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D.A. Ratliff

Photo from Pinterest. Image source unknown, credit to the orginal creator.

Location is vital in all facets of our lives. Comfort, convenience, commute, and community are essential considerations when selecting where we wish to reside. When writing, it makes sense to consider the impact of where we have our characters live.

Location can be more than the physical terrain in which we set a story, although some places can take a back seat to the plot. However, the setting is another tool in the author’s arsenal to add depth to the story. The choice of locale sets the period of the story, when and where it takes place. It affects how the characters behave, speak, and reflect on the society where they live. More importantly, when needed, the setting can become another character creating a mood and emotional tone.

A few inquiring minds have asked me what is so appealing to me about New Orleans and why I set so many of my stories either there or in Louisiana, where my upcoming novel, Crescent City Lies, is set. After all, I’m from South Carolina, a beautiful state with its own vibrant culture and uniqueness. It also has faults, as do all places, and those faults in a community can also add depth to your story.

When deciding on a setting for a story, the flavor of Louisiana draws me into its spell. Nothing like the sultry summer heat in the south, when life slows down, and the humidity rises. The spicy aromas and comforting palate of Cajun food and the smooth sounds of New Orleans jazz are alluring and set a mood that seems to touch my writer’s passion. Wicked antagonists, flawed heroes, and enticing strong women seem to belong in the bayou or the French Quarter.

In reality, I love the beach. Ribbons of sand lapped by waves, air tangy with salt, majestic pelicans soaring against a cornflower blue sky. My heart lies on the shore, rejuvenated by the sun’s heat. My soul rests in the bayou.

I am fortunate to live in an area that some people call paradise—if you consider heat, humidity, sun, and ocean paradise. I do! As the photo shows, expansive sky, lush vegetation, a body of water, and a bench to enjoy the quiet beauty sets a mood just outside my door. Not to mention, there are ducks, sea birds, and two resident alligators to add to the ambiance.

I suppose we choose where we want our stories to unfold for a myriad of reasons. Genre certainly plays a role and can dictate the amount of world-building necessary to create the foundation you need. A cozy mystery often occurs in a small town, a detective murder mystery in a city setting, but let your creativity decide what works for your story. How descriptive you should be depends on how important the location is to your storyline. For instance, a city with the ambiance of a New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, or San Antonio becomes a character within the story, adding depth and mood by using the uniqueness of the environment to enhance the plot. The same for small towns that can provide coziness and character to the story.

My thoughts always seem to be on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Battery in Charleston, or an Atlantic beach in Florida, all locations which spur my muse. Let those places you love inspire your muse and your stories.

Image by Oliver Weidmann from Pixabay


Vocal.Media: Musings of a Southern Writer’s Journey

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My friend, author Paula Shablo recently told me about the platform Vocal.media as a source for publishing original work. From their website: Vocal is one of the fastest-growing platforms for creators, writers, musicians, podcasters, videographers, and more.

I decided to give it a try and have published a previously written article that I wrote for Elaine Marie Carnegie – Padgett’s blog where she features writers and their journey to writing.

My profile on Vocal.media is here:


If you have a moment, visit the site and check out my first post!


And check out Paula Shablo’s site: https://vocal.media/authors/paula-shablo-fg4u9106s0


Write the Story: The Way Station

From the prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’s July 2020 prompt. I hope you enjoy!

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

The Way Station

D. A. Ratliff

Mason Henley rocked back and forth as the camel he was riding followed their guide. The herky-jerky motion of the enormous beast wore him out, and he never forgot to take ibuprofen before getting on one. He valued his back too much to ignore.

The caravan stretched the length of twelve camels. In addition to the guide and his two assistants, a radio astronomer and two research assistants accompanied him with five camels laden with equipment and supplies.

Three days ago, he and his team had flown into Algiers, where they met Dr. Bernedetta Clark. The next day, they flew into the L’Mekrareg Airport in Laghouat, with connections in Ghardaia, which took them to In Salah, where their guide, Sami Taleb, was waiting. After they loaded the camels, the expedition set off for their destination, Jabal Alharam—Pyramid Mountain.

Mason chuckled, after ten hours in overcrowded planes, he was happy to be on a camel, back pain or not.

The trip was going to take nine hours, and they had knocked out six of those already and agreed to stop for the night. As Sami and his crew set up tents, he and his two assistants, River Monroe and Jackson Stewart, built a campfire and got dinner started.

He was tending a grill laden with strips of beef, while River was making couscous. He watched as Dr. Clark approached, her eyes on the food. He cut off a small piece and held it up to her. “Wanna taste, Doctor?”

Her nose wrinkled. “What is it? Not camel? My colleagues told me that’s all the Algerians eat.”

“Had you dined with us last night, you would have feasted on the best Tandoori chicken I have had.”

“That’s Indian food.”

“Yes, it is. Welcome to the internet and modern travel. River and Jack had pizza.” He held the bite of meat up again. “This is beef, strips of sirloin, to be exact.”

She took the morsel and tried it. “That’s good. Did you bring a spice cabinet with you?”

“No.” he held up a plastic zip bag. “Made my famous spice mix and brought it with me.”

“Quite resourceful, but as an archeologist, I guess you are used to being out in the middle of nowhere.”

Mason smiled. “Been on a few digs in my time. Spent a lot of time in some ancient place somewhere.” He flipped the beef on the grill. “Did you get your equipment set up, Dr. Clark?”

“Yes, part of it, and please call me Etta.”

“I’m Mason. Same signal?”

She nodded. “The same tones repeated over and over. Just as they have for the last two months.”

“And you guys suspect it’s a signal. For what?”

“That is for us to find out. The signal is originating from here.”

River stood. “The couscous is ready. I’m going to go get Jack and the others.”

The group ate dinner as the sun was setting. Sami and his team retired to their tents and rotating guard duty. Jack and River both had work to do and excused themselves. They had been scouring over the topographical maps of the area to become familiar with Pyramid Mountain.

Mason sat by the fire. He was tired but too restless to sleep. The desert night was turning chilly. He added more wood to the fire from the bundles Sami brought. Watching the wood ignite, he felt some satisfaction that at least he could make fire.

“Is there coffee left?”

Clark’s voice startled him. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Yes, there is coffee.” He reached behind him to retrieve a cup from a box of supplies and poured her a cup.

Taking it from him, she sat on a camp stool. “I am sorry that we didn’t have the opportunity to talk last night. The trip from the US exhausted me and, well, our mode of transportation made it difficult to talk. You have been to the mountain before, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I was part of a team that came here nearly twenty years ago. I’d just earned my Ph.D. at Columbia when a professor of mine heard from an old friend, a geologist he has known as an undergrad. The geologist, Dr. Hemsford from the University of Johannesburg, had traveled from South Africa to the Sahara in Algiers with a group of students to study the rock formations.”

“They found the hieroglyphics?”

“They certainly found what they thought to be hieroglyphics at the time. He contacted my prof, Dr. Riegel, and Columbia provided the grant for us to take a look.”

“They weren’t hieroglyphics?”

“No, at least not related to any previous glyphs or symbols we had ever seen. To be honest, I took another career direction and concentrated on historical indigenous archeology in the Americas. I haven’t looked at those old reports until I got a call from my department head at Columbia, who asked me to lead the expedition to the mountain.” He paused. “I wasn’t expecting to find out a radio astronomer would be part of the team.”

“I never expected to be in the middle of the Sahara Desert on a camel.” She rubbed her shoulder. “Not the most comfortable ride.”

“No, it isn’t.” He poked the fire. “What do you think we will find?”

She sat up, back straight. “I don’t know. Not even sure why they sent me to find out. I noticed the sequence first, but there are far more experienced people at the observatory.” She huffed a short breath. “I think I might have been the expendable one.”

“I read your bio and some reviews of your work. I don’t think expendable is an apt word to describe you.”

“Newest member of the team, so who knows.”

“The signals are coming from the mountain?”

“They appear to be. I have some portable equipment with me, and the signal is still cycling.”

“Well, we won’t know anything until we get there. Get some sleep. We need to start early in the morning. We were lucky today. The winds kept us a bit cooler—tomorrow, not so much. “


Sweat poured down Mason’s back, and he was decidedly uncomfortable. His camel lumbered along as if it was a day in the park, just not his idea of a park. Wiping sweat from his brow for the umpteenth time, he gazed around the area. The flatter terrain of yesterday had given way to mounds of hard compacted sand with deep trenches where the wind had eroded the surface. Wouldn’t be long before they would have to resort to walking to the mountain.

His eyes never strayed far from the mountain looming ahead. The cornflower blue sky was cloudless, allowing the sun to beat down relentlessly. He chuckled. The mountain reminded him of a large soft ice cream cone, twisted as if someone spun it like a top.

Lost in thought of his last visit, he nearly fell off the camel when it halted suddenly, and he grabbed the saddle horn to stay on. Sami was dismounting his camel and walked to him.

“We go no more on camels. Too dangerous.” Sami tugged on the reins to Mason’s camel, and the animal began to drop to its knees. He dismounted and went to help Etta from hers.

She looked over his shoulder toward Pyramid Mountain. “We walk from here?”

“Yep, afraid so. It should be about a thirty-minute hike to the base. Jack and I will carry your equipment, Sami and his people will carry food and water. You and River will take the rest of the tools we need.”

“Are we going to camp there?”

“Not sure. If we decide to, Sami and his guys will come back for the tents.”

“They are going to leave the camels here?”

Sami overheard her. “We leave food here. They are good camels. They know to stay.”

Mason headed toward the camels carrying their equipment. “Let’s get loaded up.”


An hour later, they stood at the base of the mountain that loomed over them. Etta was setting up her portable radio telescope, opening the small satellite dish. Satisfied she had everything in place, she flipped the switch on the battery pack, and static began emanating from the speaker.

Mason listened with his head cocked. “There is a pattern there.”

“Yes, and it repeats every nine seconds.”

“So, if it’s coming from here, where is it going?”

“The observatory has the entire array focused on the direction it’s beaming. Listening for incoming signals. So far, nothing.”

“Okay. Let’s hike around the base. The spot where we saw those symbols is around the east side.”

