Hi there thriller fans! As I write this I’m sitting at the kitchen table at my brother- and sister-in-law’s place in Missouri. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, its chilly outside and my wife and SIL are working on meal prep for tomorrow’s feast. After breakfast I’ll go up to the barn with my brother-in-law and work on processing the deer we harvested this year. The photo above is from our view in the deer blind the past few days.
But you didn’t come here for that! I sucked you in with the promise of some brand new passages from the long-awaited fourth book in the Austin Conrad thriller series. So, while the book is still quite a ways from completion, I am happy to share an excerpt from it with you here at Thanksgiving, to show my appreciation for you sticking around through my long drought. And making it even more appropriate for the occasion is that the next book, Bones Don’t Bend, is set here in Missouri, although in the opposite corner of the state from where I’m sitting at the moment. So here’s a quick sample from the beginning of the book. Please keep in mind this is an early draft that has not gone through editing yet, so there’s no need to report typos and mistakes at this point. I hope you enjoy it!
An Excerpt From
Bones Don’t Bend
By Dusty Sharp
The billboard read Halcyon in faded, fancy lettering. The name of the town arched over a peeling mural of a fly fisherman casting his line in a tree-lined stream. Austin Corad read the byline underneath the mural as he drew closer. Gateway to the Ozarks!
He slowed the big Harley-Davidson for a closer look as he passed. Though the sign itself was a old and faded, the grounds around it had been recently manicured. The riot of woods that had crowded the road on either side for the past twenty miles had been cleared back, and the sign was surrounded by a quarter acre of freshly mown grass. Bright clumps of wildflowers were clustered at the base of each signpost. Civic pride. Even out here in the backwoods.
Austin had left Springfield that morning with no particular schedule or route in mind. His only intention was to keep making his way east. He figured at some point he’d make it to the Mississippi, where he would have to decide to turn upstream or downstream. Or cross it if there was a bridge. That might be somewhere around Cape Girardaeu. Maybe he would swing south and follow the big river down to Memphis. Probably check out Graceland. He might even commence his half-assed plan to visit “The King, The Champ and The Duke.” It was a circuit he’d been threatening to ride for years, in a grand sweep through Tennessee and Kentucky, then up and back toward Iowa before turning the Harley’s wheels back toward home.
Or maybe not. He had no schedule. No planned route. He had the freedom to just see where the road takes him. Austin was enjoying the aimless wandering through the wild backroads of southern Missouri, with a big V-twin engine rumbling between his legs. The roads around there were a bewildering labyrinth of crazy lettered state routes, wooded ridges and leafy hollows. Beautiful country, he had to admit. Not a bad place for a bit of seat time and head-clearing. He had some shit to sort out, and in his experience there was no better place to do that than a country road.
He had heard the Ozarks referred to as America’s central highlands, but it seemed to Austin that none of these hills and crags were more than a few hundred feet high. Flat ground was scarce though, relegated to a maze of creek bottoms the locals called “hollers,” according to a gas jockey back in Springfield. And Missouri’s system of lettered alternate routes seemed to snake through all of them, providing the perfect escape for a back-roads junkie like Austin.
The map showed that I-44 would bend to the northeast from Springfield. And highway 60 kept to a more southerly route. So it was fairly easy to avoid major highways by just keeping an easterly heading, which State Road NN seemed to do. It kept a more-or-less east-west bearing, zigging or zagging whenever it jumped over a stoney ridge into the next wooded hollow, bisected here and there with country crossroads and sprinkled with small towns like Halcyon.
He eased off the throttle and down-shifted as he passed the first few houses on the outskirts of town. It was a courtesy, mostly. If there were two things folks living along highways hated, it was big rigs with jake brakes and Harley-Davidsons at full throttle. The places along that stretch were an eclectic mix of immaculately maintained hundred-year-old farmhouses and dilapidated twenty-year-old mobile homes. The first few commercial enterprises were an auto salvage yard, a residential cottage with a tax-preparer’s shingle hanging out front. Then some place named Current River Adventures, with a bunch of dented aluminum canoes stacked next to an old military surplus quonset hut. Next were a pair of whitewashed churches, facing each other from either side of the road. Methodist on the left, Church of God on the right.
