Western Wednesdays—THE RELUCTANT ASSASSIN by Preston Darby

Imagine, if you will, that the infamous John Wilkes Booth actually survived his flight from the nation’s capitol after assassinating President Lincoln. When two men find a body and the lost memoirs of Booth himself, the clues lead to the development of a conspiracy more dramatic than Ford Theater’s production of Our American Cousin (for those of you who aren’t crazy history buffs like me, this was the play that Abraham Lincoln was attending the night of his assassination. Dramatic, indeed).

The Reluctant Assassin spans from Lincoln’s assassination to 1903, with many a colorful historical figure making an appearance along the way. But of course, John Wilkes Booth is the star of the show, and you’re sure to see a side of him you never thought possible.

If you’re into the National Treasure films, the Da Vinci Code, and other conspiracy-solving books and movies, then The Reluctant Assassin is sure to please!

PROLOGUE

“What I want to know is …is it human?”

In fifty years of medical practice I had encountered many peculiar experiences, but the most bizarre event occurred soon after I retired. It involved a man long dead, a man known to history as John Wilkes Booth.

Ken Casper, long-time friend, neighbor, and noted author, had recently acquired some long-abandoned ranch property along the sluggish Concho River near San Angelo and was busy renovating a dilapidated rock storage building.

Ken soon recognized a disparity in the measurements of two walls enclosing an interior room and suspected a concealed space between the partitions. When he had initially confided his suspicions to me, we had jokingly speculated over the possibility of hidden treasure. From the tone of Ken’s voice when he phoned me to come out right away, however, I knew whatever he’d found wasn’t treasure and it had rattled him.

“I don’t know what it is,” he answered my first question, his voice half an octave higher than usual. “Come see for yourself.”

Ken had been correct in his measurements. A double wall had been constructed between the rooms. Fragments of white limestone and mortar were piled below a manhole-size opening Ken had pick-axed through one wall. Without a word of explanation he handed me a flashlight and stepped back.

I hesitated. “What about snakes?”

Ken clucked his tongue. “With all the racket I’ve been making around here the last few days, any snakes have crawled to Mexico by now. Look in there off to the right.”

I flicked on the light and stuck my arm in the hole, then cautiously inserted my head and peered in the direction of the beam. Motes of dust obscured the flashlight’s rays, and at first I saw only the outline of an old wooden chair and what looked like a deteriorating black suit draped over it. I raised the beam slightly and jerked back so quickly I struck my head on one of the protruding bricks. There was something in the suit—something with shrunken hands protruding from the coat sleeves. Curiosity overcame my apprehension and I squeezed through the opening, then played my light up and down the apparition.

“My God, Ken, it’s a mummy.”

Ken snorted. “I figured that. What I want to know is …is it human?”

“Hold on, let me get a better look.”

I moved closer to the mummy. The withered hands certainly appeared human, four fingers—or what was left of them—and an opposing thumb. I attempted to move one of the hands from its resting place on the figure’s pants leg. With a whispery sound the entire arm separated from the shoulder, decayed cloth fell away, and I dropped the creature’s bony appendage as swiftly as if I had grabbed a rattler.

I forced myself to be calm, then squatted and focused my light where I expected the mummy’s face should be. The neck was flexed, but enough flesh adhered to the skull for me to know the discovery was human. As I backed out of the opening, I picked up the loose arm and called out to Ken.

“Congratulations. You’ve found a real human mummy. Here, let me give you a hand.” I extended the withered remnant out to him.

Ken recoiled, his eyes wide. “Oh, great. You’ve really screwed up now. I’ve written enough detective novels to know better than to disturb a crime scene.”

I reached inside the opening and laid the arm back in the mummy’s lap.

Ken nodded. “Oh, that’ll help.”

“We don’t know this is a crime scene,” I said. “Whoever he is, he’s been in there for decades. Maybe he’s a relative of somebody who owned this place. He was dressed, placed carefully in the chair, and walled in. So somebody went to a lot of trouble to hide him, right?”

