Prisoner Pre-Read Chapter 5

Here it is! The FINAL pre-read chapter of Prisoner before the book launches on Aug. 1.

Pre-order the book on Amazon today. The Kindle version is just $2.99. We have a goal to hit #1 in the Sci-Fi/Time Travel category, and we can only do that with a bunch of pre-orders. Check out my special pre-order offer!

This week’s chapter is posted below. Links to each chapter published thus far are linked as well.

Prisoner takes place about a year after the events of Traveler. Trav Becker thinks he has settled back into a normal life, and will never again have to deal with the problems of shifting between parallel realities.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

Prisoner launches on August 1, and to get ready, each Saturday between now and then, I will post a chapter from the book. Get a taste of Prisoner below!

Haven’t read Traveler yet? Fix that at this link.

Prisoner Chapter 5

Chapter 1    Chapter 2    Chapter 3    Chapter 4

MY HEART SANK as I watched more than a dozen ghostly figures move around in a seemingly random fashion.

If I looked closer, however, there was some rhyme and reason to their motion. Some seemed to be in conversation with an unseen second person. Another was going through the motions of unlocking a car. Still another was focused intently on the ground.

The figures had varying degrees of solidity. Some were wraithlike, others looked nearly normal.

The one thing each figure had in common was a glowing outline, like someone had traced around them with a fluorescent piece of chalk. The outlines were all blue.

Except one.

I knew two things.

One, I was the only one who could see this little Trav-mob. I knew that Adam and Ward were staring at me, wondering what I was looking at, but I couldn’t reply, not yet, because…

There.

The second thing I knew was that there would be one figure outlined not in blue, but in red. And that was important.

“Trav?”

I didn’t answer right away, just stared at the milling figures, in particular the red one that was crouched down, looking under one of the hedge plants that lined the sidewalk. 

I had hoped never to see this sight again. 

I’d been getting along just fine without the hocus-pocus for the last year. And damned if I was going to start depending on it now. Who knew what can of worms it might open? Better to work this case the old-fashioned way.

I closed my eyes, took a couple of deep breaths.

No, thank you.

I opened them again. The knot of scurrying bodies was gone.

“Trav. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry. Just… uh, trying to visualize the route they might have taken that would have missed Rodriguez.”

I mentally went back over the conversation I had missed. “Yeah, families. That’s probably our next step.”

We got back into our vehicles and drove to the Patel place.

The Patel home was on a cul de sac, same street as Taggert’s, but in a newer section. Their house was bigger, with a three-stall garage. The yard was well-kept, but not to the same degree as Taggert’s.

Mr. Patel answered the door. I watched his eyes light up. But they quickly dimmed, his shoulders slumping as he realized we were not bringing any good news. He invited us in, managing a gracious, if hollow, smile.

I introduced him to Ward, then asked, “Mrs. Patel isn’t home?”

He shook his head. “She decided to go in to work. I am working from home today. You know, just in case there was some news.”

Riswan Patel was around forty, with just a touch of gray at the temples framing his wide-set face. His Indian heritage was clear, but he spoke with no accent. He wore suit pants and a white dress shirt, sleeves rolled to just below his elbows.

Ward was a little smarter this time, emphasizing that we would probably be going over familiar ground, and apologizing in advance for asking questions he had answered dozens of times previously.

“Please, come in and sit,” Patel said. 

He motioned us to the living room, where we arranged ourselves–Ward and I claiming a soft, overstuffed couch, Adam in a wingback chair. We declined the usual offer of something to drink. Patel sat in a love seat opposite the couch.

Ward walked the man through the day of the girls’ disappearance.

No, he had not seen any strange vehicles or people in the neighborhood.

No, Sophie had not been acting oddly.

No, it wasn’t strange to allow Sophie to bike by herself to the pool.

“We’ve always believed parents live too much in fear, never letting children be unsupervised,” Patel said. “Some families don’t even let their children walk three blocks to school. We were proud of Sophie’s independence. We never dreamed that here, in this neighborhood, those paranoid fantasies were the truth…” 

His voice trailed off. He squeezed his eyes shut. It took some time to get himself back together. 

“I’m sorry,” he finally said, voice hoarse from holding back tears, “what else can I tell you?”

Ward shook his head. “I don’t think I have any more questions right now. Can we see Sophie’s room?”

Patel nodded. “It’s upstairs.”

He led us to the second floor and into a room just to the right of the stairs. It was painted robin’s-egg blue, with the standard collection of posters of cats and boy bands on the wall. A neat desk sat near the window, with a MacBook at its center.

“Computer Forensics has been through it completely,” Adam said. “No strange email or chats. All her Facebook friends check out, real people. They even traced the IP addresses of every computer that visited her profile for the last six months. Nothing.”

Ward nodded. He made a show of poking around a little bit, but didn’t find anything.

We trooped downstairs and stood by the door.

“Are you going to see Michelle now?” Patel asked.

“Yes,” Ward replied. “Then we will want to talk to your wife. Can we visit her at work?”

Patel nodded. “I’ll call and tell her to expect you.”

“Anything we should know before we talk to Ms. Day?” Ward asked. “Tell me a little about the relationship between Sophie and Ella.”

Patel didn’t answer right away. When he did, his voice was tight once again. “Sophie doted on Ella. From the time she and Michelle moved into the neighborhood, Sophie was always looking out for her. And Ella idolized Sophie. When Michelle asked Sophie to watch Ella this summer while she was working, both girls were thrilled.”

“Twelve is a little young to be a full-time sitter, isn’t it?” Ward asked. 

“Our daughter is very mature for her age, Mr. Ward,” Patel said. “All you had to do was watch the two together to see how good Sophie was with Ella. But the truth is, while Michelle was paying Sophie for her time, it was understood that my wife would be keeping an eye on the girls as well.”

“But your wife wasn’t here the day the girls disappeared.”

Patel shook his head. “No. Sanjana worked from home much of the time, but on this particular day, she needed to go into the office.”

“I see,” Ward said.

Patel leaned forward in his chair. “Gentlemen, please. If I can ask just one thing of you. When you talk to my wife, try not to bring up this topic. It has been tearing her apart that she wasn’t here.”

“We don’t know that it would have made any difference. The girls would still have biked to the pool,” I said.

“Even so. You will have an easier time interviewing her if you don’t upset her any further.”

Ward nodded. “We’ll do our best.” 

He looked at his device again, flipping his finger upward to page through his notes. “Now, what about Mr. Dawson? Ms. Day’s boyfriend?”

“We don’t know Joshua well,” Patel said. “But he and Michelle had been seeing each other for some months. She has not had very good luck in men. Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s not like there was a parade of men coming and going from her house. There have been a handful of boyfriends since we have known her. Joshua seemed, well, a cut above the sort of man she had previously been seeing. He has a good job, doesn’t spend a lot of time in bars. He has always seemed trustworthy. We were happy for Michelle.”

“He didn’t seem unusually interested in Ella?” Ward asked.

Patel’s lips wrinkled in distaste. “We watch television, Special Agent. We know it is almost always the father or the boyfriend who is found to be guilty in cases like these. I have had to answer questions—” He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “—that no father, no man should have to think about, let alone hear. I have given your investigators complete access to our house, my computer here at home, and also at my office. My understanding is Joshua has done the same.”

Ward glanced at Adam and me. We nodded.

“You understand I have to ask?” Ward said gently.

Patel nodded. “It is worth noting that Joshua has stood by Michelle through this entire crisis. Even though, as I said, his entire life history and actions have been scrutinized by the police and the media.”

Ward nodded. “Well, sounds like Ms. Day could use someone like that. And it sounds like you have been good friends to her as well.” He pulled a business card out of his breast pocket.

“I know that you have answered these questions again and again, and I am sorry that the investigation hasn’t borne much fruit. But, we are doing everything we can. If you can think of anything, anything that might help us, please call me. This is my cell number. You can call it anytime of the day or night.”

Patel nodded. “Thank you.”

“We’ll stay in touch.”

On the street, Ward turned to us.

“Do you agree with his take on Dawson?”

Adam and I exchanged glances. We both shrugged. 

“Patel was right, it is often the boyfriend,” I said. “He’s been under a microscope since the first day. But no one has found anything the least bit dirty about him.”

Ward ran a hand through his hair. “The more you dig into this, the fewer clues you have.” 

