RUBICON RANCH: RILEY’S STORY — Chapter 1: Melanie Gray — by Pat Bertram

Melanie Gray dressed all in white—loose cotton pants, billowing long-sleeved top, wide-brimmed straw hat, flowing scarf. She checked her pockets to make sure she had her cell phone, camera, and extra memory card, then grabbed a canteen of water, slung the strap over her shoulder like a bandolier, and stepped outside. Heat scorched her lungs and the glare of the desert sun burned her tear-sore eyes.

She hesitated. Maybe she should stay inside today. Seven o’clock in the morning, and the temperature had already climbed into the hundreds. She was more of a mountain girl—though at forty-three she could hardly be called a girl—and preferred the cool of higher elevations. To be fair, Rubicon Ranch lay three thousand feet above sea level, and the harsh weather and bleak desert vistas suited her present mood, but she hadn’t slept well lately, hadn’t slept much at all since Alexander died, and she had little strength to deal with the present heat wave.

Damn Alexander anyway. Why did he have to wreck the car and get himself killed? Didn’t he know better than to text while driving? And how could he have already spent their advance? Had he squandered it on the woman he’d been texting?

Melanie strode down the driveway to Delano Road, wishing their publisher wasn’t holding her to the contract for this final coffee table book. If she still had the advance, she could return the money, find somewhere to burrow, and heal in privacy, but now she had to finish the book of desert scenes by herself, and she knew nothing about photography—Alexander always took the pictures, she wrote the blurbs. Her only option was to shoot as many photos as possible using her small digital camera, and hope that by lucky accident some would be publishable.

When she reached the road, she hesitated again. Right or left? Odd how she couldn’t seem to make up her mind about anything since Alexander’s death. Not that it mattered which way she went. Most roads in Rubicon Ranch eventually wound to the desert.

Read the rest of the chapter here:


Rubicon Ranch is a collaborative and innovative crime series set in the fictional desert community of Rubicon Ranch and is being written online by authors of Second Wind Publishing.

Excerpt From “Scraps of Paper — Revised Author’s Edition” by Kathryn Meyer Griffith

imagesAbigail Sutton’s beloved husband walks out one night, doesn’t return, and two years later is found dead, a victim of a long ago crime. It’s made her sympathetic to the missing and their families.

Starting her new life, Abigail moves to small town and buys a fixer-upper house left empty when old Edna Summers died. Once it was also home to Edna’s younger sister, Emily, and her two children, Jenny and Christopher, who, people believe, drove away one night, thirty years ago, and just never came back.

But in renovating the house Abigail finds scraps of paper hidden behind baseboards and tucked beneath the porch that hint the three could have been victims of foul play.

Then she finds their graves hidden in the woods behind the house and with the help of eccentric townspeople and ex-homicide detective, Frank Lester, she discovers the three were murdered. Then she and Frank try to uncover who killed them and why…but in the process awaken the ire of the murderer.


While cleaning the baseboard in the living room, she noticed it was loose and had the hammer in her hand ready to nail it down again when she spied a scrap of paper sticking out from behind the piece of wood.
Such a simple act, yanking at that slip of paper, but it would change everything. Pulling it carefully from its hiding place, she saw it was a tightly folded and yellowed scrap of white paper laced in spider webs and dust. The sort of white drawing paper she used to sketch on as a child. She unfolded it slowly. There was printing on it, bright red crayon scribbling as a child might do. At first Abigail wasn’t sure what it was. Then she looked closer and read:

ME AND CHRIS ARE SO SCARED. HE WAS MEAN TO MOMMY AGAIN, MADE HER CRY. HURT HER. WE HATE HIM!!! in a childish scrawl. There was a J at the bottom.

She stared at the scrap of paper and reread it. It was obviously old. No telling how long it’d been behind the baseboard. She refolded it and tucked it into a compartment of her purse. The two children’s names who’d once lived there, if she recalled correctly, had been Christopher and…Jenny. Amazing, the note could have been from them. How strange, after all these years, for her to find it. But who was HE?

Abigail couldn’t stop dwelling on the note as she resumed her work. She made it a point to search for other scraps of paper sticking out from hidden places. A treasure hunt. By the early evening, when she had to quit painting for the day because her body refused to move, she’d uncovered yet another scrawled note in red crayon, all caps, similar to the first one from under the baseboards.


Was it from Christopher? She put the note in her purse with the other one. She was trying not to feel sorrow for the mistreated children. After all it had been so long ago. But she couldn’t stop thinking about them and what these notes meant. Had they been abused and in danger? From whom? And why should it bother her so?


Since childhood Kathryn Meyer Griffith has been an artist and worked as a graphic designer in the corporate world and for newspapers for twenty-three years before quitting to write full time. She began writing novels at 21, over forty years ago now, and have had sixteen (nine romantic horror, two romantic SF horror, one romantic suspense, one romantic time travel and two murder mysteries) previous novels and eight short stories published from Zebra Books, Leisure Books, Avalon Books, The Wild Rose Press, Damnation Books and Eternal Press.

Kathryn has been married to Russell for thirty-four years; has a son, James, and two grandchildren, Joshua and Caitlyn, and lives in a small quaint town in Illinois called Columbia, which is right across the JB Bridge from St. Louis, Mo.

All Kathryn Meyer Griffith’s Books available at here:

Excerpt From “A New Life – An Italian Romance” by Beate Boeker

The idea of starting A New Life has sometimes sounded quite tempting. . . only to the heroine of this novel, it’s an ordeal. She has just been acquitted of murder and now needs to build up a new life in Italy, as a secretary in a hotel. Never mind that she doesn’t speak Italian. Never mind that she’s not a secretary but an experienced business-woman. Never mind that Italy comes in a totally different shape to what she expected . . .


“No, I didn’t kill him.” Anne frowned at the sound of her voice. If only she knew how to say it in Italian.

Then again, no. Anne shook her head.

She didn’t have to know it.

Because nobody would ask.

