Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Maximal Reserve written by Sam Batterman

Tour Date: June 3, 2011

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

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

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Maximal Reserve

Deep River (February 1, 2011)

***Special thanks to Arielle Roper of Bring it On! Communications for sending me a review copy.***


Sam Batterman is a self-avowed ‘geek,’ he pursued a Computer Science degree and works as a software engineer in Southeastern Pennsylvania. In 2007 he started writing his first novel, Wayback and had it published in 2009 where it went on to be the best-selling fiction novel for his publisher.

Visit the author's website.


Petroleum exploration engineer Phil Channing uncovers the single largest oil reserve in history--and he's only been employed for a week! The find is so large that it dwarfs all Middle East reserves combined, and lies so deep within the bowels of the earth that it can't be reached by any conventional method. He discovers how to tap into this Maximal Reserve through research left behind by a college friend who was brutally murdered just before Phil took the job. The secret lies in the cryptic revelation of a complex of lava tubes on the southeast side of the Dead Sea known as Etsba Elohim--the Finger of God.

This knowledge provides the ability to reach this incredibly strategic resource and threatens to change the world's balance of power and wealth in favor of the small nation of Israel.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Deep River (February 1, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1935265520
ISBN-13: 978-1935265528




Heavy metal music blasted across the small apartment as rain droplets gyrated on the smudged window glass. The small spheres of water multiplied a hundredfold the bright hues of neon light coming from across the street.

Jackson Sanders popped the tabbed lid of a high-energy drink and gulped down a third of the can without taking his eyes off the thirty-inch computer monitor dwarfing his desk. A strange image was spread across the display, a branching, root-like shape with tapered cylinders that sprouted from a single point. The shape’s surface was wire-framed and broken into thousands of triangles. Depths measured in kilometers ran along a vertical axis.

Jack moved the mouse while holding down the right button, and the entire scene shifted slowly in three dimensions as if his head were at the center of the display. The lights on the front of his computer flickered at high speed, trying to keep up with the eyes and actions of its user.

The powerful computer was losing the battle.

Clicking on a few of the colorful triangles, Jack measured the distance between two points on the display. He knew this strange digital domain better than his messy apartment.

“There it is,” he mumbled, pulling out a notepad with a University of Waterloo at Toronto crest on the cover. He wrote quickly, the scrawl indecipherable to all but himself. Years of e-mail exchanges and multiple instant-messenger sessions open at any given time had long ago ruined any appreciation he’d had for good penmanship.

A new track began to play, but its volume and vigor were the same. Jack’s head bobbed with the syncopated rhythm. He continued writing in the tattered notepad at a mad pace when a small icon began flashing on his virtual desktop.

Jack frowned and clicked on the icon. A window sprang up, showing a grid of video feeds covering the hallway outside his apartment, the stairwell leading to the second floor, and the back alley below his rain-covered window.

Jack had written the program for surveillance purposes. The small fortune tied up in his workstations, servers, and networking could fetch quite a reward at a local pawn shop or fund a junkie’s habit for the next few months, so this gave him a way to keep an eye on the area. The program was simple: it allowed him to view the grainy black-and-white images coming from the cameras and look for big changes between frames—arriving or departing parties in the apartment complex.

Jack squinted at the low-quality images. Three men in black coats and jeans, with crew cuts and the physique of soldiers, were coming up the stairwell.

Jack didn’t recognize them. He glanced at his watch: 10:30 p.m.

The bars don’t close for another three hours; they’re not students, Jack thought.

One of the video feeds went to static. The stairwell feed was out. Jack’s already caffeinated body amped up with adrenaline.

He’d known this day was coming.

Jack watched the men approach the surveillance cameras. It seemed they knew where the cameras were. The remaining feeds blurred rapidly and then succumbed to static.

Jack pulled the hard drive connected to his nine-thousand-dollar workstation, and the monitor went blank. He ran to the kitchenette and opened the microwave door, shoving the hard drive into the small oven and cramming in a dozen CDs and DVDs from a shoebox on a bookshelf. He slammed the microwave door shut and pushed the “Popcorn” button. The appliance hummed as it destroyed the magnetic characteristics of the storage media.

Jack bounded from the kitchenette across his rumpled bed, the mattress groaning from a dozen broken springs. He grabbed his backpack and shoved the university notepads containing his indecipherable scrawl into it.

A polite knock came at the door as Jack opened the raindrop-covered window as quietly as possible. He took one last look around his apartment and glanced at the lightning forking behind the tinted glass of the microwave door as the hard drive was destroyed.

Jack stepped out onto the small balcony and fire escape. Inside the apartment, polite knocking had turned into pounding. The balcony was crowded: a mountain bike, a hibachi for warmer weather, and a dead plant left little room for anything or anyone else.

Jack picked up the light, titanium-framed mountain bike and threw it over the ledge of the balcony. It bounced off a pile of trash bags and landed on the street ten feet below. There was no time to carry it down to the street carefully like he normally did.

