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Review of Bittersweet Memories by Cecelia Dowdy

9781602603547 Bittersweet Memories by author Cecelia Dowdy was my first christian fiction romance novel. I must say, thoroughly enjoyed this book.

As I started reading, I learned about Karen Brown and how her fiance had  embezzled money from their church and ran off with his assistant.  This left Karen feeling heartbroken, abandoned, and confused. Overall, leading her to return home to her childhood home with her mother in Annapolis, Maryland. After returning home,  she comes to realize lots of things have changed.

If you are looking to read something  good and wholesome, this is the book for you.
I personally enjoyed getting to know each character, seeing their weaknesses, and following their walks with God through the thick and the thin.


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First: Mohamed’s Moon by Keith Clemons

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Mohamed’s Moon

Realms (May 5, 2009)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Keith Clemens is a native of Southern California and graduate of English Literature at California State University, Fullerton. His passion for communication has resulted in the publication of more than a hundred articles. Today, in addition to writing, he appears on radio and television where he uses his communications skills to explain coming trends that will affect both the church and society at large. Clemens lives with his wife and daughter in Caledon, Ontario, Canada and has written five novels including Angel in the Alley and the award winning If I Should Die, These Little Ones, and Above The Stars.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99
Paperback
Publisher: Realms (May 5, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1599795256
ISBN-13: 978-1599795256

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Sun sparkles on the Nile in flecks of gold, shimmering like the mask of Tutankhamen. The decaying wood boat—a felucca—is as ancient as the flow that passes beneath its hull, its sail a quilt-work of patches struggling to catch the wind. The craft creaks with the prodding of the rudder, bringing it about to tack across the current, cutting toward land with wind and water breaking against its bow. All along the shore a pattern emerges: villages sandwiched between checkerboard squares of cornfields, sugarcane, and cotton bolls. In the distance a barefoot girl herds sheep, goading them with a stick. At the sound of their bleating, a water buffalo foraging in the marsh lifts its head, causing the birds on its back to take flight. A dark-robed woman stoops to wash her dishes in the canal. Purple lilies clog the water in which a small boy also swims.

The cluster of yellow mud-brick homes erupts out of the ground like an accident of nature, a blemish marring the earth’s smooth surface. There are fewer than a hundred, each composed of mud and straw—the same kind of brick the children of Israel made for their Egyptian taskmasters. Four thousand years later, little has changed.

Those living here are the poorest of the poor, indigent souls gathered from Egypt’s overpopulated metropolitan centers and relocated to work small parcels of land as part of a government-sponsored program to stem the growth of poverty. It’s the dearth that catches your eye, an abject sense of hopelessness that has sent most of the young men back into the cities to find work and thrust those who stayed behind into deeper and more odious schools of fundamentalist Islam.

… …

Zainab crouched at the stove, holding back the black tarha that covered her hair. She reached down and shoveled a handful of dung into the arched opening, stoking the fire. The stove, like a giant clay egg cut in half, was set against the outside wall of the dwelling. She blew the smoldering tinder until it erupted into flame, fanning the fumes away from her watering eyes while lifting the hem of her black galabia as she stepped back, hoping to keep the smoke from saturating her freshly washed garment.

She had bathed and, in the custom of Saidi women, darkened her eyes and hennaed her hair just as Nefertiti once did, though it was hard to look beautiful draped in a shroud of black. She fingered her earrings and necklace, pleased at the way the glossy dark stones shone in the light. Mere baubles perhaps, but Khalaf had given them to her, so their value was intrinsic.

He had been away more than a month, attending school. She hadn’t been able to talk to him, but at least his brother, Sayyid—she cringed, then checked herself—had been kind enough to send word that today would be a day of celebration. It had to mean Khalaf was coming home. She brought a hand up, feeling the scarf at the back of her head. She wanted him to see her with her hair down, her raven-dark tresses lustrous and full, but that would have to wait.

She went inside to prepare a meal of lettuce and tomatoes with chicken and a dish called molohaya made of greens served with rice. It was an extravagance. Most days they drank milk for breakfast and in the evening ate eggs or beans. She’d saved every extra piaster while her husband was away, walking fifteen miles in the hot Egyptian sun to sell half of the beans she’d grown just so they’d be able to dine on chicken tonight. Khalaf would be pleased.

She turned toward the door. A beam of yellow light streamed into the room, revealing specks of cosmic dust floating through the air. She brought her hands to her hips, nodding. Everything was ready. She’d swept the straw mat and the hard dirt floor. The few unfinished boards that composed the low table where they would recline were set with ceramic dishware and cups. Even the cushion of their only other piece of furniture, the long low bench that rested against the wall, had been taken outside and the dust beaten from its seams.

Not counting the latrine, which was just a stall surrounding a hole in the ground that fed into a communal septic system, the house boasted only three rooms. One room served as the kitchen, living room, and dining room. The other two were small bedrooms. The one she shared with her husband, Khalaf, was barely wide enough for the dingy mattress that lay on the dirt floor leaking tufts of cotton. The other was for their son, who slept on a straw mat with only a frayed wool blanket to keep him warm.

She wiped her hands on her robe, satisfied that everything was in order. If Sayyid was right and Khalaf had news to celebrate, he would be in good spirits, and with a special dinner to complete the mood, perhaps she would have a chance to tell him.

She thought of the letter hidden safely under her mattress. Maybe she’d get to visit her friend in America and?.?.?.?best not to think about that. Please, Isa, make it so.

She reached for the clay pitcher on the table and poured water into a metal pot. Returning to the stove outside, she slipped the pot into the arched opening where it could boil. Khalaf liked his shai dark and sweet, and for that, the water had to be hot.

… …

The boy danced around the palm with his arms flailing, balancing the ball on his toe. He flipped it into the air and spun around to catch it on his heel and then kicked it back over his shoulder and caught it on his elbow, keeping it in artful motion without letting it touch the ground. He could continue with the ball suspended in air for hours by bouncing it off various limbs of his body. Soccer was his game. If only they would take him seriously, but that wouldn’t happen until he turned thirteen and became a man, and that was still two years away. It didn’t matter. One day he would be a champion, with a real ball, running down the field with the crowds chanting his name.

He let the ball drop to the ground, feigning left and right, and scooping the ball under his toes, kicked it against the palm’s trunk. Score! His hands flew into the air as he did a victory dance and leaned over to snatch his ball from the ground—not a ball really, just an old sock filled with rags and enough sand to give it weight—but someday he would have a real ball and then?.?.?.

A cloud of blackbirds burst from the field of cane. There was a rustling, then movement. He crept to the edge of the growth, curious, but whatever, or whoever, it was remained veiled behind the curtain of green.

He pushed the cane aside. “What are you doing?” he said, staring at Layla. The shadow of the leafy stalks made her face a puzzle of light.

“Come here,” she whispered, drawing him toward her with a motion of her hand.

“No. Why are you hiding?”

“Come here and I’ll tell you.” Her voice was subdued but also tense, like the strings of a lute stretched to the point of breaking.

“I don’t want to play games. You come out. Father’s not here to see you.”

“We’re leaving.”

“What?”

“Come here. We have to talk.”

“Talk? Why? What’s there to talk about?” The boy let his ball drop to the ground. He stepped forward and, sweeping the cane aside and pushing it behind him, held it back with his thigh.

“We have to move. They’re packing right now. We have to leave within the hour.” Layla’s eyes glistened and filled with moisture.

The boy blinked, once, slowly, but didn’t respond. He knew. His mother had overheard friends talking. He shook his head. “Then I guess you’d better go.”

“My father came here because he wanted to help, but now he says we can’t stay. He says we’re going to Minya where there are many Christians.”

“Then I won’t see you again?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you will. Father says he can’t abandon his patients. He may come to visit, but Mother’s afraid. Why do they hate us?”

The boy shook his head, his lower lip curling in a pout.

“Do you think we will marry someday?”

His eyes narrowed. Where had that come from? “Marry? We could never be married. You?.?.?.?you’re a Christian.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean?.?.?.?”

“Yes, it does mean! My father says you’re an infidel, a blasphemer. If your father wasn’t a doctor, they would’ve driven him out long ago. Father would never let us marry. He hates it when he sees us together.”

“That’s why I’ve been thinking?.?.?.?” She paused, adding emphasis to her words. “You and your whole family must become Christians. Then we can be married.”

“You’re talking like a fool, Layla. My family is Saidi. We will never be Christian.”

“But your mother’s a Christian.”

“No, she’s not!”

“Is too. I heard—”

“Liar!” The boy clenched his fists. “My dad says all Christians are liars. My mother would never become a Christian. They would kill her.”

Layla reached out, took the boy by the collar, and pulled him in, kissing him on the lips. Then she pushed him back, her eyes big as saucers against her olive skin, her eyebrows raised. She shrank back into the foliage. “Sorry, I?.?.?.?I didn’t?.?.?.?I just?.?.?.?excuse me. I have to go. I’ll pray for you,” she said and, turning away, disappeared into the dry stalks of cane.

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FIRST: The Firstborn by Conlan Brown

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The Firstborn

Realms (May 5, 2009)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

By the end of his sixteenth year Conlan Brown had completed his first novel, his first stage play, and his first year of college. Brown now holds a Master’s degree in Communication and lives on Colorado’s Front Range where he is working on his next book. He enjoys video editing, film scores, and developing high octane, thought provoking fiction that turns pages and excites the senses.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 311 pages
Publisher: Realms (May 5, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1599796074
ISBN-13: 978-1599796079

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

The door to the gas station opened with a tinny gling, the antiquated bell chiming as Devin entered the store. The sound was a testament to the essence of the small backwoods town. At best it was quaint; at worst it was a sign of dilapidation in the middle of snowy nowhere.

As he entered he picked up one of the newspapers by the door, reading the headline: Holy Man Murdered Outside of Ohio Mosque—Imam Basam Al Nassar Shot to Death in Car.

The person behind the counter was a young man. He was too old to be a boy, but he hardly exuded an aura of maturity. He was blond, with shaggy hair that hung in his eyes. Lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears were all pierced. The Virgin Mary was tattooed on the side of his neck. He didn’t seem to notice Devin’s approach at first, until the clipping sound of expensive shoe heels were within feet of the counter. The checker looked up, face startled.

Devin was used to it. His skin was black, which meant he looked different from the locals. The result was distrust. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t sink to showing it—no sign of weakness. Instead he advanced with purpose, stopping at the counter.

“Can I help you?” the checker asked, eyes darting over the new face.

Devin said nothing, simply sliding a crisp fifty-dollar bill across the glass.

The checker nodded through his unsettled demeanor. “Just the gas?” he asked.

“And the newspaper,” Devin said, voice articulate and commanding. Then something changed. He felt it in his stomach this time. No images, just the sinking feeling of finality and irreversible death:

Soon. Too soon.

Not days or hours.

Now.

His cellular phone came open with a snap.

—no signal—

Devin reached into his wallet, swiftly removing and writing on a business card before sliding it across the glass countertop. He tapped his index finger on the card, indicating the neatly written script across its back. He tightened his vocal cords, voice intense.

“I need you to call the police. Tell them to send a car to this address. A woman’s life is in danger. Do you understand?”

Devin was looked over skeptically. “That all depends on what you have in mind. What’s your business here?”

