Book Reviews: American Static by Tom Pitts and A Case of Vineyard Poison by Philip R. Craig

American Static
Tom Pitts
Down & Out Books, June 2017
ISBN: 978-1-943402-84-7
Trade Paperback

This novel is a long, detailed, twisting trail of a plot. Along the way two small-town cops, and readers, encounter many characters, nearly all of whom are consummate criminals in that vibrant, unusual city, Bagdad by the Bay, San Francisco. It follows the unwanted adventure of a rural California student, carrying weed from Humboldt County for friends to deliver to recipients in the city. Robbed and beaten at bus stop, Steven is collected and succored by one of the most relentlessly evil personalities one is ever likely to meet in a single story.

The student, Steven, left penniless and beaten in a small northern California town, is carrying a load of marijuana to people in San Francisco when he is set upon, viciously beaten and robbed. An interested bystander offers Steven a ride to` San Francisco with a stop or two along the way. There is a brief suggestion of connection between the young men who robbed and beat Steven, and Quinn, driving a stolen vehicle, who dispatches a prominent winery owner.

Two policemen from Calisto set out to find Quinn who has disappeared into San Francisco and begins a horrifying series of vendettas against the employees of a major crime figure in the city. His primary motive is to find the daughter of the crime figure, a strung-out teenager living on dope and the streets.

Somehow, Steven, now terrified of Quinn, connects with the girl, Teresa, and they flee together. The chase is on. Quinn after the teens, a corrupt cop chasing Quinn, followed by two Calisto cops and everybody under threat from the crime boss and his killer crew.

Complicated, slick maneuvering and sudden brutal murder is the hallmark of this well-designed novel. I lost count of the number of murders, shootings, knifings, beatings and car chase events. Suffice it to write, the novel is excellently conceived, full of abrupt violent action. I give it a strong recommendation of type.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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A Case of Vineyard Poison
A Martha’s Vineyard Mystery #6
Philip R. Craig
Avon, July 1996
ISBN: 978-0-380-72679-0
Mass Market Paperback

This novel is part of an extensive series of mysteries set on Martha’s Vineyard.

Vineyard wedding bells are about to chime for J.W. Jackson and Zee Madieras. Zee’s bank account is suddenly one hundred thousand unexplained dollars richer. The bank calls it a glitch, and two days later the money has disappeared. Coincidentally, the college student lying dead in J.W.’s driveway, done in by a dose of locally grown poisonous herbs, recently withdrew a hundred grand from her own account.

Ex-cop J. W. Jackson is intrigued. Intrigue deepens when he is suddenly attacked by a local paramedic. The path he follows introduces readers to a number of interesting characters on the island and a scheme to parlay computer expertise into a massive swindle.

This novel is not as violent nor as action filled as are earlier books in this series. There are several lengthy passages about the island and about fishing. However, the cerebral gymnastics around the solution to the murder are presented in an interesting way and the vividly descriptive passages touring Martha’s Vineyard and fishing, cooking and eating are interesting and judiciously blended with the murder mystery. Craig is a good writer and the dialogue is expertly used to further the plot and provide a pleasant experience for any reader.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Book Review: Monsterland by Michael Okon

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Book Review: The Truth Beneath the Lies by Amanda Searcy

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Book Reviews: Where Hope Begins by Alysia Sofios with Caitlin Rother and A Conspiracy of Ravens by Terrence McCauley

Where Hope Begins
Alysia Sofios with Caitlin Rother
Pocket Books, September 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3150-3
Hardcover

This is an interesting and at the same time, an appalling story. How is it that even relatively uneducated people, mostly women, can succumb to such abuse for years without speaking up? After all, this family, under the destructive thumb of their patriarch, Marcus Wesson, wasn’t living in some isolated desert camp. They lived in a home in an urban center, Fresno, California. Some of them worked, even if most never went to school and while they were obviously in thrall to an evil man, some of them, especially Marcus’ wife, Elizabeth, should have spoken out.

It is also hard to accept that this “family” was not known to local authorities.

