Copper Waters
Marlene M. Bell
(Annalisse, #4)
Publication date: December 5th 2022
Genres: Adult, Crime, Mystery

A rural New Zealand vacation turns poisonous.

Antiquities expert Annalisse Drury and tycoon Alec Zavos are at an impasse in their relationship when Alec refuses to clear up a paternity issue with an ex-lover.

Frustrated with his avoidance when their future is at stake, Annalisse accepts an invitation from an acquaintance to fly to New Zealand—hoping to escape the recent turbulence in her life.

But even Annalisse’s cottage idyll on the family sheep farm isn’t immune to intrigue.

Alec sends a mutual friend and detective, Bill Drake, to follow her, and a local resident who accompanies them from the Christchurch airport dies mysteriously soon after. A second violent death finds Annalisse and Bill at odds with the official investigations.

The local police want to close both cases as quickly as possible—without unearthing the town’s dirty secrets.

As she and Bill pursue their own leads at serious cost, the dual mysteries force Annalisse to question everything she thought she knew about family ties, politics, and the art of small-town betrayal.

Goodreads / Amazon

EXCERPT:

“Nothing’s sinking in.” I pass the note to Alec and prepare myself. “Would you mind reading it aloud?”

“She and Ethan traveled together.” He gazes at me.

“Okay, we’d considered that.”

“Kate has business to conclude in New Zealand before she returns to New York. She asks me not to mention this to you until she arrives in the States but didn’t give a reason. Kate says she’ll meet you in person when she’s ready.”

“Seriously? Where does she plan to live? With me in Greenwich? The Goshen farm could be sold by now. Does she mention Jeremy finding her another place?”

Alec scans the page randomly. “No, she didn’t.”

I scratch my scalp and shake my head. “Then my sheep station trip to New Zealand is perfect timing. I have to leave now and see if I can catch her before she skips out. Ethan must know where Kate is. If it’s all the same, we’ll hang on to the tickets for our April trip, and I’ll buy my own way for this flight.” Tugging at my sweatshirt with clammy hands, I take the note from Alec and sail it into the flames, watching paper crinkle and burn on the log.

He steps forward, his chiseled profile gawking at the fire in disbelief.

“Were you ever going to tell me about Kate’s message?” A sob chokes my windpipe. “If it weren’t for Ethan’s invite, I doubt that we’d be talking about Kate.”

“Babe, I thought by staying neutral…” He twists his lips and looks at his shoes. “Seeing your reaction now; it was a mistake not to tell you.”

“That totally blows.” I ball my hands into fists. “More like you were afraid that I’d run down there to find her.” I’m mad enough to send smoke signals, so I take slower, calming breaths.

“If I’d told you… Yeah, I worried you’d run off. The ordeal in Italy, then Peter Gregory terrorizing you, and Helga has had barely enough time to settle around here. Your safety doesn’t include encouraging you to hop on a plane to another country so soon after a trauma like that. Waiting for Kate’s return felt right to me. At some point, I hope you’ll see things from my side. Kate put me in the middle, but it’s you I worry about.”

Willing myself to relax, I take his hand to get him to focus on me instead of the floor. “I know that.”

Peter Gregory, an old coworker from my past job at another gallery, is responsible for a young woman’s murder in Lecce, near the Mediterranean Sea on Italy’s eastern shore. Alec and I went to Southern Italy for a working vacation that spun us into solving more than one homicide in order for Alec to sell his dad’s Signorile Corporation, a sports car company.

“After a shower, I’ll give your mom a call from the car on the way home. I might have trouble getting a flight out on the spur of the moment, but if I do, I hope you’ll help me.”

“Anna, we should discuss this.” He catches my wrist. “I’d like to go along. Say the word, and I’m on that plane with you. Allow what’s happened with Kate to simmer. You might feel differently in the morning.”

Grasping Kate’s locket beneath my shirt, I slide the chain over my head and cup Alec’s hand, dropping the necklace there.

“Hold on to my locket while I’m gone. It’s the most precious thing I own. That way, you’ll know I’m coming back to you.” On my tiptoes, our salty kiss calls a loneliness— In a flash, two people are about to have a hemisphere drifting between them from outside influences that want to manipulate us. “Gen will be here to see Noah in a few hours, and you have him until Sunday. Let me go, Alec, and please wait for me at Brookehaven. I have to make this trip by myself. If there’s the slightest chance that Kate’s with Ethan or he knows where she is, I have to go. I’ve already lost precious time.” I start for the drawing room doors and remember something left undone. “Oh, and sorry for the sticky mess in your stable office.”

In a dead run, I’m biting a quivering lip. On the way to Alec’s bedroom suite, I send Chase a text to hold Ethan’s box and note for me at the gallery. True to form, Kate shoves us all out of our comfort zones, where I’m certain to find a disaster waiting for me to book a ticket to New Zealand in a mad rush.

Author Bio:

Marlene M. Bell is an award-winning writer and acclaimed artist as well as a photographer. Her sheep landscapes grace the covers of Sheep!, The Shepherd, Ranch & Rural Living and Sheep Industry News, to name a few.