The scattering of buildings soon coalesced into a more orderly downtown with quaint two-story buildings lining both sides of the street for an entire block. Here the traffic lanes narrowed to accommodate slanted parking spots in front of the storefronts on either side. Most of the spots were empty except for a few old pickup trucks. A square-body Chevy, a couple of old Dodges. About half of the storefronts were boarded up but the buildings appeared to be well maintained, with fresh paint and clean sidewalks. Austin silently read the names of each in turn. Big Buck Tavern. Divine Path Thrift Store. Dot’s Cut The Rug, with its spinning barber pole out front. Along the opposite side of the street were Shafer’s Drug & Discount, the Regent Cafe, and another tavern, this one called The Monkey Bar.
At the end of the block Austin came to an intersection governed by the town’s only traffic signal, a single flashing red light suspended over the center of the 4-way by cables from each corner. Across the intersection, on the right, sat a small IGA grocery store named Jorgenson’s Foods. A scattering of empty shopping carts outnumbered the customers’ cars in the parking lot.
Parked along the curb at the edge of the store’s parking lot sat a cop car with the driver’s window down. A small pile of chicken bones littered the pavement below the driver’s door.
Austin’s hackles went up.
He had never much luck around cops.
The cruiser was one of those late model Ford Police Interceptors that look like an Explorer SUV with tiny go-kart tires. But instead of the gaudy oversized POLICE lettering down the side of it like most of the departments back home in the West seemed to be doing, this one stuck to tradition with its livery. Plain old black and white with a big Sheriff badge on the door. The driver’s side window was rolled halfway down. Austin watched as a freshly gleaned chicken bone arched out of the window and fell to the pavement to rejoin it’s dismembered fellows.
His stomach rumbled at the sight, reminding him that it was nigh on lunch time.
On the far left side of the intersection sat a service station. A sign at the top of the pole said it was the “Gas & Git,” but the sign had the green dinosaur logo underneath that marked it as a Sinclair Oil franchise. Austtin figured he’d better take the opportunity to top off the tank, so he swung off the street and pulled up to the gas station’s single pump island.
He shut big shovelhead engine down and leaned the bike over onto its kickstand. The cartilage in his spine popped like a string of Chinese firecrackers when he stood up straight and stretched. He looked around as he unbuckled his chinstrap, removed his helmet and hung it on the handlebars. His stomach rumbled again, reminding him that it needed fuel too. He might have to try that cafe he had just passed, after gassing up.
There was a lifted long-bed Chevy 4X4 pickup sitting alongside the island across the pumps from him, blocking the view of the station’s storefront. But he had noticed an open service bay next to it as he’d rode up, and from there he could now hear voices. It sounded like a couple of young men harassing each other the way kids do anywhere else in the world.
The links of his wallet chain clinked softly as he pulled his billfold from his back pocket and stepped around the big pickup truck to head inside.
There was a small counter inside the station’s office, with a cash register and card reader and a small counter-top display loaded with Snickers bars, Rolaids and Chapstick. A wire rack filled with jugs of motor oil sat in one corner and an old Coke machine sat in the other. Behind the counter stood a pimple-faced teenager with stringy black hair, leaning against the wall and staring at the screen of his phone. Earbuds were crammed into his ears, the opposite end of the wire protruding from his phone. His head was nodding slightly to some beat Austin couldn’t hear.
But he could hear the sounds of conversation from the service bay on the other side of the wall better now, punctuated by laughter. Austin marked three voices from over there. Maybe four. He turned to the kid behind the register and rapped loudly on the counter to get his attention.
The boy looked up, irritation on his face. He plucked one earbud and said “What?”
Austin placed a five dollar bill on the counter and said “Five bucks. Pump two.”
The kid looked at the fiver, and then up at him. “That it? You driving a Prius?”
Austin laughed. “Hardly. Motorbike. It’s loud as fuck but I can see why you didn’t hear it. It only holds a couple gallons and I see that gas here in God’s country is only two bucks a gallon. So I probably won’t even use it all. Just keep the change if I don’t.”
