When a book is on pre-order it's difficult to know what it's about, so take a peek at Hugs and Bullets, coming March 31st. You're seeing it first here!
Jack The Hunter-Gatherer
Even a cell phone acts as an iPod these days. Pink belted out Get the Party Started through my ear buds to the thud of my cross trainers pounding the mountain trail. Two miles of tough terrain so far—tree roots and jagged rocks jutting out from the footpath spelling disaster for a distracted runner—another half-mile before I reversed direction to head back home. A five-mile jog was my limit today in this heat, sweat dripping off me like summer rain.
I could argue I only run to exercise my dog, but that would be a flat-out lie. I run to clear my head, plan my day, keep my twenty-eight-year-old body toned and in shape. Some might say I'm a big woman, which I guess I am. Tall, raw boned, curvy but without an ounce of fat, I'm happy to report. So, yes, exercise is what I do to keep relatively sane while not puffing up like a blowfish after binge eating burgers, ice cream, and anything chocolate.
I'm also a former K-9 cop. A disgraced former K-9 cop, but that’s a story for another day. Speaking of which, where was my dog? I stopped on the trail and whistled. No response. I shouted out his 'failsafe' word, the one he wasn't allowed to ignore. I removed my ear buds; no sound of paws thumping through undergrowth to find me. I scanned the area on both sides of the trail. Trees, long grass, fallen logs, ditches, but no Jack. He must be out of range of my voice. I pulled the remote from my fanny pack, the one capable of sending a signal to his electronic collar. This time I transmitted the command. Sure enough, three minutes later and there he was, streaked with mud and panting like a freight train.
“Jack? What have you been up to?”
Bum waggling and passing gas before he assumed the sit/stay position in front of me, his mouth curved on a drooly grin as he dropped something between my feet. Whatever the gift, he expected high praise for retrieving it. I bent at the knees, staring in fascination at first, not realizing what he had found. The smell of decay hit me with a wallop. I struggled to take shallow breaths behind a couple of tissues I pulled from my hip pack. “You’ve been digging again. How many times have I told you to leave things where you find them?”
Jack flattened on the ground, put his head between his paws, and let out an “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again!” howl. That’s when his prize began to take shape. I jumped back, electricity jolting my spine as I noticed more detail. A human hand, a small one, most likely a woman’s.
“Good grief, Jack, you’ve really done it this time. We can’t leave this here on the trail.” I gagged, tasting bile while snapping photos with my iPhone. Wishing I was anywhere else but here. Realizing I had to call the police, not something I was eager to do. Worse than that, knowing I had to find the body that went with the hand because Jack was the only one who knew where it was. “Schnitzels.”
Using a clean poop bag, I scooped the hand up, knotting the closure around the belt of my hip pack. “Go, Jack! Find!”
For me it was like old times, out in the field hunting a perpetrator or searching for a victim. The difference was I wasn't packing a sidearm and the dog was my only backup. My relatively untrained one-eyed Pitbull rescue was not yet wise to all K-9 ways. Sheesh, but what else could I do? If I didn't find the body belonging to that hand right now, it might never be discovered.
Jack disappeared ahead of me for minutes at a time before circling back, anxious for me to keep up. We broke out of the woods to cross a secondary trail before plunging back in the forest on the other side. We hadn’t gone far when he barked twice and froze in place. He had found his prize.
I called the pittie back, fed him a treat before approaching cautiously on my own. Not too close to disturb evidence, just enough to confirm it was a woman lying half buried among the leaves and dirt. She had been dead for some time, at least three or four days by my estimation. Sadly, I had no doubt. She had been the victim of a violent crime.
Detective Hottie Pain-In-The-Buns
Murphy's Law is when you start off having a good day and it ends in disaster. I thought finding a dead body qualified. Then again, the dead woman was having a worse day, so I shouldn't complain about my own. It was July fifteenth, an unusually steamy morning in the Colorado mountains. A real scorcher with humidity in the red zone deep in the forest without benefit of summer breezes, the weather providing ideal conditions for me to smell the fetid remains. Of course, Jack helped the process along by dropping the human hand at my feet after a sprint into the nearby woods, and it was at that point my morning jog took me off trail to find the deceased.
