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Review of Lost Witness in Midwest Book Review

Lost Witness

Laura Elvebak
L&L Dreamspell
Friendsville, TX
9781603181440 $17.95

Niki Alexander, counselor of runaway teens at the Open Palms Shelter, becomes involved in the investigation into the murder of a young woman from Mexico when Barky, a runaway, finds the woman’s body near a small boy hiding behind a dumpster. Barky, afraid he will be blamed for the murder, turns the boy over to Niki. The traumatized boy refuses to talk but connects with Niki and she is reluctant to hand him over to child protective services. Not long after he is placed with a foster family, he disappears and Niki, feeling guilty, is determined to find him. So are homicide investigator Luis Perez and his partner Nelson Spalonetti, who suspect the dead woman was a drug mule and that the small boy may have witnessed her murder. Niki turns to the street for answers to the boy’s whereabouts while peripherally teaming up with Nelson Spalonetti. As they follow clues to a case that becomes more complex as it develops, the attraction between Niki and Nelson heats up, as does the unknown danger awaiting them.

Lost Witness is Elvebak’s second thriller featuring teen counselor Niki Alexander. Niki is an intriguing character, a former police officer who quit the force after tragically shooting a teenage boy and now is committed to helping runaways so they don’t suffer the same fate. Elvebak delivers a well-written mystery, set against the colorful backdrop of Houston, Texas. The galvanizing plot is filled with twists and turns and enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing throughout. Characters are realistic and credible, and Elvebak’s portrayal of runaways insightful and empathetic.

Christy Tillery French

The Characters of Lost Witness

Lost Witness is not just about murder and who did it. It’s about family dynamics. Five-year-old Estefan’s mother was murdered in front of his eyes after they had crossed the Mexican border. The motive appears to be about the drugs she was transporting. But why take the child? And when the child disappears, more questions arise. Who does the child really belong to? In what country does he belong?

I got the idea for Lost Witness when I visited the street church while researching Less Dead. They hold evening church services outside in a parking lot across from Covenant House in Montrose. While I was there, someone mentioned that the FBI was watching them, maybe someone pretending to be homeless. Maybe he was paranoid; maybe he was right. I never found out, but this started my mind going in all directions. Why would they be watching homeless teens? Then, we had a representative from the FBI speak to us at a Mystery Writers lunch meeting and I got my answer. Of course, they would look at homeless teens. Who else would be more vulnerable to being initiated in a terrorist camp against a country who couldn’t provide shelter or healthcare for them.

I find characters everywhere. Some I can’t resist putting them in a story. Most of the time, I change their names. Funny thing, when I do, the real life person become that name. Next time I see them, I’ll want to call them by my character’s name. Why? I can’t remember their real name. Any writers out there have the same experience?

One of my daughter’s oldest friends is a woman named Tara Barlow and I asked her permission to be in Lost Witness. Throughout the fifteen years we’ve known her, she’s been either homeless lived with someone or she shared a place with her boy friend. To pay her way, she’s cleaned houses, babysat, cleaned apartments and houses, and she even painted the rooms and tiled the floors when I bought my house. Because she’s been so close to my family, she’d never forgive me if I called her a fictional name. I asked her permission to use her real name and she agreed. I reminded her several times and she would smile back at me. I used her boy friend’s name, too, and said he would be a gangster. He just shrugged when I told him. Maybe because he used to be a gangster or at least used to be in a gang until the police dumped his unconscious body on a railroad track and the train rain over his foot and now he has only half a foot. He loves telling that story whenever he gets drunk.

Tara knows the street. Her oldest daughter was homeless and that’s one of the reasons she brought me with her to the street church so she could say goodbye to the granddaughter who had been in foster care because Tara’s daughter was an addict and lived on the street. She was there to say goodbye to her daughter. I did change her name, and of course, I can’t remember her real name.

Several things happened at the street church. Tara introduced me to several of her friends. She also introduced me to the minister, who has been there for the teens on the street. She told him about my books and he got on the mic and told the group who I was and that I wanted to talk with however many kids who wanted to talk to me. I was surrounded from at the time on to the time I left. They were open and eager to tell their stories. Several were in their late teens and early twenties, Iraq vets, struggling to survive, physically as well as mentally. Many of these kids were surviving by taking odd jobs or making something with their hands to sell on the street. They were young and most of them were eager to work. They told me where they slept at night, mostly in Hermann Park or under the bridge.

