SHOWCASE: Web of Betrayal by Clare Price

Posted by Ryder Islington, author of ULTIMATE JUSTICE, A Trey Fontaine Mystery and coming soon: ULTIMATE GAME, A Trey Fontaine Mystery



Web of Betrayal

by Clare Price

on Tour at Partners In Crime Virtual Book Tours October 20 – November 21, 2014

Book Details:

Genre: Thriller

Published by: CFP Media Group, LLC

Publication Date: June 28, 2014

Number of Pages: 412

ISBN: 978-0-9903723-0-1

Purchase Links:



There’s No Hiding in Cyberspace

The year is 1994, the dawn of the Internet Age, when companies from Silicon Valley to London are fighting to claim the billions to be made on the new information highway.

Peter Ellis, an aggressive investigative reporter struggling to repair his damaged reputation after being framed for rigging a story, attends the Consumer Electronics Show and learns that a skilled programmer known for cracking secure computer code has mysteriously disappeared.

Peter’s quest to find the missing programmer unwittingly pits him against a brilliant hacker and deranged killer with an agenda of his own: taking revenge on the man who ruined his life—computer industry luminary David Lockwood—who is now poised to introduce a product that will change the Internet forever.

As Peter is drawn into the deadly game of betrayal and murder, he is faced with losing everything he holds dear: his career, his one true love, even his own life. Can he find the programmer’s encoded disk—which the holds the key to the killer’s identity—before his luck runs out?


Read an excerpt:


November 10, 1993: Cali, Colombia

The day Arnold Tollie burned alive was ordinary in every other respect.

It was business as usual as Toby Eastman unobtrusively parked his Piper Super Cub at the far end of the jungle landing strip just outside Cali. Toby instinctively chose secrecy over exposure whenever possible. He adapted like a chameleon, blending naturally into any background or situation. This trait had served him well in the past and it would do so again today.

Arno—as Toby called Tollie—was late. Arno was often late. Toby habitually threatened to take off without him; it was an empty threat and they both knew it. Toby and Arno protected each other in this jungle just as they had when they served together in Vietnam. It was Arno who had arranged for Toby’s introduction to Colombian drug lord Enrique Valdez when Toby needed cash and connections and didn’t care where he got them.

Toby walked to the edge of the landing field, peering down the path. Nothing.

The chatter of monkeys and screams of macaws above heightened his awareness of the silence on the trail. Come on, Arno, Toby thought, as impatience slid into nervous irritation. It was more than the flight delay that made Toby nervous this time. Arno was taking chances again, the way he had when they’d run drugs in ‘Nam. Nothing too big or too obvious, just a little bit off the top here and there. It was stupid and risky but Arno seemed to think he was invincible. Invincibility, Toby knew well, was not a factor of the human condition.

First Toby heard the footfalls, then the grunts and groans. Valdez’s men were walking down the trail. They were half-pushing, half-carrying Arno, bound and gagged, between them. Arno was barely walking. His face was pulverized.

Toby dove behind a stand of mangroves, watched, and waited. Arno was a big man. It took four of them to drag him to the open field where the bush pilots landed, where his death would serve as a warning to any other pilots who thought they could steal from Valdez. They staked him spread-eagle to the ground and began cutting holes in his clothes, exposing naked skin with the dispassionate precision of a surgical team. Arno writhed in the tight ropes as they dipped frayed sections of his clothing in kerosene. Kneeling, one of them massaged Arno’s hair with the oil as if for a shampoo.

Their methodical preparations, Toby realized with a sickening lurch in his stomach, were meant to avoid an explosive conflagration that would end quickly. They favored an excruciatingly tortuous burn that would slowly melt living flesh from bone. A human torch. As Toby waited through the night, unable to escape the sight, the smell and the screams, a human torch was exactly what Arnold Tollie became.

* * * * *

December 18, 1993: Palo Alto, California

The fire crackled. A tongue of flame broke free, reigniting dying embers, warming the room. Toby leaned back in his chair, took a small sip of his brandy and glanced around the tight space.

Henry Rhodes’s bachelor’s quarters held the same comfortable clutter that Toby remembered. A sagging green sofa and two wingback chairs faced the now-cheerfully crackling fire. An oversized bookcase against the wall held evidence of Henry’s two passions–volumes of the classical literature he loved and, in a testament to Henry’s thirty-five years of gainful employment, a wide range of computer manuals.

Henry sat in the other armchair, his feet barely reaching the floor. Like his home, Toby thought, enjoying the constancy, Henry hadn’t changed much in the last eighteen years. He was a small man, now sixty-two, rounded from his enjoyment of food and drink. His eyes closed in pleasure with his first sip of brandy.

“It’s good to see you, Toby,” Henry said. “I enjoyed all those letters, but it’s not the same as a real visit. Are you back in the Bay Area for good?”

“I’m not sure yet. What about you? Have you been traveling much?”

“Not as much as I’d like. I thought when I retired I’d have more time, but my consulting has almost become a full-time job.”

“The secret’s out, Henry–everyone’s finding out how good you really are. Of course, there were some of us who always knew it,” Toby replied, allowing himself another small sip of brandy.

