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M.E. Patterson’s Devil’s Hand Is Our New Thriller of the Week!

M.E. Patterson’s Devil’s Hand is here to sponsor lots of free Mystery and Thriller titles in the Kindle store:

by M. E. Patterson
4.7 stars – 45 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
A Las Vegas gambler with supernatural luck is swept into a world-ending conflict between demons, angels, and otherworldly shadow-creatures, in an action-packed, terrifying urban fantasy for readers who enjoy Stephen King, Jim Butcher, and Richard Kadrey. The lone survivor of a tragic plane crash, Trent Hawkins inherited a supernatural lucky streak that made him famous, and hated, in the poker circles of the City of Sin. It wasn’t long before the eyes in the sky threw him on the blacklist and chased him out of town. Now, after years away, Trent returns to Las Vegas, and walks right back into trouble. As a serial kidnapper terrorizes the city, Trent and his wife rescue an unusual thirteen year-old girl, only to find themselves caught in a fallen angel’s plot to cleanse Las Vegas with an unholy blizzard. The neon goes dark, Vegas freezes, and Trent is forced to make terrible sacrifices in order to protect his new charge as they run through the demon-infested shadows of a frozen city.Will Trent stand up to the monsters of a dark world he never knew existed? Or will he fail, leaving our world in ruins beneath a blanket of shadow and ice? And look for the second part of the series, Burning Cards, coming Spring 2012!
(This is a sponsored post)

Free Contemporary Titles in the Kindle Store

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Jesse Camden is minding the store at the Gilded Lily Antiques and Vintage Shop when a stranger enters and begins asking questions about Lindsey Hatch, Jesse’s friend, business partner and the barista at the tearoom next door. It’s a bad beginning to a day that just gets worse when, within hours...
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Case solved? Yes but...The Nicolette Percy case was a nightmare. She solved it, but the solution generated more questions than answers. Captain Kate Gazzara, suspended from duty and in danger of losing her job, is determined to find the answers and embarks on a one woman investigation deep into the...
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Three’s a crowd, especially when one is a stalker…Sienna Chase is having the worst day of her adult life—kicked out of her nursing program, dumped by her boyfriend, and to top it off, followed home by creepy Dr. Charles Allerton.Flying back to her parents’ home on Cape Cod to take stock of...
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Becoming Sienna
By: T.M. Bashford
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Once Upon a Time in Havana
By: S.A. Marano
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Why there? In Canada. It shouldn't happen in this peaceful village at a lake with its colourful and friendly inhabitants… Writer Amber Boffin drops Maggie Flanagan, her little terrier of an aspiring photographer and amateur sleuth back into her childhood village to dig out the truth for you.A...
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Avery Amelia Fox, a twenty-something, independent woman, is the only child of Avery and Amelia Fox, prominent citizens of the exclusive village of Hidden Oaks. Her name is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because her parents are well known in a world of insufferable snobs. A blessing because...
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In book one of the Lilah Love launch duet, meet Lilah Love, the politically incorrect FBI agent who says what no one else dares and fears her dark side is a little too dark. Note: this book ends in a cliffhanger and continues in Murder Girl.The story...As an FBI profiler, it's Lilah Love's job to...
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Murder Notes (Lilah Love Book 1)
By: LR Jones, Lisa Renee Jones
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Limited Liability is the third novel in the Jenny Parker series and she finds herself playing a more perilous game than ever. Caught between the demands of the National Crime Agency and the need to evade the gangs who want her dead, Jenny continues her money-laundering activities while trying to...
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Limited Liability (Jenny Parker Book 3)
By: D J Harrison
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Newly-engaged Stella Fall, 26, is horrified to learn of the secrets hiding in her fiance’s past, in his ultra-wealthy family, and in their exclusive Connecticut suburb. When someone turns up murdered, Stella, to clear her name, is forced to investigate. But in a culture ridden with masterful liars...
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A Free Excerpt From Our Thriller of the Week, Megan Nafke’s The Puzzle Keeper

Megan Nafke’s The Puzzle Keeper:

by Megan Nafke
3.8 stars – 10 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
The announcement that the plague has left some survivors with paranormal side-effects, has left the world reeling. You’d think solving murders would be easy for Claire, a telepath, and Colin, who can turn into a spirit wolf, but you’d be dead wrong. Not everyone is willing to talk to Survivors so it is a good thing you can’t tell who’s normal and who isn’t.
(This is a sponsored post)

The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:


Prologue

I died five times as a child from the Watkins plague that killed a third of the world’s population twenty years ago, yet I can’t remember being as scared as I am right now.  I stared over the ‘Closed for Private Party’ sign posted on the door to the Red Lion Pub, trying desperately to see if my friends were inside.  After some time I peered to my side without moving and saw my boss, Gail Lewis, a large woman with short wispy brown hair and large bright brass earrings standing next to me.

“Just making sure someone was inside.”  I pointed at the sign on the door, as my lips stretched reluctantly into a smile.

“I’m assuming that they are inside?”  Her pudgy nose flared slightly in a sigh.

“Yes, Mrs. Lewis.”  I opened the door and she strolled through slowly.  I took a deep breath and followed her into the pub.

The small pub was filled with Survivors, which was the name given to the lucky people who had the illness during the plague but survived.  Most of the people here either helped Trevor with his research on the long-term side effects of surviving the Watkins plague, or knew that he was about to make his research public.  My adopted sister, Molly, loved him and his work, so I grew to tolerate him despite my knack for finding faults with anyone who dated her.

I had always known that the illness gave us some sort of side effects.  Shortly after I was revived from cardiac arrest for the last time due to the plague, I started to pick up on other people’s emotions, which I mimicked to my mother’s frustration.

My mother thought I was simply reacting to the trauma of the illness, but then I started to see scattered images.  At first the images were like trying to watch a TV show when it is flickering in and out of reception, but as the images became clear it was obvious that I was seeing other people’s memories and thoughts.

Once in the bar, it didn’t take long to spot Trevor, the lead researcher and Molly’s fiancé.  He was hard to miss since he was close to six and a half feet tall and wore oversized black retro glasses.  His long, bony arms wrapped around Molly, as a crowd hovered around them.  She looked up at me, her eyes hopeful, but I shook my head.  I wanted to go in but I was having trouble blocking other people’s thoughts and emotions; I needed to sit as far away from the crowd as possible.

My body trembled as I walked along the wooden wall filled with dart boards and ale advertisement, I could see that my body was moving down the hallway, but I didn’t feel as if I was present; exhaustion was flowing through every part of my body.  I fell like a lifeless rag doll into the first empty seat at the bar, and buried my head in my bare arms.

My nose twitched as I caught the strong, bitter smell of freshly brewed coffee, and saw Colin refilling a man’s coffee cup a few seats down from me.  From his appearance, you would not guess he was working at the pub.  All the workers were required to wear a uniform consisting of a dark green shirt and black slacks, and keep their hair neatly combed.  Colin, however, had on his favorite light leather jacket, tee shirt, and slightly wrinkled jeans.  His chestnut brown hair was styled in a mass of unruly wave, and he always seemed two days late for a shave.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you,” I smiled and eagerly turned over the mug in front me.

“Are you talking to me or the coffee?”  Colin asked.

“You, of course,” I laughed, “though coffee would be nice.”

“Uh huh,” His left eyebrow rose slightly as he poured the java into my small cup.

“I didn’t know you were helping out tonight,” I said between sips.

“Only way Dad could close the bar for tonight.”  He nodded his head towards the end of the bar, where his dad was in the middle of pouring drinks.

“I can’t believe Sean agreed to closing his bar,” I said.

“Yeah well he’d do anything for you two,” he said.  Colin, Molly and I had shared a hospital room when we had the plague.  Our parents became close and we grew even closer after losing four of our six parents.  The two surviving parents, Colin’s dad and my mom, took it upon themselves to raise all three of us.  My mother even adopted Molly after her parents died, and Colin’s dad tried to fill in as a father to all three of us.

“How’s your day been?” Colin asked.

“Long,” I took long sips of the hot coffee.

“I think we’re all going to be having long days for awhile.”

“At least the anticipation will be over soon.  Today reminds me of being at the dentist waiting to get my wisdom teeth pulled.  You can’t leave.  You know it’s going to be incredibly painful.  All you can do is sit by the clock and wait for the inevitable.”

“Look on the bright side.  We all have each other.  Some people might be going through this alone.”  He patted my wrist softly and looked around the room.

“True,” I smiled.  “I can’t image how people cope with this alone.”

“I can’t imagine how people will feel when a tall nerd outs them on national television without any warning.  I’ll be back,” he said strolling down to a redheaded waitress that was waving him over to the other corner of the bar.  I didn’t recognize the waitress and wondered if it was business or pleasure.

“Claire?”  Molly asked as she slipped into a seat next to me.  Molly was tall and curvy.  People were drawn to her large dark eyes and winsome smile.  Seeing us together most people could tell one of us was adopted.

“How’s the big night going for you two?” I asked.

“It‘s just been the best.  I’ve never seen him so happy.”  Her eyes lingered on Trevor.

“I’m glad,” I said.

“You should come and watch the interview with us.”

“I think I’m going to stay here and drink my coffee and watch the interview with Colin.  I’ll stop by later to congratulate him.”  Her eyes followed my gaze as I looked at Trevor.  “When the crowd thins out a bit.”

“Well, you do look like you need a cup.”  Molly put a hand on my shoulder, which felt more patronizing than sympathetic“You look fine, sweetie.”  She wrapped her arms around my shoulders briefly then walked away.  “I’ll save you a seat at our table if you change your mind.”

“You already drank your cup of coffee?” Colin peered at my cup and shook his head.  “I was only gone for a minute.”

“I could use another,” I said.

“You’re addicted to the stuff.”

“I’m not addicted, I simply need to drink a certain amount of coffee a day to avoid debilitating headaches,” I grinned.

“Uh huh,” His deep laughter caused small ripples in the coffee pot.

Everyone stopped talking but the thoughts in the room buzzed too loud and chaotic to focus on any one thought.  I turned and found everyone straining and contorting their bodies to see the screens that were placed on top of the bar.

A brunette woman in her thirties with her hair tied up in a bun was on the screen sitting across from Trevor.

“I’m here with Dr. Trevor Harris to discuss his recent findings in his work with the Survivors,” the woman said.

“Thank you, Jane.” Trevor stared at something just beyond her and nodded his head.  “It’s been twenty years since the epidemic that killed one third of the population and left another third of the population hovering between life and death started.  During the four years between epidemic cycles of the Watkins plague, most researchers have been so focused on the people that died and preventing the illness that they neglected the Survivors.  In the five years since a cure has been found, most researchers have been focused on discovering how Dr. Watkins created and spread the disease.  However, I have been working with the Survivors to find any long term effects of the illness.”

“And?” She asked wrinkling her brow.

“Yes, I found that certain Survivors had what I will call side effects of the illness.”

“Why did only certain Survivors develop side effects?”

“I found that the majority of the people who developed any side effects were very young children at the time they contracted the illness.  All the people who have side effects had cardiac arrest at least once.”

“I’m not surprised that having your heart stop would cause complications, but what type of side effects did these people have?”

“That is the interesting part.  As far as I can tell the side effects range in type and intensity.  I’ve seen people who can read thoughts and emotions and people who can communicate with animals or spirits, and I’ve found people who can travel with their spirit.”  Jane looked puzzled and turned to look at something off camera.

“Those claims seem a little far fetched.”

“My findings have been well documented and reviewed by the scientific community.”  His thin lips smiled showing his crowded front teeth.  “However, I can give you a quick demonstration.” He nodded his head and his research assistant came on camera.  “This is Bill Mason, we’re both Survivors with side effects but his is more convincing.”

“What do you mean?”  She said but then grew very pale as the note cards in her hand started to pull away from her even though no one else was touching them.  Jane jerked back and the cards hovered over her head before zooming to Bill’s hands.

“Bill is telekinetic; he is able to move objects without touching them.  He can give you another demonstration if you wish.”

“That was enough of a demonstration for me.”  Jane crossed her arms and sank in her chair.  “Thank you very much for coming on the show.  To find out more about the research findings on the Survivors, read Dr. Harris’ paper that is posted on our website.”

The silence at the pub was broken when a man stood up and started clapping.  I shook myself and turned my eyes away from the TV screen.  The clapping was contagious and died down only as people started grabbing glasses of champagne.  It’s amazing how the presence of alcohol will distract people from almost anything.  The tension in the room had calmed down but all I could think about was how everyone else in our town was going to take the news.

CHAPTER ONE

A tall Hispanic police officer stopped me at the gates to the mansion perched on the Santa Cruz Mountains.  “I’m sorry Ma’am but I can’t let you in here.  This is a crime scene.” He spoke as if speaking to a child.

“Yes, I know.” I indicated the police tape that was only inches away from me.  I handed him my badge.  “I may be short and blonde but that doesn’t make me a child.”

“Oh, sorry.  Detective Moseley told me you’d be coming.”  He coughed.  “I just thought you’d be, older.”  Actually, his thoughts reflected that I would be just about anything but a petite blonde.  Although he didn’t mind that I was one because he was thinking about asking me out.  That is until he realized from my badge that I was a Survivor.  I considered reprimanding him for the political incorrectness of his thoughts but I didn’t want to reveal that I could read them.

“It’s all right, Officer.”  I signed the clipboard he was holding, and grabbed some gloves and a pair of booties.

“You made it here fast.  Didn’t your plane just land?” Colin asked greeting me at the gate.

“What can I say?  I’m an efficient driver.”

“I think police officers have another word for that: speeding.”

“That’s such a negative word.  I prefer mine.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Gargoyles on the edge of the roof watched me as we walked along the stone pathway leading up to the house.  Two men in casual slacks and button up shirts stood at the metallic looking front door.  Their professional appearance contrasted sharply with Colin’s.  Colin, as usual, had on his favorite light leather jacket, tee shirt, and slightly wrinkled jeans.  His chestnut brown hair was styled in a mass of unruly waves on the top of his head, and he always seemed two days late for a shave.

When we got closer to the two men, I recognized one of them as Detective Austin Hughes.  My heart raced.  I struggled to keep walking, as if I was wearing cement shoes.

“You could have told me he was the detective,” I straightened a loose blonde curl behind my ear.

“I didn’t know.” Colin shrugged.  “I must have talked to his partner.”

I glanced up at Austin, he was still as handsome as the last time I saw him.  He had broad shoulders and a short hair cut like you would expect from a police officer.  When I caught his gray eyes, the color of a storm cloud, searching my face, I looked away.

“Hi, Claire.”  Austin smiled at me.  I could feel my cheeks growing hotter.  “Colin.”  He nodded his head at Colin.

“I see you made homicide detective.”  I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was staring at me, but I kept my focus on the door.

“Yes, it’s my third case.  This is my partner, Detective David Moseley.”  He nodded his head towards the man next to him.  He didn’t look like a man who could make it as a cop, or even a round of dodge ball against a girl scout.  His bones showed clearly through the skin on his face, giving him an appearance of being ill.  He was no taller or wider than a typical twelve-year-old boy.

“Nice to meet you both.”  His voice matched his boyish size.

“It’s nice to meet you, Detective Moseley,” Colin said reaching out to shake his hand.

“Better not,” He said showing us his gloves.  “You don’t want to know what I have been touching.”

“Fair enough,” Colin said.  “Can you give us a rundown of what you already know?”

“We figured you’d want to see the scene so we haven’t moved the body,” Austin said as he stepped into the house.  Detective Moseley shrugged and followed him.  Colin and I put on our gloves and booties and followed the detectives.  Despite the house being filled with oversize windows and indoor light, it appeared dark.

Our footsteps echoed throughout the house as the two detectives led us up the long staircase.  I hugged my bare arms against my chest as we walked down the chilly hallway.  It felt like someone had the air conditioning on way too high.  I unclenched when we stopped at a doorway.

The bedroom looked rustic like an interior of a lodge.  An antique bed with maple posts took up more than half the room.  A woman with long blonde hair and a white summer dress was lying across the top of the bed.

“This is Mrs. Eileen Cooper,” Austin said.  He indicated her open mouth.  “We found what appears to be some type of material and stuffing lodged in her mouth.  We haven’t found the object, but we believe it’s a pillow.”

“What makes you think it’s a pillow?” I asked.

Detective Moseley straightened.  “I figured it out.  There should be a pair of decorative pillows with initials embroidered on them.  We found one with “BC” on it but the one with “EC” is missing.”

“That’s impressive,” Colin said.

“Our theory at the moment is that the killer covered her mouth with a pillow to keep her quiet, and then stabbed her multiple times in the chest and abdomen.”   Austin indicated the stains on the top of her low cut, cotton dress.

“Wait a minute.  We’re in the middle of the woods.  The nearest house to here is almost a mile away.  Why would the killer need to keep her quiet?”  Colin asked.

“That’s a good question.  The only explanation I could think of is that someone else was on the property or expected back,” Detective Moseley said.

“What is that?” We all looked down.  The word traitor was carved into the bare skin that was exposed on her chest.  Each letter was deep with jagged edges.

“Traitor to whom?”  Colin asked.

“We found this next to the body.”  Austin picked up a plastic bag with a flyer in it and held it so we could read it.  It was a Brotherhood of Humanity flyer with bold lettering at the top reading, Top Twenty Most Dangerous Survivors.  It was no surprise that my future brother-in-law, Trevor Harris, was number one.  After all, it was his research that exposed the paranormal side effects caused by the Watkins plague.  A few pictures down was a picture of Mrs. Cooper with her name written underneath.  An “x” was over her picture in what looked like blood.

