Exclusive Excerpt: Lion’s Head Revisited: A Dan Sharp Mystery by Jeffrey Round

PROLOGUE

GEORGIAN BAY

PROMONTORY

Excerpt:

She knew she was going to die. The feeling persisted, like something pushing out from inside her until it took on a kind of force. The climb had been a mad, nerve-wracking scramble, up from the campground over moss-covered rock and low-lying brush to the top of the escarpment. She’d fought panic all the way. It was only on reaching the top that she paused for breath, her sides heaving.

The drizzle had finally stopped. On any other day, this would have been a dazzling view. The town of Lion’s Head lay in the distance across the bay. A ghostly finger of light slipped through the clouds and slid over the water. Far below, seagulls wheeled over treetops and the broken boulders lying scattered along the shoreline like pieces of an unfinished puzzle. If she fell, she’d be smashed to bits.

“Ashley!”

The breeze gusted the word away. She checked her cellphone. No signal yet. The logging road was still another twenty minutes up ahead. They should have stayed together.

The promontory gave way to bare rock. A white blaze on a twisted cedar showed where the trail picked up again before disappearing in the woods on the far side. She followed where it led down. Stray branches whipped her cheeks, stones cut her fingers as she grabbed them, passing from handhold to handhold to steady herself, all the while fighting panic.

A sharp turn near the bottom confused her. The blazes seemed to switch back on themselves. Had she come the wrong way? Here the rocks were treacherous, greasy with moss and damp. She was nearly at the bottom when her foot gave way. Instinctively, she reached out and caught a branch. It held for a heart-stopping moment then slid through her grasp as she fought to right herself.

Too late.

Her back slammed hard, knocking the wind out of her. For a second she lay there, too stunned to move. She tried to cry out, but her lungs refused to draw breath. An ache clutched her chest. Where it had first been cold and numbing, now it was an excruciating burn, a hot knife jabbed between her muscles. Panic overwhelmed her as she gasped for the breath that failed to come. She struggled to rise, but an invisible hand held her firmly down.

Forest stretched in all directions, a dim twilight world. By nightfall the blazes would vanish entirely then the fear would set in for real. She had to get to the car.

She pictured the blue-and-yellow child’s tent, a tiny bubble set beside the larger khaki-coloured one. Jeremy’s favourite bear — a one-eyed, fur-shedding monstrosity that he clung to through thick and thin — had lain just inside the entrance when they woke. She’d cried to see it.

“Ashley!”

Her voice sounded barely above a whisper. A gnarled root protruded from the dirt. She wrapped her fingers around it, gripping until her knuckles turned pink-white. As a child she’d visited a farm and watched a chick break out of an egg, first one small feathered wing then the other, everything in the world focused on that struggle. Just so, she raised herself now, gripping and pulling, the ache so intense she thought she might black out.

Then, somehow, she was sitting upright. A small miracle. For the moment, it was all she could do. Slowly releasing her grip, she slid to the bottom of the incline and squatted, trying to get her lungs to breathe. Just breathe. Ten minutes went by. At last, when the pain had retreated a little, she fought to get to her feet then headed haltingly for the parking lot.

Five minutes in she had to stop again. The effort was making her light-headed. She leaned against a smooth-skinned tree and lowered herself to the ground, legs stretched out in front. Her chest pounded. She was having a heart attack. She was going to die up here alone. They would find her like this, broken, wretched. Somehow the thought calmed her. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go. The head had always been a sanctuary, a place of peace and respite.

But, no — there was Jeremy to think of. Where the hell was Ashley? Anger shot through her. Get it together, you stupid bitch! If nothing else, she would simply lie here, fighting mosquitoes and black flies till Ashley rallied help. Unless there were marauding bears. Then she wouldn’t stand a chance. The best she could hope for was that they would smell her pain and give her a wide berth. Wolves might not be so cautious. They’d heard them howling the past two nights, coming closer and circling the tents, hating the fire and the smell of people.

She struggled to stand then —

When she came to, her nostrils caught an acrid scent. Wood smoke. It took her a moment to remember where she was. She’d fallen and blacked out. The ache was far worse now, every breath a knife thrust. Gently, she pulled on her collar and looked down. A purple stain spread across her chest under her left breast. A fresh wave of panic backed up in her throat, making her retch. She’d broken a rib … punctured a lung … that was why she couldn’t breathe. The premonition had been real. She was going to die.

A dragonfly buzzed overhead. Its wings shimmered, green and purple iridescence, as sunlight broke through the leaves, lifting the gloom. She sniffed at the air. Unless the woods were on fire, in which case she was clearly doomed, then someone had to be nearby.

She pushed against the tree until she stood upright, her head woozy. The pain wasn’t getting any better. She needed to hurry. The smoke came from up ahead. She simply followed it. Within minutes she reached a wire fence and limped alongside it for a while, but the bush grew thicker again.

She retreated and headed back until she discovered the open field. She pushed down on the wire and hauled herself over one leg at a time, collapsing in a heap on the other side. She fought to stand again then staggered toward the smell.

The farmhouse looked like something out of a fairy tale. Smoke issued from a chimney. The day was warm, so it wasn’t for heat. Someone was cooking. She dragged herself forward, bent over, gasping with each step. An old, grey wagon wheel had been planted in a bed of yellow nasturtiums. A wide porch seemed to invite visitors, despite the secluded surroundings.

“Help!” she cried, her voice faint.

She headed for the house, one arm clutching her chest, the other striving to keep her balance as she stumbled along. Somewhere a dog yelped.

“Please! Is anybody there?”

A door opened. A grizzled man in jeans and red-checkered shirt peered out. He had a long, white beard like a biblical prophet. His expression was stern, as though he disapproved of her. Whether that was because she was trespassing or for the sorry state she was in, she couldn’t tell.

