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Here's the first chapter of Cruel Cuts:

Chapter 1.

Cresting Snake Hill, Flora Vastine downshifted and eased off the accelerator. The patrol car’s headlights barely pierced the rain, which was bowled along like a living thing in a westerly wind sweeping across the bare fields and rattling through the trees along the road.

Water and mud cascading off the steep banks and carrying clusters of sodden leaves ripped from the trees spread treacherous surprises for an unwary driver on a night like this. But Flora was a good driver who’d been trained by five brothers who brooked no deference for their only sister’s sex. Her ability behind the wheel was one of several skills that had won her the respect of her fellow officers on the Swatara Creek police force. And her skill at driving was one factor leading, finally, to her upgrading from the dubious rank of special officer to patrol-person. Flora had worked hard to earn her rank and now, having cleared the final hurdle of her Act 120 certification, she was almost ‘one of the boys’ to the men—if not to Chief Brubaker—and she had no intention of screwing it up by totaling the prowl car on her first night of solo duty.

It was nearly the end of her shift and, though it had been a totally boring night, astute concentration and the weather had combined with the unaccustomed hours to sap her vitality. Flora was dog-tired, anxious to get back to base, file her meager report, run home and jump in the sack.

Despite weariness hanging on her like a heavy weight, Flora knew one mistake was all it would take to put her back on permanent desk duty. She wasn’t so na´ve she didn’t realize it wasn’t her abilities alone that had earned her this chance to prove herself. The chief never would have relented from his opposition to female officers had it not been for the support of Harry and Mister Hetrick. She appreciated their support and didn’t want to let them down. And, damned if she wanted to be a desk jockey for the rest of her career. So, Flora exercised extra caution as she drove, just as she’d followed correct procedure in every aspect of her assignment on this long night.

The rain beat upon the hood and rolled in a steady flood across the windshield. The wipers thumped a repetitious refrain making her eyelids heavy. Flora leaned forward, wiping with one hand at the mist obscuring the glass. She adjusted the defroster again but the fog wasn’t lifting as fast as it should. It was like opening your eyes and trying to see underwater. It was like trying to get Harry’s attention.

Harry. He was always on her mind.

For more than a year, two goals took precedence over everything else in Flora Vastine’s life. One was acceptance as a full-fledged police officer. The other was to have Corporal Harry Minnich recognize her as a woman.

The first had been simple in comparison to the second.

Her brothers helped her achieve the first goal. Steve, a trucker who raced stock cars on weekends, took the lead in honing her driving skills. Bill and Tom taught her to tune an engine, and other mechanical crafts. Ed drilled her in Karate. And Donnie, the youngest, had made her an expert marksman with pistol and rifle. She remembered Donnie’s advice: “If you want to compete with a man, you’ve got to prove you’re as good—if not better—than he is.”

Well, all of that had helped in getting on the police force.

But, she wasn’t a man and there was no one to train her in how to be a woman. She had no sisters and the mother who might have helped had been lost before Flora entered her teens. She’d enjoyed growing up surrounded by men, being protected and loved by them. She understood men and their needs, admired them for their strength, confidence and determination. In fact, it probably was her admiration of Ed and Donnie, both of them state troopers, which spawned her own desire for a law enforcement career. It was something she’d wanted and now had accomplished.

Now, here she was, nearly twenty years old, and without a clue how to make a man see her as a woman.

Flora glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror. Heavy-lashed brown eyes gazed back at her from beneath a broad forehead. She had a small, straight nose; a full-lipped mouth, high cheek bones and a strong chin. Her chestnut hair, swept back and confined in a tight bun, was soft and slightly frizzy. The pimples which had plagued her through high school and a year or so afterward were nearly gone now and her normally light complexion was tanned and healthy.

Not a bad face, though she doubted if Harry had ever noticed.

Earlier that day, after her shower, Flora stood a moment before the full-length mirror on the bathroom door and examined her naked body. Her lanky build had filled out since high school but the extra weight was evenly distributed. It was a good body, soft and smooth and curved in all the right places. Cupping them in her hands, she observed that her breasts, though small, were firm and well-shaped. Even her hips were broader than she’d remembered. Harry had never seen her this way and the baggy uniform wasn’t designed to show off her attributes.

