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KND Freebies: Intriguing, engaging mystery LOOSE ENDS is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

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Loose Ends: A California Corwin P. I. Mystery (California Corwin P. I. Mystery Series Book 1)

by D. D. Vandyke

Loose Ends: A California Corwin P. I. Mystery (California Corwin P. I. Mystery Series Book 1)
5.0 stars – 5 Reviews
Or currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members Via the Kindle Lending Library
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

When a young girl is kidnapped, street-smart but damaged ex-cop California “Cal” Corwin is engaged to find and rescue her before murder raises the stakes. As a straightforward case takes unexpected twists, Cal must quell a growing fear that an anguished mother may never see her child again. With a shadowy crime lord lurking behind every unexpected clue, Cal struggles to tie up loose ends before evil claims its next victim.

LOOSE ENDS is Book One in a new P. I. mystery series from D. D. VanDyke, a pen name of veteran bestselling technothriller author David VanDyke. Set against the rich backdrop of the San Francisco Bay Area, Cal Corwin novels brim with intrigue and fully fleshed characters from cops and criminals to hit men, oddball family and unexpected allies.
5-star praise for Loose Ends:

“…a real page turner…an excellent mystery…”

“…solid mystery…dynamic…”

an excerpt from

Loose Ends

by D.D. VanDyke

Copyright © 2014 by David VanDyke and published here with his permission

Chapter 1

July 2005: San Francisco

I’m scribbling these case files down in hopes they’ll be useful for another woman in my position, another former cop who’s had to kiss the love of her life goodbye and settle for another.

I’m not talking about some guy. I’m talking about the Force, the Thin Blue Line, the fraternity of police I’ve been barred from.

Being on the outside looking in does have its compensations, because now I’m my own boss. I have an agency, California Investigations, named for yours truly, California G. Corwin. My leftover hippie mother stuck the moniker on me, though it’s really not so bad because I go by Cal. I’ve always been a tomboy anyway.

With a clear docket and hope for a new case this Monday, I reached down to flip the drop box open, the one inside my Mission District office off of Valencia. The sounds and smells of San Francisco streets faded behind me as the door swung shut and latched automatically, a feature that said a lot about the neighborhood.

Glancing at the Golden Gate Bridge themed clock on my wall, I saw the big and little hands were just about lining up on noon. I decided I’d let myself off the hook this time for coming in late as I’d done all right at the poker table last night, picking up a couple C-notes. I’d rolled into bed some six or seven hours ago as dawn struggled to break over the Coast Range before giving up in the windy face of cold Pacific Coast rain. When I don’t have a case I admit I tend to fall into bad habits. No problem. Short nights don’t bother me much. I’d learned to deal with them from eight years on the job.

Typical Monday morning mail filled my hands. Bills, junk, bills, junk. A coupon pack that might be worth looking through. As I sorted, a loose business card fluttered to the floor. Must not have been mailed. Hand-dropped into the slot, then.

Bending over, I used the nails on my left thumb and forefinger to lift it off the cool tiles, holding it on fingertips while I walked over to my desk. You just never know where stuff has been.

On the front the card read Miranda Sorkin, Pharm.D with the phone number printed beneath it hastily scribbled out, completely obscured with what looked like fountain pen ink, very crisp and clear. I turned it over.

Cole said you can help – PLEASE CALL RIGHT AWAY and a different, Marin County number scrawled across the back of the stiff cream stock in a hand that was probably neat on most days, but not this time. Today it seemed shaky, anxious, like a woman in trouble might write. I was no expert, but I boasted a passing familiarity with all the forensic disciplines, including the rather suspect art of handwriting analysis.

Also, I got these vibes sometimes, ever since the bomb blast. A homegrown terrorist’s handiwork had left me with nerve damage in my right hand, put some scars on the right side of my face and rang my bell but good. Ever since, I got the occasional flash of weird insight. My mother said the spirits had given me something supernatural in return for their pound of flesh, but I didn’t believe it. If anything, my brain had been rewired and not necessarily for the better.

Today, that vibe strummed a couple of nerves and piqued their interest, so I set the rectangle of pasteboard down in the center of my desk calendar and smiled.

It was nice to get a line on a new case on a Monday, especially from Cole Sage. The prizewinning investigative journalist from the Chronicle had sent me more than one lucrative commission and I appreciated it, even if I couldn’t get him to take a serious look at me.

Sigh. Men.

Taking off my classic-cut gray blazer, I hiked the Glock automatic holstered at my left hip so it didn’t catch on the arm of the old captain’s chair behind my oaken desk. I tossed the jacket on the sofa across the room and reached for the phone in front of me.

When I was in my office, I used my landline as much as possible. It had certain advantages, one of which was the custom-made device it sat on that recorded everything – incoming, outgoing, voice, numbers dialed, messages, the works.

My tech guy Mickey who built the thing says by 2010 people will start to ditch their landlines in favor of cell phones, but that’s only five years away and I didn’t believe it anyway. He still thinks flying cars are just around the corner. I chalk it up to the same wishful fantasies that promise honest politicians and cheap gas, or even a black president. With Bush still in the White House and the economy in good shape that was a pipe dream.

Putting on my best professional manner, I dialed the number on the card. “Good morning, Ms. Sorkin. This is Cal Corwin of California Investigations,” I said as soon as I heard a woman’s voice on the other end. “You said Cole Sage referred me? How may I help you?”

Silence. Then, “I thought Cole said you were…”

“A man? It’s all right. I get that all the time.” I’m sure she’d misunderstood Cole, a common mistake where my name was concerned. People hear and see what they expect, forming false memories that have them swearing to things that never happened.

I had a dozen different responses to her reaction ranging from polite to withering. With potential clients, I played nice. I said, “Is that an issue? I have men among my employees, fit for any necessary role.” Not strictly true – the employee part, that was. More like a mixed cast of regular freelancers.

“Yes, uh…I have a serious problem, and I need your help.” The woman sounded mid-young, thirties perhaps, like me.

“I’m in my office. Come on by.”

“Office? You have an office?”

What did she think, private investigators worked from home? I guess some probably did, but not the better sort. Without a hint of longsuffering, I said, “Yes, I do. Would you like an appointment?”

“Ms. Corwin –”

“California. Just call me Cal. Everyone does.”

“All right, uh…Cal. Call me Mira. I thought this was going to be discreet. I can’t leave my home.”

Thought it was going to be discreet? What is that supposed to mean? And it sounded like she didn’t believe Cal was my real name. What did Cole tell this “Mira” about me? I brushed my sable bob back behind my left ear, a nervous habit that diverted attention from the scars on the right, and asked, “Can you explain what this is about?”

“Not over the phone. This is a prepaid cell but I want to talk face to face. I want to see what kind of person you are.”

I shrugged mentally. Clients were quirky sometimes, but as long as they paid… “All right. If I have to come to you, I’ll be on the clock. Is that a problem?”

“Not at all. I have money.”

A client with money was always a welcome sign to an independent businesswoman like me. “Where are you?”

Mira gave a Mill Valley address, and then said, “I’m not entirely sure they aren’t watching the house. I’ll leave the back gate open and you can come in there if you don’t mind.”

What “they,” I wondered, but decided to ask when I got there. I paused a moment as I wrote, long enough for Mira to ask, “Did you hear?”

“Yes. I’ll do my best to be discreet. See you within an hour.” I put the phone down and put my feet up on the desk to let myself mull things over for a few minutes. I’d often been accused of doing rather than thinking, so forcing myself to employ my “little gray cells” was a good exercise in discipline.

A house in Marin County’s Mill Valley meant upper middle class, except for a few older folks that bought long ago and didn’t sell out to the yuppies. North across the Golden Gate Bridge from the City, Marin was upscale for even its downscale residents, rivalled in the price of housing only by San Francisco proper. Mira’s accent had been pure West Coast, though without the stereotypical Valley-hippie-airhead tones the rest of the country associated with California.

Someone was watching, Mira seemed to think, perhaps tapping her phone or the house itself, and she worried enough to try a bit of cloak and dagger. I attempted to tease out more observations, Sherlock Holmes style, but the only thing on my list was the fact that the client claimed not to be able to leave her home, yet the business card had been hand delivered.

I was throwing on my blazer when I heard the groan. Instinctively my left hand dropped to the butt of my weapon, right reaching for the phone again. That was another reason I liked the hard line – 911 had a much better response time and the dispatch center would see my name and address on their screens.

“Mickey?” I called, easing over toward the open door at the top of the stairs leading to the floor below.

A strained voice drifted up. “Yeah, Boss. Sorry.”

I took my hand off the weapon and descended the steps quickly. On the lower level – technically not a basement as it walked out the back into a common courtyard-cum-private-parking-lot – I flipped on the light.

“Ow, ow – please, Cal.”

I picked my way across the floor cluttered with computer gear and rotated the blinds open before turning the ceiling light back off from the nearest switch. The overcast of the day provided soft but sufficient illumination to reveal the corpulent body of Mickey Tucker, my…well, it was hard to say just what he was. Lost soul, hacker extraordinaire, sloppy puppy, champion online gamer, research assistant. Mickey was all of those things, and often put his considerable talents to work for the relatively cheap price of computer gear, crash space and food money.

“Mickey, how many times have I asked you to just close the door at the top of the stairs and move the little slider to ‘The Wizard is IN.’ Someday I’ll end up shooting your sorry ass.”

“Some days I wish you would.” Mickey sat up on the old overstuffed sofa that served him as crash space and rubbed his eyes with the back of his pudgy hands. He reached for a half-empty thousand-pill bottle of generic aspirin sitting on a subwoofer and palmed a handful into his mouth, following it up with a swig from one of the dozen half-filled plastic bottles of flat diet soda scattered around the place.


“A double. Been here since Saturday, trying to beat the boss on Level 666. No cheats.”

“No cheats, eh? So did you?”

Mickey shook his head. “Nope. Think I passed out. Woke up on the floor. Crawled to the couch…”

I sniffed. “At least you still have something to look forward to. That and a shower.”

“Yeah. Sorry. I have some deodorant in the bathroom. Got any food?” he asked hopefully.

“No, but I have a case, which means you have a job and you can buy yourself breakfast. Stay near your gear, all right? I need you to actually work today.”

Mickey licked his lips and put on puppy eyes above his scraggly beard. “Umm…”

Understanding perfectly, I took out a money clip from my front jeans pocket and peeled off a twenty. “That’ll get you something from Ritual Coffee. Here.” I photocopied Mira’s business card, back and front, on the all-in-one printer, and then handed it to Mickey, taking the copy for myself. “See if you can lift the original number from under that scribble. After that, find out all you can about one Miranda Sorkin, pharmacist.”

“Above or below the line?”

I chewed my inner lip. “Above, for now. I’ll let you know when to start tunneling.” I could afford to hire Mickey as a researcher, but didn’t want to promise him a lot more for hacking until I found out what this job would pay. While I wasn’t behind on my bills right now, I detested a negative cash flow like Mickey hated losing his T1 line.

“You got a working sniffer?” I went on.

“Sure…around here somewhere.” Mickey rooted among some equipment and came up with a box the size of an old transistor radio.

I took it, checked the battery, and thanked him with a nod while sliding it into my blazer pocket.

Chapter 2

Exiting the basement walkout, I approached Molly, my royal blue Subaru Impreza, parked in the courtyard. Her parking space was part of the office building deed, and of my two cars, Molly was the more practical and could stand the weather best. My house a couple of blocks away – Mother’s really, in her name though I’d paid for it – had only a one-car garage, like most of the local restored Victorians. I wasn’t leaving Madge, my lime-green custom 1968 Mustang California Special ragtop, out in the rain.

Besides, I liked the walk.

I gave the Subaru a once-over by habit before sliding behind the steering wheel with a contented sigh. Something about the driver’s seat of a rally car felt like home. No, not home. It felt like where I belonged.

Molly’s supercharged engine screamed and her grippy rain tires would have squealed as I pulled out if the pavement hadn’t been wet. While I had foregone most of the external markers of a hot rally ride when my girl had been customized, on the inside the car was a regionals-class racer.

I indulged my hobby whenever I had both time and money to spare, which meant not often enough. One nice thing about a case was I got to drive on the client’s dime.

Shooting up Valencia to catch 101, I wove exuberantly through light traffic past the Palace of Fine Arts before crossing the old Presidio and onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The early afternoon breeze blew gusty and the fog was clearing fitfully, the day promising mist and sprinkling at sea level beneath brooding overcast until inevitable swirls of night rolled back in. I cracked the window to let in the fresh offshore air, smelling the tang of kelp and fish as Green Day’s latest hit Holiday blasted from the stereo.

Five miles later I reached Mill Valley, a Marin suburb now green with recent rains. My GPS brought me to a house at the edge of the flat older section of town where the road just started to crawl upward into the low hills above. The dwellings I saw there were a bit smaller and more aged than those perched above, meaning they could be had for under a million. The higher the view, the higher the price. I glanced at a monstrosity at the top that had to cost at least ten mil and shook my head. When the Big One finally came, that puppy would mudslide down like a Stinson Beach surfer on steroids, taking eight or ten other dwellings down with it.

When I got close, I flicked the GPS off to stop the cheery canned voice from complaining and pulled over to take a casual look at the front of Mira’s house. Everything seemed neat and orderly except that a temporary wooden holder had been driven into the front lawn, the kind that held real estate “for sale” signs, though its crossbeam was empty.

I pulled out again and cruised the neighborhood looking for obvious signs of surveillance – delivery vans or small RVs parked on the street, large dark American sedans with suits in them, or houses with blinds lowered but rotated open. Nothing jumped out at me, so I parked around the corner at the end of the block.

Fortunately an unusual vacant lot bearing signs of local kids and their BMX habits allowed me to access the back gate of the Sorkin home without too much trouble via a footpath that wended its way behind the houses. This arrangement was odd but not unknown, especially in older developments built under the liberal or nonexistent zoning laws of the past.

It looked like these places had been individually constructed in the 1950s to house the Greatest Generation as they rebuilt postwar America, and had been renovated many times since, creating a patchwork of styles. Pseudo-Spanish architecture abounded – Sorkin’s was one of those – but I also spotted Cape Cod, Colonial and several variants on mid-century modernism. In short, typical coastal California.

I pushed on the back gate of the weathered wooden six-foot privacy fence and slipped inside. The yard I saw teemed lush and had begun sliding into overgrown as if neglected for months. No swimming pool – the coast range towns were too cold from the Pacific breezes to make that feature de rigueur. Mark Twain had famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” which definitely applied to Marin County as well, even in July.

Movement behind the kitchen window made me pick my way up the garden path toward the back door, where I met a brown-haired Caucasian woman not too different in build from myself. With unwashed curls and housecoat, bloodshot eyes and shaky hands, she looked like hell.

Without speaking, she took my arm and pulled me toward a small, separate building.

Opening a door, the woman motioned me into what turned out to be the house’s small freestanding garage. It smelled of automobile, wood and dust. Shutting the portal behind, the woman flipped on the bare-bulb light above a nondescript Toyota sedan, and then let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you for coming, Ms. Corwin. I’m Mira Sorkin.” She clutched my right hand as if drowning, and then let go suddenly, confused at what she felt there.

It hardly bothered me anymore, people’s reactions. Best to get it over with. I brushed the hair back on my right side, revealing the scars that the reconstructive surgery hadn’t been able to completely banish. I’d had my bob cut to fall over them and with a bit of makeup I could conceal where they crept into the open along my jawline.

Mira’s surprise flattened out with the smoothing of her face. I ignored the other woman’s emotions by dint of long practice. “Bomb,” I said curtly, holding up my right hand and flexing it. “I was lucky. This hand’s a bit weak, but the blast didn’t even damage my eye.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Mira froze, as if not sure what to be sorry about, or how to act. “I suppose in your business…”

My business? I wondered if Mira thought all P.I.s encountered bombs, or should be damaged goods, like in a noir novel where the protagonist is always on the edge of falling apart, usually from alcoholism. Maybe Cole had told her I had been a cop, or that the P.I. trade was shady. Maybe that’s what she meant.

“It’s fine, really,” I repeated. “Can’t even tell with my hair in place. Got some ID?”


“ID. I like to know for sure who I’m talking to.”

“Oh…not on me. Inside.”

I grunted in irritation. “Okay, later. Why are we in the garage?”

“I can’t be sure the house isn’t bugged.”

“Then why don’t we go somewhere else?”

Mira pulled a cordless handset out of her housecoat pocket. “I have to stay by my home phone.”

It appeared Mira would say more, but I held my hand out for the cordless and examined it briefly before pulling out a multi-tool from my belt. “Let’s make sure this isn’t bugged either, otherwise we’re in here for nothing.”

After opening it up, I shook my head, screwed it back together and handed it to Mira. “Nope. Looks clear. Now what’s this all about?”

Mira shuddered and breathed deeply in, and then out. Her exhalation sent the sharp sour smell of alcohol wafting under my nose. “My daughter was kidnapped two days ago.”

Hairs rose on the back of my neck as my cop sense woke up with a surge. I had expected some kind of marital dispute, even a custody battle, not capital crimes for breakfast. And Mira had been so calm on the phone.

If it was my daughter I’d have been climbing the walls and looking for someone to shoot.

I wiped the leg of my jeans off where I’d brushed the Toyota in the close confines of the small garage. “Mira, let’s go inside. I’ll check for bugs in your house,” I said, pulling out the sniffer and holding it up, “and maybe I could trouble you for a bagel or something. I came right over after our call and I haven’t eaten. I think better with some calories in me.”

“Of course, of course.” Mira retraced her steps, leading us through the back yard.

“Remember, don’t say anything that matters until I give you the all-clear.”

Once we’d made our way into the house, Mira poured mugs of coffee and dropped two bagels into the toaster, puttering around as if lost. The interior of the house showed off the latest look. The kitchen had high-end counters, cabinets and appliances, and the brewing coffee dripped from a machine that probably cost more than a set of rally tires. It smelled heavenly.

So Mira was comfortably well off. I tried to figure how much I could ask for and not feel guilty, reminding myself that “a workman is worthy of his wages.” Even after two years off the force it was hard to charge people money to help them, but I had a business to run and bills to pay.

While Mira puttered, I ran the sniffer over the kitchen and nook, and then the living room, working outward.


A less thorough check of the three-bedroom upstairs made me reasonably sure that no microphones lurked. Someone might be wiretapping the phone line on the way out or there might be one of any number of devices attached to the computer in the corner, but at least it seemed we didn’t have to worry about talking.

I did see pictures of Mira and a girl in various settings taken within the last ten years. I recognized a couple of local landmarks – the carousel at Fisherman’s Wharf, the observation deck of Coit Tower, the Alcatraz dock. As I looked at the photos, nowhere did I see a man or anybody else that might be family.

The girl’s father must be out of the picture. Gone, rather than dead. People didn’t excise the dear departed from their memorabilia, only those they didn’t like anymore.

Or I suppose he could have been a sperm donor. Unusual, but not unknown.

Just to be sure we were not overheard, I shut the drapes and turned on the stereo in the living room, hoping the two tactics would limit the ability of anyone to paint a windowpane with a laser pickup. Devices like that read the sound waves coming off the glass, but worked best with a quiet background.

Finally, I sat down in the kitchen nook across from Mira. I slapped blueberry cream cheese on a bagel. “Okay, I think we’re clear. First,” I lifted a finger, “business. It’s a hundred an hour plus expenses, max a thousand a day, and I need ten thousand up front as a retainer.” I’d charged more, occasionally a lot less, but to a pharmacist who probably took down two or three hundred large a year, ten should be doable.

Nor was I wrong. Mira nodded without flinching. “I’ll write you a check. Just help me, please.”

“Good. Now, tell me about this kidnapping. Start with why you haven’t called the cops.”

Mira gulped from her mug, her eyes bleak. “The people that took her said not to talk to police, but they didn’t say anything specifically about a…someone like you.”

My expression might have turned a bit strained, but I tried to ignore her words. The client was the client. “I used to be a cop, if that makes you feel better.”

“Really? How did you…never mind.”

Ignoring her strange attitude, I asked, “So why did you wait two days to get in touch with me?” Or maybe she didn’t wait. The card could have been put into my drop box any time after Friday night.

“Cole Sage was the only person I knew that wasn’t police, that might have…connections to…people like you…so I called him first and he referred me. Don’t worry. I can keep my mouth shut. But I gave them what they wanted and thought I would get Talia back right away but it didn’t happen, and now it’s been more than an extra day and I’m about to lose my mind.”

So Mira could keep her mouth shut, she claimed. That was another odd thing to say. I fished the photocopy of the business card from a pocket, not letting her see the front as I unfolded it, glancing at it before I folded it over again. Something seemed out of whack, but damned if I knew what. Things were tugging at my subconscious, but weren’t ready to surface. “Cole said to get in touch with me…how?”

“I put the card where he told me to, and he said you’d get it.”

So that explained how the card got to my office. Cole Sage must have picked it up and dropped off. He did live in the City, a couple of miles from my office and home in the Mission District. It would be just like the journalist to do it that way. I’d probably come on too strong last time and scared him off, dammit. Or, to be fair, he knew of my late-night proclivities and when I didn’t answer the office buzzer he simply dropped it off and left.

On the other hand, there’d been no message on my answering machine. Cole was nothing if not meticulous. He confirmed everything. I filed that anomaly away.

While I was thinking, Mira finished her coffee, and then went back to the machine for another fill-up. Her stealthy motions as she did it, the details hidden by her turned back, and the clop sound of plastic on the counter triggered recognition in my brain.

“You might want to go easy on that stuff,” I said.

Slowly Mira turned, an orange prescription pill bottle in her hand. “I just…”

“You don’t have to make excuses. I’d be popping Valium too if I was in your position.” I wouldn’t, but I was trying to be sympathetic. Fortunately I never had any trouble with drugs or alcohol.

Adrenaline…that was another story.

Mira sighed. “It’s prescribed. I have anxiety these last couple of years, since my divorce. Panic attacks sometimes.”

“I’m not judging you.”

“I’m a pharmacist, you know,” she said as if that explained something.

“Yes. It was on your card.”

“I don’t have enough money for anyone to make Talia a ransom target but I’m the assistant warehouse manager for the biggest distributor in the northern Bay Area. My building has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-grade pharmaceuticals in it, though not many people know it.”

“And they wanted you to, what? Help them rob the place?”

“Yes. They forced me to give them my keycard and my codes. They have my thumbprint on a silicone thingy, which I assume they were going to use on the scanner. They also have all my personal info – social security number, former addresses, family names…and they made me tell them what my security questions and responses were.”

“There’s a monitored alarm?”

Mira nodded, seeming to relax as the Valium hit her, so fast that part of the effect must be psychosomatic. So she wasn’t kidding about using them for a while. “Yes. To open the warehouse you have to call the monitoring center, identify yourself, give them a password, respond correctly to a security question, scan a keycard, put in a PIN code and put your thumb on a scanner. Oh, and all of that is in front of a high-resolution camera with them looking on. Otherwise they send a security team and call the cops.”

I sat back, taking a bite of bagel and sipping my coffee. It gave me time to think. “That’s a lot of security. They would have to have someone to double for you on camera. So right off the bat we know there’s a Caucasian woman of about your age involved, maybe with dark hair. Of course, she could wear a wig. Did you see any of them?”

“No. Just a male voice, middle aged I’d say, on my home phone. Blocked number.”

I took another bite and a sip, thinking while Mira fidgeted idly with her cup. “But you say they haven’t pulled the heist?”

“I…I don’t think so. I had the grocery nearby bring me a prepaid cell phone along with a few other things – they do deliveries, costs an arm and a leg, but what can you do – and used it to call the security center and ask them for the exact time I’d last been at the warehouse. I told them I needed it for my records, and they gave me the same time I closed up Friday night. So the kidnappers haven’t used my info yet. As far as I know.”

“Maybe you better start at the beginning and tell me step by step what happened.”

“But my daughter! She’s in danger!”

I put my cup and bagel down and stared at Mira, not allowing myself to throw her own two-day delay back in her face. Not with a paying client. “Mira, I have to get all the details straight in my mind because any clue might be the one that helps me find Talia. Believe me, this will save time later. If you call the cops now it’ll take them twice as long to get started on this and there will be a lot of hoopla. Odds are very good that your daughter’s fine. Because you have had no personal contact with them, there’s no reason for property criminals to kill, especially not a pretty little middle-class white girl. The public would eat it up and there would be a manhunt coast to coast. The thieves don’t want that kind of heat on them.”

Mira’s face turned shocked and angry. “What does being a pretty white girl have to do with it?”

I sighed, rubbing my head, trying to put myself in her position. “It’s sad, but I’m just stating the bald, non-PC truth. Dozens of poor kids – mostly black and Hispanic – go missing every day in America, but only a handful of well-off white girls. Who gets on TV?” I deliberately did not go into my personal experiences with missing children. When things went off the rails, they usually did so horribly, but I sure wasn’t going to tell her that.

Mira looked as if she was on the verge of tears. “That’s terrible.”

“I know, but perversely, it’s good news. They’re less likely to hurt her. Really. She’ll be okay. I’ll find her.”

“ I never thought anything like this would ever happen to us.”

“No one ever does. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened from the beginning. Give me details if you can.”

Mira took that deep breath and spoke. “Friday night after work I drove home and parked in my garage. Talia should have been here waiting for me – she’s a latchkey kid. The school bus drops her off on the corner. When I got inside I found a note in the middle of the table. There was also a big envelope with a form to fill out with all the information they wanted, just like an application, and a little plastic box with silicone in it for my thumbprint.”

“What did it say? I don’t suppose you copied it?”

“No, I didn’t think to… It just said to fill out the form and put everything including the note into the envelope, seal it and put it in my mailbox. It said they were watching, and not to call the cops or anyone, or else, and that they would return Talia by Saturday evening.”

“Saturday evening. So they probably intended the heist for the Friday night or Saturday morning early. They’d tell the security people ‘you’ forgot to do something so you had to come in, but it would be the imposter. What happened next?”

“I did exactly what they said. I filled in every bit of information and put my thumbprint in the silicone box.” Mira’s tone was condescending, perhaps even self-righteous, as if doing what the kidnappers had said should have made everything work out.

I was beginning to vaguely dislike Mira. I wasn’t sure why. She wasn’t overly privileged or rude and she certainly couldn’t be blamed too much for popping pills in a situation like this, two days full of helplessness. Maybe it was just the feeling the woman looked down on me despite the fact it would be my ass on the line. Or perhaps it was a strong hunch she wasn’t being fully truthful with me despite the risk to her daughter.

Mira said, “Anyway, I put the envelope in my mailbox – it’s out front at the curb – and went into my bedroom and stayed there like the note said.”

“Your bedroom faces the back, right?”


“So when did the envelope get picked up?”

“Sometime in the middle of the night, I guess. I fell asleep finally about two, and then I woke up around seven thinking it had all been a dream until I remembered again that Talia was gone. No one had called. I went out to check and the envelope was gone from the mailbox. I came back inside, got something to eat, checked my email, turned on the TV and waited. They called about an hour later.”

“So that was Saturday morning…they called around eight? But you checked the mailbox around seven?”

“Yes. Does that matter?”

“It may.” It indicated, but didn’t prove, that the perps were not actually watching or listening in at the Sorkin house. I would have thought they’d have called as soon as they saw or heard Mira check the mailbox, not an hour later…unless they were very clever and that’s what they wanted anyone to think.

“Go on. Tell me about the phone call. You didn’t happen to record it, did you?” Lots of doctors had recorders on their phones for malpractice protection.

“No. I never thought I’d need anything like that. I mean, I don’t deal directly with patients. I was hired for my degree, not my clinicals.”

So she had no interest in helping people per se with her medical degree; she just wanted to be a well-paid glorified warehouse clerk. A little girl was in the hands of kidnappers, I reminded myself. Not to mention the ten grand and a client that, no matter what her job, didn’t deserve her current karma, especially not as it was tangled up with her daughter’s. At ten, Talia was innocent. I had a child to find and bring home safe.

“The phone call,” I reminded Mira.

“Yeah. Well, his voice was ordinary. Middle aged, as I said, and probably white. At least, he didn’t seem to have any…”

“Ethnic markers?” I prompted.

“Yes. No accent, either.”

“So you mean he sounded like he was from around here?” When people said “no accent,” what they usually meant was that the person spoke like they did.

“Yes, that’s what I mean. American English, not black or Hispanic or Asian…no offense.”

I chuckled. “One grandmother was Japanese, one Mexican, but my parents and I were all born here, so…none taken.” It showed just how PC everything was getting that Mira felt she had to apologize for making the simple factual observation that I was not quite white. “Go on.”

“He reminded me they were watching and listening. If I kept quiet and they had no trouble, Talia would be returned Sunday. It wasn’t fair because they said they’d return her Saturday night and now they pushed it back. Then they let me talk to her for a few seconds, I guess just to show that she was all right. She said she was okay. I could tell she was scared, but not absolutely terrified. She always was a brave little thing, like a boy.”

I bit back a reflexive lecture on gender stereotypes, because Mira’s characterization reminded me of myself and things my mom used to say about me. Sticking to the facts, I said, “Was that it? Did they say how Talia would be returned to you?”

“No, but…I mean, this is supposed to be a safe neighborhood. They could drop her off anywhere and she could just walk home, and it’s not like they care about her…oh, God.” A sob welled up from Mira and forced itself from her throat. “Please, you have to get her back.”

I reached across to take Mira’s soft, well-manicured hand in my own callused left, keeping my right back. I’m a leftie and hadn’t lost capability on my strong side. To merely look at my right you couldn’t tell anything was amiss, but people were still funny when they sensed weakness, as if at some level they thought it was contagious.

