The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripesby Raymond Benson
It's 1960. The Black Stiletto, in her civilian persona as Judy Cooper, volunteers to work for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, only to become involved in a devious behind-the-scenes plot that could change the course of history. Is the mysterious Eastern European man she briefly dated, associated with a Cuban/Soviet spy ring? Closer to home, the Stiletto must challenge dangerous Tongs in Chinatown after befriending a teenage boy whose father was killed by the gangs. She soon discovers what a different-and very deadly-world exists in lower Manhattan. In the present, Martin, the Stiletto's son, must deal with his mother's worsening Alzheimer's symptoms, his own mental health issues, and the dilemma of whether or not to reveal his family's secrets to the new woman in his life. Meanwhile, his daughter, Gina, continues to bring trouble to herself, exhibiting behavior that suggests she is closer in spirit to her grandmother than Martin would like. Every major character, past and present, experiences a turning point in this third chapter of the Black Stiletto series.
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The Black Stiletto Stars & Stripes
The Third Diary â" 1960 A Novel
By Raymond Benson
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2013 Raymond Benson
All rights reserved.
I was so scared I could've peed my pants.
It was the middle of the night. The brownstones and tall apartment buildings appeared ominously abandoned. The sidewalk was dark and unnaturally deserted. None of the streetlamps worked. More peculiar was the absence of traffic. There were always automobiles on New York streets and avenues, even at such a late hour. I don't know how I knew it was Manhattan. I didn't know the city well. I'd been there a couple of times and found the place unpleasant. I just knew that's where I was, but everything was very, very different.
I walked at a fast pace. Headed uptown, I thought. North. Along Third Avenue. Or was it Second? I didn't know. None of the street signs made any sense. They were supposed to be numbered as I moved across intersections, but I couldn't read them. It was as if they were written in a foreign language.
It was also quiet and cold. The silence was unnerving. Usually the city was a machine of constant noise, even during that time of night when most souls were safely tucked in bed and dreaming of more pleasant activities. The chill made me shiver, and I could swear I felt icy breath on the back of my neck. When I turned, there was nothing there, of course.
Still. I felt her. She was near.
A maddening urge grew stronger. I wanted to shout out her real name to the nothingness around me. I couldn't keep it in. That jewel of knowledge was a burden that materialized itself as a heavy, bulbous mass inside my chest. It was a cancer that would surely kill me if I didn't let it out soon. And yet, I couldn't. When I tried to say her name aloud, nothing happened. My throat closed and choked and sounded like nails on a blackboard.
I kept the pace up the ghostly avenue. The buildings blocked what illumination the starry sky might provide. Every now and then I thought I saw gray shapes moving in the blackness, but I knew my eyes were just playing tricks on me. Or were they? I didn't know for certain and this alarmed me even more.
She was coming after me. She was going to catch me.
I couldn't let that happen. That blade of hers was sharp and deadly. A quick slash across the neck and I'd be done for. Or perhaps she'd just perform one of her fancy karate kicks and snap my sternum in two. It would puncture my lungs and I'd die of asphyxiation. Or she could hang me from a lamppost with that rope she carried, coiled on her belt.
Most of all, I was afraid of her eyes.
I imagined what would happen when I came face-to-face with her. It was always the same. The holes in the black mask would reveal glowing hot embers. She'd stare right through me and I'd feel it. The panic would set in, and once that happened, it was all over. I'd lose control. I'd scream. I'd run. I'd turn blindly into shadowy streets that turned out to be dead ends.
Then, when I was trapped, she would pounce.
And that's exactly what happened as I hung a left and tried to cross the avenue to the other side. The eyes abruptly materialized in the shadows as I moved forward. They stayed with me, hovering along at my side as I trotted. I felt the anxiety bubbling and my heart pounding in my chest.
I impulsively made a sharp right turn into a darkened street and bolted. Did I scream? I may have. I wasn't sure. Of course, my legs were lead weights. I couldn't run fast. It was painful to put one foot in front of the other. It was torture. Everything slowed to a standstill. The blackness constricted around me, creating a tunnel of sightlessness through which I groped. And then, as I feared, I came to the brick wall.
