Thursday teaser: Here the Truth Lies


Read on to see how you could WIN an autographed copy of the bestselling Here the Truth Lies, the subject of this week’s psychological thriller teaser

Here the Truth Lies: psychological thriller by Seb KirbyBy Seb Kirby

At home that night, I look long and hard at the bottle of scotch. I shouldn’t be drinking. Too much is happening. I need to keep a clear head to see my way through it.

I took care to change my pattern on the journey back from Bankside, taking a later train. There was no sign of the man in the black coat.

The golden glow of the liquid in the bottle is so appealing. I pour myself a small one, add water and take a first sip. Warmth and composure run through me. As if I need any reminder that whisky is so irresistible.

The events of the day come closer into focus.

Bill McLeish and his continuing demands.

Margaret Hyslop’s arrogance.

Alec Waring with his self-loathing.

But emerging now are the thoughts I’ve struggled to hide all that time.

Jenny’s words burn in my mind.

I know who you are.

You’re not Emma.

I’m still shocked at how much this poses a threat to whatever sense of well-being I’ve managed to manufacture around myself. A shiver of guilt runs down my spine. When I look down at my hands, they’re trembling. What makes me feel this way?

I try to recall my parents, John and Mary Chamberlain. Nothing comes. Just distant, ill-formed memories of people I should know intimately but who are like strangers.

Is this what Jenny meant?

Or is this one more sign of pressure?

McLeish’s complaints.

The tall dark man following me.

BACK OFF BEFORE ITS TOO LATE written in child’s crayon.

The fact that, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m drinking too much.

Are these things playing with my mind, making me believe I can’t do something as simple as recalling my own parents?

I rifle through the dressing table drawers in the bedroom. I’m not the type to have any interest in displaying photographs in frames around the house nor on my desk at work. But somewhere here, there’s a small stack of photos in a cellophane packet that I keep but seldom look at. Something to reassure me in this moment of doubt.

As I find them and begin searching through them, my first thoughts are, is this all? How old am I now? Twenty-eight. These ten photographs paint a paltry record of my life. Yet, I tell myself this is how I want it. People with children have every incentive to manufacture the thousands of images of themselves and their kids and offer them as trophies of their success on social media before printing and framing their favorites as more tangible tokens of the permanence of their lives. I’m not in this position, though I would in all certainty behave in much the same way if my life were different.

I pause to take another long sip of the scotch. The warmth in my stomach brings with it more intense perception, I’m sure.

Here is the photo of my parents, John and Mary. The only one.

They look respectable enough. Endearing as they stand together with their winning smiles.

But the longer I look, the more I convince myself I don’t recognize them. Maybe I’ve never known them. They are as much a mystery to me as any photo of any married couple taken years ago that I might have seen on TV or in a magazine.

I leaf through the remaining photographs. None of me as a child. No images of me at play on holiday, no pictures of me as a schoolgirl.

About Here the Truth Lies

Emma Chamberlain has a consuming ambition—to prove the innocence of a convicted murderer sentenced to life. But the more she digs into the evidence, the more she is forced to confront threatening secrets about her own past that lead her to the ultimate question—who is Emma Chamberlain?

To discover the truth, Emma must expose those responsible for a dark conspiracy that has ruined the lives of many and now threatens her own.

Win a signed copy of Here the Truth Lies

Author Seb Kirby will send you an autographed copy of his latest book to one personwho correctly names the city that Here the Truth Lies  is set in. Leave your answer in the Comments below.

Seb Kirby

BestSelling author Seb Kirbywas literally raised with books: his grandfather ran a mobile library in Birmingham, UK and his parents inherited a random selection of the books. Once he discovered a trove of well-used titles from Zane Gray’s Riders of the Purple Sage, HG Wells’ The Invisible Man and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to more obscure stuff, he was hooked.

He’s been an avid reader ever since.

He is author of the James Blake thriller series, Take No More, Regret No More and Forgive No More; the science-fiction thriller, Double BindEach Day I Wake; and Sugar for Sugar. His latest book is another psychological thriller, Here the Truth Lies.

Seb can be found:

BestSelling Reads author page  |   Amazon Author page  |   Facebook   |   Twitter   |    Goodreads   |   LinkedIn   |    Website & blog 





Mystery Thursday: A Case of Sour Grapes


Win a copy of this week’s mystery and Cass Elliot companion novel

A Case of Sour Grapes - mystery by Gae-Lynn WoodsBy Gae-Lynn Woods


BEING WOMEN OF SOUND mind, Cass and I did what any solid sleuths would do before diving into the skank that is Whiskey Bend: we cruised the strip checking for Bret Ivey’s Corvette. I’ve driven this stretch of road just over the state line and into Louisiana numerous times. It’s the kind of crammed together place that always makes me slow down and check for drivers who can’t stay between the lines. During the day, it’s dirty and downright sad. At night, however, it sparkles with twinkling neon signs that distract from the grime and despair.

