New book: ‘Venetian Springs’

I’ve got a brand new book on Amazon: Venetian Springs!

Two couples—one idealistic, one criminal.

A ruthless Mexican drug kingpin. A fortune in heroin and cash.

They all come together one night at a casino called Venetian Springs, in a high-stakes gamble that only a few of them will survive.

Preview Chapters:

Part I: Tuesday

Chapter 1

Mark Baxter was determined that he and his wife, Gina, were going to crack the nut of their household budget. 

Laid out on the kitchen table before them were a pile of bills, a desktop calculator, and a yellow legal pad.

Mark had drawn a line down the center of the top sheet of the legal pad, dividing it into two vertical columns. In the lefthand column, he had tallied up their monthly take-home pay. They were both second-year teachers at Ambrose E. Burnside High School, a school in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. 

In the righthand column he had listed their expenses: mortgage payments on the house, their college loans, groceries, utilities, and everything else.  

The total on the left was only slightly larger than the total on the right. 

That was a problem.

Gina, moreover, wasn’t paying attention. That was another problem. Her brown eyes kept darting to the open doorway between the kitchen and the rear hallway. She was twirling a length of chestnut brown hair between two fingers.

Gina had been distracted of late—and not just because of their perilous household finances. Mark knew part of the reason for her distraction; but he suspected that there was also something that she was keeping from him.

Why would Gina be looking toward the rear hallway?

The rear hallway of the house terminated at the back door. Gina was probably thinking about the intruder again.  

Mark didn’t believe in the intruder, and Gina did.

That was yet another problem.

In recent weeks, Gina had become convinced that someone was entering their house during the daytime hours, when they were both teaching classes at the high school.

She claimed to notice that some items in the house were slightly awry, as if an outsider had been rifling through them. Closet and cupboard doors were left ajar at unfamiliar angles.

Or so Gina had claimed.

Mark had taken his wife’s concerns seriously—at first. He checked all exterior doors and windows for any sign of a break-in or tampering. 

And he had found nothing. 

Mark also pointed out that the supposed burglar had not taken any of their few possessions that were actually worth stealing: the laptop they used jointly, the antique brooch that Gina had inherited from her Grandma Tortelli, etc. 

Even the cigar box, the most obvious target for a thief, had been left intact. This was the old Dutch Masters box that they kept atop the dresser in their bedroom. It always contained between fifty and a hundred dollars of emergency cash. 

Any self-respecting thief would have taken the cigar box, Mark observed. 

But the thief had not taken the cigar box, nor anything else—so far as either of them could ascertain.

Mark therefore concluded that there was no thief, no intruder. 

“Earth to Gina,” Mark said. He waved his hand from side to side in the air, as if trying to rouse her from a trance. 

“I heard something,” Gina said. “At the back door.”

“Oh, no. Don’t tell me that one of the problem students at Burnside has followed us home again.”

She didn’t laugh at the obvious joke. She flinched, in fact. 

Mark wondered: Was one of the students at the high school in fact bothering her? Was that her problem?

“I’m telling you, Mark, I heard something back there.”

The damn intruder again. Mark rarely spoke a cross word to Gina, but he was getting fed up with talk about the nonexistent burglar. Whatever else was going on, there was no evidence that anyone had been inside their house.

“Gina,” he said gently, “I don’t think—”

And then Mark heard it, too.

Chapter 2

It was the sound of someone rattling the back door. Exactly what Gina had said, more or less. 

Mark stood up. Gina started to stand, too.

“Where are you going?” they both asked, more or less simultaneously. 

“I’m going to check the back door, of course,” Mark said. 

“I’m going with you!”

Mark had a sudden mental image: an intruder—a real one, this time—pointing the muzzle of a gun in his wife’s face.

He didn’t want to go there. 

“No. You stay here. I’ll take care of this.”

He exited the kitchen and entered the back hallway before Gina could offer further protest.

Speaking of guns, Mark didn’t own any. 

Not that he had any principled objection to them. Indiana, after all, was a Second Amendment state. 

Mark had grown up in Merrillville, in the northwest corner of the Hoosier State. Merrillville was within the orbit of the progressive-minded, gun-controlling megalopolis of Chicago. But both Mark’s father and his grandfather had been outdoor sportsmen. By the time he was twelve years old, Mark had been comfortable handling firearms.

Mark and Gina had purchased their first home in an inner-city neighborhood. Though most of their neighbors were decent, working-class people, the neighborhood was far from perfect. There were predatory elements. It wasn’t uncommon to hear sirens on a Friday night. Just a few weeks ago, the Indianapolis police had broken up a drug den not three blocks away. 

Once or twice Mark had toyed with the idea of buying a gun. It would have been easy. No state official in Indiana would deny a gun permit to a school teacher with a spotless record. 

In the end, though, he had judged a gun to be an unnecessary expenditure, given their financial state. Moreover, he’d never really believed that he needed one.

Until now.

The back hallway was flooded with the sunlight of a late March afternoon. The back door was a plain wooden door with a four-pane window. 

Mark could see no man-size shadow lurking in the window, but who knew what might be outside?

He strode forward and grabbed the knob, twisted it, and pulled the door open.

As he stepped out into the cool sunshine, he tensed his muscles for a fight. He stood on the back stoop, and looked to his right and then to his left.

No one there. 

The spring-loaded back door slammed shut behind him. From a few blocks away, he heard the air brakes of a school bus. 

They had a small back yard, and there were not many places to hide. There were two maple trees, but their trunks were not thick enough to conceal an adult. There was a large bush that had only begun to bud. Mark could look right through it. 

No one there.

At the very back of the yard, there was a high wooden fence. It belonged to the property behind them.

Could someone have rattled their back door, and then run across the yard and climbed over the fence?

Only if the prowler happened to be a very fit U.S. Navy SEAL, Mark figured. And even a SEAL would be challenged by that fence.

He had undoubtedly heard something. Both of them had. But the evidence was right here—or rather, it wasn’t here. Mark had no choice but to conclude that there was no one in their back yard.

After giving the yard a final look (there was not much to look at), Mark turned and opened the back door, to go back inside.

And he saw Gina, standing there with a butcher’s knife. 

Gina was holding the knife aloft, as if preparing to meet an attacker.

“What are you doing?” Mark asked, indicating the knife. He stepped inside the house, exercising care to stay away from the tip of the blade. He recognized the knife from one of the drawers in their kitchen. 

“I wanted you to have backup.” 

Mark involuntarily smiled. His wife was no milquetoast.

“What did you find?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “I checked. There’s no one back there.”

“But we both heard a sound at the back door.”

“We did,” Mark allowed. He had been thinking about that. “Sounds carry inside the city. All these houses. The echoes bounce around. While I was out there, I heard a school bus jam on the brakes a few streets over. It sounded like it was right on top of me.”

“But there was no one out there?”

“No. Say, could you put that knife down?”

She relaxed, and lowered the knife.  

Mark wasn’t completely satisfied with his own explanation, about the sounds carrying. But it was time to put this talk about prowlers aside. They needed to get back to those two columns of numbers on the legal pad.

“Anyway,” he said, “let’s resume our discussion of the budget.”

“What about—”

Then the doorbell rang. At the front of the house. 

“I’ll get it,” Gina said.

“And you’ll scare the hell out of the Girl Scouts—or whoever it is—with that knife. I’ll get the door. Wait for me in the kitchen, okay?”

With visible reluctance, she relented. 

“Be sure to look through the peephole before you open the door,” she called after him.

Chapter 3

Mark didn’t use the peephole, though—even though he figured that Gina was probably right.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Children were still arriving home from school for the day.

If we have to be afraid under those circumstances, Mark thought, then what’s the point of having a house?

He pulled the front door open. The person on the front porch wasn’t exactly threatening, but he was nothing Mark would have expected, either. 

He was about the same age as Mark and Gina—probably in his mid- to late twenties. He had a mop of reddish blond hair, and a scraggly beard of the same color. 

He wore a rumbled blue blazer over his lanky frame. Mark saw threads dangling from the cuffs. 

His trousers—a shade of blue that didn’t match the blazer—were too long. 

Mark glanced down at the man’s feet: He was wearing mud-stained tennis shoes that had once been white. 

“How can I help you?” Mark asked. 

The stranger flashed Mark a smile, revealing several gaps where there should have been teeth. Mark was immediately reminded of documentaries he had seen about drug addicts, how narcotics destroyed their teeth.