There’s another character in the book who was a long-standing friend of Tara’s. His real name is Rick. For the book I dropped the “k” in Rick. Like Ric, my character, he’s in a wheelchair as a result of a shooting over a woman and I don’t know how he makes his money and I don’t ask.

How do I find these people? My kids, believe it or not. These are people they met when they were teenagers and their friendship remained over the years. Tara comparison shops for my daughter to get the best deal as she does for Niki in the book. There isn’t much she wouldn’t do for my daughter has helped her out in many ways.

My protagonist, Niki Alexander, is not always sure of herself, but she believes in taking care of the kids who don’t have anyone else to care for them. While she was a police officer, she was forced to kill a teenager, high on PCP and who was trying to kill her. This so devastated her that she quit and went to work with troubled and runaway teens.

In my first book, Less Dead, we first meet Nelson Spalonetti, the homicide investigator who took her place with her ex-partner, and toward the end saw an attraction building between him and Niki. Nelson gets a bigger role in Lost Witness because he is a hunk and Niki has been a widow for a long time and pretty much devoted to her work.

The first time Niki saw Estefan and brought him home with her and kept him over night, Niki knew she would go to the ends of the earth to see no harm came to him. When he disappears despite her good intentions, she becomes a mama bear, tenacious in her search. She is not happy at first to be working with Nelson and he’s not happy working with a civilian, but their relationship slowly revolves. While they both search for a missing child who hasn’t spoken since he witnessed his mother’s murder, they are brought together in more ways than one.

There is a story I heard recently that I’d like to finish with.

A man walking along the beach saw a boy covered with starfish. He was throwing them back into the ocean.

The man told him, “You die they are just going to end up back on the sand and die. You’re wasting your time. There are too many of them and you can’t save them all.”

The boy pulled another starfish off him and tossed it in the water and watched it float out on the waves. He turned to the man and said, “I saved that one.”

And one at a time, Niki will strive to save another one.

Is it a Job or a Scam to Steal Your Money?

As a mystery writer, I am always on the lookout for crimes against person or persons. I didn’t know that this time the target would be someone close to me. Here is an example of what they will try to do. Unfortunately, this is not fiction.

They are getting creative out there, folks. As bad as the economy has been, there is always someone to take advantage of those in need and out of work. Consider this real case. Shawn had been out of work for almost a year and collecting unemployment. Everyday she went online and sent out resumes, desperate for work. Finally, someone from Craig’s List responded. The company claimed to be a medical firm and needed to fill a clerical position, and since she had years experience as a medical assistant in hospitals, she was excited by the prospect.

What she couldn’t understand was why they were sending her a check “so she could pay customers.” What customers? She was smart enough to be suspicious and to not give out her bank information or social security number.

A few days after submitting her resume and emailing back and forth to the party, she received a check for $2,850.55. For someone who is needing money and out of a job, this is very tempting. You want to cash that check. You want to believe it is real.

Here’s the following email conversation between Shawn and the person who sent her the check:

Shawn: It just came.
Moore Shawan: ok nice. pls confirm the amount to me
Shawn: 2,850.55
Moore Shawan: correct
Shawn: I can open account at Chase today.
Moore Shawan: don’t you have any other bank closer to you?
Shawn: That is the closest
Moore Shawan: like credit unions
Shawn: Chase is the closest
Moore Shawan: chase banking system slow, and you need this funds urgently so i’m asking if you have any other place you can get it cashed faster
Shawn: If I go to another bank it may take a while to clear.
Moore Shawan: yeah, that you can deposite it and they will give you some funds instantly
Shawn: Don’t I need to get a form of credit card so I can perform payments with this money for your company
Moore Shawan: yeah, when seting up new account you will have to apply for Visa card also so you will take the chck to the bank right now and deposite it….ask the bank to give you some funds that its urgent, so you will be to carry out your assignment today…ok?
Shawn: Ok
Moore Shawan: ok go now what ever they give you let me know
Moore Shawan: how long will u be back?
Shawn: I have to take a bus to get there, I will let you know as soon as I get back
Moore Shawan: ok… make sure they give you some funds ok? cos they always do
Shawn: How much?
Moore Shawan: $1,650
Shawn: on a visa card?
Moore Shawan: the Visa card won’t be ready.. that will take 2 weeks
Shawn: Cash then
Moore Shawan: when you return with the money i will instruck you on what to do but lets take one at a time
Shawn: I will get back to you when it is done
Moore Shawan: ok i ill be here – bye for now

At this point, Shawn looked up the name of the company and couldn’t find any information on it. She then called Chase Bank since the check was drawn on a Chase account. They told her that the check was fraudulent and they received one of these at least twice a week.