“Was she a Survivor?”  I asked.

“No way to really tell without medical records.  The husband says no, but who can tell?” Detective Moseley asked.  That was true; on the outside there was nothing to distinguish us from the rest of the population and not everyone who survived the plague had paranormal side effects.

“Her son Russ is a Survivor.  Poor kid’s had a rough week.  He was in a fight after school yesterday afternoon,” Austin said.

“Where is the son?” Colin asked.

“At the hospital with his father.  He had … well I really don’t know what happened to him.  One minute he was crying but behaving in a normal way after losing a parent and then the next minute he completely snapped.  Couldn’t even understand what he was saying.  We had to have an officer ride with him to the hospital to get their statements,” Austin said.

“That seems understandable considering …” I started to say.

“Trust me this was not normal,” Detective Moseley said.

“We will stop by the hospital after this.  Any other evidence?” I asked.

“We collected what we could.  We just wouldn’t know until the lab runs everything,” Detective Moseley said.

“Heck, we haven’t even been able to find the murder weapon.  Though we think it’s some type of kitchen knife,” Austin said.

“Who found the body?” Colin asked after a long moment of silence.

“Mr. Cooper found the body when he came home from work, around 5:30 this evening.  No one else was in the house,” Detective Moseley said.

“Is there anyone else living here?”  I asked.

“Her sister, Nadine, and her brother-in-law, Mike, live here as well.  Mike was at work with Mr. Cooper during the time of the murder.  Nadine claims she was running errands.  She had a gas receipt on her with a time stamp of 4:20.  She also had a receipt from Target with a time stamp of 4:50, which proves she was out of the house.  We don’t have the exact time of death but we do think it’s around the time she was out,” Austin said.

“So basically we have a town full of suspects, with no leads and no witnesses?” I asked.

“Afraid so,” Austin said.

CHAPTER TWO

I was on the last few sips of my cold coffee, when I heard my name being called from the nurses’ station.  The waiting room was filled with a sea of patients.  I tried squeezing myself through a tiny gap between two tall women, but they simply pressed their hips together.  Colin growled, “Move.” His voice was deep and loud and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up straight.  The crowd quickly moved to either side like Moses parting the Red Sea.

An elderly nurse was furiously typing on the computer in front of her.  She held out her hand to the side of the computer.  After a moment she sighed and looked at her empty hand, then looked up over her glasses at us.  She stretched her hand closer to us and said, “Patient’s card.”

“I don’t have one, but I think this will do.”  I showed her my badge and she withdrew her hand.

“What can I do for you, Agent Bennett?

A tall, curvy nurse stepped up to the counter and said, “I’ll take this one.  Agent Bennett is my sister.”  The elderly nurse looked at both of us and shook her head.  I didn’t have to read her mind, it was a familiar reaction to hearing we were sisters.  It was obvious that one of us was adopted, since I was about as far from tall and dark as you can get.  We moved out of line so we could talk privately.

“I didn’t know you were back from your trip.  Why didn’t you call me?”  Molly asked twisting the locket around her neck.

“I just got home, haven’t even picked up Rosie yet.  Besides, I figured you were busy moving in with that fiancé of yours.”

“You know I’m never too busy for you, sweetie.”

“It seems we are both busy these days.  You move out to be with Trevor, and I spend my time cleaning up his messes.”  The image of Mrs. Cooper’s body popped into my head.

Molly ignored me and turned to Colin and pointed her finger at him, “speaking of work.  She just gets back and you put my sister to work.  Can’t you do a case without her?”

Colin stopped playing with his cell phone and looked up, “When has she ever listened to me?  The words ‘No’ and ‘can’t’ are like catnip to her.”

“I know, I’m just teasing.”  She gave him a quick hug.  “I don’t get to see you much anymore so I need to get in as much teasing as I can.  I know this isn’t a social call, what are you guys doing here?”

“I think the more important question is what are you doing in the E.R.?”

“No, choice.” She shrugged.  “The whole hospital has turned into one big emergency room.”

“Is it safe for you to work here?  What if someone dies near you?”  I asked.

“I’ve been careful.  My boss is working here tonight, too.  She’s aware of my problem.  She has assigned me to work triage.”

“Still seems rather risky,” I said.  Molly normally works in a clinic, where the chance of being around when someone died was slim.  The closer she is to a person when they die the better the chance a ghost will know she can see them and the more they stick around and bother her.

“We are here checking on a patient.  Was Russ Cooper seen here?” Colin asked.

Molly scanned the computer screen and then said, “Yes, he was moved to a room for the night.”

“How is he?” I asked.

“We talked about this.  You know I can’t tell you,” Molly said.

“I’m sorry.  I know.  Can we speak to him?” I asked.

“Depends.  It’s up to his doctor and his father if he is up to talking.  Let me give them a call,” she said.  After a short phone conversation, she said that Russ’ father agreed to speak to us and gave us the directions to his room.

We made our way to Russ’ hospital room on the eighth floor.  A large bald man who resembled a short tempered nightclub bouncer stood outside room 305.

“Mr. Cooper?” He nodded and I shook his hand “I’m Agent Claire Bennett and this is my partner, Agent Colin O’Connor,” I said as Colin shook his hand.

“I don’t understand.  Why are you here? The cops have already been here to talk to us.” His voice reminded me of a drill sergeant.

“We work for the Bureau of Survivor Affairs.  You probably haven’t heard of it.  It’s a relatively new agency that deals with cases that involve the Survivors.  We have been assigned to your wife’s case because some of the evidence points to it being a Survivor related crime,” Colin said.

When Mr. Cooper didn’t say anything I added, “We are very sorry for your loss.  How is your son?”

“It took two hours to calm him down,” he said.  “It was so bad they’re making him stay the night, just in case it happens again.”

“Losing a parent can be very painful,” I said.

“No, it was different.  It wasn’t just sadness from losing his mom although that is bad enough.  I haven’t seen pain like that since the army.  Let me tell you, nothing in the world is worse than seeing your child in pain and not being able to do a damn thing to make it better.” Mr. Cooper took a seat on a tiny chair propped against the wall and buried his head in his hands.  “I think he blames himself for the murder.”

“Why do you think that?” Colin asked.

“My son has always been,” he paused and scratched the small bald spot in the back of his head and finally said, “Different.  I always liked that about him.  Since the news came out, he has been more different than usual.”

“Is different bad?” Colin asked.

“Now it is.  Haven’t you seen the papers?” Mr. Cooper asked.  We nodded.  The image of the bombing of a Survivor support center in upstate New York popped into my head.  It didn’t take much to provoke violence.  Being different right now was dangerous if not deadly.  “He is a walking target, from the costumes he wears to telling everyone he meets that he has ‘magical powers’.”

“I could see how that’d be a serious problem,” Colin commented.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Mr. Cooper said.  “Can you imagine being at the grocery store and having your son tell the teller, a complete stranger mind you, that he is able to steal memories?”

“That would be a bit awkward.” I swallowed a laugh.  I liked the boy already.

“Is he really able to steal memories? Or is he just a telepath or something?” Colin asked.

“Just a telepath?” His face stiffened.  “Oh God, I hope not.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.  “What’s wrong with being a telepath?”

“There’s a difference between someone that does not like telepaths and someone not wanting their loved one to be one,” Colin said.

Mr. Cooper nodded in agreement, but by his thoughts he wasn’t entirely sure why I was angry.  Colin put a hand on my shoulder.  I looked up at him and relaxed.  He was right.  For the most part I liked being a telepath, but I wouldn’t like someone else using it on me.

“Just tell us what you do know about Russ’s abilities,” Colin said.

“Russ says he sees things when he touches objects.  Things that aren’t really there.  To be frank, He doesn’t talk about this stuff to me and I don’t ask.  Maybe I should have.”

“How has he handled being so open about his side effect?” Colin asked.

“He found out the hard way why it was a bad idea.  A group of kids jumped him on his way home from school.  It was so bad I had to take him to the hospital for stitches.”  I noticed his neck muscles twitching just above the collar of his white polo shirt.  “Ever since then he has locked himself in his room glued to the computer.”

“Did you try talking to him?” I asked.

“I tried.  I really did.  My wife was the one he talks to.  I mean talked to,” his hazel eyes became red and glossy.  “Eileen would’ve known what to do.”

“You’re not alone.”  I put my hand on his thick shoulder.  “We will find a way to help him.”

A croaking voice called “Dad?” from inside Russ’ room.

“We can talk about this later.  Come see us when Russ gets released.” Colin handed him his business card.

Thankfully, my apartment wasn’t far from the hospital.  I could hardly wait to see my dog Rosie, take a shower and get the stink of the airport and crime scene off of me.  From first glance the boutiques and restaurants that line my street, Cherry Blossom Lane, look like stylish cottages from some small European village, each painted a different pastel color.  The upper stories of each building had apartments.  Light glowed ahead, leading me to the one store still open.  My eyes blinked as they adjusted to the light as I gazed into the Wonderland Bakery.  It was aptly named.  The walls had murals of scenes from Alice in Wonderland, and the tables and the chairs were funky enough for the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

I could see Alice’s frizzy black hair bounce as she danced from the oven to the counter with a batch of cupcakes.  Alice froze when she saw me.  Redness spread across her creamed coffee skin.  She gestured at a plate of frosted sugar cookies shaped like bunnies.  My stomach growled at me to take the offer.

It had become a test of wills to live over the bakery, the smell of chocolate flowing through the apartment.

“Glad to see you back, girl,” Alice said opening the door to her shop and embracing me with a hug.  “Rosie’s been missing you.  I never knew a dog could pout that much.”

“Thanks for watching her.  Would have asked Molly but you know ….”

“I was glad to do it.  How was the trip?”

“It was another case of a neighborhood overreacting to the discovery of a Survivor with side effects in their midst.  By the time I got there the murderer had pretty much identified himself by bragging to anyone who’d listen how he got rid of ‘that freak down the street’.  Not much need for a telepath there.”

“Now don’t go making me sorry I made that appointment with that reporter.”

“What reporter?”

“While you were gone, the local news team decided to do a series of stories about the Survivors and they asked for volunteers.  So, I volunteered.”

“Why would you do that?!”  I shook my head in exasperation.  “Have you not been listening to the kind of problems Colin and I have had to deal with since the news came out about our existence?”

“If all people hear is what’s wrong with us how will anything ever change?”

“Well, yes, but your timing couldn’t be worse.  I’m on another Survivor related murder and this time it’s local.  And it looks like we’ve got an active anti-Survivor organization calling themselves ‘The Brotherhood of Humanity’.  Can’t you postpone it?”

“You worry too much.  I’m a baker; who would hurt a baker?”

“When is the interview?  I want to be there to scan the crowd for problems.”

“It’s Friday night.  I appreciate you coming down for it.  Speaking of my special goods, I have some dream cookies all ready for you to take home.”  She disappeared into the kitchen.

Alice’s side effect centered around baking.  She made many types of cookies with various effects, but my favorite was the dream cookie.  It allowed you to take complete control of your dreams.  You could relive memories so vividly it was hard to separate the true memory from the dream or allowed you to make any dream scenario feel real.  Although you had to be carful to eat them before bed, or you risk dreaming while awake.  For that reason she only sold or gave her special baked goods to a select few.

Alice reappeared and handed me a pink box.  “I’d better get back,” Alice said over the oven buzzer.

“Thanks again,” I said.

Alice nodded and gave me a quick wave as I walked alongside the building to the door of my apartment.

Rosie, a border collie with German shepherd coloring was pouting in the living room when I opened the door.  It would have made me feel guilty but her bushy tail was wagging behind her.  When she decided I’d suffered enough, she got up and walked over so I could pet her.  I noticed a light was on in Molly’s room.  For a moment I had a jolt of happiness and went to look for her.  When I got to her room, it was empty except for the furniture and I remembered that she moved out while I was gone.  It was the first night Molly has lived away from me since we shared a hospital room as kids.  Rosie and I curled up on her mattress and we fell asleep.


The Puzzle Keeper

Megan Nafke’s The Puzzle Keeper Is Our New Thriller of the Week!

Megan Nafke’s The Puzzle Keeper is here to sponsor lots of free Mystery and Thriller titles in the Kindle store:

 

by Megan Nafke
3.8 stars – 10 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
The announcement that the plague has left some survivors with paranormal side-effects, has left the world reeling. You’d think solving murders would be easy for Claire, a telepath, and Colin, who can turn into a spirit wolf, but you’d be dead wrong. Not everyone is willing to talk to Survivors so it is a good thing you can’t tell who’s normal and who isn’t.
(This is a sponsored post)

Free Contemporary Titles in the Kindle Store

Welcome to Kindle Nation’s magical and revolutionary Free Book Search Tool — automatically updated and refreshed in real time, now with Category Search! Use the drop-down menu (in red caps next to the menu bar near the top of the page) to search for free Kindle books by genre or category, then sort the list just the way you want it — by date added, bestselling, or review rating! But there’s no need to sort by price — because they’re all free!

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Jesse Camden is minding the store at the Gilded Lily Antiques and Vintage Shop when a stranger enters and begins asking questions about Lindsey Hatch, Jesse’s friend, business partner and the barista at the tearoom next door. It’s a bad beginning to a day that just gets worse when, within hours...
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Case solved? Yes but...The Nicolette Percy case was a nightmare. She solved it, but the solution generated more questions than answers. Captain Kate Gazzara, suspended from duty and in danger of losing her job, is determined to find the answers and embarks on a one woman investigation deep into the...
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Three’s a crowd, especially when one is a stalker…Sienna Chase is having the worst day of her adult life—kicked out of her nursing program, dumped by her boyfriend, and to top it off, followed home by creepy Dr. Charles Allerton.Flying back to her parents’ home on Cape Cod to take stock of...
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Becoming Sienna
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Why there? In Canada. It shouldn't happen in this peaceful village at a lake with its colourful and friendly inhabitants… Writer Amber Boffin drops Maggie Flanagan, her little terrier of an aspiring photographer and amateur sleuth back into her childhood village to dig out the truth for you.A...
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Avery Amelia Fox, a twenty-something, independent woman, is the only child of Avery and Amelia Fox, prominent citizens of the exclusive village of Hidden Oaks. Her name is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because her parents are well known in a world of insufferable snobs. A blessing because...
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In book one of the Lilah Love launch duet, meet Lilah Love, the politically incorrect FBI agent who says what no one else dares and fears her dark side is a little too dark. Note: this book ends in a cliffhanger and continues in Murder Girl.The story...As an FBI profiler, it's Lilah Love's job to...
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Limited Liability is the third novel in the Jenny Parker series and she finds herself playing a more perilous game than ever. Caught between the demands of the National Crime Agency and the need to evade the gangs who want her dead, Jenny continues her money-laundering activities while trying to...
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Newly-engaged Stella Fall, 26, is horrified to learn of the secrets hiding in her fiance’s past, in his ultra-wealthy family, and in their exclusive Connecticut suburb. When someone turns up murdered, Stella, to clear her name, is forced to investigate. But in a culture ridden with masterful liars...
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Here’s a Free Excerpt From Our Thriller of the Week, Mainak Dhar’s Vimana

Mainak Dhar’s Vimana:

by Mainak Dhar
3.9 stars – 98 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
AMAZON.COM TOP 5 SCIENCE FICTION BESTSELLER! To be published in paperback by Penguin India, early 2012′Gods’ fought a terrible war in our skies 15,000 years ago. They have returned to finish it.Ancient texts refer to ‘Gods’ flying in craft called vimanas and waging war with what sound like nuclear weapons. These accounts are today classified as myth or legend.What if they turned out to be real?Vimana is an edge-of your seat sci-fi technothriller about a young college student who stumbles upon an ancient war between good and evil. A war that we thought was merely a part of our ancient myths and legends, but unknown to us, is still being waged everyday in our skies. As the forces of darkness conspire to unleash worldwide devastation to coincide with the End Times prophecies in 2012, he discovers his hidden destiny is to join the forces of light in bringing this war to a conclusion. At stake will be the continued existence of the human race.Star Wars meets Transformers in this exciting new thriller that will keep all science fiction fans satisfied. BONUS CONTENT:First two chapters of Heroes R Us, the new superhero thriller by Mainak Dhar.
(This is a sponsored post)

The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:


 

“The Pushpaka vimana that resembles the Sun and belongs to my brother was

brought by the powerful Ravana; that aerial and excellent vimana going everywhere

at will…that vimana resembling a bright cloud in the sky…and the King got in, and

the excellent vimana rose up into the higher atmosphere.

 

The earliest written account of a flying vehicle called a vimana. This is found in the

Indian epic the Ramayana, which was written at least 5000 years before the Wright

Brothers made what we widely believe to be the first manned flight on Earth in 1903.

 

PROLOGUE

Western India, 13000 BC

The old hunter cursed his son for what would have been at least the tenth time that

day. He needed help to carry back the deer he had killed, and with the darkness soon

to be upon them, he wanted to get back to the relative safety of their group well

before the Sun retired for the night.

As he skinned the deer, he smiled as he remembered how he had brought it down

with a single arrow. He may have been an old man, but his eyes were still sharp. It

was a pity that his arms did not have the same strength they did forty summers ago,

otherwise he would not have had to depend on his lazy son to help him carry the deer

back.

He soon saw the boy cresting the top of the hill and coming towards him. He seemed

to be excited.

‘Father, do you know what I saw?’

‘I know that you certainly didn’t see any other animals to hunt. So, my observant son,

what did you see?’

The boy sat down on his haunches next to his father, barely able to conceal his

excitement.

