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TJ Peacock & Lisa Rayburn Mysteries
By Marla Madison
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The following was originally posted on Marla Madison's blog, which you can read here.
Today my blog is the first ten pages of my newly released suspense novel, Trespass, next in the Private Investigator TJ Peacock & therapist Lisa Rayburn series, available now on Amazon.com.
Here is a brief synopsis. I hope you’ll find the story intriguing.
A deadly house explosion nearby lures investigator TJ Peacock to the site of the fire where she meets Gemma, a woman tortured by the death of a friend who died in the explosion.
Gemma, struggling with the ghosts of her past, is convinced the explosion was deliberate, and hires TJ to find out who murdered her friend. TJ takes the case and returns to the work she loves, despite feeling guilty about the responsibilities of motherhood and the attitude of her long-time lover, Detective Richard Conlin.
When a series of attacks and a murder take place in the same neighborhood, TJ unearths a bizarre connection to a sixteen-year-old double suicide of a couple who were partnered in a swingers’ group. A killer is trying to eliminate everyone who had been players in the group.
Escaping the confines of its closed system, a heavy gas diffused into every corner of Norman Teschler’s basement and slowly began to permeate the upper floor. Natural gas, odorless in its original form, contains the additive mercaptan, which lends it a repugnant odor for early leak detection.
Norman returned from a run, proud of the distance he could still cover after turning seventy. Night running was something he didn’t do often these days, but tonight his head had felt foggy. Unable to focus on his writing, he had taken off into the night for a run along the parkway to clear his head.
Invigorated by the exercise, he stepped out of a hot shower, pulled on a pair of sweats, and headed to the kitchen for a quick snack before getting back to the new chapter. The refrigerator held nothing of great appeal. Since losing his sense of smell, eating didn’t have the same enjoyment it once had. Strange how important the scent of the food was to hunger, a fact he had never given any thought to when he could still be tempted by the mouthwatering odors of things like popcorn, pizza, or a steak on the grill. Most of the foods he ate tasted bland these days. He grabbed a bag of extra spicy Cheetos and an iced tea, and then returned to his writing.
Three pages into the new chapter, Norman could hardly keep his eyes open; the gas had soundlessly seeped into his study, its sulfurous warning odor useless to Norman’s impaired olfactory sense. He thought his body was sending him a message, telling him it was time to call it a day. He’d had a busy week at the agency and reasoned that his late nights spent writing had taken their toll. He turned off the computer. Tomorrow he would get an early start.
The humidor on his desk, a rare antique of carved oak, held his favorite cigars, Cuban Montecristos. He raised the lid, withdrew one, and then took a seat in his well-aged leather recliner where he picked up a book he had been reading. The smoke had become an end-of-day ritual, one he savored since giving up cigarettes. Enjoying a cigar every night kept him cigarette-free. He reached for his lighter. Norman pushed the recliner back to elevate his feet and realized he barely had the energy for the movement. The chair clicked back into its upright position as he leaned forward. It was never a good idea to smoke in a position so conducive to sleep. Feeling like he had done the safe thing, Norman flicked the lighter.
The gas ignited, instantly destroying the house and all its contents. Giant clouds of brilliant orange edged in tongues of white-hot flame leapt toward the sky.
Famous or not, Mancusi was an asshole. TJ Peacock knew it was too late to back out of the gig; she had already been well paid to protect him for three days. But if the slimy bastard didn’t quit eyeballing her breasts, she would pop him. Arlie Mancusi, everyone’s favorite comedian and star of a weekly sitcom that had been running on a prime TV network for nearly ten years, wasn’t making her laugh.
Mancusi had pumped up his personal security while he was in Milwaukee because he had a stalker. TJ studied the photo of the stalker, Carolyn Alberty, an attractive woman who obviously had shitty taste in men. Alberty had recently been acquitted of a stalking charge despite the evidence against her. TJ figured the whole thing could be a publicity stunt. If you’re a big name, any publicity is good publicity.
Mancusi had arrived in town for a sitcom he was guest starring in that featured a Milwaukee locale. TJ, a local PI, had been added to the entertainer’s in-house security staff during Mancusi’s stay. The group was gathered in his suite, discussing the best way to protect him. The head security guy dismissed her. “We’ll stay with Arlie. You scope out the hotel and let me know if you see the bitch hanging around.”
As a licensed private investigator, TJ hadn’t expected to be a token on the coattails of Mancusi’s herd of security beef, but the money was good. There wasn’t much she could do for him as a member of the herd, and the fact that she was the only one designated to lobby patrol reinforced her suspicion that the whole stalker thing was a stunt.
“I’ll get right on it, sport,” she replied.
She moved to the elevators, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind her that bounced in her wake. Dressed like a tourist, she wore jeans, a tank top under a gauzy white shirt tied at the waist, and a small shoulder bag that matched the luggage. There was nowhere to hide her piece in the outfit she wore, not that she would need one for this farce. She wheeled her bag into the gift shop and bought a People magazine she carried with her to a loveseat she found in the lobby where she could keep an eye on the crowd.
