SUBMERGED, by Cheryl Kaye Tardif

read a chapter

 

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, Submerged, by Cheryl Kaye Tardif. Enjoy!

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Submerged400x616

Submerged

Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Suspense/Thriller

Imajin Books

AMAZON

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SUBMERGED by Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Excerpt

Prologue 

Near Cadomin, AB – Saturday, June 15, 2013 – 12:36 AM

You never grow accustomed to the stench of death. Marcus Taylor knew that smell intimately. He had inhaled burnt flesh, decayed flesh…diseased flesh. It lingered on him long after he was separated from the body.

The image of his wife and son’s gray faces and blue lips assaulted him.

Jane…Ryan.

Mercifully, there were no bodies tonight. The only scent he recognized now was wet prairie and the dank residue left over from a rainstorm and the river.

“So what happened, Marcus?”

The question came from Detective John Zur, a cop Marcus knew from the old days. Back before he traded in his steady income and respected career for something that had poisoned him physically and mentally.

“Come on,” Zur prodded. “Start talking. And tell me the truth.”

Marcus was an expert at hiding things. Always had been. But there was no way in hell he could hide why he was soaked to the skin and standing at the edge of a river in the middle of nowhere.

He squinted at the river, trying to discern where the car had sunk. He only saw faint ripples on the surface. “You can see what happened, John.”

“You left your desk. Not a very rational decision to make, considering your past.”

Marcus shook his head, the taste of river water still in his throat. “Just because I do something unexpected doesn’t mean I’m back to old habits.”

Zur studied him but said nothing.

“I had to do something, John. I had to try to save them.”

“That’s what EMS is for. You’re not a paramedic anymore.”

Marcus let his gaze drift to the river. “I know. But you guys were all over the place and someone had to look for them. They were running out of time.”

Overhead, lightning forked and thunder reverberated.

“Dammit, Marcus, you went rogue!” Zur said. “You know how dangerous that is. We could’ve had four bodies.”

Marcus scowled. “Instead of merely three, you mean?”

“You know how this works. We work in teams for a reason. We all need backup. Even you.”

“All the rescue teams were otherwise engaged. I didn’t have a choice.”

Zur sighed. “We go back a long way. I know you did what you thought was right. But it could’ve cost them all their lives. And it’ll probably cost you your job. Why would you risk that for a complete stranger?”

“She wasn’t a stranger.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Marcus realized how true that statement seemed. He knew more about Rebecca Kingston than he did about any other woman. Besides Jane.

“You know her?” Zur asked, frowning.

“She told me things and I told her things. So, yeah, I know her.”

“I still do not get why you didn’t stay at the center and let us do our job.”

“She called me.” Marcus looked into his friend’s eyes. “Me. Not you.”

“I understand, but that’s your job. To listen and relay information.”

“You don’t understand a thing. Rebecca was terrified. For herself and her children. No one knew where they were for sure, and she was running out of time. If I didn’t at least try, what kind of person would I be, John?” He gritted his teeth. “I couldn’t live with that. Not again.”

Zur exhaled. “Sometimes we’re simply too late. It happens.”

“Well, I didn’t want it to happen this time.” Marcus thought of the vision he’d seen of Jane standing in the middle of the road. “I had a…hunch I was close. Then when Rebecca mentioned Colton had seen flying pigs, I remembered this place. Jane and I used to buy ribs and chops from the owner, before it closed down about seven years ago.”

“And that led you here to the farm.” Zur’s voice softened. “Good thing your hunch paid off. This time. Next time, you might not be so lucky.”

“There won’t be a next time, John.”

A smirk tugged at the corner of Zur’s mouth. “Uh-huh.”

“There won’t.”

Zur shrugged and headed for the ambulance.

Under a chaotic sky, Marcus stood at the edge of the river as tears cascaded from his eyes. The night’s events hit him hard, like a sucker punch to the gut. He was submerged in a wave of memories. The first call, Rebecca’s frantic voice, Colton crying in the background. He knew that kind of fear.  He’d felt it before. But last time, it was a different road, different woman, different child.

He shook his head. He couldn’t think of Jane right now. Or Ryan. He couldn’t reflect on all he’d lost. He needed to focus on what he’d found, what he’d discovered in a faceless voice that had comforted him and expressed that it was okay to let go.

He glanced at his watch. It was after midnight. 12:39, to be exact. He couldn’t believe how his life had changed in not much more than two days.

“Marcus!”

He turned…

Chapter One

 

Edson, AB – Thursday, June 13, 2013 – 10:55 AM

 

Sitting on the threadbare carpet in front of the living room fireplace, Marcus Taylor stroked a military issue Browning 9mm pistol against his leg, the thirteen-round magazine in his other hand. For an instant, he contemplated loading the gun―and then using it.

“But then who’d feed you?” he asked his companion.

Arizona, a five-year-old red Irish setter, gave him an inquisitive look, then curled up and went back to sleep on the couch. She was a rescue hound he’d picked up about a year after Ryan and Jane had died. The house had been too damned quiet. Lifeless.

“Great to know you have an opinion.”

Setting the gun and magazine down on the floor, Marcus propped a photo album against his legs and took a deep breath. The photo album of death. The album only saw daylight three times a year. The other three hundred and sixty-two days it was hidden in a steel foot locker that doubled as his coffee table.

Today was Paul’s forty-sixth birthday. Or it would have been, except Paul was dead.

Taking another measured breath, Marcus felt for the chain that marked a page and opened the album. “Hey, Bro.”

In the photo, Corporal Paul Taylor stood on the shoulder of a deserted street on the outskirts of a nondescript town in Afghanistan, a sniper rifle braced across his chest and the Browning in his hand. He’d been killed that same day, his limbs ripped apart by a roadside bomb. The IED had been buried in six inches of dust and dirt when Paul, distracted by a crying kid, had unwittingly stepped on it.

One stupid mistake could end in death, separating son from parents and brother from brother. Resentment could separate siblings too.

