Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pearl In The Sand - Chapter 1

Pearl In The Sand
Moody Publishers (September 1, 2010)

by
Tessa Afshar


Chapter 1


Dawn had yet to appear when Rahab tumbled into consciousness, courtesy of an impatient nudge. “Stop your laziness, girl. Your brothers and father are almost ready to leave.” Her mother gave Rahab one more unnecessary shove. Rahab groaned and gave up on rest. Bleary-eyed and sore, she forced herself to rise from her bedroll. For two months she had been doing the work of men, waking before daybreak and wrestling the land all day with little food, water, or rest to renew her strength. It was useless—even at fifteen and only a girl she could see that. Their land had produced nothing but dust. Like the rest of Canaan, Jericho was in the grip of a brutal drought. Though she knew their efforts to be wasted, every day she pushed herself almost past endurance because as long as they stayed busy, her Abba had hope. She couldn’t bear the thought of his despair.

“Child, hurry,” her mother snapped. Rahab, who had already folded her bedroll and was almost finished, dressing, continued her silent preparations at the same pace.

She could move no faster if the King’s armies were at the door. Her father entered the room, chewing half-heartedly on a piece of stale bread. His face, pale and drawn, glistened with sweat. Rahab finished tying her sash with a quick motion and snatched a piece of hard barley cake that would serve as breakfast and noonday meal.

Giving her father a tight hug she said, “Good morning, Abba.”

He stepped out of her embrace. “Let me breathe, Rahab.”

Turning to his wife he said, “I’ve made a decision.
If I find no sign of a crop today, I’m giving up.”

Rahab sucked in her breath just as her mother let out an agitated wail. “Imri, no! What will become of us?”

Her father shrugged and walked outside. Apparently his season of denial was at an end. He was admitting defeat. In a haze, Rahab followed him. She knew this day would be no different from the others. The thought of her father’s wretchedness made her cringe. Her brothers Joa and Karem were waiting outside. Karem munched on a raisin cake, a luxury their mother saved for her eldest son. His wife of one year, Zoarah, stood close, speaking in tones too soft for Rahab to hear. In spite of her worry, Rahab bit off a smile at the way they held hands. Theirs had been a love match, a rare occurrence in Canaan. Although, she teased her elder brother at every opportunity, Rahab’s heart melted at the thought of such a marriage. Sometimes in the cover of darkness when the rest of the family was long asleep, she dreamt of having a husband who would cherish her as her brother did his Zoarah. Lately, however, her thoughts had been too consumed by worry to leave room for pleasant daydreams. Standing as far off as their tiny garden allowed, Joa, the youngest at fourteen, gazed at nothing. Rahab had not heard him string three words together in as many days. It was as if the drought had dried up his speech. She noticed dark circles under his eyes, and his tall frame seemed gaunt. He had probably left the house with no food in his belly. She reached for the bread wrapped in her belt, tore it in
two, and brought it to Joa. Insufficient even for her, it would have to do for both of them.

“You eat that, young man.” Joa ignored her.

She sighed. “You don’t want me nagging at you all the way to the farm, do you?”

He glared at her with irritation, then held out his hand. She lingered to make sure he ate it, then traipsed after their father. Their pace was brisk as they walked toward the city gates. Rahab noticed that even Karem, who was rarely given to broodiness, appeared ashen with anxiety.

Finally he broke the silence that hung over them. “Father, I went to Ebrum in the market as you told me.

He refused to sell me oil or barley for the price you said. Either he has doubled his rates since you last purchased from him or you are mistaken about the price.”

“Send Rahab, then, she negotiated last time.”

“Rahab. You might have said,” Karem drawled, a good-natured glint lighting his eyes.

“One glance at her pretty face and every thought of sums and profits leaves Ebrum’s flat head.”

“Not so!” Rahab objected, her voice rising higher with annoyance.

“It has naught to do with my face, thank you. I am better at bargaining than you, that’s all.”

“Bargaining you call it? Batting your eyelashes more like.”

“I’ll bat my broom at you if you don’t watch your tongue.”

“Hush,” their father commanded. “You two make my head hurt.”

“Pardon, Abba,” Rahab said, instantly chastened. As if her father needed more trouble. She must learn to subdue her impulses. He carried so much care on his shoulders she wanted to be a comfort to him, not an additional burden. She could think of no words that would console him. Instead, following instinct, Rahab reached for her father’s hand and held it. For a moment he seemed unaware of her presence. Then, turning to gaze at her with an unfocussed expression, he registered her proximity. She gave him a reassuring smile. He pulled his hand out of hers.

“You’re too old for hand-holding.”

She flushed and hid her hand in the folds of her robe. Her steps slowed and she fell behind, walking alone in the wake of the men. At the farm, they examined row after row of planting, looking for signs of life. Other than a few hard-shelled beetles, they found nothing. By noon, Rahab was too dejected to continue, so she sat while the men finished their careful inspection.

When they returned, her father was muttering under his breath, “What’s to be done?
What’s to be done?”

Rahab looked away. “Let’s go home, Abba.”

At the house, she swept aside the ragged curtain that served as a front door and dragged herself in. Her mother shooed her out with a wave.

“Give your father and me some privacy.” Rahab nodded and walked back out.

She sank down against the crumbling mud wall, alone in the lengthening shadows. She longed to find a way to help her family, but even Karem and Joa had been unable to find work in the city. Jericho, already bursting with desperate farmers in need of work, gave them no welcome. How could she, a mere girl, be of any use? The sound of her own name wafting through the window brought her distracted mind back into focus.

“We should have given her to Yam in marriage last year instead of waiting for a better offer,” her mother was saying.

“How were we supposed to know we’d be facing a drought that would ruin us? Anyway, the bride price he offered wouldn’t have seen us through two months.”

“It’s better than nothing. Talk to him, Imri.”

“Woman, he doesn’t want her anymore. I already asked. He’s starving right alongside us.”

Rahab held her breath, not willing to miss a single syllable of this conversation. Under normal circumstances the thought of eavesdropping wouldn’t have entered her mind, but something in her father’s tone overcame her compunction. She flattened herself like a lizard against the wall and listened.

“Imri, there will be no going back if we do this.”

“What else can we do? You tell me.”

A heavy silence met her father’s outburst. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, tired sounding.

“There’s no choice. She’s our only hope.”

Rahab felt her stomach drop. What was her father scheming? Their voices grew too soft to overhear. Frustrated, she strode to the end of the garden. In a dilapidated pen, two skinny goats gnawed on the tips of a withered shrub, already stripped to bare wood. With the men and Rahab working the fields every day, no one had cleaned the pen. A putrid stench assaulted her senses—an apt background for her roiling emotions, she thought. Her parents had been referring to her as the means of the family’s salvation. But it wasn’t through marriage. What other way could a fifteen-year-old girl earn money?

Taking a sudden breath, Rahab put her hands to her face. Abba would never make me do that. Never. He would rather die.

This was nothing more than a misunderstanding. But the knot in her stomach tightened with each passing second.

“Your mother and I have been discussing your future, Rahab,” her father began the next morning as Rahab rose from her bedroll.

“You can help your whole family, daughter, though it will be hard on you. I am sorry—” he broke off as if at a loss for how to continue.

He didn’t need to finish his words. Horror seized her so tightly it nearly choked off her breath. With rising dread she realized her worst fears had come to pass. The nightmare she had dismissed as a misunderstanding the night before was real. Her father meant to sell her into prostitution. He meant to sacrifice her future, her wellbeing, her life.

“Many a woman has had to do it—younger even than you,” he said.

Rahab threw him an appalled look.

She wanted to scream. She wanted to cling to him and beg. Find another way, Abba. Please, please! Don’t make me do this. I thought I was your precious girl! I thought you loved me!

But she knew it would be useless. Her father had made his decision and would not be swayed by her entreaties. So she swallowed every word. She swallowed her pleas and her hopes.

You’ll never be my Abba anymore, she thought.

From the time she had learned to speak, she had called her father Abba, the childish endearment that demonstrated her affection for the man closer than any person in the world to her. That child-like trust was shattered forever. The sorrow of this realization was almost more over whelming than the reality of having to sell her body for gain.

As though hearing her unspoken words, he snapped, “What choice do I have?” Rahab turned away so she wouldn’t have to look at him.

The man she had cherished above every other, the one she had trusted and treasured was willing to sacrifice her for the sake of the rest of the family. This was not an unusual occurrence in Canaan. Many a father sold his daughter into prostitution for the sake of survival. Even so, the commonplaceness of her father’s choice did not calm Rahab. There was nothing mundane in the realization that she was expected to live the life of a harlot.

Her father’s breathing sounded shallow and quick. “In the temple, you will receive honor. You’ll be treated well.”

Rahab gasped as if he had struck her. “No. I won’t go to the temple.”

“You will obey me!” her father yelled. Then shaking his head, he gentled his voice. “We need the money, child. Or else we’ll all starve, including you.”

Rahab strangled a rising scream, forcing herself to sound calm. “I am not refusing to obey you, my father. Only, I won’t go to the temples. If I have to do this, let’s not bring the gods into it.”

“Be reasonable, Rahab. You’ll have protection there. Respect.”

“You call what they do there protection? I don’t want the respect that comes with the temple.” She turned and looked him squarely in the eye, and he dropped his gaze. He knew what she was talking about.

The year before, Rahab’s older sister Izzie had given her first child to the god Molech. That baby had been the joy of Rahab’s heart. From the instant her sister knew she was pregnant, Rahab had felt a bond of kinship with him. She’d held him minutes after his birth, wrapped tightly in swaddling, his tiny, perfect mouth opening and closing like baby kisses intended just for her. Love for him had consumed her from that one untainted moment. But her sister wanted financial security. She was tired of poverty. So she and her husband Gerazim agreed to sacrifice their son to Molech for the sake of his blessing. They paid no heed when Rahab pleaded that they change their minds. They were determined.

“We’ll have another baby,” they told her.

“He’ll be just as sweet. And he’ll have everything he wants rather than be brought up poor and in need.”

Rahab went to the temple with the mon the day of the sacrifice. She went hoping to change their minds. Nothing she said moved them.

Her nephew wasn’t the only baby sacrificed that day. There were at least a dozen. The grounds were packed with people watching the proceedings. Some shouted encouragement to the priests who stood before enormous fires, covered from neck to ankle in white, offering prayers.

Rahab recoiled at the sight, wondering about the nature of a god who promised a good life at the cost of a priceless baby’s death. What kind of happiness could anyone purchase at such a price?

She held her sister’s precious boy in her arms for as long as she could, cooing to his wriggling form. He smelled like sweet milk and honey cakes. Rahab nestled him against her one last time as she kissed him goodbye. The baby screamed when rough hands wrenched him from Rahab’s arms, but nothing like his final shriek as the priest reached the raging fire . . .

Rahab stumbled back into Gerazim and found Izzie already slumped there. That was the day Rahab promised herself she would never bow her head to such gods. She hated them. For all their glittering attraction, she had seen them for what they were. They were consumers of humanity.

Now Izzie and Gerazim’s land was as wasted as Imri’s. So much for Molech’s blessing. She would never seek it. No, the temple wasn’t for her.