She hadn’t even gotten to the article on Jennifer Lopez she wanted to read when she spotted her—Mancusi’s stalker—her dark hair in long, Lady Godiva curls and, like TJ, pulling a small suitcase with a matching bag. She looked about five feet nine in high, platform sandals and wore a slim, chocolate-brown dress that reached her ankles. TJ left the sofa and caught up with Carolyn Alberty as she was about to join the line in front of the registration desk. “Ms. Alberty, step over here a minute. We need to talk.”
Alberty, feigning annoyance, followed TJ to a spot off the lobby in front of a darkened restaurant. Her eyes shifted nervously. “Who are you?”
“I work for Mancusi. You’re in violation of a restraining order. Get arrested again, you could do jail time.”
The stalker studied TJ. “I can’t help it. I love him.”
TJ scoffed. “Yeah? You know what I think? I think you’re full o’ crap.”
Alberty’s perfectly made-up eyes widened. “You don’t have to protect him from me, I’d never hurt him.”
TJ looked her over. Her appearance seemed too showy for a stalker who should be attempting to remain unnoticed. “Tell you what. I’m gonna do you a big favor. I won’t call the cops, but you’re leavin’ town. Next flight out, your ass is back to C-A. I’ll escort you personally and even wave good-bye as your plane lifts off.”
Alberty took a moment to review her options. “All right. But I have to make a call first.” She pulled a cell phone from her purse.
TJ snorted. “You’re a real piece o’ work. You wanna tip off the press an’ get your face on the news tonight, right? Hand over the cell phone. Now.” TJ didn’t give a rat’s ass if the stalker got her moment in the limelight and suspected Mancusi wanted the press coverage. Tough. TJ had already been paid. After she and Alberty arrived at the airport, TJ would give her the frickin’ phone. She just didn’t want a welcoming committee waiting for them.
Pouting, Alberty jammed on a pair of dark glasses and passed over her phone.
At home that night, TJ relived the scene at the airport. She hated being in the spotlight, unlike the stalker who had made the most of every second in front of the cameras. She hated security work, too, especially when the job felt as ridiculous as this one. Criminal investigation is what she really wanted to do, but she’d given it up when she became a mother. Supposedly temporarily.
Richard Conlin was sleeping soundly in her bedroom. He and TJ had been together for years; the only break in their relationship occurred when she had been on a quest to prove to the Milwaukee police that too many missing women added up to a predator on the loose. The investigation had put a strain on their relationship, a strain that led to her becoming close to Jeff Denison, the husband of one of the missing women. A killer who had made Jeff’s death look like a suicide, murdered him before TJ had even known she was pregnant with Jeff’s child. She would never know what might have happened if Jeff had lived, whether or not their feelings for each other would have ended in a lasting relationship.
She and Richard had gotten back together after Jeff was murdered, and since the baby had come, Richard stayed with them nearly every night, although he had yet to give up his own apartment. He adored one-year-old JR, Jeffrey Richard, named after his biological father and Richard. Richard had insisted on the sequence of the names.
TJ’s home and office were in an old two-story brick duplex off State Street in Milwaukee’s Menomonee River Valley. It was a large building. Her apartment on the second floor had three bedrooms, a kitchen, dining area and living room, and the entire first floor she used as office space. The short street the home sat on ended at a bluff crowned by a wealthy area of Wauwatosa, its aged brick homes regal. TJ sold her condo in downtown Milwaukee after finding out she was pregnant. A high-rise was not the place to raise a child. So far, she was enjoying her new neighborhood.
A Milwaukee detective, Richard had come off a late shift that night and stayed up with her only long enough to watch the ten-o’clock news. They were starting to behave like an old married couple. He hinted around about marriage every now and then, something TJ didn’t even want to think about yet. She loved JR with a passion she never knew possible, but motherhood hadn’t doused her love for investigatory work or her need for independence. Facts she had yet to admit to Richard. Richard felt that TJ should stick to security work during JR’s first few years.
An hour later, TJ gave up on the mundane offerings on TV and headed for the liquor cabinet. A drink would put her to sleep.
The blast hit just as she reached for a shot glass—a blast that felt like a bomb had landed somewhere close by. Her ears popped and the house trembled. The glasses inside the cabinet were still rattling as TJ ran out the front door to see the night sky above the bluff had turned a brilliant orange. She rushed back inside and tried to wake Richard, who told her in a voice heavy with sleep that they would find out about it in the morning. She should come to bed and get some rest.
Sleep wouldn’t happen anytime soon, not with her heart racing from what she’d seen outside. She checked on JR once more before downing a shot of tequila and leaving the house on foot.
I’m in that elusive state between drifting off and actually being asleep. My horror mounts when, once again, unseen hands clutch me in a deathlike grip. I’m aware of the room; I see it through a sepia wash like an old photograph. I’m lying on my side, held tightly by an invisible presence in my own bed. I feel him pressed tightly against my back, his raspy breath scorching the nape of my neck.
