Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sheriff’s Surrender - Chapter 1

The Sheriff’s Surrender

Barbour Books (December 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Fergus, Idaho

May 1885

Gert Dooley aimed at the scrap of red calico and squeezed the trigger. The Spencer rifle she held cracked, and the red cloth fifty yards away shivered.

“I’d say your shooting piece is in fine order.” She lowered the rifle and passed it to the owner, Cyrus Fennel. She didn’t particularly like Fennel, but he always paid her brother, the only gunsmith in Fergus, with hard money.

He nodded. “Thank you, Miss Dooley.” He shoved his hand into his pocket.

Gert knew he was fishing out a coin. This was the part her brother hated most—taking payment for his work. She turned away. Hiram would be embarrassed enough without her watching. She picked up the shawl she had let fall to the grass a few minutes earlier.

“That’s mighty fine shooting, Gert,” said Hiram’s friend, rancher Ethan Chapman. He’d come by earlier to see if Hiram would help him string a fence the next day. When Cyrus Fennel had arrived to pick up his repaired rifle, Ethan had sat down on the chopping block to watch Gert demonstrate the gun.

“Thank you kindly.” Gert accepted praise for shooting as a matter of course. Now, if Ethan had remarked that she looked fine today or some such pretty thing, she’d have been flustered. But he would never say anything like that. And shooting was just work.

Fennel levered the rifle’s action open and peered at the firing pin. “Looks good as new. I should be able to pick off those rats that are getting in my grain bins.”

“That’s quite a cannon for shooting rats,” Gert said.

Ethan stood and rested one foot on the chopping block, leaning forward with one arm on his knee. “You ought to hire Gert to shoot them for you.”

Gert scowled. “Why’d I want to do that? He can shoot his own rats.”

Hiram, who had pocketed his pay as quickly as possible, moved the straw he chewed from one side of his mouth to the other. He never talked much. Men brought him their firearms to fix. Hiram listened to them tell him what the trouble was while eyeing the piece keenly. Then he’d look at Gert. She would tell them, “Come back next week.” Hiram would nod, and that was the extent of the conversation. Since his wife, Violet, had died eight years ago, the only person Hiram seemed to talk to much was Ethan.

Fennel turned toward her with a condescending smile. “Folks say you’re the best shot in Fergus, Miss Dooley.”

Gert shrugged. It wasn’t worth debating. She had sharp eyes, and she’d fired so many guns for Hiram to make sure they were in working order that she’d gotten good at it, that was all.

Ethan’s features, however, sprang to life. “Ain’t it the truth? Why, Gert can shoot the tail feathers off a jay at a hundred yards with a gun like that. Mighty fine rifle.” He nodded at Fennel’s Spencer, wincing as though he regretted not having a gun as fine.

“Well, now, I’m a fair shot myself,” Fennel said. “I could maybe hit that rag, too.”

“Let’s see you do it,” Ethan said.

Fennel jacked a cartridge into the Spencer, smiling as he did. The rag still hung limp from a notched stick and was silhouetted against the distant dirt bank across the field. He put his left foot forward and swung the butt of the stock up to his shoulder, paused motionless for a second, and pulled the trigger.

Gert watched the cloth, not the shooter. The stick shattered just at the bottom of the rag. She frowned. She’d have to find another stick next time. At least when she tested a gun, she clipped the edge of the cloth so her stand could be used again.

Hiram took the straw out of his mouth and threw it on the ground. Without a word, he strode to where the tattered red cloth lay a couple of yards from the splintered stick and brought the scrap back. He stooped for a piece of firewood from the pile he’d made before Fennel showed up. The stick he chose had split raggedly, and Hiram slid the bit of cloth into a crack.

Ethan stood beside Gert as they watched Hiram walk across the field, all the way to the dirt bank, and set the piece of firewood on end.

“Hmm.” Fennel cleared his throat and loaded several cartridges into the magazine. When Hiram was back beside them, he raised the gun again, held for a second, and fired. The stick with the bit of red stood unwavering.

“Let Gert try,” Ethan said.

“No need,” she said, looking down at her worn shoe tips peeping out beneath the hem of her skirt.

“Oh, come on.” Ethan’s coaxing smile tempted her.

Fennel held the rifle out. “Be my guest.”

Gert looked to her brother. Hiram gave the slightest nod then looked up at the sky, tracking the late afternoon sun as it slipped behind a cloud. She could do it, of course. She’d been firing guns for Hiram for ten years—since she came to Fergus and found him grieving the loss of his wife and baby. Folks had brought him more work than he could handle. They felt sorry for him, she supposed, and wanted to give him a distraction. Gert had begun test firing the guns as fast as he could fix them. She found it satisfying, and she’d kept doing it ever since. Thousands upon thousands of rounds she’d fired, from every type of small firearm, unintentionally building herself a reputation of sorts.

She didn’t usually make a show of her shooting prowess, but Fennel rubbed her the wrong way. She knew he wasn’t Hiram’s favorite patron either. He ran the Wells Fargo office now, but back when he ran the assay office, he’d bought up a lot of failed mines and grassland cheap. He owned a great deal of land around Fergus, including the spread Hiram had hoped to buy when he first came to Idaho. Distracted by his wife’s illness, Hiram hadn’t moved quickly enough to file claim on the land and had missed out. Instead of the ranch he’d wanted, he lived on his small lot in town and got by on his sporadic pay as a gunsmith.

Gert let her shawl slip from her fingers to the grass once more and took the rifle. As she focused on the distant stick of firewood, she thought, That junk of wood is you, Mr. Rich Land Stealer. And that little piece of cloth is one of your rats.

She squeezed gently. The rifle recoiled against her shoulder, and the far stick of firewood jumped into the air then fell to earth, minus the red cloth.

“Well, I’ll be.” Fennel stared at her. “Are you always this accurate?”

“You ain’t seen nothing,” Ethan assured him.

Hiram actually cracked a smile, and Gert felt the blood rush to her cheeks even though Ethan hadn’t directly complimented her. She loved to see Hiram smile, something he seldom did.

“Mind sharing your secret, Miss Dooley?” Fennel asked.

Ethan chuckled. “I’ll tell you what it is. Every time she shoots, she pretends she’s aiming at something she really hates.”

“Aha.” Fennel smiled, too. “Might I ask what you were thinking of that time, ma’am?”

Gert’s mouth went dry. Never had she been so sorely tempted to tell a lie.

“Likely it was that coyote that kilt her rooster last month,” Hiram said.

Gert stared at him. He’d actually spoken. She knew when their eyes met that her brother had known exactly what she’d been thinking.

Ethan and Fennel both chuckled.

Of course, I wouldn’t really think of killing him, Gert thought, even though he stole the land right out from under my grieving brother. The Good Book says don’t kill and don’t hate. Determined to heap coals of fire on her adversary’s head, she handed the Spencer back to him. “You’re not too bad a shot yourself, Mr. Fennel.”

His posture relaxed, and he opened his mouth all smiley, like he might say something pleasant back, but suddenly he stiffened. His eyes focused beyond Gert, toward the dirt street. “Who is that?”

Gert swung around to look as Ethan answered. “That’s Millicent Peart.”

“Don’t think I’ve seen her since last fall.” Fennel shook his head. “She sure is showing her age.”

“I don’t think Milzie came into town much over the winter,” Gert said.

For a moment, they watched the stooped figure hobble along the dirt street toward the emporium. Engulfed in a shapeless old coat, Milzie Peart leaned on a stick with each step. Her mouth worked as though she were talking to someone, but no one accompanied her.

“How long since her man passed on?” Ethan asked.

“Long time,” Gert said. “Ten years, maybe. She still lives at their cabin out Mountain Road.”

Fennel grimaced as the next house hid the retreating figure from view. “Pitiful.”

Ethan shrugged. “She’s kinda crazy, but I reckon she likes living on their homestead.”
Gert wondered how Milzie got by. It must be lonesome to have no one, not even a nearly silent brother, to talk to out there in the foothills.

“Supper in half an hour.” She turned away from the men and headed for the back porch of the little house she shared with Hiram. She hoped Fennel would take the hint and leave. And she hoped Ethan would stay for supper, but of course she would never say so.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Familiar Stranger - Chapter 1

The Familiar Stranger

Moody Publishers (September 1, 2009)

Chapter 1


I WRAPPED A TOWEL AROUND my waist as Denise stalked into the bathroom. Avoiding her eyes, I wiped a clear spot on the steamy mirror and studied my reflection. A caged man, a Houdini, stared back at me. Bound inside a straitjacket, locked in chains, submerged in a tank, I could taste the metallic tang of the key hidden in my mouth. If I held my breath a little longer and waited for the right time to rip my shoulder from its socket, I would escape my stifling life.

“Did you wipe down the shower, Craig?”

What harm would happen if once, just once, I left droplets on the glass doors? I bit back my retort. “Of course, honey.”

“Good.” She peered into the brushed-silver mirror hanging above the white marble countertop—a bathroom that had cost me a month’s wages—and added another layer to her lipstick. “Need to hurry if we’re going to be on time.”

“I’m not going.” I said it as if I didn’t care one way or the other what she thought of my bombshell.

“What are you talking about?” Her shoulders tighten into unnatural stillness.

I rubbed the scruff of my neck and scrutinized my image. A few wrinkles around the eyes. Two slight recessions on either side of the hairline. Not bad for a guy of forty-six.

“Craig, the deacons’ meeting is right after the service and you’ve missed the last two. Are you trying to sabotage your position?” Her reflected hazel eyes drilled into me.

For a second I thought of giving it all up, going to church with her and the kids, acting as though that was all I had planned for the day. Then the image faded and a pair of deep brown eyes replaced hers. No, I wouldn’t be setting foot in a house of worship this Sunday, or ever again.

She wouldn’t turn away without some kind of explanation.

“Denise, every day of the week I’m looking into people’s mouths. Different teeth, different breath, same office, same chair. Same mindless, indecipherable banter. This is my one day off and I’m not going to waste it sitting in a pew with a bunch of pretenders.”

“Pretenders?” Her lipstick tube tumbled to the counter, leaving a blood-red slash against its starkness. “Sometimes I don’t understand you at all.” As she rubbed a tissue over the spot, the red smeared across the dead veins in the rock, veins that merged and parted, crossed and died, without purpose or pattern.

Had I pushed too hard? The last thing I needed this morning was an interrogation built on suspicion.

I’d planned this day for too long to blow it now.

I turned and put my arms around her. “I’m going crazy. Call it a midlife crisis if you will, but I can’t put on a tie and sing a happy little hymn. I’m going hiking.”

Relaxing into my embrace, she fingered my jaw line. “Hiking, huh? Along the trails in Washington Park?”

Why do you always have to make a suggestion so it still seems as if I’m still doing what you want? It was her fault I had to carry out my plan.

Yet I had to feign tenderness, feign caring. I tried to smile. “No, to Multnomah Falls. The weather’s supposed to be great in the gorge.”

Denise stiffened again and moved away from me, heading into the bedroom. “The Columbia Gorge is kind of a long drive for a spur-of- the-moment thing, don’t you think?”