Leaving their guides with the equipment, Mason and Etta started toward the area where the symbols were located. River and Jack began a cursory review of the site, comparing it to the photos from the dig many years before. They were looking for any sign of an opening, if such a thing existed.

The footing was treacherous as they left a level area. What Mason remembered struck him as odd when he was there before. He gazed up at the mountain’s pentacle, wondering how the flat round rocks that capped the mountain formed. He had puzzled about the structure on his first visit, and it puzzled him now. A climb up the mountain might shed some light, but he was not in the mood for rock climbing.

They reached the area where Mason remembered finding the symbols carved. At least, he thought they were in the right place. A rockslide covered the place where he remembered the carving.

“I think the symbols are here. Help me move these?”

After some effort, they rolled away a couple of large rocks, revealing sand covering the slope. Mason pulled a brush from his backpack and swept away the sand. The symbols appeared.

“I had seen photos of these, but I didn’t expect they would be so precise—such sharp cuts in the rock.”

“Yeah, that’s what Dr. Riegel thought, definitely precise cuts. We’ve seen that before in the pyramids and at Puma Punku in Bolivia. I was fortunate enough to work on that site. The builders of that temple used interlocking stones so precisely cut when assembled you can’t get a razor blade between them. The skills existed, but we aren’t sure how or the tools they used to make them.”

“No idea what they mean?

He shook his head. “Nope. Again, I didn’t stay with the project long, but I followed up with Dr. Riegel after NASA contacted me. He said they found no reference points at all to these symbols.”

“They have to mean something.” Etta took a 35mm digital camera from her backpack and took several shots of the symbols and the surrounding area. She slung the camera around her neck and laughed. “Anyone tried pressing the symbols?”

Mason raised his shoulders and grinned. “No idea, but it couldn’t hurt.” He pressed the first symbol, and nothing happened. He pressed the rest just in case, then placed his palms against all nine symbols and pushed at once—nothing.

Etta sighed. “It was worth a try.”

“We’ll figure this out. If the signal is coming from within the mountain, there has to be a way inside. Let’s find River and Jack and see what they found.”


They decided to camp next to the mountain. Sami and his men retrieved the tents and set them up. Before returning to spend the night with the camels, Sami left a flare gun in case they needed him. Dinner was bread, cheese, and coffee brewed over a fire. River surprised them with cookies she brought.

The sky was magnificent, dusted with glittering stars from the Milky Way, its luminous and dark streams hanging above them. They dragged their sleeping bags into the open and lay on their backs, staring at the mysterious sky.

River asked Mason to recount his first trip to Pyramid Mountain. He talked about his first look at the symbols.

“I was enthralled, thinking that the symbols could be Egyptian hieroglyphics this far into the desert. Dr. Hemsford was a geologist but thought the symbols looked Egyptian. Dr. Riegel determined quickly that the symbols were not Egyptian, but I will never forget the first time I saw those nine symbols. I….”

Etta bolted upright. “Nine symbols. The signal repeats every nine seconds. What if….”

Mason bolted upright as well. “What if the signal represents those symbols.”

Her voice excited, Etta responded. “Maybe the signal is the key to opening a way inside.”

“What I don’t get is why the signal just started out of the blue.” Mason shook his head. “It makes no sense.”

“I might know.” Jack jumped up and grabbed a tablet sitting on his backpack. “Not knowing what we would find, and after being in that earthquake in Mexico last year, I downloaded a file about seismic activity in the Sahara.” He pulled up the file. “Dr. Clark, when did the signals start?”

“About two months ago, on the fourteenth.”

Jack was silent for a moment as he searched. “Got it. The same day, two months ago, there was a 5.2 mag earthquake with an epicenter about ten kilometers from here and only a half mile down. What if it triggered something?”

“It had to have.” Etta rose. “We need to go check this out.”

Mason stood. “Not until the morning. We’ll break our necks trying to get to the symbols. Get some sleep. We will do this in the morning.”


Dawn was breaking as Mason heard Etta and Jack talking. He shook off his grogginess from waking up and joined them. River handed him a cup of coffee.

Etta smiled. “Nice to have Jack along. I was trying to figure out how to lug this equipment to the symbols, and he suggested I record the sound on my phone. Haven’t used it since I left the hotel, so I have power. Can we go now?”

“Let’s stay until the sunlight is brighter and I get some coffee. Then we will go.”

She looked disappointed but agreed. While he finished his coffee, they made plans. River and Jack were to stay where they camped. Mason had a nagging thought that the flatness of the rock there meant something—an entrance perhaps. Once they agree on how to proceed, he and Etta headed for the symbols.

“Well, no time like the present. Hit play.”

Etta turned on the recording, and after it played through twice, the symbols began to glow. Both of them uttered a gasp. “It worked, Mason. It worked.”

“Yeah, but what did it do.”

“I hope….”

A flare soared over their heads, a signal from the others. Something was happening at the camp. As quickly as they could cross the rough terrain, Mason and Etta raced back.

Pyramid Mountain had opened.

Jack ran toward them as soon as they appeared. “We heard a crack like the rock was breaking. The sides slid away, and the opening appeared.

His heart pounding, Mason walked toward the perfectly square opening. It was nearly ten feet tall, and while dark beyond a few feet, it was evident from the shiny dark blue polished floor that mother nature wasn’t responsible.

He jumped when Etta pushed past him, heading for the door, and managed to grab her arm. “Hey, no, not yet. We’ll go in, but let’s get a flashlight first.” 

Etta frowned but nodded and hurried to her backpack. “I have a flashlight, water, and an energy bar. I’m ready.” Turning to Jack, she handed him her phone. “Keep this. You can open the door again if we can’t.”

Mason grabbed his backpack and turned toward Jack and River. “If we don’t come out in one hour, try to open the door. If it doesn’t, get back to civilization and contact NASA.” He joined Etta. “I’ll go first.”


They were no more than ten yards into the corridor when the opening closed. They could hear Jack and River’s anxious calls behind them but couldn’t get back to the door. Etta started to say something, then stopped when a door opened farther into the mountain, dim light spilling into the passage.

“Looks like an invitation to me, Etta.”

The opening revealed a large circular room. Their flashlights revealed murals on the walls and an empty chamber except for a round dais sitting in the chamber’s center.

“What is this place?” Etta’s voice quivered.

“I don’t have a clue. Let’s walk the perimeter.”

They were feeling their way around the wall when bright light filled the room. Stunned, they gazed at the panels depicting what could only be humanoids adorned on the walls.

“My goodness, Mason, this has to be alien.”

Mason didn’t have time to answer. A fluorescent circle of red light dropped from the ceiling over each of them, scanning from head to foot then retreating into the domed ceiling. Before either could speak, a tall, slender figure dressed in a gray tunic appeared on the dais.

“Greetings, travelers. Welcome to the Orbis Way Station. May I ask your destination?”

Etta approached the figure. “Who are you?”

“I am Automated Attendant 804. What is your destination?”

This time Mason spoke. “Could you tell us where we are and how you can speak to us in our language?”

“You are on Orbis and seeking transport. My scan revealed you are natives of Tanus. I translated your language, although you do speak an obscure dialect. Do you wish to return to your homeworld?”

Mason and Etta exchanged glances. She responded to the attendant. “No, we would like to leave the station to remain on this world.”

“Entering the station activated the portal for departure. You may not exit again. Please state your destination.”

“Could you give us a minute.” Mason waited until the attendant deactivated. “Jack will open the door in one hour.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Then, they’ll get help.”

“And we’ll be in here for a long time.”

Mason looked at the dais, then back at her. “There is an alternative.”

“Go through the portal? You can’t be serious.”

“Etta, I get the feeling we are not going to get out of here any other way. If there is a chance we can travel somewhere and then turn around and come back here, this might be our only way home.”

“I don’t know. What if we can’t get back?”

“If we can’t leave here, and the door doesn’t open in one hour, then it’s not going to open. We will die here.”

“But our families, our friends…”

“Is there someone close to you, someone you love?”

Etta dropped her eyes. “No, no one anymore.”

“Well, me either. I’ll miss my parents, but if we don’t do this, we’ll never see anyone again. This is an ancient way station that must have been offline until the earthquake. I don’t know what we will be walking into but it’s history making. Let’s wait to see if the door opens. If not, we go through the portal.”

Etta gave him a wan smile. “The book we’ll write—bestseller, guaranteed.”

They waited an additional hour before Mason summoned the attendant.

“I am Automated Attendant 804. What is your destination?”

Mason responded. “Tanus.”

Behind the dais, the portal, a swirling kaleidoscope of blues and greens, opened. The attendant stepped aside. “Enjoy your transport.”

Mason took Etta’s hand, and they stepped through together.

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The Write the Story project is a monthly prompt provided by Writers Unite! It is intended to give authors writing experience and outreach to grow followers to their Facebook pages, blogs, and website. Visit Writers Unite on the Web at:
and on WU! Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/145324212487752/

Musings of a Southern Writer’s Journey

Authors are able to discuss the journey that leads them into the enticing world of words through a website run by author and publisher, Elaine Marie Carnegie. She has graciously asked me to join her platform to share an article on the path I took to become a writer. Please click on the link to learn about my journey.

Please click on the link to read about my journey.

Musings of a Southern Writer’s Journey by Deborah Ratliff

I am an unabashed lover of books.

My journey into the world of words began when I was five years old, and I have never stopped. Granted at five, the books I read were golden or comic, but I loved each of them. As I grew older, I progressed from Chip ’n Dale and Justice League of America comics to reading Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and The Adventures of Tom Swift. A neighbor, Miss Boozer, a retired librarian, recognized my passion for reading and on my birthday and at Christmas gave me money to buy books, several books. I liked her.
Please continue reading at https://bit.ly/3jgXTpz.