We drove the half mile stretch of Whiskey Bend at a sedate pace, glancing in the crowded parking lots as we went, searching for a bright yellow Corvette with the license plate WINE-O. We didn’t see it, so we agreed to take a closer look at the seedier side of life.

Have you ever been in a bar for bikers? This was my first time, and despite my show of bravado with Cass, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Dim lights, sticky floors, inebriated rednecks, scantily clad women with vacant stares. You, too? Well, The Golden O was a surprise. I’d talked it over with Cass, and we decided to work methodically down one side of Whiskey Bend to the last bar, then turn around and work our way along the other side.

Back to The Golden O. It wasn’t the kind of place you’d take your mother, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The parking lot was packed with motorcycles and muscle cars. A flashing neon sign featured the outline of a curvy blonde, lips pursed in a sexy ‘O’. A bouncer greeted us with a glance up and down, then motioned us inside. I discreetly flipped on my hidden camera. The lights were low, but the floor wasn’t sticky. The foyer had a diner-like counter along one wall, fronting a grill where a big man flipped burgers and steaks for five guys perched on chrome stools. The food smelled surprisingly good. Music flowed from deeper inside the establishment and we stepped through a velvet curtain into a wide room with a stage at its center. A busty blonde with mounds of frothy curls who could’ve been the model for the neon sign stalked along a runway. She was wearing a beautiful black mask and a full-length gown exposing a strip of magnificent cleavage. She peeled off long gloves, one finger at a time, bumping and grinding all the while. The bikers alongside the stage were utterly entranced.

Cass watched the men as they watched the woman. “What gives, Maxine? I thought the whole reason men came to these places was for the skin.”

“It’s burlesque,” I answered quietly. “It’s as much about the tease as the nudity.” The stripper unrolled a glove and draped it across one patron’s shoulder before whipping it away and slapping him in the face with it. A charged growl went up from the crowd.

“How do you know that?” Cass asked.

“My ex-husband Neil took me to see burlesque shows.”

“That didn’t bother you?”

“Not until I realized they were men in drag.”

Cass cocked an eyebrow.

I focused on the faces around the stage. “It was the beginning of the end for us. If they’d been women, maybe I could’ve coped.”

I felt her gaze and wondered if she would ask more. My best friend and I lost contact while I was married, and other than having been maid of honor in my wedding, she knew very little about my married life. In true Cass style, she knew when to hold her questions. She turned back to the men. “I don’t see Bret, do you?”

The dancer tossed her second glove our way and a scrum erupted over the strip of cloth. Amid the chaos, I caught the stripper’s glare. I recognized the smoky green eyes behind the mask and blood drained from my face.

“Oh no,” I whispered to Cass. “We’re so busted.”


“The woman on stage? The dancer?”

Cass glanced up. “What about her?”

“That’s Aunt Babby.”

What is the mystery about A Case of Sour Grapes?

Wine, women, and song. What could possibly go wrong?

Meet Maxine Leverman, lover of expensive shoes, beautiful handbags, and her lingerie wearing ex-husband’s hush money. When she pleads her way into a job at family run Lost and Found Investigations, Maxine’s only goal is to gain the concealed carry license and PI skills she needs to find the man who attacked her, and then kill him. (Or maybe just put him in jail, that decision can wait.)

But when she secretly takes a missing husband case on her first day at the agency, she stumbles into a high-stakes game of blackmail and murder. Maxine must unravel the links between a forgotten folk punk band, an international drug cartel, and the tangled history of the missing husband to keep the women in his life alive.

Fans of the early Stephanie Plum novels and Stuart Woods’ Holly Barker series will love Maxine’s tenacity, grit, and lust for life.

Find this bestselling mystery on Amazon in the Mystery, Thriller and Suspense and Private Investigators categories.

Win a free e-copy of this compelling mystery

The author will give away a free e-copy to anyone who correctly answers this question:

What’s the name of the most famous cabaret in Paris?”

This you know the answer? Leave it in the Comments.

Meet the author

mystery author Gae-Lynn WoodsGae-Lynn Woods is a Texan mystery writer who has traveled the world, lived overseas, and come back home. She and her husband, British jazz guitarist Martyn Popey, share a ranch in East Texas with a herd of Black Angus cattle, one very cranky donkey, and The Dude, a rescue kitty with attitude.

