This, That, and an Excerpt from Rulebreaker
I love getting feedback. Between the blog and Twitter, I've received great responses to what to blog about next. The bread stealing bear drew the most interest, so I'll tell you about him (or her, I don't know. I didn't get *that* close). After a conversation with my mother about holidays, I have more blog fodder. And finally, an excerpt from Rulebreaker.
My husband did our quarterly Big Shopping while in Anchorage the other week. He fills the pickup with groceries to stock our pantry, freezer and refrigerator so we don't have to buy a whole lot locally (love the local guys, but it's pricey here). This time, he went a little overboard and we didn't have room for some things in the house or in the outdoor freezer. Some loaves of bread and bagels were left in a cooler near our front porch.
Well, our new "neighbor" caught wind of this. The other morning, about 8 am, we heard a thumping near the front door. Husband turned on the porch light (it's still kinda of dark at 8 am) a caught a glimpse of a young bear running off with a grocery bag of bread products. "Darn," said husband. "I wanted French Toast."
Ah well, such is life. We'd secured our garbage, but had no safe place to put the bread. No big loss. But then, unbeknownst to me at the time, Husband put a frozen gallon of milk in the same cooler. And left it outside to thaw slowly. That night, about 11 pm (definitely dark out) there was more thumping. Husband was asleep. I got up, went to the door and turned on the porch light. Lo and behold, the cooler was knocked over, a gallon of milk was bleeding out on my front walk, and I got to see a furry bear butt scuttle off into the night.
Damn it! Milk is expensive. Broom in hand, in case he returned, I grabbed the milk to let it finish thawing in the sink. There was no saving it, considering the sizable bite mark, but I didn't want it out there encouraging a return visit either.
So, lesson learned. Hopefully Husband will remember this incident next time he gets his shopping groove on.
Oh, here's an earlier post about our previous neighbor: Bear With Me
MOM'S FAVORITE HOLIDAY
I speak with my mom every couple of weeks or so. She lives back East, where I grew up, and takes the train into NYC from her Long Island home for work. Yesterday's conversation led to a discussion of her favorite holiday. She told me she didn't have to go to work today (October 10) because it was Columbus Day and everything was shut down.
"I love this holiday," she said. "There's no pressure, no reason to make a big meal or organize meeting with the family. You don't have to go to church or feel particularly patriotic. It's perfect."
Happy Columbus Day, Mom.
And to all my Canadian friends, Happy Thanksgiving!
FROM : CHAPTER ONE
One of the three masked men raised his rifle and shot a short burst of energy pulses into the ceiling of the First Colonial Bank of Nevarro. Fft-fft-fft-fft-fft. Plaster hit the wood floor in a staccato patter louder than the shots themselves. Ozone, dust and cries of alarm filled the air.
The shooter swung the muzzle toward me. “I said, heads down, lady.”
Gut tight, I complied, imitating the others who had been caught inside the bank when the black-clad men had entered just before closing time. It wasn’t often that I stared into the dark, deadly hole of a weapon. I don’t recommend it as a regular activity.
“Everyone stay down and stay quiet,” he ordered. “We’ll be outta here in two minutes, and y’all can go home alive.”
One of the men in black escorted the teller and the manager to the back of the bank where the vault was. The guard, an elderly couple, my partner Calvin and I lay on our bellies, hands on the backs of our heads and cheeks to the rough wood. The elderly couple had come in to check on their savings.
Cal and I had come in to rob the place ourselves.
Despite the pulse pistol nestled under my clothes against the small of my back, and Cal’s gun tucked in a holster covered by his right pant leg, neither of us was inclined to play hero.
Cal turned his head away from the shooter to glare at me. “Only you, Liv,” he whispered fiercely, “would pick the exact same day to rob a bank as real criminals.”
Real criminals? I opened my mouth to loudly voice my indignation but snapped it shut. I’d already drawn enough attention to myself. Instead, I returned his harsh whisper. “We are real criminals. This is just poor timing.”
Cal and I had been planning this job for a while. The Exeter Mining Company deposited its employees’ pay during an undisclosed period each month to avoid such actions as, say, robbery. But Cal had finagled the schedule and amounts from a friend. Seventy-five thousand in cold, hard cash had been delivered to this bank in Milchner the day before. Many small-op contract miners preferred hard money to electronic transfer—fewer slipped digits and short changings to worry about.