About Elaine Marie Carnegie

Elaine Marie Carnegie, a Paralegal, and Private Investigator worked on the side as a Newspaper Journalist, history and foodie columnist for a decade before accepting a publishing partnership; then opening her own SPPublishing and Author Services. She has worked with both the FBI and Texas Rangers, written for Discovery ID on Human Trafficking, and works for the PI in a consultant capacity today. Her articles have been used in the Texas Legislature, utilized in regional Texas school systems, published in both print and online venues, as well as in anthologies, charity  and collaborative projects. She is honored to have been included in the “Who’s Who of Emerging Writer’s 2020.” She makes her home in the idyllic East Texas Piney Woods… on a private lake, doing what she loves and living her best life!  You can find her online at https://www.authorelainemarie.com/

The Last chance: Part Six

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Wade McCord left his past behind and wandered westward, looking for a fresh start. A stopover in Wickenberg, AZ brought him face to face with an evil land baron and a beautiful woman who was in mortal danger. Was this McCord’s last chance to find his destiny?

As I have said before, I have a few stories in the files that I will likely not publish but want to share. The western, The Last Chance is one of those stories.

In Part Six, Wade McCord continues to defend The Last Chance ranch and its lovely owner Emeline Spencer against Grainger, a greedy land baron. Having defeated Grainger’s minions in an attempt to take the ranch, McCord knows that the stakes are getting higher.

Click on The Coastal Library found on the menu bar for the story or click the link below and scroll down to Part Six

The Last Chance

The Last Chance: Part Three

Welcome to the serial western, The Last Chance. I have some stories in the vault that I will not publish but wanted to share them. I rarely write westerns but I love them, so this was my first. I will be posting the story in segments over the next few weeks. This is Part Three but the story so far is on the Coastal Library tab. I hope you enjoy!

The Last Chance

Wade McCord left his past behind and wandered westward, looking for a fresh start. A stopover in Wickenberg, AZ brought him face to face with an evil land baron and a beautiful woman who was in mortal danger. Was this McCord’s last chance to find his destiny?

Part Three

McCord awoke, slowly opening his eyes. Lacy curtains framing the window stirred in the early-morning breeze casting patterns of pale light across the room. Last night, he had quickly stripped off his clothes and collapsed into bed, falling asleep at once. Stretching, he savored the feel of the cotton sheets against his bare skin. He never slept in the nude on the trail, and he was enjoying the sensation.

What he wasn’t enjoying was the pain in his right side. He pulled down the covers to find an enormous bruise just above his hipbone, no doubt from the big man, Bobby’s fist. He rolled slightly to his left, covered himself with the sheet and quilt, falling asleep again.

When McCord awoke the second time, bright sunlight flooded his room. He sat up, reaching for his pocket watch lying on the bedside table, surprised to see it was a bit after nine in the morning. Sinking into the feather pillows, he debated on whether to get up or stay in bed all day. Eventually, he convinced himself that he needed coffee and food, and got out of bed, dressing quickly.

As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he spotted Maddie leaving the dining room. “Still serving coffee and breakfast, or is it too late?”

“No, there’s food left on the sideboard, and cookie just made another pot of coffee,” she grinned, “for sleepyheads like you.” She was carrying a newspaper, which she handed to him. “Here. Stagecoach from Tucson brought papers from back east.”

He headed for the sideboard, where he helped himself to biscuits, saltback, and coffee, then sat at a table beside a front window. He was reading the weeks-old news from the St. Louis paper when Doctor Stewart sank into the chair across from him, coffee in hand.

“Morning, Wade. Sleep well?”

“Yes, I did. Long time since I’ve slept that many hours and in a soft bed.”

“Aye, sleeping in a soft bed is a good thing. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, sore, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before. How’s Jennifer this morning?”

Stewart shook his head. “That little lassie is tough. I think she’s shaken, but you wouldn’t know it. Marik’s done a good job helping her grow up considering the background she had. She’s smart, and she takes a lot of what happens to her in stride.”

“I thought I heard last night that she’s studying with Logan’s wife?”

“You heard right, there was no teacher when she was little, but Marik taught her to read and count. She’s over twenty now and was too embarrassed to go to school, so Laura’s been teaching her at night.”

“The Logan’s seem like good folk.”

“There are a lot of good folks in Wickenburg, Wade. You ought to think about staying.”

McCord didn’t speak while he pondered the doctor’s comment. “Yeah, been thinking about settling somewhere, Doc. Just don’t know if Wickenburg is the place.”

Stewart finished off his coffee. “I can see you’re thinking about it, laddie. You might be surprised if you looked hard enough that this is the place for you.” He stood up. “I need to get back to the surgery. You let me know if you need anything. I’ll take a look at that cut on your face later and change that plaster out.”

McCord finished breakfast while he pondered Stewart’s words. He found himself thinking about staying in Wickenburg but wondered if his desire to stay had anything to do with the lovely Emeline Spencer. Standing up, he put on his hat, deciding he was going to have to find out.

First, McCord visited the barbershop to have his scraggly beard shaved. The barber, Walter, was a small man with round, wire-rimmed glasses, and he liked to talk. Waving McCord into the shop, Walter motioned for him to sit in the barber’s chair.

“Well, now Mr. McCord, oh… in case you’re wondering, I know your name ‘cause Howard told me all about you. First, I’m gonna trim most of this hair off, and then I’ll give you a good shave, but I’ll be careful about that wound. Doc Stewart will get angry if I hurt you worse.”

As he trimmed McCord’s beard, he rattled on about Doc Stewart and Howard. How long they’d been in town, what a good healer Doc Stewart was, how Howard had made a lot of money from the mercantile. He talked about Marik’s arrival, years before, having bought the saloon sight unseen. Then he told McCord about Logan coming from back east where he’d been a policeman but deciding that he wanted to live in the west. Walter said the town was a lot safer after Logan arrived.

Assuming that barbers usually know all the gossip, he decided to ask about Emeline Spencer. “Walter, what do you know about Anton LeMonde and his granddaughter?”

Walter smiled. “Ah. Anton LeMonde, what a head of hair he had, still dark and thick even at his age, only a bit of gray. He was a good man, came in for a shave, and cut about once a month, and he always brought me a cigar. I don’t like cigars, but I smoked it anyway. It was a shame when he died, everyone thinks that Mr. Grainger had him killed, but I don’t know.”

At Walter’s use of mister to refer to Grainger, the only one in town who had called him that, McCord was curious. “You know Grainger well?”

Walter pulled two steaming towels from a covered metal pot sitting on a wood stove, draping them around McCord’s face, careful of his wound. “Mr. Grainger comes in real regular, likes to keep his hair just so, and I shave him a couple of times a week. He tips well. Now relax while I sharpen this razor.”

After listening to the slap of the razor against the leather strop for a couple of minutes, McCord mumbled from under the towel. “What about LeMonde’s granddaughter?”

Walter pulled the towels away from McCord’s face and began to spread lather across his cheeks and chin. “Miss Spencer sure is a beautiful woman. She arrived in town the day after her grandfather died. It was real sad. Mister Grainger offered to buy The Last Chance from her, but she wouldn’t sell, said she’s going to run the ranch the way her grandfather wanted. Now don’t talk, Mr. McCord, I need to concentrate shaving you around that cut.”

McCord waited until Walter finished shaving the left side of his face to ask his next question. “Where’s The Last Chance located?”

“West of town on Main Street, then take the road to the right about a half-mile out of town, the ranch is about a mile down that road.”

“Where’s Grainger’s ranch?”

“About two miles down the main road, past where you to go to Miss Spencer’s place, Mr. Grainger’s ranch is a bit further from the river. Now, when I’m done here, how ’bout a haircut, looks like you could use one.”

“Yeah, a little trim couldn’t hurt.”


Thirty minutes later, McCord stepped onto the boardwalk, clean-shaven and chuckling. Walter, as most barbers did, had become quite frustrated by the cowlicks in his hair. He’d dealt with them all his life, but his messy, spiky hair made barbers crazy. Walter suggested he wear a hat at all times, not like he hadn’t heard that before. He stepped onto the dusty street, put on his Stetson, and headed for the livery.

Pegasus pawed at the ground, throwing up straw. McCord patted his velvety nose, “Told you I was going to take you out, no need to be impatient.”

Nick helped him put the harness and saddle on the big stallion, who continued to display his annoyance. McCord filled his canteen with water from the well outside of the livery, mounted Pegasus, and rode west out of town.

Free from the confines of his stable, Pegasus was at full gallop before they passed the last building at the edge of town. McCord felt his pulse begin to pound. He had ridden toward Emeline Spencer’s ranch on purpose, but he was starting to worry about what he would say if he saw her.

At the pace Pegasus was galloping, they reached the turn leading to The Last Chance quickly. He curbed him to a trot as he turned onto the narrower lane. The stallion whinnied noisily in protest. McCord leaned over, whispering in the horse’s ear. “I know the boy. I’ll let you run as fast as you want on the way back.”

Tall trees, in early spring leaf, lined the lane, parting only where a well-worn path led to the river, McCord suspected. Rounding a bend in the lane, McCord slowed their pace to a leisurely walk. The tree line fanned out around an enormous open field, a fence following the tree line as far as he could see. Over the narrow road, a wooden archway marked the gate, iron letters spelling ‘The Last Chance’ fastened across the top of the arch.

McCord expected the farm to be rustic, but there was nothing rustic about the two-story farmhouse sitting on a small rise. The house had a decidedly New Orleans ambiance. A large veranda wrapped around the front and sides, a balcony along the second floor, ornate black wrought iron enclosing both. He wondered which of the mature pine and oak trees framing the house Granger hanged LeMonde.

A large bunkhouse sat north of the house, an enormous horse barn, cupola capping the roof beside it, and to the south, a smaller barn. From his vantage point, tucked in the tree line, he could see at least two paddocks where several Appaloosas, Paints, and Quarter horses were grazing. The small wagon that Emeline and Chuck had ridden into town was sitting to the side of the house.

At some point, McCord realized he was holding his breath. Even Pegasus seemed to sense that he wanted silence. He wasn’t conscious of how long he stood hidden in the trees, wondering what the lovely Emeline was doing at that moment. He muttered, “You’re being an idiot, McCord. Good way to scare the lady off if she finds you spying on her.”

He tugged on Pegasus’s lead, and they headed toward the main road. Once around the bend, he lightly tapped the big horse’s sides with his spurs. Within seconds, they were racing down the lane.

