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THE BUSINESS/PLEASURE SCALE ...

Today's guest is the author Libby Drew, sharing with us her entertaining take on the art (struggle?!) of writing. And she's also offering the whole first chapter of her current work-in-progress. So if you haven't already tasted the flavour of her style - here's a treat for you!

Find Libby at her website and her Live Journal blog.



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Bio: LIBBY DREW glimpsed her true calling when her first story, a Winnie-the-Pooh/Shakespeare crossover, won the grand prize in her elementary school's fiction contest. Her parents explained that writers were quirky, poor, and often talked to themselves in supermarket checkout lines. They implored her to be practical, a request she took to heart for twenty years, earning two degrees, a white-collar job, and an ulcer, before realizing that practical was absolutely no fun.

Today she lives with her husband and four children in an old, impractical house and writes stories about redemption, the paranormal, and love at first sight, all of which do exist. She happens to know from experience. Visit Libby’s blog and check out her books at her website.

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On Writing: Keeping the “Love” in My Labor of Love

It’s not easy, especially these days. But for me, that’s exactly what writing is: a labor of love, even if I do enjoy some (very modest) financial gains through publication. Mixing business with pleasure is a bit of a balancing act, isn’t it? And since every writer I’ve ever known loves the craft, I think I can safely say I’m not the only person struggling with how to keep my pleasurable pastime, well… pleasurable.

The failsafe built in to this equation is that (usually) how much “business” a writer wants to take on is his or her choice. Self-regulating, to a certain extent. And since each person’s threshold differs, balancing the business/pleasure scale is a very personal matter. Our friends can be a great help. Despite the innate competitive nature of publishing, the writing community can be, and often is, open and supportive. The uber organized among us (Clare!) develop systems for managing the business side of things. They invent, refine, and then, kindly, share their tools with the rest.

And here’s where things get tricky, because it’s human nature to strive and push and maybe, just maybe, take on so much that the scales—delicate measures that they are—tip off-balance. Business looks easy from afar, but up close it tends to be a time drain, an emotional roller coaster, and occasionally even a political mine field.

When that happens, I try to remember why I ever picked up a pen in the first place. (And yes, we used pens back in the day.) It was because I thought I could give a story life—that I could explore humanity and maybe make someone smile, or laugh, or cry. Or think. If you love writing, you know that feeling never dies… but it can be buried. The irony is, we’re the ones holding the shovels.

I don’t have a secret formula for maintaining this balance—if someone does, email me! What I do have is a limited amount of time in my day to do something for myself, and I try to spend every minute enjoying it. So I suppose my message is this: Don’t get mired in the stress of the business. Type every word with a light heart and a smile on your face. It’s well and good to measure your financial success by your royalty check, but don’t forget the other, more personal successes—like being a storyteller.

***


Libby’s current project is titled 40 Souls to Keep:

Jase's life began eight years ago, when he awoke with no identification, no memories, and the mystical power to heal. The only clue to his identity is a tattoo on his arm: the number forty. Driven by a compulsion he doesn't understand and can't fight, he chases visions of people he's meant to save, using his power to cheat death time and time again. Always, he pursues the mystery of his existence. Who is he? Who gave him this power? Will his life ever be his own again?

In Naples, Florida, young Macy Pearl is orphaned by an apparent random act of violence. Her only friend is Lucas Jacobson, the social worker assigned to her case. Kind and genuinely caring, Lucas takes Macy under his wing, calming her when horrible dreams plague her sleep. He makes a promise to protect her, even as he silently wonders how the death of Macy's parents may be related to the people now stalking them both.

Drawn to Naples to heal Macy, Jase isn't prepared for a wary, protective Lucas. Convinced his mission is at an end, and that the key to his previous life lies with this young girl—the fortieth person he's healed—he resents Lucas's interference, even if he appreciates the lust they share for each other. Distracted by their mutual attraction, they let Macy slip through their fingers, and she disappears into the balmy Florida night.

Scouring the city from its glitzy resorts to its seedy underbelly, Jase and Lucas turn up clues that only deepen the mystery: Who is Macy Pearl and why was she targeted? Soon the search becomes a race, because the girl's strange dreams have also begun to haunt Jase, and he fears that if Macy dies before he can heal her, a dark fate awaits them all.



From 40 Souls to Keep…

Paradise Palms: Experience the Oasis.

At two in the morning, experiencing the oasis proved difficult, even with a fat, yellow moon on the horizon. Paradise Palms had all the seclusion of an oasis, Lucas would give it that, sprouting from the swamps of the Florida Everglades in all its ostentatious manicured glory. Palm trees flanked a ten-foot high orange and white stucco entrance, complete with security gate and empty gatehouse—never mind that one arm of the gate was locked up and open. Comical, really, if Lucas took too long to think about it… and depressing if he let the humor turn maudlin. What the world had here was living, breathing irony—a modern parody of an Old Western movie set, where the town was nothing more than sheet-plywood nailed together, the bank as empty of money as the saloon was of whisky.

Exclusive housing community, as purported on its website, Paradise Palms reminded Lucas of a bar at three in the morning, when the exhausted cocktail waitresses, reeking of beer and cigarette smoke, cranked up harsh fluorescents to a mish-mash of empty glasses, sticky floors, and stale beer. And Lucas should know; he’d closed plenty of bars in his time. Paradise Palms: the life of the real estate party a few years ago, now just a desperate housewife in a crippled economy.

Lucas coasted at the posted twenty-five miles per hour through the twisting streets, half an ear on the GPS, until the sign for Mariner Lane came into view. A metal cutout of a shining sun edged the top left corner of all the street markers, contradicting the flooding rains they’d been experiencing for the past few months. Much more and they’d have to change the state nickname. Goodbye Sunshine State, hello Land of Mosquitoes. A purely academic move, as the bloodthirsty bastards had already taken over, in Lucas’s opinion.

