BookExcerpt +Contest: HEARTS IN VEGAS, a private-eye romance

HEARTS IN VEGAS, the third book in my private-eye romance series for Harlequin, is being released July 1! I had so much fun writing this story about a reformed jewel thief turned insurance investigator (Frances Jefferies) who goes undercover to retrieve a 20-million dollar necklace. What stands in her way is Las Vegas private eye Braxton Morgan, who doesn't believe she's a reformed thief, but the real deal.

You can order Hearts in Vegas by clicking the Amazon book graphic to your right. Contest form and book excerpt are below.

A Reformed Jewel Thief

I named Frances after Grace Kelly's character in To Catch a Thief. Like Grace Kelly, Frances is a cool, calculating blonde, but her background is more like Cary Grant character's in the movie (he's a retired jewel thief who is trying to save his "retired" status by catching a cat burglar who everyone believes is really him).

Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THIEF

Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THIEF


A Las Vegas Private Eye

The hero in Hearts in Vegas is Las Vegas PI Braxton Morgan, who has his own questionable past to live down. He's rebuilding his life and reputation, working hard to prove to his family & peers that he's walking the line, which would be a lot easier if Frances, who he believes is still a jewel thief, hadn't stolen his heart.

Book Contest

What: Three winners each receive a copy of HEARTS IN VEGAS. Top winner also receives a $10 Amazon gift card!

(Winners choose a print or Kindle copy of the book -- For those who don't own a Kindle, Amazon provides free apps for reading the book on PCs and Macs, and a variety of mobile devices)

When: June 27 - July 27, 2014

How: Register via the Rafflecopter form below. Hint: The more points you earn, the more chances to win!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Excerpt: HEARTS IN VEGAS - Opening Scene

IF TWENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Frances Jefferies had learned anything from her years as a pickpocket, it was the importance of blending in to one’s surroundings.

Today, February 5, her task was to steal a valuable brooch from Fortier’s, a high-end jewelry store in Las Vegas. To blend in with the Wednesday bling-shopping crowd, she’d put on a red-and-leopard-print top underneath a loose-fitting Yves Saint Laurent white silk pantsuit, and a pair of killer Dolce & Gabbana stilettos.

Time for one last practice run.

She retrieved two similar-size brooches from a dresser drawer. One, a rhinestone flower-petaled pin, was an exact replica of the diamond-encrusted Lady Melbourne brooch stolen ten years ago from a museum in Amsterdam. Its whereabouts had been unknown until it suddenly, and mysteriously, surfaced at Fortier’s a few days ago. She slipped the replica into an inside pocket of her jacket and set the other pin on her dresser.

Watching her reflection in the dresser mirror, she practiced the sleight-of-hand trick, deftly plucking the brooch from the pocket and swiftly replacing it with the other pin, three times in succession. Each switch went smoothly.

Now for the finishing touch. She selected a pair of antique garnet earrings from her jewelry box and put them on.

Leaning closer to the mirror, she swept a strand of her ash-blond hair off her face, tucking it lightly into her chignon. Her gaze slipped to her lower cheek. This close, she could see the faint outline of silicon gel underneath her meticulously applied makeup. For anyone else to see it, they would have to be inches away, and she never let anyone get that close.

A few moments later, she walked into the living room, where her dad sat in his favorite chair, shuffling a deck of cards. A basketball game was on TV, the crowd yelling as a player dunked the ball.

“Still working on The Trick That Fooled Houdini?” she asked.

He grinned and set the cards on a side table. “Like Houdini, I can’t figure out how Vernon did it, either.”

Dai Vernon, Houdini’s contemporary, had devised a card routine where a spectator’s chosen card always appeared at the top of the deck. Houdini, who bragged that he could figure out any magician’s trick, never solved this one.

Her dad, who’d worked as a magician his entire life, had never solved it, either. Sometimes he jokingly referred to it as The Trick That Fooled Houdini and Jonathan Jefferies.

“Going to work?” he asked.

His thinning dark hair was neatly parted on the side, and a pair of reading glasses hung on a chain around his neck. He had a slight paunch, but otherwise stayed in shape from daily walks and a fairly healthy diet, if one overlooked his love of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

She looked at his faded Hawaiian-print shorts and Miami Heat T-shirt with its ripped sleeve, wishing he’d let her buy him some new clothes. But he liked to stick with what was “tried-and-true,” from his haircut to clothes.