“I’m lost,” she called out, as though it might not be apparent.

She couldn’t make out his reply. He flapped his hands in the direction of the fence, as though telling her to leave. Like hell am I leaving, she thought. Not that she could have even if she’d wanted to.

Sweat fell from her brow and clouded her eyesight. Something rustled in the bushes off to the right. The man disappeared back inside the house. A moment later he returned bearing what looked like a tea towel, waving it furiously. He came toward her with a jarring motion, as though he had to make an effort to swing his hips to get his legs to work, first right then left, like rusty hinges long out of use. He was ominous, a figure in a dream. She opened her mouth to cry out, to say she needed help, but the words wouldn’t come. Sparkles formed at the edge of her vision, waves of tiny lights followed by black clouds. As she fell forward, she wondered if she was about to find herself in far more trouble than she was already in.

Learn more about Jeffrey Round

A former television producer and fashion model, Jeffrey Round is the author of 15 published books, including the Lambda-winning Dan Sharp mystery series. He is also an award-winning filmmaker, poet and musician. His first two books were listed on AfterElton’s 50 Best Gay Books. He lives in Toronto.

EXCLUSIVE Excerpt; The Deadwood Murders (Kendall Parker Mysteries – Book 2) by Jon Michaelsen

DEADWOOD

ded wood

noun

The dead branches of a tree; dead branches or trees.

Useless or burdensome people or things.

Chapter One

Two men dressed in dark slacks, pressed white shirts, scuffless black shoes shinier than a new penny, and aviator shades pushed above their foreheads examined the crime scene. Their suit jackets remained across the backseat of the black Chevy Suburban parked behind them on the shoulder of the interstate. Sweat layered their backs and pooled in droplets at the temples, soaked their armpits. Swatting at the insects swarming about proved useless.

The Georgia heat this day was stifling, the air thick with humidity, and enlaced with a putrid odor familiar to homicide investigators and most cops. They stared at the nude body about fifteen feet away, a male corpse lying face up on damp, decaying leaves. The skin of the cadaver was grayish and mottled; blood dried a Moorish brown. The eyes of the victim had been eaten away by the scavengers of the forest.  

A trio of sheriff’s deputies and a couple of attendants clad in white jumpsuits from the county coroner’s office stood on the perimeter. Forensic pathologists, the medical doctors who performed autopsies, rarely left the morgue. The professionals watched both FBI investigators intently, awaiting their turn with the body. No doubt they were cursing from having to wait in the stifling heat. One consolation, however, was the Feds appeared as miserable as everyone else on this blistering day in mid-July, a record ninety-degrees or better twenty-one days straight and counting.

The sheriff, a fiftyish gray-headed man with a round belly, tie askew, top button of his dress shirt open to reveal a tuft of graying hair, stood a couple of paces off to the side of the tall agents. He had placed the call to the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta upon notification of the horrific discovery. He had referenced a BOLO alert disseminated to statewide law enforcement agencies the previous month mentioning a string of linked and unsolved homicides. 

“Who found the victim?” asked Special Agent Hales without looking away from the body.

“Georgia Department of Transportation mowing crew,” Sheriff Hinson said. “One of their men walked up into the wooded area a hundred feet that way to take a leak. Claims he caught a foul stench and noticed buzzards circling overhead. Figured it was a dead animal, a wild hog or such, and though he’d take a peek. Made his way ‘round that ravine over yonder and saw something curious. Thought it might be a decomposing animal carcass, but it looked strange to him from a distance, so he decided to get a better look-see. Curiosity got the best of him, I guess. It always does.” Hinson chuckled, but lost his grin when the agents remained stoic.

Hales snorted as his partner, Special Agent Delvecchio, spoke up, obviously frustrated with the man’s slow, winding drawl as evidenced by the scowl ripped across his red face. “Go on sir.” 

“When the worker got closer, he ain’t seen no dead hog at all, but a body. He told his supervisor and 911 Dispatch got the call from GDOT’s office in Macon. A couple deputies called out here to check.”

“Thanks, Sheriff Hinson,” said Delvecchio. “That’ll be all for now.” He motioned the official to step away and give them room. “We’ll call you over after an initial walk-through. Inform the photographer and techs they can get to work afterward.”

Hinson opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and slunk away with his head bowed like a banished child. They took the cue and snapped on nitrile gloves and microfiber booties before moving closer to the body, careful not to disturb the scene.

“Give me the rundown,” said Delvecchio.

Hales bent at the knees. After a thorough once over, he began reciting what he observed. Delvecchio took notes: “White male, twenty-five to thirty-five, one-seventy to one eighty-five pounds alive. Height about six feet. Dark hair cut short to the scalp, hairless torso. Signs of trauma to the neck and chest. Bruising, ligature marks visible on both wrists, ankles, and neck.” Hales lifted a stiff arm and portion of the right shoulder. “Dark patches beneath the arms, shoulders, legs and buttocks appear to be livor mortis caused by hypostasis. Abrasions caused by some ligature device; rope, twine, or a type of cord perhaps. Hard to determine without a more thorough examination.”

The younger agent swatted the gnats and flies swarming around, then shifted his eyes lower.” Significant defects noted to the pelvic region. Victim’s penis, scrotum and a portion of the abdomen incised.” Hales cleared his throat and continued in a gravely tone. “No clothing or personal identification present on scene, same with any visible tattoos, scars or other identifying marks. Autopsy will determine the length of exposure to the elements and possible cause of death, but my best guess is the victim has been here four or five days at most.”

Delvecchio spotted something at the base of a thick tree-trunk approximately three feet away and moved off, calling back over his shoulder. “No drag marks or foot impressions I can see, but damn weather could have erased any evidence therein by now.”