“That’s why they pay us the big bucks,” Adam said. “So, the Day place?”

Ward nodded. “How far?”

“Just down the block. We can walk.”

We started down the sidewalk. A flash of movement caught my eye, and I turned back towards our cars, to see a faint, red-tinged image of myself getting in the Mustang.

Dammit. 

NO.

I turned my back on Red Trav and followed Ward and Adam along the sidewalk.

The neighborhood had obviously been developed in stages. Taggert’s place was late Fifties or early Sixties. The Patel’s was only maybe ten years old.

Michelle Day’s was somewhere in between. It was a single-story ranch, with a two-car garage. It had redwood siding that was a little faded. The grass was long, but not unkempt.

An older Nissan SUV was parked in the garage, and a little Subaru sedan was in the driveway behind it.

Ward raised his hand to ring the doorbell. But before he even touched it, the door swung open.

“Finally!” exclaimed the woman who opened the door. 

Like the Patels, Michelle Day was around forty. Average height, with light brown hair cut in a short bob. She wore faded jeans and a Packers sweatshirt, and greeted us with an exasperated sigh.

“It’s about time. We’ve been waiting for you!”

“Excuse me?” Ward began. “I’m not…”

Ms. Day cut him off. “Please. We know why you’re here. And we’re anxious to get started.”

“Started?”

She waved a hand. “You’ll understand. Please, come in.”

Ward narrowed his eyes and glanced back at us. He raised an eyebrow.

Adam and I both shrugged.

We all trooped into the house, taking a left into the living room.

“Here they are, just like you said,” Ms. Day said proudly.

Ward and Adam looked confused. Fortunately, I was still behind them, or they might have seen my jaw drop. I wasn’t confused at all, just stunned.

On the couch, sipping from a bottle of water, and looking at us with interest, sat Morgan Foster.

 

Surely you don’t intend to stop here? Prisoner is just $2.99 away on Amazon!

Help a Brother Out

Sometimes people ask me what is best, ordering a book online, buying it from a local bookstore or from me at a signing.

Here’s what helps the most: Pre-ordering the book on Amazon. 

(No, I’m not throwing my local bookstore under the bus. More on that in a minute).

These days, the main success indicator, particularly for an indie, is Amazon Sales Rank. And the best way to push up the chart is with big one-day sales, preferably the first day the book is released. 

Guess when pre-order sales are credited? On Release Day. For Prisoner, this 

The first day Traveler was released, with no advance notice or pre-orders, it hit #14 in Amazon’s Sci Fi/Time Travel. With your help, I think Prisoner could hit #1. 

The Prisoner e-book is just $2.99. If you have any interest at all in reading it, please pre-order it right now at this link (or click on the picture).

Now, what if you would rather support your local bookstore, or just prefer a real book? 

Easy. Pre-order the e-book. Show it to me on your device if you attend a signing, and I will happily rebate you $3.00 (or buy you a cocktail) when you buy a paper edition. You even make a $.01 profit! If it’s not convenient for us to meet in person, contact me by email, Facebook, Twitter, and we’ll work something out.

I can hardly wait for you to read the next volume of Trav’s adventures!

 

Prisoner Chapter 4

Chapter 1   Chapter 2   Chapter 3

OH, CRAP.

I looked around. Fortunately, Adam and Ward had both moved out of sight. There was no one else around, but I had to be careful. There was a camera on this lot.

I opened the back door and leaned in, careful not to put any weight on him. I checked his pulse. Nothing.

Great. Another dead body on my hands. 

I just stood there for a while, staring into his lifeless eyes. He was dressed exactly like the first one, all in black. He also wore a gun belt, but in addition to a holstered gun on one hip, there was a long, narrow leather sheath hanging from the opposite side.

It was a scabbard. As in sword-holder. It was empty, but what the hell was he doing with a sword? I’d never held one of the things in my life, despite The Princess Bride being one of my favorite movies. I was certain if I ever picked one up, I’d be lucky if I didn’t cut my own thumb off.

Well, I couldn’t think about it right now. I had to get moving. But what was I going to do with my rapidly-cooling friend? I didn’t dare leave him in the back seat. If Adam or Ward happened to look inside, it would all be over. 

I got into the car, and pulled around to a small alley that exited the parking lot. It was narrow, and quite close to the building, so it was rarely used. It was also out of range of the security camera that watched the rest of the parking lot.

I squeezed out of the car and, doing my best to keep his blood from getting on my clothes, managed to maneuver Dead Trav Number Two out of the car and into the trunk.

I got back into the car and took a deep breath. I had to go. Adam and Ward would be waiting at the witness’s residence. But I had one more thing to do before I could join them.

I pulled out my phone, and poked the picture of a smallish, red-haired man with a half-day’s growth of beard that had taken him two weeks to achieve.

“Hey,” Sam Markus said.

“Good morning. Just calling to tell you good luck, Mr. Consultant. Got everything you need for your first day on the job?”

“I’m a knowledge worker,” my best friend replied loftily. “I carry all the tools I need in my head.”

“Are you going to be ready for D-Day?”

“I better be. I told them when they hired me I would have their site up, legal, and uncrackable on the first day of online gaming.”

Sam had spent pretty much his entire career in academia. He’d been doing research in particle physics for nearly a decade. Recently, his work had veered off into a new direction, as some of the work he had done had applications in a branch of mathematics related to something called quantum computing.

Meanwhile, after years of lobbying by the casino industry, the state legislature had passed a law making online gaming legal.

While a big business, online gambling had historically been pretty shady. Anything based in the U.S. had to technically be “for entertainment only,” although many sites had ways to get players to cough up money in order to unlock certain benefits or access to better games. There were a few true online gaming sites, but they were generally run offshore by countries who could ignore threats from American law enforcement. As such, you could almost guarantee they were crooked. You had to be really dumb, or really addicted to gambling, to go anywhere near them.

A few states, beginning with the gambling capitals of Nevada and New Jersey, had taken some tentative steps to offer the gambling industry a way for online casinos to go legit, offering clean games in the same way real-world casinos did, inspected and regulated by the state. Smelling tax revenue, our state–which in recent years had gradually let more and more communities build casinos–decided to join the parade.

But in a world where stories about a company’s credit card database getting hacked was a daily occurrence, convincing people the games were honest was the one thing standing between a gaming site and big, big money.

It turned out that Sam’s work had an application for online casinos. Using this quantum computing, he could write gambling algorithms that in theory made the games truly random and honest, not to mention totally uncrackable.

With the growing Hispanic market in mind, a local group was developing an online casino they called El Juego Grande, The Big Game. The group had approached Sam to lead a small team to write secure gaming algorithms for them. They had also thrown a huge donation at the university, making his department head only too happy to loan him out.

But there was pressure to produce that he had never experienced before. Four or five other casino operators were working on their own online sites. Conventional wisdom said if you weren’t there on opening day, you could lose out.

The new law took effect in just two weeks, and one member of Sam’s team had been very distracted.

“Have you talked to Sanjana?” I asked.

“Yesterday. She said she was coming in. I told her it wasn’t necessary, but she said it beat staying home staring at the phone.”

Sanjana Patel was another mathematician Sam had recruited to help him with the El Juego Grande project.

She was also the mother of Sophie, the elder of the missing girls.

“I guess I can understand that. Anything to take your mind off it for even a little while. I’m doing everything I can.”

“I know you are. Anything I can do?”

“Well, now that you ask, there is something going on I could use your advice on.”

“About the case?”

“Not exactly. Look, I know you are balls to the wall, but I have something I need you to look at.”

“What kind of something?”

“Something related to our fun last year.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Can you tell me anymore?”

“Not over the phone.”

“Right,” he said. “Umm… well, I was planning to work through lunch, but I could probably sneak away.”

“Adam and I are headed out to re-interview a witness. How about I text you when we’re done?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

No sooner had I hung up than my phone started playing the opening piano riff to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.”

“Hey,” I said.

“Wow. I guess the magic really is gone,” Mary teased. 

I must have sounded more worn out than I realized.

“Sorry,” I said. “Been a long day.”

“It’s not even half over.”

“I know. It’s been… some morning.”

“Buy me lunch and tell me about it?”

“Sorry, meeting Adam in a few minutes. Leon is keeping us on the missing girls.”

“That’s good, right? Weren’t you two worried they were going to close the investigation?”

