Timing Is Everything: (The Gulfport Mystery Series Book 1) by Alison R. Solomon

Excerpt:

Where the fuck are you? Gordy saw the text as she sped up Beach Boulevard, racing toward Kenwood. Stopping to reply would slow her down and she was determined to get to Dana’s on time, so she ignored it. A line of cars was waiting to pull into the main drag, which was surprising, but Gordy knew the area well enough to know she could avoid them by going down a side street. She pulled the steering wheel sharply to swing a right down a narrow one-way street. She was halfway down when she realized there was a U-Haul farther down completely obstructing the street. Who the heck moved at this time of night? And if they did what gave them the right to block the street? She watched as two people of undetermined gender struggled to pull a large mattress from the back of the truck. Shit. This could take awhile, especially if they had a whole lot more furniture to unload. Now what? She supposed she could try to back all the way up this street but it was narrow and she wasn’t great at backing up the SUV at the best of times.

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She heard a ping and looked down: I’m gonna put Sammy out on the curb if you’re not here in seven minutes. She’d promised Dana she’d be back before ten and even though she didn’t think her ex would really leave their child in the street, the second text worried her. She remembered what Dana had said the last time she was late to pick up Sammy. It was the night she met Kat. “I’ll sue for full custody if you do it again.”

Ahead of her to her left she saw a dirt alley that ran between the homes. She could use it to cut over to the next street. She generally avoided these alleys at night because they were dark and could be rutted, but she had no choice. She swerved left off the street feeling the gravel of the alley crunch beneath her tires. She should have explained to Kat that she didn’t have time to listen to the man serenading them, however romantic it was. She didn’t think Dana would put Sammy out on the street and she wasn’t totally convinced her ex would really ask for full custody, but she couldn’t risk either. She decided to text, just in case. She looked down at her phone. There in ten—, her thumbs flew across the keys and just as she was about to type mins she felt a massive jolt and heard a loud bang. Moments later she heard dogs barking in the distance.

She looked up in horror as the car shot forward. Shit! What the heck had she hit? She glanced in the rearview mirror and from the light reflectors made out something that looked like a large pile, though she couldn’t tell of what. Had she hit it? Was that what caused the loud thud? If she hadn’t been looking at her lap, texting, she’d know for sure. Meanwhile her car was still moving forward and was already at the end of the alley.

She was shaking badly. She should run back and take a quick look. What if she’d damaged something on someone’s property? But it was an alley so the only stuff out there was yard debris or trash to be picked up by the city. There must have been something in that pile. She pulled out from the alley onto the street, thankful that she hadn’t blown a tire, but then, feeling guilty, she decided she had to make a quick stop. She grabbed her flashlight and ran back down the alley. She shone her flashlight, sweeping it from side to side. There was a pile of wood, stacked neatly next to some trashcans. Several logs seemed to have toppled off it. That must have been what she’d hit. Relieved, she ran back to her SUV and gunned the engine. Dana would make a song and dance about being late. Thank goodness the SUV was in her name only. If it were joint property, she could only imagine the torrent of criticism that Dana would have hurled when she saw the damage to the body and paintwork.

She was almost at Dana’s house. Once her ex had finished dressing her down she’d take Sammy home and put him to bed. Then she’d be able to relive the earlier part of the evening, remembering the way Kat’s eyes danced and how a little dimple appeared in her cheek when she smiled. In the morning she’d see what the damage was to the Hyundai and ask her cousin Rico to fix it. And from now on she absolutely wouldn’t text while driving. It was stupid and she could have gotten into serious trouble. What if she’d damaged someone’s property and they got nasty and wanted to call the cops? An even scarier thought came to mind. What if she’d hit someone and been arrested on the spot? The form she’d completed for her green card had asked her not only if she’d been convicted of a crime, but also if she’d been arrested for one. If she were arrested now, it would be catastrophic. She knew they would repeat that question verbally when she got to her fingerprinting appointment. That appointment next week was so they could do one more full background check. If she told them she’d been arrested that week, even if she were out on bail, they would turn down her request for the ten-year green card. Once they did that, it was the same as being given a deportation notice—she’d have no legal way to stay in the country. How could she have been so stupid as to risk all that?

Just the thought of deportation made her shake all over. People who’d never been through the immigration system had no idea how tenuous life as an “alien” could feel, especially now. It never even occurred to them that people like her, professionals with legal permits, felt some of the same stress and strains as those who lived in the shadows. They didn’t realize that until she was actually a citizen, she didn’t enjoy the full protections they did. But now, finally, she was getting closer to that day. The ten-year card would end much of that stress, and long before the ten years were up she’d be eligible to apply for citizenship and become just like everyone else.

For months before she got the letter requesting her presence for fingerprinting, she’d visualized herself over and again getting the card. She spent nights picturing herself walking through those wide doors into the Tampa Immigration and Naturalization office, waiting way past her appointment time (as she always did), then getting called back to an office. In her mind, the immigration official who would quiz her and Dana would be supportive and sympathetic and would smile warmly at them when they gave her the stamp of approval. Gordy tried not to remember the officer who granted the two-year card. A large military-looking women who’d made it clear she didn’t believe in same-sex marriage, she’d scowled throughout the entire interview and then snarled at Gordy in her Russian-accented English, almost spitting as she made jabbing motions in the air. “You think you citizen? You not. Don’t forget. You commit crime? You deported.”

At the time she’d shrugged it off. She wasn’t going to commit a crime, and there was no reason why an upstanding professional would be deported. She’d felt pretty secure. But lately everything had changed. Just this week a soccer coach had been deported, his only crime being a traffic violation.

She was so close to the finish line, but tonight she’d almost blown it. All she had to do was keep her nose clean for another week. And if that meant picking up her son late and getting in trouble with her ex for not texting, the price was worth it.

Blurb:

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A hit-and-run. A terrified suspect. A woman caught between her friend and her lover Wynn Larimer (who readers met in Along Came the Rain) is putting out the trash late one night when a car smashes into her, injuring her so badly that her entire livelihood is put in jeopardy. Gabriella Luna (Gordy) is about to achieve permanent resident status in the USA when she’s accused of a felony crime. The timing couldn’t be worse—she’s terrified of being deported. The woman caught in the middle is Kat Ayalon (who readers met in Devoted.) Wynn is Kat’s best friend and Gordy is Kat’s new love interest. But when the worlds of Wynn and Gordy collide, Kat doesn’t know how she can support both women, if helping one means selling out the other.

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Exclusive Excerpt: A Whisper of Bones: A Jane Lawless Mystery by Ellen Hart

Excerpt:

That night, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped into the low thirties.  Jane was glad she’d thought to grab her peacoat before leaving the restaurant.  Early December in Minnesota was generally much colder, with several inches of snow on the ground.  This year, however, the the only thing covering the grass were dry leaves.  Unusual weather for Minnesota.  As she was about to open the door of her Mini, a car pulled up next to her and stopped, its engine idling.

Cordelia Thorn, Jane’s oldest and best friend, opened the passenger’s door window and called, “Leaving kind of early, aren’t we?”

“You checking up on me?”

“Get in.”

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Jane made herself comfortable in the front seat, glad for the warmth of Cordelia’s new black Subaru.

“I still can’t get used to your hair,” said Cordelia.  “Can’t believe that, after all these years, you cut it so short.”

“I needed a change.”

“The Rachael Maddow look”

“No, the Jane Lawless look.” If she’d realized how much attention she’d get because of a simple haircut, she never would have done it.

“I stand corrected,” said Cordelia, looking amused.

Cordelia’s entire life was a costume drama, a period piece, past or future.  At the moment, she was sporting a rose-colored wig.  Wigs were her new thing after finding a basket filled with them in her sister’s rarely-used office at the theater.

“Next,” said Cordelia, throwing the car in park, “we need to work on your old sweaters and jeans.”

“You mean get rid of my clothes?”

“I’m merely suggesting a wee upgrade.  I’m not talking Abercrombie & Fitch or Nordstrom, just something other than Old Navy.”

Glancing over at her giant friend wearing a heavy, bright red faux fir coat, Jane changed the subject, if only marginally.  “Kind of early in the season to bring out the big guns.”

