SO BEWARE by James Hockenberry

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SO BEWARE BOOK COVER_Final from TonyChapter 1   The Last Day

 The Western Front, Meuse-Argonne Sector, France: November 11, 1918

05:00: “Gil, wake up! Now!” Captain Gilbert Martin of Army Military Intelligence recognized the voice — Lieutenant Paul Keller, his longtime friend and assistant. Martin, alert and focused despite his all-night trek from Allied headquarters, lifted himself from his cot in the basement of an abandoned church. After eight months near the front, he was accustomed to crises, but he had not expected problems today.

“Paul, what’s wrong?” Martin grabbed his boots from under the bed. He trusted Keller with his life. “What in God’s name is it? The war’s almost over.” The armistice between Germany and the Allies was to take effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Six hours away.

“Not yet. The general’s sent the reserves up.” In General Donald Prescott’s part of the line, American troops had assembled in their forward positions. They were about to fight for ground the armistice would grant them for free a few hours later, a senseless waste of blood. “All hell’s about to break loose. We’re preparing to — ”

The deafening barrage of American artillery commenced. The explosions rattled Martin’s eardrums. “What did you say?” Martin hollered.

“Prescott has ordered an attack,” Keller yelled back.

“He’s not that stupid.”

“I was on forward watch. I saw the build-up.”

The artillery fire intensified. Martin cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “I have to stop him.” They rushed to their motorcycle outside the church. Keller, the fastest driver in the division, grabbed the handlebars and started it up. Martin hopped on the back, and Keller skidded away, kicking dirt behind him. They were at Prescott’s division headquarters in five minutes. General Pershing, the Commanding General of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), had assigned Martin and Keller to Prescott. Pershing said he trusted their judgment. Prescott called them Pershing’s spies.

Martin and Keller smoothed their uniforms. Prescott was adamant about neatness. Martin marched into the general’s tent with as much authority as he could muster. Keller followed. Prescott’s aides stood aside and let the intelligence officers through. Everyone liked and respected Martin, and they had witnessed Keller’s fearless aggression when provoked. The general, concentrating on his maps, did not look up.

Martin walked right up to the general and saluted. “Excuse me, General. May I have a word?”

Prescott glared at him. “How dare you barge in like this. Leave.”

Martin maintained his best parade-ground posture. “Permission to speak freely, General.” The request sounded like a demand.

“Denied.” Prescott looked back at his maps. He smelled like cigar smoke and expensive Parisian soap.

Keller stepped back and stood at attention with clenched teeth. Martin advanced one step and pointed to Prescott’s maps. “Listen, General.”

Prescott’s chief of staff backed away as if he expected an eruption.

The general’s bristly white hair stood at attention. His barrel chest puffed out. “Get out of my way.”

“General Prescott, this is slaughter,” Martin said grimly.

“Go to Hell. I don’t care who you report to. I’m going to give those Fritzes a final kick in the balls.”

Martin understood why Prescott’s staff called him Iron Head. “For Christ’s sake. Hasn’t there been enough killing? For what? A field we can walk across like it’s Central Park in a few hours.” Martin knew all too personally the value of human life. “Show some mercy.”

“You’re wrong, Captain. We’ve got these bastards on the ropes. I want to kill as many as I can. I’d march to Berlin if I could.”

“But we’ve won,” Keller said.

“Another word out of you, Lieutenant, and I’ll have you court-martialed.”

Prescott’s icy stare failed to intimidate Martin. “I’m calling AEF headquarters.” He turned and walked away.

“Stop,” Prescott yelled. “That’s an order. Sergeant, remove these officers. Keep them under guard until we finish the attack.” The sergeant and a burly corporal pulled their Colt .45 semi-automatic pistols and pointed them at Martin and Keller.

On their way out of the tent, Prescott’s chief of staff approached them. “Come with me.” As he escorted them away, he whispered to Martin, “Sorry.”

“Glory will be mine at last!” Prescott shouted behind them.

Once outside, Keller paced. Martin lit up a Camel and smoked it in seconds. His next one went just as fast. The chief of staff returned to the tent. The sergeant looked on apologetically. Minutes later, the barrage stopped and Martin heard distant whistles and yells from the front lines. The inevitable machine gun and rifle fire began to chatter.

“Shit.” Keller kicked the ground.

“I failed.” Martin shook with rage.

The wounded began to flow back from the front lines. Sick of the butchery, Martin prayed for these men with deep sorrow. The last American soldiers were dying in the war.

11:01: Shouts of joy erupted from both lines. Martin and Keller followed General Prescott and his senior officers and staff into no-man’s land. Half-way across, Prescott stepped into a mud hole. He ordered a staff officer to wipe off his boots while everyone waited.

This walk was unlike any other Martin had made across a battlefield. Except for the cries of the wounded, it was so quiet he could hear his timepiece tick. No machine guns, no shells bursting, no confused orders. But some things had not changed. A nine-inch rat ran across his feet with something in its mouth. Another chewed on the face of a soldier blown apart at the waist. Martin was not sure if the man was American or German. The smell of cordite, decaying flesh, and onions filled his nose. He wondered if this field would ever yield crops again.

Martin reached for another Camel. Smoking was his one solace. Since he had landed in France, he had smoked two packs a day. When the war had started, the army transferred Martin and Keller’s entire police unit, New York City’s elite Bomb Squad, into military intelligence. That was almost a year ago, an eternity. His lungs were still recovering from exposure to poison gas two summers ago, and his doctors had told him to stop smoking. Die now or die later — what difference would it make? Nothing at home to go back to. He had expected to be buried in France.

Martin surveyed the field. He estimated the attack had cost more than forty American casualties. Stretcher bearers continued to carry the wounded back to the field station. A soldier with a Red Cross band around his arm picked up human remains too small to be identifiable and dumped them into a sack. Martin had seen death up close as a New York policeman, but the killing in this war was beyond his comprehension. Industrial murder. He longed to go away. Someplace quiet. Someplace where he could forget.

They followed General Prescott to the German position. The Germans in their tattered gray uniforms stood weaponless. “Bavarians,” Keller said when he saw their uniform markings. Although defeated, they looked tough and proud. A one-armed German major stepped forward and saluted crisply. He offered Prescott his Luger. The general grabbed it and pushed him aside. “Where is your commanding officer?”

Keller translated. The German major replied. Keller turned to Prescott. “They’re all dead, General. Major von Ohlmann here was ordered here last week to take command of this sector.”

Prescott grumbled and shouted orders. Keller and von Ohlmann talked for a few minutes. Martin understood enough German to know that Keller had softened Prescott’s orders. Keller turned to Prescott. “These men are hungry, General. Can we bring some food over to their lines?”

“Don’t give these bastards a damned thing,” Prescott said.

“General, I apologize for saying this, but Major von Ohlmann is from a long line of Prussian officers,” Keller said. “He’s an honorable man and deserves respect.”

“He’s lucky I don’t shoot him.” Prescott looked around and seemed bored. “I’m done here. You so-called intelligence officers can do what you want. You will anyway, Lieutenant.” Prescott instructed his master sergeant to supervise the collection of German weapons. He told a corporal to remain with Martin and Keller and left with his staff.

After he was gone, von Ohlmann approached Keller. “Am I to understand you are intelligence officers?”

“Yes. We are part of General Pershing’s staff, not his.” Keller nodded his head toward Prescott.

Gut. Then, may I speak to you and your captain in private?” the major asked, looking suspiciously at the American corporal standing nearby.

“Of course. Where?”

Von Ohlmann pointed to his command bunker behind a series of communications trenches. The three men walked there in silence followed by the corporal. Three times von Ohlmann looked behind him. Martin followed his eyes to a German sergeant with a red arm band and a curious stare who never took his eyes off them.

“Corporal Wasek, please stand guard outside,” Martin ordered. He, Keller, and the German major descended several steps into a 10 x 12 foot bunker. Three layers of stout timbers formed the roof, which was reinforced with layers of sandbags. Keller had to bend down to enter. It smelled of sweat, human waste, and turnips. Two sagging cots, a small table, and a chair were the only furniture. Rats moved unmolested. A dim light completed the bleakness. Von Ohlmann looked nervous but said in good English. “We can speak freely now.” His voice was dry. “You noticed that my men are Bavarian, did you not?” Von Ohlmann swallowed hard and stopped. He looked at the entrance to the bunker.

“Is something wrong?” Keller asked.

“Go on,” Martin said. “We’re alone.”

Obviously distraught, von Ohlmann looked toward the entrance again.

“We’re safe,” Martin said. “That corporal is a good soldier. I know him.”

Von Ohlmann breathed deeply and said in a low voice, “I love Germany, but these Bavarians, they are not German. They are traitors.” He squeezed his fist so hard his knuckles whitened. “You must tell General Pershing this. It is critical.”

“What?” Martin and Keller both said.

“The junior officers. They are planning a coup. They want to break Bavaria away from Germany and make it Communist. That would be a catastrophe. You must stop them!”

Martin heard a faint gasp outside, the sound of a man falling, and footsteps. A shot went off. Von Ohlmann grabbed his chest and slumped to the ground. Martin and Keller reached for their .45s and dived for cover. In the confined bunker, Martin looked up and saw the German sergeant with the red arm band in the entrance. He fired two more bullets from his Luger, but they missed. Martin’s return shot bored into his heart.

Keller examined the assassin, while Martin tended to von Ohlmann. His dying words were, “The German Revolution has begun.”

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DSC_4043James Hockenberry, a career financial executive, has redirected his life to suspense writing with his award winning “World War One Intrigue” trilogy. The change has allowed him to interweave three of his long-time passions: history, literature, and his German-American roots. Over Here, the first novel is set in 1915-1916 and dramatizes the little known but extensive German sabotage campaign in New York. The sequel, So Beware, is set in 1919, portrays the events and turmoil of the climatic Paris Peace talks and German revolutions. He is working on his third book, Send the Word (scheduled for publication in 2019), set in 1918 which will focus on the U.S. military experience in the Great War and the U.S. home front. His books are character-driven, page-turning thrillers, grounded in exacting research. Both Over Here and So Beware have won a silver award from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association (FAPA), and So Beware was a finalist in the Book Excellence Awards competition.

Connect with James at http://jameshockenberry.com/

As well as LinkedIn ( https://www.linkedin.com/in/jimhockenberry/ )
– Twitter @HNBooksLLC
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BAR NONE by Cathi Stoler

stoler coverChapter One

Somebody had to do it and that somebody was me. The Corner Lounge was my bar and cutting fruit was my job. Even the satisfying heft of the big steel blade slicing through soft skin and pliant flesh like a guillotine chopping off a head didn’t make a difference. Cutting fruit was a horrible job, and I hated it. I had bags of it to get through. Mounds of oranges, lemons and limes all needing the deft touch of my knife to turn them into a pile of colorful wedges and curls destined to garnish Margaritas, Cosmopolitans, Martinis and the like. All so they could finally disappear in the garbage with the toss of a wrist. Work that left me with nicked fingers still stinging hours later. Really, it was a lost cause. One that I got to repeat every day.

It was ironic when you thought about it, given that my name was Jude. I couldn’t imagine what my parents could have been thinking, well, my Catholic school-reared mom that was. Did she believe saddling her baby girl with the name of the saint people call on when all else fails, when they’re desperate, when they literally might not have a leg to stand on, would trick fate and keep me safely out of harm’s way?

I had to say it didn’t work out exactly according to plan. Not with life, so far, or for my bar and restaurant either. The Corner Lounge wasn’t a lost cause; it just seemed that way sometimes. Like when I tried to keep my partner happy, the tables full and my creditors at bay.

I loved the bar business, really I did, and I was pretty good at it. When I opened The Lounge, I had a vision of a comfortable, friendly spot where people could hang out at the bar, get a good meal and listen to some live music on the weekends. A vision? Okay, maybe a bit of that St. Jude vibe did rub off on me. After all, everyone needed a little help now and again, right? Especially when three o’clock rolled around and it was time to cut fruit. I usually had company while I performed this chore, my buddy Sully, who occupied his favorite bar stool while I got the place ready for business. Today he was a no-show. Now, where was St. Jude when I needed him?

After I finished my cutting chores and the fruits of my labor were stored in the covered containers at my station and at the service bar on the other end, I moved on to the rest of my daily pre-opening tasks. Next up was checking the bottles on the back bar and in the speed rack and replacing the empties while Jimmy, my barman, brought up ice and new kegs from the basement for our beers on tap.

When all of the booze was accounted for, it was time to wipe down my beautiful carved wood and brass bar extravagance. It held pride of place in The Lounge and I’d designed my décor around it.

The back bar was fashioned from a series of antique mirrors supporting glass shelves and lit with pin lights that showcased our premium brands of vodka, tequila, gin, rum, whisky and Scotch as well as the more trendy spirit offerings. I’d had the walls painted a soft, pearl gray with randomly placed hand-rubbed streaks of silver that cast a subtle shimmery glow over the space. The room was finished with a mix of plush gray, high-backed banquettes with sleek black tables and soft post-modern floor lamps and sconces that made The Lounge feel just different enough to be cool, yet comfortable enough to make my customers want to linger for a while.

Sully walked in just as I finished polishing the bar before the after-work crowd arrived for the five to seven Corner Lounge Social Hour.

“You’re late. My fruit and I missed you.” I tossed him an errant lemon that had escaped the block. Sully caught it and sat down on his stool—the corner one nearest the window—and I reached for the bottle of Jameson behind me. “What kept you?” I poured a good measure of the Irish into a rocks glass and placed it on a coaster in front of him.

“Had to stay late at Big City.” He was referring to his place of business, the Big City Food Coop. “One of the trucks conked out just as it pulled in after the late deliveries. I waited with the driver until the mechanic showed up. It’s always something.”

