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First pages

Chapter One

“On a Monday I was arrested” – I Got Stripes – By Johnny Cash

 

The Pacific Ocean growled and thrashed, alive, breathing through the waves, in and out, a gaping black hole swallowing up half the landscape. There were no other sounds, just the rumble of Blair Saxon’s stomach through his thin belly and thinner shirt. He didn’t notice.

 

The moon was low; barely a sliver, but Saxon knew the path well. Up ahead he saw a baseball half-buried in the sand. There wasn’t anything special about the ball, aside from being a cruel reminder of his playing days; it was as scuffed and dirty as he was. Behind it was a spread of palm trees, the kind seen on California postcards

 

He bent to pick up the ball, stood, and then bent and dropped it back down. There was a crack in the air; wood splintered, and a pillow of thin bark and debris dusted the air around the palms. By then Saxon was face down in the sand, his brain sorting the sounds he had heard. The bullet, traveling at supersonic speed, hit the tree before the soundwaves of the muzzle blast reached his ears. He didn’t care.

 

His whole being had transitioned into survival mode, the lower order innate being that stirs like a ghost in everyone, buried deep below the eons of culture and civilization. That part of him didn’t need to know about the transfer of energy from the bullet or the law of gravity. It knew instinctively that the impact of the bullet, the thrust hot metal on tissue, bone, and muscle, had knocked him off his feet and a second bullet had to be avoided at all costs.

 

His heart surged, his mind ready to run, but his body wasn’t ready. He had a balky left knee, and he was dizzy, but he was coherent enough to know his cover was toast. The path ahead of him was clear, a mile of open beach and dark water. The waves crashed, metallic and irregular.

 

Saxon considered the landscape behind him. It was flat, lots of sand and a low concrete wall along the bike path, meaning the shooter’s angle was lousy. With no elevation, how was he going to pick off a guy lying in the sand?

 

Hazy like when he’d had his wisdom teeth pulled, Saxon felt slightly euphoric. Being alive did that in near-death experiences. He heard a car start in the distance, a big thumping engine, maybe a 454 big-block Chevy from the early ‘70’s. It drew closer, like a jungle cat stalking prey in the dead of night, but not silent. Headlights peered right, left and then splashed across the beach. Saxon stayed down below the arc of the high beams and waited, his heart keeping pace with the car’s motor.

 

There was a smell, too, working its way through the thin air. Engine oil cooking perhaps, from bad valves or a leaky gasket cover leaving oil dripping across the manifold. Then a second set of lights twisted towards him, and he stretched his toes, ready to paw his way out of the sand and into a sprint as best he could.

 

A crackle of static hit the air, and a police cruiser announced, “This beach is closed until after sunrise.” Both engines revved-up and faded off. So did Saxon, for a moment. Then he struggled to his knees and cursed himself for being predictable. Bad, lazy habit. They get you every time; he heard his father’s voice saying.

 

Saxon’s shoulder screamed as he wiped the sand from his face and out of his eyes. There was a fancy water fountain alive and vibrating twenty moon-steps away. It didn’t stop pulsing until Saxon was holding tight to the stones themselves. Then he stood, shaking, wondering who he had pissed-off enough to take a shot at his head.

 

Couldn’t be dear old dad, he was tucked away at Atascadero State Hospital. Other than that, who knew? Might be a long list and not all Saxon’s fault because shit happens, nothing you can do about it. You can’t anticipate everything. All you can do is prepare and hope for the best. Of course, even when you do, things will still go sideways. Saxon knew that well enough. Precautions don’t always work. Even when wearing a batting helmet, a 95-mile per hour fastball can crack your coconut pretty good.

 

Chapter Two

Tara Jean pushed the cap back on her head and took a long pull on the Nikon EDG binoculars. They were very strong, 10x42, and gave her a beautiful, clear view of the Swanson’s backyard. She had tried cheaper glasses, like the Olympus Magellan, but the cost wasn’t her first concern. In fact, it was of no concern. She thought nothing of paying $1900 retail for the Nikon in her hand. Sleek in design, small, and they never fogged up.