She had to remember it was all in the past.

The loudspeaker spat out some Italian sentences. Anne tilted her head but didn’t understand a word. Thank God the stewardess continued in English. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re now approaching Florence. Please fasten your seat belts, and put your seats in an upright position.”

Florence! Anne swallowed. How often had she dreamed of Florence. How often had she asked her mother to show her the pictures yet again, to speak of the light, of the beauty, of the Italian sun. Anne closed her eyes. She could hear her mother even now, her musical voice and her explosive laughter.

She would never have believed that one day, she would be reluctant to see Florence.

Anne clenched her teeth. She had to stop thinking about it. She had to concentrate on a dream come true, no matter the circumstances, no matter it felt like a nightmare.

She angled her head to get a better view of Florence through the window, but the plane was surrounded by clouds. It looked as if they were cutting through a thick layer of gray cotton wool.

Almost there. Anne’s eyes burned as she fought back a wave of fear. How she wished she could go back to Seattle. But that wasn’t an option.

You’ll be fine, she told herself and stared at the clouds. The red lights from the wings reflected in the towering gray masses before they cut into them. For an instant, Anne closed her eyes. Even if the whole of Europe should turn out to be gray, it had one big advantage.

Nobody knew her here.

That counted more than everything. She nodded to herself. Giorgio had promised she could avoid all Americans at the hotel. Maybe, for once, Giorgio had told the truth.

She sighed. How she wished she didn’t depend on their weak family connection.

The plane dipped lower, and they emerged from the gray cotton wool. Anne’s eyes widened. How close to the ground they were already! For an instant, she could make out a few scattered buildings before the rain streamed along the little oval window in horizontal lines and blurred her view. She might see more if she took off her huge sun-glasses, bought especially to hide as much of her face as possible, but she had kept them on all the way because they made her feel anonymous. She would soon have to face the world without them. All too soon.

Half an hour later, she stared at a huge sign on the wall while waiting for her giant suitcase to arrive on the belt.

Benvenuto da Firenze. Welcome to Florence. Willkommen in Florenz. Bienvenue à Florence. The words reverberated through her. Welcome. Would she be welcome? She doubted it. Anne grabbed her elephant suitcase, hefted it off the belt and dragged it to the exit. Her heart beat hard against her ribs.

The airport was so small, you could walk in ten minutes from one end to the other. It had just one floor and a flat roof, and if you wanted to get lost here, you had a job to do. Somehow, the small size made it sympathetic and manageable. Then again, you could be seen and recognized in no time at all. Anne swallowed, hurried through the glass doors, and took a deep breath. Italy smelled of rain and dust.

It wouldn’t take long to get to the ‘centro storico’, the old city center. Half an hour or so, the guy at the travel agency had said. Anne’s throat felt parched. She would have to face the manager of the Garibaldi Hotel soon. Peter Grant.

Giorgio had told her Mr. Grant would not be a problem. He’d promised to discuss everything with him. He’d promised Mr. Grant would welcome her with open arms. He’d also promised Mr. Grant would be discreet.

Anne bent her head to avoid the worst of the rain and turned to her left, following a sign that said ‘Taxi’. The rain dropped into the small of her neck and ran down her back with chilly fingers. Until yesterday, her long hair had kept her warm. How she missed its familiar weight; how vulnerable she felt. What a stupid idea to cut her long hair only because it would make her look different from the girl on trial. Anne huddled deeper into her coat, but the wind cut through it and made her shudder. She splashed into a puddle, and immediately, water seeped through the seams of her shoes. Darn. You’re so silly. Take off your sunglasses now. Do.

But no. Not yet.

Her thoughts turned back to Peter Grant. She wasn’t so sure about the open-armed-welcome. From all she’d learned the last months, few people welcomed you with open arms if you’ve just been released from custody, and on a murder charge at that.

She bit her lips and stopped next to the first taxi in line. With a forced smile, she bent forward and looked through a dirty window. The taxi driver opened it, his face impassive. Anne summoned up the sentence she had learned by heart. “Nel centro storico?”

The taxi driver nodded. He scowled at her huge suitcase, then at the pouring rain, grunted something she didn’t understand and heaved himself out of his Renault.

For an instant, Anne wanted to say she was sorry to be a bother, then she shook herself. She wasn’t responsible for the weather. Where had all her self esteem gone? Half a year ago, she would have made a joke about the rain. Now every little unpleasantness went straight to the core. She pressed her lips together and dived into the back of the taxi. It smelled of stale cigarettes.

When the Renault started to drive with a rattle that told her the exhaust tube wasn’t going to last much longer, she stared out of the window. Blinded by the rain and her sun-glasses, she didn’t see much. A few trees, thin, straggling. Some low houses, with the typical roofs made of four equal triangular pieces, slanted to meet at the tip. Shutters with peeling paint, closed to keep out the sun that was nowhere to be seen and hard to imagine. Where was the Florence her mother had loved?

Anne shook herself. She had to think positive. She had to take back her life, make it into something good, something clean. She sighed. Would it ever become possible to forget she’d been imprisoned on a murder charge? Would she be able to forget the accusing stare of Alec’s friends, and let’s face it, her own, who believed she had tampered with his car? Would life ever turn back into something sane, something to have confidence in?

She’d been innocent. It hadn’t helped.

The houses got higher, and the streets narrowed until Anne wondered if she could open the door of the taxi without hitting it against a wall. It got darker by the minute. The rain pelted onto the roof with angry blows, deafening her. She felt as if she was sitting inside a clammy tin box. Anne hunched up her shoulders and curled her cold toes.

When the taxi stopped, and her amiable driver indicated with a move of the head that she had reached her destiny, she fumbled out some unfamiliar Euro notes and pressed them into his hands. His fingers were red, like sausages. The sausages disappeared in a black zip-bag and reappeared with some change.

“Grazie.” Anne’s voice trembled.

With a sigh, the taxi driver heaved himself out and went to the back of the car.

