COMBUSTIBLE PUNCH

NEW THRILLER BY PAUL MICHAEL PETERS

HITTING SHELVES IN 2019

 
 Combustible Punch by Paul Michael Peters

Combustible Punch by Paul Michael Peters


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Rick Philips isn’t a fighter – but he is a survivor

Haunted by memories a high school shooting, not even the bottle can wash away the gnawing guilt and creeping feelings of inadequacy that batter Rick’s conscience daily. 

His adult life has been a mess of broken marriages, writer’s block, terrible choices, and the morbid pity of others.

When he meets Harriet at a writer’s conference, the record doesn’t scratch once as he falls back once again – only this time, he may not get back up.

Harriet Bristol Wheeler is a dark temptress – and self-confessed serial killer

Harriet has no problem killing – and even fewer issues blending back into the background after the act with the cool, calculating eye of a practiced social chameleon.

Manipulative, unpredictable, and exceptionally intelligent, she’s Rick’s worst nightmare – and the ideal subject for his next book.

A book that they are both desperate to write. 

Time is running out – but the sadness will last forever

Rick has no choice but to enter the cracked twilight of Harriet’s world and confront the history of her murderous choices up close.

As Rick learns more about Harriet’s past, he must also confront his own nature. Despite her magnetism, Harriet’s increasingly erratic behavior pushes him down darker avenues to choices that he can never take back.

As Rick starts to gather the evidence for his long-anticipated book, he finds himself looking into answers that put him in even more danger than before – but this time, he may not survive at all.


CHAPTER PREVIEW


CHAPTER ONE

     

I’m not very good at a lot of stuff. Some call me impetuous. Bad choices are something familiar to me. Something I tend to fumble through. A fortunate fool? Maybe. I like to think of myself as resilient, a survivor.

She is the perfect example of my bad choice. Her hotel room is a hot mess. The mattress hangs over the box spring. Empty drinking glasses lay on their side on the dresser. The flat screen television has an odd tilt. A wet towel sits soiled on the carpeted floor. There is a biting tang in the air both sour and acid from sex.

“Thank god I don’t have to clean this place,” she says.

Catching my breath in long and deep draws, I notice the morning light in the window. The curtains are open. They have been the entire night.

“They must have gotten a good show across the way,” I say.

She teases, “I like to put on a show once in a while.”

Rolling on my side, I reach out to her. Her putty color skin shows the redness around her neck and waist where my hands left marks. Matching red blossoms go up to her side and back. Her shoulders have already begun to bruise in the shape of my palm slap that was playful and light to start, escalating to something more under her command.

“That was really something,” I say hiding my fear. “I’ve never been that…” What’s the right word here? “Rough before.”

“That was nothing,” she says. “Don’t worry yourself, a young buck like you needs to get more experience. Besides, I asked for it.”

Sitting up, looking over the wreckage of the room, I understand why housekeeping was appreciated. Nothing is broken, but everything needs to be put back in place or cleaned. “Maybe that chair should be thrown out after what happened on it.”

She is quick to quip, “You loved it. You know it.”

Looking for my pants, I can see out the window, across the courtyard, into a row of rooms. They would have had front row seats last night. Three guys standing on the balcony across from ours, each with a Miller High Life in hand, are not fooling anyone. They were here for the show. They had watched. I yank the curtains shut and swear. Scattered applause on the other side of the window clap out.

“You’re leaving?” she asks.

“Yeah, I should get dressed, go back to my room, try and get a few hours’ sleep. It’s a long drive back to Dupont’s campus, and I have class tomorrow.”

“No more conference sessions?”

“Yesterday was the last one. My track started Thursday, so...”

“I see. You’re a love ‘em and leave ’em kind of guy,” she says.

“I don’t know if there’s enough love left for you, honey.”

“Harriet,” she says. “Harriet Bristol Wheeler. It’s okay if you forgot my name. I’m not the type of woman who cares. Besides, we only met a few hours ago.”

“I don’t know if there’s enough left for you, Harriet.”

My underwear and socks on, one leg into pants, and she grabs me back to the mattress. With the speed of a high school wrestler, she has me down and arms pinned behind my head. She straddles my torso, breasts nearly in my face, long red hair draped over my head, crotch on the chest, and she places one of her knees on each of my elbows. She reaches over me, to grab something I can’t see. Returning to my field of view, there is a long twist of fabric in her hands that she snaps taunt by stretching her arms apart. The sudden crack causes me to jolt in fear.

“What the—?”

“Just a harmless pillowcase.”

I start to squirm under her, “What’s it for?”

“This. You’ll love it.”

