Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Sound of Red Returning

The Sound of Red Returning
Kregel Publications (December 9, 2011)
by
Sue Duffy


Prologue



It was just two paragraphs in the Boston Globe that morning in October 2008:

Slain Professor’s Widow Dies
Eugenia C. Devoe, wife of the late Schell M. Devoe─a prominent Harvard music professor who was murdered in his Boston home in 1996─died Friday in Canada. She was 78.
Mrs. Devoe had separated from her husband shortly before his death. Under an assumed name, she had moved to the small farming community of Curien, west of Montreal. Until now, her whereabouts had been unknown. The couple had no children.

By dawn the next day, though, the isolated cottage that had been Eugenia Devoe’s hiding place lay in ruins. Even the boards had been stripped from the ceilings and floors. Yet when the intruders left, they took only one thing from the house─a letter Schell Devoe mailed to his wife just hours before he died.

Chapter 1


One week later

When the lights dimmed, a tall, trembling silhouette stood in a doorway to the East Room. The audience gathered there waited expectantly.

“Miss Bower, are you all right?” whispered the President’s valet as he straightened a beaded clasp on the back of her gown.

Liesl nodded absently, but all was not right. From a time and place long buried, an alarm had just sounded, causing her gifted hands to tense and her mind to flash the unbidden image of a dark alley in Moscow.

A voice inside the historic room spoke, momentarily dispelling the fearful image, and the valet stepped aside. “The President and First Lady wish to continue this evening’s festivities with a performance by one of the world’s most acclaimed pianists. Please welcome the recent winner of the coveted Messenhoff Award for the Performing Arts, fresh from her victory recital at Carnegie Hall─Miss Liesl Bower.”

A chilling inertia threatened to abort her entrance, but the stimulus of applause propelled her slowly forward. Her head held high, she passed beneath chandelier prisms that now, to her wary eye, cast a distorted light.

She had performed in royal courts around the world and in this very room before two sitting presidents. It was not the dignitaries and other guests of the President assembled before her, not the white-knuckle jitters that still plagued her no matter how often she performed, not the powerful scherzo she would soon unleash onto the keyboard. What had stricken her just moments earlier was a face in the second row, the same face she’d seen burn with rage that night in the alley. What was he doing in this place?

As she crossed the room, the clapping hands ringing in her ears, she risked the briefest glance at the man in the second row. But even in that instant, she felt his eyes breach the barricade she’d constructed around herself so long ago, that bulwark about her soul that isolated her from the hurtful world outside.

Though her mind was in turmoil, her slender body, now slick with perspiration inside her black velvet gown, slid with practiced poise toward the piano. When she reached the imposing Steinway concert grand with its three gilded-eagle supports, she placed a steadying hand on its fine, aged wood and turned to face her audience, knowing where she must not look again. She nodded to President Travis Noland before bowing grandly, then seated herself at the keyboard, the only thing in the room she was sure of.

As she always did, Liesl closed her eyes to summon the music, to place herself in the hands of the composer. Sometimes she would hope for the faintest breath of God. This was one of those times.

To settle the after-dinner crowd, Liesl began a warm and rippling etude by Moszkowski. Later, like the times she had driven for miles in deep thought and couldn’t remember anything about the route she’d taken, she realized she’d finished the etude without inhabiting it─a transgression for any concert pianist.No more of this! she scolded herself.

She rose from the piano to accept the audience’s appreciation. Careful to avoid the troubling face, she looked around the room and noticed one or two guests beginning to nod off. Even now, that amused her because she knew what was coming.

Moments later, the long, silken hands lifted like graceful swans from the even-tempered opening measure of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-Flat Minor only to strike with a fury that caught her audience off guard and swept them into the stormy yet lyrical piece. It was President Noland’s favorite and his special request for the evening.

Now, Liesl escaped her audience and plunged so deeply into the music, she no longer sensed if anyone else was there. Except once. After the pounding clash of the first passage, she was midway into a peaceful interlude when she surfaced long enough to dare look into the second row. Gone! He’s gone! But where? No time to wonder; the music wouldn’t wait. The storm was gathering again. It demanded she channel it down the length of the instrument and release it to the room. But in the finale, in the resolution of the strife, the victory of peace prevailed.

It was then she suspected why the President had selected this particular composition. She knew who else was in the room. The Russian ambassador and others from his diplomatic corps were seated so close to her, she could hear them breathe. She knew the strife of recent negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, knew that the delicate balance of power between them sizzled ominously. Of course, Ambassador Olnakoff would know the scherzo she’d just performed. A music scholar himself, a devotee of Chopin, he would surely translate the conflict-to-peace narrative of the music into the political message of reconciliation that Noland must have intended.

When it was over, Liesl rose from the piano to exuberant applause, her eyes falling on the empty second-row chair. Though she usually allowed the applause to roll over her in tingling, uplifting currents, at that moment, she was numb to it, feeling only the need to warn someone about the man she’d just seen.

She scanned the crowd for Ben Hafner, assistant to the President for domestic policy, perhaps her closest friend since their Harvard days together. I’ve got to reach him!