Despite the warmth of the fire and the brandy coursing through his veins, Toby knew he couldn’t afford to relax; not until he had the computer disk back safely in his possession. He touched the glass to his lips once more and then pushed it aside, watching with pleasure as Henry finished his first drink.

“And how are your boys?” Toby asked.

“I’ve got a couple of boys who are real crypto-wizards. Give even you a run for the money,” Henry said, chuckling mildly as he set down the empty glass.

Henry referred to all the young engineers he’d shepherded through the company as “his boys,” even the women. Although Henry had been a talented software programmer in his own right, his company soon recognized he had an even greater ability to mentor the young college recruits they hired. Henry still kept in touch with most of them. Toby had been one of Henry’s boys, once, though his tour of duty in Vietnam had given him a later start than most of the others.

“I’ve got pictures. Would you like to see them?”

Toby nodded.

Henry disappeared into his bedroom and returned with a large manila envelope. He peered over Toby’s shoulder as Toby flipped through the pictures of a recent camping trip. Toby remembered those camping trips. This one was in Yosemite, with El Capitan visible in the background. Two young men stared at the lens. The young Asian man stood stiffly, uncomfortable in front of the camera. The impish smile on the other boy, a chubby-faced blond wearing a blue and white rugby shirt, tugged at Toby, snagging him with memories he thought he’d laid to rest years ago. Memories he could not afford to indulge, especially now.

“They look like great kids, Henry,” Toby said as he studied the prints.

“Smart, too. Like you. But I keep them on their toes. I’ve still got a puzzle game or two up my sleeve,” he said.

Henry sat down, poured a second glass of brandy and enjoyed a large swallow. He began talking about the old days, about the puzzle games, and how the competitive contests to crack encrypted computer code had helped discipline young minds like Toby’s and, in turn, had given Henry’s company valuable insights into the emerging field of cyber security.

The reminiscences were flowing as freely as the brandy. Another time, Toby thought, he could relax and enjoy them, but not tonight. Too much was at stake. Henry finished the last of his brandy with a flourish and stood, reaching for the bottle and Toby’s half-filled glass.

“No more for me, Henry. I have to go,” he said, rising. “I really just came to pick up that disk I sent you a few weeks ago.”

Henry looked up at Toby embarrassed, his smile sheepish.

“I know you told me keep that one strictly confidential, Toby. But your puzzles are always the best. It was just too tempting.”

“What do you mean?” Toby asked, forcing a casualness he did not feel.

“I couldn’t crack it. I tried, but it was beyond me.”

Toby smiled, starting to relax. “I’ll send you another. But I need this one back, tonight.”

“I don’t have it,” Henry said.

“What?” Toby fought to keep his voice calm.

“When I couldn’t solve it, I sent it to the boys to see what they could do with it.”

Henry’s tone was mildly irritated, as if Toby had forgotten who was the student, and who the master.

Toby’s mind spun, recoiling at the Hobson’s Choice Henry’s recklessness offered him. The one man he thought he could trust had betrayed him.

“Henry, that disk wasn’t just another puzzle,” Toby said vehemently. “That disk has information on it that belongs to some very powerful men.”

All the color drained from Henry’s face. “What kind of information?”

“Useful information, but only if you know what to do with it.”

Henry’s eyes blinked rapidly. He looked at Toby as if he’d never seen him before.

“Toby, what have you gotten yourself into?” he asked, his voice cracking.

“Nothing I can’t get out of. As soon as I get the disk back, everything will be fine.” Toby offered him a comforting smile. “You know me, Henry. Just tell me where the boys are and I’ll fix it,” he cajoled.

Henry gave Toby a concerned look. Then he turned, picked up pen and paper and rapidly scribbled names, email addresses and phone numbers. “I’m sorry, Toby,” he said, handing over the note.

You’re sorry? Toby queried silently. It’s too late for sorry. His mind flashed back briefly to the jungle, and the odor of the lump of burning flesh that had once been a man. The tension started in his neck and shoulders. Adrenaline kicked in, and with it the same rush of excitement and danger he’d always felt in the jungle right before the kill. Staring at his mentor, Toby felt uncontrollable rage explode inside of him, spouting like lava from an active volcano.

“You stupid old goat,” he snapped. “Why didn’t you do what I told you and keep that disk secure?”

Henry stood before him frozen in shock. His mouth sagged open in fear and protest. Toby understood his distress. The young recruit Henry had known wouldn’t dare speak to him that way. But Toby was no longer that man, if he had ever been. He reached into his pocket and palmed his stiletto, opening the blade. As it caught the bright light of the fire, Henry gasped. His expression changed rapidly from surprise to comprehension soaked with dread.

“Who are you?” Henry whispered, backing away. “What kind of animal have you become?’

Toby stared mercilessly at the man who had been his closest friend. Then, in one cat-like movement, he stepped across the room and grabbed Henry by the neck, pressing his fingers against the carotid artery. As the body went limp, Toby shoved his knife into the man’s back. The force of the thrust penetrated the kidney, twisting upward toward Henry’s heart. Black-red liquid oozed from the small wound, staining both their shirts.

