Under the Covers: Deadly Potential
Step through the mirror and see what’s under the covers for Deadly Potential.
This section includes notes from my research, the inspiration for different scenes and characters, and shares some of my favourite lines and moments. Obviously this section includes spoilers so I would recommend reading the book before reading through this page. But that’s just me.
If there’s a question I haven’t answered in the commentary, please feel free to email it to me at email@example.com.
This story began as a creeped out realization when I was watching true crime stalking stories and neuroscience documentaries on television. So many stalkers initially fly under their victims’ radars. We’re used to having lots of people around us, so we don’t pay attention. We dismiss them as background visual noise. That makes it easy for predators to get close to us without necessarily tripping any alarms.
If that wasn’t creepy enough, then there’s the fact that we actually “see” much less than we think we do. Most of what we think we’re seeing is actually being filled in by our brain based on what we expect to see, rather than processing information from our eyes. There are fascinating experiments on “change blindness” and “selective attention” for those interested.
Those two facts got me thinking. What if there was a serial stalker/killer with the psychic ability to enhance the brain’s ability to overlook what’s in front of a person? What if they were able to block long term memories from forming? That person would end up being truly invisible in our world, which would let them get closer than anyone could imagine.
I added that into an idea I’d been playing around with: a Cinderella story where the step sisters join together with Cinderella instead of attacking her.
And Deadly Potential was born.First Letter Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Second Letter Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Third Letter Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Fourth Letter Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Fifth Letter Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Sixth Letter Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Chapter Thirty-Three Chapter Thirty-four Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Six Seventh Letter Chapter Thirty-Seven Chapter Thirty-Eight Chapter Thirty-Nine Chapter Forty Chapter Forty-One Final Letter Chapter Forty-Two Chapter Forty-Three Chapter Forty-Four Chapter Forty-Five Epilogue
Walter is single-handedly the most frightening villain I have ever created. The idea of someone being able to get near me, or watch me, and I have no idea that they are there is pretty much my personal nightmare. He also let me play with an idea that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for a while: what if the Fairy Godmother was the villain of the Cinderella story? What if Cinderella was happy working with her sisters? What if the Fairy Godmother (or in this case, Godfather) decided they wanted Cinderella for themselves, rather than letting her find her prince? The line “sleeping in the ashes from her flames” is a reference to the classic Cinderella story, where she sleeps by the hearth to earn her nickname.
Walter is also an example of toxic masculinity and entitlement. He believes he knows what Katie wants better than she does herself and that he has the right to dictate her choices and actions because of that.
I like playing with “what would happen if people discovered things they thought were stories ended up being real?” stories. This series is set in the same world as my Lalassu books, which focus on the stories of those with superpowers. This series will be looking at those who have to deal with them, but don’t necessarily have abilities themselves. It’s the closest I’m going to get to writing for The X-files, which was a dream of mine when the show was on. Henry Delacroix is actually my tribute to what I think Mulder would be like if the world had discovered his alien conspiracy theories were true.
Ben and Ray were a fun pairing to write. I wanted something different from the grizzled-but-experience paired with the hothead/idealist. Both of them are equally committed to making a difference and to protecting both the occulata and the general public, but are complete personality opposites. Ben is in the closed-off, all business stage, but Ray allows us to see the potential for a more open and balanced person underneath the grumpy shell.
I also didn’t want to do the typical “this case is personal” Ahab-White Whale hunt. Ben is aware of the Director, but it hasn’t been his mission to hunt him, at least until now. It was also fun to introduce the term “unsub”, which will be familiar to fellow Criminal Minds fans. Per the research I did, “unsub” is actually the preferred term within law enforcement, rather than the press’s colourful names. Names like “The Green River Killer” actually delayed the capture of the killer in question because the authorities focused solely on the bodies discovered in and by the river, rather than tying in other bodies which had been discovered in alternate sites.
Special Investigations are the bad guys in my Lalassu series, because I believe such an organization would attract those seeking power over the vulnerable (much as I believe ICE does, at least in the 2016-2019 period as I’m writing this). Any organization that is rapidly recruiting based on public fear will attract bullies. However, I believe it is possible for such organizations to change their internal moral compasses, if they are so willing. Ben, Ray and Delacroix are all dedicated to doing the right thing, rather than the convenient thing or the “looks good on a soundbyte” thing. Doing the right thing is complicated, and not everyone will agree with the details, but it’s absolutely necessary.
For the curious, the Jackson Square incident is contained in book 4 of the Lalassu: Judgment.
I’ve had some questions on Aggi and Katie’s relationship, particularly the “stepsisters” vs “sisters” decision. I am a firm believer that shared DNA does not define family. Family are the people who love and support you, and who you would do anything for. I know plenty of blended families who are closer than blood siblings, and I don’t like it when people try to force them to use “step” nomenclature.
The conversation between Ben and Ray about sexual harassment was something that was added in after beta reads. I’d based Ray’s behaviour on several people I know, people who constantly flirt but are absolutely respectful of boundaries. They’ve got an impressive ability to read a situation and determine what the audience’s comfort level is. But the issue is that the average person does not have that kind of accurate social reading and needs to be more cautious. I included the conversation to make it clear that Ray is not a predatory letch, but a cheerful and ego-boosting flirt.
The flashback to the protest was inspired by the frustration I’ve felt when governments and agencies refuse to acknowledge the harm that they’ve done. It would be very refreshing to hear simple, honest apologies that they’ve messed up and they have work to do in regaining trust. I also agree with Ray that if those with conscience all abandon an agency or department, then that leaves it in the hands of those who don’t care about hurting others. Sometimes walking away is the only answer to protect oneself, but I also think it’s important to do the work in fixing the problem.
For this chapter, I have to start talking about the strawberry smoothies. Being on tour is very hectic for performers. They’re usually on the road for over a year, sometimes two years. A year of hotel rooms and never being in a city for more than a few nights at a time. Some performers insist on staying at the same chain of hotels to create an illusion of consistency, others want their favourite things available. Personal assistants do things like research where tennis courts or boxing rings are, or Italian restaurants with a suitable caliber of chicken parmigiana. There are a thousand tasks which are done to make the constant travel and chaos easier.
The strawberry smoothies also work as an example of how Katie manages things. She takes things on herself rather than delegating, but also cares enough about her sister to want Aggi to be happy and comfortable, even if it makes things harder on Katie herself.
One of the other interesting things I learned while researching is that a lot of performers distinguish between their public persona and their true selves. Lady GaGa talked about being GaGa versus being Stefani. Sting’s biography says he needs time to just be Gordon. I used that in this novel with the mention of Aggi (public) vs. Agatha (sister).
They also mentioned having to be constantly on guard against people who would use them for their celebrity, even with other celebrities. It can be a subtle (or not so subtle) tug of war in the media for attention, gaining it for themselves or planting stories about others for distraction. I’m generally not a fan of tabloid culture and how it invades privacy and makes money off real-world misery. I think it makes it too easy for the audience to forget that these aren’t characters created for their entertainment, but real world people making mistakes, having their hearts broken, and being featured in their worst moments.
That said, I did have a fascinating time researching these big tours. They’re very complicated with a lot of people and moving parts. The stages are incredible creations and custom designed for the performer and tour.
Razel was a difficult character for me, but she’s part of a disturbing trend that I’ve seen developing for a long time. People who claim to be “feminists” but attack things that give women pleasure, like romance novels or pop music. I don’t believe that women need to deprive themselves of things they enjoy in order to be taken seriously. And in case there is any doubt, I am absolutely in favour of people being treated equally and given equal opportunities, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or any other of the categories that divide and define. I don’t think anyone deserves to be shamed for what they enjoy and that taking pleasure is a necessary part of surviving life.
Hear Me Roar was inspired by several prominent female performers, who mentioned that they go out of their way to hire female musicians, dancers, and staff. I actually was finishing the first draft of this story when the #MeToo movement began to break in the movie and TV industry. Madonna, Pink, and Lady GaGa have all talked about how they are punished and denigrated in the press for being open about their sexuality and how there is a strong double-standard in the music industry. Young women face a constant gauntlet of harassment and assumptions, whether they’re performers or backstage. It drives a lot of them away and cuts their careers short.
However, it’s not all bad. I am still astonished by how much clothing, accessories and jewelry is just given to celebrities. Not as part of a promotion contract, but sent to them unasked in the hopes the celebrity will mention it or be photographed using it. That’s why Aggi’s first reaction to the dress is to assume it’s a new designer looking for exposure.
This is also one of the reasons why threatening messages aren’t immediate causes for alarm when a celebrity receives them. They get threats on a regular basis and usually have a system in place for logging and dealing with them.
Another surprise I learned is that rehearsals don’t stop during the tour. The performers, including the star, regularly run through exercises to keep them in shape and deal with fiddly little problems to improve the show.
The final lines of this chapter were inspired by what is regretfully a common reaction to reports of stalking. The “there’s nothing we can do because this isn’t against the law” reaction. If stalking was taken more seriously during the initial stages, fewer targets would have to live in fear, sometimes for years before anyone is willing to do anything about it.
I didn’t want Ben to be motivated by a career-long hunt for the Director, but I thought it was unlikely that there wouldn’t be someone in the alphabet soup of law enforcement who wasn’t dedicated to catching an infamous serial killer. Tarek Orlund is the Captain Ahab, searching for his great white whale. Given what he’s done, I enjoyed the irony of his superior attitude toward Special Investigations.
