Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Now that John and Hannah have been in New South Wales for several years, they've begun to build a life together. It was interesting to read about how they started off as convicts but have now managed to have their own farm, livestock and their past has become a distant memory. This story is not so much about Australia as it is about John and Hannah's relationship. Hannah is like a Job character as she is severely tested throughout the whole story. Anything bad that could happen to her, happened in this book. She handled things way better than I would have.
While I enjoyed the story, I did have several qualms while reading it. My main one is the entire storyline of the dead spouse coming back to life and ruining a marriage. I really don't like this storyline because it seems to come up a lot in Christian fiction and every single time it ends the same way. This case is no different. I cannot believe that not a single person questioned Margaret and was so readily to dismiss John and Hannah's marriage. It just seemed that everyone gave up too easily. I unfortunately did not like Hannah in this book. Any spunk or boldness she had in previous books seemed to disappear once Margaret showed up. She didn't try to fight for John, she just became a pushover. Even when she had suspicions she didn't want to pursue them and when she did find out the truth, it was only because of a friend's urging that she finally decided to do something. John is no help either as he immediately goes back to his first wife and just dismisses Hannah. There were several times throughout the book that I just wanted to scream at everyone. I will say though the ending was slightly unexpected and I am glad that it didn't end in the predictable way. I am sad that this is the last book in the series as I would have liked to see more of how the characters survive in their new surroundings. Stories about this time period and location are unique and these characters will be missed.
Enduring Love by Bonnie Leon is published by Revell (2009)
Monday, June 29, 2009
I was a bit wary when I picked up this book to read. The cover didn't really attract me to the story at all. I mean she looks like she's wearing a velour hoodie set. It just screamed trying to hard for me. Normally I would pass over this book, but I do enjoy British culture so I ended up picking it to read. I am so glad that I did. The book is written in a diary format, which I always enjoy. There's something about reading journal format that is very appealing to me, perhaps because it gives a better insight from the character. I also find that diary format books are very addictive to read because with no chapter breaks, you find it hard to stop reading. I grew to like Shiraz and her family. I will admit in the beginning she's very brash and hard to like but as you learn more about her life, she becomes very likable. I liked the teacher who encouraged her and gave her inspiration to do well in school. Also her relationship with her sister is very touching especially during the reality show scenes. My favorite part had me extremely grossed out. It's the scene in the factory. I read that scene and had the same reaction Shiraz did and was totally creeped out and even gagged. It's a great scene though and adds a lot of humor.
I will admit, the British slang takes a while to get used to. I felt like I was reading a foreign language for most of the book. Luckily there's a dictionary in the back that explains all these terms that Shiraz uses so I constantly found myself flipping to it throughout the story. After finishing this book, I felt like talking with a British accent to everyone and start using some of the words I had learned while reading. Overall this was a very enjoyable book to read. It gives a great taste of British culture and also shows how teens are the same all over the world. Looking forward to reading the next book in the series.
Diva Without a Cause by Grace Dent is published by Poppy (2009)
Sunday, June 28, 2009
A lot of old characters returned although their roles are smaller in this film. I liked Sacagawea but she barely spoke in this film. And Steve Coogan and Owen Wilson are always a rip roaring hoot. LOVED the scene with Steve and the White House lawn. It was nice seeing some new faces such as Amy Adams (whom I adore) as Amelia Earhart and Bill Hader (who's always a riot) as Custer. It killed me when he combed his hair. I also thought it was quite funny how Larry gives him the pep talk about coming up with a new "last stand" when the reasons for Custer's original Last Stand are quite despicable. I like Hank Azaria but he was rather over the top in his role here. Plus his lisp was never explained. I could understand if they didn't want to make fun of it but it was just so obvious that I thought someone would comment on it and they never did. Also geeked to see Darth Vader (of course) and Oscar the Grouch. I had just seen Oscar at the American History museum weeks prior to seeing the film so it was doubly exciting. I was disappointed that Carla Gugino's character wasn't even mentioned at all in this movie. I mean no offense to Ricky Gervasis but they brought back his character and not Carla's even though there was romance with her and Larry? And yes Ben Stiller is funny again as Larry, he's perfect for the role.
The biggest discrepancy that really bugged me was how in the world Amelia was able to fly back to DC from New York alive. The tablet is staying in New York so that means all the exhibits in DC are already back to normal and aren't able to come alive. So once Amelia leaves Larry she technically should become back to a wax figure again almost immediately. I know it's movie magic but it's still a big glaring plot hole. I did feel that there was a lot of special effects done in this movie, perhaps a bit too much. I think sometimes it took away from the film especially when paintings and sculptures came to life. Oh and I don't think a kid could access all the secret tunnels in the museums that quickly online, they are government building after all.
I personally found all the cameos from the cast of the Office to be rather interesting. There was Ed Helms (Andy) as Larry's co-worker, Mindy Kaling (Kelly) as a tour guide and Craig Robinson (Darrell) as a Tuskegee airman. Plus Amy Adams guest starred in a few episodes and of course Ricky Gervasis invented The Office with his British version.
Overall while I did enjoy the movie, it was mostly mediocre. I felt that it could have been done a lot better. However, it has sparked more interest in history and museums and attendance to the Smithsonian museums has increased due to the movie. There's no great loss without some gain.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Never knew I could feel like this
Like I've never seen the sky before
Want to vanish inside your kiss
Everyday I love you more and more
Listen to my heart, can you hear it sings
Telling me to give you everything
Seasons may change winter to spring
But I love you until the end of time
Come what may, come what may
I will love you until my dying day
Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place
Suddenly it moves with such a perfect grace
Suddenly my life doesn't seem such a waste
It all revolves around you
And there's no mountain too high no river too wide
Sing out this song and I'll be there by your side
Storm clouds may gather and stars may collide
But I love you until the end of time
Come what may, come what may
I will love you until my dying day
Oh come what may, come what may
I will love you
Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place...
Come what may, come what may
I will love you until my dying day
Friday, June 26, 2009
Shani Hanna returns to
But when the girls return to school, they find a new addition to the distinguished student body: Prince Rashid al Amir of Yasir, an oil-rich desert kingdom in the
It turns out, Shani's family and the prince's go back for generations, entwined in tradition, obligation, and family honor. In each generation, members of the two families have expanded their business interests through arranged marriage. Will Shani put aside her feelings for Danyel to pursue her family's wishes? Or will God answer her prayers for an intervention?
Who hasn't dreamed once in their life of becoming a princess? I used to have a huge crush on Prince William and have now switched to Prince Harry. If one of them ever came to my school and turned their attentions on me, I think I would die of giddiness. Thus is Shani's predicament in this book and it's one most girls would give their right hand to have. This story involved more paparazzi and outside influences than any other book in the series. This is the closest that one of the main characters acts and is treated like a celebrity. It's handled very well and it's interesting to see how Shani handled the incredibly difficult decision her parents put upon her. I would have loved to visit the virtual club that the gang visits where you choose an avatar to represent you in the restaurant. It sounds very high tech and very cool. It's really nice to read a Christian book where people especially teens can go out and have fun yet still be decent, clean and wholesome.
One thing though that was distracting to me was the spelling of Danyel's name. Call me traditional or whatever, but when I see a name that's spelled with a y in place of another vowel, it makes me think it's a feminized name. Therefore for the first couple of chapters, I kept thinking he was a girl! While I enjoyed this book a lot, it didn't leave me enthused as the past two books in the series had. The last book in the series had a lot of action and suspense, so this book was a lot slower in comparison. I think part of the problem also stemmed from the fact that I couldn't relate to Shani at all with her dilemma in trying to fend off royalty. While it's an enviable situation, I just couldn't relate to her as I had done the other girls in the series. Still I enjoyed the book a lot. I really liked the ending as it showed gumption and being able to stick to your morals. Once again the visit to the lives of the inhabitants of Spencer Academy has been enthralling and I'm looking forward to reading what else is in store for these girls.
Who Made You a Princess? by Shelley Adina is published by Faithwords (2009)
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the books:
David C. Cook; New edition edition (June 1, 2009)
David C. Cook; New edition edition (June 1, 2009)
Lenya Heitzig is an award-winning author and popular Bible teacher. After beginning her ministry as a single women’s counselor with Youth With a Mission, Lenya married Skip and together they started Calvary of Albuquerque, one of the fast growing churches in the country. The author of Holy Moments and coauthor of the Gold Medallion-winning, Pathways to God’s Treasures, Lenya currently serves as Director of Women at Calvary, overseeing weekly Bible studies and yearly retreats. Lenya and Skip live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Visit the author's website.
Penny Pierce Rose is the award-winning author/coauthor of several books and Bible studies, including the ECPA Gold Medallion winner, Pathways to God’s Treasures. She has served on the board of directors for the Southwest Women’s Festival and develops Bible study curriculum for the women’s programs at Calvary of Albuquerque. Penny, her husband, Kerry, and their three children, Erin, Kristian, and Ryan, live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Visit the author's website.
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTERs:
Root Determines Fruit
Lenya adored Mrs. Johnson, her elementary school teacher, because she had the ability to bring Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to life. Lenya’s sister would anxiously wait for her to arrive home to retell the story in every detail. Penny loved nothing more than spooky bedtime tales from her granddaddy. She’d lie awake at night, jumping at every sound, wondering whether the boogeyman was real. All our kids loved trips to the library for story hour.
Since ancient times, storytellers have enthralled audiences with tales both entertaining and instructive. In 300 BC, Aesop, the Greek storyteller, featured animals like the tortoise and the hare in his fables vividly illustrating how to solve problems. The Brothers Grimm gathered fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel in nineteenth-century Germany to teach children valuable moral lessons. Baby boomers were mesmerized when Walt Disney animated their favorite stories in amazing Technicolor.
However, throughout history no one has compared to Jesus Christ as a storyteller. Rather than telling fables or fairy tales, He told parables. A parable is a short, simple story designed to communicate a spiritual truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. It is a figure of speech in which truth is illustrated by a comparison or example drawn from everyday experiences. Warren Wiersbe simply says, “A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”1 Throughout this study we’ll learn from the stories Jesus told, comparing them to our lives and putting His eternal truths into practice.
