Hard to Bear is now online (I like to think some of the weekend fireworks were about that). This is the second in the Bear Jacobs series of mysteries. I thought you might enjoy the first few pages, so here they are. Let me know what you think.
BTW, if you’d like to help keep Dottie supplied with kibble, you might buy the ebook here. If you would like to review it on Amazon, I won’t stand in your way. But I might come by your house with pom-poms and cheer.
BEAR IN MIND
As Solana Capella came to, she groaned, her head pounding like a jackhammer.
What happened to my head? Ouch, my arm. Where …?
Her eyes fluttered open and slowly focused on the feral eyes of a swamp monster staring back. Pain was joined by its old friend, fear.
But wait. Not a swamp thing.
The hollow-cheeked face wasn’t really green. It was smeared with camouflage muck. The stranger was pushed up against her and seemed to be spreading the same green and brown ooze on her face.
She yelped and began biting and scratching at Camo Man’s hands. She inhaled the breath she needed for a championship scream, but his enormous hand clamped down over her mouth and pinched her nose, shutting down the air passages. She fought, but he tightened the grip. “Shhh,” he hissed low as a whisper. “They’re coming. You must be very still. Do you understand?”
They’re coming? Oh, God.
Now she remembered. She tried to control her fear of this new captor. She did her best to nod and, failing at that, blinked her eyes rapidly. Maybe he’d take that as, “Yes, I understand.” He may hurt her, but at least he wasn’t one of them.
Any old port in the storm, right?
She felt a hysterical bubble of laughter behind the hand over her mouth as it eased up, letting air rush into her lungs. He glowered a warning at her, then slithered down prone, pressing hard against her. That shoved her backside up to a damp cold wall of earth. The kind with spiders and centipedes and worms. She shivered, pressing back against him in hopes of moving her ass off the wall.
Solana was afraid she would suffocate as her face squashed into his slender chest. But some deep instinct of a small cornered animal told her to be ever so quiet, to freeze in place. Playing dead, she took inventory. From the little she could see pressed against him, it appeared they were in a shallow, low cave. Roots from a million plants laced through the dirt and clay, holding its walls in place. It smelled of mold and rotten vegetation, overcoming even the fetid odor of filthy clothes and man sweat crushed against her nose. She could hear the sound of rushing water, and through the mouth of the cave, she was aware of only deep grey light. It must be nearly dark.
The pain reasserted itself. They had not marked her body. The scrapes, bruises and sprained wrist were from her wild flight. The real ache was buried deep within, raw and torn, from the rape. She shuddered against this stranger who now held her fate in his control.
Fear had been her companion since she’d been taken. It rose and fell like swells on the ocean. Now it was ebbing, as she accepted that Camo Man was helping her hide from them. When she felt his muscles tense, hers followed in lock step. Then she heard the sounds he was hearing.
Movement in the underbrush above. More than one hunter. Footsteps overhead, coming to a halt. Shuffling feet. Men swearing.
Flashlight beams crisscrossed the grayness in front of the cavern’s opening. Then she heard in a voice she knew, “It’s too dark. We’ll miss her again. She’ll be easier to track in the morning. Killing this bitch will be more fun than most.”
They left. It was still. A minute, five, maybe a year. Then the man next to her moved back just enough for her to see his face. “They call me Ghost,” he said. “You knocked yourself out trying to run under a tree limb. I brought you here. But we have to move on.”
She considered his ragged military jacket as well as the face paint. “Are you a soldier?” she whispered.
“Was. Can you walk?”
She nodded, although she was unsure how far she could go. Her stolen sandals were no more than shreds now, one sole flapping loose against the bottom of her foot. She’d run so far, so fast that vine maple whips and blackberry thorns had cut her feet and her legs. The cowboy shirt she’d taken was so big it had caught on snags, and now shreds flapped like home made fringe. Same with the basketball shorts. But she was a fighter, and she would not give up. Her sister’s life depended on it.
Ghost turned and slid on his butt out of the cave. “Follow,” he said and she did, mimicking his action. As she slid out and down, he caught her just as her feet entered the freezing water of a fast moving creek. She gasped.
“We’ll walk in the creek for a while. No tracks to follow. No detectable odors unless they bring dogs tomorrow.” Ghost headed upstream.
Solana looked back at the cave but could not see the mouth. It was hidden in the dusk behind the grasses on the bank. Her instinct was to go back there and hide forever. But she told herself it would not be so hard to see in the daylight. She had to swallow her exhaustion and fear.
