Friday, January 24, 2020

Guest Post by Mauro Azzano The Dead Don't Dream

by Mauro Azzano 

"You can't get there from here."
Goes an old joke about asking for directions in New England.
Shortly after a trip through Quebec, we decided, based on the recommendations of an article in Yankee magazine, to spend a weekend at a historic inn on the Atlantic coast, in Essex Connecticut.
The Griswold Inn (insert National Lampoon jokes here) is located in Essex, Connecticut. The heart of old New England, woolen cardigans, pipe-smoking captains and clapboard buildings.

We were smart enough to realize we couldn't make the whole trip in one go, so we booked a Friday night at the Holiday Inn in Schenectady, New York, then the next day we figured we'd carry on to the coast.

We left Toronto around five thirty, got to the Niagara Falls border crossing, and by eleven that night got to our first hotel. We were given our room key. It was directly over the disco. I could hear 'Funkytown' booming up from below. The man at the desk informed me that no, they didn't have another room for us, but not to worry, the disco would shut down 'Promptly at 3 AM'.
Where should I park my car, i asked. Well, he said, there is an abandoned building down the street with a vacant lot beside it. I could park there.
At this point, a man came in, bleary-eyed, who had driven all the way from Atlanta. He asked if there was a room for him, any room. The desk clerk said that no, they were full. "No, you're not." I said, and handed the grateful man my key.

We drove on, finally stopping at a motel outside Albany. By this time, it was after midnight. The 'motel' was a series of tiny cabins on a paved lot, and the 'office' was a six-by-eight shack facing the road, with a buzzing neon 'vacancy' sign.
Inside the shack, Norman Bates watched a tiny black and white portable TV. He casually looked up as we pulled in; i went into the office and asked if he had any cabins free,
He said 'sure' and handed me a card to fill in. At this point, I was exhausted, my wife was exhausted, and we both looked like drowned rats.
He glanced over my shoulder at our car and coughed. "Nobody ever reads these." He said.
I looked up. 'Scuse me?'
He waved his hand at the card. "Nobody ever reads these cards. You can put down any name you want."

Amused, I went back to the car with our cabin key. I mentioned the interaction to my wife.

"Did you register us as mister and Mrs. Smith?" She joked.
"No, but next time...."

The Dead Don't Dream 
An Ian McBriar Murder Mystery 
by Mauro Azzano 
Genre: Mystery

You are a Toronto police detective, lying in the gutter, shot by the man you were pursuing, and your life is slipping slowly away.

The Dead Don’t Dream takes you back to the year 1973 and the world of Ian McBriar, a homicide police detective, as he investigates the brutal assault on two young boys, one of whom is the son of a local underworld figure. Haunted by the deaths he has investigated and the lives he has seen destroyed, Ian struggles with the memories that make him who he is.

When he gets too close to the truth, the killer makes a desperate strike, and Ian ends up face-down in the street. Can he survive his attack and track down the gunman before more lives are lost? 

