Three of Swords is being released Saturday. To celebrate, I’m giving away a copy. All you have to do is comment on this post to be eligible to win. Winner will be notified and sent a copy in the format of their choice.
To get you all riled up about this, I’m posting the cover, blurb, and first chapter. Contest will remain open until Saturday, so be sure to comment!
An old houseboat, a hot young guy, a couple of murders, and more mysterious keys than you can shake a stick at: this is what awaits Gray Vecello after his grandfather, Graham, is killed picking up high blood pressure pills.
A letter Graham left behind sends Gray and his unexpected ally, Cooper Key, on a journey downriver in an attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding an unknown treasure. On the way, they encounter both friends and enemies, one of whom will target Gray and Cooper for death. One thing working in Gray’s favor: he has the sight, just as Graham had, but will it be enough to save them both?
First book of the Precog in Peril series.
Copyright 2012 by Theo Fenraven and Voodoo Lily Press
It was raining the day we buried my grandfather. I twisted the program in my hands until it started to shred, keeping my eyes down and tuning out the pastor’s words about what a great man Graham Vecello had been. He’d never known him, but I had.
Grandpa Graham had been a holy terror to everyone in the family. He never just talked; he sniped and snarked and growled behind his whiskers. They told me he hadn’t been like that when Lizzie, his wife, had still been around, but after she died young, he’d gradually become meaner and more distant, and then he sold his farm, bought a houseboat, and retreated into weighty silence.
Mom and Dad continued inviting him to join us for major holidays, but nine times out of ten, he didn’t bother showing up, and the infrequent times he did, he sat in a dark corner glowering at the noisy young kids and leaving right after dinner. He scared the shit out of me, and after he disappeared into his watery hermitage, I was glad to forget him.
Mom placed a hand over mine, stilling them, and I sighed and shifted on the hard seat, wondering how much longer this would last. Gramps had been an asshole. I doubted anyone would miss him much, not even my father, who’d been the oldest of Gramps’s and Lizzie’s three boys.
The turnout for his funeral was small, and those who got up to talk about his life were few in number, so sooner than I expected, we trooped to the graveyard, where the pastor did some more talking, the clod of dirt was thrown onto the casket, and people finally drifted away as the diggers started filling in the hole.
Sharing a bright red umbrella, my parents lingered, and as a show of support, so did I, but I was already thinking about what I wanted for dinner and wondering if I should hit a couple bars tonight, hook up with some friends. Flipping up the collar of my leather jacket, I huddled deeper inside it while slipping cold hands into the pockets. Spring was cool and wet this year, and I was looking forward to the warmth of May.
Mom and Dad outstayed everyone, even the guys who covered the casket, but finally, we were alone, and they decided they could leave without censure. They’d put in their time, they’d shown everyone how much Grandpa Graham had meant to them, even if the last time they’d seen him had been four months ago.
Hell, how could they have known he’d get shot picking up his blood pressure pills at the drugstore? Wrong place, wrong time. They hadn’t caught the guy yet, either, and chances were good they never would. No witnesses, no weapon at the scene. Instant cold case.
We reached the cars, and I stopped beside mine, one hand on the door. “I don’t need to come back to the house, do I?”
They gave me matching frowns, and Dad said, “You haven’t been by in a while.”
Mom said, “You have to eat and there’s plenty of food.” Her eyes swept me critically. “You’re too thin, Gray. Have some dinner, talk with your relatives. Harper will be there.”
I liked cousin Harper. We were only a year apart in age; she was twenty-eight and I was twenty-seven. She came out my last year of high school. It took me somewhat longer.
I could stand to see Harper. “Okay.” I unlocked the door and pulled it open.
Mom had gone on with the umbrella, but Dad tarried. “You okay? Is there anything bothering you?”
I refused to meet his eyes. “Not a thing. See you at home.”
I slid behind the wheel and brushed rain-wet black hair out of my eyes, watching through the windshield as Dad joined mom in their sensible Toyota hybrid.