Her baggy shorts rode so low on her hips that they dragged in the water. Holding them up with one hand, she followed Ghost. He seemed to sense where he was as the darkness became absolute, the journey only lit in patches where pale blue moonlight soaked through the forest canopy. He grabbed her uninjured wrist to lead her, and in time the freezing water dulled the pain in her feet. It seemed like a thousand miles until he stopped and pointed up the bank.
“There,” he said. The massive root system of an ancient Sitka spruce looked like clutching fingers in the moonlight. The tree must have crashed to earth many decades before. Now other trees were growing from the nurse log which was at least twelve feet across near the base. The massive old roots swept out into an impenetrable arch of tendrils that intertwined with boulders rising above the muddy bank.
Ghost left the creek and pulled her up the bank to the far side of the roots where they jammed against a casket-sized chunk of volcanic rock. “Kneel here and crawl forward.”
She did as she was told. On her knees she could see that there was room for her to shimmy between two tangled roots. She crawled through and found herself in a hollowed out cavern inside the fallen tree.
Ghost followed her in. He reached for a flashlight tucked inside the entrance and turned it on. “This is one of my hidey holes,” he said to her. “Nobody knows it. We’re safe. For now.”
Solana watched him open the padlock of a battered foot locker with a key that hung on the chain with his dog tags. He lifted the lid of the locker and handed the flashlight to her. “You can leave it on for a little bit.”
While he removed fur pelts from the locker and spread them over the bottom of the cavern, Solana flashed the light around her. She could see the space was a circle with maybe an eight foot diameter. “How did you do this?” She asked. “It’s awesome.”
“Burned it. Like some tribes hollowed out trees to make canoes.” Next he rummaged out several strips of jerky. “Venison,” he said, handing some of the dark, smoky slices to her. “Eat then sleep. We’ll leave at daylight.”
Solana took two of the pelts and crawled under them. If he meant her any harm, there was little she could do about it. She tried to chew the tough meat, but she was so tired. Too tired. The last thing she remembered was Ghost pulling out a satellite phone and calling somebody named Vinny. They made plans to meet. Solana was asleep before she heard where or when.
September 16, 2 p.m.
Society places certain expectations on Italians like Frankie Sapienza. Maybe his family puts horse heads in each others’ beds. Maybe they use car trunks as portable caskets. A person can be forgiven for thoughts like these if you’ve seen enough movies.
The rest of us residents at Latin’s Ranch Adult Family Home are fascinated with the Sicilian octogenarian. After all, gossip is our numero uno group activity. We like to speculate that he’s a don of the highest order. But, alas, Frankie pretty much keeps his trap shut no matter how much the rest of us bump our gums. Oh, he’s a smoothy all right, with a fine line of patter when it serves his purpose. But about his past he reveals zip, zilch, nada. And we don’t push it, not as long as Frankie’s goomba Vinny Tononi hangs around looking threatening as a hawk in a henhouse.
Maybe my roommate Eunice Taylor could make some inroads now that she’s what Frankie calls his little dove, which is apparently somewhere between first date and betrothed. But she doesn’t ask him awkward questions. She likes him and the gifts he bestows, but she isn’t actually interested in sleeping with any fishes. Eunice is smart that way.
Anyhoo, imagine my surprise when Frankie up and asked Bear Jacobs to handle a private investigation. That’s right. The could-be capo, who should have a lot of young hot shots on his payroll, chose a cane wielding, overweight, grouch of a has-been shamus to trust. I take it as a show of respect for Bear’s brain. Bear takes it as nothing less than his due.
Of course, when he elicited Bear’s help, the secretive Sicilian didn’t mention that the rest of us would soon be hiding a terrified young woman. Or that murderers might climb right over us to get to her.
– Lily Gilbert, Curious Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs
Lily Gilbert shut down her laptop, sat up and swung her leg over the side of the bed. Ever since she had become the eWatson to retired private investigator Bear Jacobs she’d kept her version of case notes. They weren’t official files, of course, in the sense of admissible court documents. There were no “pursuant tos” or “time of the incidents.” But they were the kind of notes that appealed to Lily, and if Bear needed something else, he could go find another assistant who worked for goose eggs. He could do that right after he pounded sand.
She fluffed up her cloud of light gray hair, pinched a little more pink into her cheeks, and hopped down from the bed on her one remaining foot. With the help of her walker she traveled out to the Latin’s Ranch kitchen in search of a cup of tea. Lily actually knew that Bear was grateful for her case notes and even more so for her help. But everyone had been a little edgy since Frankie had consulted with Bear. What the hell was up?
Bear Jacobs, Lily Gilbert, Eunice Taylor and Charlie Barker had all come to the adult family home together, after departing a nursing home. Frankie Sapienza was the only resident who had arrived from points unknown. Latin’s Ranch was a lot smaller, friendlier, and homier than a nursing home. And usually safer, too, from things like communicable illness.