But the audience wouldn’t let her go. They begged for an encore and Liesl knew she must oblige. But as she lowered herself to the tufted bench, she looked out once more and caught Ben’s mop of brown hair, his toothy smile beaming her way from a side door to the room. Read my face, Ben she silently implored, then raised a summoning brow.

Once again, Liesl lapsed into the spell of the music, having chosen something she hoped would reinforce President Nolan’s mood for the evening: the disarming Clair de Lune by Debussy.

The piece had been a recital offering when she was just twelve. Under her grandmother’s tutelage, she had refined her performance of it in the centuries-old house beneath the live oaks. Now, as she gently stroked the keys, she could almost smell the briny wind off Charleston Harbor; hear the creak of the kitchen floor as her mother and grandmother prepared the evening meal. And hear the bells of St. Philip’s.

Was this selection for Noland? Or for her need in this hour?

As Liesl took her final bow, she was set upon by admirers, her path to Ben still blocked. The reluctant celebrity with the amber hair and eyes to match always drew more attention than she welcomed. She’d been photographed around the world, not just at the piano in one of her regal gowns, but in baggy sweats leaving a produce market in Paris, even swimming in a remote grotto in Greece.

The White House photographer approached and asked her to pose next to the piano, between President Noland and Ambassador Olnakoff. When the President swooped in with the ambassador in tow, more than a few observers raised an eyebrow over the unnatural chumminess the two men displayed toward each other. Liesl overheard one tuxedoed gentleman comment to another, “A beautiful woman can bridge many a gap, eh?”

After the photos were taken, other admirers now moved toward Liesl. Between the heads of those gathered about her, she made eye contact with Ben. Finally, she excused herself from some wanting to discuss the finer nuances of the scherzo, and quickly left the East Room.

“What’s up?” Ben asked when Liesl reached him. “I still read you pretty well, don’t I?”

“Right now, that’s a good thing.” She took his arm and pulled him down the hall.

“Whoa, take it easy. People will start talking again.”

She stopped abruptly and turned into him. “Ben, you’ve got to listen to me!”

He stared down at her, then put both hands on her shoulders. “You’re shaking. What’s the matter with you?”

Before she could answer, he steered her across the hall and opened the door to a small, tidy office, then closed the door behind him. “Sit down and talk to me.” He remained standing.

“Did you see the man in the second row wearing a red ascot? Black hair slicked straight back, hollow cheeks?”

Ben thought a moment, then nodded hesitantly. “Probably Evgeny Kozlov.”

“Do you have a picture of him?”

“No, I don’t have a . . . what’s this about, Liesl?” he asked impatiently, his forehead bunching in creases.

“Who is this Kozlov?” she asked, her tone urgent. “Why was he here tonight?”

Ben took a seat opposite Liesl and looked intently at her, but didn’t answer.

She knew there were many things Ben could never talk about with her. Perhaps this was one. She drew a hurried breath. “Ben, do you remember that last trip I took to Moscow with Dr. Devoe?”

He nodded solemnly.

“It was January 1996.”

“I remember,” he said softly.

“The last night we were there, Dr. Devoe came to my hotel room. He pulled me out into the hallway and asked me to take a walk with him. I was tired. I’d just played a concert that night at the conservatory. But he insisted. He said he had something to tell me. I asked why we couldn’t talk in my room, and he said, ‘Because they’re listening.’”

Ben reached for one of her hands and held it.

She squeezed the hand of this burly, compassionate man she loved as a brother. The media had tried hard to make something more of their relationship, daring to suggest that Ben might stray from the wife he adored.

Liesl continued. “I had no idea what Dr. Devoe was talking about.” She steadied herself. “When we walked out of the hotel that night, the snow was blowing hard, but we kept going. He was taking me to a small coffee house in the next block, he said. Before we got there, though, my scarf blew off and I ran after it. Just a silly thing. I chased it into the street.”

“But when I turned back, Dr. Devoe was gone. I ran to where I’d left him and heard voices from an alley nearby. Angry voices. Dr. Devoe and another man were arguing in Russian.”

There was a knock at the office door. Ben put up a hand to silence Liesl as he moved to answer it.

“Mr. Hafner,” said Ben’s chief aide, Ted Shadlaw, “sorry, but I happened to see you come in here.”

“It’s all right, Ted,” Ben said calmly. “What is it?”

“Miss Bower’s car is here.”

“Tell the driver to wait, please.” Ben closed the door. “Keep going,” he told Liesl, returning to his seat.

She didn’t know how exerting this would be. She wanted to curl into a ball and draw the barricade closer. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was afraid to approach the alley until I heard a scuffle and just went charging in. Dr. Devoe was on the ground. His mouth was bleeding, and a man stood over him. By the street lamp, I could see him clearly. Then the man came at me. He pointed his finger in my face and yelled, ‘Don’t ever come back to Russia!’”

Ben flinched.

“I never saw that man again,” Liesl said. “Until tonight. In the second row.”

Ben breathed a heavy sigh and stared at the floor. When he looked up, Liesl saw his frustration.

“Liesl, what happened to Dr. Devoe, that terrible thing you witnessed, is history. Twelve years ago. It’s over.”