Anne clutched her handbag hard. Now. Her new life was about to begin.

Get out, she told herself. Don’t be a coward.

But her legs were frozen stiff. She was unable to move.

Oh, it would be so nice if she could find a mouse hole somewhere. Just a little mouse hole, well hidden; that would do.


Peter Grant pulled up the collar of his raincoat and sped past the Dome without a single glance at its marble beauty. He swerved by a Vespa, jumped across a puddle and finally stormed into the Da Marco bar on via de’ Tosinghi. After the call from Garibaldi, he had felt the need to leave his office immediately, to get some fresh air and a change of walls, but for once, the familiar smell of coffee and fresh bread failed to charm him. With an effort, he smiled. “Buongiorno, Marco.”

Marco waved his blue checkered dishcloth, finished polishing the glass in his hands and put it down with practiced care. It clinked on the glass top, only audible because the bar was still empty.

“Peetarrr.” He smiled across his gleaming glass counter that allowed a glimpse of crisp pannini bread and sweet dolci. “Come vai?”

Peter’s reply came automatic. “Tutto a posto. All is well.” Which was a lie. Nothing was well, nothing at all, but he couldn’t very well tell Marco so, who had once declared him to be the only cheerful English guy he had ever met.

Peter shifted on his wooden bar stool and leaned his back against the wall painted in faded orange. The smell of Marco’s panninis made his mouth water. He ordered an expresso and a pannini with prosciutto. “Henry not here yet?”

Marco shook his head without looking up from the hissing espresso machine. “Enrique will come soon.” He slipped the expresso in front of him.

Peter immediately tossed it back. When he looked up, he spotted Henry through the glass front of the bar. His cream-colored raincoat moved like a swift cloud through the rain. With him, the smell of exhaust came into the bar.

Marco shivered. “Che tempo brutto!”

Yes, the weather is awful. Peter sighed. But it’ll go away, unlike the news I got this morning.

Henry smiled at them both, took off his raincoat, shook out its folds one by one, then hung it on the curlicued brass hook Marco had fixed on the wall just for him. He bent across the glass display and gave Marco his order, then came over to Peter. Just as he seated himself, Marco brought Peter’s sandwich and served Henry his usual, a salad with bacon strips.

Henry pushed the plate away until it stood at a neat angle in front of him, padded down his blond hair that didn’t need any padding, slanted a glance at Peter and said, “Everything all right?”

Peter shook his head. “No.”

Henry speared a piece of tomato and lifted his fork. “Is it Maria?”

Peter stared at him. “Maria? Who’s Ma . . .?” He stopped and choked. “Oh. Maria. Why on earth do you think it’s Maria?”

Henry put the tomato into his mouth and chewed. “The last time you looked like that, Maria was the reason.”

Peter laughed without mirth. “It’s been ages . . . I believe I’ve last heard from Maria a year ago.” He took a bite off his pannini and smiled a bit. “And I sure don’t complain.” The smoky taste of the prosciutto filled his mouth but failed to give him a feeling of satisfaction.

Henry nodded and cut the salad into rectangular pieces. “So it’s Garibaldi?”

Peter clenched his teeth. “Lo stronzo.” He hissed out the word.

Henry threw a look at Marco who had moved to the other end of the counter to greet a new customer. “Be careful.”

“Oh, you can trust Marco.” Peter bit off another piece of his pannini as if he wanted to tear it apart.

Henry nodded. “Yeah. But still, I wouldn’t run around and call my employer an asshole. Particularly not if it’s someone like Garibaldi.”

“But he is one.” Peter narrowed his eyes.

“I know. What did he do this time to put you in such a fury?”

Peter took a deep breath. “You remember Angela? My secretary who worked half time?”

“I thought she’d left?”

“Yeah.” Peter finished his pannini and wiped his fingers on the white paper napkin. “She left a month ago, and I’ve been badgering Garibaldi ever since to allow me to employ a full-time secretary.”

Henry winced. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me you’ve been going without a secretary for a full month?”

Peter grinned. “It’s pandemonium.”

“I can imagine. Why don’t you find a half-time secretary until Garibaldi agrees?”

“Because as soon as I have one, he’ll think it’s fine and will stop doing what little he might have done. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to her, would it?”

Henry took a sip of his coffee and grinned. “And now he said since you seem to manage nicely, you can do without one altogether?”

“No. Worse.”

“Worse? What can be worse?”

“He’s sending me his niece.”

The hiss of the espresso machine almost drowned his last words.

Henry stared. “Did you say his niece?”


“Jesus.” Henry arranged his knife and fork in perfect parallels on his empty plate and pushed it away.

Peter looked up. “That all you say?”

Henry blinked. “You’ll have to be darn careful. First of all, you have to stop calling him Stronzo all the time.”

Peter shrugged. “If that was all, I’d be fine.”

Henry waved at Marco. “Un Grappa, per favore, Marco.” Then he turned back to Peter. “What do you mean, that’s not all?”

“He doesn’t have a niece.”

“What’s that?”

Marco arrived and placed the tiny glass with Grappa in front of Henry who pushed it to Peter.

Peter eyed it for an instant, then tossed it off. “Thanks.”

Henry frowned. “Now let’s start again, please; you’ve lost me completely. You say Garibaldi foists a niece upon you, a niece he doesn’t have?”

Peter shrugged. “Lo stro… Garibaldi called this morning, said he had wonderful news; he has found a secretary for me. She’ll work full time. What’s more, she’s already on her way and will arrive tonight.” He drew his hand through his hair. “And while I’m still collecting my thoughts to ask if she has ever worked in a hotel, if she has any references, not to mention that I would like to have a say in the matter as well, he says she’s his niece!” He spat out the word. “When I know perfectly well he has neither brothers nor sisters, so he can’t have a niece, not in a million years!”

“So who do you think she is?” Henry opened his eyes wide.