The kid nodded and reached for the bill as Austin turned toward the door. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the kid slip the bill into his own pocket. Whatever, he though as he stepped outside. As long as I get my gas.
Which turned out to be a foregone conclusion. The station still had the old style gas pumps where the sale amount was counted out by numbers on reels that rolled over like a slow-motion slot machine. There was no chance those old dinosaurs were tied electronically to the clerk inside. It was a reminder of The Way Things Were, something Austin always appreciated. You pumped your gas, you went in and paid for whatever you pumped. These days you couldn’t trust people not to run off without paying, at least in most places. But here in Halcyon, apparently they still did. Even if they probably shouldn’t trust their own hired help.
He removed the bike’s gas cap and lifted the nozzle from the pump. The reels spun around noisily when Austin flipped the handle, landing on goose eggs to signal that it was ready to monitor the next sale.
Austin was careful as he filled up, trying not to drip fuel onto the tank’s jet-black finish. The paint was a few months old by then but he still babied it as if it was fresh out of the booth. The ‘72 FLH had belonged to his old man until his death back in ‘89, not long after Austin had gone into the Army. But Austin had wrecked it the summer before out in the Southern California desert during a dust-up with some thugs from his old motorcycle club. So it had needed a complete rebuild. Austin had left the life with the Rattlers MC behind. So to punctuate that milestone he had had his buddy Antonio restyle the bike into something more to his own taste.
Gone was the gaudy abundance of chrome and high gloss jet black paint that his old man had lovingly doted over out in the garage while Austin was growing up. The tin was now flat black, and the chrome had been dialed back to the bare minimum. The bike was now lower, meaner, darker. And that suited Austin just fine. It sort of reminded him of one of his heroes, Johnny Cash. The Man In Black, who said he’d dressed that way in order to “carry off a little darkness on his back.”
And Austin was still carrying some of that darkness. It reached out to him across the years like long, cold fingers from his past. From his war-torn days in the Army to his brutal time in the MC. And his recent, bloody exit from “the life.”
The trip had been Frankie’s idea, ironically. The woman who loved Austin most. Correction, Austin thought, probably the only woman who had ever really loved me. In the months after his violent departure from the Rattlers and his permanent move to Las Vegas, he and Frankie had grown both closer and more distant. A shrink might say he struggled with intimacy, the result of a violent, vagabond lifestyle in which he’d seldom spent two nights in the same bed or slept without a weapon close at hand.
Frankie and Austin were partners in the Patty Waggin nightclub there in Vegas. Austin didn’t actually work there, at least, not regular hours. He would usually only come in when a problem required his special skills. And they kept separate homes. Frankie had her modest ranch style home in the Palomino neighborhood of Vegas. And Austin had the loft above an auto shop in the industrial section of the city. But they wound up spending most nights together.
Frankie had long ago accepted the pitfalls and oddities of being involved with a man like Austin. She had learned the hard way that it was best to leave him to his struggles when he was wracked by restless sleep. She knew not to wake him or sneak up behind him, and had grown used to the habit of verbally announcing herself when she entered a room he was in. She had accepted his paranoia, his obsession with security. Eventually it seemed like she found comfort in the cocoon of safety his vigilance provided.
But in the months following Austin’s permanent move to Vegas, after he had finally rid himself of his former “brothers,” he had grown more restless and distant with each passing day. Austin knew it himself. He could sense that it was happening even if he was in denial that it was causing problems between them.
And then Frankie spoke up.
“You need to clear your head, darling,” she had said that night, two weeks ago now. It had been her idea for Austin to hit the road. “That’s where your heart is,” she had said, not needing to complete the thought. He knew what she meant. His heart wasn’t there, with her. At least it didn’t seem so to her.
It was also her idea for him to take the FLH. His old man’s bike. Frankie knew that some of the demons that still haunted Austin were from his own father, and not knowing how deep the old man had been involved in the shit Austin had come to despise. I can’t hide shit from that woman, Austin thought. But he taken her advice.
He kissed her the day he left and told her “I’ll be back soon, sweetheart.”
“Come back to me when you’re ready,” she had said. “And don’t sweetheart me, asshole.”