Visit Gae-Lynn’s

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Horror Thursday: The Dark


This week’s teaser is from the award-winning horror novel. Read on to find out how you could win a free copy of this outstanding book 

By David C. Cassidy

The Dark: award-winning horror by David C. CassidyStanding at his chopping block, Harmon Wyatt spun around. His ax was poised, ready to strike fire into the heart of the sorry son of a bitch who had snuck up on him. Yet all he saw were woods, as far as his old eyes could take him.

Not thirty yards from where he stood, a pair of pine crosses stirred horror within him. He relived it all in an instant. And before his terror could best him with a scream, he forced his gaze away, into the woods.

Woods of silence.

Woods of eyes.

The nape of his neck grew cold as the gray hairs there stood on end. His grip on the ax tightened.

There was a shift at that precise moment, a bad turn in the way of things. He could not put his finger on it, yet somehow, in some dark and elusive way, the world changed.

“Sweet Jesus, no—

As it had come to him yesterday as the light had fled, it had come to him now, a preying darkness reborn, aching from desires ancient and gross. There was no mistaking its hold over him, no subtlety to its message. It wanted. It needed. And it would take what it chose. He had faced it long ago, when he still held the fight of a younger man. The fight that had carried him. But for him to rise against it now … no mountain could loom higher.

Harmon turned to the graves. Their crude markers were barely visible, two wooden stubs buried in the snow. He moved closer, only a yard, and no farther. His fear—his guilt—sent him hustling to the back door in terror.

Something was out there. Something cold and wicked. And though it had been thirty years if a day, he knew what it was; knew its black work was unfinished.

Trembling, he set his ax beside the step and retreated inside. His legs nearly buckled as he huddled against the door. He feared he might lose his grip, just as he had last night. Only sheer will steeled him against his fright.

He stood in the cramped kitchen. The woodstove crackled. Don Maclean sang American Pie on his portable radio. The volume was low, but it was loud enough to make him rush across the room and kill the music with a hard slap to the power button.

He stuffed his work gloves in his pockets, then ducked below the small round window at the door. He rose slowly and peered through the grimy glass.

Trees. Everywhere, the trees.

He grabbed a beer from the fridge, an old Westinghouse with a wonky handle. His trembling fingers struggled with the bottle cap, finally getting it off.

He sat at his kitchen table. Don’t you look, he told himself. Don’t you dare look. But as he had countless times before, in his sleeping nightmares and in his waking ones, he did look. To the top of the fridge, to a small wooden box that lay in wait amid a clutter of junk.

He thought he might piss himself. Thought he might die.

“You ain’t real,” he said, and guzzled the entire brew. He wiped his lips on his sleeve and tossed the bottle to the floor. He fetched another. “No more you ain’t … no more.”

But he knew. Knew it to be as real as the two shallow graves buried beneath the snow.

It was real, and he knew what it was.

The Dark.

The Dark: Award-winning horror.

IBPA (IPPY) Award-Winner in Horror Fiction Award-Winner in Horror Fiction 5-Star Selection

Award-winning author David C. Cassidy draws you into a realm of terror, a world unlike any other. With the inspired flair of Clive Barker and the pulse-pounding beat of Stephen King, The Dark will leave you breathless, reminding us all that for all we desire there is always a price, the currency in suffering and sacrifice. Brimming with insidious evil and a nerve-wracking pace that never lets up, this story will grab hold of your most primitive fears and crank them up to Warp 10—and won’t let go.

It knows what you want.

It knows what you need.

In denial over his father’s death in a horrific accident, Kelan Lisk has grown fearful and withdrawn. For this meek and bullied child, a burning desire to tame a deadly sledding hill consumes him, drawing him inside a wondrous place where anything is possible … including his father. But as this strange new realm spills into this one, twisting an innocent little boy into an agent of evil, the world is forever changed, devoured by an even greater evil—the Dark.

Get it on Amazon.

Win a free e-copy

The author will pick a name at random from horror readers who leave a Comment below. Good luck!

Meet the author

Award-winning horror author David C. CassidyAward-winning author David C. Cassidy is the twisted mind behind several chilling books of horror and suspense. An author, photographer, and graphic designer—and a half-decent juggler—he spends his writing life creating tales of terror where Bad Things Happen To Good People.