Trailing after her, I recalled all the weekends I spent following her from one of the kids’ soccer games to her friends’ barbeques after work on Saturday. Waking the next day to the usual church service, out for lunch with another of her friends—the husband and I pretending camaraderie even though we knew nothing more about each other than our favorite football teams. Back to church for the evening meeting. Finally dropping into bed, dreading the idea of telling people to floss more, brush with softer bristles, lay off the self-whitening strips for a while, and all the other advice I dispensed only to have it ignored.

I slipped on a pair of loose jogging shorts and a T-shirt over my head. “Give me today, and I’ll do whatever you want next Sunday.”

“Fine.” She sighed. “Your mind’s made up anyway. I’ll figure out something to tell everyone.”

“Say a dental emergency came up. A root canal.”

She touched the edge of the dresser and balanced on one foot while she slid on a new shoe, a beaded red high heel. I’m sure it set me back a pretty penny. Dyed honey-blonde hair hung over her face as she leaned over to put the other shoe on, calf flexing. I was surprised at how young and attractive she looked. Apparently our physical connection still flowed deep, like the veins in the marble, but my heart sat cold and dense. What was I doing? Maybe I could—

No. I steeled myself, kissed her forehead for the last time, and wandered down the hallway in search of the boys. I found them in the bonus room, sprawled on the couch, playing a shoot-’em-up video game. Nicolas, fifteen, had gelled his hair into a conservative style and wore a blue Oxford. Twelve-year-old Jamie’s hair stuck up in blond-tipped spikes. His orange shirt, black flames blazing across the front, shouted, “Look at me!” But the shirt was a button-up, so technically it met Denise’s church dress code.

“Guys?” I cleared my throat. “Guys.”

They turned their attention from the TV screen.

“Want to skip church and go for a hike?” I held my breath.

Jamie cocked his head back. “Are you serious?”

My heart stopped for a second. I’d been so sure they wouldn’t take me up on my invitation. Asking them, and getting turned down—that was what I had counted on.

Nick paused the game and shook his head. “I’m helping with children’s church.”

Laughing, Jamie jabbed Nick’s shoulder. “What he means is that he’s helping Heather McCallister with children’s church.” He turned his attention back to me. “Mom’s letting you play hooky?”

I nodded, ignoring the insinuation that Denise arranged my days. “Man.” He kicked at the coffee table. “I’m skateboarding with some friends at the park after lunch. But I can ditch them and come with you, if you want.”

“No, no. You do what you’ve planned.”

Nicolas unpaused the game and they went back to shooting each other.

It struck me as an odd pastime to pursue before a sermon. I stood for a moment, gazing at my boys. Almost men. Would they miss me if I weren’t around? Denise did everything for them, though I financed it all. I could still do that, fulfill my financial role, even if . . .

My heart thumped, sped up, grew louder, drowned out the sound effects of the guns. Blackness crept into the sides of the room, and I feared I would pass out right in front of the boys. Closing my eyes, I focused on breathing in and out slowly.

The episode passed.

I wanted one last contact with my sons as well. I squeezed the back of Jamie’s neck and pulled on Nick’s ear before I left the room.

Denise walked past me, positioning her body so we wouldn’t acci- dentally touch. “Boys, time to turn off the game and get into the car.”

The boys yelled their good-byes and clattered down the stairs and out to the garage. Denise followed. A mechanical drone signaled the garage door’s opening; another, its closing.

I was left standing in the hall directly in front of the family portrait we’d ordered after Jamie’s birth. Denise’s face glowed, her arms wrapped around the baby. I stared at my image, a three-year-old Nicolas perched on my lap.

Would I have a different life if I’d been a different father, a different husband?

Probably not. No matter how intently I inspected the photo, I couldn’t read anything but satisfaction in my expression. Had I really been happy? Or had I been more willing to fake it then?

“No longer.” I rubbed sweaty palms over the front of my shirt and glanced down at the wet streaks. Without thinking, I’d put on a white shirt. Denise had to know I was wearing black shorts with a blue shirt. It was critical to the plan. Nervous energy surged through my body.

Should I call her? Say I’ve changed my shirt?

And have her think I’d completely lost my mind? I pantomimed holding a phone. “Hi, honey. I know you’ve just left the house, but I’m wearing a blue shirt now. It matches my eyes better.” Yeah, right.

A reason. All I needed was a reason. I hustled to the kitchen, smeared some ketchup—she knew I loved scrambled eggs with ketchup for breakfast—on the sleeve as if I’d wiped my mouth on my arm. Upstairs, I threw it in the hamper and found the blue shirt I needed to wear.

“The devil’s in the details.” My father’s voice echoed in my mind, vibrating like my childhood house after he slammed the door and walked away from our family for the last time.


THE SHOWER STOPPED and I heard Craig step out. I waited until I was sure he’d covered himself and hurried in to check my makeup. Thinking of the tension between us over the last few months had me biting at my lower lip again. Craig always thought that was so cute when we were dating, but now . . .

I rolled my lips in as I passed him. No sense in giving him the opportunity to ridicule me for a silly bad habit.

When he’d first started picking at me, I took everything personally. All my efforts at self-improvement came to naught. So I started talking. To Craig. To my pastor. Eventually to a counselor. I showed all my emotional cards and begged for some insight in return. Yet the tighter I pulled at him, the harder he fought.

My new tactic, besides constant prayer, was to keep it light and easy, distract with the mundane. “Did you wipe down the shower, Craig?”

He smirked, as if I were a prison warden set on micromanaging his life. “Of course, honey.” The endearment demeaned me.

“Good.” I ignored his inflection and put on a fresh coat of lipstick to cover my tooth prints. “Need to hurry if we’re going to be on time.”

He posed in front of the mirror. “I’m not going to church.”

“What are you talking about?” I’m sure my eyes asked more questions than just that one. Like, Why don’t I feel like I know you anymore? or Why do I hold my breath when you walk into a room and relax when you leave?

He launched into a tirade, sharp words filled with calm anger. My lipstick slipped through my fingers as I listened, numb. I searched his face, hoping to see some sign of the man who had stood next to me at the altar and pledged to be the spiritual leader of our home. All I perceived was a magic show, a sleight of hand, a transformation into a contained, painfully polite man. He gentled his voice and explained it all away with the phrase “midlife crisis.”

I completely agreed with his self-assessment. Midlife crisis was not just some term to cover buying a convertible—which Craig already had—but a full-on assault to the durability of our marriage. According to my therapist, Craig and I were “dealing with major communication issues.”

Yet, when he held me, my body betrayed me, practically melting onto him. Was I so desperate for his attention, his physical touch, I could ignore his uncaring behavior the instant his arms came around me? The implication rattled my dry soul. I pulled away, left the bathroom, and hunted for a pair of shoes that matched my red and cream suit.

Setting the heels next to the dresser, I remembered the first pair of brand-new shoes I’d bought before Craig’s graduation from dental school. I made do with secondhand sandals while he studied and fretted over the baby on the way. Then—like the first beams of sunshine through a wrung-out cloud—he told me to get a new pair of shoes for the commencement ceremony. Soon, he told me, all of our sacrifices were going to pay off. Literally.

Tipping my head so my hair would hide the tears welling in my eyes, I slipped the shoes on. I kept looking at the floor as he kissed my forehead and left the room. Sinking onto the duvet, I couldn’t keep the tears from seeping out. When had our joint effort at marriage turned into two Clydesdales pulling in opposite directions?

From the bonus room, I heard Craig ask the boys if they’d like to go hiking with him. A new veil of tears came. Yes, it was the first weekend of summer vacation, but had he even thought to ask if I would go with him? After all, he was right. He did work hard every day except Sunday. Surely the Lord wouldn’t begrudge him one day of relaxation. A day to soothe the heat of burnout I felt flaming from him.

Was it his job? I’d seen an article once that said dentists had one of the highest rates of suicide for professionals. For Craig, I wasn’t sure if the hours, the work, or the demands of his family stressed him more. Whatever the case, he had ceased flirting with me long ago. He He used to chase me around the house when the kids were little, catch me by the waist, and tickle me. As soon as the boys laughed, he’d chase after them. When was the last time we shared a laugh as a family?

I stood, dabbing a tissue at each eyelid. One glance at my watch said my mascara fix would have to wait for a red light on the way. Craig came out of the bonus room just as I entered the hall. His shoulders filled the doorway. Most people tended to think of dentists as little men, very precise, wearing glasses, with looming nose hair. My husband was nothing like that. He was built like a runner, a true athlete, one whose muscles snapped as he drove his arms forward and yanked his knees up. His fingers were fine and long. Adept at what he did.

One touch of his hand, and I would melt into an emotional mess again. I edged past him, praying he wouldn’t reach out. My breath came a little easier once I walked out of range.

Nicolas and Jamie turned off the game the first time I asked. They had always been good at doing what they were told. Must have gotten it from me. Sure as rain deluged our part of Oregon in November, they didn’t inherit it from their father.

Stomach clenching at the idea of leaving Craig with such little discussion about his decision, I mustered the determination to let him make his own choices and led the boys to the SUV.

Nicolas called shotgun a millisecond before Jamie, throwing himself into the front seat.

I fumbled to get the key into the ignition.

Jamie leaned forward through the gap in the front seats and punched the garage door opener clamped to the sun visor above my head. “Dad’s really not coming?”

“He needs a break.” The key slid into the slot.

“You okay with that, Mom?” Nicolas fastened his seat belt.

I patted his knee, grateful for his thoughtfulness. “Sure, I’m fine.” My hand shook as I reached for the wheel.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Christmas Lamp - Chapter 1

The Christmas Lamp

Zondervan (October 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Roni walked to the break room refrigerator and took out a piece of cheese and a handful of grapes. Bumping the door closed with her hip, she heard it; the telltale sound of a crash, and then lights and ornaments hitting the pavement.

Judy sprang from her chair. “Good grief! This is a record even for Nativity.”

Moving to the window, the women peered out. Roni heaved a sigh of disbelief when she spotted a silver Acura SUV buried in spruce. Tinsel dangled from the headlights.

A man peered out the driver’s side window. Moments later the tall, well-dressed man wearing corduroy slacks and a sports shirt unwound his frame from the driver’s seat and got out of the vehicle.

Closing her eyes, Roni drew a deep breath and announced. “The new consultant is here.”

The two women reached the door simultaneously. Bounding toward the accident, Roni quickly assessed the situation. The city crew seemed untouched. One or two looked slightly dazed, but the consultant’s expression was more “what hit me” than angry. “Is everybody okay?” Roni called as she approached the chaotic scene.

“I’m fine,” the newcomer said. He glanced at the workers. “Anyone hurt?”

The men shook their heads, eyes scanning the mess. Roni extended a hand. “You must be the new consultant.”

He took the outstretched hand. “Jake Brisco.”

“Roni Elliot. I manage the City Administration Office.” Her gaze assessed the dark-haired consultant, and then moved to the third finger of his right hand. Empty. Her eyes snapped back. “I am so sorry. Someone should have warned you about the tree.”

Jake brushed spruce needles off his slacks. “Does it always sit in the middle of the intersection?”

“Always,” Roni assured with a smile.

And it always got hit. Nativity wouldn’t be itself without their holiday decorations. And the tree was always first to go up, and the first to come down. Literally. It was hit at least twice every Christmas, and sometimes more.