I glanced at my Fitbit after an hour of watching the National Park Service and local, Gnarly Peak police rope off the crime scene. Now I was swatting at flies while waiting on some homicide detective from the Colorado State Patrol. He had been called to the scene by none other than my grandfather, the Gnarly Peak chief of police, who was the reason I hadn’t wanted to call the cops in the first place. There’s just something uncomfortable and unsettling about reporting to my grandfather I had found a dead body. Mainly because Grampy had wanted to hire me for his squad when I arrived back home in Gnarly Peak. But that’s another story.
The statie was last to arrive, the local squad detaining me until he could interview me himself. His five-o'clock shadow, shaggy dark hair, and tall, muscled body seemed at odds with the knife creases in his tight-fitting jeans, sky-blue dress shirt, and navy blazer. I thought he might look more at home on the cover of Sports Illustrated rather than standing beside a rotting corpse.
“And you are?” I asked.
“Homicide Detective Reid Tremaine.” He seemed bored, providing no other details about himself. We might have been exchanging meatloaf recipes for all he cared. He was far more interested in jotting notes on his iPad about the crime scene than quizzing me. I waited for him to notice me again, could hear voices of the coroner and crime scene techs examining the body.
Forensics searched the ground for clues and NPS uniforms protected the area from the occasional hiker or jogger. The air was still, no twitter of birds, not a sound in the undergrowth to suggest we stood in an area of woods inhabited by deer, bears, coyotes, and mountain lions.
“Your name is?”
I tuned back into Tremaine, catching my reflection in his mirrored shades. Mink-dark tendrils escaped my spiky ponytail to frame the sweat streaking my temples. The dirt smudged beneath my tawny eyes gave me a raccoon look. My ratty tee, jogging shorts, and worn-out runners added to my scruffy appearance. Somewhat embarrassed, I stooped to give Jack some bottled water while staring at the maggots crawling on Tremaine's shiny black cowboy boots. He should have worn paper booties over his footwear. I stifled the urge to grin as I stood. My conscience prickled for about half a second. Should I tell him? Nah.
“Agatha Sloan. My friends call me Aggie.”
Mr. Hottie Detective did something with his tablet. In a moment, my personal data flashed on the screen. “You were a Chicago K-9 Unit officer for three years. You have a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and another in Psychology.” He glanced up from his perusal to shoot me a smile. “I'm impressed.”
“Big whoop,” I said, rolling my eyes and chuffing out a breath. “What does any of that have to do with the body I found?”
The rancid smell permeating the air did nothing to improve my dazzling banter. Responding to repetitive questions from uniforms and my grandfather before Tremaine arrived had also tried my patience. “Are you done?”
“No, I’m not done. Listen, Red—”
“Don’t call me that. My name is Aggie.”
“With your fiery temper? Red suits you much better.” Tremaine's mouth twitched upward again while he typed something else on the iPad. I guessed he was stalling long enough to come up with an intelligent question. “I know you've answered this for the local police but tell me again. Did you recognize the victim?”
I shook my head, amazed he would even bother to ask. “Not without her face. Have you seen the body, Tremaine?”
He ignored me while a nearby NPS officer dressed in gray and green shot me the side-eye from under her Smokey the Bear hat. It was a sympathetic glance before she moved off to make room for morgue attendants transporting a stretcher and body bag. The mid-morning sun beamed through tree boughs, spotlighting the victim. My heart wrenched and I gulped in air to hold back tears. There was nothing dignified or private about a person's body when she was the victim of a heinous crime.
“Is there anything about her that seems familiar?” Tremaine focused on me like a bear toying with its next meal. “You sure she's not from around here?”
Enough was enough. I knew her own mother couldn't identify this woman. “She's been bloated and dead for days, in case you haven’t noticed, so body type is a tad difficult for me to make out. She's not wearing jewelry. Her hair was blasted off her head by what I assume was a shotgun, and animals have scattered her remains. So, no, I don't know her, and I'm out of here before you ask another stupid question.”