Her weight bears down on my elbows from her knees pressing my arms deeper into the mattress. Her work to get the twisted pillowcase around my right wrist complete, she now moves to the left wrist. A loss of control to her again makes me fully aroused. Instinctively, I attempt to move my arms away, but the fabric is too tight. There is a look in her eyes that frightens me. I could not see her face this well through the haze of drinks and the dim lighting. Now, I see the coldness.

“You didn’t think I’d let you leave without telling you my secret? Did you?”

Laughter, a little from fear, partly from her playfulness, “I thought you were sharing your secret with me all night.”

“Rough sex? That’s no secret. Not anymore at least. Most people at this conference got the full show,” she turns her head to the window and back. “These people like to tell stories. The rest will know it by lunch. But that’s not my secret.”

I chuckle nervously. I wiggle into a less painful position under her and wonder if leaving the curtain open was part of a plan? “Okay, you’ve got me. Literally, you have me. What’s your secret?”

Her posture changes. She sits up straight. I can feel her press against me, still aroused, still in full control. She watches my reaction to the slightest movement. A slight sway in her hips moves between a brush of pleasure and a twinge of pain. Slowly, she removes her one knee, followed by the other, and slides over to my right side.

Uncertain of what she will do next, I ask, “What’s your real secret?”

“You thought it was silly when I casually mentioned it last night during drinks,” she taunts.

“I did?” Thinking back to last night is difficult. There is a fog of drinking, laughter, and the rush of going back to her room. I can feel her fingers trace a light dance on my stomach. I strain to look down to see she is testing the borders between the scar of my bullet wound and the undamaged flesh.

“You did, but I was serious, so don’t laugh, this time.”

“All right tell me. I promise not to laugh.”

Her head cranes, red hair shifts, looks me right in the eyes, “I’m a serial killer.”

“Oh,” I say quickly. It is a flat and forced response. It is intended. I would have said that no matter what the secret. It is sheer willpower. Inside there is a fight against panicked instinct. I resist closing my eyes too long or blinking. The focus is on my breathing, to be healthy, steady, not loud. My mind jumps back to the terror of hiding under a desk at school. The terror of seeing a gunman’s black leather boots. Tension in my muscles. My head screaming inside to the rest of the body, don’t make a sound!

“Did you hear me?”

I take a deep breath and return to the now, to the moment, to this room, to this woman controlling me. I say, “I did.” Then I take a second to process the information. It is either true, or she believes it to be true. She is not an ordinary person. The evidence is all over the room. She is serious. Somewhere in the miasma of last night was when she’d said it the first time. It is clear that, if nothing else, Harriet Bristol Wheeler is off balance from the rest of the world.

I force a smile, and ask playfully, “Am I going to be one of your victims?

“Not sure yet.” She makes this point very clear. “I was protecting myself, sometimes protecting others. But it has happened so many times now.”

“I remember last night you said you were divorced. Your first husband?”

“Hit by a train.”

“And the second?”

“A scuba accident, eaten by a shark.”

“Really?”

“Just like it sounds,” she says. “We went diving. He was eaten by a shark. I had nothing to do with it.”

“And the third one died of a heart attack?”

She has a judgmental tone in her voice, “Well, if you’re going to have that lifestyle, fried foods, little exercise, cigars, it’s inevitable.”

I pull at the fabric of the pillowcase slowly, but firmly, as to not draw attention to it and say, “Those three events don’t really make you a serial killer.”

“Those weren’t the people who died at my hand,” she explains. “They just happened to die around me.”

CHAPTER TWO

 

My left hand pulling free, the pillowcase slips from whatever it's anchored to, and I shoot up from the bed. Pants are going on all the way this time. Shirt in the corner now hangs by one sleeve, scanning the floor for shoes. Do I really need shoes? How fast can I get away?

“Harriet, what do you need me for? Why would you come to find me at this writers' conference and tell me?”

She grabs a bare pillow in a moment of modesty wrapping her arms and legs around it. It hides most of her body from view.

There is a childlike quality to her voice, “I want to tell my story. I need a good storyteller to share my story with the world.”

Forget the socks. Shirt almost on.

 “You are going to write my story, Rick Philips. You’re going to write it, and the whole world is going to know my story. About what I have done. What I have accomplished.”

“Accomplished?”

“Little me, overlooked, and underappreciated, they will know what I’ve done. They’ll know my resume and know I am serious. And when you sell a million copies. Everyone will know my story.”

Not sure how to take her words I explain, “You should go to Hollywood. Tell them your story there. They love this kind of stuff.”

“What about your book?”

“My book? Shelter in Place?”

“It was a bestseller. You did all those TV and radio interviews. You met Terry Gross. You still do interviews when shootings happen. People know who you are.”

“First, I didn’t meet Terry Gross. I did the interview from another radio studio. Second, and more importantly, I have no money. There is no money. I am broke. Broker than broke, in debt. Third, people knowing who I am is very different than being a great writer.”