“Well.” Jake studied his vehicle, hands on his trim hips. “I guess there’s no real harm done.”

“Come inside while they clean the mess off,” Roni invited. “We have fresh coffee.”

“No thanks.” He set to work picking tinsel out of the bumper. “I’m going to check into my hotel room. I’ll be in first thing tomorrow morning.”

Roni glanced at Judy, who was busy assessing the new boss. She glanced at Roni and gave her a thumbs-up.

Was she kidding? The man couldn’t drive! Roni turned back to Brisco, who was now crouched on his hands and knees parting the spruce. “You’re Mary Parson’s grandson?”

“That would be me.” He tossed a handful of boughs aside, grumbling under his breath.

“We heard you were coming.” For the past few weeks that had been the town buzz. The new consultant is coming. Mary Parson’s hotshot grandson. Everything is going to be different. The town will be saved. She assessed the good-looking Superman. Right. He couldn’t miss a twelvefoot spruce sitting in the middle of the intersection.

This man was going to save Nativity from going under?

That evening, Roni locked the office, relieved to have the hectic day behind her. Jake Brisco wasn’t exactly friendly, but then having a spruce hit your fancy car, as Mom used to say, “would sour a body’s disposition.”

The new consultant had appeared to have a sense of humor. Once they separated his car from the tree, he calmly picked spruce needles out of his grill and noted that his decorating was done for the year. Roni was grateful he wasn’t coming into work until morning. There’d be a little breathing space between the incident and getting down to business.

“Merry Christmas!”

Roni turned to see Dusty Bitterman, who owned the insurance office two doors away, striding toward her. The affable grandfatherly figure flipped her a piece of peppermint candy.

She caught it with both hands. “Thanks, Dusty. You’re my first holiday greeting of the season.”

“It’s the best time of the year. You doing okay this fine day?”

“Never better.”

“I’m on my way to see Mary. I understand her grandson blew through town earlier.”

Blew through was correct. Mary Parson lived on the outskirts of Nativity, a woman who rarely joined community activities anymore even though she’d been a founding area resident. Folks said that until she had her first heart attack she’d been involved with everything, but once her husband passed away she’d turned into a recluse. Everyone knew of Mary but most knew little about her. Dusty visited her weekly to see if she needed anything, but even he admitted that she rarely did, and that she preferred her solitude.

Sobering, Dusty bent forward. “You know the plan if this thing gets out of hand.”

Ronnie nodded. “Ten-four.”

Tipping his hat, he walked on as Roni turned toward home. Dusty worked hard to keep the season. He’d lost a nine-year-old son fourteen years ago about this time of the year, so the holiday held even more significant meaning to him. The boy had chased a baseball into a line of traffic. Though Roni was a distracted teenager at the time, she could still remember the sight of Dusty sitting in the middle of a busy highway, all traffic stopped as they watched the grieving father cradle his son’s lifeless form, rocking the child gently back and forth.

After that tragic day, Dusty was determined to keep Pete’s legacy alive. The boy loved Christmas and all that went with it.

Turning up the collar of her light jacket, she started toward home. The house was a short walk from the office, so she didn’t need to invent an excuse to exercise. Her aging blue Volkswagen convertible remained in the garage until Saturdays, when she did her shopping.

A smile touched the corners of her mouth as she thought of the new consultant’s arrival. Residents expected the town tree to be knocked over. It wouldn’t be a Nativity Christmas if it sat untouched for the next five weeks, but the incident had to be disconcerting to the newcomer.

Drawing a deep breath of fresh air, she dismissed the worry. The annual tree lighting would take place this Saturday night and then holiday activities would be in full swing.

“Roni! Merry Christmas!”

She spotted a familiar face. “Merry Christmas, Wilma. How’s Lowell today?” “I took him to the doctor this morning. He’s doing fine. Just a case of indigestion.”

“Good — It’s nice to see you.” By now Steil’s Hardware was coming up. Usually Roni breezed right past the store. Hammers and screwdrivers didn’t interest her, though she was handy with both tools. Aaron Steil stood in the window setting up a Christmas display.

And then she saw it. The lamp. A gaudy, black-net stocking leg with a fringed shade, an exact replica of the one featured in the movie A Christmas Story.

Her gaze riveted on the object. The sight brought back rich memories of the hours she’d spent watching the classic movie with her mom and dad. Images of Ralphie, the kid who longed for a Red Ryder, carbine-action, two-hundredshot, Range Model air rifle for Christmas raced through her mind. The renowned line rang in her head. You can’t have a BB gun, kid! You’ ll shoot your eye out!

Aaron waved and Roni lifted a finger, pointing to the price tag.

He frowned, and she motioned to the white ticket dangling on the cord. Tracing her gaze, he brightened and glanced at the price then mouthed, one ninety-nine.

A hundred and ninety-nine? Dollars? He had to be kidding. He held the lamp closer to the window, brows lifted expectantly.

She shook her head. No. Too much. She couldn’t.

Smiling, he set the lamp on a round table and pulled the chain. Soft light pooled over the sidewalk where Roni stood. The effect brought a lump to her throat. Mom. Christmas! The smell of fresh pine in every room, cookies baking in the oven. When Mom was alive she had insisted on a fresh cut tree every season, and Roni still observed the tradition. It wasn’t Christmas until a huge tree filled the parlor corner, decorated with childhood ornaments and family keepsakes.

It was silly to continue family traditions with no one to share them with, but she did — and most likely she always would, but she needed to start her own customs.

She’d turned into a creature of habit. Her biological clock wasn’t exactly running out, but her dream of filling the house with children had started to look less likely. She’d be thirty in January, and there was not a marriageable prospect in sight. Nativity had only a few single men, and she didn’t get to Springfield or Branson that often.

Life was passing her by, but she had no inclination to stop it. She was content, even happy, with small-town life. She made sure that she was involved with community work, and the town was her family.

Darkness closed in as she continued to stare at the funky lamp until the wind picked up. Dry leaves skipped across the street and landed in yards already piled high with dying vegetation.

Snuggling deeper into her jacket, she took a final look at the lamp, and then walked home to her empty house.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Whirlwind - Chapter 1


Thomas Nelson (December 29, 2009)

Chapter 1

Thursday, 6:24 P.M.

Pinedale, California

David King’s scream echoed against the chamber walls.

Loud in his ears, but not loud enough. He could tell by the way it bounced back at him that his voice did not penetrate the thick stones. He leaned back against a cold wall.

Lifting his head, he screamed again anyway: “Heeeeeeeelp! Can anyone hear me? Anyone . . . ?”

The last word started strong, but faded, like the shriek of a man falling into a bottomless pit.

Darkness¬–blacker than ink–engulfed him, but it didn’t matter: He kept his eyes squeezed shut, as though doing so would make the last thing he’d seen not be real, would make it go away. He was stuck in a room only slightly larger than an upended coffin, portaled there from a pantry off Taksidian’s kitchen. He had found a box of matches on a protruding stone and lit one. He had seen that the floor was covered in bones. Most of them–rib cages, spines, skulls–had been pulverized into gravel-like pellets and dust. Only near the walls were the remains intact enough to recognize, as though feet had stomped around on a roomful of skeletons . . . before whoever had been trapped before him died and decayed, adding their own bones to the floor.

Starvation. Lack of air. Heart attack from fright. He could think of a dozen ways to die in a place like this.

The walls all around were made of gray stone, cut into eight-inch cubes and fitted together so perfectly he couldn’t wedge a fingernail between them. Moisture had formed or was running down over them, making David think of underground crypts.

Dracula’s castle, he thought, and before he could stop it, the image of a white-faced vampire drifted out of the darkness of his imagination. His breath caught in his throat. Had something shifted in the small space? Something that wasn’t him? There was enough room for another person, another thing.

Stop! he told himself. Where would someone else come from? Get real.

But his mind answered: the floor, rising up from the bones of it’s victims.

Or from the same place he had come, Taksidian’s house!

Taksidian was the man who wanted his family’s home. He wanted them out or wanted them dead: David was pretty sure Taksidian didn’t care which, as long as he had the place for himself. Soon after moving into it–just over a week ago! David realized, though it seemed like years–they had found a secret third floor, and a hallway lined with doors. Behind each door was a small room, an antechamber, with items that, when picked up or put on, opened another door. This other door, one for each room, was really a portal to another time and place.

His brother, Xander, had been the first to “go over,” as they called stepping through the portals. He’d wound up in the Roman Colosseum, fighting a gladiator. Then they discovered that not only could they go from the house to other “worlds,” but people from those other places could come into their house. And one did: a hulking brute who kidnapped Mom and took her somewhere . . . somewhere in time. They’d been trying to find her ever since.

“Hello?” David said into the darkness, listening to his voice bounce off the walls. If someone answered, he would have dropped dead on the spot. But no one did. No vampire, no Taksidian.

Taksidian. He had first offered to buy the house, then got the cops to arrest Dad and persuaded the town officials that the house was unsafe. David couldn’t argue with that one. When those tricks hadn’t worked, the man had somehow sent people from the past to get them–that big brute, the one Xander had dubbed Phemus, and two of his buddies.

David stared into the darkness and groaned. It had been a long week, with enough adventure and brushes with death to fill a lifetime. The latest one had begun just a few hours ago.

He, Xander, and Dad had followed Taksidian to his house way back in the woods. When Taksidian took off, Dad went after him and the boys broke into the house. They discovered a room full of maps, photos, articles–all of them about war throughout history. Except one wall. It was covered with photos of the King family going about their daily lives, and maps of their house, and notes written in a foreign language.

That’s when Taksidian had returned, and the brothers had scrambled to hide: Xander had gone into a bedroom, David into a pantry–which had immediately shot him into this dark chamber. . . .

How can that be? It can’t! It can’t!

David prayed his brother was all right, that he’d gotten away. Somehow.

A thought struck him like the blade of a shovel: What if Taksidian’s entire house is filled with portals, like our house’s third floor? What if it’s like a big hunk of Swiss cheese, just waiting for people to fall into a hole and disappear?

But to where? Where was he?

David opened his eyes. He had to blink to make sure he had really opened them and not just thought about doing it; the blackness was that complete. Tears spilled down his cheeks, and he wiped them away.

Remembering that he’d imagined someone in the chamber with him, he stuck out his arms, moved them around. Taksidian could have come through after him , even though David had thought he’d gotten into the pantry without being seen. When he felt nothing but air, he let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding.

He turned to the wall and pounded on it. Each blow landed with a thud, as solid and unrewarding as slamming his fist against a concrete sidewalk.

“Xander!” he yelled, thinking maybe, just maybe, he was still in Taksidian’s house somewhere, and his brother would hear him.

He stepped back. The bones under his feet crunched, and he tried not to think about them. A plaster cast–crumbling, thanks to David’s plunge into the Atlantic Ocean after he’d been dragged through a portal to the sinking Titanic–ran from his left hand to his elbow. Dad had wrapped an Ace bandage around it to keep it together. The skin underneath itched like a thousand ants were swarming over it. Deep within, his bone ached.
He realized he was holding something in that hand: the box of matches. He pushed it open and pulled out a stick. He touched the match head to the side of the box, and thought Do I really want to see? Walls, that’s all that’s here . . . and skulls.