When Ray challenges Orlund, the FBI agent shrugs one shoulder. Asymmetrical shrugs are usually a deceptive attempt to signal confidence. It actually signals anxiety and discomfort. The gesture is an early sign that Orlund is not the good guy he pretends to be.
I’ve had people ask why I didn’t pick a specific hotel for Aggi’s tour to stay at. I based the hotel on an amalgam of several San Diego waterside hotels. There are quite a few and all lovely places to stay. However, in fiction, it’s generally better to make up locations rather than pick specific ones who might have their own opinions about how they’re being presented. Since I assumed most hotels would be upset at the implication that they were being used by a serial killer, I went with the amalgam.
Using the term “target” instead of “victim” is one I’ve heard law enforcement individuals argue about. I believe that language can make a big difference in how we perceive the world and events. I fall on the “target” side of the debate. A target is not responsible for being the focus of an evil act, whereas victims are often blamed. And “victim” has the implication of helplessness and inevitability.
Stinging Butterfly was inspired by one of my favourite choreographers, Sonya Tayeh. I love her quirky, evocative style, both in dance and in person.
The self defense techniques that Butterfly gives are ones that my instructors gave me. He emphasized trying lots of small maneuvers instead of elaborate routines. It gives more flexibility and it means there’s always something else to try. A quick note, when pinching the thigh of an attacker, be prepared for the leg to jerk up. Having the leg hit you in the face is an embarrassing way to end an escape attempt.
The accusations that Razel levels against Aggi’s brand, that it’s superficial and a quick fix rather than real changes, that the girls imitating her won’t have that same protection, are based on accusations that have continually been hurled against Madonna during her career. Critics attacked her as encouraging girls to dress provocatively and saying she would be responsible if they were raped. That was blatantly unfair and untrue, though unfortunately consistent with societal attempts to control female sexuality.
Katie’s frustration with her security is a common one. Visible security is more about deterrence than prevention, but it’s often surprisingly easy to brazen past them. There are dozens of examples of ordinary people getting into what should be impenetrable buildings, simply by acting like they belong. The guy who wandered into Buckingham palace and stayed there for hours is one of my favourite examples.
The question about Aggi being arrested for public lewdness was another item inspired from Madonna’s career. She was arrested for lewdness and her show was called obscene. The accusation inspired her to go even bigger and more provocative, launching the Girlie Show tour.
I’ve heard a number of military and law enforcement bemoan that civilians seem unaware of the dangers around them, much as Ben does about Katie. However, I’ve also heard some of them say that the naivete is evidence of their success. People should be able to go about their way, happy and ignorant, because they are protected from the worst possible consequences.
One of the other views I incorporated was a frustration about the “this time it’s personal” trope that are often used in shows and movies. The idea that personal stakes drive law enforcement to be more effective. Being emotionally-driven might make for great stories, but in real life, it usually doesn’t turn out too well.
Ben’s brother’s jacket is used as a touchstone metaphor throughout the novel about Ben’s relationship to the memory of his brother. He’s hanging on to it now, but eventually he’ll be able to give it up.
I’ve used the term occulata to refer to those with special abilities, rather than lalassu, because governments have a depressing tendency to insist on their own nomenclature rather than respecting the names used by the individual groups. Part of it is an attempt to assume control, and part of it is deliberate erasure. Forcing a group to define themselves by outside parameters removes a part of who they are.
One of the things I wanted to do with this story was show a heroine who didn’t immediately fall apart or blindly follow a hero when confronted with personal danger. Katie is strong and confident, and while she immediately grasps the peril, she’s not instantly overwhelmed by it. Her insistence on being told the truth and not disrupting her life is a part of her strength.
I’ve known about Van Halen and the M&Ms for a long time and it was very cool to be able to include the information in this story. Most performers are very secretive about what their “M&M” set-up checks actually are, which is understandable given that it is a matter of their safety. But most of the custom stage shows admit they have at least one.
I deliberately chose not to make the Director a rapist. Although I realize most serial killers do sexually violate and humiliate their targets, I’m also very aware that references to rape and sexual assault can be triggering for many women. I’m not a big fan of using in fiction unless there is a specific reason to do so. There are lots of different types of peril that can be used to build tension and I think being kidnapped and killed is sufficiently frightening without adding a sexual component to it.
Katie’s reaction to shock, finding other details to concentrate on, is a common one. It’s one of the brain’s ways to avoid being overwhelmed. And for a practical person like Katie, it seemed like the best choice for her character.
I once read the description “fear drags you down, anger gets you moving” and I’ve always found it apt. Grief and fear are paralyzing emotions, while anger gives energy. I liked using the metaphor of alchemy to describe the transition between the two states.
Katie’s reaction to Ben (and his to her) was my compromise between love at first sight and the kind of love that leave to happily ever afters. I believe in both, but I don’t think they’re the same thing. People can feel intense and unusual emotional connections to other people, but love which can endure all the difficulties and pain of life takes time to develop. I personally believe you can’t truly say you love someone until you’ve lived through them being sick with the flu, and know whether they like muffins, and all the other trivial details that make up a person. Love means loving all the parts of a person, not just their public persona.
Giving my characters superpowers with limits was a conscious decision. The biggest factor was that if a character is too powerful, it makes it hard to create tension. Characters like Superman need huge opponents, ones capable of destroying whole cities. I didn’t want that kind of collateral damage in my stories. The other factor was wanting to keep their powers somewhat in the realm of reality (more or less). That means they can’t have extreme abilities.
One of the other narrative choices I made was to have this series be linked in the same world as my Lalassu series. So the big events which happen will be referenced in each series. I’ve always liked interconnected stories, such as Babylon 5 or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It makes the stories feel more real.
But even though revealing the truth about Woodpine was a major event in the Lalassu, that doesn’t mean it was significant for Katie. It’s easy to maintain distance from the events in the news, even when those events are horrific. People get preoccupied with their own lives.
I like puzzles and it amazes me how much can be learned even when we’re not trying to reveal anything. Tiny pieces can form remarkably comprehensive pictures if people can pick up the little details. It’s one of the reasons why criminal profiling fascinates me, even though profilers are usually the first to admit that their conclusions always must be subject to new evidence and interpretation.
The Director chose Katie as one of his victims because he wanted a bigger name for himself. Although he deludes himself into thinking he is acting for his victims, it is really his own legacy and fame that he wants.
He’s able to do what he does because he can attack both the in-person and digital security. If something is networked (keycard readers, digital locks, etc), he can hack it. And he can walk past any person he wants, no matter how vigilant. That’s what makes him exceptionally dangerous.
One of the things which fascinates me is how a person can transform themselves with clothing, hair, and cosmetics. Change the look and you change how the world reacts to you. Ben has different reactions depending on how Katie looks. He wants to protect her when he sees her as a waif, he is intimidated when he sees her as a professional businesswoman, and unsure how to react when she’s in performance gear.
I used to get frustrated with TV shows or movies when the person in protective custody tried to slip away. I thought it was unrealistic. If someone knows that someone else is trying to kill them, why the heck would they ever try to ditch the people protecting them? Except it turns out that it’s actually fairly common. People don’t do well when danger isn’t apparent, and having to deal with someone hovering over you at all times can be very difficult. So Katie tries to ditch Orlund, because Orlund is a jackass and frankly, I’d try to get away from him, too. Even if my life depended on it.
This letter was inspired by an exchange I heard about from Melanie Rawn, one of my favourite authors. She’d shared that she was having trouble with depression, which was why she hadn’t finished a series. She mentioned that a number of people contacted her with “career” advice. People who weren’t writers and weren’t mental health expert thought depression could be cured by “just getting on with it.” I found it incredibly disrespectful, so I used it as the basis for this letter.
If I was being stalked by a serial killer, I would research it online. And I’d regret it. I’d know I’d regret it and I’d do it anyway, because I’d rather be terrified by knowing than not knowing. So Katie does the same.
Katie is an independent, practical woman. Which means she’s not going to be comforted by sentimentality, even if she does notice the potential in a pair of broad shoulders. She is however wrong to think she will need to do everything on her own. She’s going to take an active role in her own protection, but it will be a team effort.
One of the challenges of writing this story was figuring out a plausible reason to have cameras everywhere. That’s where Razel came in. Initially she was a cooperative, gushy fan but that wasn’t working. Once I gave her an independent agenda and made her antagonistic, the story flowed much better.
Orlund’s lack of sympathy represents the bad side of law enforcement. Fortunately there aren’t many law enforcement personnel who are more focused on their own egos instead of the people they’re supposed to protect, but that minority can cause real problems.
There are a number of different types of stalkers. Some seek power, some like the thrill of knowing they’re disrupting their targets’ lives but don’t want to cause physical harm, some stalk to extend the excitement of hunting prey. Intimacy stalkers imagine they have a relationship with the target. Celebrities get targeted by intimacy stalkers but so do ordinary people. They’re very unpredictable when their fantasies are broken or challenged.
The decision to try and run away from a serial killer seems obvious, particularly for someone with Katie and Aggi’s resources. However, running away from someone who can track your every digital move and who can also watch your every physical move is impossible. He can simply walk on to any plane (assuming he didn’t just add himself to the manifest) or hide in the back seat of the car.
