A Writer’s View

I’m occasionally asked about the art of writing by those who read my blog-posts and books, but I’m usually caught off-guard, quite unprepared to give a cogent answer.  I was better primed for an industry online interview, however—an edited transcript of which is shared in this post.

Q. What is it you enjoy most about writing?

I enjoy the freedom to do whatever I want in the first-draft stages—creating credible characters, inventing dialogue, describing events, contriving plausible story-lines.

But even more, I enjoy the rewriting, where I can change things, reconstruct situations, alter outcomes.  I love having the opportunity to shape and re-shape the fictional world I’ve created in each story—almost like a wizard, going back in time with the power to change what originally happened.

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Q. What is your writing process?

I write everything down as soon as possible after it occurs to me —essays, short stories, blog-posts, episodes for my novels—sometimes in the wee, small hours of the morning when the thoughts tumbling in my brain won’t let me sleep.  Later, when the frenzy of first-draft has abated, I rewrite them to see where, or if, they fit in the overall picture.

I often spend hours on end in the process, even to the point of missing lunch or dinner.  I’m amazed when I discover that four or five hours might have passed before I paused for breath, so to speak. For me, writing is an alternate universe, one in which I easily lose myself.

Q. Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

I remember the first story I wrote as an adult.  It was titled The Leaving, and was included in two of my published collections of tales.  It told of the conflicting joy and sadness associated with the realization that my two daughters were growing up, leaving their childhood behind.  It was predicated on a credo my wife and I adopted in their upbringing—hug them close, then let them go.  The hugging was easy, of course; the letting-go not so much.

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Q. What prompted you to try writing a novel?

In the beginning, it was an attempt to answer the question as to whether or not I could do it.  And it took a long time to figure out—five years from inception to publication.  I was hoping to accomplish a number of things, the first being just to finish it; while I had been writing stories and poetry for a long time, I had never attempted a novel.

Additionally, I wanted to tell a story that would prove difficult for readers to resist.  I wanted to relate that story mainly through dialogue among the characters—in their respective voices.  I discovered, however, that the telling of some events had to be in my own narrator’s voice.  I also wanted to create convincing characters in whom readers might invest—little knowing at the time that I would become so attached to two of them that a series would follow.  They feel like friends now—to the point where, rather than creating their story in each successive book, I’ve come to feel like I’m simply recording it as it unfolds.

Q. How many books have you published?

To my astonishment, there are five novels now: By Precept and Example, 2007; Until He Killed Her, 2010; Lockdown, 2012; First Do No Harm, 2015; and the most recent, Missing and Murdered, 2017.  Each of the stories is told against a backdrop of contemporary events taking place at the time of publication.

9 Missing cover

There are also three books of collected stories: On Top of the Grass: Tales of a Snowbird in Florida, 2008; It Matters to Me: Tales of a Young Father, 2010, and The Passing Parade: Tales of a Bemused Bystander, 2017.

All the books can be found, in print or e-book formats, at a number of locations, including http://www.amazon.ca and http://www.barnesandnoble.ca.  They are also available online at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a sixth novel in the Maggie Keiller/Derek Sloan crime series, and I hope to have a fourth collection of tales, Tall and True: Tales of a Peripatetic Blogger, published in 2018.

Q. When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

I spend a lot of time reading—more, perhaps, than writing.  And I sing bass with an a capella men’s chorus, Harbourtown Sound, which is both enjoyable and time-consuming.  The chorus website is http://www.harbourtownsound.ca/.

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I also try to stay active in golf, tennis, cycling, swimming, and other physical pursuits.

Q. Who are your favorite authors?

There are several, including John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, John Sandford, and Randy Wayne White—all of whom write in my preferred genre. I also enjoy authors from different genres—Bill Bryson, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Winston Churchill, to name a few.

 

It Matters to Me

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

From as far back as I can remember, the Christmas season has always been my favourite.  And it’s true even more now, in my mid-seventies, than it was as a child.

