Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Find and replace all ... Don't do it. Just don't do it!

Note: Never do a "Find and replace ALL" on the word Lance. Ughhh!! I changed a name from Lance to Philip in my WIP. Now I have words like baPhilip, ambuPhilip, gPhilip, vigiPhilip. (Just replace "Philip" with "lance" in the previous words to see what they should be.) So now, thanks to my brilliant idea, instead of editing I'm on a "Find" hunt for any forms of the word lance ...— feeling crazy.

Edit: Oh, and now I've realized I used the name Philip earlier in the story so I have to change it again!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

May you and your family be blessed this Christmas season and the whole year through!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Favorite Christmas Song?

I love so many Christmas songs. Carol of the Bells is one of my all time favorites. I'm still trying to memorize all the words. ; >)

Mary Did You Know is also awesome. Have you seen this version?

This group is so talented.

What's your favorite Christmas song? List it in comments.

Merry Christmas!

Paperback Copies with Original Covers

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Secret

What if there was a corporation fully focused on improving quality of life for all people through healthy foods, education, and technological advancements? What if a sub-set of the corporation had the exact same goals but a more nefarious way of achieving them? Would you make the cut? Or would you be on the purge list?

Billy and Sarah Roth are drawn into just such a company, but only one of them is safe from the purge list. It will take a miracle to save them both. Will they get it?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What Do You Think Of "Billy and Sarah"?

It's so fun designing covers. It's also extremely hard. I have a very clear idea of what Billy and Sarah look like, BUT it was impossible to find models that fit my images.

I think this Billy is close with his short hair. I would have like a 'blonder' Sarah. What do you think? Are these two close to your pictures of Billy and Sarah? What do you think would be different about the characters from the book?

 Book 1 in The Scinegue Series

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Top Ten Indie Books of 2014

The Secret was named a top ten Indie book of 2014 by Lia London. What a surprise, and what an honor!

Lia London is an author and the owner and founder of the Clean Indies Reads website and Facebook group. She had the idea to list books that are considered 'clean' by most standards to make them easy to find. Mostly 'clean' means no vulgar language, gory implicit scenes, or implicit sex. It doesn't mean boring! If you haven't seen the site yet check it out! You might just find your next read there.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writing Problems

And I wonder why my word count's down. ; >)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

It's Free! It's Free!

After being free in the US store for over two months, The Secret is finally free in the UK, too!

I'm so excited to have a chance to share this story with some new readers. Check it out, and if you like it, come back for the rest of the series! Or you can save a bit of money by purchasing the trilogy.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Saving Will - New Work in Process (WIP)

Saving Will - Chapter 1, paragraph 1

“I am not your friend!” The words exploded out in the staccato lecturer’s voice that irritated Jessie more than almost anything else I was known to do. And I did a lot that irritated my some days oh-so-typical teenage daughter.  “I am your mother!”

First chapter of my WIP. What is your opinion on reading first person point of view? I know some people love it while some hate it. I'm having fun writing in it for now, it really keeps me from head hopping from character to character.

Monday, October 6, 2014

***Ended Clean Fiction Sale - This Week

Clean Indie Reads is hosting a fall fiction sale. A requirement for being part of the group is material that's not overly graphic when it comes to things like gore and sex. A lot of talented authors are offering their books at a discount for the entire week. Some, like The Secret, are even free!

Click here to check out the available discounts.

***If you missed the sale you can still check out a site that hosts clean fiction at Clean Indie Reads.

Friday, October 3, 2014

And the Journey Continues

I'm working on a new novel completely unrelated to The Scinegue Series, and it has been a lot of fun, until now. Seven chapters in and the story is fighting me. I had something in mind, and now it looks like things will be going a different direction. As long as it keeps flowing, I'm okay with that.

The first book I ever published, The Secret,  was originally destined for a much more technical, sci-fy story. As I wrote, the words flowed in a different direction, and before I knew it, it had a fun, supernatural element that I was able to take and run with in the following two books.

I can't wait to see if this story stays on its present course or if it holds some more surprises for me. Guess I better get back to writing so I can find out!

Oh, and the current title for my WIP is Not My Friend. I say 'current' because that could of course change as well!

***Edit: Well, not only did the title change to Saving Will, a few characters from The Scinegue Series snuck into it. ; >) It's still a stand alone book, but the tie-in to The Scinegue characters gives a fun peek into another stage in their lives.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Cover's Worth a Thousand Words ...

I was reading an ebook the other day and it was okay. Not bad, but it started to drag and I found my attention fading so I clicked out of it and went to my library to see what else I had. I saw a book with an amazing cover and thought "Ah, ha! This will be a good one!" It was the same book I had just been reading!  :o  I always thought I pretty much judged books by the sample, but the sample of this was pretty consistent with the rest of the book. It was the cover that drew me in.  I would have bought the silly book a hundred times over based on the cover...

A New Name for the First Book in The Scinegue Series

For a book filled with oh, so many secrets, I decided The Secret would be a very fitting name! I received a lot of support and encouragement on this name change and I really appreciate it all!

Here is the updated cover. Grab a copy now, it's still free!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Scinegue is Free!

Thinking about reading Scinegue but haven't bought a copy yet? Well, now's a great time to download it! It's free on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, KoboNook (oops, it hasn't been updated at Barnes and Noble yet, should be there soon though) and maybe other places I'm forgetting about!

***Barnes & Noble is available now!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

It's here! Book 3 in The Scinegue Series

The Forest is available now on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Nook, and Kobo and will be on sale for only $.99 through Friday (8/29/14)!
(Edit: Please make sure the $.99 sales price has gone into effect before you buy!)

Don't have a Kindle? No problem. Amazon offers free readers for several different devices (I like to read on my iPhone) here: It will also be available at other retailers in mid-September.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Pledge, Book 2 in The Scinegue Series - Start Reading for Free


Standing hand-in-hand before the painting of a large, white Catamaran surrounded on all sides by calm blue waters, with just the suggestion of an island to the side, William Berkley turned to his beautiful new bride with excitement evident on his face. “Are you ready, my dear?”
Elizabeth Sinclair Berkley stared at the painting and hesitated. She knew if Scinegue said it was safe, it was safe. It was just so new. She took a deep breath and her green eyes flashed. She hadn't reached this point in life by being timid.
“I'm ready,” she told her husband, her lips curving upwards, her excitement building to match his. Together they reached up and touched the painting of the boat. And disappeared.

Chapter 1

Crisp blue skies met and swirled with deep blue waters as Billy Roth’s focus on the painted sailboat blurred into a daydream. His eyes drifted closed, and he could feel the warm sun on his skin, smell the salt-tinged air as he sailed over calm seas. His head nodded, and his chin slipped off his fist. He jerked and straightened in his chair, looking around his office with surprise as he left the tropics behind in a blink.
As much as he loved his job, he was having trouble staying on task this morning. He pulled a stack of multi-colored folders  across his desk towards him and shifted through them, feeling guilty for his brief, unscheduled vacation. He had a mountain of work waiting for him. Something just felt off today, in that elusive ‘scalp tingling’ sort of way that was persistent enough to make him restless and unable to focus.
He rolled his head from side to side and thought about calling his wife, Sarah, just to make sure everything was okay at home—maybe make lunch plans—then remembered that she and Linda Brown were teaching a class today. 
The thought of Linda made him smile. She was one of the first to warn him and Sarah about a plot underway at Scinegue during his early days of working for the company. As a Prepper, not only was she prepared for just about anything life might throw at her, she also did her best to teach others how to prepare.
Thanks to her, he and Sarah were pretty prepared themselves. For what exactly he didn’t know, but under Linda’s guidance they had stored food and water and medical supplies—even a sealed can of heirloom garden seeds that would supposedly still germinate twenty years in the future.
Where Linda was tall with dark hair, Sarah was petite and blond and several years younger, but despite their physical differences she and Linda had hit it off from their very first meeting. With a shared interest in self-sustainability they soon started teaching preserving and fermenting classes together.
Billy thought today was a fermenting class because Sarah had him sampling sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir all week, trying to find mild tasting batches that might not scare off students who had no experience with the normally tangy ferments.
He didn’t know much about fermented food—other than he looked forward to the tasty fruit and kefir smoothies that Sarah said were good for him and sometimes made for a quick breakfast. He was willing to help however he could, he thought with a small smile, as long as good food was involved.
His stomach rumbled at the thought of breakfast, and he pressed a hand against it. It had been a long time ago, and he was getting hungry.
Mary. He would invite her to lunch.
He leaned forward and pushed the intercom button on his desk. Expecting to hear Mary’s voice, he was surprised when a male voice answered.
He’d somehow forgotten about his new secretary, Tom Kemp.
“Yes, um, Tom,” Billy face contorted into a frown, “would you contact Mary Sinclair? Invite her to join me for lunch in Kitchen 3. If she accepts, find out what she would like to eat, please.”
“Yes, sir,” Tom’s meek voice replied promptly before the intercom went silent.
Tom was a recent addition to the company, and Billy still wasn’t convinced he needed a personal secretary. He drummed his fingers on the desktop as he thought about it. He’d always just asked the main receptionist, Mary, for the few things he needed. But he now had a secretary.
A male secretary, he thought, and then laughed out loud. He had a suspicion that Sarah was behind the idea to hire a man.
Several months earlier, he and Mary were trying to unravel the source of the plot that Linda had warned them about. A sticky situation had called for some role playing to avoid detection, and he and Mary had shared a couple of innocent kisses. He’d quickly confessed to Sarah, and she had been completely understanding, even gracious.
Still, a male secretary.
The intercom interrupted his musings. “Ms. Sinclair would be pleased to join you in thirty minutes if that works for you, and would like a chicken Caesar salad.”
“Thanks, Tom. Would you alert the chef to prepare two salads, please?”
“Yes, sir.” The intercom was silent again. 
Tom was one of the first Scinegue employees to break the stereotypical mold that had been in place for years. He wore glasses and had braces on his teeth and was noticeably shorter than most of the men at the company, probably four or five inches shorter than Billy’s 6’2”.
Not defects by any means, but traits that would have disqualified him from the position by the previous manager, Eugene Bryant. Tom was sharp though. That was the one thing that was still required at Scinegue: intelligence, and a willingness to put it to good use.
Billy’s expression was thoughtful as he picked a pistachio from the glossy, wooden bowl on his desk—Sarah ensured he always had something healthy to snack on—and absently broke off the partially cracked shell before popping it in his mouth. He decided he really needed to spend some time getting to know Tom. Their only conversations so far had been similar to the previous one: brief and to the point.
He appreciated a hard worker with a polite attitude, but he also wanted them to be able to be friends. If they were going to work together every day—and it looked like they were—they should be able to enjoy each other’s company. Maybe he would invite Tom to lunch tomorrow, he thought vaguely.
He glanced at the time and popped another pistachio in his mouth then swept the shells from his desk into the trash and brushed off his hands. With twenty-nine minutes until lunch, he was determined to make up for the lost time he’d daydreamed away earlier. He pulled up a file on his computer that corresponded with the physical file he’d just opened about the new education program Scinegue was getting ready to release.
His worries faded as he immersed himself in the program overview. The trial results showed impressive increases in both aptitude and IQ scores over a very short period of time. The games and fun activities proposed for the center were designed to compete with video games, while adding several layers of learning that most video games didn’t provide.
Billy pictured himself with Sarah, each holding a toddler’s hand as they explored the activities at a place like this. Family fun and learning. What more could you want? He focused on reviewing the research that led to this idea and the expected results once it was implemented.