“No doubt about that.” Ken shook his head slowly and walked over to sit on the window sill. “But what am I supposed to do? Wall him up again? That’s like Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’.”

“Aw, Ken, that’s a murder story. I’d bet this guy was dead long before he was put in there. Anyway, we have to call the justice of the peace. First, he has to pronounce him dead”—I smiled wryly—“though that shouldn’t tax the JP’s neurons too much, and then he’ll probably order a forensic autopsy. The pathologist will try to identify the body, determine cause of death, find any evidence of foul play, get tissue samples for DNA testing. . . .” I trailed off, embarrassed at my oration, and shrugged. “What am I doing telling you about all this? You know the procedure better than I do and make a dern’ good living writing about it.”

“Just listening to see if you know your stuff.” Ken grinned and rose from his perch at the window. “Now let’s go call the JP and see if he knows his.”

After a cursory examination and considerable deliberation, our justice of the peace concluded that Ken’s mummy was indeed dead and could be removed to Foster’s Funeral Home. Attempts to encompass the mummy in a standard receptacle resulted in frustration for the attendants and further minor trauma to the body. Therefore, he was seated on a chair in the cooler to await the arrival of a forensic pathologist from San Antonio, the esteemed Dr. Nasir Taboor.

Three weeks passed. Only a small paragraph mentioning the mummy’s discovery made our San Angelo Standard Times. Somehow the newspaper’s brief account was relegated to the sports section.

Then I received a phone call from an uncharacteristically excited Ken Casper.

“Pres. I’m picking you up in five minutes. The pathologist just called. I could hardly understand the man’s accent, but he said he had found something ‘veeery interrresting’ in the mummy. See you.”

He hung up before I could speak.

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Pardon the Interruption—Pulitzer Prize-Nominated Caitlin Rother Talks True Crime

With the e-book release of Pulitzer Prize-nominated Caitlin Rother’s first foray into fiction, Naked Addiction, we pause to share a snippet of her expertise. As a long-time journalist and crime writer, Rother details the horror behind the true story Dead Reckoning.

For more clips, be sure to visit her website!

ReCOVERy Room: Blue Kingdom by Max Brand

Click for original cover copy.

You know how it’s generally frowned upon to touch, drool, attack, or otherwise mess with great works of art? Well I almost felt like I was breaking this universal law by messing with Max Brand’s cover copy. I mean, the man is a legend. His books may not be framed in a museum (that I know of), but they’re most definitely works of art.

I hope Mr. Brand will forgive me, but this week’s ReCOVERy Room is a fill-in-the-blank fun house from the back cover of his 1929 Blue Kingdom.  Originally titled “The Strength of the Hills” and published in a six part serial by Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine, this classic was resurrected and renamed in 1957. The hero, Carrick Dunmore, is…well, kind of silly. Of all the Western heroes out there, I think he would appreciate the silliness of this week’s ReCOVERy Room the most.

Carrick, this one is for you.

Blue Kingdom ReCOVERy Room PDF

Romance Covers Court Readers

Everyone who reads romance has their own very specific tastes when it comes to covers. A love/hate issue for many readers is that rarely do the cover models look like the characters described in the book let alone any real-life people, and often the covers are so provacative that some readers are embarrassed to be seen with them in public. And yet, these “bodice-ripping” trends persist and romance continues to sell, sell, sell!  I suspect the same covers readers don’t want to be seen reading are also the covers that got them to buy the books in the first place. For all the jokes and snark romance covers elicit, they must be doing something right. Check out these Dorchester highlights from the past twenty years. Did any catch your eye, then or now?

1)      I *Heart* the ’80s—The cover trends of the ’80s lived well on into the ’90s in the world of HEAs. Flashy, neon colors grab the eye—a promise of the fantasy that awaits on the pages within.