“No,” the stranger said. “The question is: How can I help you? Joe Johnson’s the name, and credit counseling’s my game!”

Mark was on edge now.

Only a few minutes ago, he and Gina had been discussing their household budget. Then the sounds at the back door. 

And then this guy shows up, claiming to be a credit counselor.

But nothing about him added up. Mark might be a high school history teacher, but he had had his share of interaction with professionals in the finance industry: banking officers, loan agents, and the like.

None of them were anything like this Joe Johnson.

Then there was the fact that Joe Johnson sounded suspiciously like a made-up name.

“Were you at my back door just now?” Mark asked, getting right to the point. 

“Me?” Joe Johnson said, pointing a finger at his sparrow chest.

“You’re the only one on my porch right now.”

“Absolutely not,” Joe Johnson said, shaking his head. 

Mark didn’t entirely believe him. But there was no way to prove the matter, one way or the other. 

“Okay,” Mark said—though it wasn’t okay. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m a personal credit counselor!” the odd-looking man said. 

Mark listened to about a minute of the spiel. None of it made sense, really. 

A personal credit counselor? Seriously? This guy?

Whoever this Joe Johnson really was, whatever his game was, there was no way Mark was going to let him within a stone’s throw of his and Gina’s finances. 

“I’m sorry,” Mark said, interrupting him, “but I’m really not interested.”

Mark had expected that that would be the end of the matter. Like Gina—he was no milquetoast. In high school, about a decade earlier, Mark had played both football and baseball. He’d been in his share of fisticuffs. Few men tried to bully him. 

And he could have knocked this Joe Johnson off the porch without even trying, had he been so inclined.

But Joe Johnson, for his part, wasn’t quite ready to call it a day.

“If I could just come inside,” he said, “and talk to you and the missus.”

Now Mark’s hackles went up again—just when he had been ready to dismiss Joe Johnson as a harmless flake. 

“I didn’t say anything about a wife,” Mark said. “And no, you can’t come inside.” Mark’s tone wasn’t exactly hostile, but he was done playing nice.

Joe Johnson seemed flustered again. “A guy living in a house like this,” he stammered, “in this neighborhood…I figured you’d be married.”

Mark considered that. Possible. But he was done with this discussion, nevertheless. 

“Thanks anyway. But I’m not interested.”

“Could I at least get you to take a card?”

Mark didn’t want a business card from this man. But Joe Johnson was already reaching into the front pocket of his rumpled blazer. 

Anything to get rid of him at this point, Mark thought. 

“Okay. I’ll take one of your cards.”

Mark reached out and took the proffered business card.

Then Joe Johnson spun on his heels, and walked away.

Mark watched him depart. He couldn’t help it. There was so much about the man in the shabby blue blazer and soiled tennis shoes that didn’t add up.

Joe Johnson made quick steps up their walkway to the main sidewalk, where he made a sharp right turn.

Then he kept walking. He didn’t turn at the house next-door, nor the house after that, either. 

Yet another thing that didn’t add up. If Joe Johnson was working door-to-door, then he would have stopped at at least one of those other houses.

But Joe Johnson wasn’t doing that.

He just kept walking. His pace seemed to accelerate the farther away he got, in fact.

So the door-to-door man wasn’t an actual door-to-door man. Joe Johnson—or whoever he was—had come into the neighborhood for one purpose: to call on Mark and Gina Baxter.

Most unusual.

Mark looked down at the business card in his hand. It was printed on plain white card stock:

Joe Johnson

Credit Counselor

There was a telephone number, which—Mark would have been willing to bet—connected to an over-the-counter burner phone. Also a Yahoo email address.

No company name. No website. No logo.

It simply didn’t add up. None of it. 

When Mark walked back into the kitchen, he found Gina sitting at the table. She was looking at the legal pad, the numbers that governed their lives and future.

“Who was that?” Gina asked. 

“No one.”

She made a face. “Come on. It was someone.”

Mark crumpled up the business card and tossed it into the trash container beside the refrigerator.

“Just a salesman,” he said. “I got rid of him. Anyway, let’s get back to the budget.”

Chapter 4

One hundred and eighty miles north of Indianapolis, in an alley on the South Side of Chicago, Vic Torino knelt over the body of Alina Wells. 

The young woman had been dead for about eight hours, based on the information that law enforcement had so far. 

Beside Vic was Sgt. Dennis Haskel, of the Chicago Police Department. Haskel was also kneeling over the body. 

The alley was blocked off by two squad cars of the CPD, and two uniformed officers. 

“I knew she was your CI,” Sgt. Haskel said, “which is why I called you.” 

Vic nodded without replying. Alina Wells had indeed been working for Vic as a CI, or confidential informant. She had been helping him gain an inside hold on Tony Mendoza’s criminal organization. But that was all over now.

Vic had seen many corpses; but when you had known the person, it was different. Alina Wells’s body was clad in a pair of faded, ratty jeans, and a shirt with red and white horizontal stripes. Both of her feet were bare. Her clothes were soaked by the previous night’s heavy rain. 

Vic couldn’t help wondering about Alina’s final moments…And to think that she had been talking about turning her life around, the last time Vic had met with her.

Alina’s face, preternaturally pale with death, was framed by the helmet of her blonde hair, also rain-soaked. Alina Wells had been twenty-four years old, though her heroin habit had made her look considerably older…even while she was still alive.

Vic drew one palm over the top of his bare head, wiping away a sheen of cold rain droplets. The previous night, a Canadian front had descended on Chicago from Lake Michigan, bringing in the chilling rain and near freezing temperatures. 

So much for springtime, Vic thought. The rain was only now tapering off to a spittle. Vic was an Arizona native, and he often swore that he would never get used to the weather in Chicago. 

“Thanks,” Vic finally said to Sgt. Haskel, “for the phone call.”

Vic Torino was a twenty-year veteran agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. People often said that Vic was built like a fireplug. He had a swarthy complexion, an immaculately shaved head, and a thick black mustache. 

Vic looked down into Alina’s lifeless face. He wasn’t responsible for her death—not directly, at least—but her involvement with him might have been a contributing factor.

“She probably OD’d,” Haskel speculated, without much emotion. Haskel, like Vic, was a longtime veteran of law enforcement. He had seen his share of bodies in alleyways, no doubt. 

“She probably did OD,” Vic agreed. “But I think she had some help.”

Sgt. Haskel shrugged. “We’ll see what the coroner says.”

Vic stood up. There was nothing more he could do for Alina now (as if he had ever really done anything for her, he thought).  Alina would leave the alley in a van of the Cook County Medical Examiner. There would be no ambulance, of course. 

He thanked Sgt. Haskel again, and made his way out of the alley. The CPD would handle the crime scene from here. 

Vic had to contact his other confidential informant—Rosita Cruz. She was the only one he had left now.

Before he departed, he took one last look at Alina Wells’s lifeless body, and silently swore revenge on Tony Mendoza.

Chapter 5

On his way back to his office, Vic sent a text message to Rosita Cruz. He told her only that he had an urgent need to see her.

He sent the message using a texting app, which would not be traceable to his DEA phone. Rosita was involved in various illicit acts of commerce to support her habit, just as Alina Wells had been. It would not be unusual for her to get such a message from an unidentified, apparently male, contact. 

Vic’s office was located on the tenth floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building in the downtown Chicago Loop. He shared an office space with two dozen other DEA agents. There was nothing to complain about here, though; his desk afforded him a view of Lake Michigan. 

When he reached his desk, Vic was still reeling from the news about Alina Wells, the sight of her body in the alleyway. 

He couldn’t yet prove it, but he knew that Tony Mendoza was behind her death. This was not the first time that a confidential informant associated with Tony Mendoza had conveniently died. 

Vic had been tracking the Los Angeles-based drug kingpin for the past year. Tony Mendoza and his organization controlled a sizable portion of the heroin that found its way to Chicago, and from there to more than a dozen other cities in the Midwest, including Indianapolis, Detroit, and Cincinnati. 

Mendoza had ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the brutal syndicates that controlled the narcotics trade in Mexico. But the domestic drug market within Mexico wasn’t worth that much. El Norte was where the real action was. The Mexican cartels all existed to serve the U.S. market, which was many times wealthier, and many times hungrier for illicit drugs. 

And so it was with Tony Mendoza. He divided his time between California and various points in Mexico. He had an alibi for all those trips, of course: His parents had both been born in Mexico, and he had many ties south of the border. 