“Yes, off to work. If I leave in a few minutes, I should be there by three. The owner got back from a late lunch an hour ago. He and the security guard will be the only employees in the jewelry store the rest of the afternoon.”

“Good girl, you did your homework.” He paused, noticing her earrings. “Oh,” he said, his eyes going soft, “you’re wearing your mother’s jewelry.”

Frances’s mother, Sarah, had been her father’s tried-and-true soul mate. When she eloped at nineteen with a little-known Vegas magician, her wealthy family disinherited her. If my upbringing had been happy, she’d told her daughter, disowning me might have mattered. Instead, it released me to a better life.

The only items Sarah Jefferies had of her family’s were a small jewelry collection, gifted to her by her late grandmother.

“Mom’s earrings will be my calling card today,” Frances said, touching one of them. She loved antique jewelry, especially early-nineteenth-century Georgian, the era of these earrings and the Lady Melbourne brooch.

“She’s happy to know she’s helping. We’re proud of you, Francie.”

He often spoke of his wife in the present tense, which used to bother Frances, but she accepted it more these days. Sometimes she even envied her dad’s sense of immediacy about his late wife. Frances was painfully aware it had been four years this past summer—July 15, 1:28 in the afternoon—when they’d lost her, and shamefully aware of the pain she’d brought her parents in the months leading up to her mother’s death.

Nearly five years ago, Frances had been arrested on a jewelry theft. It had been humiliating to be caught, but agonizing to see the hurt on her parents’ faces. Especially after she admitted to them the theft hadn’t been a onetime deal. After learning sleight-of-hand tricks from her dad as a kid, she’d segued into picking pockets in her teens, then small jewelry thefts by the time she was twenty. At the time, she selfishly viewed her thefts as once-a-year indulgences, but it didn’t matter if she’d stolen once or dozens of times—what’d she done had been wrong.

Jonathan Jefferies blamed himself for his daughter’s criminal activities, believing she had resorted to theft because he’d been unable to adequately support his family as a magician. When Frances was growing up, the family had sometimes relied on friends for food, or went without electricity, or suffered through eviction because there hadn’t been enough money to pay the rent.

The judge, moved by Frances’s difficult upbringing and her mother’s failing health, had offered her a second chance. Instead of giving her a ten-year prison sentence, he’d suspended her sentence as long as she met certain conditions, a common solution for people with a high potential for rehabilitation.

For Frances, her conditions were threefold. One, either attend college or obtain full-time legitimate employment, including any position where she applied her skills for a positive end. Two, pay restitution to the victim. Three, do not break any local, state or federal laws. As if she had a yen to ever break a law again.

As far as college or a job, her probation officer matched her “skills” to Vanderbilt Insurance, a company that was looking for an investigator to track stolen jewels and antiquities.

Sometimes these investigations, such as the one today, required her pickpocket skills. She would be taking back the Lady Melbourne brooch, which was the legal property of Vanderbilt Insurance, since they had already paid the fifty-thousand-dollar insurance claim from the museum.

 

End of Excerpt - Hearts in Vegas

Haunted Hotels and Ghost Hunting

This past week has been a lively one with the launch of Love Is a Mystery: Six Novels of Love, Laughter and Lawbreaking, only 99 cents for the next 90 days! Mid-week the authors hosted a crazy-fun FB party for the box-set release, where we gave out prizes and talked about everything from who's the better Sherlock -- Cumberbatch or Downey Jr. (Downey won) -- to why women are excellent crime plotters (!). As part of our box-set launch, two of my articles were posted at Digital Book Today, a very cool site founded by book-industry veteran Anthony Wessel, where book lovers and authors meet.

Today I'm posting an excerpt from one of those articles about haunted hotels and ghost hunters...

Do Paranormal Investigators Really Find Ghosts?

by Colleen Collins for Digital Book Today

For a decade, my husband and I co-owned a private detective agency in Denver, Colorado. During that time we had a few people call who said they thought a ghost was haunting their house and could we investigate it? We always declined, explaining that we were not paranormal investigators. Which is a good place to start this discussion – who are these people who specialize in hunting ghosts?

What Is a Paranormal Investigator?

ghost hunter.jpg

Most paranormal investigators are people who are certified in parapsychology or who have studied paranormal investigations. Their goal is to help people in need, and often paranormal investigators do not accept money for their services (although they may accept donations for travel, lodging and expenses). Some paranormal investigators make money through writing books, conducting “ghost tours,” giving workshops, or even starring in TV reality shows about ghost hunters.