I turned to move quickly and bounced off Gnarly Peak’s police chief, Andrew Kelly, also known as my granddad. Bandy-legged with a fast-food paunch hanging over his belt, he resembled a potbellied stove stuffed into a police uniform. Unfortunately, I knew his mind to be sharp and fast as a switchblade. He took me by an elbow and eased me back around. “Ah, Aggie, I assured the staties you would be happy to work with their detective on this case.”
“Oh, brother.” I stared at the chief while tugging my arm free, a spark of anger in my voice. “I've answered his questions and now I'm late for work. I have to get moving.”
“One of my officers will drive you back. Take Detective Tremaine with you.”
Grampy flicked a leaf off a shoulder, pretending not to notice my astonished expression. I waited, but he did not explain himself further. Listen, if he didn’t care I was already late to open our restobar and grocery, who was I to complain? I was stuck and he knew it.
“It will be my pleasure,” I snapped. He laughed, knowing I was super steamed. He read me too well.
The drive home was quiet; the only sound was my dog snuffling at Tremaine’s neck, hair, and ears from the seat directly behind him. I sat behind Millie Shore, the slightly pudgy police officer driving. Millie and I used to smoke funny cigarettes behind the school during our days at old Gnarly Peak High—I guessed giving up weed had caused her to pack on a little extra weight.
I did not tell my pittie to cease and desist his fascination with the pain-in-the-buns detective. Tremaine said nothing; although I'm sure he kept his hand on the butt of his Glock. I knew excessive interest from a potentially attack-trained dog could be unnerving. On the other hand, the sooner this jerk moved on to finding the killer, the better for me and my peace of mind. Good dog, Jack. Keep it up.
Still, my gut churned and not in a happy way. I had left police work back in Chicago. Along with my cheating, hop in the sack with any female with a pulse, ex-boyfriend. And I had absolutely no interest in renewing my acquaintanceship with either one, which drove Grampy crazy.
We rolled up the drive to my home tucked in the mountains along the shores of Black Bear Lake, five miles northeast of the small tourist town of Gnarly Peak. I love my house. It's a two-story built by my great-grandfather of thick beams, wood shingles, and screened porches covered by a green tin roof. I upgraded the plumbing myself with a little help from my friends, installed more glass to let in the sunshine and spectacular views, and took down walls inside to allow an open concept on the ground floor. Carpentry is something I learned at my grandfather's knee as well as the plumbing and electrical.
Grampy moved to town to be closer to his work after Grammy died and this cabin became my hidey hole from the world. In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m mostly a loner, except for a few friends left over from my high school days. The ones who hung in there when I tried to push them away after returning to Gnarly Peak. Thank goodness they did. My previous life in Chicago drained me of all things good in my life, except for Jack, and I became a sullen, pathetic mess.
A small inheritance from Grammy when she passed on six months ago allowed me to pay for upgrades to the cabin, which now belonged to me. Grammy’s passing was also part of the reason I was here running the restobar and grocery, so my gramps could continue as police chief of Gnarly Peak.
I unlocked the French doors off the kitchen at the side of the house while glaring at super cop trailing after me. “Knock the maggots off your shoes before you come inside.”
Tremaine did, looking surprised to see them invading a pant leg. He slid the doors closed behind him, filling the room with a play of muscles and loose-limbed grace I found more than distracting. He moved like a wildcat ready to pounce. And his skin-tight jeans molded his backside in such a way my breath stalled in my lungs. No, wait, that’s wrong on so many levels. What I meant to say was his clothing style and larger-than-life presence in my kitchen caused me to reassess my previously poor opinion of his homicide detecting skills. It had nothing to do with how he looked, how he smelled, how his strong hands might feel wrapped around my waist.
“It's odd,” Tremaine said.
His voice pulled me from those X-rated musings. Snap out of it, Aggie. You’re not some hormonal teenager wanting to go behind the bleachers in high school with the football MVP. Heck, no, I had already done that. A big mistake.
