Friday, April 29, 2011

Jane Nelson and Me

Readers have asked me how I came up with the plot for TAKEDOWN.

It all started with the sex emails I received back in 1996.

In the mid-90's I ran a web development business, and I did the same work Jane Nelson does in TAKEDOWN. At the time I had 50+ clients, mostly small businesses, that were beginning to market on the nascent World Wide Web. Like Jane, I hacked PERL code on shopping cart systems, worried about web safe colors for graphics, and pitched to clients to sell services. Marketing, high-level design, coding, search engine registration and optimization -- I did it all. Yes, I'm an entrepreneur-turned-authorpreneur.

Also like Jane, I received more than my share of cringe-worthy misdirected and spam emails, including the sex thank-you notes. Remember, those were the days of internet newbies and mass spamming. Without blocking software at the ISP level there were days I deleted over 1,000 spam emails from my inbox. The internet was indeed the Wild West.

In the pre-internet years I'd worked as a software tester, programmer, database analyst, and systems analyst. Honest to God, those early systems were like swiss cheese -- riddled with security holes. At one company the disks on the Digital Equipment PDP 11/70's could be erased with one simple command error executed by any staff member. I'm not kidding. Quality control was nonexistent. One day an irate client called because debugging statements were printing in the middle of his report. The overworked and delirious programmer had been listening to Olivia Newton-John, and he'd coded print statements with "Let's Get Physical" into the program. These popped up in the middle of a fiscal report the client was running, not ten minutes ahead of the critical annual board meeting. Yeah. It was not a good day.

Needless to say, all these experiences led me to writing a novel about technology gaffes and security holes gone wild, and the manipulation possible when geeks and greed team up to go techno-postal. In classic Hitchcockian fashion, TAKEDOWN totally disrupts the lives of two innocents on Main Street when they must confront the corruption of Wall Street.

Oh, anyone who thinks there aren't dangerous glitches or manipulation in today's systems needs only to look back at the May 6, 2010 flash crash in our equity markets. This incident is still under investigation.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Strange but True: Anna Murray Handily Beats DeLorean's Sales

CNN scooped! Customers choose Unbroken Hearts over a stainless steel car. Check it out.

"Approximately 9,000[1] DMC-12s were made before production stopped in late 1982. Today, about 6,500 DeLorean Motor Cars are believed to still exist."

When asked how she's sold over 12,000 units, the author blushed coyly and divulged her secret: "Readers say they prefer the batwing doors at the Copper Strike Saloon to the DeLorean's tasteless gulf-wings. Who knew? I mean, Matt Dillon looked hot walking through batwings at the Long Branch in Gunsmoke, so I thought heck, why not?"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why do 4 out of 5 Ponzi schemers refuse to read TAKEDOWN?

Word on "da' Street" is it leaves them scared spitless!


When we all become indies . . .

A while back I contacted a romance website about purchasing advertising. They politely turned me down because their policy prohibited promotion of self-published works.

Lately I see that many traditionally-published romance authors are beginning to self-publish. Some are uploading rejected manuscripts; others are creating new works specifically targeted at the ebook market.

So . . . will the "traditionally published only" bloggers change their advertising and review policies? I'm looking for the most progressive venues (Smart Bitches, for example) to be the first to break down the wall.

With so many authors now pursuing "hybrid" careers (various mixes of indie and traditional), it seems the stigma of self-publishing is rapidly disappearing.

Anyone else have experience running up against, or breaking down the barriers?

Genres Gone Wild, Part II

As luck would have it, Tara Maya pointed to a beta site called "Book Country", created by Penguin.

Book Country's tagline is "A Place to Discover and Share Fiction".

What's the most interesting and innovative feature of Book Country? Why, it's the ability to find genre-mixing books! Take a gander at their genre-mapping page, and pick your favorite genre. Then click on the "Select Genre" button in the pop-up box. See that Myers-Briggs chart, the one you roll your cursor over to find sub-genre and cross-genre books?

Folks, it's official. The world is no longer flat.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Those genre-mashing indies!

I'm fascinated by a new trend I'm seeing lately. It's not 99 cent books or the comeback of short stories and novellas. Although those are exciting developments, there's something else that tickles my fancy: The genre-bending that's beginning to make fiction look like a carnival crazy house of distorting mirrors.

Will reader expectations change when they pick up what appears, at first blush, to be a western and they get a cozy mystery in the bargain? Camille LaGuire's Have Gun Will Play comes to mind. Philip Chen sorts his Falling Star into a genre he calls "potpourri", as it has thriller, mystery, and science fiction elements. Sibel Hodge calls her popular book, Fourteen Days Later, a "romantic comedy mystery."

Are you familiar with other genre-crossing books? Have you written one? Will indies drive traditional publishing to accept new forms that don't fit into the usual established categories?