Whenever we got a call from someone wanting to hire a ghost hunter, we’d offer them some tips for locating one. Not that we believe in phantoms – we just didn’t want people to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous types who prey on people’s worries and fears.

Tips for Hiring a Paranormal Investigator

Look up an established paranormal investigations organization in the area. For example, the National and International ParaHaunt Paranormal Family Network gives referrals to paranormal investigators throughout the U.S. and the world.

Check the background of the paranormal organization or investigator before you retain their services. Contact the Better Business Bureau, research the organization/person on the Internet for news stories and client referrals, review their website and contact any former clients for recommendations, or hire a private investigator to double-check the paranormal investigator’s background (especially if you’re inviting this person into your home).

We didn’t conduct paranormal investigations at our agency for the simple reason that we didn’t believe in ghosts. On the other hand, I would be a believer if I had captured evidence of one. Which I tried to do a few years back…

My Informal Investigations at Three Haunted Hotels

Several years ago, I visited the Stanley Hotel here in my state of Colorado and took its Ghost Tour. The “Stanley” is known for its Room #217, where Stephen King first began writing his book The Shining, later made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson.

My Digital Photos Caught “Orbs”

I took photos during this ghost tour with my digital camera, and others in the group (including the tour guide) said I had captured orbs, which supposedly indicated the presence of spirits.  The Paranormal Encyclopedia says that “both skeptics, and many ghost hunters, agree that photographic orbs are most often, if not always, caused by natural elements such as dust, pollen, or water vapor.”  I don’t know what caused the orbs, but if I’d seen, oh, a spectral figure hovering in the photo…well, then I’d believe I’d captured evidence of a ghost.

Claims of Ghosts, But When I Visited…

To read the full article, click here.

 

*June 1 Book Blast* Love Is a Mystery: Six Novels of Love, Laughter and Lawbreaking for 99 Cents!

Only 99 cents for 90 days -- a 90% savings!

Only 99 cents for 90 days -- a 90% savings!

Six bestselling authors' romantic-mystery novels in one boxed set, featuring heroes and heroines who are fearless, funny, and very good at sleuthing out crimes. Available June 1, 2014 for only 99¢ for 90 days—a 90% savings if purchased separately!

Box Set Includes: Frosted Shadow by Nancy Warren, She's Gotta Be Mine by Jennifer Skully, The Honeymoon Cottage by Barbara Cool Lee, Steamed by Holly Jacobs, The Zen Man by Colleen Collins, and Caught You Looking by Shelley Adina.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Love-Mystery-novels-...

What Can Writers Learn From the 1979 film AND JUSTICE FOR ALL?

Book excerpt from A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms by defense lawyer Shaun Kaufman and PI-writer Colleen Collins.

Ten of Our Favorite Legal Films - And Justice for All

And Justice for All (1979): Starring Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe and Christine Lahti; directed by Norman Jewison. In the story, Pacino plays jaundiced lawyer Arthur Kirkland, who openly deplores the lack of justice in the law. Pacino received an Oscar nomination for best actor, and the writers, Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, received a nomination for best original screenplay.

Shouldn’t one be concerned that our criminal justice system seems more intent and efficient in locking up drug offenders than in prosecuting complex, white-collar, corporate crime?
— Defense lawyer Arthur Kirkland

Kirkland’s grim view of justice increases after he’s forced to represent a judge he despises (played by Forsythe) who has been charged with rape. Their mutual dislike provides an ongoing strong, compelling conflict in the story.

So how did Kirkland get forced to defend a judge he despises? Seems the judge blackmailed Kirkland by threatening to report him for disclosing a client’s confidentiality. This premise is somewhat questionable as it’s not entirely clear if Kirkland really committed an ethical violation, but it's also plausible enough to shift the story into a higher gear.

There’s also a cast of quirky characters in And Justice for All, including a nutso judge, played brilliantly by Jack Warden, who acts out his suicidal impulses by eating his lunch on a high-up window ledge and seeing how far he can fly his helicopter on a near-empty tank of gas. Too eccentric? Possibly. If the agency overseeing judicial conduct for that jurisdiction were to hear about this ledge-eating, empty-tank flying judge, his days sitting on the bench would come to an abrupt end.