“That’s what you hired me for – to get her back. Not to catch crooks. That’s the police’s job. I’ll do my very best. So, what happened next?”

“Well, I waited all day and all night, just trying to keep busy. It was agonizing. Then, when Talia didn’t show up by noon Sunday, I started to panic. I got the prepaid phone and called Cole. He said he was out of town on assignment but asked a couple of questions that made me think to call the alarm monitoring, like I said, and found out they hadn’t used my info to get in to the building and steal the drugs yet. Then he told me he knew someone that could help, though I didn’t know who you were then. He just said you were someone discreet and connected. The rest you know.”

No, I thought as I stared at Mira. I didn’t know why Cole would say I was connected. That word usually referred to someone in organized crime. Or maybe Mira was getting the words wrong. Maybe he said I had connections, which was quite a different thing.

I also didn’t know why Mira didn’t just phone me on her burner and try to reach me Sunday. I checked my messages once a day at least. And, I didn’t know how that card got into my drop box. It was one of the parts of this whole deal that made no sense. There might be a couple of other things I didn’t know, but I couldn’t pin them down yet, and if I asked outright, I’d tip her off for sure…

“So here it is Monday afternoon. Are you sure they haven’t stolen the drugs between your call yesterday and right now?”

“Well, I emailed in sick, and then got a reply from my assistant, who would have mentioned anything wrong, I think. Then I called the monitoring center again this morning, just after shift change so it was different guys. I didn’t want them to wonder about me asking the same question again. They gave me the same answer as before so…pretty sure.”

“And you have heard nothing more from the kidnappers?”

“No. Nothing.”

“Okay. You know,” I said, speaking clearly and distinctly to try to help Mira focus, “at some point we will have to bring the police into this, even if it’s just to report the whole thing after we get her back, so you need to be ready. Once I’m gone, I want you to write down everything that happened, every detail, every jot and tittle that you can think of. It will help you later when you have to make a statement, and I may find it useful too. I notice you have a fax machine. When you are done, fax it to my office at this number?”

“Yes, right there.” She pointed.

“Right. Don’t email it, fax it. Harder to intercept, even if they are tapping your home phone, which I don’t believe they are.” I scribbled my numbers down on the corner of the card photocopy and tore it off. “Call me from that burner phone if you need anything or you think of something else.”

Mira picked up the scrap of paper and looked at it, and then nodded.

“Oh, are you moving soon? I saw the real estate sign holder on the lawn.”

“I was thinking about getting something newer but changed my mind,” Mira said, a bit cautiously it seemed to me. “Now I wish I had already. Maybe…” She rubbed her face. “Anyway, a gated community is safer for Talia.”

“Do you have a picture of her you could lend me?”

“Sure.” She retrieved a snapshot from a desk in the other room, and then set it in front of me.

I cleared my throat. “And I’ll need that check.”

“Of course.” Mira pulled a beautiful wallet out of her matching designer handbag and quickly wrote out the amount and the numbers, and then signed it with a ballpoint. She left the TO line blank when she handed it to me.

I stared at the check for a moment. That tug again. My conscience, or my cop sense? Sometimes they were hard to distinguish from each other. Also, Mira’s handwriting seemed to have improved from the scribble on the card. Probably more relaxed with the Valium in her.

I folded the piece of paper in half, slipping it deep into my money clip, which resided in a tight front jeans pocket. “Thank you. I’ll be in touch by dinnertime at the latest. Please don’t do anything before then without calling.” I stood.

“Of course. Thank you so much.” Mira stood and reached for the pill bottle again.

“And Mira…don’t take too many of those, all right?” I held up a hand in apology. “I’m not judging. Just because you need to be clearheaded. For your daughter. For Talia.”

“Yeah. I’ll…I’ll wait until later.”

“Is there anyone who can come stay with you? Someone you can trust?”

Mira shook her head. “No. No one close enough for this.”

I wasn’t huggy with women, but I made myself reach across to take Mira’s hand. “If you want me to look into this, I have to go now. You’ll be all right? You’ll be strong?”

A tear rolled down Mira’s cheek, quickly wiped away. “I think so.”

“Okay, then. I have to go find your daughter.”

“I know. Go on.”

Chapter 3

I let myself out Mira Sorkin’s back gate with relief. Now I felt like going, doing. The bright afternoon sun continued its struggle to burn away the lingering coastal drizzle, reinforcing that feeling of gusty, crackling energy.

I dialed Mickey’s desk phone before I had reached Molly, speaking as I picked my way across the wet unmowed grass and weeds of the vacant lot, avoiding muddy BMX paths. “What you got?”

“Miranda Almone Sorkin, née Herndon, born in 1970 so she’s thirty-five. Married once to Dennis Wilson Sorkin. No criminal record for either of them. Graduated Stanford pre-med at twenty and then UOP Doctor of Pharmacy at twenty-three. Married shortly after graduating in 1993, when she went to work for North Bay Distributors, a drug wholesaler owned by Rankin Pharmaceuticals. One ten-year-old child, Talia, born in 1995. They divorced in 2003, but she kept his name.”

“Tell me about the ex,” I said as I fobbed open my car with a beep and got in. At this point I really didn’t think Mira was being watched. In fact, given that the heist – the presumed heist – had not taken place, Mira supposedly had not heard from the kidnappers and I had found no bugs, I doubted they were watching the house at all.

“Dennis is an MBA, a stockbroker. Liked to live big, from what I can tell. Flew high for a few years but lost a bunch of his clients’ money on some bad trades right before the divorce. Dodged criminal charges, but the trading house dumped him hard. Looks like she was paying his bills for a while. Then they split up and he moved to Seattle where he now works at a small firm. Less than two mil in client assets. That’s not bad, but not big like he used to be. He took home one hundred ten thousand last year.”

“Decent, but not even what Mira makes.” I popped the phone into its hands-free cradle and stuck the headset on. “So he either learned from getting burned and is on the straight and level or he’s got an angle, something not obviously traceable, and is working this pedestrian gig as a cover. Was the parting amicable?”

“Not at all. Looks like a lot of bad blood, motions and countermotions, accusing each other of bad parenting, crazy stuff. Everything but child molestation and adultery. Almost comical, really.”

“No adultery charges? Why did they break up, then?”

“The initial filing listed ‘irreconcilable differences.’”

“When things start to get ugly, people begin to lie. At least, exaggerate. Seems weird that neither accused the other of sleeping around.”

I could almost hear Mickey shrug over the phone. “Sometimes it just all goes wrong. That’s what Mom says when I ask about what happened with Dad.”


“I was wondering if maybe Dennis figured out a way to burn Mira. Maybe he sicced this heist crew on to her as payback for getting custody of the daughter?” Mickey said.

“Maybe.” I chewed my lip. “Hard to believe he’d put his daughter at risk, though.”

“Probably didn’t know they’d kidnap her. Things got out of hand.”

“Mickey, you’re smarter than you look.”

“Thanks, I think. Does that mean you want me to keep tunneling?” No surprise, Mickey sounded eager to put his skills to use and make some money doing it.

“Yeah. Dig away on both of them. I got an advance and as long as the check doesn’t bounce you’re good for a few days of work.”


I revved the Impreza’s engine, spun the wheel and hit forty in the twenty-five zone in two seconds flat, twisting through the narrow car-lined streets. Unlike more modern suburbs, garages and driveways were small in this neighborhood, seldom holding more than one car, and curbside parking was the norm. “I need you to take a look at Sorkin’s landline records for the last week, incoming and outgoing. Flag repeat calls, and try to match all the numbers to names. Then cross-reference them with the ex’s. Also,” I kept my voice casual, “pull up Cole Sage’s records. Any numbers he has, including his office numbers at the Chronicle. See if anything lines up. Print those all out, will you?” If I was going to pay Mickey to hack, I might as well feed my favorite obsession. Okay, maybe second favorite, or third, after racing and poker.

“Okay, Boss. I’ll have all this by tonight. Tomorrow at the latest.”

“That’s my boy.”

“I wish.” Mickey hung up.

“I heard a wistful undertone in Mickey’s words,” my dead father said in my ear. Okay, I knew he wasn’t really there. He wasn’t a ghost, I was pretty sure. He’d never told me anything I didn’t already know or reveal secrets of the Other Side. But ever since the bomb blast, he’d show up and talk to me, usually when I was driving alone.

I couldn’t help but look over at the passenger seat. Sometimes I could see him, sometimes only hear his words. Today he sat there in his corduroy jacket and long 70s haircut, exactly like he appeared in my favorite photo of him, the one on my office wall.

“Poor guy’s had a crush on me since I’d hired him for one of my first private cases,” I replied as if nothing weird was going on, refusing to allow tears to spring to my eyes. I’d found if I tried to make the hallucination go away, whatever part of my mind created it fought back harder. Better to simply roll with it, talk it out and let it fade along with the ache in my heart.

“I wouldn’t worry. It’s a hopeless nerdy fanboy thing, like having the hots for Halle Berry because she plays superheroes and villains.”

“I don’t worry.”

“I hope you don’t flirt with Mickey to keep him working harder for you.”

I shook my head. “That would be cheap. Besides, unrequited hope seems to flow like caffeine through the whole gamer crowd’s veins. I don’t have to encourage him.”

“But you don’t discourage him.”

“I don’t want to crush his ego.”

“If you did, he might get over you and find a girlfriend.”

“I can’t do that. I’m shocked you’d even suggest it.”

“Sometimes you have to kill the hope-monkey,” he said.

The hope-monkey was a metaphor Dad often used. He said people were addicted to hope like a junkie to the needle. I thought about Cole, knowing I might have more in common with Mickey than I’d admit. Maybe it was the scarring that put Cole off. I massaged the damaged area around my right ear with the heel of my hand. That part always still felt like it was asleep. My thoughts turned dark as I answered my own question.

“Your mind is wandering,” my father said.

“It does that.”

“You don’t look that bad. Plenty of men show interest in you.”

“Children don’t run screaming and people don’t flinch away, you mean.” When I see myself in the mirror or a snapshot someone has taken of me I look completely normal, but what woman doesn’t obsess over her flaws?

“Screw Cole,” Dad said. “Get a grip, girl. Plenty of fish in the sea.”

That was proof positive this apparition was no spirit, just a hallucination. Dad never used language even that strong. He’d been a good Catholic and a crusader for social justice, unfailingly polite even when he was being tough.

“Easier said than done, Dad.”

I waited, but he didn’t answer. When I looked over, he was gone, thank God.

Breaking out of the cramped neighborhood with relief, I turned off my higher brain function and floored it onto Miller Avenue, raced through the traffic as if I was at Le Mans, reveling in the physical. My fuzzbuster showed green and lasers didn’t work very well in the drizzling rain, so unless some overzealous uniform got eyeballs on me, I should be fine. Adrenaline sang through my veins like joy, mixed with anger on Mira’s behalf.

Whatever it takes to get Talia back, I’ll do, I vowed.

I proceeded down Bridgeway until it met 101 again. The state highway was still lightly traveled and should remain so in the misty daytime until rush hour and ocean fog made their inevitable rendezvous on the Golden Gate Bridge before dusk.

I was happy to live and work in the same neighborhood where I grew up, the Mission District, now a bit more gentrified than it used to be but still full of character, and not have to commute in to work as I used to. Beat cops, even detectives, didn’t make enough to live alone in the City, but now I owned my office and cars free and clear.

I’d also bought Mom and myself a house, and all it had cost was a damaged hand and face, one eardrum, some nerves and skin – and my career.

I’d happily trade the money back if I could. Because I couldn’t, I worked hard, played harder, and lived life the hardest I could. “Die young, stay pretty, live fast ’cause it won’t last,” Blondie sang on the radio when I was a teenager in the 80s. Meat Loaf had an answer for her: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

After crossing the Golden Gate I exited onto Marina Boulevard, just by coincidence less than a mile from Cole’s place, and then pulled over. I opened up his speed-dial entry and pushed the button. When I called it went through to voice mail, so I left a message in hopes of getting a callback to clarify things. Maybe he could give me some more background on Mira. She’d said he was out of town, but it was Monday. Maybe he had returned from his trip by now. I needed a lead and I hated to return to the office and hang around waiting for Mickey to come up with something.

After trying Cole’s office and unsuccessfully trying to get something more out of the receptionist, I decided to plug the address of the pharmaceutical warehouse into the GPS.

The voice of the machine led me back across the Bridge and up to a discreet commercial district in San Rafael straight to a large building with a high, heavy fence that I would have taken for a corporate headquarters rather than a warehouse if not for its utter lack of windows. A tiny plate read, “North Bay Distributors.” When I pulled up to the talk-box at the barrier I had my story ready.

“Hi, Cal Corwin of Corwin Security,” I said. I actually had several business licenses, including security consultant and bail bondsman. Telling someone up front you were an investigator wasn’t always the best move. “I need to talk with your security people.”

“Umm…I can give you the number up at Corporate,” the young male voice said from the speaker.

The camera feed should be showing my face, my good side thank God, so I ran my hair behind my ear and smiled winningly. “How about the number to the monitoring center? That can’t be against the rules, right?”

“Umm…okay. But I can’t open the gate for you.”

“That’s fine. Just the number is good.”

I wrote it down and then backed up, waving an apology at the driver behind me as I did a five-point turn in the cramped space of the lane between the curbs. I called Mickey as I drove and interrupted him long enough to get me a reverse lookup on the number. I plugged that into my GPS.

Back when I was on the force we didn’t have these things. The department wasn’t going to spring for expensive new gadgets, but for me it was an essential time saver.

This time the machine led me farther northward to Novato and an office building with an open parking lot and a lot of traffic in and out. I could have just phoned, but I find a friendly face gets a lot more results than just a voice on the line when it comes to bending the rules.

At least forty clients were listed on the directory, with Clawson Monitoring on the second floor. I breezed through the unwatched lobby. Somehow I thought it ironic that the drug warehouse was well defended while the office of the security center was not. Seemed like a point of weakness.

At least the steel company door was locked, with a keypad and card reader to the side. Its small identifying sign seemed understated. I knocked, waited, and then knocked again harder before getting an answer.

The man who answered the door narrowed his middle-aged eyes in suspicion. “Can I help you?” He didn’t sound like he wanted to help me at all.

“Cal Corwin of Corwin Security.” I waved my impressive but largely meaningless badge at him. “Can I get a few minutes of your time?”

Relaxing fractionally after looking each way down the hall, apparently ensuring I was alone, he said, “Sure. Come on in.”

I followed him into a bare reception lounge with a couple of naked workstations in it – phones, computers, not much else. No one sat at them. In one corner squatted an old refrigerator next to a kitchenette – countertops, cabinets, a two-burner stove, microwave and sink. A restroom door and another unmarked one completed the points of interest. I presumed the second entry led to the real monitoring center.

The man waved me to a seat and then sat down nearby. “What’s this about?” His eyes set deep in a grizzled hatchet face stayed very still, like a hunter, as did his whipcord-lean body.

“You’ve been on the job?” I asked, recognizing the signs.

“Like you. Bill Clawson, Lieutenant, Chicago PD, retired.” He still didn’t hold out his corded, veined hand.

“Cal Corwin, as I said. Eight years SFPD.”

His eyes flicked to my hip. “Still carry, I see.”

“Good catch. Yes, I do.”

“I don’t.” Distance surfaced in his haunted blue eyes.

“Should I ask why?”

“Can’t stand to touch a weapon anymore.” Bill snorted ruefully. “Pathetic, huh?”

I shook my head. “I get it. Everyone reacts differently.” I understood. Once bitten. Ask a plane crash survivor how they feel about flying. Some could do it and some couldn’t. I felt certain Bill had killed someone on the job and a piece inside him had broken off. Maybe it still rattled in his head. Given Chicago’s reputation as the murder capital of the U.S., I wasn’t surprised.

“So what’s this about?” Bill’s azure orbs searched my face and I felt myself getting distracted. I was always a sucker for damaged goods, especially a man with a bit of age on him. Mom says it’s daddy issues and I couldn’t really argue. My father had died young of a heart attack and left us both needing him.

Forcing myself to look away, I glanced around at the room. Suddenly, I doubted that this man had anything to do with Talia’s disappearance. Sometimes I just knew. That vibe again maybe, or just old-fashioned cop sense.

After a brief internal debate I decided to show some cards. Normally I’d go slower, be more cautious, but the clock was ticking on Talia, so I had to take a risk. Either this guy was clean and I could use his help or he was dirty and I should see it in his responses. Either way, I’d win.

“I’ll level with you, Bill, as far as I can. I am a security consultant sometimes, but right now I’m investigating a crime. I can’t give you too many details, but I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Cop to cop?”

“Yeah.” I met his eyes this time. They turned cool, appraising. “It’s about a young girl, if that makes you feel better.”

Bull’s-eye. Bill’s face crumbled and I rejoiced inside at his strong reaction, hoping it meant information was about to flow.

“How did you know?” he asked.

That sounded like an admission. Diamond clarity seized me by the scruff of the neck. “Just following leads, Bill,” I said, casually letting my hand drift down near my holster.

Bill’s eyes narrowed as they followed my movement. “Why would you be asking about her? It was…it was seven years ago.”

“What was?”

“My baby girl. My little Sandy.”

Baffled, I tried to keep from showing it. “The girl I’m talking about is missing right now.”

“Oh.” Bill took a deep breath, almost a sob. “I thought…but that makes no sense,” he repeated. “I’m sorry. It’s burned into my skull. May fourteenth, 1998, I…I had too much to drink. I came home, fell into bed, failed to secure my service revolver, and…”

Oh, God. I could see it in a flash of imagination. His daughter, walking in to see Daddy. Disobeying, as kids will do. Picking the gun up.

Pulling the trigger.

Bill, waking to that sound and a world-shattering nightmare of guilt, remorse, despair. Must have wrecked his marriage, too. Hard for a mother to forgive something like that.

My voice cracked. “I’m sorry, Bill. I really am. I can’t imagine how that must feel. But right now there’s another child out there. She’s missing, and someone might have her. I’m looking.”

Spreading his hands, he visibly steeled himself. “How can I help?”

“You guys monitor for North Bay Distributors, right?” An innocuous name for the company, obviously designed to keep a low profile.


“Tell me about the security system. Is it any good?”

“Pretty deep, though it’s geared toward monetary loss rather than burglary prevention.”

“Go on.”

“Well,” he scratched at the knee of his suit trousers, “there’s just one security guard on during the day, and none at night. If I was a heist crew I could crash the gate, ram the door, be in and out in two minutes with a million bucks worth of stuff and no way the police could react in time. No, their security system is state of the art, but it’s for preventing white-collar crime. Very tight access.”

“So it cuts their potential losses and ensures that any break-in is going to be obvious, quickly found out, and limited by the time it takes to fill a couple trash bags with expensive Schedule 1 narcotics.”

Bill smiled without humor. “Actually there are much pricier things in there than Oxy. Some specialized drugs go for thousands a dose. They’re kept in heavy vaults. No smash-and-grab will get those.”

“So, bottom line, it’s a lot cheaper to pay for insurance than round-the-clock guards or heavier fortifications.”

“Yeah. But what does that have to do with a child?”

I cleared my throat, trying to split the difference on how much I was willing to tell him. I had to keep his sympathy, but I didn’t want to spread so much information that it might get to the cops or elsewhere and endanger Talia. “Bear with me a little longer. If you wanted to make more than a quick heist…say, if you wanted to clean the place out of the good stuff, how would you do it?”

“Inside job, of course.” He looked at me as if I had gone simple, and then realized my question had been rhetorical. “The girl. Leverage. Who is it?”

“I –”

Bill’s face lit up as his cop mind went visibly into overdrive. “It has to be someone that works at the warehouse. There are six people that have access. Obviously none of them are a willing part of it or nobody’d be leaning on them. So one of them has a kid and she’s been taken. Give me five minutes to look them up and I’ll tell you who.”

“Damn, Bill. You’re wasted in this job.”

“I was a good cop,” he said simply as he stood with a convulsive motion and looked away. “But I made my twenty for retirement and this job pays really well, so…”

“I get it.”

“No, you don’t.”

Bill walked over to the fridge and opened the freezer. He rooted inside and came up with a bottle of vodka, unscrewed the top and took a long pull of the subzero liquid with the motions of a professional alcoholic. He saluted me with the bottle. “But now you do.”

I held my hand up. “I just saw your eyes light up with the old fire. You figured out what I had in five seconds flat. I bet you were hell on wheels back in the day. Look, I’m not asking you to come with me out into the field. Just work with me, help me by filling in what I don’t know.”

“Then tell me what you already do know. I’m going to figure it out anyway. Would you rather I started poking around separately?”

No, I really didn’t. An uncoordinated investigation might snarl things up badly, get someone killed.

I stared at him. My gut told me he was on the level even while my head nagged that he might be dirty. No. Nobody could fake the reaction I had seen. No way this guy could be part of anything that threatened a child. I decided I’d rather have him inside than out.

“Okay. The warehouse manager, Mira Sorkin, had her daughter kidnapped on Friday. They blackmailed her into revealing all the information for someone to get into the warehouse, but it doesn’t appear the heist has come off and they haven’t let her daughter go. She’s a wreck, as you might expect, and of course they told her not to

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The New Me

by Mary Marcus

Copyright © 2014 by Mary Marcus and published here with her permission


Last night I walked by my old house, something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. Since I’m the same old me, driving the same old beat-up Volvo, I parked a few blocks away and set out on foot. I told myself it was just the house I wanted to see, not really them. Next week is Easter and Passover. Days are longer now. When flowers bloom all year long, it’s hard to appreciate spring. But spring it is. LA style. The air smelled incredibly sweet.

Everything about my old house looked the same. It’s a comfortable Spanish two-story built in the twenties, one that’s much nicer inside than out. What’s weird is there was not a single potted plant outside the front door. I was counting on pots of daffodils and hyacinths, maybe some kind of spring wreath on the front door. Lights were on in the living room; one of the narrow front windows was cracked open.

When I lived there I used to crack a window to let out the cooking odors, particularly if I was cooking fish. I’m not nearly so fussy in these past months that I’ve been living alone. My standards were higher with Jules and the boys around. I used to be quite neat. Now days can go by where I don’t make the bed; I never would have done that before.

I stood for a bit just taking in the place, feeling apprehensive. What if they saw me? Parked there in the driveway, just like always, was Jules’ shiny Beemer with a metal chock wedged up against the back wheel so Jules won’t have to go nuts thinking it might roll down the driveway and go crashing into the house across the way. When I was in the kitchen cooking or upstairs late at night, waiting for him to arrive, the sound of the chock scraping across concrete would alert me he was home.

Seeing the Beemer parked there was like seeing Jules himself. Being Jules, he doesn’t believe in burglar alarms—according to him, just another thing to break—so I knew it was safe to run my fingers across its shiny white body, so smooth and impeccably clean. Like Jules’ body in fact. Touching it gave me a rush. Lydia’s car was also on the street—only Jules gets the small driveway—it gave me less of a shock to see her car, perhaps because it’s not as familiar. She’s still driving her bright blue Mazda with a Write Like A Girl sticker on the back bumper. Its roof was splattered with those berries—we used to call them shitting berries—back when the boys lived there with me, when we were a family. I could never figure out why they didn’t fall on Jules’ Beemer. Because Lydia is much like I am in certain ways, she probably just nonchalantly brushes them off with a paper towel. Completely opposite of the fit Jules would have if one single berry dared to land on his roof.

As I stood in the dark on the sidewalk, I still must have been in denial. But I inched in a little bit closer, because I was hoping for a glimpse of my cat Pasha. Like housecats everywhere, he spends most of his waking time staring out of windows. And indeed before long I saw a curved form on the window ledge, and in the shadowy gloom, the green glow of Pasha’s eyes. He was perched there looking out, taking everything in, but not making a sound. I felt like meowing as I used to and announcing, “Pasha! Pasha it’s me, I’m home!” I wondered too, if it was really Pasha, but of course it had to be. I would have heard if he had died.

Pasha is perfectly beautiful with gorgeous markings. When I lived there he was fat. As I stood there in the dark, I forgave him all his catty sins and fervently wished I had taken him with me. By the time I moved out, Jules and Lydia were so eager to be alone and rid of me they would have given me Pasha. It’s too late, of course, to get him back. Unless I sneak in there and steal him, which is a thought, but by now Jules must have changed the locks. That would have been the first thing he did once they got me out of the house.

Pasha was never that affectionate but he was my son Dan’s cat, then my cat, and if not the flesh of my flesh than certainly the fur of my flesh. If I was away from the house too long, particularly in those last years, I’d think, I can’t keep poor Pasha waiting another minute; he’ll miss me too much. Does Pasha miss me now? Right away he angled in on Lydia, circling her ankles, marking her with his handsome head. She seemed part of us right away.

“Lifeboat material!” Jules proclaimed after the first time she came to our house for dinner. And as I mentioned, faithless Pasha flirted with her shamelessly. “Lifeboat material” is Jules’ highest compliment . . . it means someone possesses a skill that would be useful to Jules in a life or death situation. Most of us dream of desert islands and what we’ll take there. But Jules sees only disaster, hence the lifeboat. With my former husband it is black or white, life or death. Never paradise with a favorite book or piece of music. Just life and death.

Pasha arched his back. There’s a pose in yoga called the cat stretch and that’s exactly what he’s doing. Lydia has a naturally flexible spine; I noticed that right away at yoga class, though a rank beginner she was excellent at the cat stretch. Funny, because Lydia and Pasha are quite a bit alike. Just like Lydia and I are alike in certain ways. Both are graceful, decorative, radiate an air of content, and are sneaky. Just for the record, I’m graceful and I’m decorative, certainly when I was her age, but never content. Not when I lived there, never for long. And admittedly, I’m sneaky too. Which is why, of course, I was on the outside looking in and not inside where they are.

Odd, how sound travels. I thought I heard cutlery against plates. Which meant that Jules and Lydia were having dinner . . . to my taste, a little late. But I never said Lydia was exactly like me, just enough like me to make us all feel completely comfortable. Jules most of all. Pasha was no longer at the front window. No doubt, he was heading for the warmer dining room and the smell of food. I was hungry suddenly, wondering what they were having. I rarely eat dinner these days, just a bite of this or that, a banana and a couple of crackers, some store-bought soup. I always fantasized about getting to eat exactly what I want when I want to, but missing a meal is never as satisfying as the fantasy that you get to. You find that out rather quickly.

I wonder if Lydia shares food with Pasha. When she makes herself a tuna sandwich, does she section off a chunk without mayonnaise for his little blue and white dish? And shrimp? Jules and Pasha both adore shrimp. Or does Lydia just throw him the scraps as most people do? Dear Pasha! When the twins grew up, I used to sing the same little songs to him I once sang to my boys when they were toddlers in their tub. I do hope Lydia shares food with him. She probably did in the beginning to copy me. If you do something for a little while, often it becomes a habit. Indeed, I was aware from the beginning how Lydia studied the way I did things. At first, I thought, out of deep sympathy and liking for me, the older, more sophisticated woman. And then after she fell in love with Jules, she studied me—she naturally would do better! Maybe in a certain sense I was her role model for a time, her mentor. Me, a role model? Then again, from what she told me, I was much better than her own mother. I found her a husband, didn’t I?

At first it was enough for me to stand on the sidewalk in front of the living room windows. But soon curiosity got the upper hand. Growing bolder, I quietly approached the dining room windows at the side of the house. Now, I was no longer a casual nobody walking down the street, but something of a Peeping Tom. In my case, a Peeping Harriet. It’s not the house after all, or Pasha, it’s them I wanted to see!

Just as this came to me, I was enveloped in a velvety silence. Like a good sauce, silence has a certain texture. Not a single car engine could be heard, so rare in LA, particularly in the densely populated communities near the beach. Now another chill passed down my spine . . . goose bumps on my arms. I heard a laugh I have no trouble recognizing as Lydia’s. Voice recognition must be like taste recognition. You hear the sound; you put the taste on your tongue. That’s lemon, that’s Lydia. There were months when I knew her well, and yes, I studied her, just as she studied me. I would know her laugh anywhere. All this time with Jules and she can still laugh? Lydia is lifeboat material. I moved quickly along the side of the house toward that low, delightful laugh. Standing a little away, I stared in the window. I don’t consciously want her to see me, but I couldn’t seem to budge; in fact, I stood like an old tree with roots digging deep into the ground. At that moment, it would have taken a bolt of lightning to budge me.

There she was! Young, gorgeous, raven-haired Lydia. She was sitting at my old kitchen table with her smartphone up to her ear, the characteristic pose of the twenty-first century. Will art reflecting our time capture this? I’m old enough to remember not only the good old days when the landline reigned supreme, but a time when people walking down the street having one-way conversations were headed for a rendezvous with the nut house, not a dinner date.

Even from out there, I could see the place was a mess. My old dining table was a junk heap. When I lived there, a platter with seasonal fruit adorned the center. I never let newspapers or books pile up. Most of the time, there were flowers. And not just any old flowers, ones carefully bought at the farmers’ market from the organic vendor who didn’t use sprays. I liked the look of a single flower stem pushed into an amber vanilla bottle; these I scattered about. I had so many of them left over from all my baking. If I didn’t have flowers, I stuck my homegrown herbs in. What a hausfrau I was. A real balabusta, Jules would laughingly call me. Every lifeboat needs a balabusta.

There was a movie playing on the flat screen mounted on the wall. Lydia’s wide, luminous eyes were following its every move—like my boys, she’s a genius at multi-tasking. Talk, watch, eat, stare at the computer screen, and up at the television screen, probably she’s got a remote in hand too. Lydia’s a screenwriter, so she was no doubt watching carefully as she ate takeout from different containers. The cutlery sound on plates must have been coming from another house, or I was having an auditory hallucination, or perhaps a little reunion with the old sounds that used to emanate from in there. Memories linger, why not sounds and smells too?