DEA agents in Los Angeles, in coordination with officers of the LAPD, had acquired warrants, and carried out at least two searches of Mendoza’s Bel Air residence in recent years. They had found nothing. Tony Mendoza was smart enough to isolate himself from the actual merchandise and violence of the drug trade. 

Likewise, the Chicago branch of the DEA and the Chicago PD had busted plenty of street-level dealers who ultimately got their heroin from Tony Mendoza. But none of these arrests had served to build a case against the California drug baron. None of the street-level dealers had even been in the same room as Tony Mendoza. Their heroin supplies came through a complex network of middlemen. 

Vic needed to land someone high enough in the organization to have a direct, provable connection to Tony Mendoza. 

He had thought that Alina might get him closer to such a person. But now Alina was dead, and he was back to square one. 

Vic’s desk phone buzzed. He picked it up. 

“Vic. Ah, I see you’re back in the office.”

Ralph Morris—his new boss. Morris had been transferred to Chicago from Washington only two months ago. He and Vic were already locking horns—over a variety of things, but especially Tony Mendoza. 

“What can I do for you, Ralph?”

“Could you come into my office, Vic?”

“I’ll be right in,” Vic said, terminating the call. 

He stood up from his desk. It was shaping up to be a very bad day, indeed. 

Chapter 6

Ralph began by grilling Vic about Alina Wells. He, too, had heard about her death from sources in the Chicago P.D.

“I understand exactly what you’re trying to do,” Ralph said. “You’re trying to get the big score. There’s a lot more glory to be had in taking down a continental drug baron than there is in taking down dozens of smalltime dealers. I get it. But sometimes our work involves dismantling networks piece by painstaking piece. You need to learn that.”

“What are you saying, Ralph?”

But he already knew what Ralph was saying—or at least he had a very good idea.

“I’m saying that you screwed the pooch, Vic. That’s what I’m saying.” 

Ralph waited a few beats for Vic to react. When Vic remained silent, he went on. 

“No, Tony Mendoza didn’t personally murder your CI. Someone at the street level in his organization did. Obviously. And had you taken down that person weeks ago, Alina Wells might still be alive. Also, as an added bonus, there’d be one less drug dealer on the streets of Chicago.”

Vic felt his frustration rising, but he held it in check. They’d had this conversation before. Nevertheless, he did feel compelled to present his side of the argument—again. 

“If I—if we—take out Tony Mendoza, then we take away a double-digit percentage of the heroin supply for the Midwest. That could be a pretty big thing.”

“For a while,” Ralph countered. “The Sinaloa Cartel is a very resourceful outfit. They’ll find another Tony Mendoza in a matter of weeks, if not days.”

Vic had no ready answer for that. Moments like this  forced Vic to wonder if he wasn’t giving in to his own vanities. 

His pursuit of Tony Mendoza had become personal. A certain degree of that was inevitable in law enforcement, but if you took that impulse too far, it could cloud your judgement.

“I want you to refocus,” Ralph said. “Concentrate on wrapping up the local dealers. Let the LA office focus on Tony Mendoza. If we bust him anywhere, we’re going to get him in LA. That’s where he spends most of his time, after all.”

“I’m working with another CI,” Vic said. “She’s going to get me an inside contact in Tony Mendoza’s organization. At the upper levels. Then we can take the whole network down.”

Ralph was obviously not impressed. After all, Vic had made this promise before.

“You have another week,” he said. “Then you shift your strategy: to reeling in the Chicagoland dealers.”

Chapter 7

Three hundred miles southeast of Chicago, and one hundred miles southeast of Indianapolis, fifty year-old Jim Garrett sat behind the wheel of his maroon 1981 Monte Carlo.

The car was parked in the rear parking lot of a truck stop on I-75, just south of Cincinnati, right over the Ohio River and the Kentucky border.

It was a chilly day in Cincinnati with sleet. The sleet clouded the windshield of the Monte Carlo, but Jim sat there with the engine turned off. Sometimes the engine light came on when the car idled for too long. 

On the seat beside Jim was a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol. 

Jim Garrett was unusually fit for a man of fifty. While in prison he had acquired the habit of lifting weights. There was little to do in prison but pump iron.  

Jim was tall and lean. He had long, salt-and-pepper hair, and a thick horseshoe mustache. He also had a natural tan. His mother—long dead—had often told him that there was some Cherokee in the family tree, but Jim was suspicious of this claim.

Jim gripped the steering wheel of the Monte Carlo anxiously. He looked at the tattoos on his fingers, also acquired in prison. 

He was always a little anxious when he was about to buy heroin. He and his supplier took precautions. More than once, though, Jim had learned the hard way that the law is often one step ahead of you. 

He didn’t want to go back to prison again. He would use the Glock 19 before he would let any officer of the law put handcuffs on him.

He was sure of that. 

But that was hypothetical—at least for now. What was real at the moment was that Jim Garrett was a heroin dealer, and he wasn’t making much money at it.

Jim Garrett sometimes reflected that he was living proof of the old adage, crime doesn’t pay. In his youth he had believed—for no good reason—that it was his destiny to be the lead man in a heavy metal band. He had even tried this out, going for a few auditions, but they laughed him away when they found out that he couldn’t play any instruments, and he couldn’t really sing, either.

Then, almost at random, he had turned to a life of crime. Small-time stuff at first, none of it ever going anywhere. He was arrested a few times, but nothing ever stuck.

Six years ago they had busted him on a burglary charge. That stuck. He spent almost three years in Ohio’s Lebanon Correctional Institution.

For the past two years Jim had been out of prison. He was trying his hand at something new—dealing heroin. 

For years he had been hearing about how much money there was in narcotics. So he had decided to jump in and get his share. He had been disappointed almost from the very start.

There were people making money in the drug trade, surely, but not this far down the supply chain. By the time the heroin reached Jim, various middlemen along the way had already taken their cuts, jacking up the price to the point where the margin was extremely small.

Jim had read somewhere that the average street-level dealer is a twenty-one year-old man who lives with his mother. Jim was more than twice that age. His mother was long gone, but he was barely getting by.

A hell of a place for a man to find himself at midlife.

He thought about the man he was about to meet: Toby Gates. Toby was a young guy, a low man on the totem pole of the network headed by Tony Mendoza. Toby Gates was nothing, really. But Toby used his association with the LA gangster as an excuse to lord it over Jim at every opportunity. 

Jim bristled at the thought of treating with Toby again. 

As if summoned by Jim’s thoughts, Toby’s car—a blue Honda—appeared on the access road that ran beside the interstate. 

Let’s just get this over with, Jim thought.

He looked at the Glock on the seat beside him. He could leave it in the car. It wasn’t necessary. Toby was annoying, but he had never been aggressive. 

Then he thought again: You didn’t go unarmed to a meeting with a member of Tony Mendoza’s organization—even a low-level putz like Toby Gates.

Jim picked the gun off the seat, tucked it inside his jacket, and stepped out of the Monte Carlo.

Chapter 8

Toby leaned back against the side of his car as Jim approached. He wasn’t going to give an inch, wasn’t going to meet Jim halfway. That was his manner.

The little putz, Jim thought.

Toby Gates was short and on the pudgy side. His flaxen hair was almost white, like an albino. Jim often thought that Toby would literally fry if exposed to direct  sunlight, like a chubby vampire.

When Jim got close, Toby delivered one of his favorite jabs.

“Hey, old man. Movin’ a little slow this morning, aren’t you?”

“Toby, I’ve got twenty-five years on you, and I could still outrun you, out-lift you, and kick your ass. So why don’t you just keep your comments to yourself today, huh?

“Whoa,” Toby said. “Looks like someone didn’t get their bran flakes and Geritol this morning.”

“Just keep pushing it, Toby.”

Jim took a quick look around and over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching them. The front parking lot of the truck stop was behind them. There were plenty of big commercial rigs, but also smaller vehicles whose drivers stopped at the truck stop for fuel, drinks, and snacks. There was both a Subway and a McDonalds attached to the truck stop. 

But none of these transient people was likely to pay attention to two men meeting briefly in the back parking lot. That was the advantage of this location. 

The interstate ran beside the truck stop, but it lay atop a steep slope, and set back from the crest of the incline. A trucker in one of the big rigs might be able to see them. None of the drivers in pickup trucks or passenger cars would see them without some real neck contortions. And all those vehicles were whizzing by at around 70 m.p.h.

