FYI, I’ve started work on another novel (or maybe novella — not really sure — we’ll see how that goes). I thought I’d offer up a sample chapter — well, actually, a prologue and sample chapter. It’s just a heads up about what I’m working on.
This is a story about a female ex-Marine with PTSD, who works as an unlicensed detective. I was inspired to write it (in part) after seeing this photo.
Here’s the sample:
Afghanistan, August 2010
Ten minutes. It was only supposed to take ten minutes to reach the chopper landing.
Perkins drove. I rode shotgun—literally. My usual spot. The jeep bounced down a mountain. We traveled a narrow strip of ground, rutted and strewn with stones.
Corporal Perkins muttered an oath I barely heard over the roar of the jeep and the howling wind.
“Copy that,” I shouted. I scanned the surroundings, gripping my rifle.
Perkins, a red-haired, freckle-faced 20-year-old, said something else I couldn’t hear. When I asked what he said, all I could make out in response was, “Erica, does getting … like a hero?”
I assumed the question was about how I’d been shot while transporting personnel and earned a Purple Heart for my misfortune. My mind was abuzz with thoughts about that, but the wind seemed to blow them straight out of my head. “Not really,” I offered. “More like a damned idiot.”
I checked my watch. Seven minutes to go.
Perkins was hell-bent on returning to his hometown in Nebraska or Kansas or some other flyover state. I think his family had a hog farm there. Me, I could think of no other place to go except the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., where I’d lived all 22 years of my life. With the exception of the last two, which I’d spent in Afghanistan.
I wouldn’t miss the bouncing jeep rides, the whipping wind, the scorching summer temps, freezing nights, or playing target for madmen. The mountains towered over us. I searched them for signs of movement. My watch now indicated five minutes until we reached our ticket out of this hellhole.
Then, clear as a bell, as if Perkins’ voice were a stiletto blade piercing the noise, I heard him say, “First thing I do when I get home is have a cheeseburger. And a bottle of beer.”
I opened my mouth to reply. Then I heard the explosion. Day turned to night. Is this death? I thought, before slipping from consciousness.
I woke up in my bedroom in Silver Spring, Maryland, bathed in sweat. Six years had passed and I still had the dream. I was alive, Perkins wasn’t.
The room was a dark blur. My head throbbed. I blinked rapidly to clear my vision, but it continued to go in and out. I stared at the bedside clock and forced the numbers into focus. 0430. Or in civilian speak, 4:30 in the friggin’ morning.
I flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Was another hour of sleep really worth it? Did I ever want to go back to sleep?
“Oh, what the hell,” I grumbled. I turned off the alarm, threw the covers aside, and got up. I had an important meeting that morning and didn’t want to be late.
I peeled off my sleep shirt, trudged to the bathroom, and took a warm shower in a bid to relax and ward off memories of the dream. Then I toweled off, threw on a robe, and brewed a strong pot of coffee. The paper wouldn’t be delivered until 5:30 or so. Filling my mug to the brim with coffee, I used it to wash down two Tylenol. A poor substitute for the painkillers I’d been forced to wean off, as part of my therapy. My headache had eased, but I needed more to focus on my potential client.
I puttered around the kitchen, making a simple breakfast of English muffins slathered in butter and Marmite (a salty British condiment for which I developed a taste). As I ate, I mentally prepared for my upcoming meeting with a multi-millionaire.
At 0900 sharp on a Monday, I stood at the doorstep of a small palace in upper Montgomery County, Maryland. I wore my best suit, bought on sale from a vintage clothing shop. It was that or my well-worn jeans, the kind you don’t wear to meet a new client who lives in a mini-manse. I was totally out of my element. But money’s money.
The call for my services had come out of the blue—on a Sunday, no less. Stuart Blaine had been referred by one of my previous customers. He claimed it was an emergency and wanted to meet me as soon as possible. My calendar wasn’t overflowing with billionaire clients, so meeting the next morning was fine.
Stuart Blaine’s assistant answered when I rang the doorbell. He told me to wait in the foyer. I waited. The echo of hushed discussion bouncing off the walls made my skin crawl—as if ghosts were talking. Then footsteps. Blaine appeared, descending a grand staircase curving from the second floor.
Blaine couldn’t have been taller than four foot ten, a good half-foot shorter than me. In his mid-fifties, he was a stick figure man with pasty skin and green eyes made huge by his Coke bottle lens glasses. Rich as Midas, he could have destroyed the U.S. economy with his expertise. Such is the life of a hacker-turned-entrepreneur. He wore jeans and a shirt with the arms lopped off so the fleece lining peeked out, revealing an elaborate blue and purple skull-and-flowers tattoo on his upper arm.
He extended a hand as he approached. “Thanks for coming to see me, Ms. Jensen.”
“No problem. It’s good to meet you, Mr. Blaine.” As we shook, he held onto my hand, as if for dear life.
“Please … call me Stu.”
“And I’m Erica.”
Blaine led me through a living room decorated in classic Ethan Allan. “This is the family room,” he said over his shoulder. “Not my style, but it’ll do until I can update the look.”
“Here’s the kitchen.” He waved toward the small room. “It’s needs to be expanded and upgraded.” We took a short hall to a room lined with bookshelves. A sleek Danish modern desk sat near the picture window.
I did a quick scan of the bookshelves, which looked dark, wooden and heavy. They held a mix of hard cover and paperback books.
“This is the library.” Blaine stopped and swept his hand in a sideways arc. I longed to say, “Really? I never would’ve guessed,” but kept the thought to myself.
“Take a seat.” He nodded toward a guest chair. I sat. Apparently, the tour was over and we could get down to business.