The last thing I wanted to talk about was that I’d known for two weeks Grandpa Graham, after whom I was named, was going to die, and I hadn’t done a single thing to stop it.
“I like the earring,” Harper said. “Real diamond?”
I fingered the stone in my right lobe self-consciously. “Yeah. Too much?”
“Please. It’s great with your hair.” Standing on tiptoe, she kissed my cheek. “Grrr…scruff. So sexy. Not that it affects me that way.”
She laughed, and I laughed with her. “You look great. DC agrees with you.” She’d moved to the murder capital of the country a few years ago and was happily settled into busy urban life. “Did you skip the funeral on purpose?”
“Oh, don’t beat around the bush, get right to the point.” Taking my hand, she led me out to the front porch. The rain had stopped, but it was still chilly, and the sky was full of scudding gray clouds. “I couldn’t get a plane out. You’re lucky I made it at all.” Reaching into the breast pocket of her jacket, she pulled out a cigarette and lighter. “Want one?”
“Nope. Gave it up some time ago.”
Scowling, she lit up, inhaling deeply. “Wish I could.” Exhaling a long stream of smoke, she gave me an impish look. “How’s your love life?”
Why was that always the first question she asked me? Didn’t matter how long it had been since we’d seen each other, that was what she wanted to know. I turned it back on her. “How’s yours?”
She laughed one of those throaty, sexy, cigarette-darkened laughs. “I met Sian last year, and we’ve been together ever since.”
“As a blizzard in January.” She took another hit off the cigarette. “She didn’t come with me. Had to work. She’s an emergency room nurse.”
I smiled. Harper was definitely out and proud and didn’t care what others thought of her. I admired that about her. I was more low-key. I didn’t make an issue out of being gay unless you counted the diamond earring, but even straight guys were wearing them these days.
She smoked a while in silence, looking at the street where nothing much was happening, inclement weather keeping the kids indoors. I watched her, remembering how close we’d been when we were kids. She was the one I’d confided in when I’d realized I liked guys and didn’t know how to tell the folks.
She dropped the butt to the floor and stomped, twisting the toe of her expensive boot on it. “Do you still lay the cards?”
I shivered, and it wasn’t due to the temperature. “Why do you ask?”
She shrugged. “I’d like a reading. I’m thinking about changing jobs, and it’d be nice to know it was the right decision.”
“How does a lawyer do that? Aren’t you, like, sworn in for life or working until you get disbarred?”
“Har har. Changing jobs, not professions, dickhead. I’ve been offered a position in another firm, at a third more money.”
I leaned against a post, closed my eyes, pointed an index finger at one temple, and intoned, “I see… I see a shower of golden coins in your future.” She shoved me hard, and I grinned and said in my normal voice, “Take it.”
She gazed at me speculatively. “You don’t like reading cards, do you? I never really thought about it before, but I can’t remember the last time you laid the Tarot.”
Two weeks ago, I thought, averting my eyes. My stomach cramped, and I blamed it on not having eaten breakfast.
I opened my mouth to say something―I had no idea what―and was interrupted by Mom sticking her head out the door.
“Food.” She shivered and her eyes went past us to the dripping eaves. “What a miserable day.”
Harper didn’t bring up the Tarot again and the subject was dropped. We loaded our plates at the impromptu buffet laid on the dining room table, and then stood or sat in the living room, sharing memories of Graham when he was with Lizzie. I’d been a baby when she died and only knew her through their memories and the few pictures I’d seen of her, which showed her to be a pretty girl with a shy smile. Everyone agreed Gramps had not been the same after her death at age forty-three.
It started raining again. I listened to it dancing on the roof and bouncing off the windows.
Dad said, “Graham left a will. His lawyer contacted me yesterday. We have an appointment at his office day after tomorrow, three o’clock.”
Harper shoved a leg against mine, and I heard her snicker, a totally inappropriate reaction in the circumstances and so like her, I fought a smile. I pushed back, balancing my plate precariously across my knees.