I fight to waken, but I can’t move or make a sound. I’m moaning, but no one can hear me.
Endless seconds pass. I remain paralyzed. The visitor’s weight is pressing heavily against me. I know he’s only a phantom, but his hands on my body feel all too real. When the strength of my frantic efforts to call out finally frees me of the paralysis, I sit up in bed, gasping to regain control of my breathing.
The room hadn’t changed; everything is as it was. My books are lined up on the shelves, the throw pillows on the bed are neatly stacked on a chair in the corner, and my lovely blue Tiffany lamp sits by my bedside, its brilliant shades of blue and teal gray in the soft light from the streetlamp outside the window.
I need to find a way to end these episodes. There have been too many nights when I’ve awakened in terror, then lain awake in dreaded anticipation.
There is a name for what happens to me. It’s called sleep paralysis and isn’t really uncommon. It’s blamed on everything from demonology to pepperoni pizza eaten before bedtime. I’ve never believed in demons and I seldom indulge in pizza or other spicy foods, so why this is happening to me remains a mystery.
But I have to make it stop.
Fear of another episode left me pacing until I decided I had to do something—now. Desperate, I opened my laptop to research therapists and discovered a multitude of them in the area, some grouped together in clinics, some with stand-alone practices. Most of them don’t list their area of specialization, and even if they did, I didn’t think that sleep paralysis would be one of them. I should have checked for a heading under “witch doctors” since sleep paralysis is considered by many to be a paranormal event akin to seeing ghosts or conducting séances.
There were too many therapists to choose from; tomorrow I would call my doctor and ask for a referral. Longing for some fresh non-AC-cooled air I poured myself a glass of wine and walked out into the screened porch. The humid evening air enveloped me like a warm cocoon. Through the trees in my backyard, I could watch the parkway along the river. It was quiet now, after eleven. Even the runners were home in bed.
The wine slid down my throat, sedating me into sleepiness. I leaned back on the rattan sofa and raised my feet onto the cushions, then curled myself into a circle of warmth like a cat and dozed off.
I was awakened by a sound so powerful that it shook the entire house. Alarmed, I rose from the sofa to see the night sky muted with a brilliant light. Forgetting I was dressed in only my sheer nightgown, I ran outside and circled to the front of the house where a tower of flames like a giant bonfire had replaced the house across the street. Every nerve in my body screamed out as I realized the house obliterated in the explosion was that of my best friend—my employer, Norman Teschler.
I walked like a zombie to the edge of the curb. I felt the intense heat of the fire on my skin, and its acrid smell stung my nostrils. The bricks and debris that littered my yard must have singed the soles of my feet with every step, but I felt nothing. A crowd of neighbors was gathered at a cautious distance from the blaze. I barely noticed them. I didn’t understand how it could have happened—Norman had to be the most careful person I had ever met, anally fussy about everything in and around his house and yard.
The fire trucks arrived in minutes, the onlookers pushed back as the area of the explosion and the next-door neighbors’ houses were roped off. Minutes later when the police arrived, one of them made his way through the crowd, asking us if we knew whether anyone had been in the house when it exploded. I heard a neighbor say she thought Norman had been home. I edged farther back, not ready to submit to their questions—it would be too painful. I kept seeing Norman as he’d been the last time I visited his home, happily bragging about the book he was working on and his plans for Cityscapes, the advertising agency he owned.
Despite the heat, I suddenly became aware of the light nightgown I wore; it would be nearly transparent in the blazing light of the fire. I must have been quite the sight. I usually dressed to downplay a body that brought attention my way, yet here I stood on display for the entire neighborhood.
A woman who had been talking to the firemen approached me. Her eyes, a vivid violet blue, twinkled in the golden haze. Dressed casually, she didn’t appear to be with the police or the fire department. She said, “You okay?”
My stupor must have been obvious. I nodded. Words wouldn’t form in my mouth.
“Stay here,” she ordered. She pushed through the crowd to the paramedics’ van and returned with a ratty but clean scrub top that I quickly pulled over my head. My tongue loosened. “Thanks. Are you with the police?”
“Used to be. I live a few blocks over and came to see what happened, see if I could help.” She frowned. “Maybe the paramedics should check you out.”
She didn’t look convinced. “I’ll walk you back to your house. Here, put these on.” She handed me a pair of booties, the kind doctors wear for surgery. I slipped them over my scorched feet.
The woman appeared to be concerned about my well-being and I felt strangely relieved I wasn’t alone. We left the scene, and she walked with me back to the porch. I picked up my empty wineglass from the table next to the sofa and turned to her. “I need more of this. Want one?”
“Got any tequila?”
I poured her tequila, neat, and we sat in a comfortable silence until I said, “My name’s Gemma.”
She raised her glass. “TJ.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this sneak preview of my new book. If not, let me know why you didn’t find it engaging so I will know what to do better the next time!
Thanks for stopping by,
Suspense writer, arbitrator, reader, animal lover.