“I wish I could tell you how sorry I am,” Marcus said, blinking back a tear. “We wasted so much time being pissed at each other.”

As a young kid, he’d hidden his older brother’s toy soldiers so he could play with them when Paul was at school. In high school, Marcus had hidden how smart he was, always downplaying his intelligence in favor of being the cool, younger brother of senior hockey legend Paul Taylor. Marcus had learned to hide his jealousy too.

Until his brother was killed.

He stared at the warped dog tag at the end of the chain. It was all that was left of his brother. There was nothing to be jealous of now.

He glanced at the gun. Okay, he had that too. He’d inherited the Browning from Paul. One of his brother’s war buddies had personally delivered it. “Your brother said you can play with his toys now,” the guy had said.

Paul always had a warped sense of humor.

“Happy birthday, Paul.”

He knew his parents, who were currently cruising in the Mediterranean, would be raising a toast in Paul’s honor, so he did the same. “I miss you, bro.”

Then he dropped the tag and flipped to the next set of photos in the album. A brunette with short, choppy hair and luminous green eyes smiled back at him.

Jane.

“Hello, Elf.”

He traced her face, recalling the way her mouth tilted upward on the left and how she’d watch a chick flick tearjerker, while tears steamed unnoticed down her face.

Marcus turned to the next set of photos and sucked in a breath. A handsome boy beamed a brilliant smile and waved back at him.

“Hey, little buddy.”

He recalled the day the photo had been taken. His son, Ryan, a rookie goalie on his junior high hockey team, had blocked out his opponents, giving his team a three-goal lead. Jane had snapped the picture at the exact second when Ryan had found his father in the crowd.

“I love you.” Marcus’s voice cracked. “And I miss you so much.”

He couldn’t hide that. Not ever.

There was one other thing he couldn’t hide.

He had killed Jane. And Ryan.

For the past six years, whenever Marcus slept, his dead wife and son came to visit, taunting him with their spectral images, teasing him with familiar phrases, twisting his mind and gut into a guilt-infested cesspool. The only way to escape their accusing glares and spiteful smiles was to wake up. Or not go to sleep. Sleep was the enemy. He did his best to avoid it.

Marcus glanced at the antique clock on the mantle. 11:06.

Another twenty-four minutes and he’d have to head to the Yellowhead County Emergency Center, where he worked as a 911 dispatcher. He’d been working there for almost six months. He was halfway through five twelve-hour shifts that ran from noon to midnight. He worked them with his best friend, Leo, who would undoubtedly be in a good mood again. Leo liked sleeping in and starting his day at noon, while Marcus preferred the midnight-to-noon shift, the one everyone else hated. It gave him something to do at night, since sleeping didn’t come easily.

He closed the photo album, stood slowly and stretched his cramped muscles. As he placed the album and the gun and magazine back in the foot locker, a small cedar box with a medical insignia embossed on the top caught his eye, though he did his best to ignore it.

Even Arizona knew that box was trouble. She froze at the sight of it, her hackles raised.

“I know,” Marcus said. “I can resist temptation.”

That box had gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. It represented a past he’d give anything to erase. But he couldn’t toss it in the trash. It had too firm a grip on him. Even now it called to him.

“Marcus…”

“No!”

He slammed the foot locker lid with his fist. The sound reverberated across the room, clanging like a jail cell door, trapping him in his own private prison.

Behind him, Arizona whimpered.

“Sorry, girl.”

One day he’d get rid of the box with the insignia and be done with it once and for all.

But not yet.

Shaking off a bout of guilt, he took the stairs two at a time to the second floor and entered the master bedroom of the two-bedroom rented duplex. It was devoid of all things feminine, stripped down to the barest essentials. A bed, nightstand and tall dresser. Metal blinds, no flowered curtains like the ones in the house in Edmonton that he’d bought with Jane. The bedspread was a mishmash of brown tones, and it had been hauled up over the single pillow. There were none of the decorative pillows that Jane had loved so much. No silk flowers on the dresser. No citrus Febreeze lingering in the air. No sign of Jane.

He’d hidden her too.

Stepping into the en suite bathroom, Marcus stared into the mirror. He took in the untrimmed moustache and beard that was threatening to engulf his face. Leaning closer, he examined his eyes, which were more gray than blue. He turned his face to catch the light. “I am not tired.”

The dark circles under his eyes betrayed him.

Ignoring Arizona’s watchful gaze, he opened the medicine cabinet and grabbed the tube of Preparation H, a trick he’d learned from his wife Jane. Before he’d killed her. A little dab under the eyes, no smiling or frowning, and within seconds the crevices in his skin softened. Some of Jane’s “White Out”—as she used to call the tube of cosmetic concealer—and the shadows would disappear.

“Camouflage on,” he said to his reflection.

A memory of Jane surfaced.

It was the night of the BioWare awards banquet, nineteen years ago. Jane, dressed in a pink housecoat, sat at the bathroom vanity curling her hair, while Marcus struggled with his tie.

He’d let out a curse. “I can never get this right.”

“Here, let me.” Pushing the chair behind him, Jane climbed up before he could protest. She caught his gaze in the mirror over the sink and reached around his shoulders, her gaze wandering to the twisted lump he’d made of the full Windsor. “You shouldn’t be so impatient.”

You shouldn’t be climbing up on chairs.”

“I’m fine, Marcus.”

“You’re pregnant, that’s what you are.”

“You calling me fat, buster?”

Five months pregnant with Ryan, Jane had never looked so beautiful.

“I’d never do that,” he replied.

She cocked her head and arched one brow. “Never? How about in four months when I can’t walk up the stairs to the bedroom?”

“I’ll carry you.”

“What about when I can’t see my toes and can’t paint my toenails?”

“I’ll paint them for you.”

“What about when―”

He turned his head and kissed her. That shut her up.

With a laugh, she pushed him away, gave the tie a smooth tug and slid the knot expertly into place.

He groaned. “Now why can’t I do that?”

