SMALL TOWN TROUBLE by Laura Benedict

COVER FINAL small town troubleCHAPTER ONE

 There’s nothing like an overenthusiastic canine to ruin a stakeout. I have my eye on a blue sedan parked across the street from the Walsh estate where I’m visiting, but it’s deuced difficult to concentrate with an obnoxious Jack Russell terrier barking up at me from the driveway.  All of the other cars belonging to the guests of the massive party going on at the house behind me are parked in a nearby field, but the men who directed the parking are long gone. The dark-haired woman in the sedan is a latecomer, and she stares unmoving at the Walshes’ posh house, her eyes hidden by sunglasses. With no small degree of nonchalance, I stretch across the top of the deliciously warm brick pedestal at the edge of the drive and squint down at Jocko, the offending white and tan, perky-eared creature. Who has ever heard of such an idiotic moniker? Jocko, indeed.

I know for a fact that Sherlock Holmes never had to deal with such an annoying canine—not counting that Baskerville brute, of course. Sherlock, who is my role model and personal hero, made good use of an intelligent chap named Toby that was half-spaniel, but these Jack Russell types are thoroughly mad. They dash about the countryside yapping constantly, chasing down rodents (an occupation much more suited to accomplished cats such as I), and bothering horses.

I warn Jocko to calm down with a low growl. In return he whines and pants and waggles that ridiculous curled tail. What a hopeless wretch he is.

At home in Wetumpka, Alabama, my human, Tammy Lynn, would never have such a beast hanging about. But she and I came to western Kentucky to visit Erin Walsh, whose late mother was Tammy’s childhood babysitter. Unfortunately Tammy was called to Milan, Italy, to authenticate a priceless book that some monks found in their library. The Italian antiquities bureaucracy would only make it available for a few days, and she had to leave me behind with Erin.

It’s true. I don’t sound like I’m from Alabama. I spent much of the first of my nine lives studying that excellent Cumberbatch actor’s Sherlock Holmes films, and acquired a bit of an English accent. Of course only other cats like my brilliant detective father, Familiar, can hear it. But I have no problem motivating the humans around me when I engage in traditional feline vocalizations.

The woman in the car is staying put. I consider popping across the street or chasing the hapless Jocko her way to get some movement from her—angry-looking people who stare at houses usually mean danger—but the foolish dog would no doubt be run over by a passing tractor or pickup truck. One somehow feels responsible for the Jockos of the world.

Instead I leap onto the impeccably paved driveway, inches from Jocko’s head, making him jump back a mile. Anyone who says cats can’t smile has never seen me after I’ve played a clever trick.

The party has been in full swing since my third nap of the day. Most of the guestsemployees and their families from Bruce Walsh’s (Erin’s father) car dealership—are swimming or fishing or careening about on noisy Jet Skis on the Cedar Grove Lake cove that meets the Walsh property. The Walshes have even set up a few picturesque changing cabanas near the property’s strip of manmade beach. The less adventurous guests are in the swimming pool or eating. But I’ve done the rounds back there and want to avoid further contact with the youngsters and their sticky hands, so I enter through the carelessly open front door with Jocko panting behind me.

Hearing angry voices I continue to the library door, which is open a few inches, and slip neatly inside. Hapless Jocko, who doesn’t seem to understand that he could push the door open a bit further to enter as well, sits down in the hall and whimpers pathetically. But Jocko’s not my concern right now.

Erin, a sweet, strawberry blonde co-ed who’s home for the summer from the University of Kentucky, leans forward, her hands balled into fists at her side. Her face is pink beneath her freckles, a sign that she’s angry and frustrated. I’ve seen that look on Tammy Lynn’s face a time or two. But when I see the other woman, who wears a canny, unpleasant grin, I understand why Erin is frustrated. The woman is her stepmother, Shelby Rae, who’s only a dozen years older than Erin. Shelby Rae is also Jocko’s human, and believes it’s her job to meddle in Erin’s business.

Neither of them glance at me as I stroll to one of the many tall windows overlooking the front garden and settle on the back of an enormous couch with stripes like a cafe awning. From there I can find out what’s wrong between Erin and Shelby Rae and observe the car out front. What does the woman in the car want? Is she dangerous? I intend to find out.

 “What in the world were you thinking, child? Your daddy’s going to be so upset. You know we think tattoos are trashy on women.”

If she hadn’t been so angry, Erin Walsh would’ve laughed out loud at her stepmother. Shelby Rae, with her bottom-grazing miniskirts and heavy makeup, had the market cornered on trashy. Her family wasn’t much better and seemed to have no visible means of support aside from the little helper checks (Shelby Rae’s words) Erin knew she’d been writing for years. But it was her condescending child that made Erin want to wipe the Corral Me Coral lipstick off Shelby Rae’s collagen-injected lips. She didn’t believe in the stereotype of an Irish temper, but she could swear she felt the anger in her bones.

“I’m not your child, Shelby Rae, and I won’t be talked to that way by you or anybody else. Daddy has asked you, and I’ve told you a thousand times, to stay out of my business.”

Seven years ago, just after Erin’s mother died, Shelby Rae, who worked as the receptionist at the dealership, had taken Erin under her twenty-something wing and become like a big sister to her. They went shopping together in Louisville, and traveled down to Nashville to see a Taylor Swift concert. They did cosmic bowling and Shelby Rae even helped her buy a bra that was more substantial than her training bra. It was Shelby Rae who drove her to the drugstore to pick out sanitary pads after Erin called her whispering, “Shelby Rae, I started.

But two years later, Erin’s father asked her to come into the library—the very room in which they now stood—and with a beaming Shelby Rae at his side said, “We have wonderful news to tell you, honey.”

If only her father had instead taken her out alone on a walk on the lake trail, or driven her in the boat to dinner at The Captain’s Table on the other side of the lake to tell her. Or he could’ve asked her how she felt about Shelby Rae and if she thought it was a good idea for him to marry her. She might have understood. She might even have been glad to have her suspicions confirmed. She wasn’t blind or stupid. Her father sometimes stayed out late, and he and Shelby Rae shared significant looks when she came to pick up Erin. If only…

That’s not what happened, though, and here they were.

“Oh, come on. Did you forget you have a tattoo on your backside?” Erin pointed at Shelby Rae’s ample left hip. “You have a snake back there. What kind of person has a snake on their butt?”

Shelby Rae pursed her lips and stuck her recently-altered nose in the air. “It’s an asp. Like Cleopatra. And it’s gold and blue. It’s art.

Erin scowled. “I’m nineteen. It’s perfectly legal if I want to tattoo my whole face.” She pointed to her lightly freckled forehead. “I could get a freaking butterfly parade all across here.”

In fact she’d completely forgotten about the new tattoo when she’d taken her shorts off by the pool. Seeing the tattoo, Shelby Rae had pulled Erin away from her best friend, MacKenzie Clay, and hurried her all the way into the library.  Erin only just now wondered why Shelby Rae had been watching her in the first place.

“You’re being silly.” Shelby Rae shook her head. “Only criminals have tattoos on their faces.”

“Oh, so I guess it would be okay if your Uncle Travis, who’s out back drinking Daddy’s beer and about to eat the biggest steak from the outdoor fridge, gets a tattoo on his face?”

Shelby Rae crossed her arms across her breasts. Erin knew she hadn’t had to have those fixed like she’d had her nose done. She’d once overheard one of the salesmen at the dealership comment on Shelby Rae’s enormous assets.

“Why are you so hateful, Erin? I’ve never done one single thing except be nice to you. This is a very stressful time, with the lawsuit just over with. You haven’t been here. You don’t know what it’s been like. That woman from the lawsuit has been hanging around, and I’ve hardly even seen your father for months.” Her high voice stretched into a familiar whine.

The lawsuit. Erin’s father had brushed it off whenever she called him from Lexington. A woman named Tionna Owens was killed when her car’s brakes failed just minutes after she’d left the dealership’s service department. She’d dropped in to ask them to take a quick look at the brakes because she thought there was something wrong. According to Earl Potts, the service manager, he’d told her they were very busy and she could make an appointment for another day. He said she’d grown angry and declared she would take her business elsewhere. The county didn’t find grounds to prosecute, but her family brought a civil suit against the dealership declaring that they it had a record of the car’s brake problems and a duty of care to examine it immediately. But the case had been dismissed.

“He doesn’t even listen to me,” Shelby Rae continued. “Nobody listens to me!”

“That’s because you’re a drama queen. Nobody needs your drama, and I’m sick and tired of it. Stay out of my business.” Erin knew she was being as dramatic as Shelby Rae, but she was beginning to wish she had kept her apartment in Lexington and had picked up a part-time job there for the summer, or just volunteered at a rescue shelter. Bumming around New Belford and hanging around the house—even if she was often with MacKenzie—was turning out to be a bad idea.

Shelby Rae huffed out of the library. When she pushed open the door Jocko barked up at her with frantic joy. Erin saw the startled faces of two women she didn’t recognize over Shelby Rae’s shoulder. Great. Now everyone would know they’d been arguing. How long would it be before her father was asking her why Shelby Rae was so upset?

Erin walked over to the window. The library had always been one of her favorite rooms. She put a hand on the end of the high-backed sofa and Trouble, the clever black cat Tammy Lynn had asked her to look after, nudged her hand with his velvety nose.

“Sorry about that,” she said, scratching the cat behind the ears. “I don’t really hate her. She just gets to me sometimes.”

The cat purred. Tammy Lynn had told her that Trouble was good at solving mysteries and had saved her more than once.

“Don’t worry. I can’t promise you any mysteries, but we’ll find something to do that gets us away from here.”

Erin gazed out the window as she stroked the soft fur on Trouble’s back. She could see a blue sedan parked across the road with a woman inside who appeared to be staring the house. A shiver went up Erin’s spine. She knew the woman: she was Bryn Owens , Tionna Owens’ wife.

Bryn and Tionna Owens had owned New Belford’s Two Hearts bakery together; and while Erin and MacKenzie were in high school, they often met there for coffee. Tionna had a special fondness for MacKenzie who, like Tionna, had a mother who was black and a father who was white. Erin’s eyes were opened wide when Tionna told them about times in the city when she and her parents were ignored in restaurants or cursed at on the street. Erin knew there were a few people in and around New Belford who felt the same way, but she never thought of it as affecting MacKenzie. To Erin, MacKenzie had always been just MacKenzie, her best friend since kindergarten, and MacKenzie’s parents were Mr. and Mrs. Clay. Now, she knew better.

After Tionna died in the wreck, Bryn put a closed sign in the bakery window. The sign was still there. Erin was familiar with grief. The pain in her gut had lessened considerably in the seven years since her mother had been killed, but it never really went away.

Trouble snapped to attention, slipping from beneath her hand to stand on his back legs and put his front paws against the window. The cat never missed a thing.

A rumbling motorcycle pulled up behind Bryn’s sedan and stopped. Erin wondered if this was someone she was supposed to know.

A guy wearing blue jeans and a slim black T-shirt whose sleeves took on the taut muscular shape of his upper arms and shoulders, put down the motorcycle’s kickstand and took off his helmet. When he pushed his sun-streaked brown hair from his face, she recognized his profile. His look was different—a little more relaxed and, frankly, sexier—than she remembered.

Noah Daly had been two years ahead of her in school, and he’d been a loner. A bit geeky, but still a loner. A lot of girls thought he was cute, but their mothers made sure they didn’t get too close because Noah’s father, Jeb Daly, was known to be bad news. When Noah was about to enter high school, Jeb did the unthinkable—he used a gun to rob the New Belford branch of the Kentucky Patriot Bank.

At the time of the robbery, Erin’s mother, Rita, was in the building to drop off a dozen of her special mocha and cranberry cupcakes as a birthday surprise for a friend. But it wasn’t Jeb Daly who killed Rita. Zach Wilkins, the deputy who responded to the silent alarm, shot her accidentally.

A few years later Erin’s father hired Noah Daly to work in the dealership’s service department. What had he been thinking? And what was Noah Daly doing talking to Bryn Owens?

“Here, Mom.” Noah handed his mother, Annette, an insulated tumbler of sweet iced tea. She took the tea and smiled up at him from her chair at one of the umbrella tables by the pool. Only eighteen when he was born, she was younger than the mothers of most of the guys he knew, but her beauty had faded quickly. She’d long ago started dyeing her auburn hair to hide the gray that showed up before she turned thirty. And because she worked long hours managing a big convenience store near the interstate, she didn’t get much exercise, and so carried a little extra weight. But the thing Noah noticed most about her was that her eyes didn’t sparkle as they had seemed to when he was little. Still, unlike most guys he knew, he’d never once been ashamed to be seen with his own mother.

“Why aren’t you out on the lake, honey? The Jet Skis look like so much fun. Didn’t you bring swim trunks?”

Noah glanced around him. The women near the pool wore sundresses or shorts or bathing suits, and the kids were either in the pool, or dripping water as they played close by. Most of the men he worked with were in swim trunks and T-shirts in or near the lake. All of their girlfriends wore bikinis.

“Not going in the water today, Mom. Not in the mood. I just didn’t want you to stay at the house today.”

She leaned close to him, whispering. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Noah.”

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay? We’re here, and that’s what’s important.”

A tall man wearing relaxed khaki shorts and a comfortably faded polo shirt ducked his head beneath the umbrella and laid one of his large hands on Annette’s shoulder. The hair at his temples was gray, but the rest was what Noah had heard his mother call strawberry blond. With his friendly green eyes, Bruce Walsh always looked like he was about to share good news.