Day 1: Matthew 13:1–3 Floating Pulpit Day 2: Matthew 13:3–9 Fertile Parable Day 3: Matthew 13:10–13 Few Perceive Day 4: Matthew 13:14–17 Fulfilled Prophecy Day 5: Matthew 13:18–23 Four Possibilities
Lord, I love to gather with Your people and listen to Your Word. Help me to be a faithful hearer, not only listening to what You say but obeying Your commands. Thank You for being in our midst. Amen.
Jesus proved Himself to be the promised King—the Messiah of Israel—through His impeccable birthright, powerful words, and supernatural deeds. Despite His amazing miracles and the many ways He fulfilled prophecy, the religious leaders rejected His lordship. Knowing the religious leaders had turned on Him, Jesus directed His attention to the common people. Matthew 13 tells how Jesus stepped onto a floating pulpit on the Sea of Galilee and spoke in parables to explain how the gospel—the good news of salvation—would inaugurate the kingdom of heaven on earth.
The parable of the Sower is one of seven parables Jesus taught to describe what His kingdom would look like as a result of the religious establishment rejecting Him. This parable was a precursor to the Great Commission that Jesus would give His disciples after His death, burial, and resurrection: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). There is no evidence that the religious leaders stayed to listen to Jesus’ simple stories. Yet after this teaching session, the resentment of the religious leaders only deepened.
Read Matthew 13:1–3.
On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea. Matthew 13:1
Explain what Jesus did on this day in His ministry.
Matthew 13:1 is the continuation of a critical day in Jesus’ ministry. Briefly scan Matthew 12; then answer the following questions to learn more about this “same day.”
What day of the week is referred to here?
What miracles did Jesus perform on this day?
Describe Jesus’ encounters with the religious leaders.
What did He teach about becoming a member of His family?
According to Mark 3:6, what did the Pharisees begin to do on this fateful day?
And great multitudes were gathered together to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow.” Matthew 13:2–3
Explain why Jesus got into the boat.
How many people stayed to hear Jesus’ message?
What method of teaching did Jesus use in speaking to the
What types of things did He teach in parables?
Galilee was an important region to Jesus. Fill in the following table to learn more.
Scripture Galilee’s Significance
We’ve learned that many people came to know Jesus in Galilee. Journal about the place where you encountered Jesus and how meeting Him affected your feelings about that location.
Jesus was “moved with compassion” for the multitudes that followed Him. Circle below to indicate how you respond to the many people who are lost and looking for a shepherd.
Eager to share the gospel
Impatient with their ignorance
Anxious to get away
Concerned for their eternity
Frightened by their unruliness
Journal a prayer asking God to supernaturally fill you with compassion for the multitudes that don’t know Him.
The multitudes crowded around Jesus, so He turned a boat on the Sea of Galilee into a floating pulpit. In his book Fully Human, Fully Alive, John Powell tells about a friend vacationing in the Bahamas who was drawn to a noisy crowd gathered toward the end of a pier:
Upon investigation he discovered that the object of all the attention was a young man making the last-minute preparations for a solo journey around the world in a homemade boat. Without exception everyone on the pier was vocally pessimistic. All were actively volunteering to tell the ambitious sailor all the things that could possibly go wrong. “The sun will broil you! … You won’t have enough food! … That boat of yours won’t withstand the waves in a storm! … You’ll never make it!”
When my friend heard all these discouraging warnings to the adventurous young man, he felt an irresistible desire to offer some optimism and encouragement. As the little craft began drifting away from the pier towards the horizon, my friend went to the end of the pier, waving both arms wildly like semaphores spelling confidence. He kept shouting: “Bon Voyage! You’re really something! We’re with you! We’re proud of you!”2
If you had been there as the boat was leaving, which group on the pier would you have been among: the optimists or the pessimists? More importantly, if you had been in the crowds along the Sea of Galilee, would you have joined the Pharisees seeking to harm Jesus or the crowd eagerly listening to the stories Jesus told?
Listen to …
The best leaders … almost without exception and at every level, are master users of stories and symbols.
Eve--Trouble in Paradise
The first trouble in paradise was man's aloneness. For six consecutive days--as God created light, the cosmos, the land and sea, the stars and planets, the creatures in the sea and sky, and every living thing that moves, including the ultimate creation of man--God declared, “It is good.” But there was one thing that wasn't good: Man did not have a companion. So God created the perfect mate for Adam. She would be the counterpart for him physically, spiritually, intellectually, and socially. She was intended to complete him. She was more than a mate--she was a soul mate.
We know this woman as Eve. Although the Bible does not describe her, there is no doubt that she was the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Why? She was God's masterpiece. The Divine dipped His paintbrush into the palette of dust and clay and breathed life from His wellspring of inspiration to form a portrait of perfection. Just imagine a woman with a face more beautiful than Helen of Troy, a body more statuesque than the Venus de Milo, a personality more captivating than Cleopatra, and a smile more mysterious than the Mona Lisa. She ate a perfect diet, so her figure was probably flawless. Because of an untainted gene pool, she was undoubtedly without physical defect. Due to the antediluvian atmosphere, her complexion was age-defying perfection. She was never a child, daughter, or sister. She was the first wife, the first mother, and the first woman to encounter evil incarnate. That's when real trouble in paradise began.
Day 1: Genesis 2:18-25 Paradise Found
Day 2: Genesis 3:1-6 Innocence Lost
Day 3: Genesis 3:7-13 Hiding Out
Day 4: Genesis 3:14-19 Judgment Pronounced
Day 5: Genesis 3:20-24 East of Eden
Lift up …
Thank You, Lord, that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. You have created me in Your image to glorify Your name. May I fulfill Your will in my heart and home. Amen.
Look at …
We begin our study when God made man and woman. Though God created both humans and animals, this does not mean that they are on equal footing. People are made in God's image, setting us apart from animals in a profound way. We possess a soul. The soul refers to a person's inner life. It is the center of our emotions and personality. The word soul is first used in Genesis: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being [soul]” (Gen. 2:7). In other words, humans possess intellect, emotion, and will.
For instance, dogs aren't bright enough to realize they'll never catch their own tails; cows don't weep over the beauty of a sunset; and a female praying mantis can't keep herself from chewing her spouse's head off. People, on the other hand, have the ability to acquire knowledge and experience deep feelings. They also have the capacity for self-control. While animals act instinctively, we as humans should behave transcendently. We are God's special creation endowed with the gift of “soul-power.”
Read Genesis 2:18-25.
And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:18-25
Explain the problem and solution God first spoke about in this passage.
Describe in detail the task God assigned to Adam.
Compare and contrast Adam to the rest of the living beings.
In your own words describe how God created woman.
a. When Adam met his mate he made a proclamation. What do you think “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” signified for Adam?
b. What did he call his mate and why?
Here we find the first mention of marriage in Scripture. Explain God's intent for marriage.
a. What else do you learn about the man and wife in this passage?
b. Why do you think this is relevant?
Live out …
a. God declared that man needs companionship. Read Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 and explain some of the reasons why it is better to have a mate to come alongside you.
Read the sidebar concerning “Threefold Strength” and talk about how you have experienced God's supernatural strength in your life and/or marriage.
Many women today struggle with the way they look, think, and feel. But when God made Eve from Adam's rib, this was not His intent. When He made you, He made you to be the person you are too. With this in mind, journal Psalm 139:13-14 into a personal psalm praising God for making you just as you are.
For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother's womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works. Ps. 139:13-14
Before the fall, Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed. It's probably difficult to imagine being unashamed about our looks, actions, or thoughts. But Jesus came to free us from condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Read the following Scriptures and talk about how we can either stand ashamed or unashamed before God.
It's safe to say that none of us is perfectly content with our frame. We all wish we were better, thinner, richer, healthier, smarter, or younger. We may think that if we were different in some way people would accept us, respect us, or love us more. Maybe we'd even love and respect ourselves more. Like Eve, we would walk in this world unashamed.
A recent University of Waterloo study determined that people's self-esteem is linked to such traits as physical appearance, social skills, and popularity. Research associate Danu Anthony noted that acceptance from others is strongly tied to appearances. Furthermore, the study found that self-esteem is connected to traits that earn acceptance from other people. “People state emphatically that it is 'what's inside' that counts and encourage their children not to judge others based on appearances, yet they revere attractive people to an astonishing degree,” Anthony says. “They say they value communal qualities such as kindness and understanding more than any other traits, but seem to be exceptionally interested in achieving good looks and popularity.” The bottom line is that people's looks and behavior are intimately linked to being accepted by others.3
As women of faith, we know that acceptance from others is not nearly as important as our acceptance of One Man--the God/Man Jesus Christ, the second Adam. Only by accepting Jesus Christ's sacrificial death will you be made whole: “You are complete in Him” (Col. 2:10).
The woman was formed out of man--not out of his head to rule over him; not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him; but out of his side to be his equal, from beneath his arm to be protected, and from near his heart to be loved.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a
Admission is at once a fascinating look at the complex college admissions process and an emotional examination of what happens when the secrets of the past return and shake a woman's life to its core.
Reading this book made me miss the whole applying to college experience. Those were the days for me when early decision still existed and every day I would be waiting for the mailman to come, not with books but with a letter from a college that would determine my fate. This book brought back memories of tweaking my class schedule to get higher classes, joining clubs up the wazoo to look good on applications, and getting top recommendations from teachers. It also made me realize that my college admissions experience was a breeze compared to Princeton and other Ivy Leagues. Not that I'm knocking down VA Tech or ODU but what I did to get in was nothing compared to what goes on in this book.
I really liked how the author used her experiences from her days as working as a reader in this book. She explained the process very well of trying to promote the school to get applicants as well as whittling down those applications to the select few. I also really liked the essay excerpts at the beginning of each chapter. I listened to a interview with the author and while those aren't actual essays from applications, the author did base those essays she had read. It's written in a very informative yet appealing tone of voice that keeps the reader drawn into the story.
I will admit that I preferred the college admission storyline more so than Portia's personal story. It wasn't that her story wasn't interesting, it just paled in comparison to the college admission process. I felt that while there was some relation and parallels, her story could have been it's own book in itself. I found myself reading very fast through those bits and hoping the story would steer back to the college information. I also did manage to guess what the ending would be about halfway through the book. The story wasn't predictable but I just figured out the clues and saw where they were heading. Overall though I greatly enjoyed this book. It's a fascinating look into the world of college admissions and I only wish this book had been around when I was applying to college myself!
Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz is published by Grand Central Publishing (2009)
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
When Raleigh Harmon, geologist and special agent for the FBI, is suddenly transferred from the Richmond field office to Seattle, she finds herself in strange territory. The Pacific Northwest has a whole different pace than the South does, her new boss seems determined to prove she can't handle the work, and she's desperately trying to keep her mother's sanity from crumbling altogether. But a missing hiker, a ransom note, an underground card game, and a "friend" with deadly intentions all ensure that there's no time for an easy transition. Raleigh will need all her skills and a little help-to keep the missing girl and herself alive.
This was the first book I've read by this author and I will admit I was highly impressed with it. I liked Raleigh's character very much. She's very no nonsense and is a strong female lead. I really liked her name as it's unique and Southern. Her character is not very feminine, there were times when I honestly forgot she was female. Since it was in first person, the reader sees things the way Raleigh does and she doesn't really give off any hints that give away her femininity. There's not really any romantic subplots in this book, which was fine by me. I was glad the mystery was main plot of the book. The suspense build up was done very well, and the storyline felt like it was a good plot for a TV show. I also liked how Raleigh used her geology expertise to help solve the mystery. It's very nice to see a detective be smart and resourceful and not fall into the trap of being stereotyped.
If there was any qualms in the book, I would have to say it is the ending. To me, it felt like it happened rather abruptly and out of the blue. All of a sudden everything was explained and all loose ends tied up without warning. It felt like sort of a let down to just have it end the way it did. I wasn't expecting that ending but at the same time it felt like a predictable bit to explain things. Other than that, I did enjoy reading this book. Even though it's Christian fiction, it's not preachy at all. The characters do attend church, but it's not in your face and it's actually almost an afterthought in the book. Overall the story has strong characters and an interesting plot that makes for a very good read. I am looking forward to going back and reading Giorello's previous book which featured Raleigh and also to any future books by her.
The Rivers Run Dry by Sibella Giorello is published by Thomas Nelson (2009)
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
David C. Cook; New edition edition (June 1, 2009)
Bonnie Grove started writing when her parents bought a typewriter, and she hasn’t stopped since. Trained in Christian Counseling (Emmanuel Bible College, Kitchener, ON), and secular psychology (University of Alberta), she developed and wrote social programs for families at risk while landing articles and stories in anthologies. She is the author of Working Your Best You: Discovering and Developing the Strengths God Gave You; Talking to the Dead is her first novel. Grove and her pastor husband, Steve, have two children; they live in Saskatchewan.
Author website: www.davidccook.com – www.bonniegrove.com
Visit the author's website.
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Kevin was dead and the people in my house wouldn’t go home. They mingled after the funeral, eating sandwiches, drinking tea, and speaking in muffled tones. I didn’t feel grateful for their presence. I felt exactly nothing.
Funerals exist so we can close doors we’d rather leave open. But where did we get the idea that the best approach to facing death is to eat Bundt cake? I refused to pick at dainties and sip hot drinks. Instead, I wandered into the back yard.
I knew if I turned my head I’d see my mother’s back as she guarded the patio doors. Mom would let no one pass. As a recent widow herself, she knew my need to stare into my loss alone.
I sat on the porch swing and closed my eyes, letting the June sun warm my bare arms. Instead of closing the door on my pain, I wanted it to swing from its hinges so the searing winds of grief could scorch my face and body. Maybe I hoped to die from exposure.
Kevin had been dead three hours before I had arrived at the hospital. A long time for my husband to be dead without me knowing. He was so altered, so permanently changed without my being aware.
I had stood in the emergency room, surrounded by faded blue cotton curtains, looking at the naked remains of my husband while nurses talked in hushed tones around me. A sheet covered Kevin from his hips to his knees. Tubes, which had either carried something into or away from his body, hung disconnected and useless from his arms. The twisted remains of what I assumed to be some sort of breathing mask lay on the floor. “What happened?” I said in a whisper so faint I knew no one could hear. Maybe I never said it at all. A short doctor with a pronounced lisp and quiet manner told me Kevin’s heart killed him. He used difficult phrases; medical terms I didn’t know, couldn’t understand. He called it an episode and said it was massive. When he said the word massive, spit flew from his mouth, landing on my jacket’s lapel. We had both stared at it.
When my mother and sister, Heather, arrived at the hospital, they gazed speechlessly at Kevin for a time, and then took me home. Heather had whispered with the doctor, their heads close together, before taking a firm hold on my arm and walking me out to her car. We drove in silence to my house. The three of us sat around my kitchen table looking at each other.
Several times my mother opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Our words had turned to cotton, thick and dry. We couldn’t work them out of our throats. I had no words for my abandonment. Like everything I knew to be true had slipped out the back door when I wasn’t looking.
“What happened?” I said again. This time I knew I had said it out loud. My voice echoed back to me off the kitchen table.
“Remember how John Ritter died? His heart, remember?” This from Heather, my younger, smarter sister. Kevin had died a celebrity’s death.
From the moment I had received the call from the hospital until now, I had allowed other people to make all of my bereavement decisions. My mother and mother-in-law chose the casket and placed the obituary in the paper. Kevin’s boss at the bank, Donna Walsh, arranged for the funeral parlor and even called the pastor from the church that Kevin had attended until he was sixteen to come and speak. Heather silently held my hand through it all. I didn’t feel grateful for their help.
I sat on the porch swing, and my right foot rocked on the grass, pushing and pulling the swing. My head hurt. I tipped it back and rested it on the cold, inflexible metal that made up the frame for the swing. It dug into my skull. I invited the pain. I sat with it; supped with it.
I opened my eyes and looked up into the early June sky. The clouds were an unmade bed. Layers of white moved rumpled and languid past the azure heavens. Their shapes morphed and faded before my eyes. A Pegasus with the face of a dog; a veiled woman fleeing; a villain; an elf. The shapes were strange and unreliable, like dreams. A monster, a baby—I wanted to reach up to touch its soft, wrinkled face. I was too tired. Everything was gone, lost, emptied out.
I had arrived home from the hospital empty handed. No Kevin. No car—we left it in the hospital parking lot for my sister to pick up later. “No condition to drive,” my mother had said. She meant me.
Empty handed. The thought, incomplete and vague, crept closer to consciousness. There should have been something. I should have brought his things home with me. Where were his clothes? His wallet? Watch? Somehow, they’d fled the scene.
“How far could they have gotten?” I said to myself. Without realizing it, I had stood and walked to the patio doors. “Mom?” I said as I walked into the house.
She turned quickly, but said nothing. My mother didn’t just understand what was happening to me. She knew. She knew it like the ticking of a clock, the wind through the windows, like everything a person gets used to in life. It had only been eight months since Dad died. She knew there was little to be said. Little that should be said. Once, after Dad’s funeral, she looked at Heather and me and said, “Don’t talk. Everyone has said enough words to last for eternity.”
I noticed how tall and straight she stood in her black dress and sensible shoes. How long must the dead be buried before you can stand straight again? “What happened to Kevin’s stuff?” Mom glanced around as if checking to see if a guest had made off with the silverware.
I swallowed hard and clarified. “At the hospital. He was naked.” A picture of him lying motionless, breathless on the white sheets filled my mind. “They never gave me his things. His, whatever, belongings. Effects.”
“I don’t know, Kate,” she said. Like it didn’t matter. Like I should stop thinking about it. I moved past her, careful not to touch her, and went in search of my sister.
Heather sat on my secondhand couch in my living room, a two seater with the pattern of autumn leaves. She held an empty cup and a napkin; dark crumbs tumbling off onto the carpet. Her long brown hair, usually left down, was pulled up into a bun. She looked pretty and sad. She saw me coming, her brown eyes widening in recognition. Recognition that she should do something. Meet my needs, help me, make time stand still. She quickly ended the conversation she was having with Kevin’s boss, and met me in the middle of the living room.
“Hey,” she said, touching my arm. I took a small step back, avoiding her warm fingers.
“Where would his stuff go?” I blurted out. Heather’s eyebrows snapped together in confusion. “Kevin’s things,” I said. “They never gave me his things. I want to go and get them. Will you come?”
Heather stood very still for a moment, straight backed like she was made of wood, then relaxed. “You mean at the hospital. Right, Kate? Kevin’s things at the hospital?” Tears welled in my eyes. “There was nothing. You were there. When we left, they never gave e anything of his.” I realized I was trembling.
Heather bit her lower lip, and looked into my eyes. “Let me do that for you. I’ll call the hospital—” I stood on my tiptoes and opened my mouth. “I’ll go,” she corrected before I could say anything. “I’ll go and ask around. I’ll get his stuff and bring it here.”
“I need his things.”
Heather cupped my elbow with her hand. “You need to lie down. Let me get you upstairs, and as soon as you’re settled, I’ll go to the hospital and find out what happened to Kevin’s clothes, okay?”
Fatigue filled the small spaces between my bones. “Okay.” She led me upstairs. I crawled under the covers as Heather closed the door, blocking the sounds of the people below.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
All Mattie wants is a safe and respectable life for the two of them, but that doesn't seem to be her destiny as she faces more heartache and trials. Will the suspicious bottles of gold dust from her brother's claim be the key to her future...or does the handsome street preacher, who is always turning the other cheek, truly hold the answers to her deepest longings?
Deadwood. The name sounds hopeless and depressing (and it brings to mine the TV show). Only the promise of gold could bring people out to the prairie wilderness. Two women are out on the prairie with different personalities trying to survive. I felt that the book starts off a little slow. It took me a while to get into the story as well as fully relate with the characters. For a majority of the book, I didn't feel connected with Mattie at all. Instead I found myself drawn to Swede more. In fact, I actually preferred reading Swede's story over Mattie's. Her story could have been a different book in itself. Mattie's background makes for the more interesting story for herself. The villain that comes after her is a good one, not type casted or stereotyped for the day and age. The historical details about the time period was well researched and portrayed well. The time period was a harsh time to be a woman, and for a single woman especially it would have been a struggle just to survive. While it does portray a lot of myths from the west (ie gunfighters, saloon fights, miners) I felt they were all shown realistically and added color to the story.
I felt though that the romance story was lacking in this book. The characters didn't really interact or at least the romance took place in the background when we weren't looking. Swede's romance was more out in the open and even then I felt was more romantic and interesting. Still I'm a fan of Stephanie Whitson's books so I enjoyed this one overall. If you're a fan of her other books or the West in general, you'll like this one too.