Aggi’s mom, Bernice, gets her intro in this chapter. I needed an evil stepmother to continue with the Cinderella theme and an overinvolved stage mom seemed perfect. People have asked me if she is based on a real person and while I don’t want to point any fingers, there are certain similarities to a parent with whom I had several encounters at school, one who was very competitive about their child’s academic progress. The child in question told me that the parent did all of their assignments, telling them the work was too important to let them screw it up. I lost touch with that kid but I hope they told their parents to shove it and went out to pursue their own dreams.
Bernice’s attitude that only phonies would hide from the camera is one I’ve seen expressed and still find trouble believing. It’s classic narcissism. People need privacy, to not have every moment analyzed, criticized and on display. It’s a fundamental need, like food and water.
There is something freeing about realizing that someone’s demands on you are completely unreasonable. Narcissistic behaviour like Bernice’s will leave scars, but healed scar tissue is tougher than the original flesh. Once you realize there is nothing you will ever be able to do which is “good enough” then you can stop forcing yourself to achieve the impossible.
It is a pet peeve of mine when heroes in romance novels are more interested in perving on their love interests than in protecting them from the dangers they face. I realize experiencing an overwhelming attraction is part of the appeal of romance, but I wanted to show that it’s possible to have both an intense passion and to still keep a love interest’s needs as the highest priority.
The need to be present with someone we care about even when there’s nothing we can do is one of the universal human experiences. For most people, physical contact and company is comforting in difficult times, when it comes from those they love. Ben and Katie aren’t ready for that yet, but they will get there.
Ray’s gesture of ordering a drink but not drinking it comes from one of my university friends. She would always buy a drink, but never touched it. She said it made her look like she belonged, since she mainly wanted to sit and people-watch, and kept people from bothering her or buying her drinks.
Finding the line between keeping Ben professional and letting him still get his HEA was a challenge. The FBI and police departments have strict rules about romantic relationships with witnesses, persons of interest, and those under protective details. It works great in a story but in real life, it could cost a person their career.
Learning about silent days for vocal performers was really interesting. They have some really interesting techniques for communicating without using their vocal chords. But the ones that impressed me the most were the ones who learned ASL, along with their entourages and loved ones. That’s a pretty cool level of support. One of the techniques that some performers use is to record a special “concert” track which is then played back for live performances. I felt ambivalent about it. On the one hand, the performance schedules can be incredibly demanding. Sometimes when a performer cancels do to “exhaustion” it’s not drugs (which is commonly assumed). Sometimes it’s their vocal chords have given up. And sometimes it’s actually exhaustion from trying to maintain a 24/7 schedule of constantly being “on”.
Back to my ambivalence, as a fan, I’d be disappointed to realize that a live performance was actually a playback. I’d rather know in advance so I can decide whether or not its worth the price of the ticket. Some shows would absolutely be worth it. Others, not so much. But like I said, I understand why performers do it.
Parents wanting to cash in on their celebrity kids is less understandable to me. But sadly, there seem to be plenty of parents who find the lure of the dollar more irresistible than the relationship with their child. Bernice’s behaviour is based on an amalgam of a number of celebrity parents, both actors and singers, that I read about in different biographies.
And an adult kid doesn’t need to be a celebrity to deal with an addictive parent. It’s incredibly difficult and heart-breaking to need to set boundaries. I have nothing but respect for the people who are struggling with this issue and I hope I’ve done it justice. Any mistakes are my own.
I wanted to show a healthy and supportive sister relationship for this book. Positive female relationships tend to be overlooked in a lot of fiction, even romance. I couldn’t imagine life without my girlfriends. They’ve gotten me through a lot of stuff over the years. Most women have a supportive female circle and I’d like to see that reflected more in books (and movies and TV shows).
Having everyone assume that the Director is after Aggi is my little nod to the Magneto-Wolverine exchange in the X-Men movies: “My dear boy, who said it was about you?” People get tunnel vision around celebrities. And I’m sure that the people around them get tired of it.
Fun fact: no one will actually tell me if there has ever been a case where the bad guy was hiding inside the safehouse and hurt the person in protective custody after the protective detail went to go outside. I can kind of understand. It’s not something they want publicized. I could find rumours and references but no actual confirmation. Maybe it’s strictly a Hollywood idea. I kind of hope so. As I said, people do take extreme steps to evade their protectors, so it’s perhaps not a surprise that bad guys are able to get past.
As an author, I feel bad that I took away Special Agent Orlund’s HEA with Ashley Gilpin. However, as the author, I can also say most definitively that they were not actually a love match. It was infatuation and they would not have made the distance. She was too selfish and would have tried to corrupt him. He was too ambitious and while he enjoyed the thrill and the chase, he would have ended up neglecting her. Not that any of that means they deserved the pain they both experienced.
I don’t like hurting my characters. Even the minor ones are real to me. It’s odd because the dark moments are my favourite part when I read. But when I’m writing, I want them all to be happy and have their dreams work out. I feel bad when I can’t.
Speaking of characters not getting their happy ending, Lucy will get hers in a later book. She likes the idea of Ben a lot more than she would have liked the reality of them. I’m not generally a fan of love triangles, but I like this subtle version of unrequited and unspoken attraction. She’s been worshiping him from afar and reality is going to catch up to her fantasies.
Katie’s songwriting was a fun way to see the world. I’ve always liked music, though I have no particular musical talent. But it’s very easy for me to imagine a world of theme songs. I have a friend who composes her own music (Hi, Sarah!) and she taught me a lot about how the music we hear can influence how we perceive the world. One would think reactions would be very subjective, but music tends to evoke very consistent reactions.
It’s similar to how all artists see the world. I have a friend who paints and she imagines how to capture visual scenes. I imagine how to incorporate quirks and dialogue into stories, or imagine the backstory that could transform an ordinary exchange into an extraordinary.
I would adore it if someone would be willing to write the actual music to go with Katie’s lyrics. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you give it a shot.
Ray is most definitely a modern day Cupid and a hopeless romantic. He’s going to be appearing in more Special Investigations Case Files to help people find their happily ever afters. He is poking both Katie and Ben so that neither of them will end up with unsaid regrets. And because, frankly, it’s the only way two people who avoid commitment will find one another.
Patrick is a more elegant version of my uncle. He’s protective, but also respectful. My uncle is more of a flannel shirt and pizza kind of guy, whereas Patrick knows (and appreciates) the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $500 bottle. Physically, I based him on Idris Elba’s character in Molly’s Game. Because any time you can include Idris in a romance novel, you should do it.
Since I gave Katie and Aggi such an awful maternal figure in Bernice, I wanted to make sure they had a decent paternal one in Patrick. He cares about them both a great deal. From the biographies I’ve read, the people who do the best in show-business are the ones who have a Patrick in their corner. There are too many people who want to take advantage of performers, who will tell them whatever they think the star wants to hear. They need someone who is grounded, and who will tell them the truth.
Of all the lyrics I put together for this book, the ones in this chapter are my favourite:
Is there room inside a heart scarred by time?
Were you lost to me before you were mine?
The ghosts of your past have built you a wall.
I’m shouting your name, but you never call.
Please let me inside, just give me a sign.
She broke your heart, but don’t shatter mine.
It’s a heartbreaking plea and I love it. I might end up writing a whole story around it at some point.
My dad is the one who used to tell me about not getting upset about discarded effort. That a sculpture should be judged as much by the pile of chips as the finished product. The story Katie tells later on is one that he used to tell me.
“When you think about kissing him, is it a yes or a no?” is a tribute to one of my favourite teen hood movies, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, where Helen Hunt’s character asks Sarah Jessica Parker’s to consider the following about the cute guy they’ve met: “Whenever I’m alone with a guy, I ask myself: if we were the last two people on Earth, would I puke if he kissed me?”
It’s time to address the elephant in the room. This was entirely subconscious on my part, but I decided to keep it as a nod to my geek roots. I am a huge Marvel Comics fan. One of my favourite comics is JMS’s run of The Amazing Spider-Man (if you haven’t read it, it is wonderful and you absolutely should. It takes the classic Spider-Man mythology and runs in an entirely new direction, has tons of snarky, funny dialogue, and some heart-breaking moments), Spider-Man’s real name is Peter and the murder of his uncle Ben is what launches him on his path to superherodom with the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing.
My hero is Ben. The death of his brother, Peter, is what launches him on his path to herodom.
I didn’t exactly mean to do it when I was picking out names. For character names, I usually use baby name sites or IMDB (you can get some awesome names scrolling down the crew lists). I roll a dice to give me the first letter and then I search until I find a name that I like and haven’t used before. However, I can acknowledge that I was probably subconsciously attracted to that particular combination of names.
This chapter also has another jacket moment. Ben’s not wearing it but he still feels the weight of it and his brother’s memories. However, the weight has eased enough that he made a pain-free comment about how his brother teased him. But he’s not ready to talk about it.
The whole “heroes don’t retire, they get early funerals” is a theme I’ve seen in some of my favourite series. Self-sacrifice is highly elevated in our society, but it also has a devastating impact on those left behind. (And no, I’m not against heroism.) As a society, we sometimes put a lot of pressure on grieving friends and family to not show their pain because it diminishes our ability to celebrate the self-sacrifice. I think we need to acknowledge both.
