Thursday, December 13, 2018

Slay Bells by T.C. Wescott


Title: SLAY BELLS (A CHRISTMAS VILLAGE MYSTERY)
Author: T.C. Wescott
Publisher: Better Mousetrap Books
Pages: 273
Genre: Cozy Mystery

BOOK BLURB:
‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the village, the night settled in over swirling-smoke chimneys; the air was alive with pine and holly, with sugar and cinnamon and cider, by golly!

Along snowy lanes and through shadows it crept, past windows behind which each villager slept, where sleeping dogs lie and cats rest a’purring-

Tonight, in Christmas Village, a killer is stirring.

Welcome to Christmas Village, a magical hamlet where even in December the roses hold their luster and bees buzz among the bluebells. Nestled betwixt an opulent garden with meandering footpaths and an ancient grove of plum trees, Rose Willoughby’s boarding house is plum-full with lodgers. There are no vacancies, but just wait. Soon there will be one…and another…and another.

When the Inn's guests begin dying in inexplicable ways, some villagers believe a beast from old village lore is the culprit. The sheriff knows better, but he’s just as helpless to catch the invisible killer as are the town folk with their eyes to the sky in search of a flying creature. But our mysterious murderer hasn’t counted on yet another lodger coming to the cottage: Maribel Claus.

Short as a stump, round as a wheel, sweet as a candy cane, and a sharp as a whip, Maribel loves a good puzzle. But can she unmask the phantom killer in time and save Christmas?