“Rahab,” her father pleaded, biting an already ragged fingernail. “Think of the life you’ll have outside the temple. You’re young. You don’t understand.”


It wasn’t that she felt no fear. Life for prostitutes outside the temples was hard, risky, and shameful. But she feared that life less than she feared serving Canaan’s gods.

“Father, please. I don’t know if I will be able to survive temple life.”

Daughters were expected to obey their parents without question. Her objections and pleas could be construed as disobedience. Her father could take her to any temple by force and sell her, and she would have no recourse. She told herself her father would never stoop to such behavior, but then remembered reassuring herself only the night before that he would never ask her to prostitute herself either. The very ground under her feet had been shaken. Nothing seemed secure anymore.

Karem, who had walked in halfway through this exchange, burst out, “Father, you can’t do this to the girl. She’ll be ruined!”

Imri slashed the air with an impatient wave. “And you have discovered a way to support the family through the winter, perchance? You have arranged a job? An inheritance from a rich uncle we knew naught about?”

“No, but I haven’t tried everything yet. There are other jobs, other possibilities.” Rahab’s heart leapt with hope at her brother’s support.

But the hope died quickly with her father’s response.

“By the time you realize your confidence amounts to nothing, your pretty bride and unborn child will be dead of starvation. Rahab is our only sure means of survival. Our only means,” he repeated with brutal assurance. Karem dropped his head and did not speak again.

Rahab sank to the floor, unable to check her tears. Imri moved to the opposite side of the room and sat in a corner, staring into space. All discussion ceased as their unspoken words separated them.

In that silence, Rahab felt a wall rise up between her and her father that was as impregnable as the walls of their city. It occurred to Rahab that they were both mired in shame.

He because he had failed her as a father—a protector—and she because of what she was about to become.

She felt numb with his betrayal. A sense of loneliness darker than anything she had ever known closed in over her heart like the seal of a tomb.

In the end, Imri could not resist his daughter’s one request. Rahab’s refusal to enter the temples put her parents in a quandary, however. How were they supposed to find customers for Rahab?

At the temple things were straightforward. But doing things Rahab’s way meant none of them knew how to go about it.

“There’s a woman who lives round the corner from us; she used to train the temple girls,” her mother said.

“Now she helps girls that are on their own.”
“I know the one you mean,” Imri whispered. “She seems hard.”

“I know her too.” Rahab had seen the woman slap one of her girls until blood spurted out of the girl’s ears.

“Perhaps that is not the best plan.”

“You are ever contrary to my suggestions,” her mother said, her voice trembling with reproach.

“Do you know how much this hurts me? Do you know what it does to a mother’s heart to have to bear her child’s pain?”

“No, I probably do not,” Rahab said, her words stiff as wood. She thought it politic to swallow any obvious references to her own pain. That would only set her mother off on another attack of guilt and suffering and Rahab did not feel up to comforting her while grieving her own shattered dreams.

“Look, why should I give half my profits to a woman who’ll probably cheat me? If the intention behind this enterprise is to earn enough money to see us through the year, we can’t afford a dishonest partner.”

“Rahab, we don’t know how to . . . how to manage this affair,” her father said, banging his fist on the wobbly table.

The taste of bile rose in her throat. Ignoring it, she rasped, “Take me to Zedek the gold smith. He’ll know what’s to be done.”

Her father ran errands for Zedek now and again. He was a rich man, goldsmith to the king, and well connected among the aristocracy of Jericho. For the last six months, every time Zedek saw Rahab on the street, he stared at her with an intensity of desire that even she couldn’t mistake. She knew he didn’t want her for wife. He would have asked her father already. But she was willing to bet he would pay well for the other. And she intended to make him pay well. If she had to go through this horror, she would gain a little something besides her family’s bread for the drought year. She would free herself from her father. She loved him still, and her devotion to
her family remained absolute. But she determined never to place herself under his protection again.

“What has Zedek got to do with it?” her mother asked
.
Imri didn’t answer her. He dropped his eyes, mopped his head with the back of his hand, and said, “As you wish.”

Rahab snuck into the garden to weep in private.

“How much will it take to feed us for a year?” Rahab asked her father as they walked toward Zedek’s shop. Her legs shook with each step, but she refused to give in to the fear that strangled her from
the inside out.


“Why?”

“Ask for that much. Plus a gold necklace, earrings, and bracelets for me.”

“Girl, you’re pretty, but not that pretty. No man in his right mind would pay that much for one night, not even for you.”

Was she attractive enough to tempt Zedek to part with his fat purse? She knew she’d been drawing men’s eyes for the past two years, since her body had blossomed and her hair had lost the wild wiriness of adolescence and settled into soft curling masses of deepest red and brown.
Would she do for Zedek?

“Not one night,” she replied absently. “Three months. He gets to have me while I’m still
young and fresh . . . before anyone else . . .” Her voice trailed off. She couldn’t bear the thought of facing this thing one night at a time, with different men spinning in and out of her life. A steady lover might become tolerable with time.

“I’ll ask, but don’t expect him to accept.”

“It’s a good bargain. He’ll accept. Mind you, three months and not one day more.”Her father looked at her like he’d never seen her before. Perhaps he hadn’t. She hardly knew herself.
Zedek was a well-fed man with protruding front teeth. He dressed richly, ornamented with gold from his beard rings to the dainty bells on his woven shoes. When he saw Rahab and her father walk into his shop he came straight over, shoving the hireling aside.

“Good day, Imri,” he said, staring at Rahab.

In his dark irises she could see the reflection of her own face—thin nose, full lips, large hazel eyes puffy from tears. She had washed her hair for this visit, and now it peaked from under its veil, an unruly mass of bright chestnut coils surrounding her face and cascading
down her back. Recalling the reason behind that washing she blushed with shame and desperation—and held Zedek’s gaze.

Her father cleared his throat. “Can we speak with you my lord? Privately?”

Zedek haggled hard, but Imri, to his credit, did not budge. Zedek stared at Rahab, fingers rubbing his lips, and threw out one last sum. When Imri shook his head, the goldsmith walked away. Rahab took her father’s hand and rose to go. He shot her an agonized look, but Rahab pulled hard and he stood. Zedek, perceiving their determination, came back and accepted their offer. Rahab noticed that her father looked astonished. She schooled her features into a
bland mask, covering her own surprise. Like her father, she could hardly believe that Zedek was willing to pay so much for her.

For three months, Zedek was her master. He liked that she knew nothing. He liked that for the first week she cried every time. He liked comforting her afterwards, too. He wasn’t cruel to Rahab. He never beat or abused her. And if a disgust of herself and of him settled into her stomach, she never let him see it.

When the three months were over, Zedek gave Rahab a bag full of gold. He threw in a pair of anklets in addition to her original demand, and when she tallied the coins she found he had overpaid her as well.

She assumed a mistake. “My lord,” she said, “you gave me too much.”

“My little Rahab refusing money?”

“I don’t cheat my customers.”

“Customers?”He rolled his eyes. “You’ve had but one. And you aren’t cheating me, girl. I’m giving it to you.”

Rahab bowed her thanks and clutched the money, half hoping that Zedek would ask her to stay longer. He was right. She hadn’t known any man but him. She didn’t care for his touch, but she would prefer being the consort of one man than the plaything of many. But Zedek showed no interest in continuing their association. Clearly he had had his fill of her. She returned home and handed the bag of gold to her father.

“From Zedek. Payment for three months.”

Her father peered inside the bag and gasped. “So much! I never thought he would give so much!”

“That’s the last of it. He’s finished with me. He doesn’t want me anymore.” Rahab blinked back the tears.

“What did you expect?” Imri threw her a quick glance before returning his attention to the bag. “It’s a wonder he stayed with you as long as he did, Rahab. He’s a man of the world. He’s accustomed to the best.” Meaning she was not the best.

Rahab slumped on a cushion. Her father’s words hammered home a truth she hadn’t dared admit to herself. Once a man really came to know her, he would not want her anymore. She must be undesirable or insufficient in some way. Her father knew it. Zedek knew it. Now she knew it. Suddenly she felt cold. She laid her head on her knees, wrapped her arms around her legs, and began to rock. Her father went into the next room to show her mother and brothers the gold. But for occasional gifts of wheat and oil from Zedek, their family would have starved by now.

This gold would see them through the rest of the year and buy seed for the following year’s harvest. Through the thin curtain separating the rooms she heard her parents’ muffled voices as they spoke.

“Imri, what’s to become of her now?” her mother asked, her voice thin and reedy.

“Can’t you persuade Zedek to keep her?”

“How am I supposed to manage that? He’s bored with her and that’s that.”

“What are we to do with her then? No one will marry her now.”

“You knew the answer to that from the first day, woman. She’ll have to make the best of it. We all will. Her looks will serve her well. There must still be men who want her. For a season anyway.”

Rahab curled deeper into herself and swallowed a moan. Without thinking, she took a fistful of the lavish silk of her dress in each and, bunching the fabric the way a scared infant might cling to a blanket. She felt choked with fear as she thought about her future—about all the Zedeks that would walk in and out of her life. Her bed. She mourned the dreams that would never be, the destiny she would never have. She mourned the choices lost to her.

Finally, exhausted from crying and the strain of loss, she shut her eyes and lay on the cool floor. In the midst of her hopelessness a thought occurred to her. She did have one choice. Though she was reduced to selling her body for money, she could choose her own lovers. She could begin and end every liaison according to her own desire.

She had tasted rejection from Zedek and it was too bitter to swallow. This bitterness, at least, she would avoid. She would be master of her own heart. She would let no one in, and she would cast each one out before they realized, as Zedek had, that she was unlovable.

During the months Rahab had been under Zedek’s protection, she had met other influential men of his acquaintance. Several of them had hinted that when Zedek was finished, they would be
happy to replace him. Rahab chose carefully, and only one lover at a time.

She was stinting in her acceptance of men. Her clients were few, but generous. Her unusual selectiveness enhanced her popularity among men of the higher classes. Each wanted to be chosen over the others. Rahab became the competition they sought to win.

“Rahab, you are the most beautiful woman in Jericho,” more than one man told her.

“Even the king doesn’t have a woman in his household to compare to you,” they whispered in her ear.

Some days such words put a smile on her face, though it was a shallow joy that never lasted. In her heart she believed that any of those men who claimed her to be incomparable would tire of her inside of three months and discard her like bones after a feast. Sometimes after being with a man, she would curl on her mattress and shake, unable to stop. There were days when she would kiss her lover goodbye, smile at him as though he were the center of her world, close the door and vomit. She hated what she did. But she did not stop. She believed she had no alternative. What else could she become after what she had been? Her life was locked into this destiny.

By the time Rahab was seventeen, she had enough silver to purchase an inn on the city wall. Leaving home came easier than she imagined. Two years of absent nights and shamed days had taught her to distance herself from her family. Her body followed where her heart had long been. It’s not that she loved her family any less than before. Often in her little inn, she was lonely for them, but found that being with the monly made her lonelier. So she increasingly gave her time to the demands of her inn.

