Beneath the Crimson Willow by Martin Niewood Excerpt

Although outwardly ordinary, this house was filled with secrets. The mounted security cameras around the property were concealed in such a way that casual observers might not spot them. A thick layer of decaying leaves covered the ground, and the surrounding trees isolated the home from others in the neighborhood. Stepping over a metal hose, as we made our way to the back of the property, I followed Leonard’s movements carefully, recalling his previous disclosures about various snares. I spotted a small but explosive anti-personnel mine intended to deter intruders as we passed through the gate. 

Reaching the back door, Leonard swiped his band. Generally, a single swipe would allow access to one’s private residence, but Leonard and Georgina had installed a secondary security system involving an alpha-numeric code and an electronic keypad. Leonard tapped the buttons and the door clicked open. Turning the knob, we stood in a large but unimpressive kitchen. From our vantage point we could see most of the first floor. The kitchen led into a dining room and a small entry hall for the front door. Immediately to the left of the hall, was the living room and behind it a single bedroom and bath. Leonard and Georgina were either not good at their chosen profession or they hid their money elsewhere. One thing was certain, their ill-gotten gains were not spent on their home.

From the discolored ceiling, cracked windowpanes, and splintered floorboards, the home appeared to have suffered from years of neglect. Looking around at the kitchen sink overflowing with dirty dishes and unwashed laundry strewn around the floor, I suspected that after Georgina’s death, things went from bad to worse. The place was an absolute disaster. 

It was apparent that something had occurred in the small entry hall. Furniture had been knocked over, and broken picture frames, umbrellas, and various pairs of shoes and boots cluttered the floor. Glass from a broken mirror, coated with dried blood, crunched underfoot. There was a smear of blood on the baseboard and a splatter of some dark red secretion across the ceiling. The black, tarry slime that had poured out of Georgina’s eyes and ears had seeped into the floor and lay trapped between the uneven boards. It was obvious that Leonard had tried to wipe some of it up, but the slime had hardened and was now embedded in the grain of the wood.

Leonard caught me staring at the hallway. “Difficult to look at, isn’t it? My first thought was to clean it up and act as though none of this had ever happened, but I was too depressed to do anything.” Leonard stared down at the floor. “I couldn’t just leave her there, so I buried her body out back in the woods. It was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do.”

I heard the sadness in his voice whenever he mentioned Georgina. “I’m assuming this is where you found her? In the hall?” I walked over to the spot with the most dried blood and slime. “When you found her, how was she positioned?”

Leonard cleared his throat. “What does that have to do with anything?”

I leaned down to the ground, imagining the events before her murder. “I’m trying to get a sense of what happened. Can you walk me through everything you know about the night she was killed?”

Rubbing his chin, Leonard replied, “I had gone out for about an hour. I had a meeting downtown.”

“Who did you meet with?”

“That’s none of your business, and it has nothing to do with this.” Leonard stormed off, presumably annoyed by my question, but then returned as though nothing had happened. “I don’t get it. There’s no sign of forced entry and except for here, there’s no blood anywhere else in the house.” He stood there looking through the front window, scratching his thinning hair. “You see, one of the traps was set off, a nasty one at that. The intruder would have been injured and bled profusely, but there’s almost no blood inside the house. If the murderer was that injured, how did he clean up his blood before I’d returned? That would have required a team, but it’s clear that there was only one person because, as you can see, there was an intense struggle before she ingested the poison. I believe that multiple assailants would have tied her up and controlled her with ease.”

Pressing my fingers against my lips, “Okay, so we’re dealing with a single person that is most likely injured. They somehow get into the house without forcing the lock, then creep up behind Georgina when she is making her way to the kitchen. Why then? Is it safe to assume that she might have heard… Wait, what about the Caldwell cameras outside? They’re pretty high end, military grade—didn’t they catch anything?”

Leonard rolled his eyes. “Cameras were wiped clean. The only evidence I found was blood on one of the spike traps outside. I took a sample and sent it to one of my connections in the Foxglove police department to see if anything came up on their database. So far, there aren’t any matches to any known offenders.”

“You wouldn’t happen to keep any first aid stuff in your kitchen, would you?” 

“Yeah, why?” 

“I might be completely off, but what if Georgina knew her murderer? You said that neither the front nor back door was forced.”

“That’s right.”

“And the gate?”

“Locked,” Leonard responded.

“And all of the windows?”

“Nailed shut, so what?” 

“So, we know that the intruder set off a trap outside. Georgina surely would have heard the commotion and seen the intruder on your security cameras. Suppose she recognizes him or her and rushes to the front door to help them. Georgina brings the injured intruder into the hall and heads for the kitchen to get the first aid kit. As she turns toward the kitchen, the killer strikes, forcing the poison into Georgina’s mouth. She resists, causing the two to struggle, knocking down furniture, breaking items in the hall. After a few moments, the poison overtakes Georgina, who convulses in pain and dies, lying in a fetal position on her side.”

As I spoke, Leonard stared silently at the stained floor. 

Even the Darkest Stars by Heather Fawcett

Disclaimer: I bought this book for book club. Support your authors! All opinions are my own.

Book: Even the Darkest Stars

Author: Heather Fawcett

Book Series: Even the Darkest Stars Book 1

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended For…: Fantasy lovers, ya readers

Publication Date: September 5, 2017

Publisher: Balzer and Bray

Pages: 437

Recommended Age: 16+ (Alcohol, Drunkenness, Language, Romance, Death, Slight gore, Violence, Animal death and violence to animals)

Synopsis: Kamzin has always dreamed of becoming one of the emperor’s royal explorers, the elite climbers tasked with mapping the wintry, mountainous Empire and spying on its enemies. She knows she could be the best in the world, if only someone would give her a chance.

But everything changes when the mysterious and eccentric River Shara, the greatest explorer ever known, arrives in her village and demands to hire Kamzin—not her older sister, Lusha, as everyone had expected—for his next expedition. This is Kamzin’s chance to prove herself—even though River’s mission to retrieve a rare talisman for the emperor means climbing Raksha, the tallest and deadliest mountain in the Aryas. Then, Lusha sets off on her own mission to Raksha with a rival explorer, and Kamzin must decide what’s most important to her: protecting her sister from the countless perils of the climb or beating her to the summit.

The challenges of climbing Raksha are unlike anything Kamzin expected—or prepared for—with avalanches, ice chasms, ghosts, and other dangers at every turn. And as dark secrets are revealed, Kamzin must unravel the truth about their mission and her companions—while surviving the deadliest climb she has ever faced.

Review: Overall, this was a good novel. I thought the main character was really well done and I had never read a book with a mountain trekker as the main character before (to my immediate mind). I liked the world building and the plot as well. The book did keep my interest throughout the novel and I had fun reading it.

However, I did feel like the character development lacked in this book and the book was super fast paced. I felt like I was continuously catching up in information and I was really confused throughout some of the novel. I didn’t think the story was well written in my opinion because of the scattered writing and lack of development for the characters. Also, minus points for a love triangle and for the main character sounding 10 throughout the book (which gave me the creeps when the 19 year old fell for her). There was also an undefined magic system which didn’t make sense to me.

Verdict: I liked this one, just needs work.