I had an urge to make chicken for dinner, with salad- a second trip to the grocery store.
I bundled up and went back out. Go left, pass five doors, left again into the store.
The street was nearly deserted now; the cold had forced everyone indoors. Drifting snow and a brisk wind kept me close to the buildings. I squinted, counting doors to the store.
The store was warm, but also deserted.
I picked up some chicken and salad fixings, then on a whim some Italian bread.
I squinted again, counting doorways heading home. Go past five doors, then turn right.
I’d passed two buildings. A small child stood at the doorway to the third.
He looked to be three, maybe four years old, well dressed, waiting for someone.
He hopped up and down on his front step, looking around and shivering in the cold.
He saw me and smiled. “Man, man. Mister. Hi?” He said. I stopped.
“Mister, are you a doctor?” It seemed like a casual question.
“No, I’m not.” I smiled, and kept walking. He looked sadly down the empty street again. That seemed wrong. I turned back.
“Why did you ask if I’m a doctor?” I asked him.
“My mom got a boo-boo.” He patted his head. “She went ‘OW’.”
“Where is your mom?” I asked, urgently. “Show me.”
He grabbed my hand and led me into the building.
He had to lift his legs almost to his chest to scale the stairs, but he climbed eagerly.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
We stopped at the second floor landing. Four doors faced me, one was open.
A woman lay sprawled on the floor beside a sofa, face down. I rested my groceries by the front door.
“Wait outside, Ethan, OK? I want to check on your mom.”
He stood at the doorway, peering in gingerly as I approached her.
‘Some vacation.’ I grumbled.
I bent down to check her over. She could have been sleeping, but for a gash on her forehead that said otherwise.
She had obviously tripped and hit the coffee table, then bled onto a rug under it.
A pool of red, the size of my hand, oozed over the rug and onto the wood floor.
I turned her over.
“Ma’am, are you OK?” I asked. Stupid question- of course she wasn’t OK.
I felt her hands- they were warm, and she wasn’t clammy.
She started to moan softly. I picked her up and lay her gently on the sofa.
“Ethan.” I called. He walked in slowly, hands behind his back.
“Where is your phone?”
“We don’t got a phone.” He shook his head.
I sighed.
“Stay here, OK, Ethan? Make sure she doesn’t fall off the sofa.”
I went to the nearest apartment and pounded on the door. No answer. I was deciding which one to try next, when one of the doors opened a crack. A grey, wrinkled face poked out at me. I held out my warrant card.
“Police: do you have a phone?”
The face faded back and I walked in. The owner of the face, an ancient man in a plaid shirt and suspenders, pointed to a black phone on the wall.
“Thank you.” I said. He smiled silently.
I got the ambulance operator, gave her the information, and told her I’d wait.
The old man watched me, wordless.
“Thank you.” I said.
He whispered something in a language I didn’t recognize and nodded.
The woman was still unconscious, but now groaning restlessly.
The boy was patting her hand comfortingly.
“Ethan,” I said, “Would you please wait out front? An ambulance is coming, and they need help finding your apartment.”
He smiled and ran back downstairs.
I moved the coffee table and slid the bloody carpet aside. It was my first chance to get a good look at this woman.
She was very pretty, in her twenties, with curves in all the right places.
Her hair was shoulder length and auburn; her makeup was subtle but flattering, and she had no rings or bracelets, but she did wear dangly earrings. She was tall and slender, with the legs of a dancer. Her face was oval, with a slightly bulbous nose and high cheeks.
Not quite centrefold material, but very far from unattractive.
I realized I’d seen her before, on the street. She’d been with the boy, so I didn’t approach her- I figured she was married. I hadn’t seen her close up before.
I did remember seeing her walk away, watching her hips sway.
She had on a navy skirt and a white blouse. Too cold to walk in today, I thought.
I found a coat and a shoulder bag hanging behind the door.
I checked the bag and found her wallet; one door key, three dollars, a subway token.
The coat pockets were empty, except for some gum and a transfer from Union subway station, issued an hour ago. So, she worked downtown somewhere, and she had a son.
A pounding of footsteps got my attention. Two men in white pants and heavy white jackets clogged up the stairs, lugging a first aid kit and an oxygen tank. I called to them from the sofa. They raced in and squatted beside me.
“We’ll take it from here. Stand back.” One said. He had a baby face, curly red hair and freckles to match. The other, somewhat older, had collar length dirty blond hair.
A stethoscope dangled from his neck.
The older one took the woman’s pulse, checked her for fractures and looked into her eyes with a flashlight. He poked his chin out.
“Your wife have an accident?” he sneered.
I pulled out my ID.
“I was passing by. Her son stopped me.”
He read the warrant card.
“Oh, jeez, sorry. I didn’t mean..” his voice trailed off.
He looked at my badge again, then smiled at his partner.
“Hey, Carl. Remember the news- that cop and the restaurant robbery?”
His partner looked up.
The first one nodded at me.
“This is the cop.”
“Really? You’re Officer McBarr?”
“No,” I corrected, “I’m Detective McBriar.”
They seemed suitably impressed. The red haired one bandaged the woman’s forehead while the blond one ran to the ambulance and radioed the hospital.
He came back a minute later, winded from the stairs.
They spoke quickly in medical jargon, indicating that said she was not badly hurt.
The woman had woken up by now. She looked around, bewildered.
She tried to get up, flailing at the coffee table to roll upright.
The red headed one put his hand on her shoulder.
“Listen, honey, you fell and hit your head. Do you know where you are?”
She nodded.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m home. Who are you? Where’s Ethan?” she sat up fast and staggered back, woozy.
“He’s fine. He’s right here.” The blond one checked her pulse again and nodded, satisfied.
“What day is it?” he asked.
She thought for a moment.
“What’s today’s date?”
“March seventh, nineteen seventy three.” She was angry now. It was a sexy look.
The blond one nodded and turned to me.
“Listen,” he started, “I called the resident on duty: she just has a mild concussion. We can take her to Branson, but the ward’s full and she’ll sleep in the hall. If someone can check on her here, we can leave her home.”
I turned to the woman.
“Do you want to go to hospital?”
She shook her head.
“No. I’ll stay home. I’m fine.”
“Do you have someone who can watch you?” I asked.
She shook her head. The blond one looked at his partner.
“We’ll bring up the stretcher and take you, then.”
“No!” She yelled. “I do not want to go to any hospital.”
He bent down and glared at her.
“We can’t leave you here alone.”
The woman stared at me, another sexy, angry stare.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” Now she was alert and indignant.
I showed her my badge.
“You hit your head. Your son stopped me; I called the ambulance.”
She looked at me with less suspicion. I smiled.
“Is your husband here?” She shook her head. I got a small thrill at that.
“Anyone else live with you?” She shook her head.
I sighed.
“Do you have a relative that can come over?”
Again she shook her head. Don’t say it, I told myself. Don’t say it.
“If you like, I could keep an eye on you until tomorrow.” I said, the words rushing out.
She shrank back a little,hesitant. Even that was attractive.
“I- OK, fine, yes, thank you.” She glared at the attendants.
“OK. That’s cool. Thank you. He can watch me. I’ll stay home.”
One man wrote a report as the other packed up.
She told them her name: Karen Prescott. It had a nice ring to it. I realized I was very strongly attracted to her. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but I could feel I was. The man finished his report, then handed me an invoice for the call out.
