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PRELUDE AND THEME

CHAPTER ONE
December, 2007

“Stan Benedict calling for Carrie Moon.”

Even after twelve years, his rich, baritone sent her heart racing. He still had a smile in his voice. On all the nights when she couldn’t sleep because she was thinking of him, she had tried to remember exactly the way he had just, an instant ago, pronounced her name, Carrie Moon.

But, no, she reminded herself quickly. Carrie Moon had been dead for twelve years.

“No one by that name lives here!” she blurted into the receiver and threw it down before she could lose her nerve. As much as she had dreamed of the day when she would hear from Stan again, she knew she couldn’t let him into the well ordered life of The Honorable Karen M. Morgan, Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County.

“What’s wrong?” Her husband Howard appeared in the doorway of her study, his face contorted with frustration. “I need quiet to finish these depositions.”

“Sorry. It was nothing.” She tried to steady her hands as she adjusted the sentencing memoranda she had been reading in preparation for the sentencing of two convicted murderers the following day. But she was unsuccessful.

“Your hands are shaking. Was that some sort of threat? Should I call the police?”

Because she presided over criminal as well as civil trials, Howard resolutely believed that one day someone she had sentenced to prison would escape and murder them in their beds. He hated her job. He had wanted her to stay at Warrick, Thompson, and Hayes, San Diego’s biggest law firm, where they had both been partners. But after more than twenty mind-numbing years of ensuring the right accounting data of multinational corporations went on the right lines of Securities and Exchange Commission financial disclosure documents, she had chosen to accept the judgeship two years ago.

At six one, with one hundred and eighty pounds of well-honed muscle, Howard was not someone to be taken lightly. She was certain his stature enhanced his reputation as an unbeatable trial attorney.

At that moment he looked like an angry grizzly bear, roused from the comfort and isolation of his own fully equipped home office. When had the handsome man she married become this jowelly, gray-haired, fifty-year old? Where was the distinguished Howard Morgan, who had spoken to her in the elevator ten years ago on his first day at Warrick, Thompson? In 1997, a year after she became a partner at age 38, the firm had lured him from Elliot, Fitzgerald in New York to shake up their sleepy, backwater litigation section. From his first day in charge, the litigation lawyers at Warrick, Thompson were on call twenty-four/seven. They went to every initial client meeting with a fully prepared litigation plan and cost analysis. After five years of Howard, the Los Angeles firms that had been trying to take over the San Diego market, closed their branch offices and went home.

“No, you don’t need to call the police.” She regained more and more of her composure with each passing second. Her voice now carried its usual cool, unflappable judicial tone. “It was just a wrong number.”

“Good. I don’t have time for crises right now. I have to read three major depositions tonight.” He turned abruptly and went down the hall. She would not see him again for at least a week. He would study depositions until the wee hours, sleep on the sofa in his office, and be out the door to catch his flight to Philadelphia by six a.m. After ten years of marriage, she knew all his routines by heart.

She took a long breath and stared at the phone. All she had to do was hit *69, and Stan’s voice would be there again. And she could tell him the truth. Except she had already told him the truth. Carrie Moon did not live there. Carrie Moon no longer existed.

  * * *
She was in her office in her chambers by seven the next morning, an hour before her secretary, her court clerk, or her bailiff arrived. She had not slept, so there had been no point in staying in bed past five thirty when the first faint light of the December dawn filtered through her blinds. She actually had come downstairs in time to see Howard heading out, suitcase in hand. He regarded her with mild surprise.

“You didn’t have to get up to say goodbye.”

“I couldn’t sleep anymore. Have a good trip.”

He nodded and without a backward glance hurried out to the waiting limo.

No kisses, but she hadn’t expected or particularly wanted one. In the early days of their relationship Howard’s attention had been exciting. He had appeared in the doorway of her office at six in the evening and had taken her for a drink or for dinner before returning to his own office to work until the wee hours. Single, successful, and rich, he had been highly sought after. His attention had turned her head. He had asked her to marry him after three months of dating. She wasn’t in love when she said yes; but she had thought mistakenly, he was in love with her. On their third anniversary – by the time they were using a king-sized bed, so that they could maintain the appearance of sleeping in the same room without touching – she had asked him why he’d pursued her so relentlessly in the beginning. Unspoken were the words, since you obviously care so little about me now.

“I needed a wife. So everyone would leave me alone. It takes time away from work to fend off women and well-meaning friends who want to fix you up. You were terrific wife material for someone like me: a partner at the firm, discreet, undemanding. And you’ve turned out to be everything I thought you’d be, Karen. You’ve been great for my career. And I hope I’ve been the same for yours.” He had stretched across the mammoth bed and patted her shoulder before he rolled over and went to sleep.