There is a pout and baby talk tone to her voice, “But this story, my story, people will want to know it. You could pay off your debts. You can’t turn me down, not like the others.”

Which others? “No, no, I am not turning you down, I am just saying, these deals can be tough.” I pick up the desk chair, resettle it, and sit to put on my shoes.

She sulks more, “I need to tell my story, Rick. You can help do that. Shelter in Place is an amazing story of survival, life, and death. Your book meant something to me. It’s a great book. I love that book. Now you need to tell my story.”

Runners laced tight. It feels like I can get away.

“Is there anything else?”

She is silent as her face starts to tighten, and the first tear rolls, “Besides, the money isn’t for me.”

“No?”

“No. The money is for my daughter.”

“You have a daughter?”

“I had a child. She was taken from me.” She begins to cry. Large tears stream down her face.

“I’m the victim here. My child was taken away from me, and no one was left to love me. I need to tell my story. Tell it before it’s too late. I want her to live a good life. A life I could never provide.”

Her tears seem real. Her face red, scrunched in emotion. My instinct is to help her. Naturally, I wanted to take her in my arms, hold her, reassure her. She is in so much need of help, and it is in man’s nature to solve problems. I try to resist these feelings. Is she a killer? Or a liar? Why would someone lie about being a serial killer?

I say. “Come here.”

She stands, dropping the pillow, exposing her skin covered in red splotches and bruises.  I take her wrist, hot and pulsing.

“Write down your phone number. You have a phone, right?”

She nods her head and wipes away tears.

“Write down your number,” grabbing the complimentary pen and stationary on the hotel desk. “I’m going to go back to my room, get some sleep, then drive home. Give me time to think through this. If there is something I can do to help, I will call you.”

She looks like an obedient child, nodding, and writes down a number on the pad.

“All right, Harriet. Thank you for a most memorable night,” I say in the best way possible.

Walking to the door, her steps are right behind me. At the door, hand on the knob, moments from escape, she tugs on my sleeve. Standing on tiptoes, Harriet pulls me in close and kisses me on the lips.

“Thank you for listening to my secret without laughing.”

“You are welcome,” I say. Then turn to the door, open it, and step out into the hall, into freedom, walking away from a creepy situation.

My shoelace is not tied tightly. It feels like a bad tire working its way off the rim. I keep going forward. There was no sound of a door closing. Turning the corner to the elevator, I look back down the hall. There she is, naked, standing in the middle of the corridor watching me.

Goosebumps work up my back and arms from that look. It haunts me to the core.

The elevator takes me down to the lobby, and I feel the eyes of other authors and attendees of the writers’ conference on me. It’s a walk of shame to the other hotel tower. Who was a witness? Who had heard the rumors? Why were so many people up this early in the morning?

“Rick?” a voice calls out. “Rick? Mr. Philips?”

There is a wince in my shoulders. It is jarring to be called out in public unexpectedly. I stop and turn to a tall, pale wisp of a young man from yesterday's session.

“Good morning Mr. Philips, I just had to tell you I really enjoyed yesterday's session.”

I force a, “Thank you.”

“I mean, what you said about the darkness of a man’s soul to pull the trigger on so many teenagers,” he pats his heart with an open hand starting to well up. “And I think about the faces in that yearbook.”

I want to leave, escape, get back to a private place. How can I get rid of this guy quickly? I say, “Thank you for attending the session.”

“It meant so much to me.” His arms spring around me like a trap, holding tight.

Others in the lobby begin to notice this young man having an emotional moment in public on me. My focus is on breathing to hide the fear and concern. A half grin on the right side of my mouth curls up as I feign sympathy.

“Okay,” I try to lift my arms higher than my elbows, now strapped down in his strong embrace. I can feel his body start to sway in comfort. “Okay, I know it’s a tough world out there buddy, you can make it.” My arms finally break free from his clutches.

What must these people think of me? First, they watch the freakshow at the window last night, and now some guy, making a scene in the lobby. Emotions are running high at this year’s conference. I don’t want this type of publicity. It makes me nervous. It’s embarrassing. I hope they buy my book. I left a signed stack on consignment. If all the copies sell, I should be able to cover my electric bill this month. I just want to get away. “Okay, there ya go. Thank you. Thank you very much…”

“Connor. Connor Springer.”

“Thank you, Connor. That means a great deal to me.”

“Would you?” He pulls his gift bag up and digs around.

“Sign a copy-”

“Get a selfie?”

I should charge for these. “Sure.”

The curl on the right side of my mouth has a matching curl on the left side that mimics a smile.

“Thank you,” Connor says with a hearty handshake.

Up the elevator, down the hall, and I fumble with the plastic key card on my door. After three flashes of the red light and a buzz on the door handle, I am finally inside, safe. Safe?