A Claim of Her Own by Stephanie Grace Whitson is published by Bethany House (2009)
Donita K. Paul’s 250,000-plus-selling DragonKeeper Chronicles series has attracted a wide spectrum of dedicated fans–and they’re sure to fall in love with the new characters and adventures in her latest superbly crafted fiction novel for all ages. It’s a mind-boggling fantasy that inhabits the same world as the DragonKeeper Chronicles, but in a different country and an earlier time, where the people know little of Wulder and nothing of Paladin.
In The Vanishing Sculptor, readers will meet Tipper, a young emerlindian who’s responsible for the upkeep of her family’s estate during her sculptor father’s absence. Tipper soon discovers that her actions have unbalanced the whole foundation of her world, and she must act quickly to undo the calamitous threat. But how can she save her father and her world on her own? The task is too huge for one person, so she gathers the help of some unlikely companions–including the nearly five-foot tall parrot Beccaroon–and eventually witnesses the loving care and miraculous resources of Wulder. Through Tipper’s breathtaking story, readers will discover the beauty of knowing and serving God.
Donita K. Paul is a retired teacher and author of numerous novellas, short stories, and eight novels, including the best-selling DragonKeeper Chronicles, a series which has sold more than a quarter million books to date. The winner of multiple awards, she lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she spends time mentoring and encouraging young writers. Visit her online at donitakpaul.com.
Monday, June 22, 2009
And when the weather service warns that a tornado is on its way toward Bedford, a scary near-miss and a dramatic rescue remind them all about the importance of family.
Book Three in the Heather Creek series is written by a different author from the previous two, but the storyline blends in so seamlessly that you would think they're all written by the same person. I enjoyed returning to this small town in Nebraska with a different type of blended family. Once again, all the reasons of why I enjoy this series came rushing back: the comforting storyline, the authors treating the kids as modern teens growing up, the ability to admit that adults can make mistakes, and of course all the yummy food. With this book, the kids school lives are brought into center stage as the three begin to settle down into their new surroundings. I honestly really appreciate how well Sam and Emily are portrayed as real teenagers in this book. When the viewpoint focuses on them, I feel as if I'm reading a YA book and not a book where it's obvious an adult wrote it who doesn't know teen culture. The scenes with the tornadoes were fascinating and thrilling to read as well. I don't live out on tornado country, so luckily I've never experienced one and reading this book definitely made me not want to live through one!
The only thing that bugged me a little was Charlotte's seemingly immediate dislike of Sean. I know that she was concerned about Emily and her emotions and potential heartbreak. However it seemed that in her efforts of trying to protect Emily, she missed out on the potential to help the rest of the family and Emily's relationship with Rayann. I wished she would have gone more out of her way to get to know the rest of the family instead of making assumed judgments. Other than that, I really enjoyed this book. This was also my first novel of Leslie Gould's and I enjoyed her writing very much and am looking forward to reading her other novels as well. I know I gush about this series every time I review one of the books, but it's because I truly enjoy reading this series.
Circle of Grace by Leslie Gould is published by Guideposts (2008)
This summer My Friend Amy is hosting a Summer of Hitchcock, where we watch a selection of Alfred Hitchcock movies and discuss them on our blogs and twitter. This week we watched Dial M for Murder.
First off this is going to sound completely horrible, but I could only watch this movie for 50 minutes before I had to read the spoiler and then skip all the way to the end. Why? Well I can't watch movies (or read books) where the villain purposefully gets away with their evil deed for most of the plot. I have to skip to the end to find out how all is resolved and that the good guy is finally redeemed. I sound like a horrible person because I've skipped out on most of the movie, but I just couldn't handle it!
This is the first movie I've seen with Grace Kelly and I can see why the prince of Monaco married her! She's stunningly beautiful in the movie, although I'm not too fond of the British accent. I really loved her clothes in this movie. I really did not like Tony's character. Other than the obvious reasons of why I don't like him, his personality is just the type of character I hate. When they're smarmy and think they know better than everyone. I really hated how he blackmailed Swann into doing his dirty work. I mean he freaking stalked him, saying stuff like "I felt like I owned you". I mean sheesh, grow some and do it yourself. It's pretty interesting that in most cases you would feel for the husband, who had a cheating wife, but in this scenario, you're rooting for the cheating wife and her lover.
The death scene is absolutely cheesy. I mean, really cheesy. The jerking movements are just classic. BTW Swann was played by the same guy who played Professor Dent in Dr. No, the first James Bond movie. When he came onscreen in this one, I immediately recognized his face. Oh and I loved Hitchcock's cameo in this movie. I won't spoil it but it's funny because he's practically staring at you but you're too busy looking at something else so you don't realize it's him until the scene is just about to end.
This movie is not scary, it's more of backwards whodunit, where you know the outcome, you're just trying to figure it out in reverse. I believe there was a remake of this movie done a few years ago with Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortenson, called A Perfect Murder.
One final note: love the combing of the 'stache.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
My Friend Amy, who brought us Book Blogger Appreciation Week has a new carnival in the works, the Faith 'n Fiction Saturday.
Each week she will post a blogging prompt, which participating bloggers will answer on their own blogs. Then they head back to the original post and sign Mister Linky! This way we can all come to know each other more closely.
Well since tomorrow is Father's Day and it's likely that a few of you may still need to purchase a Father's Day gift why not books?
Do you have a book you'd recommend as a Father's Day gift? I'm particularly interested in any Christian fiction books you'd recommend for dads, since I'm always reading that men read less fiction than women!
Ok I'm not really much help because my dad doesn't read fiction at all. Never has his entire life except for school. He prefers his fiction in movie form. But he INHALES non fiction like a champ. Seriously, any review book I get that's Christian non fiction I pass along to him and he loves them. I could recommend a whole slew of non fiction that he loves. His library is almost as big as mine! I got my love of carrying around and stacking books from him.
However there has been a lot of good CF that's come out that are good for any males. Here's a list of Christian fiction male authors that are targeted to males (ie. no Nicholas Sparks type stuff). If your dad or any male likes fiction, pretty much any guy from this list is a winner.
* Ted Dekker
* Frank Peretti
* Davis Bunn
* Brandt Dodson
* Stephen Lawhead
* Joel Rosenberg
* Don Brown
* Noel Hynd
* Athol Dickson
* Mark Andrew Olsen
* TL Hines
* James Scott Bell
* Craig Parshall
* Robert Liparulo
* Randy Alcorn
* Mel Odom
* Steven James
* Paul Robertson
* Alton Gansky
* Travis Thrasher
* James David Jordan
* Tim Downs
* Eric Wilson
* Randy Singer
* Harry Kraus
* Robin Parrish
* Bill Myers
Well all good things must come to an end. And the Spring Reading thing is now over. How'd I do? Well I read all the books (32) on my list PLUS 46 more for a grand total of 78 books in 3 months!!!!! It's my BEST ever! This is thanks mostly to the 24 hour readathon where I was able to crank out 19 books in 24 hours.
Here's the official list of the books I read for the challenge.
Here's a breakdown of the OTHER books that I read
- The Cure by Athol Dickson
- Michal by Jill Eileen Smith
- Journey to the Well by Diana Wallis Taylor
- Boneman’s Daughters by Ted Dekker
- Daniel's Den by Brandt Dodson
- A Claim of Her Own by Stephanie Grace Whitson
- The Face by Angela Hunt
- Stealing Home by Allison Pittman
- A Promise to Believe In by Tracie Peterson
- Murder at Eagle Summit by Virginia Smith
- A Love to Last Forever by Tracie Peterson
- Play It Again SAHM by Meredith Efken
- Higher Hope by Robert Whitlow
- Nothing But Trouble by Susan May Warren
- The Edge of Light by Ann Shorey
- Sisterchicks in Wooden Shoes by Robin Jones Gunn
- The Bunko Babes by Leah Starr Baker
- Love’s Pursuit by Siri Mitchell
- Double Deception by Terri Reed
- Snow Melts in Spring by Deborah Vogts
- Enduring Love by Bonnie Leon
- Final Deposit by Lisa Harris
- Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs
- Mating Rituals of the North American Wasp by Lauren Lipton
- Looks to Die For by Janice Kaplan
- Skinny by Laura L. Smith
- Secrets of My Hollywood Life On Location by Jen Calonita
- Family Affairs by Jen Calonita
- Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler
- Sleepaway Girls by Jen Calonita
- Who Made You a Princess? by Shelley Adina
- Take a Chance On Me by Cecily Von Ziegesar
- Paparazzi Princess by Jen Calonita
- Bad News/Good News by Annie Bryant
- Poseur by Rachel Maude
- Letters from the Heart by Annie Bryant
- Access Denied (and other eighth grade errors) by Denise Vega
- Diva Without a Cause by Grace Dent
- Girl Stays In the Picture by Melissa de la Cruz
- I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci
- The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand
- The Host by Stephenie Meyer
- The Way Home by George Pelacanos
- Secrets of Happiness by Sarah Dunn
- Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
What was the best book you read this spring? Since I can never choose just one...Play It Again SAHM by Meredith Efken, Boneman's Daughters by Ted Dekker, Secrets of My Hollywood Life by Jen Calonita, The Host by Stephenie Meyer.
What book could you have done without? A couple of the Love Inspired Suspenses were boring but I really did not like The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand. Too much soap opera. My first book by her and possibly my last.
Did you try out a new author this fall? If so, which one, and will you be reading that author again? Yes, I found a SLEW of new authors this go round. Possibly my favorite is Jen Calonita, author of the Secrets of Hollywood Life series and Sleepaway Girls. I love her writing and I can't wait to read the next book in the Secrets series.
If there were books you didn't finish, tell us why. Did you run out of time? Realize those books weren't worth it? I finished all my books this time around. I had to stop reading for a month because of schoolwork. But doing the 24 hour readathon helped to catch up. I thougth for sure I wasn't going to make it but I did..and beyond!
Did you come across a book or two on other participants' lists that you're planning to add to your own to-be-read pile? Which ones? TBH I had so many books on my own lists and have a huge TBR pile that I didn't really add anything from another list.
What did you learn -- about anything -- through this challenge? Maybe you learned something about yourself or your reading style, maybe you learned not to pick so many nonfiction books for a challenge, maybe you learned something from a book you read. Whatever it is, share! I do this challenge to whittle down my library TBR pile. It works for like a month or so as I try to finish up the list for this challenge, but in the meanwhile I keep going to the library and getting more books so it's neverending.
