What if the mystery you had to solve was your own past?
Heather Slawecki’s Elements trilogy dives into her protagonist’s mysterious past. Jenny O’Rourke has been haunted by memories of her brother’s murder and as the story begins, she’s ready to find the truth, even if it means breaking the one rule she’s been obeying for 20 years: Never go home.
In our interview, Heather mentions her blog where she shares interesting factual and historical stories about Bucks County, the location for her trilogy.
This week’s mystery author
Heather Slawecki has a degree in English Literature and began her writing career as a feature writer for the Bucks County Courier Times. It wasn’t long before she fell in love with the fast-paced world of advertising and has worked as a senior copywriter for ad agencies in Philadelphia area for over twenty-five years.
She launched her debut mystery trilogy series on March 3, 2020. She’s already been featured as a top author in Kirkus Magazine for Element of Secrecy and has earned five-star reviews from Indies Today as well as Readers’Favorite.
To learn more about Heather and all her books visit HeatherSlawecki.com
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Excerpt from Element of Secrecy
Chapter 1: Escape
I heard them in the barn. They still don’t know it, but I heard them. As a naïve 10-year-old little girl, it was so disturbing that I wet my pants.
My father, Sean O’Rourke, was once a well-respected and distinguished Manhattan attorney, a good dad, a dedicated husband, and a great provider. But that night I learned he had a dark side.
As I huddled in the corner of a stall, hoping desperately not to be discovered, I heard his gruff voice in the loft above me. Amid the chatter of strange voices, I heard him discuss plans to kill an enemy. At the end of the meeting, if that’s what it was, he recited a Bible verse before all the voices joined together in a chant. I couldn’t understand a lick of it, but I heard enough to be afraid. I wanted out of the stall and back into the comfort of my canopy bed. ASAP.
It turns out, that was just a sneak preview of things to come. It’s time to shed some light on his dark secrets.
* * *
It’s been a mentally exhausting day, one that has taken months of patience, plotting, and scheming to finally arrive. Getting caught could result in months, if not years, of seclusion or some other form of punishment.
I finally have somewhat of a life, so I’m really rolling the danger dice here. But it has to be done. My past has haunted me long enough, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to get answers is to break the rules.
I’m absolutely forbidden to be sitting here in front of my childhood home. But here I am with two important mysteries to solve and a plethora of minor league ones. First, who killed my brother? And why? Second, who—and what—the hell is my father? I’ve narrowed it down to three possibilities: A secret agent of some sort, an organized crime leader, or a cult member. I’d love to rule out that last option, but I can’t. It’s bewildering to ponder, but I can’t rule out the possibility that my own father is part of a cult. One without a name, as far as I know.
Aside from getting here alive, I don’t have a solid plan. Probably because I didn’t really expect to pull this off.
Before I cause an accident, I back up the Ford Escape, which I chose symbolically for its name, and park in the familiar spot across from the house. It’s as inconspicuous as I’m going to get in a clearing before an old wooden one-way bridge.
I give myself a mental pep talk as I step out. It’s an oppressively hot and humid day, and I was already sweating with the air cranked. I wipe my face with the bottom of my tank top and throw my long hair in a messy bun. I take a few steps forward to check out the creek and see dry exposed rocks and a slow-moving current. Not a whole lot of rain recently.
The familiar outdoorsy fragrance engulfs me. If someone blindfolded me and brought me here, I’d know exactly where I was, based on the smell alone. It’s a blend of meadow, farm, and above all else, the creek. Some days the creek could smell kind of ripe, like something decomposing, others like a fragrance I wish I could bottle or find in a candle. I used to love watching its ever-changing motion and listening to it babble day and night. It was the only thing that soothed my soul during some of my darkest hours.
Before I attempt to play detective on the farm itself, I look straight up the dirt road perpendicular to the house and try to find a street sign. Nope! There still isn’t one. The road is unnamed on maps, MapQuest, and navigation systems. We just always called it “the dirt road.”
In the distance above the hill, I see the old windmill. It looks reconstructed, even larger than I remember. I count five large blades.
The hill itself brings back a memory of a day when my brother, Danny, and I were riding our bikes.
“Look, no hands!” I yelled and turned to make sure he was watching. The shift in position made the handlebars wobble and I lost my balance.
“The agony of defeat!” he hollered and began humming the Olympic theme. The fall knocked the wind out of me and left me with some sizable brush burns, but he made me laugh on the way down. He was always good at that. I glance at my elbow and can still see a faint scar, but I love it because it reminds me of him.
My mother reluctantly helped clean the wounds and remove all the tiny bits of gravel. “I swear you have a death wish, Jennifer,” she said. My mother had no patience for this kind of thing. And by thing, I mean kids. I’ve often wondered how soon she regretted having us. Danny comforted me with a smirk and a rub on my back as she over-blasted my scrapes with antiseptic spray.
I can’t help but smile at the memory. There really wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try. I liked to push the limits and consume whatever attention I’d get from it, even if it was negative. The result of this little excursion will certainly test my aptitude for that mentality again.