The Honorable Karen M. Morgan sat down at her desk, wondering if she dared make herself a cup of coffee. When she became a judge, she quickly learned that everyone waited on her because of the dignity of her position. Her court secretary and clerk would be miffed if they showed up and found the pot brewing. She eyed her empty cup longingly but decided against rocking anyone’s boat that morning. She considered the sentencing memoranda and probation reports on her desk and wondered if she would learn anything else about Pablo Rodriguez and Vincenzo Lopez if she read them again. She already knew they were twenty-one and twenty-two. Gang members since the age of twelve. They had killed three bystanders in a drive-by shooting against a rival gang eighteen months ago. One victim had been a four-year-old child. Each defendant was up for 125 years-to-life. Pablo was the sole support of a widowed mother and a ten-year-old sister. There would be tears this morning.

The probation report and sentencing memoranda remained untouched. She would learn nothing more about these men whom she would soon sentence to a living death just as she would she never learn any more about Howard’s twisted logic which had produced their living death of a marriage. His coldness would have mattered if she had had a heart herself. But hers had been dead for twelve years.

Yet maybe a spark still lived inside her somewhere. After she had heard the limo drive off that morning, she had rushed to the phone and dialed * and 6 before she put it down without completing the 9. She had stared at the receiver longingly, wishing she had not told Stan the truth last night. Then she probably would be seeing him today. The thought of being near him created such a surge of joy that she couldn’t catch her breath for a moment. She had felt nothing like this for twelve years.

Howard would never know if she saw Stan. He was going to be gone for the entire week. And even if he found out, he would not care as long as no one else knew. In the world of Warrick, Thompson, no one frowned on having affairs; they frowned only on knowing they had occurred. One never made one’s personal or professional mistakes public.

She had stared at the phone and wondered how long * 69 worked to ring back the incoming call. But where would a ringing phone have found Stan at this hour except in bed with some woman half his age? For he, too, had turned forty-eight this year. He had been thirty-six on that last day.

She closed her eyes, summoning her memory of his smiling voice and her first sight of him on stage with his trumpet at Jazz By the Bay. Five feet eleven, dark, slightly wavy hair that he grew to collar length, slender build but well-developed chest, the result of years of relentlessly increasing his lung capacity. He wasn’t classically handsome, but he was drop-dead attractive thanks to the warmth in his smile and the twinkle in his dark eyes. His exuberant personality made him a born flirt. She’d watched him solo that night on “I Can’t Get Started” and, while her heart raced, she had realized most of the other female hearts in the room were pounding just as hard.

“Judge Morgan, you’re sitting in the dark!” Isabel Martinez, her secretary, flipped on the overhead lights as she entered the office.

Karen hadn’t noticed. The glow of the desk lamp that she left on around the clock had been sufficient for her musings. Mesmerized, she watched Isabel place a small artificial tree on the corner of her desk.

“What’s that for?”

“Christmas, Your Honor. Haven’t you noticed it’s December 1?”

Karen reached over and pulled yesterday’s page off her calendar. “Why, so it is.” She rubbed her eyes, sandy from lack of sleep.

“You need coffee,” Isabel said wisely. “I’ll put the pot on.”

Karen watched her small, overweight figure waddle over to the coffee pot and take charge. Isabel was only a year older than she was, yet looked ten years her senior. She had been married since the age of 18 and was a grandmother three times over. Karen wondered if she loved her husband but dared not ask.

In the law firm, secretaries and paralegals talked about their personal lives to the women attorneys. But as soon as she was on the bench that stopped. She could not be called Karen any longer. She had to be Your Honor or Judge Morgan. When she put her robe on each morning, she felt as if she disappeared under its weight. A figure that looked like her took the bench day after day and barked orders in the courtroom, while her soul hovered in some unknown place, waiting for the robe to come off so that it could return to her body.

“Here.” Isabel handed her a steaming mug just as Jim Scott, her court clerk, and Bob McGee, her bailiff came in. Eight o’clock. They met each morning to receive her orders for the day, but on this day she had none.
Fortunately Bob took the lead. “I’ve scoped out the hallway. Lots of press waiting to report the sentencing. And lots of victims’ families, too.”

“Tell the press they have to stay outside.” Panic hit Karen. Stan might see her on TV and realize she had lied to him last night. She remembered how he used to watch the morning news as he lay in bed, not rushed to go anywhere because his work day never started before eight p.m. What if he saw her and came down to the courthouse?

“With all due respect, Judge Morgan, the last time we tried to close the proceedings, we spent two mornings in litigation with those hotshot Los Angeles First Amendment lawyers that Channel 21 keeps on retainer,” Bob reminded her.

One of Howard’s few failures was his inability to capture Chanel 21’s First Amendment business. “Good point,” she conceded. “Let them in, but make sure they are set up by nine. I don’t want any delays today.”

* * *

At six fifteen that night, she sat on I-15, her silver BMW stalled like a ship dead in the water. She stared blankly at the parking lot that the freeway inevitably became after five o’clock. She recalled the impassive faces of Rodriguez and Lopez as she had sentenced them that morning. As she inched forward to her exit, she realized to her horror that she was as emotionally detached as they had been. She couldn’t shed any more tears about anything or for any reason – not like the mothers, sobbing their hearts out as their sons were led away. What if she could feel again? Even pain would be better than this continual numbness. But no, she reminded herself, blinding emotional pain had left her unable to feel. She had hurt until she could not hurt anymore. Not feeling was better than hurting that much ever gain. Stan had to stay out of her life.

