About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Severance Kill Marks a Home Run for Tim Stevens




Severance Kill
Tim Stevens
Nov. 21, 2012
Smashwords: 80,583 words (approximately 179 pages)
ISBN: 9781301795628

 I will be checking Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com)  very carefully in the future. I recently finished the first novel I bought there, and was pleasantly surprised: in his spy yarn, Severance Kill, author Tim Stevens knocks the ball right over the deepest part of the left field fence.

The book’s hero is Martin Calvary, the most secret kind of secret agent that exists in spy fiction: a guy who works for a British agency, The Chapel, that is so obscure even the people in British intelligence have never heard of it.

Calvary is sent to Prague to assassinate a retired MI6 hand named Ivor Gaines who is suspected of selling out the Brits to the old Soviet Union. This task is made more challenging because Gaines is kidnapped by a Czech organized crime group before Calvary can terminate him.

The spy has to spend most of the rest of the novel trying to track Gaines down, a hunt complicated by the fact that his agency is not the only one looking for the suspected mole: also on the chase are the Russian secret police, who have made Gaines a top priority target for some “wet” work of their own.

The pursuit occurs at breakneck pace, with violent episodes aboard a Czech passenger tram, a bookstore, a café, a hospital, a public park and a half dozen other sites. Calvary remains steadily one half step behind his opposition, but the guy is so good at mayhem that the fact he is playing catch up throughout the book hardly seems to be a disadvantage.

In the background is always the open question: what will Calvary do when he finally does catch up to the suspected mole? Will he kill Gaines?  Turn him over to the Russians?  Let him go?  To Stevens’ credit, he manages to make the outcome uncertain until the very end of the book.

Severance Kill has everything you want in a spy novel: plenty of exotic atmosphere, political cynicism, a menacing aura of menace, automatic weapons, high speed vehicular chases and a body count large enough to have changed the outcome of the Vietnam War. There is even a hint of romance between Calvary and a young Czech woman who becomes enmeshed in the action.

In addition to the frantic pace and high-stakes violence, the novel is driven by a series of subplots and back stories that add just enough intrigue to augment the action.  How did Calvary come to be recruited by The Chapel? Who really is the double agent?  Will the plucky activists trying to publicize the Czech underworld succeed or will they be wiped out by the gangsters beforehand?  What drives the aging female Russian intelligence bureaucrat who is trying to grab Gaines and rub Calvary out in the process?

 And last but not least, will Calvary succeed in making this “one last job” his means to escape from his unscrupulous and underhand Chapel bosses?


The Russians are cold-blooded, the gangsters are vicious and barbaric, the activists dedicated and pure, and our hero is cynical and world-weary. Mercifully, there are no ejection seats in Aston-Martins, no briefcases with tear gas bombs, and no other gadgetry more complicated than pair of radio tracers and a hand drill (don’t ask how it comes into play – believe me, you need to know that like you need a hole in the head!)

Severance Kill is a real throwback – an old-fashioned page-turner filled with chills, thrills and suspense with a minimum of psychoanalysis and a blessed absence of bedroom scenes.  It is short, sweet and to the point, and offers a perfect diversion for the armchair espionage fan who wants to spend a few highly enjoyable hours reading a tightly-plotted adventure yarn.

A couple of writing quirks gave me pause, including Stevens’ reference to bullet holes “spackling” the windows of automobiles (every definition of “to spackle” I could find involved filling holes, not making them). But the book is remarkably free of bad writing and editing, which made it a pleasure to sit down and wolf through like a hungry man eating a blood rare T-bone steak.

Author Tim Stevens
Stevens, a doctor for the British National Health who lives in Essex, has a blog called, appropriately enough, “Dead Drop.”  He has written two earlier spy novels featuring an agent named John Purkiss that I look forward to reading.


Severance Kill can be purchased from Smashwords or for Kindle from Amazon. This is not exactly John Le Carré  but for what it is, it gets a full five nooses from this reviewer.






Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fully Loaded

By William E. Wallace 

(Excerpt of a work in progress)

            Sullivan was too cheap to spring for first class or even pay $10 extra for early check-in. Instead, Marcus Briggs always ended up cramming his six-seven, 265-pound body into a seat designed for someone five-ten and a hundred pounds lighter.
        Marcus had complained about it to Sully numerous times. In fact, he had mentioned it again that morning before he left for his L.A. run.

