Monday, September 30, 2013

Baby Doll excerpt by Mykola Dementiuk

In Baby Doll, Mykola Dementiuk has again brought us an unusual story of a youth growing up in
New York City. Skipping school as a daily routine, the main character of Baby Doll finds himself spending time at the East River Park, looking for girls. Instead he finds a pair of pink underwear which take him on an adventure that shapes his future.

Baby Doll gives us a literary look at the complicated psychodynamics of love and sex between a boy and a man in
America in the early ‘80s (the beginning era of AIDS, sex-offender witch-hunts, and gay/transvestite visibility). Like a good movie, Baby Doll is definitely worth giving a second (or third) read. Mykola’s mastery at storytelling and excellent writing will keep you engaged the first time through, but subsequent readings will help you understand the complex forces that unfold between the characters. You may question his opinions on femininity and relationships, but you won’t be able to ignore Mykola’s love for words as well as his understanding of a boy’s feelings and behavior.

Baby Doll (by Mykola Dementiuk; edited by Sally Miller)
Synergy Press (2011)

ISBN: 0-9758581-2-2

The rain kept him out of the park the next day – which it had never done before – and the following day as well, though it didn’t keep him from wearing his panties and bra and trying to imagine what else could have happened had he remained with the man and not fled like the coward he now felt himself to be.

Of course he had seen the man before – another solitary constant in the constantly solitary park – and had paid him no mind as the man circled after him down the park lanes, smiling, gesturing toward the restrooms. He had even once unexpectedly turned and asked for a cigarette, which the man eagerly offered and told him to keep the almost-full pack.

Because it was pleasant to be pursued like that, followed like a girl, having someone trying to pick you up, it was even more pleasant to tease the pursuer, to bend over and tie a shoelace as he hovered behind you, to lean and stretch against the river railing as he gaped before you, to flit away if he got too close.

He often fantasized what it would be like to be touched as a girl by a man – to be groped, kissed, felt, sucked . . . fucked. Because it had to be a girl/guy type of thing: one fem, the other butch; one top, one bottom; one dressed as a girl, one dressed (or undressed) as a guy. His fantasies were very specific as to the role-playing that would go on: it would be a strictly a heterosexual lovemaking, and what difference did it make if the two partners were of the same gender?

He had never had sex with a girl, and he could only imagine how it could happen with a man. And what could have happened and how were exactly the fantasies he now masturbated to: the man atop him, behind him, inside him. Suddenly he began to realize that the longing and craving for female clothing was more then just a fetish or a substitute for a lost or unattainable female, but a desire to be that female and have someone admire him, desire him, love him, as he appeared in that clothing. Even if he had a closetful of female attire it wouldn’t be enough to simply wear the clothes if there were no one to dress up and undress for. Masturbation was futile and meaningless if it was solitary and not mutual with another’s.

But why the eternally-maligned complexity of transvestitism and not the accepted ease of homosexuality? There were openly gay boys in his freshman class who would have befriended him, who would have supported and accepted him in his difference and coming out, but he was repelled by their open sameness, their clique-like conformity, by their flaunting of their difference as if gay were better. It wasn’t that their brashness and openness was as boring and obnoxious as the gang-cliques of thieves and muggers who infested the school corridors and stairs and who bullied, beat, and robbed students going to and from class. He wouldn’t have joined either.

Transvestism is not endemic of gayness, wherein the ideal is male, oneself or another, but more of a female phenomenon intrinsic to the culture’s glorification of the feminine. Or at least how a culture views and creates feminine stereotypes which most females can’t even aspire to.

The transvestite doesn’t want to be a housewife. She doesn’t want to look like Alice Kramden or Edith Bunker waiting for Ralph or Archie to get home. She wants to be Christie Brinkley and Claudia Schieffer plastered on magazine covers with Billy Joel singing of love for his Uptown Girl and David Copperfield never even once thinking of pulling a disappearing act.

Reality is never a problem for the transvestite: she wants it both ways, and gets it. Reality is transcended by the denial that reality has meaning, that creation cannot be played with, manipulated, altered, rejected, and a new reality created. This new reality is a woman unique and unlike any other, capable of softness and hardness . . . evolution reaching its apex in the form of a woman with a penis. . . .

Can penile ejaculation be called that when the penis is clasped and clutched and curled against itself in a pair of panties, when the ejaculation is restricted and contained in an seeping of trapped liquid that is not shot or spurted but eased out in a flurry of shudders and shivers that almost destroys one’s conscious awareness? If the myth of female orgasms being entire-bodied and long-lasting were true, and orgasm not merely confined to a single organ expending itself in an instant, then what male would not choose to be female and shut up his dick in himself to experience that?

The boy fell onto the stranger’s raised thigh, their arms around each other, blocking even further the release of his already entrapped and bubbled semen. Being held by another only heightened the pleasure and peace that swept over him. Melting in a torrent of release, he was comforted by another’s presence and assistance in his freedom, the man’s arms around him like a safety belt, a life buoy. He swooned deeper, thoughtless, swaying aimlessly into the unknown experience of life and sex and love.

He felt a tongue in his ear and opened his eyes to the man’s stubbled neck, the man’s mouth dipping to lick and kiss and suck. The stubble tore into the corners of his lips but he sucked greedily, his tongue flitting, his teeth biting, gnawing. His legs once more girded and encircled the man’s as he clutched his shoulders, felt himself lifted off the ground, and was dry-humped against the tree by the buckling, shuddering, groaning man.

For a moment they stood still, then eased themselves off each other, their breaths gasping; the boy got back on his feet, the man’s hands pushed under the boy’s jacket and shirt, pawing his bra and chest.

I’ve been looking for you, he said, and kissed the boy’s cheek.

The boy shrugged. The rain, he said, as the man pecked quick kisses around his face.

I brought you something, the man said softly, breaking from the boy and retrieving a slim frayed box, its corners crushed, from inside his raincoat.

The boy looked curiously at the white-ribboned pink parcel, his eyes widening at the swirled curlicued logo on the box: Michelle’s - The Finest in Ladies’ Apparel.
A line drawing of a woman’s bowed head was etched in gold under the lettering, her long hair draped down one side of her face, her lips puffed and tinged with a smile, one eye demurely shut as if in shyness and embarrassment. The boy just as shyly lowered his own head and bit his lower lip.

Michelle’s - The Finest in Ladies’ Apparel. The words burned into his eyes and skull because how many times had he passed, and circled around to walk by again, the small Avenue A shop? How many times had he leered at the window mannequins: girdled, bra-ed, nyloned, baby-dolled, crotchless-pantied, nipple-cutout-brassiered? How many times had he dreamed of an approaching Valentine’s Day when the mannequins stood all in red – red negligees, red nighties, red-hearted panties and teddies?

How many times had he jealously watched women entering and leaving the shop, stalked after them and tried to build up the courage to snatch their Michelle’s bags, or prayed they’d at least turn and call, Yoo hoo! Could you please come up and help me with my tight girdle and bra? It’s so difficult getting them over my tush and titties. . . .

He took the small parcel and mumbled thanks.

Go on, said the man, open it. He lifted his umbrella and raised it over their heads. The fine foggy mist hung almost motionless about them.

The boy looked at the man, uncertain, hesitant, then slowly unwound the bowed white streamlet of ribbon. Loose threads dangled from the old-looking ribbon; it seemed as if the parcel had been carried in the man's pocket for days. He pocketed the ribbon, then lifted the top cover of the pink box. A sheaf of frail white tissue paper – sort of brownish – shielded something black and lacy within and the boy was afraid.

He lifted the edge of the paper and saw another slim ribbon, this one red and interlacing the collar of a black negligee and tied in a bow at the neck.

The man flicked over the other edge of tissue paper and said, Take it out. The boy daintily unfolded the black baby-doll nightie and held it out at the shoulders. It was short, probably waist-length, and he shivered at the thought of it pleasantly tickling his back and sides and hovering over his stiff dick. He bit his lower lip again, looking dreamily at the nightie, then held it to his chest as the man reached under it and groped at his crotch. Again his orgasm was sudden and instantaneous.

I can’t take it, he said slowly, regaining his breath. He handed the nightie back. I’ve nowhere to wear it.

The man smiled. You can wear it in my place.

The boy looked at him, and at the nightie. Your place? he asked softly.

I live right across the highway, the man said, pointing at the brown project high-rise. I’ve seen you from my window countless times.

The boy blushed and looked up at the brown building. He recalled the woman and dog he had followed. Was he peering up at the man’s windows, seeking a sex object, as the man was peering down, seeking one, too?

They left the park together, the boy clutching his nightie present and walking at the man’s side under his umbrella. They walked without touching, the boy saddened by not being held and caressed, desperate for the man’s arm on his shoulder as he thought lovers should be, and his own arm around the man’s waist or the crook of his elbow as if showing the world the two belonged together, were a part of each other, were inseparable from the other. They walked very quickly.


Then he saw it, out of the corner of his eye, a little silver-blue packet sticking out of the top of a garbage sack, shining obscenely between a crushed milk carton,
a greasy sandwich-meat package, and a crumbled empty pack of cigarettes.
the packet read, torn in an even sharp line at the letters
     and D.

TROJAN CONDOMS. The boy knew instantly and grimaced. The other kid had probably demanded they be worn, concerned for his safety, his health, his life, whereas the boy had never given a thought to the man’s hacking cough and visible weight loss in the weeks since he first met him. He hadn’t worried about the numerous medicine bottles and syringes in the bathroom medicine chest, on the kitchen table and the bedroom dresser-top.

Nor had he considered the possibility that the threat of contagion and disease might be real and not something the government made up to keep you from enjoying sex.