“So glad you could make it, Annette. I told Noah I hoped he’d bring you to the party this year.” He nodded to Noah. “Even if young Noah here decides to bring along a sweetheart, you’re always welcome to come, too.”

“Mr. Walsh—”

He didn’t let her finish. “Please, Annette. Call me Bruce, and don’t get up. We get to be the grownups here, right?”

“It’s a wonderful party,” she said, settling back down in her chair. “Look at all these fancy decorations! Even these pretty tumblers are red, white, and blue. I’m so happy all these children are having a good time.” As they watched, a small girl shrieked with delight as she started down the pool slide, her arms waving above her head. When she splashed into the water, then quickly popped to the surface, even Bruce laughed.

“Shelby Rae and I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the people who make Walsh Motors successful. It’s a family, and I like to take care of that family.” He held out a freshly-opened bottle of Budweiser to Noah. “Something cold? Hot day to be out on that Yamaha of yours. You know, the invitation is still open for you and the boys in the department to fish off our docks any time.”

“Thanks, Mr. Walsh.” Noah took the beer with a nod. “I’ve come out here early a few mornings this spring and summer. But I park over on the access road and fish off the far dock so I don’t disturb you all. The yellow perch and bass are running big this year.”

“Oh, that bass,” his mother said. “That’s something special.”

Bruce agreed.

To Noah, the most impressive thing about Bruce Walsh was his sincerity. Sometimes he sounded like a politician, but Noah knew that Bruce always kept his word. When he hired Noah on, he said he didn’t expect any more or any less from him than any other employee, but that it would be a great favor to him if Noah would keep his father, Jeb, from coming around after he got out of prison. Keeping the man who was ultimately responsible for his boss’s first wife’s death away from his place of business was a promise Noah had been happy to make. Especially because he didn’t want to have anything to do with his loser father either. He was glad Bruce didn’t know that promise might soon be tested.

Shelby Rae, who had married Bruce long before Noah started at the dealership, was more of a mystery. When she visited, she certainly didn’t hang around the service department. A few of the guys called her a gold digger and others referred to her as a nice piece of ass. Right now she was a dozen feet away, among a tight group of men surrounding Junior, the hired cook. The men were all older and a couple of them were checking out the plunging neckline of Shelby Rae’s short white sundress as though they wanted to fall in. One of the less obvious guys put a hand on her back, and she whipped her head around so that her long, curled ponytail nearly hit the man on the other side of her.

“Quit it, Uncle Travis!”

Noah smiled. The guy deserved it, but he merely chuckled and pushed his thin black hair away from his forehead, unfazed.

A couple of the other men, including Earl Potts, the service manager, dropped back, embarrassed. It could have been one of them instead of the intrepid Travis. He was her uncle? Talk about awkward.

Bruce and his mother were still talking. Noah wasn’t sure what he’d missed, but the conversation had turned back to the expensive tumblers used for the party’s drinks.

“Shelby Rae went a little crazy on making sure everything matched. I think she planned on about a thousand guests instead of a hundred and fifty. Everyone gets to take one home, but let’s get you a couple extra boxes, too.”

Noah’s mother laughed. “Oh, I couldn’t let you do that. They’re so expensive. I’m sure your wife will want to return the rest.” But Noah could tell from the way she was looking at the tumbler on the table that the idea excited her. They had so few nice things at home. She insisted that Noah put half his paycheck in the bank “for college, maybe, or a house of your own someday.” He hated that she worked so hard but couldn’t afford nicer things, even if they were just thick plastic drink glasses.

“You’d be doing me a favor.” Bruce gave her a wide smile, and his eyes were kind.

She blushed.

“Erin, honey?” Bruce called to his daughter, who was sitting beside MacKenzie Clay at the opposite side of the pool. “Can I get you to come here for a minute?”

Erin Walsh said something Noah couldn’t hear to MacKenzie, who had been in an economics class with him senior year. Then she gave her father a small smile and lifted her long legs from the pool to stand. She removed her reflective gold aviators from the top of her head and put them on so that her strawberry blond hair swung free. Unlike her stepmother, she was dressed down, wearing cream-colored shorts that rested softly on her narrow hips. Her purple Allman Brothers Band T-shirt was tied into a knot, revealing a triangle of pale, flat stomach. The glimpse of her skin put a different kind of knot in Noah’s stomach, and he glanced away.

He and Erin had never been friends, but they were always aware of each other. Neither of them had been allowed to attend his father’s trial because they were too young.  He saw more of her when she started at the consolidated high school as a quiet freshman. People referred to her as “Erin Walsh, that girl whose mother got killed.” But Noah thought of her as something more: the girl whose life his father had ruined. It didn’t matter that Jeb Daly had been bluffing with an empty gun during the robbery, and that it was Deputy Zachary Wilkins who actually shot Rita Walsh. His father was still responsible.

It wasn’t until last Christmas that Noah started to think of her in a much different way. She’d come into the dealership with Shelby Rae to be surprised with a spanking new Challenger that her father had bought her for Christmas. Its 700 horsepower engine only had 42 miles on it, but Noah had put twelve miles more on it himself after Earl told him to take it out to make sure it ran perfectly before Erin arrived. The sleek black car was a beauty, with sports suspension and paddle shifters on the wheel that meant the driver could switch to manual without even touching the stick.

Driving that car on the highway and on a couple of backroads he knew well had been among the sweetest fifteen minutes of Noah’s life up to that point.

But the day only improved when Bruce Walsh later called back to the department to ask that the car be brought around. Almost everyone was gone for the day, so Noah started the Challenger with the special red fob that engaged the full 700 horsepower (instead of the black fob that gave you only 500), and drove it around to the front of the dealership.

Erin stood on the sidewalk, her hair tucked into a knitted cashmere beret, her mittened hands covering her eyes like a little kid. Her father’s arm was around her shoulders. When she uncovered her eyes, Noah saw a look of pure delight. She turned and hugged her father. When she finally pulled away, a lock of her hair fell from her beret and brushed her lightly freckled cheek. It was in that moment Noah knew, given half a chance, he could fall in love with her.

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copyright 2018 by Laura Benedict 

LauraBenedictHeadshots_65-EditLaura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of seven novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned HeartCharlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review)and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-ReadsThe Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com to read her blog and sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

Social Media: Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurabenedict

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Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.com/Small-Town-Trouble-Familiar-Legacy-ebook/dp/B075YGNYGP

 

 

 

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THORPE’S CANDLE by Joe Moore

thorpes-candle-ebook-cover CHAPTER 1 – DEEP FREEZE

The North Atlantic, 1961

“We got trouble.”

The words jarred Henry Bristol from his sleep. He looked up at the weathered face of the pilot. “What?”

“I said we got trouble.” Chewing on a cigar, the pilot leaned over the makeshift seat in the back of the cargo bay where Bristol sat. “See that engine out there?”

Bristol glared out the window of the old DC-4. A black patch of oil streaked across the wing like a bloody wound.

“Pressure’s dropping like a brick and we got a blizzard down there. Got to turn around.”

“No!” Bristol’s eyes widened. He was suddenly wide awake. “I already paid you. You assured me this plane could make it with no problem. I can’t go back! Don’t you understand?” His voice rose in pitch almost to the point of cracking.

“I think you’re the one that don’t understand. We can’t make it on three engines with a payload this heavy. Got to turn around and find a place to put her down for repairs. Our best bet’s Godthab, Greenland. Get the oil leak fixed—day or two at the most.”

As the pilot turned, Bristol stood and grabbed him by the shoulder. “No! You must keep going.” He was almost a foot shorter than the burly pilot and immediately realized his bad judgment.

The pilot balled his fist in Bristol’s face. “Don’t force me to explain it again, little man. Remember, you’re not even supposed to be on this plane. Now park it and shut up.” He shoved Bristol back into the seat, turned, and made his way between the large wooden crates until he disappeared into the cockpit.

Bristol felt the plane bank. There was no going back. As far as the world he left behind was concerned, he was dead. Dead and buried. He had to convince the pilot to change his mind. Maybe he could appeal to the man’s greed. His foot nudged the duffel bag under his seat—so full of cash he could almost smell it.

He stood and pulled his coat around him. There was hardly any heat—another thing that annoyed him. Jumpy by nature, he looked around his surroundings with darting eyes, magnified through the thick lenses of wire rimmed glasses. Determined, he maneuvered past the rows of crates until he stood at the cockpit door. How much should he offer? What did it matter? He had to do whatever it took. Opening the door, he stepped inside.

The only other person on board was the copilot, a skinny man with beady eyes and a scraggly beard. He busied himself at the controls as the pilot turned to Bristol. “I told you to stay put.”

Bristol took a hesitant step forward. “I’ll pay you twice what we agreed.”

“We’re losing a hundred feet per minute.” The copilot’s voice was anxious.

“How can that be?” The pilot scanned the array of instruments. “What the hell’s going on?”

“It’s number two.” The copilot pointed to a set of dials.

“All right, triple the price.”

“Shut up!” the pilot yelled.

Bristol started to make another offer but the words never came. The DC-4 vibrated violently followed by a loud bang and the shriek of ripping metal.

“Oxygen!” the pilot called out and grabbed his mask. He turned to Bristol and pointed to an extra mask hanging over the vacant navigator’s position. “Put it on.”

Bristol grabbed the oxygen mask and shoved it to his face. The plane’s nose dropped, and he saw the churning expanse of storm clouds ahead. “What happened?” His voice was muffled behind the thick rubber.

“Propeller blade,” the pilot shouted. “Ripped off number two. Must have torn through the fuselage. We’ve lost cabin pressure.” He shut down number two engine then keyed his microphone. “Mayday! Mayday! Godthab tower, this is Arctic Air Cargo 101. We’ve lost cabin pressure and two engines. Request emergency instructions. Godthab tower, do you read?”

“Nothing but static!” the copilot said while he adjusted the knobs and dials of the radio transmitter. “We’re not getting through.”

“Keep giving out our position,” the pilot ordered as the plane plummeted into the clouds.

Like bouncing off a wall the DC-4 bucked and pitched, sending Bristol to the floor. He hit his head and felt blood flow down his face.

The tremors worsened as the pilot struggled with the controls. “I can’t turn her, rudder’s frozen. Propeller must have severed the cables.” He ripped his mask off when the altitude needle passed the ten-thousand-foot mark. The plane tossed and rocked as it continued its steady drop into the belly of the storm.

“Get back to your seat and strap in,” the pilot shouted to Bristol.

He turned to start back when the plane shook again. This time, he thought it would rip apart. Thrown forward, he smashed into one of the large wooden crates that filled the cargo bay. His head and shoulder struck with a crack, burning pain shot through his arm. Blood flowed into his eyes. He heard the wind scream across the jagged slash in the fuselage. Groping his way to his seat he swiped the blood from his forehead on his sleeve and grabbed the duffel bag.

When the plane broke through the clouds, Bristol glared out the window and saw what he thought were lights of a small town passing underneath. As quickly as they appeared, they were gone, replaced by a dense shroud of swirling white.

The DC-4 leveled off as if it were about to land. The pilot must see a place to put the plane down, Bristol thought. A cautious feeling of relief swept over him. Had the pilot heard the offer of more money? No. Too much noise and confusion. Bristol looked out the window again. For a precious few seconds a break in the storm revealed what looked like a vast colorless ocean with row upon row of giant waves frozen in place, stretching off to the horizon. What kind of nightmarish scene was this? Were his eyes playing tricks? Had the bump on his head caused him to hallucinate?

There was a rumble—must be the landing gear dropping into place. They were going to land! Bristol pressed his cheek against the cold window trying to see what lay ahead. The strange landscape rushed by—the white ocean got closer. Once they landed, he figured they could wait for the storm to pass then make their way back to the town. He would find a place to stay while the plane was repaired. A few days at the most, the pilot had said. A small price to pay for committing the perfect crime and getting away with murder. A reassuring smile crossed Bristol’s lips. Strapping himself in, he wrapped his arms around the duffel bag, holding his breath.

Like a specter appearing out of a nightmare, Arctic Air Cargo 101 swooped down and glided in across the top of the Greenland ice cap. The driving wind of the season’s worst blizzard had built up huge banks of tightly packed snow and ice. The instant the plane’s front gear bit into the white powder, the nose rammed into a snow bank and the impact crushed the cockpit killing the pilot and copilot. Bristol’s seat ripped from the floor. Still strapped in, he flew forward and collided with one of the cargo crates.

The old DC-4 groaned and shrieked as the snow swallowed it, the sounds of its agony nearly smothered by the roar of the blizzard. When only the tip of the tail stuck above the snowfield, the ripping and tearing finally stopped.

Dizzy and numb, Henry Bristol opened his eyes. In the fading glow of the cargo bay lights, all was finally calm and quiet—the howling of the storm now distant and muffled. He told himself that it was only a matter of time before a search party would come. He had always been a patient man. This time would be no different. Steam drifted up from the wound on his head as he hugged the bag and waited.

Click HERE to buy the book and keep reading!

THORPE’S CANDLE, © 2017 by Joe Moore

Joe MooreJoe Moore is co-president emeritus of the International Thriller Writers. His newest novel is THORPE’S CANDLE. Previously, with Lynn Sholes, he wrote THE DESTINY CODE, BRAIN TRUST, THE TOMB, THE SHIELD, THE BLADE (bestselling Kindle book), THOR BUNKER, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (#1 bestselling Kindle book) along with the Cotten Stone Thriller series: THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (#1 bestselling Kindle book), THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT, and THE 731 LEGACY. Joe’s novels have appeared on numerous international bestseller lists and have been translated into over 24 languages.
 

