My newest book, Liars’ Games, has been out for two months and I thought you might like to read the first chapter, if you haven’t read the book yet. As I said in a blog post the other day, I’m beginning work on my third Outsiders book and plan to make it a cross-over book, meaning that some characters from Liars’ Games will arrive in Reynier, France and meet the characters from my first two mystery novels. I’m really excited about that book and can’t wait for it to come to life.
About Liars’ Games:
Dr Juliet Powell is a genius math professor who doesn’t like to lie or to fail, but in doing the first, she does the second. She’s always known that lying was her biggest weakness and failing at anything was her biggest fear. When she entered witness protection, she hoped she would adapt and learn the necessary skills to re-invent herself. Her life and her son’s depended on it. At first, starting over seemed to provide an added benefit—she lost the stigma attached to being a child-prodigy and got the chance to be seen as normal like everyone else. But over her first year in the program, she continued to struggle with lies and secrets, causing her to blow her cover and forcing her handler, Brad Meyers, to move her twice. The realization that with each new identity comes more stories and more chances of getting them entangled hit her hard. She’s getting further and further away from who she really is.
When she blows her cover yet again, Brad warns her this is her last chance. She needs to blend in like a chameleon and play the game, but how can someone who has always believed in honesty suddenly become a convincing liar? Compounding her problem with this new move, a political maneuver not of her choice and not within the usual rules of witness protection, ensconces her in the role of principal at a Denver high school full of gangs, drug dealers, and disgruntled employees. And then, when she discovers that a stranger is watching her and her young son, and her handler can’t or won’t move her, she must decide whether to run away and take her chances, or stay and fight to make the school safer.
It’s a book that on the surface deals with school violence and fear, but at the heart of it is a woman’s struggle with lying and deception, trust, self-identity, and the moral decline of society.
DR. JULIET POWELL gazed expectantly out the side window of the parked SUV, sitting with its engine idling and heater humming. Brad Meyers and three seriously dangerous looking unnamed men, who had joined them this morning in New Mexico for the long trip, were checking out a new hiding place for her and her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Aidan. She knew the drill well, having suffered through the occurrence twice before. She hoped this move would give her a better outcome than the previous moves.
“Mom . . . mmy, I want to get out!” Aidan shouted suddenly, interrupting her reverie. He squirmed and pulled on the straps of his car seat, trying to unfasten them.
Juliet leaned over and smoothed his hair. “It shouldn’t be much longer, little man. Why don’t you play with your toys until they return, all right?”
He quieted for a couple of minutes and then squirmed harder than before. “I want to get out, Mommy. Let me out!”
Trying to ignore the pleading of her impatient son, she glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard. It showed 6:15. Fifteen minutes had passed since Brad and his men had left the car and still no word. She didn’t blame Aidan for wanting out of the car. She wanted out, too. More than eight hours stuck in this vehicle, with only two bathroom stops and one twenty-minute lunch break at a fast food restaurant, was too much. Her eyes shifted to the dangling keys in the ignition.
She got out of the back seat, slid into the driver’s seat, started the SUV and rammed the engine into reverse, tires squealing, Brad running to stop her. Before he was half way to the vehicle, she shifted the clutch into drive and tore out of the parking lot and onto the street, stomping on the accelerator and careening away from the men screaming at her in her rear view mirror.
Brad’s door jerked open, making Juliet jump and bringing her imaginings to an end. Aidan squealed in surprise.
“I just got the all-clear signal,” he said. “Come on, we can go in now.”
She nodded, but Brad didn’t see her because he’d already turned around and walked away. She sighed, then reached over, unfastened Aidan’s child-seat restraints, and helped him out. Aidan, clutching his small bag of toys to his chest, jumped quickly to the ground.
Exiting to the sidewalk, Juliet picked up her son and walked to the large complex of modern two-story condominiums, each in a different style yet sharing common adjoining walls, and each with a single-car garage attached. Brad and one of the men stood in front of one of the units. A third man walked past Juliet, back toward the car. She noted his holstered half-hidden gun as he passed, and shivered. The guns the men carried were necessary in their line of work, and she knew they were for her protection. Still, they made her more than a bit nervous.
She caught up to Brad and said, “I’m ready.”
“Before we go in, I want to reiterate that we can’t keep moving you. Do you think you can manage to blend in this time and not blow it? Remember, you’re supposed to be a chameleon. And you’ve got to get better at lying and sticking to your cover story. My superiors are losing patience.”
She gave a feeble nod, unable to promise in words, since she wasn’t especially sure she could do any better this time.
“Put me down, Mommy. I can walk. I’m not a baby.”
She didn’t argue. He was getting squirmy again and becoming rather heavy. The early evening air was breezy, cool, and dry—early autumn weather—and she could hear a lot of traffic noise.