We chose this branch because it was the most remote, the least secure and had the fewest personnel. Despite its lower take than a branch in one of the larger cities, like Pembroke, it was the perfect hit.
Apparently the competition thought so too.
“We should have done this sooner,” Cal grumbled.
“It’s not my fault my car died,” I said.
This had not been one of my luckier days, or months, or years for that matter. The job was supposed to go down last month, but fast transportation was a must. Cal only had access to a slower model Airvan. A week before the original hit date, the lifters on my somewhat newer, sleeker and more sensitive light air car went offline. Part of this take was earmarked to pay that bill. Damn the void.
And while PubTrans was an efficient mode for us working-class folks of Pembroke City, it was not the ideal getaway system. Besides, PubTrans didn’t run to way-the-hell-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere towns like Milchner.
Before Cal could remind me we’d had ample opportunity in prior months, the black barrel of the second gunman’s rifle tapped down on his temple. Cal’s eyes widened. The breath caught in my chest.
My gaze traveled along the length of the rifle, hesitated where a gloved finger rested on the trigger, then up to the man’s face. I assumed it was a man; he looked tall and broad from my view from the floor.
Like the other two thieves, this one wore dark glasses and a garish cloth to mask his features. The hood of his black jacket covered his head. There would be no facial recognition program to help catch these guys even if this bank had decent video, which it didn’t. Yet another reason Cal and I had targeted it.
Black lenses reflected twin images of my prone body. The man raised his index finger and placed it against his mouth. Quiet.
I nodded, getting a splinter from the floor jabbed into my cheek for my troubles. The gunman moved away.
My stomach did a flip. I closed my eyes, trying not to puke as bile bit at the back of my throat. So this was what it felt like to be utterly helpless, to have complete strangers decide if you lived or died. The fear. The uncertainty. The praying they would just do their thing and go away without hurting anyone.
Somewhere behind me, the old lady began to sob quietly. Her husband made soft shushing noises, his voice shaky. I hoped the gunmen wouldn’t notice.
Forget about them, Liv, my brain ordered. You’ve got your own ass to keep alive. Right. Felon’s Rule Number One: Don’t get emotionally involved. I forced professional curiosity to replace victimization—the old couple’s and my own. I opened my eyes and took in as much of the scene as I could without lifting my head. Shooter at the door. Second gunman? Out of my line of sight for the moment.
What was the third man doing with the manager and teller? You only needed one or the other to open the vault. The money sat right there in its happy little lockboxes, which also required only one key. Why risk having to deal with two employees? These guys had a different technique than from mine and Cal’s, but now was not the time to open a discussion.
“Liv,” Cal whispered through unmoving lips. His dark eyes watched something behind me.
The soft scrape of a boot. The gunman had returned. I didn’t dare turn toward him. Cool, ion-hardened ceramic touched the back of my hands. I swallowed hard, eyes fixed on Cal.
The gunman didn’t speak. His palm skimmed the length of my leather jacket from shoulder to just above my buttocks. He pressed down, jabbing my pistol into my spine, then moved the tails of the jacket and shirt aside, exposing the waist of my trousers. And the gun. Like he knew it would be there.
My gut quivered. Shit! If he took me for a lawman, I was dead.
“Tsk tsk tsk,” he whispered close to my ear. He eased the gun out, resting it on the bared skin of my back. His gloved fingers slid under my trousers. My muscles stiffened when he tickled my tailbone just below the waistband of my bikini panties. “Got anything else there?”
His hand trailed back up to my gun, and its weight disappeared. The barrel of his rifle nudged the back of my hands. “You’re quite lucky today, amante. Quite lucky.”
Only one person used that word with me, and he’d lost the privilege three years ago.
Over the indignation and disbelief buzzing in my head, activity from near the vault told me the job was done.
The bastard leaned closer. His breath warmed my ear. “Gotta go, darlin’.”
He dragged a finger up my spine then was gone.
My body shivered in memory of his touch while my mind screamed. No! No no no, double damn the void, NO! This went beyond poor timing.
My ex-husband had just felt me up, taken my gun and spoiled my hit.