David lives and plays in Ontario, Canada. From Mozart to Vivaldi, classic jazz to classic rock, he feels naked without his iPod. Suffering from MAD—Multiple Activity Disorder—he divides his time between writing and workouts, photography and Photoshop, reading and rollerblading. An avid amateur astronomer, he loves the night sky, chasing the stars with his telescope. Sometimes he eats.

Learn more about David on his

BestSelling Reads author page     |     Amazon Author page     |     website     |     Facebook     |     Google+     |     LinkedIn     |     Twitter     |     Instagram


Thursday teaser: Torn Roots


This week’s teaser is from the upcoming Hawaiian Storm mystery featuring FBI Special Agent Vanessa Storm. Some readers may recognize her from a previous publication. Read on to find out how you could win a free e-copy.

By Scott Bury

Hawaiian Storm

As the newest FBI agent in Hawai‘i, Vanessa knew she would get the least interesting cases until she proved herself. And the least convenient locations.

She took less than five minutes to shower and dress. She indulged in restoring her expensive hairdo after a broken night’s sleep, knowing it would soon be destroyed. Then she turned to packing.

She put two pairs of dark blue pants, a spare silk jacket and three blouses into her travel garment bag, stuffed underwear and socks into the pockets and strapped her shoulder holster on. She checked the safety and held her Walther PPK for a comforting moment in her hand. Not just for British movie spies: lighter and easier to conceal than the Bureau-standard SIG Sauer. She put it in the holster and pulled her jacket on, made sure she had spare ammo clips and left.

The dashboard clock flared to life as she started the engine of her car: 5:14. Less than twenty minutes to get ready. Not bad for a chick. Even an FBI chick.

Then she drove into the predawn darkness of Honolulu, bound for the FBI’s heliport at the Kalaeloa Airport. When she flashed her badge at the sentry, the gate opened, and she drove onto the wide tarmac. Orange and yellow sky threw the peaks of the Ko’olau Range into silhouette.

Sitting in the middle of the H-marked circle was a black helicopter, its blades already rotating slowly. And to one side was one of the Bureau’s iconic black Ford Expeditions. As she beeped her car locked, the SUV’s passenger door opened and a figure emerged.

Special Agent in Charge Al King was a large, heavyset man dressed, as all FBI officers, in a conservative navy blue suit. He had a round face, prominent nose and a full mouth, but his most noticeable features were his piercing blue eyes. The downdraft from the helicopter whipped up the thin hair on top of his head. Damn. That’s going to seriously destroy my hairdo. The hairdo I just spent eighty bucks on in Honolulu.

King’s full mouth spread into a smile as Vanessa approached. “You’re early! I like that.” Vanessa shook his proffered hand. “I hope you got enough sleep last night.”

“I’ll live,” she said, then decided to soften the taciturn response with a smile. “How are you?”

King waved off her concern. “Don’t worry about me, Vanessa. I’m just glad I have a case for you personally on your second day in our humble field office. Plus, you get to take a helicopter ride to the Valley Isle of Maui.” His smile got even wider.

“Great.” I hate flying in helicopters. Couldn’t they have arranged a small island-hopping airplane? I can already feel the draft messing up my hair.

King’s smile faded. “Really, though, there are two reasons I’m assigning this case to you. It requires a delicate touch. The arson in question, and the possible homicide, took place on a construction site owned by foreign investors. Chinese, to be specific. There’s some tension between them and the locals, as well. Environmental protection with a dash of Hawaiian sovereigntists. From what I’ve read and heard about you, I think you have the required diplomacy to investigate without sparking an international crisis.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate the confidence.”

King started to get back into the SUV, but Vanessa put her hand on the door frame. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was the second reason you gave me this assignment?”

King’s smile returned. “You’re the only one in the detachment without too much on your plate already.” As King closed the door, Vanessa smiled.

That’s what I thought.

About Torn Roots: A Hawaiian Storm

Vanessa Storm thought her first week on the job as an FBI Special Agent in beautiful Hawaii would be about settling in. But she’s immediately sent to Hana on Maui’s rain-soaked shore to find a kidnapped woman.

Throw in arson, strident environmentalists bent on stirring up strife between local rights activists and foreign property developers, a chill local police lieutenant, a taciturn geologist, and top it all off with a rogue, unpredictable Homeland Security agent.

The case becomes a labyrinth twisting through the jungles on Maui’s volcano. Vanessa knows this case will explode into an international incident and lives will be lost if she doesn’t find answers fast.

