Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Tortoise and the Hare: Writer's Life and Continual Self-Assessment


Writer's melancholy. Ugh. I can't say enough  bad about it, but knowing I'm of the brooding variety makes me feel comfortable among similarly manic, self-doubting peers. It's a plague that has afflicted greater authors than me.

Please note: if you write upbeat romance and chick lit, you might be exempt.

If you write dark fiction, chances are we should have a glass of wine (or a bottle). We can commiserate over the eighty-seven thousand times we've changed our mind on our respective writing journeys.

One day I'm the tortoise. The next, I'm the hare. 

Sometimes I'm so driven I eat, sleep, and breathe new writing and edits. I convince myself that I'm both brilliant and worthy, and that if I really keep pushing I'll be super-successful, that you'll read about me in the New York Times

Then reality hits and I start questioning every decision I've ever made, wondering if it isn't just time to be a housewife. Please note, that'll never happen. Even if I'm only writing for me, I can't go more than a week without getting "the itch."

Sales slump, marketing is a trade of the devil, and honestly, mean people suck. That piece of T-shirt wisdom applies to the rejectors, the sock puppets, the jealous, and the petty who undoubtedly surface in the instance you have a modicum of success. 

At some point (and I'm starting to believe this is an age thing), you realize that none of it matters. You will write what you love, what moves you, and it'll either move others or it won't. It will gain traction or it won't. There's no formula, and I am going with the spaghetti-at-the-wall method of career management, comfortable in the realization that at any point I could be committing career suicide. 

Maybe I need an agent. Maybe I write the books in my head in the order they speak most loudly to me and deal with the publishing aspect after-the-fact. Maybe I take a couple weeks off because I have the most adorable new puppy en route and I just want to spoil dear Poe and spend my afternoons basking in sunshine and puppy kisses. The freedom to do all of those things is the reason I love writing without deadlines.

I could explain my recent zen boost with the flooding of vitamin D and outdoor grilling, but the truth is, I'm really introspective lately, working on figuring my newly-empty-nested, adult self out. My enlightened side sees things differently. 

I believe best sellers have earned their place. I read more of them lately and am disappointed much less often. Reading feeds a writer's brain and successful novels are akin to a gourmet diet. Make the time to read if you want to be the best writer you can be. There's always room for improvement.

I no longer want free books. I want good ones, and I have no problem putting money into the machine that keeps authors doing what they enjoy if that means them writing stories I love. I'm grateful for my public voice and for the "indie revolution," but the expectation of free or cheap and the undervaluing of author's time, effort, and expense are worrisome.

I have branched out as an author, and will continue to do so until I find what feels like a fit. I want a career as comfortable as my favorite jeans, something that works on all levels and involves a support team I can count on, defer to, and who has my best interests at heart. Writers are nothing if not idealistic. I believe this perfect existence is out there. I plan on attending more conferences this year in the hopes of finding at least a jumping off point. 

In the meantime, I'm stopping to smell the roses. I've got a bit of author burnout, owing to doing too much at once. I am taking my time, enjoying the spring, and following my gut into Strandville. I'm writing Departure next because I miss the characters and because my version of the apocalypse is like that pair of jeans. I'm wrapping edits on Fatal Intention, but cannot say at this point when and how it will be published. Fatal Reaction  re-releases on June 9th under Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint. We'll see if that spaghetti sticks.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

If you Lost an Entire Novel, Would you Rewrite it?


I had a dozen heart attacks this morning. I nearly fainted from stress. Six months worth of work, ninety-two thousand words, went corrupt. I don't mean in the way that there's a back-up and my thumb drive or hard drive corrupted. I mean at the file level. My last save, April 1st, went shithouse. Unknowingly, I synced that file to both of my PCs because I knew I was shelving Fatal Intention for a few days to deal with audiobook previewing and re-releasing Cure. This left me with zero usable words. No emailing to myself or saving to backup clouds would fix this because it was syncing that file-gone-bad that landed me in this position. I'm prepared for hard drive/thumb drive failures, not Word ones.

If this ever happens to you, here's something that might help: open the file with another word processing software. I was able to recover eighty-seven thousand words this way by copying and pasting out of Wordpad. This is all of the novel, including second draft revisions through chapter twenty-two, minus an ending I wasn't sold on to begin with. I'm taking this as a sign. I've been having a bit of an existential crisis the past year, owing to the fact that I'm way too hard on myself. Without getting too into my own head here, I'll say that I thought Fatal Intention might segue into a spin-off series. The ending made this possible. That ending is gone now, leaving me to ponder an alternate ending as well as the future of the characters.

More than that, I had a brief moment this morning when I thought all was lost that I asked myself if this entire novel is gone, what will I do? 

My knee-jerk reaction was that the past six plus months would have been wasted. It would be impossible to recreate Fatal Intention in its original form (or even close)  because writing for me is not something that is calculated, it's organic. Ideas flow and I convert those ideas to words on the fly. Yes, I have a very rough outline, but in that moment when I thought all was lost, I knew I couldn't get those words and ideas inline, and worse, I didn't want to. Fatal Intention most likely would never see the light of day if I had to start from scratch. My heart wouldn't be in it, and that would come through in the writing.

Fortunately, it hasn't come to that. Fortunately, I'm not under anything other than self-imposed deadlines. Fortunately, this book will go to the publisher, but isn't under contract. I have time and most of my work. I have an idea for the alternate ending because while I know what the original was, I can't recreate it verbatim. Probably not even close. What do I do now? I call this day a wash. I tinker, throw on Wonder Boys, and try again tomorrow. From here on out, I am going to do a brand new daily save file to protect at the file level rather than just protecting myself from hardware failure. It's all I can do. Five novels and this has never happened. Live and learn, and be grateful for the small blessing that most of the novel is saved. What would you do if you lost everything? For me, a book can only be written once.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Turning your Novel into an Audiobook


Cure (Strandville zombie #1) on Audible
Afterbirth (Strandville zombie #2) on Audible
Fatal Reaction (romantic medical thriller) on Audible

Everything is intimidating the first time you do it, but with five audiobooks either completed or in progress I'm familiar enough with the process to have been comfortable by the second go-round.

If you're an indie author looking to dip your toe into the ACX audiobook waters, let me tell you how easy it is (and exciting, too):


  • Log into ACX with your Amazon credentials and "claim your novel."
  • Post the details of the deal you're looking to make.
  • Listen to auditions as they come in.
  • Decide on your narrator.
  • Upload a 2400x2400 square cover.
  • Approve the 15 minute sample and the final work.

That's basically it in a nutshell. Sounds simple? Mostly, it is. I stumbled a couple of times and maybe the following tips will help you avoid the same problems I had.

Your narrator/producer is the key to a smooth ACX experience. 

Choose someone who has done this before and who has production experience and equipment. Repeat! 

ACX has their own sound engineering quality requirements that are way above my pay grade. I don't know sound engineering, but I hired folks who do after learning a valuable lesson. I unknowingly hired one narrator who had a great voice, but who contracted out the production end. This cost her money, and caused more problems than I care to admit. Ask if the narrator does their own production (and has their own equipment) before moving forward. Have a conversation with them if you like their audition and don't be afraid to ask if they've had audiobooks approved through ACX in the past. I was fortunate to snag a studio (Cerny American Creative in Chicago) with expertise after that one bad experience. Once we connected, I worked with them to do all three of my existing audiobooks. They are finalizing Better Left Buried now as a fourth. The person who didn't do their own production and I came to terms that she wasn't going to be able to do my book, and after the contract expired we mutually dissolved our agreement. Cerny took over the novel from scratch. This snafu cost me about two months wait time.

When you contract with a narrator (and this is done via a simple boiler plate contract provided you by ACX), you will pick two dates: one for the first fifteen completed minutes, and the other for the finished audiobook in its entirety. I let my narrators/producers pick which dates work for them. Twice, narrators were unable to meet our previously agreed upon deadlines. Once they pass, an email to ACX is all you need to nullify the contract. It happens. No big deal. 

You'll have to either agree on a pay-for-production rate, or agree to a 50/50 royalty split. The royalty split in no way grants intellectual property rights of your work to another so don't worry. It's about the payment and that's it. This option (and the one I always take) costs the author nothing up front, but 50% royalties in perpetuity. I'm fine with this as I'm not in the audiobook business to make a fortune. I feel every one that gets picked up is another royalty I wouldn't have probably gotten otherwise. ACX handles all of the financials under this arrangement. The author simply collects their half. 

There's a possibility (and this has only happened once in five novels) that ACX will authorize a stipend to pay for production. Again, this isn't money out of your pocket. ACX for whatever reason will pay up to $100 per production hour to a narrator for a particular work, in my case The Missing Year. It's my fifth book with them so maybe that's why they chose to do this. What does this do for you as an author? It entices folks to audition. I had a wider selection of narrators and chose to go with Julia Knippen in NYC. Funny, all my other books are narrated by Julia Farmer in Chicago. I guess I have a thing for Julias. At any rate, you may get this option, but I don't hear it happening a ton.

That's the technical side of it, but there's another side, too, that has more to do with the author. When you're writing your novel, if you're planning on taking the audiobook industry by storm, consider that you're basically writing a script. Long narrative makes for a boring audiobook. Awkward or stilted dialogue comes across tenfold when you listen. I proof all  my books with text-to-speech, and I think that's a good representation of how it will sound (though there's a kind of magic that happens when a truly talented narrator makes the story their own and gives life to the characters via their voices). 

When your audiobook is finalized, ACX/Audible will provide you with as many free review codes as you ask for. They'll send about twenty-five to start, and the codes are US and UK specific. If you're promoting in both areas ask for both codes. They're easy to use and ACX provides instruction for your listeners. All that's left to do after that is promote and wait for the royalties. Easy.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

EXCERPT: Cure, Strandville Zombie Novel #1


Available for all e-readers and in print. (See link list in sidebar)

If you're a fan of experimental medicine and zombies, the Strandville novels might be your next favorite series. Cure starts off with a clandestine experiment that has the women of Strandville disappearing, and sees them inseminated with the offspring of the undead. A rescue plan is hatched, but the results of saving the few endanger the many, kicking off the zombie apocalypse. Taut and hailed as an original take on the genre, Cure has 4.1 stars on 140 Amazon reviews. Afterbirth, book two is available. Departure, book three, will be coming at the end of the year. Please enjoy the following FREE sample, and if you like what you've read so far, both novels are only $2.99 for all e-readers.