Back in Wickenburg, he returned Pegasus to his stall and requested Nick give the horse a good rub down along with extra oats. McCord decided it was time for his helping of oats, and he headed for the hotel. Howard and Doc Stewart were already in the dining room having lunch and waved him over.

Stewart pointed to him. “Barely recognized you laddie without that beard.”

McCord sat down, rubbing his chin. “Feels a bit funny to me, been a while since I’ve had a shave.” He peered at their plates. “That looks good.”

Preening, Stewart pointed to his plate. “I gave Maddie me mum’s recipe for pot pie, and once a week, cookie makes them for me. Always a surprise as to what meat he uses, but today it is chicken.”

McCord was looking around for the waitress when Maddie appeared,  holding a pot pie and a cup of coffee. Smiling, she placed the food in front of him. “I had a feeling you’d be wanting one of these.”

“Thanks.” McCord dug in, then raising his eyebrow approvingly. “This is good, Stewart.”

Between bites, Martin questioned him. “What have you done this morning besides getting a shave?”

McCord didn’t want to talk about riding to The Last Chance, so he didn’t mention it. “Took my horse out for a run this morning, got almost to Grainger’s ranch, but I turned around.”

Martin mumbled, having taken a large bite of pot pie. “Your horse, that big black one in the livery?” McCord nodded, and he continued. “What kind of horse is he?”

“His name’s Pegasus, and he’s a Friesian.”

Stewart looked surprised. “Those horses are from The Netherlands. How did you end up with one?”

McCord spun his coffee cup on the tabletop, wondering why it seemed so easy to tell the people in this town things he never revealed to anyone. “My father was a horseman, a hobby, but one he took seriously. He brought two Friesians mares from a breeder in The Netherlands, and one was in foal. Unfortunately, she died giving birth to him. I happened to home at the time, and I took a fancy to him. One of the other broodmares suckled him, and when weaned, I bought him from my father.”

“He’s a beauty,” Howard mumbled again, a little gravy dripping from his chin. “I heard that Nick’s been letting kids into the livery to get a peek at him.”

Smiling McCord commented. “He does get his share of attention.” He noticed Stewart watching him. “Doc, what’s on your mind?”

“Nothing, I was just wondering why you rode west from town to exercise your horse. The east road is wider and straighter, the west road narrower and curves quite a bit. Something capture your attention out that way, Wade?”

Leaning back, McCord gazed at the doctor for a few seconds before he answered. “What do you mean?”

Stewart started to speak, but Howard interrupted. “He means you seemed to like Emeline, and she seemed to like you, so he….”

“Howard, I told you not to say that to Wade.”

“Well, he looked like a love-sick puppy when he first saw Emeline, and I told you she looked back at him with the same look. They like each other.”

“You are a nickey, Howard Martin. What do you know about the attraction between two people? You can’t even get up the courage to talk to Jennifer, other than to sputter nonsense like a schoolboy when you’re around her.”

Martin’s chest puffed up a bit, his face reddening as he glared at Stewart. McCord felt sorry for Martin and decided, once again, to reveal more of himself. “Doc, Martin’s right. I won’t deny that Emeline Spencer is very beautiful and quite intriguing.”

“See, I told you, Duncan.” Martin crossed his arms demonstratively.

The doctor smirked at Martin, then addressed McCord’s comment. “Emeline is beautiful, and she’s a fine woman, Wade. You could do worse.”

McCord took a bite of his pot pie before he answered. “Playing matchmaker doesn’t become you, doctor.”

“Aye, laddie, a matchmaker I am not, but we know Emeline, which gives us an advantage. Trust me. She needs you.”

McCord’s expression was dour. “I told you, Doc. I don’t want to be needed.”

“Everyone needs to be needed.” Stewart offered McCord a faint, knowing smile.

McCord gulped coffee and changed the subject. “Howard, I’m gonna stop by later, need to stock up on some ammunition.”

Wide-eyed, Martin sputtered. “You expecting trouble?”

“No, just used a lot of bullets hunting for food the last few weeks, need to replenish my ammo. Don’t worry. I’m not going to start anything.”

“Oh – okay, I’ll fix you up,” Martin answered, relief in his voice.

The three men finished lunch and parted company. McCord took a quick detour to check on Pegasus, then headed for the saloon. He wanted to see how Jennifer was faring. Entering, he touched his hat with his finger in greeting to Marik, who was wiping down a table. He spotted Jennifer sitting with a pretty and pregnant strawberry blond.

Jennifer smiled as he walked over to them. “Hello, handsome Wade, come meet my teacher, Laura Logan.”

Laura Logan gazed warmly with clear blue eyes bright. “We owe you a debt of gratitude for saving Jennifer from those men. As my husband seems to like you, Mr. McCord, I’ll like you as well.”

Tipping his hat to the lovely Mrs. Logan, he answered uncomfortably. “Nothing to thank me for ma’am, glad I happened by in time.” Noticing the math workbooks on the table, he decided it was time to leave them alone. “Don’t let me disturb you. I only wanted to see how Jennifer was today.” He hoped that his surprise at the schoolmarm being in the saloon wasn’t noticeable.

Laura rose. “We’re finished with our lesson. Since planting season’s underway, school is out for the summer. I thought it was better we have our lessons during the day, while we can,” patting her swollen abdomen, grinning. She appeared to sense McCord’s surprise at her presence in the saloon. “I suppose you are surprised to see the town’s schoolteacher in the saloon. I don’t judge people, and Marik runs a very proper establishment. Besides, my husband is the sheriff, so I think I’m safe.” She gathered her things. “Jenny, finish your homework before tomorrow. I’ll see you then — Mr. McCord, nice to meet you. I hope you’ll stay in Wickenburg for a while. Maybe you can come for dinner sometime?”

“Thanks for the invitation, Mrs. Logan, I appreciate it. Nice to meet you as well.”

As Laura left the saloon, Jennifer picked up her papers and linked her arm in McCord’s. “I didn’t have a chance to thank you.” She smiled sweetly at him. “So, thanks.” Rising on her tiptoes, she kissed him on the cheek, then ran a fingertip across his chin. “Um, nice and smooth. Come on. I want you to teach me to play poker.”

“Why me?”

“Because I think you can teach me how to be cunning and win without cheating.”

McCord scoffed. “What makes you think I don’t cheat at cards?”

Jennifer grinned impishly. “Because you want people to think you’re just a drifter without a care in the world, but I think underneath you care about people. People who care about people don’t cheat them.”

She spun away from him, going to the bar to retrieve a deck of cards. As McCord followed her to a table in the corner, he thought Doc Stewart was right, Marik had raised her well.

They spent the next three hours playing poker, occasionally only the two of them, sometimes one of the regulars would sit in on a hand. McCord found Jennifer to be a quick study, with a sharp mind. They finished the last hand where she had bluffed McCord and taken the pot, a few pennies.

McCord shuffled the cards. “You certain that you haven’t played before?”

“No, but I’ve watched a lot of poker played in here.” She pointed to a group of miners who had been playing when McCord arrived in town the day before. “Those boys play nearly every day.”

“Tell me, what is it you want to do with your life. You seem interested in learning.”

A pensive look crossed her face. “I don’t want to be known for what my momma did. I want to teach maybe like Mrs. Logan does, or maybe run a hotel like Miss Emeline or Miss Maddie.”

“I thought all young women wanted to marry and have babies.”

She gave McCord a furtive glance. “I – I don’t think any man in this town would want to marry me.”

“You’re not interested in anyone in town, not even a nice shopkeeper?”

Jennifer blushed. “You—you mean— Howard?”

He raised an eyebrow mischievously. “So, you do know he’s smitten with you.”

“You think that…oh…” Jennifer stammered as she took in McCord’s words.

“Yes, I think…,” McCord stopped as Walter the barber ran into the saloon.

“Anyone seen the sheriff, there’s trouble at the bank.”

McCord jumped to his feet. “What kind of trouble, a robbery?”

“No, Grainger and Miss Emeline, they’re having a huge fight.”

That was all McCord heard as he exited the saloon at a dead run, his spurs jangling loudly. As soon as his boots hit the boardwalk, he saw Grainger and two of his thugs surrounding Emeline and the young man who was with her the day before in front of the bank. As he got closer, he could hear Grainger’s words.

“It’s in your best interest to do what I say, Emeline. It would be so much smarter of you to marry me and let me take care of The Lucky Chance. Otherwise, you might find running that ranch a bit difficult.”

Emeline laughed. “Marry you? I’d sooner marry a horse than marry you. I can take care of The Last Chance all by myself.” She tried to push her way past him, but the much larger Grainger grabbed her arm and pulled her close to him.

“You are a little fool, and if you don’t agree to marry me, you won’t have a ranch to tend to for much longer.” His voice was menacing, cold, his knuckles turning white as his grip on her arm tightened.

“Stop, you’re hurting me.”

When Grainger laughed at her plea, Emeline struck him hard across the face with her free hand. Pure rage flared on his face. He drew back his hand, intending on returning the slap when a strong hand grabbed his forearm. The cold barrel of a Colt Peacemaker pressed against his temple.

“Let her go.”

There was no mistaking McCord’s tone. His voice was even, low, raspy, and he was deadly serious. “I said let her go, or you won’t be tending your ranch, Grainger.”

One of Grainger’s two henchmen was restraining Chuck, the young man who had been with Emeline the day before. Throwing Chuck to the ground, the man started to rush McCord. Chuck reacted quickly, throwing his legs out and tripping the man. He wasn’t so lucky with Grainger’s other thug, who drew his weapon and jumped onto the boardwalk, shoving his gun into McCord’s back.

“You let him go, or I’ll kill ya right here.”

McCord spun around, bending Grainger’s arm behind his back, using Grainger’s bulk to knock the other man to the boardwalk. He repositioned the gun to Grainger’s neck. “Now, call your dogs off, and I’ll let you walk away.”

A voice broke through the low murmuring from the gathered crowd. “Grainger, do what he says, or I’ll let him do what he wants.” Sheriff Evan Logan stepped up on the boardwalk. “Eme, do you want me to charge him with assault?”

Emeline was rubbing her arm, a grimace on her face. “I just want him to leave us alone.”

