Bestselling author Gideon Cain is losing his mind. Everywhere he turns lately, the femme fatales from his psychological thrillers show up—live and in person. Are they actresses playing a cruel joke on him, figments of his increasingly terrifying delusions, or fantastical vigilantes sprung to life from the pages of his books? All he knows for certain is if he doesn’t find answers soon, he’s bound for the psych ward.
When one of his fictional antagonists poisons him on a flight home from a book-signing tour, he realizes that someone isn’t just messing with his mind—they’re trying to kill him.
Now he’s running for his life from an enemy with a weapon so deadly it can kill with the touch of a button. Only an enigmatic woman from his tragic past can help him discover the truth behind his adversary’s vendetta. And time is running out to stop the madman who is stalking Gideon Cain.
Targeted Age Group:: adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A good friend of mine came up to me a few years ago smiling and said she'd had a dream about me that she wanted to share. Who could say no to hearing about that?
In her dream, the characters from my novels came to life and hunted me down, intent on doing me harm. That was my "eureka!" moment. I'd been challenging myself to write a straight-up psychological thriller—my other novels are speculative fiction with a mix of horror, scifi, fantasy, and paranormal—and that's when the concept was born: An emotionally distraught author who believes his characters have become real and are trying to kill him. I could go so many fun and creepy directions with that. The story sprang to life in my head instantly, and I started writing Stalking Gideon Cain the next day.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I blame the constant voices in my head, which I excuse by calling them "my muse" so I can tell everybody I'm eccentric instead of just plain crazy. Once the story idea jumped from a spark to a brightly burning flame, the characters came to life in my mind all by themselves. I didn't spend much forethought on creating them; rather, they were suddenly just "there" and ready to play their parts in the story.
This is the case with most of my novels and stories. The characters become so real to me that it's as if they're entirely separate entities outside of my creative imagination. Instead of me directing them, they tell me how they speak and how they think, act, and react.
I guess I'm just lucky in that aspect of writing . . . as long as the smiling dudes in the white coats don't find out and come after me for it.
“I love all your novels, Mr. Cain. Couldn’t pick a favorite if I had to. Mr. Cain?”
Brendan snapped back into the present. The thirty-something woman calling him by his pseudonym watched him with an indulgent smile.
Even with huge royalty checks regularly flooding his bank account, he kept forgetting he was a persona. To the media and his fans, he was Gideon Cain. He gave the woman a sheepish grin.
“Gideon, please. Mr. Cain is my father.” Whoa. That old line was so tired it could sleep through a nuclear holocaust. How many times had he uttered it, and how many more times would he repeat it before his head finally exploded? What was this woman’s name again? He just wrote it on the title page of Mercy’s Blade, his latest bestseller. Oh, yeah. “Sorry, Sherry. Gathering wool, I guess.”
“Long tour, huh? The city names probably blur into a miasma after so many.”
She was showing off her vocabulary. “They sure do, Sherry.” He handed her the signed hardback and did a double take as she grabbed it. Had he accidentally signed his real name again?
God, he needed a break. A long vacation in a remote, exotic spot. A haven where he could hide from wannabe authors desperate to pitch their guaranteed bestseller story ideas to him. He already had a catalog of risqué real-life escapades to fictionalize for his next bestselling thriller. He didn’t need to troll his fans for their story concepts and “perfect plots.”
After all, he hadn’t stolen someone else’s story in over a decade.
Sherry cracked open the cover to see what he wrote. He crossed his fingers, hoping for the Gideon Cain trademark signature and not Brendan Callahan-McCallum, the name his parents had christened him with thirty-eight years ago.
Sherry grinned and clutched the book against her breasts. He smiled, stifling a relieved sigh. “Thanks so much for coming out, Sherry.”
She pointed at herself. “Thank me? Oh, no, Mr. Cain. I mean Gideon.” She blushed. “Thank you. Most authors would have left before the bookstore closed.”
“You’re welcome.” He nodded and stood. Sergeant Pepper, his five-year-old Yorkshire terrier, rose and stretched beside him. Brendan stooped over and petted Pepper, glad his little buddy had accompanied him on this tour.
Laura, the manager, hovered near his signing table. Her keys jangled as she swung them around her finger, signaling it was past time for normal people to go home. Sherry was the last of a hundred or so fans who had attended his signing here at the Books & Games Galore in Podunk, Wherever. Was it Maine? Somewhere on the East Coast, and at the end of his tour, finally.