ISAIAH’S DAUGHTER by Mesu Andrews

Isaiahs-Daughter Songs are written of sons, but daughters are left to whispers. So gather near, friend, to hear of a daughter beyond imagining. She had the heart of a lion. Braver than a soldier. Wiser than a king. She was queen in Judah long after King David’s bones had turned to dust. Long after the arrogance of Solomon’s son split Israel into two nations.

When the northern tribes seized the name Israel, the southern tribes called their new nation Judah and placed David’s descendants on their throne. Judah’s capital was the city of Jerusalem and its God was named Yahweh. But Israel bowed to pagan gods and even led some of Judah’s kings astray.

Yahweh’s prophets spewed warnings, and Judah’s brave daughter, the lion-hearted queen, dared ask the prophets why? When? And how will Yahweh’s judgment fall?
One incomparable prophet answered, foretelling Assyria’s cruelty as Yahweh’s weapon of wrath. Isaiah, a man born to royalty, shouted at kings and comforted beggars. The records proclaim him husband to a prophetess and father of two sons. This is recorded, detailed, written.

But what of his daughter?

Her story begins when the northern kingdom of Israel joins forces with Aram, a neighboring nation. They attack Judah in retribution for refusing to join their coalition against Assyria. Isaiah prophesies to Judah’s King Ahaz— a promise and a warning. Ahaz ignores both. His decision forever changes the life of Isaiah’s daughter.

Part I
Now [Ahaz, King of Judah] was told, “Aram has allied itself with [Israel]”;
so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken . . .
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son [Jashub],
to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool. . . .
Say to
him, . . . ‘Don’t be afraid . . . because of the fierce anger of…Aram and[Israel]….
This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“‘It will not take place . . .
[but] if you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.’”
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign,
whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask . . .”
Then Isaiah said, “. . . The Lord will bring on you and on your people
and on the house of your father a time unlike any since [Israel] broke away from Judah—
he will bring the king of Assyria.”
~ Isaiah 7:2–4, 7, 9–13, 17 ~

Chapter 1
The men of Israel took captive from their fellow Israelites who were from Judah
two hundred thousand wives, sons and daughters.
They also took a great deal of plunder, which they carried back to Samaria.
~ 2 Chronicles 28:8 ~
732 BCE (Spring)
Judean Wilderness

My friend Yaira said to be brave—but why? Brave or scared, we kept marching. She told me to be a big girl, not to cry, but I’m only five, and I’ve seen big men crying. The raw brand on my arm throbbed and smelled like burning meat. I lost count of the days we’d been marching in the desert. Long enough that the sun baked blisters all over me.

These Israel-soldiers called us “captives.” They whipped the ones who walked too slowly or cried too much. The woman in front of me kept crying for her dead children. I guess one of them looked like me because she grabbed me sometimes, as if I belonged to her. She didn’t seem to care if we were whipped for slowing the march to wherever we’re going—somewhere in Israel. Yaira would help me push her away, but it wasn’t always quick enough, and then we were all beaten. The woman was whipped until she couldn’t fight anymore. She screamed for her children until she had no voice.

I haven’t had a voice since the Israel-soldiers attacked us in Bethlehem. When soldiers came through the city gates, I screamed to my abba, but my words didn’t save him. I ran into the house, crying, but my words didn’t save Yaira from the soldiers who took her into the stable. They hurt her. More soldiers branded me even though I begged them to stop.

After all that, my words were gone.

“Ishma.” Yaira nudged me from behind. “Eat this.” My friend laid her hand on my shoulder, a small piece of bread hiding in her fist.

I shook my head. She needed it more than me.
“Take it,” she whispered louder. “Before they see.”
Yaira was twelve so I did what she said. I took the morsel and I ate it. The crumbs stuck in my mouth. We’d had no water since yesterday. Please, Yah- weh, give us water when we stop tonight.

Sometimes my prayers worked. Sometimes they didn’t. Mostly they didn’t.
As if she knew what I was thinking, Yaira whispered again. “Every day I pray for Micah to rescue us.” Her voice sounded dry like my throat. “He’ll come, Ishma. I promise. He’ll come. Yahweh will tell him and the other proph- ets where to find us.”

I kept walking, glad I had no words. Yaira wouldn’t like my questions. Why didn’t Yahweh stop the soldiers before they killed my family? Who could ever find us among so many captives? Still, Yaira had as much faith in her brother, Micah, as she did in Yahweh. Micah was her only family because their parents died a long time ago. When he couldn’t take care of her because he lived with the other prophets at their camp in Tekoa, Abba heard about Yaira and said she could live with us and serve as Ima’s maid. Yaira said Yahweh and Micah took care of her, but it seemed to me that my family did.

My face felt prickly when I thought too much about Ima and Abba. My tummy hurt too. I missed them. Who would make my favorite bread now that Ima was gone? Who would tickle me and make me giggle like Abba did?

Back in Bethlehem I held Ima’s head in my lap and watched the light leave her eyes after the soldiers speared her through. I didn’t see what they did to Abba. When the soldiers dragged me out of the house, Abba was lying by the stable with the same empty eyes as Ima. The soldiers wouldn’t let me say good-bye.

“Ishma, look!” Yaira pointed toward a gleaming white palace with black trimmings. It sat on a tall hill.

I’d never seen anything like it. Our house had been the nicest in Bethle- hem because Abba was the chief elder, but it seemed tiny compared to the palace on the hill.

“That must be Samaria, Israel’s capital,” Yaira whispered. “Micah told me that he prophesied here with Hosea.” Her breaths rumbled loud and fast as we climbed the steep hill. We kept walking, walking, walking toward the gates of the white city.

My legs ached and I stumbled, but Yaira tugged on my arms. “Don’t stop, Ishma. We’re almost there.”

I was too tired. My legs felt like water.

“Think of something else, little one,” she said. “What was Micah wearing the last time we saw him?”

That was a silly question. Micah always wore the same thing—a dirty brown robe. Abba said all prophets wore camel-hair robes, and I asked if all prophets were as serious as Micah. Abba laughed. Micah was kind but always frowning—especially on his last visit. He shouted at Abba that we must leave Bethlehem and go to Jerusalem where we would be safe behind its high walls. Ima took Yaira and me into the courtyard, but I could still hear them shouting. Abba was angry and told Micah to leave. Yaira started to cry. I hid against Ima’s legs and wrapped her cloak around me.

I wish Abba had taken us to Jerusalem.

Finally, the captive train slowed to a stop halfway up the hill, and I fell against Yaira. I covered my face with both arms, bracing for the soldier’s whip. But they didn’t beat me.

The crowd’s spreading whispers made me curious, so I lowered my arms to get a better look at Samaria’s palace on the hill. I couldn’t see over the cap- tives and soldiers, but they all asked the same question. “Why are they closing the city gates?” The sun hadn’t set, and we needed food, water, and clothes.
One of the captives pointed to a tall tower casting a long shadow over us. A gray-haired man dressed like Micah stood at the top and looked over the edge. He began shouting at the Israel-soldiers, and they shouted back. The captives huddled together while the soldiers’ faces got redder and they beat their fists against the air.

I curled into a ball, trying to make myself smaller. Yaira leaned over and covered me, like an ima bird covering her babies with its wings. Some of the soldiers began throwing stones at the watchtower. A sudden rumble of thunder boomed from a clear sky and shook the ground. Yaira and I trembled even after the rumbling stopped. I peeked up to the sky from beneath Yaira’s arms and wondered, Was that Yahweh’s voice?

Very slowly, she lowered her arms, knelt beside me, and grinned a little. “Yahweh fought for us, Ishma.”

All around us soldiers dropped their rocks. Some guards even fell to their knees. Others backed away from the captives as if touching us might hurt them.
I tapped Yaira’s arm and pointed at the man in the watchtower, shrugging my shoulders.

“His name is Oded,” she whispered. “He’s a prophet of Yahweh in Israel. He said the soldiers treated us shamefully and must free us or face Yahweh’s wrath. The city elders will lead us to Jericho where we’ll reunite with our fami- lies.” She kissed the top of my head. “We must pray the soldiers listen to Yah- weh and that Micah finds us in Jericho.”

Soldiers rose from their knees. Some still looked angry, but many stum- bled like newborn calves on unsteady legs. They slashed ropes from the cap- tives’ waists and unlocked shackles from their necks and feet. When the soldiers freed Yaira and me, she pulled me to my feet and hugged me gently, careful not to break open our wounds or sun blisters.

“We’re free,” she said, glancing around us. “I think we’re really going to be free.”

All the captives moved away from the guards—slowly, like they were drinking a bowl of hot soup, testing each sip. Could we really be released at the word of a single prophet and a rumble of thunder?

The soldiers unpacked clothing, food, and bandages they’d stolen from Judean towns, and they began passing it out to all us captives. Even the sad woman who had lost her children smiled. Celebration spread, and one word floated on the evening breeze. “Free . . . free . . . free.”

I’d heard that word many times before, but I understood it better now. A bird flew over, and I watched it circle and play in the sky. The bird was free— like us. No ropes or chains to bind it. No soldiers to burn or beat it. But when the bird settled into its peaceful nest at the fork of two branches, I knew we weren’t the same at all. My peace died in Bethlehem, and my home had been burned.

“Ishma, what is it?” Yaira tilted my chin and dried my tears. “There’s no need to cry, little one. I’m sure Micah will find us in Jericho.”
I stared into her sparkly dark eyes. She was so happy about being free, but didn’t she know? Freedom didn’t matter if we had no nest to call home. She pulled me back into a hug.

I closed my eyes and pretended to be a bird.

Bio:
Mesu Andrews and her husband, Roy, live in a log cain snuggled into the beautiful Appalachian Mountains with their dog, Zeke. The Andrews’ have two married daughters and a small tribe of grandkids. Mesu loves movies, football, waterfalls, and travel.

Biblical fiction is her favorite genre to read and write. Her first novel, Love Amid the Ashes (Revell, 2011), tells the story of Job and Dinah, winning the 2012 ECPA Book of the Year for a Debut Author. Miriam (Waterbrook/Multnomah, 2016), the second book in the Treasures of the Nile series, was a 2017 Christy finalist and tells the story of the Exodus through the eyes of Yahweh’s first prophetess. In January 2018, Isaiah’s Daughter: A Novel of Prophets and Kings (Waterbrook/Multnomah) reveals the little-known personal life of the prophet Isaiah and introduces readers to his captivating daughter.

Click HERE to buy the book and keep reading!

Excerpted from Isaiah’s Daughter by Mesu Andrews. Copyright © 2018 Mesu Andrews. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Mesu2Author Bio:

Mesu Andrews and her husband, Roy, live in a log cabin snuggled into the beautiful Appalachian Mountains with their dog, Zeke. The Andrews’ have two married daughters and a small tribe of grandkids. Mesu loves movies, football, waterfalls, and travel.

Biblical fiction is her favorite genre to read and write. Her first novelLove Amid the Ashes (Revell, 2011), tells the story of Job and Dinah, winning the 2012 ECPA Book of the Year for a Debut Author. Miriam (Waterbrook/Multnomah, 2016), the second book in the Treasures of the Nile series, was a 2017 Christy finalist and tells the story of the Exodus through the eyes of Yahweh’s first prophetess. In January 2018, Isaiah’s Daughter: A Novel of Prophets and Kings (Waterbrook/Multnomah) reveals the little-known personal life of the prophet Isaiah and introduces readers to his captivating daughter.

Author website: http://www.mesuandrews.com/ to order free bookmarks, listen to audio Bible studies, or check out more fun stuff!
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THE PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER by Mesu Andrews

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APharoah's Daughter coverPrologue

[The angel of the Lord] replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.” — Judges 13:18

The royal linen closet is a dark hiding place, but I’m a big girl—almost five inundations old—so I’m trying not to be afraid.

I wonder . . . is it dark in the underworld? Was Ummi Kiya afraid when she and the baby inside her crossed over this morning?

The priest ordered me and my little sister to the birthing chamber. Ankhe is only three. She wouldn’t go.

The priest was angry, so he came to our chamber and grabbed Ankhe’s hand. “You must see the beauty of Tawaret—goddess of childbirth!”

Instead, we saw Ummi Kiya’s blood poured out on the straw under her birthing stool. Her light-brown skin was white as milk. The midwives pulled out a baby boy, but he was as gray as granite.

The angry priest wasn’t angry anymore. He knelt before Ankhe and me. “Anubis, god of the underworld, has stolen their breath. I’m sorry.”

I ran from the birthing chamber, screaming, before Anubis could steal my breath too. I’ve been hiding a long time because Anubis might still be hunting. He knows my name, Meryetaten-tasherit. It’s hard to understand, but I’m called a decoy—named after Queen Nefertiti’s daughter Meryetaten to confuse Anubis should he prowl the palace grounds. If I stay in this linen wardrobe all day and night, perhaps the dark god will take the Great Wife’s daughter instead.

Nefertiti, the Great Wife, hates me because Abbi Akhenaten loved my mother. Ummi Kiya was his Beloved Wife, and she gave him a son—my brother, Tutankhamun.