As he stepped to the rusting ladder of the fire escape, he heard the apartment door splinter and crack as the men broke through. Jack flicked the latch for the ladder, and the rusty steel rungs flew down to the street.

Jack bailed over the side of the balcony and made his way down the slippery ladder to the alley below. As his sneakers hit the asphalt, he heard the men rummaging through all the things in his apartment.

Jack smiled. They wouldn’t find what they were looking for.

He mounted his bike and pedaled with all his might down the alley, avoiding a homeless man and a dumpster on the way to Front Street. As he left the alley he heard a gruff voice yell, “There he is!” The squelch of a two-way radio followed before the sounds of the city at night extinguished the shouting from the apartment raid.

Jack pedaled quickly, weaving between parking meters and parked cars as he headed toward Roger’s Center and the downtown area. The rain stung his eyes, and he felt numb with the wind sweeping the street. As he reached the corner, he saw the CN Tower looming above him with spotlights shining on its three soaring concrete sides. Behind him the squealing tires of a speeding car announced a vehicle entering the street a hundred yards back.

A black Escalade SUV roared toward him. Jack could see neon lights reflecting in its polished grill. He stood up on the bike and pumped the pedals while careening down the smooth concrete, ducking the grid-like arrangement of trees growing out of sidewalk-level planters. He passed over the boulevard and into Roundhouse Park. A bus horn sounded, startling him, and a late-shift city bus roared past, nearly turning him into a splattered bug on its windshield.

Exhausted, his lungs burning, Jack looked behind him. No one was following. There were no main roads into the park.

He was safe, and he flashed a smile of relief.

Jack’s smile disappeared as the high beams of the SUV glinted through the dark. The vehicle smashed over the median and into the courtyard of the park. Orange sparks flew from the car’s transmission and undercarriage as automotive steel and concrete paving met.

Jack increased his speed, pedaling like a man possessed—too fast, much too fast.

Another car screeched into the far end of the park, cutting off the Lake Shore Drive ramp. Instinctively, Jack hit the brakes, and the mountain bike lost its traction on the park’s wet cobblestones and crashed onto its side. The bike and its passenger slid for a dozen feet before running into a park bench. Spokes bent under the impact, and the chain broke and slithered across the sidewalk into the grass like a wounded snake.

Dazed, Jack pulled his bleeding leg from under the wrecked bike, grabbed his backpack from the pavement, and hobbled toward a crescent-shaped grove of pine trees.

A bleep sounded in the night air, and a tuft of grass flew up just to his left. Jack ambled to the right, and another pistol flashed, the bullet clipping his foot. He fell to the wet grass. Three long shadows stretched across the park lawn, blotting out the city lights behind them. They clustered together, and two of them looked over their shoulders in opposite directions, checking for unwanted observers.

“No!” said Jack, trembling and raising his right hand toward the man in the center of the group. “Please,” he pleaded. “I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

“You’re right about that, Jack,” said the man in the middle, twisting a silencer on the front of his pistol and pointing it at Jack’s forehead.

The orange glow from the muzzle blast lit up Jack’s terrified eyes for the last time.

“Get the backpack!” said the assassin.

“Got it!” said one of his accomplices, rummaging through the contents of the blood-spattered backpack. He held out a notebook with the university logo. The embossed crest gleamed in the town car’s headlights. The other man knelt down and collected the empty shells from the wet lawn.

“Make sure you grab his wallet and phone, and let’s get out of here,” said the leader, flipping open his cell phone and snapping a photo of Jack’s shattered body. He stored the picture and dialed a number. The three men walked back toward the still-idling Escalade, leaving Jack’s lifeless form behind on the wet lawn.

“Yes, we took care of it; nothing’s left. The secret’s still safe. We’ll be there in the morning. We’re heading to the airport now.”

Chapter One

The Interview

Philip Channing sat in the ripped-vinyl driver’s seat of his car and examined his face and hair in the rearview mirror, adjusting his necktie one more time and giving an awkward smile. He closed his eyes and rehearsed his answers to the questions that would come at him in the next two hours. He gulped and cheered himself on as if he were in some sort of otherworldly race with himself as both player and spectator. Okay, this is it. This is for all the marbles. Come on, Phil!

He lifted the door latch and stepped out into the bright Texas sunlight and humid air. As he closed the car door, something beneath the rusty hulk creaked. The college beater had served him well for six years, but now, parked next to Lexuses, BMWs, and SUVs, it seemed out of its element. Kinda like me. He scanned the parking lot, pictured the drivers of the cars, and grinned.

I’m not worthy!

Phil opened his leather-bound notepad and double-checked his arsenal of résumés and recommendation letters. He glanced at his watch and began the long walk to the security building over two hundred yards away. He had searched for a visitor parking spot upon arrival, but all the slots were filled. Instead of risking a parking ticket he couldn’t afford—or worse, the towing of his decrepit but critically needed conveyance—he’d decided to join the rank and file in parking in the distant employee parking lot.