Her catalog Ewephoric began in 1985 out of her desire to locate personalized sheep stationery. She rarely found sheep products through catalogs and set out to design them herself. Ewephoric gifts may be ordered online or request a catalog at TexasSheep.com.

Marlene and her husband, Gregg reside in beautiful East Texas on a wooded ranch with their dreadfully spoiled horned Dorset sheep, a large Maremma guard dog named, Tia, along with Hollywood, Leo and Squeaks, the cats that believe they rule the household—and do.

Website / Goodreads / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram


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1 Last Betrayal by Valerie J Brooks Banner

1 Last Betrayal

by Valerie J Brooks

November 14 – December 9, 2022 Virtual Book Tour

Synopsis:

1 Last Betrayal by Valerie Brooks

A complicated history. A deadly future. Can one woman survive another deep dive into the rotten underbelly of crime?

Angeline Porter craves a return to normalcy. But when the former criminal defense attorney receives an alarming text, she races in desperation to Florida only to find a ransacked apartment, a poisoned dog, and a missing half-sister. Determined to rescue her sibling, she follows a trail of shockingly incriminating clues and plunges into a life-or-death fight with the Boston mob.

Taking advantage of old ties with a charming FBI agent and trying to outsmart a violent syndicate boss with powerful federal connections, Angeline and dubious allies begin tracking down the kidnappers… until she uncovers a supposed protector’s crafty deception. And while a nefarious rogue agent, a long-lost relative, and a possibly corrupt cop close in, the gutsy woman makes the risky decision to go it alone.

Is her headlong race to save her sister about to zip her into a body bag?

1 Last Betrayal is the suspense-laden third book in the Angeline Porter Trilogy of femmes-noir thrillers. If you like bold heroines, riveting twists, and balancing on the knife’s edge, then you’ll love Valerie J. Brooks’ gritty descent into the underworld.

Praise for 1 Last Betrayal:

“Steeped in suspense, chilling encounters, and shocking twists, Brooks drops us into the dark underbelly of organized crime, and we love her for it.”

Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and The Over

“A twisty plot, great locations, and a gutsy protagonist you’ll root for all the way. A fabulous finale to a sophisticated series that can also be enjoyed as a stand-alone title.”

Kaira Rouda, USA Today and Amazon Charts bestselling author

“A seductive, intricately twisted suspense-thriller that’s nearly impossible to put down… get ready for a wild ride with plenty of suspense, action, and shocking surprises”

Kevin O’Brien, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Night She Disappeared

Don’t Miss the Book Trailer for 1 Last Betrayal:

Book Details:

Genre: Crime Thriller
Published by: Black Leather Jacket Press
Publication Date: September 2022
Number of Pages: 298
ISBN: 9781732373242
Series:The Angeline Porter Trilogy, Book 3
Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple | BookShop | IndieBound | Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

Chapter 1

If I ever get out of this alive, I’m going to have a tattoo needled on my arm like others of my generation. Of what I don’t know. But if I’m alive, I’ll be able to make a decision then. I’m throwing off the conservative persona I once had as a criminal defense lawyer. My sister Sophie would be saying, “It’s about time.”

From Portland, Oregon, I’d hopped a red-eye and was on my way to Hollywood, Florida. I was back in the game and in the right headspace, ready to bring down the Boston mob once and for all while protecting Bibi, my sister Sophie’s twin. Bibi needed me. She was tough, but this mob had a new and younger crime boss. Talia “Shawn” Diamandis. She didn’t play by the old-fashioned rules of mobsters.

Like the rest of the world, there was no honor anymore among thieves, whether they be members of gangs, political parties, or religious sects. There was no “one for all and all for one.” That only happened in the movies. So, to energize my fighting spirit, I put on my headphones, pulled up “Rebel Yell,” one of Sophie’s old favorites, and put it on repeat. We used to jump up and down to that song in her living room—but that was before the mob.

Yes, I was back in the game, but I wasn’t happy that I had to leave my dog Tempest again. How I’d ever come to love a dog that much, I’ll never know. Maybe I relate to her being a rescue. More probable is how much we’ve been through together.

The plane dropped and bumped, almost spilling my coffee. The pilot announced that we were hitting some turbulence and to keep our seatbelts fastened. I shook my head. What did he know about turbulence?

Then the plane bucked and dropped hard, causing a few people to swear and the flight attendant to grab onto a seat. A child cried. I took a deep breath. The plane continued to buck and weave back and forth. Finally, it leveled out and a collective sigh went up from the passengers. My phone was clutched in my hand. It remained silent.

I closed my eyes and leaned my head back. Why hadn’t Bibi texted me? Maybe, hopefully, she’d fallen asleep. Bibi and I had been talking and texting for the past twenty-four hours about Shawn and what to do about her. But what did you do with a mob boss telling you that you were part of her “organization” whether you liked it or not? As my sweet, dead husband Hank would have said, Bibi was in “deep shit.” I knew what that deep shit was like. I’d been in it for a few years.