Jim had the money for the heroin all counted out in advance, and tucked inside an envelope that was folded in half once. 

The usual procedure was for him to palm the envelope and make as if shaking hands with Toby. Toby would take the envelope and pocket it. Then Toby would hand him a small package containing ten grams of heroin. 

Still leaning against his car, Toby held out his hand to shake. He took the envelope. But instead of pocketing the money and handing over the heroin, he held the envelope in his palm and said:

“How much money is that?”

Jim restrained a sudden, almost irrepressible urge to grab Toby by the collar of his windbreaker and slam him against the Honda. What was he trying to pull? Did he want them to get caught?

“What do you mean: ‘How much money is that?’ You know damned well how much money it is. The same as always: enough for ten grams. Come on. The weather sucks today, with this sleet, and I want to get going.”

“Ah,” Toby said, “‘enough for ten grams’. you must be unaware of the new policy.”

New policy? What the hell are you talking about?”

“The new policy is: There’s a new minimum: twenty grams.”

“Twenty grams?”

“That’s right, old-timer. You want wholesale prices, you buy wholesale quantities.”

Jim was so flustered at the moment that he overlooked Toby’s use of the appellation, “old-timer”. 

“And when did this go down?”

Toby shrugged. “I don’t know, exactly. But I know it’s the new policy.”

“Does Ice know about this?”

“Of course Ice knows about it,” Toby said. 

Ice was Toby’s immediate superior. Although the whole network was ultimately headed by Tony Mendoza, there were various hierarchical layers in-between, even at the local level.

“Ice knows about this,” Jim repeated. “That’s what you’re saying?”

“That’s what I said. And the policy applies to everyone. Across the board.”

Jim was highly doubtful of that. Toby loved nothing better than yanking Jim’s chain, and it wouldn’t be beyond him to make up a fish story in order to do so.

If he had known in advance, he could have purchased twenty grams today. It wasn’t that big of a deal, really. 

But he didn’t have enough money on him to purchase twenty grams. He would have to go home, and get into his cash reserves. 

Toby wouldn’t wait for him, of course. So he would be without supply, until this little flaxen-haired putz deigned to meet with him again. 

And he was almost certain that Toby was lying. He had caught Toby in lies in the past.

Then Jim felt his temper snap, like a tiger being let out of a cage. 

No, he thought, that isn’t going to happen. I’m sick of being jerked around. If Tony Mendoza were here, jerking me around, maybe I would take that. Maybe I’d have no choice. But I’m not going to take it from Toby Gates. 

“No, Toby. I have another idea: I say you’re going to sell me ten grams. Today. Right now. If the new minimum is twenty grams, then we can do it that way next time. But today you’re going to sell me the usual amount. It isn’t fair to change the minimum amount without telling me in advance. That’s bullshit, in fact.”

Jim stepped closer, towering over the younger man. He raised both hands slightly, as if readying himself to give Toby a shove.

Suddenly, Toby’s face turned bright red. Toby was seized by what was obviously a fit of great consternation. 

He had really gotten under the little putz’s skin, apparently. 

In fact, Toby was downright speechless. He started to speak, but he was unable. 

Enough of this, Jim thought. This shouldn’t be so complicated.

“Just give me the ten grams, Toby, and take my money. Then you can go home and play video games, or beat off to Internet porn all day, or whatever it is you do.”

But Toby’s face turned yet another, deeper shade of red. He sputtered out something that Jim couldn’t understand. 

Toby let the envelope filled with Jim’s money fall to the ground.

What happened next happened very quickly. Jim would later reflect that it happened too fast for him to even begin to think about the consequences at the time.

Toby reached inside his coat. In the context of a heated argument over a heroin deal, that could only mean one thing.

Toby was about to draw a weapon on him.

Jim had never been in an honest-to-goodness gunfight. During his time at Lebanon, however, he had talked to several men who had had that experience, and who had lived to tell about it.

They all said the same thing: When guns are drawn with an intent to shoot, the man who acts decisively is the man who walks away. The man who hesitates is the man who doesn’t walk away.

Toby’s hand was still inside his coat when Jim pulled out the Glock 19. 

Toby saw the gun, and his eyes went wide. His face still bright red, he sputtered out something, which Jim still couldn’t understand. 

And Jim shot Toby twice in the chest.

End of preview chapters

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Southern Ohio’s Dead Man’s Curve

Not far from where I live, there is a stretch of Ohio State Route 125 that has been dubbed Dead Man’s Curve

The spot is just a few miles from my house, in fact. I’ve been by there many times.

According to the urban legend, if you drive this section of rural highway a little after 1 a.m., you might see the faceless hitchhiker. From a distance, this male figure may look relatively normal. Once you get close, though, you’ll see that he has no face.

Sometimes the hitchhiker isn’t content to stand there by the side of the road and watch you. There have been reports of the phantom actually attacking cars.

Creepy, right?

Yeah, I think so, too….

Dead Man’s Curve on Ohio State Route 125 has a long and macabre history. Route 125 is the main road that connects the suburbs and small towns east of Cincinnati with the city. But much of the road (including Dead Man’s Curve) was originally part of the Ohio Turnpike, which was built in 1831. (Andrew Jackson was president in 1831, just to put that date in perspective.)

That section of the Ohio Turnpike was the scene of many accidents (some of them fatal), even in the horse-and-buggy days. The downward sloping curve became particularly treacherous when rain turned the road to mud. Horses and carriages would sometimes loose their footing, sending them over the adjacent hillside.

In the twentieth century, the Ohio Turnpike was paved and reconfigured into State Route 125. In 1968 the road was expanded into four lanes. 

As part of the expansion, the spot known as Dead Man’s Curve was leveled and straightened. (As a result, the curve doesn’t look so daunting today…unless you know its history.) This was supposed to be the end of “Dead Man’s Curve”.

But it wasn’t.

In 1969, there was a horrible accident at the spot. The driver of a green Roadrunner—traveling at a speed of 100 mph—slammed into an Impala carrying five teenagers. There was only one survivor of the tragic accident.

Shortly after that, witnesses began to report sightings of the faceless hitchhiker during the wee hours. (The hitchhiker is said to be most active during the twenty-minutes between 1:20 and 1:40 a.m.) There have also been reports of a ghostly green Roadrunner that will chase drivers late at night. 

Oh, and Dead Man’s Curve remains deadly, despite the leveling and straightening done in 1968. In the five decades since the accident involving the Roadrunner and the Impala, around seventy people have been killed there.

Is there any truth to the legend of Dead Man’s Curve?

I can’t say for sure. What I can tell you is that I’ve heard many eyewitness accounts from local residents who claim to have seen the hitchhiker. (Keep in mind, I live very close to Dead Man’s Curve, and it’s a local topic of discussion and speculation.) Almost none of these eyewitnesses have struck me as mentally imbalanced or deceitful.

I know what your last question is going to be: Have I ever driven Dead Man’s Curve between 1:20 and 1:40 a.m. myself?

Uh, no. But perhaps I’ll get around to it someday, and I’ll let you know in a subsequent blog post!

***

Hey!…While you’re here: I wrote a novel about a haunted road in Ohio. It’s called Eleven Miles of Night. You can start reading the book for FREE here on my website, or check out the reviews on Amazon.

You can also start reading my other two novels of the supernatural in Southern Ohio: Revolutionary Ghosts and 12 Hours of Halloween. 

Check out my FREE short stories, too….many of them have macabre elements.

And stop back soon! I add content to this website every day!

New on Amazon: ‘I Know George Washington’

Available FREE for subscribers of Amazon Kindle Unlimited:

($3.99 for non Kindle Unlimited subscribers)

I Know George Washington and other stories: five dark tales

View it on Amazon!

Five dark tales of crime, supernatural horror, and suspense…

In Tennessee, a father and his adolescent daughter must battle two evil men who harbor sinister intentions toward one of them.

In Zacatecas, Mexico, a recent college graduate takes a job as a private English language tutor for a wealthy family. But the entire household is hiding a horrible secret.

In Virginia, a young stockbroker’s colleagues insist that George Washington, the First President of the United States, is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

In rural Ohio, curiosity compels two travelers to stop at an abandoned schoolhouse with an evil history, and a reputation for ghostly activity.

In western Pennsylvania, a junior high student learns that his beloved teacher is not what he purports to be. 