This plays out in areas other than life-and-death situations, too. Parents, especially mothers, are pushed to be constantly giving, to the detriment of their health and spirits. As a society, we’re not good at actually having a balance. Instead we teeter between extremes.
“What happens if the Director gets her because I selfishly focused on what I wanted instead of what she needed?” This is one of my favourite lines in the book and one of my “aww-hero-heart-eyed” moments. Ben is willing to put everything, even his own happiness, aside to give Katie what she needs. That, my friends, is the mark of a true hero. And proves that, as I said a few paragraphs ago, I’m not against heroism or self-sacrifice. This is one of the key factors for a happily ever after in my mind. The other person’s happiness and needs have to be important or else the partnership is never going to work. The flip side is that one partner can’t be constantly burying their own needs and happiness either, because that’s going to be just as bad.
In my research, I found out that a lot of songwriters have favourite instruments. Playing that instrument is like comfort food and a teddy bear, all rolled into one. I played guitar when I was a kid and did not fall in love with playing it, but I’ve always liked string music. It has an evocative quality that brass or woodwinds can’t match. There’s a reason why moralistic groups singled out the “devil’s violin” or the “devil’s guitar” or even piano as music that leads listeners astray. Being unable to resist a pun, strings resonate with us.
The interview that Katie thinks about in this chapter is the one with Brandon Lee included as bonus content in the movie The Crow. He talks about the limited and finite nature of life and only a few weeks later, was killed in an on-set accident (or murdered, if you believe the conspiracy stories). The Crow is one of my favourite romances. I count it as a happy ending because Eric and Shelley are together at the end and his love for her is what drives the plot.
And I’ll finish off with another question I’ve been asked: why do I include masturbation scenes in my romance novels? It’s a simple answer, it’s something that the majority of people do and I don’t like that it’s treated shamefully. Fantasizing and self-pleasure are normal. And I will always find it more believable that a heroine who can give herself an orgasm is able to have an orgasm when she’s with the hero. I also believe that a person who can self-pleasure is less likely to get caught up in toxic relationships. Orgasms are a very powerful reinforcer and if you believe you need to be with another person in order to have them, then you’ll put up with a lot of crap.
OMG! Him leaving the bracelet and note at that moment is creepy as hell, isn’t it?
Points to the observant! Ray did assign Katie a ringtone and it is one of Aggi’s songs, Watch the Claws.
And I will never apologize to anyone for my love of petty jealousy and using it as a motivation. Come on, who doesn’t want a hot love interest to charge through a building, only thinking of protecting you?
One more little reference in this opening. Sadistic stair climbing trainers is my little nod to Kitty, one of the all-time awesome badass heroines, from Gini Koch’s Alien series. I had one of those sadistic coaches in high school and it ended my participation in gym class for all time. Kitty kept going and became awesome. Ben kept going and became awesome. I still think stair-climbs are a form of torture and should only happen in Hell.
Fun facts from local law enforcement. All the high end locks in the world will not make a lick of difference unless your frame is reinforced as well as your door.
And a pet peeve of mine, when fictional law enforcement goes into a house/room/warehouse and doesn’t identify themselves. That’s part of the whole not-getting-shot-at protocol, not to mention letting victims know that help has arrived.
For the curious, Orlund deliberately left Katie’s door unattended to lure the Director out. He wants the Director to have access to her in the mistaken belief that it will make it easier to trap the unsub. He cares more about catching the Director than he does about Katie’s safety and that’s why he’s not the hero of this particular story.
Bernice’s comment that the tennis bracelet should be a compliment is one of those political, social, and generational divides. On the one side, those who consider sexual assault and unwanted contact to be a serious issue. On the other side, those who think it’s an over-reaction. The other side also tends to insist on a “bad things only happen to bad people” and “sexual assault doesn’t happen to good girls” mentality. I fall on the serious issue side of the matter and it drives me nuts when people dismiss it. Unwanted gifts, attention, and contact are not compliments and you are perfectly within your rights to be pissed about them.
A big thank you to the books and people who explained profiling to me. I’m sure I still made mistakes, but I appreciated it. I believe people really do show you the truth about themselves by where they choose to put their efforts. They can lie with their words, but actions define who a person is.
“The sexual tension between you two is worse than season five of a will-they-won’t-they sitcom.” In Ray’s case, his words actually do define him. I loved this line and I’ve been waiting awhile to give it to the right character. I’m glad it finally found a home.
The five women who were killed, but not staged, by the Director failed his honesty test. They pretended to remember him and lost their chance at his “immortality.” Delving into thinking like a psychopath was a pretty scary research process. This particular bit was inspired by the medieval witch tests, where if you passed (not a witch), you died, and if you failed (witch), you died. Not a great system.
Ben broods a lot about the parallels between him and Orlund, worried he’s crossing the line. In my experience, this is something that only good people (or at least good-intentioned people) do, though it often causes them a lot of stress. It only takes a few points of difference to transform actions from understandable to unacceptable. Orlund and Ben are both driven, get-the-job-done types. They both had relationships with women who were being targeted by a serial killer. Ben cares more about keeping Katie safe than he does about catching the Director. Orlund cares more about catching the Director than he did about keeping Ashley safe. That’s the point of difference and that’s what makes one of them a hero and one of them a bad guy.
This chapter is pretty much my tribute to The Gift of Fear. When your instincts are telling you that something is wrong, then screw social expectations and potential embarrassment. Get the heck out of the situation and then figure it out later. Even if it turns out later that you made a mistake, that’s okay. Because you listened to your instincts, and you feeling safe is not less important than someone else’s convenience.
I’m proud of having Aggi call it out when Orlund uses a slur. It’s not easy or comfortable to point out hateful speech, but it needs to be done. The more it’s challenged, the better the world will be.
The song title of Raise Your Right Hand (And Rule The World) was based on my admittedly hazy memory of a diamond advertisement. The left hand rocks the cradle, the right hand rules the world.
I was surprised to learn how energized performers are by being onstage. It’s a solid endorphin high that leaves them jazzed afterwards. Some performers find healthy outlets for it and some, not so much. But it is one of the reasons why many of them end up using drugs. They need to sleep, so they take a pill (or pills) to sleep. Then they’re groggy and need another pill to wake up. Or they want to ride the high longer, so they use drugs to keep it going. It takes a lot of discipline to be the one saying no.
Having Ben check the driver is a nod to another favourite movie of mine, Undercover Blues, with Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid. “People in a hurry never look at the driver.” And it’s true. Once you get used to being driven, drivers are invisible. People rarely think to check before they’re already stuck inside the car.
I’ve got no problem with women deciding they want casual sex as a physical release. Or men either, for that matter. As long as everyone knows what’s going on, and it’s very clear that this is not a relationship, then I don’t see that it’s anyone else’s business.
The reactions that Katie mentions (guys getting threatened, trying to regain dominance) are ones that friends of mine have experienced. These are wonderful, confident, sexy women and there are some guys who can’t accept that and need to try and destroy it. Those guys are called jerks.
Katie’s story about the predatory producer is depressingly common in the entertainment industry. The casting couch is still an open secret and women who don’t submit can find themselves blackballed as too difficult to work with. It’s completely unacceptable. No one should ever be forced to choose between their dignity and career.
Her refusal to allow him to corrupt her sexuality is based on a survivor I read about who said she wouldn’t allow her rapist to take any more of her life. I want everyone to be aware that this is an unusual emotional reaction and usually only possible with an incredibly strong support system. No one should be shamed for how they react to an assault. Whatever they are feeling is what they’re feeling and should be respected.
Having a heroine who liked and wasn’t ashamed about sex was a big part of what I wanted to create with this book. In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, women weren’t allowed agency in terms of their sexuality (at least not in fiction), hence the prevalence of the rape tropes in romance. Because if she was saying “no, no, no” but then went on to have sex anyway, then she was still a “good girl” and a worthy heroine. The fact that the readers devoured these books tell us that the trope worked. Personally, I think it’s because they wanted to read about women having sex and falling in love, but there are different theories about it.
Romance novels shifted, becoming bolder and more open as the years progressed. Some of it was very hard won against editors and publishing houses who wanted to stick with “this has always worked before” and who were afraid of alienating the readers. But romance authors stuck to their guns and insisted on diverse characters, normalizing condom use, normalizing digital and oral sex, insisting on the heroine’s orgasm coming first, and giving the heroines more agency.
In romance, as in society, sex still tends to be led by men, and allowed by women. Much more enthusiastically than before, but the male character still tends to initiate. Now I’m seeing more and more romance novels where the heroine is the one who initiates, who has the condom, and who openly discusses what her needs and preferences are. I’m pleased to be a part of that movement.
One of the areas I wanted to be sure I didn’t overlook was her making sure to get his consent. We have a tendency to assume all guys want sex all the time with whomever will give it to them, but this is a harmful toxic masculine stereotype. Guys deserve to give enthusiastic consent just as much as everyone else.
Ben’s improvised alarm is one I used as the mother of a newly mobile toddler with a talent for opening doors and baby gates and who had a determined interest in exploring. It allowed me to sleep at night.
My personal rule of relationship thumbs: anyone you spend the night with should still be happy to see you in the morning. If they’re not, that’s a problem. So naturally, Katie and Ben are both still falling in love with one another in the morning.
