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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Click here to buy THE SHIELD instantly, and keep reading!

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.

THE TESLA LEGACY by Rebecca Cantrell

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Here is a treat! Hot off the press, read the beginning of The Tesla Legacy, the sequel to the award-winning  The World Beneath.  We bet you’ll love it!

PROLOGUE
Winter, 1896
46 E. Houston Street
New York, New York

Most men would not care about a simple pigeon, but Nikola Tesla was not most men. And so, when the pigeon found him in the vastness of the city, he recognized her as his own. Each dawn, her white wings cut through the cold air of New York and carried her over the bustle of horses and men to his windowsill. In the many months he had known her, she had come to trust him enough to feed from his palm, her cold beak tapping against his skin.

On this winter morning, he stood with his window thrown open longer than usual, waiting for her. He checked his gold pocket watch again and again.

Finally, a white dot appeared against the gray light of dawn. The dot stuttered and dropped in changing air currents. Worry fluttered in his heart as he watched her erratic flight.

She landed on the snowy windowsill, scattering clots of snow onto his rug and down toward the street below. With extreme care, he cupped her body. Her feathers were scarcely colder than the flesh beneath. Her silver eyes looked dull, but showed no alarm—she trusted him.

He brought her inside to the perch in an empty cage next to his bed. His other pigeons cooed in their cages, but she took no notice of them. Her head drooped down to her white breast. She had spent her energy reaching him.

When she warmed, he would feed her. His pigeon keeper, Mr. Smith, would arrive later that morning, and Nikola would ask him what else they could do for her. Mr. Smith had a deep knowledge of pigeons and their maladies. Surely he could make her well.

Nikola washed his hands and watched her from his stiff chair. With each blink, her familiar silver eyes disappeared for longer and longer, until they failed to open at all. Her chest no longer vibrated with breath.

With a sigh, he lifted the limp body from her perch. She had come to him, not to be healed, but to die in warmth and peace. At least he had been able to grant her that.

He cradled the soft body between his palms before placing her inside a plain wooden box lined with a monogrammed handkerchief. He wrapped the warm silk around her like a shroud. Later, he would bury her in the park, but he must first do his day’s work.

He set the box on the table next to his bed, washed his hands again, and went to breakfast. He met with Mr. Smith to tell him only that the white pigeon had passed away, and that he would bury her himself. Mr. Smith said that nothing more could have been done for her, and she was fortunate to have a safe, loving place to take her last breaths. Nikola only nodded, and Mr. Smith did not press him further.

Mr. Smith was the only person who understood about Nikola and the pigeon. Other men would have considered him mad, but Nikola had loved the hen for a long time. The sight of her coming for her morning corn had moved him more than the arrival of his most distinguished visitors. Today was to have been a day of triumph, but melancholy had marred it. She, the most loving constant in his life, had left him.

Her image followed him down to his basement. With one hand in the pocket of his overcoat, he walked through the empty room. Today’s experiment must be conducted here, and not in his upstairs laboratory—not in front of his assistants. He wanted no announcements in the press before he was ready, as had happened so often before.

Tall wood-framed cages held the tenants’ belongings—ordinary items like bedding and furniture and brass candlesticks. Between the cages ran a line of steel columns. Those steel bars faithfully bore the weight of the building above. Taken for granted, they performed their essential task year after year, unyielding and eternal.

He stopped next to the column in the center of the room. Its base rooted deep into the earth beneath his feet, and its crown rose far above his head. This humble steel would serve as the perfect material on which to test his newest device.

When he drew a metal object about twice the size of a deck of cards from the pocket of his jacket, a feeling of satisfaction dulled his grief. He held the device in his palm just as he had recently held the pigeon, with reverence. An uninformed observer would see only the object’s square base with its dial and a curiously turned steel cylinder rising a few inches from the top. This rounded casing could withstand temperatures of more than two hundred degrees and pressure of more than four hundred pounds per square inch.

Nikola visualized the highly efficient pistons he had built inside, supreme examples of the art and skill that marked his peculiar genius.

His long fingers stroked the casing. Ordinary looking, but holding immense power. He had built it to test a principle that appeared innocuous, but could destroy Earth itself—a bountiful earth that contained him, his family, and, until recently, a precious white pigeon.

No one else had recognized this resonance, nor thought to harness it, because no one else heard the vibrations of objects as he did. No one else but he felt the telltale tremble of everyday things with their fingertips.

Using simple wooden clamps, he affixed the device to the steel column, tugging on the cylinder to make certain that it couldn’t be dislodged easily. He touched two fingers to the thick column so that his fingertips barely grazed the metal. With the other hand, he turned the dial.

He pictured pistons inside moving in silent precision as they slowly accelerated to the requested speed, like a pigeon pumping its wings to fly. For a long moment he stood next to the column with his head cocked, listening with his ears as well as his fingers. He adjusted the device’s oscillation rate. Again, he waited and listened. He repeated this action countless times, seeking to tune his Oscillator to the natural vibration of the steel.

Eventually, the metal under his fingertips trembled to a faint life. His device had matched the frequency of the steel’s resonant frequency. Time would do the rest.

He left the Oscillator to its work while he unlocked a wooden storage unit containing spools of wire, a stained metal table holding egg-shaped globes of blown glass, and a ladder-back chair. He grasped the chair by its top rung and placed it next to the column, then dusted the seat with his handkerchief, sat, and crossed one long leg over the other. Again, he placed two fingers against the steel, like a doctor feeling for a pulse.

The metal’s deep song thrummed through his fingers and up his arm. The music vibrated in the synovial fluid in his shoulder, trilled through his stomach, and pressed against his ears. He closed his gray eyes to concentrate on the metal’s song, and a small smile crossed his pale face.

He was in tune with the steel.

Mesmerized, he listened too long. The steel trembled too quickly. An ordinary man might not have seen the change, but he did. Tiny oscillations, no bigger than a pigeon’s heartbeat, shivered the length of the column.