‘Father, today I saw three vimanas fly over the coast. You know what Kalindi has

been saying, right? About the Gods fighting amongst themselves, about their war

across the oceans?’

The man shook his head in disapproval at his son believing the words of that accursed

wandering storyteller. He still remembered what it was to be young, and to be excited

by such fantastic tales, but he also knew that he needed to focus on providing for his

family, and not worry about what the Gods were doing.

‘My son, the Gods have been around since before my forefathers were born. They

have their own ways, their own lives, and we have ours. Now, help me gather the deer

and carry it back. Or do you want to repeat what happened three moons ago?’

That brought a sudden flush of fear to the boy’s face. He remembered only too well

how another clan had attacked them and taken all their skins and meat. They had been

lucky to escape alive. The boy was just twelve summers old, but he already knew that

he lived in a world where life could be brutal, and short. He started to help his father

pick up the deer when they heard loud crackling noises, like that of thunder. They

both looked up to see that there was not a cloud in the sky and no signs that the Rain

God was going to vent his fury on them. The father watched the sky for some time

and then started to pick up his bow when they heard three more thunderous cracks.

This time, they saw what was causing the sound. High above them in the sky, where

only the birds and Gods flew, they saw three vimanas streak by. Even at this distance,

the father recognized the round shapes of the Vimanas that Kalindi claimed were

flown by the Dark Ones. One of the vimanas separated from the others and dove

towards the ground, seeming to the hunter’s eyes like a bird of prey diving for the kill.

He ran to the edge of the cliff, followed by his son.

They watched as a small object separated from the vimana, and sped towards the

ground, with smoke and fire trailing it. The hunter had heard of the Gods firing

their divine flaming bolts, but this was the first time he had witnessed the awesome

power of the Gods. He watched the object fly towards the ground, almost beyond the

horizon, and then there was a mighty roar that was louder than anything the hunter

had ever heard. He felt his son’s hand clutch his in fear, but he had no reassurance to

offer. He watched in mute horror as a giant fireball covered the horizon. He stared at

the light that seemed brighter than the Sun on the hottest day, and then looked away

as the fireball seemed to expand. His son was screaming.

‘Father, I am blind!’

The hunter felt strong gusts pummeling him and his son a few moments later and they

were thrown to the ground. There seemed to be ash everywhere around them, and

his skin was burning. When the hunter gathered up the courage to look up, he saw a

gigantic pillar of smoke rising above the world.

The Gods had indeed gone to war, and it seemed they were going to set the world on

fire.

 

ONE

New Delhi, India, the present day

Aaditya Ghosh watched as the enemy surface to air missile tracked in on him. He

estimated that he was no more than a few seconds away from a fiery death.

As the smoke trail got closer and closer, he was tempted to turn his jet away, but

he knew that keeping a cool head was the best way to evade the missile that was

reaching out towards him. When the missile was just a few hundred meters away, he

released some flares to distract it and then put his fighter through a punishing turn.

For a second, he could see very little as the world spun around him. When he was in

level flight again, he breathed a sigh of relief as he saw no sign of the missile. But the

battle was far from over. He was cruising at thirty thousand feet when he picked up

the first enemy jet on his radar. Fifty kilometers out and ten thousand feet below him.

A quick glance at the top right hand corner of his display told him that the intruders

were two F-16s. He messaged his wingmen to cover him and then swooped down

to intercept the enemy planes. Having chosen a Su-35 for his mission, he knew that

he would likely have an edge when it came to locking on and firing his long range

missiles first, but with two enemies and wingmen he was not sure he could count on

to cover his back, it would be tight.

He slowed down to Mach 0.8 and armed his radar homing missiles as he watched

the F-16s come closer on his radar scope. The two red dots were now barely thirty

kilometers away, and Aaditya noted with some dismay that his wingmen, indicated by

blue dots on his display, were not quite doing much to cover him. In theory, they were

to operate as a team, but in reality, he knew that he was very much on his own.

At twenty seven kilometers, Aaditya’s radar emitted a whistling tone that indicated

that he had locked in on the first F-16. He waited for the triangle to appear over the

enemy jet on his Heads Up Display that indicated that he had a solid lock before

he fired a missile. A second later, he fired another. It was a bit of an overkill, but

carrying a huge load of missiles, he had more than enough, and he had long learnt

that rankings and honors were conferred based on the number of kills, not on

efficiency. He watched both missiles streak across the sky towards their quarry as he

switched focus to the next enemy. The range was now less than twenty kilometers

and he watched as the enemy jet fired a missile at him. The red arrow shape rapidly

approached on his radar display, and Aaditya reacted with no trace of panic or alarm,

his reactions honed by countless hours of practice. He deployed some chaff strips to

confuse the enemy radar guided missiles and put his jet through a series of punishing

9G turns. When he had stabilized, the enemy missiles were nowhere to be seen, and

the first enemy jet had disappeared off his scope, having been obliterated by one of

his missiles.

Without waiting to celebrate his kill, Aaditya selected his short ranged heat seeking

missiles and turned towards the second F-16. He accelerated to over Mach 1 and at a

range of less than ten kilometers, he fired two missiles at the F-16.

That was when his mission was ended abruptly by a tap on the shoulder.

‘Dude, Donkey’s coming this way.’

Aaditya quickly slid the PSP into his backpack as Professor D.K.Kumar, known with

much mirth and little affection among his students as Donkey, walked over to his

desk.

‘Mr.Ghosh, you seem to be preoccupied today. Perhaps you could tell the class a little

more about the impact the colonial system had on the Indian economy.’

Aaditya looked at the Professor, a smile on his face, as if he were about to answer. In

reality, his mind was blank. Blasting enemy fighters while playing Ace Combat 6 on

his PSP was about all he had remembered of his Economic History classes till now.

He kept looking at the Professor, hoping he would find a new prey, but he persisted.

Someone coughed, a few notebooks were slammed shut, and Aaditya found himself

being rescued by the fact that the period was over. He heaved a sigh of relief and

looked at Samrat, who was sitting behind him.

‘Sam, thanks for the heads up.’

Samrat smiled, but behind his eager, bespectacled eyes, Aaditya could detect a trace

of disapproval. Oh well, everyone could not be a bookworm like Samrat. Aaditya

was about to leave the class when the Professor called him over. Fearing that he was

in for a lecture, he braced himself, only to be shocked when the overweight, balding

Professor smiled at him.

‘Play your video games all you want, just not in my class.’

Shit, he knew.

Aaditya wondered what he could possibly say in his defense when the Professor

continued, this time, his smile taking on a sad tinge.

‘I know it must be difficult for you. The Principal had told us, but do try and adjust

and let me know if I can help in any way.’

Aaditya mumbled his thanks and left, but was fuming inside. The last thing he wanted

from anyone was sympathy. He barely noticed Samrat walk up next to him.

‘Hey, what happened? Did you get into trouble?’

Aaditya looked down at Samrat and just shook his head. They wandered over to the

basketball court where several boys were locked in a frenetic game. They sat down

near the court, Aaditya wistfully looking at the game. When the ball bounced over to

them, Aaditya picked it up, and was about to hand it back, when an urge came over

him. He looked at the basket, and sent a looping shot that went cleanly through the

basket. Several of the boys on the court whistled and one of them asked Aaditya if he

wanted to join them. Aaditya said he had something else to do and rejoined Samrat, a

smile on his face.

For old times sake.

‘Shit! That was some shot. Why don’t you try out for the college team or something?’

‘It’s nothing. Come on, let’s go grab a bite to eat.’

They sat down at a corner table at the cafeteria, eating their sandwiches when they

were joined by another boy.

‘Hey Sam. Hey Ghosh.’

The newcomer was Deepak, thin and wiry, and with his customary iPod earphones

plugged into his ears.

‘Hey iPod.’

Samrat’s calling him by the nickname always made him laugh, and Deepak grimace.

Deepak sat down and if Samrat could be summed up in one word as a bookworm, the

word for Deepak, not to put too delicate a point on it, would be a lech. The unlikely

couple had been the best of friends, and in the two months that Aaditya had been in

the college, they had become the closest things to friends he had in his new home.

Deepak immediately began scanning the cafeteria for likely objects of his attention.

Aaditya heard him whisper, ‘She’s looking at me!’

The ‘she’ referred to Surpiya, resident heartthrob of most of the boys in their college.

Supriya of the long legs. Supriya of the impish smile. Supriya of the cute accent.

And also, Supriya of the impossibly rich father and expensive tastes. That was a

combination which put her firmly out of the league of her many admirers.

‘In your dreams, iPod. She’s looking at our own Mister Tall, Dark and Handsome

here’, said Samrat, gesturing towards Aaditya. Aaditya tried to change the topic-

almost the last thing on his mind was flirting with some girl in college. But then when

Samrat nudged Aaditya again, he couldn’t resist but look at the three girls sitting

about a dozen feet away. Supriya was sipping a cup of coffee, but over the rim of the

cup, she was definitely looking at him. Aaditya stared right back. Their gazes met

for a few seconds, and then she turned away. Aaditya smiled to himself, correcting

himself that flirting was almost the last thing on his mind, but certainly not at the

absolute bottom of the list. As on the basketball court, memories came flooding back.

Memories he would rather not have dealt with right now. Standing well over six

feet tall, with the physique of an athlete, he had always had more than his fair share

of female admirers in school. The one thing he hated with a vengeance about his

appearance, his mop of unruly hair, somehow seemed to only enhance his appeal, and

so over time, he had learnt to make peace with the fact that he could never keep his

hair in place.

But that had been seemingly a different life. He had never imagined then that he

would be studying Economics at a Delhi college, with not the foggiest idea of what

he was going to do with his degree, if indeed he ended up getting one. Life had

seemed so certain, so simple, but as the last few months had taught him, just when

you thought you had things totally under control, life threw you a googly you couldn’t

possibly have anticipated.

‘Dude, you lost in thinking about her or what? Come on, we need to hurry, otherwise

we’ll be late for Macro class again. I do hope you’ve done your assignment.’

Just a few months earlier, Aaditya would have laughed at the thought of rushing from

class to class, being harangued for not doing homework. No, his place was in the

sky. Soaring above mere mortals, kissing the clouds. The only uniform that he had

considered worthy of wearing was that of a fighter pilot, the only worthy assignment

being a sortie with a fighter jet at his command. But for now, he would have to settle

for not being chewed up by the Professor for not having bothered to read up about the

Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy.

***

Aaditya was still thanking his stars that the Professor had not picked on him, and did

not notice Supriya standing in the corridor till he almost bumped into her.

‘Hi. Aaditya, isn’t it?’

Aaditya had never seen her this close before, and he quickly saw that both her

reputation and her legion of admirers were well deserved.

‘Hi. My friends call me Aadi, and you must be the Supriya that half the college tries

to impress.’

‘Only half?’ she said, jokingly.

‘I was referring to the half that is made up of every boy in college.’

She smiled, and Aaditya could sense Samrat shuffling behind him.

‘Supriya, this is Sam. He’s in my class.’

‘You’re the one who came first or something, right? I’ve heard of you, Sam.’

Aaditya was beginning to wonder what Supriya wanted with him when two more girls

joined them.

‘Aadi, this is Anu and this is Suchi. Girls, this is Aaditya. I guess you’ve just been

here for a couple of months, right?’

Aaditya nodded and smiled at the two girls as Supriya continued.

‘Hey, we were going to grab some coffee. I figured since you’re new in college, you

may want to join us and get to meet some of the gang.’

Aaditya was thinking of what to say when he heard Samrat hissing in his ear.

‘Say yes, you moron.’

Ten minutes later, they were in front of a nearby coffee shop and as they entered,

Aaditya looked at Samrat and Deepak, whom they had called over. Both had wide

grins plastered on their faces.

‘Sam, you look you’ve won a lottery.’

‘Dude, she knows who I am!’

Deepak scowled and playfully punched Samrat on the shoulder.

‘Dork’.

When they entered and joined Supriya and her friends, Aaditya saw Sam and

Deepak’s expressions change to one of dismay. He realized that his friends had

perhaps imagined this to be a date with Supriya and her friends. Instead there were

four boys with the girls inside.

Samrat and Deepak had been planning all through the short walk to the café how they

would be at their charming and witty best. They had no idea of just how much their

new friend could turn on the charm. Having grown up literally among officers and

gentlemen, Aaditya knew well how to literally charm the pants off someone. Right

from the time he stood up to pull the chairs back so the ladies could sit, to the way

he insisted on starting his responses to them with a ‘Ma’am’. When Supriya heard of

Aaditya’s background, she leaned over and smiled.

‘An Air Force kid. I should have figured. Most guys are not so chivalrous nowadays.’

When Anu asked if the gang would like to meet up later in the evening to go dancing,

Supriya enthusiastically agreed, and before Aaditya knew it, plans had been made to

go to a disco.

Sam caught the look on Aaditya’s face, and was about to say something when Aaditya

motioned for him to stop.

‘I have a long day tomorrow, so sorry to be a spoilsport, but I need to get home early

guys.’

Supriya protested, but as much as Aaditya wanted to spend more time with her, he did

not want to tell her why he could not go dancing, and he most certainly did not want

the pity and platitudes that he knew would be forthcoming if he did tell her the real

reason. Perhaps on any other day, he would have tagged along, but tonight he was in

no mood to be reminded of his shortcomings. So he excused himself, and said that he

could not join them.

When they walked out, Samrat caught up with him.

‘Man, you should have come along. It’s no big deal.’

Aaditya stopped and looked at him.

‘That’s easy for you to say.’

Samrat looked at him apologetically.

‘Sorry, dude, you know that’s not what I meant. Look, screw them. Why don’t you

me and iPod meet up at my place. I’ve got the new Medal of Honor on my PS3, and

we can go and blow up some Taliban.’

Aaditya smiled. So far only Samrat and Deepak had learnt his full story, and he

was beginning to realize that of all the things that had gone wrong over the last few

months, he had at least been lucky to get a couple of really good guys as friends.

‘That sounds like a plan.’

***

Aaditya returned to his apartment just after ten o clock. On balance it had been a fun

evening- they had played on Sam’s PS3 for a couple of hours, and then Sam’s parents

had joined them for dinner. His father had asked the boys what they planned to do

after college. Samrat had already decided on an MBA, or rather, Aaditya thought, his

father had decided that for him. And so, even though they were only in First Year,

Sam had started planning on joining tutorials the next year to prepare him for the

admission tests. Deepak was nowhere as certain of what he wanted to do, but given

that every second person in their class was planning to try for an MBA, he replied

with a shrug of his shoulder that he guessed he was also going to join Sam for his

classes.

Then came Aaditya’s turn, and when he answered that he really did not know what he

wanted to do, he almost heard an audible gasp from Sam’s father. The awkwardness

had been defused by Sam’s mother who wheeled in dessert. As Aaditya listened to

Sam’s father talk about how important it was to have a plan for life, it kept reminding

him of how different his life may have been if he had been able to follow his plan. To

be honest, he knew he had a lot to be thankful for, but Aaditya hated having to live

with the regret of not being able to do what he had always dreamed of doing. And it

wasn’t just his career. He wanted to meet someone like Supriya without cringing at

the pity that he knew was inevitable when she got to know him better.

He sat down on the sofa in his living room and turned on the television, not to watch

anything in particular, but just trying to divert his mind. He willed himself to not think

too much about the things he didn’t have.

Please don’t go into a self-pity trip again. We’ve been there before and it is not a

pretty place.

When he realized that there was little else on offer other than the usual soaps, he

turned it off and got up to change. As he passed the side table outside his bedroom, he

paused to look down at the photo frames on it.

For most people, photographs are a way of preserving memories. A way of freezing in

time moments that have passed. For Aaditya, they served an additional purpose- they

acted as a constant reminder of the life he could have had if only a couple of things

had turned out differently.

There were a few photographs of Aaditya and his father. The elder Ghosh was as

tall as Aaditya, and Aaditya paused before the photos as he remembered his earliest

memories being that of looking up into his father’s smiling face. There were a couple

of photos of his father with his mother, but honestly Aaditya remembered nothing

of her. The woman who had given birth to him was no better than a stranger, having

shared less than three hours together in this world. She had died soon after giving

birth to him.

He showered and changed, and before he threw his clothes into a corner where the

cleaning lady would pick them up in the morning for washing, he remembered to

take out his good luck charm from his pocket. He ran his hands over the raised edges

of the round, embroidered patch of cloth. He felt the outline of the Hawk, soaring,

its talons bared, two crisscrossing lightning bolts below it. And then just four words

embroidered underneath.

No return without conquest.

The words mocked him now. There certainly had been no return. Not that evening.

Not ever since.

He put his father’s old squadron patch on his bedside table and then booted up his

computer. The wallpaper on his computer desktop was a collage of photos- all

showing his father in uniform. Most of them had Aaditya standing beside him, and

most showed them next to fighter planes. Aaditya smiled as he saw one photo- of him

and his father in the cockpit of a Sukhoi 30. He had sat in the back seat, devouring

every detail, imagining what a joy it must be to fly such a beast every day for a living.

Then there was a photo of him receiving the Silver medal in the National Cadet Corps

Flying Wing. His father stood a few feet away, pride apparent in his eyes.

Growing up among fighter planes and pilots, there had never been any real question

of what Aaditya would do when he grew up. It wasn’t that his father had ever pushed

him to follow in his footsteps, but for as long as he could remember, Aaditya had only

one dream- to be a fighter pilot. Growing up in various airbases, surrounded by pilots,

the dream of flying a fighter had long come to define his life. He had done everything

he needed to do to make that dream come true- join the NCC, fly as much as he

could- often accumulating more hours in the NCC Flying Wing’s gliders and light

planes than many active duty pilots did, and keeping himself supremely fit through

sports and martial arts. It had seemed like a no-brainer for him to join the National

Defence Academy straight out of school, and then make his dream come true by

joining the Indian Air Force.

