Christy Award–winner Giorello arrives with the fifth in the Raleigh Harmon series, (after The Mountains Bow Down) which brings some closure to angst the protagonist feels about her mentally ill mother and overbearing fiancé. FBI agent Harmon, who was disciplined for stealing evidence, tries to redeem herself on assignment, but is forced to live a double life as she goes undercover in a horse race–fixing scandal. When horses die at the race track, she learns that the death of the animals is only a by-product of a more evil plot. Special Agent Jack Stephanson appears to play a lesser role, but the reader finds out he’s with Raleigh in ways she never imagined throughout the story. Giorello’s writing is poignant, concrete, and humorously descriptive yet sincere: “Crabby from salt bloat and layers of big fat lies, I grabbed my purse from the Ghost and stomped toward the track’s private entrance.” Research on geology, horse racing, and law enforcement, is vividly on display throughout the story, adding to Giorello’s reputation as a pro and a shining star. Agent: Brian Peterson. (July)
Sent undercover to a thoroughbred horse track, Raleigh takes on a double life to find out who’s fixing the races. But when horses start dying and then her own life is threatened, Raleigh realizes something bigger—and more sinister—is ruining Emerald Meadows.
She’s never felt more alone.
Her one contact with the FBI is Special Agent Jack Stephanson, a guy who seems to jump from antagonistic to genuine friend depending on the time of day. And she can’t turn to her family for support. They’re off-limits while she’s undercover, and her mother isn’t speaking to her anyway, having been confined to a mental hospital following a psychotic breakdown. Adding insult to her isolation, Raleigh’s fiancé wants them to begin their life together—now—precisely when she’s been ordered not to be herself.
With just days left before the season ends, Raleigh races to stop the killing and find out who’s behind the track’s trouble, all the while trying to determine if Jack is friend or foe, and whether marrying her fiancé will make things better—or worse.
Raleigh is walking through the darkest night she’s faced, searching for a place where the stars shine bright.
. . . gifted novelist . . . more than once I found myself awed by her vivid word pictures.
. . . creative descriptions . . . authentic dialogue . . . she has that certain X factor . . .
Special Agent Raleigh Harmon (The Mountains Bow Down) has been suspended by the FBI and needs to redeem her career. Her chance comes when she goes undercover to determine who is fixing races and killing off thoroughbreds. Being separated from her family and friends could not have happened at a worse time. She's not sure she can trust FBI Special Agent Jack Stephanson, Plus, her fiancé wants to marry immediately and she's not sure it's a good idea. VERDICT Featuring grit and lots of action, Giorello's latest Raleigh Harmon thriller is a sure bet for romantic suspense fans who enjoy Irene Hannon or Lynette Eason.
"FBI Special Agent Raleigh Harmon has been suspended. She seizes the opportunity to redeem herself when the Seattle office sends her on an undercover assignment to find out who is killing horses and fixing races at Emerald Meadows. Cassandra Campbell’s gentle voice vividly projects diverse characters of varying ages. She successfully changes pitch and vocal tone to portray a variety of situations—Raleigh’s troublesome relationship with her fiancé, her concern over her mother’s nervous breakdown, and her determination to solve the case at the track."
G.D.W. © AudioFile Portland, Maine
Read an Excerpt
The Stars Shine BrightA RALEIGH HARMON NOVEL
By SIBELLA GIORELLO
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Sibella Giorello
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe glass skyscrapers towered over Puget Sound, like crystalline prisons for office slaves. I stood at the corner of Third and Madison and watched the hurried workers, toting their Starbucks and battered briefcases, while down the hill, between the city's steep reflective walls, a basin of salt water sparkled under late-summer sunshine. Puget Sound looked dappled and calm, nothing like the busy people. Nothing like the emotions warring inside me. And nothing like the woman who walked beside me, gripping a strand of pink pearls.
"Don't do this," said Aunt Charlotte. Her pudgy fingers worried the silken beads. "Come work in my shop."
"It won't help."
"I'll pay you double minimum wage."
I waited for the crosswalk light to change. Hurry up. The breeze tunneled through the buildings, bearing scents of wet salt and city pavement and the close of summer. A city bus wheezed to a stop on Madison and belched diesel fumes before releasing more serfs. They lurched out, sighing like pneumatic doors.
I glanced at Aunt Charlotte.