            “Man, why do you always do me like this?” he’d said. “I can see you putting Sam or Slow Joe in the cheap seats because they’re both just little guys, but doing it to a former NFL nose tackle borders on criminal.”

            Sullivan used his teeth to move the stub of his cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. “You should have stayed in the fucking NFL then, Marcus. In this outfit, nobody gets treated any different from anybody else. Since Mickey, Slow Joe and Sam all fly coach, so do you.”

            Briggs groaned.

            “Besides,” Sullivan added, removing his cigar from his mouth long enough to point it at Briggs for emphasis. “Mickey should be the one complaining. That nigga weigh 350 if he’s a pound. The only way he can catch a break is if they’s nobody in the seat next to him and he can put up the arm rests.”

            Briggs was about to point out that Mickey almost never flew anywhere because Sullivan had him work the long-term parking at Oakland and SFO. Mickey could ride BART to those airports and catch the shuttle to the lots in the passenger drop-off zone in front of the terminals.  But he didn’t get a chance to make that point because Sullivan put his cigar back in his mouth, signaling that, so far as he was concerned, the conversation was officially over.

            So, nearly three hours later, Briggs carefully extracted himself from the window seat on Flight 1952—stooping over to avoid bashing his head on the overhead luggage compartment—and edged himself out into the flow of passengers working their way off the 737 and into the chaos of Los Angeles International Airport.
            It seemed he was halfway to baggage claim before the cramps in his legs from the miserable hour and a half flight from Oakland completely faded. His little rollaway was already waiting for him and he scooped it up to head for the shuttle buses to long-term parking. Now came the part of his job that Briggs actually enjoyed: picking up his ride back to Oakland.

            He never bothered checking the indoor garages or Park One, the lot just north of the 96th Street Bridge. Those lots, much closer to the terminals, were for short term parkers and cost from two to three times as much as the long term lot, Lot C, just northeast of LAX on Sepulveda. 
            In Briggs’s experience, the kind of guy who drove around in an expensive luxury rig would take it to the airport rather than doing the sensible thing and using a shuttle service. And those high-rollers might spend sixty or seventy grand on a set of wheels, but they were almost always too cheap to pay as much as $30 a day to park it.

            So he jumped on the shuttle to Lot C and grabbed a seat at the right rear. Within ten minutes, he had spotted his vehicle: a shiny 2011 Cadillac CTS-V coupe. He got off at the next shuttle stop, gathered his rollaway and dismounted from the coach’s rear about fifty feet from the car.
            The sedan was loaded: it had the wood trim package, sunroof, performance seats, and 19X9 wheels polished to a satiny gleam. The steering wheel even had the suede finish, a detail Briggs found sort of corny but one that jacked up the car’s resale value by at least a couple hundred bucks. Peering inside, he was pleased to see the lot entry tag tucked under the sun visor, right where he expected it to be.

            He allowed himself a grin. Those Recaro seats would crank back to give him plenty of leg room for the 400-plus mile drive back to the Bay Area.

            “Sweet!” he murmured as he unzipped the top of the rollaway and fished through the rings of dealers’ keys stashed inside. The Caddy keys were close to the top, right under the rings for Mercedes, BMWs, and Jaguars, all the big-selling luxury wheels that Sullivan wanted his crewmembers to make their top priority.
            It took two tries to find one on the ring that would open the CTS. Briggs temporarily stowed his rollaway in the back seat; he could always open the trunk later, once he was on the road. He slid behind the wheel, adjusted the seats and mirrors and put the right key into the ignition on the first try: the 556 horse supercharged V-8 came to life with a roar. He shifted it into drive and moved more than two tons of primo Detroit iron toward the cashiers’ booths.

            “How was your trip?” the cashier asked in a friendly way when Briggs handed him the parking tag he’d pulled from the sun visor.
            Briggs laughed bitterly. “It was the shits,” he said. “I’m too big for economy seating and my boss is too cheap to pay for first class.”

            The cashier grinned. “I heard that, man,” he said. “I came back from Desert Storm in the belly of a C-130 when I mustered out of the Army. I spent more than 20 hours with my feet propped up against a blown jet engine they were taking back to the States to rebuild. It took me a month to get the kinks out of my legs. You want a receipt?”