Small towns, Devin thought cynically. People always talked about the joys of small town living, but he personally found it infuriating—nosy people who didn’t trust you if they hadn’t grown up with you. At least in the city you had a reason not to trust each other.

“Do it,” he said with a commanding edge, “and do it now.” He left the store, pushing through the curtain of early-spring snow.

The young man behind the counter looked over the letters, taking a moment to let the information sink in. He brushed his thumb anxiously across his lower lip, shifting a piercing. “Hey?.?.?.?” His voice dragged inarticulately. “Hey, Gary.” The checker lifted his head, calling to the far end of the gas station near the refrigerators on the back wall.

“Yeah?” a voice called back.

“Come here.”

A gruff-looking man with a craggy face approached the counter. “What is it?”

“That guy just told me to have the cops sent here,” the checker said, handing over the business card.

Gary looked it over, thinking for a second. “I know this place,” he said with a nod. “Outsiders trying to tell us how to run our own town,” he growled, then crumpled the card in his fist.

The eggs were burning.

Brett cursed quietly under his breath as he reached for the skillet, trying to keep breakfast from turning to coal.

The kitchen phone rang.

He lifted it from the cradle, positioning it snugly between his shoulder and cheek as he fought with the eggs, waving smoke away with a towel.

“Yeah?” he said through a cough.

“This is Gary.”

“Hi, Gary; how can I help you?”

“Some guy just came by the gas station. Black fella, nice suit, fancy coat—looked like he might work for the IRS or something.”

Brett paused. “Did he say what he wanted?”

“He wanted somebody to send the cops over.”

“Why?” Brett stammered, eyes moving toward the CCTV monitor on the countertop.

“Didn’t say.”

“Do you think he’s headed here now?”

“Don’t know.”

Brett continued to stare into the monitor. “How long ago did he leave?”

“Just a second ago.”

He watched as the black-and-white screen flickered: it showed the image of the girl as she sat tied to her chair in the dark basement room below, hair hanging across her bowed face, morose from her captivity. “I can’t talk right now,” Brett said shortly, then hung up.

This was a problem.

Hannah’s head hung, long brown hair in her eyes.

Her face felt pasty with cold, fatigue, and pain. Dark lumps covered her body, swelling bruises on her cheek and forehead from rough treatment. Arms behind her back, she sat in a chair, wrists and ankles tied to the wooden frame, chair legs bolted to the floor.

The room was dark. Mattresses and foam padding lined the walls and windows to soundproof the basement room. Tan foam lined the seams between sound-buffering pads, rippling in imperfect bubbles and waves, frozen solid in time as it had been spewed from an aerosol canister. A tiny security camera was fixed in an upper corner.

Time stood still for her. One long unbroken moment of darkness and fear was all that filled her memory. Hours? Days? Weeks? She had no perception of how long she had been there. They had turned on lights at moments, brilliantly hot and bright, stabbing at her eyes, then extinguished them for what could have been days on end.

Every time she fell asleep they woke her. Feedings were sporadic—two meals she knew could have only been forty-five minutes apart. Judging time had been easier when they were still playing music—something they had done to make sure she couldn’t hear them until they realized how well they had soundproofed her room. The length of the songs had given her a perception of time, but now that measure was gone, and her sanity was going with it.

Hannah had been raised in a conservative Christian home. It was something she had taken at varying degrees of seriousness throughout the phases of her life, but here, now, in the abyss, in her hour of darkness, she clung to it.

At first her prayers had been specific, personal, and directed to God as if He were standing right in front of her. Now she was tired, her mind swimming. Her lips mumbled out a tiny incoherent appeal, begging for rescue, pleading for light, imploring for continued safety, hoping upon terrified hope that the sanctity of her body would not be violated. Through her pleas she felt God draw closer and her sanity slip further away.

She was hallucinating. She had to be, seeing things that had happened long ago or not at all—and she felt it coming on again. It had been different each time, but she always felt it coming. This time it was a taste, like the bright tang of a penny in her mouth.

Then she began to see things that weren’t there—

A cold car.

An Islamic holy man praying for forgiveness that Allah, the merciful and just, would have pity on him. He had recruited young, innocent Palestinian men to bind explosives to themselves—to walk into crowds of Israelis—to kill—and to die.

He had failed for years to free Palestine from Israel.

He was an American now, the imam of a small Ohio mosque. A man of peace.

Sitting in the car, waiting for it to warm up.

Thoughts of his sons—wanting to kiss them before they went to sleep.

A pedestrian in a heavy coat walking in the direction of his car.

Eye contact.

The man reached into his jacket.

—a gun—

Panic.

Clawing at the car door—trying to escape. The first bullet punching through the glass.

Pain. Skin breaking. Muscle splitting. Bone shattering.

Horror. Pain. Grief. Screaming.

The windshield blistering with holes.

Thoughts of his wife—of his children.

Body torn to pieces by the striking of lead.

Darkness.

Minutes later a jogger in the middle of the street, stammering into his cell phone. “The windshield is filled with bullet holes and there’s blood?.?.?.?everywhere!”

It all came over her like a flood, a pouring out of pictures in her mind. But then there was one more thing. Not an image, but a feeling—that half a continent away someone else had felt it all happening too.

The sedan thundered down the wet, snowy dirt road. White snow, brown mud, and ashen gravel kicked up and out from the sides of the vehicle. The silver automobile cut through the road’s debris like a blade as the surrounding world blurred into fleeting streaks.

A midsize luxury sedan with a manual transmission—as always, the vehicle of choice the rental company had in his file. Devin had rented it at the airport expecting to have more time, but he didn’t. He hadn’t expected to cut it so close, but there was no reasoning with it now. All he could do was drive, hands gripping the wheel as if he had to wrestle the sedan to the ground like a beast.

The snow had stopped falling for the moment, and that helped—a little. But what a horrid frozen wasteland to be trapped in. Back home in New York, spring had already begun—sunshine all over. But he had to be called here: to the only place in the entire continental United States to have a blizzard, where snow had fallen in buckets and the sun hadn’t been seen in days.

To his right Devin saw the house appear over the horizon as the silver car glided up the hill. Five minutes at the most. He was almost there. He checked his phone again and snarled—too far from any kind of cell tower—a snowy wasteland.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he focused himself, aligning his will and his strength in faith. Some would call it a prayer. Devin resisted that word prayer. To him it was a necessary requisitioning of needed resources—spiritual or otherwise, it didn’t matter.

It was his thoughts narrowing into a finely focused, single-minded bolt of mental force, preparing for imminent havoc.

Hannah’s mind swam.

She saw him as her world dissolved to white.

Tall, handsome, dark skin.

Sitting at a dinner party.

Pausing. Something changing.

A thought or epiphany.

The man boarding a plane.

Searching for?.?.?.

Her.

Strikingly handsome in an olive-colored suit that seemed to radiate class, money, and power. His frame stood strong in the midst of the frozen breeze, his tight muscular body accented by the hang of the trench coat over his strong shoulders.

He had been afraid for her, more than just for her captivity; for something far more treacherous. She paused. How afraid should she be for herself?

Brett growled in anger. It was really fear, but he denied it by letting it bubble out in a swell of wrath.

“I should never have let you use my home!” He was frantic, nearly wringing his hands. “This can’t be happening!”

Snider and Jimmy stared at him, unmoved. They didn’t take him seriously. They thought he was prone to panic, that was all.

“Calm down,” Jimmy said sarcastically.

“Calm down? Calm down?” His face burned. “We’ve got a girl in the basement. That’s kidnapping! And this fella’s gonna bring the cops!”

Snider, middle-aged and dressed in black, stepped forward. “And what if he’s not?” He was the leader, the one who had approached Brett, offered him money for the use of his home. Brett knew he had a reputation for being somewhat shady, but Brett liked money. And now things were getting serious.

“If you don’t settle down, you’re going to look suspicious,” Snider continued. “And then what will you do when he really does bring the cops?”

Brett waved his hands nervously. “This has gotten out of hand. We can’t do this anymore.”

“What do you suggest?” Snider asked. “That we dispose of her?”

There was a long silence as they all looked at one another; then Brett turned sharply, heading for his room.

“Where are you going?” Snider asked.

Brett called back, “I’ll deal with this!”

The turn was a blind corner, covered by snow. Devin slammed on the brakes, and the car lost control.

The back end of the car swung wide, losing traction in the slick of white. The tires left wide swaths of grime as the side of the car crunched into a pack of snow. Devin worked the sedan into gear and eased into the gas—the engine revved, the vehicle rocked, but he didn’t move forward. He gave the pedal a futile stomp, but he knew all he was doing was chopping ground into snowy pulp.

His eyes lifted, mind calculating the distance—maybe a hundred or so meters. He shoved the door open and climbed out into the snow. Cold ran up his foot, into his throat. It wasn’t the cold of the snow; it was—

Panic. Anger. Desperation.

Blam. Blam. BLAM!

The killer’s face, covered with relief.

His foot slipped, his body nearly going down. It had snowed again the night before, and the snow was as deep as three feet in some places. Devin lifted his burning legs, body heaving forward through the thick mass beneath him.

He’d done forced marches before. Ten years of military life had provided him with everything he needed in this moment, everything he’d ever needed to live this life.

Devin looked up.

Almost there.

Beretta 9mm.

Shimmering blue steel nestled in a form-fitting glove of padding. The scent of gun oil wafted from the case, sweet and lethal. Brett lifted the firearm, felt its weight as he removed a magazine swelling with a full allowance of rounds and thrust it into the grip’s base.

“What are you doing?” Snider demanded from behind as he cursed in exasperation.

Brett snapped the safety off, shoving past Snider toward the door. Snider shoved back, slamming Brett’s shoulder blades into the wall.

“Let go!”

“Answer me!” Snider shouted, face filled with wrath. “What do you think you’re going to do with that?”

Brett’s face burned with reckless emotion. “This is my house. I’m going to protect myself my way!” He stared into furious, unforgiving eyes.

“I swear if you do anything stupid I will put you in the ground!”

Brett shoved back to no avail. A third voice called from the hall.

“Hey, guys. There’s somebody coming.”

Snider moved to the window, betraying none of his worry. To his left Brett leaned, hand resting against the window frame, twitching with near-frantic energy.

The man outside was coming up the snowy drive, drawing closer and closer.

“This is bad,” Brett said again. “This is very bad.”

“Calm down,” Snider ordered. “I’ll deal with this.”

“We’ve got to get rid of the girl.”

Snider shook his head. “Do you want him to find the girl or a dead body?”

Brett groaned, agonized.

“That’s not the answer.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

Snider went calm, looking at the other two men. “Let our visitor in—”

Brett tried to protest.

“—then kill him.”

Devin reached out to the door with an ebony hand.

Frantic whispers slipped through the door. They were stalling.

The door opened, and a middle-aged man in black jeans, a black button-up shirt, and a tan undershirt looked back at Devin.

Devin smiled disarmingly. “Good morning, sir. I hate to say it, but it looks like I might have been driving too fast for the conditions. I seem to have slipped into the snow.” Devin pointed back over his shoulder to the sedan’s front end consumed by a drift. “My cell phone isn’t getting a signal, and I was wondering if I could use your phone.”

The man looked past Devin, examining the buried vehicle in the distance. “We can help you dig that out.” He gestured toward a younger man standing behind him.

“Thank you.”

