When college professor Ellie McKay walks into the Maverick Bar in Farmington, New Mexico, late one evening, she plans to get drunk, not engaged. But within thirty minutes, she’s met cowboy Al Robison, he’s proposed to her, and she’s accepted. Al only knows that Ellie is attractive, vulnerable, and single; he doesn’t know that she has been on the run for weeks from a sociopath who killed her surgeon boyfriend in Pennsylvania and raped and tortured her.
Reeling from the ordeal and deeply scarred emotionally and physically, Ellie flees first to Paris, where she seeks refuge in the bottle. Then, coming to her senses, she returns to Pittsburgh to resume her life and her career, believing she will be safe there. When that proves untrue, she takes to the road, no longer caring much what happens to her.
Ellie’s escape route leads her to Santa Fe and then north to Farmington, where Al seems the safest bet. When she says yes to Al’s proposal, she knows only that he is a local rancher. She doesn’t know about Al’s own dark past, and she doesn’t tell him that her heart belongs to Doug Hansen, the detective who originally investigated the case.
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About the Author
Jill Kelly is a writer, visual artist, creativity coach, and freelance editor. A long-time college professor of literature, she has been writing and publishing since 2002. Her memoir, Sober Truths: The Making of an Honest Woman, was a finalist for the prestigious Oregon Book Award. When she’s not offering creativity workshops and leading writing retreats around the country, she’s usually in her studio, where she creates deep-color pastels. This is her second novel and first thriller. Jill resides in Portland, Oregon.
Read an Excerpt
Ellie McKay walked into the Maverick Bar about nine-thirty. The sun had set hours earlier, but the sky remained light to the west in the crisp September air. She'd been driving since mid-afternoon, and she was ready to get drunk.
She took a room at the Bide — a — While motel. The ambiance and the price had nothing to do with her choice. It was the convenient location of the Maverick, just down the street. She hadn't seen a grocery store or a liquor store on her way into Farmington, and she didn't want to drive anymore. Besides, she was tired of being alone.
Some nights she tried restaurants — the kind with a cocktail lounge that will bring a double rye on the rocks a couple of times without looking askance. But tonight it was too late to eat, too late to be hungry. She had promised herself that she wouldn't get drunk in the bar. The blackouts were unpredictable and she wanted to choose what happened. She wanted to face the end, if it was coming her way, with her eyes wide open. She just wanted a good buzz, some way to really slow down so that she could sleep and not dream of Joel and the hotel room. She wanted to drink to feel all right again and to feel loose enough to ask for a bottle that would carry her through the night with maybe a bit left over to start the next day.
When you've got one bag, it doesn't take long to unload the car, and by this time, she never unpacked — just showered off the road and put on clean underwear and walked on down to the tavern. There had been rain earlier in the day and the neon flashed in the puddles that remained: Coors Light, Coors Light, Coors Light. She noted with relief the half dozen pickups parked in front of the Maverick. Bars were easier if they weren't too crowded. Men got rowdy in crowds; they got mean.
She pushed the door open and walked right to the bar. It's always straight ahead in a country tavern, and she knew if she made a beeline for it, there'd be no need to make eye contact or suffer the reactions of the patrons to the newcomer. She felt more invisible that way.
The bartender, a young brawny redhead in overalls and a red denim shirt with pearl snaps, put a napkin down in front of her right away. "What'll it be, miss?"
She smiled. She liked kind bartenders who pretended she was still young. "Double Maker's Mark," she said. "Go easy on the ice."
"You got it," he said. The drink was before her in no time.
She let it sit a minute though the craving was strong. She'd thought in Santa Fe that she might stop again or at least slow down.
The bartender noticed her hesitation. "Something wrong, ma'am?"
She saw the worry that played at the corners of his eyes, so she pushed away her resolution. She needed him on her side. She laughed and said, "Just giving thanks to the bourbon makers of America. My way of saying grace."
The redhead chuckled and moved away.
She took a sip, then another. Alone, she'd have drunk it down, trying to get to that place of no fear. Instead she decided to pace herself, watched the digital clock next to the cash register. But after five minutes, the drink was gone, and the bartender — she decided his name was Billy — looked over at her from the beer tap. She nodded and he fixed the next one.