I wanted to do a riff off the typical “a relative walks in to sex aftermath and immediately starts to freak out” scene. Having Aggi walk in and then give a thumbs up and offer to order breakfast was a lot of fun to write.
One of the things I adore about Ben is that even when he’s consumed by thoughts of Katie, he still puts her safety first. Protecting her is always his first thought. I love the protective hero trope in romance and I think Ben is a fantastic example of how to be obsessively protective without tipping into controlling abuse.
This chapter is where the cat comes out of the bag for the smoothies. At first, I intended for the smoothies to be an over-the-top diva thing, much like how Catherine Zeta-Jones treats Julia Robert’s character in America’s Sweethearts. But then I realized they could be more than that. Katie is used to doing things on her own and making things easier for her sister. She is the one putting that burden on herself, not Aggi. This scene became the moment where Katie starts to realize that she can trust the other people in her life, not shoulder the burden single-handedly.
The talk between Aggi and Kati about dealing with a loved one’s addiction is one I was proud to include, but it is a heartbreaking topic. Realizing that a loved one is no longer in control and that protecting yourself means no longer helping them is an incredibly difficult decision. Addicts are very good at manipulating, lying, and making those around them feel guilty. If someone in your life is struggling with addiction, please don’t hesitate to ask for help and support.
Touring is how most performers make their money. They only get a small fraction of the proceeds from album sales or downloads (unless they set up their own production company, something most new artists can’t do, even if they’ve had a few hit albums). Touring is incredibly demanding and difficult and many artists can’t handle the schedule. But getting paid to perform each night is what pays the bills.
Those who have read my books know that I have strong opinions on how best to support people going through difficult life transitions, such as divorce, deaths, loss of jobs, etc. Most of the common reactions are designed to make the speaker feel better, not the person dealing with grief. It means that those already struggling are isolated or forced to perform according to an arbitrary social standard. Please don’t ever tell someone that the horrible things they’re dealing with aren’t that bad, could be worse, or are a part of a plan. Those are all incredibly hurtful things to hear.
For the curious, yes, it was Orlund who ordered two doors unlocked at the concert, giving the Director access. However, the Director could have easily done it himself as well. Writing this book made me aware of how often we take information for granted.
The sharp-eyed will notice Ben’s abrupt transition from Katie’s suite to the elevator. That is because the Director was waiting in the hallway, breaking Ben’s memory. I was actually pretty pleased with how this scene played out because I think we’ve all had automatic pilot moments like that, so it’s not immediately obvious that something sinister has happened.
Ben’s urge to rush back is partly his protective thing, but it’s also a subconscious instinct because he knows something is wrong. As I said earlier, a big theme in this book is learning to listen to your instincts and not letting social fears place you in an unsafe situation. Since Ben has been trying to hold back on his instincts, he doesn’t listen to them. And he should have.
This chapter is the first time that Ben calls the unsub “The Director”. It’s proof that he’s no longer objective and clinical. He’s involved now, regardless of how things turn out and what choices he makes. He’s past the point of no return.
If anyone thinks that a person couldn’t possible react the way that Razel does, then sadly, they will find plenty of proof on social media. People who ask for help with suicidal thoughts and depression are told they’re worthless and should kill themselves. People who have been assaulted are accused of lying. Experts who have spent decades on research are told that they’re part of conspiracies because someone has decided a blog post is more authoritative. The fact that Razel is willing to spew her venom face to face is unusual, but still not particularly uncommon. The lack of compassion can be incredibly discouraging and is one reason why I’m very careful with my social media. I know I wouldn’t cope well with that kind of toxicity.
Writing Katie’s reply putting Razel in her place was very satisfying. Like most people, I can’t think of things in the moment. Writing lets me always have the perfect comeback.
“How can I look at a person and not see them?” “It happens every day.” That exchange is still gives me goosebumps. He’s right there! And no one saw him.
The description sweep is a technique I saw in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and I found it very effective. Here’s the passage again with the relevant part in bold. “A low beige couch and sofa in the center of the room, a narrow desk against the wall, a man standing by the door, inoffensive paintings of cityscapes on the walls, and the long sweep of the floor to ceiling windows. Nothing out of place.” The eye tends to skip over descriptions, so readers miss it even though it’s right there.
Katie’s decision to record the conversation is one of my “Go, girl!” moments. She finds a way to fight back without putting herself in further jeopardy. And on a serious note, if a person is dealing with an intimacy-seeking stalker, then playing along with the fantasy is most likely to keep them alive. When the fantasy is disrupted, the stalker is more likely to get violent. You should still try to escape if you have an opportunity, because staying in their control is also likely to end badly. But you’re more likely to get that opportunity if you keep your wits about you.
A villain who isn’t acting villainous makes the contrast with their actual evil more shocking. One of my favourite Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s villains was the Mayor, from season 3. He was calm and cheerful and could be really nice, until he was about to kill you. He was completely amoral, but didn’t get power trips from intimidating people. He was fine with being underestimated, because it gave him more opportunities. I didn’t want Walter to be the same nostalgia-obsessed fellow, but I knew I wanted him to be mild and insidious. He’s got no reason to posture. He knows he holds the power.
This letter was inspired by The Phantom of the Opera, specifically the song “The Music of the Night.” I used to listen to the music long before I saw the stage show, so I had made up a story to fit the music. I thought “The Music of the Night” was at the end of the story, when Phantom is trying to persuade Christine to stay. (Of course, I also thought she did stay with him, which is why I was surprised at the actual ending.)
This is the second time that Ben charges to Katie’s suite in order to rescue her, so I needed this one to be different from the first. There are more people involved and so he doesn’t get the alone moment with her that he did before. But I think they’re both still powerful scenes.
There are two schools of thought on when the best time is to interview a witness. On the one hand, giving them something concrete to do can help to calm them down (this is one reason why the cops often ask parents of missing kids to write down lists of everyone the kid knows. The information is helpful, but it also gives the parents a specific task.), and generally, the fresher the memory, the more accurate it is. But, there’s a caveat. Adrenaline distorts how we remember events and the stories we tell about what happened can replace the actual memory. There’s a rather famous case where a man insisted he’d walked up to a mugger and shot him, but video footage showed that the shot had been a wild one, fired from a distance. He passed a lie detector test and genuinely believed his own account.
Ray smiled like a cat presented with a roasted canary dressed in catnip. I love this play on “the cat who swallowed the canary” cliché.
There is something very therapeutic about finally not giving a crap and saying what you think to someone who has treated you badly but refused to acknowledge it. Most women I know have had the “this is enough” moment when dealing with smug, arrogant men. Sometimes the actual trigger isn’t particularly big, but it’s enough to unleash a lot of pent up frustration.
Lots of people talk about evoking memories with scent. I have no sense of smell (it’s a born without one kind of deal), so I find my strongest memories are associated with music. I was delighted to discover that several famous performers share my quirk. Music is a powerful influence in our lives, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it can take us through time and reunite us with people and moments long lost.
Sadly, there is no Sharps and Flats magazine. In the interest of not getting sued, I made it up.
Katie’s moment of sympathy for Walter’s circumstances was always going to be short-lived. Most horrible people have some kind of tragedy in their past, but it doesn’t excuse what they then choose to do. I think it’s important to know what happened so that we can work on avoiding creating monsters in the future, but surviving abuse doesn’t give anyone a license to hurt others. That said, shunning and isolation are devastating tortures that can and have broken people’s minds, so it’s not surprising that Walter is not psychologically healthy.
The phenomenon where people tend to dismiss the impact of their own actions, while also ascribing sinister intent to those who hurt them is so common that it appears to be part of human nature. It takes special training and constant practice to recognize the hurt we cause without trying to diminish it. The less empathy a person has, the harder it is for them to recognize the impact of their actions. This doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person, but it can be help to remember when facing someone who doesn’t see any point in making sure that other people don’t suffer the way they did. Aggi’s story about the music producer is based on what happened to Taylor Swift. She successfully sued the man who grabbed her ass.
“That’s why I hate charity events. The causes are great, but the actual events are mostly rich people wanting up close contact with famous people.” This line is a nod to one of my favourite Angel episodes, “Blood Money”, where one of the bad guys comments that charity is all about rich people paying to touch famous people.
For the curious, the song that Katie puts on to block Walter from listening in is the Kalakan Trio, a group from the Basque region of France. Their music is both catchy and soothing. I first heard them on Madonna’s MDNA tour. They did a fantastic version of “Open Your Heart” with her.
I deliberately chose not to include sexual assault as part of the Director’s signature. What he does is horrible enough. And I’m not a fan of throwing rape casually into a story. It can trigger survivors and it’s honestly overused.
Having people underestimate Aggi and showing them how wrong they were was fun. She’s a smart businesswoman who is thriving in an incredibly competitive industry. Of course she’s got helpful insights. Studies have been done showing that people consistently underestimate a blond woman’s intelligence, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. One that sticks out for me is they had a broken down car at the side of the road. If a brunette stood beside it, those who pulled over tended to assume a mechanical failure and offered to call for help. If the person was a blonde, more people pulled over but would ask if she’d run out of gas.
Ben’s reaction to Katie laughing at Ray’s joke is actually unusual. Most guys are threatened if their girlfriend laughs at another guy’s joke. Provoking humor is actually one of the non-physical ways that guys challenge each other. Being entertaining is a way that a less physical guy can gain status over the beefcakes, so it’s often viewed with suspicion.