Reporter Alysia Sofios is assigned to a case of mass murder of nine children in their home. She soon breaks protocol by becoming intimately involved with the surviving family, helping them create a more normal life. The book is the story of that deepening involvement and the reporter’s gradual entanglement with the Wessons. Finally, although her intentions are benign, echoes of Marcus Wesson’s control and manipulation of his offspring seem to be descending on Alysia and her decisions regarding the family going forward.

Ultimately, the emotional/straightforward style of the narrative becomes a little tedious. Still this is a story well-told and should be examined by members of every social service agency in the country where suspicions of out-of-the ordinary family situations arise.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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A Conspiracy of Ravens
James Hicks Series #3
Terrence McCauley
Polis Books, September 2017
ISBN: 978-1943818716
Trade Paperback

A classic thriller from an experienced, award-winning thriller writer. This is by no means McCauley’s first rodeo. I do confess that while the link of the title to an earlier book, A Murder of Crows, is apparent, the meaning of the title in the context of this novel is obscure to me.

The story is another fraught episode in the continuing saga of James Hicks, now Dean of a super-secret intelligence operation, privately funded, operating as much as possible in secret from somewhere in the Northeast. The group is called The University. Most of the operatives and executives are labeled with college-centric titles. Hence, the former Dean of the agency is called the Trustee.

Mr. Hicks leads a rambunctious organization of marvelously talented shooters, mission planners, analysts, translators and the most advanced technicians in the world. This University operates a highly sophisticated satellite system designed to monitor and counter both friendly (CIA) and unfriendly (China, Russian GRU) computer and surveillance, banking and law enforcement systems.

Ducking drone-carried bombs, machine and shotgun-toting killers, Hicks zooms about the world, thwarting killers, meting out hard-fisted lethal justice, all with the help of a wonderfully varied cadre of close and talented associates.

The characters are distinct, consistent, lethal and fit into the thriller mode comfortably. For fans of this kind of crime novel, everything is presented in plain, straightforward, brutal and realistic language. The one truly intriguing and off-kilter character, Roger Cobb, plays an unusual, really close, friend of Dean James Hicks, a character worth a closer look.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

A Passel of Teeny Reviews, Part 3

Once again, big surprise, I find myself with
an overload of books read but not yet reviewed
so I think it’s time for a roundup or two…

 

Deep Cover Jack
The Hunt for Reacher Series #7
Diane Capri
AugustBooks, August 2016
ISBN 978-1-940768-70-0
Trade Paperback

If you’ve never tried any of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child, you need to read at least one before you tackle this series because this is all about the “other side” of the equation, the law enforcement folks who think they need to apprehend Reacher because he’s such a horrible person, a desperately wanted man. Well…our FBI Special Agents, Kim Otto and Carlos Gaspar have learned a few things by the time we get to this seventh book and they’ve picked up a little help along the way from other interested parties but they haven’t yet caught the man. Will they this time when they head for Houston? Hmm…if you know Jack, you know their chances are on the slim side but will they at least get close?

This is an intriguing, entertaining companion to the Jack Reacher series and, yes, Lee Child himself speaks highly of it. Oh, and before you think these must be the most incompetent agents ever if they’ve been chasing him through seven books, think again. Try it, you’ll like it 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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Stalking Jack the Ripper
Stalking Jack the Ripper Series #1
Kerri Maniscalco
jimmy patterson, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-316-27349-7
Hardcover

As you might surmise from the name of the publisher, this is “presented” by the megawatt author James Patterson himself and, if I do say so, this is a good ‘un. Audrey Rose Wadsworth loves to spend time in her uncle’s lab learning medical stuff but gets drawn into a serious criminal investigation, that of the gory deaths of some women of ill repute. With the assistance of Thomas Cresswell, apprentice to her uncle, Audrey Rose really wants to get justice for these poor women as well as bring a killer to justice but the stakes get even higher when the long arm of the law reaches out to someone close to her.

I like the Victorian era, young adult mysteries and the Jack the Ripper case (plus I love the cover) so trying this was a no brainer for me. Mounting clues and hair-raising theories lead to a horrifying discovery but, throughout it all, Audrey Rose maintains her intelligent, thoughtful focus even if she can’t be completely objective. The next case for this young lady and the charming if annoying Thomas, Hunting Prince Dracula, involves another string of killings while Audrey Rose studies forensic medicine in Romania and I can hardly wait to dive in.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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March of Crime
A Murder-By-Month Mystery #11
Jess Lourey
Midnight Ink, September 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-5263-1
Trade Paperback

This cozy series has been fun and frothy since the beginning and I continue to like them a lot, especially because they never seem to get stale, if you know what I mean. They have plenty of humor along with tension and Mira Ross might as well be called the Jessica Fletcher of Battle Lake, Minnesota, since people seem to drop like flies in her vicinity. No wonder this mild-mannered librarian has aspirations of being a private eye!

