Concierge

CONCIERGE is available from the Garden District Book Shop & Amazon.
Click here to buy the book and for details about the novel release party.


Read an ExcerptBook Club QuestionsNote from Stella

Concierge, A Black Raven Novel – Excerpt


Chapter One
Andi
Two Years Earlier
New Orleans, Louisiana

Oblivion is the answer. An absence of Andi Hutchenson. A void.

It was Andi’s third consecutive morning of going to the spot on the levee where, six months earlier, Victor Morrissey had left her for dead after kidnapping and torturing her. A glance over her shoulder, left and right, confirmed there was no one else on the levee. For now, there was no river traffic.

With the first rays of dawn’s sunlight, golden-pink brushstrokes appeared atop the dark swirls and eddies of the Mississippi River’s murky water. Ignoring the colors of promise, Andi turned her focus on the flow of the powerful currents. She shivered, pulled her legs close to her chest, and rested her chin on her ...

Chapter One
Andi
Two Years Earlier
New Orleans, Louisiana

Oblivion is the answer. An absence of Andi Hutchenson. A void.

It was Andi’s third consecutive morning of going to the spot on the levee where, six months earlier, Victor Morrissey had left her for dead after kidnapping and torturing her. A glance over her shoulder, left and right, confirmed there was no one else on the levee. For now, there was no river traffic.

With the first rays of dawn’s sunlight, golden-pink brushstrokes appeared atop the dark swirls and eddies of the Mississippi River’s murky water. Ignoring the colors of promise, Andi turned her focus on the flow of the powerful currents. She shivered, pulled her legs close to her chest, and rested her chin on her knees.

No more worrying how I’ll make it through the day. No fear. No skin-crawling creeps, as though someone’s watching. No more anxiety. 

I’m so damn sick of feeling sorry for myself.

On this morning, she’d made peace with her plan to end her life where Victor had dumped her, barely alive.

Ironic. I’m scared to go anywhere but here. 

Tendrils of fog drifted above the water as the sun crested over the horizon. Lacy mist hovered long enough to remind her of angel’s wings. The fog evaporated as daylight seeped into the grayish-white air. Apropos of her life; if angels had ever looked out for her, they’d abandoned her when Victor had used her as a tool for revenge. And they hadn’t yet returned. Andi wasn’t culpable for her father’s misdeeds, yet Victor had permanently scarred her, in more ways than one.

In front of her, an ocean-going container ship glided downriver. To her right, the distant skyline of New Orleans sparkled, the tall buildings shimmering with the pink and orange light of the rising sun. If she’d ever been a serious artist, this would have been a great setting to paint. Angles, color, and light could easily have revealed the city’s precariousness, as it perched so close to the mighty river current.

Sure, I can sit here until hell freezes over, but I’ve made the decision. It’s time.

As a tanker disappeared around the bend in the river, Andi stood. A plump, black river rat, disturbed by her movement, zig-zagged towards her. She screamed a high-pitched yell. The rat froze, its yellow-red eyes locked on hers, then turned and scurried away in tall, dark-green levee grass.

“Goddammit to hell, you damn, damn…rat!”

Gulping in air, she glanced around. No river traffic. It was still too early for joggers, walkers, and bikers on this quiet, remote stretch of the levee. Just grass, the river, and, she sure as hell hoped, no more freaking rats.

The rat had inspired rippling pain along the scars that marked the one hundred and three cigarette burns Victor had placed on her back. When he’d left her to die, she’d been naked, hog-tied, barely conscious, and bleeding. Rats had feasted on her that night. Now they often starred in her nightmares.

Face it. Everything scares the living crap out of you. There’s no cure for this kind of post-traumatic stress. Except death. 

Pumping adrenaline borne of rat-fueled fear strengthened her resolve. Heart pounding, she walked towards the river.

Fifteen yards to go. 

Gazing at her destination, she braced for the cold water. The bone-rattling chill that had seeped into her body and soul on the night of her kidnapping had never left.

I’ll only be cold for a few minutes more. Then I’ll never be cold again. I’ll never BE again. 

It was a mild February morning, but cool enough for jeans, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and a turtleneck sweater. The weight of her clothes would help her sink. She’d worn cowboy boots on purpose. Once they filled with water, her fate would be sealed.

