The Keeper of Secrets

Escape from Reality Copyright © 2017 Toby Bain

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, without permission from the author.


Dear Reader,


Welcome to Escape from Reality. Thanks in advance for taking the time out of your day to read this offering.

Escape from Reality is three novellas, each weighing in at a minimum of 27,000 words.

Adventures of a Reluctant Bounty Hunter (29,000 words approx.) chronicles the tales of Emmerlich Day and the dangerous task that falls into his ungrateful lap.

Black Ghost: Public Enemy No1, two, and three (28,500 words approx.) is a light-hearted and often dramatic chronicle about the birth of a self-serving superhero who is not quite the apple of the public’s eye, but who serves and protects the very people he loathes.

The Keeper of Secrets (31,000 words approx.) is a mystery and suspense thriller centring on Tammy-Jo Emhart’s discovery along the banks of the Mississippi River, which unlocks the demons hidden deep in not only her life, but the lives of others.

Please note, as an indie writer I have a very small team of proofreaders and editors. They are great, but there may well be the odd mistake. However, there comes a time when you just have to publish. The great thing about eBooks is that nothing is set in stone. Mistakes can be corrected. Therefore, if you come across anything, let me know and I will make appropriate corrections.

I especially welcome emails and endeavour to reply to all of them. Get in touch by emailing [email protected].

Visit my website for FREE stories, news and information about upcoming releases. Moreover, if you’re into opinionated fiction writers, read my blog.

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Happy reading!




From the author

One of the best and worst things about being an indie author is involving myself in every aspect of the publishing process. Stories like this are a major upside. Is The Keeper of Secrets a suspense story, crime drama, or a crime thriller? You make the choice. I call it a mystery with elements of all the above.

Every now and again, you have to discard your own rules. That sort of flexibility works better as an indie author. For instance, this story was originally going to be written in the usual British English. However, I decided to change things up a little and do something different from the other stories in this trilogy.


As this story is set in Mississippi, I thought it best to use my limited knowledge of American English. I hope my American and British friends forgive any faux pas.

If you like the story, spread the word. #TKoS

Happy reading


Chapter One

Secrets. Tammy-Jo Emhart was reminded of them whenever the soft placid sheet of the Mississippi River came into view. She saw them in her own reflection too. She often mused at the similarities between the water and people. On the surface, we strike a calm pose to the outside world.

What great actors we are!

We create a dormant façade to mask the secrets and desires lurking beneath the surface.

It didn’t matter that the bright face of the sun beat down, reflecting off the river’s corrugated face. This soothing veneer only masked the tumult lurking underneath. Catfish, mouths perpetually open, seek dragonfly larvae and water beetles, whilst other species similarly use instinct to feast and survive.

Oh, how alike we are.

Low tide exposed the damp, muddy banks of the river. In a few months, the nights would roll in early and high tide would sweep its dark cloak over 3,700 kilometers stretching from Wisconsin to Louisiana. It went to places she had never been, would probably never go to, except in dreams or nightmares.

Tammy-Jo Emhart lowered her binoculars and leaned into the metal barrier that stretched in a low arc across Woodland Hills Bridge, meditating on her warped reflection in the water.

She was explaining this to Emhart, explaining there was little difference between the river and people. Though his eyes were locked onto hers, there was little recognition his ears were doing the same. He had little to contribute except monotone grunts of ‘yeah’ and ‘hmm’.

A vehicle whistled by, tooting its horn impolitely at the morning as it headed over the bridge, leaving Woodland Hills stacked with electronic goods covered beneath a tarp. For Emhart, it was an opportune moment, breaking the spell of words. He twisted away from the sun, away from Tammy-Jo and gazed longingly after the pickup truck.

Tammy-Jo planted hands on hips and glared at Emhart. ‘You having an affair?’ she asked in that harsh Mississippi tone she adopted just for Emhart. ‘I can easy fix you up a divorce.’

‘Sleepy Joe?’ Emhart pulled a face. ‘You know I only got eyes for you, honey.’

‘Just you remember that. There’s a helluva lot less room inside Sleepy’s place than at the house.’

He stroked her shoulder tenderly yet guardedly, like one would to calm an antsy Rottweiler. ‘We done yet?’ he asked. Emhart’s voice was always soft, as if in constant peacekeeping mode.

‘I guess one of us is,’ she said, brushing him off.

‘C’mon baby, how much longer we gonna do this?’

