Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Monday, December 5, 2022
Ready for a suspenseful thriller set in 1983 with a CIA agent?
Great! Then Operation DFC is for you.
WEAT COATS EVERY INCH of my body, courtesy of the oppressive heat and humidity. My shorts and thin t-shirt cling to me like a second skin while unlocking the door of the small hotel room. I immediately frown—the ancient unit is down for the count. Again. Had I made the travel arrangements, this farce of a hotel would not have been among the realm of possibilities for a place to rest my head. Chuckling, I step inside the dreary space, and it crosses my mind that perhaps another reason I had been recruited is because I grew up in southern Arkansas and the Agency assumed I would acclimate to the sweltering heat in Southeast Asia easier than men born above the Mason-Dixon line.
Birth location does not matter—hot, humid air sucks the life out of you even if you grew up around it.
A roach the size of my palm skitters across my shoe precisely at the same time a disgusting mixture of mold, stale body odor, human excrement, and God-knows-what-else assaults me. No amount of training can properly prepare a person for the wretched odors wafting from every crevice of this overcrowded city full of poverty, disease, and human squalor.
Nothing except being held captive in a similar environment.
The putrid aromas bring back unwanted, horrendous memories of my previous experiences in Asia. This is the first time I’ve been back since 1973. The deep, ugly scar on my right arm throbs for some odd reason. I force the memories to remain inside the locked vault of my mind where I’ve trapped them for a decade. Part of me despises being here, yet the urge to complete the mission and save my brothers wins out.
Heavy footsteps and the squeaky voice of a young girl speaking in her native tongue cause me to poke my head out and glance out the door. Fury burns through my chest while eyeing a red-headed, freckle-faced Caucasian man, obviously fond of fast food and fearful of the gym, strutting down the hallway. A young Asian girl, tottering in heels she should not know how to walk in, is next to him. The oaf senses my presence, glances over, winks while opening the door, and the young girl slips inside. He joyfully follows.
It takes all my intestinal fortitude to keep from following them and beating the scumbag to death with my bare hands.
She’s just a child.
The urge to become justice for the wayward waif and rescue her from despair is strong, but I cannot succumb to temptation. Too much is at stake for my brothers to risk blowing my cover. Besides, the girl probably isn’t here on her own free will, and if I kill the lecherous heathen who paid for her services, her pimp will just send her to the next paying client. The contribution of freeing one girl from a horrific evening of sexual abuse will be about as fruitful as scooping out handfuls of sand, hoping to drain the ocean.
Pausing for a split second while staring at the closed door, I listen to the sound of his voice, noting the dialect—south Texas—no doubt. I imprint the tone and cadence in my mind for use later.
One handful of sand is one handful, right? It will be quite easy to dispose of a body in this disgusting city…wait, no…not now. Damn, it’s only my first night in Bangkok and I’m already plotting murder. I make a mental note to research ol’ fat boy’s information later from the front desk when the clerk is otherwise engaged. Once I know exactly what city in Texas the red-headed slimeball lives, I will pay him a visit and castrate him like a feral dog.
What I do on my own time is my business.
A wicked smirk crosses my face while scanning the tiny space advertised as a room. Nothing is amiss. All the sly traps I set to indicate someone came snooping around while I was gone are intact. Satisfied I’m alone and nobody has been inside, I lock the door behind me before setting the paper sack down on the lone chair. After removing the wallet carrying my identity and passport, I secure it inside the modified suitcase, one complete with a hidden compartment inside the bowels, before retrieving the old set of flip-flops I’ve carried with me for years.
Unsatisfied the credentials are safe when not within arms-reach, I strip down, slide on the flip-flops, and then pick up the suitcase and take four strides to the area in the corner before setting it down inches away.
When I checked in earlier, the desk clerk touted the accommodations as upgraded to include a private bathroom.
What a colossal joke.
There is a toilet, sink, and a showerhead with knobs protruding directly from the wall, but the area is void of any sort of door or curtain. Eating, sleeping, and attending to bathroom business are all done in the open, and certainly not for those who are shy or easily embarrassed. Of course, I am neither of those things, so I remain unfazed by the situation because I’ve been in places that make this shithole look like a palace.
Turning the knob for cold water, the pipes rumble and groan behind the paper-thin walls separating rooms before tepid liquid squirts out. Oh well, it is water, and between it and the Irish Spring soap I packed, the stench of sex and poverty from my brief excursion through Patpong will be removed from my pores. Plus, noisy pipes will hopefully cover any sounds from the room across the hallway that might make me rethink waiting to pay ol’ fat boy a visit when back on American soil and attack now.