Bob Mayer: "I tried to invent a new genre: techno-myth with my Area 51 and Atlantis series. Area 51 ended up getting racked in science fiction and Atlantis maintstream. But basically taking a myth-- whether ancient like Atlantis, or modern, like Area 51, and writing a thriller around it. Both seem to have worked as Area 51 sold 1.4 million copies-- and just got reversion on them TODAY, so they will be up in ebook soon, and Atlantis has now been in top 30 in science fiction on Kindle for two months."

Joseph Gellene states that Convergence has mystery/thriller elements mixed in with time travel.

Nell Gavins' Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn. Genres: Visionary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Paranormal Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Metaphysical Fiction, Literary Fiction.

Chris Truscott: Stumbling Forward and A Referendum on Conscience. "My books are political fiction. Both have romance elements and the first also has some dark comedy. (The second has a little in the way of dark comedy, but you really have to look for it.)"

Die$sel describes his latest work: "I recently wrote my first novella and attempted to create an experimental, new style of writing drawn from watching too much Japanese anime, which I call "ethereal absurdism." It combines very lyrical and rhythmic prose with an always moving/changing atmosphere and absurdist humor/characterization/plots to create a very surreal, but still grounded piece of work."

Maria Hooley has a fantasy-horror-thriller mix in The River.

Karen Nilsen's series combines historical fantasy, family saga, and gothic romance.

Christian YoungMiller describes all his books, except his latest, Fixing Cupid, as genre-mixed.

C.R. Hindmarsh describes his work: "The Converted is a bit of a genre-masher. It's fantasy (but with no magic) with a fair helping of biopunk and a dash of steampunk sensibilities for good measure. It's dark and gritty, but also not without some subtle humor."

Dawn McCullough-White: "Both my books "Cameo the Assassin" and "Cameo and the Highwayman" are Historical dark fantasy/paranormal fantasy... That's my own guess at the genres I rolled into one."

Vianka Van Bokkem: "All my books (24) have genre mixing."

Duane Gundrum: "Genre mixing has been the main reason my career has been so difficult. I had a pretty well known agent for a few years who finally gave up on me because every book I presented to her was a mix of genres."

Keith Gouvela: "My novella, Behind the Stained Glass is a mix of Fantasy and Horror as well as my upcoming re-release of The Goblin Princess."

Levi Revelian: "My novel, Remix, is a bit of a whodunnit, crime and mystery with romance. It appeals to a wide variety of readers, including chicklit fans."

Ric K. Hill: "The Right Side of the Fairway, by Ric K. Hill, is a whimsical tale that is a mix of genres. Sports (golf), thriller, humor, and romance are the first categories that come to mind . . ."

Barbra Annino: "My book is a cozy mystery with elements of fantasy and lots of humor."

Teri J. Dluznieski: "Both my short stories are a sort of mixed or ambiguous genre:) they are spiritual shamanic, with a touch of horror in one of them . . ."

Alan Ryker: "Burden Kansas is a contemporary vampire western. Kind of like All the Pretty Horses meets Salem's Lot."

Lovers and Beloveds: "Not enough sex for erotica, too much sex for mainstream fantasy. *headdesk* But! It appeals to the readers of Jacqueline Carey, of which there are a few."

Awakening: "...a clever mixture of quantum physics, re-incarnation, bio-chemistry & the mind beyond the body, a little metaphysics, simply being human & all this coupled within the bizzare & wonderful realm of dreams... A bit of sexual activity seduction girl gets guy, or doesn't stuff, tastefully done, blends in well... some cloning ideas, holograms, out of body scenes, plus humour with some tongue in cheek moments too!"

Ah! Here's one that actually pokes fun at the whole concept of genres! Craig Robertson: "My third book, The Prisoner of NaNoWriMo, intentionally mixes them. I wrote the book about a hapless novice author who cannot choose a genre, so he explores them all - poorly, I might add. In the book I poked fun at the entire concept of genres - it was kind of why I wrote it."

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Perils of Bestseller Status

Today the Minneapolis Star Tribune has a report on Dean Koontz' contributions to political campaigns ("Author Dean Koontz Backs Bachmann"). Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show Koontz gave Michele Bachmann $5,000 on March 31. He had previously given $25,000 to the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008, and $4,800 to the Christine O'Donnell Senate campaign, as well as $4,800 to Sharron Angle's campaign.

I'm not saying I wouldn't love Dean Koontz success and money, but life on the midlist means never having your political contributions revealed in the Star Tribune. I rest easier knowing the Anna Murray fortune can be discretely distributed to candidates -- without fear of alienating readership on the other side of the aisle ;-)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Risk Adversity and Legacy Publishing

This is the innovation age in the information industry. Old models are being broken.

