The woman in the stingy hospital bed wasn’t dead. The question for Detective Jesus De La Cruz: did the comatose patient narrowly survive suicide or murder?
Faithful friends paint a picture of a guileless young woman, a victim of both crime and society. Others describe a cold woman with a proclivity for icing interested men with a single look.
Beneath the rhetoric, Cruz unearths a twisted knot of reality and perception. A sex scandal, a jilted lover, a callous director, a rainmaker, and a quid pro quo have Cruz questioning if there is such a thing as an innocent man. Truth is a strong rope, tied in a noose. As he closes in, the knot tightens, but who will pay the price? A killer or a member of Cruz’s own family?
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“She’s not dead.” Cleveland homicide Detective Jesus De La Cruz stood beside the hospital bed, watching the sheet over the woman’s chest rhythmically rise and fall.
“I know she’s not dead. I wouldn’t have ‘MD’ after my name if I couldn’t tell a comatose patient from a dead one.” Dr. Oscar Bollier had the ruffled look of a man above caring what society thought. He normally spoke in a tone underwritten by arrogance. Today, superiority was replaced with something Cruz couldn’t read. It was more than sad; less than desperate.
“So why am I here?”
“Because she shouldn’t be.”
The cop and the doctor met by chance, a wrong room number left on a message. Cruz had been in the bed, the right side of his face doing an imitation of dog food after the bloody night that ended his undercover narcotics career. The doctor took an interest in the cop suffering through alcohol withdrawal. He had been patient, returning daily, throwing a life preserver to the drowning man. Eventually, Cruz grabbed on.
And so, he waited with equal patience for the story of the not-dead woman to unfold.
“Her name is Sophie DeMusa. She’s a senior at Case Western Reserve University and works as a waitress at Three Witches. Do you know it?”
Cruz shook his head.
“It’s one of those hip places on Murray Hill, close to campus. She lives in the apartment below. She was found in her bedroom, nasty cut on her head, and a handful of pills in her stomach.”
The richness of the girl’s Mediterranean heritage showed through the pallor of unconsciousness. Her heart-shaped face featured the sculpted contours of a Greek or Roman maiden. Her eyes tipped up, though, nearly cat like. Exotic. Objectively beautiful.
Beauty was what it was. Not necessarily happy or healthy or stable. Beautiful people killed themselves just as often as the rest of us.
“She didn’t try to kill herself,” Bollier added, reading his mind.
Cruz mentally rolled his eyes. Maybe physically, too.
“She wasn’t the kind to take pills,” Bollier said quickly, a bite in his voice now.
“Pills didn’t cause that wound.” The side of the woman’s head was shaved, the short stubble disrupted by a line of stitches.
“She hit her head on her nightstand.”
When no further explanation came, Cruz waded in. “Since you called me, I assume you think someone other than her put those pills in her belly?”
“Someone had to at least help. She wouldn’t turn to suicide.”
Cruz exhaled slowly, searching for solid footing. If he heard it once, he heard it a hundred times. He wouldn’t do this or she would never do that. Denial was a slow, deep river. “Good people make bad decisions, Oscar. We both lived that truth. I’m sympathetic to the woman’s situation but not hearing anything needing my attention. I’m sorry she did this, but she needs a counselor, not a homicide detective. Call Dr. Edna,” he suggested, referring to Bollier’s psychiatrist friend who had been helpful to him during the Drug Head case. “She’s your better bet.”
“You’re my better bet.” Bollier turned a hundred-thousand watts of ill-tempered doctor on him. “I said she wouldn’t kill herself, you’ll have to take that as fact, and since she wouldn’t, somebody else tried to. She lives in Cleveland, she was found in Cleveland, she’s in the hospital in Cleveland. You, a Cleveland detective, need to do your damn job and find her killer.”
Cruz stood his ground, stamping out the temptation to go toe-to-toe with Bollier. Instead, he probed the reason behind the temper. “Who is she to you?”
“She’s just a girl.” His gaze dropped to her face, his expression softening. “An acquaintance.”
A lie. If anything got to him about his job, it was the number of lies. Big ones, little ones, lies of omission, of exaggeration. The lies were so old, they had their own AARP card.
“Why are you looking at me like that? Stop it. You’re thinking too hard. You’re going to help her.” It wasn’t a question.
First the lie, now an order. Cruz fought the instinct to push back because he respected the asshole doing the pushing. “Look, Oscar, I know you don’t want to hear it, but many suicides or attempts come with a plethora of friends and family who didn’t see it coming. Mental health issues can be overlooked and explained away by the people closest. At least now, you can get her the help she needs.”
“I’m a doctor, you twit. I’ve forgotten more about suicide than you’ll ever know. One five-minute conversation and you’ve made up your mind. You’re not even going to look into the circumstances.” Bollier lifted his chin, exuding dominance and superiority. “In the years we have known each other, I have never asked for you favors or to use your position in anyway. Conversely, you have ‘picked my brain’ on your cases and asked me for connections to help you find the answers. You owe me. The entire department owes me. I’m calling in my marker. You won’t honor your obligation; I’ll call Montoya direct.”
Cruz couldn’t think for the insult coursing through his veins. His mentor, his AA sponsor, was keeping a tally? Threatening to go over his head to homicide’s commander?
“You son of a bitch, you can—” Words flooded him now, articulating where the arrogant fucker could shove his threats. Except, some infinitesimal part of his brain told him anything he said now, he would regret. Or worse, he wouldn’t. “No. I’m not doing this with you. I’m walking away and if you’re as smart as you claim, you won’t follow.” He stalked out the door into the busy corridor.
“She doesn’t have another option.” The pompous, white bread voice followed him down the hall. Nurses and orderlies stared as the words fell on deaf ears. “If you don’t step in, her killer gets away. I know you Jesus De La Cruz. You won’t let that happen. You won’t—”
The doors to the floor closed behind him, cutting off the sermon.
Cruz seethed as he stalked the circuitous route out of the hospital. Never in his thirty-three years on this planet had he so misjudged someone. He’d known from day one Bollier could be an asshole. He’d witnessed it, was entertained by it. Over the years, he fell into the delusion that he was immune from the tirades, that their relationship went deeper than superficial shit. He played the sap, short and simple, sitting bright-eyed and bushy-tailed waiting for the almighty Dr. Oscar Bollier to dispense bits of wisdom.
In 1996, three-year-old Maisie Matthews is abducted from a holiday resort in Spain. Twenty-three years later, someone is following romantic novelist, Anna Blake.
As Anna tries to discover her stalker’s identity, she finds herself embroiled in the mystery of the missing child. But finding answers only brings more questions and Anna becomes suspicious of the men in her life: Damien Davies, who has a grudge against her; old flame, Ewan Jacobs, who wishes to resume their relationship; and enigmatic Josh Fielding, who has recently moved into the village.
As events escalate and the search becomes a matter of life and death, Anna even doubts the people who are closest to her. Everyone is hiding something. Who is telling the truth?
How does she know Who To Trust?
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Under cover of night, the doctor slipped through the door and into the hospital. The reception area stood eerily empty in the half-gloom. Drink and confectionary machines stood silent as sentries; shuttered shop facades were the only witnesses.
The doctor strode down the deserted hospital corridor, stethoscope bumping in rhythm against the crisp, white coat. Without warning, a whey-faced nurse appeared from around a corner. A brief stab of panic, a slight nod of acknowledgement, then the woman was gone. Nothing to fear. Another turn; another empty space. Not far to go now.
Maternity ward. A moment’s hesitation before peering through the glass. A stroke of luck. The nurses’ station was unmanned. A bolt of elation fired renewed hope. It was possible. The doctor straightened, shoulders back, a figure of authority, before using a key card to gain entry. No-one saw. The murmured hum of voices drifted from the bay at the far end of the ward. Perfect. It was fate; it was meant to be.
The doctor crept into the nearest bay, enveloped in darkness. Only one bed was in use, a grey mound silently sleeping. A wheeled crib stood beside it. The baby girl briefly opened her eyes wide, pools of blue innocence, as the doctor loomed over her. An intake of breath. Waiting … The eyelids fluttered and closed. It had to be now. Slowly, gently, the doctor pushed the crib to the entrance of the bay and peered stealthily around the curtain. The coast was clear. Another deep breath. Now or never.
With a burst of feigned confidence, the doctor wheeled the sleeping infant out of the ward and along the corridor. The hardest bit was done. Swiftly along to a storeroom by the stairs at the rear of the hospital. Empty. A quick glance around. No-one there.
Abandoning the crib behind the door of the storeroom, the doctor cradled the baby, crooning softly. ‘Nearly there, my lovely.’
