Chapter 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.
Copyright 2017 by Lori Robbins
Brooklyn-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
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—”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“Niles Alexander’s son? Stanford running back?”
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.”
Copyright 2018 by Kelli Stanley
Kelli Stanley is the Macavity Award-winning creator of the Miranda Corbie series (City of Dragons, City of Secrets, City 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.
FB page: Crime Fiction by Kelli Stanley (https://www.facebook.com/booksbykellistanley/)
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.
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.
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.
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 didn’t come to start over.
I came to hide.
copyright Tosca Lee
Tosca 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.
The ashes of the cigarette struck the rocks with sparks and bloodred cinders. The wind beneath the bridge played with the wisps of smoke coming from the tip, making spidery webs in the air. The rising sun splashed a honey-colored glow on the buildings. From the shore, a trumpet, of all things, blew loud and clear like a call. The hooded head turned up abruptly, alert like a hunter on the prowl. Ready. At ease, knowing that it would come full circle. Destiny was working its odd magic. Like he said it would.
Something bright appeared at the edge of the bridge—halting, tipping, and then falling. The eyes beneath the dark hood followed it carefully, one corner of the mouth curving slightly into a gratified grin. The shining bit of destiny hit the shore just out of reach of the water on a small hill of gravel. The figure gracefully slunk across the shore, an arm slowly reaching out like a white snake about to grasp its prey. The coveted reward. The one he’d said was worth waiting for. The hand gripped the handle and tenderly pocketed the prize.
The cigarette was thrown to the ground, discarded. A lingering whistle echoed softly in the breeze as the hooded figure drifted up the shore into Manhattan.
My father was skating up ahead, faster, faster; my mother and I were laughing, joyously racing to catch up. Colors and sensations swirled like a dancer teasing the audience: the cold, gray day, the gentle snowflakes kissed my cheeks and coated my eyelashes, my mother’s blue scarf, my father’s scratchy red mittens. He was skating along the outside edges of the rink. We almost had him! A loud crack suddenly ripped through the air. A heart pang of panic, and my father’s fearful, wide eyes flashed back to us, arms reaching out. Then frigid, terrifying darkness. The intense cold made my bones and muscles ache to the point of cracking; then a slow, heavy, downward pull to blackness….
Three familiar images drifted into focus: the ugly grin of the lady in the green hat; the dark brown eyes intently staring, willing me to wake; and finally, the silver gun with the bloodred scroll on the handle.
I opened my eyes. A cool spring breeze ruffled the white drapes with the city’s fresh, energetic air. The familiar dark brown dresser with glass drawer knobs poking out and a charming porcelain pitcher and bowl on top looked steadfast and comfortable after the eerie dream. The cotton sheets in my smoky blue and white bed felt soft and reassuring as I rubbed them between my fingers. I stretched like a cat, and the only lingering remnant of the dream was those eyes. Those dark brown eyes.
I’m a big believer in dreams—well, at least some of them. A past I was still piecing together.
The piece I’d already figured out was the dark brown eyes. If this were a novel, those intense eyes might bring a sense of fear or unease. Perhaps they’d be a harbinger of my death and open up a vast mystery.
Surprisingly, those eyes were the only part of my dreams that absolutely brought me comfort. Were they the eyes of a long-lost love? No. Were they the sinister yet seductive eyes of a criminal? No. Tall, dark, and handsome stranger? Try squat, rather tubby Italian who never stopped moving and was, most of the time, bellowing. Which was actually occurring downstairs right this second.
I jumped out of bed, threw on my favorite black skirt and white blouse with the long, full sleeves, raced a washcloth around my face, brushed my dark brown hair, tossed on some mascara and bright red lipstick, slipped on my high-heeled red Mary Janes, and ran down the stairs to greet that bellower. Who just happened to my boss and a friend of the family.
He was also the ninety-ninth mayor of New York City: Fiorello LaGuardia.
“Good morning, Laney Lane, my girl!” boomed a voice loud enough to be worthy of a six-foot-eight giant versus this five-foot-two, rotund man.
“Grrrrr,” I replied. I only went by Lane. Lane Sanders. And I happened to take a perverse pleasure in never telling him, nor anyone, for that matter, whether Lane was my full name or a nickname. Plus, his voice was loud enough to be a giant’s but also very screechy, especially before breakfast.
“Good morning, Aunt Evelyn,” I said as I strode right past him, across the dining room, and gave my aunt a quick kiss on her soft cheek.
My Aunt Evelyn—Evelyn Thorne—was a marvelous mix of classy city lady and bohemian artist.
Her jet black hair was neatly pinned up, and she was sporting a crisp, navy blue pinstriped dress. I smiled to myself at the stark contrast of her attire this morning compared to her red skirt and her long hair trailing down her back while she was painting in her studio last night. Her childhood in France and Italy gave her a worldly and almost exotic air mixed with an earthy authenticity that loved to dare convention.
She smiled up at me from the breakfast table laden with scrumptious-smelling scones, eggs, and sausages. Her eyes crinkled with amusement at the exchange between Fiorello and me.
“I don’t have dark circles under my eyes, do I?” I asked as I contemplated running back upstairs for some face powder.
“Oh, no, not at all, Lane, not this morning. I can just tell,” she replied. I had no doubt about that. Aunt Evelyn’s intuition and attention to detail were uncanny at times.
I turned to the buzzing and humming human being I had swept past. Fiorello was in a consistent state of perpetual motion, but especially if he had not been greeted properly. Having had him suffer sufficiently, I rounded on him with a huge grin and cocked eyebrow. “And you, my cantankerous friend. How are you this morning?”
I heard his chuckle as I dove to the table, eating what I could as fast as human digestion and general dignity could handle, for I knew he would give me mere seconds to eat before we had to bolt out the door.
“All right,” he began, with eyes still smiling but with an air of getting down to business. “We have a lot to do today. I was just telling Evelyn that I have a meeting with my commissioners this morning.” He said this with a great roll of his eyes. Most of the time, his commissioners were the bane of his existence.
He continued, “…a meeting with Roger down at the docks to discuss the conditions at the dock houses and…” He went on and on about the day’s activities as I slurped down a cup of tea and loaded up a scone with homemade strawberry curd and butter.
Mr. Kirkland came in and scooped some scrambled eggs onto my plate. Even though I had lived with them for over thirteen years, John Kirkland was still a bit of a mystery to me. I would have thought that Aunt Evelyn would require a butler and cook who would be refined and stern in a European fashion. He was anything but that; Mr. Kirkland’s craggy face was weather-worn but appealing. I liked how his light gray hair was somewhat unfashionably long, touching his collar; how his eyes were tough, blue, and intelligent. He looked more suited to being captain of a sea vessel, barking orders to swarthy sea mates while battling hurricanes and pirates.
He had been with Aunt Evelyn since before I came to live with her when I was ten. He kept to himself and never really talked with me at great length, other than his usual muttering with the colorful language that also reminded one of seafaring life. And much to Aunt Evelyn’s chagrin, I couldn’t help but pick up a few of his more colorful words here and there.
As I ate my breakfast, last night’s dream kept tapping my shoulder like an insistent child trying to get my attention. So I began walking down the lane of the old memories it triggered.
It was the music I remembered most. The early Twenties was ripe with new sounds and new life. Our Victrola played them all: Paul Whiteman, Trixie Smith, Al Jolson. Songs like “” and “Three O’Clock in the Morning.” They were always the backdrop to every memory, every feeling. My parents owned a bookstore on Main Street in Rochester, Michigan, and our brown Tudor-style house had a lovely garden in the back.
My attention snapped back to the present as I heard Fiorello say, as he did every day, “We’ve got work to do!” He started to bolt out the door, which meant I’d better follow or be left behind.
“Bye, Aunt Evelyn! Bye, Mr. Kirkland!” I yelled as I grabbed my large purse with my two notebooks tucked inside.
One I always carried with me to take notes. The other was my prized possession: a deep red leather notebook with engraved curls and leaves around the edges. It was filled with notes and mementos from my parents and it never left my side. With my bag securely over my shoulder, I ran out the door after Fiorello.
His legs moved rapidly down 80th Street toward Lexington, where we’d pick up the subway at 77th. In my high heels, I was actually much taller than Fio, but his commanding presence more than made up for his height. I never felt taller than him. I had to fairly run (not an easy task, but damn, I loved those red shoes) to keep up with his pace. As he walked, he started to rapid-fire tasks for me to do for the day. I brought out my notepad and took down copious details.
We took a variety of routes to work every day, depending on Fio’s mood and whom he wanted to see on his way in. Sometimes we took one of the elevated trains down Second or Third Avenue, sometimes the subway down Lexington, or, once in a while, his car and driver would pick us up. When we came to Lexington and started south, we went past Butterfield Market with its heavenly aroma of baking bread wafting out. The many languages of the city rolled around us, making the energy and bustle of the thousands of people heading to work and school that day a physical force so palpable you could almost touch it. Packs of children were being walked to school while packs of dogs were being given their morning exercise. There was Murrey’s Jewelry store, which had just opened, with sparkling rings and bracelets in the window; the shoe store with its tantalizing new spring line; the dusty newspaper stands… I loved this city. It was challenging, stimulating, vibrant. A place of many layers and depth.
I was writing as fast as I could, fortunately using the shorthand I learned in high school. It looked like Sanskrit, but it was infinitely faster than longhand, especially when trying to keep up with the Little Flower—that’s what Fiorello means in Italian. He was only called that by people who loved him, but I never really could tell how he felt about that. His small stature seemed to haunt him. He acted like he was at least six-foot-four, but in actuality he was always looking up at people. He had a bust of Napoleon in his office.
Mr. LaGuardia was loud, abrasive, rude, purposeful, fast, incredibly intelligent, sometimes scary; did I mention loud? And yet he was also kind, generous, intuitive, and something I could never put my finger on…. Wary? Insecure? I don’t know. He was an enigma at the same time that his feelings were written all over his face.
I loved my job. I interviewed for the job right when Mr. LaGuardia took office two years ago, and after an hour of back-and-forth discussion (rather like a speed game of ping-pong), I was hired. I started in the secretary pool for over a year. Then, at the youthful age of twenty-three, I was recently promoted to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s personal aide.
We clanked down the two flights of steps at 77th, and Mr. LaGuardia said, “Good morning” and, “How are ya?” to many people, interspersed with things like, “Tell that Fletcher guy I’m watching him!” and, “Hey, Micky, how ya doin’? Tell your pop I hope he’s feeling better.”
We stopped, finally, at the end of the platform. I pointed and flexed my foot, working out the usual high-heel cramps. I felt someone brush up against me from behind; it was a mother with two young boys pulling on her arms, both prattling on to her at the same time. She looked tired, but she was smiling.
My eyes flicked behind her, and my stomach lurched with a sickening drop. Standing there was one of the scariest men I’d ever seen in my life, which is saying a lot, since I worked in the mayor’s office. He was a grungy white man with a grungier brown hat smashed on top of his head, a stained white shirt, a grotesque stomach jutting out over wherever his belt would have been, and a slimy black cigar poking out of his mouth. All that was enough, but it was his face that sent a ripple of fear into me. His eyes were mean and flat but hinted that something was lurking back there. His nose encased a dense collection of black, bristly nose hairs poking out. He locked eyes with me for one second. I blinked and looked down as he gurgled a satisfied grunt at my unease. Just then, the train roared into the station.
