Emily Is Hard to Kill: Sample chapter

Breaking news! The third book in the Emily & Hilda trilogy is available worldwide in all formats. Here is the first chapter. Enjoy! 

1. Spencer County

EMILY HAMPSTEAD SAT ON THE SIDEWALK outside the gas station west of Reo on Indiana Route 66, sobbing. When she took a breath or tried to rock, her ribs protested. With her legs out in front of her and her head down, she saw nothing but felt and heard too much. Her ears throbbed: tires on the road, loud, faulty exhausts. Her chest wanted to collapse from exhaustion, despair, and the terror of the past few days. Her clothes stank of blood, pickled beet juice, urine, and mold. The handset of the pay phone dangled by her head.

The store clerk opened the door cautiously and stared at her. When she did not move from her position, he came out and put the squealing phone back on its hook. He crouched by her.

“Do you need to call someone, miss?”

Behind him, the customers inside, who had taken shelter when the young woman covered in blood and mud had ridden from the west, came out warily and hurried to their cars.

Emily turned her head up at the clerk, trying to focus. The concerned look on his brown face woke her up to her situation. Police, medical care, clean clothes, call Mom. She forced herself to breathe slowly and stop crying.

“My mother is coming, but I need to call the police and get cleaned up.” As she took the clerk’s hand to stand, she heard sirens from the east. “I guess she called the police.”


Nine hours later, Emily slept in a cell of the Spencer County Sheriff’s Department in Rockport. It was a small room equipped with a toilet, a fold-down sink, and a folding upper bunk, much like a sleeper room on an Amtrak train. A table took up most of the middle of the room, allowing her to sit on the bed or a chair to use the table.

The deputies who responded to the call from the FBI Resident Agent in Charlottesville, Virginia, had taken her to the emergency clinic and waited while the nurse on duty cleaned her wounds. X-rays confirmed a cracked rib. Nothing to do except to let it heal.

After a shower and fresh clothes from the Christian Resource Center, they took her and her bicycle to the sheriff’s department. There, she called her mother again and gave Sheriff Eaglecrest a full statement.

While Katherine and Mark Dempsey, her mother and stepfather, sped along Interstate 64, the media scrambled to cover the news that Emily Hampstead had escaped a third kidnapping. The Ashanti Alert had law enforcement nationwide on the lookout for her and the men who had abducted her: investment manager Lex Forsythe and his lieutenant, Peter Cardon.

The deputies went to the farmhouse, following Emily’s description of her ordeal. When they found the bodies of the two men in the cellar, they knew their town would be hosting a media circus. In midafternoon, FBI Special Agent Frank Daglio arrived by helicopter and agreed that the sheriff’s department would be the safest place to protect her while the authorities verified her statement and decided whether to prosecute her.


The crash of the bolt on the door yanked her awake. She swung her feet to the floor and looked at the opening door. Her heart leaped, and she gasped.

“Mom!” She threw herself at Katherine. Her stepfather came behind her mother and beamed at the pair hugging.

A discreet cough made them step back.

“Emily, this is Michael Prestone, a public defender in Spencer County,” said Mark. “Depending on what you and he can determine at first, I may call in more help.”

Emily’s shoulders sagged. She knew there would be a legal gauntlet to run, but she wasn’t ready for it to start right away.

Straightening, she examined the thirty-something man: black hair, pale skin, blue suit with a familiar wrinkle on the trouser cuffs, a scuffed black briefcase, and – no!

“How did you get here?” She stared at the lawyer’s feet while her parents exchanged confused glances.

“Um, I was appointed by the court. Call me Michael.” He held out his hand.

“No. I mean, how did you get here? Drive, walk, pogo stick?”

“Oh, by bike, of course.” It sounded so natural coming from him that she smiled. She shook the hand. Firm but not crushing. She pointed at his feet.

“Are there cleats on those DZR loafers?”

With a chuckle, he stood on one foot and twisted to show the Shimano SPD cleat recessed in the sole of the other. “Very sharp. You’re the first person ever to notice that they’re bike shoes.”