“Because you have me. Now quit distracting me. I still have to put on my dress and makeup.”

Marcus sat on the edge of the bed and waited. Jane always made it worth the wait, and that night she didn’t disappoint him. When she emerged from the bathroom, she was a vision of sultry goddess in a designer dress from a shop in West Edmonton Mall. The baby bump in front was barely noticeable.

“How do I look?” she asked, nervously fingering the fresh gold highlights in her hair.

“Sexy as hell.”

She spun in a slow circle to show off the sleek black dress with its plunging back. Peering over one glitter-powdered shoulder, she said, “So you like my new dress?”

“I’d like it better,” he said in a soft voice, “if it was on the floor.”

Minutes later, they were entwined in the sheets, out of breath and laughing like teenagers. Sex with Jane was always like that. Exciting. Youthful. Fun.

After dressing, Jane retreated to the bathroom to fix her hair and makeup. “Camouflage on,” she said when she returned. “Now let’s get going.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He heard her whispering, “Six plus eight plus two…”

“Are you doing that numerology thing again?” he asked with a grin.

Jane had gone to a psychic fair when she’d found out she was pregnant, and a numerologist had given her a lesson in adding dates. Ever since then, whenever something important came up, she’d work out the numbers to determine if it was going to be a good day or not. She even made Marcus buy lotto tickets on “three days,” which she said meant money coming in. They hadn’t won a lottery yet, but he played along anyway.

“What is it today?”

She smiled. “A seven.”

“Ah, lucky seven.” He arched a brow at her. “So I’m going to get lucky?”

“I think you already did, mister.”

They’d been late for the awards banquet, which didn’t go over too well since Jane was the guest of honor, the recipient of a Best Programmer award for her latest video game creation at BioWare. When Jane had stepped up on the stage to receive her award, Marcus didn’t think he could ever be prouder. Until the night Ryan was born.

Ryan…the son I killed.

Marcus gave his head a jerk, forcing the memories back into the shadows―where they belonged. He picked up the can of shaving cream. His eyes rested, unfocused, on the label.

To shave or not to shave. That was the question.

“Nah, not today,” he muttered.

He hadn’t shaved in weeks. He was also overdue for a haircut. Thankfully, they weren’t too strict about appearances at work, though his supervisor would probably harp on it again.

The alarm on his watch beeped.

He had twenty minutes to get to the center. Then he’d get back to hiding behind the anonymity of being a faceless voice on the phone.

 

Yellowhead County Emergency Services in Edson, Alberta, housed a small but competent 911 call center situated on the second floor of a spacious building on 1st Avenue. Four rooms on the floor were rented out to emergency groups, like First Aid, CPR and EMS, for training facilities. The 911 center had a full-time staff of four emergency operators and two supervisors—one for the day shift, one for the night. They also had a handful of highly trained but underpaid casual staff and three regular volunteers.

When Marcus entered the building, Leonardo Lombardo was waiting for him by the elevator. And Leo didn’t look too thrilled to see him.

“You look like your dog just died,” Marcus said.

“Don’t got a dog.”

“So what’s with the warm and cheerful welcome? Did the mob put a hit out on me?”

Leo, a man of average height in his late forties, carried about thirty extra pounds around his middle, and his swarthy Italian looks gave him an air of mystery and danger. Around town, rumormongers had spread stories that Leo was an American expatriate with mob ties. But Marcus knew exactly who had started those rumors. Leo had a depraved sense of humor.

But his friend wasn’t smiling now.

“You really gotta get some sleep.”

Stepping into the elevator, Marcus shrugged. “Sleep’s overrated.”

“You look like hell.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Leo pushed the second floor button and took a hesitant breath. “Listen, man…”

Whenever Leo started a sentence with those two words, Marcus knew it wouldn’t be good.

“You’re not on your game,” Leo said. “You’re starting to slip up.”

“What do you mean? I do my job.”

“You filed that multiple-car accident report from last night in the wrong place. Shipley’s spent half the morning looking for it. I tried covering for you, but he’s pretty pissed.”

“Shipley’s always pissed.”

Pete Shipley made it a ritual to make Marcus’s life hell whenever possible, which was more often than not. As the day shift supervisor, Shipley ruled the emergency operators with an iron fist and enough arrogance to get on anyone’s nerves.

The elevator door opened and Marcus stepped out first.

“I’ll find the report, Leo.”

“How many hours you get, Marcus?”

Sleep?

“Four.” It was a lie and both of them knew it.

Marcus started toward the cubicle with the screen that divided his desk from Leo’s. Behind them was the station for the other full-timers. He waved to Parminder and Wyatt as they left for home. They worked the night shift, so he only saw them in passing. Their stations were now manned by casual day workers. Backup.

“Get some sleep,” Leo muttered.

“Sleep is a funny thing, Leo. Not funny ha-ha, but funny strange. Once a body’s gone awhile without it or with an occasional light nap, sleep doesn’t seem that important. I’m fine.”

“Bullshit.”

They were interrupted by a door slamming down the hall.

Pete Shipley appeared, overpowering the hallway with angry energy and his massive frame. The guy towered over everyone, including Marcus, who was an easy six feet tall. Shipley, a former army captain, was built like the Titanic, which had become his office nickname. Unbeknown to him.

“Taylor!” Shipley shouted. “In my office now!”

Leo grabbed Marcus’s arm. “Tell him you slept six hours.”

“You’re suggesting I lie to the boss?”

“Just cover your ass. And for God’s sake, don’t egg him on.”

Marcus smiled. “Now why would I do that?”

Leo gaped at him. “Because you thrive on chaos.”

“Even in chaos there is order.”

Letting out a snort, Leo said, “You been reading too many self-help books. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He turned on one heel and headed for his desk.

Marcus stared after him. Don’t worry, Leo. I can handle Pete Shipley.