The column cracked, like lake ice breaking free after winter.
Sounds intruded on his consciousness—a siren, the tinkle of breaking glass, the creak of other steel columns flexing. His device had succeeded, but perhaps too well.

With one decisive movement, he stood and reached to turn it off. Hot steel seared his fingertips. He gritted his teeth and tried again, but the dial had frozen in position, and the clamps, too, would not budge.
His device pounded remorselessly on.

His usually calm heartbeat sputtered in his chest. If he didn’t stop the motion soon, the column itself might shatter. Even the surrounding columns might break apart. If so, this beautiful building would collapse and bury its occupants, including him and his pigeons upstairs. He would not let this building become their tomb.

He wheeled on the heel of one patent leather shoe and ran for the cage. Thinking it a useless precaution the night before, he had nonetheless given in to a niggling doubt. He had taken a sledgehammer from its usual location in the corner and rested its handle against the table’s edge.

Now he was grateful he had. In two long steps he reached the hammer. He wrapped his long white fingers around the handle and returned to his device. He lifted the hammer high and brought its head down on the deceptively small cylinder. The metal case cracked, but gears within continued to turn. He had engineered his device to withstand shock and force. Again, he brought down the hammer, and yet a third time.

The gears shrieked like a baby bird as metal ground against metal. He flinched, then hardened his heart against his creation. He smote it blow after blow until the misshapen steel fell to the floor and was still. He had stopped its mechanical heart.

Heavy fists pounded on the front door to the building, and angry voices outside shouted for admittance. He had only minutes before one of his neighbors let them inside. He must not be found down here with the device. It was still too hot to touch, so he kicked it into a corner with the toe of his shoe. He polished that toe against the back of his immaculate trousers, smoothed his hair, and settled his jacket into place.

His long legs skipped every other stair as he flew to his laboratory. He entered and closed the door quietly behind him. His assistants looked at him with surprise. He smiled to allay their suspicions and glanced around the laboratory.

Glass had broken in this room, too. The windows had given way, and one assistant sported a thin cut across his cheek. An oval bulb lay shattered on the floor.

His device’s power was writ large in the destruction that surrounded him.

Curious and exhilarating to think that something so small could produce such dramatic changes in the world. Yet he himself, like every man on Earth, had grown from something as small as an egg.
Angry voices grew louder. He couldn’t yet make out their words, but he understood the tone and recognized an Irish accent. The local constabulary, then.

Knuckles rapped against the door to his laboratory. Nikola glanced around once before calling out, “Enter!”

The door slammed open, and two men strode inside. They looked like life-size windup dolls in matching blue uniforms with silver buttons and with handlebar mustaches and worried eyes. They glared at him, although they could not know that he was at fault.

“There was an earthquake!” shouted the one in front, the leader. He was the fatter of the two, and he had the larger mustache—blond shrubbery against a face as freckled as a plover’s egg.

“A horse fell down and was almost run over by the cab.” The other policeman clenched his meaty fists.

“I don’t suppose you know about that?” asked the leader.

Both men hovered in the wooden doorway as if afraid to venture inside.

Nikola would not have let the building bury his hen, or himself. “The danger is past.”

“What danger do you mean? Why is it past?” The man’s freckles squirmed when he spoke.

“Why, the earthquake. I felt it here in the laboratory.” Nikola gestured to the broken glass on the floor so that they would see he hadn’t been spared. “It knocked my bulbs off the table and broke my windows, but it is over now, yes?”

Such a machine! It intrigued him; it did not frighten him. His heart soared at the thought of what such a device could do—send messages perhaps, or destroy rock for mining. Glorious possibilities flashed through his mind. If only mankind had the wisdom to harness such power for good use.

The freckled policeman looked at him with his mouth still partially open. Native intelligence and suspicion shone from his snapping blue eyes. “Just a simple earthquake then?”

“What else could it be, my good man?” Their imaginations could conceive of nothing but this natural explanation.

The man fingered the long black stick he carried in his belt. He looked as if he wanted to take it and strike Nikola.

Nikola drew himself up to his full height and stared him down. “That will be all.”

Anger flashed across the man’s face, but he turned away, dismissed. He had not found what he sought, and so he retreated.
Nikola thought again of the wisdom and courage his beloved bird had displayed by knowing how to find him and coming across snow and cold to say farewell. He had never met a person like her. And he never would.

He had already filed a patent for his device, which he had named the Oscillator, but he must revise the patent’s specification so that the device could not be built properly from those plans. Mankind was not ready for a weapon of such power.

He would rebuild the device, refine, and test it again, until he knew that he could control it, because he could not leave it uncompleted. After that, he would hide it away. The true device could be used only by one of uncommon courage and wisdom. He doubted that he would ever come to know such a person.
And so the device must remain hidden.

June 28, 1983
Mianus River Bridge
Greenwich, Connecticut

George Tesla was drunk. This wasn’t new for him, but the reason was. He was going to be a father. Fifty years old, and he’d knocked up a thirty-year-old carnie. Someone careful enough to live through a trapeze act ought to be careful enough to not get pregnant. But she hadn’t been.

Tatiana flat-out refused to talk about abortion or adoption or any sensible solution to the problem. She was perfectly willing to talk about leaving him to raise the baby alone, but nothing else. Her mind was set.

He leaned against the cold side of the bridge and took a long sip of Jack Daniel’s from his silver hip flask. He’d bought the flask when he was first made professor of mathematics at New York University. Another thing that would have to change, since Tatiana had told him she had no intention of giving up performing to move to New York and be a faculty wife. He couldn’t imagine the fiery Romanian trading her sequined leotards for wool skirts and pearls.

He dropped the flask in the pocket of his tweed jacket, where it clinked against the other metal object he carried. Before he met Tatiana, he’d gone on a quest to find this little thing. It had been hidden before his birth, but he’d found it anyway. He’d carried it around for years—its weight a constant reminder that he was squandering a great legacy. Many things were possible for those smart enough and daring enough. He suspected that he was neither.