Most innkeepers in Canaan were also harlots, so much so that the terms had become interchangeable. Rahab, however, separated her professions. Not everyone who stayed at her inn was welcome to her bed. She made certain that her inn gained a reputation for simple elegance and comfort. Decorating it with woven tapestries and rich carpets, she avoided the gaudy ornamentation common among other inns. The location helped. The wall remained an exclusive dwelling place in Jericho, and in spite of the inevitable diminutiveness of the residences and establishments built into it, they represented some of Jericho’s most desirable properties. By the time Rahab turned twenty-six, her inn was as popular as she herself, though like her body, it often remained empty. It was that very exclusivity which made it a sought-after destination.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Surrender the Heart - Chapter 1


Surrender the Heart
Barbour Publishing (August 1, 2010)

by
M. L. Tyndall


Chapter 1


June 18, 1812, Baltimore, Maryland

“I would rather boil in oil than marry Noah Brenin.” Marianne tossed the silver brooch onto her vanity.

“Hold your breath and stay still,” her friend Rose said from behind her. “Besides, it is only an engagement party, not a wedding.”

“But it is one more step to that horrid destination.” Marianne sucked in her breath as Rose threaded the laces through the eyelets on her stays. “Why must women wear these contraptions?”

“To look our best for the gentlemen in our lives.” Cassandra appeared on Marianne’s left, a lacy petticoat flung over one arm. With shimmering auburn hair and eyes the color of emeralds, Marianne’s other friend, Cassandra, had no trouble looking her best for anyone.

Marianne huffed. “I don’t care what any gentleman thinks of my appearance.”

“Which is why you are still unmarried at five and twenty.”

“Then what is your excuse at three and twenty?” Marianne arched a brow, to which Cassandra gave a shrug. “I have not yet met a man worthy of me.” She grinned.

“Where on earth is your chambermaid?” Rose grunted as she squeezed Marianne’s rounded figure into the stays and tied the final lace tight. “Shouldn’t she be doing this?”

“I dismissed her.” Marianne waved a hand through the air. “I prefer to dress myself.” She hoped they didn’t hear the slight quaver in her voice. She didn’t want her friends to know that her mother had been forced to let the entire staff go and the ones here today were hired just for her betrothal party.

“There.” Rose finished fastening the corset and stepped back.

Marianne took the petticoat from Cassandra and slipped it over her head. “Truth is, I do not wish to marry—ever.” She squared her shoulders as Cassandra slid behind her and latched the petticoat hooks.

Rose put her hands on her waist. “Noah Brenin is a fine man and a good catch.”

Marianne gazed at her friend. She couldn’t help but smile at the motherly reprimand burning in her crystal blue eyes. Tall and slender, with honey blond hair, Rose turned many a head in Baltimore. Just like Cassandra.

Marianne wished she had the same effect on men.

“He is a boor.”

“Why so low an opinion of him? Haven’t you and he been friends since childhood?” Rose cocked her head and gave Marianne a look of censure.

“I wouldn’t call it friendship, more like forced acquaintance. And my knowledge of him is precisely why I know him for the churlish clod he is.”

Gathering a cream-colored silk-embroidered gown from Marianne’s bed, Rose and Cassandra tossed it over her head, assisting her as she wiggled into it. She adjusted the ruffled lace that bordered her neckline and circled her puffy sleeves. Cassandra handed her a jeweled belt, which Marianne strapped around her high waist and buckled in front. She pressed down the folds of her gown, admiring the pink lace that trailed down the front and trimmed the hemline. After slipping on her white satin slippers, Marianne moved to the full-length looking glass and paused to eye her reflection.

Plain. Despite the shimmering, glamorous dress, plain was the first word that came to her mind. That was how she had always been described. Brown hair, brown eyes, average height, a bit plump. Nothing remarkable, nothing to catch an eye.

Simply plain.

Which was precisely why, when the other girls her age were being courted, Marianne had chosen to spend her time caring for her ailing mother and younger sister, particularly after their father died. No whirlwind romances, no soirees, no grand adventures lit up the horizon for her. She had resigned herself to lead an ordinary life. An ordinary life for an ordinary girl.

“Come now, it won’t be so bad.” Rose brushed a lock of hair from Marianne’s forehead and then straightened one of the curls dangling about her neck. “You look as though you were attending your own funeral.”

“I daresay I feel as though I am.” Tired of staring into the mirror hoping her reflection would transform into that of a beautiful woman, Marianne turned aside, picked up her silk gloves from the vanity, and sauntered toward the window.

“I, for one, cannot wait to get married,” Rose said. “To the right man of course. He must be a good, honest, God-fearing man. A man who stays home, not a seaman. And he must be agreeable in all respects.”

“What about handsome?” Cassandra asked. Marianne turned to see a blush creep up Rose’s neck.

“Well, yes, I suppose I would not be opposed to that.” Her blue eyes twinkled.

Facing the window, Marianne slid the white gloves onto her hands and tugged them up her arms. Shouts echoed from the street below, accompanied by the clip-clop of horse hooves and the grating of carriage wheels. She brushed aside the curtain to see people running to and fro darting between phaetons and wagons. A warm breeze, heavy with moisture and the smells of the sea, stirred the curtains. A bell rang in the distance, drawing Marianne’s attention to the maze of ships’ masts that thrust into the sky like iron bars of a prison. A prison that could not constrain the ravenous indigo waters from feeding upon the innocent—an innocent like her father.

Rose and Cassandra joined her at the window as more shouts blasted in with the wind. “What is all the commotion about?” Cassandra drew back the curtains.

“There have been rumors that President Madison will soon declare war on Britain,” Marianne said.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that.” Rose peered over Marianne’s shoulder. “War is such horrid business.”

“But necessary if the British insist on stealing our men from land and sea and impressing them into their navy.” Marianne said. “Not to mention how they rouse the Indians to attack us on the frontier.”

“They want their colonies back, I suppose.” Afternoon sunlight set Cassandra’s red hair aflame in ribbons of liquid fire. “England never was good at losing.”

“Well, they can’t have them.” Marianne’s voice rose with a determination she felt building within. Though she’d been born after the Revolution, she had heard the stories of oppression and tyranny enforced upon America by a nation across the seas whose king thought he had the right to dictate laws and taxes without giving the people a voice. But no more. “We won our freedom from them. We are a nation now. A new nation that represents liberty to the entire world.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Cassandra nodded with a smile. “Perhaps you should run for mayor?”

“A woman in public office?” Marianne chuckled. “That will never happen.”

The door creaked open, and Marianne turned to see her mother and younger sister slip inside.

Lizzie’s eyes widened and she rushed toward Marianne. “You look so beautiful, Marianne!”

Kneeling, Marianne embraced her sister. She held her tight and took a big whiff of the lavender soap with which their mother always scrubbed the little girl. “Thank you, Lizzie. I can always count on you for a compliment.”

“Now, Lizzie, don’t wrinkle your sister’s dress.” Marianne’s mother sank into one of the chairs by the fireplace and winced. The slight reminder of her mother’s pain caused Marianne’s heart to shrink. She squeezed her little sister again—the one beacon of joy in their house these past three years since Father died—and kissed her on the cheek. “You look very beautiful too.”

The little girl clutched her skirt and twirled around. “Do you really think so?” She drew her lips into a pout. “But when can I wear a dress like yours?”

“Come now, Lizzie,” Mother said. “You are only six. When you are a grown woman like Marianne, you may wear more elaborate gowns.” She gestured toward Rose and Cassandra. “Ladies, would you take Lizzie downstairs for a moment? I need a word with Marianne.”

“Of course, Mrs. Denton.” Rose took Lizzie’s hand. “Come along, little one.”

Cassandra followed after them, closing the door when she left.

Marianne sat in the chair beside her mother and gently grasped her hands. She flinched at how cold and moist they were. “How are you feeling, Mama?”

“Very well today, dear.” She looked down as if hiding something.

But Marianne didn’t need to look in her mother’s eyes to know she was lying. The sprinkles of perspiration on her forehead, the paleness of her skin, and the tightening of her lips when the pains hit, spoke more clearly than any words.

Marianne squeezed her mother’s hands. “The medicines are not working?”

“They will work. It takes time.” Her mother attempted a smile. “But let us not talk of that now. I have something more important to discuss with you.” She released a heavy sigh then lifted her gaze to Marianne’s. Though illness had stolen the glimmer from her eyes, it could not hide the sweet kindness of her soul. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”

The truth of her words sliced through Marianne. She stared at the floral pattern woven into the carpet. “You know I do.”

“It isn’t fair of me to ask this of you.” Her mother’s voice rang with conviction and deep sorrow.

“You didn’t ask, Mama. I want to do this.” A truth followed by a lie. Marianne hoped the good canceled out the bad.

“Come now. You cannot fool me.” Mama said. “I know this is not the match you would choose.”

Releasing her mother’s hands, Marianne rose from the chair and moved toward the window. The rustle of her gown joined the sounds of the city filtering in from outside. “In truth, I would choose no match ever.” She turned and forced a smile. “So if I must marry, why not this man?”

Her mother gazed at her with such love and sorrow that Marianne felt her heart would burst. Once considered the most beautiful woman in Baltimore, Jane Denton, now withered away with sickness that robbed her of her glow and luster and stole the fat from her bones, leaving her but a frail skeleton of what she once had been. The physicians had no idea what ailed her; they only knew that without the medications they administered, she would die a quicker and more painful death.

Tearing her gaze from the tragic vision, Marianne glanced out the window where it seemed as though the approaching evening only heightened the citizens’ agitation over the possibility of impending war. “Marrying Noah Brenin will save us. It will save you.”

“But what of saving you?” Her mother’s sweet plea caressed Marianne’s ears, but she forced down the spark of hope that dared to rise at her mother’s question. There was no room for hope now, only necessity.

“You know if we continue as is, all that is left of our fortune will be spent in one year on your prescriptions. Then what will we do? Without my dowry, no man will look my way, since that and our good name is all that has caught this particular fish upon the hook.” And without a husband to unlock her inheritance, her father had ensured that the seven thousand dollars would remain as far from her reach as if she did not own it at all.

“Perhaps you will meet another man—someone you love?” her mother said.

“Mama, I am five and twenty.” Marianne turned and waved her hands over herself. “And plain to look at.” She gave a bitter laugh. “Do you see suitors lining up at our door?”

“You are too beautiful for words, dearest.” Her mother’s eyes beamed in adoration. “You just don’t know it yet.”

Shrugging off her mother’s compliment, Marianne stiffened her back before she attempted to rekindle an argument long since put to death. “We could take what’s left of our money and fund a privateer, Mama.” Marianne glanced out the window at a mob that had formed down the street. “War is certain and our fledgling navy will need all the help it can get.”

Her mother’s nervous huff drew Marianne’s gaze. “It is far too much of a gamble. And gambling destroys lives”—a glaze covered her mother’s eyes as she turned from the window and stared, unseeing, into the room—“and families.”

Marianne grimaced. “This is nothing like what Papa did. I have heard these privateers can make a fortune while helping to defend our country.”

A breeze stirred a curled wisp of her mother’s hair as she gazed at Marianne with concern.