“Mr. Roth,” Tom’s voice blared unexpectedly through the intercom.
Billy’s eyes darted up to check the time. He was amazed that the twenty-nine minutes had passed so quickly! That was something he really loved about this job; his work was always so interesting the days usually flew by.
“Mr. Roth?” Tom questioned. “It’s time for your lunch with Ms. Sinclair.”
Billy clicked to close the computer file before pushing the intercom button. “Thanks, Tom. I’m on my way now.”
Down the hall a few doors, Billy entered the gourmet kitchen/dining room. Bold paintings of larger-than-life fruits and vegetables decorated the pale walls, adding vivid splashes of color that highlighted the place settings on the table.
The chef glanced up and nodded at Billy.
“Hey, Matt. Smells great!”
“Thank you, Mr. Roth.” Matt smiled as he finished slicing a chicken breast before adding it to the bowls of crisp salad greens on the counter.
Mary stood by the table. Tall and regal looking, with deep red hair and a porcelain complexion, she was impeccably dressed as always. She leaned forward as Billy bent to kiss her cheek. “Thanks for joining me, Mary.”
“Thanks for inviting me,” Mary replied with a teasing smile. “You know a lowly receptionist like me doesn’t have a private kitchen.”
She winked at him and he laughed, both of them fully aware that she, along with all of the other employees, could have an excellent meal at the restaurant located on the other side of the building.
They sat at the round dining table, and their meals were placed before them with a flourish.
“Thanks, Matt. This looks delicious,” Billy told the retreating chef.
And it really did. All of Scinegue’s food was grown using very precise conditions intended to yield the highest quality food, and as an added bonus the high quality food was scrumptious.
Mary bowed her head, and Billy gave thanks for the food.
“So, have you heard anything from your grandmother since they left?” Billy asked, before taking a bite of his salad.
“Not a word.” Mary shook her head, and a smile played across her lips as she cut off a small piece of chicken. “I think they’re going to be true to their word and stay completely unreachable for their entire honeymoon.”
“Good for them!” Billy raised his glass of water in a toast. “Sarah and I are so happy for them both. It was unexpected, sure, but Uncle Bill deserves a chance to have a happy marriage. Even if it is coming pretty late in the game.”
“And Grandmother is a very strong, proud woman, but she was widowed almost twenty years ago! I’m really happy for them, too.”
“Have you made a decision yet?” Billy asked seemingly out of the blue, but Mary easily connected the question to her grandmother and her role in the company.
“About my future position?”
“I’m leaning towards remaining a Protector,” she shifted towards him and confided quietly so the chef wouldn’t hear her. “I will become a Top if I’m needed, but I’ve been raised to be a Protector. It’s in my blood.”
Billy gave her a nod as he chewed. “I can understand that. You’re lucky you found your place in life at such a young age. It took me almost thirty years to figure out where I belong.”
Mary laughed at him. “You know I had a little more help than you did. I don’t think there was a day of my life that my parents weren’t preparing me for my position. Your parents didn’t even know you had a position.” She put down her fork and caught Billy’s eye. “Do they know now?”
“No.” Billy frowned down at his salad. “Uncle Bill left the decision up to me of what, if anything, I want to tell my family about this whole situation. So far, I can only see it bringing my parents pain. And Sarah and I decided not to tell her parents about my future position unless it becomes absolutely necessary for some reason, and I can’t imagine that it ever will.”
Mary chuckled. “Sarah filled me in on her mom a little bit. It sounds like if she finds out you’re a ‘somebody’, she’ll brag about it to every person she knows. That would not help you maintain a low profile at all.” 
As the potential future head of a large company which maintained a low profile itself, Billy certainly didn’t need every person in the surrounding area knowing his connection.
A dish clattered against the side of the sink as the chef returned the kitchen to its pristine condition, and Billy glanced towards the noise before turning back to Mary with a sigh. “Sarah’s mom is nice, but she’s all about image. My position as a garbage collector almost did her in. Her precious daughter married to a ‘sniff’ garbage man.”
Mary laughed.
“She was just fine when I was working two office jobs trying to make ends meet. It’s not like I changed in any way when I collected garbage, but her image of me sure did.” He jabbed his fork into his salad.
“There are some days when there’s nothing more I would rather do than tell her that her lowly son-in-law is in line to take over a huge company.” A sheepish smile replaced his pensive expression, and he looked at Mary with a shrug. “Can’t help it. I’m still human.”
“I know the feeling.” Mary took a sip of her water. “You might be surprised at how many people come into this building and treat me terribly just because I’m the receptionist. Believe me, there have been so many times I’ve wanted to tell everyone that I’m a Protector, that I’m important, chosen to help keep the world safe for people just like them.”
“People really do judge others by what they do, rather than who they are,” Billy said thoughtfully before adding, “Well, I respected you long before I knew you were a Protector.”
“Yeah, that’s because you were just a lowly trash man,” Mary quipped and had them both laughing
“What’s Sarah doing today? I’m sure you would much rather be having lunch with her,” she teased.
“She and Linda had a fermenting class this morning. We have jars lined up on the counter, jars in the fridge, jars in the cupboard.” He shook his head with a chuckle. “She has been doing a lot of experimenting trying to get everything just right for this class.” 
He looked up at Mary. “Do you do any of that stuff?”
“Fermenting? Sure. Sarah gave me some milk kefir grains a while back, and they’ve been growing strong ever since. I’ve already had to separate the grains twice, and I was able to pass the extra grains on to some friends who wanted to be able to make their own kefir.”
Billy winced. “I don’t really like to think about stuff growing in my milk.” He pictured the gelatinous, cauliflower shaped kefir grains. “Anyway, they were invited to provide a class to a group of women who are interested in learning how to make their own stuff.”
“Linda’s really expanding.”
“She is,” he confirmed. “It’s amazing to see how she was able to not only overcome the murder of her husband, but to turn it into a purpose. She’s more committed than ever to helping people learn how to provide for themselves. Now, with Scinegue’s backing, she’s able to expand in directions that interest her.”
Billy refilled Mary’s water glass from the pitcher on the table before topping off his own. “Changing the subject a little, talking about Farmer Dan’s death just reminded me that right before everything went down with Mr. Bryant, I was in the atrium one day and overheard you talking with some people.”
He gave her a searching look. “I’m guessing now that they were other Protectors?”
Mary looked surprised but nodded briefly in confirmation.
“Well, I heard someone ask if you told me everything about what was happening. You said you hadn’t.”
Mary remained silent.
“May I ask now what else was going on?”
Mary twisted the cloth napkin in her lap a few times before coming to a decision. “Billy, you know about the pledge for the Tops, right?” She looked up to see him nod. “Well, the Protectors have a pledge of their own. It’s not that I don’t trust you, because I do. I really, really do, but until you take your pledge and become a Top, it’s not something I can reveal to you.”
Billy was surprised by Mary’s reluctance to talk about whatever she’d been hiding. But after working for Scinegue for a while, he’d come to realize the company had more than its share of secrets. Most, he had learned, were for the better.
“Okay, I suppose I can wait. At the time I didn’t know you very well. When I heard you say that you hadn’t told me everything that was really going on, I wasn’t sure which side you were on.”
“I’m glad you trusted me, Billy.”
They ate in silence for a moment before Billy looked up with a teasing light in his eye. “By the way, what’s this I hear about you and Ritchie?”
Mary’s porcelain complexion flamed, compounding her embarrassment. “What exactly are you referring to?” she asked, her professional voice firmly in place.
Billy smirked at her, not fooled for a minute by her cool tone. “Rumor has it you’ve been spending more than a little bit of time together.”
“Well, he is very nice, and we seem to share several common interests, and...”
Billy smiled as he interrupted her. “You don’t have to sell me on him. He’s the best brother-in-law I could ever hope to have. I’m just giving you a hard time.”
Mary looked down at her plate, still clearly flustered.
“Mr. Roth!” Tom tore through the door, dark hair flopping over his forehead, eyes wide behind thick glasses, and beads of sweat popping out on his upper lip. “There’s been an accident!” he panted.
Billy and Mary stood to face him. “What is it Tom?” Billy asked calmly, even as his feeling of unrest from earlier turned to stomach churning fear.
“Your wife! An accident! You need to get to Central Hospital right away!”
Billy felt like the blood drained from his entire body as the words left him cold and empty. His terrified eyes met Mary’s and held for just a second before he ran from the room.
Mary raised a hand to cover her mouth in shock then walked briskly back to the front desk and dialed a number on a small blue cell phone she slipped out of her desk drawer.
“We need to meet. Alert the others. Same place,” she glanced at her watch, “thirty minutes.” 