Dead end. Last stop. The finish.
Knowing full well what would have to come next, I trembled and whimpered like a coward. The despair was excruciating. Nevertheless, I had no choice but to turn around and face her. It was the only way I could exit the nightmare.
And what happened if it didn't work? What if it was real this time? What if she was really going to get me? What if she took off the mask and revealed the terrifying face beneath? Would I survive the shock? Would my poor heart cease to pump life through my veins?
The voice was indeed hers. Always the same.
She wanted me to turn around, and I had to obey. I had no choice.
"I'll tell them all who you are!" I cried. "Everyone will know!"
But once again, I couldn't speak the name. The effort produced such an agony. The mass in my chest was unbearable. I had to surrender. I had to succumb.
Slowly, I pivoted on my heels. My bladder felt as if it would burst as I struggled to control my fear.
There. I faced the piercing red eyes.
And the Black Stiletto leaped forward out of the void.
I awoke with a start. As I did a couple of mornings ago. And a couple of days before that.
It was such an unpleasant sensation. The jerk of my body, the vocalization of a stifled scream against my pillow, and the sudden rush of adrenaline — it never failed to ruin my day.
The panic attacks and nightmares began shortly after my forty-ninth birthday in October. I'd just come back from New York. I should have felt great because it turned out to be a successful trip. I saw with my own eyes that Gina was going to be okay. The physical assault and near rape she suffered in Riverside Park were the main reasons for the journey. Luckily the crime was interrupted by a couple of passersby. It wasn't a great way to start out her freshman year at Juilliard, but I was happy it wasn't worse. Still, it tore my heart out to see her broken jaw. She had to have it wired shut for six weeks or so. My poor little girl.
Second, I successfully stopped Johnny Munroe's blackmail attempt. That was a tremendous weight off my shoulders. I hope I've heard the last of him, but you never know. After that experience, I fear other people out there might know the big secret. Will I always have to look out for guys like Munroe?
After completing the business in New York, I felt marginally better as I returned to the miserable life of a lonely unemployed accountant who takes care of a mother with Alzheimer's. The once vibrant, now shell of a woman I'd known all my life. My mom is a stranger living in a nursing home, and she has ceased to know who I am.
I believe in midlife crises. I experienced a minor one around the time of the divorce from Carol, which was — gosh — eight years ago? I was in my early forties then. I've heard that guys who have midlife crises are usually around forty, give or take. I went through a tough time at first, but it wasn't terrible. What I'm experiencing now is much worse. In a year I'll be fifty. It's not a milestone I'm looking forward to, and that exacerbates the anxiety. So, I'm convinced that what happened over Carol was just a trailer for coming attractions; I'm currently having my real midlife crisis.
The strain of dealing with my mom and everything that entails has taken its toll. The panic attacks and nightmares erupt out of nowhere. My bodily reaction is always the same: my heart pumps hard and beats against my chest as if I'd just run a fifty-yard dash; I sweat and feel clammy; an intense feeling of dread washes over me; and I want to cry. The first time it happened I thought I was having a heart attack. I almost called for an ambulance, but maybe ten minutes after it began, the torture ceased. I was all right, but the short ordeal left me weak. I learned later that a panic attack produced a sudden release of adrenaline. Once you've gone through that fight-or-flight sensation, your energy is depleted and you feel rotten.
That was happening a lot, and the really stupid part about it all is that I know what's bothering me.
I need to tell someone my mother's secret. The truth is burning a hole in my soul.
There's no question I could cash in on it. What the media wouldn't pay for that news! The True Identity of the Black Stiletto! The legendary crimefighter's life story as told by none other than her very own son!
But that would be a betrayal. Wouldn't it? Even though my mother granted me the rights to her life story, a tale that she painstakingly put down in a series of diaries and ephemera left to me, I knew I couldn't reveal it just yet. Not while she's still alive. And, according to Maggie, the end could be as much as two, five, or ten years away — or as little as months or weeks. Alzheimer's is a cruel, unpredictable disease.
So far my mother is stable. She had a little fainting scare a couple of months ago but she came out all right. She maintained a pleasant, contented demeanor. That was good, but it was also sad. Her memories were like select, individual sand pebbles on a vast beach. Most of what's there she can't access. As I said before, she rarely knows who I am, only that I'm family. She loves me.