“Wake her up every three hours and make sure she’s coherent. Call an ambulance if she’s unresponsive, delirious or confused, or if she starts to vomit.” The redhead said mechanically. They left, plodding slowly down the stairs. I turned to the woman.
“I apologize for intruding, but you were in trouble there.”
She smiled, which warmed me up inside.
“That’s OK. You were a real help tonight.” She stood, unsteady on her feet.
She squinted.
“Do I know you?”
I smiled.
“I live around the corner. Are you sure you’re fine?”
She nodded, hesitantly.
“Yes, I’m fine. Sorry, can I get you a coffee or tea?” She looked at her watch and tsked.
“Six thirty. Ethan- do you want dinner? We have Spaghetti-Os, and we have soup…”
I cringed at the menu. She misunderstood the expression.
“Oh, I’m so sorry; can I make something for you, too, officer?”
I grinned, elated.
“Tell you what. How about if I cook dinner for you? And the name is Ian.”
She smiled.
“Sure, yes. I’d like that.” The smile lit up the room.
I retrieved my groceries from the hall. Ethan stood on a dining chair, watching in fascination as I butterflied chicken breasts. We chatted about nothing- small talk.
She worked in a bank building on Front Street. The branch downstairs had been robbed once, and it’s probable I was one of the investigators who responded to the call.
I didn’t remember meeting her. I assured her I would have. She blushed.
Karen set her table, a small square one in the kitchen, with paper napkins and a faded white tablecloth. I sliced up cucumber and tomatoes for Ethan to snack on.
He sat on the counter, eating happily from a Tupperware bowl. Karen smiled at him.
“How is it?” she asked. He nodded and rubbed his stomach.
The chicken would be done in thirty minutes. That gave me time to clean up.
We lifted the carpet off the floor and washed out the blood stain in the tub.
I was puzzled by a hissing sound beside me. Karen read my expression.
“We have a noisy toilet.” She apologized. “And the tap leaks. I called the super a dozen times, but he’s always busy.”
“Mind if I look at it?” I asked.
“It’s not a big problem. You don’t have to.” She shrugged.
“It would be my pleasure.”
I lifted the cover off the toilet tank. The copper float was half full of water, letting a trickle run from the overflow into the bowl.
A wiggle confirmed that the washer in the hot water tap was loose. I got my coat.
“Tell you what; I need to grab some things- I’ll be right back.”
Ethan ran up and grabbed my leg.
“Don’t go, don’t go. Stay, please?” He pleaded.
I looked at his mother with embarrassment.
“I’ll be back in no time- I promise- and you can help me out after we eat, OK?”
He giggled happily. I turned to Karen again.
“By the way, do you want wine with dinner?”
She smiled and nodded. I warmed up again.
“And dessert?” I added.
Ethan jumped up and waved his arms in the air.
The walk home was far more pleasant than it had any right to be.
I often had this feeling when I dated Melissa. Now it felt the same, only more so.
I pulled my tool bag out of the closet, put a bottle of wine in the bag, and ran to the store before it closed. I bought some pastries, then raced back to Karen’s.
Ethan opened the door, straining to reach the knob. He grinned at seeing me again.
I gave Karen the wine.
“Keep this cool, if you would.” I smiled.
I placed the pastries on the kitchen counter and handed Ethan my tool bag.
“Listen, sport, can you put this in the bathroom? Thanks.”
He struggled with the straps, dragging the bag along the floor to the toilet.
The smell of baking chicken and tomato sauce filled the apartment.
Karen and Ethan watched, fascinated, as I rinsed the lettuce.
“Do you eat many salads?” I asked him. He shook his head.
“Do you like salad?”
He shrugged.
I looked at him slyly.
“Do you eat worms?” He laughed.
Karen smiled. I smiled back.
As I shredded, she picked at random bits of lettuce on the counter.
“Where did you learn to cook?” she asked.
“I worked in my dad’s restaurant till I moved to Toronto.”
“What made you move from… where’d you move from?” She asked, curious.
“Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. Not the centre of the galaxy. I wanted to see the big city.”
“Do you ever miss it?”
“Not the place.” I shrugged. “I miss family. We lost my mom, but my dad’s still there.”
“Any brothers and sisters, a big family?” she asked, picking lettuce from the bowl.
I shook my head.
“One older brother- he went to Montreal to be in a jazz band.”
“Don’t you have a wife or girlfriend at home?” She reached for wedge of tomato and I smacked at her hand, playfully. She grinned.
“Just me.” I said.
“Why the police force?” She frowned. “Did you always want to drive a squad car, what?”
She seemed amused by me now. The bandage on her forehead seemed almost invisible.
It was all I could to stop from bending down to kiss her. I shredded lettuce, looking away.
“I was studying to become a priest.” I almost mumbled it.
She put a fist in front of her mouth to stop from giggling. I frowned.
“Yeah, I know. Me, a priest?”
“So, what happened?” she asked.
“I came to St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto. I figured I’d be a parish priest or run a soup kitchen or cure polio.”
Stop talking, I told myself, just stop talking, stupid.
“My mom was killed by a drunk driver. He blasted past our house as she crossed the street. My faith said I should forgive him, but I only wanted to kill him. I realized then that I wasn’t cut out for a pastoral life, so I became a policeman.”
Karen put her hand on my arm and looked sadly up at me.
“I’m so sorry.” She said.
I felt a warm rush. Ethan ran up.
“When can we eat?” He smiled.
Karen sat at the table, Ethan beside her on a thick pillow.
She poured wine for us and milk for Ethan, while I served dinner.
She ate politely, but heartily. Ethan was not so subtle.
Tomato sauce covered his face, and lettuce stuck to his bib like medals on his chest.
We talked between forkfuls of food and sips of wine, pleasant nothing conversation.
After dinner, Karen made coffee, apologizing that it was instant.
“That’s OK.” I lied. “I like instant coffee.”
I set out the pastries. Ethan scanned the treats.
“What’s that? “He asked, pointing to a cannoli.
“Well.” I started, very serious. “You know some spiders make tubular nests?”
He nodded, not knowing at all, but agreeing anyway. I held the cannoli up.
“This tube is the nest from the Amazonian cannoli spider. They find these in the Amazon jungle, kick the spider out and fill it with mascarpone cheese and spider venom.”
I nodded sternly.
He stared for a moment, then laughed loudly.
“No! You’re fooling!”
He laughed again. Karen was smiling at us.
“You’re very good with children.” She said.
“You’ve met my partner?” I answered.
Ethan decided he would brave the spider venom and eat a cannoli.
He wanted to help with the plumbing repairs, so he dragged my tool bag out. I replaced the toilet float, and the noise stopped. I repaired the hot water tap. This fascinated Karen.
“Now I can take showers without the whistling.” She said.
I felt another rush as I imagined her bathing. Ethan helped me pack up.
By now, it was after his bedtime, and he was tired.
Karen excused herself to put him in pyjamas. They came out of the bedroom a minute later, and Ethan wrapped his arms around my neck to hug me.
“Thank you for dinner.” He said, politely. Karen nodded approval.
“Can you make food for us again?” He asked. She gasped, embarrassed.
“I guess that depends on your mom.” I looked up at her.
“Let’s ask Mr. McBriar next time you see him, OK? Say goodnight.”
The words ‘next time’ gave me a shiver. Ethan staggered off to bed.
Karen closed the bedroom door and sat beside me on the sofa.
“I really want to thank you. But, you don’t have to stay, honest. I’ll be fine. Besides, I’m sure you have to work tomorrow.”
It sounded like a plea to prove her wrong. I smiled softly.
“I promised to watch you, and no, I don’t have to be anywhere.” I said. “I’ll sleep on your sofa. Give me an alarm clock. I’ll check on you every few hours.”
She studied me, deciding something.
“OK.” She said. “But no funny stuff.”
I held up three fingers.
“Scout’s honour.”
We chatted until after eleven o’clock. She disappeared into the bedroom, returned with a blanket and pillow and wished me a good night.
I lay on the couch, wide awake, wondering just what I was getting into.