A collection of five unique stories, each of which contains an unexpected twist.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the stories in this collection:

“The Van”: While traveling through Tennessee, a single father and his 13-year old daughter encounter two men who take an unwholesome interest in one of them. 

“Thanatos Postponed”: A recent college graduate takes a job as a private tutor at the estate of a wealthy businessman in Zacatecas, Mexico. But there is something horribly wrong in the palatial residence high in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. 

“I Know George Washington”: A young man’s new work colleagues insist that George Washington is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

“One-room Schoolhouse”: A young couple stop at an abandoned schoolhouse in rural Ohio. The schoolhouse is reputed to be haunted. 

“Mr. Robbie’s Secret”: a beloved English teacher is not what he appears to be. 

I hope you enjoy these stories.

Revolutionary Ghosts, Chapter 1

 

I was tying my tie in Dr. Beckman’s exam room when I felt the chill. I was alone in the tiny, antiseptic space. The doctor had stepped out to allow me to get dressed.

I took a deep breath. The cool air had a vaguely chemical odor.

There was nothing in here to be afraid of. From where I stood, leaning against the exam table, I could see a sink and counter—spotless and sterile—lined with bottles of hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol. Formica and metal surfaces, gleaming in the bright glare of the overhead florescent light panels.

The tiled floor gleamed, too. Beneath the sink, there was a little rolling stool. (There is one of those in every exam room on the planet, it seems.)

I took a deep breath, and continued tying my double Windsor knot.

There is nothing in here to be afraid of.

Then I saw the closet door, in the corner of the room behind the exam table.

The door was slightly ajar—just a crack.

Had it been closed ten minutes ago, when Dr. Beckman was in here, prodding me with his stethoscope, tongue depressor, and ear speculum?

I wasn’t sure. But after recent events—and after long-ago events—I don’t like doors that are slightly ajar, doors that partially reveal dark spaces.

I could feel my skin breaking out in gooseflesh beneath the starched fabric of my white Oxford dress shirt.

The room is chilly by design, I told myself. Someone—I forget who—once told me that temperatures in medical facilities are kept deliberately low, so as to stymie the growth of molds and bacteria.

But what else was growing in here? What was hiding in that closet, that I couldn’t see?

 

I felt foolish for having such thoughts, for even raising such questions. I am not a child. I am a fifty-nine-year-old man, a father and grandfather. I’m a divisional manager at Covington Foods, a large consumer goods company based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I have investments. Stocks and mutual funds. All the requisite forms of insurance, for a man my age.

No one who knows me would say that I am easily spooked, whimsical, or given to flights of fancy. My wife, in fact, calls me “Steady Steve”.

And Steady Steve I am, most of the time.

But this past week, I have not been myself.

 

 

Fully dressed now, I was trying to decide what to do about that closet door. I was weighing two options.

On one hand, I could walk across the room and push the door shut. That would be the simplest option.

On the other hand, I could pull the door open. Then I would know for sure that there was nothing lurking in that space.

I was still considering these options when I heard a door click open behind me. Not the closet door, but the door of the exam room.

Dr. Beckman was back.

 

Dr. Beckman is a stoop-shouldered man with a sallow complexion. He is still in his thirties, but his light brown hair is fast receding. He wears thick glasses.

Dr. Beckman has been my family physician for about three years now. My wife, Peggy, and I started seeing him after dear old Dr. Alfieri finally retired at the age of seventy-two.

I greeted Dr. Beckman. I noticed that he was carrying a clipboard.

I was in his office today for the second half of a two-part exam. The first half had been carried out last week.

This was a routine physical, but nevertheless done at the behest of my employer. Covington Foods requires all of its managers to receive a stem-to-stern physical exam every two years.

“We can go over the results of your exam,” Dr. Beckman said, “if you’re ready. Per the usual procedure, my office will send a copy of the results to the Covington Foods human resources department. We’ll also mail a copy to the home address that we have on file for you.”

“Please,” I said. “Let’s go over the results.”

Dr. Beckman consulted his clipboard. “The results of the blood work that you had done last week are quite satisfactory. Liver and kidney function look good.

“Same for lipids. We’ll have to watch your LDL cholesterol, moving forward. But that’s the same for practically everyone. You performed well on your stress test. Not bad at all, for a man your age.”

Just then Dr. Beckman stopped himself. “Oh, I’m sorry, Steve. I didn’t mean—”

“That’s okay, Doc. I’m fifty-nine years old this year. We need not pretend that I’m a spring chicken. But it’s good to hear that I shouldn’t die in the foreseeable future, just the same.”

My last sentence, those words about death, seemed to hang in the air. Was I really certain that I wouldn’t die in the foreseeable future? And it wasn’t my LDL cholesterol that I was worried about.

I knew, from the events of forty years ago, that there were far worse ways to die.

“Of course not,” Dr. Beckman said, with a tight little smile. “I anticipate you’ll be coming in for many more biennial exams yet.”

The doctor paused, not saying anything for a moment. During my more than thirty years at Covington Foods, I have had literally thousands of encounters with bosses, colleagues, and subordinates. I can always tell when someone has something to say, but doesn’t quite know how to broach the topic.

“I sense a ‘but’ coming here, Doc,” I said. “Out with it, whatever ‘it’ is.”

The doctor seemed relieved. “Yes, well, I suppose there is something. I couldn’t help noticing that you’ve displayed signs of acute anxiety this week. I didn’t notice that last week, when you came in for the blood work and the stress test.”

‘Anxiety’, Dr. Beckman called it. That was putting the matter lightly. My problems had begun on Tuesday of last week, the day after my visit to Dr. Beckman’s office, for the first part of my full-body exam.

But there was no way I could discuss the past week and a half with Dr. Beckman.

“I don’t think so,” I said, playing dumb. “A little stress at the office maybe. Nothing more.”

I could tell that Dr. Beckman didn’t believe me. You don’t get through medical school without being perceptive.

But in another second my facade would crumble, anyway.

 

That was when I heard the hoofbeats, thundering down the hallway. I could picture a dark black horse. The animal would be partially rotted from the centuries it had spent in the grave, its muscles and bones exposed here and there. The eyes of the horse would be dead and glassy.

The rider of the horse would be wearing an eighteenth-century military frock coat, also rotted and in tatters, heavy trousers and boots.

The rider would be wearing no hat. Because the rider had no head.

The rider would be wielding a large battlefield sword.

The rider and horse would burst through the door of the exam room. First the Horseman would behead Dr. Beckman. (Dr. Beckman would barely have time to see the blow coming; and he certainly wouldn’t have time to save himself.)

Dr. Beckman’s head would topple from his body and roll to the floor. Then his body would drop, so much dead weight, his neck spurting blood.

And then the Horseman would take my head, too.

I had evaded him for more than forty years. But I would evade him no longer.

A few more seconds passed, and I realized the nature of my delusion. The hoofbeats in the hallway moved past the closed door of the exam room. Then I realized that they were not hoofbeats at all.

What I had heard was the ruckus of a nurse or orderly pushing a caster-wheeled cart atop the tiled floor of the hallway outside the exam room. A perfectly normal sound in any medical building.

I recovered myself. Dr. Beckman was staring at me with narrowed eyes.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just felt a bit lightheaded for a moment. It’s nothing.”

Dr. Beckman made not even the slightest pretense of accepting my excuse.

“Steve,” he said. “We’ve got to talk.”

 

Dr. Beckman did not convince me quite that easily. As I’ve said, I’m a divisional manager at Covington Foods. I don’t easily budge when I am not of a mind to do so.

“Have you ever heard of cortisol, Steve?” Dr. Beckman asked me.

I was somewhat puzzled by this seemingly off-the-wall question.

“Maybe,” I said. “I might have heard of it. One of those hormones, isn’t it?”

“Very good,” Dr. Beckman said, nodding. “Exactly. Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. As you might be able to guess, your body secretes cortisol when you are under stress. Part of the body’s fight or flight mechanism. A small amount of cortisol is relatively harmless.”

“I have a feeling, Dr. Beckman, that you’re going to tell me that larger quantities of cortisol are not so harmless.”

“Right again, Steve. Over time, large quantities of cortisol can have a myriad of negative effects on your health. And I’m not merely talking about things like a touchy stomach or sleeplessness, though symptoms begin that way. Over time, large amounts of cortisol can lead to autoimmune diseases, heart disease, and even cancer. That’s what chronic stress does to your body.”