Marianne twisted the ring on her finger. “Down at the docks, merchantmen are already outfitting their ships as privateers. The call for investors goes out daily.” If only she could convince her mother, not only would Marianne not have to marry that clod, Noah, but also she could do something to help this great nation of hers.

Her mother’s boney hands, perched in her lap, began to tremble. “We could lose everything. And what of Lizzie? I could not bear it.”

Shame drummed upon Marianne’s hopes. She had upset her mother when the doctor strictly instructed her to keep her calm.

“Perhaps you could take up a trade of some sort?” Mama offered. “I hear that Mrs. Pickersgill makes a decent living sewing ensigns.”

A blast of warm wind stirred the gauzy curtains and cooled the perspiration forming on Marianne’s neck. “Mama you know I have no skills. I’m not like other ladies. The last gown I attempted to sew fell apart. My cooking would drive the hardiest frontiersman back to the woods, and the pianoforte runs when it sees me coming.”

Mother chuckled. “You exaggerate, dearest.”

But Marianne could tell by the look in her mother’s eyes that despite the humorous delivery, her words rang true. Though a governess and her mother had strived to teach Marianne the skills every proper lady should acquire, she had found them nothing but tedious. She possessed no useful skills, no talents. As her father had so often declared before his death. Marianne had nothing to offer. If her mother would not agree to fund a privateer, Marianne would have to accept her fate in marriage.

“I must ensure you and Lizzie are cared for either by this marriage or by some other means.” Mama said with a sigh. “I’m an old woman and will die soon anyway.”

Marianne’s heart sank at the words. Gathering her skirts, she dashed toward her mother and knelt at her feet. “You must never say such a thing.”

“Do not soil your beautiful gown.” Her mother smiled and wiped a tear from Marianne’s cheek. “Perhaps we should simply trust God with my health and let His will prevail.”

Marianne laid her head on her mother’s lap like she used to do as a child. She had trusted her father, she had trusted God.

And they had both let her down—her and her mother.

“I will not let you die, Mother. I cannot.” Her eyes burned with tears. “As long as I have my inheritance and a man who is willing to marry me, I promise you will be well cared for. And Lizzie too. That is all that matters, now.” Marianne lifted her gaze to her mother’s, feeling strength surge through her.

“And mark my words, Mama. Nothing will stand in my way. Especially not Noah Brenin.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Crimson Cipher - Chapter 1

The Crimson Cipher
Summerside Press (July 1, 2010)

by
Susan Page Davis





Chapter One


Wednesday, January 27, 1915

Emma Shuster hurried across campus against the cold wind coming off Casco Bay. Most of the walkways had been shoveled, but a few students employed by the college worked to clear the last few stretches. Six inches of powdery snow draped the brick buildings in glittery icing, and Emma’s heart sang.

A man in a blue wool coat with epaulets on the shoulders and a peaked hat of the same hue approached the Searles Science Building from the opposite direction. Navy, Emma concluded—a fine-looking officer. She looked away before he could catch her eye.

He reached the door of the brick building just as Emma did. “Hello.” He smiled brightly and opened the door for her.

“Thank you.” As she entered, she tucked the large envelope she carried under her arm. She pulled off her knit gloves and headed for the stairs.

“Excuse me,” the man said.

She paused and turned toward him. “Yes?”

He unbuttoned his overcoat, revealing a uniform beneath. “I wonder if you could direct me to Professor Shuster’s office.”

Emma relaxed and smiled. “I’m just on my way up to see him, sir. If you’d like to follow me, I’ll take you there.” Her father was a navy veteran. She wondered what the young man wanted with him.

He followed her to the second floor, where they turned and took the next flight. Classes were in session, and they met no one in the halls. He walked beside her to the third floor landing. The handsome stranger towered nearly a foot over her.

She supposed she should break the silence if she didn’t wish to be thought rude. “Several of the mathematics and science professors have their offices up here.”

“Indeed. I expect the climb keeps them fit.” The young man smiled.

“I’m John Patterson.”

“And you’re with the navy, Mr. Patterson?”

“Yes. Lieutenant, actually.”

They’d reached the door of her father’s office. Emma gave a quick knock and turned the knob. “Father, I’ve brought someone to—” With the door halfway open, she broke off with a gasp.

Her father’s slender form lay sprawled on the floor. Blood seeped onto the varnished oak boards and the papers strewn near him.

“Father!” She dropped her envelope on the floor and knelt beside him. Bending close, she touched his arm. The awful stillness of his body sent chills through her. A dry, fierce ache filled her throat. Pushing his shoulder slightly, she tried to speak again, but a sob wrenched her chest.

Patterson knelt on the other side and put a hand to the fallen man’s throat. After a moment, he reached across and gently touched Emma’s sleeve. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“No, no! He’s my father! We need to call a doctor.”

“I’m afraid there’s nothing a doctor could do for him.”

She wept then—great, hot tears splashing down her cheeks.

“Miss Shuster.” His quiet voice held authority she couldn’t ignore. “Come and sit down.”

Emma raised her hand to her mouth, staring at the blood. Her father had received a fatal wound—but how? She struggled to stand, but her knees buckled, and she grabbed the lieutenant’s outstretched arm.

He caught her as she wilted. “There, now. Let me help you.” He turned a wooden chair to face the door, holding her upright with his steel-like right arm. “Sit down, miss.”

Emma sank onto the chair and held her hands over her face.

“Can I get you anything?”

“No,” she managed. “Thank you. Just…please, see to Father. Make certain…”

“Only if you assure me you won’t topple out of that chair.”

“I—yes, thank you.” She pulled in a deep breath to prove it.

He left her side, and she shivered, even in her thick woolen coat. She wanted to look over her shoulder and see what Patterson did—to assure herself that she’d been mistaken and only imagined the ghastly scene.

She didn’t move.

The lieutenant came back, his jaw tense. “I’m sorry, Miss Shuster. I’m afraid it’s too late.”

A new sob worked its way up her throat.

He touched her shoulder, and the weight of his hand through her coat was oddly comforting. “We ought to call the police. Is there a telephone box nearby?”

She jerked her chin up and stared at him. His solemn brown eyes reassured her. “There’s a phone in the front office of this building, to the right of where we came in.”

“I’ll run down there and call for an officer. Will you be all right?”

She studied his face, wondering how he expected her to answer that. “I…don’t think so.”

“No, of course not.” He squeezed her shoulder lightly. “I’m so sorry, Miss Shuster. Would there be people in the other offices on this level?”

“Yes, probably.” She bit her lip. “Professor Fairleigh is across the hall, and Dr. Shaw is next door.”

“All right, I’ll be right back.”

He was at the door before she forced out a word. “Lieutenant—”

His broad shoulders swung around, and the rest of his lanky form followed. “Yes, ma’am?”

She wanted to say, “Take me with you,” but she didn’t. Even if she couldn’t make herself look at Father again, she couldn’t leave him unattended. She shook her head and clenched her hands in her lap.

“I promise I won’t be long.”

She nodded.

His knocking on another door echoed in the hallway. The murmur of voices was followed by quick, heavy footsteps.

Short, sturdy Dr. Shaw appeared in the doorway. His gaze pinned Emma to her chair then shot past her. He gasped. “Good heavens! Whatever happened?”

“We don’t know, sir,” Patterson said. “If you would be so good as to go down and ask someone to phone the police…”

“Of course.” Dr. Shaw’s thick shoes clumped on the oak stairs.

Far away a bell chimed, and the hubbub of students exiting their classes wafted up the stairwell.

Emma raised her chin and blinked back tears.

Patterson stood ramrod straight, just inside the door, as though on
guard duty.

“Thank you,” she said. Thank you for sending Dr. Shaw, and for not going yourself—but she couldn’t say that. She would much rather stay in the room with the grave young man than with the overbearing Dr. Shaw. Father had never gotten along with him, and their disagreement over number theory was legendary on campus.

“You’re welcome. And if there’s anything else…”

“If you are a man of faith, Lieutenant, I’d appreciate any prayers you could spare this morning.”

“You have them already. Miss Shuster, I sincerely regret what has happened. I’ll help you in any way I can.”

Her heart ached, and a fresh stream of tears bathed her face.

Patterson reached into a pocket and produced a spotless cotton handkerchief, folded and ironed into a perfect square. He placed it in her hand and pressed her fingers around it.

For a moment, the warmth of his hand spread to hers. “I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d walked in alone.” She unfolded the fabric and wiped her cheeks.

* * * * *
An hour later, John entered the small, first-floor chamber where Miss Shuster sat with the dean’s secretary, Mrs. Whitson.

Emma huddled in a padded chair near the window with a full cup of tea cooling on the small table beside her. She’d removed her coat, hat, and scarf, and she looked small and vulnerable in her dark green dress.

She turned wide blue eyes up to him. Her face looked too puffy for her fine cheekbones. Dried tears mottled the creamy complexion he’d admired when he’d walked up the stairs with her—ages ago, it seemed.

He nodded to Mrs. Whitson and crossed to Emma’s chair. Her lips trembled. He couldn’t remain standing, looming over her. He went to one knee on the rug beside her.

“Miss Shuster, I’ve spoken to the police chief.”

“What can you tell me?” Her damp lashes lowered, hiding her reddened eyes.

“Chief Weaver will come and speak to you soon, but I’ve learned a few things about your father’s death.”

She shuddered, and he wished he’d cushioned his words.

Mrs. Whitson cleared her throat and rose. “Lieutenant, I shall give you and Miss Shuster some privacy.” She pulled over another chair, indicating that he should use it, not kneel before the bereaved young woman like an awkward suitor.

John rose and pulled the chair closer. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll stay with her until Chief Weaver comes.”

Mrs. Whitson left the room.

He turned his attention back to Emma, who had made good use of his handkerchief and held it wadded in one hand.

“Did they discover how he…died?”

“The coroner is there now. I’m not sure he’s come to a conclusion about that. But the police are treating this as a crime.”

She winced, and it hurt him to know he’d made her difficult day a little harder, though she’d have learned that fact soon anyway. He’d leave it to Weaver to give her the details of the investigation.

“Is there anyone you’d like notified? Your mother…?”

“She’s been gone since I was seven.”

“I’m so sorry.”

She sniffed. “There are relatives… . Father’s sister…but I’ll let them know later—after I’ve spoken to the chief and had a chance to think.”

“Of course.” He held out a large envelope. “I retrieved this from your father’s office. The police chief said it was all right when I told him you’d carried it in with you this morning.”

“Thank you.” She tucked it between herself and the side of the armchair. “I’ve been helping Father with a private project he was working on.”

John inhaled and studied her face. “If I may address that topic, would that have been his banking project?”

“I beg your pardon.”

If nothing else, his comment had distracted her from the grisly scene upstairs.

“I’m speaking to you confidentially, of course. I’m assigned to the navy’s Signal Corps. My supervisor, Captain Waller, is an old friend of your father’s.”

“Captain Waller?” Emma blinked and nodded slowly. “I’ve heard Father speak of him. They served together in the Philippines, back in the war.”

“Yes, so I understand.” John looked toward the door to be sure it was securely shut. “The captain sent me here to speak to your father about a matter they’d discussed before—the possibility of Professor Shuster going back to work for the navy—”

“Father joining the navy again?”