What was the best part of the Spring Reading Thing? Finding out new authors and just being able to get a chance to read.
Would you be interested in participating in another reading challenge this spring? Of course!!!
Friday, June 19, 2009
PLEASE LEAVE A WAY FOR ME TO CONTACT YOU!!!!
ENTRIES WITHOUT CONTACT INFO WILL NOT BE ENTERED.
When I started reading, I was amazed at how I got sucked into the book. I really didn't expect to, because my experiences at reading Twilight had been more like let's get the book over with quickly. This time I found myself drawn into the story, wanting to savor every word. I didn't speed through this book like I normally would, instead I read the book in snippets every day. It's not the type of book to rush through as it pull you in and you find yourself engrossed into the story. I found the storyline very interesting and I'm not a sci-fi or fantasy fan at all. The invasion of aliens on Earth, the takeover of human bodies as hosts and the struggle for the remaining humans for survival was believable and not done in a cheesy sort of way. It's a plot that one could see actually happening and the underground network of humans very much like a bomb shelter plot line.
The relationship between Wanda and Melanie is very unique because it's like having a two headed monster, without the second head. At first Wanda is kind of unlikable because she is doing things the way her species is used to, by taking control of everything with no regard for their human hosts. However as the story progresses she soon learns more about the human species and even falls in love with one of them. The whole love triangle bit was a bit weird and took a while to comprehend, but it's written very well. It's more developed dare I say than the Bella/Edward/Jacob storyline.
There are just two qualms I have with this book. The first is that I didn't really like the way of how both Melanie's and Wanda's thoughts are in the same italicized font. It would have been better if Melanie's thoughts had just been italicized or if Wanda's had been put in a different font. As it stands, it gets confusing when the two are "talking" to each other and there's no distinction between the two voices. My other qualm was that I felt the ending to be rather disappointing. I felt that the story had built up to an intense level and then just dropped off. I'm not sure if this is because there is going to be a sequel to the book or what, but it felt like a cop out at the end of the story.
Still I will say that I really enjoyed reading this book. For a change it wasn't a fast read for me. Instead I had a savor it, a little bit at a time each day. Thus it took me longer to finish this book than I normally would. However, I felt that this was the best way to read the book as it's not one to devour in a span of a few hours. If Stephenie Meyer continues writing in this fashion, I will definitely start picking up her books now.
The Host by Stephenie Meyer is published by Little Brown and Company (2008)
Welcome to one of the mini challenges for the Blogggiesta! At this stop, we're learning about elevator pitches.
What is an Elevator Pitch?
“An elevator pitch is an overview of an idea for a product, service, or project. The name reflects the fact that an elevator pitch can be delivered in the time span of an elevator ride (for
example, thirty seconds or 100-150 words).” - Wikipedia
Elevator Pitches for Bloggers
While the idea of an elevator pitch is usually something that start up entrepreneurs are encouraged to do when looking for investors - developing an elevator pitch for your blog is also a smart move also.
One of the most important reasons to do this exercise is that to develop an elevator pitch YOU as a blogger to have thought through and crystallised in your mind what your blog is about.
If you’re fuzzy on what your blog is about it’s unlikely than anyone else will have much of an idea either.
Knowing what your blog is about helps you in developing every aspect of it including:
- Writing Content
- Promotion and Finding Readers
- Search Engine Optimisation
- Networking with other Bloggers
- Design…. the list can go on.
For this mini challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to leave a comment with your newly crafted elevator pitch.
Doing so will make you eligible for publisher sponsored giveaways at the end of the bloggiesta.
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Tyndale House Publishers (May 6, 2009)
As the child of missionary parents, award-winning author and journalist Jeanette Windle grew up in the rural villages, jungles,and mountains of Columbia, now guerilla hot zones. Her detailed research and writing is so realistic that it has prompted government agencies to question her to determine if she has received classified information. Currently based in Lancaster, PA, Jeanette has lived in six countries and traveled in nearly thirty, including Afghanistan. She has more than a dozen books in print, including the political/suspense best-seller CrossFire and Betrayed.
Visit the author's website.
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
November 13, 2001
“Land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The radio’s static-spattered fanfare filtered through the compound wall. Beyond its shattered gate, a trio of small boys kicked a bundle of knotted rags around the dirt courtyard. Had they any idea those foreign harmonies were paying homage to their country’s latest invaders?
Or liberators, if the rumors and the pirated satellite television broadcasts were true.
Scrambling the final meters to the top of the hill, he stood up against a chill wind that tugged at his light wool vest and baggy tunic and trousers. Bracing himself, he turned in a slow, stunned revolution.
From this windswept knoll, war’s demolition stretched as far as his eye could see. Bombs and rockets had left only heaps of mud-brick hovels and compound walls. The front of an apartment complex was sheared off, exposing the cement cubicles of living quarters. The collapse of an office building left its floors layered like a stack of naan bread. Rubble and broken pavement turned the streets into obstacle courses.
But it wasn’t the devastation that held him spellbound. So it was all true—the foreign newscasts, the exultant summons that had brought him back, his father’s dream. Kabul was free!
The proof was in the dancing crowds below. After five long years of silence, Hindi pop and Persian ballads drifted up the hillside. Atop a bombed-out bus, a group of young men gyrated wildly. Even a handful of women in blue burqas swayed to the rhythms as they bravely crossed the street with no male escort in sight.
Nor was blue the only color making a comeback against winter’s brown. To his far right, a yellow wing fluttered skyward. There was an orange one. A red. Scrambling on top a broken-down tank, two boys tossed aloft a blotch of green and purple.
Kites had returned to the skies above Kabul.
Another tank moved slowly down the boulevard. Behind it came a parade of pickups and army jeeps, machine guns mounted in their beds. A staccato rat-tat-tat momentarily drowned out the music. But the gunfire was celebratory. The dancing mobs were not shrinking back but tossing flowers and confetti, screaming their elation above the noise.
He shouted with them, the fierceness of his response catching him by surprise. He’d hardly thought of this place in long years, the warm, fertile plains of Pakistan far more a home now than this barren wasteland. Yet joy welled up to squeeze his chest, the watering of his eyes no longer from wind and dust.
“Land of the free and the home of the brave.” Down the hillside behind him, the radio blasted a Dari-language commentary. But the words of that foreign music still played in his mind. The sacred anthem his American instructors had taught their small English-language students in the Pakistani refugee camps.
As they’d taught of their homeland, America. A land where brave and honorable warriors guarded peace-loving and welcoming citizens who lived freely among great cities of shining towers and immense wealth. A land of wheat and rice and fruit trees, grape arbors and herds of livestock that offered to all an abundance of food. The very paradise the Quran promised to the faithful.
And Afghanistan? Land of his birth, his home? Brave, yes. No one had ever questioned the courage of the Afghan tribes. Not the Americans and Russians who were history’s most recent invaders. Nor in turn the British, Mongols, Persians, Arabs, all the way back to Alexander the Great, whose armies were the first to learn that Afghanistan could be taken with enough weapons and spilled blood but never held.
He blinked away the sudden blurring of his vision. When had Afghanistan ever truly known freedom? Not under all those centuries of alternating occupations. Certainly not when the mujahedeen had finally brought the Soviet empire to its knees because then they—and the Taliban after them—had turned on each other. The rockets of their warring factions had rained down on Kabul in such destruction that his family was driven at last to exile.
“Have faith,” his father had whispered into his ear. “Someday Afghanistan will be like America. A land of freedom as well as courage. Someday we will go home.”
Even then he’d known the difference between wishes and painful reality. And yet, unbelievably, there it was below him. Today the liberators’ anthem, his father’s dream had come true at last for his own country.
Yes, his country.
He’d missed dawn’s first call to prayer. Now he stripped his vest to spread it over the dirt. Prostrating himself, rising sun at his back, he began the daily salat: “Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem. In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.”
The memorized Arabic prayers were rote, but when he finished, he whispered his own passionate plea against the ground, “Please let it be true this time. My father’s dream. His prayers. Let my people know freedom as well as courage.”
Standing up, he shook out his vest. Beyond shattered towers of the city’s business center and compounds of the poor lay a quiet, green oasis. The Wazir Akbar Khan district, home to Kabul’s upper class. Its high walls, spacious villas, and paved streets looked hardly touched by war.
His sandaled feet slipped and twisted in his haste down the hillside. At street level, his old neighborhood proved less untouched than he’d thought. The walls were scarred by rocket blasts, sidewalks broken, poplar trees lining these streets in his memory now only stumps.
He headed toward the largest compound on the street, its two-story villa built around an inner courtyard. A brightly patterned jinga truck indicated the others had already arrived. The property differed so little from childhood memory he might have stepped back a decade. Even the peacock blue house and compound walls showed fresh paint. The Taliban officials who’d commandeered his home had at least cared for their stolen lodging. Or perhaps it had been his family’s faithful chowkidar who’d stayed when his employers fled.
Music and cheerful voices drifted over walls along with a hot, oily aroma that brought water to his mouth. Frying boulani pastries. He quickened his steps. He’d be home in time for the midday meal.
At first he thought this gunfire too was celebratory, but when the unmistakable explosion of a rocket-propelled grenade shook the ground, he broke into a run. A mound of rubble offered cover as he reached the final T-junction.
His mind reeled. Surely he’d seen this victory convoy from the hilltop. But why were they firing on his home?
Even as he crouched in bewildered horror, the distinctive rat-tat-tat of a Kalashnikov rifle crackled back from a second-story window. Down the street a fighter rose from behind a jeep, an RPG launcher raised to his shoulder. A single blast. Then a limp shape slid forward over the windowsill and toppled from view.
The action unfroze his muscles, and he sprinted toward his home. A shout, the whine of a bullet overhead told him he’d been spotted. Apple trees edging the property wall offered hand and foot holds.
His feet touched brick, then ground on the other side. The acridity of gunfire and explosives burned his nostrils as he raced forward. He stumbled across the first limp shape facedown on the lawn. Turning the body over, he fruitlessly tried to stem a red sea spreading across white robes. Their faithful caretaker would never again tend these gardens or paint these walls.
An explosion rocked him as he raced around the side of the villa. Just inside the main entrance, the painted wooden frame of the jinga truck was burning. Behind it, the blast had blown the metal gates from their hinges. Invaders poured through the breach.