Mauro Azzano was born in the Veneto region of Italy. He grew up in Italy, Australia and eastern Canada, finally settling on the West Coast, near Vancouver. 

When he's not writing he can be found teaching college or running half marathons. 

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020



By Curtis M. Lawson


The town of Enfield, MA where BLACK HEART BOYS’ CHOIR takes place, borrows its name from a disincorporated town located in the now flooded Swift River Valley. Enfield was knocked down in 1938 and flooded, along with several other towns, to make room for the Quabbin reservoir.

The idea of flooded ghost towns is very evocative to me. And yes, I know all the buildings had been burned and leveled before the Quabbin was filled, but I still like to imagine that the ruins of old towns still stand beneath the water, teeming with ghosts.


Enfield isn’t the only flooded ghost town to be mentioned in BLACK HEART BOYS’ CHOIR. There is a scene where the choir is dumping some pesky forensic evidence into the Swift River and Lucien mentions that it will be washed all the way to Prescott, another town lost beneath the Quabbin in real life. PARAMNESIA, one of the stories in my collection BLACK PANTHEONS, takes place in a fictionalized version of Prescott, MA.


Lucien visits Philip Gravetree, a collaborator of his father, on two different occasions in the book. Gravetree’s address, 67 Auseil Way, is an homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s THE MUSIC OF ERICH ZANN. The events of that story mainly take place at a residence on a street named Rue d’Auseil.

Amduscias, Lucien’s demonic muse, also makes reference to Erich Zann while mocking Lucien’s father during a dream sequence/flashback.


When I was younger I was enamored with black metal, a music genre known more for the violence and drama surrounding it than for the music itself. I played in black metal bands, dressed the part, and read everything I could about the larger than life figures involved in the music. I even exchanged a few letters with some infamous figures from that scene. It was, to me, the ultimate expression of rebellion against a world that I never felt I belonged in.

The classical music subculture that Lucien and his friends create in my book was meant as a stand-in for black metal, though it seems many readers from different walks of life have found that it resonates with their own rebellious experiences just as well. There are a few references to my love for this music within BLACK HEART BOYS CHOIR. The most obvious is when Lucien refers to posters of musicians in corpse paint on Asher’s wall as “angry mimes”. Less obvious is a pivotal murder scene toward the end of the book that was heavily inspired by a real-life killing committed by a teenage black metal band from Germany.


A lot of thought and care went into the themes, symbolism, and structure of BLACK HEART BOYS’ CHOIR. It was my intention for the book to mirror the structure of a piece of classical music, which can most notably be seen in how the story is broken into movements. The movements in the book are named after the corresponding movements of the cursed song within the story. Within the story, the time signatures for each movement are mentioned, and the different sections of the book are paced according to those time signatures.

The second movement, for instance, is called DANCE OF DEPOSED KINGS and it is described as a waltz within the story. The pacing of that section follows a repeating one-two-three pattern. One chapter begins with a hallucinatory flashback. The next establishes where and when Lucien is in the real world and reflects how the past chapter impacts his real life and his sanity. The third sees him in his weekly meeting with his school counselor and reinforces his sense of isolation along with his resentments. This repeats—one, two three, one, two, three—throughout the second movement of the book.

In another nod to musical structure, there are several phrases repeated throughout the book and scenes which closely mirror one another. This was an attempt to imitate the concept of the leitmotif, or repeated uses of a melody at key moments for dramatic effect.


Not exactly an easter egg, but the demon Amduscias is taken from genuine occult sources. According to Goetic tradition, Amduscias is the conductor of Hell and its 67th Duke. The number 67 appears in several places throughout the book.


