Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Nothing But Trouble - Chapter 1

Nothing But Trouble

Tyndale House Publishers (May 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

PJ Sugar would never escape trouble. Clearly, she couldn’t shake free of it—regardless of how far and fast she ran. It had followed her from Minnesota, to South Dakota, to Colorado, to Montana, down the shore to California, and finally over to Melbourne Beach, Florida, where it rose with teeth to consume what should have been the most perfect night of her life.

She stood on the shore, her toes mortared into the creamy white sand, the waves licking up to her ankles, and with a cry that sounded more frustration than fury, threw her linen espadrille with her best underhand pitch. It sailed high, cutting through the burning sky, disappeared briefly in the purple haze of night, then splashed into the ocean.

Gone. Along with her future.

A seagull soared low, screaming, pondering the morsel it may have missed.

“PJ, come back inside.” Matthew’s voice sounded behind her as he trekked out onto the beach, kicking sand into his loafers, looking piqued as the wind raked fingers through his brown, thinning hair, snagged his tie, and noosed it around his neck. He dangled her oversized canvas purse in his hand, as if it might be a bomb.

Ten feet away, he held it up to her, like a carrot. “They haven’t even brought out the crab legs yet. You love those.”

“Oh, sure I do. Right along with brussel sprouts and pickled herring.” She’d been so soundly ensconced in Happily Ever After Land she’d failed to see that the man she wanted to marry didn’t even know she hated crab legs.

Pretty much all shellfish.

Thanks to the fact that she was allergic to it.

Matthew lowered the purse, as if her words stung him. “Really?”

PJ shook her head, her mouth half open, not even sure where to start. Behind them, calypso music drifted out of Dungarees Restaurant, festive themes for happy couples. Twinkle lights stringing along the thatched roof overhung the porch, and the piquant smell lifting off the grills on the patio snarled her empty stomach. Maybe she should go back inside, pick up the wicker chair she’d knocked over.

He owed her dinner, at least.

She stood her ground, forcing him to march her belongings across the sand.

“Here’s your, uh . . . suitcase.” He held it out to her, letting go before she had her hand on it. It dropped with the weight of an anvil onto the glossy sand.

“Hey, that’s my personal survival kit—show some respect.” She scooped it up, realizing she’d been entirely too civil during his execution of their relationship. “You never know when you’re going to need something.” Laugh all he wanted—if a gal was going to haul around a purse, it should be filled with all things handy. Tape, to shut someone’s mouth, for example. Or a flashlight, to guide her way home across a black expanse of shore.

“Sorry.” He stuck his hands into the pockets of his khakis, his sports coat like a warning flag as it whipped around him. “C’mon, PJ, come back inside. Please. It’s cold out here.”

“Seriously? Because ten minutes ago you were telling me how I wasn’t the girl for you. How, after nearly a year of dating, on a night when I expected—” Nope, she wasn’t going there. Wasn’t going to give him the slightest satisfying hint that she might have come to dinner tonight hoping—convinced, even—that he’d actually take a knee and put words to what she thought she’d seen in his eyes. Devotion. Commitment.

How could she have cajoled herself into believing that perfect Matthew Buchanan, church singles group leader and seminary student, might see a pastor’s wife in her.

Maybe she wasn’t exactly the picture of a pastor’s wife, with her curves, dark red hair, too many freckles spraying her nose as if she were still fifteen. She’d never considered herself refined, more on the cute side, her height conspiring against her hopes of being willowy and elegant. But her eyes were pretty—green, and honest, if maybe too wide in her face. And she’d cleaned up over the years. Even if Matthew didn’t think her beautiful, couldn’t he see past her rough edges to the woman she longed to be—a friend of Jesus, a woman of principle, a servant of grace? A girl who’d finally outrun her mistakes?

Apparently not.

She should be flinging herself into the surf right behind her espadrille.

“Expecting what, PJ?” Matthew had a far-away, even stricken look in those previously warm eyes.

PJ couldn’t believe she was actually answering him, and in a tone that betrayed her disappointment. “I just thought we were heading somewhere.”

“Like the missions trip to Haiti? You wanted to go on that with me?”

She stared at the place between his eyes, pretty sure she still had her shortstop aim. Her grip tightened on the other espadrille. “No,” she said slowly, crisply. “Not the missions trip.”

“Oh.” Wonder of wonders, he got it then, his face falling as he replayed his rejection. “I’m sorry. It just isn’t working for me.”

What did that mean, exactly? Wasn’t working? Like she might be a cog that fouled up his perfect image? Clearly he’d forgotten the depths from which he’d climbed. Especially since, in her recent memory, he’d been a Budweiser drinking surfer.

“You said that.” PJ hauled her bag up to her shoulder and curled her arms around her waist as her sundress twisted through her legs. She turned away, watching the ocean darken with its mystery. She never really swam in the ocean, just waded. The riptides and the unknown predators that lurked below the surface scared her. She tasted the salt in the cool spay that misted the air, heard hunger in the waves as they chewed the sand around her feet. She sometimes wondered what lay beyond the shore, in the uncharted depths of the sea.

And if she’d ever have the courage to find out.

“It’s just that, I want to be a pastor, and . . . ,” Matthew said, his voice closer to her.

“And?” She wrapped her arms around her waist, fighting a shiver.

“You’re just not pastor’s wife material.”

PJ refused to let his epitaph show on her face and found a voice that didn’t betray her. “Do you remember the last time we were out on the beach together?”

“What? Uh . . . no . . . wait—a couple weeks ago, we got ice cream on the pier.”

PJ closed her eyes. “That wasn’t with me.”

Silence. She didn’t temper it.

“Then, no.”

“It was the night of the sea turtles. Remember, we had to use flashlights because they made all the residents along the shore turn off their outside lights? We had our arms woven together to keep from losing each other. I remember wondering if it was possible to read your thoughts, because I couldn’t see your face.”

“We nearly walked on a sea turtle coming to shore,” Matthew said, reminiscence in his tone. She glanced at him, and something like pain or concern emerged on his face, edged in the shadow of whiskers.

PJ turned away, back to the ocean. “I kept thinking—that turtle mama’s going to bury her babies on shore and never see them again. She was going to leave them to fend for themselves, to struggle back to the sea, tasty defenseless morsels diving back into an ocean where they’re the main course.”

She stared at her shoe, dangling in her hand. The wind ran its sticky fingers through her hair, tangling what had been a stylish short bob into a nest. Gooseflesh prickled her skin—she was cold and hungry, but she’d wrap herself in seaweed and dig a bunker in the sand before she’d return to the restaurant with Matthew. Probably she could even find something to eat in her so-called suitcase.

“Do you think they made it?” She wasn’t sure why she asked, why she prolonged this moment, their last. Probably trying to unravel time, as usual, figure out where it had snarled, turned into a knot.

Matthew dug his foot into the sand, watching it. “If they were supposed to, I guess.” He sighed. “Let’s go inside, PJ.”

PJ ran her eyes over the profile she’d previously—about an hour previously—told herself she loved. His sharp jaw, that lean rectangle frame. Barefoot, she still came to nearly his chin.

She wanted a taller man. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He frowned.

“I’m not doing this ‘let’s be friends’ thing with you.”

“But we were friends before.” He reached for her and she dodged him, raising her shoe.

“Back away.”

“Whatya gonna do, PJ? Bean me with a shoe?”

“Don’t tempt me.”

He shook his head. “See, this is why we’d never work out. I need someone who is . . .”

“Perfect? Doesn’t show her emotions?”

He raised his shoulder in an annoying shrug. “Pastor’s wife material.”
Now he was going to get hurt. “Oh, that’s rich. Coming from a former surfer with a scar where his eyebrow bar used to be. What happened to ‘Ride the waves, PJ, and see where they take you’?”

His eyes darkened. “I’ve changed.”

And, apparently, she hadn’t. “Good-bye, Matthew. And by the way, yes, I hate crab legs. Because I’m allergic to them. Pay attention.”

She turned and kicked up sand as she marched across the beach, thankful she could see her condo/motel/efficiency—depending on who she talked to—in the distance. She’d give just about anything for her Chuck Taylors to run home in. But she’d dressed to kill, or at least for love, this evening in a floral sundress and new espadrilles that gave her a sort of out-of-body feminine feeling. She needed her Superman pajama pants and a tank top, and fast.

“PJ! Don’t run away!” Matthew’s voice lifted over the surf.

“Running away is what I do best!” She didn’t turn.

“Why do you have to be such a drama queen?”

Okay. That. Was. It. She spun around, dropped her bag to the sand, and with everything in her, hurled her other shoe at him, a hard straight shot that any decent first baseman could have nabbed or at least dodged.

His four-letter snarl into the night put the smallest of smiles on her lips as she turned away.

The restless ocean stirred into the sounds of the club music as she hiked up the beach. She clung to the shadows, avoiding the pool of light from houses and condos, restaurants and cafes.

Not pastor’s wife material.

She broke out into a little jog, hiking up the confining rim of her hem.
Angling up the sand, she hopped over the boardwalk toward her building. Brine-scented seagrass brushed the walkway, carpeted the trail to the two story Sandy Acres motel/apartment complex, the half-lit sign now reading only Sa . . . d..Ac..es, a term that seemed particularly apropos as she opened the metal gate alone, again.

Around the patio area, rusty pool furniture glimmered under the tinny, buzzing fluorescent lights. A horde of moths flirted with death around the heat of the bulbs; the earthy palmetto smell tangled with the coconut oil smeared onto the deck chairs, tempering the sharp odor of chlorine. Hip hop thrummed under her downstairs neighbor’s door, and wet towels taunted by the wind slapped the metal rail above her as she climbed the stairs to her unit.

Home sweet home.

A temporary home. Three years could mean temporary. In fact, until tonight, she’d already been mentally packing, giving away her garage-sale wicker, even, finally, her Kellogg High School Mavericks sweatshirt. Maybe even Boone’s leather jacket, the one she’d stolen the night she left town. It seemed an uneven prize to all he’d cost her.

Her skin prickled as she fought the deadbolt.

Boone had probably forgotten the girl who wound her arms around his waist, and dug her face into the leathery pocket between his shoulder blades as he roared them away from Kellogg on his Kawasaki.

Loneliness met her in the silence, the lights between the slats of the blinds striping the bed sheet that cordoned off her so-called bedroom. Her faucet dripped, and she dropped her key onto the counter, surrendering to the habitual attempt to turn it off. Then she ca-lumped her bag onto the chair, folded her arms, and stared out the window at the dark, hungry ocean.

Almost without realizing it, she clamped her hand over her left shoulder, high, near the apex, where the word Boone marked her in flowery script.
Beep. Behind her, the answering machine beckoned her away from the past and what might have been.

Boone was probably in jail, or worse, reformed and married, with children. The great taboo, her mother hadn’t once mentioned him in their phone calls, hadn’t scrawled his name in her letters. He had probably forgotten her, just like everyone else.