Sully was in charge of deploying the trucks and vans that transported the Food Coop’s largess from its base at the Hunt’s Point Terminal in the Bronx to points all across the city. It was a volunteer job, but he did it with a precision and perseverance that bore witness to his former days in the Marines. To hear him tell it, no needy, hungry person in the five boroughs would get fed without him. He drove his beat-up old Toyota up to the Bronx five days a week like clockwork. Sully’d been doing it for a few years now and, despite his grousing about the admin, obviously thrived on it.

As he picked up his drink and took a sip, his cell beeped. “Work. He pushed the button to answer it. “See what I mean.”

I moved down the bar to give him privacy while he spoke then returned a few minutes later when he clicked off and noticed the look of irritation on his face. “Trouble?” I tilted my head toward the now quiet phone.

“Could be. One of the guys in accounting, Ed Molina, asked if he could meet tonight to talk. Wants to discuss something important he discovered in the office.” Sully toyed with his glass. “Said he just missed me this afternoon and it’s important he see me.” He shook his head. “He sounded nervous, scared even. I tried to get him to tell me what’s on his mind, but he insisted we meet in person.” He checked his watch. “He’s driving down from the Bronx and coming to the apartment a little later. I need you to do me a favor.” Sully knocked back the rest of his drink. “I’ve got to go down to Saint Ann’s and see Aunt Mary tonight. It’s her ninety-second birthday.”

Sully’d been taking care of his mom’s sister for a while and tried to visit her whenever he could. St. Ann’s Home was downtown a little ways on the end of Grand Street.

“What do you need?”

“I told Ed to stop in here and you’d give him my key so he could let himself in if he gets here before I get back.” He took his key ring out of his pocket, removed his house key and handed it to me. “I should be home by eight, but if I’m not, he can wait upstairs.” He turned his glass upside down on the coaster and rapped his knuckles on the bar, signaling he was finished—something he’d done ever since I’d known him. “Ed sounded really antsy. So be nice, okay?”

“Sure, but do you trust this guy?” I studied Sully’s face for a sign. “He’s not just looking to make trouble?” Every business had its malcontents and maybe this Ed was one of them. If not, what could be going on at the Food Coop that could be so dire?

“Yeah, I do, which is why I’ve got to hear what he has to say.”

I nodded in sympathy and tried to keep my skepticism out of my voice. “Alright. Stop in after he leaves and let me know what’s going on. I’ll buy you a night cap.”

He walked away from the bar and a shiver passed through me like someone had just walked on my grave. Sully reached the door, turned around and looked straight at me, almost as if he felt it too.

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BAR NONE is available at Amazon, B&N and fine booksellers everywhere.

stoler authorCathi Stoler is an award-winning author. Her new Urban Thriller, BAR NONE, A Murder on the Rocks Mystery, featuring The Corner Lounge bar owner, Jude Dillane, will be published this October by Clay Stafford Books. A new series, with Blackjack player, Nick Donahue, includes the novel OUT OF TIME, and the novella, NICK OF TIME. Both will be published next year by Black Opal Books. She is also the author of the three volume Laurel & Helen New York Mystery series, which includes TELLING LIES, KEEPING SECRETS and THE HARD WAY, and a three time finalist, and winner of the 2015 Derringer for Best Short Story, “The Kaluki Kings of Queens”. Very involved in the crime writing world,  Cathi serves as Co-Vice President of Sisters in Crime New York/Tri-State, and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.
Connect with Cathi at:

Website: www.cathistoler.com,
Email: cathi@cathistoler.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/CathiStolerAuthor/

Goodreads: https://bit.ly/2NIAW2s

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2Ie0yxS

Twitter: @cathistoler

Instagram: cathicopy

CHASING EDEN by Sharon Linnéa and B.K. Sherer

ChasingEden_pb_mech_FINAL.inddPROLOGUE

April 8, 2003, 4:05 a.m.    10 Kilometers south of Tallil, Southern Iraq

Adara Dunbar opened her eyes to find herself floating in a world gone brown. The air shimmered and folded in on itself in constantly moving circles. Nothing stayed solid. Where was she?

She clawed at thoughts to catch hold of them, but they, too, darted past her, spinning out of control. It was disconcerting, the effort needed to lay claim to some shred of her identity, of her surroundings.

Then she moved slightly and with the tearing pain in her abdomen came a shock of lucidity. She had been shot. She had been captured. She was on a cot, in a tent.

There had been a man in the black robes of the Fedayeen, Saddam Hussein’s trained assassins. He had a sharp nose and a black beard, shaved close. But his eyes were what she remembered. They were violet. In a woman, they might have been beautiful. In his face, they blazed hatred. He had asked her questions. He had delighted in causing her pain.

She stirred again, and the tent walls seemed to fall in on her. She closed her eyes quickly, but the world did not stop spinning. And her stomach lurched as well, vomit rising in her throat. Suddenly her nausea and confusion made sense.

She had been drugged. That was the only answer.

For the first time, she panicked.

What had she said?

Adara opened her eyes again to see where the guards were. She was alone in this tent with the cot, but she could see shadows against the walls of the larger tent adjoining hers. How many were there? Four? Six? She could hear low mutterings in Arabic.

“God help me,” she whisphered. “Give me wisdom. Give me strength.”

She was a messenger, delivering the most important information of her life. It concerned safeguarding the secret that had shaped mankind for millennia–and, most likely, the real reason for the war that had started days before.

How had these men found her? Where had their information come from? How had they gotten this close?

She reached under the black hijab, the head scarf that also covered her neck. With great relief, she felt the small silver chain still there, the pendant still intact.

There was no question, she had to deliver the message.

Her hand was sticky and as she held it up, she saw it dripping with blood. She tried to move to ascertain the extent of her injuries, but the pain of even a small shift caused a sharp intake of breath. She did not want to call attention to the fact that she was conscious. Why was no guard left here with her?

She forced herself up, pushed the wine-colored fabric of the robe from her right side–and she knew. She had been left for dead.

From outside, a new voice was heard, shockingly loud, striking nonchalant. “Muleskinner One Two, this is Rock Three November. Over.”

The American accent was dead-on. He repeated, “Muleskinner One Two, this is Rock Three November. Over.”

The response came over the crackle of a radio: “Rock Three November, this is Muleskinner One Two. Over.”

The new voice was female. It was familiar.

“I have been tasked to relay the following message from Muleskinner Six. Break. Be advised, a ROM site has been established along MSR Falcon. Break. Are you prepared to copy grids? Over.”

“Ready to copy.”

And with those three words, Adara knew. She had given them the name of her backup.

The man outside her tent continued. “Proceed along MSR Falcon to grid Papa Victor 17771667. How copy?”

“I copy Lima Charlie. Thanks for the relay. If you are in contact with Muleskinner Five, tell him we should arrive in about three zero mikes. Over.”

It was Jaime. The sound of her voice sent Adara reeling back into Dr. Hayden’s History of World Religions class. An unusually hot September day in Princeton, Professor Hayden’s hair flaring from his head like leaping sunspots. The two women sat next to each other. They had formed a bond the first day of class, the only students actually paying attention in what was obviously a beyond-boring required course for the majority of their classmates.

“Muleskinner One Two, Rock Three November. Wilco. Out.”

She had led them to Jaime Richards. She had as good as arranged the ambush; she had signed Jaime’s death certificate.

With an incredible act of will, Adara held up her right arm. It was bare; the bracelet was gone. Hot tears crowded her eyes.

Short of a miracle, her mission had failed completely.

If there was one thing she had learned in her short life, it was that there was little use in waiting for miracles. Sometimes you had to create them yourself.

PART ONE  TALLIL / UR

April 8, 2003  4:22 a.m.    Highway 1 (Route Tornado)  12 kilometers south of Tallil, Southern Iraq

The first sign of trouble was a jolt to the Humvee. The vehicle continued another few paces, but it was slightly rocking, like a man with a limp. Chaplain (Major) Jaime Richards hit the brake and pushed the gear stick into park. “What now?” she muttered.

Before the question was completed, her chaplain assistant, Staff Sergeant Alejandro Ramon Benito Rodriguez, was on the ground, searching for the cause of the problem. The other five vehicles in their small convoy saw their predicament and rolled to a halt in the darkness of the barren landscape.

Jaime got out as Sergeant Moore, a tall black man–a good six feet to her five foot seven–climbed out of the lead vehicle and joined them. “What happened?”

“It looks like we ran over a small bale of concertina buried in the dust,” Rodriguez said as he grabbed a battery-powered work light from the back of the Humvee. Concertina was the Army’s improvised version of barbed wire. It was stronger, with razorlike barbs that could  easily slice through clothes–or flesh.

“Damn,” said Sergeant Moor, sighting the left rear tire. “That’s wound around that wheel tighter than a ball of yarn!”

Jaime pushed at the Kevlar helmet over her plaited blonde hair and stifled a sigh. So what else could go wrong? She was in the headquarters of the 57th Corps Support Group, whose mission it was to support units in the Fifth (V) Corps with essential supplies such as water, ammunition, and fuel. V Corps had entered Iraq frst and had already secured camps in Tallil and other towns that dotted the way to Baghdad.

Jaime was with the CSG Headquarters, which had headed out at noon yesterday, April 7.

Everything had gone well until one of the Humvees in her unit had broken down and the mechanics had tried to fix it so that it could move under its own power. All fine and good, but that meant they’d been stuck on the side of the road for hours. Once they’d started moving again, a sandstorm had kicked up, slowing their pace at times to a crawl.

The little six-vehicle convoy had no way of locating the rest of their unit until they received the radio message twenty minutes earlier. They must be within radio range, and that was good news.

It seemed they’d been out of the sandstorm and moving with purpose for an entire five minutes before they hit concertina. What else could go wrong?

Rodgriguez crawled under the Humvee on his back, switched on the work light, and started pushing against the wire with his boots. Moore shook his head. “You’ll never get that off by yourself.”

But the compact staff sergeant was absorbed in his task. Jaime could see in an instant that Moore was right. There was good reason the soldiers referred to concertina as barbed wire on steroids. It was thick and nasty and could easily have fallen off any passing truck. “We’ll need help,” she said. “Why don’t you continue to the ROM site with the rest of the convoy and see if they have a wrecker there? We’re only one klick from the turnoff point.”

A Refuel on the Move site, or ROM, was the Army’s version of a mobile gas station. According to the transmission, they were less than one mile from the turnoff for the ROM established by their own soldiers.

“Yes, ma’am. But we should leave another vehicle here with you.” Sergeant Moore thought for a second. “Specialist Houghton has an automatic weapon, so I’ll leave his vehicle, Headquarters 15, here with you, and the rest of us will head for the refuel site.”

“Here. Take my GPS. I have the ROM site programmed in.” Jaime offered him her personal handheld global positioning system. It was the only one in their convoy.

Moore took it gratefully. “What about you?”

“You’re sending a vehicle back, right? We’ll be fine.”

“OK. Keep a guard posted at all times. There are still pockets of reistance in Tallil”

“Already done…look.” She pointed toward Private First Class Patterson, an 18-year-old white female from Kentucky, who had hitched a ride in their Humvee. She stood five meters from them, intently scanning the countryside, her weapon ready to fire.

Even as the chaplain pointed, she noticed that Patterson’s silhouette on the dark desert landscape was losing definition. Another sandstorm was kicking up. Just what they needed.

When will I learn? she chided herself. Never, but never, wonder what else can go wrong. You’ll invariably get the answer.

Seargent Moore was moving back up the line, instructing drivers as he went. Headquarters 15, Specialist Houghton’s vehicle, pulled out of the line and circled back toward them. The other four, three Humvees and an ambulance, roared forward on the road.

“Any luck?” Jaime asked, squatting down by Rodriguez. What he lacked in height he easily made up for in muscle and sheer determination. He didn’t answer but kept resolutely kicking at the encumbering wire. Jaime opened her door and found her work gloves. She squinted at the wire and gingerly tried to find a handhold from above. It wasn’t easy. Concertina would slice through ordinary work gloves like a steak knife through watermelon. But she continued to try. There was little chance they could actually free the wheel without a wrecker, but it was better to give an effort than just wait.

Rodriguez shifted back out from below the vehicle. “I think I saw some wire cutters,” he said and shifted his search to the back of the Humvee. He turned around with a small pair of cutters and a grin on his face.

They squatted together and he tried to come up under the concertina with the tool, but there was no way the small clamps could even make a dent. “I guess that’s what makes this stuff so effective,” he sighed.

Suddenly the sound of gunshots–small-arms fire–tore through the darkness. As they leapt to their feet, the sky erupted in light as flares exploded over a hill about two hundred meters away. Another round of shooting was answered, this time with something larger.

“Tallil?” asked Rodriguez.

“No, it’s too close for Tallil.”

Jaime strode to Private Patterson, also fully alert, watching the flares set off by the military to reveal the attackers in the distance. The young soldier held her rifle with a combination of enthusiasm and nerves.

“I’m ready, ma’am,” she said.

The chaplain turned and stalked toward their second vehicle. “Houghton?” she asked.

Specialist Randy Houghton was on the ground, his automatic weapon in position. “I see it, Chaplain. It doesn’t sound like they’re heading this way. Yet.”

“I hope you’re right.”

The next round of flares illuminated an ever-thicker swirl of sand. Jaime knew her immediate objective was to get out of any potential line of fire. As a non-combatant, she wasn’t even carrying a sidearm. She did, however, have her own security detail in the person of her chaplain assistant. She came behind the truck and was startled to find Rodriguez on his feet, looking off into the desert in the opposite direction.

“Chaplain?” he said.

She squinted, dismayed by the quickening intensity of the sandstorm. The whistle of the wind was picking up as well. What was he looking at? Why wasn’t his weapon drawn?