The body shuddered and slumped against Toby. He stepped back letting it slip to the ground in the widening pool of its own blood.

His task completed, Toby paused, panting from exertion. Drawing a deep calming breath, he looked around the room investigating the scene, ready to cover his trail. He picked up his glass and swallowed the remaining brandy. A reward for a job well done. Then he pocketed the used glass and the photographs.

As he moved around the body lying lifeless on the floor, he glanced back for one last look. Henry’s eyes stared at the ceiling in surprise. A stream of pink blood trickled down his jaw.

The sight stopped him. His clean and uncomplicated exit from the house was suddenly impeded by a pull he hadn’t experienced in years, maybe since he’d sat under Henry’s tutelage at the company. Leashed by fleeting but honest remorse, he returned to the body and tenderly closed its eyes.

“I’m sorry, old friend. I truly am,” he whispered, his lips brushing against Henry’s ear. “But if it hadn’t been me, it would have been them.”


Author Bio:

Clare witnessed the birth of the commercial Internet firsthand as a research director with the Gartner Group, the global leader in information technology consulting. As a principle analyst in Gartner’s Internet Strategies Service, Clare assisted many of the world’s biggest technology companies (IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, HP, Sun Microsystems, Oracle) in their bid to make the information highway a reality.

That experience prompted her to write her first novel, WEB OF BETRAYAL, set in 1994 at the birth of the Internet. Fury is unleashed when a long simmering grudge match between a brilliant hacker turned killer and a renegade tech visionary erupts into murder and betrayal, and a struggling reporter risks his life and one true love to find the truth.

Clare began writing at age five with her short story, “My Dog Nicky.” In her career she has been a business journalist, tech industry journalist, Internet industry analyst and a VP of marketing for several software startups.

Clare is an Ohio native and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. degree in Rhetoric. She currently lives in Sacramento, California with her two Shetland Sheepdogs, Dan and Toby.

Catch Up With the Author:


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SHOWCASE: Misdirection The Rusty Diamond Trilogy by Austin Williams

Posted by Ryder Islington, author of ULTIMATE JUSTICE, A Trey Fontaine Mystery and coming soon: ULTIMATE GAME, A Trey Fontaine Mystery


The Rusty Diamond Trilogy

by Austin Williams

on Tour at Partners In Crime Virtual Book Tours October 17 – November 21, 2014

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Published by: Diversion Books

Publication Date: June 24, 2014

Number of Pages: 266

Series: 1st in The Rusty Diamond Trilogy

ISBN: 9781626813557

Purchase Links:


A street magician needs more than sleight-of- hand to survive getting embroiled in a murder case in this blistering novel of suspense, perfect for fans of Harlan Coben and George Pelecanos.

After years of chasing fame and hedonistic excess in the bright lights of Las Vegas, Rusty “The Raven” Diamond has returned home to Ocean City to piece his life back together. When he finds himself an innocent suspect in his landlord’s brutal murder, Rusty abandons all hope of maintaining a tranquil existence. Acting on impulse, he digs into the investigation just enough to anger both the police and a local drug cartel.

As the unsolved case grows more complex, claiming new victims and inciting widespread panic, Rusty feels galvanized by the adrenaline he’s been missing for too long. But his newfound excitement threatens to become an addiction, leading him headfirst into an underworld he’s been desperately trying to escape.

Austin Williams creates an unforgettable protagonist in Rusty, a flawed but relatable master of illusion in very real danger. As the suspense builds to an explosively orchestrated climax, Williams paints a riveting portrait of both a city—and a man—on the edge.

Read an excerpt:

The bloodstain was shaped like Florida. Rusty didn’t know much about geography, probably couldn’t point out more than a handful of states on a map. But he knew what Florida looked like, even though he’d never been there. And the mass of drying blood stretching across the hardwood floor, coming to a rounded tip a few inches from his leather boots (this tip just slightly darker than the wide stream comprising most of the stain) was a dead ringer for the Sunshine State.

He knew it was a strange thing to consider, given the circumstances. Hardly an appropriate mental response to such an intensely disturbing situation. He wasn’t in shock, exactly, but he had no idea what to do with himself. There was nothing he could do until the police arrived. Which should be any minute now. In fact, he was starting to wonder what the hell was taking so long.

Rusty wasn’t sure of how much confidence to place in the Ocean City Police Department. When it came to traffic stops and busts for disorderly conduct, open containers, public nudity and the like, the OCPD was surely qualified.

But murder? That had to fall well outside the parameters of what the local law was accustomed to handling on a regular basis. Or so Rusty mused, mainly to occupy his mind and not keep checking his wristwatch every ten seconds.

Rusty stared at the bloodstain’s surface congealing in the reflection of an overhead lamp. About two feet in width at the center, it grew wider near its source. That source was the throat of a frail silver-haired woman who lay crumpled on the floor. The upper half of her body reached into the living room while her legs protruded onto the dull yellow linoleum of the kitchen. One orthopedic shoe lay on its side next to the stove, the other still on her left foot.

Two more minutes and I’m calling 911 again, he told himself.