Shawn sure had cojones. She’d already broken into Bibi’s apartment—and in broad daylight. What I found frightening was how thoroughly Shawn had prepared. She knew about Otto, Bibi’s dog, a dog that should have scared the daylights out of her. But Shawn had fed him a treat while telling Bibi that there would be a meeting of the three partners, and Bibi was expected to join them. Join them, as in becoming one of the partners.

My main question was “Why?” Why would Shawn take such a risk as to get into Bibi’s apartment just to tell her that she was expected to make this meeting? She could have met her in the lobby. I had a hunch: Shawn needed to know the layout of the apartment and get friendly with the dog. She planned on breaking into the place again. Again, the question was Why?

Bibi reported the “break-in” to management, a report was filed, and the police notified. Security camera footage was watched. But nothing seemed amiss. Shawn never showed her face and seemed to enter the apartment no problem, so she could have had a duplicate keycard. Nothing suspicious. Bibi was pissed because the police said she must have given Shawn a card. As I said to Bibi, a large wad of cash would have bought a duplicate from someone in the hotel or was there some type of master keycard?

My phone dinged, and I jumped. It dinged with two more messages. It was Bibi.

I’m in danger. I’m not paranoid! Otto keeps growling. There are footsteps outside my door and muffled voices.

I didn’t tell you this before, but I found incriminating evidence against the mob in Betty’s stuff. I created a safe place for it. You’ll figure it out.

If something happens to me, promise you’ll take care of Otto. You know what he’s like. He’s sweet and needs his ugly striped afghan. He also knows a lot.

I reread the texts. Fuck! It was 4:02 a.m., and we wouldn’t land for another two hours. I texted back.

Don’t answer the door, Bibi. Don’t let anyone in. Call the police.

I tried to stay calm. Footsteps and voices didn’t necessarily mean anything. Maybe it was nothing more than late-night revelers or an assignation. Yet my heart raced. Shawn had been there once. Why not again? I texted another message and tried to convince myself that she would text back and say it was nothing. Had Otto barked at the noise? He wasn’t much of a barker, more of a growler. He was a big gentle brute the size of a Shetland pony, but there’s only so much a dog could do against greedy criminals who were willing to kill people, never mind dogs. But Shawn had already made friends with him. OK, what else? Bibi carried a gun. Good. But you had to be willing to shoot to kill. I knew very few good people capable of that, even in a life-or-death situation.

I sent another text.

Do you still have your gun? Load and keep it handy.

A text came in. I almost dropped my phone.

It was my lawyer. I ignored him.

I squirmed in my seat. Why hadn’t Bibi told me about the incriminating evidence before? What had she planned on doing with it? I chewed a cuticle. Maybe she didn’t really trust me.

Being trapped on a plane made it impossible to do anything. I had to keep my wits about me though. Did Shawn know about the incriminating evidence? I doubted it. My bet was on Shawn targeting Bibi’s inheritances—two huge estates and all the assets. What a rat’s nest of relationships! Bibi’s godmother, Betty Snayer, had been the crime boss of this mob until she died trying to kill me in Kauai. But before that, Betty had taken in a young, homeless, talented black girl, my half-sister Bibi, and given her a life in the arts. Then Betty had fallen for Shawn, at the time a streetwise, ragged, coke snorter who had addicted Betty to sex and white powder. That left Bibi adrift as to Betty’s affections. So, there I was with a new half-sister who didn’t know I’d killed her sainted godmother. What a mess.

The first-class flight attendant leaned over the empty seat next to me. “Anything I can get you, Ms. Porter?” She smiled with her bright red lips, her eyes sparkling behind her cat-eye glasses.

“Scotch, please. A double.”

I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. After sending another message to Bibi, I waited. Again, nothing. Finally, resigned, I set the cell on the empty seat next to me, and when my drink came, I tried not to knock it back, but that was impossible.

Maybe Bibi had called the cops, but I doubted it. I knew she didn’t trust the FBI. Being African American, she probably didn’t trust the cops either, especially after they did nothing to follow up on Shawn. I rubbed my chest, drew in some air, and let it go. Sophie often scolded me, saying I held my breath when stressed. Taking advice from my dead sister? Better late than never.

I pushed up the window cover. The bright light made me wince. Below, the ocean bordered the serpentine edge of land. Lakes littered the middle of the state. The pilot announced we were flying over Orlando and Disney World. People oohed and aahed.

On the seat next to me, I found my notebook and pen under the New York Times, and as I flipped open the notebook, my hand trembled. I’d always been pretty good at compartmentalizing, something I found necessary as a lawyer, but it was getting more difficult. I needed to keep my mind busy until I was off the plane and could make calls. I wondered where Gerard was. I figured from our conversations that he was back undercover with the mob. When I told him I was heading to Florida to help Bibi, he told me not to and was upset when I wouldn’t back down. When he realized I wouldn’t change my mind, he said he’d meet me there. Fine.