When I stop to think about the reasons for that, I suppose it has to do with the different meanings that Christmas has for me.  Although I can think of many, there are three significant beliefs that stick out.

…with the kids jingle-belling, and everyone telling you, “Be of good cheer…”

None of the three has anything to do with the endless sparring between the commercial and religious aspects of the season—where we find Santa Claus in every shopping mall, serenaded by traditional carols blasted over a tinny sound system.  Or coming to town on a huge sleigh pulled by plastic reindeer.  Were I to dwell on that, the whole season would be spoiled.

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Neither are my feelings affected by the view of Christmas as a pagan festival, the embodiment of which is old St. Nick, rather than as a true celebration of the birth of Christ.  For me, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

It’s the hap-happiest season of all…

As a matter of fact, Santa Claus is one of the things I like best about Christmas.  For the record, I still believe in him.  Every Christmas—under the somewhat curious stare of my grandchildren, who are all sophisticated now to the point of pretending to pretend—I hang up my stocking, just as I have for more than seventy years.

“Gramps, you don’t still believe in Santa, do you?” my youngest granddaughter asks.  She watches me closely as I frame a reply.

“Sure do,” I say.  “I mean, I don’t know if there really is a Santa Claus, but it’s more fun to act as if there is.  Believing in Santa is one of the things that make Christmas so much fun.”

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I don’t know if she agrees with me, but it’s reassuring to note that she still hangs up her own stocking.

The second thing of significance for me about the Christmas season is the good feeling prompted by memories of Christmases past.  It’s always been a time for family members to come together.

With those holiday greetings and gay, happy meetings when friends come to call…

For years, my parents’ house was the destination on Christmas Day, eventually giving way to my home, where my wife and I raised our two daughters.  Grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and friends would all drop in, often staying for the opening of the gifts, and dinner afterwards.  And, without fail, they would reminisce about their own childhood Christmas seasons, sharing their happy, nostalgic memories with us.

…tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…

It’s different today, of course, because our daughters have children of their own.  Theirs are the homes we gather at now, with in-laws and friends of their generation.  And, to my everlasting surprise, we have become the old folks—observers rather than directors of the goings-on around the tree.

Worst of all—as the oldest one gathered there, I have to wait ‘til the very end to open my stocking.

…parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow…

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But, regardless of where we are, the things that haven’t changed are the feelings of love and joy we all share at this time of year.

The third thing of importance to me is the fact that Christmas does mark the birth of Christ.  I believe the question of historical accuracy is irrelevant.  The very fact of his birth, whatever the actual date, is a symbol of our hope for peace on earth.  It stands as a beacon of the promise for salvation in a world fraught with danger and despair for many.

I have absolutely no difficulty in integrating these three different notions of Christmas.  For me, they come together nicely—the fun and excitement of Santa Claus, the love and laughter of times with family, and our renewing joy at the birth of Christ.

There’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones appear…

Perhaps the thread that ties the three together is the idea of faith, the idea of choosing to believe.  Christmas is my favourite time of the year, but for reasons that are neither irrefutable nor provable.  Faith doesn’t abide proof.

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My beliefs are valid only because I deem them so.  I want to believe in them, so I do.  And, therefore, Christmas represents a magical time for me—especially now, knowing I have more of them behind me than ahead.

Softly-falling snow, gaily-twinkling lights, the wonderful music, the excited laughter of grandchildren, and a peace that surpasses all understanding—all join to herald the coming of another Christmastime, a time to celebrate, to remember, to rejoice and give thanks.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

And it matters to me!

 

Eradicating Polio

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast…

So wrote William Congreve in his poem, The Mourning Bride, in 1697.

More than three centuries later, in my own lifetime, there has been practically nothing so savage in choking the life from the breasts of innocent children than the scourge of polio.  During the mid-part of the twentieth century, polio paralyzed or killed over half a million people a year worldwide.