Hales followed his partner’s movements. Delvecchio bent at the waist and retrieved something from the ground. He stood, holding an object midair for closer inspection. “Looks like a piece of leather, a shoelace,” he said. “The kind found on work-boots. Might be the ligature used on the DB.” Delvecchio inspected the area around the barnacled trunk, circling to the backside of the tree. “Hales, you need to see this.”

The agent joined Delvecchio after making a wide arc around any potential evidence on the ground before cutting back to where his colleague stood. On the lower portion of the trunk Hales saw the bark gouged, like a wedge or deep notch. Inspecting farther up the tree he spotted numerous, much thinner marks scored into the rough crust. Rope burns, perhaps from the portion of shoelace Delvecchio held aloft.

“Victim was either tied to or propped against this tree, strangled with some sort of ligature device, perhaps some of that shoelace you found,” Hales said, bending at the knees. “The scars in the tree’s bark would suggest the UNSUB braced a foot against the trunk for leverage to garrote his victim, but the binding broke, so another device was substituted.” Hales looked around the base of the tree. “Body was either cut down or the bindings broke.”

Hales stood after inspecting the lower impression further, then retraced his steps to the body.

“This our guy’s work?” Delvecchio asked, following close behind, but his tone suggested he knew the answer.

“MO appears the same, but I cannot be sure until getting a closer inspection of the body, more specifically the throat.” Hales motioned for the crime scene photographer. A gangly shutterbug with billowing white shoe coverings joined them at once. “Get your prelims before we inspect the body. You can finish your evidence-quality shots once we’ve stepped away.”

The photographer nodded and began snapping away with a fancy digital camera, bending, squatting, and contorting his lithe frame in a kind of hushed, bizarre dance around the corpse, positioning himself near enough, but not too close in order to avoid contamination. When satisfied, he stepped away from the body to reclaim his spot at the perimeter where he began fussing with his equipment and unpacking a tripod.

Hales withdrew a pair of chrome-plated micro tissue forceps from his shirt pocket and stepped next to the corpse. Lowering his solid frame to one knee, he leaned over the body. “Let’s determine for sure.” He used the thin instrument to pry open the purple lips, and probed the interior of the mouth, removing some dead leaves and earth. The steel prongs of the tool snagged something solid, lodged deep within the throat. Hales withdrew the forceps and held the foreign object aloft for closer inspection. “Piece of deadwood,” he said, scowling. “Like all the others.”

“Where to next?” asked Delvecchio, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his meaty hand. The gnats were relentless; the heat insufferable.

Hales glanced at the interstate and sighed. Motorized vehicles whipped past at breakneck speed; their occupants oblivious to the horrific discovery a few yards away. “Based on the UNSUB’s previous pattern and northern trajectory these past few months, and considering the body’s been here a few days, I’d say he’s already arrived at his next destination.”

Available December 6, 2019

Atmosphere (The Blake Harte Mysteries Book 9) by Robert Innes

Excerpt

“Tell me about the woman.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Well, what does she look like?”

Blake Harte leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling with a sigh.

“Old. She was an old woman. White hair, wrinkled face, shrivelled up old mouth.”

“And it’s the exact same woman from the events we spoke about when you were a child?”

Linda Forrest scribbled something onto her clipboard and then looked back up at Blake.

“Yes,” replied Blake. “It’s the same woman from when I was a kid because it’s the same nightmare I’ve had ever since I was a kid.”

Linda nodded as she continued writing. “And when these dreams started again, how long had it been since the last one?”

“When I was at university, quite a few years ago.”

“And since then?”

Blake clasped his hands together in his lap and wrung them together slightly. He absolutely hated discussing the nightmares in such detail as this.

“Since I had the first one a few months ago, I’ve been experiencing them at least once a week. Sometimes twice. I even had one last night and apparently I woke up my partner, because I was crying out, which is impressive as normally he can sleep through an earthquake.”

There was silence for a few moments as Linda finished writing her notes and then placed the clipboard on the table between them.

Blake studied her. She was a dumpy woman with kind looking blue eyes. He could not help but wonder if she was a grandmother, because Blake could imagine that she would be incredibly good at it. She had just the right level of calm serenity about her but at the same time appeared ever so slightly stern. Overall, he conceded, she seemed to be the right sort of person to be a therapist.

“Okay,” Linda said. “Let’s talk about the actual dream itself. What happens?”

Blake shuffled in his seat but said nothing. The room they were in was hot, and he could feel sweat trickling down his back, similar to how he felt whenever the nightmare woke him up.

“Come on, Blake,” Linda pressed gently. “I know it’s difficult, but I need you to tell me what happens.”

Blake took a deep breath. “It’s like I said. When I was ten, I broke into an old house on my street. It had been abandoned for years, but me being a young tearaway, I had to explore it. I had a mate that I used to have dares with, Tommy, and he dared me to go and find out what was going on inside the house.”

“And nobody had been in or out of this house for years?” Linda asked him, leaning forward.

“Not that I saw,” Blake replied, shuffling slightly in his seat. “Though, I was only ten. My parents always said that it may as well have been knocked down as they had lived there for years before I was even born, and they had never seen anybody.”

“So, you get inside the house?”

“Yes,” Blake continued. “The whole place was locked up and the only way inside was through a tiny window around the back of the house. I was a skinny child; I mean I wouldn’t call myself exactly large now, but as a kid, I was like a rake. Even I struggled squeezing through it, but I eventually found myself inside the house. I wish I’d taken the difficulty in getting in as a sign to stop being so stupid, but what can I say? I was ten.”

“Okay,” Linda said. “And what did you find once you had managed to get inside?”

Blake sighed again as his eyes landed on the large fish tank in the corner. There was a small fish fluttering weakly around the surface of the water, looking as if it was in its last moments of its life.

“Blake?”