She frowned. “Is this why the court picked you and not someone else?”

“No, I volunteered. No one else in the office knew who you were. My sister raced in the Air Force Academy Invitational.” Emily raised her eyebrows. “The way you blew through the tape, I almost forgot to look for Alice in the pack. I’ve been following you ever since.”

“What happens now?”

“I only know your public persona, but that will be relevant here. Let’s ask each other questions until we have a plan for going forward. This could be over very soon, depending on how the prosecutor sees the evidence. Shall we go to the conference room and get started?”

“What about my folks?”

Michael spoke to them. “I need your help, too, but may I confer with her alone first? Let me call you in when we’re done.”

“While you do that, we’ll find a place to stay,” said Katherine.

“Use my office,” said the sheriff, standing in the doorway. “I’ll show you the back exit, so you can dodge the journalists out front.” She held the door for them. Emily and Michael turned left; her parents went the other way.

A deputy motioned them into the meeting room, which was clearly also used for interrogations.

“I’ll be behind the one-way mirror, but the microphones are off,” she said. “You can get me by waving.” She glanced at the coffee maker and the tray with fruit juice and snacks. “Make yourselves comfortable.”

Armed with granola bars and hot coffee, the two cyclists sat across the table from each other. Michael opened his briefcase and took out a legal pad and a thick stack of bicycling magazines. He spread the periodicals in chronological order. Each issue featured Emily on the cover.

She stared and laughed.

“You want me to autograph those?”

“No.” He chuckled. “Well, maybe one of them. This is my case research – or at least what I thought to grab before hurrying over here. We may be able to point to one or more of these to put things in context as we talk.”

She sipped her coffee as she glanced over the covers. “What do you need from me?”

Michael swallowed the bite he was chewing. “I only know what’s in these, but any reader can tell there is much more behind the stuff in the articles. Let me tell you what I can infer from the media. Then we can correct my mistakes and fill out the rest of the story.”

“Is this how you build a case? I never worked with a lawyer before.”

“Pretty much. First, let me say you are not a client, not yet. You haven’t been arrested. Instead, you’re in protective custody while the sheriff and the prosecutor consult with the agencies involved.

“Second, I don’t believe for a minute that you are guilty of anything here, and I have defended my share of clients who were. The best I could hope for was fair treatment and some mercy from the court. My goal is for you not to be arrested or charged. They must decide in seventy-two hours. Shall we get started?”

Emily waved with one hand as she sipped again.

“As far as I can tell, this all began with the first Blue Ridge Invitational.”

He put his hand on the cover of Velo News covering the BRI, a split image showing a pile of racers crashed into the guardrail on a curve of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Pegasus air ambulance helicopter hovering over the treetops of the George Washington National Forest. Emily was in the stretcher under the helo, having flown over the guardrail, her body torn apart as it smashed into a white oak and fell to the valley below.

“Not quite.” She held a hand over the earliest issue. “You need a copy of the Chicago Tribune between the USAFA Invitational in Colorado and this one.” She pointed to the issue on the Tidewater Classic that she rode after moving from Newton, Kansas, to Charlottesville, Virginia, during Christmas of her senior year in high school. “Remember the bombing of the Sheraton Hotel?”

“Of course. You were there?”

“No, but it is part of the story. So is the Boston Marathon.”


“My mother. I’ll explain but hold those two thoughts. Go on.”

“So, after you recovered miraculously, you went touring in New England and Canada with two retired army officers.”

“Jack Rathburn and Hilda Paisley.”

“How do you know them?”

“Part of the story too. They’re my best friends.”

“Anyway, someone kidnapped you in Montréal, but you escaped to continue your tour. One article had an account of a terrorist group going after you and them.”

“The Forebears of the Mahdi.”

“That’s the one. I never understood how that fit into the cycling press, but it cropped up in various places as an aside, often in Rouleur.”

“You read a wide range of bicycle magazines.”

“As close as I can get to the action in a place like Rockport. And I find it interesting. What happened to the terrorists?”

