I'm posting this on Christmas Eve as I get ready to head out of town. I will be meeting two of my kids for an outdoor, socially distance, masked celebration. I hope you all are having a safe, comfortable, and happy holiday season.
I wanted to take a moment and share with you a boxed set that I am participating in. 99cents for 18 novels. It is on preorder now, and already a NUMBER ONE bestseller and A NUMBER ONE New Release in Mystery boxed sets.
Once we release on January 19th, the price will jump to $9.99; you can see why getting your copy now is a great Christmas deal!
The book that I have in this set is RELIC. Other than in paperback form, this will be the only way to read that novel until February 1, 2021.
And here's the first chapter!
A remaining sliver of consciousness reminded Sophia that this was a nightmare. She was asleep in her bed in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., waiting for her alarm to release her from the despair of her dream. That dim glow of awareness whispered to her that it was a sweat-drenched sheet wrapped around her legs and not an astronaut’s uniform. Her bunched muscles cramped from tension, not oxygen deprivation. And that ringing sound was her phone, not the satellite she chased in her battle to save herself and her two young sons.
On the next ring, Sophia Abadi snaked her hand out from under the covers and pulled the receiver to her ear. She still hadn’t settled fully back into her body. Part of her floated in a nebula waiting for the call to be over and the dream to continue. “Yes?” she whispered on an exhale. One eye peeked open to take in the early morning, pearl-gray sky.
“Oh good, you’re up!” It was astonishing how chipper her neighbor Penny’s voice could sound at—Sophia squinted at her bedside clock—six a.m. Sophia had another fifteen minutes before her day was officially supposed to begin.
Sophia cleared her throat and came up on one elbow. “Is everything okay?” She was exhausted from her efforts to catch the satellite and discover the secret to survival. A lasting web of anxiety tangled around her throat, making her choke on her words. She turned her head away from the receiver to cough.
“Oh sure, everything’s fine. Just fine.” Penny sounded like she was on her second, maybe third cup of coffee, though the conviviality seemed forced.
Sophia pulled herself around to plant her feet on the ground, steeling herself for whatever Penny had called about at the crack of dawn.
“I simply wanted to make sure that I caught you before you went outside this morning.”
Adrenaline snapped Sophia fully awake. She launched herself toward her window, yanked back the drapes, and peered out over the front lawn, scanning for something amiss. “What did you do?” she breathed out in a barely audible whisper.
“Mmm,” Penny hummed as Sophia jogged down the stairs. “Me and the girls were playing a little Texas Hold’em and having some margaritas last night.”
Sophia threw open the door. Standing in the gentle warmth of a late May morning, nothing seemed wrong.
“We didn’t invite you because you’re not a stay-at-home mom, and we knew you’d have to work today. School’s off for us. Teacher planning day.” Penny was stalling.
“What did you do?” Sophia asked again, knowing that the women in her neighborhood had the maturity level of unsupervised middle-schoolers with the key to their parents’ liquor cabinet—a deficit that was egged on by their ringleader Marla, who had a definite screw loose.
“We played a little prank on you.” Penny’s voice wavered.
Sophia knew Penny was chewing on a hangnail the way she always did when she said something she wasn’t comfortable with.
The line was silent as Sophia jogged over the porch, down the brick stairs, and out to her driveway. “Oh, Penny…” Sophia looked down at the outline of a human—like one detectives would chalk around a dead body. This one was spray-painted white. In one hand, a nosegay of pink flowers from her garden wilted; in the other, there was a picture of a hotdog. There was a real bottle of ketchup. The contents had been squirted where the outlined body would have had a heart. “What did you do?” Sophia asked a third time, not quite getting her brain to wrap around what she was seeing.
“Not me. We. We were drinking.” Penny’s laugh seemed artificially bright. “Having a little fun.”
“Is that why the police were in the neighborhood last night? I saw them over at the Sheppard’s house.” The strobe of red-and-blue lights had flashed on her bedroom wall around one that morning. It happened with obnoxious regularity. “Did you ring the Sheppard’s doorbell again?”
“Well, Marla did. The Sheppards, of course, called the cops. Party poopers. The husband was the one talking to the officer. We were hiding in the bushes at Kay’s house, watching the whole thing. Will was beside himself. It was hysterical. I mean, what did he think the officer would do? It’s not like we broke a law. There’s no law against ringing someone’s doorbell.” Her voice lilted with a decidedly southern accent.