Dad’s gaze swung to me. “You’re coming.” It wasn’t a question.
“Can’t, gotta work.”
“The lawyer specifically asked that you attend.”
“What about me?” Harper asked.
“Oh, well. I was never all that fond of the old coot anyway.” She cut her eyes at me. “Maybe he left you his rare and priceless collection of antique coins.”
“He didn’t have one,” Dad said.
Harper forked three-bean salad into her mouth. “Then I guess he didn’t.”
After I hurriedly chowed down on brats and potato salad, chased by a couple of beers, I escaped with hugs, kisses, and promises to return soon. I never spent much time with the relatives, not that there were a lot. Dad had two brothers, Sam and Dave. Harper was Sam and Dina’s only child, and Dave wasn’t married or even living with anyone. My mother was an only child, and her parents lived in California. Not much of a tribe when you got right down to it.
I went straight to work from my folks place. After high school, I’d attended cosmetology school and gotten a job at Sexy Tresses in St. Paul. I was still working there and had built a devoted clientele. Everyone except me and the obnoxious Harper still lived in Red Wing.
Randy, the shop owner, looked up from behind the front desk when I strolled in. “About time! I was tempted to send a search party.”
“My grandfather’s funeral, remember?” I smiled at my client, waiting patiently with a magazine on her lap. “Be right with you, sweetie.”
I went to my station and checked the drawers, making sure I had everything I needed. Raul, another stylist, tended to borrow my scissors and forget to return them.
Randy followed me. “She’s been waiting fifteen minutes,” he hissed as I arranged the things on the counter.
“I’m here,” I shot back softly. “For chrissakes, Randy, I was at a funeral. Most people get a day or two for that. Give me a break.” Oh, yeah, like he was going to give me time off to go to the will reading. I slammed a drawer closed much harder than I’d planned, and it bounced partway open again. Lately, Randy had been pushing me hard, and I didn’t know why. I brought a lot of money into the shop. He should be kissing my feet, except I knew that wasn’t his fetish. He was more into handcuffs and blindfolds.
I started toward the back, and he said, “Where are you going?”
I turned and glared at him, then addressed my client, who was watching with interest. “Hon, mind if I take a piss? I had a couple beers at lunch.”
She burst into laughter while Randy glowered. “I’m in no hurry.”
Tossing his hair, Randy stalked to the front desk. “Unbelievable!”
The next day, Dad called to remind me about the lawyer appointment, and again, I told him I was working. “My boss has had PMS for the last few weeks, and if I take more time off, he’ll fire me.”
“Who doesn’t give an employee time to settle personal affairs?”
“Randy, that’s who. This is a cutthroat business, and there’s always some youngster with fresher ideas snapping at your heels.” Just the other day, some twink fresh out of school had shown up with a slicked back undercut and tons of attitude, asking about a job.
“Maybe you should get into another line of work,” he said, not for the first time. “I could put in a good word for you at the store.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” I couldn’t see myself working in a liquor store, though the idea of a discount was appealing. “Just tell me what he says.”
“Make an attempt, okay? I know you didn’t have much to do with Graham, but that man was in pain. He was so alone at the end.”
“I know, Dad. I’ll try.”
The day of the appointment, I woke up with a killer headache. I got them occasionally. They usually indicated I was under stress of some sort, and I’d take a pain pill or two and keep going. My other stress indicator was unpredictable bowels, but those were fine.
That morning, I was cranky and pissed off about Randy and feeling bad about disappointing my parents if I didn’t show, and after lying there a while, staring at the ceiling with throbbing temples, I decided I’d had enough. Time for a mental health day.
I called in sick, listened to Randy scream for ten minutes about replacing my sorry, ungrateful ass, hung up, and felt a great weight lift off my shoulders. After a long shower, I dressed in jeans and a dark green shirt and realized my headache had backed off considerably. Refusing to connect the dots, I went out to breakfast at a local café, dawdling over eggs Benedict and continuous cups of coffee while I caught up with the news on my phone. It was so rare when I got a day to myself, I was determined to enjoy it.