 

That was important when you worked long hours in the heat of Southern California. Besides, the glasses gave her high-contrast images that were exceptionally bright and without flare, and Tara loved to see the true color of the outfits her benefactors wore. It was an important part of her job, one that spoke volumes about the people she watched.

 

If an accountant wore a somber white shirt at work but changed into a multi-colored fuchsia and magenta tropical shirt for drinks, she wanted to distinguish between those two colors and anticipate the difference in the subject’s moods and attitudes, their reactions.

 

She scanned the yard below her like an eagle. Every plant went into her memory banks, from the fall-blooming crocus in a sharp han purple to the wisteria, a simple violet, but growing along a hearty latticework with a well-supported arch.

 

The wisteria was planted with care to keep it from reaching the home and eventually crushing the gutter and roof, and the side shoots had been meticulously pruned back to the basal buds in early spring to enhance the visibility of the flowers. For Tara Jean, coincidences were for people too dense to understand life’s deeper meanings.

 

She rarely took notes, trusting her mind to carry her thoughts for easy retrieval later, but in this instance, she did not hesitate to write a few things about the plants and their care in her new day planner.

 

Tara Jean treated herself to a new planner for each assignment, helping her keep appointments and cryptically note specifics about her subjects. When an assignment was complete, she reread the planner from cover to cover, analyzed where she had strayed from her objectives, and where she would improve in the future. Then she burned the planner to ashes.

 

Chapter Three

Saxon held the fountain’s ornate stones with both hands, slowly swaying, getting steady, before he splashed the frigid water onto his face. His shoulder wasn’t all torn apart and bloody as he had imagined, but stars popped bright in his eyes when he shook his head. He looked down at his white knuckles and released his grip on the cold stone, took a tentative step away.

 

The palm trees were swaying in the wind, but they were supposed to, it was windy. He concentrated on his favorite bench by the volleyball pits, counting his steps to try and clear his head. At 18 he sat heavily on the splintery wood and stared at the sea pounding the shore relentlessly.

 

His left hand dipped into his pocket and got breakfast, a Payday candy bar. He took a bite. It was delicious going down, not so great coming back up. Once he finished gagging, the urge to sleep was too powerful to ignore. Sleeping was better than waking.

 

The sun rose silently as it always does, but slightly earlier than the day before. It would do so for two more weeks until the summer solstice passed. Then it would rise later, as Saxon would this morning. The light fog burned off as the sun rose higher. Volleyball games sprang up like palm trees across the beach. Saxon slept on.

 

He missed the change from daybreak chill to morning warmth as the volleyball players stripping down to tiny swimsuits, a moving mosaic of neon bikini tops. And, for the first time in months, he missed the drivers streaming into Carespot to get their supplements so they could go from plain and ordinary to slim and beautiful.

 

More than anything, he missed Megan. Not the best player dancing in the sand, but for Saxon, the most fun to watch and the most informative. She was changing, finally coming around, getting forceful, back to what she was two years ago before the denial, the pain, the confusion. Before cancer. She was twenty-two.

 

What he didn’t miss were the two big guys in matching blue outfits. He shook his head, the cobwebs holding tight, keeping his thoughts and his skull together. Outwardly he looked drunk, or high, especially when he stood up, lurching forward like a dizzy, three-legged mule, so the guys in the outfits waded in with their guns.

 

A second later he was face down eating concrete. Man, this is getting old, he thought. His lower lip split on impact, his face bouncing on the concrete and blood quickly pooling up on the hot sidewalk. A disgusting combination of old socks and sweaty armpit smells mingled together until Saxon’s nose was smashed flat by 200-pounds of blue. Then there was a loud pop in his neck that sent a stabbing pain into his right eye.

 

He wasn’t resisting, but that didn’t stop the neck crusher's partner from dropping his full weight on Saxon’s upper thighs. He thought maybe for once he could keep his mouth shut, not bitch, not say anything. It could happen.

 

The guy with the neck fetish twisted a smooth, cool pair of handcuffs onto Saxon’s wrists. They clicked away like a roller coaster working its way up up up, before sending the riders screaming as they plummeted downward, and that’s how long Saxon managed to stay quiet before saying, “Dude, I’m not resisting. I got shot today. I got shot.”

 

The officer responded with a simple request, “Shut up.”