Pausing in front of Shipley’s door, he took a breath, knocked once and entered. His supervisor was seated behind a metal desk, his thick-lensed glasses perched on the tip of a bulbous nose as he scrutinized a mound of paperwork. Even though the man had ordered the meeting, Shipley did nothing to indicate he acknowledged Marcus’s existence.

That was fine with Marcus. It gave him time to study the office, with its cramped windowless space and dank recycled air. It wasn’t an office to envy, that’s for sure. No one wanted it, or the position and responsibility that came with it. Not even Shipley. Word had it he was positioning himself for emergency coordinator, in hopes of moving up to one of the corner offices with the floor-to-ceiling windows. Marcus doubted it would ever happen. Shipley wasn’t solid management material.

Marcus stood with his hands resting lightly on the back of the armless faux-leather chair Shipley reserved for the lucky few he deemed important enough to sit in his presence. Marcus wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

Bracing for an ugly reprimand, his thoughts drifted to last night’s shift. A drunk driver had T-boned a car at a busy intersection in Hinton, resulting in a four-car pileup. One vehicle, a mini-van with an older couple and two young boys, had been sandwiched between two vehicles from the impact of the crash. The pileup had spawned numerous frantic calls to the emergency center. Emergency Medical Services (EMS), including fire and ambulance, arrived on scene within six minutes. The Jaws of Life had been used to wrench apart the contorted metal of two of the vehicles. Only three people extracted had made it out alive. One reached the hospital DOA. Then rescue workers discovered a sedan with three teenagers inside—all dead.

They’ll have nightmares for weeks.

Marcus knew how that felt. He’d once been a first responder. In another life.

He straightened. He was ready to take on Shipley’s wrath. At least this time it would be done privately. Plus, if he was honest, he had messed up. Misfiling the report was one of a handful of stupid mistakes he’d made in the last week. Most he’d caught on his own and rectified.

“Before you say anything,” Marcus began, “I know I―”

“What?” Shipley snapped. “You know you’re an idiot?”

“No. That’s news to me.”

Pete Shipley rose slowly―all two hundred and eighty pounds, six feet eleven inches of him. Bracing beefy fists against the desk, he leaned forward. “I spent three hours searching for that accident report, Taylor. Three hours! And guess where I found it?” A nanosecond pause. “Filed with the missing persons call logs. Whatcha think of that?”

“I think it’s ironic that I filed a missing report in the missing persons section.”

“Shut it!” Shipley glared, his thick brows furrowed into a uni-brow. “Lombardo says you’ve been sleeping better, but I don’t believe him. Whatcha got to say about that?”

“Leo’s right. I slept like a baby last night.”

Shipley elevated a brow. “For a baby, you look like shit. You need a haircut. And a shave.” He wrinkled his nose. “Have you even showered this week?”

“I shower every day. Not that it’s any of your business. As for the length of my hair and beard, sounds like you’re crossing discrimination boundaries.”

“I’m not discriminating against you. I simply do not like you. You’re a goddamn drug addict, Taylor.”

Everyone in the center knew about Marcus’s past.

“Thanks for clarifying that, Peter.”

Shipley cringed. “All it’ll take is one more mistake. Everyone’s watching you. You mess up again and you’re out on your ass.” His shoulders relaxed and he folded back into the chair. “If it were up to me, I would’ve fired you months ago.”

“Good thing it isn’t up to you then.”

Marcus knew he was pushing the man’s buttons, but that wasn’t hard to do. Shipley was an idiot. A brown-noser who didn’t know his ass from his dick, according to Leo.

“This is your final warning,” Shipley said between his teeth. “We hold life and death in our hands. We can’t afford errors.”

“It was a misfiled report. The call was dispatched correctly and efficiently.”

“Yeah, at least you didn’t send the ambulance in the wrong direction.” A smug smile crossed Shipley’s face. “That was the stunt that got you knocked off your high horse as a paramedic. Got you fired from EMS.”

Marcus thought of a million ways to answer him. None of them were polite. He moved toward the door. “I think our little meeting is done.”

“I’m not finished,” Shipley bellowed.

“Yes you are, Pete.”

With that, Marcus strode from the office. He left Shipley’s door ajar, something he knew would tick off his supervisor even more than his insubordination.

He tried not to dwell on Shipley’s words, but the man had hit a nerve. Six years ago, Marcus had been publicly humiliated when the truth had come out about his addiction problem, and his future as a paramedic was sliced clean off the minute he drove that ambulance to the wrong side of town because he was too high to comprehend where he was going.

That’s when he’d taken some time off. From work…from Jane…from everyone. He’d headed to Cadomin to clear his mind and do some fishing. At least that’s what he’d told Jane. Meanwhile, he’d secretly packed his drug stash in the wooden box. Six days later, while in a morphine haze filled with strange images of ghostly children, he answered his cell phone. In a subdued voice, Detective John Zur revealed that Jane and Ryan had been in a car accident, not far from where Marcus was holing up.

That had been the beginning of the end for Marcus.

Now he was doing what he could to get by. It wasn’t that he couldn’t handle the career change from superstar paramedic to invisible 911 dispatcher. That wasn’t the problem. Shipley was. The guy had been gunning for him ever since Leo had brought Marcus in to fill a vacant spot left behind by a dispatcher who’d quit after a nervous breakdown.

“What did Titanic have to say?” Leo asked when Marcus veered around the cubicle.

“He doesn’t want to go down with the ship.”

“He thinks you’re the iceberg?”

Marcus gave a single nod.

“I got your back.”

Leo had connections at work. He knew the center coordinator, Nate Downey, very well. He was married to Nate’s daughter, Valerie.

“I know, Leo.”

As he settled into his desk and slipped on the headset, Marcus took a deep breath and released it evenly. The mind tricks between him and Shipley had become too frequent. They wreaked havoc on his brain and drained him.

Because Shipley never lets me forget.

The clock on the computer read: 12:20. It was going to be a very long day.

In the sleepy town of Edson, it was rare to see much excitement. The center catered to outside towns as well. Some days the phones only rang a half-dozen times. Those were the good days.