A car roared down the road, its headlights blinding him. For good measure, the driver honked at him—another good citizen chastising him for being up here on a public road, drunk, at one in the morning. But he had nowhere else to be.

Seventy feet below, the black river rolled along like tar. If he jumped, that would solve his problem. He filed this away for later consideration.

He fumbled the metal object out of his pocket and set it on the railing next to him. It didn’t look like much—a square metal base with a cylinder sticking out the top—but Nikola Tesla had told his father that it could do great things. Nikola Tesla had patented it, but it had never worked. George wondered if he had patented a flawed device on purpose, to discredit his own theory. If so, maybe the object next to him could do great things.

He tapped his flask against the side of the device in a fake toast. “To great things. For one of us.”

The device didn’t answer, so he wasn’t that drunk. Maybe it knew it wouldn’t work.

But if it didn’t work, why had its creator entrusted the secret of its existence to only one man? George’s father said that he was the only one who knew about it, and he must have been, because once George had figured out its location, he’d found the device waiting for him. If anyone else had known where to find it, they would have taken it.

He dumped the flask and the device into his pocket and swung one leg over the railing. He wasn’t going to jump. He was a scientist, and he was going to do an experiment.

He rested his feet against the outside lip of the bridge. The river rushed below, dark and deep and cold, and he held on to the cold metal railing with both hands. At least now nobody above could see him and beep at him.

Eventually, he persuaded himself to unclench one hand from the railing. It took him a few tries, because he was working one-handed, and he nearly dropped the device twice, but eventually he managed to clamp it to the side of the bridge. The device stuck out like an accusing finger. Like Tatiana’s accusing finger.

He cocked his head and listened. No cars close by. The bridge was empty. Timing wouldn’t get any better than this. Time to start his experiment.

He turned the tiny dial on the top of the device. It immediately started thumping away. He gaped at it. He’d replaced the power source with batteries, but he hadn’t expected the old mechanism to work. He played with the dial, trying to match the natural resonance of the steel. Eventually, he seemed to get it dialed in, because the bridge started to vibrate against his stomach.

It didn’t feel like much, maybe like a truck driving by. Not even a truck. A car. A little convertible. Not a threat.

Headlights appeared in the distance, and he swore. From the sound of the engine, a semi-trailer truck was approaching. Probably nothing to worry about, but he ought to shut the thumper down just in case. He reached for the device, missed it on his first drunken swipe. Was it his imagination, or was the bridge shaking?

Heat blistered his fingertips when he touched the dial, and it didn’t budge. He couldn’t turn the damn thing off. He could let go and fall in the water, let all this be someone else’s problem, but his hand refused to release the railing. Maybe fear, or maybe a sense of responsibility.

Either way, he had to do something. He pulled the flask out of his pocket and used it to pound on the device. It moved a hair, then another. The truck thundered closer, its driver completely oblivious. Another truck was tucked behind it. A convoy, trucking through the night.

When the truck hit the span George was holding on to, the bridge let out a tremendous crack. The device fell, and he instinctively caught it, his hand slipping off the bridge.

He tumbled toward the river. His feet hit the water first. It felt like he’d landed on concrete, and the force drove him deep underwater. He fought for the surface. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to stand by Tatiana. He wanted to see his child.

By the time his head broke the surface, he’d traveled a hundred yards downstream, still clutching the device. The span he’d been standing on had collapsed. He watched as a semi barreled right over the broken edge of the bridge and landed nose-down on the stony bank where another truck had already fallen. The drivers were likely dead.

Another car piled on, then a screech of brakes.

His head went under. He still held the device. It had burned his palm, but he didn’t let go. He couldn’t let it out of his possession.

He’d killed the men in those trucks, the people in that car. One drunken mistake, and now those people weren’t going home to their families, to their daughters and sons. He could never make that right.
The current dragged him relentlessly onward.

Present day

Subway tunnels trap New York’s heat. Heat soaks into sticky pavements and tired sidewalks. Hot, humid air blows into the tunnels’ open mouths and lingers in the dark places until fall.

Joe Tesla tried to pretend he enjoyed the heat in the upper tunnels, but it reminded him of the second ring of hell. Summer was meant to be spent outside, basking in the sun, his father had always said. Good times, not the second ring of hell.

Joe walked between steel rails that brought trains from the rest of New York into Grand Central Terminal. His service dog, a golden retriever/yellow Labrador mix named Edison, panted at his side. They were performing what was becoming a daily ritual in which Joe went to the limits of the darkness, just to see if today he could break out into the light. Aversion therapy, psychiatrists called it.

It wasn’t working, but he would not give up. Today, more than ever, he wanted to break free of his self-imposed darkness and go outside into the light and fresh air. He wanted to go outside to say good-bye.
Ahead, a square of daylight beckoned. Gray light filtered in at the end of the rectangular tunnel. He drank in the sight of shining silver tracks, a bird’s shadow on the ground, a tree in the distance. A real, green, living tree. Outside.

He’d long ago memorized the train schedules, and he and Edison had enough time to make it to the light before the next one arrived. Following his training, Edison stayed closed by Joe’s leg and far from the third rail. They were safe, from trains at least.

Joe knelt to cover Edison’s sensitive ears as a scheduled train approached on a nearby track. It posed no threat to him, but he worried that the noise couldn’t be good for the dog. The animal’s brown eyes met his, calm as always. Nothing seemed to faze the yellow dog. If Joe could be like one creature on Earth, he’d pick Edison. Not that he got to pick.

The train passed, and Joe let go of the dog and started forward again. He was still in the shadows where the gray light didn’t reach. Hot outside air stroked his cheeks. It smelled of cinder and smog, but also a little of the sea and green grass, or so he liked to think.