She had switched the pearls to her other hand, presumably because her fingers were fatigued from all that rubbing. It had started early this morning, when she told me I needed some geological magic to save my job. I looked back at the light. It refused to change.
"I'm fine," I told her.
"I'll send you to all my rock shows," she said. "You're a geologist—they'll love you."
I was a geologist, a forensic geologist, but I doubted the poor souls attending Aunt Charlotte's rock shows would love me. They were wannabe celebrities, pop musicians, New Agers all of them, believing Charlotte Harmon when she said malachite could enhance their visionary powers. That marble kept time with the earth's internal clock. That pearls provided clarity and wisdom.
My aunt was the most loyal of relatives, and she was a total kook.
The light changed, I stepped off the curb.
She hurried beside me. "You're afraid, I can feel it."
"No," I lied. "I just want my old job back."
"You're in denial. And who wouldn't be, with what you're facing?"
A sarcastic Thank you perched on the tip of my tongue. But we had now reached my own urban prison. Nine stories of pale steel, the building stood at the corner of Third and Spring with its cross-hatched architecture looking as unfriendly as graph paper.
"Take the pearls," she said.
But she had already shoved the strand into my shoulder bag and was gathering me into her arms, squeezing tight. Plump and warm, loving and lost, Charlotte Harmon was one of the world's all-time great huggers. I breathed in the last of her patchouli scent.
Then I turned and walked away, without saying good-bye.
* * *
At the guard's desk inside, I flashed the credentials that identified me as a Special Agent for the FBI, rode the elevator to the building's top floor, and headed straight for the receptionist who sat behind the largest console desk. She wore the blank mask of the dedicated assistant.
"Raleigh Harmon," I told her. "I have an appointment."
She pressed a button on her phone and spoke into the tiny headset receiver wrapped around her ear. Her controlled contralto was barely audible from two feet away, and the mask betrayed nothing as she listened to the response. Then she pushed the button again.
"They need a few more minutes," she said. "Please have a seat."
I nodded, as though agreeing. But I bypassed the leather club chairs and stood at the elongated windows that framed the view of Spring Street. Down below, pedestrians were bent at the waist, trying to climb the hill's forty-degree angle. They looked snapped in half, and I felt a pang tingling across my abdomen. Sympathy? Or maybe self-pity, if I were being honest.
I heard a door open behind me.
Don't look desperate.
The middle-aged man stepping out wore a white oxford shirt. Starched, but wrinkled around his waist, as though the meeting had gone on for hours. He nodded at the receptionist, but when he looked at me I couldn't read his eyes. The sunlight from the windows was flashing across his wire-rim glasses, turning the lenses opaque. He walked quickly to the elevator and pushed the down button. Twice, hard.
"Agent Harmon?" The receptionist's voice sounded almost tender. But maybe I was imagining that. "You may go in now."
The elevator dinged like the bell announcing the next round of a boxing match. The man in the wrinkled shirt stepped inside, then turned to face me. His mouth tightened as though he had tasted something bitter.
* * *
The Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle field office had the best view in the building, naturally. But the chief had positioned his desk so that his back was to the window. When I walked in, he stood and placed a hand on his red tie. To his right, another man waited. He was leaning against a matching cherrywood console, his red suspenders flecked with small oily stains. Allen McLeod. Head of the Violent Crimes unit. My direct boss. Or so I hoped.
The SAC kept one hand on his tie, leaning over the desk to shake my hand. "Raleigh, good to see you again."
The SAC had a spare and focused gaze, the expression of someone who realized anything could go wrong at any moment, and who was already working out various contingency plans.
I took the chair directly in front of his clean desk. The seat was warm.
"OPR was just here," he said. "They wanted to make sure I understood their concerns about you."
OPR was the Office of Professional Responsibility. The FBI's internal affairs unit. They had opened a file on me. In June. Right after I stepped off a cruise from Alaska.
"They're discussing your situation with the SAC in the Richmond office. Victoria Phaup?"
I nodded. Phaup was my boss in Richmond, Virginia.
"She's recommending a full suspension for at least six months."
No real surprise. Phaup had spent several years riding her broom over my career. We had disagreed from the start, and at one point she transferred me from Richmond to Seattle, a disciplinary transfer that first introduced me to the gentlemen in the room. And now I felt a prickle of sweat on my palms. And because I needed my job, I slid the receptionist's bland mask over my face.