Too bad the combination of soap and water won’t work on the odors trapped inside my nasal cavity. It irritates the fire out of me that the operative I met earlier set our meeting location smack dab in the middle of the red-light district. He falsely assumed I was like every other American male and wanted to partake in all the debauchery Bangkok is known for throughout the globe.
My trusty soldier will remain free of STDs. No way will I risk potentially infecting Cathy with some disgusting venereal disease simply because I let my libido take control of rational thought. No way. I’m a patient man, one fully aware of the beautiful prize awaiting me back in North Carolina, and when I set my mind on something, there is no changing it.
Bile rises in the back of my throat while recalling the meeting. The operative, “Oscar,” was a slender, dark-haired Asian man with beady eyes and body odor so strong my eyes nearly watered while he handed me the bag with the items required to complete the clandestine mission. Once the exchange happened, Oscar offered to pay for me to stay and watch a ping-pong show.
I heard fellow soldiers talk about the filthy, degrading shows in Bangkok when they’d come back from R&R during my time in ’Nam years ago. Hearing about it was bad enough—I have no desire to see it.
The knowing smile on Oscar’s face and his lecherous gaze eyeballing girls, ones who should be home playing with Barbies rather than performing sexually explicit acts on stage in front of foul pedophiles, made me want to slam my fist into his mouth so hard he’d shit teeth for days. I politely refused, feigning an upset stomach from eating too much greasy noodles from a street vendor, and promptly followed the statement with some well-acted retching.
While rinsing my face, a deep sigh escapes my throat. I’m just a small pawn in a worldwide game, not the one calling the shots, setting meeting logistics, or even fully aware of all the intricacies of the mission known as Operation DFC. My part is substantial since I am the one delivering the banking credentials, yet I am in the dark on several things. I do not know the location of the POWs, what branch of military will transport them to safety, or how they will get home.
Most of my superiors still consider me wet behind the ears because I’ve been with the CIA for twenty-four months. I wholeheartedly disagree with their assessment. The proper time is six years because I count the previous forty-eight months spent crafting my cover story and the rigorous, sometimes brutal, training I’ve endured. However, this is my first major operation—to save POWs/MIAs—and the reason I joined the CIA.
Until now, Dave Carter, whose ridiculous code name, Jaguar, I refuse to address him by, gave me assignments a novice spy could handle with ease, mainly courier tasks, because I possess a phenomenal memory. I never record things that the wrong person or side could discover. I stash all important intel inside my memory banks so only I can access them.
When Dave informed me of this assignment, he said it would either make me or break me. This was my big chance to prove myself worthy of being plucked from the bowels of southern Arkansas to join this elite group. If successful, I would lead future rescue missions—unless I am caught and blab.
I had laughed in his smug face. “Nothing and nobody can make me talk. Period. End of story.”
Dave had given me an odd smirk. “So, you’re willing to die?”
In a low, rumbling baritone, I’d answered, “Absolutely.”
What I didn’t say was that I’d die for love, whether it be for all the broken POWs/MIAs awaiting rescue, my country, my girl, my best friend, or my honor. Dave had not earned my respect and, therefore, did not deserve to hear my thoughts on personal matters.
Brought back to the present after a final rinse, I turn off the water. Time to drip-dry rather than risk using a towel supplied by the hotel, which might be full of Third World microscopic organisms I prefer not to think about. I’ve already experienced plenty of nastiness in Asia and am fully aware of the risks and how to steer clear of them.
Glancing down at the flip-flops, I chuckle to myself while padding over to the window. I open it, hoping for a cool breeze. Instead, a burst of hot air and the stench of urban decay greet me. No matter. Air is air, and I prefer suffering through smelling the rankness rather than risking exposure to what potential gunk lies in wait on the towel.
Captivity in Asia turned me into a neurotic clean freak.
Several glossy travel brochures rest, unopened, on an old dresser made from mahogany. I give them a quick scan, scowling at the deceptive descriptions.
“Welcome to the glorious capital of Thailand—Krung Thep. The City of Gods, the Great City, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha, the Impregnable City of Ayutthaya of God Indra, the Grand Capital of the World Endowed with Nine Precious Gems, the Happy City Abounding in Enormous Royal Palaces Which Resemble the Heavenly Abode Wherein Dwell the Reincarnated Gods, a City Given by Indra and Built by Vishnakarm. The City of Angels opens her arms, embraces you, and urges you to enjoy her magnificence.”
City of Angels, my ass. How can a place that touts itself so highly be immersed in such evil?