The Maverick had a big mirror behind the bar. She liked that because she could watch the action without being part of it. There were four booths over to one side of the front wall and three of them held couples. Two of those couples were kids. Boys barely old enough to shave, let alone drink. Cheerleader girlfriends. When did the world get so young? In the third booth, the couple seemed different, though they were necking and laughing, too. When they disentangled themselves, she saw they were both gray-haired and thick in the middle. Somehow that made her feel better.
The older woman, she decided to call her Maudie, got up and disappeared in the back, while her boyfriend, Roy — why not Roy? — went to the jukebox. There'd been two honky-tonk tunes in a row, but now George Strait's croon came on. "I still feel twenty-five, most of the time ..." When Maudie came back, Roy whirled her around the floor a few times before they sat down and went back to nuzzling each other. Billy took them a fresh pitcher.
By now, her second bourbon was pretty well gone. Here came the hard part. Had she schmoozed enough with Billy Bartender to get him to sell her a bottle? She didn't like to drink more than two in the bar. She could get back to her room without a problem on two drinks. If she ordered a third, she'd be making a different kind of decision.
She glanced into the mirror. She still looked like herself. Dark straight hair, dark eyes and brows, skin surprisingly smooth for her age. The extra pounds — she'd lost count after thirty — were still there, but she didn't look half-bad, she thought. She'd never been a classic beauty — jaw too square, nose a bit too wide, a smile she'd never been fond of. But she was still shapely and she knew men still looked at her legs.
She stared a moment into her own eyes. She wanted another drink, a third or fourth, and if she drank them, she'd be able to yuck it up with Billy and maybe some guy and get that bottle and go home. Alone or not, she didn't care. And if it turned out to be him, whoever he was, then it did. And there'd be some relief in that. She was tired of running.
The woman in the mirror nodded at her, and Ellie nodded back. She looked down the bar. A couple of truckers sat to her left, wearing the road like a badge of honor. One winked in her direction. She smiled back. Then she turned and looked to the right. A cowboy with a gray beard was nursing a beer and a shot. He, too, smiled at her. But nothing sparked, and she decided to try her luck with Billy to get the bottle and go. The young man was busy unloading a tray of clean glasses, so she waited for him to get finished and look her way.
It was then that Al slid onto the stool next to her.
She saw him in the mirror first. He was tall, so tall that his head and shoulders showed well above the row of bottles that lined the shelf behind the bar. She was tall herself, but she had never been drawn to the tall ones, preferring men her own size. But this guy had a mane of thick silver hair that fell down over a weather-lined brow. Similar lines crinkled his eyes and creased the corners of his wide, handsome mouth.
The man grinned at her as he took off his black hat and laid it on the bar and, to her surprise, something in her went soft and felt safe for the first time in all these months.
"What'll it be, Al?" Billy asked, coming down the bar.
"Coffee," he said. "Big coffee." And he grinned at her again.
Billy filled a big glass beer mug with coffee from the hot plate next to the maraschino cherries and lime slices. She could smell that it was long past fresh. He set the mug down in front of Al along with a carton of half- and-half.
When Al had finished turning the black stuff white, he turned to her. "Where you from?"
"Not here," she said. She heard her words come out kind of snippy and she hadn't meant them to. She felt flustered all of a sudden, so she drained the ice melt from the glass. Billy tried to catch her eye to see if she wanted another, but she avoided him. Truth was she was waiting to see what Al would say next. But he said nothing. Just put his elbows on the bar and sipped at his coffee. Maybe it's my turn, she thought. She looked up at Billy and asked for a glass of water.
At that, Al looked over at her and at the empty glass on the bar. "My name's Al," he said. "I own a ranch about fifteen miles out of town. I do pretty well, considering that bush-whacking G. W. in the White House. I'm sixty-four, my hair and teeth are my own, haven't ever had a major illness and don't plan to have any."
She didn't know what to make of these revelations. She took a big drink of the water in front of her and thought about that third drink.
