C20: Master’s Plan

A little after midnight, Dante pulled his Equinox into the driveway of their townhouse. He shut off the engine. The soft thirties music on the radio stopped. In the passenger’s seat, Anja unbuckled herself with her left hand.

“Let me help you out. That chloroform almost got you in Wally World,” Dante said.

Anja rested her head back on the headrest. “Okay.”

Dante got out and hurried to Anja’s door. He propped it open, offering her his hand.

“Dante, have you parked in reverse all this time so I could be closest to the door?”

Dante shut her door. “To the front door? Yeah.” He reached into the backseat for two plastic bags and a wicker basket.

“I’m just now realizing.”

“All right, up the stairs we go.” He ascended ahead of her with his arm around her waist.

“And you let me have the left space because it’s closer,” she said when they got to the stoop.

Dante fidgeted with the keys. “Whaddya know, chivalry’s alive after all.” He pressed the alarm on his SUV, and it chirped.

“You’re my hero, Dante.”

Dante unlocked the front door. “I’m flattered.”

Anja laughed and reached into the mail box. She pulled out a handful of envelopes and filed through them on her way inside as Dante held the storm door open for her. He followed. The spring on the storm door closed it slowly. Dante shut and locked the front door.

Anja ascended the three step stoop to the living room. Dante flipped on the lights. A beige-colored room with a sectional brown sofa and vibrant yellow accents: yellow curtains over the sliding glass doors to the balcony, a yellow blanket drawn over the couch, sunflowers in a
vase on the angelic coffee table. Anja knelt next to the sheet of

C19: Ego and Evil

Towel-dried, still damp hair. Shirtless to let the brand breathe. Pajama bottoms and bare feet. Fragrant Old Spice coiling from the bathroom. Soft piano melodies playing from his phone.

A tranquil hotel room. Lamps dimmed to their lowest setting. Bedsheets drawn, fluffed pillows beckoning a head in need of rest.

Keitaro combed his messy black hair from his forehead as he ambled to the wall window. Overlooking the romantically enchanted downtown, the glow of street lamps spotting the glass and the mystic moonlight from above. Keitaro fantasized the lady in blue. In his imagination, her fingers would brush the skin of his shoulders as she glided from behind him to face him. Empathetic eyes would gaze up at him. She would brush the back of her hand against his puffy face. Gently, lovingly.

“My heart looked like your face.”

What kind of coward would hurt someone so defenseless? That she would understand Keitaro’s pain because she once experienced it…what a tragedy.

Even a greater tragedy that she slipped away. What had scared her so intensely? That apology in her eyes before she had turned and hightailed it had hurt Keitaro more than the crippling agony of his ribs. She wanted to stay with him, but something compelled her to go.

“What have I done?” she had whispered.

The gasp of shock, almost as if she had been caught with Keitaro. The apology in her eyes as she abandoned Keitaro on the couch. She was protecting me, he thought.

Protecting him from what? From who? The same villain who pummeled her heart?

If she’s protecting me, then she’s already in danger, he thought.

His blood got to pumping, his mind started racing.

Don’t get worked up, he told himself.

Keitaro relaxed sideways against the wall, staring out the window for comfort to his curiosity-driven anxiety.

C18: Sorority Sisters

“You didn’t have to buy dinner, Anja.”

“It was my pleasure.”

Dante pat her hand as it was wrapped around his elbow. They meandered back to his SUV on the cobblestone path, guided by golden lamps and adorned with starlight. Babbling from Seneca Lake muffled the traffic noises from nearby midtown.

“I should send him a care package,” Anja said.

“Oh, so he is worth fighting for,” Dante said.

Anja pinched a scolding smile in her dimples. “He’s worth checking into.”

“Fill it with a ton of stuff that won’t help him at all, but will—”

“Make him smile,” she finished.

“You know, those old pill bottles that are filled with mints, and what not.”

“And the gummy band-aids,” she said.