The man stepped aside welcomingly. “My name’s Snider. You look completely frozen—why don’t you come in and warm up? I’ll pour you a cup of coffee. There’s a fireplace in the next room if you want to sit there for a few minutes before we dig out your car.”

“Thank you, sir.” Devin stepped across the threshold, knocking the snow from an expensive shoe. The interior carpet was factory standard beige, the walls white. Devin’s eyes scanned the room, looking for any hint of the girl. He remembered what he’d seen. She had to be in the basement, but for now he was just going to have to see what he was up against.

Snider squared up to Devin. “Jimmy here can take that wet jacket of yours and put it in front of the fire to dry it out.”

Jimmy reached for Devin’s trench coat.

“Thank you,” Devin said, as he felt strong arms grab his own—restraining him from behind.

He threw his weight back, shoving against Jimmy. Fighting. Struggling. Lashing out.

Throwing his weight back he lifted his legs, heel landing in Snider’s chest with a thud, sending the man crashing back. The man behind him spun him and the world blurred. Devin kicked backward, going for the knee—

Something jammed into his neck, hard.

He tried to fight. Tried to knock it away. A repetitive, electric clicking.

Too late.

Brett heard the fighting and the sound of dead weight hitting the floor as he ran back up the stairs, Beretta in hand. The intruder lay on the floor, limp. Brett’s hands began to shake.

“We’ve been found,” he said, voice anxious and wavering.

Jimmy groaned. “Shut up, Brett.”

Brett’s face flushed, his ears turning bright pink. “No. I’m not going to shut up,” he shouted, gripping his pistol. “This is bad. This is very, very bad, and we’re neck-deep in it.”

“Knock it off.”

“No. We’re all going to go to prison. Do you understand that?”

“It was just one guy—”

“—who’s now lying limp on my floor!” Brett’s tone raised an octave.

Snider knelt over the intruder’s slumped form. “Take him to the lake in his car. Make it look like he lost control and went in.”

“Like an accident?” Jimmy clarified.

Snider nodded. “These roads can be treacherous in snowy conditions.”

Brett watched as Jimmy hoisted the intruder over his shoulder, heaving him out the front door. “You know the police are going to tie this back to me.”

“Calm down,” Snider snapped.

“Stop telling me to calm down. They’re not going to tie this to you. They’re going to tie this to me.”

Snider ran a hand through his hair wearily. “Where’s breakfast?”

“Don’t try to change the subject. This is serious!”

“Finish breakfast,” Snider ordered as he moved down the hall, back turned.

“Don’t you walk away from me!” Brett blustered as he stomped after him, gun in hand. “I’m talking to you!” He reached out, putting a hand on the black-clad shoulder, then felt it twist as Snider spun.

Brett doubled over with his arm cocked violently in the air, wrist screwed in an unnatural direction, a strong hand shoving his shoulder down like a fulcrum. A knee to his stomach and the pistol hit the carpet.

Snider came close to Brett’s ear. “You do not talk to me that way”—his tone was soft but ferocious—“or so help me you’ll find yourself in the lake next to our uninvited guest here. Got it?”

Brett felt like his arm was about to be torn from its socket.

“Got it?”

Brett didn’t say anything; he only groaned in agony. A whimper escaped him; then he felt the force of the floor as Snider gave a brutal shove. He lay there, groaning, carpet pressed to his cheek as he watched Snider scoop up the pistol and walk away.

Jimmy came back in the front door and Snider handed off the Beretta, then looked back at Brett.

“Finish breakfast. I’m hungry.”

Brett sat up, leaning his aching body against the wall, seething. He touched his nose. Blood.

His shaking hands clenched.

Hannah listened intently. They’d done a good job of soundproofing the room, but there was only so much foam and mattresses could keep out. She held her breath, trying to hear more.

It had sounded like fighting. Shouting mostly, but things hit the walls, shaking the beams down to her shadowy basement.

There wasn’t much time for her, she supposed. They were getting desperate. What little she could make out from the tone of the shouting told her that. They weren’t going to keep her around much longer. That was certain.

What was the point? Two decades of living. She was nineteen years old and alone. A college freshman, living in the dorms, failing to adapt. Her roommate liked to drink and liked guys even more—Hannah had come home to find a “do not disturb” sign hanging from her own door at least once a week all semester, forcing her to sleep on a couch in the downstairs commons. The food in the dining halls was bad, the company worse. All she had wanted was to go home.

She didn’t want to be a college graduate with a career. All she wanted was to meet a nice man and love him, feed him, raise his children. It was an old-fashioned and naïve desire, all her professors and friends had told her that, but still it was the life she wanted.

She wanted peace and quiet and love and cookies made for her children—not an education or a life in the fast lane, but her
grandfather had made her go, wanting her to get a degree in business so she could make the family business more profitable.

The sensation was in her temples this time—soft images blending one to another.

Her eighth birthday party.

She wore a cowgirl hat and boots.

A chocolate cake with sprinkles.

The number eight embedded in frosting, a single flame rising from the wick.

Her friends smiling.

Her childhood dog, Max, licking her face.

Bees.

The stinging all over her.

Crying in her grandfather’s arms.

—her grandfather’s arms.

Hannah lifted her head. She wanted to live.

Snider dialed the phone.

“Yes?” his employer said across the line.

“It’s me.”

There was a pause. “What do you need?”

“Some guy started snooping around.”

Silence.

“I think it’s time you told me exactly why you hired us to kidnap the girl.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t—”

“I swear, we’ll kill her now.”

There was another pause.

“Are you watching the news?”

“Do you mean the murdered imam?”

“Yes.”

“Are you guys responsible for that?”

“We need control of our situation.”

“And the girl’s kidnapping provides you with that?”

“We’ll double your money.”

Snider sneered. “We’re now connected to a politically charged killing. You’ll triple our money, and you’ll have the rest of it for us tonight, because after that we’re sending her back in a garbage bag!”

Devin’s thoughts floated.

Confused—in the front seat of the car. The car hood breaking the ice, plunging into the water.

The windshield cracking—leaking. Breaking. Cold water spilling in.

Body seizing from the shock. Lungs filling with ice water.

Devin’s eyes opened—darkness everywhere. His whole world shook as his head slammed into something. How had he gotten here? On his back, in some dark, confined place.

His world shook again with a jarring slam as he heard the engine rev.

He was in the trunk of a car.

It smelled new or at least freshly detailed—like his rental car. He shivered in the chilled trunk as his mind put it all together. It was his rental car. He remembered what had flashed through his mind. They were going to send the car into a lake with him in it, make it look like an accident. But it wouldn’t look like an accident if he was in the trunk. He remembered what he’d seen—

They weren’t going to leave him in the trunk. How had they gotten him here in the first place?

Something had pinched him in the neck, hard. There had been some sort of ticking sound and—

They’d hit him with a Taser, an electrical stun gun. Police and military used them for restraint purposes. He’d had to use one himself on several occasions when he was with intelligence. They were available to private citizens too for self-defense, and he’d been hit with one of those.

They weren’t going to take any chances. They were going to stun him again for good measure, put him in the front seat, and send him into the lake. He wouldn’t even have to drown. The water was cold enough that the chill would get him first. The shock of it alone would be enough to suck the air from his lungs, cause his muscles to seize. The impact would batter his body, and the breaking glass would slash him to ribbons. The water would cut off his air, choking him to death.

And if he survived all that, his lungs would fill and burst.

Brett moved into the living room, his body still sore. The TV was on—the morning news—all about this murdered imam in Ohio.

Brett watched for a moment and thought.

They were going to have to get rid of the girl, no matter what Snider said. It was going to have to happen.

He looked on the ottoman.

The Beretta.

Devin fumbled in the dark. He couldn’t find what he was looking for.

Just the previous summer he’d been led to the trunk of an older-model car where a four-year-old boy had accidentally trapped himself on a sweltering day. He read up on it afterward. He’d learned of the eleven children who had died in the summer of 1998, trapped in the trunks of automobiles. As a result, new standards required the auto manufacturers to have interior release handles inside every trunk manufactured after 2000. Most glowed in the dark with pictographic instructions inscribed on them. Devin saw nothing.

He searched with his eyes and his fingertips. He couldn’t find the latch. This wasn’t right. The rental was a brand-new car with all the latest safety requirements. They must have removed the safety latch somehow in the fear that he might come to and search for it, exactly as he was doing now.

There was another option—he could kick out the backseat and find himself face-to-face with his captor, a fight he would have to win against a man who was almost certainly armed.

He turned back to the trunk latch, feeling with his fingertips.

Snider stood in the kitchen, touching his forehead. It all gave him a headache—the logistics of it all. It was supposed to be a simple job, not this. The news was playing in the background—some Muslim had been murdered. He rubbed his temples.

He trusted Jimmy, but it still bothered him to delegate something like ditching a body to him. Why hadn’t he done it himself? Why hadn’t he made sure it was flawless?

Because, he reminded himself, Brett was the biggest problem they had. Someone needed to keep an eye on that trigger-happy?.?.?.

Where was Brett, anyway?

Snider stepped out of the kitchen and looked around. Then his eyes fell on the ottoman.

The pistol was gone.

Devin’s fingers glided across the plastic surface of the trunk’s latch cover and found the edges. He worked at the plastic, but his short, manicured fingernails couldn’t work their way underneath.

He traced the cover farther up. The cover was the size of his hand, roughly the shape of an egg, and at the top he felt two small indentations, one on each side of the release. His fingers worked their way in and the cover came loose. He felt blindly at the mechanism, working at it with his fingers.

Cold metal and a long, thick wire running the length of the mechanism.

That’s it, he thought. He pulled. The trunk popped and white light exploded off of the snow, flooding Devin’s eyes.

An old country road. Trees streaming away on each side.

He hurled himself out into the snow, rolling with the impact.

Brett moved to the door, unlocked it, and pushed it open gently.

There was the girl. She looked up and saw his face. His heart skipped as he tightened his stranglehold on the pistol’s grip behind his back. She’d seen his face. She could identify him.

Now there was no changing his mind.

He stepped in, closing the door.

Jimmy slammed on the brakes as he saw the trunk burst open in his rearview mirror. To the left he saw the man lift himself out of the snow and dash for the trees at the edge of the road.

The vehicle came to a sliding stop in the snow. He lunged at the passenger’s seat, clawing at a pile of things he’d brought along for cleanup. He snatched the Glock pistol with his rubber-gloved hand and glanced back at the escaping figure in the mirror.

He launched out of the car door, spinning in a single fluid motion, the handgun resting on the roof of the car as he braced himself to fire.

Only time for one shot before the man slipped into the trees?.?.?.

The gun sounded like thunder.

Snow exploded off the burdened branches of an evergreen, sending white scattering through the air like a starburst. Devin hit the ground and rolled, then quickly scrambled back to his feet and sprinted into the trees.

Hannah stared at the man. He stared back, hand hiding something behind him.

He stood there, not moving, as if he were trying to work up the courage to do something. Her mind skimmed across the surface of possibilities. There were only a few options of things he had come for: her body or her life—or both.

The doorknob at the far end of the room turned, and someone pushed on the door. The man in front of her flinched, then turned around quickly, showing her his back—and the pistol he was holding.

The door opened.

“What are you doing?” Another man, dressed in black, looked around the room.

“Nothing. I was just?.?.?.?”

Hannah stared at the pistol. She wanted to scream, to tell the second man what she saw, but she couldn’t. She tried to speak, but her voice held in her throat.

