Friday, February 29, 2008

In the Arms of the Enemy by Patricia A. Guthrie

Chapter 1

It was a great day to catch a killer.

Jonathan Adam Blakely pulled into the long gravel driveway of the McGregor Ranch. The rumbling of the distant thunder was getting closer and toward the west, the sky looked black. As one gust of wind kicked up its swirling heels and died, another took its place. These were welcome respites in the sweltering heat, but even these blasts of air were too heavy with moisture.

Adam didn’t care. Another crack of thunder turned his world into a film noir atmosphere, accentuating his morbid mood.

He rolled down the window to watch a riding lesson in the arena and almost suffocated with a blast from the stifling heat. The hay, horses and pine needles from the bordering forest preserve scented the sauna. Reminders of the stables of home.

The riders tried to control their horses with one hand as they wiped sand out of their eyes with the other. Several of them were looking up at the massive oncoming wall cloud and leaving the arena. All looked soaked from the steamy humidity.

A redhead passed him on a bay horse, her face shining with beads of

perspiration. She caught his eye and looked like she was going to stop, when her horse swerved at the sound of thunder. The woman regained control and kept on going.

Adam kept his eyes peeled on the arena, trying to spot his quarry. He’d never met a murderess face to face, and he doubted she’d wear a sign around her neck stating ‘killer.’

I don’t give a damn anymore about anything except finding Maggie McGregor.

He’d do anything to bring to justice the woman who’d destroyed his father. And since his FBI friends couldn’t or wouldn’t help, he’d decided to concoct a new identity--Adam Grant, playboy entrepreneur.

He was determined to see what this she-devil might look like.

A woman was standing in the center of the arena, circled by a few riders. Her brash voice screamed at her students to get their animals into the barn before the storm hit.

A strong gust sent a garbage can flying across the arena, and one of her riders lost control. The thoroughbred sidestepped and bucked. The frightened teenager lost her balance and pitched over the horse’s side, landing on her rear. She still held the reins.

How had she managed that? Adam got out of his Chevy Silverado and leaned against the rail to watch.

The redhead rode up and jumped off her horse.

He couldn’t hear the conversation, but the mini-drama interested him. The girl was crying, apparently frightened, and her horse snorted and pawed the ground, looking anxious to be back in the barn.

The woman gave the girl a hug, and the girl’s face lit up, sending a pleasant sensation through Adam. He wondered who the woman was.

The riding instructor walked up to them frowning and shaking her head. She said something, and the redhead held her hands in a surrender posture, mounted and trotted back to the gate.

Adam shoved his thoughts aside as a black anvil thundercloud blotted out the sun. The wind died down and the sky shifted to resemble an ugly

bruise he’d sported once after a fight in high school.

From inside his horse trailer, he heard his horse’s impatient pawing on the floor boards.

He drove down the driveway and parked his rig close to the large sliding barn door. An older man, leather-skinned, bronzed by the wind and sun, crouched while fiddling with something on the side of a tractor. When Adam approached, the man handed him a screwdriver, and asked for his help.

“See this? You just screw that sucker in until it’s tight. I’ll be holdin’ the piece on--like this.”

Amused, Adam did what he was told, crouching down beside him.

“Yes, yes. That’s right. Good.”

He stood up and appraised Adam. “Thanks. You our summer help? Bit old for a high school lad, I think.”

Adam grinned and handed the old man his screwdriver. “No, I’m Adam Grant.”

“Sorry. I was expecting a boy who wanted a summer job and didn’t show up yesterday. I don’t know what made me expect him today. I’m Cullum McGregor.” He brushed himself off on bib overalls and shook hands.

A firm grip. A self-assured, kindly, tough old man who’d give a kid a summer job. Not the kind of man who’d raise a daughter to kill horses.

“I’ll be glad to help, if you need a hand.” Adam remembered his role. He gave the man a shy shrug. “I haven’t been around working farms much. I’m a city boy.”

“Mr. Grant. . . .”


“What’s a city boy like you doin’ here? Little out of your element, aren’t you, son?”

Adam smiled. “Renting an apartment and boarding my horse.”

“Ah yes. You’d be the one renting the apartment.”

“That would be me. Where should I put my horse?”

Cullum McGregor opened his mouth, but shut it again as he looked at the sky. “Nasty bit of weather. Wouldn’t surprise me if that one spawns a tornado.”

The sky looked like God’s fury ready to unleash itself upon an unsuspecting mankind for their manifold sins.

“Come on, Adam. Let me show you your stall.”

Adam followed Cullum into the barn and down the aisle where curious heads poked noses over stall doors. He stopped at an empty space with ankle-deep bedding.

“This’ll be your horse’s stall,” Cullum said.

Adam nodded and peered inside. “What’s that on the ground?” he asked. And, before the old man could answer Adam asked, “And what’s that for?” Adam pointed to the grated window on the stall door.

Cullum’s eyes narrowed at him, before he grinned. “Haven’t been around horses much, have you?”

Adam shook his head.

“Well son, let’s start with where we keep ‘em. The horse is kept in a stall--it’s like their bedroom. The shavin’s their blankets and that grate on the door keeps their teeth from nibblin’ on passersby.” Cullum slid the stall door open and switched on the light, as Adam kicked through the sawdust.

Good quality bedding. Looking at the peeling paint on the walls, he thought the old man’s priority lay with the comfort of his animals and not appearances.

A loud clap of thunder crashed overhead. The stall light flickered. He heard whinnying and looked outside the stall. Soaked riders led their panicky horses down the aisle. Someone yelled something from outside, but the unleashed combination of wind and rain was so loud, he could hardly hear anything.

“Close the barn door,” someone yelled.

The redhead he’d seen in the arena led her bay down the aisle pointing to the outside. “There’s a horse still out back. And...” she said, looking at Adam, “There’s a horse in a trailer outside.”

“Um…” Adam said, desperate to get Bluebird inside, but not allowing himself to blow his cover. “Could someone help?” Adam shook his head, trying not to grimace at his pretended stupidity.

“My daughter can help you,” Cullum said. Adam looked around for the instructor, but didn’t see her.

“Where is she?”

“Here,” the woman replied, reaching out her hand for the formal handshake with one hand and holding onto her reins with the other.

“My daughter, Maggie,” Cullum said. “Maggie, this is our new boarder, Adam Grant.”


Adam took her hand and stared at the woman who had the largest aquamarine eyes and most luscious copper hair he’d ever seen in a--murderess. This was Maggie McGregor?


Maggie had left her fiancé, Ricky Lane, with bitter feelings a little over a month ago. When she’d learned about his murder and the death of Black Autumn, all life seemed to leave her. She’d been going around half zombie-like, with a sense she’d never recover. Now, her only joy was her father’s sense of humor and her old horse, Playboy.

She hadn’t felt compelled to introduce herself to another boarder in her father’s barn, but the fact that the stupid idiot had left a horse in the trailer when a storm was about to hit, forced her to speak to him.

There was something about the newest addition to the McGregor barn. Something about the ruggedly handsome face that was vaguely familiar. No. She’d never met him before but….

She wasn’t sure why she did an on-the-spot comparison. Adam was taller than Ricky, but not by much. He didn’t have the classical movie star looks of Ricky. Adam had an earthy, sensual quality about him. Ricky had been fair and blond. Adam was sun-bronzed, and his dark and tousled hair made her want to comb it with her fingers.

Something else about him drew her attention--not physical, but

emotional. Ricky had been a confident, self-important man, who was hard and cold when he didn’t get his way. This man looked lost, like a tragic figure in a Greek play.

“He’ll be needing help getting his trailer into the barn,” Cullum said. “Mags, me dear, you put Playboy away, and go fetch the horse in the back. Adam, can you back up that trailer?”

“I’ve never tried,” Adam replied.

“Oh great, just great,” Maggie muttered.

“Oh, by the way Maggie, he’ll be rentin’ the little apartment. You’ll need to get it ready.”

“He’ll be what?” Maggie, who’d started to move Playboy away, stopped and turned, her face registering surprise and annoyance.

“I’ll be renting….”

“We need to get your horse out of there,” she said, “before the storm blows it into the next county.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Adam turned and followed Cullum out of the stall.

How had this man managed to drive the trailer here in the first place? She made a mental note to shoot that question at him later.

She’d thought he’d looked like a tragic figure. She changed her mind. Now, as she looked at him, maybe he was the one about to inflict a tragedy on someone else. It wasn’t so much his humorless smile, but the dark eyes--flat, hard and distant. She felt an intrusion entering into her life, and she didn’t like it.


Most of the boarders had already left, but the few that remained were sliding open the barn doors so Cullum could back in Adam’s rig. He just made it. The men slid the door shut as a sheet of wind and rain followed them, and a few seconds later the roof started crackling with pings, clicks and finally shuddering to ‘bams.’ It sounded like someone was taking a hammer and trying to make scrap metal. They yelled their goodbyes and ran through the adjacent smaller door, banging it shut as they left.

Maggie turned the news reports up on the radio, and then started down

the aisle toward the back pasture.

“The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for northern Porter County in Indiana extending into Michigan. Take immediate cover.” A beep sounded, and the message repeated. “The towns of.…” Maggie strained to hear, but a close crack of thunder blocked out the names.

A terrified shriek came from the back pasture. Filled with dread, she moved into a dead run toward the back door. A terrified gray Arabian was rearing, bucking up and down, and racing around in circles. Maggie tried to grab the halter of the traumatized animal, but missed, and slipped to the ground. His front feet came down inches from her head, and he reared again. The wind kept her immobile, as hail pelted her face, and steel-shod hooves hovered above her.

Suddenly, the hooves swerved and came down on her other side. Now, Cullum was holding onto the horse, calming him, backing him away, and leading him into the barn. Maggie scrambled to rise, hindered by sheets of violent wind and rain. Adam grabbed her around the waist and helped her to her feet. The wind blew them back into the barn.

“Thanks, Adam.” They struggled to pull the door closed. “I slipped. The wind pinned me down.”

The thought that this man had the guts to take on the storm to rescue her registered for only about two seconds before she realized he was staring down at her. She felt heat rush to her face.

Her sopping tank top clung against her skin, and except for mud splotches, was almost transparent. She looked up just in time to see Adam avert his eyes. Momentarily, she crossed her arms over her chest, then decided, why bother? He’d already seen everything she had there anyway. I feel like a naked drowned rat.

Cullum appeared from around a corner and threw a flannel shirt at her. She struggled to get it on over her soaked skin. Water still poured off her hair onto her already wet face, and she tried brushing away the stream with her sleeve.

“Maggie, help Adam get his horse out of that trailer before that animal tears it apart.”

The hail came down harder, and the frantic pounding of hooves came from the trailer.

