John Bastian is plunged into a dangerous journey to uncover the truth about his past life after a freak skiing accident unlocks hidden memories. With unshakable visions of a brutal attack, the cursed Lafayette treasure, and a captivating redhead, John searches to find answers and confront the man who murdered him. On a perilous path and with a hurricane fast approaching, John fights for his survival and the safety of those he loves, threats haunting him at every turn.
“Thoroughly entertaining—murder, mayhem, adventure, and another chance at a stolen love. Echo from a Bayou is a vibrant, fast-paced thriller that will keep you enthralled until its explosive end.”
~ Independent Book Review
“An action-packed thriller with a focus on redemption and second chances, this Deep South adventure is an original, genre-bending read.”
~ Self-Publishing Review
“Bennecke’s narrative is a riveting blend of high-octane action and suspense that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.”
~ Literary Titan
I’m so excited to share that J. Luke Bennecke, author of Echo from a Bayou visited with me recently. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
They say everyone has at least “one book in them,” right? With this in mind, I found myself stuck in traffic on the freeway in Pasadena, California, frustrated my car was idling and not moving, while we had this perfectly good road to move people from point A to point B. But for whatever reason—likely human—the highway designed to whisk vehicles along at ninety miles per hour was nothing more than a parking lot. I thought what a shame that was, a colossal waste of taxpayer money, and my mind wandered to ways of making things better. I thought about how, despite our collective technological advances in computing, engineering, the internet, and dozens of other high-tech fields, nobody had yet tackled the very real, very wasteful, very dangerous problem of traffic congestion and vehicle-related fatalities (there are about 40,000 people killed every year by cars and trucks).
With my mental magic wand, I envisioned a self-driving network, whereby humans and our inherent flaws would give control of our vehicles to computers. A few quick mathematical calculations yielded a six-fold increase in lane capacity, which would eliminate traffic congestion for decades, so no more freeway parking lots. And the safety benefits would be huge, saving close to a hundred percent of those 40,000 lives every year. But . . . my thoughts turned dark . . . what if someone hacked in? Terrorists could potentially use the new system for devious purposes and kill millions. I had to write this book, at least as a cautionary tale for anyone motivated by the same levels of frustration and transportation utopia.
Nothing, it’s perfect the way it is, said no author ever! Haha. Seriously, in Echo from a Bayou, after listening to the audiobook version narrated by former Broadway actor Brad Wills, I noticed a few instances where I used duplicate words too close to one another, which, from a novel craft writing perspective, is a small no-no. Note to self: next book, before finalizing the manuscript, have my writing software read the entire script out loud back to me and find these little tidbits to edit before it’s all recorded and finalized.
In terms of my writing career and life as a novelist, there are quite a few amazing authors and editors who’ve impacted me tremendously. But if I had a gun to my head, forced to choose one, I’d have to say Gayle Lynds. I had the privilege of meeting her at the 2016 Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. Apparently, she just happened to be there and filled in to teach a seminar for someone who called in sick. Of the twenty authors in the class, some of us were chosen to read the first page of our book, and I read Civil Terror: Gridlock. After receiving some much-needed positive feedback, she pulled me aside and recommended I attend a New York conference coming up in July called ThrillerFest. She and a few other authors, including David Morrell (author of Rambo), started the conference back in 2005. Since I was writing a thriller novel, was hungry for craft knowledge, and needed an agent, I decided to attend. Best. Conference. Ever! If you write thrillers, you need to go, it will change your writing career too.
Senior year in high school, Fall 1988, first period English. Tired from late-evening football practices, too much homework, and not enough sleep, I nodded in and out of consciousness while my teacher, Mr. Taylor, reviewed the weekly vocabulary words. “And Mr. Bennecke . . . how many times a day do YOU masticate?” Not having studied the previous night, still half asleep and blood rushing to my face, I looked around at my classmates in horror. How did he know? After allowing several long seconds of teenage embarrassment without response, he said, eyebrows raised, blinking, “I hope at least three.” Once the nervous laughter died down, he explained what masticate means, I drew in a deep, calming breath and slumped further into my chair, humiliated. But guess what? I reviewed all my vocabulary words for the rest of the semester and will never, ever forget the meaning of the word masticate!
November 8, 2016 – Mammoth Mountain, CA
Never had I seen so many angry trees in one place.