“We’re in Edgewater, a suburb of Denver, Colorado,” Brad said. “We’ve found you a job nearby. I’ve also arranged for a nanny to come to your condo tomorrow, eleven-thirty. Name’s Kate Townsend. She comes highly recommended by a friend of mine who lives here in the Denver area. But she still can’t be told anything about your situation. Interview her. If she’s not acceptable to you, shop around for another candidate.”
“I hope she’ll work out,” Juliet said. “Thanks for setting up the appointment.”
Brad held open the front door. “It’s the best we could do on short notice.”
“I’m sure it will be fine.”
Aidan pulled his hand loose from his mother’s and hopped around. “Gotta go to the bathroom,” he said, holding the middle of his pants.
“Bathroom’s next to the kitchen,” Brad said, pointing.
Juliet followed Aidan, who was halfway there already. When she bent down to help him with his trousers, he shook her hand away. “Mommy, no. I can do it.”
She smiled and left him alone, closing the door behind her.
The condo smelled of fresh paint. White paint. Oak flooring in the entry gave way to beige carpet that looked reasonably clean and smelled as if it had been shampooed earlier in the day. She squatted down and touched it. It seemed to be dry. The kitchen was modern yet basic. The bedrooms were evidently upstairs. Although it wasn’t the kind of place she’d lived in back in Massachusetts or in England, it was better than the last apartment. She was becoming accustomed to living with less.
After finishing a quick tour of her new home, she said, “You said you found a job for me? What will it be this time?”
“Okay, here’s what I know,” he said, handing her a piece of folded paper. “You start work on Wednesday. That’ll give you four days to get settled-in. Report to the Administration Building of the Front Range School District. Ask for the HR Manager, Helen Jackson. She’ll have all your paperwork, including your employment contract. As far as I know, you’ll be teaching math at Redding Middle School. Obviously that shouldn’t be a problem considering your skill with numbers. It’s all on the paper I just gave you.”
“Teaching? I thought I wasn’t supposed to be in that profession anymore.”
He shrugged. “Don’t ask me. My boss arranged the job and left me out of the loop.”
Juliet detected a note of bitterness in his voice. It wasn’t the first time. On a few other occasions he’d hinted at dissatisfaction with his superiors. When she asked him about it once, he’d brushed it off like it never happened. That was months ago, back when he was easier to talk with. She used to be able to joke around with him sometimes. But something had changed since then. She didn’t know what and decided she shouldn’t ask.
“Just do what Ms. Jackson tells you,” he said, “and don’t blow it this time. And whatever you do, don’t keep calling me and asking what you should do. It’s been almost ten months. I can’t keep holding your hand. You’ve got to stand on you own. Now, do you remember your new name and Aidan’s new name?”
She nodded. “What about furniture?”
“Sorry. Couldn’t get a furnished apartment or condo on short notice. You’ll just have to sleep on the floor tonight and go shopping tomorrow.” Brad walked to the front door and opened it. “We’ll be in touch.”
“Wait! How will I get around here without a car? Is there public transportation?”
Brad stopped halfway out the door, turning his head to look back at Juliet. “Oh, sorry, I forgot. Someone will drop-off a rental car and your new I.D. later this evening. You have some cash, right?”
“You’ll get new bank account info in a day or two. Okay, then, you know how to reach me if there’s an emergency.” He turned and left, closing the door behind him.
Juliet went to the front window and watched despondently as the SUV drove away, once again wondering at her plight. How the hell had she gotten into this mess, she asked herself for the umpteenth time; but of course she knew the answer. Was her life ever going to be safe? Would she and Aiden ever have a normal life again? It seemed doubtful.
Sighing, she locked the front door and made a mental note to buy a deadbolt first thing in the morning. Although the men had checked out the condo, she went through it again herself and checked all of the windows to make sure they were locked.
While Aidan played with his stash of toy cars and miniature dinosaurs, the only things he was allowed to take with him from New Mexico, Juliet inspected the kitchen appliances and cupboards. She started writing a shopping list in a small notebook she kept in her handbag. As per regulation, she and Aidan had left everything else behind, including their clothes. Her shopping list would grow exponentially, she knew, especially in an unfurnished apartment. The problem was that if they got moved again, everything she bought would get left behind again. Was it really worth stocking up the house with more than the bare minimum?
THE FOLLOWING MORNING first thing, she found a hardware store in the phone book and, using the map Brad had left, drove there in her new rental car and purchased deadbolts and tools for installing them. It took her two hours to finish just that small project, giving her and Aiden barely enough time for a quick lunch before the nanny interview. At eleven-thirty, a young clean-cut Kate Townsend arrived. Juliet introduced herself as Claire Constantine, and her son as Marcus. Kate seemed nice. She’d been working as a nanny for two years, and was taking evening courses at a local community college. Kate said she hoped to do some of her homework during the day, when it wouldn’t interfere with her job as nanny. Juliet agreed. Aidan seemed to take to her right away. That cinched it.