Forgotten that she’d left Kellogg, Minnesota accused of a felony—an accusation too easily pinned on a high school senior whose reputation indicted her without trial. Her only crime had been abysmal judgment in men and allowing her heart to trespass into places her common sense told her not to tread.

A crime, apparently, she kept committing.


Forgotten that her mother cut a deal with the director of the country club, one that included a full tank of gas and promises of a new kitchen. Her mother’s instructions to her included the phrase “just until things blow over.”


Perhaps things had blown over long ago. Perhaps she was the one not ready.


She pushed the Play button as she opened the freezer. Please let there be ice—
“PJ, it’s me.” Connie. The fact that her sister’s attorney-solemn voice tremored made PJ close the freezer door.

“Don’t panic.” Of course not. Because Connie never called her without some earth-shattering joyful news. I passed the bar. I bought a house. I’m having a baby. I’m getting married again!

PJ forced herself to remember that dissecting all that joy was the dark news of husband number one’s death. No one, regardless of how successful, thin, wealthy, and smart, deserved to be woken up at 2 a.m. by the police and asked to identify her husband’s remains. Or those of his mistress, with whom he’d been traveling when his car went off the road.

Still, PJ could hear panic under Connie’s voice. Especially when Connie continued, a little too quickly.

“Okay, listen, I know you don’t want to hear this, but . . . I need you to come home.”

Connie took a breath. And PJ held hers.

“Mom’s been in an accident.”

Everything went silent—the hip hop beating the floorboards, the far-off hunger of the ocean, Matthew’s criticism in her ear. The years rushed up at her, like a line drive, knocking her off her feet, regrets scattered like dust in her shadow.

Then Connie sighed and hung up. The beep and time signature noted no further messages.

PJ reached for the phone.

Connie sounded as if she might be on her fourth cup of coffee in some cement-lined corridor, tapping out the hour in her Jimmy Choos.

“PJ, where have you been? Mom’s already had her cast set and is in recovery.”

“Please, Connie, not now. Just. . . . what happened?” PJ pressed the phone tight to her ear and paced to the window, the ten-year near estrangement with her mother hollowing her out. Had her mother forgotten her silent pledge to carry on, to be waiting if and when PJ summoned the courage to point her car north?

“She fell on the tennis court and broke her ankle.”

The window’s cool surface broke the sweat across PJ’s forehead. Tennis? “For Pete’s sake, Connie, I thought . . . oh man . . . don’t call me again.”



“Don’t you want to know how bad it is?”

PJ sank into a chair. “How bad is it?”

“They casted her ankle; her bones are secured with a pin. She’ll be out of the hospital tomorrow. But, PJ, I need you to come home. I’m getting married in a week, and I need help.”

Married. Of course. PJ had seen a picture of Sergei, Connie’s fiancé, and seriously wondered why a double-degreed lawyer might be marrying her Tae Kwon Do coach. But who was she to question—after all, she, a near-felon, had dreamed she might pass as a pastor’s wife.

“I thought you two were eloping.” PJ had managed to catch her breath and now returned to the freezer, cradled the phone against her shoulder, and dug out the Moose Tracks. As she opened the lid, crystallized edges and the smell of freezer burn elicited only a slight hesitation. She lifted a spoon from the dish drainer cup in the sink.

“We were flying down to Cancun, but Sergei’s parents couldn’t get a visa for Mexico, so I planned a little soiree at the country club. But the thing is, I have vacation time coming, and if I don’t use it, I’ll lose it. So we need to get away now if we want a honeymoon, and Mom certainly can’t watch David while she’s in a cast. I need you, Peej.”

PJ leaned a hip against the counter, cleaning the sides of the carton, the chocolate swirls melting against the roof of her mouth, sweet, with only an edge of bitter.

“So let me get this straight—it’s okay that you weren’t going to invite me to the sunny sands of Mexico to watch you tie the knot with Mr. Muscle, but you want me to leave my life and return home at your whim?” She kept her eyes averted from the threadbare wicker and the chipped Formica table and stomped the floor once, real loud, hoping the boyz in the hood might hear her over the rap.

On the other end of the phone, Connie’s voice wadded into a small, tight ball. “PJ, I know how you feel about Kellogg and Boone and especially Mom, and frankly I don’t blame you. I’ve even tried to respect your decision. But it’s time to come home. You have family here. I need you. David needs you . . .”

PJ tossed the empty container into the sink, licked off the spoon. Down the street, a car peeled out in a hurry somewhere, and a dog barked in disapproval.

“You know how I feel? Really? Because you got to stay, Connie. After graduation, you went on to college, to a life. I left town right after the ceremony, a Tupperware bowl of fruit on the seat beside me, praying my ancient VW bug would make it to the South Dakota border. I’ve spent the past ten years wandering from one tank of gas to the next, trying to figure out where I should land. You lived the life Mom dreamed for you—”

“You lived the life you dreamed for yourself.”

PJ flinched, Connie’s voice sharper than she remembered. She stared out the window, wondering if Matthew still stood on the beach, a hand to his bleeding head. “Is that what you seriously believe?”

Silence on the other end made PJ rub her fingers into her eyes. Connie had become an unlikely ally over the past ten years, mediating between PJ and their mother, once in a while, sending her enough to cover her rent. However, it still wasn’t so easy to share the limelight with the sister who was wanted.

As opposed to being the one left on the proverbial doorstep. Being adopted sounded so endearing to everyone but the adoptee. The fact that Connie had been born just a few months later, close enough to share the same classes in school, constantly earning better grades and more awards, only served as a constant reminder that PJ hadn’t been good enough, even from birth.

“I’m sorry,” PJ said, letting a sigh leak out. “I’ve had a rough night.”

“Then come home, PJ. If only for a couple weeks. Or longer. You can stay with me until you find your own place.”

“Did you ask Mom?” PJ winced, hating the question and that she didn’t yank it back. Hadn’t she learned anything?

“I asked. Even if Mom won’t admit it, she needs you.”
PJ stood at her screen door, staring out at the now star-sprinkled night glistening on the rippled landscape. The Milky Way streamed across the sky, heading north.

“Please?” Admittedly, it was the closest to pleading she’d ever heard from Connie. “I need you.”

“How long before your wedding?”

“Six days. Sunday at two.”

PJ hung up without promises and walked back outside, over the boardwalk to the beach. The wind had chased the clouds, and a diamond chip moon hung in the sky, surrounded by the jewels of the night, brilliant and close enough to wrap her fingers around. She pressed her bare feet into the sand, then lifted them out, listening to the water slurp, then fill the imprints. Finally, she stared out again at the ocean and wondered how many turtles really made it back to the sea.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Vote Of Confidence - Chapter 1

A Vote Of Confidence

Zondervan (April 2009)

Chapter 1

Idaho, May 1915

The Torpedo Runabout cut the corner from Shenandoah Street onto Wallula Street, driving over two of the boarding house’s rose bushes in the process. The automobile then weaved dangerously close to Guinevere Arlington’s white picket fence.

With a gasp, Gwen jumped up from the porch swing.

In the nick of time, the Model T Ford veered away from her fence, avoiding disaster.

“Hello, ladies.” The driver tipped his hat to Gwen and her sister as if nothing was amiss.

“And there goes our next mayor.” Cleo shook her head and cast a look of despair at Gwen. “Ten o’clock in the morning and drunk as a skunk. Can you imagine him holding the reins of government?”

“No, I can’t.” Gwen sank onto the porch swing again. “Hiram Tattersall is a fool, not to mention his penchant for strong spirits.”

Cleo crossed one booted foot over another as she leaned against the porch railing. “Why don’t you run for office, Gwennie? Not a reason in the world you couldn’t do it.”

“Me?” Gwen looked at her twin in disbelief.

“Of course you. There’s nothing in the law that says a woman can’t be the mayor of our fair town. You’re a nicer person than Mayor Hopkins, the old coot?”

“Cleo. Don’t be unkind.”

“I’m sorry. I know he’s sick or we wouldn’t be having this special election. But he hasn’t done a single, solitary thing of worth while he’s been mayor, and everybody knows Tattersall will be an even worse mayor than Hopkins.”

“I have no qualifications for political office.”

“And Tattersall does? You’d do a better job than Hopkins and Tattersall put together. Folks like you.” Cleo winked. “Especially the men, pretty as you are.”

Gwen wasn’t amused. “If I were to run, I wouldn’t want to be elected for my appearance.”

“So don’t let that be why. You got that fancy education burning to be put to use. Why not let folks see you’re as full of information as a mail-order catalog?”

It was a ridiculous idea. Gwen had no intention of running for mayor. She was content giving piano lessons to the children of Bethlehem Springs and writing her columns for the local newspaper.

Cleo drank the last of her iced tea, set the glass on the porch floor, and pushed off from the railing. “I’d best get back to the ranch. I’ve got a load of chores still to be done.” She slapped her floppy-brimmed hat onto her head, covering her mop of short, strawberry-blonde curls. “You’d be doing this town a favor if you were its mayor. We could use a little forward thinking, if you ask me.”

Gwen smiled as she rose from the swing. “Darling Cleo, I could never be as forward thinking as you.”


Gwen followed her sister off the porch and around to the back of the house where Cleo’s pinto was tethered to a post. Cleo stopped long enough to give Gwen a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then untied her horse, grasped the saddle horn, and swung into the seat. “You think about it, Gwennie. I’m telling you. It’s the right thing to do. You pray and see if the Lord doesn’t agree with me.” With a tug on the brim of her hat, she twirled her horse away and cantered down the street.

Gwen shook her head. Cleo could come up with the most outlandish ideas. Imagine: Gwen Arlington, mayor of Bethlehem Springs. It was preposterous. Not that she didn’t believe women should serve in public office. She did, and she was glad she lived in a state where women had the right to vote. But she had no political ambitions.

With a sigh, she returned to the front porch and settled onto the cushioned seat of the swing, giving a little push with her feet to start it in motion.

The air smelled of fresh-turned earth, green grass, and flowers in bloom. The mountains of southern Idaho were enjoying warm weather, although snow could be seen on the highest peaks to the north and east of Bethlehem Springs.

Gwen loved this small town. She loved her neighbors, the children who came for lessons, the women in her church sewing circle. She loved the long, narrow valley, the river that flowed through it, and the tree-covered mountains that overlooked it all. She loved the sense of the old West and the new century that surrounded her, horses and automobiles, outhouses and indoor plumbing, wood-burning stoves and electric lights.

Her mother, Elizabeth Arlington, hadn’t felt the same about Idaho. She despised everything about it, so much so that after four years of marriage, she’d left her husband and returned to her parents’ home in Hoboken, New Jersey, taking two-year-old Gwen with her.

“Be thankful, Guinevere,” her mother said on many an occasion over the years, “that your father allowed you to come with me. We’re alike, you and I. We need society and fine culture. Think of the advantages you’ve had that poor Cleopatra has gone without. The opera and the theater. Fine schooling. You would never be suited to live in that backwater town where your father chose to settle.”

