Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Mayan Apocalypse - Chapter 1

The Mayan Apocalypse
Harvest House Publishers(September 1, 2010)

by
Mark Hitchcock & Alton Gansky


Chapter 1


JULY 8, 2011
Andrew Morgan was pretty sure he was still on Earth, although the number of extraterrestrials surrounding him made him wonder. To his left was a six-foot-tall gray alien with bulbous black eyes that reflected the glare of streetlights overhead. As an alien, he would have been more believable if he weren’t handing out fliers for a barbeque joint two blocks down the main drag. And the woman with green skin, an extra eye glued to her forehead, and a pair of wire antennae sprouting from her coal-black hair would have been more convincing if she weren’t wearing a worn pair of New Balance sports shoes.

Morgan had expected to see people dressed in homemade costumes wandering the streets of Roswell, New Mexico. He had done his homework, and like everyone in the United States, he knew about the 1947 alleged UFO crash in the nearby desert and the ensuing cover-up.

Entertaining as the tourists were, and fascinating as Roswell’s history was, Andrew didn’t care. He wasn’t there for aliens or crashed UFOs. He cared nothing for such nonsense. His mission was serious. He had come because the end of the world was less than a year and a half away. Then the world would change for him and a few billion others.

December 21, 2012, or 12-21-12, would arrive, and everything would be different—assuming anyone survived.

Sixty-three years earlier, a flying saucer supposedly crashed seventy-five miles outside of town—all UFO aficionados knew the crash was closer to Corona, New Mexico. Roswell, however, got all the credit. Over the last two decades, the city of less than 50,000 had become Mecca to every kind of oddness, cult group, and paranormal adherent.

Morgan had been to the town before, but never during the annual UFO festival. Watching the costumed tourists crowding normally quiet streets made Morgan shake his head. Roswell could well be remembered for many things. Rocket pioneers did much of their work here. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach played football at New Mexico Military Institute. Demi Moore, John Denver, and other famous people were born in Roswell. Does anyone remember that? Nope.

Morgan was a man of science as well as business. Being CEO and president of Morgan Natural Energy made him wealthy and able to pursue his passions, a passion that narrowed from a spotlight to a laser beam. He enjoyed mysteries, and he had done his share of investigation in UFOs, cryptozoology, and other fringe subjects. He didn’t believe the stories, but he did find them entertaining. That was before he learned the world was coming to an end. Such truth tended to push other thoughts from the mind. He had many thoughts he wanted pushed away.

Struggling to move through the crowds, Morgan pressed forward like a salmon swimming upstream. He reminded himself to be patient and enjoy the ambience. He was a man on a mission.
Five blocks from the parking lot where he left his Beemer, Morgan arrived at a movie theater built in the early sixties. This week, Morgan imagined, the owners were making far more money renting the facility to groups bringing in experts from the far regions of the world (and of reason). One, however, was different.

Morgan was here to see Robert Quetzal, the last Mayan priest.
###

Marcus McCue was a drunk, but he was a dedicated drunk. He took to drinking like Mozart took to music—like Michelangelo took to canvas and marble. Rare was the man who understood his skills and his limitations like Marcus understood his. Marcus had many limitations but only one skill: He could hold his liquor, at least most nights.

It was still early in the evening when Marcus pushed open the marred blue door leading from the Tavern on the Green bar and into the Arizona evening. The door was the only thing in Tacna, Arizona, that bore more scars than he.

Marcus glanced at the bar’s sign: TAVERN ON THE GREEN. The name always amused him. There was nothing green around the bar, and aside from the occasional lawn in front of some home, there was no green in Tacna: just sandy dirt, pitiful-looking desert plants, dust roads, sidewalks, and tumbleweeds.

Overhead, a bejeweled, cloudless sky returned his gaze. This part of town had few streetlights, allowing the stars to shine without interference. The only art Marcus could appreciate was that created by the constellations.

As a boy, he spent many of his evenings staring through a telescope at the twinkles in the sky. The small refractor lacked enough power to render the rings of Saturn, but that didn’t matter. Marcus’s imagination filled in what was missing. The warmth of memory rose in him, and he smiled at the moon. Good times. Good times until the old man got home.

Marcus’s father had also been a dedicated drunk. Marcus came by it honestly. He started drinking when he was thirteen, following an especially severe beating from his dad. At first, he would sneak sips from his old man’s stock, but Marcus Sr. would catch him, and he would communicate his displeasure with his fists.

His mother, a saint with graying red hair, begged him to stay away from booze. He promised to do so. That was when he became a dedicated liar. She left six months later, and he never heard from her again. His father said she died in Phoenix. He had no idea if that was true. Forty years later, he wasn’t sure he cared.

His gaze drifted across the street to the auto repair shop he inherited from his father. He hated that shop. He hated its origins. It smelled of his father. Still, it provided enough income to pay for his mobile home, frozen dinners, and Jim Beam. He worked during the day, just as his father had, in a slight fog and with a persistent buzz. He had been staining his hands with grease since he was sixteen.

“Too many years,” he told the night.

He felt depression coming on. He scolded himself for the thought. Of course he was depressed. He’d been depressed since his eighth birthday when he realized his family was nothing but trash. Drinking a depressant didn’t help.

“You ain’t so bad.” This time he mumbled to himself. “You kicked drugs, and you didn’t bring any kids into the world that might turn out like you. Nope, you ain’t so bad. Just two more battles to win.”

The first battle was his chain smoking. Marcus had quit smoking many times. He was quitting again, just as soon as he finished this last pack of Marlboros. Maybe after he finished the carton. The last battle would be the booze, but there was no sense taking on too much at one time. He had time. He had nothing but time.

He pulled a cigarette from the pack he kept in the front pocket of his stained overalls and placed the filtered end in his mouth, and then he drew a lighter from another pocket and flicked on the flame.

The glow seemed brighter in the dim light. He squinted, blocking out the glare and the twisting smoke of tobacco.

He released the lighter’s starter, but the glare remained. Odd.

A distant glow in the sky captured his attention. A falling star? No. He took a drag on the cigarette then pulled it away from his lips, his eyes frozen on the greenish light hanging in the sky.

“Nova. That’s gotta be it.”

Marcus thought he heard a distant roar. That’s when he realized the spot of light was moving—and growing.

“It can’t be.”

Over the years, Marcus had seen meteors streak the sky. It was one of the few benefits of living in a town that was little more than a wide spot on the road. The kind of place people passed but never visited.

He had only been drinking for a few hours, so most of his brain cells had yet to be pickled for the night. There should be a tail. Where’s the tail?

As if on cue, a short green and white tail appeared. So did fiery globs that dropped from the moving object and trailed behind it, creating their own tails.

Should be longer. Tail’s too short.

A boom rolled along the desert as the object broke the sound barrier.

Yup. Tail should…be…longer.

A frightening realization wormed through the alcohol-induced haze: The tail wasn’t too short—Marcus couldn’t see it because the object was coming right at him.

Nah. Can’t be.

A second later, he changed his mind.

“Boys. Boys! You gotta see this.” A voice in the back of his mind tried to remind him that no one in the bar could hear him over the raging country music and loud conversation.

Another boom. This one rattled the bar’s blackened windows and the blue door. The light had grown from distant star to plummeting fireball. Smaller pieces rained from the main body.

“Hey, Marc, what’d ya do? Bump into the building?” It was Gary’s voice, a trucker who broke up his routine drive with two beers every night. Not even Marcus was that stupid. “If you can’t stand on your own two feet…What is that?”

“Meteor.” His voice was so low he could barely hear himself.

“It’s a UFO, ain’t it?” Gary stepped to Marcus’s side.

“Don’t be a fool, Gary. It’s a meteor.”

The light doubled in size. “It looks like it’s headed right for…” Gary was gone. Marcus heard the blue door open and shut. A muted shout that sounded a lot like Gary pressed through the walls and windows.

The object was close enough that its light blocked out the stars.

What remained of Marcus’s instinct for survival screamed in his head. “Uh-oh.” Marcus threw himself to the ground, pressing himself against the wall. If he could, he would have started digging through the concrete walkway.

He could hear it approaching. He thought of a train. The ground shook. Or maybe it was Marcus who shook.

He felt it. The concrete seemed to lift a foot off the ground. The sound—a bomb-sized explosion—stabbed his ears and vibrated through his body.

There was light.

There was heat.

There was ear-pummeling noise.

So this is it. This is how I die. Drunk. On the ground. Crushed by a big rock from the sky. At least it has class.

Marcus didn’t die. He lay curled like a fetus, his hands covering his head, arms protecting as much face as possible.

Glass broke. A thousand bits of space shrapnel pounded the parking lot and pummeled the wall next to him. It sounded like someone had pulled the trigger on an automatic rifle and refused to let go.

“Marcus! You okay, dude?” Big Bennie the bartender stood over him. “Talk to me, man.”

Slowly, Marcus opened his eyes and then sat up. Behind Bennie stood the rest of the pub’s patrons.

“You hurt, pal?” Gary’s voice. It sounded distant. Marcus’s ears rang and felt as if someone had packed a pound of cotton in each ear.

Without speaking, Marcus stood, wobbled, and looked at his auto shop across the street. Its roof and two walls had collapsed. The sheet-metal wall facing the street that separated the bar and shop bowed out.

Turning, Marcus saw dozens of holes in the wall of the bar and several broken windows. Fragments had hit the wall like pellets from a shotgun blast. That raised a concern with Marcus. He looked at his arms, legs, and body. No blood. No pain.

“It missed me. Not a scratch.”

“You’re one lucky drunk,” Bennie said. “You fared better than my bar.”

“Not so lucky, guys.” Gary pointed at the shop. “You won’t be salvaging much from that mess, Marc. That big rock ruined you. What are the odds?”

Marcus felt something well up inside of him. It took a moment to realize what it was. He bent and placed his hands on his knees. His shoulders began to shake. His head bobbed.

“It’s all right, dude.” Gary put a hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “Let it out. Ain’t no one here gonna blame you for crying.”

Marcus straightened, unable to hold back the emotion. A loud guffaw erupted from deep inside him.

“What’re you laughin’ at?” The bartender seemed offended. “Maybe you’re drunker than I realized.”

Another roaring laugh filled the night. Marcus wiped a tear from his eyes. “Don’t you bums get it?” He pointed at the burning remains of his shop. “I’m rich, boys. I am rich.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Judgment Day - Prologue & Chapter 1

Judgment Day
WaterBrook Press (September 21, 2010)

by
Wanda Dyson


Prologue



Baltimore, Md

Running away from home had sounded like the best idea ever when she was planning it, but now that sixteen-year-old Britney Abbott was tired, hungry, and out of money, it felt more like the biggest mistake of her life. She climbed down off the bus, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and wondered where she was going to sleep for the night.