This house in which he was currently the sole occupant—not counting its recently deceased owner—wasn’t technically located in OC proper but in a remote enclave called Ocean Pines, separated from the main town by eight miles of salty bay water. A quiet upscale community, Rusty had a fairly complete knowledge of its character, having spent the first eighteen years of his life here and moving back ten months ago.

Next Thursday would be his thirty-sixth birthday. He had little awareness of that fact, and less interest in it.

For all Rusty knew, this was the first murder to darken the Pines’ suburban pastoral facade since the town was incorporated in 1958. And it definitely was murder, of that he had no doubt. No one could conceivably take their own life in such a manner, and certainly not a frail seventy-eight-year-old spinster.

The opening in Ms. Garrett’s throat was not long, maybe three inches at most. It looked like more of a gouge than a slash. There was no knife or sharp implement anywhere in the room, and Rusty didn’t dare step over the body to take a look in the kitchen.

The skin around the gash didn’t appear to have been torn with a blade, but hacked away by a cruder implement.

Fingernails? Teeth?

Rusty shuddered as he pondered the options, and forced himself to stop thinking about it.

The hum of a car’s engine and pebbles crunching underneath a set of tires claimed his attention. He walked to the front door, pulling aside a sash by the adjacent window to look outside into the hazy afternoon light.


An Ocean City Police Department patrol unit sat in the driveway, engine idling. Rusty saw the door swing open, and a powerfully built officer stepped out. He grimaced. The cop didn’t appear to be much older than a high schooler. Probably fresh out of the Academy with plenty to prove behind the badge.

Why didn’t they send a detective, Rusty wondered, unlatching the door and opening it slowly so as not to make a surprise appearance on the front porch. Well, it was possible the OCPD’s homicide unit didn’t keep more than one ranking detective on any given shift. They probably didn’t need more than that.

The young patrol cop was taking purposeful strides toward the house, fleshy face set tight as he spoke into a shoulder mic, confirming with a dispatcher his arrival at the location. His eyes widened just slightly before narrowing as he made a quick appraisal of Rusty Diamond.

“You’re the one who made the call?”

Rusty nodded.

“She’s in there,” he said, stepping aside to let the patrol officer enter the house.

The cop had not taken two full steps into the living room when he stopped abruptly, one hand falling onto the service revolver holstered on his right hip.

“Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah,” Rusty said. “That was pretty much my reaction.”

For a moment they stood there, two tall male shapes looming over a plump female form in a spattered floral dress.

“Found her just like this?”

“That’s right. I didn’t touch anything.”

“How long?”

“Can’t be much more than fifteen minutes. I called right away.”

“You know her?”

“Her name’s Thelma Garrett. She’s my landlord.”

The sound of that didn’t sit right with Rusty; it was too removed and devoid of any kind of feeling. He almost added something like, ‘She was kind to me’, but figured that was bound to come out wrong.

The cop finally looked up from the old woman’s body, seeming to peel his eyes away by an act of will.

“You live here?”

“No. She owns … owned a second house not far from here, on Echo Run. I’ve been renting it.”

Those words brought on a sudden rush of memory. Rusty could see with total clarity in his mind’s eye the day he first met Ms. Garrett. Just over ten months ago, on a frigid January morning. The meeting didn’t happen here but at the rental house he’d occupied ever since.

At the time Rusty was so disoriented at finding himself back in Ocean Pines after such a prolonged absence that he had some difficulty maintaining a conversation with the chatty spinster. He agreed to her proposed rental fee, which seemed low for a three-bedroom furnished property overlooking Isle of Wight Bay. Location alone must have made the house a highly desirable piece of real estate, and he couldn’t figure why she was willing to rent it out for such a reasonable sum.

Speaking in the kindly, crinkly voice he’d come to associate with her in all moods, Ms. Garrett replied she had no use for the property or a large boost in income. Once shared with her husband and the scene of many festive gatherings, it was too big for her current needs. And too lonely. Living as a childless widow in a modest two-bedroom tract house on nearby Heron Lane was much more comfortable.

Thelma (she’d insisted Rusty use her first name) didn’t want to go through the hassle of trying to sell the larger house in a lackluster market, and was glad to simply know it would be occupied after many dormant years. It depressed her to think of the house where she and her family had shared so many good occasions sitting dark and forlorn all this time. Rusty signed the lease, feeling halfway guilty for paying so little.

“How’d you happen to find her?” the patrol officer said, yanking Rusty back from his reverie.

A slight whiff of something Rusty didn’t like crept into the cop’s voice. A taunt, almost, most likely the by-product of youth and rattled nerves. He scanned the badge pinned to the kid’s chest.

“Tell you what, Officer Neely. Why don’t we go through the whole thing when a detective gets here. Someone’s on the way, right?”

“I’m the one you need to talk to now.”

“Officer, trust me. I’m going to give my full cooperation. Whoever did this needs to …”

He stopped. The cop was looking at him with a new kind of scrutiny. Now that the initial shock of seeing the dead woman was fading, he seemed to take a full view of Rusty for the first time. The expression on his face didn’t make much of an effort to hide a sense of disgust.