Copyright © 2012 by Belinda Frisch
 All Rights Reserved

CHAPTER ONE


The oncology unit of the Nixon Healing and Research Center was winding down from a busy day of too many admissions. Dr. Howard Nixon adjusted his white lab coat to hang squarely on his lean frame as he sat on a wheeled stool at a computer station. An unresponsive, middle-aged male occupied the bed behind him and was alive only because of a respirator. Nixon scratched at a tuft of graying hair sticking out from beneath his surgical cap and called up the patient’s records. He scanned the various reports with bottomless dark eyes that conveyed intelligence, experience, and power.
New security recruit Zach Keller watched from the doorway. He clasped his callused hands behind his back and stood with his feet shoulder width apart. Nixon had given him a lab coat to wear, but his stance, his build, and his close-cropped blond hair implied ex-military. He was an answer to a mounting problem. The hospital was in the crosshairs of a rogue group of locals who believed Nixon to be behind a rash of recent disappearances. When their unsupported claims were dismissed by law enforcement, the family members of the missing women took matters into their own hands, causing havoc and destruction as a means of retaliation.
Nixon pointed at a blue plastic binder in a bin on the wall and said, “Hand me that chart, please.” He entered several orders into the computer and remained emotionless as he typed the words “palliative care.”
Zach knew the term from his mother’s final hospitalization when the doctors eased her into comfortable death with calculated doses of morphine. The same end loomed for his young wife Allison, dying from cancer in a room down the hall.
At thirty-two years old, Allison’s diagnosis couldn’t have been more unexpected. The cancer had started in her pancreas and had spread to her liver before she was ever diagnosed. The diagnosing oncologist tried multiple forms of chemotherapy and radiation, but nothing worked. He gave Allison six months to live and offered to keep her comfortable for the duration. Zach refused to accept the finality. Exhaustive research into alternatives landed Zach under Dr. Nixon’s employ, trading his tactical military skills for experimental medical treatment that was Allison’s last vestige of a cure. So far, she was no better off.
The sound of hard rubber clogs on tile caught Zach’s attention. He turned his head to see a panic-stricken intern wearing blue scrubs standing in the doorway with sweat rings extending from his armpits to halfway down his waist.
“Excuse me, Dr. Nixon,” the young man said. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but you’re needed downstairs immediately. There’s a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“A delivery, sir. One of the subject’s water just broke.”
It was understood the Nixon Center was a research facility, but the word “subject” gave Zach pause. He had signed a nondisclosure agreement he assumed was because of proprietary information. Given the security problems and random accusations, he wondered if there was more to it than that.
Nixon closed the electronic medical record and shoved the stool out of his way, hard enough that it crashed into the wall. “Let’s go, both of you.” The sound echoed through the desolate ICU, a secluded, security-restricted area of the hospital closed off to visitors with the exception of strict visiting hours. “When did the contractions start?”
“No more than an hour ago, sir. This isn’t her first delivery.”
Nixon hurried past the nursing station to a bank of central elevators and pushed the call button. “An hour ago, and you’re just finding me now?”
“We weren’t sure…”
“I don’t want to hear excuses,” Nixon said. The metal doors slid open, and Zach hesitated at the threshold. “Come on, Keller. We don’t have all day.”
Zach nodded and hurried inside, standing next to the intern, who couldn’t have gotten farther from Nixon if he had tried.
Nixon put a small silver key into the control panel and hit B for basement.
The car descended, and when it jerked to a halt, another intern approached. Sweat glistened on the middle-aged man’s forehead, and his bespectacled eyes darted back and forth between Nixon and Zach. No introductions were made, as the intern staff was more or less a pool of worker drones Nixon kept in their place.
Zach never once heard him address them by name.
“Where are we at?” Nixon said.
“The subject is fully dilated.”
“Unbelievable.” Nixon turned to the intern behind him, who had been taking the brunt of the blame. “She could have delivered by the time you came and found me at this rate. Do you realize the risk involved with a vaginal birth? We could lose the mother and the infant. Cesarean. Delivery. Only. How many times do I have to say that?”
“I know. I’m sorry, sir. She’s three weeks early.”
Nixon opened the door to surgical storage and handed Zach a cap and gown, taking a set for himself and dressing while he walked.
Zach unfolded the one-size-fits-all garment and tried to make sense of its shape. He put it on like a jacket at first but realized it was on wrong when he took a quick look at Nixon.
“It ties in the back,” Nixon said, shaking his head.
Zach turned the gown around without explanation and hurried to catch up.
The basement was a windowless maze. There were no murals, pictures, or flowers like on the upper levels, and the air was heavy with the sickening smell of disinfectant. Most of the rooms appeared to be labs, the stainless steel tables, microscopes, and Petri dishes all unattended.
Nixon waved a grey key fob at the security device to the left of a solid metal door marked Delivery. Behind it, the scrub-clad staff of ten or so interns awaited instruction.
A young brunette in her late teens or early twenties lay restrained on a delivery bed, with her wrists fastened to the side rails by thick leather straps. She looked disheveled, withered despite her obvious late-term pregnancy, and her skin bore the telltale bedsores of someone under prolonged confinement. Her blue-and-white cotton gown rode up and exposed her watermelon stomach. Her hair matted to the sweat on her face as she turned her head back and forth against the pillow while screaming.
The reality of what Zach had signed on for started to sink in. He looked over his shoulder to see the others’ reactions, finding indifference and a flow of calculated movements orchestrated by Nixon.
“Zach, I need you at the door. No one leaves this room without my say-so.”
“Sir?” Zach wasn’t sure what Nixon was asking of him.
“You have a weapon, yes?”
Zach nodded. “Yes.”
“If the subject tries to get out of here, you use it. Understand me?”
“I… yes… I understand.”
The young woman howled, thrashed against her bindings, and locked her eyes on Nixon. “You did this to me!” she screamed.
“Get her legs. Tie them down.” Nixon held the padded stirrups while a pair of interns wrestled her legs into them and fastened her in at the ankles. “Someone hand me that vial.” He pointed at the lone glass bottle on top of a surgical tray and drew up a syringeful of the clear liquid when the intern handed it to him. “I can’t have you shouting at or hurting my staff,” he said to the girl. “And I can’t have you fighting nature. This is going to happen whether you like it or not. You will calm down.”
The patient’s eyes opened wide. “No. No. Please, no.”
Zach averted his gaze as Nixon injected her with what could only be a fast-acting sedative, based on her response. Her eyes rolled back until only the whites were showing. Pain drained from her face, her whole body twitched, and her distant gaze settled on the ceiling.
“There, that’s better.” Nixon deposited the needle into the wall-mounted sharps container and resumed his place at the foot of the delivery bed.
An inky flow spilled from between the woman’s legs, and a rotten smell filled the room.
“The amniotic fluid is black, just like the last one,” said one of the interns.
A metallic tang settled on Zach’s tongue, making it hard for him to swallow.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Nixon said. “Not yet. Hand me the forceps.” He used the enormous set of tongs to coax the infant from inside its mother. A crown of dark, thick hair emerged, and Zach stared, breathless, as the head followed. Nixon rotated the infant until its shoulders were clear, and the rest of its body quickly followed.
The intern took the young woman’s vitals. “Temperature is normal. Pupils equal, round and reactive to light. Pulse stable. No sign of infection.”
Zach waited for the newborn’s first cries, and when they didn’t come, curiosity forced him to see why. He took a few steps away from the door, moving close enough to see the tiny body in the nearby bassinet. The sight triggered his gag reflex.
“Hand me a bulb syringe, now.” Nixon checked the disfigured infant for a pulse.
“Another one dead,” said an intern.
Nixon parted the infant’s lips and cleared thick mucus from its throat with a bulb syringe. Piranha-like milk teeth lined its small mouth. “I’m not ready to make that call, not yet.” The infant remained still, its skin half-digested as if by acid, slipping from its tiny bones as Nixon slapped the soles of its feet. He started CPR. “One, two, three.” He counted out thirty compressions while an intern manned the bag covering the infant’s nose and mouth. “Breathe. Come on. Stay with me.”
The delirious young woman started to come to, her gaze fixing first on Zach and then shifting to Nixon. “Now will you let me go?” she said, the drugs causing her to slur her words. “I won’t say anything. I swear I won’t, but I can’t do this anymore. Please let me go.”
Nixon continued compressions, working to start the infant’s breathing, though Zach couldn’t understand why when it was so obviously dead for so long.
“Four minutes,” said one of the interns. “We need to call it.”
“Time of death, three thirty-one p.m.,” said the intern with the clipboard in the corner.
Nixon kicked the wheeled surgical tray and sent the remaining supplies flying. “Damn it.”
“If the baby is dead, you don’t need me,” the young woman said, her cheeks wet with tears. “Please, please, let me go home.”
Nixon moved to her bedside. A thick purple vein in his forehead began throbbing. “I’m sorry. I can’t do that.” He turned to one of the interns and said, “Take her to recovery. She’s out of commission with the other one.” He patted the young woman’s mattress. “Don’t worry about being a failure. We’ll try again in a month or two.”

CHAPTER TWO


Miranda Penton opened the bathroom door, and steam clouded the bedroom of her tiny three-room apartment. There was nothing homelike about her place, just a neatly made bed on a stock metal frame and a stack of packed boxes including one that now doubled as a nightstand. She caught her reflection in the full-length mirror affixed to the wall and sighed longingly, with her hand held over her stomach. Her muscle tone had mostly come back, but the small bulge beneath her belly button reminded her every day of the stillborn infant she and Scott, her now ex-husband, had lost.
The pregnancy had ended her army career. She could have made general. At least, that’s what she told herself on stronger days. They weren’t all so easy.
She picked up the sonogram picture from the box of keepsakes, and a lump formed in her throat. Tears blurred her vision as she smoothed her finger over the image of her lost daughter, Rosalie. Naming her had been Scott’s idea, his point being that there needed to be something to have engraved on her headstone. They buried their daughter in Miranda’s family plot and tried to pick up the pieces. Getting back to who Miranda had been before the pregnancy was harder than she expected. She tucked the picture safely away and rummaged through her camouflage duffel bag for comfortable driving clothes.
A flurry of knocks came at her door before she was even dressed.
“Miranda, are you there?”
It was Scott.
Miranda pulled a pink T-shirt over her head and stepped into the pair of shredded jeans she’d never imagined she would fit back into.
“Miranda, if you’re there, open up. Please?”
Miranda’s shoulder-length auburn hair was soaking the back of her T-shirt, and she wrapped it in a towel before answering.
“What do you want?” She opened the door but didn’t slide the chain. Scott looked distraught, and she averted her eyes to prevent the inevitable emotional tug.
“Miranda, we need to talk. It’s important.” Scott tried to reach through the narrow opening to undo the safety, but his hand was too thick to fit. “Please let me in.” His bloodshot hazel eyes were swollen as though he’d been crying. His hands shook, and Miranda noticed he was still wearing his wedding ring.
“I can’t keep doing this, Scott. Whatever you have to say, I don’t want to hear it. I can’t hear it, not with me leaving.” Miranda felt emotionally raw, on the edge of a breakdown, and the last thing she wanted was another round of Scott’s pleas for her to stay. She started to shut the door.
Scott jammed the steel toe of his black boot against it to keep it from closing. There was no aggression, no hint of anger, only desperation and longing. “Hear me out this one last time, and I’ll give you whatever space you need. Please? It’s important.”
“Five minutes, and then I have to finish packing.” Miranda let him in and headed into the galley kitchen. The dishes were packed, and the sink was empty. She wiped the already clean countertop as a means of distraction.
“Do you want something, a glass of water? I think I have a can of soda.”
Scott looked around at the boxes. “You really are leaving?”
“You of all people should understand. It’s too hard for me to stay.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” Scott smoothed his hand across his forehead. “You just need time. We both need time. Remember when we used to say we could get through anything?”
“I do, but when ‘anything’ happened, we found out we were wrong.”
“Please, Miranda, don’t go to Strandville. The Nixon Center isn’t the right place for you. Michael should have never put you up for this job. It’s too dangerous.”
Michael Waters, Miranda’s OB/GYN and a friend of her and Scott since basic training, had referred her to the medical center where he had worked before going into private practice to have more time to spend with his family.
Miranda trusted him implicitly. “Michael didn’t do anything I didn’t ask him to.” A long-overdue confession swelled inside of her, and she felt the need to finally tell Scott the truth. “There’s something that I never told you, something Michael told me about why I lost Rosalie.” She drew in a deep breath for composure. “I was the reason we lost her.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Miranda. You can’t blame yourself for nature.”
“It wasn’t nature. It was genetics, a genetic defect, to be accurate, that prevents me from carrying a live baby to term. Michael says it will happen again if I get pregnant.” She avoided the term stillbirth.
“He can’t know that,” Scott said.
“He does know that, and he says it will happen every time I get pregnant. That’s why I have to leave, Scott. Michael just helped me find a way to do it.”
“And the divorce?” Scott sniffled. “Was that really necessary?”
“You deserve your own children.”
“I would have considered adoption,” Scott said. “It just wasn’t my first choice.”
“You’d never love an adopted child like our own. There’s nothing wrong with that, but adoption is my only choice. It’s better that I go and that you find a way to get past all of this on your own, without me as a crutch. You’ll find someone else.”
“I don’t want someone else.”
“You will in time. I really do have to finish packing, Scott. I’m sorry, but you need to leave.” Miranda opened the apartment door, and he followed her, but he didn’t immediately leave. He reached for her, to hold her, and she withdrew from him, refusing to cry when, inside, she was falling apart. “Please don’t. It’s better this way.” She couldn’t look him in the eye when she said it. “I need you to leave.”
Scott lifted her chin with his finger, the platinum band cold against her skin. “Why can’t you look at me when you say it then? Please, come home.”
Tears rolled down Miranda’s cheek as she turned away from him. “It’s not my home, Scott. Not anymore.”