“Come on Adam. Let’s get him out of there.” She hurried down the aisle toward the front of the barn.

“Her,” Adam said as he trotted to catch up. “My horse is a girl.”

The rain slammed into one side of the barn. Then, after it changed directions, it assaulted the walls from the other side.

Damn Adam. This is no time for a lesson in horse terminology. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Let’s get her out of there.”

Maggie rushed toward the trailer, Adam close behind. Beginners she didn’t need, especially around nervous horses, in traumatizing storms.

“First time owner, I take it?” Maggie asked. Without waiting for his response, she asked, “You have a lead rope somewhere?”

So, you’ve bought yourself a horse and haven’t a clue what to do. Probably bought the trailer at the same time and had them load her for you. God help you, if you’d had an accident on the road. Dumb city boy.

“Yeah, sure. It’s in the front seat,” he said.

They reached for the lead rope at the same time, and his hand landed on top of hers. He released his grip just a little too quickly, and the nylon rope fell off the seat and onto the ground. Maggie sighed and rolled her eyes. She reached down to pick it up. Adam had the same idea, and they bumped heads.

“Sorry,” he said.

Oh boy! For a flash of a second, their eyes had locked and there had been something--she shrugged it off.

“Why don’t you stand over there?” She indicated away from the trailer. “Way over there. Like in the next county.”

The noise outside grew louder.

Maggie grabbed the rope and opened the side door.

“What’s your horse’s name?” she yelled.

“What?” he shouted back.

“Horse’s name.” Maggie had to scream to be heard.


Adam still hadn’t moved when Maggie reached the rear of the trailer. She unsnapped the rope attached to the front manger and hooked on the nylon lead. Then, once again she motioned for Adam to move out of the way. He walked to the rear and stood by the back doors.

“No! She’s likely to run you over coming out of this trailer. Move back!” He did.

Bluebird came bounding backwards out of the trailer as Maggie grabbed the line. The mare reared as another onslaught of wind slammed into the side of the barn. She calmed the mare enough to get her inside the stall as Cullum came running down the aisle. He was out of breath, wild-eyed, his expression laced with fear and horror.

“Sirens went off! We’re in the path of a tornado!”

A loud crash of something smashed into the side of the barn. Cullum screamed, “Get into the office--now!”

Maggie could barely hear the wail of the sirens coming from the fire station through the continuing barrage of hail and an eerie lull in the wind. She’d always heard a tornado sounded like a freight train, but this sounded more like a screeching pig.

Adam grabbed her by the hand, following Cullum to the warm-up room and into the office, the safest part of the barn. After stumbling into the dark room over several pairs of legs, they sank onto the floor.

Maggie was trembling violently. She felt the tension in Adam’s body, but he didn’t make a sound. She wondered if he was even breathing. Maggie couldn’t make out who was in there, until she heard her father’s voice.



“Thank God,” Cullum said, relief flooding through his tone.

The wind turned into a roar, and her eardrums felt as though they’d

burst. She buried her head into the warm chest at her side.

An orchestra of popping, sucking and crashing beneath the screeching roar triggered an icy fear twisting around her heart. The office seemed like it was coming off its very foundation, and she hung onto the closest thing handy for dear life.

The tornado left as quickly as it had come. The sound faded into the distance, and the room was deathly quiet except for the rapid sounds of breathing among the group huddled together. Suddenly, sunlight poured in through the arena windows filtering into the adjacent areas, as normal as any Sunday afternoon in the summer.

Maggie’s head spun, and she still trembled, but she was able to notice that the musky, sweat-scented, suffocating vice that held her was Adam, and she was in his arms.

He whispered, “Maggie, it’s okay. You can let go. It’s over.” His voice soothed as it might a nervous horse or a panicky child. He didn’t make a move, and she didn’t budge. That moment seemed like infinity. She was locked in an embrace with a man she didn’t like, but she didn’t want him to stop holding her.

When reality hit, embarrassment flooded her. She needed to get away from him gracefully, so she pulled away, bumping into the riding instructor, Francine Simmons, in the process.

“Hey,” Francine said, looking like she was about to bump her back. But when Adam looked at her, she appeared to change her mind and smiled. At least he was good for something.

Adam looked at Francine, switched his glance to Maggie and then back to Francine. For the first time, she thought she noticed a reaction in those dark brooding eyes. He didn’t like her.


For much more information about Patricia Guthrie and In the Arms of the Enemy -- visit her virtual book tour pages -

Patricia A. Guthrie
"In the Arms of the Enemy." (Light Sword Publishing)
Dedicated to those horses lost to man's inhumanity and greed
and to those humanitarians who's mission is to save and protect them.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cover of the Year - Asking for Your Vote

I just scanned the covers for Cover of the Year on Erin Aislinn's website and saw a lot of familiar covers - many were on my Judge A Book By its Cover blog last year :)

I invite you to visit and I hope that you will vote for Lady Lightkeeper which is one of my covers and it is listed as the winning cover for September.

If you prefer the easier route - feel free to email webmail@erinaislinn .com and put "VOTE for Lady Lightkeeper" in the subject line. I appreciate every vote :)


Book Promo 101 - NOW AVAILABLE
www.nikkileigh. com/book_ promo_101. htm
"Coastal Suspense with a Touch of Romance"
Would you like information about the newest
blog tour option? Ask me for details and visit

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Walking Man By Narciso Zamora

Walking Man: A Modern Missions Experience in Latin America

By Narciso Zamora

The cross of my childhood mountains lush with trees through which the sun breaks at dawn surround a green field. Swallows and other birds trill and the pigeons fly in flocks around a small cabin with a thatched hay roof and walls of thin, round eucalyptus. Oak posts are spaced so that rays of sun pass through, as does the cold. It was in such a nook that I was born in the month of May in the 1950s in a little place called Tacamache, in the district of Chugur, province of Hualgayoc, state of Cajamarca in Peru.

My parents, Marcial Zamora and Gricelida Fernández, were very nervous in my first days on earth because only days after I was born, I became very ill. Obviously, I won that battle and infirmity and death did not accomplish their objectives. Thanks to the natural herbs of the country that God provided, my condition stabilized and my body was healed. With God's help, I was victorious for the first time over illness.

My parents were a couple of young, poor country kids, with little formal learning or culture. They had very little money, clothing or furniture in the house. My mother had suffered for several years with a chronic illness. My father worried and seemed always to be searching for some medicine to cure her. He resorted to witchdoctors, healers, charmers, doctors, surgeons and naturalists.

They finally took her to the Medical Center of Bambamarca, an almost 12-hour horseback ride. The doctors didn't hold out any hope of her survival. When they arrived home again, we all thought she would die soon. In desperation, my father visited the Roman Catholic Church to pray. As he entered, he rushed toward a statue and fell to his knees to plead for my mother's recovery.

During this time, for several years in a row, my parents visited the Virgin of Remedies in a place called Liscan. My older sister, Gumercinda, my brother Rocel and I would stay at home for an entire week while my parents were gone to ask the Virgin to cure my mother. They began to lose hope as Mother's health remained unchanged. As a last resort, we gathered herbs from the countryside. My sister ground them on a very large rock and mixed them with boiled water and coarse brown sugar. We gave this to my mother every morning and afternoon. After being on this regimen for a while, thank God, she began to improve and continued to take the herbs until she was cured.


When I was seven years old I started elementary school - it was the 1960s. We didn't wear uniforms because it was a country school and the children were too poor. Despite our daily hardships, I always tried to arrive early to my classes. My brother Rocel and I took off running every morning from our house toward the school. It was a 20-minute barefoot walk. In the afternoon, when school let out, I liked to play soccer. Later, we worked in the fields with my father.

On Sundays, my father would sell potatoes, beans, dried peas and other produce in the city. He would mount up 80 kilos of produce on his mule and travel to the city of Lajas or Yauyucan. With the money he made he bought kerosene, detergent, salt, matches and some cookies. He would always arrive home drunk. When he went out to a party or festival, he might stay out all night.

Often he took my mother with him and, faithful companion that she was, she never left him passed out in the road. She was always at his side. Sometimes my father would get drunk when we went out as a family, and then about midnight we would head out toward home. It didn't matter if we were a two-hour walk from home, we had to walk in the pitch black on rocky roads that were also often muddy. My recollection of those nights was of being scared to death, cold and crying as I walked behind my drunken father - who wasn't feeling a thing.


Peru is as relatively undeveloped today as it was in my youth. However, even by standards of an underdeveloped country my family was poor. We had no luxuries and lacked even some of the basics of an average Peruvian household of the time. For instance, I never tasted white sugar or coffee until I was about 12 years old. We never had white sugar at home because it was so expensive. And instead of the morning coffee that is a custom in Spanish-speaking countries, my parents would give us warm soup (which may be more nutritious but was an indicator of our poverty).

We wore plain cotton pants and tank tops and ran around without shoes. In winter months, there was frost on the ground and our feet would crack open and bleed. What an excruciating pain - sometimes I just couldn't take it. When we had to travel to Perlamayo to work, we walked in the frosted fields. When the farmers would make a cow get up to go and be milked, Rocel and I would run over to stand in the spot where the cow had been lying because that spot would be warm. I never knew what a jacket or a sweater was but my mother made wool ponchos for us to use against the cold.

Our toys were corn cobs, though we hardly ever had time to play with them because we always seemed to be working in the fields or taking care of our sheep. When school was out for vacation, we spent our time farming vegetables - greens, potatoes, corn. (All this we had planted for our own food. We sold only a little of it.) While still a child, I learned to use a hoe, spade and machete. We didn't do much else on vacation - just three months of work, work, work.

I always used to wonder why there are so many people who suffered. I wondered why people had to spend their whole lives working and still they didn't have enough to eat at times. And then they died. The better part of my life's story has poverty as a theme. Since knowing Jesus, I have taken hope in his words recorded in Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

I believe it's the will of God that we serve him despite our poverty - and not let that be an obstacle for serving Jesus. God's Care for Me I thank God that long before I began to serve him, the Lord Jesus was taking care of me. When I was 13 years old, I had an accident. I fell from a horse onto some rocks. I broke my left ankle and my pelvic bone.

After a few minutes I got up, and though I could hardly walk, I took the horse by its bridle and limped from Pampa Grande to Uncle Fortunato Zamora's house. I was dragging my injured foot and walking in the pouring rain besides. My father had taken some other horses loaded with hay to build our kitchen roof and I was left alone with no one to help me.