“But, it’s─”

“It’s like it happened yesterday for you, I know,” he interrupted. “And now, after what you just told me, I understand even more why you disappeared after the murder. But why didn’t you tell this to someone during the investigation?”

Her eyes clouded and she looked away. “You know the way they treated me. Like I’d done something to betray my country.”

“The police?”

“No, the others.”

Ben nodded quietly. “Liesl, lots of people were questioned. Dr. Devoe had many associates, many students. None as close to him as you were, granted. And none of them had to watch him die. I’d do anything to erase that trauma from your life, but I can’t. And you can’t.” He paused. “But you can break its grip on you. You have to let it go.”

Liesl straightened her back as if a steel rod in it had just snapped into place. “Tell me who Kozlov is?” she persisted.

Ben stood up and raised both hands in surrender. “Someone Olnakoff recently brought over for counsel. He’s a lawyer in Moscow.”

“He’s a punk!”

“Liesl, keep your voice down. And try to understand what’s going on. Russia is back on a collision course with the U.S., and President Noland is dealing every diplomatic card he can to keep our countries from a showdown. We can’t go accusing one of their diplomats of brutish behavior over a decade ago. From your account, that’s all it was. Scared the wits out of you. Probably had everything to do with Devoe’s treason, though maybe not his murder. But that chapter’s closed. What do you want from this man? An apology?”

Ben moved toward the door. “I know you think I’m insensitive. But you’ve suffered long enough. Make it stop. The man isn’t here to terrorize ‘one of America’s classical darlings’, as that Post reporter called you.” He smiled brightly as if trying to coax the same from her, but she fixed a stony eye on him.

“Liesl, come with me,” he finally said with a hint of begging in his voice. “Your coach awaits.”

Liesl let him pull her up from her chair and hug her gently, though she barely returned the gesture. When he let her go, she said, “Mrs. Devoe just died. Did you know that?”

Ben went still. “Yes, I know,” he said, then tried again to lead her to the door, but she stood her ground.

“That warm, vivacious woman was living alone in the backwoods of Canada under a false name, Ben. Why did she have to do that?”

He looked down at the floor then back at her as though he’d had to compose the impassive face he now showed her.

She searched his eyes and understood. “You know something more about that, don’t you?”

Ben straightened stiffly. “Liesl, please let this go. It doesn’t concern you anymore.” He waved an arm toward a draped window. “There’s a whole world of beautiful music and adoring audiences out there for you. You’ve worked hard for it. Now put this behind you once and for all and go live your life.”


The limousine that had transported Liesl to the White House on that Tuesday evening pulled back onto Pennsylvania Avenue and headed toward her small, rented house in Georgetown. She wrapped her velvet cape tightly about her and sank deep into the plush leather of the seat, resting her head against its high back. Ben’s right. It’s over. Time to put it away.

Soon, she gazed out the window at one of Georgetown’s stately old houses, and her mind raced back to her childhood home. She wished she could climb the worn stairs to her room, to wander the neighborhood where she’d been just another kid on the block, not the prodigy others had labeled her. She wanted to go back in time and skip rope with her friends, canoe into the marsh, and catch fiddler crabs. It had all come too quickly to an end.

A few blocks from her house, the driver turned toward her and asked, “Miss Bower, are you expecting anyone at your home tonight?”

Liesl looked at him curiously. “Why do you ask?”

The man hesitated before answering. “I just thought you might have arranged for someone to follow you there.”

The impact of what he was saying suddenly hit, and Liesl turned quickly in her seat to look out the back window. A few car lengths behind was a set of headlights, nothing unusual, she thought. “I’m not sure I understand,” she said, though something quickened inside her.

“So, you’re not expecting anyone?”

“No, I’m not.”

“In that case, ma’am, I’d like to call Mr. Hafner and tell him I’m returning you to the White House.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Her Restless Heart

Her Restless Heart

Abingdon Press (April 2012)
by
Barbara Cameron


Chapter 1


A year ago, Mary Katherine wouldn’t have imagined she’d be here. Back then, she’d been helping her parents on the family farm and hating every minute of it.

Now, she stood at the front window of Stitches in Time, her grandmother’s shop, watching the Englischers moving about on the sidewalks outside the shop in Paradise. Even on vacation, they rushed about with purpose. She imagined them checking off the places they’d visited: Drive by an Amish farmhouse. Check. Buy a quilt and maybe some knitting supplies to try making a sweater when I get back home. Check.

She liked the last item. The shop had been busy all morning, but now, as people started getting hungry, they were patronizing the restaurants that advertised authentic Amish food and ticking off another item on their vacation checklist. Shoofly pie. Amish pretzels. Chow-chow. Check.

“Don’t you worry, they’ll be back,” Leah, her grandmother, called out.

Smiling, Mary Katherine turned. “I know.”

She wandered back to the center of the shop, set up like the comfortable parlor of an Amish farmhouse. Chairs were arranged in a circle around a quilting frame. Bolts of fabric of every color and print imaginable were stacked on shelves on several walls, spools of matching threads on another.