“TORN ROOTS is wonderfully rich with plot and setting, but it was Mr. Bury’s command of the story’s pacing that impressed me most.”—Eden Baylee, author of Stranger at Sunset

“I made the mistake of picking up this book and could not stop reading.”—Frederick Lee Brooke, author of Doing Max Vinyl

“Made me feel like I was there in person!”—Sue Devers

“I have never been to Hawaii but reading the detailed descriptions of its beauty in this book has made me feel like I’ve actually been there.”—Joy A. Lorton

Torn Roots will be available on Amazon and other e-tailers on September 29. It’s now available for pre-order on Amazon. Find out more on the author’s website.

Win a free e-book

If you’d like a free e-copy in the format of your choice, leave a comment below telling us your favorite Hawaiian food.

Scott Bury

can’t stay in one genre.

His first published book was The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, followed in 2013 with a “50 Shades” spoof, One Shade of Red, in 2013. Then came the first volume in his Eastern Front trilogy, Army of Worn Soles, a memoir telling the story of a Canadian drafted into the Soviet Red Army in the Second World War.

He has also written four mysteries in the Lei Crime Kindle World (based on characters and settings created by bestselling Toby Neal), two action thrillers in the Sydney Rye Kindle World (based on Emily Kimelman’s bestselling series) and a thriller in the JET Kindle World (based on Russell Blake’s Jet series.)

Visit Scott’s:

And follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter.


Fantasy Thursday: Spark of Defiance #excerpt


This week’s excerpt is from book 1 of the Games of Fire fantasy series, the sequel to the Rise of the Fifth Order series

By Autumn Birt


“We are looking for three of our people,” Phet said from the back of his horse. “They travel with an infant and one whose heritage is unknown to us.” Spark of Defiance: Games of Fire Book 1 - epic fanstasy

“They are here and asked for refuge,” Teyak said without elaboration. He’d been selected to speak for the Nifail, but the youngest chief of the steppes did not stand alone. Three imposing warrior chieftains stood at his back. Zhao, Ria, and Laireag watched as well, using the safety invisibility offered. Safety made all the more secure without Kattan accompanying Phet to potentially sense the use of Air Elemental power.

“It was by my request that you sought them,” Phet argued.

“Yes, we sought them. We never agreed to give them to you,” Teyak said.

Phet shook with anger, unable to answer. “That isn’t the agreement made,” another man answered. “We offered coin for their return. They have escaped just punishment.”

“They told us of this ‘punishment,'” Teyak replied. “We, the Nifail, do not think it is so just. Punishing a mother and father for having an Elemental child is not justifiable.”

“I am surprised to hear that, considering the Nifail do not hold those born with gifts in high esteem,” Phet said.

“That is none of your concern,” Teyak retorted.

“And how we treat our gifted people is not yours,” Phet challenged.

A hiss ran through the Nifail watching the exchange. Teyak glanced at those behind him, returning his gaze to Phet with a half smile. “We disagree. When you hunt your people onto our land and they seek protection with us from you, I would say it has become our concern.”

Teyak’s statement was met with grunts of agreement from the Nifail. The horses of the Tiak danced under the tension of their riders.

“We will go, but we will return tomorrow. Hopefully, you will rethink what you have said this day,” Phet said.

“Go. It would be best if you do not return,” Teyak said with his hand on his knives.

The small group of Tiak turned and galloped through the high grass while the other chieftains clapped Teyak on his back.

“Oh Zhao, what have you started?” Ria asked, releasing his hand.

Zhao let the illusion of invisibility go as he shook his head, too distressed to answer.

“I wonder where they are going?” Laireag asked, gaze remaining on where the Tiak had disappeared.

“It might be best to wonder how many there are. It would, at least, give us an idea of how the fight will go,” Zhao answered glumly.

“That is an even better reason to go. I’ll be back,” Laireag said with a grin. Laireag’s form flowed upward as he transformed into a raven. The black bird winged into the sky, chasing after the riders. Ria’s gaze followed him.

“I was hoping you’d be better, you’d both be better by now. It’s been six months,” Ria said, green eyes sincere. She turned and walked toward the crevasse hidden deep within the encampment of Nifail along its rim.

“I didn’t mean for this! Are you over the war and what happened?” Zhao asked.

Ria paused, turned to speak, and then kept walking. Zhao followed, torn between apologizing and curiosity at what Ria almost said. Finally, she sighed.

“I didn’t see the fighting the way you did. I was on a boat with Ci’erra looking for the Sphere of Fire. I didn’t watch anyone die, not a Priest and not Beite. I only came back in time for the funerals. So yes, Zhao, I suppose I am doing better than you and Laireag, or Darag. I’ve been busy trying to keep the Orders from separating and from the former Priests and Priestesses distrusting Spirit Elementals and the Kith. I built a home too. But I didn’t do anything to help my friends,” Ria said in a rush that left her eyes shimmering with tears.