They weren’t the only creatures stepping out either.

Lucas’s headlights caught something lumbering across the road as he turned onto Mariner Lane. Spitting a curse, he hit the brakes and swung the wheel to the right, panning his headlights over the reedy berm. They caught the swish of a scaly tail as it disappeared into the swollen canal. What did it say about a neighborhood when alligators were roaming the streets? Ten bucks prospective buyers wouldn’t find that information on the Paradise Palms website, unless it came in the form of small-print disclosure: Owners of small pets and toddlers beware. Some slick real estate agent was probably out there spinning it differently—wasn’t that always the way? Paradise Palms: Experience the Oasis and Our Indigenous Security System. All prowlers mauled. Guaranteed.



With every house sitting thirty feet from a canal—less now, with the rains—Lucas figured “eaten by large reptile” was up there with “heart failure” as leading cause of death around the area. It sounded more plausible than he wanted to give it credit for.

“Perfect,” he muttered, straightening out the Jetta and continuing on toward the lightshow at the end of the street. Pulling over behind a dark sedan, he killed the engine and sat for a moment, gathering himself. The car in front of his was empty, but a bubble light, slapped crookedly onto the roof, continued to spin. A half a dozen other cars, some unmarked, were parked, sirens silent, blue and red lights spinning, in front of a cookie-cutter McMansion at the end of the cul-de-sac. The abandoned bar imagery was more suited than ever. All they needed was some cheap liquor and a jukebox loaded with Bee Gees tunes.

Twelve houses lined the street, Lucas noted. Only three showed signs of life, porch lights swarming with flying insects and cars in the drive, but those were down near the other end. As he climbed out of the car, he counted twelve uniformed officers, and a handful of others carrying bags and equipment in and out of the house. Chatter was plentiful, a low drone that competed with the chorus of insects. There wasn’t a single gawker in sight.

Even in an oasis in the middle of nowhere, Lucas had expected one or two curious souls. “Probably don’t like their odds against the wildlife,” he mumbled. He certainly wouldn’t bet money on which would draw more blood: the alligators or the mosquitoes.

An officer approached him as he stepped onto the driveway, and if it hadn’t been for the uniform and sidearm, she could have passed for a teenage girl. With her thick, curly hair gathered into a ponytail and her flawless, milky skin, she looked like a child playing dress-up… except for the gun on her hip. That looked real enough.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, deep voice at odds with her petite frame, “this area is off-limits.”

“Uh,” Lucas said, reaching for his identification. It got stuck in the pocket of his windbreaker, where the lining had torn away the last time he’d try to yank it out too quickly. By the time he finally ripped the leather holder free, and held it out to her, she was frowning. “Lucas Jacobson,” Lucas said. “I’m here for the kid.”

The woman—Officer Martinez, by her nametag—flinched and went a bit green around her cherry-red lips. She glanced over her shoulder, and Lucas followed her gaze to the line of people parading in and out of the house. Grim was the default expression on most of their faces. He popped his gum, and she jumped. Jerking his chin toward the house, he said, “That bad, huh?”

She said a few unintelligible words into the radio clipped to her shoulder before answering. “She’s alive. So not that bad, right?”

An optimist. Practically extinct these days. Lucas filed her name away for later. He was always on the lookout for a friendly face and a positive attitude, especially at the Naples PD. The city had made some harsh changes to their budget these past few years; finding a happy, satisfied officer of the law was rare. Most had accepted pay cuts and extended hours, if not graciously, then at least without violence. They hadn’t turned their guns on their supervisors, at any rate. The city had enough of that going around, thank you very much.

Their tolerance for stupidity scored about a negative ten these days, but then whose didn’t? Lucas couldn’t begrudge the attitude; he didn’t stomach lies and deception very well himself, and his clients shoveled bullshit like nobody’s business.

Lucas turned in a circle, taking in the identical giant houses as officer Martinez noted the information off his ID. “Quiet neighborhood. Nobody came out to see the show? Must be a hell of a party somewhere nearby.”

Brow furrowed, she darted him a glance.

“Kidding.” Lucas ran his tongue over his teeth.

Martinez handed his ID back and snapped her pen closed. “On this street, we have three occupied, three foreclosures, the rest empty.”

Whoa. Lucas added “Walking Wikipedia” to Martinez’s growing list of character traits. “Elvis has definitely left the building. That’s worse than normal, isn’t it?” Even his own neighborhood was averaging at least fifty percent occupancy… not counting the alligators.

“Wouldn’t know,” Martinez answered, head buried in her notebook.

Lucas let the topic drop. The economy was a sore subject everywhere, and Martinez wouldn’t be the only hard-working citizen living in her parents’ double-wide while she tried to get back on her feet. Not that he could be sure that was her story, but it was kind of his job, to pick up on those kinds of things. Seeing all this prime real estate sitting empty was enough to give him indigestion, and he wasn’t even weeping over an inverted mortgage. Yet.

He nodded towards the front door. “Can I go in?”

Martinez spread her stance and set a hand on her truncheon, and before any inappropriate laughter escaped, Lucas bit the inside of his cheek. With the poofy hair, tiny waist and slim shoulders, she looked like a Bratz doll… with a gun. Not exactly the epitome of intimidation.

“Please?” he added.

Martinez wrinkled her nose. “How strong’s your stomach?”

Fair question and Lucas answered honestly, resenting every word. “Smells get to me.”

“Then if I were you, I’d stay put.”