“Yeah. But instead Leon put Adam and me with an FBI guy to go through everything again, hoping to find something we all missed. We’re going to start over with some of the witnesses.”

“Leon is smart. He knows you won’t give up. Tell me that you will get some lunch, though.”

“Of course”

“Because breakfast after swimming was the drive-through, right?”

“Uh…”

“Trav. You can’t save the world if you’re not going to take care of yourself. Don’t make me call your mother.”

“Fine, fine. No need for the nuclear option. I’ll stop for something on the way back.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah.”

“All right then. Will I see you tonight?”

“I hope so. Maybe after your rehearsal?”

“It might be late.”

“That’s not a problem. Text me when you’re done.”

“Okay. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Wishing I was headed to a lunch date with my girlfriend instead of to a witness interview that was probably a dead end, I tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and flicked on the radio.

Unfortunately, instead of the particular brand of album rock I tune in for, I was treated to talk.

Crap. Just when this day couldn’t get any worse.

When I was a teenager, my dad had turned me on to his favorite music, marginal and obscure album rock bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’d inherited his extensive album and CD collection when he’d died a couple of years ago, but honestly didn’t pull them out all that much because our town had an increasingly rare media jewel.

A great radio station.

Axe 106.9 had managed to avoid the homogenization of music radio that has happened over the last fifteen years or so, playing a unique blend of classic and modern rock, blues and jazz that had become the soundtrack to my life through high school, college and into adulthood.

When the longtime owner had decided to retire, he did something unexpected. Rather than cashing out and selling to a giant media company, he had done some sort of deal where the station was transferred to a non-profit board and became part of the public radio system.

Which also eliminated commercials, in favor of corporate underwriting announcements (“Support for this program comes from World of Wheels, the Tri State’s local bicycle shop and organic deli…”), and the occasional pledge drive.

I considered it a fair trade-off, and was happy to send them a few bucks a month.

But apparently, I was one of the few who did. Because more and more news and talk programs started showing up on the air.

Blame Pandora. Blame the iPhone. Blame Google. But I guess that even in the non-commercial world, you have to worry about ratings. And with people turning to the internet for music, broadcast radio turned more and more to talk and news shows.

First it was the Wing and a Prayer Morning Battalion, a truly great morning music show, replaced by NPR’s Morning Edition.

Now, apparently, the midday DJ had been replaced by some talk program.

I was just about to switch the radio off, when I realized I recognized the voice of the host. I turned the radio back up.

“Michelle, I definitely sense a male energy surrounding you. When you asked me that question, it was like your words were actually a color. And can you guess what that color was?”

“No, Morgan.”

“The color was blue. I think you’re having a boy.”

“A boy!” Even through the speakers, you could hear that the caller was near tears. “That’s wonderful. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” the host replied warmly. She smoothly shifted into announcer mode. “You’re listening to Second Sight on KAXE. I’m Morgan Foster. What does your future hold? More of your calls after the news.”

Now I did switch the radio off. I wasn’t sure which bothered me more. That my favorite radio station had put a talk show featuring a psychic on the air…

Or that the psychic was someone I knew.

I might have been even more offended if I hadn’t known Morgan Foster was the real deal. She actually did have a gift that allowed her to see beyond the physical world most of us see.

Like Sam, she had played an important role in my adventures last year. 

When I had realized I was bouncing from stream to stream, it had been Morgan who had given a name to what was happening to me, and helped me understand it. She even had a name for people like me. Travelers.

(Yeah, I know… Trav is a Traveler. That weirds me out to this day.)

Morgan had advanced a theory that seers, prophets, and mystics throughout history did not foretell the future so much as they had perceived events in another parallel reality, one where time was flowing at a slightly faster rate. And many of the unexplainable occurrences and mysteries which most of us dismissed as urban legends could in fact be explained by the notion that people sometimes physically moved between streams.

Then, after shifting streams, I had met that reality’s version of Morgan, who had helped me even more. Without her help, I probably would have just kept drifting, or sometimes getting pushed from stream to stream. Morgan had helped me figure out a way to direct my Traveling to the stream of my desire.

I had also met a third Morgan Foster. And in some ways that had been the strangest experience of all.

Anyway, with a lot of help from Morgan (each version) and Sam, the bad guys got what they deserved, and the hero got the girl. Everyone (well, almost everyone) lived.

But I had learned a valuable lesson about meddling with events in the Multiverse. In each reality I spent time in, any move I–or another version of Trav–made to save a life, or avert some form of disaster, caused unforeseen ripples down the line.

In one reality, my partner Adam had died in a shootout. In another, I’d managed to save him, only for him later to be involved in a car accident where a little girl died.

After the dust settled, Sam and I agreed to do nothing further to disturb the natural progression of events.

I had kept that promise. But turning away from everything associated with Traveling had also meant not talking to Morgan Foster.

In fact, I had never even told her thank you. She had asked me to tell her how everything had turned out. But I had felt the wiser course would be to stay away from her.

So now I was feeling pissed that another of my favorite music shows was gone and, at the same time, feeling guilty about showing up in Morgan’s life, blowing her mind about how the universe worked, and then never speaking to her again.

I sighed. Just another item to add to the list. Right after figuring out why dead versions of myself kept appearing.

And, finding those missing girls.

Alan Taggert lived in a nondescript but well-kept, single-story ranch with attached two-car garage. The house was that light green which was all the rage for about eighteen months in the early Sixties, preserved forever by those owners who had made the unfortunate choice of permanent siding.

But the yard was immaculate. The grass was the kind of lush, blue-green that only comes from daily watering and exacting amounts of carefully-applied fertilizer. It looked softer than my living room carpet. A colorful flowerbed lay along the house’s front.

A hedge you could have used as a drafting table ran along one side of the yard and disappeared behind the house.

Adam’s SUV and Ward’s Feebmobile were already parked in front of me. I got out at the same time as Adam and Ward. We made our way up the sidewalk, the grass along its edges razor-straight.

“Mr. Taggert?” I said to the man who answered the door. He looked to be in his early seventies, paunchy, with silver hair and little glasses. He wore a white, short-sleeved shirt, tucked in, belly hanging over a pair of black pants that had seen better days. His waist had long since ceased to be effective in holding up said trousers, so he’d resorted to suspenders. 

“Yes?” he said, a little uncertainly, looking from one to the other of us.

“I’m Detective Becker, this is Detective Yount and Special Agent Ward from the FBI. I’m sorry to bother you, but we’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“This is about the girls?” His voice was low and gargly, like there was a perpetual frog in his throat.

“Yes.” I answered what I knew would be his next question before he could ask it. “I know you’ve already given a statement…”

“Three times.”

“Right. But, we’ve been asked to kind of go back to the beginning and go over everything again. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not. I want you to find them as much as anyone.” He opened the door fully. “Do you want to come in?”

“Actually,” Ward said, “Could you come outside and show us exactly where you saw the girls?”

“All right.”

We moved aside as he stepped onto the porch and shuffled across it, stepping down into the front yard.

“Can you tell me where you were when you saw the girls?” Ward asked.

Taggert nodded, and led us toward the right side of the house, which was opposite the garage. He stopped at the corner. There was about ten feet of side yard, ending at the hedge, which seemed to extend all the way to the other end of his property.

“I was right about here, watering the mums.” He waved a hand toward the flowers along the front of the house. “Two little girls rode past on bikes.” 

He turned back toward us.

“And that’s it.”

“What time was this?” Ward asked.

“Two or two-thirty.”

“How do you know it was the missing girls you saw?” Ward asked.

“When they ran the pictures on the news, I recognized them.”

The FBI agent turned to Adam and me. “How far away are we from the Patel residence?”

“A half mile,” Adam supplied.

Ward nodded. “Fits the time line. What else?”

“That’s it,” said Taggert.

“Do you remember seeing any unfamiliar vehicles in the neighborhood?”

“No,” Taggert replied.

“People you didn’t recognize?”

Taggert sighed. “No. I keep telling you people. I just saw two little girls. I would like to be able to help more, but there just isn’t anything else.”

“But the woman with the kids in the inflatable pool—” Ward consulted his tablet, “—Mrs. Rodriguez, did not see them. And she was only two blocks over.”

“That’s what I understand,” said Taggert.

It was obvious that, while Mr. Taggert wanted to help, he was tired of telling the same story over and over again. 

Ward thanked Taggert, and we made our way back to our vehicles.

