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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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

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

Thriller Thursdays: THE RAPTURE OF OMEGA

Richland Metropolitan Police Department’s spitfire detective, CeeCee Gallagher, is back and on the hunt in The Rapture of Omega.

CeeCee reminds me of the star of TNT’s The Closer, Brenda Leigh Johnson. They’re both powerful women in a man’s world. They may look pretty, but they’ve got unique skills that get them to the bottom of any crime. Quick. And they can kick your ass.

In The Rapture of Omega (October 2011), the latest book in Dittrich’s detective series, CeeCee thinks she’s investigating three unrelated homicides, but when she notices that all the bodies have the same mysterious mark, the clues lead CeeCee to the work of a sinister local cult. You’ll get a taste of the horrifying events yet to come in the prologue previewed below. I don’t know about you, but all I could think while reading it was “DON’T DRINK THE KOOL-AID, PEOPLE!”

Thrill On,

Hannah

PROLOGUE

Jonestown, Guyana November 18, 1978

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No one can come to the father but through me!”

The words, screaming over the microphone, pierced her ears like millions of tiny needles fighting to reach the darkest depths of her mind. Putting her hands over both ears did little to ease the pain. She saw her older brother also had his hands over his ears; and his eyes were closed tight, as if waiting for the bomb to drop. Hunkered down and hiding underneath the bed, one would suppose that was the most likely reason. But the truth of the matter was far worse.

The temperature in the cabin soared as the day went on, causing both Rebecca and her brother, John, to long for a taste of water. Oh, they could have easily gone outside and drank the red water to quench their thirst like everyone else, but their mother told them to hide and wait for her—no matter what. When the screams began less than an hour later, Rebecca held her breath. The fear that had slowly crept inside held her in its tight grip; her heart was racing, and the sweat poured into her eyes. She knew that a six-year-old girl hadn’t ever died of a heart attack, but she was scared just the same. Rebecca and John were holding each other now, praying together that their mother would come for them soon. Rebecca accepted the somber truth that her father would not ever come back. He was probably asleep by now, along with the others. Still, she wanted her mommy.

Her father brought them here six weeks ago. He was the one that said their salvation was in Africa with “Dad.” That was what Mr. Jones wanted everyone to call him, Dad or Father.

The Temple had all been practicing for this day for a long time. It was supposed to take place a month from now, but this morning, at prayer, “Dad” said, “Today is the day of salvation.” Rebecca never truly understood the motive behind it, although she knew it had something to do with the upcoming apocalypse; “Dad” said this would be their only way into heaven.

Mommy never liked “Dad.” Once in a while, Rebecca would see her mommy’s eyes roll during his evening teachings, or she would sneak a wink and a smile to Rebecca and John. Rebecca closed her eyes and imagined what was going on outside.

The lines would be long as the members stood to willingly accept their drink, their ticket to heaven. The dedicated mothers would hold their babies as the men shot the liquid into the infants’ mouths with large syringes. One by one, they would each lie down and go to sleep, only to awaken in the house of God. “Dad” said it would be miraculous. Those who decided not to seek their salvation would be taken anyway.

Rebecca felt a growing resentment toward her father for bringing them here. He had changed. Gone was the man who took them out for ice cream after dinner, the man that told her bedtime stories, and the man that could impersonate Donald Duck better than anyone. Mommy knew that, too. Rebecca could see it in her face when her mommy looked at her father. Mommy . . .

“Where is she?”

John’s breathless question gave her a brief reprieve from her thoughts, but brought her back to the nightmarish reality they were in.

“Ma-maybe she’s already asleep.” Rebecca’s voice quivered.

“Don’t say that, Becky! She’ll come back!”

The fumbling doorknob about six feet to their right ended their conversation. John promptly put his hand over Rebecca’s mouth and pulled her as far back against the wall as possible. Sheltered only by the soiled mattress above their heads, they waited. Rebecca could feel John’s heart pounding through his sweat-soaked shirt and noticed her own pulse had quickened so rapidly, she thought she might faint.

“John! Rebecca!” The loud whisper of their mother’s voice filled the room.

“Mommy! Mommy!”