Ready to get to his hotel room and kick back with a stiff drink, Brendan waved at Sherry. “Well, enjoy, and thanks again.”
“What, this?” She held up Mercy’s Blade. “I’ve already read it twice. I just loved Mercy Stiletto. She really spoke to me. Like she’s my alter ego, the brazen seductress inside me, waiting to be set free and go on the prowl.” She clutched the book to her chest again. “Of course, I could never murder my conquests like she did. That’s just fiction, thank God.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way.”
She giggled. “I can hardly wait for your next thriller. When’s it coming out?”
“Late this fall. Six months from now.”
She heaved a plaintive sigh. “Well, I guess I’ll read all your other books again while I wait.” She winked at him. “You look like you could use a nice, long soak in a hot tub right about now.”
What he really needed was a nice long soak in a bottle of scotch. “That’s next on my agenda, Sherry. Thanks again for coming out.”
“Thank you, Gideon. Bye, Pepper.” Sherry grinned and waved at Pepper, then turned to leave. Laura followed her to the exit. Pepper watched them, his little pink tongue lolling.
“Come on, buddy.” Brendan yawned as he stuffed Pepper’s blanket in his briefcase and grabbed Pepper’s leash. “My dedicated mascot. You won the hearts of several fans tonight, big boy.”
Pepper pranced beside Brendan toward the exit with his usual exuberance, despite the long signing. After all, he’d made some new friends tonight, and wasn’t that the whole point anyway?
Pepper would never know he had saved Brendan’s career as much as he’d saved his master from loneliness, time and again. Despite Brendan’s repeat appearances on Santa’s Naughty List, the love of a furry friend like Pepper wiped the slate clean in the public eye. Who could resist that cute, happy face, those inquisitive brown eyes?
Brendan met Laura at the doors. Despite her droopy eyelids, she gave him a big smile.
“Thanks so much for the signing, Mr. Cain. Great crowd tonight. We sold a ton of your books, and not just the new one. Gotta order more.”
“You’re welcome, Laura. Thanks for waiting, and for not running me off.”
“Happy to. Your cab’s waiting outside.”
“Rock-n-roll. Let’s go for a ride, Pepper.”
Laura crouched and scratched Pepper’s neck. “Bye, cutie.”
Pepper’s hind leg twitched. Brendan laughed, said goodnight, and he and Pepper headed out. His cab was parked alongside the far curb, and he waved at the driver. He pointed to Pepper and then to the strip of lawn separating the bookstore from the adjacent restaurant, and the driver nodded.
While Pepper took care of business, Brendan’s ringtone played the chorus of the Beatles’ “Money (That’s What I Want).” Shannon Parker, his agent. Relaxing at home and not traipsing across the country like a rock star squeezing a few thousand extra bucks out of fans eager to spend their hard-earned cash on a fantasy.
Sighing, he answered the call. “Hey, girl. What’s up?”
“Hey, babe. How’d it go?”
He chuckled. “They made a scarecrow dummy of me, and burned me in effigy. Ran me out of town armed with pitchforks and torches.”
Shannon laughed, way too merrily for 8 p.m. in Los Angeles. “Liar. Your sales are stellar, smartass. Mercy’s Blade is your best one yet.”
Is it, Shannon? Did sales really signify literary excellence?
“Writers are liars, Shannon. By definition.”
“Well, duh. Liars who make millions for themselves and their agents and publishers when they do their job right. I’m just checking how the actual tour is going versus the sensational sales. I know how lonely it can get on the road.”
Brendan bit his cheek before he dared her to join him and find out for herself. “Well, you know I have Pepper here to help with the loneliness. Along with my left hand. I call her Polly Palm.”
She laughed on cue, and a horn honked. The cab driver. What the hell? The man was getting paid whether he drove or waited in his parked cab. Random House was footing that bill.
Shannon sighed. “Speaking of those hands, take good care of them. They’re the real life conduits to your priceless muse. You’ve found a lifeline to the masses, made a gold mine out of it, and touched the hearts of millions with your words. Don’t ever sell that gift short.”
He snickered. “Depends on how much I can sell it for.”
“Listen to me, Brendan. Your acerbic wit and morbid sense of humor are gifts. It’s your trademark. You write female characters better than any woman writer I’ve ever seen. You’ve got the magic touch. Women want to be your heroines. Or your femme fatales. They fantasize about it, and that’s why you’re a multimillion seller.”