The man grabbed the boy’s head and rammed himself even deeper, grunting and buckling and ejaculating down the boy’s throat. The man clutched him for a moment, shuddered a final time, then slowly eased himself out as the boy’s lips clamped shut behind him. The boy darted to the bathroom – he had been warned about dripping scummy saliva onto the kitchen floor or sink – and fell to the toilet bowl.

As usual it was unflushed, the acrid stench of fresh urine biting into his nostrils and eyes as he gagged and spat out the scum and spit. Another dry heave tore up from the pit of his stomach, but his eyes widened and focused into the bowl: at the bottom of the urine, almost like
a squiggly limpid tadpole, a used condom stirred in the disturbance of his spitting and rose to the top of the bowl, showing off its filmy contents, then sank back down again.

The boy stood up and wiped his face. He wanted to leave, he wanted to walk the streets, he wanted to go sit in the park. Alone.

But the man came into the bathroom, naked, his limp penis glistening in slow-drying saliva and scum. He looked at the boy, glanced into the bowl, took a puff of his cigarette, then reached over and flushed. You can get dressed now, he said firmly, clutching the boy’s shoulder and leading him out of the bathroom.

In the living room the man sat at his desk and papers – medical insurance forms, the boy understood – while the boy went to the bedroom where he kept his clothes and makeup in a closet. Why did the man have so many small-sized girl-fitting clothes? He had never asked but now wondered whether it was to entice boys like him. Had the baby-doll nightie the man presented him with the first time been used to entice others? . . . The closet door was open, and his short blonde wig lay on a nightstand by the unmade bed, his black baby doll nightie at the foot of the bed.

The man came in and stood in the doorway, watching.

I was thinking about you last night, he smirked, and bobbed his slightly stiffening penis.

The boy blushed, glancing at the crisp dry semen stains on the baby-doll.

C’mon, get dressed, the man said, and turned away, leaving him alone.

The boy sighed and took off his clothes, but without the enthusiasm or anticipation of arousal he usually felt while undressing to put on his female clothes. It was as if the girl’s clothes were a real person, lovingly caressing and soothing him and wanting to be as close to him as he wanted to be in them. But the clothes felt tainted now, mussed and pawed in the closet, some off their hangers and strewn carelessly about as if someone were searching for something, unlike the patient and careful way he always folded and hung them up.

He did find his pink panties and put them on – tucking his penis into and between his legs whether the man liked it or not – found his bra and donned that, too, inserting two water-filled party balloons into the bra cups as a mimic of realistic pliant breasts, the tied knot-ends resembling stiffened nipples.

Only once had the balloons burst open and that was when he first got the idea of water balloons as breasts. The man had put him into the shower and viciously bit into one, breaking it all over the boy’s blouse and skirt and laughing hysterically as he gurgled, Baby hungwy! Baby want mommie tittie! then bit into the other balloon which also burst open into his laughing face. Getting soaked didn’t matter as the man turned on the shower, spun the boy around, and fucked him fully clothed under the steaming water jets. . . .

For an additional excerpt from Baby Doll, see November 16, 2009
Synergy Book Service
Flemington, NJ   08822
(908) 782-7101
Lambda Literary Awards Winner 2013/Gay Erotica, 2009/Bisexual Fiction

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hungry for Love excerpt by Rick R Reed

Nate Tipple and Brandon Wilde are gay, single, and both hoping to meet that special man, even though fate has not yet delivered him to their doorstep.  Nate's sister, Hannah, and her kooky best friend, Marilyn, are about to help fate with that task by creating a profile on the gay dating site, OpenHeartOpenMind.  The two women are only exploring, but when they need a face and body for the persona they create, they use Nate as the model.

When Brandon comes across the false profile, he falls for the guy he sees online.  Keeping up the charade, Hannah begins corresponding with him, posing as Nate. Real complications begin when Brandon wants to meet Nate, but Nate doesn't even know he's being used in the online dating ruse. Hannah and Marilyn concoct another story and send Nate out to let the guy down gently. But when Nate and Brandon meet, the two men feel an instant and powerful pull toward each other.  Cupid seems to have shot his bow, but how do Nate and Brandon climb out from under a mountain of deceit without letting go of their chance at love?

Hungry for Love
Dreamspinner Press (September 13, 2013)

ISBN: 978-1-62798-145-3


He was a romantic. As much as his hormones told him that all he really required in this world was a warm place to bury his dick, his more developed senses begged to differ.
Brandon wanted someone with whom he felt a special connection, someone with whom there was that magical spark he read about in the gay romance novels he devoured with increasing frequency, to fill the void missing in his life. Brandon wanted chocolates and flowers. He wanted love poetry. He wanted surprise weekend getaways to remote mountain cabins or quaint bed-and-breakfasts. He wanted someone to curl up next to on the couch, falling asleep together to some old black and white movie.
He wanted someone with whom he could share not only his body, but his life.
Christian told him, “You’re never going to find the man of your dreams, unless you bring some of those wet dreams you’re still having at your advanced age to life! Just get laid! No man’s going to buy the merchandise without a free sample.”
Really, Christian? Really? And why are you still alone, then? Brandon knew Christian spent almost all of his free time online. Hell, Brandon could even count on Christian to be on his phone, on Grindr or Scruff, when they were out to dinner or one of the clubs. Brandon would twiddle his thumbs with Christian nearby, oblivious and texting furiously, always on the prowl for his next hookup, who usually lurked somewhere nearby.
Why was the man never satisfied?
Brandon had a secret, one which he had never shared with anyone, especially Christian.
He was almost a virgin. He had only two pathetic sexual experiences on his résumé. First, there was an embarrassing, guilt-ridden “affair” back in high school that had lasted for all of two weeks (although Brandon wished for more). And the one time, back in college, when he had met his second paramour in the basement men’s room of King Library on the Miami University (Ohio) campus. The guy wanted Brandon simply to kneel down between the stalls so he could blow him, but Brandon was far too fearful to engage in such an act and even then, he wanted more—like to see his cocksucker’s face. Besides, Brandon wasn’t even sure why the guy kept putting his hand under the stall, not knowing then it was a signal for him to kneel on the floor. So Brandon, romantic at heart that he was, simply grasped the signaling hand and held it.
This prompted his tearoom trick to flee the bathroom—and Brandon followed him outside.
Somehow, in the stairwell outside the men’s room, Brandon convinced his bathroom suitor to take him home, to an off-campus apartment where the two young men quickly and furtively got one another off, worried about the imminent arrival of the guy’s straight roommate.
That experience, sordid and unsatisfying as it was, left in Brandon a desire to chase windmills, if that’s what his idealism could be called. Brandon was not going to settle. If he couldn’t have the whole enchilada (the enchilada being a relationship that was satisfying not only on a physical level, but also on an emotional one), he wanted none of it.
Unfortunately for Brandon, he had come of age during a time when Internet and even Smartphone connections made hooking up fast and efficient. Brandon conceded those connections might possess those benefits, but they were not for him.
He was interested in both of a man’s heads, thank you very much. And he would not settle for less.
He believed a man who thought the same was out there. Somewhere.
Which is what brought him, right now, to the registration site for OpenHeartOpenMind. When he had finally landed upon the dating website, he was thrilled to find their mission statement on the homepage, one that dovetailed with his own inclinations.
It read:
We here at OpenHeartOpenMind believe in old-fashioned romance. If you’re looking for impersonal, easy sex and lots of it, there are plenty of other sites that cater to your interests. Go for them.

OpenHeartOpenMind is for the man who wants to date, who knows that sometimes delayed gratification can make the rewards all the sweeter.

OpenHeartOpenMind is for gay men who think that the road to love is paved not just with physical attraction (although we’d be lying if we said that doesn’t play a big part!), but with mutual respect, shared interests, and the common goal of wanting more than just merging genitals, but merging hearts and minds as well.

Good luck on your dating journey!

Below the mission statement were icons that urged the potential user to sign up and the current user to sign in.
When Brandon read those words, he quickly clicked on “sign up” because, in a way, he had already “signed up” for the very attributes the website promoted.
So now he began filling in the editable boxes on the site with his particulars: name, age, city and state: Seattle, WA, height: 6’1”, weight: 198, body type: athletic. Brandon was nothing if not honest, so he quickly changed “athletic” to “beefy.” He went on. Eyes: hazel, hair: dark brown, body hair: hairy, facial hair: full beard.
Brandon was relieved that OpenHeartOpenMind did not ask, as most of the other sites did, for his dick size or if he was top or bottom (although he definitely leaned more toward the former, but, as he had found, it was hard to top oneself).
Brandon came at last to the part where it asked for a headline and a short ad describing what one was looking for. And this was really the section that was giving him fits.
How do you describe your heart’s desire in two hundred words or less? How can you just post what you hope to find in a man on the Internet for all the world to see? Can it possibly work? Is this really the way I want to meet someone?
Thoughts like these crowded his brain, urging the more insecure part of himself to simply abandon the exercise. If he was a true, old-fashioned romantic, would he really be looking online for his true love? Wouldn’t they meet casually somewhere, like a café or bookstore, where shy glances and almost covert smiles resulted in perhaps a quick conversation confirming that they might exchange e-mail addresses, if not phone numbers? Or shouldn’t they meet humorously, thumping melons down at the neighborhood Safeway? Or maybe by coincidence in, say, a fender bender at rush hour?
You are just letting your performance anxiety get to you. This is 2013, buddy, and online is how it’s done these days. Although it’s certainly possible you could meet a man at the grocery store, Starbucks, or jogging on the trails that surround Green Lake, this way is much more likely to get some results. And even if it doesn’t, what do you have to lose? This site is not costing you anything, except for maybe some time, and by doing this, you may just be aligning the universe to give you what you’ve been searching for.
As your mom always told you when you went off to school, when you went off for your first job interview, or your first date back in high school, “Just be yourself.”
Mom was right. He would just be his honest self, and the words would come.