Pharaohs like sons, but Abbi Akhenaten doesn’t like daughters. He frowns when my sister Ankhe and I enter the throne room. Maybe it’s because of Ankhe’s tantrums.

Ummi Kiya said Ankhe’s ka is troubled like Abbi’s. He throws tantrums too, but because he’s pharaoh, he doesn’t get in trouble.

My legs hurt, and my tummy’s rumbling. I don’t want to stay in this dark closet anymore. But the linen robes hanging around me smell like Ummi Kiya—lotus blossoms and honey. Who will love me now that she’s gone?

My brother Tut will. He’s only six, but he protects me. He checks my bed for scorpions at night and makes his tutors teach me the same lessons he’s learning. We learn about Hittites and Nubia, and we try to write hieroglyphs.

Ankhe is too little for lessons, and she doesn’t know about love either. Will she ever love? Or will she be like Abbi Akhenaten and live forever with a broken ka?

I hear footsteps. Someone is coming. My heart feels like horses racing in my chest.

“Mery?”

Someone’s calling me. I think I know that voice.

“Mery, habiba, I know you’re in there.”

A little light shines in, and I peek through the robes at a kind woman’s face. Her cheeks are plump and round, her smile warm like the setting sun.

“You know my ummi,” I say.

“Yes, I was Kiya’s friend. Do you remember my name, Mery?”

She offers her hand, but I scoot behind the robes into the corner of my wooden shelter. Her smile dies, and I wonder if she’ll unleash Anubis now that I’ve been found. I hear a sound like a wounded dog—it’s me! I must stop crying!

“Mery, I’m sure your ummi Kiya’s heart measured lighter than a feather on Anubis’s scale of justice. She is waiting for us both in the afterlife, but she would want you to trust me now.”

I can’t stop shaking, can’t speak. I can only stare at this woman whose smile is gone and whose eyes are now filling with tears. Is she angry? I don’t remember her name, but I know she’s the big general’s wife. Will she call the army to kill me?

“Your abbi Akhenaten has given you to General Horemheb and me. You are our daughter now.”

She reaches for me again, but I slap her hand away. “No! I want Tut!” I bury my face in my hands and pray for Anubis to find me. Take me to Ummi Kiya!

“Mery. Mery!” The general’s wife is kneeling and bent into the closet, shaking my shoulders. “Tut will stay with you. We’re all staying here at the Memphis Palace together. Your brother, you, me, and General Horemheb. You will be with Tut as you’ve always been.” She strokes my hair and doesn’t seem angry that I yelled.

Slowly, I look at her. “Did Abbi give Tut away too?”

“No, little habiba. Tut is prince regent. He will always be Akhenaten’s son, but all Kiya’s children will remain under General Horemheb’s protection in Memphis. Because the general and I have no children, Pharaoh gave you as a precious gift. You are now our daughter. I hope this pleases you.”

She cups my cheek and looks at me the way Ummi did. Maybe she could love me a little. “What is your name, lady?” I ask.

“I am Amenia. Would you like to know the new name General Horemheb has chosen for you?”

I suck in a quick breath and scoot to the edge of the wardrobe, surprising my new ummi. “I get a new name? Anubis will never find me if I have a new name!”

Chuckling, Amenia stands and helps me to my feet. “You will be called Anippe, daughter of the Nile. Do you like it?” Without waiting for a reply, she pulls me into her squishy, round tummy for a hug.

I’m trying not to cry. Pharaoh’s daughters don’t cry, but her soft, warm arms make me feel so safe. Maybe Amenia could be my new hiding place instead of the dark linen closet.

My tummy is growling again. “You must be hungry after being in that wardrobe all day.” Amenia kisses the top of my head and gives me a little squeeze before letting go. “We must present you to your abbi Horemheb before our evening meal.”

“What about Ankhe? Will she come with us to meet our new abbi?”

Amenia loses her smile. She holds my shoulders hard. “Anippe, do you trust Abbi Horemheb and me to do what’s best?” Her voice makes me shiver.

“Where is Ankhe?”

“Ankhe is safe, and she will always be your little sister, but she will not meet General Horemheb.”

After another kiss on my forehead, Amenia smiles, and we start walking through the tiled hallway to meet my new abbi. I try to stop at Ummi Kiya’s chamber, but Amenia pushes me past. So I keep walking and don’t look back. Like the waters of the Nile, I will flow.
Chapter 1

These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt. Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them. —Exodus 1:1– 7

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. —Exodus 1:8

Four years later

Anippe dipped her sharpened reed in the small water jar and swirled it in the palette of black powder. Her scroll had only one stray drop of ink— one less drop than Tut’s—and she was determined to best her big brother. She drew a second water symbol, adding it to bread, water, basin, box, and owl, to finish her brother’s name: T-t-n-k-h-m-n. Leaning to her left, she peeked at Tut’s progress. Her letters were much clearer, and he now had three stray ink drops.

“Very good, Anippe.” The tutor peered over her shoulder, his breath reeking of garlic and onions. “Your writing is almost as precise as the divine son’s.”

Tut smirked, and Anippe rolled her eyes. “Thank you, revered and wise teacher.” Maybe his vision was blurred by the cloud of his stinky breath.

“My letters are just as good!” Ankhe shouted from across the cramped classroom. She slammed her reed on the small, square table and began tearing her scroll into pieces. “You spend all your time with Tut and Anippe.”

The tutor grabbed his willow switch, and Ankhe turned her back in time to save her face from the lashing. “If I spend more time with you, Ankhe-Senpaatentasherit, you will likely be whipped more often. Is that what you wish? You will show me respect in this classroom, and you will act like the daughter of a god.”

Tears stung Anippe’s eyes, but she blinked them away. Daughters of gods didn’t cry. The tutor had never used his switch on her, but she didn’t wish to test him. She reached for Tut’s hand under the table, silently begging him to intervene. The divine son was never punished.

“Oh wise and knowing teacher, let us resume our lesson.” Tut raised one eyebrow, seeming much older than his ten years. “If I am to rule Egypt someday, I must understand why some vassal nations have betrayed Pharaoh Akhenaten and pledged allegiance to Hittite dogs. Our eastern border is at risk if I can’t control buffer nations between us and our greatest threat.”

Anippe gaped at her brother. He remembered nations and territories as if they were written inside his eyelids.

The tutor issued a final glare at Ankhe before returning to a stool beside his favored pupil. “Very astute questions, son of the good god Akhenaten, who is king of Two Lands and lord of all. The Hittites are indeed our greatest eastern threat, a military machine with iron weapons, but we must also beware the Nubians in the south. They pose as loyal servants to Egypt’s king, his officials, and our military, but you must never trust a people not your own.”

Anippe slipped away from the table, certain the tutor was lost in his topic, and slid onto the bench beside Ankhe. Her little sister was still whimpering, head down. When Anippe tried to smooth her braided wig, Ankhe shoved her hand away.

Like always.

Ankhe hated discipline, but she didn’t like to be loved either. Soon after Ummi Kiya’s death, Tut told the grownups that all Pharaoh Akhenaten’s children should be tutored, and he tried to have Ankhe at the same table—between her older brother and sister. But as she grew, her tantrums became worse. Sometimes even the switch wouldn’t stop her. So the tutor moved her to a separate table.

Separate. That was what Ankhe would always be, no matter what her siblings tried. Anippe saw welts rising on Ankhe’s back under her sheer linen sheath, marks from the tutor’s switch. “I’ll ask Ummi Amenia for some honey to put on your back.”

“She’s not my ummi.” Ankhe picked up her reed and dipped it in water and pigment. “They didn’t adopt me.”

“But Amenia still cares for you, Ankhe.” Anippe wanted to hug her, but she’d tried that before. Ankhe hated hugs. She hated to be touched at all.

The sound of soldiers came from the hallway, spears tapping the tiles as they marched. This sounded like more than the two guards who always stood at their doorway. This sounded like a full troop. Tut looked at Anippe, afraid, and Anippe grabbed Ankhe’s hand. Her little sister didn’t pull away this time.

General Horemheb appeared at the doorway, his big shoulders touching the sides and his head too tall to enter without ducking. He looked scary in his battle armor—until he saw Anippe and winked.

She wasn’t afraid anymore. Her abbi would protect her against anything. He’d loved her and spoiled her since the day Amenia introduced them.

But when he saw Ankhe, his face turned as red as a pomegranate. He scowled at the tutor. “Why is my daughter seated with the little baboon? You have been told to keep them apart.”

Before the tutor could answer, Abbi Horemheb grabbed Anippe’s arm, lifted her from the bench, and landed her back on the stool beside Tut. Anippe’s eyes filled with tears. Abbi was always rough with Ankhe but never Anippe— never his little habiba.

She sat straight and tall beside Tut, blinking her eyes dry, trying to be the princess Abbi wanted her to be.

When her abbi returned to the doorway, Anippe noticed two other people standing with the soldiers—a beautiful lady and Vizier Ay. Abbi Horem hated the vizier. Maybe that was why he’d lost his temper.

Who is that pretty woman with them? The woman wore a long, pleated robe, fastened at her shoulder with a jeweled clasp. Her braided wig fell in layers with pretty stones woven through it on gold thread. Anippe studied her face. She looked familiar, but she wasn’t one of Amenia’s friends who visited the Memphis Palace.

Vizier Ay took three steps and stopped in front of Tut and Anippe’s table. “Pharaoh Akhenaten has journeyed beyond the horizon. The priests have begun the customs of Osiris.”

Tut straightened and hid his shaking hands under the table. He was quiet for a while, breathing as if he’d run a long race. When his breath came smoothly again, he said, “The good god Akhenaten will cross the night sky and warm us with the sun each day.” His voice quaked. He was trying hard to be brave, but Anippe knew how much Tut loved Abbi Akhenaten. The weight of Egypt now rested on her brother’s slim shoulders. “When do we sail for the burial ceremony?”

Vizier Ay tilted his head and smiled, as if Tut had seen only five inundations. “We have much to discuss with you, divine son, but first I would have you meet your new wife.”

“Wife?” Tut squeaked and then peered around the vizier at the woman. Anippe’s big brother withered into a shy boy. He motioned for General Horemheb’s approach and then beckoned him close for a whisper. “I have no need of a wife, Horemheb—not yet.”

Abbi Horem leaned down, eye to eye. “Divine son and beloved prince, a young king needs three things to rule well: a teachable ka, wise advisors, and a good wife.” He tilted his head toward the pretty lady at the door. “Senpa is your good wife. Ay and I are your advisors. And you have demonstrated teachability. You are both humble and powerful. I am honored to bask in your presence, most favored son of Aten.”

Tut’s throat bobbed up and down, perhaps swallowing many words before the right ones came to mind. A bead of sweat appeared on his upper lip while everyone waited for him to speak.

“How old is she?” Ankhe blurted out the question Anippe wanted to ask but didn’t.

Tut’s eyebrows rose, clearly awaiting an answer.

Abbi Horem’s face turned red again, and he slammed his hand on Ankhe’s table. “You will be silent unless asked to speak.”

Ankhe raised her chin in defiance but didn’t say another word. Vizier Ay guided the pretty woman toward the table where Tut and Anippe sat. “Divine prince, meet your wife, Ankhe-Senpaaten. She is your half sister— daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. You may call her Senpa.”

Anippe stared at Nefertiti’s daughter. All their lives, they’d been warned of Nefertiti’s evil. Now Tut must marry one of her daughters? How could they ask it of him? Senpa was beautiful, but she was ancient—at least twenty inundations, maybe twenty-five. How could a ten-year-old be a husband to a twenty-year-old queen?

Anippe shivered and earned a stern glance from Abbi Horem.

Vizier Ay cleared his throat and nudged Senpa aside. “Divine son and ruler of my heart, we have many details to discuss regarding the burial ceremony and your coronation. Perhaps you, in your great wisdom, could dismiss your sisters to Amenia’s chamber to plan the wedding festival?”

“Yes, you may go.” Tut’s voice sounded small.

Anippe wanted to stay, but Abbi Horem was already instructing a contingent of guards to escort them to Amenia’s chamber.

“Wait!” Anippe’s outburst quieted the room. “If it pleases my dear abbi, I would ask one question.” She stood and bowed to her abbi, using her best courtly manners to gain his pleasure before asking what burned in her belly.

“You may ask it, my daughter.”

Lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders, she tried to speak as a king’s sister—not as sister to a crown prince. “Will Ankhe and I remain here at Memphis Palace with Tut and Senpa after their marriage?”

Vizier Ay laughed, startling Anippe from her composure. Abbi Horem turned her chin gently, regaining her attention. “No, little habiba. Tut will remain here at the Memphis Palace with me and Vizier Ay. However, Senpa, Amenia, you, and Ankhe will relocate to the Gurob Harem Palace with the other noblemen’s wives and children. The king’s officials visit Gurob several times a year. You’ll enjoy helping in the linen shop and have many little girls to play with.”

Anippe worked hard to keep her smile in place, but her heart felt ripped in two parts. First Ummi Kiya and now Tut? Would the gods take away everyone she loved?
She bowed slightly to her abbi and then reached for the scroll on which she’d drawn Tut’s name—a memento of their last class together.

The tutor blocked her path, hand outstretched. “I’m sorry, Princess. I can’t let you keep that scroll.”

“But why? I—” Ankhe jumped to her side, grabbed the scroll, and hid it behind her back. Abbi Horem snatched it away, gave it to the tutor, and raised his hand to strike Ankhe. Anippe stepped between them, halting the general’s hand.