He shook his head. All Shannon needed to complete her cheerleading ensemble was a pair of pom-poms. Throw in a megaphone and streamers. Go team!
Pepper trotted up to him, tail wagging and ready to go for a ride. The cab driver honked his horn again, making Brendan flinch.
“What was that?” Shannon asked. “Is that your driver? Tell him to hold his freaking horses.” She hesitated. “So how are you holding up, Bren? I mean really.”
He ground his teeth. “I’m okay, Shannon.” He couldn’t let her know how quickly he was falling to pieces. It might damage future sales.
Good God, anything but that. He had too many bills to pay now. More importantly, too many mistakes to correct.
Too many people to beg forgiveness for those mistakes.
One more honk, and really, did the guy not know patience was a virtue?
“Okay, babe,” Shannon finally said. He imagined her watching her percentage take a nose dive. “You know I’m here anytime you need me. All you gotta do is call.”
How far gone was he that he no longer recognized sincerity? Had he misjudged her, as he’d done with so many other people in his life?
“I know, Shannon.” He knew no such thing for sure. “Listen, I gotta go. This driver is about to have a cow, and Pepper and I need to chill.”
She told him she would call him tomorrow, and he ended the call and spun around, ready for some needed downtime with Pepper and a bottle of Glenlivet. Meantime, he had a cab driver to ream out unless the guy had a good excuse for making a nuisance of himself. As he approached the cab, he discovered what all the honking was about.
She posed by the cab’s open back door wearing a lascivious smile and not much else. The hem of her strapless crimson silk dress fell barely to mid-thigh. Her diamond earrings and necklace winked in the light from an overhanging streetlamp. Wavy hair so black it shone, piercing eyes so deep you could drown in them. Her sleek bare legs were finished off by a killer pair of high-heeled Christian Louboutin sammy red-bottoms.
Brendan whistled, something between admiration and resignation. Another overzealous fan—a word which, he reminded himself, originated from the word fanatic. Giving Pepper’s leash a gentle tug, he stepped toward the beguiling woman, careful not to stumble over his feet like a goggling idiot.
“Here I go thinking with the wrong head again,” he muttered before he approached close enough for her to overhear. One hand sweating on his briefcase handle, he waved at her with his leash hand. “Hi. Do I know you?”
“Hi, doll.” She winked at him, jutting out a provocative hip. “You should.” She snickered, her teeth gleaming between luscious lips as red as her slinky dress. “I’m sure it’ll come to you after you stuff your eyeballs back in their sockets.”
Something about her was familiar. Maybe her sultry Southern belle accent, maybe her sensuous pout and swanky come-on. His mind ran through mental snapshots of one-night stands as well as acquaintances. He stopped three feet from her and tried to dredge up a name. The cabbie respectfully ignored their impromptu tête-à-tête.
It finally struck Brendan with a twisting sensation in his gut. Talk about a rabid fan. He snapped his fingers, forcing out a nervous chuckle.
“I get it now. You’re impersonating Scarlett Rayne, my villainess from Scarlet Rain.”
She laughed, and a pile of dead leaves in the gutter rustled with a sudden gust, the vanguard of an approaching storm. One leaf scraped across the asphalt toward his shoe, tick-tick-scritch. She grazed the tip of her index finger against his lips, and he shuddered.
“Impersonating? Poor baby, I don’t think you do get it yet.”
He tried to swallow, but a lump clogged his throat. Pepper’s growl seemed to come from miles away. The woman ran her hands up her thighs, and a prickling sensation crawled up his spine.
Don’t say it, he tried to say, but couldn’t choke it out in time to stop her.
“Gideon, darling, I am Scarlett Rayne.”
Brendan shivered and took a deep breath. Slowly let it out. “Okay, I’ll play along.” He looked around, searching for her ride. They had the quiet street all to themselves. He shrugged, waving a hand at the empty parking lot.
“So where’d you come from, Scarlett?”
She arched an eyebrow. “Well, like I always say, doll, ‘My mama said I came from heaven.’”
“Right, of course.” He winced. He’d set her up for that shot like a lone eight ball teetering over the corner pocket. Thankfully, she didn’t finish the second half of Scarlett Rayne’s renowned catchphrase:
… but by the time I’m finished with you, you’re gonna think I came from Hell.
