Secret Passageway

What’s Behind the Door

Who wouldn’t want to live in house with a secret passageway? I did, sort of, when I was a growing up. 

When my industrious parents constructed their Cape-style home, they held off having bedrooms in the attic for years. The door they had built blocking the upstairs wasn’t ordinary, however. It was also a bookcase with paneling at the bottom, and if someone didn’t notice the hinges, they wouldn’t think it was a doorway.

It was our secret passageway. And I always felt it was one of the best features of our house — along with our player piano in the cellar, my father’s gardens, and a huge genie my mother painted on the wall beside it. 

Eventually, the upstairs bedrooms were finished when our family expanded to four children. We three girls slept upstairs. The bookcase door was then moved upstairs to seal off a storage area. Now that no one sleeps there except for visiting family, the door is back where it was originally installed on the first floor. Old books fill its shelves. You can see it in the photo above.

My fascination for secret passageways was intensified as a kid when I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. This book wasn’t fiction, but a moving account of how her family and others attempted to survive the Nazi regime in Amsterdam by hiding in the Secret Annex. That doorway also was disguised as a bookcase. Unfortunately it was not enough to keep Anne and the others safe. Our experiences couldn’t have been more different. 

During my childhood, I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and the entire Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum. There were other books and movies in which people could escape to some place secret and didn’t know what they would find there. 

The bookcase door in my parents’ home, alas, didn’t bring me to a magical place. But it certainly kindled my imagination, and I thank them for that.

NEW BOOK: I credit the imagination I had as a child and the determination I have as an adult for creating yet another book: The Sacred Dog. This thriller set in rural New England launched Dec. 27. Kindle readers can find it here: https://mybook.to/thesacreddog The paperback version will follow soon.

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The Sacred Dog

The Sacred Dog Goes Live

My next book, The Sacred Dog, is officially released Tuesday, Dec. 27. Publication of this thriller has been a long time coming. Yes, there is a story behind the story.

As I mentioned before, I had a writer’s block that lasted 25 years, largely because my creative energies gladly went into raising six kids. But I eased my way back into writing — I was a poet in college — by reading what others wrote and when I became a reporter for a local daily. And then I got into fiction when I was hired by the newspaper to be an editor. Freed from producing news stories, I began writing fiction. And what better inspiration for me than the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I lived and reported?

I caught the interest of an agent upon the referral of a fellow author. I pitched one book but he took a liking to another that I hadn’t finished — The Sacred Dog. So I got to work. Dan Green, of Pom Literary Agency, tried his best to get it published with an impressive number of tries for several months, but it didn’t work out. This was in 2002.

And so The Sacred Dog sat. After Dan, who is now retired, and I amicably parted ways, I tried getting it published myself. I added chapters, which I’ve since deleted. I went over that book countless times with a critical eye.

In the meantime, the industry changed dramatically. You know what happened. 

But I am a determined person. I attribute that to my grandparents who literally came over the boat to the US from the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores. I went back inside The Sacred Dog, editing it carefully before I queried darkstroke books, which publishes my Isabel Long Mystery Series. I am grateful to Laurence and Steph Patterson for taking it on.

The Sacred Dog is not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series. But I am hoping fans of that series will want to read this one. Afterall, the setting is very familiar — the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. And once again, I try to capture its flavor through the characters I’ve created.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been giving insights into the book’s plot and characters. I will continue for the next couple of weeks. Afterall, I am trying to entice Kindle readers to spend $3.99. Alas, paperback readers will have to wait a little while.

HERE’S THE LINK: Order it today and it will magically appear in your device after midnight. Or order whenever you please but here’s where to find it — https://mybook.to/thesacreddog


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Christmas

Remembering Christmases Way Past

The first Christmas I actually remember happened when I was a kid too young to go to Midnight Mass. My grandfather, Manny stayed home to babysit my cousins and me while our extended family walked to the church down the street.