Down the stairs, the click of shoes beating a guilty tattoo and out into the night …
Later, looking back, I could pinpoint it exactly – a moment of silent recognition, a stab of disquiet. It was then. When it all started.
Driving to Norwich along the A47 in my black Fiesta, the sky benign with Mediterranean blues, I was unaware of what lay ahead. I’d turned off the dual carriageway, following the signs for the city centre and waiting at the first set of traffic lights. Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ was playing on the radio and I was belting it out when the words caught in my throat. That’s when it was – a glimpse of blue in my wing mirror. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the significance. But that was when the fear started and my life changed for ever.
Then, it gave me pause and I adjusted my rear-view mirror for a better look. It was an electric blue Peugeot 206. I frowned, turning my head, craning my neck to see more. A beep from behind jolted me forward, foot twitching against the accelerator pedal. The road was busy and we crawled forward to the next set of lights. Another look in my mirror. Impossible to tell. The Peugeot was about six cars back and in the same lane. I was trying to see if it had a large dent on the nearside front bumper. As the lights changed again, I switched lanes and kept checking my wing mirror. After a few seconds, the Peugeot also pulled out; I could see the dent clearly. It was the same car. And it was following me. Again.
I’d first seen the car last Saturday, driving to Swaffham to visit my parents, noticing it only because they’d bought me one, the same colour and model, for my seventeenth birthday, nine years earlier. Since its sale, two years ago, when I bought my Fiesta, I’d looked out for my trusty, old car. On that occasion, I spotted the dent in the front bumper.
‘Poor Percy!’ I’d exclaimed, the name I’d christened it. ‘Have you had a bit of a bump with your new owner?’
As I reached the drive to my parents’ house, the Peugeot had continued onwards and I’d checked the number plate. It wasn’t Percy. If only I could remember the number. Unfortunately, as soon as I realised it didn’t start with AU, I’d dismissed it from my mind.
I noticed the Peugeot with the dented bumper behind me once again on route to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn where I was taking Edith Swainsthorpe, a client of mine, for a knee x-ray.
‘Obviously belongs to someone local,’ I observed to Edith after telling her the Percy story.
Having spotted the same car twice more that week, always behind me, I began to wonder, with creeping unease, if it was something other than coincidence. I started to look out for it every time I took to the road. Then, today, as I turned off the A47 towards the city, there it was again.
Still I couldn’t quite believe it. Why would anyone be tailing me? It must be a mistake. I clamped down on the first fluttering of panic and decided to use the next set of traffic lights as a test. They were red and I sat in the middle lane, heading for Norwich city centre, planning my move. When the lights turned green, I accelerated and indicated left, nipping in front of the white van beside me with an apologetic wave. My eyes flicked again to the rear-view mirror. The Peugeot had also manoeuvred across the lanes and now sat four cars behind me. I felt a surge of anger towards the unknown driver. Who was he? What did he think he was playing at? My fingers gripped the steering wheel as I pulled out to overtake a cyclist. The Peugeot remained, locked on to the rear of my Fiesta like a guided missile.
What could I do?
Anxiety stiffened my spine as I processed my options. Pull over; let him pass. My mind played out the scenario. The Peugeot might pull in behind, prompting a confrontation. The thought of that held little appeal. Maybe it would continue past me and lie waiting, further ahead – a nerve-tingling game of cat and mouse. I didn’t like that idea either. Another option would be to do nothing, to continue on to Chapelfield’s car park. Wait and see what happened. But car parks are dark, anonymous places where a person might easily disappear. The thought sent my pulse skittering. The remaining choice would be best. Somehow, I would lose him.
A rush of adrenalin, knuckles whitening. Images from film car chases flashed through my head – drivers shooting between cars, avoiding oncoming vehicles, tyres screeching, horns blaring. Don’t be silly, Anna. I wasn’t about to attempt anything like that. It would have to be something more subtle, slipping out of sight somehow before he realised. Think, Anna! The voice in my head sounded urgent, panicky. Despite the air-conditioning, droplets of sweat tickled my brow as I waited for my chance ...
Without indicating, I swung my car left down a tree-lined avenue and then first left again, veering wildly around a parked car and earning an angry blast on the horn from the vehicle coming the other way. I swerved left again and raced to the end of the street preparing to turn right, back to the traffic lights. Cars streamed ahead of me, coming from both directions, forcing me to screech to a halt. Another glance in the mirror. The blue Peugeot was just turning into the street, wary now, maintaining a distance between us, perhaps wondering if he’d been spotted. A tiny gap allowed me to shoot forward and take my place in the steady flow of traffic. This time the lights were green.
‘Come on, come on!’ I exhorted the drivers ahead of me. They were moving so slowly; the lights would change at any moment. Sure enough, the amber light flashed and the car in front of me braked, ready to stop. Then, at the last moment, the driver changed his mind and continued forward, deciding to risk it. As I also sped past, the lights had already changed to red. I checked my mirror; no blue Peugeot.
I exhaled, not realising until then that I’d been holding my breath. Still, my eyes flipped between the rear-view and wing mirrors. At any moment, I expected to see him behind me. Every red traffic light set my heart racing; the wait for a green light felt interminable; the fear he would catch up consumed my thoughts. Another look. No blue Peugeot. I shook my shoulders, trying to relieve the tension. Surely now I was safe.
As my breathing steadied, I started to feel a bit stupid. I’d over-reacted. Nothing in my recent sightings of the blue Peugeot suggested that the driver wished me harm, I reasoned. If he’d wanted to attack, abduct or kill me, there had been opportunities.
My fear had been amplified by panic. That happened. I’d suffered from anxiety for as long as I could remember. It crept up on me, sometimes stealthily but often unexpectedly, sheer, gut-wrenching terror which left my insides squeezed dry and my muscles stiff with knots.
Still, the voice in my head argued, he was definitely following me. Perhaps I should inform the police. Almost immediately, I dismissed the notion. What could they do? No crime had been committed and I had no clue to the identity of the driver. I couldn’t even tell them the registration number. No, I’d be wasting their time. After all, they’d been unable to do anything when Alice Drinkwater, another client, had been burgled while she lay asleep in bed.
‘They just gave me a number – a crime number, I think they called it – and told me they’d let me know if they recovered any of the stolen property,’ Alice wailed over a cup of tea, her many chins shaking with a combination of indignation and distress. ‘As if I’m worried about that. It’s the invasion of my home I’m worried about. I can’t bear to think of someone creeping about, rifling through my things, while I’m tucked up in my bed. I haven’t slept a wink since.’
Poor Alice. She had not been in the village very long and her husband of thirty-six years had recently left her for his PA. I did my best to reassure her, stayed with her while a locksmith changed the locks and put her in touch with the Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator. Apart from that, there was little, it appeared, anyone could do.
I reached Chapelfield’s car park and reversed into a parking space. The dim, artificial lighting, the rumble of car engines and echoey thumps and rattles did little to soothe my frayed nerves. My mind might insist I was over-reacting but my body still quaked with pent-up fear. As I walked away from my Fiesta, I glanced nervously over my shoulder. The incident had shaken me, no question about it. A flash of blue in my peripheral vision made my heart lurch and muscles tense in anticipation. He was still following me; I hadn’t got away! I slipped through the glass doors and up the staircase leading to House of Fraser before I risked another look behind. No need to panic – it wasn’t him after all, not even a Peugeot.
‘Pull yourself together, Anna!’
An elderly woman walking towards me, laden with bags marked ‘Sale’ in big, red letters, gave me an odd look and I realised I’d uttered the words aloud.
‘Are you alright, love?’ she asked kindly. ‘You look very pale.’
‘I’m fine, thanks.’ I hurried on.
Why would someone be following me? Was he watching for a regular pattern, planning his move, deciding when best to pounce? If so, he’d soon discover I didn’t have a set routine. Most of my time was spent at home writing. I also did occasional, part-time work as a Girl Friday which meant I travelled when and wherever I was needed. These were usually one-off jobs; my writing schedule made me reluctant to commit to anything more regular. Today though, I wasn’t working. I’d driven the twenty-five-mile trip into Norwich for a shopping day with Madison, a close friend from university. A glance at my watch showed I was running late and I quickened my step.
Madison was waiting by the entrance to the café, her stocky frame leaning against the wall in an attitude of resignation. She was dressed casually in jeans and peering at something on her phone. With her shaggy, auburn curls, soulful, brown eyes and bouncy exuberance, she always reminded me of a spaniel puppy and the sight of her brought a smile to my face.
‘At last!’ she exclaimed as she greeted me with a hug. ‘I was wondering if you’d forgotten.’
‘Sorry.’ I clung to her a fraction too long. ‘Let’s get coffee. I’m buying.’
