Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel
by Linda Bennett Pennell
Genre: Historical, Contemporary Suspense
Lake City, Florida, June, 1930: Al Capone checks in for an unusually long stay at the Blanche Hotel, a nice enough joint for an insignificant little whistle stop. The following night, young Jack Blevins witnesses a
body being dumped heralding the summer of violence to come. One-by-one, people controlling county vice activities swing from KKK ropes. No moonshine distributor, gaming operator, or brothel madam, black or
white, is safe from the Klan's self-righteous vigilantism. Jack's older sister Meg, a waitress at the Blanche, and her fiancé, a sheriff's deputy, discover reasons to believe the lynchings are cover for a much larger ambition than simply ridding the county of vice. Someone, possibly backed by Capone, has secret plans for filling the voids created by the killings. But as the body count grows and crosses burn, they come to realize this knowledge may get all of them killed.
Gainesville, Florida, August, 2011: Liz Reams, an up and coming young academic specializing in the history of American crime, impulsively moves across the continent to follow a man who convinces her of his
devotion yet refuses to say the three simple words “I love you”. Despite the entreaties of friends and family, she is attracted to edginess and a certain type of glamour in her men, both living and historical. Her
personal life is an emotional roller coaster, but her career options suddenly blossom beyond all expectation, creating a very different type of stress. To deal with it all, Liz loses herself in her professional passion, original research into the life and times of her favorite bad boy, Al Capone. What she discovers about 1930's summer of violence, and herself in the process, leaves her reeling at first and then changed forever.
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June 14, 1930
Jack jammed a finger into each ear and swallowed hard. Any other time, he wouldn’t even notice the stupid sound. The river always sorta slurped just before it pulled stuff underground.
His stomach heaved again. Maybe he shouldn’t look either, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the circling current. When the head slipped under the water, the toe end lifted up. Slowly the tarpaulin wrapped body, at least that’s what it sure looked like, went completely vertical. It bobbed around a few times and finally gurgled its way down the sinkhole. Then everything went quiet . . . peaceful . . . crazily normal. Crickets sawed away again. An ole granddaddy bullfrog croaked his lonesomeness into the sultry midnight air.
Crouched in the shelter of a large palmetto clump, Jack’s muscles quivered and sweat rolled into his eyes, but he remained stock-still. His heart hammered like he had just finished the fifty yard dash, but that was nothing to what Zeke was probably feeling. He was still just a little kid in lots of ways.
When creeping damp warmed the soles of Jack’s bare feet, he grimaced and glanced sideways. Zeke looked back with eyes the size of saucers and mouthed the words I’m sorry. Jack shook his head then wrinkled his nose as the odor of ammonia and damp earth drifted up. He’d always heard that fear produced its own peculiar odor, but nobody ever said how close you had to be to actually smell it. He prayed you had to be real close; otherwise, he and Zeke were in big trouble.
The stranger standing on the riverbank stared out over the water for so long Jack wondered if the man thought the body might suddenly come flying up out of the sinkhole and float back upriver against the current. Funny, the things that popped into your head when you were scared witless.
The man removed a rag from his pocket and mopped his face. He paused, looked upstream, then turned and stared into the surrounding forest. As his gaze swept over their hiding place, Jack held his breath and prayed, but he could feel Zeke’s chest rising and falling in ragged jerks so he slipped his hand onto Zeke’s arm. Under the gentle pressure of Jack’s fingers, Zeke’s muscles trembled and jumped beneath his soft ebony skin. When Zeke licked his lips and parted them like he was about to yell out, Jack clapped a hand over the open mouth and wrapped his other arm around Zeke’s upper body, pulling him close and holding him tight. Zeke’s heart pounded against the bib of his overalls like it might jump clean out of his chest.
With one final look ‘round at the river and forest, the stranger strode to the hand crank of a Model T. The engine caught momentarily, then spluttered and died. A stream of profanity split the quiet night. The crank handle jerked from its shaft and slammed back into place. More grinding and more swearing followed until the thing finally coughed to life for good and a car door slammed. Only then did Jack relax his hold on Zeke.
“I want outta here. I wanna go home,” Zeke whispered hoarsely.
Lucky Zeke. Before Meg left home to move into town, Jack would have felt the same way. Now he didn’t care if he ever went home.
Jack cocked an ear in the Ford’s direction. “Hush so I can listen. I think he’s gone, but we’re gonna belly crawl in the opposite direction just to be sure we ain’t seen.”
“Through that briar patch? I ain’t got on no shoes or shirt.”
“Me neither. Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”
“I ain’t no baby,” Zeke hissed as he scrambled after Jack.
When the pine forest thinned out, Jack raised up on his knees for a look around. Without a word, Zeke jumped to his feet and started toward the road. Jack grabbed a strap on Zeke’s overalls and snatched him back onto his bottom.
“You taken complete leave of your senses?” Wiping sweat out of his eyes, Jack pushed his shaggy blonde hair to one side. “Check it out before you go bustin’ into the open.”