At the edge of the levee, a swatch of flat, muddy earth led to the river’s edge, which was lined with broken concrete. She picked a safe path over the rough terrain, reached the water’s edge, and kept going. Her heart accelerated as water poured over the rim of her boots. She almost turned and slogged her way back to shore, then stopped and swiped at free-flowing tears.

Keep walking. Keep walking.

She paused when icy water lapped at her thighs.

It’s really cold. Damn cold. Oh God. God. God. Please. End this. Fast.With her teeth chattering, she walked until strong currents tugged at her legs. She kept going. Water crept past her hips, waist, and chest.

God…No. Don’t panic. This is it. If there’s a heaven, Dad’s there. I hope. I’ll finally get a chance to tell him I forgive him.

Her long hair floated around her. Fighting panic, she tilted her head back and looked at puffs of white clouds in the dawn sky.

“Hey! What the hell! Stop!”

The distant yell barely registered as frigid water crept over her shoulders. Her boots became weights. Her jeans felt like they weighed fifty pounds. Taking one last deep breath of air, she shut her eyes as her chin slipped underwater.

“Hey! Lady!”

The voice was louder. Closer. She turned towards it. A blond man ran towards the river. Before her ears and eyes slipped under the water, she saw the owner of the voice picking his way across the broken concrete.

She tried to say, ‘No.’

Shorthand for ‘No, I don’t want your help, can’t you see I’m killing myself?’

Because her mouth was underwater, she lost the air of her last deep breath. Frigid, foul-tasting river water choked her as she sunk. Her final vision was of the blond man running into the water, then skimming the surface as he dove towards her.

Gag. Cough. Splutter. DAMN. DAMN. DAMN. I can’t breathe.

A moment of startling, this-is-it clarity hit her as the swimmer pulled at her hair and yanked, hard. A strong arm wrapped around her neck, choking her. Reflex had her fighting back, as the swimmer tried to pull her.

No one touched her without permission. Not since Victor Morrissey. No one. She landed a punch on the swimmer’s chest, another on his face.

No! Goddammit no!

He pulled her hair, hard, while keeping a death grip on her upper arm. “Geez, lady! Stop fighting! I’m trying to save your ass here.”

She clawed at his hands.

“Fuck! Don’t—” His words were lost as she fought her way out of his hold. She went under, sucking in a deep mouthful of river water. With his arm on her neck, she bit down hard. He jerked his wrist out of her mouth. He knocked her, hard, at her temple. Gasping in pain, she choked as she breathed in a solid mouthful of water.

Dear God, I’m drowning. Really. This is it.

Her limbs froze with sudden fear. The swimmer pulled, tugged, and yanked her to shore. She gagged, choked, and sucked in more and more water until blessed, quiet, blackness overcame her.

Sometime later, the peaceful, devoid-of-thought darkness disappeared. She opened her eyes. Crystal-clear blue eyes were an inch from hers. His mouth covered hers.

The swimmer. 

He exhaled as the contents of her gut roiled up. Lifting her hands to his cheek and forehead, she pushed him away. She turned her face to the earth as sour river water spewed from her mouth. She gasped for air, shivered, and more gray water came out as she struggled to her hands and knees.

Thoughts muddled, she glanced at her rescuer. Wide-eyed with worry, he knelt at her side. “Can you breathe?”

On her hands and knees, gasping in precious air, she nodded. She was gagging, but breathing.

“You have a phone?”

She looked at him through the dripping tangle of her hair.

“Do you have a phone?” he repeated, slowly, as though talking to a child.

“Of course.” She spat out more water. She drew a deep breath and dammit, her teeth started chattering. She wasn’t dead. Instead, she was wet and freezing cold. “It’s in my car. But I’m not calling anyone.”

His blond hair was wet and plastered to his head and neck. A lock of it fell across his forehead. He pushed it away as he studied her. Broad-shouldered and long-legged, he was lanky. His t-shirt clung to him like a second skin, revealing a faint outline of his ribcage. If he was eighteen, he’d just made it. She guessed he was younger. His blue eyes, made innocent and fresh by a fringe of dark-brown lashes, had a depth that went way beyond his years.

“Wait here.” He stood, then ran along the shoreline, downriver.