And where was Jules? Still working late? Even with this young hot thing waiting for him at home? And when he did come home, was it takeout (Lydia would say takeaway) now that the balabusta had been thrown off the lifeboat?

My eyes traveled to the corner of the kitchen near the red wall phone and the gleaming Sub-Zero. I knew it was there, but I couldn’t really make out the big color glossy of him. He took it himself, standing by the Harley with helmet in hand, a roguish smile on his handsome face. So Jules! Yes, he must have ridden the Harley to work. That’s why the Beemer was parked in the driveway; he’d taken the darker, far more dangerous sibling to work. Jules’ Harley, purchased in my last year there, was the penultimate irreconcilable difference. As much as he loved the Harley, that’s how much I hated the shiny gleaming thing and refused to ever ride on it. Lydia, being young and bold and all too eager to put her arms around my husband and to press her high, firm breasts onto him, went riding right away. She even got herself a leather jacket. Or perhaps it was Jules who got her the leather jacket, now that I think of it. He offered to buy me one, “go to Beverly Hills, woman, and charge it to me!” Jules almost never said, “charge it to me!” But I didn’t take him up on his offer.

“I’m not the black leather jacket type,” I told him.

Did I hear the roar of a distant motorcycle coming my way? Or was it just the engine of my memory? I didn’t want to be caught there, what would I say? I’m a ghost?

If he caught me, he probably wouldn’t be surprised. I can hear him say, “You can go home, now, Harriet, end of conversation!”

In fact, that’s exactly what I decided to do, go home, such as it was. But as I walked the familiar suburban streets that suddenly didn’t feel so familiar anymore, I couldn’t find my car. I guess I was in more or less a state of shock seeing the old place, and seeing her in my place. And like it or not, I found myself back with Jules in our New York apartment in the old, old days.

“Harriet, I’ve told you a million times, there’s nothing I can do about it! End of conversation!”

“Who are you, the speech police? Now you can talk. Now you can’t talk?”

“Lower your voice, the neighbors can hear you. You’ll wake up the babies.”

“I will not wake up the babies, they sleep like rocks!”

“A man can’t get any peace and quiet in his own home. I had a horrible day. I’m sick of New York. I’m sick of shooting commercials. I’m sick of the subway. If I get this movie, we’re moving to California.”

“If we move to California, I’ll lose all my customers.”

“You’ll make new ones.”

“What if I don’t? What if I’m just stuck with the babies in the I Love Lucy hotel waiting for you to come home—I don’t even have a driver’s license anymore.”

“Harriet, for the love of God, give it a rest. What happened to you? You used to be so skinny and sweet?”

“Are you calling me fat?”

“Who said anything about fat?”

“You said I used to be so skinny and sweet!”

“You were.”

“And what am I now, fat and mean?”

“Lower your voice!”

“My voice is low; I’m just expressing my consternation.”

“You’re so negative!”

“No, I’m not, I’m worried!”

“Shooting movies would be so much better than shooting commercials. Don’t you want me to be happy?”

“Of course I want you to be happy.”

“Good, that means we have to stick together.”

And stick together we did. For years and years. Even if Jules didn’t exactly fulfill his adhesive part of the bargain and was away on location when the boys took their first steps; when their bottom teeth grew in on the same night. When Dan got beaten up at school when he was five, it was my friend Lisa and I who taught him how to punch back.

“Where’s Daddy?” the boys cried. “How come he’s never home?”

Just when we were giving up hope, Jules would magically appear. There he would be with a big smile on his face, carrying tricycles for the boys, then bicycles. He taught each one to drive the stick shift, just like he taught me when we finally gave up our apartment in New York and moved to California the year the boys turned six.


I can’t seem to come back to the present. It’s probably all the endless things I must do in the next days before I board the plane for New York. My mind wants to escape. It seems vitally important to know exactly when this whole thing started. First it was Lydia and me. Then it became Lydia and me and Jules. Two’s company and three’s a crowd, especially when there are urges. It didn’t take long for Mother Nature to bring Lydia and Jules together and push me away. Have I mentioned I was the one who found Lydia? I was the one who brought the biological time bomb into the house. Lydia made no secret of the fact that she was longing for a house and a husband and a baby. When I brought her home that first day, she even looked around and said, “You’ve got it all! Everything I’d sell my soul for. I bet your husband is even handsome!”

Ticktock, ticktock, the time bomb was ticking away as relentlessly as the big kitchen clock that hung on the wall.

With the brilliant clarity of hindsight, I can see the fulcrum point of change occurred not after my boys went to college but right before. I was slicing onions when I started to cry on the set of my show, Healthy Harriet, which tapes at six in the morning, two days a week.

“My boys are leaving home. Empty-nest soup is what I’ll be making for Jules and me. Where did the time go? How many meals have I made in eighteen years? I tried to calculate the other day.”

I remember putting down my chopping blade. Mine was a middling- to low-rated show. I was a worker, not a star, and certainly not one with an attitude. I make healthy food, which in case anyone is interested, is not sexy and no one cares about it. I cracked a few jokes; I smiled for the camera. I was lucky I had a show at all and didn’t have to do catering. It was totally unlike me to start to cry in the middle of chopping. And I mean sobbing, with tears running down my cheeks. A startled technician ran to the set with a tissue. Then I composed myself. Which, being me, was much easier to do than showing my real feelings. I even managed to smile.

“Forget the empty nest; let’s try this another way…”

So we did another take and I made no mention of the empty nest.

“The secret to a good vegetarian soup is caramelized onion. . . .” I went about browning some onions in the trusty frying pan I used on the set.

“I use olive oil with just a speck of butter—a speck is quite healthy actually, lots of vitamin E.”

The camera came in close on me and the onions sizzling nicely in the pan.

“How long does it take to caramelize onions? Well I think of it as a road trip with young children: When are we going to get there? Are they brown yet?”

This produced a few twitters of laughter from the crew; they were generally very kind to me when I tried to work in a little humor.

Later at home, I was still convulsed with sadness. I felt like someone had socked me in the solar plexus. Not that I had time to be sad. There was so much to do before all of us boarded the plane the next day. We were going to drop Sam first in New York, and stay overnight at Jules’ mother’s apartment in the city. Then Jules and I were flying with Dan to Chicago the day after that. It was the first time in years and years our family was actually going to do something together away from home.

I ran up the stairs, stood in front of Sam’s door, and knocked.


Inside, I knew, my beautiful Sam would be lying in his bed, zonked out at eleven something in the morning with his earphones on. Nothing much packed or organized, every single solitary thing left to the last moment.

I shrieked, “Sammy, open up or you’re busted!”

“Okay, you can come in.”

I entered and looked around. The suitcases weren’t even opened. I wasn’t going to get in a fight with Sam on his last offcial day at home. Besides, I rarely fought with Sam. He was too charming and manipulative to fight with me.

“Your hair looks nice, Ma.”

I smiled, though I knew I was getting played. “You’re only being sweet because you’re high. It’s eleven in the morning and you’re in bed high. This does not bode well for your future!”

Sam sat up and pulled at the top sheet to cover himself. He already had a few hairs on his chest. Sam with hair on his chest did not seem possible. But I had felt this way when those first dark, wispy hairs began to sprout on both twins’ upper lips, and now I was used to their shaving. God protect us, the old saying goes, from what we can grow used to.

“It’s your fault. I’m rebelling against all your healthy food and clean living!”

“You’re nowhere near packed. Do you want me to help you? If you don’t want me, Valentina would be happy to. Just get up and get dressed for heaven’s sake!”

Sam plugged his earphones back in. “Cool it, Ma. It’s all good. It’s all okay.”

“But you’ve got so much to do.”

“End of conversation, Harriet!”

Sam said this laughingly, because “end of conversation” was a joke around our house. We were always imitating Jules behind his back, my boys and I.

I turned, left his room, and went to stand in front of Dan’s door.

Dan was born first, and on the surface he’s a lot less of a mess than his twin brother. His room was spectacularly tidy for a teenager, or anybody of any age for that matter. I knew when Dan let me in I’d see everything was organized and ready to go. Dan couldn’t wait to get out of the house. And though it pains me to admit this, I was even a little glad at the prospect myself.

I could smell the cigarette smoke from where I stood. I imagined Dan walking to the window where the screen was open and putting out his lit cigarette. Whenever I walked by the side of the house under his window, it smelled like a humidor.

“Okay, you can come in now.”

I walked in and smiled, trying to be casual and friendly. I was always trying to be casual and friendly with Dan, and we both knew I was faking it. What I really wanted to do was throw a fit and scream, “What the fuck happened to us, Dan? What the fuck happened to you? You’re a stuffed shirt with no sense of humor and I wasn’t such a horrible mother for you to hate me so much.”

I looked around at his room, which already seemed to be empty. Everything was packed, tidied, and in order. It reminded me of a smoking room at a hotel.

“I know you don’t need help packing. But is there anything else I can do?”

“No. End of conversation!”

There was no laugh in his voice. Dan was seriously channeling Jules. Perhaps even beating out his father’s cold, confident way of cutting off any possible flow of information or feeling—never mind love.

And also channeling that what-the-fuck look I knew so well.

“I’m your mom; I’m just trying to get close before you go.”

Dan looked me squarely in the face, some- thing he wasn’t in the habit of doing.

“You might as well know this now. If I don’t like it at school, I’m enlisting. Understand? With my grades, I can go in as an officer.”

This was the first I’d heard of this wretched idea. Though the minute he told me, I could actually see it in my mind’s eye: my stern, unhappy boy—the more sensitive of the twins, who used to write the most beautiful poetry when he was a little boy—morph into some four-star general with medals on his chest. Yes, I could even hear him calling out, “Atten-tun!”

I suppose my face must have shown my devastation. Dan surprised me by acting like a human being for the first time in months.

“I didn’t say I was doing it. I’m just saying it’s a possibility.”

For the second time that day I started to cry. Me, who had not shed a tear in years. “Killing people is the end of possibility. And the food sucks.”

“Just fucking leave me alone and leave my room!”

I turned and left. What I wanted to do was flip him off. What I ended up doing was saluting him. Then I closed the door and stood cringing in the doorway.

Downstairs, Valentina, my darling housekeeper, was sedulously mincing ginger with the small Global, her favorite knife. She was doing such a good job; the ginger was almost in paste form.

Valentina is young, not quite thirty, and beautiful, with thick dark hair and gorgeous eyes. She came to me when she was eighteen, just after Angel was born.

When Jules’ mother came for her yearly visit to the coast to see Jules and his half brother Freeman, she would invariably chide me with, “What were thinking when you hired her, Harriet?”

“Jules isn’t interested in Valentina, Gloria.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I know.”

“But how can you be sure?”

Jules always hid his toothbrush before Valentina arrived. He didn’t like her changing “our bed” and made me swear I would do it myself. He didn’t want her folding his socks, his underwear, and he didn’t want her going in his closet. Though she never said so, I thought the feeling was mutual: natural born enemies.

“That’s some of the best looking minced ginger I’ve ever seen,” I told her truthfully. “You could be a professional sous-chef.”

I sat down at the kitchen table.

“Sam’s stoned and Dan’s threatening to enlist in the military.”

“They trying to be men, Harriet.”

I felt like crying again. In fact, I put my head down on the table.

“I lost them both somewhere between kindergarten and condoms. Sam worries me a lot less than Dan even though he seems to be high all the time, at least he appears to be having fun.”

“I know what you mean.”

Paranoid suddenly, I picked my head up. “Do you know something I don’t know?”

Valentina shook her head. “What you need me to do?”

“Sit down,” I told her, “talk to me. Have a cup of tea. We haven’t visited in a while. How’s Angel? How’s Jesus?”

Valentina settled herself in.

“Jesus has work this week.”

Valentina hastily crossed herself and began to finger the crucifix around her neck. My high school years were spent at a convent so I did the same, minus the cross fondling, thinking that apart from the pedophile priests and the no birth control, how enormously comforting it must be to be Catholic. The rosaries, the beautiful cathedrals, the release of confession.

“Angel didn’t do so good in summer school. They putting him back.”

I felt a huge rush of guilt wrap its way around my ribcage, where the empty-nest pain now seemed to have taken up permanent residence.

My sons had money behind them, health care, and were headed to nationally ranked colleges. What was going to happen to Angel in free clinics and the shitty schools I never had to subject the twins to?

Just then the wall phone rang.

It was Jules. He sounded desperately rushed— ‘Only five seconds’ before he had to go back on the set. The gist of it was, though he felt really terrible, and was thinking he better go back to therapy because he didn’t know how he got in these situations, disappointing people, he couldn’t take the boys to school tomorrow. Something about the airdate, something about the network, something about the director who was thirteen years old and was a total fucking moron—on a good day! I’d heard this tale in many different variations over the years and I was always surprised anew, as though it was the first time it had happened.

Apparently Jules had just phoned the boys himself. Dan first, because everybody always puts Dan first. If you don’t, he accuses you of never putting him first.

“Did you tell Gloria?”

“No,” Jules panted, “I don’t have time. The director’s coming in five minutes. You’ll have to tell her for me.”

“So I have to stay with your mother myself?”

“Harriet, I’ll make it up to you, I swear it!”

I banged down the phone. Furious. How many times did I bang the phone down furious? I never learned to step away. To take a deep breath or to ask myself what’s really going on here? I was furious. And I stayed furious. And furious people don’t do anything but rage, get over it, and then rage again.

Valentina was looking at me pityingly.

“They moved the airdate on the show Jules is shooting. He’s not coming with us.”

“They never do what they say.”

“Jesus does what you say. He respects you.”

“I train him to be scared, Harriet. You can’t train Jules. He too stubborn. He won’t listen. He only thinking about Jules.”

Still livid, I closed my eyes, “I just don’t get it….”

“Harriet,” Valentina whispered.

“Yes, Valentina?”

“He only thinking about Jules.”

Later that day, I knocked at Dan’s door again. “Come in,” he called out, as if it was a stranger outside, not me.

“So I guess you heard the news?”

“What news?”

“About your Dad?”

“It wasn’t news to me. You always act surprised. I never thought Dad was going to come to begin with. He always craps out at the last moment.”

“You and I will take Sam to school. We’ll stay at Gloria’s. Then I’ll take you to school. We’ll have a great time! There’s eight zillion restaurants we can go to.”

“I’m going by myself. I planned to go by myself all along. I knew he wouldn’t come.”

Just then Dan’s phone went off. Dan’s signal was a dirge, depressing and atonal, as if he was never going to hear good news. Where on earth had he located such a horrible ringtone?

“Hey, Dad.”

My son listened, then nodded. I saw him smile for the first time in a long time.

“That’s great! Hey thanks, Pop.”

Dan tapped his phone. Then Sam burst in.

“Did Dad call you?”


I looked from one happy son to the other.

“What’s going on?”

“You two are staying put. The old man is going to give us the money he would have spent on meals and plane fare.”

I had wondered about the plane fare. Jules must have paid the extra bucks for flight insurance knowing he would probably crap out. I was fuming, thinking that he had better not have cancelled my seat.

“I’m still coming!” I told my boys.

Sam came over and put his arm around me. The left one with the giant tattoo of a German Shepherd head on his outer, very pumped up bicep.

“Why a German Shepherd?” I had asked him when he showed the horrible thing to me—and went on to tell me he had put it on his/ our charge card.

“I always wanted a dog.”

Another thing to feel guilty about.

“Mom, if Dad isn’t coming, neither are you. We need the extra money. You know how cheap Jules is.”

I looked from one beaming countenance to the other. I guess I knew then they didn’t really care if I came to college to set up their rooms. Sure, they would put up with me, but it’s freedom they wanted, freedom of course with their bills paid. I could relate to that, isn’t that what we all want, after all?

“Last chance!” I was teasing, of course, but some of me was serious. “So I guess you’d rather have the money, huh?”

Sam nodded sheepishly. Dan to his credit managed to look sheepish as well. I could tell they were excited beneath their kind show of good manners. Because it was written all over both my boys’ faces: Fucking A, baby! Free at last!

“Okay, okay!” I said finally. “So be it!”

The next day, Dan and I drove Sam to the airport. We parked the car in the lot, and as I was preparing to take him in, Sam hugged me and told me he loved me, but not to come in. Dan helped him with his luggage and I stayed in the car lot with the empty-nest pain throbbing in my gut.

The day after that, Dan ordered a taxi to pick him up at home because he refused to go through the guilt trip (his choice of words) I was sure to lay on him at the airport. He didn’t hug me or tell me that he loved me. He just looked miserable. But I could see it had something to do with the trouble he was having making this big separation. I helped him schlep the suitcases to the taxi. Only then, before he slipped in the door, did he turn, meet my eyes for a moment, and give me a little wave of the hand. It wasn’t a cheerful windshield wiper wave of the boy who wanted his freedom—but a sad little flutter of his long, thin fingers, like a bird struggling off the ground, unable to fly.

After he left, I spent hours walking from room to room in my house, looking around. I took down all the schedules and crap that was cluttering the Sub-Zero and gave it a good polish. How grown up it looked, how sophisticated. I even took down all the tiny little magnets I liked so much and that Jules hated and was always having a fit about.

“What if one falls in our food? What if Pasha eats one? I want you to buy magnets the size of silver dollars. Someone could die from one of these!”

Life and death. Black and white. At five, instead of starting dinner for me and the boys, I slung my mat bag over my shoulder and headed to yoga. I could even walk because I had the time. On the walk home, I picked up some take-out sushi, since I assumed Jules would be eating on the set with the ‘thirteen-year-old moron director’ and the rest of the motley crew who never went home to dinner either.

I felt wonderfully wicked eating the sushi in front of the TV set all by myself, with just Pasha to share with. I was pleased I had the foresight to ask for plenty of extra ginger, which I didn’t have to share with the cat. Eating in front of the TV is strictly taboo at my house. As is order-in pizza, order-in anything for that matter, as well as junk food, soda, the list goes on and on. No wonder the boys were happy to be away from me! I was such a rigid stick-in-the-mud.

In their earlier years, before all the big, ugly reports came out about MacDonald’s and Burger King and the quality of the meat they were purveying, I used to take them once a month to the fast food restaurant of their choice and even join them. Now, of course, since they are skinny and healthy and don’t have any fillings, I feel justified in my actions and glad that I stopped giving in even once a month.

The trumpets for Masterpiece Theatre were doing their thing when I heard the scrape of Jules’ chock outside the window sometime later.

Pasha thumped down and went to greet Jules as he always did.

“Hi,” I called out, “you’re home early.”

“We wrapped early.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You eat?”


“Anything left for me?”

“I had takeout.”

“Takeout? Standards are slipping around here.”

I didn’t say anything. I continued to stare at the screen. For the record, I didn’t have the remotest idea what I was watching. I was so overwhelmed with all sorts of new sensations—sensations that seemed to be streaming through me as though I was in a sci-fi movie with colorful lights and laser beams.

“Harriet? What’s going on?”

Again I didn’t answer. Or jump to attention (my default position) to show Jules that the balabusta was in the lifeboat, ready to do her thing. And, in fact, in one part of my mind, I could already see the little ad hoc feast I would assemble in less than half an hour, as I had hundreds of times before. Tomatoes were still in season and we had them. There were onions, garlic, and mushrooms, and wedges of two kinds of grating cheese. Not to mention jars of my own preserved peppers ready to dump over rice or pasta. And fresh herbs to garnish with. Of course there was plenty of frozen stuff ready to nuke. But Jules didn’t like nuked food.

Still, I didn’t budge.

I was exquisitely aware of the tremendous amount of effort it took not to jump up and head for the kitchen, peppy as Pavlov’s dog. I sat perfectly still, taking the smallest little breaths in and out of my nose, only just enough to get air in. By now the special effects had worn off. And I was starting to feel like a political prisoner hiding in a closet, terrified that any second the authorities would discover I was here and haul me away.

I mention terror because it was a form of fear. And not of Jules, really—I guess I thought I knew Jules inside and out, like that prisoner knows the inside of the closet—I was afraid of myself and what was happening to me. This new-found stubbornness was alien; I had no idea these feelings resided in me. Feelings that didn’t make me comfortable at all.

Nevertheless, I continued to sit there watching the screen. The room was quiet, just the British-y voices of the show hosts on the screen. It was unheard of for me to be watching TV at such an hour. Or any hour, come to that. I was always trying to go to sleep early so I could wake up at 4:00 for my show.

Jules sat down. He put his arm around me and started kissing my neck. Soon I was underneath him on the living room couch.

“We haven’t fucked on the couch in eighteen years.” He said this aloud, in the kind of voice you use when you know no one can overhear. “In fact, I think we should have another kid. It’s lonely around here; I feel old!”

… Continued…

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Text-to-Speech: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

O’Clair is a former Detroit homicide investigator who now owns a motel in Pompano Beach, Florida. He runs the place with his girlfriend, Virginia, who’s a knockout and can fix anything. One morning, he’s cleaning up after the previous night’s partiers when he sees a lovely young woman stretched out asleep on a lounge chair. He shakes her gently. Then he touches her neck and feels for a pulse. There isn’t one. Her skin is cold, body starting to stiffen, definitely in the early stages of rigor.

When a second girl is murdered, O’Clair knows someone is trying to send him a message. The way the girls are killed reminds O’Clair of a case he investigated years earlier. Now convinced the Pompano murders are related, O’Clair returns to Detroit Police Homicide to review the murder file and try to figure out what he might have missed.

And when Virginia is kidnapped by the killer, the stakes grow exponentially higher.
Praise for Eyes Closed Tight:

“…Peter Leonard has that rare ability to totally draw the reader into his story within the space of a few sentences…”

“…the dialogue…It’s great. It’s memorable. It’s funny…”

“A highly entertaining murder mystery!…”

an excerpt from

Eyes Closed Tight

by Peter Leonard

Copyright © 2014 by Peter Leonard and published here with his permission


O’Clair got up, put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, glanced at Virginia’s cute face and naked shoulder sticking out from under the covers, and went outside. It was seven twenty-five, big orange sun coming up over the ocean, clear sky; looked like another perfect day. O’Clair had moved to Florida from Detroit three months earlier, bought an eighteen-unit motel on the beach called Pirate’s Cove; it had a friendly pirate on the sign surrounded by neon lights.

The motel was at the corner of Briny Avenue and SE Fifth Street in Pompano Beach. Four-story condo to the north and public beach access immediately south, and next to that, a massive empty lot that a developer was going to build a twenty-five-story apartment building on.

The idea of living through two years of heavy construction had O’Clair concerned, but what could he do about it?

He’d brought a paper grocery bag with him and walked around the pool, picking up empties, a dozen or so lite beer cans left by a group of kids from Boston University who’d been staying at the motel the past three days. There were nine of them, three girls and six guys. They’d caravanned down from snowy Massachusetts a week after Christmas.

He fished a few more beer cans out of the pool with the skimmer, picked up cigarette butts that had been stamped out on the concrete patio, and threw them in the bag with the empties. O’Clair straightened the lounge chairs in even rows, adjusted the back rests so they were all at the same angle, and noticed one of the chairs was missing. He scanned the pool area, didn’t see it, glanced over the short brick wall that separated the motel from the beach and there it was, twenty yards from where he was standing.

O’Clair kicked off his sandals, opened the gate and walked down three steps to the beach. As he got closer, he could see a girl asleep, stretched out on the lounge chair, one leg straight, the other slightly bent at the knee, arms at her sides. She was a knockout, long blonde hair, thin and stacked, wearing a white T-shirt and denim capris, early twenties. He didn’t recognize her, but figured she was with the group from Boston. She looked so peaceful he didn’t want to wake her. “You should go to your room,” O’Clair said, looking down at her.

The girl didn’t respond. He touched her shoulder, shook her gently. Either she was a heavy sleeper or something was wrong. He touched her neck, felt for a pulse, there wasn’t one. Her skin was cold, body starting to stiffen, definitely in the early stages of rigor. He looked at the sand around the lounge chair, surprised it was smooth, no footprints. Glanced toward the water at the joggers and walkers moving by. O’Clair went back up to the patio, wiped the sand off his feet, and slipped his sandals on.

Virginia was standing behind the registration counter, yawning, eyes not quite open all the way, holding a mug of coffee.

“What do you want for breakfast?”

“There’s a dead girl on the beach.” O’Clair said, picking up the phone and dialing 911.

Virginia’s face went from a half smile, thinking he was kidding, to deadpan, seeing he wasn’t. “What happened?”


The cruiser was white with gold and green stripes that ran along the side, light bar flashing. O’Clair watched it pull up in front, taking up three parking spaces. Two young-looking cops in tan uniforms got out and squared the caps on their heads. O’Clair went outside, met them and introduced himself.

“You the one found the body?” Officer Diaz, the dark- skinned cop said.

O’Clair nodded.

“You know her?” Diaz pulled the brim lower over his eyes to block the morning sun, the top of a crisp white T-shirt visible under the uniform.

“At first I thought she was with the group from BU. Now I don’t think so.”

“What’s BU?” the big, pale one, Officer Bush said, showing his weightlifter’s arms, uniform shirt bulging over his gut.

“Boston University. Nine kids staying with us, units seventeen and eighteen.” O’Clair didn’t know the sleeping arrangements and didn’t care. They were paying $720 a night for two rooms, staying for five days.

An EMS van pulled up and parked facing the police cruiser. Two paramedics got out, opened the rear door, slid the gurney out, and O’Clair led them through the breezeway, past the pool, to the beach. The paramedics set the gurney next to the lounge chair, examined the girl and pronounced her dead.

Officer Bush said, “What time did you find her?”

“Around twenty to eight.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I looked at my watch,” O’Clair said, like it was a big mystery.

Diaz grinned, showing straight white teeth, reminding O’Clair of Erik Estrada, his tan polyester uniform glinting in the morning sun. “Did you touch the body?”

“Her neck, felt for a pulse.” O’Clair saw Virginia wander down, standing at the seawall with her cup of coffee, watching them. Officer Bush went back to the cruiser and got stakes and tape, then set up a perimeter around the dead girl, protecting the crime scene. The paramedics picked up the gurney and left, leaving the body for the evidence tech.

Diaz took a spiral-bound notebook out of his shirt pocket, wrote something and looked up at O’Clair. “Ever see her before? Maybe lying in the sun, walking the beach?”

“I don’t think so,” O’Clair said. “Someone like that I would remember.”

Diaz said, “You see anyone else?”

“College kids out by the pool.” He almost said drinking beer, but caught himself, he doubted they were twenty-one and didn’t want to get them in trouble.

“What time was that?”

“Around eleven o’clock.”

“Then what happened?”

“I went to bed.”

Diaz said, “Anything else you remember? Any noises?”


The evidence tech arrived carrying a tool box, set it on the sand a few feet from the lounge chair, opened it, took out a camera, and shot the crime scene from various angles. Diaz searched the surrounding area for evidence and Bush questioned the morning joggers and walkers wandering up toward the scene. O’Clair watched from the patio, leaning against the seawall. Virginia had gone back to the office.

A guy in a tan, lightweight suit walked by O’Clair and went down the steps to the beach. He had to be with homicide. The evidence tech, wearing white rubber gloves, was swabbing the dead girl’s fingernails. He glanced at the guy in the suit.

“What do you got?”


“I figured that unless you were doing her nails.”

“Not much here,” the evidence tech said, “couple hairs, maybe a latent, and something you’re not going to believe.” He whispered something to the suit that O’Clair couldn’t hear.

“Jesus, I’ve seen a lot, but I haven’t seen that.” The homicide investigator shook his head. “Where’s the blood?”

“That’s what I want to know.”

“How’d she die?”

“You want a guess? That’s about all I can give you right now. She was asphyxiated, been gone about four hours.”

“Who found her?”
The evidence tech turned and pointed at O’Clair above them on the patio. The detective came up the steps and stood facing him.

“I’m Holland, Pompano Beach Homicide.” He had a goatee and a crooked nose, early thirties. “What’s your name, sir?”


“I understand you found her.”

“That’s right.”

“You down here for a vacation, or what?”

“I own the place, bought it three months ago.”

“Where you from, Cleveland, Buffalo, someplace like that?”

“Detroit,” O’Clair said.

“Even worse,” Holland said, breaking into a grin. “Just kidding. I got nothing against the Motor City.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” O’Clair said.

Holland wore his shield on his belt and a holstered Glock on his right hip.

“You married?”

“Living with a girl named Virginia, helps me run the place.”

“The hot number in the office?”

O’Clair fixed a hard stare on him.

“How’d you arrange that?”

“I must have some hidden talents.”

“You must,” Holland said. “Tell me what you saw this morning.”

“Same thing you did—dead girl on a lounge chair,” O’Clair said. “Know who she is?”

“No ID. No idea. Have to check with missing persons. Was the chair left on the beach?”

“It shouldn’t have been. The lounge chairs are supposed to be kept in the pool enclosure. It’s one of our rules here at Pirate’s Cove.”

“Your guests break the rules very often?”

“Oh, you know how it is. Get in the Jacuzzi with a beer, without taking a shower, and you’ve broken two right there.” O’Clair paused, playing it straight. “The rules are from the previous owner, guy named Moran. I keep them posted ’cause I think they’re funny. Someone sat down and wrote them in all seriousness.”

“What do you think happened? This girl was walking by and got tired, saw your place, went up, got a lounge chair, brought it to the beach, lay down, and died in her sleep?”

“I’d ask the medical examiner.”

The evidence tech was taking off the rubber gloves, closing the top of the tool box.

Holland said, “What else did you see?”