“Why you so bossy all the time? I ain’t stupid, ya know. Just cause you turned twelve don’t make you all growed up.”
Zeke’s lower lip stuck out, trembling a little. Whether it was from fear or anger, Jack wasn’t sure. Probably both. Peering into the night, he strained for the flash of headlights. Nothing but bright moonlight illuminated the road’s deep white sand. Finally confident that no vehicles were abroad, he grabbed Zeke’s hand and pulled him to his feet. With one final glance left, then right, they leapt onto the single lane track and ran like the devil was on their tails.
August 15, 2011
Liz Reams glanced at the caller ID and grimaced. She didn’t have time for this, but guilt wouldn’t let her put the conversation off any longer. Sighing, she pressed the talk button and prepared to listen with forbearance and humility.
“Hello, Roberta. I’m so glad to hear your voice. I was beginning to think we were going to play phone tag forever.” Internally, Liz squirmed. Her conscience yelled, liar, you returned calls when you figured you’d get her voicemail.
Roberta’s reply made Liz cringe. While she endured the diatribe pouring through her cell phone, Liz eyed her purse, book bag, and laptop case huddled together on the sofa. She couldn’t afford to be late today of all days. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze paused on her laptop. She had paid more than a month’s rent for the thing, but as much as she loved its power and speed, it was also a constant reminder of her dereliction. It only compounded her guilt that everything Roberta said was true.
“I’m really, really sorry. I know I said you would have it by now, but I’ve been in the process of moving. You know what that’s like.”
Several expletives burned through Liz’s earpiece and then there was ominous silence.
“Look, I know how lucky I am to have a career practically dropped into my lap. You’ve been wonderfully patient and I’ve let you down. I feel so bad. I promise, no later than October . . .” Glancing at the calendar, Liz paused. “I mean November 1st. I just need to get the first couple months of teaching behind me, then I can focus on the novel.”
An angry question barked through the ether.
Liz tried to keep her voice cheerful and her tone even. “Of course I’m still seeing Jonathan. You know he’s the reason I moved to Florida. You’ll have something by November 1st. I promise. I’ve really got to go.”
The call ended with Roberta’s appeal to conscience ringing in Liz’s ears, leaving her feeling like an ungrateful, spoiled child. Poor Roberta. She deserved better. Several years ago while on semester break and bored out of her mind, Liz dashed off a few ideas and half a manuscript. On a whim, she sent Roberta, a friend of a friend, a query letter for a series of mystery novels and the sample chapters. She’d been amazed by the response. Roberta had been more than enthusiastic. She believed Liz could be the next Mary Higgins Clark. Liz was thrilled and flattered, but alas, her attention to her fiction had been stop-start at best. Now with the move to Florida, she had a terrible inkling her new situation wouldn’t allow time to finish her long overdue first novel.
While her first allegiance had to be to her professional responsibilities, after one of Roberta’s talks, Liz would be unsettled for days. She feared her editor might be right: that a lucrative career was hers for the taking, that academia paid squat, and that Liz would live to regret neglecting her fiction for dusty research libraries, unwashed college students, and writing articles for esoteric journals that nobody read. As to the new deadline, Liz snatched November 1st out of thin air, but crossing that bridge could wait. Giving herself a last once over in the living room mirror, she slammed her apartment door and dashed to her Prius for the twenty-minute trip to campus. This job was a fabulous last minute save and Liz had no intention of blowing it.
Miami Days, Havana Nights
by Linda Bennett Pennell
Genre: Historical, Contemporary Suspense
Sometimes our biggest debts have nothing to do with money.
1926. When seventeen-year-old Sam Ackerman witnesses a mob hit, he is hustled out of New York under the protection of Moshe Toblinsky, A.K.A., the mob’s bookkeeper. Arriving in Miami with no money, no friends, and no place to hide, Sam’s only choice is to do as the gangster demands. Forced into bootlegging, Sam’s misery is compounded when he falls in love. Amazingly, the beautiful, devout Rebecca wants only him, but he cannot give her the life she deserves. When Prohibition ends, Sam begs the mobster to set him free. The price? A debt, as Toblinsky puts it, of friendship. A debt that will one day come due.
Present Day. History of American Crime professor Liz Reams has it all—early success, a tantalizing lead on new info about Moshe Toblinsky, and a wonderful man to love. Life is perfect. So what’s keeping her from accepting her guy’s marriage proposals? Confronting a long-standing personal debt sets her on a journey of self-discovery. While she delves ever deeper into Sam’s and Toblinsky’s relationship, her understanding of her own relationships increases as well, but the revelations come at a price. The emotional and physical dangers of her dual journeys may prove too big to handle.
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May 18, 1926
105 South Street
New York City
Knocking - sharp, loud, rapid - echoed through the empty speakeasy. Sam froze, the notes of a tune stuck in the roof of his mouth. He glanced at the entrance and leaned the handle of his push broom against his shoulder. Puffs of dust settled on the floorboards around his feet while he remained motionless.