Shawn got back online with Moore.

Shawn: I found out about your scam, you should be ashamed of yourself to pray on people that our trying to make a honest living. I have turned it over to the fraud department and contacted an attorney.
Moore Shawan: Hello
Moore Shawan: what do mean
Shawn: You know exactly what I mean!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Moore Shawan: pls expland
Moore Shawan: explain whats exactly thats going on
Shawn: how dare u prey on people that r trying 2 do good 4 their family. the check is fraudulent i called the bank in arizona
Moore Shawan: bullshit…..why calling the bank? were you to pay yourself
Moore Shawan: i told u take check to bank…let them do their jobs
Moore Shawan: pls stop telling me shit
Moore Shawan: go get the chech cashed
Shawn: cause this clerk position is bullshit along with you and ur bullshit check.
Moore Shawan: f…k that the check is ok
Shawn Collins: no f…k u u cash it

Is nothing sacred? The scammers are out there, so beware. If someone sends you a check that you haven’t earned and haven’t requested, it is a fraud. These people are innovative and resourceful. Never give out your bank info or your social to anyone. The bad guys are out there, folks, just waiting to take advantage. Don’t let them win. I wish this was fiction. It would make a good thriller. Unfortunately, it’s real.

Texas Education Code – Section 25.093

Please forgive the rant, but when an injustice is done, I have to write about it. The Texas Education Code- Section 25.093 is grossly unfair to parents.

My daughter is a single mother with two children in the Spring Branch School District, a girl that just turned eight and a fifteen-year-old boy. She has been accused of contributing to her children’s nonattendance: Texas Education Code—Section 25.093 and ordered to pay an exorbitant amount in fees.

Texas Education Code—Section 25.093 does not detail the circumstances of whether she kept the child at home for no good reason or if the child was too sick to go to school; i.e., fever, vomiting, stomach pain, headache, etc. According to this Section, the parent is criminally negligent for keeping a sick child at home instead of sending the child to school.

My daughter has a good job, but has to struggle every month to pay her bills. When the children are sick – and they have been sick a lot through the cold winter with the flu prevalent in our city—she had to miss work and stay home with them. Everyone is told not to send sick children to school so they won’t infect others. They must be a lot of sick kids still going to school and spreading the germs. But this law says that if the children miss school, regardless of the reason, the parent has committed an offense punishable by fines.

Once the school children are well enough, they return to school. But according to the Texas Education Code—Section 25.093, they should have gone to school sick. Each day they are sick, the parents have to pay. Not only does the parent miss work, the parent is charged fines for keeping their sick kids at home and taking care of them. I remember the time when the child was made responsible and had to make up the time he or she missed by staying after school or taking extra work home. At least it teaches the child responsibility instead of punishing the parent.

What constitutes an excused absence? Nowhere in the code does it specify what constitutes an excused absence. If the parent forgets to write a note, or doesn’t have health insurance to take the child to the doctor, or if the child loses the note on the way to school, then the parent gets punished and has to pay a fine.

If a child is late for any reason, this constitutes nonattendance and the parent has to pay. There could be many reasons for being tardy to class that a parent has no control over. Does a teacher have to pay if he or she is late to class? What is the parent’s defense? For a single parent, these fines can constitute a paycheck. How does this serve the child or the family? Maybe if the state would accept the government’s stimulus for the school districts, they wouldn’t have to rob the parents.