But within ten minutes, she found she was wrong. She parked in
the garage of their six thousand square-foot-home with the view of the eastern mountains. This house was one of the few disagreements she had won with Howard. He had wanted to live in upscale La Jolla by the sea. But she had grown up in Asheville, North Carolina; and she missed mountains and forests. Her suburban Scripps Ranch home, among the eucalyptus trees, was in one of the few San Diego neighborhoods with anything green overhead. And she could see the mountains every morning from her bedroom window.

She hurried into the silent kitchen. She raced toward the phone, almost breathless at the sight of the red light on the answering machine, winking steadily like a monitor tracking her heartbeat. She pushed the message button and held her breath. Isabel’s soft monotone reminded her to bring ornaments for the barren little tree. The light stopped blinking as if her heart had stopped beating. She hit the erase button and burst into the tears she had no idea she could shed. She stood alone in her empty kitchen in her empty house in her empty life and sobbed for Stan Benedict – and for Carrie Moon.

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Last Wednesday morning, at 5:30, I woke up with my heart racing like a NASCAR competitor. I rolled over and tried deep breathing, but my heart ignored the vast quantities of oxygen I poured in and out of my lungs. (I have a trumpet player acquaintance who swears his trumpet-breath training saved his life during a heart attack. So I thought it was worth a try. I guess it doesn’t work for woodwinds.)

car

So I sat up on the side of my bed in the dark and panicked. Which sent my out-of-control ticker into the tilt zone. But really, I told myself, wasn’t this the product of a month of my doctor trying to find a blood pressure medication that would keep mine normal and not give me the backache the current one gave me. Surely I wasn’t going to die of a pounding heart brought on by the recent three-day trial of a DIFFERENT DRUG? Then I decided NOT to answer that question.

I went down to the kitchen and swallowed the effective, but offending drug we were trying to replace, reasoning that the back pain you know is preferable to the death you don’t know. I went back to bed, and somehow my pulse went back to normal. I fell asleep congratulating myself on saving the cost of the ER visit and remaining alive, all with one tiny pill that was just going to give me a severely aching back while it kept me on this side of Eternity.

BUT THEN -

I was awake once more. And my heart was now racing along again in the danger zone. It was no longer impressed that I was willing to endure back pain to get it to behave. And it had developed this funky new symptom, pressure on my chest. I sat up again and considered my options. There was no one home but me and the retrievers, who don’t drive. One child was in Seattle. Not an option. One was in a classroom teaching with a brand new job on the other side of town. Not an option. The third was in his second week of law school, in class, also on the other side of town. Strike Three.

I reminded myself people in my family live a long, long time. All I had to do was drive myself to the hospital. I was tough. I could do it. After all, I’d given birth to three children after the age of thirty-six, wimping out to anesthesia only on child number three.

So for twenty minutes, I listened to Frank Sinatra sing Mack the Knife and tried to pretend my heart wasn’t going faster than my MiniCooper. I picked Mack, not because I like the lyrics, but there’s this feel-good jazz interlude that’s all big band and no vocals. And if I was heading to the Other Side, I wanted  Count Basie to give me a Big Send Off with trumpets blazing. I drove, and breathed as I counted the red lights to the ER.

The staff grabbed me at once and stuck electrodes everywhere. And by their reaction, which went from OMG to Oh, hum, I wasn’t having a heart attack. After a lady with a clipboard asked if I had an “Advanced Directive” and I told her “No, that means death is not an option today,” (she didn’t get the joke) a serious young ER doc told me the vampires would be after my blood, and then he would figure out what was making my heart run like a racehorse.

I had no one to talk to. I lay on my back and stared at the layers of gray metal light fixture on the ceiling and tried more deep breathing. My heart slowed its pace slightly, but nothing like what I needed to be comfortable.

I decided to think about SOMETHING ELSE. But what? I considered the possibility, Advanced Directive or no, the Universe had decided my number was up. Would the petals of the industrial light fixture above my head slowly dissolve into the long white-tunnel everyone talked about? Would heading into the light be easier than lying here alone, trying not to worry the EKG might have been wrong because my heart was not with the slow-down program? Would I get to come back and write a bestseller about Heaven which I already remembered from Before I Was Born? Had it changed much? Heaven Before and After didn’t sound dramatic enough for the bestseller list. And then it might seem boring that I’d already been there and remembered the place.

The ER doc returned to look at the heart monitor. Surely a bad sign, I thought.

“Wow, your heart rate’s high!”

Tell me something I don’t know. Was this doctor-speak for the white tunnel is on it’s way?

“Don’t name a number,” I said. I figured the freak-out from that information would send me into Eternal Oz to hang with the Wizard for sure.

He nodded and made way for the vampire cart.

Now I began to wonder if I should call my children. After all, they had no idea where I was or that my heart was doing a tap dance that might not have an encore. But the nurse had promised me an answer within the hour after the lab had given the results to the serious ER doc. So I decided to delay announcement of my possible demise. In the meantime, my heart had taken a new view of woodwind breathing and was beginning to turn down the metronome.