I took a moment to take in what Dr. Beckman had just said. It was a sad irony to think that even if the Horseman hadn’t beheaded me forty years ago, the memory of him—these flashbacks—might bring about my death by a thousand proverbial cuts.

In more than forty years, I had told no one about the events that transpired in the summer of 1976. I was the only one left alive who fully remembered them.

Perhaps I had kept my secrets too long. Perhaps I could benefit by opening up, just a little.

Could I tell Dr. Beckman about that horrible summer? No, I didn’t think I could. But perhaps I could tell him about the problems that I had been having more recently.

“Okay, doctor. I suppose I get your point. I have been under a more than usual amount of stress lately. Some very unusual things have been occurring.”

“Unusual?” Dr. Beckman raised his eyebrows.

“Very unusual,” I confirmed.

Dr. Beckman leaned back against the spotless counter where the sink was. He set his clipboard on the counter, near the bottles of rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.

“By all means, Steve. Do go on. We have some time left in your appointment hour.”

I took a deep breath before beginning. “Okay, Doc. It all began with a quarter.”

“A quarter?”

“Yes. A quarter.”

 

Chapter 2

Table of Contents

Eleven Miles of Night: Chapter 1

Four days earlier…

The portly, fortysomething stranger hailed Jason Kelley in the corridor of the University of Cincinnati’s Old Chemistry Hall, just as the latter was exiting Video Journalism 201. And Jason, oblivious, walked right by the unknown man without even slowing down.

Jason’s thoughts were still lost in the lecture that had just ended. The professor who taught Video Journalism 201, Dr. Reinhold, was a transplanted Californian, a PhD who had worked for a time with Universal Studios. Dr. Reinhold had feverishly lectured the class through the end of the hour, even though it was the last week of classes, and everyone was feeling lazy in the early June heat. That was Dr. Reinhold for you: He was passionate about his subject matter, unlike so many other profs, whom you could tell were only going through the motions. 

But school was not the only thing on Jason’s mind; and he immediately began to daydream about other matters. (This was why he did not hear when the stranger addressed him by name a second time amid the hum of the crowded university hallway.

Jason was daydreaming about Molly Russell. Molly was a coed who on one night several weekends ago had quite unexpectedly spent the night in his apartment. Thoughts of Molly simultaneously stirred feelings of deep longing and unease. Jason was aware of the paradoxical and contradictory nature of this combination of feelings, and was wondering how it could be so.

Jason was thinking about the way he had treated Molly since their encounter, and feeling guilty about it. Jason knew that he had been a bit of an insensitive jerk lately. He was also thinking about his mother and father; that meant even more feelings of guilt. 

And his sister, Amy—no, he didn’t even want to think about Amy now.

Jason was about to walk around the corner of the hallway—the one that led to the main exit—when the stranger called out yet again.

Jason Kelley! Excuse me!

This time the sound of his own name snapped him out of his reverie. Jason stopped, turned around, and saw the source of the voice: an older man who looked somewhat out of place in the swirl of late teen and early twentysomething students.

“Hello?” Jason responded. Jason knew immediately that he had seen this man somewhere on television—or perhaps on the Internet. Jason was barely twenty-one years old, and he could count his middle-aged acquaintances on two hands—not including professors and relatives. This man, who was balding and had flecks of gray in his beard, was neither of the above.

“I thought you were going to keep walking,” the man went on. “I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to run you down and tackle you.” These words were phrased as an offhand joke; but Jason could detect a slight ripple of irritation beneath the observation. This was obviously not a man who was used to being ignored.

“You are Jason Kelley, aren’t you?” the stranger said, when Jason continued to look confused. 

“I am,” Jason said neutrally. “And you are—”

Where have I seen this guy before? Somewhere, I’m sure. But I have no idea where.

“Ah,” the man said. “Allow me to introduce myself.” Clearly he had expected Jason to recognize him on sight; so he was obviously some sort of a celebrity—albeit a minor one, in all likelihood. 

“Thank you.”

“My name is Simon Rose. Does that name ring a bell?”

Simon Rose! Now Jason got it: 

“It sure does,” Jason said, brightening. “Of course I recognize you: Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose.”

“Guilty as charged,” Simon Rose said. He removed a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to Jason. The business card contained Rose’s contact information, plus a little logo that featured a stylized cartoon ghost. “And I know this is strange, approaching you like this, but Dr. Hoffman said that I could find you here. With this being the last week of school and all, I wanted to make sure that I caught up with you before you took off for the summer.”

Jason nodded, his excitement growing. Now this was starting to make sense. Dr. Hoffman was his academic advisor. And this was indeed one of his last classes of the school year. He would be exiting his campus apartment in a matter of days, though his residence during the summer was still a contentious issue. That made him think of his parents again, and he quickly stifled those unpleasant thoughts. This was Simon Rose who had sought him out. Simon Rose of Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose.

Students milled about them, their pace and conversations buoyed by early June levity. A warm summer breeze swept into the corridor through a set of metallic doors that were propped open to allow a flux of students in both directions. To Jason’s surprise, no one else seemed to recognize Simon Rose, either. Cable television and the Internet had minted a lot of second-tier celebrities in recent years, Jason knew. 

Simon Rose’s domain was cable TV. Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose was a regular staple on the Biography Channel—or possibly TLC. (Jason couldn’t remember which one for sure.) And, of course, both authorized and pirated clips of the show could be found throughout the Internet.

“I was very impressed with those two short films you entered in the Southern Ohio Regional Scholastic Film Competition last month,” Simon said. “No—I didn’t attend the actual event; but I saw them on the Internet. You’ve got real talent, Jason. Now, I have a proposition for you. Would you, by chance, be free for lunch so that we might discuss it?”

“Absolutely,” Jason said. His next class was not until the late afternoon. And he would have gladly skipped it anyway. It wasn’t everyday that a man like Simon Rose paid a personal visit to an Electronic Media major at a public university in Ohio.

“Perfect,” Rose said. “How does Indian sound?”

Grand Taj India Restaurant was located in the Gaslight District of Clifton, the inner-city neighborhood that was home to the University of Cincinnati. They made the short drive in Simon Rose’s car, a sleek red Audi S5 Cabriolet that attracted numerous stares along the way. When Jason made an appreciative remark about the car, Simon seemingly could not help adding, “This is the car I use when I drive in the flyover states. When I’m in California, I drive an R8 GT Spyder.”

Jason had been told numerous times that a display of excessive eagerness was one of the worst mistakes that a young person could make, so he contented himself with small talk during the ride to the restaurant. Once there, they were efficiently seated by a sari-clad hostess; and each of them placed an order for lunch. Simon Rose didn’t come to the point until he was digging into his appetizer, a beef-filled pastry called keema samosa

“You entered two films in the competition we talked about,” Simon said. 

“Yes, sir,” Jason said. The first of these, Community Portrait, was a sort of inner-city community immersion film—arguably low-hanging fruit for a student who lived within the confines of the city. The film had been well received in the competition. In retrospect, however, Jason was less than proud of it. Community Portrait, with its preachy script and stilted portrayal of the lives of the urban poor, now struck Jason as sanctimonious and self-serving. He had intended to produce a Film with a Message. He had ended up looking like just another affluent white film student who pesters the residents of the inner city for “material.” 

The second film, A Haunting at Travis Books, was a bit more interesting. A bookstore owner in a nearby Cincinnati neighborhood had complained of paranormal activity. The one-hundred-fifty-year-old building in which Travis Books was housed had a troubled history: Sometime around the First World War, a young woman had apparently hanged herself in the attic. This woman, it seemed, was dead but not yet departed. The bookstore’s owner and a handful of his patrons had reported hearing the creaking sound that a rope makes when it swings back and forth with a heavy object attached to one of its ends. Cold spots suddenly chilled the air without warning, even during the height of summer. Books and other objects would occasionally disappear from the main downstairs store area, only to appear later in one of the bookstore’s back offices. According to the owner, these missing objects sometimes even made their way to the very attic where the long-dead woman had taken her own life. 

Jason had learned of the allegedly haunted bookstore when he read a brief article about the place on one of Cincinnati’s news websites. He had sensed immediately that the bookstore’s owner’s predicament had short film potential. Moreover, he believed that he could take the story itself to another level, one that the local journalist who had written the ho-hum article could never grasp. So he contacted not only the bookstore’s owner, but also a representative of one of the many ghost-hunting organizations in the Cincinnati area. These groups, Jason had heard, were always eager for exposure. 