But ultimately none of that had mattered. And here he was, with little left to show for

the life he once dreamed of, other than a collection of old photos, and the squadron

patch he kept with him at all times. He didn’t want to think about the past, but perhaps

today, there was no way he could avoid it. If his father had still been with him,

tomorrow would have been his birthday. When Aaditya had been growing up, an Air

Force officer’s salary may not have allowed his father to always shower him with

extravagant gifts, but his father had always made sure that Aaditya never felt the

absence of a mother. Every birthday was magnified into a memorable event, including

that one unforgettable time when, on Aaditya’s birthday, his father had allowed him to

sit in the back seat of a Sukhoi.

But while Aaditya had not been able to follow his dreams, he could still live them

vicariously. So, for the next hour, he expounded on the relative merits of the various

contenders for the Air Force’s new fighter contract on an online forum where he had

long come to be recognized as the resident expert when it came to anything to do with

fighter aircraft. He then logged onto his favorite air combat sim and flew a mission

where he obliterated an enemy nuclear plant and shot down a handful of fighters, once

again firmly establishing himself at the top of the Leaderboard, and more than making

up for the afternoon’s aborted mission.

At midnight, Aaditya lay down on his bed. In the drawer of his bedside table was the

letter that had changed his life.

We regret to inform you that Squadron Leader Mayukh Ghosh…

For three days after his father’s jet had gone missing during an exercise over the

Arabian Sea, Aaditya had kept his hopes alive. His father’s squadron mates and their

families had closed ranks around him, ensuring he was never alone, ensuring he had

food, ensuring that the young motherless boy whom they had collectively adopted

as their own never felt abandoned in this moment of need. Aaditya had then truly

appreciated what his father had told him about the Air Force being one big family,

and he was grateful for all the support he had got. But none of that could change the

fact that his father was not going to come back home again. After three days of frantic

searching in shark-infested waters, and with even the wreckage not recovered in the

deep seas, he had been given up as lost.

In one stroke, Aaditya’s life had been turned upside down. And if fate had left the

door even slightly open for him to continue with his life the way he had dreamed, he

had himself slammed it shut with what he had done in the following days.

Aaditya came to realize that perhaps his father had always known, with the instinct

of a career fighter pilot, that one day it might come to this. And so, he had prepared

meticulously- the apartment in Aaditya’s name, the family inheritances invested

in fixed deposits in Aaditya’s name, and a list of contacts, including a good friend

in Delhi who had helped Aaditya get into college and into his new life. His father,

Aaditya thought, even in death, had proved to be the best father in the world. It was

he who had thrown away all the dreams his father may have once had for him.

But tonight was not the time to think of that. Tonight was a time to remember all the

good times he had shared with his father. As he drifted off to sleep, he whispered to

himself, ‘Happy birthday, Dad.’

He dreamt of flying a Sukhoi, streaking through the skies at supersonic speed, the

world and worldly worries left thousands of feet below. But for a change, he did not

dream of flying alone. In the back seat was his father.

***

 

TWO

Aaditya barely made it in time for his first class the next morning, a combination

of having woken up late and also having decided to ride his bike to college. He had

bought his bike just a month ago, and was still getting used to it. At the time, it had

seemed like a bright idea, but now that he was faced with the practicalities of kick-

starting it, he was yet to work out a routine that did not leave him looking like a circus

acrobat, or gasping in pain as he put pressure on his right leg.

Transfemoral prosthesis. Trust the doctors to come with such a fancy word to

describe chopping off your leg and sticking an artificial and inconvenient contraption

in its place. As Aaditya entered his class, he reminded himself that he should

not really be blaming the doctors for chopping off his leg- he had been the one

responsible for that. And as for the contraption he now had attached below his right

thigh, it may not have been a real leg, but it sure beat hobbling along on one foot and

carrying crutches, as he had done for the first three months after the accident. More

than a year later, when he walked, nobody could tell that he had an artificial leg. That

was of course, unless they wanted to see him in shorts or, indeed, go dancing. The one

legged hop- now that would be a sure way to impress Supriya, wouldn’t it?

‘You seem to be in a good mood. So, did you catch up with Supriya later at night?’

As Aaditya sat down at his desk he just gave a look of sheer exasperation at Sam’s

comment. Sam reached over and whispered into Aaditya’s ear.

‘Take it from someone who’s neither older, nor much wiser, but you need to stop

thinking of what you don’t have and think of what you do have. You’re tall, fair and

good looking- short of casting you in a bloody fairness cream ad, I don’t know what

else I can do to cheer you up.’

Aaditya grinned. Trust Sam to break the ice like that.

After classes, Aaditya had been invited for tea to Wing Commander Asthana’s house.

He had been a batchmate of his father’s and had helped Aaditya settle down in Delhi

when he had moved back to Delhi from Pune after his father’s accident, both for his

treatment and also to move into the apartment his father had left for him. Aaditya

always felt a bit uncomfortable meeting his father’s former colleagues. They both

brought back memories of the life he had left behind, and even if he was imagining

it, he always thought their eyes reflected the unasked question of how he could have

thrown it all away.

An hour later, Aaditya was on his bike, riding home. While he had not shown much

interest to Sam, he had not told him that he had already taken Supriya’s number,

either. He may have been missing a leg, and he certainly did not want any woman to

go out with him out of pity, but he retained enough sense to know that he would be a

fool to not call Supriya again. She was a looker for sure, but more importantly, he had

really been comfortable with her, so there was really no harm in going out with her

and seeing where things went from there.

His bike was almost halfway home, threading through the dense traffic near the

Delhi Zoo, on his way to cross the bridge across the Yamuna river and then on to

Mayur Vihar in the suburbs, where his apartment was. Suddenly, he saw a bus careen

towards him from the opposite direction. The bus driver was either drunk, or didn’t

know how to drive, or both, because he was weaving in and out of his lane. At the last

minute, Aaditya swerved his bike away to avoid the bus.

‘Bastard!’ Aaditya screamed over his shoulder as he continued home, trying to think

of what he’d say to Supriya when he call her, but the bus bearing down at him had

brought back other, less pleasant, memories.

BK or AK?

That mystifying question had been the first words he had heard when he had

awakened to find himself on a hospital bed. The day after the search for his father had

been called off, he had pleaded with the authorities to keep looking. Perhaps his father

had just drifted away. Perhaps he was unconscious and had not seen or heard any of

the helicopters. The officer in charge of the search, a man who had known Aaditya

since he had been in diapers, had looked to be on the verge of tears, but said that there

was nothing more to be done. Aaditya should have known better, but then he had

been only seventeen, and had just lost the only family he had ever known. So he had

helped himself to his father’s stash of Scotch, and then screaming out his rage at the

unfairness of it all, had gone roaring down the highway on his bike.

By the time he saw the bus, it had been too late.

Below the knee or above the knee? That was what the doctor had been asking, as

Aaditya realized later. There perhaps is no good way to lose a leg, but as Aaditya

was to learn, if you do lose one, pray it’s BK. An amputation above the knee makes

recovery much tougher. The Air Force had paid for the best care available, and he

had been fitted with a state of the art prosthetic leg, but as the doctor told him, with

an amputation above the knee, the average patient needed 80% more strength to carry

himself along than a normal person. Aaditya had beaten those odds, turning to the

gym with a frenzy, building his already strong physique into solid muscle, but he had

not been so lucky when, after six months, he had worked up the courage to ask his

father’s Commanding Officer whether he still had a chance to be a fighter pilot.

Chopra uncle, as Aaditya had known him for most of his life, had looked up Aaditya

nearly every day since his father had been lost. He had told Aaditya that he could

certainly still join the Air Force, provided he could pass the fitness tests. That had

been the good news. The bad news was that the doctors had recommended that even

if he were to be accepted into the Air Force, it be ideally for ground duties, since they

were not sure his leg could take the strain of flying. At best he could be allowed to

pilot helicopters, but fast jets were out. The strains of pulling high G forces could be

dangerous, and if he ever had to use an ejection seat, his leg would never be able to

withstand the force.

Aaditya had wondered if he had made the right decision in giving up on joining the

Air Force. He knew the answer. No matter how much he regretted not joining the

Air Force, working in it every day, next to fighters and fighter pilots, yet knowing

he could never be one of them was far worse than being in a world far removed from

it all. Still rattled by the near accident and by the memories it had brought back, he

stopped his bike near the Old Fort, wanting to grab some fresh air and clear his head.

And perhaps call Supriya.

It was now almost nine at night, and while a few hours ago the grounds would have

been full of families strolling or taking a ride in the boats on the small lake in front of

the fort, at this hour it was totally deserted. There were a few food stalls open outside

the front gates, and he picked up some chips, and munching on them, walked towards

the lake. He had been lost in thought and soon realized just how far he had ventured

when he turned to see the traffic in the distance behind him, their lights dimly lighting

up the darkness. Oh well, he was in no hurry to go anywhere, and the cool October

weather in Delhi was perfect, so he walked some more and entered the main fort

premises, walking through the ruins till he found a secluded spot near a large tree that

was just a few meters away from the pond. He sat down there to call Supriya.

She picked up on the third ring.

‘Hey Supriya, it’s Aadi here.’

‘Hey there! So did you decide to make up for ditching me last night?’

Aaditya smiled. Good looking and nice. So they did still make girls that way.

‘Here’s a deal- don’t ask me to dance, and if you’re free tomorrow, I’ll treat you to

dinner anyplace you like.’

A brave offer since he heard she came from a pretty rich family, but he hoped that she

would not ask for the Taj. And if she did, what the hell, Aaditya was feeling happy

and reckless enough.

Before she could answer, someone stumbled into Aaditya, sending his phone flying

onto the grass.

‘What the…’

Before he could complete his sentence, he looked up to see a very large man, dressed

in black. Aaditya could not make out many of his features, but saw that his face was

as black as the night. Figuring that this did not look like the kind of man to get into a

tangle with and not wanting any trouble, he got up and moved out of the man’s way to

pick up his phone.

That was when he heard the scream.

***

The scream that pierced the night was high-pitched and shrill, but the moaning

that followed left no doubt that it was a man in utter agony. The man who had just

bumped into Aaditya raced towards the sound, moving at a speed faster than Aaditya

would have believed someone his size capable of.

Probably some gang related violence.

Not wanting to get caught up in it, Aaditya started to turn towards the pond and make

his way back to the gate, which was a few hundred meters away. That was when he

saw a struggle in the distance. He could not see too many details in the dark, but what

was obvious was that a large figure, likely the man who had just bumped into him,

was grappling with a much smaller person. Her long hair made it obvious that she was

a woman.

Aaditya never liked getting into fights. Always more trouble than they’re worth,

his father used to say. Walk away if all you’re fighting for is your ego. Defuse the

situation if you can, and only then fight if you’re left with no option.

Walking away was not an option, not when it looked like there was a woman in

trouble. However, Aaditya had every intention of settling this with little or no

fighting. He figured it was a local goon who was taking advantage of the darkness

and the secluded location to get frisky with a woman. Most likely he would just scoot

when he saw that there was someone else there.

Aaditya rushed towards them. With his leg, he could no longer sprint like he once

did in school, but he moved as fast as he could. When he was closer, he saw a man

sprawled on the ground, but the other man and the woman were still locked in a

struggle.

‘Let her go!’

He screamed at the top of his voice, and the man turned to look at him. He was now

close enough to see the man more clearly. He was huge- at least a few inches taller

than Aaditya and much broader across the chest and shoulders. His forehead seemed

to have a prominent ridge above the eyebrows, and Aaditya was wondering what that

could be, when the woman struck.

She was small, perhaps no more than five feet six inches and looked thin, almost

waiflike, but she struck with a speed and precision that shocked Aaditya. Her hand

snaked out and hit the large man on the neck, sending him down in a heap, grabbing

at his neck and gurgling in agony.

Aaditya stopped in his tracks.

What the hell had he got into?

The woman looked at him for an instant, and he could now see her long, flowing

hair, cascading down to her waist, and she seemed to be wearing a fitting white suit,

similar to what divers wore. But what struck him the most was her face. Her eyes

were blazing as if on fire, and she had a dark red smear running down the middle of

her forehead. Even though she was much smaller than him, Aaditya felt truly afraid as

her eyes bore through him.

He was about to back off, when four more men suddenly appeared, seemingly out

of nowhere. They looked to be carbon copies of the men the woman had already

dispatched- large, well built, and dressed in black. Two of them took out what looked

like curved blades and lunged at the woman. Aaditya wasn’t sure what to do- the

woman certainly looked like she could take care of herself, yet he didn’t want to just

walk away, leaving her facing these four new attackers. His choice was made for him

when one of the men saw him and rushed at him.

Aaditya was in great physical shape, having been an athlete for most of his school

years, and had a Brown Belt in Karate to boot, so he certainly knew how to take care

of himself. As his attacker came closer and reached out to grab Aaditya, he side-

stepped him, grabbed the man’s wrist, and using the larger man’s momentum against

him, sent him sprawling to the ground. Aaditya turned to see that the woman had sent

one attacker down, but was now trading blows with her other attacker, a blade in her

own hand. The two of them moved in a deadly rhythm, circling each other, looking

for an opening, and striking and blocking with lightning fast speed. Aaditya would

have kept watching, but he now had big problems of his own. Two big problems.

Two men, including the one he had sent down, were now running towards him. As

tough as he thought he was, he wasn’t sure he could take on both of these giants, and

not having any way of backing off now, he decided to use surprise to his advantage

and struck first. His feet couldn’t move as fast as they once could, and he certainly

was limited in his ability to kick, but he moved towards the nearer man, and landed

a series of two quick punches- one to the solar plexus that winded the big man, and

as he doubled over, a second blow to the temple that sent the man staggering back.

Aaditya had put most of his strength into the blows and was shocked when the man

stood up a split second later and grinned at him, baring a mouth full of yellowed and

deformed teeth.

Now I’m in deep shit.

The second man struck out at Aaditya with a punch. Aaditya saw it coming and

blocked it, his right hand coming down in an arc to deflect the momentum of the

man’s blow, and followed through with a kick to the man’s shin. The blow jarred

Aaditya’s right leg and sent pain shooting through his body, but the metal and carbon

fibre artificial leg did much more damage than his real leg would ever have. The man

grabbed his shin and staggered down on one knee. Before Aaditya could do anything

else, total pandemonium erupted around him.

He felt a gust of wind blow around him, and sand being blown across his face, before

he heard the humming noise behind him. It was no louder than a vacuum cleaner, but

when he turned to look, he saw a large flying vehicle land just next to the pond. He

could not make out too many details in the dark, but it was easily as large as a fighter

jet, and seemed to be white in colour. It had a raised canopy, and a nose that was split

and curved upwards, like a bull’s horns. As the vehicle landed on the sand, the canopy

slid open, and a man jumped out.

He was tall, perhaps as tall as the four men in black Aaditya and the woman had been

grappling with, but while they looked like gym-buffed bodybuilders, he was all lean

muscle. He wore a striped bodysuit, and as he came closer, Aaditya thought they

looked like tiger stripes. His hair was matted, almost in dreadlocks and he carried

what looked like a small trident in his hand.

If the woman had looked like she could dish out violence, this newcomer took it to

a whole new level. He rolled on the ground, evading a blow from one attacker and

casually slashed him in the back with the trident, sending him down, and even before

he had fully gotten up from the roll, he had implanted the trident in another man’s

stomach. In no more than a couple of seconds, he had killed or maimed two of the

giants, and stood facing the remaining two, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth

as he said.

‘Want to dance, dear daityas?’

The two men rushed at him, blades glistening in the dark. The woman intercepted

one, sliding on the ground, her legs wrapping around his, sending him down, as she

gracefully rolled onto one knee, and before Aaditya’s astonished eyes, brought her

blade down in one smooth move. When Aaditya looked up, he saw that the last man

in black was also down, lying at the feet of the man in matted hair. He felt a surge of

panic as the man walked towards him, bloodied trident in hand, but the woman came

between them, gently shaking her head. The two of them entered the flying vehicle

and in an instant, it had taken off and disappeared from view.

Aaditya moved to a corner of the grounds and slumped behind a fallen oak tree.

Getting into the odd scrape in school was one thing- the violence he had witnessed

was of a totally different nature. Sitting there among six dead or dying men, he

fumbled for his phone, wondering if he should call the police.

What would he tell them? How could he explain what he had just witnessed? That

was when he saw the glowing cylinder lying a few feet away from him. He picked it

up gingerly and was about to take a closer look when he heard another flying vehicle

approach. He looked and saw it in the distance- it was a different ship- black in colour

and shaped like a saucer. One of the men writhing on the ground seemed to be in

contact with the pilot and said, presumably into some communication system.

‘They got away. We need help.’

If help was what they were looking for, they did not get it. Some sort of beam flashed

from the ship, and one by one, the men lying on the ground were incinerated, reduced

to ash in an instant.

Aaditya lay hiding behind the tree, not daring to breathe. When he heard the sound of

the ship receding, and got up to see a clear sky, he ran faster than he had in years to

his bike and sped home.

***


Vimana: A Science Fiction Thriller

Mainak Dhar’s Vimana is our new Thriller of the Week!