Then she saw it–a shape moving in the darkness. She turned to make certain that Rodriguez had his weapon ready and was shocked to find him moving off into the sand instead. She grabbed her night-vision goggles from the driver’s seat. Was it a person? The movement was not fluid–neither a walk nor a crawl. But it was advancing. It had to be a person. What was Rodriguez doing? It could be a trap. Damn! You don’t just go walking up to an unknown person in the dark!

“Patterson!” she called, and the young soldier turned, saw the situation, and used her weapon to cover the receding form of Rodriguez. They both watched, dumbstruck, as he fought his way over–and through–the sand to the figure. It collapsed into his arms. Jaime moved forward to meet him. It was slow going, each step hard-won. Finally she reached Rodriguez as he plowed forward, carrying the person in his arms.

“What…?” started Jaime, shouting to be heard.

“She’s injured!” answered the staff sergeant, not breaking his labored stride. He laid the form gently on the sand behind the truck. Chaplain Richards was still startled by his actions, but before she could respond, a female voice spoke.

“Jaime,” it said.

The chaplain dropped onto her knees in the sand. She moved the dark scarf from the woman’s face. Jaime had never been more shocked in her life. The features were familiar, but so out of context she couldn’t make the connection. They were streaked with mud, the head scarf unwound to reveal thick black hair plastered with sand and sweat.

And then Jaime’s mind found a circuitous route to recognition.

Princeton Seminary. Her year getting a master’s in world religions. The school library. The scent of wood. An open map of the possible dwelling places of Abraham, patriarch of three major faiths. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ur of the Chaldeans. And Adara, studying with her. Now here they were, halfway around the world, in the middle of a sandstorm in Iraq, outside Tallil, a stone’s throw from Ur. They were here.

“Adara?” she said.

“Listen.” The younger woman’s voice was urgent through parched lips. “Message. So…important. you must deliver it.”

“What are you talking about? Message for whom? From who?”

“In four hours. 0800. 3057 4606.”

Out of habit, Jaime reached into the cargo pocket of her pants and pulled out a small green notebook she carried with her everywhere. She wrote down the numbers.”

“I don’t understand. 0800 is the time. But what are the other numbers?”

“The Fourth Sister,” Adara whispered. “You must find it!”

“Here,” she said, and she had to struggle for another breath. From beneath the folds of crimson material she withdrew a delicate chain. A finely crafted silver pendant, less than an inch long, hung from it. The pendant looked like a flattened cylinder–barely wide enough to contain something very small. “Must bring home the lost sword.”

“Adara! What are you telling me? I don’t understand. Are you hurt?”

“Yes,” she said. “Not important. Please, promise me. The message. Leave it there. 3057 4606. Where the Sister points.”

“The Fourth Sister.”

A faint nod.

This was all too baffling.

“Where are you hurt? We’re traveling with an ambulance–medics. As soon as we can free our wheel, we’ll catch up to them.”

“They’ve gone? No! The radio call…ambush. Don’t go.”

“It’s OK,” Jaime said. “It was one of our guys. Had to be–our transmissions change frequencies every second. No one who isn’t U.S. military can listen–let alone talk to us.”

Ambush, mouth Adara, and Jaime gingerly moved what remained of Adara’s tattered robe from her side. Even in the darkness, Jaime could see her friend was in serious trouble.

“Rodriguez,” Jaime called, and he appeared beside her.

“Look what they were carrying in Headquarters 15,” he said, brandishing a pair of bolt cutters.

The gunfire that split the night this time was heavier caliber. More gunfire, and an explosion. Jaime and Rodriguez scrambled to their feet. “That’s not the hill,” said Rodriguez. “That’s further up ahead up the road.”

“Ambush,” whispered Adara again, urgently.

Jaime’s assistant handed her the light, and she knelt to hold it by the tire, keeping it as hidden as possible. These wire cutters worked like a charm. Eight snips and Jaime was able to grab the concertina wire carefully with her gloved hands and peel it back.

Seargent Rodriguez already had Adara in his arms and was placing her carefully into the transport.

“Get her settled!” Jaime yelled at him. “I’ll tell Houghton we’re going to proceed. We’ve got to assist the rest of the convoy! They’re being ambushed! They don’t know it was a bogus call. They think we’ve got friendly forces just ahead!”

“Due respect, ma’am, but I’m not driving you into a known ambush!”

“OK, it’s noted you’ve argued the security crap. Let’s move!”

“But ma’am!”

She clearly saw the dilemma reflected in his eyes. His job was to keep her out of harm’s way. But they also needed to help the vehicles up ahead.

“Are you driving, or am I?” The question painted him into a corner. Since she had no weapon, the safest setup would put her in back, Rodriguez driving, Patterson riding shotgun. But Rodriguez couldn’t stop her from driving, or from heading straight into the ambush.

Richards and Rodriguez squared off, eyes blazing. “You don’t have a choice, Sergeant,” Jaime said, for once underscoring his rank. “Get Patterson.” And she ran to instruct Headquarters 15.

Click here to buy the book and keep reading!

JOIN BARB AND SHARON FOR A BOOK GROUP WITH THE AUTHORS, starting OCTOBER 12! BARB IS RETIRED, so as we read through the Eden Series, the secrets behind the books can be revealed at last! ALSO every month we’re giving away FREE SIGNED COPIES of the book we’re reading!

 B. K. SHERER holds a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Oklahoma State University . A Presbyterian minister, she served on active duty as a chaplain in the United States Army for 20 years. Her work has taken her to Argentina , Somalia, Korea , Costa Rica, Germany, Kuwait and Iraq.  She is now officially the Rev. Dr. Chaplain (COL) Retired.

Besides the Eden Thrillers, SHARON LINNÉA is the author of the mystery These Violent Delights. She has also written the biographies Raoul Wallenberg, The Man Who Stopped Death and Princess Ka’iulani: Hope of a Nation, Heart of a People, which won the prestigious Carter G. Woodson Award, as well as the nonfiction book Lost Civilizations. Sharon has been a staff writer for five national magazines and a ghostwriter for dozens of celebrities. She lives with her family outside of New York City. She also penned the YA spy novel COLT SHORE: Domino 29 with Axel Avian.

Now You Tell Me! 12 Actors Give the Best Advice They Never Got: Brian Stokes Mitchell

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12 actors coverBrian“Celebrate Being Human”

MAKING A LIVING

Audtions

When you walk into an audition, the most important thing to know is that the people sitting behind the table are not your enemies or adversaries. As a matter of fact, they are dying for you to be the right person for the role. It makes their job easier and makes them look good–casting director, director, choreographer–everyone.

Working With Directors

I have found that the most difficult directors are not those at the top or at the bottom of their craft, but those in the middle. The same is true for actors. The bottom ones (in small community theaters, for example) are so happy to be working and those at the top are confident in their abilities. However, as with anything, there are grand exceptions on both ends of the scale. If the director is incompetent, I just nod my head and say, “Yes” to their advice, then do my own thing when it comes down to the performance. Of course my preference is to work in concert with a director and find the ways we can trust each other and be mutually supportive. I have had the good fortune to work with great directors for most of my career. How do you work with good directors? Listen and learn and trust.

The Best Actors

The best actors have taught me how to listen. How to prepare. How to treat others around you with kindness and respect. And to continually work on your craft and yourself.

On the other hand, there’s a lot you can learn from bad actors as well! For example, the deleterious effect of selfishness and not being prepared. That fear kills comedy (and tragedy, too, for that matter). Of course, you’d rather learn such things while on stage.

Your Craft

Acting is a living art that changes and deepens as you change and deepen. Never stop learning. Never lose your curiosity or love of life.

Stay in class, certainly, and study–but also read, go to museums, allow everything to inspire and fill you up. Be open to life and to new experiences and to new people and to change.

Short and Long Art Forms

When it comes to moving between film, television and stage, my motto is, “Go where I am wanted.” The more you can do, the more you work. Each medium has different subtleties in technique, although the basic technique remains the same: find the truth in your character. I call television and film “short form art” that favors those who are spontaneous and good at improvisation. Stage is “long form art” that favors those who are good at delving into the nooks and crannies of a piece and character over (hopefully) a long amount of time. In fact, when you’re in a long theatrical run, doing the same part again and again, keep exploring the nooks and crannies of the role. I like to say that art is in the spaces. A great artist continually explores those spaces.

And yes, no matter which form you’re working in, the mind-set is the same–do the best work you can at the time.

Habits of the Successful Actor

While I truly believe that the difference between a talented actor who makes it and one who doesn’t is luck, lucky actors, by and large, tend to be those who constantly work on their craft, trying to find new ways to explore their art. Tenanciousness helps. Big time.

When Is It Time to Pursue Something Else?

Give up acting as a career when you become bitter and frustrated and find yourself hating life and your career and yourself. I am a firm believer that it is a good idea to rewrite yourself every now and then.

MAKING A LIFE

Managing Money

It’s easy to manage your money when you have none! What is hard is when you have some. Never spend more than you have: if you can’t pay off your credit card completly every month, you are spending beyond your means and getting yourself into debt. As you make more, you can spend more.

My second rule is to be sure you always have some “F.U.” money set aside so you don’t have to take jobs you don’t want!

Which Jobs to Take

I have turned down a lot of jobs I didn’t think were going to lead me to where I wanted to go. I’ve never done soap operas, for instance. At one time I was offered more money than I had ever made to be on a soap. But personally, I don’t like them; consequently, I would have been very unhappy doing it. I also noted that soaps can be hard to break out of once you get on them or become pegged as a soap actor. That said, soap actors are some of the hardest working actors in show business. There are some very good ones, so this is no slam to them, just a personal choice.

I also would not want to portray someone who was insulting to a race or group of people without the piece’s having a greater purpose or working to a greater good.

There are also personal and family consequences to be weighed. Part of choosing the life of an artist means that you can’t always do what you want when you want. And sometimes a good career choice can be difficult for one’s personal life and vice versa. Those are decisions that each person must make for themselves.

In general, the criteria I hold for parts that I accept are: first, is it something in which I can excel? We don’t usually get the parts in which we can’t excel, anyway, so that is not a big worry. Second, I prefer parts that lift the human spirit or illuminate something about the human condition–if not the individual part, at least the piece as a whole.

I want to celebrate being human–in all our glory and pathos. It is my hope that when I leave this planet I will have done more good than harm.

Click HERE to continue reading advice from your favorite actors such as Eden Sher, Sam Waterston, David Oyelowo and others!

brianstokesmitchellDubbed “the Last Leading Man” by the New York Times, Brian Stokes Mitchell has enjoyed a rich and varied career on Broadway, television and film, along with appearances in the great American concert halls. His Broadway career includes Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha (Tony Nomination and Helen Hayes Award), Fred Graham/Petruchio in Kiss Me Kate (Tony, Drama Desk and Out Critics Circle Award), Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime (Tony Nomination) and many more. On television and film, he his recent apperances include The Path, Mr. Robot, Jumping the Broom and Glee.

https://www.brianstokes.com/

Other actors who share their experiences and advice in the book are:

Sam Waterston, Brenda Strong, Eden Sher, Pauley Perrette, David Oyelowo, Michael O’Neill, Alexandra Neil, Julia Moytyka, Michael McKean, Joseph Kolinski, Charles Busch

and the last major interview by Lynn Redgrave

The book was compiled by Sheridan Scott, Chris Willmand and Todd Coleman

HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE by Kellye Garrett

Hollywood HomicideONE

He stared at my résumé like it was an SAT question. One of the hard ones where you just bubbled in C and kept it moving. After a minute—I counted, since there was nothing else to do—he finally looked up and smiled. “So, Dayna Anderson … ”

He got my name right. The interview was off to a pretty good start. “So what in your previous experience would make you a good fit for this position?”

He smiled again, this time readjusting the Joey, Manager. Ask me about our large jugs! nameplate that was prominently placed on his uniform. Since I was sitting in the Twin Peaks coffee shop interviewing to be a bikini barista, said uniform happened to be a Speedo. I pegged him for twenty-two, tops. And it wasn’t just because he didn’t have a centimeter of hair anywhere on his body. I made a mental note to get the name of his waxer.

“I make a mean cup of coffee,” I said. “Not to brag or anything but it’s been compared to liquid crack.”

I smiled and he frowned. He was actually serious. Maybe a drug joke wasn’t the best opening line. I quickly attempted to rectify my mistake. “This position just seems tailored to my competencies. I’ve always been a people person.”

He nodded and glanced back at my résumé. It felt like it took him years to ask the next question. “So why do you want to work at Twin Peaks?”

Because I needed money and this was my first interview since the head Starbucks barista turned me down for being overqualified. “Because it just seems like a great place to work. I’ve known Richie since I moved to LA five years ago from Georgia.”

The Richie thing was the first true thing to come out my mouth. He’d opened the first Twin Peaks down the street from my first apartment. The coffee was good enough that I could overlook the whole “the person serving me basically has no clothes on, which cannot be sanitary” thing. I’d come in every morning after the a.m. rush and every morning Richie would offer me a job. At first, I’d dismissed it as harmless flirting but Richie was serious. He’d extol the virtues of working for him. Dental. Vision. Even tuition reimbursement because, like strippers, the majority of bikini baristas were apparently just doing it to pay for college.

I’d always turn him down. I didn’t care how great the 401(k) match may be, no way I’d ever reduce myself to being half naked for a paycheck. Being half naked for free? No problem at all. I did live for the beach, after all. But definitely not for a paycheck! Of course, after months of not receiving a paycheck totaling more than a couple hundred bucks from jobs that required you to be fully clothed, I’d suddenly seen the light.