“Hey asshole,” Austin heard from behind him, jarring him from his thoughts as he placed the gas nozzle back into its cradle in the old pump.
His hands went instinctively to his weapons as he turned.
(Not included in this excerpt, as it introduces characters and plot points I’m not ready to reveal yet.)
The first of them came around the corner of the Chevy 4X4, strutting like James Dean. The sleeves of his T-shirt were rolled up tightly around bulging biceps. “Yeah you,” he said, pointing at Austin with the box end of huge, greasy combination wrench. Probably a seven-eighths, Austin judged. Maybe a fifteen-sixteenths.
He checked his weapons. The tactical folding knife clipped into the front pocket of his jeans would be the quickest to deploy, if needed. The big chute knife strapped to his boot underneath a pant leg wasn’t optimal for rapid deployment. He hadn’t brought a gun on this trip, intending to stay out of trouble and hoping he wouldn’t need one. But the wallet chain was there, as always, his fingers gliding up it’s cold steel links to where it disappeared into his back pocket.
But he kept my hands empty, for now. He stood up straight with his feet planted, two steps in front of the bike, as if protecting it. “What can I help you boys with?” Austin asked as three more locals rounded the corner of the Chevy and took up position alongside the guy with the wrench.
“We don’t cotton to thieves around these parts,” the guy said as he waved the business end of the wrench in Austin’s direction.
Fifteen-sixteenths, Austin confirmed, after getting a better look at it. Snap-on. Nice wrench. “Come again?” he said out loud. “Thieves?”
The guy flicked the wrench toward the gas pump. The tool was so big and heavy it was more like a lazy wave than a flick. “The gas, asshole. You done pumped it, and now you’re fixin’ to ride on out without payin’ fer it. You know what we do to gas n’ go shitheads around here?”
“I’m guessing you tune ‘em up a bit with that big ass wrench,” Austin said. “But I ain’t no thief. I paid the kid inside already.” He glanced at the reels on the pump, which had stopped at $3.78. Or $3.79, depending on how you judged the lay of that final reel. “He actually owes me a buck twenty-one in change from the five I gave him. But I told him to keep it.”
The guy with the wrench took a step closer. Austin could see the veins popping out on his neck. He was taller than average, and well built, but Austin still had a few inches and more than a few pounds on him. Not to mention about twenty years.
“Well I checked the register,” the mechanic said. “Was gonna send Jimmy across the street for a pack of smokes but there weren’t no bills in the drawer. When I axed him, Jimmy said you ain’t paid yet. You callin’ Jimmy a liar?”
Austin saw the kid from inside hanging back, behind the other four, near the back corner of the Chevy pickup. The kid was looking directly at Austin. The boy looked nervous. Or scared.
Movement across the street caught Austin’s eye, and he glanced that way to see the cop car pulling away from the curb across the street. It hung a U-turn and pulled into the service station. Fucking great, Austin thought. To the knucklehead in front of him he said “No, I ain’t calling Jimmy a liar. Maybe he’s right and it slipped my mind. Stopping all the time to gas up this guzzler, I guess I mixed it up with one of my earlier stops.” He pulled out his wallet. The links of the chain clinked softly as he opened it and pulled out another five dollar bill. He held it up and said, “Sorry bout that.”
The mechanic looked at Austin, silent for a moment. Austin figured he must have been expecting a denial, and was disappointed when he had simply pulled out another fiver. The mechanic looked back over his shoulder, at the kid hanging back behind the three other men from the service bay. “Go on, Jimmy. Run git them smokes. Hop to it.”
Jimmy stepped forward and weaved through the men, past the mechanic, and stopped a foot away from Austin. The kid wouldn’t look him in the eye. He snatched the five dollar bill and hustled off in the direction of the store across the street.
“Marlboros!” the knucklehead yelled after him. “Hard pack!”
Austin heard a car door open, and turned to see the Sheriff unpacking himself from the cop car. “You boys got trouble?” he asked as he straightened up and waded into the space between Austin and the four guys from the garage.
The Sheriff was average height, portly. His khaki uniform stretched tight across his rolls. His lips glistened with chicken grease.