Logan caught McCord’s eye, and with a subtle nod, McCord released Grainger and shoved him away. “I don’t like bullies, you hurt her again, and I’ll kill you.”

Grainger straightened his tan frock coat, his face a mask of rage. “You’ll pay for this.”

McCord glared darkly at Grainger. “I’m waiting.”

Grainger stalked away with his men, heading toward the mining office, while Logan’s deputies disbursed the crowd. McCord stepped off the boardwalk where Emeline was talking to Chuck. She turned as he approached, as though she sensed him.

“I seem to be making a habit of thanking you for protecting me.” She was trembling, but her soft, sultry voice was strong. Looking into her dark-green eyes, McCord felt his heart pounding. He needed to keep her safe.

“Glad to be of service, ma’am.” He looked at Chuck, “You okay?” The young man nodded, and McCord turned back to Emeline, who was rubbing her arm where Grainger had grabbed her. “You should have Doc Stewart look at that.”

“I’m all right. I need to finish my business in the bank, and then Chuck and I can return to the ranch.”

Stewart had arrived. “No, lassie, Wade’s right, I need to look at that arm. Now you and Chuck come with me and let me do my job.” Stewart led them away, McCord watching intently.

“Wade… Wade…”

McCord realized that Logan was talking to him. “Sorry, …I…”

Logan chuckled. “I know, I’m happily married to a beautiful woman, but Emeline…, well.” He sighed. “You have to realize that you just made an enemy.”

“I might have made him angry.”

“Grainger doesn’t like to be embarrassed.”

“And I don’t like bullies who get away with it.” McCord glared at Logan, “Why didn’t you arrest him?”

“I couldn’t since Emeline wouldn’t press charges. Besides, the criminal judge is on his payroll, would’ve let him go.”

McCord sighed deeply. “This is going to escalate, sheriff, so what do we do about it?”

“We… you joining in the fight?”

“I’m not leaving here until I know she’s… uh… the town’s safe from Grainger.”

Logan shook his head knowingly. “That’s what I thought. Wade, you humiliated him in front of the townsfolk. He’s not going to take that lightly.”

“I know he won’t, but I fear that he won’t take his anger out on me.” McCord took off his hat, running his hand through his hair, “I fear that he’ll go after Emeline to retaliate.”

“I’m gonna send a deputy to the ranch to inform Ramon and Paul what’s gone on here and help keep watch for Grainger’s men.”

“Emeline should stay in town until we see what Grainger’s going to do.”

Scoffing, Logan crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Good luck with that, Wade. Emeline has the same stubborn trait as her grandfather. I doubt she’ll agree to stay in town while we deal with Grainger.”

“We can try.” McCord placed his hat on his head. “Want to go with me to Doc Stewart’s?”

Logan nodded his head, giving McCord a tight grin. “Might as well, I’d like to watch you try to convince her to stay in town.”

As the two men entered Stewart’s surgery, Emeline Spencer’s angry voice greeted them through the exam room’s open door. “Doctor, I am not going to let Grainger win.”

“Eme, you’ve been fortunate that nothing bad has happened since you took over the ranch. Yesterday and today, you were lucky that Wade was nearby, and that you have only suffered a bruise from today. I fear things are going to get worse.”

“Doc’s right, Eme, things are going to get worse.” Logan dropped his voice as he spoke to her.

Emeline was sitting on the exam table, rolling down the left sleeve of her blue blouse. She turned toward the voice, finding Logan and McCord standing in the doorway. “I am well aware that this is going to get worse, but I will not give in to Grainger’s demands. I just won’t.” Despite her defiance, her expression was grim.

McCord stepped into the room. “No one is asking you to give in, Miss Spencer, but the sheriff is right, Grainger’s angry, and there is no telling what his next move will be.”

Emeline started to jump down from the exam table, but McCord intervened and picked her up, putting her on the floor. For a second, she clung to him before pushing him away and murmuring thanks.

“Gentlemen, I appreciate your concern, but I need to get to the bank, and then we need to return to the ranch.” She moved to leave, but McCord stepped in front of her.

“You are in grave danger, and the sheriff and I think you need to stay in town tonight.”

“No, I’m going home.”

Stewart interjected. “You should listen to them, lassie.”

Logan smiled. “You can stay with us. Laura would love to have you.”

“Evan, Laura’s going to give birth any day now. She needs to rest and not bothered with company. I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”

McCord felt exasperation building. Just as Logan said, Emeline was not going to listen to reason. He decided to try another tactic, if he could get her to delay, then he and Logan would have time to determine how best to keep her in town until they dealt with Grainger. Her reluctance to release him when he helped her from the exam table told him she was seeking support, or maybe she was looking for something else. No, he wouldn’t think about that.

“Miss Spencer, why don’t you stay in town long enough for Logan to send a deputy along with Chuck to out to check on things, let your people know that Grainger’s men might try something. Once there is security in place, Logan and I will take you home in the morning.”

“I…,” she gazed at McCord, “I don’t like letting him win, and if I don’t go home, Grainger wins.”

“No, if something happens to you, Grainger wins. We are going to keep him from winning and keep you safe.”

Stewart patted Emeline on the shoulder. “Listen to Wade, let Logan make certain you have protection, then you can go home.”

Logan spoke up. “I’m going to send Dwayne and Clyde out to the ranch with Chuck. They’ll tell Ramon, Paul, and Julio what’s happened so they can start keeping watch. Are you certain that you won’t stay with Laura and me?”

“No, besides, if Grainger tries anything, I don’t want Laura anywhere near me.”

Smiling, Logan replied. “Laura wouldn’t be worried, but I understand.” He turned toward Wade. “Would you escort Emeline to the hotel so that she can get a room for the night?”

“My pleasure, Sheriff. Miss Spencer, shall we?” He swept an arm toward the door, and she walked out McCord following.


Emeline insisted on finishing her banking business, and McCord went with her. She spent close to a half-hour with Halley, reading then signing several papers. Waiting near one of the windows looking onto Main Street, McCord was sure he spotted a couple of men who had been nearby when Grainger’s men accosted Emeline the day before. More of his thugs hanging around convinced him that Grainger was planning something. They needed to be ready.

The sun was low in the sky, and McCord wanted Emeline in the hotel and safe before nightfall. She had turned toward the mercantile, but he stopped her.

“If you need anything from Howard’s, we can go there in the morning. It’s almost dark. I need to get you to the hotel.”

Emeline glowered at McCord but agreed, and they walked to the hotel, where McCord requested a room for Emeline as close to his as possible. Maddie, who had already heard about the incident with Grainger, gave her Room 205 next door.

“How ’bout dinner. You need to eat.” McCord pointed to the dining room as they walked toward the stairs.

She smiled. “I am hungry. Let me freshen up, and I’ll join you in the dining room.”

McCord watched her ascend the steps, his heart pounding, being close to Eme was clouding his rationale of why he decided to become involved. He did hate bullies, but he realized he cared for her more. It had been a long time since his blood stirred as it did now.

He entered the dining room, taking a table near an open window. The late spring night was unusually balmy, occasional flashes of lightning and muffled thunder reached his ears. Thoughts about settling down swirled in his head, but he pushed the thoughts away as Emeline arrived. He stood up and held out her chair.

“A hero and gentleman, not a combination that one sees very often in this part of the world, Mr. McCord.”

He pushed her chair under the table, then sat down. “No hero, but my mother would have insisted on my being a gentleman, and please, call me Wade.”

“I want to thank you… Wade, please call me Emeline. I’m sorry that you had to become involved this afternoon. Grainger caught me as I was entering the bank when he was leaving. The smart thing to do was walk away, but my grandfather taught me when I was young, not to run from my troubles.”

“Grainger is more than trouble, Emeline. He’s vicious and will stop at nothing to get what he wants.”

“And what he wants is my land.”

“Not just your land, he wants you.”

“Well, that is not going to happen.” She sighed, “I’m certain that Doctor Stewart or Evan has told you that I arrived the day after my grandfather died. Grainger was already plotting to take the ranch by the time I got here. If it weren’t for Evan, along with Doc Stewart intervening, he would have succeeded. I’m not going to allow him to take what Papere worked so hard to build.”


She gave him a coy smile. “We are Cajun, ‘Papere’ is what I called him, it means grandfather.”

The waitress interrupted to take their order, and when she left,  McCord wanted to know more about her grandfather. “What did your grandfather tell you about Grainger? Did you know how serious the situation was when he last contacted you?”

Emeline’s eyes widened slightly, a haunted look crossing her lovely face. “Mr. McCord… Wade, my grandfather’s last letter was disturbing. He was angry, worried, even though he didn’t say it with words, I knew he was in trouble. He mentioned Grainger and told me that he was certain that vile man was behind the troubles he was having.”

“From what I’ve heard, you have Chuck, who I’ve met, and three other hands. The ranch is big, that may not be enough to fend off Grainger’s men.”

“I suppose I could hire mercenaries to protect the ranch, but that’s not the answer either. I want to keep my grandfather’s dream alive. My only choice is to keep going.”

McCord didn’t reply immediately. He took a moment to assess the beautiful woman sitting across from him. She had redone her hair in a French twist, but tendrils had escaped and framed her face in soft curls. Her eyes were the color of emeralds, sparkling in the glow of the burning candles on the table.

Before he could speak, Maddie appeared with their food, two plates of chicken and dumplings, and hot cornbread. They ate for a few moments in silence, both hungrier than they realized, or both hiding behind the meal, so they didn’t have to discuss Grainger.

After a few bites, Emeline put down her fork. “Why are you helping me? Doc Stewart said you just arrived in Wickenburg yesterday, and that you are just passing through. I don’t understand why you got involved.”

He wasn’t certain how to answer her. Would he frighten her if he told her the truth?  Telling her he had fallen in love with her would do just that, he decided — not the time to be honest.

“I don’t like bullies. I’ve seen Grainger’s type too many times. Men like Grainger will not stop until they get what they want or until someone stops them. So, I’m going to help the sheriff stop him.”

She picked up her fork and stared at her plate, moving a piece of chicken back and forth in the thick broth. “What makes you think you can stop him? Evan is a good sheriff. He’s not afraid of Grainger, but I don’t believe he can stop him.”

