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.”
Deep in the wilderness of the Peruvian Andes lies a monument hidden for centuries. Who were the builders? Why was it abandoned? What secrets does it reveal?
In 1953, an amateur rock climber makes a startling discovery. Overwhelmed by the choices he must make, the mountaineer completes his ascent deciding he will document his findings and present them to his superiors as soon as possible. It will take another fifty years before anyone reads what he wrote.
In 2004 news of the strange revelation reaches Drake Alexander. He will become involved whether he likes it or not. People very dear to him are plunged into a nightmare of avarice, impairment and death. Using all his skills as an ex-soldier, with accomplices he can trust, can he save his tormented friends from the raiders that thirst for the secret that lies within the mountains?
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The Andes, Peru Early summer.
Father Suetonius Graft is no ordinary priest. Presently he has his left fist jammed vertically in a horizontal crack that splits the granite face he is ascending. The open seam stretches upward for seventeen meters or more, tapering to a sliver that is still seventy meters away from the top of the mountain. His toes nip a five centimeter ledge, left over from a stone slab that split from the heaving rock millennia ago. His calves, like the rest of his lean body, are chiselled muscle. They strain from holding his weight on his toes. He reaches up with his right hand to search for another hand hold; there is nothing he can see. Needing to rest, he needs to find a better position than he is in now. He’s been climbing since early morning, stopping only when he absolutely has to.
His fingers search for a grip as he brushes his hand across the flat surface. A familiar feeling of unease touches him, as it has since he was a boy. He closes his eyes for several seconds and asks God where his hand should go, thanks Him for His guidance and if there is no hand-hold to be had, thanks Him for his life. Prayer has never failed him, not in the thirty-seven years since he scrambled up a rock pile when he was five. He had gotten stuck then. A boyish prayer to his guardian angel had given him confidence to find a way back down. He feels the same presence that rescued him then. He waves his hand over the hard face once more. This time his fingers sweep away ancient debris from an indent in the rock with enough room for four fingers up to the second knuckle. He latches on to the hold just as his lower legs begin to quiver from exertion. Taking most of his weight on his hands and arms, he relaxes his legs. Semi relief is instantaneous and he hangs there motionless for five minutes, his sweaty forehead pressed against the warm rock, thanking the Lord for His benevolence, for delivering him one more time.
As he clings to the sheer plate that rises over two hundred meters from the forest floor, the afternoon sun ricochets off his ebony skin, defining the musculature of his lengthy frame. His upper body is clad in perspiration that makes thin rills down his back, his chest and under his arms. The blue handkerchief with white polka dots, folded and tied around his tight curls, stops the flow from his smooth brow. He wears tattered climbing shorts that cover his thighs to the knees, all six pockets bulging. At his waist along his back, attached to a thin leather belt, is a pouch that holds climbing chalk. Powdered handprints left on the route up attest to the bag’s contents being well used. A white t-shirt is tied around his midsection. His legs end in thin wool socks tucked into custom, rubber-toed climbing shoes he designed. No other gear is attached to him: no pitons, no hammer, no clips. Around his neck hangs a polished, golden, curb link chain. Between his chest and the stone is a gold cross that his father gave him when he was ordained. He never, ever takes it off.
As his arms begin to weary, he looks up, trying to see a more appropriate spot where he can rest. Shadows creep up the mountain behind him as the sun begins its descent. Suetonius can see an opening about ten meters above to his right. A section of the plates that form these mighty mounds have created a crevice. He hadn’t been able to see it from below or with the sun shining directly on it. From where he hangs now, it looks to be wide enough for him to sit in. He sighs with relief. Concentrating on his next move, he sights an approach to the cavity. Once he is clear on his route, he pulls up with his hands, his arms straining until he can reach his foot into the same crack he has a taped fist in. He wedges his toes in sideways, pushing up to test its grip. As his body slowly rises he wiggles the lodged hand out and forces it as high as he can reach. It will be the last fist hold he uses because the crack starts to widen from there. But he knows it is all he will need.
With deft manoeuvers and risky placement, he is on the ledge forty-five minutes later. He can stand upright in the cleft, it being wider, with more head room than he originally thought. He leans back against the rock, which is refreshingly cool. The lip of the outer slab covers him from the sun. Studying the grain of the granite in front of him, he glances overhead at the slab at his back, marvelling that the two faces have identical marks and slices. Obvious they were one piece sometime in the past. He is in awe at the massive force that would have pushed these imposing mountains from the earth’s crust, cleaving solid rock as easily as if it were wood. He crosses himself in respect for God’s ways.