“They’re in prison: ten in the US and two in Canada.”

Michael went to the counter to refill his cup. “Then you appear in Charlottesville, starting college. Suddenly you are the front rider of the Virginia Cycling Club and the star of the collegiate racing circuit. Your first semester was quiet, but the competitive season on the East Coast picks up in the spring.”

“February, actually, with races in Richmond and Williamsburg.”

“Right. Then the second Blue Ridge Invitational was sabotaged.” He pointed to the issues covered with bleeding and crashed road racers. “But you jumped the oil slick and won the race.”

Emily shivered. “Are you familiar with PTSD?” Post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Yes. Half my clients suffer from it.”

“I began having episodes after the second sabotage. Flashbacks of the first one, when I was injured. Both races hurt me, but in different ways.”

“You went to Sittard with the under-twenty-three development team. What a summer! The media couldn’t get enough of them.” He held his hand over a magazine about two-thirds along the row. “Then the squad was destroyed when SABIC was bombed.” Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation.

She stared at the picture of the blown-out building rising over the park littered with bicycles and the bodies of her teammates and two dozen bystanders who had been there to cheer the riders as they returned from their usual Sunday workout. She could not tell which one was Rosie, who died that night on the operating table, or Diana, who was still in rehabilitation after coming out of a month-long coma. She fought back the tears.

“Go on, please.”

“You dropped out. The pundits speculated, but no one knew what you were doing. You didn’t go back to school or get a job. You didn’t show up on any team rosters or register for any races. Nothing.

“Your mother was the target of an assassination attempt in Charlottesville, but still you did not appear. Then your mother disappeared too.” He looked at his notes. “You both reappear in a dramatic abduction from a campsite on the Blue Ridge Parkway in early December. This is where Forsythe and Cardon come in.”

Emily kept silent.

“The authorities tracked them to a compound in Hendry County, Florida. They confirmed that Forsythe held you there, but the two men fled during the attempt to serve the warrants. You got away, too, and showed up in Charlottesville after Christmas. How am I doing?”

“Great. You have a couple of papers at the end of the row. I see the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Is road racing mainstream now?”

He chuckled. “I wish! No, these have items about Forsythe, who was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for fraud and embezzlement.

“Just about the time the cycling world noticed that you were back in Charlottesville, your mother was trolled on social media about using sex to win a Pulitzer. Weird.”

“How trolls work. No need to tell the truth.” She shrugged and rolled her eyes.

He indicated the last two newspapers: the morning Spencer County Leader and the Journal Democrat. “Last week, you were snatched again. The media went wild nationwide. But here you are in Rockport, Indiana.”

He took a long breath and a sip of coffee. “Want to fill in the gaps from your side?”

Emily stood.

“This is not a bicycle story, you know.” He waved for her to continue. “It starts way over here.” She walked to the wall beyond the table. “My mother was a graduate student at Boston University, and Lex Forsythe was at Harvard. They met on the marathon circuit and went on a couple of dates. He turned out to be an MCP – you know what that is, right?”

“Male chauvinist pig.”

“Mom dumped him one night. He went away mad. The next week she finished fifth in the Boston Marathon, about a hundred and twenty places ahead of him.”

“She was the fifth woman—”

“No. Fifth overall, behind three Africans and an Australian.”

“Omigod. That must have pissed him off.”

“We had no idea. Mom forgot all about him. He went on to become a billionaire investment manager and support misogynistic causes. As my friend Jack said, he would give money to anyone who shared his view of the place of women. Thus, he helped finance the Forebears of the Mahdi in Chicago.”

She pointed to a spot on the floor between the wall and the table edge. “Do you remember the front-page photo of that bombing?”

“A Black woman, a nurse, I think, in the lobby among the wounded and in front of the Federal Building. Something about her fingering the terrorists, leading to their arrest in less than two days.”

“Hilda Paisley. She was riding across the country, and we met when she came through Newton, Kansas. She upstaged the Forebears and unwittingly undid the effect they and Forsythe were expecting.