Like the one that had been glaring up at him with big black sockets last time he’d lit a match. A memory popped into his head. Something from Ancient Civ: The Aztecs or Incas or Mayans–he could never keep them straight–had used a human head as a ball in their version of soccer. He and Robbie, his best friend back in Pasadena, had joked that they’d like to do that with their soccer coach’s head when he was in their faces more than usual. The thought turned David’s stomach, not only because of the grossness of it, but because of the memory of Robbie and soccer and better times . . . normal times.

He pushed the matches into his pants pocket and pressed his palm to the wall. He lowered his head as his breathing turned into short ragged gasps.
Don’t cry, he told himself. There’s already been too much of that.

But twelve years of living had not prepared him for this. Not any of it: Mom being kidnapped, a really bad guy trying to kill them, getting stuck in a chamber of bones. Forget that he was twelve: nobody could handle this.

The thought led to another: What were the options, if not to handle it? Give up. Just sit down and die.

No, that wasn’t him. He wasn’t ready to die yet.

He gritted his teeth and slapped thestones. Then he slapped it harder. His hand squeezed into a fist, and he punched the wall. He kicked it.

“Help,” he said. He raised his face and yelled the word. Yelled it again . . . and again . . . and again. . . .

Friday, December 4, 2009

Raising Rain - Chapter Excerpt

Raising Rain

Moody Publishers (September 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

When Bebe heard that Jude Rasmussen didn’t have long to live, she felt a curious mixture of sadness, guilt, and relief. Not exactly normal feelings for a friend of over thirty-five years, though you couldn’t exactly describe their relationship as “normal”—more like a thinly veiled hostage situation.

“Her cancer is back,” Rain said, gently swirling her coffee. “She didn’t want sympathy, so she kept it to herself. I haven’t connected with Mom in a while, so it wasn’t hard to keep it a secret. William finally made her tell me.”

Bebe put her hand on Rain’s arm. “I’m sorry, honey. I guess the hysterectomy didn’t help much. What can we do?”

Rain glanced up at the line of people snaking around their small table and leaned in toward Bebe. “Well, actually, she had her reasons for giving in to William and agreeing to tell me. I’m here on a mission.” She winced.

Bebe leaned in as well. “Go ahead. What is it?”

“She wants to have a Celebration of Life before she dies. Not a memorial—a send-off, she calls it. One last chance to do something significant and she wants us all to help plan it. You, me, the old college roommates. You know Mom. It’s got to be something big. I’m not exactly sure what she has in mind, but it sounds . . . complicated.”

Bebe blew out a breath and sat back in her chair. “That’s putting it mildly.” Then she added, “Oh, I’m sorry, Rain.”

“Don’t worry. I know what she’s like. I’ve been her daughter for thirty-seven years.” Rain glanced at the time on her cell phone and gathered her wallet and sunglasses. “I’ve got to go. I can’t be late again.
Loren’s just looking for an excuse to replace me as the lead on this Murrieta project.”

Bebe gathered her purse and dug for her keys as they headed out the door into the heat of the morning. The blast of dry air baked her skin, absorbing the layer of SPF 30 she’d slathered on to prevent more freckles. They crossed the parking lot to where their cars sat side by side like a pair of mismatched shoes.

Bebe paused to give Rain a hug before she got in, and caught the unexpected scent of baby powder. “I’ll call you later to see how you’re doing. And of course I’ll call Toni and Mare.”

They got into their cars and Bebe cranked up the air conditioning. Immediately, her cell phone rang, and Rain’s number displayed.

“You forget something?”Bebe asked, looking through her window into Rain’s car. Rain looked back from the driver’s seat, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses.

“Mom’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.” There was a long pause. Bebe could hear the insistent warning of an unfastened seatbelt. “Hayden and I split up.”

“Oh, Rain—”

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t need him. I can have a baby by myself. Love you.” Bebe heard Rain’s cell phone snap shut and watched her glance over her shoulder and back her car into the street. Then she was gone.


Bebe raced home brooding on what Rain had told her and pulled her lavender scrubs with the black pawprints from the dryer. She’d been on-call the night before, and Mr.Woofles had suffered a severe asthma attack at 1:00 a.m. She needed to get in early and work him into her packed appointment calendar.

Bebe drove across town, parked in one of the clinic’s few employee parking stalls and slipped into the staff entrance. A whiff of betadyne and the whine of pups from the kennels greeted her, and she sat down at her desk to check her e-mail. She pushed back a pile of mail from pharmaceutical companies that threatened to slide onto the floor when she jiggled her mouse. She checked the charts of two patients who’d undergone procedures the day before, but nothing demanded her immediate attention. She listened to her voicemail, deleting old reminders to pick up hair color and her prescription at the pharmacy. Leaving herself messages had become a necessity of late.

“Hey,” Neil said, coming up behind her. She tilted her head back and he kissed her forehead. “I think I heard Mr.Woofles complaining in room five.”

Bebe closed her e-mail, and a picture of her boys, Scott and Dylan, smiled at her from her computer desktop. Their white teeth flashed in their tanned faces against a backdrop of snow, sugar pines, and blue sky. She felt Neil’s hands resting on her shoulders, and they shared a moment of appreciation for their handsome family.

“They’ll be fine,” he said.

She reached up and touched his hand. “I know. It’s just hard that they’re both leaving within a few weeks of each other.”

He gave her shoulders a light squeeze and sat down behind her at his desk.

“Oh, I had coffee with Rain this morning.” Bebe twisted around to face Neil, who was leafing through a file on his desk. “She had two pieces of bad news. Unfortunately, she and Hayden have called it quits, and Jude’s cancer is back. I guess her prognosis isn’t good.”

Neil looked up. “That’s too bad. Any idea what happened between her and Hayden?”

“It must have something to do with having a baby. She’s determined to have one by herself.” She reached behind her head with a ponytail band around her wrist, and in smooth strokes, wove her hair into a French braid. “I thought they would be moving toward marriage by this time.”

Neil whistled. “I always pictured Hayden as a family guy.”

“So did I. I suspect there’s more to it.”

“How’s she taking the news about her mom?”

“She seemed to be fine, but Jude wants some kind of last hurrah before she dies, and she wants me, Mare, and Toni to help plan it. And of course, Rain.”
Neil shook his head. “Always in control, right up to the end. Do you think Mare and Toni will cooperate?”

Bebe stood and draped her stethoscope around her neck. “They’ll do it for Rain, if for no other reason.”

Bebe stopped outside the door to room five and removed the chart from the holder, taking a quick overview of the tech’s notes. She briefly knocked and opened the door, breezing in to take the small rolling seat with a greeting to Mr.Woofles’s owner.

“So,Mr.Woofles, I heard you had a bad night.” She let Mr.Woofles sniff her hand and reached out to scratch behind his soft, floppy ears. He moaned low in his throat. She pulled back the skin from his eyes, and then from his mouth to examine his teeth. “Looks like you’re due for a cleaning. When you’re feeling better.”

He stood long enough for her to listen to his heart and lungs, and then sank down onto the cool linoleum with a humpf and the jingle of his tags hitting the floor. His lungs were free of the cackles and wheezes typically associated with asthma.

“Okay, this morning we’ll do a chest X-ray to rule out the possibility of pneumonia or heart failure. If it’s clear, we’ll try some antihistamines. But call me if he has another severe attack because you may have to bring him in for a shot of steroids. I’d keep him inside out of the heat as much as possible. It would also help if you had a cold-mist humidifier running at night. I would remove any cleansers from his area, and make sure no one smokes around him until we determine what triggers these attacks.” His big eyes rolled up to keep an eye on her. “Don’t worry, Mr.Woofles,” Bebe assured him. “We’ll get this figured out.”


Rain pulled into the parking lot at Steele, VonTrapp, and Evers and squeezed her Hyundai into a narrow compact space near the front of the building. She shimmied out the door, barely grazing the Honda Civic parked beside her, and hurried into the air- conditioned lobby.

She slid into her cubicle and shoved her purse beneath her desk with her foot. Then, she quickly logged on to her computer and spread her papers around to give the impression she’d been in the middle of a project instead of arriving twelve minutes late to work. She glanced down the row and saw Lisa shaking her head in playful disbelief over the top of her cubicle.

Her morning consisted of reviewing new legislation and forwarding updated information regarding mortgage lending and foreclosures to the attorneys. She drafted letters to clients whose contracts were pending and set appointments to review the contracts of others. Twice, she visited an Internet site for discounted baby furniture.

Rain stayed inside out of the heat at lunch and bought a deli sandwich from the food cart to eat at her desk. She tilted her computer screen just enough so that passersby wouldn’t get a full view as she
Googled “donor catalog search.” She pulled up a blank questionnaire for a sperm donor and played around at filling in the blanks. A tall Caucasian with brown hair and eyes and medium skin tone who was an athletic Stanford grad with an engineering degree would cost her just $15,000. Fifteen thousand dollars. Rain slowly chewed her sandwich. Wow.Amental calculation revealed she was two thousand dollars short in her savings. And that didn’t include any fertility procedures.

She’d had no idea how much a sperm donor could cost. But until Hayden left, she’d had no reason to know. She could settle for less than the perfect donor, but would she regret it? If she spent all her savings, how would she pay for child care?

What was the perfect baby worth in terms of dollars and cents? By rights, it shouldn’t be costing her more than a room remodel to transform their extra bedroom into a nursery. Her empty bedroom now.

She should have seen it coming with Hayden. Over the past year she’d dropped subtle hints about wanting a baby. She dragged him to their friends’ baby showers, and finally, when they were the last couple in their group to be childless, she came right out and announced that it was time. He disagreed. The more she pushed, the harder he dug in his heels and grew distant, and when she more or less gave him an ultimatum, he left. Just like that.

She couldn’t understand his problem with having a baby. He’d had a normal, happy childhood, and even his mother had mentioned that she looked forward to being a grandmother. Maybe that was it. Maybe his mother’s interference had tipped the scale.

Rain never would have brought up the subject of grandchildren to her own mother. Jude wasn’t the maternal type. Rain had been a mistake, herself.

A baby planned and wanted isn’t a mistake. Rain picked up her cell phone, scrolled down her list of contacts to the number of her ob-gyn and hit send.


Bebe heated her leftover pizza in the staff kitchen microwave and sat down at her desk to leave Rain a voicemail. She was surprised when Rain answered on the first ring.

“What’s up, Bebe? I can’t talk long. I’m waiting for a call-back from Dr. Lazenby’s office,” Rain said.

“Why, are you sick?”

“No, that’s my gynecologist.”

Bebe took a moment to dab pizza sauce from her mouth. “Your yearly check-up?”

“Not exactly.” Rain paused, and her voice level dropped dramatically.

“I’ve been checking out this sperm donor site and I want to get things rolling.”

Bebe sat back in her chair and sighed imperceptibly at Rain’s doggedness.

“Maybe you could giveme some advice,” Rain said. “You know a lot about assisted reproduction.”

“For animals, not humans. You’d better stick to your gynecologist,” Bebe said. “I called to remind you about Scotty’s going-away barbeque at Mom’s a week from Saturday before he leaves for boot camp.”

“Sure, I’ll be there. But I need to go. I don’t want to miss the callback from the doctor’s office.”