Everyone who grew up in the years of my childhood came to dread the very word.  Who among us does not remember the iron lung—a lifesaving device for so many of the afflicted, but a terrifying monster in our minds—lurking in wait, a spectre that haunted our dreams.

polio-national museum of health and med

Those of us who managed to remain healthy all knew of someone who was not so fortunate.  Richard Rhodes, an American historian and journalist, wrote of polio in his autobiography, A Hole in the World:

Polio was a plague. One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe. Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike. One case turned up and then another. The count began to climb. The city closed the swimming pools and we all stayed home, cooped indoors, shunning other children. Summer seemed like winter then.

Today—thanks largely to the development of effective vaccines, and mass immunization programmes—the disease has been almost eradicated.

Almost.

In 1988, there were an estimated 350,000 reported cases of polio worldwide; by 2016, that number was 37, a remarkable decrease of 99%.  And yet, it lives.

The global effort to combat the disease has been tremendously effective, but as long as even one child remains infected, children everywhere are at risk.  A failure to completely eradicate the disease could spark a resurgence all over the world.

And so, to the power of music to combat all that is savage.  A men’s chorus of which I am a proud member, Harbourtown Sound, recently partnered with Rotary International in support of their Polio Plus campaign, hailed as “one of the finest humanitarian projects the world has ever known”.  Rotary fundraising has enabled the inoculation of more than 2.5 billion children, at a cost of $1.3 billion.

Twenty-one local Rotary Clubs recently joined with our chorus in a special Christmas concert to add to this global initiative.  Thanks to those committed Rotarians, to philanthropic sponsors working with them, and to the organizational efforts of one of our singers, a Rotarian, more than $130,000 was raised in one afternoon.

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For us on stage, it was a labour of love, singing glorious songs of the season—melodies as familiar to us today as the fear of the polio scourge was in days gone by.  For those in the audience, it was more than just a concert; it was an opportunity through their generosity to assist in the eradication of polio forever.

The Rotary International outreach is described at this website—

https://my.rotary.org/en/take-action/end-polio

More information about Harbourtown Sound can be found at our website—

http://www.harbourtownsound.ca/,

or on our Facebook homepage—

https://www.facebook.com/harbourtownsound/?fref=nf

HTS award

For Always

A number of years ago, my grandchildren were visiting their Nana and me when November 11th rolled around.

“What’s ‘Membrance Day, Gramps?” the oldest asked.

Re-membrance Day,” I replied.  “It’s the day when we remember the soldiers who fought in the wars.”

“What are wars, Gramps?” the youngest asked.

I found it astounding, and heartbreaking, that they were still so innocent.  And I wished they could be so for always.

It was difficult to explain the premise of warfare to them—the sheer gall and hubris and stupidity of humankind in seeking to settle what are sometimes legitimate grievances by killing each other in remote fields of mud and gore.

I couldn’t convey the sense of awe that washed over me, when I had stood years before in one of the cemeteries where poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row—scarcely able to believe the enormity of the carnage.  Nor could I explain to them how I was brought to tears by the simple inscription on too many of those markers—

Here Rests in Honored Glory, A Comrade in Arms, Known But To God

unknown soldier

Despite the fact that they couldn’t really understand, I told them we try now to remember the men and women who gave up their lives in defense of our country and its values, in all the wars in which our soldiers took part.

“Why do we hafta remember them?”

“Well, I guess it’s because we hope we won’t ever have to fight a war again,” I said.

Even as I talked about it, the thought occurred to me that the war with the most significance for me is one I don’t really remember at all.

My parents did, though.  For them, it was the war, one of the most significant events in their lives, an event that shaped many of their attitudes and beliefs forever.

My recollection of that war has come through them, formed as impressions and feelings, prompted by bits of memorabilia, by oft-repeated stories, or by the singing of wartime songs.

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I have a picture in an old family album, a now-faded snapshot with large white borders and scalloped edges.  It was taken at Christmas time in my grandparents’ living room during the winter of ’44.  I’m in the picture, right in front on my mother’s lap, not yet two years old.  The whole family is gathered around us beside the Christmas tree.