Blaine dropped into his high-backed leather chair, and judging from his not being completely dwarfed by it, I would’ve sworn the tiny man used a booster seat. He perched his elbows on the desk and gazed at me over his steepled fingers. “My daughter is missing,” Blaine said without preamble. “I’m willing to pay whatever you ask to find her.”
Odd. During our phone call, Blaine had given another reason for hiring me.
“You told me your former partner may have embezzled from you,” I said. “Now you tell me your daughter is missing. Have you called the cops to report her missing?” He looked confused, so I added, “How old is your daughter?”
“She’s twenty-two, single, and going to art school in Baltimore. She hangs around with losers who borrow money and party all night.” Blaine raised a hand, palm forward. I held back on responding. “I also have the problem I mentioned on the phone, but that’s a separate issue.”
Says you. Despite the money I stood to earn, this wasn’t the best start to a potential business relationship.
“Your daughter isn’t a minor. She can go where she wants,” I said.
Blaine glared at me. “Did you not hear me? She’s hanging out with a bad crowd. I haven’t been able to reach her and that’s unusual. I’m worried.”
You’re worried about her hanging out with a bad crowd? You, the paragon of virtue? I nearly bit my tongue in two keeping mum.
I took a breath before speaking. “Let’s take things one at a time,” I suggested. “When was the last time you heard from your daughter?”
Four days ago.
“You can file a missing persons report anytime,” I said.
He frowned. “No cops. That’s why I need you.”
I could already guess his reasons, but I had to ask. “Why not call the police?”
He grimaced. “Young lady, do you read the papers? Or do you just surf the Web for funny cat photos and weird celebrity news?”
I let his condescension slide. Blaine seemed like one of the kind who confuse taunting with being assertive. Besides, I’m twenty-eight, but have been told I look seventeen, which doesn’t help.
“I know who you are,” I said in an even tone. “I know you were released from prison last year.”
“Then you should understand why I’d rather not have the police involved in my personal business.”
I nodded. Being a convicted hacker must complicate one’s life. Almost as much as joining the military, suffering a traumatic brain injury and earning a living as an unlicensed investigator.
“Assuming I agree to find her, any guesses where your daughter may have gone?”
“How should I know?” A vertical line creased the space between his brows. “She could be anywhere.”
Blaine had no clues about his daughter? Not exactly Father of the Year material. “So … she’s never expressed a desire to leave the area?”
He waved a hand. “She’s mentioned vague desires to see the Southwest. I doubt she actually went there, though.”
“How can you be sure?”
“She’s determined to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art and spent a lot of money on classes there.”
“You don’t pay her educational expenses?”
“I told her if she insisted on going to art school, it would be on her own dime.” Blaine pursed his lips. “She can’t tap her trust fund, except for emergencies. Art school doesn’t qualify.”
Asshole, I thought. But I wasn’t there to argue. “How about her friends? Have you tried talking to them?”
“I have no contact with the people she hangs with now.” A wistful tone crept into his voice. “Her best friend in high school was Katie Saunders. Don’t know if they’ve stayed in touch.”
“How about guys? Any special ones in her life?”
“She’s seen so many boys I can’t keep track.” The wistfulness was gone and his tone was flat.
Helpful. Maybe Katie would know more.
I pressed on. “Can you think of anything that might provide a lead? Where does she work?”
“She works at a coffee shop near school. Cafe Latte or some such. I can’t recall her saying anything unusual or likely to help you find her.”
“How do you know she’s missing? Have you been to her home?”
Blaine’s expression turned stiff, his lips pressed thin. “We usually talk every Friday or Saturday, but not this past weekend. When I couldn’t reach her, I had no idea what to do. I have no idea where she lives. That’s how far apart we’ve drifted.”
I tried to read his manner, but he came across as expressionless. Was that sadness or stubbornness beneath the mask?
“Here’s what I’ll do,” I said. “I’ll devote three hours to looking for her. I’ll check with her friends and contacts around school and work. I’ll find and contact Katie. If I don’t get any leads, I’ll check back with you. But to be honest, any further work may be a waste of your money and my time.”
“Now, see here–”
I leaned forward and glared at him. “No, listen. If her disappearance is …,” I paused, then in a lower voice continued, “due to foul play, the police should be involved. Given the unusual nature of my services, I don’t want to tread on official toes. Understand?”
His visage turned sullen, but he nodded.
“Now,” I continued. “About the missing partner and money. I can understand why you’d wish to keep this quiet and avoid official interference with your business. I’ll need more details–your partner’s name and any information that could help me find him and the money.”
At that point, Blaine launched into a story about how he and his partner, Slava Romanov, had knocked heads over marketing, reinvestment in the business and other matters. Romanov had kept the books and was a spender. Blaine wanted to rein in extravagant purchases and focus on reinvesting to shore up the basics. I nodded and took notes.
“And the name of your business?” I asked.
“B & R Security, LLC.”
That much I knew from reading the papers.
“When did you last see him?” I asked.
He squinted and pinched his chin between thumb and forefinger. “Last Wednesday, maybe. Yeah, that was it. He called me on Thursday, claiming he was sick. I didn’t notice the discrepancy in our records until Friday. And I’ve been unable to reach him, at home or on his cell.”
What a surprise. I paused to think of a good way to ask the next logical question. “How well does Romanov know your daughter?”
He paled a bit, but answered with authority. “Far as I know, they’ve never met.”
Right. Keep telling yourself that.
“One more thing,” I said. “It’ll save me a lot of time if you tell me your daughter’s name.”
He smiled and shook his head. “What was I thinking? Her name’s Melissa. Her full name is Melissa Anne Blaine.”
I jotted down the name and wondered what he was thinking, too.
If you enjoyed this sample, I hope you’ll consider checking out one for my latest novel, The Planck Factor.
Just click here and fill out the form to read the sample chapters.