Through a gondola window covered with spider cracks, ominous mountains loomed in the darkened distance. One peak in particular, a white, snowcapped giant, laughed at me with his frozen face and pointed pines, pompous with knowledge he had risen to life, fallen, and rebirthed his dominance over countless millennia.
Ignoring the familiar tug to spiral down another rabbit hole of negativity, I instead envisioned myself racing down a crazy-steep, treeless, triple black diamond slope at the summit of Mammoth Mountain: Huevos Grande.
Passengers continued to pack inside the already-full car, oblivious to our collective need to breathe oxygen, already limited in the high-altitude air that smelled of sweaty gym socks.
“And I don’t see you wearin’ no helmet,” Kevin said.
“Enough about Sonny Bono already, that was a long time ago,” I said, glancing down at Kevin, who, at a foot shorter than me, sported matching black ski pants and jacket with a rainbow-colored voodoo doll embroidered on the back. The snowboarding boots boosted his height by two inches, bringing his height up to five feet five inches.
My closest friend for the last two decades and best man at the wedding of my disaster of a marriage, we’d met at track practice during senior year of high school.
With my last shred of patience wearing thin, I waited with Kevin in the front corner of the room-sized orange cube, near the sliding doors. Skis propped and steadied with one hand, I gave his down-insulated shoulder a friendly punch with the other and said, “Stay positive, man. We need as much optimism as we can handle.”
“Glad you finally gettin’ your head outta them clouds,” Kevin said. “Sooner you forgive Margaret, sooner you can get on with your life, Johnny Jackass.”
“You know I hate it when you call me that.”
Two months ago, he’d suggested this trip to some of California’s highest slopes in order to check off the last item on our mid-life crisis bucket list.
One final group of skiers jammed inside, jerking the box that would soon glide us up to the peak of peaks. My heart flopped around inside my chest as I ignored the instinctive urge to go back to our room and down a double bourbon. Instead, I adjusted my black beanie, giving Kevin a forced smile. A tinge of alcohol withdrawal headache pinged my noggin. I dug out two Tylenol gel caps from my inner jacket pocket, popped them into my mouth and swallowed without water.
I tightened my lips and turned my head, glancing through a different gondola window, up to the 11,000-foot peak riddled with wide, white, invincible slopes.
But a shiver crawled up from my legs to my neck, deflating any remnants of confidence.
I tapped open a weather app on my phone. “This might be the last run. That huge storm front’s almost here.”
We both enjoyed the occasional humorous embellishment of stereotypical hip-hop culture, even though Kevin had two masters’ degrees from Berkeley, one in American history and another in theater arts.
After separating from Margaret three years ago, the entire divorce process continually marinated in my head, but I wanted—needed—to lick my mental wounds, get on with my life, and find a new purpose. Hence my agreeing to this trip.
Heads bobbed among the other snow enthusiasts, along with a colorful assortment of mirrored goggles and insulated garments. My height allowed me an unobstructed view of my fellow sardines.
“Think of all the times they said it was supposed to rain back home in Newport Beach,” I said. “Nothing. Just a few drops here and there. Damned drought’s horrible.”
A man with dark, heavy-lidded eyes stood five feet away from us in the rear of the gondola, wearing a baby blue sweater and black jeans. Then for no apparent reason, he started tapping his forehead repeatedly on the gondola wall.
Dude wore no ski jacket.
No ski pants.
Short and thin-framed, as he rubbed the nape of his neck, his entire presence screamed of fear and anger. Black-rimmed glasses sat atop his nose, above a thick Freddy Mercury mustache, his face flushed red.
Kevin bounced up and down several times, arms crossed, rubbing his outer shoulders, probably to increase his blood flow. Too much caffeine for him. Again.
“So, tell me ’bout this good news you got,” Kevin whispered, shivering. The primary reason we’d listed this ski trip on our bucket list five years ago was an excuse to spend some “bro” time away from work, away from our real lives. Now it served as a way for me to hide from my memories of Margaret.
But it wasn’t working.
Leaning in close to Kevin to make sure nobody else heard our discussion, I said, “We got a big real estate deal set to close on a sweet piece of beachfront commercial property. Killer views. And with that single commission, I’m planning to rebuild my brokerage.”
A thought wandered into my mind, of creamy smooth whiskey flowing gently over my tongue and down into my gut. Something to sooth my frayed nerves.