“She’s one of his floozies, of course. Tall, blond, and so stupid you start to eat your desk in desperation if you have to talk to them for five minutes on end. They’re all like that.” He shrugged. “I guess he got bored with her, for once finds it difficult to shake her off, so he offers her a job in Florence.” He changed his voice to a high-pitched sing-song, “Wonderful city, my dear, you’ll work in a fabulous four star hotel, oh, so exclusive, a gorgeous historical Palazzo,” Peter drew his hand through his hair again and returned to his normal voice. “And I don’t even know if she speaks Italian, for God’s sake!” He beat the top of the bar with his fist.

Henry shook his head. “He wouldn’t send you a secretary who doesn’t speak Italian, Peter. Even Garibaldi can’t do that.”

Peter lifted his eyebrows. “Oh, wouldn’t he?” He grabbed a tooth pick from a white porcelain holder next to his elbow and started to turn it around in his fingers. “Those bimbos are barely able to speak their mother language, let alone any other!”

“Maybe she’s Italian,” Henry said.

Peter shook his head. “No way.” He twiddled the tooth pick in his fingers. “Not with a name like that.” He stared at the glossy table top in front of him.

“Come on, don’t keep me in suspense.” Henry nudged his arm. “What’s her name?”

Peter looked at his friend and drew a grimace. “Elizabeth Tiffany Mary Anne Smith.” He drew out each word. “Doesn’t sound Italian to me.” The tooth pick snapped in two between his fingers. “And she’s never worked in a hotel in all her life.”


Beate Boeker is a marketing manager by day and a writer by night. If you mix Latin and German, Beate Boeker literally translates as Happy Books . . . and with a name like that, what else could she do but write romances and entertaining mysteries? Her books are well-known for their touches of humor and mischief. She has published several romances with Avalon Books – and two of them have already been chosen as finalists in writing contests. You can also find several “feel-good” e-books by Beate online. Check out her website to learn more:

Excerpt From “Border Crossings” by Carole Bellacera

What happens when an American woman marries a perfectly ordinary Irish professor, hoping to settle down to a tranquil life in Dublin? Answer: A murder. A dilemma. And an abrupt move to Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where she is thrust into the center of a violent political conflict that threatens to destroy her marriage–and perhaps her life.

Border Crossings is the story of an American woman, Kathy O’Faolain, happily married to Pearse, an Irish professor at Trinity College. Life in Dublin is good for the O’Faolain family until Pearse receives word that Protestant extremists have murdered his brother, a Sinn Fein councilor in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Kathy’s ordered life falls apart when relatives convince Pearse to return to his family home in Enniskillen and take over his brother’s work in the Republican cause. Kathy, with her young son, Sean, must adapt to life in a violent society, and by doing so, finds her personality changing in ways that are both positive and negative.


Enniskillen, Northern Ireland – June 1991

The schoolgirl came home first. Like thousands of others all over Ireland, she was dressed in a Catholic uniform consisting of a dark green plaid skirt, knee socks and a heavy bulky sweater. She stood at the gate with her pretty blond friend, swinging her book-bag and laughing.

Jack Robinson took a draw on his cigarette and stared at her from the sidewalk table of the pub across the street. It was a glorious afternoon. A fresh breeze drifted in from the banks of Lough Erne, bringing with it the sweet perfume of summer flowers. An hour earlier, the sun had broken through the clouds, drying the cobbled streets from the mid-day rain and sending the temperature soaring into the sixties. Although he had grown uncomfortably warm in his long coat, Robinson didn’t move to take it off.

He studied the schoolgirl, his eyes narrowed. She was pretty enough, he supposed, for a Catholic. Her auburn hair fell to her shoulders in a riot of curls, and although he guessed she was only about fourteen, she had firm lovely breasts and a cute little bum under that plaid skirt. Briefly, he wondered what it would be like to taste a bit of crumpet like her. But he didn’t do Croppies, not like…He shook his head, banishing the thought before it could take shape. He didn’t do Croppies…period.

Croppie. How that word brought back memories of his childhood. Ugly memories of a school play-yard and filthy little boys chanting that word over and over. “Croppie…croppie…Jack-o’s a Croppie.” But he’d put a stop to it.

He took a sip of Guinness, savoring the ale’s smooth dark richness as it slid down his parched throat, then glanced at his watch. Five-forty. It wouldn’t be long now. As if in answer to his thoughts, a black Renault pulled up to the curb in front of the house across the street. The blond girl waved to the redhead and walked off toward the town center. A tall bearded man unfolded his length from the car and met the redhead with a hug. She laughed up at him and withdrew a sheet of paper from her book bag, displaying it proudly. The bearded man studied it and hugged her again. With his arm around her shoulders, they climbed the stoop into the house.

Robinson stubbed his fag out in the ashtray and stood up. He dropped a few coins on the table and walked away. On the corner, his eyes met those of a man lounging against a shop window. Robinson nodded. The other man tossed his cigarette to the sidewalk and ground it out with the heel of his boot. He straightened. Robinson crossed the street to where the borrowed Volvo was parked. Looking neither left nor right, he opened the boot of the car and in one smooth movement, tugged a woolen ski mask over his head. He then swept up a sub-machine gun and tucked it into his coat.

He turned and saw the other man crossing the street toward the target house. He, too, wore a mask. Robinson followed him, still hearing the children’s mocking voices in his mind. “Croppie…Jack-o’s a Croppie…”.

He would shut them up. He had to.


“To be sure, Susie O’Donnell thought she’d won it,” Aisling O’Faolain said to her father as he followed her into the house. “She did a sketch of the Janus face on White Island. It was good, but there was no life to it, Da. Sister Marie said my sketch was the best she’d seen in years.”

His hand pressed into her shoulder. “That’s no surprise to me, miss. I’ve always said you’ll have an exhibit in New York some day. Peg! We’re home, love. And your daughter has won a prize for her turf-cutter sketch.”

Two freckled little boys ran into the hallway and threw themselves into their father’s arms. “Hi, Da. Did you bring us a sweet?” piped the older one with a gap-toothed grin. He knew very well that Da always brought them sweets.