            “Yeah, thanks,” Briggs said. “My boss won’t reimburse anything without paperwork, the cheap bastard.”
            “Say, you look kind of familiar to me,” the cashier said as he handed him the receipt and change from two twenties. “Didn’t you used to play football or something?”
 
          Briggs smiled. It seemed that most white people he met guessed he was a former athlete because he was big, fit-looking and expensively dressed. They could only imagine a black man making serious money through sports, music or selling dope.
              Musicians generally weren't his size and gang-bangers tended to dress like they were planning to stick up a Seven-Eleven, not go to a Fortune 500 board meeting. That left sports.

           In fact, Briggs had been a pro athlete. But his NFL career had been so short, there was no way this parking lot attendant would have seen him play unless he went to USC home games. 
         “No way, man,” he said anyway, just to cover his tracks. “Sports are too damned rough. A person could get hurt playing football.”

            Within twenty minutes he was on the 405 heading north to the Santa Monica Freeway. The tank on the Caddy was nearly full so he didn’t even have to stop for a fill-up. The crystal red paint job was a little flashy and would make the car easy to spot, but the drive to Oakland on I-5 would take only about seven hours if he set cruise control for a casual 65 hours per hour.
            Judging by the stamp on the ticket he’d turned in to bail the car out of the lot, if the Caddy’s legitimate owner was going to be out of town for as little as three days, it would be another twelve hours before he even knew that his Caddy had been whacked. By that time, Sullivan would have the rig boxed up and on its way to a customer in China, probably some big Party honcho or one of the new Chinese “entrepreneurs” who were getting filthy rich by using slave labor to knock off legitimate American products for cheap bastards in the U.S. to buy at Wal-Mart.

            The coupe would probably go for better than a hundred grand, Sullivan’s own personal attempt to counter the U.S. foreign trade imbalance. Sully’s costs were negligible: he had put out about $150 bucks for Briggs’s airline ticket and would give Briggs $2,500 for driving the car back to Oakland. The caddy had been sitting in the long-term lot for two days so the parking tab only added another $24 to the cost of stealing the car.  Even if Briggs bought a hundred dollars worth of gas during his return trip, Sullivan’s costs would be less than $3,000. Sully would realize a 97 percent profit off the Cadillac.
            Briggs smiled. He fucking loved capitalism.

            The best thing about working for Sullivan was its safety and dependability. Briggs hadn’t been hassled by the cops once in the six years he had been stealing high-end wheels. He didn’t have to know anything about the cars except their approximate value: Sully provided the keys and a list of the kinds he wanted stolen. All a member of his crew had to do was walk up to the vehicle like he actually owned it, get in and drive it away.
            Briggs knew that from the time he walked off the plane that morning until he left long-term parking, he had been videotaped by security cameras no less than a dozen times; that was such a given that he didn’t even bother to think about it. Those photos would all be long shots anyway, so as long as nobody got a really good look at him, all they would be able to tell the cops was that the car thief had been a tall, well-built black man in a business suit and tie. That description and a couple of bucks would treat the cop to coffee and a donut but it wouldn’t give him enough evidence to make an arrest.

            Even if he got pinched, Sullivan fronted all the expenses and took care of any legal problems that might crop up. But Briggs didn’t remember ever hearing about any of Sully’s crewmembers being popped for stealing cars.
            And today’s grab had been the cakewalk he had predicted it would be.  No muss, no fuss, no bother. He had collected a $100,000 set of wheels within 90 minutes of landing at LAX and drove it away without so much as a second look from anybody.

            Beats being an NFL lineman all to hell, he thought with a grin. At least in this racket, nobody is trying to kill me.
            Later in the day he would remember having that thought with more than a trace of irony.
§

             Evgeni Klyuchenko was not having as good a day as Briggs.  First of all, his partner, Sergei Ivanov, had been ten minutes late to their rendezvous, a Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard not far from La Brea. Then the barrista at the shop had given Evgeni a regular latte with whole milk and the full dose of caffeine, even though he had clearly ordered a double decaf low-fat; by the time he realized the order was wrong, they were too far behind schedule to get it replaced. Finally, they had run into a traffic jam on the 405 where it meets the Santa Monica Freeway, and the delay had made them another ten minutes late getting to LAX.
            The last straw came when they pulled into Parking Lot C and couldn’t find the red Cadillac that was supposed to be waiting there for them.  Klyuchenko had Ivanov make two complete circuits of the lot while he looked but the car simply wasn’t there.