Fio glared at me. “Lane? You with me? You okay?”
I looked at him and said, “Do you see that guy watching us?” I turned, but he was gone.
“What guy? Watching us?” he asked.
“He’s gone.” Before I could say more, the train stopped, the doors swung open, and a mass of humanity crushed its way onto the train. The train lurched downtown with all of us packed into place with someone’s elbow in my back and a corner of a briefcase poking my thigh. I couldn’t get that guy out of my mind.
In an effort to think of something else, I tried humming the new song by Bing Crosby, but all I could remember was the part that had the title of the song in it: “Benny’s from heaven….” We finally pulled into our station, Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall. We smashed our way back out of the train and up several flights of stairs, and burst out into the refreshing open air at city hall. I straightened my red pillbox hat, which had gotten jostled a bit, and began copying down the onslaught of instructions once more.
Fio went right to his office after greeting everyone by name. I got to my desk and immediately started organizing my schedule. There was already a lineup of petitioners to see the mayor. From the young man whose wife had gone into labor unexpectedly early and the closest hospital was an expensive one that they couldn’t afford—Fio was sure to get the fees reduced—to the pushcart peddler who had come in to complain that he couldn’t get his license renewed. Fio always listened to each and every person and did something about their problem.
I helped Fio get through the line of people, listening, directing, and taking down information. Stifling a yawn, I felt the need for coffee and walked over to the coffee room. Fiorello didn’t believe in coffee breaks, so I had to make it quick.
“Hey, Lane! How ya doin’?” exclaimed Ralph, one of the other aides in the office. Ralph’s curly dark hair fell over his brow, and his smile was wide as he talked at breakneck speed. He was a nice guy; however, he never let me finish a sentence.
Ralph always knew what was hot to do in town. I could never fathom how much he crammed into a weekend. “Hey, Ralph, what’s up t—” I asked. Before I could finish my greeting, he started in at a pace worthy of a Gilmore Special.
“There’s a bunch of us going out to Club Monaco tonight, want to come along? I hear there’s a great band, play all the new songs, too, not just the oldies. Hey! Great shoes, Lane. You should wear that red dress you wore last time we went to Wit’s End. You looked amazing. Do you think you could bring Annie?”
He looked at me expectantly. Ralph had a hopeless crush on Annie, a secretary downstairs. But then again, he had a hopeless crush on a dozen women a month. He was lucky he was so good-natured.
“Sure, I’ll see if she wants to c—” I tried to reply.
“Great! Save me a dance, Lane! Gotta run, Mr. Fitzgerald’s extra grouchy today, better get back before he realizes I’ve been ‘Gone too long, Popeye!’” He mimicked his surly boss perfectly and flew out the door, managing to throw his empty coffee cup into the garbage can with a very nice backhand. He really did resemble Popeye from the radio show and on the Wheatena box.
I walked back to my office with my creamy, sugary coffee and looked forward to going to the new Club Monaco. I got to work typing up notes for some points of contention Mr. LaGuardia had on the conditions of the housing organizations, adding up some numbers of the budget for this month, and transcribing my notes from the morning train ride.
The first meeting of the morning was a big one. It was a Boner Award day. Today’s winner of the monthly award—a sheep bone decorated with ribbons like a Christmas present—was Fire Commissioner McElligott. He burned himself with a firecracker while giving a presentation about the dangers of Fourth of July fireworks.
The day went along its merry way until after lunch, when stern voices (aka yelling) floated out from Fio’s office. I had learned to diagnose how important the yelling was. There were three categories. Category one: normal yelling that occurred on a daily basis, when Fio was only nominally annoyed at something, like at the Boner Award earlier. Category two: louder yelling accompanied by some desk-thumping and perhaps a pen whipped at the door out of frustration. This often led to a swift departure by the one being yelled at, brisk action taken by the mayor (more rapid-fire notes on my part), and a lot of activity all day long as we metaphorically put out fires to undo the damage that caused the yelling.
And then there was category three. Ooh, category three. There was usually one big outburst that contained an ominous tone, only one single, loud thump of an agitated fist hitting his desk, and then an eerie quiet that was like the calm before the storm. I usually walked away from my desk at that point, went to the ladies’ room, and basically hid for a few minutes to prepare for battle.
This event turned out to be a category one. I wrote out a quick note on a minuscule piece of paper that said C1 and went out to the main office toward Val’s desk to give her the alert.
The entire office full of secretaries and aides was abundantly aware of the categories of our Little Flower. Valerie was my closest friend, and we navigated the office politics together. There had been a bit of a territory war ever since Fio decided to have me, a woman, be an aide versus a secretary. As I walked out to Valerie, I was already receiving dirty looks from my least favorite people: Lizzie and Roxy.
Val looked over at me with her green eyes flashing. With her light brown hair and thousands of tiny freckles, she looked fantastic as she sported a sage green suit with large buttons and three-quarter-length sleeves.
Lizzie and Roxy were eyeing me with constipated snarls on their faces. I waved in their direction and smiled, tossing the note to Val. She made some cryptic hand signals, like a catcher to the pitcher, to George across the room, and he ran off to another part of the office to inform them that the yelling was a mere category one.
“Hey, Short ‘n’ Shorter are particularly snarly today. What’s going on?” I asked Val as I leaned up against her desk. Lizzie and Roxy were very tiny and they had an adorable aura around them that made me feel like a Clydesdale. I looked over at them, noticing how Roxy’s curly white-blond hair hugged her perfectly round face in the latest style. She was very attractive except for the fact that she looked like she was perpetually displeased, or smelled something rotten. Today she had on a gorgeous yellow scarf and matching yellow, curve-hugging sweater that perfectly highlighted her best assets.
“Oh, they just figured out that since you were made an aide, you actually outrank them in the office.”
“Just now? But I got that promotion six months ago,” I said, with a quizzical, cocked eyebrow.
“Yeah, well, they might type like lightning, but the rest of them isn’t so quick,” said Val.
I looked over at them as Lizzie whispered something to Roxy like a gossipy schoolgirl. Lizzie’s long red hair more than made up for her sort of mousy looks. She had a terrible squint, like she might need glasses, and her shoulders were the tiniest bit hunched (which made me constantly want to scold, Stand up straight!), but with her luxurious hair and wonderful figure, I’m pretty sure no one else noticed. Lizzie and Roxy were devious backstabbers. But they did type like lightning.
Since word traveled fast around there and I wanted to get back to my desk in case the C1 turned into something else, I said bye to Val and started to walk back. Just as I was getting to my desk, a lean, muscular man came barging out of Fio’s office, and we charged right into each other. He was obviously surprised and said with a soft and rather intoxicating British accent, “Sorry, love.” Before I could blink, he gently took my shoulders, set me aside, and in about three strides, was out the door of the office. The man was quick and efficient, yet I had time to glimpse dark eyes that sparked. And since I had literally run my face right into his collarbone, I also knew he smelled wonderful.
Just then Fio came out of his office with a crease furrowed between his brows, tapping his lips with his forefinger in thoughtful consideration.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“That man that you were yelling—I mean speaking—with just ran into me, and I didn’t get a chance to meet him,” I said, eyes squinting in assessment.
He hesitated, tapped his lips one final time, and replied, “Hmm.” Then Fio turned right around and went back into his office, closing the door behind him.
Copyright 2017 by LA Chandlar
Kensington Publishing Corp. 119 West 40th Street, New York, NY 10018
L.A. Chandlar is the author of the Art Deco Mystery Series with Kensington Publishing featuring Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and a fresh take on the innovation and liveliness of 1930s New York City. Her debut novel, The Silver Gun released August 29, 2017 and the sequel, The Gold Pawn, will release September 2018. Laurie has been living and writing in New York City for 16 years and has been speaking for a wide variety of audiences for over 20 years including a women’s group with the United Nations. Her talks range from NYC history, the psychology of creativity, and the history of holiday traditions. Laurie has also worked in PR for General Motors, writes and fund-raises for a global nonprofit, is the mother of two boys, and has toured the nation managing a rock band.
Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCPXNEoE-5M
Social Media: http://www.lachandlar.com/social
NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli wasn’t surprised to see the men and women in blue waiting in front of the station to welcome her back. She’d expected them. Just not so many. And not the media. Even a block away, the excitement of the crowd was palpable. She took a deep breath, which at seven thirty on this oppressive August morning, was like inhaling steam. Then, as before any battle, she took a minute to psych herself, straightened her already military-straight back and marched toward the maelstrom.
A shout. “Corelli.” Her name passed through the crowd, becoming a chant. Her heart sped up, her hand found her Glock, but she ignored the impulse to draw it. She’d fractured the blue line and doing that had consequences. But knowing intellectually there would be anger and hatred and danger was one thing, seeing and feeling it was…unnerving. And disheartening. She steeled herself. She’d never let them see her hurt and her anger at their betrayal. Or her fear.
Head held high, Corelli fought the urge to favor the leg injured in last night’s attack and maintained the steady pace she’d set for herself. At the opening she ignored the bright lights and shouted questions of the press and plunged into the funnel formed by hundreds of police officers with their backs to her, hissing her name. The heat, sweat and cloying sweetness of the colognes and perfumes from so many bodies crammed together nauseated her. Her gut clenched but she didn’t miss a step. Nor did she miss the calls of traitor, whore and bitch that underscored the hissing that followed her, or the elbows and kicks that connected. And, though she didn’t turn to look, she felt the heat of the TV lights and heard the shouted commentary of the TV reporters describing the reception provided by her brethren in blue.
After what seemed like an hour, she reached the door and stepped into the familiar bustle of police business. The air was fresher and she had space to breathe but she was not immune here. “Shame on you,” said the first officer she encountered face-to-face, a man she’d known for years. Shocked by the hatred on his face, she braced for an attack, but instead of spitting in her face as she expected, he pivoted and stood with his back to her.
Still ignoring the pain in her leg, she continued on. She’d been told the squad was up a staircase toward the back of the station house. By the time she hit the first step, the only sounds were the ringing phones, the rat-a-tat-tat of her heels, and the shuffle of feet as her colleagues swiveled to show her their backs. Funny, it felt as if their eyes were piercing her back as she climbed the stairs.
She braced for more of the same in the squad room, but the few detectives present studiously ignored her and carried on their conversations. She scanned the room, not knowing which, if any, desk was hers.
She turned toward the voice. Detective Ray Dietz. She hadn’t known he was at the oh-eight.
A smiling face. “Over here.” Dietz pointed to a desk in the corner.
“Dietz, I thought you’d retired.”
“Couldn’t see myself farting around the house.” He frowned. “What’s with the limp and the fucked-up face?”
Corelli tucked her swollen hand into her left armpit. Her other hand brushed the abrasion on her face.
“A pickup truck charged me last night. My red cape was at home so I couldn’t wave it in front of the truck to distract it. I tripped, scrambling to get out of its way.” She didn’t mention the foot that had smacked her already injured knee as she made her way through the morning’s gauntlet.
He wrinkled his nose. “There’s lots of bullheaded pricks around here. Better keep that cape handy.”
She lowered her voice. “How come you’re talking to me?”
“Showin’ my respect.” He tipped an imaginary hat. “Because you got a lotta balls takin’ on such a risky job.”
“Safer to stay away from me, Dietz.”