“You’re asking the wrong question,” O’Clair said. “It’s not what I saw, it’s what I didn’t see.”

“Okay. What didn’t you see?”

“There were no footprints in the sand. Like she was beamed there.”

“So the wind erased them,” Holland said.

“You really believe that?”

“It’s the only plausible explanation I can think of.”

“What else didn’t you see?”

“No obvious cause of death. No evidence of a struggle. In fact, no evidence at all.” O’Clair looked at Holland, caught something in his expression.

“You sound like you know the trade,” Holland said. “What’d you do before you became an innkeeper?”

“Worked homicide in Detroit.”

Holland grinned. “I had a feeling. Then you must’ve seen her eyes were missing, right? Bulbs removed, empty sockets.”

“But no blood,” O’Clair said. “So it was done somewhere else. Find the primary crime scene, you’ll find the evidence.”

“You weren’t going to say anything?”

“It’s not my case,” O’Clair said. “I figured somebody was going to notice sooner or later, it wasn’t you or the evidence tech it would’ve been the ME.”

“Why do you think the girl ended up here?”

“I have no idea. Why don’t you roll her over, maybe you’ll find something.”

Occasionally there was a crucial piece of evidence under the body, a lead. It could be a round that would be tested for ballistics comparison against other homicides. It could be money or drugs, suggesting a possible motive, or it could be a cell phone that would lead to the possible killer or killers.

But there was nothing under the dead girl. No ID. No cell phone. Her body was bagged and the remains taken to the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office. They took O’Clair’s lounge chair too.

“It’s evidence,” Holland said. “You’ll get it back eventually.”

O’Clair doubted it. He knew what happened to evidence.

Bush and Diaz went upstairs, woke the BU students, and brought them down to the pool, nine kids looking hung over, yawning. Eight twenty in the morning was the middle of the night for them. O’Clair had noticed they usually didn’t get up till after noon. Holland questioned them one by one, showed photos of the dead girl, took statements, and sent them back to their rooms. No one knew or had ever seen the girl before. No one had seen anything suspicious or heard anything during the night.

The MacGuidwins from Mt. Pearl, Newfoundland in unit two, who had complained about the students making too much noise, were questioned next by Holland. O’Clair watched the fair-skinned, red-haired couple shaking their heads.

As it got hotter, Holland commandeered unit seven for his makeshift interrogation room and brought the other renters in two-by-two for questioning. There were the Burnses, Susan and Randy, from Troy, Michigan; the Mitchells, Joe and Jean, from San Antonio, Texas; the Belmonts, John and Shannon, from Chicago, Illinois; and the Mayers, Steve and Julie, from Syracuse, New York. Steve Mayer woke up with four-alarm heartburn at three-thirty a.m., got up, took a Nexium, walked out by the pool and remembered seeing the lounge chair on the beach, but didn’t think anything of it. None of the other renters saw or heard anything.

O’Clair walked Holland out to his car at eleven twenty, glad to finally get rid of him.

“Miss the life?” Holland said.

“Are you kidding?”

“Some things about it I’ll bet.” He handed O’Clair a card. “Call me if you think of something.”


She drove back from her date with Skip in Miami. What kind of fifty-year-old man calls himself Skip? God he was boring, too, talking about injection-molded parts his former company made.

“Like what?”

He’d put his champagne flute down, eyes lit up and said, “Escutcheon plates, center console assemblies, and sail panels.”

She was sorry she’d asked.

“We had twenty-five presses ranging in size from fifty-five tons to fifteen hundred.”


“Wow is right. We cranked out thousands of parts a day.” She thought Skip might soil himself he was so excited.

The pros: she’d only been with him an hour or so and had made twelve hundred dollars. The cons: he was boring and he had bad breath.


Now she was on Interstate 95, almost to Pompano, took the Atlantic Boulevard exit and decided to stop at Publix to pick up a bottle of wine and some groceries. She pulled in and had her pick of spaces in the almost empty lot, went in and bought a few things. When she came out there was a man on crutches moving slowly, trying to carry a plastic grocery bag in his right hand holding onto the crutch. She caught up to him and said, “Looks like you can use some help.”

“If you could grab the bag.”

“Where’s your car?”

“Right here,” he said, stopping behind a silver Buick.

She took the grocery bag from him. “What happened to your foot?”

“Ruptured Achilles.”

“Oh that must hurt.” Now she recognized him. He was a client. They’d met at the Ritz-Carlton in Lauderdale. She couldn’t think of his name, and wondered if she should say something.

He pressed a button on the key fob he was holding and the trunk popped open. She reached in and put the bag in the trunk, then felt a wet cloth pressed on her face, it smelled sweet. She tried to fight but didn’t have the strength. She started to fade and felt him lift her off the ground.


Frank had flown from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale right after Christmas. He wanted to see the houses and get the lay of the land. He’d put deposits on three, renting each for the month of January. Then he sat on the beach behind the Pirate’s Cove under an umbrella, watching the activity around the pool with binoculars, guests swimming and sitting in the sun.

O’Clair appeared occasionally, looking different. He’d traded his cheap suits in for shorts and T-shirts. Frank got a kick out of seeing the ex-homicide detective doing menial work, cleaning the pool and straightening the lounge chairs, jobs that seemed more suited to his IQ.

Frank enjoyed watching the good-looking, dark-haired girl who worked there. He would see her come out of the office to talk to O’Clair, or appear with a tool box in her hand apparently on her way to fix something. And there was the maid with her sultry good looks. She would arrive in the morning at 8:30, wearing a bright-colored island dress and a straw hat. Something about her excited him.

That night Frank had gone online and found Glamor Girls Escorts, South Florida’s premier escort service. He studied the faces of the girls in the gallery, liked one named Ashley, clicked on her, and there were eight more photos of her. The usual stuff: dressed up, undressed, and everything in between. He filled out an online application in his real name with his business and credit card information, e-mail address, and phone number. One of the questions: Had he ever been arrested? Although Frank had, he said no.

His application was accepted and he made a date with Ashley. The escort service booked a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Fort Lauderdale. All he had to do was arrive at the pre-arranged time and Ashley would be waiting for what was sure to be a memorable evening.


Frank rang the bell and the door opened. She looked better in person, blonde hair up, wearing a cocktail dress.

He stepped in and she closed the door and offered her hand. “I’m Ashley.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Frank.”

“That’s not the name they told me.”

“It’s my nickname.”

The floor was marble. She led him into an elegant eight-hundred-square-foot living room with off-white chairs and couch on an Oriental rug and a wall of glass that looked out at the ocean. He sat on the couch and she sat next to him, close but not too close. There was a bottle of Krug champagne that had already been opened in an ice bucket on the coffee table, next to it was a half-full flute with lipstick on the rim and an empty one.

“I started without you. I hope you don’t mind. Would you like some?”

Frank nodded. She picked up the empty flute, grabbed the neck of the bottle, pulled it out of the bucket, filled the flute halfway and handed it to him. She put the bottle back in the bucket, picked up her glass, clinked his, and said, “To us.”

Frank sipped the champagne and sat back. “You’ve got good taste.”

“I think it’s a great way to get things going.” Ashley smiled, showing perfect teeth and red lips, leaning forward, long, tan legs coming out of the black cocktail dress. “So what do you do?”

“I can see this was a mistake. My wife died a few months ago. I thought I was ready, but I’m not.” He put the flute on the coffee table and stood up.

“If I did something to offend you, I apologize.”

“It’s not you, it’s me. You’re a very pretty girl.” He started moving toward the door.

“If you change your mind, please ask for me again.”


It was dark when Frank went out and got his car. He told the valet he was waiting for someone, parked the Lacrosse on the side of the driveway, and waited. Fifteen minutes later Ashley walked out of the hotel and handed her ticket to the valet. She had changed into jeans and a blouse, a big purse slung over one shoulder.

He followed her Mercedes sedan to the Harbor Cove condos in Pompano right on the Intracoastal. She parked in a space that said: Reserved for 3C. He watched her enter the building, waited, and saw a light go on in a third-floor condo. He went to the building entrance and checked the directory. G. McMillen was in 3C. He wondered what the “G” stood for. It had cost him twenty-five hundred to find out where she lived, but it was worth every penny.


Frank was waiting in the condo parking lot the next evening at five forty-five when G. McMillen, aka Ashley, appeared, coming out of the building, carrying the shoulder bag. He followed her south on I-95, bumper-to-bumper traffic, trying to stay close without making it obvious. An hour later she got off the highway and drove to the W Hotel in South Beach. It looked like she had another client and he had no idea how long she would be. What if she spent the night? He parked on the street with a view of the hotel entrance. At eight o’clock he got out of the car, walked down Collins Avenue to a restaurant, picked up a Cuban sandwich and a Coke to go, and went back to the car and ate.

A little after nine she walked out of the hotel. Frank held binoculars, zooming and holding on her face. He saw the Mercedes pull up, saw her get in, and saw it come toward him along the circular drive. He followed her back to Pompano, thinking he might have an opportunity at the condo when she parked her car. Instead of going straight back she stopped at the Publix on Atlantic Boulevard.

Frank parked next to her, put on the walking boot, and poured chloroform on a handkerchief. He had bought it from an online dental supply company, eight ounces for $63.23. It smelled sweet, which surprised him. He got out, popped the trunk, and took out the crutches and a plastic Publix bag that held a six-pack of Coke. He made his way to the store entrance, looked through the big window, and saw Ashley at a register paying for a few things. He was moving toward the car when she came up behind him, and the rest was history.


Frank backed into the garage, put the door down, and opened the trunk. She was still unconscious. He lifted her out, carried her to the work bench, and tied her wrists and ankles together. He clamped the rebar in the jaws of the vise, and cut an eight-inch piece with the hacksaw and brushed the shavings onto the garage floor.

She was trying to open her eyes, lids fluttering, head sagging to the left, trying to fight the anesthetic. It took a few minutes and when she was fully awake she said, “Frank, I’m flattered you wanted to see me again.”

He wasn’t expecting that.

“I liked you. I was hoping you’d call.”

He had kidnapped her and tied her up and she was grinning and coming onto him. “What’s your name?”


“Your real name.”

She told him.

“I like that. You’re the girl next door, aren’t you?”

“That’s me.”

“Not really, you’re a prostitute.”

“I’m an escort. If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t have met.”

This whore was trying to con him, trying to save herself. How dumb did she think he was? He took out his phone, snapped a couple photographs, and took the X-Acto knife out of his pocket.

“Hear that?”

Virginia walked past him with a screwdriver in her hand.

It was the dryer making a strange thumping noise.

O’Clair said, “What is it?”

“Needs a new belt.”

“How do you know that?”

“Are you serious?”

Why was he surprised? She’d fixed the disposal in unit ten and installed a new faucet in fourteen. O’Clair followed her into the utility room, watched her pull the dryer out from the wall and turn it sideways.

“Need some help?” He pictured her as a sexy repair girl wearing a tool belt and high heels.

“No thanks,” she said, like he was getting in the way. Virginia took off the service panel, squatted and wedged a six-inch piece of two-by-four under the drum and cut the cracked belt off with scissors. Held the belt up and said, “See?”

No, he didn’t see and he didn’t say anything. When he’d met Virginia four months earlier she’d had purple hair, a stud in her tongue, and another one under her lower lip. She wore crazy outfits, black fingerless gloves, and a spiked dog collar—emo all the way. Once they got to Florida she changed her tune, stopped coloring her hair and wearing the goofy fucking clothes, and what do you know? She was a knockout.

O’Clair wondered what she’d seen in him from the beginning. He was forty-five and she was twenty-six and attractive. He’d never admit it but he was insecure about Virginia, worried she was going to wake up one morning, look at him and say, “What am I doing with a beast like you?”

But she stayed. Like he was her special project, trying to make him a little hipper and more interesting. She introduced him to new music, groups he’d never hear of: the National, Wilco, Arcade Fire, and Band of Horses. Introduced him to hip, new clothes, buying Tommy Bahama shirts, Revo shades, and platinum Fubu shorts. O’Clair had tried the new clothes on, looked at himself in the mirror and thought he looked like a clown, but wore the stuff for her, feeling self-conscious the first couple times he’d gone out in public, but he was used to it by now. He watched her install the new dryer belt and said, “Seriously, where’d you learn all this?”

“My dad.”

O’Clair couldn’t believe it. He’d grown up in a house with a tool drawer that had a screwdriver, pliers, a hammer, and a bunch of mismatched screws and nails. O’Clair’s father was a liquor salesman who sold Teacher’s scotch to the wholesaler, the state of Michigan. His father couldn’t do anything handy and O’Clair wasn’t much better. When he’d moved into his house in Ferndale he used the existing wall hooks to hang the few framed prints he’d acquired, none centered on the wall or the same height. Friends would come over and ask why O’Clair decided to put the pictures where he did. One girl he’d dated asked if it was influenced by feng shui. O’Clair said, “No, it was influenced by not giving a shit.”


He was cleaning the pool the next morning when Holland called.

“Girl’s name is Gloria McMillen. Cause of death was determined to be asphyxiation. Manner of death was ruled to be homicide. The killer had skill. Her eyes were surgically removed with some kind of scalpel.”

“Find out if it was an X-Acto knife,” O’Clair said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Was she sexually assaulted?”

“With a metal rod,” Holland said. “Why would he do that?”

“Maybe he doesn’t like women. Maybe he wasn’t breast fed or his mother wasn’t nice to him.”

“How do you know it’s a him?”

“You have to be strong to carry a one-hundred-twenty-pound girl from the street to the beach. It’s got to be seventy yards.”

“How do you know so much about this?”

“I had a case like it a few years ago, although the cause of death was way different.”

“You think the murders are related?”

“I’m not saying that.” O’Clair paused, but he was thinking it. “Guy named Alvin Monroe killed two prostitutes, shot them once in the head, cut their eyeballs out with an X-Acto blade, and raped them with a metal rod. Alvin was convicted of first degree murder and given consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.”

“A copycat,” Holland said.

Holland was watching too many cop shows. “Details of the murders were never disclosed in the newspapers.”

“Maybe somebody came to trial, heard the evidence in the courtroom.”

“Anything’s possible,” O’Clair said. “Why wait six years to come after me? Let me think about it, talk to my former partner.” O’Clair paused. “Tell me more about the girl.”

“Gloria’s mother called two days ago, said her daughter was missing, e-mailed a photo, came and identified the body. Gloria McMillen was twenty. She was attending classes at Broward College and worked as a cashier at Publix.”

“Gloria have a boyfriend?”

“Her high school sweetheart, a kid named Joey Van Antwerp,” Holland said. “But they broke up six months ago.”


“The mother doesn’t know.”

“I hope he’s on your list. Any evidence? Any other suspects?”

“Nothing yet. Not much to go on. Unless we get lucky.”

“You’ve got to work the case,” O’Clair said. “Make your own luck. How long you been doing this?”

“Eighteen months.”

“How many homicides you worked primary?”

“Six, not counting this one.” Holland sounded like he was apologizing. “How about you?”

“Fifteen hundred or so.”

“I’m going to Gloria’s place, look around. Want to come?” O’Clair did feel a sense of responsibility. Maybe Holland was right—someone was trying to tell him something. Holland picked him up twenty minutes later. O’Clair got in the car and said, “What’s the crime like down here?”

Holland glanced at him. “You talking homicide?”

“Yeah. How many murders did you have in Pompano last year?”

“Eight, and that’s high for a town with a population of just over a hundred thousand. Way above the national average.” Holland took a right on NE Fifth Street.

“What kind of situations?”

“Everything you can think of. Two were domestic, husbands killed their wives. Both arrested and prosecuted.” Holland paused. “One, a teen from Iowa arrived in town by bus, gave birth, and threw the kid down a trash chute. The girl confessed and posted a photo of herself on Facebook with a caption that said: People you will see in hell.”

O’Clair had investigated his share of dead babies: beaten to death by the mother’s boyfriend or the mother herself ’cause the baby was crying too much. It was something you never got used to.

“Had another one,” Holland said, “guy named Ricardo Arzate, killed his friend at a birthday party, shot him twice and disappeared. You see a Puerto Rican with a tat of the Virgin Mary on his right pec, give me a call.”

“Good luck,” O’Clair said. “You know how many Puerto Ricans have the Blessed Virgin tattooed on their chests?”

Holland pulled into the parking lot of the Harbor Cove condominiums less than a mile from his motel. They got out and took the elevator up to the third floor, then walked down the hall to 3C. Holland had a key, unlocked the door and they went in. It was a two-bedroom condo on the Intracoastal, beautifully furnished. “How’s someone who works at a grocery store afford a place like this? Did her parents buy it for her?”

“The mother said Gloria saved up.”

“I’d find out who’s financing it and how much she put down.”

They went in the bedroom that had a queen-size bed. O’Clair checked the big, organized dressing room, shoes on one side, lined up on floor-to-ceiling shelves, thirty-six pairs. Her clothes were on the other side. He wasn’t an expert, but everything looked expensive. O’Clair went in the adjoining bathroom. The counter was cluttered with make- up containers, smudges of color on the white Formica countertop, towels on the tile floor, shampoo, conditioner, bath oils, and candles lining the flat side of the tub.

The second bedroom was used as an office. O’Clair sat behind the sleek desk in a high-backed swivel office chair, going through the drawers, taking out things of interest: Gloria McMillen’s checkbook, pay stubs, phone bills, bank statements, lining them up on the desktop next to her MacBook.

Holland came in the room and stood next to him. “What do you have?”

“What do you want to know? She put forty grand down on the condo, had a fifteen-year mortgage, paying twenty- two hundred a month. She drove a Mercedes E-Class. Her lease with Mercedes-Benz Credit was seven hundred thirty-eight a month, and she had seventy-five grand in a savings account.”

“How would she have that kind of money making ten dollars an hour as a cashier at Publix?”

“She didn’t. Looks like she quit that job six months ago, but didn’t tell her mother. Gloria’s been getting a weekly check from XYZ Company. Different amounts, but adds up to almost one hundred and thirty thousand since July.”

Holland said, “Is there an address?”

“A post office box in Coral Gables.”

Holland rubbed his jaw. “What’s XYZ do, they’re paying a twenty-year-old girl two hundred and sixty grand a year?”

“It’s a shell company for an escort service.” O’Clair handed him a stack of eight and a half by eleven pages Gloria must’ve printed from the escort web site.

Holland started reading.

“Everything you want to know about Glamor Girls,” O’Clair said. “It’s all there: rates, reservations, customer rewards, FAQs. Spend fifty thousand a year and you’re a platinum member.”

“What’s that get you?”

“Complimentary limo service, discounts at hotels.”

“How much do they charge?”

“Depends where you’re at,” O’Clair said. “You’ve got the rate sheet.”

Holland shuffled through a couple pages, found what he was looking for. “In Boca it’s eight hundred to a thousand an hour, two hour minimum.”

“How about Pompano?”

“Doesn’t say, but Lauderdale is only seven hundred to nine hundred,” Holland said. “What a deal, huh? They take Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover. Listen to this: ‘Someone once said, “The best things in life are free.” Our classy ladies would love to hang out with you for nothing, but the reality is, hair, nails, makeup, and designer outfits are expensive.’”

O’Clair booted up the MacBook, brought up Safari, typed in the web site, and the Glamor Girls home page appeared. Rows of color shots of hot-looking girls wearing high heels, posing in bikinis and lingerie. Girls with names like Francesca and Desiree, Isabella and Darcey, Alix, Chandler, and Bayley. O’Clair had never met girls with any of those names. He scrolled down and saw Gloria McMillen in a casual pose, sultry expression. She was leaning against an ornate bannister, one leg straight, the other bent, heel hooked on the metalwork. The name under the photograph was Ashley. “So they don’t know she’s dead.”

“They suspect something’s wrong. Come in and listen to her messages,” Holland said, walking out of the room.

O’Clair followed him into the kitchen. There was a Panasonic answering machine on the brown granite counter over a built-in wine cooler.

“She was killed around four a.m.,” Holland said. “These came in later that morning. I think you’re right, the escort people don’t know she’s dead or they’d get rid of her picture, wouldn’t they?” Holland pressed the message button.

“Glor, it’s Pam, tried your cell, no answer. A gentleman named Rick is asking for you this evening, call for the particulars. Oh, and how was your date?”

“Pause it,” O’Clair said. “What time did that call come in?”

“Yesterday. Ten thirty in the morning.”

“Sounds like she was with someone the night she was killed. Which may or may not be the perp. But it’s a place to start.”

Holland pressed the button again. “It’s your mother, where are you? Are we still having lunch? I’ll meet you at the restaurant.”

“Glor, it’s Pam. Remember Barry from last week? He wants to know if you’re available tomorrow evening at seven. You’re becoming very popular. What’re you doing to these poor guys?”

“It’s your mother. Where were you? We were supposed to meet for lunch.”

“Call me by four or I’ll have to cancel your date. This isn’t like you.”

“Pam, the girl on the answering machine,” O’Clair said, “you’ve got her number, right? You should be able to get an address.”

.. Continued…

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The Last Letter (The Letter Series Book 1)

by Kathleen Shoop

The Last Letter (The Letter Series Book 1)
4.1 stars – 226 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Katherine wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t found the letter…

Katherine Arthur’s mother arrives on her doorstep, dying, forcing her to relive a past she wanted to forget. When Katherine was young, the Arthur family had been affluent city dwellers until shame sent them running for the prairie, into the unknown. Taking her family, including young Katherine, to live off the land was the last thing Jeanie Arthur had wanted, but she would do her best to make a go of it. For Jeanie’s husband Frank, it had been a world of opportunity. Dreaming, lazy Frank. But, it was a society of uncertainty—a domain of natural disasters, temptation, hatred, even death.

Ten-year-old Katherine had loved her mother fiercely, put her trust in her completely, but when there was no other choice, and Jeanie resorted to extreme measures to save her family, she tore Katherine’s world apart. Now, seventeen years later, and far from the homestead, Katherine has found the truth—she has discovered the last letter. After years of anger, can Katherine find it in her heart to understand why her mother made the decisions that changed them all? Can she forgive and finally begin to heal before it’s too late?

Praise for The Last Letter:

“Gripping historical fiction—A timeless tale of redemption…”
-NY Times bestselling author Melissa Foster

“…Shoop’s characters breathe…a gifted writer with a bang-on sense of atmosphere, time, place, and social class…”

“…like Little House on the Prairie on steroids in the best possible way!…”

an excerpt from

The Last Letter

by Kathleen Shoop

Copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Shoop and published here with her permission

Chapter 1


Des Moines, Iowa

Katherine rubbed the second knuckle of her pinky finger–the spot where it had been amputated nearly two decades before. The scarred wound pulsed with each heartbeat as her mind flashed through the events that led to its removal. Was it possible for an infection to form inside an old sore?

Don’t think about it. Just do your work.

She snatched the clump of metal from the stone saucer and scrubbed the iron pot as though issuing it punishment. She caught her forefinger on blackened beans. Damn. She sucked on the nail. With her free hand she yanked the plug from the soapstone sink then opened the back door. Hot, thick wind brushed her cheeks and forced her eyes closed as she yanked the rope that made the dinner bell clang.

With a jerk of her hip she booted the door closed and wiped her hands on the gravy-splattered apron that draped her body. A crash came from the front of the house. A ball through the window? Another wrestling match over the last “up” at bat? She dashed to­ward the foyer to see what her children were up to.

She tripped over the edge of the carpet and caught her balance, gaping at the sight. There on the floor was her husband, Aleksey, kneeling over her sister Yale. A shattered flow-blue vase lay scattered around them.

Yale burped sending a burst of gin-scented breath upward.

Katherine recoiled as the odor hit her nose.

“She’s drunk? Take her to my mother’s!”

Aleksey looked up, his face strained.

“Just help…”

She couldn’t handle Yale. Not right then. She turned and headed back toward the kitchen. Their mother would have to res­cue Yale this time. As though being scolded from afar, her missing finger throbbed again, like a knife scraping at the marrow deep inside her bones the pain forced her to stop. Her mother hadn’t been there when she lost the finger. Her mother was never where she was supposed to be.

Katherine looked over her shoulder at the pair on the floor and clutched her hand against her chest. Yale gurgled, growing pale grey. Aleksey hoisted her and carried her to the couch.

She looked down at her smarting hand, against her heart, and clarity took over. It wasn’t Yale’s fault she was fragile. She’d been born that way. She’s your sister. Do something. She puffed out her cheeks with air and then released it. Her anger receded taking the throbbing pulse in her hand with it.

She grabbed a pot of hydrangeas from a side-table and ran out the front door, shook the billowy, blue flowers out of the pot send­ing coal-black dirt splashing over the wood planks.

Back in the house she slid onto the couch, Yale’s head in her lap, pot perched on the floor to catch the vomit. Aleksey paced in front of the women.

“She was at Sweeny’s. Alone. Men, tossing her back and forth like a billiard ball. I barely…”

Katherine covered her mouth. She had enough of her mother’s failures.

“I knew this kind of thing would happen. And, now-”

“She’s your sister and I know you love them even if you say you don’t care. Your mother’s dying. We have to help them.” Aleksey’s jaw tensed.

Katherine bit the inside of her cheek, struck by his rare disapproval of her.

“You can’t ignore this one more minute,” Aleksey said, “seven­teen years is long enough to forgive.”

Without warning, Yale bucked forward and vomited, spack­ling Katherine with booze-scented chunks before passing out again. Tears gathered in her eyes. Hand quivering, she swiped a chunk from her chin with the back of her hand then smoothed Yale’s black hair off her pale, clammy forehead.

She gulped and gritted her teeth.

“If Mother can’t take care of Yale, then it’s time for the institution.” The words were sour in Katherine’s mouth, yet she couldn’t stop them from forming, from hanging in the air, the spitefulness making Aleksey break her gaze.

Aleksey pulled the pot from between Katherine’s feet and held it near Yale as she started to gag again.

“Yale can stay here. They both can.”

Katherine rocked Yale, not wanting to let her go, but knowing she had to hold her mother accountable. She was the mother after all. She shook her head and slid Yale off her lap, patting her head as she stood.

Aleksey rolled Yale to her side as she heaved into the pot.

“I’ll call Mother,” she said heading toward the stairs.

“I recall a time,” Aleksey said as he held Yale like she was one of his own, “when you called your mother, Mama, and the word swelled with adoration.”

Katherine turned from the bottom step, her posture straight and sure, like she was headed to dinner and a play rather than to scrape someone’s vomit from her skin. She gripped the banister trying to channel the mish-mash of emotion into the wood rather than feel it.

“I don’t recall that. Calling her Mama, feeling warmth in the word. I don’t recall it a bit.” And with that she trudged upstairs to peel off the rancid clothes and to stifle the rotten feelings that always materialized upon the sight of her family, drunk or not.  



Chapter 2


Dakota Territory



Jeanie jumped at her daughter’s thin voice. Katherine lay below her in tall sinuous grasses that bent with the wind, covering and uncovering her with each shifting gust.

“I’m hot and tired and when will Father be back?” Katherine rose up on her elbows. “I understand complaining is like an ice-pick in your ear, but I’m plum hot and plum parched and tired of wait­ing.” She jerked a blade of grass from the ground and bit on it.

Jeanie nodded and rubbed her belly. She was pregnant but hadn’t told anyone. Cramps pulled inside her pelvis. Would she lose this one? Nervous, she grabbed for the fat pearls that used to decorate her neck and smacked her tongue off the roof of her arid mouth.

She hacked up a clump of phlegm, turned her back to Katherine and spit it into the air. A sudden blast of air blew the green mu­cus back, landing on her skirt. Hands spread up to the sky, she stared at the ugly splotch marveling at how quickly her life had transformed. She would never have believed it possible before the scandal hit her own family.

With clenched teeth she wrenched a corner of her petticoat from under the skirt to wipe away the lumpy secretion. Her thoughts tripped over each other. Jeanie would not let doubt lin­ger, mix with fear and paralyze her. She would be sure the family re-grew their fortune, that they reclaimed their contentment, their name, their everything. If only Frank were more reliable. Damn Frank was never where he was supposed to be.

Arms wrapped across her body, Jeanie tapped her silk-shoed foot. They should head for water, but she didn’t think that was prudent. She’d heard people could lose direction quickly in such expansive land. That frightened her, not being in control, but she also thought perhaps the people who ended up wandering the prai­rie lost were simply not that smart or were careless. Slowly, as she ran her fingers down the front of her swelling throat, each scratchy swallow symbolized the wagonload of errors Jeanie had made and she started to understand that intelligence and survival did not always walk together.

Damn him. Five hours. They’d waited long enough for Frank. She pushed away the rising tears that grew from think­ing of the mess her father and darling husband had made for them. Be brave.

They needed to take action or they’d prune from the inside out.

“Let’s head for water.” Jeanie clasped Katherine’s hand and pulled her to standing. We can do this, Jeanie thought. Frank had tied red sashes around taller bushes that were scattered in the direc­tion of the well. Katherine wiggled free of her mother’s grasp and raced-as much as a girl could dart through grasses that whapped at her chest-over the land.

“Stay close!” Jeanie stopped and pulled her foot off the ground. She sucked back her breath as her slim-heeled shoes dug into her ankles. Katherine looked up from ahead, waving a bunch of purple prairie crocus over her head at Jeanie.

Jeanie turned to see how far they’d moved from the wagon. She could only see the tip of the white canvas that arched over it. She looked back in the direction of the well, of Katherine. The wind stilled. The sudden hush was heavy. The absence of Katherine’s lavender bonnet sent blood flashing through her veins.

“Katherine?” She must be pulling more flowers, Jeanie thought and rose to her tiptoes. “Katherine?”

