Welcome to the PREVIEW page for Perilous Gambit (Mike Stoneman Thriller #5). Soon the revealed cover will be above. Below is a free preview of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (the current working drafts) of the new book. Happy reading! And make a note that the whole book will be available in November, 2021. Buy it on Launch Day!
Chapter 1 — Cold Blood
December 22, 2019
Rapid City, SD
SENATOR HARLAN BUSHFIELD III WASN’T WORRIED about his ability to drive home after the fundraiser. At sixty-three, he was still in excellent shape. He wasn’t worried about the two glasses of wine he consumed over course of the evening. He was concerned about the weather. The South Dakota plains were going to be near zero, and there was a chance of snow. Harlan knew his Blazer could handle the snow. What he didn’t figure on was the flat tire.
“Oh for Pete’s sake!” the senator exclaimed as he eased over onto the wide shoulder, away from the non-existent traffic. He had just exited off highway 44 onto 32nd Street. “I’ll change it.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” Loretta’s voice was sharper than normal. During the long night of glad-handing fundraisers, she had been the perfect senator’s wife. She chatted amicably about how she had raised their three children as the perfect homemaker, president of the PTA, and den mother for the boys in Cub Scouts. She was uniformly viewed as a model of morality and conservative virtue. Harlan needed that. He ran on a family values platform that meshed nicely into the current political atmosphere in his home state. She was the embodiment of what he stood for. The senator tended to follow her lead – and her directions.
“Well, then what do you suggest? We can’t drive home on a flat from here. We’ll bend the rim.”
“Isn’t that why we have Triple-A?” Loretta asked irritably.
“Yes, I suppose it is.” Harlan dug into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and extracted his phone. After fumbling with his address book, he pressed the button and waited for the operator to answer. Three minutes later, he put the phone away and sat back with a sigh.
“We’ve got plenty of gas. We’ll just idle here with the heat on and we’ll be fine until the tow truck arrives.”
“We shouldn’t run the engine constantly. The carbon monoxide will build up.” Loretta wrapped a red wool scarf around her neck and buttoned up her coat. “Turn it off and wait five minutes, then we can warm up again.”
Harlan shrugged and snapped off the engine. There was no point in disagreeing. They sat in silence, each dozing after the long night of socializing. Neither was entirely sure how much time had passed when Loretta startled and saw the bright headlights of a tow truck directly behind them. “Harlan!” she said more loudly than she intended.
He jerked his chin up from where it was lolling on his chest and turned on the engine. Within moments, a man wearing a large down coat walked up to the driver’s side window. He wore a brown fur hat and a thick black beard. He motioned for Harlan to roll down the window. As he complied, Harlan and Loretta felt the icy wind flow into the SUV.
“Sir, please come out to the truck while we take care of the paperwork.”
Before Harlan had a chance to object, the driver walked away in the direction of his truck. “Why can’t he do the paperwork in our car?” Loretta asked, annoyed.
“How should I know?” Harlan grumbled as he opened the door, pulled the belt of his coat together, and stepped out into the frigid night. There were no other cars on the road. The bitter air stung his throat as he tried to breathe without a face covering. A few stray flakes rushed past his already frosty ear. By the time he arrived at the truck, staring into to blinding headlights, he regretted not pausing to don his gloves. His fingers tingled as he gripped the handle of the passenger side door and hoisted himself up into the warm cab, where the driver was holding a clipboard.
“Why the hell—” Harlan started to scold the driver for making him leave his car. His reprobation was extinguished by the burning explosion of pain in his neck as the driver pulled a taser from behind the clipboard and gouged the tines into Harlan’s skin. As the electricity surged into his tissue and paralyzed his nerves, lights flashed in his field of vision and he slumped sideways.
“You should have played ball,” the driver said as he depressed the clutch. Harlan was barely conscious as the truck pulled onto the deserted road and drove past the parked Blazer, to Loretta’s astonishment.
“What in the world . . . ?” Loretta reached for the door handle, but pulled back, realizing that letting the freezing air into the car was a risk. She turned and looked out the rear window, but could see only blackness and some snowflakes that had accumulated on the glass. Was Harlan back there in the freezing darkness? What could have caused the truck driver to pull away without helping them? Why hadn’t Harlan returned to their car? She pulled her coat tight around her, took out her phone, and resolutely grabbed the door handle.