One thing that intrigues me about cozies is the myriad ways authors find to present a dead body without offending sensibilities and I think Ms. Lourey has outdone herself and everyone else this time. Lifesize dolls are kind of creepy anyway (to me at least) but when one turns out to be an actual corpse sitting proudly right next to Mira, well I ask you, how could she NOT want to snoop? Mira and her assorted crew of cronies and nemeses are soon hot on one trail or another and I chortled all the way to the end.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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The Enemy Within
Scott Burn
Scott Burn, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-9978429-1-3
Trade Paperback

There have been people throughout history who have had visions of the future, some believable, many more not so much, but I had to have a lot of sympathy for the 17-year-old Max who has been seeing hellfire and damnation at the apparent end of the world. In his situation, I’m not sure I wouldn’t at least consider his way of ending these horrific sights that just won’t stop but one thing that would prevent me from  doing such a drastic thing is my own suspicion that I’d bungle it. And he does, landing himself in an institution.

Three other boys have found each other but know that they’re missing one and can’t do what they’re supposed to do without him. Who are they? Suffice it to say, there’s a new unclaimed satellite in orbit and things are about to get very unsettling for us and for our survival on this planet.

This was such a fun story with aliens and other cool science fiction-y stuff. Technically speaking, this is Young Adult but I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good apocalyptic story full of adventure and mayhem, not to mention some pretty appealing characters. I hope we’ll see more of Max before too long.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
Matthew Sullivan
Scribner, June 2017
ISBN 978-1501116841
Hardcover
Narrated by Madeleine Maby
Simon & Schuster Audio, June 2017
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook

As a former bookstore owner, I naturally had to read this and, while I enjoyed it, I also had some reservations. The Bright Ideas Bookstore is a strange sort of place, attracting some rather odd people called the BookFrogs, some of whom seem to spend all their waking hours just hanging out, rarely buying anything. And, since Lydia Smith was Joey Molina’s favorite bookseller, you have to wonder why he would commit suicide in the bookstore, leaving his supposed favorite to find him.

But so he does and he leaves all his worldly goods to Lydia leading her to puzzle over certain things that pique her curiosity, not only because she thought Joey was a nice young man but also because she seems to have an odd connection to this mystery, a connection that takes her back to a most unpleasant murder-tainted past.

The ebook of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore grabbed my attention despite my initial reluctance and I decided I wanted to try listening to the tale. Narrator Madeleine Maby has a pleasing tone with identifiable vocalizations and I do think the audio edition helped evoke emotions a bit more easily than the written version. Bottomline, while the rampant dysfunction in these characters’ lives made me somewhat unsettled, the mystery itself was engaging.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

Book Review: Holding by Graham Norton and Trafficked by Peg Brantley

Holding
Graham Norton
Atria Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-5011-7326-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn’t always been this overweight; mother of­ two Brid Riordan hasn’t always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn’t always felt that her life was a total waste.

So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke – a former­ love of both Brid and Evelyn – the village’s dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community’s worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret.

Time didn’t pass in Duneen; it seeped away.

When it comes to meandering, laidback crime fiction, this one is it but that’s not entirely a bad thing. There’s not much in the way of excitement but I found myself quietly entertained and disappointed only because felt that individual characters could have been rounded out a bit more.

PJ is an odd duck, sort of drifting through life in his small Irish village, wishing for more but not motivated enough to do anything about it. When human remains are found, he thinks solving the case could lift him out of his dreary life a bit but he doesn’t actually have much to go on nor does he really know how to properly investigate. Still, he wants to try in his clumsy way if only he could manage to keep a step ahead of the big city police sent from Cork to investigate and he does have one advantage—he knows his village.