She gave him a sly wink, leaning close. Pepper skittered back, his body trembling. Brendan took an involuntary step back, too.
She shrugged. “But who knows? Could be I came from that wildly imaginative head of yours. Because we both know there’s lots of craaaazy stuff in there, don’t we?”
“Not funny.” Don’t remind me, lady.
She laughed. “Well, as you already know, I was born in Macon, Georgia.”
She pronounced it bone and Jawjuh. She even resembled Tessa Carlyle, the actress who played Scarlett in the movie based on his second bestseller. With its blockbuster box office take and the notoriety it spawned, Scarlet Rain had become his ticket to fame, and Tessa’s as well.
Was this woman what the media dubbed a Tessalyte, a rabid Tessa Carlyle fan-turned-acolyte who zealously mimicked the star?
Better that than another delusional episode.
A breeze kicked up, rustling more dead leaves across the blacktop. Lightning flickered, an electric-blue strobe light show announcing the coming storm in a horizon-spanning cluster of jagged black clouds. A bass rumble of thunder followed it a few seconds later. Brendan swallowed and forced a chuckle.
“Of course you were.” He suppressed a stutter. “I meant, how did you get here?”
“Relax, doll. I took a cab. I’ve been dying to meet the man who invented me, don’t you know.”
He shrugged. “So … what? Is it waiting out back, or … ?”
“No, silly man. I sent him away when I saw you were still here.”
Did she expect him to share his ride? To where? How costly was the fare to hell?
And where was the cool, suave Gideon Cain when he needed him? Not here tonight. That sophisticated Lothario had left him stuck with a cranky, thirsty Irishman with an obnoxious hyphenated surname.
He cleared his throat. “So how do you plan on … you know, getting … ?”
She giggled and licked her lips. “Take another deep breath, big fella. When I found out we were both in town the same weekend and both staying at Portland’s premier Riverside Garden Inn, I realized it was fate. Kismet for kitty.” She batted her eyelashes, pouting. “I figured we’d ride back to the hotel together. You wouldn’t leave a lady alone and stranded in the dark in a strange town, would you?” Her eyes flashed with the lightning as she pointed a thumb behind her. “Besides, there’s a storm coming.”
Damn right there is, lady. Long time coming. “Man, do I need a stiff drink,” he muttered. Scarlett or whomever she was leaned toward him, and her dark curls brushed his cheek. Her breath blew hot in his ear, her perfume an intoxicating blend of jasmine and honey.
“A stiff drink sounds purrrfect, dollface. I thought you’d never ask.”
More trademark Scarlett-isms. He drew a shuddering breath. He didn’t need this. But the lady was gorgeous, and her skimpy getup was too tight to conceal a weapon—although the black leather clutch hanging off her shoulder was big enough to hide a vial of poison.
Screw it. Poison wasn’t Scarlett Rayne’s modus operandi, would be totally out of character. Once again, as if riding a chariot out of his palatial castle, Casanova Gideon took the reins. His voice rattled around in Brendan’s head like loose marbles: A little racy role-playing isn’t going to hurt anyone. We’re all adults here, aren’t we?
The jury was still hung on that last part—at least according to Brendan’s parents.
Scarlett Rayne’s doppelganger slithered into the cab’s back seat like a serpent settling in its nest. Brendan’s eyes followed her sinuous legs as she situated herself. She crossed her legs and dangled her sammy red-bottom off her dainty toes, a silent invitation.
I know I’m going to regret this. Tack it onto the tail end of a lifetime of boneheaded mistakes, my posthumously published autobiography.
The fact that the cab driver saw her and heard their spicy banter lent Brendan the confidence he needed to dive into the fire again. She wasn’t just another hallucination born of repressed fantasies or alcohol saturation. Not this time. Imagining those enticing toes rubbing up and down his thighs and closing in on nether regions, he looked at Pepper.
“Come on, Pepper. Let’s go for a ride, big boy.”
Pepper whined, tucked his tail between his legs, and backed up a few steps. More leaves crackled as the wind raked them across the asphalt.
Brendan ignored Pepper’s dependable canine instinct. Clutching the leash, he slipped into the back seat, invigorated by the promise of wanton inebriated sex and eager to resume the dance.
“Why, Mr. Cain, it’s such an honor to have you join me,” she said with her husky Southern lilt.
He envisioned future headlines in the gossip rags, and shook his head to make them go away. “Pepper, up, boy.” He made a smooching sound. “Come on, buddy.”