As Kennet O’Faolain searched in his pocket for a roll of candy wheels, an attractive woman entered from the kitchen, a plump baby on her hip. “What’s this you said? Aisling won a prize?”

“Aye, Mum.” Aisling held the parchment certificate in front of her mother’s face. “First place for ‘Turf-Cutters’ by Aisling O’Faolain. Isn’t it grand?”

Smiling, her mother eyed the award. “It’s lovely, girl. Put it somewhere safe, though. You’ll need it when you apply at Trinity.” She looked at her husband and sighed. “Oh, Kenny. Must you give the lads candy so close to tea?” With a shake of her head and a forgiving smile, she turned back to the kitchen. “Wash up, Aisling. Tea will be ready in ten minutes.”

“Right, Mum.” Aisling moved toward the stairs. Sure, but she was famished. And wasn’t it a tantalizing aroma wafting from the kitchen? Lamb stew, she hoped.

She was halfway up the stairs when the front door burst open. Startled, she dropped her certificate and looked down into the foyer. Two men in long coats and ski masks entered the hallway. Aisling’s heart froze, and her hand flew to her mouth as her father turned to them.

“Who are you?”

The first man pulled an automatic weapon from his coat and fired. A crimson flower bloomed on the back of her father’s sweater. Then another one, and another. He tumbled to the floor, his eyes staring blankly at Aisling. She sank to the stairs, her hands clutching the sides of her face, her eyes locked upon the blood-soaked body of her father. The boys began to howl.


In her fogged brain, Aisling heard her mother’s panicked scream from the kitchen, followed by the sound of her footsteps ringing on the linoleum. The two gunmen exchanged a glance. One of them gave a brief nod.

Aisling opened her mouth to scream a warning, but nothing came out. Her mother burst through the doorway, the baby still in her arms. One gunman turned his sub-machine gun toward her, his finger on the trigger. He hesitated, his eyes on the baby. Her mother stared at her husband’s blood-stained body, her face alabaster. The gunman who’d shot Aisling’s father crossed the room and took the baby from her mother’s arms. His eyes met hers.

Slowly, she sank to the floor, closed her eyes and began to pray. The gunman with the baby stepped away and gave a nod.

“No!” Aisling screamed.

But she knew her protests would make no difference. She squeezed her eyes shut and covered her ears with her hands. Still, she couldn’t stop herself from flinching when the short staccato burst of gunfire rang out.

She felt as if her blood had frozen solid in her veins. Moments passed, and still she was afraid to open her eyes. She heard her brothers weeping…and the screams of baby Barry. Then she became aware of a presence nearby. She opened her eyes, careful to keep them away from the spot where her mother had knelt. One of the masked gunmen stood on the stairs below her, his dark eyes winter cold. He had Barry in his arms. The baby screamed incessantly, his face deep mahogany.

The gunman climbed the stairs. Aisling sat frozen, watching him. He stopped on the step below her. Numb with shock, she returned his appraising gaze.

“You’re a piece of work, love,” he said, his voice raspy and muffled under the ski-mask. A voice she knew would live in her dreams forever.

His hand reached out and touched a strand of her gleaming hair. She flinched. Through the slits of the hood, his eyes hardened. He placed the baby into her lap, turned and thumped down the stairs. He disappeared through the front door and the other gunman followed. The door closed behind them.

Aisling’s body began to shake. She clutched baby Barry to her, unable to move from the stairs. Gradually, his cries softened and soon, he was gurgling and reaching for her nose with a sticky hand. She gently drew his sharp little fingernails from her face and slowly, abstractedly, began to stroke his warm back. His hand tangled in a strand of her wavy auburn hair. As she rocked him, her eyes dropped to the carpeted stairs where her certificate of award had fallen.

It was splattered with her father’s blood.


Carole Bellacera’s first novel, Border Crossings, a hardcover published by Forge Books in May of 1999, was a 2000 RITA Award nominee for Best Romantic Suspense and Best First Book, a nominee for the 2000 Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. It was also a 2000 finalist in the Golden Quill award and in the Aspen Gold Award and won 1st Place in the Volusia County 2000 Laurel Wreath Award. Her work has appeared in various anthologies such as Kay Allenbaugh’s Chocolate for a Woman’s Heart, Chocolate for a Couples’ Heart and Chicken Soup for Couples. Carole (nee Foley) grew up in Pittsboro, Indiana, and graduated from high school in 1971 at Pittsboro High.

Excerpt From “A Vine In The Blood” by Leighton Gage

It is the eve of the FIFA World Cup, the globe’s premier sporting event. The host country is Brazil. A victory for the home team is inextricably linked to the skills of the country’s principal striker, Tico “The Artist” Santos, the greatest player in the history of the sport. All the politicians in Brasilia, from the President of the Republic on down, have their seats squared-away for the finale, when they hope to see Argentina, Brazil’s bitterest rival, humbled by the Brazilian eleven. But then, just three weeks before the first game, Juraci Santos, Tico’s mother, is kidnapped. The star is distraught. The public is appalled. The politicians are outraged. And the pressure is on Chief Inspector Mario Silva to get her back.

Suspects aren’t lacking. Among them, are a cabal of Argentineans, suspected of having spirited the lady away to put Tico off his game, the star’s gold-digging, top-model girlfriend, whom his mother dislikes and has been trying to get out of his life, his principal rival, who wants to play in the World Cup in Tico’s place, and the man whose leg Tico broke during a match, thereby destroying his career. In the end, Silva and his crew discover that the solution to the mystery is less complex – but entirely unexpected.


Less than an hour after Juraci Santos was unceremoniously dumped into the back seat of her kidnappers’ getaway car, Luca Vaz crept through her front gate and poisoned her bougainvilleas.

The way he figured it, he didn’t have a choice. And it wasn’t his fault. It was the fault of that lying lowlife, Mateo Lima.