Rusty suddenly wished he’d kept his leather jacket on, but the living room had become stifling as he stood here waiting for the cavalry to arrive. The jacket lay draped on a sofa and he was wearing a black tank top, leaving his shoulders and arms open to easy view. Perusal would be more accurate, given the snaking tracks of words and symbols tattooed across much of his upper torso, coiling around the back of his neck and splitting into two vines that reached down both arms almost to the wrists.

“Latin, for the most part,” he said with a self-deprecating shrug. “Just for looks, really. I don’t know what half of it means myself.”

Officer Neely’s posture tensed visibly. His fingers once again found a place to rest on his gun.

“Turn around slowly, and show me your hands.”

Rusty tried to pretend he’d misheard.

“Sorry, what?”

“Come on, do it.”

“You’re going to cuff me? I’m the one who called this in, remember?”

“Just turn around. We’ll keep you nice and snug till backup gets here.”

“Look, I’m as freaked out as you are. But I didn’t do anything to this poor woman.”

“You’re resisting? I said let’s see those hands.”

He unsnapped the button on top of his holster. It seemed like a good moment to do something.

“For the last time, turn around!”

Rusty knew he could disarm this uniformed frat boy in just about 2.7 seconds. The task wouldn’t present much of a challenge. He could easily divert Neely’s eyeline with a lateral, non-aggressive movement of his left arm.
Momentarily distracted, the cop would never see the fingers of Rusty’s right hand extracting a one-inch smoke pellet from a customized hidden pocket in his jeans. Pinched at the proper angle, the pellet would explode in a blinding flash followed by a plume of gray smoke. Utterly harmless but highly effective for misdirection.

The span of time Officer Neely would need to recover from his surprise would offer Rusty ample opportunity to relieve him of the gun. Using his fingertips, he’d grab the wrist and isolate pressure points causing Neely’s hand to open involuntarily. From there, Rusty would simply reposition his body at a 45-degree angle and use his left hand to retrieve a sterling set of monogrammed handcuffs tucked in a different hidden pocket. One more second would be sufficient to cuff the young patrolman to a column of the bannister directly behind him.

They were only trick cuffs, but Officer Neely didn’t know that. And unless he could perform with great precision, the sequence of twisting wrist movements needed to unlatch them, the knowledge wouldn’t do him any good.
So, yes, the maneuver would surely come off. Just as successfully as it had in a thousand performances, even if those all occurred some time ago and Rusty’s reflexes were no longer quite what they used to be.

But what would any of that accomplish other than to greatly amplify a sense of suspicion for his role in a brutal murder he had absolutely nothing to do with? Plus bring on a raft of other charges for failing to comply with orders, impeding police business, assault, et cetera. Obviously it was a bad play all around, however tempting.

So Rusty slowly turned 180 degrees and lowered his hands. Audibly relieved, Officer Neely stepped forward and bound them with a pair of un-monogrammed OCPD handcuffs. They closed around his wrists more tightly then necessary, pinching hard on the skin.

Hearing the cuffs snap shut, Rusty glanced up and was startled by his reflection in a mirror above the sofa. He’d deliberately removed all mirrors from his own residence the day he moved in, and hadn’t gotten a good look at his face in many months.

Given his appearance today, he could hardly fault this overeager junior lawman for wanting to lock him in restraints. For a guy who’d once placed such a premium on maintaining a well-cultivated exterior, it was shocking to see just how unkempt he was. Had he really let himself go that much in the past year? Evidently, if the mirror was to be believed.

His long black hair, once treated daily by a personal stylist, was now a ratty mane. The two-pointed devil’s goatee, formerly a key visual hallmark of his stagecraft, looked no more than an uneven graying scrub. And all that ink: pentagrams, death’s head skulls and weird incantations etched up and down his sinewy arms.

Hell, anyone with a working pair of eyes would find Rusty Diamond a more than credible murder suspect.


Author Bio:

The new thriller by Austin Williams, Misdirection, is now available from Diversion Books. It is the first novel of The Rusty Diamond Trilogy.

Williams is the author of the acclaimed suspense novels Crimson Orgy and The Platinum Loop. He is the co-author (with Erik Quisling) of Straight Whisky: A Living History of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll on the Sunset Strip.

He lives in Los Angeles.

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SHOWCASE: Fail by Rick Skwiot

Posted by Ryder Islington, Author of ULTIMATE JUSTICE, A Trey Fontaine Mystery, and coming soon: ULTIMATE GAME, A Trey Fontaine Mystery




by Rick Skwiot

on Tour at Partners In Crime Virtual Book Tours Oct 13 – Nov 14, 2014

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery

Published by: Blank Slate Press

Publication Date: October 27, 2014

Number of Pages: 220

ISBN: 978-0985808686

Purchase Links:



Disgraced African American St. Louis Police Lieutenant Carlo Gabriel wants fiercely to return to the headquarters hierarchy from which he has been exiled to the city’s tough North Side. All he needs do is track down the missing husband of the mayor’s vivacious press secretary. Instead he unwittingly and unwillingly unearths a morass of corruption, educational malpractice and greed that consigns thousands of at-risk youths to the mean streets of America’s erstwhile murder capital. Worse, it’s the kind of information that could get a cop killed.