“Rain, aren’t you jumping the gun a little here? How long has Hayden been gone?”

Rain was silent for a moment—a clear sign of annoyance. “Three weeks. And, no, I’m not jumping the gun. He’s not interested in having kids. Period. He made that very clear. And I’m not interested in having kids with him, anyway. He’s out of my life.”

“But you two were together for a long time. Six—seven years? Maybe in time this will work itself out.”

“He’s coming by to pick up the rest of his stuff when he gets back from his vacation in Mexico.” Rain paused. “He’s practically allergic to tropical sunshine. I don’t think it will work itself out.” Bebe hung up and sat for a moment processing everything Rain had said, and the things she had not. Clearly, Rain was not addressing the real issue. It was just like her to become immersed in something to avoid facing the truth that she loved and missed Hayden, and that there could possibly be other reasons for his leaving. Maybe even that she needed him more than she cared to admit. She remembered Rain telling her sometime in the past year that Hayden had actually brought up the idea of marriage, and that Rain had flatly told him no. When it came to marriage, she was more like her mother than she knew.

They had known Hayden for a long time. Maybe she could talk Neil into meeting him for coffee and working a little magic.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Christmas Glass - Chapter 1

The Christmas Glass

GuidepostsBooks (October 1, 2009)

Chapter 1


Italy, 1940

How should she pack the fragile, precious glass for the long journey? The question nagged at her, though she knew it was foolish. She had seventeen children to protect, Italy had just joined Germany in war, and here she was anxious about wrapping a few ancient Christmas ornaments for their trip to safety. If everything weren’t so wretched, she might actually laugh at herself.

Anna could hardly remember the sound of her own laughter. Nor could she even imagine the laughter of her newest wards, the solemn, silent children she was collecting one by one. The prospect of battle did not awaken in her three new children the same misbegotten excitement it brought to the other orphans in her care, local children too naive to understand what war meant. These fourteen Italian youngsters who’d been with her for some time in the orphanage she ran here in Varese could still laugh and play; the recent arrivals followed her every move and word as if their lives depended upon it. Because, as she’d just begun to understand, they did.

Few Italians had been surprised when, more than a month ago, on June 10, 1940, Mussolini declared that Italy would wage war on the side of Germany against Britain and France. France, now occupied, had all but fallen by then, and Mussolini wanted to be on the side of the victor. Soon after, the shadow children began arriving. Anna could not ignore them even though there were barely enough beds and food for the Italian orphans she officially sheltered.

Her parents had left her the rambling old house on Lake Varese where she and the children lived; there’d been hardly enough money to add rooms for a school. Fortunately, she and her husband Giorgio had cultivated enough wealthy patrons to keep the place going on donations. When Giorgio died five years ago, just after their dream of opening a haven and school for the province’s poorest children had been realized, the donors had not deserted her. Would these good people continue to help if they knew she was secretly harboring Jewish children?

Anna wasn’t willing to test them by revealing her decision. Although Italy did not share Germany’s animosity toward the Jews, fear could swiftly turn people to hatred. And Anna knew this would be true of even the kindest Italians if their own lives or their children’s were threatened.

So she would not tell her contributors, most of whom lived in Milan, just south of Varese. There was no way to keep it from Isabella, the cook and housekeeper, and Carla, who helped teach and care for the fourteen children legally enrolled. Both women had accepted Anna’s decision wordlessly, and she could only pray they would remain loyal—and silent. She was not afraid for herself; since Giorgio had died suddenly and so young, she’d feared nothing, certainly not the death that would bring them together again. Some days, God help her, she yearned for it. But she did fear for her orphans: What would happen to them if she were imprisoned—or worse—for sheltering Jews?

Yet how could she turn them away?

Many Italians nervously dismissed as mere rumors the stories leaking out of Germany that Hitler had a mad plan to murder every Jew in the world. This sounded so ridiculous that the Italians, like the rest of the world, could dismiss the possibility.

But Anna believed. Her husband had never trusted the Nazis, and Anna, who discussed everything with Giorgio in the twelve years they had together, expected the worst. What she heard from the people who’d furtively brought the Jewish children to her door confirmed her fears. The first two, brothers who’d arrived two weeks ago, had been brought over the Austrian border by a former patient of their father, a prominent Innsbruck physician.

“A man I do business with in Milan knew of you, Signora,” he’d said, mentioning one of Anna’s most prominent benefactors. She must have looked alarmed because he immediately added, “I did not tell him I wanted to place Jewish children with you. No, no! I made up a story about a friend in Milan with an orphaned nephew he could not care for. I would never dare speak the truth . . . for your sake and for mine. But you must hide these brothers, Signora. For the sake of God! Because of Mussolini’s pact with Hitler, Italy is safer than Austria, and the boys will be protected here. Their mother has given me this to leave with you for their care.”

He reached into a bag he’d set down by his side and thrust an elegant leather case upon her, pushing it into her hands and then backing away, holding up his own hands as if to relinquish responsibility and demonstrate that she’d committed herself. He can’t wait to be rid of these children, Anna thought, and at that moment she sensed a change in the two brothers, who’d appeared to be ignoring the exchange between the adults. They’d both raised their eyes and stood so straight they seemed to be quivering, like hunting dogs on the scent, all their attention on the case in Anna’s hands. It was, she realized, the case in which their mother kept her jewels, and the faint scent of her perfume wafted from the rich leather.

What had she told them, Anna wondered. How had she said farewell? With tears? With false smiles and hollow laughter? Did they know what was likely to become of her, of their father? Did they know what would become of themselves?

As she looked at them, Anna realized the Austrian man was right: She had committed herself. He knew it too. By the time she returned her eyes to him, he’d picked up his own bag and was hurrying away.

Later, when she’d opened the jewelry case, she was stunned. These jewels must have been handed down through several generations: diamond brooches and necklaces; emerald pins; two sapphire-and-diamond bracelets with matching earrings; pearl hairpins and combs; antique rings, including a large solitaire diamond in a platinum setting; gold and silver chains.

Anna was dazzled, not only by the beauty but by the bounty. The contents of this case would keep the orphanage running for some time. It would be easy to find buyers for such extraordinary pieces, she reflected, smiling sadly as she imagined her mother’s voice: “Those with money and a good eye won’t care where these came from. Tell them the jewels were donated by a wealthy benefactor, and they’ll ask no questions.”

It was the sparkling jewelry that had started her thinking about the Christmas Glass, her own small family’s treasure. The dozen intricately shaped glass ornaments, which in their brilliance did indeed resemble the desperate woman’s jewels, were shot through with translucent colors that shone like multi-hued stars descended to enliven the dull earth. Her mother, Caterina, had always made much of the ornaments. “Your father may have this old house from his family,” she would say dismissively, “but we have the Christmas Glass.”

Early each December 13th, St. Lucia’s Day, after her father had left for work, Anna’s mother would ceremoniously lead her to the cupboard where her parents’ wedding china and the good silver were kept. Anna didn’t like the silver because it required frequent polishing, a ritual so tedious she shared it with her mother only grudgingly. But on the very top shelf, so high that her diminutive mother had to bring a chair to stand upon, was the box of Christmas Glass.

The box itself, crafted of beautiful fruitwood and waxed to a high sheen, lay under the shroud of dust that always accumulated during the eleven months it waited in its high niche. Before she’d even consider revealing the box’s contents, Caterina would address the dust that was to Anna’s young eyes a kind of protection in itself. Her mother would take a new cloth—not the same age-softened rag she used every day to dust furniture, but a fresh, slightly dampened flannel—and wipe the dust away. She used unusually gentle strokes as if she, too, thought that the dust deserved a measure of respect.

Caterina would carefully carry the box down the long, darkened hall and into the parlor, where a large window spanned the entire upper half of the wall. Normally the heavy drapes were kept drawn to keep the bright morning sun from shining directly into the room.

“It will fade the carpet and furniture,” Caterina would respond implacably when Anna’s father protested about keeping out the light. But on this day, Christmas Glass Day, Caterina would stride boldly into the gloomy room and set the unopened box on a square table between two chairs by the window. Then she would fling the drapes back, allowing the sun to flood the room with blinding light.

The early sun made everything look different. Caterina was a ruthless housekeeper, and there was not a particle of dust or dirt to dim the newly revealed colors of the carpet and the deep rose fabric covering the chairs. Even the dark wood of the furniture gleamed in the relentless light.

A side table held the family’s collection of photographs, and Anna was always drawn to the gilt-framed photo of her parents at their wedding. Caterina appeared to be a different person then, smiling shyly beside Anna’s father. There was a sweetness to the girl in the portrait that Anna did not recognize in her formidable mother. Anna could not imagine her parents young and in love.

Christmas Glass Day always found Caterina at her best. On that day she was the mother Anna wished for every day. After Anna had gazed to her heart’s content upon all the familiar objects and furnishings that the sun made new, she’d return to where her mother stood by the wooden box. By that time Caterina would have turned the heavy chairs so that they faced the window, and mother and daughter would sit with only the table and the box of ornaments between them. Even today, Anna could remember holding her breath in excitement, waiting for what came next.

First, Caterina would recite the story of the Christmas Glass and how it had come to her family. Though her mother had been dead for almost ten years, Anna could still hear her voice.

“There is a small village called Lauscha, set in the mountains of Germany. There, for many years, have lived families who have just one job: to make beautiful glass. The grownups do the hard part, forming the hot glass and pouring hot silver into the shapes. The children dip the ornaments in lacquer and paint them. The women pack the ornaments into baskets that they strap onto their backs and walk long distances to sell the ornaments at markets.

“Many years ago, a glass-blower in Lauscha and his family made our Christmas Glass. We do not know their names, but they fashioned the glass with a love for the Baby born on Christmas day, and that love sparkles in every piece. When my mother—your Nana—got married in 1875, her mother wanted to give her a very special gift, an heirloom she could give to her own daughter someday. She wanted something different, something wonderful, something that would make everyone who saw it sigh with pleasure and envy. But she didn’t know what such a gift would be. Until one day she saw the Christmas Glass.

“She was passing by a shop in Milan—not a particularly nice shop; in fact, it was a shop where people sold their valuables because they needed money. The window facing the street was streaked and filthy, and your great grandmother Elena probably planned to walk right by without a second glance

“But just as she was about to pass the window, a glint of color caught her eye. She peered through the dirty glass and was frozen there by what she saw. On a table in the window lay the most beautiful collection of glass she’d ever seen. Each piece shimmered as if it held a small flame burning within. She could not help herself: She had to go in.

“The collection proved even more extraordinary up close. There were twelve pieces lying in an open box—this open box, Anna, this very box we have before us! It was covered with a layer of grime, and the gleam of the wood was nowhere to be seen.

“The ornaments seemed to be alive with light, and Elena fancied that if she touched them, she would feel their warmth. Each was a different shape, and their colors were so vibrant they appeared to glow. There was the Holy Family with streaks of indigo coloring Mary’s dress, while green marked Joseph’s robe and the Babe shone with gold. Three were long and thin, each in the shape of a wise man, and their robes were marked with scarlet and purple and deep green, all flecked with gold. There was a crystal star with just the slightest sweep of fiery yellow lighting it from within, and an angel in joyous flight, his wings lined with silver. A starfish, awash with blue and green, winked from the box, and a long icicle, such as we sometimes see here in Varese but often appear in the German mountains where the glassmakers live, flared with a thin spiral of silver and gold. There were two fish, symbols of our Lord: one spun with blue, green, and silver and the other with red, orange, and gold. And finally, Elena saw two perfect globes, crystal clear each, one with the merest sprinkle of red and gold, the other with green and silver.