He walked toward the light, and his breathing sped up. He forced himself to slow his breaths, hoping that would calm him down, but knowing it wouldn’t. He fought this knowledge with each shuddering breath. He wiped his wet forehead on his sleeve and kept breathing.

Then full adrenaline kicked in. His heart got into the action, beating at twice its normal rate. It felt as if he’d just sprinted across a football field.

If his heart didn’t stop racing, he was going to die. Panic coursed through his veins. He had to run back into the tunnels. He’d be safe there.

He used every scrap of willpower to keep his trembling legs from bolting down the tunnel of their own accord. He wasn’t going to die. Nobody ever died of a panic attack. He repeated that twice, as if his body might believe the words. It didn’t. But today he had to try harder. For his mother’s sake. And his father’s.

First, he must get his heart under control. He closed his eyes and imagined he was somewhere safe. He was standing in front of his underground house. The house was a yellow Victorian, with red and white trim, bright and sturdy, protected in its cocoon of rock. Its paint gleamed in the orange light shed by round, hand-blown light bulbs strung overhead.

He pictured each detail—the three steps up to the front porch, the white door he dusted until it gleamed, the wrought-iron wall lantern that he always left on, the windows upstairs and down decorated with stained-glass flowers and leaves. Inside that house, he was safe. He took a deep breath. Safe.

Keeping the picture of his house in his head, he took a step forward. He didn’t dare open his eyes. Edison pressed against his leg, and the contact comforted Joe. He wasn’t alone. Edison was always there. He took another step.

Hot air brushed his face, a breeze from outside. He opened his eyes the tiniest crack. A thread of light leaked in. His heart slammed against his ribs so hard it felt as if it might break out of his chest and roll into the tunnels behind him.

His breath came fast and ragged. He tried to control his breaths, slow them down, but his body had taken over. His tense muscles begged to flee. He was so close to the outside. And he couldn’t take another step.

Retching, he leaned forward. Edison fastened his teeth on Joe’s pant leg and pulled. He tottered, terrified he might fall into the light. He caught his balance and let the dog pull him backward, step by step, into the familiar darkness.

His stomach roiled. The first time he’d tried this had been after breakfast, and he’d thrown up on the tracks. He knew better now, and came here only on an empty stomach.

Edison nudged his nose under Joe’s hand and tilted his head back. He urged Joe to pet him, to relax. Joe ran his hand along the dog’s warm back. His legs still shook, but he didn’t feel as if he were about to die anymore. He petted the dog, controlled his breathing, and slowly calmed down. He wasn’t going to die, but he wasn’t going to go outside either. Not today.

He’d turned his back on the light as he fled, but he faced it again now. The entrance was an empty mouth that mocked him. The light and wind and trees might be forever out of his reach. But he had gone nearly a yard farther than yesterday. Not enough, but progress.

A train came through, again on a different track, and he covered the dog’s ears. The simple act of protecting Edison brought him all the way back to himself. After the train passed, he pulled a dog treat out of his pocket and gave it to Edison. “You earned this, buddy.”

The dog swallowed it in a single gulp.

Joe headed toward the tunnels that led to Grand Central Terminal. Today, his brain had betrayed him—something he’d grown to expect. Once, he’d prized his brain. It understood things that other brains didn’t. His brain had led him out of a difficult childhood into early entrance to Massachusetts Institute of Technology—on a full scholarship—while other boys his age were freshmen in high school. His brain had let him coast through his classes, earn his degrees, found his own company, and retire a multimillionaire before most people bought their first house. It had been a good brain, but now it wouldn’t even let him sit in the sunlight.

But he had to cut his brain some slack—it wasn’t at fault. Someone had poisoned it, and he had blood tests to prove that poison had caused his crippling agoraphobia. Since he’d found that out, he’d spent a great deal of time and money trying to discover who had poisoned him and why. He’d investigated everyone who had access to his food and drink on his last days outside, but all his inquiries had led nowhere.

A large key ring at his belt jangled when he stumbled over a train tie. The keys came with the house—they provided access to all the doors in the tunnel system. With these keys, he, and he alone, could open each door in his subterranean world and see what lay behind it. Too bad his brain wasn’t so straightforward.

Edison bumped Joe’s knee with his nose, as if to remind him he was OK. That his life still had good things. That he was safe.
If only it were that easy.

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cantrell_150pixcolorNew York Times bestselling author Rebecca Cantrell’s novels have won the Bruce Alexander and the Macavity awards and been nominated for the Barry, Mary Higgins Clark, APPY, RT Reviewers Choice, and Shriekfest Film Festival awards. She and her husband and son just left Hawaii’s sunny shores for adventures in Hannah Vogel’s hometown–Berlin.

Copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Cantrell

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PLAGUES OF EDEN by Sharon Linnéa and B.K. Sherer

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Plagues 7 Hail

The Eden Thrillers have sold over half a million copies worldwide. Why? Start reading…

Saturday, November 10, 2007, 6:38 p.m.      Tell el-Balamun, Egypt

Dr. Samuel Golding squinted, trying in vain to focus on the mud-yellow brick from the porch of the ancient temple he was unearthing . The young archeologist had spent the last three hours on his knees, painstakingly brushing silt and dirt from the object. With a sigh, he leaned back to squat on his heels and survey the dig site. The temple was much older even than the 3rd century library sitting above it, and he no longer had enough light to continue.

Another day was now over on this, the strangest dig he’d ever worked.
Sam was the Assistant Project Leader for the British Museum excavation at Tell el-Balamun and the de facto project head, since the team leader was not available due to the unusual timing of this off-cycle dig. This project in the Central Nile Delta of Egypt would not unearth the type of tourist-frenzied structures like Luxor or Giza—which suited him just fine. The team’s work on these ancient Egyptian temples could progress with little outside interference.

He started packing up his tools for the day. The porch would wait until tomorrow. It wasn’t going anywhere.