Mainak Dhar’s Vimana is here to sponsor lots of free Mystery and Thriller titles in the Kindle store:

 

by Mainak Dhar
3.9 stars – 98 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

 

Here’s the set-up:
AMAZON.COM TOP 5 SCIENCE FICTION BESTSELLER! To be published in paperback by Penguin India, early 2012’Gods’ fought a terrible war in our skies 15,000 years ago. They have returned to finish it.Ancient texts refer to ‘Gods’ flying in craft called vimanas and waging war with what sound like nuclear weapons. These accounts are today classified as myth or legend.What if they turned out to be real?Vimana is an edge-of your seat sci-fi technothriller about a young college student who stumbles upon an ancient war between good and evil. A war that we thought was merely a part of our ancient myths and legends, but unknown to us, is still being waged everyday in our skies. As the forces of darkness conspire to unleash worldwide devastation to coincide with the End Times prophecies in 2012, he discovers his hidden destiny is to join the forces of light in bringing this war to a conclusion. At stake will be the continued existence of the human race.Star Wars meets Transformers in this exciting new thriller that will keep all science fiction fans satisfied.BONUS CONTENT:First two chapters of Heroes R Us, the new superhero thriller by Mainak Dhar
(This is a sponsored post)

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Jesse Camden is minding the store at the Gilded Lily Antiques and Vintage Shop when a stranger enters and begins asking questions about Lindsey Hatch, Jesse’s friend, business partner and the barista at the tearoom next door. It’s a bad beginning to a day that just gets worse when, within hours...
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Case solved? Yes but...The Nicolette Percy case was a nightmare. She solved it, but the solution generated more questions than answers. Captain Kate Gazzara, suspended from duty and in danger of losing her job, is determined to find the answers and embarks on a one woman investigation deep into the...
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Three’s a crowd, especially when one is a stalker…Sienna Chase is having the worst day of her adult life—kicked out of her nursing program, dumped by her boyfriend, and to top it off, followed home by creepy Dr. Charles Allerton.Flying back to her parents’ home on Cape Cod to take stock of...
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Why there? In Canada. It shouldn't happen in this peaceful village at a lake with its colourful and friendly inhabitants… Writer Amber Boffin drops Maggie Flanagan, her little terrier of an aspiring photographer and amateur sleuth back into her childhood village to dig out the truth for you.A...
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Avery Amelia Fox, a twenty-something, independent woman, is the only child of Avery and Amelia Fox, prominent citizens of the exclusive village of Hidden Oaks. Her name is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because her parents are well known in a world of insufferable snobs. A blessing because...
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In book one of the Lilah Love launch duet, meet Lilah Love, the politically incorrect FBI agent who says what no one else dares and fears her dark side is a little too dark. Note: this book ends in a cliffhanger and continues in Murder Girl.The story...As an FBI profiler, it's Lilah Love's job to...
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Enjoy A Free Excerpt From Our Thriller of the Week Sponsor, Bobbye Terry’s Nick of Time

Bobbye Terry’s Nick of Time:

by Bobbye Terry
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

Here’s the set-up:
New violence arrives to the town of Climax, lurking beneath the conventions and quirks of a down-home southern lifestyle. In the middle of the chaos, Sheriff’s assistant, Emily Franklin falls in love with newcomer Nick Troy and the two embark on a treacherous journey to discover who is hiding behind an evil web of crime. Amidst kidnappings, trafficking and murder, will the lovers’ happily ever after turn into a drearily dead down under?Have you read Coming to Climax? Book One in the Climax, Virginia Mystery Series.

The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:


PROLOGUE
“Easier than trapping the Easter Bunny.”

 

Caja stood in the forest, on a dank mat of leaves, right next to his prize. Execution, flawless.

 

The dark skinned woman, long black hair glistening in the few remaining sun rays of the day, struggled in the trap dangling from the hickory tree. Her shadow cast notched, distorted images across the rotting vegetation of the swampy woodland soil.

 

“Tengo que escapar,” she screeched, her voice echoing through the trees. “The Saints save me.”

 

“No Saints, lady, and no escaping either.”

 

At the sound of footfalls shifting leaves on the forest floor, Caja glanced in the distance. Monstruo sprinted toward them. Panting heavily, the guy halted when he saw her. Leering at the woman, he approached the snared prey.

 

“Good work.” Leaning over to the netting, Monstruo stuck his hand through it and grabbed her breast. She thrashed to escape his hand, whimpering, but he squeezed down and kissed the air. “Good set of jugs. What a pity.”

 

“Where’s her old man?” Caja stared off in the distance.

 

“Tied up in the back of that abandoned excuse for a house.” Monstruo grinned as he licked his lips. “Let’s cut her down and take her back there, have some fun.” His laughter echoed through the forest, maniacal and icily haunting.

 

Caja shuddered. This one didn’t have a single civil nerve ending. “What’re you gonna do?”

 

Monstruo wrapped his finger around a strand of her hair. “Right now, dip my stick.”

 

“Let me go, I have a child at home.” The woman struggled again against her bindings.

 

Caja’s eyes flew open. “Oh for Christ’s sake, she’s gotta kid somewhere.”

 

“He ain’t got her.”

 

Caja shifted his feet. “I thought we just wanted to get them out of the picture. Then go get a beer.”

 

Monstruo frowned at him. “We’re getting them out of the picture. After a little fun.” He grinned at the woman. “This won’t take that long. The night is young.” He laughed again. “Then, little lady, you can have your man. We’ll help you cement your relationship.”

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The door of the house squeaked open a couple of inches, the safety chain still latched. Bright blue eyes peered through the crack. “I see by your truck you’re in construction, I don’t need any repair. Too late anyway. Feel free to visit me tomorrow at the Sheriff’s Office.” She slammed the door shut.

 

Scowling, Nick Troy turned to Grady. “That’s the oddest welcome I’ve ever had. Do you think Taylor’s sister hates him?”

 

“Try again, boss. Maybe Taylor got his wires crossed. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Nick knocked on the door. “Please open up, we’re not soliciting.” The door inched open one more time. He stared at the woman, only seeing her bright blue eyes glaring into his. “Look, we’re supposed to be here. You are Emily Franklin, aren’t you?”

 

She blinked. “If I am?”

 

“We work with your brother.” He smirked. “Taylor told us we could stay here while we’re on the project.” He fished a card out of his pocket and poked it through the door.

She snatched it with two fingers and drew it through the tiny opening.

 

At the sound of the latch coming undone, he sighed in relief. For a minute he’d thought the barrel of a shotgun was next.

 

“I…I’m sorry. Taylor didn’t tell me anything about your coming. There’s been a scam going on here in the community, and, since you drove down here for more than mile on a private road, I just…” She placed a hand on one hip and swung the door open.

 

“Never mind, come inside. Guess I’ll need to freshen up a room for you.”

 

The woman was splotched red from her upper chest all the way up her neck. However, the reddish brown hair was what caused Nick’s gut to constrict. A redhead. Jeeze. He was a sucker for the hot ones.

 

Grady stepped forward. “My friend’s been struck mute, and he doesn’t have any manners. Name’s Grady Allison. Nice to meet you ma’am.” He elbowed Nick. “This here is Nick Troy, Taylor’s right hand man.”

 

She smiled broadly and sighed. “Nice to meet you Grady. As you already know, I’m Emily Franklin, Taylor’s ill-informed little sister. I’m happy to know one of my guests is from the South.”

 

Nick ground his teeth. “I’ve lived in the South for ten years.”

 

“Sorry.” She giggled like a little girl. “You still sound like you’re from California.” Her eyes flew open. “Not that it’s a bad thing. Some of my best friends are from states outside the South. Carolina Mann was raised in New York City. Can’t get any less like Dixie. And her husband’s from there, too. They settled here. We’re friendly.”

 

“Nice to know you won’t round me up on a reservation.” Nick fisted his hands by his sides as he realized he’d made the statement out loud.

 

Grady convulsed in laughter. “You think he’s funny now, wait ’til you get to know him.”

 

Emily smiled civilly, but, as she looked at Nick, her eyes narrowed into slits. “I’m sure.” Her voice could have flash-frozen the air. “I’ll show you to your rooms.”

 

Minutes later, they unpacked their things in two adjoining guestrooms and Grady joined Nick in his. “You made quite a hit with the little lady.”

 

He exhaled. “That’s me. A charmer. Women fall at my feet.”

 

Grady sat on the edge of the bed as Nick packed away the last of his tee-shirts. “They could. If you’d let ’em through that famous impervious barrier. Who did that to you?”

 

“What?” he asked.

 

“You know. Emasculate?”

 

He shook his head. “Guess it started with my mother. Don’t dig up old wounds. I am like I want to be.”

 

“Anything you say, buddy.” Grady stood and placed his hands on his hips. “When do we get started?”

 

“First thing tomorrow.” Nick turned and tucked his shirt back into his jeans. “Unless that woman eases up downstairs, I’m thinking we need to get this job done as fast as possible. I’m sure as hell not going to ask for food here. How about getting some grub at that bar up the road?”

 

****

 

“Taylor sent you a man?” Carolina stared at Emily, her eyes crinkled with amusement.

 

“Two of them, one our age and an older guy. When I called Taylor, he thought the whole thing was one big joke. He didn’t even apologize for not telling me they were coming.” Emily threw her purse on the sofa and collapsed next to it.

 

“The question is why are they here?”

 

“My brother is convinced this is a good place to build a Dazzle Distribution Center.”

 

“Dazzle? In Climax?” Carolina chuckled. “Has he taken leave of his senses?”

 

Emily nodded. “Exactly what I said. Anyway, he never listens to me, so let the giant wheels of enterprise turn. Seems this guy who’s here is a VP. I guess even Taylor realized it was going to take panache. I don’t know why he thinks they can just pop in and stay with me for like, two or three months.”

 

“I’d think you’d be happy to have company in that behemoth of a house.” Carolina rested her hand on her baby bump. “I’ve been worried sick about your being there moping around, even your cat gone. Especially since I got married.”

 

Emily nodded. “Okay, things change when your friends get hitched, but you’re still my best bud. Why do you think I came over here and told you what Taylor’s doing?”

 

“To get away from them.” Carolina grinned as Emily gave her the finger. “Okay, and to spread the word, too. You won’t ever change. You’re better than an MSNBC newsfeed. Taylor’s just conducting business. I don’t know if he remembers how anti-change this area is. As for your houseguests, give the poor men a chance. I assume they’re from Charlotte, so they’re from the South. It’s not like they’ll have four heads.” She paused. “I guess since that’s two men, it is four heads.” She chuckled.

 

“The VP’s from California.” Emily nodded emphatically. “According to Taylor, the guy’s dad was Reggie Troy, that TV weekend outdoor wonder man back umpteen million years ago. You know, the one who braved the Alaskan frontier with a kayak and a canteen of water and lived on whale blubber and melted snow when the canteen ran out?”

 

“Yeah,” Carolina breathed reverently. “Daddy Blue used to love those shows. Never missed an episode. He really liked the one down on the Amazon. Who’d have known you could do all those things with one match and the empty book they came in? If they’d had DVR then, he’d have recorded it.” She turned to Emily. “One thing I can say, though. If Troy’s son looks anything like he did back then, your hormones are going to be boinking around that house’s walls like ping pong balls.”

 

“That’s the only boinking that’ll ever happen in that house. Besides, I’m pretty sure this guy’s gay. He sure as hell wasn’t trying to exude any sex appeal. A waste of a great body.” Emily blew out a frustrated breath. “Let’s talk about you for awhile. How’s Andy doing at the elementary school?”

 

Carolina smiled. “It’s been an adjustment from college professor to principal, but he’s doing great. I think he really likes it, but he’s still trying to prove himself with the teachers. You know how self-righteous people can be. A couple of them thought they should have gotten a promotion into the position and begrudge his walking in from outside and taking over.”

 

“They’re lucky to have him.” Emily stroked her friend’s shoulder.

 

“Thanks.” Carolina’s bottom lip quivered. “I really want him to be happy here, not feel tied down just because of me and the family, though I know he loves all of them.”

Emily smiled. “That’s the only reason to be where you are. Why do you think I stayed in Climax?”

 

Carolina cocked her head sideways. “I just thought you believed you owed it to your dad after your mom died.”

 

Emily shook her head, smiling wistfully, wishing her mom were still alive. “No, truth be told, I don’t think I could ever leave Climax. Its roots have grown into my feet and up into my heart. It makes me bloom just to think about it.”

 

Carolina teared up, pulling a tissue from a box on the end table. “Sorry. Just a pregnant lady with changing moods. Andy’s got a box of tissues everywhere.”

Emily smiled. “Enjoy every minute.” I know I will, because it’ll never happen to me.

 

****

 

Caja followed Monstruo up the steps to the B&B, nauseous and shaking and desperately desiring a shower. Last night’s escapades produced a pungent after-taste in his mouth, one he couldn’t wash down with a six pack of beer. Extreme apprehension consumed him. Monstruo’s company was oppressive.

 

Caja took a deep breath and forced the images of the violated girl from his mind. As they’d bricked up the wall in the house, her bloodcurdling screams, pleas for mercy, sobs of hopelessness, filled his mind, now forever branded. Not believing in ghosts, he didn’t fear them haunting him. He feared his own mortality if he stayed near this man, the people in this scheme. And he prayed he didn’t go back to that house ’til those two were dead and the odor no longer permeated the building, marking him like a tattoo that couldn’t be erased.

 

“Hey, Mama!” Monstruo yelled at Connie, the B&B owner. “Apúrate, get us some iced tea. We’re sweating like two stuck pigs.”

 

The blonde darted him a glare. “If you want to stay in this B&B, tone it down. Iced tea is served in the dining area.”

 

“Woo, hoo. You must be on the rag, woman. Get a load off.” He stuck his elbow in her side. “Hey, you want some action, you know where my room is.”

 

She darted past him and out of the foyer.

 

“You really know how to win friends and influence innkeepers.” Caja crossed his arms across his chest.

 

Monstruo, already high from the beer he drank on the way home in the truck, slapped his arm backwards, smacking Caja in his chest. “Shit, she’s used to it. Women livin’ round here seen all sorts. And fucked most them.” He headed for the stairs and began to climb them. “I’m gonna go wash off the stink.”

 

Caja watched him ascend. “I doubt it’ll ever come off.”

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

“Land sakes, child. You look like someone just walked over your grave and spit.”

Aunt Millie stood in front of Emily with an order pad, staring at her niece with the woman’s normal x-ray vision.

 

“I have houseguests. Unexpected ones.” Emily gazed blankly at the menu. “Just give me a cheeseburger, double fries and a chocolate malted.”

 

Aunt Millie wrote down the order. “One of them must be good looking.”

 

Emily’s head jerked up to meet her eyes. “Why do you say that?”

 

Her aunt shrugged. “You always stock up on calories when you’re compensating for acting on your desires.”

 

“I’m eating out of anger.”

 

“Why’s that?” Aunt Millie leaned her elbow on the counter.

 

“Millie,” a guy yelled from the end of the lunch counter. “Stop your gossiping and bring me my lunch!”

 

She stood up and yelled back, “Your belly could wait on lunch for five days. Hang tight. I’m conferring with my niece.” Leaning back down, she smiled. “Now go ahead and spill. Hurry before Earl gets desperate and starts gnawing on the Formica.”

 

Emily chuckled in spite herself. “I have one of those irritating men in my house.”

 

Aunt Millie shook her head. “They’re all irritating, honey, unless you massage their ego and other parts of their anatomy. Give me the vitals. Looks first, then personality.”

 

Emily rolled her eyes. “Oh six two or so, lean but muscular. Blond and tanned. Pale blue eyes. Probably thirtyish. His supervisor’s not bad either. About your age, in good shape with gray eyes.”

 

Aunt Millie laughed and threw her arms open. “What’s not to love?”

 

Emily pulled extra napkins from the holder and sighed. “The older guy seems really nice and he’s Southern, but the one near my age needs manners. Even made a crack about no breakfast this morning. He said, ‘I see you’re one of those career women who doesn’t cook.’ Acidic wit. You know, how they insult you without making a direct frontal attack? All the bad and none of the good?”

 

Her aunt smiled. “Men need food in the morning darlin’, not a just a cup of coffee and a doughnut. If you feed him, he may be a lot nicer.” She patted her hand. “Let him sit awhile. I bet he just mellows out real fine.”

 

“I don’t know.” Emily glanced up at her. “How about you come over tonight? He’ll have his construction supervisor with him. You can restrain me from killing the guy and keep some civil conversation going.”

 

“Millie!”

 

“I’ll be there in a minute, sweetie,” she yelled back. Her aunt winked at Emily. “Okay I’m game. Let me go now and accidentally pour a glass of water in Earl’s lap.”

 

****

 

Nick stared at the site for the distribution plant and glowered. “How did this happen, Kramer?”

 

The guy took off his cap and scratched his head. “Don’t have a clue, Mr. Troy. Jest got in here from a job up in Roanoke and, after two wrong turns tryin’ to find where in the hell this place is, that’s what I found.”

 

The three men stared silently at the property. Trees lay sprawled across the site, huge black plastic bags of garbage strewn all over that. “It looks like somebody set off explosives and then robbed the landfill,” Kramer told them. “Never seen anything like it. Far enough from town, doubt anybody ever heard anybody do it.”

 

“From what Taylor told me about the women here, I’m surprised.” He turned and glanced at Grady. “Taylor said they know about your shit before you take it.”

 

Grady snickered. “Sounds like Taylor. But, this isn’t funny.” He glanced over at Kramer. “Have any idea who did it?”