I step back and wonder why my ebooks, especially the romances, are selling so well. Why were they rejected by big publishing? My sales rank on Amazon Kindle store defies legacy industry logic.

Legacy industry logic. I've reverse-engineered what that means by observing present-day big publishing behavior. A good data point is agency model pricing -- their inability to adjust prices (or allow their vendor to do so) in the face of rapidly-changing market conditions. They continue to push a model that used to work.

This kind of backward-looking, risk-adverse decision-making seems to characterize most aspects of the traditional publishing industry -- repeating the same things time and again, and expecting it to work when the paradigm has shifted. I do believe that's the definition of insanity.

Taking risk adversity to the editorial level means using the same author stable, the same voices, the same formula, over and over again. This is why so many were rejected. It wasn't necessarily about the writing. It was about maintaining a status quo within the industry. It was about keeping readers addicted to the same authors, the same story lines, the same voices. It was about being able to accurately predict the next quarterly and annual profits. Taking risks on more than a handful of new voices could potentially wreak havoc with the bottom line.

Ironically, the same system they fight will also be their salvation. Self-publishing and ebooks solve a huge problem for the industry. They can now choose from established and proven authors (Hocking, Morrison); projecting profits is easy when you can select from a test market far more powerful and reliable than ANY agent.

So . . . why isn't the query system dead already? I give it one more year.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why 99 cents doesn't work for me

The vast majority of indie authors can't make serious money at the 99 cent ebook price point, but some will tell you the increased exposure that comes with higher sales volume is worth the cost. They'll explain that more sales increase their rankings, possibly putting them on genre bestseller lists or, if they are very lucky, into the Kindle top 100.

A good number have achieved success with the bottom-rung pricing strategy, but at what cost? Joe Konrath, a bestselling ebook writer, has run a number of 99 cent sales recently; here he mentions the loss he's taken for the sake of making the bestseller list with The List.

For a time I priced Unbroken Hearts at 99 cents. My ranking improved dramatically. It also brought me readers from outside the genre: Bargain hunters who snapped up anything at the 99 cent price point. Most don't read the sample. At 99 cents it's an impulse buy, and why not? They've been conditioned to believe price will go back up next week, as it does when traditional publishers put their books on sale, and many readers can't tell the difference between a trad published book and an indie. By employing professional cover artists and editors, the indie works can look just as "pro" as the big boys.

Is it a deal if the customer starts reading the bargain book and doesn't like it? Is it a deal for the author when the disgruntled reader leaves a bad review because it wasn't their 'cuppa'?

The worst Amazon review I've received on Unbroken Hearts was submitted when I had the book on sale (99 cents). John Locke's 99 cent books attract as many negative reviews as positive (see Saving Rachel), in spite of rising to bestseller status.

What do those bad reviews tell us about the reader's perception of value?

My takeaway is the reader's time ranks ahead of price.

What's more, I'm not convinced an indie-published book can't make the top hundred with anything but a 99 cent price. Carpenter is killing it with The Killer at 2.99. Blake Crouch is making a run at the top with Run, also 2.99. I'm bidding to take down the old dog-eared, established names with TAKEDOWN. Sorry, I couldn't resist ;-)

I'm making more, but selling fewer copies, on TAKEDOWN, at 2.99 with the 70% royalty. I'm also hauling more revenue on the Easton Hearts series at 2.99 than I made at 99 cents. Yes, fewer actual copies are sold, but I'm hoping to engage more thoughtful and discerning readers.

It's all about finding a fit with the right audience. My books aren't for everyone, and I don't want them to be a blind bargain purchase. My goals are to delight the customer AND maintain a sustainable business model.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Writing historical romance is like riding a bicycle

The story arc for my first novel, Unbroken Hearts, hit me while riding my stationary bike (on my way to losing 60 pounds — thanks Weight Watchers!) and balancing a Wyoming historical society journal on the handlebars. As I read a description of an old west boom-and-bust town I suddenly found myself imagining the characters in that way-back-when place, and the premise for the book popped into my head.

Each day I rode and worked out several more chapters. I scrawled my ideas onto paper, continued my research, and soon I had a book outline. I never planned to write a romance novel (even though I’d read hundreds of them and loved the genre) . . . the story simply unfolded as I pedaled.

Completing the first book gave me the momentum (and the backstory and characters) to continue on to write the sequel. I still hop on the bike to solve plotting problems.

You can learn more about Unbroken Hearts, and grab a sample at the Kindle Store.

Research for Healing Hearts

I love reading about history, and especially US history. Healing Hearts, like the other books, is set in post-Civil War Montana territory. Until now I've featured only two minor characters who served in the war: Ned, a wounded Union veteran, and Doctor Rutherford, a minor character in all three books.