Jeanie looked back at the wagon.

“Katherine!” Jeanie stomped some of the grass hoping the de­pressed sections would somehow stick out amidst the chunky high grass when they needed to return.

Katherine!” Jeanie’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat and shouted again. No answer. She shivered then clenched her skirt and hiked it up, thundering in the direction of Katherine.

KatherineKatherineKatherineKatherine! Bolting through the grasses, the wind swelled, it pushed Jeanie back as she pressed for­ward, turning her shouts back at her, filling her ears with her own words as she strained to hear a reply.

Jeanie stopped as though slamming into a wall, swallowing loud breaths hoping the silence would allow Katherine’s voice to hit her ears. Nothing. She ran again, right out of her luxurious, city-shoes, while cursing the mass of skirts and crinoline that swallowed her legs. Her feet slammed over the dirt.

The grasses tangled around her ankles, tripping her. Jeanie scrambled back to her feet and took three steps before taking one right off the edge of the earth. She plummeted into water. A pond. Jeanie stood and spit out foamy, beer-colored water. At least she could touch bottom.

“Katthhh-errrrrr-ine!” She slogged through the waist deep water, her attention nowhere and everywhere at once. The sounds of splashing and choking finally made Jeanie focus on one area of the pond. She shot around a bend in the bank to see Katherine’s face go under the water taking what little wind Jeanie had left in her lungs away.

Katherine shot back up. “Mama, Mama!” She dropped back under.

Jeanie lunged and groped for Katherine as the bottom of the pond fell away. Jeanie treaded water, the skirts strangling her ef­forts to be efficient. A bit further! The bottom must be shallow or Katherine couldn’t have bounced up as she had.

But the bottom didn’t rise up and Jeanie choked on grainy water. She burst forward on her stomach, taking an arm-stroke, her feet scrounging for the bottom. Her face sunk under the surface.

We’re going to die, Jeanie thought. Frank would never find them. Her boys!

Bubbles appeared in front of Jeanie and she reached through the murky water for Katherine. Finally, hands grabbed back, grip­ping Jeanie’s. She could feel every precious finger threaded through hers. Jeanie jerked Katherine into her body, lumbered toward the bank then shoved the floppy girl up onto it. Katherine lay on the grass, hacking and inhaling so deep that she folded over, gagging. Jeanie squirmed out and pulled Katherine across her lap, thump­ing her back until there was nothing left but empty heaves.

Silent tears camouflaged by stale, pond water warmed Jeanie’s cheeks. Her hand shook as she pushed Katherine’s matted hair away from her eyes, rocking her.

“We’ll be fine, Katherine. We’ll build a life and start over and be happy. We will. Believe it deep inside your very young bones.”

Katherine snuffled then blew her nose in her filthy, sodden skirt. Her voice squeaked. “Oh, Mama.” Katherine burrowed into Jeanie’s chest and curled into a ball in her lap.

Jeanie wiped Katherine’s mouth with the edge of her skirt, streaking mud across her cheek. She used her thumb to clean away the muck. Her daughter in need was all that kept Jeanie from roll­ing into a ball herself.

“My, my. We’ll be fine,” Jeanie said. And as her heart fell back into its normal rhythms heavy exhaustion braced her. “We’ll enjoy the sunshine all the more if we’ve had a few shadows first. Right? That’s right.” Jeanie knew those words sounded ridiculous in light of all they’d been through, but still they dribbled out of her mouth, as though simply discussing a broken bit of Limoges.

Katherine nodded into her mother’s chest. Jeanie shuddered, a leaden tumor of dread swelled in her gut. She wouldn’t let it settle there.

“Shush, shush, little one,” Jeanie kissed her cheeks. If Katherine and she lived through that they could live through anything. The pond event, as it came to be in Jeanie’s mind, was evidence they’d paid a price and would be free to accept all the treasures the prairie offered from that point forward.

“Are you crying Mama?”

Jeanie forced a smile then looked into Katherine’s upturned face.

“We’re not crying people.” Her fingers quivered as she tucked the stiff chestnut tendrils into Katherine’s bonnet. “Besides there’s nothing to cry about.”

Katherine gripped her mother tighter.

“I knew you’d save us, Mama. Even in Des Moines, I knew that no matter what, you could save us.”

Jeanie hugged Katherine close hiding the splintered confi­dence she knew must be creased into her face. What did Katherine know? She couldn’t know the details of their disgrace. She must have simply picked up on the weightiness of their leaving the fam­ily home for this-this nothingness.

Jeanie squeezed her eyes shut, trying to find the strength in­side her. She would not fake her self-assurance. She believed that kind of thing lived inside a person’s skin, never really leaving, even if it did weaken from time to time. Yes, Jeanie told herself, she was the same person she had been three weeks before. Losing every­thing she owned didn’t mean she had to lose herself.




Jeanie stood at the edge of the pond and inventoried her most recent losses: impractical shoes she shouldn’t have been wearing anyway; silver chatelaine that held her pen, paper, and watch; pride. Well, no, she was determined to salvage her self-respect. She clutched her waist with both hands, considering their options, then pulled Katherine to her feet.

“This standing pond water will poison us. We’ll continue to the well.”

Katherine patted her mother’s back then bent over to pluck some prairie grass from the ground.

The wooly sunrays seemed to lower onto their heads rather than move further away, settling into the west. Their dresses dried crisp-the pond-water debris acted as a starch-while the skirts underneath remained moist and mealy.

Jeanie wiggled her toes. They burned inside the holey stockings.

“Our new home will have a spring house, right Mama? Icy, fresh spring water?”

“I’m afraid, no, little lamb.”

“Oh gaaaa-loshes,” Katherine said.

Jeanie slung her arm around Katherine. “Let me think for a moment, Darling.”

The endless land looked the same though not familiar, appearing perfectly flat, though housing hidden rises in land and gaping holes that were obvious only after it was too late. All Jeanie could remember was running straight to the spot that ended up being a pond. Her heart thudded hard again reminding her she had no control of her existence.

A sob rumbled inside Jeanie, wracking her body, forcing an obnoxious, weak moan to ooze from her clenched lips. Toughen up. She pushed her shoulders down as her throat swelled around an­other rising sob.

Katherine pushed a piece of grass upward, offering it to Jeanie to chew on.

“You said you came around a bend, Mama.”

Jeanie closed her fingers over the blade of grass and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“We’ll curve back around to get to the point where we can head straight back toward the wagon. Then we’ll know where the well is from there.”

They held hands, traipsed around the edge of the pond and rose up a gentle hill. From there, they could see a tree. Just one. Tall, yet knobby, as though surrendering to death a bit. But, even in its contorted form, Jeanie could see its vibrant green foliage and white blooms.

Katherine pointed.

“I forgot the world had trees.”


“I’m thirsty Mama.”

“Don’t feel out of spirits. We’ll find the well. Better to ignore the thirst until then.” Jeanie wished she could take her own advice but she’d felt parched since she first perched atop the wagon seat three days before.

Katherine squeezed Jeanie’s hand three times saying “I love you” with the gesture. Jeanie squeezed back to say the same then looked away from the tree into nothingness.

They hugged the edge of the pond, following the bends back to the spot where Jeanie’s foot caught the cusp of the pond, tearing out some earth. Facing directly east, they headed back to where Jeanie thought the wagon sat.

“Get on my shoulders,” Jeanie said.

They faced each other with Jeanie’s wrists crossed, hands joined. Jeanie bent her knees and exploded upward swinging Katherine around her back. Katherine wiggled into a comfortable place on Jeanie’s shoulders and fastened her ankles around Jeanie’s chest.

“You all right, Mama?”

“My yes, Sweet Pea. All is well.” She was going to make all of that true. “Peel your eyes for the wagon.” Jeanie plodded, feeling Katherine’s weight quickly, thinking of the baby inside.

“Yes, Mama.” Katherine hummed a tune.

“Concentrate on the looking,” Jeanie said.

“The humming helps me look.”

“Well, then,” Jeanie said through heavy breaths. “Keep those eyes wide as a prairie night.”

“Wide as a what?” Katherine said.

“A prairie night,” Jeanie said. Katherine’s legs stiffened and she pulled hard around Jeanie’s neck.

Jeanie halted, absorbing Katherine’s tension.

“What’s wrong? What do you see?” Jeanie looked upward at Katherine’s face above her. She squeezed Katherine’s thigh to get her attention. Were they about to step into a snake pit, be tram­pled by a herd of cows?

“What is it?”

“A man,” Katherine said.

“Who?” Ridiculous question in light of them not knowing a soul in Dakota.

Katherine’s legs kicked-she gripped Jeanie’s bonnet making its ties nearly choke her.

Jeanie’s heart began its clunking patterns again.


Katherine didn’t respond so Jeanie swung her from her shoul­ders and tucked her behind her skirts. Jeanie glanced about the ground for something sharp or big. There was nothing that could be used as a weapon against a small rodent let alone a man.

Katherine clenched Jeanie so tight that the two nearly flew off their feet. Steadied, Jeanie couldn’t see anyone coming toward them. Her bare feet pulsed with pain making her feel more vulnerable. Katherine must be hallucinating, the thirst taking its toll on her.

Jeanie spun in place, craning for the sight of a man, the sound of feet, but a windblast made anything that might emit noise, soundless.

For a moment Jeanie was tempted to burrow into the grasses, hide there, play dead, anything to avoid the man, if there was a man. A new burst of sweat gathered at her hairline and dripped down the sides of her face. Katherine’s fingers delved into the loos­ened stays of Jeanie’s corset.

“Who’s there?” Jeanie yelled into the wind. She shuddered. She could feel someone watching them. She whirled again, Katherine whipped around with her.

Who’s there?” Jeanie shouted. This time her words tore through the air, the winds momentarily still.

“It’s Howard Templeton! Jeanie Arthur? That you?” A full, gruff voice came from behind. Jeanie and Katherine twisted around a final time. Jeanie’s body relaxed. If he knew her name it must be a good sign. She tensed again, maybe not. Maybe he tortured Frank and the boys and…she wouldn’t think about it. This Templeton sported a pristine black hat. His ropy limbs were strong though not bulky, not threatening in any setting other than that of the naked prairie.

Jeanie shaded her eyes and looked into his six feet two inches, meeting his gaze. A crooked grin pulled his mouth a centimeter away from being a smirk.

“Mrs. Arthur, I presume? There. That’s more proper, isn’t it? Don’t be nervous.”

“It was the wind,” Jeanie said. You scared me blind, she wanted to say, but wouldn’t. “I couldn’t pinpoint…well, no matter.” She wasn’t accustomed to making her own introductions. It felt rude to say, who are you? So, she said nothing.

Templeton removed his hat and bent at the waist, lifting his eyes. Was he flirting with this dramatic bow? She grabbed for absent pearls then smoothed the front of her dress before pulling Katherine into her side.

He straightened, replaced his hat.

“I met your husband, Frank, on his way to stake a claim.”

Jeanie flinched. Where was Frank?

Templeton jammed one of his mitts toward Jeanie, offering a handshake. She stepped backward while still offering her hand in return.

He clasped her hand inside both of his. They were remarkably soft for a man ferreting out a home on the prairie. He held the handclasp and their gaze. Jeanie looked away glimpsing their joined hands. She cleared her throat and wormed her hand out of his.

She wished there had been a manual pertaining to the etiquette of meeting on the prairie. Etiquette should have traveled anywhere one went, but she could feel, standing there embarrassed in so many ways, how unreliable everything she had learned about life would be in that setting. Jeanie ran the freed hand over her bonnet, straightening it then smoothing the front of her pond-mucked skirt.

Templeton shifted his weight, and drew Jeanie’s attention back.

“I advised your Frank to jump a claim. To take up in the Henderson’s place. That family never proved up and rather than you starting from scratch, I figured you might as well start from something. Besides, I miss having a direct neighbor. Darlington Township might have well over a hundred homesteads settled, but it’s really the few closest to you, the ones you form cooperatives with, that matter.”

Jeanie swallowed hard. She eyed his canteen and had to hold her hand back to keep from rudely snatching it right off his body.

“Well, I’m not keen on jumping a claim, Mr. Templeton. I’ll have to consult my own inclination before we put pen to paper on that.”

She bit the inside of her mouth, regretting she’d lost her man­ners, her mind.

“I’m sorry. My manners. It’s a pleasure to meet you. This is my daughter Katherine.”

Katherine smiled. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Templeton shook her hand then folded his arms across his chest.

“You, Katherine, are the picture of your father. Prettier though, of course, with your mother’s darker coloring, I see.”

Katherine reddened, peered upward from under her bonnet then darted away, leaping and spinning.

“Stay close!” Jeanie said.

“So what bit you with good old prairie fever?” Templeton asked.

Jeanie looked around as though something drew her attention. She hadn’t considered what her response to that query would be. Her heart burst at the chest wall. Templeton’s quiet patience, his steadfast gaze heightened Jeanie’s discomfort.


“I know all about circumstances,” Howard said.

“I don’t mean to be ill-mannered, but…” Jeanie eyed the can­teen Templeton had slung across his body.

He rubbed his chin then slid the strap over his head.

“Frank sent me with some water, figured you’d need it, that I’d be the best person to find you.”

“Water, thank you, my yes.” Jeanie licked her lips.

He handed it to Jeanie. Her hands shook, nearly dropping it as she unclasped the catch. She would give her daughter the first drink.

“Katherine! Water!”

Katherine skipped toward them. She took the canteen, shoul­ders hunched, eyes wide as they had been on Christmas morning.

“Watch, don’t dribble.” Jeanie held her hands up under the canteen. She forced her gaze away, knowing she must look crazed, staring at Katherine’s throat swallowing, barely able to wait her turn.

Katherine stopped drinking and sighed, eyes closed, content. She held the canteen to her mother.

Jeanie threw her head back, water drenching her insides. The liquid engorged every cell of her shriveled body. She took it from her lips and offered it back to Katherine.

“You finish up,” Jeanie said, cupping Katherine’s chin, lifting it to get a good look into her now glistening eyes.

“There’s got to be plenty back at the wagon now, right, Mr. Templeton?” Jeanie said.

He didn’t reply. He squatted down, squinting at Jeanie’s bare feet.

“You’re not going another inch with naked feet and phalanges. What a great word, I haven’t had use for since, well, never mind that,” Templeton said.

Katherine’s eyes widened.

“I’ll thank you to find your manners, Mr. Templeton,” Jeanie said stepping back.

“Don’t be harebrained, Mrs. Arthur. Allow me to wrap your feet so they’re protected should you step on a rattler, or into a go­pher hole. I’ll be as doctorly as possible.” Templeton stood and unbuttoned his shirt.

Jeanie waved her hands back and forth. “No, now, no, now please don’t do…” But before she could arrange her words to match her thoughts, Templeton ripped his shirt into strips and helped Jeanie to the ground. He turned her left foot back and forth. Jeanie’s eyes flew wide open, her mouth gaping.

Katherine sighed with her entire body.

“Sure am glad we stumbled upon Mr. Templeton. My mama wasn’t trying to be dis­agreeable. She’s just proper is all.”

“Katherine Margaret Arthur.” Jeanie snatched for her daughter’s arm, but she leapt away, humming, cart-wheeling. Jeanie’s face flamed.

Templeton’s deep laugh shook his whole body. He began to wrap her foot. “These feet look to have been damaged by more than a simple run across the land.”

Jeanie bit the inside of her cheek. She wouldn’t confide her utter stupidity to a stranger.

“Let me guess,” Templeton said. “I’d say you had a little trou­ble parting with your city shoes? Perhaps? The way your feet are lacerated below the ankles, as though stiff shoes meant for decora­tion more than work had their way with you?”

“Stay close Katherine!” Jeanie shouted to avoid admitting that in fact, she’d kept three pairs of delicate, pretty shoes and only traded one for a pair of black clodhoppers. The clodhoppers that bounced out of the back of the wagon just beyond their stop in Yankton.

Jeanie flinched as Templeton bandaged the other foot.

“Did I hurt you?”

Jeanie covered her mouth then recovered her poise.

“No. Let’s finish this production and get moving.” It was then Jeanie realized she was shoeless-and not temporarily speaking. She wouldn’t be able to sausage her swollen feet into the pretty shoes and she had nothing utilitarian in reserve. Frank was a miracle worker with wood, but wooden shoes? That wasn’t an option.

Templeton whistled.

“Nice you have such a grand family to cheer you while you make your home on the prairie. Times like this I wish I had the same. No wife, no children to speak of.”

“You’re unmarried?” Jeanie smoldered at the thought that not only a strange man handled her feet, her naked toes, but one who was batching-it! A scandal in the eyes of many. Thankfully, there were no prying eyes to add this outrage to her hobbled reputation.

Templeton snickered repeatedly as he moved with a doctor’s detachment. The feel of hands so gently, though firmly, caring for her, nearly put Jeanie in a trance. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had done such a thing for her.

“There. Good as new. Until we get you to the wagon, anyway. I assume you have another pair of boots there.”

“Well, I uh, I…” She told herself to find her composure, that she was one step away from a reputation as an adventuress or an imbecile if she didn’t put forth the picture of a respectable woman.

“Had a shoe mishap?”

“It could be characterized that way.” Jeanie wanted to die. How stupid could she have been?

She turned one foot back and forth and then the other before having no choice but to look at Templeton and thank him for his assistance. Blood seeped through bandages and she nodded know­ing he had been right. She’d have been wrought with infection and open to the bone if he hadn’t wrapped her.

“Thank you Mr. Templeton. I thank you sincerely.” Jeanie put her hand over her heart.

He pulled Jeanie to her feet.

“My pleasure.” Templeton gave another shallow bow then tied an extra shred of his white shirt to a small cobwebby bush to use as a landmark, to show Jeanie and Katherine how the prairie land could work against even the most knowledgeable pioneer.

Jeanie knew she’d been careless that day, but she certainly didn’t need white ties all over the prairie to keep her from getting lost again. She’d be more vigilant next time.

Move on, Jeanie. No time for moping. Jeanie drew back and lifted her skirts. She stepped onto the fresh bandages then snapped her foot back in pain. She held her breath and pressed forward ignoring the pain.

“It’s this way,” Templeton said. “You’re turned around.”

Jeanie halted. Her face warmed further than the heat and anxi­ety had already flushed it.

“I suppose I’ve made some dire errors today, Mr. Templeton.”

“I suppose we all do at first, Mrs. Arthur.”

Jeanie puckered her lips in front of unspoken embarrassment. When was the last time she’d faced a string of endless failures? Never. She wondered if that could be possible, or if she was just making such a fact up in her mind.

“This way, my sweet!” Jeanie pushed her shoulders back, tugged her skirts against her legs and took off in the correct di­rection, Katherine beside her with Templeton just behind, gently guiding them back to Jeanie’s family, back to the life she didn’t think she could actually live with, but would not survive without.


Chapter 3


Des Moines, Iowa

In the three days since Yale had stumbled drunk into Katherine and Aleksey’s home, the couple had made the decision that their Edwardian home, even with four children, allowed more than enough space to care for both the cancer-stricken Jeanie and Yale, who was slow. There wasn’t much to do in the way of transporting her sister and mother’s belongings into Katherine’s home for other than two trunks and some hanging clothes; they did not own a single item that needed to be moved.

It wasn’t Katherine’s decision to have them come. She resisted with all her might but Aleksey, had for the first time in their mar­riage, asserted the type of overbearing male dominance so many men reveled in regularly. He told Katherine she had no choice but to let Jeanie and Yale live with them. It was Katherine’s duty to nurse her mother back to life or onward to death and it was her job to comfort and house her struggling sister.

Katherine stood in their doorway and watched Aleksey help Jeanie, one awkward step after another, up the front steps and across the porch. Katherine may not have remembered any warmth toward her mother, any sweet, shared moments or precious mother/ daughter secrets, but she felt them from time to time, inside her skin, down in her soul, coursing through her body. Below the surface of her conscious mind was the memory of a woman she once adored. Normally when that flash of love for her mother shot through Katherine, she pushed it away, and let the resentment, the gritty hate that seemed to be layered like bricks, weigh on the goodness, squashing it out.

But now, with her mother being ushered into her home for Katherine to tend until she took her final breath, she let the shot of warm feelings sit a bit; saturate her mind, hoping the sensation would allow her to cope.

As Aleksey and Jeanie entered the front room, Katherine watched Jeanie’s gaze fall over the carved-legged mohair davenport, velvet chair, and an oil painting done by Katherine herself. The thick Oriental rug drew Jeanie’s attention, then when Katherine pushed the button, the diamond-like chandelier jumped to life, drawing Jeanie’s gaze before she settled it back on Katherine’s painting, one she’d done when they lived on the prairie.

Jeanie’s once graceful posture was hunched over an ugly black cane as her hand opened and closed around the handle as though the action soothed her. Jeanie’s brown hair, pulled tight into a bun, was thin, sprouting out of the severe style. The frail woman straightened, stared at the painting then brushed the front of her dress before falling hunched over her cane again.

Katherine told herself to find the love she wanted to feel. She took Jeanie’s elbow and helped her to the couch, hoping it didn’t smell like the old hound that often curled on one corner.

Aleksey kissed Jeanie’s cheek and took her cane, supporting that side as they shuffled to the davenport. Acid rose up inside Katherine and blossomed into full envy at the warmth Aleksey showed Jeanie-the fact that he could touch her without looking as though his skin would combust on contact, as Katherine felt hers would.

Katherine gritted her teeth as she and Aleksey turned Jeanie and settled her onto the davenport. She sighed and squinted at Aleksey. She loved him more than anyone except their own children, but this may be too much.

“I’ll get that sweet tea you made, Katherine.” Aleksey headed toward the hall.

Katherine couldn’t have guessed exactly what her mother was thinking, but the puckered lips and narrowed brows didn’t look positive.

“Well,” Jeanie said. “You’re a little late with your spring cleaning, but the place is respectable all the same. I can see you purchase things that last.” Jeanie smoothed her dress over her knees then smiled at Katherine.

“I know you mean that as a joke, Mother, but I don’t appreci­ate it.”

Jeanie scowled and Katherine flinched, waiting for hard words in return. Her mother opened her mouth and closed it then stared toward the painting with reed straight posture.

The pounding of the ice pick as Aleksey split the ice into cold slivers mimicked Katherine’s heartbeat. She took a deep breath. How could a person feel so uncomfortable with the very person who gave her life? She prayed for Aleksey to speed it up in the kitchen as time moved like a fly in honey for the two in the front parlor.

With a startling jerk, Jeanie grasped Katherine’s hand. She jumped in her seat, so surprised that her mother actually touched her. She stared at their hands then at her mother’s profile. Jeanie gazed at the moody landscape Katherine had created on that awful day so long ago.

“You were such a beautiful artist,” Jeanie said. “I remember when you did that one.”

Prickly heat leapt between their hands, making Katherine sweat with anxiety. Jeanie caught her confused expression then squeezed her daughter’s hand three distinct times. I love you. Each unspoken word was hidden in the three contractions of Jeanie’s grip. Katherine nearly choked on swelling anger as she fought the burst of tears that threatened to fall.

With her free hand, Jeanie brushed some hair back from Katherine’s face. Katherine, still as marble, wanting her mother to stop touching her, cleared her throat, feeling like she might pass out.

“Oh, I know,” Jeanie said. “So very serious you are. I was once that way…I…well. I’m sorry, Katherine. I shouldn’t have…I should have told you everything years ago, but…” Jeanie’s gaze went back to the painting. “I want to explain.”

Katherine nodded once but angled her shoulders away, trying to put as much space between them as possible. Katherine couldn’t go down that old prairie path again. It was too late for explana­tions. She would have sprinted out the door, but her legs were numb. The only energy in her body seemed to exist inside the space between her and her mother’s intertwined fingers. Hurry Aleksey. Katherine closed her eyes. Aleksey returned with a tray and tea, ice cubes clinking in the tall glasses.

He set the tray on the table in front of the women. Katherine silently begged him to notice her blood had rushed to her feet, that he should hoist her over his shoulder and take her away from this woman who, in merely touching Katherine, made her unable to render useful thought, to move, to live.

Trust Aleksey, Katherine told herself. She told herself to hope, to believe that something would be gained from this operation- from what Katherine saw as self-inflicted torture.

But, with Aleksey standing there, handing out tea, acting as though it were perfectly normal that Jeanie was there, with Yale asleep upstairs, Katherine decided she might never speak to Aleksey again.


Chapter 4


Dakota Territory

Jeanie, Katherine, and Templeton crested a hill and stopped. Jeanie was eager to get to their wagon but relieved to give her smarting feet a break. She lifted one foot then the other, grimacing, as Templeton discussed their trek up to that point. He motioned back in the direction they had come, where he had tied a piece of his shirt to a bush, saying that even though the path to the crest upon which they stood had risen slightly and slowly, that Jeanie should always be aware of how deceptive the prairie land could be.

She turned in place, taking it in, seeing that on that sloping land the world seemed to open up but also it hid things. The fat, blue sky stretched in every directio

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The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky

by David Litwack

The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky
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Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

After centuries of religiously motivated war, the world has been split in two. Now the Blessed Lands are ruled by pure faith, while in the Republic, reason is the guiding light — two different realms, kept apart and at peace by a treaty and an ocean.

Children of the Republic, Helena and Jason were inseparable in their youth, until fate sent them down different paths. Grief and duty sidetracked Helena’s plans, and Jason came to detest the hollowness of his ambitions.

These two damaged souls are reunited when a tiny boat from the Blessed Lands crashes onto the rocks near Helena’s home after an impossible journey across the forbidden ocean. On board is a single passenger, a nine-year-old girl named Kailani, who calls herself The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky. A new and perilous purpose binds Jason and Helena together again, as they vow to protect the lost innocent from the wrath of the authorities, no matter the risk to their future and freedom.

But is the mysterious child simply a troubled little girl longing to return home? Or is she a powerful prophet sent to unravel the fabric of a godless Republic, as the outlaw leader of an illegal religious sect would have them believe? Whatever the answer, it will change them all forever — and perhaps their world as well.
Praise from readers:

“…original and compelling…will keep readers riveted…”

“The characters in this story…warmed my heart, wet my eyes, and — in the case of Benjamin — made me shudder…”

an excerpt from

The Daughter of the Sea
and the Sky

by David Litwack

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.— Albert Einstein


The Minister of Commerce trudged up to the steel hut at the peak of the land bridge, a path he’d climbed a hundred times or more. But never before had it felt so steep.

The land bridge was a patch of red clay kept stripped of vegetation by the two governments, though few plants would have grown there anyway. A black metal barrier topped by jagged spikes surrounded the compound, with the sole access through two gates, one to the east and the other to the west. They called them asylum gates because any refugee who passed through them, even by a hair’s breadth, had the right to request asylum from the other side.

At the crest of the hill stood the meeting center, a white and green structure, once shiny and new, now faded almost to gray. Small wonder. It had been built fifty-two years ago as part of the Treaty of Separation. Perhaps the time had come to dismantle it and build a new one, or at least bake on a new layer of paint.

It straddled a negotiated boundary and provided the only contact between the minister’s people and the soulless, races that had kept apart—except in time of war—since the Great Sundering. At least that was the story preached by the senkyosei from their pulpits. According to them, Lord Kanakunai, creator of the Spirit, in response to the folly of reason, had sundered the world into two identical landmasses: The Blessed Lands for believers, and The Republic for the soulless. These He separated by a great ocean, leaving only this slender spit of earth at the top, like a windpipe connecting the nodes of the lungs.

But as the senkyosei loved to say, only one side possessed a heart.

The Minister of Commerce’s first encounter with the soulless had been as a young bureaucrat coming to evaluate refugees requesting transmigration to The Blessed Lands. Back then, he needed two days to travel to the land bridge and would arrive tired and dusty, a supplicant. Today, he’d come with an entourage, and the trip had taken less than three hours thanks to technology he’d negotiated from the other side—a motorized wagon on a newly paved road. Importing such inventions had been one of his greatest accomplishments and had resulted in a better life for his people, but it had also brought great wealth for many on the other side. Now he was a peer in their eyes, no longer a supplicant.

When he reached the hut, he stood patiently, arms outstretched, as troopers from The Republic patted him down, searching for weapons and, far more dangerous, any form of the written word. His own guardsmen would be doing the same to the soulless on the far side. Once he was cleared, he stepped inside.

Underlings from each race were still fussing over the position of the conference table. He watched the debate as the table was nudged first one way and then another to ensure precise placement over the boundary. The representatives of the soulless measured with their instruments, more needless wonders conceived through the worship of reason. His people took a different approach, eyeballing the line intersecting the floor and then praying they be granted their fair share.

When each side was satisfied, he took his seat and waited. This meeting had been set up at his request and so, by protocol, he’d been the first to enter. After a painful minute, a door on the opposite wall opened and two stout men marched into the room, taking up positions on either side of a padded leather chair. Though unarmed, they appeared more than able to defend themselves without weapons.

As he waited, his mouth went dry and his palms began to sweat. He took a sip of water from a glass on the table, and pulled out a handkerchief from his suit pocket to wipe his hands. He’d met many times with high-ranking officials from The Republic, those responsible for education, culture, or trade, but never before had he met a man who commanded an army.

Moments later the Secretary of the Department of Separation strode into the room, a bear of a man with the carriage of one accustomed to power.

The minister sat up straight and forced himself to look the man in the eye, to try to read his thoughts and more, to see the soul those of his ilk denied.

For this man controlled not only an army, but the fate of all the minister held dear.