‘Is everything OK?’ Madison’s eyes narrowed as she stepped back. ‘You’re trembling!’
‘I’m fine.’ I flashed another smile, meant to reassure.
Her lips tightened as she watched me fumbling for my purse. Clearly, she wasn’t fooled but she waited until we were sitting at a corner table before interrogating me further.
‘OK,’ she said firmly as I clattered the tray onto the table. ‘What’s happened?’
She frowned, her raised eyebrows indicating disbelief.
‘Honestly, it really is nothing. I’ve probably just over-reacted to something, that’s all.’ As usual, I was reluctant to discuss my fears. I’d had a lot of practice at hiding things. My issues were a weakness I preferred to keep secret.
‘Anna, I’m sorry but I don’t believe you. Tell me what’s happened.’
I gave in. ‘You’re going to think I’m daft … the whole thing seems surreal now. Maybe I was just imagining it.’ I told her of my encounters with the blue Peugeot, concluding with today’s drama.
‘It could just be coincidence,’ Madison said slowly. ‘Have you told the police?’
‘No. It was only today I actually felt like I was being followed. Do you think I should?’
‘Maybe. It’s difficult when you have no evidence …’ She paused. ‘If you see that car parked anywhere near your house, you should definitely ring them … and you need to get the number plate.’
‘No kidding, Sherlock!’
‘Sorry!’ She gave me a rueful look. ‘If someone is following you, do you have any thoughts who it may be? I was listening to a programme on the radio the other week and they were talking about stalkers. Apparently, the majority are known to the victims, often ex-partners. Have you been out with any weirdos recently – anyone you haven’t told me about?’ She looked at me thoughtfully. ‘I know what you’re like. Men always make a beeline for you and you never have the heart to tell them to get lost.’
That was true. I’d even invented an imaginary boyfriend to put them off. Not all took rejection well.
‘You’ve been leading me on all night,’ one lad had sneered just a few weeks ago, slamming his beer glass down on the bar and pushing past me as he shuffled off. ‘Bitch!’
Disquiet at that latest incident came flooding back. What was his name? I couldn’t remember. Dave? That didn’t sound right but it was something like that. I was at a bar in Norwich with a group of friends from my spinning class. One of the girls, Fran, was celebrating her thirtieth birthday. The guy, whoever he was, had spent the evening telling me about his dad who had just been diagnosed with cancer. I’d tried to get away a few times but each time he’d forestalled me.
‘Just hang out with me for a bit longer, babe,’ he pleaded. ‘I don’t have anyone else to talk to and you’re a good listener.’
When he insisted on buying me another drink, I resigned myself to being a sympathetic ear for a little while longer. However, when he snaked his arm around my waist, I pulled away. That’s when I told him about Jeff, my boyfriend in the Marines whom I’d fabricated for just such occasions.
‘Is he here tonight?’ the guy asked belligerently. ‘If not, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.’ He reached for me again and I spun away, irritated.
‘Sorry. Look, I’m here with friends,’ I said firmly. ‘I really must get back to them.’ He stalked off with a few more choice epithets. Could he have followed me home that night and been doing so ever since? The thought chilled my bones. It was terrifying to think someone I’d met might wish me harm.
‘What about that guy you went out with a while ago? You know, the gorgeous, dark one who was a bit off the rails. What was his name?’ Madison’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
‘Ewan Jacobs.’ I knew who she meant. He was good-looking and definitely wild. Our relationship was erratic, to say the least, and ended when I suspected he was taking drugs. He wasn’t one of my better choices. Now, I put it down to my rebellious phase.
‘Yeah, Ewan. I reckon he’d be the type to hold a grudge. He always acted like the world was against him. Had a bit of temper too … and you did finish with him, not the other way around.’
I filtered through the possibility. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I can’t see it. That was all done and dusted ages ago and I haven’t seen him since we broke up. Anyway,’ I smiled as something occurred to me, ‘it definitely couldn’t be him. You know what he was like. He wouldn’t have been seen dead driving an old, blue Peugeot!’
‘Good point. Well, I suppose it could be some random weirdo.’
‘Cheers for that happy thought.’
‘Sorry.’ She pushed back her chair. ‘Look, let’s go and hit the sales. A bargain will help you forget your troubles.’
My heart wasn’t really in it but I made an effort for Madison’s sake and relaxed as the day wore on. Initially, I found myself scanning fellow shoppers for anyone who might be paying me undue attention but soon wearied of the task. I’d never make a detective, I thought, trudging back to my car, laden with purchases, at the end of the day. Madison insisted on accompanying me to the car park and together we scoured the ranks of cars on the same level of the multi-storey. To my relief, there was no blue Peugeot with a dented bumper.
‘Right,’ said Madison, giving me a farewell hug. ‘If you see that car following you on the way home, I want you to turn around and come straight back to mine. Then we’ll phone the police together.’ She paused and gave me a stern look. ‘And make sure you’re extra vigilant at home too.’
‘Yes Mum.’ I tried for a confident smile but it fell a little short. In truth, my nerves had started jangling as the return journey loomed closer. I threw the bags onto the back seat of the car and slid behind the wheel. ‘I’ll phone when I get home.’
‘Make sure you do.’
Madison watched as her friend folded her tall, curvy frame into the driver’s seat and pushed her long, blonde hair behind her ears. With a final wave, Anna turned the key in the ignition and steered towards the exit.
‘Safe journey home,’ Madison called as the black Fiesta disappeared from view.
Balancing her many shopping bags on one arm, she reached for her phone from the capacious depths of her brown, leather handbag. As usual, prickles of guilt fluttered in her chest as she scrolled through her contacts.
‘Sorry Anna,’ she murmured while she waited for her call to be answered, ‘but it’s for your own good.’
Imagine a world where modern governments failed their citizens and long-simmering conflicts escalated into global war. Imagine if its survivors migrated toward those who share the same faith. Imagine the continents are ruled by religions.
When the mysterious death of a teenage girl triggers memories of a similar childhood event, police Detective Sami Ali becomes consumed with solving her murder. Persecuted by the shame of his past, Ali will stop at nothing to find the killer, even if his investigation puts his wife and daughter at risk.
As he follows the clues, Ali collides with another lost soul - a foreign spy. Elise De Jong's official mission in Eurabia involves the acquisition of a priceless item that could shift the balance of power among the theocracies. But she also has a personal objective - to find her last living relative, the little sister whom she hasn't seen since her birth.
To succeed in their missions, Elise and Ali must find common ground despite their religious differences, for they can depend only on each other.
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It all started with a haunted Ouija board in Nashville and the cold case murder of Sophie Mathews. Then, Henry Meyer did not commit suicide in his tobacco barn in Columbia and the case went cold. When Olivia Honeycutt takes on the case of Eloise Venable Freeman, she must accept her paranormal proclivities. Eloise and her infant daughter, Andrea, allegedly died in a horrific fire thirty years ago. Her husband, David, is not satisfied with ashes. David wants answers. Olivia travels to Shelbyville, Tennessee, and the world of the Walking Horses to solve her most challenging mystery to date.
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On a bitter January night, private detective Sam Carlisle steps out of a nightclub and stumbles across a severely wounded man prostrate on the ground, the victim of an apparent knife attack. Despite Sam's efforts to save him, the stranger dies in his arms, uttering three small words before taking his final breath.
Help. Me. Find.
In the days that follow, the tragic encounter plays increasingly on Sam's mind. Who was the victim? What was he trying to find? With the police investigation drawing a total blank, Sam searches for the truth himself, determined to carry out the dead man's cryptic final request. However, following in the footsteps of a murdered man brings plenty of danger of its own.
Searching For Hope is the latest mystery featuring former undercover cop Sam Carlisle as he finds himself drawn into a perilous world of unscrupulous characters, dark secrets and a family torn apart by tragedy and betrayal.
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Sam Carlisle peered down at his watch. 3am.
'Right!' he exclaimed, drinking the last of his whisky and getting to his feet. 'Time to go home.'
Sam gazed at his two friends across the table. Denny was sat bolt upright in his chair, head back and eyes closed, snoring gently. Next to him, Archie was slumped forward, chin resting in the palm of his hand, sleeping like a baby. The table in front of them was strewn with empty glasses and bottles.
Sam rolled his eyes. It had been Archie's idea to come out tonight, then Denny's to continue onto this back street club in Shard End, the notorious dock area of Newgate. Sam smiled thinly at the two men. The last of the big time drinkers.
He scanned the dimly-lit, near empty room. In the far corner, two elderly men berated each other vigorously in drunken argument. On the small dance floor, a hulking man in navy uniform clung to his leather-clad, female companion, the pair barely swaying to the soulful sixties number drifting mournfully from the speakers. Near the bar sat a young man hunched forward in his chair, empty glass clasped between his fingers, staring down morosely at the worn carpet.