He cracked his knuckles. “Let the bastards try something.”
She sat behind the desk and Dietz dropped into the side chair.
While they chatted, she scanned the room, found a few familiar faces, but none were welcoming. One figure, silent and watchful, caught her eye.
She lifted her chin in the direction of the slender, chestnut brown woman standing near the coffeepot. “Who’s the fashion plate by the window?” The sophisticated haircut, the tan designer pantsuit, the red silk shirt, and the fancy leather bag slung over her shoulder were more appropriate for a high-priced law firm than the rough-and-tumble life of a detective. But her eyes, the almost imperceptible bulge at her waist, and the sensible black shoes said cop.
Dietz spoke softly. “Detective Penelope Jasmine Parker. Rich girl and former assistant district attorney turned cop, saved a Harlem family of five from a crazed shooter and made detective a couple weeks ago.”
“Jeez, I hope she didn’t break a nail.” Parker. Shit. Chief of Detectives Harry Broderick had set the terms for her being back on the job. Either be glued to the hip with a new detective, P.J. Parker, or be chained to a desk. No contest there. Parker won hands down.
He snorted. “Give the kid a break. She’s got enough to deal with. Her father is Aloysius T. Parker.”
“The Aloysius T. Parker? US Senator Aloysius T. Parker?”
“Man, I thought I had baggage.” Senator Parker was the most vocal and vicious critic of the NYPD, constantly demonstrating and holding press conferences accusing the department of racism, some real, some imagined.
“Kid’s a loner, never connected at the two-nine in Harlem and probably wouldn’t have made detective if she hadn’t saved that family. Parker is waiting for Captain Winfry too.”
What the hell was Broderick up to, saddling her with a fashionista whose father was NYPD’s number one critic? Though, if she really was an unconnected loner, it might mean she could trust Parker. But could she trust Broderick?
Corelli studied Parker, trying to get a sense of the tightly coiled woman. Parker stiffened, scowled at Corelli and quickly looked away. Should she talk to Parker now? No, better wait to talk to Winfry. Maybe Senator Daddy got her assignment changed.
Dietz tapped the folders piled in the center of her desk. “The captain wanted you to review these cold cases and see what you can pick up. I gotta follow up on some stuff. See ya later.”
“I’m on it.” Easier said than done, though. She could only sit still for fifteen or twenty minutes. She was up and down so often that the detectives in the squad and the uniforms downstairs began to grumble at having to stand and turn their backs every time she dashed outside to pace and breathe and then again when she reentered. Some pretended they didn’t see her. And after a while most of the detectives in the squad ignored her, except Parker. And, while Parker didn’t turn her back, she watched her every move. It was irritating.
After three hours, Corelli was in a rage. Fucking civilians snug in their comfy offices, not worried about shelling or IEDs or suicide bombers, had no sense of urgency. Either Winfry was giving her the cold shoulder or he had forgotten she was waiting. Neither was acceptable. Fucking Winfry. Fucking bureaucratic bullshit. Fifteen more minutes and she was out of there, job or no job. She’d been contemplating signing on for another tour in Afghanistan and going back was looking better and better.
She grabbed the next cold case folder and read the first page. Someone had left a love letter for her. In an instant the agitation was replaced by the familiar calm focus and alertness she always felt in the face of danger. She read it again.
TRAITOR—a person who betrays another, a cause, or any trust.
JUDAS—one who betrays another under the guise of friendship.
RAT—a despicable person, especially one who betrays or informs upon associates.
RATTED—to betray one’s associates by giving information.
RATFINK—A person regarded as contemptible, obnoxious, or otherwise undesirable.
PUNISHMENT—One dead + Many ruined = Death
She scanned the room. Nobody was watching her. She studied the computer-generated page, thought about fingerprints but knew there wouldn’t be any. She’d known investigating other police would have serious consequences, known there was a good chance she might not survive, known if she survived she would be ostracized. But, just back from Afghanistan, she hadn’t cared much about living. Now, home four months and no longer undercover, she was thinking that living was better than dying and her death no longer figured as a positive in her equation of consequences. They, whoever they were, would have to work hard to get her.
She accepted responsibility for the results of her undercover investigation. One officer she’d exposed ate his gun and a number of others were facing serious jail time, but they were the bad guys, not her. It wasn’t easy but she would live with the guilt just as she was living with the killing she’d done in Afghanistan and Iraq. She put the paper in her pocket and checked again to see if anyone was watching. Parker quickly averted her eyes. Could Ms. Fancy-Pants Parker be the writer?
“Corelli.” Dietz’s voice broke into her musing. “Captain’s ready.”
“About fucking time.” The room went silent. Fuck. She hadn’t meant to say that aloud.
“Whoa.” Dietz put a hand on her shoulder. “Better take a deep breath before you go down.” He looked into her eyes. “The brass dropped in. He had no choice.”
She eyed his hand. He stepped back, taking his hand with him. Shit. Threatening her only friend. “Sorry, Dietz. It’s been a long morning.”
She flipped a half salute and moved toward the steps accompanied by a symphony of scraping chairs as the detectives stood and gave her their backs. It hurt. But damn if she’d give them the satisfaction of knowing that. She strode, as much as her achy leg allowed, through the squad, down the stairs past the blue backs and muttering that followed her as she made her way to the captain’s office. She took the deep breath Dietz had recommended and knocked.
Without looking up, Captain Winfry waved her to the chair facing him. “Sit. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
She stared at the top of his shiny head. She still didn’t get why he wanted her under his command when no one else would have her.
He looked up. His eyes widened. “What the hell happened to your face, Corelli?”
She fingered the scrape that covered the right side of her face. “A car tried to run me down last night when I was walking home from One Police Plaza. The incident was reported by Officer Marta Ryan, sir.”
Winfry’s eyes narrowed. His face darkened. Was that a flash of anger?
“Damn it, Corelli. That’s exactly why the chief ordered a bodyguard for you.”
“Yes sir, I’m supposed to meet with Detective Parker this morning.” But you kept me waiting so it hasn’t happened.
“Other than cars gunning for you and running the blue gauntlet this morning, how are things going?”
“Fine, sir.” If you don’t count the kicks, punches, threatening calls or slashing of my Harley’s tires while I was at my nephew’s baptism yesterday. “Ready to be back on the job. Am I going to be working with Detective Parker?”
“Yes. But here’s the thing. Parker doesn’t know she’s supposed to work with you.”
“Chief Broderick said he’d set it up.”
Winfry looked pained. “Well, he selected Parker and told her he had a special assignment for her, but he didn’t tell her it involved you.”
Lily-livered bastard. “Are you going to tell her?”
“Broderick thinks you’re the best person to convince Parker. So, after we’re done you’ll meet with her.”
“Convince her? You mean she can say no?”
“Yes, she can say no.” Fucking Broderick. “Is the special treatment…I mean the fact that she can say no, because of who her father is?”
Winfry looked amused. “Actually, Corelli, it’s because of who you are. Broderick feels, and I agree, it’s really not a good idea to have someone who doesn’t want anything to do with you watching your back.”
“And if I can’t convince her?”
“If she turns down the assignment, you’re on desk duty until we find someone we feel can be trusted.”
“Jeez.” She bit her lip. It wouldn’t do to badmouth the chief to her new boss.
“It’s unorthodox, but the chief happens to be right. You’re a target right now and you need someone you can trust. She’s smart. Yale undergrad, Harvard Law, and a stint as an assistant DA before joining the department. She’s proven she’s able to keep her head under fire. And she’s safe because she’s unconnected. But the chief didn’t want to order her to do it.”
“He could’ve at least told her she would be working with me.”
“Coulda, shoulda. As I said, Broderick was confident you could make the case.”
“If I might ask, Captain, I’m persona non grata. Why do you want to work with me?”
He straightened the folders on his desk. She waited, knowing if she broke the silence he might feel he didn’t have to answer.
“A number of reasons, some personal that I won’t discuss. Reason one, the blue wall serves a purpose but it’s not right to ostracize an honest cop for blowing the whistle on dirty cops. Reason two, I respect you for doing what you did for the department despite the personal risk while undercover and knowing you’d be ostracized after. And reason three, I get a top-notch detective.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Dealing with the ostracism is your problem, but anything else—threats, failure by your colleagues to do their jobs or respond as you would expect—I want to know.”
He glanced at his watch. “I have a meeting now so you can use my office to sell yourself to Parker. You have forty-five minutes.” He punched a number into the phone. “Send Parker to my office.” He retrieved the stack of folders and the leather bound notebook from his desk and headed for the door. “Good luck.”
Great. When did her old friend Chief Harry Broderick become a coward? He wants me to be safe, but he doesn’t have the balls to tell Parker I’m the assignment?
Parker must have run down the stairs because Winfry had just left when she walked through the open door. Seeing Corelli, not Winfry, she frowned and started to back out. “Oh, I thought—”
Corelli stood. “Detective Parker?”
Parker took a step back, as if she might be infected if she got too close.
“Don’t worry, it’s not contagious.”
“What?” Parker looked puzzled.
“I’m Detective Chiara Corelli.” Parker’s face darkened. “I know who you are.”
Oh, oh. Daddy’s little girl is not happy. “We’re supposed to meet this morning to talk about working together.”
“Really? No one told me.”
I’m telling you now, bitch. “Yeah, well, Chief Broderick sorta forgot to mention my name.” Corelli put her hands in her back pockets and rocked back on her heels. “I’m your special assignment. The deal is, we work homicides, you watch my back, and I train you.”
“Work with the most hated detective in the department?” Parker laughed. “You must be kidding.” Her voice was harsh. “The chief did say there wouldn’t be any repercussions if I don’t want the assignment.” She glared at Corelli. “And I don’t.” She moved toward the door.
“Detective Parker.” Corelli’s voice was a command. Parker stopped, her back to Corelli. “A few minutes, please.”
Parker faced Corelli. “Read my lips. I will not work with you.”
“At least hear me out.”
Parker’s jaw tightened. “How about you hear me? I do not want to be associated with you. What about that sentence don’t you understand?”
What was Broderick thinking? She couldn’t work with someone who hated her. She opened her mouth to tell Parker to go fuck herself, but instead she clamped her lips. Duh. Every cop hated her. But Broderick seemed to think Parker was safe. She needed Parker, so she’d make nice. “A lot of police feel that way about me, but since the chief stressed that you think for yourself, I expected you’d want to hear the facts before you made a decision.”
“I know the facts.”
“Hey, if you’re comfortable passing judgment without hearing from the accused, you don’t have what it takes to be a good homicide detective anyway. So we’re done here.” Corelli waved her hand toward the door. “Go.” Fuck you. I won’t beg.
Parker frowned. Her hands curled into fists but she didn’t move. She seemed to be fighting an internal battle. Corelli held her breath. Even Parker was better than desk duty.
“You’re wrong. I would be an excellent homicide detective. But you’re right that I’m prejudging you based on gossip, innuendo and the media.” Parker’s voice was icy. “But why me? There are plenty of experienced detectives, more likely bodyguards, on the force.”
“I don’t like this any more than you, Parker.” Corelli’s smile was pained. “But as you said, I’m the most hated detective in the department. Chief Broderick feels I’ll have an accident if I don’t have someone who can be trusted to watch my back. And given the circumstances, it’s hard to know who to trust. Broderick chose you. He says you’re an honest, trustworthy cop, who’s proven you know how to handle your gun.”