My keen gaze skims the nighttime skyline of Bangkok. Sparkly, multi-colored lights beckon visitors like a siren’s call, yet they do not reveal the evil lurking in the shadows.
Turning my body toward the mirror bolted on the wall to the right, I glance quickly past the old scars on my chest, arms, and legs. Years of arduous workouts to regain muscle mass, coupled with healthy eating habits and a myriad of daily multivitamins, revived my once emaciated frame and helped to keep the dark memories of my previous life at bay.
Cathy is fond of saying I’m well-built yet not an over-the-top body builder type, though sometimes she worries that’s where I’m headed—gym rat. I laugh every time she says this, countering I look every bit the part of a lean, powerful man who works outside with his hands in the dirt under the scorching sun.
The overhead light catches a few flecks of silver interspersed between the black hair at my temples. I notice a few new wrinkles around the eyes and forehead. Cathy thinks I look distinguished and that the grays and lines have helped soften the angular edges of my chin, nose, and cheeks.
I see what she means, but there are significant portions of my previous life she is not aware of, including the fact that enduring excruciating pain changed my eye color from vibrant blue to a strange, dull shade of hazel. She does not know I’m a former POW or my real name, only that I served in the Army, and attended college with her cousin. After the first time we were intimate years ago and she saw the scars, I told her a partial truth: They were from my abusive father, and discussing my childhood was off limits.
I’ll never forget her response, spoken in her sweet North Carolina drawl while her delicate fingers caressed my cheek: “Heartache and abuse come in many forms, and sometimes, the hardest battles are fought inside the home. I’m sorry, babe, that you endured such a rough upbringing, but that’s your past, not your future.”
Thinking about Cathy makes me smile. She’s kind, nurturing, patient, and flourishes as a nurse. The woman’s heart is pure, and she loves me. Damaged, broken me. One day, perhaps after I retire, I’ll break down and tell her all the things I’ve hidden for years.
She deserves that and so much more.
“Thank you, God, for putting Cathy in my path. Thank you.”
Leaning closer to the mirror, I survey what the ravages of time, grief, starvation, and misery have done to me. Not too bad considering in a few months, I’ll be thirty-one, which seems odd to think about because for two years straight, I never knew if I’d wake up to see another sunrise. The last twelve years of my nomadic, crazy life drift through my thoughts while I wait for the reeking air to dry my skin.
Tuesday, March 1, 2022
I am thrilled to announce my first horror novel, Reclamation, which is now available by clicking here:
Mandy Morgan touts herself as an E.R.E.: Essence Reclamation Expert. Together with her twin brother, Parker, the computer wizard of the duo, they grift across the country, scamming the bereaved by faking hauntings and then reclaiming the disembodied souls, all for a hefty price.
After arriving in the small, southern town of Forest Haven, Arkansas, to swindle the family of Jared Kendal, recently deceased, a sense of doom swirls inside her mind as strange events unfold. She’s portrayed the role of an essence reclamation expert for years, toying with people grieving for lost loved ones, conning them for cash when they are at their most vulnerable stage in life, feeling no shame or sorrow for the pain she causes the naïve fools, yet she now worries the lies have wormed their way into her psyche.
As they prepare to con Jared Kendal’s widow, Clara, Mandy’s worst fears come to fruition as she discovers there is a high price to pay for leading such a deplorable life, and when fate calls, she cannot run or hide.
While walking toward the parking area, Mandy enjoys the festive decorations plastered on the streetlights and storefronts. Santas, reindeer, elves, holly, bulbs, Christmas trees, snowmen, and countless nativity scenes are everywhere she looks. Stopping at the display window of an antique store, her lips curve into a sneer while staring at an old wooden dressing table adorned with a silver hairbrush and unopened bottle of White Shoulders.
The items bring back unwanted and unwelcomed childhood memories.
Inhaling the crisp air to rid herself of the stench of her youth, she takes in the sparkling, multi-colored lights, blinking in time with Christmas music drifting from hidden speakers strategically interspersed throughout downtown. She loves the cooler weather, especially landscapes peppered with vibrant orange, sunny yellow, and eye-popping crimson foliage. It’s a shame all the gorgeous leaves fell off and died. The twisted, bare limbs appear as gnarled monster hands reaching into the night sky, searching for prey to dismember.
Earlier in the day, energy from the hustle and bustle of people obsessed with the minutia encompassing the celebration of Christmas electrified the air. The streets are empty now that Black Friday sales ended. A few stragglers scurry around like panicked ants, bumping into each other in their quests to snag the perfect gift before the stores close. During the hours-long shopping excursion, she’d witnessed several arguments resulting in loud shouting matches and twice, fists flew.