Sam shook his head. It really was time to go home.
He checked his phone. No reception. With a sigh, he set off towards the entrance door, intent on calling a taxi from outside for himself and his two lightweight friends.
'Door's locked, mate! You'll have to leave out the side!'
Sam halted and stared over at the bar. The doorman, a stocky chap with heavily tattooed arms and a savage crew cut, was pointing to a fire exit across the room. Sam nodded, changed direction and headed for it.
'Oi! What about your pals?' the doorman shouted. 'They can't sleep here all night! This isn't a doss house!'
Sam resisted the temptation to point out that's exactly what it was. Instead, he gave the man a dismissive wave.
'I'll be back for them in a minute!' he retorted, heading for the fire exit, embracing the draught blowing in through the slightly open door. Sam pushed it outwards, stepped into the January night and immediately felt the cold air prick at his skin. He was in a narrow alleyway, its brick floor dusted with a light coat of frost. To his right, dustbins lined the wall leading to a dead end. The opposite direction led out onto the main road, silent and deserted at this unearthly hour. Sam grunted in satisfaction, pulled out his phone and began punching in numbers. He would ask the cab to pick them up out front.
Suddenly, something stirred nearby. The slightest noise. Sam ignored it, presuming an animal was scavenging in the bins. Shuffling his feet in an attempt to ward off the cold, he waited patiently for a reply down the phone.
Another noise. A barely audible groan. The weakest of moans coming from behind the nearest bin.
'Newgate Cabs. Where do you-'
Sam ignored the shrill voice in his ear, ended the call and stared at the bin. Curiosity roused, he walked towards the source of the noise, his every step measured and tentative. Rounding the bin, he saw something on the floor. His first impression was he was staring at a bundle of rags. Confused, he inched forward to take a closer look.
Sam found himself gazing down at a man lying flat on his back, his eyes wide open, staring up at the night sky.
His upper body covered in blood.
Sam dropped down beside the lifeless figure and located a faint pulse. The man was barely breathing. A deep chest wound was clearly visible, the lost blood dried hard on the man's coat. A knife? Sam thought it highly likely. He took off his jacket and placed it across the stranger's chest. Then he removed his sweater, folded it up and tucked it under the stricken man's head. The man groaned weakly, his lips barely moving, his eyes still fixated on the stars high above.
'Hang on,' whispered Sam. 'I'm getting help.'
He called the emergency services, studying the wounded figure as the phone rang out. Gaunt-looking. Mid-forties. Straw-blonde hair, lengthy and unwashed. Straggly beard. Blotchy, weather-beaten skin. Ill-fitting, grubby clothes. Worn-out shoes. Stale body odour. Sam chewed on his lip. This man was living rough. Homeless, surviving on the streets.
A crisp voice punctuated Sam's musings.
'Which service do you require?'
'Ambulance,' replied Sam hurriedly, 'and police. Quickly.'
Sam gave his location, tucked his phone away and turned his attention back to the injured man, noting the pallid complexion and glazed eyes. The man's lips had turned a soft shade of blue, his breathing was quiet and shallow. The life was draining out of him. In that moment, Sam was certain of one thing.
This man was not going to survive. He would be lucky to see the ambulance arrive.
Then, to Sam's surprise, the man roused. His eyes began to dart around with urgency. He tried to lift his head, causing a trickle of blood to roll down the corner of his mouth. Sam leaned over him.
'Easy,' he whispered gently, taking the man's hand in his own, trying to offer comfort. 'Don't move.'
The man wasn't listening. His lips began to move wordlessly. His eyes, suddenly clear and piercing, locked onto Sam with intent.
The solitary word came out as a croak. More blood flowed.
'You're going to be okay,' replied Sam, giving the man's hand a gentle squeeze, lying through gritted teeth. 'Just hang on-'
Suddenly, Sam felt himself being tugged forward. Amazingly, the man had found enough energy from within his weak body to grab Sam's shirt and pull him close. Sam didn't resist. The man desperately wanted to convey something.
Sam shook his head, mystified. The two men were so close their noses were almost touching. Sam could feel the man's breath on his face. He saw no fear in the stranger's eyes, just a burning desire to communicate before it was too late. Then the grip began to slacken on Sam's shirt. The man's eyes began to roll. A whisper escaped his lips as his eyelids closed.
A sudden commotion shattered their tragic solitude. Sam looked up. Denny and Archie had appeared, the pair being expertly manhandled out the fire exit by the doorman. The surly bouncer was giving them the benefit of his wisdom.
'Now, go home and don't come-'
All three of them stopped in their tracks when they saw Sam, kneeling on the frozen floor, cradling a dying man.
Sam looked back down.
The man had stopped breathing.
Rita Calabrese is the guardian angel of Acorn Hollow—and of her lovable but exasperating "famiglia." She’s always fortifying her down-on-their-luck neighbors with secret deliveries of home-grown vegetables and ravioli alla zucca, sneaking cannoli into her gruff husband’s lunch, and meddling in (or, as she would say, “improving”) the lives of her three grown children.
But now, on the eve of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita’s looking for a meaningful second act—and finds as a reporter for the local paper. Her profiles of Acorn Hollow’s eccentric citizens, including the soft-spoken biology teacher with a secret poison garden, soon make her the toast of the town. But when the beloved football coach is murdered and Rita’s investigation uncovers not only a messy love triangle, but also rumors of her ne’er-do-well son Vinnie’s involvement, she finds her newfound journalistic zeal on a collision course with her fierce maternal instinct.
Set in New York's bucolic Hudson Valley and sprinkled with Italian phrases and customs, "The Secret Poison Garden" includes eight mouth-watering, garden-to-table Italian-American recipes.
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Kneeling in the cool, damp earth, Rita Calabrese cast an appraising eye over her vegetable garden. At eight-thirty in the morning, the sun was just rising over the humpbacked mountain behind the sleepy Hudson Valley hamlet of Acorn Hollow. The russet leaves of the old oak filtered the light, sending it flitting across the basil, its leaves still shiny with the dew, and through the spiky forest of rosemary. Behind the rosemary stood her prized girasoli, which dutifully turned towards the sun.
She insisted on calling them by their Italian name. “Sunflower” was too prosaic, devoid of all romance and poetry. They were not mere sunflowers; they were her three prized girasoli—Marco, Gina, and Vinnie. She nourished them, and fussed over them, and prattled on endlessly about them to her neighbors.
They were just like her children. Only her real children didn’t always glow when she fussed over them, and they claimed to be able to feed themselves. Which was nonsense, of course. One could not claim to be a cook—an Italian cook, anyway—unless one could make nonna’s secret sauce. And she knew for a fact that none of them could. Nonna had only entrusted the recipe to one person—Rita—and Rita revealed only one ingredient per year, over steaming plates of lasagna on Christmas Eve, starting when her son Marco was thirty. The recipe had ten ingredients; Rita had only revealed six ingredients—the most obvious ones—so far.
If the girasoli were her children—her perfect, beautiful, intelligent children—the onion that sprang up in their midst was Susan, Marco’s impossibly slim new fiancée, all straight up and down, no curves, a cool green vegetarian. Rita had planted the onions in a clump behind the butternut squash, but somehow this one had escaped and implanted herself among the girasoli. How very like Susan.
She plucked Susan and half a dozen other, more obedient onions. Then she selected the squash that most resembled herself—unusually short and squat, with a fleshy round bottom—and took it inside to roast and purée.
Rita was sautéing the onions when her informant called.
“The eagle has left the nest,” her twin said.
Rita leaned over the bubbling pentola and got an intoxicating whiff of sweet, buttery onions. “For how long?”
“It’s hard to say,” Rose said, “but she had both kids with her and was carrying several books and a few letters.”
Rita mentally calculated the time it would take Fay Galloway to walk to the library, evade the head librarian’s nosy questions, check out some new books, and then mail the letters at the post office. Forty-five minutes, she guessed. “Thank—"
“Gotta dash,” Rose interrupted. “I just got a hot tip that old Van Hollen is planning to sell. I’m going to corner that merman on his way to morning water aerobics.”
Rita sighed. Such was the exciting life of her childless twin, Acorn Hollow’s top-selling realtor and consummate dealmaker.
After adding the squash, parmesan cheese, broth, and herbs, Rita puréed the entire mixture and then poured the velvety golden liquid into two Mason jars. She placed the soup in a plain, unmarked brown bag, along with half a dozen homemade cranberry muffins, two ears of corn, four stuffed peppers, and a few gleaming McIntosh apples from the tree in the back yard.