The question was fair considering they had been up since dawn, to the sound of grasshoppers feeding in the pines surrounding the trailer park. Her silent reply irritated him. As she knew it would.

Emhart asked again. She deflected his words by scanning the river and its glistening banks. All looked the same. Another day had changed nothing. It all seemed like a waste of time to Emhart. She knew better. As she always did.

Her husband asked again.

‘Go home,’ she snapped. ‘If you like walking, that is. Or else wait for your boyfriend. If y’all are lucky there’ll be room in the back of Sleepy’s pickup. If not, then there’s always his lap.’

She had little recollection of Sleepy Joe returning, or of Emhart slipping onto the back of his pickup as it headed across the bridge into Woodland Hills. By this time she had seen the object, and every neuron within her fired up with a strange brew of dread and excitement.

Something had escaped the clutches of the dark water and was nestled on its damp slope. Oh, how she wished Emhart were here. That she hadn’t driven him away like she always did. For she was alone. Tammy-Jo didn’t deserve to be alone.

A low barrier at the end of the bridge protected a sharp slope leading to the banks of the river. She scaled the obstacle, the deathly hush broken by the plop of feet landing in slick mud. After an uncomfortable glance across both shoulders at the empty road, she scurried down the slope, forcing herself to glide to a stop a few feet short of the water.

A waterbug skittered along the water’s edge with boastful dexterity, spiderlike legs leaving a trail of corrugated puddles. Tammy-Jo took a step back, steadying herself as though on some invisible tightrope. When she wasn’t bolting from them, insects around Tammy-Jo often ended up as homicide victims. This one escaped. As the reverberations on the water faded, she focused on the item laying a few inches from her entrenched feet. It was a library card. She knew this before she’d used her thumb to scrape the sticky mud from its plastic surface. Time had smoothed the black ink from the card, making name recognition impossible.

The 1,100 residents of Woodland Hills had the privilege of proximity to the Mississippi River. This came with benefits and drawbacks. Folks from neighboring towns upstream often tossed debris into the river, echoes of their indiscretions vibrating all the way down to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

Often it was candy wrappers and plastic bottles caught by the mud on their sinful journey. Not usually anything personal. Tucking the library card in her jeans pocket, she retraced her steps to the center of the bridge, where her black Ford Explorer awaited. For some strange reason, now she had that library card, Tammy-Jo no longer felt alone.

‘Why so excited?’ he asked. ‘Ain’t no hundred dollar bill.’ Emhart sat on the low couch, ass almost to the floor. He cradled a fishing rod that stretched across the width of the trailer. Played tag with the wall. Evidently, he cared more than he let on, for he added, ‘Guess it could’ve been much worse.’

A man of few words, Emhart subscribed to Tammy-Jo’s notion that the job of a wife is to talk and the job of a husband is to listen. The library card was on the side table. Emhart listened as Tammy-Jo’s fertile mind examined the possibilities stored in a rectangular piece of plastic the size of a credit card. There were the remnants of a first name on it. Beginning with the letters D-A. Dakota. Daniel. Daniella. ‘It’s from Woodland Hills Library,’ she said.

‘Well ain’t that something,’ answered Emhart with more enthusiasm for irony than the caress of Tammy-Jo’s hand on his cheek. ‘People lose stuff all the time. Like I said, could be worse. Anyhow, I’m gonna stop going to the river. It’s doing us no good.’

Her soft caress morphed into a meaty slap. The type of sharp crack any whip would be proud of. His cheek bloomed red.

‘Emhart,’ she said crossly. ‘You will come to the river and you will like it.’ She was once told by her mother she had two settings: hyper and hypersensitive. She planted a reconciliatory kiss on his wounded cheek. ‘What plans you got today, Emhart?’

Emhart followed her gaze, giving the shoebox of fishing bait by his feet a reproachful look and turning away quickly as though its rainbow of feathers revolted him.

In response, he lifted the fishing rod, tickling the far wall. A loud toot vibrated inside the trailer’s thin walls. Emhart shrugged Tammy-Jo from his side. ‘That’ll be Sleepy Joe. We’re off to Homochitto.’

It would have been too easy to accept those words, let them pass through her. However, Tammy-Jo believed that in order to solve the problems of others you shouldn’t ignore them. For too long in his 28-year-old life, Emhart had let his fires burn out too quickly. The idea of having his own fishing website and making his own bait, bait that had caught him the biggest catfish this side of Biloxi, was a good idea. A damn good idea. The lull in business was down to his lack of drive. Had Emhart been a bible salesman, Christianity would be on life support. Bottom line: he lacked fortitude, needed a woman to guide him.