A judge once stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom

A judge once stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom

On the other hand, as long as he isn’t reported, such eccentricities could continue for a while. Trust us on this one. Shaun, one of the co-authors of this book, once had a judge who stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom. And then there was the time in a high-profile, tension-filled trial, where the judge kept checking out a Playboy magazine that no one saw except the defense (Shaun) and prosecutor whenever they approached the bench to discuss a legal point.

And Justice for All is an incisive examination of corruption and ethics within the justice system. It’s also a story about the disparity between following the word of the law versus justice being served. Maybe one of these issues sparks an idea for your legal character or story.

Earlier in this book, we discussed the steps of a trial and lawyers’ opening statements. At the end of And Justice For All, Kirkland gives a mild-melding, no-holds-barred opening statement that is a masterful display of honesty and an indictment of the folly of the legal system that every lawyer wants to give, and what no ethics board would ever allow. That alone is a reason to watch this movie.

-End of Excerpt-

Writing Lessons from the 1949 Film Adam's Rib, Starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

Available June 2014

Available June 2014

Sampling of Book Topics

  • A History of Trials
  • Players in the Courtroom
  • The Courtroom Setting
  • Types of Lawyers
  • Legal Ethics
  • Types of Courts
  • Trial Lawyers Are Storytellers
  • Lawyers and Technology
  • Trial Preparation
  • The Steps of a Civil and Criminal Trial
  • Appeals
  • Articles on Crimes, DNA Testing, Personal Injury Cases and More
  • Recommended Legal Films
  • Glossaries of Legal Terms and Occupations

I've been hard at work with my husband on a new nonfiction book, A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, geared to writers, fans of legal thrillers, researchers and armchair legal eagles. To coincide with its release next month, we're running a contest & giving away 3 copies of the eBook and a $10 Amazon gift card (scroll down to the bottom of this page to enter).

In a Lawyer's Primer for Writers, we cover the in's and out's of trials, lawyers, courtrooms and a whole lot more, including a chapter dedicated to ten of our favorite legal films and what they can teach writers. Today we're offering an excerpt about the classic film Adam's Rib that features Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as married lawyers who face off as opposing lawyers in a murder trial.

Book Excerpt

One of Our Top Ten Legal Films: Adam's Rib

Adam's Rib (1949): Starring: Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn; directed by George Cukor. A courtroom comedy, with a heavy dollop of drama, that features Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as husband and wife attorneys who are on opposite ends of a criminal prosecution: Hepburn is defending a woman who shot her husband; Tracy is the prosecutor.

Note: It’s highly questionable that a district attorney’s office would allow one of its prosecutors to try a case if his wife were the defense attorney. More likely, the DA’s office would cite a conflict of interest and have another prosecutor try the case. Nevertheless, Hepburn’s and Tracy’s opposing counsel roles provide wonderful story conflict. 

Oh, what are you gonna do, object before I ask the question?
— Tracy confronting Hepburn in the courtroom
Adam's Rib Movie Trailer (image in public domain)

Adam's Rib Movie Trailer (image in public domain)

Adam’s Rib, interestingly enough, was based on the real-life story of actor Raymond Massey and his wife Adrianne Allen's divorce. They had hired married lawyers William and Dorothy Whitney, who, after the divorce was finalized, divorced each other and married their clients! Keep in mind that William and Dorothy Whitney were divorce attorneys in private practice — unlike the setup in Adam’s Rib where the husband represented the government, and the wife was in private practice. 

To prepare for the role, Katherine Hepburn and the director, George Cukor, spent time in different Los Angeles courtrooms to pick up details to help make the acting and story authentic. 

Tip for Writers: In general court hearings are open, which means the public may attend. This is an excellent way to learn about the court system, and watch lawyers, judges, witnesses and others in the course of a trial. At times, the court might close a court proceeding to the public if the judge wishes to protect someone’s dignity, such as a child’s or a distressed witness’s. 

Historical Perspective on Adam’s Rib

In 1940, 9 years before Adam’s Rib was filmed, the United States Census identified only 4,447 female attorneys in the US, or 2.4 percent of all lawyers in the country.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entering WWII, many male lawyers enlisted in the military, which created a void in American law schools. The sudden need for students was filled by women. By 1942, women law students were 4.35 percent of all law students; by 1943, the number of women had increased to 21.9 percent. During WWII, some law firms began hiring women lawyers for the first time, such as the New York firm of Cahill Gordon in 1943, and Shearman & Sterling in 1944. 