And yarn. There were skeins and skeins of the stuff. Mary Katherine loved running her hands over the fluffy fibers, feeling the textures of cotton and wool and silk. Some of the new yarns made from things like soybeans and corn just didn’t feel the same when you knitted them or wove them into patterns— but some people made a fuss over them because they used something natural plant-based or more sustainable.

Mary Katherine thought it was a little strange to be using vegetables you ate to make clothes but once she got her hands on the yarns, she was impressed. Tourists were, too. They used terms like “green” and “ecological” and didn’t mind spending a lot of money to buy them. And was it so much different to use vegetables when people had been taking oily, smelly wool from sheep and turning it into garments for people—silk from silkworms—that sort of thing?

“You have that look on your face again,” her grandmother said.

“What look?”

“That serious, thoughtful look of yours. Tell me what you’re thinking of.”

“Working on my loom this afternoon.”

“I figured you had itchy fingers.” Her grandmother smiled.

She sighed. “I’m so glad you rescued me from working at
the farm. And Dat not understanding about my weaving.” Leah nodded. “Some people need time to adjust.”

Taking one of the chairs that was arranged in a circle around the quilt her grandmother and Naomi worked on, Mary Katherine propped her chin in her hand, her elbow on the arm of the chair. “It’d be a lot easier if I knitted or quilted.”

Leah looked at her, obviously suppressing a smile. “You have never liked ‘easy,’ Mary Katherine.”

Laughing, she nodded. “You’re right.”

Looking at Naomi and Anna, her cousins aged twenty and twenty-three, was like looking into a mirror, thought Mary Katherine. The three of them could have been sisters, not cousins. They had a similar appearance—oval faces, their hair center-parted and tucked back under snowy white kapps, and slim figures. Naomi and Anna had even chosen dresses of a similar color, one that reminded Mary Katherine of morning glories. In her rush out the door, Mary Katherine had grabbed the first available dress and now felt drab and dowdy in the brown dress she’d chosen.

Yes, they looked much alike, the three of them.

Until Mary Katherine stood. She’d continued growing after it seemed that everyone else had stopped. Now, at 5’8”, she felt like a skinny beanpole next to her cousins. She felt awkward next to the young men she’d gone to school with. Although she knew it was wrong, there had been times when she’d secretly wished that God had made her petite and pretty like her cousins. And why had he chosen to give her red hair and freckles? Didn’t she have enough she didn’t like about her looks without that?

Like their looks, their personalities seemed similar on the surface. The three of them appeared calm and serene— especially Naomi. Anna tried to be, but it didn’t last long. She was too mischievous.

And herself? Serenity seemed hard these days. In the past several years, Mary Katherine had been a little moody but lately it seemed her moods were going up and down like a road through rolling hills.

“Feeling restless?” Naomi asked, looking at her with concern. Nimbly, she tied a knot, snipped the thread with a scissors, then slid her needle into a pincushion.



Anna looked up from her knitting needles. “Mary Katherine was born restless.”

“I think I’ll take a short walk.”

“No,” Leah said quickly, holding up a hand. “Let’s eat first, then you can take a walk. Otherwise you’ll come back and customers will be here for the afternoon rush and you’ll start helping and go hungry.”

Mary Katherine was already mentally out the door, but she nodded her agreement. “You’re right, of course.”

Leah was a tall, spare woman who didn’t appear old enough to be anyone’s grandmother. Her face was smooth and unlined, and there wasn’t a trace of gray in her hair, which she wore like her granddaughters.

“I made your favorite,” Leah told Mary Katherine.

“Fried chicken? You made fried chicken? When did you have time to do that?”

Nodding, Leah tucked away her sewing supplies, and stood. “Before we came to work this morning. It didn’t take long.” She turned to Naomi. “And I made your favorite.”

Naomi had been picking up stray strands of yarn from the wood floor. She looked up, her eyes bright. “Macaroni and cheese?”

“Oatmeal and raisin cookies?” Anna wanted to know. When her grandmother nodded, Anna set down her knitting needles and stood. “Just how early did you get up? Are you having trouble sleeping?”

“No earlier than usual,” Leah replied cheerfully. “I made the macaroni and cheese and the cookies last night. But I don’t need as much sleep as some other people I know.”

“Can you blame me for sleeping in a little later?” Mary Katherine asked. “After all of those years of helping with farm chores? Besides, I was working on a design last night.”

“Tell us all about it while we eat,” Naomi said, glancing at the clock. “We won’t have long before customers start coming in again.”

“I worry about Grandmother,” Anna whispered to Mary Katherine as they walked to the back room. “She does too much.”

“She’s always been like this.”

“Yes, but she’s getting older.”

“Shh, don’t be saying that around her!”

Leah turned. “Did somebody say something?”

“Anna said she’s hungry,” Mary Katherine said quickly. “And wondering what favorite of hers you made. After all, every- thing you make is Anna’s favorite.”

Anna poked Mary Katherine in the ribs but everyone laughed because it was true. What was amazing was that no matter how much Anna ate, she never gained weight.

Nodding, Leah continued toward the back room. “We’ll have it on the table in no time.”