As evening approached, most folks rushed home after emptying the shelves, fearful of the predicted snowstorm. She understands the urge, though for a different reason. Southerners are notoriously poor drivers in pleasant weather. When faced with slick roads, they are horrible and dangerous. She can handle driving in winter weather, but certainly could not control the stupidity of others. The last thing she needs is a cop summoned to an accident scene asking nosey questions.
A gust of frigid wind blows tendrils of auburn curls out from underneath the beanie and across her face. Something sticks to her boot. Bending down, she picks it up, realizing it’s a flyer.
We opened early. Bring this card and treat yourself today with a free Peppermint Mocha at Gerald’s Java! Happy Holidays!
The enticing aroma of roasted coffee beans and cinnamon catches her attention. Turning to gaze up the block, she notices a neon sign blinking “Open” above the entrance of the coffeehouse.
“Huh. Guess I passed right by this morning and didn’t notice they opened. Oh, my lucky day!”
Snagging a free drink before heading home to meet with Parker sounds fantastic. After spending hours tromping through stores, she craves a jolt of something hot with a stiff caffeine kick. Maybe a wheat bagel, too. Necessary fuel to recharge her dwindling battery and a chance to rest tired feet. There are several details to finalize before completing their new job next week. Plus, she wants to show him the items purchased on sale.
Shoving the paper into her pocket, she smiles while walking. Free coffee and a somewhat healthy snack are exactly what she needs. It isn’t Starbucks, but it will have to do.
Opening the door, a bell tinkles, a jingly signal to the lone barista a customer entered. A wave of heat slams into her as though standing in front of a blast furnace. The interior is stifling. On instinct, her sharp gaze sweeps over the newly remodeled space, making sure she doesn’t know any occupants inside. The shop is cute, artsy, and whimsical, with a vast array of decorations stretching from the 40s all the way through to the 90s, and the best part is no other customers, which means no wait time and no one to concern herself with who might recognize her face.
A bleached blonde, wearing very little clothing for such a chilly evening, leans against the counter, pecking away on her phone. No wonder it is so hot. The girl is practically naked.
The barista looks up from the cell in her hand and smiles. A set of enormous doe-eyes rimmed in black eyeliner and framed with extremely long eyelashes stares without blinking. The amount of rouge slathered across her cheeks is comical. Clown-like. Searching for any sign of recognition, Mandy contains a sigh of relief. The only familiarity in the face stems from the makeup tricks favored by her mother, which makes her skin crawl. “Hi.”
“Evening. Welcome to Gerald’s Java. I’m Emma. What may I get started for you? Fair warning, we’re outta peppermint mocha, so no more freebies.”
The thick accent sends waves of irritation grinding through Mandy’s teeth. She hates hearing a southern drawl and abhors speaking with one. It sounds, and feels, like nails down a chalkboard.
Mentally salivating over the ridiculously large cinnamon rolls dripping with creamy icing, she fights the urge to order one. Taking a deep breath, she drawls, “Oh, too bad. I was looking forward to peppermint and chocolate. The combination is my favorite. How about a venti caramel macchiato with an extra shot of espresso and a wheat bagel with low-fat cream cheese?”
“Oh, I think we’re out of those. Let me check.”
Emma ducks behind the counter. Kitchenware rattles as she pilfers through the cabinets. “Sit anywhere you like. Rush is over, but I’m still trying to catch my breath! There wasn’t a place to set a shopping bag down about an hour ago. When I ran out of peppermint mocha, I had one angry mob of tired lady shoppers on my hands, all demanding free drinks. Wish the owners woulda bought more, and hired extra help, but I guess they didn’t know we’d be this busy on opening day. I mean, this is a small town, right?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Shoot, we’re outta bagels and cream cheese. Sorry.” Emma pops back up. “Wow, your eyes are such a beautiful shade of green! Contacts?”
“Oh, of course. Redhead. Duh! Dang, listen to me prattle on while your cheeks are redder than that pretty hair. Meemaw always said ginger curls make fragile girls. Pale skin’s thinner and gets colder faster. Know what I’m saying?”
Rather than scowling at the rude comments, somewhat stunned by the speed and cadence of Emma’s words, Mandy keeps her features neutral while nodding. Hearing a southerner speak so fast is like talking to someone from California high on meth with a southern drawl.
The girl obviously cannot tell the hair is a wig. Mandy always buys the best. Emma missed the fact that if Mandy was a natural redhead, she’d have freckles.
Emma puts on an apron. “Thank goodness the weather forecast changed. Ain’t no worries about slipping and sliding all the way home.”