Vovô, as I called him, was my father’s father and not one of those playful grandfathers. I just remember him opening a bottle of red wine and consuming it while we waited for the family’s return. He had the radio on, probably the Portuguese station that he loved. Having immigrated from the Azores, he thought the Portuguese singers were the best and he would try to demonstrate that by serenading me. Anyway, we kids were safe with Vovô until Mass was over and the gift exchange began.

Most of my Christmases as a child involved visiting. My parents, especially my father, were very sociable people although they never held parties at our home. The one exception was Christmas Eve when people would make the rounds. Most my father knew through the local athletic club. It was the only time alcohol was served in our home. I remember as a kid waiting to see if anyone would show up. That tradition faded out. 

Another was going to people’s homes late at night and singing outside their doors until we were let inside. They were expected to feed the group of singers and I presume offer drink. We sleepy little kids went along. But that ended after a few years. 

Yes, we received gifts from Santa until we realized he didn’t exist. I learned that when I happened to be in the attic and found unwrapped gifts intended for my younger sister.

We became full-time visitors on Christmas. For years, we had an early dinner with our grandmother Angela, who came to this country from the Portuguese island of Madeira when she was just a teenager. Her food had a rather foreign flavor. My sister and I said she must use a secret spice. Then we visited our aunt and uncle next door — their sons were childhood friends we saw every weekend. They were on my mother’s side. Then we were onto my father’s side, visiting the homes of his sisters. I can’t remember why, but one home we called Devil’s Island.

As for presents, we didn’t get a lot, understandably for the time. I recall when I was 12 being asked by my mother what I wanted. I honestly didn’t know but I pointed at a large doll dressed in a taffeta gown. I was well past the stage of playing with dolls but it seems I wasn’t ready to let my childhood go. 

Over the many years, I have had a variety of Christmases, including a few awkward ones. Of course, that can happen because the holiday involves real life. 

There were many times when we lived in Taos, New Mexico that it was just Hank and I, which was fine. We gave up having a tree and pared down our gift-giving. But we got to enjoy what that area has to offer for the holidays, including spending Christmas Eve watching the bonfires at Taos Pueblo and then having a drink at the Taos Inn. Sometimes family came to experience it.

Now that we have returned to New England, we spend the holiday with our children, granddaughters, and the extended family. Fun times for sure. I wish the same for you.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s a chubby me only eight months old at my grandparents’ home where I lived with my parents for the first few years of my life.

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The Sacred Dog

A Good Guy: Frank Hooker

Yes, Frank Hooker may be a good guy, but he’s also a flawed one in my new book, The Sacred Dog, which is out Dec. 27. That’s what makes him a realistic character in my mind. Let me tell you more.

Frank owns The Sacred Dog, the only bar in Holden, a small, hick town in Western Massachusetts, where the locals like to drink beer and gab about what’s going on in their lives and their neighbors’. He’s a local himself since his family has lived there for generations.

He’s the kind of guy that will greet you with a smile and a welcoming word. He’ll toot his pickup’s horn when he passes somebody he knows. Frank would stop if he saw someone whose car was broken down on the side of the road. If a family in town has a tragedy like a fire or illness, he’d be the first to give. And he’s the type to take in a stray dog and name his bar for the animal.

Frank’s divorced. He thought he and Verona could be happy forever but she was bored with their life and got tempted to cheat with her boss. After the divorce, she took their daughter, Crystal to live in Florida.

A secret in this town: Frank’s not really Crystal’s father. But he married Verona, who he had been dating before, when he found out she was pregnant. Yeah, Frank, who raised Crystal as his own, is that kind of guy. He even made the trip several times to Florida to see her. Now Verona is moving back home after three years. Frank doesn’t quite know what to make of it.

Most people would agree Frank is a good guy, save for Al Kitchen, but he has his reason. Frank unfairly blames Al for his brother’s death. Al and Wes were best buddies who liked to get into stupid trouble. Al was in the car crash that killed Wes, but not at the wheel — a fact Frank won’t accept. He openly hates the man, which naturally doesn’t sit well with Al.