Zhao pulled her into a hug. “You came now.”

“After you are already in trouble!” Ria said with a bit of a laugh.

About the fantasy Spark of Defiance

Six months after a tragic war, the world of Myrrah has found peace. But many of the heroes have not.

Wandering to avoid memories of lost friends and past actions, Zhao returns home to fulfill a promise to see his sister. And to proclaim to the elders of his people that their treatment of Air Elementals is wrong. But he doesn’t find welcome and the reason why is not what he expects. It is far worse.

Caught once again in events greater than he can handle alone, Zhao struggles to prevent a personal conflict from erupting into a larger battle. But friends are distant, and more than a few are struggling with new problems of their own.

Read more about it on this fantasy author’s website.

Get a free copy of Born of Water, book 1 in the Rise of the Fifth Order series, on any platform. 

Autumn Birt

fantasy and science-fiction author Autumn BirtAutumn is a bestselling author in multiple genres. She is the author of two epic fantasy adventure trilogies on elemental magic, The Rise of the Fifth Order and Games of Fire. Games of Fire has received tremendous critical reviews and book 2, Gates of Fire & Earth, is also a Fantasia Reviews 2017 Book of Year nominee and winner of Best Worldbuilding.

She is also the author of Friends of my Enemy, a military dystopian/ dark fantasy tale laced with romance. Friends of my Enemy was released in full in 2015 and is quite the story full of strong characters, tight plots, and lots of action. Meanwhile, despite saying she was taking a short break to write a non-fiction book on writing techniques to go along with the courses she teaches at, a new story is already starting to build.

If she stops goofing off and enjoying hobbies such as traveling, hiking, motorcycling, and kayaking, she may even be able to release a new fantasy story in 2018 too.

Stop by her website and blog to learn more about the worlds of her books at You can also find her on Facebook at Author.Autumn.Birt or more frequently on Twitter @Weifarer. Start with her BestSelling Reads author page.



Thursday teaser: Tree Soldier


This week’s #teaser excerpt is from the historical romance set in the Pacific Northwest in 1935

By J.L. Oakley


The game was in the third ending when McGill and some others struck. It was all supposed to be a joke, a tradition, but from the start, it turned ugly. Surrounding the group of eight, a crowd of local enrollees began to ask questions of the boys and when Costello or Spinelli spoke they got teased for their accents.

“Hey, they did all right,” a blonde local named Larsen said. “They did their share.”

McGill knocked the enrollee’s cap off. “Sure they did. You’re gonna get dunked.”

“So?” Staubach said. The big blonde Pennsylvanian straightened his back. He was a farm boy, but not the hayseed they thought he was. He put up his dukes. “We’ve got bigger rivers where I come from.”

“Yeah, but we’ve got man eating fish. Ever wonder why a salmon looks so threadbare by the time it spawns?  It’s the little fishes in the water that nibble at them, bit by bit. They can take off your toes if you’re not watching. If the cold don’t get you, they will.”

“Where do I sign up?” Staubach asked.

“Why, over there,” one of McGill’s buddies said. He pointed to the willow-lined bank at the end of the field, some fifty feet away.

“Come on fellows, let’s show them what we can take,” Staubach said.

“Now wait a damn minute,” McGill growled. “You got to be done proper.”

“Then carry me there.” Staubach swaggered his shoulders.

McGill looked annoyed but instantly several enrollees seized and carried Staubach like a plank of wood to the river. There they swung and tossed him out into the river. When he yelled as he hit the water, some of the locals began to cheer and chant, “Dunk them, dunk them.” The boys pushed on Joisey Squad, edging them toward the water. Joisey Squad pushed back.

Careful, Hardesty thought. He didn’t like the feel of the whole situation. A strange electricity prickled around the water’s edge.

“You’re next,” McGill said to Jacob Golden.

“Where’s Jeff?” Golden craned his neck and looked down river.

“He’s okay,” someone said. “He’s making his way down to the next stop.”

“How fast is it here?” Hardesty asked.

“You worried?” McGill sneered, his face puckered up like a Boston terrier’s.

“No, I’m just inquiring whether I should dog-paddle or display my Tarzan-like swimming skills.”

“It’s not too fast,” an enrollee said. “And it’s deep.”