“You don’t belong in here,” the second man announced.

The first man nodded. “You’re right.” As he spoke he tucked the firearm discreetly in his belt and moved toward the door, following the other man.

Jimmy moved into the trees, lowering his head beneath a branch—eyes sharp and attentive, handgun at the ready. The tracks were clear and distinct in the deep snow.

Just beyond, the world was darker, the ground shadowed by the canopy of trees. He looked for blood—there was none, but there were gaping tracks in the snow. He pushed on toward his quarry.

Silence.

That was all Hannah heard for several moments. Then she heard it, even through the padding—

Her captors.

Arguing. Yelling. Shouting.

Violence?

She held her breath for a moment then threw her head up, attentive to the noise—

The gunshot was deafening.

Devin pressed his back against the tree, his stalker so close he could hear the crunch of snow. He took a long, deep breath—and held it. He had to be completely undetectable, or he was dead.

Jimmy squinted. Just ahead he saw it—the cloth of a trench coat peeking out from behind a small tree. He took in a breath and stepped gently.

Carefully. Silently. Agonizing as he placed his feet in the packed snow at the bottom of each track he followed.

He was getting closer. Rounding the tree. Then his moment—

Jimmy threw himself forward, the pistol in his hand blasting.

One—two—three rounds.

He stopped.

The coat was empty. Riddled with bullets, it hung from a branch, limp and vacant. Cursing to himself he looked around frantically.

Something rammed between his shoulder blades, and he went face-first into the snow, pain stabbing at the base of his skull, chest slamming into the icy cold. His vision only went black for a moment.

He pushed up with a fist then felt an arm swoop around his neck, his chin locking in the cleft of the man’s elbow. Jimmy fought to bite the other man’s arm as he struggled to gain hold with his clawing fingertips. A hand pressed expertly against the base of his skull.

He threw elbows to the side, punches to the face. He clawed, scratched, and tried to jam a thumb under the man’s eye to put it out. The choke hold only tightened. Jimmy felt his body being thrown as he was fought deeper into submission, forced to his knees, his vision swinging hard to the right—

He saw it.

In the snow.

The pistol.

He snatched the cold metal, swinging it upward toward the black man’s face.

One bullet would do—

The pistol bucked in Jimmy’s hand as a round exploded from the muzzle, firing off into the air as a well-placed strike knocked the weapon away. The other arm continued squeezing, and Jimmy reprised violently.

Sweat ran down his back, sweet and slick.

His face burned. Muscles flaming.

Frustration. Burning rage.

He fought to bring his restrained arm to bear—the pistol going off again and again and again, blasting away at the snow near their feet.

He screamed in anger.

The man he would have murdered was quiet, calculated.

Jimmy snarled as the weapon was stripped from his hand, tumbling into the snow.

They both went back, slamming into snow. The air left Jimmy’s lungs and he gasped. The other man’s legs wrapped around his own, holding him down tightly. Trapped.

How did this happen? He was going to kill this man. In cold blood. But he was losing control, body locked in an expertly executed choke hold.

He gasped for air. Gray crept into his vision. Sight blurred. Consciousness slipped.

His world went dark.

Hannah was bleeding from her wrists, the ropes cutting deep into her soft flesh as she tried to work her way free. Her bruised wrists twisted under the stinging strain of the ropes that bit into her. A trickle of her own warm blood slithered down her finger. It hurt so much, but she just kept working.

She wanted to live. She wanted to see the sun.

Footsteps down the hall. Nearing.

Her work became more rapid, trying harder to free herself from the expertly tied fetters.

The door opened. She saw a man dressed all in black. He came close, leaning by her ear. Hannah went stiff—except for her lip, which quivered uncontrollably.

Devin climbed into the silver rental car and looked around. The keys were still in the ignition. He turned them and heard the rush of air—

The woods. The girl.

Snider, aiming his pistol deliberately.

“Please don’t kill me. Please!”

The girl, back turned, walking away.

Death.

Devin set the sedan into reverse, easing into the gas. He felt the tires grip and begin to slowly roll out of the snow—couldn’t rush it or he’d get stuck. He turned the car around, working the wheel to the left.

Devin pushed the gearshift forward, locking it in place, and fed the gas. The car began to move forward, gaining speed, then took off, blazing down the snowy road. His eyes glanced at the dashboard—a mile ticked over faster than it should have for the conditions. Then another. And another.

“Please don’t kill me. Please!”

The words played over again in his mind, frantic and desperate.

He was driving much, much too fast for the conditions. The back end slipped, and he adjusted the gearshift. The car was fishtailing. Too fast, he thought again, but he had no choice now. No other option. Not now. Not with the future racing toward him.

He recognized the landscape. From the other side, but this was it: his turn was just ahead, where he’d hit the drift before.

Devin’s fist wrenched the emergency brake skyward.

He spun the wheel.

The car snapped to a ninety-degree angle, sliding to a stop—right in front of the long drive.

First gear. The sedan leapt into action.

The engine snarled.

Second gear. He laid into the gas.

Over a small hill.

The house ahead.

Like the chiming of a bell announcing the drawing of midnight, the words repeated in his mind:

“Please don’t kill me. Please!”

No more time. The future was becoming the present.

The gas pedal touched the floor. The car began to fishtail, the front end nosing to the right. Devin overcorrected as control of the car slipped away from him. He fought the vehicle as he felt it tipping inexorably out of control. Something slipped beneath the car, the tires losing all traction—he was completely out of control, the car swerving perpendicular to the long drive. His foot pumped the brake, but the wheels were no longer propelling the car, only the force of gravity pulling him down the incline—screaming across a layer of slippery packed snow—careening toward a tall embankment at the end of
the drive.

Devin braced for impact, and his entire body shuddered as the silver sedan plowed into the drift. The seat belt snapped tight, constricting against his chest as the force of the blow threatened to throw him out the far side of the car. The shock wave subsided, and he reached for the door handle with a disoriented hand.

Devin threw the door open and got out, Glock pistol in hand—raised in anticipation of trouble.

He stared down the iron sights at the front door of the house, only feet away. Devin moved from the car with purpose and speed, eyes locked on the front door, weapon held out in front of him as he moved up the steps.

Devin turned the door handle and gave a hearty kick, sending the door flinging in. He charged across the threshold and paused, weapon ready, arms locked in place, body turning with the pistol. He moved in.

Left turn—one sharp movement as he glared down the iron sights.

Nothing.

To the right—same.

Devin moved into the kitchen. On the counter was a black and white monitor—a room. Chair, bonds—that was where he’d seen the girl—but the room was empty.

Then he saw it—something more shocking. Next to the monitor was a lapel pin. A royal crest—he recognized the symbol. The Trinity knot—a triquetra—under a crenulated label: the sign of the Firstborn.

No color—simply the symbol itself. It didn’t have any of the distinctive colors: the red of the Domani, the gold of the Ora, or the blue of the Prima. But it was the symbol of the Firstborn—that was simple enough to see. And more disturbing than anything else he could consider.

A cool draft played against his cheek, and he turned. The sliding glass door was slightly ajar. Devin moved forward, looked through the glass at the distant trees—

And saw them.

Hannah screamed again.

Snider shoved her into the trees. She fell down, and he reached for her, grabbing her hair roughly with a fist.

“Do not make my life more difficult than it has to be. Do you understand?”

She quavered.

“Do you understand?”

Hannah nodded, and he pulled her to her feet. They kept walking, deeper and deeper into the trees.

Snider stopped in a clearing, a hundred yards beyond the tree line. She went to her knees. He lowered himself down to her ear, whispering.

“That way,” he said, pointing deeper into the trees. “Start walking that way, and don’t look back.”

She turned and looked at him. Her first thought was that he was letting her go, then she looked him in the eye and felt—

He’d killed before—

A deal gone bad.

A job gone wrong.

Intimidation gone too far.

To survive in prison.

To repay a debt.

For money.

For safety.

For revenge.

For convenience?.?.?.

She saw it all—

He was going to kill her too.

“Get up.” His voice soft but stern.

She stood and looked into his face. “Please don’t. Please don’t kill me. I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”

“Start walking,” he said flatly, “and don’t turn around.”

She held for a moment.

“Now.”

Hannah turned slowly, facing the snowy trees ahead of her, and began to walk. One foot in front of another, waiting expectantly for it to happen any moment. She turned her head, saw the man in the corner of her eye still standing there, pistol in hand.

“Keep going,” he instructed.

Another step. Another moment of life.

Another step—

Crack!

Her entire body went stiff and she looked down—she’d stepped on a twig.

“That’s good.”

She stopped, turning back to Snider.

“I didn’t tell you to turn around,” he reprimanded, as if she were a child. As she looked back into the trees she sucked air, slowly.

She looked at the trees. So beautiful. The snow and the early-morning sun. Her heart slowed. Her muscles relaxed. If this was going to be the last thing she ever saw, she was going to embrace it.

Days in a dark basement had driven her back to the faith of her childhood; now it filled her entire heart and mind.

She was coming home.

The gunshot was loud, hammering in her temples as if a hole had been punched in her eardrums. A single round fired in the stillness of the snow, echoing endlessly through the trees.

Snow dropped from branches. Birds took off into flight. And the blast rolled through the world.

She stood for a moment, waiting to feel it, but all she felt was the chill in her feet and in her lungs. Hannah looked down. No wound.

Slowly she turned around and saw Snider clutching his chest, bleeding from a steaming wound. He coughed, face confused, and a trickle of blood ran down his lip. The man hit his knees and went face-first into the snow.

The body lay there, steam rising from the hot wound. Beyond stood a man—tall, handsome, black skin—a pistol in hand raised expertly, face blank, a single twist of smoke rising from the muzzle of the weapon.

He approached Snider’s body, weapon pointed down, kicking the Beretta pistol away. Kneeling down, he checked for a pulse. When he was satisfied, he put his own weapon on safety and looked up at Hannah.

“Are you hurt?”

She shook her head.

“Good.” Then he took her by the arm and led her away.

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The NKJV American Patriot’s Bible

541538: The NKJV American Patriot"s Bible, Hardcover The NKJV American Patriot’s Bible, Hardcover
By Dr. Richard Lee
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

A You Tube video featuring  The American Patriot’s Bible and Sample PDF .

First and foremost, this is not your typical study Bible as it’s main focuses is on America’s Godly heritage. I am glad that someone decided to make a Bible that is intertwined with American History as that is what this country was founded on. Throughout this book, you’ll find 48 full-color insert pages presented in 12 for-page sections discussing different point in U.S. History.

I enjoyed reading about the leaders, and statesman; seeing the colorful illustrations and photos; being reminded of patriotic songs and poems by famous Americans. You’ll  find many great leaders mentioned in history from George Washington to our newly elected President Barack Obama. I was so encouraged to be reminded and learn a few new things in using this wonderful resource that reminds us how godly qualities in people made America the great nation that is is today.

The Large Print is a wonderful addition as is the family record section of this Bible. I know for years and years to come in my household this Bible will not only used by me but by my children and their children as well.   The American Patriot’s Bible is an ideal gift for veterans,  students of American history, and families in any christian home.