There is a scene in the book where Lucien and his choir are discussing their fathers. Lucien’s father is dead, a victim of suicide. Maxwell’s old man ran out on him and his mother. Asher’s father is in prison, and J.C.’s dad is a workaholic who lets his boss and wife walk all over him. These are the role models for Lucien and his choir.

The fate of each boy’s father is representative of a different danger particularly common among men. Suicide and incarceration rates among men are much higher than those for women, and it is much more common for males to work themselves into an early grave. Just as tragic, far too many men in our society fall into a sort of Peter Pan syndrome and choose to abandon their families and responsibilities.


I think it’s fairly obvious that A CLOCKWORK ORANGE influenced my novel. The idea to use a classical musical subculture for the characters was spawned by something I read years ago from Anthony Burgess. He said that his decision for Alex and his droogs to use the now-iconic slang from that book was so that the story might be timeless and not bogged down by teenage lingo that would be out of date in ten years. It was with that same concern of timelessness that I decided to forego any short-lived real-life subculture for the boys in my story.

The scene where Lucien performs Ode To Joy to show off his vocal talent is something of a nod to Alex DeLarge. Lucien also finds an LP of the soundtrack for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at the record store where he works.

In another scene the choir is driving around, looking for a specific victim, and they cruise down Bateman Road. This is an homage to the murderous Patrick Bateman from AMERICAN PSYCHO, another influence on BLACK HEART BOYS’ CHOIR.

Black Heart Boys' Choir 
by Curtis M. Lawson 
Genre: Horror

Great art demands sacrifice.
Lucien Beaumont is a teenage misfit and musical prodigy ostracized by his peers and haunted by familial tragedy. When he discovers an unfinished song composed by his dead father—a song that holds terrible power—Lucien becomes obsessed. As he chases after the secret nature of his father's music, the line between gruesome fantasy and real life violence begins to blur.
To complete his father's work Lucien believes that he and his group of outcast friends must appease a demonic force trapped within the music with increasingly sadistic offerings. As things spiral out of control he finds that the cost of his art will be the lives of everyone around him, and perhaps his very soul. 

Curtis M. Lawson is a writer of unapologetically weird, dark fiction and poetry. His work includes Black Heart Boys' Choir, It's a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World, and The Devoured. 

Curtis is a member of the Horror Writer's Association, and the organizer of the Wyrd live horror reading series. He lives in Salem, MA with his wife and their son. When he is not writing, Curtis enjoys tabletop RPGs, underground music, playing guitar, and the ocean 

$25 amazon 
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Monday, January 20, 2020

Silent Threat Jeff Gunhus

Silent Threat
Jeff Gunhus
Published by: Kensington
Publication date: December 31st 2019
Genres: Adult, Thriller
A father charged with treason. A daughter sent to kill him. A shocking conspiracy that changes all the rules of the spy game for a new generation . . .

With more than a dozen kills under her belt, ex-Marine Mara Roberts is one of the Agency’s most reliable assassins. But her latest target—a convicted traitor about to be released from prison—is different than her other marks. He’s a former agent who betrayed his country. He’s responsible for the death of Mara’s mother. And he happens to be Mara’s father . . .

Scott Roberts knows that his daughter was sent to kill him. He realizes he has only one chance to change her mind, to convince her that he’s been framed for treason—and that every member of their family are pawns to be sacrificed, one by one. Mara isn’t sure she can trust her father. He is a master of manipulation, as ruthless as he is resourceful. But when her nephew is abducted, she agrees to follow Scott’s lead and expose the global elites who are pulling the strings. But first, they must infiltrate the highest levels of power. Then, they must attempt the unthinkable: Kidnap the President of the United States . . .

“A brilliantly written thriller. Breakneck twists, political intrigue and bristling action scenes—Jeff Gunhus writes with a gripping and gritty authority.”
—Simon Gervais, author of Hunt Them Down
Mara Roberts knew the Agency would try to kill her father the day he got out of prison, she just didn’t expect they’d ask her be the one to do it.
Before she received the assignment, she would have bet even money he would survive whatever welcome party the CIA had planned for him. Too bad his odds had migrated down to zero now that the job was hers.
She sat in her rented Range Rover, waves of Oklahoma heat shimmering off the parking lot blacktop, bending the prison chain link fence into wavering lines. Coils of concertina wire topped the walls, razor blade edges glistening in the sun, each loop perfectly spaced. Just like inside the walls of the Cimarron Correctional Facility — orderly but lethal.
Behind the security gate was a low-slung building with a copper overhang at the entrance. More like a school administration office than a prison. The schematics she’d studied revealed the facility extended back into eight separate cell blocks. Each one housed more dangerous criminals than the previous one. She hoped they’d put her dad in the worst of the lot.
The car idled, both for the AC and in case she needed to adjust her plans and leave in a hurry. The few guards she saw moved slow and had dark sweat pits spreading under their arms and on their backs. She pegged them as complacent. Washed up. Bored. Just like she wanted. As she analyzed the prison’s weaknesses, she couldn’t help but wonder whether her dad had changed much since she’d seen him last.
Sure, he was past fifty now and, according to the photos in the briefing, finally starting to show his age. Wrinkles at his eyes. A close scalp shave, the kind favored by men fighting a losing battle with their hairline. He was still in shape, though. Surveillance camera footage showed a recent fist fight he’d had on the yard, started by some con paid off by the Agency. Obviously a new guy. Anyone who’d been there longer than knew not to mess with the quiet guy with the broad shoulders.
The video showed her dad could still throw a punch, but the couple of jabs he took to his face also showed he’d lost a step or two. Yet, the old man still had skills. And she wasn’t about to underestimate her target. Hell, four years on the run and the last two months in prison might have even toughened the bastard up. If that was even possible. She wasn’t sure it was.
A routine face recognition search through the US prison system by a junior analyst had turned him up. As she read the report, it made her laugh that assets all over the world were searching for him, and there he was serving time under an alias for manslaughter. Seems he took exception to a group of five young men roughing up a prostitute. Four of them ended up with broken bones and long hospital stays. The fifth wasn’t going to harass anyone ever again. It was just like her dad to risk blowing his cover to save someone. Typical Boy Scout bullshit.
She’d been raised on stories about him. Even in her macho world of counter-intelligence they seemed outlandish. Insanely risky missions. Many of them unsanctioned. Succeeding against insurmountable odds. Like stuff out of bad action movies, and yet people swore to her the stories were true, that they’d seen him do these things with their own eyes.
But they always whispered about him, as if just talking about the man and his exploits might suck them into the same darkness into which he disappeared.
Still, even with what had happened, she always heard a grudging admiration as they told her about the exploits of the great Scott Francis Roberts, the father she barely knew. The man she was about to kill.

Author Bio:
Jeff Gunhus is the USA TODAY bestselling author of thriller and horror novels for adults and the middle grade/YA series, The Templar Chronicles. The first book, Jack Templar Monster Hunter, was written in an effort to get his reluctant reader eleven-year-old son excited about reading. It worked and a new series was born. His books for adults have reached the Top 30 on Amazon, have been recognized as Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Finalists and reached the USA TODAY bestseller list.
After his experience with his son, he is passionate about helping parents reach young reluctant readers and is active in child literacy issues. As a father of five, he leads an active life in Maryland with his wife Nicole by trying to constantly keep up with their kids. In rare moments of quiet, he can be found in the back of the City Dock Cafe in Annapolis working on his next novel or on


Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Road to Delano

By John DeSimone
Historical Fiction

Jack Duncan is a high school senior whose dream is to play baseball in college and beyond―as far away from Delano as possible. He longs to escape the political turmoil surrounding the labor struggles of the striking fieldworkers that infests his small ag town. Ever since his father, a grape grower, died under suspicious circumstances ten years earlier, he’s had to be the sole emotional support of his mother, who has kept secrets from him about his father’s involvement in the ongoing labor strife.