If only her mother hadn’t married that jerk. He was so strict. According to Ronnie, Britney couldn’t date, couldn’t stay over at a friend’s for the night, and she had to be in the house no later than seven every evening. None of her friends had to live like that.

Last Saturday night her mom and Ronnie went out to dinner, leaving her home alone with the usual litany of instructions: You cannot have anyone over. You will do your homework. You will be in bed by ten. You will not spend the evening on the phone with your friends. And you will not—I repeat not—leave this house; I am going to call and if you aren’t here to answer the phone, you will be grounded for a month.

Fifteen minutes after they left, Ronnie-the-Predictable called. She answered the phone. An hour and a half later, she was gone.

She looked around at the crowds dispersing in several directions. The smell of diesel fuel overwhelmed her empty stomach and it growled in protest. Everything looked the way she felt—worn-out, dirty, and depressed.

“Hey, you okay?” A girl stood against the wall near the exit from the bus station. Torn jeans, pink T-shirt, high top sneakers, leather jacket, and numerous rings and studs from ear to nose to lip.

“Yeah, I’m cool.”

“You look hungry. I was just going over to Mickey D’s. You wanna come?”

“No money.”

“It’s okay. I think I can buy you a hamburger and some fries.”

Britney was hungry enough to be tempted and wary enough to wonder why the girl would make such an offer. “Me?”

“Yeah.” The girl walked over. “My name’s Kathi. I came to Washington about five months ago. A friend of mine was supposed to be on the bus but either her parents caught her trying to run away or she changed her mind.”

“You’re a runaway?”

Kathi laughed as she shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket. “Look around, girl. There are lots of us. We come to DC to get away. Some stay, some move on to Chicago or New York.”

Britney felt relieved to know she wasn’t alone. “Okay. I’ll take a hamburger. Thanks.”

Kathi linked her arm in Britney’s and led her down the street toward the Golden Arches. “What’s your name?”

“Britney.”

“Well, let’s get you something to eat and then you can crash at my place.”

They chatted as they ate their food and drank their sodas, and with each passing minute, Britney liked Kathi more. She might look a little tough, but Britney supposed that living on the streets, you had to be. Her appearance aside, Kathi seemed friendly and generous.

They were about a block past McDonald’s when a woozy feeling interrupted their conversation. When she stumbled, Kathi steadied her. “You okay?”

“Just lightheaded.”

“Tired more than likely. It’s not far to my place.”

But Britney’s body felt heavier with each step. She struggled to stay awake. She had never felt this way before in her entire life. Not even after staying up for two straight days studying for a math test.

“I don’t feel so good.”

“We’re almost there,” Kathi told her. “Just down this way.”

Britney didn’t like the dark alley or the dark van parked there with the motor running, but she couldn’t find the strength to resist Kathi’s pull on her arm.

As they passed the van, the side door opened and a man stepped out. “Too bad she’s such a looker.”

“Yeah, well,” Kathi replied. “You get what I can find.”

The man picked up Britney and tossed her into the van. Britney tried to call out, tried to resist, but she could no longer control her arms or legs. She could only lay there and let the fear grow and build until the scream inside felt like an explosion in her head.

The man duct-taped her arms and legs. Then he placed a piece over her mouth. “Don’t worry, kid. This will be over real soon.”


Chapter 1


Outside Washington DC

Suzanne Kidwell shoved her tape recorder in the cop’s face, smiling up at him as if he were the hero in her own personal story. “We have two girls missing now and both were students at Longview High. Are you looking at the faculty and staff at the school?”

The officer puffed a bit, squaring his shoulders and thrusting out his chest as he hiked up his utility belt. “You have to understand that we haven’t finished our investigation, but I can tell you that we found pornography on the principal’s computer. I’d say we’re just hours away from arresting him.”

She lightly traced a glossy red nail down his forearm. “I knew I came to the right man. You have that air of authority and competence. And I’ll bet you were the one who sent those detectives in the right direction, too.”

He dropped his head in one of those “aw shucks, ma’am” moves. “Well, I did tell them that he had been arrested about ten years ago for assault.”

“And they made a man like that the principal. What is this world coming to?” Before he could comment, she hit him with another. “Has he told you yet what he did with the girls?”

“Not yet. He’s still insisting he’s innocent, but it’s just a matter of time before we get a confession out of him.”

“Thank you so much, Officer. You’re a hero. Those girls would be dead without you.”

He blushed hard as she hurried off, lobbing him another dazzling smile as she calculated her timetable. It was nearly four and she had to be ready and on the air at six, scooping every other network in the city.

###


At the station, she ran up the stairs to the second floor and jogged down to Frank’s office. “Is he in?” she asked his secretary.

“Sure. Go on in.”

If there was a dark spot anywhere in her job at all, it was Frank Dawson. The man delighted in hassling her. Professional jealousy, no doubt. She knocked on his doorjamb. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Like Frank, the room was heavy on shine and light on substance. Awards and diplomas covered all the walls. Pictures of Frank with politicians, presidents, and the wealthy, beautiful, and powerful were displayed prominently on all the bookshelves. His desk dominated the center of the room, covered in paperwork, tapes, and files.

“Sure.”

Suzanne took a deep breath, clutched her notes, and strode into his office. “You know the two local girls that went missing recently?”

He glanced up at the clock, a subtle reminder that she should be getting dressed and into makeup. “I think so.”

“Well, I’ve been doing some digging and they have a suspect.”

“And this is your business exactly why?”

“Because I scooped everyone else. I talked to one of the officers working the case and he told me that they have a suspect, they’re interrogating him now, and they expect to announce his arrest momentarily.”

“And what does this have to do with me?”

She stared at him for a long moment. “I want to go on the air with this late breaking news.”

He scratched his chin. “Your show is already scheduled, Suzanne. Corruption in the horse industry.”

“I know that, and I can still do that. I just need five minutes at the end of the show to cover this. We’ve got the scoop! How can we not run with it?”

Waving a hand, he said, “Fine. Go with it. I sure hope you have all the facts.”

“I have them straight from the mouth of the police. How much more do you want?”

“Fine. Do it.”

Grinning, she rushed back down to wardrobe and makeup in record time, entering the studio with mere minutes to spare.

Suzanne looked over at one of the assistants. “Where’s my microphone?”

As someone rushed to get her mic’ed up, the director walked in. “We have a job to do people; let’s get to it. We’re on the air in two.”

She straightened her jacket as the assistant adjusted the small microphone clipped to her lapel. “It’s fine. Move.”

The cameraman finished the countdown with his fingers. Three…two…one. She fixed her expression.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” Suzanne turned slightly. “I’m Suzanne Kidwell. And this is Judgment Day.”

Suzanne took a deep breath while the station ran the introduction, taking a moment to straighten the notes in front of her and sip her water.

When the director pointed at her, she launched into the ongoing corruption and abuses endangering horse owners.

The camera shifted for a close-up. “And before I close tonight, I want to give you a late-breaking report. Just like you, I’ve been horrified by the tragic disappearance of teens here in the tri-state area. But what made me truly sit up and take notice was that within the last two weeks, two young girls—seventeen-year-old Jennifer Link, and sixteen-year-old Britney Abbott—were reported as runaways. Same neighborhood, same school, both runaways?

“Now maybe that could happen, but I was skeptical. I did some digging. And I’m happy to report that the police have arrested Peter Fryer, the principal of Longview High School.”

Suzanne changed her expression from a touch of sorrow mixed with concern to outrage. “I spoke to the lead officer and he told me that evidence against the principal included child pornography on Fryer’s computer. In spite of being arrested ten years ago for assault, Peter Fryer was hired on as the principal of Longview just four years ago. He is still denying any involvement, but the police assured me they have their man. I will keep you posted.”

She angled her body. “As long as people out there that you trust are betraying that trust, they will face their Judgment Day with Suzanne Kidwell. Good night, America. I’ll see you next week.”

As soon as she got the signal that she was clear, she pulled off her mic and stood up, grabbing her water as left the studio.

She rushed down the hall and when she reached her office, she sank down into her chair and kicked off her shoes. She barely had time to curl her toes in the carpet before her phone rang.

She picked it up. “Great job, Suzanne.” It was Frank.

“Thanks, boss. I knew you’d be happy.”

“The phones are ringing off the hook. The other stations are scrambling to catch up to us.”

Smiling, she leaned back. “They’ll be eating our dust for a while now.”

“You’ll stay on this?”

“All the way to conviction.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Secret of The Shroud

The Secret of The Shroud
B&H Books (September 1, 2010)

by
Pamela Ewen


Chapter 1


New York City, August 1955

The child fell, pulled to the earth by gravity at the rate predicted by Newton, velocity increasing 32 feet per second, each second he fell. Leo Ransom looked up at the baby’s sharp, shrill cries of terror. The little body seemed almost to float; even so, some part of him calculated the rate of the fall. Before entering the ministry, Leo taught piano at the Julliard School, focusing almost entirely on Bach’s music, especially his mathematically precise techniques of ornamentation. Leo loved calculations and numbers.

Leo lurched forward, stretching his arms up toward the tiny body, but it seemed to gather speed, rushing past him to the sidewalk. It landed at his feet. God have mercy. He froze, then crossed himself as lifeblood spread around him and upon him like scattered light. Stunned, newly ordained, uncertain, he looked up in disbelief, craning his neck, and saw two boys peering down from the roof of the fourteen-storied building. When they spotted Leo, the heads disappeared.

Leo blinked, not sure what he had seen. Cars and buses ground to a halt, and for a moment an eerie silence settled around him. Then Leo heard feet pounding on the pavement, and the street came to life. The ground seemed to shift beneath him, but he willed himself to hold steady.

Suddenly the door of the building burst open, slamming against the dirty brick wall; and a small boy, not more than eight years old, exploded onto the street. Tears streaked through the grime on his face, and his breath came in great gasps as he halted and stood rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed on the little body lying on the sidewalk.

Later, each time Leo recalled this moment, he pictured a tableau, like an old sepia portrait—a closed circle containing himself, the boy, and the dead child—suspended, flat, and still.

The boy tore his eyes from the body and stared at Leo. He remained quiet, even after a woman in the distance began to scream.