"But," the SAC said, glancing at McLeod to his right, "Allen has been vigorously arguing against such stringent disciplinary action. He wants to keep you with us, Raleigh. And he insists a full suspension would force you to leave the Bureau altogether."
He waited for me to say something, and I stared at his blue shirt, waiting for the correct words to come. The shirt was starched, of course. The stainless appearance reminded me of an elegant tablecloth, the kind that made red wine bead up and roll away without a trace. He continued to wait for my response, and I decided my words would sound defensive, almost petulant. Seven weeks ago, the FBI had suspended me without pay. I had moved in with my aunt Charlotte and was struggling to pay for groceries and the gasoline needed to drive her old diesel Volvo to the state mental asylum that was holding my mother. My mother, who had lost her mind on the cruise to Alaska. My mother, who learned I was lying to her. My mother, whose paranoia now convinced her I was the enemy.
Somehow, I doubted the SAC would understand any of that. His honed appearance told me he didn't make mistakes. He followed the rules. And because I needed my job, I defaulted to my Southern upbringing.
"Yes, sir. I'm sure Ms. Phaup did recommend that."
"She also wants OPR's investigation extended. She's asking them to look at full termination." He waited for me to respond. "She sent OPR documents from your Richmond cases. All your cases, with field notes. She says there's a pattern of behavior here."
"No, sir." Something cold settled over my shoulders. "No pattern."
"See?" McLeod almost sneered. "Those OPR jackals. You know how much they love dirt. They won't leave any bone unturned."
The SAC tapped a finger on the desk, perhaps registering McLeod's malaprop. "Allen tells me you're the sole income for your family. Is that correct?"
"Your father, he's passed on?"
"Correct." It was easier than saying, He was murdered.
"And your mother doesn't receive any other financial support?"
"Social security. As his widow." I paused, wondering how much he needed to know. And how much I should tell. "Most of the money goes to cover property taxes on her home in Richmond. And her medical care."
"I heard something about a nervous breakdown." He raised an eyebrow. "On the cruise ship?"
I gave a nod.
"About that ship," McLeod said, pushing himself off the console. "Don't forget what Raleigh managed to accomplish. How many agents could've closed that case—in four days? We had media calling coast to coast. The FBI put a movie star behind bars."
The SAC tapped the desk again. "You better hope the media never finds out how she solved that case."
Two days into the cruise, I realized a cold-blooded killer was traveling among us. Once we docked in Seattle, it would be almost impossible to track the case. But in my haste to find the killer, I "borrowed" several geologic specimens from a jewelry box. Without a warrant. Without clearance of any kind. I didn't follow the rules, and when the ship docked in Seattle, I had certainly pegged the murderer. But I had also opened the door for OPR.
"Raleigh, the FBI is like a family," said the SAC. "We have a code of honor. And when one family member breaks the code, it affects all of us."
McLeod leaned forward, straining his suspenders. "Families also take care of each other. So let's cut to the UCA."
UCA. We might be a family, but the FBI was also a train with boxcars of acronyms chugging through our vocabulary. UCA stood for Undercover Assignment.
"OPR is arguing against you taking this case," the SAC said. "They want to finish their investigation before we even discuss reassigning you. Normally I would agree. But Allen has pointed out they've already taken up almost two months and still don't have a resolution. Additionally, he says the UCA only has two weeks remaining."
"Plus," McLeod said, "Raleigh's the only agent for it. She's got all the perpendiculars."
The SAC glared at him. "Perpendiculars?"
"We need somebody who has no connections here. Somebody that won't get recognized at the racetrack. Even better, she's from horse country. Virginia. You can hear it in her voice."
The SAC turned to me. His narrow features reminded me of an arrowhead. "Raleigh, do you know anything about horses?"
But McLeod jumped in again. "That's her cover. The newbie. She's supposed to be learning the ropes from that woman."
That woman was an eighty-four-year-old pistol named Eleanor Anderson. She began calling McLeod back in April, sometimes several times a day, insisting that races were being fixed at Emerald Meadows, Washington's largest thoroughbred racetrack. The pattern went like this: Her horses would win for several weeks and become odds-on favorites. Then suddenly they would start losing and come down with an inexplicable illness that defied diagnosis. Meanwhile, certain long shots would start winning—until they became favorites and started losing, repeating the pattern all over again.
Somebody was getting rich playing the long shots. Eleanor Anderson suspected the Mob.