Only one man had seen her unclothed, and she doubted if he’d cared then or remembered now what he’d seen. Vic Deimler had been too drunk to care about anything but mauling her with his grease-stained hands and looking for a receptacle for his booze-inspired passion. Fortunately, over-indulgence in beer had made him flaccid before he found the crevice he sought and Vic had passed out with the first thrust of moist flesh against her thigh. She didn’t know what he’d told his friends the next day but Flora remained a virgin. She hoped Vic didn’t remember that night and wished she could forget it. Vic, a mechanic at Grumbine’s Mobil, was the only boy who’d ever asked her for a date. She hadn’t been attracted to him but he’d persisted every time she pulled in for gas. Finally, worn down by his determination and depression over her inability to achieve her twin goals last summer, she’d consented.

That was a big mistake. From the start, it should have been obvious what Vic had in mind. But, she was inexperienced. His idea of a date had been two six packs, a drive to the rarely used rest stop out on the highway south of town, beer-guzzling and a grappling contest. Flora could have fought him off. Instead she’d succumbed to her own low spirits, the beer and a capricious desire to give away what she’d been saving for an uninterested Harry. Sobered by what almost happened, she’d walked home after Vic passed out, sobbing, embarrassed and still depressed.

She felt she could probably walk into the station nude and Harry wouldn’t notice. She probably meant as little to him as Vic had to her. She just wasn’t his type.

Harry seemed to prefer the more bubbly, vivacious type—blond, air-headed former cheerleaders like Denise Longstreth who seemed to be around so much lately. Denise favored—and had since high school—tight sweaters and short skirts; her attributes, which were plentiful, were not likely to go unnoticed. Even if she were not too bashful to show Harry the quickness of her mind, Flora was too intimidated to even try competing with Denise’s quirky sense of humor, her tendency to puns, her meaningless idle chatter. Denise knew how to get a man’s attention. Even without the other things which seemed to dazzle Harry, the way she couldn’t keep her hands off him, or the manner in which she rubbed up against him like a cat in heat even in front of other people at the stationhouse, seemed to turn Harry into a slobbering idiot whose behavior irritatingly reminded Flora of Vic’s demeaning animal—

What’s that?

The mechanical part of Flora’s mind, always attuned to the business at hand, snapped her out of her reverie. Despite the driving rain and the darkness surrounding the narrow channel cut into it by the headlamps, something out of place had been detected by Flora’s sharp eyes.

She tapped the brake and spun the wheel, trying desperately to avoid hitting a heap of white sprawled across the highway in her path. Her touch of the brake was light but that and the twist of the wheel were enough to put the hydroplaning vehicle into a spin. She felt one tire bump over the thing in the road as she spun the wheel again and tried to straighten out. The car ran off the berm, crunched over a graveled rut, and whunked back on to the road. Pumping the brakes, fighting the wheel, Flora ran off the road again and slid to a halt flinging mud up along the side windows. Switching off the engine, she sank back into her seat with a sigh.

“Oh, shit,” Flora muttered aloud. “Son-of-a-bitch!” She sat a moment, breathing deeply, licking her dry lips, before she got up the nerve to look in the rearview mirror.

The radio squawked just then and Flora jumped.

“Flora,” Fred Drumheiser said. “Check-in time. You on your way in here?”

“Yeah…uh…yeah.”

“Your voice sounds funny. Everything okay?”

Flora took a deep breath and exhaled before answering. “I…uh…I hit something on the road, Fred.”

“You hurt? Cruiser okay?” She could hear the intensity in his tone, an implication that she’d fucked up on her first night.

“I’m all right. Couldn’t avoid it. It came up on me too fast.”

“Yeah. What was it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a dog. I think it was already dead.”

“Well, check it out. Lemme know.”

Flora unbuckled her seat belt, detached her Maglite from the clipboard hanging on the dash, jammed on her cap and stepped from the vehicle on rubbery legs.

Switching on the flashlight, she swung its beam in an arc, walking some fifteen feet back along the road until she saw the heaped mass that had blotted her record for the night.

Head bent, Flora trudged up the hill in the driving rain, which pelted her as though in retribution for her carelessness. Her uniform was soaked through and clung cold and wet to her flesh by the time she reached the still white object. She switched on the light again, the beam eerily illuminating the dead animal at her feet.

The glazed yellow eye of a ewe stared up at her. Flora knelt and ran a long-fingered hand through the sodden, matted wool. Running over it had caused no harm to this poor animal. The sheep’s belly had been ripped open, the entrails cruelly spilled out on the paving. But that wasn’t all. Both ears and the tongue had been sliced off and laid out in a triangular pattern behind the head.

Flora gagged, turned aside and retched.


Cruel Cuts will be available Nov. 1 from Whiskey Creek Press, www.whiskeycreekpress.com