I made a fist, squeezed, then shook out my hand, needing to write something down, maybe work through what I knew and come up with a plan of sorts. Since my law school days, I’d written to-do lists, observations, even lists of conjectures and theories about people and cases. It kept me focused. It also helped me solve dilemmas, and even, at times, find something that wasn’t immediately apparent. Clients were told to keep a journal of every move they made, with dates and times, plus anything that could help their case. People were unaware of the evidentiary heft a written journal provided when entered into court records. I’d won several cases on the written word alone when the opposition had what I called a wormy case.

But what to write?

The scotch had warmed its way down to my body, and I could feel my nerves relaxing, my brain focusing. I tapped the pen against my lower teeth. Going back to the beginning with Shawn, I wondered why Betty had been interested in her? Bibi said it was cocaine-fueled sex. I believed that. Betty was older and not a looker, so it could have been the excitement and ego boost. I believed Bibi when she said Betty took Bibi in because she saw her talent and wanted to support her. Being a cynic at heart, I figured Betty had done that to make herself feel good. I’m sure it made her look good to her wealthy patron friends. Bibi was beautiful too—a dark version of Sophie—dizygotic twins from different fathers. So that would give Betty even more cred for being inclusive. A great way to get grants for her non-profit art ventures.

There I go again—the cynic.

The flight attendant swooped in and removed my cold coffee. I ordered another scotch, a single this time, thinking about Gerard, my FBI special agent pain-in-the-ass contact. In the beginning, he’d suspected Bibi was another one of Betty’s lovers. Men. They always think sex is involved. Sometimes it was. I could attest to that.

So how had Shawn become the crime boss of Betty’s mob? Maybe Betty had put her in charge when she went to Kauai. I know that Betty was using heavily by the time she came to the island. She was in Kauai, doing a godmotherly thing—setting up a hit on Bibi’s brother who hated Bibi. Bibi was adopted and the parents favored her over their flaky son. Her brother lived communally on Kauai and dressed as the grim reaper to get peoples’ attention about climate change. So, he didn’t fit his parents’ mold. Bibi, however, was the golden child, always thankful for everything they did for her. But they died before the will was changed, and the brother inherited the bulk. Hating Bibi, he gave her nothing. Betty figured she’d get rid of the brother so Bibi would inherit. At least Betty felt she was protecting Bibi. I wonder if Shawn had put that idea into Betty’s head, thinking Bibi would eventually bring in even more assets to the “organization.”

When I met Betty in Kauai, I didn’t know I had a sister named Bibi. I didn’t know a lot of things. I was hiding out from the mob. They wanted the millions my sister Sophie stole. But Betty knew who I was. I was the one who had killed one of her partners—in self-defense. But that didn’t matter to her. She must have been overjoyed to think she could take care of two marks on the same trip.

I had to assume that Shawn took over the crime boss position when Betty and her bodyguard never made it back to Boston. Gerard and I thought Shawn was a minor character, one of those people who target the wealthy to live luxuriously for a while, snort coke all day, then when things go dumpster, they disappear. She fooled us.

Plus, I had to remember she was a good actor. Shawn had gone from messed-up street urchin to high couture. What really bothered me was her telling Bibi that she laundered the money for the mob. True? Or was that a way to entrap Bibi? If Bibi knew that, she’d be vulnerable if she didn’t join the mob. Shawn was smart, no matter her motive.

I sipped my second scotch. If I kept in lawyer mode, I could keep my shit together. So, who was Shawn? Did she have a police record? What was her M.O.? I’d lost the connection with Snoop, my hacker, just as she was going to tell me what she found on Shawn. I haven’t heard from her since, and that’s not good.

Shawn might be a psychopath, but she had to be a strategist, someone with patience, someone who had planned her ascent with the crime group. This was conjecture, but her actions pointed to it.

This felt good, building a case, listing all the possibilities, hopefully tracing them to their logical conclusion either with evidence or what I’d discovered in the process.

I listed questions about “Shawn the Strategist”:

  • Getting Betty hooked on cocaine: loosens the tongue, makes her vulnerable
  • Reason for admitting money laundering: trap Bibi into the gang; something else?
  • Need background check on her: laundering takes guts, know-how, and connections
  • Has Shawn already taken Bibi somewhere? Under guise of meeting?
  • How much does Bibi know about Betty?
  • Maybe Shawn knows more about Bibi than I do

I suspected that Bibi couldn’t live in Betty’s house all that time and not notice any illegal activities. But Bibi seemed to have no idea, and as she said, she’d been fully engaged in school, her art, and her friends.

The plane’s engine noise changed. We were approaching Fort Lauderdale. I slipped on my shoes and buttoned my military-style jacket, readying myself for landing. I’d dressed with a casual elegance so people would take me seriously but not authoritatively as with a suit. Instead of perfume or aftershave, the cabin smelled like a locker room, and I hoped I didn’t smell that way. I thought of how Gerard would smell when I met him. As if reading my mind, Gerard sent me a message.

I’ll get to The Circ before you. Meet you in the residency lobby.