Rutherford was a Union surgeon. As he is the focus of my work-in-progress, I'm reading as much as I can find about Civil War medicine on and off the battlefield. I'm discovering excellent resources on the topic. One of my favorites is Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches. As a young woman she was a Civil War nurse, and her writing style runs to delightful, even in it's early formative stages.

The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine, by Schroeder-Lein is an excellent source of information on all things related to medical practice and history of the profession.

The story of Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross) is especially compelling. Check out the short version on Wikipedia at

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Deck: Healing Hearts

I thought I was finished with the Easton Hearts series, but . . .

One of the best things about ebook publishing is the immediate feedback I receive from readers. You all told me you loved the characters and stories in the first three books. I smiled when one reader called Cal "dreamy" (honestly, I never thought of him that way), and others said they couldn't wait for Roy's story.

I was taken aback by the volume of queries about Doctor Rutherford, a minor character in the books. Rutherford stitched Sarah's shoulder and treated Cal's arm. He also counseled Sarah on "womanly issues". We learned that the doctor suffered from an emotional injury himself, revealed in his words: "The hardest wounds to heal are the ones we can't see."

Healing Hearts will be Doctor Rutherford's story. Set in 1869, it fits between the first and second book in the series, but, like the others, it will stand alone as a complete story.

I'll keep you posted on writing progress, and I'll be posting excerpts ahead of the release.

March Sales

I'm often asked how many books I sell through Amazon Kindle store, the major ebook sales channel. Below are March totals. TAKEDOWN was launched on March 24th, so there's only the first week of sales for that title:

Unbroken Hearts. . .343
Untamed Hearts.. . .253
Undaunted Hearts. 212
TAKEDOWN. . . . . . .56

To date I've sold over 11,500 books on the Kindle store. My books are also sold on B&N and Apple's iBookstore.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cover art and author photos: Do they matter?

An anonymous poster commented on my books over on Konrath's blog today, here is part of her/his commentary: 

"The "Unbroken Hearts" series of covers looks slapped together-- the whole series LOOKS like it was done on the cheap. We can see that. Even the author's photo on the Amazon profile is an obvious amateur shot-- stuff in the background, no make-up, weird expression, etc. Take a look at Tina Fey's picture and you'll see what a good authors' photo should look like."

My author photo and book covers can be viewed on my Amazon Author Page.

Is the author photo a deal maker/breaker for you when purchasing a book? In the ebook age, when the book cover isn't staring at you from your coffee table or bookshelf, does it matter so much? Does the cover have a function beyond  indicating genre and making the initial sale? Should the author spend big money on cover art? 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

TAKEDOWN: Thriller

 TAKEDOWN was launched via Kindle store on March 24th.

Here are the first three chapters. The misdirected email depicted in the first chapter actually did come to me when I ran my web development company, and yes, it was a series of sex  thank-you emails!

TAKEDOWN opens like a romantic suspense, and by the fourth chapter it's running to full-tilt thriller.  This book is available on Kindle store for $2.99 for a limited time.