Anna grabbed Mary Katherine’s arm, stopping her. “Shame on you,” she hissed. “You know it’s wrong to lie.” Then she shook her head. “What am I saying? You’ve done so much worse!”

“Me? I have not! I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.”

Turning so that her grandmother wouldn’t see, Anna lifted
her fingers to her lips and mimed smoking a cigarette.

Mary Katherine blushed. “You’ve been spying on me.”

“Food’s ready!” Leah called.

“Don’t you dare tell her!” Mary Katherine whispered.

Anna’s eyes danced. “What will you give me if I don’t?”

She stared at her cousin. “I don’t have anything—”

“Your afternoon off,” Anna said suddenly. “That’s what I’ll take in trade.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Always The Designer, Never The Bride

Always The Designer, Never The Bride
Abingdon Press (April 2012)
by
Sandra D. Bricker


Chapter 1


Audrey, the car will be here any minute. You’re going to miss
your plane.”

“Shh. I just need another minute.”

She leaned down over her sketch pad, nibbling the corner of her lip as she put the finishing touches on the train of an elaborate A-line wedding dress.

“Oh, Audrey! That’s beautiful. Is it for Kim?”

She didn’t reply for another moment or two; not until she felt perfectly secure in the fact that she could lay down her pencil and be done with it.

“There are two others in the leather portfolio in my closet. The messenger will be here at three o’clock to pick them up and get them into Manhattan by four.” She handed her assis- tant the finished product, pausing for an instant to admire the drawing. “Be very careful about it, but put this one with the others, and be sure to zip it all the way around so they aren’t wrinkled. Just give him the whole case, and call Kim once he’s on his way to give her a heads-up that they’ll be delivered to the penthouse.”

“Will do.”

“My plane lands in Atlanta at five-something, and it will take me an hour or so to get out to Roswell where this hotel is located. You’ve shipped—”

“And confirmed. Carly’s dress is safe and sound at The
Tanglewood Inn, awaiting your arrival.”

Audrey sighed as she cast a quick glance toward the door where Kat had lined up her pink plaid luggage. One oversized rectangular case and one large round one, both on wheels, both packed to full capacity.

Audrey applied a glaze of Cherry Bliss to her lips while Kat added the final sketch to the leather case. She paused with the wand in mid-air until she heard the vvhht of the zipper. As she slipped the tube into its compartment inside her purse, the buzzer sounded.

“That will be your car,” Kat announced. “But before you go . . .”

Kat grabbed Audrey’s hand and placed a compact little cell phone into it, closing her fingers around it. “Now this is the simplest cellular phone available.”

“Kat, I do not want one of these. I told you that.”

“I know. But you have to.”

Audrey stared at the strange thing on her palm. “What do
I do?”

“If it jingles, you open it. Like this.” Kat demonstrated. “It will either be a phone call—in which case you press the blinking green button—or a text, which will come up automatically.”

“Ah, maaan . . .”

“I know. But it’s the best way to keep in contact. You want to keep in contact with me, don’t you?”

Audrey groaned. “Yes.”

“So put this in your purse.”

Audrey reluctantly tossed the thing into her bag as Kat pressed buttons on her own much more complicated-looking cell phone. An instant later, Audrey’s purse began to . . . sing
.
“It sounds like a harp.”

“That’s your cue to pull it out and open it.” Kat stared at her for a moment before nodding at Audrey’s purse. “Go on. Answer it.”

“I already know who it is.”

“Audrey.”

Audrey groaned again as she produced the cell phone, unfolded it and stared at the thing.

“The green button,” Kat prodded.

Audrey pressed the button and held the phone in the vicin- ity of her ear. “Audrey Regan isn’t available right now, but please feel free to take a flying leap at the tone.” As Kat opened her mouth to reply, Audrey interrupted with a “Beeeeeep.”
Kat shook her head as she pushed the button on the wall intercom and she told the driver, “Come on in. We have a couple of bags.” Back to Audrey, she remarked, “Text me when you arrive. Do you want me to show you how?”

“I’ll call. Let me know the minute you confirm the sketches have reached Kim.”

“Will do.”

“The very minute, Katarina. We need this.” “I know. She’s going to love them.”

“As long as she loves them more than Vera Wang and Austin
Scarlett.”

Audrey paused in front of the full-length etched mirror propped against the wall. She smoothed the straight pencil skirt and adjusted the corset belt around her waist.

“Car for JFK,” the driver announced, grabbing both of the bags.

“How much, by the way?” she asked as she followed him down the stairs.

“Ninety-five,” Kat called out from the doorway. “Already charged to your card.”

“Ninety-five dollars, from Soho to JFK?”

“You can grab a taxi for fifty bucks, Princess,” the driver snapped, letting the street door flap shut in her face.

Audrey turned and looked back at Kat, standing in the doorway at the top of the stairs. “Charming.”

Kat chuckled. “Have a good flight.”

“One can only hope.”

As she climbed into the back seat of the dark blue sedan, Audrey appreciated the good sense she’d had to hire Katarina Ivanov. Staring blankly out the window, Audrey sighed as the driver took a left on Kenmore.