“Yep, no snow, only freezing temps. Storm didn’t dip down far enough to affect us. It sure is cold up here in the mountains. Dealing with my first winter almost makes me regret moving. Temps don’t get this chilly where I’m from. But I’m a love-struck goose, so wherever my Kevin goes, I follow. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he inherited a free place to live, so how could we turn that down?”
“In this tough economy, how indeed?”
“His aunt Aileen died a few months ago and left him a big old house over in Forest Haven on Mercer Drive. It’s gorgeous and overlooks the river. Even has a red-tiled roof! My drive to work is stunning, so I don’t mind the two-lane road and all those curves. Well, except if there’s ice. We southern gals don’t do well on ice, do we?”
Emma winks with such force the eyelash flutters.
“No, we surely don’t.” Mandy returns the gesture, wondering why so many southerners feel the urge to share their entire life stories with complete strangers.
“Kevin wants to get hitched and start a family. Got it in his head to fill up the place with the pitter-patter of tiny feet. I told him I’d marry him but ain’t ready to pop out little ones. I’m too young to give up my figure. The women in my family have a long line of wide hips and big backsides magically appearing after childbirth.”
Emma chortles at her joke.
Mandy flashes a fake smile, wishing the annoying girl would stop yammering. Her stomach growls. She hadn’t eaten a thing since breakfast, which was only half a piece of toast. Hunger combines with the sweltering heat, making her feel woozy.
She knows exactly the house Emma means. Interesting. The job for Aileen Reynolds is the one Parker wanted to take instead of the one at the Kendals. She almost regrets overriding Parker’s choice. It would have been fun to scare Emma into silence, even if only temporarily.
“Would you like a cinnamon roll instead? I saw you eyeing them.”
“No, thank you.”
“Let me know if you change your mind, sugar. Those things are better than sex, and last longer too! Oops, gotta remember not to say such things out loud. If Kevin heard me, he’d be three shades of screwed up the next time we got naked.”
“Better than an orgasm, huh?”
“If I’m lying, I’m dying, and this gal’s healthier than a prized racehorse.”
Cutting her gaze back over to the delicious-looking dessert, Mandy’s stomach grumbles again. “Okay, you twisted my arm.”
“I’ll bring your order over when ready. I bet after all your shopping, your feet need a break. We’ve got magazines at the end of the bar and each table has a newspaper. Sit, relax, and get yourself unfrozen, darling! We’ll all see ya soon!”
Mandy’s brows furrow. Isn’t the expression “y’all come back now” or something else equally stupid? The butchered, improper pronunciation of the English language sends her nerves into overdrive. She hates dropping the “g” at the end of words. Why did the southern dialect do that? It was almost as annoying as people from back east and their odd use of the letter “r.”
Being called sugar, sweetie, and darling by a total stranger is beyond weird, hovering near creepy. Though she can mimic countless accents depending upon which state they are in, when in the south, she refuses to pepper phrases with such arcane language. Maybe in the 1950s, addressing people in such a manner was charming. In 2022, it is offensive and condescending.
Reaching into her pocket, she removes the last twenty, shocked at the ridiculous amount of money she’d spent in less than ten hours. She places it on the counter as Emma busies herself preparing the order. She doesn’t tip, but for some unknown reason, feels the overwhelming urge to do so.
A familiar odor fills the hot, heavy air. Mandy nearly gags. Despite the heat, chills ripple across her body, making goosebumps sprout. “Is that White Shoulders I smell?”
“Yes, ma’am. Found it at Raney’s antique store. It was my meemaw’s favorite foo-foo juice.”
Mandy stiffens. She hasn’t heard the expression in over seven years. “Come again?”
“That’s what Meemaw called perfume—foo-foo juice. She died when I was eighteen, so when I saw the bottle, I just had to have some. Reminds me of my younger days.”
“It was my mother’s favorite, too, and she used the same description for cologne.”
“Ain’t that something! You said ‘was.’ Did your momma pass on, sugar?”
“Yes. Several years ago. I was eighteen as well.”
“Small world, huh?”
“I never met my mother. Meemaw raised me. I remember her saying my ma was an alley cat, always slinking around for the next good thing, which apparently didn’t include me. Broke my spirit when Meemaw passed on, but at least I’ve got my Kevin. Anyway, enough about my woes. They got more White Shoulders over at Raney’s. It’s only two doors down. You should go buy some to wear so you never forget momma.”
Mandy shivers again. There is no way she’d do such a thing. She wants to erase the memories of her youth, especially the ones of Patrick and Sharay Morgan, not revisit them. “Thanks for the tip.”