Police and ambulances converged on the scene. Leo reported having seen two children peering over the low brick ledge on the roof when he looked up at the sound of the baby’s screams.

“Are you certain?” the policeman asked.

Leo sat on the ground now, cradling the rigid boy who had burst from the building. One hand cupped the boy’s head against his chest. “Yes,” he said. The boy was gangly, with long bones for such a young child, unmoving as Leo rocked with him back and forth. His clothes were worn, slightly oversized, but almost subconsciously Leo noted that the shirt and pants were carefully darned in several places.

Leo glanced up, and the policeman gave him a questioning look. He pressed the child closer to his chest and nodded to confirm his words. “I’m absolutely certain.”

“What’s your name, Father?”

“Ransom,” he replied. “Leo Ransom.” He glanced at the child in his arms, then at the small body still lying on the sidewalk, now covered with a white cloth, surrounded by medics, policemen, and a man in a rumpled business suit who seemed to be in charge.

“You know the...ah...the baby?” the policeman asked.

“No.” Leo shook his head. “I was just passing by.” His voice broke. He swallowed and went on. “The screams...I heard...”

“He’s almost three years old,” whispered a small voice. The policeman slid his eyes to the boy.

Over the child’s shoulder Leo saw the small body being lifted onto a stretcher. Gently, he placed a hand at the side of the boy’s face to block his view of the frantic scene.

“How do you know that, son?”

The child hesitated, then raised his head and stared at the policeman. When he finally spoke, his tone was strange, tight and flat. His fists were clenched, ridged tendons stretched the length of his forearms. A tiger coiled to spring, Leo thought.

“He’s Sam. He’s my brother.”

The policeman watched the boy for a moment.

“What’s your name?”

“Little Guy.”

“Little Guy.” The policeman sucked air, then blew out his cheeks as he pulled a small notebook from the breast pocket of his short-sleeved blue shirt. “Okay. We’ll come back to that.” He stooped down to eye level with the boy.

“Were you on the roof?” he asked in a low voice.

The boy nodded, mute.

The policeman thought about that a moment. “Then how did you get down here so fast?” he finally asked.

The boy’s chest rose and fell. An ugly flush crept up his neck and along the sides of his face, and his eyes filled again with tears. He seemed to gasp the answer. “I ran.”

The policeman’s gaze swept up the fourteen-storied building, then he looked back at the child in disbelief. “You ran down all of those stairs in that short time?”

The boy nodded once again, and a small sob escaped. He stared at the policeman and shuddered.

“Why?”

The boy looked away. After a moment he said, in that same strange, flat tone, “I thought that...maybe...I could catch him.”

###


Months later Little Guy sat beside his mother on a long wooden bench in a small courtroom. The ceiling was high, but the stark white walls seemed to close around him. On the other side of him was Father Ransom. Father Leo, he remembered. Little Guy caught his mother’s eye and managed a weak smile.

Streaks of flinty light filtered through dirty windows high up in the courtroom, near the ceiling. The room was packed with spectators, reporters, some friends of Little Guy’s mother and a few people who seemed to know the two boys, Jesse Reardon and Malo Sanchez, the killers, sitting at a long table in front of the room, to the left, just inside a low, wooden railing. Another long table inside the railing on the right was piled high with books and papers. Two men dressed in dark suits sat at this second table, drumming their fingers, making notes with pencils on a tablet before them as they talked. Little Guy had seen them all before.

Father Leo had remained with Little Guy through the long ordeal of staring spectators, questioning policemen, ambulance drivers, and doctors on that day . . . the day that Sam died. When his mother arrived at the hospital, Father Leo had explained…passing by…Sam…the boys…Little Guy. He’d prayed with Mother, stayed with them.

Sitting in the courtroom, Little Guy struggled to forget that day, but pictures flashed into his mind, then disappeared and reappeared like pop-ups in a haunted house . . . people crowding, pressing, crying. The wailing ambulance—one for Sam, one for him. Father Leo’s black suit with the thin white circle around his neck. His mother’s heaving sobs, leaning on Father Leo. Some things were sharp and clear, faces looking down at him with pity and, just behind, a white sheet covering Sam—it was soaked in blood—and a nurse who brought hot chocolate.

Finally, after a long wait, Father Leo had bundled Little Guy and his mother into a taxi and took them home. Little Guy shuddered, hating to think of it even now—walking into the apartment in the late afternoon when light turns dull and gray. Without Sam the rooms were empty, damp, and cold. Father Leo stayed with him until he’d fallen asleep.

Now in the courtroom Little Guy felt ice blades slice through his stomach and shuddered. His mother slipped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. Little Guy looked up at Mother, then at Father Leo. Since that day, the day that Sam had died, Father Leo visited his mother and him several times a week, bringing treats for him and, once, flowers for his mother. After the flowers his mother began taking him to Father Leo’s church on Sunday mornings. It was the Apostolic Church, Father Leo said. God’s house.

There was a big gold cross inside the church, up at the front under a window with colored glass, and the cross gleamed in the light on sunny days. Sometimes Father Leo played the piano just for Mother and him after everyone had left and the place was empty, dark, and cool. Church wasn’t so bad, Little Guy decided. Besides, he liked having someone to call “father.” His own had been gone for years—just disappeared one day. He’d been sitting on the stoop in front of the apartment house, down near the sidewalk, when his father had come hurrying out the front door with a small brown suitcase in his hand. When he’d spotted Little Guy, he’d given a large sigh; and even though his father had grinned down at him, Little Guy remembered how cold he’d felt at the sound of that sigh.

His father sat down next to Little Guy on the stoop, fished a silver dollar from his pocket, and flipped it from one finger to the next, over and under, like he was thinking hard. Then with another sigh he’d handed it to Little Guy. Little Guy still had that dollar.

He’d held the coin in the flat of his hand, examining it. “What’s this for?” he’d asked.

“Won it at the races,” his father said with a strange, sad smile. “It’s yours to keep. Remember this son,” he’d added as he pushed himself up from the step. “There’s not a lot in life that you can count on. But that dollar coin there—it’s got real silver in it. That’s something real enough—you can always count on that. I’d give you more, but your mama took the rest, and that’s all I’ve got today.” He’d chucked Little Guy underneath his chin and smiled again, tipped his hat to the back of his head, turned, and walked away. Little Guy had watched until his father rounded the corner and he couldn’t see him any more.

Every day for weeks and weeks Little Guy had waited on the stoop for his father to come home. Finally one day he’d understood. His father wasn’t coming back. He’d wrapped the silver dollar in some tissue paper then and put it into a small brown box that he tucked at the back of his underwear drawer; right next to the round, white “I like Ike” button.

And now Father Leo came to visit. Little Guy wondered if he’d ever stay—take his father’s place. He banished thoughts of his own father, angry thoughts. Sometimes Father Leo sat with his mother in the kitchen for hours, just like a real father might. They spoke in low, serious tones over cups of coffee; and he noticed that sometimes the tips of their fingers touched across the table while they talked, just lightly, as if resting there. When occasionally the talk came around to Sam and God, he’d listened, trying to understand. Once he’d asked Father Leo where God was. “Why can’t I see him?”

“He’s invisible,” Father Leo had said after a moment.

The boy thought this was probably a trick, but he kept the thought to himself. Father Leo had patted his arm and smiled.

This courtroom reminded him of Father Leo’s church, Little Guy mused as he looked around. Except the church was dark, and this room was bright. Both places were closed in, though, with a funny, musty odor. An old, stale smell. Both places reminded him of Sam. But Sam was dead.

Just before coming to the courthouse for the first time about one week ago, Father Leo sat with Little Guy at the kitchen table, wearing a grave expression as he told what to expect that day, that Little Guy would see the boys who had dropped Sam from the roof. His brown eyes sloped down at the corners, and bushy brows drew together as he talked while he tapped his fingers on the table like he was playing a piano. Little Guy had tried to smile as if he didn’t care, fixing on those long, thin fingers; but his eyes blurred, and his lip trembled.

“Sam lives with God now,” Father Leo said gently. “He’s in a happier place. God will take care of him.”

An image of Sam’s little body falling from the roof flashed before Little Guy, and he’d turned his eyes to Father Leo. “What if he doesn’t?” he’d asked.

“Doesn’t what?”

“Doesn’t take care of Sam.”

Father Ransom had smiled and put his hand on Little Guy’s shoulder. “Of course he will, son. God’s with us all the time. He loves us. He’ll take care of Sam.”

Little Guy hesitated as a rush swooped from his head to his feet and turned his stomach upside down. He caught his breath, fighting the nausea as he thought of Sam falling. Why did Sam have to die?

He must have spoken out loud because Father Leo’s hand had tightened on Little Guy’s shoulder for an instant and his smile died. After a moment he said, “God has reasons that we can never understand, Little Guy.” His voice was firm, resolute. “It’s a fact that Sam’s in a happy place now. He’s with God.”

Little Guy dropped his eyes and thought about Father Leo’s words. How could this be true? Sam, dressed in a little blue-and-white playsuit, with his baby-silk hair carefully parted and brushed to one side, lay alone in a box in a graveyard just across the river, outside the city. Little Guy had seen him put there. It occurred to him that Father Leo might be wrong about God and Sam. But he pushed the thought aside. What if Father Leo became angry and left—like his father had left him? What if he stopped visiting, stopped calling Little Guy “son”? So Little Guy tucked the corners of his mouth into a smile and nodded.

The bench was hard, and Little Guy had been sitting still in this courtroom for a long time. He shifted his buttocks, and his mother rubbed his shoulder in an absent manner. He looked up at her, but she stared straight ahead with her lips pressed together. He sighed, then straightened as a door in the back of the room opened, a loud unintelligible announcement was made, and a large man dressed in black robes entered. His mother stood, and Little Guy slid from the bench, shuffling his feet.

A week ago, when he’d first seen this man dressed all in black like Father Leo, Little Guy thought he was a priest.

His mother had shook her head. “This is a judge,” she’d whispered. “He’s here to decide how to punish the boys that dropped Sam from the roof. It’s his job.”

Little Guy stared at the judge and hoped that the killers would be beaten to death. That’s how he thought of Jesse and Malo . . . the killers. Or that they’d be left to starve on an island filled with tigers and poison snakes. Alone.

When the judge took his seat behind a large wooden desk high above everyone else in the room, Little Guy’s mother sat back down, and he followed suit. He reached only to his mother’s shoulder, and he had to tilt his head up to see the judge. This was an important day, Mother had said. When the judge began to speak in a solemn tone, Little Guy waited to hear Sam’s name, but instead the judge used the same old words that Father Leo used in church on Sundays, words like remorse, society, and a long one—redemption. Little Guy’s thoughts began to drift while the judge went on, his voice humming, rising and falling in the distance, settling into a rhythm.