As the biting wind hit her face, she held her phone in a gloved hand and engaged the flashlight function, pointing the light behind the Blazer. “Harlan!” Only silence and the wind replied.
Loretta trudged to the back of the car, holding the light low over the snow-covered pavement. She found the tire tracks the tow truck had just made as it pulled onto the road. She found scuffs in the snow that could have been footprints. “Harlan!”
Her nose was tingling and her fingers were starting to ache under the light leather of her gloves. She hadn’t expected to be outside in her evening gown. Snow had wormed its way into her aqua pumps, making her feet feel like ice cubes. She couldn’t withstand this environment much longer dressed as she was. “Harlan!” Her phone’s bright light illuminated only snow and blacktop. There was no sign of her husband, and no tracks or marks in the snow to guide her.
She returned to the Blazer, spilling snow off her coat and uncovered hair as she slammed the passenger door behind her. After removing the gloves and massaging her hands inside the still-warm interior, she dialed 9-1-1.
A minute later, the tow truck reached the middle of the overpass over Rapid Creek and stopped on the shoulder next to a low metal railing. The bearded driver quickly jumped down, circled around to the passenger side, opened the door, and dragged out the limp body of Senator Harlan Bushfield, which he hoisted over the side. The senator hit the ice creek surface fifty feet below with a crunch and a crack.
Ten minutes later, a tow truck dispatched by Triple-A arrived behind the Blazer, where Loretta was still talking to the 9-1-1 operator. A state patrol car arrived shortly after, with lights flashing. It wasn’t until morning that a runner braving the near-zero conditions noticed the senator’s body lying on the ice, under the shadow of the overpass.
The local cops had no clues about the apparent assassination of the state’s senior senator. Neither Triple-A nor Loretta had any idea where the mystery tow truck came from. Loretta could give no description other than that it had very bright headlights. She couldn’t even say for sure it was a tow truck. The only certainty was that there was a .32 caliber rifle slug lodged inside the SUV’s rear tire. There were several likely locations from which a marginally accomplished shooter could have taken out the senator’s tire. The cops figured the shooter was probably the bearded man driving the mystery tow truck.
Loretta Bushfield was devastated by the unexpected and tragic events, but she held up with her typically stoic midwestern resolve. The only description of the truck driver she could provide was his thick fur hat and thick black beard. She couldn’t even say for sure that he was White.
The senator’s wife could not think of anyone who would want to kill Harlan. She did not know about any recent disputes. There had been no recent death threats that she knew about. But, she did recall Harlan being unusually jumpy and nervous the past few weeks. She attributed that to some upcoming votes in the senate. She gave the FBI nothing they considered a helpful lead.
The senator’s murder was the big story in Rapid City and around the country. The FBI immediately assumed responsibility for the investigation. Although Harlan Bushfield liked to say that South Dakota was “The safest place in America,” a professional hitman could still get you. It was particularly easy for an assassin when the target drove himself home from a well-publicized political event late at night down a sparsely-travelled road on the only logical route.
The funeral was televised by the local television stations. The Governor named a replacement, who was in Washington D.C. in time to be sworn in with the rest of the freshmen members of congress on January 3rd.
Chapter 2 – An Alarming Discovery
December 26, 2019
New York, NY
MIKE STONEMAN WAS PERPLEXED and getting frustrated. He was staring into the bottom of Dr. Michelle McNeill’s bedroom closet. Michelle, the county medical examiner, was running late, which was unusual for her, but not her fault. The body that came into the morgue late that afternoon was a high priority. Michelle completed the portions of the autopsy that required her personal attention and left the remainder to her assistant, Natalie. But, by the time she arrived at her Third Avenue apartment, she needed to hustle if she and Mike were going to make their pre-theater dinner reservation. Mike’s assignment was to fetch her silver two-inch pumps. They were supposed to be on the rack on the left side of the closet.
Mike was dressed in a blue pinstriped suit that fit reasonably well on his five-foot-ten, slightly paunchy middle-aged body. Normally, he wore lose-fitting slacks and his signature blue sport jacket on the job as a Homicide detective, but tonight he and Michelle were going out to a Broadway show, so he put on a full suit. He looked into the mirror covering the inside of the left closet door and assessed himself. He had dropped a few pounds over the past year and he thought he looked pretty decent. His brown hair was less curly and a little more gray than a decade earlier. He had more lines on his face, too, but Michelle didn’t seem to care. He counted his blessings for the thousandth time that Michelle considered him attractive enough to be his girlfriend and lover. It had been a good year.