Down-to-Earth Honest Man Seeks Same

I’m not looking for fireworks, just the potential.

I am a twentysomething guy, told I’m good-looking and in okay shape (kept that way not by eating right, but by logging twenty-five miles a week or so running). I have all my teeth and all my hair. My body functions normally for a twenty-nine-year-old. I don’t have gas (well, not much).

I like horror movies, romantic comedies, and family dramas. I cry at the drop of a hat and laugh easily, and am proud of both. I like classic jazz: Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson. I love to read: gay romance, thrillers, and memoirs. I don’t like sci-fi, reality TV, or selfishness. I will eat just about anything, but appreciate good food, good wine, and good restaurants.

I live in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, and if you can’t find me at home, I am usually running around the lake—sometimes more than once.

The only thing I have that’s incurable is a romantic heart. If you’re afflicted with the same condition, maybe we’re a match.

Want to know more? Ask me. I promise to answer… honestly.

It took a little trial and error, and while Brandon didn’t think he was going to win the Nobel Prize for literature, he thought his ad made him come off okay, or at least normal. More importantly, he was pleased that he thought he had captured at least the essence of himself. There was no pretense, so he was optimistic that whatever the ad might snare, it would at least be someone who knew him for who he was.
His final task was to upload a picture of himself. He opened the file of photos on his computer called, simply, “me,” and began searching for just the right one. At last he settled on one that his mom—God bless her—had taken last summer, when the two of them had taken the ferry from downtown over to Vashon Island for a picnic on the rocky, driftwood-strewn beach. In it, Brandon squinted against the sun, with Puget Sound in the background. He was tan, with a little rose along the bridge of his nose and the tops of his cheeks, and he looked happy, his dark hair sticking up against a backdrop of a blue and cloudless sky. He thought anyone could see the hope in his hazel eyes.
He clicked on it to load it to the site, waited for it to appear, and then saved his profile. He got a message telling him it would post within a few hours, after moderator review.
Well, here goes nothing, Brandon thought. Or, maybe, just maybe, if the timing is right, the stars are aligned, and I’m very lucky—something.
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Monday, September 16, 2013

Longhorns excerpt by Victor J Banis

In this excerpt from Victor J Banis' Longhorns, half breed Buck has fallen head over heels in love with the ranch boss, Les – who insists that’s not his way. Finally, Les gets sore enough that the two come to blows over Buck’s flirtatious manner.

MLR Press (February, 2012)
ISBN: 978-1-60820-593-6 (print)
978-1-608-594-3 (ebook)

And the more all this worried at him, and the more frustrated he felt to do anything about it, the more that fed his anger, like spring rains feeding Bantam Creek. It began to feel to him like his whole life, which had been going along all smooth and serene like, before, had somehow been turned clear upside down, and he didn't exactly know when or how it had happened.
The only thing he knew for sure was who had done it.
Which was how they happened to come to blows, though afterward he couldn't remember just which remark of Buck's had finally made him explode—he was always saying something or another, with them looks of his, and they were all down the same trail.
"Damnation," he snapped one afternoon, "I don't want to hear no more of them remarks of yours, and I don't want you looking at me any more like you have been."
"What way is that?" Buck asked, with that innocent look he put on as easy as his Stetson.
"Like you was a tomcat eyeing a barn mouse," Les said.
Instead of looking worried, Buck laughed. "Well, I reckon I got some tomcat in me all right," he said, "but what I have been eyeing ain't no mouse, unless they are growing them lots bigger than they used to."
Which really got Les steamed, especially when the boys laughed at the joke, because he half way feared they might think Buck had gotten himself a real look, and he said, "Now that just tears it. I got me half a mind to pound some sense into that fool head of yours. And I don't expect you'd find that so damned funny, you fucking filthy half-breed."
Buck continued to laugh, and the boys standing around laughed with him, but Red, at least, saw that his eyes had gone blacker than coal.
"Never shied away from a fight," Buck said. "I got me a couple of fists myself."
"Well maybe you'd better just show me if you know how to use them," Les said.
"Anytime you feel like a jackrabbit," Buck said, "you just go ahead and jump."
The mood among the cowboys had grown sober. Red stepped forward and put a hand on Les's arm. "Les," he started to say, but Les shook his hand off.
"No, let's just get us this party started," Les said. He took off his bandana and his shirt, and tossed his Stetson on the ground, and raised his clenched fists.
Buck looked him over and seemed to be considering for a moment, and the boys watched to see if he was going to take the dare or not. Les was big and strong, and tough as they were, none of the boys had ever had a mind to tangle with him.
After a moment, Buck shrugged and stripped to the waist as well. Les stood six foot three inches tall, his hairy chest and long arms thickly muscled. Buck was shorter by a good six inches, and you could see at a glance that he must weigh fifty pounds less, but his slender body was hard and chiseled. When he stood like this, his half naked body gleaming bronze with sweat in the afternoon sunlight, it was easy to see his Indian heritage. If he had traded his dungarees and boots for a loincloth and leggings, he could have been one of the fierce Apache braves that had once struck fear into the hearts of the early settlers—except for the grin that never left his face.
"Now, I ain't really wanting to hit you," he said, although he raised his fists defensively. "Seems to me there's things we could do we'd both like lots better, as I think you could find out for yourself if you was to ask around."
"Ain't no damned concern of mine whose been plowing your back field for you, since it ain't me," Les said.
"Well, that ain't cause I ain't tried," Buck said, and got another laugh out of the boys, who had formed a circle about them.
"And as for what I would like," Les said, "it will suit me just fine to take that damned grin off your face."
He took a powerful swing with his right fist. Buck ducked it and backed up a couple of quick little steps, and the momentum of his swing was so great that it caused Les to stagger a step or two before he regained his balance.
"I sure think there's better ways the two of us could spend our energy," Buck said, and dodged another blow.
"I might've knowed you would turn out to be a sissy, for all your hot air," Les said.
"Now, nobody never called me a sissy before," Buck said angrily, his grin finally fading. "You take that back, you son of a bitch." He danced in close, fists up.
Watching him, Red groaned inwardly. If he could have coached Buck on what he should do, he would have told him to keep out of Les's reach. Les had long arms and massive fists, they looked like a pair of hams when he clenched them like this, and he was as strong as an ox.
Les's temper was like lightning on the prairie, though, it came on him fast, and it left him almost as quick. Red figured that, given a minute or two, he would have thought better of what he was doing, and, nimble as Buck was on his feet, if he could just keep himself out of the way of those fists for a while, this whole fight could be over shortly with nobody landing a blow.
But rushing in at Les the way he had, Buck had put himself in harm's way, where Les could get at him, and if Les wasn't as quick on his feet as the Nasoni, he was no slowpoke either.
Buck landed a glancing blow on Les's chin, to distract him, and hit him hard in the gut, the kind of blow with which he had knocked many a man's supper clean out of him. Only, it felt to Buck like he had just punched his fist against a fucking rock, and Les didn't even grunt or flinch.
Worrying, Buck tried to dance back again out of range, but he was bewildered by what had happened and he wasn't quite quick enough, and Les's long reach gave him an advantage. The next thing Buck knew, somebody had hit him in the belly with a sledgehammer, and before he had time for that even to register fully, another sledgehammer caught him on his chin. He staggered backward, his arms wind-milling, and just like that, he was sitting on his backside in the dust.
He shook his head, completely flummoxed. He had been in a fight or two in his time, and nobody had ever seated him, and he had a hard time comprehending that it had been done.
If he had stayed where he was, which was what Red was hoping for, that would mostly likely have been the end of it, but Buck was too sore now to think. He swore and scrambled to his feet and ran at Les so fast and so suddenly, that again he was able to land a blow on Les's chin, this one hard enough to make Les's head snap and remind him that the kid was no feather duster.
The result was the same as it had been before, though. Les smacked him hard on the chin again, and when he went down this time, Buck sprawled flat on his back, his eyes glazed over.
"I think that's enough, Les," Red said, and this time when he put his hand on Les's arm, Les did not shake it off.
The anger went out of Les all at once, and he unclenched his fists and dropped them to his sides, suddenly ashamed of himself for picking on someone half his size. Sprawled out in the dust like that, Buck looked more like a little boy than a tough cowboy. Hell, he weren't nothing more than just a kid, either, Les told himself, and just being fresh the way kids did. Damn little fool ought to have learned to keep his fucking mouth shut, that was the trouble.
Les learned in that very instant, though, what many a man had learned before him, that sometimes when you got what you thought you wanted, it turned out that you didn't want it after all. He had taken that grin off Buck's face just the way he said he would, and now that it was gone, damned if he didn't wish it was back again.
"You okay?" he asked, and stepped forward to offer Buck a hand up. Buck's lip was bleeding where Les's fist had caught him. He wiped the blood off with the back of his hand and shook his head, ignoring the hand Les offered. A couple of the boys came over to help him too, but he shoved their hands away as well and got up on his own and began to slap the dust off his dungarees.
"I reckon I'll live," he said. He looked around for his shirt. Jake picked it up wordlessly and handed it to him, and Buck put that on without once looking at any of the others or meeting anybody's eyes, buttoning it quickly, and retied the bandana that Jack handed him, and got his Stetson out of the dust before Red could pick that up, and clapped it down firmly on his head.
"Seems like I was getting ready to clean some stalls," he said, and strode into the barn, walking with something less than his usual swagger.
Everyone looked after him, and looked wordlessly at one another, and nobody looked at Les. Finally some of the boys began to drift back to what they had been doing.
"Damnation," Les said aloud, staring at Buck as he went and wanting to run after him and do, he didn't know what, just do something, to undo what had happened. He wiped the sweat from his brow, and sucked the blood off a scrape on his knuckles where they had connected with Buck's chin.
After a moment, he snatched up his own shirt and bandana and hat, and stomped away toward the ranch house. The boys parted to make room for him, but nobody met his eyes.