“The room was dark,” Blake said quietly. “Pitch black, actually. I had to scramble around to find the light switch. Then, when I finally turned it on, there she was.”

“And what was she doing?”

“Not a lot,” Blake replied dryly. “She was dead. She was sitting in a rocking chair with a knife sticking in her back. There was a pool of blood beneath the chair. And I couldn’t move. I was so terrified staring at her face. It was like someone had frozen her in the middle of the most horrified scream imaginable. I mean, she had just been stabbed in the back, so I guess it’s understandable, but it was the most horrific thing I’d ever seen.”

“So, you were frozen, in your mind trapped, unable to escape with this traumatic sight in front of you?” Linda clarified.

“Basically, yes. After what must have only been about a minute or so, but it felt like hours, I finally managed to get back the use of my legs and got out of there. Then I ran home and my mum called the police.”

“You’re a policeman now, aren’t you?” Linda asked. “Do you think this event had anything to do with that?”

Blake had wondered that himself over the years. “No, I don’t think so. Though, being a police detective did mean that I was able to find out details about the case a few years later.”

“And what did you discover?”

“Not a great deal,” Blake replied. “I know they found out her name was Julia Watkins. She was, according to her pension book, eighty-seven, and they also discovered that she had been squatting in the house for months. I suppose it’s unavoidable with old abandoned buildings. But as for her death, it was never solved. The only way in and out was through that tiny window that even I had difficulty climbing through. Other than that, the house was completely sealed.”

Linda scratched the back of her head as she consulted her notes. “It’s the sort of thing you’ve become quite used to, haven’t you? These sorts of impossible events.”

Blake shrugged. “I suppose so. I have been kept busy since moving to Harmschapel, that’s certainly true.”

“A lot of murders?”

“I’ve had my fair share,” Blake conceded. “Not that I didn’t get them when I worked in Sale.”

“That’s Sale in the Manchester area, where you used to live before moving to Harmschapel?”

“That’s right.”

“I’ve seen a lot in the papers about some of the cases you’ve had to deal with since moving to the area,” Linda said thoughtfully. “ And of course, you helped bring a serial killer to justice in the earlier days of your career.”

Blake shuddered at the memory. “Yeah. Thomas Frost.”

“I read about him,” Linda said, nodding. “He strangled a number of women in the Manchester area and you were the officer that helped put him behind bars?”

“Probably the closest I’ve come to experiencing evil,” Blake replied quietly. “The man is a psychopath. I had the unpleasant experience of meeting him again not so long ago. He hadn’t changed.”

“All in all, that must be incredibly stressful, especially when you’re dealing with bodies. Murdered bodies at that.”

Blake’s mouth was starting to feel dry. He leant forwards and took a sip of water from the plastic cup next to him.

“It can be,” he replied. “That’s the job. Sadly, being a police officer isn’t all about catching people who have stolen the church collection money or handing out parking tickets for vehicles parked on the village green. Sometimes life happens, and life can be pretty brutal sometimes.”

“Do you think that could have had an effect? Stabbings, shootings, strangulations, you’re only human after all.” She smiled kindly at him, then glanced at the clock on the wall. “Have a think about it. We’re coming to a close now for the first session, but I think we’ve covered some really helpful details today.”

Blake was doubtful. As he thanked Linda and left the office, he could not help wondering exactly what she could possibly do to prevent him having bad dreams, especially as they stemmed from an event that had actually happened to him. There was no way to try and make sense of it, it was a traumatic experience that had clearly stuck with him and no amount of therapy was going to change that.

As he climbed into his car, he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, briefly chastising himself for his lack of self-control when it came to smoking. He had been trying to quit for a long time, but recently, even Blake had to admit that he had basically become a full-time smoker again.

With a heavy sigh, he turned the key in the ignition and began driving back towards Harmschapel, the image of the screaming old woman flashing into his mind’s eye briefly as he pulled out of the car park.

Blurb:

There’s no such thing as magic. Everything has a logical explanation, even when you can’t immediately see it. Nothing is impossible when looked at from the right angle.

Blake Harte has always lived by this mantra. It’s an attitude that has fared him well in Harmschapel after being faced with numerous bizarre murders and situations. But Blake’s beliefs are soon to be tested to breaking point when touring magician, Sebastian Klein, arrives in the village with his daughter, and glamorous assistant, Amelia, to perform their touring magic show.

Although reluctant to even watch the show, Blake and the rest of Harmschapel Police are soon called into action when Sebastian Klein performs the most baffling trick of his career. Just how many ways are there for a woman to completely vanish in front of an audience, especially when even the great Sebastian Klein has no explanation for what happened?

What initially looks like a big theatrical stunt soon leads Blake and the team to one of the darkest and most sinister cases they have ever come across. The disappearance of Amelia Klein threatens to explode in the ugliest way possible, and there is no way of telling just how many secrets she could expose if found…

Buy links:
UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07L43NR4N/ref=series_rw_dp_sw
US: https://www.amazon.com/Atmosphere-Blake-Harte-Mysteries-Book-ebook/dp/B07L43NR4N/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43126026-atmosphere?from_search=true

Want to know more about the author? Click the image of Robert Innes to reach his website!

Robert Innes is the author of The Blake Harte Mysteries – a series of head scratching and impossible crimes. When he’s not trying to work out how to commit seemingly perfect murders and building up a worrying Google search history, Robert can be found at his local slimming group, wondering why eating three pizzas in the space of a week hasn’t resulted in a weight loss. Since the creation of the Blake Harte mystery series in November 2016, each book has become a best seller in LGBT mystery both in the USA and the UK.

Exclusive Excerpt: A Cradle Song by Mark Zubro

Part One

Chapter One

Erik

The loneliest little harmonica sniffled. As best he could, he ignored all the distraction and noise from the store.