Jack slurped from his water dish while I moved to a granite counter and the coffee machine, feeling heat rise from my neck into my cheeks. I hoped Tremaine hadn’t noticed me giving him a full body scan. I was disgusted with myself. I wasn’t that insecure girl anymore and the last thing I needed in my life was another man.
I hastily added water, a filter, and fresh coffee grounds before hitting the ON switch. I needed caffeine before I showered and dressed for the day ahead. I also needed to stop losing myself in Tremaine’s mysterious smoke-gray eyes, his too masculine…everything. I turned to see the detective staring at me, arms crossed over his expansive chest.
“The fact you've got someone killing where you live, and you don't seem to give a rat's butt about it.”
Well, that statement was a mood killer, jolting my previous gushy feelings back to hard reality. I felt my eyebrows arch almost to my hairline while I washed and dried my hands. “One body in the woods does not mean there's an offender in the area. Whoever killed that woman has likely moved on.”
“Seriously? You don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned?” His gaze drilled into mine. “The person who killed her is still out there, unless you think she shot herself and then disposed of the shotgun.”
“I don’t know what happened to that woman – God rest her soul – but it’s not my job to find out. Just do your job and leave me the heck alone.”
I avoided his scowl by grabbing the bread knife and slicing open rolls, then digging sandwich makings from the fridge. Ham, provolone, lettuce, and mustard landed with a thunk on the counter. Jack and I enjoy a big lunch when we manage the restobar and grocery. Greasy burgers and fries from the grille don’t cut it when it comes to a healthy lifestyle, much as I loved eating them. I probably needed my head examined but I made enough for Tremaine as well, since he seemed to be my new best friend and had no obvious transportation back to the state police office in Pinecone Falls.
I glanced at him again over my shoulder while I grabbed a fresh jar of dill pickles from the pantry. “I’ll drive you as far as my place of business where someone can pick you up. I’ve got things to do, and they don’t include you.”
“No, I don’t think so.” Tremaine shook his head, his jaw tightening until I thought it might crack. “My gut says whoever slaughtered that woman is living somewhere outside your front door. You’re a Chicago trained police officer, first on the scene of this murder, and I need your cooperation to find her killer.”
I reached for the soft-sided cooler, adding carrot sticks and apples. I was tempted to add Ho Hos because he was pushing my buttons and causing a need for massive amounts of sugared snacks, but I held back the urge. It was my turn to do a headshake. “Can we wrap up this conversation and move on?” I glanced at the wall clock, stress jangling my nerves. “Just spit it out and get to the point. You'll feel better, and I might actually gain a clue to what you're blathering about.”
“I’m happy to. By all accounts, you were a crackerjack police officer in Chicago.”
Inwardly I cringed, wanting to avoid any mention of my time living in Chicago. I slapped a to-go coffee mug on the counter beside him, a bad feeling prickling my spine. How much did Tremaine know about me? “What are you getting at? What the heck do you want from me?”
He walked into my personal space, standing inches away from my nose. The smell of his woodsy aftershave did little to calm my fears. “I want you to be my eyes and ears in Gnarly Peak. Since the murder appears to be a crime of passion, I’m guessing the killer is male. I’m also thinking he’s one of your neighbors in this friendly little community. And you're going to help me find him.”
“In a pig’s eye, Tremaine.” Was this guy for real? “I’d rather eat worms.”
“Let’s put it this way, Red,” he said, shooting me a tempered grin. “If you don’t want the truth to come out about why you really left Chicago, you’ll toe the line and do what I want.”
And that said it all. I was in deep crapola.
Words just can’t describe how shocked I was when one of my sons built me a spanking new computer for Christmas. My old one heaved and sputtered, had the bad habit of crashing whenever I worked on graphics for cover art or tuned in to online courses. If I was talking to someone on Zoom, I resembled a ventriloquist’s dummy. My mouth moved but there was always a sound delay, nothing was synced.
This new baby is gamer quality – not that I’m a gamer, but who knows what the future holds? It does everything but make dinner and it’s so fast at loading or updating I find myself sitting there with a stunned smile on my face.