Lucas deferred, stepping back. He knew his limits, though it chafed to think Martinez might think he found her intimidating. He refused to be bullied, a conviction left over from childhood. Occasionally—more often than “sometimes” and less than “usually”—some punk client mistook his lankiness for helplessness, which was when Lucas fell back on confusing three-syllable words or, if that failed, his three years of Krav Maga. What was it about red hair and freckles that made people think he couldn’t fight his own battles? There was a statement about society in there somewhere.

“Listen, I realize you’d like to grab her and go. None of us want to be here, okay? It’s a shitty thing. Someone will bring her out in a few minutes,” Martinez said, her voice softening. “Please just wait over there.”

Lucas nodded his thanks and wandered a few paces away, still well within the halo of flashing lights. Sure, he’d wait, but he wasn’t going far. For one, he didn’t trust these clowns to handle a traumatized kid, and the fact that she was being kept from him for reasons undisclosed didn’t sit well.

Also, he’d lived in Naples for ten years, and didn’t believe one word of that crap the naturalists spouted about what timid creatures alligators were. They could crush a car with their jaws—he’d seen it on the Discovery channel, and okay, it’d been a Hyundai, but still…. With the heavy rains they’d had this month, the bastards were taking over.

He’d seen one sunning itself on the interstate yesterday, for Christ’s sake. He didn’t want to end up a midnight snack.

He walked in a tight circle, eyeing the other houses that lined Mariner Drive. Nowhere near as palatial as the house behind him, they nonetheless impressed, if you went in for that sort of thing. Which everyone did. Those who claimed otherwise were lying through their jealous teeth. Who wouldn’t want their 800 square foot living room spilling onto an expansive pool deck, where they could lounge in their hot tub while some buff dude cooked steaks and mixed Mojitos in their outdoor kitchen? Everybody, that’s who. Too bad people’s dreams were bigger than their wallets and common sense combined.

“Hey, Lucas.”

The familiar voice brought a smile, even though the circumstances called for something more sedate. Lucas had gone ten years at CPS without having to visit a murder scene and was man enough to admit he was out of his element. A friendly face was a welcome face.

He found Scott on the next driveway over, standing next to an idling ambulance. Its slower spinning lights adding glitz to the lightshow. “Hey, Scott.” Lucas shuffled through the tall grass, stepping over a bed of withered flowers. “You got the lucky call, huh?”

Scott grimaced. “Yeah. Pulled the short stick. Sucks big time. I hear it’s a mess. At least they’ll bag 'em for me. I just have to play Driving Miss Daisy down to the morgue.”

Lucas grunted in sympathy. Scott had washed out of medical school and ended up as an EMT for the city. First to admit that more advanced medicine wasn’t his cup of tea, he excelled at this end of the equation. He and Lucas had met a couple of years ago clearing a group of sick and malnourished runaways out of a beached fishing trawler on the Gordon River.

Any one of two dozen EMTs could have got this call. Funny how it turned out to be the guy Lucas was sleeping with—if clandestine bi-monthly fucks between the hours of midnight and two deserved that term.

Scott turned to fumble through an open supply chest. “I’m on call ’til seven. You still going to be dealing with this? Maybe we can grab some breakfast or something.”

All this time, twenty-two months by Lucas’s count, and the kid still couldn’t look him in the eye if there was the slightest implication they’d be getting naked at some point, probably after ham and cheese omelets. It was a bad night though—bad circumstances—so Lucas took pity on him. “That sounds great, actually. I’m not sure how long this is going to take. Can I call you?”

Bottom line: nothing beat mind-numbing sex as a restorative. For being in hardcore denial about his sexuality, the kid was insatiable in bed. Sweet too, as long as Lucas didn’t try anything too rough or take what they had out the front door and into the public eye. And, hell, who was he kidding? The arrangement suited him. It wasn’t like his job left him with any free time to speak of. Scott was close and convenient. A good fit. Except for the pesky self-hatred thing. That got in the way occasionally. “I’ll call you,” Lucas repeated.

Scott nodded, nonchalant, and closed the door on their conversation with a salute and a nervous glance around the yard. Nothing to see here, folks. Just two guys talking pancakes and OJ.

Swallowing a sigh, Lucas wandered away. He was standing in the neighbor’s driveway, staring at the chandelier visible through the two-story glassed foyer—seriously, the thing was as big as the Jetta—when Martinez called him over. “Jacobson! They’re done with her. They’re bringing her out.”

Lucas felt his hackles rise. “Done with her? Did we get out signals crossed? This is a eight-year-old little girl, right?”

Defensively, Martinez pulled her ponytail tighter. “Yeah.”

“Who just saw both her parent shot? Just making sure I’m at the right murder scene.”

Martinez’s dark eyes narrowed at his tone. “That’s the thing, right? They wanted to know if she saw anything.”

“The hell.” If the questioning had deepened her shock or trauma, he’d throw complaints at the department until the idiots responsible were suspended. He’d done it before, to the detriment of his reputation among Naples finest. But perseverance was a double-edged sword, and nobody else fought for these kids, so Lucas made it his priority.

He pushed by Martinez and started up the front walk. Either everyone was busy or they didn’t like the look on his face, because nobody stopped him, not even the uniformed mountain standing at the front door, thumbs slung into the bulging waistband of his gun belt.

Two steps over the threshold, the odor hit him. The air inside the house was hot and moist, and the smell of blood clung, giving it weight. Lucas choked once, got a handle on the nausea, then pushed further into the gloom, breathing through his mouth.