“Stop talking,” McGill said. “You, Toland. Get some of the boys to bring up Golden and O’Connell.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Golden said and let himself and O’Connell be thrown in. Hoss Werner was next. He stood at the edge and held his nose before jumping off. Some of the locals laughed. A ways downstream Staubach waved as he climbed out and then turned around as Golden and O’Connell came paddling by. They had narrowly missed a big snag in the water, coming around it backwards.

Up on the bank, it was Costello’s turn. McGill’s squad charged him, but he fooled them all and twisting out of their hands, took a flying leap and went blind into the water. Fortunately, he avoided going out into the river’s faster middle.

“How’s the water?” Spinelli yelled to Costello. He got an answer quicker than intended when he was pushed in. He grabbed onto an enrollee from Spenser’s squad and they went in together. The local man came up sputtering to the roars of the others. Both young men made it down to the stony shore several hundred yards down, safely making it around the snag. Costello and Werner were there to pull them in.

“That leaves you two,” McGill said. He looked really steamed. Turned around and looked sharply at Hardesty and Sal Lorenzo. “Who goes first?”

Hardesty shrugged. At this point, they had no choice, but go in. The honor of squad at stake. He looked over at Lorenzo and was surprised to see him pale and drawn. A tough, wiry Puerto Rican from Newark, what bravado he normally carried was long gone. He worked his mouth constantly, his dark eyes on the water. Sensing Hardesty’s gaze, he looked up at his straw boss and instantly Hardesty knew what was wrong. Lorenzo couldn’t swim.

“I’ll go,” Hardesty said. “I’ll wait for you, Sal,” he said directly to him, ignoring McGill’s curious look.

“I’d rather not go at all,” the eighteen-year-old replied.

“You gotta. It’s tradition,” a local enrollee next to him said. “Unless you’re chicken.”

“I ain’t chicken.” Lorenzo spat.

McGill suddenly understood. “Aw, he can’t swim. That’s what he’s afraid of.” His eyes grew wide. “Hey, Larsen. Get that clothesline rope.”

“What for?” Lorenzo asked.

“To snag a fish.”

“Do I have to?” Lorenzo asked Hardesty.

“No,” Hardesty said. “You don’t have to.”

“It’s okay,” Larsen said. “I’ll tie you good. You’ll only get wet.” Squeezing through the group around the remaining enrollees from Joisey Squad, the blonde put the rope around Lorenzo’s waist and tied it in front. “We’ll hold onto you.  I won’t let go. I promise.”

Lorenzo seemed resigned to his fate. Hardesty could see it on his face and appreciated the fact that he had probably faced worse things in the streets back home.

“You going in, Park?” Lorenzo asked.

“Sure.  I’ll go in.” He took the rope in his hands. It didn’t seem strong. Its cotton fibers looked old and rotten. “You got another?”

“This’ll do,” McGill said. “Quit babying him. You going in?”

“Sure… I’ll do it,” Lorenzo said. “When Park’s ready.”

“Ready?” McGill nodded to two of his friends and before Hardesty could react, Lorenzo was picked up and tossed far out into the river. He went down, then came up sputtering, grabbing desperately for the taunt rope.

“That was a dirty trick.” Hardesty got right in McGill’s face and slammed him on his shoulders. “What the hell did you do it for? What was the point?”

McGill shrugged him off. “Watch your paws.”

Hardesty watched the boy flounder in the water and hoped Larsen and the two others that held him would bring him in quickly. He hesitated, wondering if it would do any good at all to go in, when he could help haul him in here on shore.

“Bring him in, Larsen,” he finally asked. “He’s done his time.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“No wait,” McGill said. “He’s not done.”

“He’s done.” Hardesty reached for the rope but before he could lay hold of it, in one sickening moment, it broke, causing Larsen and the others to fall to the ground. Lorenzo went spinning out into the middle of the river, thrashing his arms wildly where the rope had once been secured.

“Park!” The boy screamed, then quit when he got a mouthful of water.

“You bastard, McGill.” Hardesty tore along the edge of the bank, looking for a place to go in, watching in horror as Lorenzo swung back into shore directly in line with the snag. For a moment, he seemed to be held in place there, before swinging out into the current again and crashing back into the weathered gray roots of the old tree.

“The rope!” Careless of his safety, Hardesty dove into the water and let the current take him down to the snag. At the last minute he stroked over to where Lorenzo was caught on some roots. The boy’s head was bleeding and half-submerged under the water. Hardesty came alongside and kicking out, clung onto one of the roots while desperately lifting Lorenzo’s chin out of the water.

“Sal!” he shouted above the water’s noise. He slapped him on his cheek and the boy’s eyes opened. “Hold on. I’ll cut you free. Can you do it?”