She didn’t have strength to do anything but sit there. She drew her legs to her chest, wrapped her arms around her knees, and tried to absorb the feelings that came with still being alive. Disappointed? Yes. Relieved? Maybe. Maybe even more than disappointed. Worried about what to do next? Of course. Her rescuer left the shoreline, approached a spot on the levee about a hundred yards away, and disappeared into an area that was overgrown with tall grass.

No wonder I didn’t see him.

He emerged from the overgrowth holding a backpack, a bundle of clothes, and a guitar case. In a minute, he was at her side again. What she’d mistaken for clothes was a faded blue blanket. He held it out to her. It looked like it had been in the dirt for weeks. Mind numb, she didn’t at first understand that he was giving it to her. He shook the blanket at her.

“You’re shaking. Take it.”

Too cold to unlock her arms from around her legs, she submitted to him throwing it around her shoulders.

“Hold it here.”

She looked at him blankly, then glanced over his shoulder, at the river. Another ship glided by. Clouds were starting to build. What had looked like the dawn of a pretty day now looked wintry and dull.

With an impatient sigh, he grabbed her hands and wrapped her fingers around the two edges, forcing her to clench it under her trembling chin.

She drew a deep breath. And another. “Thanks. You could have drowned.”

Giving her an it-was-nothing shrug, he sat next to her, facing the river, guitar case and backpack at his side. “It was hard as hell to get you out. Sorry I had to hit you, but you were fighting so hard, I almost lost you. Man. Cowboy boots in the mighty Mississippi?”

Unsure of his point, she became aware that only one foot still had a boot. The other was nowhere in sight.

He gave a low whistle. “You were going vertical.”

“What?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Vertical slashes on two wrists mean business. Horizontal’s for amateurs. The saying’s ‘go vertical, not horizontal.’”

“Never heard that before.” She shrugged deeper into the dirty blanket.

“It’s suicide slang.”

Sudden, instant nausea came with a few simple, life-altering truths that made her want to permanently burrow under his blanket. One—she’d attempted suicide. Two—she’d have to live with that fact, because her attempt had failed. Three—she was talking about it with her rescuer, and he was someone who knew suicide slang, for God’s sake. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“Lady—”

“How old are you?”

Defensiveness flashed in his eyes. “What’s it to you?”

“Whoa. Calm down.”

“Twenty.”

She studied the taut skin on his cheekbones, the bony leanness of his chest that the wet t-shirt accentuated. He looked like he needed some age on him before he filled out. Maybe sixteen. Perhaps fifteen. Young enough to feel like he had to answer her question, even with a lie.

He bent, lifted a sweater out of his backpack, and held it out to her.

“No, but thanks,” she said. “You put it on. Aren’t you freezing?”

He gave her a small smile. “It’s a hell of a lot colder where I’m from.”

Which means he’s a long way from home. “Where’s home?”

“Someplace I’m never going back to.”

Understood.

“How old are you, really?”

“Old enough to pull you from the river. I’d say that’s all that counts right now.”

He half-turned. When his back was to her, he stripped off the t-shirt, then pulled the sweater over his head. It was blue wool, pilling at the armpits, with loose threads at the neck and waistline. He pulled it down over his chest, then turned back to her.

Her gaze rested on the inside of his wrists as he worked his arms through the sleeves. She saw the imprint of her teeth on his left one. Above that, a thin, pinkish-white line rose above smooth skin. A similar scar was on his right wrist.

His knowledge of suicide slang now made sense. From the direction of the scars, he’d gone horizontal. Not vertical. Hence the reason he was here to see another day, if he was right about the most effective way to slash one’s wrists.

She dragged her eyes back to his. “What’s your name?”

“Why?”

“Because you just saved my life. Sure seems like I should know your name since I owe you a thank you.”

“Pic.”

“P-I-C-K?”

“Yeah, but without the K. Got it?”

A made-up name if ever there was one. 


Concierge Book Club Discussion Questions


Concierge Book Club Questions

  1. Do you believe that Concierge could have been set in any city, at any time, or are there unique aspects of the New Orleans French Quarter and the Mardi Gras season that were essential to the story?
  2. A) Have you been on Royal Street, Esplanade Avenue, and Frenchmen Street, where action takes place in Concierge? What did you do there? Do you have a favorite street in New Orleans? If so, which one and why?
    B) What is your favorite street in your ...

