Sunday, November 29, 2009

Saint's Roost - Chapter 1

Saint's Roost

Sundowners (September 20, 2009)

Chapter 1

1879 Santa Fe Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Loss Of Carrier - Chapter 1

Loss Of Carrier

BookSurge Publishing (October 27, 2009)

Chapter 1

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

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

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

“Talking to yourself again?”

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

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

He frowned. “It’s just puzzling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It rained?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

He needed to do something.

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

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

He needed to do something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Eternity Falls - Chapter 1 Excerpt

Eternity Falls

Marcher Lord Press (October 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Los Angeles—2081

Too close.

Horns and screeching tires yelled at him from behind as Rick Macey counter-steered, sliding the silver Lexus sideways before nearly sideswiping a cab. He tuned his neural net to the local traffic satellite, its overhead image minimizing in the corner of his vision as he careened through another intersection in the turbocharged sedan.

Pouring rain turned the city streets into tar-black mirrors. Traffic signals and holographic billboards reflected in a disorientating array of flashing neon and laser light. He forced his eyes to see through it as he neurally shifted gears, plowing through a hazily reflected red light—rain pounding his car top in a snare drum roll.

Artificial adrenalin heightened his senses. He warned slower vehicles with a constant blaring of the horn, weaving restlessly behind them like an Indy car driver waiting for the pace car to pull away. Finally he spotted open roadway ahead on the traffic-sat. He punched the gas, wiper jets barely maintaining visibility as the methanol engine roared and his speed increased.


No way was he letting the killer get away.

Not this time.

Not when he had the location pinned.

Macey locked his comm onto the police band, scanned the channels for confirmation of the kill. His neural net queued up a series of transmissions and he let them play, his AI ciphering through and discarding the impertinent bits according to his search algorithm. A cacophony of voices relayed their various pieces of information.

<20mm shell extracted from wall forty mete…>

Two miles. That sealed it. It was the Streetwalker Sniper for sure.

The traffic-sat marked his destination looming ahead of him, a building towering a hundred stories into the stormy night sky. Macey downshifted and slid the Lexus to a halt at the entrance of the Liberty Tower Complex. He sprinted through the downpour toward the glass front doors.

A lone security guard sat loafing at a duty desk within but Macey couldn’t wait for a proper entrance request from HQ. He gazed upward at the mammoth citadel as rain peppered his eyes. It was nearly a thousand feet tall, multi-terraced and cylindrical in shape—like some giant wedding cake with a cheese grater exterior of widows mapping its outside. Climbing the thing was out of the question. Besides, there were easier ways to the top.

He took a two-step run up and vaulted himself to a first-story window ledge, clinging to it by his fingertips before hoisting himself the rest of the way with a mild grunt. He was already soaked, his hair dripping and matted, water penetrating his trench coat to his shirt, tie, and slacks beneath. He endured the discomfort as he braced himself within the window ledge for safety and bowed his head in concentration.

He accessed the web through his neural net, searched for the building’s security system through the data window in the corner of his vision. In seconds he found it and used his encryption keys to gain full access.

He sent an interrupt signal to the security system at the same moment his elbow smashed the heavy glass. It shattered like a piece of rock candy but stayed fixed to the laminated backing, clattering onto an office desk in a single sheet. He rolled inside after it and tumbled off the desk, his wet shoes slipping on glass shards and office papers before coming to a stand. He sent a fake all clear signal to the security system right before it registered the breach.

Easy so far.

The internal security system proved even easier. He bypassed it by hacking the device controllers directly. In minutes, he opened the office door, neurally forced the security cameras to scan in the opposite direction as he passed, and hailed an elevator.

As he rode it skyward, Macey drew his Mauser M5 automatic pistol from his shoulder holster, and chambered a round. With luck he’d never use it, but at this stage there was no sense being ill-prepared.

The elevator doors opened with a pleasant bing, and Macey stepped onto the top floor. The schematic in his internal view showed that two flights of stairs lay between the top floor and the roof. He hit the stairwell at a run.

As he climbed he kept close watch on the Sniper’s position on the internal map. Still stationary—was he seeking another target? Macey doubled his speed.

There’d be no more deaths tonight.

Hurricane-like winds and rain beat against the door to the roof as he forced it open. At a hundred stories up the rainstorm screamed in a banshee howl. Solar panels and satellite arrays rattled with each gust, threatening to break loose from their knee-high mountings and ruin the maze pattern they formed on the roof. A massive sat-dish stood between him and the sniper’s position.

He paused to access his remote memory device, retrieving more data on the case. It hadn’t occurred to him until now, but the previous occasions the Streetwalker Sniper had struck boasted similar weather conditions. It made sense. At each crime scene, 20mm rounds had been found—and a 20mm rifle made one heck of a bang. Using a silencer would be out of the question as it would lower the accuracy and muzzle velocity, not to mention be ultimately useless as the round itself was supersonic and would cause a sonic boom. A storm provided the perfect cover for the sniper.

Cover Macey would now take advantage of.

He stalked through the whipping rain, which began to abate, forming a stinging mist as he edged closer to the sniper’s position. His internal mapper showed a red triangle just around the sat-dish. As Macey shuffled around it, a figure came into view, hunched over the side of the roof’s safety wall.

The sniper looked small—under five feet. But Macey didn’t let himself underestimate this guy. He’d proven to be a formidable hacker, having accessed the skyscraper’s roof most likely in the same way he had. He would also certainly have some military training, judging from his skill, and possibly access to other military weaponry he hadn’t yet revealed. On top of that, he was methodical and patient.

The previous rainstorm had taken place over a month ago. The sniper was no raving lunatic on a killing spree. He was an assassin, a rational executioner with a well–thought-out plan of action.

And from the looks of him now that Macey was closer, he was about fourteen years old.

Macey stood for what felt like a minute, gazing at the scrawny white kid decked out in a black jacket, fatigues, army boots, and a baseball cap turned backwards. He stood shouldering a tripod-mounted Barrett 20mm cyber-rifle, leaning on the safety wall. The weapon looked twice his size. His white-knuckled hands clenched the pistol grip and trigger while a wire ran from the base of his neck to the Barrett’s targeting scope.