Those who have read my Lalassu series will remember that the bad guy, André Dalhard, was a siren, able to change your mind with a touch and a suggestion. Personally, I think spectres are scarier but sirens would be more dangerous.
This chapter was another big part in showing Katie as a sex-positive heroine. I was very lucky to have a friend who didn’t care about socially-imposed giggles and embarrassment and who would happy take the rest of us to sex and lingerie shops which were not skeevy places. It was a transformative experience to be in a place where the reaction to sex wasn’t “Eww (shame)” but rather “let’s make sure you’re satisfied and comfortable with your choices.” I think every person should have that. It makes you less susceptible to assholes trying to play on your embarrassment.
I’m also a big believer in giving teenage girls the opportunity and toys to give themselves orgasms. Like Katie’s mom, I think it protects them from chasing orgasms with inexpert boys and from tolerating bad behaviour from their sexual partners.
Bernice was perfectly willing to go through with her threat. The Director has been monitoring Katie’s phone and he removed the video from Bernice’s phone because it didn’t fit the narrative. That’s why Bernice’s blackmail threat doesn’t surface.
And I’ll finish with another of my relationship rules of thumb: when you ask for what you need, if your partner’s response isn’t “let’s figure out how to get that for you” then there’s a problem. You shouldn’t have to justify or feel guilty about asking for what you need. If there are conflicting needs, then that’s a discussion. It shouldn’t be one partner laying down the law. So Ben immediately agreeing when Katie asks for privacy, even though she knows he hates being out of sight from her, is a sign he’s a good guy.
There is a fine line between checking in on people and annoying the crap out of them by forcing them to constantly report on their emotional condition. Especially when they’re already dealing with a high-stress situation. Personally, I find “what do you need” is a better question if you want to be supportive.
This is the big moment when Ben finally lets the painful memory of his brother go. He gives Katie the jacket (yay, symbolism) and tells her how Peter died.
I based Ben’s reactions on biographies and articles from first-responder survivors from 9/11. Some of the families expressed anger: X always had to be a hero and now X is gone. Some siblings or children joined fire or police departments to honour the memory of fallen loved ones. Losing a hero can make for a complicated emotional reaction.
Sadly, this is also the moment that breaks Lucy’s heart and where she realizes that Ben will never feel about her the way she does about him. But she will get her own, even better, happily ever after, I promise.
And yes, webcams are incredibly easy for hackers to gain access to. That’s why mine is covered with a sticker. It’s low tech, but it works.
For the record, physical violence in response to a crude comment is never appropriate. However, I will always cheer when I read about Ben’s fist plowing into Orlund’s face. Dude totally deserved it. (It’s wrong, but satisfying.)
The Director is starting to get unhinged. His language gets more dramatic and grandiose. Those are signs of an unraveling personality. He also refers to the conversation he just overheard. He’s confident and taunting them.
Having just said that I find Ben punching Orlund to be satisfying, I now have to get back to reality and admit that if it happened in real life, I would be worried and annoyed. If a guy can’t control his temper when everything is riding on the line, then that’s not a great relationship sign.
This is actually something I went back and forth on whether or not to include. We’re used to seeing dramatic violence portrayed as a positive. I’m a huge comic book movie and action movie fan and both of those genres definitely equate violence with excitement. But that kind of explosive reaction is also one of the warning signs for an abuser.
After much talking with my critique partners and brainstorming buddies, I decided to include a plotline where Katie gets progressively more and more uncomfortable with how Ben is acting. Because while I enjoy these high-action storylines and emotional character arcs, I think it’s also important to include reminders that this is not the kind of behaviour that anyone should be looking for in a romantic partner.
The skinny kid at reception for Lioness Studio was inspired by the memoir Never Say No To A Rock Star. The recording studios can be very high energy and the stars can be very demanding. The staff can be expected to fill some pretty unusual requests. For the record, I don’t support drug use and I don’t buy the “it’s what I need to be creative” excuse. But it is a part of music culture and pretending otherwise was more fiction than I was willing to commit to.
Exploring the different ways that people write songs is actually pretty cool. Some performers start with the music and add the lyrics after. Some start with lyrics and then find the melodies. There are “song factories” where artists can buy songs that they can then write lyrics to. Most of the time, a person is usually good at writing lyrics or at writing music. For someone to be able to do both well is actually fairly rare.
And a final thought on songwriting. The ability to write one’s own songs is usually one of the factors that allows an artist to have a long career vs a one-hit-wonder one. If studios lose faith in someone who is solely a performer, that person can lose access to the songwriters they would need to continue. If a performer can also write songs, then there’s a chance they can get back in by presenting those songs to the studio. There are exceptions. Celine Dion doesn’t write any of her own music, but most of the “great” bands and singers include at least one songwriter.
“Are you being an ass because you’re under stress, or is the stress letting your natural ass-ness shine through?” I love this line from Aggi and I think it’s one all concerned third parties should ask about their loved ones’ relationships. People are not generally at their best under stress, one of the reasons why I think it’s important for couples to see how their prospective partners manage stress before they commit. This is honestly more of a philosophical question: are you a good person behaving badly or is your behaviour revealing you to be a bad person?
It’s possible for bad people to do good things. It’s possible for good people to do bad things. The tipping point where enough bad actions pile up to make someone a “bad” person is subjective and each person has a different definition. There are some actions which will always tip a person into the bad category, no matter what else they’ve done, at least in my opinion. There are some things which can never be erased, though I would give credit where it’s due if someone was making a genuine effort at redemption and making amends.
Throughout this whole story, we’ve seen Katie protecting Aggi. This scene was my opportunity to show that it goes both ways. Otherwise, I think Aggi would have come off as a grandiose diva despite my efforts to show more depth to her character.
For all of the problematic behaviour that Ben is showing, he is asking the right question. He’s not denying the impact of his actions and he’s asking what he can do to make it right and then he’s doing it, even if it makes him uncomfortable.
There is a fine art to provoking criminals into making mistakes vs pushing them into doing something violent to their victims. It’s not always predictable, which is why professionals are cautious.
And we have another jacket moment! Ben’s rapidly moving through processing his grief and fear. Katie going to karaoke is not the same as Peter charging into an unstable, half-demolished building. But Ben is taking action, not feeling helpless and that’s more than half the battle.
Fun fact, raspy voices like Rod Stewart’s, or Bonnie Tyler’s are actually signs of severe damage to the vocal chords. It’s a sign the performer has pushed their voice when they should have been resting it. For those for whom it becomes a signature, they’re in a constant balancing act of being on the verge of permanently losing their ability to sing. Since I found that out, it’s definitely made it harder to listen to them. It’s like watching a version of Hamlet where people are actually being stabbed at the end scene. The damage is real.
The memory that Aggi shares about being on the road is my example of how two people can grow up in the same household and share the same events, but have vastly different experiences. We did a lot of long road trips in our family. I liked them for the most part. My sister hated them. The things I liked were intolerable to her. It doesn’t mean that I have to feel bad for enjoying it, but I can’t tell her that she must have had fun just because I did.
Chorus Karaoke and Café is a real karaoke bar in San Diego. Lots of fun, if you get the chance to go.
Ben’s story about Delacroix’s background should make The X-Files/Mulder inspiration even clearer. Though I was a big Mulder/Scully shipper back in the day, I always suspected that she would eventually get tired of constantly taking second place to chasing conspiracies.
The incident with the creep offering to help Aggi with show business was inspired by a tweet from actress Chloe Bennet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) about how a guy stopped her on the street to tell her she was pretty enough to make it in films and TV. He then offered to take “tasteful” pictures for her portfolio. Obviously he didn’t recognize her, but the sleazy approach is real and one which is disturbingly common.
His retort about Katie and Aggi being modern women who don’t need to beg permission from a man is based on another real life experience. I went to the bank to deal with some things and the person I was dealing with kept trying to push me into upgrading our account. I asked for more information, got a pamphlet and said I’d talk it over with my husband and we’d decide (since it was a joint account). He pulled the “didn’t take you for a woman who had to ask a man’s permission” garbage and I immediately asked to see his manager to file a complaint.
As I explained in the commentary for Chapter Twenty-Three, I wanted Katie to be a sex-positive heroine, one who enjoys sex and isn’t ashamed of her sexuality. It was nice getting to wrap up the spat between Katie and Ben so they could make love again. Before I dump the next round of problems on them.
I’ve painted Orlund as a villain for most of the book but I wanted a reminder that he’s not an entirely bad person. His moral structure needs some serious renovations, but he’s not evil. His apology to Katie is a way to remind us all of that fact. However, he’s not willing to change his behaviour, which means it’s not much of an apology.
In this chapter, Katie demonstrates my favourite technique for dealing with belligerent assholes. Keep asking them questions in a calm, rational voice. Force them to actually explain why they want you to do certain things, to put their bullying views into words. It’s surprisingly effective, if you can keep your temper.
For the curious, Orlund is feeling triumphant as he leaves Katie’s suite because he’s fairly certain that he can goad Ben into doing something which will give him an excuse to send Ben back to Denver. And the reporters were lured to the hotel by the Director, so that he’d have cover to sneak up to Katie’s room.
We’re getting close to the final confrontation and the mask is off for the Director. All he cares about is getting what he wants.