Grabbing Anippe’s shoulders, he shook his head. “You protect her too much, habiba. She must learn to behave as a princess.” He hugged her tight and kissed her cheek. When he stood, towering above Anippe and Ankhe, he addressed them both. “You can no longer write your brother’s name in hieroglyph. He is now divine, and his name is sacred. Only royal scribes may write the six-part name of a king within an oval cartouche. Now, my guards will escort you to Amenia’s chamber with Senpa.”

Anippe obeyed without argument. She looked over her shoulder as they left, wondering when Tut would become a god. This morning they’d laughed and teased and even raced from their chambers to the schoolroom. She’d almost beaten him. Surely a god could run faster than a girl.

Tut sat utterly still, expressionless, listening to his advisors. Perhaps that was what a god looked like—empty.

Anippe made sure Ankhe was behind her and then followed the beautiful daughter of Nefertiti down the open-air corridor to the women’s chambers. Losing herself in the sound of chirping birds and sandals on tile, she breathed in the smell of lotus blossoms as they passed a garden pond.

Like the waters of the Nile, I will flow. I am Anippe, daughter of . . . Horemheb and Amenia.

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Excerpted from The Pharaoh’s Daughter by Mesu Andrews. Copyright © 2015 Mesu Andrews. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Author Bio:

Mesu Andrews 2014--casualMesu Andrews’ deep understanding of and love for God’s Word brings the biblical world alive for her readers. Her first novel, Love Amid the Ashes won the 2012 ECPA Book of the Year for a Debut Author. Her three subsequent novels, Love’s Sacred Song, Love in a Broken Vessel, and In the Shadow of Jezebel all released to great reader enthusiasm. Mesu lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband Roy.

Author Website:  http://www.mesuandrews.com/

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STRANGE GODS by Annamaria Alfieri

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strange godsChapter One

They never went out in the dark because of the animals. But this night she must, despite her fear. If she was ever to escape the boredom of life confined to the mission compound, determination had to win out over terror.

So, well before first light, she left her bedroom. The things she would need were packed and waiting for her in the Kikuyu village.

She went barefoot through the back door of the house and into the kitchen yard. Once outside she slipped on her boots and tried to step lightly. She stole past the Mission office and the school. The moonlight was dim, but adequate. Her eyes were good.

All she wanted was a bit of adventure. To go on safari. She resented being kept at home while her brother Otis was allowed to go. She was nearly six years older, yet he had already gone more times than she. The Newlands had invited her as well as Otis, but her mother had refused to allow her leave. Her mother, who tried to control every minute of her time. Well, tomorrow morning she would tell Mr. and Mrs. Newland that Mother had changed her mind. By the time her parents discovered what she had done, they would have no way to bring her back.

It was juvenile of her to be doing this. She was a grown woman, nearly twenty. But she would never have the chance to be an actual grownup, to make her own decisions. British rules of maidenhood did not allow for that.

Otis was already at the Newland farm, set to go off into the wilderness in the morning. After much cajoling, he had agreed to help her slip away and join the safari party. “We will leave at dawn,” he had said before he went. “I will ask Mr. Newland to take us near the Kikuyu village, but you will have to be there and ready by six.”

“That’s easy enough.”

“What will you say if they catch you?”

“I will go beforehand and put my rucksack and my rifle in Wangari’s hut. That way, if they see me up in the night, they will not suspect the truth.”

“Okay,” he said, grave faced. “That’s a good plan.” She loved it that he pretended to be a man. He was such a serious boy.

The chill of the wee hours made her wish for the jacket that was already at the bottom of her pack. She scanned the shadows for the slightest movement as she crossed the bare packed earth of the Mission grounds, listening with her ears, with her skin, for any sound of danger. Hippos might have come up from the river to graze. They were deadly but not quiet. The cats were silent but unlikely to be hunting here now. They came often to look for water in the dry season, but not after the long rains, when the land was moist and the water holes all round about were full.

Stupidly she thought of Tolliver. Whenever she moved from one place to another her thoughts always went to him, as if her bones and her blood vessels wanted her to move only in his direction, wherever else she was going. Tolliver, though, would never approve of her defying her parents. He was a proper Englishman. Men like him never expected a good girl to do anything but what she was told, even when she was an adult in every other way.

The moonlight threw a weak shadow beneath the thorn tree growing in the sward that separated the stone hospital from the grass and wattle school. A rustling in the underbrush halted her steps and her breath. She was between the river and whatever that was in the shadows near the chapel. If it was a hippo, it might kill her with one snap of its powerful jaws just for blocking its way back to the water. Suddenly the night was full of sound. As many cicadas as there were stars, singing out near the hospital privies. The chilling cry of hyenas behind her, beyond the coffee groves. And then the long, deep, hollow vibration of a lion’s roar that sounded as if it came from the core of the earth. The cat’s night song did not frighten her. They made that noise when they mated. She thought of Justin Tolliver again but pushed her mind away from the mating call in her own blood.

She stole toward the stable, with her eyes to her right where the rustling in the undergrowth had come from. When she heard nothing, she ran flat out until she came to the veranda of the hospital. The windows of the building were dark. Not even a candle burned in the wards. She slipped into the gloom at the near side stone wall, panting a bit, more from fear, than from running. She breathed deeply to calm her nerves. The noise of something moving came again, nearer now. She was about to back away to try to get inside the building before the animal reached her when she saw a person carrying a lantern, approaching around the far corner. It could only be Otis, come back to help her. But why would he bring the lamp? She held her breath not to shout and scold him.

She crept in his direction.

The figure carry ing the lantern became clear.

Vera gasped. “Mother!”

“Vera?”

“I—I—”

“Go to your room and stop this nonsense.”

“But, Mother . . .”

“Immediately.”

There was no disobeying her mother when she used that tone.

 

While, in the dark of night, Vera McIntosh returned to her bed, where she consoled herself with fantasies that involved kissing Justin Tolliver, the young man who was the object of her infatuation stood in the half-wrecked bar of the Masonic Hotel in Nairobi, his hands in the air and two revolvers aimed at his heart. His own weapon was still in the holster at his side. This was a tight spot where an assistant superintendent of police should never find himself, not even a neophyte like him. How he got here was as easy to explain as it was humiliating and exasperating.

His superior officer— District Superintendent of Police Jodrell— was off on home leave in England, making Tolliver answerable directly to Britain’s top man in this sector—District Commissioner Cranford.

When Tolliver was called to the hotel to take control of two drunken Europeans who were tearing up the place, he brought with him a squad of his best askaris—African policemen who could be counted on to be brave and dutiful, including the best of the lot, Kwai Libazo.

But as they jogged at double-time through the unpaved streets of the ramshackle young town, carrying flaming torches to light their way, Tolliver knew he was in danger of incurring D. C. Cranford’s wrath. He was about to make the unforgivable mistake of using African policemen against Europeans. Cranford had the strongest opinions of such matters. So Tolliver had left his squad outside the corrugated iron and wood hotel and entered the bar alone. Unfortunately, he had failed to draw his pistol before he did so. Perhaps if he had not been exhausted from doing double work for days now, including fighting a fire last night in an Indian shop on Victoria Street, or if he had cared less about what Cranford thought and more about his own skin, he would not have let these louts get the advantage of him. As it was, he was completely at their mercy, unless the askaris outside came to his aid. But why would they if they had no idea how muddle-headed he had been?

“You are being damned fools,” he said with more bravado than his predicament warranted. “If you interfere with a police officer in the execution of his duty, you are risking many years of hard imprisonment. If you hurt me, you will be up before a firing squad.”

“Bloody hell, we will,” the bigger man said with a laugh.

“Listen, you puppy, on the count of three you are turning tail outta here or you’ll be picking lead outta your legs.”

Tolliver gave them what he hoped looked like a careless, indulgent smile. “I am not leaving without putting the two of you under arrest. If you come with me peacefully, I’ll not charge you with resisting.” He took a quick step forward thinking that it might intimidate them.

The smaller of the two, a red-haired bloke with a vicious sneer, jammed his pistol into Tolliver’s stomach and said, “Stop right there or it’s the graveyard for you.”

“If you shoot me, you will be joining me there,” Tolliver said. He thought to add that the sound of a shot from inside the bar would bring in the squadron of policemen he had left guarding the entrance. But it suddenly occurred to him that all he had to do was get one of these drunks to fire a shot—not at him— but at something. Help would storm into the room forthwith.

He raised his hands higher and pulled himself up to his full height, so that he towered over the sly, little man. “How do I know that gun is loaded?” he asked.

“Easy,” his assailant said. “See that whiskey bottle on the shelf?”

“Certainly,” Tolliver said, as nonchalantly as he could. It was impossible to miss since it was the only one still standing. All the others, along with just about anything breakable in the bar had been smashed to pieces before Tolliver arrived and lay littering the floor.

The man turned his pistol away from Tolliver and without taking aim, shot the top off the bottle. His big companion looked away to see the result, and in a flash Tolliver had his pistol out and leveled at them.

In two heartbeats, Kwai Libazo was smashing through the door, his rifle at the ready.

“That was some excellent shooting,” Tolliver said as he relieved the bigger man of his weapon.

The other askaris were piling into the room.

“Libazo, handcuff these men and march them to the station.” Tolliver knew when he gave that order that Cranford would disapprove. But he’d already almost gotten himself killed trying to appease Cranford, with his British ideas about keeping the natives in their place. Given the choice between death and the D.C.’s disfavor, he would take the latter, no matter how displeasing it would be.

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annamariaAnnamaria Alfieri set Strange Gods in Nairobi in 1911.  The Richmond Times Dispatch said, “With the flair of Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham, the cunning of Agatha Christie and Elspeth Huxley and the moral sensibility of our times, Alfieri permeates this tragic novel with a condemnation of imperialism, a palpable love of Africa, a shocking conclusion and a reminder that good does not always triumph.” –Richmond.   Kirkus Reviews compared her Invisible Country to “the notable novels of Charles Todd.”  The Christian Science Monitor chose her Blood Tango as one of ten must-read thrillers. The Washington Post said of her debut novel, “As both history and mystery, City of Silver glitters.”  She lives in New York City.

Author website: http://www.AnnamariaAlfieri.com

 

THE LEGEND OF SHEBA: Rise of a Queen by Tosca Lee

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legend of ShebaPrologue

There is the tale that is told: A desert queen journeyed north with a caravan of riches to pay tribute to a king and his One God. The story of a queen conquered by a king before she returned to her own land laden with gifts.

That is the tale you are meant to believe.

Which means most of it is a lie.

The truth is far more than even the storytellers could conjure. The riches more priceless. The secrets more corrosive. The love and betrayal more passionate and devastating, both.

Across the narrow sea, the pillars of the great temple once bore my name: Bilqis, Daughter of the Moon. Here, to the west, the palace columns bear another: Makeda, Woman of Fire. To those I served as priestess and unifier, I wore the name of my kingdom: Saba. To the Israelites, I was Queen of the spice lands they called Sheba.
They also called me whore.

I have been all and none of these, depending who tells the tale.
Across the sea in Saba, the mountain rains have ceased by now, the waters of the mighty Dhana turned to steam on the fields at dawn. In a few months the first traders will sail in the quest for incense and gold . . . bringing with them news of the king who sends them.
I have not spoken his name in years.

Yes, there is indeed a tale. But if you would have the truth from me, it begins with this:

I never meant to become queen.

Chapter One

My mother, Ismeni, was born under the glimmer of the Dog Star, when men become disoriented by its light. They said she enchanted my father, that he made her his consort with a clouded mind.
But I saw the way their gazes followed her whenever she appeared in the palace porticoes, their conversations drifting to suspended silence until she passed from sight. On the rare occasion that she took her seat beside Father’s in the Hall of Judgment, the chamber swelled like a tide drawn by the darkened moon. Bronze-skinned with brows like dove’s wings and lips for whispering prayers, my mother was the most exquisite thing in all of Saba. The trickle of rain over the highland terraces couldn’t match the music of her beaded hems nor the best frankincense of Hadramawt compete with her perfume.

Drowsing on her sofa in the hot afternoon, I would twine my fingers with hers and admire the rubies of her rings. I hoped my hands and feet would be as slender as hers. It was all I hoped; it never occurred to me that any other aspect of her beauty might be granted a mortal twice on this earth.

Many days we received gifts from my father: rare citrus imported from the north, sweet within their bitter rinds. Songbirds and ivory combs from across the narrow sea. Bolts of fine Egyptian linen, which my mother had made into gowns for me to match her own.

But my greatest treasures were the songs she sang like lullabies murmured against my ear. The ritual prayers she taught me as we knelt before her idols, the sweet waft of incense clinging to her hair. Beyond the palace, Saba sprawled from the sheer edge of the coastal range to the feet of the desert wastes. But I was content that my world stretched no farther than my mother’s chamber.

In the evenings I sat before her jewelry chest and adorned my ears with lapis, my shoulders weighed down with necklaces as she reclined by her table. It was covered in gold, a glowing thing in the low light of the lamp that seemed to gild anything near it—the side of my mother’s face, the silver cup in her hand.

And then I would dance as she clapped her hands, bracelets chiming on my ankles—the dance of the monsoon rain running through the wadi ravines, and the gentle sprinkles of summer coaxing millet from the winter-brown earth. Of the highland ibex, my arms curved over my head like great crescent horns, and the lions that stalked them, which always made her laugh. And then she would leap to her feet and join me, the tiers of carnelian beads at her neck jingling with every stamp of her heels.