Taking it slowly and crying in pain all the way, I finally arrived at about 7:00 p.m. All night long I groaned from the pain in my foot which had swollen considerably. The next day my father put me on a mule and took me to a country bone fixer to have the bone set to heal. As I was getting down off the mule, I thought, Please let this not hurt! A tall man with a dark red poncho had me sit down on a tree trunk; he took my foot and started sliding his hand over it. I started to scream. He softly placed the bone and then bandaged the ankle with a piece of cloth. Only one week later, my ankle was better - it had healed.


When I finished junior high school, my parents decided that I should continue in school despite the precarious conditions in which we lived, that is, in poverty. We didn't have enough money to buy salt but they wanted me to continue my education. It was a very risky decision as they had seven more sons! My older sister was the only one who stayed at home after elementary school so that she could help my parents working in the home.

My first year of secondary school marked the first time in my life that I wore shoes - made of plastic. My parents sold their only cow to pay for my uniform, books and supplies. In 1970 and 1971, I studied at El Señor de los Milagros (The Lord of Miracles) in Ninabamba, a school out in the country. My mother would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare a hot vegetable broth for our breakfast and cook potatoes for me to take to school for lunch.

Sometimes my sister Gumer woke up early to help Mother. Rocel and I sat next to Mother as she served us the very hot soup. While we ate, Mother put the potatoes in a plate and covered them with another plate and wrapped them up in a white cloth. We put the lunch in our pack and we were ready to go. We left for school at 6:30 a.m. because it took us one hour on foot to make the journey to school. There was a stream near the school where we would stop and wash our faces and feet, which were muddy by the time we arrived.

Very near the school was a room for which we had paid a fee to use to keep our school uniforms. We would change into them just before we went to school. The school had 500 students. At noon, we would get out of class to eat, and we didn't resume classes until 2:00 p.m., taking the long break for the customary siesta. At 5:00 p.m., we headed back home and would arrive at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m.

My mother always had our dinner piping hot, ready and waiting in a big, three-legged clay pot that sat on top of an open fire. After we ate, we lit a kerosene lantern so we could do all our chores and homework. We stayed up studying until 11:00 each night. For four years my mother sacrificed to get up early every morning to make our lunch. My first adventure in 1973 when I was in my late teens, I ran away from home.

It was the month of April, a rainy month. I was leaving home for the first time - without telling my parents - I just could not fathom a life of back-breaking labor and drunken weekends. After walking for about five hours and having climbed all the way up Mt. Coyunde, I stopped and looked at the house where I was born and I cried for a moment.

I started walking again and by the afternoon, I arrived in Lajas where I waited for a bus that passed by at night from Chota on the way to Chiclayo. I didn't know how to get the bus to stop so I asked a young man if he would do it for me. I felt silly when I realized how simple it was - just raising my hand as the bus approached. I got on the bus and took a window seat in the middle. At that moment my anguish began - the trip was making me ill - motion sick - and I arrived in Chiclayo quite sick.

As we got off the bus, a man who had also been a passenger offered to pay for a hotel room for me, which was very generous of him considering that I was a stranger. I slept peacefully that night and the next day I went out looking for work. I went to a bus station called Noreste and a tall, dark man came up and offered me work. It was a con, though. As we spoke, he was actually robbing me of what little money I had. That night I slept in the doorway of the bus station.

The next day, I went walking down a particular street and a young man came up to me and said, “Do you want to work? We need boys to sell pastries.” I didn't know anything about that city and I didn't have any skills. I didn't even know how to use a broom - but that very day I started to work selling pastries. I made enough to eat and to get a place to sleep, thank God.

I sold pastries in the major market of Chiclayo, a city that was full of delinquents and thieves. I didn't do very well because I was always being robbed of my money or the pastries. It seemed all I ever met were juvenile delinquents, so I decided to leave that city and head for the Peruvian jungle. I traveled for a day and a half in a truck and finally arrived in Bagua, and from there I went on to Chachapoyas with my bag in hand.

I walked through the city of Chachapoyas and that afternoon I met a gentleman sitting on a park bench and he offered me work. I was desperate. The words were hardly out of his mouth before I was eagerly accepting. He invited me to travel with him and work in a community called Quispe. I said I would, so that night he took me to dine and spend the night with one of his relatives in Chachapoyas.

The next day we traveled six hours in a small bus to Luya, a very small, quaint town. We spent that night in the house of the postmaster, who was the niece of the man I was traveling with, and she made humitas (a sweet cornbread) for us and gave us a good bed to sleep in. The next morning we headed out to Quispe.

My boss, so to speak, rode a horse and I had to walk what was to be a 25-hour hike. I met a young man on the road and we started talking. I told him what I was doing and where I was going. He stopped, looked at me and said, “You're crazy! How can you go to that place? It's very dangerous and very far away. You'll never come back!”

I thought for a moment and then slipped quietly into an irrigation ditch. The irrigation canal was under construction, so I hid there all day. My boss probably thought I had fallen a little behind since he was on horse and I was walking. He didn't come back looking for me. When I got up out of the ditch, I started to run until I arrived back at Luya.

From there I went to Lamud, a very small town about four kilometers away. There I quickly got another job selling pastries, this time at the entrance to a high school. Each night I would help make the pastries and then sell them the next day. One night, I worked all night without stopping - making the jellies and mixing the pastry dough. I was so tired when the morning came but I still had to be at the high school at 9:00 a.m. to sell the pastries. That morning I fell asleep and stayed that way as the students came out for recess. They saw me sleeping and ate all the pastries. I had to go home with no pastries and no money. The boss made me work that off, which took two months.

One Monday afternoon, the boss left to go purchase fruit and supplies to make jelly and I knew he wouldn't be back for a while. I took advantage of that time to break into the room where he kept the money and I took enough money for a bus ticket and to hold me over for a few days. That same day I headed out on a bus to Chachapoyas. I arrived there in the afternoon and just started walking the streets looking for a job.

A man who was leaning up against a truck called me over and said, “Do you want to work?”

“Yes!” I answered.

He said he had a job for me, he took me home with him, gave me a cup of coffee and then showed me the work - it was making mattresses out of rice straw. I had to sleep in the straw. Lacking enthusiasm for that task, as well, early the next morning I slowly opened the door and crept out into the street with my bag in hand.

I caught a truck to a town called Pedro Ruiz Gallo which was about two hours away. In that place, I met a woman who sold fruit in a kiosk. She gave me food and a place to stay for three days. Then a man who sold wood employed me for three weeks to go out into the orchards and fields and plant fruits and vegetables. In the afternoons, I could eat all the fruit I wanted. After that job, I went back to Chiclayo, courtesy of two men who were hauling machines for the army and needed someone to show them the way to Chiclayo.

I helped out the army in exchange for a hot lunch that day - I ate with the captain and other officers! That was a very delicious meal. It took us two days to get to Chiclayo. Since I didn't have any money when I arrived, I joined up with three other young men who slept in a school. That didn't last long before I was off again - this time to the big city. I decided to go to Lima, the capital, to try my luck. And there I met some serious juvenile delinquents and became one of them. I lived by thievery.

One Wednesday morning, I happened to meet my uncle Aníbal in Union Square. He took me straight to the police for my mischief and then he took me home with him. Near the end of 1975, I returned home for a while but I was still restless. My parents were glad to have me home but worried about me, naturally. I asked my father for a ride one day to another town called Santa Cruz and on that trip he asked me, “Where are you going, son? I want to know.” I replied, “I really don't know where I'm going. I'm just wandering.”


I spent some time in a very picturesque town called Pomacochas, situated next to a lake with thatched-topped homes. The lake was stocked full of fish for the taking. There were many legends about that lake. People told stories of sirens that lived in an ancient, evil city that had been flooded, forming the lake. The sirens were always blamed for any missing people or animals. From Pomacochas, I joined up with two guys and we went to San Martín, crossing the jungle.

It took us 15 days on foot to make that trip. One night we slept along the Serranoyacu River, the river that divides the mountains from the jungle, in a house made of wood that had been built by and for travelers. We continued our trip crossing the mountains with a three-hour hike up the mountain. Then we descended into the jungle.

We arrived at a place called Aguas Verdes and slept in a camping cabin there. From that place, we caught a shortcut to the main road into the jungle. We snuck under some empty oil and gas drums in a truck and caught a ride avoiding all the military check points, making our way to Moyobamba.

In Moyobamba, we didn't have anywhere to live. One guy found an abandoned house to stay in, so we lived there with him. We didn't have food. We would go out during the day and steal corn, yucca, squash, bananas and chickens. We liked living off other people's farms. One time we went out to a farm we knew wasn't being watched at night. We staked out the place and waited until the owner left for the day, then broke in and stole a pig.

Another time, we were going into a peanut farm and fell into a booby trap rigged with a shotgun. It could have killed us, but a dog tripped it before we got to it. The owner was nearby, however, and he came after us. He hollered after us to be careful because there were the same traps at every entrance to the farm. The flying bullets of that afternoon started me thinking about leaving that life and looking for a job.

We were aimless youth lacking identification or any formal registration with any government or community - like animals without owners. Looking for work I decided to leave by way of the river and look for work; it was a done deal; I was ready for change. My friend was sad and upset. I walked to the port at Tahuishco where I took a boat down-river to Alto Mayo, and I never saw my partner in crime again.

The boat left the port at eight in the morning and we traveled all day by river. The other travelers had brought their food for lunch on the river. Though I went hungry, for me it was a marvelous day. I had not previously appreciated God's creation - all the trees and animals and the birds' songs - as much as I did on that day. In the afternoon we arrived at Puerto Ciego, after an eight-hour trip. Since I hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch, I got off quickly, grabbed a stalk of sugar cane and began cutting it up and chewing on it to keep my hunger away.

Then I walked an hour into the forest, going along talking with some other men. It was interesting to see such huge trees. I was feeling quite good when I arrived at the home of Jose Tiburcio Coronel - he and his wife Emelina Alarcón received me, a stranger, into their home. Later, their two sons, Segundo and Agustín, arrived and welcomed me saying, “Here you have a bed, food and work.”

The work consisted of farming vegetables, planting rice, peanuts, bananas, yucca and corn. I tried hard to learn to work cutting trees to make posts but the bloodsucking mosquitoes were a plague that I could not bear. Day and night thousands of the little buggers stung me all over my body. I was facing the reality of life: work to live. The Coronels' was a Christian home and still is. I was surprised and afraid, really, when for the first time I heard them pray before eating. I had never heard the gospel nor known any born-again Christians. I thought they were worshipping Satan.

It was very strange to me and I thought that I needed to do something to get them away from those strange ideas about the Bible and God and to get them back to the Roman Catholic Church. I bought a Catholic Bible. When they would sing hymns, my body would tremble with fear. At night after dinner, they would invite me to read the Bible. Listening to their teachings made me feel desperate. Through the night I would pray to the Virgin Mary to help me keep from being fooled by the evangelicals. I would always muddle things up with a bunch of questions whenever they would try to explain the gospel to me. Always, I would praise the Catholic Church.