“Welcome. Now, like I said, sit anywhere ya like. I’ll be done in a sec.”
The whir of the espresso machine drowns out an acoustic version of “Jingle Bell Rock” playing softly in the background. Deciding to sit near the window, Mandy takes off the beanie and heavy coat, pushing aside the newspaper on the table. A thin sheen of sweat dots her forehead. Should she ask Emma to turn the heat down? No, that will just invite more mind-numbing conversation peppered with down-home slang.
Mentally cringing that she used the phrase, “I reckon,” she stares out the window, beyond ready for the Kendal job to be over so they could head back east for the next one. If she said or heard ‘y’all’ one more time, her brain might explode.
A memory bursts inside her mind of her father smacking the backs of their heads each time one of them used incorrect pronunciation or had a hint of a dialect other than the location they were currently living in.
His growly voice follows the painful vision: “Leave no crumbs for law enforcement to follow. No bank accounts or checks or credit cards. Pay for everything in cash. Be ghosts. Blend into your surroundings. Adapt. Never wear the same disguise twice. Never, under any circumstances, do any business in the town where the job is. All transactions are to be conducted in a neighboring city. Fly under the radar and then disappear like morning fog on a sunny day.”
Patrick Russell Morgan had been a mean, short-tempered bastard with no fatherly qualities. Sharay Nicole Morgan had been a woman bereft of warm, maternal instincts or compassion. Patrick and Sharay had been too busy planning out their next swindle to be parents to or love their twins. Mandy and Parker had only served as bait in countless schemes across the states.
If there is any sort of life after death, and any cosmic justice, her parents are in abject misery.
Nipping the skin surrounding her left thumb, the taste of copper fills her mouth. The nervous habit appeared in childhood and never left. She frowns while wrapping a paper napkin around the edge to stop the bleeding.
There isn’t a reason to be nervous. Patrick and Sharay are long since dead. The upcoming job with Parker isn’t their first rodeo. They had prepped and planned for every conceivable outcome.
The traffic light changes from green to yellow to red. An SUV nearly t-bones a pickup. Tires squall. A few onlookers whip out cameras, clicking away like tourists on their first trip to the U.S. The driver of the truck screams obscenities out the window, face scrunching in anger. The female SUV operator responds by flipping the bird before disappearing into the night.
Why is she so edgy? The holidays? Crazed shoppers? Disturbing memories of her parents? Hunger? The town?
No, despite its many flaws, she likes the area. Quaint. It is close, but not too close, to Forest Haven, where they’d been staying for the last two months. Crawfordsville, Arkansas, is clean and full of old-school charm and nostalgia. Most of the original brick structures built in the late 1800s still stand, cared for and updated by each new generation. Homes dot the landscape with large, wrap-around porches and enormous windows to give the occupants stunning views of the Ouachita Mountains.
If she settles down, which she never would—repetition is her Kryptonite—Crawfordsville would be her choice. Friendly people, yet not so over-friendly they are in the middle of everyone else’s business. Well, except for a chipper clerk named Emma hawking caffeine and sugar highs at the local coffee shop like a pimp enticing horny Johns.
She chuckles softly at the joke.
Unlike Crawfordsville, most residents of Forest Haven are elderly and come from old money. Earlier research concluded it had been a boomtown in the late 60s to early 90s, but after the gas pipeline shut down, other businesses followed. The town’s population withered down to an unrecognizable husk of its former numbers. Younger citizens moved away to seek new lives in more vibrant and economically stable environments. Forest Haven is dying fast, just like its elderly residents, which is exactly why the Morgan twins picked the location.
Emma brings over the order, flashing a big smile while setting the items on the table. “Enjoy! We close in half-an-hour so I gotta start shutting things down. No rush, sweetie. Oh, and here’s a little something special for when you get home. You look like you need it.”
“What is it?”
“Consider it an early Christmas present.”
Mandy opens the white paper bag. It contains an extra cinnamon roll. Embarrassment floods her chest and cheeks. “Thank you.”
“Welcome, doll.” Emma points to the newspaper. “You got time to unwind and catch up on news, maybe even find a good coupon or two.”
Watching a tight ass, firm thighs, and svelte waist saunter away, Mandy understands exactly why Emma wants to wait for children.
She recalls one of Sharay’s favorite digs said each time she looked in the mirror when her children were within earshot: When you have a smoking body, don’t ruin it by having kids Mandy almost laughs out loud. Her sugar levels must be low if she’s quoting Sharay.
After taking a sip of the drink and two huge bites of the bun, she nearly swoons in the chair. Emma is right—the decadent treat is better than sex. Of course, she’d never been intimate with another, so not a fair comparison.