“Not necessarily. The captain wanted to offer him a position with the Signal Corps. We have several civilians working there, and your father could have served in that capacity if he wished.”

She pushed back a strand of her light brown hair. “I don’t understand. What is it they wanted him to do?”

“To work in cryptography.”

She nodded, the light of comprehension in her eyes. “I see. But Father was happy here at Bowdoin College.”

“Captain Waller hoped the prospect of adventure would entice him away from his academic nest. Your father told him in confidence about the work he was doing for a banking corporation. Designing a system of encryption to help the bank make long-distance transactions securely, by telegraph transmissions.”

Her eyes widened. “I’m surprised Father would disclose even the nature of his work to anyone.”

“He and Waller were apparently close friends, and the captain has a deep interest in this type of work. In fact, during their military service together, they had reason to discuss it often. I telephoned the captain, and he has authorized me to discuss it with you.”

Again she nodded. She must know that during the war her father’s military assignment had included putting messages in code so the Spanish could not decipher them.

“Captain Waller would have come to Maine himself, but his duties prevented that, so he sent me with a private message for Mr. Shuster and instructions to persuade him to come to Washington if at all possible. Waller wanted him badly.”

“Are code makers needed so urgently then?”

“Ah, Miss Shuster, if only it were that easy. But you say you assisted your father on this assignment?”

“Yes, I’ve worked on the project with him since the beginning. It challenged him to his limits, but by God’s grace, he was able to find the solution needed by his employers. He was nearly finished.”

John nodded, thinking quickly over his instructions and how much he could reveal. “It’s not code makers we need just now, but code breakers.”

A rap at the door drew their attention. The oak panel swung open, and the chief of police entered. “Miss Shuster?”

“Yes.” Emma wobbled slightly as she stood, and John stepped nearer,
in case she collapsed again.

“I’m Chief Weaver.” He closed the door and walked toward her. Emma extended her hand, and he shook it gravely. “I’m sorry about your father.”

“Thank you. Can you please tell me what happened?”

“As near as we can tell—and it’s early days yet, ma’am—someone surprised him when he came into the office this morning. The gunman may have been inside when he arrived, and—well, shot him.”

Emma caught her breath. “Surely someone would have heard the sound.”

“Not if the killer used something to muffle the report. Besides, I understand the professor came to his office early this morning, before there were many others in the building.”

“That’s true. He left the house about six thirty. Classes don’t begin until seven forty-five. He may very well have been the first one here.”

The chief took a small pad from his pocket and made a note. “The coroner says your father suffered a gunshot wound to his chest. That’s what killed him.”

Emma’s face paled, and John prayed silently as he watched her, ready to help.

“When you entered, you two were together?” the chief asked.

“Yes,” John said. “I met Miss Shuster when I came in and asked directions to the professor’s office. I had no idea she was his daughter at that time.”

Weaver scribbled in his notebook. “And who entered the room first?”

“I did,” Emma said. “I opened the door, and when I saw Father lying there, I ran inside. This gentleman was right behind me.”

“That’s right. As soon as I saw Professor Shuster, I hurried in and felt for a pulse. There was none. I got Miss Shuster into a chair and went for help. One of the other professors called your department for us.”

Weaver nodded. “Now, we’ve looked all around the room—under his desk and everything. We didn’t find a weapon.”

Emma said nothing but waited, her lips parted and her brow furrowed.

Weaver coughed. “That is to say, at this point, we don’t think it was a suicide.”

“Suicide! I should think not. That is the last thing Father would do.”

The chief held up his hand. “As I say, miss, we found no weapon. But we had to check, you understand.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“We’ve reached the conclusion that this was murder.”

John raised his arm, ready to catch her, but Emma didn’t waver this time. She drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “All right, sir. What do you intend to do about it?”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Malacca Conspiracy by Don Brown




Malacca Conspiracy
Zondervan (June 4, 2010)




by
Don Brown




Chapter 1


One year later
New York Mercantile Exchange
1:04 a.m.

The headquarters of the mammoth New York Mercantile Exchange, located in New York’s World Financial Center and fronting the Hudson River, was sixteen stories high and more than five hundred thousand square feet.

From his office on the eighth floor, in the dark hours of the morning, Robert Molster enjoyed sipping cappuccino and watching the lights on the river and the sparkling shoreline across the way in New Jersey. The clear, cold night, even more biting because of the six-inch snowfall that had blanketed the city earlier in the day, leaving mounds of snow piled up along the concrete barricades down by the waterfront, seemed to magnify the lights shining on the other side of the river. A few boats, barely visible under blinking red-and-green navigation lights, glided back and forth along the dark river. Molster shook his head, still amazed that he sat here, in this job, at this very moment.

Two years ago, Molster was finishing his MBA at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He had hoped to land a job with a midsize brokerage firm in downtown Richmond. Any regional firm would do, he had thought at the time, as long as he stayed in Virginia.

He’d already decided that he had no interest in becoming either a broker or a trader. But the thought of being a stock analyst had intrigued him since his days as a junior in college, when a business professor had introduced him to The Wall Street Journal. Becoming a stock analyst would have been prestigious and would have guaranteed excellent pay. Plus, in Richmond he could’ve bought a decent-sized home, perhaps in the prestigious West End or fashionable Shockoe slip. He had thought he would meet a nice, well-bred, well-mannered young Southern belle from Sweet Briar College, or the University of Mary Washington. Either would do. Then he would raise a family in a town with lots of history, without the hustle and bustle of big-city life.

All that changed one day just before graduation, when a young woman, a recruiter from the New York Mercantile Exchange, appeared on the Charlottesville campus.

“Ever think about being a commodities analyst?” she questioned him.

Commodities had never crossed his mind.

“You’d work the night shift, watch commodities trading on the overseas markets, and feed data to the media, the wire services, and then to floor traders who start work at 9:00 a.m. But — and this is where you’ll make contacts that will help you write your own ticket — you’ll give a daily briefing to the chairman of the Mercantile Exchange or one of his assistants about overnight trading activities. You’ll learn everything there is to know about oil. You can become an analyst for one of the private commodities firms and make so much money you can retire before you’re forty.”

She reviewed his résumé, and raised a huge selling point.

“I see that you’re an officer in the navy reserve. If you’re worried about your navy obligations, don’t be. Our chairman, Mr. Goldstein, is ex-navy. You’ll have no problems doing reserve duty on the weekends or in the summer.”

Some high-paying employers were against his naval reserve obligations, which required him to be in Washington one weekend a month and who-knows-where in the world for at least two weeks each summer.

“Lieutenant Robert Molster. What does this J – 2 mean?”

“That’s the intelligence section of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he responded. “It’s in the Pentagon. I go one weekend a month and help them sort through boring data.” He figured that would blow over her head.

“The Pentagon” — a look of awe crossed her face — “Impressive, Lieutenant Molster.” She smiled. “Come to Manhattan for an interview. All expenses paid. Overnight at the Waldorf-Astoria.”

Three weeks later, he got the job. And he got an added bonus.

The young lady who interviewed him, the intriguing Wellesley graduate named Jane Morgan . . . well . . . she had accepted his invitation to dinner upon his arrival in New York. Two years later, they were still dating.

A Virginia gentleman and a Connecticut Yankee.

So much for settling down in Richmond with a debutante and a membership in the Country Club of Virginia.

At the Exchange, “Janie,” as he later learned that she was called, held the same job that he did. Except Janie worked the day shift. He worked nights. Then there was his time away in the reserves. Sometimes that made dating a challenge.

Somehow, they managed.

Overall, life was good. Plus, he was still able to keep his toes in the waters of the US Navy.

Enough reminiscing.

The cappuccino was gone now. His five-minute break was over.

No rush.

Trading in light, sweet crude oil futures had been halted at 1:00 a.m. due to a limit move upwards of ten dollars in the market. That would slow things down for about five minutes before trading resumed. He had to get back to his screen. Probably, he’d see a big sell-off of profit taking after the move, with prices dropping back down. He’d need to document the data for his morning briefing.

Back to work. He tossed the paper cup in the wastebasket and walked across the hallway to his monitor.

He sat down and a cacophonous buzz rang from his computer speakers. What now?

Limit Alert . . . Limit Alert . . . Trading in January Light, Sweet Crude Calls halted due to limit move of $10.00. Trading to resume at 130 a.m., EST, 630 a.m., GMT.

A second trading halt in less than fifteen minutes? He’d never seen this before. Somebody would make billions in short order.

What was going on out there?

Should he call the chairman? Would waking the chairman make him look like an overanxious greenhorn?

He flipped out his cell phone and hit “1” on the speed dial.

“Good morning,” Janie Morgan’s velvety, if sleepy, voice said.

“Sorry to call so early. Something’s up.”

“Mmm.” The sound of sheets fluffing. “What?”

“Crude oil. Two limit moves in an hour. Light, sweet crude. Just got a second trade halt in the last fifteen minutes.”

A second passed. “Wow.” Janie sounded wide awake now. “Two in fifteen minutes? I’ve never heard of that.”

“No kidding,” he said.

“What’s going on?”

“Dunno. Think I should call Chairman Goldstein?”

“Hmm. I’m not sure,” she said. “Let me think.”

“I don’t want to look panicky, but still . . .”

“Hmm. Know what?”

“What?”

“I’d call. Better safe than sorry.”

That wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but it confirmed his gut instinct. “I thought you’d say that. I’ll call him right now. If he gets hacked off that I ran him out of bed, so be it.”

“He won’t,” she said. “If he does, blame me.”

“No chance,” he said.

“Call me later. Love you.”

“You too.”

Robert hung up, then picked up the phone again. He punched the speed dial ringing directly to the residence of the chairman of the Merchantile Exchange. After two rings, a groggy voice answered.

“Mister Chairman . . . Robert Molster at the sweet light crude desk . . . Sorry if I woke you . . . Yes, sir . . . I think we may have something strange going in the futures markets.”

USS Reuben James
The Strait of Malacca


Two hours earlier

The sun beat down on the slate-gray steel, heating the deck near the bow of the guided missile frigate. From his station at the forward lookout post, Boatswain’s Mate, First Class Elliot Cisco swiped perspiration from his forehead, then positioned his binoculars off the port side of the ship.

Out to the left, about a thousand yards from the Reuben James, the tanker SeaRiver Baytown, her belly full of Persian Gulf crude oil, churned low through the blue waters of the Malaccan Straits.

About a thousand yards beyond the Baytown, but not visible from this vantage point, the USS Kauffman, another Oliver Hazard Perryclass guided missile frigate, guarded the other side of the tanker.

If anything went wrong, Cisco hoped it would come from the other side — and that the Kauffman would have to deal with it. Swinging his binoculars out in front of the bow, he knew that wasn’t likely.

USS Kauffman was guarding the waters between the tanker and Malaysia.

USS Reuben James, on the other hand, was guarding the waters between the tanker and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Naval Intelligence had warned that radical threats to maritime shipping, and thus the world’s economy, would likely be launched from the heavily populated Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.