Over the next three days, Juliet kept frantically busy purchasing clothes, food, towels, groceries, furniture . . . basically all the necessities of living for Aiden and herself to settle into their new home. She managed to finagle the mattress store into same day delivery, saving a second unbearable night on the rock hard floor, but had to wait until the third day for the rest of the furniture to be delivered. Somehow she managed. Aiden took it all in stride and seemed to treat it, in his own words, as a ‘fun adventure’.
ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, her scheduled start date, Juliet dressed in one of her new outfits, served breakfast to Aiden, made coffee for herself and waited nervously for Nanny Kate to arrive. No matter how many new jobs she started, she always got jitters her first day. When Nanny Kate arrived, Juliet went over the specific rules and details regarding care for ‘Marcus’ and gave Kate her cell phone number and told her to call if she needed anything.
During her drive to the school district’s administration building, Juliet practiced introducing herself by her new name. She’d remembered fine when she met Nanny Kate, but as they’d told her over and over when she first entered the program, ‘practice makes perfect’. She really had come to hate that phrase.
By the time she entered the Human Resources office, Juliet’s hands felt clammy. Still, she managed to introduce herself to the HR Manager, Helen Jackson, as Claire Constantine without a problem. So far, so good.
Ten minutes into their meeting, sitting across from Helen, Claire stared dumbfounded at the contract the woman had presented her after delivering a verbal bombshell, describing the job she was being offered. Claire tried to still her shaking hands, yet the paper rattled despite her efforts. “This—isn’t the position I was expecting.”
“Is that a problem, Ms. Constantine?”
Before she had a chance to respond, the woman’s phone rang, interrupting them. Ms. Jackson excused herself, taking the call. While Ms. Jackson talked, Claire studied her momentarily. Immaculate clothes, lovely jewelry, perfect make-up. But her hair, close-cropped spiky gray, simply didn’t match her attire and made her look a bit like a porcupine.
Claire shook her head and refocused on her current problem. Logically, based on her background, she might be capable of handling the position of high school principal—maybe—but the real issue was whether someone in her situation should be in such a high profile position. From what she knew, that was usually ill-advised, possibly not even allowed. On the other hand, Brad did say his boss had arranged the job. The back of her neck felt tense and she rubbed it.
After ‘Porcupine’ replaced the receiver in its cradle, she said, “Since you don’t seem to want the job, I guess we’re done here.” She reached across the desk and snatched the papers out of Claire’s hands.
“No. Wait.” Claire sat up straight and placed her hands in her lap. Be careful, she told herself. It’s about asking the right questions. “I didn’t say I don’t want the job. I just have a few questions. I just came in thinking I was being offered a position to teach math. Are you sure there is no mistake. I—”
“Look, I didn’t make the decision. Neither did our hiring committee. This came from the school board.” She pursed her lips and studied Claire with icy eyes for a few moments, then said “Midland High’s principal resigned unexpectedly. The position they’re offering you was his. The board President, John Richmond, bypassed our normal hiring procedures.’ Staring daggers, she continued “Of course you already know that.”
“Uh, actually, I don’t know—” But if Brad’s boss had spoken with the school board, that could explain it, she thought.
Porcupine peered over the rim of her rectangular glasses. “Do you want the principal’s job or not?”
Claire twisted her hands in her lap. Normally, she would call Brad but she couldn’t do that now. Not after his complaint and cautionary words during their last conversation. Sighing, she said, “Yes, I want it.”
Porcupine returned the offer papers she had retrieved earlier and said “Fill out these forms. I’ll need photocopies of your I.D.”
Claire pulled her new social security card and driver’s license from her handbag. She glanced at the documents—they looked real enough—and she supposed they were, in a way. Holding her breath, she handed them over. While the HR Manager left to make copies, Claire filled out the forms. For better or worse, she would stick with her decision, but something else still bothered her. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
She heard a copy machine working in the background somewhere and a few minutes later, Porcupine returned, giving back her I.D. Claire asked, “Is there anyone around with whom I can speak about the school?”
The woman pursed her lips, then without a reply, stood up and trudged out of the office again.
Claire turned her attention back to the forms. Fifteen minutes later, as she was completing the last form, tell-tale high heel sounds alerted her that Porcupine was on her way back. A man followed her into the office.
“I can’t stay long,” he told Porcupine. “I have another meeting in fifteen minutes.”
“Well, let’s get on with it then. Claire, meet District Superintendent Steve Jensen. Steve, meet Midland High’s new principal, Claire Constantine. She’s just moved to Colorado.”