“What next?” asked Adam.

Ward consulted his tablet again, paging through the notes he had made back at the station.

“Families, I think.” He glanced in the direction of the house, making sure Taggert was back inside before he continued. “They’ll be frustrated that we keep asking the same questions, too, but maybe we’ll shake something loose.”

“That’d be nice,” Adam said. “Trav, you ready?”

“Trav?”

But I wasn’t listening. I was watching a multitude of Trav Beckers lining the sidewalk ahead of me.

Read Chapter 5

Prisoner Pre-Read Chapter 3

Prisoner, Book II of The Traveler Chronicles is now available for pre-order on Amazon.  The Kindle version is just $2.99.

This week’s chapter is posted below. Links to each chapter published thus far are linked as well.

Prisoner takes place about a year after the events of Traveler. Trav Becker thinks he has settled back into a normal life, and will never again have to deal with the problems of shifting between parallel realities.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

Prisoner launches on August 1, and to get ready, each Saturday between now and then, I will post a chapter from the book. Get a taste of Prisoner below!

Haven’t read Traveler yet? Fix that at this link.

 

Prisoner Chapter 3

Chapter 1   Chapter 2

OKAY. QUICK PRIMER on pan-dimensional cosmology:

It turns out that we don’t move through time, from birth to death, in a straight line. We’re more like twigs being carried along a stream. When we make a decision, or a major event happens, the stream forks. Sometimes the twig that is you goes into one stream, sometimes another. But both streams continue to exist.

And so do you. A version in each of the streams. Your consciousness rides one or the other, but both “yous” continue to exist as well. 

I’m sure you’ve read the books or seen the endless movies and TV shows that tell parallel reality stories. None of them have ever gotten it right. Which is funny, because each and every one of us have experienced the shift to a parallel universe.

Here’s the proof: Have you ever been looking for something–your car keys or maybe a book? You look everywhere, and can’t find it. Then all of a sudden, there it is. In a place you could have sworn you already searched. Or even more unnerving, maybe you were staring right at it, but for some reason, didn’t see it.

Congratulations. You just experienced a shift from one parallel reality to another.

It happens to all of us. Dozens, even hundreds of times a day. But the reason we don’t know it is that our minds smooth over these incongruities to keep us sane.

When the book you were looking for shows up in the pile where it was not, you shrug, hope you’re not suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, and move on. And this can happen no matter how big, or glaring, the aberration.

Yes, even one as big as a dead version of yourself you had to leave in the closet.

I had suspected I could not trust my brain to keep the dead body in my closet front and center. Which was why I had entered a reminder in my phone before I left Dead Trav. Every couple hours, it was to chirp so I didn’t get busy with my regular life and forget the trouble lurking just outside the realm of my perception. Of course, I hadn’t counted on Sam resurrecting the MTV era for anyone within earshot. 

“Trav? Is something wrong?” Leon’s words were solicitous, but his tone was hard.

“Sorry,” I said, pocketing the phone. “Should have put that on vibrate.”

“Sure it can wait?” Kelly asked. “If you need to get your oil changed, or pick up milk, we don’t mind putting the case on hold.”

I shook my head. She gave me the kind of look you give the cat when it coughs up a hairball in the middle of your living room, before finally looking down at her tablet.

“Anyway, Special Agent Matthew Ward. Detectives Becker and Yount.”

We shook hands all around.

“I won’t kid you guys,” Kelly continued when we had finished. “This is one of the most frustrating kidnappings I’ve ever worked. As you know, despite what you see on the morning news shows, off-the-street kidnappings by strangers are rare. Nine times out of ten it’s a non-custodial parent or boyfriend covering up some atrocious act. Less often, a neighbor or friend of the family.”

“We’ve cleared the family. And the neighbors,” Adam said.

“Exactly. Two weeks and we have exactly nothing to show for an investigation that has involved two municipalities, state DCI, and the Bureau.”

“So, the three of us are supposed to succeed where fifty investigators failed?” Adam made no attempt to hide his sarcasm.

“I know how this looks, Detective,” Kelly replied. “I can only reiterate what I said out there. We are not giving up.”

“Tell that to the Patels and the Days.”

“Adam,” Leon said. My partner wisely clammed up.

“We will all stay professional here,” Leon continued. “Bottom line is, Kelly is right. We can’t throw unlimited resources at one case forever. But you three are on this full time. Start at the beginning. Read Ward in. Maybe a set of fresh eyes will jar something loose. We’ve moved all the case files to Interview Two. Work out of there. Anything else you can think of right now?”

We shook our heads.

“Get to it.”

We filed out, waited for Ward to collect his laptop case from the conference room, and led him to the room Leon had set aside for us.

Our station had four interview rooms. They look exactly like you’ve seen on TV. Square box with a beat-up table and a few chairs. The only thing missing in Interview Two was the huge one-way mirror you always see the other cops watching interrogations through. Instead there was a small video camera which sat in a bracket in a corner of the ceiling. It was linked to a monitor in the adjoining room. Because it didn’t have the two-way glass, it served more as a multi-purpose room, only used for interviewing witnesses or suspects when no place else was available.

The whiteboard from the conference area had been moved into the space, and there were a couple of binders on the table, along with a laptop.

“Home, sweet home,” Adam said as we arranged ourselves around the desk.

“You guys have Kelly all wrong,” Ward said. He had fairly recent Middle Eastern ancestry. Olive complexion, short, dark hair, slight and about my height.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. The regional office wanted the Bureau out of this completely. Kelly went to the wall to keep us in. She’s serious. We come up with something concrete, I can have a full contingent back here in an hour.”

“Then the thing to do is find something,” I said. “And do it soon. Kelly was also right that every day that passes makes it less likely we find the girls alive.”

“All right,” Adam said. “I’ll leave it alone. Let’s get to it.”

For the next hour and a half, we went back through every note, photograph, interview, tip, and theory about the case. The table quickly became covered with papers we unclipped from the binders and re-arranged. The whiteboard was filled with enough notes, circles and arrows to teach organic chemistry.

As the ancient HVAC system labored unsuccessfully to keep the room from getting moist and stuffy, Ward–proving he was in fact, human–tossed his coat in the corner and loosened his tie. We switched out empty coffee cups for water bottles, or in Adam’s case, Mountain Dew.

The FBI agent proved to be a quick study, and while he didn’t talk about himself, it was obvious he was not some accounting major recruited into the Bureau to fill out the diversity goals. In fact, I noticed that he kept rubbing the back of his neck and cheeks. The room wasn’t that warm.

“You just come out from undercover?”

His eyes narrowed. “What makes you say that?”

“You rub your neck and face like there used to be a lot more hair there.”

“Can’t talk about it,” he replied, giving me a long look. “You did some undercover work yourself last year, didn’t you?”

I frowned. Why would an FBI profiler know anything about my activities from a year ago?

“Yeah,” I said after a pause. “Didn’t last that long.”

“But it did result in us taking down one of the biggest organized crime rings in the Midwest,” Adam put in.

“We had a CI inside,” I said. “It was mostly about keeping him alive. He did all the heavy lifting.”

Ward nodded.

I wanted to get off this topic, so I asked, “You’re a profiler. Can you work up anything that might help us?”

“There’s not a lot to work with yet,” he replied. “Anything I would say now would be pretty general.”

“Anything might help,” Adam said.

Ward thought a minute. “On average, we’re looking for a white male, thirties or forties. Trouble in a relationship, or a history of troubled relationships. Other than that, as we discussed, kidnappings like these are rarely executed by strangers. Particularly in broad daylight in a quiet neighborhood.”

“That points to a family member or friend,” I said.

“Who, as you say, you’ve cleared. Although we should go back and look again.”

“You don’t think we know how to do our jobs?” Adam asked.

“I know how to do my job,” Ward replied calmly. “And that means looking at everything myself.”

Adam started to object some more, but I quieted him with a raised hand.

“Assuming family comes up dry, what then?”

“We widen the net. Chances are it’s someone the girls knew. But it might be an acquaintance we aren’t aware of. Someone they might trust who wouldn’t be obvious to us. The guy who volunteers as a crossing guard after school. Or someone who would present themselves as a trusted figure, even if they were not well known to the girls.”

Adam and I exchanged a confused look. “You lost me,” I said. “A trusted figure who is not well known by them?”