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ONE
"Each time a kiss is given under the mistletoe, a berry is removed. When the berries are gone, so is your chance for romance. Them's the rules, so don't miss out!" said Rose Willoughby as she centered the old chair under the stairway arch as she had done every December for the past thirty years. Same day, same chair, same nail. The only thing new was the fresh sprig of mistletoe, and it was plucked from the same tree that provided the green, berried adornment for as many Christmas seasons as she could remember.
She retrieved the sprig from the fireplace mantle and held it up to the approval of the lodgers gathered in the parlor. "As out-of-towners, I thought you'd enjoy knowing the correct way to use mistletoe."
Rose had lived her whole life in Christmas Village where, generally speaking, there was a 'right way' and 'wrong way' of doing just about anything. Were she aware of the existence of plastic mistletoe, for instance, she would be quick to inform you that such an abomination had no place in a world where existed the true article.
Her rambling three-story house—long ago christened Plum Cottage by the villagers on account of the plum trees planted out back by her grandfather—rested at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac off Cinnamon Street. The property was notable not only for its plum trees but also the deep beds of lustrous flowers and the pea shingle pathways meandering through them. The cottage had been built by hand by her father's father and later converted by Rose's mother, when Rose was still a girl, to what out-of-towners might call a bed and breakfast. The house and acreage were handed down to Rose upon her mother's retirement some twenty years ago. In Christmas Village parlance, Plum Cottage is referred to as a lodging house, and Rose its keeper.
Jimmy 'Sticks' Johannsen sat cross-legged on the edge of the sofa, twirling a candy cane through his fingers with remarkable dexterity. "With Harper's Harpoons in your house this week, Miss Willoughby, I dare say those berries needn't worry about being separated from their brethren." Sticks, a juggler, was to be the village tall man for the next week during the Christmas Festival. Ironic, as he was all of five-feet in height, but so adroit was he in the use of stilts that it has been said the only thing stopping him from walking on posts a thousand-feet high was the effect such elevation would have on his health. Everything about the man was square—his hands, his head, his torso, even his nose. Such angularity, however, was relieved considerably by his warm eyes and genuine smile.
There was a flash of fire and smoke in the corner as Eric Stumpf, professionally known as Siegfried the Great, performed another of his tricks in hopes of impressing young Missy Culpeper, Rose's apprentice and part-time help.
"We are a singularly single group," continued Sticks, "That is, unless Eric can magically make Missy's good sense disappear sufficiently to steal a kiss from her."
This evoked a hearty round of laughter. Eric took the joke in stride but Missy turned progressively deeper shades of red before spinning and skipping out of the room.
A man stood upside down on his hands between the open curtains of a large picture window. Snow gently fell outside as he raised a hand in the air, now balanced on only one palm. "Are you going to take that kind of talk, Eric?" he teased.
By the time he'd finished speaking he had lifted himself up by his fingers, and curling his thumb and pinky finger inwards, balanced on only three phalanges. Such a feat was little more than the flex of a muscle to the troupe's ace acrobat, Xander 'Whirly' Byrd, a man well past his fortieth year if his face was to be believed but possessing the body of a twenty-five-year-old gym dweller with not an ounce of fat to spare on his taut frame.
"As a matter of fact, I will take it." Eric jumped from the antique settee, his black cape flying opened to reveal its dark red inner lining. "I will even up the ante!"
He rushed across the room to where Rose stood and plucked a little green leaf from the sprig of mistletoe in her hand. "A rose by any other name. . ." he said, a mischievous gleam in his eye, the leaf on display between his thumb and forefinger.
Then a flash of smoke.
Rose coughed and waved away the smoke to find the young magician holding a single rose in place of the leaf. ". . .is just as beautiful." He held out the flower for her to take. This she did between exclamations of joy and surprise. "Now, how about that kiss." He winked.
"Mr. Stumpf, if I were twenty years younger, I might take you up on that."
He stepped over to the wooden chair, tested it for sturdiness, and put on an expression of feigned disappointment.
"Then the least you can do is to help a poor, dejected fellow regain some measure of dignity by allowing him to climb this chair and place that mistletoe for the benefit of lovers more fortunate than himself." He was a tall, handsome young man, with hair so dark it shined blue and teeth as white as the snow outside.
She held the mistletoe close to her chest. "Nothing doing, young man. If you want an extra share of plum pudding for dessert, that I can do. But me climbing on that chair to hang this plant is tradition, and here in Christmas Village, tradition is a very precious thing. Now shoo!"
She playfully motioned him away and plopped a defiant foot on the chair seat, shakily pulling herself up to full standing. The echo of approaching feet sounded out from the stairwell.
"Oh, crumb," mumbled Rose as she lowered herself off the chair. "People are coming."
"Why, Miss Willoughby, whatever are you up to?" said Madame Zorena, the troupe's psychic-in-residence, upon reaching the bottom of the staircase and finding her hostess atop a chair. She affected a European accent of some sort, though how real it was had long been a matter of speculation. Although not presently in the five-gallon turban and full-length flowing gown she wore for her public performances of tarot readings, palm readings, and group séances, she was still very much dressed the part of the traveling gypsy with handkerchiefs and bandanas aplenty.
"Oh, Madame, please excuse me," begged Rose. "Let me get out of your way. I was only trying to hang this mistletoe."
"I would beg you to carry on as you were and let me wait, but I will not be the only one seeking passage."
As though summoned by her words, the beautiful Anemone Harper and her rather brutish shadow, Bull Vargas, appeared behind Madame at the foot of the stairs. Anemone, with her tall, curvaceous frame, her sky-blue eyes and full red lips, appeared at first blush to be a gentle flower. But Rose had seen the young woman unloading the troupe's equipment and knew this flower had strong roots.
"Oh, good, Miss Harper, Mr. Vargas," said Rose, with more enthusiasm than their faces reflected back. "Now that you're here I suppose we can have pudding. Just let me finish this one thing."
Rose stepped aside as they passed and then returned her chair to the center of the archway and promptly climbed onto it. She was not about to let anything else impede her progress in hanging the mistletoe! Aside from her usual duties tending to lodgers, she had a late night of baking to look forward to and was anxious to get started.
The annual festival, when the village would be open to throngs of out-of-towners, was the single greatest source of income for the Christmas Village Historical Society. These funds came largely through the sale of baked goods. It didn't hurt that the Society boasted two of the best amateur pastry chefs in the village—herself and Mrs. Maribel Claus. Maribel was expected over early the next morning to help Rose set up their booth and Rose had to make sure the goodies were packed and ready to go by that time.
If she couldn't manage the hanging of a single blasted plant, how was she expected to get forty tarts baked and still squeeze in her requisite four hours of sleep? Somehow, she was sure, it would work itself out. Things always did.
But first, the mistletoe.
"I'm not sure I would do that, if I were you," said Madame Zorena.
"And why not?" asked Rose, trying not to sound annoyed. "I'm not so old my joints don't work. Are you having a premonition, Madame?"
"It's not that, I think Mr. Snipes might be—"
"Ah!" Rose felt the impact before she saw its cause. Next thing she knew, she was on the floor next to the chair and her right ankle felt like someone had wrapped it with barbed wire. When she looked up, she saw a nose so sharp it could cut words, a receding hairline, and ridiculously pinched features, all haphazardly stuck on a head shaped like a light bulb.
It was the head of Mr. Barnaby Snipes, who identified himself as the owner and manager of the troupe of performers currently lodging in her cottage. He had come down the stairs and walked directly into Rose, sending her flying.
"Miss Willoughby, what on earth do you think you're doing, standing on a chair where people walk?"
Eric rushed to her aid as Whirly somersaulted to her side. Together they picked her up and sat her in the chair. Snipes didn't budge.