As in all small communities, everyone knows everyone else’s life history and speculation about these remains immediately calls to mind in the rumor mill the strange disappearance of a young man, Tommy Burke, nearly twenty years ago. The gossip starts up in fine fashion and, soon, PJ is looking into the long-ago story of a guy and two girls. Pretty soon, his habit of walking around the village to observe and get to know the people begins to pay off and he just might get the better of the very patronizing Detective Superintendent Linus Dunne.

Three lonely sisters are just a few of the characters who do get a lot of attention and their personal stories give a good deal of weight to this otherwise mildmannered mystery. In fact, in some ways, the mystery takes second place to the village itself and all of its inhabitants, especially PJ himself. This is a man I’d like to get to know better and I hope the author will give us a sequel.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Trafficked
A Mex Anderson Novel #2
Peg Brantley
Bark Publishing, June 2017
ISBN 978-0-9853638-7-1
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Sex trafficking.

Not Thailand. Or the Philippines. Or Russia.

America.

Rich or poor, black or white, girls disappear across this country every day, pulled into the nightmarish world of prostitution and drugs.

Mex Anderson is back, tasked with finding three missing girls before it’s too late. Three girls. Three girls who could live in your town, your neighborhood, or in your own home.

Jayla Imani Thomas is fifteen. A smart kid from a poor part of town who has to fend for herself. Jayla is headed for college and a better life than her mother had.

Alexis Emily Halston is seventeen. Money provides everything she wants or needs except functional parents. Alexis has the world by the tail and she knows it.

Olivia Emma Campbell is twelve. She’s a middle child who dreams of being a veterinarian when she grows up. But right now “Livvy” just wants someone to notice her, maybe even to love her.

Caught up in a cruel system fueled by lust and money, all three young women must find the courage within themselves to survive. And Mex must come to terms with his own loss and face his demons head on—or he might not have the strength to save them.

Sex trafficking is one of those topics “nice” people don’t want to think or talk about; it’s more comfortable to pretend that sort of thing is so distant from our own lives that it has very little real meaning. Sure, it happens in third world countries or in really bad areas of countries like our own, but it doesn’t affect us, right? Yes, we know all about prostitution and how rampant that is, even close by sometimes , but that’s not really sex trafficking, right?

Wrong, so wrong.

The three girls depicted here could be your neighbor, your own child’s best friend, the daughter of the organist at your church. In other words, they’re completely normal girls who, for one reason or another, are at risk, and Jayla is on the verge of being dragged into the life when we first meet her. The betrayal by her friend might seem dramatic license but it happens a lot more than we want to think.

Mex and Cade have a story of their own and Mex, in particular, knows the pain of loss. The two of them have emotional ties and things they’re trying to work through but, with the help of Mex’s friend, Darius, they are intent on saving these three girls. Of course, the upshot of any saving they can do is that there are many, many more girls like them still trapped in a horrific existence.

Although this is certainly a bleak topic and there’s a lot of darkness in the story, there’s one thing that brings a light of hope and that’s the girls’ resilience, their determination that they will not lose their souls. I really think Trafficked should be on every middle and high school reading list so that these kids (and it’s not just girls) can have some sense of the dangers out there. Well done, Ms. Brantley!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

Book Review: Last Breath by Karin Slaughter

Last Breath
Good Daughter .5
Karin Slaughter
Witness Impulse, July 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-274215-5
Ebook
Available soon in paperback

From the publisher—

Protecting someone always comes at a cost.

At the age of thirteen, Charlie Quinn’s childhood came to an abrupt and devastating end. Two men, with a grudge against her lawyer father, broke into her home—and after that shocking night, Charlie’s world was never the same.

Now a lawyer herself, Charlie has made it her mission to defend those with no one else to turn to. So when Flora Faulkner, a motherless teen, begs for help, Charlie is reminded of her own past, and is powerless to say no.

But honor-student Flora is in far deeper trouble than Charlie could ever have anticipated. Soon she must ask herself: How far should she go to protect her client? And can she truly believe everything she is being told?

With this being a novella, it would be far too easy to spoil things by running my mouth in my usual fashion 😉 so I’ll limit myself to just a few comments.