“A corduroy teddy bear.”

“Okay, but if we’re doing this, we should drop it off tonight,” Anja said.

“What’s the rush?”

Anja slowed her steps, sensing her surroundings. “Well.” She tuned into the air and how dense it had suddenly become.

“Anja?” Dante searched the thinned out crowd around them.

Passersby, nothing amiss.

“He didn’t have luggage,” she said as if snapping out of a trance. “He might not be staying more than tonight.”

“Definitely include your phone number then.”

“Dante.” Anja gasped and clung to him in panic.

C16: Loyalty

Classy uptown pleasantly changed Danillo’s routine stops. Vintage buildings all original to Geneva now operated as bars and restaurants and locally owned businesses. Old-fashioned lamp posts lined the sidewalks along where cars parked. Decent folk of all ages walked the historic two miles. Admiring the beauty of time, everything in breathtaking condition.

“There it is.” Danillo spotted Keitaro’s Audi’s front fender peeking out of the alley.

“I don’t see a place to park.”

“Just let me out here,” Danillo said.

Hunter stopped dead center of the one-lane road. A horn blared behind him.

“Here’s twenty bucks,” Danillo said, slapping a crinkled bill into Hunter’s palm.

“Sir, I can’t accept this.”

“You take cash, don’t you?” Danillo unbuckled and shoved opened his door.

“No, sir, it’s just…We traveled less than two miles to get here. It was a three minute drive…”

“Hang onto it, kid.”

Danillo climbed out. He shut the door on Hunter’s “thanks!” The detective saluted the Uber driver. The car sped away behind Danillo as the detective faced Keitaro’s sleek midnight blue luxury car. The Roquefort to the car’s left. Don’s Flower Shop to the right.

Just to verify the car’s owner, Danillo clicked the unlock button on the key fob. The headlights responded with a flicker. Thin beams of light stroked outward then broad LED lights backstroked to fulfill the headlights.

“Whoa, d’you see that?” a guy on the sidewalk said to his buddy as they passed the car.

Danillo locked the car and the lights faded in the same sequence. “Neat.”

The detective tucked the key fob into his jeans pocket. Right about where he stood, he figured Keitaro had been jumped last night. Danillo checked the ground for anything dropped or obvious. So

C15: Room 407

“Did you see the woman I was talking to just now?” Keitaro said.

The front desk clerk gaped in shock at Keitaro’s face.

“Miss?” he said politely.

“Uh…” She shook her head, snapping out of the trance.

“You couldn’t miss her. Blue dress, blonde hair, green eyes. About this tall.” He held his hand even with his Adam’s apple.

The young blonde receptionist, named Makayla according to her nametag, shook her head. “I’m sorry, sir, I was checking in a guest.”

Keitaro dropped his shoulders.

“Would you like to…check in?” she said.

Keitaro sighed in disappointment. “I made a reservation earlier. Kim Keitaro.”

“Okay, let me find that.” Makayla pulled up the information on the computer. “There you are. Single room. Amenities include a picture window overlooking the city, full access to the massage parlor, wi-fi access, and free breakfast for two-fifty a night.”

“Yes.” Keitaro removed his license from his wallet.

“I’ll need your ID, please.”

Keitaro handed it to her. Makayla clicked away, filing the information into the system.

“And your form of payment?”

Keitaro showed her his phone.

“It’s ready for you.”

Keitaro tapped his phone against the credit card pad.

“All right. You’ll be staying in room 4-0-7 on the third floor. Robert will handle your bags.”

C14: Lady in Blue

Class and wealth went hand-in-hand in the décor of the Azer Hotel. Swirling black letters spelled the name out above double glass doors. Bright green bushes in pots ascended the thick stone railing to the entrance, and a doorman in red waited just inside the hotel for guests.

As Keitaro ascended the steps, the doorman came out holding the doors open. “Good evening, sir.”

“Evening,” Keitaro said.