“Someone who would be trusted as a result of their job or position,” he explained. “Someone from school or church. A teacher or guidance counselor. Or some other authority figure in the community. Anyone like that turn up in your investigation?”

I shook my head. “No one comes to mind that we haven’t already mentioned.”

 Ward tapped a paper he had picked up out of the interview pile.

“This guy. Uhh… Alan Taggert.”

“The guy who saw the girls bike past his house,” I said.

“Either of you guys do the interview?”

I took the paper and glanced at the initials at the bottom of the report. “No, it was Stevens.”

“Should we try him again?”

“All he said was he saw two girls bike past his house,” Adam said doubtfully.

“He’s the only person who saw them,” Ward pointed out. “If nothing else, it’s the one location we know for sure the girls were at, at least briefly. I’d like to get a look at it. Then maybe we can talk to the parents.”

“Okay,” I replied. “You want to go now?”

Ward looked at his phone. “Sure, but let’s drive separately. I’ll probably leave right from there to check in to my hotel.”

“Sounds good. Adam, you want to drive or want me to?”

“Uh, actually, I was going to meet Kim over lunch. We have to look at flowers. Or maybe it’s flowers on the invitation. I’m starting to lose track.”

“Doesn’t sound like something you need the best man for.”

“God, no.”

“Congratulations,” Ward said. He shrugged back into his suit coat.

“Thanks… I think.” Adam shook his head. “It’s a wonder any groom ever goes through with a wedding. It’s like the entire process is designed to make the man run as far away as he can.”

“That’s what engagements are for,” I said lightly. “If you can stay with her while she’s a bride, you can make it through anything.”

“The only thing keeping me going is the anticipation of watching you go through the same thing,” Adam said, chucking me on the shoulder.

I didn’t reply.

Ward broke the sudden silence. “I’ll, uh… meet you at Mr. Taggert’s residence at one-thirty?”

We nodded and went our separate way–Adam and me to the staff lot, Ward to wherever he had parked his Feebmobile.

“Did I say something wrong?” Adam asked as we descended the stairs.

“Just leave it alone,” I said.

“Something I should know about you two?”

“I said, leave it alone.”

“Okay! Okay.” He held his hands up in surrender. “I’ll see you over there.”

I fished in my pocket for my car keys as we split, hitting the unlock button.

My pocket vibrated as I opened the door. 

Two hours since my last reminder about the body in the closet. Not that I needed one right now.

Because curled in the cramped back seat of the Mustang lay a bleeding Trav Becker

Read Chapter 4

Prisoner Pre-Read Week 2

Prisoner, Book II of The Traveler Chronicles is now available for pre-order on Amazon.  The Kindle version is just $2.99.

This week’s chapter is posted below, along with links to the previous ones.

Prisoner takes place about a year after the events of Traveler. Trav Becker thinks he has settled back into a normal life, and will never again have to deal with the problems of shifting between parallel realities.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

Prisoner launches on August 1, and to get ready, each Saturday between now and then, I will post a chapter from the book. Get a taste of Prisoner below!

Haven’t read Traveler yet? Fix that at this link.

Prisoner Chapter 2

Chapter 1

I DROVE THROUGH a McDonalds, wolfing down an Egg McMuffin as I left my car in a small gravel lot beside the station. It was home to an odd assortment of vehicles, including two wrecked black and whites, a half-dozen impounds, our personal vehicles, and four dark sedans. I would describe them as nondescript, except they pretty much screamed “Fed.” Or maybe Men in Black.

Heading into the building, I swiped my key card on the panel next to the entry door. It opened onto a narrow staircase. The landing at the top of the stairs opened into the squad.

It was a big, open room in need of a coat of paint. Beat-up desks, most of them pushed together in facing pairs, crowded the floor space, leaving only the narrowest of paths in between. The air smelled of burnt coffee, making me grateful for the Mickey Dee’s in my free hand. Not exactly Jamaican Blue Mountain, but better than the tar I drank most mornings.

Most of the desks were empty and missing their chairs, which had been pushed up toward the center of the room, where a large conference table sat. You could get a dozen people around the table, but there were easily twice that in the room. Some had been able to get chairs around the table, others had pushed desk chairs into whatever gaps were available. A few more people perched on desks and, in one case, a low filing cabinet.

Five FBI agents stood ramrod-straight at the far end of the room from me.

I’ll say this for the Feebs, at least they didn’t try to grab the chairs near the donuts. 

Leon hadn’t been joking about that. He knew sugar and fat were as important to meetings as markers and a whiteboard. 

One of the Feds actually held a cup of coffee, the first time I had witnessed an FBI agent consume food. I had begun to wonder if the FBI treated a cop shop like humans in Fairy Land: eat or drink nothing lest you be trapped there for eternity.

In front of the white board stood a woman. She was the kind of trim that’s the best you can do in middle age, a few years younger than Leon, so mid-forties, and African-American. She wore the standard fem-Fed uniform of dark suit, skirt and low heels. Straight hair, shoulder-length, framed a face that was probably expressive in her off-hours, but gave nothing away in this environment.

Leon perched on the corner of a desk to her right.

“I think everyone’s here,” he said.

She nodded, and looked us over, her gaze sharp, her mouth a tight, narrow line.

“Special Agent Kelly will be conducting the briefing this morning,” Leon continued.

“Thank you, Captain,” Kelly said with a small nod. “Thank you all for coming. We have some new faces with us today, both from the Bureau and the Department, so with apologies to those of you for whom this will be a repetition, I will start pretty much from the beginning. There have been some inaccurate and speculative reports in the media, so don’t be surprised if you hear some things that are different from what you think you know about the case.”

She flicked her fingers up the screen of a black tablet she held in one hand.

“Fifteen days ago, Sophie Patel, age twelve, was babysitting her neighbor, Ella Day, age eight, while Ella’s mom was at work. This was a common arrangement between the families when Ms. Day had to work during the day on a weekend.

“At one thirty-eight p.m. Sophie sent a text to Ms. Day saying she and Ella were going to bike to the playground, about twelve blocks away.

“Ms. Day arrived home a little after four. Finding the house empty, she texted Sophie that the girls should start home. After a half hour, she grew concerned. She went to the Patel’s house next door. The Patels had not seen their daughter, and a phone call to Sophie’s cell went to voicemail.

“Ms. Day and Mr. Patel drove to the park. Ms. Patel stayed behind in case the girls showed up. The girls were not in the park. The parents retraced the girls’ assumed route, but could find no sign of them.

“They contacted local law enforcement, who issued an Amber Alert. Captain Martin dispatched two black and whites, one to the Patel residence, the other to begin canvassing the neighborhood.

“More officers were added to the search throughout the night. The decision was made to treat the case as a potential kidnapping, and the Bureau was called in. A neighbor two blocks over, a Mr…”

Another flick on the tablet. 

“…Taggert, was mowing his lawn and reported seeing two girls on bikes ride past his house at about two p.m. Sophie’s cell phone was found about three blocks from that location, near a residence at 2891 31st Street. The cellphone…” 

She held up the device, encased in an evidence bag. 

“…was still powered on. No damage, other than some scratches. No prints other than Sophie’s. Several texts and voicemails received but not viewed. No outgoing traffic other than the text to Ella’s mother prior to their departure.

“To date, we have received seventy-five calls to the tip line, but none have been helpful. We’ve talked to every person along that route who was home at the time. No one saw anything suspicious. No strange vans, no unfamiliar people.”

“All of that you know,” Kelly finished. Her eyes swept the room, ending with the knot of Feebs next to her. “I have asked the Bureau’s field office for some extra assistance and I’m pleased to report they have sent us a senior profiler to lend a hand. This is Special Agent Matthew Ward.”

She indicated the Fed who was holding the coffee cup. He tilted it in our direction with a nod.

“Special Agent Ward is new to our field office. We hope a set of fresh eyes might shake something loose. He will be working with a subgroup Captain Martin has assigned. While this case is still a high priority, as we all know, the chances of finding victims alive decreases exponentially with each passing day. Both our agencies also have other work. The subgroup will focus on this case only, with the ability to request other personnel and resources as needed. All tips and leads will go to them. Captain Martin will continue to be our chief liaison to the media.”

I heard a soft snort behind me, followed by a sneeze.

Except it wasn’t actually a sneeze. In the soft exhale, I could hear the word bullshit.