“Without snow, it’s hard to get in the mood for Christmas.  One does what one can.”

“How come you’re not at the theater?”  Along with her younger sister, the Broadway and B-movie star, Octavia Thorn Lester, Cordelia was the owner of the Thorn Lester Playhouse, downtown Minneapolis’s newest antique gem.  She was also the artistic director, the resident mother superior, and, when necessary, brought the force of a five star Marine general to whatever situation might need attention.

“I have to pick up Hattie from a friend’s house.  Neither of them have school tomorrow, so I’m letting Hatts stay out late.  Together, she and Juan are discovering the wonders of Juan’s chemistry set.”

Cordelia’s had been granted legal custody of her ten-year-old niece many years ago.  They’d lived together ever since.  “Lucky Hattie,” said Jane.

Touching the tip of her finger to her darkly rouged lips, Cordelia continued,  “I was at a party last night.  I think I may have drummed up a new client for you.”  She explained about the woman she’d met—Britt something or other—who’d been asking around about local private investigators.  “I wondered if she was gay, but I didn’t get any vibes.”

“So that’s where she got my card,” said Jane.

“You’ve already talked to her?”

“This morning.  You must have done a good sales job.”

“I always do.  But back to my original question.  How come you’re leaving so early?  I thought we might share a quick nosh together.  One of your pub burgers sounds just about perfect.”

“Sorry.  Already eaten.”

“Then join me for a beer.”

“Can’t.  Not tonight.”

“You’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately, Janey.  One cannot help but wonder why.”

“Don’t start.”

“Look, no beating around the mulberry bush this time.  I’m worried.  That woman somehow conned her way into your home.  You need to look around for the coffin she sleeps in during the day.  If you can’t find it, call me.  I’m there for you, Janey.  If nothing else, we can burn your house down with her in it.”

Jane took a deep breath.  “There are times when I find your penchant for exaggeration funny.  This isn’t one of them.”

“I’m not exaggerating.”

”Julia’s my friend.  End of story.”

“Is it?”

“What else do you need to know?”

“Oh, come on.  Don’t be so coy.”

“You want to know if  I’m sleeping with her.”

“Give the woman a cigar.”

“Look, Cordelia.  I care about her.  I don’t love her, not in any romantic way.  Our relationship ended many years ago.”

“Did you ever wonder if this illness-thingie is just a ploy?”

Now she’d gone too far.  “Why don’t you come over for dinner.  I’ll text you with a couple of dates.  You can see for yourself how sick she is.  But you have to promise to be decent.  Friendly.”

“Leave my sarcasm at the door?” said Cordelia, feigning shock.  She flipped open the glove compartment and removed her stash of bubble gum.  “I’ll think about it.”

Many years ago, Jane and Dr. Julia Martinsen, an oncologist living, at the time, in Bethesda, Maryland, had fallen in love.  They’d been in a committed relationship for a couple of years, though Jane had finally ended it.  Julia had played fast and loose with the truth too many times.  Since then, she and Julia had continued to see each other very occasionally, although they were no longer close.  Last spring, Julia had confided to Jane that she’d been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Her greatest fear was dealing with it—and perhaps the end of her life—alone.  Meaning, without Jane.  While Jane had moved on, Julia hadn’t.

In a moment of weakness—which Cordelia likened to Armageddon—Jane had promised to be there for her.  Even though the love had died long ago, feelings, unlike faucets, couldn’t be turned off neatly and easily.  For a short time in early October, it appeared as if Julia might not have more than a few weeks to live.  Her failing eyesight had made it impossible for her to drive.  That’s when Jane had invited her to move into her house.  By late October, Julia had rallied and her health had stabilized.  And now Jane had a permanent house guest, which Cordelia maintained was Julia’s intention all along.

“I’m the clarion call of reason,” continued Cordelia, unwrapping a stick of gum.  “You need to listen to me.  You may think Julia is water under the bridge, but I’m telling you that unless you burn that bridge to a crisp, she’ll find a way to recross it.”

“I don’t need all the cliches.  The message was received.”

“She’s going to hurt you again, Jane.”

“How?  I already know she lies and that I can’t trust her.  Are you saying she’ll hurt me in some other way?  She has cancer, Cordelia, or something very close to it.  I know she’s not going to live long.”

Cordelia raised an eyebrow.  “Have you ever seen one scintilla of proof that Julia is ill?”

“I have.  I’ve even spoken to a couple of her doctors.”  Jane had no doubt that the tumor growing behind Julia’s optic nerve was real, or that the surgery necessary to remove it was not only a partial cure, but one fraught with danger.  Still, there were things she hadn’t told Cordelia, mostly because she wouldn’t understand.

“Janey, I say these things to you because I love you.”

“I know that.  And I’m grateful.  But don’t worry about me.  I’m fine.  Clear headed, feet on the ground.  Same old Jane you’ve always known and loved.”

“You’re impossible, you know that?  But okay, end of rant.  For now.  Call me when you know more about this Britt person’s investigative issue.  I expect a full report.”

Jane could have taken a few minutes to explain what she’d learned this morning, but she saw no point.  Britt hadn’t hired her.  More than anything, Jane wanted to get home.  “Yes, ma’am,” she said, saluting.  “Full briefing tomorrow at o-600.”

“I have no idea what that means.  Just don’t call before noon.”

[]

Shortly after ten, as she entered the front foyer of her home, Jane was greeted by two eager dogs vying for her attention.  Mouse, a chocolate lab, nosed her hand, his usual earnest self, his tail wagging so fast it was almost a blur.  Gimlet, a small black poodle, jumped up and down and twirled around, so excited she could barely keep her balance.  How could a person not love dogs?  Jane crouched down to give them each a hug and a scratch.  When she straightened up, she noticed logs burning in the living room fireplace.

Coming around the end of the couch, she found Julia sitting on the oriental rug with her back propped against the couch.  Next to her was a teapot and two cups.

“All the comforts of home,” said Jane, sitting down beside her.

Six months ago, Julia had been fit and working hard at a profession she loved.  The medication her doctors had prescribed to deal with the growing tumor had proved to be almost as bad as the disease.  She’d lost a good twenty pounds off an already lean frame, mostly because the meds didn’t mix well with food.

“The fire feels good,” said Jane.  “Chilly out there.”

“I know,” said Julia.  “I just got home myself.”

Julia had hired a personal assistant in mid-October.  Carol Westin was a retired RN who’d spent the last twenty years of her working life as a healthcare educator.  She and Julia had been friends and coworkers, and now Carol not only acted as chauffeur, but reader of reports and general secretary.  Beyond the driving and the reading, she was also helping Julia liaise with lawyers to set up the foundation that would bear Julia’s name, one that would continue the work she cared so much about:  Medical outreach and training in third world countries.  She worked Carol hard, but paid her well.

Gimlet pushed her way in between them, buried her nose under Julia’s leg and closed her eyes.  Mouse settled down next to Jane. “Have you eaten?”

Julia nodded to the teapot.

“That’s not food.  Let me make you something.”

“No. Don’t go.”

“But you need to eat.”

She poured the steaming liquid into each cup and handed one to Jane.  “Not now.”

“Soup.  There’s always room for homemade chicken soup.”

“Maybe later.”

Jane sipped her tea and gazed into the fire.  She didn’t want to think about her current situation too critically, but had to admit that it was nice having someone to come home to—someone who’d made a pot of tea and had built a fire.  “How was your day?”

“Good,” said Julia.  “For whatever reason, that awful low-grade headache evaporated.”  She glanced over at Jane and smiled.  “Now that you’re home, I’m even better.”  She slipped her hand over Jane’s, then leaned in for a kiss.

Instead of pushing her away, as Jane had for years, she let the kiss linger.  Was she playing with fire by sleeping with Julia, as Cordelia feared?  She didn’t think so.  What she’d told Cordelia was accurate.  She had no romantic feelings for Julia any longer.  This was just….what?  Affection, perhaps.  Whatever it was, Jane wasn’t about to end it.  It wasn’t hurting either of them.  If anything, coming together the way they had after Julia had moved in was good for both of them.  It would end one day, and Jane would have to deal with it, but until them, what was the harm?