“You will be more beautiful than I,” she said one night after we had fallen onto the cushions. “But beware, little Bilqis. Beauty is a weapon you can wield only for a time.”

Before I could ask what she meant she slid a heavy bangle off her wrist. It was as wide as my hand and crusted with rubies. “Do you see these stones? They are harder than quartz or emeralds. They do not break under pressure, or soften with age. Let this be a reminder, my dove, that wisdom is more lasting and therefore more precious.” She slid the bracelet onto my arm.

“But—”

“Hush now. The Sister Stars are rising—a time for new things.” She touched the amulet at my throat, a bronze sun-face inscribed on the back for my protection. “How do you like the idea of a young prince brother?”

I nestled against her, toying with the bangle. My nurse made me burn incense before the alabaster idol of Shams, the sun goddess, every month since I could remember in prayer for this very thing.
“I would like that.”

I said it because I knew it would please her. What I did not say was that I would like it far better than a sister, who would vie with me for my mother’s attention. That I could share her with a boy knowing he would eventually leave us for my father’s side—and the throne.

I vowed to pray daily that my mother’s baby would indeed be a boy.
Ten days later my mother suffered a seizure and hit her head on a marble bench inside her bath. That day I was told she had abandoned me for the afterlife, taking my unborn brother with her.

I screamed until I collapsed against the edge of her table. I called them liars and begged to see her, flailing against anyone who tried to touch me. My mother would never leave me. When they took me to her at last, I threw myself over her, clutching her cold neck until they pried me away, strands of her long hair still tangled in my fingers.

After they closed up the royal mausoleum at the temple of the moon god, Almaqah, her face was before me constantly. Sometimes I could smell her, feel the softness of her cheek against mine as I slept. She had not deserted me. I stopped speaking for nearly a year after her death. Everyone thought I had gone mute with grief. But the truth is that I would speak only to her.

I whispered to her as I lay in bed every night until her voice faded the following summer, taking some vital part of me with it. I was six years old.

Hagarlat, my father’s second wife, was neither young nor beautiful. But her presence in the palace renewed ties with the tribes to the north, and control of the trade route through the immense northern valley. If the dams and canals that channeled the summer monsoons were the lifeblood of Saba, the incense route was her breath, every exhale of her roads profitably laden with frankincense, bdellium, and myrrh.

I was eight when my half-brother broke the peace of the women’s quarter with his angry wail just before the first rains of spring.

I distrusted Hagarlat. Not because she had the face of a mottled camel or even because she had brought the squalling thing that was my brother into the world, but because she had usurped my mother’s chamber along with her jewels and made the name Ismeni seem a distant thing in the minds of everyone but me.

The palace had become foreign to me with my stepmother’s servants and uncanny priests filling its halls with their rough tribal tongue. My new relatives and even their slaves looked through me when they weren’t ordering me about, and the children I had grown up with had long distanced themselves from me during my year of silence. “Stay away from me!” one of them, a boy named Luban, said when I tried to get him to sneak out to the stables. We had spent hours feeding the camels and hiding from my nurse the year before my mother’s death. He was by now several inches taller than I and the laughter in his eyes for me was gone. “Your mother is dead and Hagarlat is queen. You’re just a bastard now.”

I blinked in astonishment at the scorn on his round face.
And then I blackened his eye.

I went that evening without supper, but I had no appetite. I had seen young friends of dead unions become the servants of the offspring who replaced them before.

“You are a princess. Do not forget who you are,” my nurse said to me that night. But I did not know who I was. Only that she and her daughter, Shara, were all that remained to me now.

Though no one else called me “bastard”—at least to my face—I did not miss the eyes that turned away, the dwindling choice of fabric for my gowns, the gifts from my father that grew more intermittent before they ceased altogether.

One day I strode boldly into Hagarlat’s chamber, where she was dictating the celebration to take place for my brother’s first birthday. “Where are the things my father sends for me?” I demanded. I heard the intake of breath around me, saw from the corner of my eye the horrified expression of my nurse, the bolts of dyed cloth and rare silk laid out across the settee.

Hagarlat turned, astonishment scrawled as clearly across her face as the henna on her forehead. Green jasper dripped from her ears.

“Why, child, has he forgotten you? And he sends so many gifts here. Ah, what a mess your face is.” She reached toward my cheek. Just as my lower lip threatened to quiver, I saw it: the ruby bangle that once belonged to my mother—the same one given to me before her death.

“Where did you get that?” I said. My nurse pulled me away, hissing at me to shush, but I would not. “That is mine!”

“What, this?” Hagarlat said. “Why, if it means so much to you, have it.” She took it off and tossed it at me. It fell on the floor at my feet.

“Forgive me, my queen!” my nurse said. I ducked the circle of her arms and snatched the bracelet from the floor. One of the rubies was missing, and I frantically began to search for it until my nurse hauled me from the chamber.

I avoided the palace as much as I could after that. I escaped to the gardens and lost myself by the pools, where I hummed my mother’s songs. Lost myself, too, in study with the tutor my father assigned to me when no one else knew what to do with me.

Within three years I had devoured the poetry of Sumer, the wisdom writings of Egypt, and the creation stories of Babylonia. I called on the palace scribes and read court documents over their shoulders when they would humor me.

For the first time since my mother’s passing to the shadow world, I found joy. My toddling brother, Dhamar, would become king. And I would slip past the palace halls with their political squabbles and private intrigues to the stories of others come alive from far-flung places. To escape all . . .

But the gaze of Hagarlat’s brother.

Sadiq was a serpent—a fat man with a languid gaze that missed nothing and a knack for convincing my father’s advisors of his usefulness. The maidservants and slaves gossiped often about him, saying he had been born under a strong omen—which really meant he had come into considerable wealth with his sister’s marriage to my father. It seemed half the palace was taken with him, though I could not fathom why.

But Sadiq was taken with only one person: me.

His eyes followed me through the porticoes. I felt the slither of them on my back and shoulders, felt them bore into me anytime I appeared in the alabaster hall.

I wasn’t the only one to notice.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Hagarlat asked your father to give you to Sadiq,” my nurse said one evening after tut-tutting over my unkempt hair. Shara, the closest thing I ever had to a sister, stared at her mother and then at me.

“He wouldn’t,” I said. “He already has Sadiq’s loyalty.”

Even then I held no illusions about my future. I would be married to some noble or another in a matter of years.

But not Sadiq.

“Hagarlat’s love of her brother is no secret,” she said, fiercely combing my hair. “And neither is her ability to secure favors from your father.”
“He’s not even a tribal chief!”

“He’s the queen’s brother. He’ll be master of waters by year’s end, mark me.”

I looked at her, incredulous. The master of waters oversaw the distribution of flow from the great wadi dam, the sluices of which irrigated the oases on either side of Marib. It was a position of power over the capital’s most influential tribes. Only a fair and respected man could arbitrate the inevitable conflicts over the allocation of waters.

Sadiq was neither.

“He’ll do nothing but collect bribes.”

“Bilqis!”

“It’s true. Sadiq is a worm sucking the tit of his sister!”

My nurse drew a sharp breath and was, I knew, on the verge of warning me to prudence. But before she got a word out, Shara dropped the bronze mirror that she had been polishing. It fell with a thud to the carpet.

“Clumsy girl!” her mother snapped. Shara didn’t seem to hear; her wide eyes were fastened on the floor.

My nurse hesitated and then gasped and dropped the handful of my hair she had begun to plait. She swept aside, her head bowed so low that I thought her neck would break.

I slowly turned on my stool.

There, in the arched doorway of our shared chamber, stood Hagarlat. The hem of her veil was pinned back from her face, a rainfall of gold fell from each ear. I rose to my feet.

For a moment, neither of us moved. Nor did I move even to bow when she walked quietly toward me. She stopped just before the mirror and bent to retrieve it as though it were a wayward toy. Appraising it once, she took the cloth from Shara’s startled hand, passed it over the surface, and then handed the mirror to me.

“So you may see more clearly,” she said. And then she walked out, dropping the cloth behind her.

The instant she was gone, my nurse and Shara turned toward me as one, their faces pale, nostrils flared with fear.

I was betrothed to Sadiq within a week.

I threw myself at my father’s feet in the audience room of his private chamber—the place where he might be not a king but a man.

“I beg you, do not give me to him,” I cried. I clasped the fine leather of his sandals, pushed up the hem of his robe to touch my forehead to the top of them.

“Bilqis,” he said with a sigh. I raised my head even as he looked away. The lines around his eyes seemed more pronounced in the low lamplight of the chamber, the characteristic kohl missing from the rim of his lower lashes.

“She did this because she heard me speak ill of Sadiq. I repent of it!” I dropped my head, clutched at his feet. “I will apologize. I will serve in her chamber. But do not do this!”

He reached for me, to draw me up. “Hagarlat would see our tribal bonds strengthened. And why not? Your brother will be king. Do you really think the queen so petty?”

I jerked away from him. “Do you not see that she hates me?” I stumbled back, away from the low dais and into the pool of lantern light before the throne, but stopped when I saw how he stared at me.
For a moment his mouth worked, though no words came out. There was a pallor to his skin that hadn’t been there before.

“Ismeni . . .” he said faintly. His hand lifted, fingers trembling in the air.

“Father?”

I went to him again but when I tried to clasp his knees he flinched away.

“Father, it is I, Bilqis!”

“It is late,” he said, eyes turned toward the latticed window.

Torchlight glowed up from the royal gardens below.

“Please, my king. I was your daughter once. If you have any love for me—”

“It is settled.” The lamp flickered and I saw it then on his face: the grimace of the years since my mother’s death. Love eclipsed by the dark moon of pain.

Sadiq seemed to be everywhere after that. He stood in the porticoes when I went out to the gardens. He loitered near the fountains as I went about my lessons. And though he did not approach me beneath the gaze of the ubiquitous guards, his eyes were as ever-present as the scorching sun.

I quit attending meals in the hall. I began to avoid my lessons. The sight of him, from the way he wore his ornamental dagger high up in his belt as though it were his very manhood to the number of rings on his fingers, repulsed me. I would feel different in time, my nurse assured me. But my only comfort was that I would never be alone with him until we married in three years. Sadiq, however, was not a man of honor.

I was twelve the first time he laid hands on me.

The soft scrape of the door woke me. I was alone and at first glance by light of the waning lamp, I thought it was Baram, the eunuch. He, too, was paunched around the middle and soft-chinned, and the only man allowed in the women’s quarter.

And then I saw the gleam of the dagger’s hilt.

He crossed the room in three strides and I bolted up, screaming for Baram. Sadiq struck me hard across the face.

I fought him as his weight fell on me, the scabbard of his dagger digging into my ribs, but he was twice my size. “Baram and the women are attending my sister, who is even now miscarrying your new brother,” he said, hotly against my ear. He was putrid with perfume and wine. “And none of them will stand against the new master of waters.”

His hand closed around my throat. His other tugged up my gown. I clawed at him until I nearly lost consciousness and then squeezed shut my eyes.

I lay in bed the next three days.

My nurse called for the physician, who could find no fever in me. Only the stupefied torpor of one who no longer wished to live in her own skin. Sadiq had managed to leave no mark on my neck or face—just the scrapes of his rings against my thighs.

I wanted to rise only to walk into the desert waste until the sands consumed me, but had no will even for that. As night came on the fourth evening, I called for my nurse. I would ask for the night shade that Hagarlat used to dilate her pupils. Or for the honey of rhododendron nectar.

But she just blinked at me and said, “Why, child? Why do you want these things? You are beautiful already and such honey will only make you ill.”

I couldn’t speak. Could not bring myself to give voice to the words.
She gave me qat to chew instead, but even the stimulant leaves would not rouse me from my bed.

The second time Sadiq forced himself on me I said, “My father will have you killed! I will accuse you before the entire council!”

“Will he? They will ask you, ‘Did you cry out? Who heard you? When I claim you tried to seduce me and voice concern about your honor, whom do you think they will believe?” And I knew he was right: he was brother to the queen and master of waters. I was the daughter of a woman born under a bad omen, too often alone.

I should have been filled with righteous fury. I should have accused him before my father if only to escape him—and any other man, as no man would marry me without a hefty bribe after that. Instead, I was overcome with shame like the rot of worms beneath the skin.
I begged Shara not to leave my bed at night. But she could not deny the queen if called for. Sadiq raped me twice more in the months that followed, even as clouds gathered over the highland terraces and the first gusts of the coming season shook the trees on the hills.

The rains came and I kept to my bed. The torrents swept down the hills through the afternoon, carrying trees and earth and any building in their way into the wadi ravines. For now, at least, I was safe; the master of waters was away from the palace, monitoring the floods and the condition of the canals with a labor force ready to repair any breach in the sluices.

Sometime before dawn, I rose and walked to the window. I was a wisp beneath my shift, having lost the young curves I had only begun to come into. Clasping the sill, I threw open the latticed shutter. As I had on so many nights since my mother’s passing, I sought out the Sister Stars. But that morning the moon obscured one of them. I stood at the window long after the sky had brightened and the stars began to fade, watching it pass before their company.

For the first time in years, I prayed. Not to Shams, the sun, who had failed to protect my mother . . . but to Almaqah, the moon god who had received her.

Save me or let me die.

That was all. I slid the ruby bracelet, the most precious thing I owned, from my arm and laid it on the sill before the fading crescent.