"I was just trying to hang my mistletoe," said Rose between sobs of pain and disappointment.
Sticks got into Mr. Snipes's face. "How did you not see her? Or did you see her and not care?"
Snipes huffed and puffed in feigned indignation. "How dare you! Of course, I did not see her. My mind is on tomorrow, on making sure all of you are taken care of. I can't be expected to know each time a woman is going to put herself in the way of common foot traffic." He stopped to watch Miss Willoughby pathetically pick her precious sprig up from the floor. Miraculously, it had not lost any of its berries. "I hope your stupid small-town superstitions are worth it. Don't you know that mistletoe is nothing but a parasite that sucks the life out of trees? I must question the hosteller who would subject paying guests to such grotesqueries."
"Barnaby, how dare you be so cruel!" said Anemone. She would have continued her rant but Bull put an arm around her shoulder. For the effect it had, it might as well have been a hand over her mouth.
"What? Nobody's hurt. At least not terminally," retorted Snipes, glancing passively at Rose sitting in the chair, rubbing her ankle. "Now, where's this plum pudding I was promised? You forced me to participate in the making of it, so I insist upon having mine now as I plan to spend the remainder of the evening in my room going over the City Council contracts again. I'm certain they're trying to swindle me somehow, I just haven't yet found the loophole. Though, rest assured, I will! Now, about the pudding."
"It's on the table," said Rose. She tried to stand but her ankle protested and she tumbled back into the chair.
Anemone wrestled herself out from under Bull's heavy arm and rushed over to inspect Rose's ankle.
The young woman grimaced. "Oh, dear, I think it may be sprained. I should get some ice."
"You may be right," conceded Rose. "See Missy in the kitchen and she'll take care of it. That's her job, not yours."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Anemone, showing more life than she had in the two days since she arrived at Plum Cottage.
Rose had first suspected the young woman, with fresh shadows under her eyes and skin so pale, might be coming down with a cold. No one so beautiful should have a right to sadness, she thought. But Rose knew that wasn't true. Love isn’t the only emotion that is blind.
Anemone looked up at her from her kneeling position on the floor. There was a smile on her lips and so much more behind her eyes. "You've welcomed us as friends into your home and friends look after each other, do they not? I will see to the ice myself."
Anemone sped out of the parlor and across the hall towards the kitchen. Bull, the troupe's strongman, his head and chest free of hair and full of muscle, took a few steps forward as though to follow her, but thought better of it. Rose couldn't say what Anemone's function was within the troupe. She wasn't a performer nor was she the manager. That was Mr. Snipes. She was, assumed Rose, some sort of assistant to Mr. Snipes; a buffer between him and the humanity that seemed to displease him so.
Snipes turned his back to the small group huddled around Miss Willoughby and focused his attention on the Christmas pudding enjoying pride of place on the coffee table. Small plates and silverware were at hand so he served himself.
Whirly floated over to the other side of the table. Snipes avoided his gaze, but that didn't dissuade him.
"I didn't have you pegged as a pudding man," said Whirly. "I'm sure it'd be no trouble for Rose to whip you up a pie from all those mistletoe berries growing in the grove out back."
"Idiot. Mistletoe berries are poisonous."
"That won't stop us from making the pie if it won't stop you from eating it."
Snipes caught Whirly's meaning and looked at him in reproach. Whirly winked and walked away.
Barnaby Snipes took a bite from his pudding and, for the second time that evening, someone in the parlor of Plum Cottage cried out in pain.
"Gorblimey, what did I bite into? I think I broke a tooth!"
It was one of Rose's many traditions each December to make a Christmas pudding. Following the old customs, each member of the household took a turn stirring the mixture, always in a clockwise motion to ensure good luck. As the stirring commenced, small trinkets made of pewter would be dropped into the mixture: a thimble, a trumpet, a ring, a car, a bell, a hat, and so forth. Lodgers loved being involved in the creation of such a special dessert, seeing what trinket they received and learning what it meant.
Out of town visitors for the Christmas Festival were typically in Christmas Village specifically for these experiences. Not so with her present boarders, who were there to perform and earn a living from the village. To be fair, the majority of the entertainers were true and good and relished both her company and her knowledge.
Then there was Barnaby Snipes, who reluctantly agreed to his turn at the stirring of the pudding but insisted on stirring in the wrong direction to tempt fate. Now fate was biting back. Or, he was biting fate, as the case was. When he reached into his mouth and removed the trinket, 'fate' was revealed as a little silver bell.
Snipes tossed his plate down on the table and held the little bell in the air. His hands were shaking.
"I'm going to have my teeth looked at tomorrow, and if there's so much as a scratch on any one of them, I'm handing this over to authorities and my lawyer will be in touch."
With a huff he shoved the bell into his jacket pocket, gave each person in the room the stink eye, and shuffled his skinny legs back up the stairs and to his room.
"I feel sorry for that bell," murmured Sticks.
Bull Vargas followed his employer up the stairs without saying a word. With her bulky escort gone, Anemone lit up like a cold lamp and the mood in the room shifted from tense to upbeat.
Rose's ankle was wrapped and she was able to wobble around on it but now she was concerned that she wouldn't have the stamina to stay up late and bake all the goodies needed for the sale tomorrow. Missy could handle the household duties, but when it came to baking, the poor girl couldn't be trusted to make toast.
Rose called her friend Maribel, and with a frog in her throat, explained the situation. Maribel assured her she would have the matter well in hand. Having already baked her share of the goods, she said it wouldn't be a thing to bake Rose's share as well. Rose was doing her a favor, she said, as she was too wired for sleep and didn't know how to fill her time, but now Rose had answered her prayer.
Rose smiled. That was just like Maribel. It was as important to her to relieve Rose of any sense of guilt as it was to help her with her predicament. All she wanted in return was Rose's solemn oath that she'd take it easy on her ankle so she wouldn't be out of commission for the bake sale.
Rose removed the last batch of tarts from their cooling spot on the windowsill. While closing the window she noticed the snow had stopped and all seemed quiet in her gardens. She placed the tarts on the kitchen island and covered them with a towel. She turned to leave the room.
Tap, tap, tap.
The sound came from outside the kitchen window. It was a little black bird, pecking away at the sill. For the slightest of moments, she found herself overtaken with a sense of dread, as though something uninvited had slipped into her comfortable world. Something just the other side of right.
The chill in her bones passed and Rose did the one-legged hopscotch into the parlor where she was quickly accosted by Whirly and Sticks, who inserted themselves under her arms and guided her to the sofa. Then the two men, along with Eric, Anemone, and Madame Zorena, sat in the chairs surrounding her in a half-circle in front of the roaring fireplace.
"It looks like my evening has just opened up," she said expectantly to the younger people gathered round. "But never mind me, I love a quiet evening by the fire. You all skedaddle and get what fun in you can before your busy week begins tomorrow."
"Nothin' doin'," said Eric. "You know this village as well as anyone, right?"
Rose was curious. "Yes, at least as well, I'd say. Been here my whole life."
The magician became excited. "I have heard things happen here that don't happen elsewhere."
Rose laughed. "The things people say!"
"So, it's not true?" asked Madame Zorena, who'd apparently heard the same thing.
"As I've lived here my entire life, I can't well say what does and doesn't happen anywhere else."
"Fair enough," said Sticks. "But we were hoping you might be willing to tell us some stories."
"Stories? What kind of stories?" Rose hoped she hadn't appeared as eager as she felt. As a child she loved hearing the stories of the elders and, now of a certain age herself, she found she loved sharing them.
Whirly peered between the window curtains. "Let's see. The snow has stopped falling. It's now pitch-black outside with only a sliver of moon casting its pale light. Here we are inside, sitting cozy by a roaring fire. What kind of story do you think the moment demands?"
"I see," said Rose, narrowing her eyes mischievously and pointing them over her wire frames. "You want a ghost story, do you?"