Sometimes I would try to act like I was asleep so I wouldn't have to hear their teachings about the Word of God. One time they invited me to a church service, but I refused and then they didn't invite me any more. I ended up hanging out with some other foolish young kid like myself and we planned how to destroy the place where the born-again Christians worshiped. Their church was made of rustic wood and had a palm-leaf roof. We organized a sports club and we invited the Christians to join, thinking that they might leave Jesus for soccer, but it didn't happen. Those Christians used the sport as a way of talking to us about Jesus and asking us to repent of our sins. Those brothers peacefully responded to me in love, patience and tenderness. One night they showed me the story of the life of Joseph; it made a huge impression on me and most greatly impacted my life - I now love to read it and I get excited telling it.

The Unsung Patriot by Virginia Vassallo

Unsung Patriot: Guy T. Viskniskki

How The Stars and Stripes Began

By Virginia G. Vassallo



The story of The Stars and Stripes newspaper begins in Missouri during the Civil War. On November 2, 1861, Brigadier General U. S. Grant issued orders to Colonel Richard J. Oglesby, commanding officer of the 8th Illinois Infantry Regiment, which was stationed in a small Missouri village across the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois. Colonel Oglesby was to command an expedition to destroy rebel forces under the command of Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson stationed in Stoddard County, Missouri.

Colonel Oglesby began to organize the forces, consisting of about twenty-two hundred men from his regiment and those of the 11th, 18th and 29th Illinois Infantry Regiments. On Tuesday, November 5, the Union forces started for Bloomfield, Missouri, the county seat of Stoddard County. They traveled by the most direct route - crossing a seven-mile wide swamp on November 7. “The ground was covered with black moss four inches deep and so thick that tis like a carpet. That was an awful gloomy road and I was glad enough to land at a nice clean stream and have orders to pitch tents.”

While Colonel Oglesby's command was on the move, General Grant also issued orders for his troops at Cape Girardeau and Ironton to converge on Bloomfield. Troops were converging on the town from the east, northeast and northwest. The Confederate commander realized his predicament and withdrew his forces to the south.

On November 7, the 10th Iowa Regiment was the first of the Union forces to enter Bloomfield. They occupied the town until Colonel Oglesby's forces arrived the next day. At that time, the Iowa forces were ordered to Belmont, Missouri, where a battle had been fought the day before.

The Illinois troops arrived in Bloomfield about 9:00 a.m. on November 8 and were to spend that day and night camped in town. During the day some of the troops started looting Bloomfield; Colonel Oglesby sent a police force to stop it.

Other Union troops noticed the abandoned office of the Bloomfield Herald newspaper, whose editor, a New Jersey native, had fled with the Confederate troops. During the evening of November 8, 1861, ten of the soldiers entered the Herald's office and, as Captain Daniel H. Brush of Company K, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment, wrote, “Some printers belonging to our regtt. and the others have taken possession of the printing office and design publishing a paper tonight.” The newspaper was christened The Star and Stripes. The paper was distributed on Saturday, November 9, to the Union troops in and around Bloomfield. It is uncertain how many copies of this first issue were printed, but it seems likely that the word was “Read it and pass it on.”

Of the first ten Stripers, three were from Carmi, Illinois, and three were from Fairfield, Illinois:

Benson T. Atherton was a recruit in Company G, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment. He was a resident of Fairfield. Discharged from the army on November 1, 1862, due to wounds, he was the publisher of the Prairie Pioneer.

James T. Boseman was a recruit in Company G, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment. A resident of Carmi, he was later transferred to the Regimental Band.

Theodore Edmonson was a Corporal in Company G, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment. A resident of Fairfield, he was publisher of the Illinois Patriot. According to the 1860 census, he was a seventeen-year-old printer with assets of $1,900.

Walter A. Rhue was a recruit in Company G, 18th Illinois Regiment. Another resident of Carmi, he had been a publisher before the war. He was later transferred to the Regimental Band. He was discharged on March 14, 1862, due to a lingering illness caused by unhealthy water and exposure while serving in the army.

John W. Schell was another resident of Fairfield, Illinois. He was a Corporal and later was promoted to Sergeant of Company D, 8th Illinois. In 1860 the census shows him as a twenty-two-year-old printer with assets of $150. He married and became an Alabama farmer. However, he did enlist in the Spanish-American War and served as a brigade wagon master.

Robert T. Stewart was First Sergeant of Company B, 29th Illinois Regiment. He was also a resident of Carmi and had been an editor of the White County Advocate before the war. During the action at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in February, 1862, he became ill and never regained his health. He lost most of his sight, yet Stewart became the editor and publisher of the Carmi Courier. His employees had to read the newspaper to him and assist him with his signature. He died on June 10, 1913.1

How many of these soldiers made it back to Carmi, Illinois, after the war? Did they recount their story of publishing the first Stars and Stripes? Certainly their comrade in arms, Thomas Viskniskki, of Company G, 18th Illinois Regiment, must have known of the first Stars and Stripes. He had enlisted in Fairfield, Illinois, in May of 1861. Did

Thomas know Benson Atherton, John Schell and Theodore Edmonson from his time spent in Fairfield? Or did they all meet during their training and their time spent in the army?

We will never know the answers to these questions. But we can speculate.

We know that Thomas was listed as present with his unit during November, 1861. He must have been in Bloomfield, Missouri, the day the paper was published. In later years he must have told his extended family of the excitement of that first edition of The Stars and Stripes. Maybe he even had a treasured copy of that issue, carried throughout his years of fighting for his adopted county.

1The Stars and Stripes: The Civil War Edition

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lightning Days by Colin Harvey

Lightning Days
By Colin Harvey

Part 1
Now Prologue
1 Year Before Present Day

For a microsecond, reality slipped and a second Earth appeared, barely thirty thousand miles from the first, the pair orbiting the sun as close as cars tailgating microns apart on a freeway. Anyone blessed with the Gods-Eye-View usually reserved for astronauts would have noticed both Earths were identical, even to the Suez Canal and Great Wall of China on each. A doppelganger moon orbited the second earth.
The titanic stresses created by the duplicates rang like a clanging chime through the planets' crusts - air, water; even the magma deep inside surged in one sudden movement.
Then the interlopers vanished.
The event was so brief that satellites missed it. The only indicators were the storms that for months afterward seemed to spring from nowhere, a surge in the Pacific that if it hadn't lost momentum as suddenly and inexplicably as it started would have dwarfed any known tsunami, and a plethora of readings inexplicable to the seismologists and oceanographers studying them.
On the remaining, original Earth, life returned to normal.
For a time.