           That, unfortunately for Klyuchenko and Ivanov, meant that the two matching suitcases in the Caddy’s trunk weren’t there, either.  Each suitcase contained more than 40 pounds of high-quality Cali cocaine worth a half-million dollars at the current U.S. market rate. Klyuchenko’s boss might be willing to write off the loss of a missing $80,000 Cadillac: the damned thing had been stolen off a fleet delivery truck in Dearborn, Michigan, in the first place; but Igor Polkovnikov, the man the FBI’s organized crime division called “The Colonel,” would never willingly walk away from more than a million dollars worth of drugs.

            “Fuck my mother, military style,” Klyuchenko muttered angrily.  He hadn’t slept well last night to begin with and all the morning’s irritations had combined to give him a nagging low-grade headache. Now, faced with the missing Caddy and dope, it threatened to become a full-scale migraine.
            “Nu, Evgeni,” Ivanov said. “So what do we do now?”

            “We find the fucking car,” Klyuchenko spat out.  He opened the briefcase on the floor between his calves, pulled out the GPS locater and switched it on. “We were stupid enough to let Morales and his fucking Colombians talk us into leaving the Cadillac in an airport parking lot for pick up, but we weren’t stupid enough not to have them put a tracking device in it.”
            He stared at the little screen, picking up the path of a bright dot heading north a mile or two from where they were stopped. “Ah,” he said. “There the motherfucker is.  It looks like he is heading for the Ventura Freeway.  We’ll catch up to him and follow him until he pulls over somewhere.”

            Ivanov handed the lot attendant a bill and turned out onto Sepulveda, heading for the nearest on-ramp.
            “What then?” he asked as he maneuvered the car through traffic and hit the freeway, dropping the hammer until their Lincoln Town Car was cruising at a couple of miles per hour over 65.

            Evgeni smiled for the first time that day.  “We recover the car and the dope,” he said, raising his shoulders in a shrug of indifference. “And then we kill whoever it was that took them.”
(End excerpt)