 

They dragged him upright, took two steps, and Blue Guy number one reached underneath the bench and grabbed half a Payday bar, still in its wrapper. He left Saxon’s sunglasses behind and he was happy, so that clinched it for Saxon, they were real cops. He was Mirandized and then arrested for vagrancy, resisting arrest, and littering. Saxon was very proud of the littering part.

 

The officers walked him across the street to the waiting police car, and Saxon got comfy in the back seat; the summer burning outside. They left the parking lot with a thump as the cruiser spilled into the slightly lower street and headed up Cabrillo to El Camino Real.

 

Saxon realized his buds were Santa Barbara County Sheriffs, the gold and blue patches on their sleeves told him everything he needed to know and he seethed that with 2.700-square miles to patrol and a half-million people to watch, they had busted him.

 

Of course, Santa Barbara is jammed with peace officers. The beach patrol left him alone for the most part, but who knew what was going down with the Santa Barbara Police Department, the University of California at Santa Barbara Police Department, and the California Highway Patrol all in such proximity to the beaches in town.

 

They cruised along at just over the speed limit and hit Calle Real where the Santa Barbara County Main Jail sat like a proud vineyard owner watching over his grapes. A bunch of grapes, some sour.

 

Saxon didn’t want to give anything up at the processing desk, he had no ID, but they were going to fingerprint him and get what they wanted, so he coughed up his name, Blair Saxon. Once a professional baseball player, now, apparently, a bum.

 

One of the officers looked over the handcuffs carefully when he took ‘em off, just in case Saxon had messed ‘em up, but Saxon didn’t rub his wrists like in the movies. Instead, he tried something new and stood motionless and quiet while awaiting further instruction. He didn’t like it.

 

A Custody Deputy, Officer O’Bannion, sat behind a counter slightly elevated from the main floor. He had a big head of salt-and-pepper hair held in place by a small cap. His bushy mustache nearly covered his upper lip. The ‘stash was dyed black and looked ridiculous, but he was better groomed than Saxon was. He adjusted the glasses on the bridge of his nose as he wrote neatly in letters too small for anyone else to read. “Empty your pockets and turn them inside out, please,” he said.

 

Saxon turned out his pockets and sand poured down on the clean tile. He could see it bouncing around perfectly well with both eyes, so the image of standing on a street corner with dark glasses and a cup of pencils faded away.

 

O’Bannion rolled his eyes at the mess, shrugged his shoulders slightly and went back to his neat penmanship. Saxon couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t using a computer for this very important task and asked, “No computer? What the hell’s was wrong with this picture?”

 

He was politely told, “Zip it.”

 

Patted down a third time, two officers took Saxon for a walk down a series of hallways painted a dull yellow. The walls matched the tiled floors, but they were only yellow in the middle. Nearer the walls, the color was a smeared yellow-gray where the cleaning crew hadn’t been as diligent with their mops.

 

Two locked doors and two sets of bars deep in the jail, Saxon reached his primary destination. Not with the rubbery legs of a man going to the electric chair, but with that little red warning light blinking steadily in the corner of his mind. He breathed slowly; looking at the eight-hour minimum-stay drunk tank. It smelled like low tide.

 

The sliding bars crashed into place, and Saxon scanned his new cellmates. They were the usual assortment of not too vicious boozers and tokers. Shadowed against the gray back wall was a huge guy in a denim and leather motorcycle jacket sitting in the middle of the only bench in the place. That seemed rude, so Saxon asked him what the deal was, and got greeted in standard jailhouse terms.

 

“What’s the matter, bitch? Somebody shove something too big for your lips into your mouth?”

 

A couple of the guys snickered, so Saxon moved closer to Mr. Denim and stood in front of him. As soon as he started to stand up, Saxon slammed the base of his left palm down across the top of the guy’s wide forehead. A perfectly timed shot.

 

It’s the movement that’s important. Nine times out of ten, if the guy’s neck is moving, the down and backward thrust are more than enough to rattle the brain into a concussion. Of course the other ten percent of the time you wind up in one hell of a fight.