Rebecca pushed her brother away and crawled out from under the bed, at breakneck speed, before embracing her mother around the waist.

“Shhh! You need to be quiet, we don’t have much time. John, come here!”

Rebecca saw her mother look toward the door. Her mother, like John and Rebecca, was soaked with sweat, and dirty. Her clothes  were disheveled and she had a look in her eyes that Rebecca had never seen before; her mother was terrified, and that made Rebecca cry.

“Becky, honey, shhh.” Her mother knelt down and embraced her. “It’s going to be okay, but I need you two to listen, please. There’s a loose panel in the wood over there. Push on it and crawl through it—but be careful no one sees you!” Her breath was quickening as she looked at the door again. “Run, as fast as you have ever run, straight back behind the cabin into the jungle. If you stay straight, you’ll come up to a big tree with red flowers growing around the bottom—it’s hollowed. Crawl inside there and wait for me. Don’t come out unless you hear me calling! Do you understand? Don’t come out at all!”

Rebecca and John nodded their heads furiously up and down as Rebecca continued to wipe the tears that flooded her eyes.

“Where’s Daddy?” John’s own eyes were watery.

Rebecca’s mother paused. “He’s asleep.”

John began to really cry as Rebecca’s own floodgate opened up, full force. Their mother pulled them both to her breast, holding them tightly, but not for very long. She gently pushed them out in front of her, arm’s length.

“I love you both very much, okay?” Her mother was fighting back her tears something fierce. “Do this, and I will be there—I promise, and we’ll leave this place and never come back again. Now, go. John, take care of your sister. Go!”

Her mother pushed them toward the wall of loose paneling. As Rebecca crawled through the hole, she took just a split second to look back at her mother. Standing in the doorway of the cabin, her mother was sobbing as she watched her children escape.

“I love you, Mommy!” Rebecca could barely produce the words.

“Go, Becky!”

John pushed her through the hole before climbing out behind her. He grabbed her hand tightly and pulled as they started a dead run toward the jungle. Not looking back, Rebecca heard her mother scream as they reached the edge of the trees. It was a death scream. Rebecca had been hearing them for the last hour. John stopped so suddenly, she ran into him and almost fell down. He turned to face her and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Go! I’ll meet you there!”

“Joh- Johnny, noooo!”

“Now, goddamn it!”

It was too late. Her brother had already started back toward the cabin. Doing what John had ordered, Rebecca had only run ahead a few feet when the sound of gunfire caused her to stop. She turned just in time to see her ten-year-old brother fall to the ground, riddled with bullets. If only for the sheer will to live, Rebecca ran like she had never before, deep into the jungle, the sound of gunfire close behind her. Dizziness and the pain in her side overcame her as she reached the tree with the red flowers. Crawling inside she began taking deep breaths as she listened to the potent voice, far off in the distance, scream his last words.

“If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace! We are not committing suicide—it’s a revolutionary act . . .”

 CHAPTER ONE

Present

“The National Weather Service has just confirmed a powerful cell forming o the coast of South Africa, expected to reach hurricane status within days. The remaining Florida residents are already making plans to evacuate. If the expected path reaches the coast of Florida by next week, Hurricane Stephen would make the fourth major hurricane to devastate the Florida coast in the last six weeks. Florida governor Randall Jimenez is expected to order a mandatory evacuation for aected areas beginning Friday. In other news . . .”

I reached over and turned the radio off before tossing my half- smoked cigarette out the window. I didn’t need to hear any more depressing news about other parts of the world. I had enough here, in Mansfield, Ohio, to keep me occupied.

Just thirty feet from my car lay the remains of a murder victim—young, pretty, and savagely brutalized. I’d say that allows me a significant amount of depression. Fifteen years of looking at bodies never gets easier. I’d give a number on this particular murder, but I quit counting a long time ago. Most people assume that I, Sergeant Detective CeeCee Gallagher, am made of steel. After reading newspaper accounts that have deemed me the ace detective of the Richland Metropolitan Police Department Major Crimes Division, they tend to look genuinely surprised when I show any type of emotion toward a victim. That fact alone disturbs me. I don’t want to be perceived as a coldhearted bitch that was born without tear ducts, or a soul, for that matter. But then again, why should I care what they think?