“And if I say no?”
“I’m tied to a desk.”
Parker nodded. “I see.” She looked out the window and back at Corelli. “Not my problem.”
Corelli felt a prickle of anxiety. She needed this to work. “It is your problem. Unless you’re on the side of the cops in jail waiting for trial and don’t care about an honest department.”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course, I…” Parker chewed her lip. “So talk.”
Corelli shifted the two chairs in front of the desk so they faced each other. “Let’s sit.”
Parker ran her hand over the seat of the dilapidated wooden chair, then sat.
Wonderful. I’m fighting for my life here and Miss Prissy is worried about snags in her fancy suit.
“I know you were promoted because you saved that family, but tell me a little about yourself, where you live, what precincts you’ve worked in, about your experience with the department.”
“This isn’t about me,” Parker said, her voice a challenge.
Corelli leaned in and locked eyes with Parker. “Whatever you might think of me, Parker, I don’t work with strangers. So, either you want homicide badly enough to do this my way or you don’t. Better desk duty than not knowing who’s standing behind me.”
Parker sighed. “I presume you know Senator Parker is my father?”
“Yes, but I don’t hold it against you.” Well, maybe I do.
Parker smirked. “You’d be the first.”
“I’m sure being the senator’s daughter has its good points, too.”
“Of course. I’ve had a privileged life. We lived in a penthouse apartment in Harlem. I went to Brereton Academy, an expensive private school for girls on the Upper East Side, Yale, then Harvard Law. I–”
“I’m impressed. With an education like that, why become a cop?”
“I spent close to two years as an ADA in Manhattan and a lot of the time I was angry at losing cases that I thought could have been won. I blamed the police for not making solid cases.” She raised her chin defiantly. “Now I know how difficult it is to make a case, but then…Anyway, my godfather, Captain Jessie Isaacs, pushed me to stop complaining and do something to change the situation. After graduating from the police academy, I requested the two-nine in Harlem and worked the streets until my promotion two weeks ago. That’s it.”
“Isaacs is a good man.”
Showing the first sign of relaxing, Parker nodded. “The best.”
“Why do you want homicide?”
“People get murdered. Their families lose a mother or father or child. They suffer. Society suffers.” Parker looked down at her hands folded in her lap. “And I’ll be damn good at finding their murderers.”
“Confident, aren’t we?”
Eyes narrowed, Parker studied her. “You need me, yet you’re you trying to alienate me. Why?”
Corelli shrugged. “What do you know about me?”
“As I said, scuttlebutt and what I read in the newspapers.”
Lost in thought for a moment, Corelli reached for her braid and gently tugged it. “Some of this is confidential.”
“I’m betting on it. Right after I got back from Afghanistan, I was recruited by the FBI and the Chief of Detectives to go undercover to investigate an alleged ring of dirty cops in my old precinct.”
“The FBI?” Parker looked skeptical. “Everything I’ve heard and read said you were dirty, a member of the ring who got cold feet and blew the whistle on your friends to save yourself.”
“You’re the daughter of a politician. Is everything written about your daddy true?”
Parker’s eyebrows shot up.
“Right. Anyway, I was undercover for three months. Like Afghanistan and Iraq, I was surrounded by the enemy. Unlike those war zones, I was on my own and my friends and acquaintances were the enemy. Their greed and self-righteousness, their violence astounded me. Yet, I had to act like them or be murdered.” She searched Parker’s eyes looking for understanding. “I vomited a couple of times every day, partly from fear, partly from repressed anger and partly from disgust. I was throwing up in the bathroom so often that a couple of female detectives asked if I was pregnant. It was grueling.” Her leg began to vibrate and she stood to quiet it.
She resented having to justify herself to this dilettante, but Parker was her ticket to working homicides. She sat again and looked Parker in the eye. “I’ve never killed anybody on the job. I killed in Iraq and Afghanistan because I had to. But anyone earmarked to move up in Righteous Partners, the group of renegade officers I was trying to take down, had to kill to prove their loyalty. In fact, it was when they ordered me to murder a drug dealer and his wife and three kids, that I aborted the operation. I had a lot of names, but not all of them, and none of the top echelon. So it was all for nothing. I failed to get all of them. I failed to get any of the leaders.
“When I told the FBI I was walking, they said they had to protect the investigation and would deny any involvement. That didn’t surprise me. But I was shocked by the department’s pathetic denial of a story about me being one of the bad guys, a story, I might add, leaked by an unnamed source, presumably Righteous Partners. She studied Parker, hoping she hadn’t lost her, and was happy to see her listening, but the look of disdain on her face was not encouraging.
“It doesn’t make sense. You were just back from Afghanistan, so why would you accept such a risky assignment? You must have known how dangerous investigating other police would be. Didn’t you worry about them killing you, about being ostracized?”
“I went undercover for all the honest cops like me—and you. I knew I might be killed. I knew I would be ostracized, that it would be hard, but I knew I was doing the right thing.” Besides, at that point I didn’t care if they killed me.
Parker snorted. “Very noble. You sound like you’re running for office.”
“Remind you of your daddy, do I?” Corelli flashed a Mona Lisa smile. “As smarmy as it sounds, it’s the truth. I believe in God, country, family, and doing the right thing.”
The intensity of Parker’s gaze transfixed her. It felt as if Parker was trying to peer into her soul, to pierce her mind and suck the truth from her bones. Corelli tore her eyes away. “And speaking of doing the right thing, I’d better warn you that working with me won’t be easy. Not just because I’m a pain in the ass but because of the baggage I carry. Word on the street is that they want me dead. I get telephone threats every day, and they’ve already come after me twice. This love note was in one of the cold case folders I was given this morning. Take a look.” She handed it to Parker. “You need to think long and hard about whether you want to be enemy number two on the Righteous Partners’ hit list and whether you can deal with being ostracized along with me.”
Parker scanned the note. She looked at Corelli. “Is this your way of making the job attractive?”
She reached for the note. “Just tellin’ it like it is.”
“Are the damaged face, swollen hand, and limp, by way of Righteous Partners?”
“They tried to run me down last night.”
Parker nodded slowly, as if considering the implications. “Not an accident?”
“No doubt in my mind or the witnesses or the chief’s, which is why he insists I need somebody to watch my back.”
“Why would they try to kill—”
“We’re talking scumbag police, Parker,” Corelli said, impatient at having to explain. “Police who crossed the line, who think ripping off drug dealers isn’t stealing and working for the drug king Salazar and killing dealers who compete with him, is acceptable behavior. And worst of all, police who will kill other police to protect their scam.”
“But you’ve already turned them in.”
Corelli fought to keep her voice even. “Duh. Are you paying attention, Parker? I didn’t get them all and the ones I missed seem to think I know something that will send them to jail.”
“Don’t condescend to me. I may be a new detective but I’m not stupid. You dump this thing on me and now you’re grading me? I’ve listened but I don’t need you or this special assignment.”
Shit I thought I had her, but now she’s pissed again. “What about homicide?”
Parker stood. “I’ll think about it and get back to you tomorrow.”
“Captain Winfry wants this resolved by the time he gets back.” She glanced at her phone. “In ten or fifteen minutes.”
“In that case, the answer is no. Excuse me, I need the ladies’ room.” Parker walked out.
Corelli stared after Parker. She’d sure done a whiz-bang job convincing her. Damn. She hated being dependent. But desk duty was deadly. Maybe she should follow Parker and grovel. She stood, then thought better of it. If she was any judge of character, Parker would be back. And if not, she would grovel later.
Parker dashed into the ladies’ room, glad to find that it was private. She locked the door and leaned against it, her breath coming in quick bursts, the sweat tickling her shoulder blades. She splashed cold water on her face and pressed a wet paper towel to the back of her neck. Damn. Why risk her career and her life dealing with Corelli’s shit? So she’d be on desk duty, big deal. God, country, family and doing the right thing were important to her too, but she didn’t go around sticking her nose in hornets’ nests. She leaned toward the mirror and looked herself in the eye. Except isn’t that what she’d been doing at the precinct? Preaching to cops about building better cases, cops who’d been on the job since she was in elementary school.
Coward. She believed Corelli and it offended her sense of right and wrong that the department hadn’t protected her reputation, hadn’t vigorously defended her. So why was she hesitating to say yes? Not getting cooperation? Nothing new there. The assholes at the two-nine never gave her the time of day. The danger? Being a cop is dangerous. Being an outcast along with Corelli? She was already an outsider. The ostracism? It wouldn’t be fun, but if Corelli could walk the gauntlet and endure the abuse, so could she. No, it was Corelli’s attitude. Instead of groveling so she could make the grand gesture, Corelli had acted like she didn’t need her.
Parker straightened. Put your pride aside. Trust your gut. Corelli’s a good cop and exposing those dirty police was a good thing. You became a cop to nail the bad guys, and bad cops are very bad guys. She took a deep breath. Even people who trash her say Corelli is a crack detective. This is your opportunity to get into homicide and learn from the best. If it means putting up with her attitude and being ignored and shot at, so be it.
Decision made, she went to face the dragon. Detective Corelli was sitting in the same position, straight as a soldier, but with a fuck you sneer on her face. She wavered. As she sat and faced Corelli, she considered telling the bitch to shove it, but then she reminded herself that her goal was homicide. And she always met her goals. She cleared her throat. “I’m in.”
The smile that Corelli flashed belied the antagonism that Parker had observed. “You surprised me, Detective Parker. Are you sure you have the balls to walk the gauntlet with me?”
“Damn you. Are you always like this? I’m already regretting it.”
Corelli grinned. “You’re doing the right thing. Time will tell whether you’ll regret it.”
Copyright © 2018 by Catherine Maiorisi
Bella Books, Inc. P.O. Box 10543 Tallahassee, FL 32302
Catherine Maiorisi lives in New York City and often writes under the watchful eye of Edgar Allan Poe in Edgar’s Café near her apartment. A Matter of Blood, featuring NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli, is available in ebook and trade paperback at Bellabooks.com, Amazon and B&N. Her recent short story, “Love, Secrets, and Lies” is included in Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4. Two other shorts can be found in prior Murder New York Style anthologies published by the New York/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime – “Justice for All” in Fresh Slices and “Murder Italian Style” in Family Matters. Both Catherine’s romance novels, Matters of the Heart and No One But You, and four of her romance short stories are currently available at bellabooks.com, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Seated at the counsel table in the Associate Circuit Court of McCown County, Missouri, Elsie Arnold watched the judge toy with the file folder before him on the bench.
Judge Calvin ran a hand through his prematurely silver hair. “I’m binding him over, ladies. But it’s a close call.”
Elsie heard her co-counsel, Assistant Prosecutor Breeon Johnson, exhale with relief. Elsie wanted to echo it. The judge was right; the preliminary hearing on the felony assault was not an open and shut case. Their victim was a homeless man who had been inebriated at the time of the attack; and though his injuries were grievous, his testimony was spotty. Seemed like he’d forgotten more than he could recall.
After the judge left the bench, Elsie twisted in her seat to check the clock at the back of the courtroom. “That ran long.”
Breeon nodded. “We’re working overtime, girl.”
Elsie snorted. For a county prosecutor, the idea of overtime was a fiction. As salaried public servants, they routinely worked long hours with no additional compensation.