Travertine tile covered the foyer and entry hall, spiraling into the center of the room so that Lucas felt like he was standing in the middle of a dark whirlpool. Smooth walls, banded with wainscoting, curved away down the dark tunnel that led to the main living area. Through sets of French doors to his left and right, a few pieces of furniture—a desk, an armoire—stood guard over empty rooms. A pool cue stick sat propped against the wall by the front door, covered in dust.

Another abandoned house. Jesus, this one still had family photos on the wall, framed out in stark black squares, triple matted. Two smiling, blond girls with perfect teeth and perfect hair smiled at him from the largest of the photographs, dressed in matching cobalt blue party dresses. The picture listed at a forty-five degree angle, so Lucas had to tilt his head to examine it properly.

Cute. Though he doubted they could afford dresses like that anymore, wherever they were. Not wanting to give Martinez too much time to catch up, he moved on down the hall. Patches of mold dotted the baseboards and snaked up the wall. No wonder the house wasn’t lit up—no electricity, and no climate control to keep the moisture out. October could still be hot as hell, and this one had been damp too. On hot days the house must have felt like a steam bath.

The hall spit him out into the wide area that served as the great room. For all their pretention, most of these places were laid out identically, with one giant living area surrounding the pool deck. The bedrooms split to either side of that—master to one side, the rest to the other. This great room could have doubled as a football field. Foot-high crown molding framed the vaulted ceiling. Three enormous fans with palm-shaped leaves looked poised to whip gale-force wind through the space, not they’d done so in months. A complex maze of cobwebs connected them.

The previous owners had stripped this room; being devoid of furniture was what made it look so big, probably. In the center of the space, smack dab in the middle of another Travertine whirlpool was a makeshift campsite. No shit. Bed sheets had been strung between poles—brooms inside pots, on first inspection—creating primitive rooms. Jaw clenched, Lucas walked up on it, frowning at the partially deflated air mattresses and plastic crates that served as rudimentary furniture. “Ritzy.”

“Yeah.” Martinez’s voice sounded off his right shoulder. “Fancy digs for squatters, huh?”

Martinez was likely thinking how nice her parents’ trailer looked about now. Lucas bet it looked like a castle next to this. A pile of empty food cans lay in a jumble near his feet. As he watched, a roach crawled out of the largest: Campbell’s Sirloin Burger.

“Christ,” Lucas said, stomping on the thing. He’d been in prisons with better living conditions.

Martinez panned her flashlight over the scene. “It is what it is,” she said.

Middle-class wisdom. Too little, a bit too late, at least for the parents of the blond beauties in the hallway, and far too late for the parents of the child he’d been sent for. “Where’s the girl?”

“They’re bringing her down in a second. Wait!” Martinez grabbed his arm when he started for the stairs. “You don’t want to go up there. Fucking trust me, Jacobson.”

It was the profanity that made him put the brakes on. He stared at the restraining hand she’d laid on his arm, then at her, silently ordering her to remove it.

She didn’t. “It’ll be my job if you leave your high and mighty footprints all over their crime scene. And my ass if you puke on it, so just back the hell off.”

“What makes you think I’ll puke,” he grumbled.

Martinez snorted as she slid by and started up the staircase, thick ponytail swishing. “I did,” she threw over her shoulder. “A couple of the shots went through the woman’s stomach. I got a good look at what she had for dinner.”

The image of tough-girl Martinez, optimist and almost-homeless, losing her lunch did the trick. He backed off. That’d been her plan all along, probably. “Not nice,” he called up the stairs after her, stomach rolling at the scene she’d painted. Yeah, he’d wait here.

“You’ll thank me,” her voice drifted back down.

Maybe, but the thought of the kid upstairs, traumatized and frightened and undergoing questioning, however informal, made a case for him to follow anyway. What the hell were those idiots thinking? He distracted himself with staring at the once pristine white carpet, now smudged with a crisscross of muddy boot marks, but only lasted a minute before he dug out the scrap paper he’d used to take the phone message a half an hour ago. It only took a moment to find the girl’s name in the midst of his other scribblings.

“I’m here for Macy Pearl!” he shouted up the sweeping staircase. Screw the consequences. What could they do? Feed him to the alligators?

They could, and get away with it too, considering the infestation. He threw a nervous glance across the room to the open patio doors. Beyond, the lanai was nothing but a dank jungle, lit in uneven intervals by the sweep of flashlights, as dead as the inside of the house, with dried, brittle palm fronds dipping to touch the water near the shallow end of the pool. What self-respecting alligator wouldn’t want a share of that? It wasn’t as though the lanai screening could keep them out, not if they were determined.

Lucas shuddered. “Macy Pea—” he started to yell again, turning his head back to the stairs. A hand clamped on his shoulder, cutting him off cleanly.

“You Jacobson?”

The man in front of Lucas wasn’t in uniform—not an official one. Stocky and bald, with a pale mustache, he wore white shorts and an aquamarine polo shirt that had seen better days. A pink dolphin arched gracefully across the front of the shirt, stretched tight over his protruding belly, and it was smiling. The guy had capped the ensemble with a white sports coat. Only in Florida, folks.

He didn’t wait for Lucas’s yea or nay. “Stop your fucking yelling,” he drawled, the words slurring through the toothpick he had stuck between his molars. At his side, he held an honest-to-God white cowboy hat. Probably a Dukes of Hazzard fan. They’d started showing reruns on Lifetime a year ago, and before Lucas could say “General Lee”, orange Chargers had begun popping up on the lot at the local Dodge dealership. People were such lemmings.

“That’s me,” Lucas said, not offering his hand. “Are you the prick who’s questioning an eight-year-old girl about her parents’ murder while their blood is still drying on the floor?”

“Fuck you,” the detective spat, stabbing his finger at Lucas’s chest.