But he only had eyes for another huddled shape on the mosaic tiles of the courtyard and a third sprawled across marbled front steps. The second-story gunman had fallen across a grape arbor. Through tears of smoke fumes and grief, he noticed the Kalashnikov rifle dropped from a dangling, bloodied hand.
Before he could snatch it up, a boot kicked the AK-47 out of reach. Another smashed his face into the grass. Hot metal ground into his temple. He closed his eyes. Allah, let it be quick!
“Don’t shoot! We need live prisoners. Here, you, get up!”
As the gun barrel dropped away, he struggled to his knees. Except for the poorly accented Dari and a shoulder patch of red, white, and blue, the flat wool cap, dark beard, hard, gray gaze, tattered scarf over camouflage flak jacket could have been as Afghan as the mujahid whose weapon was still leveled at his head. He knew immediately who this tall, powerfully built foreigner was. For weeks Pakistani news had been covering the American elite warriors fighting alongside the mujahedeen Northern Alliance.
Our liberators! His mouth twisted with bitter pain.
“Where are your commanders? Mullah Mohammed Omar? Osama bin Laden?” The American must have taken his blank stare for incomprehension because he turned to his companion, shifting to English. “Ask him: where are the Taliban who had their headquarters here? And if any of these—” a nod took in the sprawled bodies—“are bin Laden or Mohammed Omar. Tell him he just might save his own neck if he cooperates.”
“There are no Taliban here!” he said in English. He pushed himself to his feet and wiped a sleeve to clear dampness from his face and eyes. It came away with a scarlet that wasn’t his own. “This is a private home! And you have just murdered my family! Why? The fighting was over. You were supposed to bring peace.”
“Your home? With a house full of armed combatants?” The American’s boot nudged the Kalashnikov rifle now fallen to the grass. “You were firing on our troops.”
“They were defending our home. They weren’t soldiers. Just my father and brothers and our caretaker and his sons.”
“You lie!” A blow rocked his head back as the mujahedeen translator snapped in rapid Dari. “You speak to me! I will translate!”
“I am not lying!” He spat out blood with his defiant English. “This has been my family’s home for generations. Any neighbor can tell you. Yes, the Taliban stole it from us, but they have been gone for days. We only came back from Pakistan this very day.”
He threw a desperate glance around. The last pretense of fighting was over, the mujahedeen drifting off except for those making a neat, terrible heap like laundry sacks near the broken gate. Wailing rose from a huddle of burqas and small children being herded out into the street. Were his mother and sister among them? Or had caution left them behind in Pakistan?
Then his gaze fell on a face he knew. A mujahid in full battle fatigues instead of the mismatched outfits of the others. The mujahid turned and stared at him indifferently.
Yes, it was he. Older, gray streaking beard and hair. But it was the family friend who’d supplied his father’s business with imported goods. Who’d been in this home countless times before their exile. Who’d brought him and his siblings small gifts and strange foreign sweets.
“Ask him. He will tell you who I am. He knows my family. He bought and sold for my father when I was a child.”
“Who? The muj commander?” For the first time he saw a crack in the American’s disbelief.
The family friend walked over. His cold, measuring appraisal held no recognition as the translator intercepted him for a brief conversation. Then, unbelievably, he swung around and marched up the marble steps into the villa.
The translator spread out his hands to the American. “The commander says he knows neither this youth nor his family. And it is well known that all in this house have served the Taliban.”
“No, it isn’t true! Maybe he does not recognize me. I was only a child when we left. But he knows this house and my family. Please, I must speak to him myself.”
Another foreign warrior emerged from the villa, clipped yellow hair and icy blue eyes shouting his nationality louder than curt English. “All clear. Body count’s six male combatants. Minimal damage except the gate. This one’s the only survivor minus a handful of female dependants and kids. From what the muj told us, I expected more bodies on the ground. They must have been tipped off.”
“Maybe. Or the muj were fed some bad intel.” The foreign soldiers moved away, and he missed the rest of their low-voice exchange.
Then the yellow-haired American waved a hand. “We followed the rules of engagement. They were armed and shooting.”
“A handful of AK-47s. The kid’s right—that’s practically home protection around here. And the prisoner; he’s no combatant. I saw him come over that wall. Should I turn him loose?”
“You know better than that. The interrogators are screaming for live ones up at Baghram. Besides, you’ve no idea what else he might know. If he’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time, they’ll sort it out and let him go.”
A radio on the yellow-haired American’s belt sputtered to life. “Willie? Phil? Either of you available? We’ve got brass touching down at the airport. They need an escort to the embassy.”
“Okay, we’re out. The muj will finish here and deliver the prisoner. They’ve got a load of Arab fighters and al-Qaeda types heading to Baghram this afternoon.”
The translator snapped his fingers, and a knot of mujahedeen stepped forward to take his place. The translator hurried after the yellow-haired American, now marching toward the gate.
But the other foreign warrior hesitated. “Be there in a minute.”
He braced himself as the first American walked over. He didn’t allow himself to imagine sympathy in the foreigner’s gray eyes.
“Look, I’ve got no choice but to send you up to Baghram with the other battlefield detainees. But if you aren’t al-Qaeda or Taliban, you’ve got nothing to be afraid of. We don’t shoot prisoners. And the muj commander’s a stand-up guy. If there’s been an intel error, he’ll make things right.
“I can at least report that you arrived after the fighting was over and never raised a weapon. If I can find something to write on.” The American dug through the interior pockets of his flak jacket and pulled out an envelope, removing a folded note paper, then what looked like a snapshot of a yellow-haired young female surrounded by too many children to be her own.
A tiny, olive-colored volume fell into the American’s palm. Western script read New Testament. “I wondered what I was supposed to do with this.” Taking out a pen, he scribbled inside the cover. “Here. I’ve explained what I witnessed and given my contact info if Baghram needs confirmation. It might at least make a difference in where you end up. If you’re telling the truth.” The foreign soldier dared to offer a smile with the book.
Fury and hate rose in an acid flood to his throat. With a scream of rage, he struck at the outstretched hand. “You think this makes up for murdering my family? once again stealing our home? You call this freedom? How are you any better than the Taliban or the Russians?”
A rifle butt slammed him again to his knees. The blow scattered not only the olive-colored volume but the envelope and its other contents. The folded note fell into a sticky puddle, white rapidly soaking to scarlet.
The American made no attempt to retrieve it but scooped up the envelope, snapshot, and book. Above the dark beard, his mouth was hard and grim as he tucked the small volume into the prisoner’s vest. “I really am sorry.” Then he too headed toward the gate.
The foreigner was hardly out of sight when a bearded figure in battle fatigues emerged from the villa’s columned entryway, an honor guard of mujahedeen at his heels. The one-time family friend strolled over. This time his survey was no longer indifferent or unrecognizing. But nothing in the unpleasantness of that smile, the merciless black eyes above it renewed hope.
“So you are the offspring of—” His father’s name splashed in spittle across his feet. “You’ve grown tall since you abandoned your people. And now you think you can simply return to claim this place?” The mujahedeen commander pulled free the American’s offering. Its pages drifted in shreds to the grass. Then a rifle butt slammed into the prisoner. No one called for it to stop.
He closed his eyes, his body curved in supplication, forehead touching the ground. But this time he didn’t bother to pray. His father had been wrong. The dream was over. It would take far more than dreams, a few impassioned prayers to Allah, before his homeland could ever be called land of the free and home of the brave.
“So who’s the blonde chick? Picking them a little young, hey, Willie?”
The two Americans had commandeered one of the convoy’s pickups and a jeep for the airport run along with a volunteer posse of mujahedeen. Their translator was at the wheel of the jeep. Willie, the only name by which their local allies knew the twenty-two-year-old Special Forces sergeant, and his companion clambered in behind to brace themselves behind the roll bar.
Willie glanced down at the retrieved correspondence still clutched in his hand. The girl who’d drawn his teammate’s suggestive leer did indeed look very young, a pack of preschoolers crowded around her. “Nah, just some kid Sunday school teacher who pulled my name out of a hat. Like we don’t have enough to do looking for bin Laden and taking out Taliban, we’ve got to answer fan mail.”
“Why do you think I don’t bother picking mine up?” As the jeep engine roared to life, his companion plucked away the photo for a clinical scrutiny. “Though maybe I should. Cute kid. How about I take this one off your hands? The way things are shaping up over here, she’ll be old enough to date before we rotate home. So what’s she got to say?”
Willie didn’t bother explaining. But the accompanying note had been brief enough he had no problem recalling its contents:
Dear Sergeant Willie:
My Sunday school class picked your name to pray for. We’re so fortunate to be living here safe in the land of the free and home of the brave, and we’re so proud of how you all are fighting to bring freedom to the people over there. I’m enclosing a class picture and a New Testament if you don’t have one already. Someday when the fighting’s over, I’d like to go to Afghanistan to help make the kind of difference you are. But since I’m only sixteen, I guess I’ll stick to praying and writing for now. Anyway, we’re praying for you to be safe and that you’ll win this war soon so Afghanistan can be as free as we are.
The jeep jolted out onto the street. Willie turned his long body to run a swift appraisal over the rest of their convoy. The mujahedeen volunteers were still scrambling on board as the pickups moved into line behind the jeep. They didn’t look like men who’d reached the finale of a brutal military campaign. They were laughing as they jostled playfully for a position at the mounted machine guns, flower garlands from the morning’s victory parade draped across bandoliers, wrapped around rifle barrels, even tucked behind ears.
But Willie had witnessed these local allies charging suicidally into enemy entrenchments, even with American bombs crashing down all around them. If he was so sick of this war after a few weeks, what had it been like for them to live decades, for many an entire lifetime, of unrelenting fighting and death? Simply to have survived in this country required courage and fortitude seldom required of Willie’s own compatriots.
Freedom was another matter.
Catching Willie’s eye, a fighter barely into his teens raised a flower-festooned AK-47 from the next pickup. “Is it not glorious? We have won! We are free!”
Willie had divested himself of sentimentality before he’d ever made it through basic training. So it had to be the cold winter breeze that stung his eyes, dust gritting in his teeth that made him swallow. Willie had never doubted the value of his current mission. Nor even its ultimate success. Serving his country was a privilege, spreading freedom an honor worth these last difficult weeks.
But not even his rigorous training had prepared him for the brutality and ugliness of combat. The ragged chunks of flesh and bone that had once been human beings. Even worse, the screams from broken bodies that still held life. Too many of them his own comrades.