Fighting for life and his honor, Gabriel makes chilling discoveries that ultimately lead to a life-threatening and life-changing decision—a choice that could affect not only his own future but also that of the city and its top leaders.



“Rick Skwiot proves himself a master weaver who deftly knits the threads of this suspense tale into a compelling—and surprising—conclusion. In short, Fail succeeds, and does so with compassion.”

–Michael A. Kahn, award-winning author of Face Value and The Flinch Factor.

“Chicago has Scott Turow, Boston Dennis Lehane, LA James Elroy. Finally St. Louis has its laureate of fiction, Rick Skwiot. His new novel, Fail, is a sheer success. Skwiot hits for the fences and stylishly touches all the bases — money, municipal politics, police corruption, infidelity, suicide, homicide, all rendered in crackling prose.”

–Michael Mewshaw, author of Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal

“Fail is a riveting spellbinding tale with intricate characters that are depicted through carefully crafted imagery of iconic St. Louis landmarks bolstered by lucid vernacular accuracy reflecting the rich cultural diversity of the city.”

–John Baugh, author of Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice and former director African and African American Studies, Washington University in St. Louis

“In Fail Rick Skwiot has written a story that will endure…[T]he flawlessly pitched voices, the intricate plot—tying academia and Mark Twain to the gritty streets of St. Louis—and the vividly realized characters are all as good as it gets in detective stories. Skwiot has squeezed himself into a spot between [Dashiell] Hammett and [John D.] MacDonald, and I suspect they would be happy to have him there.”

–Michael Pearson, author of Reading Life—On Books, Memory, and Travel (2015)

“Skwiot’s finest. Set on the mean streets and back alleys of St. Louis, Fail is a big, two-hearted yarn of political corruption and moral decay. The unforgettable police detective, Carlo Gabriel, who handles the investigation, must first grapple with his own transgressions before he can unravel the wooly skein of betrayal and depravity surrounding him. A tale that could well have been ripped from the front page of any city in the country.”

–John Leslie, author of Border Crossing

“The twisting plot and fascinating characters will keep readers turning the pages, but the underlying problem exposed by this vital novel is dead serious. In snappy, vivid, hard-boiled language, Skwiot lays bare the root cause of most of our societal woes: our failed education system. It is no mere coincidence the story takes place in St. Louis, the heartland city that has come to represent our greater national tragedy. Fail is a wake-up call.”

–Kelly Daniels, author of Cloudbreak, California

“Art imitates life in this prescient novel. Both crime fiction and a clarion call to rescue America’s underserved schools, Fail is also proof positive that the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising was inevitable.”

–Terry Baker Mulligan, author of Afterlife in Harlem

“Not all the snow that blankets St. Louis city in Fail can begin to whitewash its political corruption and educational malpractice, but through all the darkness hope for change emerges. A cynical detective ventures far outside his comfort zone, risking everything to keep an idealistic teacher alive long enough to expose ugly truths. A microcosm for what ails society, Fail is an intelligent read that refuses to pass the buck, earning a classy A.”

–Scott L. Miller, author of Counterfeit and Interrogation

“The rapid pace, seamless unfolding and well-crafted plot of this mystery … [are] balanced with the incisive depiction of two contrasting main characters—a crusading English teacher and [a] worldly-wise, battered cop. This tale is a trenchant reminder that the urban cocktail of poverty in the face of wealth, St. Louis’s famous segregated sprawl … and corruption in high places nationwide, is an explosive mix.”

–Peter H. Green, author of Crimes of Design



In a way, Alonzo Watkins got shot thanks to Christmas. The university library, where he had been cocooning most evenings for the past four months, closed early that Friday for Christmas break. So he took the 9:35 bus home instead of the 11:35. Bad timing.

The number 4 Natural Bridge in which he was riding slid to a stop. Alonzo looked up from the chess game on his iPad and saw the driver staring at him in the rearview mirror.

“You said ‘Salisbury Street,’ right?”

He glanced out into the dark, recognized where they were, and rose, shoving the computer into his backpack as he moved toward the front door. It opened with a hiss.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“You take care, son. And merry Christmas.”

He stepped down into fresh snow, which came to the top of his beige chukkas. The bus, its yellow-lit interior now empty of passengers, lumbered ahead, turning south on Parnell Street to head downtown. Alonzo slipped the backpack over his shoulder, pulled his stocking cap down on his head, and marched east on Salisbury.

He had the northwest wind at this back, but snow swirled between the redbrick tenements, down the redbrick alleys, and across brick-strewn vacant lots, biting his face. His legs, protected from the Arctic chill by only his jeans, stung from the cold. Four blocks until he reached home on Hyde Park. He hoped his sister’s kids would be asleep but feared they’d still be watching TV.

The coming snow flew past yellow streetlights. A few homes were lit. In one first-story window a Christmas tree with multi-colored lights sat behind iron bars. Others, with windows boarded, loomed cold, dark, lifeless, and ghostly.
On the next corner he saw the broad windows of the confectionary—usually dimmed by the time he passed—still aglow behind their crisscrossed steel grill. Alonzo dug his bare hands deep into the pockets of his wool jacket and kept trudging ahead.