She’d held interviews on a Tuesday afternoon in the corner booth at the Village Tart, and Kat had arrived fifteen minutes early. She’d ordered a coffee at another table while Audrey fin- ished up with the design school student who looked like a cross between Buddy Holly and Kramer from Seinfeld. When they were through, the young man stood over Audrey, tapping his shiny patent leather shoe.

“So let’s cut right to it, shall we?” he’d said, glaring at her over the bridge of thick black-rimmed glasses. “Do I have a shot at this or not? I’m only asking because I have two more interviews after yours, and I need to know whether I can blow them off.”

“I think I can answer that,” Kat told him as she transferred her espresso to Audrey’s table and sat down. “Go on the inter- views. I think we’ve decided which candidate is the best choice. I’m so sorry, but good luck to you.” Her smile emanated a ray of pure sunshine.

The boy grimaced at her before he looked back at Audrey. She only shrugged. Twenty seconds later, the front door of the café thudded shut behind him.

“Did I go too far?” Kat asked her as she crossed her legs and wrinkled up her nose, flipping short dark waves of hair. “I know. Sometimes I go too far. But he was wasting your time. You weren’t going to hire him.”

“I wasn’t?”

“No,” she said confidently, sliding her résumé across the table, only a slight trace of amusement in her dark brown eyes. “Even if you don’t hire me, you certainly can’t hire him. He’s high maintenance; he’s a drama a day, at least. And you don’t need that.”

“I don’t.”

“No. You need stability. Loyalty. You need a take-charge, organized fashionista who makes her workday all about you.”

And Katarina Ivanov had been doing just that for more than a year since. Two parts Mother Earth and one part All- Business. Audrey had no idea what she would ever have done
without her.

“Where are you going?” she suddenly asked the driver. “Are you taking the Van Wyck Expressway?”

“I got an idea,” he tossed back at her over his shoulder. “You worry about your hat and gloves, and I’ll take care of getting you to JFK.”

I’m not wearing a hat and gloves, you Neanderthal.

When he glanced into the rearview and noticed Audrey seething at him, he sighed. “Don’t worry your pretty little head. I’ll get you there, Princess. Deal? Okay. Deal.”

Audrey dug her bright red fingernails into her palms.

I despise New York.

But she knew it wasn’t the city so much as the energy of the place. Ten million people crammed into jam-packed streets, everyone trying to get somewhere, all of them convinced that their particular mission trumped everyone else’s. If her driver worked in another city, say St. Louis or Abilene, she felt certain he’d be far less disagreeable. Audrey, on the other hand, just wanted to survive long enough in New York to catch the tail of her dream.

Nearly out of money, and fast running out of steam, she had just enough of both to carry her through Carly’s wedding in Atlanta. If she didn’t score the job designing Kim Renfroe’s wedding dress by the time she returned, Audrey would have to start thinking about throwing in the towel. Perhaps she could rustle up a job working for one of the other design houses. Her stab at venturing out on her own hadn’t been the starship success she’d been convinced that it would be.

Two years and three months.

That’s how long it had taken her to run through the inheri- tance Granny Beatrice had left her. Twenty-seven months, almost to the day. When she’d left Atlanta for New York, she had such high hopes of making a name for herself as a designer. Marginal successes along the way had not contributed much toward soaring, only toward staying afloat. And even that was in jeopardy now.

Audrey nibbled on the corner of her lip as she stared at the scenery beyond the sedan window. A mist of emotion rose in her eyes, blurring the passing cars. She really needed to figure out a way to tell Kat that she wouldn’t be able to pay her much longer.

She wondered if Carly knew how much it cost her to drop everything and head home for a week, not to mention all the time and resources she’d spent on designing and creating Carly’s dream bridal gown. By the time the Atlanta trip came to a close, she would find herself up against the final wall. She would say good-bye to Kat, convert her design studio on the

other side of her apartment into a living space, and advertise for a roommate. Then she would go begging for a job with low pay and long hours in support of someone else’s design reverie.

Unless Kim Renfroe chose to wear an Audrey Regan origi- nal for her spring wedding; in that case, the air in the tires of her dream would carry her on a little farther. Not much, but a little.

“You gonna answer that, Princess?”

“What?”

“Your cell phone. It sounds like God is calling.”

The jingle of her harp-phone nudged her as she wiped a tear from her cheek. “Oh. I didn’t hear it.”

She pulled the phone from her purse and fumbled with it. Finally, she heard Kat’s muffled voice, and she held the thing up to her face.

“Audrey? I’m just checking on you. Audrey, are you there?” She held the phone like a walkie-talkie she’d seen the night before in a late-night rerun of Star Trek. “Yes, I’m here, Scotty. Now either beam me up or quit bothering me.

And Kat? Can
you change the ring? Apparently, it sounds like God.”

“I can’t change the ringtone remotely, but—”

“I have to go now, Scotty. But only use this thing in an emer- gency, okay? It’s annoying.”

“Here we are. Terminal three.”