Jason began A Haunting at Travis Books with a series of interviews with the bookstore’s owner and several customers who were willing to participate. He included a short sketch of the woman who had hung herself—a woman whose name turned out to be Lena Caudwell. But the main portion of the film consisted of an onsite paranormal investigation, complete with EMF readings and EVP recordings.

The results, as Jason had half-expected, were inconclusive; and the tormented spirit of Lena Caudwell failed to oblige him with a dramatic appearance. Nevertheless, Jason knew that he had nailed both the subject matter and the presentation. He had woven a piece of local lore into a compelling human interest story, then combined it with a detailed study of a textbook ghost-hunting investigation. A Haunting at Travis Books contained no irrefutable proof of paranormal activity. But then, no films about the paranormal contained such proof.

“I assume that you were most interested in the second one,” Jason said now. A waitress in a colorful Indian sari brought them their entrees—tandori chicken with naan and saffron rice. 

“Good guess,” Simon said with a smile. “You showed a real intuitive grasp of the subject matter. Tell me, do you have a special interest in the supernatural?”

“Not really,” Jason said honestly. It was tempting to lie; but Jason figured that a man like Simon would be able to instantly spot a response that was sycophantically or opportunistically dishonest. “I have a special interest in making good films.”

“Fair enough,” Simon said, before putting a forkful of tandori chicken into his mouth. “But the project I have in mind for you is—as you might expect—supernatural in nature.”

Jason felt a pleasant tingle of excitement. Rose was finally coming to the point. 

“Have you ever heard of a stretch of road called the Shaman’s Highway? It’s located in Carey County, just a little past Osborn Lake State Park.”

Jason shook his head. “Can’t say as I have. But then, I’m not from around here. I grew up in Columbus. I’ve heard of Wagosh, though. Isn’t that in Carey County?”

“Another good guess,” Simon said. He removed an iPhone from his pocket and manipulated its screen for the better part of a minute. Then he laid the phone down on the tablecloth and scooted it toward Jason. 

The phone’s screen was filled with a Google Maps view that showed a stretch of U.S. Route 68 running south from Wagosh, Ohio. Jason picked out Osborn Lake State Park on the map view, as well as a few small towns lying south of Wagosh. “This is the Shaman’s Highway,” Rose said.

“It looks like a pretty remote area,” Jason observed.

“It is,” Rose said, taking the phone back. “About sixty miles northeast of here. As you probably know, central Ohio is fairly unpopulated to the east of I-71 between Cincinnati and Columbus. The area you would be walking through is rural. Note that I specified that you would have to complete the entire study on foot, for reasons that I shall explain shortly. There are houses and towns along the Shaman’s Highway, but you’d be a long way from the city—a long way from anything resembling a comfortable, brightly lit suburb. And you would be walking at night, through an area with a reputation for paranormal activity. Would that be a problem for you?”

Jason sensed a slight air of baiting in the question. “I’m not afraid of the dark.”

“That’s good, Jason. Mighty good, because a lot of people living in Carey County have been scared by the Shaman’s Highway late at night. And from what I hear, the majority of them were anything but cowards. When my team was conducting its initial research, we spoke to a 38-year-old man who had done two tours of duty in Iraq. He told us that nothing—not even a midnight patrol in Fallujah—had scared him as much as what he saw on that little stretch of U.S. Route 68. Now, are you still interested?”

Jason smiled. “I’m very interested, Mr. Rose. Let’s hear what you have in mind.”

*   *   *

 

Text entry entitled “The Shaman’s Highway”, from the paranormal website, HauntingsinOhio.com.

“Between the small city of Wagosh, Ohio and the town of John’s Mistake, there lies an eleven-mile section of U.S. Route 68 that locals refer to as ‘the Shaman’s Highway.’ Over the past one hundred years, there have been numerous reports of paranormal phenomena along this roadway. These include unexplained voices and sounds coming from the surrounding woods, and sightings of ghostlike apparitions, hellhounds, and various other unidentified creatures. Near the southern terminus of the Shaman’s Highway, there is a nineteenth-century covered bridge that is believed to be haunted by the spirit of a witch. The witch reportedly lived in the area around the time of the Civil War. 

In 1997, a Carey County Sheriff’s Deputy was interviewed by the Columbus Dispatch regarding the road’s reputation. “South of Wagosh, Route 68 drops off into a remote part of the countryside. It’s a section of road that will play games with your imagination if you aren’t careful,” Deputy John Porter stated. 

There are several theories that are commonly cited as explanations for the disturbing occurrences. Carey County, Ohio was home to multiple Native American tribes prior to widespread European settlement of the area—most notably the Shawnee. When Route 68 was paved in the early 1930s to accommodate vehicle traffic, workers reported finding Native American artifacts, including arrowheads, shards of clay pottery, and stone amulets. There are also unconfirmed reports of skulls and other human bones being unearthed during the roadwork. This has led to speculation that a Shawnee burial ground may have been located in the area. 

Another theory links the strange sightings to rumored satanic cult activity during the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1970s there were persistent stories about satanic rituals being carried out in an unspecified part of the woods along the same portion of the highway. These reports, like those of the unearthed human remains and the burial ground, were never confirmed.” 

*   *   *

As Simon Rose finished his description of the Shaman’s Highway and its history, Jason feared that the hint of a repressed smile would show on his face. Jason did not define himself as a coldly rational atheist. To the extent that such matters occurred to him at all, he supposed that he would have acquiesced to the existence of God and the human soul. However, Simon’s story was over the top.

“I sense a skeptic in the room,” Simon said without a trace of resentment. No doubt the ghost-hunter was accustomed to dealing with skeptics.

“Well, I—” Jason began, struggling to decide how honestly he should respond.

“No hemming and hawing,” Simon preempted him. “Just so you know, your belief in the supernatural—or lack thereof—is in no way a prerequisite for your participation in this project, which I’ll outline in detail shortly. For now, I want you to tell me what you think. Be honest.”

“Okay, then,” Jason said. “Here goes: I can accept the idea—in theory, that is—of a wayward spirit, or some sort of residual energy from a past event producing a rapping on a wall, or maybe even traces of an apparition. I can deal with the notion of words being articulated on EVP recordings, and unexplained cold air pockets in rooms where a person was murdered or committed suicide. But dead witches and a who’s who assembly of spirits haunting a highway? And hellhounds? I’m sorry Mr. Rose, but it all strains my sense of credibility. I don’t know exactly what a hellhound is, but it doesn’t sound like something that’s likely to exist in the woods of Ohio.” 

Simon laughed indulgently, his good humor not yet flagging. “The hellhound,” he said. “Is a universal element in folklore. In one form or another, the creature can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greek myths. Have you ever heard of the three-headed dog known as Cerberus? The Greeks and the Romans believed that it guarded the gateway to the underworld, and kept those who had crossed the River Styx from escaping back into the world of the living. Multiple iterations on the theme of the hellhound can be found throughout the world, from the Barghest of northern England, to the black cadejo of Latin America.”

“Fair enough,” Jason said. “But hellhounds in Ohio? You’ll pardon me if I say that it all sounds a little bit hard to accept.”

Simon chuckled. “I can see that I don’t have to worry about you being overly credulous. That’s okay. I’ve often found that some of the best ghost hunters are skeptics, anyway. And certainly there would be a problem if you were too eager to believe. But let me tell you now what I have in mind, exactly. Are you physically fit, Jason?”

The question surprised Jason somewhat. “I ran track in high school,” he said. “My event was the two-mile. I went to the state finals my senior year.”

“Excellent,” Simon replied. “Then you would have no trouble walking eleven miles. And an eleven-mile walk is exactly what this project entails. My crew will drop you off just south of Wagosh shortly after dusk on the day of the film project. Then you’ll hike the eleven miles to the end of the Shaman’s Highway. Along the way, you’ll document your findings with notes, video, and whatever sound recordings you can gather.”

“I’ll be walking by myself”? Jason asked. “Without a crew?”

Simon smiled. “I thought you said that you didn’t believe in any of this stuff.”

“I’m not scared,” Jason clarified. “What I’m worried about is the video quality. As you know, you can’t shoot a good film without the proper equipment: a professional camcorder with a 64-gigabyte or so hard drive, boom mics, lighting, etc. I can’t carry all of that with me.”

Simon shook his head. “Don’t worry about that. What I have in mind is more like an eyewitness video, the sort of thing you see uploaded onto sites like YouTube. I understand going in that the footage you’ll be able to gather will be fragmentary and incomplete. I figure you should be able to carry a prosumer camcorder with you. You’ll need something that has night-vision capabilities, though.”

