Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Was it a good camping trip if...

  • I had a twenty-minute warning to pack?
  • We spent over two hours waiting for our brakes to be repaired?
  • I had pie at Baker's Square while waiting?
  • Our campsite had a view of the St. Croix River and while we were dipping our feet in, we saw a doe and twin fawns on the small island across from us?
  • Due to the short notice, I didn't pack towels and we had to use our shirts to dry off after our showers?
  • I came face to face with a man in the ladies bathroom in the middle of the night--in my jammies, thank you very much? (I think his wife was afraid to go alone. Boy did that mess with my head for a second. And normally while camping I'd sleep in shorts and a T-shirt. This time I packed my pj's and it's a good thing I had the extra clothes, for the reason stated above.)
  • I had to blow up our air bed three times during the night? That's blow it up with lung power, instead of the pump we used the first time. (Too loud for the middle of the night, and it runs off a car battery, so we'd have had to drag it outside.) Apparently there's a small hole in the mattress and the inflation lasted 2 and 1/2 hours, 2 hours, 1:10 and finally, 45 minutes. And since my hubby has poor lung capacity, it was up to me, the lady who can inflate a 12-inch balloon in one blow, to save the night.
  • We heard owls and coyotes during the night? (Hint...I enjoyed it.)
  • We got to marvel at God's creation during a great hike by the river, where we saw some neat glacial potholes? (see picture)

All in all, it was a mixed bag of good and bad. But as the Helmuth clan is fond of saying, nothing bad happens on trips, only things to make it memorable.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Romantic Suspense

Today's critique is short and sweet. First, because it's a prologue. Second, because it's well written and I didn't have many comments to make.

Tammy Bowers


Amanda Rodderick’s bottom lip quivered as she tightened her grip on the phone. I can’t believe this is happening. She glanced around the small terminal and squinted at the busy shadow-people scurrying past the sun-streaked windows. [good description] Her gaze rested on her daughter and Ashley, coloring together in the chairs across the walkway.

Amanda lowered her voice. “I know, I don’t believe in love at first sight. But, Lacey, I not only kissed him the first day we met, I crawled in his lap [That image is a bit odd—makes me think of a little girl.] and gave him my heart.” She fought the lump forming in her throat as she waited for her sister to speak.

“What’s his name?”

“Michael Houston. FBI Special Agent Michael Houston.” Her hand trembled as she raised it to her hair. [Probably not necessary with the sentence that follows.] On instinct, she spread her fingers wide and ran them through her tangled curls—a soothing motion which usually calmed her. It didn’t work.

“And you ran away with him the next day?”

“I didn’t run, I was forced. I had no choice. It was a matter of life and death.” [Maybe skip “I was forced.” Makes it sound like he abducted her. But it also hints at a complicated reason for Amanda being where she is. If it was purposeful, leave it.] Amanda squeezed her eyes shut and tried to forget the black smoke, shattered glass, and hideous smell.

“Life and death? You’ve got to be kidding me. He told you that?”


“And you believed him?”

“Yes.” Oh, Lord, what have I done?

“Where are you now?”

Amanda shook her head and whispered, “I can’t tell you.”

“Are you really my smarter sister?”

“Not anymore.” She froze at the sight of a security officer approaching, then jerked around to face the payphone.

“Amanda, are you there?”

“Ssh,” she whispered. Breathe normal. She peered over her shoulder as the looming figure strolled past. “Thank the Lord.” Her voice cracked. [I think it’s great that she’s shushing her, even though no one would hear Lacey. Shows how nervous Amanda is.]

“Okay, you’re scaring me,” Lacey said. “I don’t care what he said, start at the beginning and tell me everything.”

Amanda inhaled a long breath and [You have her taking a deep breath below.] locked eyes with her daughter across the tiny concourse. April giggled and waved, her golden curls bouncing up and down. Amanda smiled back. “I should probably start with Michael’s first day in court.”

“When was that?”

“A week ago.”

“Fine, start there. Don’t leave anything out. If—”

Blare from the loud speaker drowned out the last of her sister’s tirade. “Flight twenty-two now boarding at gate B-13.”

“Amma, are you at the airport?” Lacey’s voice leveled.

Tears formed in Amanda’s eyes at the sound of her childhood name. As a toddler, her baby sister could say everyone’s name except hers. Lacey could even say Duke, their dog’s name. It took a week to teach her to say Amma. It stuck for years and only returned when Lacey started to lose it.

“Yes.” Amanda took deep breath. “I need you to tell mom and dad I’m on a comp tour in Europe.”

“Where will you really be?”

Hang up; just hang up on her. That may have been the safest thing to do, but she couldn’t do it. She needed her only sister’s help. “Santa Barbara.”

Great prologue. Lots of mystery to make the reader want more. Just needs minor tweaking.

Visit Tammy's blog, http://writesteps.blogspot.com.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A dragon to slay: Part two

David Fry

Mara fumed behind smoky glass. The ebony Suburban with government plates might as well have been a mobile magnet. Outside the beltway, such transport was sure to garner unwanted attention. Nothing screamed Fed louder, except maybe donning a black windbreaker emblazoned with a choice acronym. Mara’s superior insisted on this mode of transport. It was a natural force field, keeping local authorities at bay. That much Mara welcomed. But she needed to stay outside Derek’s shadow. Shades had a way of drawing meddlesome glances.

[The last two sentences don’t seem connected to the rest of the paragraph. I guess by “stay outside Derek’s shadow” you mean she didn’t want to attract Derek’s attention. But then the sentence about shades throws me. Do you mean the tinted windows of the car? Or the sunglasses she’s wearing? If it’s the former, the paragraph already does a good job of setting up the fact that the Suburban will draw attention.]

Mental note. Get a rental.

Her eyes floated to the USPS drop box across the street. It wavered, a mirage on sweltering asphalt, daring to wink out at a moment’s notice. [I really like the image of the mailbox wavering in the heat waves. But I think the second part is carrying the mirage thing out too far.] It wasn’t so much that she didn’t trust the veracity of the postal service motto: through rain, sleet, or snow. It was simply the thrill of watching her production play itself out. Fifteen minutes earlier, Derek’s first class invitation had been deposited for pickup. It absolutely, positively, had to be postmarked today.