Macey took a few steps forward to bring himself within earshot. He blinked away the rain, drew his pistol, and raised his voice above the level of the wind: “Let go of that rifle, son.”

The boy jumped, his head turning back to give him a who-the-heck-are-you kind of glare.

“It’s over,” Macey said.

The kid’s lower lip curled into a snarl and he turned back to the scope, tensing for a last shot.

Macey fired a single round from the Mauser. The bullet severed the rifle’s control cable with a spark, sending the sniper into a fit of screams as he clenched the back of his neck.

“Coward!” He yanked what was left of the cable from the head. “You’re supposed to kill me. Don’t you even know that?” He backed against the wall, his young face twisted with all the menace of a high school bully. The stock of the Barrett fell to the floor and dangled from the tripod affixed to the wall.

“Kill you, huh?” Macey kept the Mauser trained on him as he inched closer. “Unlike some I could mention, I don’t make a habit of killing people. Especially not kids, even ones as sick as you. Lie down with your hands behind your head. The cops are on their way.”

He slowly shook his head. “How’d you find me anyway?”

“Your ego.”


“Think it takes a genius to figure out a two mile headshot requires a cyber-rifle, smart bullets, and targeting satellite support?”

The kid snorted. “So you hacked the satellite.”

“No, but I knew you would.” Macey stepped around a solar array. “I gotta admit, you were pretty good when you hit the sat. Quick in and out, just long enough to acquire your target and get your shot off, but…” He tapped the neural port on the nape of his neck. “…long enough for me to plant a trace.”

“Nice one.” The kid flicked what was left of the control cable from his hand like a cigarette butt. “Guess you think you’re smart, then. Bet you think you’re righteous too. Bet you think it’s your righteousness that keeps you from killing like I do.”

“I don’t know what you’re—”

“You just fear death more than God.”

Crazy little punk. “Just get on your knees.”

“I killed those whores in God’s name.” He tugged at his jacket. “Gave them a chance to repent, but they didn’t listen. So I sent them to the judgment—before they can drag any more souls to hell with them with their tempting lusts.”

“How can a kid even think like that?” Macey stepped toward him more forcefully as the kid kept tugging at his jacket. Was he hiding something underneath? “Just shut up and hit the floor. I won’t kill you but I will shoot you if I have to. And you’ve seen I’m a pretty good shot.”

“Go ahead,” the boy said and his jacket flew open. It flapped in the wind, revealing a crucifix dangling from a leather strap about his neck. His torso was packed with what looked like plastic explosives. Perfect. And in his hand he held a trigger, already depressed, a dead man switch.

Macey backed away, lowering his Mauser and raising his free hand. “Calm down, kid. No one else has to die today.”

“You do,” he said with a piercing stare, “and so do I.” He looked behind Macey toward the door to the staircase. “I thought there’d be more of you when it finally came to it, but if it’s just one cop then that’s the way God wants it.” He leaned his elbows against the wall as if it were a bar and he in a club, the trigger still in hand. “I’ll give you the same chance I gave those whores. Will you repent before you die, pig?”

“Why are you doing this?” The kid had gained the upper hand, but there were ways to change that. Subtle ways. “What do you hope to accomplish by all this?”

“Look at you.” He smirked, shook his head. “Still so afraid to die, aren’t you?”

Keep talking, kid, just a few seconds more. “I guess you’ve got me all figured out.”

“I know where I’m going, man, do you?” The sniper taunted him with a wave of his crucifix. “This is your last chance, little piggy. Repent before God or burn forever in Hell.”


“Repent, huh?” Macey holstered the Mauser and strode forward, seized the boy’s wrist. “I’ll show you repent.”

The kid staggered backward, eyes wide, mouth ajar as he sank to the rooftop. His arm shook spastically as he tried to let go of the trigger, his jaw grinding like a vice.

“What is thish?” he said between clenched teeth.

“You’re paralyzed.” Macey studied the crude detonation device about the boy’s waist and quickly disarmed it. “I hacked your neural net while you were busy running your mouth. Don’t worry, I just froze your gross motor control. I’ll release it as soon as I get a proper cyber-lock plugged into your neural jack.”

The kid laughed—as much as he could laugh with a clenched jaw anyway. “You are ferry good.” His laughter faded, and despair contorted his features until he sobbed gutturally in jerky breaths. “Preez jush kill me… I don’t womma liff in dis world no more.”

“And just what do you know about living?” He grabbed the crucifix about his neck and showed it to him. “Only this and your hate?”

The boy didn’t respond, just kept on crying.

Macey rose with a deep exhale. Kids killing hookers in the name of God. Could it get any worse?


The rain had died almost completely now but the wind still gusted. The police units he had called would be arriving shortly, but he wasn’t in the mood for the lengthy explanations they would want from him if they found him here.

“The cops are coming for you. You won’t wander off, will you?” He turned from the temporarily paralyzed boy and headed toward the stairwell. “Oh, and just so you know, since you seem to believe in all that stuff…repentance alone won’t bring you salvation.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What The Bayou Saw - Chapter 1

What The Bayou Saw

Kregel Publications (March 24, 2009)


Hold the Wind, Hold the Wind, Hold the Wind, don’t let it blow.
—Negro spiritual, “Hold the Wind”

August 26, 2005, Normal, Illinois

“I’m meteorologist Kim Boudreaux.” Clad in a dark suit, the petite woman smiled big for her television audience. “Katrina’s track has changed.” She pointed to a mass of ominous-looking clouds that threatened to engulf the screen. “She’s no longer headed for Mobile but is on course for the Crescent City.”

Sally Stevens checked her cell phone, then paced in front of the television, as if that would make her brother Robert pick up the phone. She needed to talk to him, needed to know that he’d gotten her nieces and her sister-in-law out of the death trap that New Orleans suddenly had become. Needed to have him assure her, with his balmy Southern drawl, that he and his National Guardsmen were going to be okay.