In the end, the vampires had the answer. The new medication coupled with the weird diet the doctor’s nutritionist had come up with (another story) had washed out all my potassium. And hearts can’t hold a tempo without their potassium. They rush like a junior high band on steriods playing a Sousa march. So after an hour of fluid dripped into my vein and twenty minutes of drinking the nastiest tasting potassium liquid on the planet, I was wiped up, dusted off and sent HOME.

It could have been worse. I’m glad it’s over. I eat an avocado, now, every day. Better source of potassium and a whole lot cheaper than the ER.

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It must have been the last winter storm of the season that came overnight. It seems odd to say “winter storm,” since in San Diego “winter storms” do not have freezing temperatures and snow, the hallmarks of real winter. But even though it was 61 degrees when I went outside with the first of the retrievers at seven o’clock on Saturday morning, it felt colder than that. I put on my jacket before accompanying retriever two on her first potty break of the day.

We walked to Hendrix Pond after retriever breakfast. (Mine comes later with a foamy hot latte that I make myself in a bone china cup with pastel flowers that is the sine qua non for reading my emails.) Everything was shiny wet under gray clouds that carried the potential for new rain. The eucalyptus trees tossed restlessly overhead in the wild winds, and the world smelled of rain and the fruity, but faintly astringent, aroma of eucalyptus. Excitement was in the air; but I had no idea why.

The pond was a sheet of greeny-brown glass, with few green-headed mallards and navy-winged females swimming among the reeds. The three white heron that had been there yesterday were nowhere to be seen. (It has been ages since all three were present; a good sign, I think when all return together. I found a white feather once that one of them left behind, and tucked it into a flower pot by my front door as a symbol of magic and good luck.) Most of the ducks were tucked securely into various sheltered nooks around the pond, some with their heads under their wings. No one had come to feed them as people often do of a morning. The retrievers and I had the wild, windy, cold, wintry world of the pond to ourselves.

We followed our usual trail around the perimeter, the retrievers investigating every new smell that overnight wind and rain had created. I waited patiently while they exhausted every sniff of whatever blade of grass or smooth bit of rock caught their canine fancy. I gazed out at the ducks and listened to the creaking eucalyptus overhead and wished I had awakened in the night to hear the wind and rain. There is nothing more cozy than waking in the wee hours to hear the world being tossed to bits by winter winds accompanied by the staccato beat of rain on the roof while retrievers snore contentedly close by. I love to snuggle deeper into my warm bed and my heap of feather pillows and say a prayer of thanks for my roof, my bed, my dogs, and for being cozy and dry.

The retrievers and I walked out of the shadows just as the morning sun broke through the heavy clouds. I felt the warmth of a normal April morning on my back for a few minutes; and now my jacket, which had been so welcome a minute ago, was uncomfortably hot. In this new unwelcome heat, the world seemed to go fuzzy the way a scene does when you turn the focus ring of a camera too far the wrong way. In an instant, I remembered what hot summer walks are like, with the heat of the sun on my back, and the retrievers, in their fluffy blonde coats, anxious to return to the dark cool of the condo. But, as quickly as the heat of April emerged, it vanished behind the gray morning storm clouds sailing across the rain-washed sky. Now the focus ring had been turned in the opposite direction, and it seemed as if the world had gone from fuzzy into sharp focus in the crisp air.

Some people love summer. Maybe because I grew up in the excessive heat of Southern summers, that season has never been my favorite. In a few days, it will become summer-hot here. Nineties are predicted where we live by Tuesday. So this morning’s chance to bid farewell to the cozy focus that winter-damp air brings to life under the tossing eucalyptus was welcome. Winter, I will miss you.

The Pond - Our Daily Destination

The Pond – Our Daily Destination

Up until last week, the only contact I’d had with Lena Dunham’s series “Girls” was reading various blogger posts about the different fashion statements the four female leads represent. I love fashion, although to be more accurate, I love style because style is timeless and individual, whereas fashion is a fickle friend of the moment. Based on my limited knowledge of “Girls” obtained through the style blogs, I was kindly disposed toward Lena Dunham because she insists on a personal style that is definitely not influenced by Hollywood’s unnatural picture of what women must be. And I admired her for succeeding in a difficult business at age twenty-seven.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I read a review of “Girls” written by a British blogger, Emma Woolf (the great-nice of Virginia herself), which made me curious about the substance of the show. Ms. Woolf, who could be a contemporary of Hannah Horvath and company, didn’t like “Girls” one bit. The title of her essay was “Why ‘Girls’ Is Bad for Women.” She described her experience watching the episodes in the first series on DVD as “uncomfortable and unforgettable.” (Did she mean “forgettable”?)

Curious, I ordered the same first season DVD from Netflix and on a night when I was too tired to do anything else, I settled down to watch. I began by wanting to like Hannah/Lena. I sympathized with her plight as a writer, struggling to get started. I felt for her when she was suddenly and without warning cut-off financially by her parents, and I sympathized with her decision to go plead her case to them – until I discovered her “novel” that was “nearly finished” consisted of all of ten pages. How could anyone who called a ten page draft a novel, expect to be taken seriously? What emotion was Lena Dunham trying to evoke in me? Laughter, disgust, complete bafflement?