# # #

Buck was leading his pinto out of his stall when Red found him in the barn that night.
"What're you fixing to do, boy?" Red asked.
"Reckon it is time I was riding out," Buck said, not looking at him. "There's lots of Texas I ain't seen yet."
"Don't go being no damn fool, Buck," Red said. "Who do you think old Les was fighting with out there?"
"Well, I don't know who else was in it, but it was my jaw he was punching on, that is for sure," Buck said, rubbing his hand across it where it still ached.
"Shit, Buck, he wasn't fighting with you, he was fighting with himself," Red said. "And I got me a notion he has just about lost himself that fight."
Buck took a minute to consider that. "Damn it, Red," he said, his voice close to breaking, "fucking varmint knows how I feel. He's got to."
"Course he does, Buck. He's just being ornery. Shit, he's just being Les. I told you he was as stubborn as a goddam longhorn," Red said. "He can be as mean as donkey piss, too, but he ain't like that, not really. I'm telling you, he'll get up tomorrow morning feeling lower than a rattlesnake's belly, and wishing he could make it up to you."
"Well he sure enough knows how that would be done, and it don't appear to me as if he is likely to be doing it."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that, if I was you," Red said. "You give him a little more time, is all. If I was a betting man, I would bet you a month's pay, that tree of his is about ripe for the picking, and it won't be no time at all before you are getting the harvest of it. You ain't going to get nothing off it, though, if you go riding off with your tail between your legs. 'Sides, if you do, one thing I know is, he ain't going to be any happier about that than you will be once't you are gone. Or me either, I reckon, case you didn't know that."
"Reckon I would miss you, too, Red," Buck said. "Miss you plenty, if I was to tell you the truth."
"Well, then," Red said, and shrugged and managed a half smile. "I am telling you, boy, ain't nobody knows that old sidewinder any better than I do. You just give him a little time to get used to the idea, see if I ain't right."
They were silent for a long moment. The pinto whinnied, like he was wondering what they were up to, disturbing his sleep like this, just to listen to them jabber.
"Shit," Buck said giving his head a shake. "It hurts, Red. I never thought it would hurt like this."
"Course it does," Red said. "I know exactly how it feels, boy. But it's a sweet kind of hurt, ain't it? Once't a man feels that inside him, why, he wouldn't never want to be without it again. I expect a fellow wouldn't never feel alive after that if he lost it. Especially if he just threw it away, like."
Buck looked over his shoulder at him and gave him a measuring look. Red came closer to him and put one big leathery hand on the back of Buck's neck and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"Whyn't you come along with old Red for a spell, little buckaroo," he said in a soft voice, coaxing like. "I reckon I got me some medicine might make you feel a mite better, if you was of a mind."
"Reckon it might, at that," Buck said with a sigh, and he gave him a little smile, but it wasn't Buck's smile, and it made Red's tender heart ache. "Guess I best put this pony to bed first, though."
Red watched him go. He was still surprised at what a thrill of pleasure it was just to look at that slim hipped youth, leading his pony back to its stall. Red was not a wise man, nor a sophisticated one, certainly not in matters of the heart. He had never spoken of love with anyone, had never imagined that it was something he would ever even know, leading the life he did, and if he had imagined it, he would never have expected it like this.
He was wise enough to know, though, what it was that had come, named or unnamed, to settle inside him.
The boy was right, he thought, swallowing. It sure could hurt, when you got somebody in your craw that way.
To read other excerpts from Longhorns, see 6/9/08, 2/23/09, and 3/19/12.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Enigma excerpt by Lloyd Meeker

In Enigma by Lloyd Meeker, who’s blackmailing the high-profile televangelist whose son was famously cured of his homosexuality fifteen years ago? Now in 2009, that ought to be ancient history.

It seems there's no secret to protect, no crime, not even a clear demand for money—just four threatening letters using old Enigma songs from the 90's. But they’ve got Reverend Howard Richardson spooked.

Proudly fifty and unhappily single, gay PI Russ Morgan has made peace with being a psychic empath, and he’s managed to build a decent life since getting sober. As he uncovers obscene secrets shrouded in seeming righteousness he might have to make peace with a sword of justice that cuts the innocent as deeply as the guilty.

Enigma, a Russ Morgan Mystery
Wilde City Press (August 28, 2013)
ISBN: 978-1-925031-00-0


Denver PI Russ Morgan has been hired by the arrogant attorney acting for Rev. Richardson. As instructed, Russ reports to the attorney’s office to examine the threatening letters.

The next morning at ten minutes to nine, I entered the hushed LoDo palace of glass, metal, thick gray carpet, and perfect understatement that was Stelnach, Kommen and Breyer.

The sleek receptionist behind the minimalist desk asked me to make myself comfortable, which I did, and looked around. Original artwork on the foyer walls, western and mountain themes. Regional Estes Park gallery stuff, but top end.
At 9:01, an adorable young man with scrubbed-pink cheeks, sandy hair, and elfin green eyes appeared and introduced himself as Colin Stewart, one of Mr. Kommen’s assistants. On his invitation, I followed him down the hall.
I couldn’t help admiring the way he walked. Sweet butt of youth, I thought, apologizing half-heartedly to Tennessee Williams. I was pretty sure Mr. Williams would have enjoyed the view, too. Colin ushered me through a glass door set in a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, and into a small conference room furnished with laminated wood grain furniture. He sat me down and handed me the folio of letters.
“I’m going to have questions,” I said opening the folio, wishing I wasn’t curious whether Colin was gay. He was a quarter century younger than I was. “Are you the one to answer them?”
He sat down across from me, polite and sweetly enthusiastic. “That’s what I’m here for. Mr. Kommen briefed me for it.”
I looked at his aura, full of genuine goodwill and inexperience. He’d do his best.
Still, as sincere as he might be, Colin was another layer of insulation holding me at distance from those who had direct knowledge of these events. That annoyed me and stirred shadows of self-doubt. I relied on my psychic contact with people who had first-hand knowledge or experience. Without that, I was traveling blind.
There were four letters in all. Not really letters—poetry. None of them contained a specific threat or a clear demand. Maybe they were coded so only the Richardsons would understand them.
I knew the physical messages had been handled by a lot of different people, but I held them for a moment, hoping I could connect with their origin. It took a while, but then I got something. Rage. The kind of fury that can lead to serious harm. So the danger was real. That was a good start.
"Mr. Morgan, are you okay?” Colin Stewart’s voice pulled me back. “Do you want a glass of water or something?” I looked up. He hovered, half out of his chair.
“Hm? No, I’m fine. I was just thinking. Sometimes I go far away when I think.”
“Sure. Of course.” Colin’s puckish grin showed slightly uneven teeth. He sat back down, looking eager again, all worry erased. “All the time you need.”
“Your boss mentioned that somehow these letters are intended to blackmail James Richardson. How did he come to that conclusion?”
“Well,” Colin said, blushing, “they’re poems. Mr. Kommen thinks they’re from an old lover of Reverend Richardson’s son.”
“On the assumption that if they’re poems, this must be about James Richardson’s gay experiences. Because poetry is just so gay.” I shook my head, disgusted by Kommen’s knee-jerk analysis. That wasn’t analysis, I corrected myself. It was mere prejudice.
Colin had referred to James as Rev. Richardson’s son, and so had Kommen. Was that who James Richardson was to these people, even though now in 2009 he was a thirty-three-year-old husband, father of three, and a successful businessman? Maybe he was little more than a potential chink in Rev. Richardson’s armor to them.
I spread the letters on the table and scowled at Colin. “Why would an old lover wait sixteen years to send him poems?”
Colin looked uncertain. “It’s a long time to wait, isn’t it?”
“I know I wouldn’t wait that long. Unless something happened only recently to open an old wound.” I looked at the first one again. Laser printer, black ink, standard size Times New Roman. Nothing unusual, except it was 24-pound paper. Enigma liked nice paper.

April Fool’s Day, 2009 -- but you can’t fool God!
This is The Cross of Changes

There followed several lines of free verse, part New Age vision, part Delphic warning, talking about universal justice. Signed Enigma.
It didn’t sound like something from an old lover to me. It felt more like an allusion to wrongdoing. Illegal money? Sexual harassment or maybe an affair? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time in the history of church leaders. “Do we have any input from the Richardsons about the letters?”
“Not that I know of. Mr. Kommen just said they were really bad poems.”
“That’s it?” I looked up at him, amazed. “You’ve had these things for weeks and no one thought to find out more about them?” Colin squirmed, but kept silent.
“C’mon. Let’s find a terminal.”
Colin logged me into the library computer and sat in an adjacent chair, holding the letters. I found Google, pecked in “This is the Cross of Changes” and hit return. A page of links to lyrics for a song called “The Cross of Changes.” By a group called Enigma. A few more clicks. The album was Cross of Changes, released in 1993, the very year young James Richardson had been sent away to be cured of his deviant lust.
I pointed to the screen. “You think that might be relevant, Colin?”
The poor kid flushed scarlet as he read. He looked down at the letters in his lap. He had nice eyelashes. He was almost certainly straight, and even if he wasn’t, he was way too young for me. But he had pretty eyelashes just the same.
“I think we should have a little chat with your boss, don’t you?”
His eyes popped wide. His mouth opened, but it took him a couple of seconds to speak. “Please wait here while I see if he’s available, Mr. Morgan.” He disappeared into a stairwell. A few minutes later he came back, looking frazzled. I guessed Andrew Kommen disliked being interrupted.
“He says he can give you five minutes. Please come this way.”
We took the stairs up two flights, and Colin swiped us onto the floor with his badge.