“Welcome to the latest technology, Mom. It’s for your writing!”
My children believe in me, they have faith in my chosen profession as a writer. When family has your back then all things are possible. Many thanks to them and you, my readers, for allowing me the opportunity to do what I love best!
One-Eyed Jack Cozy Mysteries will be joining my Thriller and Romantic-Suspense series beginning with book 1, HUGS and BULLETS!
What’s a girl to do to keep her sanity and herself out of prison for murder?
When homicide becomes the special of the day in her hometown, former K-9 officer Aggie Sloan and her farting, belching, one-eyed Pitbull, Jack, are on the case to catch the killer. Aggie thought she left the mean streets back in Chicago when she returns home to Gnarly Peak, Colorado to run the family business. But it doesn’t take long to realize her mistake when the touristy town becomes the chilling scene of more than one suspicious death.
At first Aggie has no interest in involving herself in the police investigation until the wiseass detective in charge enlists her help to spy on her neighbors. Added to that her Grampy Kelly, the Gnarly Peak police chief, is spreading rumors about those “witchy ways” Aggie supposedly inherited from her deceased Irish grandmother. Now some people believe she can find the perpetrator by using mystical powers and Celtic rituals, which is absolute blarney. She just wants to be left alone to nurse her wounded pride after dumping her former cheating lover and losing her job, car, and condo in the process.
The one thing Aggie is certain of is her dog is very good at finding dead bodies. This moves her to the top of Detective Cute Butt’s suspect list when Jack uncovers one murder victim too many; Aggie’s former boyfriend who is apparently no longer alive and well in the windy city. With Jack’s help, Aggie determines the only way to clear her name, rebuild her life, and save the town is to catch the killer herself.
If you're in the mood for thrills and adventure, Grave Secrets is the book for you. From the wilderness of Alaska to a courtroom in Washington DC, survival is the name of the game when a CIA operative decides the rules don't apply to him, divorce isn't the answer, and his ex-wife needs to be buried in an unmarked grave. Join Sarina and Duke as they accept the challenge and raise the stakes. You won't be disappointed!
I know, I know, I already gave you the first couple of chapters in a previous blog, but I thought you might also get a kick out of one of my favorite scenes in the book. Poor Duke Murphy has no idea what's heading his way. To say he is doomed from the start is an understatement.
Duke stared up at the sky, worried about his state of mind. Did what he saw signal the onslaught of another PTSD attack? Or was it the result of too much booze? He hoped it was the latter. Prayed he was right. Damn, how much had he drunk at Whiskey Jack's last night to cause him to see what he was seeing now? And hearing. To say he had overindulged at the bar was putting it mildly. But, how else could he smooth out the edges before heading home to the butler from hell?
His mind snapped back to the present with the woman's screams. They reached fever pitch as she plunged, an out-of-control puppet tethered to a parachute, one she had no power over. She had no helmet, no goggles, and no idea what the hell she was doing — a virgin jumper about to experience a world of pain. Or worse.
His Irish wolfhound barked, gazing at the same spot on the horizon and apparently hearing the same shrieks. The dog did not suffer from PTSD and had not drunk a drop last night, which meant the woman falling from the sky was real.
Shit. Just shit. “It's raining blonds.”
Hefting his pack, Duke shouted the go command. Mooch sprinted into the valley where the woman fell among the trees. He raced after him. A bear roared somewhere nearby, most likely freaked out by her shrieks. It would rip her to shreds if it reached her first. Greet her with teeth and claws wrapped up in a thousand or more pounds of pissed off.
Duke pulled his sidearm, not much good but better than nothing. He fired into the ground on the fly, hoping to startle the bear. Leg muscles pumping, his mind locked onto its military training. Run fast. Be ready to hit the dirt. Watch out for trip wires. Spot the Tango. Kill him before he kills you.
Except, rampaging bears were not on the list. This was Alaska, not some godforsaken desert, and not the same reasons to break out in a sweat. He thought about his teammates' ghosts for a second, until another roar from Smokey broke the sound barrier.