Chapter 1
Present Day
Cassidy stiffened as the shots rang out across the still Afghan morning. After several hours of nerve-shredding tension, the soldiers' discipline was momentarily fractured, and four of them scattered like quail.
Graves looked furious, but said nothing. He held up his hand until his men's training kicked in and they grew still. He murmured, “I thought the shots were in the next valley, Major.”
Cassidy said equally quietly, “They were. Trust your judgment, Lieutenant.” Graves' red face flushed at the implied reprimand. Cassidy continued, “You want me to stand sentry while you talk to them?”
“They're good men,” Graves insisted. “Just raw. They're weekend soldiers. No one prepared them to be sent deep into bandit country with no bloody back-up, and no idea why.” He glared at Cassidy.
“I know,” Cassidy murmured, seeking to defuse the tension. “It's okay, Digger.” He used the nickname by which Graves had introduced himself at Kandahar. He added, “At least no one fired and drew attention to us.” He stretched to clap Graves on the shoulder. Cassidy was six feet tall, and few men towered over him as Graves did.
Graves nodded, his jaw still tight, and beckoned to his now immobile men. Cassidy surveyed their surroundings, turning slowly in a circle as all fourteen men huddled, the rest slowly making room for Farooq, their guide.
Not for the first time, Cassidy wished he'd bypassed the army entirely, had Iftikhar recruit a guide and set out alone, but that hadn't been an option.
The huddle broke, and the men lined up, scuffing their feet in the thick dust, their scarves wrapped round their mouths. Cassidy cursed the fools who'd planned this for not thinking of horses. That would at least have put the riders above most of the dust. The thought led to another. He tapped Graves' arm; “Do your men have night-goggles?”
Graves shook his head. “No, I've got the only pair. You?”
“Yeah. But just two pairs are no use. The men could march over a cliff in the dark.” He shook his head disgustedly. What a cock-up, he thought. Other conflicts taking the headlines had also taken much of the budget. Resources had become increasingly stretched as little by little, cutbacks had bitten into efficiency. Cassidy sighed. “Get used to it,” he muttered, too quietly for Graves to hear. “These men are all you'll get.” Six of the squaddies marched in front of him, six behind, Farooq at the front, followed by Graves. High overhead, a buzzard mewed.
Soon after, they entered a narrow valley, parallel to the source of the shots. “A perfect place for an ambush,” Graves signaled with a look, and Cassidy nodded, watching for the flash of sun on metal or glass. It was unlikely that the local bandits would be so clumsy. They had spent hundreds of years fighting the British, and the Russians, and now they fought the Americans and, once more, the British. When they weren't fighting each other.
Cresting a rise, the squad emerged into the open, walking along a narrow ridge. One side fell away, so that they walked on the side of a steep hill of dangerously unstable scree, partly covered with sparse scrub, upon which a few skeletal-ribbed goats munched. Cassidy saw no sign of any owners, so he hoped fervently that these were wild animals.
One of the men slid down the slope, turning his ankle. After a few minutes rest, he limped on, but their pace was slow. When another man twisted his ankle, Cassidy checked his map and compass again, and said quietly to Graves, “We don't have time for this. The first squad took it fairly easy, but they've got twenty-four hours start. We must catch them up. If necessary we'll leave the next man who gets injured behind to take his chances.”
Graves' eyes narrowed, but like Cassidy he kept his voice low, no matter how much emotion crept in. “With respect, sir, I guess you're used to working alone, or with better-trained men. My boys have had basic training, but not to SAS or whatever level's needed here, and they've had no time to prepare. Meeting every Tuesday night and two weekends a month back in the UK is not enough to prepare them for being alone, in hostile territory, miles from any kind of support.”
Cassidy nodded curtly.
Graves continued. “We've only been here a month. Long enough to see for ourselves how dangerous it is, but not long enough to learn how to deal with it. While you were on your way out, we had too many conflicting orders: Wait for you; get into the mountains; observe radio silence; don't involve the Americans. Given such contradictions, we had no option but to split the platoon and send half of the men ahead. And no one has told us why we've had to hotfoot it up here from Kandahar. Sir.”
Cassidy pulled a half-sympathetic, half-rueful face. “Welcome to the British Army, Lieutenant. Any army, any period in history. No one's criticizing you, but sending less than twenty men into the mountains with just a set of co-ordinates, and no instructions except, 'Look out for anything unusual' is barmy, and we're only compounding the folly of sending them in.”
“Why didn't a big shot like you get us more help?” Graves asked in such a tone of wonderment that it robbed the words of their sting.
“Why do you think I spent so long in with your CO?” Cassidy asked. “We were supposed to move out at four AM, but I spent thirty minutes begging for more men. There simply aren't any. The ones who haven't been sent to the Balkans have gone to Iraq, to help the Americans fight the latest uprising in Tikrit. What's left are needed back in Kandahar. No disrespect to your men, but if there had been more experienced soldiers available, I'd have taken them.” His throat irritated by the dry air and dust, Cassidy coughed, and swigged from his water bottle.
“I wondered what all the shouting was about,” Graves said with a slight grin. He pointed at Cassidy's uniform, devoid of anything but a major's insignia. “Interesting regiment.”
Cassidy grinned. “You mean where am I from? I wondered how long it would take you to work up the nerve to ask. I'm just a civil servant.” Which was technically true. “Assistant to the Assistant to the Secretary of the Under Secretary of State. Chief tea maker.”
“Bollocks are you!” Graves turned away, his color rising and his jaw set. He kicked angrily at a stone. “You're as much a civil servant as much as I'm a Martian.”
“I suppose you're too young to remember Northern Ireland during the Troubles?”
Graves stared. “You served there?”
“I did,” Cassidy said grimly. “It's not a memory that gives me any pleasure. Whenever we went out on patrol, it never felt like we had enough men, or were fully prepared. Anything could happen, and we knew it. Anyone who seemed friendly might have a concealed gun. You learned to look under every car, including your own. The point, Digger, is that if we survive this mission, you still won't ever feel prepared. Get used to that feeling. When it's not there, that's when you become complacent. That's when you're most likely to die. But if you survive, like me, you become a useful asset. The army seconded me to the political sections, and it's a near permanent thing, but yes, I'm a civil servant. Just like you and everyone else who works for the government.” He stared at Graves. “Imply that I'm a liar again, and when we get back, I'll break your jaw.”
Graves muttered, “Sorry,” and looked away.
To ease the tension, Cassidy said, “This country's had every misfortune possible; occupied for centuries by British, Russians, and now the UN; internecine strife between ruling warlords. They even have drought.” His laugh was sad.
Graves nodded, still stiff with resentment. “The landscape looks…what's the word? Blasted?” he said at last, when the silence threatened to become awkward.
They resumed their trek. Two more men turned ankles, but Graves, casting dark looks at Cassidy, urged them to limp on.
The silence was broken by a clatter of rocks tumbling down, and several of the men flinched. Cassidy stood statue-still, every nerve straining, listening for the sounds of men moving. When he was satisfied that the rocks had simply fallen and not been dislodged, Graves waved the squad on.
The hills shimmered in the heat. The sky was a vaulted arch, so fiercely blue that it hurt unshielded eyes. The ground rose and dropped, twisted and turned, as if determined that only the fittest and bravest would walk it.
Graves stopped panting, and drew enough breath to echo his earlier statement, “It may be blasted, but it's beautiful.” Lifting his scarf, he spat. “Even if all you can smell or taste is dust.”
“But it's a beauty like that of a poisonous snake,” Cassidy said. “It'll kill you at any moment. Its people are as inconstant as the land.” He added, “There will be less dust the higher we climb, especially as we emerge from the rain-shadow cast by the mountains.”
They emerged from a long ravine into open ground, in the shadow of a rock that was vertical on one side, and a forty-five degree slope on the other. Graves said, “The men could do with a meal. They had us packing our rucksacks at three this morning.” He grinned. “You probably know how much fun it is packing sixty-five kilos in the dark.”
Try doing it in the snow sometime. Cassidy thought of a nasty mission in the Norwegian winter, but only nodded. “Twenty minutes.” He glanced at his watch. Men on the move needed at least four meals a day to balance all the calories they burned. All the more reason to keep the breaks short, he thought.
Graves signaled the men to halt. They dropped to their knees in the shelter of the rock, out of the wind. Cassidy dragged air into his-oxygen starved lungs. He'd trained at altitude before, but never this high. And they had still higher to climb. Although the others were probably ten years his junior, they were breathing just as heavily as he was. One man lay prone on the ground. As Graves posted guards, they unclipped their packs, stretched, and broke out their rations.
After a few minutes, Cassidy took a cautious mouthful of chemically reheated shepherd's pie. Chewing, he looked up to see Graves studying him, and raised an eyebrow in silent question.
“What happens,” Graves said, “if you're buried under an avalanche?”
There was a long silence then Cassidy said, “You'd better make sure that doesn't happen.”
“That's your fallback plan?” Graves asked with quiet fury. “My men are here for eight months, supposedly on police duties. The regular army sneer at them as 'weekend warriors,' yet with no warning they're marched halfway to nowhere and expected to -”
“Lieutenant,” Cassidy warned.
Graves fell silent, folding his now empty ration tray over and over again into an ever-smaller square. He repeated, “What happens if you're buried under an avalanche? Do we abort?”
Cassidy stared into space, thinking furiously. He said, “If you repeat any of this, you'll spend the rest of your life under house arrest.” Graves looked so serious, that Cassidy almost laughed. “Where to begin?” He smiled at Graves. “At least you've been spared sitting in the August Bank Holiday traffic jams.”
“One thing I don't miss,” Graves said. “That where you were Monday night?”
Cassidy nodded. “I've barely slept in forty-eight hours.”
Graves chuckled. “And there I was bitching about getting up at three. Sorry.”
“Don't worry,” Cassidy said. “I sat in a traffic jam, having a blazing row with my girlfriend over my supposed commitment phobia. My spare mobile rang.” He smiled at the memory of Caitlin's incredulous, “How many bloody mobiles have you got?” His smile faded. “I was summoned to a briefing at COBRA,” he continued. “The Joint HQ -”
“I know what COBRA is,” Graves said harshly.
They stiffened at a muffled roar in the distance. For perhaps twenty seconds neither man spoke, then Cassidy resumed. “A satellite had photographed a large heat source. A huge number of bodies, maybe ten thousand, in the mountains northeast of Tora Bora. On the next orbit, they'd disappeared.” He sighed. “I take it you realize the…concern this caused?”
Graves smiled thinly, “Oh, yes. One of the most sensitive areas in the world, and they have a vanishing army. That's why they're panicking?”
Cassidy nodded, impressed at how quickly Graves caught on. “That, and the fact they've no idea who the bodies are. Not knowing anything scares our elected masters more witless than usual.”
Graves smiled. “All the usual suspects are accounted for?”
Cassidy nodded. “Until we find who or what is in the mountains, no one is to know, not even the Americans. So radio silence, and absolute secrecy.”
“What happens when we find them?” Graves asked.
Cassidy said, “That depends on what we find.”
While the men finished their food, and lit cigarettes, Cassidy stood and loosened up with Tai Chi exercises, ignoring the other's smiles. Despite his aches, he felt alive. Anything could happen. He always felt this way at the start of a new mission. Maybe this time he wouldn't end it feeling like a slowly deflating balloon.
Turning away from the others, he took Caitlin's picture from inside his pocket. Kissing his fingers he touched them to the photo. “Bye babe,” he murmured, “It was good, but it's over.” He wished he'd ended it more gracefully than dumping her publicly on the motorway.
He became aware that Graves was watching him with interest. “That the ex-girlfriend?”
Cassidy nodded. He studied Graves, looking so long and hard at the young man that the Lieutenant blinked, then looked away.
Cassidy clearly came to a decision. He grinned wolfishly. “If I was Intelligence, as you think,” he held up a hand, “which I'm not, of course, but if I was, I'd go mad without someone to talk to. The security services discourage Catholicism, unless the priest is vetted. Can't give confession to the unauthorized.” He chuckled grimly at Graves' face.
“Is that true?” Graves whispered.
Cassidy smiled. “Of course. I never lie.”
Graves laughed softly. “Which is itself a lie.”
Cassidy said, still whispering, “Once an agent found out about Hitler's v-weapons, but she couldn't tell anyone without compromising security. When a V-1 killed a member of her family, her guilt caused a nervous breakdown. Unless someone is a psychopath, it's impossible to keep secrets, or assume another identity for long periods, without some kind of safety valve. It can be a mirror, or a picture. Everyone needs someone to talk to.” He tore the picture up, and buried the pieces.
“Who will you talk to now?”
“You,” Cassidy said. Relishing Graves' shocked look, he said, “Come on, time to move on.”
Graves lifted up his backpack to muted groans from the men.
“Make sure you bury your cigarette butts, and any other rubbish,” Cassidy ordered.
As they neared noon and climbed ever higher it grew colder as the biting wind that cut through their thermals gathered strength. The only sounds apart from an occasional muttered comment were the buzzard crying in the wind, and, suddenly in the distance, the high-pitched chopping of a helicopter's rotors. “Trouble, sir.” Graves said, looking young, green, and very scared.
Cassidy asked, “How many choppers do the tribesmen have?”
Graves grimaced sheepishly. “It's ours.”
“Don't worry,” Cassidy said. “We're all a bit twitchy.”