Between my teeth, I hissed, “Asshole.” He’d insisted on meeting me in Florida, but I told him to do nothing until I got there. That was like pissing in the wind with him.

I finished the scotch. I couldn’t get off the plane fast enough.

The pilot came on the intercom and gave the usual instructions, telling everyone to take their seats, buckle up, seats upright, tray in position. The flight attendant quickly gathered up all the bottles and glasses. I snapped my tray into place, gathered up everything on the empty seat, and threw them in my satchel, something I’d bought because it was more like a briefcase but not a briefcase. The flight attendant had just buckled herself in when the plane dropped like a trap door had opened. Someone squealed. A kid cried. Then the plane leveled off.

With my heart in my throat, I forced my mind back to Bibi and Betty. From everything I knew, Betty wanted Bibi to devote herself to being an artist. What if Betty had recognized Shawn’s killer instinct and started grooming her to take over the business?

I checked my cell one more time. Nothing from Bibi.

The plane headed toward the landing strip. I held the notebook against my chest. As a defense attorney, I’d met many criminals and could usually sniff out the liars. Bibi’s panicky text from Florida was not something easy to fake. But I had no body language to go with this to assure me she was being straight with me.

Far too many unknowns.

I sat back, closed my eyes, and prepared for landing.

***

Excerpt from 1 Last Betrayal by Valerie J Brooks. Copyright 2022 by Valerie J Brooks. Reproduced with permission from Valerie J Brooks. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Valerie J Brooks

Multi-award-winning author Valerie J. Brooks is the author of the Angeline Porter trilogy, femmes-noir thrillers starring a badass disbarred attorney.

NYTimes bestselling author Kevin O’Brien called her second novel TAINTED TIMES 2 “… a real nail-biter from first page to the last.” Heather Gudenkauf, NYT bestselling author of THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE and THE OVERNIGHT GUEST calls Brooks the Queen of the Femmes-noir Thriller and says her upcoming 3rd novel 1 LAST BETRAYAL is “explosive” and “Brooks drops us into the dark underbelly of organized crime, and we love her for it.”

Brooks is a member of Sisters in Crime. Her awards include an Elizabeth George Foundation grant and five writing residencies. She teaches workshops and classes on writing noir and creating plot twists. Brooks found her love of thrillers as a teen after turning in a hitman to the FBI.

She lives in Oregon with her husband, Dan Connors and their Havanese pooch Stevie Nicks.

Catch Up With Valerie J Brooks:
ValerieJBrooks.com
Goodreads
BookBub – @valeriejbrooks
Instagram – @valeriejbrooksauthor
Twitter – @ValinParis
Facebook – @FemmesNoirFiction
Pinterest – @ValinParis
TikTok – @ValerieBrooksAuthor

 

 

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Hero Haters by Ken MacQueen Banner

Hero Haters

by Ken MacQueen

November 7 – December 2, 2022 Virtual Book Tour

Synopsis:

Hero Haters by Ken MacQueen

He seeks redemption, others want revenge

Jake Ockham had a dream job, vetting nominees for the Sedgewick Medallion-the nation’s highest civilian award for heroism. His own scarred hands are an indelible reminder of the single mother he failed to pull from a raging house fire; her face haunts him still. Obligations drag him back to his hometown to edit the family newspaper but attempts to embrace small-town life, and the hot new doctor, are thwarted by unknown forces. The heroes Jake vetted go missing and he becomes the prime suspect in the disappearances. Aided by resourceful friends, Jake follows a twisted trail to the Dark Web, where a shadowy group is forcing the kidnapped medalists to perform deadly acts of valor to amuse twisted subscribers to its website. To save his heroes, Jake must swallow his fears and become one himself…or die in the attempt.

Praise for Hero Haters:

“An edge of your seat thriller. MacQueen, a journalist, ratchets up the suspense and tightens the grip to the explosive end.”

Robert Dugoni New York Times Bestselling Author of The Tracy Crosswhite series

“Gripping from the first page. A thrill ride with all the right moves.”

Rick Mofina USA Today Bestselling Author

Book Details:

Genre: Adult Thriller
Published by: The Wild Rose Press, Inc
Publication Date: October 2022
Number of Pages: 366
ISBN: 9781509243853 (ISBN10: 1509243852)
Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

Prologue

Spokane, Washington, August 2019

Local hero Anderson Wise can’t remember the last time he paid for a drink at Sharkey’s.

Nor can he remember an embarrassing assortment of the women who selflessly shared their affection, post-Sharkey’s.

As for that last blurry night at the gin mill, he wished to hell he’d stayed home.

The bar’s owner, Sharon Key, hence Sharkey’s, took joy in chumming the waters on Wise’s behalf for a regular catch of what she called “Hero Worshippers.”

She saw getting him laid as partial repayment for saving her eleven-year-old grandson Toby’s life some eighteen months back.

A disaffected dad, high on crystal meth, stormed into Toby’s classroom to take issue with his kid’s latest report card. He showed his displeasure by shot-gunning the teacher, then reloaded and asked all A-students to identify themselves. Being A-students, they dutifully raised their hands, Toby among them.