Sitting down on the rough ledge, his feet hang over the edge. Breathing deeply of the unsullied air, the scent of cold stone pleases him; the silence is complete. He looks out over the Peruvian scenery that poses before him. The narrow valley that leads back to the Malaga Pass is a mere indent in the landscape. Mountains, many gigantic, many shorter and greener fill the horizon. The smaller mountain he is perched on, a short distance east of Ollantaytambo, west of Machu Picchu, is over three hundred and fifty meters from the valley floor, over three thousand meters above sea level. The face he discovered is obscure, its access hindered by dense forest and abundant ancient scree. He felt led to this particular dome and he relishes the difficult work he’s accomplished over the past month to finally get where he is at this moment.
As his body rests, his thoughts sweep back to the rocks of his youth – the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, the Appalachians that puncture the southeast states. He climbed for the sheer joy of contact with the stone. It was at those moments he felt closest to God, when he felt his calling into the priesthood, when it opened his heart to possibilities, to humbleness, to majesty, to sharing and giving. When he clings perilously to a sheer stone wall, there is never any fear of falling, only a pure sensation of rising above the bounds imposed by gravity, above the bounds of personal limitations. To this very day, his best sermons are those that come from his moments with the open sky and the silent crags, and the peace that comes from times alone. His days off are often spent climbing or scouting for climbs. A grin crosses his slender face as he thinks how far he has come from a dormant village in Tennessee to the mountains of Peru.
His parents come to mind, both dead for the last three years, his father went first, at seventy-six, from cancer; his mother two years later at seventy-four. How he loved them. He was so proud of them, his father the first black fireman on the town of Raven Hollow’s pay roll. He recalls the marvellous sight of his Pap in his new uniform, buttons and brass as polished as his pure black skin. His Spanish-speaking mother was Cuban. She was originally a domestic, had shown a natural dexterity for numbers. She worked for the same employer all her life, first as his wife’s personal maid starting when she was only fifteen. But when she was twenty, she moved into the offices to learn bookkeeping, retiring many years later as office manager. They taught him and his five siblings to persevere, never give up on their goals. He missed them.
With that last thought, he rises from his seat thinking to scale the final stretch to the top, not too worried about time. He still has five or six hours of sunlight. He wants to check the rock overhead, looking for the best route up, and he backs into the crevice so he can see past a slight overhang just above him. He doesn’t look behind him because the inner slab looked to be part of the outer slab that forms the walls around him. But when he steps back, he feels a weak breeze stirring behind him. He looks past the back wall to see an opening that rises ten meters off the split but it’s only twenty-five centimeters wide. He isn’t a caver, a spelunker, so openings in the rock face hold little interest for him. Attempting to ignore it, a shiver prickles his skin, telling him to take a look. Removing a small flashlight from his pocket, he clicks the button to reveal a sharp, straight beam.
Poking the ray of light into the darkness, it is swallowed six meters in. The walls seem to open, moving apart from each other. The ceiling is nowhere in sight, too high and too dark for the penetrating glare. Rocks litter the floor, small and large; cobwebs in the hundreds decorate the interior, and the acidic smell of bat guano is present. The spooky emptiness is oddly inviting, like an entity that calls to him. An aroma of cold dust and aged memories wafts through the black passage. Father Graft tries to ignore his inner voice’s prodding, about to give up on the cave when his sweeping light falls upon something familiar, the skeleton of a human hand.
The bones are projecting from the base of a large boulder as if reaching for freedom. The curled finger bones are intact, tarsal and meta-tarsal pointed to the roof. Suetonius stares at the sight for many moments, never having considered that he’d not been the first to climb this face. His curiosity takes him deeper. Behind the boulder, the skeleton continues, two sets of tibia and fibula with feet attached complete the scene. The man or woman had been crushed by a falling rock. Who it was would never be known. What he may have been doing here would soon become evident.
Father Graft moves his light in a pendulating arc across the floor. The cavern widens out; narrow cracks punctuate the floor that he realizes is too smooth and level to be natural. He carefully watches where he walks. Stones of every size litter the passage, a reminder that the mountain’s insides are unstable, probably not safe. Shortly the ingress takes a sharp turn, opening into a wider grotto. He continues a short distance until the point of his torch touches upon something familiar on the floor to his right: a crude hammer. Its stone head is attached to a wooden handle, with curling strips of dried leather binding the two together. Holding the light directly on the implement, he stares at it for several moments; its obvious antiquity stuns him. What he is about to discover will floor him.