The women exited the courtroom and walked the worn marble stairway down to the second floor of the century-old county building. Their footsteps echoed in the empty rotunda. The McCown County Courthouse, an imposing stone structure, had graced the center of the town square of Barton, Missouri, for over a century. While other county seats in southwest Missouri had opted to build new structures, to accommodate twenty-first century demands of security and technology, McCown County voters stubbornly clung to the old facility.
“Five thirty, and it’s a ghost town,” Elsie said.
“Not quite. My baby is waiting for me in my office.”
At the bottom of the stairway, they exchanged a look. Elsie didn’t need to speak the obvious: Breeon’s daughter would be highly impatient with the delay.
But who could blame her? Taylor was a fourteen-year-old kid. Hanging around the empty courthouse was a snooze. Breeon, a single mother who hailed from St. Louis, Missouri, tried to keep regular hours. While Bree was a dedicated prosecutor, her devotion to duty was bested by her devotion to her teenage daughter.
Elsie, on the other hand, was a local product: a Barton, Missouri, native. Still single, at the age of thirty-two. And still enjoying her extended adolescence.
As they entered the McCown County Prosecutor’s Office, Breeon made a beeline for her office. “Tay-Tay! I’m done, hon.”
Elsie poked her head into the open doorway of Breeon’s office. Taylor sat behind Breeon’s desk. Her hand was on the computer mouse.
With a sulky face, she said, “Finally. I’ve been bored af.”
“Uh-uh.” Bree’s voice was sharp. “I don’t like that af talk. Don’t use it when you’re around me, do you hear?”
Elsie’s eyes darted to the wall. The af abbreviation was a common sight in her texts. And her tweets. So much speedier than actually spelling out the words.
“Baby, have you been on my computer?”
“Yeah. Just for something to do.”
“Taylor, it’s the county’s computer. We’re not supposed to be on it for personal use.”
Taylor spun in her mother’s office chair and stretched her coltish legs across the tiled floor. “I was just doing some homework. Looking stuff up.”
“Well, remember to stay off it from now on. We don’t want Madeleine mad at us.”
Madeleine Thompson, who held the title of Prosecuting Attorney of McCown County had been known to get her nose out of joint for smaller offenses, Elsie thought.
To lighten the mood, Elsie said, “Taylor, your mom says your birthday is coming up. Just around the corner. I can hardly believe you’re almost fifteen years old.”
Taylor’s eyes lit up. “Mom, I know what I want for my birthday.”
Breeon was digging in her briefcase, sorting through files. “You already told me. Those rain boots in purple.” Bree glanced at Elsie. “Do you know what Hunter rain boots cost? It’s a crime.”
Elsie shrugged. When she was a teenager, rain boots weren’t even a thing—not in Barton, Missouri. On rainy days, she’d walked around town with wet shoes on her feet.
Taylor spoke again, with a challenge in her tone. “Yeah, well, I changed my mind. I want headshots.”
Breeon zipped her bag. “What?” she asked, incredulous.
“Headshots. By a photographer. A real one.”
Curious, Elsie stepped through the office doorway and dropped into a chair facing Bree’s desk. “What do you want pictures for? You don’t need your senior portrait till after your junior year in high school.”
“Is this for the yearbook?” Breeon asked.
Taylor’s eyes dropped.
“Not the yearbook. For modeling.”
Elsie and Bree both burst into laughter; but when a cloud crossed Taylor’s face, Elsie tried to choke it back.
Taylor’s face was stormy. “You think I’m too ugly to be a model?”
Breeon stepped over her daughter’s outstretched feet and ran a gentle hand over the girl’s hair. “Oh honey. You’re beautiful. And smart, and talented, and strong.”
“So why can’t I do modeling?”
“Baby, we’re in the Ozark hills of Missouri. Even if I wanted you to be a model—you can’t be one here. There’s no modeling industry around here.”
A glance out of the window behind Breeon’s desk provided the truth to her claim. Tree-covered hills rose up in the distance, behind the town square where the courthouse sat. Barton, Missouri, the county seat of Barton County, Missouri, was a tiny town in the hill country of the Ozarks.
A bare whisper escaped Taylor’s downturned head. “Maybe there is.”
Elsie said, “Why would you want to be a model? They don’t get to eat.”
Taylor rolled her eyes.
Undeterred, Elsie continued: “They have to starve. And their career is over before they hit thirty. And they don’t get to use their brains; they are human clothes hangers.”
Without acknowledging Elsie, Taylor bent to pick up her backpack. “I wanna go home, Mom. We have a game tonight. Coach doesn’t like it when I’m late.”
“Sure thing.” Breeon shot Elsie a pleading look over Taylor’s head. “Can you lock up, Elsie? Taylor needs to be at the gym by six thirty to warm up, and I have to fix something for her to eat.”
Taylor spoke up, with a look of anticipation. “Are we going to the grocery store? I want to get the new Cosmo.”
“No, we’re not. But I got you something better.” Bree rummaged on her desk, pulling up a manila envelope. “It came in the office mail. I wanted to surprise you.”
Taylor tore open the package. A paperback book fell out onto the desktop. She picked it up with a listless hand. “What’s this?”
“Alice Walker. My favorite of her novels. You’re such an advanced reader, I think you’re ready for it.” She kissed Taylor on the forehead, then turned to Elsie. “So you’ll lock up?”
“No problem. Hey—I’ll probably see you all over at the school gym tonight.”
Taylor’s face turned in Elsie’s direction. “You’re coming to see me play?”
“Well, I’ll be there for the ninth-grade boys’ game. I’m meeting Ashlock, since his kid’s on the team.” With an effort, Elsie kept her voice upbeat. She would much prefer to meet Detective Bob Ashlock, her current flame, in a darkened barroom after work. “But I’ll try to get there early, so I can see your team, too.”
Breeon said, “That’d be great. Right, Taylor?”
Elsie stepped over to Breeon’s desk to pick up the felony hard file they’d handled in Judge Calvin’s court while Breeon packed up her briefcase. Taylor bolted out of the office, with her mother following. Breeon’s voice called out as their steps retreated down the hallway. “See you later, Elsie.”
Elsie flipped through the file and set it down. Giving the desk a final glance, she saw that Bree’s computer was still turned on.
Their boss, Madeleine, had recently sent an office wide email, instructing the employees to log off and shut down the computers at night. It was her new “green” policy.
Elsie leaned over the desk and clicked the mouse, preparing to log off Bree’s computer. Images popped up on the screen. Elsie leaned in to examine it.
It looked like a link for a modeling agency, pitching glamorous jobs for girls from twelve to twenty-five. Elsie shook her head. “Taylor, Taylor,” she murmured.
Idly, she skimmed through the text on the screen. It promised that the agency could make a young woman’s dream of fame and fortune come true, through an international modeling career. Elsie clicked the mouse to expose the bottom of the page, pausing to study a selfie of the agent in charge. It depicted a dark-haired man with a tattoo on his neck. He wore a smarmy grin.
A chill went through her; she grimaced. It set off a buzz in Elsie’s radar. The man in the picture was not the type of individual that a mother would want sniffing around her teenage daughter.
She turned off the computer and got ready to depart. Before she turned off Breeon’s office light, she glanced down at the trashcan near the door.
At the top of the garbage was the brand new Alice Walker paperback novel. Elsie reached into the wastebasket to rescue it; but it had fallen on the remains of Breeon’s lunch. Mustard and ketchup smeared the cover. Elsie dropped it back into the can and headed for the women’s room to wash a streak of ketchup dripping from her fingers.
From A WOLF IN THE WOODS, by Nancy Allen, published by Witness Impulse, an imprint of William Morrow. Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Allen. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers
Nancy Allen practiced law for 15 years as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks. She tried over 30 jury trials, including murder and sexual offenses, and is now a law instructor at Missouri State University.
There’s nothing like an overenthusiastic canine to ruin a stakeout. I have my eye on a blue sedan parked across the street from the Walsh estate where I’m visiting, but it’s deuced difficult to concentrate with an obnoxious Jack Russell terrier barking up at me from the driveway. All of the other cars belonging to the guests of the massive party going on at the house behind me are parked in a nearby field, but the men who directed the parking are long gone. The dark-haired woman in the sedan is a latecomer, and she stares unmoving at the Walshes’ posh house, her eyes hidden by sunglasses. With no small degree of nonchalance, I stretch across the top of the deliciously warm brick pedestal at the edge of the drive and squint down at Jocko, the offending white and tan, perky-eared creature. Who has ever heard of such an idiotic moniker? Jocko, indeed.
I know for a fact that Sherlock Holmes never had to deal with such an annoying canine—not counting that Baskerville brute, of course. Sherlock, who is my role model and personal hero, made good use of an intelligent chap named Toby that was half-spaniel, but these Jack Russell types are thoroughly mad. They dash about the countryside yapping constantly, chasing down rodents (an occupation much more suited to accomplished cats such as I), and bothering horses.
I warn Jocko to calm down with a low growl. In return he whines and pants and waggles that ridiculous curled tail. What a hopeless wretch he is.
At home in Wetumpka, Alabama, my human, Tammy Lynn, would never have such a beast hanging about. But she and I came to western Kentucky to visit Erin Walsh, whose late mother was Tammy’s childhood babysitter. Unfortunately Tammy was called to Milan, Italy, to authenticate a priceless book that some monks found in their library. The Italian antiquities bureaucracy would only make it available for a few days, and she had to leave me behind with Erin.
It’s true. I don’t sound like I’m from Alabama. I spent much of the first of my nine lives studying that excellent Cumberbatch actor’s Sherlock Holmes films, and acquired a bit of an English accent. Of course only other cats like my brilliant detective father, Familiar, can hear it. But I have no problem motivating the humans around me when I engage in traditional feline vocalizations.
The woman in the car is staying put. I consider popping across the street or chasing the hapless Jocko her way to get some movement from her—angry-looking people who stare at houses usually mean danger—but the foolish dog would no doubt be run over by a passing tractor or pickup truck. One somehow feels responsible for the Jockos of the world.
Instead I leap onto the impeccably paved driveway, inches from Jocko’s head, making him jump back a mile. Anyone who says cats can’t smile has never seen me after I’ve played a clever trick.
The party has been in full swing since my third nap of the day. Most of the guests—employees and their families from Bruce Walsh’s (Erin’s father) car dealership—are swimming or fishing or careening about on noisy Jet Skis on the Cedar Grove Lake cove that meets the Walsh property. The Walshes have even set up a few picturesque changing cabanas near the property’s strip of manmade beach. The less adventurous guests are in the swimming pool or eating. But I’ve done the rounds back there and want to avoid further contact with the youngsters and their sticky hands, so I enter through the carelessly open front door with Jocko panting behind me.
Hearing angry voices I continue to the library door, which is open a few inches, and slip neatly inside. Hapless Jocko, who doesn’t seem to understand that he could push the door open a bit further to enter as well, sits down in the hall and whimpers pathetically. But Jocko’s not my concern right now.
Erin, a sweet, strawberry blonde co-ed who’s home for the summer from the University of Kentucky, leans forward, her hands balled into fists at her side. Her face is pink beneath her freckles, a sign that she’s angry and frustrated. I’ve seen that look on Tammy Lynn’s face a time or two. But when I see the other woman, who wears a canny, unpleasant grin, I understand why Erin is frustrated. The woman is her stepmother, Shelby Rae, who’s only a dozen years older than Erin. Shelby Rae is also Jocko’s human, and believes it’s her job to meddle in Erin’s business.