Lucas bit back his instinctive “You’re not my type.” No reason to add sexual innuendo to an already volatile mix. This guy looked about one Big Mac and two cigarettes away from a heart attack as it was. He placed a foot on the first riser, an unmistakable violation of the other man’s personal space. “Are you finished with the kid, Boss Hogg?”

“For now. But I’m going to want to see her again. Soon.”

Seriously? It was all Lucas could do to not roll his eyes. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t leave town.”

The guy opened his maw again—Lucas knew what was coming. Some variation on “You think you’re a funny guy, don’t you?” Pretty standard fair no matter what 1980s television shows one might be watching. Imagination must be one of the first things that got axed at detective school.

Luckily—because Lucas’s answers to that question usually landed him in trouble—the guy never got a chance to speak. Someone cleared their throat at the top of the stairs. Martinez stood on the top step, holding Macy’s tiny hand in hers. Like air escaping a balloon, Lucas’s anger left him. There’d be time to deal with why she’d been questioned at the scene, and without a guardian. If Hogg thought Lucas was going to let that go, his night was only going to get worse. But starting at that moment, Lucas’s only concern was Macy.

Eight years old, they’d said. Shit, the kid looked closer to five. Lucas knew what long-term malnutrition and other deficiencies did to a growing body. It was his job. A bigger part than he cared to admit. Even with the awkward angle, Lucas could tell she was tiny. Short and rail-thin. She made Martinez look like a giant. He squinted through the gloom, waiting for his initial impression to change. Eight? He found it hard to believe. Could they have gotten the age wrong?

Martinez descended one step, then tugged on Macy’s hand when she didn’t follow. “Come on, sweetheart. It’s okay.”

It sure the hell wasn’t. Lucas watched Marcy carefully. Was she the type of child to appreciate comforting platitudes? Some were, but Macy wasn’t broadcasting her preferences one way or the other at the moment.

Prompted by Martinez, Macy stepped carefully down onto the first carpeted step. Then she stopped. Stoic, she ignored Martinez’s singsong voice and gentle tugs.

“Come on, honey,” Martinez said, impatience edging her tone. “It’s going to be—”

“Martinez,” Lucas cut in. He wasn’t sure he could listen to one more lie, no matter how much syrup she poured on it. He took the steps two at a time, not rushing, keeping his gait slow, but purposeful, until he was a few risers below the pair. There he knelt. “Hello, Macy.”

No response.

“She’s in shock,” Hogg called from the lower landing.

“Thanks for the newsflash,” Lucas muttered. He took a deep breath, exhaling his frustration in a low whistle.

The closer he got, the more Macy looked like a ragdoll. Ash-brown hair hung in limp ringlets around her face. Her pale yellow sundress hung off her frame. It was smudged with dirt—and other things Lucas didn’t want to think about. She wasn’t the most attractive child he’d seen. Her square face held a pair of blue eyes set too close together, and her mouth was so thin it almost disappeared, but she didn’t appear hurt or abused. Of course, a more detailed examination would confirm that.

“Macy,” he said. “My name is Lucas. I work with Child Protective Services. Do you know what that is?”

Nothing. Not even a twitch. At the bottom of the steps, Hogg snorted. “There’s nobody home. We already tried.”

Rage swelled at the remark. Lucas punched it back ruthlessly. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” he said more quietly, moving closer, though he still made no move to touch her. He settled on the step below her feet, placing his back against the banister. Folding his hands between his knees, he waited. The best thing would be for Macy to set the pace.

A long moment passed. Above them, down the wide hall that he assumed led to the bedrooms—and the carnage—Lucas heard several conversations at once. They blended together into a toneless hum that was almost soothing. The men downstairs and out at the pool had fallen quiet. Even Boss Hogg had shut his piehole. Small favors.

Lucas opened his mouth, ready to try another tactic when Macy untangled her fingers from Martinez’s and sank slowly onto the soiled carpet next to Lucas, drawing her knees to her chest and looping her arms around her legs. Her eyes kept their distant focus.

Touch was the key, but touch too soon and the damage could triple. Lucas didn’t need a child development textbook to tell him that. He had practical experience. “Macy,” he said, then again, “Macy.” The more she heard her name from his mouth, the better. “I’m going to take you away from here, sweetheart. I can’t promise everything’s going to be okay, but I can promise it’s going to get better. You’ll be safe where we’re going.”

Finally, a flicker. The child cut her eyes to Lucas for a brief second, then away. He considered what in his little speech had stirred her. He slid one riser higher, putting his eyes level with hers, then held his hand out, palm up. “May I hold you hand, Macy?”

Nope. Stubborn little thing. Lucas did his best to tune out his audience while he spoke.

“Are you thirsty, sweetheart?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but shared a meaningful look with Martinez. She melted back into the shadows, reappearing a minute later with a bottle of water. A small red cross decorated the label—the special brand their paramedics carried. She passed it over, and Lucas cracked the seal. It came open with a series of clicks as the plastic tab broke free. Macy flinched, and Lucas froze. “Just some water, Macy.” He held it to her lips.

After one sip, she stopped swallowing, letting it drip down her chin and onto her dress, the clear liquid drawing tracks through the grime on her neck. Hogg made a distinct sound of disgust, and Lucas promised to hurt the man at the first opportunity. He pasted a smile on his face. “Not so good, huh? It’s not Evian, I know. They put electrolytes in it. I always thought it was kind of icky myself.”

Nothing. Macy started to rock, her blank stare never faltering. Lucas ran a hand through his hair, the only sign of frustration he allowed himself, and replayed the scene in his head. How had he broken through the first time? What words had made the difference?

“Macy?”

Macy rocked and stared.