Mara played with natural crumples in her dress, smooth fabric to placate a chafing mood. She was engrossed with a particular thread when a loud rap at the driver window snapped her to attention. An egghead kid sporting a watermelon grin pressed his nose against the glass. His hair, shredded licorice, all but obscured brown eyes framed in coke bottle lenses. Tinted windows notwithstanding, Mara guessed the facial topping of the day to be anchovies. [From the rest of the description, I take it you mean his hair was greasy and stringy. But “shredded licorice” made me think dreadlocks. I read that part to my husband and asked him what image came. He said dreadlocks.] His bike must have slipped out from under him as he disappeared briefly. As thin as he was, Mara imagined his torso wedged between the spokes. A muffled yelp was followed by a dull clatter. Several seconds passed. A hand materialized, grasping at air, and then the melon smile reappeared. Rap-rap-rap! [The rest of the paragraph after my last comment might be a little much.]

Oh great. Boy wonder wants to earn a merit badge.

Mara tapped her shades so they dropped to her nose and she sat upright.

Might as well give him the full meal deal.

She cupped a hand to her right cheek, middle finger depressing the ear bud. Then she punched the window button with her left index finger.

A mere inch of daylight spilled in to Mara’s inner sanctum before the air filled with a gatling spray of yap.

“Dude. Check it out. What a setup. That laptop come with biometrics? Whoa, is that a portable RFID scanner? You must be FBI, CIA, or something. You scoping out Cyber Burger? I warned those guys. They’re wide open. Listed on the ‘Net as a free wi-fi hotspot. You gonna close it down? Name’s Keith, but my buds call me K’reith. Cool huh? Sounds like wraith, you know, like in Lord of the Rings. Okay, ok, [since this is repetition, it should be spelled the same way both times.] some say it rhymes with Keith, but anyway. Hey, you’re no dude. You’re a dude-ette! Get it? Heheheh. Dude-ette?”

“Brilliant deduction, Keith. And thanks for the tip on the cafĂ© but its time to move on. As you can see, I’m pretty involved here. Official business, you understand.”

“Oh man, you are like – wow! I mean. X-files, ya know. Scully. Dana. She’s like a babe. You remember that episode? The one where The Lone Gunmen lure her to Vegas? Oh and the one where she and Mulder go see about the weird weather. That guy. Meteorologist dude. His emotions trigger crazy weather. Freaky. Is that the one where she … Did I mention she’s the bomb? You remind me of her, I mean, can I get your autograph?”

Mara couldn’t help but feel a smidgen of pity for the kid and on a good day she might have humored him. But a good day was yet to come.

“Listen, Keith. You are interfering with a government investigation. You ever hear of obstruction of justice? You are obstructing. It is time to go.”

“Oh that bites. Sorry dude. I mean, lady. Ms. Scully, or whatever. I’m outta here. Oh kewl antennas, you got like a sat link in there or what? Awesome GPS, can I see a map? My best friend lives over on Nantucket Court, got a pool, we could just zero in and …”

Mara turned and faced Keith dead-on. She sliced the air across her throat and held the gesture in dramatic pause.

Keith responded with the standard hands up procedure, for all of six-tenths of a second. He then clamped down on the window’s top edge, with both hands this time. What followed was a fetid cloud of caffeinated reek. Mara coughed. Apparently Keith was under the mistaken notion that a whisper involved heavy breathing. Enough to inflate one of those seasonal yard displays.

“Sorry, sorry. I get it, Secret Service kinda stuff, you’re like on official business.”

Mara lifted her arm up to the window’s edge hoping to equalize the air with a remnant of her noon hour cologne shower.

“Officially, yes.”

“Keith inhaled. Whoa! Nice bloom lady. What is that?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

Keith had that in common with Derek. A weakness for Megan’s perfume. His eyes bugged and Mara detected a reel in his posture but the splay of questions kept flowing.

“Kewl. I’m like okay with that. My buds are gonna wig when they hear I ran into Scully. Can I see your badge? Take a quick pic for proof? WIB—women in black, this monumentally rocks. Hey, you’re wearing a dress, Scully doesn’t wear a dress, blouse and slacks maybe but …”

“I’m not Scully, K’reith. Now beat it kid.”

Mara punched the window button and watched Keith dweeb dance to the last instant before escaping a finger crunch. It was then that she caught the movement out of the corner of her eye. The clock display on the dash showed 4:05 p.m. On the dot, the mail truck rolled into the parking lot.

[She puts up with this kid way too long. I’m surprised she didn’t roll up the window much earlier. Also, I’m assuming this is the only appearance he’ll make in the book, so too much was made of him. Great characterization, but it seems wasted. Unless he’ll be a recurring character. In that case, good setup. J]

She gunned the engine. Keith pedaled away wobbling all over the sidewalk, craning his neck backwards in stupefied adoration.

The computer chimed just as Mara was ready to push the Suburban into gear. She abandoned the gas pedal. A blinking green LED, recessed in the laptop, indicated a solid internet connection.

Thank you, Cyber Burger.

Wireless networking was nearly ubiquitous these days, especially with the proliferation of coffee shops and cafes. And to think, data just floated freely on radio waves. Raw electronic fodder waiting to be pirated, sifted, or gleaned into meaningful information. She tilted the swivel arm in order to type on the keyboard.

The second part of Derek’s surprise hinged on her ability to direct a special delivery. From the estate of Auntie Jen, swapped through Ebay, and packaged for a sappy birthday. All that remained was tracking delivery through the UPS online website. The details of which should be confirmed shortly.

While waiting for the website to load, Mara noticed something else. An email message from Special Agent Dawkins. Not good. She didn’t even have to open it to make that assessment. The 4:00 p.m. deadline had come and gone. Her weekly reports to the operations wonk in Denver were nine minutes past due.

At the outset, the idea of working on a Department of Homeland Security project, seemed a terrific cover. An op within an op. Drew Dawkins had been instrumental in securing her role on this project. And Mara’s credentials had earned her access to data points that many in law enforcement only dreamed about. Instead of a storm chaser, she was a data chaser, even outfitted with a company car. And the Wichita assignment dropped her right into Derek’s backyard.

But then there was Driftwood Drew. Floating above the fray of ops, a harmless red-tape dispenser. Or so it seemed. He was more like an innocuous bug riding atop a river of data. He scavenged. Crawling all over the flotsam and jetsam of the online world, Driftwood floated.

Dawkins’ needle-nosed logistics and penchant for paper chasings were playing havoc with Mara’s surveillance of contestant Farhaun. Her reality show was being preempted by another reality. If only she could flick this bug off her shoulder. She managed to cartwheel Keith away a few moments earlier. It wasn’t so much the workload as it was the timing. Reality shows are all about things dire and timing. [Give this paragraph focus. It goes too many directions.]

Dawkins entertains[ed] dire scenarios 24/7. Seems some concern had been raised about the vulnerability of America’s breadbasket states. Thus, a feasibility study was commissioned to assess the heartland vector. Poison the food-chain, cripple a nation. It was his pet project, unfortunately, Mara was his pet.