Swallowing my pride, I texted Richie out of the blue to ask if the offer still stood. It did. He was opening a new downtown location and would be happy to set up an interview with the manager. Even though I was happy for the opportunity, I still had to give myself a ten-minute pep talk to walk in the door. Words like self-worth and college degree flew around in my head, but I banished them for the only two words that now mattered: steady and income.

Joey smiled again and this time it was actually genuine. Maybe this could actually work. “How much do you weigh?”

Or maybe not.

“Enough,” I said.

He gave me a once-over and apparently was not too impressed. “Our biggest uniform is a size six.”

“I’m a six.” If it was really, really, really, really, really stretchy.

I’d kinda, maybe, sorta put on a few pounds since Richie had last seen me, blossoming from a size four to a ten. Not considered big in any state known to vote Republican, but in LA, I might as well have been fused to a couch and needing a forklift to help me get up. “I’d be happy to try on the uniform,” I said.

Joey didn’t say anything. Just looked at me. And then something changed. I knew that look. It was coming. The question I dreaded most, even more than the tell-me-about-yourselfs. He was going to ask if we’d gone to high school together.

People always knew I looked familiar but just couldn’t figure out why. So they assumed they knew me from home. I’d been from places like Seattle, Omaha, and in one case Wasilla, Alaska. I’ve always said there is at least one black person everywhere. Folks all seem to think that lone integrationist is me.

“You look like someone I went to school with,” he finally said.

There it was.

“Oh?” I said. “She must be beautiful.”

I smiled, just so he’d know I was joking. He said nothing. Just stared some more. I waited.

It took a few seconds, but it finally hit him. “Don’t think so, boo! You’re the ‘Don’t think so, boo’ girl in those commercials.”

“Was,” I clarified. “I was the girl in those commercials.”

I had been considered famous once upon a time. But unlike Cinderella and Snow White, my fairy tale had not ended with happily ever after. Instead, it came crashing down a year and a half ago, and I had joined the rest of the mere mortals.

Having had fleeting fame, I was not recognizable as much as familiar. The familiarity was courtesy of the Chubby’s Chicken chain. For almost two years, I would somehow end every situation—and commercial—with the catch phrase “Don’t think so, boo.” If the scene called for me to be really upset, I’d even give a quick little finger jab, a long neck roll, and a sophisticated sucking of my teeth. Rosa Parks would be so proud.

Eighteen months ago, Chubby’s had abruptly ended my contract with the all-too-standard “we’re going in a new direction” spiel to my now-former agent. Silly me had been under the impression Chubby’s would be just the beginning, not the end. I knew there was more in my future than just chicken wings. I was wrong and now officially unofficially retired from acting.

“You gotta say it. Just once.” He looked at me, all goofy-like—a complete 180 from the wannabe-grownup of a few minutes before.

I shook my head. I hated that phrase even more than I hated my life at that moment.

“That was a lifetime ago.” A lifetime and an almost-repossessed Lexus. “I don’t act anymore.”

“Oh come on.” He was practically begging. “We love those commercials. ‘Don’t think so, boo.’ Just say it one time.”

I was tempted to tell him I’d say it every time I brewed a freaking XXXpresso if he would just give me the dang job already.

“Wait,” he said, as if I was actually about to do it. “Bobby needs to be here.” He turned in the direction of the counter and screamed at the top of his lungs, “Bobby get out here.” The bleached blonde at the register barely blinked.

Before I knew it, a tall redhead was in front of me, his uniform staring me smack-dab in the face. It was obvious he didn’t have a clue who I was, which was fine by me.

“Dude,” Joey said.

“Dude,” Bobby responded.

“Dude!!”

I could tell by the inflection that each dude had a different meaning, but it was a language I didn’t know or care to learn.

“Dude, it’s—”

“Don’t tell me!” Bobby said. “I wanna guess.”

I sat there while Bobby and Joey both stared. And stared. And stared. Like I was some kind of exotic tiger. At least they fed the animals at the zoo. All the Chubby’s Chicken talk was just reminding me I’d skipped breakfast. I needed out of there. Unfortunately, I could only think of one way to make my escape. “Don’t think so, boo.”

I even added a neck roll.

Joey really didn’t give me the job. Instead, he made some joke about how I obviously preferred my two-piece to be chicken orders, not bathing suits, and sent me on my merry little way. He was lucky I didn’t curse because he surely would have gotten a mouthful.

Twenty minutes later, I sat at a stoplight on Vermont Avenue staring longingly at an Original Tommy’s Hamburgers. At that moment, I wanted a chiliburger almost as much as I wanted world peace. It was almost lunchtime, after all. I went for my purse, hoping to scrounge up enough cash for at least some fries.

My retirement from acting had only been official for about six months. Each and every second of those six months had been used to make up for every meal I’d missed in the three years of my illustrious acting career, hence my aforementioned hypothetical size six status.

I checked my wallet. Three dollar bills. I was counting my change when the light turned green. It took the guy behind me all of .00013 seconds to honk. I hit the gas. Nothing happened. So I hit it again. Still nothing. I looked down. The gas gauge was past E.

Fudge.

The guy behind me pulled around me with one hand while still blowing his horn with the other. I casually gave him the finger. Like I said, I never cursed. Hand gestures, however, were fair game.

Putting on my hazards, I got the gas jug out the trunk. A station was a couple of lights up the road. I made it with no problem and just stood there. The cheap stuff was $4.89 a gallon. My new-to-me pale pink Infiniti was twelve years old, had a cracked windshield and a temperamental horn, and was nearing 200,000 miles. The gas was worth more than the car.

There went the French fry fund. Since I didn’t have my emergency credit card with me, I rooted around in my purse and found a stray nickel and a penny. That upped my disposable income to $3.56. I was about ten miles from home in Beverly Hills. Was it enough? I was attempting to do the math when curiosity got the best of the gas attendant. “Help you?”

“I ran out of gas,” I said, motioning down the street, where the Infiniti was causing quite the traffic backup. Eek. We walked over to an empty pump.

“Pretty car,” he said, then looked me over as I removed the nozzle. “Pretty girl.”

Not to sound too conceited or anything but I actually was pretty. Of course, this was Los Angeles. Everyone was so pretty—the men even more so than the women—that you had to resort to a sliding scale, on which I was closer to cute than beautiful.

My skin was what Maybelline dubbed Cocoa and L’Oreal deemed Nut Brown, while MAC had bypassed all food groups to call it NC50. I had straightened black hair that was just long enough to get caught in stuff. My nose had been on the receiving end of many a nose job recommendation. But I’d gotten my boobs done first and the pain was so bad I swore off any further surgery. When I was little, I was as bug-eyed as a Bratz doll. But now that I was grown and the rest of me had had a chance to catch up, my eyes were my pièce de résistance. I didn’t even own a pair of sunglasses.

I used them to look at the attendant.

“Smile,” he said. “It’s not that bad.”

And with that, he walked away. I wanted to scream after him that I’d just been turned down for what was probably my last chance at steady income—a bikini barista job at that. So yes, it was in fact that bad. I was ready to have a full-out meltdown in the parking lot of an Arco. I needed a distraction. Pronto.

I found it on a billboard. It was your typical high school graduation photo, complete with a hand awkwardly holding a graduation cap tight to the chest. The girl was blonde and young. On the pretty scale, she’d definitely be considered beautiful.

The copy was straight to the point. Wanted: Information on the hit-and-run murder of Haley Joseph. Tuesday, August 18th, 11:30 p.m., Vermont Ave near Hillside St. And across the bottom, right over her press-on French manicure, $15,000 reward.

I peered closer at the billboard, looking for a hint this was a brilliant marketing scheme for some new movie. I was tempted to call the number, sure I’d hear some prerecorded message letting me know what time and day it would be airing on Lifetime. But I realized this was real. The address was right up the block. They wouldn’t put the cross streets on there if it was for some silly movie. Haley Joseph had died.

I stared back at her, and then my eyes moved to the date. It was familiar. Too familiar. I realized why.

That was the last time I’d seen him.

Click HERE to buy the book and keep reading!

copyright 2017 Kellye Garrett

Kellye GarrettKellye Garrett writes the Detective by Day mysteries about a semi-famous, mega-broke black actress who takes on the deadliest role of her life: Homicide Detective.  The first, Hollywood Homicide, won the Agatha, Lefty, and Independent Publisher “IPPY” awards for best first novel and is nominated for Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards. The second, Hollywood Ending, will be released on August 8, 2018 from Midnight Ink. Prior to writing novels, Kellye spent eight years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for Cold Case. She now works for a leading media company and serves on the Board of Directors for Sisters in Crime as the organization’s Publicity Liaison. You can learn more at KellyeGarrett.com and ChicksontheCase.com.

 

  • 2017 Agatha Award for Best First Novel
  • 2018 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery Novel
  • 2018 Independent Publisher Book Award for Best First Book – Fiction
  • Anthony Award Nominee for Best First Novel
  • Barry Award Nominee for Best Paperback Original

 

  • Macavity Award Nominee for Best First Mystery Novel

Connect with Kellye at:

Multi-Author Blog: https://chicksonthecase.com/

THURSDAY’S LIST by V.S. Kemanis

Thursday's List - SmallChapter 1:  Graveyard

“People of the State of New York against Bernardo Rios. Step up!”

Rios didn’t budge, didn’t seem to hear. He’d fallen into a slump, head dangling from a loose neck, much like the five strangers surrounding him on the prisoners’ bench. At four in the morning, mid-graveyard, every player in the courtroom was blinking grit, battling the nod.

Tilted upright behind the prosecutor’s table, Dana Hargrove evaluated the case. Through sheer will and frequent sips from a tall coffee cup, she snubbed the empty chair and remained standing. In a stiff-armed lean, hands grasping the table edge, she scanned the papers laid out on the surface below. The faint print on tissue-thin paper was nearly illegible.

This had to get better. A new computer system was promised for the summer of 1988, a few months from now. Until then, the district attorney’s intake clerks still typed the criminal complaints on multiple-sheet carbon forms, replete with black strikeovers. The police reports usually weren’t any better. This one was handwritten.

Dana’s large, brown eyes were red-rimmed and burning. Squinting hard under the buzz of fluorescent light, she tried to make sense of the swimming text. Never enough information and never enough time to formulate a strategy. Graveyard shift in arraignment court was the worst, an assignment dumped on new hires and a rite of passage for every rookie. With it came the absurd responsibility of making crucial, split-second decisions on zero sleep—plea bargains and bail applications in cases as serious as murder and rape.

But this one? Incredulous, Dana confirmed what she’d seen at first glance. Farebeat. Why was a farebeat in the system at four in the morning?

“Bernardo Rios, step up!” barked the clerk. This time the defendant snapped alert, suddenly aware that the name, spoken with a New York clip, was meant to be his. Bleary eyes searched the room and fell upon the uniformed court officer striding into his face, coaxing him up with a twitching finger. Rios straightened his legs, uncertainly finding his balance. Nothing restrained him. Unlike some of the prisoners, he wasn’t considered dangerous enough to be handcuffed or shackled.

“We need the interpreter, Your Honor.” Seth Kaplan of the Legal Aid Society addressed the Honorable Morris Chomsky.

The judge scanned the courtroom, rolled his eyes and growled, “Get the Spanish interpreter.” Hadn’t she been here a minute ago? Inexplicably, she’d disappeared. “Second call!”

Chomsky didn’t appreciate obstacles to his relentless pace, which he maintained even on graveyard. His normal state of irritability grew with lack of sleep, along with his habit of blaming everyone in sight—particularly the defendants—for his inability to avoid a temporary assignment to night court.

Rios, already halfway to the defense table, stopped dead against Kaplan’s upheld hand. “Esperas un momento,” the attorney stuttered, whirling his hand in circles, miming a command to turn around.

“How do you spell that?” asked the droopy stenographer, hands poised over her machine.

“Don’t take that down,” Seth told her, then to Rios: “Esperas…vamos a…well…otra vez.” A light went on in the defendant’s eyes, and he turned toward the prisoners’ bench. The judge, behind his obelisk of gouged, dark wood, swiveled his chair to the side and beckoned the court clerk, who came up to receive an instruction.

“Very good,” Dana whispered to Seth out the side of her mouth, keeping her head bent over the papers. She was practiced in a level of voice just beneath Chomsky’s hearing, loud enough to reach her adversary a few yards away at the defense table while the judge was distracted.

“Not bad for one year of college Spanish,” he replied with a wink.

“Trying to avoid the bologna and cigarettes?”

Seth understood her meaning and grinned, pushing a friendly set of quote marks into his cheeks. Earlier, he’d been allowed a two-minute conference with each of his prospective clients in the close quarters of the lockup, a breeding ground of singular odors on the breath and bodies of arrestees. Anyone held in the pens longer than six hours was entitled to bologna and American cheese on white, followed by a smoke.

“Just bologna on that one,” he whispered, keeping an eye on Chomsky, who was giving a final directive to the clerk.

Seth was likeable, a pleasant distraction from Dana’s nocturnal hallucination. His grin and lively blue eyes always tugged out a response, and his regular features made a welcome contrast to the grim vision of endless unsavory characters in the night. Some Legal Aid attorneys—those blindly overzealous champions of the accused—could make Dana’s graveyard shift completely miserable, but with Seth in the opposing camp, she could count on a comrade against Chomsky’s unpredictable wrath.

The shuffle of hard-soled shoes and scrape of a wooden chair floated in the cavernous space. The judge, now turning to face them, ran a palm over the half-dozen gray hairs on his head and dropped the hand to his desk. His fingers drummed the wood, sending audible vibrations into the unacceptable emptiness. “Let’s go! Call the next one.”