Lush green plants surrounded the small group of people, offering them some shelter from prying eyes, while the modest roar of the distant fountain in the center of the atrium helped guard their words.
“Who knew it would be today?” Mary asked without expression as she studied each member of the group.
A tall, young man with reading glasses perched on his head looked up apologetically. “We had our suspicions.” He met Mary’s cool stare, then quickly ducked his head to study the path beneath him.
“What about the next confrontation? Have plans been made?” Silence was her only answer. “Has it not been planned yet, or do you really not know when it will occur?” Mary tried to control her rising frustration.
Silence. The small group appeared chastened; heads bent, no eyes meeting. Mary Sinclair may have been an extremely attractive woman, but she was a firm commander. And commander she was. No one else had the authority she had in their group, and few others even had aspirations to try to attain it. 
“I need these questions answered ASAP. You know what to do.” Heads nodded. The group scattered with a few glances around to make sure they weren’t observed.
Mary stood where she was with her hands on her hips and slowly turned to survey the two-way mirrored walls lining the atrium. She replayed her earlier conversation with Billy, and her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. They met in a secluded area, but if he’d stumbled upon them last year and had even overheard some of their conversation, others could as well.
Although it would be more time consuming they would have to meet in a more secure location, she decided with a final look around the large atrium.
No chances could be taken with the information that she and the other Protectors shared.

