Excerpt from Collateral Damage: Love, Obsession, Murder and a $25 Giveaway
To help a good friend and excellent author, I’ve joined up with 25 other blogs to help Frederick Lee Brooke promote his awesome new book Collateral Damage. If you remember from the past, you probably saw an excerpt on this blog from his novel, Zombie Candy. Although I have yet to read Collateral Damage, I have no doubt it is as incredible as his other reads.
Enjoy this chapter of Collateral Damage below:
I met Annie at the restaurant. An Italian place downtown we sometimes went to—dim lighting, snooty waiters, but with a surprisingly affordable wine by the glass. She’d already made a reservation. I wasn’t about to object to going out for dinner, even if I’d felt pretty lonely most of the day. She’d planned to spend the morning with her sister and ended up spending the whole day there, while I waited. What can I say? I was hooked on that woman.
We sat there nursing our wine. It was early and the place was half empty.
“So how’s your sister?” I said. I don’t like Alison, and I’ve made no secret of it. She got a bum deal with Todd walking out, but she was married to the dude for five years. Sticking with a loser like him says a lot about Alison. I had to tread carefully because she and Annie were close. Growing up they’d always been close. Something about Annie being away so long, coming home safe, then all that nasty stuff that Alison went through with Todd leaving had brought them closer together in recent months.
“She got a bit of a shock.”
“You mean when you told her about us?”
“That too. And about the attack yesterday morning. But there was another thing that happened.”
Annie didn’t usually fidget. I caught her glancing at the ring for the hundredth time. She’d never worn any kind of ring. Now she had this rock, and she was still getting used to it.
“The attacker was an ex of mine. His idea of a prank.”
“An ex?” If she wanted to tell me more, she could. If she didn’t, that was okay too.
“Michael. From the army.”
I searched my memory. “The only Michael you ever talked about got killed by a sniper.”
She nodded. “That’s the one.”
“The dead one.”
“I actually made up the part about him being dead.”
I waited till her eyes met mine. This was getting stranger. “He’s not dead, and he shows up here in Chicago and attacks you? With a mask? The one you punched in the face?”
“He was always a prankster.”
“You lost me. But, Annie, whatever. I mean, he’s your ex and everything. Why did you tell me he was dead?”
She kept fidgeting. I’d never seen her so nervous. “He hurt me once. That’s the only way to explain it. I know it’s no excuse. It started with Alison. After he dropped me, I told her he got killed. It just came out. Then I kind of let it stand, because he was dead to me anyway.”
“So that’s what you told everyone.”
She couldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m sorry.”
When I first met Annie, she couldn’t tell me her address. She was standing in the office of my PI school. Her mouth started twitching. I could see she had something to say, but no words came out. I’ve observed all kinds of PTSD, but I never met anyone who couldn’t spit out their address. I asked her if she wanted to jot it down. It turned out it wasn’t a speech problem at all. The problem was that the place she called home didn’t have an address.
I probably should’ve known this signified a different kind of problem, but by then I had such a crush, I wasn’t going to let it bother me. Some people don’t believe in love at first sight. I used to think I was one of them.
She took me to see her special place. When I say special, I mean weird. She had taken over a cabin in the forest preserve just east of O’Hare Airport. This strip of woods buffered the Des Plaines River from the surrounding concrete buildup. Those bare trees are about the last thing you see before the wheels touch the O’Hare runway on a flight into Chicago.
Annie’s cabin was an old, unused ranger station. Budget cuts. She’d replaced the lock, painted the place, and put up a flag. The ranger in charge, an old Vietnam Vet, let her stay as long as his superiors didn’t find out. Being out in the middle of a forest, a fifteen-minute hike from her car and an even longer long way from any kind of help, soothed rather than worried her.
“You have strange tastes in neighborhoods,” I said.
“It was this or my parents’ house in the suburbs,” Annie said. “Way too quiet out there. I was getting panic attacks.” She explained how Camp Liberty was a loud place, planes and choppers and trucks moving twenty-four hours a day, not to mention mortars and rockets and bullets never far away. The screaming jet engine noise in this forest supposedly helped her relax.
Every minute or two another plane thundered in over our heads, flaps extended, practically scraping the treetops. Annie’s cabin was on the flight path to an 11,000-foot runway. We stood in the clearing in front of her cabin, and I studied the surface of the river, fifty feet down the slope. A pair of dragonflies buzzed the water. I saw ducks floating in the muddy current. Maybe they were already deaf.
I remembered this scene as I sat in the restaurant, asking myself, why was she telling me about some old ex? Of all her exes, the one she’d been most serious with. He wasn’t dead at all. He was alive and he was here. Why was he looking her up again?
“It’s okay, Annie.” I moved the candlestick and the flower vase and took her hands in mine. It wasn’t really okay, but I wanted it to be. “It doesn’t matter about your ex. Do you feel better?”
“I guess so.”
“So he was the one who attacked you? You said he ran away. How did you find out that it was him?”
“That’s what I was starting to tell you about Alison. The other shock. We were just sitting there talking in her living room, and Michael appears out of nowhere. Just like that.”
“In her apartment?”
“He broke in yesterday while she was at the restaurant.”
“You mean last night?” I said.
“He hid in her coat closet. He spent the whole night in there. He came out when he overheard us talking.”