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Blood Bayou by Karen Young

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Blood Bayou

Howard Books (May 5, 2009)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Karen Young is the author of thirty-four novels with more than ten million copies in print. Romantic Times magazine and the Romance Writers of America have given her fiction numerous awards. She is a frequent public speaker and lecturer who lives in Houston. This is her first Christian novel.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Howard Books (May 5, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1416587500
ISBN-13: 978-1416587507

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

PROLOGUE

Luanne Richard opened the door to her killer wearing a smile and little else. With a drink in one hand and invitation and mischief dancing in her eyes, she sensed no danger. After several martinis, her instinct for danger was hazy at best.

She’d been lounging on the patio in her bikini when the doorbell rang. It had occurred to her that a cover-up might be the proper thing, but she wasn’t much into doing the proper thing. Never had been. It got really boring trying to live life properly. Now, glancing through the peephole, she saw he was alone and thought it might be fun to tease him a little. No one

around, as far as she could tell. So she let him in, closed the door, and turned to face him.

That is when she saw the knife.

She sobered instantly. And when he raised it and lunged, aiming for her throat, she recoiled on instinct alone, tossed her drink at his face and somehow—miraculously—managed to

evade that first vicious slash. While he cursed and blinked gin from his eyes, she turned and ran on bare feet.

She raced through the huge house wondering frantically how to escape. She cursed her carelessness in leaving the gate open when she drove home from the club. It came to her that

she stood no chance while inside, so she flew through the living room and made for the den and beyond—the patio. She prayed the door was open, that she’d failed to close it when she got up

and came back in.

Please, oh, please . . .

Halfway there, she took a quick look over her shoulder and screamed. He was close and gaining. He would be on her if she didn’t do something. As she streaked past a very expensive Chinese vase, she gave it a push to tip it over, thinking to trip him. He stumbled but didn’t go down. He picked it up, tossed it aside, and laughed. Laughed!

This couldn’t be real. This kind of craziness happened in nightmares to other people, not to her. Hadn’t she had enough grief in her life? Hadn’t she tried her best to fight the demons that tormented her? Hadn’t she often resisted temptation? Was she to be damned for the times she didn’t?

I’m sorry, God. I’m sorry. I’m sorry . . .

No! She wasn’t going to let this happen. She had a lot of life to live yet. She would change. She had changed. Nobody understood how hard it was for her to keep to the straight and narrow. She kept to the path. Almost always.

Once out on the lawn, she realized she couldn’t make it to the front. It was too far away. He’d overtake her before she got halfway there. And there was no time to punch in the security

code to open the gate. She was trapped. Mad with fear, she ducked around lush landscaping, making for the walk that led to the pier and boathouse. She veered to avoid the cherub fountain and stumbled, twisting her ankle painfully. She flung out a hand for balance only to have it slashed on the lethal thorns of a pyracantha. Sobbing now, she dashed through a grove of wax myrtles, wincing at the slap and sting of limbs before finally reaching the pier jutting over the bayou. It was her only chance.

She looked again over her shoulder. He’d slowed, knowing she had no place else to run. The knife blade glinted brightly in the sun. She whimpered, trying to think. Blood dripped from

the gash on her hand and her ankle throbbed. Scalding tears ran down her cheeks. What to do?

“Gotcha now, Luanne,” he taunted. “The boathouse or the bayou, babe. What’s it gonna be?”

Not the bayou. Never the bayou.

She had a fear of Blood Bayou. It had almost claimed her once. None of the romantic legends spun about it held any charm for her. The water was too dark, too still, too deep, too alive with slimy things, predatory things. The bayou was death.

She was out of breath and in pain when she remembered the telephone in the boathouse only a few feet away. Checking behind her, she saw that he was still coming, but moving almost

leisurely, as if enjoying the chase, savoring her fear. Anticipating the kill?

The thought made her leap onto the pier. Hot from the August sun, the wooden planks burned the soles of her bare feet. Below the pier, black water slapped against the pilings, disorienting her. Don’t look down! Eyes straight ahead, she finally reached the boathouse door, grabbing at the latch, fingers clawing. Panic and blood from her wounded hand made her clumsy,

all thumbs, as she worked at the strange fastener. But at last she got it, wrenched it open.

Inside it was dark and dank and, like the bayou, smelled of rotting vegetation and decaying fish. But it was sanctuary and she scrambled inside, slammed the door shut, and set the bolt. It would not keep him out for long, but it offered a few precious seconds. Her eyes struggled with the dark. It was her only chance. But one thing nagged: Why was he giving her this chance? No time to worry about that. She flew to the wall-mounted phone, grabbed the receiver, and punched in 911.

He was at the boathouse now, rattling the door. Terror leaped in her chest. With her heart in her throat, she strained to hear the ring connecting her to 911. But nothing. In a panic, she jiggled the button up and down. Listened for a dial tone. Nothing. She frantically pressed the button up and down again. And again nothing. She gave an anguished cry and slammed the receiver against the wall. The phone line was dead!

She screamed at the thunderous crash. He kicked the door open. It slammed against the wall, shaking the boathouse to its foundation. As she watched, petrified, he took an unhurried step inside, filling the doorway. With the sun behind him, he loomed as large as a truck. He paused, no doubt to let his eyes adjust to the dark interior. He took his time. Then he began to move slowly toward her. “I’ve got you now, sugar,” he taunted, his smile grotesque.

Incoherent with terror, all she saw was the knife. She scrambled backward, desperate to get out of his reach. But he kept coming. With a bump, she backed against the sleek hull of a

boat. Trapped! Below was bottomless, black water. Sobbing, she looked at him piteously. She was going to die. The bayou was going to claim her after all.

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Memory’s Gate by Paul McCusker (Time Thriller series)

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Memory’s Gate by Paul McCusker (Time Thriller series)

Zondervan (May 1, 2009)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Paul McCusker is the author of The Mill House, Epiphany, The Faded Flower and several Adventures in Odyssey programs. Winner of the Peabody Award for his radio drama on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for Focus on the Family, he lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and two children.

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $9.99
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (May 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0310714389
ISBN-13: 978-0310714385

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Chapter One

What in the world am I doing here? Elizabeth Forde asked herself as she followed a silver-haired woman down the main hallway of the Fawlt Line Retirement Center.

Of all the things I could have spent the rest of my summer doing, why this? Yes, she had agreed to volunteer at the retirement center. She had even felt enthusiastic about the idea at the time. But walking down the cold, clinical, pale green hallway with the smell of pine disinfectant in the air, Elizabeth wondered if she had made a mistake.

She’d been swept along by Reverend Armstrong’s passionate call to the young people of the church. He had exuberantly insisted that they get involved in the community. They must be a generation of givers rather than takers, he’d said. His words were powerful and persuasive, and before she knew what she was doing she had joined a line of other young people to sign up for volunteer service. Just a few hours a day, three or four days a week, for a couple of weeks. It hadn’t sounded like much.

An old man, bent like a question-mark, stepped out of his room and smiled toothlessly at her.

It’s too much, she thought. Let me out of here.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said her guide, Mrs. Kottler, with a smile. “You’re thinking that a few hours a day simply won’t be enough. You’ll want more time. Everyone feels that way. But if you do the best you can with the hours you have, you’ll be just fine. I promise. Maybe later, once you’ve proven yourself, we’ll let you come in longer.”

Elizabeth smiled noncommittally.

Mrs. Kottler wore masterfully applied makeup, discreet gold jewelry, and a fashionable dark blue dress. She smelled of expensive perfume. Elizabeth thought she looked more like a real estate agent than the administrator of an old folks’ home.

“We don’t call it an ‘old folks’ home,’ by the way,” Mrs. Kottler said, as if she’d read Elizabeth’s mind, “or a ‘sanitarium’ or any of those other outdated names. It’s just what the sign says: it’s a retirement center. People have productive and active lives here. Being a senior citizen doesn’t mean you have one foot in the grave. People who retire at sixty-five often have another twenty or thirty years to enjoy their lives. We’re here to help them do it as well as it can be done.”

Elizabeth noted a couple of productive and active people staring blankly at the television sets in their rooms.

“Of course, we do have older residents who have gone beyond their mental or physical capacity to jog around the center six times a day, if you know what I mean,” Mrs. Kottler added as they rounded a corner and walked briskly down a short corridor toward two large doors. “For the rest of them, there’s a full schedule of activities throughout the day. Most take place here in the recreation room.”

She pushed on the two doors. They swung open grandly to reveal a large room filled with game tables, easels, bookcases filled with hundreds of books and magazines, and a large-screen television. Unlike the main halls and cafeteria Elizabeth had just seen, this room was decorated warmly with wooden end-tables, lace doilies, and the kinds of chairs and sofas found in showcase living rooms. Tastefully painted scenes of sunlit hills, lush green valleys, and golden rivers adorned the walls.

“Pretty, huh? I decorated this one myself,” Mrs. Kottler said. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that they should have let me decorate the entire center. Well, that wasn’t my decision to make. The residents are responsible for decorating their own rooms any way they like. Most of the other assembly areas were done before I joined the staff.”

“How long have you been working here?” Elizabeth asked politely.

“Five years,” Mrs. Kottler answered, then added wistfully, “Time. It goes by so quickly, don’t you find?”

For Elizabeth, who had been only eleven years old when Mrs. Kottler started her job, the last five years hadn’t gone by quickly at all. She had traveled from the carefree days of Barbie dolls to the insecurities of middle school to the early stages of womanhood and wide-eyed wonder over her future. And she had also traveled to a parallel time, not that she’d be inclined to mention such a thing to Mrs. Kottler. No, it hasn’t gone by very quickly, she thought. And as she considered the residents of the center and realized that one day she might have to live in a place like this, she hoped life would never go by that quickly. She shuddered at the thought.

A tall, handsome young man entered through a door at the opposite end of the recreation room. “Mrs. K., I was wondering—”

“Doug Hall, come meet Elizabeth Forde,” Mrs. Kottler said, waving her arms as if she might create enough of a breeze to sail Doug over to them.

Doug strode across the room with a smile that showed off the deep dimples in his cheeks. He’s a movie star, Elizabeth thought. His curly brown hair, perfectly formed face, large brown eyes, and painstakingly sculpted physique that was enhanced, not hidden, by the white clinical coat made her certain. He’s a movie star playing a doctor, she amended.

Doug outstretched a hand and said, “Well, my enjoyment of this place just increased by a hundred percent.”

She shook his hand and blushed. “Hi.”

“Doug is our maintenance engineer,” Mrs. Kottler explained.

Doug smiled again. “She means I’m the main janitor. But I’m more like a bouncer, in case these old madcap merrymakers get out of control with their wild partying and carousing.”

“Stop it, Doug,” Mrs. Kottler giggled. Then she turned to Elizabeth. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, what’s a good-looking and charming young man like him doing in a place like this?”

For once, Mrs. Kottler had it right. He’s a movie star playing a janitor? It didn’t seem appropriate somehow. She waited for the answer.

“Well, if you can find out, please let me know,” Mrs. Kottler said with another giggle. “He won’t tell anyone. I assume he has a deep, dark secret. Perhaps he was involved in some sort of intrigue in France and barely escaped from the police on his yacht. Why else would he be hiding in a retirement center in a small town?”

“If you have to know the truth, I ran off with the church funds,” Doug said. He and Mrs. Kottler chuckled as if this little exchange had been their own private joke for a long time.