They sat together quietly, the dogs resting contentedly next to them, and watched the fire.

“Want another cup?” asked Julia.

“No, I’m good.”

“Let’s go upstairs.”

“Aren’t you tired?”

“Not in the least.”

Jane tipped her head toward Julia.  “Why don’t you head up?  I’ll put the dogs out, make sure they have their bedtime treat, and then I’ll join you.”

After Julia was gone, Jane spent a couple more minutes looking into the dying embers, thinking about Julia and how life often took unexpected turns.  She kept repeating the thought, “What’s the harm?”  She’d said it to herself so often lately that it was beginning to feel like a mantra.  As she was about to get up, her cell phone rang.

“This is Jane,” she said after pulling it from her pocket.

“I want to hire you,” came a woman’s voice.

“Britt?”

“I found proof that Timmy did exist.  Can we get together tomorrow?”

“Sure,” said Jane.

“What if I meet you at your restaurant around twelve-thirty?  I don’t have anything on my schedule until mid afternoon.”

“Sounds good.  I can’t wait to hear what you discovered.”

“I’m still processing it, but I will say this much—it blows my mind.”

 

A Whisper of Bones – by Ellen Hart

 Blurb:

Fans of Jane Lawless new and old will be fascinated by newly minted Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Ellen Hart’s latest intricate puzzle in A Whisper of Bones.

Britt Ickles doesn’t remember much from her only visit to her mother’s childhood home when she was a kid, except for playing with her cousin Timmy and the eruption of a sudden family feud. That’s why, when she drops by unannounced after years of silence, she’s shocked when her aunts tell her Timmy never existed, that she must be confusing him with someone else. But Britt can’t shake the feeling that Timmy did exist…and that something horrible has happened to him. Something her aunts want to cover up.

Britt hires Jane Lawless, hoping the private investigator can figure out what really happened to her cousin. When a fire in the family’s garage leads to the discovery of buried bones and one of the aunts dies suddenly and suspiciously, Jane can’t help but be pulled into the case. Do the bones belong to Timmy? Was the aunt’s death an accident, suicide, or homicide? What dark secret has this family been hiding for decades? It all depends on Jane Lawless to unravel.

Ellen’ Hart’s Bio:

Ellen Hart is the author of thirty-two crime novels in two

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different series. She is a six-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Popular Fiction, a three-time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award, a recipient of the Alice B Medal, and was made an official GLBT Literary Saint at th

e Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005. Entertainment Weekly named her one of the “101 Movers and Shakers in the Gay Entertainment Industry.” For the past sixteen years, Ellen has taught “An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery” through the The Loft Literary Center, the largest independent writing community in the nation. Her newest Sophie Greenway mystery is No Reservations Required, (Ballantine, June 2005). Fever in the Dark, the newest Jane Lawless mystery, will be released by St. Martin’s/Minotaur in October 2016. Ellen lives in Minneapolis with her partner of 37 years.

Exclusive Excerpt: Rainey with a Chance of Hale (A Rainey Bell Thriller Book 6) by R.E. Bradshaw

Blurb:

Rainey Bell, a former FBI Behavioral Analyst, has had a couple of quiet years since her last brush with death. Her old teammate with the BAU and her children’s Godfather, Danny McNally, pays a visit to North Carolina from Quantico to escort Rainey into the Butner Federal Correctional Complex.

Rainey made a promise almost twenty years ago to a distraught mother of a missing child. The opportunity to fulfill that pledge, one she should never have made, presents itself in the form of Chance Obadiah Hale. The teenager Rainey believed responsible for Alyson Grayson’s disappearance was now a man in prison who wanted to talk, but only to Rainey.

Can Rainey and Danny finally get to the truth about Alyson and Chance? Or will Rainey’s stubborn belief in his guilt put everyone she loves in mortal danger? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Who will be the first to go?

Excerpt:

Chapter 2

January 9, 1998

Home of Joshua Lee Hale

Pembina, North Dakota

“It’s cold enough to freeze off body parts.”

Chance Hale ignored the federal agent seated on the other side of the kitchen table. The sixteen-year-old pressed on his temples with the palms of his hands, in what appeared to be an attempt to keep the contents of his skull inside.

FBI Special Agent Rainey Bell noted the pot resin stains on his index finger and thumb, the reek of stale cigarettes, and the nauseating stench of booze-laced puke-breath. While they waited for his father to come back from the garage with the other agent, Rainey kept the hung-over teenager talking. Rather, she talked, and he tried to remain upright.

Chance Hale was in deep trouble. A suspect in the disappearance of his fourteen-year-old neighbor, Alyson Grayson, he was connected by proximity to the two frozen bodies recently discovered in the lake behind his home. Two frozen bodies and a missing girl resulted in FBI involvement. Chance didn’t seem the least bit concerned.

Rainey looked out the window over the sink, continuing her weather observations, “Still spitting snow at zero degrees.” She glanced back at Chance. “What did they say the wind chill was—minus twenty-one? I could be out there, what, thirty minutes before my face froze? This is just nuts. Pulling me from Louisiana to the frozen tundra—I don’t think a prank deserved this assignment.”

Rainey saw a brief millisecond of eye contact. Chance took notice that she may be a fellow rule breaker.

“I’ve only been here a week. The bureau said I was transferred to fill a temporary vacancy. I’m calling bullshit on that one. It was that picture of super-agent Walsh standing in his front yard in his boxers that landed me here.”

Rainey made quote marks in the air and mocked the man she imitated with, “Mr. ‘My Security System Can’t Be Compromised.’ Ha!”

She flashed a self-satisfied smile at Chance. “Patriarchal narcissism is why I am here. Guys like him can’t abide being wrong or laughed at. I proved the one and certainly did the other.”

She waited for a comment, a nod, anything, but received only a vacant teenage stare. Forced to resume her monologue, she continued the tale of her removal to the frozen tundra.

“I suppose his being my supervisor brought with it a tad of insubordination. But, you know, sometimes you have to show a braggart he isn’t all that smart to make a point. Of course, the FBI frowns on that particular type of behavioral modification technique. Thus, here I sit with you freezing my ass off.”

Nothing, no reaction, not even a hint of a smile. Chance closed his eyes and rubbed his temples with his fingertips.

Rainey tried another tack. “You moved up here from North Carolina, didn’t you? Hillsborough, right? I grew up in Chapel Hill.”

A grunt was Chance’s only response, but he did respond. Progress had been made. Rainey abandoned her attempt to bond over shared nonconformist attitudes and stuck with their childhoods in warmer climes.

“You understand it takes time to adjust from coastal temps to ‘Oh, my God! I’m freezing my tits off,’ don’t you?”

“I don’t have tits,” the slump-shouldered teen said, still rubbing his temples.

“Balls then,” Rainey replied, dropping the “we can be friends” tone from her voice and adding, “Most mammals have tits, male and female. Unless you’re a platypus or a species of rodent, you have them too. I’m assuming you didn’t pay much attention in biology class—if you ever went.”

Chance stretched and yawned over a barely concealed, “Fuck you.”

It crossed Rainey’s mind that young Chance Hale needed to be reminded of the seriousness of his situation. He was the last person seen with Alyson Grayson and professed to have no memory of the early morning hours of New Year’s Day when she disappeared. The FBI was now at his home at the crack of dawn. If none of that raised young Chance’s heart rate, Rainey had to wonder what would? She pondered the idea that he was either a cold-blooded killer devoid of empathy, or he was just a drunk, drugged-out teenager with detachment issues.

It was well known that Chance drank excessively. Three days ago, he dropped out of school on his sixteenth birthday, though he had attended only enough to avoid a truancy charge. He worked as a mechanic on his family’s fleet of long-haul trucks. According to a completely frustrated and candid school counselor, the old pickup truck he restored seemed to be all that Chance cared about.

“He’s too smart to drop out like this,” the counselor said. “If he’d just sober up and try a little harder, he could do anything he wanted. He was in our school system for only three semesters. He was already in academic trouble when he enrolled.”

The counselor pulled a folder from one of the file cabinets lining the wall in her office.

“Let me just check my file.”

She read, silently nodding in agreement with her notes before she looked up and finished her assessment of young Mr. Hale.