 

The guy staggered for a split second, and then his eyes rolled up into his head. He stayed upright for a moment as his brain shut down and switched to autonomic control. When that happened, his legs gave out, and he crashed to the floor. His knees stayed under him with his ass up, and his face twisted to the left on the concrete. He’s lucky it’s not sand, Saxon thought.

 

It got real quiet for a second, and then everyone started talking at once, reminding Saxon of evening dinners with his folks: Dad talking, Mom nodding, he and his sister yapping when most inappropriate.

 

“Saxon,” a guard yelled, and he figured he was in more trouble, but turned to see Shelly Carpenter, Licensed Vocational Nurse. That’s what the tag said, but actually, she only came up to his chin, so she was maybe five-five, 150 pounds with a round face and button nose. She had freckles and kind eyes. He liked her.

 

She looked at his lip and nodded to the officer who sprung the lock and three guys instantly bunched up at the door.

 

“Back off, Saxon’s going to the infirmary,” he said with bravado, the tone and inflection obviously much-practiced. That’s the way it was, though. The guy probably slept alone with a nightlight.

 

He gripped Saxon’s upper arm, forcing Nurse Carpenter to their left. She smelled better than the holding cell, and the air in the corridor was almost cool. Not like real air-conditioning. More like a crappy swamp cooler that kicks on and breathes fish-breath moisture through the vents to bring the temp down a few degrees, but hey, it’s better than the beach, Saxon thought, and he knew he was in for a couple of real meals later. Life could be worse.

 

There were two more nurses in the infirmary, but no doctor in sight. Still, there were treatment rooms and a locked, steel door with a wire mesh glass panel on the right, so Saxon asked, “Where’s the doc?” which got a snicker from the other nurses.

 

Gus, the guy with the grip, pushed Saxon towards a plain bench with one of those paper-towel things over it. His eyes were bloodshot, the lids droopy. He was a big, sweaty, hung-over, overworked civil servant.

 

“Sit there and shut up and Nurse Carpenter will take care of you. Cause any trouble, and you go back to the cell with a Band-Aid on your lip. Got it?” he said.

 

Saxon nodded and looked at Shelly. Maybe 26 or 28, close to his age. He had a scraggly beard and looked 35 with a squint and sun wrinkles, but she was all business anyway. She offered a curt smile and a clipboard with consent for medical treatment. He gave a good John Hancock to the papers and smelled the sharp, crisp tinge of alcohol.

 

Shelly snagged his upper left incisor with the cotton swab, and Saxon ran his tongue across his teeth and felt a nice big chip.

 

“It’s not that bad, Mr. Saxon. I don’t see a crack in your tooth and your lip will only need a few stitches. Do you have any allergies or reactions to Novocain or Procaine?”

 

“I’m not sure about Procaine. I mean, I’m not sure what that is,” he said.

 

“Procaine is an ester anesthetic,” Shelly said. “It is metabolized in the plasma by the enzyme pseudocholinesterase through hydrolysis into para-amino benzoic acid, and it’s that acid that usually causes allergic reactions.

 

“Good answer, you’d be great on a game show. What are the odds of a reaction?”

 

“About one in three thousand. Do you want the shot or not?”

 

“Sure, it’s my day to get shot, go ahead,” he answered, quickly, but not as quickly as she jammed the needle straight down into his lip. She pulled the needle out and before he could relax she shoved it into the bottom gum line below his front teeth and twisted it around just as brilliantly as any good Haitian dentist. His eyes teared up.

 

Next, Nurse Helly busied herself getting a curved needle and thread ready. She gave him the same laconic smile, and he flinched under another needle attack as she started stitching. He moved her to his “dislike” list and she finished, but didn’t take her rubber gloves off.

 

“Take off your shirt,” she said in a monotone.

 

“No wine, candlelight?”

 

She said nothing, didn’t bat an eyelid, so he unbuttoned his shirt and tried to slide it off. It stuck in back, and Shelly yanked it unceremoniously away from his right shoulder, causing the tender skin in the process of healing to reopen and bleed away.

 

“That’s an interesting cut you’ve got there, Mr. Saxon.”

 

“What’s it looking like, did I tear it open?”

 

“Well, it’s a deep abrasion along your scapula, down to the bone in one area. You’ve got some serious bruising occurring, and minor muscle displacement and damage. How did you manage that?”