Clear seas appeared in the binoculars out in front of the ship. Cisco took in the morning breeze that was whipping in from the southwest. Swiping his right hand across his forehead, he brought the highpowered glasses back to his eyes and swept the horizon to the right, out toward Sumatra. Slowly, he scanned in a clockwise turn, stopping his sweep at the three o’clock position.

Nothing but blue waters and a mountainous shoreline.

Moving his view to the left again, back toward the bow, a flash swept across the seascape.

He stopped the binoculars and angled back to the right. Nothing. Were his eyes deceiving him? That could happen at sea.

What was it? Reflection off glass? The engine of a boat? A whale? Where was it?

Whatever it was, it was too low in the water for the ship’s radar to detect.

He readjusted the powerful binoculars.

Nothing but blue water.

There! Again!

The inbound flash bounced off the water, perhaps a mile out to the starboard.

Cisco held the binoculars in place and adjusted the focus ring, bringing the image into focus. The sun was reflecting against the windshield of a speedboat!

He picked up the watch telephone.

“Chief, small craft at three o’clock! Inbound at high speed! One mile and closing, sir!”

Rasa Sentosa Resort
Sentosa Island, Singapore


11:16 a.m.

Sweet strains of violin music blended magically with the single cello, filling the air with a classical melody that blanketed the mumbling voices nearby. Swooshing water streams jetted from a half-dozen indoor fountains, muffling the clicks of bellmen’s leather shoes traipsing across the expansive marble floors.

Behind the reservations desk in the main lobby, Ashlyn Claire hardly noticed the typical midday sounds of the luxurious Rasa Sentosa, Singapore’s only beachfront resort.

At the moment, her agenda was single-minded — to coordinate with housekeeping to ensure that more than fifty rooms were cleared out in time for check-in, which was still two-and-a-half hours away.

At a world-class resort like the Rasa Sentosa, nothing could prove more disastrous to the career of an aspiring young hotel management intern than to send a well-paying guest to a room that had not been properly prepared.

A small smudge on an obscure portion of a mirror or a window.

An overlooked thumbprint on a faucet in the sink.

A slight wrinkle on a comforter.

Not acceptable.

Ashlyn checked the screen again. Still nothing open. Not yet anyway. Except for the block of rooms reserved for the British prime minister’s advance team.

Therein lay the problem.

British Prime Minister John Suddath was in Singapore for a controversial summit with the president of Singapore over the future of Changi Naval Base. The Brits and the Americans were pressing Singapore to expand the base to accommodate more ships for the Royal and US Navies to patrol the Strait of Malacca. The Americans would pay for the upgrades. That’s what Singaporean television was reporting, anyway.

But Malaysia, Indonesia, and China had protested the deal.

Protests erupted all over the region, and someone leaked that Suddath’s advance team was staying at the Rasa Sentosa. Then two days ago, rumors flew that Suddath himself was staying at the hotel.

That rumor ignited the picketers. Yesterday, more than two hundred paraded in front of the hotel, clogging the main entrance and blocking guest registrations.

Last night, the British and Singaporean governments issued joint communiqués that the PM would be staying at Istana Merdeka, the Singaporean presidential palace, during his stay in the city.

That thinned out the picketers. But even this morning, about twenty of them still strutted in an oblong circle, bobbing their signs deriding the US and the UK.

Ashlyn checked her watch. Twelve-thirty. Nothing to do but wait.

A whiff of alluring cologne took her focus off the terminal. A smiling, olive-skinned gentleman stood behind the reservations desk.

“May I help you, sir?” she asked.

“You don’t look Singaporean.” The gentleman’s eyes danced at her. “Australian? South African?”

His friendly expression and sparkling black eyes exuded an immediate, spellbinding charm.

Was he Indian? Pakistani? Middle Eastern? He sported an amazing British accent, wherever he was from. And the white suit enhanced his dark, handsome features.

“I’m British,” she said, with pride in her voice.

“That’s a brave admission considering those lunatics out there.” He nodded toward the hotel entrance, with a dubious half-grin.

“Yes, well . . .” She glanced outside at the picketers, then back at the man. “Could I help you with something, sir?”

“I’m Ahmed.” He cleared his voice. “Edward Ahmed. Doctor Edward Ahmed. I’m here for check-in.”

“Let’s see if I can find you, Dr. Ahmed.” Ashlyn clicked the Enter key. “Got it.” She looked at him. “Do you have a passport that we could copy?”

“Certainly.” He handed her his Yemeni passport. The name and photograph matched.

“I’m sorry, Doctor, but we don’t have any rooms yet. Check-in is at three. I can call you if something opens earlier.”

“Fine,” he said. “I could take a stroll on the beach. Where may I leave my luggage?”

“The bellman will store your bags here in the lobby area until your room is ready.”

“Fabulous.” The man’s black eyes sparkled. “I look forward to seeing you again, Miss . . . I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

“Claire. Ashlyn Claire.”

“Yes, Miss Claire, and may God save the Queen.” The man turned and walked off with a smile on his face.

Or was it a sneer?

No matter, Ashlyn had work to do. The first members of the prime minister’s advance team were due any minute.

USS Reuben James
The Strait of Malacca


10:18 a.m.

Skipper, forward lookout reports inbound craft! Approaching at high speed at three o’clock! Range one mile!”

“Where?” The skipper of the Reuben James moved to the starboard side of the bridge. Junior officers and enlisted crew members on the bridge were pointing their fingers over the water.

“There! I see it!” the executive officer said.

The captain saw it through his binoculars. The boat crashed through the waves, racing toward his ship, or more likely, toward the tanker he was guarding.

“Issue a no-approach warning, followed by a shot across the bow. If she closes within five hundred yards, take her out. Sound general quarters.”

“General quarters, aye, Captain.” The XO picked up the 1MC, the public address system that broadcast all over the four hundred, forty-five-foot warship. “General quarters! General quarters! Small craft approaching at three o’clock. Possibly hostile. General quarters! Man battle stations!”

Alarm bells rang throughout the ship. Crew members scrambled up and down steel ladders and across the decks to take their positions. The XO’s voice boomed again over the loudspeaker, broadcasting simultaneously over the open maritime radio channels.

“This is the USS Reuben James. To the vessel approaching: turn back or you will be fired upon.”

No reaction.

“Repeat the warning, XO.”

“This is the USS Reuben James. This is your last warning. Turn back or you will be fired upon.”

The boat sliced through the swells, straight toward the ship.

“Weps, fire one warning shot across the bow!”

“One warning shot across her bow! Aye, sir!”

Boom!

White smoke rose from the barrel of the Oto Melara 76/62 naval cannon in the forward section of the ship.

A second later, splash! Water sprayed across the boat’s bow. No reaction.

“Fire another!”

“Fire! Aye, Captain.”

Boom!

This round splashed just in front of the boat. Again, no course change. The roar of the boat’s engines could now be heard on the ship.

“That’s enough,” the captain said. “Open fire! Take her out!”

“Aye, sir.” The weapons officer picked up a telephone to the two gunner’s mates manning the fifty-caliber machine guns mounted along the starboard side of the ship. “Open fire. I repeat, open fire!”

Chit-a-chit-a-chita-a-chita-chita-a-chita-chita-a-chita-chita-achita.

Like dueling jackhammers shaking and pounding the deck, the fifty-caliber machine guns sprayed a wall of lead over the sea, splashing a straight trail in the water toward the boat.

Flames and smoke erupted. Boom! The sound of the explosion traveled across the water and rocked the Reuben James. The boat, now a flaming hulk, drifted listlessly on the sea.

“Get a rescue party out there,” the captain said. “Let’s see what we can find.”

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Gathering Storm - Chapter 1

The Gathering Storm
Summerside Press (August 1, 2010)

by
Bodie and Brock Thoene





PROLOGUE


December 22, 2008

Hampstead Village, London, England


The sun set as I rode the Northern Line from central London north to Hampstead Village for the scheduled interview with the woman I had come to know as “Loralei B.G.”

Lora had escaped from the Nazi Blitzkrieg as a young woman. Over fifty years had passed when the old woman read my early non¬fiction account about the Kindertransport of Jewish children and the evacuees during the Blitz. She contacted me through the publisher.

Her letter read:

I am a Christian Zionist, not Jewish by birth, but by heart and through marriage. I was born in Texas to a mis¬sionary family, though I grew up in Europe. My mother was American. My father was an Austrian and among the leaders of the Christian resistance opposing Hitler. He was killed by the Nazis in France during the war. I was very involved with the refugees. Perhaps I could add details to your research.

Over ten years’ time I received Lora’s story in bits and pieces by post. The true identity of Lora remained a closely guarded secret because her son was a member of the Israeli government. I was faithful to answer her letters at a box in northwest London. Before the era of e-mail we became old-fashioned pen pals.

Though uncertain of Lora’s true age, I guessed she was in her late seventies or early eighties. Though I knew many details of the elderly woman’s past, I knew surprisingly little about her present life. When the letters began to come less frequently, I wondered if her health was failing. Perhaps the old woman’s sense of dignity was one reason she did not want to meet me.

Now, as Lora approached the end of her life, she reached out to me. I received a telephone call from her granddaughter, also named Loralei. It had come one month earlier, summoning me to a home on Church Row in Hampstead Village.

“Will you come for dinner on December twenty-second? Your old friend would like to meet you before Christmas.”

I knew the Hampstead street well. My husband and I frequently met friends for supper at the Holly Bush pub around the corner. How strange it seemed to me that I had probably passed Lora’s house a hundred times over the years and had never known she lived there.

The aroma of roasting chestnuts greeted me as I emerged from the tube station onto Hampstead’s High Street. It was the stuff Christmas carols were made of. Irresistible.

Shifting a big bouquet of roses, I buttoned my jacket against the sudden chill and fished for the heavy one-pound coins in my jeans’ pocket. “One, please.”

“American? Done in a minute.” The chestnut seller stirred a fresh batch over the coals of his brazier. “The south?”

“Close, Henry Higgins. Arkansas, originally. Then central California.”

His eyes brightened. “Arkansas. Y’all?”

“Arkansas may have seceded from the Union since I left. I’ve lived in London for ten years.”

“Then you’re almost home.”

“Almost.”

He scooped the warm chestnuts into a fist-sized, brown paper bag. “Very hot. Take care. Cheers, thanks, and happy Christmas.”

Pocketing the paper sack, I used it as a hand warmer. Striding quickly past shops, restaurants, and my favorite creperie, I made my way toward the Georgian townhomes lining Church Row.

Christmas garlands and twinkle lights gave the village a feel like something out of a Dickens’ novel. I shelled a hot chestnut and popped it into my mouth. Nothing like it on a cold winter’s night.

The directions to the house simply said, House on the end of the row—right. Corner of Holly Walk and Church Row.

Eighteenth-century construction had not included street num¬bers on houses. Instead, fan-shaped windows called fanlights, above the front doors, contained a unique pattern used to identify the res¬idence. Like a logo, letterhead on household stationery reproduced the pattern of the residence’s fanlight. The image was then copied on all answered correspondence. This assured even an illiterate messenger could look at an envelope, compare the patterns, and deliver mail to the correct residence.

I walked briskly to the imposing brick townhouse. Christmas lights beamed from every window. I could plainly see in the leaded glass of the fanlight the images of a nightingale and a rose.