Excerpt copyright 2011, TAKEDOWN

Chapter 1
Woodbury, Minnesota
15 November 1996

   It was another misdirected email floating near the middle of her inbox. The sender was romancing the woman she was not.
   Jane Nelson lowered her mug onto her nephew-crafted coaster, and she settled her five-foot-two-inch frame into the work-smart swivel chair. She scanned the pile of papers strewn across her desk as she stretched her arms toward the ceiling. Then Jane leaned into the screen, clutched the ergonomic mouse, and jerked it across the pad to uncover the cursor location.
   She fixed her blue eyes on her first task of the day: Email.
   Jane clicked on the important memo at the top of the list. It was a reminder to attend a 10 o’clock meeting with her boss, but now it was rescheduled to 10:30 due to a conflict with his boss. Par for the course, she thought, as she read the apology. Jane exited to the inbox list and continued her scan down through the subject lines of unopened messages.
   Her mouth twisted when her eyes ran across the odd subject line: Honey,Thanks for Last Night.
   "Great. Another pimp to enlarge body parts I don't have,” Jane muttered as she tugged the ends of her shoulder length sable hair. She made a mental note to fly by Great Clips for a trim after work. Why doesn't the anti-spam filtering software catch this stuff?
   As she spread her hand to delete the message a fluorescent light above her cubicle flickered and burned out, causing her to startle. Instead of hitting the delete option she jerked and clicked the mouse, and the message was opened in a large window in the center of the screen.
   Jane groaned. She turned to the right side of her L-shaped workstation to viciously pen two notes on a sticky pad: Call custodial supervisor to replace light bulb.  Call IT mail services re: spam blocking.
   Jane eyed the mug sitting beside her closely guarded yellow block of sticky notes. She was running low and needed to hunt up more. Sue Ratched, their office manager, considered the fake tacky sheets an expensive luxury, forcing employees to stock up before Sue's ritual end-of-quarter supply cabinet lock-up. Jane recalled how she got free pads from pilot runs back when her dad was still at 3M. Ah, the good old days.
   Well, they hadn't cut the coffee yet. Jane inhaled the rich aroma as she lifted the cup to her lips. She took a sip, and turned back to the glowing screen.
   Whoa and damn. Jane snorted brown liquid at the monitor.
Dear Jillian,
I'm thinking of your beauty and love, and how last night you took me to heaven. I'm the luckiest husband in the world. Thank you for all you do for me -- yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Love you,
   It was another email from the sex-thank-you-note man! Jane had received one last month, and she'd decided to ignore it, figuring Mr. Romance would chat up the wife later in the day. Surely he'd realize she hadn't received the message. No harm, no foul, right?  No need to embarrass the guy by replying with "sorry, you dialed the wrong number". She choked and grabbed her cleaner cloth to dab the coffee spittle from the monitor.
   "You ok, Jane?" A voice drifted over the cubicle wall.
   "Yeah, just choking on my coffee," she called back.
   Jane felt an odd twinge. Reading this personal love note was like peeping through a keyhole while pressing her ear to a bedroom door. For pete's sake, why would a man email this to his wife anyway? Wasn't it the sort of thing you wrote on a piece of paper and slipped into her purse or lunch bag? And, anyway, didn't couples take sex for granted once they were married?
   Argh. She wiped harder. She couldn't inform the guy of his mistake, because then he'd know she'd seen his intimate message. Twice! Where's the brain bleach when you need it?
   Jane looked at the "from" address: janderson University of Minnesota. Yep, same guy. The send-to address was jnelson It was Jane's email address , but there was an elementary school called Valley View nearby. It was common for internet newbies -- which was almost everybody these days -- to put ".com" instead of the school’s correct extension -- on email addresses, and anything with ended up at Valley View Web Designers. Most coworkers who received mail for the school simply forwarded it to the intended recipient.
   "Not happening," she said aloud. Surely he'd talk to his wife, this Jillian woman, as it was the second time he'd sent his apres-sex gratitude in ten weeks. Jane grinned at the thought. No wonder Jack-boy had to thank the woman. He wasn't getting lucky but once a month.
   Slamming her pinky on the delete key, Jane drank the last of her coffee while contemplating how Jillian Nelson was, in one way, a fortunate woman. Jane's old college boyfriend never sent a note after lovemaking. Then again Ben hadn’t been one for romantic touches like flowers or chocolates, either, but it hadn’t mattered to Jane. She'd been over the moon for him, and besides, Ben never had money for such luxuries then, but maybe he did those things for his wife now.