He raised his eyebrows, then walked to her and extended his hand.
The woman walked around her desk and plopped back into her chair, clearly dismissing them while also clearly indicating she wasn’t giving up her office.
Trying not to show uneasiness, Claire stood up and shook his hand. He didn’t speak, and she became acutely aware in the silence that ensured that he was studying her. Fine. If he can do it, so can I. She studied his appearance: brown hair, beard, and mustache, pleasant face. Instead of a suit, he was attired more informally in a plaid blue and black shirt with the sleeves rolled up, khaki trousers, and black-suede shoes.
Steve broke the silence. “I must admit you’re not what I expected.”
Well, he isn’t what I expected of a superintendent, either. She kept that to herself and asked, “Oh? What do you mean?”
“You look young, more like a student than a principal.”
“I’m thirty-five. Is that a problem?” The moment the words came out, she realized she was blinking more than usual the way she always did when she lied; don’t volunteer too much, they’d taught her. She closed her eyes for a second, and when she reopened them, Steve was staring at her. Her heart rate quickened, and she automatically reached up and rubbed her neck.
He squinted, and curved his lips ever so slightly—a gotcha smile. She’d only added five years to her age, and her fake documentation would confirm the number. Still, if his suspicion was aroused because of this, she could imagine herself getting fired before even getting started. Then where would she be? In big trouble with Brad and his superiors, that’s where.
“If there’s a problem . . . .”
“No. I guess that’s what happens when we hire someone sight unseen.”
“I’m sorry. Your HR Manager informed me that normal hiring procedures weren’t followed in my case. I guess the circumstances were unusual.”
Had anyone told him why the school board needed to hire her? From the way he scrutinized her, she didn’t think so. She paused, and tried to gather her wits. “Well, at any rate, I hope you won’t be disappointed in my work.”
“No, I’m sorry. It’s not your work that worries me.” He sighed. “Do you have any idea what you’re getting into,
Claire? Aren’t you concerned or afraid to work at Midland?”
“What? Should I be? What’s wrong with Midland? I haven’t been given any details about the school yet.”
He twisted his mouth and shook his head. “Crap! Oh, sorry. What I meant to say was that you should have been told what this job entails before accepting. This school and those kids are going to eat you alive.”
“Is that what happened to the former principal?”
Steve shrugged. “I have no doubt. He didn’t say specifically, just left without giving notice. Said he’d had enough.”
She opened her mouth, intending to speak, but snapped it shut. So that’s why Porcupine had seemed evasive. Well, too late now. Grin and bear it as her father used to say. The muscles in the back of her neck tightened more and she unconsciously rubbed at it again, to no avail.
“If you’re having second thoughts, we can void your contract. Don’t worry.”
She tried to keep her face blank as she pondered her response. What would Brad tell her to do? She could almost hear his voice: ‘convince him you aren’t afraid’.
She tilted her head, and gave a slight teasing smile, then said, “No, no, that’s fine. I’ve dealt with cannibals before and I haven’t been eaten yet.”
Steve peered askance at her for a moment and then chuckled. “I like that. You’ve got spunk and a sense of humor. God knows you’ll need it.”
The muscles in the back of her neck relaxed slightly, and she smiled at him.
Steve smiled back and then said, “I hear you’re from out of state. How is your move to Denver going? Are you getting settled in yet?”
“I guess so. Only been here a few days and had a lot of shopping to do to get settled in. I do have a question while you’re here though. I haven’t the faintest idea where Midland High School is located.”
“Where do you live?”
“Edgewater, near Redding Middle School where I originally expected to work.”
“Ah. I think you’re in luck. The two schools are only about five miles apart so I doubt it’ll affect your driving time much. They’re both roughly twenty minutes from this central admin building. Didn’t Helen give you a map for getting to the school?”
“No, not yet. Well, anyway, that’s a relief. I noticed traffic here seems to be quite heavy during rush hour. I didn’t relish the thought of driving across town to get to work. I’m glad that won’t be an issue.”
“Traffic can be quite heavy, and I’m afraid you’ll soon discover driving can also be a bear during winter and during snow storms. They don’t use salt on the roads here, just crushed granite which tends to embed itself either in the ice or in your windshield, neither result improving the situation.” Smiling pleasantly again, he definitely had a nice smile, he continued “Other than that, what do you think of Denver so far?”
“Oh, the mountain vistas here are breathtaking. I can’t wait to explore, visit downtown, the museums, and go to the mountains.” She stopped and smiled back at him, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Unfortunately, I’m not good navigating unfamiliar places. I probably need a tour guide.”
He grinned and then opened his mouth to speak. At the sound of papers rustling on the desk, he glanced over at the HR Manager. A subtle change came over him and he held out his hand to Claire and said, “Well, welcome to Denver and to the school district.”