“You’re safe now,” Lucas said. He took a chance, running a hand over her tangled hair. Dare he believe he felt her lean into his touch?

“You have a gift,” Martinez whispered, drawing Lucas’s gaze. “I can hear it in your voice.” She glanced behind her, then back to the catatonic girl. One hand clutching the banister, the other the butt of her sidearm, she said, “The world’s going to hell.”

Lucas nodded. It felt like that some days. Today, definitely, in this abandoned castle with the stench of blood around him and the remnants of someone’s fairytale still hanging on the walls. To call the murderer a monster wasn’t a bad analogy.

“Jacobson,” Hogg said, quieter still, almost reverent. He jerked his chin in Macy’s direction, and Lucas snapped his head around.

Macy Pearl had stopped looking through him. Sea-blue eyes, wet with tears, met his own. “Lucas,” she whispered, then slipped off the carpeted riser and into his lap. Gently, Lucas cradled her close.

“I’ll be damned,” Hogg said.

*

Hogg introduced himself properly while Lucas was loading Macy into his car. He hiked his shorts up by his belt loops and thrust his hand into Lucas’s face. “Detective Gary Swift,” he said.

Proud heterosexual, Lucas finished silently. Can’t live with ’em, can’t run a homicide investigation without them. “Lucas Jacobson,” he said, engaging in a mini arm wrestling contest.

“Yeah, I’ve heard of you.” Finally Swift let him go, and Lucas resisted cradling his abused hand to his chest.

The testosterone war got old. His own fault, though. His boss had warned him—her bit of don’t-get-your-ass-kicked advice for the newbie. The first day on the job, she’d pulled him aside. “We’re all very progressive here,” she’d said. “We love gay people.”

Still so new to the department he didn’t even have his own stapler, Lucas had tipped his chair back and laced his fingers over his stomach. “I’m not going to have to sign autographs, am I? ’Cause I don’t care what the rock stars say—that gets tedious.”

Indulgent, his boss threw him a wry smile, then got up and closed her office door. “You don’t have much of a filter between your brain and your mouth, do you, Jacobson?”

Lucas conceded the point, not that anybody needed superhuman powers of deduction to figure that out.

“Are you kidding?” he quipped. “I only say about ten percent of what pops into my head. It’s like one constant party up here.” He tapped his temple.

She leaned forward, desk chair creaking. In the cramped office, it placed them far too close for Lucas’s taste. With the utmost sincerity, she said, “Don’t broadcast it. It’s for your own good.”

Good advice for a ten-year-old. It chafed at twenty-four. “Thought you were progressive.”

“Oh, we are,” she drawled.

Progressively backward, he discovered over the ten years he worked joint cases with the Naples PD. It wasn’t like he hit on the boys in uniform, not on a regular basis, anyway. But he made no effort to hide, and word got around. It caused some hard feelings. So sue him.

Swift’s eyed danced between Lucas and the girl in his arms. “Look, Jacobson. We got off on the wrong foot. Can we both agree you need to work with me, here?”

There was that darn God complex again. Lucas covered his laugh with a cough and swung the backseat passenger door open. He gave Swift the universal “hold on” sign, one raised finger—not the one he wanted to raise—and lowered Macy into the back seat.

“Will you be okay sitting here for a few minutes while I talk to Detective Swift?”

Macy’s tiny hands refused to detach. She clung like a kitten. “Are you going to stay right here?” she whispered.

Lucas took a minute to enjoy her precise articulation. “I promise. I’m going to close the door. But I’ll be standing here the whole time. Okay?”

Probably not, but he was pretty sure she saw she didn’t have a choice. “Okay.”

Lucas bent down to retrieve a checkered, flannel stadium blanket off the floor, then tucked it around her body. It wasn’t the coolest night, but shock stole a body’s warmth. “Be right back,” he said, then shut the Jetta’s door gently. It would have been fun to stall Hogg a bit longer, but not at Macy’s expense.

“All right, Detective,” Lucas said, turning. “What do you want to know?”

Swift spread his two beefy legs apart and crossed his arms over his pink dolphin. Lucas waited; he thought there might be a Tarzan call in the works, maybe some chest beating, but Swift surprised him by opening with, “This is pretty devastating for her.”

A sensitive statement, if inane. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Will she get over it, do you think?”

She’d never be the same again, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be okay. Eventually.

Still, the guy was trying, so Lucas threw him a bone. “I hope so. Time will tell.” He let Swift chew on this for a few moments before asking, “Can you give me a little more information about what happened?” He met Swift’s arched brow and raised him one narrowed gaze. “The more I know, the better chance I’ll have of helping Macy.”

Swift leaned around Lucas to stare at the girl through the window. She was nothing but a small shadow in the corner of the seat. “What do you mean? Like therapy?”

“She’ll see a therapist, yes, but that won’t be me. Still, the more information I can pass on, the better.”

Miraculously, this logical argument worked. Swift nodded.

“This is what we know,” he said, tugging at his shorts again, drawing Lucas’s gaze exactly where it didn’t want to go. The dude either needed a new belt or a lighter gun. Swift pointed toward the head of the cul-de-sac. “Neighbors down the street reported a disturbance at this residence—” He pointed behind them. “—at about ten o’clock this evening. Screams,” he said, lowering his voice.

Lucas gave Swift one point for dramatic effect, but then, to be fair, deducted ten for general obnoxiousness and the smiling dolphin shirt. “And when the police arrived….”

“They found the bodies. Driver’s license in the man’s wallet—expired, by the way—is a perfect match for the adult male. Randy Pearl. The woman is Amanda Pearl. We got her ID from a Sams Club card in her purse, also expired.”

Lucas chewed it over. “No driver’s license for the mother?”