 

He said he had no clue, and she agreed with him, and then sweet, sour Nurse Shelly kept working, never considering the straight-as-an-arrow cut might be a bullet wound.

 

“There’s nothing to stitch up, you just have a deep cleft of missing skin, so no more needles,” she said, the disappointment obvious in her voice. “You’re going to get a topical ointment that will protect the exposed skin and muscle and a bandage you should leave on for at least a few days until that starts to scab over.”

 

Shelly was nothing if not efficient, certainly not painless and ten minutes later Saxon was on his way back to the cell wearing a nice clean prison-issue pullover. His shirt went in a red hazardous waste bag. After the bars had snapped shut, Saxon saw three guys using the bench. Mr. Denim was still sleeping, drool dripping from his mouth. Saxon smiled and ripped his new stitches.

Chapter Four

Kelly Steffner made her way through the maze of offices and cubicles in Carespot’s local Santa Barbara public relations building. The building wasn’t tall, but it was long, stretching around the most popular street corner fronting East Beach with retail space, offices, and storage downstairs. Outside the wall ran to pale blue with maroon trim. Inside, the light pastel colors were what people associated with California beaches, light blue, light green and sunset oranges.

 

Upstairs, where Steffner’s sleek, expensive, high heels dug into the plush, mauve carpeting, the walls were white and eggshell. Dark wood trim leaning towards walnut edged the walls. She walked with purpose, poise, and the swagger that highly-paid executives develop when they make way too much money but believe they deserve it.

 

For Steffner, the rise had been quick, and she owned a chunk of the business now with her husband and a few partners she had been trying to push out of the growing concern for the past five years. As Kelly worked her way deeper into the building, she tugged at her short, sheer dress and enjoyed the view down her midriff. Everybody should look as fit and trim at 42, she thought.

 

Steffner remembered how she looked just five years earlier, heavy around the hips with thick legs, and here she was now with a body to die for. Everything had been worth the fight, the dieting, the planning and testing, the hard work; it had all paid off. Now she looked like the pictures in the lobby, gaudy photos of pretty people in small outfits. People with impossibly slim physiques, beautiful six-pack abs, great hair, and white teeth.

 

Steffner headed straight to Carespot’s top PR man, Charlie Brunson’s office. Surprisingly, his office door, behind his beautiful receptionist’s desk, was wide open. Steffner breezed in and took a little walk from one side of his desk to the other before sitting on the outer edge of a plush leather chair.

 

As always, she sat out of the sun. She didn’t even like walking out to see her daughter on the beach below where she played volleyball for hours. Of course, Megan had a lithe and trim body; she had been sick.

 

“Good morning Kelly, you look wonderful,” Charlie said with a warm smile. He charmed her with more mindless chatter about her looks and the company’s future, and Kelly took it all in and swelled with pride. Damn he was good at his job, she thought, but of course, he was right, and so was she.

 

“Charlie, you are terrific at your job, and sales are steady, even with the lawsuit, so I don’t begrudge your huge salary, but when is the suit going away? The blood-sucking lawyers are bleeding us dry. What are you doing about the Firstrim publicity? I haven’t seen anything on the news in weeks.”

 

“Kelly, we have twenty-two lines of excellent products, and you know there are always going to be complaints from consumers regardless of a product’s safety. We can’t worry about the small stuff, and the Firstrim issues are going in the right direction.”

 

“The right direction?” Steffner said with disgust in her voice while rising out of the chair and moving to the front of Brunson’s desk. She placed both hands on the heavily polished maple monstrosity and leaned towards her PR man, her firm breasts now prominently displayed.

 

“I’ve used the product myself, Charlie, you’ve used the product, my daughter, for God’s sake, used it. It’s safe and practical. You’ve got to sell that to the media and keep the name clean.”

 

Brunson never looked away from Steffner’s eyes until he passed around his desk and then stole a look at her breasts before heading to his door and closing it firmly. “Listen, Kelly; you don’t need to entice me with your body. We’ve been there, and we both know the consequences, that always worked great for you. But right now, it ain’t working.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Charlie,” she said, “I just want what’s right for the company.”