A slender hand pointed to what must be a fortune’s worth of satellite and radar imagery. “As you can see, Katrina’s moving toward the mouth of the Mississippi, toward the levees . . .” The meteorologist buzzed on, seemingly high on news of this climactic wonder.

Every word seeped from the television screen, crept across the Stevens’s den, and crawled up Sally’s spine. Louisiana had once been her home. Her heritage. What would this hurricane do to the Southern state that she still loved?

A glance at her watch told Sally to get moving. Instead, she once again punched in Robert’s number. If she could just hear his voice, she’d know how to pray later as she stood in her classroom pretending to be passionate about her lecture on the history of American music, pretending to act like it was another ordinary afternoon in Normal, Illinois, while this mother of a storm wreaked wrath and vengeance upon her brother. Her home.

“. . . the next twenty-four hours are crucial . . .” The camera zoomed in for a close-up, focusing on a perfect oval face that, for just a moment, seemed to stiffen, as if a personal levee was about to be breached. “I’m not supposed to say this.” Urgency laced the forecaster’s voice “But I’m telling you. Leave. This is a killer.” The pulsating weather image seemed to confirm her report, a mass of scarlet and violet whirling about an ominous-looking eye. Growing like a cancer. Moving in for the kill . . .

Talk turned to evacuation, log-jammed roads, but Sally barely listened. Years flew away as she studied Ms. Boudreaux’s flawless mocha complexion, the tilt of her chin. The determination of this woman to save her city, or at least its people. So like the determination of Ella, that first friend, who’d taken off for New Orleans. It was as if the lockbox of Sally’s memories had somehow sprung open. Ella, that friend who’d saved her. Ella. And her brother Willie, if he’d gotten out of the pen. Were they digging in, evacuating—

A classical song Sally’s kids had downloaded onto her phone poured from the tiny speaker as the device vibrated in her palm.

“God, let it be—” She glanced at the readout. 504 area code. New Orleans. Robert. Her fingers suddenly clumsy, she struggled to flip open the phone.

Static greeted her.

“Robert? Bobby?” She was shouting, but she didn’t care. “Are you there? Are you—”

“Ssss—got them out.”

He’s out there somewhere, right in the elements, from the sound of it. “Where are you?” Sally cried. “Robert, what’s going on?” Sally pressed the phone against her ear until it hurt. All this technology, yet she could barely hear him, could barely—

The whooshing stopped. So did Robert’s voice. Sally stared at the readout. Ten seconds she’d had with him. Ten seconds to gauge the climate of a city. A city that might still claim as a resident that once-best friend. Sally whispered a prayer as she grabbed her briefcase and headed to class.

August 29, 2005, New Orleans, Louisiana
“It’s no use! The generator’s flooded!” A single battery-operated hallway light revealed the faint outline of Dr. Powers, the thin, impeccably groomed physician whom Ella Ward had worked with for a decade. “Ella? Ella?” He groped against the hospital’s second floor wall, his hands and arms made ghoulish by the shadowy dark. “Are you there? Ella? We’ve got to get them out of here! Now.”

Screams, howling winds, and debris crashing against boarded-up windows swirled into a hellish cacophony that tore at Ella’s heart. What were the three of them, she, Willie, and the doctor—no. Willie didn’t count. What were the two of them going to do for sixty-three patients writhing in excrement, gasping for breath, thousands of dollars of ventilators and BiPAPs rendered powerless? Dying, minute by minute, second by second?

Just to keep from falling down, Ella dug her fingernails into a wall sweaty with humidity. She opened her mouth to answer, but no words came out. At Dr. Powers’s side, she’d watched an aortic artery explode, a patient gurgle in his own blood . . . “The scalpel, Ms. Ward?” he’d said. “Suction, please.” With ice-blue cool, Dr. Powers had plucked life out of mangled messes and never even raised his voice. Now his screams pierced Ella’s ears, and her hopes. Even with one of New Orleans’ best surgeons at her side, the prognosis of surviving this storm was dim. There was nothing for Ella to do but close her eyes and beg. “Oh God. Please Spirit. Please Lord Jesus, please.”

Dr. Powers clutched at the sleeve of Ella’s cotton scrub. “Where’s Willie?”

The doctor’s touch and the mention of her brother brought Ella around. Still, she could barely speak for the quivering of her lip. “Where . . . do you think a junkie would be?”

“The . . . pharmacy?”

Even though Dr. Powers most likely couldn’t see her nod, Ella went through the motion. Twenty-four hours ago, she’d decided she and Willie would come here together. Yet even in her worst nightmare, she hadn’t really believed that they’d die here together.

“Someone, anyone, let me outta here!” It was Mrs. Smith, in Room 215.

“Hold the wind, Lord!” Mr. Lunsford, who’d thought he’d die of cancer.

Ella gritted her teeth. One by one, the patients were seeing the storm’s demonic fingers etching out a death sentence, and screaming their response.

“We’ve got to do something.”

Dr. Powers’s words sent a shiver through Ella. Had he read her mind? Or had she babbled without even knowing it? She clamped her hands over her ears. Lord! I’m goin’ crazy! Help me, Lord!

“What’s happenin’, Lawd? Oh, Lawd Jesus!”

“Sweet Jesus! Where are you?”

What had acted as a twisted tonic to incite the patients to a new level of chaos? Was it the howls of the winds, the thuds and crashes against the windows, the doors, the very roof of this place?

“Jesus, oh Jesus!”

Every moan, every scream, knifed into Ella like a scalpel. Nursing school hadn’t trained her for this. Nearly thirty years working at understaffed facilities hadn’t trained her for this. Nothing had trained her for this. With taut fingers, she pulled the doctor close, then shoved him to his knees and knelt by him, her hands flush against the wall. “We gotta pray,” she said.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Prisoner of Versaille - Chapter 1

A Prisoner of Versaille

Thomas Nelson (September 1, 2009)


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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fit To Be Tied - Prologue and Chapter 1

Fit to Be Tied

Zondervan (November 1, 2009)


Dunacombe Manor, England
March 1916

“Your father is waiting in the library, my lord.”