The warm stream of sweat that slowly made its way down the side of my face alerted me that the air-conditioning in my car had just conked out. I sighed.

“You gonna come out and look at this, or are you hell-bent on losing forty pounds while you sit in there and melt?”

So deep in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed that my fellow detective, and dear friend, Jeff “Coop” Cooper, had walked up to my window. Boyishly handsome, and devilishly funny, Coop was married to the boss—Captain Naomi Cooper, formerly Kincaid. Naomi was on the riverbank with the others, processing the body and scene. Coop began running his fingers through his dark hair and fanning his shirt out.

“Jesus! I thought it was supposed to cool down a little today.”

“It has. We have officially cooled down to a balmy ninety-one degrees.”

I whipped my long, sweat-soaked blonde hair into a ponytail before grabbing my briefcase off the passenger seat. Coop opened the door for me, still whining about the temperature.

“Ninety-one degrees, my ass. I think this sucks.”

“Ah, the pleasures of global warming.” I slammed my car door shut and nodded toward the embankment. “What have we got down there?”

“Prepare yourself. She’s only been there about two days, but the heat has accelerated decomposition something awful. It’s not pretty, and you can only imagine the smell.” He crinkled his nose as if I needed a visual. “Coroner says it looks like some type of crude abortion. She bled out.”

I stopped walking, already smelling the body. “What? Is she young?”

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Authors to Watch in 2012

A look back at what hit the proverbial thriller shelves last year:

Out in paperback and e-book in May 2011, The Bonaparte Secret was the much awaited fifth installment in Gregg Loomis’s Lang Reilly series. From Venice to Port-au-Prince, Alexandria to Paris, Lang takes readers on a fast-paced search for a lost relic of Napoleon Bonaparte’s. Even if you haven’t read the previous four books, The Bonaparte Secret  is easy to jump right into. Da Vinci Code fans will love it!

 

A fresh face in the thriller genre, Chuck Hustmyre brought you House of the Rising Sun (July) and A Killer Like Me (August) in 2011. His back-to-back award-winning releases are both set in The Big Easy and tell the tale of detectives caught on the wrong side of the law. Not only did House of the Rising Sun debut in trade and e-book last year, it also celebrated its film release with Lionsgate Home Entertainment!

 

Stacy Dittrich is no newcomer to the genre. Her years as a police officer and detective inspired her to write true crime and thrillers, of which she has almost a dozen. October release The Rapture of Omega is the fourth title in her popular Detective CeeCee Gallagher series. A Major Crimes Division detective and the top of her field, CeeCee knows too well the burden the job can bring to one’s professional, and personal, life. No matter the circumstance, CeeCee manages to pull through. Teaming up with her forbidden love, FBI Agent Michael Hagerman, the CeeCee Gallagher series brings a hint of romance to a modern day crime series.

Be sure to check in with the Dorchester Web site for more of what’s new in thriller. Follow these exciting authors and many more in 2012!

Acrostic New Year’s Bash!

We’ve got more than books, people. We’ve got skills. Acrostic skills.

To celebrate the New Year, I’ve created an acrostic TBR pile for all you book lovers out there! You can always count on Dorchester to have a book that starts with any letter in the alphabet. Except for ‘Y,’ of course. That one stumped me.

Enjoy, and a happy New Year to you all!

 


A Cowbot for Christmas, a Short Story

While promoting Bobbi Smith’s latest holiday romance, A Cowboy for Christmas, I accidentally typed ‘cowbot’ instead of ‘cowboy’ in an e-mail. After cackling over this typo for a few seconds, I got to wondering about cowbots. Would they be cowboy robots? Would their metal rust on long cattle drives? Would they have muscular chest plates? Hey, the Tin Man was hot, or he would be if you left him out in the sun too long. Cowbots could be hunks of the future, I thought. So for your benefit (and mine), I’ve written a short story about one! Read on for my imagining of a cowbot and his lady love.