Later that day, men came rushing into the courtyard, their shouts rising to the open window of my chamber.

My nurse brought the news an hour later: one of the sluice gates had buckled. Sadiq had been carried away in the flood.

I raised my eyes heavenward.

I am yours.

Sadiq’s body was never found. A month after his death, Hagarlat accused me before my father. Her face was drawn, her clothing hanging on a frame grown gaunt. I had grown into my own gowns once more, as though I had acquired the lushness she had lost in her grief.

“That girl is a curse to this house.” Her voice broke. “She cursed my brother as she has cursed me! My brother her betrothed is dead and I have miscarried twice since coming into your household. Her own mother gave birth to only one child and died with a son in her belly. I tell you that girl brings death to everyone near her!”

When my father finally looked at me, I knew he saw the shadow of the woman he had married not for treaties but for love. And I understood at last why he had not sought me in my grief, or summoned me in the years of my withdrawal since her death.

“Wife,” he said, lowering his head.

“You will send her away or I will leave this court and take my son with me lest she kill him, too, as she did her own mother and unborn brother!”

I turned on her with a hiss. I was like the branch, no longer green, that splinters beneath the weight of a single bird. I was prepared to be reckless, to curse her, her son, and every hoped-for issue of her womb, and every tenant of her tribe with their camels and goats down to the last rabid dog.

But the breath I had drawn to curse her came out as a soft chuff of wonder instead. For one insane moment, I nearly laughed.
There was nothing she could do to me, nothing that could be taken from me that had not already been taken or that I had not been willing to shed—down to my very life—myself.

I, who had no power, did not need to utter a word. She had lost all supremacy over me. And in that moment, she knew it. I watched the color drain from her cheeks.

“Yes,” I said to my father. “Send me away. Let me go across the narrow sea to the land of your mother’s mother before you.”
Was that relief that flitted across his face?

I could not begrudge him his quick agreement. Almaqah had been his salvation, too.

That fall I boarded a ship with my tutor, a retinue of priests, new ministers for the growing colony, and a wealth of incense, offerings, and gifts for the temple in Punt. I was not allowed to bring my nurse or Shara with me—Hagarlat had seen to that—and so bid them both tearful goodbye, kissing their necks and commending them to the gods.

I was resolved that I would never return to the palace at Marib with its dark corridors and darker memories. That I would live my life in Punt—and in peace—all my days.

But Almaqah, once summoned, had other plans for me.

KEEP READING! Click here to purchase on Amazon. Special sale–$1.99 until March 15!

Tosca LeeTosca Lee is the critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling author of Iscariot; The Legend of Sheba; Havah: The Story of Eve; Demon: A Memoir; and The Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestselling author Ted Dekker. She lives in Lincoln, NE. For more about Tosca, please visit www.toscalee.com.

E-mail: tosca@toscalee.com

THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS by Sharon Linnea

These Violent DelightsPROLOGUE
On what was to be the last evening of her life, Jane Whittle left the studio at 7:13 p.m. Traffic was slow going over the hill, and she briefly entertained her daily fantasy of working on a show that taped on location north of L.A., as more and more of them seemed to do. But her specialty had become extraterrestrials, and somehow alien life forms always headed straight for West Hollywood. She snaked along the Ventura Freeway past Coldwater Canyon, edging her Prius into the right-hand lane just after Sepulveda.

Jane was, in fact, content. Work was steady; she had a reputation for being one of the most creative makeup artists in L.A. Earthquakes and fires she could do without, but she reveled in the thought that this was March and her car windows were closed due to smog, not temperature. This time of year in London–she shivered remembering the looming gray skies, the dampness that penetrated your bones. Here, she had gardenias blooming in her backyard.

She made the turnoff onto 405 North, following it briefly to Sherman Way. She smiled as she turned onto a side street, then off into the parking lot of La Tureen, her favorite spot for gourmet takeout. Outrageously pricey, yes, but the soups and homemade specialties were to die for. She was a firm believer in treating herself, especially after a hard day’s work.

As she locked the car, she heard her name.

“Why–Jane. It is Jane, isn’t it?”

She looked up to see an old acquaintance just exiting La Tureen, carrying two green and white shopping bags laden with gourmet food.

“By the saints,” Jane said, squinting to make certain she wasn’t imagining things. “What a coincidence to run into you today.”

“Coincidence?”

“Yes, I spent the whold day on the lot discussing Tristan and Isolde. Everyone read in today’s trades about the re-release. It was all they could talk about,” she chuckled. “That film made most of them decide to go into the business, to hear them talk. Oh-sorry. Here I am, running on, and you with food getting cold.”

“No, no,” said her companion. “I’m in no rush the foie gras here’s magnifique, so I try to pick some up when I can. And when I do–” the bags were lifted, their weight tested, “I’m afraid I go overboard. Dinner for twelve, and it’s just me.”

“Can’t blame you,” agreed Jane. “It’s delightful. No one uses saffron in quite the same way.” She was feeling heady at being recognized after all this time.

“It would make me feel less foolish if I could persuade you to share the bounty with me.”

Jane felt herself blush, actually blush, with pleasure. Certainly, she felt comfortable working with different types of people, but this was a real overture of friendship, giving her the feeling she was above-the-line, inside the loop.

“Is there something else I can pick up while we’re here?” she asked.

“I think I’ve emptied their larder already. Do you know of somewhere nearby we could spread out?”

“Why, my place, of course,” said Jane, trying to remember if she’d put away the snack tray after last night’s television viewing. “It’s a couple of blocks away.”

“If it’s really no trouble. I’d hate to put you out.”

“None a-tall! Really.”

“Shall I hop in with you? I’m sure they won’t mind if I leave the car here for an hour.”

“It would be my pleasure.”

Jane was relieved to find she had indeed straightened up before leaving at dawn. The small house was polished and shiny. She hummed through the kitchen, bringing a lavendar vase of yellow Devon roses into the small dining room for a centerpiece.

The piquant aromas of basil and ginger emerged as the strong winners as containers were opened.

“Start with the soup, shall we?” asked Jane, folding navy cloth napkins under the heavy silver. “I’ll give us appetizer plates for the brioche.”

“You’re the boss. I was planning paper plates.”

“And for the wine?” Jane asked. “I do have a nice Bordeaux.”

“Perfect.”

“All this talk of Tristan has opened a floodgate of memories for me–as I’m sure it has for you.” Jane smiled to herself. “Do you hear anything of Lily–Anastasia Day? I keep meaning to write, but I’d hate to bother her.” She  brought in the wine and sat down, indicating her gues should do the same. Even as she said it, Jane knew the truth was that she was terrified to risk discovering that Anastasia had forgotten her. That would break her heart. She’d rather protect her memories and not know.

“I’m afraid I haven’t heard anything–at least, not recently. But how about you? Here’s the question you undoubtedly get all the time: are the inhabitants of that Wild West ghost town actually dead, hermaphrodites, or aliens?” her guest asked of Jane’s current series.

Jane chuckled. “All I know for sure is they’re on HBO.” Her companion was polite enough to feign interest in the anecdotes that came with the show’s strange assignments for the cast’s makeup. But as Jane described the makeup department, of which she was head, she realized in a flash of revelation that her assistants were incompetent. And she needed to order some new forehead moldings, but the producer had prohibited it. That got her goat. Did he want the inhabitants of Ghosttown to looke like dime-store trick-or-treaters, or the proud race they were? The thought made her head throb.

“Forgive me,” she said with a short laugh. “None of this is your problem. The brioche is thrilling. There must be fennel in the sausage, don’t you think?”

A wave of heat pulsed through Jane’s body, flushing her face and arms. Oh, dear, she thought. Take a sip of wine Sit and breathe

But as the hot flashes intensified, the room began to tilt. Candles flickered wildly and went out. Darkness shrouded her. What on earth?

Jane stood, knocking her chair over behind her. She tried to lurch away, but the room was tilting and she felt vomit rising in her throat. Was it an earthquake? No–it was a thing, a presence. She knew because when it grabbed her, it had a sour, evil breath…and it had hands. Hands that held thick silver steel blades.

Jane couldn’t move. It was as if she’d turned to stone. But her flesh was still soft; she could tell because it tore so easily as the monster before her drove the daggers into her abdomen. With each thrust, a blade of pain coursed the length of her body.

“No!” she shrieked. “No, no, no!”

Her last thought was, I don’t want to die like this.

And then she was dead.

Click here to buy the book and KEEP READING!

007Sharon Linnéa is a biographer and novelist who also writes thrillers and mysteries. She lives outside New York City with her family. Visit her at http://SharonLinnea.com

 

Now You Tell Me! 12 ARMY WIVES Give the Best Advice They Never Got

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12 Army wivesArmy wives (in fact, all military spouses) face very specific challenges. No one can help negociate these like fellow spouses. In this very helpful and practical book, wives of many kinds of Army soldiers weigh in on what they wish they’d known.

BETH CHIARELLI: When my husband Pete took the “Vice” job (Vice Chief of Staff of the Army), my kids asked me how many times we had moved. I counted up, and this was our twenty-ninth house! Over the years, I changed my approach to unpacking. Usually, you’re tempted to do the kitchen first, and everything else later. After about ten years, I started doing my bedroom first, because every day you wake up and it’s nice. You don’t feel so defeated when you wake up. I can’t say I did that every time, but the times I did, I really liked it.

When we moved to Gelnhausen, Germany, it was total chaos. We’d been given a house, but at the last minute, they made a decision to let the Command Sargeant Major move onto post. They literally gave him our house as were were on the plane flying over. When we arrived, there was nothing they could do but put us in temporary quarters, where we stayed from August to the end of October.

I had to leave my kids playing with people we had just met so I could go house hunting. These people were fine, but I wasn’t. It was so stressful. Then one day I came back to discover that my son had fallen out of a swing and had broken both of his arms. There he was in Frankfurt with the batallion commander’s wife, and these huge plaster casts, and Pete had to take off for a training exercise in Grafenwoehr, Germany. I didn’t have my European driver’s licesence yet–and then I found out I was having a baby. Could it get any crazier?

I always tell the younger wives, when you look back, you will not believe what you did. You just will not believe it. But the thing is, you are in a culture, the Army culture, where other people are doing the same stuff all the time. When you try to tell your civilian friends, they are just horrified. They think it’s crazy, and maybe it is.

Unrealistic Expectations
I think some women have the expectation that their husbands’ jobs and promotions will supply something they’re lacking in themselves. As I described it during a talk to a group of young women, “Every time I move away, I find myself again.” You are who you are. Your personality is going to stay the same. So if you have an expectation that somehow your husband’s job, or the house or the quarters that you get will make you somehow different, it’s not that way. At the end of the day, it’s still you making decisions.

Whatever the situation, give it your best shot. You can find something wrong with any situation. There will always be some issue to face. Sometimes you have to decide what your own happiness is going to be. It doesn’t matter if you are military or civilian; there will be some hard times. Probably the worst thing for me was having to tell our son who was going to be a high school senior that he had to move. But we had made the decision as a family that we weren’t going to split up. Some families, for the sake of their kids’ potential college careers, left them behind when they moved. For some that worked out great, others not. But still, you have to follow your gut for your own family. Make your decisions, and live with them.

FRANCES SASSER: New Wife on the Block

My first experience as an Army spouse was when my husband Charles had just finished basic training and Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) at Fort Benning, Georgia, and our duty station was Fort Stewart, Georgia. I’d been on post at Fort Bragg many times.This, however, was my first time shopping ant the commissary and Post Exchange (PX) as a wife and mother.

We had a sponsor who welcomed us and showed us around. Usually assigned by the commander, sponsors are people who are usually of equal rank and have already been in the unit for a while, so they’re able to help new families get settled quickly. I learned where all the important facilities were, such as the gas station, hospital, the commissary and the PX. (The commissary sells grocery items and the exchanges carry consumer goods.) I learned the hard way that you need to present a military member ID card or military family member ID card when entering or paying for goods.

I remember feeling like everyone else was moving at the spped of light handling their business, and I was the only person who didn’t really know how to do things. People weren’t very friendly or willing to help the newbie figure things out. Maybe that’s how it seemed; I was eighteen and pregnant, and facing new challenges every day. I felt overwhelmed and very much out of the loop.

Over time I learned the ropes, and it’s become easier. However, I kept that memory; through the years, it helped me become willing to stop and help young wives who looked completely at sea.

Educate Yourself!

New families entering the military have so many resources available to them. More so than when I was a young military spouse. Take advantage of those resources and educate yourself about military customs and traditions. The military language is a beast to tackle, but if you arm yourself with the basics it helps you better understand what’s going on, and also helps you get through Army life. The Army Community Service (ACS) program is a great way for young military spouses to learn Army language and lots more. There are different levels of training that help with rank recognition, acronymns, and even military protocol. [As does this book!] You can also learn it online now–isn’t technology grand? The truth is, it’s an ongoing life course.

My husband is in the Army for twenty-seven years now, and I’m still learning things. When your husband talks to you about his job, show interest! It’s important for him and important for you. I can guarantee you that along the way you will be asked about your husband’s unit, know as a Military Occupation Specialty (MOS). I’ve run into wives who have no clue! It’s his profession, and a good part of your life, so at least be informed about what’s going on.

Perhaps the most important thing to do–as soon as possible after arrival–is to make friends with a spouse in the unit, or even a neighbor who has an outlook and interests similar to yours.