Yay! The Shadow Soldiers Series went live today in an eBook bundle for just $3.99! That’s 4 books where you’ll find frenemies-to-lovers and so many thrills, chills, and scary stuff I almost hid under the bed at the writing cave when I wrote them. All is to say I feel confident if you’re a romantic-suspense junkie you will love these books.
So please have a fabulous action-packed weekend with the Shadow Soldiers and stay out from under the bed!
Have you added GRAVE SECRETS to your To Be Read books yet? It's coming your way on July 25th - a thriller chock-full of chills, suspense, the Alaskan wilderness, and the steam factor brewing between two opposites joined together like Velcro in their fight for survival. What? You can't peek inside the cover on Amazon while it's on pre-order to read the first few chapters? Well, here they are for your viewing pleasure. Have fun and enjoy!
A Murphy Thriller
Jack Murphy sat tossing pellets to the koi in Marv Lytle’s fishpond. Jack’s Shiloh shepherd lay beside him on the flagstones, trembling with the urge to dive in the pond to catch dinner. “Stay, Sweets. Leave the fish alone.”
Besides being one of Jack’s closest friends, Marv was the chief psychiatric consultant on high profile criminal cases to law enforcement on a national level, which was why Jack needed his help. While there were few things in life that stymied Jack, he feared if he didn’t reach out to Marv, someone close to him might die.
Marv sat quietly while studying Jack. “Out with it, man. You didn’t just come here to feed my fish and drive your dog crazy, so what’s going on?”
“It’s my brother,” Jack sighed, staring down at the patio stones. “I think this time he has really gone off the deep end.”
“So, what? You think he needs a shrink?” Marv popped the lid off a cooler and tossed him a bottle. “I’m listening.”
“There’s not much I can tell you, because I don’t know the specifics.” Twisting the cap off his bottle, Jack took a swallow of beer. “Duke was Special Forces, a career Navy SEAL until about two years ago when his last mission didn’t end well. He lost members of his team and ended up in a veteran’s hospital for three months.”
“And Duke didn’t tell anyone. By the time the family found out, he had quit the SEALS and blocked us from visiting him at the hospital.”
Marv held up a finger. “Indulge me for a minute. Is your father still a military chaplain in Hawaii? I knew him when I was stationed there.”
“He is, although he’ll be retiring in eight months. It was my parents who were notified when Duke was sent stateside to recover.”
“Makes sense,” Marv said. “And do you know the extent of your brother’s injuries?”
“Nothing debilitating in terms of physical injuries, but I think he suffers from PTSD.” Jack leaned forward in his lounge chair, peeling the label from his bottle. “Duke actually seemed to improve for a while. He’s been operating our branch in Dallas for the past year. That is… until he went off the grid a few weeks ago; disappeared into the wilds of Alaska where he’s living in an old army bunker. I think he’s lost his mind and gone for good.”
Marv came out of his chair to pace the flagstones. “I won’t lie to you, Jack. It sounds as if your brother has serious problems, but I can’t make a diagnosis from here.”
“I’m worried he’s suicidal, Marv, a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off. He quit our security business by sending me a goddamn text. Can you believe it? He said he took a job with the forestry service in Alaska instead. Man, something is seriously wrong with him.”
“Okay, so we get him the help he needs.”
“How, Marv, when you’ve just finished saying you can’t make a diagnosis?”
Marv edged his chair closer and sat down again. “Listen, when I was top forensic psychiatrist with the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, I had an intern in Hawaii who could perform miracles with patients suffering from PTSD. If I remember correctly, he even worked with your father regarding one of his parishioners. So, he knows your dad and I think your brother’s situation would interest him. Let me give him a call and set some wheels in motion.”
“Duke won’t book a bunch of appointments with a psychiatrist in Hawaii, Marv, if that’s your plan. Hell, he won’t even make time to talk on the internet, not when he doesn’t give a shit about himself.”
“No worries, pal. If Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, we send the mountain to him.”
Jack blew out a breath, almost afraid to hope. He reached in the cooler and brought out a couple more beers, handing one to Marv. “You have something in mind?”