As the high-as-a-kite shooter herded the high achievers to the front of the class, Wise, the school custodian, charged into the room armed with a multipurpose dry-chemical fire extinguisher. He blasted the shooter with a white cloud of monoammonium phosphate, to minimal effect, then slammed the gun out of his hands. It discharged into the floor sending several pellets into Wise’s left foot. Thoroughly pissed, Wise ended the drama by pile-driving the extinguisher into the shooter’s face.

Sharon Key, a widow in her early sixties, subsequently replaced the beer signs and dart board with blow-ups of the laudatory press Wise earned during the tragic aftermath. The front of the next day’s local paper held pride of place. It carried a photo of Wise, extinguisher in hand, under the headline: Greater Tragedy Averted as Hero Janitor Extinguishes Threat. The story contained a pull quote in large font which Wise came to regret: “ ‘It’s a versatile extinguisher,’ the modest 30-year-old explained, ‘good for class A, B and C fires—and meth-heads’.”

Said famous extinguisher now guards the top-shelf booze behind Sharkey’s oak-and-brass bar.

New stories were added to Sharkey’s wall five months back after Wise was awarded, with much publicity, the Sedgewick Trust Sacrifice Medallion— one of the most prestigious recognitions of heroism that American civilians can receive.

Wise’s liver and a lower part of his anatomy took a renewed pounding in the weeks thereafter. So much so he declared a moratorium on visits to Sharkey’s for reasons of self-preservation.

He was back in the saddle a month now, but his attendance was spotty. “This hero stuff,” he confided to Key one night, while slumped in his chair. “Maybe it’s too much of a good thing?”

“Ya think?” Key muttered as she took inventory of that night’s limited offerings.

It wasn’t just the women. Men often bought him drinks too, happy to bask in the reflected glory of a proven manly man.

Two weeks ago, some weedy academic from back east interviewed him at Sharkey’s and staked him to an alcohol-fueled dinner at the city’s best chop house. The brainy one expected Wise to opine on such things as “neo-Darwinian rules for altruism.”

Asked him if he’d been motivated by “a kinship bond” with anyone in the room?

Er, no.

Wondered if Wise knew that a disproportionate number of risk takers are working-class males?

Nope, sorry.

And had he calculated in the moment that a heroic display of “good genes” would make him a desirable mating partner?

Cripes. Really?

“Don’t know what I was thinking,” Wise said, swirling a glass of something called Amarone, a wine so amazing angels must have crushed the grapes with their tiny, perfect feet. “Heard a gun blast, grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall. Saw the dead teacher, all those kids, and a nut with a shotgun. Did what anybody would do. I spent three years in the army after high school, mostly in the motor pool. Much as I hated basic training, maybe some of it stuck. Who knows?”

The academic gave a condescending smile and called for the bill, his hypothesis apparently confirmed.

Wise fled to the restaurant toilet and took notes on the back of his pay slip. Back home, he Googled the hell out of studies on “extreme altruist stimuli,” on “empirical perspectives on the duty to rescue,” and after many false starts, on theories of “Byronic and Lilithian Heroes.”

He kinda got the concept of “desirable mating partner”, but he was pretty sure his dick didn’t lead him into that classroom. Did it?

While not a reflective guy, Wise had to admit it was creepy to reap the fleshy benefits of his few seconds of glory while his dreams were haunted by visions of teacher Adah Summerhill slumped over her desk, blood pooled beneath her. So much blood. With the shooter sprawled unconscious, Wise gently lifted Adah’s head.

She had no pulse and her eyes, once so vibrant and expressive, were as empty as an open grave. She’d always been nice, and totally out of his league.

So, here he was, back at Sharkey’s, mind made up.

Key arrived at his “courting table” and set down his Jack and ginger ale.

“Gave my notice at the school,” he told her. “Getting outta here for a while. Got that Sedgewick money to spend. Someplace they don’t know me. Mexico, maybe.

Or Costa Rica.”

Key patted his hand. “Knew this was coming, Andy.

You banged every eligible female in town, pretty much.

And some who shoulda been out of bounds. I’m amazed the Tourist Bureau doesn’t list you as a top-ten attraction, up there with the botanical gardens.”

“All I want, Shar, is to be liked for me, not for something I did because I happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Or is that the other way ’round?”

“Hey, you’re a good-looking guy. Still got that shaggy blond baseball player thing going for ya.

Might’ve taken a run at you myself if my hips weren’t shot.” She patted his cheek. “Made you blush. Now don’t turn into a beach bum down there. Always thought you aimed too low, mopping floors and washing windows for the school board. Time to stretch—”

She craned her neck toward the door after it opened with a bang. “My, my, here’s one for the road. She was in earlier, asking after you.” Key aimed a nod at the door and whispered, “Don’t strain anything.” And headed to the bar.

Wise looked up and…sweet Jesus.