His name was Erik. Especially on a Christmas Eve like today, he tried to shut the world out. Then in his heart, he would listen to a cradle song for harmonica and orchestra, the most beautiful and soothing music he’d ever heard.

click on image to purchase

Deep inside of him, Erik had several secret wishes. The most important was that he wanted to be chosen by a good and caring child, and for that child he wanted to play a cradle song.

Long, long ago back to a time he could barely remember, Erik had heard cradle songs for harmonica and orchestra, a beautiful lullaby music. Only a few of those tunes existed. He wanted to make more. New ones. If not that, he wanted to make music with one little boy or girl, for one little boy or girl, music that would soar to the heavens in purity and grace. Music that would change the world, or at the least, heal a child’s tired and broken heart.

He wanted to play a song like that, be part of a song like that. To play for a child with or without an orchestra, to play a lullaby as the child fell asleep on Christmas Eve, all this in Erik’s forever home, nestled in the child’s hands. That was his deepest dream.

But he’d been stuck back here for years, longer than Erik could remember. He’d never been chosen, not even close; picked up and put back only once.

Erik wore a coating of dust most of the year. Maybe in the big cleaning before Christmas, he was noticed in his quiet refuge and someone wiped away the year’s dirt. Most times, they skipped him because they didn’t see him.

Erik was far, far back on his shelf. The dim light rarely reached as far back as he was. He was a little rusty and dinged up. All the bright, shiny trumpets, French horns, tubas, flugelhorns, coronets, and so many more were out in front on the big shelves throughout the store; ready to blare and blast at the slightest sign of interest. The kids who wandered this far back rarely even saw, much less put a hand out toward him.

Erik wasn’t as frightened as he had been in the beginning. He was used to feeling alone. He liked being so far back because he refused to ever show anyone that he was close to sniffling, or worse, crying.

Every Christmas Eve was the worst. Most days, the store thronged with children who all passed him by. He didn’t blame them. They couldn’t even see him all tucked away. Christmas Eve was the busiest day of the year, with the poor and dispossessed kids admitted to the Isle of Misfit Toys to pick and choose among them, and then take away a free toy. On that day, the crowds were the biggest of the year. To be bypassed by so many, added an extra drop to his despair.

On Erik’s own shelf, a cluster of knocked-around but shiny trumpets lounged way out front, followed by the battered but preening flutes and then, way far in the corner, him.

Erik was an oddity, a little baby harmonica. He hadn’t grown. He always thought this was because he’d been snatched from the factory too soon. The truth was, he’d been made that way, but he didn’t know that, and really, it didn’t make any difference to him. He was happy being the smallest possible harmonica. He just wished with all his heart to make music.

Today, Erik tried to be brave for the tiny little race car who had been thrust onto his shelf a month or so ago. The little car had been shoved way back, by a boy who was being mean to his younger brother.

Reginald was the little car’s name. It was his first Christmas Eve not being in someone’s home, without being cherished by a child. That woe-filled first day, he’d told Erik his story between stifled sobs and snorted sniffles.

Reginald was barely bigger than a Monopoly token and must originally have been bright yellow. He’d been loved and held and played with until he was worn to a dull sheen. Now, Reginald was all dinged, rusted, and seedy-mustard yellow. He had lost his left front tire. In his home, he hadn’t cared because he’d known he was loved.

Erik thought one of the worst parts of Reginald’s story was that, years before, the poor little car had lost his mom and dad to a crazed parent who was determined to throw away all her son’s so-called childish junk. Then disaster had struck on that recent fateful day just after Thanksgiving. That had been Reginald’s very worst moment.

The little car had talked between his tears about his home and the boy, Daniel, who loved him. How he always stayed in a special place in the boy’s bottom drawer. He had always been safe in that one tiny snugglement.

Daniel cared for Reginald, treasured him, and was very kind, and always protected him. On that horrible day, Daniel’s older brother, Harold, had waited in ambush to snatch the car out of Daniel’s hand. The little boy couldn’t get Reginald back.

Daniel got very angry and cried. His big brother dashed away and laughed at him. Daniel ran after his brother. He even chased him down the street, but the older boy danced and skipped away always an inch out of his brother’s reach. All that time, Harold waved the weeping little car above his head.

The little boy told his parents. His daddy was harsh, said he needed to get tough and not be a baby. His mother kept silent because she was afraid of her husband and also fed up with hearing the boys argue. Then later that day, in this store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, when no one was looking, Harold had thrust Reginald as far back on this shelf as he could. Daniel didn’t see him do it. No one did.

Their parents had been tired and shushed the squabbling boys, then rushed them out of the store so their fighting and wailing wouldn’t embarrass the adults.

Erik felt sorry for the little car who had no one and nothing in common with anyone on his shelf. After he’d been crying, Reginald tended to hiccup in the night. Erik comforted the little car as best he could.

As for himself, Erik had been passed around for years in many homes. In each one, he’d tried to be cheerful and make friends, but so many of the other musical instruments were indifferent or cared only about themselves. Plus, he was so tiny, it was easy to ignore or overlook him.

In one home, he’d met some snotty violins. One time when he’d thought they were feeling mellow, he’d explained to one of them about music for harmonica and orchestra, cradle songs, the kind he loved. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, he’d picked the most wrong one to confide in.

Agnes, the meanest violin, had snipped at him, “Well, even if that kind of music does exist, and I doubt it, you’re not a real harmonica, are you? You’re a little baby harmonica, hardly worth the few notes you can play.”

Agnes had liked to make the other toys feel bad. She tried to lord it over everyone, but Erik knew her secret. First, he’d noticed how she took to heart slights from the two closest other instruments, an oboe and a bassoon. He also saw that the bigger instruments and even other kinds of toys picked on Agnes. It was only when all of her tormentors weren’t around that Agnes attacked and berated the ones smaller than herself.