“Your great grandmother reached out and cautiously lifted the red and gold globe to test its weight, to feel the delicate glass in her hand. A man came into the front room through the curtain dividing the shop and smiled at her. He gestured at the box and said, ‘I see you’ve found my treasure.’

“Intrigued, she asked, ‘Your treasure?’ When he nodded emphatically and described the ornaments as ‘the very jewels of my heart,’ her own heart sank: Surely he would not be willing to part with something he held so dear. Unable to hide her dismay, she murmured, ‘Ah, then they are not for sale.’

“‘You mistake me, Signora!’ he said quickly. ‘I meant only to say that they came to me with a story that made my heart weep. They were brought in not a month ago by a girl, no more than a few years past twenty. The ornaments— the Christmas Glass, she called them— had been a gift to her when she and her husband married five years ago. But now she and that husband have two children, both girls, and the man has no work. She wanted to sell them to feed her family and to keep her husband from having to beg. I told her I could never pay her what these are truly worth, but she was fraught and anxious and wanted to take what I would give her. She could not bear to look at them as she left, and so they have become like jewels to me: both lustrous to the eye and cutting to the heart.’

“Hearing this, your great grandmother was torn. The ornaments had been proudly crafted for joy, to celebrate a wedding, yet they were touched with such sadness. Should she give them to her own daughter to mark her own wedding? Or would they bring more sorrow? She knew that marriage was much more than just the wedding festival. These ornaments had seen both happiness and pain, and had served both. Hadn’t she wanted something unique, something unforgettable? She gazed at the glass, captivated by the life and light that blazed from within each figure. Finally, she looked up at the expectant shopkeeper.

“‘I want the box cleaned.’”

Every year on Christmas Glass Day, Caterina recounted this history. Then, with great dignity, she would go to the long side table that held decanters of the mysterious cordials Anna only ever tasted at Christmastime. Caterina would reach up to the cabinet above the decanters and remove two impossibly fragile glasses with tiny tulip-shaped cups atop slender stems. Slowly, she’d pour a few drops of amber-colored liquid into each glass before handing one to Anna. Mother and daughter would face each other over the still-closed box of ornaments and raise their glasses as Caterina proclaimed, “To the Christmas Glass: May it reflect more joy than sorrow, and cheer us through both.”

After the trickle of hot licorice had made its way past Anna’s heart and into her stomach, Caterina would slowly open the box, and the daylight filling the room suddenly found a new home. It was as if the sun itself could not resist the Christmas Glass, concentrating its rays on the translucent figures until the floor and walls and ceiling danced with shimmering lines of indigo, gold, silver, green, red, purple, and yellow.

Once Anna and her mother had gazed on this spectacle for some time, Caterina would unfold the length of scarlet velvet that had covered the glass in the box and lay it on the table under the window. When it was precisely placed according to some pattern Caterina alone knew, she and Anna would reverently place each ornament on the velvet, arranging each to best catch the light. When they were arranged to Caterina’s satisfaction, she’d return to the sideboard and retrieve five silver candlesticks of varying heights, along with five perfect ivory beeswax candles, so that at night the Christmas Glass would have a source of light much softer than the sun but no less flattering to its beauty. Anna could not remember ever entering that room on a late-December night to find the candles unlit. Her mother kept the Christmas Glass illuminated as though each form was a beacon welcoming the Babe.

Nor would the heavy drapes be drawn again until January 7th, the day after Epiphany, when the Christmas Glass would be returned to the fruitwood box and stored tenderly away for another year.

Now, on a hot, overcast summer day nearly a decade after Caterina’s death, Anna opened the box of ornaments, knowing she would probably never open it again on a bright, cool December morning. She would not cry, she told herself, she’d made a decision and could not falter now. She was sending the Christmas Glass to her cousin Filomena.

Anna was convinced this war would not end quickly, and she was determined that the most important thing that remained of her mother—of her family—would survive. Even if she ended up sacrificing her reputation or even her life—possibilities that had become decidedly more likely since she’d taken in the Jewish children—she would not risk the one priceless thing her mother had given her. Anna somehow felt that if the Christmas Glass survived this coming nightmare, the memory of her mother and of her own wedding to Giorgio would also remain untouched by the filth of war.

The glass would be safer with Filomena, who lived in Bacoli, a small seaside village just outside of Naples. She hadn’t seen her cousin for more than three years, since Filomena’s marriage to Paolo, but she knew the young couple, now with two-year-old twins, hoped to emigrate to America as soon as they could arrange passage. Even if the young family had to wait out the war, the Christmas Glass would be safer in tiny Bacoli, so far south of the Austrian border and Germany.

Anna couldn’t help the sob that rose in her throat, knowing she might never see the ornaments again. Still unsure of how best to pack them for the journey to Bacoli, she went to her wardrobe, hoping to find something suitable, perhaps some fabric she’d never had time to make into a dress. Her eye fell on her wedding gown, covered in paper in the back of the wardrobe. Her mother had used an extravagant amount of material to make the dress; the ivory silk was heavy and voluminous. Anna took a deep breath and held it. Could she really do it? Cut up her wedding dress to wrap the ornaments?

There had been times, right after Giorgio died, when she would bury her face in the dress, twisting it around her in an agony of grief and yearning. Yet now it was the perfect answer: Not only was the heavy silk ideal for the purpose; it was somehow fitting that the dress she wore on the day her mother gave her the Christmas Glass would be used to preserve her family’s treasure. Slowly releasing her breath, she reached for the gown.

Knowing that if she hesitated for even a moment she would talk herself out of it, Anna found her mother’s sewing shears and got to work. First, she cut a square from the bodice, the part that had been closest to her heart, and, folding it carefully, enclosed it in the velvet from the Christmas Glass and put them both in a cedar-scented drawer of her dresser. That way she would always have a bit of both the Christmas Glass tradition and her wedding day. She thought briefly—selfishly, she told herself—of keeping one of the ornaments too, but she remembered her mother saying it would be a terrible thing to ever separate them. Anna had been eleven at the time, and old enough, she felt, to keep one of the ornaments in her room. But when she asked Caterina if she could have the angel for her bed table, her mother had been aghast.

“No, no!” Caterina had cried, shaking her head emphatically, “These belong together! They are like a family. If you take the angel, who will guard the Babe, hmmm? No, it is no good to separate them; if you do, they will always yearn to be together again.”

Although Anna was old enough now to smile at her mother’s warning, she was not about to ignore Caterina’s wishes. All the ornaments would go to Filomena in Bacoli and later, hopefully, to America. She began cutting up the wedding dress methodically. She would double-wrap each ornament and use the heavy silk scraps to cushion the spaces between them. She worked in silence. The children were at their lessons with Carla in the opposite wing of the house near where they slept, one large room for the boys and another for the girls. Isabella was in the kitchen below, preparing their lunch. Normally, Anna would try to eat with her wards and Carla, but today she was determined to finish the task at hand.

She glanced up from her work and was so startled by the thin, still figure that she almost dropped the shears. The child was so quiet Anna hadn’t even known she was there. This third Jewish child, a girl named Sarah, was indeed an orphan. Her grandmother had brought her to Anna more than a week ago. Anna could see them now as they’d been that day: The visibly impatient grandmother, dressed in threadbare clothes that had once been elegant, standing apart from the little girl, who held a suitcase bigger than she was as her eyes fixed on something outside the window. The grandmother made no attempt to hide her frustration or soften her words.

“My son and his wife died last year in a fire. My daughter-in-law always insisted on too many candles—you don’t need twenty candles to light the dining room when just two are at table, but did she ever listen? Never! We saw the fire from our house but could do nothing. This child—their only one, and you can be sure her mother spoiled her and let her run wild through that house—was visiting cousins that night, but the way the world is these days, it may have been better if she’d been in the house with them.”

Anna had been unable to stop herself from giving the old woman a reproachful look and gesturing at the child who stood just a few feet away. This had the effect of aggravating the woman even more.

“Do you think this is easy for me? Do you think I planned to have an ungovernable six-year-old girl all but left at my doorstep?” she snapped, her eyes flashing. “She has not spoken since the night her parents died. She wouldn’t eat until her grandfather—and he is not a well man—and I agreed to bring her every day to the ruined cottage behind the ashes of her old house. She sits there for hours. Just staring.

“And now, after we begged my niece in London to sponsor us and have sold most of what we own to escape that murdering Nazi, this child refuses to leave. She flew into a rage when we told her we were going. She imagines we are taking her from her parents! Her parents who have been dead for nearly a year! We must lock her in her room to keep her from running away. The shame! And what do you think it will be like for us—two sick, old Jews—trying to get her quietly out of the country? The only reason she agreed to come here is because we told her this place is just across the lake from her old house.”

Anna realized then that the girl was not staring idly but looking across the lake to where her home had been. From this distance it wasn’t possible for the girl to recognize the precise place, but her stare unnerved Anna nonetheless. She studied the child, searching for signs of the violent and inconsolable grief her grandmother had described. None were visible; the girl appeared utterly detached.

But her stillness and self-possession were not signs of calm or acquiescence; rather it appeared that she was in another world altogether. Small and nearly emaciated, with large dark eyes like coals smoldering in her thin, pale face, she was intensely focused on something that existed only for her, and Anna would not want to be the one who took her from it.

The grandmother watched Anna with a mixture of hope and hostility. “I can’t pay much,” the old woman said, reaching into an embroidered bag and pulling out a small sack weighted with coins.

“Keep your money,” Anna said coldly, her own voice surprising her by how much she sounded like her mother. For the first time, the grandmother looked abashed, and Anna suppressed a small rush of triumph. Certainly the old woman had experienced great loss—and was about to lose her granddaughter as well—but Anna was convinced that this was a woman who would have managed to be unhappy no matter what life brought her. “I’ll try to keep her safe,” Anna said turning away.

“You can send her to us after the war. Perhaps by then she’ll appreciate what we’ve done for her,” the old woman said with a hard glance at the child, “I’ll send our address when we’re settled.”

Anna watched the girl, her eyes still unwavering on the distant point across the lake, as her grandmother took a step toward her. “Well, Sarah. I’m leaving. Come here and kiss me good-bye,” commanded the old woman waspishly.

The child remained still, her eyes unmoving. Her grandmother stared at her for a long moment, and Anna caught a spasm of longing in her age-worn face. As if to herself, the old woman murmured softly, “You are so like your father,” and then she moaned, a strangled sound halfway between fury and despair, and walked away, her heels clicking hard on the tiles in the hallway. She dropped the bag of money on a table as she left.

Now that same child stood in the doorway, watching Anna destroy her wedding gown. Sarah had given her no real problems, but neither had she spoken to Anna or to any of the other children. She hadn’t even glanced after her grandmother when the old woman left, much less shed a tear to see her go. When the Jewish brothers approached her shyly, she ignored them just as she did everyone else. She endured her lessons with Carla and ate Isabella’s food without appearing to care what she was doing.