The front door to her neighbor’s house across the way pushed open. Will Sheppard peered about before he moved toward his car, his briefcase swinging with each stride, looking every inch like a middle-management drone. He fumbled his door open then caught sight of her.
Sophia suddenly realized she had run from her house in her sleeping shirt. It hung modestly enough that she couldn’t be placed in handcuffs for indecency. But with nothing on underneath, she felt like she was standing there naked. Sophia grabbed the hem in front of her shirt and pulled it lower as she watched Will saunter over in her direction. “Why the flowers?” she asked Penny, wondering how she could retreat to her house without turning. Sophia wasn’t in the mood to commiserate with Will, and he was heading down the hill toward her yard.
“After the police left, we thought it would be funny if you found an outline on your drive, and wondered if someone had been killed on your property.”
“Seriously?” Sophia backed up a step. “You think that scenario is funny? My children are going to see this. Turner’s old enough to ask me what this is.”
“Oh hush, Sophia, we were having a little fun. Kay can sure whip up a yummy margarita. Whoo, boy! We had a great time. You should have been there.” She was giggling, then suddenly stopped, probably realizing that she had said that they had excluded Sophia on purpose.
Penny cleared her throat. “It wasn’t until after Marla outlined me that I remembered that you asked us not to include you in our little pranks. Don’t be ashamed of that, Sophia.” Her voice filled with sincerity and kindness. “We all get that you’re kind of a geek, and you probably never got to hang with the popular crowd. It’s not your fault that you didn’t get a chance to develop a good sense of humor. It takes all kinds to make the world go around. Not everyone has to be fun.”
Will was moving closer, and Sophia took another step back.
“After I realized our mistake,” Penny continued. “We tried to make it friendlier by picking the flowers. Marla had already emptied the ketchup bottle, so we decided to put it on the ground and add a picture of a hot dog. Instead of looking like a mortal wound, now it looks like he spilled ketchup on his shirt.” She laughed heartily then took a deep breath followed by a hum.
Sophia stared at the receiver in her hand, a scowl creasing her face. She meant to count all the way to ten before she spoke, but by the time she said three in her head, she was spitting out, “Get it off my driveway.” The numbness of being woken up and finding the strange display was wearing off, quickly replaced with a healthy dose of anger. Sophia took a third step back and looked behind her, realizing how far she was from her front door. “I mean it, Penny. Today. Before I get home.” She was using her mommy voice. The one she thought would get the job done. Sophia held up a hand like a stop sign, hoping Will would stay where he was. “I have to go,” she told Penny, punching the raised button on the old-fashioned cordless handset.
“I’m sorry your sleep was disturbed last night.” She grabbed the hem of her shirt again. “I saw the police lights.”
“They woke you up?” Will asked from the middle of the cul-de-sac.
“Insomnia.” Sophia pulled her shirt a little lower.
Will’s gaze followed the move. His face flashed red. “Oh dear,” he said, working to find another place to focus his eyes, finally coming to rest on her roofline. “Goodbye.” He turned abruptly and quick-stepped back to his Volvo.
Sophia stood still until Will was well down the road, then got herself back inside. Upstairs, the gentle chimes that were supposed to rouse her from her dreams in a natural, Zen-like way had reached the point of insistence. She took the stairs two at a time to turn the alarm off before the noise woke her boys.
She needed a little extra time getting ready today.
She wouldn’t be working from home in her usual shorts and t-shirt.
Today, she was supposed to do a presentation with her research partner Nadia at Iniquus, the security firm that was assigned to keep them safe.
As Sophia adjusted the water temperature in the shower, she wondered if that security would extend to keeping her safe from crazy neighbors.
She cut the water off again when she heard her phone ringing. This time when she picked it up, she heard five staccato beeps instead of her neighbor’s overly enthusiastic voice. She hung up and moved downstairs to her office. She placed her cellphone in front of her, pulled up a map on the computer, opened the code generator on her keychain, and waited.
When the call came in, Sophia read off the alphanumeric code instead of answering with a hello. “938BCK868.”
“You have information?”
“I believe I’ve found what you’re looking for.”
Sophia listed them off and the phone clicked, leaving her with dead air.