But her mother was wrong. Bethlehem Springs did suit Gwen — a truth she discovered soon after her arrival in Idaho seven years before. At the age of twenty-one, and with the reluctant blessing of her mother, she had come to Idaho to meet the father and sister she couldn’t remember. She hadn’t intended to stay, but in a few short weeks she’d fallen in love with the area. Her heart felt at home here as it never had in New Jersey.

A frown puckered her forehead. What would happen to Bethlehem Springs if Hiram Tattersall became its mayor? He wouldn’t try to better their schools or improve roads or help those who had lost jobs due to mine closings. And if the governor of the state succeeded in passing prohibition in Idaho, as many thought he would, Tattersall wouldn’t enforce it in Bethlehem Springs. She was convinced of that.

I would do a better job than he would.

But of course she had no intention of running for mayor.

No intention whatsoever.


Morgan McKinley wanted nothing more than to punch that artificial smile off Harrison Carter’s face.

“You’ll have to wait until after the election, Mr. McKinley. I’m sorry. The new mayor and the county commissioners must be in agreement on these matters.”

Before Morgan did something he would regret—something that would get him tossed into the jail one floor below — he bid a hasty farewell and left the commissioner’s chambers. When he exited the municipal building, he paused on the sidewalk long enough to draw a calming breath.

Harrison Carter had delayed this decision for personal reasons, not for anything to do with an election. Several times over the past year, the commissioner had offered to buy the land where New Hope was being built. If he thought these delays would change Morgan’s mind about selling, he was in for a big disappointment.

With a grunt of frustration, he turned and headed for his automobile, parked on the west side of the sandstone building. Fagan Doyle, Morgan’s business manager and good friend, leaned against the back of the car, his pipe clenched between his teeth.

“Well?” Fagan cocked an eyebrow.

Morgan shook his head.

“Then I’ll be asking what it is you mean to do about it?”

“I don’t know yet.”

Morgan got behind the wheel of the Model T while Fagan moved to the crank. Once the engine started, Fagan slid into the passenger seat and closed the door. Morgan turned the automobile around and followed Main Street out to the main road, thankful his friend didn’t ask more questions. He needed to think.

Occasional complications and delays were expected when a man undertook a large building project, but this felt different. Morgan had half expected Harrison to ask for money under the table, but that hadn’t happened. Just as well since Morgan wasn’t the sort who bribed public officials. Nor allowed himself to be blackmailed by them. Not under any circumstance.

Twenty minutes later, the Touring Car arrived on the grounds of what would one day be a unique resort—the New Hope Health Spa. The main lodge had taken shape at the upper end of the compound. Morgan no longer needed to study the architectural renderings to imagine what it would look like when finished.

He wished his mother had lived to see it. This spa had been her dream before it became his.

Before the automobile rolled to a stop, the site foreman, Christopher Vance, ran toward them. “Morgan, we’ve got a problem”

Another one? “What is it?”

“The dam on Crow’s Creek. It’s leaking. I’m not sure it’ll hold. I’ve got a crew up there now working on it.”

Morgan’s gaze shifted toward the narrow road at the east end of the compound. About a mile up they’d built the dam that would provide and control the cold water used in conjunction with the natural hot water from the springs.

“I’d better see it for myself. Hop in,” he said to the two men, “and we’ll drive up there.”

If that dam broke, a good portion of the resort compound could end up covered in several inches of water. Not the end of the world, but it would stop construction until things dried out. Another delay.

“Somebody did this, Morgan,” Christopher added. “It’s no accident.”

He frowned at his foreman. “Are you sure?”

“Sure enough.”

Why would anyone want to sabotage the dam? It was deep into his property, and he hadn’t diverted water that was needed by anyone else. No farmers or ranchers were dependent upon the flow of Crow’s Creek. He’d made sure of that.

Could Harrison Carter be behind it?

On her way to the Daily Herald with her latest article, Gwen stopped by the mercantile to inquire about Helen Humphrey. The poor woman had suffered with severe back pain for more than two months, and nothing she’d tried had relieved it.

“The doctors say rest is the only thing that’ll help,” Bert Humphrey told Gwen. “And even then they’re not sure she’ll ever be without pain. Maybe the health spa that fellow’s building will do her some good. Nothing else has. Not that we could afford it. Something that fancy’s bound to cost more than we could come up with.”

“I’m so sorry to hear you don’t have better news, Mr. Humphrey.
But, no matter what it costs, do you really believe taking the
waters would help her? I’m afraid I’m somewhat skeptical.”

“I don’t know. I’d try just about anything at this point.”

Gwen offered a sympathetic smile. “Please tell Helen I’ll make
some of my chicken and dumplings and bring it over.”

He swept a hand over his balding head. “She hasn’t had much
appetite, but I know we’ll be glad for it, all the same.”

“I’ll keep her in my prayers.”

“We’d appreciate it.”

Gwen bid the proprietor a good day, then left the store. As
she walked along Wallula Street toward the newspaper office, her
thoughts remained on the resort. There were varying feelings in
Bethlehem Springs about the construction of the spa ten miles to
the north. Many people thought it would be good for the town;
quite a few local men were already employed as carpenters and
general laborers. Other townsfolk thought the resort would change
Bethlehem Springs for the worse, bringing in too many outsiders.
Of course, there were a few in town who thought the spa would
fail, so what did it matter?

Gwen didn’t know what to believe. She’d never frequented a spa, although she had gone with Cleo a few times to sit in one of the
natural hot springs on their father’s ranch. Enjoyable, to be sure,
but was it a cure for physical ailments? For all she knew, McKinley
was a snake oil salesman of the worst kind, offering a cure to the
hopeless — a cure that didn’t exist.

There was also the matter of McKinley being a newcomer to
the area. No local had heard of him until he arrived in the area a
year ago. And although the wealthy Easterner had purchased the
old Hampstead home on Skyview Street, it sat empty. Folks said
the new owner was at the resort site every day of the week, coming
into town only long enough to send a telegram, pick up his mail,
and purchase supplies. Not once had he spent the night in town.

“The time I met him, he was genial enough,” Nathan Patterson,
owner and editor of the Daily Herald, had said once. “A
newspaper friend of mine from Boston says the McKinley family
is among the wealthiest in America. Doesn’t it seem odd that he
would end up here, of all places?”

“Thinks himself too good for the likes of us, I gather.” That
had been Edna Updike’s opinion — something Gwen’s neighbor
never hesitated to share. “He doesn’t even go to church. A heathen, no doubt.”

“Not much mail ever,” Dedrik Finster, the postmaster, had said
in Gwen’s presence just a week ago. “He is mystery, ja?”

Arriving at the newspaper office, Gwen shook off thoughts of
the resort and the mysterious Morgan McKinley. “Hello, Mr. Patterson,” she said as she stepped through the doorway.

“Ah, there you are, Miss Arlington. I was wondering when
you would have your column for me. What’s your story about this

“The expansion of educational opportunities for women in the
past fifty years and the importance of women taking advantage of them. Did you know, Mr. Patterson, that there were only five women lawyers or notaries in 1870 but almost fifteen thousand by 1910?”

Nathan shook his head. “Not sure I think women should be

“Why not? A woman doesn’t have an inferior mind. She is as
able to grasp the written law as any man. Deborah was a judge in
Israel, if you’ll recall. And if a woman is widowed, isn’t it better
that she have an education and a profession that will allow her to
support herself and her children rather than to be dependent upon
the generosity of relatives or her church?”

“Well, of course. But — ”

“But not in a man’s profession?” She offered a smile, taking the bite out of her question.

“You have me there, Miss Arlington.” He chuckled. “There is certainly nothing inferior about your mind.”

“Thank you.” She held out the carefully penned pages.

Nathan took them. As he glanced down at some other papers
on his desk, he muttered, “Wish I could say the same for our one
and only candidate for mayor. Tattersall.” He growled in disgust.
“I can’t figure why no one else has stepped forward to run against
him. The election will be here before we know it.”

Cleo’s words echoed in Gwen’s thoughts: “Why don’t you run
for office, Gwennie?”
She ignored the shiver of excitement that raced up her spine and posed her sister’s question to the newspaperman. “Why don’t you run for office, Mr. Patterson?”

“Politics wouldn’t suit me. I’m better reporting the news than
making it.”

“Not a reason in the world you couldn’t do it,” Cleo’s voice whispered in her head.

Gwen glanced at the pages in the editor’s hands. She’d written the article to encourage women to step forward, to better themselves, to make a difference in the society in which they lived. Was it possible God had been speaking to her even as she wrote those words to other women?

Softly, she said, “My sister thinks I should run.”

Nathan stared at her.

“It’s a silly notion, of course.” Her heart hammered and her
pulse raced. “I told Cleo it was.”

Wordlessly, he leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin with
his right hand. “Silly?” A long pause, then, “I’m not so sure it is.”

“You’re not?” Her throat felt parched.

“Isn’t a woman mayor a little like a woman judge?” He shot
up from his chair, knuckles resting on the top of the desk. “Do it,
Miss Arlington. Run for mayor. The newspaper will put its support
behind your candidacy.”

“But Mr. Patterson, I’ve never held public office before. Why would you support me?”

“My gut tells me you would do what needs to be done. You’re articulate and well educated. You obviously aren’t afraid to speak out when you see a problem the community needs to address. You’ve done so often enough in your columns.”

She wished she hadn’t spoken. She wished she’d kept her thoughts to herself.

“Do it, Miss Arlington. The town will be grateful. And I must
admit it would give me plenty of interesting things to write about in the coming weeks. Never been a woman mayor that I know of.” He jotted a note on a slip of paper. “I’ll have to look that up. Wouldn’t it be something if we were the first?”

“I haven’t said I’ll do it yet.”

“Think about what it’ll be like here if Tattersall’s elected.”

Gwen took a step back from his desk. “I . . . I’ll want to pray
about it and . . . and talk to my father.”

“Of course. Of course. You do that. But I’m telling you, Miss
Arlington, you should do this.”


Fortunately, Christopher Vance’s worst fears weren’t realized. The
damage appeared less serious than first perceived. By late afternoon, the crew of men had stabilized the dam on Crow’s Creek. More permanent repairs would be undertaken in the morning.

Later that evening, after the camp cook had served dinner and
the men were settling in for the night, Morgan walked up the draw
at the north end of the compound and sat on a log where he was
afforded a view of the resort site. Behind him and across from him,
ponderosa and lodgepole pines blanketed the steep mountainsides. Wondrous. Awesome. God’s handiwork revealed for all to see. Morgan had traveled many places around the world, seen many beautiful things, but few had come close to stirring his heart the
way this place did.

His gaze was drawn to the lodge. Four stories tall, the exterior
was made of logs, giving it a rugged, western look. But the interior
would be anything but austere. The plans called for fine wall coverings, elegant carpets, original artwork to satisfy the senses, and large, comfortable guest rooms. The kitchen would have all the latest innovations, a place where the resort’s chef would create meals for lodgers that were both healthy and delicious.