I turned around and saw the raised eyebrows of my partner, Adam Yount. He was leaned back in his desk chair at my ten o’clock.

“Shut up, you asshole,” I whispered back. “You don’t know they’re cutting us loose.”

He rolled his eyes. “Right.”

“Something you gentlemen want to share with the rest of the class?”

I hastily turned back. Kelly was fixing me with an icy stare.

Trying to keep from looking like a kid caught passing notes, I shook my head.

“No, ma’am. Sorry.”

Her eyes shifted to Adam. “Are you suffering from allergies, Detective?”

Now it was Adam’s turn to try and keep a straight face.

He cleared his throat.

“Not that I know of, ma’am.”

“Maybe you should have your throat looked at.”

She continued to stare at us for a beat longer, then turned toward Leon, who was also trying to look impassive.

“Special Agent Ward will team with two officers Captain Martin has selected.”

She scratched at the tablet some more.

“Detectives Becker and Yount.” She looked up, eyes scanning the room.

Adam and I raised our hands.

She nodded, the look in her eyes saying she thought Leon could have made a better choice. “Of course. Well, if you gentlemen aren’t too busy, perhaps you can join us in the captain’s office to discuss the next phase of the investigation?”

We nodded.

“All right, then. Thank you to those who gave up office and desk space for our staff. We’ll try to clean up and be out of your way before lunch. Thanks for your cooperation and hospitality. Remember, this is just another phase of the investigation, no one is quitting. Full resources are still being expended to bring those girls back to their families safely. We’ll all stay in close touch. Anything else?”

There wasn’t. People stood up, chairs scraped on the tile floor.

“You know how you can tell when a Feeb is lying?” Adam asked softly, as we pushed our own chairs back to our desks. Leon was huddled with Kelly, Ward, and the rest of the FBI folk. It would obviously be a few minutes before we were needed.

“Don’t,” I warned, glancing over at the brass.

“Her lips are moving.”

“Christ, Adam. What is wrong with you? She already demonstrated she has super hearing. You trying to make this even worse?”

“How much worse can it get? She pretty much just told us we’re on our own.”

“She gave us this Ward guy.”

“Yeah, a profiler who is ‘new to the field office.’” He snorted, making air quotes. “What do you bet he’s fresh out of the Academy, and the reason we’re getting him is because no one with actual mojo wants any part of this mess.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Sure, I don’t. And Leon is going to be the media liaison because he is so skilled with the press.”

There wasn’t much I could say to that. I shook my head, thinking how my partner had changed in the last year.

Adam was a couple inches taller than my five-ten. He’d been skinny, almost gangly when we’d first met, but had been putting in some pretty serious time in the weight room. He’d filled out quite a bit. He was still slim, but was now all muscle. He wore his wavy, blond hair longer than most cops, but it suited him. His lean, gristly physique and sleepy blue eyes gave him kind of a surfer-dude look. 

When he had first been assigned to me as a detective trainee, I felt like I had been given a Labrador puppy, all curiosity and energy, tripping over paws he hadn’t grown into yet. Adam had been wounded in the line of duty last year, and it had changed him.

Like I said, he’d started hitting the gym after his shoulder wound had healed, and as his body had gotten harder, so had his attitude. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and bristled at anything he thought stood in the way of doing his job. 

A year ago, I would have had to force an opinion out of him. These days, I worried that shooting off his mouth at the wrong time would hurt his career. Bureaucracies only reward the right kind of truth telling. I had learned that the hard way, and had been trying to keep Adam from repeating the mistakes I’d made.

“Look at the bright side,” I said. “We’re on this full time, don’t have to work it in between other cases. And who knows, maybe Ward will be all right.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

“Trav, Adam.” Leon called us from where he stood with the Feds. “My office.”

We stood up. Kelly and Ward split off from the other agents, and the five of us headed into Leon’s office.

It was a tight squeeze. Leon’s office was maybe the size of two office cubicles. There were two guest chairs in front of his desk, but no room to bring in any more. We knew better than to offer the chair to Agent Kelly. So instead, we pushed them back toward the wall. I put my foot up on one, and rested my arms on my knees. Adam learned against a filing cabinet that filled one corner of the room.  The Feds stood between us.

Agent Kelly looked us up and down.

“Captain Martin tells me you are two of his best.” She put just the right amount of doubt into her tone.

“You might have gotten off on the wrong foot with them, Ms. Kelly,” Leon said. “But I wouldn’t have recommended Detectives Becker and Yount if they weren’t two of my most focused, serious investigators…”

Leon might have continued singing our praises, but he was interrupted when my pocket broke into song. 

Specifically, the Eighties chestnut Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone), by that legendary Canadian supergroup, Glass Tiger.

I dug into my jeans pocket with difficulty, finally prying the phone out, desperately trying to silence the notification tone, but the song went on and on as I fumbled with it, getting to the seven-word contribution to the production by that other Canadian superstar, Brian Adams, before I was able to get it shut off.

I think I mentioned my smart phone was a fairly recent upgrade to my personal tech. Sam had procured it for me and helped me set it up. But he had buried some bug in it that, without warning, caused the ring and notification tones to change from the defaults to a random selection of some of the absolute worst songs from the 1980s, my pick for the decade when popular music reached its lowest point.

I refused to give Sam the satisfaction of knowing he’d got me with a good one, and had been trying to fix it myself. I actually thought I had gotten it licked, but obviously not.

“Problems, Detective?” Kelly inquired sweetly. Adam had one hand over his mouth, desperately trying not to burst out laughing. There was no smile on Leon’s face. He just shook his head. Ward looked from his superior to mine, but obviously decided the wisest course was to stay out of it and kept his mouth shut.

“Just a task reminder, sir. Ma’am. Sorry.”

“Must be pretty important, to have such a…distinct ringtone.”

“Just a friend’s idea of a joke, ma’am. I…”

My attempt to slough off my faux pas died in my throat. My poking at the phone had finally resulted in the display revealing the reminder I had put in before leaving my apartment.

The text said Remember to clean out your closet.

Read Chapter 3

Prisoner Chapter 1

“THEY’RE COMING.” 

BRIGHT, arterial blood spurted from the shoulder of the man standing at my door. It contrasted with a darker stain that soaked his abdomen. The arm that wasn’t gushing blood was wrapped around the stomach wound, trying to hold his guts in.

He swayed a couple of times and crumpled to the ground.

I managed to catch him before he hit, lowering him to the floor as gently as I could. I cradled his head as his mouth worked, but all that came out was a rusty wheeze.

“Don’t try to talk,” I said. “I’ll get help.”

He focused on me with some difficulty, reaching for the collar of my shirt with a bloody hand. He pulled me close to his face.

“They’re coming,” he whispered again.

And died.

I gently laid his head back and placed the hand that had grabbed my shirt on his chest. I laid two fingers on his neck to verify there was no pulse, but I knew there was no life remaining in his blank, staring eyes. 

I rocked back on my haunches and regarded the dead man on my living room floor.

I knew him. His name was Trav Becker. Thirty-two, eleven year veteran of our town’s police department, last four of those a detective. Single, but with a girlfriend totally out of his league. He was thinking of asking her to tie the knot. 

I knew he’d broken his elbow jumping off a play set at his eighth birthday party. 

I knew that he was still coming to terms with the death of his dad, even though it had been more than two years. 

And that he was now strictly a beer drinker because of some very unpleasant memories involving vodka.

I knew a lot more about him than that. 

In fact, I knew everything about him.

Because Trav Becker is also my name.

And this was not the first time I had found myself staring at my own dead body. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time in this room.

It is not something you get used to.

Strange as it may seem, as I regarded the corpse with my face on my (our?) living room floor, I wasn’t wondering how he had gotten here, or even why he was wounded. I was thinking, Thank God, Mary just missed him. 

The day had begun quite normally–actually, better than normal. As my mind swam slowly up from the grey depths of a restful sleep, I had become aware of a bare leg lying across mine. And I soon realized what had woken me up was a slight muscle cramp in my left arm, due to the fact that it was wrapped around the owner of the leg. Her cheek lay on my shoulder, her breath making a tiny, cool breeze across my bare chest.

I ignored the ache in my arm for a few minutes, breathing in the scent of Mary’s hair and enjoying the feel of her soft, warm body wrapped around mine.

She’d shown up at my place about ten-thirty the previous night. I was watching an old Stargate episode on Netflix, dozing a little, when her keys rattled in the lock. I hopped up, and met her at the door.