“What I can tell you by law is that I believe his mother leaving when he was four years old did severe damage to such a young boy. I recommended to his mostly absent father that he get Chance into rehab and counseling. He refused to take the list of therapists I offered. It’s just a shame, really. Chance can be quite charming and engaging when he wants to be. Just ask that gaggle of girls that swoon every time he walks by.”

After an initial witness interview with Chance, who was not an official suspect at the time, he refused further questioning from Rainey and Supervisory Special Agent Stanley Hébert. Chance claimed his long-haul truck-driving father advised against it. Hébert, who had been observing Chance, was convinced it was not a coincidence two other bodies had been found behind his home.

“I know it in my bones, Bell. Something’s wrong in that house,” he said the previous evening when he dropped her back at the office. With his graying temples reflecting the car’s dome light, he declared, “I’m not going to let that son of a bitch get away with killing those girls.”

Rainey had only known SSA Hébert for seven days, but she liked him. She liked him enough not to be snarky when he called her hotel room in Grand Forks before dawn.

“Bell, get downstairs. We have to run up to Pembina. Locals say Joshua Hale came home about two this morning.”

“What time is it now?” Rainey had to ask because her eyes were not yet cooperating. They only burned and watered from lack of sleep on the unfamiliar hotel mattress, when she tried to focus on the bedside clock.

“It’s five a.m. The snow will slow us down a bit, but if we’re on the road in thirty, we can be there by sunrise.”

“I’ll be down in fifteen,” Rainey said, coming fully awake.

“Dress accordingly, we’re in for negative temps today.”

Rainey chuckled. “This adds a whole new level to being frozen out.”

Hébert, in standard North Dakota form, answered, “It’s not so bad. You’ll get used to it.”

“I don’t want to be here long enough to get used to it,” Rainey said without thinking.

“Well now, Special Agent Bell, you should have thought of that while you were down in the sunny south and before you told your last supervisor to ‘lighten up.’ Care to piss off two in a row?”

Rainey wasn’t about to let her career crash over a prank. She responded with a crisp, “No, sir. I’ll be right down.”

After a harrowing drive up US Highway-29, even with an experienced North Dakota winter driver, they arrived just as the sun began to rise. The ruse for a visit was a verification of the whereabouts of all males in the vicinity the night of Alyson Grayson’s disappearance, but they really wanted another crack at Chance. In his previous interviews, he had informed them that his dad was in Canada on a short run and didn’t make it back until the afternoon on the first day of 1998. Joshua Hale left again before Alyson was reported missing and had been on the road until late last night.

The polite knock garnered no interest from the occupants of the Hale home. The much more intrusive cop knock brought a woman wearing a turban and face cream to the door, where two freezing but smiling federal agents greeted her. She was tall and a redhead, judging by the curl peeking from the headdress. That’s about all Rainey could say about her, other than she looked unhappy to be answering the door at the crack of dawn.

“It’s a little early. What can I do for you?” she asked, tugging the thick robe tighter against the cold seeping under the storm door.

“Good morning. I’m SSA Hébert. Are you Jean Berry? I believe we’ve spoken on the phone.”

“Yes, Agent Hébert. How can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Joshua.”

“Wait here. I’ll get him,” she replied, in an accent Rainey recognized as originating in the Piedmont area of North Carolina.

“Who was that?” Rainey asked.

Hébert’s answer formed a trail of smoke, as he said, “Jean Berry. She works for Hale Trucking. That garage out back keeps their rigs on the road. Ms. Berry is here from the Carolina office to do parts inventory and accounting work for the shop. She does that about once a month. She has a private apartment and an office in the basement.”

Rainey wondered why she hadn’t seen anything about Jean Berry in Hébert’s case notes, or why this was the first she knew of a private apartment. He seemed to read her expression.

“This house was searched top to bottom. Alyson is not here.”

“What did she tell you about New Year’s Eve?”

“She wasn’t here that night. I verified with the home office in North Carolina that she drove up the next day after Alyson was reported missing. She answered the phone a time or two when I called to ask about Mr. Hale’s whereabouts. She’s usually a little nicer, but I guess it is early.”

Rainey didn’t think Jean Berry was all that “nice,” having left them to freeze on the steps until Joshua Lee Hale came to the door.

“Good morning, Mr. Hale. Sorry to knock so early, but you’re a hard man to catch at home. I’m Supervisory Special Agent Hébert with the FBI, and this is Special Agent Bell. Do you mind if we come in out of the cold to chat for a few minutes? It won’t take long.”

Hébert managed an invitation to the kitchen and scored a couple of hot cups of coffee, while he cagily pried information from Joshua Hale. Rainey admired Hébert’s non-confrontational style and relaxed into the role of quiet sidekick. She mostly watched Chance, who reluctantly joined them at his father’s request. The redhead had not reappeared.

“I got my logbook out in the cab of my truck. It’ll show when I entered the country from Canada on New Year’s Day,” Joshua said, as a way to back up his alibi. “I was on a run to Mexico City and stopped by the house for a couple of hours, then I was back on the road.”

Joshua started for the back door when Hébert asked, “May I come with you? I’d like to see this truck Chance restored. I hear it’s something.” He turned back to Chance. “A ’51 Chevy 3100, five-window, right?”

Chance only grunted, which Rainey was learning was his preferred response.

“He ain’t much for conversation in the mornings,” Joshua said of his son, almost apologetically.

While Hébert and Joshua Hale left to recover the trucker’s logbook from the eighteen-wheeler parked in the massive garage behind the house, Rainey was left with the insolent teenage boy. After nearly five years as a federal agent questioning cunning criminals, she knew how to handle the disrespectful, rebellious type. She figured Hébert had left her alone with Chance in hopes that a female could connect with the motherless child the counselor identified as in need of help. It didn’t appear to be working.

Rainey stood and walked to the kitchen counter. She topped off her cup with fresh brew from the half empty pot warming on the coffee maker and looked out the window toward the garage. The snow fell heavier now. The grayness of the day delayed the sunrise. The glass in the garage’s oversized rolling doors glowed with the stark white light of the fluorescent tubes illuminating the interior. As Rainey turned back to Chance, she noticed on the counter a picture of the sheepishly smiling teenager standing beside his pride and joy.

“The paint on this truck looks exactly like the original. That shade of green is hard to come by.”

Chance opened his eyes to see Rainey holding the framed picture in her hand. He didn’t say anything, but at least she had his attention.

She continued, “You did a great job on the woodwork. All hand-sanded and stained, I bet.” Softening her features and smiling not at him, but the photo, Rainey asked, “Did you do a wood floor in the bed too? I can’t tell from this picture.”

“Yes.”

Finally, she had drawn out a responsive syllable, and a whole word at that. Rainey leaped at the opening.

“What’s under the hood, restored original or custom?”

“Cust—”

That was the last syllable Chance Hale spoke before the wall behind Rainey buckled with an explosive concussion. She noticed a split second of total silence, as if the sound was too loud to hear, then came the blast that sent her diving for the floor. The picture frame and coffee cup flew from her hands. The shattered windows showered the room with tiny shards of glass. Wood splintered into skin ripping projectiles.

Rainey lay stunned on the floor, her ears ringing. As the air and disorientation began to clear, her instincts kicked in. She pushed herself up from the floor, grabbed the Glock from her waist, and went immediately into a defensive posture. She had no idea what had just happened, but it couldn’t be a good sign that snow mixed with bits of insulation floated into the kitchen through the gaping hole in the wall.

She called out to Chance, who was under the table, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Chance’s eyes were focused on a hubcap that spun like a top not two feet from the now wide-awake teenager. Rainey thought he might be thinking about how close it had come to taking his head off. A small secondary explosion made them both flinch.

Warily watching the door leading to the back porch for a foe and hoping for a friend, she tried again for a response. “Are you hurt? What the hell just happened?”

Rainey saw the hatred in his eyes when Chance responded, not with concern for his father, but with absolute abhorrence.

“That fucker blew up my truck.”

Rainey was still a bit disoriented she thought. Maybe she didn’t hear him correctly.

She asked one more time, “Are you hurt?”

Chance answered with a question. “If he isn’t dead, will you kill him?”