Realize that gossip can and will be abundant. Steer clear! Nothing good ever comes from it.

The best advice I can give to families new to the military is that being flexible is key. Things change constantly and the more you fight it, the harder it will be to have a positive attitude. The military does not have a conspiracy to ruin your life or to make it difficult. The Army tries really hard to make military life more enjoyable, steadily improving the quality of life for everyone.

Have Personal Goals During Deployment

Through all these deployments, I’ve learned that you can choose to be miserable or be happy. I choose to be happy, and I work at having goals to get me through.

Durning Charles’ deployment when we were in Fort Carson, Colorado, a good friend and my “battle buddy” helped us keep our bodies strong by setting goals. Our group had two large goals. The first was to hike up Pike’s Peak, which, at 14,110 feet, was quite an accomplishment. At the time, I was a full-time student, bogged down with a heavy study load. Because of this, I never completed that goal and regret it to this day. i was at least able to do several shorter hikes, and the social time along with the workout turned out to be a very important part of the process.

Our second goal was to run a half-marathon. I did complete that goal and have the medal to prove it. Our group trained together, and those are some wonderful memories of a time when my life was difficult. Army wives stick together, and decades later, those friendships are still strong and growing.

Click here to biuy the book and KEEP READING much more insider advice from Beth, Frances and others!

A KILLING AT THE CREEK by Nancy Allen

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Nancy Allen made waves with her first Ozark mystery. The second goes on sale on February 17. But here, you can check out the first chapter right now!

Prosecutor Elsie Arnold loves her small-town home in the Ozark hills, but she’s been waiting for a murder to come along and make her career. So when a body is found under a bridge, throat cut, Elsie jumps at the chance to work on the case, But when the investigation reveals that the deceased woman was driving a school bus, and the police recover the vehicle, its interior covered in blood…the occupant and only suspect is a fifteen-year-old boy. Elsie’s in for more than she bargained for.  START READING…

Chapter 1

The bloody yellow school bus wound through the hills of the Missouri Ozarks in the early dawn of a June morning. The blood inside the bus pooled under the driver’s feet, trickled in the aisle, drained out the back exit and ran over the rear bumper.

The young man at the wheel kept his eyes on the road as he maneuvered the vehicle up and down twisting roads shrouded by oak and sycamore trees, looking for the turnoff that would lead him back to the Interstate.

The road flattened out as he approached the Oklahoma state line. Shortly after crossing into Oklahoma, he spotted a McDonald’s, built atop and over the highway, spanning all four lanes of I-44. He took the exit and drove into the parking lot.

He could have parked at a distance from the other vehicles, but didn’t bother, pulling the bus into the open spot nearest the door. Reaching into a duffle bag, he pulled out a handful of money and shoved it in his jeans pocket.

His shoes tacky from the mess in the bus, he made prints on the pavement as he walked to the entrance. He paused to wipe his feet on a black nylon mat. A flight of stairs led up to a bathroom; he made that his first stop. The boy took care to wash his hands, rubbing them vigorously with the pink liquid soap, watching the rust colored water circle the drain. The mirror in the bathroom showed that his dark brown hair needed shampoo, and his eyes were red-rimmed, with dark circles from the long night.

He kept a neutral expression as he left the toilet. Passing an ice cream stand, he paused to examine the contents in the refrigerator case. A white haired woman in a hairnet, armed with a metal scoop, let him look at the buckets of ice cream in the case for a minute before asking, “You want something?” The boy stalked away without looking at her, toward the McDonald’s counter to order. Though there were no customers ahead of him, he had to wait while two uniformed

cashiers held a whispered conversation, two young girls laughing. One girl, a short blonde in heavy makeup, with four studs in one ear and two in an eyebrow, finally noticed him standing there. She leaned on the counter and said, “Can I take your order?”

“Big Mac. Large fry, medium Dr. Pepper.”

“Want to try the Mac Wrap?”

He shook his head. “I want what I ordered.”

Something about him made the girl take a half step back. She spun around and pushed a button to pour his Dr. Pepper. Her friend, a pretty Cherokee girl with long black hair, looked behind the boy and said, “Hey, big shot, you’re tracking mud in here. Don’t you know they make us mop that up?”

He didn’t respond. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a wad of money, mostly ones, and counted out the exact change for his order.

“For here?” the blonde girl asked him, in a more respectful tone. He nodded. She hastily set his food on a tray.

He took the tray to the video arcade, and ate his food in a leisurely fashion. Pumping quarters into the machines, he held the sandwich while he played with one hand. He lingered for half an hour, nursing his drink.

When he departed, a fry cook was walking out into the parking lot at the same time. “Hey, man,” the fry cook said to him, “can I have a light?”

“Sorry.”

“Come on, man. I can see it in your pocket.”

The pocket of the boy’s white t-shirt clearly revealed a pack of Camel cigarettes and a Bic lighter.

“Fuck off.”

The cook bristled and grabbed the young man by the arm, but he ripped his arm away and turned with such ferocity that the cook backed off. Stepping backwards, raising the palms of both hands, the fry cook said, “No problem, dude. Forget about it.”

The young man jumped behind the wheel of the bus and threw it into reverse; before he drove off, he rolled down the driver’s window and thrust his arm out, extending the middle finger of his left hand.

“Eat shit!” the cook yelled in response.

The young driver’s arm disappeared inside the bus. He grappled under the seat, then brandished a blood-stained item in his hand for the cook to see.

It was a bloody knife.

The cook took one look and ran like hell back toward McDonald’s as the school bus took off for the highway.

Click here to buy the book and keep reading!

Nancy Allen

Nancy Allen is a member of the law faculty in the College of Business at Missouri State University. She practiced law for 15 years, serving as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and as Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks. When Nancy began her term as prosecutor, she was only the second woman in Southwest Missouri to serve in that capacity. During her years in prosecution, she tried over 30 jury trials, including murder and sexual offenses, and she served on the Rape Crisis Board and the child protection team of the Child Advocacy Council. She lives in Missouri with her family.

 

THE SHIELD by Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore

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Jump into the action with the second of the Maxine Decker thrillers by bestselling authors Sholes and Moore! 

Chapter 1 – Night Visitor

Big Bear Lake, Colorado

I sat up, startled from sleep. My first muddled thought was earthquake. The walls and windows of my cabin shuddered, shaking a picture off the wall. But then I quickly recognized the thunderous roar of a turbojet helicopter. A beam of bright light shone through the window blinds. Instinct kicked in and I rolled to my side and snatched the SIG Sauer from the nightstand drawer.

The chopper’s spotlight swept away and I used the opportunity to run to the living room with both hands locked on the 9mm’s grip.

From the light seeping through curtains and blinds I could tell my entire front yard and surrounding area were lit up as if the sun had kicked the moon to the curb. The sound of the helicopter landing was unmistakable.

I stood flush against the wall, gun still gripped with both clammy hands.

A rap on the door made me flinch, and I took aim. I’d already been shot twice in my life and had no intention of this being number three.

“Maxine Decker?”

Another strident knock.

“Agent Decker?”

“Who’s there? What do you want?”

“I need to speak with you regarding important government business.”

I edged my way to stand beside the door and pulled on a slat in the sidelight mini-blinds for a view of the porch. Backlit by the brilliance of the chopper’s spotlight was a man of medium height and trim build. Other than that, he was nothing but a silhouette.

“Identify yourself,” I yelled over the noise of the rotors.

“Peter Kepner. I’m with the government and I need to speak to you right away.”

“You must be out of the loop, Kepner. I’m no longer a federal agent. I retired from OSI.”

“I’m not OSI. I’m an emissary from Beowulf.”

“Never heard of it. And if you’re not OSI, then why do you want to talk to me?”

“In times of national security issues, Beowulf has executive authority to recruit CIA, FBI, NSA, even Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents. Retired or otherwise.”

“Tell the pilot to kill the light and shut down the engine. And tell anyone else on

board to stay put. Do it now.”

The man relayed my demand through hand signals and his radio. The spotlight dimmed and the rotors trimmed down to a slow idle.

I switched on the front porch light and pulled back the blinds on the sidelight.

“Turn around slowly.”

Kepner did a 360.

“Show me some ID. And remember I have my weapon pointed at you.”

“Got it. But for security reasons, I don’t carry any special identification. I can show you my driver’s license and a couple of credit cards.”

“I’m not Walmart, so you’re gonna have to come up with something better than that.”

He pulled an envelope from his back pocket. “Agent Decker, I have something for you. I’m sliding it under the door.”

I let the blinds snap back and saw the end of the envelope poke through. I picked it up and switched on the lamp on the foyer table. My curiosity was aroused by the embossed seal—the image of a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf. I remembered the ancient epic poem I’d had to study in high school.

I checked to see that Kepner was still there. Then with a zip of my finger I slit the envelope.

I withdrew the stationery, shook it open, and held it close to the light. Seeing the letterhead, I whipped around and glared at the door.

Then my eyes swept the length of the paper. At the top of the stationery was the official White House letterhead. At the bottom was the supposed signature of Guy LeClaire, President of the United States.

Slowly I read the contents, then took a moment to digest it. I retrieved my cell phone from the charger on my nightstand and returned to the living room.

“You still out there, Kepner?” I called.

“Still here.”

I did a quick Google search and came up with the phone number I needed to dial according to the instructions in the letter—the White House switchboard. When my call was answered, I continued to follow the directions I was given in the letter. “I’d like to speak with Tennyson.”

“One moment, please,” the operator said.

A few seconds later, a synthesized voicemail told me to leave a message. I glanced at the letter to make sure I would reply exactly right. “I have read The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Then I hung up and waited.

In a moment, my cell rang. “Maxine Decker,” I answered.

“Ms. Decker, this is Guy LeClaire.”

His words were steady and unmistakable with that distinctive, crisp Boston accent.

My voice had a small tremor in it, both because I was speaking with the President of the United States and because I knew that whatever the reason for Kepner’s visit, it was of utmost importance. “Yes, Mr. President?”

“I apologize for this late-night visit and call. We have a critical matter that requires swift and efficient measures. You’re needed to participate in a special assignment. Please invite Mr. Kepner inside so he can speak to you. He’ll give you more details.”

Before I could say anything else, he thanked me once more and ended the call. I stood there a minute trying to absorb what just happened. I unlocked the front door, thankful I wasn’t the sheer nightie type, instead wearing long flannel pajama bottoms and a loose-fitting tee.

With a wave of my arm, I invited Peter Kepner inside. I decided to claim the overstuffed chair and leave the sofa to him. Even though I felt confident that the visitor was legitimate, I conspicuously rested the SIG on my lap, one hand atop it. With the kind of business I’d been in for so many years, if I’d learned one thing, it was never to let my guard down. Being betrayed by my partner a few years back had clinched that for me.

I gestured for my visitor to take a seat on the couch opposite me.

Kepner sat, eyed the gun, then looked squarely at me.

“Why the personal visit, Mr. Kepner? Why not a phone call? And why couldn’t it have waited until morning? For drama’s sake?”

Other than a condescending smile, Kepner didn’t react to my jab. “What I’m about to disclose is top secret, and I can’t emphasize that enough. As with all electronic communication, there is the outside possibility of unwanted surveillance. That explains my personal visit. And, we need to move on this ASAP. Waiting until the morning would delay our response.”

Kepner leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs, fingers laced. “You were a hell of a civilian OSI agent. Top in the antiquities black market. That’s why you’re Beowulf’s choice for this project.”

“Like I said, I’ve never heard of Beowulf.”

“And that’s a good thing—the way it’s supposed to be, Agent Decker.”

He wasn’t going to let go of the agent title no matter how many times I said I was retired.

Kepner steepled his fingers then aimed them at me. “Here’s the deal. There’s been a serious breach of security at the Beowulf headquarters.”

“Excuse me, but first would you elaborate a little more on what exactly Beowulf is? What’s the function or mission?”

“I can’t give you any more explanation until we are in a protected and secure environment. All I can do at this point is echo the request from the President that your assistance is needed to help with a potentially grave threat to our national security. The United States and its allies are at risk. I would like for you to get ready and leave with me as quickly as you can.”

I’d promised myself I wouldn’t return to my old occupation in any fashion. I’d consulted on one job after retiring and it had nearly gotten me killed. But this . . . this sounded like something critical that truly put the nation in peril. I felt my resolve softening.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t say.”

“So you want me to take off with you to an undisclosed location to help with an undisclosed mission involving a government operation I’ve never heard of? Right now, in the middle of the night?” I plastered a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me expression on my face.

“That’s about it.”

I chuckled. “Who said the government doesn’t have a sense of humor.”

His expression quickly reverted to somber and so did mine. This was obviously a no-bullshit situation.

“Just one more thing. Don’t pack a bag—no clothes or toiletries. But bring your ID, including your passport. Everything else will be provided for you.”

I thought the request to take my passport was strange, especially since he carried so little. “Why my passport?”

“This may eventually require international travel.”

I stood, holding the 9mm at my side.

He pointed to it. “And no guns.”

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sholes-mooreAbout the authors

Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore are the #1 Amazon and international bestselling authors of THE SHIELD, THE BLADE (bestselling Amazon Kindle book), THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (#1 bestselling Amazon Kindle book) and the award-winning Cotten Stone thriller series: THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (#1 bestselling Amazon Kindle book), THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT, and THE 731 LEGACY. Their novels have been translated into 24 languages and are available online or at your favorite bookstore.