Another chime broke her musings. Dawkins again. This time, an amber blinking dot beckoned. He was requesting chat, via secure instant messaging. Mara began typing. She used broken words and gibberish to feign a poor connection. She then turned her attention to UPS online. There it was. The package was en route, having just been scanned in Kansas City an hour previous. It would hit Wichita tomorrow, right on schedule and more importantly, right on target. Mara keyed in a new message to Dawkins that was more coherent.

Conn sig is weak.” She lied. [already obvious]

“Scoping new site … standby.”

Mara knew Driftwood would harp on her about not using the GSM card in her laptop which allows for roaming internet connections, much like a cellular phone. He would insist that it provided for secure encrypted communications which is what they were all about. She would play the rural card, bemoaning spotty service on the plains. It was a tightrope she was walking and she knew it. Dawkins might be driftwood but he was no dimwit.

Mara lowered her gaze to the recycle bin that glowed on the laptop screen. The pedestrian user’s Plan B. Like the safety on a handgun to protect the inexperienced. How many people using Windows on their computers have been told not to worry if they delete something? Just restore it back from the recycle bin. Professionals require no such backup. Mara clicked on a recent surveillance photo of Derek. It showed him pushing Lydia, his youngest daughter, in a swing. They were playing at one of two parks the family frequented. Her index finger floated over the trigger. The delete key.


Derek and Lydia disappeared.

And the question of ballistics? Best left for the authorities.


This ending is good. The Department of Homeland Security is investigating the area. She deletes a picture that could prove Derek’s whereabouts. That’s a good setup to make your readers want to see more.

You have a great opening line for the book. You start with this question of ballistics and end the chapter with it. The trouble is, there’s a scene break in between.

When she first thinks this thought, she has her fingers on the keyboard, but she doesn’t actually delete anything at the time, as far as I can see. She’s not working in cyberspace, she’s making a physical invitation.

Sorry to throw a wrench in the works, but that’s something you’ll have to think about.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A dragon to slay

Sadly, that’s not the title of today’s piece, just a problem we’ll be dealing with. I would love to feature some sci-fi/fantasy here. Although I don’t write in the genre, I’m an avid reader of it.

Today’s submission comes from a member of my critique group, David Fry. His writing has been one of my biggest challenges in critiquing. He has a great love of words and a bent toward lyrical passages. But this has given rise to a purple prose dragon. (He's well aware of this.)

The challenge lies in taming the beast without losing his voice. Because once his words unite for the power of good, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

He sent me a chapter long enough for two posts. So Friday you’ll see part two. His genre is suspense, what he terms techno-suspense.

David Fry


Monday noon, August 7th

Assassination by keyboarding—how does one calculate the ballistics of pressing the delete key?


Mara Coulsen froze. Her fingers hung in suspended animation over the laptop keys. She held steady, allowing peripheral vision to pan towards the sound. A book’s spine, splitting with age perhaps. This is [was] a library after all. No, that would be more of a crack than a click. Her left brain raced but not fast enough. The right brain envisioned her past, accelerating around her, only to double back. [Is she truly aware of the separate operations of the two halves of her brain?] .45 caliber tunnel vision, complete with silencer. [Frankly, I don’t understand that line.] She shuddered as if an icicle dripped on the nape of her neck.

Mara’s shoulders rolled back and she slowly turned. The left ear bud popped free, its connecting wire stretched taut across her blouse. Buzzing fluorescents projected no warmth but helped betray the source of the click. A thermostat, bulging from the university library’s south wall. She cursed the interruption and lowered her wrists.

Mara heard everything. Ever since 3rd grade. Mrs. Wilcox was the first to explain it. Called her ‘aleaner’. Said she was an auditory learner—telltale sign—one who leans in to listen carefully. But that was the curse. In this surround-sound world, Mara always had to lean. And leaning gives way to sway, and sway, begets imbalance.

She leaned forward.

It was all so much noise to her. The voices too. Reason enough to call the library home, the 6th floor, her personal sanctuary. Here she had some modicum of control over ambient sound. Ambient temperature was another matter.

As if to punctuate the point, the HVAC system groaned to life. A monotone hum needled her eardrum like a pin cushion. She repositioned the ear bud and braced herself. An advance guard of goose bumps filed forth. Then it hit. Casper, taking a joy ride between book stacks, a tingly draft enveloping her frame. An assault on her sense of touch. Mara rebuffed the unwelcome caress. The sweep of a juvenile phantasm was no match for the chill of a malice-fueled heart. [There’s a little too much in that paragraph. Something has to go. So as not to tromp on you voice, I’d choose “An assault on her sense of touch.”]

She inhaled deeply, hoping to pacify her senses. But the haunting memories were already in play; police tape fluttering in the wind. Flashing strobes of red, white, and blue arrested with shouts and questions. Prairie grass, flattened by the crop circles of crime scene apparatus. Commotion leading nowhere. Only a whiff of passing. [Lost me again.]

Mara pressed palms hard against her eyes. She bore down, desperate to wipe out the flashback. Instead, a contact lens slid down her right cheek. She squinted at the blurry distraction as it plopped onto the laptop’s shift key. Her jaw tightened and she squeezed eyelids shut as a puddle threatened to splash her lashes. Not so the eyes of her heart, they burst wide-open and locked focus at 20/20. [I think this last sentence calls for punctuation other than a comma to set the last part off.]

Mara would never lose sight of her prey. Nineteen years of fixation on a singular haunting. Its ever-present form—a silhouette of pain—even had its own background noise. Mara was convinced she could, at times, actually see the sound, or at least its color. It helped that the shadow breathed. That meant it could expire as well. And it had a name. Derek Farhaun. Color? Death gray. [This paragraph is a little too abstract for me. You’re dealing with an unsettled mind, so a bit of abstract thought is appropriate. But the metaphors go in too many directions. Focus on one idea. Like:

“Derek Farhaun. Her prey, but also the shadow that had haunted her for nineteen years. The ever-present silhouette of pain shrouded in death gray. But this shadow breathed. That meant it could expire as well.”]

Megan’s color was a vibrant royal blue, the aura of a princess butterfly. Halting and lilting at the same time.

Mara pinched herself. Toes curling under and sandals bent perpendicular, drilling into the floor, as if physical pain could bury her vexation.

Wake up, girl.

A lilting butterfly?

Get a grip.

She was using his words again. Getting inside his head had its hazards. There’s a fine line between knowing the enemy and personifying it.

What did Megan ever see in Derek? The guy is [was] such a geek fraud, a social clod, and the poster child of compliance.


A cutout. Like a cardboard sword wrapped in tinfoil. Constable of Dullsville. Megan called him her knight in shining aluminum. Some inane reference to durability and resistance to corrosion.