Pepper backed up, straining against his leash until his collar pinched his ears. Too loose, it nearly slipped over his head. Brendan reached down, wrapped his hand around Pepper’s belly, and lifted him onto his lap. He shut the door and cooed in Pepper’s ears.
“I’m sorry, buddy. Daddy’s sorry. He’s a good boy.”
Pepper ground his hind legs into Brendan’s lap, pawed his leash hand. Stoically withheld further grumbling and just eyeballed Brendan’s cab mate.
The driver interrupted the standoff. “Back to the hotel, Mr. Cain?”
Pepper licked Brendan’s cheek, and that snapped Brendan out of his lust-laden trance. He nodded, eyeing the man in the rearview mirror and silently thanking Pepper for the warning.
“Yeah, thanks. Big tip if you get me there in a hurry.” Now his only rush was to wrap his hands around that bottle of single-malt scotch awaiting him in his hotel room. Pepper rubbed his wiry beard against Brendan’s chin, and Brendan kissed the top of his head.
He didn’t care what this strange woman thought of a man who loved and doted on his dog. He planned on dropping her off at the hotel lobby and saying goodnight there. Best of luck with your looney tunes impersonation, you wacky wench.
“Aww,” she said. She drew out her words like honey dripping off a hot knife. “That’s so adorable.”
He squinted at her sideways. Not something Scarlett Rayne would likely say, unless …
Oh, hell no. Tears pooled in her eyes. Unbelievable. This woman was good at this. He heard her next lines in his head before she uttered them.
“It reminds me of Shiva, my precious Siamese. She was so sweet, just like Pepper.” She scowled and her lips trembled as if she were reliving the anger and grief from a genuine memory. “Until that evil tycoon Braxton Rutherford had his goon Randall Crane poison her.” She sniffled, getting Brendan’s nomination for an Academy Award. “I still miss my little snuggles. But I made those bastards pay, didn’t I?”
Brendan started a slow clap, and Pepper barked. “You win, lady.”
“Why, whatever do you mean, Rhett?”
Another Scarlett Rayne line. Enough already.
With a heavy sigh, he closed his eyes and said, “Shiva isn’t real. Neither are Rutherford or Crane. They’re just characters in a story.”
“Well, of course they’re characters in a story, silly. So am I, and so are you, and Pepper, too. So is the cabbie. We all have our stories, and none of them are the same.” She laughed, placing a hand on his arm, and his eyes snapped open. No rings, no bracelets, no watch: another Scarlett-ism. His villainess had wanted to keep her hands free from catching on anything while doing what she called her “dirty-girl work.”
They were riding into the storm. How apropos. Sheets of rain spackled the window beside him, sluicing down it as if seeking to gain entry. The cab veered to the right, hydroplaning, and Brendan’s heart thudded. The tires stuttered as they rolled across the stippled embankment. Brendan bit his tongue, Pepper curled tighter against his chest, and the faux Scarlett gasped and grabbed Brendan’s thigh. Her nails dug into his skin through his slacks like pincers.
The driver steered into the skid, then corrected their course back into his lane. Brendan huffed a sigh of relief, and the pincers loosened their grip. The woman laughed merrily, as if this were a ride in an amusement park.
“No problem, boss,” the driver said, his eyes meeting Brendan’s in the rearview mirror. “Just some typical northeast coast weather.”
Just get me and Pepper to the hotel in one piece, buddy. Brendan scratched Pepper’s belly, as much to reassure himself as to comfort Pepper. His 8 a.m. flight couldn’t come soon enough. Home and his library had never seemed so appealing.
He cleared his throat and squinted at his cab mate. “So, what room are you in?”
“I’m in 318.” She chuckled. “You know me. I had to get a room with a breathtaking balcony view of the ocean.”
That figured. He was in 320. Right next door. What a coincidence. Third floor, even-numbered rooms—all featuring a balcony overlooking Fore River and beyond it, the Atlantic Ocean.
In the finale of Scarlet Rain, his female lead had shoved the main antagonist Braxton Rutherford to his death off his tenth-floor penthouse balcony. Brendan wasn’t giving the nutcase beside him a shot at a real-life encore.
“Listen, whoever you really are, this is really flattering. Sincerely. You win the grand prize, no contest. You’re gorgeous, and any sane man would be a fool to turn you down. But I’m exhausted by this endless tour and really can’t deal with any company tonight. Plus, I have a super early flight out of here in the morning. I hope you understand.”