She spent every free moment staring across the lake where she believed her home had been. Anna worried she would try to run away, to go back there, but Sarah seemed satisfied with fixing her gaze on the place. There was an obsessiveness to Sarah’s solitude that Anna didn’t know how to approach, much less break.

Gesturing at the squares of white silk and the open box of ornaments, Anna asked, “Sarah, do you want to help me?”

The girl’s eyes moved from Anna to the silk and the ornaments on the table. Without answering, she walked slowly toward Anna. When she reached the table, she stared at the Christmas Glass as if mesmerized. Continuing to work, Anna explained about the Christmas Glass, how her great grandmother had found them and how Caterina had given them to Anna on the day she married Giorgio. She spoke of Giorgio, about how much she missed him, how much the Christmas Glass had meant to both of them. She was pouring words into the air, words she’d thought would crush her if she ever gave them voice, but they simply filled the room gently, creating images she loved, and then dissipated, taking with them the heaviest part of her grief and fear.

By the time she was finished talking, she’d cut up the dress and wrapped most of the Christmas Glass. Taking a deep breath, she looked at the silent child who’d been the catalyst for this outpouring. Sarah met her gaze.

“You are like me then. Alone.”

Careful to show no emotion at the girl’s first words in more than a year, Anna thought swiftly about how to respond, about all the things she should say. She should assure Sarah that she was not alone, that she had family waiting in London. She should say that neither of them was alone, that they had the other children, Isabella, Carla. That they had each other. Anna looked into the cavernous eyes of the child for what seemed an eternity and finally answered.

“Yes. I am alone. Like you.”

And then she handed Sarah the glass angel to wrap.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Saint's Roost - Chapter 1

Saint's Roost

Sundowners (September 20, 2009)

Chapter 1

1879 Santa Fe Trail

A wagon leaving the safety of a wagon train to strike out by itself is a lonesome sight.

Its occupants, Patrick and Janie Benedict were headed west in an old Conestoga that complained at every bump and jolt in the road. The wheels squealed a high-pitched, irritating sound. Still, it was marginally dependable. More dependable were the four Missouri mules, which drew it, depending on their mood and disposition at the moment
The young couple looked the part, him tall and handsome with the sincere brown eyes appropriate for a young minister. The prairie heat made shirtsleeves mandatory and he peered out from under a flat-brimmed black hat indicative of those who pursued the avocation of a circuit-riding preacher.

His bride of only a year sat next to him, simply clad in a checked dress and plain white bonnet. Her hair peeked out from the bonnet and lit up scarlet red when the sun touched it. Both their faces were brighter from the barely contained excitement and enthusiasm than from the rays of the hot summer sun.

They made the trek west because Patrick had been called to the ministry. More specifically, he had felt himself called to do missionary work in what he referred to as the wild, wild west. Not that he had to go so far to find sinners; there was certainly more sin right there in certain sections of St. Louis than would be found in the entire west.

Yet many of his seminary classmates knew that in the secret compartments of his mind, Patrick saw himself in a saintly pose, surrounded by a throng of half naked savages kneeling about him as he converted them in droves by the power of his magnificent oratory. Such ambitious visions were certainly encouraged at the seminary.

Still, some of his teachers thought him very naive. Others thought him to be headstrong while the more optimistic conceded he had a unique evangelistic drive. The term the wagon master came up with when a couple of young people still in their twenties left the train alone was . . . well . . . to be truthful . . . stupid.


Quite a distance back up the wagon trail, pint-sized Ruben Dunn had his own ideas. He had these ideas on virtually any subject you could name, and he didn't mind sharing them with anyone inclined to listen.

Ruben's alter ego and long-time saddle mate was a tall drink of water by the name of Frank Walker. Had Frank ever been caught asleep at the wrong place, someone might have mistakenly used him to try and repair a length of split rail fence. Frank had dark hair that defied any comb in existence, chocolate brown eyes, and was unfailingly good humored and easy going.

More important, and absolutely essential to have a friendship with Ruben, he knew his own mind and did not feel it necessary to debate various points with his confident, but diminutive companion. Once Frank made up his mind, he simply went ahead and did what he wanted without much, if any, discussion.

Ruben on the other hand could debate the finer points of doing something different the entire time he calmly followed Frank's lead. The fact that he espoused one course of action while he did another never seemed to be a problem, it was merely how life worked. It certainly had nothing to do with diluting the opinions Ruben might hold.

At the present time the pair drifted with no particular destination in mind. Ruben did have some thoughts on where they should go and what they should do, however. He tipped his hat back on his head to reveal a shock of blonde hair with the look and consistency of prairie straw. He squeezed off his ever-present grin to compress his face into a more thoughtful expression, closed both hands on top of his saddle horn and ventured his opinion.

“What I think,” Ruben said, “is we could get us a ranch started down Texas way. There's loose stock, mavericks they call them, all over the place, and they're ours for the taking if we want to put up the hard work. There's land available that can be had mighty cheap. The land of opportunity, that's what they call it, and that's what it is. We could call our ranch the Dunn-it ranch. I can almost see the sign over the gate,” he looked off into the distance as if he could see the very sight he was describing.

“You being the Dunn and me being the IT, I suppose.” No trace of emotion showed on Frank’s face to indicate whether he might be kidding or not.

Ruben grimaced, “Aw, Frank, it ain't like that, it ain't like that at all, it's just a catchy name.”

“If we branded cows with Dunn-it, they'd be barbequed while they was still on the hoof.”

“Dang it, Frank, you got no imagination.” Ruben let go of the saddle horn and poked the air vigorously in his partner's general direction to emphasize his point.

“That ain't so, and you know it. I ain't even hung up on a name, I just like to twist your tail a little ever' now and then. Keeps you humble.” Frank may have had a hint of a smile on his face. With him it was hard to tell.

“I don't think it's possible to keep me humble, me being so nacherly great and all.”

“On further thought, I kinda like the name. It'd make people feel sorry for me with what I have to put up with. You know, me being an ‘it’ would be plain enough for anybody.”

Ruben only looked at him as if unable to comprehend as he shook his head slowly side to side.


“Janie,” Patrick rested his hands on his knees, keeping gentle pressure on the reins. “I can hardly wait. I know I've been called to do great things. I tell you I'll convert so many of these heathens—“

Janie smiled, she had heard this day and night for a year, but she didn't mind. She was proud of the man she thought of as her young knight, and believed in his quest as strongly as he did. She had no doubt but what he would do exactly as he said he would do.

All the way down through Kansas he practiced his oratory, and he wrote sermons, moving, and powerful if flowery sermons. His only congregation for these epistles, besides Janie, were four Missouri mules. There was no record as to whether he converted them or not, as they were notoriously uncommunicative. The evidence certainly proved him to be a patient and pious man, however, as any one who can drive a brace of such animals without the fortification of stout teamster cusswords, was a man of strong character, indeed.

Clearing the Kansas line took them into Indian Territory. It was intentional. The wagon train had been primarily commercial and they felt out of place. The word going around was the railroad to Santa Fe was nearing completion and would soon replace the wagon trail entirely. Too much civilization, surely the unchurched Indians he searched for would be down in the territory.

Had they come straight down from St. Louis, it would have put them over in the country occupied by the Five Civilized Tribes. The tribes in that part of the territory were known for establishing farms and towns, and had centuries of beliefs and customs of their own which did not conflict strongly with Christian beliefs. It would have been fertile ground for Patrick's work.

But they didn't come directly south. They had consistently veered off to the right, and by the time they got through Kansas, they were well into the part of the territory known as no-man's land. It was a land inhabited by outlaws, and the roving Comanche and Kiowa who roamed across the plains of Texas all the way up into western Kansas. Here, indeed, were exactly the inveterate sinners and naked savages Patrick had envisioned, and in quantities sufficient to fulfill any dream he may have had.

It was mid-morning when they met their first opportunity to start his ministry. They topped a small rise in the sea of blowing grass they had been in for days. Suddenly, ahead of them were two magnificent mounted warriors on painted ponies.

They were tall, and naked to the sun except for a breechcloth and moccasins on their feet. Their faces were painted, and on their heads were feathered bonnets, which trailed well down their backs. They held shields with bright painted symbols on them in their left hands.

Patrick was elated. His first prospects! And exactly what he had envisioned in his dreams. He pulled the team up about 50 yards away, dismounted and tied them off to a ground hitch weight. The warriors watched curiously. He slipped into his black frock coat, picked up and clutched his Bible to his chest and started toward them with his hand held up in a sign of peace.

His smile was still fixed on his face when the arrow drove deep into his chest.

The great sermon he had practiced so long remained caught in his throat. He thought, No! No!. I can't be denied my destiny. Janie,. what will—

But then he fell over on his face, and the last of his air gently left him as he went on to his reward.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Loss Of Carrier - Chapter 1

Loss Of Carrier

BookSurge Publishing (October 27, 2009)

Chapter 1

Jess nudged his truck into his usual spot. A new sports car, its maroon paint polished to a deep shine, put his truck’s dull green paint to shame. Short swatches of rubber, passing for tires, stood in contrast to wide whitewalls, garish polished chrome wheels against polished hubcaps.

The new car must be Carl’s. It was just like the car he’d bought last year. And the year before. And, in fact, every year since he’d met Carl. How could Carl afford to buy a new car every year? He sighed and bumped his truck’s door closed, carefully sliding the key into the lock and turning it until he could feel the click. There was no way the paint on his truck was ever going to look like the polished surface on Carl’s car, but still, no point in adding new scratches.

As he turned in behind the tailgate of his truck, he glanced over at the new car again. The sun reflected through a myriad of water beads settled on the polished surface, making him squint. “I wonder why it’s wet?”

“Talking to yourself again?”

Jess’ keys dropped to the asphalt at his feet as he turned and found himself facing his boss’ secretary. “Linda! I didn’t see you there. Good morning.”

“Don’t be jealous of Carl. He has his own problems, you know, new car every year or not.”

He frowned. “It’s just puzzling.”

“And no puzzle can rest unsolved around Jess Wirth, can it?” After a moment of silence, she continued, “He lives with his parents in Chapel Hill. No rent, no bills. Other than that car, and, of course, all the dates he brags about, he doesn’t have to pay for much of anything.” She sighed. “Maybe it’s time for Carl to grow up a little.”

The corners of his mouth reversed direction, forming a smile. “You’re like the class mom, aren’t you? You should pop him across the knuckles with a ruler. Maybe he’ll come to his senses.”

She turned and looked at him. “Are you saying I’m old?”

“Well, I had noticed a little gray recently-“

“Lo’mighty, my hair’s been grey since you were just a child. But now the ruler idea, I might take you up on that. If I do, you better watch your knuckles, too.” She laughed.

Jess laughed with her, and shook his head. “I would never call you old, Linda. Perhaps aged to perfection would be a better description. Anyway, I was just wondering why Carl’s new car is wet.”

“It rained?”

“Not while I was on the way in to work. Carl is usually very careful about allowing his car to get dirty, especially just after he’s bought it.” They climbed the steps at the front of the building in silence, Jess glancing at the small logo engraved on the glass doors as he held it open for Linda. The little letters below the logo proclaimed, “OptiData Management.” And then, “We manage your data, you manage your business.”