Beautiful, I thought. It was so much like the Lora I had come to know through correspondence: the rose and the nightingale; a story by Oscar Wilde; or a poem by Keats. Like much of London, coded in the very building was the memory of a distant, more noble, age.

I suddenly wished I had not worn jeans and my usual black ostrich cowboy boots. I had meant to honor Texas, the state of Lora’s birth, but I was acutely aware I was underdressed. And, worse yet, I looked like an American tourist. The dignified elegance of the Church Row townhome made me self-conscious.

I rapped the brass lion’s-head knocker on the black door and announced my arrival. Holding the roses beneath my chin, I smiled, hoping the flowers would be noticed, rather than my casual attire.

Hinges groaned as the door opened. A beautiful young woman in her midtwenties beamed at me. Her hair was thick blond, shoul¬der length, and framed her oval face. With blue eyes and straight white teeth, I noticed the clear family resemblance to a photo Lora had sent of herself and her husband from those desperate years before the war.

“You must be Missus Thoene?” The young woman pronounced my name correctly in the accent of an American who had long lived in England. “Tay-nee? Is it? Welcome. I am Loralei Golah.” She was wearing jeans and a red wool cardigan like mine.

I resisted the urge to mention our identical red sweaters. So she shopped at the street merchants’ stalls in Covent Garden? I laughed. “You pronounced Thoene right. So few do. But call me Bodie. Thoene is for author bios.”

Loralei said cheerfully, “Yes. Sunny eyes. Green. Like a forest in this light. Red curls. And the boots! Lora would love them. Her heart is half-Texan, you know. Yes, Bodie suits you.”

Relief!

“So good to meet you. Loralei? Lora’s granddaughter? You rang me. I recognize the smile in your voice. Happy Christmas.”

Loralei inhaled the roses. “Oh, lovely! So beautiful! Who would think? Roses in the dead of winter. Must be grown in greenhouses, don’t you suppose?”

Feeling instantly welcome, I stepped into the warm mahogany-paneled foyer. A row of coats was draped on a rack above an umbrella stand. When Loralei hung up my coat, hot chestnuts dribbled out.

I retrieved them, feeling like an idiot. “Kent. You can get every¬thing out of season. Tomatoes, even.”

Loralei headed off down a corridor and grinned back over her shoulder as a signal I should come along.

Happy to see me, I thought.

The aroma of basil and oregano in simmering sauce filled the house. Loralei said, “But winter tomatoes don’t hold a candle to the ones from the garden in summer.”

I followed Loralei into a living room decorated with fine antiques and wreathed in reds and golds for the holidays like an Oxford shop window. An eight-foot Steinway filled one end of the room, overlooking French doors and a garden. The instrument was open and sheet music of J. S. Bach was unfurled above the key¬board. The grand piano was more than mere decoration.

A small, drab bird fluttered in an ornate cage beside the piano.

“A nightingale,” Loralei said. “I found her in the garden a month ago with a broken wing, the same day I rang you.”

“She seems to be doing well,” I marveled. “Nursing wild birds never worked out for me as a kid. I always ended up burying them in the flowerbed in shoeboxes.”

“That’s why she lives beside the piano. My husband sings to her.”

“You’re married.” I noticed her ring for the first time.

“Enough about me. Look! We’re both wearing jeans and red sweaters. I’m so glad. I wondered if I should dress up a bit. I’ve made pasta for dinner. There’s Chianti. Garlic bread. Tri-color salad with balsamic. Hope the tomatoes are all right.”

We both laughed, and I decided I liked her immensely and instantly. I followed her into the kitchen where marinara sauce steamed in a saucepan.

The table, antique pine, was set for two.

“Will Lora…?”

“Not tonight. I’m sorry. But she has a Christmas gift for you—and a request for you. Please, sit down. Make yourself comfortable.”

I obeyed, trying to conceal my disappointment. “Will she know I’m here?”

“She knows. I’ll be right back.” Loralei bounded up the stairs to the bedrooms. Doors opened and closed. I heard voices. A man’s deep voice. The elderly voice of a woman. Was that Lora? The young Loralei laughed like a bright bell. Moments passed, and she returned with a thick black binder. I knew what it was. For several years I had been encouraging Lora to comb through her diaries and set down her own story.

“I’ve been typing it all out so you could read it. It’s all here. Everything. She’s written a book, you see. Her story, like you wanted her to. The full story. Changed the names, but the story…all the same. Before the war. And then the Blitz. She said you wrote her once and said you would stay up all night to review a manuscript if only she would write it down.” She paused, hesitant for a moment as she searched my face. “Did you mean it? I mean, that you would like to read it?”

“Would I? I’ve begged her to write it down!”

“Well, then, she asked me if you would…would you read it? Tonight?”

I was ecstatic. Of all the interviews I had conducted and all the personal accounts I had gathered, not one person had ever taken me up on the suggestion that the stories should be set down.

Loralei blushed and, suddenly shy, said quietly, “She combed through her diary. Dictated into a recorder. Changed the names, of course. Pseudonyms. She wouldn’t write it any other way. Details she wouldn’t trust to anyone but you. I’ve read your books…and she…well, it would mean so much to her to have you review the manuscript. Offer suggestions. And, maybe someday…if you know a publisher perhaps?”

I felt cheered by the prospect of hours spent reviewing a manu¬script no one had ever read before. What a gift!

We ate spaghetti while Loralei gleaned the details of my life and work. I answered her questions between bites of pasta. “I’m forty-four. Three kids in college. Family originally from around Fort Smith. University of Hawaii alum. Long story there. Working on my Ph.D. at London University. Married to Brock Thoene, Ph.D. in history, among other things. Researcher, writer, and director of an American study-abroad program in England.”

When we finished dinner Loralei led me to an overstuffed chair before the fire. The black-covered journal was open on my lap: The Book of Hours—L.B.G. Part One. War Years.

Loralei patted my shoulder. “It’s a quick read, I think. Quicker to read than it was to write. Only Part One. I’ll wash up and bring coffee…coffee or tea?”

“Coffee, please.”

“White or black?”

“Black.”

“Go on…enjoy.” Loralei poked at the coals in the fireplace. “I love a good fire and a good read. She hopes…well, it reads like a novel, but she needs the help of an expert. Your help.”

“I love a good story. Her letters are the bright spot of my day when they come. Always have been.”

I suddenly realized this young woman knew a lot about me, but I knew nothing about her except the color of her eyes, that she cooked great pasta, liked red sweaters and boots, and wore a size six jeans.

Mellow baroque music played over the BBC. The fire crackled and embers glowed as the story of one life unfolded.





—————————

PART ONE

A time to get, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away.

Ecclesiastes 3:6-17


—————————


1

Brussels, Belgium
May 8, 1940


The night before everything about my ordinary life changed forever, I dreamed a dream.

It was dark and I sat on a boulder in a garden where the stone of a tomb had been rolled away. A rose tree grew with thirty-six white roses in bloom beside the great stone. A nightingale sang in the branches among blossom and thorn.

I heard a soft voice like wind chimes sing, “And if I want him to live until I return, what is that to you?”

Sleeping or half-awake, I saw thirty-five men and women, each dressed in the costume of a different generation. They gathered outside the gaping mouth of the grave. They were discussing some¬thing. What was it? The war? The Jewish refugees who slept in the dorms of Alderman Seminary? The conversations seemed familiar to me, but I could not quite make out what they were saying.

The first in line, a pretty woman of middle age, with gentle brown eyes and soft curls, was wrapped in a cerulean blue shawl. She held a torch aloft. Stooping low, she entered the cave, fire first, carrying the flame into the darkness without terror. A golden glow emanated from the hewn interior. Flickering light cast her shadow onto the feet of the tall young man who was second in line. He looked down at her shadow, then at his toes and smiled, before turning his face toward where I observed. He beckoned to me.

I did not move. I wondered how he had seen me dreaming about him….

By and by the woman emerged, smiling, from the tomb and said quietly, “Death is conquered at last. It truly is empty. He is risen indeed.”

She passed the torch to the man. He entered as she had and returned, declaring her proclamation to the next in line. And so it went through the hours of the night, from one witness to the next and then the next. One by one, they left the garden, and I could hear their footsteps and their voices. “Don’t be afraid,” they declared. “The tomb is empty. Death is no more.”

Finally, the last of the thirty-five, his face concealed, emerged from the tomb and looked to the right and then the left. The sun was rising. “Who’s next?” he called.

I was the only one remaining. I stood, and the light was too bright for me to see clearly. Lifting my hand to shield my eyes, I felt the handle of the torch pressed into my palm.

“It’s your turn now. The long night is almost over. It’s your turn to stand as witness. You shall be the Watchman on the Walls.”

This, then, is my story.


***

May 9, 1940

Light shone through the stained glass flanking the green lacquered door of the stone cottage. Ruby red blossoms and emerald glass leaves made puddles of color on the flagstone steps. I stepped onto a rose-hued pool, shifted my valise, and fumbled for the latch key. Though my mother had died four months earlier, the engraving of my parents’ names remained unaltered on the brass lion’s-head door knocker: ROBERT & JANET BITTICK.

The lock clicked and turned. I wiped my feet and entered the dimly lit foyer. It was almost curfew in Brussels. I closed the blackout curtains. Today, May 9, 1940, was my twenty-second birthday. My first birthday without Mama. The house felt especially lonesome.

“I’m home,” I called, hoping my sister, Jessica, and eight-year-old niece, Gina, might have dropped in. No one answered.

For most of seventeen years the stone headmaster’s cottage bordering the parklike grounds of Aaron Alderman Seminary had been home to our family. But things were changing. Since Easter, every male student in the school of theology had been called up to military duty in Belgium’s antiquated army. The news reports were grim. If the Nazis attacked, few expected Bel¬gium could survive.

The classrooms were empty. Those faculty who had connec¬tions abroad fled the chaos of Europe for England or America. But Robert Bittick remained. Faithful Papa. The Alderman buildings had been leased and were now managed by the Jewish Agency. The seminary was transformed into a transit hospice for Jewish refu¬gees fleeing Nazi-occupied Poland. The ebb and flow of desperate strangers was constant.

Thirty-six Jewish orphan girls from Poland had been given Aryan names and enrolled in St. Mary’s Convent school, where I taught English. Girls were easier to assimilate than circumcised boys. If the Nazis attacked Belgium—if Belgium fell—Jews would be the first to be eliminated. A girls’ convent school like St. Mary’s would remain a safe haven for the children.

With one finger I parted the blackout curtain and peeked out the window.

A thin sliver of forbidden light gleamed from Papa’s office in the chapel. The air-raid warden would soon be knocking on the door to reprimand him. No light allowed. Only stars were permitted to shine brightly over Belgium. Perhaps Papa was immersed in another emergency meeting with the Jewish Agency. His grief over the loss of Mama had been submerged in travel permits and arranging pas¬sage for hundreds of Polish Jews to England and South America and the United States.

Perhaps Papa had forgotten my birthday. Without Mama to remind him, he was hopeless about remembering occasions.