But safer from gangland warfare? Well, that wasn’t the kind of thing most care facilities worried about. It hadn’t been an issue at Latin’s Ranch either until Bear gathered the rest of the residents together to tell them what Frankie wanted him to do.
“He’s honorable by crook standards,” Bear had begun. “His family made their living in the traditional rackets of gambling, protection and prostitution.”
Eunice’s feathers ruffled. “A friendly card game or two, maybe helping a few storekeepers out with security, but prostitutes? Not my Frankie.” Her lips compressed into a tight little pout as she crossed her arms over her kaftan-covered chest. With that orange spiky hair she looked like an irritated pin cushion.
Bear rolled his beady black eyes. “Right. Not that. What was I thinking?” He crossed his own arms over a chest covered in an ancient flannel shirt that must have been an XXL.
Lily the Peacemaker quickly intervened. “Keep going, Bear. I’m sure there’s more you want to tell us.”
“Okay, but only if you’re interested,” Bear grumped.
Lily knew the big man could pout every bit as well as Eunice. Based on his mass, Alvin Jacobs might have been a retired lumberjack instead of a sleuth. He was in his seventies with silvertip hair and beard surrounding his massive head. Size and hair together provided his nickname. But Lily knew that Bear described his personality, too. He could fool you into thinking he was a big ambling dope, slow and easy to underestimate. You’d be wrong. Bear was steely sharp. It was never wise to underestimate him.
“We’re all interested, Bear,” Charlie said, glancing up from the hand of solitaire spread on the living room game table. He was tall enough that his voice should be in the basso profundo range, but instead, it was sort of a squeak. “Really. Tell us.”
“Okay. As I was saying, the Sapienza family made its nut in traditional cri- , um, pursuits. Frankie has his standards.” He tipped a metaphorical hat to Eunice.
She brightened and returned the nod vigorously, moussed spikes bobbing with her. “Thank you, Bear. Of course he does.”
“He says he never condoned things like street drugs or kiddie porn or the slave trade. All the seamy shit that newer gangs are into. To an old Italian like Frankie, newer gangs mean Latin or Asian or Russian.” Bear paused, momentarily pushing out his lower lip before saying, “And, to be honest, I’ve never heard about anything like that in Frankie’s past.”
Bear should know, Lily thought. He’d had a long career as a private investigator before bad health ended it. If the cops had dirt on Frankie Sapienza, he’d have heard about it. As far as she could tell, Bear’s noggin was a bulging filing cabinet of all his past adventures.
“He’s heard rumors of a business one of those gangs has started. Innocent people dying in a bizarre way. In Frankie’s system of ethics, it’s bound to bring the wrong kind of attention to mob activity, and that’s bad. He wants it stopped. He doesn’t want organized crime under a spotlight. I imagine none of the families really want one going rogue.”
“Why did Frankie come to you with this, Bear?” Lily asked.
“You think I’m not capable?”
“Oh, quit it.” Lily took just so much guff from her old friend. “You know I mean instead of going to one of his own people.”
“He wants to know exactly what’s happening, and which gang is behind it. He can hardly go to the cops. And someone in his own family would be recognized by the others.” Bear leaned forward in his easy chair and looked from one to the next. “I’m telling you about it because you all have a decision to make.”
Our ears cocked like bird dogs sighting quail.
“A frightened girl was found out in the woods by one of Vinny’s pals. She’s involved in this somehow. Thugs were chasing her and are still trying to hunt her down. She needs a place to hide until I can hear her story and work this all out. A place nobody would guess.”
“A place like Latin’s Ranch?” Charlie piped up.
Bear nodded. “You guys willing to hide her here? Could be dangerous.”
Invite murderers into our little safety zone just to help a girl we don’t know?
Even as she thought it, Lily said, “Of course.”
“Of course,” said Charlie still slapping red cards on black.
“Of course,” said Eunice, giving Bear a why-would-you-even-ask shrug.
Bear nodded at his little band of operatives. “Good thing we all see eye to eye. Because she’ll be here tomorrow.”
“But Bear, you need to ask Jessica about this first,” Lily cautioned. Jessica Winslow was the owner and caretaker of Latin’s Ranch as well as Lily’s closest friend. Jessica believed the seniors in her care needed a certain amount of freedom and control over their own lives, that being old didn’t make them a bunch of big babies. But would she allow them to put each other in danger?
“No, Lily,” Bear said. “We’ll get the girl here first, then you’ll tell Jessica.”
“Sure. That’s what BFFs are for.”
END OF EXCERPT