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Water Is Wide by Laura Vosika


Title: THE WATER IS WIDE
Author: Laura Vosika
Publisher: Gabriel’s Horn Press
Pages: 451
Genre: Time Travel/Historical Fiction

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BOOK BLURB:
After his failure to escape back to his own time, Shawn is sent with Niall on the Bruce’s business. They criss-cross Scotland and northern England, working for the Bruce and James Douglas, as they seek ways to get Shawn home to Amy and his own time.
Returning from the Bruce’s business, to Glenmirril, Shawn finally meets the mysterious Christina. Despite his vow to finally be faithful to Amy, his feelings for Christina grow.
In modern Scotland, having already told Angus she’s pregnant, Amy must now tell him Shawn is alive and well—in medieval Scotland. Together, they seek a way to bring him back across time.
They are pursued by Simon Beaumont, esteemed knight in the service of King Edward, has also passed between times. Having learned that Amy’s son will kill him—he seeks to kill the infant James first.
The book concludes with MacDougall’s attack on Glenmirril, Amy and Angus’s race to be there and Shawn’s attempt to reach the mysterious tower through the battling armies.
CHAPTER ONE
Bannockburn, Present
Angus warmed the car while Amy used the restroom. He tapped gloved fingers on the steering wheel, a tight frown creasing his forehead. After a minute, he pulled out his phone and dialed his partner on Inverness’s police force. “Clive,” he said, moments later. “Here’s a riddle. What’s the link between Shawn Kleiner, twenty-first century missing person, and Niall Campbell, fourteenth century laird?” His mind flitted around Rose, Amy’s mentor, teacher, and friend. Think outside the box, she had told him.
But Kleiner was not living in two centuries, regardless of his cracks at his last concert.
“Two of a kind,” Clive said promptly. “If Kleiner’d lived in Niall’s time, he’d’a’ mooned MacDougall, too.” He laughed. “Seriously, MacLean, Kleiner called himself Niall Campbell—the day she found him, and again at his last concert. You know that.”
“Seriously,” Angus said. “When she told me she was pregnant, I thought that’s what she’d been hiding. But she just found out her student has an identical twin, and it’s got her agitated over Niall Campbell.”
There was a brief silence before Clive’s voice dropped. “What’s he to do with her student’s twin?”
“Aye,” replied Angus. “It’s like when we talked to her at the hotel. She’s not saying something. She knows a great deal about Campbell but evades when I ask for her sources.” He cleared his throat. “Being pregnant doesn’t explain her saying Kleiner’s never coming back. Why do these twins get her upset about a medieval knight?”
“I’ll think on it,” Clive said. “Though how I’d even begin to research such a thing, I’d not know. Ancestor? Family curse? Buried treasure?”
“I’d say don’t be ridiculous,” Angus said, “but I can think of no rational connection.” Watching the door, he lowered his voice. “There’s something else. I didn’t want to say it before. I feel disloyal.”
“If she’s lying, you’ve no reason to,” Clive said
“You’ve met her,” Angus shot back. “Do you believe for a minute she’s a bad sort?”
“No,” Clive said. “But clearly she’s hiding something.”
“Why does a good person hide things?” Angus asked. “Because the timing of her break up with him has been bothering me for a time now.”
“I’ve been thinking on it, too,” Clive said. “And it can’t be as she told you.”
“You see the problem, too.” Angus drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, watching the door. “She said they broke up the night before he disappeared.”
“Witnesses say he spent that evening playing harp at the re-enactment in Bannockburn. His phone was with her, over two hundred kilometers away at the hotel in Inverness.”
“Could he have called her from someone else’s phone?”
“Possible,” Clive said. “But unlikely. Hold on.”
“I’ll have to hang up if she comes out.” Angus listened to the soft shuffle of paper over the line, and muffled tones of Clive speaking to someone. The door of the pub swung open. He took a quick breath, but Sinead’s family emerged. He relaxed against the seat, listening to the girls chatter as they passed. He watched them, identical in their black, bouncing curls, dark eyes, and sprinkle of freckles, and smiled.
“Here,” Clive said. “That Rob fella said she broke up with him in the tower.”
Angus frowned. “I don’t remember that.”
“Pat down the hall overheard him and mentioned it to me but last week.”
“But that can’t be,” Angus objected. “That was two weeks before the re-enactment.”
“He was quite put out that they were back on such good terms. Very good. Kissing-backstage-after-the-concert good.”
Angus frowned, less than pleased with the image himself. For a fleeting moment, he sympathized with Rob. “So ’tis odd she’d break up with him again. Apart from the lack of a phone or any witness to him using one.” He watched the twins argue beside their car, wondering which was Sinead. One girl grinned at him, waved, and hopped into the vehicle.
“Angus?”
“What?” Angus snapped his attention back to Clive.
“I asked, are you sure you want to be involved in this?”
“Don’t think badly of her,” Angus said. “I’ve always had a good sense for character, and I don’t believe she’s done anything wrong.” He watched the second girl stomp around her family’s car.
“She seems a good sort,” Clive agreed. “But you’re on shaky ground already, seeing someone you were assigned to on a case.”
“Aye,” Angus admitted.
“Have you found out why she believes he’s not coming back?”
“I’ve not asked,” Angus said. “I’m not here as an inspector.”
“Come now, Angus, you ought to know what you’re dealing with.”
“She’ll tell me when she’s ready.”
“She’s suggesting he’s dead! You’re losing your professional sense for personal reasons!”
“I am,” Angus sighed. “But I like being with her.”
“You mightn’t have a choice, in the end,” Clive warned.
The pub door swung open again. “Text me if you think of anything.” Feeling guilty, Angus stowed the phone as Amy appeared, her white hat snug over thick, black hair spilling the length of her back. She smiled. He jumped from the car, rounding it to open her door. He desperately wanted her in his life, the Glenmirril Lady who’d brought his feelings gloriously alive after eight dormant years.

Stirling, Present

“Alec, what are these?”
Alec looked up to see his intern holding a medieval helmet, sword, and heavy puddle of iron. “Chain mail?” Alec’s forehead wrinkled. “Where’d you find that, now?”
“The old lockers down at the end,” the boy answered.
“Those haven’t been used in months,” Alec replied. “Did you find paperwork on them?”
The boy shook his head. Alec swiveled his chair to a cabinet and dug through. He pulled a file, read it, frowning, and reached for the helmet atop the pile in the lad’s arms. It tumbled from his hands, its weight surprising him. Dirt fell from it, dusting his desk. He brushed at it, smearing his report, before lifting the helmet and irritably shaking filth to the floor. The boy waited, silent but for the clink of chain as he shifted under the weight of mail and sword.
Alec ran his finger along the swirls of artwork adorning the helmet’s edges. He scratched at a dark fleck, before realization hit him. “It’s blood!” He yanked his hand back. The helmet rattled to his desk. “Whose are these?” He snatched the papers from under the crusty helmet. “The re-enactment,” he murmured. He looked up to the boy. “I’m no expert, but they look real.”
“My Uncle Brian works in the Creagsmalan archives,” the boy volunteered. “Will I call him?”
Alec pondered only a moment, before nodding. “And find out what happened to whoever owns these.



Monday, November 12, 2018

Chapter reveal: ‘Manipulated’ by John Ford Clayton

Manipulated - Cover art
Genre: Political Thriller
Title: Manipulated
Author:  John Ford Clayton
About the Book:
Manipulated is a political thriller set during the 2016 presidential election season from January 2015 through January 2017. During these two years, a fictional account of the election is chronicled. The first half of the book provides a back story illustrating an American political system soiled by political parties, a misguided media, and lots and lots of money, all orchestrated by a clandestine organization known as Mouse Trap.​
The second half of the book provides a glimpse at what the 2016 election might have looked like had a different candidate been introduced into the campaign. A candidate not bound to either political party, deep-pocket investors, or Washington insiders. A candidate who had absolutely no interest in the job but is drafted by those that know him best to fix a broken system. A candidate who personifies integrity, character, and humility. A candidate whose core values are guided by his faith.
About the Author:
John Ford Clayton lives in Harriman, Tennessee with his wife Kara, and canine companions Lucy, Ginger and Clyde. He has two grown sons, Ben and Eli, and a daughter-in-law, Christina. He earned a BS in Finance from Murray State University and an MBA from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He is active in his East Tennessee community having served on the local boards of the Boys and Girls Club and a federal credit union, on church leadership and creative teams, and on a parks and recreation advisory committee. When he’s not writing he works as a project management consultant supporting Federal project teams. John is a huge fan of Disney parks and University of Kentucky basketball.
Connect with John Ford Clayton on the web:
EXCERPT:
Chapter 1 
January 7, 2015
671 Days Until the 2016 U. S. Presidential Election

“No More Hate! No More Hate!”
The chants echoed through the Quad from the two dozen protesters assembled near the campus’s main pedestrian intersection. Situated in the middle of the sidewalk was Dr. Molly Jefferson, the leader of the rabble. Dr. Jefferson’s pride swelled as she admired the growing assembly, who had numbered only six the day before.
“What do we want?!” she shrieked through the bullhorn borrowed from the track coach.
“Justice!” came the reply.
“When do we want it?!”
“Now!”
Dr. Jefferson, dean of the College of Religious Studies at Richfield College, had spearheaded this protest.
“Is hate speech welcomed at Richfield?!” Dr. Jefferson asked the crowd.
“No!” came the compliant response.
Dr. Jefferson felt a great sense of pride that a protest she launched only the day before was beginning to gain traction.
The protestors felt they were part of a larger, important, maybe even historic movement. Little did they know they were all simply being manipulated.