Doug rested his gaze on Elizabeth, making her feel self-conscious about how she appeared to him. How did she look in her freshly-issued white-and-pink clinic jacket—frumpy or professional? Had she taken pains with her makeup? Were her large brown eyes properly accented? Did her smile look natural? Her skin was freshly tanned, no unsightly pimples, which made her glad. She had tied back her long brown hair, but now she wished she had let it fall loose. It looked better that way, Jeff always said.

Jeff.

Thinking of her boyfriend at that moment gave her pause—as if her self-conscious vanity was, in and of itself, an act of infidelity to him. She glanced away from Doug self-consciously.

“Well, back to business,” Doug said pleasantly, as if he’d picked up on her feelings and wanted to spare her any embarrassment. “I was wondering if now would be a good time to adjust the settings on the Jacuzzi. You don’t have any plans to let the kids in this afternoon, right?”

“No, Doug, the ‘kids’ won’t be going in today,” Mrs. Kottler replied. “Do whatever you need to do.”

He nodded. “Maybe Elizabeth will want to test it later when I’m finished.” He gave her a coy grin.

“I think Elizabeth will be too busy getting acclimated to her new duties,” Mrs. Kottler replied.

Doug tipped a finger against his brow as a farewell. “If there’s anything I can do to help …”

Mrs. Kottler watched him go. “He’s such a flirt. A charming, good-looking flirt, but a flirt nonetheless.” Elizabeth detected a hint of jealousy in her voice.

The tour of the center eventually led Elizabeth and Mrs. Kottler outside to the five acres of manicured grounds, landscaped into gentle green slopes that ultimately rolled down to a small manmade lake called Richards Pond. It was enclosed on one side by a natural forest that extended off to the horizon. Elizabeth walked alongside Mrs. Kottler, feeling oppressed by the humidity of the August afternoon. She swatted at the occasional mosquito that wanted to make a meal of her arms.

“The heat and mosquitoes tend to keep everyone inside on days like this,” Mrs. Kottler said.

“Except those two,” Elizabeth said, gesturing to two people in a white Victorian-style gazebo near the lake.

“That’s Sheriff Hounslow and his father,” Mrs. Kottler said, with just enough annoyance to betray her usual professional detachment. “I suppose we should say a quick hello.”

As they got closer, Elizabeth saw that the sheriff, a large man in a light gray uniform, was pacing in an agitated way. His father, a shadow from this distance, was sitting on one of the benches that lined the gazebo. Sheriff Hounslow saw them coming and waved.

Mrs. Kottler spoke to Elizabeth in a low voice, “Adam Hounslow joined us just a couple of days ago. Like many new residents, he’s having a hard time adjusting. Hello, Sheriff!”

Mrs. Kottler and Elizabeth mounted the steps to the shade of the round white roof covering the gazebo. The heat and humidity were not relieved there.

“Look who’s here,” Sheriff Hounslow announced. “Mrs. Kottler and—well, well—Elizabeth Forde.”

“Oh, you know my new volunteer. Elizabeth will be with us a few hours a day for the next couple of weeks.”

“How nice. You be sure to take special care of my father,” the sheriff said. “His name is Adam.”

Elizabeth could see the old man clearly now. He was bent over from some sort of arthritis and had a pale wrinkled face with hazel eyes encased in deep, worried frowns—in them, she could see the resemblance between the father and the son. Wisps of thin white hair sprayed out from a spotted crown.

“Wouldn’t you like a pretty girl like Elizabeth to help take care of you, Dad?” the sheriff asked.

“I don’t need to be taken care of,” the old man growled. He tucked his head down against his chest.

Sheriff Hounslow ignored the remark and continued, “I’m surprised to see you here, Elizabeth. Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the grand opening of that historical amusement park, or whatever Malcolm calls it?”

“It’s not an amusement park,” Elizabeth corrected him. “It’s called the Historical Village.”

“I didn’t know you were connected to Malcolm Dubbs!” Mrs. Kottler said, impressed. Malcolm Dubbs was the closest thing Fawlt Line had to royalty, a member of the English branch of the Dubbs family who’d been in the area for nearly 300 years. Malcolm came to manage the estate after the last American adult member of the Dubbs family was killed in a car accident.

“She’s also dating Jeff Dubbs,” the sheriff informed her.

“Are you? Doug will be very disappointed,” Mrs. Kottler teased, then said earnestly, “Jeff’s parents died in that terrible accident awhile back, didn’t they? That was so sad.”

Elizabeth nodded without responding. Jeff’s parents—Malcolm’s cousin and his wife—had died in a plane crash a couple of years before. That’s why Jeff lived with Malcolm.

Mrs. Kottler fluttered her eyes as if she might cry. “I think Malcolm Dubbs is a remarkable man. Imagine taking in that boy.”

“That boy is the true heir to the estate,” Sheriff interjected sarcastically. “If I were him, I’d have a lot of trouble with Malcolm using the family money to build that park.”

“It’s not Jeff’s money unless Malcolm dies,” Elizabeth corrected him. “He’s entitled to do whatever he wants with it. And Jeff is very proud of Malcolm.”

Mrs. Kottler nodded. “After all, Malcolm is using it to create something everyone will learn from. It’s not as if he’s wasting it.” She turned to Elizabeth. “Is it true that he’s brought in authentic buildings, displays, and artifacts from all over the world?”

“Whatever he can find. From picture frames and hairbrushes to school houses and church ruins, as much as he could find from the past few hundred years is represented.” She covered a smile, realizing she was reciting one of Malcolm’s brochures. “Phase One opens on Saturday.”

“Phase One?”

“Malcolm says the village is a work in progress. He’ll open various sections of it as they’re ready.”

“As I said, it’s a Disneyland of history,” the sheriff said derisively.

Elizabeth frowned at Sheriff Hounslow, knowing better than most the adversarial relationship the two men had. Elizabeth suspected that the sheriff was jealous of Malcolm’s wealth and the respect he commanded from the townspeople. But whatever the reason, Hounslow never missed an opportunity to poke fun at Malcolm’s projects or eccentricities.

“I can’t wait to go on the rides!” he added.

“Are there rides?” Mrs. Kottler asked, amazed.

Elizabeth shook her head. “No. Just buildings and displays.”

Sheriff Hounslow grinned. “There’s going to be a big celebration. The mayor will be there and a special assistant to the governor, and there’ll be a telegram from the president and maybe even world peace—all thanks to Malcolm Dubbs.”

“Don’t be such a pompous fool, Richard,” Adam Hounslow barked at his son. “I’m looking forward to seeing the village.”

“I’m glad you’re looking forward to something,” the sheriff remarked.

“Living in a place like this, I’m lucky to look forward to anything,” Adam snapped.

“Oh, I’m sure you don’t mean that,” Mrs. Kottler said. “The Fawlt Line Retirement Center will be like home to you in no time at all, I promise.”

Adam scowled at her. “This will never be my home. My home has been sold right out from under me by my thoughtful and compassionate son.”

“I’m not getting into this argument with you again, Dad,” Hounslow said irritably.

“Yes you will,” Adam replied. “As long as you force me to live in places where I don’t want to live, we’ll have this argument.”

The sheriff turned on his father. “Where else are you going to live? You couldn’t stay in that big old place alone. You can barely take care of yourself, let alone keep up with a big house.”

The old man snorted and turned away.

Sheriff Hounslow wouldn’t let it go. “Do I have to remind you of what led up to this? Do I have to announce to the whole world how you nearly burnt the house down—twice—by forgetting to turn the stove burners off? Or the time you flooded the house by wandering off to the store while the bath water was running?”

Mrs. Kottler caught Elizabeth’s eyes and jerked her head towards the center, signaling that they should leave. Heading across the grounds, Elizabeth could still hear the voices of the two men arguing behind her.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Mrs. Kottler said. “You’re thinking that Adam must be crazy not to like our center. Well, I agree. But he’ll get used to it. They always do.”

They approached the building from the back, where a stone patio had been added to the recreation room. It was congested with plants and flowers of all kinds. A man in a wheelchair was pruning the plants, meticulously spraying the leaves and wiping them with a water bottle. He had long gray hair that poured out from under a large baseball cap. Beneath the brim of the cap he wore sunglasses so dark that she couldn’t see his eyes at all. A bushy mustache and beard flowed downward. It struck Elizabeth that, apart from his cheeks, his face couldn’t be seen at all. He wore a baggy jogging suit that, to Elizabeth’s thinking, must have been unbearably hot in the heat and humidity.

“That’s Mr. Betterman, another new resident,” Mrs. Kottler said. “Come meet him.”

They crossed the patio where Mrs. Kottler introduced them.

Mr. Betterman didn’t speak, but grunted and held a carnation out to her.

“Very nice,” Elizabeth said.

“Take it,” Mrs. Kottler whispered.

Elizabeth reached out to take the flower. For a second he didn’t let go, but used the moment to lean closer to her and whisper, “I know who you are.” He gave her a slight smile then turned away to fiddle with the planter.

Disconcerted, Elizabeth looked to Mrs. Kottler again, who gently shrugged. They walked inside.

“What did he mean by that?” Mrs. Kottler asked once they were inside and clear of Betterman’s hearing.

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth replied. She didn’t say so, but something about the man’s half-smile and voice seemed familiar to her.

“Still, That’s quite an honor,” Mrs. Kottler said. “He doesn’t usually talk to anyone. He’s a little eccentric.”

No kidding, Elizabeth thought.

As they drifted through the recreation room, Elizabeth found herself looking for Doug. She wasn’t a flirtatious person—nor was she interested in anyone but Jeff—and yet she was drawn to him. Maybe because he was someone else in the building who was young and sympathetic, like her.

Mrs. Kottler smiled contentedly. “Well, that’s most of it. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this is more like a beautiful hotel than a retirement center. We do our best. Now, let me show you where the storage closets are and introduce you to your new responsibilities.”

Chapter Two

Malcolm Dubbs lived in a cottage on the edge of the Dubbs family’s vast estate bordering the north edge of Fawlt Line. It had a manor house, built in the 17th century, which was now part of the Historical Village. The cottage, which he said suited him perfectly and reminded him of England, seemed to fit him perfectly. It seemed to suit Jeff, who lived there with him. Elizabeth thought that the two were remarkably happy, considering the tragedy that had brought them together.

Tall and slender, Malcolm sat at the large desk in his den when Elizabeth and Jeff arrived. The sun was soon to set, and a dim yellow light washed the cluttered room. Thanks to the oak tree just beyond the French doors leading out to the patio, drops of cooler, green light filtered into the room. They highlighted the old-fashioned furniture and skimmed along the dark wood paneling, the classic paintings, the shelves sagging under too many books. Jeff smiled and turned on the banker’s lamp at the head of the desk.

Malcolm looked up and blinked at Jeff. “Oh, hi,” then, “And good evening, Elizabeth,” he said wearily, his British accent making him sound intelligent and genteel.

“Good evening,” Elizabeth said, remembering why so many young girls in Fawlt Line had a crush on the man.

“Are you all right?” Jeff asked.

Malcolm sighed. “All the preparations for the grand opening have left me with too much to do and too little time.”

Jeff gestured to the papers on the desk. “What are you working on now?”

He pushed the papers away disdainfully. “These are daily reports of completed projects within the village, and this is another report discussing the security system and inherent weaknesses that might leave some areas vulnerable to theft.”

“Vulnerable?” Elizabeth asked.