The only reason Frank lets Al come into his bar is because his grandmother begged to let him have two beers. Frank goes along with it because he figures it’s better to keep his eye on someone he doesn’t trust or like. He’s waiting for Al to do something wrong and then he’ll be out for good.

This whole thing is twisted in Frank’s head. I predict nothing good is gonna come from it.

LINK: Here’s how to find The Sacred Dog on Amazon: https://mybook.to/thesacreddog

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: A half pour of IPA brewed by my son Zack at his Floodwater Brewing in Shelburne Falls, Mass. But at Frank’s bar the locals only drink from the bottle.

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The Sacred Dog

My Next Bad Guy: Al Kitchen

I will admit that I am fond of the bad characters I create. Actually, I see them as flawed people who do reckless and sometimes hurtful things, and because of that they become major players in my books. That’s the case for Al Kitchen, one of the protagonists in my next book, The Sacred Dog, which is out Dec. 27.

The Sacred Dog takes place in my favorite go-to setting, that is, the hill towns of Western Massachusetts, where I’ve lived a good portion of my life, twice. It’s a thriller centered on bad blood between two men, Al Kitchen and Frank Hooker. Frank owns The Sacred Dog, the only bar in this dinky town that caters to the locals. Frank blames Al for the death of his brother, Wes. Al was in the crash that killed his best buddy, but not at the wheel — a fact Frank won’t accept. Let me say nothing good is going to come from this feud.

Al didn’t have it easy growing up. He lost both parents when he was young and was brought up by his grandparents. Pops was a drunk and an abuser. The one good thing he did for Al was to teach him how to hit a baseball, but even that didn’t work out for him. His grandmother, who he calls Ma, is Al’s ally. When Pops got violent, she would give Al a look that would send him hiding in one of the junked cars his grandfather had stashed in their backyard. 

Other than his grandmother, the only person who meant anything to Al was Wes. If there was trouble in town, the two of them were in it together. Now Al goes it alone.

Al’s not welcome at The Dog, as the locals call it, but after his grandmother interceded, he gets to have two beers. Frank figures it’s better to keep his eye on somebody he doesn’t trust or like. Al, of course, resents it. 

The resentment builds, especially after the arrival of Frank’s ex-wife. There’s a dark secret between Al and Verona that has the potential to create a larger and perhaps a violent rift between the two men.

Is the character of Al Kitchen based on anyone real? No. Like all of the others, he came from somewhere in my brain. That’s true of the other so-called bad guys. Sometimes I let them redeem themselves like the Beaumont brothers in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. Other times I let them just go to hell. I’ll let you decide about Al Kitchen.

Here’s an excerpt from the book. In this scene, Al sits with a bottle of booze in the grandstand of a country fair to watch a truck pull. At this event, drivers try to see how much weight their trucks can pull.

The truck getting ready to roll was called Road Hog, the words stenciled in black on its red paint. The names of the guy’s sponsors were printed all over the vehicle. The face of a monstrous, angry pig was painted on its hood. The announcer, a woman with a smooth, round voice, called the driver’s name over the public address system, and he revved its engine in response, sending a fresh sample of exhaust through the stands. The grandstand’s metal roof above his head amplified the sound, overwhelming every other at the fair and cutting through Al’s ears like a chainsaw. He squeezed the bottle of Jim Beam between his legs as he covered his ears.

Al thought Road Hog looked promising, but it only dragged the sled a couple of yards before it conked out and smoke poured from beneath the hood. Road Hog’s fans gave up a collective moan in the rows below Al, and a sweet, young thing in tight, black jeans stood up while biting her red, painted nails. A couple of guys ran to the truck, but they were helpless to fix the engine’s problem, so they waved for a tow.

The woman’s voice came over the P.A. system. “Sorry, Lou. Looks like that’s all for tonight.”

Al laughed at the man’s failure.