I love her, too.
Judy Cooper Talbot.
The legendary Black Stiletto.
And I'm the only person who knows, except for an elderly retired FBI agent living in New York. John Richardson isn't going to tell anyone. I trust him. Of course, there could be other people in the world that perhaps know the secret. Like my father, for instance. If he's still alive. I still didn't know if Richard Talbot really existed or if that was all a lie. He allegedly died in Vietnam, but his photograph never graced a mantel in our home when I was growing up. I'm beginning to doubt that Vietnam story.
So many masks. So many secrets.
Right after my mom's birthday in November, I got lucky and found a job. It was a step backward, but I snatched it right up. I couldn't afford to miss paychecks any longer. I'd been out of work since last May and my savings were nearly drained. My daughter attended an expensive arts school in Manhattan — even though she received a substantial scholarship, it was still a burden on the wallet. With Christmas just around the corner, I desperately needed the income. The opportunity came at just the right time.
Wegel, Stern and Associates, Inc. was a mom-and-pop accounting shop in Deerfield. Actually it was just a pop shop. Sam Wegel was in his seventies and had run the business out of the same small office for forty years. His partner, Morton Stern, passed away a few months earlier, so Wegel was forced to hire some young blood to fill in.
I applied, interviewed, and was offered the job.
Sam explained that he wanted to spend less time at work and eventually retire. The only other person in the place was a fifty-year-old woman named Shirley who acted as receptionist, secretary, and legal aide. I figured I could be a big fish in a small firm and end up running the place. So I accepted.
Sam was a good guy, a nice Jewish fellow with a wife and three grown children, none of whom wanted to go into the family business. It wasn't long before I became something of a fourth kid to him. He even invited me over for dinner with his family, which I appreciated. He's already invited me for Thanksgiving, but I told him I'd probably spend the holiday with my mom, even though the food at Woodlands is terrible. I certainly wasn't going to show up at my ex-wife's place and have turkey and stuffing with Carol and Ross, the guy she's probably going to marry. Maybe Maggie and I will have Thanksgiving together. I hope so.
Now, a month later, the job is what it is. I do income tax returns for regular, ordinary people. I used to be a corporate auditor and accountant. I worked in the Chicago Loop and made pretty good money. Now I tell Mr. Whatzenblatt and Mrs. Whozenstein what they can and cannot deduct. It's boring, tedious work, but it's a paycheck. And the hours are fairly flexible. Sam understands about my mom. It's a good thing the Deerfield office is near Riverwoods, where the nursing home is located. I can stop by and visit on the way home to Buffalo Grove.
So at least the employment component of the crisis has been taken care of.
The other things — my daughter's assault, the blackmail attempt, my mom — her care and the frikkin' elephant in the room that's the Black Stiletto — those things still weigh heavily on my mind. If only I could tell Gina. She would understand. She'd probably think it was cool as hell that her grandmother was a mythical vigilante. I'm just afraid she wouldn't keep that knowledge to herself.
Should I come clean to Maggie? Lord knows she wonders what skeletons reside in my closet. She definitely suspects something is wrong. After all, she's a doctor. Dr. Margaret McDaniel. Boy, things sure have changed between us since I first met her.
She's the physician who makes calls at Woodlands, where my mother has lived for the past couple of years. At first I couldn't stand the woman. I thought she had a bug up her ass or something. She was very stern and businesslike. Her bedside manner was off-putting. Okay, I thought she was the B-word. In particular I didn't like her questions about all the scars and ancient wounds my mother has on her seventy-three-year-old body. I refused to answer how my mom got them. I pretended not to know. There was no way I could tell Maggie that my mom was the Black Stiletto.
So if you'd told me two months ago that I'd be dating my mom's nursing home doctor, I would've said you were nuttier than an Almond Joy. But it's true and maybe not going too badly.
Even though we got off on the wrong foot at first, hey, I'd always considered her good-looking. Striking, in fact. Bright blue eyes. Terrific body, from what I could discern beneath that white lab coat. Just a few years younger than me.