“Thank you, Chadworth.” Head pounding from the previous night’s enjoyments, Sherwood Reginald Wakeley Statham, the youngest son of the Duke of Dunacombe, shrugged out of his coat and handed it to the butler, followed by his hat and gloves. “Is Mother with him?”

“No, sir. I believe her grace has taken to her bed.”

Sherwood flinched. That didn’t bode well for this meeting. His mother had acted as a buffer between him and his father’s anger since he was a boy. “Is she ill? Maybe I should go up to see her first.”

Chadworth lifted his eyebrows but said nothing. He didn’t have to. Sherwood knew he was expected in the library immediately, not fifteen or thirty minutes from now. The duke hated to be kept waiting, especially by Sherwood, the son who disappointed him at every turn.

“I’ll go straight in.” Might as well receive whatever dressing down his father wanted to mete out.

“Very good, my lord.”

Sherwood followed the long hallway to the library, accompanied by the sound of his uneven gait—a sharp click upon the tiled floor followed by a soft slide. He hated it. Hated even more how the walk down this hallway for a meeting with his father never failed to make him feel ten years old again. Not a good feeling for a man of thirty years.

He caught a glimpse of himself as he passed a large, ornate mirror and was immediately sorry. The ragged scar on his face blazed a bright red against his pale skin. Dark circles ringed his eyes, evidence of the many nights he’d gone without sleep, instead drinking and gambling till morning.

When he entered the library, he found the duke standing near the windows that overlooked the extensive gardens of Dunacombe Manor, hands clasped behind his back.

“Good morning, sir,” Sherwood announced himself.

His father turned and gave him a dour look. “So . . . you’re here at last.”

“I came as soon as I received your message.”

“Hmm.” The duke walked to a nearby chair and sat, then waited for Sherwood to do the same. “I have come to a decision about this . . . this latest escapade of yours.”

This latest escapade. The duke had obviously learned of his involvement with Lady Langley. The scandalous divorcée, twelve years his senior, had a reputation for enticing wealthy young men. Sherwood had been only too willing to become one of her conquests.

“I am sending you to America, Sherwood.”


“I trust you remember Morgan McKinley. He and his mother stayed with us for a number of months about seven years ago. Yes, well . . . I have arranged with Mr. McKinley to find you employment and a place to live.”

So this wasn’t a sudden decision that had come about solely because of Lady Langley. This had been in the planning stages long enough for letters to pass back and forth between the duke and Morgan McKinley. Even before he’d made Lady Langley’s acquaintance.

“How long am I to stay in America, sir?”

“You will remain there a year. You will put your life in order, my boy. You will work for the money you spend and learn the value of it. I am done covering your gambling debts and paying for the liquor you and your wastrel friends consume. If you refuse to go, I will turn you out. Do you understand me, Sherwood? If you do not abide by my terms, you will no longer be welcome at Dunacombe Manor nor will I make good on your debts. You will not see your mother or me again.”

Sherwood didn’t give his father an argument. He hadn’t the energy to protest—not with his head pounding as it was now. At least in America he wouldn’t have to see more former school chums leave to fight in the war. Nor be required to attend another funeral when they returned in a box. And perhaps, on the other side of the ocean, the nightmares would stop. Maybe he would be able to sleep again without drinking himself into a stupor first.

“When is it I’m to leave, sir?”

The duke’s eyes widened. It was obvious he hadn’t expected Sherwood’s quick acquiescence. But he hid his surprise a moment later with a brusque response. “You will sail from Liverpool on Monday.”

Sherwood stood. “I’ll be ready. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall see Mother. I understand she’s unwell.”

“See that you don’t upset her.” And with that, he rose and walked to the window, his back once more turned toward his son.


Bethlehem Springs, Idaho
April 1916

Cleopatra Arlington studied the horses in the corral. This bunch of mustangs had been captured off the range in the southwest corner of the state. Wild didn’t begin to describe the look in their eyes. They were wary, some scared, a few mean, and none of them wanted to be where they were now, walled in by fences.

“But I reckon we’ll make saddle horses out of you yet.”

Cleo wasn’t known as the best wrangler within two hundred miles for nothing. She’d learned a thing or two about wild horses over the years. For that matter, she knew a thing or two about all kinds of wild things, having a tendency to be a bit wild herself. At least according to how society viewed her.

The sound of an approaching automobile drew her around. Was it— It couldn’t be. But it was! Coming up the road was her twin sister, Gwen, and her brother-in-law, Morgan McKinley. The couple must have returned to Bethlehem Springs a day ahead of schedule.

Cleo whipped off her battered Stetson as she strode toward the house, grinning her welcome, arriving at the porch steps about a minute before the Ford Touring Car rolled to a stop and the engine went silent.

“Well, look at you!” Cleo said when her sister disembarked from the automobile. “Those are big city duds if ever I’ve seen any.”

That was one thing folks could count on. As sure as Cleo Arlington could be found in trousers and boots seven days a week — saving for two or three hours on Sunday mornings — Gwen McKinley would always look like she’d stepped right off the page of some fashion magazine.

In response, Gwen turned full circle, displaying the dark mauve dress and matching hat to their full advantage.

“I take it that means you did lots of shopping while in New York City.” Cleo gave Gwen a warm embrace. “We’ve missed you around here.”

“I’ve missed you too. Oh, Cleo. I wish you’d come with us. We had the best time.”

“I don’t imagine Morgan feels the same, the two of you married only eight months. You didn’t need me tagging along. You already had Mother for half of the trip.”

A rosy hue flooded Gwen’s cheeks as her gaze shifted to Morgan. The love in her eyes both delighted and saddened Cleo. Delighted because she was glad to see her fraternal twin so happy. Saddened because she was beginning to doubt she would ever find the same kind of happiness. Last year she’d fallen hard for a cowboy named Tyler King and had thought he was falling for her, too, but he hadn’t turned out to be the man she’d thought him. Did someone exist who could love Cleo as she was and not want her to become a more conventional female? She hoped so. She surely hoped so.