  2)      The Foldout—The explicit nature of these covers’ content—rippling muscles and ample breasts—can always be found, if not on the cover, then, on the foldout.

3)      The Chick Lit Influence—With the rise of chick lit in the late ’90s came the fun cartoons, which abandoned the couple-centric covers of the past and endorsed a feminist take on women who controlled their romantic futures.

 

4)      Reissues—Sometimes popular titles of yore need a little help finding their way into the hands of the next generation of readers. Reissues reintroduce classic romances to a new audience with snazzy new packaging.

Which types of covers give you pause when browsing the shelves?  Do you have a favorite cover that transcends time and trend?

Thriller Thursdays: NAKED ADDICTION

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother has an impressive amount of achievements under her belt: she’s written and co-authored eight books, worked as an investigative journalist for almost twenty years and was nominated for a Pulitzer prize for her accomplishments, she teaches narrative non-fiction, journalism, and creative writing at UCSD Extension, works as an editorial consultant/book doctor, and speaks to professional groups nationwide. Phew. I was exhausted just writing about it.

As you can see, Caitlin has a LOT going on. She’s currently getting tons of well-deserved attention for her latest true crime releases, My Life Deleted (HarperOne, 10/11) and Poisoned Love (Kensington/Pinnacle, 12/11). In light of this, I’ve been dying to revisit her first foray into fiction, Naked Addiction. Published by Dorchester in 2007, this suspenseful thriller is now available in e-book for the first time! Naked Addiction follows detective Ken Goode as he tracks a murderer by the trail of young, female bodies left in his wake. When the trail leads to the beauty school his sister attends, the case hits a little too close to home for Ken’s comfort.

Read on for an excerpt that will give you a taste of Caitlin’s award-winning knack for imagery, characterization, and crime scene etiquette. 

Thrill on,

Hannah

CHAPTER ONE

Goode Sunday

It was one of those hot September days when flies flock to the sweet scent of coconut-oiled skin and the rotting smell of death.

Santa Ana winds were spreading their evil dust and waves of heat were oozing from exhaust pipes, casting a blur over the gridlock of cars ahead of Detective Ken Goode. Santa Anas always made him feel a little off.

Sweat dripped into his tired eyes as he sat in his Volkswagen van, waiting for the light to change on Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach. He’d stayed up too late the night before reading Camus’ An Absurd Reasoning, pausing intermittently to deconstruct the state of his life. He needed a mind-bending career change. He felt it coming, any day in fact, just around the corner. But patience wasn’t one of his strongest traits. He wanted out of undercover narcotics and into a permanent gig working homicides. Not just as a relief detective, as he’d been for the past three years, but the real thing. The only questions were how and when.

Goode always took stock at this time of year and he was rarely satisfied. After getting the green light, he drove a few blocks to a flower shop he’d passed a hundred times. He was constantly on the lookout for florists because he didn’t want to go to the same one twice. He chose to keep his annual ritual to himself, even more private than the rest of his rather solitary existence.

Goode parked near the door and glanced at himself in the rearview mirror, running his fingers through his sun-bleached brown hair and wiping moisture from his forehead with a beach towel. His green eyes had been red around the edges since the Santa Ana kicked up and he hadn’t been sleeping much either, although that wasn’t unusual lately.

The cool air inside the shop chilled his overheated skin, making the hairs on his arms stand up. Inside the refrigerated case nearest the door, a few dozen long-stemmed red roses poked their heads out of a white bucket of water. He slid open the door and bent his tall, lean frame over to inspect them more closely. He wanted the most perfect one he could find, just starting to bloom. He selected one from the middle, sliding it carefully out of the bunch.

“How would you like a pretty bud vase for that?” the sales girl chirped. She was a teenager. Bright-eyed. Hopeful.

“No, thank you,” Goode told her. He knew she meant well, but she had no idea. “That won’t be necessary.”