‘You can’t give up now,’ she urged. ‘Business is ten per cent product and eighty-five per cent marketing. You just gotta plan your work and work your plan.’

‘We can’t all be like clinical, methodical, Tammy-Jo,’ he replied. Then he began to laugh. ‘You never were good at math. What about the other five per cent?’

‘Oh, that’s luck,’ she said flippantly. ‘But I figure you’re shit outta that. Point is, if you don’t work on your idea, someone with bigger balls will.’

Emhart thought about this for a few seconds. Then gave his standard reply. ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘You been working this business for just two months.’ She held up the prerequisite number of fingers. ‘A business is like a relationship. You gotta put the work in. And what about the house? It won’t decorate itself.’

Emhart had the concentration of a fruit fly. He followed whatever distraction lay in front of him. She wasn’t sure exactly when this previously endearing quality had become a maddening liability. As Emhart opened the flimsy trailer door, she said, ‘Don’t a wife get a goodbye peck from her husband no more?’

‘You already did.’ The door slammed shut.

‘Call that a kiss,’ she whispered to herself. ‘Anyhow, I kissed you. That don’t count.’

Tammy-Jo Emhart was nothing if not consistent. At dawn the next day she was at Woodland Hills Bridge, staring solemnly into the unassuming water and scanning its banks. She hadn’t expected to find anything two days straight. Life wasn’t supposed to work that way.

Emhart spotted it first, nestling on the banks of the river, all innocently minding its business.

It was a Mississippi driver’s license with a Coffeeville address. In the name of David Dean Cody. The inset photo depicted an old man frowning into the camera, as if just informed the Ole Miss Rebels had lost.

Emhart made to toss it into the water. Tammy-Jo grabbed hold of his arm. Something about the hard muscle in those biceps got her weak at the knees. Emhart retained a balance between muscular and athletic without being a walking advert for steroids.

‘First two letters of his name match,’ she said, excitement building. ‘This could be our library card guy.’

Holding her attentions off, Emhart turned the license over. ‘This don’t mean nothing to us, Tammy-Jo. Then again, you gotta wonder how it got here.’ He frowned at his own error. ‘I know I’m too late to say it, but I take that back. Let’s not even think about how it got here.’

Too late.

Puzzles and detective shows were Tammy-Jo Emhart’s passion. In her younger days she spent hours in a state of hypnosis beside the TV, watching reruns and solving fictional crimes alongside TV sleuths. She played endless puzzle games with a slow, ancient laptop. She turned it on when she awoke to let the boot process take hold while she washed and dressed.

Puzzles were one reason she became a volunteer police officer with Woodland Hills Police Department. The other reason was she had time on her hands. These days a successful internet marketing entrepreneur needed just a couple of hours a day to keep business ticking over.

It hadn’t started like that. Hours were long, money was scarce. Eventually, her idea of cooking and promoting healthy southern food to the world took off. Two years, a website, online TV shows, and several books later and she was making serious cash. It had gotten to the stage where just one blog post, one online TV show a month, and two recipes a week were enough to earn a full-time wage.

Truth be told, she got bored easily and was constantly alert for the next challenge. The next challenge had found her. Someone was missing a library card and a driver’s license. Maybe, just maybe these weren’t the only things missing.

Emhart scoffed at the ID. ‘These days,’ he said, ‘an ID means nothing. I got me a Tony Stark license, complete with a picture of Iron Man. The internet is a dark place, Tammy-Jo. It sure ain’t all sunshine and slugburger recipes.’

‘Quit bein’ ugly,’ she retorted, snatching the card from his grasp. A life spent playing too many puzzles and watching too many detective shows had caught up with Tammy-Jo Emhart. Now she had the chance to do two things: solve a puzzle and satisfy her curiosity.

Maybe David Cody was missing. Maybe he had lost his license. Maybe he would reward its safe return. Emhart perked up at the sound of a reward, then warned her the cost of going up the I-55 to Coffeeville wasn’t worth the gas.

‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ she said.