Love drives people to do extraordinary things, and push themselves beyond their limits. Another nod to a favourite movie, this time The Legend of Tarzan. Seeing Alexander Skarsgard as the title character is worth it and Margot Robbie as Jane is a kick-ass heroine. When kidnapped she tells the bad guy that an ordinary man will do extraordinary things to save the woman he loves. Followed up by “My husband is no ordinary man.” I do truly believe that love makes us better than we were before, whether that love is romantic, platonic, or familial.
There’s still a fair chunk of story to go, so Ben and Katie aren’t ready for their emotional ending as yet. He’s decided that he loves her but she’s not quite on that page yet. It’s painful when you love someone and they like you, but aren’t quite in love with you. It feels like it should work, but it doesn’t. There’s too much potential for hurt and pressure in the emotional mismatch.
I’ve known couples who claimed to love each other deeply, but their love was always as much drama and conflict as passion. I don’t think that’s healthy. It’s not sustainable and being continually in the throes of agitation means both partners are much more likely to say things that will have a long-lasting impact. Katie’s parents were passionate, but not mature enough to be in love. It drove her mom to reject marriage and her father to pick an insincere woman who told him what he wanted to hear. Neither of those are great role models, so it’s not surprising that Katie is skeptical about long term relationships.
Logically, we all should be skeptical. The odds seem so astronomically against love and happiness. Half of all marriages ending in divorce. And even those that stay married aren’t necessarily happy.
But even though the odds are not in our favour, I think it’s worth the gamble. It’s why I write the stories that I do.
Fun fact: adrenaline does make it harder to process information and create long term memories. This is why assault survivors can have a hard time remembering inconsequential details (such as tablecloth colours, or the name on the building). When adrenaline fills the brain, certain elements are carved in stone, but things that are not central to what’s happening are discarded.
The article that Katie remembers is a Reader’s Digest article from my childhood, where a woman was kidnapped and held in a cell for months. She only ever saw her kidnapper’s hand, shoving food through a slot. She would talk about her family when she heard footsteps. Gradually he brought her other things, a camping mattress to lie on, a tattered paperback to read. Eventually, he let her go. Just opened the door and let her walk away. She didn’t know why he had kidnapped her (later she found out her family was sent a ransom demand, which they refused to pay) or why he’d let her go, but she thought it was because she became a person in his eyes.
The Director isn’t interested in people, though. Only his own interpretation of them. Figuring out why someone might follow this kind of path was a dark and depressing research rabbit hole. Neglect and abandonment would exacerbate any sociopathic tendencies. He would need to also be a narcissist, unable to see others except as they relate to him.
There was some inspiration from Mr. Glass’s character in Unbreakable and Glass. Disgusted with his own vulnerability, he sought out someone who was his physical opposite. Walter chose something similar, seeking out those who make disproportional impressions in life.
Fun fact: it can take more than 90 minutes to show signs of a concussion. If you’ve been hit in the head, get yourself checked out.
The EMT in this chapter is indeed one of the lalassu, and a siren. I wanted to show someone who wasn’t caught up in the investigation. And also remind readers that supernatural powers don’t automatically mean someone is a monster.
It would be awesome if searches worked the way they do in this chapter, but real life searching is much more complicated. There are very few centralized databases, which means checking a bunch of smaller ones. However, in the interest of narrative expediency, I’ve allowed this flight of fancy.
Vivian’s death is the one that set the Director’s pattern. As much as we’d like to believe that we don’t judge by appearances, we do. This appearance means this, that appearance means that, when it fact, appearance doesn’t guarantee any particular character or social traits. It’s an interesting facet of social interaction.
I debated how much detail to go into for the Director’s staged scenes. It’s macabre, but I think there needed to be some detail for the reader, without going into sickening possibilities. I hope I’ve found the right balance for people. I learned more than I wanted to know about how to pose bodies.
In speaking with a former RCMP officer (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, our federal law enforcement), he once explained that chasing a challenging or long-running case can end up creating an emotional high. Everything gets focused, then it gets solved, there’s a huge rush… and then a disappointing aftermath. Everything gets a little smaller, emptier, and less interesting. Until you find the next case.
People sometimes tend to forget that celebrities are people, too. The incident in the hospital was inspired by stories about Brittany Speirs and Lindsey Lohan, who had public breakdowns which were recorded and shared by fans. I also found a lot of heartbreaking stories in Wil Wheaton’s blog, about how adult fans of Star Trek treated him when he was just a child. Other people’s pain isn’t entertainment and everyone is entitled to say no when asked to do something for someone else.
It’s not impossible to manufacture a car accident as I describe in this chapter, but it would be pretty hard and it likely wouldn’t be worth it. There are much easier ways to hurt or kill someone. It’s narratively interesting in fiction, but too complicated for real life.
If you keep on reading my books, you’ll discover I have a whole “causality does not imply responsibility” theme. Just because an action triggered someone else to do something bad does not mean the initial action is solely responsible for those actions. People do need to be aware of the impact of their actions and choices, but (to pick an example out of the air) rejecting a man who then goes on to kill someone in his rage is not the fault of the person who did the rejection.
As I describe in Katie’s reactions, grief is tricky. There’s no correct way to process the death of someone you knew. If you feel relief, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Victims can be devastated when an abuser dies. Or they can feel free. Or they can feel both, depending on the moment and the mood. Or something else entirely. There’s no right way and the way someone is experiencing grief has nothing to do with the depth of their feelings toward the deceased or how worthy the deceased is of being grieved.
My editor didn’t think it was possible for Katie to not recognize her own song (Right From the Start) but I stuck to my guns. She’s written a lot of pop songs, which means she’d be used to hearing her own music on the radio. And it’s not just Aggi who performs her music, so she’d be used to hearing different people sing them. I read an interview where one of the Bee Gees talked about absently singing along with a song he’d written, without realizing he was the one who’d written it until halfway through. Granted, that was a song which he’d written decades earlier, but I’m going to maintain that with Katie distracted and overwhelmed, it’s entirely possible. If I’m wrong, I’m sure people will let me know.
There is a belief in popular culture that serial killers always have a very rigid M.O. and never deviate from it. This isn’t true. There are elements that a killer will re-use again and again, if given the opportunity, and those elements are what investigators call the signature for the killer, allowing them to identify a murder as being done by a particular unsub. But they are not necessarily locked into those elements. Several killers have claimed that they varied their M.O., making it impossible for law enforcement to track them. (This should be taken with a grain of salt because serial killers are known to lie about their total number of victims and how those victims died.) The Director changing his M.O. is entirely possible, but it is a dangerous sign because it shows he has less control and makes him less predictable.
I use a lot of Moby Dick references. I’m not sure why. I actually despise the book and the movies (even the one with Chris Hemsworth). But it is such a perfect pop culture metaphor for someone who is obsessively pursuing a goal and is destroying everything around them. If you want to learn more about 19th century whaling techniques, then the book has them nicely categorized for you. But if you want to watch a giant, sea-borne monster eating people, I’d recommend Godzilla or Jurassic World instead.
Razel confronting Katie in the hospital is just one more real-life inspired example of celebrity press treating their subjects as entertainment rather than human. Paparazzi filmed Princess Diana’s dying breaths, they have barged into the homes of grief-stricken parents to demand quotes. It really is despicable in my opinion. A study once showed a high level of sociopaths among Fortune 500 executives. I’ve wondered if we would find a similar concentration in the paparazzi.
Another point of contention is about Katie having recorded her heartbreak song when she never intended for anyone to hear it. I have word docs with scenes that I spent a lot of time writing but have no intention to let anyone read. They’re strictly for me. I have a friend who has a private portfolio of drawings that she does when she needs to work out her feelings. Prince had an entire collection of hundreds of songs he’d recorded and never released. If the art is how you cope, then you’ll use it even if you also make a living at it. Just because an artist feels a need to create something doesn’t mean they intended to share it. Sometimes, it can be private.
This is a shitty time for Ben to be pushing Katie for answers. I get the uncertainty and difficulty, but demanding an extended commitment when she’s struggling to deal with all this stuff show a real lack of consideration.
One of the other big things I wanted to have in this story was a positive and powerful sibling bond. I also wanted to show the other rich and meaningful relationships besides romantic attachments. There is a bit of a trend for the romantic relationship to be the only significant one for the main character. A character will abandon everything in order to be with their love interest. Except that’s not really healthy. We have lots of meaningful relationships.
Aggi and Katie are sisters in the best sense of the word. They shared an upbringing. They are emotionally close. They’re friends and business partners. Katie can never be separated from Aggi without cutting off a huge part of her life. That’s worth celebrating just as much as an HEA.
As for Aggi’s library, I’m sure there will be some protests about it. It was inspired by a friend of mine’s library, one with several thousand CDs. My library holds thousands of books, hers has music. They’re both valid and both perfectly fine, in my opinion. The description of the room is based on her ideal, a quiet room looking out over an ocean beach with everything optimized for the perfect sound.
Speaking of protests, I also am expecting protests because Katie says that a cute, intelligent guy with mind-blowing sex skills isn’t enough for her. But here’s the thing: if he can’t respect and support her, it doesn’t matter how many other check marks he has, it’s not gonna work. Yes, Ben will get there eventually because he’s a romantic hero, but until he does, it’s not a done deal.