Charlie is SUCH an interesting character, compassionate and smart yet inherently flawed by her own past but, as is the nature of a novella, we don’t get to know her nearly well enough. Never fear, though—she’s front and center in the full-length novel, The Good Daughter, due out in just a few days. In the meantime, we get a glimpse of how the horrific event in her childhood colors her very essence and, in some ways, makes her a little less clear-sighted than she needs to be.

Is Flora what she seems to be? Maybe. Maybe not.

Ben, Charlie’s husband, just may be the nicest guy around. Instead of being a pushy, overly manly man who always has to be right, he shows himself this way:

“If you’ve got problems, I get that. Everybody has problems. But you don’t talk that way in front of your kid. Especially if it’s a girl, because you’re saying it’s okay for men to talk to women that way, and it’s not.”

…”You know, scratch that. It’s the same if you have a boy. He’s going to learn from his dad that it’s okay for boys to be assholes to women.”

And then there’s the plot, the story. All I can say is, holy crap. You’ll just have to read this yourself and, while you’re at it, become a huge Karin Slaughter fan if you aren’t already.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

************

Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon

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An Excerpt from Last Breath

From Chapter One

“Come on now, Miss Charlie.” Dexter Black’s voice was scratchy over the jailhouse payphone. He was fifteen years her senior, but the “miss” was meant to convey respect for their respective positions. “I told you I’m’a take care of your bill soon as you get me outta this mess.”

Charlie Quinn rolled her eyes up so far in her head that she felt dizzy. She was standing outside a packed room of Girl Scouts at the YWCA. She should not have taken the call, but there were few worse things than being surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls. “Dexter, you said the exact same thing the last time I got you out of trouble, and the minute you walked out of rehab, you spent all of your money on lottery tickets.”

“I could’a won, and then I would’a paid you out half. Not just what I owe you, Miss Charlie. Half.”

“That’s very generous, but half of nothing is nothing.” She waited for him to come up with another excuse, but all she heard was the distinct murmur of the North Georgia Men’s Detention Center. Bars being rattled. Expletives being shouted. Grown men crying. Guards telling them all to shut the hell up.

She said, “I’m not wasting my anytime cell-phone minutes on your silence.”

“I got something,” Dexter said. “Something gonna get me paid.”

“I hope it’s not anything you wouldn’t want the police to find out about on a recorded phone conversation from jail.” Charlie wiped sweat from her forehead. The hallway was like an oven. “Dexter, you owe me almost two thousand dollars. I can’t be your lawyer for free. I’ve got a mortgage and school loans and I’d like to be able to eat at a nice restaurant occasionally without worrying my credit card will be declined.”

“Miss Charlie,” Dexter repeated. “I see what you were doing there, reminding me about the phone being recorded, but what I’m saying is that I got something might be worth some money to the police.”

“You should get a good lawyer to represent you in the negotiations, because it’s not going to be me.”

“Wait, wait, don’t hang up,” Dexter pleaded. “I’m just remembering what you told me all them years ago when we first started. You remember that?”

Charlie’s eye roll was not as pronounced this time. Dexter had been her first client when she’d set up shop straight out of law school.

He said, “You told me that you passed up them big jobs in the city ’cause you wanted to help people.” He paused for effect. “Don’t you still wanna help people, Miss Charlie?”

She mumbled a few curses that the phone monitors at the jail would appreciate. “Carter Grail,” she said, offering him the name of another lawyer.

“That old drunk?” Dexter sounded picky for a man wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. “Miss Charlie, please can you—”

“Don’t sign anything that you don’t understand.” Charlie flipped her phone closed and dropped it into her purse. A group of women in bike shorts walked past. The YWCA mid-morning crowd consisted of retirees and young mothers. She could hear a distant thump-thump-thump of heavy bass from an exercise class. The air smelled of chlorine from the indoor pool. Thunks from the tennis courts penetrated the double-paned windows.

Charlie leaned back against the wall. She replayed Dexter’s call in her head. He was in jail again. For meth again. He was probably thinking he could snitch on a fellow meth head, or a dealer, and make the charges go away. If he didn’t have a lawyer looking over the deal from the district attorney’s office, he would be better off holding his nuts and buying more lottery tickets.

She felt bad about his situation, but not as bad as she felt about the prospect of being late on her car payment.