 

The guy shook his head. “Look, man, I’m not from around here, jest a reputable demo man contracting with you. I’m based out of Richmond.”

 

“How much more will I owe you to clean it up?” Nick asked.

 

Kramer took his handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped off his forehead. “Gee, I don’t know if the garbage is hazardous, or what’s under the trees…”

 

“Ten thousand extra, assuming you still make the deadline.”

 

“Done.” Kramer put his cap back on. “I’ll go get the crew and start working.”

 

Grady chuckled as the contractor walked away. “Man, you’re quick and to the point.”

 

“We can’t waste any time. After all…”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Grady said. “Time is golden.”

 

****

 

“Smells mighty fine. Mighty fine.”

 

Emily looked up at the sound of Grady’s voice. “I’m in the kitchen,” she yelled. “Just around the corner.” She pulled a roast beef out of the oven as he walked into the room. “Hope you two are hungry.”

 

“Wow.” Grady walked into the kitchen. “Haven’t had any of the stuff that isn’t packed in a can in a powerful long time.”

 

She wrinkled her nose. “They put roast beef in a can?”

 

He nodded. “Chunks in gravy.”

 

Emily laughed. “What you’ve been eating is dog food. This is the real thing.”

 

Grady took an appreciative whiff. “Sure smells like it is. And it looks better than that.”

 

“Where’s Nick?” She peered around him.

 

“He’s on the phone with your brother.”

 

“Is something wrong?” Emily frowned. “Taylor prefers not to be bothered with business calls after hours. I know, ’cause I’ve called him when he’s been fussing about that.”

 

He nodded. “I know, but Nick had to. We ran into a cluster fuck. Whoops sorry, ’bout the language.”

 

“I’ve heard it before.” Emily chuckled. “What happened?”

 

Grady told her what they’d found at the site.

 

“Get out of here! I want to say nothing like that happens in Climax, but a few months ago, we had a flurry of madness.”

 

“Really? Here in the middle of nowhere?”

 

“Yep. This guy with two personalities, psycho, you know. He was after my best friend’s mother who’d divorced him twenty plus years ago. In the process of setting things up, he murdered three moonshiners, the woman who ran the B&B and another woman outside Chatham. The woman in the B&B was sliced to smithereens.”

 

Grady’s eyes almost bugged out of his head. “Wait a minute. What kind of place is this?”

 

“It’s not usually like that.” Emily laughed. “Place hadn’t see a murder in more than fifty years before that. Anyway, the guy’s dead. Blown away.”

 

“Good thing. I was getting ready to change my plane tickets to go home.”

 

“What do you mean you’re going home?” Nick walked into the kitchen.

 

Grady slapped him on the arm. “Nick, I’m not going anywhere. But you need to get Emily to tell you about what happened here a while back.”

 

His face was solemn, lips straight across. He stared at Emily. “Guess you can cook.”

 

She wanted to smack him. Instead she killed him with Southern kindness. “I did it just for you guys. You know, just like the little homebody.”

 

Grady grabbed his arm. “Stop chiding the cook. She was just telling me about this guy who came to town and …”

 

“If it doesn’t have to do with this mess, I don’t care. Taylor just said what he always does about problems. No advice or assistance, just, ‘Solve it.'”

 

“You know, I’m aware my brother is all business, but I didn’t know he was that bad.” She carried the roast to the table. “He hasn’t been home in awhile, and he’s losing his natural Southern charm. How about putting work behind you and eat?”

Nick scoffed. “I don’t put work behind me.”

 

She turned her eyes on Nick’s face, glaring at him. He fell back one step. “Then you better learn before you die.” Emily set the roast down.

 

At Grady’s grin, and Nick’s shocked face, she felt smug. He walked to the table and sat down.

 

Emily chuckled to herself. I did it, put him in his place.Two points for me. “Everything else is already there,” she said. “And Aunt Millie will be here any minute. Chow down.”

 

An hour later, Aunt Millie was laughing, slapping Grady on the shoulder. “You’re a natural born storyteller. You fit right in here in Climax.”

 

Emily pursed her lips to keep from smiling and turned to Nick, who sat silent and glum in a side chair. “Are we keeping you up?”

 

“Huh?” Nick turned toward her, his brows knitted together. “Sorry. I just can’t understand why someone would have vandalized the property that way. What kind of nuts live around here, anyway?”

 

“In Climax?” Emily doubled over in laughter. “You’ve got to be kidding. This is the moonshine capital of the world. We have misfits the same way other people have children.”

 

Aunt Millie’s face sobered. “Emily, that’s not accurate. We have a bunch of eccentric people, but most of us are basically normal, with a few quirks like most people.” She shook her head. “Most of the real problems stem from outsiders.” She waved her hand. “Present company excluded. Connie Miller over at the B&B was telling me at lunch how two guys staying there were mighty strange. In fact, she said one of them was bordering on getting thrown out. Seems the guy’s got a real foul mouth and is making lewd suggestions.”

 

“And to think she has to put up with that after what happened to her mother.” Emily shook her head.

 

“A man doesn’t do that to a lady.” Grady’s chin popped up. “I’ll be happy to go over there and teach the guy some manners.

 

Aunt Millie shook her head. “No worries. We women in Climax can handle most anything. Connie just got back here, so she hasn’t acclimated herself back to the community, but no mistakin’ she’s a Miller. If she needs help, she’ll holler.”

 

Nick rubbed his eyes. “I feel like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.”

 

“Most people do when they come here the first time.” Emily grinned. The guy had a lot to learn about her town. “You need to go and talk to Andy Mann. He’s the principal at the elementary school.”

 

“Why should I talk to him?”

 

Emily winked. “He’s not from here, either. You two have a lot in common.”

 

****

 

“You mean you came over here to see me because Emily Franklin suggested you should?” Andy chuckled as he sat down on a metal chair in the cafeteria.

 

Nick stood next to the long table. “Yep. Something she said struck a chord about my being an outsider and not knowing how things worked here. I’m going to be in the area awhile and start a business for my boss. I thought it’d help to get the skinny. And the truth is, I don’t think she’d fill me in. It seems I rub her the wrong way.”

 

“That I seriously doubt, but I’ll try to help.” Andy pulled two sandwiches stuffed with what looked like ham and cheese with lettuce and tomato, a bag of chips and two apples out of his zippered lunch sack.

 

“At least you have a lot to eat on while we talk.”

 

Andy glanced down at the food and then back up at Nick. “This isn’t really all for me.” He lowered his voice. “There’s this Hispanic kid who goes to school here. He was born in this country, but his parents are migrant workers. They desperately want him to have an education, and he’s really smart, good grades. But they must be running out of money, because he’s come to school the last few days without any lunch or money to pay for one. So, I just tell him I don’t feel like finishing mine.”

 

Nick grinned. He loved people with big hearts. “That’s really nice, Andy. I like you better already.”

 

Andy shook his head. “Not trying to win any awards. I just remember some of the kids back in New York City where I’m from. Besides, my wife’s pregnant. I’d hope someone would do that for our kid if we couldn’t afford to feed him.”

 

“That’s a wonderful gesture. I don’t know if I’d have thought of it.”

 

“I’m sure you would. Especially if you were watching over all these kids every day.”

 

Nick nodded as he sank into the chair next to Andy. “Probably so. Listen, changing the subject, someone victimized the construction site where we’re going to build a distribution center outside of town. Have any idea who’d do something like that?”

 

Andy frowned as he unwrapped one sandwich. “No kidding? Nope, not right off hand. Didn’t even see it. What kind of distribution building are you putting up?”

Nick explained about Dazzle.

 

Andy whistled. “Well, there you go. It could be someone around here that doesn’t like the sounds of anything that big coming into or near our town. They’re not into a big population explosion here. In fact, some of the moonshiners may have sabotaged the site. My father-in-law would know. You need to have a talk with him. He can tell you how everyone around here ticks.”

 

Nick leaned his arm on the table. “I guess that’s it. Taylor did say I might run into some resistance.”

 

“Better watch out too,” Andy said. “These people carry guns and they know how to shoot. Not just the men either.”

 

“Sounds like Texas.”

 

“Just as bad.” Andy grinned. “But if you fit in, everyone watches your back.”

“How do I do that? Fit in, I mean?” Nick’s stomach growled as he watched Andy take a bite of sandwich and then sip from a small milk carton. He’d better go get lunch after this.

 

“How do you fit in?” Andy answered. “Just be nice to people, not gruff. Ask questions, and be helpful. As for Emily, she will be more than willing to fill you in, to the point of ad nauseam. But whatever you do, don’t make any advances.”

 

“Why?” Nick cocked his head sideways.

 

“She’s clingy. The woman wants to get married really bad.”

Nick laughed. “I run from women like that. In fact, these days I run from most of them.”

 

Andy’s eyebrows went up. “You’re warned buddy.”

 

Suddenly a little boy approached the table. Not very tall with dark brown hair, huge chocolate eyes and golden skin, he smiled at Andy and patted him on the arm. “Perdone, Señor Mann. I don’t suppose you have any sandwich you don’t feel like eating today, do you?”

 

Andy leaned down to look the boy in the eyes. “As a matter of fact, Carlos, my wife gave me too much again. Could you help me out?” He handed the boy the extra sandwich, the chips and an apple.

 

The kid’s face lit up like he’d just won the lottery. “Oh, Señor, you must want to eat some more?”

 

“No, take it Carlos.” Andy rubbed his back. “You’d do me a big favor. I can’t take it home. My wife would be mad.”

 

“I will take it off your hands, Señor.” He bowed.

 

Andy gestured to Nick. “Say hello to my friend Nick before you go eat.”

 

The little boy stared up at Nick and his face broke out in a huge grin. It lit Nick up inside, for the smile was so genuine. “You have nice hair, Señor Nick. Ladies must like you.” He stood up straight. “I wish I had hair your color.”

 

Nick laughed. “I think yours is very nice. You must like yourself for the person you are.”

 

“Sí.” He grinned again. “I try. Mama say so too. Perdone, I go eat now.” He ran off to the end of a table by himself and sat down. Ripping into the plastic wrap, the kid began to devour the sandwich

 

Nick’s gut constricted. “Doesn’t he have any friends?”

 

Andy shook his head. “The other children call him chico. They can be prejudiced at any age, but don’t tell me that’s not coming from their parents. I’ve been trying to work on bringing some education in here regarding diversity.” He exhaled. “It takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Andy glanced back up at Nick. “How about coming over to my father-in-law’s house tonight? Cindy Merriman, a friend of the family, is bringing over dessert, and my mother-in-law is a fabulous cook, now that she’s been practicing. One more is always welcome.”

 

Nick smiled. “Maybe I will.”

 

Andy shook his hand. “By the way, Emily’s invited. Just don’t let her think she’s coming as your date.”

 

Nick’s phone rang and he answered it. “Hey, Grady. What’s up?” He stood up suddenly. “You’re kidding. Jesus. We don’t need that kind of trouble, or the publicity that goes with it. I’ll be right over.”

 

“What’s wrong?” Andy asked.

Nick stared at him, in a daze. “The guys just cleaned away those bags and the trees. There was a dead body underneath.”


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Here’s the set-up:

Arthur Beautyman, a computer hacker turned detective, is hunting a serial killer targeting modern day saints. Against him is an unscrupulous reality TV show and a member of his own department, who doesn’t know the hacker she’s tailing is in the office next door. It’s a deadly cat-and-mouse game set against the lights of Hollywood.

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Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Only on TV do people get to look good at three in the morning, Arthur Beautyman thought. He dragged himself out of his car and into the Santa Monica police station, feeling like his soul was on strike, his body left to fend for itself.

One look at the bags under the eyes of the desk sergeant inside the door and Beautyman wondered if anyone ever really got used to being up at this hour. He flashed the sergeant his detective’s badge. “I’m here to see the suspect you’re holding in the Babylon murders.”

The sergeant looked at the badge and the ID photo next to it, and back to Beautyman’s face. He lingered on Beautyman’s features for a moment and checked again. Have I really changed that much? Beautyman took the opportunity to look at his own photo. It was more than the weight loss. The light pockmarks scars from his teenage acne looked deeper now against his tightened cheeks. The photo also showed no sign of the gray strands that had invaded his dark brown hair.

His green eyes were the same; other than that Beautyman was starting to feel like he was walking in another man’s skin. He closed the leather over his badge and looked back up at the desk sergeant. “You were here when they brought the suspect in?” Beautyman asked.

The sergeant nodded, reaching for the phone.

“Why was he picked up?”

“A tipster called the Watchdog hotline. We followed up and apprehended the suspect in a parking lot off the Pacific Coast Highway. He matched the description, so we put him in an interrogation room and gave him a bottle of water, just as you asked.”

The sergeant dialed the phone and left Beautyman brooding. If he’d known this had been a tip from Watchdog, he might have stayed in bed. Beautyman hated the weekly show.

Watchdog had taken the basic premise of documentary justice shows like Unsolved Mysteries and American Justice but with a new twist. Its central premise was that cops were crooked, incompetent, and possibly as bad as the criminals themselves. The show existed to expose the police’s bumbling efforts to solve crimes, when they weren’t actively covering them up, and bring the weight of public opinion down on them. It masqueraded as a public watchdog-hence its title-seeking to reform all L.A.-area law enforcement through the “light of public scrutiny.”

Had the show’s recklessness stopped there, Beautyman might have been able to tolerate it. But they started advertising their tip line as “the number to call when you just can’t trust the police.” Since the show became a hit, Beautyman knew he was not the only detective in L.A. who had run into witnesses who remained tight-lipped during questioning and declared that they would only talk to Watchdog.

The sergeant hung up the phone and said, “They’re in the back.”

Beautyman nodded. He felt the early hour creeping back over him as he waited for the buzzer that signaled he could get into the back offices of the station. He had already given up hoping that the man in custody would be a possible suspect, let alone the killer himself. In the last month alone the Sheriff’s Department and the municipal police departments had collectively fielded hundreds of tips about the Babylon murders. They never led to the man he was looking for.

A detective and a uniformed officer were waiting for him when he came through the glass door. The young officer asked, “Any chance this might be the guy?”

Beautyman looked past the young man, staring off into space. On a good day and wearing boots, Beautyman was all of 5’6″. The officer next to him had at least eight inches on Beautyman, which gave him the option of either craning his neck to see him or-Beautyman’s preferred option in these situations-looking pensive and thoughtful. He put on his best grave and serious face. “Routine police work is always bound to turn something up eventually. Does he match the description?”

“He looks like the guy on TV,” the officer said, shrugging a bit.

“Well, that’s a good start then,” Beautyman said, meeting his eye solidly this time. Calls to Watchdog had increased substantially once the show started staging reenactments of the Babylon murders. In Beautyman’s opinion, it just got them more suspects who looked like the actor on the show, not the killer. But he held his tongue in front of the young officer.

“Can I get a bottle of water for myself before I go in?” The officer ran to get one and Beautyman turned to Sam Reynolds, a Santa Monica detective Beautyman had met a few times before. “Is there a file?”

There was. Beautyman glanced through it. It contained the transcript of the call to Watchdog and the report of the officer who apprehended the suspect in the parking lot. “Is this guy even likely to be our Babylon killer, Sam?” Beautyman asked, not looking up from the file.

“About as likely as my chances were of getting laid by Farrah Fawcett in high school.”

“Swell.”

“I think you’ll have to chalk this up as another bad reason to get out of bed at 3 am.”

“I didn’t need another.” Beautyman put the file down on the desk. “By the way, your man at the desk … has he had his training yet?”

Reynolds shook his head. “The Chief didn’t want to spend the money for something as stupid as media training, but I’ll bet tonight’s going to change his mind.”

Most of the L.A. area police and sheriff departments were mandating media training classes. In a surprisingly insightful move, the lowest ranking officers were enrolled first as they were the most likely candidates for Watchdog to target for gotcha-style interviews.

The young officer returned with a plastic bottle of water that felt like it had been stored on top of a radiator.

“Was that your arrest report, Officer?” Beautyman asked, unscrewing the bottle despite its warmth.

“Yes, sir.”

“And he didn’t try to run at all? No sign of attempting to flee.”

“No sir. He was about the easiest collar I’ve ever had. Just said you’d get a laugh out of it when you got here.”

Beautyman looked up from the report sharply. “He knew me? Did he say my name?”

“He called you Beautyman, except he pronounced it Beauty Man, like you were a superhero or something.”

Beautyman put the water back on the desk. “That should have been in the fucking report, Officer. Fuck! Sam, open that door for me.”

Reynolds went across the room with Beautyman on his heels and typed in a code on a keypad next to the Interrogation Room door. Beautyman threw the door open and saw the suspect kicked back in his chair, legs up on the desk, arms behind his head, grinning like a devil at Beautyman.

“Evening, Arthur. Or is it morning already?”

Beautyman turned and whistled to the young officer behind him. “You! Officer! You see this man?”

“Yes, sir,” the young man said. He dwarfed Beautyman, but you wouldn’t know it now; Beautyman’s wrath had him cowering.

“If you’re going to watch a shit program like Watchdog, then make sure that you watch it more closely,” Beautyman spat. “This guy looks like the guy in the reenactments because he is the guy. You arrested the fucking actor.”

 

Chapter 2

On his way out of the station, Beautyman extended his hand to the young officer he had cursed at earlier. “I had no right to swear at you earlier this evening. I apologize for my language and my tone. You certainly didn’t deserve it.”