The pull had a delay while Road Hog was towed from the track and another vehicle, a black Chevy named Fast Food, took its place. Two boys raked the track’s surface to rub out the tire tracks from Road Hog. If Al were to get into truck pulling, he’d fix up the Mustang in the junkyard behind Ma’s house. Hell, he could have his pick of the junks back there, but he favored the Mustang, which had been his first car. He’d call it Big Stud or something like that, so people would know right away it was his. He’d paint the Mustang black and purple. He’d put in the most powerful engine and rev it to get everybody’s attention. 

Al surveyed the stands. He saw Frank and his buddies, all regulars at The Dog, below and to his left. One of the men yakked. A bottle was being passed. Al checked his own. It was getting low. He considered joining Frank’s group but thought better of it. Early was the only one worth talking to and that’s because he was nice to his grandmother. Sometimes when he delivered the mail to their house, Early stopped for a couple of minutes to make small talk with Ma. He complimented the new roof on the house and the gladiolas Ma grew this summer in the front yard. Early had good country manners. He was alright.

He checked the crowd, finding enough people in the stand who were on his shitlist at one time or the other. There were a couple of local cops, all part-timers, who went to school with him. He saw one guy he owed money from a bet. He snorted when he spotted a bald man, who used to be on the board of selectman in Holden. The incident happened over fifteen years ago. Pops accumulated so many junk cars in their backyard, the neighbors began complaining, so the board sent a registered letter saying he had to get a junkyard permit. At first, it set Pops off, but then he liked the idea. He could turn his collection of junkers into a legitimate business, stripping them and selling parts. He was slowing down and had only a couple of years left to go, they found out later.

Al drove his grandparents to Town Hall, and Pops made his case to the board of selectmen about why he should get a Class III, which was a fancy name for a junkyard license. Ma didn’t say a word as Pops talked about how he would fix the place up and string lights across the yard like a used car lot. Two selectmen seemed to listen carefully to what Pops had to say, but one of them, the bald man sitting below him in the grandstand, was a total ass about the whole thing. He was a native, but you wouldn’t presume it by the way he acted. He was the kind of guy who liked to drive around town looking for trouble to report, one of those stingy locals who welcomed all the rules the newcomers wanted.

Al recalled how that selectman leaned across the table and shook a finger toward Pops. “Mr. Kitchen, I just don’t believe you’ll keep your word. I’ve known you all my life, and I know the way you live.”

Pops, a man who had legendary drunken bouts that inspired him to outrageous antics in his youth, who could slap a hand against a body faster than the person expected it, who once killed a dog by slamming a shovel against its skull, stood silently. Al thought for the first time his grandfather looked defeated. There were many times he hated the old man for the way he treated him and Ma, but he hated this other man worse for what he did to his grandfather. He made Pops look weak.

Al rose, towering over his grandfather even though he was not fully grown, as the selectman continued to rant about Pops’s habits. Then Ma got up. The three of them stared down at the man until he stopped talking. Afterward, the vote was two-to-one in their favor for the Class III. Of course, Al fixed the man good a couple of months later. One night, Al shot his .22 through his living room window. The bullet ricocheted off the woodstove’s pipe into the wall above the man’s head. Al didn’t wait to see what happened next. He ran into the woods and rode his dirt bike home. He stashed it in the junkyard. 

When the cops came to the house, Ma told them Al was in his room. Al went to the kitchen to meet them. He had made himself yawn. “You think I drove over to that guy’s house and tried to shoot him? I’ve been here all night, watchin’ TV and reading dirty magazines in my room. I was just getting ready to hit the sack,” he told the cops. “Feel the hood of my car, if you don’t believe me.”

It was a minor victory for the Kitchens although Pops never did much with his junkyard, except die there. He had a heart attack while shoveling during a heavy March snow and lay there on the ground until Ma found him, too late to save. Ma renewed the Class III every year out of spite, and the selectmen, a different board now, never contest it.

LINK TO THE SACRED DOG: https://mybook.to/thesacreddog

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