                               Chapter 1

A Boat Where None Should Be

Helena Brewster sat atop the rocks, five feet above the receding tide, and pretended to read. At least until Jason came jogging along the beach below. She planned to wait until he was a few steps away, then turn the page she wasn’t reading and let her eyes drift up to meet his. Perhaps his eyes would find hers, and for the first time since he’d reappeared, he’d stop and stay. But today, he seemed agonizingly late. To fill up the time and tamp down her anticipation, she practiced the motion, turning a page and looking up.

No Jason.

She understood the first day’s awkwardness, brought on by their unexpected encounter—they hadn’t seen each other in over four years, hadn’t been in touch for more than two. But the second day wasn’t much better. He’d been out of breath and tongue-tied; she’d still been numb from the funeral. It was the third day before they managed a brief conversation, an exchange of pleasantries unworthy of what had once existed between them.

Today she hoped for more.

She abandoned all pretense of reading and stared out to sea. There, through the fog brooding over the ocean, a boat appeared. What in the name of reason would a boat be doing here? Must be her imagination playing games with the fog while she waited for Jason to arrive.

She slowed her breathing as she’d been taught, to control the passions and clear the mind. Then she listened again for the beat of his shoes on the sand. Nothing but the slosh of waves breaking on the shore. She checked the high-water mark beneath her feet, calculating how much the tide would have to recede before exposing enough beach for a runner. Still a few minutes to go.

They’d gone to the same academy, she and Jason, levels one through eight, though it took a while before they became close. She sat near the window, he by the inside wall. She paid attention to the mentor, while Jason stared outside, seemingly building castles in the air. Each year, he managed to get assigned a row closer, and by the time they’d achieved fifth level, he sat next to her and passed notes, asking if he could walk her home after school. When she told him she was concerned they’d get caught, he changed the notes, ending each with the phrase: “Take a chance, Helena.”

In the spring of that year, she did.

From then on, he walked her home every afternoon along this very beach, but never beyond this point, too intimidated by the big houses on the cliffs.

That came to an end when their class advanced to secondary school. He’d gone to the communal one in the village, and she to the private one where children of the Polytech faculty studied. Yes, they tried to see each other every day, but she’d become obsessed with grades, trying to please her father, and he’d taken a job at a snack shop after school to save money for university. She’d gone to see him as often as possible, ordering a lemon-flavored drink and visiting during his break. It wasn’t much, but they were unconcerned; there’d be time when they were older.

After she moved away—she’d never questioned attending her father’s school—they stayed in touch for a while. Jason would drop a note, and she’d respond. Then, somehow, two years of silence ensued.

Now, after all this time, he’d reappeared, jogging by as she grieved along the cliffs, exactly a half hour past high tide. Like a fleeting glimmer in this darkest of summers. Like a miracle.

She shook her head. If her father were alive, he’d chastise her for such a thought. She could hear his voice, that of a true scientist—there were no miracles.

The ripple at the edge of the fog again drew her gaze. For an instant, it took shape, but quickly vanished, a reverse mirage, something solid where only water should be. She squinted, trying to penetrate the haze, and turned away to find something more substantial.

She traced the coastline instead. The land rose southward in a gentle curve toward the tip of Albion Point, and ended at the Knob, which stood like a clenched fist challenging those who sailed the Forbidden Sea. The northern firs that capped the rocky coast were broken here and there by a handful of dwellings. From this distance, they looked like great seabirds nesting.

The fog had shifted with the tide, enough for her to pick out her parents’ home, the white one in the center, overlooking them all from the highest cliff. It was where she slept for the time being, where she stayed alone and apart. Only the second floor of the house and the garret above it showed. With the rest blended into fog, the house looked like a phantom rising from nothing. It had felt that way since her father died.

Each of the four days since driving her mother to the farm, she’d come to this spot, always a half hour before high tide. To her left, the long stretch of beach ended at the cliffs. To her right lay an inlet carved into the rocks, where waves crashed with a roar that echoed off the walls. Her father used to call it the thunder hole. Sitting on this bench-shaped rock above it, she could dangle her bare feet in the spray, neither in the water nor out.

Her father had given her a silver anklet for her twelfth birthday, an age when she worried she might be too old to curl up in his lap. He’d claimed that if she sat on the rocks above the thunder hole at high tide, the spray would wet the chain and make the links sparkle. Two days before he died, he reminded her of the anklet and told her when the ocean brought the stars, she should think of him.

Jason, she assumed, came for more rational purposes—the breadth of the beach below, the firmness of sand compacted by the waves—to this spot, their spot, the last easy place to clamber up to the road before the cliffs. Old friends turned strangers, now reunited by the rhythm of the tides.

She glanced back out to sea and caught the beacon of the Light of Reason. The ancient tower stood on a craggy rock in the middle of the bay, ten stories high and always first to peek through the fog. She balanced the book on one knee and scanned lower, down along the horizon.

The mirage burst out and became solid—a boat where none should be.

The sail luffing in the breeze was a clumsy triangle with no arc, holding little air. The front was awkwardly shaped, more tub than prow, and it sailed where boats were banned—a ripe target for the shore patrol. If it had been launched by zealots overcome with missionary zeal, it was too small and ill-fitted, not salvation vessel, but death trap.

And it was drifting toward the rocky coast.

She turned to a new sound—Jason finally arriving on his tidal schedule. Soon he’d slow to a halt, measure his pulse with two fingers on the carotid artery, and gulp half a bottle of fortified water. After checking his time, he’d scramble up the rocks to her perch, flash that boyish grin she remembered so well, and ask how she was doing. She’d smile as she struggled to find words to make up for the years apart. When she failed to say much, he’d mumble some nicety, turn, and jog away down the steps and along the road to the village.

Or that’s how it would have gone, if it weren’t for the boat.

It drew closer now, gaining speed. The sea breeze had risen with the turn of the tide, and the resulting chop held the boat in its grasp, driving it toward the rocks below the cliff. Even if it were seaworthy, it was doomed.

Jason pulled himself onto the rocks and approached her.

She closed the book and set it down, forgetting to reset the bookmark, and pointed toward the boat. A kingfisher glided along the coastline and dove where she pointed, disappearing into the water.

Jason smiled.

She shook her head and tried to find her voice.

“A boat,” she finally said.

Now, Jason saw it as well. The sun glinted off something on its bow as it dipped into a trough. When it rose again, someone clutched the mast—a girl with golden hair.

Jason vaulted back to the beach and beckoned for Helena to follow. She moved to the edge, squatted, and jumped. He caught her by the waist and swung her to the sand.

In those few seconds, the boat crashed against the rocks. The crack of wood splintering rose above the sound of the waves.

The two of them raced into the surf as the girl with the golden hair thrashed about in the water, struggling to avoid jagged debris from the shattered boat. They waded in a few steps, braced against the undertow, and pressed forward again. Three more waves and they reached her.

Jason grabbed the girl just as she began to sink. Despite the buffeting sea, he carried her back to the shore without straining and lay her fragile form on a swath of grass beyond the rocks—a slip of a child no more than nine or ten years old.

Plain cotton pants clung to the girl’s legs, and an elaborately embroidered tunic covered her slender frame—the typical garb of the zealots, but other than her clothing, she looked nothing like a zealot. Her skin was light and perfect, unblemished but for a trickle of blood on her arm. Her golden hair hung down to the middle of her back, and her round eyes held the color of the ocean.

Were Helena a believer, she’d have considered this the face of an angel.

Jason offered his bottle, but the girl shied away. Helena cradled the child’s head and tilted her chin while he trickled a few drops into her mouth.

The girl licked her cracked lips and opened for more. After she’d drunk her fill, she turned to Helena. Her eyes grabbed and held. “The dream,” she said. “It’s true. I can see it in your eyes.”

Helena felt a sudden urge to distract the girl, to disrupt that penetrating gaze. “Who are you?”

The girl ignored the question, instead resting her hand on Jason’s forearm.

His muscles twitched as if he were unsure whether to linger or jerk away.

“Your arm is hot,” she said.

“That’s because I’ve been running.”

The girl’s ocean-blue eyes opened wider. “From what?”

He withdrew his arm and flexed his fingers. “Are you from the Blessed Lands?”

The girl nodded.

“Why would you make such a dangerous voyage alone in such a small boat?”

“I was in no danger,” she said.

He waved a hand at the flotsam, still surging in the tide. “But your boat’s destroyed, and it took us to save you.”

“Yes, I suppose.” She looked back out to sea as if expecting to find her boat still afloat. “Then I thank Lord Kanakunai for sparing me and delivering me to kind people who would help.”

“But who are you?” Helena said more insistently.

The girl motioned for more to drink, this time grasping the bottle with both hands and emptying it. When she finished, she sat up and lifted her chin like royalty. “I am Kailani, the daughter of the sea and the sky.”

Then slowly her lids closed and her body went limp.

Helena looked to Jason. “Dear reason, is she…?

He probed the hollow along the girl’s neck with two fingers and found a pulse. “Just exhausted. She’s passed out.”

From the road behind them, a door slammed and footsteps approached. A uniformed official walked toward the sea, some sort of locator in hand. Halfway there, he stopped to recheck the coordinates. The title inscribed above his shirt pocket read: Examiner, Department of Separation.

“What’s happened here?” he called out before he reached them.

“This girl sailed in,” Helena said, hardly believing her words. “On a small boat that crashed on the rocks.”


Jason walked him to the edge and showed the wreckage scattered on the beach like matchsticks, already being reclaimed by the sea. “There’s what’s left of the boat.”

“Well, that would explain the size of the blip on the readout. When they’re that small, it’s usually driftwood or a school of mackerel. Is she alone?”

Jason nodded.

“Odd,” the examiner said. “Still, she has to be taken in. That’s the law.”

Helena knelt by the girl’s side. “Can’t you see she needs medical attention?”

“Well… that may be, but she’s still here illegally.”

“She’s just a little girl.”

“So I see. I’ll call for help, but make sure she doesn’t go anywhere.” The examiner turned and headed back to his patrol car.

When he was out of earshot, Kailani began to stir, mumbling, slurring her words. “Penance… must do penance for the loss of the wind.”

Helena brushed away a strand of hair that had fallen across the child’s face. “It wasn’t the wind, Kailani, it was the chop. No one could’ve sailed through that, not in such a small boat.”

But the girl was dozing again.

Helena glanced at the examiner, who held an earpiece to his ear and fiddled with his communicator.

She leaned in close to the girl and stroked her bare arm. “Kailani, if they ask you questions, don’t say anything about penance or dreams. Do you understand?”

The girl faded in and out, and Helena shook her as gently as she could. “Kailani, can you hear me?”

The lids fluttered.

“If they ask why you’ve come, say just one word—asylum. Can you remember that? Asylum.”

Kailani’s lips moved to form the word, but she drifted off to sleep as the sound of sirens approached.


Jason returned from the road where he’d delivered Kailani to the health services van. He plodded toward her, rubbing his hands together, studying them as if trying to understand how they could’ve let the girl go.

Helena felt the same.

When he was two steps away, he stopped and faced her with the same smile she remembered when he was a boy.

“The examiner took my statement. He said to wait for him. He wants to speak with you as well.” He glanced at the ground and shifted from side to side, his running shoes sloshing with each step. His clothes were still dripping with a salty combination of sea water and sweat.

“I have a towel,” she said, “if you want to dry off.”

“Thanks. I’ll be all right.” He scanned the horizon before fixing on her. “He said they’ll need to interview us up in the city. You know the department—security above all.”

“What will they do with her?”

“The department? Who knows? Figure out why she came, then send her back, I suppose. Unless she keeps talking like that….”

Helena turned from him and stared out to sea. All she could think of was loss—of her father, of the girl she hardly knew. “She’s just a child.”

If only the boat could arrive again. If only she and Jason could rescue the girl again, but this time whisk her away somewhere safe, shelter her, protect her. That’s what was due the daughter of the sea and the sky.

Jason focused on the road. “I should go. I have just enough time to finish my run and get back to work.”

“Where do you work?”

He cast a glance over his shoulder. “At the Polytech.”

At the Polytechnic Institute, like her father. Thoughts of her father distracted her, and the spell was broken. The girl with eyes the color of the ocean was gone, and Jason took off at a jog toward the village, never looking back.

She turned to watch as a maverick wave, oblivious to the ebb tide, crashed into the thunder hole and slogged back to sea with a groan.

When she glanced back up, she was alone.

Chapter 2

The Department of Separation

Monday morning, Chief Examiner Carlson tried to temper his usual interrogation. He’d never dealt with a refugee this young before. A nine-year-old girl was unlikely to be a threat.

“Are you feeling better today?”

She glared back at him. “Three days ago I was outside on the water. I haven’t seen daylight since.”

“I know, and I’m sorry, but we have to keep you secure until we determine your status.” A trace of disdain in her tone had forced him to apologize even before the interview had begun. “I trust you’ve been… comfortable?”

The question needed no answer; she seemed anything but comfortable.

The overstuffed chair, designed to be welcoming to the newly arrived, was far too big for her. She slouched in it, unable to find a position where she wasn’t constantly slipping down. Her feet kicked about, reaching for the floor. The uniform the department of separation had provided was too big as well—they simply never received refugees this young. The orange sleeves covered her hands, all but the fingertips, and some well-intentioned attendant had kept the rolled-up trousers from falling by tying a pink ribbon around the child’s waist.

Carlson glanced past the child to the poster of the Lady of Reason, holding her torch on high and offering hope to the oppressed. He’d often used it as inspiration in challenging situations, though he’d never seen one quite like this before.

“It might be easier if we call each other by name, don’t you think? My name is Henry Carlson, but everyone calls me Carlson. What’s your name?”

She fiddled with the ribbon, inspecting its bow.

When she finally looked up, he blinked twice, certain he’d seen the ocean in her eyes.

“I am Kailani.”

“Very good. Kailani.” He wrote the name down phonetically and followed it with scribbles that looked like waves. “And do you have a last name?”

“No. Just Kailani.” She tugged at the bow, but it was double-knotted and refused to release.

“Okay, Kailani, then can you at least tell me who your parents are?”

“Why do you have no windows in this room?” Her tone was oddly adult and commanding.

Her very presence, the golden hair and the deep-seeing eyes, made his office feel drab. Sure, the dark wood was worn and faded, but he took pride in his workplace and always kept it orderly. Files were lined up neatly in rows, and on either side of the poster, perfectly spaced, hung portraits of his father and grandfather, their tops level and their frames dust-free. Centered under each was a slightly tarnished plaque engraved with the words: Chief Examiner, Department of Separation. He was third generation, defending the Republic from zealots and offering support to refugees.

He had nothing to be ashamed of. “Many of our offices have windows. Mine does not.”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s the way it is.” He wasn’t about to explain seniority to a nine-year-old. “But we were talking about you, Kailani. Do your parents know you’ve come here?”

She pressed down on the chair’s arms and lifted her head. The arc of her neck was perfect. “I am the daughter of the sea and the sky.”

Carlson made an effort to not roll his eyes. Why on a Monday morning?

He reveled in order—folders aligned with the edge of the desk, paper clips paraded in a row. For more than thirty-two years, he’d arrived to work at eight and left at four-thirty. The retirement clock that glowed in the corner was ticking down the time he had left: seven months, six days, three hours, and a diminishing number of minutes and seconds. When it reached zero, he would, like his father and grandfather before him, retire with the Republic at peace, the shores secure, and a solid pension in place.

He forced himself to refocus.

Beyond her odd speech, the girl from the far side of the ocean was nothing like other zealots he’d met. Her skin, though tanned, was naturally fair, not the olive of her countrymen. No dark pupils scowling through almond shaped eyes, and no unruly black curls; instead, long yellow hair hung straight to the small of her back, and she had a face that might adorn banners carried into battle by acolytes.

Could she be a diversion? Could others looking to make trouble have disembarked earlier? Might they be disembarking now? The zealots were not above using a child. In his grandfather’s day, soon after the Treaty of Separation, boats would arrive with dozens on board. Some were asylum seekers, others missionaries. Occasionally, armed insurgents had hidden among them.

His father had warned him to be careful to distinguish between them. “The mythmakers are a race of fuzzy thinkers,” he said. “None of them have a right to the benefits of the Republic unless they’re willing to fully assimilate. When in doubt, ship them out.”

“Tell me, Kailani,” he said, “did you come here alone?”

“Did you see anyone else in the boat?”

“No.” He rearranged the paper clips on his desk from a horizontal row to a vertical column. “But it’s hard to believe someone as… young as you could’ve crossed the ocean by yourself.”

“I am alone.”

How does she manage to end every sentence as if the interview is over? He persisted. “Did someone send you?”

“Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I asked. It would be useful, Kailani, if you’d cooperate. You’ve violated our borders and broken our law. You’re in a fair bit of trouble, and I’m trying to help.”

She nodded, not disagreeing but not paying much attention, either, and went back to picking at the bow.

He checked his fingers. The tremor that had troubled him since Miriam left had returned. He did his best to control it. “Could you please look at me when I’m speaking to you? I’m curious why you’d undertake such a dangerous voyage alone.”

“I’m the daughter of the sea and the sky. I was in no danger.”

Blind faith. He’d have to come up with a more effective approach, or—

“Is it true you punish people for believing?” she said.

He lost his train of thought. “We don’t—”

“And that you deny Lord Kanakunai and his gift of the Spirit?”

Almost the exact words of Olakai, their so-called prophet, before he launched the fourth holy war. “Why do you deny Kanakunai?” he’d thundered. Twenty years of bloodshed followed, ending only when the Treaty of Separation was signed.

Carlson eyed her more suspiciously. “I see you’ve been brainwashed by your people. Here in the Republic, we don’t reject any idea out of hand, but we won’t accept your god merely because you say so. What you call belief is based on myth, yet your people pursue it with a blindfolded certainty.”

She slid back in her chair, set her feet onto it, and hugged her knees. “I don’t understand,” she said, with something less than blindfolded certainty.

He pressed the advantage. “Don’t they teach history in the Blessed Lands? This is its lesson—mythmaking muddies the mind and unleashes the passions that lead to violence. The preaching of your faith has led to four wars and unspeakable assaults on our citizens. Thousands of innocents have died. Because of that faith, we’re bound to be vigilant about our security, even at the cost of our freedoms. That’s why we have a law against preaching. Were you an adult, you’d have just broken that law. But we’re a rational people and you are a child, so I’ll strike your words from the record. Now once again, Kailani, tell me why you’ve come to our shores.”

“Why does it matter to you?”

“Please don’t play games with me.” He let his bifocals slip down his nose and glared at her through them. “I may be your only friend.”

She tilted her head to one side and stared back as if he were the curiosity. “I was sent by a dream.”

“That’s interesting. Can you tell me about the dream?”

“I saw the soulless in my dream, people with sad eyes. I came to help.”

The soulless. Carlson had heard the term many times before. But this child was different from the other zealots he’d processed, who spat out the term with contempt or sugared it with sentimental pity. He’d need time to observe her. The system offered only three options: grant asylum, send her back, or arrest her as a threat to their way of life. What if none were applicable in this case?

She squirmed about in her seat and glanced up at the corners of the ceiling.

He thought she’d forgotten he was there when she fixed him with her gaze.

“Why are you so sad?”

Sad. How dare she pry into his personal life? His problems were his own. She was a child from a backward culture whose values he’d rejected his entire career.

He smacked his palm on the desktop, making her jump. “Enough! This is my interview, not yours. I ask the questions. Why have you come to our shores?”

Her little shoulders quivered and a trace of fear flashed in her eyes—she was, after all, a child.

A moment later, she whispered a single word. “Asylum.”


Helena called the department the morning after Kailani’s arrival, desperate for news, but the official she spoke with was hardly forthcoming.

“This is not a patient in a hospital. This is a zealot who entered the Republic illegally. You’ll have to wait until she’s been processed. The chief examiner will answer your questions when you come in for your debriefing on Tuesday.”

So for four long days, Helena waited. Now that Tuesday had arrived, she sat in the reception area outside the chief examiner’s office and waited some more. She tried to study her book, hoping to keep her promise to her father, but the words swam on the page. She’d skimmed and re-skimmed the same paragraph for the last ten minutes and absorbed nothing.

She gave up and decided to study the reception area instead, beginning with the ceiling, which needed some paint, with bits of plaster bubbling in places and threatening to fall. The walls were faded tile, possibly once green, but now too dreary to be considered a color.

And what is that smell? She sniffed twice and thought she detected a faint odor of disinfectant. It reminded her of the waiting room where she’d spent so many hours with her father.


She’d taken leave from the university so she could accompany him to treatment; her mother had been too distraught to go. On their visits to the hospital, they always had to wait. She distracted herself by analyzing the faces in the waiting room, hoping to learn from others how to cope. She watched the faces as they changed, old faces getting older, and young faces thinking about the old faces getting older and becoming more vulnerable. With nothing else to do, she began to worry about time, about how much her father had left, about what remained for her and how best to use it.

Eventually, they were ushered into the infusion room, a long hall, with blue recliners along either side. Floral curtains hung from tracks on the ceiling, providing some modicum of privacy. Behind each curtain, patients sat with needles in their arms, reading, napping, or listening to music—anything to make the time pass while the chemicals seeped into their veins.

They waited again for Sorin the nurse—her father had taken to calling her Sorin the Savior—to come and connect the tube.

Sorin unwrapped two hot packs and shook them until they were warm enough to place on her father’s forearm. “Do you care which arm?”

He shrugged.

“How about where I stick you? Wrist or forearm?”

“Anywhere’s fine, as long as the stuff makes it into my veins.”

When he’d first been diagnosed and given no chance for a cure, he’d remained reasonable as always, saying he wanted to die in peace and be no burden to his family. But the doctor said he had a growth pressing on his lower spine. As an expert in the field, her father knew the consequences—incontinence, paralysis, and pain. If he desired a peaceful end, he would need treatment.

Helena wondered how he could be so buoyant.

He looked up at the ceiling while the needle went in.

Nurse Sorin kept up a constant chatter as she arranged the tubes. “So, are you retired?”

“Do I look that old?”

“No sir. You look like you could run a long-distance race.”

“I did, just three years ago. And I’m not retired. I teach at the Polytech.”

Helena glanced up from her book. She couldn’t let him get away with the understatement. “He’s a tenured professor of physiometry, named best teacher at the Polytechnic Institute five years in a row. Some say he’s in line for the Order of Reason.”

The nurse wrapped the plastic tube around the pole and flicked it with her finger. “That right? You must be very smart.”

“Not as smart as my daughter,” he said. “Have I introduced you to Helena? Someday, she’ll be a better researcher than me. She’ll solve problems I never dreamed of, find cures for diseases like the kind that’s killing me.”

Helena flushed and looked back at her textbook, but the words had blurred.


It had been the same textbook she was staring at now—and the words were no clearer.

The door beside the receptionist’s desk opened, and to Helena’s surprise Jason emerged. As soon as he saw her, he flashed that boyish smile, stepped in her direction and spoke her name. Her lips parted, and she rose to greet him.

An official-looking man came bustling from behind and wedged himself between them. He placed a hand on Jason’s back and nudged him toward the exit, clearly eager to avoid the two of them speaking before he’d interviewed them separately.

“Thank you for coming, Jason. Please contact me if you think of anything else.” Only when Jason was out the door did the official turn to her. “And you must be Helena. Come right this way, please.”

As he led her into his office, Helena twisted around to peer into the hallway, but Jason was gone again. She had so many questions to ask him. What had he been up to these past few years? What kind of man had he become? Had the dreams of their youth worked out better for him than for her?

But more, she wanted to ask the most unusual of questions: if he’d dreamed the past three nights as she had; if he too was haunted by a girl with golden hair on the prow of a sinking ship.

Chapter 3


Jason Adams stopped between the granite columns that graced the top of the stairs and squinted into the sunlight. The walk back from Carlson’s interview had been unsettling, too much like the dream that had troubled his sleep since childhood—like the dream, but in reverse.

In that dream, he’d awake to a muffled keening and follow the sound, first through a chamber lined with granite columns, then down a hallway with ever lower ceilings, until he had to crouch to pass through. Finally, he’d come to a tiny room where a little man stood, smaller than life-size, with a woman kneeling on the dirt floor beside him in prayer.

Some nights, when the moon had poured its pale light through the window of his bedroom, he’d rouse, rub his eyes, and blink up at the ceiling, wondering what the dream meant. By his mid-teens, he knew.

When he was young, maybe four or five, his mother took him to see where his father worked. He remembered granite columns and marble floors with blue-gray swirls that caught and held his eye.

“Is this where my daddy works?”

“No,” his mother said. They passed through a hall and down stairs to a smaller room.

“Is this it now?”

“Not yet.”

Finally, they’d found his father in a cramped and dusty mailroom, and the younger Jason began to cry.

His father had stopped sorting mail into cubbyholes to comfort him, but his mother began to pray. She was always praying, a family tradition she refused to give up. His father begged her to stop, but she kept on, irrationally invoking some ancient god.

Jason now had few other memories of his mother: how she grew ill a year later and wasted away, how he watched her casket lowered into the ground, how his father clutched him and told him how terrible it was to be alone.

He shook off the mood. Today had been better. The chief examiner’s office was nicer than the cell of his dream, the woman in the waiting room from a happier memory.


She’d glanced up as he entered, her face open but astonished, as if she’d found the years apart to be a constant surprise—and not always pleasant. He smiled at her the way he used to smile when they’d walked home along the cliffs, and she responded with her usual half grin, one side of her lips curling upward while she tilted her head the other way. A glint in her eyes seemed to say, “You’re a silly boy, Jason, but I like you anyway.”

He’d stepped toward her, but before he could get near, Carlson had herded him out the door.

Helena. He’d been delighted to see her that first time, sitting on the cliffs at the midpoint of his jog. Though he’d often thought of her, they hadn’t spoken in years. Then the letters stopped, too. Which one of them was last to write? Who was first to not respond? He couldn’t recall.

Of course he’d heard about her father and knew how much she must be hurting. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her, but she seemed so distant, barely making eye contact. He hadn’t been able to think of what to say.

Now, they shared a gift from the Blessed Lands, the daughter of the sea and the sky. They’d been given a second chance.

He knew at once what to do: wait for her, even if it took the rest of the afternoon. He’d wait outside in the warm air, far from the windowless office. Summer was waning, and he’d take advantage of it while it lasted.

Across the street from the department sat a small restaurant called The Freethinker’s Café, with a few tables set out on the sidewalk for the summer, each shaded by a red-and-white umbrella fringed at the edges. A sign hanging over the entrance declared it the ideal place for friends to meet, but it was well past lunchtime and no friends were there. He’d be the only customer.

He wandered over to take up his watch. From this vantage point, he had a clear view of the thirty-two stairs he’d just descended. She’d have to come out that way.


An hour later, Jason watched Helena pause between the columns to let her eyes adjust to the glare. When he called out her name, she cupped a hand over her brow and peered toward the sidewalk at the base of the stairs.

He raised his arms over his head. “Over here, across the street!”

She finally noticed and responded with a flip of the fingers, then brushed a strand of hair from her face and started down. She skipped over the first few steps but checked herself, hands flying out like little stabilizers, while he bounded across the street. They converged when she had one step to go.

“I have some time,” he said. “I thought we could have a drink and compare notes.”


“About Carlson and the little girl.”

“Did you believe him?” She glanced back up the stairs as if expecting the chief examiner to be spying on them. “He asked if there were insurgents lurking in a mother ship, if she carried subversive literature or weapons.”

“He asked me that too.”

“All I wanted was to find out why she came and what will happen to her. Such a beautiful child.”

“I know.” He conjured up the two of them rushing into the surf, him carrying the girl to safety. The face with eyes the color of the ocean surfaced in his mind, but he shook it off and focused instead on the face before him—Helena. “So, will you?

Her eyes had adjusted to the sunlight, but she still seemed distracted. “I’m sorry. What were you asking?”

“Will you join me?” He contorted his brow into a rebuked schoolboy face. “Or are you mad at me for not answering your last letter?”

She reached out and stroked his cheek, then tried to smooth the furrows from his brow, just like she used to after he’d had a bad day at school. “And all this time I thought I was the sinner.”

He took her hand and lowered it to his chest, cradling it in both of his as he’d done so often when they were younger. But something was different now—a tension in her fingers.

After a moment, he let go. “Then we’re both equally guilty. Or innocent. Why don’t we start fresh?”

The worry on her face evaporated, and she broke into a smile. “Okay.”

A few minutes later she was sipping a glass of her usual lemon-flavored drink, trying to keep the ice from touching her teeth, watching him over the rim. Other than telling him what she wanted to drink, she’d said little.

At last, he snuck a hand across the table and took the book from her purse.

She snatched it back before he could see the title. “What are you doing?”

“I’ve waited all week to see what you’re reading.”

She closed and opened her hand as if to imply it had never intended to interfere, then slid the book over.

“Tell me,” he said, “why do you sit on the cliffs each day at the changing of the tides and read…?” He picked up the book. “Fundamentals of Physiometry?”

She wiggled her fingers, motioning for the book back, and he dutifully complied. “It’s a textbook. I’m studying for an exam.”

“And here I’d been picturing you reading poetry by the sea.”

“You were the whimsical one, Jason, always staring at the clouds. I’m a down-to-earth Brewster. We do science.” She replaced the book in its pocket and stored the purse beneath her seat.

He balanced on the front legs of his chair and inched a hand closer to hers. “I wasn’t staring at the clouds, Helena. I was staring at you.”

She gave a dismissive wave, a familiar gesture that reminded him how much he’d missed her, but now he had her attention. Her eyes were on him, unable to look away. They were sadder than he remembered.

He recalled the memorial service from the week before. “I was sorry to hear about your father. He was a great man.”

“Thank you,” she mumbled. Her mind was very much elsewhere.

He tried to bring her back to the present. “But why that rock and why that time?”