According to the article “Adam’s Rib as an Historical Document: The Plight of Women Lawyers in the 1940s,” the number of women in law school began decreasing significantly after WWII, and many women lawyers lost their employment positions to returning American solider-lawyers who were given back their former jobs. Also, many returning serviceman obtained funding via the GI Bill for law school, and by 1947 law schools were again churning out a much higher number of male than female attorneys.

So by 1949 when Adam’s Rib started playing in movie theaters, women lawyers like Hepburn’s character Amanda Bonner were already vanishing in the US.

Contest!

Enter to Win a Free Copy of A Lawyer's Primer for Writers + $10 Amazon Gift Card!

WHEN: May 9 - June 9, 2014

HOW: Register below in the Rafflecopter form

PRIZES: 3 Winners will each receive a Kindle copy of A Lawyer's Primer for Writers. First-place winner also receives a $10 Amazon gift card.

 (No Kindle? No problem! Amazon provides free apps for reading on your computer or mobile device.)

HINT: The more you participate in the Rafflecopter form, the more chances you have of winning! Good luck!

Winners will be announced by June 15th.


Historical Research: Download Maps, Charts and Atlases for Free

In this digital age, we're accustomed to snapping pictures with our smartphones and sending them instantly to others, but not so long ago in the history of the world, people had to draw diagrams, pictures and maps to share information. 

English colonies, 1754 Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

English colonies, 1754 Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Free Downloads of Historical Drawings and Maps

Boston Public Library offers free downloads of historical maps, drawings, charts and more from its Norman B. Levanthal Map Center for non-commercial purposes under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. A great resource for researching a story set during one of the eras within the collection, such as the American Revolutionary War.

If you download any of the images, the Boston Public Library asks that you provide one of the following attribution lines:

(From the Leventhal Map Center's collections:)
"Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library"

(From a separate collection (example: Richard H. Brown Revolutionary War Era Maps:)
"Map reproduction from the [NAME OF COLLECTION] collection of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library"

Sample Maps and Diagrams from the American Revolutionary War

Below are a few of maps and drawings from the American Revolutionary War, including several drawings by Paul Revere, a southwest view depiction of New York city in 1763, and a drawing for the encampment plan for British forces in 1780. 

SW view of New York city, 1763 - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

SW view of New York city, 1763 - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

 

Planned Boston massacre, 1770 (diagram by Paul Revere) - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Planned Boston massacre, 1770 (diagram by Paul Revere) - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Drawing of plan for encampment of British forces, 1780 - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Drawing of plan for encampment of British forces, 1780 - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library


Ships of war, Boston 1768 (drawing by Paul Revere) - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ships of war, Boston 1768 (drawing by Paul Revere) - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library


Source: http://maps.bpl.org/view_collection

Book Excerpt: THE UNGRATEFUL DEAD - A romantic-mystery at a coroners' conference

I loved The Zen Man and really had fun catching Rick and Laura’s first case in the prequel, The Ungrateful Dead. These novels have everything I love in a mystery: smart dialogue, a flawed hero, a little romance and a great plot. Murder at a coroner’s conference? What could be more fun!
— Nancy Warren, USA Today Bestselling Author of the Toni Diamond Mysteries

Hello everyone, 

Today I'm posting the opening scene from The Ungrateful Dead, a novella that introduces Rick and Laura, a private-eye team who I like to call the "21st-century Nick and Nora" as they attempt to have a romantic weekend at a coroners' conference...that is, until there's a murder. Its sequel, The Zen Man, is a full-length mystery novel that continues the tale of Rick and Laura as they investigate another crime.

The Ungrateful Dead is a short read with a short price: 99 cents. Click on the cover to your right to go to its Amazon page.

Excerpt: The Ungrateful Dead

“A Deadhead at a coroner’s conference,” said my date Laura, giving me a look over her martini.  “That’s either too weird or too perfect.” 

We stood in the crowded banquet room at the Independence Lode in Cripple Creek, Colorado.  This hotel and casino was named after a gold mine that was discovered in eighteen-something by a grubstake miner whose find made him the richest man west of the Mississippi.  People still trekked up to Cripple Creek with dreams of striking it rich at the casinos, although mostly they lost money while swilling free booze and trying to get laid.  Not the ambiance I’d have picked for the Colorado Coroners Society’s annual conference, but then ex-junkie, suspended attorneys like me are the last people to pass judgments.  Out loud, anyway.