“Forsythe went on to co-sponsor the Blue Ridge Invitational, so he could access the Parkway while it was closed. It was a women’s race with no male counterpart. The Forebears asked him for help chasing Hilda. He financed the kidnapping in Québec. As far as I can tell, they wanted leverage or revenge on her because Hilda was obviously my friend. We don’t know for sure because the kidnappers died.”

“I read about it. You got away, and a Border Patrol helo blew up their car during a chase.”

“Yes. We thought it was all behind us, but the second Blue Ridge Invitational was sabotaged. That brought on my PTSD, but we never connected either race sabotage to anyone specific before I went to the Netherlands with the under-twenty-three team.”

She took a deep breath. “When I’m sad, I blame myself for the blast that wiped out my friends. If I had not been there, a celebrity, the bombers might never have thought to bomb SABIC. No one knows if the principal target was the Saudi Arabians or the Americans, but one of the terrorists was a brother of the leader of the Forebears of the Mahdi.”

“Forsythe was behind that too?”

“The RICO squad in Miami traced the money.” The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations unit of the Department of Justice. “Forsythe is the only person whose name appears on receipts involving the Sheraton and SABIC bombings and the Québec kidnapping. His foundation co-sponsored the Blue Ridge Invitational. Interpol and the Dutch and Canadian authorities were still trying to build the case on him when he ordered the hit on my mother, then kidnapped me himself the second time.

“I got away in the confusion at the Florida compound, but so did he. We knew he would try again.”

“Who is we?”

“My parents, Hilda, Jack, and Special Agent Frank Daglio.

“When Forsythe trolled my mother, I consulted some smart friends at the university. We found out he was in Albemarle County. We launched a counter-campaign that did not involve trolling but exposed what he was doing with his investors’ funds. The SEC took it from there.

“By the time he snatched me from the bus stop last week, he was desperate. He was wanted in New York, Virginia, and Florida. The FBI wanted him and Peter Cardon for the kidnappings. Roanoke Virginia wanted him for the murder of the three people he killed taking me to Florida, and the New York State Attorney General was planning to charge him with embezzlement.”

“That came out this week, social media connecting him to the abductions and murders.”

“It was scheduled to coincide with a raid on his house, but he nabbed me and ran before they could arrest him.”

Michael shoved away from the table.

“Need a break?”

“I think so. You?”

“Yes.” He waved at the mirror. The door gave a buzz and a click; the deputy opened it and showed Emily to the ladies’ room.

Back in the conference room, Michael and Emily picked up bottles of water and carried them to the table. After consulting his notes, he stood and came around her side.

“Stand, please.” He noted her bruises. “Pull up your sleeves. Turn around. Thanks.”

Returning to his place, he sat and indicated for her to do likewise.

“We need to mark the events in this remarkable story so we match them with the external evidence supporting them. Can you prove them all?”

“No, but my parents and I live so close to this case that I can tell you which parts have solid proof.”

“Good. First, though, take me through what led to the deaths of Forsythe and Cardon. Remember, I can’t divulge anything you tell me without your permission. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Where shall I start?”

“According to the media, you disappeared from the Number Four bus stop. What happened?”

“I was checking my email, and I turned away from the street to shade the phone from the sun. I had leaned my bike against the wall of the building. A black Suburban came up behind me, and the front passenger door opened and knocked me down. Someone wrapped me in a blanket as I tried to get up. I felt a syringe stick me in the arm and blacked out.

“When I woke up, it was dark. I was tied up, lying on the back seat. I recognized Forsythe and Cardon in the glow of the dash lights. Knowing where I am now, I can tell you they took I-64 to Route 161, then to the farm west of Reo off Highway 66.”

“How did you know?”

“As we left the interstate, the sun came up, so we were heading south. All the turns were right angles, nine of them. I compared that information to the map in the phone book in the farmhouse.”


“They locked me in a room upstairs. The window faced the Ohio River. I saw trees on the riverbank. The windows were nailed shut from the outside. A small restroom had a toilet and a sink. They kept me there for three days, escorting me to meals in the kitchen with the two of them before taking me back to the room.