Yet scarcely two months since plane-shaped missiles had slammed into the heart of his own homeland, the people of Afghanistan were taking to these very streets to celebrate their liberation. Even now his countrymen were touching down to raise the flag over Kabul’s long-abandoned U.S. embassy compound. Okay, so everything hadn’t run as smoothly as their mission training. Maybe there’d been mistakes. Maybe even today. But at least those raucous dancing mobs with their music and kites, the battle-wearied fighters in the pickups behind him finally had a chance for real freedom.
A chance he’d helped to give them.
You can tell your kids their prayers have been answered, Willie composed a mental reply to that bright smiling young face. It’s all over but the mopping up.
The thought prompted him to lean forward, tapping the driver on the shoulder. “You’re heading back over here after the embassy run, right? Do me a favor and check on that kid for me. Make sure whoever’s hauling them up to Baghram delivers him in one piece. Some of the muj are a little trigger-happy.”
The translator turned his head after he maneuvered between rubble heap and a pothole. “I am sure the commander will have given orders for anything you have asked. He is very happy with you.”
“But of course! Because of the property you have secured for him. The finest residence in the Wazir Akbar Khan. The commander has desired it for his own possession since before the Taliban. And now because of your weapons, it is his at last. We will move our headquarters here this very day.”
Willie went rigid in furious comprehension.
“Hey, easy, man!” The blond soldier’s arm was an iron-hard barrier, his voice low and warning. “Back off. It’s not his doing.”
Willie’s grip tightened to white knuckles on his M-4 assault rifle. “We’ve been had!”
“Hey, it’s not the first time, and around here it sure won’t be the last. Are you that naive? This is war. Their war. We’re only advisors, remember? And that doesn’t include refereeing property disputes.”
That his teammate was right didn’t temper Willie’s mood. The crinkle of paper reminded him his fist wasn’t empty. The envelope was a crumpled mess, and only now did he notice the rusty smudge blurring what had been a return address. He wouldn’t be answering this fan mail. Which was just as well.
Willie tossed the wad of paper over the side of the jeep, the adrenaline rush of this morning’s victory draining to intense weariness, his earlier elation as acrid in his mouth as the smoke rising from a burning truck just inside the wrecked gates. It was going to take a whole lot more than wishes and a few kids’ prayers before Afghanistan could ever be called land of the free and home of the brave.
Baghlan Province, Afghanistan
A day from the past.
No, a day for the future.
The farmer stood proud, tall as he shuffled down the crowd-lined drive. A switch in his hand urged forward the mule pulling a cart piled high with huge, swollen tubers. They looked like nothing edible, but their tough, brown hide held sweetness beyond the sucrose to be squeezed from their pulp. The firstfruits of Baghlan’s revitalized sugar beet industry.
In a long-forgotten past, when the irrigated fields stretching to high, snow-capped mountains were not known best for landmines and opium, the farmer had worked his family’s sugar beet crop. He’d earned his bride price stirring huge vats of syrup in the sugar factory, Afghanistan’s only refinery and pride of the Baghlan community. Until the Soviets came and Baghlan became a war zone. For a generation of fighting, the sugar factory had been an abandoned shell.
But now past had become future.
The massive concrete structure gleamed with fresh paint, the conveyor belt shiny and unrusted, smokestacks once more breathing life. By the throngs packing both sides of the drive, the entire province had turned out to celebrate the factory’s reopening. In front of the main entrance was a dais, destination of farmer and cart.
The token harvest followed on the stately tread of regional dignitaries making their way toward the dais. Students, neat in blue tunics, offered pink and white and red roses to the distinguished arrivals. Among them the farmer spotted his grandson. No smile, only the flicker of a glance, a further straightening of posture, conveyed his pride. Too many sons and brothers and kinsmen had died in the war years. But for his remaining grandson, this day presaged a very different future.
On the dais, the factory manager stood at a microphone. Behind him, chairs held the mayor, regional governor, officials arrived from Kabul for the inauguration ceremony. “The government has pledged purchase of all sugar beet. Our foreign partners pledge equipment to any farmer who will replace current crops. So why plant seed that produces harvests only of violence? On this day, I entreat you to choose the seed of peace, of a future for our community and our children.”
The procession had now reached the dais. But it wasn’t the dignitaries’ arrival that broke off the factory manager’s speech. The roar of a helicopter passing low overhead drew every eye upward. Circling around, the Soviet-made Mi-8 Hind hovered down until skids touched pavement. Crowds scattered back, first from the wind of its landing, then as the rotors shut down, to open passage.
The government minister who stepped out was followed by foreigners, the allies who’d funded the refinery project designed to entice Baghlan farmers from opium poppies to sugar beet. The newcomers leisurely moved through the parted crowd. The minister paused to speak to his foreign associates, then turned back toward the helicopter.
The explosion blasted through the factory, blowing out every window and door. A fireball erupting from the open entrance enveloped the dais. A panicked swerve of the mule placed the heavy cart between farmer and blast, saving his life but burying him in splinters of wood and beet. He could not breathe nor see nor hear. Only when the screams began did he realize he was still alive.
Pushing through the debris, he staggered to his feet. Shrapnel had ripped through the crowd where the fireball had not reached, and what lay between dais and shattered cart was a broken, bleeding chaos. Those uninjured enough to rise were scattering in panic. The farmer ran too but in the opposite direction. Ignoring moans and beseeching hands, he scrabbled through the rubble. Then with a cry of anguish he dropped to his knees.
The school uniform was still blue and clean, a single white rose fallen from an outflung hand. The farmer cradled the limp form, his wails rising to join the communal lament. For his grandson, for so many others, the future this day had promised would never come.
Kabul International Airport
“Oh, excuse me. I am so sorry.”
Steve Wilson barely avoided treading on heels as the file of deplaned passengers ground to a sudden halt. A glance down the line identified the obstruction. In pausing to look around, a female passenger had knocked a briefcase flying.
The young woman was tall enough—five foot seven by Steve’s calculation—to look down on her victim and attractive enough that the balding, overweight Western businessman waved away her apology. Platinum blonde hair spilled in a fine, straight curtain across her face as she scrambled for the briefcase. A T-shirt and jeans did nothing to disguise the tautly muscled, if definitely female, physique of a Scandinavian Olympic skier. Though that accent was 100 percent American.
Steve had already noted the woman several rows ahead of him on the plane. With only a handful of female passengers, all discreetly draped in head shawl or full-body chador, her bright head had been hard to miss, face glued to the window as the Ariana Airlines 727 descended through rugged, brown foothills into the arid mountain basin that was Kabul.
Now as she handed the briefcase back, Steve caught his first clear glimpse of her features. It was a transparently open face, hazel eyes wide and interested under startlingly dark lashes and eyebrows. The candid interplay of eagerness, apprehension, and dismay as she turned again to take in her surroundings roused in Steve nothing but irritation. Wipe that look off your face or Afghanistan will do it for you.
As the line moved forward, Steve stepped out of it to make his own survey. Next to a small, dingy terminal only one runway was in service. Down the runway, a red-and-white-striped concrete barrier cordoned off hangers and prefabricated buildings housing ISAF, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Dust gusted across the runway, filling Steve’s nostrils, narrowing his gaze even behind wraparound sunglasses. He’d forgotten the choking, muddy taste of that dust.
The taste of Afghanistan.
Beyond the 727, a guard detail was uploading passengers into a white and blue UN prop plane. Steve recognized the bear paw and rifle scope logo on their gear. Private security contractors. He’d done contracts for that company, and if he dug binoculars from his backpack, he’d likely spot guys he knew. But the wind was picking up, the other passengers disappearing inside the terminal, so instead Steve lengthened his stride.
He needn’t have hurried. The immigration line was excruciatingly slow, the Afghan official scrutinizing each passport as though he’d never seen one before. The single baggage conveyor was broken, its handlers dumping suitcases onto the concrete floor with complete disregard for their contents. Air-conditioning was broken as well, the lighting dim enough Steve pushed sunglasses to his forehead.
But Steve had endured far worse. Besides, he was already on the company clock, so it wasn’t his loss if he wasted half the morning in here. With a shrug, he peeled a trail mix bar from his pack and settled himself to wait.
“Worse than Nairobi, isn’t it?”
Steve swung around on his heel. “Maybe. But it sure beats Sierra Leone.”
The man offering a handshake sported the same safari-style clothing Steve was wearing. There resemblance ended. Half a foot shorter and twice the circumference of Steve’s own lean frame, he was bald, by razor rather than nature from the luxuriance of that graying red beard, a powerful build sagging to fat.
Though there was nothing soft in his grip. Nor in the small, shrewd eyes summing up Steve in turn. Cop’s eyes. Steve could read their assessment. Caucasian male. Six-foot-one. Dark hair. Gray eyes. Tanned. Physically fit.
“Craig Laube, logistics manager, Condor Security. Call me Cougar. And you’re Steve Wilson, security chief for our new PSD contract.” The file with attached photo in his hand explained why his statement included no question mark. “If you’ll come with me, our fixer’s made arrangements to fast-track your team. The rest came in on the New Delhi flight. They’ve already left for the team house.”
The fixer evidently referred to the Afghan in suit and tie who plucked Steve’s passport from his hand, tucking a local currency note inside before moving to the front of the line. On the nearest wall, a sign advised passengers to report any requests for bribes to airport security. Not that Steve suffered any qualms of conscience at following on the fixer’s heels. In his book, a bribe involved paying someone to break the law. Tipping local bureaucracy to speed up what they should be doing anyway was a survival tactic in every Third World country he’d known.
At least fast-track was no exaggeration. The line had barely inched forward when they left the security area, entry stamp in hand. The scene was repeated at Customs, where Steve’s two action packers and duffel bag were waved through without a glance. A grin tugged at Steve’s mouth as he took in a bright head still far back in the first line. The woman from the plane looked frustrated, one small boot tapping impatiently, by her expression only too conscious of the stares her wardrobe choices were attracting.
Dismissing the hapless blonde from thought, Steve followed Cougar across a parking area to a black armored Suburban. The Afghan driver already had the engine running. Though an unnecessary swarm of porters had accompanied the baggage trolley, Steve counted out a bill into each outstretched hand. “Tashakor.”
Steve’s thank you engendered beard-splitting grins as the porters scattered.
Pulling his head from inside the Suburban, Cougar raised bushy red eyebrows. “So you speak Dari. I’d understood this was your first contract in Afghanistan.”