Emma cleans while humming a tune Mandy vaguely recognizes. It sounds like “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC, which she finds hilarious. Not a typical song to hum, especially during the holidays.
She takes another bite and then chokes upon realizing they never found a trace of Emma in their research into recently deceased Aileen Reynolds and her only living heir—Kevin Reynolds.
How did they miss Kevin had a girlfriend, especially one serious enough to pack up and follow him from Louisiana to Arkansas? There was not one picture or mention of Emma on all his social media. Her presence could have been a tremendous problem.
No, not possible. She and Parker poured hours and hours into their research before selecting the next target. They knew about animals, friends, job history, relatives, favorite colors, movies, books, food, spouses, children, and every other crumb of information combined to understand the entire life story of the deceased.
Worry slithers up her spine, meeting the rivulets of perspiration sliding down. Something is wrong. Edginess teeters near the precipice of fear. She needs to calm down, not flip out, and think.
She cocks her head slightly, turning enough to see Emma, wondering exactly what is going on. The girl stands by the freezer, seemingly oblivious to Mandy’s scrutinizing gaze. Why did Emma mention the newspaper twice?
Dread coils inside her gut as she reaches across the table. Maybe Emma is in disguise and possibly a family member of someone she and Parker fleeced during the past seven years? Were they the prey this time and not the predators? Did Emma, or a cohort in crime, harm Parker while she shopped? Kidnap him? If she flips open the pages, will she find a ransom note?
If I do, you’re dead where you stand, bitch. Dead. Dead. Deadski.
Fingers trembling from a mixture of worry and anger, she snatches up the paper. Her mouth gapes open, unable to form a single word, tongue shocked into silence. In her hand is the Minot Daily News dated December 30, 2015, with the headline, “Man and woman found dead in a local hotel from carbon monoxide poisoning. Police seeking public’s help in identifying them.”
She takes in a ragged breath, unable to find any plausible explanation why the Minot, North Dakota paper with the article about the death of Patrick and Sharay seven years prior sits in a coffee shop in Crawfordsville, Arkansas.
Fuck this. I don’t want to know. Leave. Now.
She throws on the coat, smashes on the beanie, picks up the packages, food, and coffee. Her gut instincts are never wrong and right now, they scream for her to flee, swing by the rent house, pack, and then get the hell out of Arkansas.
After only a few steps toward the exit, a wave of dizziness slams into her so hard she stumbles. Black dots cloud her vision. The stench of White Shoulders fills her nostrils.
“Have a great night! Tell Parker we said hello. We’ll all see ya soon!”
The voice sends shock waves throughout her entire torso. It is all wrong—impossible. Glancing back, Mandy gasps, because the woman waving from behind the counter isn’t Emma.
It’s Sharay, dressed in the same slutty clothes she had on the night in the hotel, skin cherry-red from the poison circulating inside the room, and ebony hair in tangled knots.
Just like the night we…oh, shit.
The room spins. Waves of heat ripple across her body, turning her legs into jelly. The walls undulate, synchronized in time as though intakes of breath. Fumbling twice to push the door open, she bursts outside. Frigid wind slaps her in the face, helping her regain full control of all mental faculties. A light mist pelts the already damp ground as she runs. She makes it to the antique store before slowing down to look over her shoulder.
Panic wells inside her chest. She slides to a stop. Her head buzzes with the rapid thumps of blood whooshing with each racing heartbeat.
Brown construction paper covers the storefront of Gerald’s Java with bright red letters painted across, reading: Excuse our mess. Opening day is January 5 at 6:00 a.m.! First 100 customers get a free peppermint mocha!
Looking down at her hands, she bites her lip to keep from screaming.
No cinnamon buns.
Only the packages from the earlier shopping trip, which she promptly drops.
She shoves her hand into the pocket of the coat, pulling out the twenty. Digging faster, she searches for the flyer but comes up with nothing.
Blood continues whooshing inside her brain as she gapes at the money. “This isn’t happening. There’s no fucking way.”
Spinning around, intending to head back to the car, her boots lose traction on the slick concrete. Her body slams into the cold ground. The impact knocks the wind from her lungs and her head bounces off the surface with such force, bright stars sparkle behind her eyes.
Dead trees bob and weave, limbs arcing downward toward her, branches opening and closing as though eager to snatch her up. The wind howls, and for a brief second, she hears, “We’ll all see you soon!”
Dazed and in pain, she pukes.
After retching, she closes her eyes while taking several deep breaths, concentrating on nothing but the cold air entering her lungs.