As Linda continued towards the elevators, Jess made his way through the maze of cubicles, finally turning in to his doorway. As he stepped into the space, he wondered how he’d ever ended up in network engineering. He considered the life he would have preferred, working outside in forest and fields as a county agent, like his Grandfather.

His thoughts turned to the boat show, opening at the State Fairgrounds first thing in the morning. At least a boat show would brighten up his weekend. Especially since this weekend he was going to look for a new PWC. He dumped his laptop case on the desk, wound his way along the cubicle walls, and stopped to rap on Carl’s whiteboard.

No answer. Carl wasn’t anywhere to be seen, although his laptop, the screen dark, was cabled to the desk. Jess walked in and touched the case—cold plastic met his fingers.

In the break-room, Jess’ morning turned bad quickly; not only was there no coffee made, but the pots weren’t even in the machines. He pulled them from the little drying rack the cleaning lady, Benita, put them in every night, settling them in their rightful places on the dark brown burners.

After dumping fresh grounds from a little sack into the machine, he wandered back over to his cubicle, hating to waste time waiting for the coffee to brew.

Back in his cubicle, Jess slid his laptop out of its case and pulled its locking cable through the center of an old brass prop leaning against the side of the cubical wall. It would be funny to watch someone try to steal his laptop with that brass prop attached. They wouldn’t be able to run very fast, anyway.

Popping up a web browser, he checked the weather for the weekend. Then he skipped back a day and replayed the maps from the night before. It had stopped raining at the office around one in the morning. His mind raced back to the parking lot thinking about the bright shower of sparkles glinting off the water beads on Carl’s car.

Breaking his train of thought, he punched the “messages” button on his phone. An all too familiar, and all too annoying, voice popped out. “Jess, this is Jamie in network operations. We got a problem, row fifty-three, rack twenty. I’ve poked it from this side, but no juice, so it looks like it’s on your end.” More information about the server followed, along with a trouble ticket number.

His phone rang. The number on the screen was Linda’s. “What’s up?”

“Hey, Jess. I’m going home. There’s nothing going on around here today. Gerard left a message on my voice mail, saying he wasn’t coming in. He stayed out late at the spring bash last night. He sounded like he was in rough shape.”

Jess pressed his palm onto the desktop, irritated he had forgotten the yearly bash Gerard threw. “I can’t believe I forgot that. This place is going to be empty today. I drove all the way down here for nothing.”

“I forgot, too. You and I never go to it, so why would we remember? It’s silly he does it on a Thursday night, anyway.”

“Yeah, I know. Well, I’ll see you on Monday.”

“You okay here by yourself, Jess? Don’t stick around long.”

“Are you crazy, Linda? If no one else is coming in, I’ll clear up this one server problem the network operations folks called me about, then I’ll get out of here and head to the lake. That server probably just needs a reboot, shouldn’t take but a minute or two to clear it up. I’ll have my cell phone with me if anything comes up.”

After dropping the receiver on the cradle, Jess headed over to the elevators. As he waited for the elevator to arrive, he wondered where Carl could be. He must already be down in the data center.

Jess considered his distorted reflection in the elevator doors. Jess was medium height. Carl was definitely on the short side, but what Carl lost in height, he made up for in almost everything else--long dark hair almost always tied back in a pony tail, arms and an upper body that showed evidence of daily trips to the gym. With dragon tattoos on both arms, he looked like the top part of an exclamation mark coming down the hall. He always wore buttoned-down shirts or really fine polo shirts paired with moderately dressy pants and spiffed-up shoes.

Jess stared at his own clothing in the reflection. The corners on the collar of his polo shirt were definitely starting to fray since it had seen better days. Frumpy cargo shorts, close cropped hair, little round glasses, and hiking boots completed the picture. While he didn’t think of himself as out of shape, he certainly wasn’t one of those ripped weightlifters like Carl, or the guys he saw showing off on the lake all the time.

But then, Jess liked himself just like he was. He didn’t have any reason to be showy, like Carl. Who wants to spend every waking moment worrying about what you look like, anyway? Weren’t there more important things in life?

The doors slid open, breaking the mirror in half, leaving the emptiness of the elevator in front of him. Jess stepped in and pressed the button labeled “B.” He’d always thought the button should be labeled “D” for dungeon. And they should supply oxygen tanks, like divers wear, for the trip down. He sighed. Without the data center, though, he’d be out of a job.

Within a few seconds, Jess stepped off the elevator and walked up the ramp onto the raised floor, stopping at the door leading into the data center. He pulled his badge away from the yo-yo on his belt and slapped it against the card reader next to the door. While he waited for the door to click, he read the signs posted nearby. The first one said: “Danger! Halon fire extinguishers in use. If the alarm sounds, please exit this room as quickly as possible to avoid suffocation.” They were asking people to please avoid being suffocated by the Halon in the fire extinguishers? Did anyone really need to be asked politely to not suffocate themselves?

The second sign said: “Danger! Class 3 lasers in use. Do not look directly into lasers used on equipment.” At least this one didn’t say “please.” The light on the card reader turned green and emitted a low beeping sound to signal access granted. A few seconds later, the door clicked. Jess reached over and pulled it open. He stepped inside into a world of darkness, lit only by thousands of multicolored twinkling status lights.

As he moved his foot forward into the dark, it hit something. “Ouch!” Whatever it was, it skittered across the floor, leaving a throbbing pain in Jess’ toe.

Wondering why the lights hadn’t come on automatically, he felt around the wall beside the door. His fingers moved across the roughness of the wall, finally finding the cool plastic of the switch panel. Jess started moving the switches around, trying to figure out what combination of the switches would turn the lights on.

As rows of lights started popping on, a dreary world of grey floors and grey racks in a windowless grey room replaced the darkness. He knelt and untied his boot. While he massaging his toe, he considered the switch on the wall. The sensor that was supposed to turn the lights on automatically appeared to be working, a little red light blinking occasionally to say it knew the room was now occupied.

As his eyes adjusted to the increasing light, Jess stared, concentrating on odd shapes littered around the normally smooth raised surface. Large floor tiles, each one about two feet square, were piled up all over the room, leaving gopher holes in an expanse of grey yard. Within each hole, a subterranean city was exposed, a rat’s nest of wires, bundled neatly enough, but running at all sorts of odd angles, making a maze of huge proportions.

Why are there so many tiles pulled up? Every person who got access to the data center had to go through the safety briefing, a big point being made about not pulling more than one up at a time. His toes didn’t seem to be hurt, so he slid his boot back on, and starting tying the laces. The source of the pain in his toe was directly in front of him; a set of mouse ears. A simple device, two suction cups joined by a metal bar, used to lift floor tiles into and out of place. Why had the mouse ears been left in front of the door?

Jess sighed. It would take hours to clean this mess up, and there was no way he could leave before it was done. He’d have to fill out a safety report adding a half an hour to his time in the office, at least. At least Gerard wouldn’t be screaming at him for this mess. Retrieving the mouse ears from where they lay, he knelt close to the door, suctioned the first tile, and set it in place.

Staying on his knees, he slid across the cold, smooth, floor, towards the next tile upended out of its spot. The work was slow, and the tiles were heavy, but he plodded down the rows of racks, finally reaching the last out of place tile at the fifty-second row. Jess’ shoulders complained as he lifted himself from the floor after setting the last out of place tile in the main corridor back into place. Now for a look at that server, so I can get out on the water.

He rounded the corner into row fifty-three, focusing on the rack numbers, looking for the failed server. A tangled mess of cables poured out of the rack the server was in, a floor tile removed and leaning against the rack on the opposite side at an odd angle. It looked like....


No answer. Jess was drawn down along the confined space between the racks of equipment, afraid of what he was going to find, but certain he needed to discover what was there in that tangle of cables.

Long, dark hair, pulled back in a ponytail. Shirt sleeves pulled up so the little red eyes of a tattooed dragon looked out at him, as if the dragon could offer some protection for its owner. The dragon’s owner, Carl, suspended by a pair of twisted and deformed Ethernet cables, his brightly polished shoes hanging in the air above an opening left by a pulled up floor tile. Scratch marks, angry and red, welled up along Carl’s neck around the cables. His arms were buried in a mass of cables on either side, as if he had reached out to grab on, perhaps to try and hold himself up in some way. The cables were strong enough to hold his weight, but not easy to grab and hold on to. A smashed cell phone rested on the floor by the rack.

Slipping from his hand, Jess’ coffee cup fell to the floor and broke, splattering coffee and ceramic shards back up onto his legs. He backed out of the narrow space, rushed over to the corner of the data center, knelt there, and threw up. He stayed there for a moment, trying to calm down, to make his stomach settle, to think, to stop shaking. His mind returned to the scene of death.

Bright yellow cables against a blue shirt? Carl never would have approved of that color combination. Why was his face so white? His eyes should be closed, not open. Why hadn’t one of the security guards seen this and reported it to the police? The lights were off, the cameras were useless in the dark.

Of course, the cables wrapped around Carl’s neck explained why the server wasn’t working. Loss of carrier. How did those cables end up plugged into the wrong jacks? One end should have been in the server, rather than both ends being plugged up high into the patch panel along the top of the rack.

He needed to do something.

Mechanically, he pressed the buttons for 911 on his cell phone, but nothing happened. He tried again. Jess let out a breath. Slow down. Think.

Cell phones never worked in the basement of the building. Especially in the data center. His hand released the phone, and it fell to the floor with a dull thud. He looked at his hand, shaking, empty. The cell phone didn’t break. Why had Carl’s cell phone broken? This floor wasn’t hard enough to shatter a cell phone that way. Who would want to murder Carl? What if the killer were still in the data center, watching Jess now, waiting for a chance to.... Goosebumps lined Jess’ arms, and a cold chill washed across his forehead.

He needed to do something.

The door. There was a phone there. He could call the police. His stomach wretched again. He hurried through the grayness, trying to get the images of Carl out of his mind. Finally, he was close enough to pick up the phone; he reached out towards the receiver.

Then he remembered this phone didn’t handle emergency calls correctly. He would need to know the address for the building when the operator answered. What was the address? Five minutes ago he could have rattled it off. The memory nagged at the back of his mind, sitting there. He couldn’t reach it.

Jess jumped clear out of his skin as the phone rang, the forceful sound loud above the low hum of the equipment. He lifted the receiver and placed it against his ear. His heart thumped loudly.

“Jess, this is Brian. I was just going through the cameras for my morning check and saw you running towards the phone in the data center. Is everything okay?”

“Carl’s down here, Brian. He’s dead. You better call 911.” Jess heard his own voice speaking, but it was distant, mismatched from the thoughts in his head.

Silence. And then, “Wait! What did you say? I thought I just heard you say Carl is dead. Are you feeling okay, Jess? You don’t sound good. You’re not pulling one of your practical jokes, are you?”

“Brian, hang up and call 911. I’m serious!” he shouted and then added, more softly, “Carl’s dead, Brian. Please call the police.” The phone clicked. Dial tone. He stood staring at the signs on the door, fixated on the incongruent “please” printed there in bold red letters. Did he really need to say “please?”