With their property on the verge of a tax sale, Jack drives an old combine into town to sell it so he and his mother don’t become homeless. On the road, an old friend of his father’s shows up and hands him the police report indicating Jack’s father was murdered. Jack is compelled to dig deep to discover the entire truth, which throws him into the heart of the corruption endemic in the Central Valley. Everything he has dreamed of is at stake if he can’t control his impulse for revenge.

While Jack’s girlfriend, the intelligent and articulate Ella, warns him not to so anything to jeopardize their plans of moving to L.A., after graduation, Jack turns to his best friend, Adrian, a star player on the team, to help to save his mother’s land. When Jack’s efforts to rescue a stolen piece of farm equipment leaves Adrian―the son of a boycotting fieldworker who works closely with Cesar Chavez―in a catastrophic situation, Jack must bail his friend out of his dilemma before it ruins his future prospects. Jack uses his wits, his acumen at card playing, and his boldness to raise the money to spring his friend, who has been transformed by his jail experience.

The Road to Delano is the path Jack, Ella, and Adrian must take to find their strength, their duty, their destiny.


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Sugar Duncan was known around Lamoille County as a gambler who could farm, but Sugar called himself a farmer who understood a sure bet. He grew up a plowboy on a hardscrabble patch of Vermont hill country and had calluses before he knew he had brains. It was in the seventh grade, in Pete Colburn’s barn, waiting out a driving rain that he found his power. While playing seven-card stud he could see the patterns, he understood the odds. He lived by the bluff, and he lived well as far as a child of the Depression could. Before he reached high school, they were calling him Sugar because he was sweet about taking their money.
While his college buddies baled hay and slopped pigs to pay their way through Ag school at Vermont U, Sugar found it more profitable to relieve the hooligans and rumrunners of their easy fortunes at the card table above Markham’s Grill over in Providence. After four years of playing cards and a new degree, he left town to farm where the land hadn’t been wiped clean of its strength.
Sugar rode west to California’s Central Valley in a Pullman with a new pair of tan and white brogues stuffed with cash packed in the bottom of his steamer. FDR had just signed the Cullen-Harrison Act ending Prohibition, and a fifth of whiskey was now as cheap as an acre of California farmland. He hadn’t any choice. Returning to Vermont would mean he’d starve. With gasoline a luxury, his father had resorted to using mules to plow his hundred acres. Milk and corn prices had fallen so sharply, a farmer could live better by killing his cows than by selling their milk. California was the place he could make a living. And he intended to make that living as a farmer— eventually.
A couple of weeks after arriving in Frisco, Sugar stood on the running board of a dusty Model T on the road leading into Delano and surveyed the flatlands of the valley planted in golden September wheat. He removed his hat, wiped his brow with the sleeve of his seersucker suit, and his instinct told him there was a sure bet.
He ensconced himself in the Freemont Hotel on Nob Hill. Each night around six, he made his way downstairs to a back room where he took up residence with a fresh deck of cards and a new bottle of Jim Beam, thankfully back in production, and waited. It didn’t take long for his table to fill. About a year later, he bought his first section of land.
On a mission to see an angel, Sugar debarked the Nob Hill trolley at Taylor and California on a foggy Sunday morning, after a long night of wagers and bluffs. Grace Cathedral’s carillon was in full melodic stride, pounding out a hymn he hadn’t heard in years. He paused midway up the ascending concrete steps, the tip of its campanile obscured in thick fog, trying to recollect its name. He’d not heard that song since he’d left the Methodist church as a teen. The Methodists didn’t have bells that could sing like this stone and stained glass beauty now emerging from the mist of the rising morning. Neither did Methodists take kindly to boys who gambled.
The crowd swelled up and carried him along in a cavalcade of San Francisco’s best citizens in their finest clothes. The building itself was a monument to European Gothic, with soaring stained glass windows, buttresses, candelabras of beaten silver, and hard oak pews. Striding down the wide center aisle, he nodded at several men he’d become acquainted with in the back room of the Freemont. The altar was a majestic slab of marble, adorned with satin cloth and golden candlesticks. Three stained glass Palladian windows rose four stories behind it.
In the warm umbra of the early light, he waited to see for himself what Mr. Dalton, a colleague in cards, had meant by angels appearing during the service. Not that he disbelieved in the possibility of divine intervention, he just wanted to witness it for himself. The choir assembled in a rustle of white robes trimmed with red satin stoles.
According to the Order of Service, they began with Jesu, Meine Freude and while it wasn’t ordinary, it wasn’t angelic to Sugar’s tastes. At least not in the way Dalton had described a divine manifestation. At the refrain, a raven-haired singer stepped forward, a few light steps and she settled in a sliver of light from above. The choir hushed. The congregation quit their fidgeting. She lifted her voice, and something inside him ascended along with her, sweeping him up, so even the German lyrics took on a secret meaning. The importance of the lyrics magnified by her conviction, a message from God, undecipherable, but absolutely true. Her music expanded to fill every cubit of the vault. When she finished the quietness of the miraculous settled over the congregation, a hushed moment of wonder. She melded back into the white-clad choir. A part of Sugar refused to return, still soaring high, shiny and lit by the sun. He perused the Order of Service again: Soloist Miss Shirley Gray. Now here was a dark-haired angel he had to meet.
Shortly after purchasing his fourth section, Sugar drove his shiny black Model A back along the road to Delano, with a lovely and satisfied Miss Shirley Gray bundled in the seat next to him. She wore a white cotton dress in the new style almost to her knees and a silk scarf to tamp her beautiful black hair down against the sweep of dry valley air rushing across the flatlands. And she had the long slender fingers of a pianist, the daintiest of hands that Sugar wanted desperately to hold in his.
Sugar parked along the shoulder of the dusty county road. He helped her out, then led her through the scrub and mesquite. Not a tall man, but neither was he short, he had the build and stride of a man who had worked the land, though his hands had gone soft from playing cards. His black hair was swept back under a new fedora, and he was dressed in a new Brooks Brothers suit, with a pleat cut to the pants and two-tone white and tan oxfords. Shirley picked her way, slipping her slender legs through gaps in the brush, with dainty steps she skirted the holes and dips.
Not far off the road, they stopped on a gentle rise to survey the sparse landscape in silent awe. His suit jacket flapped in the breeze. Water in Spring Gulch that cut across the southwest corner glistened blue in the brightness. The sky appeared so translucent he considered the possibility of seeing straight through to heaven. She pushed her hair under her scarf and had to work to keep her skirt from flying up. Her hand shielding her dazzled eyes, she turned full around taking in the flat expanse and let out a low sigh.
“This would be a nice place to build a house,” Sugar said. “A farmhouse?”
He turned to her. “Why a farmhouse?”
She couldn’t conceal her smile. “I always wanted to marry a farmer and live on a farm.” Her cheeks now blushed. He took up her hand in his, fresh and light, the skin of her palm as smooth as a baby’s face.
“What about marrying a gambler?”
“Never.” She stepped away, letting his hand go before he could read her eyes. For all of his acumen in divining the facial expressions of card players, he was at a loss to understand the game she was playing. Driving home, he thought of explaining his view of gambling and farming, how they both entailed managing risks, calculating odds, and the subtle art of placing a bet. But she’d already revealed her hand. She would marry a farmer. He realized then that if she had said she dreamed of marrying a gambler, he would have no use for her. He had every intention of playing his last game—soon. He just needed a better stake.
A few days later Sugar visited the offices of Collette and Sons and signed a contract to build an impressive Victorian home on the site that had made Miss Shirley Gray sigh with undeniable pleasure. Something like the grand mansions that stood on Nob Hill, he told old man Collette, who listened while stroking his heroic mustache.
Mr. Collette built the three-story Victorian with two turrets, gabled roof with dormers, and a wide veranda on the rise Shirley had enjoyed, in the southeast corner where Spring Gulch swept by. A natural spring ran in a culvert fronting his acreage, bequeathing the riparian land rights.
In March of ’39, he escorted the new Mrs. Shirley Duncan down the aisle of Grace Episcopal Cathedral. Descending through the gauntlet of rice to their waiting Cadillac, he now owned four thousand acres of the most fecund soil west of the Mississippi. When he proposed to her, she had reminded him that she wouldn’t tolerate any more gambling. He sealed the deal with a promise that he had played his last card game and would plant his land that spring.
So the year before their wedding, he had planted all his land in durum wheat. When Sugar wasn’t watching his supervisor, Isidro Sanchez, work a crew of men plowing in John Deere tractors from an hour before dawn until an hour after sunset, he spent time in his farm office on the second-floor planning and figuring. Across from his office, Shirley set up her sewing room with the new Singer machine her mother gave her as a wedding gift. When she wasn’t sewing dresses and shirts or a new buckskin jacket for Sugar, she played her Steinway grand in the parlor, running through Chopin and Schubert. In the late afternoon, Sugar would lean against the doorway in the hall, one foot across the other, his planter’s hat askew on his head like a man on the hunt. She’d break into a high fevered Benny Goodman or his favorite jazz piece, and he’d sit close by, tapping his foot to the time and smiling like a man who’d eaten ice cream his whole life and was better for it.
In the evening, when the heat had dried out every ounce of a man’s efforts, Sugar took Shirley’s hand and led her into the parlor and stacked their favorite albums on the phonograph. The sound of jazz and swing filled the house. They fox-trotted across the floor, their bodies swinging and pulsing to the beat. Her scent a promise of her treasure. Sugar held her close as a certainty against all the uncertainties. And they kissed in the vanilla moonlight that streamed in through the tall windows, her slimness against his, warm and powerful and urgent.