Chapter 2

Billy sat slumped in the hard blue plastic chair by Sarah’s narrow bed. The astringent smell of the sterile white recovery room was sharp in his nose as he held her small limp hand in his own. He’d been told no one knew when she would wake up, and Billy felt like he heard an underlying ‘or if’ in the words. She was already in surgery when he arrived at the hospital, and he was told all he could do was wait.
Well that, and that Linda Brown hadn’t survived the accident.
He lowered his head to rest on his fist. Linda had been a good woman—a great woman—and a wonderful friend and advisor to both him and Sarah. He shook his head, his chest tight with remorse. He couldn’t understand how any of this could have happened.
It had only been a few hours since he and Sarah were eating breakfast together. She’d spread the morning paper open between them and was focused on circling letters with a red pen as she ate tiny bites of her buckwheat pancake.
She was looking for coded messages hidden in their local paper—just for fun—as she did every morning. He could picture the way she’d looked up at him with her brown eyes wide and serious and asked if he thought ‘cat ran dirt’ meant anything important before they’d both burst out laughing. A small smile formed on his lips at the memory.
She’d found a coded message before so it wasn’t too farfetched to think it could happen again. So far it hadn’t, but they had enjoyed a lot of laughs at some of the funny words and phrases she did ‘decode’.
Metal clanked against the door as it banged open, and his head spun towards the noise. His thoughts were completely disrupted as a heavyset nurse with gray curls walked into the room wearing a colorful shirt over hospital green scrub pants. She walked directly to the other side of Sarah’s bed and began preparing a tray full of syringes and vials without a word or look in his direction.
“What are those for?” Billy asked, standing in surprise.
“The doctor recommended these shots for your wife based on her vaccination records,” she replied with a prominent Southern accent.
“Which shots are they?”
“Oh, just a few of the most important vaccines that she appears to be lacking.”
“Such as ... ” Billy drawled, wondering what it was going to take to get a straight answer from this woman.
Finally glancing up at him with a look of impatience stamped clearly on her face, the nurse rattled off a list of five or six vaccines. 
Billy only caught one name that he recognized: Tetanus. 
“Is that the tetanus vaccine?” his brows lowered and he questioned warily.
“Of course it is,” came the brusque reply.
“So, the doctor’s concerned that Sarah received wounds that could develop tetanus?”
The nurse planted her hands on her hips and turned to fully face Billy. “Obviously he is or he wouldn’t recommend the vaccine, now would he?” she demanded, fully expecting to cower Billy with her attitude.
“I didn’t notice any open wounds on Sarah, but even if there are, the tetanus vaccine wouldn’t do her any good at this point. It probably takes a week or more before it even takes effect. She would need the tetanus immunoglobulin.” Billy remained calm on the outside but was fuming on the inside. Why was it so hard to just find out what they were trying to do to Sarah?
The nurse blustered angrily and finally replied, “I don’t presume to know as much as the doctors.” She whisked an alcohol pad across Sarah's arm and picked up a syringe. “Unlike some people,” she mumbled.
Billy walked up behind her and put a restraining hand on her arm, causing her to jerk away from him in anger.
“Get your hands off of me!” she exclaimed, holding the syringe in front of her like a weapon. “I’m calling security!”
She raced out of the room, and Billy called after her retreating form, “Why don’t you just get the doctor?” He shook his head in frustration then looked over at Sarah. 
She looked so small and young lying quietly in the hospital bed. Her face was free from any makeup, and a large nasty bruise was already creeping along one of her cheeks. Billy was sure her insides were in much worse shape than her face.
His eyes rested on her slightly rounded stomach pushing against the sheet that covered her. He could picture how she would turn to the side almost daily, pulling her shirt tight against her and asking him hopefully if he thought her belly looked any bigger than it did the day before. He was so thankful she and the baby had both survived the accident.
And so sad that Linda had not. 
He rubbed a hand across his weary face. It was hard to even take in the fact that Linda was gone. He kept thinking there had to be a mistake, that she couldn’t really be dead. But then he would look at Sarah’s still form and know there was no mistake.
He gave his head a quick shake and returned to the issue at hand. Why this nurse wanted to give a pregnant woman several vaccines that she probably didn't even need was beyond him. From the little he was able to find out, Sarah had some internal injuries, and he just didn't understand why anyone thought adding toxins to her damaged body was going to help her or the baby.
If there was an outbreak, or if she’d been exposed to something he didn’t know about, maybe then he could see the necessity...
The nurse threw the door open, and this time it crashed against the chair beside it as she rushed back in with two men dressed in security uniforms following her. She pointed an accusing finger at Billy.
“That’s him! He assaulted me.” Her eyes flashed in anger, and perhaps triumph. She was certain she’d won this round.
“Sir, come with us, please,” one of the officers ordered as they both advanced towards him. “We need to ask you some questions.”
Billy’s mind did an instant flashback to several months earlier when he was escorted into an office at work over a slight mishap. The men doing the escorting then were a little bigger and scarier—and more nicely dressed he thought, picturing the dark custom-made suits they wore—but he was sure these guys could force him to do what they wanted just the same.
“I have some concerns about the treatment my wife is about to receive,” he explained in a slow, calm voice, palms facing out. “I only placed my hand on the nurse’s arm to stop her from giving my wife a shot until I have a chance to get more information from her doctor.”
Billy looked at the nurse. “I apologize for touching your arm. May I please speak to Sarah’s doctor?”
“No,” the nurse replied bluntly, and turned back to her assortment of needles. 
Billy looked over at the guards, panic starting to fill him. “Please! I just need to confirm that this is the treatment my wife needs.”
He changed tactics. “If one of those shots hurts her or the baby, it could mean your jobs for not helping me confirm the proper treatment,” Billy bluffed, panicked that the nurse seemed so desperate to give Sarah the shots without any confirmation.
The nurse picked up a syringe. “Please!” Billy repeated darting nervous looks between the nurse and the guards. “Will you just go get a doctor, and keep this nurse from doing anything until the doctor okays it?”
Billy tensed and prepared to physically restrain the nurse again if it became necessary. Her persistence was making him very uneasy.
The guards looked at each other and then at the nurse, clearly more afraid of her than Billy. Finally one of them glanced at Sarah's still form and seemed to be moved. Whether he had a wife at home who he knew he would want to protect, or if the threat of getting fired if something happened to her caused his action, Billy didn't know. But he felt faint with relief when the guard told his partner to make sure nothing was done until he got back with a doctor, and quickly left the room.
The nurse rolled her eyes, crossed her arms over her ample chest, and tapped her foot in agitation. “As if I have nothing better to do,” she muttered.
Billy tipped his head from shoulder to shoulder and tried to release the tension that caused his neck muscles to clench. “You can go do whatever else you need to be doing until the doctor gets back if you like,” he offered, trying to be considerate of her time.
She gave Billy a cold look. “I'm already set up here. I'm not going to clear everything away just to get it back out when the doctor okays everything again.”
Billy was amazed at her hostility toward him, but he wasn't going to bow down to her just because she was acting like a bully. Waiting for the doctor, Billy tried to read the names on the other vaccine bottles but the type was too small, and he knew the nurse would not approve of him getting any closer. 
“What are the other vaccines again?” he asked in the calmest, least confrontational voice he could muster, and pulled out his smart phone to type the names as she recited them.
“Wait,” he stopped the nurse soon after she started. “HPV? Why would that be recommended for a pregnant woman who just came out of surgery?”
“I guess we’ll just wait and let the doctor answer that since you’re so determined to disturb him,” she answered snidely.
She listed a couple more names before another one made his jaw drop. “You’re planning to give her the MRSA vaccine that was released six months ago, and was found to only contain saline solution?” he asked, with all the disbelief he felt clearly conveyed in his voice.
The nurse looked slightly chagrined for the first time since she’d come into the room. “Yes, well, we’ve continued giving this vaccine when it’s deemed necessary in the hope that maybe some of the vials do contain the real vaccine.”
She shrugged. “As you said yourself, the worst thing that can happen is this could be pure saline.”