He flipped through the folders on his desk and found the protocol chart. Never hurt to do a quick refresher before his shift. It kept his mind fresh and focused.

But his thoughts meandered to the misfiled report.

Was he slipping? Was he putting people’s lives in danger? That was something he’d promised himself, and Leo, he’d never do again.

Remember Jane and Ryan.

How could he ever forget them? They’d been his life.

The phone rang and he jumped.

“911. Do you need Fire, Police or Ambulance?”

Marcus spent the next ten minutes explaining to eighty-nine-year-old Mrs. Mortimer, a frequent caller, that no one was available to rescue her cat from the neighbor’s tree.

Then he waited for a real emergency.

 


Chapter Two

 

Edmonton, AB – Thursday, June 13, 2013 – 4:37 PM

 

Rebecca Kingston folded her arms across her down-filled jacket and tried not to shiver. Though May had ended with a heat wave, the temperatures had dropped the first week of June. It had rained for the first five days, and an arctic chill had swept through the city. The weatherman blamed the erratic change in weather on global warming and a cold front sweeping down from Alaska, while locals held one source responsible. Their lifelong rival—Calgary.

“Can we get an ice cream, Mommy?” four-year-old Ella said with a faint lips, the result of her recent contribution to the tooth fairy’s necklace collection.

Rebecca laughed. “It feels like winter again and you want ice cream?”

“Yes, please.”

“I guess we have time.”

They hurried across the street to the corner store.

“Strawberry this time,” Ella said, her blue eyes pleading.

Rebecca sighed. “Eat it slowly. Did you remember Puff?”

Her daughter nodded. “In my pocket.”

“Good girl.” Rebecca glanced at her watch. “It’s almost five. Let’s go.”

Her cell phone rang. It was Carter Billingsley, her lawyer.

“Mr. Billingsley,” she said. “I’m glad you got my message.”

“So you’ve decided to get away,” he said. “That’s a very good idea.”

“I need a break.” She glanced at Ella. “Things are going to get ugly, aren’t they?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Divorce is never pretty. But you’ll get through it.”

“Thanks, Mr. Billingsley.”

“Take care, Rebecca.”

Carter had once been her grandfather’s lawyer and Grandpa Bob had highly recommended him—if Rebecca ever needed someone to handle her divorce. In his late sixties, Carter filled that father-figure void left after her father’s passing.

Her thoughts raced to her twelve-year-old son. Colton’s team was up against one of the toughest junior high hockey teams from Regina. With Colton as the Edmonton team’s goalie, most of the pressure was on him. He was a brave boy.

She bit her bottom lip, wishing she were as brave.

You’re a coward, Becca.

“You’re too codependent,” her mother always said.

Rebecca figured that wasn’t actually her fault. She’d been fortunate to have strong male role models in her life. Men who ran companies with iron fists and made decisions after careful consideration. Or at least worked hard to provide for their families. Men like Grandpa Bob and her father. Men who could be trusted to make the right decisions.

Not like Wesley.

Even her grandfather hadn’t liked him. When Grandpa Bob passed away two years ago, he’d sent a clear message to everyone that Wesley couldn’t be trusted. Grandpa Bob had lived a miser’s lifestyle. No one knew how much money he’d saved for that “rainy day”—until he was gone and Colton and Ella became beneficiaries of over eight hundred thousand dollars from the sale of Grandpa Bob’s house and business.

Grandpa Bob, in his infinite wisdom, had added two major conditions to the inheritance. Money could only be withdrawn from the account if it was spent on Ella or Colton. And Rebecca was the sole person with signing power.

Wesley moped around the house for days when he heard the conditions. Any time she bought the kids new clothes, he’d sneer at her and say, “Hope you used your grandfather’s money for those.”

Once when he’d gambled most of his paycheck, he begged her for a “loan,” and when she’d voiced that she didn’t have the money, he slapped her. “Lying bitch! You’ve got almost a million dollars at your fingertips. All I’m asking for is thirty-five hundred. I’ll pay it back.”

She’d refused and paid the price, physically.

Rebecca wanted him out of her life. Once and for all. But for the sake of the children, she had to find a way to forgive Wesley and deal with the fact that he was her children’s father. He’d always be in their lives.

Every time she looked at Colton, she was reminded of Wesley. Unlike Ella’s blonde hair and blue eyes that closely resembled her own, both father and son had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, a light spray of freckles across their noses and matching chin dimples.

She’d met Wesley at a company Christmas party shortly after she started working as a customer service representative at Alberta Cable. The son of upper-class parents, Wesley had created his independence by not joining the family law firm, as was expected. Instead, he went to work at Alberta as a cable installer. At the party, he’d been assigned to the same table as Rebecca. As soon as Wesley realized she was single, he poured on the charm. He was a master at that.

The next morning she’d found Wesley in her bed.

After nearly four years of dating, he finally popped the question. Via a text message, of all things. She was at work when her cell phone sprang to life, vibrating against her desk. When she glanced down, she saw seven words.

“Rebecca Kingston, will U marry me?”

She’d immediately let out a startled shriek. “Wesley just proposed.”

This sent the entire room into a chaotic buzz of applause and congratulatory wishes. The rest of Rebecca’s shift was a blur.

“Is Daddy gonna be at the game?” Ella said, interrupting her memories.

“No, honey. He’s at work.”

At least that’s where Rebecca hoped he was.

Wesley had left Alberta six months ago, escorted from the building after being fired for screaming at a customer in her own home and shoving the woman into a wall. It hadn’t been the first complaint lodged against him. He’d been employed off and on since then, but no one wanted an employee with anger management issues.

When Rebecca had asked what had happened, he mumbled something about an accident, arguing that it wasn’t his fault. “No matter what that ass of a supervisor says,” he said.

She’d given him a look that said she didn’t believe him. She paid for that look. The black eye he gave her kept her in the house for nearly a week. That’s when she filed for separation.