“A Cowbot for Christmas,” a short story inspired by Bobbi Smith’s A Cowboy for Christmas

Sagebrush, Texas, 2625

It was the final night of the 35th Annual Holiday Cowbot Rodeo, and Penny was wearing her best dress. She anxiously made her way to her seat in the exclusive, women-only Rose Section of the arena. The biggest rodeo in the circuit, the events spanned over three nights, and tonight’s event was the biggest of all: the Bot Bull Riding competition.

Penny still wasn’t used to the spectacle of man’s perfectly engineered Cowbots faced against God’s creatures. Although rare, every once in a while there was a rogue bull who would manage to throw a bot. Those were the moments she craved, because in that defeat, the Cowbots almost seemed human. Almost.

For as long as she could remember, this had been the biggest televised event in Texas. The Texans were proud of their Cowbots; they represented modernity while also preserving traditions. When artificial intelligence was outsourced by China in 2500, bots began slowly infiltrating the industries that needed them most, including, not surprisingly, the entertainment industry. Cowboys became fewer and fewer as rodeo deaths became more common, so eventually Cowbots replaced them, both on the rodeo circuit and ranches.

Every woman Penny knew would be at the rodeo dressed to the nines. It wasn’t their fault that the Cowbots were so perfect. Synthetic skin as flawless as a newly-made speedster, perfectly cut muscles, piercing eyes of any imaginable color, and of course, perfection in any pursuit they applied themselves to. Anatomically, they were really no different from your above-average man, except for that occasional moment when the sun would hit their skin and glint brightly like light on steel.

A respectable woman would never think of being seen with one; it was common knowledge that bots—especially Cowbots—had a certain reputation. It was still against state and federal laws to marry one, but that didn’t stop some women from socializing with them. Most of her friends were here to drool. She was here for him.

Penny knew a fair amount of the women seated near her from her work on the local charity board. Their incessant chattering was luckily drowned by the crowd’s cheers as the Cowbots entered the stadium. “Ooooh, do you see that one? Look at that…” “He can’t be a bot. He looks so human!” “I wish Michael had that one’s build. I would never deny him anything if he looked like that!”

And on and on it went while the Cowbots scheduled to compete were introduced, to the delight of the crowd. Her friend Megan leaned in and whispered, “Penny, isn’t that your bot?”

Her eyes scanned the arena searching bot after bot in the lineup, and then…yes, there he was! That same cool demeanor. That unbearably handsome face. The deep, almond shaped, violet eyes. And as she drank him in, she perceived that same sense of humanness. Dan Roland. He’d been competing for years and was practically a celebrity in the circuit. But strangely, he didn’t partake in most of the perks that the other celeb Cowbots enjoyed. Penny had never seen him tied to any scandals in the mags, she’d heard rumors that he had donated his share of the prize money to an anonymous orphanage, and he had notoriously opted out of the rose ceremony both times he had won in the past. She’d first seen him compete when she was ten, and even then, she remembered thinking that he was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She had never obsessed over the Cowbots like the other girls did, but she knew he was different, and she couldn’t help but wonder about him.

“That’s your bot, right Penny? You’ve been talking about him since last year’s rodeo. Are you going to give him your rose?”

“Oh shush, Megan. First of all, he’s not my bot. You know as well as I do what people would say if I was with a bot. And second of all, I haven’t talked about him that much….have I?”

Megan shot her a glance that said you know as well as I do how much you’ve talked about him.

“Well fine,” Penny said, “Maybe I will give him my rose. But first he has to win…and then he has to actually accept a rose for once.”

The odds didn’t seem in her favor, but Megan beamed at her and went on with her chattering. The Cowbots left the stadium as the opening introductions concluded. One by one, they took their chances against the bulls. The rules were much like they were back in the olden days: a Cowbot had to stay on his bull for eight seconds. All contestants were judged by a panel, and the highest score won.

At least twenty thousand audience members were in the stadium this year. Penny sighed. With crowds this large, there was no way he would notice her, even if he wanted to…

She watched as the first Cowbots competed. They were all so infallible; it didn’t seem like they could fail. After the first hour Penny was beginning to feel her legs numb beneath her. A few of her friends had left their seats to grab snacks, and as she stood up to join them, she heard the announcer say “And now we have Dan Roland, bravely returning after last year’s defeat. Dan was created in the Northern Texas Bot Branch in 2600, rare model 11.411….”