I considered ejecting the disk after episode one, but I thought “Girls” might get better, so I punched “forward” and “play” and ploughed on. Pretty soon, I understood Ms. Woolf’s objection to “grubby sexual content.” As she put it, “If you want to watch strangers copulating, I imagine professional pornography would be more satisfying.” And she was right about the sexual content of episode two, which as she said “opens with Hannah and her reclusive boyfriend Adam having sex, in a scene so disturbing that it felt close to abuse.” I kept wondering if I was supposed to like Adam because I did not like him even a little. Any respect I had had for Hannah/Lena vanished. She insisted a man was her “boyfriend” who wouldn’t return her texts, yet would use her (there is no other word for it) for some very unattractive sex when she showed up at his door, reeking desperation and misery. Why, I wondered would a young woman depict the lives of herself and her contemporaries in such a squalid, hopeless light? Was Ms. Dunham trying to say that women are still required to have a man in their lives at any price despite the enormous strides women have made toward equality and independence in the last fifty years? I found the suggestion that women must or should put up with abuse – physical or verbal – as distasteful and disturbing as the generation of “romance” novels that encouraged women to put up with domestic violence in the name of “hopeless love” for an “alpha male.”

At any rate, I gave “Girls” the same chance Ms. Woof did. I watched all of the episodes in series one. It didn’t get better, and I was relieved when it ended although I wasn’t entertained by Hannah/Lena’s inane monologue about the “benefits” of contracting AIDS as she lay on an exam table with her feet in stirrups for her annual pap smear. Really, are these private details of women’s lives interesting enough to be on television? And what is “Girls”s is trying to accomplish by airing the mundane details of womanhood: comedy? satire? social commentary? Beats me.

Like Emma Woolf, I am not a cultural snob. I admit I did not watch “Sex and the City” in its heyday, but I saw all the episodes while happily bypassing the 11 p.m. doomsday evening news. The redeeming grace of “Sex” was its ability to create a fantasy world of clothes, clubs, rich men, and expensive shoes on a writer’s budget. And, best of all, the warmth of the attachment of the four female leads came across as real and heartwarming. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for “Sex,” knowing only too well that no Wall Street partner has ever in the history of the world had time to hang out in a coffee shop with her girl friends. Miranda, I love you, but you are a work of extreme fiction.

Now baffled by all the hoopla over a show that to me seemed depressing and even dangerous for the messages it is sending to and about women, I turned to an expert for advice: my daughter who is exactly Lena Dunham’s age. I offered her the DVD and asked for her thoughts after watching it. But her response was even more telling. She said okay the night I called, but when we got together for dinner the next evening, she politely declined. “Mom, I googled it. And from what I read, it’s not something I want to see.” “Wise decision,” I told her. And I smiled to myself, “Validated!”

Girls

I was reading an article this week on tips for obtaining a literary agent. What struck me was the author’s authoritative insistence that without a “perfect” manuscript, drafted and redrafted and redrafted yet again, a writer is doomed to be ignored and never to be published. If that is true, I am wondering why so many books are out there, indie and traditionally published alike, because I am yet to read a “perfect” one. Have you?

I myself hate the cult of “perfectionism” because it creates a myth that victimizes the rest of us who are just trying to do our best work. Note that “ best work” is not “perfect work.” In between learning that Dance For A Dead Princess had been nominated by Foreward Reviews for its Book of the Year Award in Romance and learning Dance was the sole Finalist for the Beverly Hills Book Award in Romance, I got an e-mail one morning informing me my “review was ready” from a indie author book review service I had contacted ages ago. I scrolled down and read absolutely the nastiest, snarkiest review of my book imaginable. No, let me rephrase that. The nastiest, snarkiest review of any book imaginable. Apparently I’d unwittingly fallen into the hands of the High Priestess of Perfection. So while munching my slightly underdone egg and overdone toast, and drinking a less than perfectly brewed cup of coffee (but happy to have a warm breakfast anyway), I learned that the High Priestess found my plot “contrived,” thought the use of the diary to tell the inner story was “the oldest literary cliche” out there, and was just outraged because the word “lame” got into the text without an accent over the e. Oh, whoops, my eternal bad. High Priestess said nothing about my ability to draw a reader vividly into a scene. (A New York editor had given me that accolade years ago.) High Priestess had nothing to say about all the readers on GoodReads and Amazon who had stayed up at night to find out what happened. And, of course, she had no idea what the judges at Foreward thought of Dance for A Dead Princess. No, she was dead set in her opinion that Dance wasn’t perfect and therefore not worthy of anyone’s time of day.

Well, I agreed with her. If perfect is your bag, Dance is not for you. But, then, neither are the rest of the books out there. Wonder if High Priestess has given that much thought?