On the opposite side of the clearing from the lodge, work had
begun on the bathhouse and the two pools that would be fed by
the natural hot springs on the property. The bathhouse was fashioned after some of the European spas Morgan had visited with his mother — private bathing rooms with large, porcelain tubs and two steam rooms, one for men and one for women. But there would be one major difference between New Hope and those European resorts. Morgan’s spa would be a place for prayer as well as for relaxation, a place for both spiritual and physical healing. In fact, he was sitting near where the resort’s Danielle McKinley Prayer Chapel would stand.

“What good is physical health,” his mother had often said to him, “if one’s soul is sick?”

iGod, I believe You gave the vision for this place to my mother. Help me make it become all that You desire.

On the heels of his prayer, he thought of Harrison Carter. Why was the man set against him, against this resort? Was it all because Morgan had refused to sell the land? Surely Carter saw how the resort would benefit Bethlehem Springs. The railroad. Telephone lines and electrical power. All of which would benefit the people
who lived here. Morgan knew he’d find a way to get what he needed, but it would be difficult if the town and county tied up the lands where the railroad needed to come through.

“If I had a hand in making the laws, things would be easier for honest businessmen.”

If I had a hand in making the laws . . .

He stiffened.

If I had a hand in making the laws.

No, that couldn’t be the answer.

And yet . . .

If I had a hand in making the laws.

Bethlehem Springs was gearing up for a mayoral election. From what little he’d heard, there was only one candidate — and not one people were happy about. Morgan was a citizen of the town. He must be eligible to declare for office.

“The new mayor and the county commissioners must be in agreement on these matters.”

What better way to make certain the new mayor supported Morgan’s plans than for Morgan to be the mayor. Still, that was a bit drastic. There had to be a better way. Besides, he had no desire to run for office. God had brought him to Idaho for a different purpose. He didn’t have time to devote to the day-to-day administration of a town like Bethlehem Springs. Governmental bodies were a necessary evil, but not one he need be part of.

And yet . . .

He cast a glance toward the sky. “Father, is this what You’re telling me to do?”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Elisha's Bones - Chapter 1

Elisha's Bones

(Bethany House March 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

KV65, The Valley of the Kings, Egypt, 2003

It's an indescribable sound when a piece of ancient stone finally gives. There's a subtle pop, like the top of an aspirin bottle coming off to reveal that annoying wad of cotton stuffed into the plastic innards. Except that, in this case, the sound is amplified by whatever magnitude is required to testify to two tons of rock wrenching away from symbiotic stone. I think what I hear is the instant equalization of air pressure—a force that can either ease or enhance whatever stresses time has built into the coupling. It's the moment when the whole event can result in either expectant silence, or in a violent redistribution of forces. And it all has to be in my imagination, because it's only a romantic notion to think that the mind could process the event in real time.

Several field technicians are trying to peer into the sarcophagus through the three-inch gap made available courtesy of the removal of the two-ton slab of red granite that hangs suspended on a precarious-looking pulley mechanism. I know the machine is rated for far greater than the stone's weight, but even that bit of professional knowledge doesn't alleviate the fear I would have about slipping my fingers into the crack. I place my hand against the stone and press against it to stop its lazy swing. At almost four thousand pounds, even an arc of a few millimeters would put a severe dent into someone's skull, and having worked with these young men and women for almost a month, I'm not certain that all of them are observant enough to stay out of striking distance.

It's stifling in here; lines of sweat run down my face and soak my collar. The burial chamber is less than six and a half meters long, and there are a dozen people in it and more machinery than should be allowed at a dig, purely on principle—not to mention the five bright fluorescent lights that make casting a shadow an impossibility. I know one of the supposed benefits of these lights is that they don't give off heat, but I'm not buying it, no matter what the brochure says.

I lean in, the stone stilled beneath my fingers, and I think that I can almost smell the cumin, thyme, and cinnamon that went into the preparation of the mummy, even through the probable two additional coffins encasing the reposing ancient. I glance around at the assembled junior members of the team, whom Jim has asked me to instruct as most of them pursue doctorates. I'm not much of a teacher—I could never hold down a professorship—yet I take pleasure in seeing the looks on the team's faces as they enjoy this unprecedented opportunity.

KV65 is one of those rare opportunities granted to someone in my profession—a find that makes careers, that puts one in every serious journal in the field for the next decade. True, this is Jim's baby, but he brought me in to handle the particulars, and that will yield almost as many peer accolades. It's virtually another Tutankhamen, even down to the post-Amarna dating.

Before I can call for a flashlight, at least four click on. The mingling beams push back the blackness of the sepulcher. Leaning in close, forgetting the earlier reluctance to place my body in harm's way, I let my eyes grow accustomed to the alternating splotches of light and shadow against the outer coffin until I can see a deep red that I recognize as ancient cypress. A few moments pass as I ponder why this is peculiar—why the sight of a wood that's perfectly appropriate for this region, and for the time period that saw this man interred, seems wrong. And when the answer waves its little hand, I find another of those teaching opportunities I so enjoy. I ignore it.

But one of my young acolytes will not see his education shortchanged.

"Dr. Hawthorne?" Brown asks. He's twenty-four, attached to the Smithsonian, earning a doctorate at Cornell, and might be the smartest person in this room. And I'm only slightly threatened by that. After all, the successful practice of archaeology involves more than knowledge; there's an equal measure of luck. And after watching Brown over the last few weeks, I'm inclined to think that's a commodity he has not stockpiled.

I straighten and motion for him to take a look, taking a step back as he crosses in front of me. I'm careful to avoid bumping his cast-encased arm.

"Interesting," he says after a moment.

"Yep." A quick glance around reveals that the other people in the room want in on the discussion, so I prompt post-grad Cornell. "Can you share with the rest of the class?"

"The outer coffin is just wood," Brown says. "There's no linen, no gold overlay. Nothing to indicate that this is anything but the burial chamber for a minor noble."

"Which is odd because...?"

"Everything we've seen to this point would indicate this is a royal tomb. It's almost spot-on Tutankhamen."

For as much as I dislike the whole teaching aspect of this assignment, at least I've caught on to one of the tricks practiced by genuine academics: allowing my most-qualified student to teach in my stead.

I'm as intrigued as is he by the incongruity of the barren outer coffin within a sepulcher—indeed an entire tomb—that is patterned after those of the pharaohs. And I have no immediate answer.

I wipe my brow, aware that I'm leaving a film of red dust under my hairline. Now that we've found something unexpected, I'm more bothered by the fact that Jim is not here. It's worse than Will's absence. At least my brother has a concrete reason for missing an event important enough to earn the presence of two National Geographic photographers. Jim wouldn't give me a reason that carried any kind of weight; he was merely insistent that the events of the morning proceed. Not that he had to do too much arm-twisting; were he here, I would still be the one walking the Scooby Gang through their paces. Even so, there's an unspoken rule that something of this magnitude should only take place under the watchful eye of the archaeologist of record. I shake my head, consoling myself with the thought that Jim's absence means the guys from National Geographic will have to put my face on the cover of their next issue.

I field a sudden urge to light a cigar and my hand moves to my breast pocket, but I let the impulse pass, the dust in the chamber making it hard enough to breathe.

Several members of the team are jockeying for position around the sepulcher, shining their small lights into the crack. For the few moments that I afford myself to watch them, I have to smile at their exuberance. I'm not much older than most of them, but at this moment they seem younger than I ever remember being.

Almost on their own, my eyes find Sarah. She's a Connecticut girl, with the superior and privileged vocal intonations to prove it. She's one of the few on the team who has halted her education with a graduate degree.

But I can tell that she loves the work. She is as attentive, detailed, and driven as any of the others working alongside her. And she's easy on the eyes. I've always been a sucker for a brunette, and Sarah has deep brown eyes to go with her lustrous locks.

As if she can sense my gaze, she looks up and, after a pause, gives me a small smile. That's another thing about northeastern women: a smile can convey a great deal.

I'm the first to look away, and Brown saves me from having to consider what that says about me.

"Dr. Hawthorne?"

The puzzlement in his voice has me at his side in an instant. I crouch and follow the beam of his flashlight as it passes back and forth over a portion of the outer coffin. All I can see is a slight curve, yet it's enough to hint that it's at least vaguely anthropoid. I'm about to ask Brown what I'm supposed to be seeing when the light flashes by a faded irregularity in the wood. I'm not certain how long it takes before I recognize the abnormality as script, but when the revelation comes, it adds another mystery to the tally.

"Coptic," I say, and Brown nods in my periphery.

The find draws me closer, until I'm breathing the stale air, squinting to make sense of the words carved into the wood. There is little that is new in excavations conducted in the Valley of the Kings; everything has a corollary. KV9 is what comes to mind, with its walls decorated with ancient graffiti in a mixture of Coptic and Lycian. But this isn't graffiti; this is something else entirely. For a brief moment Nag Hammadi passes through my mind, solely for the Coptic element, but I let the thought go before it can find purchase. Playing connect-the-dots without even the most basic evidentiary support is seldom productive.

The narrow opening and the inconstant lighting make it difficult to decipher much, but I engage in a round of serious squinting until I'm able to pull a few words from the darkness. And, in so doing, I feel a twinge of excitement creep up my spine even as a frown lodges on my face—which is what happens when the happiness of a new discovery is marred by the potential effects the find will have on the timeline of the larger work. I make a conscious decision to allow the former reaction to prevail, since the one phrase I can identify is so unusual. If I'm correct, it translates, albeit roughly, to bones of the holy man. I'd have to look at the whole of the text to verify the translation. What's more intriguing is how the writing could have appeared inside a sealed sarcophagus that, to this point, had borne every indication of having been preserved inviolate.

A kink in my back cuts my survey short and I stand and place an impatient hand on the lid of the sepulcher. I'm tempted to give it a push, a small nudge—just enough so that I can see what other surprises await me on the other side of the granite. What stops me—besides the ugly specter of archaeological protocol that mandates an incremental removal of the obstacle—is another, equally important, code which says that Jim should be present for this. I don't know his reasons for missing the opening, but I must give him the option to lead the team in investigating something so unexpected. And this isn't the kind of thing I can relay over the radio. I want to see his face when he hears the news—that whoever is interred in 65 might be some kind of Egyptian seer. I see the National Geographic guys loading film. I shake my head; Jim might wind up on the cover after all.

"Take a break, folks," I tell my plebes. The one who looks most disappointed is Brown, who was probably hoping I'd give the lid a prodigious shove. With a last glance around the burial chamber and one long look at Sarah, who has her perfect nose almost inserted into the crypt's crack, I turn and walk away.

The antechamber I enter gives me an immediate feeling of solitude, and it has the benefit of seeming some degrees cooler. Our team has already picked through this room, and we've begun a cursory study of the contents of the annex on its western side. I walk over and around chalk lines and tape, following in the path of countless footfalls through the eight-meter-long room. Leaving the antechamber, I step into a long and narrow corridor leading to the stairway that will take me topside.