She dropped her purse and violin case on the floor, spying the lemon drop martini I held.

“God, I love you. Gimme.”

I handed her the glass and she took a slightly-more-than-ladylike sip, eyes rolling back in her head as she moaned with delight.

“Ooh, I needed that. C’mere, you.” 

She slipped her free hand around and hooked the back of my neck, pulling my face to hers. Mary put everything into her kisses, and a hot thrill coursed through my body.

We unclenched just long enough to move to the couch. Mary plopped down and kicked her pumps off with a grateful sigh. She shrugged out of her jacket, revealing a white camisole underneath. Reclaiming her drink, she swung her bare feet into my lap. I grabbed the nearest one and began to firmly massage her instep and footpad. She sighed appreciatively.

“Remind me again why I haven’t married you?” she murmured, eyes closed.

“You haven’t asked me yet.”

She cracked one eye open. “Don’t tempt me. I just might.” 

I changed feet, and this time her throaty moan was downright sexual. I was not so much of a gentleman to resist sliding my gaze along her bare legs, still tanned from the summer, to where they disappeared into her short pencil skirt, now hiked up far enough to reveal several inches of equally-tanned thigh. It seemed a fair recompense for the outstanding foot massage.

Mary had long, wavy brown hair. Eyebrows that might be just a trifle thicker than current fashion topped her otherwise-fine features. Even dog-tired after a six-hour rehearsal, she was movie-star pretty. At least, to me.

“Long night?” I asked.

“You don’t know the half of it,” she sighed. “Putting the orchestra and opera together for Carmen looks good on paper, but is turning out to be a cluster. 

“Theoretically, the orchestra is just supposed to be the pit band, but Rodney is having to work more and more with the stage director, and Phillip thinks they’re talking behind his back.”

Our town was blessed with both a symphony orchestra and an opera company that were far better than you would expect from a mid-sized Midwest college town. A few years ago, the two had begun collaborating on a couple of productions a year. The two maestros, Rodney and Phillip, always made nice for the cameras, but in private, hated each other’s guts.

“Sounds like fun.”

“Yeah, and add to that the personnel manager asking me every five minutes how I think the vote on next year’s contract is going to go. I am about ready to have a certified, complete snit worthy of my lofty position as concert master and head diva.”

“In that crowd, no one would even notice.”

“Hmm. In my next life, no musicians.” She straightened up and, like a cat sneaking into your lap, maneuvered her upper body so that she was snuggled into the crook of my arm. She turned her face up for a kiss, and I obliged.

“Anything new at work?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“Shit. Those poor girls.” She watched me for a minute, knowing me well enough to see the frustration behind my neutral expression, but also seeing I was not ready to talk about it. It had taken a long time for her to learn to suppress her natural inclination to try to draw me out, but she knew I didn’t like to talk about some things until I had fully processed them myself, and she respected that.

She squeezed my knee with her free hand, and looked at the TV.

Stargate? Which one?”

“Third season.”

“Are you close to the one where O’Neill and Teal’c get into the time loop?”

I thought for a minute. “That’s the next season, I think.”

“Too bad. I like that one.”

“Me, too.” 

Well, it had been one of my favorites. The last time I had watched, a couple of the scenes had struck a little close to home.

“You really into it?” she asked.

“Not really.”

“Good.” She raised herself a little and put her lips next to my ear, one of my top five erogenous zones. “Because as soon as I finish this excellent martini, I am going to take you into that bedroom and take out my frustrations by doing things with you that would make your mama forbid you from ever seeing me again.”

In times of fatigue and tipsiness, the four years Mary Logan had spent at a conservatory in Texas started to come through in her voice, which of course, did exactly zero to diminish its sexiness.

“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully, “Mom’s pretty liberal.”

“We’ll see,” she whispered. 

She stuck her tongue out at me. As long as it was out, she decided to use it to trace the outline of my outer ear.

Which caused me to growl in a way that was downright sexual.

She smiled and snuggled against my chest again.

Five minutes later, she was sound asleep.

I watched the show for a little while longer, finally gathering her up in my arms and carrying her into the bedroom. She mumbled something about needing to brush her teeth as I eased her out of her clothes, but tumbled into bed with an appreciative sigh when I held the covers open for her.

It didn’t seem like she had moved at all during the next eight hours, other than to seek out my side of the bed and wrap herself around me.

I was not complaining.

But the ache in my arm wasn’t going away, and as much I enjoyed just lying here, I was going to have to move soon. I was just getting ready to gently roll her over when I heard her whisper.

“You put me to bed.”

“Uh huh.”

“And you didn’t even take advantage of me.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Oh, I’d know, believe me. But you forgot something.”

“What?”

“My pajamas.”

She stretched, which had the side benefit of allowing me to flex my arm enough to get the blood flowing without having to remove it from her smooth back. Her pretty mouth stretched into a wide yawn as she wriggled even closer to me.

I realized that one of the things that had made my slow journey to wakefulness such a pleasure had been the pressure of her small but firm breasts pressed into me.

Which had the side benefit of causing the blood to flow to other areas of my body.

“What makes you think I forgot?” I murmured.

“Mmmm. Looks like you forgot your pajamas, too.” Her hand snaked across my body and her fingernails danced across the rapidly-growing erection in my boxer briefs.

“When do you have to be at work?”

“Swim lesson this morning.”

“Oh, too bad,” she said with a frown. She squeezed me, causing me to groan, and not with pain. “I hate to see this go to waste.” 

“Oh, it’s not going to waste,” I growled, rolling over and reaching for her.

She was expecting this move, and quicker than she should have been able to do, unwrapped herself from me and rolled out of bed.

You have to meet your boss. And I can’t show up at work wearing yesterday’s clothes. I’ll just jump in the shower.”

She padded toward the bathroom, turned and looked at me over one bare shoulder.

“You’re not going to make me shower alone, are you?”

Shower sex doesn’t last long, but boy, is it intense. I was still tingling forty-five minutes later, as Mary and I sat across from each other at my small kitchen table, sipping coffee and trading sections of the paper. The fruity scent of Mary’s shower gel filled the air. And it was probably just as well I was headed to a chlorine bath, as the flowery scent that now emanated from my skin probably would have gotten me some ribbing at the station house.

As we sat in companionable silence it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I wanted this domestic scene on a daily basis. And despite Mary’s jest from the night before, it was up to me to make the next move. It had been sitting at the top of my to-do list for some time, but I just hadn’t been able to pull the trigger.

Mary rose and stretched. She wasn’t wearing yesterday’s clothes after all, having located a track suit she kept at my house for workouts and lounging.

I rose as well, grabbing our breakfast plates and tossing them into the sink. When I turned around, she was right behind me, and glided into my arms.

“Seems to me you’ve already had your water workout,” she giggled.

“Yeah. I’m probably ruined for the day.”

I walked her out into the living room. “Dress rehearsal tonight, right?”

She nodded. “It’ll be another long one. Could be late.”

“Text me when you’re done and I’ll come over.”

“You just want to put me to bed naked again.”

“Darn right.”

She gave me one more coffee-flavored kiss and spun out the door.

I had shut it behind her and turned around just in time for a blood-soaked Trav Becker to collapse into my arms.

 

I went into the kitchen and got some paper towels to blot up the blood a little. Fortunately, my place has hard wood floors. Bloodstains on the carpet would have been really tough to explain. I tidied up the area where he’d been standing when I had entered the room. He couldn’t have been there more than a minute or two when I had wandered in, or there would have been even more blood to contend with.

I took the dirty paper towels into the kitchen and threw them away, knowing I was just postponing the inevitable. I went back into the living room and stood over the body, getting the distinct feeling of déjà vu. 

Of course, déjà vu is the feeling you’ve done something or been somewhere before. Which this technically was not, as I had been in this exact situation before. 

The last time was with my friend Sam, a particle physicist who had just gotten done explaining that he had pulled me in from a parallel universe to help him stop a killer. One who had done in the Trav lying in almost this exact spot.

Yeah, that’s right. Parallel universes. Sam called them streams, and the fact that he had produced an exact replica of myself, only not breathing quite so much, combined with a lot of other crazy crap that had been happening to me, lent more than a little credence to his story.

And if you’re confused hearing about it, imagine what it was like to live it.