Billy blinked in disbelief, and his stomach dropped as he thought of the original plans to use the fake MRSA vaccine as a way to kill off anyone who received it. The ‘worst thing’ would have been if his uncle and the other Tops hadn't learned of the plot in time to replace the vials of toxins with saline solution.
A short man wearing a white jacket walked into the room. His brown hair was disheveled and his eyes were fixed on the chart he held. “What seems to be the trouble here?” he asked without looking away from the chart.
Billy presumed he was Sarah’s doctor and answered quickly. “I have concerns about some of these vaccines being recommended for my wife,” Billy told him. “She just came out of surgery from a serious accident and she’s pregnant. I think it’s to her benefit to wait until she’s more stable before even considering adding anything else to her system.”
The doctor glanced up briefly and gave Billy a dispassionate look before turning his attention to the nurse. He ran down the list of recommended vaccines and had her confirm those were the ones she was preparing. When she did, he shrugged and glanced at Billy again. “I believe everything’s in order here. You’re obviously in shock from your wife's accident and are incapable of making rational decisions. Do you have a signed power of attorney for her?”
“What? No, but I'm her husband!”
“I think it’s in her—and the baby's—best interest if we contact another family member who might be more removed and able to help you make rational decisions.”
Billy stood stunned. He didn't think he was doing anything irrational, he just wanted to make sure Sarah and the baby were okay. 
“Parents, perhaps?” The doctor interrupted Billy's thoughts.
Billy pictured Sarah's mother. She would okay every vaccine they offered and ask for more. It was just her mindset. 
“Sarah has a brother who lives in town, Ritchie Jones. I can contact him or give you his number.”
The doctor had the nurse take the number before she gathered up her syringes and bottles with a clatter and carried them out of the room, definitely bent out of shape. But not before she was assured by security that Billy would not be left alone in the room with the patient for even a minute.
Billy stared at the guard who gave him an apologetic shrug before stationing himself inside the door. Unbelievable, Billy thought. He was being treated like a criminal for questioning a doctor?
He dropped back down on the chair by the head of Sarah’s bed and pulled out his phone, hitting speed dial for Mary’s cell phone. 
“Mary, I’m so glad to hear your voice.”
“Oh, Billy, I’m so sorry!” her words tumbled out. “How are Sarah and the baby?”
“Stable. But Mary,” he paused, trying to find the strength to say the words, “Linda didn’t survive the accident.”
“No!” her voice broke on the word.
“Yeah, I know,” Billy took a steadying breath, “but I need your help. I forgot to grab my ring when I rushed out of the office. I really need to reach Mr. Radcliffe. I would say Uncle Bill, but you know, honeymoon.”
Mary sniffed. “I can contact Mr. Radcliffe for you. Shall I have him call you or do you want me to give him a message?”
Billy glanced at the guard who was staring at the ceiling and shifting from foot to foot as he tried not to listen to Billy’s conversation. “I’ll send you a text,” he whispered. “Get the message to him, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” she answered promptly, her professional voice back in place, as much a part of her as her beautiful red hair.
Billy typed a quick text with his thumbs, relaying the pertinent information and prayed that Oliver Radcliffe could do something to help. And that he was able to do it before it was too late. 
He was in disbelief that he and his wife were being treated like this, and kept replaying the conversations through his mind trying to pinpoint anything he’d said or done to raise such hostility from the nurse, and to have the doctor think he was being irrational. He thought he’d been calm and polite. Maybe he just sounded more terse than he intended due to the stress of the situation?
Ritchie burst through the door, startling the bored guard, and rushed to Sarah’s side with tears in his eyes. His shirt and jeans were streaked with dirt and his face was flushed.
“I can’t believe this happened. Is she going to be okay? The baby?” He looked from Sarah to Billy, trying to determine the   seriousness of the situation. Billy gave him a sad smile taking in the slight resemblance Ritchie shared with his sister—same blond hair and brown eyes, and something similar about the shape of their faces, he thought vaguely.
“Sarah and the baby are stable for now, but Linda...” He looked down and tried to swallow the lump that threatened to close off his throat before shaking his head. “Linda was in the car, too. She didn’t make it.”
“No!” Richie sank into the nearest chair and lowered his head to his hands.
Linda had played an integral part in Ritchie’s life over the past several months. She’d helped him develop a love for growing healthy foods, and gave him a job assisting her as she continued her research into producing even heartier plants.
“I was at her place when the hospital called. I saw her off this morning before her class and thought she would be getting back pretty soon. I even left her a note telling her Sarah was in an accident.” He stared vacantly as it hit him that Linda would never get that note. “What happened?” he asked in a toneless voice.
“All I’ve heard so far is that someone ran a red light and smashed right into their car. Ritchie, I know this is a lot to take in, but I don’t know how much time we have.”
Ritchie glanced up in concern, his flushed cheeks now pale.
“They’re trying to give Sarah some vaccines that I think could be harmful to her or the baby. One is the MRSA vaccine.” Billy let Ritchie take in that information.
“The MRSA vaccine?” Ritchie repeated in disbelief. “The one that you know who tried to use to do you know what?” he asked cryptically, almost bringing a smile to Billy’s lips.
Billy nodded. “They think I’m being irrational for not just agreeing with whatever they say, so they brought you in to make decisions for Sarah.”
He took a seat beside Ritchie and leaned in close to whisper, “You need to stall them. I’m afraid if you just decline, they’ll say you’re irrational too and bring in your mother. I love your mom, but you know good and well she’s gung-ho for any vaccine available. I’m trying to get a message to Mr. Radcliffe. I feel sure he can help us, we just have to stall until he can pull some of his magic strings.”
Ritchie swiped at the tears that escaped the corners of his eyes. “Yeah, sure. I can do that.” He stood as the doctor entered the room, the nurse with her ever-ready tray on his heels.
The doctor introduced himself to Ritchie, which was more than he’d done for Billy. “You’re the patient’s brother?”
“Yes, I’m Richard Jones.”
“Your sister has been through a very traumatic experience, and we’re trying to ensure she has the best recovery possible. She has undergone emergency surgery to stop some internal bleeding. A small portion of her liver that couldn’t be saved was removed but shouldn’t cause her any problems.
“She’ll be watched closely to make sure her condition remains stable. In the meantime, we feel it’s imperative for a woman in her condition, surrounded as she will be in the hospital by many diseases, to be up-to-date on all pertinent vaccines. If you’ll just sign this sheet giving us your permission,” he rushed on, “we’ll see that she has the proper shots immediately.”
“Sure,” Ritchie agreed. “That sounds like a great idea.”
The nurse gave Billy a smug smile, and the doctor handed the clipboard and pen to Ritchie.
Ritchie held the pen above the paper as if ready to sign, then suddenly lowered it and looked up. “I really need to check with my parents on this. I know they’ve been trying to get her to update her vaccines for a while now, and there were a couple in particular they were very concerned about. Let me get ahold of them and find out what they felt Sarah needed. Then everything can be done at the same time.”
The doctor frowned and his eyes narrowed as he gave Ritchie a searching look. “I can assure you, these are the most critical vaccines for your sister at the moment. She can always have any others added later if necessary.”
“That sounds great, but I really just want to double check first. I’ll start trying to get ahold of my parents right now.” He handed the doctor the clipboard and pen.
The doctor took on a look of frustration before deciding that Ritchie appeared sincere. “Very well, please let someone at the nurses’ station know when you have the information.” He tipped his head toward the door. The nurse once again gathered her supplies with a hiss of frustration and an open look of disgust directed towards Billy before she bustled from the room.
Billy closed his eyes and exhaled deeply in relief then gave Ritchie a nod. “Thanks, man. You didn’t have to lie about contacting your parents though,” he said quietly, not wanting the curious guard to overhear him.
“Not a lie at all. I’m going to call them right now to fill them in on the situation, and I’ll just ask in passing which vaccines they discussed with her. I never agreed to pass that information along.”
A grim look flitted across his face as he dug his phone out of his pocket, punching in numbers as he strode across the bare white linoleum floor to look out the window while waiting for someone to answer.
Click to keep reading The Pledge.