A soldier signaled, waving to the northeast. Cassidy saw smoke rising in a thin twisting stream, torn by the wind, but still holding together, so thin and slight it would have been invisible, if they hadn't been looking for it. Even so, they were lucky to have seen it. “The first patrol?” Graves said. Cassidy nodded.
They quickened their pace, and every time they slowed, Graves urged his men on. They rounded a bend, and saw bodies strewn across the defile. A small fire burning in the midst of the bodies was the source of the smoke.
Graves waved a signal and the men ducked, two of them running crouched to the bodies, while the rest dived, lying prone in a star-shape, guns pointing outward in all directions. The runners checked for identity tags, and scuttled back.
“Five men, sir,” the lead soldier, a Stan Laurel-look-alike in his late twenties with horn-rimmed glasses and an oversized adam's apple said, “Ours and theirs. Weapons are gone.” He looked pale, swallowed several times. “They've been shot. No mutilations.”
“They don't take ears, or scalps, soldier,” Cassidy said. Stan's face went blank. Cassidy said, more kindly, “Pashtuns, Uzbeks, other tribes; they're all skilled, brave warriors who fought the supposedly superior Russians to a standstill for ten years.” Stan looked like he'd swallowed a wasp, but shut his mouth. Good, Cassidy thought. The roasting's taken his mind off those corpses.
“But it was locals who did it?” Graves asked.
Cassidy shrugged. “Probably. Most of them are gangsters of some type. They won't have changed their habits, even though the Taliban are no longer in power. If it was them, they'll be selling the missing weapons in Peshawar before you can say knife.” The Pakistani border markets were the main channels through which goods flowed in and out of Southern Afghanistan.
“More bodies there,” another soldier pointed up a defile.
Cassidy followed the soldier who scurried to check them out. He turned one over, and a young Afghan stared back with sightless eyes.
“Sir,” someone hissed as the others joined them. “Looks like they took their wounded with them.” He pointed to drag marks in the sand.
Graves and Cassidy exchanged looks. Graves asked, “Do we follow?” and Cassidy nodded.
“Sir,” the medic called, “Take a look at this.” It was another Afghan body. The orderly's finger highlighted tiny wounds, surrounded by oddly shaped burn marks.
Graves hissed an in-drawn breath. “Seen these before?” As Cassidy shook his head, Graves said, “Would you say if you had?”
Cassidy allowed him a small smile. “Maybe.” He added, “How many men from the patrol?”
Graves counted the corpses, “Four bodies,” he said grimly. “The guide's one of them. So nine men missing.”
They should have waited, Cassidy thought. Orders or not, they should have waited and sent us all together. Thirteen men are too easily picked off.
They quickly piled rocks over the bodies, Cassidy glancing discreetly at his watch. Graves said a simple but heartfelt prayer, his voice quavering as he said, “They shall not grow old.”
They moved on, the sound of their laboring breath and their boots crunching on stones the only noises in the stillness. Cassidy was aware of every passing second, and that the fate of the first group lay with his men finding them as quickly as possible. But he was also aware that he might have to abandon them, rather than endanger the mission.
Fourteen months earlier.
MaryAnn Stanford chewed absently on a granola bar. It had grown gradually hotter throughout the day, thunderheads building from the east until the sky was an inky black. By mid-afternoon, forked lightning stabbed the ground.
“'Nother twister there, Freddy.” MaryAnn peered through the windshield. “Been a lot of 'em lately,” she muttered, switching the radio off.
It started to rain. In less than a minute, raindrops were bouncing three inches off the pickup's hood. “Shoot!” She jumped as a hundred yards away a lightning bolt gouged up clumps of soil. Her old black retriever lay on the front passenger seat. He whimpered, trying to bury his nose in his blanket. “It's okay, baby,” She fondled his ears absently.
She swerved to avoid the shape that loomed from the curtain of rain, and wrestled with the steering wheel, fighting to keep the pickup right side up as the world tilted crazily from side to side, before ending up in a drainage ditch that ran parallel to the road. She opened the window and leaned out. “Yuh moron! Yuh coulda killed us both!”
He wandered closer, standing naked in the downpour. It took her a while to realize that he was deformed. He had too-short legs, a curved spine, and a flatter than normal skull with a bulge at the back, almost like an egg laid on its side. His forehead was almost non-existent, and his eyebrows perched on a thick shelf of bone.
Even from several feet away, she heard his hoarse little cries. She'd seen the look on his face before; it had been on a man whose arm had been sheared off in a thresher. The look of a man just before he was hit by the full enormity of the pain. The look of absolute, overwhelming shock.
MaryAnn remembered a school trip forty years before, to the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Although she couldn't dredge up the word, “Neanderthal” from memory, she recognized that he looked just like the models of pre-humans had in the museum dioramas. She was so distracted that she never thought of the impossibility of his presence. Although she had no children, she had strong maternal instincts, and this poor creature looked as if he needed a mother badly.
She jumped out, and they both shied at the lightning bolt that blasted the ground only yards away. He bared his teeth and shouted at it.
“C'mon! We're getting soaked here!” MaryAnn yelled.
He gave her a wary look.
She yanked open the rear passenger door of the pickup. “Git in, dammit!” She waved frantically at the doorway. Edging round her, he climbed in, with little of the nervousness she would have expected from someone like him. She'd never intended the rear bench of the pickup's elongated cabin for anything but junk, but he couldn't sit in the open bay of the flatbed. Reaching round his cowering figure, she swept candy wrappers, a McDonalds box and a pair of Freddy-chewed socks onto the floor.
She jumped in and gunned the engine. It didn't move. She tried it again, and it reared, then rolled back. At the third attempt she managed to back the pickup out.
They resumed their crawl through the rain. Lifting his head, Freddy thumped his tail. She patted his head. “You like dogs?” she asked, as if her passenger understood every word.
He said something in what sounded like the drunken slur of Russian or Portuguese. At least he could talk, even if he did look like a circus act.
“His name's Freddy,” she said, and remembering what she'd been trying to forget, her voice wobbled, “I'm taking him to the vet. He's old, an' he's shitting blood.”
He clearly understood her tone of voice, if not the words, and spoke gently, patting her arm through the gap in the seats.
Freddy growled softly. “Hey, no jealousy,” she warned the dog, pleased at the distraction. “He's not used to having a man round,” she explained, “It's always been jest me an' him.” They drove through the rain at a steady thirty.
“What's the smell?” She said after a while. “That you? Like wet fur and I dunno…” She paused. “Makes me think of food.” She chuckled. “To be honest, everything reminds me of food. It's why I shop at outsize shops.” She waved a granola bar at him. “Ya want one?” She passed it to him, and unwrapped a second one. “It ain't chocolate,” she said. “Doc Hewlett warned me off chocolate, though the zits still ain't cleared up. And I dunno if it'll help my,” she paused, thinking, “cholesterol.” She looked in the mirror. “Y'ain't s'posed to eat the wrapper!”
After an hour or so of companionable semi-silence marked by MaryAnn's occasional muttering, they passed the windmill that marked the edge of Pocona. “We're here.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “Vet's place.” She wiped her nose and eyes. Walking round to the passenger side, she opened the door and stroked Freddy's square black head. He whimpered. “Okay, baby boy,” she crooned “Momma'll stay with you.” She turned, said to her passenger, “Don't know how long I'll be. Stick around, or not.” Grunting with the effort, she lifted the dog, blanket and all. “Okay baby,” she crooned again, as Freddy started to whine. She panted, “He's only skin an' bones now, but he still weighs a ton.” Pushing the door shut, she trudged through the downpour.
The rain had slackened to a drizzle by the time she emerged. Still holding the blanket she stood by the passenger door as if unsure what to do, trudged round to the other side, and stopped. She returned to the passenger side, and holding awkwardly onto the blanket, opened the door. “Don't know what happened there,” she said, in a high tight voice, placing the empty blanket gently on the seat. Returning to the driver's side, she climbed in. Mucus ran down her nose unchecked, but she paused only to wipe her eyes.
Starting the engine, she asked, “Where ya wanna go?” He didn't answer, so she set off the way they had come. When they had driven a few miles, her grief overtook her and she cried, “I gotta stop!” She pulled over, and her entire body shook with great, heaving sobs.
The Neanderthal reached out toward her, making soft little crooning noises, but stopping just short of touching her. When her sobs showed no sign of stopping, he reached out again, but they both flinched as his hand touched her arm.
Moments passed with her still sobbing, and he reached out again. He half-flinched, but this time left his hand on her arm, and stroked her arm gently. “I guess,” she spluttered, and he took his hand away, but she couldn't finish the sentence, and he resumed stroking her arm, still crooning gently. “Funny,” she said, with a laugh that was more a sob, “Yuh prob'ly can't understand a word I'm saying, but I can talk to yuh. Then again, Freddy couldn't understand me neither. Maybe that's why I could talk to him. He couldn't tell me what a load of cack I was spouting.”
At Freddy's name, she had begun to sob again. The Neanderthal made a cautious half-movement toward the front seat, and hesitated. When she didn't protest, he climbed carefully into the front, making soothing noises, and stroking her arm. She groaned and he drew back, but she slumped over the steering wheel. When he stroked her lank hair, crooning, MaryAnn fell into his arms, clawing at him, howling her grief. They were so preoccupied that they never noticed the swirling clouds high above the car. The clouds coalesced into a vortex.
Cassidy wriggled backwards on his stomach, and when he was well away from the edge, stood and dusted down his fatigues. Below them was a village, an adobe compound with lookout towers and gun slits around a square, nestled in the valley. “No adults about,” he said. “Just children and a few scrawny hens.”
The squad marched on, Cassidy occasionally glancing over his shoulder, although he couldn't say why he felt so spooked.
At noon Graves checked his GPS. Farooq knelt in the direction Graves indicated, and prayed to Mecca. As Farooq stood one of the men pointed. Cassidy followed the soldier's outstretched arm.
“Looks like a dart,” Graves said. It flickered in and out of sight and turned end over end. It vanished, and Graves said, “Experimental plane?”
“No idea,” Cassidy said. “Nothing I've ever seen moves like that.” For the first time he felt as afraid as the people in Downing Street must have. Graves waved the men onwards.
Graves leaned conspiratorially toward Cassidy, clearly wanting to talk. “How did you end up not a spook?”
“Before I joined the civil service,” Cassidy stressed the last four words. “I served in the Royal Greenjackets. I made major, then took a career break to attend university. Never went back but was allowed to keep my rank in return for making myself available as an advisor.” Graves looked impressed. Cassidy said, “What do you do, when you're not playing weekend warrior?”
Graves glared at him, then grinned back. “Snob,” he jeered. “I'm a Phys Ed lecturer. But I've always wanted to serve my country, probably in reaction to my parents. They say we either behave like them, or behave completely the opposite.”
“Your parents don't approve of your being here?”
“Ma's never forgiven me for joining the oppressive war machine, even on a part-time basis,” Graves said, grinning. “She was a peace protester at Greenham Common back in '83. My partner's not exactly happy with me being here, either. I live with someone. Lived,” he corrected himself. “I don't know if she'll wait eight months. Does your - oh, no partner, is there? What do your parents think of your being a…” he paused for effect, “civil servant?”
“They don't think anything,” Cassidy said. “My mother's dead.” Seeing Graves was about to offer condolences, he interrupted. “I was born in a London squat, apparently, to a girl who couldn't name my father.” She'd left him only her genes, and a burning desire to be more than what he had started as. Seeing Graves' shocked look, he said, “What?”
Graves shrugged. “Not the glamorous background I'd have expected for one of your lot,” he said.
“My lot?” Cassidy said, deliberately misunderstanding. “Do I look like a film star?” He added, “My eyes are too close together, my lips are too thin, and my nose is too big.”
“And it's been broken,” Graves said.
“Twice. Thank you for pointing that out.” Cassidy said. “So you see, I'm far too ugly to be a spook.”
“You're not ugly, you're just…” Graves floundered.
“Forgettable,” Graves agreed. “Which is perfect for a man in your line of work.” He grinned. “And you know I don't mean a film star.”
“My work is as mundane as any other civil servant's.” Cassidy didn't explain that much of his work was state-sponsored petty crime. Theft, burglary and observation with some occasional violence, unpleasant but necessary.
“Why do you do it?”
Cassidy shrugged. “Not for money or glamor, there isn't much. Maybe a mix of idealism and vocation.” Perhaps this mission would re-infuse him with some of what had seeped away.
“You must have broken every rule in the book, telling me all this,” Graves said.
“What rule?” Cassidy asked. “You don't know how old I am, what my name really is, or anything. And I'm a good judge of character. You won't tell anyone.” Graves raised an eyebrow, but Cassidy changed the subject abruptly. “The lads have done well today. There's always a danger that men will buckle in the field. No amount of training can really prepare them.” He added, “It's not for me to tell them that they did well, of course.”
“Thanks,” Graves flushed.
Clearing the tree line, they walked again on bare, hard rock following the trail left by an occasional flattened shrub. “This is too easy,” Cassidy muttered to Graves, looking up from his map and compass. “The trail is leading us right to the coordinates where we need to go. Keep the men alert.”
Dense, thick forests now lay below, in every direction. Cassidy said, “These must be the remnants of the cedar forests I was told once covered Afghanistan.” He never knew what faint noise alerted him, but something did. He threw himself flat, shouting, “Down! Down!”