* * * *

Andrew Kommen’s office was vast. He sat on a little throne behind about fifty square feet of carved mahogany desk, its dark gleaming expanse unblemished by anything resembling work. Other than the big desk, the room was sparsely appointed—bookshelves, conference table, expensive, cool artwork. Classic unimaginative power-attorney decor for a temple of litigation. Nothing personal, not even a family photo. The big space felt barren to me.
He didn’t invite me to sit, so I stood. As I began talking, he leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers against the tip of his chin. If he thought that made him look clever, he was wrong. It made him look silly.
I wrapped up. “The album was released in 1993, the year James was introduced to the joys of heterosexual orientation. I’m amazed your earlier investigators didn’t learn that.”
“In fact, we did know it.”
“What?” I shifted focus. The muddy spikes in his aura said he was lying through his teeth.
“I said,” he repeated, voice dripping with condescension, “we did know that connection.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Mr Kommen, you’re lying. You didn’t know.”
His eyes narrowed. He pulled in a sharp breath and sat up straight. “How dare you!” He was clearly not used to being challenged by contract labor.
“How dare I? It’s easy, believe me. I have a sixth-sense kind of thing that goes off when someone lies to me. It’s very valuable, very reliable. You just made it ring, big time.”
I dropped the letters on his desk. “Find someone who doesn’t mind your bullshit, because I don’t have the patience for it. I’ll send your check back by courier this afternoon.”
“Wait.” He leaned forward, pushed the papers back toward me. “What I meant was that we were confident there was a connection to James Richardson’s past.” He paused. “It’s true, we didn’t actually know about the connection to the music album.”
“Still not interested. You don’t bother taking the most obvious step of researching the text of the letters, then you obstruct and mislead the efforts of the people you hire to help. I can imagine you’ve gone through investigators like shit through a goose. No wonder you finally ended up in my office.”
I turned toward the door and caught sight of Colin standing behind me, slack-jawed, eyes as wide as a spooked horse.
“What will it take to keep you on the case? I’ll double your fee.” The voice from behind the big desk actually sounded frightened.
I stopped, and turned back. “I don’t want double your fee. I want your cooperation. No more games. That’s what it’ll take. Starting with in-person interviews with the Richardsons. All four of them.”
“Very well.” Kommen sounded contrite. His aura sparkled with fear.
I pointed to the letters. “By themselves, these don’t constitute blackmail. There’s no demand. There’s not even a target. How do you know James is being blackmailed?”
“Reverend Richardson is convinced it’s aimed at him. I’ve just assumed he has good reason to do so.”
“And what does James think?”
Kommen hesitated only for a second. “He agrees.” 
“I look forward to confirming that. If you jerk me around again, Mr. Kommen, I will quit, and you will pay me two weeks additional fees as the cost for your bullshit games. Please amend my engagement letter to say if I quit, you owe me two weeks.”
“Very well,” he repeated.
“Set up the Richardson interviews as soon as possible, please. I want to meet with each of them separately. Let me know when and where.”
I picked up the letters. “Colin, can you make copies of these for me?” I followed him out of Kommen’s office without looking back.
After he’d made the copies, Colin and I walked to the elevator together in silence. Once the doors closed, he grinned at me. “You’re pretty gutsy. I’m impressed.”
I shook my head, and a wave of sadness washed through me. Or maybe it was just fatigue. “No, not really gutsy. Just beat up enough to know there are things that leave bigger holes in your life than money, if you lose them.”
I could tell he didn’t really get it. But then when I was his age, neither had I.
“Still,” he said looking at me sideways with a bashful smile. “I liked it. Kinda hot.”
Had he batted his eyelashes on purpose? Oh, damn. Don’t, Morgan. Bad idea.

* * * *

On the thirty-minute walk back to my office, I thought more about what I’d told Colin. I knew something about those larger holes firsthand, the ones left by integrity and love, when they’ve been lost.
I’d been sober just over fifteen years now—the same length of time, I realized with a start, since James Richardson’s conversion. We’d both started a new life in 1993.
Whatever he felt about his, I was grateful for mine. I’d worked hard to find a new sense of myself as a human being, one that I could live in with a little contentment.
I’d always told myself that I drank to insulate myself from the constant bombardment of other people’s auras, and that was probably true, at least in part. A few stiff drinks served as insulation that would last all night. The problem wasn’t that big a deal until I came out and began my new life. Somehow, suppressing my sexuality had also kept my sensitivity damped down. When the door to what I’d kept locked in the basement finally blew off its hinges I found not only did I have to build a new life, but cope with new receptivity that made me very vulnerable.
 I had no idea how to keep some distinction between me as an individual, and those wild sensations that could literally bring me to my knees without warning, usually when I was near someone in rage or grief. I ended up on my knees a lot. Alcohol numbed me at first, which was helpful when I felt overwhelmed. Eventually alcohol taught me not to care at all, and that’s when it stopped being helpful.
I finally made it to AA and learned that an alcoholic could rationalize his drinking six ways from Sunday. Whatever the given reason was never as important as the behavior it sought to excuse, and the resulting wreckage it caused was just as terrible.
In my own case, I’d driven away a smart, gentle, loving partner by hiding in a bottle, and hadn’t seen much of love since I crawled out. Maybe I never would. But I wanted another chance at it now. I may have been fifty, flawed, and a little psychic, but I was as real as I’d ever been in my life. Some nights I wanted another chance at love so badly, the longing was a metallic tang along my tongue.

As tasty as Colin looked, he was an hors d’oeuvre, not a full meal. Above the belt, I knew very well he wasn’t what I was hungry for, but if he made it clear he wanted to play, I wasn’t convinced I’d be strong enough to say no. Sometimes a snack is better than no meal at all.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jump the Gun excerpt by Lori L Lake

In Jump the Gun by Lori L. Lake, Dez Reilly, a patrol sergeant with the Saint Paul Police, is trying to decide on her career direction: To SWAT? Or to Investigations? Or does she continue with the patrol supervision she is heartily tired of?

Jaylynn Savage cheerfully patrols the city’s skyways and is happy living with Dez, the love of her life. But a colleague is murdered and before Dez and Jaylynn are even able to process the loss, a witness is killed, Dez is targeted by a dangerous man, and nobody they love is safe. Can Dez protect those she loves and also stop a nameless, face-less murderer?

Lori L. Lake’s fourth novel in The Gun Series is full of twists and surprises. Don’t miss this one if you enjoy a suspenseful and entertaining mystery/thriller.

Jump the Gun
Quest Books by Regal Crest (July 10, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 1935053507
  • ISBN-13: 978-1935053507


Chapter One

Dez Reilly tightened her grip on the stock of a sawed-off shotgun. She scanned the area outside the bank through thick, plate-glass windows while concentrating her peripheral vision on the hostages. As she shifted out of sight to the side of the window, the loaded handgun in the pocket of her long, gray duster bumped against the wall. She carried replacement magazines in the other pocket of her coat.

She stood above a man who lay lifeless on the floor, the sticky fluid on his chest a clear testament to his recent death. Glimpsing movement through the window of the brightly lit bank, she backed away from line of sight and shouted, “Hurry up, Bobby! It’s time to get the hell out of here!”

A siren sounded in the distance. Dez saw the vehicles barreling their way. “That’s it, boys,” she yelled. “We’re out. Now!” She dropped to one knee next to the bank guard and pulled at the keys hooked on his belt. They came away attached to a long, metal wire. Hastily she unclipped the ring and slid it across the floor.

Two men clad in black clothing and black ski masks vaulted the chest-level counter and scurried across the open lobby area. One clutched two heavy satchels. The other scooped up the keys, stopped at a side door labeled Employees Only, and looked back to Dez. He fumbled until he found the correct key, unlocked the door, and hollered, “C’mon, Dez!”

With one last glance toward the bank parking lot and approaching vehicles, Dez catapulted up from one knee and followed. In four running steps she came to a trio of customers lying silent and facedown near the teller window, fingers threaded behind their heads. With a powerful spring, she leapt over them, barreled through the doorway, and chased down a long hallway after her companions.

She skidded around a turn that was so sharp, she hit the wall and felt it give a little. Cheap, crappy construction, she thought. She pushed off and hurtled down the hall feeling elation bubble up. Bobby and Frederick were already out of the bank, and she was hard on their heels. They ran for a beat-up Chevy junker twenty yards away, wrenched open the doors, and fell into it. Dez slouched in the backseat, panting, jubilant, the weapons in her pockets pressing against her hip and back. She laughed aloud. “One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three—”

Bobby let out a whoop as Frederick beat on the steering wheel with the palms of his hands. “Sweet!” Frederick said. He looked back toward Dez and gave her a thumbs up. All three of them laughed out loud like little kids on Christmas day.

Dez peered out the window, scanning the area, waiting. She examined her watch. As close as she could tell, more than twenty seconds had passed since they’d vacated the building. She stared at the back of the bank until she finally saw what she expected. A black-clad figure crept low around the crumbling block foundation. She exited the car and leaned back against the junker with arms crossed over her chest. “Hey!” she said. “We are so gone, Zellar.”

The SWAT team member stripped off one of his gloves and threw it to the ground. His dark helmet and protective glasses obscured his angry features, but even with all the gear, Dez could tell it was Zellar by the way he stood.