Fortunately, I’ve been a writer long enough to know what I do well, and where I can improve. I listen to honest reader feedback. I learn. I grow. But I have not one single aspiration to be Perfect. My heart was broken enough times on that wheel growing up, and I have no intention of the punched-in-the-gut feeling that comes from hours and hours of working and hoping for that “Perfect” accolade, only to find all effort wasted because the accent mark didn’t find its home over the “e.”

I think it is useless and wrong to preach the religion of “Perfectionism.” One Christmas I went to a luncheon here in San Diego that a local group of attorneys sponsored in honor of the season. We sat in a semi-dark cavern of a room, at fifty or sixty round tables covered in spotless linen (or the lights were dimmed to hide the spots, take your choice), and potted poinsettias were plopped in the center of the table (to give the proceedings that “festive” air, I guess). We ate rubbery chicken with a glob of gravy on top, dressing that I swear was made out of old newspapers, and green beans that had been run through a pot of boiling water for ten seconds flat. (I assumed those beans spoke French.)

Since I was starving, I opted to search for food value in the wilted lemon meringue pie that had probably been parked by each diner’s place around 8:30 that morning. And as I sent my blood sugar soaring on an empty stomach, I listened to the speaker, a middle-aged attorney in a bright purple suit, who was presenting a writing award to a student from one of the local law schools. What interested me was the Speaker’s awe-inspired assurance that this student was “Perfect” because she put every one of her writing projects through at least ten drafts. Had Madame Middle-Aged Purple Suit taken leave of her senses, I wondered. Which one of her clients would have paid the hourly rate of a junior attorney who couldn’t produce a fileable document (fileable, not perfect) in one draft and a final? No client on earth is going to pay for ten drafts. Nor should he or she have to. What unreasonable and unworkable standard of the cult of “Perfectionism” was Purple Suit advocating in the midst of stultifying boredom?

Perhaps Miss Ten Drafts went on to be a disciple of the High Priestess, I don’t know. I never went to another holiday luncheon. I’m not perfect, my books are perfect, my readers aren’t perfect, and I love us all just the way we are. I’m throwing my hat in the ring to stamp out the religion of Perfectionism!

The High Priestess

The High Priestess

One year ago yesterday, I pushed the publish button on Amazon and Nook Press and became a published author. I knew I’d embarked on a journey that I’d always wanted to make, but I had no idea what was coming.

At first, Dance For A Dead Prinessc was an e-book only. I didn’t realize until months later how simple and inexpensive and indeed, imperative, it was to create a paperback on Create Space.

And I started the journey with a website under construction and quickly learned not having a website made me a second-class author citizen. Thus, when I wrote one blogger who offered two-day guest spots for authors, to secure two days to guest post, she replied, “Well, ok. But you only get one day because you don’t have a website.”

But the website lesson was trivial compared to the advertising lesson. For breathtaking amounts of money, I bought ads on Kirkus Reviews, thinking their favorable review of Dance For A Dead Princess would quickly produce a readership for the book. Wrong. Expensively wrong. Ads ran. No one seemed to notice.

Then I tried an all-romance website and had the book’s cover pasted up for a month for another quite tidy sum. Again, no one noticed. My book was simply embedded in a mosaic of other books – most with far racier covers. Since I was a new and unknown author, and readers were perusing this site for their favorites that involved shirtless men, Dance For A Dead Princess wasn’t a candidate for their attention. Another lesson learned.

After a certain amount of frustration, I managed to get Dance up on GoodReads. But since Amazon does not cross-post reviews on that site, all my reviews remained on Amazon.

Then I discovered the Truly Expensive Blog tour. I wonder if I thought it would be effective because it was Truly Expensive or because the owner of the business persuaded me she knew what she was doing or because I had read how some blog tours had put Indie books on the map (and the bestseller list.) But of all the money I threw at advertising in the first year of being an author, the Truly Expensive Blog Tour was the most wasted. The owner of the business and my tour director had more excuses than you can count for why the tour dates weren’t honored and why the reviews promised were never posted. To put it mildly, I’d been scammed, big time.

About this time, I decided to do Facebook ads and Kindle Daily Nation sponsorships, although I also sat up nights hunting for websites where indie authors could post for free or nominal sums. Oddly enough, although multiple indie authors claimed Facebook ads were useless, I found them more effective than anything else I’d tried. And they were happily quite low budget. I began to think that the more money I threw at the problem, the less success I had. Whereas, when I was being cheap, I seemed to get better results.

Another example of that principle was another blog tour organizer, who appeared on top of a Google Search one day. Her rates sounded too good to be true. But this time I was careful to research her company and to ask her bluntly if she kept her promises, telling her the horror story of the Truly Expensive Blog Tour. I was delighted to learn she was everything she claimed to be. Organized, honest, efficient, and trustworthy. And she was able to produce reviews, which are the gold standard for selling books. Almost all of the reviews on GoodReads came from her blog tour (which has now continued for months for a fraction of the cost of Truly Expensive.)

And then, just as the First Year of Being An Author was ending, I received some exciting news. Dance For A Dead Princess is a finalist in the Foreward Reviews Best Book of the Year Award for 2013, with the final results to be published in June. And Dance is the Finalist for the 2014 Beverly Hills International Book Award. That award has one winner and one finalist in each category, so I’m honored to be No. 2 in Romance.