My mother’s parents are there, and her three sisters.  Her sister-in-law and two of her cousins complete the group.  With the exception of my grandfather (and me, I suppose), there are no male persons in the picture…no sons, no brothers, no husbands.

Whenever I look at it, I try to imagine what that Christmas must have been like for my family, most of them younger than my own children now.  I think about a song that became popular around that time, a young soldier’s promise that, “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

I'll_Be_Home_for_Christmas_Bing_Crosby

 

So, when my young grandchildren asked about Remembrance Day, I tried to convey those same feelings to them.  Not what war was really like, because I don’t know.  Rather, how I still feel when I hear that song at Christmas time, or when I look again at that old snapshot.

I told them about my aunt who married her beau mere days before he shipped out, and that they didn’t see each other again for more than three years.  How he met her brother—his new brother-in-law—for the first time while they were both stationed in England.

brothers

Not one of my family’s young soldiers was home for Christmas that year.  One of them, an uncle I might have grown to love, never did come home.

I remember hearing my parents talk of them long afterwards.  I’d hear words and phrases that prompted my recollections—words like wartime and overseas, or phrases such as V-E Day and killed in action.

“If Jimmy had come home from overseas,” they’d say, “he’d be almost eighty now.  Can you imagine!”

Together, they’d sit quietly, thinking back, I guess—remembering how it was.

I knew my grandchildren would not be able to comprehend a war that ended more than half a century before they were born, or even understand what their great-grandparents went through.  But, in hearing about it from me, I hoped they would develop some sense of the meaning of freedom and democracy, and of the sacrifices that were needed and made.

poppy

And I hoped that, once they knew, perhaps they’d understand why we remember.

For always.

 

She Married Her Father-in-Law!

Around the community where we live, I am known to most of our neighbours as Donna’s husband.  This, I think, is due more to my wife’s friendly, caring nature with everyone she meets, than it is to my somewhat more reserved approach.

I don’t mind, of course, because it garners me automatic entry into the circle of regard in which she is held.  I benefit from instant credibility, instant relevance, instant acceptance.

“Oh, you’re Donna’s husband!” is an exclamation I often hear, followed quickly by a wide smile from the speaker, sometimes even a hug.

hugging

Among my own family, however, my identity has morphed into something I never quite anticipated.  Increasingly now, whenever I encounter sisters, nieces and nephews, or other extended family members, I am told I look like my father.

“You’re just like him,” they declare.  “You even sound like him.”

They’ve heard me sneeze, you see, which reincarnates my father every time.

Although I loved him very much while he was with us, I confess I never aspired to be exactly like him.  I wanted to be my own man—not so unusual a desire, I suppose, for sons of successful, admired fathers.

As a young man encountering people who knew him, I would often hear, “Ahh, you’re Bill Burt’s boy.”

And I would struggle to suppress the haughty reply, “Actually, he’s my father.”

But now, happily entrenched in my mid-seventies, I am no longer possessed by that same hubris.  Just as I am inordinately proud to be both a father and grandfather in my own right, I am more than happy to be recognized as my father’s son.

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My beautiful picture

 

 

 

 

Still, it comes as something of a shock to be reminded by those who knew him that, more and more, I behave just like he used to.  In photographs, I gaze at the camera with the same bemused expression he always had.  I remember thinking he was trying for a mix of casual and noble at the same time; I don’t know what I’m attempting to do, but I somehow attain the same inane facial expression.

My mouth, at rest, turns downward at the corners, making me appear grouchy, when I am anything but.  I try to smile broadly for the camera, as he did, if for no other reason than to dispel that impression.

In many pictures, I’m sitting the way he did, or standing with the same posture.  As my jowls begin to droop, as my hair turns white, my profile shots are becoming eerily similar to his.

In videos, I walk the way he used to, shoulders hitched slightly high, strong chin tucked in, eyes peering out from under raised eyebrows.