“Not unless I have to,” she said, moving her eyes from the door to the teenager.

“If I told you he was a killer, would it make a difference?”

Rainey glanced at the door and then back to Chance, before she answered, “No. I can’t just execute him.”

He gave Rainey a cold stare and declared, “I can.”

About the Author

http://www.rebradshawbooks.com/

Four-time Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Mystery—Rainey Nights (2012), Molly: House on Fire (2013), The Rainey Season (2014), and Relatively Rainey (2016)—and 2013 Rainbow Awards First Runner-up for Best Lesbian Novel, Out on the Panhandle, author R. E. Bradshaw began publishing in August of 2010. Before beginning a full-time writing career, she worked in professional theatre and also taught at both university and high school levels. A native of North Carolina, the setting for the majority of her novels, Bradshaw now makes her home in Oklahoma. Writing in many genres, from the fun southern romantic romps of the Adventures of Decky and Charlie series to the intensely bone-chilling Rainey Bell Thrillers, R. E. Bradshaw’s books offer something for everyone.

Exclusive Excerpt: Cottonmouths: A Novel by Kelly J Ford – Enter the Goodreads Giveaway!

Blurb:

This was Drear’s Bluff. Nothing bad happened here. People didn’t disappear.

College was supposed to be an escape for Emily Skinner. But after failing out of school, she’s left with no choice but to return to her small Arkansas hometown, a place run on gossip and good Christian values.

She’s not alone. Emily’s former best friend—and childhood crush—Jody Monroe is back with a baby. Emily can’t resist the opportunity to reconnect, despite the uncomfortable way things ended between them and her mom’s disapproval of their friendship. When Emily stumbles upon a meth lab on Jody’s property, she realizes just how far they’ve both fallen.

Emily intends to keep her distance from Jody, but when she’s kicked out of her house with no money and nowhere to go, a paying job as Jody’s live-in babysitter is hard to pass up. As they grow closer, Emily glimpses a future for the first time since coming home. She dismisses her worries; after all, Jody is a single mom. The meth lab is a means to an end. And besides, for Emily, Jody is the real drug.

But when Jody’s business partner goes missing, and the lies begin to pile up, Emily will learn just how far Jody is willing to go to save her own skin—and how much Emily herself has risked for the love of someone who may never truly love her back.

 

Excerpt:

From behind, the woman standing with a guy next to the Love’s Truck Stop air pump looked like any other woman: long hair, too skinny, big purse, big sunglasses. But when the woman turned and smiled, Emily’s chest tightened and her insides tingled in a forgotten but familiar way. Rumors of Jody’s return had come as whispers around town, but until now Emily had lacked proof.

A warm breeze blew petroleum fumes and cigarette smoke into her face while she sought further confirmation of who she’d seen. Gas spilled onto her hand. Startled, she released the trigger on the pump and swiped her hand across her jeans. She sheltered her eyes from the sun to scan the parking lot. But the woman and the guy were gone.

Back on the highway, Emily tried to keep her mind as empty and barren as the farmland that rolled by. When that didn’t work, she turned up the radio and hit scan, unable to settle on the station offerings from the nearest town—country or Christian or the same four pop songs on repeat interspersed with commercials for pawn shops and car lots. Midway through the miles she punched the radio off and tried to tell herself that her new fast food job and her time at home were temporary, though she’d been back a month already. She hadn’t meant to apply for the job. She’d talked to the woman at the temp agency like her mom had suggested. The woman had responded the way Emily had expected: sorry, but they didn’t have anything for someone with her lack of professional experience. Best try fast food, the woman had said. The woman’s coworker had lifted her eyes, and Emily had detected smugness in her smile. Angry and wallowing in self-pity, she had asked for and filled out a job application during her value meal lunch at a restaurant she’d spotted on the way home. She hadn’t expected the manager to offer her a job—on the same day that she applied, after a rushed interview whose only purpose seemed to be to ensure she wasn’t a criminal. She had accepted. There was no choice.

Soon, though, she lied to the empty passenger seat, she’d get a call for a job she really wanted or some other professional job she didn’t really care for, but at least it would be a real job, something that could make a dent in student loan and credit card accounts that sat on the brink of default and whose balances kept her up at night. That sounded good until the CDs and candle holders and assorted junk drawer contents in the last moving box she couldn’t bring herself to remove from her car rattled in the back seat. If she took that last moving box inside her parents’ house, she feared she’d never leave Drear’s Bluff.

The dream of next week dissolved into the hot, stale air that surrounded her. She had sold her couch, her bed, her pots and pans. There was no need for those things now. Where she was headed, the cast iron skillet had been seasoned before she was born.

Her mom would cook the beans, potatoes, and cornbread the way her own mother had taught her. Dad would recite the Lord’s Prayer because it required no thought. And Emily would stare at her plate of food and let it go cold while pondering the headset and the cash register and the brown and blue uniform in her back seat, whose fibers still held its last tenant’s stench of fryer grease and body odor—items for a life she had not expected to return to when she left for college, for a job that would not have been offered to her at all had she not removed the name of the state university from her resume—though two years hardly called for its inclusion.

Two years in, after failing to meet the grade requirements to keep her partial scholarship and other financial aid, she’d quit. Six months after quitting, she’d gotten a call from her mom asking why they had received a student loan bill in the mail when she wasn’t supposed to graduate for at least two more years. Now, here she was. Back with debt for a degree she hadn’t earned.

As the road came into sight—the one that led to her childhood home, and her parents, and their accompanying disappointment in her—she drove past it, beyond the mile markers, in a direction she had not driven in years, led on by a thought formed in the parking lot of the truck stop with no idea what she would find once she got there.

Drear’s Bluff ’s main drag looked like every other small town. There were the necessities: a post office, a floral shop for homecomings and Valentine’s Days and birthdays and graduations, and the feed store. Here, the men were men and women were women. Roles were handed out and passed down like the matriarchs’ afghan quilts, biscuit recipes, and stories.

She slowed the car when she came to the Quik-a-Way gas station-slash-everything mart and roadside diner. Every Sunday for as long as the Quik-a-Way had been around, the old men sat at the counter, sipped their hot coffee, and waited for their wives to finish gossiping. They never tired of talk about the good old days, when the farms were theirs alone, no corporate middlemen to answer to, no undue rules and regulations. All the farmers, including Emily’s dad, would pull on their green John Deere hats and disappear behind storms of dirt that trailed their tractors. They prided themselves on eating their Cream of Wheat and tightening their belts and working hard like everyone in Drear’s Bluff had been taught. Folks liked to slap their knees and joke that there were only two classes of people in Drear’s Bluff: poor and dirt-poor. The poor weren’t really poor. They just liked to say they were. The dirt-poor were still dirt-poor but they liked to think they weren’t. And most of the working fields, the ones that paid for supper, were good and gone.

Out of habit, she spied the parking lot for familiar vehicles. She didn’t recognize any of them. These cars belonged to the current crop of seniors and juniors who were there to grab a burger or a Mountain Dew before they headed off to evening shifts at restaurants and stores in towns bigger than Drear’s Bluff. They didn’t know now, but in a year or two these kids might appreciate the simplicity and comfort of having somewhere to go every day that required no input, no guilt. You went to school. You ate lunch. You went home.

Once she left the highway and the outskirts of Drear’s Bluff behind, the smooth asphalt shifted to a rumble. She cursed the potholes in the dirt road, unearthed by thunderstorms and hardened into craters that destroyed tires. The branches hung low and thick with dust kicked up from what little traffic barreled down the deadend red clay road. The dust drifted into the car, coating the dashboard and causing her to sneeze. The soaring grain silos of Johnston’s farm came into view. Along with their farm, they kept a stable of horses that they sometimes rode in the Old Fort Days Rodeo Parade. The horses dotted the horizon. As she’d done as a child, Emily adjusted her gaze so that the sky and grass looked connected by the barbed wire fence with a Frankenstein stitch, so that a horse looked like it’d been caught on the metal thorn. She navigated her car farther into the deep recesses of woods, past roads without markers and faded No Hunting signs riddled with buckshot, past the entrance to Lee Creek, where countless teenagers had indulged in their first drink, smoke, kiss, and heartbreak.