The waitress asked if I wanted anything else and surprised me by ducking down and looking at me intently. “You have the most unusual eyes.” She moved closer, squinting a little as she studied me. “Gray? No, silver. Silver gray, with a black line around the iris that looks as if it’s holding in water…”
I think I blushed a little. “That’s very poetic.”
It was her turn to color. “Well, I am taking creative writing at Macalester. I want to write someday.”
People always noticed my eyes. They were almost colorless, so pale they appeared to be backlit. Sometimes, for kicks and to make my friends try to figure out what was different about me, I’d slip on a pair of contacts colored green or blue.
Back at my place, I cleaned and did laundry, heated soup for lunch, took one of my infrequent naps. Still yawning, I drove to the lawyer’s office in Red Wing. A receptionist showed me in. My parents were already there, as were Sam, Dina, and Dave.
All eyes turned to me as I was ushered in. I smiled uneasily. “Not late, am I?”
Dad half-stood, a surprised smile on his face. “You’re right on time.” He looked for a free chair and found none. I motioned for him to sit and stepped up behind him, resting my hands on the back of his chair.
“This is our son, Gray,” Mom said to the lawyer, a woman in her thirties with dark hair pulled back into a severe knot at the nape of her neck. The desk nameplate said she was Karen Clark.
Ms. Clark nodded and shuffled papers. “Let’s begin.”
I zoned out as she started reading legalese. Looking down at the top of my father’s head, I noticed his hair was thinning at the crown and there was a lot of gray mixed in with the black. What was he now, fifty? People always said I looked like my father. I’d also heard I bore a resemblance to Grandpa Graham.
“…and to my grandson, Gray Vecello, I leave the Constant Companion.” Ms. Clark looked up, her eyes meeting mine as she held up a set of keys.
I didn’t immediately take them. “What’s the Constant Companion?”
Dad said, “His houseboat. It’s at the Bergen Marina in the west channel.”
“I thought he’d leave that to us,” Sam said as Dina nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
Dave smiled. “I never thought he’d leave it to me, not that I’d want that old thing. It dates back to the ’70s.”
And it’s probably full of old-man smell. “I don’t want it, either. Give it to Sam and Dina.”
“Your grandfather’s instructions were explicit. You, and no one else, are to have the boat.”
She shook the keys, and I leaned over between my parents to accept them. There were four keys of various sizes on the key ring. Dad patted my forearm. “I think Grandpa made a good choice.”
“I don’t work in Red Wing,” I reminded him. “And I already have a place.”
“You’ve wanted to leave that shop. Now’s your chance.” Dad’s tone became wry. “Last time I heard, they cut hair in Red Wing.”
I stared at the keys, and a strange feeling moved through me. It took me a few seconds to identify it: quiet elation.
This, I hadn’t seen in the cards.
I went straight from the lawyer’s office to the marina. It was small, with only ten slips. Half were occupied. Four were fishing and power boats, and the other two were houseboats. Remembering Dave’s remark about its age, I tried to identify which of the two was older, but both were well-kept and tidy, and both were painted white, although one had bright blue striping and the other had red.
I stepped onto the dock and walked slowly toward them. The houseboats were in adjoining slips, and it was only the name, Constant Companion, emblazoned across the top area I assumed was called a bridge that identified which one was mine. A small dinghy was attached at the rear.
Except for paddling around in a rowboat when I was a kid, I’d had nothing to do with boats. Staring at it, I was at a loss. What the hell was I going to do with this? Was it supposed to stay tied up or could one travel down the river? The feeling of quiet elation was still with me, but overlaid now with doubts.
I went aboard, expecting the boat to shift beneath my feet. It didn’t though; it was like going from one patch of solid ground to another. The boat rocked a little, though. My stomach briefly considered getting upset but then grumpily subsided.