She blinked, and a lone remnant of a tear wound its way down the curve of her face and dropped off her chin. Brushing its path dry with the back of her hand, she tossed the cell phone into her bag and inhaled sharply before cranking open the door and stepping out.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The 13th Tribe

The 13th Tribe
Thomas Nelson (April 3, 2012)
by
Robert Liparulo


Chapter 1




Eddie Rollins didn’t believe in ghosts or phantoms or the boogeyman, but at that moment he felt a chill run down his spine like a drop of cold water. Gun in hand, he inched through the darkness between two bulbs mounted above doors on the backside of MicroTech’s large, squat building. Thirty yards ahead, a keypad beside one of the metal-skinned doors had just beeped and lit up. Seeing no one standing before it, despite the brilliance of the halogen lamp directly overhead, he’d drawn his weapon.

Unusual things made him nervous: eight years on the force had taught him that shifting shadows in a dark alley or unlocked doors that should be locked meant trouble. He believed it was this suspicious nature that had kept him alive and earned him the security position at MicroTech when he went out looking for a job to supplement the pittance Baltimore paid its finest. In all the times he’d made this late-night circuit around the building’s perimeter, none of the keypads had ever beeped or lit up of its own accord. Then there were the noises: a faint whispering that could have been the wind, but his instincts told him wasn’t.

He considered radioing for backup or at least asking Larry, who sat in front of a bank of monitors, to put down his ever-present magazine and tell him if the cameras were picking up something Eddie’s eyes weren’t. But until he knew more he didn’t want to risk looking foolish or, worse, giving away his presence if someone was back here and hadn’t already seen him.

He swept his gaze across the large parking lot, half full with only the night shift’s cars. The few lights scattered around on high poles were dim and useless. Still, he thought he might spot something interesting—a dome light, a commercial vehicle—but nothing jumped out at him.

He smiled a little: nothing jumped out at him—not the best choice of words in this situation.

At the far back of the parking lot and circling around the sides of the building, a grassy berm rose to a tall chain-link fence topped with loops of concertina wire. Years ago, in an attempt to keep the employees from feeling like prison workers, the company had planted a row of trees midway up the berm. Pretty, but stupid from a security standpoint.

He scanned the trees, mostly defoliated this time of year. Something glinted in one of them, and he squinted at it. He could make out the fence through the branches and was thinking that’s what had caught his eye when the keypad beeped again. Six beeps, actually, and the door’s bolts disengaged with a metallic thunk. As the door swung open, Eddie crouched and hurried toward it, watching the lighted area draw closer over the sights of his revolver.

The light shimmered, a rippling current of air like heat waves coming off hot asphalt, then it was gone. The door was swinging closed now, and Eddie bolted for it.

“Freeze!”

It slammed shut.

He was almost to the door, recalling the code that would open it, shifting his gun into his left hand, when he tripped over something and crashed onto the concrete pad at the threshold. He rolled to see what he’d stumbled over and almost screamed—would have screamed, had his lungs not frozen solid.

A pair of eyes stared down at him. Just eyes, shaped by unseen lids, floating in the glow of the light. Where a head and body should have been . . . nothing. Beyond the eyes he could see the building’s white-painted bricks, a crack running up from the foundation. The eyes blinked and moved toward him.

The same fear that had paralyzed him a moment before now spurred him to action. He scrambled backward, pushing himself away from the approaching eyes. He leaned on one elbow, swung his gun up and fired, instinctively aiming eighteen inches below the eyes, a center-mass shot—if whatever this thing was had mass.

The eyes sailed back and disappeared. A gout of blood appeared in the air and gushed down and around the point of impact in a thin sheet, coating a chest and stomach Eddie could not see. He gazed in awe as the eyes reappeared, this time as narrow crescents. They—and the growing sheet of blood—descended slowly, as though the invisible being was sliding down the brick wall.

The door burst open, fluorescent light from an empty hallway exploding over him. But the hallway wasn’t empty: more eyes rushed out of it, bobbing up and down, coming toward him. And another object, floating, circling, as though dancing on the waves of light—a long blade: a knife or sword. It glimmered and sparked as it came at him. In the speed of it all, everything slowed down in the way wheels spin so fast they appear not to be moving at all. He swung the gun toward the eyes, the blade, and felt something strike his hand hard. He fired into the night sky.

A pair of eyes, angry slits with dark irises, stopped over him, and he felt a blow against his chin, knocking his head back. He felt the back of his skull collide against the pavement and an explosion of pain, making his vision go white. Then he felt no more.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cooking The Books

Cooking The Books
Abingdon Press (April 2012)
by
Bonnie S. Calhoun


Prologue


PROLOGUE

“Let me go! Why you do this to me?”

“Because you didn’t listen.” The bald Danny DeVito look alike stood in front of the chair with his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket.

Sunshine filtered through the grimy window set high in the concrete wall. It angled a dusty ray of light down into the room casting a shadow in front of the individual tied to the metal chair in the center of the barren space.

Two men entered the room from behind the chair. One remained in the shadows while the other, a Middle Eastern man wearing jeans and a button-down shirt walked to the bound man. He ran his hand across the man’s shoulder as he moved in front of him.