CHAPTER THREE


Nixon’s office was a richly decorated suite on the hospital’s secluded fifth floor. His grand mahogany furniture glistened in the sunlight, and the air was heavy with the smells of lemon-scented furniture oil and fresh-cut lilies in a crystal vase on the credenza.
“Please, have a seat,” he said to Zach, gesturing at the plush chair opposite his desk.
Zach sank into the soft leather with his arms over his stomach. He was upset, nauseated, and shocked. He wanted to collect Allison and leave—to let the cancer take her if that was meant to be—but he knew Nixon would never let him quit his job after what he had just seen.
Nixon didn’t seem remotely fazed. “I don’t believe it should be necessary, but let me remind you about the confidentiality paperwork you signed and the nature of the work you were hired for. I made it clear to you that we are dealing with a research facility and, like all research facilities, we have test subjects. In this case, they happen to be human. What you witnessed today isn’t to be discussed. Understood? Not even with others here. Not everyone is privy to what happens downstairs.”
Zach nodded, wanting to say that he hadn’t signed up for unlawful imprisonment, that his “arrangement” as Nixon called it wasn’t supposed to make him a criminal, but there was Allison to consider. “I understand,” he said, though he truly didn’t. He had reached a point of no return and needed to know how much further he would be expected to go. “May I ask a few questions?” He had many but would start with the burning ones.
“Absolutely,” Nixon said. “It is necessary for you to know all of what’s going on here, and I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to prepare you for what happened down there. That was unexpected and unfortunate.”
“You mentioned there were other women down there? Where do they come from?”
“From here and there,” Nixon said. “Several are former patients, women who came from bad situations. Others are from town, women who happened to fit our particular needs.”
Clearly, Nixon viewed himself as some sort of savior. “But they’re here against their will?”
“I’m afraid so. They didn’t all start that way, but this is what we’ve ended up resorting to. The women’s stays here will be temporary, and they will be released when we have what we need.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“The cure you came for. What we’re doing has the potential to save millions of lives, Zach. I know this has been a lot, but trust me when I say this is a greater-good circumstance.”
“I don’t see how what I saw could be for anyone’s benefit. What was wrong with that baby?”
“That’s more complicated than I can explain out of context. Things will be clearer after a proper tour and after you have the chance to spend time with Max Reid, my number one on the ward.”
“The ward?”
“Where the women are held,” Nixon explained.
“The locals who have been coming here stirring up trouble, they’re the women’s families, aren’t they? Why haven’t the police come?”
“They did come, Zach. They came, and those that needed paying off have been paid. The troublemakers are mine to do with as I see fit. I assure you, whatever you have to do to keep order here will go without consequence.”
It wasn’t just legal consequences Zach was worried about.
“Excuse me, Dr. Nixon.” An elderly maintenance man wearing gray-green coveralls appeared in the doorway. “I have the elevator key you requested.”
“Perfect timing as usual, Jim. There’s somebody I’d like you to meet,” Nixon said. “Jim Lockard, Zach Keller. Zach, Jim Lockard. Jim is the person you contact to fix anything you find that’s broken. He’s a miracle worker of machinery and one of our original employees. There’s nothing he doesn’t know.”
Jim extended his hand, hard and cracked from a lifetime of manual labor.
“Nice to meet you.” Zach managed an awkward smile.
“You, too, son. You, too. Is there anything else I can do for you, Dr. Nixon?”
“I think we’re all set.” Nixon handed the key to Zach. “We’re heading back downstairs. I’ll have Zach test that and will let you know if there are any problems.”
“You sure you want to do that?” Jim hitched his thumb in Zach’s direction. “This young man looks like he’s seen a ghost already.”

* * * * *

Miranda rolled down the black Ford Explorer’s windows and breathed in the crisp spring air. Scott had nearly convinced her to stay, though she would never admit that to him. Nothing good would come from her going back to him, because the two of them had become different people after losing Rosalie. She grieved the loss on a visceral level, but she accepted the truth that she was not meant for motherhood, as much as she ever imagined she could.
Moving to Strandville was her do-over, a chance at anonymity and an escape from the pitying stares and apologies that hadn’t yet waned. As she crossed the town line, two hundred miles from the place she had called home for most of her life, the scenic countryside was every bit as peaceful as she had imagined. Old saltbox houses and expansive farms ate up the landscape, crops beginning to emerge from the well-tended earth. Cows roamed their pastures, and the first of the spring’s calves chased each other with sure-footed determination.
Miranda adjusted the skewed rearview mirror, but there was literally no looking back. Boxes of things she didn’t entrust to the movers blocked her view. Low on fuel, she pulled into the parking lot of Porter’s mom-and-pop convenience store to gas up. She stepped out onto the crumbling pavement and opened the SUV’s fuel door.
A rusted Chevy truck with a Confederate flag draped across its back window pulled up to the other side of the pump. Lynyrd Skynyrd blasted through the speakers, and Miranda rolled her eyes at the stereotype.
A filthy man wearing cutoff jean shorts scratched at the knots in his unkempt beard and wolf-whistled at her. His hairy, round belly swelled from beneath his stained T-shirt, and pus oozed from sores covering his thick calves.
Miranda took the kind of mental inventory needed to identify a suspect to the police. When the redneck noticed her looking at him, he made a humping motion in her direction. She returned a confident stare that said he didn’t intimidate her. He stopped the lewd grinding and winked.
Miranda shook her head and locked the truck before going inside to pay. The creaking of a rickety front door announced her entrance to the wood-paneled anything-you-could-want shop. The store had a butcher’s counter; a wall of coolers, windshield wipers, and first-aid supplies; a deli; a bakery; and an unsettling selection of shovels, rope, and duct tape. Miranda imagined she’d adjust to the culture in time. When a heavyset woman came in screaming behind her, she wondered.
The woman shouted, “I need to see Jack!” at the clerk, a pimple-faced young man whose eyes were barely visible through a curtain of greasy bangs.
An elderly man, slight of weight and small in stature, wearing a pair of baggy overalls and an ill-fitting shirt, attempted to coax the woman to leave in a voice just loud enough for Miranda to overhear.
Miranda grabbed a bag of chips from the shelf and an iced tea from the cooler and watched the escalating drama with interest.
A stocky man wearing a bloodstained butcher’s jacket with the name “Jack” embroidered on the chest pocket came out from the back room.
The irate woman shook a missing person’s poster at him. “How could you take Penny’s picture down? We’ll never get her home if no one knows what she looks like, Jack. Why would you do this to us? To Penny?”
Miranda approached the counter with caution and set her items down in front of the clerk along with a stack of pocket money. The obviously nervous clerk flattened the crumpled wad of singles, shifting his gaze between Miranda and the hysterical woman.
“I’m sorry,” Jack said. “I don’t know where the poster went.” The corkboard on the wall behind him held several. It wasn’t hard to believe one could get lost without being missed.
The thin man, the woman’s husband it seemed, set his hand on her trembling shoulder. “Beth, we have to go.”
“I can’t leave. Not without her poster being up.” She handed the one she was holding to Jack.
“I’ll put this one front and center,” Jack said, ripping off two lengths of butcher’s tape, and fastened the poster to the meat counter’s glass. “I’ll make sure it stays there. I promise.”
“Thank you,” the man said to Jack. Tears glistened in his aging eyes, Beth’s emotional display clearly getting to him. “Can we please go now?” he said to her.
Beth turned to Miranda and said, “Have you seen my daughter? Please, look at her picture.”
Miranda didn’t see that she had a choice. She looked at the poster of eighteen-year-old Penny Hammond, whose chubby, pleasant face resembled her mother’s and whose bright eyes sparkled even in black and white. She looked years younger than her listed age, and her smile was heartbreakingly radiant. According to the date listed, she had been missing three months. A quick glance at the other posters showed dates as far as a year or so back.
“No, ma’am,” Miranda said. “I’m sorry. I haven’t. I’m new here.”
“I’m sorry, miss,” the man said to Miranda. “Beth, we have to go.”
“He’s right. I think it’s best if you leave,” Jack said. “I’ll ask around, but I can’t have you upsetting my customers.”
Beth’s husband apologized again, this time all but dragging Beth out the front door.
“I’m sorry about that,” Jack said to Miranda, nudging the clerk aside to finish ringing out her order. “Beth’s taken the loss of her daughter hard. Penny was a good girl. We all miss her.”
Miranda wouldn’t say it, but she understood the woman’s pain and was affected by it more than she let on. “I really hope she finds her.” The fact that Jack spoke in the past tense led her to believe he didn’t think that would happen.
The clerk shook his head and said, “Not likely.”
“Don’t you have a mess to clean up, Billy?”
Billy rolled his eyes and grabbed the mop and bucket in the corner.
“I’m sorry about him, too.” Jack shook his head, clucking his tongue. “There’re an awful lot of apologies flying around here today.” He forced a smile. “Did I overhear you say you were new in town?”
“I am,” Miranda said. “I’m just arriving, in fact.”
“Nothing like starting over,” Jack said. “My name is Jack, Jack Porter.”
She had gathered as much. “Miranda Penton.” She shook Jack’s outstretched hand.
“Nice to meet you, Miranda Penton. Don’t be a stranger.” Jack loaded her few items into a small brown bag and slid it across the counter.
“I won’t be. Thank you.”
“And do me a favor. Be careful, would you? Strandville’s beautiful, but it’s not as safe as it used to be.”