Scinegue - Start Reading for Free


Stanley Bennett checked the time again. His hand trembled, but he didn’t notice. What he did notice was the golden hands on his watch seemed frozen. They’d barely crept forward since the last time he looked. It would still be another hour, maybe even two, before his plan was set in motion.
For better or for worse.
He should be doing something else besides standing there, the thought crested above all others. He should really be at work, but he didn’t move. He couldn’t. He stood framed in the window of his lavish house and stared unblinking at the simple bag of trash that rested against the curb out front.
His breathing was slow and even, his heart rate steady, but his mind raced. He’d worked for Scinegue for years and had fully supported what they were doing—what he thought they were doing, he corrected—but if what he’d discovered was true, they must be stopped. He knew what he stood to lose; his house, his car ... maybe even his life—but as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t ignore this.
He closed eyes that burned from lack of moisture and rubbed them with the palms of his hands before letting his focus revert to the innocuous bag of trash that could hold the key to changing everything. He wasn’t prepared to take on the company himself. He was opposed to what it was doing, but he had a family.
Others had disappeared within the company. He knew he could ‘disappear’ just as easily, which would be bad enough, but what about his family? Would they ‘disappear’ as well? He pushed away the question that chilled his blood and turned his thoughts back to his plan.
He might have found someone who could help.
He was too closely monitored to make direct contact. He couldn’t afford for anyone to make a connection between them. Foolhardy on one hand, his plan also held the greatest chance of succeeding with the least amount of risk to himself. He couldn’t afford for this to go wrong.
His pulse spiked for just a second as he again considered what would happen if he was caught. If he was right—if everything he’d uncovered was what he feared—he wouldn’t survive a mistake.
 It would go as planned, he reassured himself with a brief nod. Every detail had been precisely executed, and the connection he’d discovered had been confirmed.
And it felt right. He released a shaky breath as he acknowledged that had been the deciding factor. It simply felt like this was what he was supposed to do.
But if he was wrong...

Chapter 1

With the key halfway in the door that led from the garage into the house Billy Roth suddenly stopped and leaned forward, letting his head rest against its smooth coolness. He closed his eyes as question after question crowded his mind.
What kind of company did he work for? Could it really be as ominous as Ben made it sound? What should he tell Sarah about today? What would he tell her?
He resisted pounding his head against the door in frustration knowing it would do nothing to answer the odd questions that had come up at work and would probably just leave him with a headache. Instead he unlocked the door and pushed it open.
The delicious aroma from whatever Sarah was cooking surrounded him, even before he registered the lively 80s music she was playing. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the savory scent as he walked inside.
He never knew if he would be coming home to a house filled with pumping rock or mellow soul, but he did know he could judge Sarah’s mood by her selection. Today the music told him she was happy and upbeat. He sure didn’t want to darken her mood with his news.
He found Sarah in the kitchen as he usually did, given her love for cooking and baking. She was washing dishes amongst the white cabinets and powder-blue countertops in their tiny, dated kitchen and sang along with the music. Her shiny blond ponytail was swinging as her dish towel swiped dishes in time with the beat. ‘Cute as a button’ was the description he often heard referring to her, and even though he wasn’t exactly sure where that expression came from, he found it fitting.
She didn’t notice him come in so Billy leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his chest, content to watch her as his thoughts continued to race.
She looked so happy and ... innocent, he guessed was the word, and a sad smile tugged at his lips. Dressed in a pair of worn jeans and a crisp white button-down with the sleeves rolled up, she easily still looked like a college student.
He rubbed a hand over his chin. He’d felt as carefree and innocent as she appeared to be when he left the house that morning. Only two years separated them, but after the day he’d just experienced he now felt many years her senior, as if the weight of the world—at least their small piece of it—rested firmly on his broad shoulders.
Billy pushed away from the wall and closed the distance that separated them with a few silent steps. He wrapped his arms around her, causing her to drop the shiny metal lid she was drying with a resounding crash. She uttered a cry of surprise and spun around then gently pounded Billy’s chest as a broad smile covered her face. 
“Hey! You’ve got to stop sneaking up on me like that,” she scolded in a mock serious tone. 
Her playfulness lifted a layer of the stress that was weighing him down, and he did his best to hide the rest. “Maybe if your music wasn’t so loud, I wouldn’t be able to sneak up on you.” He grinned down at her.
“I just couldn’t resist that seductive little dance you were doing for me,” he added. “It was for me, right?” He swept a playful look around the room, and she swatted his chest again before standing on tiptoe to kiss him. 
“All for you,” she joked. However she was dancing, she felt sure it had been anything but seductive. The thought made her lips curve into a smile as they pressed against his again.
Billy allowed the kiss to linger then deepen before he pulled back and used his fingers to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “How was your day?” he asked, his voice low and rough.
“Good.” She reached back to turn down the volume of the music on her smart phone before stooping to pick up the lid from the floor to put it back in the sink.
“I decided today would be my baking day, so it was pretty busy. I made some cookies.” She gestured to the rack of freshly baked cookies still cooling on the cupboard. “Your favorite, chocolate chip. With nuts,” she told him with a smile, knowing his penchant for the added nuts.
“I also baked six loaves of bread to restock the freezer. I think I got every surface in the kitchen dirty,” she added with a laugh, and Billy noted the floured counters and stacks of washed cookie sheets and bread pans. 
“I’m just finishing up the dishes, then I’ll wipe down the counters. I do have dinner ready, though.” She flashed a smile over her shoulder as she turned back to the sink, knowing he would be hungry as he always was after work.
Billy lifted the lid of the large blue cast-iron pot sitting on the stove. Sarah had been pretty proud of herself when she had found it online for what she considered a steal, always careful to watch her spending. “I can’t believe you use this heavy thing.” He pictured his tiny wife maneuvering the heavy pot, and shook his head. 
He leaned over to inhale the delicious aroma that rose with the steam. He emitted a low sound of gratitude, drawing a laugh from Sarah. “Mmm, that really smells good. Stew?”
“It is stew. Chicken with fresh veggies from the garden. And it wouldn’t be nearly as yummy if I didn’t make it in that ‘heavy thing,’” she chuckled, enjoying Billy’s perplexity with her choice of cookware.
“Chicken, huh? Did Ella outlive her usefulness?” he joked, referring to one of the chickens their neighbors, the Bensons, raised.
“Billy, you can’t name your food!” She looked over her shoulder and wrinkled her nose at him, rinsing soap suds off the last washed bowl. 
Billy laughed and raised both hands in surrender. “For someone who is able to process her own food, you sure are squeamish about giving it a name.”
He dipped a spoon into the pot for a taste.“Wow! This is so good. Your cooking just gets better and better.”
“Thank you. It did turn out good, didn’t it?” she asked, with a sparkle in her eyes and a touch of pleasure in her light southern drawl. “I played around with the seasoning a little bit and roasted the chicken before adding it to the veggies. I’m glad you like it.”
She turned off the water and wiped her hands on the dish towel. “The dishes are done. Go wash up. I’ll have everything ready to eat when you get back.”
He gave her a mischievous grin as he snatched a warm cookie off the rack and took a big bite. He chuckled and dodged the wadded dish towel she threw at him then disappeared around the corner.