But when McLeod told her the federal government wasn't about to pay an agent to hang around a racetrack all day, Eleanor wasn't deterred. She kept calling and eventually offered to cover the costs of an undercover operation—provided she approved of the agent. McLeod offered me the job when I stepped off the cruise ship. But the assignment was revoked: OPR launched its investigation.
And Eleanor kept calling.
"It's all ready to go." McLeod lifted a manila folder from the console. "The whiz kids backstopped her identity. Raleigh Harmon is now Raleigh David. Rich girl from Middleburg, Virginia. Parents died ten years ago in a car crash." He turned to me. "And per your request, your alias is also engaged. Your fiancé is back home in Virginia. Just like real life."
I nodded. Please.
But the SAC had the cold water ready. "I don't see how Raleigh can get enough information in two weeks."
"That's where Eleanor Anderson comes in. She's asked her niece, Raleigh David, to come learn the horse business. She wants an heir to inherit it when she dies." McLeod offered me the file. "Actually, Eleanor's words were 'if I die.'"
Keeping my head down, I read through the false information while McLeod relayed more details to the SAC. Eleanor was providing a condo in Tacoma. And a vehicle. I would keep my FBI-issued firearm concealed at all times. And there would be no contact with the Bureau, except through my case agent.
"Jack Stephanson," the SAC said. "That's your case agent."
I looked up. "Jack—?"
"OPR wants him on oversight. He reported the incident on the cruise ship. They trust him."
I felt sick. Jack?
McLeod misread the expression on my face. "Don't worry. I already explained that your relationship with Jack is plutonic."
My tongue was made of lead. "Can't Lucia Lutini be my case agent?"
"Lutini's not a full agent," the SAC said. "She's a CPA who works profiling."
"But," McLeod added, "Lutini offered to get your UCA wardrobe." He stole a glance at my blazer and slacks. "She says you need the help."
I looked down at the folder's contents. Two keys. The condo, I guessed. And the vehicle. The driver's license for Raleigh David had my picture, staring back at me.
McLeod reached behind his back again, then held out a cell phone.
"It's not programmed like your agent phone. Your name will show on anyone's caller ID. So be careful phoning your case agent."
Case agent. Jack Stephanson. No. Please?
"One more item," the SAC said. "And this is nonnegotiable."
I couldn't breathe.
"As you're probably aware, undercover agents are required to have periodic psychological exams. We've had too many agents struggle with their double identity. Furthermore, OPR has pointed out that with your mother's condition, you should undergo extra visits with a psychiatrist."
I felt a humming sensation. It filled my ears. High and strained, it sounded like electricity getting ready to blow. Somehow I knew OPR would be checking the shrink's notes.
"Don't look so concerned," McLeod said. "Jack found a convenient shrink. You won't have to go out of your way."
I closed the folder. I tried to smile. The men waited for me to say something.
Finally, the SAC said, "You do realize, if you found actual hard evidence of race fixing, it would benefit you in other areas."
"Yes, sir." Success on the UCA would dilute, or even negate, any ruling from OPR.
"But," he continued, "you only have two weeks. And given the circumstances, it's doubtful your forensic geology will help you." He gave a tight smile, barely conciliatory. "As they say in horse racing, good luck."
I didn't believe in luck. But I also didn't believe in shoving my foot in my mouth.
Clutching my new identity, I stood to shake the SAC's hand. Then I told him exactly what he wanted to hear.
"Thank you for this opportunity, sir. I won't let you down."
Chapter TwoFour days later, I was already doubting my pledge.
It was Monday evening. The weekend was spent dutifully following Eleanor Anderson around Emerald Meadows. From the barns to the betting office to the private dining room. Shaking hands, learning names, cataloging potential suspects. And now it dawned on me that two weeks, minus four days, wasn't enough time to build a case.
OPR would win.
"I'm spending the night," I said.
"No, you're not," Eleanor said loudly.
I glanced over. We were walking down an empty backstretch under a dusky sky. The stars were just winking into view, that gentle moment of evening. Eleanor, however, was anything but delicate. Trained as a thespian, she still had a dancer's light step. But her actress voice always projected to the cheap seats.
"Go home!" she bellowed. "Sleep!"
I lowered my voice, hoping it would give her a stage cue. "Time's running out."
Excerpted from The Stars Shine Bright by SIBELLA GIORELLO Copyright © 2012 by Sibella Giorello. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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