Neither of them glance at me as I stroll to one of the many tall windows overlooking the front garden and settle on the back of an enormous couch with stripes like a cafe awning. From there I can find out what’s wrong between Erin and Shelby Rae and observe the car out front. What does the woman in the car want? Is she dangerous? I intend to find out.
“What in the world were you thinking, child? Your daddy’s going to be so upset. You know we think tattoos are trashy on women.”
If she hadn’t been so angry, Erin Walsh would’ve laughed out loud at her stepmother. Shelby Rae, with her bottom-grazing miniskirts and heavy makeup, had the market cornered on trashy. Her family wasn’t much better and seemed to have no visible means of support aside from the little helper checks (Shelby Rae’s words) Erin knew she’d been writing for years. But it was her condescending child that made Erin want to wipe the Corral Me Coral lipstick off Shelby Rae’s collagen-injected lips. She didn’t believe in the stereotype of an Irish temper, but she could swear she felt the anger in her bones.
“I’m not your child, Shelby Rae, and I won’t be talked to that way by you or anybody else. Daddy has asked you, and I’ve told you a thousand times, to stay out of my business.”
Seven years ago, just after Erin’s mother died, Shelby Rae, who worked as the receptionist at the dealership, had taken Erin under her twenty-something wing and become like a big sister to her. They went shopping together in Louisville, and traveled down to Nashville to see a Taylor Swift concert. They did cosmic bowling and Shelby Rae even helped her buy a bra that was more substantial than her training bra. It was Shelby Rae who drove her to the drugstore to pick out sanitary pads after Erin called her whispering, “Shelby Rae, I started.”
But two years later, Erin’s father asked her to come into the library—the very room in which they now stood—and with a beaming Shelby Rae at his side said, “We have wonderful news to tell you, honey.”
If only her father had instead taken her out alone on a walk on the lake trail, or driven her in the boat to dinner at The Captain’s Table on the other side of the lake to tell her. Or he could’ve asked her how she felt about Shelby Rae and if she thought it was a good idea for him to marry her. She might have understood. She might even have been glad to have her suspicions confirmed. She wasn’t blind or stupid. Her father sometimes stayed out late, and he and Shelby Rae shared significant looks when she came to pick up Erin. If only…
That’s not what happened, though, and here they were.
“Oh, come on. Did you forget you have a tattoo on your backside?” Erin pointed at Shelby Rae’s ample left hip. “You have a snake back there. What kind of person has a snake on their butt?”
Shelby Rae pursed her lips and stuck her recently-altered nose in the air. “It’s an asp. Like Cleopatra. And it’s gold and blue. It’s art.”
Erin scowled. “I’m nineteen. It’s perfectly legal if I want to tattoo my whole face.” She pointed to her lightly freckled forehead. “I could get a freaking butterfly parade all across here.”
In fact she’d completely forgotten about the new tattoo when she’d taken her shorts off by the pool. Seeing the tattoo, Shelby Rae had pulled Erin away from her best friend, MacKenzie Clay, and hurried her all the way into the library. Erin only just now wondered why Shelby Rae had been watching her in the first place.
“You’re being silly.” Shelby Rae shook her head. “Only criminals have tattoos on their faces.”
“Oh, so I guess it would be okay if your Uncle Travis, who’s out back drinking Daddy’s beer and about to eat the biggest steak from the outdoor fridge, gets a tattoo on his face?”
Shelby Rae crossed her arms across her breasts. Erin knew she hadn’t had to have those fixed like she’d had her nose done. She’d once overheard one of the salesmen at the dealership comment on Shelby Rae’s enormous assets.
“Why are you so hateful, Erin? I’ve never done one single thing except be nice to you. This is a very stressful time, with the lawsuit just over with. You haven’t been here. You don’t know what it’s been like. That woman from the lawsuit has been hanging around, and I’ve hardly even seen your father for months.” Her high voice stretched into a familiar whine.
The lawsuit. Erin’s father had brushed it off whenever she called him from Lexington. A woman named Tionna Owens was killed when her car’s brakes failed just minutes after she’d left the dealership’s service department. She’d dropped in to ask them to take a quick look at the brakes because she thought there was something wrong. According to Earl Potts, the service manager, he’d told her they were very busy and she could make an appointment for another day. He said she’d grown angry and declared she would take her business elsewhere. The county didn’t find grounds to prosecute, but her family brought a civil suit against the dealership declaring that they it had a record of the car’s brake problems and a duty of care to examine it immediately. But the case had been dismissed.
“He doesn’t even listen to me,” Shelby Rae continued. “Nobody listens to me!”
“That’s because you’re a drama queen. Nobody needs your drama, and I’m sick and tired of it. Stay out of my business.” Erin knew she was being as dramatic as Shelby Rae, but she was beginning to wish she had kept her apartment in Lexington and had picked up a part-time job there for the summer, or just volunteered at a rescue shelter. Bumming around New Belford and hanging around the house—even if she was often with MacKenzie—was turning out to be a bad idea.
Shelby Rae huffed out of the library. When she pushed open the door Jocko barked up at her with frantic joy. Erin saw the startled faces of two women she didn’t recognize over Shelby Rae’s shoulder. Great. Now everyone would know they’d been arguing. How long would it be before her father was asking her why Shelby Rae was so upset?
Erin walked over to the window. The library had always been one of her favorite rooms. She put a hand on the end of the high-backed sofa and Trouble, the clever black cat Tammy Lynn had asked her to look after, nudged her hand with his velvety nose.
“Sorry about that,” she said, scratching the cat behind the ears. “I don’t really hate her. She just gets to me sometimes.”
The cat purred. Tammy Lynn had told her that Trouble was good at solving mysteries and had saved her more than once.
“Don’t worry. I can’t promise you any mysteries, but we’ll find something to do that gets us away from here.”
Erin gazed out the window as she stroked the soft fur on Trouble’s back. She could see a blue sedan parked across the road with a woman inside who appeared to be staring the house. A shiver went up Erin’s spine. She knew the woman: she was Bryn Owens , Tionna Owens’ wife.
Bryn and Tionna Owens had owned New Belford’s Two Hearts bakery together; and while Erin and MacKenzie were in high school, they often met there for coffee. Tionna had a special fondness for MacKenzie who, like Tionna, had a mother who was black and a father who was white. Erin’s eyes were opened wide when Tionna told them about times in the city when she and her parents were ignored in restaurants or cursed at on the street. Erin knew there were a few people in and around New Belford who felt the same way, but she never thought of it as affecting MacKenzie. To Erin, MacKenzie had always been just MacKenzie, her best friend since kindergarten, and MacKenzie’s parents were Mr. and Mrs. Clay. Now, she knew better.
After Tionna died in the wreck, Bryn put a closed sign in the bakery window. The sign was still there. Erin was familiar with grief. The pain in her gut had lessened considerably in the seven years since her mother had been killed, but it never really went away.
Trouble snapped to attention, slipping from beneath her hand to stand on his back legs and put his front paws against the window. The cat never missed a thing.
A rumbling motorcycle pulled up behind Bryn’s sedan and stopped. Erin wondered if this was someone she was supposed to know.
A guy wearing blue jeans and a slim black T-shirt whose sleeves took on the taut muscular shape of his upper arms and shoulders, put down the motorcycle’s kickstand and took off his helmet. When he pushed his sun-streaked brown hair from his face, she recognized his profile. His look was different—a little more relaxed and, frankly, sexier—than she remembered.
Noah Daly had been two years ahead of her in school, and he’d been a loner. A bit geeky, but still a loner. A lot of girls thought he was cute, but their mothers made sure they didn’t get too close because Noah’s father, Jeb Daly, was known to be bad news. When Noah was about to enter high school, Jeb did the unthinkable—he used a gun to rob the New Belford branch of the Kentucky Patriot Bank.
At the time of the robbery, Erin’s mother, Rita, was in the building to drop off a dozen of her special mocha and cranberry cupcakes as a birthday surprise for a friend. But it wasn’t Jeb Daly who killed Rita. Zach Wilkins, the deputy who responded to the silent alarm, shot her accidentally.
A few years later Erin’s father hired Noah Daly to work in the dealership’s service department. What had he been thinking? And what was Noah Daly doing talking to Bryn Owens?
“Here, Mom.” Noah handed his mother, Annette, an insulated tumbler of sweet iced tea. She took the tea and smiled up at him from her chair at one of the umbrella tables by the pool. Only eighteen when he was born, she was younger than the mothers of most of the guys he knew, but her beauty had faded quickly. She’d long ago started dyeing her auburn hair to hide the gray that showed up before she turned thirty. And because she worked long hours managing a big convenience store near the interstate, she didn’t get much exercise, and so carried a little extra weight. But the thing Noah noticed most about her was that her eyes didn’t sparkle as they had seemed to when he was little. Still, unlike most guys he knew, he’d never once been ashamed to be seen with his own mother.
“Why aren’t you out on the lake, honey? The Jet Skis look like so much fun. Didn’t you bring swim trunks?”
Noah glanced around him. The women near the pool wore sundresses or shorts or bathing suits, and the kids were either in the pool, or dripping water as they played close by. Most of the men he worked with were in swim trunks and T-shirts in or near the lake. All of their girlfriends wore bikinis.
“Not going in the water today, Mom. Not in the mood. I just didn’t want you to stay at the house today.”
She leaned close to him, whispering. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Noah.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, okay? We’re here, and that’s what’s important.”
A tall man wearing relaxed khaki shorts and a comfortably faded polo shirt ducked his head beneath the umbrella and laid one of his large hands on Annette’s shoulder. The hair at his temples was gray, but the rest was what Noah had heard his mother call strawberry blond. With his friendly green eyes, Bruce Walsh always looked like he was about to share good news.
“So glad you could make it, Annette. I told Noah I hoped he’d bring you to the party this year.” He nodded to Noah. “Even if young Noah here decides to bring along a sweetheart, you’re always welcome to come, too.”
He didn’t let her finish. “Please, Annette. Call me Bruce, and don’t get up. We get to be the grownups here, right?”
“It’s a wonderful party,” she said, settling back down in her chair. “Look at all these fancy decorations! Even these pretty tumblers are red, white, and blue. I’m so happy all these children are having a good time.” As they watched, a small girl shrieked with delight as she started down the pool slide, her arms waving above her head. When she splashed into the water, then quickly popped to the surface, even Bruce laughed.
“Shelby Rae and I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the people who make Walsh Motors successful. It’s a family, and I like to take care of that family.” He held out a freshly-opened bottle of Budweiser to Noah. “Something cold? Hot day to be out on that Yamaha of yours. You know, the invitation is still open for you and the boys in the department to fish off our docks any time.”
“Thanks, Mr. Walsh.” Noah took the beer with a nod. “I’ve come out here early a few mornings this spring and summer. But I park over on the access road and fish off the far dock so I don’t disturb you all. The yellow perch and bass are running big this year.”
“Oh, that bass,” his mother said. “That’s something special.”