Since leaving Alberta, Wesley had wandered from one dead-end job to another. For the past two months he’d hardly worked at all. She hoped to God he wasn’t sitting at his apartment, surfing the porn highway.

Last time she saw him, Wesley had blamed his unemployment situation on the recession, which had, in all fairness, wreaked havoc with many people’s lives and crushed some of the toughest companies. But the economy, or lack of a strong one, wasn’t Wesley’s problem. The problem was his lack of motivation and the inability to handle his jealousy and rage.

Perhaps Wesley was experiencing a midlife crisis.

Maybe she was too.

It was getting more and more difficult to keep it together. But she did it for her children. Besides, she’d endured worse than uncertainty when she lived with Wesley. Much worse.

Rebecca glanced down at her daughter. Ella was a petite child who’d been born two months premature. Wesley had seen to that.

She shook her head. No. What happened back then was as much my fault as his. I stayed when I should’ve left.

“Hurry, Mommy!” Ella said, tugging on her hand.

The hockey arena was a five-minute walk from where she’d parked the Chevy Impala, but with the ice cream pit stop, Rebecca was glad they’d left early.

“Ella, do you think Colton’s team will win today?”

Her daughter rolled her eyes. “Of course. Colton is awesome!”

“Awesome,” Rebecca agreed.

Tamarack Hockey Arena came into view, along with the crowds of hockey fans who gathered outside the doors to the indoor rink.

Rebecca took Ella’s hand and drew her in close.

In Edmonton, hockey fans bordered on hockey fanatics. It wouldn’t be the first time that a fight broke out between fathers of opposing teams. Last year, a toddler had been trampled in a north Edmonton arena. Thankfully, he’d survived.

“Stay close, Ella.”

“Do you see Colton?”

“Not yet.”

“Becca!”

Turning in the direction of the voice, she scoured the bleachers. Then she spotted Wesley near the home team’s side. He wasn’t supposed to be there. The terms of their separation were that he could see the kids during scheduled visitations. Once the divorce was final, those visits would be restricted to visits accompanied by a social worker―if Carter Billingsley, her lawyer, came through for her. She hadn’t given Wesley this news yet.

“I saved you some seats,” Wesley hollered. The look he gave her suggested she shouldn’t make a public scene. Or else.

Rebecca released a reluctant sigh. Great. Just great.

“Are we gonna sit with Daddy?” Ella asked.

“Yes, honey. Unless you want to sit somewhere else.” Anywhere else.

Despite Rebecca’s silent plea, Ella headed in Wesley’s direction, pushing past the knees that blocked the aisle. Rebecca sat beside Ella and tried to tamp down the guilt she felt at placing their daughter between them.

“There’s a seat beside me,” Wesley said.

Her gaze flew to the empty seat on his right and she winced. “I’m good here. Thanks for saving the seats.”

Looking as handsome as the day she’d married him, Wesley smiled. “You look lovely. New hairstyle?”

She touched her shoulder-length hair. “I need a trim.”

“Looks good. But then you always do.”

She stared at him. He was laying on the charm a bit thick. That usually meant he wanted something.

Wesley chucked Ella under the chin. “So, Ella-Bella, how’s kindergarten?”

“We went on a field trip to the zoo yesterday.”

“See any monkeys?” he asked, his arm resting over the back of Ella’s chair.

“Yeah. They were so cute.”

“But not as cute as you, right?” He caught Rebecca’s eye and winked. “You’re the cutest girl here. Even though you have no teeth.”

“Do too!” Ella opened her mouth to show him.

After a few minutes of listening to their teasing banter, Rebecca tuned out their laughter. Sadness washed over her, followed by regret. If things had gone differently, they’d still be a family, and the kids would have their father in their lives. But Rebecca couldn’t stay in an abusive relationship. Her mind and body couldn’t endure any more trauma. And she was terrified he’d start lashing out physically at the kids.

So she’d made a decision, and one sunny Friday afternoon, she’d summoned up the courage to confront Wesley at his current job de jour.

“We need to talk,” she’d told him.

“This isn’t a good time.”

“It’s never a good time.” She took a deep breath. “I want you to move out of the house, Wesley.”

He laughed. “Good joke. What’s the punch line?”

“I’m not joking.”

His smile disappeared. “You’re serious?”

“Dead serious. It’s not like you couldn’t see this coming. I want a separation. You know I’ve been…unhappy in our marriage.”

“I’ll try to make more time for you.”

“It’s not more time that I want, Wesley. Neither of us can live like this. Your anger is out of control. You’re out of control.”

“So this is all my fault?” Wesley sneered.

“You nearly put me in the hospital last week.”

“Maybe that’s where you belong.”

She clenched her teeth. “Your threats won’t work this time. I’ve made up my mind. I’m leaving tonight, and I’m taking the kids with me.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“Seems to me you’re only thinking about yourself, what you want. Have you even thought about what this’ll do to the kids?”

“Of course I have,” she snapped. “They’re all I think about. Can you say the same?”

“You’re going to turn them against me. Like your mother did to you and your father.” His voice dripped with disgust.

“Don’t bring my parents into this. This has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the fact that you have an anger problem and you refuse to get help.”

“What’ll you tell the kids?”

She shrugged. “Ella won’t understand. She’s too young. Colton’s getting too old for me to keep making excuses for you. He’s almost a teenager.”

Wesley didn’t answer.

“You know what he said to me last night, Wesley? He said you love being angry more than you love being with us. He’s right, isn’t he?”

She stormed out of his office without waiting for a reply. She already knew the answer.

That evening, Wesley packed two suitcases.

“I’ll be staying at The Fairmont McDonald. I still love you, Becca.”

His actions had stunned her. She’d been prepared to take the kids to Kelly’s. She was even ready for Wesley to try to hurt her. What she hadn’t expected was his easy submission. Or that for once he’d take the high road.

“You’re leaving?” she said, shocked.

“That’s what you wanted,” he said with a shrug. “So that’s what you get.”