I reach the stairs and start up, watching my footing on the roughhewn steps. The gloom starts to give way to natural light, and before long I am standing beneath a blazing Egyptian sun. The first thing I do is pull a cigar from my breast pocket, a Dominican. Once it's lit, I take a long and satisfying puff.

The Valley of the Kings sits in the shadow of al-Qurn and the peak, fittingly, has a pyramid shape. It's red and barren, and time-weathered in a way that makes it seem like the embodiment of age—the patriarch of the Theban Hills. In the bright sunlight of the valley, I see what the dust beneath the ground has done to my clothes. I attempt a few halfhearted brushes at my sleeves before giving up and starting for our camp. From around the other side of the hill come the sounds of my brother's team. I'm not really bothered by the fact that Will hasn't been around for the events temporarily halted somewhere beneath my feet. Had he not decided to stay the course with the bypass tunnel to the treasure room, it would have been going against form. When we were kids, Will would leave presents ignored beneath the Christmas tree if he'd opened one that caught his attention. It's a single-mindedness that can be maddening to everyone around him. I think he is scheduled to reach the tomb wall sometime this morning, and I try to set some mental Post-it Note as a reminder to be there when it happens.

Our camp consists of an RV and three pickups, which is a bit light for a dig of this size, but we're not out in the middle of nowhere. Most of the team is set up at a hotel in Luxor, where we also keep provision. As I cover the distance to the camp, though, I see another vehicle, a new BMW, parked next to one of the pickups.

I'm almost to the RV, ready to start up the steps, before I hear the voices coming from inside. On most occasions I wouldn't give it another thought; this is the command center, with people coming and going at all hours. What gives me pause now, beyond the unfamiliar car, is that the muffled noises I assume to be conversation sound decidedly unfriendly. Before I can make a decision about potential eavesdropping, the door swings open.

There is a moment when I think the first of the two men at the top of the stairs is going to fall on top of me as he brings himself to a sudden halt, unprepared to find another person blocking his exit, but that moment passes and he finds his balance. He is perhaps thirty-five, dark-haired, and too fair-skinned to call this place home. He wears a gray suit, and shoes that look far too expensive to be forced to endure this kind of environment. He stands there for as long as it takes to give me a single sour glance and then he's down the stairs. It's a strange passing—oddly close—because I haven't moved away from the bottom of the steps. Belatedly I step to the side, and as he walks through the space I've just vacated, he half turns and gives me a slight smile that sends a psychic shudder running up my spine.

Our inspector, courtesy of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, is the man following. Magdy descends the stairs and offers a polite nod when he reaches the bottom. He hurries after the other man, who has almost reached the BMW. When they drive off, I watch until I lose sight of the car behind one of the hills. I turn back to the RV and see Jim standing in the doorway.

"Trouble with Magdy?" I ask, even though it's obvious that something's amiss. The tension I've stumbled into is as palpable as a Scottish fog, even if it has dissipated with the men's departure. Jim's answer is a grunt and a step back to allow me into the RV. Only when we are both inside, and he has claimed a chair at the small table in the kitchen area, does he respond.

"The SCA is drafting orders for us to cease the project."

For one of the few times in recent memory, I am left speechless.

Jim gives me a wry smile. "That's essentially what I said. Only with a good deal more cursing." He chuckles and takes a sip of ice water.

"We spent months getting approval to excavate 65," I say, feeling a dull pain take hold along the base of my neck. "They can't make us pull up now."

Finessing an application through the SCA's Department of Foreign Archaeological Missions is a level of hell missing from Dante's book. Meticulousness and a genuine love for tedium are required skills for those trying to fight their way through the minutia of the application process. If even a single item is missing or incomplete, it can set a project back by months. That's the reason I know our potential ouster has nothing to do with a flaw in the application; I'd swear to the document's integrity right down to the molecular level.

And to the best of my knowledge, our inspector has been satisfied with the excavation and the subsequent preservation work, and with the timeliness of his pay.

I think Jim is allowing my indignation to suffice as his own, because I can almost see the anger leaching away from him. He leans back in his chair and starts drumming his fingers on the tabletop. "Technically, they can." Then he winks. "But if we file a protest with the director's office, we might gain a month or so before they force us out."

James Winfield, Professor Emeritus at the University of Canberra, is a throwback to the time when scholarly men met in quaint taverns and downed pints of dark beer while arguing points of philosophy, theology, and hard science. When I studied at his feet, I thought he looked like Oxford—at least the Oxford in my imagination. I've since been to Oxford, and I prefer my naïve fancies. He's also the man who taught me the value of a good cigar and the reason I associate refinement with the practice.

I can follow Jim's line of reasoning, can even be somewhat assuaged by it. What I can't understand is the reason behind the sudden removal of SCA support.

"Why?" is the only question I can muster.

Always a step ahead, Jim says, "Not why, but who."

"I don't follow."

"In one variation of the question, who within the SCA wants our project shut down?"

Running a hand through my dusty hair, I nod. But Jim's phrasing isn't lost on me.

"What's the other variation?"

"I would think that's obvious," Jim answers, forever the teacher. He waits until I track with him, which does not take long.

"Who was the other guy?" I ask, referring to the man accompanying our inspector. I have never seen a foreigner employed by the SCA, although it is not unheard of for them to bring in a foreign consultant. Too, KV65 is an important work site, and we've entertained more than the usual share of interested parties in the months we've been here. I'd just assumed our mystery man fit that category. Although, now that I think back on our near collision and the strange vibe I got from the guy, I reconsider—especially because Jim wouldn't have said anything had he not detected something odd about the man.

"I'm not sure," Jim answers. "It seemed obvious that his presence unnerved our beloved inspector. Magdy acted like a small insect in a large web."

That prompts a smile, if for no other reason than that an SCA inspector is the bane of an archaeologist's existence.

"What I do know," Jim adds, fingers drumming the tabletop, "is that he was one of my countrymen."

"A consultant?"

He lets my question hang there, and the look on his face suggests he is struggling to corral his thoughts. After a while, he shakes his head and looks up.

"Consultant is likely," he says, though his voice lacks conviction. He offers a dismissive wave. "I'm sure it's just a misunderstanding. A few phone calls and the whole business will be cleared up." Then he brightens as if only now remembering something. "How are things going below?"

While still reeling from the possibility of having to abandon KV65, I'm grateful for the redirection. Placing this other issue aside, I'm about to tell Jim what we've found when the RV makes a minor shift beneath my feet.

When the moment has ended, a silence fills the vacuum, and it seems almost as threatening as whatever set the vehicle to shaking. Jim and I lock eyes and then he is out of his chair and we are both heading toward the door. Our time in this country has given us ample experience with incidents of seismic activity; neither of us need to verbalize that what we just felt was something else.

My only thought is for the team I left down below, and the run across the hot sand is a blur. I'm two decades younger than Jim and so I leave him behind. By the time I reach the tomb entrance, the first of my team are exiting from the earth's darkened maw. The clinical part of me notes that the doorway is intact; there are no new fissures along the limestone and shale layers to indicate an earthquake. The plebes are coughing; they're covered in dust. One of the National Geographic guys is cradling a broken camera.

I see Brown come out. He's coughing but he gives me a small wave. "We're fine," he manages.

Despite his assurances, I do a head count. With everyone moving around, I have to do it twice before I'm reasonably sure that everyone's accounted for. And it is this relative assurance which makes me feel better about what I ask next.

"Is the sarcophagus okay?"

Brown, who is still hacking up dust, gives an emphatic nod. "It's fine. The structure held; everything's fine."

The fact that the team is all right, coupled with our good fortune of the tomb still being intact, elates me, and it takes a bit of the edge off of the urgency I'm feeling. When Jim reaches us, his breathing labored, he takes his own turn ascertaining the health of his charges and then runs a clinical eye over the dig site. The sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows in the valley, yet his eyes are hooded. Sweat beads on his forehead. He looks like a big-game hunter out on the savannah, surveying the vast terrain. Images like this are what I juxtapose against the more common mien of the academic that is his normal skin.

"What was it?" Jim asks.

The question gives me pause. I know it wasn't an earthquake, and Brown insists the tomb is intact, which precludes a cave-in. And what kind of cave-in would have been felt across the hundred yards separating the tomb from the RV anyway? Could it have been a whole subterranean cavern collapsing in upon itself?

"I don't know," I finally say.

I half acknowledge that one of the National Geographic cameras is snapping again, and I feel a bit like the emperor sans clothes. I'm hoping that this part will wind up on the cutting-room floor, but that's wishful thinking. More than likely, there will be an inset with a picture of my face, complete with poignant caption.

Jim doesn't say anything but I see him doing the same thing I am: ascertaining how an event we can't qualify has affected us. There's a very real hope that it hasn't. Our team and our site appear to be unhurt. This last thought hangs there, teasing me with something I can't quite put my finger on. I stand there, hands on hips, still catching my breath and squinting against the sun. I'm looking at the faces of these people I've come to know over the last few months, and it seems like a long time passes before it hits me that the face that should be most familiar is missing.

"Where's Will?"

The question falls on deaf ears. Most of them are milling about, content to let others determine what happens next. Jim is busy talking with Brown about the contents of the opened sarcophagus. The National Geographic guys are snapping away. It then occurs to me that neither of the two excavators assisting my brother is here, either. I smile and shake my head; it's just like Will to ignore the unanticipated movement of the very earth into which he's digging.

I don't realize I've left the group until I'm already halfway around the hill. I'm not sure what it is that makes me uneasy; I only register that I'm no longer smiling. That's when it hits me: I can't hear any noise coming from the auxiliary dig site.

I break into a jog and it's just as I'm about to round the last bend separating me from Will's team that I hear the first cries.

I now start to sprint, and as the last of the rock shifts out of my line of sight, I catch a first glimpse of Will's dig, with fear now my only reality. Where there should be straight grid lines and pin flags and a clean trench leading to an ancient wall interred in the earth, instead there is a chaos that looks like the aftermath of an explosion. The trench is gone, covered in with sand, dirt, and a large chunk of the adjoining hillside. Particles of sediment and pulverized rock hang like a haze in the air. I've stopped running, frozen by what I see. It's as if I'm experiencing all of this through a fog, and the only thing that seems to reach me is something sounding like an insistent buzzing. When the noise resolves into a man's weak voice, my eyes track to movement in the trench.

Urgency unlocks my legs, and I rush toward the man half buried in debris while at the same time reaching for the radio at my waist. I'm shouting something, but I can't decipher the garbled sounds of my own voice. Then the radio is on the ground and I'm on my knees, pawing at the dirt. It's Steve Connelly. The clinical part of me is trying to determine his condition as I work to free him; it's that part of my brain that I need to use right now, instead of the portion that knows Steve has been married for seven years and has two kids waiting for him back in Minnesota—the part that knows there were other people out here when this thing happened.