Light brown hair still damp and a little spiky from his shower, Billy sat beside Sarah at their small breakfast table. It was set with cheery, multi-colored crockery bowls filled with the steaming stew and tall glasses of iced tea. They ate and visited, each enjoying their meal.
Billy savored his last bite of stew then reached for another cookie. “I think I spend half of my day at work just imagining what kind of delicious meal I’ll be coming home to for dinner. Thanks for cooking.”
“Well, since I’m home every day now, I have time to cook more than frozen dinners.” Her smile held a tinge of sadness. She’d quit her part-time job when she found out she was pregnant, but had lost the baby soon after.
“So how was work today?” she asked with forced cheerfulness, redirecting her thoughts to a happier subject.
Billy considered her question as he played with his spoon. Should he tell her he might be out of work tomorrow and make her worry all night, or hold out until he knew for sure?
Billy’s coworker, Ben Richardson—a man a couple of inches shorter than Billy’s six-two with salt and pepper hair still sporting the buzz-cut he preferred from his days of serving in the military—had been with the company much longer than Billy, and he was optimistic that nothing would happen at all. But Ben didn’t see the man standing in the window watching them. 
Deciding he needed to tell Sarah what had happened at work, Billy huffed out a deep breath. “My day was actually kind of strange,” he began, choosing his words carefully as he gathered their empty dishes from the table and carried them to the sink. 
“Strange how?” Sarah followed him to the kitchen and started the water to wash their dishes. The tropical scent from the dish soap filled the air, and she and Billy fell into a familiar harmony as they tidied the kitchen. 
“Well, we were collecting the trash in the super fancy neighborhood, Scinegue.” Billy took the clean bowl she handed him and started to dry it. “You know the gated community that’s named after the company and has all those big houses? The one we have to be so particular about.”
“Of course I know it. It’s the one where you’re not even supposed to talk too loud, right? A bunch of crazy snobs it sounds like!” She rolled her eyes thinking of the super strict policies the neighborhood enforced.
She remembered Billy telling her that one time they’d driven through some mud in a construction area on their way to the neighborhood. The guards at the front gate wouldn’t allow them to enter until they washed the caked mud from the truck’s tires.
Sin-a-gue. What kind of name is that anyway? Does that mean something in another language?” 
“I don’t know. Ben and I just call it the ‘gated neighborhood’. Maybe that’s what it means.” He lifted his shoulders in a quick shrug. The name was the least of his worries.
“Anyway,” he continued, “we were about halfway down our last street. You know usually there’s not much for us to pick up since they have us run the route five days a week for the residents’ convenience.”
Sarah raised her eyes to the ceiling and shook her head but didn’t interrupt him.
“Well, today one house had a ton of bags set out. I was letting my mind wander, thinking about getting a free workout hefting all those heavy trash bags.” He gave her a crooked grin and flexed an arm.
“I was really swinging them into the truck, when all of a sudden I swung one that was as light as a feather and the whole bottom tore out. Papers flew everywhere. Everywhere.” His eyes bored into hers, wondering if she understood the severity of what he was telling her, wondering if he should tell her the rest. His voice was low and dark as he continued, “Ben even came back to help me, and he usually doesn’t get out of the truck, so I knew he was worried.”
“Ugh,” Sarah scrunched her nose up in sympathy. “I’m sorry that happened. I’m sure it was a pain picking up all that paper.” She reached over and rubbed her hand over his arm. “You did get a good workout though!” She squeezed his toned bicep and tried to tease a smile from him.
His lips curved into the semblance of a smile, but she could tell it was forced, and she felt her first niggle of real concern. “It was a pain,” he agreed, picturing the papers scattered across the street. “But that’s not the strange part. I looked around after we picked everything up to see if we’d somehow gotten lucky and gone unnoticed, and there was a guy standing at the window of that house. He didn’t move away when he saw me look his direction, either. We maintained eye contact for a split second and time seemed to freeze. You know that feeling?” he questioned, and Sarah nodded as her concern grew.
“I’ve never had anyone in that neighborhood make any kind of contact before, but he just stood there watching. I’m sure he was probably just trying to see what we looked like so he could report us. I got this feeling when our eyes met, though. It sounds crazy, even to me, but he didn’t seem angry. His body language seemed anxious, maybe even excited.” 
“Do you think he’ll report you?” Sarah asked, as the impact of what he was telling her hit. Cleaning up a mess was one thing. Having a report filed against him at a company as particular as Scinegue, was something else entirely.
He pushed a hand through his short hair as he considered her question. “Those people report every little thing. They don’t put up with anything. But like I said, I didn’t feel like he would.” He paused and stared toward the far wall, reliving the moment.
“I don’t know why I feel like that. We were so far apart; I could barely see his expression. He had his hands pressed up against the window on either side of his face in a way that made him look anxious, and I just had that feeling.” Billy shrugged.
“And then it got even more strange,” his voice rose as he continued. “Remember I told you about Jerald Tanner ‘disappearing’ after he waved back at that little girl who was playing in her yard when we drove by?” He reached up to put the glasses he dried in the cupboard but kept his eyes on Sarah.
“Sure I remember. Did you finally hear from him?” Sarah asked with a glance in his direction. She knew how much it bothered Billy that his coworker left without a word or a trace. “I figured he was just embarrassed about losing his job or something like that and didn’t want to talk to anyone who knew about it.”
“No,” he frowned with a shake of his head, “I wish that was it. Actually, I learned that he wasn’t the first one to disappear after having a mishap at work.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sarah frowned herself, trying to decipher what he meant about people disappearing.
They finished the kitchen, and Billy stood deep in thought for a minute before walking to the living room.
“Billy?” Sarah dried her hands and followed him. “What does that mean?”
Billy sat on their old, red plaid couch that had graced Sarah’s parents’ living room for many years before they passed it down to Billy and Sarah when they remodeled. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “Ben came over to me after work today. He was getting ready to leave, and it was like he made a decision to tell me something. He chewed me out a little for not being careful enough with the trash, then he said people who mess up around there disappear.”
“You mean they get fired?” Sarah narrowed her eyes and tilted her head to the side as she tried to clarify.
“Well, that’s what I thought at first too, but he said they disappear. As in not just gone from the job. Just gone. Like Jerald.” Billy glanced at her face to gauge her reaction to his words. 
“You know I’ve really looked for him,” Billy continued. “I thought it was too strange for him to lose his job and move the same day. I’ve tried tracking him down online and I talked to his neighbors. I can’t find a trace of him. And no one is too excited to talk about him. To talk to his neighbors, you would think they never even knew him.”
“How could that be? You said he lived in the same area his whole life. Even if he wasn’t friends with his neighbors, they would have known him.”
“You would think.” He shrugged. “Everyone I talked to was vague, acting like they didn’t know who had lived in his house. When I told them his name and described him they seemed surprised they’d forgotten about him. ‘Oh, right! Jerald Tanner. Of course, he...’ and that was it. It seemed like they were going to tell me something about him, and then nothing.” 
Sarah shook her head. “That sounds pretty crazy, you know. It sounds like a bad spy movie.” She pushed her blond bangs back from her face and gave a nervous laugh, but Billy didn’t join her.
“You’re right,” he agreed, rubbing his thumb over a callous on his palm. “I don’t know what to think, though. You know this job was strange right from the start.”
“Don’t say that! It’s a great job. You were so fortunate to get it with the economy the way it is. It’s so much better than working two part-time jobs like you were doing. You know not everyone who took that test got job offers.”
She paced over to the window and stared unseeingly into the backyard with her hands on her hips. Since Billy started working at Scinegue things were finally starting to turn around for them financially. She knew money wasn’t everything, but it sure was nice knowing the bills would be paid every month.
“It is weird that they don’t want you to talk about your work, and that you have to be so careful,” she continued with a half shrug. “I mean it’s garbage, stuff people are throwing away.” 
She paced some more and then continued speaking as if Billy had replied. “It’s also strange that you’re not supposed to have any contact with the people who live there.” She thought out an answer to her own comment. “They just have more money than anyone should be allowed to have and want things done a certain way. That’s not all that strange. Picky, sure. But if they’re going to pay top dollar to have a job done, it’s not strange for them to request it be done just so.” She almost had herself convinced and turned to Billy for his opinion. “Right?” she asked, looking for his reassurance. 
The job was strange, but the money was phenomenal and Billy was smart. When the local job fair offered IQ testing for free job placement, he and Sarah were very excited about it. He’d always done well in school—finishing both high school and college early—and had scored an impressive 146 on an IQ test when he was younger. Not exactly Einstein level, but high enough to get him noticed. He figured he would score well on the test at the job fair and hoped the score would translate into a decent job.
When he was offered a position as a trash collector after the test, his pride had been more than a little bruised. Until he found out how much it paid. He’d expected—hoped for—some type of office job, and ‘trash collector’ didn’t sound very glamorous. But he decided that glamour was low on his current list of requirements, and money was high, and he really didn’t mind the physical labor, so trash collector it was.
He turned his thoughts back to the present. “I wasn’t being as careful as I could have been today, but I didn’t drag that garbage bag across the street or do anything that would have torn it. There wasn’t anything heavy or sharp in there that could have poked through, either. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m guessing the bag must have had a huge hole in the bottom, not even just a small rip. If I didn’t tear it, someone must have been very careful to set it out with the hole perfectly on the bottom so the papers wouldn’t blow away before it was moved.” He stood up and stretched his long limbs.
“I’ve been wondering if someone was trying to cause problems for us, get us fired. But that doesn’t make sense.” He turned to look at Sarah. “Why would anyone care about us?”
“They won’t fire you over something that small,” Sarah tried to reassure him, even as her mind raced. “Even if they do, we’ll be just fine. We have the garden, and the Bensons are probably willing to trade some of our produce for eggs from their chickens,” she rambled while pacing the polished wood floor.
“I canned the peaches from our trees,” she continued, holding up a finger as she made each point, “and we’ll have pecans later in the fall. We might have enough to sell. The house is paid for now, and we have money in the bank. I might even be able to get my old job back. We’ll be okay.” She nodded briskly, cheeks flushed and eyes bright, as she finished reciting a list almost identical to one Billy had gone over himself earlier, thankful now that they’d lived frugally to pay off the mortgage on their nice but tiny home. 
Billy pulled her into his arms, hoping to stop the pacing and ease her racing mind. “Whoa, there, calm down.” He gave a slight laugh, surprised to see her so wound up. She was usually very calm and level-headed.
“Everything’s going to be fine.” He bent down to look in her lowered eyes. “All right? Let’s just put this behind us for tonight and not even think about it again until tomorrow. If that guy reported us, we’ll know first thing. There’s no sense worrying about it now. Even if he did report us, it doesn’t mean I’ll lose my job over it. Technically I didn’t do anything wrong. If that bag already had a hole in it, I couldn’t do much about that.”
Sarah swallowed hard and firmed her chin. She knew Billy was as worried about his job as she was, and she didn’t want to add to his stress. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m overreacting, and I’m also forgetting where our help comes from. God has always provided for us and I have no reason to think He’ll stop now.”
She circled his waist with her arms and leaned into him, finding strength in his embrace. Her head only came up to his chest with the foot in height difference between them, but somehow they were still a perfect fit.
“Why don’t we go out back and work in the garden for a while?” she suggested. “That’s always relaxing, and the weeds are popping up quicker than I can keep them pulled by myself.” She gave Billy a more confident smile, her eyes moist with unshed tears but full of determination. “I know everything’s going to be okay.”