***

In the Winchester Library, just off the Richfield College Quad, Jeremy Prince had found a table where he could observe the growing protest. He peered through the leafless branches of the Bradford pear trees that stood guard just outside the tinted window. The sun was giving way to the early January sunset, and he suspected the protestors’ resolve had not yet grown to a level warranting a stay past dark in temperatures expected to dip into the low 20s. As Jeremy watched the marchers, he couldn’t withhold the grin that grew to a smile, ultimately producing an unconscious chuckle.
“Shhh,” objected the students sitting at the tables nearby. “Please be quiet.”
“Oh, sorry, my bad,” Jeremy raised a hand of apology. “Won’t happen again.”
Finding the fortitude to suppress his audible excitement was almost achievable, but losing the grin was asking too much. After all, a plan he had hatched two short weeks ago in a fraternity house 275 miles away was now unfolding right before his eyes. Not just unfolding but thriving. And to imagine he was just getting started. He knew he had to channel his energies to his laptop for the next step in his diabolical plan.

***


Richfield Bible College was founded in 1956 by the Southern Baptist Convention. It was situated in a rustic valley in East Tennessee, just outside the small town of Bard’s Ridge, 30 miles from the city of Knoxville. A local farmer donated 60 acres to get the college started. With the donation came a two-story hay barn, which served as the classroom for Richfield’s initial enrollment of 27.
Growth would come quickly to Richfield, as in four short years the freshman class of 1960 swelled to 80. By 1972, the college had grown to occupy over a dozen buildings, including the newly christened Winchester Library. Richfield enjoyed its peak enrollment throughout the 1980s. By 1988, Richfield Bible College’s enrollment rose to 927.
As much success and growth that Richfield had experienced in the 40 years since its founding, the 90s would usher in a decade of turmoil, challenge, controversy, and ultimately profound change.
Pinpointing the exact catalyst for the transformation is difficult, but many point to a seminal series published in 1992 by Knoxville’s largest newspaper, The Knoxville Chronicle. The series ran four consecutive days, each highlighting a Richfield Bible College transgression.
Day one of the series focused on the lack of quality education the Richfield students received. Comparing a Richfield bachelor’s degree with those of other area colleges, the article noted that in a 120-hour bachelor’s degree program at Richfield, students took 90 hours of Bible classes. That first day’s headline read RICHFIELD OFFERS SUB-STANDARD EDUCATION.
The second day’s article focused on equality and diversity, hot topics in the early 90s. Noting that of Richfield’s 875 enrollees, 780 were men, The Chronicle led with the headline RICHFIELD COLLEGE: WOMEN AND MINORITIES NEED NOT APPLY. The article blasted Richfield’s racial uniformity, remarking that after spending three days on campus The Chronicle staff could find only two non-white students.
The third day’s headline read RICHFIELD LEADERSHIP DISCONNECTED AND UNQUALIFIED. The article blasted Richfield’s leadership, noting that its president had no advanced degree. A similar criticism was levied at Richfield professors with accusations of a chronic lack of experience and qualifications. The article’s most biting criticism was of the Board of Trustees, composed of seven men—most of whom had no educational experience and who had rarely been to Richfield. By the time the third article was printed, national publications were beginning to ask for permission to reprint the series.
The last day focused on Richfield’s foundational belief system. Running on Sunday to guarantee maximum readership, its headline read RICHFIELD: VOW OF PURITY REQUIRED, referencing a “covenant” all students were required to sign as a condition of their college admission. This covenant required that students submit to the authority of college educators and administrators and that they commit to 60 hours of ministry service (with emphasis on UNPAID service). Having to accept the Protestant Bible as the inerrant Word of God, students also had to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one would go to heaven except through Him.
The Chronicle noted other practices it considered Puritanical, such as a prohibition on students engaging in sex and a ban on homosexuals. The Chronicle even included excerpts from an interview with a former Richfield student who claimed he had been dismissed from school after admitting his homosexuality to his college advisor in what he thought was a private conversation.
The series won The Knoxville Chronicle and its author, Delores Jenkins, three Tennessee Press Association Awards, as well as significant national acclaim and attention. It brought Richfield Bible College scorn and ridicule throughout the country as the articles were printed in over 100 U. S. newspapers.
After the series was published, Richfield Bible College was never the same. In just a few months, the president resigned from office. Not long afterward, a mass exodus of faculty followed as enrollment began to plummet from 875 enrollees at the time of The Chronicle series to 550 in just over a year. The snowball continued as the Southern Baptist Convention decided to divest its sponsorship of Richfield, leading to a loss of all seven members of the Board of Trustees. Richfield Bible College was in freefall. Were it not for an anonymous donor, who for three consecutive months made payroll for the remaining staff and faculty, the college might have been forced to close.
In these most difficult times, a handful of remaining faculty members and staff assembled in an emergency session to determine how to pick up the broken pieces of the college they all loved. They knew if Richfield were to survive, a new beginning was required. They decided to hold their initial planning meeting symbolically in the still-standing hay barn, which had been converted to a Richfield museum. Many options were thrown on the table, all involving keeping the college alive. Not a single voice suggested closure as an option.
In times like these, natural leaders tend to emerge; in this case, that leader was the Dean of the fledgling Business College, Joe McArthur. Mac, as everyone called him, listened to the various opinions before writing down a few common concepts he was hearing. After two days of meetings, a consensus emerged of how to move Richfield forward. As frustrated as most were with The Chronicle article, they all admitted some valid concerns needed to be addressed. The first was that the college should broaden its educational offerings and drop the word Bible from its name. Efforts were also made to diversify the college in both the student body as well as in the administration and teaching staff. A new Board of seven trustees consisted of three women, including one African-American, and four men.
Once seated, the trustees selected a new president, a PhD who had over 20 years of educational experience, and who was not affiliated with the Southern Baptists.
Throughout the 2000s, the Richfield College transformation was remarkable. The student body was now 55% female with a growing multi-cultural population. Tattoos and piercings were commonplace at Richfield, which now reflected the diverse culture of most college campuses across the U. S. The curriculum was completely overhauled to be more aligned with that of similar size colleges. Most Bible classes were dropped and were replaced by the Religious Studies Department, which Dr. Jefferson was hired to chair in 2012.