There is a flash of movement behind me and then there are several pairs of hands alongside mine, loosening the earth's hold on Steve. When we are able to pull him up, he's limp, but breathing. I let others move him away from the trench because it's becoming difficult to keep my irrational side in check. The activity behind me falls away as my eyes flit over the site. There is no movement, no flashes of color. There's a thin barrier between me and true panic, and I'm not sure how long it will stand up. The only thing I can tell myself is that I don't even know Will was down there.

Except that I know.

There's a shovel by the rebar that is the auxiliary dig's focal point. In what seems like slow motion, I walk over and pick it up, my eyes never leaving the trench. The first shovelful of dirt is like sand, and it runs off, spills over the side. I plunge the tool in a second time, then a third. I lose myself in the task, a growing urgency adding speed with each thrust. At some point, others frantically join me in the digging. I feel Jim there, although my eyes don't leave the worn surface of the shovel.

I don't know how long we dig, how much earth we move, or how many shovels take their turn. We're four feet down and it seems as if we've been digging a long time. I've stopped sweating. And then I hear something—a sound that doesn't originate amid the fevered exertion of at least a dozen men and women abandoning themselves to the work. It's a sound that seems to come from far away, a muffled voice. I stop. I stop for the first time. I listen. And I hear Will's voice, coming from below; he sounds so far away. With something close to a snarl I bring the shovel up and plunge it into the ground, and the abused implement breaks at the shaft.

Tossing the useless thing aside, I go to my knees, pawing at the red earth. "I'm coming Will!" I shout. My hands are bleeding, fingernails ripped away, but I don't feel any of it.

I catch sight of Sarah, who is now digging next to me. The privileged Connecticut girl, covered in grime, blood on her fingers, and tears streaming down her cheeks. Her eyes find mine and, in that instant, I know that haunted look will remain with me forever.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Reluctant Cowgirl - Chapter 1

Reluctant Cowgirl

Barbour Publishing (April 2009)

Chapter One

“Mark my words. Someday Julia Roberts will be bragging that Broadway star Crystal McCord used to serve her sandwiches.”

“Right, Mia,” Crystal drawled into the phone as she looked out the dingy cab window at the small theater. Distance-wise, the green awning was a stone’s throw from Broadway. But on days like this, that stone seemed to weigh a ton. “Julia Roberts came into the diner one time, and I was so nervous I messed up her order. I can’t really see her bragging about knowing me. Besides, you’re my agent. You have to say that.”

The cabbie made a left and swung around to the back of the building. Crystal balanced the cell phone against her cheek and fished his fare from her purse.

“You’re too modest. Why do you think I took you on?” Part of Mia’s magic as an agent was her supreme confidence in her clients. She counted on it being contagious. And usually it was. “Look. You’re a fantastic actress. If this play hadn’t closed so quickly—”

“My daddy always said ‘if’ is the biggest little word in the English language.” Crystal put her hand to her mouth. Where had that come from? Apparently her brother’s email had made her more homesick than she’d realized. And that’s why she had to put it out of her mind for now.

“Yes, well,” Mia replied, without missing a beat or questioning the quote, “your daddy isn’t in show biz. Here we deal in ‘ifs’ on a daily basis. And like I was saying, IF this play hadn’t closed so quickly, it would have been your fast track to Broadway.”

A weary smile lifted Crystal’s lips. “Fast track?”

At least Mia had the grace to laugh. “You and I both know you’ve put in a hard six years here. But the media loves an overnight success. So when you do hit Broadway with a bullet, we’ll spin it that way.”

“Almost seven years actually. And I wish I had your confidence.”

The cab driver eased his car up to the back door of the theater and stopped.

“Closing nights are always tough.” Sympathy laced Mia’s voice. “Just get through tonight. I’ve got leads on several auditions. You’ll have a new play by next—” Mia gasped. “Crys, listen to this late review I just found.”

Crystal shifted her hand, preparing to flip the phone shut. “I’ll have to read it after the performance. I’m here. Besides, good or bad, I’d rather not hear it right now.”

Mia sighed loudly. “Fine. Spoilsport. Call me later. Oh, and Crystal?”


“Break a leg.” Mia snickered at her own tired joke.

“Haha.” Crystal closed the phone and shook her head. Why had she ever told Mia how sick she got of hearing that?

The cabbie cleared his throat.

Her gaze jerked to meet his impatient eyes in the mirror. “Sorry.” She dropped her phone back into her bag, fumbled his fare into his hand, and jumped out. “Thanks.”

Crystal waited for an oncoming cab to pass then crossed the street. She jumped as the cab honked at the car in front of it. An answering honk came quickly. She wove her way around a parked moving van.

She was always amazed by how easily plays came and went. Two weeks ago, Making a Splash had opened to great expectations. Then the bad reviews had started. As a supporting actress, she’d been lucky enough to escape mention by name, but guilt by association was bad enough.

The aroma of fresh-cooked hotdogs drifted to her from the small vendor by the door and her stomach growled. She nodded to the white-capped man.

He gave her a toothless grin. “Half-price for you,” he called.

She laughed. “You only say that because you know I don’t eat before the show.”

He sent her a broad wink. “When the curtains close, the cost doubles.”

“I’ll have to take my chances.” Today she bantered almost on automatic pilot. She just felt so tired inside. With two fingers she caressed the tiny daisy pendant that hung around her neck. Brad had picked a fine time to be a no-show. Some wannabe fiancé he was. As if on cue, her purse vibrated. She stepped over to the edge of the sidewalk and retrieved her phone from the big red bag. She pressed a button to read the text message. Text me later if you want me to meet you for the cast party.

She started to hit reply, but accidentally landed on the message that had irritated her an hour ago. Helping Dennis move tonight. Don’t freak out. After all, I saw opening night and you were great. Break a leg.

Her lips tightened and she shoved her phone back into her purse. She could text him at intermission and he’d have plenty of time to make it for the cast get-together. Right now, she needed to concentrate on the show.

“It’s been nine months.” Jeremy Buchanan slammed his fist on the old oak table and pushed to his feet. “Why can’t we find her?”

Sam gave him an uneasy look and stood. “Being patient is never easy. This time it was a dead-end lead. But next time. . .”

Jeremy stared at the private investigator whose Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.

Shame coursed through him. The situation he was in was no one’s fault but his own. Yet here was a grown man half-afraid of him. He nodded and slapped Sam. . .gently. . .on the shoulder. “I’m sure next time will be different. I appreciate your not giving up.”

Sam nodded, but Jeremy was pretty sure he didn’t imagine a bit of hurry in the man’s step as he let the screen door slam behind him.

Jeremy crossed the kitchen and stood by the cordless phone waiting for the call he knew was coming. Five, four, three, two, one, he counted down. The phone chimed loudly and he lifted it off the cradle and hit the TALK button. “Hi, Mom.”

“Actually, it’s me,” a deep voice said, embarrassment evident.

Jeremy couldn’t resist a sad grin. That had been the way for forty years. His mom had always suckered his dad into doing her dirty work. “Oh. Hi, Dad. Sorry.”

“That’s okay. Your mom—”

Jeremy heard a murmur in the background.

“We. . .” His dad cleared his throat. “We wanted to know what you found out.”

“Nothing. Dead end.”

The silence on the phone line hurt almost as bad as the news from the P.I. had.

“I figured it was.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

“Hang on, your mom wants to talk to you.”

Jeremy tightened his fingers on the phone.


“Hi, Mom. Sorry the news isn’t better.”

“Don’t give up hope, son. God hears our prayers.”

Jeremy nodded, even though she couldn’t see him. “I know.”

“Your dad wants to know if you want to come over for supper.”

“Nah, I’ve got soup in the refrigerator. I think I’ll read a while and turn in early tonight. I promised Jonathan I’d check the hay crop in his bottom field and see if the cold snap the other night got it. But you better have coffee ready when I get done with that,” he teased half-heartedly.

“Yeah, we know how cranky you are without your caffeine.” Her teasing was as forced as his, but at least she tried. “See you then. Love you.”

“Y’all too.”

Crystal slipped inside the backstage area. She closed her eyes and let the familiar smell of turpentine and the noise of sound checks calm her like a cup of chamomile tea. She might be tired, but there was no denying her love for the theater.


She jerked her eyes open.

Zee, the stage director, frowned at her, his gold eyebrow hoop lifting. “You okay?”

She smiled. “I am. It’s just been a long day, and you know closing nights are always rough.”

“Hmph,” he grunted. “Especially when they’re forced on you. But you’ll be great. Just like always.” She was surprised he didn’t ruffle her hair. He wasn’t much older than she was, but in spite of the fact that she was twenty-five, most of the show people still treated her like she was a teenager. The joys of being short.

“Thanks, Zee. You’re sweet.”

“Tell that to Tink. I need all the help I can get with her.” A grin flitted across his tan face, the long scar from his ear to his chin puckering slightly.

“I’ll put in a good word for you.” Crystal laughed and hurried into the crowded dressing room.

Her friend and castmate, Tina, or “Tink” as Zee called her, waved from an empty station. She ran both hands through her dark spiky hair and finished with her arms straight up in the air in a ta-da motion. “There you are.”

Crystal motioned toward Tina’s hair. “Turquoise, huh? Cool.”

Tina fluffed her multi-colored spikes. “Yeah, thanks.”

Every few weeks, Tina’s highlights changed color. Tonight, they matched her blouse and her eyeshadow.

“I’m all done with my hair and makeup. Want me to do yours?”

“Thanks. I’d love that.” Crystal sank onto the chair and closed her eyes.

Tina briefly massaged her shoulders. “Girl, you’re tighter than a fiddle string tonight,” she said, in her thick Texas drawl.

“I know.” Crystal sighed and tried to relax.

Tina’s hands flew as she brushed through Crystal’s shoulder-length hair. “Why do I think that sigh isn’t all because the play’s closing?”

Crystal jerked her head up to meet the woman’s gaze in the mirror.

The heavy black eyeliner around Tina’s eyes didn’t hide the compassion there. “What’s wrong?”

Crystal shrugged. “Nothing really.”

Tina snorted. “Nothing, my foot.”

Those blue eyes never missed a trick. Crystal sighed again. “Isn’t it enough that the play is closing? And that you, Zee, and I will have to try to find another job Monday? What if we don’t get one together?”

Tina grabbed a folded-up newspaper and stuffed it into Crystal’s bag. “I know you don’t want to see it now, but read it after the show.”

Crystal laughed. “Must be some review. First Mia, now you.” She held up her hand. “But you’re right. I don’t want to know.”

Tina snatched a pick off the counter and attacked Crystal’s hair, artfully styling it into the homeless look necessary for the first scene. “Don’t worry, we’ll get a gig together. You audition where you want to and we’ll tag along. We’ve done it before. What else?”

“Brad texted to tell me he couldn’t make it tonight. Something came up.”

Tina shrugged. “Wedding-Proposal Ken can’t make it tonight, huh? That’s a little irritating, and you know the right answer to his question anyway, you just don’t want to admit it. I’m pretty sure there’s something bigger wrong, unless I’m way off-base.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Crystal’s mouth, but she was careful not to show it. Tina got a kick out of calling Brad “Ken” as in “Ken and Barbie” but other than that, she had good instincts. In every way.