“Maybe.” Marv angled his chin at Sweets. “I think Duke’s loyalty to your dog is going to be key here. Didn’t you tell me she was only on loan to you, that your brother wanted her back for your security operation in Dallas?”
“Yeah, that’s what he said at the time. Duke felt I needed added protection when I was chasing down the Crypt Killer. He brought me Sweets — she’s a kickass police dog — promising if I kept her until I apprehended the serial killer, he would take her back afterward. But she’s like family now and I’d hate to give her up.”
“Sure, but does your brother know that? Give me twenty-four hours to put a plan in motion. I’ll let you know when it’s time to cast your rod and see if Duke takes the bait.”
Marv twisted the cap off his second beer and clinked bottles with Jack. Then he picked up his cell phone and dialed.
Sarina Dunbar hurried along the riverfront of the Potomac, scanning the muddy water and shoreline for any signs of life. Clutching pepper spray in one fist and a three-inch tactical blade with the other, she backed between shipping containers stacked on the pier. She listened to the night sounds while taking shallow breaths. There was nothing but silence. No rumble of cranes loading and unloading cargo ships at this hour. No voices shouting along the docks, and no sounds of her pursuer. Could she possibly be that lucky to lose him in the dark?
What started out as a short walk to a waterside restaurant had taken a chilling turn the moment she heard footfalls echoing hers on the deserted sidewalk. A brief summer downpour had emptied the streets of almost everyone, except for her and the person following her. She caught his reflection in a bay window when she approached the restaurant. He was big, built like an overweight football player. Not good news for a woman in fear for her life.
She knew she was marked for death. Lance had threatened it months ago, trapping her in a hallway at the courthouse after their divorce hearing. He’d bragged about putting a price on her head any scumbag would love to collect. And no one could claim the reward until they brought her to him to rape, torture, and murder himself. “You’re already dead meat, Sarina. You just don’t know it yet.”
The memory faded as she followed the maître d' to a table partially hidden in an alcove. But panic caused her limbs to shake. She almost tumbled sideways when she sat in the chair.
Calm down and don’t be an idiot. Even if Lance’s muscle spots me, what can he do in a crowded restaurant?
He walked through the door seconds later and took a seat at the bar, scanning the room like a mob enforcer searching for his mark. The restaurant manager caught his gaze and stared him down. The jerk clearly appeared out of his element in the ambiance of crystal chandeliers, flocked wallpaper, and fine French cuisine. The man lowered his eyes and hadn’t spotted her yet.
Ham-sized fists wrapped around a pilsner glass. His sidearm bulged beneath the dung-colored sport jacket he wore. It tented the fabric, causing Sarina to wonder if he was an off-duty cop. Nothing would surprise her. Too bad she couldn’t risk calling the police to find out.
She knew her ex-husband had his hands in many pockets, some of them at the topmost levels of government and law enforcement. As a CIA operative high on the food chain, he played the power game well. People jumped to do his bidding whenever he snapped his fingers. Whether he held something over their heads or paid top dollar for their loyalty, the results were always the same. No one denied Lance Schmidt what he wanted and lived to talk about it, except maybe for her, and only as long as her luck held out.
Slipping the coat from her shoulders, she sipped ice water while pretending to study the menu. All the while, her mind worked at warp speed, analyzing and discarding possible escape scenarios until she eliminated all but one.
The wine steward poured a glass of red Bordeaux from the demi-bottle she’d requested. She risked another glance at her pursuer after she ordered a meal. He still seemed oblivious to her location. Now was her chance. After slipping cash under the wine glass, she walked toward the restrooms in the L-shaped hallway off the dining area. Only a few more steps to freedom, the exit sign at the end of the corridor fluorescing red and white. In seconds, she was out the door, the pepper spray and a hunting knife pulled from her tote bag, and running for her life.