Meanwhile, out the corner of her eye, Dana saw Rios hesitate before resuming his seat, as if he’d just noticed his bench companions for the first time. Street people, three prostitutes and two disheveled, grimy men. Rios was a small cut above them with his clean, discount store clothing and a decent haircut. A sense of neatness. She wondered at this. The transit police usually didn’t arrest people like Rios for jumping the subway turnstile. Instead, they issued a ticket directing the accused to appear in court on a future date to answer a charge of theft of services, a low-level misdemeanor. On the books, the maximum sentence was six months, but standard practice was to impose a fine.

“People against Velvet Desire,” called the clerk.

Two court officers stood ready to escort the red-wigged woman as she slithered upward, giving Rios the extra space he needed on the bench to maintain some distance from the others. “De-zir-ray,” she corrected the clerk, stumbling toward Kaplan on stiletto heels. The officers exchanged amused looks and took up positions behind her at the defense table to prevent the possibility of an escape through the empty audience section and out the door.

Assistant DA Hargrove had no need to examine the thick stack of carbon paper on this one. Ten years of pross convictions marred Velvet Desire’s past. A raid early yesterday morning had sent more than two dozen prostitutes through the system in the last few hours. Chomsky wasn’t fond of hookers and always offered them an impossible choice: five days for a guilty plea or an extortionate bail for a not guilty plea. Either way, the punishment was unprofitable for their pimps, who took it out on them when they returned to the street.

Chomsky’s tough stance was out of line. Most judges would offer time served, anywhere from twelve to thirty-six hours between arrest and arraignment. But Dana didn’t have a hope of changing the judge’s mind. Neither did the defendants. At about 7:30 a.m., any prostitutes left over from the raid would stir up a scene in the courtroom, hoping to delay their arraignment until the day judge came on the bench. For now, there was nothing Ms. “De-zir-ray” could do but take what was coming.

Dana listened with one ear while continuing to eye Rios’s papers, trying to unfurl the mystery of his arrest.

“Waive the reading of the rights and charges?” asked the clerk.

“So waived,” responded Kaplan in between low, fast talk with his client. Velvet wasn’t a stranger to Chomsky and knew the game well. Nevertheless, she shouted for effect: “Five days. Sheee-it!”

“Keep it closed,” rapped the judge. “An extra day for the next outburst. You have fifteen seconds to give me your plea.” He set a timer on his watch. “After that, another day for every fifteen.”

Dana flipped up the Rios complaint and examined his yellow sheet underneath. Here was the answer. The transit cops must have recognized him. Rios had a recent conviction for theft of services and another for petit larceny. He was a small-time thief. He also used different aliases for each arrest. No wonder he hadn’t responded immediately when his case was called. “Rios” might not be his name at all.

“That’s bullshit,” spat the large purple mouth. For all her legal experience, Velvet hadn’t wised up. Seth pumped his hands up and down and whispered hoarsely, hoping to stem the overflow.

“Okay. That’s six days. You don’t like it? Get out of the business.” Chomsky turned to ADA Hargrove. “Hear the People on bail.”

Dana looked up. The judge didn’t want a speech, and in fact, anything more than a few words would aggravate him further.

“The People recommend $250,” she said simply.

“Mr. Kaplan?”

“My client has community ties and isn’t a flight risk…”

The court officers snickered.

“Bail set at $1,500, cash or insurance company bond.” The judge lifted the gavel.

“One moment, Your Honor,” said Kaplan with an ear open to his rasping client. “Ms. Desire wishes to enter a plea of guilty to the charge.”

Stifling a grin, Judge Chomsky flew into the necessary litany to assure the legality of the plea. Dana shut her ears to the proceedings and concentrated on the Rios police report. In the box for “personal property,” the arresting officer had written “$3,300 cash, bank papers.” Dana reached the logical conclusion: poverty was no excuse for the defendant’s larcenous behavior.

With a crack of the gavel, Judge Chomsky imposed sentence.

“Seven days. That ain’t the deal!”

“Go back to school, Ms. Desire. Six plus one. The bail application took fifteen seconds.”

Velvet turned to her lawyer and screamed demands while Seth tried to convince her that the judge wouldn’t allow her to withdraw the guilty plea. The court officers stood at the ready.

“Let’s go,” demanded Chomsky, cracking the gavel again. He stood, and with a look of disgust, swiped the air with his hand to erase the sight. “Take her out. Court stands in recess. Ten minutes. Don’t go anywhere.” He descended from his fortress, shrinking into a surprisingly small, gray and ordinary man as he scurried toward the side door, on his way to chambers.

Court officers removed a kicking Velvet Desire while the defense and prosecution exchanged looks. With Velvet gone, a moment of dead silence fell. Dana looked down at the table, now a morass of disorganized papers. At the beginning of her shift, she’d fanned them out like a magician’s deck of cards, stretching the overlapping papers straight in a line with just the docket numbers and defendants’ names showing. Periodically, a clerk or paralegal from the district attorney’s office would enter the courtroom to deliver new papers and take away those already arraigned, challenging Dana’s neat organization.

Underneath the line, she’d placed an alphabetically organized row of notes from various assistant district attorneys concerning the most serious crimes or high-profile defendants. “Second call this case,” was a frequent message. “I want to appear on it.” The ADA’s office phone number or whereabouts would be noted. “I’m OT in 52,” for example, was code for “on trial” in the courtroom for Part 52 of the Supreme Court.

Of course, it was impossible to predict the exact moment when a particular defendant would be arraigned. There were too many variables. The assigned ADA couldn’t appear if the arraignment occurred on graveyard. So, every note included a backup set of specific instructions, including the amount of bail to request, the details of a plea offer, or a directive to refrain from plea bargaining—instructions intended to avert sure disaster committed by a rookie ADA like Hargrove, dizzy with fatigue and naïve with inexperience.

Eyeing the jumble, Dana smoothed her crown back down to the nape of her neck where a gold barrette neatly gathered her shoulder-length dark hair, shiny and thick as mink. She sat and quickly reorganized the papers, assuring herself in the process that nothing had been missed. Then she rose onto her low heels, the comfortable shoes she reserved for night court. Otherwise, her manner of dress was the same as daytime office wear—a gray, business skirt suit. She never wore a pantsuit, unlike some of the female Legal Aid attorneys she’d seen.

Dana pulled together the lapels of her jacket, buttoned it, and turned to go. There was just enough time to splash cold water on her face, among other things, in the ladies’ room.

“Wait.” Seth stopped her.

“I have to go.”

“Just a sec. What are you looking for in the Rios case?”

“The farebeat? He has to plead to the charge.”

“Yeah, but you’re recommending a fine, right? How much?”

Dana lowered her brow and peered at her adversary like he’d just landed from Mars. “Sure, I’ll recommend a fine. You know me, Seth. I just love to hear myself talk. I mean, where else can I be such an effective advocate?”

Seth grinned. “Don’t be so sure about the judge. Even Chomsky can see that Rios isn’t your common street punk.”

“If the judge is giving prostitutes five days, he’s giving time to a farebeat with a record.” Both attorneys turned, as if on cue, to regard the defendant, now reestablished on the bench in a cross-armed, sideways slump with his eyes closed.

“You know,” said Dana pensively, “if the judge wants to give your guy a few days, it’s all right with me.”

“Are you serious? He’s been locked up since noon. No farebeat should get more than a fine.”

“I don’t know…”

“Besides, not that you care, but he didn’t do it. Says he dropped his token, it was rolling away, and he had to jump the turnstile to get it.”

Dana raised her shapely eyebrows. “He told you all that, back in the pens? Without the interpreter? I’m impressed.”

“He was straight with me.”

“I mean, I’m impressed with your Spanish, not your client.”

“I understand a lot more than I speak.”

“So, he dropped his token. Very original.”

“I believe him.”

Seth’s earnest expression said it all. He didn’t often admit to a belief in his clients, so Dana took him at his word. He had spoken with Rios. She had not. And while intuition counted for a lot in this business, Dana’s intuition had been known to fail her at moments when she really needed it. In her nine months at the DA’s office, many people—witnesses, cops, defendants—had lied to her, and had lied well. Now she was more inclined to stick to the record and form her beliefs about an individual based on his past habits instead of the words out of his mouth.

“He has a record,” she declared. “He’s a thief and a liar. Why do you think he was arrested? The cops recognized him. Listen, I’ve got to go…” She picked up her purse and stepped away from the table.

“If the judge wants more than time served we’re taking it to trial.”

Dana halted and swung around to face him. A snappy retort would have been perfect just then, and her tongue might have found one if it weren’t for Judge Chomsky, who banged open the side door and strode up to the bench. “All rise,” intoned the clerk.

“Damn it, Seth,” she hissed under her breath. “Now I have to hold it in.”

“That weren’t no ten minutes,” he quipped with a shrug of apology and a parenthetical grin, almost making up for her lost break.

As the judge took his seat, a small, middle-aged woman entered the courtroom, scurried through the rows of empty pews and pushed through the swinging gate into the section reserved for the participants. Out of breath, she panted in a Spanish accent and glanced up at the judge but said nothing to explain her disappearance twenty minutes ago.

Judge Chomsky pointed to the court clerk. “Call that case with the interpreter.”

This time Rios jumped to his feet when the name was called. Before he could reach the defense table, Kaplan spoke. “May we approach, Your Honor?” He was angling for a private, off-the-record conference at the bench to learn the judge’s position on sentencing.

“Hold it,” snapped Chomsky, thrusting out a hand. “There’s nothing to talk about. Ten days, take it or leave it.”

Dana’s jaw dropped. Tough, even for Chomsky.

“Your Honor—” Seth began, in protest.

“The man got nothing for the other two raps. It’s time to do some time Mr. Rios, or whatever your name is. Clean up your act!” The color rose in the judge’s pallid cheeks as he geared up for a lecture. He always delivered one or two during his eight-hour shift, although Dana never knew when they were coming or which defendants would inspire them. Oddly, Chomsky more often unleashed his fury against the small-time thieves and street dealers than the kidnappers, rapists and murderers, for whom he clothed his tongue in solemnity. The serious criminals were beyond his help and therefore unworthy of his pearls of wisdom.

The Spanish interpreter rattled every word into Rios’s open ear. He stood mute behind black, emotionless eyes, protected by an invisible, impermeable wall against the judge’s harsh attention. His figure was so still, the air around him seemed to vibrate. Who was Bernardo Rios? Decidedly not a New Yorker. His past had trained his response, or lack of it, as he listened intently to the translation of Chomsky’s ranting with an unreadable expression. Behind that mask lay any number of possibilities within: acceptance, worry, fear, indifference, or seething rage.

“You’re a liar and a cheat, Rios. Two thefts this year. How many others did you get away with? Do a few days at Rikers and see how you feel then! Money in your pocket and still won’t buy a token. In this great city people who barely make it are still paying the fare. Nobody gets a free ride, Rios. Who needs you? Go back to Panama.” The judge held up and slapped the case papers with the back of his hand. “Or is it Peru or Colombia?” Dana looked at the defendant’s yellow sheet again, and sure enough, Rios had given the police a different native country each time he was arrested. “You’re a liar and a cheat. I don’t want you in my courtroom again. Do your time and learn a lesson and go home. We don’t put up with this kind of crap here!”

The judge paused for breath. The balls of his cheeks and rims of his ears were purple and a thin layer of white foam lined the inside corners of his mouth. “All right. Fifteen seconds. Give me your plea.”

Kaplan knew better than to comment on the judge’s lecture for fear of spurring a new tirade, aimed at him, not the client. He conferred briefly with Rios in hushed tones through the interpreter. Dana caught only a few words but grasped the understated outrage in Seth’s voice. A plea of not guilty could mean an impossibly high bail, enough to lock the door on Rios for the full ten days while awaiting trial. Still, Seth might be able to pressure Dana’s office into advancing the case. Almost any other judge would be more lenient. Rios could have his trial in the next day or two and win immediate release, even if convicted.

The trick was to finagle a short adjournment in a system jammed with cases. Dana decided she wouldn’t create an obstacle. After all, the outcome seemed fair. She would have recommended a sentence of a couple of days for this defendant—if Chomsky had asked for her opinion.

Rios looked at Kaplan while listening quietly to the interpreter. A smoldering passivity was palpable, a reluctant acquiescence to fate. Within the allotted fifteen seconds, Seth gave his response: “Your Honor, Mr. Rios wishes to enter a plea of not guilty and requests an immediate trial.”

Chomsky raised his eyebrows in boredom, his rage sated by his own recent outburst. He turned a blasé eye on ADA Hargrove. “People?”

The judge didn’t want to hear it, but Dana needed to make a record if the People were requesting bail in a farebeat case. A man with a larceny record who regularly lied to the police and now faced jail time was unlikely to return for trial, argued Dana—unless the court set a significant bail. Figures whirled on a roulette wheel in her head, the blurred numbers reflecting a world of differing opinions about the value of her words. The ball landed uncertainly in a slot. “The People recommend a bail of $1,000.”

Chomsky raised his eyebrows again, whether in disdain or surprise, Dana couldn’t be sure. He turned to her adversary. “Counselor?”

“That’s an outrageous amount!” spurted Kaplan, clenching his fists in midair. Dana took no personal offense at his keenly felt sense of injustice. While some defense attorneys put on a show for every defendant, Seth was choosy and therefore genuine. “Mr. Rios was falsely accused. He bought a token, it slipped out of his hand and rolled under the turnstile…”

“All right, all right,” Chomsky muttered, turning his head to the side and drumming his fingers.

“My client should be released on his own recognizance. He wants to return to court and testify…”

“Wants to tell his story, does he? A fine story indeed, but I don’t buy it. Bail is set at $1,500.”

“That’s unconscionable! It’s…”

“Watch it, counselor.”

“Your Honor, he can’t pay it. He’ll stay locked up before he’s found guilty of anything. At the very least, the court should order the DA to release my client’s funds. A sum of money was seized from him at his arrest.”

The judge turned to the prosecutor. “Your office will be forfeiting that cash, right Miss Hargrove?”