“Luciano! Cesare! Andiamo!” she called, and her two enormous Bernese mountain dogs leapt up from the couch, snatched their leashes off the hook in the hallway, and bounded towards her. She always spoke Italian to her dogs, and sometimes she wondered if they understood more Italian than her children did. No matter when she called them, they always responded with alacrity, as though they were about to rescue a frost-bitten skier from an avalanche and revive him with a flask of whiskey. Her Bernese actually did carry little flasks around their necks, which everyone in Acorn Hollow assumed were just for show. Only Rita, her husband Sal, and the widow Schmalzgruben knew the truth. The flasks were filled with limoncello from Capri, which Rita sipped as she sat by the riverside on warm, sunny days, beneath the willow tree, pretending she was floating in the Blue Grotto. Sometimes she imbibed while chatting with her mother in the cemetery, and sometimes she would pour a few drops on the rose bush that covered her mother’s grave. Once in a while, she would offer some to the widow Schmalzgruben, who could often be found perched on the tombstone of one of her three deceased husbands, reading them the day’s headlines.
She donned a wool sweater to guard against the mid-September chill, snatched the brown paper bag, and slipped out the door with Luciano and Cesare in tow. After a brisk fifteen-minute walk, they arrived at a little stone house with a rusted tricycle in the yard. The rose bushes were neatly trimmed, and the windows sparkled, but the forced cheeriness made the spectacle somehow more pathetic. A broken-down lime green Cadillac sat on blocks in the driveway, and the picket fence was missing several posts.
Rita bent down and pretended to pick up after her dogs, all the while peering into the front window. When she saw the back of Ted Galloway’s blond head silhouetted against a giant screen filled with an indignant Judge Judy, she tiptoed up the front walkway and placed the brown paper sack by the front door.
She took the long way home, ambling along the riverbank, admiring the brilliant reds and yellows that marched up the flanks of Mount Esquiline, before cutting over to Main Street.
At this time of year, Homecoming mania had reached a fever pitch. From every lamppost fluttered red and purple banners; the bakery featured cookies in the shape of Acorn Hollow High School’s mascot, a giant squirrel. In front of Thompkin’s Pharmacy, a slender brunette and two young children were admiring a ten-foot tall purple squirrel. The brush strokes were wavy and menacing, the tail curling into the furthest corner of Thompkin’s store window. Rita was unnerved by the glowing red eyes and fangs, which were greedily gobbling a Mount Washington High hawk.
The brunette smiled and waved at Rita. “Hello, Mrs. Calabrese.”
Squinting, Rita came closer. Slowly, the figure of Courtney D’Agostino, her oldest son Marco’s Prom date, came into focus.
Luciano and Cesare sat obediently while Rita kissed the young woman on both cheeks. “Ciao, bella.”
"Bella" was perhaps an understatement. Courtney was tall and statuesque, with a long Roman nose and lively dark eyes. And she was not only beautiful. She was also intelligent and kind. Rita had always harbored a secret hope—well, perhaps not so secret—that Marco and Courtney would become an item. But, to Rita’s chagrin, they had gone to Prom as “just friends” and stayed “just friends.” And now Courtney was married with children.
Courtney nodded in the direction of the mural. “Gruesome, isn’t it?” She laughed, and her sleek black ponytail swung back and forth.
“But it’s nothing compared to Mount Washington’s ‘installation art’ at the high school.”
“What do you mean?”
Courtney gave her an odd little smile. “I think you should see for yourself.”
Rita headed past the library and St. Vincent’s, up the hill to the high school. Catching sight of the town’s one and only fire engine, she picked up her pace, half-ran and half-walked past the flag pole, and flung open the doors to the entrance that led to the new swimming pool. No one objected when Luciano and Cesare skidded across the tiled yellow floor; no one noticed at all. They were all looking at one thing and one thing only: Coach Stiglitz’s shiny new Mazda Miata, suspended precariously over the pool, its doors wide open. A giant sculpture of a hawk hovered ominously above it, its outstretched talons hooked under the roof of the vehicle. Facedown in the pool was a papier-mâché figure. From where Rita was standing, she couldn’t quite make out the design that spread across the torso and legs—blue and gray swirls, some sort of nighttime landscape, she supposed, and a pulsating yellow orb. But, even so, the figure’s bright red hair and the numbers painted on his back were enough.
The figure was a likeness of the coach himself.
The incident at the pool dominated the conversation at Marco’s birthday dinner that evening.
“Let me get this straight,” Rita’s husband Sal mumbled as he shoved a hunk of stuffed pepper into his mouth. “It was just hanging there, over the pool.”
“That’s right, caro,” she said brightly, reaching over and wiping a grain of rice off his chin, “but please don’t talk with your mouth open.”
“Well how could it just hang there? Cars are pretty heavy, you know.”\
“It was being held up by a talon. A metal talon. Steel, I overheard the fire chief say.”
Sal harrumphed. “Sounds like the handiwork of a bunch of eggheads who want to study engineering at the U. They probably couldn’t catch a football if their lives depended on it.”
The hint of scorn in Sal’s voice rankled her. Yes, he was blue-collar, not a blueblood, as he frequently reminded her. And yes, his nursery was holding its own. Folks would drive from as far as Albany to buy Sal’s lovingly tended gladiolas, or to risk frostbite while cutting down a Christmas tree with a saw that—for liability reasons—was about as sharp as Rita’s nail file. But there was no need to disparage people with an education. After all, she herself had a bachelor’s degree in English, Gina was vice president of the local bank, and Marco was an anesthesiologist. Even ditzy little Susan, she had to admit, had a degree, even if it was from the University of Mississippi; she was a nurse at the hospital, which was where (to Rita’s everlasting dismay) she had met Marco. But Vinnie—Vinnie was another story. While Marco had created a health and wellness program for senior citizens as his Eagle Scout project, Vinnie’s idea of health and wellness was to smoke a joint with his friends down by the railroad tracks. Stress relief, he called it. And while Marco had been valedictorian and Gina had been fifth in her class, Vinnie’s sole academic achievement was just to graduate high school—and even that had been touch and go, with Sal muttering “fifty-fifty odds” and Rita clutching her rosary beads as the names of the graduates were read.
Vinnie, unfortunately, was his father’s son.
Forcing her lips into a smile, Rita turned to Susan, who was dissecting her food as though she suspected it were laced with rat poison. “What do you think?”
“About what?” Susan’s blank stare reminded Rita of the deer that had flung itself on her windshield on Passamaquody Mountain.
“About the coach’s car hanging over the pool. About the meaning of the floating papier-mâché figure. Is it a threat? A warning? Is it the work of criminal masterminds, common burglars, or teenaged pranksters?”
“Oh,” Susan said, somehow drawing the word into four distinct syllables. She looked terribly relieved. “Definitely pranksters. At my high school, our rivals kidnapped a half dozen of our principal’s fattest pot-bellied pigs and put them in the pool. When I went to swim practice the next day, they were just cavorting in the pool like it was the bee’s knees.”
She said the “bee’s knees” like it was a good thing, although Rita couldn’t imagine what would be so great about bees having knees. It just seemed like more surface area to sting her with.
“It was a hot mess,” Susan added. “All that sh—” She crinkled her nose and looked around the dinner table apologetically. “Pig poop.”
“Pig poop,” Rita repeated, stirring her soup and feeling slightly sick to her stomach. She supposed she should not hold Susan’s coarse language against her. After all, she had asked a question and Susan had responded truthfully. She continually reminded herself that Susan was a sweet girl, quite pretty, and Rita was sure some folks found her Southern accent charming. But when Rita looked over at Marco, she could not help but feel mystified. Surely, he could find someone more suitable. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a dazzling intellect and a silver tongue, and she was sure he would be a senator someday, maybe even governor. But she could not picture Susan at a fundraiser or a speech, except as the waitress handing out canapés.
If only he had snagged Courtney D’Agostino. Now there was a woman of substance.
Marco loosened his tie and rubbed the back of his neck, as though he could feel his mother’s gaze boring into him. “We have a date for the wedding,” he said suddenly, taking Susan’s pale, almost lifeless hand in his own and giving it a squeeze. “June thirtieth.”
“Really?” Rita could hardly believe her ears. “When I spoke to Father De La Pasqua, it sounded as though it was hopeless to find a date in June. It’s such a popular time of year.”
Marco and his sister exchanged a glance. Vinnie and Sal seemed not to notice. But Rita did. Oh, how she hated that fleeting, superior look that frequently passed between her two oldest children, as if they were members of a secret society that excluded her.
Rita’s spoon landed with a clatter in her empty soup bowl. “Who cancelled?”
“No one cancelled,” Marco said softly, staring into the depths of his bowl.
“So, how’d you get a slot at St. Vincent’s?”