“’Night, Boss,” said his assistant, Ibrahim. “Going into town tonight?”

“Don’t think so,” Sam replied. He brushed the dust off his signature Sandhurst t-shirt and shook out his cargo pants.

It wasn’t simply that he was tired. He wanted time to mull. Odd things had been happening on this dig, and he wanted some peace and quiet to think.

He sat down on a canvas camp chair and poured himself a glass of chardonnay from a bottle he kept in his cooler. Sometimes, these bricks seemed to him to be miniature time machines. When he touched one, it was as if he were propelled back, hearing the voices and conversations of those who had stood in this place many centuries ago. He envisioned what they were wearing, heard the sounds of the city around them, smelled the odors of animals and incense.

But now there was a discordant note. He had found several objects in this dig that, while ancient, were not from this place or time period. In fact, not even close. How to report these?

He didn’t want to do anything that would call the validity of the whole dig into question. And yet…the pieces didn’t fit.

It was the time of evening military called EENT, or early evening nautical twilight. The horizon was becoming indistinct and stars were just beginning to twinkle. It looked like there would be little haze this evening, and the clear Egyptian night would provide a nice backdrop for the heavens in all their glory. Maybe he should have been an astronomer instead of an archeologist. No, scratch that. He could enjoy the night sky without knowing how far away the stars were or what made them twinkle. But he could not pass by a mound of earth without wondering what ancient treasure might be hidden beneath.

Sam sipped his wine and looked to the northwest just in time to spot a falling star.
Wow, what a nice tail on that one…

But it didn’t fade. Instead, it seemed to grow brighter, larger.

What?

He stood and stared, unmoving, as the fireball plummeted, hitting the ground with a loud explosion a half mile to his east. In one fluid move he dropped his wine glass and dove behind the nearest dirt pile, his mind flashing back to bombs exploding when he was a young officer in Northern Ireland.

Heads began popping out of tents, just in time to see another “falling star” close in and burn up just before hitting the ground a quarter of a mile to the west.

Within moments, the camp was in pandemonium, everyone running back and forth, searching for cover. Ibrahim and one of the local diggers who were heading into town were caught between the tents and the dig’s rattletrap car. They both made a run for the extra protection of the vehicle. It was a rusty old station wagon that had survived 20 years as transport for the team. Sam watched as they each dove in a door and rolled up the windows. He wondered if he would be safer joining them than lying sprawled behind a dirt pile.

What was going on?

And then there were more. It was like a hailstorm—if the hail was made of fire.
A much larger piece headed straight for Sam’s hiding place, then split in two at the last minute. One part burned up before reaching the ground, the other impacted the car where his fellow workers had taken cover.

The largest part of the rock had crashed through the roof of the car; other parts had shorn off and hit the doors of the vehicle. One had apparently ruptured the gas line. From where he was, Sam now smelled gasoline mingling with the burning sulfur from space.

“Get out!” he screamed, standing and rushing for the station wagon.

But it was too late.

Fire continued to rain down, and some landed, still burning, close enough to the vehicle that the fumes, then the spilled gasoline on the ground, and finally the remainder of the tank, ignited.

Sam covered his head but he felt the ground shake as the car exploded. He stayed flattened against the ground, fully expecting to be hit by debris from the explosion or the sky, fully expecting the next second to be his last on Earth.

It took a moment after the explosion for the ringing in his ears to stop, and for him to regain enough equilibrium to discern which way was up. Then he raised his head, saw the burning vehicle, and launched himself toward it.

He disregarded the continuing rain of fiery meteors as he tried desperately to get to his friends. He circled the car, looking for an opening, but the fire was so hot he couldn’t get close enough to open a door. He looked through the flames for some hint of movement within, but saw and heard nothing. Several others saw what had happened and also ignored personal safety to come and try to help.

There was nothing to be done. The car was obliterated.

Another five minutes of chaos, and then darkness, and silence. As suddenly as the firestorm had begun, it was over.

Team members began emerging from tents, moving slowly and carefully in case the danger wasn’t over. Grabbing flashlights, they looked for anyone who might require assistance.

What they found was Dr. Sam Golding standing motionless in front of a burning station wagon, wondering how the ancients would have responded to the gods showing their anger by sending a mighty firestorm to obliterate whatever and whoever was below.

For this was an act of destruction, one whose consequences would reverberate for years to come.

Why had it come into their dig? Their lives? Why had it taken two of their own?
Strands of horror, hurt, anger, and loss wove together inside of Sam, a feeling as primal as had been felt in this very spot, millennia before. He dropped to his knees, screaming from his gut, until he could scream no more.

 

Saturday, November 10, 2007, 1:05 p.m.   postcard cadet chapel

Cadet Chapel, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York

Jaime stood in the back of the Cadet Chapel at West Point, hidden from view by a series of screens and surrounded by her bridesmaids: best friend Lexi Kent Monroe, sister Susan and sister-in-law Dani.

Jaime didn’t mind officiating at weddings, though given her druthers, she’d choose a funeral any day. At funerals, people were always grateful. Weddings—well, weddings were never quite the dream-come-true, and you were likely to run smack into a dozen sets of expectations.

For many years of her life, Jaime had assumed she would never get married. Not that she had anything against marriage, but she tended to fall for knight-errant types who were too busy slaying dragons to consider applying for a mortgage.

And yet, ten years ago she had become engaged to, and had married, her first knight-errant, her long-time boyfriend Paul, in the space of a week so their dying friend could help plan and host the wedding. Paul had been killed three months later. Case in point.

Even knowing the very real dangers of marrying a knight-errant, Jaime had managed to find herself another one.

“Okay, okay, I have to say it,” injected Lexi in a stage whisper. “I can’t believe Shepard’s here! A freaking rock star! And you’re not having him sing!”

The mention of Mark Shepard’s name brought Jaime up short. They were all beyond excited about having an A-list celebrity among them.