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Smell of Death by Marilyn Meredith

Smell of Death by Marilyn Meredith

Chapter 1

7:15 A.M.

WHEN RESPONDING TO a suspicious circumstance call, Officer Stacey Wilbur was met on the sidewalk by the reporting party, an elderly woman identified as Mrs. Lindhall. Stacey slid from the seat of her police unit and, as she stood, tucked a wisp of honey blonde hair into the barrette that held the remainder of her locks in a neat loop at the nape of her neck.

Mrs. Lindhall towered above Stacey’s five-foot-four inches as she joined the policewoman on the small square of Bermuda grass in front of a tiny stucco cottage.

“You’re the one who called?” Stacey tried not to notice the critical glance the woman gave her over the steel-framed spectacles perched halfway down a patrician nose. It was an all-too-familiar expression to Stacey. Her slight, slim figure and fine features gave her a deceptively delicate appearance, not matching most of the small, southern California beach community’s citizens’ ideas of how a law enforcement officer should look.

Despite the glance and an almost imperceptible sniff, Mrs. Lindhall had the good manners to keep her opinion to herself. “Yes…ah…Officer, I am. You see, I’m most concerned about my neighbor, Darlene Brantley. She has two small children, you see. She’s usually off to work by now. I always see her pass when she takes the children down the street to the sitter. She might be ill, of course, but I tried to reach her by phone. I’ve knocked, but I can’t seem to raise anyone.”

Thank God for all the old people in the country who had nothing more demanding to do than keep track of the comings and goings of their neighbors. “Okay, Mrs. Lindhall, I’ll see what I can find out.”

With a surprisingly agile step, the woman led Stacey to the front door. A pale beige, it had been stained by numerous dirty handprints, big and little. First, Stacey rang the bell then, with her knuckles, rapped sharply against the peeling paint. A strange sound came from inside, a kind of mewing – a kitten perhaps, or a small child. “Good Lord, that’s a baby!”

Stacey grabbed the knob, preparing to use force, but it turned easily. Warily, she pushed the door open and squinted into the dim interior. No matter how often she came upon the scene of a murder, she knew she would never get used to it – not the sight of a corpse, nor the terrible smell of death and blood. This time was no different.

“What is that dreadful odor?” Mrs. Lindhall coughed, crowding through the door behind Stacey.

“Don’t come any further, Mrs. Lindhall,” Stacey ordered. But the woman didn’t listen. Before Stacey could prevent it, the elderly woman had switched on the light.

A ceramic table lamp came on and illuminated the morbid scene. An infant in a bassinet was responsible for the mewing. A boy of around three crouched on the floor, dark eyes big with fear as he stared at the intruders. Tears began when he recognized his neighbor. Scrambling to his feet, he hurled himself at the woman’s knees.

The body of a young woman, clothed only in a man’s tee shirt bunched around her chest, was on the floor, crowded into the space between the couch and coffee table. That she’d either slid or fallen from the couch was evidenced by the bloody slipcover pulled from the furniture and caught under her body.

“I was afraid of something like this. Is she dead?” Mrs. Lindhall asked.

“Yes.” There was no need for Stacey to feel for a pulse. The body had expelled its wastes and blood was clotted around the wounds on the chest, shoulders, and arms.

The baby’s crying grew louder, and Stacey stepped beside the bassinet. By rights, she shouldn’t touch anything, but she couldn’t leave the baby inside the house with its dead mother. She lifted the infant, along with its blanket, into her arms. “There, there little one,” she cooed, patting its back. The baby shivered and settled its head against Stacey’s neck. She could feel its downy hair against her cheek and smell its sweet breath.

Mrs. Lindhall, carrying the boy, scurried out of the house ahead of her. After settling the infant on the front seat of her police unit, Stacey radioed in her gruesome discovery. When the detectives arrived, they would ask her questions, perhaps even send her out to interview the neighbors, but after she wrote her report about the initial discovery of the body, the murder investigation would be out of her hands.

As Stacey had expected, when Detective Milligan arrived, he sent her to knock on doors and question the neighbors. The children had been put in the care of Mrs. Lindhall until the murder victim’s relatives could be notified. Stacey didn’t have much luck finding people home in most of the tiny frame-and-stucco houses that had been built in the mid- and late-twenties.

At one house, a wizened, ancient man in a walker had answered her knock and, when asked about Darlene Brantley, he snarled, “I don’t know or care to know any of my neighbors.” He slammed the door in her face.

The corner house at the end of the block, which was much larger than the others, had a chain link fence around the yard. Several laughing preschoolers crawled upon, slid down, or swung on play equipment, pausing to stare at Stacey as she entered through the gate.

A woman on the porch, with a fat toddler astraddle a denim-clad, plump hip, greeted her with a friendly, “Hi.”

Stacey climbed the steps. “Hello, I’m Officer Wilbur, and I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Sure, go ahead.” A crease appeared between the wide set eyes of the young woman as she absently pulled a strand of her long, dark hair out of the baby’s fist.

“Are you acquainted with Darlene Brantley?”

The frown deepened. “Something has happened to Darlene, right? I knew it. It isn’t like her not to let me know when she isn’t bringing the kids. So, what is it? Did she have a wreck in that old clunker of hers? The babies – they’re not hurt, I hope.”

Stacey held up a hand for silence. “The children are fine. I hate to be the one to tell you, but Mrs. Brantley has been murdered.”

The woman gasped. “Oh, no! Who did it? A burglar, or some sex maniac? One of her boyfriends, maybe?”

“I’m afraid we don’t know yet, Mrs.…ah?” Stacey poised her pen over her notebook.

“Schneider, Mrs. Donald. Just call me Anne. Is there anything I can do? Take care of the kids, maybe?” Anne backed into a canvas chair and plopped down, settling the toddler onto the porch. The tot dropped on her diapered bottom beside a pile of toys.

“We have to contact her relatives. Do you know any of them?”

“Sure, her mom, Myrtle Bender. Oh, boy, she’ll be positively devastated. And what about Darlene’s ex, Charles. Has he been told?”

“Someone is calling him. How well do you know Mr. Brantley?”

Shrugging, Anne pulled her sweater around her. Though it was April, the ocean fog hung close to shore, keeping the weather cool and damp in the small beach community. “Charles? I know him pretty well. He’s okay. Sometimes he picks up the kids for the weekend.”

“You mentioned boyfriends. Anyone special?”

“Well, not really. Darlene liked to party and she’d bring guys home. Bet it was one of them who killed her. I warned her it wasn’t just AIDS she needed to worry about if she slept with guys she didn’t know.”

“Did you ever meet any of her dates?”

“No, she just liked to tell me about them. There was a Lance, and Brick, and Skip. They all sort of sounded alike, self-centered, irresponsible, good-looking hunks. You know the type.”

One of the children in the yard fell off the steps to the slide and cried out in pain. Anne jumped to her feet and bolted down the stairs. She paused briefly. “Sorry. Got to see what’s happened. Don’t really know anything else anyway.” Running to the child, she scooped him into her arms and soothed him.

“Thank you, Mrs. Schneider, you’ve been most helpful.”

When Stacey returned to the murder victim’s home, the coroner’s wagon was parked in the driveway. A red Toyota truck careened around the corner and screeched to a halt the wrong way on the opposite side of the street. A slim man in his late twenties or early thirties leapt from the cab and dashed toward the house. By the stricken expression on his face, Stacey guessed he might be the victim’s ex-husband. They reached the open front door at the same time.

He grabbed Stacey’s arm. Behind tinted glasses, his dark eyes searched her face. “I’m Charles Brantley. Someone called my office and said something happened to my ex-wife. Where is she? Where are my kids?”

“Your children are fine, Mr. Brantley. They’re with the neighbor, Mrs. Lindhall. But your Mrs. Brantley…I’m sorry.”

Brantley scowled. “I…I…don’t understand. She wasn’t sick. Was there an accident?”

Curious bystanders had begun to gather on the sidewalk. Stacey kept her voice low as she said, “You’ll have to talk to the detective in charge.”

He swallowed a sob and his eyes filled with tears. “Oh, God, she’s dead, isn’t she? I warned her something terrible might happen if she continued hanging out in bars.”

“Please, step inside, Mr. Brantley. Detective Milligan will speak with you.” She motioned for him to go ahead of her. Brantley, obviously shaken, stumbled past.

“Detective Milligan,” Stacey announced, “this is the deceased’s husband, Charles Brantley.”

“Ex-husband,” he said quickly, “we’ve been divorced for over six months, and separated even longer.”

Photographs had been taken of the crime scene. Officers bustled in and out of rooms, while two men from the county coroner’s office from Ventura were bent over the body.

Detective Milligan faced the new arrivals. Though Stacey had a self-imposed rule to never date fellow police officers, she might make an exception for Doug Milligan if he ever asked her out. Tall, with broad shoulders, dark brown hair closely cropped, and sporting a mustache like almost all of his male co-workers, he had a sincerity and gentleness about him that appealed to her. He smiled often and easily and, when he did, deep dimples appeared in his tanned cheeks.

Milligan wasn’t smiling at the moment, though sympathy showed in his expression as he shook hands with Brantley. “It’s rough, I know. Would you mind identifying her for us?” Without waiting for an answer, the detective stepped aside so the man could see his former wife’s body.