“My Sony has night vision,” Jason said. “But it’s like you said, ‘prosumer’—not the sort of camcorder that you would ordinarily use for television. The audio is decent but not completely clean. There may be some static. And the hard drive isn’t big enough to record the three to four hours that it will take me to walk eleven miles. I’ll need to be selective about what I capture.” 

“That’s fine,” Rose said. “Do what you can. The point here isn’t to generate hours and hours of footage. Film as much as you can. Just get me something. Hopefully something that I can use on the show.”

 “I don’t understand, Mr. Rose,” Jason said. “Why are you doing it this way? I mean, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I am. This is an excellent opportunity for me. But why don’t you simply bring in your regular crew, and have them do a walk under full lights, with all the video equipment you need in a pickup truck?”

“An excellent question,” Rose replied. “When I saw those films of yours, I knew right away that you’re a young filmmaker who knows how to identify and ask the proper questions. And so I’ll give you an answer: I filmed the Shaman’s Highway last year with a full crew, and we saw nothing. Just a dark wooded highway that was a little spooky, but completely devoid of any concrete phenomena.”

“So why not have a member of your crew complete the walk solo?”

“It all comes down to manpower, logistics, and scheduling. If you watch our show, it might seem that we function in an ad hoc, random sort of way; but that really isn’t the case. We plan projects out months in advance. Our second attempt at the Shaman’s Highway—what I intend to hire you for—has been on the schedule for nearly nine months. It isn’t the only project on the schedule, though. This week most of my team will be shooting down in Tennessee, investigating a house where a man murdered his wife and two children in 1965. The house is said to be crawling with malevolent presences. So the Shaman’s Highway project, while important, is not at the top of the priority list. I can spare only two crew members for Carey County. One is a pregnant woman; and the other is a somewhat overweight and out-of-shape man who would be unable to complete an eleven-mile walk. You can see, then, Jason, why I want to outsource this job to you: You have the right mix of video and journalistic skills, physical fitness, and, I hope, availability.”

“I should be available,” Jason said. “What is the timing for the project?” 

“This weekend. Friday night, in fact. The timing is important because the road is said to be more spiritually active during the full moon. The full moon arrives this Friday night—about a hundred hours from now.”

Jason contemplated the upcoming weekend. What else did he have going on? That reminded him of Molly Russell; and now he had one more reason to accept Simon Rose’s offer—provided that the pay was right, of course.  

“Everything sounds good,” Jason said. “I can be available this Friday. I have only one question, really.”

Rose smiled. “Of course you do; and I know what it is: Your compensation as a subcontractor on this project will be $2,000, plus expenses,” Simon said. “The walk itself should take about four hours, with an additional hour for the post-walk interview.”

That’s $400 per hour, Jason thought. It was money that he could definitely use. His financial resources were minimal—a combination of loans and part-time work, and a partial scholarship that he had cobbled together. His parents, despite their declaration of best wishes for his educational endeavors, had been unable to provide him with any financial assistance. The two of them were barely able to take care of themselves, after all.

“That will be satisfactory,” Jason said, recalling again those admonitions against displays of excessive eagerness. 

“Excellent,” Simon said. The waitress brought the bill for lunch. Jason reached for his wallet and Simon waved him still. “Lunch is on me,” the semi-famous filmmaker said.

Chapter 2

Table of contents

Eleven Miles of Night: Preface: The Bridge

He stepped into the darkness of the covered bridge and told himself: Only a few more miles to go, if only your nerves and your sanity hold out, that is.

The inside of the bridge’s enclosure smelled of mold, mildew, and the unseen waters that ran beneath it. It had the dank, black feeling of the bottom of a well. 

As he placed one foot down on the first creaking plank of the bridge, he half-remembered a nightmare: a dream of an evil presence that was vaguely female—or no, that pretended to be female. She (it?) might be a ghost or possibly something much worse. And she was lying in wait for him, like the evil witch in the children’s story, Hansel and Gretel

He took another step into the all-consuming darkness. The wood creaked again, practically groaned this time. She’s waiting for you, he thought. Whatever she (or it) is, you’ll find out before you reach the other side of this bridge.

Now why would the sound of that creaking wood trigger such thoughts?

Then he remembered: Because she had told him that she would be waiting for him here. At the bridge.

He looked ahead and saw the moonlit pavement of the open road not a stone’s throw away. He could not go back now. Even worse things were waiting on the road behind him. He had to move forward.

Just walk, he thought. Take some long strides and you’ll be out of here in no time. 

And so he walked, observing how narrow the bridge was, and reflecting that surely two cars coming from opposite directions could not pass through here at the same time. 

The wood beneath his feet continued to creak, but that was nothing to worry about. The bridge supported the weight of cars, after all.

He heard a sound above him, from the rafters of the enclosure. It was like a hiss, like air escaping from a poorly tied balloon. Then he heard another sound: the sound of weight shifting, of something moving around up there.

Don’t look. Just keeping walking. If you look up there, what you see will drive you mad, even more so than the other things you’ve seen this night. 

He was now in the middle of the bridge; the open, starry sky and the solid pavement were only a few paces away. He could make it in a short dash.

The thing above him seemed to sense his impending flight. He heard it scratch against the wood overhead.

And now he had the feeling that he must look upward and confront it—that this was the central task that he had set out tonight to face. It would also be true to say that the malevolent presence aroused his darkest curiosity. Like Lot’s wife fleeing from the burning wreckage of Sodom, he felt compelled to see the worst, and suffer the consequences.

Slowly and deliberately, he stopped his forward trek, steeled himself, and looked up into the rafters of the covered bridge.

Chapter 1

Table of contents

Preview ‘The Eavesdropper’ on Edward Trimnell Books

A corporate thriller that will keep you guessing…

Three of your coworkers are planning a murder. Will you stop them, or become their next victim?

A corporate workplace thriller based (very loosely) on some intrigues that I have seen and experienced in the corporate world.

You can start reading The Eavesdropper here on Edward Trimnell Books.

Or view it now on Amazon!

‘The Stand’: rereading update

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently started rereading The Stand, Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic novel of the “superflu” or “Captain Trips”. 

I also mentioned that I read the book for the first time back in the mid-1980s, when I was a high school student. (I believe I read it in the fall of my junior year, which would have been October~November 1984, more or less.) Continue reading “‘The Stand’: rereading update”

‘Greyhound’: Tom Hanks’s next WWII movie

I grew up on stories of World War II–real ones. My maternal grandfather served in the US Navy, mostly in the North Atlantic. He made numerous runs between the US and the United Kingdom. And he told me many tales of dodging Messerschmidts and “wolf pack” U-boats. 

There was never really a modern movie done about his war, though. There have been lots of movies about combat in the South Pacific and in the Middle East. There have been many, many films about D-Day. Not so many about the perilous North Atlantic runs between the United States and England.

That’s why I’m especially looking forward to seeing the next World War II movie from Tom Hanks, Greyhound, which is all about my grandfather’s war—naval combat in the North Atlantic. Continue reading “‘Greyhound’: Tom Hanks’s next WWII movie”

‘The Consultant’: a lone American trapped in North Korea!

This book was partially serialized here on the site.

Now you can get it on Amazon.

I’ve enrolled The Consultant in Kindle Unlimited for 90 days… so those of you who are members can read it for free. 

Paperback also available. Audiobook version coming soon!

The most oppressive regime on earth has taken you prisoner. And they have a mission for you!

Barry Lawson is an American marketing consultant traveling on business to Osaka, Japan. After striking up a conversation with a woman in a bar, he agrees to accompany her back to her apartment.

But the mystery woman is not who she seems. Days later, Barry wakes up in a cell in North Korea.

He discovers that the North Korean government has abducted him for a specific purpose. The North Koreans don’t plan to ransom him. They want him to work for them.

But Barry is determined to escape—whatever the cost.

His allies are a Japanese abductee, and a beautiful American woman who understands the North Koreans, and speaks their language.

With a U.S.-North Korean summit fast approaching, a coup plot shakes the very foundation of the Pyongyang regime. Barry chooses this moment to make a desperate dash for freedom. But he and his fellow escapees risk death at every turn.

The Consultant is a thriller ripped from real-life headlines, with unforgettable characters and nonstop action!

Get The Consultant on Amazon.com!