“The security cameras still aren’t working.” Malcolm leaned back in his chair and shoved his hands into the pockets of his tweed sports coat. He stretched his long legs as far as they would go.

“It’s not all doom and gloom, I hope,” Elizabeth said.

“No. The eighteenth-century windmill from Holland is working perfectly. And we wrapped up the construction on the miners’ row houses from southwest Pennsylvania. I’m particularly proud of that exhibit.”

“Why that one?”

Malcolm smiled. “Because it shows the chronology of change better than most of the displays. You start at one end of the row houses, and as you walk through each one you’ll see exactly how the miners lived during the last 180 years. Go in the first door, and you’ll see how it was in 1820. Move on to the next door and you’re looking at 1840, then 1860 and 1880 and so on until you come to the present day. We spent a lot of time getting every detail just right.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I don’t know how you pulled it all together.”

“Sometimes I wonder myself,” Malcolm admitted. “It’s been a long time in the making.”

“Hundreds of years, I figure,” Jeff said.

Malcolm waved his hand as if brushing away the subject. “Forget about the village for now. How was your first day as a volunteer, Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth was pleased that he even remembered, considering all the other demands on his mind. She said, “It was mostly just a chance to look around. I only met a couple of people. The center is nice, I guess, if you have to live in a place like that.”

Malcolm chuckled. “Your faint praise is overwhelming.”

Jeff dropped himself onto the sofa opposite the desk and ran his hands through his wavy dark hair. “She’s sorry she ever volunteered.”

Elizabeth rebuked him with a sharp look. “Jeff.”

“What?” Jeff asked innocently. “Did I say something wrong?”

Malcolm stood up and smiled sympathetically. “If it’s any consolation, Elizabeth, I think volunteering to help out at a retirement center is a noble and difficult thing to do. Many retirement homes are downright depressing, and elderly people can be very unpredictable, depending on their states of minds. But if you remember that they’re people, and not just old people, you have the opportunity to do them a world of good.”

Elizabeth thought of how Doug Hall called them ‘kids’ and probably charmed the socks off them, if only because he didn’t treat them differently from anyone else.

“As quirky as your parents are, you should feel right at home,” Jeff said with a laugh. Elizabeth kicked at his ankle before sitting next to him on the sofa.

Malcolm tugged at his ear thoughtfully. “I haven’t been out to the center since they renovated it. When I was a kid, it wasn’t a retirement home. It was just a house on a farm owned by someone the two of you know.”

Elizabeth and Jeff looked at each other blankly.

“That’s where the Richards property is,” Malcolm said. “It’s where Charles Richards disappeared.”

Elizabeth’s and Jeff’s faces lit up with the realization.

“You mean the Charles Richards?” Jeff asked.

“My Charles Richards?” Elizabeth added in disbelief.

Malcolm nodded. The three of them looked at each other silently as the story and the memories came back.

**********

For years the remarkable case of Charles Richards was whispered about around Fawlt Line, but treated as an unsolved mystery by those who investigate such things. Most people considered it one of those small-town myths that make their way into the consciousness of the locals—like haunted houses and boogy-men—particularly by parents who want to scare their kids into behaving. But Malcolm, Elizabeth, and Jeff knew this particular story was more than a myth. They believed every word of it, and for very good reason.

The story went that over thirty years ago; Charles Richards, the son of a wealthy merchant, settled with his wife and two children on a modest farm outside of Fawlt Line. One morning, the two children were playing next to the sidewalk leading from the house to the front gate. Charles and his wife, Julia, stepped out of the front door, where Charles kissed his wife good-bye. He was leaving to run a few errands in Fawlt Line. Charles walked down the steps toward his children and patted them on their heads as he passed. As he reached the front gate, a car came up the road toward the house. In it was Dr. Hezekiah Beckett, the local veterinarian, and a young boy who was helping the doctor that summer. Charles waved at the doctor, paused to check the time on his wristwatch, then turned as if he might head along the fence to greet the approaching car. He took three steps and, in full view of his wife, his children, Dr. Beckett, and the boy, he disappeared.

Horrified, the five of them raced to the spot and looked around. They saw only the fence and the grass. There were no bushes or trees for him to hide behind, no holes to fall into, nothing to explain how he could simply vanish into thin air.

Dr. Beckett and Julia Richards searched everywhere. Then the townspeople helped. They even dug up the ground where Charles had disappeared, in the belief that he’d fallen into a sinkhole or underground cavern and was trapped below. The ground was solid. Charles was gone. An investigation over the next few weeks failed to establish any clues. There was no explanation for it. Julia was bedridden for months, lost in the hope that her husband would return. No funeral or memorial service was ever held. Later, the family sold the farm and moved away.

The story would have been easy for Elizabeth to dismiss, had it not been told to her by Malcolm, who was the young boy in the car, working with Dr. Beckett during one of his summer vacations to America. And that was only the beginning. Malcolm spent years studying theories of time travel, parallel universes, and alternative dimensions in the belief that he’d find an explanation. All he wound up with were theories and a deep suspicion about the town of Fawlt Line itself. There had been enough weird occurrences in the area—Malcolm had chronicled and investigated them all—for him to determine that Fawlt Line wasn’t so named because it was on a geographical fault, but a time fault.

Then, a few months ago, Elizabeth herself became a victim of the time fault.

While taking a bath one night, she had slipped through a fracture in time and wound up in a parallel Fawlt Line where everyone knew her as a girl named Sarah. As she insisted that she was really Elizabeth and didn’t know anyone there, she was taken to the hospital and treated as an amnesiac. The understandable pressure on her to become Sarah—and to accept this new and different Fawlt Line—was intense. There was no point in arguing against the reality directly in front of her, even though her memories told her otherwise. Alienated and confused, she very nearly gave in to the pressure to be Sarah.

But the circumstances of her disappearance caused Malcolm to think that they weren’t dealing with a normal disappearance. Too much didn’t add up. And the arrival of someone in this Fawlt Line who looked exactly like Elizabeth but wasn’t Elizabeth led Malcolm to work out a theory that she was some sort of “time twin” who had switched places with Elizabeth.

In that other time Elizabeth met a man who gave her hope that she wasn’t an amnesiac after all: Charles Richards. He claimed he knew how she felt because he had made the same switch from one time to the other. He helped her and, ultimately, saved her life from a couple of people who wanted her dead. It was a nightmarish experience.

Elizabeth eventually made it back thanks to Jeff and Malcolm. But Charles remained trapped in the parallel time.

**********

Elizabeth still got upset when she thought of Charles stuck in a time that wasn’t his own. She hardly talked about her time-travel experience because of the sadness it brought to her. Even now, as she sat in the security of Malcolm’s study, it made her uneasy to discuss it again. In the deepest part of her heart, she feared that the nightmare might return just by invoking its name.

“They tore down Charles’s house and built a gaudy mansion on the site,” Malcolm went on to say. “It was the kind of place kids liked to throw rocks at. Then they tore that down and put up the new building a couple of years ago. How does it look inside?”

Elizabeth didn’t answer, her mind still on Charles Richards and her own nightmarish adventure.

“Bits?” Jeff asked, concerned.

Elizabeth lifted her head, catching up with Malcolm’s question. “Huh? It’s … modern. Just one story with a lot of hallways. More like a hospital than a home.”

Jeff and Malcolm glanced warily at each other.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Maybe you should take her home,” Malcolm suggested. “She’s probably tired from her first day there.”

“No, really—I’m all right,” she said.

Jeff stood up and held out his hand. “Come on.”

She took his hand and he helped pull her to her feet.

***

Jeff brought his Volkswagen to a squeaky stop in front of Elizabeth’s house and turned off the headlights. They both looked up and saw through the front window Alan Forde pacing in the living room. He was waving his hands and talking animatedly.

“Is he lecturing someone?” Jeff asked.

Elizabeth shook her head. “Sort of. He’s been recording a series of talks about the legends of King Arthur.”

“Recording them for whom?”

“Whoever wants them,” she answered. “He’s been obsessed with Arthur ever since … well, you know.”

The ‘you know’ was a reference to yet another adventure—this one shared by Jeff, Malcolm, and Alan Forde—with a man who showed up in Fawlt Line one night claiming to be King Arthur himself. The adventure resolved itself in England where, according to Malcolm and Jeff who witnessed it all, the man really was King Arthur.

“I’d like to hear what he has to say,” Jeff said.

Elizabeth glanced at Jeff gratefully. “He’d be happy if you asked.”

“I’ll wait for some other time. Meanwhile, I want you to tell me what’s going on with you.”

Elizabeth hadn’t expected such a direct question, though she should have. Jeff could always tell when something was wrong. Sometimes it was a comfort to her. At other times it made her feel uneasy, particularly when she didn’t have an answer—like tonight. “I don’t know,” she said after a long pause.

“You must have a clue,” he probed.

She turned in the seat to face him. “I really don’t know, Jeff. Maybe it’s just volunteering at the center. It was so … strange. At first I thought it was because I don’t know anything about helping old people. But …”

“But what?”

She struggled over what to say next. “Sheriff Hounslow’s father is a resident there, and the two of them were arguing and it was embarrassing … and then I met a guy in a wheelchair who gave me a carnation, and he said he knew me.”

Jeff grimaced. “He knows you? How?”

“He didn’t say, and I was too surprised to ask. It was really weird. I had this feeling that I’d seen him before, but I don’t know where.”

Jeff took her hand in his and spoke softly. “Look, Malcolm’s probably right. Old folks can be unpredictable, and that makes you nervous. Do you remember how Grandpa Dubbs was before he died?”

Elizabeth nodded. “He kept accusing the servants of stealing things.”

“Because he kept forgetting where he put them,” Jeff finished. “It used to scare the wits out of me when he launched into one of his tirades. Maybe the guy in the wheelchair really thought he knew you, but he was thinking of someone else. Probably someone from his past.”

Elizabeth agreed silently.

“And I’m just guessing, but it gave you the creeps to find out that the retirement center was built on Charles Richards’ place, right?”

“It brought back a lot more than I wanted to remember.”

“That’s what I figured.” Jeff was quiet for a moment. His expression told Elizabeth that he was forming his words carefully before speaking. “Maybe … you should get some counseling about what happened to you. Maybe we all should.”

“Oh, right,” Elizabeth said with an unamused laugh. “I can see me now in the first session with the counselor: ‘I’m here because I traveled to a parallel time …’ Yeah, that’ll work. He’ll have me committed just like the doctor in that time wanted to do.”

“I’m just saying that getting bounced around in time and going through what you went through can’t be healthy.”

“You’re right about that.”

“I mean, especially since you don’t like to talk about it.”

“I’m okay,” Elizabeth insisted. “I think it’s just today, volunteering at the center, bumping into some weird people, and then thinking about Charles Richards. I’ll be all right. Really.”

***

Elizabeth had a hard time falling to sleep that night. Images of Charles Richards spun through her mind and mixed with scenes from the Fawlt Line Retirement Center. Mrs. Kottler kept saying, “I know what you’re thinking,” and then Doug Hall offered her flowers carefully pruned by George Betterman in a wheelchair. The floor opened up to expose a dark cavernous time fault that threatened to pull her in. She fell—and never stopped falling.

Elizabeth suddenly sat up in her bed and knew that one way or another she had to take back her offer to volunteer at the center.