I flash back to our last night on the farm. The night we fled for our lives. I suppose I should consider myself lucky, because I’m standing here with air in my lungs and blood in my veins. My brother wasn’t as lucky in that regard. I would do anything to reverse the situation, if only I had the chance.
Within days of our escape, at the tender age of twelve, I was sent to a private all-girls boarding school tucked away in Sun Valley, Idaho. I was miserably inconsolable and downright unlovable. My “sisters,” as they called themselves, tried to friend me, but I wanted nothing to do with artificial family. I ached for the company of my brother and would accept no substitutes.
I haven’t seen my parents since that day. That reality pales, though, in comparison to the pain of losing Danny. Eventually, I hardened on the inside and blossomed on the outside. I missed out on what should have been joyous milestones in my life, and I’m pretty pissed about it. Recklessly pissed off.
Since that night, I’ve been told that my parents split up. My mother moved to Italy with my grandmother, and I’m not allowed to have direct contact with either of my parents. Despite my father watching my every move, I know nothing of his whereabouts. I understand he moves frequently to avoid danger. Danger he likely perpetuated. He keeps track of me through one person, Ryan Burk. And they would both be very displeased to know where I am right now.
Chapter 7: The Dorcys
I’m staring back at the farm, completely insecure and contemplating my next step, when I see movement. A man appears from behind the barn with his hands full of hay, attending to the farm animals. He’s thin with salt and pepper hair, wearing what looks like a good old-fashioned pair of Levis and a tattered red T-shirt. Two adorable golden retrievers follow him around while he works.
I panic for a minute and consider hiding, which I realize would look pretty odd and suspicious. I have no idea if I should approach him or how I would even go about doing that. I certainly don’t expect the new owners to know much, if anything, about the past life of the farm. If I could convince him to let me walk around the property, or better yet get in the house, maybe I could recall some important things. Things that will buy me a few leads or help me find the right people to talk to without completely blowing my identity. That would be very bad.
I watch the man as he goes from stall to stall, patting a goat here, a sheep there. I was so worried about him seeing me that I almost missed the woman coming out of the side door. Shit! His wife, I assume, is wearing a cute little yellow sundress and carrying a laundry basket. I realize the clothesline is directly in front of me, and she’s coming at it.
She looks up, and I’m busted staring at her like a total stalker. As it should, my presence startles her, and she abruptly halts. She’s pretty for a woman her age. She has long, wavy red hair with grey highlights, probably blonde highlights not so long ago. She’s curvy in all the right places.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
I regain my composure and with my warmest smile, cross the street and gesture to her. She looks back to see where her husband is and cautiously inches toward me.
I introduce myself and reveal that I used to live on the farm as a child. I realize I’m playing with fire doing so, but it just came out. Luckily, she relaxes and lights up.
“Oh my gosh, how neat! We searched everywhere but couldn’t find any records about previous owners after 1988.”Not surprising.
“Really? Well we lived here for about three years,” I minimize. “I had some time today, so I decided to take a road trip and sneak a peek at the house. Sorry for the intrusion. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“Oh, no, not at all. When we purchased the farm, it was vacant for at least ten years, probably more. It was a mess, but we’re working on it. The good part about the condition is that my husband worked a phenomenal deal with the bank. They told us there had been auctions before, but no takers. They just wanted to dump it. Were you the last owners?”
“No. I think my parents sold it to a family, but I don’t remember their names.”
“Oh, I see. I heard a family with two children lived here last and there was some sort of ugly divorce or something. Or maybe something even more tragic.” She eyes me up curiously to see if I have any details to offer.
“Yeah, that must’ve been the family. My parents are still happily married and I’m an only child.”
She yells for her husband to join us at the end of the driveway. Reluctantly, he follows her request. The dogs start barking and race to investigate me. The man tells them to settle down. I let them sniff my hand, and they lose interest pretty quick and lie down.
He lights up too when he sees me, but for different reasons I suspect. The woman throws her husband the hairy eyeball as he looks me up and down.
“Well, hello there! What brings you here?”
I meet Jack and Katie Dorcy, the current owners of Red Rock Farm. They’re in their mid-fifties and have two daughters in their twenties who still live in their hometown city of Boston. They’ve only lived in Brandtville for about three years and purchased the farm to fill their empty nest syndrome and to keep busy and active. They admit they’re still adjusting to country life but love it.
I look back at the animals going about their business. I can’t help but notice the odor they’re emitting but suppress the urge to make a face. I’m no primadonna, but it’s a little rank. Time to lay it on without giving away how I really feel.
“I just love that you have so many animals. Do you mind if I pet the goat?”
“Miss Mable? No, not at all, she’s a sweetheart,” Jack says.
I walk closer to the barn area and open a little gate where the animals are fenced in. The sheep stay where they are, but the goat moves in fast. I’ve never been this close to one before and am not really sure what to do. She’s studying me back, waiting for some attention or maybe a treat. I give her an awkward pat on the head and exclaim that she’s precious, while strategically edging myself deeper into the property.
Jack and Katie are just as interested in what I have to tell them as I am to ask questions. I start with the true-story fun things I used to do, like sledding down the big hill on the side of the barn.