To Noah, the most impressive thing about Bruce Walsh was his sincerity. Sometimes he sounded like a politician, but Noah knew that Bruce always kept his word. When he hired Noah on, he said he didn’t expect any more or any less from him than any other employee, but that it would be a great favor to him if Noah would keep his father, Jeb, from coming around after he got out of prison. Keeping the man who was ultimately responsible for his boss’s first wife’s death away from his place of business was a promise Noah had been happy to make. Especially because he didn’t want to have anything to do with his loser father either. He was glad Bruce didn’t know that promise might soon be tested.
Shelby Rae, who had married Bruce long before Noah started at the dealership, was more of a mystery. When she visited, she certainly didn’t hang around the service department. A few of the guys called her a gold digger and others referred to her as a nice piece of ass. Right now she was a dozen feet away, among a tight group of men surrounding Junior, the hired cook. The men were all older and a couple of them were checking out the plunging neckline of Shelby Rae’s short white sundress as though they wanted to fall in. One of the less obvious guys put a hand on her back, and she whipped her head around so that her long, curled ponytail nearly hit the man on the other side of her.
“Quit it, Uncle Travis!”
Noah smiled. The guy deserved it, but he merely chuckled and pushed his thin black hair away from his forehead, unfazed.
A couple of the other men, including Earl Potts, the service manager, dropped back, embarrassed. It could have been one of them instead of the intrepid Travis. He was her uncle? Talk about awkward.
Bruce and his mother were still talking. Noah wasn’t sure what he’d missed, but the conversation had turned back to the expensive tumblers used for the party’s drinks.
“Shelby Rae went a little crazy on making sure everything matched. I think she planned on about a thousand guests instead of a hundred and fifty. Everyone gets to take one home, but let’s get you a couple extra boxes, too.”
Noah’s mother laughed. “Oh, I couldn’t let you do that. They’re so expensive. I’m sure your wife will want to return the rest.” But Noah could tell from the way she was looking at the tumbler on the table that the idea excited her. They had so few nice things at home. She insisted that Noah put half his paycheck in the bank “for college, maybe, or a house of your own someday.” He hated that she worked so hard but couldn’t afford nicer things, even if they were just thick plastic drink glasses.
“You’d be doing me a favor.” Bruce gave her a wide smile, and his eyes were kind.
“Erin, honey?” Bruce called to his daughter, who was sitting beside MacKenzie Clay at the opposite side of the pool. “Can I get you to come here for a minute?”
Erin Walsh said something Noah couldn’t hear to MacKenzie, who had been in an economics class with him senior year. Then she gave her father a small smile and lifted her long legs from the pool to stand. She removed her reflective gold aviators from the top of her head and put them on so that her strawberry blond hair swung free. Unlike her stepmother, she was dressed down, wearing cream-colored shorts that rested softly on her narrow hips. Her purple Allman Brothers Band T-shirt was tied into a knot, revealing a triangle of pale, flat stomach. The glimpse of her skin put a different kind of knot in Noah’s stomach, and he glanced away.
He and Erin had never been friends, but they were always aware of each other. Neither of them had been allowed to attend his father’s trial because they were too young. He saw more of her when she started at the consolidated high school as a quiet freshman. People referred to her as “Erin Walsh, that girl whose mother got killed.” But Noah thought of her as something more: the girl whose life his father had ruined. It didn’t matter that Jeb Daly had been bluffing with an empty gun during the robbery, and that it was Deputy Zachary Wilkins who actually shot Rita Walsh. His father was still responsible.
It wasn’t until last Christmas that Noah started to think of her in a much different way. She’d come into the dealership with Shelby Rae to be surprised with a spanking new Challenger that her father had bought her for Christmas. Its 700 horsepower engine only had 42 miles on it, but Noah had put twelve miles more on it himself after Earl told him to take it out to make sure it ran perfectly before Erin arrived. The sleek black car was a beauty, with sports suspension and paddle shifters on the wheel that meant the driver could switch to manual without even touching the stick.
Driving that car on the highway and on a couple of backroads he knew well had been among the sweetest fifteen minutes of Noah’s life up to that point.
But the day only improved when Bruce Walsh later called back to the department to ask that the car be brought around. Almost everyone was gone for the day, so Noah started the Challenger with the special red fob that engaged the full 700 horsepower (instead of the black fob that gave you only 500), and drove it around to the front of the dealership.
Erin stood on the sidewalk, her hair tucked into a knitted cashmere beret, her mittened hands covering her eyes like a little kid. Her father’s arm was around her shoulders. When she uncovered her eyes, Noah saw a look of pure delight. She turned and hugged her father. When she finally pulled away, a lock of her hair fell from her beret and brushed her lightly freckled cheek. It was in that moment Noah knew, given half a chance, he could fall in love with her.
copyright 2018 by Laura Benedict
Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of seven novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com to read her blog and sign up for her quarterly newsletter.
Social Media: Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurabenedict
CHAPTER 1 – DEEP FREEZE
The North Atlantic, 1961
“We got trouble.”
The words jarred Henry Bristol from his sleep. He looked up at the weathered face of the pilot. “What?”
“I said we got trouble.” Chewing on a cigar, the pilot leaned over the makeshift seat in the back of the cargo bay where Bristol sat. “See that engine out there?”
Bristol glared out the window of the old DC-4. A black patch of oil streaked across the wing like a bloody wound.
“Pressure’s dropping like a brick and we got a blizzard down there. Got to turn around.”
“No!” Bristol’s eyes widened. He was suddenly wide awake. “I already paid you. You assured me this plane could make it with no problem. I can’t go back! Don’t you understand?” His voice rose in pitch almost to the point of cracking.
“I think you’re the one that don’t understand. We can’t make it on three engines with a payload this heavy. Got to turn around and find a place to put her down for repairs. Our best bet’s Godthab, Greenland. Get the oil leak fixed—day or two at the most.”
As the pilot turned, Bristol stood and grabbed him by the shoulder. “No! You must keep going.” He was almost a foot shorter than the burly pilot and immediately realized his bad judgment.
The pilot balled his fist in Bristol’s face. “Don’t force me to explain it again, little man. Remember, you’re not even supposed to be on this plane. Now park it and shut up.” He shoved Bristol back into the seat, turned, and made his way between the large wooden crates until he disappeared into the cockpit.
Bristol felt the plane bank. There was no going back. As far as the world he left behind was concerned, he was dead. Dead and buried. He had to convince the pilot to change his mind. Maybe he could appeal to the man’s greed. His foot nudged the duffel bag under his seat—so full of cash he could almost smell it.
He stood and pulled his coat around him. There was hardly any heat—another thing that annoyed him. Jumpy by nature, he looked around his surroundings with darting eyes, magnified through the thick lenses of wire rimmed glasses. Determined, he maneuvered past the rows of crates until he stood at the cockpit door. How much should he offer? What did it matter? He had to do whatever it took. Opening the door, he stepped inside.
The only other person on board was the copilot, a skinny man with beady eyes and a scraggly beard. He busied himself at the controls as the pilot turned to Bristol. “I told you to stay put.”
Bristol took a hesitant step forward. “I’ll pay you twice what we agreed.”
“We’re losing a hundred feet per minute.” The copilot’s voice was anxious.
“How can that be?” The pilot scanned the array of instruments. “What the hell’s going on?”
“It’s number two.” The copilot pointed to a set of dials.
“All right, triple the price.”
“Shut up!” the pilot yelled.
Bristol started to make another offer but the words never came. The DC-4 vibrated violently followed by a loud bang and the shriek of ripping metal.
“Oxygen!” the pilot called out and grabbed his mask. He turned to Bristol and pointed to an extra mask hanging over the vacant navigator’s position. “Put it on.”
Bristol grabbed the oxygen mask and shoved it to his face. The plane’s nose dropped, and he saw the churning expanse of storm clouds ahead. “What happened?” His voice was muffled behind the thick rubber.
“Propeller blade,” the pilot shouted. “Ripped off number two. Must have torn through the fuselage. We’ve lost cabin pressure.” He shut down number two engine then keyed his microphone. “Mayday! Mayday! Godthab tower, this is Arctic Air Cargo 101. We’ve lost cabin pressure and two engines. Request emergency instructions. Godthab tower, do you read?”
“Nothing but static!” the copilot said while he adjusted the knobs and dials of the radio transmitter. “We’re not getting through.”
“Keep giving out our position,” the pilot ordered as the plane plummeted into the clouds.
Like bouncing off a wall the DC-4 bucked and pitched, sending Bristol to the floor. He hit his head and felt blood flow down his face.
The tremors worsened as the pilot struggled with the controls. “I can’t turn her, rudder’s frozen. Propeller must have severed the cables.” He ripped his mask off when the altitude needle passed the ten-thousand-foot mark. The plane tossed and rocked as it continued its steady drop into the belly of the storm.
“Get back to your seat and strap in,” the pilot shouted to Bristol.
He turned to start back when the plane shook again. This time, he thought it would rip apart. Thrown forward, he smashed into one of the large wooden crates that filled the cargo bay. His head and shoulder struck with a crack, burning pain shot through his arm. Blood flowed into his eyes. He heard the wind scream across the jagged slash in the fuselage. Groping his way to his seat he swiped the blood from his forehead on his sleeve and grabbed the duffel bag.
When the plane broke through the clouds, Bristol glared out the window and saw what he thought were lights of a small town passing underneath. As quickly as they appeared, they were gone, replaced by a dense shroud of swirling white.
The DC-4 leveled off as if it were about to land. The pilot must see a place to put the plane down, Bristol thought. A cautious feeling of relief swept over him. Had the pilot heard the offer of more money? No. Too much noise and confusion. Bristol looked out the window again. For a precious few seconds a break in the storm revealed what looked like a vast colorless ocean with row upon row of giant waves frozen in place, stretching off to the horizon. What kind of nightmarish scene was this? Were his eyes playing tricks? Had the bump on his head caused him to hallucinate?
There was a rumble—must be the landing gear dropping into place. They were going to land! Bristol pressed his cheek against the cold window trying to see what lay ahead. The strange landscape rushed by—the white ocean got closer. Once they landed, he figured they could wait for the storm to pass then make their way back to the town. He would find a place to stay while the plane was repaired. A few days at the most, the pilot had said. A small price to pay for committing the perfect crime and getting away with murder. A reassuring smile crossed Bristol’s lips. Strapping himself in, he wrapped his arms around the duffel bag, holding his breath.
Like a specter appearing out of a nightmare, Arctic Air Cargo 101 swooped down and glided in across the top of the Greenland ice cap. The driving wind of the season’s worst blizzard had built up huge banks of tightly packed snow and ice. The instant the plane’s front gear bit into the white powder, the nose rammed into a snow bank and the impact crushed the cockpit killing the pilot and copilot. Bristol’s seat ripped from the floor. Still strapped in, he flew forward and collided with one of the cargo crates.
The old DC-4 groaned and shrieked as the snow swallowed it, the sounds of its agony nearly smothered by the roar of the blizzard. When only the tip of the tail stuck above the snowfield, the ripping and tearing finally stopped.
Dizzy and numb, Henry Bristol opened his eyes. In the fading glow of the cargo bay lights, all was finally calm and quiet—the howling of the storm now distant and muffled. He told himself that it was only a matter of time before a search party would come. He had always been a patient man. This time would be no different. Steam drifted up from the wound on his head as he hugged the bag and waited.