For a second, she wanted to tell him she’d made a mistake. That she didn’t want a separation. That she’d be a better wife, learn to be more patient, learn to deal with his rages.

Then she remembered the bruises and sprains. “Good-bye, Wesley.”

“For now.”

She’d watched him climb into his car and waited until the taillights winked, then disappeared. Then she let out a long, uneasy breath and headed down the hallway. She wandered through their bedroom and into the en suite bathroom, all the while trying to think of the good times. There weren’t many.

She stared at her reflection in the mirror, one finger tracing the small scar along her chin. Wesley had given her that present on Valentine’s Day two years earlier. He’d accused her of flirting with the UPS delivery guy.

“You deserve better,” she said to her reflection. “So do the kids.”

Now, sitting two seats away from Wesley at the arena, Rebecca realized that her husband was still doing everything in his power to control her.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he said.

“You’re wasting your money.”

“What money? You get most of it.”

“That’s for the kids, Wesley, and you know it.”

She dug her fingernails into her palms. Don’t fight with him. Not here. Not in front of Ella.

She caught his eye. “Next time Colton has a game, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bother showing up.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He gave her an icy smile. “That’s my son down there.”

“What part of  ‘scheduled visits’ don’t you―”

Cheers erupted from the stands as both hockey teams skated out onto the ice and joined their goalies. Everyone stood for the national anthem, then a horn blasted.

Rebecca released a heart-heavy sigh.

The game was on…

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Read-a-Chapter: The Sons of Jude by Brandt Dodson

read a chapterRead 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 crime thriller, The Sons of Jude, by Brandt Dodson. Enjoy!

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Purchase from Amazon

When Chicago detectives Frank Campello and Andy Polanski are assigned to investigate the murder of Trina Martinez it seems like an ordinary homicide. An unfortunate young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time has been brutally murdered. But their investigation is halted by a wall of silence, a wall erected by powerful interests that will render their inquiry a lost cause.

Then they enlist the support of reporter Christy Lee – and come under immediate fire. Polanski is arrested. Campello threatened. Christy is attacked.

It’s the case that every cop gets. The one that changes his life. The one where justice is elusive and the hunter becomes the hunted.

Frank Campello and Andy Polanski are The Sons of Jude.

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Chapter One

Chicago Police Department

District 28 Headquarters

Monday, 11:00 a.m.

Detective Frank Campello stood in the doorway of the 28th district’s second floor squad room.  It was his first day back since the shooting, and everything looked the same.  Gun-metal gray desks stood nose to nose, the walls were still covered in nauseating beige, and the sound of hushed conversations filled the room, punctuated only by the occasional ring of a phone or the squeak of a chair. Everything was the same – except for Rand’s riderless desk.

Campello passed his late partner’s work station and slid out of his black leather jacket, draping it over the back of the chair.  A swarthy looking man of stocky build with close-cropped black hair and deeply-set brown eyes,  Campello preferred casual clothing to the department’s more generally accepted business attire.  On this day, he wore a black long-sleeved shirt that clung to his muscular frame, brown slacks and cordovan loafers.  A Sig-Sauer nine millimeter pistol rode on his right hip.

Taking his CPD mug to the coffee maker at the rear of the room, he met Detective Angelo Silvio.

“Welcome back, Frank.”  Silvio was stirring non-dairy creamer into his coffee. “I’m sorry about Rand.  He was a good cop.”  He tossed the stir stick into the receptacle and lifted the cup to his lips, pausing to blow before drinking.

“Thanks Angie.”  Campello filled his mug and returned the carafe to its nook.  “It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”

Silvio sat on the edge of the table that held the coffee maker.  “Things like this are always hard to believe.  How can a man like that, so full of life, be here one day and gone the next?”  He shook his head.  “It doesn’t make sense, Frank.  It just doesn’t make sense.”

“I’m sorry about Rand,” said Shelly Tertwiller as she approached. “I know you two were close.”  Tertwiller, a recent transferee to the 28th, was a detective with just two years less time on the department than Campello’s twenty.  Her coffee-colored eyes studied him from beneath a furrowed brow.  “You ok?”

“I’m ok.”

“I know everyone says this, but if there’s anything you need …”

“I appreciate it.”

“For what it’s worth, the buzz around here says you’ll come out fine on the other thing.” She was referring to his hearing before the IPRA, the all-civilian review board that replaced the previous Office of Professional Standards.  Campello’s killing of the suspect who killed Adams had automatically guaranteed him a review by the board.  All police-action shootings, regardless of their merit, went before the IPRA.

“I’ve already been exonerated, Shelly,” Campello said.

“Last week, wasn’t it?” Silvio asked.  “Where’ve you been Tertwiller?”

She gave her partner a hard look.  “Who’s talking to you, dummy?” She patted Campello’s hand. “That’s good to hear, Frank.  We’re all here for you.  You don’t stand alone.”

“I know.”

“We’re family.  When one of us goes down, we all go down.  It’s always been that way and it always will be.”  She held out her fist and he bumped it with his. “By the way, how’s your dad doing?”

“As good as can be expected.  He’s more forgetful, but he seems to like Marimar and they treat him well.”

“You see him?”

“I do.  Going this evening, in fact.”

She smiled.  “Good. Again, let me know if you need anything.”

“I will.  Thank you.”

“I mean it,” she said, turning toward him even as she was walking away.  “You need help with your case load … paperwork … whatever.  Bill and I have your back.”

Bill was her husband and a detective with the 31st.

“Got it.  Thanks Shelly.”

“Well,” Silvio said, “got to get to work.”  He held his hand out to Campello who shook it.   “We’re going to Jeep’s tonight.  You’re coming, right?”

“Absolutely.”

Silvio smiled and slapped him on the back.  “Excellent.  Five o’clock.  First round’s on you.”

Campello grinned and reluctantly went to his desk to begin his first day without Rand; his first day without his partner and friend.