“On the third day, Forsythe had Cardon stand in the hall. He ordered me to strip. I said no, and he charged me. He’s not much of a fighter; I tripped him and let him fall to the wall. I knew he would kill me because he had tried to in Florida. He came at me again. I kneed him in the groin, which bent him over as I let him go by me. I was about to bring my elbow down on the back of his neck when Cardon shot me with a tranquilizer dart.”

“Are you sure?”

“The kidnappers in Montréal used the same weapon.”

She pulled up her left sleeve.

“That’s the bruise from the dart. You can have it checked by experts.”

Michael rolled his hand for her to continue. She let the sleeve fall back down.

“I woke up in the cellar with my face in the dirt floor in total darkness. First, I had to get on my back because someone had cracked my ribs. Probably Forsythe kicking me. It wasn’t something Cardon would do. When the pain in my ribs eased, I got up on my knees and crab-walked around the room, feeling with my nose and head. I found some jars of pickled beets. I broke one on the corner of the shelf unit and used the sharp edges to cut the zip ties on my wrists and ankles. Then I walked around in the dark, checking the shelves. I came across the billhook and the knife and positioned them by the door.

“The door had a bolt on the outside and another on the inside. I ate some beets, locked the inner bolt, and slept. Their voices woke me later. They had come to kill me before leaving.”

“What did they say?”

“Cardon asked, ‘Why not just leave her?’ Forsythe said, ‘Because she’s as slippery as a damned eel. The only way she is going to stop getting away is dead.’ Cardon said, ‘Okay. You want me to do it?’ Forsythe answered him, ‘Not this one, Pete. I owe her.’ That seemed pretty clear to me. I unlocked the door and stepped back. The room was absolutely dark. When he came into the room, I swung the billhook. It was a clean cut that pushed him into the room. The sound of his falling on the floor brought Cardon to the door. I shoved the knife up into him from where I was.”

“What happened then?”

“I ran out the door and up the stairs. I was afraid there might be more people because men came to visit them while I was upstairs. When I was sure I was alone, I went to the bathroom on the ground floor to throw up. I knelt there for about a half hour. I got up, washed off as well as I could, and went looking for food and a phone. There was no service, so I left the two cell phones. The landline was dead, but I studied the maps in the back of the phonebook while I ate a sandwich.

“My bicycle was in their SUV outside. It wasn’t locked, but I couldn’t find the keys. I rode to Reo and called my mother from the gas station.”

In the silence, Emily refilled her mug. She sat and considered the lawyer in front of her.

Michael had his head down over his legal pad as he wrote like a student trying to finish the word count for an essay exam. He drew a deep, dark line across the page and sat up. For about thirty ticks of the wall clock, he looked at her in an unfocused way. She imagined that he was thinking.

“Lawyers aren’t supposed to show weakness,” he said, “but this case scares me. You could just as easily drive home tomorrow as go to prison for the rest of your life, and I don’t want to cause that.”

Emily’s throat closed. She took a careful breath before speaking.

“This is a capital punishment state, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but I doubt this would lead to a death sentence. What I am afraid of is the prosecuting attorney wanting a public trial. He runs a good office with an excellent record on domestic abuse and sexual assault cases. On the other hand, this case involves a double homicide. We must convince him that proving beyond a reasonable doubt you were not defending yourself will be impossible. He may still want a trial for the media exposure.”

“Should I ask Mark for more help? He can retain attorneys, and Gerald Schwartz is a friend in Charlottesville.”

“Schwartz made a name for himself in capital cases.”


“I’ll ask your parents myself. I need to talk to them next. The prosecutor wants to meet with the sheriff and me. We may even see the judge in chambers before anything happens. If they want to charge you and go forward, you won’t qualify for a public defender. They called for a PD because no one knew your situation at first.” He stood and gathered the papers and periodicals into his briefcase. “Even so, I will ask to be on your team.”

“Thank you.”

He waved for the deputy. When the door clicked open, he walked Emily back to her cell.


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