She looked a little disappointed. “Then how ’bout you let me wrap it up with some baby’s breath?”

“Sure,” he said, smiling weakly and nodding. He didn’t want to have to tell her that wouldn’t be necessary either. “That would be nice.”

The cellophane crinkled as he walked back to the van and gingerly laid the rose on the passenger seat. He turned right on Grand Avenue and headed south on Interstate 5 toward Coronado.

He still remembered how green and sparkly the bay had looked that day thirty years ago. He’d just turned six. He, his mother, father and baby sister had finished a lunch of tuna sandwiches together at their small, rented house in La Jolla—all two high school teachers could afford—when his mother announced she was going for a drive. His father, Ken Sr., said he’d planned to take a nap while the baby took hers and asked if she’d take Kenny Jr. with her. She looked a little irritated and a little sad, so Kenny thought she didn’t want him to come along. When she looked over at him and saw she’d upset him, she gave him that forced melancholy smile she’d been wearing of late and tousled his hair.

“Okay, then,” she said quietly. “Let’s go.”

The two of them piled into the family’s Honda Accord and she stopped at Baskin Robbins to buy him a Pralines-and-Cream cone and a strawberry shake for herself. She took a prescription vial of pink pills out of her purse and popped one of them into her mouth, chasing it with a long draw on her shake. She announced that she wanted to drive over the new bridge to Coronado.

“You can see forever up there,” she said. “It feels like you can just fly off into the clouds. Don’t you think?”

Kenny nodded happily, feeling privileged to have some one-on-one time with his mother. She’d been acting so down since Maureen was born. She hardly ever wanted to play with him. It felt nice when she talked to him like that.

They were about halfway across the bridge, where the two lanes turned into three, when she pulled over to the side and told him to wait. He watched her get out of the car in her black dress, the one with the bright red roses and green leaves all over it. She stepped out of her red pumps and reached through the driver’s-side window to set them on the seat next to him, giving him that same droopy smile again. The skin around her eyes wrinkled softly, reflecting a sense of tragedy that made her seem older than her thirty-six years.

“It’s dangerous out here, so stay buckled up, okay, pumpkin?” she said.

He’d watched her put on some red lipstick before they left the house, and he thought again how it set off the whiteness of her very straight teeth. She was so much more beautiful than any of his friends’ mothers. It made him proud.

Kenny took her words as the law, never questioning why she’d parked where there was no shoulder. With his seat belt fastened as instructed, he watched the cars whizzing by and wondered where she’d gone. Strapped in and helpless, he couldn’t see into the rearview mirror without undoing his belt. Surely she wouldn’t be gone for long. Finally, he undid the buckle and twisted the mirror so he could see behind the car. There she was, gazing intently out into the distance. He carefully refastened the seat belt, feeling guilty as it clicked home.

Minutes later, he still couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension, so he looked into the mirror again. This time he saw her throw one leg over the railing, and then the other. What was she doing? Then, in one quick movement, she dropped herself over the edge.

For a while there, he was sure she’d climb right back over the top of the railing. When she didn’t reappear, the ice cream began to curdle in his stomach and his heart began to pound.

It seemed like hours that he sat there, waiting for her, when a police cruiser pulled up behind the car. A young officer slowly approached, his hand on his gun, and stuck his head through the open window.

“Where are your parents, son?” he asked.

But all Kenny could do was stare straight ahead, his fists clenched so tightly his nails bit into his palms. He knew he would start crying if he met the officer’s questioning gaze. He figured what the man really wanted to know was why he hadn’t tried to stop his mother from jumping into the nothingness.

The officer went back to his cruiser for a minute to talk into his radio; then he got in the car with Kenny while they waited for a tow truck to arrive. He put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and made Kenny feel safe enough to convey the bare facts of what had happened and to obediently recite his home address. The officer patiently walked Kenny back to the police cruiser and took him home to what was left of his family.