CHAPTER FOUR


The Nixon Center tour had gone from bad to worse, the basement’s secrets unfolding slowly. Most of the rooms Zach had seen to this point were dedicated clinical. There were gruesome specimens and bloody slides, but they were nothing compared with the room he was in, one that could only be described as a zoo. Metal cages lined the room’s perimeter. Stacked largest to smallest, they piled from the floor to about a foot from the ceiling. The stench of animal urine and feces made it hard for Zach to breathe.
A man in a blue lab coat pulled on a pair of chainmail gloves and reached into a rattling cage with a loaded syringe in his right hand. The animal growled and hissed and only went still after it had been sedated.
Nixon looked down the barrel of one of three high-end microscopes and nodded, appearing pleased. “Ben,” he called the man over. “When you’re finished there, come meet Zach Keller.”
“Zach, did you say? I’m Ben. I’d shake,” he said, “but I don’t dare take my hand off this guy.” The mid-thirties man with the premature horseshoe-shaped bald spot held up a dusky, charcoal-gray rat with milky white eyes and a long, hairless tail. A large tumor-like growth protruded from behind its ear and extended down its back like a furry cauliflower.
Ben must have been someone worth knowing, because he was the first intern Zach was introduced to and that Nixon addressed by name.
“What’s wrong with that thing?” Zach angled for a better look at the sickly rat.
“We gave it cancer,” Nixon said.
For all the people ever diagnosed with the disease, the word “cancer,” in Zach’s mind, belonged only to Allison.
Nixon took the rat from Ben and laid it out on the stainless steel table. He measured the tumor with a flexible measuring tape and marked down his findings on a form held by a clipboard. “I need a sample,” he said to Ben.
Ben aspirated a half cc of blood-tinged fluid from the tumor, and the rat’s back legs twitched. “I think he’s about to wake up,” he said. “The sedative doesn’t last nearly as long as it used to.”
“Mark that down as side effect one million and one,” said Nixon.
Ben put the rat back in the cage.
“Side effect?” Zach said. “The rat is not on the treatment you plan to give Allison, is it?”
“It is, but we wouldn’t give it to her until we have it perfected. We’re working as fast as we can.”
That Nixon acknowledged the risk only went so far to allay Zach’s anxiety. “Can you tell me about this treatment, about where it came from?”
“That’s an interesting story. Six patients were airlifted here from a remote area of Haiti a little over a year ago. Three of them were family—a father, mother, and their son. Two were male researchers sent to investigate a young boy who died from a mysterious illness and then resurrected in front of half of his village. I hate the term ‘zombie.’ It sounds more like a monster movie than an illness, but these people are quite literally, if not miraculously, the walking dead, and they’re infected with a virus that might save Allison’s life.”
“You can’t be serious,” Zach said. His mind went immediately to the disfigured stillborn infant, and the unsettled feeling that had been nagging him since his arrival at the Nixon Center hit a new high.
“I’m not the kidding type.” Nixon examined a specimen under the microscope. “Here, take a look. This is a slide of Allison’s tumor cells from her liver.” Zach looked at the magnified image of liver cancer, though he couldn’t have said what it was if Nixon hadn’t told him. The cells had been stained multiple colors and looked like a test for color blindness. Nixon continued his explanation about his zombie patients as if the idea that such things existed wasn’t ridiculous. “We learned early on that the virus that infected the Haiti patients thrive on oxygen-starved cells. Larger tumors like Allison’s lack organized blood capillaries. They develop oxygen-starved centers. Because of that, the virus attacks the cancer cells from the inside out like a smart bomb, without destroying healthy cells.”
Zach held his hand to his head, unable to fully process the information being thrown at him. “So you cured the patients from Haiti, and you use their virus to treat cancer?”
“Not exactly,” Nixon said. “We’re working on that.”
“Working on what?”
“Curing the infection.”
Zach looked back and forth between Ben and Nixon. “What happens if you put this virus into Allison? Wouldn’t she become infected then? Infected with something else you can’t cure?”
The formerly sedated rat charged its cage door, gnashing its needle teeth around the bars and clawing at its skin.
“Dr. Nixon?” Zach was unsettled by the rat but more worried for Allison’s well-being. “What happens if she becomes infected?”
Ben drew up another dose of the sedative. This time his steady hands were shaking.
Nixon watched Ben intently, doing nothing to step in and seemingly enjoying Ben’s panic. “It’s a matter of timing, Zach. The cancer is killing Allison faster than we can stop it. The infection at least buys her valuable time. That has to be enough if it comes to it.”
Tufts of fur floated in the air like feathers from a pillow fight. The rat shredded its throat with its claws, and the litter tray became soaked with blood.
Ben struggled to open the cage. He lifted the rat’s head with the syringe and slammed the door when he realized that the specimen was beyond salvage. “Damn it! Do you know how hard I’ve been working on that? This was the one.”
Nixon slipped on a pair of examination gloves and assessed the extent of the damage for himself. He opened another of the small cages and pulled out a fresh test subject, a normal-appearing lab rat. “I guess we’ll have to start over. See, Zach, science is three steps forward, ten steps back.” Nixon injected something into the animal and put it back in the cage.
Ben set the mutilated rat corpse on top of the table and began mopping up the blood in its cage.
Nixon snatched up the dead rat and wrung its injured neck, twisting it until its head pulled away from its body. The clicking and crunching of small bones compounded the moist sound of tearing flesh. A chill raced up Zach’s spine. Nixon was like a child with a broken toy whose further destruction didn’t matter. He tossed both pieces of the rat into the medical waste container marked Incinerator and said, “We can never be too cautious.”

TO BE CONTINUED ...

Purchase Cure on Amazon
Also available on B&N, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and as an ACX audiobook narrated by Julia Farmer, voice of "Sarita" on The Walking Dead game.





Friday, April 3, 2015

Do You Give Authors a Second Chance?


Oh, Gillian Flynn. I have a love-hate relationship with your characters. Gone Girl, an undeniable success, has the least likable cast ever. I wanted to stomp on the book when I was done reading it. I wanted to light it on fire. I lent it to a friend (and may well never see it again, so same difference, right?) It was well-written, but in a tone that I just couldn't enjoy. Amy's voice grated on me, her diary entries sent me over the edge, and she had zero redeemable qualities. I mean, kudos for the frame-up, Amy, but it might be time for you to seek professional help.

The book's epic twist made it impossible to say this was a bad story. It wasn't. It was a great story about bad people. The movie (which I saw for hubs benefit because he didn't read the book, and because who doesn't love Ben Affleck?) took the edge off Amy's annoying persona and softened Nick Dunne to appear more of a victim. I actually liked it much better than the book, other than Go. Her character was marginalized in the film, taking away from her and Nick's close relationship. Anyway, that's unimportant. What I'm talking about here is when you read an author for the first time, if you don't love the story, what makes you give them another chance?

In the case of Gillian Flynn, it was her undeniable finesse. She write descriptions and characters in a way that is rare, unique, and paints an exact picture in your mind, even if she's only bringing to life a working class town like in Sharp Objects.

I went off on a bit of a passionate tirade after finishing Gone Girl and was surprised at how many of my friends agreed with me that they loved the story, but hated the characters. One of my author friends said it was the most popular, but least appealing of Gillian Flynn's stories. She told me I would love Dark Places and Sharp Objects.

It's early, but so far she is right.

Minor nit crit: The damn print is so small! The new paperback version of this novel from Broadway Books has me wishing I bought it for Kindle instead. At least then I could increase the font size. Thirty eight is way too young for a magnifier. Sorry.

True to form, Flynn writes in her signature lean style that is nothing short of captivating. I feel like I'm searching for the missing girl alongside the townspeople of Wind Gap. The main character has none of Amy's eccentricities, which I think is a good thing. I love the novel so far, and I think this is the one to beat for 2015 top honors so far based on the masterful writing.

Had I gone with my gut, I'd have missed out on an excellent read. Fortunately, Sharp Objects  has redeemed Gone Girl, and I'm looking forward to Dark Places. Recommendations and mixed feelings about the author's style had me giving her a well-deserved second chance. How about you? Have you ever read an author new to you, disliked something about the book, but picked up a different novel of theirs anyway? Or do authors only get one shot at impressing you?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Year's Restitutions: A FREE CSI Short


The scene was like something out of a Hollywood movie. Northeast Trust and Holding’s annual holiday party grew in extravagance by the year. The Summit View resort—a four hundred dollar per night palace situated high in the Adirondack Mountains—provided the perfect backdrop for an unforgettable night of opulence.
A recent snowstorm had come through, blanketing Eugene County in the kind of fluffy snow that clung to the tree branches and made every inch of the outside world look pure and untouched through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Glitter covered the tables and floor of the grand ballroom. The light from the crystal chandelier danced across the vibrant red, green, and gold. Helium balloons masked the ceiling, the long strings hanging down like party streamers. Champagne flowed, music played, and everyone joked, laughed, and danced more with each empty glass.
A group of young analysts gathered around the bar, knocking back free drinks as fast as the bartender could pour them and caterwauling along to Don McLean’s “American Pie”.
Lena Garza watched from a table at the far side of the room, sipping a Chardonnay with Molly Hawkins, the newly promoted Vice President who had transformed from awkward to eye-catching over the past year.
The extreme makeover did little to help with how people perceived her.
Molly was dedicated, intimidatingly smart, but as socially awkward as they come—a trait that conveyed her as unapproachable. Between her lack of personality and the rumor Lena had started about her, no one talked to Molly all night. Lena hadn’t meant for things to get so out of hand, and though Molly seemed to have no idea what was being said behind her back, Lena couldn’t help feeling guilty. She had been trying to make it up to Molly, even if that meant being her only friend, outcast by proxy.
“Tonight’s the night, right?” Lena threw her full, dark hair over her shoulder, her dark eyes wide with anticipation. In contrast to Molly, Lena had a hummingbird’s metabolism and a fitness instructor’s physique—hot yoga being her vice.
“I don’t know.” Molly shook her head. “Maybe it’s too soon.” She glanced in Walter’s direction and turned away when he looked back.
Molly had her eye on Walter Logan, Director of Northeast Trust, for as long as Lena could remember. Word had leaked that Walter was in the process of a nasty divorce and Molly kicked into high gear, trading her cheeseburgers for weight loss shakes and desk lunches for daily walks. Molly shrunk from a size twelve to a slim five. She exchanged flats for heels, and her hemline went up by inches. Heads turned when Molly walked into the ballroom, her breasts high in the plunging neckline of a red sequined gown, though she didn’t seem to notice.
“I can feel the tension between the two of you from here.” Lena waved when Walter looked back a second time. “He’s all but begging you to talk to him. New year, new look, new job. It’s a whole new you, Molly. Go for it.”
Walter sat alone at a high top to the right of the bar where the action was happening, but apart from it. Under other circumstances, Lena wouldn’t have given him a second glance. He wasn’t unattractive, but he wasn’t her type. For one, he was older than she preferred, early-fifties if she had to guess. He had a youthful face for someone that age, but no real pizzazz. Lena wanted the eye of the man commanding the room, and that definitely wasn’t Walter. He dressed in the requisite classic blue suit and white button down that had become like a uniform. His red and gold tie was a bold addition to his otherwise stuffy corporate image.
“What if I go over there and embarrass him?” Molly said. “What if … I don’t know … what if he was looking over here at you? Then I’d be embarrassing myself.”
“There’s no way he’s interested in me, but I know a way to find out. I’m going to get us another round from the bar. If he keeps an eye on me, you’re off the hook. I won’t bother you about him for the rest of the night. If not, well, the next drink is your problem and I expect you to at least say hello to him. Deal?”
Molly held out her hand for a shake. “Deal.”
Lena polished off the rest of her wine and pushed her chair back from the table. She straightened her strapless blue satin dress and verified she wasn’t about to have a wardrobe malfunction. Flashing Walter a nipple might not have been playing fair.
“I’ll be right back.” Lena took their empty glasses and headed for the bar, toward the hooting and hollering analysts and Walter, whom she didn’t so much as glance at. She wasn’t about to encourage him to notice her. She nudged her way through the inebriated pack and slapped her hand on the lacquered bar to catch the bartender’s attention. “Two Chardonnays,” she said. “And not the short glasses, either. Fill them up, please.” The bartender nodded, set two near-full glasses of white wine in front of her, and shook his head when she walked away without leaving a tip in the half-full glass of fives and tens. She would get him next time, she thought, not realizing people were being so generous. She headed back to the table and set one of the glasses in front of Molly, who was clearly distracted.
“How did I do?” Lena asked. Molly said nothing. “Hello? Earth to Molly.” Lena nudged Molly’s shoulder, worried that the rumor had finally landed in the few minutes she had gone to the bar. “Mol—what’s wrong?”
“Hmm? Nothing.” Molly picked up the wine glass by its stem and took a sip, staring across the dance floor at the power couple of the evening: Managing Director Damon Brooks and his stunning wife, Gwen.
Gwen Brooks looked striking, if not entirely out of place for a party heralding in 2015. Her hair, styled in a loose, red wave looked like something out of a post World War II pin-up poster. She wore a black satin dress with a halter neckline, matching gloves pulled up to her elbows, and sparkling silver or platinum jewelry that blinded Lena from across the room.
“Well, did he look at me?” she said.
Molly kept staring at Gwen. “Did who look at you?”
“Walter,” Lena said. “What the hell did I walk over there for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mol—you’re freaking me out. What’s with you all of a sudden?”
“Am I nuts,” Molly said, “or does Damon’s wife keep looking over here?”
She’s whose attention you’re focused on?” Lena glanced over at the gorgeous couple chatting up a handful of attentive associates.
Molly shrugged. “Seems odd is all. Why would someone like her be staring at me?”
Lena nudged Molly playfully and smiled. “Because you’re a knock-out is why. Can we get back to Walter, please?”
Molly took a long sip of wine. “Can I be honest with you?”
“I hope so,” Lena said.
“I paid zero attention to whether or not Walter was checking you out.”
Lena figured as much. “Then I declare myself the winner. As penance, you’re getting the next two refills and saying hello to Walter.” Lena regretted asking for full glasses, but the music was playing, people were having a good time, and the moment struck her. She knew she’d pay for it, but she lifted the wine glass to her lips and finished the whole thing in one long drink. “And you’re up,” she said. “Another Chardonnay, please.”
“Ah, what the hell.” Molly followed suit.