Pictures of that day skittered through Little Guy’s mind, and he squeezed his eyes tight to shut them out. Still they came. Two killers. Malo’s hateful laughter as Jesse held Sam’s little legs, dangling him upside down from the edge of the roof. Even now he could feel Malo’s iron grip twisting his arms behind his back while he struggled, fighting, begging them not to hurt his baby brother. He could hear them laughing when he’d jerked free, moving toward Sam.

Memories struck in flashes now, like bolts of lightning from the past piercing darkness. Images formed, then disappeared. But suddenly in the courtroom Little Guy heard . . . no felt . . . the scream that rose from his bowels that day. Let him go! The words rang through his mind as the agony of that moment—the pain of it—hit him; and he doubled over, dropping his head onto his knees. The courtroom spun. His mother bent toward him, rubbing his back in small, worried circles.

Jesse holding Sam. “Let him go?” Jesse had laughed. Then he’d given Little Guy a long look. “Did you say to let him go?”

Too late he’d realized the mistake. Little Guy groaned, remembering. Shards of light ripped through his mind. He couldn’t breathe as the hateful voice repeated the question. “Did you say to let him go?”

The white light flashed. He saw himself tearing down the narrow stairs, dark and dirty . . . slipping on a concrete landing wet with something sticky, the smell of sweat and something else, something sickening as he was chased by the mocking words.

Did you say to let him go?

His mother pulled him upright, slipped her arm around him, and held him fast against her. She was soft and warm. Little Guy forced his eyes open with a deep, shuddering breath and stared at the backs of the two boys that killed Sam. A woman sat with them. Cold fear crawled through him as he watched her. He’d seen her before; she’d made him sit in the big chair next to the judge while she asked questions. Her smile was tight, and her eyes were hard. When she’d walked over to him, stalking, he’d shrunk from her. Jesse and Malo had watched him, and he glimpsed Malo whispering something to Jesse, who snickered.

From the chair he’d searched the crowd behind the railing for his mother. His eyes blurred as he found her, sitting there with Father Leo, and Malo had laughed again. When the woman began asking questions in sharp staccato bursts, Little Guy’s heart pounded; and he shifted in the chair, moving closer to the judge. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, and he found he couldn’t answer.

“The judge will protect you, son,” Father Leo had told him. “That’s what he’s here for. He’s a good man.”

At Little Guy’s frightened look, Father Ransom had patted his shoulder. “I promise, son.” That was one week ago, and he’d held on to those words, repeating them to himself in the dark just before he fell asleep each night. He had thought of Father Leo’s promise each day as he woke and looked to the empty bed across the room he’d shared with Sam.

Then yesterday, the day had come. Father Leo had promised, and the promise gave him courage to go into the courtroom and to walk up to the chair all by himself. He had relaxed a bit when he saw that the chair was near the judge.

But he was surprised.

“Up there on the roof,” the lady had begun in a quiet voice. “What did you do when you saw that your little brother was in danger?”

Flashing lights blinded him. He couldn’t breathe.

“Little Guy?” Her voice was lower this time. “Little Guy?”

He looked up at her, not understanding.

“I asked, What did you do when you saw Sam in danger on the roof?” She moved toward him, and her voice turned to steel. “Did you try to help your baby brother, Little Guy?” She waited. “Little Guy?”

His tongue was thick; he couldn’t speak. Against his will the pictures came again. A flash of light . . . white sunshine . . . hot up on that roof. Sam crying, crying.

Her voice came from far away. Did you say to let him go?

Himself lurching away from Malo with a surge of strength. Reaching for Sam. Grabbing, pushing, fists flying, punching. And then . . . Jesse’s round eyes gaping at him. And Jesse’s empty hands.

He gasped. The room whirled.

From far away Little Guy heard the judge’s stern voice. “Answer the questions young man.”

The judge’s words came to him in a stream of pulsing beats, low and ominous like far-off drums. Confused, he couldn’t think . . . didn’t want to think . . . to remember any more. Twisting around to look up at the judge: “I tried to catch him; tried to catch him.” His voice broke, and tears ran down his cheeks. “It wasn’t my fault. I tried to catch him,” he cried.

A man helped him down from the chair, carried him from the room, sobbing. Everything turned black. When he awoke, his mother was by his side. And Father Leo.

“It’s all right, my boy,” Father Leo whispered. “The judge will see they’re punished—Jesse and Malo. It’s their fault, not yours.” Little Guy gave him a close look, wanting to believe.

“I promise, Little Guy.”

Suddenly his mother tensed beside him. The memories disappeared, and he looked up. The judge had stopped talking and was putting on his glasses, tucking them carefully behind each ear. Then he picked up a piece of paper that lay on the desk before him, cleared his throat, and began to read aloud.

“The defense has presented evidence in this case raising a valid question: which one of the three boys was the proximate cause of the child’s death. Or to put it another way, which boy actually caused the child to fall.” The judge glanced with a frown over the top of his glasses at the two men before him in dark business suits, then at the crowd behind the railing.

“It seems the actions of the child’s older brother may have contributed somehow to the tragedy,” he went on. His mother’s arm around him tightened, and she drew in her breath. “The extent of his responsibility for the child’s death is undetermined, and in fact,” the judge took off his eyeglasses and wiped them carefully, then settled them back upon the bridge of his nose, “we will probably never know what really happened on that rooftop.”

Jesse seated at the table just in front of the judge, turned to scan the rows of spectators behind him. His eyes swept past Little Guy and his mother with disinterest, then assuming a bored look, he jammed his hands into his pockets, slid down in his chair, and gazed out the windows.

“Society has failed these two boys. They’re victims as well.” The judge’s voice grew loud and stern. Little Guy saw him nod toward the killers. “They’ve never had an opportunity to learn the difference between right and wrong. No one has ever taught them how to behave. No one has looked out for them or cared for them.” His voice rose. “Not their teachers, not welfare workers, not friends, not family . . . no one.” The judge paused for an instant and scowled over the silent room.

“Therefore, given all the circumstances, I cannot in good conscience grant the state’s motion to try these boys as adults under a charge of first-degree murder.” He fixed his eyes on the two men in dark suits. “They will be tried as juveniles, and the court proposes to the prosecution that a lesser charge, such as manslaughter, would be more appropriate for consideration.”

At a cry from his mother, Little Guy’s head swiveled. Her mouth contorted, twisting as she stared up at the judge, and tears spilled. Father Leo reached for her hand and, folding it between his two, patted it. People around them began to rise, talking in hushed whispers as they picked up coats and bags and hats, preparing to leave.

Little Guy’s stomach roiled with fear. His eyes snapped to the judge, who was removing his glasses, wiping them with a corner of his full, black sleeve. Little Guy watched as he looked up and laughed at something one of the men in dark suits said. The man said something to the woman, and she smiled, too.

Father Leo bent toward Little Guy’s mother. “There’s a trial yet to go through, Rebecca,” he whispered. “You must be brave. It will turn out right in the end.”

“No!” Her painful cry shot through the room, piercing Little Guy. The judge looked up and frowned. Little Guy’s eyes shifted from Father Leo to his mother, to the killers, and then to the woman with them. The woman who had tormented him yesterday. She wore a bright smile now.

Father Leo stroked Mother’s hand again.

“It won’t be all right, Leo,” he heard his mother say as she released Little Guy from her grip. “The judge doesn’t care about Sam, or Little Guy, or me.” With her knuckles she rubbed the tears from her eyes. Little Guy stared at his mother. Until Sam died, he’d never seen her cry.

“You know as well as I do those two thugs will be back on the street in a few years.” She spat the words. “They’re old enough to murder my baby,” suddenly her voice broke, “but not for real prison.” A bitter laugh was cut short by a sob. “Think of it! Manslaughter! Why, they’ll be free in a couple of years.” She paused, swallowing; her hands flew up, and she lunged forward, hiding her face. “I should never have left my boys alone to wander the streets.” Little Guy saw her shoulders heave.

“Rebecca,” Father Leo said, bending over her. “You’re not to blame! Think clearly. You had no choice. You were working.”

She moaned. “I can’t bear this. I just cannot bear it.”

Little Guy turned her words over in his mind. She couldn’t be right. His eyes slid back to the judge. What had happened? The judge glanced at his watch and rose, still chuckling, and in that instant Little Guy understood. There would be no beating; there would be no island prison with tigers and snakes for Sam’s killers. Little Guy gave Father Leo a sideways glance; Father Leo had promised the judge was a good man.

His mother’s voice broke through her son’s building rage. “How can this be? It’s insane.” She turned to Leo and collapsed against him, sobbing. “You’re a priest! How could your God let this happen?”

Little Guy fixed his eyes on the back of his mother’s head; looked at the coils of red-gold hair that stuck to the nape of her neck in the heat, looked at Father Leo’s hand smoothing those curls while she wept.

“And, worst of all,” he heard her gulp as she lifted her head and looked up at the priest, “Did I hear right? Did the judge say that…that…Little Guy might have been part to blame?” Her voice rose to a shrill pitch, and her hands curled into fists at her side. “Did he say that my boy might have caused Sam to fall?”

Little Guy froze. What did she say?

He gripped the edge of the hard wooden bench and turned, staring at the woman still standing next to Jesse and Malo at the table in front of the room, and the question she’d asked came back to him. Did you try to help your baby brother?

His heart began to race. A sheen of sweat glazed his neck and arms as his heart pounded in his chest. In rapid succession it beat . . . no no . . . no no . . . no no . . . That wasn’t right, that wasn’t right. He wouldn’t think of that.

Did you try to help your baby brother, Little Guy?

Suddenly, with a roaring in his ears, fury surged through Little Guy, a powerful force that struck him as he turned his gaze to the judge. The torrent of hate flowed from him like a vaporous cloud, engulfing the judge, Jesse and Malo, and the woman with them, and the awful accusation. The merciful cloud filled Little Guy as well, swelling within him, shrouding the ugly pictures in his mind. He lifted his chin, gasping for air as he fought for control.

He would not let them see him cry. He would not think of that day. He would not cry. The words ran through his mind: It’s not my fault it’s not my fault it’s not my fault.
Jesse turned, and Little Guy’s eyes locked with his. He saw a blurred, sneering grin; then Jesse’s mouth formed the words that would haunt him all his life: You said to let him go.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Love's First Bloom - Chapter 1

Love's First Bloom

Bethany House; Original edition (September 1, 2010)

by
Delia Parr


Chapter One


March 1838
New York City

Ruth Livingstone had very little time left to change her father's mind.