The little harmonica felt sorry for Agnes, but his every kind word to her always fell flat. She was always meaner faster than any other toy he’d ever met.

Erik knew he didn’t make as many notes as other instruments. Once, he’d met a huge grand piano. He’d lived in its bench for the longest time. The little boy of the house was made to take lessons on an instrument that seemed to be a bazillion times bigger and have a million more notes than the harmonica.

After his interminable session every day, the little boy would sneak Erik out of the great bench. The boy would hide in a vast closet in one of the elegant rooms, and he’d play and play. Erik did his best to help the little boy feel better.

His second favorite times at that house were when the mom or dad would read out loud with the boy. Erik would be all nestled in the boy’s shirt pocket, or if it was at night, in the pocket on his pajama tops, and Erik would feel the words wash over both of them as if they were part of a long flowing stream of stories stretching on endlessly into magic.

Then one day, the boy had taken him outside to a park. He had swung and twirled on a round-a-bout tilt-a-whirl. The boy had gotten dizzy and sick and forgot the little harmonica on the edge of the sandbox.

While climbing over the edge of the sandbox, a three-year-old girl with angelic blond locks had accidentally knocked Erik off the edge and down into the sand. The next day, the little boy had come to search for him. Everyone looked and hunted, and the little boy had cried. But Erik had landed under a small drift of sand that only got bigger as hands reached and searched for him.

Erik stayed buried in the sandbox for the longest time. It had rained and gotten very cold. Many nights, the harmonica shivered and shook.

Then one sunny spring day, another little girl had found him. She’d cleaned him up almost as good as new. Try as she might, she couldn’t get every bit of the rust off, but she got most of it. Her fingers weren’t skilled enough to fix the dents.

Erik lived for a while on a shelf with her dolls. They were friendly in a stand-offish way. They didn’t like to talk to him because he wasn’t one of them.

Later, Erik had been thrown into a box of junk, which made its way through garage sales and rummage sales and finally giveaways in church basements.

Erik survived the drops, dings, and dents as best he could. He was seldom played with during all his jostlings and journeys. These days, the noise he made wasn’t as true as it had once been.

In this store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, when he was brought in, they’d cleaned him up as new as he’d felt in years.

Even here with its kindly proprietor, the clarinets, flutes, and oboes farther along the shelves could be mean and snotty, most often in a snide way, whispering in their high or low-pitched whines.

The little harmonica knew he’d been here for years. No one had picked him. He’d barely ever been touched. He longed for one set of hands and one set of lips to bring him to life.

On his first Christmas Eve in this store, he was at one of his lowest points. At that moment, Erik had made the mistake of telling one of the other musical instruments his dream of playing a gentle cradle song for a child. He’d forgotten the lesson he’d learned from Agnes. He’d hoped her attitude wasn’t shared by anyone else. Surely, no one could be as cruel as that violin? Alas, he was wrong.

Mildred was a brass trumpet who’d lost one of her shiny knobs and had a couple of big dents. At that time, Erik was closer to the front of the shelf, before he got shoved so far back out of the light and had begun to lose hope.

Blurb:

This is the story of a Christmas Eve and the travails of a tiny harmonica alone and lost in the deep dark on the back of his shelf in a store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, and about a little boy frightened, alone, and lost from his family on Christmas Eve. It is a story of warmth, compassion, and joy to be read by the whole family.

Click on image for website

Want to know more about Mark Zubro? 

Click on the author’s photo to the left to be taken to his website: 

Exclusive Excerpt: Gay Noir (three noir mysteries with a gay twist) by Olivier Bosman

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT:

Mrs Skinner rushed into my office in her hat and furs, pulled up a chair and sat down at my desk. “Have you got the pictures?” she said.

“Well, good morning to you, Mrs Skinner,” I responded.

“Never mind all that!” she snapped back. “Have you got the pictures?” She took off her hat and fur and slammed them on my desk.

“Have you got the money?”

“Pictures first!”

I shook my head. “I need to know that you have the money before I show you the pictures.”

She looked at me and frowned. She grabbed her handbag and rummaged in it for her chequebook.

“How much was it again?” she asked, opening her chequebook and taking a pen out of her bag.

“Four hundred pounds,” I said. “And I want cash.”

She looked up, surprised. “You said three hundred and fifty.”

“The price has gone up.”

“Why?”

“Turns out there’s a bit more to your husband’s affair than meets the eye.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you have the cash or not?”

click on image to purchase

Mrs Skinner replaced her chequebook and pen in her bag, took out her purse and started counting the money in it. “I have three hundred and fifty pounds,” she said, “as that’s what we agreed on. I can owe you the rest.”

“Show me.”

She rolled her eyes in irritation, but she eventually took the notes out of her purse and laid them on the desk.

“Are you happy now, Mr Stone?” she said. “Do you think you can show me the pictures now?”

“I am, and I can.”  I opened the desk drawer and retrieve the pictures. “I’ll show you the pictures now,” I said, opening the brown envelope, “but I should warn you, it’s not a pretty sight.”

“Just get on with it.”

I placed the pictures on the desk one by one and closely watched her face as I did so. It was rigid and emotionless.

“What’s this?” she said after I had placed the final picture on the desk. She was looking at me, frowning with confusion.

“That’s your husband,” I said.

“Who is that other person with him?”

“That is the man he’s been having an affair with.”

“That is not a man!”

“I think you’ll find he is.” I pointed at a certain part of Lenny’s anatomy.

“What are you suggesting?”

“I’m not suggesting anything.”

“Are you suggesting that my husband is a homosexual?”

“I’m not suggesting anything, Mrs Skinner. I let the pictures do the speaking.” I picked up the photo of Skinner eagerly swallowing Lenny’s cock and placed it on top of the other ones.

