J.L. Austgen is the author of Keyser Run and Muckross Folly, books one and two in the Evelyn Morgan series, and he's hard at work on book three, scheduled for publication in 2014. He grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and studied creative writing at Colorado College. Partnering with his wife, J.L. founded Dreampipe Publishing in 2012. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and two rambunctious boys, and you can learn more about J.L. Austgen at http://www.jlaustgen.com.
In Muckross Folly, we find FBI agent Evelyn Morgan reeling from the destruction of her team at the hands of her deputy. Morgan vows revenge against the assassin that planned the operation, her nemesis, Omar Ben Iblis.
The trail leads to an old friend, well-connected and well-placed in Washington's political establishment. When he refuses to help, Morgan must scramble to find the pieces to the puzzle. While investigating, she discovers a vicious new menace, more cunning and deadly than anyone she has ever faced. Trained and mentored by Ben Iblis, this new threat has already struck her family, and if Morgan doesn't act quickly, she'll be the talented protégé's next victim.
And now, without further ado, I give you
SILVER by J.L. Austgen
Blood covered the silver cross when she clutched it to her chest, tears soaking her cheeks on the side of the road in the rain-soaked Colorado mountains. The air was fairly warm that weekend despite the darkness, but she shuddered anyway. It was the only thing she could do to keep the sobbing from overtaking her body. As she lay in the ditch, her mind drifted back to the only other time she ever felt that alone.
The trip to the University of Colorado's Cancer Center was rushed; she was forced to request an emergency pass from the Academy. Her CO was supportive, if somewhat gruff. A mother dying from cancer was no laughing matter, but neither was the United States Air Force.
It was late Friday evening before she walked into her mother's room in Denver, the rain pelting the windows. Either through a miracle, or through her father's influence, her mother was awarded a private room, complete with attached bathroom. Though, from the look of the wasted figure breathing laboriously from the hospital bed, she would have been lucky to make it to the shower.
"Evelyn," the corpse croaked from the bed.
She let the door close gently behind her, her black leather shoes reflecting the harsh fluorescent light beating down. With the vain hope of masking her pain and rallying her courage, she took a deep breath and looked over at the bed. She marshaled a smile to mask her horror. The combination of aggressive chemo and radiation reduced her mother to a mere shadow, sinew and bone disintegrating under the starch white sheets. In an instant she knew this was the end. Her mother would never leave this room.
And so, with a weak smile, Morgan took a step forward, unbuttoned her uniform coat, and met her mother's eyes. "You look well."
A half laugh croaked from the bed. "You were always a terrible liar, Evelyn."
Morgan, her brilliant green eyes downcast, nodded, and pursed her lips. "I came as soon as I could."
Another croak escaped her lips, though this one turned into a spasm, wracking the woman's body and forcing her to nearly double over, her arms crossed over her chest in an effort to diminish the pain.
Morgan reached down, gripping the woman's hand in hers, and wished she could take some of that pain to help it pass. She wished she could do anything, but she knew it was pointless. She had known it months ago, ever since her mother first told her.
"Not long," her mother finally answered.
Tearing her eyes from her mothers', Morgan looked back down at her shoes.
"It was bound to happen."
"Not this soon," Morgan replied, finding it difficult to speak. She still gripped the top of her mother's right hand, but she was not surprised to find her mother's left hand now rested on top of hers. It brought the same warmth and comfort she had always known since her childhood; a security she was desperate not to lose, knowing it was not within her power to stop. "There's so much left to do. So many things you haven't seen. So many things we haven't done."
"I know," her mother said, then paused to catch her breath. "And now you think we won't do any of those things together."
Morgan scoffed, "And you think we will?"
"In a way."
"I'm not sure I believe you."
"Perhaps you will. One day."
Morgan could not bring herself to look at her mother's body, focusing, instead, on finding a chair. She withdrew her hand and turned around, quickly finding the straight-back chair ubiquitous in every hospital room. Still not daring to glance at her mother, she pulled the chair next to the bed and sat down, particularly conscious of the rain as it beat against the hospital's windows.
"I think that's what's so hard."
"You knew this was coming," her mother replied.
"I know," Morgan said, finally looking over at the bed.
"We all die, my love."
Morgan shook her head. Did her mother not see it? What was she supposed to do? Her father never visited. He was not part of their life. What was she supposed to do after... after her mother died? Where would she go? What would happen?
"I have something for you," her mother said, trying again to sit up.
With some effort, Morgan stood and set an extra pillow behind her mother's head.
"Thank you," her mother said.
Morgan sat back down, watching, waiting, as her mother reached under her hospital gown. She pulled a heavily tarnished silver cross on a simple chain from her chest, and lifted it over her head.
"You've worn that forever," Morgan said, somewhat surprised. She had never seen her mother take it off.
Her mother nodded, holding the cross in the palm of her hand. "And now it's your turn. Your grandmother gave this to me years ago, shortly before she died." Her mother held it up, the cross shaking in her feeble hand. "And she told me the story of where she got it, back in the war."
Her mother glanced over at Morgan, her eyes somewhat glazed over, and said, "World War Two. She was a nurse in North Africa, with Montgomery."
Morgan's brow furrowed, and she found herself leaning forward. "I didn't realize she was in the war."
Her mother continued to stare at the cross. "Yes," she muttered, her eyes unfocused. "Before she left Britain and came to the States. She was in a medical tent, near the front, when they started receiving casualties. For the first time it wasn't just British... they also received American casualties. There was some big offensive which went south. She never could remember which one. All she knew is they were inundated."
"I didn't know she was a nurse."