“I didn’t.” His voice was almost a whisper.
“I don’t understand.”
“Mom, we’re getting married in Mississippi. At Susan’s parents’ church.”
“Susan’s Southern Baptist parents’ church?” She could feel her voice rising in spite of herself.
“It’s beautiful,” Gina said.
“Yeah,” Vinnie said. “I saw a picture on Google Earth.”
As she looked from one guilty face to another, Rita felt the weight of her children’s betrayal. They knew. They all knew. They were just waiting to break the news to her. She could tell that they were waiting for her to erupt any second. She had endured twelve years of taunts as the “lunch lady,” prepared thousands of trays of industrial-sized macaroni and cheese, and acquired a nearly permanent smell of bleach, all to get the discount so that they could afford to send Marco—the ungrateful, heathen son before her—to Catholic school. He was their best and brightest, or so they had thought. She had sacrificed so much for him, and this was how he repaid her.
But all she said was, “It’s time for cake.”
She headed into the kitchen and rummaged in the drawer for the birthday candles. Her hands shook as she flung the silverware aside, her fingers brushing the cheap plywood. The room was spinning, and she felt short of breath. Who were those people in the dining room? They were strangers to her. They weren’t the same kids that she had driven to soccer practice, and ballet lessons, and summer internships in Albany, even when it meant driving ninety minutes in the pouring rain on bad roads.
She grabbed hold of the Formica countertop and took a deep breath. After inhaling and exhaling a few more times, she felt steady enough to place the candles on the cake. But she did not merely let each candle gently sink into the dark chocolate ganache. No, today that would not do. She stabbed the cake with each candle, the wax slicing through the ganache, into the layer of almond mousse, and finally into the moist rich cake.
As she reached for the matches, she heard low murmurs coming from the dining room. Rita tiptoed to the other side of the kitchen and pressed her ear to the door.
She could hear Gina’s low, slightly raspy voice. “Honestly, Susan, don’t pay any attention to Mom. She means well, but she’s old-fashioned, not to mention just plain old. She’s never had a career, other than six or seven years of teaching high school English, and she doesn’t have any life of her own. She just lives vicariously through her kids.”
Rita tiptoed back to the counter. With trembling fingers, she struck a match, lit the candles, and then quickly snuffed out the flame. She watched as the smoke curled lazily towards the ceiling.
A smoke signal, that’s what it was. Like the smoke that emerged from the Sistine Chapel announcing that a new pontiff had been chosen. This, too, was the beginning of a new era.
Forget her volunteer work, her secret morning rounds, dog-sitting for Gina’s schnauzer, and sneaking homemade cannoli into Vinnie’s and Sal’s lunches. Apparently, none of that mattered.
A month shy of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita was finally going to fulfill her childhood dream: she was going to be a hard-hitting journalist.
Darker Daze: The Storms within is a collection of short stories that explore that darker side of the human condition. Each story pulsates with tragedy and a sense of desperate hope that only the suffering could understand. Ms. Mabry weaves personal experiences into fictional webs in a way that draws the reader in for a hug, then punches them in the gut. While these stories may be too emotionally charged for some readers, they give voices to the voiceless among us.
Do not shrink away, the demons are not yours...or are they?
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Darker Daze originally started as a small collection of stories I wrote as a type of self therapy. Some of the stories featured wish fulfillment, others took a small element of my own experience and branched out, and still a few were pulled right from my own journal and then crafted into a story with a different ending. Darker Daze has now taken on a life of its own and continues to provide me with a source of cathartic writing.
For each of these stories I was forced to reach into my own personal vault and draw forth the emotions that once threatened to destroy me. I have learned how to wrangle and whip them so they no longer have any power beyond that of a dark and twisted muse.
Some of you have seen those darker days, stood on the very precipice of its slippery slope. You have looked your demons in the eyes and backed away, oh so slowly. You didn't cross that line, but the darkness touched you. It settled into the very recesses of your being. It smolders there, ferments, and rots. When I dig down deep, I can still find it. I draw on it, and it spills onto the page as the darkness no one wants to see although many of us have looked for it ….
Within these pages you will discover the secrets of those who could not fight the darkness. A reflection of blood-spilled secrets that fester. Jealousy, morose, and passionate rage paint each page in shades of despair. Do not shrink away, the demons are not yours ... or are they?
***TRIGGER WARNING: All the stories in this collection contain elements of death, abuse, and suicide that may trigger emotional and traumatic reactions in some people. The stories in this collection are mostly fiction, with some based on the personal experience of the author. Names and places have been changed to protect the guilty. All work copyrighted by A.L. Mabry and may not be copied or distributed without written consent.
All marriages are sacred, but not all are safe.
~ Rob Jackson
I always loved New Years. The promise of new beginnings. The taste of potential and hope. I would scrub the house from top to bottom, telling myself, Out with the old, in with the new, as if just saying the words could make them true. I tried. Year after year after year. Not every end means a bright new beginning. This isn’t the beginning of my story, but that’s not what you’re really here for, is it? Sometimes the ending is all you want.
The shrill alarm slices through my cocoon. My serenity shatters, and I open my eyes. Familiar predawn darkness greets me with its promise of just a little more peace. The bedroom curtain was crumpled on the floor beneath the window and beyond the frosted glass red and green lights twinkle, almost in mocking. With the rest of the house eerily quiet, Mark’s breathing sounds amplified. I lie still for just a moment as the first panic attack builds. It swells in my chest, this violent ocean wave containing “what if’s” and “not enoughs.” I ride it out.
What will the trigger be today, what will set him off? I resolve to be preemptive through my routine. As I roll out of bed, careful not to wake him, I force myself to remain calm.
My swollen ankle twinges. When I go to bed, you go to bed.
My wrist aches. Chicken nuggets? Do I look like a fucking four year old?
My back throbs. You should have known I wanted my blue shirt today!
My scalp burns. Say you like it.
I creep through the hall and check on the kids before I head downstairs to start the coffee maker. While I pull out the ingredients for this morning’s breakfast, I relish the comfort of the most mundane actions. I beat a few eggs and put them in a pan to scramble for Randall and Jenny. Then I prepare Alice’s gluten-free pancakes. I pour the batter onto the heated griddle, then turn to stir the eggs before pouring myself a cup of coffee.
The warmth of the coffee and the stillness of the morning wash over me. I stop for just a moment to savor it. I try to shake off the last of sleep’s drowsy grip. With my calendar and to-do lists spread across the counter, I tackle the day. Mark's lunch is next, so I quickly put it together and place it in the fridge. I pull out chicken breasts to thaw for dinner. Then I remember we had chicken yesterday. I swap it for the cube steaks because Mark refuses to eat the same meat two days in a row. Breakfast and dinner. Check and check.
Every action is repetitive, the soul crushing routine that ensures I see another day. I place three plates on the island bar and pile on breakfast that will go mostly uneaten. Anger nips at the back of my conscious; tired of the servitude, of the compliance. Oh stop it, Holly. This nurturing servitude gives you joy. Without humor, I sigh. Liar.
From the den, the Christmas tree beckons with its shiny baubles and handmade ornaments. I wander in with the remnants of my coffee and gingerly brush aside the tinsel to look at this year’s family photo ornament. The photographer touched it up perfectly, not a bruise in sight. I make a note to tear down the tree before dinner. Mark was strict about “bringing” an old tree into a new year.
Routine beckons, and I return to the kitchen to pull the bento boxes from the cabinet and prepare each of the children’s lunches. With another yawn, I pierce each little fruit gummy with a pretzel stick. Randall and his friends are on a wizard kick, and they should love the little wands. For Jenny, I place a piece of turkey on white bread and top it with a slice of mozzarella. Digging through the drawer full of cookie cutters, I pull out one shaped like Hello Kitty’s bulbous head and cut her food into shape.
Alice’s lunch is next; I start by arranging the ham and cheese egg muffins, and then I add two fruit kabobs. Next, I add stalks of celery filled with gluten-free cinnamon peanut butter and finish all three lunches with a small dish of Greek yogurt. The clock chirps seven times, and I realize I have lingered over the lunches too long and will soon regret it.
I head back upstairs and dress in a rush, thankful I remembered to lay out my clothes. Mark rustles the blankets, and I feel my heartbeat speed up. Rifling through my makeup case, I find the tiny nub of concealer, and blend it over the yellowing bruise. I add a new concealer pencil to my mental shopping list, that will be the fourth one this month. With practiced strokes, I apply my eyeshadow. There is a slight tremor in my hand as I stroke the eyeliner pencil deftly across each eye, but I try to ignore it.