The door to the rec room opened. Belinda Foster looked panicked. She was twenty-eight, the same age as Charlie, but with a toddler at home, a baby on the way and a husband she talked about as if he was another burdensome child. Taking over Girl Scout career day had not been Belinda’s stupidest mistake this summer, but it was in the top three.

“Charlie!” Belinda tugged at the trefoil scarf around her neck. “If you don’t get back in here, I’m gonna throw myself off the roof.”

“You’d only break your neck.”

Belinda pulled open the door and waited.

Charlie nudged around her friend’s very pregnant belly. Nothing had changed in the rec room since her ringing cell phone had given her respite from the crowd. All of the oxygen was being sucked up by twenty fresh-faced, giggling Girl Scouts ranging from the ages of fifteen to eighteen. Charlie tried not to shudder at the sight of them. She had a tiny smidge over a decade on most of the girls, but there was something familiar about each and every one of them.

The math nerds. The future English majors. The cheerleaders. The Plastics. The goths. The dorks. The freaks. The geeks. They all flashed the same smiles at each other, the kind that edged up at the corners of their mouths because, at any time, one of them could pull a proverbial knife: a haircut might look stupid, the wrong color nail polish could be on fingernails, the wrong shoes, the wrong tights, the wrong word and suddenly you were on the outside looking in.

Charlie could still recall what it felt like to be stuck in the purgatory of the outside. There was nothing more torturous, more lonely, than being iced out by a gaggle of teenage girls.

“Cake?” Belinda offered her a paper-thin slice of sheet cake.

“Hm,” was all Charlie could say. Her stomach felt queasy. She couldn’t stop her gaze from traveling around the sparsely furnished rec room. The girls were all young, thin and beautiful in a way that Charlie did not appreciate when she was among them. Short miniskirts. Tight T-shirts and blouses opened one button too many. They seemed so frighteningly confident. They flicked back their long, fake blonde hair as they laughed. They narrowed expertly made-up eyes as they listened to stories. Sashes were askew. Vests were unbuttoned. Some of these girls were in serious violation of the Girl Scout dress code.

Charlie said, “I can’t remember what we talked about when we were that age.”

“That the Culpepper girls were a bunch of bitches.”

Charlie winced at the name of her torturers. She took the plate from Belinda, but only to keep her hands occupied. “Why aren’t any of them asking me questions?”

“We never asked questions,” Belinda said, and Charlie felt instant regret that she had spurned all the career women who had spoken at her Girl Scout meetings. The speakers had all seemed so old. Charlie was not old. She still had her badge-filled sash in a closet somewhere at home. She was a kick-ass lawyer. She was married to an adorable guy. She was in the best shape of her life. These girls should think she was awesome. They should be inundating her with questions about how she got to be so cool instead of snickering in their little cliques, likely discussing how much pig’s blood to put in a bucket over Charlie’s head.

“I can’t believe their make-up,” Belinda said. “My mother almost scrubbed the eyes off my face when I tried to sneak out with mascara on.”

Charlie’s mother had been killed when she was thirteen, but she could recall many a lecture from Lenore, her father’s secretary, about the dangerous message sent by too-tight Jordache jeans.

Not that Lenore had been able to stop her.

Belinda said, “I’m not going to raise Layla like that.” She meant her three-year-old daughter, who had somehow turned out to be a thoughtful, angelic child despite her mother’s lifelong love of beer pong, tequila shooters, and unemployed guys who rode motorcycles. “These girls, they’re sweet, but they have no sense of shame. They think everything they do is okay. And don’t even get me started on the sex. The things they say in meetings.” She snorted, leaving out the best part. “We were never like that.”

Charlie had seen quite the opposite, especially when a Harley was involved. “I guess the point of feminism is that they have choices, not that they do exactly what we think they should do.”

“Well, maybe, but we’re still right and they’re still wrong.”

“Now you sound like a mother.” Charlie used her fork to cut off a section of chocolate frosting from the cake. It landed like paste on her tongue. She handed the plate back to Belinda. “I was terrified of disappointing my mom.”

Belinda finished the cake. “I was terrified of your mom, period.”

Charlie smiled, then she put her hand to her stomach as the frosting roiled around like driftwood in a tsunami.

“You okay?” Belinda asked.