“Ma’am, are you okay? Shall I summon an ambulance?”
Clawing up through the murkiness swirling inside her mind, Mandy opens her eyes. The aging countenance of a concerned man with thick, white eyebrows and beard stares back, hovering only inches away. He looks like a slimmer version of Santa Claus.
Damn, how hard did I hit my head? My rescuer is a skinny Kris Kringle? Great. Hope I don’t have to ride in a sleigh.
She swallows hard, and blinks twice, confused by the pain in her throat. “No, I’m fine but could use some help up.”
“Are you sure? Let me at least get you some bandages and water from inside. I have some in the back.”
Scanning the area for her purse, she finds it resting underneath the window display, inches away from her fingers. She shakes her head while holding out an arm. “Positive. I just want to go home.”
“Please, we’re closed, but since I’m the owner, can open right back up.”
“Ah, so you aren’t Santa Claus. Mr. Raney, right?”
He beams while tipping a black fedora. “Yes, ma’am. I let my beard grow out during the holidays. I volunteer over at the orphanage as jolly ol’ St. Nick. Kids love it.”
“How nice of you. All I need for Christmas is to gather my belongings and head home.”
“Sure thing. Here, grab on.”
Once on her feet, she looks down the sidewalk. Gerald’s Java is still closed. Instinct urges her to search for cameras, so she looks up, dismayed to see one above the doorframe of the antique store. She sways a fraction. Pushing past the dizziness, she re-situates the purse as the scrawny Santa hands over the packages. “Thank you.”
“Welcome, ma’am. You’re bleeding, and don’t seem too steady. Are you sure you don’t want to come inside?”
“I’m okay. My pride’s what hurts. Can’t remember the last time I fell.” She nods towards the surveillance equipment. “Please promise me you’ll delete the footage of me face planting before anyone else sees it?”
“No need to fret, ma’am. The camera’s just for show, so it did not capture your tumble, nor did any of the others.” Mr. Raney points across the street. “We installed the fakes as cheap deterrents. We’re all small potatoes around these parts, and none of us make enough profit to invest in such expensive items. So, we banned together and bought ten fake ones online and split the cost. Best twenty bucks I’ve ever spent.”
She lets out a long breath. The last thing she needs is her image on camera, even if she is wearing a disguise. “Good to know.”
“It’s all my fault you injured yourself. I intended to put some salt out on the walk, but when the forecast changed, I simply forgot. I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologize. Salt or not, I’m a klutz. Appreciate your help. Have a good evening, Mr. Raney.”
“Same to you, ma’am. Be careful on the roads. They’re wet, too.”
With slow, calculated steps, she makes her way down the remaining three blocks to the car, wondering how long she was out, and if anyone else saw her fall.
Once inside and engine idling, she turns on the overhead light to assess the injury. It takes several seconds for her eyes to focus. When they do, she does a double-take. She has in the brown contacts.
A thick rivulet of blood trickles down her cheek, oozing from a thumb-sized gash near the eyebrow. Should she risk going to an emergency walk-in clinic to see if the wound requires stitches? No, the staff would ask too many questions. Parker can help her fix it, plus a real scar might come in handy on jobs.
Dabbing at the blood, she notices her forehead is on fire. Slouching back in the seat, she chuckles. “Okay, stop by Walgreens on the way home and pick up some meds. Fever, dizziness, sore throat, nausea, and chills. I’ve got the flu. A high temp makes some people hallucinate. Seeing the White Shoulders bottle brought back terrible memories. Obviously, my subconscious noticed Gerald’s Java when walking past it this morning. I slipped, fell, and rang my bell. Imagined it all. Guess the holidays reminded me of the night we killed Patrick and Sharay. That was not Mom’s ghost back there. Ghosts are not real. I’m wearing the brown contacts. There was no Emma, no Gerald’s Java, only a kind old dude who looked like Santa Claus. Wait, was he real? Damn, I’ve got to take some medicine and soak in a warm bath because my mind’s three shades of screwed up.”
She bites her lip hard enough to draw blood. She can’t afford to be sick. Illness creates missteps.
The fever intensifies. Heat radiates from her ears and cheeks. She must get home before passing out.
Pulling out of the parking lot onto Grand Avenue, she turns on the radio, hoping some Christmas music will help soothe her frazzled nerves. Instead of something merry and bright, “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC blares through the speakers. Rather than change the channel, she belts out the words along with Bon Scott.
While singing and driving, she hopes once the fever breaks, she’ll forget everything about the evening—except for the terrifying encounter at Gerald’s Java. She’ll relay all the sensory information to Parker so they can use it for future reclamation jobs.
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