Stop being so intellectually cute sis.} [My instincts say to cut the part in red brackets. Time to get on with the plot.]

Naive Megan loved that about Derek, said she always knew where he stood.

Well sis, where was he standing when you slipped under? Your hero—Derek on the dock—with his candles, moonlight, and mandolin. Trespassing on private property even; my, such a bold step for Mr. Wonderful. Too bad, that’s going to go on his permanent record.

Must have made him feel like a real outdoorsman for a change. I don’t suppose he heard your alto gurgling as water sloshed away your breath of life. And I’m certain he couldn’t see the frantic flail of your limbs under that waning crescent moon.

{Your romantic drivel makes me retch. Everything is so black and white with you Derek. Straight and narrow. Fitting. So is the flat line on an EKG.

Mara fancied herself a ghost hunter, hostess of her own reality show, chasing down phantoms of the past and wringing justice out of them. Her pilot episode—The Hunt For Derek—weapons of choice, technology of the day. One season was all she needed. Then Mara was pulling the plug. Show cancelled due to expiration of the star’s contract. Ghost busted.

Do you hear that? You’ve just been voted off the planet. Let’s see how you like the chill of cyberspace.} [Again, either cut or trim this back. Too many metaphors, making this passage too long.]

She replaced the errant contact and retrieved mauve card stock from her portfolio. It was time to craft an invitation to the premiere episode. Mara blinked slowly and began writing, excruciatingly careful cursive, because that’s what it would take to elicit the proper response. There was no need to go back over the memorabilia from Megan’s hope chest. She had everything memorized.

Mara trembled with disgust as she wrote the words.

I will love you eight days a week.”

It was their pet saying. Adolescent.

Next came the punch line, the body of it all.

“At rest on the eighth … forever yours, eight days a week.”

Mara’s hand began to quiver as she wrestled with emotion. Just a few more characters and it would be complete. Musical notation. It had to be there in order to be authentic. The gold ink shimmered against the stationary.

She folded the card stock over and over—tearing at the creases—to get the fit just right. The pale bluish-red gift envelope matched perfectly. The postage stamp was the only thing she had no control over, but even that had its part to play—a harbinger of the inconceivable.

An exclamation point was all that remained. This would be her capstone—the knockout punch. Mara reached into her book bag and retrieved the bottle, popping the cap free with her right thumb and forefinger. A fragrant vapor danced from fingertip to shoulder. She upended the invitation, shaping it into a miniature tent, envelope leaning against one end. .375 fluid ounces of liquid ammo, primed and ready. She depressed the pump and drizzled the card and envelope in a blissful mist. Then she showered herself, in remembrance of Megan.

Mara sealed the envelope then reached to stow away the bottle. She smiled at the poetic irony. A marketer’s flash of creative genius lay exposed on her palm. The cologne was contained in an ivory acrylic bulb. A brown rectangular cap fitted perfectly atop the base, forming the distinct shape of that singular punctuation mark used to convey strong emotion. And the brand name of this fragrant spray matched its packaging. Exclamation!

David Fry, aka frydwords, has recently started a blog. Go say hi at http://www.frydwords.com/blog.

And don’t forget to come back Friday for part two of Delete.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I’m pleased to present the first chick-lit critique for this blog. Christa definitely has the voice for it. Enjoy!

Christa Allan

"Have you seen how your daughter is dressed for her date? Teal blue faux alligator stilettos? When did she even buy those? This is more embarrassing than when she sprints down the driveway in that bedspread she calls a robe to grab the morning paper. I sure hope you're ready to body slam yourself against the door to stop her. She's not leaving this house dressed like that," I sputter, not believing that I am asking my grandmother for help.

[Entertaining first paragraph. Then to get to the end and realize she’s talking about her mother. Too funny! Now for the down side. I don’t mind starting out with dialog. However, this dialog is a tad lengthy for the start of a book. I felt like I was floating a little too long—even though the dialog itself was very entertaining. If you break in with a bit of action or setting after the second sentence, it might be better.

Also your dialog tag…sputter. You’ve got such great dialog, I knew from the first sentence that the speaker is worked up, and it just gets better. You showed me how agitated she was, so it’s not necessary to tell me afterwards.]

"Grace, honey," Grams is heading toward the very doors I'm standing in front of, "she's your mother. You talk to her. Lord knows, I served my time. Decades and decades of it. Good luck with that. Call me tomorrow. I'll be waiting to hear how it turns out for both of you."

"Grams…" I plead. [Here again is a tag that tells something already obvious. You can simply delete. It doesn’t need a speaker attribution.]

"No, Grace. I'm not going to be late for dinner. Tonight's Mexican Fiesta night at LaMancha's. Besides, Dede's waiting for me to pick her up. John won't let her drive at night anymore. Says he's tired of buying new mailboxes for everyone in the neighborhood. Sometimes that man is just so cheap…" [great characterization from the way she talks alone] Her voice drifts off as she reaches around my waist for the handle of the front door.

"Darlin', you really need to scoot your little self out of the way. I can't open the door, and Dede and the girls do not like to wait."

The GIRLS-that's Grams little "grey in real life sisters"- all play in the handbell choir at the First something or other Church she's a member of. Every third Thursday is their dinner night out, and this was it. There would be no stopping her, even if her daughter, my mother, was leaving the house looking like I should look for one of my dates. Well, looking more like I wished I could look. Hmm. Maybe I've just analyzed the problem…all those years of therapy paying off.

I trail behind my grandmother's snappy little steps as she power walks down the sidewalk to the driveway. I feel like I am ten-years-old again, matching my pace to hers as I used to do when I'd track her at Lakeview Shopping Mall. She always had to trot to keep up with her husband Jake whose long stride almost tripled hers. And even though she said Grampa Jake was now distance walking in heaven, she kept up his pace.

She folds herself into the grey leather front seat of her silver Lexus and tosses her cell phone on the passenger seat. Grams said she picked the color of her car to match her hair. When Grams zipped by to show it off a few months ago, my mother told her that she was certainly relieved Grams didn't have to pick the sea foam green model. [I’d shorten this. It’s funny, but long enough that the point almost gets lost. Try, “…to match her hair. My mother was relieved Grams didn’t have to pick the sea foam green model.”]

I look at my watch. Almost seven o'clock. My window of opportunity is about to slam itself shut. In fact, it is close to backing out of my driveway.

"I can't believe you're bailing and not going to help me out here. She would listen to you." I am whining. I am [I’m—contractions are more natural] also contemplating endless baskets of tortilla chips, thinking I could chaperone the GIRLS' night out. At the speed my social life's declining, I'll be asking for honorary membership soon. Maybe I'll enjoy playing in the handbell choir. Definitely would have to do something about those sapphire blue robes. Maybe add a scarf or low slung belt.