Yesterday I started the Second Year of Being An Author by writing the first press release I’d ever written in my life and sending it off to local media. Whether it gets noticed or not, just doing it felt good. And I contacted local indie bookstores I’ve been meaning to contact for months.

Most of all, so many friends have helped out during Year One. They’ve written reviews, they’ve offered encouragement, they’ve stuck up for me and the book when the inevitable Vicious Reviewers surfaced. Launching a book into the world takes friends, and I am very grateful to mine and to everyone who as read Dance for A Dead Princess. And now Year Two Begins.

eauthor-ebook-e-book-humor

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Sarah hurried to her car parked in the drive and got in. She sat behind the wheel and took a few long breaths to calm herself before she started the engine and backed out. She shouldn’t have gone to Jim’s last night. It had only made seeing him with Alexa today that much more difficult.

She decided not to drive through the heart of Pacific Beach because even on a Wednesday night at seven o’clock, the partyers would be taking over the streets. Her nerves were like frayed electrical wires, snapping and arcing, and she was not in the mood to worry about hitting jaywalking drunks.

She navigated her way back to Felspar Street which led on to Mount Soledad Road. She decided it would easier to drive over the mountain and through downtown La Jolla to go home. As she swung up the mountain’s long steep grade, she considered stopping at Trend for a drink. The bar offered half-priced appetizers on Wednesday night, and it was a big draw for businessmen in the office buildings near by. Maybe she’d pick up someone to spend the night with, and maybe he’d be interesting enough to take her mind off Jim cooking supper in Alexa’s kitchen.

But that was the trouble with Trend. She couldn’t go in now without wishing Jim were there, too. The bar had always been one of her favorite spots for picking up the men who rotated quickly through her life. She hated to think her interest in Jim had ruined that forever.

She reached the top of the mountain and began her descent. The BMW purred happily along the sharp bends and twists on the downward slope. She steered into the curves and let herself admit the truth: she wanted off this case. The emotions it conjured up in her slammed her to the ground, day after day. It brought back the dark days of Joey Menendez, a place of horror that she never wanted to revisit.

She was now on the steepest part of the descent. Her feet reached for the clutch and the brake to slow the big car into the hairpin turn. The brake depressed, but her speed didn’t change. Automatically she pumped the brake. Craig, Lewis had required its high-profile criminal lawyers to learn advanced driving techniques. She felt confident even in the emergency.

But the brakes remained unresponsive. She still had the clutch engaged, so she pulled the stick back to third gear. But nothing happened. Suddenly she was covered in cold sweat without time to think. The brakes and her clutch were gone, and she was hurtling toward a hairpin turn at sixty miles an hour. She frantically pumped the brakes and tried to steer away from the stone wall directly in her path. At the last minute, the car somehow made it around the turn without flipping over. Another lay just ahead.

She continued to hold the wheel as she reached for her last hope, the emergency brake. But, it too, was gone. The car continued to pick up speed, and she braced herself for the coming turn. And then nothing.

* * *
Jim Mitchell left Alexa’s around 10:00 that evening. The long day of waiting and wondering if Alexa would really get to go home had left him exhausted. The tension of not having anything to use for her defense was wearing him down, inch by inch. He needed to find that nanny.

He hurried home, downed a fast tumbler of scotch, and fell into bed at 10:30. When his phone went off at 1 a.m., he opened his eyes long enough to see the call wasn’t from Alexa. He didn’t recognize the number, so he pushed the dismiss button and went back to sleep. But the phone shrilled again, determined not to let him rest.

“Hello.”

“This is Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. Someone whom we believe is a friend or relative was in a car crash tonight. The police found your name among her things. She’s here in the hospital. Sarah Knight.”

Panic seized him. How badly was she hurt?

* * *

She was sitting on the side of her bed, trying to sign something with her left hand. She had a white gauze bandage wrapped around her forehead and her right arm was in a sling. She looked angry and annoyed.

“What are you doing here?”

“Making sure you’re ok.”

“How’d you find out I was here?”

“The hospital called. My name was the only one they could find in the car. Apparently you don’t carry the names of your next-of-kin on you.”

“That’s because I don’t have any.”

“Well, I’m filling in tonight. Get back in bed. What are you trying to do?”

“I’m signing myself out and going home.”

At that moment the door whooshed open, and Jim remembered all the recent nights with Alexa in the hospital. He’d had enough of them, but he knew Sarah should stay put.

“I’m Tom Barrett,” the forty-something, square-jawed, salt and pepper haired doctor in the white coat strode in with a smile and an out-stretched hand. No wedding ring, Jim noticed, and the kind of George Clooney face women find irresistible.

“You must be Mr. Knight?”

“No, a professional colleague.”

Was that a spark of relief in the good doctor’s eyes? Jim didn’t want to think about it.

“Well, Sarah here has had quite a blow to the head. She’s lucky to be alive at all. Very lucky. She’s sprained her right arm; but more importantly, she’s got a mild concussion and shouldn’t go home tonight. Maybe you can get her to see reason.”