And then the water moved as the waves caused by a speedboat zipping by hit the hull, and I spread my legs without thought, knees bending slightly to absorb the shift as the houseboat rose and fell subtly, riding the lazy swells. I smiled as I noticed the sign posted in the water: No Wake Zone. Looked like someone wasn’t paying attention.
I wondered if I could sleep in such an environment. It was like feeling some leviathan breathing beneath me, inhaling and exhaling so gently I was barely aware of it but causing just enough movement to draw my notice.
Before I could take a second step, a young man dropped down to the catwalk from above and marched forward, blocking me from advancing farther. He was a couple inches shorter than me, making him around five nine, and he was thin and lanky in that half-starved way teenaged boys often were before they achieved their final growth. His thick brown hair was shot through with vivid red streaks which glowed in the late afternoon sun. I looked at them with a critical eye. Whoever had done them hadn’t done a great job; they were clumpy and uneven. He wore a dirty blue tank top and a pair of black cotton shorts that were unraveling at the hems. His tanned feet were bare, which somehow made him seem vulnerable.
He gave me a surly look. “What the hell are you doing on this boat?”
Oh, it’s a boat then, not a ship. “I might ask you the same, as I own it.”
Surprise flared in his chocolate eyes. “What?”
It wasn’t just the boat that had me unbalanced. “Let’s start over. I’m Gray Vecello. And you are…?”
“Cooper Key.” He then did the classic double-take as realization dawned. “Oh! You’re Graham’s grandson!”
Nodding, I waited for him to continue. We stared at each other, and I fought the urge to laugh. Who was this kid, anyway?
“Graham and I…” He averted his eyes for a moment before nailing me with them again. “We’re friends. I live here.”
The man I’d grown up hearing about, the man I’d been nervous around and avoided forever, had been friends with this young man? I hadn’t thought him capable of it.
“He died last week,” I said gently. “He was shot outside a drugstore.”
Instantly, his eyes filled with tears, which he attempted to blink back. “I know. I was with him. I’d gone down the street to the bakery. They’re open late on Thursdays.” He drew in a ragged breath. “I heard the shot, but I was too late. I called the ambulance. The hospital wouldn’t let me see him, and they wouldn’t give me information over the phone, but one of the nurses decided I was okay, and she told me.” His lips thinned. “Not family.” He glanced sideways, through the glass into the cabin. “He left something for you.”
Before I could say anything, he’d vanished through a sliding door. The glare of the sun off the glass kept me from tracking his movements. There were plastic chairs on the narrow open space at the front of the boat. I dropped into one and stared at the shore, waiting. The bar and grill was starting to get busy; people entered, exited, and sat on the patio that faced the water. Thinking about a burger and an icy beer made my mouth water.
Grandpa had lived on this boat for decades. Sitting there with the breeze ruffling my hair, watching a pair of mallards paddling along the edge of the dock while seagulls wheeled overhead, and smelling that peculiar odor that belongs to open water alone―food smells from the restaurant, a slightly fishy odor, the faint scent of gas and oil, and stronger than all of that, a freshness to the air that one rarely smelled on land―I understood the appeal.
Maybe I could live here, get a job at a shop in town, adapt to the slower pace boat living demanded. Weren’t houseboats considered cool? I could throw some terrific parties. I might even get laid more often.
Cooper was back, handing me an envelope. “He made me promise to give this to you. He knew you’d come.” He paused, biting his lip, his darting eyes revealing his discomfort. “He told me I shouldn’t leave until after you read it. It’ll only take me a few minutes to pack if, you know….”
I nodded, weighing the contents. There was more than one sheet inside. What the hell did he have to say to me after all these years? “No hurry.”
“I’ll be aloft. Call when you want me.”
When I was alone again, I turned the envelope over. My name was written neatly in the center in blue ink. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten a letter. It was all email these days.
Suddenly nervous, I drew in a deep breath and held it until my lungs ached before exhaling. I worked the flap loose without tearing it, removed the lined paper, unfolded it, and started to read.
Be sure to check Voodoo Lily on Saturday for the buy links.