Later that morning, her black Ford Explorer cruised up Main Street. The spine of Woodland Hills was a wide lazy boulevard sprinkled with all the usual appendages to small-town life: the Baptist church, auto parts and repair store, meat market, convenience store and of course the library. From outside appearances, it was no more than a lavish red-brick house, its sloping roof held into place by a sentry of white pillars. Inside, Woodland Hills Community Library looked every inch a century-old building. The sculptured metal ceiling, oak trim and period lanterns giving the impression of stepping back in time.

A solemn librarian – Mindy Massey – turned the library card over in her palm suspiciously.

‘Police business,’ said Tammy-Jo.

Mindy Massey smiled. ‘Why didn’t you say?’

‘Didn’t think I needed to.’

Mindy Massey beamed from ear to ear. ‘You on a case, Tammy-Jo?’ Undaunted by the lack of a reply, Massey added, ‘C’mon, I won’t tell nobody.’

Tammy-Jo smiled sweetly. ‘Papa always said to me, “Tammy-Jo, don’t be fixin’ to be no princess when there’s a vacancy for queen.” Mama, she was a real charmer, she said, “Tammy-Jo, don’t be thinking you silk when the label says cotton”. You get my drift, Mindy?’

Mindy Massey looked at her quizzically. Tammy-Jo folded her arms. ‘Mindy, you’re a damn fine librarian, and when it comes to drinking and cussin’, you’re mighty good too. You just ain’t no liar, bless your heart. Telling you anything is like putting an advert in the paper. Stick to what you do best. Find out who this card belongs to.’

The librarian shook her head as though shrugging off her confusion. With raised eyebrows she explained that the library card was out of date and hadn’t been renewed. With a stunning lack of enthusiasm, she admitted any further investigation would involve trawling the archives. A feat she wasn’t qualified for and could not be done until a colleague returned from vacation.

‘Guess I’m just cotton after all,’ said Massey as Tammy-Jo left.


She met Emhart at high school. For years she never knew he existed. He just seemed to materialize as an eleventh grader; but she knew he’d been there all along, like high school mascots, Friday Night Lights and the cheerleading squad. Things you don’t notice until you took notice.

He had this way about him, later she would call it ‘aloofness.’ She began to notice Emhart always sat at a table on his own. Yet he looked perfectly at one on his island. Later, there would be two or three others and the loner was a little less alone.

No-one knew much about him, which added to his aura. Anonymous guys like him didn’t run around bragging about which member of the cheerleading squad they got to third base with. They knew how to be discreet because they were born with a closed mouth.

Tammy-Jo, being a cheerleader at high school, knew all about discretion and lack of it. Most other cheerleaders liked the ‘bad boy’ types, so it was strange that the cheerleading squad captain and most popular girl had decided to keep the at jocks arm’s length. She could choose any guy she wanted. She picked Mr. Aloof himself.

However, despite his aptitude for discretion, she approached dating with a level of circumspection bordering on paranoia. In her own time she would let him get to second base, third base, and maybe home plate. This would be done within a carefully constructed timeframe that coincided with their last days of high school.

Clinical. Yes.

Methodical. You betcha.

Guys, she knew, have attention spans as long as the average football game. Give away the goods too soon and you no longer have their admiration or attention.

Therefore, Tammy-Jo not only kept her figure lithe and curvy while at high school, she kept her virtue. All the while soaking up the admiration of men both married and single. It kept Emhart on his toes. Stoked the inner fires he hid so well on the outside. However, in her heart, it had always been Emhart. He was a pleasant contrast to those jocks and their boasting.

He’d captured her heart by being himself, by not trying too hard. She would always remember that about him, for memory is a highway, the events in life signposts. Tammy-Jo’s was strewn with Emhart’s name and the many unexpected and tortuous ways he influenced her. In her quieter moments, she wondered, given all that happened, if she should have chosen a jock after all.


If you want to read the rest of this story, [+ visit Amazon+] and buy Escape from Reality, a trilogy of anti-hero novellas.

The Keeper of Secrets

‘The Keeper of Secrets’ (31,000 words) is mystery and suspense thriller. When Tammy-Jo Emhart discovers the driver's license of David Cody in Woodland Hills, along the muddy banks of the Mississippi River, her curious nature takes over. Where is Cody? What happened to him? As Tammy-Jo investigates, the secrets of the past are uncovered. But she's getting too close for the comfort of some. Will Tammy-Jo survive long enough to uncover the truth? Or will the deadly secrets she tries to reveal remain hidden forever?

  • Author: Toby Bain
  • Published: 2017-02-15 13:20:10
  • Words: 3403
The Keeper of Secrets The Keeper of Secrets