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Dead Page

By William E. Wallace


(Excerpt from a Work in Progress)
            Cliff Masters was working on a react piece to follow his exposé on the city’s new bus czar, Marshal Kent, when the copy kid Billy Stansfield stopped by looking for him.
              “Hey,  Masters, the boss wants to see you, pronto,” Stansfield said.
              Masters looked up at him with surprise.  “He sent a copy boy to get me? Why didn’t he just IM?”
              Stansfield shrugged.  “Dunno, ace,” he said. “He told me to track you down, even if you were at O’Malley’s.  Didn’t say why.”
              O’Malley’s, the saloon in the alley behind the newsroom where newspaper staffers drank while off-duty -- and sometimes while on -- was traditionally a sanctuary. The unwritten rule was, if an editor wanted to talk to a scribe, he had to wait until he either returned from the bar or went home. If Managing Editor George Hemmingsley was willing to send a copyboy looking for him there, it had to be serious.  
              Cliff hurriedly saved the story he was writing and logged his terminal off, then picked up a notebook and headed to Hemmingsley’s glass cage at the front of the news room.  He hesitated at the door but Sarah, Hemmingsley’s editorial assistant, waved him past.
              “You wearing your asbestos BVDs?” she whispered as he reached for the doorknob.
              Cliff grinned. He had dated Sarah for a while but she broke it off after she met her current boyfriend, an attorney in the public defender’s office. “You know what kind of skivvies I wear,” he smirked. “Why?”
              “I don’t know what you did, but you’ve got the boss hot enough this morning to boil ice water,” she said nodding toward Hemmingsley’s office.  “Watch yourself!”
              Hemmingsley was sitting behind his desk, leafing through a wad of pink “While You Were Out” message slips.  He was the only person in the plant who still used the damned things: everybody else sent instant messages over the newspaper’s Intranet. He looked up at Masters with a glare that would have peeled fresh paint.
              “You want to have a steward here for this?” he asked, his voice barely concealing his anger.
              “For what?” Masters said, sitting in the chair at the corner of Hemmingsley’s desk and hanging his elbow over the back nonchalantly. “What’s this about? Give me a clue and I’ll let you know.”
              Hemmingsley held up the wad of message slips. “It’s that story you did on the transportation guy,” he said. “I want to go over your sources with you.  The publisher wants you fired for fucking it up, so you may want to have a union rep sit in.”
              Masters stiffened, but tried to look calm. The only shop steward he’d be able to find on short notice would be Ralph Christian, an editor for the weekly roto section; the reason Ralph would be available was because he never did any work: he spent all his time bullshitting people about the bosses and making sure nobody else in the unit ran for his union rep job.  Because he was a perpetual candidate for firing himself, Christian would be useless in a disciplinary meeting.
              “I’ll pass on the steward, at least for now,” Cliff said. “I know my rights. Hell, I was vice-president of the local for two years. If this starts to go bad, I’ll ask for a rep. That’s my right under Weingarten. You know that, George. You used to be in the bargaining unit member yourself.”
              If reminding Hemmingsley of his past as a working stiff was intended to invoke his sympathy, it didn’t work. The editor went right to the point.
              “What was the origin of the Kent story, Cliff?” he said, arranging a legal pad in front of him and picking up a pen. “Take it from the top and don’t leave anything out.”
              Masters spread his hands. “I got the documents from the Texas Department of Public Safety in a plain manila envelope with no return address on it,” he said. “It came through the office mail.  One of the copy kids put it on my desk.”
              “Had it been opened?” Hemmingsley said making a note on the pad.
              Masters nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Standard office protocol, I thought.  Don’t they open everything that comes into the mail room before distributing it? I thought that was the deal ever since the anthrax scare in 2001.”
              Hemmingsley made a note without looking up. “Did you keep the envelope?”
              “Yeah,” Masters said. “I stapled it behind the documents after I went through them the first time. Say, George  -- what in hell is this all about, anyway?”
              Hemmingsley put down the pen and sat back in his chair, his hands in his lap.  “Your story contains material errors of fact,” he said. “That’s what our lawyers say, anyway.”
              Masters was surprised. “The whole damned thing was based on those documents from the Texas Rangers,” he said. “Frawley checked the copy against the documents himself. What are the alleged errors in the story?”
              “The dates you included for all those moving violations and DUI stops?” Hemmingsley said, his tone making it a question.
              “Yeah, we used them in the graphic, too, to make the map and inset showing where the incidents occurred,” Masters replied.  “What about them?”
              Hemmingsley sighed raggedly.  “Kent says he wasn’t in Texas when any of those incidents you wrote about occurred,” he said. “He says he has appointment calendars and expense account slips to show he was traveling out of state each time you say he was in an accident or was arrested for drunk driving.  He sent photocopies of them to the publisher and our legal office   along with a notice and demand for a retraction.”
              Masters was aware that his mouth was hanging open.  He closed it without saying a word.
              “Cliff,” Hemmingsley said, leaning forward with a sad look, “we’re going to investigate what Kent says very carefully before we take any action, but you’re definitely in deep trouble and if what he claims is true, we’re going to have to fire you.  In the meantime, we’re pulling you off investigations.  We’re going to shift you to the obituary section while we look into what happened here. You will continue to collect a paycheck and remain available to help us figure out how this fuck-up happened. But you are going to keep such a low profile that you’ll make a flatworm look like Andre the Giant.”
              Masters, his face ashen with shock, swallowed audibly. “Will I actually be doing any work?” he asked.
              Hemmingsley nodded. “But obits, only,” he said. “The paper’s policy is there are no bylines in the obit section, so for a while, anyway, you are going to be as dead to the world as the people you’ll be burying.  If it turns out you are blameless, we’ll put you back on the special projects beat.”
              He raised his shoulders in a gesture of resignation. “But if it turns out your story is wrong because you were negligent, we are going to have to let you go,” he said.
              The metro editor shook his head sadly. “You’ve been here a long time, Clifford,” he said. “I’m sorry this happened.  I hope we can clear everything up and get you back to work as quickly as possible, but I have to say, I’m afraid you stepped way over the line on this one.  Take the rest of the day off.  Go down to O’Malley’s and have a stiff drink.  Have two. Then try to get some sleep. Tomorrow, check in with Ernie Escobar.  He’ll put you to work on the dead page.”
#