Radio Interview with Baron Ron Herron

I was interviewed this morning at 7:35 PST today by KZSB AM 1290 in Santa Barbara, California, on Baron Ron Herron’s radio. We talked about Lost Witness, the second Niki Alexander mystery following Less Dead. The program airs in Santa Barbara , Goleta , Carpinteria, Ventura , Thousand Oaks and Los Angeles County . In addition, the show is rebroadcast on KNRY AM 1240 in Monterey , Salinas , Santa Cruz and Pebble Beach ; KNWZ-II AM 1270 in Palm Desert, Palm Springs , Indio and Rancho Mirage. The program is delayed broadcast in Australia on 99.7 FM in Queensland and to another 30+ radio stations via ComRadSat. Have no idea when the delayed broadcasts air.

Getting Busy Writing Anew After Promotion

I wrote the first three chapters of the third Niki Alexander mystery several months ago. Seems like ages ago. Everytime I revisited the work, I stalled. With the second book, Lost Witness, just out in October – actually the night before I went to Bouchercon in Indianapolis – I knew I had to promote the book. Too late, I told myself, to get my publicist, PJ Nunn, involved. But I had to do something – get reviews, get signings. Just before Lost Witness came out, A Box of Texas Chocolates, The Final Twist Anthology, which carried my story, “Dying for Chocolate” was released and the authors were promoting. Then, of course, I had my full time job at Black Pearl Exploration.

To tell you the truth, I felt overwhelmed. I’ve done a few signing for A Box of Texas Chocolates and none for Lost Witness. I’m waiting for a date with Murder By The Book. By word of month, I’ve sold several copies – not enough – and sent my book out for reviews, put up my author page on Amazon and Goodreads, let people know on Facebook, but there’s always more to do.

At the same time I was finishing a short story for next year’s Final Twist Anthology with the Texas Landmark theme. Once I finished, I was given the opportunity to edit other stories which would be included. That took time.

Don’t let me forget Mystery Writers of America and getting out the Sleuth Sayer for the Southwest Chapter and doing my Treasurer duties, and being on the nominating committee for next year’s election. A lot of work for a national organization who won’t even recognize my published books. But that’s another story for another day. No more whining.

All this time, the third book is calling me. I’m always thinking of the plot and the characters and what goes next. I read over the three chapters. I didn’t have a clue where to go next. I bought 3×5 cards. I set my eisel in the office next to my writing desk so I could do a story board. Materials were ready, but I was not. Darn!

So finally, I got most of the other stuff done and out of the way. Thanksgiving is finally over with, thank God! We won’t even go there. Too personal. Maybe another day I’ll write about my family’s dysfunction. For now I’ll write fiction.

So I spent most of the weekend rehashing the backstory of Niki and the characters that people my untitled manuscript. I found something I didn’t expect. I found my original character sketch of Niki Alexander. She wasn’t the same person I wrote in Less Dead and Lost Witness. Most of her character was there, but several paragraphs of her past had never come up. In fact, I’d forgotten the character I had imagined back then. Maybe that part belonged to another character whose story I haven’t written yet and but will someday. So I rewrote her biography the way she turned out in my books. Now I had to face the actual writing.

It took quite a while and then I realized what was wrong. I didn’t like the first three chapters. It had a good hook, but I couldn’t make sense of it. What I had didn’t go where I wanted, or how I had planned in the beginning. I needed it to start with a problem that I could fix. The new problem that I discovered by doing the synopsis. I had to kick life into the characters and get to the main plot. So the first three chapters went away.

I’ve only written three pages so far, but I like what I have and I’ll keep writing. I still have several hours of writing time today. So until later, I bid you adieu. No more procrastinating.

Talent Show

The talent show at Bouchercon was fantastic. Anyone there will tell you the same. Above is my roommate for the festivities, Roberta Rogow, a wonderful singer.

When Don Brun emailed everyone for volunteers to be a part of a talent show at Bouchercon 2009, I plunged ahead without even thinking. What was I thinking? Good gravy! It’s been 40-some years and a good 40 pounds less since I performed as a dancer. But I couldn’t resist. I still love to dance, but haven’t in public in a very long time. Still, when the music plays, I sway. My feet move, my hips swivel, my hands take off on their own. What the heck? Why not? My new book came out the night I left Houston, so how else would I get recognized? Darn, I’m a writer, not a dancer.

Here is Parnell Hall, Peter Lovesey and friends, and Don Brun.

And then there was me.

I was the only dancer.