Tom Barrett turned to Sarah, who was frowning at his handsome face. “Put that down and let me take a look at you.”

“I’m fine.”

“You are not fine. Any nausea or dizziness? Double vision? How’s that headache?” He proceeded to shine a light in her eyes, in the face of her silence. He smiled, “You aren’t going to tell me, are you?”

“I’m going home.”

“You are not going home. You can’t drive.”

“I’ll call a cab. I’m going home.”

Tom Barrett sighed and turned to Jim. “See if you can talk some sense into her.”

Jim sat down on the chair beside her bed as the door closed behind the doctor.

“Hand me the paperwork.”

“Not, yet. Tell me what happened.”

“The car hit a wall going over Mount Soledad on my way home.”

“Were you drinking?”

“No, I’d just left Alexa’s.”

“So why did the car go out of control?”

“Don’t know. The BMW people took it to the shop. Ask them.”

“I will. But you know what happened. Tell me.”

“Hand me the papers.”

“Not until you tell me.”

“Ok, ok. The brakes failed.”

“And you have a manual transmission. Why didn’t you down shift?”

“I did.”

“So no clutch, either?”

“Right.”

“Someone just tried to kill you.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“And now you want to sign yourself out of the hospital and go home in the middle of the night?”

“Don’t argue with me. Hand me those papers.”

Jim studied her wiry determined form, swallowed by the white tent of the hospital gown. He watched her try to scribble with her left hand.

“Come to my place instead. I’d rather know you were in my guest room.”

“Nope. Going home.”

“So there’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay. Then I’ll drive you.”

* * *

She was fading, Jim noticed, as they turned into her drive. Her fierceness was no match for the medications Dr. Barrett had given her. He wondered if she’d fall deeply enough asleep to let him take her home with him. She had not been able to get her clothes on alone, so the hospital had let him wrap a blanket over the cavernous hospital gown.

She seemed to read his mind about taking her back to his place. Her eyes popped open. “Don’t even think about not letting me go inside.”

“You just seemed to have passed out here in the car.”

With a mighty effort, she heaved open the passenger side door with her left hand.

“Wait. Let me. Where’s you key?”

“In my purse.”

“Come on, then. Lean on me. If you don’t, you’re going to fall and send yourself right back to Dr. Barrett.”

She gave him a small, mischievous drunken smile. “I think he’d like to have me back.”

“He definitely would like to have you back. He knows you need to be in the hospital.”

“No, he liked me. I could tell. He liked me.”

“You’re on a lot of medication right now.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t know when an attractive man likes me.”

“Okay, okay. He liked you. Why don’t you let me take you straight back to the hospital then?”

“Because I’m tired, and I want to sleep in my own bed. He’ll call me tomorrow. He has to find out how I am.”

Jim suppressed his annoyance and helped her make her way up the walk in the chilly October morning dark. He realized the drugs were talking and exposing the lonely, vulnerable side of her life, something she kept expertly hidden.

She leaned on him while he turned the key in the lock. He stepped into the hall, drew her inside, and closed the door behind them. She smelled of antiseptic and her usual gardenia perfume. He put his arms around her and thought of a bird’s small bones as she sagged against him.

“Come on, then, let’s get you into bed.” He reached out and flipped the switch for the hall light.

“Oh, my God!” Sarah lurched toward the living room, which had been turned upside down. Lamps lay smashed on the floor. The end tables had been overturned. Someone had used a knife to rip open all the sofa cushions and scatter down everywhere.

Jim tried to grab her before she got beyond arm’s reach but was not successful. She stopped in the doorway, and Jim saw her legs sag as she grabbed the door frame.

He hurried to put his arms around her before she could fall.

“Turn on the light,” she commanded.

“No, don’t look.”

“I want to see.”

Reluctantly Jim reached out and switched on the overhead recessed lighting.

She shook her head in disbelief. He saw tears in her eyes. But his training immediately made him pull her close.

“We have to get out of here,” he whispered close to her ear.

“No.”

“Sh-h-h. We don’t’ know who did this. And we don’t know who might still be here.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but he picked her up and hurried out to the car. He didn’t have time to go back and clear the scene, and it would be dangerous to do that alone, anyway.

He bundled her into the car, and backed out of the drive quickly, still afraid someone might yet be in the house. Shock on top of the medications had silenced Sarah. She slumped against the passenger’s door and closed her eyes.

Jim’s mind raced through the possibilities of who could be responsible. Had the same person who’d cut her brakes been the one who’d gone through her house? And what about Alexa? He’d left her ready to sleep. Had they gone after her, too?

He drove through the dark, deserted streets wondering if he should swing by Alexa’s. But it was 2:30 in the morning, and she’d been instructed to call if anything seemed amiss. Right now getting Sarah to rest had to be his top priority.

He pulled into his garage, closed the roll-up door behind him, and got out of the car. Fatigue and fear had finally done gotten the best of her. He carried her into his guest room, pulled back the sheets and tucked her in. She smiled in her sleep but never woke up.

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