I point to the patio my father built with his own two hands. I’m happy to see it’s still there, because that job nearly killed him. It was the only home improvement project he ever did on his own. I guess he was trying to prove that he was capable of creating something from the natural surroundings like most of the locals and early settlers did. He brought up big stones from the creek to form a retaining wall. The patio itself he designed with stone-colored pavers, which he purchased from a local landscaper. I notice grass and weeds coming up through the cracks, and it sort of annoys me, maybe because it’s one of the few good memories I have of him here. But I keep it to myself and remain pleasant because I’m on a mission.
As if reading my mind, Katie invites me inside.
“Tricia, the house isn’t very clean and I’m kind of embarrassed, but why don’t you come in so you can see your childhood home.”
I had to give them the name I go by now, Tricia Keller. I wish the Witness Protection Program had let me choose my own name. Although at the time, I probably would have given myself a far-out name like Starlene. I really just want to be Jenny again. Sal calls me Jen when no one’s around, but absolutely no one else does. It’s in the vault.
“Thank you, Katie. Are you sure? I don’t want to intrude.”
“No, no, please, you’ve come all the way from where?”
“Maryland. And to tell you the truth, I really need to use a restroom.”
“Oh my gosh, please, come in then,” she says with a laugh. Katie walks me in through the side entrance and shows me to the restroom, exactly as I remember, while Jack goes back outside to finish his chores.
After washing the goat smell off my hands, I reemerge and listen as Katie tells me more about the condition of the home when they moved in. “The pool was in ruins, so we had to almost entirely rebuild it. None of the radiators worked. We had to put in new windows because half of them were broken. Oh, and replace the hardwood floors completely.”
“Sounds like a total mess! What a shame. I’m so glad you bought it and saved it.”
“Thank you, Tricia. You’re very kind. People had been breaking in for years and vandalizing. We found some weird stuff and drawings.”
“Oh, really, of what?”
“Curious symbols. Pyramids with eyes. Crosses. Some sort of ancient Egyptian writing, which Jack had decoded.”
“What did it say?”
“Something relating to judgement. I couldn’t wait to paint over them. I’m sure it was just kids, but it was kind of scary.”
“That is very strange! You said stuff too. Like what?”
“In the barn, we found a bucket with a rope tied to it, like a well bucket.” I look at her, waiting for the weird part. Could have just been a well bucket. Maybe they don’t know they have one because of the weeds. “There was a bowl, some silverware, and a thermos inside.”
“Eww? Did you check your well for dead bodies?” I laugh. She doesn’t.
“Actually, yes we did. Water was clear. Thank God.”
“Do you still have them?” This is kind of huge!
“No. We burned them in our first big bonfire after we moved in. Anyway, thankfully the main structure of the home was intact, and none of the pipes burst over the winters, or there’d be no way Jack would have talked me into this farm.”
Kudos to Jack! He must have made one heck of a sales pitch. My mom never would have considered buying this house in such condition. It’s tour time! Much to my surprise again, Katie invites me to look around on my own.
“You go ahead. I’m going to hang up the sheets,” she says. Was this really happening? I’m so grateful. I go from one room to the next and can’t believe how much smaller the living room looks. I remember it being so big that I could do cartwheels across the floor without hitting anything. It looks like they’re working on the library, which was my father’s office. It’s where he kept his law books, among other things. It was off-limits to anyone but him, including my mother.
The Dorcys are refurbishing the large built-in mahogany bookshelves. The walls used to be hunter green with burgundy accents. They’re a trendy grey now. I also remember two original foxhunt paintings that hung on the wall. Once my father got his practice going in Doylestown, he spent about half his time here and half his time at his small office in town, which he shared with an accountant.
One thing is for certain … I’m not going down into the basement. It was partially finished with dark wood paneling. My father kept his ever-growing collection of taxidermied animals and artifacts down there, including a new set of Indian drums. Every now and then, he played them. I get a shiver thinking of it. Nope. No way.
Instead, I make my way upstairs and smile when I see they still have our old clawfoot sunken bathtub. I don’t want to be too intrusive, so I stay out of the bedrooms, except for mine. It’s a good size, like I remember. I can visualize where my Barbie house was on the other side of my bed. Now the room is used as a home office, probably until they finish refurbishing the library. There are stacks of paper and a desk with a rather impressive workstation. Someone must work from home. There’s a large-screen iMac plus a printer, scanner, and overflowing bookshelves. Maybe Jack is a writer.
When I have nothing left to scan, I take a deep breath and turn my attention to the closet. My heart sinks and I feel raw emotion for the first time in a very long time. I open the door slowly and look for the semi-hidden panel that leads to a large, open crawlspace. It’s still there. My eyes get watery as I remember the day.
The crawlspace saved my life, but my brother had no time to hide. I heard gunshots and my mother screaming, so I found my way into our secret hiding place, but Danny couldn’t escape. He’d been outside riding his bike. I’m not exactly sure how yet, but I’m going to find out who killed my playmate and best friend. Even more than finding closure, I’m looking for justice and revenge.