2009 Bouchercon

Indianapolis was a delightful town, though I didn’t see much of it. The cool weather, however, was welcome after the 90 degrees Houston experienced during that time.
I arrived by plane from Houston on Wednesday in time for the SinC Workshop with Donald Maass. What a wealth of information. I scribbled, I scratched, I disappeared into my story and emerged with new ideas, hardly able to wait to get back to my laptop and let my fingers flow my brain. I was ignited, mind filled eratically. Could I possibly remember everything before I flew back home and captured it all in my computer? Well, I’m back now, with so much to do and to catch up with job, family, and other writing commitments. Yes, it is still in my head somewhere, simmering, growing, almost ready for birth.
Thursday, the panels began. So many to choose from, each filled with information I had to have. I had to decide which best fit my writing, my story, my mystery and my characters. This could be hard because so many panels fit perfectly. Men, Women & Murder Through the Ages. Okay, I don’t write historicals, but I wanted to meet Tony Hays, a new member in the Southwest Chapter of MWA. Well worth the hour, and I got his book.
Heroes for our Times sounded like another relevant one. After all, isn’t Niki Alexander a hero to the teenagers she counsels? Murder, Therapy and Social Work. Now that fit Niki. She was a social worker, therapist, counselor. This led to Suddenly I’m Thirsty with Con Lehane, Chris Knopf, J.A. Konrath, Jason Pinter and Tom Schreck. All their characters drank. Niki’s an ex-drinker, so I figured she would fit right in. I couldn’t help but notice that Joe Konrath and Tom Schreck both had bottles of beer in front of them and drank without shame during the panel. They fit right in.
Then there was Adaptation. Novels to Screen and back. I’m also a screenwriter. Did I ever mention that? These guys know what they’re talking about. Sean Chercover has a movie in the works. They made a movie from one of Joe Finder’s books, too. Paul Guyot is a screenwriter working with Sean’s book.
Them came the presentation of the Barry, Macavity, Derringer and Crime Spree Awards. The night ended at the Gameworks in Circle Center Mall. I spend my time there performing in the Talent Show. Pictures will follow.
Friday came early, but I was ready for the panels, especially since some of my favorite authors were on first. More Noir Than You Are featured Christa Faust, Victor Gischler, Charlie Newton and Jeri Westerson. These folks portray a world that’s gritty and real as the cops and the streets make it. What is more natural to follow them than The Dark Side of the Fair Sex with Megan Abbott, Chelsea Cain, Sophie Littlefield and Derek Nikitas. Woman can write noir, too.
A treat was in store following lunch. Michael Connelly interviewed by Michael Koryta.
The afternoon continued with P.J. Parrish, Charlaine Harris and Julie Kramer, among others, talking about How I Met My Protagonist, and finished with a bang with Michelle Gagnon, Linwood Barclay, Andrew Gross, Erica Spindler and Michael Robotham for The Fabled One-Sitting Read. But who can read that fast? These are authors whose characters I like to spend time with and really lose myself in their stories.
The evening ended, for me, with the Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe Banquet. Five courses, each with their own wine, prepared by the chefs Nero Wolfe himself would laud, served by the finest servers, one to each table. But we all had to participate. Some little rhyme or song each table had to come up with and perform for the room. Luckily, our table was blessed by several of the Wolfe pack and P.J. Parrish, who came up with a fitting song and which we performed brillantly.
Saturday we were up early again to meet David Morrell, Laura Benedict, Lee Child and Gayle Lynds for Thrillers! Following them notable authors were none other than Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Peter Lovesey, John Lutz and Sara Paretsky celebrating Edgar Allen Poe.
The afternoon continued with Issues, Entertainment or Both? The answers came from Carl Brookins, Cara Black, Mark Coggins, Libby Fischer Hellmann and Mark T. Sullivan. I like to write about issues, sometimes want to chew them up to the point of sounding preachy. But then I stop myself. Have to find the right tone. Speaking of tone, what about Dark Books For Dark Times with Reed Farrel Coleman, Larry Beinhart, J.T. Ellison, Michael Lister and Duane Swiercynski. What more could you ask for?
Answer? Anthony Awards Ceremony. You all know by now who won, right? Later, I was swept up by Sophie Littlefield and her friends for dinner at the Wine Tasting and party at a blues club, where I caught a dance with Joe Konrath. (He probably wouldn’t remember, but I do.)
The Bazaar finished us up on Sunday. Rows and rows of tables filled with free books, and fans lined up through the lobby end to end. A fitting climax to a wonderful four days.