I placed my briefcase on the scarred pine kitchen table. Open¬ing a cupboard I mindlessly stared at the blue floral Meissen china Mama had bequeathed to me in a letter left in her top drawer.

And to my precious Loralei I leave my pair of silver can¬dlesticks brought from Texas and also my best dishes. With them, I leave joy and laughter and the memories of all our special times together….
On last year’s birthday I had come home to a white linen table¬cloth and places set for twelve guests. Since Mama’s death, I had not once set the table with her shining legacy.

Not even a cup of hot tea was waiting for my homecoming this evening. The copper teakettle was cold on the unlit back burner of the stove. Without Mama, the kitchen—neat, quiet, and unclut¬tered—was the loneliest room in the house.

No wonder Papa could not bear to be in the cottage alone.

Papa was Austrian while Mama, Janet, had been born in Texas. They met at a Gipsy Smith revival meeting in 1909 and fell in love. Mama had a Texan’s way of talking like no one else. She ended state¬ments with a question, as if to ask if you really understood what she was talking about? Papa said she enchanted him. From their first conversation he knew she had to be his forever. They married two months after they met and Mama never stopped asking questions. Like a pair of eagles, their hearts were bound for life.

They pastored a church in a German-speaking settlement at Creedmore, Texas. My sister, Jessica, was born there, in 1911. I arrived seven years later. The family returned to Europe as mis¬sionaries after the “War to End All Wars” concluded. Though I had little memory of Texas, Jessica and I spoke perfect American English and considered ourselves Americans. Janet Bittick had not let her daughters forget their mother’s first language. From our childhood, Papa made sure the honor of our U.S. citizenship was prominently noted on our identity papers.

I switched off the lights and retreated down the hall.

The parlor was dark. The keyboard of Mama’s upright piano was open, and sheet music spread out on the stand.

Someone had been visiting. The piano was seldom played since Mama passed away. No one could pound out a song like she did. Honky-tonk and Southern Gospel music. “I’ll fly away, Oh, Glory! I’ll fly away!” Mama could draw a crowd every time.

Perhaps some seminary student in a shining new military uni¬form had stopped in to visit Papa before being called to duty in the Belgian army.

My husband, Varrick, and Jessica’s husband of nine years, Wil¬liam, were together at the border. With most of the young men of Belgium they stood guard against possible invasion by the German army. The horror stories of the Nazi invasion of Poland were fresh in everyone’s mind.

Entering my bedroom, I kicked the door shut with my foot and closed the curtains before turning on the lamp. I picked up the framed photograph of Varrick and me beside the river Zenne last summer. We were squinting into the sun as Mama grinned around the camera and snapped the shutter. Holding the frame against my heart, I could almost see Mama’s face, commanding us to smile and not blink. With a sigh, I turned my back on the memory. What was a birthday, anyway, with so much going on in the world?

“Only another day. Never mind.”

Replacing the snapshot, I switched on the tabletop radio. Glenn Miller’s band filled the space with “In the Mood.” American big band music was becoming more and more popular these days as everyone dreamed of sailing into New York harbor.

I held my arms up as if Varrick had come into the room and asked me to dance. A moment. Imagination. Then I glimpsed my reflection in the round mirror on the wall. Alone. Same thick blond, unruly mane. Sad blue-gray eyes stared back at me as if I were seeing a stranger within my own reflection. Full red lips curved unconvincingly up at the corners as I tried on a smile. “I want you to smile? Honey? Okay. Pretty. Pretty. Now don’t blink while I just…just…say cheese?”

I would not allow myself to think of other birthdays…like last year. Belgian chocolate cake and presents on the table. Varrick and the young men from the seminary gathered ’round to serenade. Who could have imagined what a difference one year could make? The sudden absence of Mama’s cheerful strength had left me so weak.

I turned out the lamp, opened the curtains, and raised the win¬dow. Sinking onto the edge of the bed, I lay back on my pillow. The scent of lilacs drifted in. I remembered Mama planting the lilac bush on my tenth birthday. The thick bloom of Texas in her accent had returned. “My darling girl? You’re a big girl now. Ten years old? I can’t believe it. Outside my bedroom window at home in Texas? When you were born? There were lilacs. Just beginning to bloom. Happy birthday. Happy, happy birthday, my Loralei. From now on? I’ll always give you lilacs for your birthday. Forever. And when I fly away? Whenever you smell the scent of lilacs, you’ll remember the sweet times of our life…. Can you hold onto that? How much your mama loved you? You’ll remember me…remember us.”

It was past the dinner hour when I heard the sound of Papa and Jessica outside on the walk.

“But are they all leaving Belgium?” Jessica was incredulous. “Tonight?”

Papa replied somberly, “If they don’t make it to France before this begins…”

Little Gina reprimanded, “Grandpa, my daddy won’t let the Nazis in.”

A moment of silence passed. I leapt to my feet and hurried to meet my father, sister, and niece in the foyer. The door swung open, and Jessica, eight months pregnant, threw her arms around me in an awkward embrace. “Oh, Lora, the Wehrmacht is massing at the borders tonight!”

As Papa nudged them into the parlor, Gina piped, “Oh, Aun¬tie Lora! All the Jews in the seminary? Leaving tonight! Going to France. Maybe us too.”

“Papa?” I questioned.

“True.” Papa’s dark brown eyes flashed concern as he glanced toward Jessica.

“But…us?” I put my arm around Jessica’s shoulders. “How can we?”

Papa ran his fingers through closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair. The last months had wearied him immeasurably. “We can’t stay. If they come…”

I understood who “they” were. But could it be that the Nazis intended to invade as they had in Poland? “Papa?”

Jessica replied quietly, “The train station. Chaos. Riots. They all want to get away.”

Papa looked around the room as though choosing what to take away when we fled. “We’re as much in the gunsights now as the peo¬ple we have helped. It will be over in Belgium in a matter of days.”

Jessica, alabaster skin pale and expression weary, spoke the name of her husband tenderly. “William.”

Gina, the image of Jessica at that age, tossed blond curls fiercely and began to cry. “But Mommy! Auntie Lora? Will Daddy come with us too?”

I embraced the child. “Gina, if we must leave”—Papa nodded. It was a certainty— “your daddy will come along after us to France. Soon. He’ll follow.”

Gina clung to my waist and turned her face upward, imploring, “And your Varrick? Him too, Auntie Lora? Will Varrick and Daddy come together?”

“Together.” I spoke confidently, but my knees felt suddenly weak. Leave Brussels? Leave the stone cottage at Alderman Semi¬nary? The only real home I had ever known? Oh, why hadn’t we left Belgium when the other members of Alderman staff had fled? “Papa?” I questioned with a glance toward Jessica. “What about…”

Jessica’s clear pewter eyes became determined. She caressed her belly and drew herself erect. “There are doctors in France. Still a month until I’m due. Gina was ten days late. By then? Surely…”

Papa seemed to gather strength in Jessica’s courage. “Yes. By then, we’ll be in Paris. The French army is the best equipped in the world. Your American passports. Your mama always said, bet¬ter than gold.” Papa instructed us, but his passport was Austrian, a nation now under the control of the Third Reich. “We may just have hours. One suitcase each only. I’ve saved enough petrol over the months from the rations. Enough for us to reach France in the automobile.”

***

I lay in my bed, acutely aware this might be the last time I slept in my own familiar room for a long time. Maybe forever. The door to my room was ajar.

Jessica and Gina occupied the spare bedroom.

Papa’s voice floated down the hallway. “Good night, Jessica. Angels keep you, little Gina!”

Gina’s sweet voice replied in an almost perfect American accent, “You too, Grandpa. Big ones.”

I heard my father’s footsteps approach. He rapped softly and the door swung open. The light shone behind him. His hair was still mussed from his hat.

“Still awake, Daughter?” he asked quietly.

“Yes, Papa,” I answered.

“I almost forgot your birthday.” His voice was sad. “Happy birthday.”

“It’s okay. I almost forgot too. I think for next year I’ll change the date anyway, or it will forever remind me of this night.”

“Things will come right for us again. For the world.” He spoke the words but was unconvincing.

“What now, Papa?”

He crossed his arms. “Mobilization full on. North railway sta¬tion packed with soldiers today. I went to see some of the boys off. So many women and children saying good-bye. I fear our brave boys face an uphill battle.”

“What will become of Belgium? King Leopold?”

“I looked at the signs in the station. The train to Waterloo. It’s only an hour to the battlefield at Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated by Wellington. Different tyrant, but a tyrant all the same.”

“Will there be another Waterloo?”

“Another battle, yes. Seven years since Hitler destroyed the German democracy. Yes. But whose Waterloo this will be is almost certain. This time the Allies have no Wellington to pull it off.”

“How long can we hold out?”

“Days, I think.”

“I heard from the nuns at St Mary’s. After school. They said Belgian soldiers have been issued wooden bullets. I told them it was only a rumor.”

“Not a rumor, I’m afraid. Belgian officers are passing out wooden bullets. The kind they use in practice maneuvers.”

We considered this bleak information for a long moment. I sighed. “Pointless against German Panzers. Just like what hap¬pened to the Poles.”

Papa agreed. “Someone in the government must think it will make the soldiers feel better about things if their rifles make a big bang…”

“…before they die.”

“Our fortifications against the Germans are built to be impen¬etrable. So the Germans simply go around, or fly over.”

“It is over, then, Papa? The battle for Belgium? Over before it’s started?”

“Oh, Loralei, dear girl. I’m praying for a miracle. Miracles can happen.”

“The Red Sea parted.”

“We will pray.”

I closed my eyes and whispered a prayer for Varrick and William. Would they fight the Blitzkreig with wooden bullets? “The Polish Jews have a saying. God is too high up, and America is too far away.”

Papa replied, “We won’t give up hope. Maybe the Germans will decide Belgium isn’t worth their while. The lowlands of Holland. Maybe the Nazis will turn on Russia instead of us. Yes. We will pray.”

“That’s all that is left to us for the time being.”

Papa was silent for a moment. “God is watching to see what brave men will do. That is everything, my dear. So, happy birthday, my darling girl. I’m sorry I forgot.”

“We’ll celebrate in Paris.”

His voice smiled. “Well, then. There you have it. When we reach Paris, we’ll have a lovely celebration. Until then, we’ll pretend it’s not yet your birthday.”

“Night, Papa.”

“Night, my darling girl.” He turned to go, then paused, head bowed. “And…your mother loved you very much, you know.”

“I’m sure of it.”

“Always said you were the strong one. Stronger than your sister in a lot of ways. Texan at your core.”

“Like Mama, I hope.”

“Your mother always said God loves a good story. Courage and strength. Impossible battles.”

I laughed gently. “Remember the Alamo, huh? These Nazis don’t know what they’re facing if America comes in.”

“America must…” Papa’s voice faltered. “Ah, well. Enough of that. You’ll need to be strong in the days ahead. For your sister’s sake. You’ll need to help her through this. If William doesn’t…I mean, he likely won’t be around when the baby is born.”

“I will, Papa. Be strong, I mean.”

“There’s my girl. There’s my Loralei.”

“You should sleep now, Papa. Thanks for remembering.”

He nodded and padded down the corridor toward his bedroom.