Grams' radar hones in on my mewing. She pats my hands—or maybe she's slapping them. Her perfectly shaped French manicured nails look like the after picture next to my squared off, cuticle-impaired fingers. The patting increases in direct proportion to the tightness with which I am clenching the car door.

She speaks to me in the same voice she uses when Alfred, her emotionally deranged Schnauzer, drizzles on her wooden floors when she arrives home after a long day out.

"Grace, the last time Eleanor Faith Bourgeois Nelson listened to me was twenty-five years ago on the day you were born. If I hadn't met your father at the hospital that morning, she'd still be arguing with the doctor."

The fourth of April had become holiday dinner table conversation family lore. [It’s my opinion that you should delete the part in red. On the one hand, it’s character. On the other, it sort of clutters up the sentence.] My mother had refused to stay in the labor room bed. She had just read the week before that walking helped speed delivery and reduced the pain of contractions. My mother, the voracious bookworm, is always reading something somewhere. Information is power, and my mother wields it like a Visa card with no limit. Anyway, story goes the nurses had given up. They knew a woman in labor was a force to be reckoned with, and they were not going to be the reckoners. They called Dr. Hebert. He found my mom power walking around the nurses' station, pointed her in the direction of hospital labor room, and issued his warning, "No bed, no baby."

My mother, of course, then wanted to argue the ridiculousness of his threat. By this time, Grams had appeared on the scene. "I told her no way my first grandchild was going to be born next to the snack machine in the hospital hallway and that she had better march herself to her room."

"I was going there anyway," would always be Mom's snippy reply. But Grams says she thinks a still small voice, probably an angel sent by a weary God, told my mother she may risk being pregnant forever if she didn't get back to the labor room.

My father's participation in this event, as my mother would say, began and ended the nine months previous. Dad would add that watching his wife square off with the medical staff was entertainment he could have charged for that day. Andrew Nelson always knew Elly was as stubborn as she was beautiful. He said her hard-headedness was a small price to pay to be able to look into those intense coffee brown eyes.

[If you listen to the rules, the rules say no backstory in the beginning. I say, hang the rules. This is a delightful story and adds so much to the mother’s characterization. I want to meet this woman, and she doesn’t come on the scene in this piece. Just warning you, however, that some editor or agent down the line might want you to ditch it. I’m not sure if the last paragraph adds anything, though.]

But now, Grams was shifting her ES into reverse.

I lean into the car to kiss my grandmother on her cheek before she abandons me. "Okay," I sigh. "Enjoy yourself. One of us should. I'll call you tomorrow."

Grams smirks. "I'm not attending your pity party. But good try, though. Go talk to your mother. Maybe she'll loan you those shoes one day."


I thought the writing was great, with just a few common mistakes. To get to know this promising writer, visit her blog, www.cballan.wordpress.com.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday's Critique

My suggestions for this piece are minor. The first three paragraphs were a little problematic for me, but I put my comments about them at the very end so all of you could form your own opinions. Let me know if you agree with my assessment.

Kristen Gwen Johnson

CHAPTER 1—Gotta Pebble in my Shoe

She hated me. For eight years I never knew why my best friend of six years had cut me out of her life. President Roosevelt had isolated the country from the rest of the world, but I didn't have the luxury of an ocean to separate Sumi and me. In 1933, the country had been in the middle of the Depression. Since then the war had been fought on the battle field of my father's store.

To save money, Papa let the young man he'd hired before the stock market crash go and let me work in the store alongside Sumi. We wouldn't have time to play together anymore, but I couldn’t sleep for two days at the thought of working beside my best friend. Four years my senior, she was my confidante and most trusted companion.

After school, I raced to the store, eager to see Sumi and help her stock shelves while I jabbered on about my new teachers and what I had learned that day. No matter what I said, she brushed me off like crumbs from a table. I followed her around for most of the afternoon, and tried to make her laugh with my retelling of the adventures of Little Orphan Annie I had heard on the radio the night before. After several hours of imitating the different voices and retelling the most thrilling and scary parts of the show, she twisted around, put her hands on my shoulders, stared straight into my eyes and said, "You are no longer my friend, Matilda Davis." The first few months after her about-face, I tried to do nice things for her. I made her cookies, swept the store, even had a chocolate coke delivered to her, but she shoved me off.

The words still rung in my head, eight years later, as I trudged along the cold Vancouver streets to deliver the basket of medicines for Sumi's sick parents. She'd stayed home from work that day to take care of them. Papa had packed the basket and told me to deliver it, and gave me a sharp look when I tried to protest.

I arranged the cough drops along the bottom of the basket, making a horizontal line, and staggering the next row to make a miniature cobblestone road. A small distraction from the wrath I was about to endure, but I could control the construction of this road. I couldn’t control Sumi or the feelings she aimed at me.


I raised my head to see the voice's owner. Mrs. Thomas waved from across the street as she lumbered toward me. A Ford Sedan slammed on its brakes, honked, and swerved to the side to avoid her. She didn't even seem to notice.

"Mrs. Thomas, are you all right?" I waved at the driver in apology as my breath fell into its proper rhythm again.

"Yes, quite all right, Mati. Why do you ask? Oh, never mind, I'm quite well. Does your father have any more canned peaches?" Mrs. Thomas voice made me feel as though I was driving on a hilly road. High. Low. High. Low. It almost gave me motion-sickness every time she spoke. [good description]

She put her cold hand on mine. Bad circulation, which I sometimes thought affected her brain as well. I shivered and patted her hand, then dropped my arm so she would let me go and I could put my hand in my pocket to warm it up.

"I think he just ordered peaches. I'll ask when I get back to the store."

Mrs. Thomas peeked into my basket, sending a swirl of her lilac water scent into my face.

"Oh, medicine? Are you going to Mrs. Cromwell's? I gave her peaches yesterday. That will cure illness quicker than anything." Mrs. Thomas clicked her tongue and waddled next to me, swaying from side to side like a tottering wind-up penguin. The purse around her wrist swung from side to side. [great characterization]

"No, I'm not going to Mrs. Cromwell's."

"Well, then where? Who else is sick? I should visit them too. I know my presence is a comfort to many."

I wasn't so sure about that.

"I'm going to Sumi Hideki's house. Her parents are ill." I feigned a concerned expression.

My battle with Sumi had been a quiet one. Papa told me to work out our differences in private and not to spread them around. Though dealing with our problems had proven impossible since Sumi ignored all my attempts at friendship.