Keitaro walked into a hushed hotel. Black trimmings accented the stone gray of the floor and the walls. Extravagant carvings in the woodwork boasted prosperity. The vintage royal sofa offered plush seating, and the lit fireplace beckoned the lonely to join it for warmth.

Keitaro draped his garment bags over the back of the couch and sat his sacks down on the cushion. Without his ID, he couldn’t check in. He needed to rest anyway.

Easing into the pillowing comfort of the couch, Keitaro’s entire body relaxed as the weight of his pain was relieved. He rest his neck back against the couch and closed his eyes. A good night’s sleep lay ahead, perhaps a nap to hold him over. The brevity would depend upon which one came first: a staff member interrupting him to pay or scoot, or Victor showing up with Keitaro’s wallet and ID.

Keitaro clicked his phone awake. Hours had passed since he checked out of the hospital. Where’s Victor?

“Soul commander
Necromancer
By chain you are connected
To a soul for expedience
By collar they are subjected
To eternal obedience
Channel through the chain

Ghostly senses you will gain
Collar connects at their neck
Third eyes open can disconnect
Enslave more than one
The collar will respawn
Necromancer
A curse forever
And when a victim of unrest
Your soul will I come to collect”

The words of the phantom voice from last night resurfaced in Keitaro’s head. They must have been engraved in his memory for him to remember every piece. Maybe the words scarred his mind the way the torch scarred his body. That would mean the words belonged to Delavno, Hell’s Crypt Keeper.

Keitaro shook away the thought. Exorcising Delavno will rid him of those last lines.

But somewhere in the middle, Keitaro remembered: “Channel through the chain/Ghostly senses you will gain.”

If Keitaro tuned into his connection with Victor, would he be able to see where Victor was? With his left hand, Keitaro pinched the link dangling from his right wrist. He closed his eyes and meditated on the chain, forming one link after another in his brain until the entire chain materialized in his third eye. The chain connected to a tunnel of darkness. Keitaro pictured himself walking along the chain through it. On the other side, as if he opened his eyes, an image filled his entire vision.

Blood stains and bullet holes. Back in the den where Cobra branded him, staring at the red stain on the floor where Victor’s body had laid the night before. Without order, Keitaro turned to the right and stared into the hole in the wall created by one of the bullets that had missed Victor’s head.

Keitaro tried to turn to the left, but his body disobeyed.

“Ghostly senses you will gain.”

C13: WWJD

“Hi, Makayala!”

The receptionist perked up. “Oh, hi, Anja!”

“You know, there isn’t a color in the rainbow that doesn’t match your smile.”

Makayla blushed. “Oh, thank you very much. I love your dress.”

Anja brushed the long blue gown down her legs. “Does it hide my bandage well?”

“What bandage?” Makayla said.

“It hides it perfectly then.”

The girls giggled.

“Is Shaun in today?”

“He is. Let me…” Makayla clicked on the keyboard, staring down into the computer screen. “He’s in a meeting until three. Would you like to come back or wait?”

“It’s only thirty minutes. I’ll wait.”

“Mind keeping me company until he’s free?” Makayla said.

“Robert still teasing you?”

Makayla rolled her eyes. “Like a little brother.”

Anja chuckled. “I think he means well, but he gets bored easily.”

“So he tortures me.”

“Have patience with him. When he matures a little more, he’ll outgrow his teasing phase.”

“If I can ask, what bandage were you talking about? Did you cleanse a house?”

C12: Checkmate

At the curb of the department store on State Route 5, Keitaro thanked the Uber driver for selflessly volunteering to park and wait for him for free. Keitaro joined the flow of shoppers entering the supercenter. He skipped getting a cart and grabbed a basket instead.

“Hi, welcome! Hello, welcome, welcome. Wel…”

Keitaro bowed slightly to the young greeter. Her eyes followed the unmatched disaster of his dress shoes and garbage green scrubs up to his arm in the sling. Her jaw fell when she noticed the horrendous bruising on Keitaro’s face and the swelling of his left eye.