"It wasn't something she talked about." Her mother turned to gaze at her through tired eyes. "But it was important to her. She remembered it as being dusty and hot. Almost like the heat we wouldn't know how to deal with now, the kind of heat we run to escape. But, of course, they weren't able to escape. The casualties started to arrive a little after midday. Dreadful, terrible injuries... most of which she wouldn't, or couldn't, describe to me."
Her mother paused, and Morgan waited. While she wanted to imagine what the scene would have looked like, she was mature enough to realize it was foolish. There was little she knew, little she experienced, to draw any representation of the horror her grandmother must have endured.
After several minutes, only the beeps of machines interrupting the silence, her mother continued. "She never spoke about the hospital tents where... where they took in the wounded. No matter how I pressed."
"Did she stay with the hospital unit through the entire war?" Morgan asked.
"Yes. For more than four years."
"How did she get the cross?"
"She got it from an officer. An engineer."
"Not a pilot?" Morgan asked, surprised.
"No. An engineer. He was there building airfields."
"Airfields?" Morgan parroted, trying to hide her disappointment.
"For the Army Air Corps."
"How did they meet?"
"He brought wounded to the hospital, after their airfield was strafed by Luftwaffe fighters."
Morgan watched her mother's eyes. There was a dull, lifeless pleading behind them Morgan knew her mother's conscious mind was completely oblivious of.
"One of his men was hit," her mother continued. "A buddy of his. Someone he'd worked with, been friends with for many years. His friend was all torn to hell, blood everywhere, shrapnel, partial leg amputation. Your grandfather carried him into the operating tent, straight past two sentries, completely ignoring the proper intake protocol. They were livid, but according to Mom, neither one was going to challenge a Major. I think they were hoping one of the doctors or nurses would deal with him. One way or another."
Her mother shook her head. "No. They let him through, shadowing him, of course, but it didn't sound like there was much to be done. Your grandfather walked right through them."
Morgan remembered her grandfather. Tall, strong, extremely powerful, even at the age she knew him. It was not hard to imagine him bowling right through two armed guards. "What did Grandma do?"
"She gave him hell," her mom replied, a half smile creasing her face. "He had no business being there, no business violating procedure. He was putting men's lives in jeopardy simply by stalking into that tent."
"What'd Grandad do?" Morgan asked.
"He stood there."
Her mother nodded. "He stood there, cradling his friend in his arms. He didn't move. He just stared at Mom."
"And the sentries?"
A small, conspiratorial smile escaped her mother's lips. "What were they going to do? Your grandfather was bigger than most men, and he was in the prime of his life."
Morgan smiled, imaging her grandfather, almost larger than life, a nasty scowl on his face, staring down those two men.
"She told me she knew she couldn't win," her mother said. "She took one look into his eyes and knew no power on Earth would move him. So she told two orderlies to take your grandfather's friend and prep him for surgery."
"He let the sentries take him away."
"Just like that?"
"Yes," her mother nodded. "Just like that."
Cocking an eyebrow, Morgan studied her mother and said, "That's a shitty story."
"I'm not finished."
"It sounded like you were."
"You were always so damn impatient," her mother barked, with what little strength she still possessed. "Just listen."
"That night," her mother said, "several hours after the attack, your grandmother went to the brig.
"What did she do?"
"She just talked to him."
"Did his friend live?"
"Yes," her mother replied. "He survived the initial round of surgery, and was transferred to a hospital in England. He lived for many years."
"And Granddad?" Morgan asked. "How did he get out of the stockade?"
"What do you mean he didn't?"
"They wouldn't let him out, despite everything she tried to do for him." Her mother let out a long sigh and closed her eyes. "They prosecuted him in Africa. According to your grandmother, it was a trumped up court martial, but it was a court martial nonetheless."
"Well, that's where it gets a little funny."
"What do you mean?" Morgan asked, more confused than ever.
"I never got that full story. Neither of them would tell me about the details."
"So what happened?"
"Toward the end of the African campaign, when the Allies began Encino and the invasion of Italy, they released your Grandfather."
"That doesn't make any sense," Morgan said, shaking her head. "Why would they do that?"
"Because he volunteered for an operation."
"I don't know," her mother replied. "Neither one of them would ever speak of it. But the night before he left, he gave your grandmother this." She reached over and picked up the silver necklace, the silver cross dangling between her fingers.
Morgan gazed down at it, diminutive even in her mother's frail hand.
"It was nearly two years before she saw him again. But she was wearing this necklace that day, and she wore it every day until she gave it to me, shortly before her death."
Their eyes met, and Morgan suddenly felt a deep emptiness in her chest. It was only amplified when her mother reached out for her hand.
"And now I'm giving it to you," she said, dropping the necklace in Morgan's hand, and closing her fingers around it. "It's time."
"Yes," her mother said with a weak smile. "Time."
The sound of a car starting up brought Morgan from her memory, and she opened her right eye, the left swollen painfully shut. She looked down at the cross and curled her fist around it. No woman in her family would take an attack like this lying down, and she'd be damned if she was the first. Slowly, nearly crying out from the pain, Morgan pulled herself out of the ditch. The car idled quietly in front of her, difficult to make out in the rural darkness.
A sudden movement on her right caught her attention, but she was too slow to parry the blow. Stars exploded in her eyes and she collapsed to her knees.
"Don't you have enough sense to stay in the ditch?" an angry voice shouted in her ear.
Still reeling from the punch, Morgan felt herself being dragged across the road. Her vision slowly came back at the sound of a car door opening, but she remained numb and mute as he dragged her into the backseat of the car.
Thank you, J.L., for joining us today and sharing SILVER!
Keyser Run is available in paperback and ebook, and Muckross Folly in paperback, ebook, and hardcover.