Every villain has to monologue eventually. Even an epistolary one. It’s just the rules.
One of the more eye-opening facts I discovered in researching this book was how much work goes into an “overnight” hit. It’s actually kind of surprising that the industry is ever able to pull it off. An overnight hit is different from a cultural phenomenon, which can grow more by word of mouth. Once I found out, I knew I wanted to use it as a major plot point and share it with my readers.
The discussion on how the entertainment market is inherently conservative applies to books as well as songs. The most popular options gain greater visibility, making them more popular and driving demand for similar works. This can work to exclude many stories and authors. There isn’t necessarily bad intent (though there are plenty of examples of active prejudice as well) but it creates an obstacle nonetheless. Seeking out new authors and different stories helps those authors and stories to gain visibility. Same for music and performers.
Ray’s little speech about being the modern embodiment of Cupid cracks me up every time. And it contains a nod to the inspiration for his character, Tom Ellis’s Lucifer. The name Lucifer means “bringer-of-light” and in some versions of the Judeo-Christian mythology, he’s more of an investigator than a tempter. It’s his job to expose the sins of the guilty, to ensure that the guy who thinks he’s soliciting sex from a child is actually talking to an undercover cop, or that a company which has embezzled from their pension gets audited. I’ve always frankly felt more comfortable with that version than with the idea of a God of Evil, which raises uncomfortable questions about why a good God would tolerate such a thing.
The Twin Horseshoes Ranch Family Fun Fair is based on a local co-op’s annual fair. (Local to me, not California). Sadly, ours is not on a ranch, but that would be pretty cool.
The transmitters in this chapter are real things that you can buy if you want. Something which tracked her position like a GPS would be vulnerable to the Director hacking it. But a proximity transmitter works by maintaining contact with a base unit. If it loses radio contact, it alarms. It is vulnerable to jamming, which is why Ben insisted on five of them, on different frequencies.
The story of Katie’s first guitar was inspired by hearing several musicians talk about picking out their instruments and the importance of playing it before choosing. Shiny doesn’t always equal satisfaction.
For those wanting to know more about Molly and John’s torrid affair… you’ll just have to imagine the details.
If someone grabs you, they have forfeited mobility. That gives you options. My karate teacher taught me that if someone grabs me by the hair, crush their knuckles against my skull. It hurts, but they will let go.
The eagle eyed will note that the description of the attacker does not match Walter’s. Katie is able to remember him and what he’s said, also different from Walter. I’m still pleased by how many readers have told me that it comes as a complete shock that this is not Walter! That means I did my job well. And if you saw through it, good for you. Have a reader star sticker.
For those who want a fun trail down paranoia nostalgia lane, the inspiration behind the van kidnapping scene is the trip for you. My parents were paranoid about kidnappings (we weren’t wealthy or politically interesting, but they wanted us prepped for the stranger-danger) and taught us steps to take if we found ourselves locked inside a trunk. Including how to disable and possibly pop out the tail lights. When I had my own kids, I mentioned this to a cop friend. His response: they don’t put people in the trunk anymore. They’re more likely to knock them out with drugs. So there you go, one of my childhood skills rendered completely obsolete.
This is quite possibly the sweetest thing I have ever had a hero do. Having Ben fall asleep by Katie’s bedside, holding her hand while waiting for her to wake up is one of those heart-eyed smile moments for me. I love it as an expression of caring and true love.
The lines “I knew you’d come for me” and “I’ll always come for you” are nods to a song that helped to inspire this story: Nickelback’s “I’d Come For You”. I’m with Katie, nothing sexier than a guy willing to tear the world apart to get to his love.
Katie’s concerns about a life-and-death relationship not necessarily translating into an every day relationship are my own pragmatic concerns. An intense situation like dealing with a catastrophe or threats will show you a lot about a person, but that doesn’t mean you can work things out together long term. It’s why I like epilogues for thrillers and action-adventure. I want to know the happily ever after is going to last.
Stories had endings. Life didn’t. I think those two sentences sum up the conflict between my romantic optimism and my practical cynicism. Stories can trust because they end. Life needs a little more work. I think it’s important for stories to acknowledge that. And then give everyone happily ever afters anyway.
Having the Director’s fingerprints and DNA match, even though he is, in fact, still alive, came from an observation when I was looking through security databases. Most security depends on matching an unknown (a fingerprint from a crime scene) with a known record (a fingerprint on file from an arrest). If the known record is altered, either deliberately or by mistake, the whole thing becomes useless. It’s why I’m less impressed with how fast a search is than by how secure the database is. A fast search is useless if the data being searched is corrupted.
“Do you know the difference between the romantic hero who pushes through all obstacles, and the controlling bastard who won’t take no for an answer? The outcome. That’s it. The controlling bastard becomes an abuser, and there’s no way to tell which one is which from the start.”
Sadly, Ben is right. Too many people learn this the hard way, which is why I think it’s critical to address in romance novels. If someone is not accepting your boundaries and insists on controlling every aspect of your relationship, that’s not good. That’s abuse. Please seek help.
“I am not skilled in romantic relationships. In my opinion, they are dangerous, causing a disproportionate amount of trouble for the level of emotional satisfaction.” As I’m sure many readers have guessed, Sam Adler will be the heroine of the next Special Investigations Case File. She’s going to learn why the math of relationships works better than it should.
Adler’s analysis of Ben’s emotional state is spot on. A lot of guys fall into this trap. Because they’re not socially encouraged to form emotional attachments, they often end up with one relationship that is supposed to manage all of their emotional needs. (This is usually their romantic partner, but sometimes is a sibling or roommate.) If that relationship ends, the guy has a very hard time finding anyone else to fill it. Ben only had Peter and when his brother died, he’s been living in a void ever since.
Switching over to Katie and Aggi, I was very proud to give Aggi her post-breakup moment about Trevor. It’s hard to break off a not-quite-good-enough relationship when you don’t believe it’s really possible to have a satisfying one. It’s easy to stay lingering in the “it could be worse” mindset and even though the day-to-day is grinding away at your soul, it’s gradual enough that it’s become your normal. It takes courage to break free from that. Every person deserves a wonderful relationship that makes them feel great instead of one that makes them feel like less.
My celebrity powers were useless! I love this line.
Totally terrifying. Writing this guy gave me nightmares.
For all that the Director is scarily organized, he’s still driven by his obsession. If he was willing to stop killing, he could have escaped without any further consequences. But because he can’t let go of the obsession, he’s going to lose everything.
I studied the poem Ulysses in university and included it here primarily because I’m a classics nerd, but also because it does evoke the tragedy of outliving one’s own legend. The Greeks did have an attitude that someone who dies at the pinnacle of their success got the best possible life, because they never had to life with failure, but it was more like the “well, your loved one is in Heaven” comfort that is offered in our culture. It was meant as a way to reassure those left behind rather than an endorsement for murder.
“I’m not one of those frightened fools who surrender to the bad guy because he threatens the people around them. You’re one man.”
If an attacker tries to get you to subdue yourself (eg. tie yourself and others up), that is the equivalent of being taken to a second location, one where they have all the control. Your best chance at survival is to defy them before you reach it.
Ben figures out the notes are fake because he knows Katie well enough to pick up on the little incongruities. That’s proof enough that he knows her well enough to be in love. At least in my opinion.
Having Katie make a mark each time she reads her own warning is a nod to the scariest bad guys ever to come out of Doctor Who, the Silence. Like the Director, when you looked away, you forgot them.
Katie is playing a very dangerous game in this chapter, pretending to cooperate enough to keep the Director soothed while still maximizing her chances to get away. It took several rewrites before I found the right balance.
It should go without saying but I would not include actual instructions on how to buy illegal drugs within a novel. So there are deliberate misleads here.
When I originally was coming up with the idea of using a song to lure out the Director, I wanted to use Madonna’s The Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You. But copyright laws wouldn’t let that happen, so I had to create my own.
I used the Hotel Del Coronado as my inspiration for the final confrontation hotel, but didn’t name it because they probably would not appreciate being referenced. It’s a lovely place and well worth a visit if you can.
Like most fans, his criteria appeared to be influenced primarily by whether or not he liked the work, and how much it followed what he wanted. She’d given him exactly what he’d asked for, and he naturally found it amazing.
I’ve found that this applies to a lot of different fandoms. People want official stories to match their own impression of the characters and plots. Personally, I think that’s why we get so many origin story reboots. It’s a safe story to tell the fans.
For those keeping track, this is Ben’s third door that he’s broken down. It would be enough to cause permanent damage in a lesser man, but he’s a romance hero, so he’ll be fine.
To anyone who doubts that a full volume soprano couldn’t throw off a gunman’s aim, all I can say is that you clearly never participated in choir practice.
Ben doesn’t shoot the Director. That was another deliberate choice on my part. On TV and in movies, cops are far too quick to shoot their weapons, when most cops go through their careers without firing a bullet.
Choking injuries are extremely serious and the damage isn’t always immediately obvious. If someone has choked you, please get a doctor’s help as soon as possible.
Figuring out how to resolve Ben and Katie’s career conflict took me awhile. Until I remembered that people can be good at something but it doesn’t mean that they enjoy it. Ben was good at being an Investigator, but it wasn’t a passion the same way Katie’s work was her passion.
That’s the end of this story. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you’ll come back for the next Special Investigations Case File.