Kevin smiled with his huge, toothy grin and jumped again. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
I don’t know why, but the overall appearance of the mustached man in the corner, coupled with his darting glances and multiple throat clearings, gave me the willies. I turned away, trying to ignore him and his negative vibes. Finally, the line to the gondola had shriveled to two skiers, a mother and her young son. The kid had a smile the size of a crescent moon as he crossed the threshold from the loading platform to the gondola. But his boot snagged on the lip of the doorway. He landed hard on his knees in front of me and, with a loud grunt, rolled onto his side.
I leaned down, extended my arm, and helped the hundred-pound fella to his feet.
The kid smiled, thanked me, and I patted him on the back. “No worries.”
His mother placed her hand over her chest and gave me a thankful glance. A pleasant warmth filled my heart.
The lady in charge of the gondola stuck her head inside and gave a brief speech about the trip lasting fifteen minutes, staying inside the safety areas, avoiding out of bounds markers, and something about having fun.
“What’s up with this cracked window?” a man interrupted with a raised voice, pointing to the rear corner.
“Scheduled for repair tomorrow.”
“Jesus,” the man muttered to himself, waving off the woman.
Seconds later, the doors slid shut and we started our ascent.
Halfway up to Mammoth’s highest ridge, the inside of my right shoulder started throbbing. Strong. Like never before. After dropping forty pounds over the past six months, every joint of my now two-hundred-pound body ached and moaned whenever I moved. I hoped the Tylenol would work its magic soon.
A loud metal-on-metal screeching noise filled the air and with a thundering thud, the haul cable crashed to a dead stop. Everyone covered their ears.
Our car continued its forward momentum. We swayed up, peaked, and arced backwards, like a giant, slow-moving pendulum on an old grandfather clock.
I braced my back against the gondola wall and scanned the surface of the tiny sea of forty or so shuffling, mumbling human souls, all of us suspended mid-air and clinging to life by a thin, wobbly, and probably frayed cable.
I craned my head and peeked downward and immediately wished I hadn’t. My stomach lurched. A jagged, rocky crevasse stared back up at me from hundreds of feet below us.
“I knew we shouldn’t have come up today,” a woman said.
Emergency amber lights flashed and a broken tin-can voice shot from inside a wall speaker. “. . . worry . . . got . . . down . . . soon. Sorry for . . . thank you . . .”
Human voices mumbled. Our car continued to sway back and forth. Kevin stared at me with rapidly blinking eyes.
Wire tension ebbed and flowed, bobbing us up and down.
The mustached man standing in the opposite corner of the gondola rubbed his temples, bared an assortment of mangled teeth, and banged his fist several times against his forehead. His eyes darted left to right. He squatted and I lost sight of him behind a rather hefty woman wearing an all-pink jumpsuit.
I leaned toward Kevin. “Something’s wrong with that dude.”
Kevin glanced toward the mustached man in the gondola. “Something’s wrong with us.” He jerked his arms and legs, squirming. “This ain’t cool, man. We ain’t supposed to be hangin’ up here in the damned sky like this. I’m ’bout ready to freak my ass out right now.”
The car started free-falling toward the earth, filling the gondola with terrified screams and giving me a weightless feeling. But only for a split-second. Another boom, then we slammed to a sudden stop. I struggled to overcome g-forces that easily doubled my weight.
The mustached man stood, wiped his brow, grabbed at his chest, and hammered his head three times against the gondola wall. “Stop it. Leave me alone, Jacques. I can’t breathe,” he yelled to absolutely nobody. “Need air.”
Arms above his head, he’d rotated one of his skis horizontally above him, ramming the front tip through the cracked rear window, shattering the plexiglass. More screams. He threw down his ski and, climbing onto the handrail, punched out the remaining shards and grabbed the inside of the window frame, pulling his head and upper torso through the opening.
A burly, bearded man from the crowd grabbed the guy’s leg, but took a boot to the face and landed hard on his ass, blood pouring from his nose, lips, and chin.
Kevin and I bolted toward the escapee, trying to seize the man’s flailing legs and wrestle him back to safety.
Before we could pull him inside, the car jolted back to life, yanking us all sideways. Kevin and I fell off balance, both losing our grip on the man’s legs. The gondola continued its trek upwards toward the peak, the inertia sucking the rest of the man’s body out the window.
I jumped and thrust my entire upper body through the window opening. Looking straight down the side of the car, I fully expected to see a falling body. But instead, the man dangled from the side, gripping the sill with one hand. His glasses slipped from his face and plummeted toward the canyon below.