* * * * *

Walking across the dance floor, associates and analysts dancing the Electric Slide behind her, Molly couldn’t help thinking she should have stayed home. She kept her eyes on the wine glasses in her hands, unable to even look in Walter’s direction.
After weeks of prodding, she should have known Lena would push the issue.
The fact of the matter was Lena had always been beautiful. She ate what she wanted, drank with abandon, and never gained an ounce. She had perfect hair, straight teeth, and the kind of evenly-spaced features that could have landed her a modeling career if she wanted one. Molly had worked hard to get where she was, still nowhere near as thin or pretty as Lena. Dieting, fitness, and a salon makeover earned her compliments, but it didn’t change the doubting, self-conscious person she was on the inside. Her reflection in the mirror looked, to her, much the same.
Molly approached the four-deep crowd around the bar, unsure how to get close enough to order.
“Excuse me,” she said meekly. She might as well have been invisible. “Excuse me,” she said again, this time louder.
Still no movement.
“Excuse us,” a man’s voice boomed behind her. Walter cleared a path through the inebriated twenty-somethings, turned to Molly, and smiled.
Panic struck her to her core. She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out. The bass of the music pounded in time with her hammering heart.
“You wanted a refill, right?” Walter held out his hands to take the glasses.
Molly handed them over with a nod.
“Bartender, two …” Walter glanced at Molly for her order.
“Chardonnays, please,” Molly said loud enough for Walter to hear.
“Two Chardonnays, please, and a Jameson neat.”
“Thank you. I didn’t think I would ever get through.”
Walter looked at his gold Cartier watch and nodded. “Two hours until the New Year, but you need something to toast with, right?” He handed her the refilled glasses, brushing her fingertips with his. “Are you ringing it in with Lena?”
“Not with her, but yes, with her. We’re both stag.” Molly didn’t want to read too much into things, but it seemed Walter was striking up a conversation about her relationship status.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Walter said, a blush of embarrassment painting his cheeks. “Rather, I didn’t mean it the way it came out.”
Molly found his being tongue-tied charming. “It’s okay,” she said, glancing at the table where she and Lena had been sitting to find Lena gone, out on the dance floor cutting a rug with Blaine Hoff, a junior analyst at least fifteen years younger than she was. “I knew what you meant.” Lena nodded in Molly’s direction, her expression saying Go for it. “Looks like I’ve been traded in.”
The bartender handed Walter his whiskey, and Walter left a ten dollar bill in the tip jar. “If you don’t want to drink alone you could always sit with me.”
Opportunity didn’t just knock, it was pounding.
“I’d like that,” Molly said, following Walter back to his table. She pulled out the chair at the high top and took a seat, tugging her dress—which suddenly seemed far too short—down toward her knees.
“You look really nice tonight.” Walter sipped his drink, eyeing her over his glass.
“Thank you,” she said, too nervous to drink her wine. “I was sorry to hear about your divorce.”
“Uh, thank you?”
It was Molly’s turn to put her foot in her mouth. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that.” She buried her face in her hands and shook her head.
Walter pulled one of her hands away and smirked. “Consider us even.”
“I’m terrible at this,” Molly said.
“This?”
“Small talk. Whatever you call it.”
“Would it help you to know I haven’t been on a date in over twenty years?” Walter looked down at the table. “Not that this is a date, but I’m no good at breaking the ice, either.”
Molly raised her glass. “To awkward firsts.”
Walter touched his glass to hers in toast. “Amen to that.”
No sooner had they taken a sip than the ballroom door flung open. A staggering mess of an overweight woman stumbled through it, her eyes locked on Molly.
Molly had only seen Walter’s ex-wife a handful of times, but she recognized her immediately. A portly woman with a round face, chronically red cheeks, and stiff, wig-like hair, Helen Logan stood out. She wore a wool coat and a green sweat suit with a reindeer on the shirt.
“Walter Logan, you piece of shit!”
Everyone stared as Helen made her way across the room, her gloved hands clenched into fists.
Walter stood, but Helen was on them before he took more than a single step. “Helen, what are you doing here?”
Helen bore down on Molly, her breath reeking of alcohol and her pupils dilated. There was hate in her beady eyes.
Molly held her wine glass, frozen in place and geographically cornered by another table and a decorative white pillar.
“Molly, come here.” Walter held out his hand to help her around Helen, but Molly couldn’t bring herself to take it.
“What are you doing with my husband?” Helen said, shoving Molly and spilling wine on her dress.
“I—um—I …” Molly looked between Helen and Walter and back again, at a loss for words.
“We’re divorced, Helen. I’m not your husband anymore,” Walter said.
“I’ll deal with you later.”
“Please, I’m sorry,” Molly said. She and Walter had been having a good time, or the start of one. She wasn’t sure that required an apology, but she offered one anyway.
“What could you possibly be sorry for, homewrecker?” Helen closed her meaty hands around Molly’s thin neck and squeezed.
Molly tried to get free of Helen’s grip, peeling away her sausage-like fingers only long enough to draw a partial breath as Helen wrestled her to the ground.
Walter sprang into action, doing what he could to physically subdue his ex-wife who had a significant weight advantage. “Get off of her. Someone help!”
The drunken analysts who had been watching the fight from the sidelines jumped in to aid the rescue, laughing and mocking Helen the entire time.
“Sooie,” one of the young men called out.
“Bet you can’t ride the full fifteen seconds,” said another.
The two were in hysterics.
The laughter made Helen that much meaner. She squeezed harder and shook Molly who had gone nearly limp by this point, unable to fight back.
“Stop this! Stop it right now!” Walter tugged Helen’s coat sleeves, allowing Molly a few sporadic breaths before Helen bore down on her again.
Two young men grabbed Helen under each of her flabby arms and on the count of three, hauled her off of Molly. The analysts cheered, Walter looked mortified, and someone shouted for security.
Molly coughed and wheezed, her vision foggy as oxygen rushed into her lungs. She rolled onto her side and then got to her knees, past caring at that point how short her dress was or that someone might have seen her underwear. Helen had nearly killed her, and would have if she hadn’t been stopped. Molly liked Walter, but he wasn’t worth dying for. She gasped, struggling to regulate her uneven breath.
“Molly!” Lena forced her way through the dense crowd.
Walter helped Molly to her feet, but she pushed him away, not wanting to incite Helen further.
“I’m fine,” she whispered, all she could manage at the moment.
“Molly, I’m so sorry,” said Walter.
“M-o-l-l-y, I’m s-o-r-r-y.” Helen threw back her head with laughter. “He’s sorry, all right.”
“That’s enough.”
Damon and Gwen Brooks made their way to Molly.
“Everything okay here?” Damon said.
“I’m so sorry.” Walter looked mortified. “I don’t know why she’s here.”
“It’s the goddamned holidays,” Helen slurred. “Isn’t this a party?”
“Not for you,” Gwen said, holding out her hand. “Molly, why don’t you come with me? We’ll get you cleaned up.” She held a bejeweled black clutch under one arm and took Molly’s arm under the other.
Walter grabbed Helen by the arm and steered her through the crowd toward the lobby and two approaching security guards.
“Molly, are you all right?” Lena said.
“I think so.”
“Let me help you.” Lena went to take Molly’s arm from Gwen, but Gwen refused to let go.
“Really, it’s our party,” Gwen said.
“She’s my friend.”
Molly felt like a wishbone between them. “It’s okay,” she said to Lena. “Gwen has me. I’ll be right back. Go. Have fun.” She didn’t mention Blaine by name, but could see that Lena didn’t need her to.
“Are you’re sure?” Lena said.
Molly nodded. “You’ve been with me all night.”
Lena disappeared into the crowd.
Gwen helped Molly to the ladies’ room.
“Thank you for getting me out of there.”
“It’s the least I could do after what you went through,” Gwen said. “I’m sorry about that. Some girls really can’t stand competition.”
Molly chuckled, but it hurt to laugh. “Apparently not.”