He lifts the light to the right, discovering a stone shelf that runs along the wall to disappear into the pitch. It comes almost to his waist. The width varies with the roughness of the stone it has been carved out of. It is cluttered with many more hammers of different sizes, with metal chisels clothed in verdigris. Odd implements he doesn’t recognize and loose rock fill the space. The spider’s traps are abundant. Scanning the collection, he tries to estimate the historical significance of what he has uncovered. He senses they are very old. But how old? Are they Incan, Quechan, Chanca? Why here? What were they building? The discovery uncovers so many questions. He checks his watch, sees he has been in here for only twenty minutes. He decides he will look around another half hour before leaving.
He directs the flashlight beam across the floor, checking for cracks, when off to the far left it reveals a stone berm. The delicate and precise crafting can only have been made by the most skilled of artisans. It is obviously Incan stone work. He has been in Peru for almost three years; Incan history fascinates him. He visited the ruins, listened to the lore, and devoted his reading time to their history. Their skills with chisels and wet sand astonish him. Reflecting on that, he judges this is the same work that he saw at Machu Piccu, likely over six hundred years old. He lifts the sliver of light upward.
There is a stone pedestal on the berm that holds what appears to be a tremendous slab almost like a wall rising into the bleakness above, it has to be three to four meters high, he estimates. He flashes his light briefly inside the cavern ahead of himself to see berm, pedestal and slab continue beyond the reach of his light. He brings the beam back to the wall in front of him. When he moves it up, he steps back, eyes wide in shock at what he sees. Even through the dust of ages, through the fine patina that masks the surface, he can detect, carved ornately into the facade of the flat wall, a huge warrior with battle axe raised above his head. Fine detail riddles the helmet fitted on his head. The figure stands with a fractured shield, armour dressing his lower limbs. One leg is raised, with a sandaled foot resting on a fallen foe. The body of the fighter’s enemy lies at his feet, the severed head close by. Father Graft wheezes into the gloom, “It’s a wall of war.”
Focusing the light down the wall, he can see other battles, other defeated opponents depicted in gruesome realness. The enormity of this definitive carving, an epic battle etched in something solid by hand, is too much. His heart races, his breathing becomes shallow. He has to sit down, he tells himself. And then he almost faints. His legs buckle; he drops to his knees, trying to control his breathing. His dropped flashlight rolls up to the berm and goes out.
He panics briefly but control learnt from his climbing calms him. He slowly moves into a sitting position, never taking his eyes off the spot where the light came to rest. The berm is less than two meters away, but the darkness is almost complete like on a moonless night. Very little light comes from the opening. He trembles lightly. He speaks to God in a small voice: “I’m humbled that you chose me to discover this relic, to find this evidence of Peru’s tumultuous past. I can only be your servant. I have no idea who to tell, where to go, but I will follow your lead, dear Father. Please show me what to do. Amen.”
His soft inflection barley echoes in the chamber.
He returns to his knees and creeps towards the wall until he touches the lowest stones. Shifting his hand to the right along the base, he finds nothing. In the opposite direction he hits the bottom of the light and it blinks two or three times. He grabs the flashlight with relief. As he shakes it gently, the light flashes again. Checking the battery cover, he finds it loose and gives it a twist. It springs back to life.
Rising, he walks towards the opposite end of the wall. There are three other warriors in similar battle array, similar poses, with defeated men who have all succumbed to hideous wounds. The victors bear different weapons: a bow, a sling, a spear. He notices each soldier is posed in a victorious stance, his attention focused towards the center of the grand wall. He recognizes them as Inca soldiers.
Seven meters in from where he started, an even larger figure rises taller than all the others. Suetonius shuffles closer, shining his light upwards. The carving is of a robed man. Taking root from the neck of his tunic are two heads bearing crowns. From each, the same face stares out at the girded greeting at his sides. The tip of his spear looms over his head, extending above the top lip of the wall. Father Graft stares deeply at the faces, which are stoic and unemotional, not at all war-like. The body of the man is wonderfully formed. It is hard to fathom that it was carved by hand. His bewilderment is intensified with every sweep of his eyes.
Another stretch of the wall, displaying carvings of equal skill and dexterity, is of mighty men still at battle. Each Incan warrior fights a different enemy. Some of their opponents wear odd dress, some wear none at all. All convey killing weapons and fierce glares. Father Graft notes that the carvers, likely Incan, paid respect to their enemies by not featuring them as weak. He retreats to inspect the fallen men on the left panel again, noting that on this wall also the enemies are different. It’s a marvellous display. Could it be a monument to the central figure, he asks himself? Why is it hidden in this mountain?