The lights in the room had been turned down to create a moody atmosphere conducive to mindless chitchat, although it was difficult to imagine anyone in this crowd of coroners, morticians and cadaver groupies doing anything mindlessly.  Especially chitchatting.  Hell, it was difficult to imagine me attending a Dead gig unless the band was playing.  But the CCS, the abbreviated moniker used by the coroner in-crowd, had offered me three nights in a froufrou Victorian B&B, all expenses paid, to speak about what to say, but more important what not to say, in court.  Seemed some rural coroners had gotten loose-lipped and screwed up a DA’s ability to prosecute several key cases this past year, which made me a living-for-the-music Deadhead trying to teach a few courtroom tricks to the dying-is-a-living Deadheads.

“Yeah,” I finally answered.  “It’s too perfect.”

I watched Laura’s lips--their color like dark, sweet cherries--pucker as she took a sip.  Earlier, she’d told me that the lipstick color was called Burgundy Bistro, which had made me wonder if a chef was moonlighting as a copywriter for the make-up company.  But it wouldn’t matter if she slicked on a color called Eggplant Eatery, it was what was underneath those luscious, supple lips that mattered.  Lips I’d gotten to know well these past three months.

She swallowed, lowered her glass.  “Did you ever tell me how that band got the name Grateful Dead?”

Laura’s sincere interest was a far cry from my ex-wife’s, whose hatred of the Dead bordered on the pathological.  After I moved out, she took my original ’67 poster of the Dead at Whisky A-Go-Go in Los Angeles—a collector’s item probably worth several hundred dollars, but priceless to a Deadhead—and stuck it under her Lexus to catch leaking oil.

I like to think of myself as a forgiving kinda guy, but after discovering the plight of that poster I spent an entire week plotting my revenge, which mostly revolved around paying a tattoo-artist buddy to ink a Grateful Dead bear on her sorry ass after one of her too-much-box-wine nights.  But eventually I let it go.  Well, except for referring to her thereafter as Wicked—short for Wicked Wench of the West—but otherwise, I let it go.  Already had enough karma on my plate, plus it would’ve been a waste of good ink. 

I responded to Laura’s question.  “It has something to do with the soul of a dead person being grateful to the charitable person who arranged their burial.  Although more likely, Jerry was stoned outta his gourd and it sounded cool.”  I took a swig of my root beer.  

Laura laughed, making me feel taller and funnier.  

Across the room, a blur of movement snagged my attention.  A woman slouched in the doorway, backlit from the lights in the hallway.  Couldn’t make out her features, but I’d recognize that mop of blond curls anywhere.  The way she dragged her hand through those coils, periodically tugging one as though trying to straighten it, meant she was either pissed-off or nervous.  I’d seen her wear that first emotion a lot.

“Good evening, everyone,” announced a woman’s voice over the speakers.

The chattering and clinking dropped several decibels.

“This is Dr. Susan Kebler.  I invite you to direct your attention to the podium at the front of the room and welcome Mr. Kevin Voight, Executive Director of the Aspen Community Medical Foundation, who will be announcing this year’s recipient of the Forensic DNA Research Grant.”

A smattering of applause.  At the podium there was some fumbling, followed by static thumping noises.

“Is this on?” asked a male voice.

“Turn up the lights,” someone yelled.

Overhead fluorescents popped to life, their stark light leeching the room of its party atmosphere.  At the podium stood a man I presumed was Kevin Voight, pushing forty, dressed in a summer linen suit that set off his seamless tan. 

“He looks familiar,” I murmured to Laura.

“Probably because he looks like Tom Cruise.”

“Really?  Ask me, Tom’s a bit past his sell-by date.”

She flashed me a jealous-are-we? look, which I pretended not to see.  

Truth was, yeah, Kevin had that Tom Cruise thing going for him.  Although after Kevin-Tom started talking, I realized movie-star looks can only take a dude with no personality so far.  Kevin came across like a robot.  Stiff and in dire need of some inflection when he spoke.  On and on he went in that relentless tone, acknowledging anybody and everybody who’d ever set foot on the planet.  Finally, he gave the award to the Colorado Association of Clinical Something-somethings.