“You’re sure about the color of these bougainvilleas?” Juraci had asked when he was planting them.

“I’m sure, Senhora,” he’d assured her. “Blood red, like you told me.”


“Guaranteed, Senhora.”

“All right, Luca. But you’d better be right. Because, if they flower in any other color. . . .”

She left the threat unspecified. But a threat it was—and he knew it.

Three weeks later, the roof fell in: Luca learned that those new plants of hers were about to flower in a color his wife,

Amanda, had described as the palest purple I’ve ever seen on a bougainvillea. If Juraci Santos, a woman known to be as vindictive as she was distrustful, discovered the truth, he’d be in big trouble.

Luca’s advance notice of the situation stemmed from the fact that he’d swiped one of the cuttings and planted it to the right of his front door. Unlike the bougainvilleas along Juraci’s wall, it had been standing in strong sunshine for the last three weeks and Amanda, with her sharp eyes, had spotted the first little bud. She’d taken him by the arm, led him over to the plant and pointed.

“Isn’t this bougainvillea supposed to be red?”

“It’s not red?” he asked with a sense of foreboding.

He wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t told him. Luca wasn’t just color blind; he suffered from the most severe and rarest form of the malady: achromatopsia. He saw the world in black, white and shades of gray.

Six people in the world, and only six, knew about his condition.

Unfortunately, one of them was Amanda’s no-good brother, Mateo, who owned a flower and shrub business, and whom Luca blamed for his current troubles.

The truth of the matter was that Mateo Lima was a nasty son of a bitch, and there weren’t many people in Carapicuiba,or the surrounding communities either, who were willing to buy flowers and shrubs from the likes of him.

Nor were there many people willing to hire a guy who was color blind to care for their flowers.

So there they were, Luca and Mateo, stuck with each other.

The survival of Mateo’s flower and shrub nursery depended upon Luca’s work as a gardener. And Luca’s continued employment depended on Mateo keeping his mouth shut about Luca’s condition, which Mateo, the blackmailing bastard, had made clear he’d do only if he became Luca’s exclusive supplier.

It was remotely possible, of course, that Mateo had made an honest mistake about those supposedly blood-red bougainvilleas.

But Luca didn’t think so. The most likely possibility was that Mateo was trying to pull a fast one because he had no blood-red bougainvilleas in stock.

The other possibility was that Mateo had been having a joke at Luca’s expense. He found color blindness funny.

Either way, Mateo had underestimated the consequences for both of them. If Juraci saw those bougainvilleas flowering in pale purple, she’d have a fit. And then she’d shoot her mouth off to all of her neighbors. Luca would wind up losing his customers; Mateo would be stuck with his flowers and shrubs, and both of them would soon be scratching to make a living. That was why the bougainvilleas had to go before they brought flowers into the world.

Killing bougainvilleas, as any gardener will tell you, is a tough proposition. The normal technique is to dig them out by the roots. Luca would have to be subtler than that. He’d have to make it appear they’d fallen victims to some mysterious blight.

After giving the problem some thought, he decided on his instrument of death: herbicide coupled with industrialstrength bleach. He mixed up the concoction in a four-liter jug, set his alarm clock for quarter to five in the morning, and by five-thirty on the day of the kidnapping he was creeping through Juraci’s gate. He missed encountering her abductors by about fifty-five minutes, a fact that undoubtedly saved his life.

He, like the kidnappers, had chosen his time with care. One of her maids had mentioned that Juraci was a night owl,and that she seldom retired before two or three in the morning. But Luca always smelled freshly-brewed coffee when he arrived, which was usually around 7:00, sometimes as early as 6:45. That led him to believe that the maids were up and about by 6:30 at the latest.

His plan was a simple one, and he was convinced he’d be able to pull it off without a hitch. The only imponderable was that yappy little poodle of Juraci’s, the one she called Twiggy.

He prayed the dog would keep her mouth shut, because if the little bitch didn’t, she might wake up the big bitch, her mistress, and then Luca’s fat would be in the fire.

He’d brought a flashlight, but, as it turned out, he didn’t need it. The moonlight was bright enough to work by. With gloved and practiced fingers, Luca dug down to expose the roots of each plant, severed them with his grafting knife,poured in a healthy dose of the poisonous liquid and packed the earth back into place. With any kind of luck at all, the heat of the sun would cause the sap to rise, thereby drawing the poison upward into the twigs and leaves.

At quarter past six, after a celebratory cigarette, Luca began his normal workday. He went, first, to the shed at the foot of the garden. From there, he took a plastic trash bag and started working his way up the slope toward the house. Juraci’s slovenly guests were in the habit of leaving paper cups, paper plates, and gnawed-upon bones scattered about the lawn after every barbecue—and she gave a lot of barbecues. It was one of his tasks to gather them up.

6:30 passed, then 6:40 without a single sign of life from the house; no yappy little Twiggy running around the garden pissing on the plants; no smell of coffee.

At 6:45, curiosity and a craving for a café com leite getting the better of him, Luca decided to investigate. Up to that point, he hadn’t been alarmed. But when he rounded the corner and caught sight of the kitchen, he stopped dead in his tracks.

The door had been smashed—not just forced open, but completely destroyed. Pieces of solid, varnished wood were everywhere, a few of them still hanging from the hinges.

Burglars, he thought. And then: Already gone . . . or maybe not. He started moving again, more cautiously this time. A rat in the kitchen reacted to the sound of his footsteps by scuttling out of the door to take refuge under a nearby hedge. Luca had no fear of rats. He’d killed dozens in his time. He quickened his pace. From somewhere beyond the dim opening, he could hear the buzzing of flies. When he reached the doorway, he stopped again, letting his eyes adjust to the light, getting his first glimpse of the situation inside.

The flies, hundreds of them, had been attracted by a pool of liquid on the white tile floor. They were over it, around it,some were even in it, trapped, as if they’d landed on flypaper.

A few survivors waved their wings, making futile efforts to escape.