His questions are many, creating a traffic jam in his skull. He closes his eyes again, shaking his head. He feels dizzy for a moment and reaches out to catch himself as his arm automatically lifts towards the monolith. Where his hand comes to rest on the cold plate, he can feel the roughness of the carving. He reaches up with his other hand to hold his cross tightly in his grip as he tries to think what to do. He remembers he only has so many hours of sunlight to reach the mountaintop and he has yet to walk back to his car. His mind clears thinking of the climb before him. He knows concentration is vital. He pushes himself from the wall, checking his watch. He’s been in here for over an hour. He should go.
Turning to head, he glimpses the flash of his light reflected by the spot where his hand brushed away the patina. He gapes at what he sees and slowly focuses on the blotch.
“It can’t be!” He exclaims. “It’s unimaginable.”
To confirm his analysis of what he thought was stone, he turns the ray of the flashlight at the cross on his chest. The reflection is the same.
“Oh, dear Lord. It’s gold!”
Dead Man's Hand
What happens when the deck is stacked against you…
From NFL rising-star prospect to wanted fugitive, Calvin Watters is a sadistic African-American Las Vegas debt-collector framed by a murderer who, like the Vegas Police, finds him to be the perfect fall-guy.
…and the cards don't fall your way?
When the brutal slaying of a prominent casino owner is followed by the murder of a well-known bookie, Detective Dale Dayton is thrown into the middle of a highly political case and leads the largest homicide investigation in Vegas in the last twelve years.
What if you're dealt a Dead Man's Hand?
Against his superiors and better judgment, Dayton is willing to give Calvin one last chance. To redeem himself, Calvin must prove his innocence by finding the real killer, while avoiding the LVMPD, as well as protect the woman he loves from a professional assassin hired to silence them.
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This time, it’s not a job.
After proving his innocence as a murder suspect, taking down an assassin, and being an instrumental part in solving a high profile murder, Calvin Watters believes he can finally move on—until Ace Sanders’ prison escape catapults him into action.
This time, it’s personal!
Something has always bothered Detective Dale Dayton about the arrest of Ace Sanders. Call it police intuition, but his inner ‘cop alarm’ keeps twitching. When Dale reopens the case, he’s introduced to new evidence that leads him into a political nightmare.
Who will play the Wild Card to survive?
While Calvin tracks Sanders across continents and into unknown, unfriendly surroundings, Dale remains in Vegas to uncover the truth behind police corruption, prison escapes and hired assassins. But Calvin and Dale must be vigilant, because there’s a deadly, new player in town.
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Calvin Watters laid his head back on the pillow, stretched out his long, muscular, dark-skinned body, then rested his hands behind his head. He released a sigh of pure pleasure, a sound he hadn’t made in a very long time. Calvin felt more relaxed than he had in years. Grabbing the remote, he flipped to ESPN just in time to see an exclusive interview with his former USC teammate, Toby Jenkins.
Rachel climbed into bed beside him wearing a sexy, black Victoria Secret lace and satin slip he’d never seen before, and nuzzled her head on his bare chest. The new, dark lingerie contrasted perfectly with her smooth, pale skin.
She snuggled him tightly, giving him light, butterfly kisses on his arms and rock-hard abdomen. Calvin could feel her warm breath on his skin and it stirred him deep within.
Calvin smiled. “You’re in a good mood tonight.”
She continued to kiss his body, moving upwards towards his neck before planting a deep, passionate, wet kiss on his lips. She gently bit his bottom lip and tugged on it playfully. She pulled away and smiled.
“Wow, what brought that on?” he asked.
“I’m just really happy. And it’s all because of you.”
“I can see that. What did I do?”
“Everything we’ve planned, dreamed about, is coming true.”
Calvin nodded. “It’s not a fairy tale, but even I couldn’t have predicted things would be this good. Did you think a former leg-breaker and ex-hooker would make the perfect couple, the perfect team?”
“Never doubted it for a second.”
Calvin gently touched her chin, tilting Rachel’s head up so that he could look into her electric-blue eyes. The admiration in her gaze was all he needed to know how she felt about him. He loved the way it made him feel.
“You are my knight in shining armor,” she joked, nestling in tight.
Calvin liked the way that felt, too. It hadn’t taken them long to become completely comfortable with each other since that first night. They’d been through so much together in such a short time.