Dana was taken off guard. Forfeiture? She knew little about the law but assumed nothing could be forfeited unless related somehow to the defendant’s crime. Nothing in her papers suggested the $3,300 was related to any crime, much less farebeat. “Well, Your Honor, certainly I’ll discuss it with the attorneys in forfeiture. I’d request that the cash be held until then.”

“Listen to me, Miss ADA.” The judge turned a squinting eye on her. “You take this back to your forfeiture unit! The man here has $3,300 and won’t pay his fare. Deliberately won’t pay, even though he has enough for a ten-year supply of tokens. It proves his intent. It’s a forfeitable instrumentality of crime. Take that back to your office and thank me for doing your work.”

Dana had barely registered this far-fetched theory when the judge said, “Enough of this. Bail is set at $1,500.” He turned to the clerk. “Call the next case.”

“Judge,” interjected Kaplan. “We need a trial date. Later today or tomorrow at the latest…”

“May 18. Let’s go.”

“That’s a month from now.”

“Listen, Mr. Kaplan, I know your game, and don’t think I don’t. ‘Give me a trial, give me a trial.’ Come clean and tell us what you really want! Your guy here wants to wait until tomorrow to plead guilty, after you find a judge who gives fines, not jail sentences. I have news for you, Mr. Kaplan. I won’t be a party to your shopping expedition. If you really want a trial, you want motion practice—”

“Mr. Rios waives motions—”

“—if you’re serious about a trial that is. This case is adjourned for defendant’s motion papers, May 18th. You want it on earlier? Talk to the DA and see if you can get it advanced. May 18. Next case. Let’s go!”

Click HERE to buy the book and keep reading!

copyright 2017 by V.S. Kemanis

VSKemanisV.S. Kemanis has had an exciting and varied career in the law and the arts. As an attorney, she has been a criminal prosecutor for county and state agencies, argued criminal appeals for the prosecution and defense, conducted complex civil litigation, and worked for appellate judges and courts, most recently as a supervising editor of appellate decisions. Ms. Kemanis is also an accomplished dancer of classical ballet, modern jazz, and contemporary styles, and has performed, taught and choreographed in California, Colorado and New York. Short fiction by Ms. Kemanis has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery MagazineThe Crooked Road Volume 3, among others. She has published four collections of short fiction and four legal thrillers featuring prosecutor Dana Hargrove who, like the author, juggles the competing demands of family with a high-powered professional career in the law.

Enjoy the trailer for the Dana Hargrove novels here.

Find her at https://www.vskemanis.com

https://www.facebook.com/V.S.Kemanis.Author/

LESSON PLAN FOR MURDER by Lori Robbins

Lesson Plan coverChapter 1: Things Fall Apart

If you wish to inflict the kind of pain that festers forever, consult an English teacher, rather than a psychopath. Not many people have access to the criminally insane, but few have escaped painful experiences in their English classes. And if I’ve learned anything from ten years of teaching English, it’s that emotional torture delivers slings and arrows that linger long after the initial attack.

I don’t mean to imply that the skills required of psychopaths and English teachers intersect to any great degree, but success in either profession requires similar strength, as well as a similar ability to compartmentalize. Dr. Marcia Deaver was a case in point. Of course, all she did was call me a thief and a liar. A pinprick, really—nothing fatal.

My feral colleague began her assault in the lobby of Valerian Hills High School. I was shocked to see her, but not because she was angry—there was nothing unusual about that. No, the surprise was that my fellow English teacher had executed a real life variation on the essay topic:  What I Did on My Summer Vacation After My Husband Left Me. The overweight, gray-haired, elastic-pants-wearing Marcia had lost at least thirty pounds. My guess is that she invested all of the money she’d saved at the grocery store on a new wardrobe and an excellent facelift. Perhaps Botox.

Her expression was at odds with her appearance. While her smooth forehead seemed to advertise the latest in luxury bedding or Prozac, the look in her eye screamed Lady Macbeth on amphetamines.

I tried to compliment her, but Marcia cut me off, possibly to demonstrate that her physical makeover had not changed her personality. “Liz! Liz Hopewell! Stop blathering this minute!”

The two-word response that nature intended died a silent death inside my head. I never let my past life puncture the one I live now. I executed an about-face, so that Marcia had to address the rest of her tirade to my back.

“Someone stole my desk chair! My $700 chair is gone. Disappeared. Have you seen it? Someone has to know.” Marcia was never pleasant, but I hadn’t ever seen her so unhinged.

“Not guilty, Marcia.” Impressed by her passion, I held both hands wide to demonstrate my innocence. Unconvinced, Marcia continued to tail me as I ascended the stairs and entered my classroom. She examined the room, apparently to satisfy herself that I was not harboring her stolen property.

“Someone in this benighted excuse for a school is a petty criminal.” Although she stomped her foot with enough force to smash an atom, the delicate shoe survived. “When I find out who it is, I will press charges.”

Marcia was not at her best when dealing with human beings, but I’ll admit right now she was a gifted English teacher. Her lectures on Frankenstein made every listener feel the utter pain and isolation of the characters. When she talked about A Tale of Two Cities, the horrors of the French Revolution came to life. But I’m not sure she was capable of discussing anything that didn’t exist between the covers of a book.

I did not doubt Marcia’s capacity for making people miserable. But she’s like a heat-seeking missile—dangerous when headed in your direction, but capable of being diverted to a more appropriate target.

“Why are you bothering with me? Go find a custodian to harass. Or send out an email. I think all that weight loss has affected your brain.”

“It’s not my brain that’s the problem. I’ve already tracked down the custodians and cornered every possible suspect.” She narrowed her eyes and drew together artfully plucked brows. “Except for you. And don’t give me that innocent expression. I know you’re still angling to get my Advanced Placement classes. Like that’s ever going to happen. You’re not getting my classes or my Aeron chair.”

Okay, maybe I was guilty of that minor misdemeanor. Back in June, I answered an anonymous school-wide survey on what classes I wanted to teach. I knew it was a long shot, but I requested one of the Advanced Placement English classes and offered up my creative writing class to sweeten the deal. Someone blabbed, the change never happened, and Marcia and I ended the school year on very chilly terms.

I sat in my standard-issue chair and swiveled from side to side, to achieve maximum irritation. Marcia circled the room with the intensity of a latter day Magellan in search of the Spice Islands. She was near the door when I stopped her.

I knew I would regret doing so, but I couldn’t resist saying, “Before you go, I have to ask—what kind of diet are you on? And who did your hair?” I wasn’t trying to flatter her or distract her. I really wanted to know.

Marcia put her hands on newly slim hips. “I’m not on a diet.” She smoothed her hair, which a few months ago was the color and texture of Brillo, and now fell in soft brown waves. She pulled a few wisps in front of her ears and threaded her fingers through angled bangs that hid her forehead, which while now smooth, was still stern. “I did my hair myself.”

“Yeah, right. And I’m the new swimsuit model for Sports Illustrated.”

It takes a much cleverer response than that to slow Marcia’s caustic wit. She pointed a scarlet-tipped finger at my chest and shot back, “What size suit?”

I couldn’t let Marcia’s nastiness go unpunished. It wouldn’t be fair to her.

I strolled over to the window, did a double take, and gasped,  “Oh my God! There’s your chair! In the parking lot!” She ran out of my classroom as fast as her four-inch stilettos allowed. In a war of wit no one conquers Marcia, but it’s nice to occasionally score a point or two.

Marcia made me late for our first staff meeting, but since I’d sat through the same dreary exercises each September for the last ten years I wasn’t worried. The only part about teaching I like is when I’m with the kids, and they would not arrive until the next day.

I hadn’t seen most of my colleagues since June, and while I could not compete with Marcia’s makeover, I didn’t want to be her foil either. I brushed a streak of dust from black yoga sweats, which from many angles looked like zip-up pants. I tucked an errant bra strap under my tank top and checked the mirror to see if my half dozen strands of gray hair had recruited any new members. Lastly, I swiped my mouth with some Barcelona Red lipstick. Without artificial help, my pale skin and dark hair and eyes tended to elicit queries about my health. Reasonably satisfied with the results, I locked the door to protect my belongings from the chair thief.

By the time I got to the auditorium the first part of our opening day program had already started, and the only open seats were in the front row. A motivational speaker, Mr. Pescarelli, (“call me Joe!”) leaped onto the stage, ready to enlighten us about his Pescarelli Program.

After thirty minutes of exhorting us to be the best we could be, Joe started a video of his Dickensian childhood and subsequent rise to success. The lights dimmed. I closed my eyes, positive that the presence of my colleagues and the loud voice over would prevent me from falling asleep. Nevertheless, a short time later a cop, a cowboy, and a biker dude shimmied into my subconscious and beckoned me to join the rest of the Village People on the dance floor.

I opened my eyes. The bare chested guy in a feathered headdress evaporated, and in his place red-faced Joe Pescarelli urged us to join him in a motivational team-building dance. What the hell. Only a dead person could resist the siren song of “YMCA.” As the lights brightened and the opening beats began echoing through the auditorium I poked both arms in the air, clapped my hands, and began singing.

The auditorium seemed a bit quiet. I peered behind me. Not one other person was reliving sweaty evenings beneath a mirrored ball that shot multi-colored laser lights.

Joe Pescarelli said, “Let’s give the dancing queen a big round of applause!”

Those who were not playing Candy Crush clapped. I avoided eye contact and took a bow. I wasn’t sure if Joe had finished motivating us, but I barreled toward the exit anyway. There’s no excuse so solid as one grounded in public humiliation.

The halls were deserted, except for Mrs. Donatella, the school secretary. Red-faced and perspiring, she stood guard behind a table filled with our back-to-school folders. I was surprised to see her, for she rarely moves from her throne in the main office. I was in no mood to tangle with her, since she makes Marcia Deaver look like Glinda the Good Witch, but I couldn’t ignore her. I initialed the checklist, grabbed my folder from the stack marked English Dept., and left.

Sunlight poured with brutal intensity into my classroom. I flipped through my folder, and to my horror, realized that in addition to grabbing the folder marked Hopewell, Liz, I also had taken the one marked Deaver, Marcia. I contemplated Marcia’s probable response to this gaffe, and for both our sakes I was grateful burning at the stake was no longer in vogue. I longed to fortify myself with a furtive cigarette and a fresh cup of coffee before facing the witch across the hall, but those restoratives were still hours away.

I peered into Marcia’s classroom, hoping she had found her chair. Her room is on the shady side of the building, and the sudden relief from burning sunshine gave me goose bumps. There was no chair behind her desk. No Marcia, either. Relieved that I would not have to explain myself to my combative colleague, I decided to leave the folder on her desk, rather than admit my mistake to Mrs. Donatella.

Marcia’s room, like Marcia herself, had undergone a radical alteration. Never neat, it was weirdly—and wildly— untidy. On the floor Marcia’s prized collection of vintage movie posters wound themselves into helpless spirals. Papers carpeted the area near her desk, and piles of textbooks were splayed on the windowsill, their bent spines protesting the rough treatment.

Was Marcia redecorating? I didn’t remember her ever changing anything in her classroom, but perhaps her personal makeover inspired her to change her physical environment. But that didn’t explain the mistreatment of the books. None of her students dared deface a book with so much as a single pencil mark or dog-eared page, and it was impossible that Marcia herself had treated those books so carelessly.

A breeze from the open window blew a few more papers across the room, and I retrieved them. Fearing that Marcia would walk in on me, I held the papers at arm’s length in order to demonstrate my innocent helpful nature. I noticed that, in addition to piles of books and random boxes, Marcia had left her shiny red-soled shoes on the floor. They really were beautiful shoes. I put the papers down and walked around the boxes and behind the desk for a closer look.

I stared, but the synapses that are supposed to fire when visual information is conveyed to the brain refused to spark. I looked at Marcia’s feet and at the undignified spread of her legs. Through a myopic haze I took in her gaping mouth and staring eyes. Underneath coral lipstick, the color of her mouth echoed the blue of her shirt. A thin stream of brown fluid trickled from an overturned coffee cup and landed, one drip at a time, on Marcia’s face.

The walls dipped and swooped. I tried to keep myself from falling, but my hasty grip on the keyboard panel caused it to slip forward, and I nearly pitched onto the top of the desk. In slow motion, I moved the panel back to its original position. A large yellow envelope, the kind we use for substitute lesson plans, dislodged itself from the underside of the desk panel and spit into my middle. I caught it just before it landed on Marcia.

Behind me, the door creaked. Finally, screams broke the tension. Mine, not Marcia’s.

Click HERE to buy the book and keep reading!

Copyright 2017 by Lori Robbins

Lori Robbins- photoBrooklyn-born Lori Robbins began dancing at age 16 and launched her professional career three years later. She studied modern dance at the Martha Graham School and ballet at the New York Conservatory of Dance. Robbins performed with a number of regional modern and ballet companies, including Ballet Hispanico, the Des Moines Ballet, and the St. Louis Concert Ballet. After ten very lean years as a dancer she attended Hunter College, graduating summa cum laude with a major in British Literature and a minor in Classics. Her first mystery, Lesson Plan for Murder, was published by Barking Rain Press in November. She recently completed Murder in First Position, the first book of a new mystery series, set in the world of professional ballet. She is currently working on the second book in both series. Robbins is a vice president of the NYC chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Visit her at http://www.LoriRobbins.com

CITY OF SHARKS by Kelli Stanley

City of Sharks cover - resizeChapter One

The girl cleared her throat, eyes falling, long fingers intertwining like the cross-hatched roof of a child’s game, church and steeple, church and steeple.

Miranda made her voice patient, soft.

“Miss Crowley—even if I can’t help you or you don’t wish to hire me, anything you tell me is always held in confidence. That’s a promise.”