When he noticed three hooded figures emerge from the store he crossed to the sidewalk on the far side of the street, keeping his eyes on the white ground in front of him. Like always, Alonzo tried to disappear, strove to become invisible. But on the periphery he saw the trio cross the deserted street and fall in behind him. He quickened his pace.

“The fuck you think you’re going, college boy?”

Alonzo kept walking, heart speeding.

“A yo. I’m talking to you, pussy!”

“What’s in the bag, homeboy?” came a second voice.

He felt a tug on his backpack and whirled.

Despite their hoodies and the snow blowing in his eyes he recognized the middle one, Marlon. They’d been freshmen together at Beaumont High four years earlier. But then Marlon had stop coming.

“I got nothing for you.” Alonzo’s voice cracked as he said it.

“See about that,” said the fat one on the left, grabbing the backpack.

Alonzo yanked on it, ears burning hot, adrenaline fueling him. Fatso jerked it toward him; Alonzo pulled against him. The zipper split open, notebooks, grammar book, chess clock, and iPad tumbling out into the snow.

Marlon stooped to snatch the computer. Alonzo dove forward to wrench it from his grasp. Someone booted him in the head.
Sprawled on the snowy sidewalk, he took another kick, this one in the ribs. Had he the time and the wherewithal to think about it dispassionately, Alonzo likely would have taken his beating, relinquished his iPad, and slunk off. Instead, however, the instincts of a cornered animal rose within him.

Somehow he got to his knees and began flailing with his fists. A wild right caught Marlon, who dropped the iPad and brought his hands to his nose, from which blood began to spurt. He straightened, jammed his right hand into his pocket, and withdrew a small caliber automatic.

Panting, Alonzo froze and fixed on the gun’s barrel gleaming golden in the streetlight, vibrating. Marlon, wide-eyed, speechless, stood over him, shaking.

“Do the motherfucker, Marlon! Nigga busted your damn nose! Do him!”

Alonzo scrambled to his feet, turned and ran across the street toward Hyde Park, his breath coming in short bursts, chest heaving. Then he felt a bee sting in his back and heard the dull explosion of the gun, muffled by the snow.

He wheezed, trying to catch his breath. His legs buckled beneath him, dropping him once again to his knees. The sting in his back grew hot and spread, radiating throughout his chest. He fell forward, the snow cooling his face. Now the cold felt good, and he sensed himself slipping off somewhere strange and soothing…


Carlo Gabriel sat with his topcoat in his lap studying the mayor’s portrait on the wall across the room. Despite the high ceilings and the cold outside, the inside air hung warm. Memories hung in the air as well, which he kept brushing back.

Without apparent cue the bow-tied man behind the desk said: “Ms. Cantrell will see you now.”

Gabriel lifted himself and sauntered toward the tall door ahead, which now swung open. A statuesque brunette in a business suit appeared and shook his hand.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, detective. Call from channel five on the snow removal—or lack thereof.”

He thought to correct her on the detective title—“That’s Lieutenant Gabriel, ma’am”—but then thought better of it. Now that he was reduced to doing detective work that’s what he seemed to most people.

He stepped onto a Persian carpet. She closed the door behind him and walked ahead to an oversized walnut desk and high-backed leather chair. He couldn’t help noticing, through tall windows, the cityscape behind her—the Civil Courts Building, the Old Courthouse, the Gateway Arch. Impressive. Her hair was held in place by a bone barrette in back; her suit—black pinstriped—featured a tight skirt that did quite not reach the backs of her knees. Gabriel pursed his lips. Of course he had seen her on television when she worked as an anchorwoman. But he had never seen her legs.

She indicated a wooden armchair across from her. He sat and laid his topcoat on the chair next to him. When he faced her she took in and let out a breath.

“My husband disappeared three days ago.”

He leaned forward. “Three days… Saturday then.”

She nodded. He reached for his coat, black cashmere, and removed a notepad from its pocket. “When did you last see Mr. Cantrell?”

“Stone. Jonathan Stone… He left our apartment Saturday morning. I was still in bed.”

Despite the feeble winter sun her skin looked tanned. High cheekbones. Her perfume floated to him. “Where do you live?”

“The ABCs on Kingshighway. We own a condo there.”

He knew the building—a very correct address for urban white folks.

“Why did you wait three days before filing a report?”

She lifted a finger to her lips, full and pouting. “Is that what we’re doing, filing a report?”

“Just a manner of speaking, Ms. Cantrell. I understand that the mayor wants it handled right.”

“I want it handled right. No need making anything official until we have to. I pray we won’t have to. He could show up anytime.”

She meant alive, surely.

“So he’s been gone overnight previously? Without your knowing about it beforehand, I mean.”

“No, never.”

“Was he depressed?”

She blinked. “Jonathan wouldn’t kill himself, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Any drug or alcohol issues? Sorry, I have to ask these questions. No disrespect intended.”


“You’ve been married how long?”