***

With the most recent cheer, Dr. Jefferson sensed the crowd begin to lose energy. Knowing they didn’t have the experience she did with protests, she recognized this moral stand would be a marathon, not a sprint. She decided it was time to send the crowd away but not before a final word of inspiration.
Stepping up on a park bench, she reactivated the bullhorn, drawing all eyes and ears in her direction. “I hope you all have an appreciation for the historic action that you have started today…and I do mean started…because we are just beginning to let our voices be heard.” Cheers sprang up around her as the original two-dozen protestors had been joined by 30 curious onlookers, not all of whom were fully invested in the movement, at least not yet.
“We all know the sordid past of this institution, a past of exclusion, hate, and intolerance. Do we want to return to those days?!”
“No!”
“That’s right; none of us want to go back to those dark days. And we’re not going to let that happen!” Again, enthusiastic applause filled the Quad.
“If it is the last act I do at this college, I will stop the bigoted, close-minded, hatemonger Elijah Mustang from speaking at this institution! We’re going to bring today’s protest to a close, but I’m going to ask—no, I’m going to plead with—those of you on the periphery listening to my voice to join us tomorrow at noon to resume this movement. We don’t want to go back. We only want to move forward! I truly believe that together we are doing God’s work!”
As she stepped down from the bench, she was greeted by hugs and cheers. She could tell she had reached a new constituency. She prayed that tomorrow’s crowd would be even larger than today’s; the same for the next and the next and the next, until justice was served.

***

Among those standing in the periphery was Jeremy Prince thinking to himself, “I can’t believe this is actually working.” Again unable to suppress the smile that consumed his face, he took a step back toward the library thinking, “Now, let’s see if the next bait is swallowed as voraciously as the last.” Would he be so lucky?

***

As Dr. Jefferson unlocked the door to her apartment, she didn’t remember the three-mile drive from campus. She wondered if she had driven or just glided on the winds of change. She had been part of many protests in her career. She joined a movement that kept the ladies’ swim team going at Delaware State, picketed for gender equality pay at the Connecticut State Transportation Department, and was among the throng who successfully got a fraternity shut down for a pattern of abusing its little sisters. However, the Richfield College movement was her maiden voyage as the leader of a protest. She quite liked it and felt she was a natural. In fact, she felt a special calling to this important undertaking. She was a true social justice warrior!
As a single, 30-something college professor with degrees in philosophy and religion, Dr. Jefferson knew the stereotype many would foist upon her: a shrill, angry, unattractive female—a stereotype that many of her colleagues unfortunately reinforced. However, she worked diligently to establish her own persona. She was known as kind, professional, even deferential to her peers. While she had strong opinions, she didn’t eagerly share them. She chose her opportunities wisely for when and with whom to make her thoughts known. At 5’ 2” with a petite figure, she was not an imposing physical presence. She was also a Christian, a fact that brought derision from many of her university contemporaries. Her Christian beliefs were the primary inspiration for her seeking a Richfield faculty position.
She also considered herself significantly out of the mainstream of American conservative evangelical Christian orthodoxy. While she believed that Jesus Christ offered a path to a heaven-like afterlife, she did not consider that the only path. She considered the Protestant Bible a mix of theology, history, and fantasy, much like other holy books such as the Koran and the writings of Confucius and Buddha. In general, she considered herself open to new ideas and teachings; and she read voraciously, always seeking a deeper truth.
Although she normally led with her gentle spirit, Dr. Jefferson held great passion for where she saw injustice and unfairness, especially if a Christian institution was involved. This passion was driving her voice of leadership in the Richfield protest. She knew the history of Richfield’s injustice and how hard those who came before her worked to correct it. Thus, she felt obligated to pick up the baton from the trailblazers who worked for almost a decade to make Richfield the more open, diverse campus it was becoming. The more she learned about Elijah Mustang, the more she was convinced that inviting him to speak at the graduation ceremony was a step backwards from the significant progress already enjoyed. His speaking there could even usher in a return to the college’s dark past. This would be a battle to which she was willing to give everything she had to win.
Receiving her B. S. in religious studies from Vermont State University in 1990, Dr. Jefferson had studied the country’s religious journey from the growth of the Christian Conservative Movement as a political power in the 80s to the backlash and decline during the Clinton years of the 90s. She had even written a paper on Jerry Falwell titled “The Immoral Majority,” making her case for how the Christian Conservative Movement had blurred the lines between church and state, causing major damage to the country in the process. In her doctoral thesis written at the University of North Carolina, she chronicled the Southern Baptist Convention’s rise and decline with a particular focus on Southern Baptist colleges. Now finding herself a professor at Richfield College seemed surreal to her. The notion that she was at the center of such a protest seemed implausible.
Walking through the door of her small, one-bedroom apartment, she instinctively popped a vanilla hazelnut decaf cup in the Keurig and took a seat at the kitchen table. Flipping open the cover to her laptop, she began perusing social media as Anthony, her rescue cat, navigated a figure eight around her outstretched legs. Twitter was her first e-destination, and she was delighted at what she found: “Awesome day on the Richfield Quad.” “Actually doing something to make a difference.” She even found that a hashtag #Richfield Protest had been established. Her movement started a hashtag! Although she knew it wasn’t “her” movement, she felt a sense of profound satisfaction.
Next came Facebook, with similar results: a half-dozen statuses from students with inspired posts, positive comments, and many “likes.” Not a single negative comment or snarky retort was found. As she scrolled through her posts, she found what she was hoping to see: a new post from Dr. Jocelyn Rosenberg, a women’s studies professor, who had befriended her on Facebook a month prior. Although they had only been acquainted a short time, they were obviously kindred spirits. Dr. Rosenberg was the first to bring Elijah Mustang’s transgressions to her attention. This new post was linked to an article in The Chattanooga Observer that included excerpts from an interview Mr. Mustang had given to a reporter in 2011. In this interview, Dr. Jefferson found even more bigotry and hatred. When the reporter asked Mustang about his stance on gay marriage, he stated, “It is my belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s not just my opinion, but I believe the Word of God is clear and consistent on that point.”
“So now he’s deciding what the Word of God is?” she asked her cat, Anthony. Dr. Jefferson had found even more fuel for her passionate protest. She felt her heart race as she quickly typed three e-mails: one to Dr. Rosenberg thanking her for the link to this article and for her inspiration to pursue this issue; another to the president of Richfield College detailing her concerns about Elijah Mustang; and a third to an old acquaintance, Delores Jenkins, now The Knoxville Chronicle’s assistant editor. She sensed what started as a modest protest was about to hit it big. However, she couldn’t begin to predict what the next three days would bring.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Excerpt reveal: ‘The Sicilian Woman’s Daughter’ by Linda Lo Scuro