 

Brunson nodded and moved back to his desk to take control of the conversation. He sat comfortably in his chair and swiveled towards the bank of window’s overlooking the beach and pounding surf and then turned back when he remembered she would be looking right at his bald spot.

 

His eyes adjusted quickly from the glare, but he waited another moment for dramatic effect. Kelly wondered what she ever saw in him. He was handsome in a tinselly, Hollywood way, but when his smile faded against the dark skin, his eyes seemed too deep-set. He looked old for his 40-odd years, and she needed youth.

 

When she started to speak, Brunson interrupted. “Kelly,” he said, “we aren’t out of the woods yet.”

 

“Damn it, Charlie, you say everything is going in the right direction, and then you say we aren’t out of the woods yet, you can’t have it both ways, but either way, we can’t let Firstrim just languish on the shelves anymore. We need retail sales. I want to see the new formula moving, and we need prime time exposure.”

 

Brunson leaned back and exhaled as Steffner glowered over his desk at him. The power play hadn’t worked, and while he had rehearsed a speech for her a dozen times, he couldn’t remember the finer points, only the message.

 

“I know where we are, I talk to the lawyers every day, let me read you what they want to say to the FDA,” Charlie said, while reading from the top of a sheaf of papers on his desk:

 

We’ve changed the formulation to exclude certain conditions, especially during cooking, which could cause nitrites to react with degradation products of amino acids, forming nitrosamines.

 

“That sounds great for the FDA,” Charlie complained, “but it is close to an admission of guilt that the old product did contain nitrosamines. That’s a big part of the lawsuits. Why in the world would we admit that just to continue selling our new and improved version?”

 

“Because, Charlie, that’s what I want. I want to get the new formula on retail shelves everywhere in the LA Basin. We can sell thousands of units before the lawsuits ever reach court, not to mention the old formula going through distributors. Besides, you know the cases will get thrown out before it ever goes to trial.”

 

“I don’t know that. I only know we are getting close to defending the safety of our products in court. Sure, causation is the toughest thing for the plaintiffs to prove in a tort case, so we start out with an advantage, but even with one person living with cancer, and not the dozens who are suing us, nothing is guaranteed,” Charlie moaned.

 

Steffner walked around the large office, her face contorting and then relaxing. The tight black and gray skirt rode up her hips as she walked and by the time she sat back down her legs were impressively exposed. Charlie looked back out the window, trapped again.

 

“Charlie, how many more are left? How many more to get the numbers right?” she asked.

 

“Three, maybe four,” he replied, sickened by his involvement, but knowing he would continue with the job of cajoling and coercing the plaintiffs. How could he give up his new wealth, his perks, and his success here on the West Coast? It’ll be fine, he told himself over and over; it’ll be fine.

 

“Good,” Steffner said. “Get us the insurance we need and get Firstrim back in the news – like the amazing product it is. I’m surprised you’ve waited as long as you have considering the bonuses you’ll earn. You can buy a bigger boat,” she said while giving him a half-wink of her long lashes.

 

“Sure, Kelly, I’ll take care of it,” Brunson said, but the pain in his chest was getting worse.

 

Chapter Five

Tara Jean finished her second week of surveillance at the Swanson’s home. Twenty hours a day along the brush above the house had produced a few bug bites and a complete understanding of the Swanson’s habits.

 

They were in their late 60’s; they never dined out at night. They only had visitors in the morning, and when they left the house, it was for hours, doctor visits or late lunches, sometimes both. There were no maids, gardeners or other service people who visited the home, and the houses in this area of the canyon were spaced far apart with plenty of foliage and greenery between them. There were no other houses up the rim.

 

In the cool shade, Jay Swanson was happy to sit in his lounge chair during the late afternoon and watch his wife take care of their immaculate yard. When he was tired from the ravages of cancer eating away at his lungs, Jay took out a single lollipop and sucked on it until he fell asleep.

 

For Tara Jean, today was like watching a replay of yesterday in the Swanson’s back yard, a carbon copy. When Claudia noticed Jay sleeping, she approached the redwood deck, slipped her heavy-duty gloves off and put them on a round, metal table. Then she removed the dainty, second pair of gloves she wore under the first pair and put them in her pocket, never on the table. With the care of a life-long loving spouse, she pulled the flavored lollipop of fentanyl citrate Jay used for his chronic breakthrough pain and walked into the house with it.