* * * * *

“The victim’s name is Molly Hawkins, forty-six-year-old Vice President of Northeast Trust and Holding.” Dr. Meghan Stone, Eugene County Medical Examiner, stood at the head of the autopsy table wearing full protective gear. The white waterproof gown contrasted her olive complexion, emphasizing the bright blue gloves covering her hands. Her dark hair was pulled into a loose knot at the base of her head and she wore a pair of thin, wire-rimmed glasses, a recent addition she claimed had everything to do with turning forty.
Molly’s naked body lay covered beneath a white sheet pulled down to just below the ends of the Y-shaped autopsy incision, her arms out from underneath it. Silvery stretch marks of extreme weight loss glistened on her biceps and an unnatural pink hue to her skin gave the illusion of life.
 “Consider this my inaugural New Year’s killing,” CSI September Hoskins said, adding holiday party poisoning to a line of firsts fifteen years in the making. Swabs of Molly’s hands confirmed the presence of sodium cyanide, a lethal powder when absorbed through the skin. September kept her distance, mindful of the results of trace.
“She’s been decontaminated,” Meghan said, “but I’d still be careful.”
Meghan turned Molly’s head to the side, swinging the overhead light so that it was centered on her face. “According to initial interviews, the victim was attacked shortly before time of death. A fight between her and a jealous ex-wife explains the fingerprint bruises on her neck.”
September shook her head. “Sounds like some party.”
Meghan nodded. “They’re rowdy for investment bankers, I’ll give you that. There are no signs of internal injury or asphyxia.” She pointed to a cut along Molly’s cheekbone close to her hairline. “But there’s this irregular shaped wound. The edges are rough, like something scalloped.”
“Scalloped, huh? I’ll have Evan and Saul take a look for anything at the hotel matching the pattern. They’re on-scene right now collecting evidence.”
“I swabbed the cut for trace and sent it to the lab, but notice the cherry red coloring?”
September nodded.
“Potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide react chemically with the hemoglobin in red blood cells, turning it to cyanohemoglobin, which is bright red.”
“How would the killer get the victim’s hands coated in cyanide without them knowing it?”
“Sodium cyanide is simple to mask. It’s an easily dissolvable white powder with a faint almond-like odor that not everyone can detect. The ability to smell cyanide is genetically determined. Only about sixty percent of the population can.” Meghan was always quick with obscure statistical facts. “Was there anything else on her hands?”
September hadn’t yet delivered the rest of the results. “Borax, aloe, and lanolin. Could have been hand soap or some kind of cosmetic.”
“Based on concentration levels in the blood, cyanide is the cause of death. The additional trace likely indicates delivery method. In addition to the cheek injury, there’s a slight contusion here on her forehead consistent with something curved.”
“Like a toilet seat?” September asked. “The victim was found in the ladies’ room.”
Meghan nodded. “Could be. The symptoms of cyanide poisoning come on fast. The victim would have shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting. It’s quite likely she went into a bathroom stall to be sick and died shortly thereafter. I estimate time of death to be around ten PM.”
“The victim wasn’t found until after midnight. What are the chances no one used the bathroom in those two hours?”
Meghan shrugged. “The victim would have been this pink color. In context, she might have looked passed out. Maybe she was mistaken for drunk?”

* * * * *

Detective Kurt Walker poured himself his third cup of coffee and headed toward interrogation room one with a manila folder tucked under his arm. He and his wife Rebecca had thrown a New Year’s party for family and friends in honor of their son Justin’s first holiday home from the Navy. Justin had turned twenty-one while on deployment to the Middle East and this was Kurt’s first opportunity to share a few drinks with him. Kurt, not being much of a drinker, was more than feeling the ill aftereffects.
He opened the door to find Walter Logan, a man of about his age, pacing. He wore khaki pants, a button down shirt, and sweater and he sighed every third breath.
“Good morning. My name is Detective Kurt Walker.” Kurt pulled out a chair, the sound of metal legs on tile doing nothing for his headache. “Mind having a seat?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Walter said. “I already told the other officers what I know.”
“Mr. Logan, I have a few questions and then you’re free to go. Please, sit down.”
Walter reluctantly sat. “Is Molly really dead?”
Kurt opened the manila folder and pulled a pen from his pocket. “I’m afraid so.” He scanned the page. “It says here that you were talking to Molly around ten PM last night, correct?”
Walter nodded. “Almost exactly ten. I remember checking my watch.”
“According to Summit View’s security officer, there was an incident around then. Can you tell me about that?”
Walter lowered his head. Another sigh. “Helen attacked Molly, unprovoked.”
“And Helen is your ex-wife?”
A slight nod. “The divorce finalized last month.”
“Was the split amicable?” Kurt said.
“Helen fought it the entire way. We didn’t part on bad terms—at least, I had no hard feelings—but we wanted different things from life. We married young and grew into different people, I guess. Anyway, as I understand it from talking to her, she was home last night, had no one to celebrate the New Year with, and being alone threw her over the edge. She knew where the company party was, had been drinking and took a cab to Summit View to see if we could, I don’t know, make a fresh start.”
“New Year’s has a way of bringing that urge out in people.”
“Helen barely remembers what happened. She’s never been a drinker. I guess when she saw Molly and me together, she couldn’t restrain herself. One minute she’s coming through the door headed toward me, the next thing I knew she was on top of Molly, literally choking her. It took three of us to pull her off. I’ve never seen Helen like that. She’s never raised her voice to me, let alone her hand.”
“What happened to Molly?”
Walter shrugged. “She went to the ladies’ room to clean up. Helen had spilled wine on her dress.”
“And you?”
“I went with Helen and security. I promised to make sure Helen went home since Molly didn’t want to involve the police. Helen and I waited about ten minutes in the cab stand and I sent her on her way. Closed the taxi door myself.”
“Was she anywhere near Molly after that? Had she gone to the restroom before she left?”
“Absolutely not,” Walter said. “Other than the couple of minutes I was with security to give them our contact information, I was with Helen the entire time. They wanted to take our statements, but I told them it would have to wait.”
“And where was Helen while that was going on?”
Walter thought for a minute. “Waiting for the cab, I guess.”
“Do you happen to have the name of the cab company? I’d like to verify that Ms. Logan went directly home.”
“Absolutely. It was Yellow Cab. The company paid the bill for anyone not wanting to stay the night to have a safe ride home. I was staying, so I figured no harm in letting Helen use mine.”
Kurt jotted down the information. “Did Helen know Molly before last night? Were you and Molly dating?”
“Before last night, Molly and I had barely said three words to each other, not that I wasn’t attracted to her. She really came into her own recently. I’d have been a fool not to notice, but Helen had only ever seen her at past holiday parties. I’m not sure she even recognized her. There was no ill will between them. Honest.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me about last night? Any reason you would know someone might want to hurt Molly?”
“Hurt her?” Walter looked confused. “Most people acted like she didn’t exist, other than Lena Garza.”

* * * * *

Kurt had only seen Molly Hawkins briefly in the autopsy suite, but entering interrogation room two, where Helen Logan sat teary-eyed, the women appeared like night and day. Overweight, a bit disheveled, and unable to make eye contact, Helen Logan chewed a bit of candy bar, smearing chocolate on her lower lip. She choked the bite down and hid the wrapper.
“I have trouble with my blood sugar,” she said. “Please, excuse me.” She wiped at her mouth with the back of her thick hand. “Stress makes things so much worse.”
“I understand,” Kurt said. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. Do you need something to drink?”
“No, thank you,” Helen said. “I’d rather get this over with.”
“Then I’ll do my best to speed things along. What can you tell me about your relationship to Molly Hawkins, Ms. Logan?”
“Who?” Helen didn’t appear to immediately recognize the name.
“The woman you interacted with last night.”
Helen shook her head, the wobble under her chin moving back and forth a split second after she had stopped. “I really didn’t know her at all.”
“Not from Walter’s work? From previous engagements?”
“The name rings a bell, but I didn’t recognize her. I can barely picture her now.” Helen kept her gaze on the tabletop. “I’m so embarrassed.”
Kurt had seen his share of acting. Helen’s remorse seemed genuine. He handed her a tissue from the box on the table. “How long were you and Walter married?”
“Thirty years,” Helen said. “We met freshman year in college. I was pretty then, thin like that woman from last night.”
Kurt searched his soul for an honest compliment, but feeling it would come off as solicited he continued his questioning. “Thirty years is a long time. Would you mind me asking the reason for the divorce?”
Helen dabbed at her eyes, now red and puffy. “It was my fault. I let myself go.”
Kurt thought the reasoning seemed particularly shallow for the man he had just met. “Is that what Walter told you?”
“No,” Helen said. “He told me we needed to do things, to see places, to focus more on life than the television schedule. He wanted to travel.”
“And you didn’t?”
Helen sniffled. “Honestly, I didn’t want to do any of the things he wanted to. I liked life at home, with him.”
“So the two of you grew apart?”
Grew.” Helen scoffed at the word. “At least one of us did. I saw him with that woman last night and I lost it. I thought she would travel. She would look great in a bathing suit. She wouldn’t make Walter watch the same five shows every week. She was everything I am not. I couldn’t help being jealous.”
“Do you remember what you were doing while Walter gave security your contact information, Ms. Logan?”
“I barely remember anything before being put into a taxi like something to be hidden away. Walter was disgusted with me. He is disgusted with me, but I didn’t kill his girlfriend.”

* * * * *

The first floor ladies’ room at the Summit View Resort had been quarantined. CSIs Evan Ray and Saul Fuller worked to document details of the scene.
Bright red blood smeared the seat of the white toilet in the first stall.
Saul snapped several photos and swabbed the sample. Six-feet-two, with broad shoulders and a military haircut, Saul barely fit in the cramped space. “It is beyond me how women do what they need to do in here.”
“Which is what?” Twenty-five-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed Evan—the youngest on the team by almost a decade—smirked.
“You know, lady things,” Saul said. “Why am I the one in here anyway? You’re way smaller.”
“Lady things.” Evan laughed. “You’re squeamishness kills me. I don’t know how you can process a crime scene, but talk of someone’s period sends you heading for the hills.”
“It’s gross, that’s why. I’d tell you a story, but let’s just leave it at I had an incident with my high school girlfriend that scarred me for life.”
“Fair enough, but you know why you’re in there and I’m out here?” Evan said. “Take a look at the last two sets of crime scene photos. You are the worst digital photographer in history.”
“In fairness, cameras weren’t digital when I started out.”
Evan swabbed a handful of surfaces—sink handles, sinks, and soap dispensers—and dusted for fingerprints. He examined the edge of a potpourri dish, looking for the scalloping September had mentioned. The bowl’s edge was smooth and there were no signs of blood on it. “I can’t help noticing how much nicer this is than the men’s room.”
“You think? Take a look in stall three.”
Evan laughed. “Thanks, but no thanks. You’re on stall duty. Any decorative edging in there? Something the victim might have hit her head on?”
“Nope,” Saul said. “Everything’s smooth.”
Evan walked over to the recessed stainless steel garbage container. “It was housekeeping who found the victim, right?”
“Yes,” Saul said. “A little after midnight, why?”
“Because the trash has been emptied. Looks like the bathroom’s not the worst thing we’re going to deal with today. We need to find last night’s garbage.”

* * * * *

Lena Garza looked every bit the part of a starlet, dressed to the nines in a pair of leggings, a cowl neck sweater, and knee-high, high-heeled boots. Her jewelry sparkled under the interrogation room lights, shining almost as bright as her whitened teeth. A pair of oversized Jackie O glasses held her dark hair back from her face and if she was upset about Molly’s demise, it didn’t show.
“According to Walter Logan, Ms. Garza, you were one of the few people who spoke with Molly last night.”
“What can I say? I’m a sucker for the underdog.”
Kurt’s impression of Molly was that she was meek, sheltered, and operating outside of the company’s in-crowd. Lena seemed an unlikely ally. “Sucker for the underdog, huh?” The phrase rubbed Kurt wrong. “Then maybe you can explain why you didn’t notice Molly was missing for two hours after the fight between her and Helen Logan?”
“It isn’t that I didn’t notice, so much as that I couldn’t.”
Kurt leered. “And why is that?”
“His name is Blaine Hoff. He’s a junior analyst at the firm. Yes, I was with Molly part of the night, but only until she got up the courage to talk to Walter. I figured once the two of them connected, I could have my own fun.”
“So, you were playing matchmaker?”
“More or less.” Lena shrugged. “Molly had some self-esteem issues. She was working them out, but she wasn’t really the taking charge type.”
“Unlike you?”
“Is there something wrong with a single woman enjoying a man’s company after a few drinks?”
“I suppose that depends on the circumstances.” Kurt added Blaine to the list of interviewees. “When did you last see Molly?”
“After the fight. I went to make sure Molly was okay, but Gwen swooped in. I guess being hostess made her feel obligated or something. I don’t know.”
“Gwen?”
“Gwen Brooks, Damon’s wife.”
“You gave your friend over to a stranger?”
“It wasn’t like that. Molly had seen Blaine and me together and she told me to go and have a good time. I think she felt guilty.”
“Guilty?”
“For monopolizing half my night.”
“Molly went with Gwen, and then what happened?”
“Blaine and I made a quick getaway to his room.”
“And if I were to ask Blaine about the two of you, he would tell me he was with you after ten PM last night?”
“I can’t guarantee he’ll admit that,” Lena said, “but it’s the truth. Had you caught me before my shower, I’d have had his DNA to prove it.”