“Is Griff around?” Morgan asked after giving Cleo a hug.

“Yeah.” She tipped her head toward the house. “Dad’s inside, going through his ledgers. You know how he likes to have the accounts balanced right down to the last penny.”
Morgan glanced at his wife. “I’ll go in and talk to him while you two catch up.”

Gwen nodded as she hooked arms with Cleo. “Let’s sit on the porch. It’s too beautiful a day to go inside. I’ve missed the mountains so much. Our trip was fun and seeing Grandfather and Grandmother was wonderful, but it’s good to be home at last.”

Once they were seated, Cleo asked, “How was Mother when you left her?”

Her sister gave a slight shrug. “Mother’s always the same.” That was Gwen’s polite way of saying their mother thought of herself first and others second.

Cleo set her hat on her knee and traced the brim with her fingertip. “Mother stayed in Bethlehem Springs so long, I started to believe she might stay here for good. I think Dad was hoping she would too.”

“But if she’d stayed, Cleo—if she’d come to live with him as his wife after so many years apart—would either of them been happy? I don’t think so. Not until she lets God change her heart.”

“I reckon you’re right there.”

Gwen leaned forward on her chair. “But I’m certain she’ll come for another visit before the year is out. By November or December, I imagine.”

“So soon? I can’t think why she would. Look at all the years that went by before she came this time.”

“I’m sure of it.” Gwen smiled and lowered her voice to a whisper. “She’ll want to see her first grandchild.”

Cleo opened her mouth to exclaim, but Gwen silenced her with an index finger to the lips and a shake of her head.

“Not a word, Cleo. I’m not sure yet. I haven’t told Morgan, and I shouldn’t have told you before him.”

“Land o’ Goshen!” Cleo’s voice quivered with excitement. “How am I to keep such a secret, Gwennie? I’ll like to burst wide open with the news.”

“I don’t know how, but please do.”

Cleo glanced toward the door, then back at her sister. “What will you do if you’re pregnant? About your duties as mayor, I mean. Is there going to be another special election?”

“No. I’ll complete my term in office. That will only be for a year after the baby arrives. We shall manage somehow. Then I’ll happily retire from public service. At least for a time.”

“If that don’t beat all.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One Fine Season - Excerpt of Chapter 1

One Fine Season

AuthorHouse (November 25, 2008)

Chapter 1

Pete O’Brien’s piercing blue eyes peered over the top edge of the newspaper he held, closely watching the slender, young woman move toward him. Sitting in the Saint Claire College library, the six-foot-two inch tall senior had grabbed the sports section after finishing a math assignment, but now focused his attention on a much more attractive figure. “She really is the most athletic, stunning girl I’ve ever seen,” Pete thought to himself. As Haven Jensen approached, she brushed back her long, brunette hair and smiled widely. “Hey handsome,” she said in a soft voice, leaning down to give Pete a gentle kiss. “Ready for the big game today?”

“Wouldn’t miss it. I’m waiting for Danny to finish class so we can head over to the locker room and get into uniform. How about you? You’re certainly looking inspirational.”

Haven grinned. “I hope so, since I plan to watch my two favorite baseball players in the world win a championship. It seems the entire school is buzzing with excitement, and I wanted to wish you good luck.”

Pete stood up, took his girlfriend of seven years in his powerful arms, and kissed her. “I already am lucky,” he whispered.

“Mmmmm. Now what is it again that you have to do this afternoon?” Haven laughed, and ran her fingers through Pete’s sandy blond hair. “Now be good and hit the girl of your dreams a home run today.”

“Are you giving me orders again?” Pete asked with a wink. “You know if you keep kissing me this way in public, people will think you actually like me — imagine what that will do to your reputation.”

“Let the masses think what they want,” Haven replied, pretending defiance. “Only this girl knows the real man beneath that goofy exterior.” She kissed him one more time, and with a wave of her hand, was off.

“By the way, I’ll be the one rooting loudest for Danny and you, so try not to forget about me in the next few hours,” she said over her shoulder. “With soooo many adoring fans, I know it’s difficult at times to keep track of us all.”

Pete blew his love a kiss, packed up his books, and headed out. Danny Grace met him just as he reached the double glass door entry to the library.

“Hey, Smooth,” Pete said. “Good timing, as always. Think we can take the league title?”
“Definitely. I just hope everyone is focused, and the guys wear their hitting shoes today.”
“Good idea. But with two sweet-swinging stars like us on the team, I think it’s a lock,” Pete said behind a knowing smirk. “Hey, seriously, you and me, Danny. Let’s get it done. I want to make today extra special.”

A few hours later, Haven sat on the warm, lush grass, shading her eyes from the bright sun with one hand as she watched the game unfold before her. Pete often described Haven as the ultimate dream girl, a rare jewel that men and women alike could not take their eyes off of when they first saw the 22-year-old co-ed. Standing five feet ten inches tall, she looked like a magazine cover waiting to happen. Even strangers would offer how much she reminded them of a young Elizabeth Taylor, with her mesmerizing eyes and flawless complexion. Haven seemed to take it all in stride, certainly with far less vanity than most girls blessed with exceptional good looks. Even though she often told Pete and Danny that outer beauty was common ¬— and finding someone who was worth knowing and spending time with because of their inner beauty was what really made them special — Haven made it no secret she was grateful for her eye-catching exterior.

“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate beautiful packaging as much as the next girl,” she once told them. “But I also understand I was dealt a lucky hand, at least for the most part. My mom made it clear that I only have her, my dad, and God to thank for good genetics, and that anyone who depends on their looks to get them through life is heading for a rude awakening.”