"She's the Japanese girl your father hired, what, ten years ago? [The "what" sounds a little modern to me.] I told him he'd better be careful. I don't care if she was born in this country, she's still Japanese. I don't trust them. When are you going to come and play my old piano again? I love to hear you play."

Mrs. Thomas had taught me piano until I was twelve. She would dance around the room like a drunken sailor when I had my lessons. I never played very well and she danced about as well as I played.

She twirled in my head, and I was almost tempted to say I'd come, but an afternoon of idle chatter was not worth a half hour of entertainment. "I'm very busy at the store."

"Yes, of course. How old are you now?" Mrs. Thomas took a peanut from her purse and popped it, shell and all, into her mouth.

“I was eighteen in September."

Mrs. Thomas spit the sopping, empty peanut shell out of her mouth and held it in her open palm until we reached another lawn, then she threw the shell near a tree. For the squirrels, she said, though I doubted any squirrel would appreciate an empty, slobbery, peanut shell. Retrieving another peanut, she offered it to me, but I shook my head and winced inside. She dropped it back into her bag with a shrug.

"Growing up so fast. Any beaux?"

"No, not yet." Jack and I hadn't made our promise public yet, and Mrs. Thomas was not going to be the first to know.

She stopped in front of her walkway and yanked my hand out of my pocket, cupping it in her arctic hands. I smiled, but my skin crawled as she touched me with a hand still wet from the peanut shell. [*smiling*]

"Someday. There's plenty of time. Well, I must be going. You have a blessed day, Mati." Mrs. Thomas toddled away and raised a hand to wave before she climbed the steps of her house.

I hurried down the street, wiped my hand off with my handkerchief, and wished I could wash with soap. Rubbing against my coat, I tried to stop my skin from wriggling at the thought of the wet peanut shell. [This last sentence might be overstating the peanut thing just a bit. No real harm leaving it in, though.]

Three blocks to go.

I took in a deep breath, I released it with a sigh of determination, and hurried down the street. Might as well get this over with.

I stopped in front of the sky blue house with white trim. The house seemed large even now, but it was monstrous when I was four. Larger than any of the other houses around it and elevated above street level, the house had an air of superiority. It was a great big block of a house with a large window that displayed the sitting room. Five windows on the second floor seemed to peer over your head like you [sticking with my and I would be best] didn't matter. Wicker chairs with velvet cushions, more useful on a Washington summer day than a rainy and soggy winter, lined the porch.

Though the outside had daunted me, the inside was always full of fun. I had once loved to visit Sumi and pretend the house was ours. The five windows were not so daunting when you [I] gazed from the inside out. We imagined we were damsels in distress guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. When we grew tired of those games, we would climb the oak trees in the back for hours.

I gazed at the house a second more, then rushed past all the memories and traveled one more block to where Sumi and her family actually lived. Sumi's mother worked as a part time cook for the Parkers who lived in the beautiful blue and white house. Her father worked as a handy man for many of the homes on Washington Street. They had moved into the small rented white house when Sumi was a baby.

I climbed the creaky steps, knocked, stepped back, and waited. The door scraped the floor as it opened, and Sumi's green-brown eyes peered out. Her eyes widened, and she closed the door again with a thud, which sent a whoosh of hot air past me. The heat scattered and left me colder than before. [again, great description]

Anger burned down to my fingertips. I dropped the basket on the porch and spun to leave. She couldn't even be civil enough to not slam the door in my face.

As I reached the top step, I heard a jingle followed by some scratching as she slid the chain lock out of its track.

All right, at least she has some manners. I waited for her to present herself as a proper hostess.

The door opened only as wide as her slim body. Heat shot its way around her and hit me in the face. [Since you mentioned the heat before, it may not be necessary to mention it again.] She appeared in her black, knee-length skirt and flowered blouse she wore to work everyday. Her hips cocked, feet bare.

"Matilda." She always used my full name, which I'm not at all fond of. Her voice pickled my ears in the biting tone I think she reserved for me when we were alone. I bristled the instant she spoke and mentally strapped on my armor, ready for battle.

"Good day, Sumi. Papa sent me with some things for your parents." I picked up the basket again and held it out at full-arm length.

"Thank him for me." She took it with only her index finger and her green-brown eyes drilled into me. "I did the account books yesterday since you were taking care of your mother. So you can take it back to him." She paused a second, then stepped away from the door, her voice still frigid. "You might as well come in and warm yourself before going back." She held the door open a little wider and stood like a soldier at attention.

"Thank you." I really was grateful for the invitation, even if it wasn't offered with any warmth from the person. My toes hurt from the cold. I stepped into the balmy house.

"Shoes." She pointed to the row of shoes outside.

I felt my face flush, half embarrassed, half angry with the idea that she had probably asked me in because she knew I would forget my shoes. I stepped outside again, and then reentered the house with stocking covered feet.

Sumi closed the door behind me, and the room felt as hot as summer. No danger of cold feet in this house. As I felt [skip the “I felt” here] sweat trickle down my back under my coat, I almost wished I'd stayed outside.

I surveyed the room, and remembered the layout. Stairs went down to the small basement to Sumi's room. Her china doll probably still sat on the table by her bed. A hall led back to the kitchen. The sitting room was to our left. Everything was as I remembered it, from the umbrella holder near the door, to the African Violets the Parkers had given them still blooming on the entryway table. The rooms were clean, though sparse. Sumi and I had mostly played at the Parker's when Mrs. Hideki worked, but the times I had been here, these rooms had been filled with fun and good food and laughter. The furniture hadn't mattered. Now, even with the heat, the rooms felt cold. [I like the sentiment about the furniture, but placed where it is, it breaks up the thought too much for me. I’d rather see it flow straight from …the rooms had been filled with fun and good food and laughter, to, Now, even with the heat…]

Sumi slid the chain back in its track, then gazed at me as if she expected me to speak. I think she delighted in making me nervous.

Sounds from the sitting room rescued me from our blank stares. Sumi rushed into the room and I moved so I could see the old chaise where her father shook violently as he coughed. Rolling around, he banged his chest with his fist as if trying to dislodge something.

Sumi glanced back at me and scowled. My face must have revealed my discomfort because Sumi grabbed the cough syrup and shoved the basket against me with a face like she'd drunk caster oil. She rushed back to him, and had him drink directly from the bottle, and soon he lay still. She adjusted the blanket and said something in Japanese. He nodded and she kissed his forehead before coming back to where I waited. She had once given me that same look of concern when I had fallen down the stairs to her bedroom.

She tossed the bottle back and demolished my cough drop road and the remembrance of her concern for my scraped knee. Taking basket again, she motioned for me to follow her down the narrow hall into the kitchen.


(If that seems to end suddenly, Kristen told me it’s not really the end of her chapter.)