After a hasty ride through dark, deserted streets, she parted the curtains on the coach window while waiting for Capt. Grant to arrive. Moonlight rested on the Sheller, a packet ship that was lying at anchor in the harbor. She blinked back tears. Unless Ruth could sway her father's decision, the morning tide would carry her far from home, along with Lily, the sleeping toddler now nestled against her father's chest.

She dropped the curtain and swiped at her tears. Even though he had rejected every one of her arguments since rousing her from bed two hours ago and telling her she had to leave, she prayed she still might get him to agree to let her stay home with him.

"Please, Father," she whispered. "When Capt. Grant gets here, tell him your plans have changed so you can take another day or two to find someone else."

Seated directly across from her, Rev. Gersham Livingstone cradled the sleeping child and shook his head. "I don't have another day or two, Ruth."

"But I don't understand why I must go when you have so many supporters who would be better suited—"

"You're the only one I can trust to take Lily away and keep her safe," he insisted, keeping his voice low.

"But what if Capt. Grant questions me? What am I supposed to say if he sees that I'm not this ... this Widow Ruth Malloy that he expects?"

"I told you. Capt. Grant never meets any of the women he helps me to relocate before sailing. At least you get to keep your given name," he added.

Frustrated, Ruth found it hard to be grateful for keeping her first name when she was giving up so much else. "What about the Garners? Surely they'll suspect that I'm not—"

"Elias and Phanaby Garner will accept you without question when you arrive. In turn, they'll introduce you to the community as a distant relative whose period of mourning is over and is in need of a home. I explained all this to you on the way here," he gently chided.

Dropping her gaze, she swallowed hard. According to her father, the Garners did not know that the real name of the woman they were expecting had been Rosalie Peale, the well-

known prostitute found murdered some days ago. Or that the child in the reverend's arms was in fact Rosalie Peale's secret daughter.

The very idea they would think Ruth was a former prostitute ... Oh, it both shamed and humiliated her as a woman of faith. Being the daughter of a controversial minister who devoted his life to the fallen angels of the city had never been easy, but Ruth found it terribly ironic that the only way she could support him now was to become one of his reclaimed fallen angels herself.

Desperate to change his mind, Ruth tried another tack, keeping her voice to a whisper to keep from waking the little girl. "The constable can't seriously think you could have killed Rosalie Peale," she argued, unable to fathom that anyone would consider him capable of murder.

"Indeed he shouldn't, but the press has fueled public clamor for an arrest that should have been made days ago."

She snorted. "The reporters who've surrounded our house from dawn to dusk for the past two days are even worse than the scoundrels you allowed inside to interview you. Have they no sense of decency?"

"Decency doesn't sell newspapers," he replied. Her father placed a hand on her shoulder. "Instead of being angry about a situation we can't control, we should be grateful that my lawyer was able to persuade the constable to give me time to put my affairs in order before arresting me."

She placed her hand on top of her father's and blinked back more tears. "But you're innocent! It isn't fair!"

"It's not fair for Lily to bear the stain of her mother's sins, either, but she will—unless we can get her out of the city before anyone finds out about her, especially one of those reporters. Unfortunately," Rev. Livingstone added wistfully, "many people, even people we know well, actually believe everything they read in the newspapers. They don't need to wait for a trial to convict me."

Ruth's heartbeat slowed to a thud that pounded against the wall of her chest. She tried not to think of their several neighbors who had closed their hearts, as well as their doors, to both her and her father in recent days. Even Harrison Steward, her father's closest friend, had abandoned him, refusing any contact.

For several long moments she allowed herself a time of self-pity, until she realized her father would pay a far greater price, even beyond losing the affection of their neighbors or even his dearest friend.

He would pay with his very life.

Her father edged forward in his seat to get closer to her. "The path God chooses for each of us to follow isn't always an easy one, but we all have to decide whether or not we're willing to trust in His wisdom and embrace His will. I can't risk letting the glare of scandal that's already churning in the press to shine upon this innocent child. Can you?" He gently urged the sleeping child into Ruth's arms.

Ruth awkwardly cradled the little girl close for fear she would wake up. "No, I-I can't. I'll go. I'll take care of her," she whispered, then tensed when she heard two soft raps on the coach door.

Her father answered by parting the curtain only long enough to nod and drop the curtain back into place before cupping her cheek. "It's time to go now, Ruth. With God's grace, I'll be exonerated quickly. Then I'll send for you, and we'll make more permanent arrangements for Lily. Until then, God will take care of you both. Trust in Him."

Ruth managed half a smile. As more tears slipped free, she kissed the palm of her father's hand, pressing the memory of this moment deep within her heart. When he turned her hand over and kissed its back, she felt his tears, too.

Quietly, without saying another word, he disembarked. Ruth gathered her courage. Once she stepped out of this coach, she would have to swallow her pride and silently bear the mantle of a sinful past she had not lived.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In Every Heartbeat - Chapter 1

In Every Heartbeat
Bethany House (September 1, 2010)

by
Kim Vogel Sawyer


In Every Heartbeat

Autumn's Promise - Chapter 1


Autumn's Promise
Avon Inspire (August 3, 2010)


by


Shelley Shepard Gray



Chapter 1


“I’m pregnant,” Lilly Allen’s mother announced at breakfast. Calm as could be—just as if she was asking for someone to pass the bacon.

Lilly almost choked on her juice as she stared at her mother in shock. “What?

“You heard me. I’m pregnant,” she said again, her voice overly bright. “The doctor said I’m four months along. By Valentine’s Day, we’re going to have a wonderful new addition to the family.”

Ty, all of ten, grinned. “Now I won’t be the youngest anymore!”

Their mother laughed. “You sure won’t. Now you’ll be a big brother. I’m really going to be depending on your help, too.” She looked at all of them. “I’m going to need all of your help.”

“We already have a crib, don’t we?” Ty chirped. “The one we bought for Lilly?”

Her mother’s smile faltered. “Yes.”

As Ty continued to chatter, Lilly felt her world flip on its side. Her mother was four months along? It was the beginning of September, which meant she got pregnant in May.

Right after Lilly had miscarried.

Waves of nausea coursed through her. Warily, Lilly looked her dad’s way. He was eating his bowl of cornflakes like he didn’t have a care in the world. As Ty kept chattering, she glared at him. “You knew about this, didn’t you?”

Slowly, her father set his spoon down. “Of course,” he said.

Her older brother Charlie scowled. “How come you two waited so long to tell us?”

With a helpless—almost sheepish look—their mom shrugged. “At first I just thought I had the flu. Then, well, I put two and two together.”

For the first time in what felt like forever, Lilly stared at her mom. And as she did, she started seeing all the changes that should have been obvious. Her mother’s cheeks were fuller, and her usually neatly tucked-in Tshirt was gone. Instead she wore an oversized buttondown loosely over a pair of knit slacks.

She should have noticed the signs. After all, she’d been in that same condition just a few months earlier. Beside her, Charlie was frowning. “I’m glad I won’t be here to deal with it.” Tossing his napkin on the table, he turned to Lilly. “You should have applied to college. Now you’re going to have to take care of it.”

“The baby,” their father corrected.

“Whatever,” Charlie retorted.

As their dad chastised Charlie, Lilly zoned them out. Her brother was right. She was going to be expected to help. It was inevitable.

She couldn’t imagine a worse chore. The last thing she wanted was to be around a baby. It still hurt to see a baby in the grocery store. And even on TV.

Now she was expected to be excited about living with one?

Abruptly, she stood up. “I’ve got to go to work.”

“Right now?” Her dad looked at his watch. “You’ve got over an hour before you have to be at the Sugarcreek Inn.”

“I told Mrs. Kent I’d come in early,” she lied. “I’m, um, already late.”

“I think you’re being awfully rude, Lilly,” her father chided. “This is a wonderful event. It’s something to celebrate.”

Struggling to hold herself together, Lilly bit the inside of her cheek. Anything to keep all the feelings from bursting out. “It’s not my fault I have to work.”

Face pale, her mother stood up, too. “Please don’t leave. I think we should talk about this. Lilly—”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Of course there is. I know you’re still upset about—”

“Don’t,” Lilly interrupted, the pain inside making her voice hard, clipped. “Don’t mention that. Ever.”

“But—”

“Let her go, Barb,” her dad said quietly.

Before her mother decided to have some kind of creepy heart-to-heart, Lilly set her plate in the sink, picked up her purse and keys from the kitchen counter, and raced out of the house.

Two minutes later, she was pulling onto the quiet state road that led to Sugarcreek. She hardly looked around her. The surrounding leaves, just beginning to change to gold and bronze, meant nothing. The cooler, crisp air with the hint of pine and apples failed to penetrate her awareness. Only pain surged through her as her eyes welled with tears and began to fall.

When her vision blurred, she pulled into an empty storefront’s parking area and collected her thoughts. How could her parents be expecting a baby . . . just months after she’d miscarried?

And they’d looked so happy, too. How could they be happy? Her mother was forty-five years old! Charlie was twenty-one. Nobody had a baby when they had a twentyone- year-old.

Except her parents.

Putting the car in park, she covered her face with her hands and breathed in and out slowly. She had to get a hold of herself. There was no way she could function if she didn’t.

A knock on her window startled her.

“You okay?” the Amish man said, looking curiously through the glass at her.

Lilly nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw who it was. Robert Miller.

Robert, who came to the Sugarcreek Inn on a regular basis and always sat at the same table. Who hadn’t said more than a handful of words to her the first five times he came to the restaurant.

Who knew she’d had a miscarriage and had asked if she was all right.

Who had volunteered to help look for her brother during a horrible storm this past April.

And there he was, standing outside her door, as if he wandered around Sugarcreek and looked in car windows all the time.

As his blue eyes continued to examine her, she nodded. Perhaps then he would go away.

She wasn’t that lucky.

He stood there, strong and still—waiting for her to roll the window down.

She did one better and got out of the car. Though she knew her tears had blurred her mascara—most likely making her eyes look like a raccoon’s—she looked at him directly and smiled. “Hi, Robert.”

“Are you all right? You’ve been sitting in here cryin’ for a good ten minutes.”

“Has it been that long?” she murmured, not actually expecting an answer. There was no way she was going to tell him about the latest development in her crazy, mixed-up life. She hardly knew him.