Two pale, skinny, and shirtless teenage boys walked along the side, near a dry ditch. One of the boys held a shotgun. The other, a red plastic gas can. Their ATV had probably run out of gas while they were out in the woods shooting songbirds for sport. Emily slowed the car when she passed them. She lifted an index finger off the steering wheel for a one-finger wave. Two sets of dead eyes stared back at her, like the boys had been beat on a few too many times. They returned the gesture and disappeared in the car’s cloud of dust.

Her nerves pricked as she drew closer to that familiar plot of land. She came to the end of the road and paused at the faded black mailbox and the metal farm gate that stood wide open. Knots that had begun to cramp her gut told her to turn around, best to let some things lie, but a stronger current of curiosity and what ifs overtook her and she made the turn. Trees in desperate need of a trim scraped the sides of the car until she came to the clearing. Her heart drummed at the sight of the trees, the dirt drive that snaked up the hill, the chicken house, the uncut grass—all recognizable but unfamiliar.

She would have put the car in reverse and driven ten miles back to the highway, beyond the high school and the Quik-a-Way, back home, back from the past, shaking her head at the notions that had occupied her mind since she left the truck stop—but there was a witness. She leaned against the long metal panes of the chicken house and let a cigarette burn down in one hand while she gnawed on a fingernail of the other like it was sugar cane. Jody Monroe.

Adrenaline thrummed through Emily. She swallowed hard, tried to ease her mouth for speech. The rumors were true.

Buy Links: 

Skyhorse Publishing is running a hardcover giveaway on Goodreads! Enter for your chance to win a Hardcover version of Cottonmouths! https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/241701-cottonmouths

Exclusive Excerpt: Genuine Gold (Cantor Gold Crime Series Book 3) by Ann Aptaker

Blurb:

New York, 1952. From the shadowy docks of Athens, Greece, to the elegance of a Fifth Avenue penthouse, to the neon glare of Coney Island, art smuggler Cantor Gold must track down an ancient artifact, elude thugs and killers, protect a beautiful woman who caters to Cantor’s deepest desires, and confront the honky-tonk past which formed her. Memories, murder, passion, and the terrible longing for her stolen love tangle in Cantor’s soul, threatening to tear her apart.

Excerpt:

I find a parking spot in front of Sig’s building on Fortieth Street, a classy black brick Art Deco office tower crowned with Gothic-style gilt work, and where Sig maintains a penthouse residence. The building is across the street from Bryant Park and the main branch of the New York Public Library, the famous one with the two lions out front facing Fifth Avenue. I’m sure Sig’s enjoyed a stroll through the park. Not sure he’s ever been in the library.

Inside his building, the black marble lobby is filling up with nine-to-fivers shivering after their walk from the subway down the block. Businessmen in wool overcoats and gray fedoras, women in colorful coats, some in the new princess style pinched at the waist, walk briskly to the elevators. I like the princess style. I like any style that accentuates a woman’s body.

I don’t join the crowd at the bank of public elevators. I keep walking to the end of the row, to the private elevator to Sig’s penthouse, guarded by a thug the nine-to-fivers pointedly ignore. They know who lives in the penthouse. Their fear of the crime boss upstairs is greater than their thrill at occasionally being in the presence of the most powerful man in New York when they see him walking through the lobby. Maybe the businessmen tip their hats when they pass him, maybe the women give him a polite smile. None of them know he doesn’t give a damn.

I don’t know the thug guarding the private elevator, but then again, I haven’t been to see Sig in quite a while. So the galoot doesn’t know me, either. He eyes me up and down. It takes him a minute to figure me, then looks at me like he’s examining me for germs. “What’s your business here?”

“Tell Sig that Cantor Gold wants to see him.”

I have to wait while the lobby galoot calls on the intercom beside the elevator and gives the upstairs galoot my message, and that galoot in turn gives the message to Sig’s personal galoot. I use the time to enjoy the lovely sight of an especially pretty office girl reading the front page of her newspaper while she waits for an elevator. But as much as I’d like to linger along her angelic face, have a little fun imagining what’s under her coat, my attention’s diverted when she opens the paper and I can see the whole front page. I’m grabbed by a particular story—down below all the headlines about President Truman and the Red Scare, the shoot-’em-up in Korea, and the never ending bedlam of city politics—printed way down at the bottom of the page, like a cockroach that slipped under the door: judge acquits guzik.

So Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, the Chicago Mob’s payoff man, a confidante of Capone during Al’s heyday, beat another rap. It was Guzik who peeled off the bills that went into the palms of Chicago’s cops and politicians, a job which earned him the Greasy Thumb moniker. I met the guy a coupla times on his trips here after Al bit the dust back in ’47, and gangster power coalesced in New York.

The pretty office girl catches me smiling, which makes her cringe, and she turns away. That might hurt my feelings except I’m not smiling at her. Nope, I’m smiling because my chances of not being killed today by Sig Loreale just went up. He’ll be in a good mood.

#

Or in as good a mood as a killer can be. By the time the elevator reaches the penthouse floor, I’m asking myself whether coming here was such a hot idea after all. Probing Sig for his secrets is a dangerous play, whether he’s in a good mood or not.

But there’s no turning back. Sig wouldn’t let me, anyway. He knows I’m here and he’ll want to know why. I’d never make it out of the building.

One of his galoots greets me at the apartment door, tells me Sig is waiting for me in his den. “Through the livin’ room and to the left. And I gotta hold your piece.” The guy has all the charm of a shark chewing a leg.

I’m not crazy about handing over my gun, but Sig demands all visitors check any hardware at the door. He likes his guests defenseless. Resistance would only get me a fist in the gut, and frankly I’m just not in the mood. I give the galoot my gun and walk in.

The last time I was in this living room was a night in March of ’49. Crammed among the fine furnishings, English landscape paintings on the walls, and various antiquities here and there—a number of them supplied by me for hefty sums of Sig’s cash—were bushels of flowers for a wedding that was abruptly cancelled: Opal died that night, her wedding night. Sig took his revenge the next morning, soothed his broken heart with murder. I was there. I saw the woman Sig blamed for Opal’s death fall at my feet, a bullet in her skull. I saw Sig and his gunman drive away.

But before he drove away, Sig made a promise, the same promise he made again a year and a half ago when I handed over a Dürer watercolor that should’ve gone to a dead client’s heirs, or at least a museum. It was his promise to look into what happened to Sophie, a promise he hasn’t kept. Sig prides himself on his word, so either he really has no information, or his fabled square dealing is just that: a fable, a storyline to calm unsuspecting marks before he cleans them out, runs them outta town, or kills them.

If it turns out Sig sees me as one of the marks, or even just a pest, then Mom’s right; he’ll kill me. Maybe not today, but when a moment comes up that suits him.

Bringing these thoughts into a meeting with Sig is a bad idea. Worrying over my own demise will blunt my energy, and any encounter with Sig Loreale requires operating at full spark. A deep breath and a swallow are the only weapons I have to squelch my dangerous thoughts. They do the trick, because they have to.

I knock on the door of the den.

“Come in, Cantor,” comes through the door in Sig’s terrifyingly quiet, scratchy voice, like claws scraping the wood, and each word slow and precise, nothing sloppy, the same scalpel-sharp way Sig does business. Sig’s cultivated his manner of speech and his method of business to obliterate the messy, immigrant Coney Island background we both came from. I wonder, if I look hard enough, if I’ll see any of the same honky-tonk remnants in Sig that still lurk inside me. I doubt it. Sig’s too disciplined, his soul too cold to cozy up to any nostalgia, a soul grown only colder since Opal’s death.

He’s at his desk, a large burled maple affair in a burled maple paneled room that’s as much about power as taste, though the taste, I think, isn’t entirely Sig’s. Like the elegantly furnished living room, the den appears to be the work of the dearly departed Opal, whose mother, Mom Sheinbaum, bred Opal to marry into the American dream. Mom sent her to all the right schools to acquire the culture and taste that come with them, rid Opal of the salami taint of the Lower East Side. To Mom’s disappointment, Sig Loreale, the up-from-the-gutter crime lord and killer, was the beneficiary of all that culture, instead of the square-jawed, blue-eyed American dreamboat Mom wanted for her precious Opal.