“Nope. This wasn’t their house, by the way.”

Throwing in the obvious, in case Lucas had failed to trip over the squatter camp in the living room. Not to mention that the Brady Bunch family hanging on the wall was blond and beautiful—and broke, probably, wherever they were—and Macy Pearl was dark and plain.

Lucas massaged his temple. “How often do you get this kind of thing?” At Swift’s sharp look, he clarified, “People living in abandoned houses.” Not the double murder. Jesus.

Swift puffed up. Impressive, but it made his shorts slide down again. Lucas itched to rip off his own belt and hand it over. “Figured this was something you would have run into quite a lot,” Swift said.

Quite a lot was pushing it. Sure, Lucas knew about the epidemic of foreclosures. Knew the economy was in the toilet. He was struggling along with everyone else, and Swift had it right: his job meant going into these places every so often and taking kids into protective care. But there was something unsettling about the ghost towns of homes with their dusty crystal chandeliers and their swamp-sludge pools. And even more disconcerting was the thought of a population of hollow-eyed, defeated people wandering their dark, empty rooms.

He answered with a noncommittal shrug. Swift dug another toothpick out of his pocket and stuck it between his teeth. The white cowboy hat had found a place on his head, listing to the left over his fleshy face. He smiled, and Lucas’s headache intensified a few notches.

“You see,” Swift said, eyes panning over the dark street, “there’s no way we can find ’em all. Shit, there’s probably people in these places right now, watching us, wondering if we’re gonna come looking for them.”

Lucas made the mental leap. “If there are, they might’ve seen something.”

“That’s a fact.”

On cue, the wind picked up, rustling through the tall palms that flanked the street, and inside the car, Macy sat up and pressed her palm against the glass. Lucas met the gesture from the outside. “Okay,” he said. “Is that all?”

Swift mangled the toothpick. “You want me to give you details?”

Hell, no. “Why did they leave Macy?” he wondered… aloud, unfortunately.

“It wasn’t on purpose.” Swift lowered his voice, belatedly discreet. “We have bloody handprints—hers—on the glass sliders leading to the pool area. And then again on the door leading out of the pool cage.”

“Into the swamp?” Lucas’s voice rose on the last syllable.

“Didn’t used to be a swamp. Used to be some swanky golf course, busy all the time.”

It was still busy all the time… with alligators. “Jeeesus,” Lucas hissed, and Swift nodded.

“Couple of my guys found her hiding about fifty yards away, along the canal. She had her parents’ blood all over her.”

Something in Swift’s voice caught Lucas’s attention. Put him on edge. “You figuring her for the crime, sheriff?”

Swift’s answer was too long in coming. “Nah. But it could be she saw who did it.”

Which changed things on such a fundamental level that it took Lucas’s breath away. “And you were going to let me just drive away without mentioning this?”

“I didn’t, did I?” Swift shot back. “We’re here talking about it now, aren’t we?”

Were they? It felt like Swift had him pinned, his boot in Lucas’s back, and Lucas couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Except maybe…. “I’ll take her to Urgent Care.”

He’d planned on making the trek all the way down town to Naples Community. That was the hospital the city used for these kinds of cases. But even at midnight on a Tuesday, it was bound to be crowded. Not the best environment for Macy at the moment. Especially if someone came looking for her, as Swift was suggesting.

“Yeah? They take your cases over there at NSUC?” Swift asked. He pronounced it “en-suck”, like they all did. The city’s most tasteless inside joke. The Naples Urgent Care Center, off Immokalee Boulevard in North Naples was fondly referred to—in all circles—as the Not-So-Urgent-Care Center. Don’t show up dying. Plus, it was a private hospital. They pretty much demanded some sort of shiny insurance card before you were allowed to sit down.

“They’ll take me,” Lucas said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.

“Okay,” Swift said. “I’ll send someone over with you. He won’t let the girl out of his sight.”

Which was supposed to comfort her? It sure as hell didn’t make Lucas feel any better.

Swift swaggered back to the house, drawing a small circle of people around him as he went. Martinez was stringing crime scene tape along the edge of the property. It flapped in the wind, keeping time with the blowing palms. Lucas lingered for a moment, struck by the bleak scene, then turned to peek in at his passenger.

Macy looked to be asleep, curled inside the checkered blanket. She’d fastened her seatbelt already. It was the sort of detail he hadn’t expected her to remember, all things considered. Honestly, all things considered, he should grab one of the booster seats for her out of his trunk. Even if the kid was eight, she couldn’t possibly weigh enough, by law, to ride without one. One more glance at her sleeping face, and he canned the idea. Swift could cite him if he wanted.

He executed a careful three-point turn and edged away from the chaos. The lights had been extinguished in the three occupied houses near the mouth of the cul-de-sac. Lucas imagined the owners were inside, metaphorical hands clasped to metaphorical ears. Hear no evil, see no evil. Especially in paradise.

The five minutes he’d had to spare before leaving to fetch Macy he’d spent on Google, digging up what he could on Paradise Palms. Not for directions; he had GPS for that. Thank fucking God, because the place was a maze. No, what he’d really wanted was a feel for the community.

Paradise Palms had been built on several hundred acres about ten miles inland. It was where all the new construction was going, or had been going, before the economy fell apart. North of Golden Gate, South of Bonita Springs, and east of US 41 sat a no-man’s land of swamp and scrub. Cheap. To build on, that is. If you wanted a permanent piece of the pie, you paid a king’s ransom. These mini oases came with all the trimmings. Every house bordered a canal, and at the mini-Town Center—complete with spa, salon, post office, and restaurant—you could fill your tank with premium unleaded. You could even buy Powerball tickets.