He dropped himself into his chair and undid his tie.  His desk, like the others in the room, was nose to nose with his partner’s, an arrangement that facilitated communication.  Across the great divide, Campello could see Rand, sitting with his feet up and a smirk on his face.   Hey buddy, how ’bout them cubs, huh?

Campello reached across the desk tops and took Rand’s mug in hand.  The Cubs emblem was nearly worn off and the white ceramic cup was chipped and stained from years of coffee abuse.

He rolled the cup in his hands before putting it in the left hand drawer of his desk along with his pistol.

Campello stabbed the computer power button with his forefinger, brooding on old memories until the machine booted up and the CPD emblem emblazoned on the screen.  Then he opened a window to Adam’s case load; it was significant – weighty, even – and there was little doubt the district commander would re-assign some of them.  But Campello wanted to review them so he could have a say in which ones stayed with him and which went elsewhere.  The list represented a lot of effort and team work – and he did not relish the idea of losing control after all the time they had put into them.

He scrolled down the list and began by first making note of the ones that were set to go to trial.  He ran his finger down the screen as he copied the case numbers in a spiral-bound steno’s notebook, silently mouthing them to himself.  His hand stopped halfway down the list at an unfamiliar file number.  It matched no known classification, suggesting it was a dummy, something Rand had likely been working off the books, anticipating an upgrade to official status in the future.

Campello made a note of it and then circled it.  He would research it later.

“You got a minute Frank?”  He looked up to see Julio Lopez, the district commander.

“I was just going over some of Frank’s cases.”

“You can do that later.”  He pointed his chin toward his office.  “Come on back.”

Campello slid the notebook in a drawer of his desk and snatched his CPD mug.  He paused at the coffee maker to top off the cup.

“Close the door, will you?”  The boss said, settling in the chair behind his desk.

Campello pushed it closed and sat across from Lopez.  The office was Plexiglas on three sides, floor to ceiling, and both men felt their meeting being covertly watched by the entire crew.

“You doing okay?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.”

Lopez gave him a distinct non-believing look.

“I’m fine, Julio.”

“You have more time coming, Frank.  Take it if you need it.”

He shook his head.

Lopez’s eyes searched him, studied him, before accepting his statement on face value.  “Okay.  I guess you are.”

“Anything new on the shooting?” Campello asked.

“You mean, is there any new information?”

“Yep.”

“No.”  He focused his gaze on Campello. “The IPRA cleared you.  Don’t worry about it.  You did the only thing you could.”

“I wish I’d fired sooner.”

“Don’t.  Rand’s time was up.  There was nothing you could’ve done.  We all know the risk when we pin on the star.”

“Maybe.  But that doesn’t help much.”

Lopez sighed.  “No, I guess not.  But it’s true.  You’ve got two choices, Frank.  You can blame yourself for this, or you can see it for what it is and get on with your life.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do.  That’s why I’m back.”

“Let it go.  Move on.”

“I have to move on, Julio.  I have no life beyond the job.  I have nothing else.  The department is my family. The fact is I don’t belong anywhere else.  There’s no one at home so I’ve got no reason to stay there.”  He lifted the mug again, and then paused to grin over the top of it.  “God knows I haven’t done so well in the marriage department.”

“Yeah, well, me either.”

Campello lowered the mug and set it on the edge of the commander’s desk.  “Four times for me.”

Lopez winced.  “Ouch.  Okay.  You win that one.”

Campello crossed his legs.  “You didn’t call me in here to chit-chat.”

“No.”  He folded his hands, resting them on the desk.

“What, Julio?  Just say it.”

“We’ve got a transfer coming in.”

“Who?”

“It wasn’t my idea.  It was arranged before Rand took a hit.  But with his passing, I thought you’d be the right guy for –“

“Who?”

Lopez sat back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s Polanski.”

The flush of anger was immediate and Campello fought to control himself.  “Polanski?”

“The brass wants him transferred.  Since his allegations about the other shooting, the one in the thirty-first, he’s become too hot for them and a danger to himself.  The rioting there has escalated and they want him out of the district before he brings them any additional unwanted attention.”

“I don’t blame them.”

“I want him to work with you.  At least until I can figure out what to do with him.”

“No.”

The commander crossed his arms, his expression growing mulish.  “I need for you to keep an eye on him, Frank.”

“No, Julio.”

The commander nodded toward the squad room.  “Those people out there respect you.  You’ve got a lot of time and a good record with the department.  There isn’t an officer in that room that wouldn’t walk into hell with you.  I need someone who commands that kind of respect to keep an eye on Polanski.  So far, we don’t have the rioting and unrest going on here that is occurring in the thirty-first.  Your killing of the suspect who gunned down Rand is justified in the mind of the public.  But if Polanski stirs up the same concerns here that he did in the thirty-first, we’ll see the same kind of trouble.  The brass doesn’t want that and neither do I.  I don’t think you do either.”

“I don’t want to work with him, Julio.”

Lopez sighed.  “It isn’t up to you, Frank.  For what it’s worth, it’s not up to me either.”

“What do you mean?  You’re the commander.”  His voice was rising.

“I mean I have bosses too, and they want him here and you’re open right now.  I can’t let him work alone.  I don’t trust him.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.  You’re replacing Rand with Polanski?”

Lopez glanced toward the squad room and then leaned forward in his chair.  “I’m not replacing Rand with anyone.”  His gaze locked on Campello, his tone quietly emphatic.  “Stuff happens.  Rand’s gone and I have a new man who happens to be Polanski.  So you’re going to work with him, and you’re going to do it now, or you can take more time off and then work with him when you come back.”

“Work with a turncoat?  Are you serious?”

Lopez spread his hands.

Campello stared at him in disbelief.  “When does this happen?”

Julio slid a note across the desk.  “We just got a call.  There’s a body at Navy Pier.”

“What?  Now?  I haven’t even had time to clear the case load and …”

But he no longer had Julio’s attention.  The commander was staring into the squad room at an immaculately dressed man standing just outside the office door.

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