In the mirror’s reflection I see my dress for tonight’s New Year’s party. It’s a horrid shade of green, but the only one Mark would approve of. I had held onto a beautiful red slip dress right up to the register and only the threat in his eye convinced me to set it down. Promise, Holly, not threat. Let’s not mince words.
“I don’t know why you bother; no one cares what you look like.” Mark grumbles sleepily from the bed. “Or maybe you’re trying to catch someone’s attention? Whore.”
I take a steadying breath and brush nonexistent lint from my blouse. In the mirror, I notice a new bruise on my forearm so I grab a cardigan from the closet, the blue one, not the red one. Whores wear red, are you a whore, Holly? I reset the alarm clock for him and head down the hall to wake the kids. While Randall takes a shower, I help the girls get dressed and do their hair. Alice requests French braids this morning, Jenny is happy with simple pigtails. Once everyone’s dressed, I usher them downstairs for breakfast.
This monotony keeps me sane. If I keep following the patterns, I will be okay. For years I hated the fact that the children had so few holidays, but lately I have been more than happy to keep them out of the house as often as possible. Even if this was probably the only district in the country open on New Year’s Eve.
As the kids eat, I gather the spreadsheets and graphs for my presentation, hoping that the extra hours I spent perfecting it last night pays off for me. I touch a bruise and decide it was worth it. With this promotion, I’ll finally be able to leave Mark.
I pile everyone into the car and begin the morning rounds. I drop Randall at the middle school first, then Jenny at the elementary school. Last, I pull into Alice’s rainbow colored preschool.
She spills out of the SUV, and I straighten her hair and fix her coat. I hand her the bright pink lunch box and grab the tuition check from my purse.
I plaster my smile on and take her small hand, reluctance fills us as we head into the school. The bulletin boards are still covered with festive artwork, handprint reindeer, and mounds of glitter. Right away I see the “Coffee Moms” huddled in the corner of the lobby having their morning bonding session. They barely glance my way as I continue down the hall with my sweet girl. Their voices follow us and I pretend not to notice.
“… with her artsy little lunches…”
“…. kid looks like a Gap model…”
“…. probably has a nanny…”
With a hug and kiss, I push Alice into her teacher’s waiting embrace. I rush back through the lobby and drop my check in the box on the desk, careful to not make eye contact with the other moms. I climb back into the sanctuary of my SUV, behind the tinted windows, before I let the tears fall.
The judgment from these women is as unnerving as the invisibility I feel at work. This will change though, as I have this latest promotion in the bag. I reach over to pat my briefcase and panic crashes through my senses.
“He’s right. I am a dumbass. I can’t even remember my own briefcase.” Tension fills my limbs. I have to return home. Maybe if I drive slowly enough, he will be gone when I get there. The digital clock on the dashboard flashes, 8:30. I didn’t have the luxury of taking a scenic route if I wanted to get to work on time. And with everything on the line, tardiness was not an option.
The darkness pushes in on me like a palpable entity. Don’t panic yet. Figure out what is going on. I imagine taking a deep breath to re-center myself before I try to remember how I ended up here, alone, in the dark. I let the memories flow over me like ocean waves, surging forward and then lapping at the edge of consciousness as I orient them.
His grip on the back of my neck is painful as he pushes me back towards the mess. The contents of a shattered coffee cup lie strewn across the peeling linoleum, while his face looms in front of mine. Anger contorts his eyes into those of a savage predator. I flinch as his acidic voice crawls across my skin, and he lists my sins for me as if I could ever forget them.
You lie to me.
You think you can steal my kids.
You sleep around.
You’re a slob.
You neglect me for your stupid job.
With one swipe of his arm, my briefcase joins the coffee cup, and my papers settle onto the spill. My graphs, my proposal, my dreams slaughtered in the muck.
“If you only had a brain, you wouldn't be so damn clumsy. I bet your dumb ass won’t even clean it up right, and the floor will stay sticky for the next week. How did I end up with such a stupid, nasty girl?” The stale stench of alcohol invades my nose, gagging me.
Alcohol? It’s not even 9:00 am. And then I see it, my sweet letter to myself, sitting on top of the others. He found my journal, one thing I thought was safe from his prying eyes. The single page was ripped along the margin and sat atop the small leather book. The prophecy meant to seal my fate, but not like this.
You can do this. You will get this promotion. You will leave and start a better life for yourself. He will not control you forever. Stay strong. Don’t give up, don’t back down.
As I sink to my knees and gingerly pluck the shards of glass from the mess, his eyes burn into my body and fear churns in my stomach. I ignore the pricks as tiny pieces of glass stab into my skin, not wanting him to have the satisfaction of my pain. As I wipe up the last of the brown liquid guilt, I feel his large hands shoving me aside.....
Naked and alone, a young girl flees down a highway. Flagging down a passing car, she collapses before she's able to speak. The mystery deepens when an examination reveals she's recently given birth, and it falls to Detective Nick Cross to find the missing infant. But investigations rarely go in directions veteran detectives expect, and so when a K-9 is brought in, an unmarked gravesite is discovered on the abandoned property the young mother ran. It alerts Cross to the fact that a prolific serial killer is in their midst--one who has flown under the radar for many years. With the girl he dubs "Molly" unable to tell the secrets locked in her head, it's going to be impossible to do much of anything, but the impossible is what Cross does best, and he's not giving up without a fight.
A DAUGHTER IS A DAUGHTER is a non-stop thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Matching wits with the psychologically twisted madman behind the rampage, this is the case that threatens Nick Cross' twelve-year career. Becoming personally involved, he'll let nothing stand in his way to help Molly, not even the re-emergence of a surly FBI Field Agent who has already made his life a living hell the last time they locked horns.
The second in the Nick Cross Mysteries, each entry is a standalone and may be read separately and not in chronological order. If you love Richard North Patterson or James Patterson, you'll love Nick Cross.
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Out of the pitch-black night, the sounds of panting and hard-fought breaths drifted up to the boughs of the trees and down the dirt path where the young girl ran.
Naked and alone, her bare feet slapped the ground, the soles bleeding from the rocks encountered along the way. She cocked her head, trying to discern any noises coming from behind, but it was impossible to tell. The only way to know for certain was to stop and listen.
There wasn’t a chance in hell that would happen.
Life could spin around on a dime. She’d learned that the hard way, and it was that realization that made her plunge towards what she prayed was an end to the suffering.
Heat and sweat rose off her body and mingled with the crisp night air, but there was no time to rest. Danger abounded on all sides, and the dark woods made clear how isolated she truly was. Blind faith fueled the relentless pace as labored breaths turned jagged, and then tortuous. She was out of condition, and her lungs burned from overexertion, but everything depended on her.
She was their last hope.
A brilliant burst of lightning lit up the sky and illuminated the surroundings. The brief sputtering glimpse only amplified how lost she truly was. In the middle of nowhere, she was battling for her life.
A wind kicked up, whipping her long blonde hair into her face. Her fingers tore away at the tresses that covered her eyes and clung to the wet open mouth gasping for breath while her other hand remained clenched in a tight fist. The sharp edge of a rock sliced into her flesh as she whimpered in pain, but her will refused to falter and so she pushed on.
Old ghosts revisited her, but she couldn’t allow herself to get caught up in the past. It was rife with land mines that threatened to explode and sabotage her in her tracks. The present was what she needed to deal with and so she focused on accomplishing the impossible.
A skewed fork of lightning blazed across the sky and allowed another brief glimpse of the unfamiliar terrain, including the road ahead. The winding trail veered to the right and gave her no choice but to follow in that direction. Not slowing down, she leaned into the sharp curve, wondering what awaited on the other side.
The seconds flew by.
Hope rose up from a dark place as defeated spirits caged within lifted and shouted, Amen and Hallelujah. An intrusive thought tried to drown out the elation by convincing her she was delusional and that this was only a mirage. The treasured prize seemed too good to be true, but it was there. The cement under her feet was enough to convince her of that, and if this were a road, it meant people … and cars … safety … and …
The bubble of joy dissipated as quickly as it came. There were no cars or people. There were only miles of paved road for as far as the eye could see.
Where was everyone? Where?
Death stared her in the face, taunting her the way it’d done all these years. It asked why she thought she could win. She had no answer. Why had she thought she stood a chance against insurmountable odds? She’d die here … on this road she ran down. It was her fate.
The fate of a victim.
Twin streams of blinding light blasted in her eyes and splashed across her frail body, breaking the stream of negativity clouding her mind. She could win if she tried, and so she waved her arms, frantically trying to flag the driver down.
Please, dear God! Make him stop!
The oncoming car slowed, but was it a trap?
No! The startled male face behind the wheel was one she didn’t recognize. The woman next to him was a stranger too.
It was going to be all right.
The car doors slammed shut—one after the other.