Austin shrugged. “No trouble here, Sheriff…” he squinted at the engraved plate pinned to the law man’s uniform, above a shiny badge that flashed in the sun. “Sheriff Driscoll. Just gassing up. And enjoying Halcyon’s finest hospitality. I just paid my bill and was fixin’ to head out. Thought I might grab a bite first. Everything alright?”
Sheriff Driscoll turned to the guy with the wrench and the three others standing around him. “That so? Everything kopacetic, Jessie?”
Jessie’s eyes shifted from Austin to the Sheriff, and then back. “I s’pose so,” he said. He relaxed the arm that was holding the wrench, it now hung loosely at his side.
Sheriff Driscoll nodded. “Alright then. Y’all git along then. I imagine the widder Johnson’s expectin’ that Granada back up and running by this eve’nin. Best git back on it.”
Jessie took one last look at Austin, backed up a step, and turned and disappeared around the corner of the Chevy truck. After a moment the other three followed.
When they were gone, the Sheriff turned to Austin and said, “them boys don’t mean no harm. They’s just pertective of their town. Got a name, son?”
“No worries. Austin Conrad.”
The sheriff nodded his acknowledgment. “We don’t get many passin’ through up here, Mr. Conrad,” he explained. “Bein’ this far off the ol’ beaten path and what not. People round here sorta look after one another. Real tight-knit, Halcyon is. And some of ‘em ain’t been to town much, so to speak, and so they wind up p’raps a bit wary of anybody ain’t from here.” As he talked, the officer slowly circled Austin and the Harley-Davidson, studying both man and machine.
“I get it,” Austin said, turning to keep the Sheriff in front of him as he orbited. “Really. I’m the same way. No apology needed.”
Sheriff Driscoll looked up, his eyebrows raised. “Oh, I ain’t apologizin’, son. Just tellin’ ya how the cow eats the cabbage around these parts. They’s good, solid people up here, Mr. Conrad. Respectful. Law-abidin’.” The Sheriff had continued his inspection of the FLH, and had made it around to the rear of the bike. “So they’s naturally cautious with folk from out of town. Even more so with them from out of state. And when the stranger is from someplace like,” here the Sheriff looked up from where he had been inspecting the bike’s license plate, which was bolted to the rear fender, “California, well, they can get downright suspicious.”
God damn it, Austin thought. He had been meaning to change the bike’s registration to his place in Nevada. Not only was it cheaper, it didn’t carry the same baggage as California plates did around the rest of the country.
“And when its an overgrown biker with hippie hair and that scribblin’ all over his arms…well, that there’s double-jeopardy. We might be back here in the woods but we got the Internet. We know how the world is, out there in the more…lawless parts of it. And your kind does have a bit of a reputation, Mr. Conrad. I might be from the holler but I got thirty-five year in law enforcement. Believe me, I seen it all. And when I see a big feller like you ridin’ in on a hawg like this one, experience tells me trouble ain’t far behind.”
“Look, officer, like I said I’m just passing through. Not to belabor the point but I’m not like most Californians you’ve heard about. And even though I still ride a motorcycle, I’ve left ‘the life’ behind. To be honest I’m probably more like you, and these folks around here, than you’d guess. I like what you’ve got here, as beautiful and peaceful as it is. But I’ve got no business here. I’ll just be grabbing a bite to eat then I’ll be on my way.”
The Sheriff studied him for a full minute, mulling it over. “Only place open is the Regent,” he said finally, nodding over his shoulder. “Over on the Block.”
Austin looked in the direction of the single block of downtown buildings. He had passed the Regent on his way in, and had been thinking of trying it out anyhow. “Any good?”
The Sheriff shrugged. “It’ll make a turd,” he said, and turned to walk back toward the police car. “Especially the tenderloin,” he called over his shoulder. “Go on now. Git some dinner in yer belly, then be on your way.”
Austin watched as Sheriff Driscoll packed himself back into the cramped cockpit of the Interceptor and closed the door. After starting the engine, the Sheriff rolled his window down. “Don’t linger around these parts, Mr. Conrad,” the Sheriff said gravely, and then sped off.
That’s it for this sneak peek at the next Austin Conrad thriller, Bones Don’t Bend! I hope you enjoyed it.