“Morning…good…” She twisted sideways as he walked past her. Like a driver passing a car crash, unable to not look.

Keitaro ignored the stares in the crowd. All the unfamiliar faces around him wearing TJ’s expression of shock and horror. Subjecting him to unwanted attention. Forcing him to realize people don’t understand how to handle another’s trauma.

He turned down the razor aisle. For temporary essentials, he chose favorite scents and familiar brands. A razor, deodorant, face cleanser.

“I hope he isn’t going to steal those,” a little old woman down the aisle said.

“You know, people these days will just walk out with the whole basket,” a second old woman whispered to her friend.

Against the gossip, Keitaro struggled to concentrate on finding toothpaste with baking soda.

“Well, you know the homeless find those slings and things in the dumpsters and wear them just to hide stuff in when they steal from stores,” the first woman said.

“Oh, they’ll do anything these days, won’t they?” the second woman said.

“Won’t even really be injured,” the first woman said.

Keitaro snatched the toothpaste off the shelf. Purposely he passed the elderly women, ensuring they got a good look at his face, saying, “Excuse me” as he rounded the corner to the shampoo aisle.

Photographs by James Garcia Jr.

Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Published: 2020
Publisher: James Garcia Jr.

Back Jacket
In 1956, film actress Allison Belle abandoned the glamour of Hollywood for Fresno, California and an idyllic new life. In 1959, she disappeared altogether.

Nearly 60 years later, real estate agent Joanna Johnson steps unsuspectingly into the old Belle house and a story long forgotten. A devastating personal event opens a hidden door into the actress’s world, and a series of long-lost photographs begin to reveal secrets thought buried.

What happened to Allison?

What will happen to Joanna when she finds out?

Evaluation

The problem with the back jacket is that I was expecting a story like one everyone else has written, and Garcia had something different to tell. My first impression of the back jacket almost turned me away. My assumption was that this was a women’s story, which is not my genre, and that the secrets buried would be some weird timeline connection about them being long-lost relatives, or Joanna inheriting some kind of money like it’s always been. That’s the story we’ve all been told before. It was in the prologue that Garcia had me whispering to myself, “This book isn’t what you think.”

And that theme just seemed to unravel itself to me chapter by chapter, and Garcia didn’t stop surprising until the book ended. I swear I had it all figured out by page 189, and what does Garcia do? Throw me another twist!

Garcia had so much patience withholding everything from us until the right moment, too. The payoff was worth it! I found myself experiencing a smorgasbord of emotions ranging from grief and terror to awe and victory. I practically sat with my nose pressed to the spine hungry for more clues because I almost couldn’t handle the unknown fate of the lovely Allison Belle, and our heroine Joanna.

The book paced itself well. I don’t remember one chapter going without action of some kind. Many times in mysteries, the clues are revealed in personal narrative which is boring in both book and film. But in this gem, the photographs themselves spoke volumes. Not just pictorially, but the memories in the photographs came to life. Always in a beautifully written transition from the present to the past.

An unexpected main theme I greatly enjoyed was the haunted house vibe. The cabinet that was mysteriously sealed shut opened upon its own desire. Doors opening on their own when they were surely locked before. The curtains being drawn every morning.

Pinterest: Lana Lacey

The leaf…oh, the leaf especially was a great theme. When Jo saw the leaf floating and began undressing herself, chasing after it in a trance. The instant tension I felt when that leaf manifested to Jo was delightful.

Best of all, everything that occurred in that house—from the curtains opening to Jo tripping on the same stair with the defiling stain—served a purpose in the plot. I picture Garcia’s outline for this being extremely detailed. Every note in the timeline is underlined with connections to the future and from the past. All of it perfectly interwoven.