* * * * *

“She said what?” Blaine Hoff was every bit as in denial about his carnal relations with Lena Garza as Kurt had expected. “I didn’t sleep with her.” His hands shook as he said it and he tucked them under the table.
Kurt saw no harm in bluffing, not after the details Lena intimated. “To put this delicately, Blaine, we collected DNA from Ms. Garza. If you’d like to offer up a sample for comparison we can put this behind us.”
The late-twenties man put his hands on the table and then back into his lap, his leg jumping up and down in a pair of expensive dress slacks that, if Kurt speculated, were outside Blaine’s means. Blaine wore a flashy gold watch, an angora blend sweater, and Italian loafers. Kurt knew from his wife’s fashion television habit the shoes alone cost at least a month’s salary. Instinct told Kurt Lena wasn’t Blaine’s only cougar.
“What’s said in here is between us, right?” Blaine said. “No one at work will hear about it?”
Kurt nodded. “It’s between me and you.”
Blaine blew out a long breath and made momentary eye contact. “Fine, you got me, I slept with Lena. I had way too much to drink and she was coming on strong, real strong. We went to my room after the thing with Molly.”
“Do you know about what time that was?”
“About ten o’clock,” Blaine said. “I remember looking at the clock when we got to the room, before … you know.”
“I do,” Kurt said.
“I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Booze, right?” Kurt smiled to put the young man at ease. “Who hasn’t made that mistake?”
“Right?” Blaine smiled back. “At least I have an excuse. If word gets out … oh, God. First Damon and then me. I’ll be the laughing stock.”
“Damon?” Kurt checked his notes from his previous interviews. “Would that be Damon Brooks?”
Blaine nodded. “Our managing director.”
“Are you implying Lena and Damon had some kind of relationship?”
“I’m not implying it,” Blaine said. “I’m flat out saying it. Everyone knows Lena goes for money, though why Damon would ever be with her when he has Gwen is beyond me. Lena’s … manipulative … which had to be why she was buddying up to Molly, right?”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Kurt said.
“No one told you about the rumor?”
“Rumor?” Kurt asked, chalking Blaine’s disjointed interview up to his nervousness.
“About six weeks ago, a rumor started circulating, around the time that Molly was promoted to VP. Molly was stand-offish, awkward, and kind of a wreck. I don’t know how to say that without coming across like an asshole. Jesus, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to curse. I’ve never dealt with the police like this.”
“Take a deep breath, Blaine. We’re only talking.”
“You bring up this stuff about DNA and I feel like I’m on an episode of CSI or something. It’s hard to relax.”
“So, this rumor?”
“Molly’s working extra hours, staying late with Damon who is pretty much always at work. She’s getting fit, changing her wardrobe, she starts putting in some effort, you know?”
Kurt nodded.
“The promotion was a no-brainer,” Blaine said. “Molly worked harder and longer hours than anyone at the firm. She was smart but weird. Mostly people were jealous because all the big returns on investment lately came back to something she brokered.”
“And?”
“When the promotion was announced, rumor said Molly got it for sleeping with Damon. I knew it was ridiculous because I knew how hard Molly worked. I’m so junior at the firm I’m one of the few other people keeping her hours. At the same time, Lena became chummy with Molly, like if she stayed close enough to her she could keep her from hearing what was being said. People knew about Lena and Damon. Lena didn’t think they did, but they did. I figured she had to have started the rumor about Molly to take the heat off herself.”
“Did anyone believe it?”
Blaine shrugged. “After what happened to Molly, it seemed someone might have, doesn’t it?”

* * * * *

Two CSIs, One Dumpster could have been the next viral video if anyone had a recorder going. Saul and Evan worked in tandem, sifting through the rotten remains of a drunken New Year’s party for clues.
“Saul, hand me that bag, would you?” Evan wore a whole body suit, gloves, and goggles and still felt ill-at-ease rifling through the dumpster that may or may not contain traces of cyanide.
Saul, dressed much the same, stood on the outside. He handed Evan a bag from the far side of the dumpster. “Next time you’ll think twice before suggesting a coin toss.”
“After squeezing you into the ladies’ room stall I probably deserve this.”
Saul shook his head, scanning the contents of a dripping wet plastic bag that, if smell was any indication, held something that had gone rancid. “No one deserves this, buddy.”
Evan sorted the bags by contents, creating two piles: bags full of white paper towels from the bathrooms, and everything else. He’d found six bathroom bags so far and wasn’t sure how many more were left. According to housekeeping, trash was due for pickup later that day, leaving them a week’s worth of garbage to sift through. The housekeeper who had found Molly narrowed the dumpsters down to one of three, but Evan had no idea how she could be sure. They all looked identical.
“Saul, why don’t you start on those over there? If we tear these apart, maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“New Year’s Day sifting through trash. What could be luckier than that?”

* * * * *

Kurt swallowed two ibuprofen with the ice cold remains of the morning’s coffee and prepared to interview Gwen Brooks, a woman he had heard was good looking, but the words didn’t do her justice. Walking into the interrogation room, head pounding and his stomach running on breakfast fumes, Kurt felt unsettled for the first time in a long time.
Gwen seemed cool, if not a bit sad, waiting with her hands folded. She wore a vintage dress with a deep V neckline, thigh highs, and stiletto heels, her feet crossed at the ankles.
“That’s a beautiful necklace,” Kurt said, commenting on the unique jewelry to let Gwen to know he wasn’t staring at her breasts. At least not only at her breasts.
“Thank you very much.” Gwen forced a red-lipped smile.
“I’m Detective Kurt Walker.” Kurt introduced himself with the shake of her hand, his palms a bit sweaty as he wondered how best to approach the topic of infidelity. Blaine had been right. Molly didn’t compare to Gwen. There was absolutely no reason for Damon to cheat, though that didn’t mean he hadn’t.
“Detective, I’m sorry I wasn’t available sooner,” Gwen said. “I heard what happened and I came as soon as I could.”
“I appreciate that.”
“They found Molly in the bathroom, is that right? I was there with her for a while. If I had known she was in trouble … I …” Gwen reached for a tissue from the box on the table and dabbed the corners of her eyes. “I would have stayed with her.”
“As I understand it, you helped Molly to the bathroom after what happened with Helen Logan. Is that correct?”
“I did, yes.” Gwen nodded. “Molly’s dress was soaked and I thought she should probably have someone with her while she cleaned up in case Helen returned. The look in that woman’s eyes, I can’t get it out of my head. I thought she was going to strangle Molly to death. She had to have had something to do with this, right?”
“I wouldn’t care to speculate at this point,” Kurt said. “Did you know Molly well?”
Gwen shook her head. “No one knew Molly well. I know what Damon told me, that Molly had been recently promoted and was one of his brightest, most dedicated employees.”
“You had conversations with your husband about her?”
“Not many. I try to get him to leave his work at the office. He spends so much time there as is.”
“Then why, if you didn’t know Molly, did you offer to help her?”
“That’s a bit complicated, I’m afraid. Every year my husband has these parties and the board warns him that things can get out of hand, that it’s a liability. Damon only wants the employees to have a good time. I felt obligated and a bit sorry for her after what happened to Molly. I only wanted to make sure she was all right.”
“And was she?”
“She absolutely was when I left her. She was drying her dress under the hand dryer. I told her I’d wait, but she insisted she was fine. She said she’d be right out.”
“When she didn’t come back to the party, why didn’t you check back in with her?” Kurt said.
“I assumed since both she and Lena were gone when I got back, that they went to their rooms, or that Molly had gone to change.”
“Got back from where?”
“I told Damon it was probably best that he let the board know what happened sooner than later. We were in the hotel conference room for a half hour or so.”
“Did Molly appear intoxicated, or mention not feeling well?”
“Not at all. She had been talking to Walter and seemed happy, all things considered.”
“According to Walter, he put Helen into a cab and sent her home. Had you seen her after the fight?”
“She was in the lobby when I left Molly, alone.”
“Helen was alone, or Molly was?”
“Both. Walter was talking to security and Helen was by herself.”
“Is it possible Helen went into the ladies’ room after you left?”
“Anything’s possible.” Gwen picked up a brown bag from its place next to her feet and handed it across to him. “I received the request for my clothing from the party,” she said. “Nothing has been washed.”
“I’m sorry about the inconvenience,” Kurt said. “I appreciate you bringing these things in. I’ll try to get them back to you as soon as possible. This is everything?”
Gwen nodded. “I’m sure of it, and it’s no problem. I feel terrible for what happened to Molly. I want to do whatever I can to help.”

* * * * *

Kurt saved the salacious rumor for his interview with Damon, a man every bit as slick as Kurt expected him to be.
Damon Brooks sat at the interrogation table with his manicured hands folded, wearing a tailored charcoal suit and ostentatious diamond-studded cufflinks. He had piercing dark eyes and a salesman’s smile. There wasn’t a hint that he was nervous, or that he had reason to be.
Kurt sat across from him, nursing a bottle of water that made his stomach churn. “How familiar is Gwen with the people who work for you, Mr. Brooks?”
“Excuse me?” Clearly it wasn’t a question Damon was expecting.
“Does your wife know the people you work with well?”
“Well enough, I’d say. Gwen comes to the office one or two times a week for lunch, her schedule permitting. Why?”
“Schedule permitting. Does Gwen work?”
“She does.”
“What does she do?”
“Weren’t you just in with her?” Damon asked. “If you’re not finished questioning her, I’ll wait.”
Kurt crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re not going to want me to ask her about where this is headed, I promise you. What kind of work does your wife do, Mr. Brooks?”
“She’s an artist,” Damon said, his voice steady and calm. “She makes custom jewelry.”
“Was that so hard?”
Damon didn’t answer.
“When she’s not working, she comes to the office to have lunch with you. That’s nice. I’m lucky if my wife and I get lunch together on weekends.”
“Occupational hazard, right?”
Kurt nodded. “Gwen seems to take your work personally. She mentioned a phone call to the board after the incident with Helen.”
“I would have handled it the next day, but she was right in suggesting I not put that call off. We were in the conference room for about a half hour.”
“Good of her to be concerned. Would you say Gwen takes an interest in your day-to-day, maybe talks to your coworkers?”
“Sometimes, why?”
“Would she be privy to water cooler gossip?”
“We drink bottled,” Damon said.
“Fair enough. I’ll cut to the chase, Mr. Brooks. Do you think it’s possible that Gwen overheard rumors about your office affairs?”
Damon shifted in his chair. “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
The sweat glistening on his forehead and upper lip said otherwise. “The rumor about you and Molly Hawkins, maybe?”
Damon let out a nervous ha, not quite a laugh, but a noise that said the accusation was ridiculous. “You’re kidding me, right? Me and Molly?”
“I’m not kidding,” Kurt said. “Apparently, some people think that’s how Molly earned her promotion.”
Damon looked around the room, stood, and paced, stopping and staring at the two-way mirror on the far wall. “Is this some kind of joke? Am I being Punked? Who would believe something like that?”
“How about you and Lena Garza? Would someone have believed that?”
Damon shrugged. “That would be a little more believable, but I don’t think any of it is the kind of thing anyone would say to Gwen.”
“Not if they valued their job, right?”
“I’m not sure what you’re implying, but I don’t reward or punish based on anything outside of work.”
“Then tell me about Molly’s promotion.”
“There’s nothing to tell. I made an executive decision based on merit. Molly worked harder, longer hours, and with more fortitude than every other employee under her. She got the job because she was the best person for it. I’m sorry about what happened to her. I have no idea how it happened, but it’s a shame. Molly needed time and a little more confidence and she could have easily ended in the position I am now. Managing director,” he clarified.
“Was there anyone else up for the promotion when Molly received it?”
Damon nodded. “One person, but she wasn’t a good fit.”
“Mind telling me who it was?” Kurt said.
“Lena Garza.”