Chapter Three
Elizabeth spent most of the next day trying to figure out how to gracefully get out of helping at the retirement center. She knew her parents expected her to be more responsible than to quit without a good reason. The challenge was to find a good and plausible reason. School hadn’t started yet, so she couldn’t blame homework. She had no other jobs or commitments, so she couldn’t say her schedule was too busy. One by one she raised up excuses. One by one her better judgment knocked them down.

Even up to the point when her mother dropped her off at the center, she was thinking of stories she could tell Mrs. Kottler to justify handing in her immediate notice. Despondently, she kissed her mother on the cheek and climbed out of the car. Her only hope was that something might happen during her shift that would provide a solid way out.

Mrs. Kottler gave her a simple assignment to start with: take the cart around and fill the water jugs in all the rooms.

Elizabeth guessed that this was a standard job for new volunteers and a shrewd way to help them get to know the residents. Many were up and about when Elizabeth walked into the various rooms and assembly areas. It was her first full view of the people she would be mingling with. While some were kind and welcoming, others regarded her with wariness or skepticism. Just like kids on the first day of school, she thought. You can’t tell about people until you get to know them better. That was a good way to think about them, she decided. They were just older kids watching a new student.

But these “students” sure looked different from the ones at school. Elizabeth was instantly struck by the crowns of white hair and varying styles of hairpieces worn by both the men and women. Her next impression was that many were quite agile, moving quickly and freely up and down the hallway, in and out of chairs, without the stiff or stooped gait she expected from older people. Some used canes and walkers, others simply steadied themselves against whatever sturdy objects happened to be nearby. They’re people, Elizabeth was reminded as they chatted amiably among themselves or played games in the recreation room or strolled thoughtfully alone. There were others, of course, who were less capable and needed more attention and care. Sharp minds were encased in fragile bodies. Sharp bodies sometimes encased fragile minds. It varied from room to room, person to person.

The most uncomfortable moment came when she reached Adam Hounslow’s room. The door was slightly ajar, and she could see through the crack that the room was dark. The blinds had been drawn, and Adam was talking to someone in a wheelchair. Though his back was to her, Elizabeth recognized the telltale baseball cap and knew it was George Betterman. The men spoke in low voices. Elizabeth was unsure whether to knock, clear her throat, or simply walk in. She paused in her indecision.

Adam handed something to George, who quickly shoved it under his loose-fitting jogging jacket. The hushed voices and quick action told Elizabeth that she wasn’t supposed to be seeing what she was seeing. She turned to sneak away, but banged the four-wheel cart against the wall. The jugs and glasses rattled, and the two men to spun around to face her.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she stammered nervously, “but Mrs. Kottler asked me to bring some fresh water.”

Adam looked particularly guilty. “I don’t need fresh water,” he said with a sneer.

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said again and retreated back into the hallway. With shaking hands, she grabbed the handle on the cart. Why was she so nervous? What was it about the men that scared her so?

She heard a soft whirring sound behind her. Seconds later, George Betterman navigated his electric wheelchair past her, pausing to look up at her through the black circles of his sunglasses. I know who you are, she expected him to say again. But he didn’t say a word. He rode away, down the hallway.

Elizabeth closed her eyes, trying to calm the irrational fear that gripped her. A heavy hand fell on her shoulder, and she cried out, nearly jumping out of her skin.

“Whoa, now, calm down,” Sheriff Hounslow said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I’m a little jumpy,” Elizabeth admitted quickly.

“I guess you are. Is everything all right?”

“Yeah,” she said. “First-day jitters.”

“I thought yesterday was your first day.”

“It was. But that was a tour. Today is my first day of work. Excuse me,” she said and raced away with the cart. Before she rounded the next corner, she heard the sheriff greet his father. Adam Hounslow launched the first assault by complaining about his room.

Safe down the next hallway, she stopped again to take a deep breath. This is stupid, she told herself. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It was just two old men talking. She rebuked herself for being so weird and, after a moment, continued her rounds.

The rooms—or apartments, as Mrs. Kottler called them—varied in their looks. A few looked sterile and hospital-like. Others reflected attempts by the residents or their families to liven them up with a few sticks of furniture, knickknacks, mementos, souvenirs, and treasures. If awards were given for the homiest room, Frieda Schultz would have won hands down.

From the moment Elizabeth stepped into Frieda’s room, she felt transported out of the retirement center into a cozy bungalow. The room was colorful, with bright floral-patterned curtains, and lampshades, and the smell of a light perfume that made her think of purple flowers. A chaise-lounge had been placed in the corner, smothered with pillows that Frieda had probably made herself, Elizabeth guessed, and a quilt that looked older than anything or anybody in the center. The windowsill was covered with cards, fashion magazines, catalogues, and books by authors with names like Baroness Orczy and Georgette Heyer and Elswyth Thane—people Elizabeth had never heard of. Victorian tapestries did their best to hide the institutional-white walls. An oak wardrobe with elaborately-carved edging along the top and bottom replaced the plain pressed-wood box the center issued. The matching bureau and vanity table, squeezed in along the opposite wall, were overrun with costume jewelry, evening purses, scarves, gloves, perfume bottles, jars, cold cream, tubes, magnifying mirror, boxes, silver combs, and brushes. It gave Elizabeth the impression that Frieda might suddenly decide to call her chauffeur and go out to the theater for the evening.

“I know, I know, it’s a cluttered mess,” Frieda said from the bathroom door in the corner.

Elizabeth realized she’d been standing in the middle of the room, staring. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said.

“Well, aren’t you the kind one to say so.” Frieda, a heavyset woman in a silk housecoat, sashayed into the room as if she were making an entrance at a formal ball dressed in chiffon and lace. Her beauty had faded, but she exuded a poise and charm that hadn’t. “Tell me your name, child.”

“I’m Elizabeth. I’m here to give you some fresh water.”

“A new volunteer?”

Elizabeth nodded as she flipped open the top on the copper-colored jug. Empty. She retrieved the large jar from the cart and poured water from one to the other.

“You must be traumatized,” Frieda said. “A pretty young girl like you thrown in with all these fossils. What in the world are you doing here?”

“I volunteered through my church.”

“And regretted it every minute since, I’ll bet,” Frieda laughed.

Elizabeth answered with a guilty smile.

“If it’s any consolation, I’m very happy to meet you,” said Frieda. “I get so tired of old people. And you’re a churchgoer too. All the better. I’d go to church if it weren’t such a major production to do so.”

Elizabeth was surprised. “Production? Why is it a production?”

“I’m not about to bore you with my health problems. We have a chapel here that I can pray in. That’ll do for now.” Frieda pushed aside some of the pillows on the chaise-lounge. “Put down those water jugs and come sit.”

“But Mrs. Kottler wants me to—”

“Forget Mrs. Kottler,” Frieda said. “I want you to sit down right here and tell me all about yourself. I don’t get to meet new people very often and, when I do, I want to know their stories.”

Elizabeth shyly sat down on the lounge.

Frieda placed herself on the opposite end, leaned back and tucked one leg under her large frame. “Comfy? Now … what’s your story?”

Elizabeth began slowly, with a few basic facts about growing up in Fawlt Like, her parents, her school. Soon, she was chatting away as if she couldn’t help it. Any lull, any missing pieces, any evasion, and Frieda asked just the right question to set it straight and keep the conversation going. Elizabeth surprised herself by talking about more personal experiences: how her friendship with Jeff had eventually led to their dating.

“Do you love him?” Frieda asked.

“Yes, I do,” Elizabeth admitted, blushing.

“Childhood sweethearts,” Frieda mused. “My Alexander and I were childhood sweethearts. We were married for forty-seven years. It wasn’t always bliss, but I wouldn’t have wanted to spend that time with anyone else.”

They continued to talk for another half-hour. At various points, Frieda would drop in her own memory of a similar experience she’d had when she was Elizabeth’s age. Elizabeth didn’t mind. She found comfort in knowing that her experiences weren’t unique only to her, but that a woman four times her age felt the same.

Elizabeth glanced at her watch and stood up quickly. “Oh! I’ve been here too long. Mrs. Kottler’ll be looking for me.”

“Wait,” Frieda said and placed a soft hand on Elizabeth’s arm. “There’s something you haven’t told me.” Her gaze was penetrating.

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked feebly.

“I have a sense about these things—a gift, in a way. There’s something you haven’t told me. You’re holding something back.”

Elizabeth glanced away nervously. Frieda was right: Elizabeth hadn’t mentioned her time-travel nightmare. Having made a friend in the center, she wasn’t eager to lose her by talking like a lunatic. “Yeah, but it’s too crazy. I can’t talk about it now. Maybe some other time.”

Frieda watched her for a moment, then decided to let the subject drop. “All right. We have time. Other days, other talks, and maybe you’ll tell me about it. I feel that somehow you should tell me. Maybe there are secrets I can tell you too.”

Elizabeth felt such an instant rapport with the older woman that she was tempted to take her invitation and pour out the whole tale on the spot. But just then Mrs. Kottler appeared in the doorway.

“There you are!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been wondering what became of you. I need your help in the recreation room. There aren’t enough judges for the Twister contest!”

***

Frieda insisted that Elizabeth could go only if she escorted her into the recreation room. “My ankles are hurting today,” she complained and sat down in a wheelchair that was folded up behind the door.

Elizabeth happily grabbed the wheelchair, clicked it into place, and whisked Frieda away, the smell of pretty perfume trailing back to her.

“What’s wrong with your ankles?” she asked as she pushed Frieda down the hall.

“I have occasional bouts with arthritis. Not today, actually, but I didn’t want to let you go yet,” Frieda replied.

The recreation room was filled with residents, many of whom Elizabeth had seen on her rounds. They sat at the card tables, on the sofas and chairs, engaged in different games and hobbies. At the opposite end of the room, Elizabeth saw Doug Hall in earnest conversation with George Betterman.

“Oh,” she said, without meaning to.

Frieda turned around to look at Elizabeth’s expression, then followed her gaze over to the two men. “I see,” she said with a smile. “Handsome, isn’t he? But watch out for him.”

“Don’t worry. I’m with Jeff, remember?” she reminded her newfound friend.

“Of course you are. But one can’t help but notice Doug,” Frieda said. “I’m sure he’s already flirted with you. No pretty girl goes through here without him pouring on the charm.”

“I talked to him for a minute yesterday.”

Frieda smiled. “Uh huh. It’s nice, isn’t it—having a handsome young man pay attention to you? Even if you know nothing will come of it.”

“I guess.”

“Just be certain that nothing does come of it, my dear,” Frieda warned.

“What do you mean?”

“I know his type. He’s a charmer, and the charmers are the ones who can hurt you the worst.”

Doug and George Betterman parted, and George wheeled himself out to the patio.

Elizabeth knelt closer to Frieda. The purple perfume lightly tickled her nose. “Do you know Mr. Betterman?” she asked.

Frieda folded her arms across her chest as if she were trying to contain a shiver. “As much as I care to,” she said.

“You don’t like him?”

“I don’t know him well enough to like or dislike him.”

“You’re evading my question,” Elizabeth teased her.

“I don’t know him,” she said carefully, “but I know my impressions.”

“What’re your impressions?”

She thought for a moment. “How can I put it in terms you’ll understand? He gives me the creeps. There’s something about him that seems …” Her voice trailed off.

Elizabeth waited. When Frieda didn’t continue, Elizabeth pressed her. “Seems what?”

“Evil.”

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