And (somewhat depressingly, I must admit), I feel awkward now as I clamber from my easy chair to my feet, as I try to step into my trousers without falling over, as I walk slowly upstairs one-step-at-a-time—just as I remember my father doing at my age!

upstairs

I must confess, however, that I do like it when the comparison is reversed; for example, when my grandchildren see a picture of my father (whom none of them remember), and say, “Wow, Grandpa, he sure looks like you!”  That turns the corners of my mouth up every time.

And I appreciate the truth now in the lines from William Wordsworth—

…So was it when my life began,

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old…

The Child is father of the Man.

No one in our community ever knew my father; but if they were ever to see a picture of him, I’m sure I’d no longer be known as Donna’s husband.

Instead, the whispers would be, “Can you believe it?  She married her father-in-law!”

Winding the Watch

While sitting in church a few months ago, attending the funeral service for a former colleague, I beheld a curious sight.

During the eulogy, delivered by the minister in his solemn, stentorian tone, a man sitting one pew ahead of me began to polish his glasses.  Slowly, assiduously, he wiped the front and back of each lens.  In between wipes, he held them up to the stained-glass window off to one side, as if expecting a divine ray of light to beam down upon him through the glass.

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Such a commonplace exercise; and yet, I thought, so seemingly out of place in that crowded church.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was paying attention to the words being spoken.  Or was he as distracted by his little task as I was?

When he had finished the job to his own satisfaction, he replaced his glasses, smoothed the hair over his ears, and settled back to listen to the rest of the funereal tribute.  I breathed a silent sigh of relief.

But the episode took me back a long, long way—back to when I was a small boy, attending church with my grandparents.  We used to go regularly—to a huge, cathedral-like edifice with o’er-vaulting arches, windows that turned the sun’s beams to every colour in the spectrum as they streamed through the glass, massive stone walls, and aged oaken altar.  Every time I entered, experiencing as if for the first time the great hush that filled the soaring space, I felt small and awed by its majesty.

Everyone spoke to my grandfather, a rector’s warden for many years, and to my grandmother, a pillar of the ladies’ auxiliary.  They spoke to me, too, usually while ruffling the auburn curls I wore back then.  I smiled forbearingly through it all.

I used to enjoy being there, though, because I loved the tremendous, swelling music of the massive pipe organ, and the grand singing of the choir.  To this day, the sound of the old hymns sends a shiver through me—A Mighty Fortress Is Our God; Abide With Me; O God, Our Help In Ages Past; Blessed Assurance; and so many more.

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But I always dreaded the point during the service when the minister would climb high into the pulpit to deliver his sermon.  Not that his messages were inappropriate; I was probably too young to understand them, anyway.

No, I dreaded it because my grandfather would always take that time—when there was no sound in all that hushed hall, save the minister’s voice—to wind his watch.  To my cocked ears, sitting right alongside him, that winding was louder than the most thundering organ oratorio.

Once a week, without fail, he would wind his watch.  And I, in my childish way, was mortified that he should choose to do it there.  And amazed that I seemed to be the only one who noticed.

Today, as a grandfather myself, I see it a little differently—as an analogy of sorts.  I’ve come to believe that, just as he wound the watch to keep good time through the following week, so, too, was he rewinding his spirit, sitting there in church, to see him safely through the week to come.

I have that watch now, still on one end of the gold chain he wore across the front of his waistcoat, with a weighted fob at the other end.  It sits in a drawer in my bedroom, and I take it out from time to time.  Even after all these years, it keeps good time—when I wind it.

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Seeing that man in church the other day, wiping his glasses so diligently, I remembered my grandfather.  I could almost hear the sound that used to embarrass me so—and I’m embarrassed now that I was embarrassed then.

I still miss him.  I wish he could be sitting there beside me once again, smelling comfortingly of bay-rum after-shave and pipe tobacco.

And winding his watch.

Girl Missing, Girl Murdered

A young Indigenous woman is brutally murdered in Toronto, her body left in a back-alley garbage dumpster by her indifferent killers.