“You no can do this. I give you what you want.” The bound man struggled against his ropes, his wrists raw and bleeding from his frantic squirming.

“It’s too late.” The Middle Eastern man patted him on the shoulder before removing his hand. “You’ve had many chances. You wasted them all.”

“No, no . . . I have now. I do now.”

The man in the shadows nodded. The Middle Eastern man pulled three hypodermic needles from his shirt pocket, carefully unsheathed the first one and handed it to the DeVito clone.

The bound man’s eyes widened. “I get for you. I give you. I promise.”

“Time’s up.” The DeVito clone ran his fingers along the struggling man’s chest searching for the space between his ribs, then plunged in the needle.

His eyes widened. He gasped with the rush of deadly drugs entering his body. His legs went rigid. “Madre mía.” The words rushed out with his last breath.

Chapter 1


One month later . . .

The car jerked as though possessed.

I inhaled sharply, holding onto the breath as tightly as I gripped the smooth wood railing with one hand and my garbage bag with the other. I peered down from the landing on the floor below my apartment at the car parked closest to the building.

My heart drummed a monster cadence that pounded on the blood vessels behind my eyes, causing pinpoint stars to float in front of my vision. Was I really seeing this or did I not have enough coffee yet this morning?

Yes. It was no flashback from my days of old. The car still shook

A warm summer breeze drifted across my skin as I continued to stare down at the car. I shivered. I wasn’t cold. It was fear.

What was I, an idiot? I had to will my foot to descend to the next step. At the moment, my feet were apparently smarter than I was.. They knew danger. A smart person would turn around and go back upstairs, through the apartment and down the front stairs. But no, I apparently didn’t emanate from that smart gene pool. If it could be considered dangerous or reckless, my name was probably attached somewhere.

My dear mom, God rest her soul, always said, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

Yeah, let’s not mention that angels must have practiced running for the clouds every time the name Sloane Templeton came up as an assignment. I had a knack for turning them into bruised and battered little fife-and-drum corps, complete with head bandages and crutches.

A woman’s screech echoed from the closed interior of the car.

I gasped and stumbled back against the step, raking my calf on the unyielding wood. I winced. As I tried to steady myself, my left hand lost its grip on the garbage bag I was carrying. It rolled down the rest of the stairs in slow motion and plopped beside the Dumpster.

I stared at it. That’s one way to get it down there.

An animal-like howl rolled though the air. I stiffened.

Lord, help me! She’s being attacked.

There was an innocent woman in there. Call the police! Why didn’t I think of it five minutes ago? I felt my pockets. No cell phone, just my gun in one pocket, and keys in the other. I must have left the phone downstairs on my desk in the bookstore last night. Figures, I never have it when I need it.

A muffled scream.

Electric fear zipped up my spine. My brain ticked off the options. Up the stairs and down the front. Shudder. Pass the car and around to the front. Either way, to get to a phone was going to take time that may rob this woman of her life. I had to do something now. I was the only one here.

How? Don’t be stupid! I have a gun in my pocket. Yeah, but I’ve never confronted another person with a weapon. This is crazy and reckless. I could be overpowered. They could take my gun and shoot me.

A moan. Banging. Another scream.

No! I have to do something. Now!

With a trembling hand, I pulled the registered .38 from the pocket of my baggy linen trousers. Against my wishes, Mom had badgered me until I accepted her transferring the weapon to me right before her passing. Her excuse was that I needed protection as a store owner in our crime-ridden area. Although I didn’t have a clue about what crime she was referring to, I did have a good guess about the criminals. This was a new day, and fear was not going to create any more victims around me than I could help.

As I pulled the gun from my pants, the thumb hammer snagged on the top of my pocket, flipping the weapon out of my shaking hand. I lunged for it. Fingers clawed at empty air. Agh!

I flinched as it hit the step, expecting the gun to discharge and shoot me in my smarter-than-me foot.

The weapon tumbled down two more treads of the wooden staircase, and spun to the edge, hanging there for a split second before continuing its descent. It bounced down another step, spun a couple more times, and came to rest with the barrel facing in my direction. It mocked me as though I were playing spin the bottle. Tag . . . you’re it!

A woman’s pleading voice resonated from the shaking car.

My first instinct was to leave the gun right where it lay and run away. But my inner warrior wouldn’t let me back away.

I ran down the few steps and snatched up the snub-nosed gun. The cool metal was foreign in my clammy fingers. Why in the world did I think I could be like my fearless ma, brandishing a weapon, when I’d never held anything more deadly than nail clippers?

I pulled in a sharp breath to calm my teeth-rattling jitters. If I didn’t go now reason would take over. I charged down the stairs. Vaulting over the garbage bag, I snuck up to the passenger side of the car and yanked on the door handle, almost pulling my arm from its socket. The door didn’t yield.

Locked. Great! Now in addition to a skinned leg, I had a throbbing shoulder.

The windows dripped foggy moisture on the inside, masking the interior. I couldn’t see a thing.

The woman needed my help. I suddenly summoned an inordinate amount of bravery and slapped my hand on the glass with the same authority Officer Murphy had used on Tim Owens and me when I was eighteen. “Open the door!”