Her luscious pout could win the hearts of Tessalytes across the globe. He wrenched his gaze from hers and stared out the windshield. The wipers made rubbery squawks as they fought the torrents of rain. Streetlights flashed past in a rain-streaked blur. The driver hung a right onto 1A, Commercial Street, the home stretch at last.
The Scarlett Rayne impersonator reached out to pet Pepper, a typical female ruse to win over Brendan through his dog. Usually worked, but not this time. Pepper let out a high-pitched yip, grumbled, and scooched higher in Brendan’s lap.
“It’s okay, cutie,” she cooed. “I don’t bite. Much.”
“He’s just nervous because of the storm. Can’t stand thunder and lightning.”
That was a lie. If this woman had done her homework, she knew Pepper loved everyone, no exceptions. To hell with the charade. Let her puzzle this one out on her own. If she was still clueless after that display, then that was her problem.
Brendan heard Pepper’s message, and this time he was all ears.
“Riverside Garden Inn, Mr. Cain,” the driver said, pulling under the overhang leading to the hotel’s lobby. “Home safe and sound, boss.”
Brendan shuddered at the sudden absence of rain pelting the cab. Water trickled down the window, blurring the welcome brightness of the lobby as if it were a fuzzy snapshot in a series of similar late-night flashbacks. He flung open his door before the Scarlett impersonator could plunge her pincers back into him. With an excited bark, Pepper leaped out and skittered toward the lobby doors. His tags jangled, his trailing leash making wet swishes as it dragged through puddles across the concrete.
Not needing Pepper’s prompt, Brendan hopped out. The driver opened his window, and Brendan approached it. He signed the receipt for the bill, then handed two twenties to the driver. “Thanks, buddy.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cain.”
Brendan nodded and chain lightning flashed in front of him, lancing his corneas with white fire. The immediate thunder made his ears pop and sent tremors pulsing through his body as if he’d been electrocuted. Blinking away momentary blindness, Brendan took a deep breath. On wobbly legs, he turned to the rear door and held it open, daring to be a gentleman again now that he had successfully shot the lady down. “I’ll be happy to walk you to your room, if you like.”
The driver craned his head back toward Brendan and grinned. “You talkin’ to your dog, boss?”
Chuckling and jerking a thumb toward the lobby doors, the driver said, “He’s already by the lobby, waiting on you, Mr. Cain.”
Pepper yipped, an urgent cry for haste. It echoed under the arched porte-cochère, a hollow, ominous sound.
“What do you …” With a sickening lurch in his gut, Brendan bent over by the rear door and looked inside, and his world tilted sideways again.
Except for the driver, the cab was empty.
“What the hell?” Brendan spun in a circle, nearly giving himself whiplash.
No sign of his crimson temptress. Had she slipped out the other side while he tipped the driver, embarrassed by her failed seduction? Was she already headed to her room, or hurrying to an awaiting ride in the parking lot?
Surely one or the other was the case. Nobody liked rejection. She sure as hell hadn’t just vanished.
Brendan shuddered, and Pepper whined. Rain splattered the driveway past the overhang and gurgled in the downspouts. Lightning flashed in staccato flickers as the storm unleashed its fury on Portland’s coastline.
“You forget something, Mr. Cain?”
Brendan glanced at the back seat again, afraid Scarlett Rayne would be lounging there, eager to resume her crusade of vengeance after leaping out of the written page and into the real world jonesing to kill. He spotted his briefcase on the floorboard, an anchor in that dubious real world.
“Y-yeah, my briefcase. Thanks.” He reached a trembling hand down into the backseat.
The lingering scent of jasmine and honey made his head spin. Was it real, or was he immersed in a delusional fantasy of his own creation? He snagged his briefcase and quickly stood. Shut the door. Looked around, searching for his former cab partner.
The storm was transforming into a tempest. Wind whipped under the overhang and blew a cold mist in his face.
“Have a good evening, Mr. Cain.” The cabbie raised his window and took off with a wet squeak of tires.
“Hey, wait!” Brendan staggered toward the parting cab on rubber legs. He raised a hand to wave the man down. “I gotta ask …”
Too late. The cab’s rear lights melted into the deluge.
Wondering if the cabbie would have denied the woman’s presence for the sake of discretion, Brendan glanced at Pepper. His little buddy trembled, his leash tangled in his forelegs. Soulful eyes locked on Brendan, filled with hope and need.