From that day on, Ken Goode knew he wanted to be a policeman.

Goode drove a little more than halfway over the bridge before he reached the spot where his mother had jumped. He pulled to the side, turned on his hazard lights and unwound the rubber band holding the cellophane together, easing the stem out of its casing. He brought the bud to his nose and breathed in its sweet fullness. He felt a stab of the old pain and his eyes teared up. He was feeling really tired and vulnerable for some reason. But that was okay. He’d allow himself that, for a few minutes at least. Maybe it was just the hot wind blowing the hair into his eyes.

He stood at the railing facing north. To his left was the small island city of Coronado and to his right were the blue steel towers of the bridge, curving around to the San Diego marina and downtown skyscape. He tried to push the hair out of his face so he could take in the view, but it was useless. He could only look down.

Goode began his ritual of tearing off the rose petals, one at a time, and watching them catch the breeze. It always amazed him what a long way down it was to the bay. He looked it up on the Internet once and learned it was a two-hundred-foot drop. Sometimes he’d start to wonder how much the fall would hurt from this height, but he’d immediately push the thought from his brain. He wouldn’t go there. Couldn’t go there.

“How are you, Mom?” he said into the wind. “Are you happy?”

A seagull swooped out of the sky, settled on the railing a few feet away, and looked right at him. Part of the bird’s upper beak was chipped off. He found its proximity a little unnerving and he wondered for a second whether that could possibly be his mother. He wasn’t a religious man, but he did get spiritual from time to time. It couldn’t be, he thought. That’s ridiculous. He turned away and watched the sun reflect off the ripples in the San Diego Bay.

“What’s it like where you are?” he asked. “Do you have friends?”

A few moments later, a second seagull touched down on the railing, right next to the first. Goode really didn’t believe in the whole New Age thing, but this seemed a little weird, even to him. He broke the stamen from the rose and tossed it over, watching it float down.

“Okay, if this is real,” he said into the wind, “then show me one more sign.”

One of the cars whipping past honked. He felt the wind pick up and blow his hair out of his eyes. It was a little cooler, there by the ocean. He closed his eyes and let the breeze kiss his face. But then, abruptly, it …just… stopped…blowing. The high-pitched traffic noise dulled and he felt a strange calm. Soon, beads of sweat began to form on his upper lip. He started feeling woozy.

He heard the crunch of tires on asphalt and turned to see a police cruiser park behind his van. Just like the first time. A young officer in his midtwenties approached with his hand on his gun. It could have been the son of the officer who’d stopped there thirty years ago.

Goode shivered. “No shit,” he whispered. He smiled and shook his head.

“Everything okay here? You know you can’t park your van on the bridge,” the officer said, sticking his chest out with more than enough bravado. Bulletproof vests always made cops seem more macho than they really were.

Strangely enough, Goode hadn’t had to deal with Coronado police much during his yearly ceremony, usually because he did it in the middle of the night when traffic was light to nonexistent. He figured he’d tell his fellow officer the truth.

Goode extended his hand to shake the officer’s. “Ken Goode, San Diego PD,” he said, retrieving his badge from his shorts pocket. “Just checking in with my mother. She jumped here thirty years ago today.”

The officer gave him a firm shake, but his eyes softened and he relaxed into a less aggressive stance. “Joe Johnston, Coronado PD,” he said. “Wow. That’s rough.” Johnston paused and shook his head as if he didn’t know what else to say. “Well, I guess I’ll…hang out here in my cruiser for a few minutes to make sure no one bothers you. Take your time.”