Penny sat herself down, her eyes locked on Dan. He was preparing to mount his bull. It was the biggest bull she’d ever seen, and the angriest, too. Dan seemed calm, though. He seemed ready. Oh, how she hoped he would win. He was up on his bull, and before they pulled the gates back, his eyes shot up and met hers for a split second. She couldn’t look away. She was wholly consumed by the distant violet of his eyes, and a memory of their last glance washed over her.

It was during last year’s holiday rodeo, and he had fallen. As he pulled himself up from the floor of the stadium, the first person’s eyes he had met were hers. In that defeat she saw humanity reflected back at her, and an indescribable beauty. Maybe it was coincidence that their eyes linked, maybe not, but she knew she had felt something, knew that he had felt something—something that no bot should feel.

The gate crashed open and she was brought back to the present. The beast launched out of the holding cell, bucking and tossing for the life of him. Dan, using his strength and skill to stay astride the wild bull, barely seemed phased, the look of complete confidence never leaving his face. Penny’s fists were clenching the material of her dress. She thought her heart would never stop beating so madly in her chest.

And then the buzzer rang. After his eight seconds were up, Dan stayed on the bull for two seconds more, and achieved the most graceful dismount she had ever seen. The crowd gasped then erupted in cheers. From the middle of the stadium, Dan turned and looked straight at her, through to the soul of her, communicating something she could not understand, and smiled slightly in promise.

The remaining Cowbots took their turns, but no score came close to Dan’s and he was the clear winner an hour later. As the traditional award ceremony began, Penny nervously fidgeted with the rose in her hand. Every year, the eligible ladies fortunate enough to watch from the Rose Section would throw their roses into the arena as the winning Cowbot was presented with his trophy. The Rose Section seats were not easy to come by—hundreds of seats were set aside in the front rows for the young ladies attending the rodeo. A charity raffle was held every year, and as this was Penny’s first year on the charity’s board, she was guaranteed a seat. If the winning Cowbot so chose, he could claim one rose, and one lady, to join him in his victory lap. This was the only time public interaction between a Cowbot and a lady was appropriate, and every girl dreamed of being chosen, just once, by a creature of such perfection.

She examined the rose she had created with him in mind. A dense iron stem grew into delicate copper petals infused with subtle tones of violet. She promised herself that if her rose was left on the dusty stadium floor with the rest, she would forget this ridiculous notion that a Cowbot could actually notice her. That she could actually be with one. That love between a human and a bot could ever even exist.

As Dan rode into the arena after accepting his trophy the roses began soaring through the air. Penny let out a deep sigh and sent her rose to meet the rest in their hopeful flights.

Dan rode his horse to the area of the arena now littered with roses, and Penny realized he was actually going to choose a rose this year. She really did wonder if her madly beating heart could cause her harm. He had never accepted a rose before…was this really happening? She watched as he passed by the beautiful gold roses, the shining silver petals, and then he was directly in front of her tarnished, beautiful dusty violet rose. He dismounted, knelt down, and gently plucked it from the ground. Time stopped. He looked slowly up at her and held the rose up for all the world to see. There he was with his beautiful, charming smile, arm outstretched, waiting for her to take it. She couldn’t believe it. She stopped breathing. She was only brought back to the present by Megan’s insistent prodding.

She slowly rose from her seat, her friend’s eyes, and everyone else’s, following her every move. She was remotely aware of her face plastered on all the jumbo trons around the stadium. She slowly walked down the steps until she came to the edge of the arena. An attendant opened the gate for her, and she was suddenly face to face with the Cowbot that had consumed her dreams.

She looked up into his eyes, a smile in her own, and accepted the hand he offered her.

“Howdy, miss,” he said softly, “I’m Dan Roland, and I believe I’ve been meaning to introduce myself to you for some time now.”

-The End-

I hope you enjoyed this cowbot short! For more on A Cowboy for Christmas, enjoy our exclusive ReCOVERy Room and a country song inspired by A Cowboy for Christmas!