Afterward, Laura and I mingled and made small-talk with several coroners I hoped wouldn’t see either of us again for a long, long time.  When she and I were alone I typically did most of the talking, but put us at a social gathering and Laura morphed into an expert schmoozer, a skill I chalked up to her years as an executive at TeleForce, a telecommunications giant based in Denver.  She’d once tried to explain to me exactly what she did, but my brain had liquefied when she started talking about technology infrastructure and scalable architecture.  Laura had the brains of a geek underneath her wild-girl rocker Grace Slick looks, the way Slick looked in her ultra-cool Jefferson Starship days when she had raven hair and wore dramatic eye make-up.  

Although sometimes Laura’s left eye squinted slightly, as though she were scrutinizing something you’d just said.  Minor nerve damage, she’d once explained, the result of a teenage motorcycle accident.

Several root beers and an assortment of canapés later, I heard a buzz in the room.  People were whispering fervently, sharing some piece of news.  And from their closed, tight looks, it was bad news.

An athletic, fiftyish woman with short-cropped gray hair nudged her way past me.  As she paused to sneeze, holding a tissue to her nose, I read her name tag.  Dr. Susan Kebler, Coroner, Teller County.  The county for Cripple Creek, the site of this conference.  Tucking the tissue into her pocket, she crossed the room to a grim-looking cop, who briskly led her away.

I caught snatches of conversations around me.

“…on the premises…”

A snorting laugh.  “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”

“Where’s his wife?”

The cell phone in my shirt pocket vibrated.  I checked the unfamiliar caller ID, figured it might be a new client.

“Levine Investigations,” I answered.

“Natalie.”

She’d always exaggerated her a’s—a Connecticut thing, she’d said—so whenever she said her name it sounded like a traffic jam of vowels butting up against consonants.

I glanced at the doorway where I’d seen her, but she’d split.

“I think I’m in trouble,” Natalie continued.

Through the phone, I heard background noise.  Sirens.  People yelling.

“Can you come to the construction area behind the casino?” she asked.  “Police just arrived.”

Thoughts T-boned in my mind.  Cops?  Natalie was obviously free to make calls, so how much trouble could she be in?  On the other hand, she was the last person who’d want to call me unless she really needed my help. 

 “Be right there.”  I ended the call and glanced at my watch.  Twenty to ten.

Laura’s brow furrowed.  “What’s up?”

“Not sure.”  I looked around, noticed others were migrating toward the exit, punching numbers into their cells.  “How ‘bout I meet you back at our room?”

I took her by the elbow and guided her toward the exit.  As we passed a tray, she drained the last sip of her martini and set the empty glass on it.

“Think it’s something I can’t handle?”  Laura asked.

“Maybe.”

“Gruesome?”

I flashed on the cop’s stony expression as he spoke to Dr. Kebler.  “Probably.”

Laura halted, her wide-set blue eyes boring into mine.  “If I was game enough to join you for a romantic weekend at a coroner’s conference,” she whispered huskily, “I’m game enough for whatever’s in store.”

Gruesome had never been so alluring. 

“Laura,” I murmured, trying not to let her I’m-game look override my better sense, “I don’t doubt you’re strong enough to handle many things, but I’m guessing there’s a body.  A dead one.”

She rolled her eyes.  “I worked at a nursing home the summer after high school.  I’ve seen dead bodies before.”

“Yeah, aging ones succumbing to natural causes.”

“Dead is dead.”

“True, but I’m guessing this is more like ugly dead, something a lady like you shouldn’t see.”  I gave her my best tough-guy-with-a-heart smile.  The kind Tom Cruise wished he could give, and one I wished I felt.

Truth was, I didn’t know if I could handle the reality of what lay out there.  Not the sight of a corpse—I’d seen photographs of dozens over the course of my criminal defense career—but the harrowing reminder of what death demands from the living.

The truth.

I’d failed to seek that that in the Willard case.  

Of course, only a stupid defense attorney actually asks a client for the truth, as in did he or she do the dirty deed.  You don’t want to hear your client say he killed the victim because your role is to fight for your client’s rights, win the best deal, hell if you play it right your client walks away as if he’d never committed the most egregious, heinous act possible to another human being.  I still remembered watching Willard damn near skip down those courthouse steps, flashing a cocky grin that chilled me to my marrow…because at that moment I knew I’d helped free a killer…

I barely felt Laura’s arm as she wove it through mine and steered us toward whatever lay ahead. 


For fans of The Zen Man, this novella provides a more comprehensive background story for Rick and Laura, the characters who have already captured your imagination. For newcomers to Colleen Collins’ mysteries, this is a perfect introduction to the full-length novel.
— Christopher Gill, author