“I see you, buddy. I hear you.” He hustled toward Pepper and the lobby doors. “The crazy bitch is gone, if she was ever here in the first place.” Shadows stuttered in the constant lightning. Refusing to surrender to paranoia and look over his shoulder, he crouched beside Pepper.
“You are such a good boy.” He untangled Pepper’s leash from his legs. Pepper’s eyes stayed on Brendan. “Let’s get out of this wacky storm, big boy.”
He turned and the lobby doors slid open with a soft whoosh. An idea struck him, and he approached the check-in desk. The chipper clerk reminded him of Pee Wee Herman.
“Good evening, Mr. Cain.” The clerk smiled at Brendan, leaned over the desk, and looked down. “Hi, Pepper.”
“Yeah, hey …” Brendan looked at the young man’s name tag. “Stanley. Listen, I met this intriguing lady at my signing tonight and found out she’s staying here, in room 318.” He forced a laugh. “What a coincidence, huh? I was wondering if I could leave her a message. Or if you could tell me who’s registered to 318.”
“Well, I’m not allowed to give out any names, even to you, Mr. Cain. I hope you understand.” Stanley checked his monitor, tapped some keys, and looked at Brendan with a bigger smile. “However, I can tell you that three-eighteen is currently unoccupied.”
Brendan chuckled and shook his head. Figured. “Ooo-kay. Thanks, Stanley. Hey, I have an early morning flight home. You have me down for a five-thirty wakeup call, right?” I need to get the hell away from this Twilight Zone set asap.
“Yes sir, Mr. Cain. I hope this nasty weather doesn’t delay your flight.”
Wouldn’t that be just fabulous? “Me, too. As much as I’ve enjoyed my stay and your pleasant ocean-side town, Pepper and I are eager to get home. Been a while.”
“Of course, sir. There’s no place like it.”
Brendan did a double take, then got The Wizard of Oz reference. That’s right, Dorothy. At least at home he and Pepper were safe from creepy strangers who dressed up and acted like characters from his novels.
“So true, Stanley.” Brendan turned and approached the elevators. Pepper followed at his heel, his tail wagging.
Brendan wasn’t claustrophobic, but the elevator car’s walls seemed closer than usual. At least it didn’t stall on the way up. The floor indicator dinged with a digital “3” and the doors swooshed open at the third floor.
“Almost there, big boy.” He gave Pepper’s leash a gentle tug. Safe refuge awaited them just down the hall.
Wondering if Scarlett or another of his fictional femme fatales would be awaiting him, he gathered his courage and stepped out. The hall was deserted. Tossing his dignity to the wolves, he double-timed it down the hallway and past room 318 to his room. Seconds later he heaved a sigh of relief, back in the room with the door closed and locked behind them. He set his briefcase on the floor, turned on the overhead light, and flipped on the door’s “Do Not Disturb” lever.
Not that he expected anyone to come knocking at well past midnight. He just needed some guaranteed privacy with his nectar of choice to figure out what the hell had happened tonight. Before he could allow himself to relax, he checked the bathroom. Nobody there. No one hiding in the shower.
No one crouched down behind the bed either. Wincing at his paranoia but helpless to stop himself from looking, he checked the closet. It was as empty as his rumbling stomach. Shuddering, he unclipped Pepper’s leash. Happy now that strange ladies were out of the picture and that his master had heeded his warning, Pepper scampered to his water bowl beside the dresser and drank.
“Yeah, that’s what I need, buddy.” Brendan undid the buttons on his dress shirt, then pulled the shirttails out of his slacks. “But something with more punch than what you’re having.”
He kicked off his wingtips and grabbed the hotel’s coffee mug. From the mini-refrigerator, he removed the ice bucket and plopped some cubes in the mug. The two-thirds-full bottle of Glenlivet sat atop the nightstand. He filled the mug, quaffed half of it, refilled it, and shuffled to the sliding glass doors leading to the balcony. The welcome liquor burn was panacea as it rolled down his throat and into his chest, a treasured old friend returning home.
Holding his breath, he opened the drapes. Nobody hid on his balcony, and he exhaled and stared out at the storm.
Thirst slaked, Pepper curled up on the carpet beside Brendan’s feet. Brendan took another hearty swig and figuratively donned his detective cap. Time to determine when the Crazy Train had jumped the rails.