An improbable match made in heaven. They’d both ended up on the streets of Vegas, running away from a troubled past and looking for brighter lights.
Rachel, alone on the streets with no friends or prospects, had turned to prostitution, leaving home and an abusive stepfather.
Calvin believed that had she remained there, without his help, she’d have ended up another statistic. No happy endings, no Cinderella stories on the streets of Vegas. “Pretty Woman” was complete fiction.
Calvin’s downward spiral had started with his career-ending injury at USC. The torn ACL had taken several surgeries just to allow him to walk. He’d lost his full scholarship and fell into a pool of self-denial and self-loathing. He never thought he’d ever get out of that rut.
Their chance meeting turned both their lives around. They’d encouraged each other, and made sure they’d succeed.
Rachel rested her head on Calvin’s chest and released a soft, muffled sigh of complete and intense pleasure. “What’s on?”
“Just an interview with my former college teammate. They’re doing a documentary on Jenkins, how he became a great NFL running back.” Calvin tried not to sound bitter, but how could he not? Even though he’d gotten over it, turned his life around and moved on, there was still a sour taste in his mouth from how it had gone down.
“Wasn’t he your backup at USC?” She watched Jenkins sprinting down the football field on TV.
“Yep. I was the starter, and he sat on the bench watching me break records.He couldn’t carry my jockstrap back then. Now he makes eight million a season for the Chargers. If I hadn’t been so selfish, and had done what was best for the team, that would be me.”
“Please, let’s not get into this again.” Rachel turned her head and looked at Calvin. She smiled and winked, running the back of her fingers down the middle of his chest and underneath the blankets.
“You’re much sexier.”
“I’m over it.”
He wrapped his arms around her and rolled over, pressing his lips firmly against hers. Their bodies melted into each other.
He gently kissed her neck and slid the black satin strap off Rachel’s shoulder, kissing a spray of collar bone freckles, moving his tongue lightly down to her breast, and gently sucking on an erect nipple. He pulled himself back as much as he could, trying to take things slowly, but he had the urge to rip the slip completely off and take Rachel immediately.
A sharp warning buzz from the TV startled him. “We interrupt this regularly scheduled program for a special, emergency news bulletin.”
Calvin ignored the report and returned his attention to his hotter-than-hell girlfriend, ready and waiting. Rachel’s trust and loyalty was all he needed. But in the back of his mind, he had the temporary satisfaction of knowing that Toby Jenkins’ interview was being interrupted. Okay, maybe he wasn’t completely over it.
“This just in—Derek Baxter, a former United States Marine, escaped military confinement and is now on the run.”
The name jolted his bones. Calvin turned and Rachel sat up. He grabbed the remote and raised the volume.
A newscaster appeared on the screen. “Baxter was wanted in connection to the shooting death of a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer last year. After a week-long man hunt, he was brought into custody by the United States Military, because of an outstanding, special, high-priority warrant against him.”
Rachel let out a low screech. She grabbed Calvin’s arm. “What’s going on?”
Calvin raised his hand to quiet her, so he could hear the report.
“Baxter had been a highly-decorated officer who received two purple-hearts during two military tours. At one time, Derek Baxter was considered the military’s top sniper, elite class, before a being dishonorably discharged in 2005.”
A picture of Baxter flashed on screen. The pale face and dead eyes brought up a storm of emotion. Calvin’s heartbeat quickened.
Rachel put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my God. That’s the guy who tried to kill us.”
Calvin’s jaw muscles tensed. He swallowed hard. A lump formed in his stomach as pain flared in his chest. Baxter’s picture brought back vivid memories. No matter how much mental weeding Calvin tried to do, that bastard had left a lasting impression.
“Baxter was last seen at an airport in Fallbrook. Local authorities say the ex-marine could be headed anywhere, is armed and considered extremely dangerous. Anyone with information should contact…”
Calvin shut off the TV.
“Fallbrook is in California. Is Baxter coming back for us?” Rachael asked.
Calvin shook his head. “I don’t think so. He wouldn’t do anything that stupid.” But he knew he didn’t sound convincing, because he wasn’t sure. He knew Derek Baxter, had a deep connection with the man, and the professional assassin was capable of anything.
He probably still held a grudge over what Calvin had done to him.
Rachel shook. “We shut down our lives because of that guy. We spent four days locked up, hiding from both the police and that psycho.”
“I can’t do it again.” Tears moistened her eyes.
Calvin reached for her narrow shoulders and pulled her in close.
She buried her head into his chest. He could smell the Jasmine shampoo she used in her sandy-blond hair as her warm tears traced over his skin.