LOST WITNESS Raises the Stakes

LOST WITNESS is now available on Amazon, Fictionwise and Barnes&Noble.
ISBN-10: 160318144X
ISBN-13: 978-1603181440

A lost little boy wound up in the world of homeless teens and in the arms of counselor Niki Alexander. Did he witness a gruesome murder?

Homicide Investigators Luis Perez and Nelson Spalonetti suspected a woman found murdered in an alley was a drug mule from Mexico. Could the child who appeared at the same time be her son? The traumatized boy wouldn’t speak; the police needed to find and question Barky, the street teen who found him.

Several years ago Niki quit the police force to work with troubled teens like Barky, not young children, but she couldn’t help getting involved in the case of this sad little boy. Working at the Open Palms shelter gave her connections to street-wise people like Tara Barlow. The teens trusted Tara and they might provide helpful information she could share with the police.

Clues leading to the drug world brought Niki to some old friends for help. This also brought increased danger as she got closer to the truth. At the same time, Niki also got a lot closer to Nelson Spalonetti, Luis Perez- new partner. She had avoided close relationships since her husband died, yet there was no denying their mutual attraction.

It seemed strange to Niki and Nelson that so many people were interested in finding the lost child. They had to sort out the complicated case fast, before the boy disappeared forever.

Researching this book took me deep in the world of homeless teens. I wanted to know how they managed to survive. One evening, a friend invited me to join her at the street church across from Covenant House. On a vacant parking lot on a Wednesday night, teens and young adults, some with their own children, came to listen and be counseled and comforted by the non-denominational preacher, have a free meal, do some dealing of various wares, and commiserate with each other. Some laughter, some tears, some recriminations.

This night made such an impression on me that I had to include what I saw and heard and felt in Lost Witness. It represented, to me, a piece of their world that I wanted to understand. I knew some of these people. My own son ran away for a short time when he was about fifteen, an age that is filled with angst and rebellion, a breaking away from the familiar, hoping to find an identity of their own by flailing out like blind puppies. He came back home, but others weren’t so lucky. Some didn’t have a home to which they could return. Some fell into the abyss from which there is no escape.

I could not ignore the ever present world of illegal drugs and the desperate men and women who are willing to kill for power and money. Trust and betrayal in a life that turns brother against brother, friend against friend. Those who seem invincible or above the dangers of the drug underworld can be crushed in the system.

Throughout the life and death dramas that Niki deals with every day, she needs a personal life as well. She craves love, while at the same time, brakes at the caution signs. As a young widow, she is not eager to fall in love with another cop, but she can’t deny the physical attraction she feels for the homicide investigator who replaced her in the homicide division of HPD. Only fulfilling a need, she tells herself, dreading the inevitable knock on the door and the words “officer down.” If she doesn’t commit, she can’t be burned. Again. Yet, how can she stop her heart from feeling?

The Hero I Live With

Niki Alexander had to fight for everything she achieved in life. Her college education was cut short when her father stabbed a member of the Mexican Mafia and they had to run for their lives. After her father went to trial and was released because no one showed up to prosecute, they left California for Houston, Texas. Niki applied to the Houston police academy. There she met and fell in love with a motorcycle cop. A year after they married he was killed in a traffic accident. She worked hard to overcome the initial hostility from fellow officers, but she finally applied to homicide and partnered with an older officer who became her friend and mentor and the father she never really had.

Then the unthinkable happened. A shootout with a 17-year-old, high on PCP carrying a gun, who aimed at her and she shot first, killing him. Everyone told her it was a righteous shoot, but she couldn’t live with it. She quit the force, got in her car and roamed the country for six months, stopping only to blot out the memory with booze. She finally return, sobered, and went back to school to finish her education and become a psychologist.

But fate intervened when she took a part time position as a counselor for a teen shelter. Part time quickly became full time as she realized why she ended up there. She was meant to save the children so they would never end up facing the wrong end of a gun. Her whole life had purpose now. Her calling in life was to counsel the runaways and throwaways, teach them self defense, and rescue them when they got into trouble.

To her kids, she became a hero.