Lilly decided to ask a question of her own instead. “Why are you here?”

His face didn’t even crack a smile. “You answer my question first. Pulling over and crying is not good.”

“I know. I’m just upset about something.”

“Well, I can see that.” He stepped closer. For a moment, she thought he was going to reach out and touch her arm. But he didn’t. Instead, he folded his arms across his chest, mimicking her, and murmured, “Sometimes talking helps.”

“Talking won’t help this problem.”

“You sure?”

“Positive. It’s something to do with my family.”

Alarm entered his eyes. “Is someone sick?”

Lilly remembered hearing that Robert Miller had lost his wife to cancer a few years back. “No, everyone’s healthy.” She tried to smile. “It’s just something to do with me, really. And I’ll get over it. Now, why are you here in the parking lot?”

“This is my shop.”

He was looking at her curiously, thought Lilly. With a hint of disappointment?

“I thought you knew that.”

The plain wooden building was decorated by only a beautifully carved sign. Miller Carpentry, read Lilly, and then she shook her head. “Honestly, I’ve never noticed it before,” she said. And besides, Miller was a common name in Sugarcreek; it was common anywhere, actually. She wouldn’t have had any reason to guess it belonged to him. “It looks nice.”

Danke. My cousin Abe helped me start this business three years ago, in honor of my twenty-first birthday.”

So he was twenty-four. She’d just turned nineteen— only five years separated them.

She’d thought he was older.

For a split second their eyes met. Again.

But this time it wasn’t concern and alarm that filled his gaze. No, it was interest. Awareness.

Unbidden, a flash of hope hugged her tight. Knowing this was the road to disappointment, Lilly squashed the feeling down. “I, um, need to get to work. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“You didn’t.”

She just pulled open her car door and got back inside, not daring to reply. If he thought she was being rude, then that was just fine.

Anything would be better than Robert guessing the truth—that, for a brief moment, she’d been tempted to reach out to him for a hug, with the hope that he’d never let her go.

“Caleb Graber, you must stop being so lazy and fulfill your duties,” his father said. “Now that Timothy is married and you are sixteen, you need to do your part.” Looking around the barn, his father glowered. “Why haven’t you mucked out the stalls and watered the horses yet? It’s already eight in the morning.”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s no answer.”

Caleb knew it wasn’t. But he also knew he couldn’t tell the truth. The truth was that the six pack of beer he’d drunk the night before with Jeremy was making his stomach sour, and the last thing in the world he wanted to do was rake up horse manure. Reaching for the rake, he muttered, “I’ll do it.”

Under the straw brim of his hat, his father’s eyes looked him over. “Gut,” he said, then turned away.

As soon as he was alone, Caleb let go of the rake and leaned against the barn; closed his eyes against his pounding head. Wished he was anywhere else.

He hated his life.

“Still sitting around, doing nothing?” his sister Judith chirped.

He opened one eye. “Yeah.”

“It won’t help, you know,” she murmured.

“What do you mean?”

Moving the basket of eggs to her left hand, she scowled at him. “I mean, that no matter how much you wish you didn’t have to do things, it doesn’t make responsibilities go away.”

Judith Graber, the font of wisdom. “Can I wish you’d leave?”

Instead of turning away in a huff, she eyed him with disdain. “What’s wrong, Caleb? Too much partying with your crazy English friends last night?”

“Shut up.”

“You better get over that soon and grow up. We need you around here, you know. With Joshua busy at the store and Tim now farming Clara’s land and ours, Daed has to depend on you.”

“It’s not fair that I have to do everyone else’s chores just because they found something better to do.”

Pure amusement lit her face. “Found something better? Well, that’s one way of puttin’ things, I guess. Caleb, Joshua, and Tim got married.”

He hated it when she made him feel like the dumbest person in the room. With a sigh, he turned away from her, filled a bucket with fresh water, and poured it into Jim’s stall.

The horse perked up its ears and came to him for a pet. Caleb complied, rubbing the horse around his ears in the way Jim had always loved.

“You don’t have a choice about your future, you know,” Judith murmured. “Daed expects you to take over the farm since Joshua is in charge of the store. You might as well accept it.”

Turning from the horse, Caleb angrily eyed his sister. “What if I don’t want to?”

“Don’t want to what? What are you talking about?”

“I’m just saying that maybe I don’t want to work in fields and barns for the rest of my life. Maybe I don’t even want to work in the store.”

“What else is there?” Pure confusion emanated from her. Judith really had no idea how he felt.

“A lot.”

“Not that I can see.”

That was the problem with his family. They loved being Amish. They loved their way of life. They never contemplated anything else. Never longed for decent work, or meeting other people, or living other places.

Slowly, he said, “There’s a lot other things outside of Sugarcreek. One day, I aim to see it all.”

Just a bit of her superiority slipped. “Caleb, what are you saying?” she whispered.

For a moment, he was tempted to tell his sister everything. To share his dreams of escaping Sugarcreek and the endless rules that caged him in.

But he didn’t dare. Judith would tell his parents. “Nothing. Leave me alone so I can get this done. And tell Anson to come out here and give me a hand.”

“All right,” she said quietly. “But I hope you know what you’re doing.”

He didn’t. But that was okay. Anything was better than doing what was expected of him . . . than staying.

All he had to do was wait just a little longer.

Then he could leave. Yes, just as soon as he was able . . . he was going to get out of Sugarcreek for good.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

More Than Words - Chapter 1


More than Words
Bethany House; Original edition (September 1, 2010)

by

Judith Miller


Chapter 1


April 1885
Homestead Village
Amana Colonies, Iowa

"Come down from that tree, Oma!" I'd done my best to sound firm. Taking a sideways step, I shaded my eyes to gain a better view among the bloom-laden branches of the apple tree.

My grandmother peered down at me with a devilish grin, her leather-clad feet wedged into a crook of the tree. "Nein, Gretchen! I'm going to get an apple." She pointed a gnarled finger toward a spindly branch bearing a few spring blossoms.

"Don't go any further, Oma. There aren't any apples, and that branch won't hold you."

Ignoring me, she grabbed another limb and hiked her right leg toward a scrawny branch that would surely crack under her weight. The old woman's addled brain might be willing to make the climb, but her aged and fragile body was going to end up on the ground.

After steadying the ladder that Oma had placed against the tree trunk, I lifted my skirt and stepped onto the bottom rung. "Just wait until Stefan gets home!" I issued the muttered warning from between clenched teeth and cautiously began my climb. No matter how often I scolded my brother, Stefan never put anything away. He'd used the ladder to retrieve a ball from the roof yesterday afternoon, and instead of putting it back into the shed, he'd left it sitting outdoors. Out where it created an alluring diversion for Oma, who had somehow managed to drag it across the yard and balance it against the apple tree.

A low-hanging branch snagged my finely knit black cap, and Oma chuckled as she watched my attempts to disentangle the head covering. After finally grabbing the cap and giving it a one-handed shove onto my head, I glanced upward but quickly averted my eyes. "Oma! Put your leg down. I can see your undergarments."

She leaned forward and peeked down, as if she intended to check the truth of my statement. Her body listed sideways, and one foot slipped from the branch. A snowstorm of flowering blossoms showered down on me.

"Hold on, Oma! I'm coming up to help you."

"Don't bring the blackbird," she shrieked. "It will eat the apples."

My frustration mounted as Oma continued the childlike behavior. For all of my life, my mother's mother had lived with us, and we shared a special bond. But when these bouts of dementia took hold, there was no dealing with her. "There are no blackbirds and there are no apples, Oma." I took another step up the ladder and reached for a thick branch. The rough bark dug into my palm as I tightened my hold. If I inched a little closer, I could

grab hold of her leg.

"Go away! You're bringing the blackbird with you."

She climbed higher into the tree, and I gasped in fear. Now I couldn't even reach her foot. "There are no birds in the tree, Oma. I've frightened them all away. Come back down to me."

She peered over her shoulder. A flash of terror shone in her dark eyes. Her once-gentle lips twisted in a menacing jagged line. The look would have held a stranger at bay, but I wasn't a stranger, and I wouldn't be deterred.

"There's a blackbird on your head," she cried. "Get it away! Shoo it off before it eats my apples."

Utter defeat shot through me. Would I ever learn to deal with Oma's episodes? If I didn't get her out of the tree within the next few minutes, my father might discover the dilemma. That thought alone propelled me back into action. I yanked the hat from my head. "The blackbird flew away. See, Oma? Look at me!"

Lips curved in a toothy grin, she leaned forward, peered around my shoulder, and cooed, "Pretty boy, come and get me."

"Oma! Please come ..." I lifted my foot to mount the next rung but was stopped short when two strong hands encircled my waist. I grabbed hold of the ladder and glanced over my shoulder. "Conrad." I exhaled my friend's name along with a silent hallelujah.

"Come down, Gretchen. I'll get her." His hands remained clasped around my waist while I descended to the ground. With one sympathetic gaze, I was enveloped in comfort. He touched a finger to my trembling lips, and warmth spiraled up my spine. "You should have come for me when you first discovered her."

"I know, but I thought she'd listen to me."

He tilted his head toward the ladder. "Did she drag this from the shed by herself?"

"Stefan," I said.

He nodded his understanding. "He's a boy. In a few years he will begin to remember what you tell him."

I thought it would take more than a few years before Stefan remembered anything other than how to have fun, but I didn't say so. "I don't know who creates more problems, Oma or Stefan. Neither one of them will listen to me."

With a chuckle he mounted the ladder and waved to my grandmother. "I've come to rescue you, Sister Helga. Let me help you out of the tree."

I stood below and prayed this wouldn't take long. For a brief moment Oma eyed Conrad with curious suspicion—a strange occurrence, for she usually fancied him her beau when in a delusional state of mind. I immediately feared the worst.

Finally she pointed to a far branch. "First an apple I must pick."

Conrad wagged his finger and shook his head. "Nein. It is too early in the year for apples, Sister Helga, but I promise I will pick you a large red apple come September."

"Ja?" She gave him a toothy grin that creased her aged skin into a thousand wrinkles. "Then I will come down to you, pretty boy."

With skirt and petticoat askew and slowed by an occasional snag to her black stockings, Oma shimmied and slid down the tree until Conrad held her in a firm grasp. He maintained his hold until the old woman's feet were firmly planted on the ground. She turned to face him and jabbed her finger in a tap-tap-tap rhythm on one of his shirt buttons. "Permission from the elders you must have before you marry me."