“He sang at Jaime’s first wedding,” said Susan, then she stopped herself. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up Paul. Oh, I mean—”

“It’s all right,” Jaime smiled. “Shepard and Paul were close.”

“Having him here is like having Paul’s blessing,” said Lexi.

Truth was, Jaime did feel like she had Paul’s blessing. Paul would have enjoyed Yani.

However, unbeknownst to the others, Jaime no longer thought of Mark solely in the context of Paul. It was hard to hear Mark’s songs or see photos of him without remembering a particularly wonderful afternoon in France in a hot tub—and remembering Mark’s sculpted torso and the happiness  she and the musician had shared in each other’s company.

That particular night had not ended well, through no fault of Mark’s or her own.

Get a grip, Jaime, she breathed.

But why was he here?

The first notes of Handel’s “Water Music” reverberated through the huge Gothic chapel, and everyone’s adrenaline level skyrocketed.  As Dani walked out from behind the screen and started up the aisle, Jaime closed her eyes. You’ve been in war zones. You’ve been kidnapped. You’ve locked yourself in the trunk of a maniac’s BMW. If you survived that, you can surely survive this.

Susan was off, and Lexi was ready to move into place.

“Hello, Jaime,” came the familiar voice that saved her, that pulled her back to herself. It was Abe Derry, under whom she had served during Operation Iraqi Freedom. There was no one, save her own father, whom she would rather have walk her down the aisle. Not to mention, as a two-star general, Abe looked extremely impressive in his uniform.

And as a Gardener, Abe knew Yani in a way that very few others here did.

“You’re marrying Sword 23, Jaime, really?” he said with a grin.

Yes, Sword 23—as Yani was still known—was a legend among Gardeners. And yes, she was marrying him.

At that moment, the first notes of the Trumpet Voluntary began, and she and Abe took their place at the center of the very long aisle.

Jaime looked forward, under the gothic arched ceiling, past the flags hanging from the walls on either side, past the rows of brown wooden pews crowned with red hymnals. The bridesmaids had taken their places to the left. Her brother Joey and the other two groomsmen stood to the right, and Lexi’s father, the Rev. Asher Kent, stood in the center of the aisle. Everyone had turned. All eyes were on her.

Yet all that mattered was Yani, standing at the front of the chapel, at the foot of the steps, smiling at her. Even now, there was a catch in her throat whenever she saw him. When she came home from a day’s work and walked into the kitchen to see him pulling out pita bread and opening hummus, she had to pretend everything was normal. But how could it ever truly be normal? Sword 23—Yani—William Jonathan Burton, according to his Terris birth certificate—was in her kitchen.

In her living room.

In her bedroom. In her bed.

Like it was a normal thing.

Holy crap.

She would marry him fifty times, if she had to, and she would pretend he was just another groom, every time she did it.

By the time Jaime reached the rows of her family and friends, her mood had lifted considerably. It had finally become real to her that after the reception, she and Yani would have a week away, just to themselves. A whole week.  That had never happened Terris-side. And what a reception it would be!

The bride glanced to her left and saw activist and rock star Mark Shepard sitting on the aisle. Seated next to him was Chaplain Sherer, an old boss and mentor of Jaime’s, who’d met Mark at Jaime’s small wedding reception in Hochspeyer. The two of them got along well.

As Jaime passed their row, she saw that Mark was distracted.  He smiled at her as she passed, but kept glancing down. As she moved on up the aisle, she saw him lose his battle with himself and thrust his hand into his pocket to dig out his phone.

Really? I know you’re a rock star, but you can’t turn your phone off at a wedding? What could be so important that it couldn’t wait fifteen minutes?

Then they were in front of the chapel, and Abe had handed her off to her husband. Together they followed Reverend Kent past the choir stalls and up the five marble steps to the altar. Yani’s jet-black hair was cut just below his ears, and his dark eyes flashed fire. His face was nearly perfectly oval, with a square jaw that could be set at a dangerous angle. But now his whole face was smiling.

As they turned to face each other, to join hands to take their vows, it happened.

Jaime saw Yani’s watch, his top-secret watch, buzz, nearly silently, just once. For the merest split second, the watch face glowed blue. Probably no one but Jaime and Yani noticed it.

That never happened. It meant something was up – an emergency of international significance.

Now. Of course.

Frigging now.

Buy PLAGUES OF EDEN here, and keep reading!

Or start with Chasing Eden, the first of the bestselling Eden Thrillers, for only 99 cents!

The Eden Thrillers have sold over half a million copies worldwide. Plagues of Eden is the first book in the second trilogy, and a good place to start…unless you want to start at the beginning. The first book is Chasing Eden.

BIOS: Sharon Linnéa is a biographer who also writes thrillers and mysteries. She lives outside New York City with her family. B.K. Sherer is a Presbyterian minister and an active duty chaplain with the U.S. Army.

DEATH AND WHITE DIAMONDS by Jeff Markowitz

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Death and White Diamonds

Just nominated for a Lovey Award by the Mystery Writers and Readers of Chicago, Death and White Diamonds dives right in…

Chapter 1
Richie

The weather was changing, clouds blocking out the stars, wind whipping the surf into a frenzy. As high tide approached, the beach was nearly gone, just a narrow strip of sand between water’s edge and dune grass, the rhythm of the waves pounding at the shore, washing away the evidence. My attention was drawn to the distant lights of a lonely freighter. There was a chill in the air. I hardly noticed. The knife was still warm in my hand.

I looked down the beach. Not ten feet away lay Lorraine, her blouse ripped, an ugly gash just above her left breast, a delicate thread of blood making its way between her breasts and running down along her abdomen. I couldn’t take my eyes off the blood. Something in me stirred. Was it wrong that I saw her, at that moment, perhaps for the first time, achingly lovely?