“I’ll Never Smile Again” drifted up from Tascone’s jukebox on the ground floor, Dorsey and Sinatra swallowed by the guttural rumble of a White Front, while the newspaper vendors bawled the afternoon edition and a fog horn bellowed on the Golden Gate, gentle rain from heaven falling on San Francisco, city of mercy for sinners and the sinned against.

Miranda figured Louise Crowley fell into the latter group.

Pink lips opened and shut again, blue eyes clinging to Miranda like a life preserver. Louise took a breath, voice as pretty and delicate as the Dresden china bone structure.

“Miss Corbie, I’m afraid … I’m afraid someone is—someone is trying to kill me.”

*   *   *

Miranda studied the letter again, frowning.

Bond paper, not terribly cheap but not too expensive. Probably available in any moderately sized business office in San Francisco. The typewriter ribbon was fresh, letters evenly struck except for the t, which faded on the serif in every instance of “bitch.”

There were fifteen in half a page.

She sniffed the paper. Faint whiff of lilac.

“Do you wear perfume, Miss Crowley?”

“Mr. Alexander prefers me not to. He said—he said it distracts him when I take dictation.”

Miranda raised an eyebrow. Mr. Niles Alexander, Publisher, held forth in a self-important little office on the sixth-floor corner of the Monadnock. A vain, pretentious man with a Turkish cigar and a lascivious sneer, he sold books and sold out authors, business done with the aggression of a two-cent stockbroker and the manner of an Egyptian prince. She’d cut him short on a few elevator trips after failed attempts to impress and attract.

“What about when you’re not taking dictation? Shalimar? Joy? Shocking, perhaps?”

Louise hesitated. “I wear Fleurs de Rocaille sometimes.”

A church bell chimed on Mission, long somber note caught by the wind and carried upward until a Municipal Railway braked hard on Montgomery. The secretary turned quickly toward the window, neck twisted in a delicate S curve like a madonna in a Mannerist painting.

The girl wasn’t theatrical, the kind of self-made victim who courted and pursued trouble only to roll around in it like a cat in heat. Not particularly hungry for attention, either, and her looks would guarantee her plenty, wanted or not.

Miranda set the letter on the black desk, tapping a finger and frowning again. “Miss Crowley—”

“Please—call me Louise.”

“You say you’ve received five of these over the last two months—about one every two weeks.”

The blonde nodded.

“Where are the rest?”

Her eyes stuttered a little. “I—I only kept a few. I burned the first two, thinking they were—they were some sort of prank, you know, perhaps a disgruntled author or someone else who knew I worked at Alexander Publishing. We do get a number of cranks, you know, people who are upset that Mr. Alexander won’t publish their novels.”

Miranda shook out a Chesterfield from the pack on the desk and flicked the desk lighter. Glanced back to the white bond paper, lines single-spaced and alternating between all caps and lowercase.

Ugly message, ugly letter, typed with heavy, violent strokes.

“I need whatever you kept, with dates of receipt. And a list of your crackpot writers, the ones who think God dictated four hundred pages of Holy Scripture that Mr. Alexander won’t publish because he’s the Anti-Christ.”

A faint smile pulled at the corner of the blonde’s mouth. “Do you know anything about the publishing business, Miss Corbie?”

Miranda tipped ash into the Tower of the Sun tray. “Only what I read.”

“It’s a bit like show business. Agents and authors are constantly trying to get manuscripts to Mr. Alexander. Bigger publishers, New York publishers, might have a whole fleet of editors, but Alexander Publishing is a small house, and Mr. Alexander prefers to do most of the acquisitions himself—though we do keep two editors on staff. Anyway, he’s the face of the business and agents and authors target him directly. Most of what is submitted is drivel, frankly, unreadable piles of illiterate junk. Few of the manuscripts—a very small percentage—could even qualify as the lowest form of entertainment.”

Miranda leaned back against the overstuffed black leather of her desk chair, eyes focused on the secretary.

“So the list of discontents is long. Thank the ‘Do You Want to Be an Author?’ ads in the back of the Saturday Evening Post. But what about repeat offenders? The ones who won’t take no for an answer?”

Louise hesitated. “I’d have to ask Mr. Alexander for permission. We keep records of every legitimate submission, but I’ve made a few notes for myself on—on troublesome people who come to the office and sometimes demand to see him in person.”

Miranda tapped the letter again. “You have anyone in mind for this?”

The crowded writing, black on white, drew the girl’s eyes before they closed for a moment.

Louise shook her head. “No.”

“You’re single, you said. Any fiancé, steady boyfriend?”

Quick, stuttering glance toward the window before she shook her head again. “No one in particular.”

“And you say these—these ‘accidents’ you’ve described—they’ve all occurred within the last three weeks?”

The secretary clutched the calfskin gloves in her lap like a rosary.

“The—the shoving incident—”

“Someone tried to push you in front of a White Front—”

“Yes. That was the first. I didn’t think anything of it, you know, it does get crowded on Market Street after work and sometimes people stumble, but I’d received those—those letters, so I wrote down what happened once I got home that night. Just in case.”

Louise shuddered and opened her shiny, brown leather bag, replacing the gloves and pulling out a pack of Viceroys.

“Mr. Alexander doesn’t allow smoking in the office, but my nerves are so jittery I started sneaking one or two on lunch break.”

“How fascist of Mr. Alexander.”

Louise tittered nervously and lit the cigarette, acrid bite of the cork filter drifting upward with the blue-gray smoke.

Maybe the secretary wasn’t quite as demurely naïve as the nervous hands and spit-curled hair and admiration of her swaggering boss would suggest. Fearful, definitely; under attack, probably. But her sangfroid was holding together, the Viceroys a sophisticated smoke, the clothes not I. Magnin, but not the Sears, Roebuck catalog, either.

“Smart of you to write down what happened. How long have you been in San Francisco?”

The blonde tried to smile. “Does it show? About seven months. I’m originally from Olympia, Washington.”

“Why did you leave?”

A tight line formed at the corner of the girl’s lips. She suddenly looked older.

“You’ve never been to Olympia. I can tell. Unless you work in the government—it is the state capital, you know—or want to become a logger’s wife, there isn’t much to do. I saw an ad in the paper for the Dorothy Durham School of Business here in San Francisco, saved the money my father left me—he died when I was fourteen—and I worked my way through the courses in three months.”

Ambitious and determined. Louise Crowley was becoming more and more intriguing and less and less just a frightened china doll.

“When did you start work at Alexander Publishing?”

“Immediately after I graduated. I supported myself as a theater usher and—and sometimes a model.”

Red suffused her cheeks. The secretary took two quick puffs on the Viceroy, avoiding Miranda’s eyes.

The job you don’t write home about.

Tascone’s juke started up again, Al Stuart intoning “Practice Makes Perfect” with Bob Chester and his orchestra.

Miranda’s lips twitched and she said dryly: “Lingerie or the kind on the Gayway?”

The blue eyes flinched. “Miss Corbie—”

“Miranda.”

“I put myself through school, yes. But I did it without—without taking off all my clothes. I was—I was a lingerie model, though how you were able to guess—”

“My employment history isn’t quite so pure—though I’m sure you’ve heard about that by now.” Miranda tilted her head back, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. “And you’re still here, so you’re no drooping daisy.”

“I assure you, Miss Corbie, I am not shocked easily, nor am I judgmental. What I didn’t learn about life before I started working in publishing, I’ve learned since. I know you were an escort once. What matters is whether or not you can help me now.”

The single-set pearl necklace bounced with emotion as Louise inhaled her Viceroy, eyes glued to the window on Market Street, knees pressed tightly together, face blotched with pink.

Tougher than first appraisal, no Pearl White tied to a railroad track, but her jutting chin and straightforward look still couldn’t mask the stench of fear. She was drenched in it, sharp tang of sweat and desperation just below the surface, blue eyes hunted, breasts and legs and what was between them the target and the quarry.

Miranda had seen enough women from Olympia or Boise or Topeka walk through the doors at Dianne’s, first-timers, second-timers, last-chancers on the Funhouse slide, ride fast enough and quick enough and you’ll never know when you hit bottom.

The secretary wasn’t there yet but on the way down, maybe, whether an unwilling victim of malice or lust or a woman running from her own shadows, whether someone was trying to kill her or she was stringing Miranda along for reasons unseen.

Miranda ground out her Chesterfield, three strong twists in the glass ashtray.

“I need honest answers. You say you’ve been with the Alexander Publishing company as executive secretary to Mr. Niles Alexander for approximately four months. After the first two, you started to receive letters.”

“Yes.”

“Then after the near miss with the White Front, a car almost ran you over in front of your apartment—and that was late at night, about eight days later, correct?”

“Yes. Saturday, September 7th. The first incident was on a Friday, August 30th, and, as I told you, I thought it might be a—a prank or something.”

“So the second attempt was when you were off work and had just gone out for the evening?”

“Ye-es.” The blonde drew down hard on the remains of the stick before stubbing it out in the glass ashtray.

Miranda frowned.

“Answers, Louise. All of them. No secrets between us, no hiding. Men you know, men you used to know, whoever you were out with that night.”

“Miss Corbie, I—”

“Miranda. That’s the only way I can help you.”

The blonde bit her lip, small white teeth worrying the skin. She didn’t look up. “I can bring you the notes I made, Miss Cor—Miranda. I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to help me or even believe me, so I brought only the one letter.”

Miranda scratched another note in the Big Chief pad on her desk.

“Who were you with?”

Louise was clenching her hands again, voice rising. “I could get fired…”

“You could get killed. Name?”

The girl dragged her eyes toward Miranda’s.

“Jerry Alexander.”

“Niles Alexander’s son? Stanford running back?”

“Yes.”

More scratches on the Big Chief tablet while the secretary lit another stick, right arm hugging her middle, expanse of heavy black desk between them.

So Louise Crowley had graduated from Olympia with a Ph.D. in San Francisco, by way of Dorothy Durham, Niles Alexander, and Jerry Alexander, star athlete for the Cardinals, her boss’s only son and heir. That might explain the fear. The bastard had a reputation, on and off the gridiron. And the father had one, too, in and out of the boardroom, in and out of the bedroom.

Neither of them were known to accept “no” as an alternative, though Jerry was rumored to pay for his flings, favoring Sally Stanford’s place over smaller boutiques like Dianne’s.

Miranda studied the girl. Blue-gray cigarette smoke formed a cloud around her face, and she was still holding on to herself with her right arm, avoiding Miranda’s eyes.

“The last attempt on your life was yesterday, nine days after the car. What made you suspect the chocolates?”

“I’m—I’m not sure. The letters—the car—all of it has made me so nervous, I feel like I should check into a sanitarium. So I asked Roger what he thought, and he suggested cutting them open before I eat them. In fact, he insisted. I’m not prone to reading silly crime stories—”

“You mean the type Alexander publishes?”

“He publishes much more than that, Miss Corbie. Mr. Alexander is a real genius at discovering talent.”

“And you showed a real genius for discovering poison in a box of chocolates.”

She was almost too quick. “I was lucky Roger was there. There was no return address on the package and I—well, I confess I have read a few detective novels and I thought I’d best examine the candy to see if the chocolates had been tampered with. That’s when we found the—the powder. Roger sniffed it and said he thought it was rat poison, and I just—well, I couldn’t really believe it, it all seems so absurd.”

“In every piece?”

“No—only four out of eight, in the chocolates with crème centers.”

“Your favorite kind.”

It came out as a whisper. “Yes.”

“And you threw out the chocolates and didn’t contact the police.”

“No. I—I don’t want to make a fuss over nothing—”

“Do you know of anyone who has a grudge against you or who has threatened you in the past?”

The blonde shook her head. Miranda sharpened her voice.

“What about Alexander? Are you having an affair? Or are you saving yourself for his son?”

Louise stood up stiffly and reached for the brown leather bag, voice high-pitched.

“I’m—I came to you because you’re in the same building and you’re a woman and I thought you’d understand these things—”

Miranda tapped the letter. “‘Run you over with a car until you’re a bloody pool of guts and brain’? ‘Sluts and whores should drink poison and die’? ‘You’re going to die soon—you’ve been lucky so far’? Miss Crowley—Louise—the threat in this letter is either personal or playwrighting. If you want me to get to the bottom of it—to find out who wrote it and protect you from any more ‘accidents’—I need to know the truth. About your work, about Jerry, about your boss. About boyfriends, about girlfriends. About you.”

The secretary slowly sank back into the chair, large blue eyes focused again on the window to Market Street. Her voice was even, remote. The fear had dissipated, replaced with a calm Miranda found disquieting.

“You will take the case then?”

Miranda glanced at the paper calendar on the wall. September 17th. The Cameronia sailed from New York today, another opportunity gone, her place on the ocean liner supplanted by a diplomat. One or two more chances before the ship was commissioned by the Royal Navy, one or two more chances to find Catherine Corbie.

One or two chances to save a mother she never really knew.

She turned back to the blonde, composed and sitting still in the hard-backed chair.

“Yes. But on my terms. That means you tell me why you haven’t gone to the police and why, instead, a woman on a secretary’s salary is willing to pay twenty dollars a day to a private investigator. You’ll tell me the nature of your relationships with Jerry Alexander and Niles Alexander—and Roger Roscoe, who so helpfully convinced you to slice open the chocolates. You’ll tell me what you’re afraid of and what you suspect and whom you suspect.”

The girl’s face drained to white but her voice remained steady.

“You’ll get your answers, Miss Corbie. Tomorrow. Along with the rest of the letters and my handwritten notes on the—the attempts. Tonight Mr. Alexander is throwing a party for a famous author, and he expects me to attend.”

Miranda leaned back against her desk chair, a smile at the corner of her lips. Her eyes glinted green.