If Oma's outburst had caused Conrad any unease, his feelings remained well hidden. I couldn't say the same for myself. Heat climbed up my neck in a thousand fingers and splayed across my cheeks. How could Oma recall a marriage requirement of our faith, yet fail to remember that old women don't climb trees or that apples aren't ready for harvest until fall? Those thoughts, along with Oma's behavior, caused my head to ache.

"Thank you for your help, Conrad." I hoped he wouldn't notice my embarrassment. "I apologize for Oma's words."

With the tip of his fingers, he lifted my chin. "What is this with apologies? We have known each other for twenty-two years. We look after each other, ja?" He took a step closer and leaned forward. "I know this is hard for you, Gretchen." His eyebrows dipped low over cobalt blue eyes.

I bobbed my head. "I don't know what I'd do without you." I forced a grin. "But we haven't really known each other for twenty-

two years. I think you can only count from the time we reached the age of four. Before that, I remember nothing."

He chuckled. "From now on I will just say I have known you all my life."

Conrad thought he understood my daily plight: the rigors of trying to keep my work completed at the store while attempting to hide Oma's behavior from my father, and striving to keep Stefan on the proper path to manhood. I didn't want to dash Conrad's belief, but he could only partly understand. He wasn't there day and night to see my struggles.

The right side of his mouth lifted in a half grin. "And you don't have to worry about what to do without me, because I will always be here to help. I'm not going anywhere."

Before I could respond, Oma clutched Conrad's arm in a viselike grip and tugged. "Come on, pretty boy. Come and sit with me."

He winked at me before returning his attention to my grandmother. "I have a better idea. Why don't you come and sit with me in the barbershop, Sister Helga?"

Shaking my head, I mouthed that he didn't need to take charge of Oma.

"It's the least I can do. You need some time alone to complete the ledgers at the store without worry." He shifted his weight and waved me toward the general store. "And if your work is all done, you can write in your journal. You're always taking care of others. Let me look after you some of the time."

Lifting a bony finger, Oma tucked a wisp of white hair behind one ear. Her black cap remained twisted in a loose knot at the back of her head, but I made no attempt to fix it. If she discovered any black fabric in her hair, she'd probably think the imaginary blackbird had built a nest atop her head. Conrad tucked Oma's hand into the crook of his arm, and she smiled up at him as they strolled toward the barbershop. Conrad glanced over his shoulder and waved. "I'll bring her back before time for the noonday meal."

I stared after the two of them for a moment. Oma continued to cling to Conrad's arm. She chattered to him as though she hadn't talked to him in years. And in her muddled thoughts, perhaps she hadn't. Nowadays, my grandmother often confused Conrad with her deceased husband. I found the idea quite odd, because the two men looked nothing alike. At least not according to my memories of Opa. My grandfather had died when I was only nine, but I remember him as short, stoop-shouldered, and bald. A stark contrast to Conrad's tall, broad-shouldered build and crop of thick blond hair. But who could know what went on in my grandmother's mind? Certainly not me, and I'd tired of any attempts to figure out when these strange episodes would occur.

The soles of my shoes clacked on the wooden sidewalk that bordered the storefronts of Homestead. A train whistled in the distance, and I instinctively turned toward the station and picked up my pace. If Father returned from the depot and discovered the store unattended, he'd be unhappy with me. Worse yet, I'd need to give a reason for my absence. I didn't want to lie, yet I didn't want to give him any additional reason to discuss the insane asylum in Mount Pleasant. I'd promised Mother on her deathbed that I wouldn't permit him to send Oma to that place, but with these incidents occurring more frequently, it was becoming difficult to defend my position.

I hurried through the front door, scanned the area, and exhaled a whoosh of relief.

"Ah, Gretchen, there you are."

I swiveled around. My shoulders relaxed when I caught sight of my good friend Sister Mina behind a counter stacked with folded ends of calicos and woolens. I lifted up on tiptoe and met her blue-eyed gaze. "I told Stefan not to stack those pieces so high, but does he listen?"

"Ach! He is a boy. I'm surprised he listens to you at all."

Mina circled around the display, and I stepped forward to encircle her shoulder. I gave her a quick squeeze and pecked her cheek with a fleeting kiss before releasing my hold. "It's always good to see you, Mina. We need to find time to visit more often. I miss our talks."

She patted my hand. "I miss you, as well, but it seems there is always something that keeps us busy. It's better in winter, when we can get together and quilt with the other women. In spring and summer, the hours are filled to the brim."

"True. And when Stefan doesn't do as he's told, it takes even more of my time."

Mina chuckled. "Boys don't listen to older sisters. I should know. I have four brothers, and not one would listen to me when they were Stefan's age." She wiggled loose several pieces of the dark calico and unfolded one of them. With a shake of her head, she refolded it. "Not enough for even an apron."

"There are some larger pieces over on the other side." I circled around and directed her to one of the far stacks. "I think you might find a piece or two large enough for an apron or even a waist among these." Always eager to keep the deductions from her account to a minimum, Mina would be happy if she could find a fabric remnant that would serve her purpose. "Do you want dark blue or black?" I yanked at a piece of cloth near the bottom of the pile. "Or maybe brown?" I held the piece aloft.

Mina hitched one shoulder. "I care little about the color so long as there is enough to make a new waist. All of mine are beginning to show wear. Never fails. They all wear out at the same time." She looked toward the door that led to our living quarters.

When my parents had first been assigned to operate the store, we'd lived in one of the houses down the street. But then my mother became ill, and my father asked to have a portion of the store converted into living quarters. The elders had first expressed concern over the idea but eventually agreed when Father assured them he would find a way to maintain the same amount of inventory. And he had. By adding some additional shelving, keeping only samples of some merchandise on the shelves and stocking the additional inventory in the large warehouse located behind the store, he'd been successful. The change meant he spent more time in the warehouse, and I was expected to take over more of the store duties. But having our living quarters within the store had proved more of a blessing than a hardship during my mother's illness. And now, with Oma experiencing bouts of dementia, I was even more thankful for the arrangement.

"Sister Helga is taking a nap?"

Mina's question pulled me back to the present. "Nein. Oma is over at the barbershop with Conrad."

Mina arched her brows. "Again? That Conrad is gut to help with her, ja? Not like your Vater, who has no patience."

"Vater helps when he can, but he has to be out in the warehouse most of the time." I pointed at the side window. "Oma climbed into the apple tree. Conrad helped me get her down."

"It's a wonder she didn't break a bone, but is gut your Vater wasn't here when it happened. For sure he would start talking about Mount Pleasant again. I am thankful your dear Mutter isn't here to see how he behaves." She snapped a piece of fabric in the air and placed it across the table. "This looks like it will do. These end pieces are still less costly than the ones on the bolt?" She glanced toward the myriad bolts of fabric that stood at attention on the nearby shelves.

"Ja, of course. Why would you think otherwise?"

Mina looked about the room. "The last time I was in here, your Vater said he was going to tell the elders it made no sense to sell the end pieces for less. I told him he should leave well enough alone, but who can say about your Vater? Ever since your Mutter died, he's been as changeable as the weather." She patted my shoulder. "You are a gut and patient daughter."

I couldn't disagree with Mina's assessment of my father, but I knew I wasn't as good or as patient as my friend thought. Father's moods had been unpredictable for more than two years, ever since Mother had taken ill. And I'd found it increasingly difficult to gauge his reactions and behavior. "He's said nothing to me about changing any prices. Until he does, we will both agree that the end pieces are less expensive."

"As they should be." Mina's curt tone didn't surprise me. It was simply her way. Few women in the Amana villages were as outspoken as Mina. Other women might murmur among themselves or privately state an opinion to their husbands, but Mina spoke her mind no matter who was present. Some of the men thought her a bit brash—my father among them. But whatever her tone of voice, I loved Mina. Even though she was twenty years older than I, she was my best friend. She was the one who had sat at my ailing mother's bedside during her final days on this earth. She was the one who had offered me solace, comfort, and a shoulder to cry on. And she was the one who had given me my very first journal.

There were so many times I longed to be like Mina—to say my feelings out loud. But I knew better. Instead, I wrote in my journal. Though I'd filled the pages of that very first journal long ago, it remained a secret between the two of us. Mina never told me how or where she purchased the journals, but each Christmas she gave me a new one. "I know there are those who think writing for pleasure is a waste of time, but you're a girl who needs to write your heart. I can see it in your eyes," she'd told me that very first Christmas. Ever since then I dreamed of writing beautiful poems or stories that would capture the hearts of readers. I had always loved reading the Psalms in the Bible. Not that I fancied my writing ability akin to David's, but I did find pleasure expressing my thoughts on paper and hoped that one day others might enjoy my writing. I wasn't sure how that could ever happen. Still, I continued to write.

"You going to list this on my ledger sheet, or are you expecting me to do it myself?"

Once again Mina's voice yanked me back to the present. "Just that one piece? You don't need anything else?"

"That's all." She trailed her fingers across the wide array of lace and trims that were displayed to advantage. "Sometimes I think your father keeps more goods on hand to sell to outsiders than he does for those of us who live here."

"Something you need that cannot be found on my shelves, Mina?" I heard the irritation in my father's voice before I saw him enter the store. He closed the distance in a long determined stride and came to a halt beside me.

Mina didn't back down from his hard stare. "Since you ask, I think you could give over more space to dark calicos and woolens, the ones worn by our people."

My father's gaze settled on the small piece of fabric Mina had selected. "The outsiders come here and buy more in one day than you have purchased in the last ten years." He poked at the small piece of cloth. "More of these tiny scraps I should have on my shelves? Is that what you think?"

Mina squared her shoulders. "Is the store for the people who live here or for the visitors who come to stare at us as though we are some curiosity?"

"The store is here for both, but if you are unhappy with how it is being run, maybe you should speak to the Bruderrat."

"I have no desire to speak to the elders, but that doesn't change what I think about the goods you stock."

"Ach! Nothing changes what you think, Mina. I have plenty of goods in the warehouse—you need only tell me what you need." He sent a dismissive wave in her direction. "You are as hardheaded as ... as ..."

"As a man?" Mina said. Without waiting for my father's reply, she picked up the piece of cloth and marched out the door.

"That woman, she is not a good example for the other women in this town. Her behavior you should not follow." My father peered at the ledger book. "The accounts are finished?"

"Not yet, but I'll have them completed before this evening."

His jaw twitched. "What is it you were doing while I was at the train station?"

I didn't dare tell him I'd spent my time trying to get Oma out of the apple tree. And one look at the ledgers would tell him that Mina had been my only customer.