“Shit!” he spat out. “How the hell did you do that?”

Dez just grinned.

Bobby and Frederick emerged from the Chevy Malibu as the entire SWAT team, two commanders, and six tactical trainers converged on the area behind the faux bank. One by one, the three bank “customers” filed out of the bank followed by the “guard” with paint spattered all over his chest.

Lieutenant Mortensen clicked a stopwatch. “Exercise complete. Bank robbers, one. SWAT, zero. Want to tell me what happened here?”

Zellar banged the stock of his red, dummy assault rifle on the ground. One of the other members of the team said, “There’s no way they could’ve got out that quick. Not with the goods, anyway.”

Bobby pointed to the black satchels on the Chevy’s passenger seat. He grabbed one and threw it at the feet of Willie Thorpe, the team leader.

Thorpe squatted, unzipped the bag, and rummaged around inside. “This isn’t all of it!”

Bobby grinned. “Yeah? So?”

“You didn’t get all of it, so you failed.”

“You didn’t get any of us, Thorpe, so I’d have to say you’re the bigger failure here.” He glanced toward Dez, then Frederick.

“You guys,” Dez said, “have got to get over the idea that all crooks are greedy and stupid. Some aren’t.”

Zellar pointed at Steve Hart, the bank guard. “You didn’t follow protocol, Reilly. Since when was shooting him in the plan?”

“Yeah.” Hart brushed at the drying paint on his chest. “Damn, you messed this up!”

Dez chuckled. “Perfect example of the best laid plans going awry. Any good criminal is going to adapt. You know the old saying that no battle plan survives first contact. Same thing goes with any organized crime. Get used to it.”

Zellar’s face was so red Dez thought he was going to pop a vein. He kicked his gear and turned away.

Bobby laughed out loud. “Sore loser.”

“Screw you,” Thorpe said under his breath, his lips curled up in a look of disdain. He glared at the three “criminals” like he wanted to kill them on the spot.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Commander Mortensen stepped between Bobby and Thorpe. “Everybody over to the shack, and let’s do a postmortem on this.”

The failed Special Weapons and Tactics team grabbed their gear and moved as one, double-time, toward their destination. Dez watched the dejected crew’s boots moving swiftly, left-right, left-right, in harmony like a pack of black ants. She felt sympathy for them, but on the other hand, they’d been too slow. This wasn’t like a baseball catcher donning equipment for a tough inning in the field. The stakes were life and death. She knew how much gear they had to get into: Kevlar vests, thigh and forearm protectors, elbow and knee pads, shin guards, the outer uniform, heavy boots, and their new handy-dandy, cut-resistant Neoprene Damascus gloves. And that was just the apparel. Flashlight, baton, radio and headpiece, cuffs, eye-wear, knives, tactical lights, periscope-on-a-stick, ammo packs...the list went on and on. If Dez were ever selected for SWAT, the number one thing she would practice on her own would be dressing and arming with absolute efficiency. Things moved fast in SWAT situations, and this brand-new team had just learned it the hard way.

Some fellow officers thought Dez Reilly, at thirty-five, was a little old to be volunteering for SWAT training, but her experience and fitness belied her age. She stood six feet tall in stocking feet and was broad-shouldered and muscular. With her long, black hair French-braided and the braid tucked up tight against her head, it was easy to confuse her with the men of the unit—that is, until you got close and saw the high cheekbones, dark brows and bright blue eyes. Those eyes scanned the area constantly and took in everything around her.

Dez fell in next to Bobby and elbowed him in the side. “You’re going to get yourself killed. They’ll be out for blood now.”

“So? A little splatball paint never hurt anybody even if the bank guard took it with a lot of extra whining.”

The shack was a good three hundred yards away, past a fake supermarket, a three-story concrete structure, and several towers from which the SWAT trainers could survey the area. The mass of officers moved beyond all that and entered the shack, a command post in the center of the eighty-acre training facility. Bobby and Frederick cut over toward the men’s room while Dez proceeded through a door at the right. The SWAT team and trainers filed into a classroom through a door to the left. The cops who’d played the three customers and the bank guard would describe the course of the action to the assault team, just as if it happened in real life. The robbers would keep their secrets to themselves as they readied for another situation.

Dez’s coordinator, Nick Boulet, one of the SWAT team’s longtime trainers, said, “Good job today, Reilly.” He glanced beyond her, then in a low voice asked, “Everything going okay? You having any, uh, issues coming up?”

Dez looked at him coolly. “Commander Malcolm tell you to keep an eye on me?”

“Yep. Good supervisors look out for their best officers.”

She bristled and wanted to say a few angry words, but she couldn’t deny that her Commander had looked after her in the past. In the aftermath of her partner’s death several years earlier, Dez had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Malcolm dealt with her problems with real grace, but since then, she’d done the therapeutic work to master the situation, and she was no longer troubled. She wished the topic would stop coming up. Forcing a grin, she said, “I’m having a helluva good time, Nick. Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m on your side. Just remember that.”

“Thanks. It means a lot coming from you.”

“I’d like to see you advance, Dez. I’ve always respected your work, and if it were up to me, you ought to get a SWAT assignment. I don’t know what’ll happen though. You deserve this.”

She felt her face heat up. She agreed with him, but instead said, “The brass seem to think I’m a hothead, that I can’t be trusted in a really tough situation.”

“If I was in a tough spot, you’d be the go-to gal for me.”

“That’s not how some of the guys feel.”

“Well, that makes them idiots in my book.”

Before she got a chance to answer, her teammates hustled into the room and shut the door. Nick took a deep breath, and only then did he share a moment of laughter. “You guys did good. Even better than I expected.” He clapped Bobby Rauski on the shoulder. “Okay, let’s get to work. Any minute now, we’ll be getting a new team member for your despicable little exploits.”

Dez smiled. Despicable exploits. The day wasn’t even half over, and she was already having fun.

Once upon a time, when she’d achieved the requisite experience out on the street, Dez applied for membership in SWAT. She’d been young and impressionable. Without a word of explanation, her application was rejected. She tried twice more; same thing. She suspected it was because she was a woman. But then two years earlier, two women had been tapped for the squad and one made it through the training to become a full-fledged member. Dez hid her jealousy. She was twice as strong as the other woman and at least as experienced. The unfairness rankled for some time.

But that was before Jaylynn, whom she’d met when rescuing her and her friend Sara from a pair of rapists. Jaylynn ended up joining the police force, and she and Dez went through a series of missteps in the odyssey of their friendship. Over time, their relationship had grown to mean so much more. Dez loved Jaylynn with all her heart, and now, in retrospect, she was glad she hadn’t previously made the SWAT team. If she had, she wouldn’t have met Jaylynn Savage, and Dez found it impossible to believe her life could be the slightest bit fulfilling without Jaylynn as her partner.

Still, Dez didn’t decline when her superior, Commander Malcolm, asked her to participate in a special assignment. A couple years earlier, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota joined forces and funds to purchase and outfit a SWAT training ground. Aspiring city, county, and state cops from all over converged upon the Midwest Special Weapons and Tactics Center to be tested and trained. Only about twenty percent of the officers passed to become eligible for the elite squads in their jurisdictions. Each of the states was periodically asked to send officers to the southern Minnesota locale to participate as helpers in the training, and on this fine March day, Dez was one of them. She felt like a Wild Card team in an NFL playoff game. If she impressed them enough, she could end up winning the chance to come back and train for real.

And if that didn’t work out, well, she could always go to Investigations for a long assignment.

The first day went well. By the end, the trainers called it one for the criminals, one for SWAT, and one tie. All she and her merry band of henchman had to do was escape, and just like with real crooks, it didn’t much matter to her team if hostages died. SWAT, on the other hand, was dedicated to saving the lives of bystanders, so their second exercise had to be considered a tie. SWAT had taken down all of Dez’s crew, but their five hostages also died. In the third exercise, the SWAT team had finally gotten their act together, and Dez, Frederick, Bobby, Dave, and Kyle were pinned down in the faux supermarket. She thought Pete Zellar took special delight in shooting her point-blank in the chest, and she couldn’t blame him, even if she thought he was a little bit too over-zealous.

Now lying on a cot in her tiny quarters, Dez waited for her dinner to settle. She checked her watch. They would all reconvene at the shack at eight o’clock for the first of their night exercises, and she looked forward to the next cops-and-robbers caper with glee.

She heard a gurgling sound and felt next to the cot until she located her duffel. As she pulled it out, her cell phone rang again. She flipped it open and said, “Reilly.”

“Hey, sweetie.”

Dez relaxed and her face flushed with warmth. “I’m no sweetie, Jay.”

“You are to me.”

“Yeah, yeah. What’s up?”

“Nothing. Got home from work and had a lonely dinner without you. How’s the training going?”

“Excellent. It’s a lot more fun than I thought it would be.” She took a couple minutes to outline the scenarios they had run.

“Geez. You’re merciless. Guess it’s lucky you didn’t turn out to be a criminal.”


“I’m surprised you answered the phone. I was just planning to leave a good-night message for you.”

“We’re on a long dinner break, and then we do some night maneuvers. This is going to be one long-ass day. I’ve been going since ten a.m. and we don’t quit until sometime after midnight.”

“Just keep the perks in mind: three days there, and you get credit for a week’s work. And we’re off next month for the trip to the lodge with Shayna and Crystal. I can’t wait.”

“Neither can I. I’m looking forward to the R& R in a big way. I’ll be home on schedule Thursday night. No rest for the weary, though. Remember, I’ve got that court date for the RICO case Monday morning.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jaylynn said. “I wouldn’t forget that. Wish I could be there—then again, I won’t miss having to see Bostwick’s ugly face.”