Sig, in shirtsleeves, a half-finished cup of coffee on the desk, is reading a newspaper when I come in. What for other people would be an otherwise benign activity is, in Sig’s hands, a tableau of his ruthlessly efficient control of life: his, and while I’m here, mine. His white shirt, crisp in the light from the windows and the glass-paned door to the terrace, doesn’t have a single wrinkle, and wouldn’t dare. The gray-and-white houndstooth pattern of his tie is precisely aligned with the knot. The pinstripes on his charcoal suit-vest, fully buttoned, are in military straight lines. And though the cigar smoke curling around his face softens his jowly cheeks and the baggy pouches under his eyes, the smoke can’t hide the predatory menace in those eyes, despite his smile. It’s not a big smile, just a small sneer of satisfaction as he reads the same article about Greasy Thumb Guzik beating the rap that the pretty office girl read downstairs; only the office girl has no connection to Guzik or the judge who dismissed the charges against him. Sig, no doubt, does. Sig, no doubt, owns both Guzik and the judge. The judge, having done what he was told to do, will continue to live his plush, well-paid-for life for the foreseeable future. Jake Guzik will owe Sig his freedom. Both men will keep their mouths shut about anything they know regarding what goes on in the underworld. And Sig, to my relief, is in his ice-cold version of a good mood.

Exclusive Excerpt: Last Room at the Cliff’s Edge (A Detective Linda Mystery) by Mark McNease

 

Blurb:

Retired homicide detective Linda Sikorsky and her wife Kirsten McClellan head to Maine for a long weekend of rest, relaxation and rewrites as Kirsten finishes drafting her first novel. Bad weather alters their plans, forcing them to stop for the night at the Cliff’s Edge, a motel known for secrecy and indiscretion. Something murderous goes bump in the night, sending the women on a search for justice when a young reporter’s body is found dumped and violated on a back road. A road Linda must now go down, no matter where it takes her, or what it reveals.

mark-mcnease

Exclusive Excerpt: Part I

CAYLEY DREES was nervous. She hadn’t heard from her confidential source for two days and she was supposed to meet him tonight. The timing could not be worse. A storm had made land the past six hours, covering Maine in thickening sheets of rain. She’d not had far to drive, just from Wathingham, where she lived and worked, to the outskirts of Lonesome Pointe, but the driving had been slow and treacherous. Drivers, including herself, had pulled off the highway at intervals to let the rain slow enough for them to see again. Visibility for parts of the 90 minute trip (now closing in on two and a half hours with weather delays) was approximately zero. She was relieved and curious to finally see the fading billboard announcing the Cliff’s Edge Motel just two miles up the road. At the rate she was going it would be a long two miles, but she was comforted to know her destination was in sight.

facia of the car and drops on the windshield
facia of the car and drops on the windshield

At twenty-three Cayley was already among those young achievers who made names for themselves on “30 Under 30” lists and nods to up-and-comers that appeared annually, praising the next generation’s best and brightest. She was going places, and like others of her type, she was the first to declare it. A natural journalist, Cayley had ignored the probability of an internship at the Boston Globe or the Philadelphia Inquirer, choosing instead to learn her reporting chops at little Wathingham, Maine’s, All Pointes Bulletin. But she had her reasons: she was a small pond girl at heart, and she intended to be the biggest fish in it. Had she gone with the Globe or the Enquirer she would be covering news that mattered to much of the world, but she would be the fourth journalist down on the left, in a cubicle listening to a hundred other journalists talk to sources and crank out stories with bylines nobody noticed. The ladder they climbed was steeper, and much more crowded. This way she could move back to Wathingham where her family lived and be a star. It would take time to reach the top, but not as much time. The All Pointes had a staff of only seven, including the part-time receptionist. It was a fiefdom she could find herself running in just a few years.

She wasn’t happy being assigned the obits, but it was part of the game she had to play. Everyone had to start somewhere, and it was the kind of assignment a new reporter was expected to do. The paper’s publisher and editor, a no-nonsense woman named Lucille Proctor, had taken a liking to Cayley when she’d known her casually as a high school student in town and Cayley’s journalism class had spent the day shadowing All Pointes reporters. Lucille accepted her internship application the day after it arrived. She could have said yes that same afternoon, but why seem too eager? Few young people as talented and determined as Cayley ever returned, and certainly showed no interest in internships at the All Pointes when they could cover celebrity drug overdoses for the L.A. Times, where it also happened to be warm most of the year.

Cayley had been reporting on dead people for almost a year now. She covered other things, too: local festivals, some interviews, and an occasional movie review for which she was reimbursed the cost of one ticket, a soda and a small popcorn. It was the opposite of glamorous. There was a time during the summer when Cayley questioned her decision to return to Wathingham. She’d posted a dozen death notices, contacted a few next of kin when something they’d submitted was questionably written or, in one case, to determine if the deceased was truly dead, since she swore she’d seen the man in the pharmacy the day before.

And then it happened: the call from her source. He sounded nervous—in fact, he sounded nervous every time she subsequently spoke to him, as if someone might hear them. They never emailed. He insisted all emails were read by the government, or at least by the employers of everyone sending them. He wanted nothing in writing, he said, he just wanted her to know what happened. But first, about that obituary you ran for Russell Drover …

“Russell Drover?” she’d said, trying to remember which one it was and when it was published.  She had been sitting at her desk rewriting copy when the call came in, the last of the day to be transferred by Rudy, the part-time office guy. (Rudy was sweet, distracted and more interested in finding a girlfriend than furthering his career, which was why he was a part-time receptionist at twenty-six.)

“The old guy who owned the Cliff’s Edge outside of Lonesome Pointe,” the voice said, sounding as if he’d cupped his hand over the phone.

“The Cliff’s Edge …”

“Are you a reporter or a parrot?”

She’d almost hung up on him then. She’d been pranked a few times, always by kids who thought annoying strangers on the phone was hysterical. But something in his tone, his nervousness, made her take a deep breath and refrain from snapping.

“I’m a reporter, Mr …?”

“Never mind that,” he’d said. “I just called to tell you that you got it wrong.”

“Wrong?” she’d said, immediately regretting repeating him again.

“Yes, wrong.”

“How’s that?”

She was sitting up now. She’d taken a pencil from an All Pointes coffee cup she used for them and poised it over a thin white reporter’s notebook. Something told her this was different, this had substance.

“He didn’t shoot himself like they said.”

“We didn’t say that either, Sir. Suicide never reads well in an obituary.”

“You think I’m playing with you, is that what you think?”

His sharpness startled her. She sensed she had to be careful if she wanted him to keep talking.

“Are you telling me he was killed by someone else?” she asked, still not recalling the obituary in question but certain it had said nothing about suicide. Families preferred to say “a sudden illness.” It didn’t matter now. She was being offered something she knew was bigger than the obituary beat, something people would talk about.

“He was murdered, yes,” the man said. This time his tone was flat, almost sad.

She waited a moment, letting him breathe while she decided how best to proceed. “Is there more, Sir? Is there something you’d like to tell me, like … who you believe killed Mr. Drover?”

“Oh, I know who killed him.”

Cayley felt the chill through the phone. Yes, she thought, yes, I’m sure you do know, but will you tell me? Pretty please? Or will this be difficult

“And I know why,” he said. “It was because of what happened.”

“What happened?”

“Yeah, what happened.”

Very carefully now: “When?”

“A long time ago.”

Excerpt Part II

LINDA SIKORSKY wasn’t looking forward to the drive to Maine but she would not tell Kirsten. It would take at least six hours, much of that in a storm the weather service had been warning about for the past week. She’d thought of suggesting they postpone the trip, but she knew the price for it would be days of sulking by Kirsten, delivered with a large side order of disappointment. Her wife had been planning this trip for two months, convinced it would be just what she needed to finish her first mystery, whose central character was transparently modeled after Linda. “The Rox Harmony Mysteries” had become Kirsten McClellan’s obsession. Linda was so relieved Kirsten had found a calling in retirement, even if writing was an avocation Linda thought put food on very few tables, that she withheld her reservations about a fictional lesbian detective based on her. Nor did she speak to Kirsten of the ego deflation that surely lay ahead in mixed reviews, unpredictable book sales and that small matter of finding a publisher. None of these things were worth causing Kirsten to fret more than she normally did. For Linda, just driving to Maine in terrible weather, after an unexpected delay caused by her mother’s emergency in Philadelphia, provided stress enough.