One day Shirley brought coffee on a silver serving tray up to his office. She wore a new spring dress, white with purple violets splashed across it from the hem to the collar, one she made herself. Sugar introduced her to a well-dressed man with slicked-back hair black as coal. He rose when she entered, a tan planters’ hat in his hand. She set the coffee service down on a Queen Anne side table and poured two cups, and took one to her guest.
Both of the men stood. “Shirley, this is Herm Gordon.”
Herm held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Duncan. Sugar’s told me a lot about you.”
“And what do you do?”
“I’m with Lacy’s Farm Equipment,” he said while fingering the brim of his hat.
“Herm says they’re coming out with a new combine that’ll harvest fifty acres an hour,” Sugar said.
“You say so,” she said.
“Three times faster than what we have now,” Sugar said.
“You say so.” She handed him the cup and saucer.
He took the coffee. “I do,” Herm said a broad smile on his face. “Do you take sugar, Mr. Gordon, or cream?” She motioned toward the tray.
“No thank you. I always drink mine black.” He stirred the coffee with the silver teaspoon, tapped the rim once, and set it on the saucer.
“Herm’s been selling farm equipment in the valley for years. He’s seen it all. He thinks our place will be one of the most productive around.”
She handed Sugar his cup and saucer and looked over the salesman one more time.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Herm nodded. “Usually farmers aren’t too friendly to new ways, but not Sugar.”
“You look way too young to have seen that many harvests, Mr. Gordon.”
Herm smiled, and two dimples formed in the center of his cheeks, both fired with a flash of blush. “Good food and fresh air. It keeps me young.”
“Herm also said we might look into planting grapes. There’s a trade group over in Delano that’s made up mostly of grape growers. He thinks I should join.”
“You think so, Mr. Gordon,” she said.
“Grapes are the biggest cash crop. It’s the future of Delano as long as labor’s so cheap and we get the water.”
Sugar set his cup down and looked at her inquisitively as if wondering what she would say.
“Well,” Shirley said, touching her throat. “Then maybe we should plant some grapes.”
“A couple hundred acres in the east sector to start.” Sugar pointed toward the large plat map on the wall.
Herm nodded, and Sugar smiled, and he asked her to sit with them as they talked of hardiness and climate and varieties. Sugar favored wine grapes, Herm table grapes.
“I love Thompson Seedless,” Shirley said. “I could eat those forever.” The men gave each other knowing looks. “Well then, let’s start with Thompsons,” Sugar said.
Sugar prospered during the war years because everything that could be eaten was in high demand. The U.S. military coveted his high-protein durum. And his land had the highest yields an acre of any in the valley. Shirley took advantage of the good years and had a half-acre set aside behind the house. She reminded Sugar she didn’t want any planting up to the porches just to maximize the yields. He had a wooden fence built around her parcel where she planted a garden. Shirley in her woven sun hat and pedal pushers, she laid out neat rows of vegetables, and flowers and she purchased seedlings for apricot, peach, and orange trees. And in the heart of the garden, she built a grape arbor, cool and shady, where she often rested from the afternoon heat.
Around the oak in the front yard, she sowed Bermuda grass that would take the heat and wear of the large family she and Sugar were working on, but that hadn’t taken root yet. Soon the tree would spread its thick limbs, and she’d hang a swing from it and rock her boys in the silent rhythms of the Central Valley breezes.
The year the Sears and Roebuck opened in town, Shirley bought a brand-new Singer sewing machine, one that could do thirty different stitches, and had a foot pedal. She enlarged her sewing room on the second floor by taking over a second bedroom and turned out dresses and shirts for farmers’ wives who came to the house to be measured and choose patterns.
It seemed every few days she had a new dress—winter dresses with heavy fabrics; spring dresses white with flowers; bright summer dresses, light and swishy; and autumn always brought out the burnt oranges and browns. She sewed dresses to dine in, to dance in, and to listen to music in, and practical dressed to work in, which had all the elegance of the city, but with large pockets for gloves and scissors and trimmers and small spades.
Shirley didn’t like the cars being covered in dust from the wind that blasted from the foothills. So Sugar built a car barn on the east side of the house, in the same style of the three-story Victorian. They painted it tan with dark brown trim to match the house whose two turrets, dormer windows, slender brick chimneys, and peaked roofs with gingerbread trim rose three stories above the parched brown fields, a castle on an isolated plain.
In the years after the war life settled in for them and Sugar sold every bushel he grew. By 1950, Sugar’s first table grape harvest had grown to two hundred acres, and he knew the future was in grapes. Prior years he’d sold to vineyards where the picking and packing didn’t matter. But table grapes were different. Appearance and sweetness were as important as price, and table grapes cost three times what vineyards paid.
Some of what he knew about grapes he learned at the dinner table. Shirley would only set her table with grapes that were the sweetest tasting, had a consistent golden hue and had the fewest marks of rot and pests. If he could please her, he could satisfy any woman in America? His Thompsons pleased her immensely.
“It’s like eating raindrops coated with sugar,” she said one night at dinner, after plucking a few damp golden grapes from a bowl. There was a sweet satisfaction that ran across her smile that traveled right up into a happy squint in her eyes. If he could grow the best grapes in the Central Valley with his own brand, he could ship them all over the world. But he’d need a completely new way of farming. The work and cost to convert his land would stretch every financial resource. He’d have to do it soon because wheat just didn’t bring the profit it once had.
Though anything a man planted around Delano seemed to grow taller and thicker than in other parts, Shirley didn’t get pregnant until early 1950. One evening, both of them sat in the parlor, after she’d learned she was expecting their first child, listening to Benny Goodman on their Victrola when the announcer broke in. Shirley crocheted. Sugar read a book. They both set down their work at the sound of President Truman’s voice. The president spoke in a grave tone, one that matched his declaration of a national emergency because of the North Korean Communist’s attack on peaceful South Korea. He had considered using an atomic bomb to stop them.
Shirley stifled a gasp. “An atom bomb,” she said, shaking her head, “again?”
Sugar shushed her with a hand, and he bent to the radio. She pursed her lips and listened.
“He’s sending MacArthur to kick them damn communists’ butts,” Sugar said when the radio address finished.
“But a nuclear bomb, honey? If he used it the whole world would be in flames again.”
Sugar smirked at the sly grin that crept across her face. “See, already you understand the difficulty communist subversives would have in our own community,” he said. “We got MacArthur on our flank ready to reap havoc, Truman in DC ready to drop the A-bomb, and the mothers of America protecting our farms. Those dirty Reds can’t win for nothing.”
She laughed and held out her hand, and he took it. She drew him toward her, and placed his warm palm on her stomach, and went back to crocheting. “We’ll soon have more to think about ourselves.” Comfortable beside her, Sugar felt warm with that consideration. Later that year she delivered a 7lb. 4oz. boy on the third of December around midnight, as the silvery moon rose full over the land. She wanted to name him Jack, after her grandfather, but Sugar
wanted Paul.
“Paul? You don’t have any relative named Paul.” “I like Paul. It’s from the Bible.”
She looked at him, her head askance. “I know that.”
“I spent a lot of time reading the Bible when I was younger. It’s a good book.”
The baby made one of those sucking noises that distracted both of them. Shirley pulled him away and gently held him while Sugar placed a cloth diaper on her shoulder. She settled the boy on the white square and lightly tapped his back. After he burped, she held his tiny body in front of her.
“I think he looks like Jack? But then I can see Paul too.”
Sugar brushed at a tiny wisp of hair on his head. “You’re right about that. He’s going to be a man among men, well-trained in the ways of the land.”
After all the baby’s noises ended, she held him under his arms and lifted him high in the air, letting his little feet dangle. “Well then, how do you do, Mr. Paul Jack Duncan? Welcome to Duncan Farms.”
Sugar smiled and touched her cheek with the back of his hand Sugar and Shirley soon began calling their son Jack. Like his
father, he took to the details of farming. One cold morning, after the final wheat harvest, Jack rode the tractor with Isidro as he prepared the land for planting grapes. Year-old vines were stored in their canisters on the north side of the ranch. When spring warmed the air, they would begin planting. Jack rose early during that spring planting to watch the men loading the young plants on flat trailers before leaving for the fields. Rising early became second nature to him, like every good farmer. Before school, he fed the chickens in the small coop his mother built behind the car barn and brought in fresh eggs before catching the bus on the county road.
Summer evenings, with the land resting in the heat, the family would sit out on the large porch that wrapped around the front and side of the house. They watched the fireflies light up the night air and listened to the croaking of tree frogs under the starlight while they drank sweet lemonade squeezed from the fruit grown in Shirley’s own garden. Sugar told jokes and stories as the three of them rocked back and forth on the porch swing, Jack squished between them like a ripe watermelon aching to break open, while they swirled away the still evenings.
The year Jack turned eight, just after the grape harvest, Shirley sat at the kitchen table, one hand on her stomach the other over her mouth, a glass bowl on the table in front of her. Jack brought her a glass of water and set it on the table. Jack was hoping for a baby brother. She’d told him they wanted so many more brothers and sisters, but it had been hard for her to get pregnant. The doctor had advised extra caution, afraid she would miscarry as she had before. So she had decided to stay home when Dad went to the annual Association meeting in San Francisco where he’d been invited to speak.