Then he looked at me. We connected.
Fear engulfed us both. Pure, primal panic.
The distant rocks below made my vision spin. Finding untapped internal strength, I somehow managed to grab hold of his right wrist and forearm with my gloved hands and told myself to focus. “Hold on. I got you. Give me your other arm.”
Legs flapped in the open air, he struck the side of the car, bouncing and slipping along the wet metal. Someone grabbed my waist and secured me. But I wiggled my way further out the window another couple of inches, waiting for the right moment to let go with my right hand and grab the left wrist of this crazy man.
My abdomen slid against plexiglass shards still embedded in the windowsill, sharp pieces scraping along my jacket, poking, pushing, prodding into my belly. The padding in my gloves only handicapped my grip, my forearm muscles pulsating and burning to quit.
“Stop messin’ around and pull that dude back inside,” Kevin said from inside. “Before we get to the next support tower.”
Both my forearms begged to release their grip. I doubled my efforts to maintain a solid hold on the dangling man while turning my head, looking forward to the other side of the tower where the canyon rose steeply, and the gondola car would only be a dozen feet above a patch of soft powdery ground. A landing spot. If I could manage to hold onto this guy another few seconds and let go, the drop would be non-lethal. Maybe a fractured ankle. Maybe nothing.
Or I could try to pull him inside.
The man waved his left arm around, making it impossible to grab. “Relax so I can grab ahold of your other hand.” He slapped his free hand against the steel wall. Now’s my chance. In a split second, I let go of his arm with my right hand and grabbed his left wrist, squeezing with every ounce of strength I could muster, knowing my focus, determination, and strength were this man’s only connection to life.
With both arms secured, I turned my head upwards. “I got him! Hurry! Pull us back in!”
My left forearm cramped. More pain surged through my right shoulder. A fresh jolt of adrenaline provided strength to continue another second.
Our eyes locked dead. “I got you,” I said. A sense of confidence washed over me, knowing I could heave the man up and inside. “Talk about your fucked-up Mondays.” The man blinked, confused. “First round’s on me when we get back down.”
A tiny smile appeared in the corner of his mouth.
But my body slid further out the window portal, sucked downwards. All remaining optimism popped like a water balloon. My belly continued scraping against the bottom of the windowsill as my lungs continued pumping, laboring to provide the oxygen I needed to complete the rescue.
The gondola swept upwards onto the final support tower. As we made our way across most of the pulleys, the cable we hung from jerked us around, shaking the entire car sideways, blasting up and thrusting our mass down.
With both forearms completely numb, physical control of my grip became impossible.
When our cable connection slid and bounced across the final pulley, the car slammed down and stopped. The g-forces tried to tear my body in half. But an instant later, the crazy man released his grip on my arms. The only thread tying that poor man to life snapped.
His eyes stared directly at me, into me.
A primal scream.
He fell, belly-up, arms and legs thrashing in a futile effort to save himself. The plummeting body shrank with each microsecond until his body thwacked onto a jagged rock protruding from the snow, forcing his right leg to wrench behind his back, crimson red instantly covering the surface of his once pale face.
Kevin and several others sucked me back up inside the gondola.
“Why’d he let go?” I asked mostly to myself, the world spinning, staring at the aluminum floor and failing with numb gloved hands to wipe saliva from my lips. “I had him.”
Kevin patted my back. “Not your fault, man. You tried. You almost died trying.”
Excerpt from Echo from a Bayou by J Luke Bennecke. Copyright 2023 by J Luke Bennecke. Reproduced with permission from J Luke Bennecke. All rights reserved.
J. Luke Bennecke is a veteran civil engineer with a well-spent career helping people by improving Southern California roadways. He has a civil engineering degree, an MBA, a private pilot’s certificate, and is a partner in an engineering firm. He enjoys philanthropy and awards scholarships annually to high school seniors.
In addition to his debut novel, bestselling and award-winning thriller Civil Terror: Gridlock, Bennecke has written several other novels and screenplays, a creative process he thoroughly enjoys. His second Jake Bendel thriller, Waterborne, was published in 2021 by Black Rose Writing and received several awards. Echo from a Bayou is his latest suspense thriller with a supernatural twist, available now.
Bennecke resides in Southern California with his wife of 32+ years and three spunky cats. In his leisure time he enjoys traveling, playing golf, voiceover acting, and spending time with his grown daughters.
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