“It is.” Steve sliced into one of the action packers. The tactical vest he strapped on was not the screaming obvious black of a private security detail, where you wanted unfriendlies to know you were on alert, but a discreet utility vest style. “But I was in Kabul during liberation. And after. Picked up a fair amount of Dari and Pashto along the way. I assumed you knew that’s why I pulled this contract.”
“Sure, your bio says Special Forces. So you were Task Force Dagger, first boots on the ground, all that. That must have been a trip.” Cougar studied his taller companion’s clipped dark hair and deep tan. “Your coloring, I’ll bet you pass as a native if you grow a beard. Gotta be useful in these parts. So when did you make the jump to the private sector?”
“I was in Afghanistan about eighteen months. Got tired of being shot at so switched to a Blackwater private security detail. Then ArmorGroup embassy detail. Back to PSDs. Most recently Basra in southern Iraq. That was Condor Security, so when this came up, they gave me a call.”
Steve could have added, “And you?” But his contact info had included a bio. Craig “Cougar” Laube had done an army stint a lifetime ago, then put in twenty years with NYPD, more of them behind a desk than on the street. A second career as a security guard hadn’t proved lucrative enough to support an ex-wife and three kids because he’d jumped at the post 9/11 boom in the private security industry.
Strapping on his own tactical vest, Cougar retrieved M-4s and Glock 19 pistols for both from the back of the Suburban before handing Steve a manila envelope. So the guy had his priorities right.
The SUV’s air-conditioned interior was a far more comfortable ride into Kabul than the dust and jolting of an army convoy. As the Afghan driver eased past a mounted Soviet Mig fighter jet that marked the airport entrance, Steve rifled through the manila envelope. Mini-Bradt Kabul guide. Dari-English phrase book. List of embassy-cleared restaurants and lodging. An invite to an open house Thursday evening at the UN guesthouse. It was a welcome packet! Underneath were some blueprints and a city map.
“The diagrams are your two primary security zones.” Cougar carried his M-4 unslung, looking out the double-paned windows as he spoke. “How much did they fill you in?”
Steve stuffed the material back into its envelope, retaining the blueprints and a personnel data printout. “Just that CS picked up a private security detail for some Afghan cabinet minister, and they want me to pull together a team ASAP. So who is this guy, and what’s the big rush?”
“Our principal’s the new Minister of Interior. He figures he’s got a bull’s-eye painted on his back. Which isn’t such a stretch when you consider what happened to his predecessor.”
“You’re talking the sugar factory bombing.” Steve straightened up with sudden alertness. Bombings had become a dime a dozen lately in Afghanistan, but that incident had been significant enough to make international news. Reopening a sugar factory in the northeastern province of Baghlan was the crown jewel in an alternative development program intended to soften the impact of the US counter-narcotics campaign against Afghanistan’s proliferation of opium poppy. Any number of dignitaries had been on hand when a bomb went off inside the factory. With more than fifty killed and hundreds wounded, it had been the largest single-incident civilian death toll since liberation.
“Sure, I saw the Minister of Interior on the list of VIP casualties. And weren’t there Americans involved too? But that was more than two weeks ago.”
“It’s taken this long to get all the ducks in a row. There weren’t any American casualties, but a helicopter load that included embassy and DEA reps had just touched down for the ribbon cutting when the bomb went off, one reason the incident got so much international press. In fact, the chopper belongs to the current minister. If he hadn’t forgotten his briefcase in the chopper and just happened to turn back, there’d be two dead ministers instead of one.
“What makes this more interesting is that the late MOI had just been in office a couple months himself, appointed when his predecessor was removed for gross corruption and incompetence. Only after plenty of pressure from the West, I might add. The MOI’s by far the most powerful cabinet seat short of the president himself. It oversees the Afghan National Police, counternarcotics, the country’s internal security, and provincial administration. Which includes appointing the governors and regional law enforcement officials.”
Steve let out a low whistle. “So what’s left for the president?”
“There’s a reason they call our friend in the Presidential Palace the Mayor of Kabul. Not that anyone really runs the provinces except the provinces themselves. A lot of people point to MOI for Afghanistan’s current security failings. Not that there isn’t plenty of blame to go around, but the Afghan National Police are a joke, and too many provincial officials are former warlords up to their own ears in drug trafficking. Our late MOI had made it his mission to clean house and rein in the regional warlords.”
That drew Steve’s sharp glance from the data sheets. “You don’t think—”
“The sugar factory bombing could be payback—or just the local opium cartels trying to stamp out competition. But the new MOI’s taking it personally. He asked for a personal security detail as soon as he nailed the promotion. No local bodyguards either. They might be infiltrated. Western. And since Khalid’s a former muj commander—”
“Khalid!” Steve interrupted. “Khalid Sayef?”
“That’s right.” Cougar looked at Steve. “Hey, come to think of it, Khalid was part of the coalition that took Kabul. Any chance you ran across him?”
“Yes,” Steve responded. “Though when I left Afghanistan, Khalid was up to his neck in local politics, nothing like this.”
“Khalid’s still governor of his home district up in Baghlan. But like most of the muj commanders, he picked up a cabinet seat when the new government was signed in. But when the Minister of Counternarcotics threw in the towel a couple years back, it seemed like Khalid was in the right place to move up. Instead they brought in a complete outsider. Minister of Commerce originally. Moved up to Counternarcotics Minister a couple years ago. Since counternarcotics is the biggest piece of MOI, everyone figured Khalid would take over when his boss got the boot. Instead . . . outsider.”
Cougar’s shoulders hunched under his tactical vest. “Well, Khalid’s got the job now, and it’s our responsibility to keep the guy alive. The contract’s a Level One three-month renewable personal security detail. We should have on hand most equipment you’ll need. Ditto, transport. Scrambling a team wasn’t as easy on such short notice. But the bunch that flew in this morning are pretty decent. Their bios are in that packet. All Special Ops, all with security detail experience. Navy SEAL. Ranger. Delta. SAS.”
Steve’s attention shifted from data sheets to the windshield as the militarized airport zone gave way outside to bustling streets. Kabul had changed since he’d last passed this way—and it hadn’t. Steve wasn’t sure which was worse.
The biggest change was congestion. Vehicle traffic must have multiplied ten times over without a corresponding expansion of the street system. If there were traffic lanes or even sidewalks, no one was taking them seriously. Toyota Corollas, wood-framed trucks, motorcycles, and mule carts oozed through swarming pedestrians and street venders. Late-model SUVs, mostly white, bore acronyms on doors and roofs. Agency vehicles of the numerous Western government and aid organizations now making Kabul their home.
“The two security zones are Khalid’s personal residence and the Ministry of Interior,” Cougar continued. “The residence’s already in a high security district, but the MOI building’s smack downtown.”
City limits too now crawled much farther up the mountain flanks. Construction was still largely mud brick, but the glitter of Kabul’s new business skyline thrust itself like misplaced jewels above a haze of dust and smog. The Mashal Business Center, all futuristic blue glass and chrome. The five-star Serena Hotel rising like a sultan’s palace on a busy intersection. The Safi Landmark shopping mall where, according the welcome packet, any number of trendy restaurants offered foreign cuisine and forbidden alcohol.
Who in this dirt pile has disposable income to support this kind of infrastructure?
Cougar pointed at another new glass and brick department store. “Kabul isn’t the hardship post you all rolled into. Anything you want, some Afghan will have started an import outlet. The expat social scene’s pretty decent too. Mostly in what we call the green zone, Wazir Akbar Khan, Shahr-e-Nau and Sherpur districts where security’s tight enough you don’t have to worry about locals crashing the party. Or some mullah screaming over Jack Daniels or bikinis. Stay here awhile with all those burqas, and you won’t believe how good any woman in a bikini starts to look.”
Steve grunted. Astonishingly, the burqas hadn’t changed. He spotted many headscarfs, many of them expatriates by their features, as well as the more enveloping black chador. But the burqa remained the female norm, flitting like silent white or pale blue ghosts through an overwhelmingly male pedestrian mob, the face panels thrown triumphantly back when he’d last been in these streets now firmly in place.
The commercial district wasn’t the only construction boom. Steve counted the third rounded dome and tall minaret the SUV had passed in the space of five minutes. This one was a massive complex, gleaming with sparkling new mosaic tile. Behind it rose a series of five-story buildings Steve had assumed to be a housing development until he saw that the mosque’s perimeter wall enclosed them.
Cougar caught his stare. “Really something, isn’t it? That’s a new Shiite madrassa built by Iran. Bigger than the university. New mosques have been going up all over Kabul, mostly donations from other Muslim governments.”
“Useful outlay of aid funds,” Steve commented sardonically.
Cougar shrugged. “We build malls; they build mosques.”
For all the city’s new infrastructure, the acute poverty Steve remembered seemed little diminished either. They’d passed miles of hovels clinging to hillsides like human-size termite cells. How did people live without running water, sewage, or electricity? As for that apartment complex mujahedeen rockets had ripped open, Steve could swear it hadn’t been touched in all these years. Then he spotted plywood and plastic tacked down across a concrete cubicle, a burqa hauling a bucket up a shattered staircase. People were living in that ruin!
Beggars remained everywhere. Men missing limbs squatted on sidewalks or negotiated traffic on wheelchairs crafted from bicycle tires. Women in burqas exposed a cupped palm at intersections, small, ragged children at their skirts. Nor in the glut of automatic weapons and armed vehicles did Steve see any indication of a country at rest from war. It wasn’t just the ISAF convoys with their armored Humvees and turret guns. A dozen different uniforms belonging to the Afghan police, army, or hired security firms roamed sidewalks, stood guard at intersections and outside buildings, and crouched behind sandbags on the tops of walls.
And I thought we’d freed this place.
Just what did those war victims in their wheelschairs and burqas scrabbling for a daily food ration, the shopkeepers and street venders with their watchful eyes think of the new Afghanistan he’d helped create? Or of the Westerners flooding their city with new cars and shining towers and shopping malls and restaurants few Afghans could ever afford to enter? For that matter, of those equally ostentatious new domes and minarets that did nothing to put food on their tables?
Steve felt a sudden weariness that was not from jet lag. Why did I come back here?
Because it’s safer than Iraq, and the money’s even better. I was tired of being shot at, remember? After all, who was Steve to sneer when his own latest contract would net him five times what he’d ever earned as a proud member of his nation’s Special Operations Command?