“You don’t have to, Rachel. Baxter isn’t coming back. He’d be crazy to. The whole country is searching for him. He’ll probably disappear and never be heard from again.” But Calvin knew first-hand just how crazy Derek Baxter really was—and he was that crazy.
Rachel pulled away. “Are you sure?”
He looked into her tear-soaked eyes, trying to remain composed.
He felt queasy, his palms sweaty and his breathing labored.
“I’m gonna call Dale.”
He tried not to look or sound worried, but that’s all he felt.
With the death of her father…
Officer Charlene Taylor has received her dream promotion—working Homicide with the LAPD. Her first case is the high-profile murder of Ken Anderson, a playboy UCLA professor with a haunted past. A mafia kingpin, billionaire tycoon, cheated wife and jaded lover are only a few on a long list of suspects, all with motive and opportunity.
…all hope of reconciliation is lost.
Not only does she feel the pressure from media and her boss to solve her first case, but Charlene must also deal with her father’s murderer, the “Celebrity Slayer,” a serial killer who enjoys baiting her with his knowledge of her life and routines.
Can a rookie detective work two high-profile cases and still keep her sanity?
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He pulled the old Honda into the dark, abandoned alley, killed the lights, and cut the engine. Even with the windows up, the stench of urine, vomit, and waste assaulted him. The steady, dismal downpour did nothing to conceal it.
The slow, light drizzle had not diminished the latest LA heat wave, but with its subtropical-Mediterranean climate, rain was a welcomed event.
Parked next to a rusty, dented blue dumpster, Martin Taylor adjusted his Dodger hat, his alert eyes scanning the deserted area.
There was nothing to see except three cinder-block, graffiti-designed walls, as the disinvested buildings had been gutted and vacated. The only sound was the relentless hum of Asian music from the back door of a Chinese takeout restaurant.
He didn’t like it. He was almost trapped within the u-shaped alley, with nowhere to turn his vehicle. He’d thought about backing in because, as it was, any chance of a quick, clean getaway would be impossible. But he needed this lead. Not just for the city, but for his ego.
He checked his watch. He was ten minutes early, so Martin took the time to think about the phone call that had lured him to the area known as Skid Row, in downtown Los Angeles.
He remembered the downtown as it was in the ’70s, when the sites and attractions drew both residents and tourists, but the economic downturn had changed all of that. From where he sat, he could hear the city’s Metro rapid transit system running throughout the night.
Now there was a new threat in town: The Celebrity Slayer, so dubbed by the media.
The serial killer was devastating the city, taking lives and leaving angry, malicious scenes—scenes that also left behind no criminal evidence to sort.
He was killing ‘B’ list celebrities, but his actions, his talents, were anything but ‘B’ list. The LAPD’s resources were running dry trying to find the guy. T, but the media was having a field day. The paparazzi, ETalk, Entertainment Tonight, Radar Online, were playing to the madman’s ego, feeding his narcissistic personality.
He had become a celebrity overnight.
Less than an hour ago, a call had come in on Martin’s cell phone, someone claiming to have pertinent information concerning the
Celebrity Slayer file. He was given this address. But he still couldn’t figure out how a stranger had gotten his unlisted number. That alone chilled him to the bone, but in this day and age, the internet was a highway of information and anyone could get anything. It wasn’t always a positive advancement.
Movement to his left. His eyes moved quickly, darting like a cat pouncing on a mouse.
He threw on the headlights but the beams didn’t cover the side wall. When he saw a form appear out of the shadows and approach the vehicle, Martin rolled down his window and touched his shoulder holster. Then the body moved into the light, and Martin released the grip on his pistol handle.
“What are you doing here?” Martin asked, a look of both concern and surprise registering on his face. He looked around the alley. “Is Charlie here? Did you follow me?”
When his questions went unanswered, Martin felt a strange sensation rise in his chest. Something was wrong, out of place.
That’s when he knew. His neck tingled and the hairs sprung on his arms.
He went for his gun a second too late. The killer had a silenced weapon drawn, and had stuck it through the open window frame.
“It can’t be you.” Martin realized the words came out as more of a statement than a question.
“Where’s the file?” the man asked in a curt voice.
“What file?” Stall him.
But when he looked into the eyes of the deranged killer, Martin Taylor saw that deep in the back of those eyes a hatred darker than night burned, and a homicidal maniac struggled for release.
How could I have missed it?
The last thing he thought before feeling the burning sensation of hot lead was that his daughter was in grave danger.