“There’s a difference, Emeline. Evan has the entire town to protect. I can concentrate on you and your ranch.”

They finished their meal, and McCord suggested that they step out onto the boardwalk. The early spring storm was closer, and the lightning was putting on quite a show. He and Emeline had just sat down on the bench in front of the hotel when the clatter of a fast-moving wagon echoed over the thunder. As the wagon sped past, driven by Dwayne, the deputy, Emeline sprang from the bench.

“That’s my wagon.”

Before McCord could react, she had jumped onto the street and was running toward the wagon, which has stopped outside of Doc Stewart’s surgery. He rushed to catch up. When he reached the wagon, Emeline was climbing into the back.

“What’s going on…?” He stopped when he saw two savagely beaten young men lying in the wagon.

Emeline knelt beside the one conscious man. “Paul, what happened?”

The pale young man, his face bloodied, stammered. “We were fixing a broken… fence row in the northwest field w-when six men rode up.” He stopped to spit out blood. “They told us they were gonna… teach you a lesson.”

“Enough, stop talking, chere.” Emeline turned to McCord as her eyes filled with tears.

“Help me.”

Parts One and Two can be found Here

The Coastal Library


As you can see, I have added a new page, The Coastal Library to my blog. Every writer has a muse that at times becomes overactive. I am no different. While my first love is murder mysteries, I have authored stories, novellas, and an occasional novel in other genres such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Westerns.

Instead of letting these stories gather dust in an MS Word file, I have decided to post them on my blog. Someone might enjoy reading these forgotten works.

The first story I am posting to my Coastal Library is a western that I wrote several years ago. I have loved westerns since as a child my grandfather read his favorite Zane Grey novels to me. A writing challenge provided the opportunity and I tried my hand at writing the Old West. This story is the result. I loved writing westerns so much that I wrote a sci-fi western cross that just might show up here as well.

I will post a new segment of the story each Wednesday. I hope you enjoy these leftovers!

Story Index

The Last Chance

Wade McCord left his past behind and wandered westward, looking for a fresh start. A stopover in Wickenberg, AZ brought him face to face with an evil land baron and a beautiful woman who was in mortal danger. Was this McCord’s last chance to find his destiny?

The Last Chance Part One

The Invitation

The Invitation” was written for Writers Unite!’s Write the Story October prompt. A spooky month deserves a spooky story. I am a mystery (with a bit of sci-fi thrown in) writer, so a paranormal story is a bit of stretch for me but I hope you will enjoy my novice effort!

Please visit Writer’s Unite!’s blog for more amazing stories from the Write the Story project! https://writersuniteweb.wordpress.com/

( Please note: the images used as prompts are free-use images and do not require attribution.)  

The Invitation

By D. A. Ratliff

Candice Webb forced herself to take a deep breath.

What was she thinking? She had just driven three hours from the city to her hometown based on the cryptic words written in a letter from a woman she had never met. Since the day after she graduated high school, she had not set foot in Martinsville and had no expectations or desire to return. Then the letter appeared in her mailbox bearing no postmark, only her name scrawled in precise cursive writing with a fountain pen across the ivory envelope.

Twilight was falling as she arrived at the house and in the dim light of the car’s overhead dome, she reread the letter. She needed all the courage she could muster to exit the car.

Miss Webb:

We have never met but you have been to my home. I am Glenda Addison and I reside at the Addison Estate in Martinsville.

I will be leaving my home soon and while preparing to leave, I noticed a locket wedged in the floorboards on the second floor. I did a bit of investigative work, and I discovered it might be yours.

I would like to return the locket to you. Would you please join me for tea tomorrow evening at seven o’clock? You know the way.

Glenda Addison

Her heart caught at the word locket, her grandmother’s locket. She was ten when her grandmother died and her grandfather had pressed the locket into her hand and told her to wear it always. She had lost it only a week after he died, and her mother had cried for days. She never told her mother where she lost the locket. But she knew. She had lost it in the house at the end of the stone-paved walkway. And Glenda Addison had found it.

Her fingers trembling, she opened the car door. Leaving her purse under the seat, she locked the car and slipped her key fob into her skirt pocket. Time to face her past.

Her leather-soled boots echoed on the old stone pavers as she headed for the house. Fog clung to the tops of the tall pines and she shivered in the chilly late October air. Should have worn a heavier sweater. Her heart raced as memories of the last time she walked along this path flooded her thoughts. She was twelve and was with Jimmy Liston and Randy Parks. They had cajoled her into coming with them to check out the abandoned Addison house. A night she would just as soon forget.

A soft glow shone through the windows of the ground floor, but the bright light coming from a second-floor window illuminating the path caught her attention. A moment of sheer panic rushed through her as her heart pounded like a bass drum. That was the room. That was the room where… no, she put it out of her head. She was here to get her locket. That was all.

As she approached the house, her amazement grew. When she, Randy, and Jimmy had come to explore, the grounds were overgrown, the paint on the front door and window sills peeling, and the shutters falling off.

Now, even in the growing darkness, she could tell that the grounds were immaculate. As she reached for the doorbell pull, she noticed the paint looked fresh. What a difference fifteen years could make. She held her breath until the door opened. A pair of ice-blue eyes met hers.

“Miss Webb. You came.”

Standing before her was a slender woman in her forties, Candice guessed. Her raven black hair was pulled into a severe bun with an ornate pearl and emerald hairpin sticking through it. 

“I did. Thank you, Ms. Addison, I am grateful that you found my locket.”

“Come in, dear. We will discuss what you have lost.”

The interior, in shambles when she was fifteen, was well furnished. Elegant lamps and polished wood filled the room where broken lamps and layers of dust had existed fifteen years ago. As she followed Glenda into the parlor, she attempted to tamp down her growing unease. The only sounds she heard were the rustling of Glenda’s silk dress, the ticking of the Grandfather clock, and the beating of her heart. 

“My dear, please have a seat.” Glenda gestured to a beautifully upholstered settee, while she sat across in a small armchair, tucking her black silk skirt around her legs. On the table between them sat a china teapot and two delicate bone china cups.

“May I pour you tea?”

Candice cleared her throat, worried she could not talk but she managed a thank you. She waited as the woman poured the tea. Taking her cup, she took a sip of the hot liquid before she spoke.

“You have done a remarkable job remodeling this house.”

Glenda’s eyes bore into hers, a slight smile curling the corners of her mouth. “You would certainly know about the condition this house was once in. How many years ago was it now since you were here?’

“Uh… I — I was twelve, so, fifteen years.”

“Yes, the house was certainly a disaster then. No one had lived here for many years.”

“Was it your parents who lived here?”

She smiled at Candice. “In a manner of speaking…” She sipped her tea. “This house has been in the family for many years. My parents were among the many that lived here.”

“I am surprised that you found the locket after all of these years.”

“Ah, the locket. It was a surprise for me as well. I only found it a short time ago.”

“In your letter, you said you were leaving here. It seems a shame after making this house so beautiful.”

Gazing around the room, Glenda’s eyes fell on a portrait of a man that hung over the fireplace mantle. “My time here is at an end. Just this one small task left to do.” She sat back in the chair. “My dear, why don’t you tell me about that night that you came to explore.”

Candice’s palms were clammy, and she was trembling. She did not want to recount that night but had known since she got the letter that she would have to tell what had happened. She inhaled such a deep breath her chest heaved. “It was a dare. We were twelve. I had a crush on Randy and he and Jimmy wanted to come here. The house was rumored to be haunted. Of course, it wasn’t but I came with them to show Randy I wasn’t scared.”

“Were you scared?” Glenda’s voice was taunting, and Candice’s chest tightened. Coming here was a bad idea.

“I will admit to being apprehensive, but I didn’t believe in ghosts. I was afraid some homeless guy might be living here.”

“But there wasn’t a homeless person, was there?”

“Uh… no, there wasn’t.” Candice stared at her host. Why had she not noticed how gray Glenda’s skin was.

“Tell me exactly what you did here.” This time her voice was different, weaker, sharper.

“We came in the front door which was barely hanging on its hinges. We walked through the first floor. Jimmy got the idea that there could be something of value left. So, we started looking through drawers and closets. Randy and I didn’t want to, but we were scared of how crazed Jimmy was becoming. We didn’t find anything, and we wanted to leave but Jimmy wanted to go upstairs.”

“Yes, upstairs, where you lost your locket.”

“Yes, but we didn’t find anything up there.” Candice realized her voice was shaking and higher pitched than normal. She took a breath and tried to keep her voice even. “I really need to start back home, Ms. Addison. Could I have my locket?”

Glenda rose. “But of course, my dear. It is upstairs. Follow me.”

Upstairs? Candice did not want to go upstairs but she wanted her locket. She had no choice other than to comply. As they climbed the stairs, she thought how effortlessly Glenda navigated the stairs.

Her heart pounded furiously as she followed Glenda. They turned at the top of the stairs and headed to the room. The room. The room where the light that shone so brightly on the path was located. Glenda entered and turned toward her.

“Come in, my dear.”

She took a step into the room and felt relieved. Glenda had redecorated the room as well. What she had feared was not there. Glancing about the room, she spotted the locket lying on top of a low chest. As she started to walk toward it, she panicked. She could not move. In vain, she struggled to move her legs, paralyzed with fear.

“Not what you were expecting, is it?

“Wha…. What is happening?”

“I only want to hear the truth of that night.”

“Truth? I told you, we came here on a lark. Then Jimmy got all crazed and wanted to find something to take.”

Glenda moved closer to her. “Oh, my dear, you saw him, didn’t you?” 

“Y—yes, we did.”

Walking to the area of the now highly polished floor, Glenda pointed to a spot. “He was right there, fell where I stabbed him. He wanted the family money, the only reason he married me.” She raised her head and turned toward Candice. “He poisoned me, but I discovered what he had done. It was too late then, but I wasn’t going to die alone. He came up here to find my jewelry box, but I hid it. I walked in as he was tearing the room apart looking for it.”

Candice could barely take a breath but when she did, her breath was visible as the room turned frigid. As she watched, Glenda’s skin was grayer, her face thinner as if she was wasting away. She managed to eke out a question. “You—you killed him?”