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Genre: Mystery/Women’s Fiction
Author: Linda Lo Scuro
Publisher:   Sparkling Books
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About The Sicilian Woman’s Daughter
When the novel opens, Maria, the novel’s protagonist is living a charmed and comfortable life with her husband, banker Humphrey and children, in London.   The daughter of Sicilian immigrants, Maria turned her back on her origins during her teens to fully embrace the English way of life.
Despite her troubled and humble childhood, Maria, through her intelligence, beauty and sheer determination, triumphantly works her way up to join the upper middle-class of British society.  But when a minor incident awakens feelings of revenge in her, Maria is forced to confront–and examine—her past.
As she delves deeper into her mother’s family history, a murky past unravels—and Maria is swept up in a deadly and dangerous mire of vendetta.  Will Maria’s carefully-constructed, seemingly-idyllic life unravel?  Expect the unexpected in this outstanding new mystery….
The Sicilian Woman’s Daughter is a brilliantly-plotted, exceedingly well-told tale.  Novelist Linda Lo Scuro delivers a confident and captivating tale brimming with tantalizing twists, turns, and surprise, a to-die-for plot, and realistic, multi-dimensional characters.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, rich and riveting, The Sicilian Woman’s Daughter is destined to stay with readers long after the final page is turned.
PROLOGUE
Rumour had it that Ziuzza, my grandmother’s sister, on my mother’s side, carried a gun in her apron pocket – both at home and when she went out. She wore her apron back-to-front, resulting in the pocket being propped up against her belly. She kept her right hand poised there, between her dress and apron as if she had bellyache. I had noticed this suspicious behaviour when on holiday in Sicily with my family when I was twelve. At that stage, never could I have imagined that she was concealing a gun, while she stood there in my grandmother’s kitchen watching me have breakfast. I never saw her sitting down. She brought us thick fresh milk, containing a cow’s hair or two, in the early mornings and often stayed to chat.
She had a dog, Rocco, white and brown, which she tied to a wooden stake in my grandmother’s stable downstairs. It was a lively animal, snapping at whoever passed it, jumping and yapping. The mules, the rightful inhabitants of the stable, were out in the campagna with my grandfather from the break of dawn each day.
A tight silver bun stood proudly on Ziuzza’s head. Her frowning face always deadly serious. Fierce, even. An overly tanned and wrinkled face. Skin as thick as cows’ hide. Contrastingly, her eyes were of the sharpest blue – squinting as she stared, as if viewing me through thick fog. I was scared of her. Truly scared. And all the other women were frightened, too. You could tell by the way they spoke to her, gently and smiling. Careful not to upset her, always agreeing with her opinions. They toadied up to her well and proper. An inch away from grovelling.
And, I found out the rumours about the gun were true. Ziuzza would come and bake bread and cakes at my grandmother’s house because of the enormous stone oven in the garden. I helped carry wood to keep the flames alive. Did my bit. One day the sisters made some Sicilian cakes called cuddureddi, meaning: ‘little ropes.’ They rolled the dough with their bare hands, into thick round lengths in the semblance of snakes. Using a sharp knife, they then sliced the snake-shape in half, longways, spread the lower half of the butchered snake with home-made fig jam. They put the snake together again, slashed it into chunks. Then the chunks were dealt with one-by-one and manipulated into little ropes by pinching them forcefully into shape with their nimble fingers.
As Ziuzza bent over to wipe her mouth on the corner of her pinafore, I caught a glimpse of her gun. I was sitting at the table sprinkling the first trayful of cuddureddi with sugar. No doubt about it. It was there in Ziuzza’s big inside pocket of her pinafore. While I was looking at the bulge, she caught me out. We exchanged glances, then our eyes locked. She narrowed her hooded eyelids into slits and crunched up her face. I blinked a few times, then looked around for some more wood to replenish the oven, grabbed a few logs and vanished into the garden.
After she received a sickening threat, Rocco’s bloodied paws were posted to her in a box, she, like her dog, came to a violent end. Ziuzza was shot in her back, in broad daylight, by someone riding by on a Vespa. People with line of sight, from their windows to the body, hurried to close their shutters. Nobody saw who it was. Nobody heard the gunshots, though the road was a main artery from one end of The Village to the other. And nobody called a doctor. It would be taking sides. Which you certainly didn’t want to do. Added to that was the fact that Ziuzza at that moment was on the losing side. She was left to bleed to death in the road like an animal. It wasn’t until the dustcart came round that they removed her body because it couldn’t get by. But nobody commented, it was as if they were removing a big piece of rubbish. It was nothing to them. But instead of throwing it away, they took the body to her home. Nobody was in. So they brought it to my grandmother’s house instead.
This was the lowest point in our family’s history. With time, though, Ziuzza managed to triumph through her son, Old Cushi, who began the escalation. And, later, her grandson, Young Cushi, completed it by becoming the undisputed boss of our village, of the region, and beyond. But the transition was not easy. A bloody feud ensued. Lives were lost on both sides. Some might know who Ziuzza’s enemies were. I didn’t get an inkling. Most of the information I came across was from listening to what the grown-ups in our family were saying. And they never mentioned her rivals by name. Some faceless entity fighting for control of the area.
This is just one of the episodes I remember from our holidays in Sicily. There are many more. Every three years, I went to Sicily with my parents. Those I remember were when I was nine, twelve, fifteen and eighteen. The last time we went my mother was ill and we travelled by plane. All the other times we travelled by train because poverty accompanied us wherever we went. I think we had some kind of subsidy from the Italian Consulate in the UK for the train fare. It was a three-day-two-night expedition. I remember setting out from Victoria Station carrying three days’ supply of food and wine with us. Especially stuck in my mind was the food: lasagne, roast chicken, cheese, loaves of bread. We’d have
plates, cutlery, glasses, and an assortment of towels with us. At every transfer all this baggage had to be carried on to the next stage. No wheels on cases in those days. Then we’d get the ferry from Dover to Calais, and so began the first long stretch through France, Switzerland, until we finally pulled into Milan Station. Where our connection to Sicily was after a seven-hour wait.
We used to sleep on the waiting-room benches, though it was daytime, until someone complained about the space we were taking up. The Italian northerners had a great disdain for southern Italians. They saw us as muck, rolled their eyes at us, insulted us openly calling us “terroni”, meaning: “those who haven’t evolved from the soil.” Even though I was young, I noticed it, and felt like a second category being – a child of a minor god. There was the civilised world and then there was us. My parents didn’t answer back. And it was probably the time when I came closest to feeling sorry for them. For us.
            The journey all the way down to the tip of Italy – the toe of the boot – was excruciating. The heat in the train unbearable. When there was water in the stinking toilets, we gave ourselves a cursory wipe with flannels. Sometimes we used water in bottles. Every time we stopped at a station, my father would ask people on the platforms to fill our bottles. Then came the crossing of the Strait of Messina. At Villa San Giovanni, the train was broken into fragments of three coaches and loaded into the dark belly of the ferry. My mother wouldn’t leave the train for fear of thieves taking our miserable belongings, until the ferry left mainland Italy. While my father and I went up on the deck to take in the view. But we had orders to go back down to the train as soon as the ferry left. Then I’d go up again with my mother. She became emotional when Sicily was well in sight. She would become ecstatic. Talk to any passengers who’d listen to her.
Some totally ignored her. She’d wave to people on passing ferries. Laughing and, surprisingly, being nice to me.
Reassembled together again, the train would crawl at a tortoise’s pace along the Sicilian one-track countryside railway, under the sweltering heat. Even peasants who were travelling within Sicily moved compartment when they got a whiff of us. Another event that excited my mother was when the train stopped at a level crossing. A man got out of his van, brought a crate of lemons to our train and started selling them to the passengers hanging out of the windows. My mother bought a big bag full and gave me one to suck saying it would quench my thirst. Another man came along selling white straw handbags with fringes, and she bought me one.
By the time we reached The Village our bags of food stank to high heaven and so did we.