When Mike could not locate the pumps, he was confused, since Michelle was the most organized person he knew. Other shoes were there, neatly arranged in the rack, but not the silver pumps. Mike opend the right side of the double door. As it swung outward, Mike noticed two things. The missing silver pumps where there, on the hardwood floor just inside the threshold. But what really caught his eye was the dress covering the entire inside surface of the closet door.
It was sheathed in clear plastic, as if just returned from the dry cleaner, hanging from a swiveling hanger draped over the top of the door. The dress was a shining white, covered with tiny white beads and lace fringes. It had long sleeves with white silk gloves dangling from its lace cuffs. There was no question. It was a wedding dress.
Mike had seen the inside of Michelle’s closet enough times to know that this dress had not been there as recently as a few days earlier. He grabbed the silver shoes, carefully unhooked the dress hanger, and carried them both down the narrow hallway.
Michelle was looking into the bathroom mirror, applying makeup at an efficient but unhurried pace. Mike set the shoes down on the floor. “Here you go. And, by the way,” He held up the dress. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Michelle didn’t look away from the mirror, where she was applying mascara. “Oh, Mike, you didn’t touch Rachel’s dress, did you?”
A very relieved Mike exhaled, not conscious of how tense he had been. “No. I mean, it’s still in its plastic. But – why is Rachel’s wedding dress hanging in your closet?”
Michelle was now brushing eyeshadow on her lids. “We picked it up this morning at the Vera Wang sample sale. She didn’t have time to take it back to Brooklyn before her shift, so I said I’d hold it here for her. She’s was supposed to be here a half hour ago. I guess we’re both running late. I hope she gets here before we have to leave. I’ll text her as soon as I’m finished.”
After returning the dress to its place, Mike walked to the living room and sat down, trying to assess why his heart was still racing after seeing the wedding gown. He glanced at his wristwatch. If they were going to make it to the restaurant in time to have dinner and still make the curtain for Wicked, they needed to be down on the street hailing a cab in the next few minutes. At that moment, the house phone rang, indicating that someone was ringing up from the lobby.
“I’ll get that,” Michelle called out, emerging from the bathroom wearing the silver pumps and looking ready to leave. “It’s probably Rachel.”
Michelle picked up the white phone hanging on the wall, looking like a leftover from the 70s. As soon as she brought the receiver to her ear, her expression changed from calm to concerned.
“Rachel, what’s the matter? . . . Slow down, Honey . . . What? . . . Never mind. Just come right up.”
“What’s that all about?”
Michelle stood frozen, the phone receiver still in her hand, tethered to the wall unit by its short coiled cord. “I’m not sure. Rachel’s coming up. She was distraught – almost hysterical. I’ve never heard her sound like that. Something’s very wrong.”
Fifteen minutes later, Mike excused himself, saying he was running down to the deli on 22nd Street to grab sandwiches since it was too late to go to a restaurant for dinner. He left Michelle and Rachel on the sofa. Rachel was crying. Michelle had one arm around her shoulders.
“Sweetie, Jason is going to be fine with this.” Michelle handed over a tissue from the box on her lap.
“Everything is just ruined! The dress isn’t going to fit me in June. I might as well throw it away!” Rachel sniffed and accepted the tissue.
“Don’t worry. It will all work out. This isn’t a bad thing. You have to talk to Jason.”
“I know. Oh my God, I’m late already. I’m supposed to meet him at my parents’ place in Brooklyn. Oh, God – he’ll see the dress. Oh, who cares now, it doesn’t matter,” she dissolved into tears again.
“Listen to me, Rachel. You’re an EMT. You deal with crisis situations every day. You need to pull yourself together and deal with this right now and not let it make you crazy. You can leave the dress here another day. You need to talk to Jason. Make a plan. Decide whether you’re having this baby—”
“I’m having the baby!”
“That’s good. I know Jason and I’m sure he’s going to be thrilled about that. Having a family is something that’s very important to him. You know that. Wouldn’t you trade that dress for a beautiful child?”
“Yes,” Rachel said as she wiped away tears with a tissue.
“I’m sure Jason will feel the same way. You’ll still get married – in June or some other time. Maybe you’ll wait until afterwards and then you can still wear the dress.”
“I’m not having the baby without being married first!”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Michelle soothed. “Why don’t you call him right now?”