Chapter 2

Carefully emptying trash cans and swinging loaded trash bags into the back of the truck the next day, Billy felt stress trying to overwhelm him. He took off his gloves and wiped his sweaty palms on his khakis, telling himself again to relax. If he was going to be fired, it would’ve already happened. Management wouldn’t even let him be on the back of this truck if they weren’t happy with his work.
He tried to talk to Ben about what happened the day before, but he was tight-lipped and in a hurry to get their route started. Billy didn’t know if management had talked to him about the spilled trash or not.
Working hard with his back square to the house where his troubles started the day before, Billy noticed a persistent tingle start between his shoulder blades and work its way to his scalp. He knew it could just be nerves causing the sensation, but a brief glance over his shoulder revealed his senses weren’t deceiving him. He was being watched. He found he was only slightly surprised to see the same man framed by the window, his expression intense.
Billy wiped his forearm across his brow, the tingle turning to a chill. In a neighborhood where he usually didn’t see anyone, he knew it wasn’t a coincidence that he’d seen the same person twice. Both times watching him. He decided it didn’t mean anything good.
After finishing their route, Ben hopped out of the truck without a word the minute it was parked and strode across the parking lot towards the main building to sign out for the day. It was obvious he wasn’t in the mood to talk, but after just a brief hesitation Billy hurried after him. He had so many questions and felt sure Ben had at least some of the answers.
Ben had already signed out and was hurrying past the main building on his way to the parking lot, with Billy not far behind. Suddenly the smoky glass front doors swung open in sync. Two men dressed in dark suits walked out side by side, each grabbed an elbow and escorted Ben inside. Billy was too far away to hear what—if anything—was said, but the single desperate look Ben cast over his shoulder as he let himself be led away was chilling.
Billy stopped where he was. His heart hammered in his chest. He pictured Ben’s desperate expression and found himself wanting to run away. But what was he running from? A torn bag and a few papers on the street? They’d cleaned up the mess and didn’t do anything wrong. No, he didn’t want to be escorted inside like Ben to what, get fired? But there wasn’t anything to be scared of.
Before he had time for another thought, the front doors swung open a second time revealing a pair of men almost identical to the first, walking straight towards him. “William Roth?” the one on the left wearing a deep blue suit asked. Without waiting for a reply, each man grabbed an elbow and started to lead him to the front doors.
Billy’s cold fear flashed to hot anger at the treatment. His hands balled into fists at his sides as he appraised the situation with glances from one man to the other. The men looked pretty solid with their broad shoulders straining against what could have only been custom-made suits. Every bit as tall as he was, they were built like linebackers and it was two against one, but Billy was no lightweight himself. The physical labor of his job kept him in excellent condition and although he wasn’t exactly proud of it, he knew how to fight.
They probably expected a fight, or at least some type of resistance. Otherwise they wouldn’t have come out like a couple of enforcers. His eyes narrowed at the thought. He wouldn’t prove them right, he decided with growing anger, but he wasn’t going to be led around like a criminal either.
“Yes, I’m William Roth.” He surprised them by shrugging out of their grasp and stopping right outside the door with his arms crossed and legs spread slightly. “What’s this about?” he demanded, hoping he sounded much calmer than he felt. 
The two men glanced at each other. They weren’t used to being questioned, and couldn’t seem to decide if they should lower themselves to answer, or just physically drag him inside. Deciding a bigger scene wasn’t necessary, Blue Suit spoke again, “Mr. Bryant would like to ask you a few questions about an incident that happened yesterday on your route.”
Billy’s eyes darted to the parking lot, and for a split second he considered making a run for his truck and just taking off and never coming back. Stay cool, Billy. Just stay cool, he repeated to himself taking a deep, steadying breath. You didn’t do anything wrong.
“I’ll answer any questions you have about my work. What I want to know first is why you’re escorting me as if I’m being arrested?” He managed to frown at each of the suits as if offended.
“What is it you want to ask me?” he continued when both men just eyed him warily.
The men exchanged another look and the man in the charcoal gray suit finally spoke with a gravely voice. “You need to come with us, Mr. Roth. We aren’t the ones with the questions.”
Making a quick decision, Billy walked forward with forced confidence, “Okay, sure.”
The suits flanked him on either side as he entered the building, but no longer tried to propel him with physical force. One step inside the door, however, and he stopped cold. His first look at the interior of the Scinegue building filled him with a combination of awe and trepidation. If he’d ever given a thought to what the interior of the office building looked like before—which he didn’t really think he had—he would never have imagined anything like what he saw before him. 
Understated but gorgeous described it best. Simple but elegant tables with matching chairs arranged throughout a large lobby offered inviting places for visiting or discussing business. Real flames flickered from scones around the room, providing a refined, yet relaxing, ambiance. But the thing that made Billy’s jaw drop and kept him frozen in place was the ceiling. A beautiful patchwork of stained glass, so unexpected in a building with such a plain exterior, covered the entire ceiling three-stories above, letting in varying shades of light to tint the room with soft, ever changing colors.
A not so gentle nudge broke his contemplation of the ceiling and forced him to the left past a large marble desk. If the impeccably dressed men and women passing through the lobby hadn’t made him feel underdressed, the gorgeous redhead behind the desk took care of that instantly.
Without sparing a glance at the passing men, she exuded an aura of self-control and competency. She sat with her back ramrod straight as she efficiently answered the multiple phone lines. A silky, royal blue blouse buttoned to the very top gave her an appearance of class and distinction. Billy felt he should have showered and changed before even being allowed to walk through the front doors of the same building where someone who looked like her worked.
Billy’s escorts came to an abrupt stop, and he tore his attention from the receptionist to see what they were doing. Blue Suit swiped a card through a security device on a locked door then punched in a code. The door unlocked with a click.
Billy cast a nervous glance back towards what felt like the safety of the lobby and was surprised to find the receptionist watching him. She broke eye contact almost instantly, looking back down at her desk, but not before Billy saw something that was far from reassuring: fear. He was certain he saw fear in her eyes. Was she worried about what was going to happen to him?
Billy was given another nudge and looked towards the long hall in front of him. Was he being foolish going along with these guys willingly? His eyes darted from left to right, and his pulse jumped wildly. People were everywhere. It wasn’t like there weren’t any witnesses ... and here he stopped and gave his head a brisk shake.
He was letting himself get way too worked up over what was probably going to be a simple reprimand—he exhaled sharply. At worst he was about to lose his job. Thinking anything worse than that was about to happen was just crazy.
He made himself take a step forward and let the men lead him down the hall. As he walked between them he noticed the hallway was decorated with niches filled with delicate artwork, interspersed with a wide variety of paintings hung at precise intervals.
He craned his neck to look into the offices and rooms they passed. From the little he could see, the rooms looked almost identical with top quality furnishings, and neutral paint and flooring. The men he saw looked similar to his escorts, with business suits and short hair. The women he saw seemed to share a similar appearance as well. It was kind of eerie, like a building full of clones. 
It’s probably like that in any profession, he decided. Like lawyers, they had a certain appearance to maintain.
The hall branched to the right, but they continued straight before stopping at another locked door. This one was more elaborate than the first, and required Blue Suit to place his open hand on a scanner before the lock disengaged with a click. Billy wondered what lay behind the door that required such tight security, but found the hall that continued on the other side was similar to the one they had just traversed.
The suits came to a stop before a closed wooden door with an elegant brass handle. Gray Suit rapped his knuckles against the solid wood, opening the door when a muffled call to enter came from inside.
Billy realized he’d been expecting an interrogation room like he saw on criminal television shows. An empty room with just a table and a couple of chairs on either side, and the always present two-way mirror that allowed surveillance for anyone not wanting to be seen.
The room he was encouraged to enter with a slight shove from behind was far from his expectations. This was an office of luxury. He might not know the name or value of each article in the office, but they each screamed taste and wealth. Dark wood and deep tones throughout gave the room a distinct masculine feel that was almost oppressive with its countless pieces of priceless art and furnishings.
Billy’s eyes roamed from one display to the next before coming to rest on the well-dressed man studying him with a piercing intensity through dark, almost black eyes from behind a stately desk. Older than Billy by probably ten to fifteen years, his hair was still dark and he wore it slicked back from a closely shaven face of chiseled features. He appeared to be trying to decide if he should stand and welcome Billy as a colleague, or remain seated in a position of power.
The man abruptly stood and walked around the desk. His focused expression melted into a warm smile and he extended a hand to Billy as if he was happy to see him. “William, welcome! I am so glad you could spare the time to meet with me. I’m Eugene Bryant,” he introduced himself while heartily shaking Billy’s hand.
“Please call me Eugene. You go by Billy, I believe? Is it all right if I call you William?” He gave Billy a friendly smile displaying straight white teeth. “I have a thing about nicknames.”
Billy nodded his consent and carefully sat in the straight-backed chair he was motioned to.
“Please make yourself comfortable.” Mr. Bryant returned to his chair and closed some folders, stacking them in a neat pile on the edge of his tidy desk before turning to give Billy his full attention. “I’m sure you are curious why I’ve had you detained when you would much rather be on your way home to your lovely wife.”
His smile was winning, but Billy was far from being won over. This was just too strange.
“I have a few questions for you if you can spare the time,” Mr. Bryant continued as if Billy really had a choice in the matter. 
Billy wondered what would happen if he just stood up and said, ‘Sorry, I don’t have the time. See you around, Gene,’ and walked out the door. He pictured the two men who had brought him here, and figured they would not allow him to get far.
“Of course, sir. What questions do you have for me?” Billy asked in a calm voice that belied his pounding heart.
“What’s this ‘sir’ stuff?” Mr. Bryant’s laugh was congenial. “I told you Eugene is fine.”
“Okay, Eugene.” Billy tried again with a stiff smile as he rubbed the palm of his hand against his thigh. “What were those questions you had?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll get right to that. First, let me just confirm I have my facts straight. You were hired close to seven months ago after attending the Scinegue job fair.”
Billy’s nerves were strung tight, and he nodded in confirmation, even though it wasn’t really presented as a question.
“You started out working with Benjamin Richardson and Jerald Tanner. You later continued work with just Mr. Richardson. So sad about Mr. Tanner.” He shook his head as if a tragedy had occurred, then continued abruptly. “Your route consists of three neighborhoods: Sunny Meadows, Warm Brook and Scinegue.”
Billy nodded again.
“Good, good,” Eugene said, as if the meeting was going very smoothly. He steepled his carefully manicured hands under his clean-shaven chin and met Billy’s eyes with a steely stare before he continued in a deeper tone. “As I’m sure you have noticed, there is a type of hierarchy, if you will, between the neighborhoods, with each being progressively nicer then the last. Scinegue being the most exclusive.”
Billy simply nodded again when a response seemed desired. 
“You were also aware when you accepted this job that only complete competency and discretion would be acceptable in your position?”
Here it comes, Billy thought. That guy standing in the window must have reported them. He probably assumed someone else would turn them in and when they showed up again today he must have done it himself.
Billy leaned forward with his hands braced on his thighs. “Sir, if this is about the incident with a few papers spilling out of a bag yesterday, I can assure you it won’t happen again.” 
Mr. Bryant looked irritated and then amused. “How exactly can you assure me it won’t happen again, I wonder?” He tilted his head to the side and looked at Billy expectantly.
Billy realized his mistake in an instant. “I guess I can’t assure you it will never happen,” he answered slowly. “But I can assure you I will do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t. I was really swinging the bags that day, never expecting one to be torn. Today I made sure to handle each one as if it could tear open at any second. If I ever come across another torn bag, I will at least minimize the potential mess.”
“The bag was torn?” Mr. Bryant lowered his hands to his desk and leaned toward Billy with a sense of urgency.
Billy sat back, distancing himself from the intensity of Mr. Bryant’s probing stare. “I’m not trying to make excuses, sir. I just think the bag must have already been torn to break open that easy. I know I didn’t drag it across the street, and there wasn’t anything heavy or sharp in it, so I just came to the conclusion it was torn to start with.” Billy gave a shrug, unsure if he had made things better or worse for himself.
Mr. Bryant’s dark eyes narrowed and appeared to gleam as he looked deep into Billy’s, making him even more uncomfortable. 
Suddenly his face relaxed, and he settled back into his chair. He steepled his fingers under his chin and continued to study Billy with interest as he spoke slowly, “Yes, yes, I can see how that could happen. If the bag was torn, it would be very hard for you to prevent the contents from escaping.”
Billy remained quiet but felt the hairs on his neck rise under Mr. Bryant’s scrutiny.
After a moment, Mr. Bryant broke the silence. “I believe we’ve made your wife wait quite long enough for your return. Sarah, isn’t it? You may leave now,” he dismissed Billy abruptly. “I have some business to tend to.” He looked distracted and started tapping keys on his computer.
Billy stood. “Um, thank you, Eugene. I assure you I will do my best to make sure things run smooth on our route.”
When Mr. Bryant remained focused on his monitor, not acknowledging his words, Billy headed for the door. Just as he reached for the shiny handle, Mr. Bryant spoke without looking up. “William? All of the papers were picked up and disposed of, correct?” 
Looking back, Billy saw Mr. Bryant still briskly typing on his computer as if his reply was of limited importance. “Yes sir, of course,” Billy answered, just before an image flashed through his mind of the last crumpled paper he’d picked up and shoved in his pocket after the truck drove to the next house.
“Mmm. Very well. Good day.”
“Good day, sir.” Billy hesitated, wondering if he should confess that he had one of the papers. It didn’t take much to convince himself to keep quiet about it. He would just destroy it as soon as he got home, which would be almost as good as never having had it in the first place.
He opened the door to find Blue and Gray standing on either side of it, patiently waiting to escort him from the building. Without a word, they walked him down the same hall, through the coded doors, and past the same receptionist who still did not spare them a glance.
They left Billy at the front door, apparently trusting him to make it to his vehicle without causing any trouble. Although he felt pretty sure they would be watching him through the smoky glass windows until he drove off.
He saw Ben’s old blue truck pulling out of the parking lot just before he reached his own truck. At least he hadn’t disappeared, Billy thought—only partially in jest—wishing he could have caught him before he left. They would talk tomorrow, he decided. No matter what Ben thought, they had to talk.
Billy’s thoughts centered on the piece of paper he had stuffed in his pocket for the entire drive home. He didn’t knowingly lie to ‘Mr.-Bryant-call-me-Eugene’. He’d honestly forgotten about the paper.
He just felt a twinge of guilt for not telling Mr. Bryant the truth when he did remember. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t say anything, except he was afraid it would make him look a liar after he said everything had been disposed of. Well that, and the fact that the whole situation was just downright weird. 
Drumming his fingers against the steering wheel, he replayed his meeting with Mr. Bryant. He might not have ever collected trash before, but it didn’t take a genius to realize this was not standard procedure. Being escorted by two big bodyguard type men to see someone in upper management just because one garbage bag had torn? There was nothing normal about that.
He would just throw that stupid paper away when he got home, he decided as he turned onto the main road. Then reconsidered. Maybe he should at least look at it. He didn’t want to work for a company if it was doing something illegal.
But what were the odds that this one piece of paper out of the whole bag would just happen to have some kind of incriminating information on it? This wasn’t even ‘the company’s’ trash. This was just a resident’s trash who expected confidentiality.
Arguments waged war through Billy’s mind as he neared the older subdivision where he lived on the opposite side of town from Scinegue. He pictured the face that had watched him from the window again today. What was it about that face? 
It didn’t matter, Billy decided as he slapped a palm against the steering wheel. He’d agreed to the utmost confidentiality when he accepted this position. He would go home, find the paper and shred it. No, he would burn it, he thought. Then he would honestly be able to say he’d disposed of all the trash.