Visions

By William E. Wallace
( Excerpt of a Work in Progress)

          With her hands spread flat on the table about a foot apart, exactly as she had been instructed, the woman in the Gucci suit sat silently, watching her host, a woman in flats, dark trousers and a sweater, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail that was carelessly secured with a rubber band. The blonde’s slow breathing had a deep, ragged edge; with her slumped shoulders, her head tilting a bit toward her left side and her eyelids quivering slightly, it was almost as if she were in the lightest stage of dream sleep.
          The quiet rasp of her breath was just about the only sound in the meeting room and the space’s hush was almost as oppressive as its gloom. Alicia Cremmins, the woman in the Gucci, resisted an almost overwhelming urge to look at her watch. That would not only be a distraction but an obvious sign of disrespect. The blonde, whose name Alicia had been told was Mrs. Hathaway, was highly recommended and if anything could possibly come from this session with her, Alicia didn’t want her ill-concealed skepticism to interfere.
          Cremmins suppressed a sudden desire to clear her throat, just to remind the blonde there was still someone in the room with her. Almost as if in reaction, the blonde’s cornflower blue eyes opened and she looked directly across the table at Alicia.

          “Did you come here about your late husband’s estate, or the daughter you haven’t had any contact with for seventeen years?” Mrs. Hathaway asked casually, as though inquiring whether Alicia needed more sugar for the cup of tea sitting next to her right hand.

          Alicia’s mouth opened slowly in astonishment and hung that way.

          “If it’s the estate, you should hear from Gladstone, Walker and Harms in a few weeks. Certainly no later than the second week of July,” she continued without waiting for Alicia to answer.  “As for your daughter, Cynthia, she’s living in Ogden, Utah. She shares an apartment there with a man, but I can’t tell whether they are lovers or simply roommates. What I can tell you is that she is not married to the man she is living with. She was married to another man, eight years ago but she got an annulment after only six days.”
          Mrs. Hathaway gestured toward Cremmin’s teacup as she stood up.  “Your drink is cooling,” she said. “You’re a smoker, aren’t you? If you want to light up, go ahead. I’ll get you an ashtray.”

          Cremmins’ hands were trembling as she fumbled the hard box of Benson and Hedges menthols out of her purse, put one in her mouth and lit it with the silver lighter that Francis had given her last year, about four months before his BMW stalled out on a blind curve along the Coast Highway and was hit from behind by an eighteen-wheel auto transport. She had been wondering when her husband’s lawyers would finish analyzing his will, but she hadn’t even realized it was at the back of her mind until Hathaway had mentioned it. 
          Her primary reason for visiting the blonde had been to see whether she might be able to tell her anything about Cynthia, who had walked out of her life in 1994 after a quarrel over being placed on academic probation at Claremont. When it became obvious that Cynthia was serious about breaking off all ties, Alicia, ruing some of the things she had said during the argument, had asked her lawyer Ben Gladstone to try and find her.

          Gladstone, the head of the law firm her husband kept on retainer to handle his business affairs, had made a stab at it, even hiring a detective to try to track the young woman down.  After six months, however, he told Alicia they hadn’t turned up a clue and further searching would probably be a waste of time, effort and money.

          “Sorry, Al,” he’d apologized at the time. “If you’d asked me to review a contract or break one, I would probably have had no trouble at all. But missing persons is a little out of my line. I’m sure Cynthia will get in touch with you eventually. After all, you are her mother.”
          Gladstone had died in 2002 and Walker, his partner, took over the practice. But in the years that had passed since Cynthia walked out, Alicia hadn’t had so much as a Christmas card from her – not even after her stepfather, Francis, died last year.

          She blew out a ragged stream of smoke. She had no idea how Hathaway could have known about Cynthia. She was even more mystified by the fact the blonde knew she was worrying about her husband’s will. Alicia had said nothing about either when she called to set up the appointment only a few hours earlier.  In fact, Hathaway hadn’t even asked her last name; she had booked the appointment simply for “Alicia C.”
          She was considering tapping the ash from her cigarette into the saucer under her teacup when Hathaway entered the meeting room through the arched passage across the room and placed a wide ceramic ashtray before her.