By the time Mike walked through the door with a white paper bag, Rachel was no longer on the sofa. “Is she still here?” he asked Michelle, who was in the process of putting two plates on the small table next to the kitchen. Mike smiled at her habit of serving take-out food on plates, with flatware and wine glasses that would need to be washed.
“She left. She’s on her way to meet Jason and give him the news.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Yes, Mike. It’s very good.”
“Great. You think we have time to make our curtain?”
“Yes. As long as we don’t linger over our gourmet sandwiches.”
In the cab home after the show, Michelle sent Rachel a text to let her know they made it on time. She also suggested they meet for lunch the next day so Rachel could tell her how things went with Jason.
“That’s wonderful!” Jason pulled Rachel into a hug, resting her head against his chin. His six-foot-three frame cradled Rachel, who was a statuesque 5-11. After dating men who were shorter than her, Rachel appreciated having a fiancé as physically formidable as Jason. She sank into him, but couldn’t help sniffling.
“The baby is going to be wonderful, but the wedding is ruined. I just spent a week’s pay on a fabulous dress at the Vera Wang sample sale. I can’t return it. I’m sorry, Jason.”
“Do not ever be sorry.” Jason stroked her soft hair. “Having our baby is so much more important than any dress.” Jason rocked Rachel gently as she sniffed back her tears. “Listen. We’re going to Vegas in two weeks, right?”
Rachel looked up into Jason’s eyes. His confident demeanor always made her feel safe. “Yes, we are.”
“Well, why don’t you bring along the dress? I’ll marry you any time, anywhere. I don’t need a big fancy wedding. We don’t need six months of planning. We’ll get married in Vegas.”
Rachel smiled and nodded, snuggling into Jason’s embrace. “You’re sure you don’t mind?”
“Of course not,” Jason continued to stroke her hair. He smiled, knowing that Rachel couldn’t see his face. Avoiding six months of wedding planning and instead eloping in Vegas was actually a dream come true for him. And a baby! He was overjoyed. But soothing Rachel was job number one. “As long as you say ‘I do’ when the time comes, I’ll be the happiest man on Earth.”
Rachel squeezed her arms around Jason’s torso. Then she loosened her grip so she could pull back and look up at his face. “I love you, Jason Dickson.” She tilted her chin up and pulled Jason’s head down for a long, lingering kiss. Then another.
The next day, Rachel met Michelle for lunch at a little Chinese place on Mott Street. It was walking distance from Michelle’s lab, which most people called the morgue. Rachel was mobile enough in her job as an Emergency Medical Technician that she was able to make the meeting, leaving her partner to grab lunch at another Chinatown venue.
“Vegas?” Michelle was surprised at the new wedding plans. “Wow. That’s certainly different from the original plan.”
“I know, but Jason thought it would be the best option. I can bring the dress and still wear it for the wedding. It won’t be what we were planning, which makes me a little sad. I’m hoping Jason won’t be too disappointed.”
“Honey, he’s a man. He doesn’t care about the wedding plans. I’m sure he’ll be just as happy marrying you in Las Vegas.”
“You think so?” Rachel’s eyes showed signs of leaking.
“Yes. I’m sure. This is a perfect way for you two to make the best of the situation. You’ll get married. You’ll wear the dress. It will be beautiful.” Michelle reached her hand out and squeezed Rachel’s.
“Thanks, Michelle. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“Oh, Honey, I’d do anything for you.”
Rachel lowered her eyes, then looked up at her mentor. “Michelle, I’m a little freaked out about all this. I know it’s a good idea and it’s going to be great and all. But, I was wondering. Would you and Mike consider coming with us? You could be our witnesses and stand up for us. It would be more like a real wedding if you could be there.”
“Don’t you want your sister to be your maid of honor?” Michelle was processing the request in her head as she asked the obvious question.
“I’d love to, but she’s almost eight months pregnant. She couldn’t take a flight to Vegas, even if she wanted to. I need somebody to be there for me.”
Michelle melted. “Of course, Sweetie. I’m sure I could twist Mike’s arm and convince him to go to Las Vegas for our vacation instead of driving to Maine.”
Want to keep reading? Send me an email (Kevingchapman@gmail.com) or use the contact page HERE to get on the special list. I’ll send you an email to alert you whenever a new chapter from the new book is posted here for your pre-view reading pleasure. Just say “put me on the reading list” in your message. The book will be out in mid-November, but between now and then, I’ll post several more chapters just for my most loyal fans. Cheers!