The women lived in a small house in Kingwood Township, New Jersey, that Linda had inherited from her Aunt Celeste. Her mother’s only sibling, Celeste had died on the back porch the spring before last, watering the flowers she’d kept for years in plastic beds hung from a wrought-iron railing surrounding the small space. There was just enough room on the porch for a table and four chairs. Linda had spent many Sunday mornings having coffee with her aunt after driving from New Hope, Pennsylvania, across the river into Jersey. She usually visited her mother the day before, making those weekends a sort of twofer: visit Mom one day, Aunt Celeste the next, and promise to be back in two weeks, three tops if something came up to delay her.

That “something” was sometimes homicide. Linda was then on the New Hope Police Force as its only female detective. She’d put in nearly twenty years, the last six in homicide, when Celeste died and left her the perfect place to retire: five acres of wooded land, a mile’s drive on 651 from the Delaware River. Timing, as Linda knew, was everything. She’d met Kirsten McClellan that January, inherited the house in September, and married Kirsten the following March. Now they were living very rural lives and slowly but surely adjusting to them.

Excerpt Part 3

On their way to a B & B in Maine, Linda and Kirsten are forced by the storm to stop at the Cliff’s Edge Motel.

LENNY SAW the car pull in. It was 7:30 p.m. now, dark and drenched outside as far as the eye could see, which was not far given the driving rain that had brought traffic to a standstill. The storm did not have a name but it was strong enough to be called something besides a Nor’easter. It deserved more respect than that. While it wasn’t an Irene or even a Sandy, it was a nasty one and it packed a punch. That’s why the Cliff’s Edge was almost full. Lenny had worked the front desk for the past six years and had only turned on the “No Vacancy” sign three or four times. This just wasn’t a place people looked for or added to their travel websites’ favorites list. It was exactly what he saw tonight: a place folks ended up because they had to. Just like the two women who came in as he watched from his stool—wet, unhappy and stamping their feet as if the water were snow they wanted off them.

“Evening,” Lenny said. “You ladies get stuck in the storm? Everybody else did.”

“Yes, we did,” Linda said. She regretted not bringing their rain ponchos, or at least a couple trash bags to put over themselves. Her jacket was soaked just getting from the car into the lobby, if it could be called that. It looked more like the front room in a house that should have been torn down decades ago.

“Well, you ladies are lucky tonight, let me tell you. I got one room left.”

Kirsten hung back. She was still stewing over not driving on to Cape Haven. She’d been relieved to get a cell phone signal in this weather, knowing it was hit and miss. It wasn’t great but it was good enough for her to tell the desk clerk they had to stop two hours short of Serenity House and they’d be there first thing tomorrow. The clerk curtly told her she would have to charge them for the night. Kirsten said go ahead, then filed it away for her Yelp review. She had no problem being charged, but she didn’t care for being spoken to as if she’d inconvenienced someone with nothing else to do.

Linda looked at the skinny man behind the counter. She hoped he would not call them “ladies” again. She disliked the term and found it patronizing. Coming from someone who looked like his other job was pumping gas at the only station for twenty miles made it seem smug and deliberate.

“We’ll take it,” Kirsten said, stepping up next to Linda. She’d sensed her wife’s hesitation, as if they had any choice but to check into the Cliff’s Edge and get the hell out at sunrise. She just wanted to get into a room, settle in and fire up her laptop for some revisions on Bermuda Shots.

The clerk reached under the counter and brought up a key attached to a diamond-shaped piece of plastic with the number 7 on it.

“Last room at the Cliff’s Edge,” he said. “Lucky, lucky.”

Linda had the distinct feeling their luck had run out, being forced into a rundown motel in the middle of somewhere.

“What town is this?” Linda asked, unsure they were even in a town.

“If it had a name,” Lenny said, “It’d be Unincorporated. Nearest town is Lonesome Pointe, about three miles from here. That be cash or charge?”

Linda was surprised: she’d never stayed in a motel that took cash.

She pulled her wallet from her purse, slipped out a corporate AmEx and handed it to him.

“I’m Linda Sikorsky,” she said. “And this is Kirsten, my … ”

“Friend,” said Lenny, winking at her.

Linda cursed herself and hoped Kirsten hadn’t noticed the exchange. She glanced to the side and saw her furiously trying to get an internet connection on her phone. Good, the conversation had been ignored. She hated it that she was still uncomfortable referring to Kirsten as her wife. It had taken her months to get used to partner, and spouse was just too … animal-husbandry. She had to get past this. What difference did it make that some creepy desk clerk might disapprove of lesbians?

“Something like that,” Linda replied, knowing Lenny had pegged them as a couple.

“Is there WiFi in the room?” Kirsten asked, frustrated at being cut off from the virtual world. The phone call to Serenity House was the last connection she’d had.

Lenny spoke patiently and slowly, as if to an uncomprehending child. “No,” he said. “We don’t have no internet connection here. This ain’t Portland. But we got TVs you can watch. Not sure what kind of picture you’ll get in this rain …”

“So it’s not cable?”

Lenny did not respond, believing he’d made his point well enough. If the Cliff’s Edge did not have an internet connection, why in the world would they have cable for the few people who stayed here? Mostly they came from surrounding towns to have sex with their secretaries or someone else’s husband. Nobody had time for HBO.

“No,” Linda said, answering for him. “I don’t imagine it is. Let’s just get our stuff from the car and settle in. It’s going to be a long night. Isn’t that right …?”

“Lenny,” he said, handing her the credit card receipt to sign. “

“Does Lenny have a last name?” Linda asked.

Lenny felt the hair on his arms rise. The woman was not smiling, and there was an intensity in her eyes he didn’t like. That’s how predators looked at their prey. He knew, he was one. He’d looked at countless teenage girls and a few of the boys that way, usually before he got them high on something and screwed them. And he’d looked at old man Drover that way just before he’d put a hole in his chest. The girl reporter, too. But she was still in the queue. He suddenly didn’t like putting these women next to the room Cayley Drees was in, but he didn’t have any choice. It was the last room, after all. He’d be extra careful when he slipped into #6 sometime after midnight.

“You can just call me Lenny,” he said. He was glad he’d talked Russell out of making him wear a name tag. What did the old fool think he was, a bellboy?

“Lenny it is,” said Linda, handing him the signed receipt and taking the key.

“You ladies have a good night. And if you need anything, come on down.”

“I can’t call you from the room?” Kirsten asked as they were about to head back to the car.

“Phone works sometimes, but there’s no intercom or nothing,” Lenny said.

“Of course not,” Kirsten replied. “Why would there be?”

Linda pulled the door open and held it for Kirsten. Rain flew into the lobby in the moment it took them to leave. Walking back into it was like walking into a powerful showerhead aimed directly at their faces. They got the last room, and they’d taken the last parking space, which meant they had to grab their belongings—none of which Kirsten was willing to leave in the car at this fine establishment—and hurry down the long motel front to room #7. Hopefully nothing would be damaged by the rain.

Lenny watched the door close. It was a lie they didn’t have internet access. They just didn’t have it for anyone but him, in the back apartment where Russell Drover had lived and where Lenny enjoyed his new life alone. Linda Sikorsky. He hadn’t asked for her driver’s license so he didn’t know where she lived, but he could get the state off her license plate. He planned to see if he could find out anything about her online. There was something chilling in the way her manner had changed while they were at the desk, as if she, too, had sensed something about him. Two snakes who’d come upon each other in the tall grass. He had the unsettling feeling one of them would be eating the other. He hoped not; he did not want to draw attention to himself or, by extension, his employer. He wanted to take care of the reporter, see the women off in the morning when they turned in the key, and wait for it all to blow over. There was a fat paycheck and an extended stay in Puerto Vallarta on the other side.

Author Website:

http://www.markmcnease.com/