* * * * *

Saul and Evan sorted through more than half of the trash bags strewn from one side of the room to the other.
Evan was soaked with sweat from the bulky protective gear. “What else did September say was in the trace from the victim’s hands?”
“Borax, aloe, and lanolin,” Saul said.
Evan held up a torn garbage bag. “Bingo. I think I found it.” He climbed out from the mess he was squatting in, his knees stiff and his back aching. “My sister Jenny and her college roommate saw this news story about a girl who earned something like a quarter of a million dollars making her own cosmetics. I don’t remember the whole story, but the deal was that everything was natural. Makeup for women who don’t like makeup, right?”
Saul shrugged. “Okay.” A confirmed bachelor, Saul had little reason to know about these things.
“Sophomore year, money gets tight. The girls are living off-campus and they decide to invest what little money they had into making lotions. Face cream, hand cream, body cream …”
“Isn’t it all the same thing?” Saul said.
“More or less, but I thought it was interesting that something they were marketing as ‘all natural’ contained Borax. Borax, aloe, and lanolin.” Evan held up a purse-size bottle of hand cream. “Who throws out an almost full bottle of lotion?”
Saul shook his head.
“Cyanide is absorbed through the skin,” Evan said. “What if the killer mixed cyanide powder into the lotion?” It took everything he had in him not to make a Silence of the Lambs reference.
“It would explain delivery,” Saul said, “but how would the killer avoid poisoning themselves?”
Evan lifted a rubber glove out of the bag with a pair of long tweezers. “They were wearing gloves.”
“And the victim wouldn’t have noticed that?”
“Apparently not,” Evan said, though he had to admit it was the one flaw in his theory.

* * * * *

Kurt sat in the break room, forcing down a turkey sandwich and another two acetaminophens while reviewing his interview notes. He had multiple suspects, Helen Logan being the most obvious and also the least likely. He liked Lena Garza most for the killer, but she had an alibi. Unless she could be in two places at once, there was no way it was her. He needed a solid piece of evidence.
September Hoskins came through the break room door with the kind of ear-to-ear grin she always wore when she had a key piece of evidence. “Trace came back.” She was the Molly Hawkins of their group—brilliant, dedicated, and more apt than her peers. After her recent divorce, she became the job.
Kurt set down his sandwich, wiped his hands, and reached for the paperwork she held out to him.
“The swab from the wound on Molly Hawkins’ cheek contained a type of silver unique to electroplating. I took an impression of the injury because of its unusual shape. It looks to be the scalloped edge of a large piece of jewelry. I can’t find anything in the database to identify it, but if I had something for comparison ….”
“Jewelry, you said?” Kurt got up from his seat. “Something unusual, like maybe something custom made?”
“Sure, yeah. Why?”
“I have to run. Thanks, September. You’re a lifesaver.”

* * * * *

Gwen Brooks resumed her place in the interrogation room, hours later and without the costume that had Kurt initially enchanted. She wore no makeup, yoga pants, and an oversized t-shirt, her hair wet from the shower she had all but been pulled out of.
“What am I doing here? What’s going on?” she said.
“Mrs. Brooks, I need to ask you a few more questions.”
“Has someone called Damon?” Gwen said. “I’m going to need a ride home.”
“We tried reaching your husband. He isn’t answering his phone.”
Kurt expected he knew why, as much as he suspected Damon had lent an unwitting hand in the execution of Molly Hawkins. He may not have slept with her, but he had slept with someone and that was enough to send Gwen over the edge.
“Why couldn’t this wait?” she said. “What are those people doing at my house?”
“We have a search warrant, Mrs. Brooks. Probable cause.”
What cause? What are you talking about?”
Kurt slid a sealed evidence bag into the center of the table. “Do you recognize this?”
“It’s a bottle of lotion,” Gwen said.
“Is it your bottle?”
“I’ve never seen it before in my life. Why?”
“We found fingerprints all over it. Molly’s fingerprints.”
“And?” Gwen twirled a strand of her wet hair.
“And one that didn’t belong to her. Do you want to guess whose that was?”
“I have no idea.”
“Yours,” Kurt said. Gwen had volunteered her prints in her earlier ostensible show of cooperation. She had surely believed that wearing gloves kept her from leaving prints. It was risky, considering, but she had clung to her innocence and continued to. “We found it suspicious that only Molly’s prints showed up. Bottles get passed around, put on shelves, sold, and publicly handled. The fact that this one showed no signs of that meant someone wiped it clean. Someone with something to hide, but you missed a spot on the cap.”
“I told you, I have never seen that bottle before.”
“You know, when I interviewed you the first time I was trying not to upset you. A rumor had surfaced about your husband. I asked him about it, and I asked him if he thought you might have heard it. He said that you’re in the office at least a couple of times a week, schedule permitting. You had to have known Molly better than you let on.”
“I told you I knew who Molly was, that’s it.”
“We found a wound on Molly’s cheek, an awkward shape with a scalloped edge. Like a piece of jewelry. I had asked your husband what you did for a living and he says you’re an artist, that you manufacture jewelry.”
“Do you know how many women wear jewelry?”
“That’s fair,” Kurt said, “but trace from the wound on Molly showed that the jewelry was electroplated. We took a look at your website, at the adjustable, plated, costume jewelry you make and sell. Someone who knows electroplating would know arsenic is used in commercial metal recovery, to extract gold or silver from its ore. That person might even have access to arsenic sold through a chemical supply company. That bottle of lotion was recovered from the hotel trash. It contained lethal levels of arsenic.”
Gwen looked down at the table.
“A pair of rubber gloves was also recovered and I got to thinking, how could the killer be wearing protective gloves and the victim not notice? You had given us the clothes you wore that night, including a pair of black to-the-elbow satin gloves. Molly never suspected a thing. You helped her to the bathroom after the fight with Helen, figuring you were in the clear. Helen made an easy scapegoat—motivated, blackout drunk—but she seemed too obvious a suspect after the public attack. You did hear the rumor that Damon and Molly were sleeping together, didn’t you? That’s why you killed her.”
“Do you know how embarrassing it is what he does?” Gwen said. “The women he sleeps with? Do you want to know why I go to his office twice a week? It isn’t because he’s such a fantastic husband and I can’t wait to see him. It’s because it is the only way I have to assert myself. It’s meant to warn the women he works with away from him. You want to know if I heard the rumor? Fine, I heard it. That doesn’t make me a killer.”
A knock came at the door.
“Excuse me for a minute, please.” Kurt went into the hallway to meet September who was holding yet another piece of key evidence, bagged and sealed.
“We have a match,” September said. “The scalloped edge of this ring matches the wound pattern. DNA in the detailing is a match to the victim.”
“Thank you,” Kurt said and went back into the interrogation room. He slid the ring next to the bottle on the table. “When I asked you if you had given me everything, you said you had. This ring was found at your home with DNA on it matching Molly Hawkins. Do you want to tell me what happened?”
Gwen tightened her lips into a thin line.
“The evidence is enough, Gwen, but I’d like to know what happened. Did you hit Molly? How did she get that cut on her face?”
“That was an accident,” Gwen said after a long silence. “After the fight with Helen, Molly was soaked. I did take her to the bathroom to clean up, and I had heard she was sleeping with Damon. I overheard a group of junior analysts talking and laughing one day.”
“About the affair?”
“About me,” Gwen said. “They couldn’t believe how stupid I was. They wondered what had Damon so desperate that Molly looked like a good alternative. One of them said, ‘at least Molly got a promotion out of it.’ I couldn’t believe it. Every night I’d ask Damon who he was working with. Every night he’d say Molly, as if he wasn’t even ashamed of it. I was a joke to him, too. I watched and waited, saw how Molly was changing, and it all made sense. She was making herself look better for him. When Helen attacked her, I prayed she would choke her out and that I wouldn’t have to do what I had been planning on doing for weeks, but it wouldn’t have sent the same message.”
“Message?”
“That my husband wasn’t there for the taking. First Lena, then Molly. There were others, too.”
“You knew about Lena Garza?”
Everyone knew about Lena and about how pissed she was that she was passed over for the promotion. Rumors spread fast.”
“Isn’t that the truth? You figured you’d make an example out of Molly, that the rumor mill would keep the other women away from Damon when word got out that you had something to do with what happened to her?”
“You’re giving me too much credit. The suspicion would have been enough. Everyone knew I was with Molly that night.”
“You played the part of the concerned benefactor the whole way, right?”
Gwen nodded. “She dried her dress, washed her hands, and I offered her the lotion.”
“She didn’t suspect anything and you weren’t worried because you had protective gloves on under the satin ones. You knew to be careful.”
“She covered her hands with it, even commenting on how good it smelled, like almonds. I had a second thought, but it was too late. Molly started breathing fast, clutching her chest. She came at me for help in a panic and when I put my hands out to hold her off, she got cut on my ring. She stumbled into the bathroom stall, saying she was going to be sick. She hit her head and she was out. I threw everything in the trash and covered it with paper towels figuring the cleaning staff would have it out of there in no time. That no one would ever find it.”
“But someone did,” Kurt said. “Did you ever wonder why Molly had gotten the promotion over Lena if the determining factor was sex with your husband?”
“Apparently Molly had something Lena didn’t.”
“A work ethic,” Kurt said matter-of-factly. “Molly wasn’t sleeping with Damon. Lena was, and she knew how to work the rumor mill. Spreading lies about Molly was a way of getting the attention off of herself, of deflecting and dealing with the anger of losing the promotion she hadn’t earned, if I had to guess. Who knows, eventually Molly might have gotten wind of things, been embarrassed into finding another job and Lena could get another chance. Molly wasn’t privy to the office gossip and likely had no idea what people were saying about her. The few who really knew her knew the accusations were ridiculous. Not everyone believes office gossip, Gwen.”

A tear rolled down her pale cheek. “Unfortunately, some people do.”

New Year’s Restitutions

Copyright © 2014 Belinda Frisch
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

If you have enjoyed New Year's Restitutions, try Fatal Reaction, the first in the Anneliese Ashmore medical thriller/mystery series for only $2.99. Re-releasing through Thomas & Mercer in June 2015. Available now as an independently published novel.