Goode thanked him. He wasn’t sure what it all meant, but he felt as if his mother was okay, wherever she was. Maybe she was a teacher there, too. Or maybe she’d become a painter like she’d always dreamed. He threw the rose stem over the side and watched it swing idly down to the water, coming to rest on the surface and bob along with the current. He wiped a tear from his cheek with his sleeve. Read more of this post

Western Wednesdays—DARK VOYAGE OF THE MITTIE STEPHENS

I have to be honest, I chose today’s book solely because of its title. While not nearly the cardinal sin as judging a book by its cover (and I know I’m not the only one who does that), I do feel a little guilty. However, I have to say that the book lived up to its ominous and intriguing title. Dark Voyage of the Mittie Stephens by Johnny D. Boggs pulled me in from the get go just as I’m sure it will you. Enjoy everyone!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Creeping clouds blanketed the bright moon like a shroud, covering the City of the Dead in darkness. The deep blackness came as an answer to Bobby Randow’s prayer as he squeezed between two tombs, one granite, the other marble, and tried to catch his breath, afraid the men trying to kill him would hear his heart pounding. Gripping the butt of the Dance revolver in his right hand, Randow listened, chancing a quick glance skyward, knowing the clouds would soon pass, and the cemetery would be bathed in moonlight.

He’d die here in this century-old, above-ground graveyard, die in the midnight fog, die violently and alone, and no monument would note his passing, no newspaper would publish his obituary. No one would know he was dead, not even his mother, except his killers—and the catfish feeding on his remains after his murderers disemboweled him, filled his insides with stones, and sank his corpse into the Mississippi or Pontchartrain.

Well, it was his own fault. No one else to blame. He had tossed in his ante in a crooked game because of greed, decided to become a criminal instead of a wandering gambler, justified it with claims that the Yankees owed him plenty for four years of suffering, for the deaths of his father and brother. $100,000 in gold had lured him, but some deep-seated honesty, or the quiet Episcopal morality inherited from his father, had broken its spell, and he had tried to back out of this deal. Randow could have left New Orleans, simply slithered out of the city like a serpent, and would have been sitting in the saloon on a stern-wheeler heading upriver now, dealing draw poker, but he had decided to face his comrades, tell them why he wasn’t going through with the plan. Southern pride. Texas stubborn streak. Lunacy. Whatever the reason, it had likely gotten him killed.

He had known that was coming, too. That’s why he had cleaned and loaded the revolver before leaving his hotel, why he had placed six percussion caps on the Dance. Most men, scared of blowing off a toe, kept the nipple underneath a revolver’s hammer naked. The memory caused him to check the pistol by feel, for the night remained black. His thumb rested on the cocked hammer, finger twitching inside the trigger guard. He had fired three rounds, put two bullets in Victor Desiderio’s stomach when the shooting commenced, sent another shot chasing three other killers. Or had he pulled the trigger four times? He bit his bottom lip, tried to concentrate. His memory kept fading. He. . . .

Hushed voices. Moments later, footsteps tapped the stones lining the cemetery’s path near Randow’s sanctuary. Then silence.

Randow lifted the .44 and waited. The clouds cleared, and the moon, just a couple of days past full, soaked the thickening fog and cold, damp houses of the dead. He pressed his body against the granite tomb, and pushed wet bangs off his forehead. Somewhere along the way, he had lost his hat.

“There he is!” A bullet’s whine followed the shout. Randow crouched, pivoted, and answered the shot, firing blindly. Two rounds left.

“There!”

“I saw it.”

Too late he realized his error. They hadn’t seen him, couldn’t have, until he panicked, and they spotted the muzzle flash. It had been a bluff, not even a good one if he had played his hand smart, shown a fip’s worth of patience. Rifles cracked repeatedly, lead chipping the marble tomb, ricocheting off it and the granite over his head, behind him, in front of him, peppering the cramped quarters, and a fear swallowed him that he had not felt since 1862, when he had been caught in the federal enfilade at Corinth. Death had hovered near him that day, and again this night. Instinctively Randow covered his face with his arms, although only the grace of God could protect him now.

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Pardon the Interruption—The Joy of Books

You thought bookstores were magical during working hours? The folks who brought you Organizing the Bookshelf show you just how magical bookstores can be after hours.

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