Stacey took a long look, for the first time noticing the victim had been attractive with lots of curly blonde hair, probably no taller than she was, with far more bosom and wider hips. Charles Brantley stared at the corpse, moaned, sniffed, and smacked his fist against the palm of his hand. “Damn, I’d like to get my hands on the monster who did this to her.”

Milligan placed a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder. “You wouldn’t have any idea who might have been with her last night, would you?”

“No. I don’t think she had a steady boyfriend, only a series of one-night stands. I didn’t meet any of them.” Charles stared away from the body. “I told her it was no way to be bringing up our children.”

“What about them? Have you any plans for their immediate care, Mr. Brantley?” Milligan asked. “I’m sure Officer Wilbur could give you some leads if there is a…”

“No, no, that won’t be necessary. My mother will be happy to care for them. Would it be possible for me to pack some of their clothes?” Brantley took a tentative step toward the back of the house.

Before Milligan could answer, Stacey asked, “What about the victim’s mother?” She glanced inside her notebook to refresh her memory. “Myrtle Bender.”

“She needs to be told, of course, but my mother is far better suited to care for my children. I’m afraid Mrs. Bender is almost as wild as Darlene. She wouldn’t have time for them,” Brantley said.

The thought crossed Stacey’s mind that Mrs. Bender would be a strange sort of grandmother if she chose her social life over the needs of her grandchildren, though she realized not all women were as thrilled with being grandparents as her own mother. Caring for Stacey’s four-year-old son, Davey, seemed to be one of her greatest pleasures.

Detective Milligan broke into her thoughts. “That’s a good assignment for you, Wilbur. Locate the victim’s mother. Break the news about her daughter. Maybe she’ll have some thoughts about who did it.”

Terrific. What a ghastly chore. Stacey groaned inwardly. She obtained Mrs. Bender’s home and work address from Brantley. As she was about to leave, Detective Milligan called after her, “Bring me your report when you’re done, okay? And, by the way, Lieutenant Strickland mentioned he wanted to see you some time today.”

She nodded and headed toward her car. Lieutenant Strickland was in charge of community relations. He often called upon Stacey to make speeches to the less prestigious civic organizations and women’s groups, meet with the neighborhood watch programs, and do most of the school visits. If the event was scheduled during her regular shift, Stacey didn’t mind, but often she was required to speak on her day off or in the evening. Besides receiving no extra pay for the duty, it sometimes took her away from what little time she had with her son.

But it wouldn’t look good on her record if she turned the lieutenant down. Hoping the assignment wasn’t for later in the evening because she’d promised Davey she’d take him to the latest Disney movie, she drove off to seek the address given to her by Mr. Brantley for his ex-mother-in-law.

Thursday, 7:30 A.M.

Felix Zachary held his service revolver with both hands and aimed it between the eyes of the advancing mad man. There was no doubt that Felix’s target was a notorious cop killer. The suspect brandished a sawed-off shotgun, the same weapon He’d used to kill Felix’s buddies. There was no time for Felix to do anything but squeeze the trigger. But when he did, the gun didn’t fire. His opponent’s gun exploded in Felix’s face and he screamed in terror.

“Darling, wake up! You’re having that nightmare again.” Felix’s wife, Wendy, leaned over him, a shimmer of golden hair falling against his mahogany shoulder as she shook him awake.

“Damn!” Felix sat up. His heart hammered in his chest. He felt damp from sweating.

Wendy kissed him. He could smell her spicy perfume and peppermint toothpaste. “Are you going to be okay? I don’t like leaving you like this, but I can’t be late. I hate having so little time to spend together.” She was a second grade teacher at Pinion Street School. Felix had been recently assigned to the four-to-midnight shift, which left little time to be with his wife.

“Yeah, sure, I’m fine.” He reached over the side of the waterbed and rummaged in his pants’ pocket for a pack of cigarettes. Finding it, he stuck a filter tip into his mouth and lit it with the throwaway lighter from the same pocket.

“Felix, must you?” Wendy moaned, hurt in her pale blue eyes. “I was so proud when you quit smoking last year.”

“What the hell does it matter? The chances of me reaching old age are slim anyway.” He regretted his harshness immediately, though not quite enough to apologize.

“Goodness, what a terrible thing to say. That’s not true and you know it.” She didn’t continue her argument. Instead, she gave him one last pleading look intended to make him put out the cigarette, kissed him on the forehead, turned on her sensible two-inch heels, and disappeared down the hall of their new condominium.

Though the carpeting muffled her footsteps, Felix knew she was hurrying down the stairs, would retrieve her purse and briefcase from the dining room table where she always placed them the night before, and step through the kitchen to the door into the garage where her five-year-old Honda sat next to his much older but in nearly perfect condition Jaguar.

Felix plumped the pillow behind him and tried to relax against it as he blew out a thick stream of smoke. He wondered if any of his fellow officers ever had bad dreams. If they did, they’d never mentioned them. Hell, it wasn’t the kind of thing you discussed with your buddies. He thought about his friend, Abel Navarro, who’d gotten the promotion Felix had been in line for until the shooting.

Nothing seemed to bother Navarro, or Stacey Wilbur. Despite being the only female officer on the Rocky Bluff Police Department, Stacey always managed to keep her cool.

Damn it. Why the hell couldn’t he rid himself of the guilt? No one blamed him for killing that kid. After all, he thought the suspect was reaching for a weapon when Felix shot him. It had only taken Internal Affairs three days to clear him. Why did he keep feeling so bad about it? Worse still, it was affecting his sex life.

It was just as well he didn’t see much of Wendy. He didn’t have any urges at all. He’d get over it, like anything else. It couldn’t last forever. Felix took one last drag on the cigarette before mashing it out in the brass ashtray on the night stand.

He punched the pillow and flopped over on his belly, causing the water in the mattress to slosh. Closing his eyes, he prayed the gentle movement would put him back to sleep, and there would be no more dreams.

10:15 A.M.

Abel Navarro had no difficulty figuring out who the reporting party had been. As soon as he turned down the street, he saw a woman in her early fifties standing at the open gate leading to a modest frame house, peering anxiously up and down the street. A blue-and-white police unit was parked at the curb. Abel could see a uniformed officer farther down the street, peeking under a bush as he made his search of the neighborhood. Because of the man’s dark red hair, Abel knew it was Officer Gordon Butler.

Having heard the missing child call when it came in, Abel decided to check on the progress of the search for himself. He never could get used to a crime where a child was involved. He hoped this would turn out to be a simple “lost child quickly found” incident. After parking his car behind the other one, Abel climbed out. Perhaps because his was an ordinary sedan, and he wore a light tan sport jacket over a beige shirt and dark brown slacks, the woman frowned at his approach.

While displaying the badge and identification in his wallet, Abel quickly introduced himself. “I’m Sergeant Navarro, ma’am. Just stopped by to see how things are going here.”

“Oh, Sergeant, thank goodness you’re here. I’m Betty Earlimont. I’m so upset I just don’t know what to do.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” Abel spoke in a soothing tone, and as he listened to her story, absently smoothed his neat black mustache with a forefinger.

“I only left her for a few minutes.” Mrs. Earlimont glanced back at the front porch of her house. “My little niece and I…she’s my grandniece really…were going shopping and the phone rang.”

“Your niece is how old?” Abel asked.

“Kelly is only two.”

One year younger than his own daughter, Lupita. “Tell me what happened.”

The woman stepped back inside the yard and headed for the steps. “I let go of her hand to go back inside, and Kelly ran right over to that mud.” She pointed to a rose bush growing alongside the three-foot tall, white picket fence with a small puddle beneath it.

“Of course I told her to stay away from the mud, and she nodded her head, but she squatted down beside it just as I went inside. The phone call was from Kelly’s mother, Rhonda. She just wanted to tell me she wasn’t feeling well and planned to come home early to pick up Kelly.” Mrs. Earlimont sighed, and turned toward Abel. He could see tears glistening in her eyes.

“When I came back outside, I couldn’t find Kelly anywhere. At first I thought she was just hiding. She loves to play hide ’n seek. But I looked everywhere. I even promised her a double decker ice cream cone if she’d come out.” Mrs. Earlimont’s voice cracked.

“Was the gate closed?” Abel asked, knowing his own daughter, given the opportunity, would certainly use any available opportunity to explore the neighborhood.

The woman hung her head. “No, but I don’t remember leaving it open. I’m very careful about keeping it fastened when I’m taking care of Kelly.”

“Perhaps she opened it herself.”

“No, my husband moved the latch up where she couldn’t reach it.” Mrs. Earlimont dug in the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a wrinkled tissue to wipe her nose.

Abel felt his first twinges of uneasiness. “Did you see any strangers around the neighborhood either before or after you realized Kelly was missing?”

“No, no one except the Carpenters’ gardener.” She pointed across the street where a tiny, Japanese man used wicked-looking shears to lop off unruly pieces of an evergreen bush. “I’ve already talked to him. He didn’t see her.”

“What about the neighbors?”

“Everyone is gone during the day except me. I used to work, had my own beauty shop, but my kids are all gone now, and we don’t really need the extra money. When my niece asked me if I’d take care of Kelly, I jumped at the chance. It was boring being home all day without much to do. I’ve been her babysitter since she was six weeks old.” She swallowed a sob. “Rhonda will probably find another babysitter now.”

“Oh, I doubt that. Have you told your niece what’s going on?” Abel asked. Since his mother babysat Lupita every day while he and his wife, Maria, worked, he knew he’d want to be informed immediately if something happened to his child.

Another guilty cast clouded Mrs. Earlimont’s eyes. “Not yet…I didn’t want to alarm her unnecessarily.”

“Maybe it would be a good idea if you called her now,” Abel suggested.

“Surely Kelly has just wandered into someone’s backyard.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s likely what’s happened, but I think her parents need to know.” Unbidden, his mind began listing all the horrible crimes that are committed on children. He shook his head to rid himself of the dark thoughts.

Almost as though she’d read his mind, the woman’s eyes widened, tears threatening again. “Maybe someone…” She whirled around, hurrying up the stairs.

Abel followed her into the house. “When you’ve done that, perhaps you can give me a recent picture of Kelly.”

Mrs. Earlimont pointed to a framed 5 x 8 sitting in a place of honor on top of a large screen television. A plump and dimpled toddler with bright red curls smiled at Abel. As soon as Mrs. Earlimont got off the phone, Able planned to find out what the child had been wearing. He’d put in a call to the department for more help to search for her. He’d find Officer Butler and see if he’d found any clues as to the child’s whereabouts. Later he’d contact the media and have them display Kelly’s picture. It would be easy enough to cancel in the event the child was located soon. If Lupita was missing, Abel knew he’d want everything possible to be done to find her.