“But he doesn’t expect me. Wangle an extra invite, Louise. I’m feeling literary.”

Click HERE to buy the book and keep reading!

Copyright 2018 by Kelli Stanley

Kelli-blackandwhiteKelli Stanley is the Macavity Award-winning creator of the Miranda Corbie series (City of DragonsCity of SecretsCity of Ghosts), literary noir novels set in 1940 San Francisco and featuring “one of crime’s most arresting heroines” (Library Journal). She is also a Bruce Alexander Award and Golden Nugget Award winner, and a Shamus Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist.

Critics have compared her work to her icons Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Norman Corwin, and Herb Caen. She was awarded a Certificate of Merit from the City and County of San Francisco for her contributions to literature. City of Sharks is her next novel.

Kelli has also published numerous short stories and essays, holds a Master’s Degree in Classics, and prefers her bourbon neat.

Website: https://www.kellistanley.com

FB page: Crime Fiction by Kelli Stanley (https://www.facebook.com/booksbykellistanley/)

Twitter: kelli_stanley

THE PROGENY by Tosca Lee

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ProgenyThe Center

No one speaks when you enter the Center for the last time. There’s no need. You’ve gone through the counseling, tests, and a checklist of preparations to get the plastic bracelet you wear the day of treatment. The one that saves a life. They don’t need to know why you’re doing it any more. Or that you lied about it all. Just the scratch of the stylus as you sign your name on the screen one last time.

A nurse takes me into a room and I lie down on the table. I give her the sealed packet—the only thing I brought with me. There’s cash, meds, and an address inside, the one for “after.” It’s a thousand miles away. She’ll pass it to the companion assigned to me. No point meeting her now.

I’m 21 years old and my name doesn’t matter because it’s about to be erased forever. I’m choosing to forget the ones I love, and myself, in the process.

They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. But they don’t tell you that every detail comes screaming back to life. That you taste each bite of every meal you savored, feel the shower of every rain you walked in… smell the hair against your cheek before that last, parting kiss. That you will fight to hold on to every memory like a drowning person gasping for poisoned air.

Then everything you knew is gone. And you are still alive.

For now.

Chapter One

 There’s a figure standing by the window. Arms crossed, outlined against the fuchsia sky, looking out at what must be a spectacular sunset. When her chin lifts I wonder if she’s seen something in the trees.

I push up from the cabin’s lone sofa. An afghan with a giant moose stitched on it is tangled around my legs. It in no way coordinates with the moose valance in the kitchen or the fixture in the bathroom. Despite the name of the lake—Moosehead—I’ve yet to see a real moose anywhere since arriving here four weeks ago.

“You’re awake.” My caretaker, Clare, turns from the window. Her blonde hair is pulled back in the loose ponytail she’s worn every day since we arrived and she set up house. Going into town for groceries as I slept, taking me through two-hour assessments in the afternoon, complimenting my recent attempts at dinner including the under seasoned chicken casserole I made last night. It was the first time I’d tried it, I said, but I don’t know if that’s true.

“Yeah, finally.”

My name is Emily Porter. I’m 21 years old and I am renting a tiny cabin in the north woods of Maine for reasons I no longer remember.

I go through this mental routine each time I wake, if only to assure myself I didn’t get the lobotomy I joked about yesterday before sleeping—what, fifteen, twenty?—hours until just now. I don’t even remember going to sleep. Nor do I remember where I lived before this, or where I went to college, or the name of the high school with the blue lockers and squeaky gymnasium floor where I graduated. Including what happened to the garnet ring on my index finger as I accepted my diploma, or the name of the woman who gave it to me other than simply, “Mom.”

Names, identifiers, faces up to age 19 and everything in the two years since. All gone.

“A certain amount of post-procedure depression is normal. That will change, in time.”

I slide my hand to the curve of my skull just above my left ear. To the stubby patch concealed by the longer hair above it. Not so stubby anymore. It could almost qualify for a military cut.

“As will that.”

“Not fast enough.” I flip the afghan off my legs, pop two pills from the bottle on the coffee table, already trying to decide what culinary disaster I’ll create tonight. “Caretaker” is a misleading word; as soon as I reached the two-week observation and recovery mark, Clare has seen to it that I cook, do laundry, find a job and my way around town as though I were already on my own.

“I’m thinking I should stay away from casseroles for a while. How do you feel about tuna quesadillas?” I get up and pad toward the kitchen, wash my hands. When she doesn’t respond, I look at her and say, “That good, huh.”

That’s when I realize she’s wearing the same blouse and skirt she wore the first day, the wooden tao cross hanging just below her collar. It looks like a capitol T, which is what I thought it was the first time I saw it, for her last name: Thomas. And then I see the suitcase by the door.

A surge of panic wells up inside me.

“Today was my last day, Emily.” She says quietly. “I was just waiting for you to wake.”

“Oh.” I put down the dishtowel, finish drying my hands on my sweatpants. Look around me, lost.

Clare tilts her head. “We talked about it when you got up for a while this morning—remember?”

No. I don’t remember. But I don’t need to turn to see the calendar hanging on the fridge behind me, to follow the line of Xs through each day in September to today—the twentieth—to know she’s right.

“Are you sure you want to go now?” I say. “I mean, it’s almost dark.” I gesture to the window, already in shadow.

I’m not ready for this.

She comes to stand in front of me and lays her hands on my arms. Her left brow is angled a few degrees higher than her right. But instead of making her appear asymmetrical, which all faces are, it animates her eyes.

“You’re doing fine, Emily. Your procedure was a success. You have your fresh start. It’s time to live.” A fresh start. A weird concept when you don’t know what you’re starting over from.

She gives me a squeeze and shoulders her purse. “I could, however, use a lift to shore and into town.”

“Right. Of course.” I glance around, lost in my oversized sweatshirt, looking for my jacket. I knew this day was coming. Then why do I feel like I’m being abandoned?

I lace my boots and grab my keys, but the questions that came at me like a hoard of insects those first few days—before Clare firmly counseled me to trust my decision—have come swarming back, louder than ever. I push them way but when I get to the door there’s something in her hand. An envelope.

The handwriting on the outside is mine.

She holds it out. “You wrote this before your treatment.”

I take it slowly. It’s sealed, my initials scribbled across the flap where it’s stuck shut.

“Most patients choose to write a letter to reassure their post-procedure selves. You can read it when you get back.”

I nod, but a part of me wishes she hadn’t shown it to me at all. I slide it onto the counter. “Okay.”

Outside, we climb into the john boat and I start the outboard motor. It takes all of five minutes for me to guide us in to the dock two hundred yards away. I grab the flashlight from the boat, knock it with the heel of my hand when it sputters. The owner’s beat up Ford Bronco is waiting near the slip.

I ask what time her flight is as we turn onto Lily Bay Road, make small talk about the magnificent foliage around the lake. Finally ask if she ever saw a moose. No, she says, she never did.

Twenty minutes later we pull into the Food Mart at the top of the hill—the same place I caught my breath as the lake first appeared below us the day we arrived. There’s a black town car waiting in the parking lot, and she directs me toward it.

I put the truck in park, wondering what one says in a situation like this. I’m glad it’s nearly dark out.

“I’ve got it,” she says when I start to get out. After retrieving her suitcase, she leans in through the passenger door.

“You’re going to be fine, Emily. It’s a brave decision to go through something like this.”

It doesn’t feel brave, to want to forget.

“Read your letter. Trust yourself. But just in case—” She pulls the tao cross over her head and presses it into my hand. “If you ever find yourself in need of answers.”

Impulsively, I lean across the seat to hug her.

And then she’s gone.

Maybe I don’t want to waste the trip to town, or maybe I just don’t feel like getting the crap scared out of me by the stuffed taxidermy bear in the bedroom that has managed to freak me out every time I try to sleep in there like a normal person. As soon as that black car disappears up the road, I hang the cross from the rearview mirror and decide to pick up some supplies.

But the truth is I’m not ready to read that letter. I don’t know what I’ve left behind—my mind has run the gamut from childhood molestation to abusive boyfriends and post-traumatic stress—but part of me is both dying and terrified to hear from that person before. Afraid of any indication of the thing that landed me on an island the size of a Dorito in the back woods of Maine with roots five shades lighter than the rest of my hair.

Inside the Food Mart I distractedly fill a basket with deli cuts, bananas, microwave popcorn, tampons. The grocery is connected to the Trading Post—a camping, fishing, hunting store—making it the type of place you can buy vegetarian nuggets and a rifle, all in one trip. Or, in my case, wool socks and flashlight batteries. I stop in the wine aisle last. It seems fitting to toast my past as I hear from my former self. Who knows, depending on what’s in the letter, I may even need to get drunk.

I’ve just picked a cabernet with a cool label off the sale shelf—because what else do you go by when you don’t know one from the other—when I sense someone staring at me farther down the aisle.

I look up to find a guy in a green Food Mart apron frozen on a knee where he’s been stocking a lower shelf. For a minute I wonder if he thinks I’m shoplifting, or, more likely, not old enough to buy booze.

I deliberately slide the bottle into my basket. As I start to leave, I hear quick steps behind me.

“Hey. Hey—”

I turn reluctantly. Not only because I already wish I had just gone home, but because, now that he’s closer, I can see the chin-length hair tucked behind his ear, the blue eyes beneath thoughtful brows. And I’m standing here with bad roots and tampons in my basket.

He grabs something from the shelf. “We just got this in,” he says, eyes locked on mine. The couple days’ stubble on his cheeks is the color of honey, a shade lighter than his hair.

I glance at the bottle of non-alcoholic cider. “Thanks,” I murmur. “I’m good.”

“It’s organic,” he says, not even looking at it. He’s got an accent so slight I can’t place it, but it isn’t local.

By now I just want to get out of here. The letter sitting on the table back at the cabin has launched a march of fire ants in my gut. If what’s written in that envelope is meant to be reassuring, I need that reassurance now, because I was doing a lot better with my questions before Clare and her level counsel left and I ever knew the letter existed.

I put the wine back and grab a bottle of tequila on my way to the register.

There’s no one there. I swing the basket up onto the conveyer belt and look around. A moment later the same guy comes over and starts to ring me up.

“Hi again,” he smiles. I look away.

Halfway through checkout, I realize I can’t find my debit card. I pull out my keys and dig through my jacket pockets. And then I see it lying on the counter back at the cabin, right next to the grocery list of all the things I just bought.

“I forgot my card,” I stammer.

He shrugs. “No problem. I can set them aside or have them delivered if you want. You can pay for them then.”

“No,” I say quickly, stepping away. “That’s okay.” By now two more people are waiting in line behind me. “Sorry.” I turn on my heel and hurry to the door and the evening outside, leaving the stuff on the conveyer belt.

Outside, bugs swarm the lone parking lot light. I get to my truck, grab the door handle… and then drop my forehead against the window with a curse. My keys are back inside on the little ledge old ladies use to write checks.

I peer through the dark window like the truck is going to come unlocked by sheer force of will. It doesn’t. And there’s the flashlight with the nearly-dead batteries lying between the seats.

“Hey!” The voice comes from the direction of the mart’s automatic door. I push away from the truck.

It’s the guy, holding up my keys. “You forgot something.”

“Yeah. Like my mind.”

He hands me my keys and two plastic grocery bags. I look at them, bewildered.

“On me,” he says.

“Oh. No, I can’t—”

“Already done. Besides, that tequila looked pretty important,” he says with a slight smile.

“I’ll pay you back.”

“It’s no problem.” He hesitates, and then wishes me a good night.

I pass a whole five cars on my way up Lily Bay and none on the road to the lake. Six houses tucked in the trees along this mile-and-a-half stretch of gravel called Black Point Road share the dock where the boat is tied beneath a motion-sensor light. Modest homes of normal people living lives full of details they might like to forget, but have somehow learned to live with.

The water is black beneath the boat and I’m glad for the cabin’s wan kitchen lights, relieved even for its parade of moose above the window, the bear waiting in the bedroom.

I dump the bags on the counter and sit down on the sofa with the letter, not bothering to take off my boots. After a long moment of staring at my name, I slide my finger under the edge of the envelope and tear it open.

 Emily, it’s me. You. 

 Don’t ask about the last two years. If everything went as planned, you’ve forgotten them along with several other details of your life. Don’t try to remember—they tell me it’s impossible—and don’t go digging. 

 Start over. Get a job. Fall in love. Live a simple, quiet life. But leave the past where it is. Keep your face off the web. Your life depends on it. Others’ lives depend on it. 

 By the way, Emily isn’t your birth name. You died in an accident. You paid extra for that.

 I look up from the letter and take in the tiny, eco-friendly cabin with new eyes. No computer. No phone. No cable television. I’m twenty minutes from the nearest town, population sixteen hundred, where people are outnumbered by invisible moose.

I didn’t come to start over.

I came to hide.

Click HERE to buy the book and keep reading!

copyright Tosca Lee

ToscaTosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of the House of Bathory duology (THE PROGENY and FIRSTBORN, currently in development for TV), ISCARIOT; THE LEGEND OF SHEBA; DEMON: A MEMOIR; HAVAH: THE STORY OF EVE; and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestseller Ted Dekker (FORBIDDEN, MORTAL, SOVEREIGN). A notorious night-owl, she loves watching TV, eating bacon, playing Call of Duty and football with her kids, and sending cheesy texts to her husband.

You can find Tosca at ToscaLee.com, on social media, or hanging around the snack table.

 Instagram: www.instagram.com/toscalee, Twitter: www.twitter.com/toscalee, Facebook: www.facebook.com/AuthorToscaLee

Extra: The Progeny is currently a Goodreads giveaway (until the 23rd) here: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/278216-the-progeny and Firstborn, the sequel, is a Goodreads giveaway until the 20th: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/278324-firstborn-a-progeny-novel