That had been almost a year ago. Fortunately, I’d made it out of the adventure without joining what ended up being a rather long line of deceased Trav Beckers.

My life since had been normal to the point of boring, or at least as normal as a cop’s existence could be. And I liked it that way.

But it looked like my boring and happy life was going to get weird again.

I bent to examine Dead Trav. Normally, I would have put on a pair of rubber gloves, but since any DNA I would leave on the body would be the same as the victim’s, I didn’t see the need to bother. 

The first thing I noticed were his clothes. The last Dead Trav I had examined was dressed identically to me, right down to the socks. This guy… well, his socks were the only part of his clothing that looked familiar. 

Instead of the jeans I normally favored, he wore a pair of black cargo pants that had a vaguely military look to them. His t-shirt was black as well. Over it was a dark, gray cotton shirt, long-sleeved, and unbuttoned. It too had kind of a BDU-ey look to it. On his head perched a baseball cap, also black, with of all things, a Star Trek logo on it. 

That sent me searching for clothing tags, but all of them had been cut off, except for the t-shirt, which was the tagless kind. 

There was an empty holster strapped to a gun belt that wrapped around his hips. The holster looked like it would fit the Glock that was my service weapon.

His pockets were empty, except for a keychain. The key on it was familiar. It was to my car, a Mustang of recent vintage, with remote lock key fob. 

No wallet, either. There are two things no American male is ever without. His wallet and his cellphone.

And he had neither. That was weird. 

A glint of silver at his wrist caught my eye. I pulled up his shirt sleeve and saw something extremely curious. 

It was a silver bracelet. Thick, almost more of wrist cuff, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and not quite half an inch thick. It was smooth and featureless. It was like a fitness band from the future. No watch face, inscription, or anything to identify its purpose. I don’t go in for jewelry. My own watch was a cheap sport thing.

Which caused me to look at said watch. Crap. I was out of time. A more thorough examination was going to have to wait. In the meantime, though, what the hell was I going to do with the body?

Fortunately, my previous experience with Dead Travs provided an answer. 

I got my arms under his armpits and dragged him over to my living room’s only closet. I balanced him on one hip, in an odd parody of the cross-chest carry lifeguards used, while I worked the door open with my free hand.

Once that was accomplished, I propped him up in a semi-sitting position on top of some boxes of out-of-season clothes. I pulled the cap’s brim down to hide his staring eyes. On impulse, I slid the bracelet off his wrist before shutting the closet door.

I pulled my smartphone, a fairly recent surrender to modern technology, out of my pocket and poked at it for a few seconds, then grabbed my gym bag and car keys.

I didn’t want to be late for swimming lessons.

 

Fifteen minutes later, a hot mix of humidity and chlorine filled my nose as I entered the natatorium at the university that also calls our town home. I had a towel thrown over one shoulder, and carried a water bottle and a pair of short bladed fins. A pair of goggles flapped against my thigh, held in place by the strap stuffed up one leg of my suit.

Two octogenarians water-walked in the near lane. At the opposite end of the pool, a college student in a lifeguard suit was in the water giving lessons to two young children.

A lap swimmer occupied the center lane. He barely disturbed the surface of the water as he sliced through it, his stroke relaxed, but Phelps-like in efficiency.

I set my gear down at the end of his lane and slid into the water. He pulled up just as I finished applying anti-fog solution (spit) to my goggles.

He pushed his own goggles up onto his forehead and we regarded each other.

“Morning.”

“Hey, Leon.”

“You ready?”

I nodded.

“500 easy free to warm up.”

I nodded again and settled my goggles into place. He took off. I waited a couple of seconds, then followed.

I tried to keep the vision of Leon’s smooth, controlled stroke in my head as I made my own way down the pool. But in contrast to Leon’s smooth glide, I was sure I looked more like a dinghy propelled by a box fan with part of the blade missing.

Captain Leon Martin is my boss in the PD, which should explain why an appointment with him, even though not technically work-related, was important enough to keep that I would leave behind a corpse in my apartment.

A few months previously, I had raced in my first triathlon. I’m a pretty steady runner, and had invested in a decent bike. But I hadn’t spent nearly enough time working on the swim portion. I had survived it, thanks largely to a wetsuit giving me some extra buoyancy, but I had swallowed about half the lake in the process.

After that, I’d asked Leon to help me with my stroke. He was a nationally-ranked Masters swimmer, with a couple of state records in the 50+ age group. 

However, I failed to realize what I was getting into. Leon interpreted “give me some tips” as “make Trav a real swimmer.”

So, for the last month, I’d been meeting him before work three times a week at the pool. He was as calm and patient a coach as he was a boss, but had made it clear that he’d only help me if I took it seriously. If I hadn’t shown up for our workout, he’d wonder why. 

Which was why Dead Trav had to go into the closet until I had time to deal with him.

So, I tried to forget about the body in my apartment as Leon put me through a series of stroke drills designed to improve my efficiency and feel for the water. This was followed by some 100-yard repeats, each one getting a little faster than the last. Leon swam with me in addition to coaching. Somehow, he managed to finish each repeat with plenty of time to watch me and prepare the next set. 

On anyone else, it would have looked like showing off.

By the end, I was breathing just as hard as if I had been running wind sprints. The funny thing about swimming is that because you don’t sweat, sometimes you fail to realize how hard you’re working until you find yourself panting so much your throat hurts.

Leon nodded at me approvingly. If he was amused by my wheezing, he hid it well.

“That last set looked good. You’re holding your streamline pretty well. Remember to fully extend your arms, even when when you’re increasing turnover. Stay long in the water. Imagine you’re reaching for something on a high shelf, and get some torque by driving from your hips.”

I shook my head ruefully. “God, so much to remember.”

“It’s simple really. There are only three rules in swimming.”

I’d heard this before. “I know. Technique, technique, and technique.”

“And they told me you couldn’t be taught.”

He clapped me on the shoulder and heaved himself easily out of the pool. I shook my head, hoping that I was as limber when I got to be his age, and followed.

In the locker room, we talked baseball while showering and getting dressed. As we finished up, however, Leon quit keeping up his end of the conversation, responding to my comments with increasingly vague grunts. I knew why.

“Task force this morning?”

He nodded, lips compressed into a tight line. “Feebs are bringing in a new profiler.”

“Lovely.”

He raised his eyebrows and gave a “What can you do?” sigh as he slung his gym bag over one shoulder. I followed him out into a clear, early fall day.

“You know, Leon, we can skip for a few days if you want. Even weeks. You don’t really have time for this right now.”

“Are you kidding?” he replied. “This is the only place I don’t have the Feds or the news media, or both, following me around. It’s the highlight of my day. No, you’re going to have to find a better excuse than a double kidnapping and interagency task force if you’re going to wimp out on me.”

“You see right through me.”

“Besides,” he continued, “they’ve asked me to add some manpower to the task force. You and Adam are up.”

“Now what have I done to you to deserve that?”

Leon chuckled, but then his expression turned serious. “Sorry, Trav. This is a real tar baby. Everyone who touches it gets sticky and dirty. The press is making me out to be ineffective at best. The governor has gotten involved. I would like nothing better than to dump it into the Feds’ laps and go home. But there is still a chance those little girls are alive, and I would offer donuts and coffee to the Devil himself if I thought it would help. Nobody kidnaps kids in our town.” 

There was steel in his eyes and, not for the first time, I could see why he had closed nearly all of his cases when he had my job. 

“I need you, Trav.”

“You’ve got me. You know that.”

He nodded. By now we were at our cars.

“See you at the ranch,” Leon said, opening his door.

I nodded and did the same.

Leon Martin was not much for speeches. It was a measure of just how much the Patel-Day case had gotten under his skin that he had just given, what was for him, major oratory.

As I drove to work, I mused that if the media had heard what he had just said to me, Leon might be having a better time of it. He barely tolerated the press, only giving statements when he absolutely had to, and taking as few questions as he could get away with. He did his best to keep all his emotions out of it, which unfortunately made him seem cold and distant on the air. Online forums had started calling him a variety of unflattering nicknames.

I generally shared his opinion of the FBI guys who’d been assigned to the case, but they at least did a better job of letting the media believe they were part of the team. Leon could not care less about his PR image, but this was the kind of case that could be a career-killer.

Leon just wanted to find the little girls. If bringing Adam and me in could help, I was on board.

 

Read Chapter 2