    Six years had passed since those carefree college days, and the what-ifs still haunted her. After Jane's accident Ben hadn't wasted any time dropping her. He'd moved on, never looking back. No young man wanted to take a chance on a woman who was recovering from a critical injury, learning to walk all over again.
   Thank God for her family. Jane had the ability to overcome any obstacle with the emotional support of her sister and parents. They'd showered her with love and constant attention. They still said a better man was in her future. She simply hadn't found him yet.
   Suddenly "Prairie Dog" Sandy popped her head over the cube wall, and Jane put the mental brakes on thoughts about her past. At twenty-five, Sandy McPherson was three years younger than Jane, and she loved office pranks as much as a puppy liked a frisky belly rub.
   “Yo, Jane!” Sandy laughed. Her dark eyes danced.
   “Sandy, you know you scare me when you do that!”
   Sandy’s hand flew into the air. “Oooh, I forgot. Sorry. Whassup?”
   “I did get one work-related email."
   "And the ones that weren't?"
   "From a guy stroking his wife for good sex last night.”
   Sandy giggled. “Oooo, lemmee see!”
   Jane laughed. “No way. It’s personal. I deleted it."
   “Geez Jane, did you trash it after you replied to tell him he squeezed the wrong woman?”
   Jane’s eyes narrowed. “Right! Then he'd know a stranger has been reading his intimate mail. How embarrassing is that?”
   Sandy laughed heartily and threw her bleached blonde mane back. “It’s his problem, not yours! He sent it!”
   “Yes, well,” Jane quickly changed the subject, “I need another coffee, how about you? We’ve got time to get tanked up before the nine o’clock stand-up meeting.”
   Sandy nodded and hurried down the aisle and around to Jane’s door, and she glanced surreptitiously at the computer screen. Jane had closed her email program. "Did he include juicy details?"
   "No," Jane wagged her finger as the women headed down the hall to the lunchroom. "Did you know thirty percent of emails are seen by someone other than the intended recipient?"
   "Doesn't surprise me."
   "That's why you should always write as if your mom is looking over your shoulder."
   “Good advice." Sandy glanced sideways at her. "Hey, bad blouse!” Sandy exclaimed. "it looks spendy. Did you get a raise or what?"
   Jane turned her head to find her coworker staring at her chest. Then she remembered -- bad meant good. “Thanks Sandy,” she said breathlessly. “I picked it up for two dollars at the Goodwill.”
   Sandy’s green eyes flew wide. “Get out of here! It’s perfect on you. Can I borrow it for my blind date on Friday?"
   Jane shrugged. " You bet. Who set you up?" They strolled into the lunchroom and approached the coffee urns.
   "I found him on a message board." Sandy laughed nervously. She grabbed a paper cup and dispensed the decaf.
   Jane gasped. "Sandy, how could you do something so dangerous? I'd never meet someone anonymously, online!" She lifted her mug and looked for the creamers.
   "It's going to be fine. He's taking a chance too. Besides, we're meeting on neutral turf, and he doesn't have my real name or address." Sandy paused. "Yet. Think I can lose five pounds by Friday?"  She smiled and winked as they turned and headed for the exit.
   Jane and Sandy were the last of nine staff members at Valley View Web Designers to enter the "war room" for the daily status meeting. Accounts Manager Jim Atwood motioned for Jane to close the door, and he launched into his usual preamble.
   "Good morning everyone. Anyone have a joke of the day?"
   Sandy raised her hand. "How many software engineers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"
   "I don't know Sandy," Jim shot back.
   "None. It's a hardware problem."
   Staffers laughed politely. "Thanks, Sandy." Jim continued. "OK, now that everyone is smiling, Stan and Dave will be presenting five-minute updates on their projects."
   Stan, dressed in khakis and a wrinkled maroon polo shirt, stepped up to the front of the room. He launched into his favorite tirade about changes requested by a client two weeks after signing off on the final design.
   Jane blocked out Stan's rant by thinking about lying on a white sandy beach in Puerto Vallarta, a non-activity she'd enjoyed with her sister and the kids on her last vacation. Ahh, a warm beach. I need one now, and it isn't even December yet!
   Thirteen minutes later they were leaving the conference room. Jane felt refreshed. She stepped into the hallway to see Shelly Steele rushing toward them in a panic, one arm in a coat sleeve and the other side of the garment draped over her shoulder.
   "Something wrong? Is Annie sick?" asked Jane.
   "No," Shelly replied breathlessly. "Annie's teacher collapsed over at Valleyview Elementary. The ambulance came, and they moved the class to another room, but the kids are very upset." 
   "Of course! Oh, my! How terrible! Annie's teacher?"
   "Yes. She's in Jillian Nelson's classroom," Shelly choked out as she backed away and hurried to the front door.
 Jillian Nelson. Jane doubled over. The news hit like a hammer to her gut.