          “If you don’t mind, I’ll join you,” the blonde said, sitting back down and using a match to light a Marlboro she drew from a box in one of her trouser pockets.  “Pardon me if I seem somewhat hard-hearted, but it’s ironic, isn’t it?” she said with a slight smile as she exhaled a lungful of smoke.
          “What?” Cremmins asked, still bewildered by the blonde’s prescience and caught utterly off-guard by her question.

          “That your husband was driving a BMW when he was killed by a truck carrying a load of cheap Korean cars,” Hathaway said matter-of-factly, letting smoke slide out her nostrils lazily. “I suppose a semanticist might quibble with my use of the term ‘ironic,’ though. I guess it could be simply a coincidence.  Still, it seems ironic to me.”

          Cremmins found her mouth hanging open again. She was too startled by Hathaway’s command of the details of her private life to take offense at the woman’s rather callous attitude about Francis’s death only a few short months earlier. How could she possibly know these things, Alicia thought. It’s bloody uncanny.

          “Dawn Cannon sent you to me, didn’t she?” Hathaway said, taking another drag on her cigarette and hanging her arm over the back of her chair casually.
          Score another completely unexpected insight for the blonde, plucked, like the others, out of thin air, Alicia thought. Cannon was Alicia’s closest friend.  They had known each other since High School and Dawn had been her dorm-mate at Claremont until Alicia moved into an off-campus apartment with Francis during their junior year.

          “Yes,” Alicia replied, nodding. “We had lunch yesterday. She said you were amazing and that I should give you a try. I thought she was probably exaggerating but she wasn’t. How do you do it?”

          Hathaway shrugged and gave her the slightest of smiles.  “I haven’t the slightest idea,” she said. “If I sit in a quiet room with somebody and close my eyes, visions come into my head.  Sometimes they’re very clear, sometimes not.  When they’re clear, I can not only ‘read’ the person’s past and present, but I can actually see what lies ahead for them. At least, a few months ahead; sometimes more.”
          Cremmins shook her head in amazement.  “It’s incredible,” she said. “If I have a detective look for Cynthia in Utah, will he find her?”

          Hathaway nodded, still smiling. “Almost certainly,” she said. “She is living under her own name, so she should be easy to locate.  I would be willing to bet her telephone number is even in the directory. If it is, you could call her yourself.”
          Cremmins finished her cigarette and crushed it out in the ashtray. “You know, I didn’t believe what Dawn told me about you,” she said, blushing. “She’s always been so gullible about fortunetellers and mind-readers. I supposed that you were just another charlatan, working some sort of confidence game. But you knew exactly what was on my mind. And you told me what I wanted to know without even asking about money or setting any sort of a fee. I couldn’t have been more wrong about you. You really do have second sight.”

          Hathaway stood up and circled the table.  She put her hand on Alicia’s. It was warm and soft, and Alicia felt a mild, almost sexual thrill from the contact.  “Contact your daughter and come see me again, Alicia,” she said. “Wait until the estate is settled; that way you will be satisfied that my ability is legitimate and not some parlor trick. As for money, I wasn’t given this gift so that I could get rich. I received it to help people, to make their lives easier and better.”
          “I can tell there are other things that trouble you,” she added as she escorted Cremmins to the door. “When you are ready, come to me. That will be the time to discuss how you can help me to help you. If it’s with your money, so be it. We’ll come to some sort of an arrangement.”

          At the door, she gave Alicia a tender kiss on the forehead. “Come and see me again when you are ready, dear,” she said.
          Alicia, tears welling in her eyes, threw her arms around her and gave her a lingering hug. “I will,” she said. “Believe me, I will.”

 §

            “Mrs. Hathaway” returned to the meeting room and stacked the teacups and saucers so she could carry them in one hand with the ashtray in the other.  Randy caught up to her in the kitchen.
          “Brilliant, Ceci,” he said. “You played her like a hungry trout, kiddo. The hook is in so deep it’ll never come out.”

          The blonde smiled and lit another cigarette. She leaned against the drain-board and blew a thin stream of smoke into the air. Her real name was Cecilia Anne Crowder, but those who knew her best, like Randy Christianson, her current partner, called her Ceci.
          “You get it all?” she asked.