It was late, too late, to be admitting customers, even for the city's illegal watering holes and gambling joints. Although a thick crossbar and several stout locks protected the heavy iron door, an uneasy feeling crawled down Sam's spine. Growing tension over control of the Fulton Fish Market, in fact the entire South Street area, was making a lot of people jumpy, including him.
Several seconds passed without noise from the other side of the door. Sam let out his breath and laughed at himself. Working at the fish market in the afternoon then staying up half the night at the speakeasy didn't leave much time for sleep. It kept him on edge. All the rumors and threats floating around these days weren't helping either. Inclining his ear and hearing nothing, he relaxed and gave his broom a shove.
Bam, bam, bam.
Sam's heart jumped into his throat.
"Open up, Monza. I know you're in there." The shout, colored by an Irish lilt, came from the second floor landing accompanied by renewed pounding. "I come to talk with ya. We need to settle this business. I got a proposition for ya."
Sam's breathing kicked up a notch as he looked over his shoulder toward the office. The boss didn't like to be disturbed when he was meeting with his guys. The pounding from outside in the hall returned in earnest, but the office door remained fixed.
"You gonna open this damned door or do I break it down?" The doorknob rattled and jerked.
Behind Sam, the office door clicked open an inch. He watched in the mirror over the bar as the muzzle of a .38 Special emerged from the opening, its nickel-plated barrel glittering in the overhead lights. One of the gangsters stepped into the room, met Sam's eye in the mirror, and jerked his head, then the room went dark. Sam dropped his broom and backed into an alcove next to the bar. The office door opened wider. Several shadows scurried across the floor. Metal locks and bolts snapped and clanked, then the entrance door swung inward……
Crap. Not one blessed thing gained.
Liz bookmarked and closed the archival records web page she had paid a small fortune to access. Frustration knotted the muscles at the base of her skull. She stretched her back against the living room sofa and rolled her head and neck. Months of research and all she had to show for it was a regurgitation of everything everybody already knew. Maybe she was what she most feared – a one hit wonder destined to fade from her fifteen minutes of glory into ignominious mediocrity.
Jeez. How was that for a pretentious mouthful? Liz's lips thinned into a smirk accompanied by a quiet snort. Well, at least she could still laugh at herself. Unfortunately, some people might not find her so amusing.
She glanced across the room at Hugh. Liz drummed her fingers against the edge of her computer. He would probably understand if she didn't meet the deadline. Hugh was a good boss and a good... What? She never knew what to call the man she lived and worked with. Boyfriend sounded so lame, childish even. Boss tended to raise eyebrows. Fiancé would work if she had said yes to his most recent proposal.
Liz sucked the corner of her lower lip between her teeth. Of all the things she had ever thought herself to be, a commitment-phobe was not one of them. And now she was on the verge of disappointing him twice in one week. The new course she was designing could still be taught in the spring, but it would be incomplete as it stood now. She had incorporated a plethora of original details about Al Capone, et al., but new, riveting details on Moshe Toblinsky and the Jewish gangsters were proving elusive. As a consequence, Florida's Underbelly, 1920-Present: the Mob in the Sunshine State would probably fail to accomplish what the dean expected despite its titillating title. What a depressing thought.
Buzzing against Liz's thigh made her jump. She dug the phone out of her jeans pocket and looked at the caller ID. Her heart rate kicked up a notch. She slid her finger over the screen to take the call and listened to the monologue coming through the ether.
Liz tapped the end call icon, slumped a little lower into the sofa cushions, and sucked her lower lip between her teeth. Apparently, nothing was going to go right today.
Next to the living room window, Hugh lounged in an armchair with the latest historical monograph spread open on his lap, pretending he hadn't listened to her side of the phone conversation. When she didn't speak, he looked up from the book and raised his brows.
"Well?" His voice was kind but direct.
"What was in that call to make you look so stormy?"
Liz sighed and crammed her phone into her jeans pocket. "Aunt Mildred says Daddy is going downhill faster than anyone thought possible, something Mom decided to keep from me. Yesterday, he wandered away from the house and was gone for hours. Mom was on the verge of calling the police when a neighbor brought him home. The neighbor stopped Daddy trying to board the ferry to Whidbey Island. He said he had to report for duty at the naval air station." Liz hunched her shoulders and shook her head. "He retired from the Navy in 1995."
As for my venture in writing, it has allowed me to reinvent myself. We humans are truly multifaceted creatures, but unfortunately we tend to sort and categorize each other into neat, easily understood packages that rarely reveal the whole person. Perhaps you, too, want to step out of the box in which you find yourself. I encourage you to look at the possibilities and imagine. Be filled with childlike wonder in your mental wanderings. Envision what might be, not simply what is. Let us never forget, all good fiction begins when someone says to her or himself, "Let's pretend."
I reside in the Houston area with one sweet husband and one adorable German Shorthaired Pointer who is quite certain she’s a little girl.
"History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up." Voltaire
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