* * *
“Here’s your water, Miss Braxton.” Sheriff Nathan Sterling set the heavy glass tumbler in front of me and resumed his seat on the other side of the table. He wasn’t particularly tall, only a dozen centis over my 167. But his dark uniform with its shiny badge, his broad shoulders and erect posture made him seem bigger.
“Thank you,” I said and took a sip of tepid water.
We sat in the windowless, overheated interview room of the Milchner sheriff’s station. Like most of Milchner—and Nevarro, for that matter—the room and the station had seen better days. Peeling paint and rickety furniture proclaimed the sheriff department’s lack of budget.
Sterling shuffled through a few sheets of synth paper on the table. Paper. I swallowed a chuckle with another sip. No handhelds in sight, and the bulky System Interface terminals in the main office were about a decade behind the rest of civilization. How did they chase down criminals? With a posse on horseback? Just as long as they didn’t go in for lynching, I’d be fine.
A thin scar running across his forehead blended with frown lines as he read my statement. “You went into the bank to withdraw some cash.” His blue eyes met mine. “Your ID says you’re from Pembroke. What’s your business in our little burg?”
Cal and I had worked out details well beforehand. “My friend and I were taking a weekend trip. We needed a room.”
That was a lie, but the fleabag hotel we’d scoped out only took hard money, not credit vouchers or weepy promises. Though the guy behind the desk was scary enough that he probably would’ve taken a kidney or small child as payment. The trade in both was rampant on some worlds.
Sterling quirked a dark blond brow at me. “You were gonna stay at the Milchner Arms?”
I gave him a weary smile. “It’s the only hotel in town. We’re tired and poor.”
This part was true, hence our plan to rob the bank.
He held my gaze for a moment. As he stared, his right eye drifted, shifting its focus to the wall. Artificial organ. And a cheap one at that, if it couldn’t hold position. If the Milchner constabulary couldn’t afford decent furniture, why was I surprised its sheriff received second-rate eye replacement?
The sheriff rubbed the corner of his eye, setting it back into place before nodding. “All right. Tell me what happened.”
Despite the fact he had my full statement right in front of his baby blues—at least the colors matched—the lawman wanted to see if there were any discrepancies in my story. To see if I’d left out any details of the robbery, which I hadn’t. Or was lying about anything, which I was, but he’d never know it. Lawmen were suspicious types; “trust no one” was their mantra. I could relate.
I cleared my throat. “Cal and I had come in to get some cash. It was getting late, and the bank was about to close.” Classic time for a hit. The robbers knew it. Sterling probably knew it. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to admit I knew it. “Before we got up to the teller’s cage, these three guys in black burst in, hit the guard and pointed guns at us. They told us to lay on the floor, and we did.”
My hands clenched on the table. Sterling probably thought it was a reaction to the frightening situation I’d been through. Actually it was from being torqued that our plans had been thwarted. Again. The idea of switching careers had crossed my mind more than once since this afternoon.
“What about the teller and the manager?” he asked.
“One of the men yelled to them to come out from behind the cage. I guess they did. I couldn’t see them, but I heard movement when the gunman told them to hurry up.”
The reason the robbers needed both people still niggled at the back of my brain.
He tapped on the table and rested his other hand against his face, two fingers pressed against the corner of his right eye. “One of the other witnesses says you were approached by a gunman. Want to tell me about that?”
I shifted on the wooden chair. “It’s in my statement.” Mostly.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear it out loud, Miss Braxton.”
Like the distraught victim I was supposed to be, I dropped my gaze to my hands encircling the tumbler and waited for him to prompt me again. I didn’t have to wait long.
“I realize this is difficult for you,” he said in the lawman tone of sympathetic interrogation, “but we need your help if we’re gonna catch these guys.”
That brought my eyes up to his. “Do you think you will?”
I hoped I sounded more like a justice-seeking victim than a vengeful ex. But oh, to have Tonio and his new little gang tossed into a Colonial Correctional Mine for a dozen or so years would make my year. Teach the bastards for messing up my hit.
“I can’t make any guarantees, but every little bit helps.” Sterling’s earnest desire to see the bad guys put away was admirable. He actually seemed competent, an unusual trait in backwater lawmen. Though I’d rather have been the one to make the hit, I was glad it wasn’t me he sought.
“All right.” I took another sip of water. “We were all lying on the floor. I said something to Cal about how scared I was. One of the men stuck his gun against Cal’s head.” I swallowed hard, remembering the look in Cal’s eyes when he felt the barrel.