Luca, at first, saw the liquid as dark grey. But then, he caught a whiff of the steely smell, saw the two corpses from which it oozed to form a single pool, and realized it must be red.

Blood red.


Leighton Gage lives in a small town in Brazil and writes police procedurals set in that country.

Link to a review in the New York Journal of Books:

Click here for an interview with: Leighton Gage, Author of “A Vine in the Blood”

Excerpt from “Deadly Traffic” by Mickey Hoffman

Girls are disappearing from Standard High while the local sex trade flourishes. Their absences are barely noticed in the worst school in Arbor City, CA, where turnover and truancy are facts of life. Kendra Desola, the only faculty member likely to care, is on a leave of absence.

After a student’s lifeless body turns up in a seedy part of town, an immigrant community leader contacts Kendra. What does she know about her missing students’ activities, their families’ illegal status?

Searching for the missing girls, Kendra enters a dark world where passports and flesh are currency. When a second murder puts her in the police spotlight, she is unaware a trap is about to close around her.


Sandi found Win leaning on the bar counter, waiting for her when she came out of the Ladies’ room. A greenish glow from the wine bottles above the bar accented the planes of his handsome face. The young bartender smiled as she returned his change. A hostess led a party of three toward a table along the wall. He frowned at the receipt in his hand and stored it in his wallet. She couldn’t see him turning it in to his boss; since when did petty criminals ask for meal allowances? More likely, it would be kept to demonstrate how well he treated her, right after he told her she didn’t deserve dinner at such an expensive restaurant.

He plucked a toothpick from a shot glass near the cash register and used it like a wand to direct her toward the door. Sandi winced as a punishing blast of hot air struck her face, giving a longing look back at the cool interior of the restaurant. Win slid a stiffened palm to the small of her back to make sure they stayed hip to hip as he chose a pace that suited his long legs.

As they walked, Sandi kept her eyes fixed straight ahead, on a distant point that existed only in her mind, so she could pretend not to see the shock on people’s faces when their eyes landed on her, the ungainly girl at his side. He, as usual, basked in the attention he drew from passersby. Impervious to the heat, he wore all black, chosen, she knew, to complement his hair and highlight the three diamond studs that sparkled in his left ear. A manicurist, outside for a smoke, paused mid-puff and stared in admiration, as if Sandi’s companion had stepped straight off the glossy cover of one of the People magazines in her salon. Sandi wished she could hold that fantasy cover in her hands and shred him to bits, starting with his complacent smile. Why didn’t anyone ever see him for what he really was?


mickeypic_1_-124x149Mickey Hoffman was born in Chicago, and attended public schools where she acquired the strong suspicion that some of her teachers might be human. She wasn’t able to prove this fanciful thinking until much later, when she became a high school teacher herself.

Before landing in the halls of academia, she worked in a variety of jobs, including computer typesetting and wholesale frozen fish sales.

The author is also a printmaker and painter and resides on the West Coast with her long suffering mate, eight marine aquariums and a very large cat. Mickey is also the author of School of Lies, the first Kendra Desola mystery.

Click here to read the first chapter of: Deadly Traffic

Click here to read an interview with: Mickey Hoffman, author of Deadly Traffic

It Can’t Be You by Prem Rao

It Can’t Be You by Prem Rao: When Colonel Belliappa, Indian Army (Retd), a highly decorated war hero is found dying one night frothing at the mouth in anguish, there is no one else at home. Other than his immediate family. His wife, his daughter and his son.  Did he, who killed so many, kill himself to bury something dreadful from his past? Or, was he killed? His death sets the clock back to his life as a career officer in the Indian Army. He fights with great valor in the 1971 war against Pakistan which leaves him physically and psychologically scarred for life. Years later, his aggression and maniacal bravery leads to a secret assignment. He is handpicked to command a crack team of Indian Army snipers as an irregular force to fight intruders and militants in the Kashmir Valley from 1989. Today, he is a partner in a flourishing and successful armaments firm. The Colonel finds himself in a series of conflicts with his family, amongst others. Standing to gain from his death, they plan to kill him for their own reasons, quite unknown to each other. Do Colonel Belliappa and his family pay the ultimate price? For the spiral of vengeance he himself triggered some decades ago.


Had one been able to, they would have seen a shadowy figure step into the corridor, look left and right and move swiftly to one of the bedrooms. Not more than ten minutes would pass from the time the scurrying figure entered one of the upper floor bedrooms, before it would re-appear in the corridor and scurry back to where it came from. The figure was hunched low and moving fast so as to be less visible to a watcher- if at all there was one. It was indeed difficult to determine whether that figure was that of a man, a woman or something else. The bungalow was after all over a hundred years old. One couldn’t be sure how many people had died there leaving their spirits to wander around- if they did that at all.

It was well past midnight when suddenly the silence was broken by a woman’s high pitched scream. By any standards it was loud and frenetic- in the quiet of the night it was deafening. Outside the bungalow, Rolf started barking ferociously and raced around the compound. The scream came from one of the bedrooms upstairs.

Pritam whose bedroom was across the hall raced towards where the scream came from. He saw his father’s bedroom door wide open. The lights were on and Elena stood there holding her hand to her mouth. She looked absolutely pale and shaken. There was shock in her large blue eyes and what she said was indistinct but she pointed to the floor with a hand that shook. The chair in which Col. Belliappa was sitting had toppled with him in it. He was lying on the ground, his arms outstretched, the fingers on one hand were half clenched, the pain on his face was so clear to see. His face looked almost grotesque, red and puffy. His thick eyebrows were knit together and the mouth was shaped in what could be described as either a grimace or a scowl. His swollen tongue hung out as if in defiance. Somewhere near his legs, his reading glasses lay on the ground still intact despite the fall. The closed windows with the curtains drawn made the room more stuffy and gloomy. It was fast becoming claustrophobic in here. Pritam felt his pulse and knew what he had feared when he first saw the body on the floor. His father was dead.