Both boys couldn’t help but admire such a poised, levelheaded approach to life despite the gifts heaven had bestowed upon Haven, one of the many reasons they thought the world of her. A superb all-around athlete, Haven decided at age 14 to focus her efforts on volleyball. It paid off with a full college scholarship. But she also possessed a keen mind and wanted to become a veterinarian with an understanding of natural medicine. As a child, she had witnessed her two beloved dogs, Sparky and Mickey, both die at relatively young ages from blood and lung conditions. The heartbroken young girl vowed to one day make a difference in finding ways to prevent fatal animal diseases and save their owners the profound grief she had felt. In fact, volunteer work at a local humane society while in high school made her even more certain of her future career path.

“Hey, quit making Danny and me look bad with all this volunteering,” Pete had teased during their junior year in high school. “Now I suppose we’ll be expected to follow your example by working at summer youth baseball camps.”

“But you get paid for helping out at those camps.”

“I know, sweetie. Ain’t it great? Live and learn.”

Haven gave Pete one of those looks, and he couldn’t help but laugh.

“Hey, you know if you ever need help with one of your animal projects, I’m here for you. Your wish is my command. With you at the shelter, the phrase ‘lucky dog’ now has a whole new meaning.”

True to her word, Haven had been accepted by several schools of veterinary medicine, and now waited to see which pro baseball team drafted Pete before choosing where to begin the September term. No one could argue that a successful medical career did not hold great appeal for the talented young woman. But Haven valued family, marriage, and the blessings of one day becoming a loving, caring mother above all, and kept the dream of a happy life with Pete close to her heart.

At the moment, however, the game was foremost on her mind. A well-pitched Division I contest, the Saint Claire College Mavericks led 2¬–1 in the top of the ninth inning, courtesy of Pete’s solo home run blast in the second and Danny’s RBI double three frames later. But with one out, rival Portland mounted a last gasp rally, hitting back-to-back singles to place runners on first and third. Murmurs of doubt spread through the partisan crowd. Haven focused her gaze on Pete’s tall, lean figure in center field, watching as he set himself for the next pitch. He always looked so confident to her, so prepared, so ready for anything. She smiled, happy at the thought that such a magnificent man was all hers.

Both runners crept cautiously off their respective bases as the Saint Claire pitcher stared in for the sign, intent on protecting the single-run cushion. Calm and deliberate, he moved into the stretch, checked the runners, and fired a high fastball to home plate. The hitter swung and made solid contact with the pitch, lining a shot toward the left-center field alley. Many of the estimated two thousand spectators jumped to their feet, thinking the ball would be good for at least a double to drive in two runs and erase the Saint Claire lead.

With the crack of the bat, Pete broke to his right, striding with the grace and effortless speed of a gazelle across the manicured grass. At the last moment, he leapt high, snagged the ball in the webbing of his glove, and landed hard on his left leg. The crowd gasped in disbelief, then screamed its approval — Pete had made an impossible catch look almost routine. He took another two steps to regain his balance, planted his right foot, and gunned a long throw to the plate in one fluid motion. Urged by the frantic shouts of the base coach, the Portland runner at third tagged up and sprinted down the line with all the intensity he could muster. The ball arrived on the fly a half second before the sliding player, and the Mavericks catcher made a nice sweeping tag to record the final out.

Students, professors, parents, and other fans cheered wildly, while some poured onto the field to congratulate the players and coaches. Saint Claire had won the game and league championship on a sensational double play executed by its star center fielder. The host of scouts who witnessed the game knew well that only a handful of professional players could have made that throw. With the major league baseball draft fast approaching in June, Pete’s outstanding performance guaranteed he would remain a hot prospect among a number of big league clubs.

As soon as the game ended, Danny had tossed his glove high in the air at shortstop and rushed to Pete, yelling war whoops as he ran. They hugged, and Danny screamed, “Shahhht-gun — what a throw! Cooperstown might as well open a new wing right now. That was incredible.”

“Me? What about you? If it hadn’t been for your winning RBI, this game might never have ended! We did it, Smooth, we’re the champs.”

Both players long ago had decided reaching the major leagues defined their ultimate career goal. Measuring six feet tall with a slender yet muscular build, clear green eyes, and wavy, dark blond hair, Danny was a solid, hardworking player, a combination of dependable defense, skill, desire, and dedication. Scouts projected him as a decent major league middle infielder or utility player, perhaps even a .300 hitter with the right coaching in “The Show.” But Pete possessed greatness. Teams coveted his ability. Talent evaluators regarded him as a highly gifted, five-tool player who hit for a high average with power, ran extremely well, sported an exceptional throwing arm, and was next to flawless in the field — the type of commodity who would fill stadium seats. In fact, Pete reminded nearly everyone who saw him play of Joe DiMaggio, the fluid way he moved while tracking down fly balls and running the bases. He seemed to glide across the field, like a fast sailboat streaming atop the wave crests.

Pete had been drafted at the end of his junior year at Saint Claire. He decided to finish his education — and stay with Haven and Danny ¬— instead of signing for a $200,000 bonus. Determined to prove he’d made the right choice, Pete compiled a sensational senior year that made teams even hungrier to ink a deal. By comparison, while Danny might have a nice career as a pro, Pete was considered “can’t-miss.”

That evening, scores of students gathered at an off-campus fraternity house to celebrate the victory. During the party, Pete motioned to Danny and they walked outside to the back yard.

“Danny, I’ve got some important news. I’m asking Haven to marry me next weekend, and I wanted you to be the first to know.”

Danny’s face lit up as he grabbed Pete and gave him a big hug. “I’m happy for both of you — I was wondering what was taking you so long.”

“I suppose we both always wished she had been born twins, huh?” Pete said wistfully.

Danny rolled his eyes in mock disgust. “Oh sure, and I’d get the good looking, but mean and bossy one — you know, like the time on ‘Star Trek’ when Captain Kirk was separated into good and evil,” he laughed. “No, I think one Haven is enough for people to catch a glimpse of true perfection.”

Pete pulled Danny close and gave him a kiss on the forehead. “Thank you, Smooth. I love you buddy. You’re the best. Which, of course, goes without saying that I want you as my best man for the wedding.”