The first paragraph is the most important one in a book. Initially, this one gets off to a good start. The broken friendship, then a mention of the state of the country—very fitting since we see the date at the top. And the Roosevelt thing is tied in with Mati wishing for an ocean between her and Sumi.

But I was still absorbing that when Kristen mentions 1933 and the Depression, then phrases the broken friendship as a war—when Japan’s act of war is only a day away. I think the first paragraph will be better without those two sentences.

After the ocean comment would be a good place for the irony of her actually walking to Sumi’s house instead of going into all the backstory. I feel it’s too soon for backstory, and it didn’t really add anything for me. Something could be kept about remembering Sumi’s words, “You are no longer my friend.” Maybe mention that it was a sudden about-face brought on by nothing Mati could see.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Submissions needed

I only have enough critiques lined up to post through Friday, July 27. I knew going in that this blog might take a while to catch on. But I'd like to be able to keep up the current level, at least.

Don't be shy! Send me something to critique. You can choose to keep the post anonymous.

I love critiquing. Not only that, but if I have too much free time on my hands I'll be forced to . . . to write!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


You'll see a lot of red and blue in the following chapter. That means I didn't like it, right? Wrong. Everything in red can simply be cut to tighten the writing, get rid of excess that slows it down.

The genre for this one is suspense.

Ernie Wenk

Chapter 1

Exhausted, Jim Gabriel fell asleep, only to be wakened minutes later by the ringing of the phone. Jim groaned, rolled over and looked at the orange numbers on the digital clock. It was three in the morning. The call could not have come at a worse time. He couldn’t decide whether to answer the phone, or let the answering machine handle this one.

[Instead of saying exhausted, a stronger beginning might be for Jim to note the time first. Say something to the effect of “he was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow”, but avoid that clichĂ© if you can. Then have the phone wake him minutes later.]

Earlier that evening he and his wife Anna had argued for the third time that week about his job and how it interfered with their family life—the long hours, nights and weekends away from home, and the late night phone calls. Last night’s argument ended after Jim promised they would leave in two days for a vacation long overdue.

With the phone still ringing he heard his wife mumble, [his wife mumbled] “I told you things wouldn’t change.” Jim glanced in her direction and grabbed the phone.


“Is this Jim Gabriel?”

“It is. Who’s this?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“I’m sorry I’ve disturbed you. But, you need to know something.”

“And it couldn’t wait until later this morning?”

“No. It’s about Karen Maxwell.”

“Excuse me?” Jim’s brow furrowed.

“Her death wasn’t an accident.”

This brought Jim to an upright position. Karen died in a car accident. [crash. Avoid using accident twice.] How could it not be an accident?

“What kind of sick joke is this?”

“I assure you it’s not a joke.”

Jim paused before he spoke. “What makes you think it wasn’t an accident?”

“I can’t talk much longer.”

“Then why’d you even call me?”

“I’m hoping you can help.”

Jim rubbed his eyes. “I can, but you need to tell me what you know.”

“Mr. Gabriel, I’m risking my life calling you. You have to find out what happened to her.”

[You told us he’s used to late-night calls. As FBI, I imagine he’s also used to unidentified callers. So his handling of this doesn’t sound professional to me.]

Jim glanced over toward Anna. If he didn’t end this call now, he knew he would be in trouble with her. [Instead of that sentence, maybe you could have Anna give him a look. If you’re married, you know what kind.] Yet, something inside told him not to hang up, yet. If there was any truth to the caller’s claim, he needed to know more. But, what’s with the secrecy? [The caller’s life is at risk, I don’t think this is something Jim would wonder.] He needed some straight answers before he make any conclusions.

“I can’t help if you don’t tell me anything.”

“I need to get off the phone.”

[An action beat here would add to the emotion. Have him lean forward or something.] “Don’t hang up.”

“I’ll try to call you later. Be careful. Those who killed her will make sure no one ever finds out.”

“They? Who are they?” Jim yelled.

The line went dead.

Jim sat there stunned. In his fifteen years with the FBI, this had to be the most bizarre call he had ever received. [Fifteen years, and that was the most bizarre? Doesn’t seem likely to me.] He continued to sit on the edge of the bed, staring into the darkness. As Anna spoke, her words dripped with anger, “Thanks for waking me up, again.”

Jim turned to say something, but held his tongue. This was not the time, or the place to defend himself. Unable to sleep, he stood and slipped out of the room and headed to the den, his place of refuge. As he passed the rooms of his two daughters he remembered how his family had seen [thought of] happier days. They always done things together, until five years ago when his job demanded more of his time. He never complained, but Anna did, and the struggle [balance] between their [his] marriage and his job had shifted precariously close to disaster. [This is a minor change, but I like the word balance paired with the word shifted. Only my opinion.]

He walked into the oversized room located in the back of their ranch-style home, turned on the light and shut the door. He settled in to his leather chair, switched on his laptop. While he waited for the laptop [it] to finish what computers do before you can start using them, he leaned back, closed his eyes and mulled over the caller’s claim. The memory of Karen’s memorial service last week was still fresh in his mind. [Karen’s memorial service the week before was still fresh in his mind. ~That avoids memory and memorial so close together.] Her sudden death was a shock to her family and friends. Jim still felt the pain of her loss. [What was she to Jim? He still feels the pain, and is even crying, so I want to know why.]

With a swipe of his hand, he wiped the tears from his eyes and cheeks, and focused back on the call. [Let me explain all the red here. If you show us his tears, you probably don’t need to tell us he still felt the pain. Swipe and wipe were too similar, and that first part isn’t necessary anyway. If you start the next paragraph after this, you won’t need to say he focused on the call again.] Even though the caller had not identified herself, [Herself? You should identify the voice as female from the beginning. I was hearing a man the entire conversation.] he would trace the call later and find out where the call [it] originated from and hopefully a name of the caller.

The room he sat in was transformed into an office, equipped with two large four-drawer file cabinets set against the wall, opposite his desk. To Jim’s left, he had a combination laser printer, copier and fax machine. The wall to his right was taken up entirely with a bookshelf, filled with his amassed collection of books about his favorite sport—baseball. [If he has amassed a collection of baseball books, it goes without saying that it’s his favorite sport.] At six-foot-three and agile, he made for a perfect combination to play first base on his college baseball team. In the middle of the bookshelf sat his twenty-seven inch plasma screen TV. Jim had an unobstructed view beyond his backyard of a forested area, populated with Douglas Firs, dotted with pine trees, all surrounded by a sea of Sword Ferns.

[Give us a briefer look at what’s in the room. And at 3 a.m. I bet he can’t see the trees and ferns. Maybe you can save that description for another time. I’m not fond of lots of description. My writing errs on the other side, so take my advice with a grain of salt.]