Early twenties, he guessed. His eyes roamed from strappy sandals, up a long expanse of tanned bare legs to a glittering silver dress that started perilously high-thigh and ended well below exposed shoulders. The ripe promise of youth was on full display, like she’d dipped her bounteous curves in liquid lamé.

She drew every eye in the place as she undulated to his table. Full red lips, high cheekbones, chestnut hair piled high. Up close now, her gimlet eyes were at once innocent and knowing, like a debauched choirgirl.

“Hi, hero.” Her voice was low and sultry, as he knew it would be. She remained on her feet, hands on the table, leaning low to full effect. “When you finish that drink, I really want to see your medal.”

**** He remembered her mixing drinks back at his apartment while he retrieved his medallion from the sock drawer in his bedroom. He remembered her running a sensuous thumb over the bas-relief portrait of Philip Sedgewick as she read aloud the inscription: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.”

That wondrous voice lingering over “sublime act,”

like it was lifted from the Kama Sutra.

And like too many times, post-Sharkey’s, damned if he could remember her name—that evil bitch. He awoke, bouncing in the back of a van, hands and legs cuffed to rings set in the floor. A broken-glass headache served notice of every bump in the road.

Another lost night at Sharkey’s.

Wise had a dreadful feeling he’d never be back.

Chapter One Aberdeen, Washington, July, one month earlier Jake Ockham was one kilometer in, one kilometer to go and already in a world of pain. Lungs, legs and palms, always the damned palms, screaming enough already.

He’d whaled away on his Concept II rowing machine for thirty minutes, building up to this. Stripped off the sweatshirt after ten minutes, the t-shirt after twenty-five. Down now to running shoes and gym shorts, his torso gleaming with sweat despite the morning chill.

He’d rested after a thirty-minute warm-up to gulp water and to consider the need to reinforce the pilings under the creaky wooden deck before it dumped him and the ergometer into the Wishkah River below. Might leave it in the river mud if it came to that.

Full race mode now, one kilometer in, another to go.

The erg’s computer showed the need to pick up the pace to break the six-minute barrier, something he’d regularly shattered a decade ago during his university rowing days.

Thrust with the legs, throw back the shoulders, arms ripping back the handle. Return to the catch and repeat.

Five hundred meters to go. Eyes fixed on a duck touching down on the river, looking anywhere but the screen.

Two hundred and fifty meters. Faster. Harder. Don’t lose the technique.

Fifty meters. You can do this.

A final piston thrust of legs, shoulders, arms and…six minutes, thirteen seconds.

“Fuck!” His roar startled the duck into flight.

He slumped over the machine, gasping for air, ripping at the Velcro tabs of his gloves, throwing them on the deck in disgust. Hated those damned gloves, so essential these days.

Head bowed, he heard the cabin’s door rasp open.

“Such language.” Clara Nufeld, his aunt, and technically his boss as publisher of the Grays Harbor Independent, leaned against the doorframe.

He didn’t look up. “Don’t bother knocking. Make yourself at home.”

“I did, and I am. Got a couple of things to show you.

Right up your alley. Might be pieces for next week’s issue.”

She was lean and tall, in tight jeans and a faded Nirvana sweatshirt, her spiked white hair cut short. At sixty-four, she still turned heads. Jake knew her age to the day, Clara being his mother’s identical twin. Connie, his late mother, fell to breast cancer at age forty-five.

So much of his mother in Clara. So much that when Jake finished high school and rode his rowing scholarship east to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, his father, Roger Ockham, moved his accounting business to Bend, Oregon. Said it was for the golfing, but Jake suspected the sight of his late wife’s twin was a constant reminder of his loss.

Connie and Clara, fresh out of university, worked for their father at the Independent, Clara on the advertising side, Connie as a reporter.

They took the helm of the paper after Derwin Nufeld—their dad, Jake’s grandfather—collapsed and died mid-way through crafting a fiery editorial on a mule-headed decision to pull The Catcher in the Rye from the high school library.

After Connie’s death, Clara did double duty as editor and publisher until she succeeded six months ago in luring Jake home to Washington State from Pittsburgh to take over as editor-in-chief.

This five-room stilt home, Clara’s former cottage on the tidal Wishkah, was his signing bonus.

One of the dwindling numbers of real estate ads in the Independent would describe the cabin something like: “A cozy oasis on the Wishkah, surrounded by nature and just minutes from the city. Fish from your deck while contemplating the possibilities for this prime riverfront property. A bit of TLC gets you a rustic getaway while you make plans for your dream home.”

After years in urban Pittsburgh, he awoke now to bird chatter and the sights and scents of the moody, muddy Wishkah—its current pulled, as he was pulled, to the infinite Pacific.

Jake gathered his shirts and gloves and cringed at a sniff-test of his underarms. “I’ll keep my distance.” He waved Clara inside. “What’s up my alley?”

She waved two dummy pages, the ads already laid out, plenty of blank space for him and his skeleton staff to fill with stories and photos.

Jake was still adjusting to small-town journalism, covering at least one earnest service club luncheon every week, puffy profiles of local businesses, check presentations, city council and school board meetings.