          Randy nodded. “Every word. I’ll run the Voice Stress Analyzer on the digital recording tonight and do comparatives with the call she made setting up the appointment. Sammy will follow her with the parabolic mike over the next week and get additional samples. We’ll have an entire library of her voice clips by next weekend.”
          “How did you figure out the stuff with the lawyers?” Ceci asked.

          Randy spread his hands. “Standard time extrapolation,” he said. “Once we knew who she was by backtracking the number from her initial appointment call, I ran the files we had put together on her.  That turned up both the breach with the daughter and the husband’s death last year. The standard period for vetting a testamentary document came out of a legal database. There’s a fudge factor in there for state and local peculiarities in probate law, but Francis Cremmins’ will should clear by the middle of next month at the latest unless there is something really strange in it. Somehow, I doubt that.  The background check on Cremmins was pretty vanilla.”
          “Well, nice work on that and the daughter,” Ceci said, taking another drag from her Marlboro.

          “When her daughter ran off, there was a gossip column clip in a local paper,” Randy said with a shrug. “It was only a paragraph long so Alicia probably forgot all about it.  From that I got the daughter's date of birth, and from that, her social. With her full name, DOB and SSN, it was easy to track her to Utah and get her current street address, phone number and the personal info on her roommate.”
          Ceci smiled. “Yes, I know about all the skip-trace stuff, and you must have found the marriage info and the annulment the same way,” she said. “That sealed the deal. When she gets in touch with the daughter, she’ll be totally sold. We’ll be able to get her to put together a trust fund for us with some of that money her old man left her.”

          Randy laughed. “That’s why it’s worth setting up these ‘transactions’ with no money up front,” he said. “You put your hand out during the first meeting, the marks get hinky and start to wonder if it’s just a scam. Give them some of what they are looking for gratis and it builds up their trust.”
          Crowder nodded. “Like giving away the first hit of heroin,” she said. “I get the principle.”

          “Exactly,” Randy said. “They eventually trust you so completely that they will give you just about anything you ask within reason.  If you put a price tag on the first piece of information they get, it makes them think you are only looking for a way to extract their cash.”

          Ceci stubbed out her cigarette and exhaled smoke. “There’ll be plenty of time to get the cash later,” she said. “I like doing it the slow way. Like with her friend Dawn: Because we spent lots of time with her in the first place, we had the heads up on Alicia and her daughter and we knew she was a recent widow. I will sweet-talk Alicia for a couple of weeks and she’ll lead us to other suckers. I love the daisy chain effect.  It’s the slickest con I’ve ever seen, Randy; congratulations on coming up with it.”
          He inclined his head respectfully and blew her a kiss. “I can get you in, honey, but once you are inside the circle, it’s all about you and your ability to suck information out of people like a vacuum cleaner,” he said. “I have never seen anyone get so many people to talk so much, so easily. Particularly hard cases like this Cremmins woman.”

          Ceci grinned. “The people who think they have seen it all, the skeptics? They’re always the easiest,” she said. “Hit them with a couple of things in a row that they think you couldn’t possibly have known and you have them by the short hairs.”

          “Well, you played her beautifully,” Randy said shaking his head in wonderment. His brow furrowed momentarily. “How did you know she would want a cigarette, though?  I didn’t know anything about it.”
          It was Ceci’s turn to laugh. “I hugged her when she first came in. She was wearing an old fashioned perfume called ‘Wind Song.’ I know because my Aunt Jenny used to wear it and I recognized it when I got close. But I could also smell menthol cigarette smoke, probably trapped in the wool of her expensive suit. Just like my aunt! Cremmins has been alone since her husband died, so I knew right away she had to be the smoker. And if somebody had just read my mind and told me things they couldn’t possibly have known, I can tell you  that I would be wanting a cigarette, myself.”

           Randy grinned.  “So – old fashioned deductive reasoning?” he asked.

          “Elementary my dear Watson,” Ceci replied. She stretched and yawned. “She’ll definitely be back. I could feel it when I touched her hand.”
          Randy laughed.  “You see, Ceci – you really do have second sight.”

(This novelette is still in the works. Additional excerpts will appear in the future.)