“It’s where he used to bring me when I was little. He’d take me there just before high tide. We’d watch the spray and listen for the sound of the waves crashing between the rocks. He called it the thunder hole.”

Her voice cracked and she needed a long sip of lemon drink before continuing. “He was a runner, like you. When he was invited to speak at conferences, he’d find exotic places to go for a run. Then he’d come home and tell me stories about them. His favorite spot was where you run, on the beach below the cliffs.”

“I didn’t hear much,” he said. “Just the eulogy in the student newspaper. What happened?”

She started to answer, but her eyes welled up and she needed three breaths to regain control. “The doctors said there was nothing they could do but make him comfortable. Some cells in his body had decided to reproduce too quickly. That’s all. No more meaning than that.”

She lost her train of thought and began to fiddle with her hair. She removed the silver clip that held it in a ponytail and combed her fingers through once, twice, three times, trying to gather the errant strands in a bunch and reset the clip.

While she worked at it, Jason watched. Up close, he could see how much she’d changed—a grown woman now. Serious. No longer the schoolgirl of his youth. But one thing was the same: an intensity palpable enough to touch.

She looked up and caught him staring.

He nodded, a tilt of the head, enough to say: Go on, I’m listening.

She returned the nod. “Four months later, he was gone. He was a great scientist and expected me to be the same, but the last lesson he taught me was that science has its limits.” She set the clip back in place, but awkwardly, so hair spilled about her neck.

Jason waited, still trying to fathom the person she’d become. When the silence began to drag, he made a guess. “Will you?”

“Will I what?”

“Become a great scientist like he was?”

Her lips parted, but no words came out. Instead she lowered her head into her hands and massaged her temples with her thumbs.

“Sorry,” he said, though he wasn’t sure for what. They’d always been able to say anything to each other. He moved closer and placed his palms flat on the table. “I didn’t mean to pry. I just want to know more about you than that you study physiometry at high tide. I want to know everything about you, Helena Brewster, all the good and the bad since we were last together.”

She fidgeted in her chair and shifted toward the granite façade across the street. Her face took on a pained expression, like someone about to make a confession.

She sighed. “I was in my last semester when he got sick. He made me promise I’d graduate on time, that his death wouldn’t delay the career he’d planned for me, but I had to take leave from school to help care for him.”

“Where was your mother? Weren’t they a famous research team?”

“My mother?” Her voice sounded like surf rolling into the thunder hole; he waited for the crash. “She was brilliant at organizing his lab and his life, but when he needed her most, she couldn’t bear to watch him die. So his care fell to me. After the funeral, when I needed her most, she ran up north to a place called Glen Eagle Farm.”

“A farm?”

“More like an art colony, a place where people go to get their lives back together, reason be damned. She was such a mess, I suspect she would’ve transmigrated if it weren’t for me. I haven’t done much better. The university gave me a waiver until the end of September, but I haven’t been able to focus. I bring this book to the cliffs every day, but mostly just stare out to sea.”

“And rescue strange little girls from the chop.”

She turned back to him. Her failure now out in the open, she seemed more relaxed. “You’re the one who rescued her. I just stuttered and watched. Enough about me. Why do you always run at high tide?”

He was surprised at the shift in the conversation, but pleased. “I’m training for the Albion road race next spring. I run on the beach because, like your father, I think it’s the best place to run, especially after high tide, when the sand’s been compacted by the waves.”


“And what?”

“I want to know more about you, Jason Adams, than that you run on the beach.” She said it with a hint of a smile.

He laughed. “Fair enough. Let’s see… no house on the cliffs, just a one-room flat with no view. No world-changing research like your father, but a good engineering job at the Polytech.” He took a sip of his own drink. “Enhanced communications.”

“Communications? I thought the department controlled that.”

“They do, and you know how secretive they can be, but they’re starting to loosen up. People like us can only use communicators to talk, but the technology can do much more: send images and printed material. The department restricts it to keep it away from zealots—too efficient a way to spread myths—but researchers at the Polytech argued that controlling communications was inhibiting progress. Reason prevailed.”

“Is it what you want to do?”

“It’s a good living with a bright future.”

“But is it what you want?”

She stared up at him with that same look she gave him when she’d visit at the sandwich shop. The question was the same too: was it what he wanted? He’d place his sandwich-shop cap on her head and watch the way her pony tail spilled out the back. Then he’d patiently explain how his family was different from hers, that if he hoped to go to university, he had to work after school. He’d accomplished a lot since then—a degree, a professional job—both firsts in his family. More status, more money. More loneliness too.

He tried to smile. “Why do you ask?”

“Remember how we’d talk about what we wanted when we grew up. My path was set: follow in my father’s footsteps. Now I’m not sure. But you? It was something different every few months: climb the highest mountain, find a cure for diseases, sail across the ocean and show the zealots the light of reason. From my regimented existence, I could only look on and admire. And envy. You never accepted the way things were. You wanted more. What happened to that Jason?” She found his eyes and waited.

He looked away, inspecting the underside of the umbrella. A breeze blew through the café, making the umbrella sway, knocking over a menu on a nearby table. He got up to retrieve it and set it back in place.

“That Jason grew up.” He sat back down and forced another laugh; he was done with his turn. “So back to Mr. Carlson. You remember him.” He mimicked the chief examiner’s voice. “‘Were there explosives strapped to her chest when you found her?’”

Her intensity vanished. “How could he possibly—”

“He’s on a mission to protect us from a half-drowned nine-year-old.”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

Helena broke it first. “I’ve dreamed about her the last three nights. Do you find that odd?”

“Not at all. I’ve never met anyone like her.” He glanced up, suddenly wishing the umbrella had a hole in it so he could see through to the sky. “Helena?”


“We both rescued her. Maybe we should go visit her together. It’s an hour’s drive from Albion and….”

He waited as she drained the remainder of her drink, then reached across, trying to bridge the gap between them. When his fingers brushed her hand, she pulled it away.

He slid his hand closer, fingers beckoning. “Come with me, Helena. Take a chance.”

He followed her hand as it joined the other, unclasping the hair clip and resetting it, this time flawlessly, and fluffing the hair in front so it framed her face.

“Okay,” she finally said, then reached back and rested her hand on his.

Chapter 4

A Different Promise

The next afternoon, a matron in a blue uniform led them down a corridor that smelled worse than the reception area, a mix of sweat and cleaning fluid. Helena tried to concentrate, matching her steps to the squeaks of the matron’s rubber-soled shoes. Please don’t let this be where they’re keeping her. When the matron pulled a jangling ring of keys from her pocket, Helena’s shoulders slumped. She glanced at Jason. The color had drained from his face, and he walked stiffly with his arms tight to his sides. They passed seven evenly spaced doors, all with reinforced metal at their edges.

At the eighth door on the right, the matron slipped a key into the lock and released it. The door swung open.

“Five minutes,” she said, and began to close the door behind them.

Jason thrust a foot out to block it. “Only five minutes?”

The matron glared at his shoe until he removed it. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t make the rules.”

The door slammed shut, followed by a click as the bolt snapped back into place. Helena felt her lungs constrict.

The sterile room contained nothing but the basics: a bed, a desk lit by a gooseneck lamp, a straight-backed wooden chair, and a small bureau with two drawers. A fluorescent light buzzed overhead, and like Carlson’s office, there were no windows.

Kailani lay on her side atop the narrow cot, knees curled up to her chest, facing the yellow cinder block wall. She wore an orange prison uniform several sizes too big. Though Helena was certain she’d heard them enter—a shudder of the shoulders gave her away—she kept staring at the wall.

Jason spoke first. “Kailani?”

She hugged her knees tighter and refused to answer.

Helena tried next. “It’s Jason and Helena, the ones who brought you ashore when your boat crashed.”

The child stirred and turned toward them. Her face was like a flower that had bloomed a few days earlier and now, denied the sunlight, had begun to wilt. Yet when she recognized the visitors, she brightened. She swung her feet to the floor, stood up, and took a step toward them.

“Why are they keeping me here?” she said. “Is this my punishment?”

“Not at all,” Helena said. “Why should you be punished?”

An odd look came over her, as if she could see things far away—a prophet preparing to prophesy—but she said nothing.

Jason squatted down to make his height less imposing. “Kailani, remember the drink I gave you?”

She nodded.

“I could bring more if you’d like.”

“And sweets too,” Helena said, “the next time we visit.”

Kailani’s eyes narrowed. The faraway look was gone. “Does that mean…?”

Jason touched her shoulder. “Go ahead, Kailani. Ask. We’re here to help.”

She stared at him, and then turned to Helena, who could feel the question coming like a cold wind.

“Does that mean I have to stay here? I can hardly breathe in here—no air, no light. It’s like a tomb.”

“Kailani, listen to me,” Jason said. “No one wants to hurt you. It’s just that they haven’t figured out what to do with you yet. I promise we’ll….”

Helena could see him struggling between what promise he should make and what he’d be able to deliver.

“We’ll talk to Mr. Carlson,” she said, “and get him to change things.” She waved her arms to encompass the dingy room. “Something nicer.”

“Will I be able to see the ocean?”

“I don’t think so. We’re far from the ocean.”

“Or water?”

“I’m afraid not.” Helena’s next words burst out before she had time to appreciate what they meant. “We’ll find a way to get you out of here.”

The girl came closer and waited for Helena to kneel alongside Jason, then draped an arm around each of their necks. Her little hands clutched them for a long time.

The knock on the door seemed to shake the room. Before the matron could enter, Kailani stepped back, leaving the two of them kneeling before her.

“You saved me from the sea, Jason and Helena. Now, with the grace of Kanakunai, you’ll save me from this windowless room.”

It was more pronouncement than request.

She reached for Helena’s hand and placed it over her own heart. “Promise you’ll come back and take me away from here.”

The door opened and the matron entered, signaling it was time to leave.

Jason stood and backed away slowly, trying to buy a few more seconds.

Helena followed, never taking her eyes off Kailani. She swallowed hard—she wasn’t good at keeping promises. “I promise.”

The door closed between them, lodging in its frame with a thud.


Carlson was on a secure call with the district commander when the door swung open. His assistant bustled into his office with a yellow note card in hand, the agreed procedure when she needed to interrupt. He glanced at the card: Helena Brewster and Jason Adams were waiting outside, demanding to see him.

He placed a hand over his communicator and raised an index finger. “A minute, please.”

He ended the call with the requisite courtesy, and gestured for his assistant to escort the couple in.

The two young people approached his desk and waited for him to acknowledge their presence. He made a point of reshuffling the papers in a file—a means of establishing his authority.

“What may I do for you?” he finally said.

Helena Brewster seemed about to lose control. “How could you treat her like this? She’s done nothing wrong.”

“I understand—in fact, share—your concern, but your statement is not reasonable. The first job of the department is to protect our citizens, yet we bend over backwards to welcome refugees. She could’

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Paris is a 29-year-old man for whom love is a feat.
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by K.M. Cholewa

Copyright © 2014 by K.M. Cholewa  and published here with her permission


Paris was a Montanan without a myth. He didn’t ride horses, hunt, fish, or ski. He had never worn a cowboy hat or squinted across the range. Paris was blue-collar bred, and his body was strong — built not by gyms and barbells, but by physical work and car-less, pedestrian life. Behind his eyes there were no big skies, just a duty-bound psyche. His destiny, his purpose, he thought, was to notice. The pretty and the bad. The ugly and the good. See it and let it be. He decided long ago he would not want. He would lighten the burden of the world. Be one less pair of sticky hands.

He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and tugged the sleeves over his hands. He had gotten off from work at 5:00 a.m. and, despite the chill, wasn’t in a hurry. As he walked, his eyes slipped through the landscape. He was intimate with the details. The sidewalk cracks, small graffiti, and low-lit doorways. In the hours before light, the street’s subtle decay was not erosion, but the peeling back of veneer to reveal a spirit. Paris worried for this place. He knew, as with all places with souls, there would be those who would come to feed. Their coming caused a prickling in the air, made the molecules quiver.

With a sweatshirt-covered knuckle, he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He was six feet tall, weighed in at one seventy, and his feet sweated in his boots as he walked through the clean, timeless in-between when night and morning still locked hands, prudently, in a private space beneath the horizon. It was a city in a valley, the mountains in the distance slouching, black silhouettes against the blue-black curve of space. Paris acknowledged creation’s glory though it was, in fact, colored sprays of broken glass in an alley, the under- passes, deserted railroad yards, and cars with three flat tires curbed for months that called to him as he made his way home. The mountains didn’t need his love. The litter reached to him.

Turning down a dark side street, the earliest of risers still barely stirring behind their dark windows, he headed for Tatum and Geneva’s duplex to perform his house-sitting duties. Geneva was in Europe. Tatum was in Chicago because her sister was sick. Four days ago, Tatum had come into the Deluxe, the diner where Paris worked, to tell him she was leaving.

Other than Tatum and Paris, the diner had been empty, an un-bussed table the only sign of recent life. Business would pick up later around eight and then spike again when the bars let out. Then, briefly, the Deluxe would buzz. Paris would serve fried eggs and tuna melts. Customers would toss crumpled napkins onto ketchup-smeared plates. The Deluxe was one of only two choices in the valley for after-hours food. The Deluxe or the Pie House. That was it. All knew in which they belonged. The more criminal the element, the better the bet they chose the Deluxe. Even dangerous people need places to feel safe, and Paris deftly served this demographic. He understood their needs. Being feared is a double-edged sword: you are left alone, but you are watched.

Which is why purple-haired young adults, innocently pierced, patronized the Deluxe, as did aging men with neither wives, children, nor the means nor understanding to purchase the appropriate camouflage that enabled one to blend with the calculable citizenry. The Deluxe gave them a break from being an affront to society. It was a place to be ordinary, simply eating without being perceived as doing so in rebellion against or in contrast to the status quo.

Only rarely did Paris get one of those preening, dark angels — all aggression, looking for fights, and flanked by boy lieutenants. He was glad such types largely hunted elsewhere, but it was not because he feared them. Predatory males had always passed Paris by. He’d heard the stories of other men and boys being chosen, antagonized, beat up, or scared shitless. But Paris was never plucked from the herd and fed to the pack. He liked to think it was because he was an artist. He believed his place outside the social order allowed him to serve his purpose of bearing witness and metabolizing the whole while humbly serving it soup.

But that was not the reason.

Paris was left to his own because he could not be gauged. Was too calm. In control, but not competing for it. Not computing rank. He could have been a simple man who stood for peace, a bodhisattva, a holy man. But just as likely, he could be a motherfucker with a knife in his boot, willing to beat you with a bat ’til your skull broke, if that’s what it took.

He wasn’t left alone because he was one or the other. He was left alone because other men couldn’t tell.

Paris had been surprised to see Tatum coming through the lurid lighting of the bar, through the orange-green flash of keno machines, toward the restaurant in the rear. It was rare for him to see her there, her presence usually just a figment of his imagination. She had slid onto a round stool and slipped a short strand of dark hair behind her ear. The fluorescent lights glared, flattering nobody. Paris stood behind the dulled, but clean, counter in his whites, his demeanor, as usual, disguising his size. Bottles of ketchup, mustard, and Tabasco cluttered the space between them. Paris balanced one bottle of ketchup on another, merging them into one. He did the same with the mustards. The Tabasco, he simply wiped clean.

“My sister’s sick,” Tatum had said, “maybe dying. I’m not sure.”

Paris removed a near empty ketchup from its balance.

“I have to leave,” she said. “Warp speed. I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. It’s hard to tell what the situation is.” She reached into her coat pocket and started pulling keys off a ring. “I’m watching Geneva’s apartment. She should be back Thursday night. Could you check in on her cat? Feed him, scoop his box?”

“Yeah,” Paris said, “sure.” He wiped the rim of the bottle filled with the sludge from others. He shook out his rag and hung it beneath the counter.

“Here’s the key to my apartment,” Tatum said, sliding a second key toward him. “If I’m gone overly long, maybe you can water the plants?”

Paris looked at the key. Guilt and excitement made his chest and face softly buzz.

“Or you could ask Geneva to do it,” Tatum said, “after she gets back.”

Paris lifted the keys off the counter.

“I can do it,” he said. “You okay?”

Tatum forced a smile, one meant to reassure him.

“I’m fine.”

Paris pocketed the keys, grabbed a bus tub, and walked around the end of the counter. He stepped to the dirty table behind Tatum. She spun on her stool, following him with her eyes. The dining room was worn and beaten with time, but not dirt. Paris made sure of that. He paused while loading the tub. He had a question for Tatum but wasn’t sure what it was. He turned to face her.

“Yes, Margaret hates me,” Tatum said, finding the question for him, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not close.”

Paris flinched inwardly.

“Gotta go,” she mouthed.

Paris watched Tatum leave, watched her cross the line between the diner and the bar, the line where the linoleum met the worn, red, cigarette-scarred carpeting. Her coat flared around her, reaching mid- thigh. She turned into a shadow as she opened the door, and the glow of dusk briefly illuminated the space around her, the space she was so adroit at cultivating.

Paris thought about her driving through the night. He thought about the key in his pocket and that he could be alone, again, in Tatum’s apartment. He would not snoop, he told himself. Not again.

But first, there was tonight. Near nine, the high school degenerates would arrive, brash and boisterous, throwing food, and paying in piles of change. Around one, after the bars closed, hungry loners would speckle the room eating their solitary meals and delaying going home as best they could. Then, around two, two thirty, the women would begin to arrive, taking extra effort to be natural and not speed through the casino as the bartender, Blair, finished closing up. Maybe just one of the women would come. Sometimes, there were as many as five. Paris knew the Deluxe was a secret among the women of the street. The homeless. The hiding. The shipwrecked. In the wee hours, he doled out soup from the day’s vat and served it with the cornbread he made himself when he came on shift. No one ever ordered. No one ever paid. Blair probably knew what was going on, but none of it was ever discussed. Paris knew that to retain the beauty of some things, they must never be named.


Tatum approached the casket from the back of the room, aware that she was The Sister, the Black Sheep. She didn’t know Margaret’s friends, but they knew her. Tatum felt their eyes slip from her head to her toes and back up again, their calculators clicking away, adding up details of shoe quality and unpolished nails, trying to penetrate the reality to find the reputation. But reputation is a flat lens. Tatum was there in 3-D. At the front of the room, Tatum sank to the kneeler, folded her hands, and bowed her head.

Piety, even the false kind, works like a repellent. She was left alone.

Tatum had a knack for getting people to leave her alone.

Kneeling, she let her eyes rest on Margaret’s face. To Tatum, Margaret’s expression from life had carried over smoothly into death: the look of someone who got everything she wanted and resented that it wasn’t good enough because it could never include Tatum never being born.

It was that kind of sister-hate.

Tatum was certain that Margaret hated her no less in death than she had in life. In fact, she probably hated her more, and if strong emotions — hate, for example — were powerful enough to wake the dead, Margaret might rise at any moment. As it turned out, single parenthood was not part of the plan for Margaret’s grieving husband, Lee. He had sentenced his daughter, Margaret’s precious Rachael, to return to Montana with Tatum.

The thought of Margaret’s fury with such an arrangement gave Tatum a twinge of discomfort with the corpse. She rose and made her way down the aisle toward the rear of the room, passing between rows of chairs arranged, rather bluntly, for a viewing. She had not packed for a funeral, and so she wore Margaret’s black, wool skirt that was cut on the bias and stuck out from Tatum’s slim hips like fins.

It did not surprise Tatum that Lee would pawn off his eight-year-old daughter on a woman whom the child was raised to hold in contempt and do so before the child’s mother had a chance to get into her grave, much less cool in it. Lee was not someone who made sense to her. She didn’t know if he was an idiot, but she did believe him to be a liar. Liars’ behavior often doesn’t make sense and makes them seem like idiots, fake idiots. That’s how Lee seemed to Tatum, like a fake idiot.

Tatum didn’t know if Margaret’s crew of scary friends thought Lee was a fake idiot, but she did know this turning over of the child had been met with wide-scale disapproval, all done in whispers. The disapproval part made sense to Tatum too. She shared their sentiment. But she didn’t understand why they seemed to act like it was her fault.

She didn’t meet their eyes as she walked between the rows of chairs. She kept her own olive-colored eyes focused on the double doors ahead.

In the hall, mourners from other wakes loitered in twos and threes and moved in and out of restrooms. Tatum made her way toward the front doors and stepped outside to stand in the wet November night.

Humidity. Chicago humidity. November humidity. Her skin loved it, and her hair thickened and curled in it. It was home, yet so different from home in Montana where the dry air chapped hands and left the hair brittle. Tatum hugged herself and watched the flows of traffic pulling away from each other in opposite directions — busy, orderly, all keeping to their side of the yellow lines.

Tatum stepped from beneath the funeral home’s awning and looked across the four lanes. She remembered Geneva four years ago dragging her into the empty street in front of their duplex. Geneva had taken hold of Tatum’s hand and instructed Tatum to close her eyes.

First, they walked against the flow of traffic. Tatum, with eyes closed, had to admit that she could feel it, the energy resisting them, flowing in the direction traffic moved even though the street was empty. Then, they turned and walked with the traffic’s flow, rode its invisible current. It was as though traffic had dug a groove and trained the energy. It ran like a river in its bed.

Tatum considered how much more forceful the flow might be here in the city where the traffic steadily pushed on without rest. So much activity, so many worlds. It made the old couple across the street seem lives away as opposed to feet and yards. Tatum watched them through cracks between passing cars as the old man held both the restaurant door and the umbrella as the bent woman in a rain cap maneuvered her walker inside.

The restaurant’s name was Cardella’s. It was square and somber, catering, no doubt, to the hungry bereaved. Tatum wished her friend, Paris, were here with her. He’d see it in paint. He’d entitle it Mourning After.

Tatum looked up into the haze of light that pooled in the city sky. The mist around her broke a sweat, releasing quick slivers of rain that seemed to step out from the fog and fall. Because she was thinking of Paris, she didn’t move for cover. She let the rain slap against her skin the way Paris would. It felt good to do what Paris would do.

But thoughts of one man turned to thoughts of another, and Tatum opened her eyes and stepped back beneath the awning. Loss. Her own didn’t rank among such heavy hitters as Margaret losing her life or Rachael losing her mother and home. Tatum had lost a boyfriend. A love. Vincent had dumped her two years ago and then disappeared. She hadn’t heard a word from him since. Nothing. She tried to let it go and move on, as they say. She had even thought she was doing it, moving on, but then Vincent would ride in on another thought.

She had talked about it once with Geneva, wrapped in blankets on the patio on a September night. She told Geneva of the way Vincent would swoop into her thoughts. In the moment, Geneva hadn’t said much. But the next morning, Tatum found a folded up piece of paper slid under her front door.

“Unrequited love is very stable,” it said. It was signed — G.


The next day, graveside, mourners huddled in the crisp, clean cold. The sky was shockingly bright as Margaret was buried in a grove of oaks on her and her husband’s six acres west of the city. It was not Tatum’s first funeral. Not her first coffin. Cancer had taken her father fairly young and then her mother six years back when Rachael was only two. Wanting to maintain family ties, Tatum had made a point of driving back to Illinois once a year. Margaret would receive her, duty-bound. But by the time Rachael reached kindergarten, she had realized that within the clan she outranked her prodigal aunt. Despite her young years, her snub was most accomplished.

Tatum stood in the inner circle, closest to the coffin, as prayers were offered and roses were placed on the polished mahogany. The minister asked those congregated to join hands. As there was no one to Tatum’s right, her hand hung empty at her side. Her left hand, too, hung empty as Rachael had turned away from her toward her father, the fingers of both of her hands curled into his coat pocket.

Tatum wondered what this day might be to Rachael somewhere off in the future, on a late night, years away, when Rachael was grown and lying in a lover’s bed, touched and open. In a faraway voice, would she tell him her tale of that first love lost? Would the day still be vivid to her, right down to the feel of the wool of her father’s coat beneath her fingers, the cloudless sky, and the notes of the violin turning to her with open hands, about to say something, before dissolving into grace? Or would her story be of cold motherlessness, slippery shadows, and photographs divorced from touch?

Tatum reached toward Rachael’s long brown hair but then let her hand fall. Rachael looked over her shoulder as though she had felt the hand creeping toward her. Tatum noticed no flash of hate from Rachael when their eyes met as she had in the past. Just a sweet blank face with a shard of anger cut deep in the back of the eye.

The violinist stretched the final note. It hung in the air, seeming to hold up the mourners, as if when the note ended they would all collapse at once onto the cold autumn ground. But as the note faded and vanished, only hands dropped. Rachael looked away from Tatum, and they stood in new silence.

Lee broke the trance with an escaped sob. Tatum looked to him. He was handsome without character, mid-thirties. He was tall and lean. Though more attractive than a Q-tip, he reminded Tatum of one nonetheless.

The casket was cradled in a sling and lowered by six men holding the sides. When it reached its resting place, the group murmured an Our Father. Tatum didn’t bother to mouth along. She was listening to Vincent’s voice in her head Vincent, her lost love, grumbling about the cost of the casket and the resources wasted in sending the dead into the earth.

The prayer ended. The minister closed with canned funeral rhetoric and a vague tribute. Too many adjectives, Tatum thought, not enough verbs. She wanted to raise her hand. “How so?” she wanted to say to the minister’s assertions about Margaret’s goodness. “Give me an example.”

There was a collective “amen.” Quietly, the group dispersed, hugging separate hugs, sniffling, and moving toward the house for somber conversation and solemn hors d’oeuvres. All very respectful, Tatum supposed. But given how difficult it is to let go of lovers, favorite coats, and old letters, she thought, how in God’s name can a spirit break free from its precious body without stomping feet, clapping hands, wailing and raging? Go, go, go. We holler and wave and encourage the marathon runner to make it those final yards, to push harder from a strength not physical. Then, at death, we mumble a civil hymn and talk white noise. How’s the soul to know in which direction to fly?

At the house, despite being Margaret’s closest blood relative other than Rachael, Tatum felt distinctly like an outsider, a slightly unwelcome guest. She ladled herself a glass of punch and plucked a stuffed olive hors d’oeuvre from the buffet spread, a mix of catered food and homemade offerings. She stepped among the people clustered in small groups having quiet conversations. Tatum tried to blend without actually interacting but thought that she might be drawing attention to herself with her persistent pace. So, she sidled up where Lee was talking to one of Margaret’s more frightening-looking friends, a step or two back from the conversation. Lee was describing the chosen headstone with its inscription, Wife and Mother.

Wife and Mother, Tatum thought, a generic tribute. But critiquing the epitaph, she imagined, would be poor form, so she focused on the stuffed olive she was holding, calculating how to bite it in half without making a mess, until she detected an awkward silence. She looked up. Lee was gone and Margaret’s friend was looking at her.

“She deserved to see Rachael grow up,” the woman said, obviously repeating herself. What was her name? Marley? She looked like a recipe for pretty gone awry. Every strand of blonde hair was the exact same color. She had blue eyes and symmetrical features. All the right ingredients, and yet, they added up to something else.

“Yes,” Tatum stuttered. “But I’m not so sure people get what they deserve, good or bad.”

Marley stared at her. Tatum bit her hors d’oeuvre, needing something to do. The half left behind on the toothpick broke and fell toward the floor, Tatum catching most of it in the palm of her hand while still chewing on the half in her mouth. Marley fake smiled at her, said “Excuse me,” and walked away.

Tatum found her way to the kitchen to dispose of the olive bits that had fallen to the floor. She washed her hands and slipped away from the gathering to Lee’s den. She would rummage through the phone books to keep herself occupied. She’d done this here before and found the phone books in a pile under the same side table she had in the past.

In Montana, six or seven books covered the whole state. Here, it took that many to cover the Chicago suburbs.

She flipped through the phone books, looking through the G’s for Vincent’s name and number. Vincent Goes Ahead. Though a big family name on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, “Goes Ahead” would not be a common name in the Midwest. There would not be a list of right name but wrong numbers to call and interview. Tatum looked for Vincent’s number whenever she left town, wherever she went. Losing a person to death may not be a cakewalk, but losing one to his life was considerably more complicated. In his final message to her, left on her answering machine, he said he was confused, but she knew better. The confused stay put. It is clarity that provokes us to action.

Tatum sank into the soft leather of the wingback as she turned phone book pages. Clarity and confusion. She knew the difference. With confusion the mind mulls, chews, and frets. It trips and tangles on its own so-called logic. Lots of activity. No movement. With clarity, on the other hand, the thinking is done. It was clarity Tatum felt before ingesting a fistful of pills in a Nebraska motel room ten years back. Clarity she felt before playing chicken with a bullet.

Ah, the drama of youth, she thought, smiling to herself. Her death fantasies had become considerably more tame with age. Her current one featured her dying not by her own hand but of a terminal disease that while not pleasant, of course, would not debilitate her completely until the very end. She would have a party before the fat lady sang, she had decided, a pre-wake kind of thing. Guests would receive a string of raffle tickets as they came through the front door, and at the high point of the evening, she would raffle off her stuff. From her sickbed, she would draw the numbers from a hat. The sofa: 3-6-2. The coffee table: 1-7. Books. Household appliances. The big-ticket items would provide the night’s highlight. The car. The boom box. The guests would see the raffle as a perversity, a peverse request but a request of the dying, not to be denied. Secretly, they’d cross their fingers and hope their numbers were lucky.

By the evening’s end, only her sickbed and a nightstand would remain. Tatum had shuffled through dead people’s belongings. She didn’t want it happening to her. She would clean the place out in advance, she decided. There’d be nothing left but maybe a missed safety pin ground into the carpet or an old broom leaning in a corner.

Tatum returned one phone book after another to the pile, once again coming up empty. She didn’t know that she would actually call Vincent, even if she did find the number. She certainly didn’t know what the hell she’d say.