Friday, November 2, 2018

‘Secret Agent Angel’ by Ray Sutherland


front cover final
Name: Ray Sutherland
Book Title: Secret Agent Angel
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An imaginative and intriguing tale, Secret Agent Angel is a story about how sometimes even angels have to act on faith.
About Secret Agent Angel:  Samuel, a secret agent angel on earth, has to improvise when things go badly wrong—and sometimes, Samuel has to prepare people for a purpose unknown even to him.  From the jungles of Vietnam with porters on the Ho Chi Minh trail, to Omaha truck drivers who befriend an abused boy, to wounded veterans who need to learn to let go of the past, to an accountant tempted to steal, Samuel works with fallible people, trying to get them to see their true strength.
But forty years of angelic missions come to a head when a fire at a snowbound truck stop leaves one man’s faith—and his life—hanging in the balance. The only hope for success rests with the spiritual power of the humans Samuel has tried to prepare for the struggle.  But have they gained enough spiritual strength and awareness?  And if not, does God have a Plan B??
An extraordinary story that will stay with readers long after the final page is turned, Secret Agent Angel is irresistible. Tender and touching, thoughtful and thought provoking, heartwarming and filled with heart, Secret Agent Angel is a powerful story about faith, healing, and the redemptive power of love.
EXCERPT
As always the first thing I knew arriving on Earth from Heaven was the terrible dislocation and confusion of re-entering the temporal stream. It doesn’t matter how many times you make the transition, it’s still a terrible wrench to your mind, almost violent in its effect. I spent a few seconds doing the normal head shaking and a shiver to get over the jolt and to get used to being flesh and blood again and then got down to business. At least this time I was undercover and didn’t have to wear a goofy robe and those wings that glow in the dark. They can be fun, but they’re also cumbersome and a real pain to keep clean.
This time, I looked like a reasonably normal human male, dressed in the regulation shirt and tie like that of a junior manager at a big department store chain or insurance agency. I was in the restroom of a convenience store close to the airport, so I hit the toilet handle to make it seem like I was in there for the normal reason and stepped out. I bought a honey bun, a chocolate bar, and the largest cup they had of orange soda because one thing I envy of you humans is eating and drinking. The Boss sure did a good job when he created that and I always take advantage of it when I’m here to earth.
I come here to Earth pretty regularly. My name is Samuel. I’m an angel.
I sat down at one of the small booths in the store and looked out the window as I ate and drank and waited for my subject to show up. I had timed it right and had just finished the honey bun and half the soda when his car went by, headed home after work, with his three year old daughter in the car seat in the back. I dropped the wrappers in the trash and headed to the car which was waiting for me in the furthest parking place. It started right up which is always a bit of a relief when dealing with a car I’ve never seen before. We’ve got good people doing these things, but sometimes the Boss likes to pull surprises even on us. I remember once when I worked in the fifteenth century in Yemen, I got stuck with a donkey with no training, and that caused me to get stranded in a tiny village where I wound up staying with the local Jacobite priest who had been having a faith crisis. The next morning, he had tried to help me teach the donkey manners while his wife supervised. We were having a conversation about his crisis during a break necessitated by the donkey winning a round, and his wife had exasperatedly broken in with, “You won’t get over this unless you get hit with a sign from Heaven!” Just then the donkey let loose with a kick which sent the priest flying, fortunately with no serious damage to anything other than his dignity. That made him laugh and say that very much like the story of Balaam, the Boss had again spoken through a donkey. That didn’t fix his faith but it seemed to give him the boost he needed and he went on to be a faithful leader in the Yemenite church, doubts and all.
I cut off that line of thought and got back to the business of following my subject. We didn’t have far to go, the store I’d picked to start from was only about a mile from his house and I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t stop in for gas or a loaf of bread. Today though, he went straight home, no stops and without any apparent glances in the mirror, even though a look in his mirror would have shown him a rather dark and nasty trail of smoke coming from his exhaust pipe.
As planned, the last stoplight before his final turn into their subdivision caught him and I pulled up next to him and got a good look. He looked exactly like what he was: a junior level management flunky trying to get on the fast track, with ambitions to reach high and talent to match. But today he looked more than harried and rushed at work, he looked troubled and uncertain. His mind was clearly somewhere else because he didn’t notice the light turn green until the driver behind honked. That let me get in ahead of him and slow down so he had to pass me and I got a good look at the girl, too. Amanda was her name and she was a star pupil at Miss Emmy’s Day Care Center and–of course-spoiled rotten by both parents and all four grandparents and two step-grandparents. She had the sweet look that all three year old girls have, even when they’re starving in the middle of a plague. I’ve seen that, too, and I screamed and yelled at the Boss to let me fix some things but got the usual answer.
Everything was just what I expected. That was no surprise since I watched them before I came over, but it was good to confirm it because, as you can imagine–or maybe not-things look very different when you’re on this side and limited to time and space.
Preliminary recon done, I turned off the main road a block before they did and headed to the big department store in the mall where the wife would be finishing her shift as cosmetics saleslady. They had about decided that she should quit that job since his last promotion and she was thinking about going back to college, hoping to study art and either be an artist or at least to teach in a high school. But her pay, little as it was, helped quite a bit and she was nervous about trying to do without it.
I parked in the closest spot, not very close. I wish the Boss would fix that like He fixed the traffic light but that’s one of his inscrutable ways. It’s not like I need the exercise since I’m usually a perfect physical specimen when I come over in human form.