For the past few months, Jim spent more time here than in any other room in his house. It felt like Anna’s fuse shortened with the passing of each day. If she would cut him a little slack about his job, then they wouldn’t even be having the constant arguments. [Instead of that last sentence, maybe say that every argument was about his job. But I’m not even sure that’s necessary. You’ve already established what they fight about.]

Jim pushed his marriage problems to the back of his mind, picked up a notepad and jotted down the phone conversation. Despite the questions not answered by the caller, Jim’s gut feeling compelled him to consider the possibility there was some truth to the caller’s claim. If that were the case, he would do whatever it took to find out how Karen really died.

Jim’s laptop finished its start up. He logged on and accessed the files of the local Sheriff’s Department. He began with locating the accident report. [That gives the impression he located the report, but in the next sentence he’s only typing her name.] He entered Karen’s name and waited. Seconds later a message he didn’t expect appeared on the screen, ‘No File Found’. He re-entered her name, making sure he spelled her name [it] correctly before he tapped the ‘enter’ key. The same message returned to his screen. [It’s a long paragraph. Here might be a good place to break it.] He sat back, thought for a moment, then sat back up and entered another site’s address. When the insignia for the State Police appeared, he clicked on the menu prompt. From there, he clicked on another prompt to bring him to where he could search their files for the accident report. Once again, he entered Karen’s name. [It’s not necessary to tell it step by step.] It was only seconds later when his answer came back. ‘No File Found’. Jim frowned. He looked to the side at the calendar hung on his file cabinet and counted how many days have [had] passed since the accident. Ten days. The report must still be in process.

Jim tried one more place. At the Department of Motor Vehicles site, he entered her name, tapped the enter key a little harder this time, and waited, holding his breath. It took over a minute for the response to come back. ‘No Information Found’. He stared at the screen. This can’t be right. He entered her name again; the same result came back. [Paragraph needs tightening (see rewrite).]

A sinking feeling came over him. The caller’s words ‘those who killed her’ shot through his mind. Is the caller telling the truth? [Either “was”, or put the sentence in italics.] Jim hoped his instincts were wrong this time. He could live with that. But, if they weren’t, how could he tell Dave Maxwell his wife was murdered?


You can visit Ernie at his website, or his blog.

If you're curious to see how it looks with the excess cut, I posted an edited version below. This took the chapter from 1,220 words to 821. But I can only cut, I can't add. The only thing that needs to be added, in my opinion, is who Karen is to Jim.

I'm sure it's explained later on, but I can see two possibilities. Either Karen is a close friend of Anna, and Jim's working to solve this will bring them closer together. Or Karen is only Jim's friend--maybe even a high school sweetheart--and his time on this case will tear them further apart.

In either case, I think it's a great idea to have a seasoned FBI agent trying to solve the murder of someone whose death brings him to tears. Might make him forget his professional detachment from time to time. I highlighted in purple the spots where it would be appropriate to expand on who Karen is.

My edit

The orange numbers on the digital clock read 3 a.m. by the time Jim dropped into bed. He fell asleep instantly, only to be wakened minutes later by the ringing of the phone. He groaned and rolled over, trying to decide whether to answer the phone or let the machine handle it.

Earlier that evening he and his wife Anna had argued for the third time that week about his job and how it interfered with their family life—the long hours, nights and weekends away from home, and the late night phone calls. Last night’s argument ended after Jim promised they would leave in two days for a vacation long overdue.

His wife mumbled. “I told you things wouldn’t change.”

Jim glanced in her direction and answered the phone. The female voice on the other end asked if he was Jim Gabriel.


“Karen Maxwell’s death wasn’t an accident.”

This brought Jim to an upright position. Karen died in a car crash. “What makes you think that?”

“I can’t talk now.”

“Tell me what you know.”

“I’m risking my life calling you. You have to find out what happened to her.”

Jim glanced over toward Anna, who gave him The Look. Something inside told him not to hang up yet. If there was any truth to the caller’s claim, he needed to know more. “I can’t help if you don’t tell me anything.”

“I need to get off the phone.”

His body jerked forward. “Don’t hang up.”

“I’ll try to call you later. Be careful. They’ll make sure no one finds out they killed her.”

“They? Who are they?”

The line went dead.

Jim sat on the edge of the bed, staring into the darkness. In his fifteen years as an FBI agent, he was used to bizarre calls. But this one involved the death of a close friend. He would trace the call later to find out where it originated and, hopefully, the name of the caller.

Anna’s words dripped with anger. “Thanks for waking me up. Again.”

Jim turned to say something, but held his tongue. This was not the time, or the place to defend himself. Unable to sleep, he headed to the den, his place of refuge. As he passed the rooms of his two daughters, he thought of happier days. Five years ago his promotion had eaten up the time he used to spend with them. He never complained, but Anna did, and the balance between his marriage and his job had shifted precariously close to disaster.

He walked into the oversized room located in the back of their ranch-style home, turned on the light and shut the door. He settled in to his leather chair, switched on his laptop. While he waited for it to finish whatever computers do before they can be used, he leaned back, closed his eyes and mulled over the caller’s claim. Karen’s memorial service the week before was still fresh in his mind. Her sudden death was a shock to her family and friends. He wiped the tears from his eyes and cheeks.

Only two things remained to make this Jim’s den—the twenty-seven inch plasma TV, and the bookshelf filled his collection of baseball books. The rest of the room was equipped as an office. Desk, large file cabinets, and a combination laser printer, copier, fax. For the past few months, he’d spent more time here than in any other room in his house. Anna’s fuse shortened with the passing of each day.

Jim pushed his marriage problems to the back of his mind, picked up a notepad and jotted down the phone conversation. His gut feeling compelled him to consider that the caller was telling the truth. If so, he’d do whatever it took to find out how Karen really died.

His laptop finished its start-up. He logged on and accessed the files of the local Sheriff’s Department. He entered Karen’s name and waited. Seconds later a message appeared on the screen, ‘No File Found’. He re-entered her name, making sure he spelled it correctly. The same message returned.

He sat back, thought for a moment, then went to the State Police website. A search for Karen’s accident report there brought up the same message. ‘No File Found’. He frowned and looked at the calendar hung on his file cabinet. Ten days had passed since the accident. The report must still be in process.

There was only one site left to check. The DMV. In his frustration, his keystrokes were more forceful than necessary. He waited, holding his breath. It took over a minute for the response to come back. ‘No Information Found’. He stared at the screen. This can’t be right.

A sinking feeling came over him. Was the caller telling the truth? If his instincts were wrong, he could live with that. But how could he tell Dave Maxwell his wife was murdered?