THORPE’S CANDLE, © 2017 by Joe Moore
Songs are written of sons, but daughters are left to whispers. So gather near, friend, to hear of a daughter beyond imagining. She had the heart of a lion. Braver than a soldier. Wiser than a king. She was queen in Judah long after King David’s bones had turned to dust. Long after the arrogance of Solomon’s son split Israel into two nations.
When the northern tribes seized the name Israel, the southern tribes called their new nation Judah and placed David’s descendants on their throne. Judah’s capital was the city of Jerusalem and its God was named Yahweh. But Israel bowed to pagan gods and even led some of Judah’s kings astray.
Yahweh’s prophets spewed warnings, and Judah’s brave daughter, the lion-hearted queen, dared ask the prophets why? When? And how will Yahweh’s judgment fall?
One incomparable prophet answered, foretelling Assyria’s cruelty as Yahweh’s weapon of wrath. Isaiah, a man born to royalty, shouted at kings and comforted beggars. The records proclaim him husband to a prophetess and father of two sons. This is recorded, detailed, written.
But what of his daughter?
Her story begins when the northern kingdom of Israel joins forces with Aram, a neighboring nation. They attack Judah in retribution for refusing to join their coalition against Assyria. Isaiah prophesies to Judah’s King Ahaz— a promise and a warning. Ahaz ignores both. His decision forever changes the life of Isaiah’s daughter.
Now [Ahaz, King of Judah] was told, “Aram has allied itself with [Israel]”;
so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken . . .
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son [Jashub],
to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool. . . .
Say to him, . . . ‘Don’t be afraid . . . because of the fierce anger of…Aram and[Israel]….
This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“‘It will not take place . . . [but] if you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.’”
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign,
whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask . . .”
Then Isaiah said, “. . . The Lord will bring on you and on your people
and on the house of your father a time unlike any since [Israel] broke away from Judah—
he will bring the king of Assyria.”
~ Isaiah 7:2–4, 7, 9–13, 17 ~
The men of Israel took captive from their fellow Israelites who were from Judah
two hundred thousand wives, sons and daughters.
They also took a great deal of plunder, which they carried back to Samaria.
~ 2 Chronicles 28:8 ~
732 BCE (Spring)
My friend Yaira said to be brave—but why? Brave or scared, we kept marching. She told me to be a big girl, not to cry, but I’m only five, and I’ve seen big men crying. The raw brand on my arm throbbed and smelled like burning meat. I lost count of the days we’d been marching in the desert. Long enough that the sun baked blisters all over me.
These Israel-soldiers called us “captives.” They whipped the ones who walked too slowly or cried too much. The woman in front of me kept crying for her dead children. I guess one of them looked like me because she grabbed me sometimes, as if I belonged to her. She didn’t seem to care if we were whipped for slowing the march to wherever we’re going—somewhere in Israel. Yaira would help me push her away, but it wasn’t always quick enough, and then we were all beaten. The woman was whipped until she couldn’t fight anymore. She screamed for her children until she had no voice.
I haven’t had a voice since the Israel-soldiers attacked us in Bethlehem. When soldiers came through the city gates, I screamed to my abba, but my words didn’t save him. I ran into the house, crying, but my words didn’t save Yaira from the soldiers who took her into the stable. They hurt her. More soldiers branded me even though I begged them to stop.
After all that, my words were gone.
“Ishma.” Yaira nudged me from behind. “Eat this.” My friend laid her hand on my shoulder, a small piece of bread hiding in her fist.
I shook my head. She needed it more than me. “Take it,” she whispered louder. “Before they see.” Yaira was twelve so I did what she said. I took the morsel and I ate it. The crumbs stuck in my mouth. We’d had no water since yesterday. Please, Yah- weh, give us water when we stop tonight.
Sometimes my prayers worked. Sometimes they didn’t. Mostly they didn’t.
As if she knew what I was thinking, Yaira whispered again. “Every day I pray for Micah to rescue us.” Her voice sounded dry like my throat. “He’ll come, Ishma. I promise. He’ll come. Yahweh will tell him and the other proph- ets where to find us.”
I kept walking, glad I had no words. Yaira wouldn’t like my questions. Why didn’t Yahweh stop the soldiers before they killed my family? Who could ever find us among so many captives? Still, Yaira had as much faith in her brother, Micah, as she did in Yahweh. Micah was her only family because their parents died a long time ago. When he couldn’t take care of her because he lived with the other prophets at their camp in Tekoa, Abba heard about Yaira and said she could live with us and serve as Ima’s maid. Yaira said Yahweh and Micah took care of her, but it seemed to me that my family did.
My face felt prickly when I thought too much about Ima and Abba. My tummy hurt too. I missed them. Who would make my favorite bread now that Ima was gone? Who would tickle me and make me giggle like Abba did?
Back in Bethlehem I held Ima’s head in my lap and watched the light leave her eyes after the soldiers speared her through. I didn’t see what they did to Abba. When the soldiers dragged me out of the house, Abba was lying by the stable with the same empty eyes as Ima. The soldiers wouldn’t let me say good-bye.
“Ishma, look!” Yaira pointed toward a gleaming white palace with black trimmings. It sat on a tall hill.
I’d never seen anything like it. Our house had been the nicest in Bethle- hem because Abba was the chief elder, but it seemed tiny compared to the palace on the hill.
“That must be Samaria, Israel’s capital,” Yaira whispered. “Micah told me that he prophesied here with Hosea.” Her breaths rumbled loud and fast as we climbed the steep hill. We kept walking, walking, walking toward the gates of the white city.
My legs ached and I stumbled, but Yaira tugged on my arms. “Don’t stop, Ishma. We’re almost there.”
I was too tired. My legs felt like water.
“Think of something else, little one,” she said. “What was Micah wearing the last time we saw him?”
That was a silly question. Micah always wore the same thing—a dirty brown robe. Abba said all prophets wore camel-hair robes, and I asked if all prophets were as serious as Micah. Abba laughed. Micah was kind but always frowning—especially on his last visit. He shouted at Abba that we must leave Bethlehem and go to Jerusalem where we would be safe behind its high walls. Ima took Yaira and me into the courtyard, but I could still hear them shouting. Abba was angry and told Micah to leave. Yaira started to cry. I hid against Ima’s legs and wrapped her cloak around me.
I wish Abba had taken us to Jerusalem.
Finally, the captive train slowed to a stop halfway up the hill, and I fell against Yaira. I covered my face with both arms, bracing for the soldier’s whip. But they didn’t beat me.
The crowd’s spreading whispers made me curious, so I lowered my arms to get a better look at Samaria’s palace on the hill. I couldn’t see over the cap- tives and soldiers, but they all asked the same question. “Why are they closing the city gates?” The sun hadn’t set, and we needed food, water, and clothes.
One of the captives pointed to a tall tower casting a long shadow over us. A gray-haired man dressed like Micah stood at the top and looked over the edge. He began shouting at the Israel-soldiers, and they shouted back. The captives huddled together while the soldiers’ faces got redder and they beat their fists against the air.
I curled into a ball, trying to make myself smaller. Yaira leaned over and covered me, like an ima bird covering her babies with its wings. Some of the soldiers began throwing stones at the watchtower. A sudden rumble of thunder boomed from a clear sky and shook the ground. Yaira and I trembled even after the rumbling stopped. I peeked up to the sky from beneath Yaira’s arms and wondered, Was that Yahweh’s voice?
Very slowly, she lowered her arms, knelt beside me, and grinned a little. “Yahweh fought for us, Ishma.”
All around us soldiers dropped their rocks. Some guards even fell to their knees. Others backed away from the captives as if touching us might hurt them.
I tapped Yaira’s arm and pointed at the man in the watchtower, shrugging my shoulders.
“His name is Oded,” she whispered. “He’s a prophet of Yahweh in Israel. He said the soldiers treated us shamefully and must free us or face Yahweh’s wrath. The city elders will lead us to Jericho where we’ll reunite with our fami- lies.” She kissed the top of my head. “We must pray the soldiers listen to Yah- weh and that Micah finds us in Jericho.”
Soldiers rose from their knees. Some still looked angry, but many stum- bled like newborn calves on unsteady legs. They slashed ropes from the cap- tives’ waists and unlocked shackles from their necks and feet. When the soldiers freed Yaira and me, she pulled me to my feet and hugged me gently, careful not to break open our wounds or sun blisters.
“We’re free,” she said, glancing around us. “I think we’re really going to be free.”
All the captives moved away from the guards—slowly, like they were drinking a bowl of hot soup, testing each sip. Could we really be released at the word of a single prophet and a rumble of thunder?
The soldiers unpacked clothing, food, and bandages they’d stolen from Judean towns, and they began passing it out to all us captives. Even the sad woman who had lost her children smiled. Celebration spread, and one word floated on the evening breeze. “Free . . . free . . . free.”
I’d heard that word many times before, but I understood it better now. A bird flew over, and I watched it circle and play in the sky. The bird was free— like us. No ropes or chains to bind it. No soldiers to burn or beat it. But when the bird settled into its peaceful nest at the fork of two branches, I knew we weren’t the same at all. My peace died in Bethlehem, and my home had been burned.
“Ishma, what is it?” Yaira tilted my chin and dried my tears. “There’s no need to cry, little one. I’m sure Micah will find us in Jericho.”
I stared into her sparkly dark eyes. She was so happy about being free, but didn’t she know? Freedom didn’t matter if we had no nest to call home. She pulled me back into a hug.
I closed my eyes and pretended to be a bird.
Mesu Andrews and her husband, Roy, live in a log cain snuggled into the beautiful Appalachian Mountains with their dog, Zeke. The Andrews’ have two married daughters and a small tribe of grandkids. Mesu loves movies, football, waterfalls, and travel.
Biblical fiction is her favorite genre to read and write. Her first novel, Love Amid the Ashes (Revell, 2011), tells the story of Job and Dinah, winning the 2012 ECPA Book of the Year for a Debut Author. Miriam (Waterbrook/Multnomah, 2016), the second book in the Treasures of the Nile series, was a 2017 Christy finalist and tells the story of the Exodus through the eyes of Yahweh’s first prophetess. In January 2018, Isaiah’s Daughter: A Novel of Prophets and Kings (Waterbrook/Multnomah) reveals the little-known personal life of the prophet Isaiah and introduces readers to his captivating daughter.
Excerpted from Isaiah’s Daughter by Mesu Andrews. Copyright © 2018 Mesu Andrews. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Mesu Andrews and her husband, Roy, live in a log cabin snuggled into the beautiful Appalachian Mountains with their dog, Zeke. The Andrews’ have two married daughters and a small tribe of grandkids. Mesu loves movies, football, waterfalls, and travel.
Biblical fiction is her favorite genre to read and write. Her first novel, Love Amid the Ashes (Revell, 2011), tells the story of Job and Dinah, winning the 2012 ECPA Book of the Year for a Debut Author. Miriam (Waterbrook/Multnomah, 2016), the second book in the Treasures of the Nile series, was a 2017 Christy finalist and tells the story of the Exodus through the eyes of Yahweh’s first prophetess. In January 2018, Isaiah’s Daughter: A Novel of Prophets and Kings (Waterbrook/Multnomah) reveals the little-known personal life of the prophet Isaiah and introduces readers to his captivating daughter.
Author website: http://www.mesuandrews.com/ to order free bookmarks, listen to audio Bible studies, or check out more fun stuff!
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