“Twelve years. We met at Mizzou.”


She shook her head.

“He hasn’t shown up at work?”

She shook it again. “They’re on semester break. He’s a college professor.”

“In what field?”


“I presume money’s not an issue—gambling losses?”

She sniffed. “Jonathan wouldn’t be caught dead in a casino.”

“Any personal problems?”

A hesitation then: “You mean does he have a mistress?”

Gabriel shrugged a shoulder. It happens. Even when your wife is fine, and Ellen Cantrell was fine. “Whatever problems.”

“Jonathan’s a very private person. Keeps things inside.”

“Health issues?”

“Even being around students he never gets sick.”

“How old is he?”


Gabriel nodded remembering what it was like at thirty-four. A pivotal age for many men, fueled by a mix of ambition, testosterone, and hope. But for him that was two decades past and he wondered how much he had left.

“What about family members: parents, siblings…?”

“I emailed his mother—they live in Florida now. I was indirect but she obviously knows nothing. He was an only child.”

“The last time you saw him was Saturday morning…?”

“I didn’t actually see him. As I said I was still in bed.”

“You share the same bed?”

Cantrell lowered her chin and studied Gabriel’s silk scarf, purple, draped down the lapels of his black blazer. It was the sort of question asked of a connected white woman that, in earlier times, could have earned a black cop trouble.

She lifted her eyes to meet his. He stared back, waiting for an answer, but all he got was:

“I heard the front door closing.”

“What time was this?”

“Around ten.”

Gabriel made a note. “Were you up late Friday night?”

“At the mayor’s Christmas party. In the ballroom at the Mayfair. It was one o’clock when we left.” Gabriel sat still, waiting for more. Eventually she went on: “I was working, not partying. There were media people and others we have special relationships with. I try to make sure there’s no miscommunication.”

He raised an eyebrow. His Honor, he knew from their days together, liked his gin. Which at times made him shoot from the hip, figuratively speaking.

“And what was your husband doing during this time?”

“Mingling, I guess. People watching.”

“Did he get drunk?”

“Not so I noticed.”

“Did he drive home?”

“We took a cab. Jonathan had come downtown on the train.”

“What did you talk about in the cab?”

“I was talked out. Jonathan was his usual quiet self. When we got to Forest Park it had started snowing. He commented on how pretty it was.”

“Do you own a car?”

“Yes, a Jeep. I also have a city vehicle. Jonathan rides the MetroLink to campus.”

“And the Jeep is gone?”

“It wasn’t in the garage when I went down Saturday afternoon.”

“When did you first begin to worry?”

“Saturday evening. Not worry so much as wonder. I called his cell phone from a party fundraiser and got no answer. When I got home around midnight I tried again and heard it ring in the den.”

“Does he usually carry it?”

“Not always. He’s a reader not a talker.”

“Did he leave a note or mention a trip?”

“Not that I recall.”

“Any friends or colleagues we might check with?”

“Jonathan’s always been a loner. There may be colleagues at work but none that I know.”

“Any withdrawals?”


Gabriel scribbled on his notepad: “Wife checked bank accounts—why?” As he did he saw her looking at her watch.

“One last question, Ms. Cantrell: Why did you wait three days to involve the police?”

She stood and glared down at him, jaw moving laterally as if grinding teeth. He often got interesting reactions when he asked the same question twice.

“I didn’t. Others have been on this since Sunday morning. Checking the accidents, incidents, hospitals.”

Who, he wondered? He visualized the chain of command: The mayor, Chief of Police Donnewald, Bureau Commander Coleman, Deputy Commander Masters, Fourth District Captain Stolle… But the usual chain of command didn’t apply here; otherwise he wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Gabriel flipped closed his notepad, pushed himself up from the armchair with a sigh, and handed her his card.

“I’d appreciate it if you could email me a recent photo of your husband. I’ll keep you posted on any developments.”

She studied the card and slipped it into her pocket. “You understand, lieutenant, that everything comes through me first,” she said, walking around the desk. “Clear?”

Her long legs were nothing like those of his ex-wife, Janet, but her mouth was.

“Yes, ma’am, I understand. The mayor underscored that.”

Outside her office he let out a breath. He moved back down City Hall’s grand staircase to the ground floor and crossed the lobby, heels clicking on the white marble.

“Brother Gabriel!”

He stopped and turned. An old black man in a baggy gray suit, carrying a Bible, approached. They slapped hands.

“Preacher Cairns! Thought you’d be in heaven by now. How’s biz?”

“Slow, slow. No one thinks to get married when it snows. Funny… You back downtown, Gabe?”

“Not yet. Still in exile. Just checking my traps.”

The old man laughed then sobered. “It ain’t the same these days.”

“Nope,” Gabriel said. “Not even close.”



Author Bio:

Former journalist Rick Skwiot is the author of three previous novels—the Hemingway First Novel Award winner Death in Mexico, the Willa Cather Fiction Prize finalist Sleeping With Pancho Villa, and Key West Story—as well as two memoirs: the critically-acclaimed Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing. He also works as a feature writer, book doctor and editor. From St. Louis, he currently resides in Key West.

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