Within minutes the entire household had gathered there. They stood around in deep shock. Bahadur broke down and wept. He had seen too much of death and knew instantly what had happened. He had known the Colonel for over 30 years. It seemed clear to them that this was no heart attack or stroke. You didn’t need to a medical specialist to know that the colonel had suffered towards the end. Glass pieces from the glass which held the whisky and soda lay shattered around the body. His mouth was open and puke fell in a puddle. In place of the rows of medal ribbons that normally decorated his left chest, lay a stream of puke. There was a strange smell in the room – a mixture of alcohol, vomit and –death.

What had happened? Who had done this? Was the Colonel taken by surprise? Why hadn’t anyone heard noises of a struggle? How could anyone sneak in with Rolf let loose at night in the compound? Had he choked when drinking something? Was it something that he drank that made him choke?

The lights from the modem linked to the computer on the table blinked as if they knew the answers.


Prem Rao re-invented himself as an author by turning to his passion for writing after 36 years of professional work as a Talent Management specialist and executive coach. He is an alumnus of The Lawrence School, Lovedale; Loyola College, Chennai and XLRI, Jamshedpur. An avid blogger, his professional blog called People at Work & Play is widely-followed globally. More recently, he started a writing blog called Writing To Be Read. His tweets are at : He lives in Bangalore, India and can be reached at

Ghost Mountain by Nichole R. Bennett

Have you ever moved?  Have you ever had an encounter you just can’t rationally explain away?  Then you know exactly how stressful either of those situations can be.  Now imagine moving your entire family to an area considered sacred for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and having a spirit insist you get involved with solving a murder.  

Welcome to Cerri Baker’s life!  

Named after a pre-Christian Celtic Goddess, Cerri has spent her life trying to avoid the spirituality and hocus-pocus her mother embraces.  Now in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Cerri doesn’t seem to have much choice as a spirit guide insists she find justice for a murdered man.  As she struggles with her own destiny, Cerri must also convince the FBI that she is getting her information from another realm and not from first-hand knowledge of the murder. 


“I’m not sure what I can tell you, sir . . . Officer . . . Agent Oliver . . .”  I paused.  What I was supposed to call the man standing before me? “We just moved here,” I said closing the door behind him and hoping he wasn’t a serial killer, posing as someone from the FBI. 

He followed me to the kitchen where I offered him a glass of water or tea.

“You are Cerridwen Lynn Baker, correct.” It wasn’t a question. I could tell that he knew precisely who I was, but I had no idea how he knew.

What do you say to an FBI agent in your home? Is there a correct protocol for that?

“Is there something I can help you with? I don’t understand why you’re here.” I hoped that sounded more like a statement than a question. It occurred to me that maybe this was part of a background check for some new assignment of Dad’s, although I’d never met one of the “background check guys”—as my sister and I called them when we were growing up—so rude and downright scary.

The mountain-sized man continued as if I hadn’t spoken at all. “How well did you know Scott Curtis?”

“Who?” I mumbled the word before I could even comprehend what he had asked. His rudeness made the biggest impression on me. This man must have gotten his manners out of a Cracker Jack box.

“Scott Curtis. He was found at the base of Devils Tower. I’d like to know how you knew him.” The agent’s steel grey eyes stared at me with such intensity I had to look away. 

My throat went dry and there was a hole in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to vomit. Even without looking in a mirror, I was sure I had lost all color in my face. Stammering, I replied, “I didn’t.”

I could see the man’s jaw muscles clenching as he stared me down. 

Agent Oliver took a deep breath. “You called the tip line yesterday. You gave the name of the victim and knew he was from Rapid City. In addition, you knew other aspects of the crime that had not been released to the public. Now, I’ll ask you again. How well did you know Scott Curtis?”

It was my turn to take a deep breath, hoping it would steady my nerves. It didn’t. Instead a new wave of nausea hit me like a brick wall. I was pretty sure an answer like “Well, this spirit told me Scott’s name and how he was shot. Why don’t you grab an Ouiji board and ask the spirit these questions?” would cause me more trouble than I was already in. 

Click here to read the first chapter of: Ghost Mountain by Nichole R. Bennet


After first being published in Daisy Magazine at the ripe, old age of 7, Nichole never dreamt of any other career.  To help her achieve that goal, she became a DINFOs trained killer for the US Air Force.

An avid mystery reader from a young age, Nichole has devoured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, and Agatha Christie. Nichole has also had an ongoing fascination with the supernatural — everything from angels and spirits to ghosts and hauntings. It’s only natural that she combine her two interests to create mysteries with a paranormal twist.

She lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota with her husband, two daughters, three dogs, and four cats.

When she’s not writing, Nichole can be found reading, knitting socks, drinking coffee, eating chocolate, or spending too much time online.

The Mills of God by Justin R. Smith

The Mills of God
by Justin R. Smith
To survive a murderous conspiracy, an heiress must remember her past life.

Synopsis: Constance Fairchild is an eccentric heiress haunted by images and dreams she feels are from a previous life. Orphaned at fourteen, she is sent to a Swiss boarding school, where she finds concrete proof of her reincarnation. Upon inheriting her family’s fortune, she stumbles upon a conspiracy to control it that involves murdering her and all her friends. Using knowledge from her previous life, she triumphs and resolves her life’s central mystery.

The Mills of God is available at: Amazon and some bookstores


Excerpts from reviews:

Combining corporate espionage, intrigue and murder with poetry, art and the enduring strength of the human soul, The Mills of God is a pleasure to read.    more . . .

Like the stories of mythology, Justin R. Smith’s The Mills of God immerses the reader in the timeless issues of human striving in the face of the implacable forces of the universe.    — Prof. Eva Thury, coauthor of Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths (Oxford University Press)

Some of the best mystery novels juxtapose tricky concepts seamlessly with both real life scenarios and great characterization . . . The Mills of God does just exactly that with the same deft skill as (Dan) Brown or (Stephen) King.  more . . .

Click here for an interview with Constance Fairchild