Charlie held up her hand. The sickness came over her so suddenly that she couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was.

Belinda knew the look. “It’s down the hall on the—”

Charlie bolted out of the room. She kept her hand tight to her mouth as she tried doors. A closet. Another closet.

A fresh-faced Girl Scout was coming out of the last door she tried.

“Oh,” the teenager said, flinging up her hands, backing away.

Charlie ran into the closest stall and sloughed the contents of her stomach into the toilet. The force was so much that tears squeezed out of her eyes. She gripped the side of the bowl with both hands. She made grunting noises that she would be ashamed for any human being to hear.

But someone did hear.

“Ma’am?” the teenager asked, which somehow made everything worse, because Charlie was not old enough to be called ma’am. “Ma’am, are you okay?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you. You can go away.” Charlie bit her lip so that she wouldn’t curse the helpful little creature like a dog. She searched for her purse. It was outside the stall. Her wallet had fallen out, her keys, a pack of gum, loose change. The strap dragged across the greasy-looking tile floor like a tail. She started to reach out for it, but gave up when her stomach clenched. All she could do was sit on the filthy bathroom floor, gather her hair up off her neck, and pray that her troubles would be confined to one end of her body.

“Ma’am?” the girl repeated.

Charlie desperately wanted to tell her to get the hell out, but couldn’t risk opening her mouth. She waited, eyes closed, listening to the silence, begging her ears to pick out the sound of the door closing as the girl left.

Instead, the faucet was turned on. Water ran into the sink. Paper towels were pulled from the dispenser.

Charlie opened her eyes. She flushed the toilet. Why on earth was she so ill?

It couldn’t be the cake. Charlie was lactose intolerant, but Belinda would never make anything from scratch. Canned frosting was 99 percent chemicals, usually not enough to send her over the edge. Was it the happy chicken from General Ho’s she’d had for supper last night? The egg roll she’d sneaked out of the fridge before going to bed? The luncheon meat she’d scarfed down before her morning run? The breakfast burrito fiesta she’d gotten at Taco Bell on the way to the Y?

Jesus, she ate like a sixteen-year-old boy.

The faucet turned off.

Charlie should have at least opened the stall door, but a quick survey of the damage changed her mind. Her navy skirt was hiked up. Pantyhose ripped. There were splatters on her white silk blouse that would likely never come out. Worst of all, she had scuffed the toe of her new shoe, a navy high-heel Lenore had helped her pick out for court.

“Ma’am?” the teen said. She was holding a wet paper towel under the stall door.

“Thank you,” Charlie managed. She pressed the cool towel to the back of her neck and closed her eyes again. Was this a stomach bug?

“Ma’am, I can get you something to drink,” the girl offered.

Charlie almost threw up again at the thought of Belinda’s cough-mediciney punch. If the girl was not going to leave, she might as well be put to use. “There’s some change in my wallet. Do you mind getting a ginger ale from the machine?”

The girl knelt down on the floor. Charlie saw the familiar khaki-colored sash with badges sewn all over it. Customer Loyalty. Business Planning. Marketing. Financial Literacy. Top Seller. Apparently, she knew how to move some cookies.

Charlie said, “The bills are in the side.”

The girl opened her wallet. Charlie’s driver’s license was in the clear plastic part. “I thought your last name was Quinn?”

“It is. At work. That’s my married name.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Four and a half years.”

“My gran says it takes five years before you hate them.”

Charlie could not imagine ever hating her husband. She also couldn’t imagine keeping up her end of this under-stall conversation. The urge to puke again was tickling at the back of her throat.

“Your dad is Rusty Quinn,” the girl said, which meant that she has been in town for more than ten minutes. Charlie’s father had a reputation in Pikeville because of the clients he defended—convenience store robbers, drug dealers, murderers and assorted felons. How people in town viewed Rusty generally depended on whether or not they or a family member ever needed his services.

The girl said, “I heard he helps people.”

“He does.” Charlie did not like how the words echoed back to Dexter’s reminder that she had turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in the city so that she could work for people who really needed her. If there was one guiding ethos in Charlie’s life, it was that she was not going to be like her father.

“I bet he’s expensive.” The girl asked, “Are you expensive? I mean, when you help people?”