“My husband is not a homosexual!” she said, jumping up from her chair. “He is the son of an Anglican priest! That picture is a fake! Where is the man’s head?”

“I cut his head off, Mrs Skinner. There’s no need for you to know who the man is.”

“I’m not paying for those pictures! They are not what I asked for!”

“That’s fine. Then I won’t give them to you.” I picked up the photos, slipped them back in the envelope and locked the envelope in my drawer.

Mrs Skinner remained standing over my desk. Her body trembled with rage and her face began to contort. Finally, the emotion became too much for her and she burst into tears. She sat back down and buried her head in her hands. I admit I did feel a tinge of pity for her. I pulled the handkerchief out of my breast pocket and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she said softly and began drying her tears. “This is so humiliating! I should never have married him. My father warned me not to marry outside my faith. We’re Catholics. This would never have happened if I had married a Catholic.”

I didn’t say anything.

“You will have to burn the pictures,” she said. “No one must see what I’ve seen.”

“You can burn them yourself if you pay for them.”

“There!” She threw the bank notes at me. “There’s your cursed money!”

“What about the other fifty pounds you still owe me?”

“I’ll come back with it another day.”

“How can I be sure?”

She looked at me indignantly. “I think you can trust me, Mr Stone.”

“I don’t trust anyone.”

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

I looked at her earrings. “Are those real pearls?”

“My pearls?” She put her hands to her earrings and stared at me with shock. “Are you serious? You want my pearls? Don’t you think I’ve been humiliated enough?”

“Hey, lady, I’ve got a business to run here.”

She took off her earrings and flung them at me. “Have the blessed pearls, you hard-hearted swine!”

I picked up the earrings and put them in my pocket. Then I opened the drawer, took out the envelope and handed it to her. She yanked it out of my hands, picked up her hat and fur and jumped out of her chair. “I hope I never see you again!” She marched out of the office.

“It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mrs Skinner,” I called after her, but she didn’t hear me.

BLURB:
Inspired by the pulp fiction novels of the 1940’s and 50’s, the novellas in this anthology emulate the dark, thrilling, sensational and taboo breaking stories of the post war era and gives them a gay twist.
The Honeytrap

1950’s London. Felix Stone is an openly gay P.I. He is approached by a mysterious woman who pays him to shadow her husband. What at first seems to be a run of the mill adultery case, soon turns out to be much more serious. When the people involved in the case suddenly start dying around him, Felix finds himself embroiled in the world of cold war espionage and his own life is put in danger.

The Deluded

1949. The East End of London is still recovering from the blitz. Fitzgerald O’Sullivan is a young man with romantic notions of living like an impoverished writer. In an attempt to escape his past, he abandons his life of privilege and rents a room in the East End. There he meets Roy Parker, a chirpy Cockney with a working-class charm. Roy asks Fitz to write a story about how he saved the lives of two Jewish ladies during the war. What follows is a far-fetched tale filled with lies and exaggerations. This is is a noir thriller where nothing is what it seems. A dark tale of love, bitterness and vengeance set in the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War

Estranged

1950´s L.A. Sixteen year old Henry Blomqvist is the son of an aspiring actress and stepson of a millionaire businessman. He is an embarrasement to his parents, a useless layabout who is constantly getting arrested for cruising the parks. But his vices pale in comparison with the dark secrets in his parents´ lives. The kidnapping of Henry´s stepfather triggers a series of events which expose the skeletons in his parents´ closets and which finally give Henry the chance to step up to the mark and show what he´s really made of.

ebook link: (Releasing December 4th, 2018 via Amazon & FREE via Kindle Unlimited)

Paperback link: (Currently Available)

Olivier Bosman’s Bio: 

click on image for website

Born to Dutch parents and raised in Colombia and England, I am a rootless wanderer with itchy feet. I’ve spent the last few years living and working in The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sudan and Bulgaria, but I have every confidence that I will now finally be able to settle down among the olive groves of Andalucia.

I am an avid reader and film fan (in fact, my study is overflowing with my various dvd collections!)

I did an MA in creative writing for film and television at the University of Sheffield.  After a failed attempt at making a carreer as a screenwriter, I turned to the theater and wrote and produced a play called ´Death Takes a Lover´ (which has since been turned into the first D.S.Billings Victorian Mystery). The play was performed on the London Fringe to great critical acclaim.

​Currently living in Spain where I make ends meet by teaching English .

Exclusive Excerpt: The Bellingham Mystery Series Volume 2 by Nicole Kimberling

Excerpt:

To Peter, Samuel Powers was an excellent example of how weird New York style looks on people who are not physically in New York at the time. He wore a V-neck tee with a too-small blazer, cropped chinos, and polished brown loafers with no socks. His bare, tanned ankles dared the world to question his well-examined casualness. He would have looked amazing if he’d been walking through Central Park, holding some kind of whey-enriched smoothie. But sitting in the main offices of the Hamster, surrounded by mismatched office furniture, he just looked like he’d been beamed there from a cooler future—the victim of a science-fiction transporter accident.

At the same time, he looked vaguely familiar. But that might have been because he looked like every other handsome, stylish guy from New York.

click image to purchase

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting.” Peter extended his hand, and Sam shook it with exactly the right amount of manly pressure and eye contact familiar enough that Peter felt certain that this couldn’t be their first meeting. He considered attempting to fake it—go in for a hug, or air-kiss even, just to take it to the next level—but decided against it. It was far too hot to hug, and he’d never been a kissy guy. “I’m sorry, but have we met before?”

Sam pulled a wide, perfectly toothed smile and said, “I came to your wedding three years ago.”

Now it all fell into place. Sam had attended their wedding as Nick’s agent, Donna’s, date.

The wedding itself had been such a blur—not just because he’d been excited and stressed by the first mingling of his and Nick’s respective families but because one of their guests had attempted to murder Nick. Lesser details of the occasion, like the names of their non-murdering guests, had largely slipped through the cracks of Peter’s memory.