The officer nodded and mumbled dumbly. He was obviously embarrassed by such frank talk combined with physical contact-even a handshake can feel bizarrely intimate if timed well. Which, of course, was part of the reason Beautyman had extended his hand and patted his elbow. It was true that he felt bad for reprimanding the officer in front of the suspect he had just arrested, but that wasn’t why he said what he did. Experience had taught Beautyman that a little embarrassment caused by an honest apology would be helpful to him if he never needed anything from the young man.

It certainly wouldn’t work for most people in law enforcement, whose personalities seemed fundamentally different from Beautyman’s, but his demeanor was in many ways successful precisely because it was so different from his colleagues’.

“Are you going to buy me breakfast for my troubles, Arthur?” Gregory Raphael asked as he got into the passenger seat of Beautyman’s car. Raphael, even after an arrest and a couple hours waiting at the police station, still managed to look like a movie star. As far as Beautyman knew, Raphael was still a long way from the red carpet appearances, but he was incredibly handsome, a radiant golden boy, which meant he was probably going to be parading on the red carpet eventually.

“I’m just ferrying you back to your car, Mr. Raphael. I don’t want it getting round to Watchdog that we arrested one of their employees.”

“Was I actually arrested? That’s kind of exciting.”

“Sorry. Temporarily detained.” Beautyman pulled his car around and faced the street. “Which way to your car?”

“Venice, parked in front of my house. I was walking home along the beach when they nabbed me in that parking lot.”

Beautyman turned right and started heading south along the dark coast. “If I may be so bold, why didn’t you just tell the officer who you were?”

“It’s silly, but I wanted the experience … for my work. To see what it would feel like to be tossed in the slammer. I thought there might be some material there.”

“And was there?”

“Not really. It wasn’t all that scary because I knew I’d be seeing your face soon and that it would get cleared up.”

Beautyman didn’t say anything. He was wondering how much more sleep he would have gotten if he hadn’t been called out because an actor wanted the cheap thrill of a prison visit. Probably not much, unfortunately.

“Besides, the cop wasn’t going to listen to me. This whole city is wound tight because of the murders. You know that when that kid got word of the tip, he saw the same headlines all of you do. Hero Cop Saves City. Or Hero Cop Guns Down Babylon Killer. He had an itchy trigger finger in the parking lot. He was scared and there was no reason for me to test him.”

That assessment of the state of affairs, Beautyman thought, was pretty accurate. The city was on edge and the cops wanted to be heroes, if only to shove it in the faces of Watchdog.

They drove in silence until Beautyman reached Venice when Raphael started giving directions. They pulled up in front of his home just as the sky was discovering dawn. “Here you go, Mr. Raphael.” His passenger got out of the car. Behind him, Beautyman saw a slim woman emerge from the front door of the small two-story house. She was crossing her arms and looking like she’d had as little sleep as Beautyman. He couldn’t help noticing her figure and her light blonde hair. The Golden Boy had a Golden Wife. Figured. Los Angeles was a terrible place to be average.

Raphael shrugged his shoulders at his wife, as if he were going to explain everything to her soon, before bending down and looked through the open car door. The Pacific was warming to dawn and the morning light was just starting to shine on Raphael. It looked like he was backlit, Beautyman thought. Like wherever he went he was always in his own damn movie.

“You have permission to call me Greg, you know,” Raphael said, flashing his perfect teeth at Beautyman.

“Unless you join the force, you’ll always be Mr. Raphael to me. Just how I think of people, I guess,” Beautyman answered.

“I understand that. But I figured since we were colleagues now you might be willing to relax a bit.”

“Colleagues?” Beautyman echoed, even though he knew what Raphael meant. He was just pissed the actor knew already.

“Well we’re all going after the same guy, right? And now we’re on the same team. Sandy told me you were coming on board tomorrow to start filming.”

Sandy Ewson, the scumbag producer of Watchdog. Beautyman wasn’t sure his avowed humility should extend as far as a man like Sandy Ewson. Beautyman was pretty sure he was a better man than Sandy Ewson would ever be.

“I guess it’s an interview tomorrow morning. And then at some point they’ll call me in for a day of shooting the reenactments.”

“I’m looking forward to working with you. We’ll make a great onscreen duo! I’m Anthony Hopkins and you’re Jodie Foster!” Raphael laughed.

Beautyman didn’t know what to say to that. He put the car into drive and indicated the woman at the door. “Please pass my apologies along to your wife.”

“I will. And study up as best as you can before your interview, Detective Beautyman. They’re going to try to nail your ass to the back wall for the Babylon investigation. Good luck.”

 

Chapter 3

Beautyman took Raphael’s advice to heart. He left Venice and went straight to the station. By the time Watt stopped by his office, he’d been hunched over the files for two hours.

“Anything last night?” Watt asked, leaning his long body through the doorway while leaving his feet firmly on the other side of it. Not willing to commit if the news was bad, Beautyman guessed.

“They arrested the actor. The guy who plays the Babylon killer on Watchdog.”

“Christ, that’s an embarrassment.”

“Bad luck,” Beautyman said. “You know how it will play. Like a late night comedy sketch. Hollywood cops can’t catch killers, but we can find the actors who play them … It’ll makes a good joke for Leno.” Beautyman tapped his pen on the edge of the desk and tried to gauge Watt’s response. The young cop had served Beautyman for three years and in that time, Beautyman had only seen him lose his cool once.

Watt just nodded. “What’s next then?”

Beautyman wondered if he heard a note of despair in Watt’s voice. The two of them were permanently on edge; a new victim could be found any day, and with no new leads they were left in the uncomfortable position of just waiting for the next death.

“I’ll need your help for this damned interview tomorrow.”

Watt nodded again. “And for the case?”

“I’m not sure.” Beautyman checked his watch. “Want to join me for the daily briefing?”

Beautyman met daily with a representative from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. They were called “profilers” in the movies. On film, they would look at a crime scene and tell you, “He’s in love with his mother,” or “He wishes he could be a woman” or some other character profile based on some telling detail at the crime scene. On film, these were the guys who would swoop in and claim jurisdiction and take over an investigation from local law enforcement.

But in Beautyman’s experience all they did was sit across a table and pass reports to him. They passed him reams of spiral-bound paper that he stacked in his office. He tried to read as many as he could, but with only so much time in the day, Beautyman usually only got through the first few pages. Reports with titles like Probability of Physical Defect and Known Relations of Victim 5 and Comprehensive List of Internet Based Printing Companies could only be so engaging.

Beautyman often wished the FBI would swoop in and take the case off his hands. Like today, he thought, heading down the hall to the meeting. Unfortunately the Bureau wanted nothing to do with the Babylon case and were much more interested in covering their collective asses by generating reams and reams of reports. Any report Beautyman asked for, he got. But they were in a “supporting role,” and had been since they first showed up to help.

 

“Good morning, Agent Chow,” he said, shaking the hand of his FBI contact. Beautyman sat down at the round conference table and waited for time to stand still, as it inevitably did whenever he started a conversation with Chow. The man was so cautious about committing to anything that he pieced his sentences together as slowly as if he were hunting and pecking for them on a keyboard.

“The Bureau has some … more information for you today. Most pressing … is the … ”

“Excuse me for interrupting, Agent Chow,” started Beautyman. “I mean no offense by it. But I have some pressing concerns I need to address. After last week’s Watchdog exposé, the Sheriff has decided that since we can’t beat them, we should join them. They’ll be interviewing me for the show tomorrow and later we’ll be shooting those awful reenactments. Sandy Ewson over there wants me to play myself. He says it will add ‘verisimilitude,’ but I think he just wants to screw with me. Sheriff wants me to agree to pretty much anything at this point.

“So I’m supposed to start playing ball with them and hope that gets them off our backs a bit. But I have it from a reliable source that I’m going to be ambushed. Not that I needed a tip, I suppose, to figure that out. I would have to be pretty stupid to go in there and not expect to be blindsided. What I’m mostly worried about is what they’re going to nail me on, and I’ve got a hunch they know something they haven’t told us yet. Something they won’t spring on me until the interview.”

“And you want to know … if we can … get it out of them,” finished Chow.

“If possible, yes. But I’ve got-” he checked his watch, “23 hours until I’m on set, and I want to know what they’re sitting on. Did they get a tip? Did a witness come forward? Did we, God forbid, miss something that one of their detectives stumbled across?”

“We’ll see what we can … pull out of them,” Chow said finally. “I can’t promise much … but a records request from the Bureau might … get us an idea of what they’re holding back.”

“Thank you. Preparing for this interview is my top priority. Watt will assist me in a thorough review of every pertinent fact in this case. I don’t want to stumble over a single thing. Please let me know if you learn anything. Regarding your reports, let’s tackle those as soon as I get this behind me.”

 

Beautyman left the meeting, momentarily elated that he’d cut a traditionally tedious meeting down to just a few minutes. The path back to his office took him by the white-collar crime unit, and Beautyman heard his name shouted as he passed a doorway.

He stopped. Jackie Fleet was smiling at him from behind a stack of papers. He’d noticed her before. How could he not-she was 38, only two years younger than he was, and she was still single. That was enough to get his attention, but she was also pretty cute-as cute as a cop was allowed to be-and she was full of energy. Her blonde hair was almost always tied back in a short ponytail that bobbed when she spoke with excitement, which was often. She might come off as a Valley Girl, but she had shown a brilliance in her investigations that had put some downtown bigwigs behind bars.

“Sorry to bug you, Arthur, I know it’s one of those days for you.” The end of her ponytail bobbed into view and then behind her head again.

“It’s always one of those days. What’s up?”

“I hear you’re a baseball fan, is that right?”

“The biggest.”

She laughed. “I didn’t know there was a competition.”

“You want to talk about the Dodgers?”

“Um … the Pirates, actually.” She checked a piece of paper.

“Really? How come?” Beautyman sat down.

“Does the nickname ‘The Flying Dutchman’ mean anything to you?”

Beautyman felt his neck muscles tense. His morning stretches would be in vain. “Well, there’s the ship obviously. But since you want to talk about the Pirates, I’m guessing you want to talk about Honus Wagner.”

“I’ve been on the track of this hacker who goes by Dutchman. It seemed like such a weird handle, I started researching it. I thought it was a reference to the ghost ship, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s this Wagner guy. What’s up with him? What’s the big deal about some player from a hundred years ago?”

“We still remember Chopin and Monet as great artists long after they died. Wagner’s like that. A great artist, and baseball was his canvas. Maybe one of the best all-around players to ever step onto the diamond, and certainly one of the best shortstops.” Beautyman stopped himself before he went too far.

“Huh. Still seems weird to idolize someone like that.”

“Maybe it’s not that. I mean that’s why I am an admirer, but for some it might be his baseball card, the most expensive card in the world. Someone bought one recently for almost $3 million.”

“For a baseball card! That’s insane.”

“I’m just saying that the baseball card has a certain allure to it. Someone could be obsessed with the card but not care about the player. What kind of case are you looking into?”

Fleet sat back in her chair. “It’s the damnedest thing. A security breach at Maritime Bank of L.A. Something, and we think that something was this Dutchman hacker, triggered their servers to automatically reboot. I don’t know enough to say how he did it, but when he did it, he was the new server admin. He had access to everything. The whole bank was open wide to him. And do you know what he did? Didn’t touch a penny. He just went through the ATM cameras security footage.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. Each machine has a camera on it, and it appears he was just scouring the logged footage from three cameras in Hollywood. Tried to patch up the damage but someone at Maritime noticed. Once they figured out what happened they asked us to look into it. I’ve spent the last month working with them to confirm there was no actual theft of dollars. Now we’re just trying to figure out what the point of the whole thing was.”

“How’d you find out it was this Dutchman if he tried to repair the damage?”

“I had help there. We don’t have a cyber crime division, but the tech guy at Maritime Bank figured it out. He-” Just then the phone rang, and Fleet cut herself off. “Excuse me for a moment, Arthur.”

Beautyman waited for her to get off the phone. By the time she was off, he had decided he couldn’t keep asking her about her investigation without looking too eager.

“So it sounds like you could use a baseball primer,” he said, smiling.

“You think it would help?”

“I’ve got season tickets to the Dodgers, and they’re playing tonight. Babylon’s been taking over my life. This might be just the excuse I need to get to the ballpark.”

Fleet cocked her head to the side and appraised him, as if for the first time. If she agreed, it wasn’t going to be because of his looks, Beautyman thought.

“What time does the game start?”

“7:05. My day’s going to be devoted to getting ready for this interview tomorrow, so if you’re up for just leaving from the station, that would be best for me.”

 

Beautyman tried to put Fleet and her search for the Dutchman out of his mind. This was a complication he didn’t need. The game was going to seriously eat into his valuable time, but Beautyman didn’t feel like he had a choice. Fleet probably thought he wanted to get into her pants, but really he just wanted to learn more about her investigation.

He sipped his coffee and stared at the map of L.A. in front of him. Red pins represented the locations the Babylon bodies had been found. Blue pins represented the victim’s homes. That meant 14 pins for just the victims. The map was starting to get so crowded with pins, Beautyman was ready to stop using it altogether.

Watt walked in and slumped into a chair.

“What’s Watchdog’s first question, Watt? Do they start with the first victim? The killer? Our arrest of their lead actor?”

“They start at the beginning. Victim number one.”

“Ok, Rachel Madison is as good a place as any to start. Let’s go through it again.”

 

Rachel Madison was found a full 14 months ago. She was discovered on a Malibu beach, spread like a snow angel into the wet sand. Found nude, it didn’t take much to realize her entire body had been shaved. Worse yet, her bone white skin and the small puncture wounds in her wrists led to wild headlines about a Malibu Vampire stalking the beaches.

The coroner reported her blood had indeed been drained, but it hadn’t been sucked. She had been knocked out and then the blood had been drained from her through a crude IV inserted into each wrist.

And that’s what had killed her. She’d bled to death. She’d been drugged and while she was under, her killer had bled her dry. She wouldn’t even have wakened up.

With no grisly murder for the press to write about, the Malibu Vampire story faded away. A few were able to keep the vampirism stories going by speculating about what the killer had done with all the blood he’d taken from her. But without tell-tale fang marks on her neck, there wasn’t much to that angle anymore.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department never found a lead or identified a suspect, either, which meant that the remaining stories were about the bumbling police and no longer focused on the 23-year-old victim.

A graduate of Scripps College and a social worker who counseled victims of domestic violence, it was hard to imagine why such a senseless crime happened to such a caring person. She left her small apartment each weekend so that she could go to church with her parents at their family parish. Her boyfriend, who by all accounts was just as morally upstanding as she was, told the Channel 7 nightly news that she was waiting to get married before having sex. Her virginity was-tastelessly, Beautyman thought-confirmed by the coroner. So why kill Rachel Madison? And why take her blood and her hair?

Two months after Rachel Madison was found on the beach, the Los Angeles police found Miguel de la Iglesia naked, shaved, and drained of blood in a small L.A. apartment. This time, the body was accompanied by a small card, left on the end table by the couch, his final resting place. In small black lettering, centered on the thick white card stock was written:

 

I am drunk with the blood of saints

and I drink the blood of these martyrs of Jesus

 

It was the size of a calling card. The pure white card stock and the dark black Helvetica typeface that carried this awful message chilled Beautyman to the core.

 

No one doubted that they were looking for a serial killer. But like so many serial killers, this one wasn’t respecting jurisdiction. Rachel Madison was found in Malibu, the L.A. County Sheriff’s turf; Miguel de la Iglesia in Los Angeles proper, covered by the LAPD.

Within hours of finding the body, the FBI was making calls across the region and let it be known that any sign of bureaucratic squabbling was going to be met with severe consequences. The many departments were going to work as one on this case, with the full weight of the FBI behind the new coalition.

But they needed a leader. And as the first victim fell under the jurisdiction of the L.A. County Sheriff, they were anointed as primary investigators. With every law enforcement agency between San Diego and Reno pledging fealty, the Sheriff knew that he would be sharing any successes but none of the failures. If there were any single reason Barry Upright had been elected Sheriff three terms running-besides his laughably electable name-it was because he had scrupulously avoided these kinds of situations.

With no good options, Upright assigned Beautyman to take charge of the manhunt and gave him a deadline. “If this piece-of-shit vampire bloodsucker isn’t caught in two weeks, I’m going to tie you to a stake at the next full moon so he can come out and take your blood.”

“I believe you’re thinking of werewolves, sir,” Beautyman said.

“I don’t care if he’s the creature from the Black Lagoon. You’ve got two weeks.”

But that was twelve months and five victims ago.

Sometimes Beautyman caught himself hoping the Babylon killer would strike out of state. It was the most likely scenario to get the FBI to take over the investigation and give him a chance to rest. But the killer had stayed strictly local. All seven victims had been found in the L.A. area. Until he started draining the blood of victims in Las Vegas or Phoenix-or until Upright needed to shake things up to keep voters pacified-Beautyman was going to be stuck with the case.

 

After the body of Miguel de la Iglesia was discovered, it was as if the entire L.A. press corps had found a crusade worthy of their vast resources. Once his name was released, the papers ran endless feature stories about de la Iglesia’s good works, and there were many. A married but infertile man, he and his wife had adopted three daughters from China. During the five years of adoption proceedings, de la Iglesia found he had a knack for Mandarin Chinese. He went to night school to learn it so he could teach it to his daughters and bring them up tri-lingual, English, Chinese, and his native Spanish. Learning Chinese made his law degree that much more lucrative, but rather than join the corporate ranks of a multinational-and many had been calling him-de la Iglesia left his private practice and joined up with Amnesty International’s legal department.

And now he was dead. He looked at the small calling card again, secured in its plastic evidence bag.

The first report he’d requested from the FBI was an analysis of the inscription and its likely meaning.