All she had to do was speak and tell the couple approaching what was wrong and the nightmare would be over. Her lips parted, trying to make a sound, but a debilitating numbness spread, making it impossible for her to do anything but stare.
“Are you okay?” the driver asked. Concern etched the face that was starting to blur.
“Child, are you hurt?” the woman with him echoed, but her face was dissipating and bleeding into a fog.
They were still talking, but she couldn’t answer. Why couldn’t she answer? She had so much to say, but her thoughts scattered like a flock of birds frightened by a shotgun’s blast.
She was shutting down.
“Can you tell us your name?” the man asked as he covered her naked body with his coat.
No, but I want to!
It was her last cogent thought. In the blink of an eye, everything she fought for was lost. Her memory wiped clean, there was only the directive beating inside her head and rallying to keep her going, but she weakened anyway. Her strength drained as an incapacitating dizziness caused her to waver and stagger to the side.
Her legs gave way, her emaciated form collapsing into the good Samaritan’s arms. The pale chapped lips twitched as her heart screamed out for justice.
“H-h--elp …” she whispered.
Sinking the rest of the way into the hole dug for her so long ago, her blue eyes closed and shut out the world that had caused her so much pain.
A new threat to the United States has emerged within its own borders. Deutsche Christen, a powerful paramilitary organization, led by a ruthless ex-Special Forces Officer, Carl Dietrich, is threatening to overthrow the U.S. government and assume absolute power over the country.
Bolstered by the overwhelming support provided by two foreign governments, Dietrich believes his forces to be invincible, and his future rise to power inevitable.
Hoping to garner additional members for his organization, he demands an interview with Sean Carrol, an ex-Special Forces officer and an investigative reporter for the New York International News. Dietrich orders that their meeting be held at one of the Deutsche Christen paramilitary camps. To assure Seans cooperation, he kidnaps his niece and nephew.
Understanding Dietrichs rationale for the meeting and further realizing that his niece and nephew arent going to be released, Sean develops a plan to rescue the children. Desperate, he along with Colonel Gannon, his ex-commander, reorganize his old Special Forces team and create a rescue mission.
While tensions rise worldwide and threats of war loom, panic takes center stage, as the prospect for cataclysmic destruction promises to annihilate civilization as we know it.
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When the Deringer pistol that shot Abraham Lincoln is stolen and ends up in the hands of a Russian military general, covert agent Blake Deco is tasked by the FBI to head to the Balkans to recover the historical weapon. Meanwhile, the United States media is abuzz with news of the mysterious disappearance of Hollywood movie star, Goldie St. Helen.
After Blake’s return from overseas, he receives a tip from a Mexican friend that a drug lord, obsessed with the beautiful actress, is holding her captive in Tijuana. With the help of a reluctant army friend, Blake mounts a daring rescue. What he doesn’t expect is to have feelings for Goldie—or that a killer is hunting them.
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The tall buildings around Washington, D.C.’s 10th Street overshadowed the historic Ford’s Theatre. Though the building had undergone refurbishment both inside and out, it still seemed slightly out of place in modern America. However, that didn’t stop the throngs of tourists visiting the building that June morning as wispy clouds threaded through the cerulean sky.
It was a crowded weekend day when Abraham Lincoln, in his overcoat, and two Union soldiers, their faces covered with bandanas, stepped out of the van. They meandered past the theater’s five historic doorways toward the modern glass entrance. Everyone assumed they were part of a promotion taking place at the museum. It was not uncommon to see park rangers and tour guides dressed in period costumes.
The man behind the Lincoln mask was Rick Walker—at least, that was the name he was currently going by. Highly educated, the thirty-six-year-old professional thief had a penchant for the fast life. If the assignment was a success today, he’d promised his girlfriend a nice holiday.
Two female park rangers stepped forward when Rick and his companions reached the front of the line.
“You have to get in line, sir. Also, you need to get tickets. Kindly remove the mask and bandanas before entering,” one of the park rangers said.
“I do apologize, madam, but I’m in a bit of a hurry,” Rick said. “I don’t think I need a ticket, nor do I have to get in line given who I am.”
“That’s the only way you’re going to get in,” the park ranger said.
“Well, if you insist, madam, and once again, please accept my apologies.” Rick bowed and tipped his hat, then extended a hand to the park ranger, who instinctively took it.
Rick grabbed her wrist tightly and locked it to his own with a steel cuff.
“What are you doing?” the park ranger yelled, trying to jerk her hand away.
“Getting acquainted,” Rick said.
The park ranger reached for the walkie-talkie strapped to her belt, but Rick snatched it away from her. Frantically, she turned to the other park ranger. “Get security!”
One of the two Union soldiers dropped his prop rifle and grabbed the other park ranger’s hand, then cuffed her wrist to his own. He pulled out a real gun tucked under his waistband and aimed it at her.
Rick unbuttoned the jacket of his three-piece suit and brandished the bomb strapped to his chest.
“Bomb! Bomb!” a young teenager in the line shrieked.
Pandemonium broke out as the screams of panic amplified. People ran in every direction. Those who moved slowly were slammed aside, or knocked over.
Rick pulled the ranger cuffed to him aside. “We’re going downstairs, and we’re going to take the Deringer. Obey your president,” he said in a hollow voice.
“Yes, sir,” the park ranger said as beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
They descended by elevator and emptied into an interactive museum. The wealth of history in the dimly lit space featured original artifacts in glass showcases, furniture, statues, murals, and narrative devices. The visitors already in the museum scattered wildly at the sight of a man in a Lincoln mask displaying a bomb strapped to his chest, a park ranger cuffed to his wrist.
“Show’s over, folks,” Rick yelled. “Go!”
The park ranger guided her captors to a section in the museum where the Deringer floated in an oblong glass case capped at both ends with wood. A mural behind it depicted John Wilkes Booth firing a single shot at Abraham Lincoln as he sat in the theater box.
The Union soldier not cuffed to a park ranger took out a glasscutter from his coat pocket and began to cut a circle in the glass. When it popped free, he inserted his hand inside and yanked out the Deringer.
“We’re going to take you with us. Don’t give me trouble. If you behave, you’ll be back home in time for dinner with the family,” Rick said, dragging the park ranger closer to him. “Understand?”
The park ranger nodded once, nervously.
“Excellent,” Rick said.
They exited through the theater’s main door and stepped out into the empty street. The crowd had dispersed. Some had regrouped tensely a few hundred meters away at both ends. “Cheer up—it’s going to be a fun day,” Rick said, walking toward the van.
The park ranger with Rick raised her voice. “Please, please, let us go. I don’t want to die.”
“Well, behave and everything will be fine.” He opened the side, forced her in and jumped in after her. He shut the door after the accomplice had climbed in with the second park ranger.
The van began to move off.
“Hallelujah!” Rick yelled in excitement behind the mask as he sat at the back of the van. He removed the cuff from his wrist and secured the park ranger onto a railing.
“We’ll be arriving in five,” the driver said after a few blocks. “You know what to do.”
“I sure do,” Rick said as he removed the bomb strapped to his chest. Still wearing the mask, he looked at the hostages. “Don’t worry about the bomb, it’s fake.”
He unhooked a tote bag from the wall and began removing the contents. Facing away from the hostages, he removed the Lincoln mask and slipped into casual attire. He hid his face by putting on a red baseball cap and a pair of dark shades then stuffed the costume into the bag and swung it over his shoulder.
Rick looked again at the park rangers. “Look on the bright side—now you get to tell visitors a different story at the museum.”
The Union soldier in the back with him handed over the Deringer, which Rick slipped into the bag.
The driver slowed down and stopped behind a parked car.
“All good outside?” Rick asked.
“Yeah…all good. I parked a few cars behind us,” the driver replied, looking at the side mirror.
“Okay. Nice doing business with you guys.” Rick pulled open a trapdoor in the center of the floorboard, slid out, and slithered under the parked car in front of the van.
The van pulled away from the curb and sped down the street. After a minute, Rick rolled onto the road, got up, and walked toward the park at Judiciary Square on the Red Line and descended into the Metro.
A day later, Rick sat at a café with his eyes glued to the screen of a laptop, drinking a hot latte with his back against the wall. He scanned the faces of everyone who entered. Though he wasn’t expecting trouble, he remained vigilant.
“Is it in yet?” the tall blonde sitting across from him asked.
He scratched the roughness of his stubble as he continued to stare at the screen. “Not yet.”
Moments later, the figures on his account changed. A new deposit had been registered: ten million dollars.
Rick lifted his eyes. “Darling.”
“Remember, we’re in a public place, so don’t scream.”
She leaned forward. “It’s in?”
Rick wriggled his eyebrows. “Pack your bags. We’re going on a holiday, as I promised.”