Chapter 2
Jillian Nelson, 32, died suddenly on November 15th at Valley View Elementary School in Woodbury. She was born July 10, 1964, in St. Paul to Charles and Phoebe Nelson.

Jillian graduated from Stillwater High School in 1982. She is a graduate of University of Minnesota, where she met and married Dr. Jack Anderson. She taught first and second grades for six years. She will be missed by present and former students.

Jillian was an active member of the East Side Lutheran Church, belonged to the League of Women Voters, and played the flute in the Lakeside Community Orchestra.

Her other interests included gardening and reading. Jillian also devoted time and energy to fundraising for American Cancer Society.

Jillian Nelson is survived by her husband, Jack; mother, Phoebe; sisters, Virginia and Sammy; brother, Carl Nelson; four nieces and three nephews.

She was preceded in death by her father, Charles Nelson.

Donations may be sent to American Cancer Society.
                                        *       *      *
   Across town, Jack Anderson bowed his dark head as he read the obituary in his bright kitchen, overwhelmed with grief from the sudden loss of his wife due to a brain aneurysm. He wondered how he'd get through this nightmare as he struggled to put his marriage and life into perspective.
   His friends and colleagues had rushed in to fill the cracks. They established a support group; Claire Hill was the anchor of the bucket brigade. The silver-haired and widowed math department administrator had already arranged a dinner team. If he didn't have an invite to a faculty home then he'd be eating at her table. In fact, Claire was in his study right now, at 7:30 AM, answering calls from family, arranging pickups at the airport for Jillian's uncles and Jack's brother, and working with the funeral home on memorial service details.
   Jack glanced at the newspaper headlines before tossing the Strib onto the Formica counter next to the citrus-smelling handmade cards from Jillian's students. He smiled grimly as he remembered Jillian keeping him up on grade school pop culture. Scented markers were all the rage with 8-year olds.
  Jill's biological clock ticks had been nonstop and deafening. After nearly two years of trying to get pregnant, and tears falling every month, they jumped onto the fertility merry-go-round. After discovering his zero sperm count as the culprit, intimate life hit a wall. From that moment sex was like a visit to the dentist for Jill -- necessary but dreaded, and put off whenever possible. They'd begun to talk about alternatives, and Jack tried to amp up the romance, but by then Jill was unmoored and drifting, farther away, as he battled his own feelings of inadequacy.
   Jack was pulled from his thoughts by Buddy's sharp bark. The black lab sat at his side, giving him the food stare down.
   "Sorry, Buddy. How could I forget your breakfast?" Jack petted Buddy, scraped a hand through his own thick dark hair, rose from his chair, and headed to the pantry.
   "Food!" Jack scooped a cup of kibble into the blue bowl and set it on the mudroom corner rug.
   Buddy wolfed his chow, and Jack waited until he cleaned the last kibble from the bowl. Then he put Buddy out the back door on his chain.
   The cold nipped at Jack's face. Frost wrapped the tree branches outside his Lake Phalen bungalow, and a light wind waved winter on.
   He and Jill had chosen the house because it was between their work locations. He was a young graduate student when he met her at a party hosted by mutual friends. At the time he thought work should come before seeing women. She'd quickly turned his priorities around.
   Claire entered the kitchen with Phoebe. Funny. His mother-in-law must have arrived through the front door without his notice.
   "Oh, Jacky!"
   They embraced in the usual fashion, but tighter, and he felt the dampness on her cheek. "I know. It hurts so much, Mom."
   Phoebe stepped back and wiped at her eyes. "A mother is supposed to go before her daughter," she choked.
   Jack inhaled raggedly. "I know. A husband should go before his wife."
   "Jacky, I'm going to miss her so much." Her voice was a stage whisper, and he had to lean close to hear. "We'll get through this somehow."
   "Somehow," he echoed. Jack took Phoebe's hands and led her to the table.
   "Sit," he ordered.
   She slumped into the chair like a lump sack of potatoes.
   Jack liked his mother-in-law. She'd always bragged on Jillian's "great catch", sometimes to the point of embarrassing him in front of others, but over the years he'd come to accept it as her way of loving him.
   Meanwhile, Claire, lurking near the coffeepot, cleared her throat.  "I know it's difficult, but we have to discuss a few arrangements. I just got off the phone with the funeral home. They're planning a special visitation after school tomorrow for the children. Closed casket. Betty Dornfeld has September field trip photos of Jillian and her class to display, and the PTA has arranged transportation so all the children can go.  The parents will bring treats, and they'll supervise a balloon release in the parking lot following the visitation. The children will each write a note to Jillian on an index card, to tie to their balloons. They want this to be a positive celebration, filled with good memories of their teacher."
    Phoebe cried. "Oh my. Oh my."  She pushed gray hair back from her face and searched for a kleenex in her purse.
   Jack swallowed hard.
   Claire continued. "The kids need closure. The parents decided on this. They hope you agree and can both be there. I know it's hard."
   "I wouldn't miss it," Phoebe whispered. She blew her nose.
   "Nor I," Jack blurted.
   "I want to be there too," Claire added. "The regular adult visitation will commence after the special children's hour."
   They nodded.
   "Jill's sisters are on their way over. We can discuss the other arrangements when they get here."
   "Thanks, Claire. You're the best. I don't know what I'd do --"
   "No problem. I've been through this myself. It makes me feel good to help another."
   The doorbell chimed, and Claire jumped. "You two stay put. I'll get it".
   Jack rose and poured coffee for Phoebe. They heard voices at the door, and Claire returned with a large spray of roses. When she placed them on the table Phoebe pulled the card from the tiny envelope and read it aloud.
   "So sorry for your loss. Jane Nelson."
   Jack wrinkled his brow.  "I don't remember anyone named Jane in your family."
   "Neither do I."