An evil grin stretched across her mottled skin and the older woman laughed. “Yes. Yes, I did. I thrust the sterling dagger my father gave me for protection into his chest and watched him die. Then a few hours later, I died.”

A small scream escaped Candice. Her voice trembled but she managed to speak. “Why are you here? What do you want?”

Her face more skeleton than flesh, Glenda balled her bony fingers into fists. “His soul was able to leave this plane. But not mine, his family forced to me stay here because I’d killed him. His family was powerful, and that power extended into the astral plane. I cannot cross into the otherworld. I am cursed to remain here or enter the netherworld.”

She spun around, the silk dress now loose and swirling around her diminishing frame. “That night, I welcomed having guests, even if they were three bratty children. I was lurking in the house, but you couldn’t see me. I watched as you touched my things as if they had no meaning. I grew tired of you and the greed. Just like him. Looking for something of value, something that was mine. I followed you upstairs and almost cackled with glee when you spotted his body. Only a skeleton then, the flesh long gone, his clothes dusty and tattered from age.” 

She paused, closing her bulging eyes for a moment. “I decided to scare you. I moaned. You were so startled that you fell, and that other boy grabbed you, yelling that you needed to get out of here.” She pointed to the dresser. “The necklace caught on a raised nail in the floorboard and ripped from your neck as the boy pulled you up. The three of you ran. I followed you as far as the front door.”

“Jimmy…. What happened to Jimmy? He left us at the end of the path. Randy made me come with him. We never knew what happened to him.”

“He was a foolish boy and was going to steal from me. He came back. He had spotted the sterling-handled dagger, his prize. I was not going to allow him to take it. I flew out of the shadows. He was so scared that he fled. But he tripped and fell down the stairs, dead before he reached the foyer. I didn’t mean for him to die but I didn’t want him to steal from me.”

“Why are you doing this?” Candice tried to move, filled with horror as Glenda’s skull was beginning to show under disappearing flesh.

“I am not an unkind person. You did nothing to me, and the locket is of value to you. I could sense that. I accepted my fate. The netherworld awaits me. But…” She paused. “I felt a need to return what was of value to you. I had my belongings taken from me. It was the least I could do.”

Glenda was now only a skeleton. “I created this illusion so that you would feel at ease. I cannot maintain it much longer. Take your locket and go. Now..”

As the control Glenda had over her released, Candice nearly fell to her knees. Struggling, she made her way to the dresser and grabbed the locket. It was icy cold. Turning, she was looking into Glenda’s rotting eyes. Those eyes looked toward the floor where the man’s skeleton, the dagger visible, was now lying. She screamed and ran from the room as the beautiful house began to turn into the ruin she had visited fifteen years before.

Reaching the top of the stairs, she tripped over ripped carpeting. Grabbing the banister, she descended as quickly as she dared only to stumble over an object at the foot of the stairs. She tumbled onto the Oriental rug, dust flying from the impact. She turned over and screamed again. It was a skeleton, and it was wearing the shirt Jimmy was wearing that night. As she scrambled up, Glenda’s voice echoed from the second floor …flee now.

Candice ran through the overgrown yard and across the crumbling stones of the path to her car. Shaking she tried the car door. Locked. Key? What did she do with the key? Pocket, in her pocket. She managed to get the door unlocked and sighed with relief as the car started. She drove away.


Two days later, she remained in her darkened apartment in the city. Drapes drawn to keep out the sunlight. The heat turned up because she could not seem to get warm. Why had she gone? She remained shaken by what she had witnessed. She thought about contacting Randy, but he was now an accountant in their hometown and married. She decided telling him would not change anything.

She didn’t believe in ghosts. It was a hallucination. The only explanation that made sense. Her eyes drifted toward the coat closet. No, no hallucination. When she arrived home, she had placed the locket in a box and tucked it away on the closet shelf. It had happened.

Deciding she needed a distraction, she turned on the TV. The local noon news was on, but she barely listened until a word caught her attention. Addison. She raised the TV volume to hear a reporter, standing on the path in front of the Addison house.

“That’s right, David. This is a bizarre story. This house has stood empty for over sixty years. Sheriff Pratt said that no one, not even kids came out here. However, this is where it gets bizarre. Two nights ago, a man who had taken a wrong turn drove down this little-used road and spotted a light coming from an upstairs window and a car here. He mentioned it to the owner of the town’s only restaurant who told the sheriff. Sheriff Pratt held a press conference a few minutes ago. Let’s listen.” The TV switched to an image of the sheriff. 

“The man told us it was too dark to tell what kind of car, but I sent a deputy out to check on it the next morning. He found the remains of three people, Marcus and Glenda Addison and a twelve-year-old boy, Jimmy Liston. Rumors were that the Addisons abandoned the house after his family suffered a huge financial loss about sixty years ago. Jimmy Liston’s parents reported him as a chronic runaway about fifteen years ago but never found. We believe he may have been seeking shelter and at some point, fell down the stairs and broke his neck.”

Shivers raced from her core to her extremities. It was real. She had been there, and Glenda was a ghost.

She rose from the couch and retrieved the box. She needed to make certain the locket was real. Opening the lid, the soft rose gold of the antique locket glinted the glow from the TV. She touched the oval locket with a fingertip and drew her hand back rapidly.

The locket was icy cold.

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High-Heeled Justice

Written for the Writers Unite! Write the Story project, a monthly writing prompt. This is the image for the June prompt. Please visit the WU! blog and check out the stories.https://writersuniteweb.wordpress.com

( Please note: the images used as prompts are free-use images and do not require attribution.)

High-Heeled Justice

By D. A. Ratliff

Tap. Tap. Tap. 

The staccato click of four-inch high heels striking marble trailed behind her as she negotiated her way through the crowded courthouse hall. She chuckled as she ducked under a man’s arm, his palm pressed against the wood-paneled wall, oblivious to her presence. Even with four-inch heels which barely made her five-four, she was often overlooked.

A bailiff opened the heavy wood door for her, and Stella Sinclair, assistant district attorney for the New York County District of State Court stepped into the courtroom. 

Visitors, mostly gawkers, drawn by the salacious nature of the case were crammed into the gallery. A glance at the tables on the other side of the polished mahogany bar revealed the defense team was present. Ronald Walker and Rosario Mendez. As they sat on either side of their client, heads tilted in conversation, she recalled the horror stories she heard from prosecutors who had gone up against the formidable pair. One seasoned ADA’s hands shook as he recalled a case he tried against them.

Stella took a deep breath. The dynamic duo didn’t scare her as much as the ADA she was trying the case with, Jamison O’Donald, Executive Assistant District Attorney and Chief of the Trial Division. A legend in his own mind and he didn’t mind telling anyone he met what he thought about himself. 

At the desk, he spoke without looking up. “You’re late.”

Heart pounding, she was determined not to allow him to rattle her. “It’s one minute before nine and I was ordered by you to pick up this file at eight fifty-three. I believe I made great time.” 

O’Donald opened his mouth to respond but the bailiff called the court to order, saving her. After the judge declared the court in session, O’Donald continued his cross-examination of a forensic expert hired by the defense. The questioning was tedious as O’Donald chipped away at the expert’s disputes with the police forensic unit and what little evidence had been discovered. She had to admit her partner was good. The expert was squirming. 

Listening to the testimony, she took official notes, also jotting down a few of O’Donald’s better lines. Never knew when his tactics could come in handy despite the fact that she resented him. She had tried to talk to him many times about the direction of the case but he had brushed her opinions away.

As she wrote, she felt exposed as if someone was watching her every move. She didn’t have to look to know who — the defendant, Lennar Cole. She shifted in her seat and glanced toward the defense table. As he had done each day of the trial, he was staring at her. His eyes brimming with lust. Always a crooked grin as if he knew something no one else knew. 

What she knew was that the self-purported innocence he liked to portray to the public was a lie. Just like Momma told her, a man always gives his intentions away if you just look in his eyes. Cole gave himself away. He was a killer and she knew it.

The morning droned on with O’Donald being clever and Cole being sleazy, and all she tried to do was take notes of the examination and avoid thinking about the ice-cold blue eyes staring at her. When the judge called a recess for lunch, she grabbed her billfold and, with a quick back-in-thirty to O’Donald, fled outside. 

It was early May and the day was warm and sunny. She headed for the street vendor to get a hot dog. Erica Peyton, another lowly ADA was in line and she slid in behind her. 

“Stella, hi. How’s the trial coming?”

“O’Donald has the defense’s expert witness on cross, making mincemeat of him.” 

“That boy can talk. I wouldn’t want him to prosecute me.”

“Neither would I. I don’t know. The evidence against Cole is circumstantial and the jury is enamored with him. He flashes that toothy grin at them and looks so innocent.”

“My money is on O’Donald. He doesn’t try the worst violent crimes for nothing.”

Stella felt a chill spread through her bones. She had her doubts.

The afternoon droned on as the forensic expert remained on the stand. O’Donald was methodically destroying the expert and, with each question, he was becoming more pompous.

At three in the afternoon, when the cross exam and redirect were complete, the judge called a recess for the day. She and O’Donald shared a cab back to the DA’s office and once there she headed for her cubicle.

She slipped off the red patent leather heels and flexed her toes. Her suit might be black but she never failed to make a statement with her shoes. She was about to start typing her notes from today’s session into a daily recap she was keeping on the trial when her phone buzzed. The DA was summoning her and O’Donald to his office. She wiggled back into the heels and headed to the executive staff suite. 

Roger Pettigrew had been elected to three terms as the District Attorney for New York County and no one expected him to lose the upcoming election. His assistant motioned her to go in, and she proceeded down the private hall toward the office. Stella stopped at the slightly ajar office door as she heard her name mentioned. 

“Jamie, how’s Stella doing? She’s been with us for nearly a year now.”

“Smart enough, doesn’t say much. Hard to say if she’s timid or smart enough to keep her mouth shut and learn. She does pay attention and she is always prepared. Just have some reservations.”

Pettigrew responded. “I went to Harvard Law with her dad. As you know, she went to Columbia and wanted to stay here, not return to New Orleans. I promised him I would keep an eye on her from afar but not try to interfere.”