He spoke half to Pepper and half to his analytical self. “So, she could just be a fan who spent too much time in the hot sun without a hat. Or parasol, in keeping with the Southern belle persona.”
Pepper chuffed, as if encouraging Brendan to continue with this train of thought. Too bad that train was shy a few too many cars, along with a caboose.
“Or maybe she’s a wannabe actress, angling for that big break, totally immersed in her role. Wanted to show her chops to the author whose bestsellers keep getting turned into blockbuster movies. Hoping to finesse an endorsement for a lead role in his next movie, as if I ever have any influence over that.”
But that didn’t jibe with tonight’s bizarre encounter. An actress fishing for a prominent role would have loaded contact info on him: a business card, cell number, website, email address, portfolio snapshots, Facebook or Twitter handle. A novice actress dreaming of her chance on the big screen certainly wouldn’t have pulled a disappearing act the way she had.
He refused to think of her as Scarlett Rayne. That was a fictional character, regardless of her widespread popularity. He finished his drink and headed back to the bottle for a refill. Topped off his mug, returned to the glass doors, and watched the storm rage.
Ockham’s razor—the tenet that the simplest and most obvious explanation is the right one—ruled that she was just a savvy fan trolling for a lusty one-nighter with a celebrity. A glorified star fucker, albeit one more together with her act than the standard huntresses.
As much as he wanted to, Brendan didn’t buy that either. Something about their encounter—which she clearly planned in advance, including her disappearing act—was off-kilter, miles off. Something about their meeting had been surreal.
That she was a literary character magically endowed with a real body and mind and transported into his reality was not an acceptable explanation. Nor was the notion that he had hallucinated her along with the whole incident. Either one of those would mean he needed a forced vacation in Wacky Town USA, and he couldn’t travel down that rocky road again.
“So what the hell, Pepper? Who was she—or is she, if she still exists or ever did—and what did she want from me?” Whatever she wanted, he was sure she hadn’t gotten it, unless her entire plan was to give him a case of the heebie-jeebies. If so, she scored on that one in triple digits.
He frowned at the storm. He had been walking a high-wire without a net for several years now, and knew what—in particular, who—had started his gradual downward spiral, but he couldn’t exhume those ghosts right now.
Thunder shook the balcony doors in their frame, the boom so mighty it rattled the ice cubes in his drink. An idea struck him, and he glanced at the room phone on the nightstand. He needed to contact the cab company and grill the driver, ask him about his unexpected extra passenger tonight. Ignoring his rumbling stomach, he poured a third drink, picked up the phone, and pressed the button for the front desk.
Stanley answered, and Brendan asked him to connect him to Vincenzo’s Quality Cabs. While he waited, the line crackled with static interference from the storm. He pretended he didn’t hear phantom voices whispering underneath the white noise.
“Get a grip, Bren,” he mumbled. Pepper chuffed, watching him. “It’s okay, buddy. Just doing some late-night detective work.”
A moment later, a gruff voice answered with a thick Italian accent and identified himself as Vinnie Vincenzo. Brendan asked if he could speak to his cab driver. Vinnie told him the man’s name—Ronnie Sanchez—and said he was off-duty for the evening. With a frustrated sigh, Brendan asked Vinnie to have Ronnie call him as soon as he could. Vinnie grumbled about not having time to play secretary for his drivers, but took Brendan’s number. Grinding his teeth, Brendan thanked him and hung up.
He gulped down more scotch and smirked at Pepper. “Well, that was an exercise in futility.” Pepper whined and sauntered up to his master. Brendan picked him up, cradled him against his chest, and scratched his belly. “I sure do wish you could talk, big boy. And tell me what you saw tonight.”
Pepper licked Brendan’s chin, and Brendan carried Pepper and his drink back to the balcony doors.
“I know you saw her too, buddy. I didn’t just have another delusional hallucination, replete with literary femme fatale this time.”
Pepper whimpered, and in a flash of chain lightning so bright it made Brendan cringe, the power cut off and darkness swallowed the room. He tried to blink away the after-flash imprinted on his retinas. Something rustled behind him, sounding like someone lazily kicking satin sheets in bed. He spun around, afraid he would see the Scarlett Rayne impersonator lying on the bed, but he couldn’t focus.
The next flicker of lightning illuminated the room in eerie silver strobe flashes and revealed his dead wife lounging naked on the bed, her glimmering eyes watching him.
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