On that Friday in November, after Dad turned out of the driveway on his way to Frisco, the phone calls started up again.
They’d changed their number three times over the past year and a half. Each time the calls would stop for a while, then a month or so later start up again. Every time the phone jangled in the hall or the kitchen, Shirley would sit up real straight and get this far-off look in her eyes as if she already heard what was being said on the line. She never told him who called or what they wanted, but Jack knew they disturbed her. Dad never said much about them either. But one night after Jack went to bed, when they thought he was asleep, he could hear the two of them up late talking about something. There was a sternness in their voices, so he knew it was something important. At times they argued. Then it would be quiet till the deep darkness of the morning, the phone would ring again, and between each metal jangle the house took on a vacant silence. He imagined his parents lying awake down the hall, staring into the darkness, holding their breaths, hoping it would stop. But it kept on. Then they would stop for a time. And they all breathed a sigh that maybe whatever had caused them to ring in the first place had passed by them.
Friday evening, Jack ran to answer it in the kitchen, but she called to him. He pulled up short, wishing he could lift the receiver to hear that voice. Maybe he might recognize him. He’d shoot his eyes out next chance he had, just for causing all this fear.
“Leave it alone.” She called to him in her don’t mess-with-me voice.
Jack held up, waiting for it to stop. Dad planned on returning after the banquet on Saturday night. He didn’t want to be away too long with Shirley needing him like she did. So in a day or so this ringing would pass.
When the kitchen phone rang later that afternoon, they both stared at it.
“That could be Sugar.” She stared at the black rattling instrument. “He’s probably in Frisco by now.” She rose and answered it. She listened for a while, her eyes turning frightened then angry. “Stop calling here.” Her voice was controlled, but Jack knew she was afraid. She dropped it on the cradle. From the slump of her shoulders, he could see her fear. She had one hand to her forehead, another on her mouth.
“Who is it, mom? I’ll kick his butt.” “You’ll do no such thing.”
He thought she dabbed at her eyes before she turned to sit back down. Jack ran upstairs to his room, loaded his BB gun, pumped it up, and leaned it against the wall by his bedroom door. He knew where Dad kept his hunting rifle and shotgun in the bedroom closet if he needed them. At the bottom of the stairs, he stood where he could see into the kitchen one way and another way to the front door.
When she didn’t hear from Sugar on Saturday morning when he promised to call, she paced the kitchen, a worried look on her face. She kept saying as much to herself as to him that everything was okay. After the Association meeting, Dad would probably make the rounds at the jazz clubs in Frisco, probably listened until the sun came up. Jack kept thinking to himself that Dad was just fine, having fun somewhere, telling jokes, laughing and smoking cigars. He would call soon.
She kept up a constant patter of reasons why he hadn’t called. When the phone rang Saturday at midmorning, she hustled to the hall extension on the second floor. She gave a cheery “Hello.” Jack could tell by the sudden tightening of her face, the voice on the other end wasn’t Dad’s. She held the phone in the air for a moment, then dropped it to the cradle as if it was contaminated, wiping her sweating palm on her dress.
“Who was that, Mom?” Jack stood a few feet down the darkened hall. When she didn’t answer, he asked again.
“Just a wrong number.”
After church on Sunday, she paced the hall by the telephone, forgetting the time until Jack called to her that he’d made a dinner of tuna fish sandwiches and lemonade. There were more calls, and out of her anxiety, she answered them all, but after listening for a few moments, she’d slam the receiver down hard on the cradle.
Late Sunday she called his hotel. He always stayed at the Fairmont, but they had no record of him checking out. They called back later to tell her his belongings were still in his room, but none of the hotel staff had seen him since Saturday. Was he home and forgot to pack and check out? Did she want his clothes shipped?
Monday she spent hours calling the hospitals. He hadn’t been admitted to any of the local ones, but one woman asked if she’d called the police. She did and was switched to a detective who handled missing persons. The man kept her on the phone, which made her wonder if they’d found his body and this cop was trying to figure out a pleasant way to deliver the news.
Tuesday she sat on the rose-patterned sofa in the parlor with her face in her hands when Jack left for school. When he got home, she still had not risen from her place by the phone. She asked him to make some lemonade and maybe sandwiches for them. When he brought in a tray full of food and drink, she took the glass he offered in one hand and ran the other through his longish brown hair, but she didn’t take a sip.
Wednesday he didn’t go to school. She sent him to the door when neighbors stopped by. Later that day, she heard men talking to Jack at the door, voices she didn’t recognize. Men in police uniforms—one tall and thin, the other short and stocky—stopped asking questions when they saw her. When she noticed the brown Plymouth parked behind them in the drive, something came untethered, and she moved around as if she was trying to float away. She squeezed Jack’s shoulder, and he held her hand tightly.
“Can I help you?” she said, talking to them through the screen.
“Mrs. Duncan,” the first man said in uniform, touching the brim of his white Stetson.
“I’m Sheriff  Gates. Can we talk?”
“I’m listening,” she said.
“We’re here about Sugar.”
She folded her arms and turned from the door. The two men stood on the polished wood of the cool hallway, hats in hand. The short one built like a whiskey barrel nodded toward Jack. She stood in the hall considering for a long moment. She invited them into the parlor and turned to Jack.
“Honey, come over here.” The two stood together in front of the sofa. “He’s a part of this.” She fixed her eyes on the two.
“If you say so,” the sheriff said. He introduced Detective Sergeant Kipps of the San Francisco PD.
“All the way from San Francisco, Detective Kipps?”
“Yes, Ma’am I was asked by Sheriff Gates to report on your husband’s stay at the Fairmont Hotel.”
“What did you find?”
Kipps hesitated. Sheriff Gates nodded at him. Kipps cleared his throat.
“We have his belongings from the Fairmont in the car, Ma’am.” She bit her lip. “Where’s Sugar?”
“That’s what we’ve come about,” the sheriff said. “We found his car on Highway 7, heading east, right over the Kern County line.”
Mom’s eyes turned suddenly hard as if she was tightening up expecting a big blow. “Yes.”
“As close as we can tell, he ran off the road and crashed into a deep gulley.”
“Where’s Dad now?” Jack nearly shouted.
Neither of the men said anything; their eyes turned furtive. “We found him in the vehicle,” Sheriff Gates said in a consoling whisper. “There was nothing we could do for him.” From his low tone, almost like a voice you’d use when telling someone good night, Jack wasn’t at all certain what he was saying.
Mom closed her eyes and stood motionless. All the air of expectation seeped out of her as if she could sigh right through her pores. Her whole spine went slack, and she slid right onto the sofa. Jack sat beside her, and she clutched his hand. The two men took a step forward, but she held up her hand. Her eyes were downcast for a long while as if she were gathering her thoughts.
Dad in a car wreck? People got in wrecks and were fine. But these men were acting strange, and Jack wanted to know where he was now. If they found him then why wasn’t everyone happy about it? There was a light tapping at the screen door.
“That’s Sugar’s luggage,” Sherriff Grant said. “You want him to bring it in now?”
“Why didn’t he check out himself?”
Kipps cleared his throat. “Witnesses report he spent the evening at the tables in the backroom of the Fairmont all night after his speech. He never went back to his room. Rumor is he ran into some trouble at the tables.”
“Sugar gave up gambling twenty-five years ago, Mr. Kipps,” Shirley said, getting her matter of fact tone back under her. She squeezed Jack’s hand tighter till the little bones in his knuckles hurt, but he didn’t say anything. Jack tried to figure where Dad might be, and why they couldn’t help him, and why the sheriff would have to bring Dad’s luggage all the way out here?
“I doubt if those rumors are true.” She put a finger to the corner of her eye and wiped something away.
“All five men who played with him had the same story,” Kipps said.
“He’s not a gambler, Mr. Kipps.”
There was another tapping at the screen.
Shirley glanced up. “Let the boy in.”
The sheriff went into the hall and returned with a young fellow carrying three pieces of luggage and a leather briefcase. He settled them on the floor right in the doorway between the hall and the parlor then straightened up. The nameplate on his breast pocket read, Cadet Earl Kauffman.
While the sheriff whispered to Shirley, Jack fixated on his father’s suitcase. If that was Dad’s stuff, then he wasn’t coming back. And the house around him that’d been so full of everything he could ever want was suddenly empty; a vast place opened inside, dark and vacant. His world slowed, and snippets of the talk reached him—“car crushed…gambling and drinking…morgue…must identify body… sorry for your loss.…”
He shot up from his seat and turned to his mother’s Steinway behind him, where Dad used to stand and listen to her play, and smile while he tapped his foot. And Jack thought he saw him there, holding his hat, brimming with satisfaction after a day of work, nodding at him to come over and join the fun, the room emptied, and he knew.
Scalding streams flowed down his cheeks, and he ran, banging through the kitchen. Mom’s plaintive voice, calling for him, faded as he slammed out the back door into the yard, trounced across her garden, and bolted flat out into the vines, screaming as he tore into Dad’s fields, green and freshly brushed by the afternoon breeze.



John DeSimone is a published writer, novelist, and teacher. He’s been an adjunct professor and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. His recent co-authored books include Broken Circle: A Memoir of Escaping Afghanistan (Little A Publishers), and Courage to Say No by Dr. Raana Mahmood, about her struggles against sexual exploitation as a female physician in Karachi. His published novel Leonardo’s Chair published in 2005.

In 2012, he won a prestigious Norman Mailer Fellowship to complete his most recent historical novel, Road to Delano. His novels Leonardo’s Chair and No Ordinary Man have received critical recognition.

He works with select clients to write stories of inspiration and determination and with those who have a vital message to bring to the marketplace of ideas in well-written books.

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