"Well," she said, finally, when she realized he was waiting for her to speak. "My name's Ellie. I'm sixty, and I've been a teacher most of my life. I, too, have my own hair and teeth. I have also had two major illnesses that are none of your business."
Billy had his back turned to them and was wiping between the bottles, but Ellie could see his shoulders shaking with laughter.
Al didn't say anything in response, just nodded solemnly. Then he signaled Billy for a refill and the smell of overcooked Folgers wafted towards her again.
He took his time with the coffee, pouring dollops of cream into it and stirring them in. All Ellie could imagine was that there was an exact shade of brown he was looking for. Then he asked her if she wanted another drink. She thought about it for a moment, then lied and said no. Al nodded to Billy, who brought her a cup of the coffee. She poured in a little cream, but she knew it would make her sick, so she left it sitting there on the bar, moving the cup around a little to be polite. She held on to the whiskey glass as if it were a life preserver.
"It's nice, isn't it," he said after a while, "just sitting here together like this."
Again that feeling of being safe and soft came over her, and Ellie felt her shoulders relax — really relax — as she looked at the aging cowboy sitting next to her. "Yes, yes it is," she said and smiled at him.
They were quiet another few minutes. Then Al drank down the last bit of his coffee and he turned to her. He put his hand ever so gently on her forearm, which lay on the edge of the bar. "Ellie, have you ever wanted to be a rancher's wife?" His eyes were serious, dead serious.
She managed a smile. "I've never thought about it." She paused. "Say, does Jesus enter into this somehow?"
He frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I need to tell you that I am not religious. No way, no how. I'm not cut out for Sunday School and prayer meetings and being the good little woman at home. I'm more the hell and damnation type, if you know what I mean."
He leaned toward her and she caught a whiff of Old Spice. "Do you have to do it alone?" he said.
"Raise hell. Can someone else come along? Be there to pick up the pieces? Bring you back home to yourself?" Then he smiled at her with that wide, handsome mouth and she couldn't help herself, she went weak in the knees.
"Sure, I guess," she said to Al. "Why not?" And Ellie pushed the coffee away, held up the whiskey glass, and nodded at Billy, who brought over the bottle.CHAPTER 2
It took Al the usual twelve minutes to leave the lights of Farmington behind, to have the land open up and the stars start to wink in the black velvet above. He loved that thirteenth moment, loved the night closing in around him and the truck, the soft electronic lights of the dashboard the only reminder of the century he lived in.
The pavement ahead was dry. Alert by second nature to the wild eyes along the roadside that might suddenly dart out, he let his mind go blank, a trick he had learned in the long, difficult months after he had buried Annie. He tuned into his breathing, into the ache in his chest and the fullness in his throat. He didn't want to think about the impetuous encounter he had just had. Although people knew him as decisive, he wasn't much of a risk- taker, and now somehow he had jumped in with both feet before his mind could say otherwise.
He had liked Ellie right away. There was something endearing about her bravado, her certainty that was most likely a mask which made him want to stand between her and the world. Funny how you could see that hidden place behind the eyes in some people — and in some animals. It took no time at all to see it.
He looked over at Beemus, who was stretched out on the seat beside him, his graying muzzle resting lightly on Al's thigh. Annie had thought it stupid to have a house dog on a ranch, but Al had wanted a companion dog, not just a working dog, and Beemus was a true companion. He gave the cocker a rub behind the ear and the old dog thumped his tail softly against the seat.
Al had gone to the Maverick that night in the hopes of running into Gracie. She and a couple of girlfriends usually showed up on Tuesday nights for the buffalo tacos, and he'd taken to coming later, when they were through eating and had had a few pitchers. He would wait patiently at the bar drinking his coffee until she was ready and then Gracie would let him go home with her. Sometime after the first few months, they'd stopped talking about Annie and they'd started sleeping together. Rumors of revenge had circulated in the small town, but Al knew it wasn't that. It was just something to hold him and Gracie against the loneliness of the night. Now it was a routine, and though neither of them felt anything more than affection, they had stayed with that routine-or they had until tonight.