Annie told me about the invitation Michael had planted in the pocket of her jogging suit and the poem he had left in Alison’s mailbox. Obviously, the situation was more serious than I first thought. Annie had an old boyfriend after her and he had stalking tendencies. As a former cop, I have experience with stalkers. They sport a friendly exterior, but they’re not in love with anyone, just dangerously narcissistic.
“This guy gets around,” I said. “Tell me something. Should I be writing poems?”
“I threw him out,” Annie said. “Alison is my witness. I waved this in his face.” She held up the sparkly rock. “I told him clearly that I’m committed to you and we’re engaged.”
“So you think that’s the end of it?”
Annie’s yes was too emphatic, but we looked at our menus and ordered food and started chatting about other things.
This Garcia dude stayed in the back of my mind the whole evening while little details nagged me. Why the smash and grab on her early morning jog? Why the mask? Why not just call her up? What kind of man breaks into the sister’s apartment on the off chance that Annie will show up? How long had he planned to wait? What was he going to do if she didn’t show up?
We were dealing with a psychopath. Who knows, the war could have altered his mind. He lived in Florida. He had come all the way here from Florida, ambushed Annie on the street, then broken into her sister’s place. What was the deal with this reunion? I decided either Annie was naive, or she was sugarcoating something. I wasn’t sure which was worse.
I was forty years old, ten years older than Annie. Sometimes I thought I was too damn old to be falling in love. I certainly wasn’t looking for it when she walked into my PI school. She had her hair back in a ponytail, no makeup, no smile, not much in the way of facial expression at all. She was cold and distant, a clear case of PTSD, like a lot of them. But right away, I saw something I liked in those light blue eyes.
Now I realized at least part of her PTSD was plain old getting over someone. There’s always more to people than meets the eye. How could I have thought a girl as pretty as Annie wouldn’t come with baggage? Seems like I was the naive one.
Most of my students are male, scruffy, muscle-bound dudes just out of the service. They come back and they’re looking for a new direction. I never served in the military, but I was on a police force for seven years and I understand these guys pretty well.
I opened my school knowing people would be coming back from active duty with skills that transferred well to PI work. It’s a good business. I run six or seven courses a year, each lasting a month, with anywhere from three to ten students in each course. I take them through computer skills, physical surveillance, following people on foot or in a car, and financial research. I know how to make this stuff interesting.
I also run my own PI business and often hire my former students on a project basis, if I can’t do the job alone, or if they hand me some business. Annie Ogden was a natural choice back in the summer, especially since she brought me a juicy case. We made good money and even got a trip to Italy out of it.
Maybe it was something in the air over in Tuscany. Her guard was down. The case was finishing up and we had a couple of days before the flight back. We spent a day in Siena going to old crumbling churches, eating gelato in the central square, and a dinner that turned romantic. Who shows up in this fancy restaurant but the movie actor Russell Crowe. Annie just about died of embarrassment when I took a picture of him with my phone. I thought no one would notice, but a bodyguard came over, grabbed the phone out of my hand, and deleted the photo. He acted like it was something he did all the time. Everyone in the restaurant was staring. Soon after that, the movie star group left.
All at once, Annie and I started laughing at the same time. That was the moment when she fell in love, I think. All the stress of the previous three weeks was suddenly gone and here she was in Siena, Italy, with me. It hits you when you least expect it. It’s true what they say. And when it does, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
By the time we got back from Italy, Annie was ready to move in with me. Someone had to rescue her from that shack out in the forest. This was in July. These last six months have been the happiest period in my life, bar none.
“If you want to go to that reunion party, I wouldn’t try to stop you,” I said once our food came and we started eating.
“I’m not going and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Just saying.” I was trying to tell her I trusted her. I didn’t trust Garcia, but I knew I could trust Annie.
“I told him if he follows me around or hassles me any more I’ll go to the police and get a restraining order.”
“That could be difficult.”
“If he hasn’t harmed you. You have to show proof of danger, which means events that have already happened. For instance, when a woman has been beaten and there’s a police report. Then you can get a restraining order.”
“So I can’t get one?”
“Not based on just a bad feeling, no. How would the police enforce them if they were so easy to get? Everybody would get restraining orders on anyone they ever had a fight with.”
She shrugged. “He hates the police. I just said it to scare him anyway.”
“So you agree that he’s not going to give up so easily.”
“I didn’t say that.”
If she felt the need to intimidate Garcia, she knew as well as I did he wasn’t giving up. I didn’t want to push her into a corner. I wanted to support her. I wanted to make it easier for her to make the right decision. I wanted to help her be strong.
It worried me that the whole subject made her so uncomfortable. Clearly, it was time to investigate this ex.
If you enjoyed this awesome chapter from Collateral Damage, enter to win a $25 Amazon gift card AND a signed paperback edition of any book by Frederick Lee Brooke! To win, all you have to do is visit every blog on the 26-day Collateral Damage Excerpt Tour and leave a comment showing that you read the excerpt. That’s it!
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About the author: Frederick Lee Brooke is the author of the widely-acclaimed Annie Ogden mystery series, which includes Doing Max Vinyl, Zombie Candy, and Collateral Damage. The books do not have to be read in order. Having lived in Switzerland for the past two decades, Brooke has taught English, run a business and learned French, German and Italian. You can find him online at Frederick Lee Brooke. Sign up for his newsletter and read all about his travels, recipes, and upcoming works!
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Feature image courtesy of Frederick Lee Brooke.