I forced my eyes away from her chest and peered at my wristwatch, the hands luminous. Three a.m. We had walked down to the beach together shortly after midnight, through the dune grass, giggling. I’d been carrying two wine glasses and a bottle of merlot. Lorraine had been carrying a blanket. I remember thinking, at the time, the surf sounds angry. And then? I can’t remember. I’m fairly certain I wasn’t responsible for the death of Lorraine van Nessen. But it took no great powers of deduction to realize that I was going to be the prime suspect when Lorraine’s body was discovered. If Lorraine’s body was discovered.

I pictured Lorraine’s body floating out to the middle of Castleton Bay. I wondered how long it would take for her body to sink. And once it was submerged, I wondered whether it would stay underwater. I’d watched enough detective shows to realize that at least on television, bodies had a way of popping to the surface at the most inopportune moment, usually just before the first commercial break. I couldn’t take that chance.

Disposing of the body safely would be a gruesome bit of business. Still, I didn’t think Lorraine would mind.

Port Salmon was a ghost town in February, especially on the bay side of town, along Ocean Avenue, at three in the morning, the homes seasonal, rentals mostly, just a few hundred yards from the beach, but all of them empty during the off-season. Lorraine’s grandfather had built most of these homes and even in retirement, he looked after “his” houses. He remained one of the few year-round residents right up until the end. Lorraine was the only one left who made use of the house. And now that too was coming to an end.

I would have plenty of time to dispose of Lorraine’s body. I walked toward Ocean Avenue, turning back briefly to make sure that Lorraine wasn’t moving before hurrying back to the beach house. I didn’t have a plan, not at that point anyway. But I did have a glimmer of an idea.

I rooted through the cellar, searching for a proper tool. Fifteen minutes later I was back on the beach. As I made my way through the dune grass, I sensed a presence on the beach. I was not alone. Someone was crouching low over Lorraine. I held my breath, trying to get close enough to see without being seen. I looked again. Not someone, I realized. Something. A dog was sniffing at the body. I scanned the beach, praying the dog was a stray. Suddenly I felt bad for Lorraine.
Scat, I hissed, waving the hacksaw in the dog’s general direction. The dog snarled, but backed away. I threw a piece of driftwood down the beach and the dog took chase. I stared at Lorraine’s body, a woman’s body, plump and inviting, even in death, especially in death, her full hips, her perfect round breasts, the four inch gash just above her left breast. I’m sorry Lorraine, I whispered, for what I’m about to do.

It was slow work, with the hacksaw. Before long, I was breathing hard. My shirt was soaked with sweat, the sweat drying cold against my skin. I had to face a hard truth. I was out of shape, twenty pounds overweight, unused to physical labor. The hacksaw had not been designed to cut through sinew and bone. At least not by me. My arm grew numb, but I had little to show for my effort, her body scarred by the hacksaw blade, but still intact. I was making more mess than progress. The tide was coming in quickly now. I needed more time. Lorraine needed more time.

It’s funny, don’t you think? Whenever Lorraine wanted to talk about our relationship, about our future, I always put her off. We’ve got plenty of time for that later, I told her. All the time in the world. Now we needed more time.
Wrapping her scarred body in the blanket, I dragged Lorraine back through the dune grass. The path through the dunes was narrow and long. My feet sank in the soft sand. As I made my way through the dunes, the footing gradually grew firmer. When I reached the road that bordered the beach, I slung her over my shoulder and carried her across the street and down the deserted road until we arrived at the house. Pulling open the cellar door, I carried her body inside and collapsed in exhaustion at her side.

I imagine that most men would find it difficult to fall asleep next to a corpse, even if the corpse wasn’t your girlfriend, even if you weren’t about to be the prime suspect in her murder, even if you weren’t just a little bit turned on by the intimacy. I dipped my finger in the blood between her breasts. I drew my finger up to my lips. I wanted a taste. But that would be wrong. I kissed Lorraine lightly on the lips and said good-night.

I slept till mid-morning, on the floor in the cellar, Lorraine at my side, lying in a pool of dried blood and semen. I shook the stiffness from my shoulders and breathed in the day. The day, apparently, smelled of death and White Diamonds. Lorraine had a thing for Liz Taylor. Something about that made me happy.

I’m not a power tool kind of guy. When my friends talk about their home improvement projects, I fade into the background, silent, letting the do-it-yourselfers trade their tales of sheetrock and spackle, talking a language I don’t understand. I examined a large saw in the cellar, wondering what it was called – a table saw maybe – it didn’t really matter. Anything was better than making a second attempt with the hacksaw. I stared at the blade for several minutes before plugging in the saw.

Lorraine was obsessed with her weight, but she was not, in truth, a large woman. I had, on more than one occasion, picked her up and tossed her on the bed during intimate moments. But now that she was dead weight, moving her was more difficult. Lifting her, I stumbled and we both hit the floor hard. I got up slowly and rubbed my shoulder. Moving slowly now, I dragged her body up onto the table, pushing it toward the spinning blade. The machine hummed. I hummed along with it.

Making the first cut was hard, but the left hand came off easily enough. I tossed the hand in a trash bag at the foot of the saw and worked my way up her arm. I was encouraged by the results. I paused to admire the saw, the housing metallic red, the blade a beautiful steel gray, tipped in blood red. I was beginning to understand my friends’ fascination with power tools. I’d have one helluva story to tell, the next time we talked home improvement over a pitcher of pale ale.

Somehow I managed to block out the notion that it was Lorraine on the table, that it was Lorraine I was feeding to the whirring blade. Then I got to her head. Her blue eyes and blond hair. Her high cheekbones and full lips. I sat down on the cellar floor and gave myself permission to cry. I didn’t want to finish the job, but I knew there was no other way. It was time for me to man up. I cut through her neck, doing my best to avoid those baby blues staring at me, asking why. I put the head in its own trash bag, sealed it right away, and double bagged it. Once the head was removed, the job got easier. It wasn’t Lorraine anymore on the table. I found a rhythm to the job, systematically cutting and bagging and cleaning the detritus. I began to sing as I worked, without regard, at first for the song, one of my favorites, suddenly taking on a whole new meaning – The Right Tool for the Job. I smiled. It’s amazing how a little thing like that can brighten your whole day.