And jamming in as many names as possible. He’d done some summer reporting for the weekly during his high school years, but rowing had occupied most of his time.

Clara handed off a page proof with a boxed advert already laid out. “A new doctor is taking over old Doc Wilson’s practice, thank God. I swear the last medical journal that old man read was on the efficacy of leeches and bloodletting.”

Jake nodded. Worth a story for sure. A few words from Wilson about passing the scalpel to a new generation, then focus on Dr. Christina Doctorow. No hardship there.

The ad for her family practice included her photo.

Rather than the cliché white coat and stethoscope she wore hiking shorts and a flannel shirt with rolled sleeves, thick dark hair in a ponytail, a daypack hanging off a shoulder. A husky at her side gazed up adoringly.

Smart dog.

Jake put her at early thirties, his age more or less. He nodded approval. “Sporty. A fine addition to the Grays Harbor gene pool.”

“The woman’s a firecracker. Spent ten minutes haggling down the price. I finally caved. Said I’ll bump this up to a half-page, but you owe me a free checkup.”

“Seriously?”

“What she said, too. Also asked ‘Is that ethical?’ I said, ‘darling, I’m in advertising. You want ethics, deal with my nephew on the editorial side.’ “

Jake laughed. “Pretty good at bloodletting herself.

What else you got?”

“This is so up your alley.” She handed him a classified ad page-proof. “You being an expert.”

Jake slumped onto a kitchen chair. “On what?”

She tapped a one-column boxed ad in the lower left, “Heroes.”

“Not hardly.”

He looked closer and reared back. The heading read: “For Sale. Rare Sedgewick Sacrifice Medallion. $100 OBO.”

There was a thumbnail photo of the medal’s obverse, showing the craggy face of Philip Sedgewick, a leading member of the long-dead school of industrialist robber barons. He’d amassed a fortune in textile mills, newspapers, and exploitive labor practices. Awash in cash he came to philanthropy late in life. Like others in this elite group—Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, et al—their names and reputation-burnishing generosity live beyond the grave.

Sedgewick, at his wife’s urging, chose to celebrate extraordinary acts of heroism. He used eight of his many millions—an enormous sum in 1901—to endow a family trust to award exceptional heroism with the Sacrifice Medallion and needs-based financial assistance. Over the past one hundred twenty years, the trust awarded some eleven thousand medallions, an inspiring legacy of courage, and yes, sacrifice.

The grainy photo in the classified ad was too small to read the inscription under Sedgewick’s stern visage, but Jake knew it well. It was a quotation by the English poet William Blake: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.”

Below the photo was a post office box address, and “mail inquiries only.”

Jake shook his head. “This is nuts. The price is insanely low, insulting really. The medallions are kinda priceless.”

“I wondered about that,” Clara said. “The ad cost fifty dollars so not much of a profit.”

“The rare few that get to auction can fetch in the thousands. We try to buy them back, prefer that to having them land up in the hands of the undeserving.”

Clara cocked an eyebrow. “We?”

Jake shrugged. “I still do the occasional freelance investigations for Sedgewick. The thing is, there’s never a good reason to sell these. Either the recipient is dead broke, or dead without relatives to inherit it. Or it’s stolen.”

“Or,” Clara said, resting a hand on Jake’s shoulder, “the hero feels undeserving.”

He flinched. “Was there a photo of the medal’s back? It’d have the recipient’s name and the reason it was awarded.”

“Don’t even know who placed the ad. Arrived in the mail: a photo, the ad copy, and a fifty-dollar bill. No return address but the post office box.”

“Pull the ad, Clara. I’ll buy it and return the money.

There’s a story here, something’s not right.”

Clara toyed with her car keys. “I feel bad sometimes, guilting you back. Do you miss it, your old life back in Pittsburgh?”

His pause was barely discernable. “Great to be back in the old hometown.”

“Great to earn half the salary you did in the big city?

Great to prop up the family business? Great to be stuck with your old aunt?”

“Aunt doesn’t cover it. I was twelve when Mom passed. You stepped up for Dad and me.”

She looked like she was about to say something, then shook her head and flashed an enigmatic smile. “A topic for another day. Gotta run.”

She leaned across the table, took his hands in hers, running her thumbs lightly over his scarred palms. She raised his hands to her lips for a kiss, then turned for the door.

***

Excerpt from Hero Haters by Ken MacQueen. Copyright 2022 by Ken MacQueen. Reproduced with permission from Ken MacQueen. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Ken MacQueen

Before turning to fiction, Ken MacQueen spent 15 years as Vancouver bureau chief for Maclean’s, Canada’s newsmagazine, winning multiple National Magazine Awards and nominations. He traveled the world writing features and breaking news for the magazine, and previously for two national news agencies. Naturally, he had to make Jake Ockham, his hero, a reporter, albeit a reluctant one. MacQueen also covered nine Olympic Games and drew Jake’s athletic prowess from tracking elite rowers in training and on podiums in Athens, Beijing and London. He and his wife divide their time between Vancouver, and British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.

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