O’Donald laughed. “Since when did you stop interfering?”

They laughed and she took the opportunity to knock, and Pettigrew yelled out, “Come in.” 

Smiling, DA Pettigrew motioned for her to sit. “Before we review the case, how’s your dad?”

“He’s well. Enjoying being on the bench.”

“No better man than him to wear the robes.”

“Thank you, sir.” 

Pettigrew removed a bottle of scotch from his bottom drawer. “Anyone like a drink?”

She said no and O’Donald shook his head. “No, stomach’s acting up.”

As Pettigrew poured a drink for himself, he looked at O’Donald. “Where do we stand on this case?”

“I ripped their so-called expert apart today. They have no defense. Walker is going to have to put Cole on the stand and when they do, he’s mine. I will get him to admit he killed her for her money. He was in debt.” 

Stella gripped the arm of the chair, uncertain whether to say what she thought. Her dad’s words kept echoing in her head. You remember that you have a head on your shoulders and the good sense of what is right and wrong. Don’t ever be afraid to speak up when you know you are right. 

It was time that she did.

“I beg to differ.”

O’Donald’s head snapped around and his mouth opened. She knew he was about to blow but Pettigrew stepped in. “Hold on, Jamie. Let’s see what Stella has to say.”

“The evidence we went to trial with is circumstantial. We should have…”

“Circumstantial? You should have said so in our pre-trial prep.”

“I did, Jamie, you didn’t listen.”

Pettigrew threw up his hand as O’Donald rose, his face red. “Sit down.” The DA looked at her. “Tell me what you told Jamie.”

A wave of adrenaline swept through her. If she couldn’t explain herself, she was going to lose credibility. She had to be correct.

“Amy Cole was brutally raped and murdered in her art studio on the estate. The crime scene photos show blood splattered over everything. Only rage could have driven someone to stab a victim so many times.”

O’Donald spoke, his anger evident in his controlled voice. “We have an eyewitness, the gardener, who saw him outside the studio about the time of the murder. Cole killed her.”

“I am convinced he did. But on cross-examination, Rosario Mendez got the gardener to admit he didn’t see the man’s face clearly and that he was going by the man’s body. We went to trial based on that witness and she threw reasonable doubt into the mix. The palette knife she had been stabbed with had been wiped clean, only traces of her blood on it. No fingerprints.”

“It was him.”

“I believe that too, but we have no evidence to back that up. Forensics turned up no trace of blood in the drains, the washer-dryer, the carpet, the bed linen, Cole’s clothes or shoes, or the cars. Nothing on the knife. His fingerprints were in the studio, but she had painted a portrait of him. He was her husband, he would be in the studio.”

Pettigrew rested his elbows on his desk. “You think it was wrong for us to prosecute him?”

“I think the way we have is reckless.”

The DA flashed a weak smile. “What would you have done?”

“I would have played to his weaknesses. Jamie has done a great job of establishing that Cole is an adulterer but we haven’t been able to prove Amy was upset by it. As good as his examination of her friends were, he couldn’t establish that she cared he was sleeping around. His wife was not a glamorous woman. Certainly not the type of woman that he had affairs with, but we know she knew about his escapades yet stayed married to him. But remember she had an appointment the next day with an attorney. She may have finally had enough.”

O’Donald blurted out loudly, “Not a divorce attorney.”

It was Stella’s turn to laugh. “Neither was the attorney you used in your divorce, I understand.”

The ADA’s face turned red, but once again Pettigrew stopped him. “Let her finish.”

“Our biggest problem is that the jury loves him. He makes eye contact with them, charms them into believing he is innocent. It’s the vibe he is sending to them. We needed to show him as the narcissistic bastard he is and that he had a motive to kill her. We haven’t done that.” 

She paused. Maybe she had gone too far, but too late now.

In a measured voice, Pettigrew spoke. “We based this prosecution on the fact that Cole had major gambling and business debts. With her dead, he stood to gain a huge inheritance. Enough to pay his debts off. You don’t think that is why he may have killed her.”

“No, I don’t. She hadn’t left him before so I believe, and I realize it is speculation, he had used his charm on her to keep her satisfied. I think he could calm her down and likely she would forgive him. Her friends testified to that fact. I think she finally got tired of his philandering and told him she was seeing an attorney because she was sick of him. I think he became livid about her setting an appointment with an attorney. Then they fought and he brutally raped and killed her. We needed to show the jury that this murder was about his ego, not his debt.”

O’Donald had all he could take. “You think you can sit here and second guess me? If you felt so strongly about this, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I did. Several times — you didn’t listen.”

“Enough.” Pettigrew looked at O’Donald. “What’s up next?”

“The defense has indicated that Cole wants to testify. Not sure he will.”

Stella couldn’t resist. “Not sure he has to testify.”

Looking at O’Donald, Pettigrew remarked, “We better hope he does. If he does, go after the angle Stella just gave you. The subject has been opened. See if it works.”


As it did every morning, the building roar of traffic in Manhattan woke her up. She hadn’t slept well. The scene in Pettigrew’s office kept replaying in her mind. She might have been out of line but she wanted Cole prosecuted for killing his wife. 

She clawed her way out of bed, showered, dressed and grabbed coffee, then a cab. The wakening city spun around her, new skyscrapers and buildings from the city’s past towered above the concrete sidewalks where people scurried to start their day. The thrill of living in the most important city on the planet paled to the reality that a killer might go free. Not the outcome she wanted. 

At the office, she was stowing her purse in her desk drawer when Pettigrew appeared. Her pulse quickened; no doubt she was off the case. 

“Stella, you better be right about Cole because you’re it today. Jamie’s in the hospital with acute appendicitis. I could have asked for a continuance under the circumstances but I am not. You have a theory about how to convict this guy. Prove it.” 

Before she could respond, the DA left. Taking a deep breath, she tried to get the involuntary trembling under control. Doing a few deep breaths, she steeled herself to her fate. Time to show what she could do.

Stella opened by stating to the judge that she was prepared to continue for the prosecution.  Rosario Mendez then called Lennar Cole to the stand. Stella watched the jury stare in rapture as the handsome Cole took the oath. Turning them around wouldn’t be easy. 

Mendez first established that Cole chose to testify in his defense, then led her client through a series of questions denying any involvement in his wife’s murder. Stella had to marvel at Cole’s skill. He was making eye contact with the jury, his voice soft, deep, almost sultry, and they were buying every lie. But she wasn’t. 

The defense did not take long, and the smugness on Mendez’s face as she said, “Your turn, Ms. Sinclair,” made her blood boil. Mendez questioned him so that he could show his respect for women. Stella knew better. No man who beds so many women has respect for anything, including himself. 

She stood, smoothing down her dark blue skirt, catching a glimpse of her purple high heels. She had one shot at this and she had to go for it. 

She led him through a few general questions about where he said he was the night of his wife’s murder. This time his eyes were on her, not the jury. Yes, just where she wanted them. 

“Mr. Cole, you didn’t love your wife, did you?”

“Of course I did. We were married eight years.”

“You were unfaithful from the beginning. We all know why you married her — she was rich.”

Walker objected but she countered. “Your honor, the defense’s own witnesses admitted that his wife knew he only married her for her money.”

The judge overruled Walker and she continued. “How many women have you slept with since your wedding day? Ten, twenty, a hundred?” She waited. “More?”

“This has nothing to do with my wife.” His voice a tad sharper, higher in pitch.

“Really. She never cared about the money you were draining from her. Money was unimportant to her. But she did love you. And time after time you rejected her.”

“I did not.” His voice was even sharper.

“But you did. Every beautiful woman you slept with was a direct insult to your wife.”

She paused and bent over to adjust the ankle strap on her right shoe. When she straightened up, she found him looking at her with the look of lust he had given her the entire trial. He was a lech and a killer.

“Remember, her best friend testified that your dead wife knew she was not as glamorous as the women you slept with. She never wore makeup, never dressed provocatively. The fact is Amy was a lovely woman but not your type. She was content to work on her art.”

“I told you. I loved my wife.”

“No, you didn’t, and she finally came to terms with it. Decided that while she might not care about the money, she did care about her own self-respect. She was done with you sleeping with other women, and what was it her friend said — you might sleep with your wife once every few months. Not how to keep a woman happy.”

“Look, I didn’t kill her. It was probably that damn gardener. It wasn’t me.”

His voice shook. He was rattled. 

“I think it was. I think you found out about her appointment with her attorney and confronted her. Her calendar was open on her office desk, the appointment clearly marked. You rushed to the studio and she told you it was over. She was done with your philandering and was going to divorce you.” She walked up to the stand. “She was tired of your lies. You finally got what you deserved and you lost it. You raped and then killed her with the only weapon you could find. A pallet knife — and in your rage, you stabbed her multiple times.”

Beads of sweat appeared on his brow and he was trembling. “I did not kill her.”

“Yes, you did and you enjoyed it.” She turned and walked toward her desk slowly, aware that his eyes were on her. At the desk, she turned and leaned against it, crossing her legs at the ankle. “You killed her because she wasn’t glamorous and she had rejected you.”

His face red, Cole gripped the wooden bar on the witness stand. “You’re damn right I killed the bitch. Buried my bloody clothes, and hosed off the bitch’s blood before I even went back in the house. No trace. I’d put up with her looks and her doling out money to me like it was an allowance. I was the best thing that ever happened to her and she’s going to divorce me. I gave her one last thrill, then killed her and she deserved it.” He rushed off the witness stand, heading for Stella. A bailiff tackled him before he reached her.

The courtroom erupted into chaos, the judge pounding his gavel. “Bailiff, take this man into custody. This court is in recess for thirty minutes. I want the defense counsel and Ms. Sinclair in my chambers in five minutes.”

“Well done.”

She spun around to find DA Pettigrew standing next to her. “Thank you.” 

He walked her to the corridor. “You handled that very well. Jamie isn’t going to like being wrong but I think he’ll get over it. When you’re done here, come see me in my office. I think a drink is in order.”

“I will.” 

She turned in the direction of the judge’s chambers, smiling as her shoes clicked on the floor. Her high heels got her what she wanted — justice.

Tap. Tap. Tap.