It should not have surprised him that the card referenced a verse from the Bible, specifically the Book of Revelation. Revelation 17:6 described a vision of the Whore of Babylon, an allegorical figure of supreme evil and the Antichrist. The verse reads, “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.”

But did that mean anything? All crazy people seemed found a passage in the Bible to justify their twisted belief system, Beautyman figured. And turning to the Book of Revelation was an easy place to start.

The FBI apparently agreed with him. The symbolism of the Whore of Babylon had meant different things to different groups throughout the centuries. She represented pagan Rome, Christian Rome, Jerusalem, the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church after Vatican II, the secular world, American hegemony, capitalism … that list went on and on. And she could mean something entirely different to their killer.

What everyone seemed to agree on, though, was that the Whore of Babylon was evil. And this was where the FBI report turned ugly. The Behavioral Analysis Unit had encountered plenty of people over the years who cited the Bible to explain their crimes. But those people generally saw themselves as cleansing the world and trying to make it pure. This killer identified himself with the Whore of Babylon. He could apparently recognize the supreme evil of the allegory and embraced it fully. He wanted to be the Whore of Babylon. He was most likely drinking the blood of his victims, in a horrible mimicry of the Whore of Babylon.

And there you have it, thought Beautyman. The man was killing martyrs of Jesus and drinking their blood. But he hadn’t targeted people who were Christian, or even religious. Rachel Madison was part of a deeply religious family, but the wife of Miguel de la Iglesia reported that he hadn’t been to church on any days other than Christmas and Easter. The man was a saint killer, but apparently there was no religious litmus test. He measured his saints by good works, it seemed. And if by that qualification Madison and de la Iglesia weren’t modern day saints, then no one was.

 

Two months after Miguel de la Iglesia died, a third victim was found. The same card was found by her naked, shaved, bloodless body. This time the victim was found in an alley in Long Beach, farther from the first two than they had expected. Beautyman was sick to his stomach. Chandra Pal was a kindergarten teacher who was first violin in the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra. The daughter of two immigrants from India, Pal also gave thousands every year to non-profit micro-lending organizations that helped women in India and Africa start their own businesses.

It was after her that the name for the Babylon killer became popularized. Two victims made a line, and three was most definitely a trend. Jay Leno didn’t touch it, of course, but Bill Maher looked at his HBO audience and said, “So there’s a serial killer going around L.A. killing saints-incredible people it would be an honor to meet. He’s killed three so far … which I figure means he’s probably just about finished.”

 

Two months later, Chandra Pal begat Mary Weber, who had been a nurse in a free clinic for more than 30 years in Anaheim. Mary Weber begat Tim Cathersole, back from two stints in the Peace Corp and staying with his family in Pomona. Tim Cathersole begat Jasmine Davis, a beloved youth group leader who pulled kids off the streets of the worst neighborhoods of L.A. And Jasmine Davis begat Julia Lopez, a high school student who fed the homeless on weekends in Hollywood.

It was hard not to notice that victims were getting less-saint like. Certainly they all sounded like good people, but saints? Beautyman privately wondered if Maher was right; perhaps the killer had run out of people in that category. That didn’t stop the media from holding the victims up on a pedestal, though. They became saints. And that was the scariest part. If any act of kindness or selflessness made you a saint, and being a saint made you a target, how would people react?

While L.A. panicked, for Beautyman it was starting to become almost routine. Victims’ lives would be investigated and overturned. Their last week would be nailed down to the minute, if possible. The hundreds of people who might have been in contact with them were interviewed and sometimes brought in for further questioning.

And the FBI would tell Beautyman that the killer would be getting more confident and begin to kill more quickly. But so far it hadn’t happened. It wasn’t like they were timed to the day. Once there were seven weeks between victims. Once there were nine. But they were not getting more frequent, the killer continued to wait roughly two months between his crimes.

And Julia Lopez had been found in her car in Hollywood just seven weeks ago.

 

Beautyman tried to focus on what leads they had. He wished there were more. He remembered something about Edison, who after each failed attempt at a light bulb would chalk it up as a success: he now knew yet another way not to build a light bulb. Beautyman didn’t think he could keep such a positive outlook indefinitely, but he did feel like his investigation had been successful at ruling out the leads that took them nowhere.

So where did that leave them?

Practically speaking, the Babylon killer did not appear to have any bizarre fetishes that would make him easier to track. If he had had a penchant for killing his victims with Ming Dynasty vases, finding him would be much easier: just guard all known Ming Dynasty vases until he showed up. But he used no weapon, short of the needle and catheter to draw the blood.

Almost assuredly the victims did not just lie there and let him go about the business of slowly killing them, though. And as they didn’t have marks on their bodies-wait, was that why they were shaved? To prove they hadn’t been touched? Beautyman made a note to look into the idea after his Watchdog interview. The toxicology reports showed they’d been drugged with Propofol, a quick acting anesthetic delivered intravenously.

Not that even that was easy to figure out, Beautyman remembered. The same puncture mark used to deliver the drug was reused for draining the blood. That had thrown them for a few days.

The drug was not readily accessible to the public and Beautyman poured considerable time and resources into understanding and tracking its distribution and availability. It was used for adults and children over three, as well as being a preferred anesthetic for pets. But in a metropolitan region of 12 million people, not more than 100,000 people would have easy access to the drug. Doctors, nurses, and veterinarians in all of Southern California were asked to report any vials or pre-loaded syringes of Propofol gone missing.

The next major lead Beautyman had was the man seen with Chandra Pal just hours before her death. After each murder, dozens of uniformed officers spent days conducting extensive canvassing. Every lead they turned up was eventually explained, every “strange man” or “tall fella” was identified later by a friend or a relative-“That’s right, she told me she was going to meet her boyfriend after work!” Hundreds of hours went into each of these leads. And all were eventually explained. All except the man who visited Chandra Pal’s classroom.

Two witnesses saw him with her. As Beautyman’s luck would have it, one of those witnesses was a kindergarten student of “Ms. Pal,” and the other was his older sister-older, in this case, meaning third grade.

After the students had been dismissed on Ms. Pal’s final day of teaching, one boy discovered he had left his backpack at the school. His mother turned the car around and sent him back into the classroom to get it, accompanied by his older sister. They both saw a stranger with Chandra Pal.

 

Less than 48 hours after her body was found, Beautyman sat down with the youngest child first. He chose as his interrogation room Pal’s kindergarten classroom, the child’s mother and father sitting together to the side.

“I’m Arthur. What’s your name?”

“Gavin.”

“Gavin, your parents are right here, ok? They’re going to listen to what we talk about. And what’s important, is that you think of me like you think of them. If I ask you a question that you don’t know the answer to, the right thing to do is to tell me you don’t know and not to make something up. So if I ask you what 25 plus 48 minus 3 is, what are you going to tell me?”

Gavin eyed Beautyman like he was still trying to figure out what his angle was. “I don’t know?” It was definitely a question.

“That’s right. But if you do know the answer, you’ll tell me that too, right?”

Gavin nodded.

“Three days ago you left your backpack in the room and your mom turned around and let you out of the car, is that right so far?”

Gavin nodded again.

“But she made your older sister walk you in?”

Gavin’s face seemed to wrinkle a bit at the mention of his sister, or perhaps at the mention that he had to be escorted, but he still nodded.

“Tell me, which door did you come in from?” Beautyman indicated the exterior door and the door that opened in to the school’s hallways.

Gavin pointed toward the door into the hallway. It was a wooden door with a narrow window at the top above Gavin’s head. “That one.”

“Did you open the door when you came back in or was it already open?”

This was the first question that seemed to puzzle Gavin and he thought about it severely. Finally he pronounced, “Melissa opened it.”

“Your sister opened the door? You’re sure?”

He nodded. “She was in front of me.”

“So Melissa opened the door, and did you see Ms. Pal?”

“Yes.”

“Where was she in the room?”

Gavin pointed to her desk.

“And she was in her chair there? Or was she standing?”

“Sitting, but … but on the desk.”

Beautyman’s surprise must have shown through, because Gavin nodded his head vigorously. “Really! She was sitting on the desk.”

Beautyman smiled and nodded. “Good. You’re doing great, Gavin.” Privately he was assessing the likelihood of a kindergarten teacher sitting on a desk with a stranger. It didn’t seem high. “Now, was she alone in the room?”

“No, there was a man too!” Gavin seemed to be warming to the game as he was becoming more animated. Which meant he might be more inclined to stretch a truth, possibly even unknowingly, to keep the fun going. Beautyman paused and looked at Gavin’s parents, whose faces were showing him a curious mixture of sympathy and disgust.

“Was the man a professional football player?” He asked.

Gavin’s face crinkled as he tried to figure that one out. “No,” he finally said, a little confused.

“So he didn’t have on a football uniform?”

“No … ”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Gavin said, although he actually sounded less sure of that answer than any before it. Apparently the game wasn’t as fun for him when Beautyman wasn’t asking easy questions.

Beautyman took pity, but he had stopped a potentially dangerous precedent from forming. “Show me where the man was.”

Gavin got up from the small desk and indicated a counter running along under the windows. “He was leaning against here.”

“Against the counter?”

Gavin nodded.

“Did he see you?”

“He smiled at me and said hi to Melissa.”

“What did Ms. Pal seem like? Was she angry with the man? Or happy to see him? Or scared?”

Gavin shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“That’s a good answer. Did Ms. Pal touch him like a hug or a kiss?”

Gavin shook his head.

“Did you hear Ms. Pal laugh when you were in the classroom?”

Gavin thought about it. “Yes. When I told her I left my bag she laughed and said I did that every week.”

“Did she introduce you?”

“She said he might have a son coming to kindergarten and I would have to show him around.”

“Did she call him a name like Mr. Smith or Mr. Pal?”

Gavin shook his head again. Beautyman finished up with as good of an approximation as he could get of what the man looked like: white and with hair somewhere between blond and brown.

Gavin’s sister Melissa fleshed out the description a bit more when he met with her.

“He wasn’t that big, but he looked really strong, like he worked out a lot. He had a red tie on, and it looked like he had come right from work. He smiled at me and I thought he was really-,” she shot a glance at her parents and then looked back at Beautyman meekly, “really hot. He looked like a Ken doll or Brad Pitt or something. It seemed like Ms. Pal liked having him around.”

At the time, Beautyman felt like things were moving along. Unlike the disjointed efforts after the first two victims, he had led the investigation with an efficiency and comprehensiveness that had produced the first witnesses in the case. To find them, officers had interviewed more than 400 people-her family, friends, co-workers, parents, and students; residents and business owners in her neighborhood; and residents and business owners near the alley she was found in.

After the interview, Melissa helped create a sketch for the police of a man that, by the time it was completed, did look something like a cross between Brad Pitt and a Ken doll. That sketch was taken to every person they had interviewed in the deaths of Rachel Madison, Miguel de la Iglesia, and Chandra Pal. No one had seen any of the victims with a man who looked like that. After that, Beautyman released the sketch to the press and to Watchdog. At which point some of the most handsome men in Los Angeles suddenly found that life wasn’t so great when tipsters would call in their rakishly good looks. Beautyman heard that a lot of them were starting to grow beards. Would the killer too, he wondered?

Meanwhile, Beautyman had a team that was going over the life history of Rachel Madison with a fine tooth comb. By the time Chandra Pal was killed, four months had passed since the Malibu Vampire victim was found dead on the beach. As the first victim, the collective wisdom of the FBI, Beautyman, and the L.A. County Sheriff was that the killer must have had some personal tie to her. As a rule, serial killers didn’t start with complete strangers. There must be something to tie the Babylon killer to her.

All in all, Beautyman felt like the investigation had been as successful as it could be, given the circumstances, and he expected he would be able to turn up a strong suspect soon.

Granted, each new clue was akin to grasping at straws at this early stage. These were slim leads he was looking at, but Beautyman knew from experience that this kind of investigation was a game of progressively narrowing suspects. He thought of L.A. County like a giant Venn diagram, circles layered over circles. As each known fact was confirmed, the number of people in the population that could be the perpetrator dropped substantially. So 100,000 people in the area had access to Propofol. Of them, half were male. Of them, no more than 40,000 would have the physical strength required to move the limp, drugged body of an adult male like Miguel de la Iglesia. Of them, no more than 20,000 would even come close to being described as “incredibly handsome.” Of them, no more than 5,000 could be within two degrees of separation from Rachel Madison. Keep winnowing, and eventually you’d have just a handful of people that might fit the bill.

That was a slightly comforting thought after Chandra Pal’s body was found. But after her, the remaining four victims had nothing very conclusive to add to the list of leads.

Mary Weber’s death in Anaheim gave few hints that might be of help, although nearly every patient she had seen in the free clinic had been identified and located. Tim Cathersole, the Peace Corp volunteer who had spent most of his time in Guam and the South Pacific only to return home to be murdered, proved that the Babylon killer was willing to kill both men and women-previous FBI behavioral reports had suggested that Miguel de la Iglesia might have been an outlier and that the rest of the victims would be women.

By the time Jasmine Davis was killed, Beautyman wasn’t sure that they really were getting any new facts. The most he could say he had learned was that the killer was still using Propofol. Given the dosage needed to knock out a victim, Beautyman was starting to count on him needing to restock his supplies and hoped that a lead might come from a doctor or a vet reporting a missing supply. None did, which indicated that either the killer had stashed away a substantial supply of the drug before starting or that he still had easy access to it and was a doctor or vet himself.

Things were starting to reach a boiling point in the general public. Politically it was going to be hard for Beautyman to keep his job if he didn’t act soon. Before the Sheriff-or the press-started calling for his head, Beautyman publicly asked for an independent and out of state auditor to review the investigation from top to bottom and identify any major weaknesses or flaws. If there were any places where they had screwed up by accidentally destroying a piece of evidence or some other stupid mistake, Beautyman would step down from the investigation. Some newspaper opinion pages thought it was a gracious way for Beautyman to leave without getting fired. But three weeks later, the auditor’s report was clear. No bureaucratic bickering, no stones left unturned, no reports that were languishing on the sidelines. It didn’t come right out and say, “The killer’s just that good,” but that was the truth of it.

The auditor’s report probably helped Beautyman keep his job a little while longer. The public anger was pervasive when, two weeks after the audit went public, the body of teenager Julia Lopez was discovered on the grounds of her high school. Had it not been for being publicly cleared of any oafishness or incompetence just before, Beautyman likely would have been made a scapegoat. Dead teenage saints did not sit well.

Maybe he deserved to be sacked, he thought, when he saw the naked and shaved body of Julia Lopez. The audit request had been a tactic. He knew what kind of an investigation he had run, but he had played his hand the only way he knew how-as the humble flatfoot aching to make sure he was doing the right thing. It had played well in the press-everywhere but on Watchdog-mostly because it had flummoxed everyone. But it had bought him some time, and he intended to use it.

Beautyman was at Julia Lopez’s high school within 25 minutes of the call. She was just like the other six victims, except for bright red rashes between her wrist and shoulder. It was a minor side effect that was apparently not uncommon with large doses of Propofol. Had she been in a hospital it would have been easily treated, but it was now here to stay. Against the drained, bleached look the rest of her skin had, the inflamed capillaries of her arms looked grotesquely clownish.

Maybe it was the ugly rash that did it, or maybe it was just looking at the body of a young girl so eager to change the world that she would volunteer at soup kitchens, but Beautyman broke down. He left the scene crying, and was caught by a photographer from the L.A. Times wiping his eyes, the bright yellow police tape and name of the high school in the background. It ran on the front page the next morning and the accompanying article painted him as a soft-spoken but hard-nosed detective physically pained by the death.

He was unprepared for the sympathy he received from the press and public that week. Again, the public anger had mellowed enough that the Sheriff didn’t need to pull him to appease the masses, and Beautyman kept working.

 

And now, he thought, seven weeks after Julia Lopez, I’m no closer. Watchdog has something they’re going to try to nail me with tomorrow, and if it’s bad enough, someone else will be leading this investigation.

Was that so terrible? The case had taken more than 12 months of his life. Maybe it was time to let it go. If he truly had missed something major, something that could have saved Julia’s life, then maybe someone else should be in charge.

But that didn’t mean he was ready to stop working entirely. Being taken off the case was one thing. Blinding incompetence, however, would mean an early retirement. And making sure he wasn’t going to be caught with his pants down meant finding out what Watchdog was sitting on.

Beautyman checked his watch-6:20 already? Could that be right?-and called Chow’s cell phone as he began to pack up.

Chow detailed the many avenues he had followed up during the day to check into Watchdog and try to access their information. They were definitely stonewalling. “I’m sorry, Detective … they have something … I just don’t know what.”

“Thank you, Agent. We’ve done our homework, it can’t be anything too bad, right?”

Beautyman hung up and started moving quickly. He hated to do it from his office, but he didn’t have much choice. Using his cell phone as an Internet tether, Beautyman opened his personal laptop and composed a quickly worded email to Sandy Ewson. It was going to send him sky-high, he thought.

Hi Sandy,

Just wanted to send some suggested questions for tomorrow’s interview. I thought you’d find #4 to be especially informative to the public.

Thanks for cooperating with us on this!

Sincerely,

Arthur

He attached a Microsoft Word document with some questions, waited for it to load, and pressed send. Please don’t open this on your phone, Beautyman prayed. He shut down his machine and went to find Fleet.

He had too much to do to go to a baseball game, but he had resigned himself to sacrificing yet another night of sleep. The investigation was going to be taken well outside the realm of the law tonight. There was no way he would allow Watchdog to ambush him.

 

 


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