Concierge Book Club Questions

  1. Do you believe that Concierge could have been set in any city, at any time, or are there unique aspects of the New Orleans French Quarter and the Mardi Gras season that were essential to the story?
  2. A) Have you been on Royal Street, Esplanade Avenue, and Frenchmen Street, where action takes place in Concierge? What did you do there? Do you have a favorite street in New Orleans? If so, which one and why?
    B) What is your favorite street in your favorite city/town? Can you describe the street’s personality? What do you like to do when you visit that street?
  3. Andi suffered a great trauma in the earlier novel, Deceived, which affects her in Concierge. If you went through similar trauma, how do you think it might affect you? Is there someone in your life who could help you get through such an experience? Would you be able to share the details of what you’d gone through, or would you keep it to yourself, like Andi?
  4. How did you feel when Gabe read Andi’s journals? Did you feel it was appropriate for him to invade her privacy, even if he was able to help her based on the information he discovered? Can you envision circumstances where you would read someone’s private journals?
  5. Andi has a few places near her home where she feels safe. Describe an area near your home that you like going to when you need to get away. How frequently do you go there?
  6. Were you able to visualize Andi’s paintings and sketches based upon the author’s descriptions? Who are some of your favorite painters? What do you like about their works?
  7. What did you think of Andi’s concern for and desire to sketch people she encountered on the streets? Does your city have a large population of people who are homeless? Is there anything you could do to help them?
  8. What did you think of Pic? Did he have adequate motivation for running away from home? Do you believe his hesitation over moving into Andi’s guesthouse was realistic? What did you think of Pic’s initial reaction to Gabe?
  9. Why do you think the author used the first person point of view for the villain’s scenes?
  10. What developments in the story surprised you?
  11. Do you believe that human traffickers could operate where you live? Why, or why not? In your opinion, what circumstances could make a person vulnerable to human traffickers? If you were kidnapped, or taken, how long do you believe it would be before someone noticed you were missing and alerted the authorities?
  12. What was your favorite scene? What did you like about it – setting, characterization, emotion, action, or something else?

A Note from Stella


Dear Reader,

After spending time in far away places in Shadows and Jigsaw, the Black Raven action returns to New Orleans, Louisiana, in Concierge. The story is set in and around a neighborhood where I once lived—the French Quarter. It is great to be home, in a neighborhood that I love.

Concierge involves two characters with minor roles in prior novels: Andi Hutchenson (introduced in Deceived) and Gabe Hernandez (introduced in Jigsaw). Andi and Gabe became special to me as I wrote Deceived and Jigsaw. While writing Concierge, I enjoyed seeing how Andi and Gabe developed further, in ways that surprised even me.

A young musician who goes by the name “Pic” also plays an important role in Concierge. Pic is a runaway who lives on the streets of the French Quarter. His character was inspired by people I encountered when I ...

Dear Reader,

After spending time in far away places in Shadows and Jigsaw, the Black Raven action returns to New Orleans, Louisiana, in Concierge. The story is set in and around a neighborhood where I once lived—the French Quarter. It is great to be home, in a neighborhood that I love.

Concierge involves two characters with minor roles in prior novels: Andi Hutchenson (introduced in Deceived) and Gabe Hernandez (introduced in Jigsaw). Andi and Gabe became special to me as I wrote Deceived and Jigsaw. While writing Concierge, I enjoyed seeing how Andi and Gabe developed further, in ways that surprised even me.

A young musician who goes by the name “Pic” also plays an important role in Concierge. Pic is a runaway who lives on the streets of the French Quarter. His character was inspired by people I encountered when I lived in the Pontalba Apartments, in Jackson Square.

I thoroughly enjoyed writing the story of Andi, Gabe, and Pic. I hope that you’ll enjoy reading Concierge in the not too distant future.

Take care, and happy reading!


p.s.: Even though Andi and Gabe were introduced previously, Concierge is a stand-alone novel. My novels can be read in any order, but if you’re interested in the order of publication, it is: Deceived (2014), Shadows (2015), Jigsaw (2016), and Concierge (2017).