Sheriff Sterling asked, “Did he say anything?”
I shook my head. “No. He just raised his finger to his lips.” I demonstrated. “Then he left us alone.”
“But he came back to you. Touched you.”
Renewed indignation seared my cheeks. “Yes,” I whispered. “He put his gun to my head.” I’d never forgive Tonio for that little bit of theatrics.
Sterling leaned forward, his forearms on the table. “Mr. Crosby, the elderly gentleman, said the gunman crouched down beside you. What did he do?”
Took my gun and copped a feel. But the first part wasn’t in any statement and never would be. My pulse pistol wasn’t exactly legal. Between its scatter coat to deflect security detection and not being registered, merely possessing it was an automatic five years in the CCM.
“He ran his hand along my back and—” I let my voice break appropriately, “—and m-my backside.”
Phantom fingers sent tingles up my spine. Damn Tonio for having that effect on me after three years!
The sheriff’s jaw clenched and cold fire glinted in his eyes. “Slag mucker,” he muttered. Apparently, taking advantage of a woman while holding a gun on her was one of his pet peeves. “Did he say anything?”
“Just that he was s-sorry they didn’t have more time.” I let my gaze drop again. Total lie, but it made Tonio look that much worse to Sterling, which made me feel somewhat better.
“Anything else?” he asked. I shook my head, too “distraught” to look him in the eye. “Do you think you could recognize him? His voice?”
Sure I could, Sheriff, because he’s my ex-husband. I haven’t seen or heard from him in three years, but I clearly recall his voice, his touch.
And when I help you nab him, Tonio will be happy to tell you all about how he knew me. How we’d hit banks, mercantiles and jewelry stores from Weaver to Hawkins’ Rock before landing here on Nevarro.
I shook my head again, hard enough to rattle thoughts of vengeance out and some sense back in. “No, I don’t think so.”
Sterling’s eyes locked on mine again. “I know you’re scared, Olivia.”
Uh-oh. Lawmen used your given name to make you feel like they were your friend. Had I been nothing more than a victim of groping and robbery, I would have felt safe and secure knowing Sheriff Nathan Sterling was my pal. But with a friend like him, I’d get a quick ride to the CCM myself if I wasn’t careful.
“These men will keep on with their thieving,” he continued. “They’ll keep terrorizing old people and assaulting young women like yourself.”
Sympathy with a side of guilt. He was good.
Hands clenched, I dug a fingernail into my palm and let tears flow. “I know he’d have hurt me if he could, but I don’t think I’ll be of any help, Sheriff.” I hung my head. A soft sob escape my throat and I whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Sterling laid one of his red, chapped hands over mine. I wondered if it was real or another replacement part. “It’s all right. Thanks for your help.” He stood up , the scrape of the chair covering my sniffles. “I’ll get in touch with you in Pembroke if I have any more questions. Will you be heading back there tonight?”
I looked up at him and wiped away my crocodile tears. “Yes. It’s a long ride, but Cal and I decided we just want to go home.” I stood, offering a wan smile. “Thank you, Sheriff. I hope you catch those men.”
I did and I didn’t, but I had to mouth the appropriate words.
Sterling nodded then held the door open for me. Cal waited on a bench in the hall. The older couple had been interviewed before us and was nowhere to be seen. My partner stood but didn’t approach.
“Just out of curiosity,” I said turning back to the sheriff, “how much did the robbers get?”
He gave me a hard look for about a second before his features softened. “Don’t know. They didn’t take the cash sitting right there. They took the contents of some safe deposit boxes.”
That explained the need for both the manager and the teller.
It took every gram of willpower for me to merely nod and walk away. The bastards messed up our hit and didn’t take the cash? Worse, there must have been something more valuable in those safe deposit boxes. Something Cal and I had no idea about. Now I felt inept as well as pathetic.
I was going to kill Tonio if I saw him again.
Rulebreaker is available at Carina Press, Amazon, B&N, and other fine ebook retailers : )
The bear image was originally posted to Flickr by HBarrison at http://flickr.com/photos/10299779@N03/2874265346 . Thanks for letting me share!
Rulebreaker text and cover is copyrighted by me ahd Harlequin Enterprises, respectively. Please DON'T share without permission.