Garcia also managed to realistically imagine these characters. Allison, a glamorous movie star, was well lit in her scene of famous friends in chapter eight, and though I’ve never been to a Hollywood party, I experienced my first one through this book. It was tangible, the dialogue appropriate for the time, the whole scene wildly fun.

Pinterest

Joanna being a complete mess of a woman who had just lost her fiance developed into this strong, resilient woman who befriended a ghost and didn’t lose her sanity. I love that while she was having flashbacks through photographs and was experiencing unnatural things in the house, no one ever questioned Jo’s sanity but Jo. Garcia ignored that boring theme to focus on what mattered, and it served the novel well.

Pinterest: Thrifty Fun

What really got me was when the tragedy was unveiled…how Garcia could possibly know how that felt, and then to put it into words—that brought tears to my eyes. For his writing to invoke such real and raw feelings suggests he knows a woman who had felt that pain. Either that or he has one hell of an imagination, guys. I don’t cry for anything, not even when forced to watch The Notebook, but chapter seventeen got me good.

Everything is good in moderation, especially when it comes to detail because you can describe something down to its elemental structure and no two people will ever imagine it the same way you did. But the brevity of adjectives engages a reader’s imagination and gives life to your noun without boring or overwhelming your audience. That is the goal, and Garcia hit the target with every microscene where Jo is performing ordinary tasks such as eating or getting situated in the house. I was greatly appreciative of his writing style there.

Some of my favorite lines from the book:

  • “Michael Kors was still hanging where she had left him…He appeared undisturbed and unmolested.” (page 31)
  • “Jo this is the final photograph.” (page 337)
    • The suspense I felt when I read that line was surreal. That word “final” is such a strong word, and so perfectly fit the climax of the story.
  • “It was pointless for Joanna to resist. In a photograph, all one can do is look.” (page 344)
    • Way to tie everything in together, title and theme, for the most highly anticipated detail in the book!

James Garcia Jr. managed to pull off all the justified endings without making them cheesy, which I so loved. He managed to keep me guessing the entire story. And best of all, he shattered the cliché women’s mystery for me. Photographs is definitely worth the buy. It’s a story you’ve never been told before, and it is well written in a style you will enjoy!

Sidenote: When I told my daughter I finished the final 300 pages yesterday, with great theatrics she exclaimed, “Mom, that’s 300 hours of your life!”

And my response was, still smiling at the book, “It was worth it.”

You can buy the book here:

Follow the author on Instagram @danceauthor38 and Twitter@danceauthor

C10: Suits Yu

Suits Yu was founded by Makara Yu, the only tailor in the state that Keitaro trusted with his wardrobe. He approached the clear glass double doors of the tailor shop and swung the left one open. A bell chimed and the scent of untouched fabric welcomed Keitaro to his home away from home.

Sophisticated black blended with clean white accents to create a refined atmosphere for men interested in Italian luxury or West London elegance. Black linoleum floors carried throughout the shop and floating white shelves displayed accessories. Reflective black walls distributed the vanity lighting well.

On both sides of the store, jackets hung sideways, shirts hung face forward, and pants lay in nice stacks on display tables. Fluorescent white cubes supported mannequins advertising designer suits. The mannequins divided the store: suits of color—nautical blue, white, beige, red, brown—on the left, traditional black suits and tuxedos on the right.

“Kuso.” A short, bald man approached Keitaro with caution. “Keitaro?” his voice gasped in surprise.

Keitaro bowed deeply. “Mr. Makara.”

“What happened to your face?”

“Trouble.”

“One guy?”

Keitaro held up three fingers.

“Ohhhhh. Did they regret it?”

“Mochiron, mochiron.” Of course, of course.

Mr. Makara straightened his spine with a stern nod. “You are off today?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Usually your face is so good for business. Now, your face makes people sick.”

Keitaro laughed. “Gamsahabnida,” he spoke in Korean. Then, “Arigato,” remembering Mr. Makara spoke Japanese.