Paradise Palms got stuck in the middle of the crash. The Town Center was standing, but unoccupied, and the land south of it was nothing more than a crisscross of construction roads and piles of dirt. The houses on the north side of the development were ostentatious and mostly empty. Aided by the cheery-voiced GPS, Lucas finally beat the maze and sat idling at the empty security hut while he waited for the exit gate to open. It didn’t budge at first. Then, with a loud whine, it creaked upward in fits and starts, and Lucas peeled out, humming “Hotel California”.

The NSUC was a straight shot west. No more than fifteen minutes this time of night. Lucas’s headlights stretched out in front of him, the only light for miles. Goodbye paradise.

“I’m glad we’re leaving,” Macy said, and Lucas started. He risked a quick look over his shoulder. The kid had emerged from her cocoon, at least her head had. She stared at Lucas in the rearview mirror, her gaze direct enough to give Lucas pause.

“Me too,” he admitted.

“Where are we going?”

Her tone was light. Too light. Lucas let it pass. Denial was normal for this kind of trauma. “I’m taking you to the hospital, Macy. It’s important that a doctor looks you over to make sure you’re not hurt.”

“I’m not hurt,” she said, adding before Lucas could reply, “but I’m tired.”

Also normal. Startlingly so. “Why don’t you try to go back to sleep then, sweetheart?”

Macy rolled her head along the seat and stared into the dark night. “I don’t want to have the nightmare again.”

Lucas bit back his questions. Better to try to have that conversation face to face, once Macy got the all-clear from the doctors.

“Aren’t we going to Naples Community?” Macy asked some minutes later as Lucas bypassed the interstate ramp and continued west on Immokalee toward the beach.

That she was familiar with the local hospitals didn’t surprise him. A lot of the kids he worked with could name them all, and their street addresses too. “No,” he said. “We’re going someplace a bit closer.”

“NSUC?”

Lucas’s lips twitched. “That’s right.” He glanced in the rearview mirror. “Is that okay?”

Macy frowned out the window. Her pale face reflected back to Lucas in the artificial glow of the dash lights. “You shouldn’t go there if you’re dying.”







~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

AND JUST FOR FUN, A FICTION PROMPT CALL...!!

Like to stretch your writing fingers after Christmas' excesses? Take the prompt "A NEW RESOLUTION" and write something for the visitors this month. It can be anything from a flashfic 3 sentences to a drabble of 100 or so, or even more. Any genre, any theme, any rating, any character(s). Maybe ones you already love, maybe the chance to try on a new character for size.

I'm holding a FREE FICTION DAY on the 28th, so send me new fiction - links to your existing work also welcome! - to clarelondon11 AT yahoo.co.uk and I'll post it all then :).




~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Follow this month with Clare - and the goodies so far:

JAN 15: Favourite worldwide travel with cdn_tam.
JAN 16: 10 cautionary tales from ZA Maxfield! zamaxfield.


JAN 08: A great new novel and sequel from mickieashling.
JAN 09: Fiction and beautiful illustrations from essayel.
JAN 10: New menage release from lc_chase.
JAN 11: Fabulous mix of SF and erotic romance from Sloane Taylor and Robert Appleton.
JAN 12: Follow the bizarre photographic history of Wind in Hair Guy with egret17.
JAN 13: When only your family understands the joke, with charliecochrane.
JAN 14: A top 10 of gay books you should read from erastes.



JAN 01: A FREE short from me, revisiting Nic and Aidan from Sparks Fly.
JAN 01: Delicious m/m icons from luscious_words.
JAN 02: Why I want to be a Bond villain! by chrissymunder.
JAN 03: The world of inspiration between 'historical' and 'contemporary' with stevie_carroll.
JAN 04: Some fascinating Swedish proverbs from 1more_sickpuppy.
JAN 05: A round-up of a great year just gone from angelasstone.
JAN 06: The countryside and history that inspires author sandra_lindsey.
JAN 07: The challenge of trying to balance edits, with diannefox and anahcrow.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Check up on the original post and the Guest Schedule for January HERE.

Want to join in but missed the original call? Email me at clarelondon11 AT yahoo.co.uk and I'll happily find you a space ♥

NOTE: most pictures chosen by me and credited where known, others may be used without direct permission, please contact me with any queries/concerns.

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Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
stevie_carroll
Jan. 17th, 2011 12:14 pm (UTC)
Intriguing excerpt there.
libby_drew
Jan. 19th, 2011 02:27 am (UTC)
Thank you very much! So glad you enjoyed it. :D
lee_rowan
Jan. 17th, 2011 06:17 pm (UTC)
Clare, great blog as usual, but could you possibly do an lj-cut? This took up most of a page...
clarelondon
Jan. 17th, 2011 08:56 pm (UTC)
Sorry hon. I *did* do an LJ-cut for most of it, because Libby had alerted me to the length, but maybe I could have popped more under it.

Also I don't think the LJ-cut is acknowledged when it feeds through to other views. If you're reading on LJ it doesn't look too bad, but I think on Blog Feeds it prints in full. I don't know any way to stop that.

I try to keep the posts to a reasonable and user-friendly length :).
egret17
Jan. 17th, 2011 11:00 pm (UTC)
Hi, Libby! So far, I've only read Lake Redemption, but I definitely enjoyed that.
libby_drew
Jan. 19th, 2011 02:29 am (UTC)
Wonderful! Thanks for letting me know. :D Yes, this book definitely has a similar tone, though I wouldn't call it as scary, certainly. Thanks for stopping by!
(Deleted comment)
libby_drew
Jan. 19th, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)
Yes! Exactly as you say.

I would mourn if writing became only a job, and nothing else.

Thanks for stopping by!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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