“Hmmm, let me check my calendar to see if I’m free,” Danny said with a mischievous smile. “Hey, I’d be honored. This is amazing — now we have two incredible events to celebrate. You were right — this really is an extra special night!”


Pete and Danny first met in second grade. What started out as best pals grew over the years into a brotherhood marked by fierce loyalty and respect for one another. An only child, Danny considered Pete an unquestioned family member and closest ally, someone he could always rely on no matter what. With four older sisters, Pete told his dad early on he believed God had sent Danny to rescue him from the crush of dolls, smelly perfumes, teen magazines, and other “girl stuff” that inundated the O’Briens’s Catholic household.

Having a constant, rock-solid companion also helped fill the huge vacuum in Danny’s life created when his father, a marine captain, died fighting overseas. The young boy was only 6-years old at the time.

Danny held warm memories of his dad. Strong, proud, and a true family man who lived his Christian values, the bold, distinguished officer with the strong jaw and quick smile spent as much time with his young son as possible. A huge baseball fan, Tom Grace would toss a little blue ball back and forth with Danny for as long as the boy’s attention would allow. But Danny’s favorite activity centered on riding his father’s shoulders, then being tossed into the air, only to land softly in his dad’s waiting arms. He also relished sitting in his father’s lap, listening to magical stories of courage and honor that always had happy endings.

Danny loved learning from his dad. He would always remember the day this bigger-than-life hero showed him the Grace family crest of arms. Descended from a Norman knight, the Irish clan ventured to the shores of North America decades before the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.

Like so many of their countrymen and women, they found opportunity and freedom in this new home, and Captain Grace captivated Danny with a long-ago tale of adventure and bravery. At the end of the story, he translated the French-language motto on the coat of arms placed above a red and gold lion rearing on its back legs.

“It says, ‘On Grace, Depend.’ I hope you’ll always remember those words and try to live by them, son. Be someone your family can depend on to do the right thing, and be a true friend to the end. And remember, receiving grace means being in God’s favor and love, something you can also depend on. If you have faith in yourself and God, and never give up even when it’s hard not to, you’ll always make your mother and me proud. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

“Yes, I think so,” the little boy replied. “I’ll be a hero like you.”

Tom Grace laughed. “Good boy, son. Now let’s go see what wonderful magic your mom is performing in the kitchen. You know, Danny, we’re both very lucky to have her.”
“I know, Dad. Mommy tells me the same thing about you all the time. I like being so lucky.”

But those untroubled times ended on a gray morning in late winter. Danny recalled with vivid starkness how his mother collapsed on the floor, sobbing, the day the dark news breached their door. His father had been killed in action while serving the country he loved, the victim of a cowardly enemy who used women and children as human shields. While doing his best to avoid harming the noncombatants, Captain Grace had been betrayed by his own compassion. As he braved a barrage of bullets to rescue a little boy about Danny’s age who lay bleeding in the street, an explosive device attached to the child by one of the fleeing fighters detonated. The medics could do nothing to save the brave solider. Though he didn’t understand the events thousands of miles from his safe, secure home, Danny knew his world had changed for all time.

Through Little League baseball games and high school playoffs, Danny missed the opportunity to have his dad’s support, offering encouragement or some little reminder only a caring coach could provide. But life never granted the elder Grace the chance to teach his son the skills and finer nuances of the game. Even on Danny’s most successful days, the hurt lingered of not being able to share his triumphs with the man who loved him most in the world.

On his high school graduation day from St. John’s Academy, Danny’s mother handed him one final gift she had wrapped with care in red, white, and blue paper the night before.

“This is from someone who loved you very, very much,” she said.

Danny read the words on the card. It was from his dad. He looked at his mom’s face and saw her eyes were moist. Danny tore away the wrapping to find a beautiful hand-carved wooden box. He lifted the lid. It contained the Silver Star awarded to his father for bravery in combat, a special, gold-plated pin of the family crest, a small, framed photo of Captain Grace in full dress uniform, and a handwritten note. Danny unfolded the paper and read the words his father had penned in blue ink years before:

To my beloved boy,
Always remember that I am with you and part of you, no matter
how many miles separate us. All my love, Dad

From that day forward, Danny wore the little pin under the bill of his baseball cap each time he took the field, never wanting to go into battle without his dad beside him.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Slow Burn - Chapter 1

A Slow Burn

Zondervan (October 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Defiance, Texas, 1977

Worry had its way with Emory, enticing her to stay up late after her night shift, hoping against hope that her missing daughter, Daisy, would walk through the front door laughing
and shouting and singing all at once. It made for groggy, sleep- sloppy mornings, where the only promise of coherence was a cup of joe followed by a tepid shower. Under the spray Emory shook hands with her tears, let them slip down her face, run down her chin and mingle with lukewarm creeks of shower water, racing in lines down her skin into the rusty drain circled by soap suds at her feet. Even then she listened. Turned off the nozzle three times when she thought she heard a noise.

But Daisy hadn’t barged through the front door for two months now. Her unmade bed stayed that way, waiting for Daisy’s warm thirteen-year old body, bronzed from too much Texas sun, to collapse into it. Emory, dripping wet, stood in Daisy’s doorway this morning — haunted it, really — and memorized the wrinkle of the sheets. Towel clutched around her as if the day gave a chill, she took five barefooted steps into her daughter’s room, dropped the towel, and curled naked on Daisy’s bed.

She didn’t weep; that was for the shower. She didn’t even pray. Preachers handled that. Every Defiance preacher prayed up a storm, she’d heard, but even their multitudes of prayers did
nothing to undo Daisy’s disappearance. Prayer didn’t amount to much. No leads discovered. No kidnapper nabbed. No one but Daisy’s dad under suspicion, and he was nowhere to be found. Pray? No, she moaned instead, a guttural anguish she pushed through her lungs, vibrating Daisy’s bed. Two months without her only child, and all she could do was groan, hug her knees, and smell Daisy on the sheets, hoping this whole ordeal was a cruel nightmare and when she woke up, Daisy’d be standing over her, a sharp-witted look in her eyes and a sassy, “Mama, you’re naked. Get yourself some clothes.”