“Ugh...I’m sorry I have to. Well, I’ll let you go now.”

“I’m missing you, sweetie. I’ll call you again tomorrow.”

Dez grinned into the phone. “Okay.”

“Love you.”

“Me, too.” Dez rang off and dropped the phone into her duffel. She settled back on the cot with her fingers laced behind her head and let out a sigh. One leg was sore from falling into some debris earlier, and her left shoulder hurt from being tackled by one of the SWAT guys. The exercises and confrontations could get rough, that was for sure, but she felt a deep sense of satisfaction and looked forward to the next three days. One of the trainees had broken his thumb earlier in the afternoon, and she hoped she wouldn’t get hurt like that. With luck, she would escape any serious injury.

In the twilight of the room, she looked once more at her watch. Only ten minutes and she would rise like a vampire and prepare for the next exercise. Dirty deeds under the cover of darkness, she thought. Ooh, I like it.

Chapter Two

Sergeant Lynette Mielo turned her squad car south and motored through the quiet Saint Paul streets. First Watch, the graveyard shift, had been unusually dull. No domestics, no fires, no robbery calls. She’d taken one noise complaint around midnight and nothing in the four hours since. Now, after four a.m., she was having such a hard time staying alert that she stopped at a convenience store and picked up a coffee.

Her cell phone rang, and she saw the caller was Fenwick, one of her trainees. He was riding in a two-man car with Brendan Schaake, working the east side. Schaake wasn’t yet a field training officer, but he was a highly skilled cop and, above all, patient with new recruits, so she knew he would eventually be a very good FTO.

“Fenwick, what’s up?”

“Hi, Sarge. Schaake and I want to know if you’ll rendezvous with us for the meal break.”

“Sure. Any problems?”

“Nope. Dead as a doornail out here.”

She laughed. “Do you even know what a doornail is?”

“Small. Metal. Dead.”

“Um hmm. I’m on the way to check out a nuisance call—some guy behaving erratically—then I’ll head your way.”

“Need us to back you up?”

“Probably not. It’s just vagrants down in the warehouse area off 280.”

She made arrangements to meet them later at a coffee shop and hung up. As she took a sip of hot sludge, she caught a flash of flame down an alley. Before she could focus on it, she was past, so she turned the car around and angled it at the mouth of the passageway so the lights illuminated deep into the alley.

A man sat in the middle of the dark funnel of space, his long, rangy legs crossed Indian style and his head in his hands. He had a fire going in front of him, the flames flickering and waning. How bizarre, she thought. Who started a dinky fire like that and sat in the middle of an alley?

A few feet away, on both sides of the guy, trash bags spilled out of overflowing metal dumpsters. Brick warehouses loomed overhead on either side, and the other end of the alley was closed off by a chain-link fence. Despite the flicker of fire and the light from the cruiser, it was hard to see the man’s face clearly.

Mielo got out of the car and palmed her Maglite to focus it on the man’s face. Old. Scraggly. Ratty brown coat that looked too worn to provide much protection against the chill.

“Saint Paul Police,” she called out as she moved cautiously forward. “Do you need help, sir?”

“I’m fine.” His voice was weak and reedy. Even dappled in the orange glow of the fire, he didn’t look fine.

“Come on out of there now, sir. Let’s get you somewhere warm.”

He didn’t answer.

Mielo activated her shoulder mic and requested that dispatch send a bus for an MI, someone mentally ill. She gave the address, then stood looking at the man.

The alley smelled of rotting meat and urine. Any winos or vagrants in the area probably spent nights hidden here. Drug dealers might use the out-of-the-way location to hand off “product” to their sellers. Cops hated closed alleys like this one. Mielo advanced with trepidation, her heart beating fast. Instinctively, she cupped the grip of her service weapon. Something didn’t feel quite right. She unsnapped her holster.

The fire in front of the man stopped crackling and dwindled down to embers. The night was still, oddly silent, she thought. She didn’t hear so much as a cricket or a car passing.

“Have you been drinking, sir?”

He didn’t look up or make a sound.

“Get up, please, and come on out of there. Now, sir.”

A snuffle was his only response. She debated whether she should back out of the alley—or stomp over and haul his ass closer to the light. Impatient, she strode forward, close enough to see that his arms weren’t in the coat sleeves. The ratty brown coat was draped over his shoulders. Underneath, a formerly white T-shirt was splotched with something dark and slimy. She eyed his torn and filthy jeans. Gray, greasy hair ringed his face like curls of dirty ribbons. Was that blood on his face? She aimed the flashlight more carefully. Wincing, he closed his eyes and hunched over, head cradled in two big hands.

He moaned. “Go on, lady. Leave me alone.”

“Get up, Big Guy.” She lowered the flashlight. “I won’t hurt you.”

In the oblique light, he gazed up at her, eyes wide and terrified.


A scuffle from the right. She turned toward the dumpster. Her flashlight made an arc upward to illuminate a man in a dark canvas jacket. One hand was tucked inside his coat, the other behind his back. She squinted with recognition. “Hey, I know you. Starbucks, right?”

Something was very wrong. Why was this man here? Her Glock was halfway from the holster when the lights, the sounds, the smells stopped.

She fell where she stood. The Maglite clattered and rolled, light spinning.

The old man scuttled to the side, mewling. He heaved himself up and nearly tripped over his coat, which fell off his shoulders next to the fire’s burnt embers. He staggered down the alley, crossed the headlights of the squad car, and disappeared around the corner.

The killer stepped out into the light. He squeezed off another round into Mielo’s head, then a third into her abdomen, just below the bottom edge of her Kevlar vest.

The suppressor on the handgun muffled much of the noise, but the gunshots would be recognizable as an unusual sound in the night. 
He tucked his gun in his waistband, clicked on a penlight, and noted with satisfaction the pool of blood around the cop’s head. In a soft voice, he said, “I’m sorry, but you’ve had your last cup of coffee.” He wrested her fingers from her gun and put it in his coat pocket. Her TASER holster snap was stiff, but he got it open and removed the firing unit.

In the distance a vehicle engine revved. Swaggering, he moved back into the darkness of the alley and stepped into a door that was slightly ajar. The click it made as he locked it echoed in the night. Mielo was the only person close enough to hear it, but no sound would ever register for her again.

Chapter Three

Jaylynn met Dez at the front door of their home. Even after all the time they’d been together, she still felt a thrill of anticipation waiting for Dez, and an even bigger thrill of excitement when she could throw her arms around her and press her face into her neck.

“Can’t believe you’re still up.”
“I took a nap earlier.” She looked at her watch. “It’s not even two a.m. I’m fresh as a daisy.” She gave Dez’s middle a hard squeeze.

“Missed me, huh?”

Jaylynn laughed. “As usual. Suppose you didn’t miss me at all.” She stepped back and surveyed her partner.

Dez slipped out of her jacket and hung it on a hook behind the door. “It was hard to even think about missing anybody or anything. We were so damn busy. I was lucky to get five or six hours of sleep each night, and I’m beat.”

“You hungry?”

“Nah, Frederick and I went to Culver’s on the way. I’m stuffed. Probably gain five pounds from all the French fries.”

Jaylynn took Dez’s hand and led her to the couch. Dez sank down with a sigh and said, “I think every part of my body is sore. This is the first comfortable seat I’ve been in for three straight days.”

She lifted an arm, and Jaylynn nestled in and tucked her feet up under an afghan on the couch. “I’ve missed your warmth, Dez, that’s for sure.”

“Remind me to take my own truck next time. Frederick’s was amazingly uncomfortable, and his heater has only has two speeds: 100 degrees or off. What a piece of crap. In fact, everything about the last three days has been painful. You would have died on the cots we had to use.”


“You know—wide strip of canvas somehow attached to cheap, shaky wooden legs crossed at top and bottom. A foot and a half off the floor until you lie on it, then it sinks down and your ass is dragging on the ground.”

“Sounds more like a hammock.”

“My experience with hammocks has only been pleasurable. The cot is a whole ’nother story. I can’t wait to get into our nice, soft bed.”

“What do you think? Will they accept you for the team?”

“If Nick Boulet has his way, I’m a lock. But who knows. In some ways it seems political. But if they offer it to me, I’ll definitely take it. The training was a blast, and I was good at it, if I do say so myself.”

“I bet you were. When will you find out?”

“Soon. Maybe next week.”

“What are you going to do if you get an Investigations offer first?”

Dez shrugged. “I really want SWAT. I’ll take some time to think about it and wait for the SWAT details. They want to get another group in for training real quick, so I suspect I’ll get word in a few days.”

“Very cool.” Jaylynn tipped her head back and met Dez’s gaze. “I’m so happy you’re home.”

With a smile, Dez leaned down and kissed her. Jaylynn closed her eyes and savored the kiss. Just like always, she felt warm and protected...and incredibly turned on. How did Dez do that to her with only one touch, one kiss, even just one look? She snuggled closer and stroked Dez’s side, her hip, her thigh, feeling the rough denim under her hands.

The National Anthem pulled her from her reverie. Before she’d even opened her eyes, Dez was up and across the room.

Jaylynn said, “I often see stars and hear music when we kiss, but this is the first time your phone has echoed my internal thoughts.”

Dez rooted through her coat pocket and snapped open her phone. “Reilly.” She turned toward Jaylynn, frowning.

All of the air went out of Dez, and she seemed to sink, as if she were suddenly bearing some great weight.

“Dez—what is it?” So caught up in the excitement of Dez being home, Jaylynn hadn’t registered that it was after two a.m. Anybody calling had to be delivering bad news.