Tina paused with the teasing comb above Crystal’s head. “Might as well tell me, you know you want to.”

“Maybe you need to go to work for one of those psychic hotlines,” Crystal drawled.

“Very funny. You know I don’t believe in that mumbo jumbo. I just know you. Nice try changing the subject though. And if you really don’t want to talk about it, far be it from me to be pushy.”

Crystal grinned. “Pushy? You?” She considered taking the out. But Tina was her safety valve and right now she really needed that. “I got an email from Aaron.”

Tina tapped her lip with the comb and stared at the ceiling for a second. Then her gaze met Crystal’s in the mirror again. “Aaron. Got married a couple months ago. Right?”

“You amaze me.”

She shrugged. “I don’t have any family but my grandpa to keep up with. So keeping your six brothers and sisters straight is a challenge. Besides, it was an event worthy of you going home for a visit. That, in itself, is rare enough to make me remember it.”

“I visit.” Crystal heard the defensiveness in her voice, but she couldn’t seem to help it. “Holidays are a bad time to get away in this business. You know that.”

Tina opened her mouth then shut it again. She took a deep breath and smiled. “So what did Aaron have to say?”

Crystal closed her eyes for a second as she remembered the email. “He and Bree have gotten a chance to move to inner-city Chicago for a year and do some mission work with at-risk boys.”
“Ah, that’s sweet.” Tina slapped Crystal’s arm. “Too bad they don’t want to move to the Big Apple. We could use a little more gospel around here, don’t ya think?”

Crystal nodded absently. “I guess.” Tina and Zee were always trying to get her to go to church with them. In a way, that was probably what had drawn her to them in the beginning. Even though she’d quit going to church when she moved to the city, she still believed in God. She just wasn’t sure He cared about people who had turned their backs on Him. “This is a special houseparent program that Aaron and Bree have a chance to participate in.”

“Good for them.”

Crystal looked in the mirror at the dark smudges under her eyes. “Aaron was twelve and just about to initiate into a Chicago gang when his grandmother died and we got him. So he feels a strong need to do this. Stop boys from getting into gangs. Provide a place where people care about them and give them boundaries.”

Tina smiled. “And introduce them to Jesus.”

Crystal ignored her comment. “Anyway, Aaron called a family meeting for tomorrow.”

“You going?”

Crystal snorted. “To Arkansas? I’ll be auditioning and you know it.”

“On Saturday?”

“All next week. It would be a waste to just fly there and fly back. Not to mention annihilating my tiny savings.”

“So everyone but you is going to be there.”

She shrugged. “Probably. But they know I can’t make it.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Tina muttered. Before Crystal could respond, she spoke in a normal voice. “So what’s the problem with Aaron leaving?”

“He’s Dad’s right hand man.”

“Don’t some of your other sisters and brothers live nearby?”

“Yeah, but they’re busy with their own lives. Aaron’s been the main one who takes care of the cattle. And Mama and Daddy are going on an overseas trip in a week. I think he’s afraid they’ll cancel.”

“Mission trip?” Tina asked, her voice dry, as she deftly started on makeup.

Crystal nodded. “With a second honeymoon tacked on for good measure.”

“Honeymoon or no honeymoon, your family’s so holy, the Hallelujah Chorus must burst out spontaneously every time they’re together. I bet they bug you worse than we do about going to church.”

Crystal frowned. “Not really so much.”

“It’s not because they’ve given up on you, honey,” Tina drawled as she smoothed in the foundation on Crystal’s face.

Heat spread from Crystal’s neck to her face. Tina had an uncanny way of taking the words right out of Crystal’s mind and speaking them aloud. She glanced in the mirror and cringed inwardly. Not much chance her embarrassment would escape unnoticed since the pale makeup clashed violently with her red face.

Tina made no comment about the color change. “Your biggest sin is you’re too hard on yourself.”

“I’m not hard on myself.”

“Yeah, and I’m not from Texas,” Tina drawled as she unfastened the Velcro at Crystal’s neck and whipped the white cape off her with a flourish. “Ta-da. The most beautiful homeless woman I’ve ever seen.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Boneman's Daughters - Chapter 1

Boneman's Daughters

Center Street (April 14, 2009)

Chapter 1

The day that Ryan Evans’s world changed forever began as any other day he’d spent in the hot desert might have begun.

On the move, on the double.

Redeploying, as they liked to call it in the army. Changing
stations, changing units, changing rank, and all at a moment’s
notice because when command said jump, you jumped. When
command said lock and load, you got up, geared up, and went
where command ordered you. It didn’t matter if you were an E2
washing dishes or a lieutenant on the fast track to War College.
You belonged to the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, and
the chain of command.

Commander Ryan Evans was temporarily on loan to an army
joint-operational counterintelligence unit comprised of intel
specialists from the army, the navy, and the air force. As a unit
they fed and bled intelligence data from satellite surveillance, human intel assets, electronic taps, and military intelligence. Pieces of data came from every corner of the intelligence spectrum, funneled down to a direct point. Bottom line, up top, as command liked to say.

Most of the time verifying and assessing intel was like looking
at a circuit board through a telescope. Or like trying to open
a tin of canned food with a tuba. But every now and then, intel
was just that. Intelligence. Discovery.

Ryan was an analyst, borrowed from the navy to serve with
the army. He read reports, examined evidence, and poured more reports up the chain than the Pentagon could read. Nothing short of a human sieve. But in the end he was just one small piece on this game board called war. End of story.

Or on this particular day, the beginning of a story.

Advanced game theory, tactics, terrain, numbers, percentages—
this was how Ryan had always viewed the world, even before he’d made the decision to pursue a career in the navy. The last two years in-theater had convinced him that a career in accounting might have been the wiser choice, but he wasn’t one to complain or reconsider the sixteen years’ investment of his life. Particularly not when he was only three months from the end of his final tour.

To be fair, his position in the military was enviable when
compared to the duty of many others. Rather than entrench or
advance with infantry, most of his days were spent at a desk,
reviewing orders, sifting through the work of the twenty people
working under him, intercepting and decoding every scrap of information gathered in a net of assets cast over a much broader region than most could possibly guess. Between satellite photos, electronic interception, UAV footage, and hard, boots-on-sand reports, the flood of information passing through his office on any given day would bury a man who couldn’t view the world from a distance. Where others obsessed over each twig and leaf, Ryan kept a watchful eye on the entire forest, so to speak, searching for an enemy hidden beneath the leaves. Patterns and trends.

But today command had decided that he should move to a different quadrant of his sector to take a closer look. A raid in a small village ten miles east of Fallujah had netted what might or might not be a treasure trove of information. They called it
Sensitive Site Exploitation. He still wasn’t entirely clear on why
the general had decided that he should take a closer look at the
bunker complex—in person—particularly in a region not yet
assessed for equally unknown threats. But Ryan wasn’t one to
question orders. Information, certainly, but not the decisions of
his superiors.

Eight AM and it was already over a hundred degrees in the shade.

He slapped the swinging door that led into the intel room open
and sidestepped Jamil, a twenty-one-year-old whiz kid who, like
Ryan at his age, had a unique knack for pulling needles out of
haystacks, as they sometimes referred to sifting through intel.

“They’re waiting outside with the convoy, sir.”

“Tell them I’m on my way. You get the report on the Iranian border breaches down to General Mitchell?”

“Last night, as promised.”

He dipped his head. “Carry on.”

Ryan surveyed the thirty-by-seventy room, a metal Quonset hut that had been loaded with enough electronic equipment and communication cells to keep any civilian blinking for a full minute. If it happened in the Middle East, it went through
this room. At the moment a dozen regulars hovered over their stations, mostly monitoring feeds rolling down their monitors. The sound of laser printers provided a constant hum, white noise that had followed Ryan most of his adult life.

Lieutenant Gassler approached, cracking his neck. “We have
a new batch of intel coming from the south; you sure you don’t
want me to take this hike?”

The general had left that call up to him, but he’d kept behind
his desk in the office adjacent this hall far too long. A day trip
out into the desert now and then could clear the cobwebs. Not
that his intelligence was clouded.

“It’ll do me good. You got this covered?”

“Like a lid.”

Ryan turned back toward the door. “Back by sunset, then.”

“Keep your head low.”

He left the Quonset without acknowledging the advice. Bad luck.

The tires of the armored Humvee roared on the pavement beneath Ryan’s feet. He’d sat in silence for the last ten minutes as they sped west along Highway 10 toward Fallujah.

“Three klicks to the turnoff,” the driver, a corporal from Virginia,
announced. “You okay back there, sir?”

Ryan shifted his body armor to ease an itch on his left breastbone. “Fine. Air would be nice.”

The enlisted man next to him, Staff Sergeant Tony Santinas, chuckled. “You think this is bad, sir? Try sitting in this hotbox for eight hours at five miles an hour. Welcome to the army.”

Ryan wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “I can only imagine.”

They followed a lead Humvee and were trailed by a third,
moving a good eighty miles an hour. A fast target made a hard
target. On the highway speed meant security. It also turned the
Humvee into a mobile blast furnace, crushing through hot air
upwards of a hundred and twenty degrees. Thankfully, the reinforced
windows were cracked only enough to allow good circulation-like windchill, when fast moving, the hot air somewhat exacerbated the heat.

Ryan stared past the sergeant at the desert. Heat waves rose
off the flat desert ground on either side. That the Arabs had
managed to bring life out of this desolate land served as a testament to their resourcefulness. While most Americans would shrivel up and blow away with the first dust storm, the Iraqis had thrived. It was no wonder the Babylonians had once ruled the world.

A caravan of five huge oil tankers thundered past them, headed back toward Baghdad from Amman, Jordan.

“This your first tour, Tony?”

“Yes, sir.” The staff sergeant shot him a nervous look. Big,
blotchy freckles covered a sharp, crooked nose. A skinny kid
who looked not a day over twenty-one.

“Where you from?” Ryan asked.

The driver interrupted, speaking over his shoulder, “Lead
vehicle is turning off. It’s gonna get dusty. Hold tight. This will
get bumpy.”

Roils of dust billowed from the tires of the lead vehicle as it
exited the main highway, still moving fast. The burnt-out husk
of a large transport vehicle with Arab markings lay on its side
in the sand. No signs of civilization. The village in question, a
collection of mud huts built around a deepwater well called Al
Musib, lay eight miles north.

The sergeant shifted his grip on the M16 in his hands, checked
his magazine and safety without looking, eyes peeled at the desert.
At nothing. But if there was one thing the American forces had learned, it was that nothing could become something in a big hurry out here in this wasteland.

The driver took the corner at full speed, hanging back just far
enough to stay clear of the dust from the lead vehicle. The tires’
roar gave way to a cushioned whooshing sound. Eerily quiet.