He thought about Ellie, how she'd teased him about bad bar coffee, wondered why he hadn't gone to Starbucks. He'd started to defend himself but didn't want to explain about Gracie. And they'd teased each other and then he'd asked those questions that somehow just fell out of his mouth. And she'd agreed. He felt the weight of Ellie in his arms at the motel door, the soft taste of her lips, the way she had leaned into him. His whole body stirred at the possibility.
"I'll be here at eight," he'd said to her at the door of her room. He remembered the silly grin that had come unbidden to his lips and she had grinned back and said, "Make it ten." Then they'd looked at each other a long moment and she'd gone inside.
Up ahead on the right, the old gas station came into view, its rusted canopy and pumps a relic of the road's history before the Interstate. He shook himself from the reverie and signaled a right, though his was the only car for miles in any direction.CHAPTER 3
Ellie waited twenty minutes after Al had left and then headed back to the bar. She hoped he'd gone home but just in case she'd concocted a story about dropping her car keys. But he wasn't there and she had no trouble buying the bottle from Billy, who winked at her and wished her a good evening.
She poured herself a stiff drink when she came back to the room, but she'd had enough to drink at the bar that she no longer needed to hurry. She wasn't drunk though. Over the last several months, she'd built up a tolerance again, and besides, she was wired from what had just happened with Al. She felt giddy and nervous and somehow guilty.
She thought about Sandy. But it was ten-thirty and that meant close to midnight at home. And what could she say? It was still safer that Sandy didn't know where she was, safer for both of them.
She thought about checking out, moving on. She could drive to the next town, wherever it was, and find a motel there. She hadn't planned to stay in Farmington, and maybe Al's proposal had just been a bar joke. In any case, how disappointed could he be if a total stranger stood him up for breakfast?
She glanced around the lonely room with its chipped veneered furniture and its old blue carpet with the threads showing through near the door and the bedside. She thought bitterly that it was an apt metaphor for her life. Then she took another big swallow of bourbon to loosen the grip of the self-pity. As she set the glass down, her glance fell on a glossy stand-up triangle on the coffee table that announced free wi-fi, and she thought of how plugged into the electronic world she had been before Gettysburg. The old lure of news and connection sang out to her, so she got her keys and went out to the trunk for her laptop.
There were nearly a thousand messages in her college email account and she deleted most of them quickly: committee meeting minutes, textbook advertisements, potluck solicitations for a faculty evening, a nasty note from the registrar about her overdue incomplete grade for a senior.
She lived her old life for an hour, reading the messages one by one and deleting them. She kept only the ones from Sandy, although after the first couple, she couldn't read them — the worry in them so stark, so pleading. Maybe I should send a reply, she thought. Then she came back to her senses and deleted those, too.
Stiff from sitting, she turned the computer off and stowed it away. In the front compartment, where she stored the remote mouse, her hand touched paper. She pulled it out and there were Sandy and Arlen grinning at the camera on that October Saturday and there was Joel, frowning off to the side. She glanced at it for only a second, then tore the photo into tiny pieces and flushed it down the toilet.CHAPTER 4
Find something else, will you?" Joel's voice was just this side of belligerent. He didn't usually care what they listened to on long car trips as long as it kept him awake, but tonight he was the kind of angry he got when he was wrong and, clearly, the angst-ridden hits of Steve Perry and Journey weren't working.
Ellie opened the glove compartment to get some light and looked through the CD carrier. "Van Morrison?"
Joel shook his head.
"James Taylor? The Eagles?"
Joel gave one of his famous you-just-don't-get-me sighs and then shrugged in agreement.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fog of Dead Souls"
Copyright © 2014 Jill Kelly.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a true page turner. I came to care for the open, genuine characters. They came alive as ordinary people, vulnerable, falling down at times, but picking themselves up. They are so real they make me feel better about the world even though this is a crime thriller, after all. I almost forgot that at times. The writing is good. It flows, doesn’t jerk me out of the story with unreal metaphors or clichés. I liked it a lot.
If you like suspense, this is for you. A real page turner.
I'll keep this short and sweet! Geat this book! You will NOT regret it!!!!!! Fantastic read!!!!