 

Tara Jean knew that Claudia would throw away the lollipop stick and head into the back of the house to get cleaned up. While Jay dozed, finally gaining a brief respite from the pain, his wife would take a quick bath. She usually emerged from the house 20 to 25 minutes later, clean, refreshed, and ready to move Jay inside if he hadn’t already plodded back to the couch in front of the TV. Today would be different.

 

Tara Jean stood behind a bank of brush nearly five-feet high and scanned the house below her. She wore a black-on-black LA Dodgers baseball cap backward on her head and her dark hair was pulled back in a short ponytail. She felt a trickle of sweat bead against her right hand as she brought her binoculars to her eyes for a final, close-up view, careful not to let the sun reflect off the lenses.

 

The clouds were low overhead, heavy and moisture-laden, but there was little chance of a shower with plenty of blue skies in the distance. Tara Jean hated the rain; she couldn’t do her job if she might leave footprints behind. Clues to her path or past were the last things she wanted to leave behind.

 

No one needed to know her, her business, or her boyfriend who got her the job and disappeared. Things happen, roll with the punches. If the punches knock you down, get up and finish the fight.

 

Tara Jean looked up at the clouds and then back at the Swanson’s yard. She watched Claudia give her husband a kiss on the forehead and walk into the house. She disappeared for a moment from the window in front of the sink, throwing away the lollipop stick, and then came back into view momentarily before heading into the northern side of the house where the master bedroom was.

 

Jay Swanson’s time on this earthly plain was winding down. Tara Jean would be in the yard in five minutes to help him fall off the porch. Later, the authorities would file a report stating the gentleman had fallen after a nap, the two-foot drop and his weakened condition contributing factors in another accidental death.

 

Tara Jean sat down, still able to see the house through an opening in the brush. She stretched her legs out and curled on her right hip, still watching the yard. She took a dozen slow, smooth breaths, then set the Nikon EDG binoculars down gently and looked around her stakeout. She saw nothing amiss and was certain everything was safely inside her coat.

 

She checked the Velcro at each pocket, making sure nothing was left behind as evidence. Then, she pulled the binoculars back up to her eyes and scanned right and left where the foliage was low enough for her to see several miles in each direction and saw no one.

 

Tara Jean could almost hear the bath water running. She folded the binoculars down and put them into an inside pocket and stretched her legs again and pointed her toes out before standing up. It was only then that she realized there was a hissing sound nearby. Too near.

 

Tara Jean slowed her movements to a hare-breath and followed the sound. It was deadly close behind her, to her left side between her knees and hip. Her eyes picked up the source and her brain processed Crotalus oreganus, a venomous pit viper, commonly known as a Pacific rattlesnake. The defensive snake was an olive brown with a pale, yellowish ground color. Overlaid dorsally were a series of large dark blotches with uneven white edges. The first rings of the tail grew progressively darker, telling Tara Jean her visitor was not a juvenile.

 

The patterns along its back included a very distinct orange stripe with a white border extending from the snake’s eyes to around the exceptionally wide jaw. It was alive and well.

 

The diamond-shaped head moved slowly backward as the snake coiled, ready to strike at any movement. Tara Jean guessed the snake to be about four-foot long. She held her breath.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Al W Moe is an American writer and popular blogger best known for his Mob-filled historical books about the Nevada casino industry. Moe graduated from UOP after attending the University of Nevada, Reno and California State University Stanislaus, paying his way through college playing poker and blackjack.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I owned a fitness center at one time with a friend. We watched people spending the better part of their day trying to achieve the perfect body. That's a great goal, but life shouldn't be dictated by a person's outer beauty. Inner beauty is much more important.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
I decided to become a writer because I was looking for a book about Nevada casinos and at the time, there weren't any that really covered the subjects of the original owners, the Mob, and Las Vegas.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
This story is set in Santa Barbara, California and starts on the beach. One of the main characters loves to play volleyball to stay fit - a much healthier choice than she made two years earlier.

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