"That Mina, she complains about the store and keeps you from doing your ledgers. That one, she talks too much."

Though I briefly considered telling my father he was wrong about Mina, I knew she wouldn't mind if I didn't come to her defense. She'd much rather I protect Oma.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Immanuel's Veins - Chapter 1

Immanuel's Veins
Thomas Nelson (September 7, 2010)

by
Ted Dekker



Chapter 1


My name is Toma Nicolescu and I was a warrior, a servant of Her Majesty, the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, who by her own hand and tender heart sent me on that mission at the urging of her most trusted adviser, Grigory Potyomkin, in the year of our Lord 1772.

It was a year of war, this one the Russo-Turkish war, one of so many with the Ottoman Empire. I had slain the enemy with more ambition than most in the humble service of the empress, or so it has been said, and having earned Her Majesty’s complete trust in my loyalty and skill, I was dispatched by her to the south and east, through Ukraine to the principality of Moldavia, just north of the Black Sea and west of Transylvania, to the country estate of the Cantemir family nestled up against the base of the Carpathian Mountains.

To my understanding, the family descendants of Dimitrie Cantemir, the late prince of Moldavia, were owed a debt for his loyalty to Russia. Indeed, it was said that the path to the heart of Moldavia ran through the Cantemir crest, but that was all politics— none of my business.

On that day my business was to travel to this remote, lush green valley in western Moldavia and give protection to this most important family who retreated to the estate every summer. Russia had occupied Moldavia. Enemies were about with sharp knives and blunt intentions. The black plague had mercilessly taken the lives of many in the cities. A ruler loyal to Catherine the Great would soon be selected to take the reins of this important principality, and the Cantemir family would play a critical role in that decision as they held such a lofty position of respect among all Moldavians.

My charge was simple: No harm could come to this family.

These Cantemirs.

The sun was sinking over the Carpathian peaks to our left as my friend in arms, Alek Cardei, and I sat atop our mounts and stared down at the valley. The great white castle with its twin spires stood on emerald grasses an hour’s ride down the twisted path. A tall stone wall ran the length of the southern side where the road ran into the property. Green lawns and gardens surrounded the estate, encompassing ten times the ground as the house itself. The estate had been commissioned by Dimitrie Cantemir in 1711, when he was prince of Moldavia for a brief time before retreating to Turkey.

“I see the twin peaks, but I see no gowns,” Alek said, squinting down valley. His gloved hand was on his gold-busted sword. Leather armor wrapped his chest and thighs, same as mine. A goatee cupped his chin and joined his mustache but he’d shaved the rest of his face in the creek earlier, anticipating his ride into the estate, the arriving hero from abroad.

Alek, the lover.

Toma, the warrior.

I looked down at the golden ring on my finger, which bore the empress’s insignia, and I chuckled. Alek’s wit and charm were always good friends on a long journey, and he wielded both with the same ease and precision with which I swung my sword.

I nodded at my fair-headed friend as he turned his pale blue eyes toward me. “We’re here to protect the sisters and their family, not wed them.”

“So then you cannot deny it: the sisters are on your mind. Not the mother, not the father, not the family, but the sisters. These two female frolickers who are the talk of Ukraine.” Alek turned his mirthtwisted face back to the valley. “Heat has come to the dog at last.”

To the contrary, though Alek could not know, I had taken a vow to Her Majesty not to entangle myself while here in Moldavia.

She was all too aware of the sisters’ reputation, and she suggested I keep my head clear on this long assignment that might too easily give us much idle time.

“One favor, Toma,” she said.

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

“Stay clear of the sisters, please. At least one of you ought to have a clear mind.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.” But Alek was a different matter, and there was hardly any reason to deny him his jesting. It always lifted my spirits.

If I were a woman I would have loved Alek. If I were a king I would have hired him to remain in my courts. If I were an enemy

I would have run and hid, because wherever you found Alek you would find Toma, and you would surely die unless you swore allegiance to the empress.

But I was the farthest thing from a woman, I had never aspired to be a king, and I had no mortal enemies save myself.

My vice was honor: chivalry when it was appropriate, but loyalty to my duty first. I was Alek’s closest and most trusted friend, and I would have died for him without a care in the world.

He blew out some air in exasperation. “I have gone to the ends of the earth with you, Toma, and I would still. But this mission of ours is a fool’s errand. We come here to sit with babies while the armies dine on conquest?”

“So you’ve made abundantly clear for a week now,” I returned.

“What happened to your yearning for these sisters? As you’ve said, they are rumored to be beautiful.”

“Rumors! For all we know they are spoiled fat poodles. What can this valley possibly offer that the nights in Moscow can’t? I’m doomed, I tell you. I would rather run a sword through myself now than suffer a month in that dungeon below.”

I could see through his play already. “From frolicking sisters to suicide so quickly? You’re outdoing yourself, Alek.”

“I’m utterly serious!” His face flashed, indignant. “When have you known me to sit on my hands for weeks on end with nothing but a single family to occupy me? I’m telling you this is going to be my death.”

He was still playing me, and I him. “So now you expect me to give you leave to exhaust your fun here then go gallivanting about the countryside seeking out mistresses in the other estates?

Or would you rather slip out at night and slit a few evil throats so you can feel like a man?”

He shrugged. “Honestly, the former sounds more appealing.”

His gloved finger stabbed skyward. “But I know my duty and would die by your side fulfilling it.” He lowered his hand. “Still, as God is my witness, I will not tolerate a month of picking my teeth with straw while the rest of the world fights for glory and chases skirts.”

“Don’t be a fool, man. Boredom could not catch you if it chased you like a wolf. We’ll establish a simple protocol to limit all access to the estate, post the sentries, and mind the women—I understand that the father will be gone most of the time. As long as our duties are in no way compromised, I will not stand in the way of your courting. But as you say, they may be fat poodles.”

A sound came from behind us. “Who has business with the Cantemirs? Eh?”

I spun to the soft, gravelly voice. An old shriveled man stood there, grasping a tall cane with both hands. His eyes were slits, his face was wrinkled like a dried-out prune, and his long stringy gray hair was so thin that a good wind would surely leave him bald. I wasn’t sure he could actually see through those black cracks below his brow.

Alek humphed and deferred to me. How had this ancient man walked up on us without a sound? He was gumming his lips, toothless.

Silent.

I held my hand up to Alek and drew my pale mount about to face the man. “Who asks?”

A bird flew in from the west, a large black crow. As I watched somewhat stunned, it alighted on the old man’s shoulder, steadied itself with a single flap of its wings, and came to rest. The man didn’t react, not even when the crow’s thick wing slapped his ear.

“I don’t have a name,” the old man said. “You may call me an angel if you like.”

Alek chuckled, but I was sure it was a nervous reaction without a lick of humor.

“Who inquires of the Cantemir estate?” he asked again.

“Toma Nicolescu, in the service of Her Majesty the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, who now rules Moldavia. And if you are an angel then you may vanish as all angels vanish, into the air of superstition.”

“Toma?” the old man croaked.

“What business do you have with this estate?”

“Eh, that is you? Toma Nicolescu?”

His demeanor now bothered me more than I cared to admit.

Was this my elder, whom I should honor, or a wandering lunatic?

“Watch your tongue, old man,” Alek snapped.

The crow cocked its head and lined up one of its beady eyes for a hard look at Alek; the old man did the same.

“Eh? Is that you too, Toma?”

Alek’s brow furrowed. “Stop playing the buffoon. And get rid of that cursed bird.”

“State your business, old man,” I demanded.

He lifted a boney, scarcely fleshed hand and pointed to the west.

“There is evil in the wind. Beware, Toma. Beware the evil.”

“Don’t be a loon . . .”

I held up my hand to stop Alek, interested in the oddity before us, this ancient blind prune and his all-seeing crow.

“What makes you think there is evil to beware?” I asked.

“Eh? The crow saw it.”

“The crow told you that, did he? And does your crow speak as well?” Alek’s voice wrung mockery from each word. Lightening stabbed at the plains in the east. I hadn’t noticed the clouds on the horizon until now. A muted peal of thunder growled at us, as if in warning I thought, and I wasn’t given to superstition.

The devil wasn’t my enemy and God wasn’t my friend. Nothing I’d experienced in my twenty-eight years had moved me to believe in either.

The old wizard with his crow was staring at me through slits, silent. I wanted to know why the man seemed to sense the threat— it was my job to know. So I dismounted, walked up to him, and dipped my head, an easy thing to do considering his age, for I had always been given to respecting the aged.

The black bird was only three feet from me, jerking its head for a better look, sizing me up, deciding whether he should pluck my eyes out.

I spoke kindly, in a low voice. “Please, if you feel it wise, tell me why your crow would warn us of evil?”

He smiled a toothless grin, all gums and lips. “This is Peter the Great. I can’t see so well, but they tell me he’s magnificent bird. I think he likes me.”

“I would say he looks like a devil. So why would a devil tell an angel that evil is near?”

“I’m not the devil, Toma Nicolescu. He is far more beautiful than I.”

I was sure I could hear Alek snickering, and I had half a mind to shut him up with a glare.

“And who is this beautiful devil?”

“A man with a voice like honey who flies through the night.”

The old man removed his right hand from the staff and used it like a wing. “But God was the one who told me to tell Toma Nicolescu that evil is in contest with you. He said you would come here, to the Brasca Pass. I’ve been waiting for three days, and I do think one more day might have claimed my life.”

“So the crow saw it, and then God told you, his angel, to warn us,” Alek scoffed. “How is that possible when we didn’t even know which route we would take until yesterday?”

“Perhaps God can read your minds.”

Our minds didn’t even know!”

“But God did. And here you are. And now I have done my thing and can live a little longer with my crow. I should go now.” He started to turn.

“Please, kind sir.” I put my hand on his. “Our mission is only to protect the estate. Is there anything else you can tell us? I don’t see how a warning of evil given by a crow is much use to us.”

The man’s gentle face slowly sagged and became a picture of foreboding. “I can hardly advise you, who thinks the devil is only hot air, now can I?”

I was surprised that the old man knew this about me. But it could as easily have been a lucky guess.

“As for your oversexed friend, you may tell him that this valley will certainly exhaust his feral impulses. I suspect that you are both in for a rather stimulating time. Now, I must be going. I have a long way to travel and the night is coming fast.”

With that he turned and walked away, a slow shuffle that made me wonder how he expected to reach the path much less the nearest town, Crysk, a full ten miles south.