Chapter 3
   Dan Decker smiled and shook a hundred hands at the front of the receiving line in the lobby of the Chelton College library.
   As the institution's largest benefactor, "Danny D" played the confident and generous philanthropist to perfection. After all, he'd recently been lauded by US Business Today as one of the five wealthiest and most successful investment fund managers in the world.
  He was also the biggest fraud and master glad-hander on Wall Street. Every day Dan prayed for a miracle to save his fund, but only divine intervention could save a Ponzi scheme.
   "Double D! So great to see you," gushed Chelton College Board chairman Kevin Crenshaw. "Nothing like coming back home to the corn fields and cows!"
   Dan forced a laugh. "Did I see you chasing the cows off Old Main Square as I drove in? A visit to Iowa sets my feet back on the ground," Dan Decker beamed his trademark grin and pumped Crenshaw's hand.
   Kevin Crenshaw, CEO of a local auto parts manufacturing company, grimaced and slid his fist back onto his hip. To his credit, he'd saved the college with an emergency loan of $3 million dollars to fund day-to-day operations. That was five years ago, and during the crisis he'd also taken over the chairmanship of the school's board. Reluctantly, he made the call to their most famous and wealthiest alum, while holding the creditor wolves at bay. Kevin Crenshaw didn't harbor any love for Dan Decker. Thirty years earlier they'd been classmates and frat brothers at Chelton. Kevin had studied hard, graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He built relationships with his professors, and he found work in the town, eventually buying out a small company and building a successful manufacturing operation.
   Dan, a handsome devil, had gotten by on his good looks and charm. When he wasn't in the campus bar downing Leinies with a young coed on his arm, he could be found rifling through the frat files for papers to rework for his Econ classes. He had enough respect for Chelton. After all, it was a line on his resume, and he met his wife there during his senior year.
   Kevin lobbed the Hail Mary to save Chelton, but Decker got the credit for saving the school. After all, Decker had opened an artery for the small liberal arts college, to the tune of $65 million and growing. They'd renamed a building for him, and one for his wife. Now he was in line for an honorary doctorate, to be awarded next May at Chelton's graduation ceremonies.
   While Decker had executed for the college, he'd also hit the wealth trifecta for himself. Grateful Chelton alums invested in his fund. Other nonprofits paid attention, and seeing Chelton thrive with spectacular returns, they wanted in on the Decker action. Hollywood celebs, business tycoons, and old money -- they all piled on.
   And how was Denny paying great dividends to all the investors? With the money from new investors, of course, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for the doctor to find new organ donors. Short a miracle, Decker knew his funds were terminal.
   "Mr. Decker!"  It was Blanche Hollman, the elderly registrar. Her eyes were misty. "We can never thank you enough!"
   Dan took her hand. He bowed his head and cleared his throat. "We all do what we can. I'm blessed to be able to help."  It was true. He'd started with the best intentions. Save the college. Worry about recouping the money later. The sun continued to rise each day, and it kept edging him toward his worst nightmare. Pension funds were invested. Nurses and bus drivers and police and firefighters now depended on Decker fund growth for their retirements.
  He'd had a couple of close calls. There was the guy working on his Math PhD. He interviewed Dan several times about his investing methods and success, but Dan had always been able to put him off. The worst one was the Colombian nut in Alabama. He was a gifted analyst, who'd been asked to look at a friend's fund statements, and it didn't take him long to figure out Dan's scheme. The leech had called Dan directly. Then he'd mailed his findings off to the SEC.
   Fortunately, Dan had plenty of friends at SEC. Even more fortunate was SEC's slew of lawyers in the enforcement division, but nary a forensic accountant to investigate anything. Some SEC lawyers were even invested in Dan's funds. If you scam it's best to scam big. Big makes it the SEC's problem too, he thought. They didn't want the public exposure on it. Not during this administration. They'd do what they did best -- kick the can down the road. But for how long?
   Bill Stone, Chelton College president, escorted Dan to a chair on the dais. The presentation was scheduled to begin in five minutes. A new scholarship program was being named for Dan, and the first ten recipients were to be introduced -- eager and innocent and ambitious young men and women who knew nothing of the complexities of real life. 
   Dan Decker looked at his assigned seat and frowned. It was bonded leather, the stuff made from scraps! He was bloody donating enough for top grade analine leather. Damn it, all he had built was at risk, and it had all started with the call to "save the college." Now they expected him to sit in bonded leather? 
   It was an insult, but he had no choice, so he sat and smiled tightly out at the room.
   Bill Stone stepped to the podium to introduce him. While Bill droned about "Danny", their Iowa farm boy who was now a New York hot shot, Dan mused about how none of them would ever know how a small college in Iowa had started a chain of events to ultimately impact the entire US equity market.
   He was at the point of no return. The college had consumed his $65 million. He'd won the battle at too great a cost. He couldn't claw back the hundreds of millions he'd paid to his investors in dividends. Now he closed his eyes and decided to shoot one big wad, throw one roll of the dice, double down, and sell his soul to the mob. 
   The "Double D" knew he could no longer count on duping the next investor, and just this week Alan Greenspan had given a speech in which he brashly suggested that "irrational exuberance" had "unduly escalated asset values."  Even Greenspan knew the emperor had no clothes. Hell, thought Dan, the Dow was up over 100% in four years. How much longer could the party continue?  He was sure of the imminent collapse, and when it came to pass his investors would cash out, and his jig would be up.  Danny Decker felt a burning in his stomach and his palms itched. He had to act soon . . .

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