“I’m so sorry.” Peter felt a line of red creeping up the back of his neck. “Please sit down.”

“It’s all right. I don’t think we spoke much beyond the congratulations.” Sam seated himself and then leaned in, elbows on Peter’s none-too-clean desk. “So the reason I’m here is that I’m working on a book and I was hoping I might convince you to help me. It’s about the Werks Collective.”

Peter ran down a list of every collective, commune, and co-op he could recall operating in greater Whatcom County, but nothing rang a bell and he said so.

“It’s the artists’ collective that Walter de Kamp was part of in New York.”
At the mention of that name Peter’s naturally ebullient heart cooled to a dull simmer.
Of course Sam wanted to talk about Walter de Kamp, Nick’s first lover—the ghost who just

wouldn’t stay down. Every time Peter thought he and Nick had finally broken free of the specter, he rose up to complicate their lives, bringing with him secrets and lies and old history.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Peter said. “I never met the man. And before you even ask, Nick won’t be interviewed about him at all. Ever. Period.”

“Oh, I wasn’t hoping to interview Mr. Olson.” Sam held up his hands as if to show himself innocent of such notions. “I only hoped to have a closer look at a few of the paintings that you two have at your house. I’m specifically interested in the blue landscape in the dining room. It is such an amazing piece. Ever since I saw it three years ago it’s been on my mind.”

“Haunting you?” Peter asked. He couldn’t help it.

“In a way yes,” Sam said, apparently in complete seriousness. “I would be so grateful if you would just let me have another look at it.”

Peter weighed the request. Although it would annoy Nick to have someone in the house, maybe if Sam could publicize the painting, there might be enough interest in it that Nick would finally auction the thing off. After that last piece of Walter’s art had gone, Peter could hire an exorcist, and the spirit of Walter could be laid to rest. He could just picture it: a tall, thin man in a priest’s collar standing before his house, the Castle at Wildcat Cove, eyes pressed closed, whispering in Latin… For an instant, Peter nearly succumbed to his long-standing bad habit of writing the scene out in his head, but Sam had already gathered up his things and started for the door.

“Is it all right if we take my car?” he was saying. That took a moment for Peter to process. Finally, feeling stupid, he said, “You want to go now?”
“If you’re free,” Sam returned. Peter glanced across the office at Doug, who had been

observing the entire exchange. Doug gave a silent shrug, which Peter interpreted as a go-ahead. “Let me just take a leak before we head out,” Peter said. Sam magnanimously agreed to wait in the car while Peter took the opportunity of the lone stall in the men’s room to fact-check

Sam’s story.
Years ago, before he’d met Nick and taken up amateur sleuthing, Peter would have gotten

into Sam’s car on the strength of his handshake alone. But experience had made him wary of riding in cars with random strangers, well-dressed or not.

Sam Powers’ web page was everything Peter would have wanted for his own. Clear, organized, full of stylish fonts and praise about his writing from the New York Times and the Guardian. It also contained a full bibliography of Sam’s previously published book titles, three of which involved crimes that were related to the art world.

That hurt most of all.

Though Peter had written thousands of articles and even won a national award for journalism, he didn’t have even a single book with his name on the spine. He’d started numerous times, attempting to cobble together a concept that would hold his interest long enough to pitch it to an editor, but after a couple of days’ research into this or that subject he’d lose interest, get depressed, and eventually degenerate into writing fiction.

Bad fiction.

Peter’s narratives brimmed with irrelevant commentary on modern life and lacked in any sort of dramatic tension. He’d even attempted to write pornography, then given up, realizing how hard it was to be shocking in a world where a book about the gay X-rated exploits of were- dinosaurs who strove to control the Freemasons could actually get good reviews.

Now here came Sam Powers, flaunting his ability to stave off boredom by writing incisive long-form prose. Peter had half a mind to crawl out the window but turned instead to Sam’s social media pages, where he found, to his delight, that Sam did have some detractors after all.

Several citizen reviewers called him pretentious and unprincipled. Others disliked his tendency toward wild speculation.

In fact, a brief perusal of Sam’s bio led Peter to believe that Sam was some kind of alternate version of himself—the self that made different choices. Sam’s natal city was the unfortunately named Boring, Oregon—a city whose main claims to fame were having an accidentally funny name and a series of unsolved serial rapes in the late nineties. Whereas in comparison, Peter’s hometown of Bellingham had hosted a great number of actual serial killers in addition to a funny unofficial town motto: City of Subdued Excitement.

Though they both originated in small towns in the Pacific Northwest, Sam had lit out for the Big Apple immediately, whereas Peter had attended the local state university. Where Peter had traveled on his own and taken a long time to settle into writing, Sam landed a magazine gig straight out of private college.

Last, Sam’s Facebook page showed him to be almost relentlessly single up to the point that he started dating Donna, opposite of serial monogamist Peter. Yet the subjects they wrote about and even their writing style seemed eerily similar, like a literary doppelgänger or…evil twin.

So Sam checked out as a legit writer, not a serial killer, hired assassin, or art thief.

And despite the mad jealousy he might feel at Sam’s various awesome book deals, the classy thing to do would be to help him out with his research.

Purchase The Bellingham Mystery Series Volume 2 here:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07J1J49JB/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i5

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/899279

Learn more about author, Nicole Kimberling: 

click photo for Nicole Kingerling’s websiteNicole Kimberling is a novelist and the editor at Blind Eye Books. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award. Other works include the Bellingham Mystery Series, set in the Washington town where she resides with her wife of thirty years and an ongoing cooking column for Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. She is also the creator and writer of “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” a serial fiction podcast, which explores the day-to-day case files of Special Agent Keith Curry, supernatural food inspector.