The boy nodded, choking and spitting out water. “I think so…” He had one of his arms wrapped around a gnarly root, but when he brought up his free arm, he cried out in pain. One glance told Hardesty that it was broken. “Just hold on.”

Hardesty got his knife from its soggy scabbard and sawed on the rope. The water was a numbing cold and he found it hard to concentrate as it pulled relentlessly on his clothes and body. His feet were in danger of slipping off the root he stood on. He did not notice that Spenser had joined him until he was beside him. Together they got the boy untangled from the snag.

“Dumb tradition!” Spenser yelled over the water’s torrent. “You did good, Sal. No one’s going to give you a hard time.”

The boy smiled weakly. He looked like he was going to pass out and Hardesty feared shock. When he was completely free, Hardesty asked if anyone had gone to get a doctor.

“Yes,” Spenser said.

“Then let’s get him away from this.” Knowing that it would probably hurt him, Hardesty chose the best lifesaving hold he could think of for this water and kicked out into the river with Lorenzo. Spenser stayed close and together they were swept downstream to the low bank. By now most of Joisey Squad was standing there ready to help as well as a crowd of boys from the other squads. The dunking had turned ugly and many were ashamed. As soon as the three were within grabbing distance, there were hands to help pull them in safely to shore.  Groaning, Lorenzo was gently lifted out of the water and brought up on the bank. A blanket was produced and the boy wrapped up. A group of enrollees volunteered to take him to the infirmary, but Hardesty checked him again for shock. The boy looked cold and pale, but Spenser okayed the move and Lorenzo was quickly taken away.

“What happened?” Spinelli asked.

“That happened,” Hardesty replied pointing to McGill as water dripped off his head and nose. His sopping wet clothes clung to him like he had just emerged fully clothed from a bathtub. His skin was like goose flesh. As they walked back up towards the field, McGill was standing with his little group. Larsen off to the side looked horrified, but McGill didn’t look particularly perturbed. There was a sly smile on his face when Hardesty came up to him.

“He couldn’t take it,” McGill sneered.

“He took it all right. Here’s his answer.” Hardesty slugged the Tar Heel in the mouth in a single movement that sent McGill to the ground. Hardesty stepped over him and walked on, gathering people as he went. His own squad stayed close to him, clearing the way as he went back into the camp. Something roared behind him, yelling at him to stop. Hardesty turned in time to see McGill charging up to him.

“No one lays a hand on me!” he shouted. “No one!”

“All right, I won’t.”

McGill didn’t see Hardesty’s foot until too late.  Tripping, he lost his balance and went rolling down the bank to the pebbly narrow beach below.

“I’ll get you, you dirty foreigner,” McGill shouted as he climbed back up, but Hardesty was already across the field. He held his hands up in the air.

“No hands,” he yelled back, his squad laughing beside him.

Win a copy of Tree Soldier

Author J.L. Oakley will give a free e-copy of Tree Soldier to one of the reader who can answer this question:

Name a state or national park in your state built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. If you are in Canada or beyond, name a Great Depression program that helped put people back to work.

Leave your answer in the Comments below, and J.L. Oakley will choose from the correct answers.

About Tree Soldier

One mistake can ruin a life. One mistake can transform it.

A government forestry camp set deep in the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest might not seem the likely place to find redemption, but in 1935, Park Hardesty hopes for just that.

Blaming himself for the fiery accident that caused his brother’s disfigurement and the death of the bootlegging woman he loved, planting trees, building bridges and mentoring tough, homesick New Jersey boys brings him both penitence and the renewal of his own self-worth. When he wins the love of Kate Alford, a local naturalist who envisions joining the Forest Service, which allows only men, he also captures the ire of a camp officer who refuses to let her go. Just when he is ready to seek his brother’s forgiveness, he is falsely accused of rape. Every aspect of his life he has tried to rebuild is put in jeopardy. In the end, the only way he can defend himself is to tell the truth about his brother, but he risks being kicked out of the camp. Worse, he could lose Kate’s love forever.

J.L. Oakley

writes award-winning historical fiction that spans the mid-19th century to WW II. Her books have been recognized with a 2013 Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award, the 2013 Chanticleer Grand Prize, the 2014 First Place Chaucer Award, 2015 WILLA Silver Award and the 2016 Goethe Grand Prise.

In addition to historical fiction, J.L. has also written the Hilo Bay series of four mystery novellas set in the Hawaiian Islands. Her most recent historical novel, Mist-chi-mas: A Novel Of Captivity, launched in September 2017.

 Get to know more about Janet on her:

And follow her on Twitter @JlOakley13.