Dez said, “Yes, sir. I want to join the manhunt. I can be there—” She paused. “I have the skills to assist SWAT. I could—”

Dez’s face went from white concern to red fury.

“Yes, sir!” She smacked the phone shut. “Holy shit.”

“What?” Jaylynn crossed the room. She moved close and gripped Dez’s arm.

When Dez’s eyes met hers, they were full of tears. “Lynette Mielo’s been shot and killed.”

“Oh, my God. On duty?”

Dez nodded.

“What happened?”

“He doesn’t know yet, but they’re notifying supervisors. I asked to help with the search, but the commander wants me to stay put.”

“What? Why?”

Before she could answer, a salsa tune started up on Dez’s phone.

“It’s Crystal,” Dez said as she opened her cell. “Maybe she knows something.”

Then Jaylynn’s phone signaled a text message. And the house phone started ringing.

“Here we go,” Jaylynn mumbled, feeling sick to her stomach.

Dez parked her F-150 as close to the warehouse district as she could get. The crime scene was blocked off for four square blocks with uniformed cops everywhere to stop the curious. She and Jaylynn got out in a hurry, flashed their badges, and were allowed to pass, but an officer Dez knew slightly from another division stepped back, one hand in the air.

“Hey, Sergeant, just to let you know—we’re not supposed to let anyone through, not even cops.”

Dez glared at him.

He put up both hands, palms facing out. “Just saying, Sarge. If they ask who let you through, please don’t get us in trouble.”

She gave him a grim nod and turned away. Please let this be a big mistake, she thought.

Silently, Jaylynn moved closer and gripped her forearm, but even Jaylynn’s presence didn’t help Dez feel calm. Every step she took, her legs felt heavier, her heart pounded more fiercely. For a moment she thought she might throw up. She closed her eyes and forced herself onward. When she looked up again, they had arrived at the corner of the street that led to the warehouse area. A block and a half down the slight incline she saw the coroner’s van, a dozen squad cars, an ambulance, and more people than she could count. A strange brilliant light shone from the alley. Everything was brightly illuminated in the opening between the two brick buildings.

“Breathe, Dez,” Jaylynn said.

“Yeah, I know.” She did feel light-headed, so she took some deep breaths. How could this have happened to Lynette? She couldn’t comprehend it. Mielo, dead? How could it be? They’d been pals all through training ages and ages ago even though Dez was several years younger. Lynette Mielo had worked every aspect of patrol in every division, just like Dez had. They’d become FTOs at the same time. Mielo managed an unblemished career and gained her sergeant’s stripe two years before Dez, but she never lorded it over her. Mielo was one of the officers who sought her out once Dez came back to work after the leave of absence she’d taken when the PTSD had gotten the best of her. Some cops had given Dez a wide berth, but Mielo never did.

Dez thought of the barbecues and training and shooting competitions and charity events she and Mielo had attended together. Lynette had been a constant presence, someone Dez depended upon as reliable and helpful. She had four sons, all teenagers now, and like any doting mother, she loved telling about her kids’ amusing antics. She’d been the kind of mom that Dez thought deserved Parent of the Year, always prepared, always on the ball, never thrown by the unexpected.

So how had this happened? How did someone get the drop on her? Dez felt cold inside, as though her heart were gradually freezing over. She shivered.

She and Jaylynn arrived at a cordoned area ringed by dozens of cops—some in uniform and some who had obviously rolled out of bed and raced to the scene. She saw few civilians and, shock of all shocks, no press. The guys four blocks out were doing their jobs well.

“Stay here, Jay.”


“Let me just do this alone, okay?” Dez ducked under the yellow tape and crossed the open area toward the ambulance, knowing in her heart that imagining Lynette in there, alive, being ministered to, was just a fantasy.

The medic bus was empty. She passed it and saw two paramedics near the passenger door, idle and leaning against the side.

She cut around a couple of cruisers and strode toward a knot of men who stood at the mouth of the alley, their heads together looking at something. On hearing her approach one of them glanced over his shoulder then spoke sharply to those near him. A figure clad in a tan wool overcoat separated from the group and stomped in her direction.

“Commander Malcolm, I—”

“No, Reilly. I told you to stay put.”

“But I could help with the crime scene. I could—”

“You’re not going back there.” He ran a hand over his bald head. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he’d been crying.


“No way in hell. Not now, not later.” He took her arm and led her toward the flashing lights of the ambulance. “It’s an active crime scene, and we’re not taking a chance that a single thing is missed. No admittance to anyone outside the homicide experts.”

“So it’s really Mielo?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“How did this happen?” She bit her lip to keep from crying. She tasted something metallic but couldn’t let up.

“I don’t know. Fenwick and Schaake were her backup. They did everything by the book, but by the time they arrived, she was gone.”

Dez tried to take in the facts. If she could make sense of them, maybe this wouldn’t be so hard. “Who caught the case?”

“Moran’s team. We’ll have an entire Task Force—you know that. SWAT is already searching. Uniforms are canvassing the area. We’ll catch whoever did this. But listen, Dez, you need to go home and settle down. You’ve got a critical court appearance tomorrow.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “Look at me. Listen up. I’m depending on you now. You’ve got to show up and give effective testimony, even though everything about this night will be ringing in your ears. You’ll do that, right?”

“Yes, sir, of course.” She worried that her words sounded hollow. She was hardly able to choke them out.

He patted her arm once. “Go home. Rest if you can. Get your notes together, and be on time to court. That’s critical, Reilly. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir.” She walked away feeling like he’d kicked her in the stomach. What else could she do here anyway? She understood the necessity of a perfectly processed crime scene, and she didn’t actually want to see Mielo’s body. Then again, if she did see her, maybe it would take away the sense of total unreality.

On the other side of the crime scene tape, she scanned the crowd to see who else was there. With over six hundred sworn officers in the Saint Paul Police Department, she couldn’t know everyone, but since she worked Tours I and III so often—graveyard and swing, respectively—she recognized the majority. People met her gaze, their eyes shrouded with grief, then looked away.

How familiar this all was. How brutally familiar.

She found Jaylynn across the street standing over someone who sat with his back against the wall. Brendan “Shock” Schaake was down, elbows on his knees, and head in his hands. The new trainee paced several feet apart from them. From the recesses of her addled mind, Dez managed to remember his name was Fenwick.

She stood up straighter and marched over next to Jaylynn. “Schaake, get your ass up.”

He scrambled to his feet, his eyes wild. “Sarge, I—I—”

“Shut up and come with me.” She grabbed his elbow and led him up the hill, away from prying eyes, and around the corner. In a gentle voice, she said, “What happened, Shock?”

Eyes full of pain and misery, he shook his head. “I don’t know. We talked to her about meeting for our meal break, and then she called for backup. That’s the last I heard from her until we found that.”

“Like what?”


“Describe it to me. Like you were writing up a report.”

He took a deep breath and described how they’d found the squad car at the mouth of the alley and hurried in, guns drawn. “Mi-Mielo...uh, the vic-victim was white, female, early forties. Discovered on her back, shot twice in the head.” He gulped. “Another bullet wound had been delivered to the belly after death.”

“How do you know it was after death?”

“She bled a lot, Sarge. From her head only, though. Very little on her uniform, so her heart had stopped by then.”

“Good observation. What else?”

“Typical dark alley, lots of trash. Two garbage dumpsters. Also saw a folded-up bum box. Looked like someone had been living back there, but no sign of anyone when we arrived. No exit at the other end of the alley due to the fencing fifty or sixty feet down. Saw a brown garment on the ground, looked like a coat, and the remains of a small, still-smoking fire that had been set right in the middle of the alley. And just all that blood around her head.”

“How close did you get?”

“Not very. We could tell she was dead. The head wound was too—too traumatic.” His voice broke, and she thought he was going to cry.

“Did you tell Dispatch to have other units canvass the area?”

“Yeah. Command got right on this, and believe it or not, Fenwick kept his cool. I thought he might lose his lunch, but he didn’t.”

“Hell of a thing for a rookie to go through.”

Schaake said, “Hell of a thing for anyone to go through. At least Fenwick hardly knew her.”

Dez stepped closer and put an arm across his shoulder. He was taller than Dez but was standing so slumped that his face was even with hers. “You have to get hold of yourself, Shock. You’ll go through a terrible time for a few days. The detectives are going to talk to you over and over, and you won’t sleep, and you’ll feel like shit. I know. I’ve been through it. You have to man up and make it through that, and then very soon, you and I are taking a little trip.”

“A trip? What do you mean?”

“This is a lot to process. You have to talk about it. I’ll be there. So will a lot of others.” She clapped him on the shoulder, then pulled out her wallet and removed her business card. She wrote her cell phone number on the back, and handed it to him. “Call me whenever you need to talk. Or if you just need to touch base. Otherwise, I’ll hunt you down in a week or ten days.”

“I feel like I failed, Sarge. Like I completely fucked up and failed my sergeant.”

“You didn’t. This isn’t your fault.”

An hour later, it was Dez saying it was her fault. She lay in bed next to Jaylynn, choking on her tears. “I should have been there, Jay. If I hadn’t been at that damn training, I would’ve been on duty tonight.”

"And what would you have done? You’d be in the same shoes Schaake is in.”

“Maybe it would have been different. Maybe—”

“Stop, Dez! Just stop it. You have to decide right now that you won’t think that way. You’re not responsible. The murdering bastard who did this is responsible.”

“We’ve got to find out why. Why Mielo? Why her? I just don’t understand. Was this some kind of thrill kill? A gang initiation?”
Jaylynn moved closer to wrap as much of her body around Dez’s as she could. “There’s no way to tell yet. We won’t know anything more until tomorrow. Sleep now. A couple hours of sleep will help. Just sleep.”

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