Another statistic in a tragic tale of girls gone missing, her death comes under scrutiny seven years later by the nation-wide Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, which is holding local hearings in Port Huntington, a small resort town on the shores of Georgian Bay.   

Even as the MMIWG committee is doing its work, a second murder is discovered, and yet another young woman goes missing.  Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan, long-time residents of the town, become directly involved in the ensuing police investigation, which unearths one surprise after another.

As the hunt for the guilty party narrows its focus, Maggie and Derek find they, too, are in danger from the deranged predator who is determined to escape justice.

Girl Missing, Girl Murdered is the fifth novel in my Maggie Keiller/Derek Sloan crime series.  It is a gripping story, told in riveting fashion, sure to entertain readers who enjoy murder mysteries. 

The book is expected to be available online in time for Christmas shopping.

In the meantime, you might enjoy this excerpt from the working draft—

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Melanie Garland underestimated both the threat and her ability to counter it, a mistake that cost her dearly.  When she came out of the cottage to put a bag of household garbage in the trunk of her car, and to close the convertible top, she heard a vehicle approaching.  She watched warily as it pulled up behind her.

She knew right away what he was after, of course.  No surprise, given their earlier conversation.  But he adopted an air of unexpected nonchalance at first, probably trying to catch her off guard.

Careful, girl.  Don’t let this go too far.

It didn’t take long for him to get to the point, and as his manner changed, she felt an inkling of danger.  He was not-so-subtly eyeing the scant clothing she was wearing—a denim skirt and faded Queen’s tank-top, neither of which did much to conceal her obvious assets.

Experience had taught her the best way to cut off an aggressive man was to confront him directly—especially this one.  Slamming the trunk lid, she pointed a finger in his face, demanded he leave immediately.  Otherwise, she warned him, she’d call the police—although, belatedly, she remembered leaving her cellphone on the kitchen table.

When he responded with a slow grin, as if amused by her threat, she spun on her heel and headed for the cottage.  Without warning, he grabbed her roughly by the wrist, bringing her up short.  Angered now, and more than a little fearful, she wrenched her arm free and smacked him across the face.  Putting everything into it.

He responded so fast, she didn’t have time to flinch.  His backhand caught the side of her face, driving her against the side of her car.  Leaning into the back seat—stunned, gasping, but infuriated by the blow—she grabbed the first thing she saw lying there, a nine-iron she’d been practising with earlier.

With a primal scream, she swung it full-force at him.  Ducking sideways, arms raised to protect his face, he took the head of the club across his ribs.  As he stumbled to one knee, she dropped it and took off for the cottage.

Get away!  He’s crazy!  Get the phone! 

Halfway to the door, she was felled by a massive blow to the back of her head.  Her legs collapsed, the ground rushed up to smash her face.  Warm blood oozed from the back of her skull, trickling behind her ears.  She could taste a metallic tang in her mouth.

Oh fuck, I’m hurt!  I’m hurt!

She felt herself being rolled on her back, but her eyes wouldn’t focus.  She saw a blurry figure looming above her…heard him wailing…felt a weight pressing on her chest, over and over.  She was sure she was going to die.

No…no…no…

And then, blackness.

When he left, panting from his exertions—utterly astonished and distraught by the violence he’d committed—he didn’t  remember to take the golf club.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

There was no one there to see a different vehicle approach the cottage twenty minutes later, an hour or so before sunset; no one to observe its driver fearfully approach her motionless body; no one to hear his anguished cry, or the scratchy sound of retching as he crouched beside her.

No one else was there to detect her whispered, anguished murmurs for help; nor to notice small bubbles of blood forming at her mouth; nor to spy the fragile fluttering of her eyelids; no one to see him discover the bloodied nine-iron.

And there was no one to watch the man stand up, finally, the club in his hand; no one to witness the sudden, savage blows he rained down on her; no one to shrink from the rage in his voice as he cursed her.

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No one at all was there to see the car spraying gravel as it left in a frantic hurry moments later; no one to mourn her brutal killing.

It would be four days before anyone else discovered the decomposing body.