Daisy’d only found her near naked once. Or was it more? On the day Daisy went missing, Emory lay on the living-room floor half-nude and strung out. Emory remembered the shame, how it felt hot, simmering her face. She had noticed her attire: just a bra and panties, no real clothes in sight to cover herself, her body displayed like abstract art on the canvas of a hardwood floor.

“Mama,” Daisy said, “I’m tired of taking care of you, you hear me?” Though Daisy’s voice scolded, she grabbed a favorite quilt, the one she camouflaged their old couch with because she hated that ugly thing, and pulled it over cold toes, knees, belly, shoulders, and neck. “There, Mama. There. You sleep. I’m going to see Jed, okay? I’ll be back for dinner.”

Emory murmured a hung-over okay. She pulled the quilt around herself, closed her eyes, and slept away the afternoon, while Daisy played with her friend Jed Pepper, then disappeared into the Defiance dust under his neglectful care.

She stood, thirty years old but feeling arthritic all the same. She wrapped the towel around her and headed to her room, where a floor full of dirty clothes made up her wardrobe.

A knock startled her. Three stark raps against an aging door. “Just a minute,” she hollered. She pulled on a ripped pair of Levis and a gauzy shirt. Emory caught her gaze in the full-length mirror; gaunt eyes stared back, the eyes of a bitter old woman.

Three more raps.

Halfway between her room and the front door, she knew.

She knew.

Emory stood in front of the door, the passageway Daisy was supposed to skip through, and tried to settle herself, but her heart hammered her ribcage. She took a deep breath, letting out a whisper of a moan. She opened the door. It creaked on its hinges as it opened onto her covered front porch.

Officer Spellman stood at her door, patrol hat in hands.

“Ma’am.” He cocked his head, his eyes moist.

“No.” She backed away two steps. Then again, “No.”

“We found Daisy.” He hesitated. “Actually, it was Jed Pepper who found her — in a clearing.”

“No.” Emory’s gut wrenched sideways; her cold hands began to sweat.

“We’ve taken the body to Tyler. I need you to come with me to identify her.”

Emory wilted into the doorframe, not caring a bit if it held her up or gave way and let her crash to the floor. Daisy. Her Daisy. Laughing, singing, skipping Daisy.

A body.

Nothing more.

T he journey to Tyler in the back of a police car took ten years, or maybe ten minutes. She couldn’t be sure. But she felt her body aging in the seat, the wrinkles forming around her frown, her eyes deteriorating in the light of this terrible day. She’d be an old woman by the time she reached Tyler. An old, childless woman.

“We’re here,” Officer Spellman said. He opened the car door for her. Opened the door to the hospital too.

A gentleman even in the face of death, she thought.

They wound through the hospital’s underbelly, down stark cor-
ridors. Heels — hers and his — clicked a cadence she’d never forget, one that would accompany her nightmares from here on out.

Another door opened.

Then another.

She filled out forms. In triplicate. Answered questions no mama should ever have to answer. Officer Spellman sat in an antiseptic chair, hat in hands, eyes to the floor.

A man in a white coat said, “Right this way, Mrs. Chance.”

“It’s Ms.” Emory didn’t look up.

“My mistake,” he said. “We won’t know her exact time of death until the autopsy’s done. I’d wait on ordering the grave- stone just yet, until we pinpoint it.”

“Gravestone,” she croaked to the sterile air.

“She’s right in here.” The nameless man opened another door.

Emory felt her heartbeat in her neck; put her hand there, as if to calm it back down to its proper rhythm. In front of a pale green wall was a gurney with a white sheet stretched over a body. Her little girl.

The last time Daisy’d had a sheet over her head, Halloween did its haunting. Though past trick-or-treating age, she’d in- sisted on being a ghost, taking young Sissy Pepper around their Defiance neighborhood. “To protect her,” she said.

“And what kind of ghost can protect a little girl?” Emory had asked.

“My kind.” She tugged at the sheet pulled taut over her head. Two phantom eyes darkened with black-tinted Crisco looked through two crudely cut holes in the nearly white sheet. Around Daisy’s neck Emory tied a ratty string, giving her head a jack-o- lantern look — just like the picture in Family Circle’s Halloween issue. Daisy flapped her arms, sheet billowing in stark contrast to the porch’s night. “I can even scare away the boogie man.”

The man pulled back the sheet to the body’s chest, but Emory wouldn’t look. Not yet. She turned away, pretending interest in the wall color. She inhaled. Swallowed bile. Shook her head as if that would keep the tears away somehow. She turned. Grabbed her stomach. Smelled death. Then saw her, open eyes to sunken eyes.


Her blonde hair browned by clods of dirt. Emory wanted to comb them away, give her hair a good brushing, though she’d never bothered when Daisy was alive. Daisy’s eyes, closed lids
over caved-in sockets, emanated death. Her mouth turned un- characteristically down, a frown etched into Daisy’s face for eternity.

“Ma’am? Is this your daughter?”

She looked at the man. “She was.”

“I’ll slip out. Give you a few moments.”

Emory watched Daisy. But Daisy didn’t move. Didn’t sing. Didn’t holler. Didn’t run. Didn’t scat. Didn’t pick the dirt out of her hair. She lay there. That was all.

Emory stepped closer.

Dark marks circled Daisy’s neck — the same place that cord circled her ghost costume. Was she choked? Were her last breaths stolen from her by hands too strong?

“Daisy, it’s Mama. Your mama.” She suspended her hand inches above Daisy’s pale shoulder, afraid to touch it. “Who did this to you, baby?”

Daisy didn’t tell.

Emory knew who bore part of the blame, felt it way down inside. If Daisy’s eyes were open, they’d look right into Emory’s soul, spotlighting guilt, the guilt she kept pushing down with the same ferocity she tamed her nausea.

She touched Daisy’s shoulder. So cold. So hard. So unlike Daisy.

Yet so much like herself it made Emory shudder.