Hiding from Lance these past months had taught her important survival skills. One was to be aware of her surroundings. Always know the exits of a building, which she had done on a previous visit to this café. Another was to wear decent footwear. Whenever she wore spike heels, as she did tonight, she carried her cross trainers in the tote bag. She had changed her shoes as soon as the knuckle dragger at the bar lit up her radar like fireworks on the fourth of July.
Her only mistake? Believing the burner phone the District Attorney had given her was untraceable. Lance had to be pinging cell towers to track her whereabouts. It was the only way his goon could find her. Which meant she couldn’t go back to her B&B. He would know that location too.
Her thoughts snapped back to the here and now when she realized someone stood behind her on the pier. She smelled the man before she felt his gun nudge her kidney.
“Unless you're housekeeping’s turndown service, which I doubt, since there ain’t no chocolates on my pillows, drop the weapons before I shoot a hole straight through ya.”
Shit, shit, shit!
She did what he wanted, waiting to feel the pain from a gun blast. He spun her around. This wasn’t the man who followed her from the restaurant. No, this was a vagrant; unwashed, stinking of alcohol and stale sweat. Seeing the grimy finger pointing at her midsection, she realized he didn’t have a gun. She dove for her weapons but he knocked her aside, beating her to the draw. He pocketed them in a ratty army jacket.
“You want’em back? It’s gonna cost ya.” Hands on his hips, he shot her the evil eye. “Come into a man’s bedroom and disturb him, you’re gonna pay for it. I was having a nice snooze ‘til you showed up.”
“Look, I don’t have any money. I left it all at a restaurant to pay for a meal I never got to eat.” She was losing control, felt her lips tremble and pressed her fingers against them. Damn. “I need those weapons because there’s a man back there hunting me down for my ex-husband who wants to kill me.”
“The hell you say.” He moved past her to peer around the corner of a container. He turned back, hissing against her ear. “You wasn’t kidding lady. Someone’s coming. Let’s go.”
He took her by a wrist, zigging and zagging behind machinery and wooden crates until they arrived at a patch of woods. He kept on going, climbing until she thought her legs would give out. He did not stop until they reached a group of tents, cardboard shelters, and fires burning in rusted barrels at the top of a rise. Clothes hung on ropes strung through the trees. Old cars sealed off both ends of a rutted drive. People lay on threadbare mattresses, smoking dope and drinking.
“The name’s Moses. What’s yours?”
He pulled her into one of the tents, dropping a blanket back over the entrance from the ceiling. “You’re safe here with me. Now tell me what happened.”
Two other men sat in the tent, wearing camo gear. Her eyes strayed to the dog tags hanging from chains around all of their necks, the ribbons and medals pinned on Moses' jacket. Adding in the tattoos she saw on the other men's arms, she realized they were former military. Men who had fought to defend this country and then slipped through the cracks upon returning home. Her eyes teared up. It broke her heart. She burst into tears and not just for them, but for herself as well and her current situation. She couldn’t go on, and her story came pouring out.
Moses made tea on a butane stove while the other two indulged in whiskey and blunts. She choked on the smoke until he opened the tent flap before handing her a cup. “So, you’re saying you're supposed to fly outta here tomorrow, but your plane ticket and suitcase are still at that place you’re staying?”
“Yes. I can’t go back there to get them because people are watching. If I get caught, I’ll be taken to my ex-husband and killed.” She felt another tear roll down her cheek and brushed it away. “I’m sorry to be such a crybaby. I guess I’m just scared.”
“You got nothing to worry ‘bout no more, Sarina.” Moses stood, his two friends along with him. One carried a rucksack, the other a flashlight.
Moses turned to her as they headed out the door. “Stay inside until we get back. Then we’ll drive you to the airport.”
She stared at him as if he were ten feet tall and the bravest man she had ever met, because he was. “But, how can I repay you when I have no money?”
“Play it forward, gal. Jus’ play it forward.”
Moses was true to his word. At six a.m. the next morning, she was in the air on a flight to Alaska. Lance Schmidt and the contract on her life be dammed. She'd take her chances with the wilderness. She was better off there than risking the bastard catching her on the streets of Washington D.C., his home turf. At least now she might have a fighting chance at survival.