Charlie put her hand to her mouth again. How could she ask this teenager to please get her some ginger ale without screaming at her?

“I enjoyed your speech,” the girl said. “My mom was killed in a car accident when I was little.”

Charlie waited for context, but there was none. The girl slid a dollar bill out of Charlie’s wallet and finally, thankfully, left.

There was nothing to do in the ensuing silence but see if she could stand. Charlie had fortuitously ended up in the handicapped stall. She gripped the metal rails and shakily pulled herself up to standing. She spat into the toilet a few times before flushing it again. When she opened the stall door, the mirror greeted her with a pale, sickly-looking woman in a $120 puke-spotted silk blouse. Her dark hair looked wild. Her lips had a bluish tint.

Charlie lifted her hair, holding it in a ponytail. She turned on the sink and slurped water into her mouth. She caught her reflection again as she leaned down to spit.

Her mother’s eyes looked back at her. Her mother’s arched eyebrow.

What’s going on in that mind of yours, Charlie?

Charlie had heard this question at least three or four times a week back when her mother was alive. She would be sitting in the kitchen doing her homework, or on the floor of her room trying to do some kind of craft project, and her mother would sit opposite her and ask the same question that she always asked.

What is going on in your mind?

It was not contrived to be a conversation starter. Her mother was a scientist and a scholar. She had never been one for idle chitchat. She was genuinely curious about what thoughts filled her thirteen-year-old daughter’s head.

Until Charlie had met her husband, no one else had ever expressed such genuine interest.

The door opened. The girl was back with a ginger ale. She was pretty, though not conventionally so. She did not seem to fit in with her perfectly coifed peers. Her dark hair was long and straight, pinned back with a silver clip on one side. She was young-looking, probably fifteen, but her face was absent of make-up. Her crisp green Girl Scout T-shirt was tucked into her faded jeans, which Charlie felt was unfair because in her day they had been forced to wear scratchy white button-up shirts and khaki skirts with knee socks.

Charlie did not know which felt worse, that she had thrown up or that she had just employed the phrase, “in her day.”

“I’ll put the change in your wallet,” the girl offered.

“Thank you.” Charlie drank some of the ginger ale while the girl neatly repacked the contents of her purse.

The girl said, “Those stains on your blouse will come out with a mixture of a tablespoon of ammonia, a quart of warm water and a half a teaspoon of detergent. You soak it in a bowl.”

“Thank you again.” Charlie wasn’t sure she wanted to soak anything she owned in ammonia, but judging by the badges on the sash, the girl knew what she was talking about. “How long have you been in Girl Scouts?”

“I got my start as a Brownie. My mom signed me up. I thought it was lame, but you learn lots of things, like business skills.”

“My mom signed me up, too.” Charlie had never thought it was lame. She had loved all the projects and the camping trips and especially eating the cookies she had made her parents buy. “What’s your name?”

“Flora Faulkner,” she said. “My mom named me Florabama, because I was born on the state line, but I go by Flora.”

Charlie smiled, but only because she knew that she was going to laugh about this later with her husband. “There are worse things that you could be called.”

Flora looked down at her hands. “A lot of the girls are pretty good at thinking of mean things.”

Clearly, this was some kind of opening, but Charlie was at a loss for words. She combed back through her knowledge of after-school specials. All she could remember was that movie of the week where Ted Danson is married to Glenn Close and she finds out that he’s molesting their teenage daughter but she’s been cold in bed so it’s probably her fault so they all go to therapy and learn to live with it.

“Miss Quinn?” Flora put Charlie’s purse on the counter. “Do you want me to get you some crackers?”

“No, I’m fine.”

Excerpt from Last Breath by Karin Slaughter. Copyright © 2017 by Karin Slaughter. Reproduced with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Karin Slaughter is one of the world’s most popular and acclaimed storytellers. Published in 36 languages, with more than 35 million copies sold across the globe, her sixteen novels include the Grant County and Will Trent books, as well as the Edgar-nominated Cop Town and the instant New York Times bestselling novel Pretty Girls. A native of Georgia, Karin currently lives in Atlanta. Her Will Trent series, Grant County series, and standalone novel Cop Town are all in development for film and television.

Catch Up With Our Author:

Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads

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