I finally got the nerve to ask her out after I returned from New York. Our first date — for coffee — was awkward. I was nervous. I hadn't dated since I got divorced. It was very strange to be back in that game. I think Maggie felt the same way. She told me she'd never married, which I found surprising. I thought she was divorced, too. We mostly talked about my mother. No surprise there.
The second date was better. We both found our attempt at conversation to be much easier. The wine at dinner helped immensely. By the end of the evening we were actually laughing and enjoying ourselves.
On the third date, we kissed. I'd almost forgotten how to do it.
There's no telling where it's going, but whatever the thing is, I'm willing to give it a shot.
Currently, we weren't too busy at Wegel, Stern and Associates. Folks didn't start to bring in their stuff until after the holidays. Then it was supposed to be a madcap four months to April 15. Sam warned me it would be hell and that I couldn't take off during that time period. I said it was no problem.
When I got to work, Sam wasn't there. I didn't think he'd show up because it was snowing. He often took the day off or "worked from home" when the weather was bad. So I drank a lot of coffee and went through the motions of filing some guy's extension. Mostly I sat at my desk and gazed out the window at the white wonderland forming outside. Typical Chicago weather in early December.
I hated it.
Gina smiled at me from her high school senior photo. The frame stood right next to my in-box, where I saw it every time I reached for something new to do. She's such a pretty girl. When I think of what happened to her, my blood boils and my soul breaks. Her face was so bruised and battered. I felt so sorry for her. But she bounced back pretty well. She only recently had the wires removed and could resume eating normal food. I'm still amazed she insisted on continuing her studies. Her mother and I suggested that she take the semester off to recover, but Gina's always been a willful girl. She was determined to make an impression as an actress and dancer at school, so she wasn't about to drop out.
The psychological damage was something that couldn't be established yet. Sometimes a trauma's aftereffects can suddenly erupt weeks or months later. She's seeing a counselor at school, but that's all she told her mother and me. It's heartening, though, that every time we speak on the phone, Gina sounds happy and energetic. I believe she's going to come out of it all right. We just have to take it a day at a time.
She's planning to come home for the Christmas holidays. That's great.
I clocked out early and went to see Mom on the way home. When I got there, she was asleep. Afternoon nap time. Apparently she slept a lot now. Was her body doing that involuntarily so she could escape the frustrating blanket of fog that was her waking life? If I was in that situation, I'd want to sleep as much as possible. Or be dead. I couldn't imagine what was going on inside Judy Talbot's head. Anything at all? Ever since the disease struck her hard, my mom had become more quiet and subdued. She used to have tremendous energy and was extremely sociable. That's all gone now.
Excerpted from The Black Stiletto Stars & Stripes by Raymond Benson. Copyright © 2013 Raymond Benson. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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Meet the Author
Raymond Benson is the bestselling author of 28 published titles, including the first three novels in the Black Stiletto series: The Black Stiletto, The Black Stiletto: Black & White, and The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes. He is most well-known for being the official James Bond 007 continuation author between 1996 and 2002. In total he penned and published worldwide six original 007 novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories. An anthology of his 007 work, The Union Trilogy, and
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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4 STARS This is the third Black Stiletto novel. It keeps me rivited until I finshed reading. Judy Cooper is the Black Stiletto's real name. Hardly anyone knows that she is her. Judy volunteered for Kennedy's campagn and finds Russian Spys who want to kill Senator Kennedy. She also gets involved with the chinese tongs in Chinatown. Police still want to arrest her at least most of them. The novel starts with her son Martin and tells what is happening in his life with his mom in the care center, his daughter coping with being attacked in New York. Martin's ex-wife getting remarried. The drama of his life and inbetween his updates he is reading his mom's third diary book. When reading Judy's diary it has the feeling that it is a real diary made in that time and place of the 60's. With all it's problems and good points. The novel does a good job going from Martin's day to day life to Judy's diary and back again. It's a lot of action,chases,fights and choices of good or bad. I will continue to read the Black Stiletto books as they come out. I was given this ebook to read in exchange of honest review from Netgalley. 04/02/2013 Publisher: Oceanview Publishing ISBN-10: 1608090728 325 pages