Then, she stood and wandered in the den reading the spines of books and examining trinkets. She absently wondered what Lee would do with Margaret’s things — her clothes and her saved mementos. Though there would be no raffling of Margaret’s belongings, at least one item should have been. Rachael. Tatum suspected that Margaret would have been more comforted by a raffle to the general public than her husband’s decision.

By the time she emerged from the den, the mourners had dispersed, leaving crumpled napkins and glasses of melting ice. Tatum collected some glasses and dropped them off on the kitchen counter. Margaret’s friends filled Tupperware and washed the dishes brought full of microwaveable comfort to swallow and digest along with the immutable facts. Tatum couldn’t detect an opening in the kitchen’s traffic pattern, a way to jump in with dishtowel or sponge, so she said good night.

Tatum stepped out the front door and looked at the sky. Reluctant reds and golds crushed down into the horizon. It was her time. Vincent always knew that dusk was her moment and would put his arm around her as she gravitated to the window, the porch, wherever she had to go to witness, to see the cars opening their eyes, waking to their true and secret selves. The stars emerging, twinkling with sly. Vincent told her on one of the first nights they were together that she was born with a broken heart, and she believed he knew her for that one line.

What was it? Six months? A year? Before his tenderness turned to a sigh and an exasperated, “Lighten up.”

Alas, love is not unconditional. Like all living things, it thrives when conditions are right, withers in a drought or if it is cut off from light.

Tatum sat on the concrete step and looked out at a strip of deep purple squeezed between the darkening sky and horizon. Sunset on the day of Margaret’s funeral. Tatum’s stomach turned. Sick with grief, she thought, though her eyes stayed dry.

Death. Tragic and unfathomable. Yet, Tatum found in it some- thing satisfying. It was, in many ways, a relief. In every other part of our lives we have options. We make choices, and we get second chances, opportunities to correct choices poorly made. We lose things but know there’s the remote possibility of getting them back, finding them in a forgotten drawer or pocket, of seeing them at an airport in Denver or Salt Lake. But not when someone is dead. Dead is done. That person is gone. Nothing you do, no corrective actions or changes of mind or per- sonal transformations will alter that fact. It is final. Something where the only option is to let it be.


Paris arrived at Tatum and Geneva’s duplex and turned the key in the lock of the front door. Inside, there were two more doors, Tatum’s on the right, Geneva’s on the left. The old brick building was worn but not dilapidated. The crown molding in the hall was dark and heavy; the baseboard, faded and scratched. The hardwood floors were unrestored but far from shabby. There was nothing new and nothing flimsy about any of it.

He tended to his chores at Geneva’s first, buying time to see if he could concoct a reason for entering Tatum’s apartment, even if just for a second, to breathe in its scent, which was the scent of Tatum. But in fact, it was hardly a smell at all. It was more like the promise of one, or one just missed. Something fresh and wet.

But there would be no reason to enter. Last time he had the key, he had snooped through Tatum’s things, all the while skin prickling with the electricity of doing wrong and feeling watched. But God wasn’t watching Paris from an unseen place. Paris was watching Tatum. He opened bedroom drawers to untidy piles of clothing. He didn’t rifle, but he touched. At her nightstand drawer, he let his fingers shuffle past the flashlight, broken necklace, and Canadian money to the file folder. He lifted a corner of it and, upon seeing the black-and-white photo within, withdrew the folder from the drawer. The picture inside was of Tatum without a top on, a torso shot, her arms reaching behind her as though her hands were clasped at the base of her spine. Her smooth, flat stomach slipped beneath the loose waistline of her Levi’s, and her chin tilted to the side. Long strands of hair fell alongside the outer curves of her small, round breasts. Paris had never seen Tatum’s hair long.

Whereas “snooping” had felt relatively benign, “finding” had sent an eerie ripple through his body. Victory and guilt: a toxic cocktail. Paris felt it the next time he was with her, and the next, the “violate” in violating her privacy.

But it wasn’t only guilt he felt about the pictures. It was jealousy, too. Who was the photographer? Vincent?

At Geneva’s, Paris checked the food level in the cat’s dish and freshened the water in the small ceramic bowl. He never snooped at Geneva’s. There didn’t seem to be much need. Her inner world seemed on display. A pleasant background reek of a history of incense and scented candles made one privy to her acceptance of the otherworldly. Paris absently picked up a small statue of Kali, the Hindu goddess. Geneva maintained a healthy population of deities. Buddhas, feathers, a Mother Mary, and pagan figurines sat on window ledges and shelves. Geneva wrote the local alternative paper’s version of Dear Abby, Dear Belinda, and a stack of letters sat on her desk. Her responses to the distraught weren’t based in psychology, philosophy, or religion. Geneva shot from the hip. Whatever the question asked, the answer was the one already in her head derived from god-knows-what yet applicable to all questions at hand. Geneva thought a lot about a lot of things but never seemed finished with any one thought. She claimed to have a promiscuous mind, a slut of a mind, even. One day she might be in love with one idea, and the next day, in bed with that idea’s worst enemy.

Paris put down Kali and turned toward the most distinguishing feature of Geneva’s living room, an entire wall of albums, rows and rows, worn and dusty, but with all the integrity of the well-used and well-cared for. He passed them on his way out. In the foyer, he stood facing the door to Tatum’s apartment.

Inside, unlike at Geneva’s, there would be no trinkets, papers, and collections. If it weren’t for the dozen or so plants, Tatum’s apartment would be stark. A foam sofa. A coffee table and a secondhand orange chair and ottoman. Nothing hung on the walls, though she did paint one of them a pale, sage green and another displayed a floor-to-ceiling, jagged crack from an earthquake long past. The surrounding mountains rose on active faults. The city sat in a bedrock bowl filled with sediment. Paris had heard it compared to a bowl of pudding. Tap the bowl and the bowl shakes, but the pudding shakes even more.

Though Paris fingered the key in his pocket, he forced himself to turn away. He left the duplex and backtracked toward downtown, thinking about the debt he owed to Tatum. He had looked at the pictures. He had violated her privacy. Stole intimacy. He meant to pay her back.


Home by 5:45 a.m., Paris descended the steps to his basement apartment beneath a barbershop. He tossed his keys into the ashtray near the door and pulled off his work boots. He stashed them, brown and crumpled, in a closet in the far corner of his apartment. In the bath- room, he turned on the faucet in the tub and washed his feet, scrubbed the bottoms cool, uncrowded the toes and let water pour through their gutters.

Feet cold and clean, he returned to the main room. A bathroom and a main room, that was the extent of his apartment. He thought of the main room as having stations where assigned activities were performed. Not unlike the Stations of the Cross, each spot had its designated theme: Paris Cooks for the Hundredth Time, Paris Stares Out the Window, Paris Draws, Paris Sleeps. More humble than even Tatum’s, he had no sofa, just the kitchen table and two aluminum chairs that came with the apartment. His bed was a mattress on the floor.

He went to the stretch of wall that amounted to his kitchen and opened the drawer where he kept his pile of sketches. He reached to the bottom and pulled out a clean sheet. Leaning on the counter, he sketched Tatum’s silhouette in the corridor of keno machines and tables that flanked her as she had left the Deluxe. He wasn’t drawing seriously. Just doodling. Though, he thought, just maybe, he could finish a picture like this, something done from behind. No eyes for the sketching hand to tangle on. No eyes to break the flow and create that nervous energy that says, Do the dishes. Take a nap. Jerk off.

Paris remembered telling Tatum about his trouble with eyes. He had told her, looking at her grimly, as he slid open his kitchen drawer between them revealing the evidence. He had jerked his head a bit to get her to look down. Tentatively, she had reached into the drawer and shuffled through the contents — all the unfinished sketches and ambitious doodles on scraps of envelopes and the backs of flyers. They were portraits, mostly. Customers from the diner. People in the coffee shop. Smokers on stoops.

She had lifted an uneven stack from the drawer and then laid them out on the counter, slowly, one by one. She placed a hand gently on one or the other as her eyes traveled over them and among them as though they referenced each other, like puzzle pieces.

“These are good,” she said. She held her chin and nodded. “I’m impressed.”

Paris could see she was sincere, but he wasn’t looking for reassurance.

“I can’t finish any of them,” he confessed, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I get working on the eyes, then something creepy happens.” Tatum leaned on her elbows and pulled one sketch closer, then another. She studied the spaces where there was crosshatching or white empty sockets where there should have been irises and pupils. Glimpses through windows of souls.

“Creepy, how?” she said.

Paris stepped away from the drawer and dropped a pouch of grounds into his Mr. Coffee. Tatum leaned on the counter, one foot stacked on the top of the other. In the gray light of the kitchen, in her painter’s pants and jean jacket, her silhouette could’ve been that of a twelve-year-old boy. Her head turned to him, watching him, knowing the wait was part of the answer.

“Here’s how it feels,” Paris said, filling the coffeemaker with water and throwing the switch. “I’m sitting in a chair. I’m hunched over, and there’s just this ink or pencil, these lines appearing.” He paused and gathered words. “Then I get to the eyes, and it seems like, to get them right, I have to become the person whose eyes I’m drawing.” He shot Tatum a look. “Like I have to feel how it is to be them. So, as I’m drawing, it starts to feel like I’m . . . changing.”

“Changing,” she said.


Tatum crossed her arms thoughtfully and leaned into the counter with her hip.

“You mean, like turning into a werewolf?” she said.

“Same principle.”

“Well, that sounds cool.”

“Cool?” Paris said, deadpan. “I take it you missed the movies. Those guys running through the woods trying to escape the moon, scratching at the hair growing in under their shirts.”

“Hey,” she said, half-laughing, “if you turned into a werewolf, would you still need your glasses? ’Cause that would look weird. Something definitely to avoid.”

“Well, we’ll never know,” Paris said. He was unsure whether she realized the weight of what he was telling her, that what happened when he drew eyes rode a fine line between something sacred and something disturbing. The very stuff of secrets.

“It feels wrong,” he said. “It’s intimate but one-sided, which makes it creepy and me a creep.”

Paris stared absently at the pictures on the counter. Tatum was quiet, but he could feel her watching him. He looked up and met her green eyes. She smiled.

“You know what else I bet is intimate?” she said.

“What’s that?”

“Murder,” she said, with an evil flick of the eyebrows. The coffeemaker spit out a gurgle.

“Murder,” Paris repeated.

“Well, not drive-by shootings and gun fights, of course,” she said, “but those one-on-one stranglings, the bare-handed killings.” She mimed a choking, her hands around a neck.

Paris gathered his sketches back into a sloppy pile.

“That’s why I’m not a murderer,” Tatum said. “Fear of intimacy.” She smiled, pleased with herself.

“And why I’m not an artist.” Paris dropped the sketches into the drawer. He stepped away and poured them both coffee. He handed Tatum a mug.

“Although,” Tatum said, cupping the mug in both hands, “maybe what murderers really suffer from is the combination of the desire for intimacy, and the fear of it. Murder gives them bang for their buck. Thumbs pressed into the front of the throat, witnessing the shock and fear, revealing the monster that they are — it doesn’t get much more personal.”

“I suppose it’s showing the worst of yourself,” Paris said. “At any rate.”

“Yeah,” Tatum said, “but a murderer is a coward. Wants intimacy without vulnerability.” She put down her mug and hopped up onto the counter, sitting near the sink. “Total intimacy,” she said, “but no chance of any awkward ‘Oh, hi’s’ when you meet by accident down- town.”

“No witnesses,” he said.

“Exactly.” Tatum lifted her mug and inhaled deeply above it. “You want advice?” she said. “Be a creep. See where it takes you before you write it off. You can always change your mind.”

“We’re talking about drawing eyes?”

“We’re talking about drawing eyes.”

It wasn’t the first secret Paris had told Tatum, and it wouldn’t be the last. He told her secrets over mugs of coffee and over wine drunk from unstemmed glasses. He told her them silently as he idly sketched her, always from behind, on scraps of paper he threw away. He placed his secrets on tables between them like they were things he had found, things he wanted to show her so she could help him determine their value. What did she think? What were they worth?

… Continued…

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by K. M. Cholewa
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KND Freebies: Captivating romance FATED FOR LOVE by NY Times bestselling author Melissa Foster in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Melissa Foster brings us another engaging novel about the sexy Braden siblings in her fun, passionate romance series,
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Fated for Love (Love in Bloom: The Bradens) Contemporary Romance

by Melissa Foster

Fated for Love (Love in Bloom: The Bradens) Contemporary Romance
4.7 stars – 109 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Librarian Callie Barnes has visions of reading and relaxing–and maybe having a few too many drinks–on her girls’ weekend away. Her hopes are crushed when her friends pull into a dude ranch instead of a spa, and she refuses to say longer than one night. That is…until she realizes the ranch is owned by sinfully sexy, and dangerously rugged, Wes Braden–the subject of her late-night fantasies.

Fearless rancher Wes Braden thinks he’s the luckiest guy on the planet when the sweet, sexy librarian from his hometown shows up at his ranch. Their connection is white-hot, making it impossible for either to ignore their carnal desires. Wes is more than willing to convert sweet Callie from chick lit to a world of erotic romance, but Callie ties sex to love, and Wes avoids commitment like the plague.

Callie is thrust into physically demanding activities that ignite her deepest fears. Luckily, Wes is as tender as he is strong, and he’s there every step of the way to help her find her inner strength. With Callie’s influence, Wes might even discover that he’s been nursing a few fears of his own. Passion pulls Callie and Wes from their safe, comfortable lives into each other’s arms, and they’re about to find out just how alike they really are.

Please note: This book contains adult content. Not meant for readers under 18 years of age.
5-star praise for the Love in Bloom series:

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an excerpt from

(Love in Bloom: The Bradens)

by Melissa Foster

CALLIE BARNES PICKED through the new releases in the Trusty Town Library, where she’d worked as the assistant librarian for the last four weeks. She snagged the last copy of Kurt Remington’s newest thriller, Dark Times, and put it on top of the two others she was carrying. The cover depicted the silhouette of a man at the edge of a cliff, holding a bloody knife that glistened in the eerie moonlight. She turned the book over. She couldn’t even think about those types of situations, much less read about them. Callie’s first love was fairy tales. She loved the idea of knights on white horses and happiness coming when a person least expected it. Fairy tales were safe, and the princesses were always loved for who they were, flaws and all. Her second secret love was women’s fiction, specifically, chick lit and light romances, where the worst thing that a character encountered was a broken heel during an interview and all the sex scenes were left up to the reader’s imagination—as they should be. She didn’t need to read about some hunky hero touching a woman’s thigh…with his tongue. She felt her cheeks flush at the thought and wished she hadn’t worn her hair pinned up in a bun so she could hide behind it. She hugged the books to her chest, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. Puppies. Kittens. Ice cream. Brownies. Chocolate syrup…oh yes…all over his—

“Hey, Callie. You okay?”

Cripes! She clenched her eyes shut. Wes Braden’s voice sent a shudder through her entire body. Of course he’d come in when she was thinking about chocolate syrup all over…Stop, stop, stop! This was the best—and the worst—part of Thursdays. She mustered a smile and turned around. He stood a few inches away, which brought her face oh so close to his broad, muscular chest. She could press her cheek to it and hear that big heart of his pounding beneath all those layers of muscle.

Holy cow.

She lifted her gaze and met his slightly amused dark eyes.

“Hey.” His eyes landed on the books she was still clutching against her chest. “Those for me?” Wes came into the library every Thursday to pick up the latest thrillers and an occasional biography.

Callie’s body pulsed with anticipation over the few minutes they shared each week—so much anticipation that when she was alone in bed in the dark of night, it was Wes’s face that appeared in her mind and his voice that whispered in her ear. It was his full lips and his piercing dark eyes that made her heart race and her body so hot she couldn’t help but satisfy the urges he stirred deep within her.

Callie opened her mouth to answer, but his masculine scent surrounded her dirty thoughts, shooting her hormones into overdrive and gluing her tongue to the roof of her mouth, which she was pretty sure was a godsend, because otherwise she might have drooled all over him. She shoved the books into his hands and was rewarded with a grateful smile that made her legs turn to wet noodles.

Wes’s eyes lingered on her high-collared blouse, which was buttoned up to her neck; then he lifted his eyes to hers again.

She felt her nipples harden under his hot stare, and of course her cheeks flushed again. She wished she could disappear into one of those books right there and then.

“Thanks, Callie. Any interesting plans this week?” He’d asked the same question every week for the past four, and each week she answered with the titles of the books she was reading, which was not only all she could manage, but it was also the truth.

There were no two ways about it. Callie’s life was boring. She heard it from her girlfriends all the time; of course, that was because none of them lived in the tiny town of Trusty, Colorado, where she’d moved to take her dream job of working in a library. They still lived in Denver, where Callie and her friends had grown up and gone to college, but after four years of working in jobs she didn’t enjoy, she’d jumped at the assistant librarian position that had opened up in Trusty. And while it might be miles away from her real-life friends and family, at least she was surrounded by more fictional friends than she could ever hope for. Besides, when Alice Shalmer, the head librarian, finally retired, she’d be next in line for the position. She hadn’t expected the added weekly bonus of being able to ogle all six foot something of delicious Wes Braden, the hottest man she’d ever set eyes on.

Totally worth being away from my friends.

Finally she was in a position to give Wes a more exciting answer.

“My friends are taking me to a spa for a few days.” She bit her lower lip to keep from grinning like a kid going to Disney World. She couldn’t wait to spend a few days with her friends, where being pampered meant plenty of reading time. It would be a perfect long weekend.

Wes arched a thick, dark brow, leaned one hand on the bookshelves beside her head, and gazed down at her with a sexy, dark stare. “A spa? Now, that does sound interesting. Which one?”

She could barely breathe with him leaning in like that, bringing his clean-shaven, chiseled face, full lips, and…Her heart went a little crazy.

“Yeah,” she whispered. Callie’s stomach fluttered, and she realized she must be gazing at him with a horrifyingly dreamy look in her eyes. She turned back to the books—and away from the badass guy who taught hunting and fishing and made her sharp mind numb.

“Um.” She tried to remember what the question was. Spa. Which spa. “I’m not sure which one, or even where it is. They’re surprising me.” Her girlfriends had scheduled this trip before she began working for the library, and Alice was kind enough to give her the time off even though she’d been there for only a month.

“What do girls do at a spa for a long weekend?” he asked over her shoulder.

Did he really expect her to think with him standing so close? She could feel his hot breath on the back of her neck. “Um…Massages.” Jeez! I might as well have said, Have strangers touch us all over! She took a deep breath, which helped exactly none since his scent took shelter in her nose and lungs.

She forced herself to finish answering. “Uh…read, take walks.” She stumbled back a step and knocked a book from the shelf. When she bent to pick it up, her darn too-tight pencil skirt trapped her knees together halfway to the floor. She made a mental note to stop eating ice cream as a replacement for those dirty things she was trying not to think about.

Wes retrieved the book, and their eyes met and held for a long, hot beat. He handed it to her and rose to his full height again. “Well, that sounds a lot more relaxing than spending a week with a group of people who are probably afraid of heights, spiders, and snakes.” He tucked the books she’d given him under his arm, ran his hand through his short, dark hair, and shrugged, causing all those hard muscles in his shoulders to flex beneath his tight shirt.

“If you add deep water to that list, you’ve described me perfectly.” Callie didn’t know much about Wes, other than he liked thrillers and biographies, he turned the heads of every female in the library, and he taught alpha male stuff, like hunting, fishing, and…She had no idea what else, but the thought of guns and deep water made her dizzy. Or maybe that was a side effect of being around him. She wasn’t sure.

 “Wes?” Tiffany Dempsey ran her eyes up and down Wes’s body with an appreciative smile, like a mountaineer revisiting a familiar peak.

It had taken Callie a week to realize why Tiffany appeared in the library every Thursday but never took home a single book or said a word to Callie.

Wes smiled at Tiffany in a way that made Callie blush. His eyes were as seductive as his voice. “Hey, Tiff.”

Tiffany flipped her long blond hair over her shoulder and ran her finger down his forearm. “How’s it going? Oh, I see Callie picked out some good books for you again.”

Callie was surprised that she knew her name.

“Callie knows her books.” Wes smiled down at Callie.

Knows her books. Callie watched him walk away with Tiffany, then banged her forehead against the bookshelf, wishing she could be anyone but the girl who knew her books. No, that wasn’t really true. She loved books—everything about them, from the weight of them in her hands to the smell of the pages and the worlds they held between their covers. The world she loved to climb into, live vicariously through, and where she hid away from the world. She had no idea what to wish for. She was who she was and she liked who she was, even if she’d never be the type of woman a guy like Wes Braden would be interested in. She glanced around the quiet library. There were two women sitting at a table staring at Wes like he was made of gold. In the reference aisle, she noticed another woman, who, she realized, also came in only on Thursdays. She was peering out of the aisle at Wes, too. And then there was Tiffany, stealing every ounce of Wes’s attention in three seconds flat. Callie sighed. She’d never be like Tiffany. Callie sucked at the whole one-touch-turn-on thing that Tiffany had down pat. Tiffany was tall and lean, and every outfit she wore was tight and revealing in the all the right ways. Callie would feel silly in the tight, black minidress Tiffany wore like a second skin. She somehow managed to look sexy and strong, which was probably nothing more than her brazen personality. Callie was petite and far from athletic. Even though she did her Jillian Michaels DVD religiously, she could never do the things she imagined Wes doing, like wrangling cattle or riding bulls.

I wouldn’t mind riding him, though.

She shivered with the painfully unrealistic thought. She needed that damn massage, and she hoped the masseur was tall, dark, and handsome. Maybe she’d throw caution to the wind and do all those behind-closed-doors dirty things she wished she could do with Wes and had been trying not to fantasize about.

Her damn cheeks flushed again.

She looked up at the ceiling and wondered if there was a handbook for nerdy girls who fantasized about badass men to learn to take the reins and land their men.

Stick to fairy tales, Callie.

WES SHOVED A stack of papers to the side of his desk, yanked open the file drawer, and weeded through the hanging file folders. Shit. Where are they? He didn’t have time for this. Wes and his partner, Chip Shelton, owned The Woodlands, a dude ranch about an hour outside of Trusty, in the Colorado Mountains, and he was meeting a group there just before dinnertime. If he could only find the itineraries he’d put together, he could get out of his office and on the damn road so he wouldn’t be late.

He moved around the desk and looked down at the fifteen-week-old bloodhound sleeping soundly beneath his desk. “Hey, Sweets. Any idea where I put those itineraries?” He hoped he hadn’t left them at his house. Wes split his time between his house in Trusty and his cabin at The Woodlands, and the last thing he needed was to make an additional trip before getting on the road to the ranch.

Sweets turned sad eyes up at him and yawned, then laid her head back down on her cushy bed. Wes had found Sweets a few weeks earlier on the side of a remote mountain trail, all skin and bones and sick with distemper. With the help of his brother Ross, the Trusty veterinarian, he’d nursed her back to health and fell in love with probably the only bloodhound on earth that had no sense of smell. Zero. None. A bloodhound that couldn’t track a lost person would be of little use if a client turned up missing, but he loved her so damn much that even her missing sense didn’t make her any less amazing.

Wes leaned down and loved up Sweets; he scratched her belly and pressed a kiss to her forehead. Then he sat in his chair and rubbed his eyes with his forefinger and thumb.

“What’s that piss-ass look for?” Chip stood in the doorway, his shaggy blond hair hanging in his eyes. He’d been Wes’s business partner since they opened the dude ranch doors eight years ago and Wes’s best buddy since second grade.

Wes sighed and set a dark stare on Chip’s annoyingly amused baby blues. They were two peas in a pod—no risk was too big, no job was too difficult, and no woman was worth more than a night or two. Chip knew as much about Wes as his five siblings did, and Wes loved him like a brother, but love wasn’t the emotion that was currently brewing in his gut.

“Have you seen my itineraries for the new group?”

Chip flopped into the chair across from Wes’s desk, the amused look in his eyes now coupled with a smirk. He stretched his long legs and clasped his hands behind his head. “How can a guy who’s overprepared for anything outdoors be so frickin’ unorganized with paperwork?”

“Either tell me where they are or get out.” Wes went to the file cabinet near the window and tugged the top drawer open.

“Dude, you do this every other week. Just admit it: You have an aversion to paperwork.”

“Shut up.” Wes slammed the file cabinet closed. He peered out of his office and hollered down the hall, “Clarissa?”

“I don’t have them!” Clarissa Simmons, their secretary and bookkeeper of three years, hollered.

Chip laughed.

Wes slid him another narrow stare. “If you’re not going to help me look for the damn things, get out.”

Chip pushed to his feet. “Did you look in your put-off-until-later pile? That would be my guess.” Chip lifted his chin toward a pile of papers currently holding down the edges of an open map on top of a table in the opposite corner of Wes’s office.

Wes stalked across the floor and snagged the top file in the stack. The itineraries.

“I’ll refrain from telling you I told you so.” Chip snickered as he glanced over the map, checking out Wes’s trail for the overnight with his group. “You’re all set for your days in female hell?”

“Yeah. You want to take them?” Wes loved running the dude ranch and he enjoyed taking charge of the outings, but they’d recently lost Ray Mulligan, a key employee who ran a third of the overnight trips, which left Wes and Chip to pick up the slack until the position was filled. They had flipped for the lead on this group, and Wes had lost.

Chip held his hands up in surrender. “I’m taking the day trips, remember?” He tapped his finger on his chin. “I’m thinking big burly broads who are out to show you how little you know.” He shrugged. “You know, out for a week of fun.”

“Or four women who think that I’m part of the package.” As much as Wes loved women, fending them off during the outings had lost its charm about two months after they opened The Woodlands. He realized exactly what women must feel like when guys like him sized them up for a quick lay.

Wes slapped his leg twice, and Sweets lazily stretched, then scampered out from under the desk and came loyally to his side. She tried to climb up Wes’s legs.

“Down, Sweets.” Wes placed the pup’s paws on the floor and loved her up again. “See you up there,” he said to Chip.

He stopped by Clarissa’s desk on his way out.

Sweets’s nails clicked on the hardwood floors as she walked around Clarissa’s desk. Clarissa glanced up from the spreadsheets she was studying and eyed the file in Wes’s hand. Her dark hair curtained her serious eyes. Though she was seven years younger than Wes’s thirty-two and probably weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet, she ran the administrative side of The Woodlands with an efficient iron fist.

“Found them, I see.” She bent to kiss Sweets.

Sweets tried to scale her legs and climb into her lap.

“No, Sweets.” Wes shook his head. “I found the file in my procrastination pile.”

Sweets whimpered, then sat at Clarissa’s feet while she petted her.

Clarissa sighed and leaned back in her chair. She was smart as a whip and cute as hell, with long dark hair and a slim figure. More importantly, she was organized and efficient, and though Wes’s siblings thought they’d hook up—given his penchant for cute females—she was a little too tough for his liking, and he’d never seen her in an amorous way. Not to mention that she seemed to have eyes only for his anally efficient partner, who happened to saunter into the room as if on cue.

“You’re still here?” Chip sat on the edge of Clarissa’s desk, and her eyes took a slow roll down his torso.

“Heading out in a sec.”

Chip glanced at Clarissa, and their eyes held for a split second too long.

Clarissa lowered her eyes and began shuffling papers on her desk. “All set for the group?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Wes ran his eyes between Clarissa and Chip. The air practically sizzled between them, but every time Wes brought up the possibility of Chip going out with Clarissa, Chip refused to acknowledge there was even a spark of interest. “Do you have my cheat sheet?”

Clarissa grabbed a piece of paper from the corner of the desk and pushed it across to Wes.

“Kathie Sharp, Bonnie Young, Christine Anderson, and Calliope Barnes, midtwenties, three married, one single, all experienced with high school sports and hiking, yada, yada. No medical concerns, no worries.” She looked up at him from beneath her long bangs. “You’re doing the overnight, right?”


Her eyes widened. “Four twenty-something women and one hot wrangler, tents, moonlight, margaritas…”

Wes didn’t live by many rules. And though it wasn’t an official rule, he refrained from hooking up with Woodland guests, much to several sexy guests’ dismay. He slapped his thigh, and Sweets came to his side again. “Have a little faith. The last thing I need is some woman suing me for my trust fund, my resort, and my dignity. No, thanks.”

She rolled her eyes and pointed her pencil at him. “Wes, what if one of them is your soul mate? I wish you’d at least leave that door open a crack.”

“Colorado’s a big state. Too many pretty horses in the corral to be roped to just one.” Wes turned and headed for the door with Sweets on his heels.

Sweets jumped onto the front seat of Wes’s pickup truck and settled onto the plaid blanket he’d bought the first night after he’d found her. She rested her head on the books he’d gotten from Callie and looked up at Wes with another yawn. Wes picked up the book on the top of the stack. Dark Times. He ran his hand over the cover, thinking of Callie and knowing he’d never have time to read three books with the busy days ahead of him. He usually got through at least one of the books she chose for him. She had good taste, and even if he didn’t get through a single book, he couldn’t stop himself from going back for more. He smiled as he set the book back down, thinking of her curvy little body in that tight black skirt and how flustered she became every time she saw him. She was sweet and proper and nothing like the women he was usually attracted to, and as he drove out of Trusty and headed into the mountains, he couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like to take her hair down and run his fingers through it—and he was powerless to quell his desire to climb beneath her conservative facade and help her move from women’s fiction to erotica.

… Continued…

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Fated for Love
(Love in Bloom: The Bradens)
by Melissa Foster
4.7 stars – 109 reviews!
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(reduced from $3.99 for a limited time only)