I tossed the final body part, Lorraine’s left foot and leg below the knee, into a trash bag and smiled at a job well-done. I looked at my watch. Two in the afternoon. It had taken nearly four hours to cut her up into disposable parts. I’d have to wait until dark before attempting to dispose of those parts. Until then, I needed a place to leave the trash bags. There was an enormous freezer in the cellar, large enough to feed a house full of guests in season. Out of season, it was easily large enough to handle Lorraine’s trash bags.

I was jazzed. I stood in front of the freezer, talking to the trash bags. I wished Lorraine were alive, so I could tell her what I had done. I had never felt quite as vibrant as I felt when I was cutting her up into little pieces. And I needed to tell her all about it. But isn’t that just like a woman? When they want to talk, they expect you to drop everything and listen. But now, when I really needed to talk to someone, Lorraine was ignoring me.

I’m not a handsome man. I’m just a little too short, a little too soft, my features a little too feminine. But covered in blood and dirt, I realized appearance was only a matter of perspective. Suddenly I felt taller, trimmer, more manly. I studied my features carefully. My face was rugged in a way I had never noticed before. I imagined myself dressed in tight blue jeans and white T-shirt, work boots and hard hat, endorsing a certain line of power tools.

I did a quick google search. You can find anything on the internet. Even so, it amazed me that they advertised so openly. There were hundreds of hits, the closest one just up the road a few miles. I’d never been to a massage parlor before. I consider myself a man of high moral standards. Under normal circumstances, I would never go to a place like that, never treat a woman that way. But these were not normal circumstances. Someone had murdered my girlfriend. I needed a woman to help me relax and Lorraine was no longer available.

I drove north on Route 9, looking for the Asian Paradise. I didn’t know what to expect and nearly turned back twice before spotting the small office building. It might have been an accountant’s office, or a dentist’s, but for the discreet sign in the window. I pulled my car into a space behind the office and parked, pleased to see a private entrance around back.

I tried the door, but it was locked. Perhaps it was closed for the winter. As I turned to leave, the door cracked open. An Asian woman of indefinable heritage and indeterminate age checked me out carefully. “Forty dollars,” she said, and smiled, pulling me inside the office.

For the next hour, it was all she said. I was relieved that she didn’t speak English. I didn’t want to know who she was, didn’t want to know what was on her mind. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do first. When she began to unbutton my shirt, I figured that I was supposed to get undressed. I stripped down to my boxer shorts and socks and waited. The Asian woman pointed and giggled. I knew what she meant, and slowly stripped off my boxer shorts. For reasons I didn’t entirely understand, I chose not to remove my socks. I lay face down on the massage table and waited.

As she worked on the knots in my shoulders, I found myself talking about Lorraine. We were not exactly lovers. What was the term the kids used? I tried to remember. Friends with benefits. That wasn’t quite right either. I wanted to explain, not for the Asian woman who was walking on my back. She had shown no evidence of knowing any English beyond her initial two-word greeting. No, I was talking to explain it to myself. Co-workers with benefits? That was closer to the truth. A matter of convenience for two lonely adults. Part of the company’s defined benefit package. Lorraine was an Assistant to the Vice President of Finance, five years older, two levels, at least, above me in the organizational chart. I was an entry-level quality assurance analyst, tracking performance by department. My job was to crunch numbers, and to display those numbers in fancy three-color pie charts, charts that were supposed to make the company look good, even when it wasn’t. I had a knack for making the numbers fit the company’s desired storyline. A generation past, I would have had a bright future at the company. But I knew it was only a matter of time before my job was outsourced to India. It was useful to have relations with an Assistant to the VP of Finance. I was going to miss her. “I’m going to miss Lorraine.”

The Asian masseuse climbed down off my back. I stopped talking while she finished the massage.

I dressed quickly and prepared to leave. The masseuse unlocked the door. “So sorry hear about Miss Lurlene. You come back, okay?”

I told myself it didn’t count as cheating. After all, Lorraine was dead. You can’t cheat on a corpse. A dismembered corpse at that. So why did I feel guilty? As I drove back to the house, I considered my options. I had come to Port Salmon at Lorraine’s urging, to spend a long week-end, off-season. I’m not one to understand the appeal of a deserted beach in the cold of February, but Lorraine had insisted, using words like trust, and commitment, and bonding. She promised me a week-end I would never forget. So why was it that I couldn’t remember what happened out there on the beach? Now Lorraine was dead, in pieces, in the freezer.

Some people might interpret my decision to chop her up as evidence of guilt. But they would be wrong. Chopping her into pieces had been a difficult, but necessary step to protect my own innocence. In my favor, no one knew I had come to Port Salmon with Lorraine. And no one knew that she was dead.

I couldn’t just carry the body parts down to the water’s edge and set them adrift like little toy boats, the S.S. Lorraine, a fleet of S.S. Lorraines, set them adrift in the current, and watch them sail off until, one by one, they sank to the bottom of the bay. Because, by morning, the currents would wash those body parts back up to shore. By morning, along with the seaweed and the hermit crabs, the driftwood, oyster shells and egg casings, the beach would be littered with Lorraine.

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Death JeffJeff Markowitz is the author of the darkly comic mystery/thriller, Death and White Diamonds, as well as three books in the Cassie O’Malley mystery series. He loves to write early in the morning.  “You can usually find me at my computer at 5:30 in the morning plotting someone’s murder.” When he’s not out looking for dead bodies, Jeff keeps busy as the founder and Executive Director of a nonprofit agency serving adults with autism. Jeff is a proud member of the International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America.

Learn more at Jeff Markowitz.com