“I grew up in Pennsylvania,” Tony said, answering Ryan’s question. “But I live in South Carolina now.”


“Yes, sir.”

“You miss her?”

Tony dug out a photograph and handed it to Ryan. “Betty,”
he said.

The picture showed an average-looking blond woman on the
heavy side, with big hair that was out of fashion in most parts
of the country. Her nose was pudgy and the teeth behind her
smile could have used a year in braces. On second look, a very
average woman. Maybe even homely.

The sergeant stuck another picture under his nose. A newborn
baby, grinning toothless. Ryan glanced up at the freckled, redheaded sergeant who made no attempt to hide his pride.

“Cute, huh?”

These few bits of information spread out before him were
enough for Ryan’s trained, calculating mind to fill in the man’s
life. Tony had grown up in a small town, near a coal mine, perhaps,
where his selection of suitable mates had been limited to a
couple dozen, of which only two or three had expressed any interest in him. Discarding any adolescent fantasy of a whirlwind romance with Jessica Alba, he’d entertained a life with Betty who, although neither pretty nor rich enough to afford braces, had a good heart and, more important, had opened that heart
to him. Eager for love from a woman, he’d quickly convinced
himself that Betty was the best woman for him. That he loved
her, which he did, of course.

The baby’s conception had come first. Then the wedding.

Now a proud father, Tony equated mother with child and
genuinely loved both. Being separated from them only intensified
his feelings, absence making his heart grow the fonder.

“She’s a doll,” Ryan said. He wasn’t given to emotion, being
the more calculating type, but a strange surge of empathy
tugged at him. Or was it something else?

He sat there in the back of the Humvee, bouncing slightly
as the vehicle sped over the sandy road, gripped by the sudden
realization that he wasn’t so much empathetic for the snapshot
he’d assigned to this man’s life but rather was trying to ignore
a tinge of guilt.

Guilt because he had long ago given up on his own child and
wife. He’d justified his decision to leave them for long stretches
at a time, but in all truth he couldn’t be absolutely sure if
he’d left them or fled them. At the very least he’d fled Celine,
his wife.

Bethany was another story. Collateral damage, the unavoidable
fallout from his and Celine’s admittedly distant relationship.
He loved Bethany, he most certainly did, but circumstances
had forced him to miss most of her life.

Not forced, really. Circumstances had caused him to miss
most of her life due to his choice to serve. And that choice had
reaped resentment from her.

Ryan realized that the sergeant was holding his hand out,
waiting for the picture of his wife back. He set the photograph
in the man’s hand. “Nice.”

“You have any kids?”

“Yes. Same as you, one daughter, though she’s a bit older. Sixteen.
Her name’s Bethany.”

“Sucks, don’t it?” Tony carefully slipped his two pictures back
into the wallet he’d taken them from. “Being over here.”


Unlike Tony here, who had nothing to live for but a wife and
child back home, Ryan had chosen a far more complicated path.
Not that he didn’t care for Celine and Bethany—in some ways
he missed them terribly. But sacrifices had to be made.

For him that sacrifice had been made when he’d made the
decision to accept a post in Saudi Arabia ten years ago despite
his wife’s refusal to accompany him. He was the best at what
he did, and his work in Saudi Arabia had saved more lives than
anyone could know.

He’d returned to San Antonio, where they’d lived at the time,
and became immediately aware that for all their efforts to put
up a good front, he and Celine could not be as close as they
had once been. She couldn’t understand his world and he had
no interest in being a socialite. Nevertheless, he’d remained at
his post in San Antonio for two years before accepting another
overseas post, this time in Turkey.

By the time he’d shipped out for Iraq, his relationship with
Celine existed solely for the sake of their mutual commitment
to marriage and family. If Ryan wasn’t able to provide his wife
with the kind of intimacy and personal friendship she desired,
he would at least provide her with his loyalty as husband, protector, and provider.

Generals didn’t have to be in love with their troops to be
good generals. Truthfully, he didn’t miss Celine. Bethany, on
the other hand . . .

The thought stalled him for a moment.

“You think it’s worth it, sir?”

“Depends. You have a job to do, right? Mission first, men second,
everything else comes in third.”

The man stared out the dusty window. “I just never thought
about what it would cost them, you know?” He shook his head.

“A kid changes everything. God, I miss her.”

“She’ll be there when you get back.”

His guilt came from not sharing the same kind of ardor in
the mind of this young sergeant who longed to be home with
his wife and daughter more than anything else in life at the

Then again, Ryan did love his wife and daughter in a far
more important way. Not a love demonstrated in gushing words
or heart-wrenching desire, but by loyalty and steadfastness for
not only them but for his country, for the world. The cost of separation was an acceptable sacrifice for such a noble and worthwhile calling.

Still, seeing a man like Tony here, filled with eagerness to
return to his very average-looking wife, had awakened that hidden
sense of guilt.


“I know it’s hard, Tony, but what you give up today will come
back one day. You have to believe that. We’re not the first to pay
the price.”

“Price for what, sir?”

“For freedom.”

“Is that what we’re doing here?”

He was briefly tempted to tell the sergeant to check his loyalty,
but he doubted Tony had a bone of disloyalty in his body.
He was simply a young man stretched between loyalties.

He shifted his body armor to ease that itch by his left breastbone
again. Last time he’d worn full combat gear had been over
a month ago. Ryan asked, “How many soldiers asked that same
question during the Civil War? Or the Revolutionary War?”

“I was thinking more along the lines of Vietnam,” Tony

“Sure, Vietnam. But it’s hard to see the forest when you’re
in the trees. History will one day get us far away enough from
this mess to tell us what we did here. Until then you won’t
do yourself any favors by second-guessing your mission. Make

“Yes, sir, it does. But it doesn’t make it any easier, if you don’t
mind me—”


“Crap!” The driver, who had been fixated on the convoy’s
tracks, slammed on the brakes. “Crap, down, down, down!”

Ahead, the road was shrouded by dust—from the lead vehicle’s
wheels or from the detonation, Ryan couldn’t tell. But there
was no mistaking that sound. Either a rocket-propelled grenade
or an antitank mine—he didn’t have the field experience to
know which was which any longer.

“Get on the fifty!” the driver screamed. “RPG, RPG, incoming fi—”


This time behind them.

“Move, move!” Tony yelled. “We’re sitting targets!”

That they were under assault was not a matter of question. The driver slammed his foot on the accelerator. “Hold on, we’re going through.”

The Humvee surged forward into the boiling sand and smoke.
Ryan instinctively crouched as much as the back of the seat in
front of him allowed him to, but he kept his eyes ahead, where
a cloud of dust and smoke now plumed skyward.

The driver keyed his radio and veered to his right using one
hand to drive. “Convoy Echo-One, this is Three, come back.
What the heck’s going on?”

The radio crackled static.

“Crap.” Into the radio again. “Convoy Echo-One . . . this is
Three. Caboose, you got me?” Over his shoulder, to the sergeant, “Get up in the fifty, Tony!”

“I can’t see anything!”

Still nothing from either the lead vehicle or the one trailing

The dust directly in front of them cleared enough to reveal
a plume of black smoke boiling to the sky ahead. Orange fire
licked at the hot desert air.

“Crap, hold on, hold on!”

The Humvee swerved a wide right, then hooked to the left
in a tight U-turn. Ryan grabbed the door handle to keep himself
from plowing into the sergeant, who was plastered against
his window. Most vehicles would have tipped with such a sharp
turn, but the army’s workhorse loaded with nearly a half ton of
armor wasn’t easy to roll on flat ground.

Odd how different minds work in moments of sudden, catastrophic
stress. Ryan’s tended to retreat into itself, baring the
cold calculation that had served it so well in his intelligence
training. He had no clue how to extricate them from the present crisis, but he could analyze the attack better than most chess
players leaning over the board on a cool summer day.

One: They were taking enemy fire, a combination of shoulderfired
RPGs and machine-gun fire now slamming into the armor like pneumatic hammers.

Two: Both the lead vehicle and the Humvee that had brought
up the rear had likely taken direct hits.

Three: The absence of radio chatter likely meant that—
The glass next to the driver imploded. Blood sprayed across
the far window. The Humvee swerved off the road, into a short
ditch, and slammed into the far embankment.

Four: The driver of the second vehicle, the one in which Ryan
was riding, had been killed, and the Humvee had plowed into a
ditch, where it would be hit at any moment with an RPG.

Silence settled around him with the ticks of a hot engine.

Ryan lunged over the seat, grabbed the radio, and spoke
quickly into the mic. “Home Run, this is Echo-One Actual, on
convoy to Fallujah. We’re taking heavy fire, anti-armor, small
weapons. All vehicles down, I repeat, all three Humvees are out,

A moment’s hesitation, then the calm, efficient response of a
dispatcher all too familiar with similar calls. “Hold tight, Echo-
One, we are clearing close air support, and medevac en route.
ETA seventeen minutes. What’s your sitrep, over?”

“Assuming all personnel are KIA. My Humvee is sideways
in a ditch, four klicks north of the highway. You can’t miss the

“Roger. Hold tight.”

It occurred to him that he’d heard nothing from Tony. He
spun back, saw the soldier slumped in his seat, one hand gripping
his M16, the other stretched toward the canopy, as if still reaching up to deploy the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, topside.

No blood that he could see. Could be a nonvisible wound from
shrapnel, could be the impact had knocked him out.

“Sergeant!” Ryan slapped the man’s face several times, got
nothing, and quickly relieved him of his weapon. Images of
flames crackling through the cabin pushed him to the brink of
panic. He took a deep breath.

This is no different. Just another mission. One step at a

Never mind that this particular mission didn’t involve a pencil
or a computer, it was still just one step at a time.

Ryan reached over the driver’s corpse, took the modular
radio from the console, grabbed his door handle, cranked it
open, and rolled to the sand, relieved to be free of the coffin.
He lunged back into the Humvee, grabbed the sergeant by his
belt, and dragged him out. The soldier landed on the ground
and groaned.

Still, no more gunfire. Their objective was now simple. Stay
quiet, stay down, stay alive. Survive, watch, wait for the helicopters. Air support was now the only link to survival for either of them. Rising smoke from the wreckages would be visible from a long way off.

“Where are we?” Tony had come to.

“We were hit,” Ryan whispered, scanning the desert for any
sign of the enemy. Unlikely. They’d perfected the art of hitting
and running, knowing that when the Apaches showed up,
any attempt at fight or flight was doomed to failure. Insurgents
with the skill to remain hidden in a flat desert (likely under the
sand) and take out three Humvees definitely had the brains to
bug out so they could fight another day.

“We have support coming,” he said, turning back.

Something black, like a sledgehammer or a rifle butt,
slammed into Ryan’s forehead. Pain shot down his spine and he
fought to hang on to something, anything.

Another blow landed, and only now did his calculating mind
wonder if it was a bullet rather than a sledgehammer or a rifle
butt that had struck his head.

"This excerpt is used with the permission of Hachette Book Group and Ted Dekker. All rights reserved."