If all went well, his car would soon belong there.

As Phil walked behind the shiny cars, he wondered how he had ended up here at the Axcess Energy Company. Axcess was the enemy when he was in school. It was the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the energy market that was poisoning the earth by belching its fossil fuels into the planet’s precious and fragile atmosphere, practically stomping on the polar ice caps with its enormous carbon footprint.

He thought through a hundred lectures from guest speakers and liberal professors who had lambasted and accused Axcess of raping the natural resources of the planet for the purposes of greed and short-term stock value. As a freshman he had even participated in an on-campus protest against the corporate leviathan.

But that was a long time ago.

Phil looked up into the cloudless sky as he did a quick calculation of how much his education had cost him and his parents. Eighty thousand dollars in tuition funds, lab fees, and overall living debt was enough to bring sobriety to any environmental zealot drunk with dogma. Things were different now: more pragmatic, less idealistic. In short, he needed a job.

His parents, a proud blue-collar worker and a schoolteacher, had done what they could to help him—sacrificing their early retirements and driving used cars instead of new ones to help fund his education, first in an expensive prep school and then during his undergraduate years. Phil sometimes felt guilty about his parents’ sacrifices, but now, alone in the world after their deaths—his mom in a tragic auto accident and his dad from a fast-moving cancer in Phil’s sophomore year of college—he knew this interview was the door to making their investments in his life pay off.

Only a few weeks before, he had packed all his earthly belongings into his deathtrap and driven to Austin. It was a far warmer climate than Toronto’s, where the typically Canadian winter was made even colder by freezing wind from Lake Ontario, plunging the temperature to zero and below in the winter months. The routine of graduate school was wearing off. He was responsible for himself now, and maybe soon—he hoped—for Lisa. His parents were gone, Lisa’s parents still looked at him like he was a bum off the streets, he was in a boatload of debt, and he needed something to do. Something worthwhile and challenging, something that wasn’t just school.

Yes, he needed this job—badly.

Three weeks earlier he had endured a technical interview with three of Axcess’s most brilliant petroleum engineers: Scott Ward, Gorin Vladofsky, and Caleb Mosha. Phil had met Caleb in Toronto; his niece was dating Phil’s best friend, Jack Sanders. It was Caleb who had made the interview with the energy company possible.

All three men worked for Dr. John Chambers—the legend, the iconoclast, the maverick. Chambers was the man to work for in the energy sector, more dynamic even than Glenn Martin, Axcess’s CEO. Chambers was so important to the future of the energy company that the board gave him absolute flexibility in his research programs. Chambers’s attitude was well-known: first, break all the rules; second, slay sacred cows. Chambers was highly regarded in academic communities and feared in the halls of business and government. His ideas and theories were always radical and challenged the status quo at every turn. Just like Phil.

The guardhouse was still a hundred yards away when Phil’s cell phone rang. He fumbled with his notepad and dug through every pocket of his suit searching for the phone. He looked at the display: Lisa Baton. Phil smiled at the name and the photo that accompanied the call. He pressed “Take Call” with his nail-bitten thumb and heard the most beautiful voice in the world.

“Hi, Phil, I know you’re getting ready to get all nervous and everything, but remember: regardless of what happens, I still love you and I still think you are the best geophysicist/computer science guy on the planet.”

“Lisa, I think I’m the only geophysicist/computer science guy on the plan-et—at least the only one out of work,” Phil replied.

Her response came quickly, as if Lisa had known he would say that. “True, but even if there were hordes of your kind, you’d still be the most handsome.”

Even though the two had been dating for four years, she could still make him blush. “Thanks . . . I think,” said Phil, stepping through the guardhouse door and getting in line with a dozen other people jockeying for position to register their visits.

Lisa’s tone changed as she sensed Phil’s attention being pulled away from the conversation. “Seriously, just do your best and let things happen. I’ll be praying for you. I love you!”

“I love you too,” said Phil a little too loudly as a lady in front of him turned around, smiled, and winked at him. Red-faced, Phil shoved his phone back into his suit pocket and wished there was another line he could get into.

A few uncomfortable minutes later, the security officer waved and said, “Next please,” breaking the unspoken tension with the woman whose body language still showed she thought Phil was flirting with her.

After the woman went through the security turnstile, Phil stepped to the counter and smiled. The bored security guard stared at him with the biggest bags under his eyes that Phil had ever seen.

“I’m here for an interview with Dr. John Chambers,” said Phil cheerfully.

“Good for you,” said the security officer. “Do you have ID?”

Phil worked his way through all the pockets in his suit, producing his cell phone, car keys, a pen, and finally his wallet. The droopy-eyed security guard watched the stack of personal items grow on the counter in front of him.

“Here you go,” Phil said, handing his driver’s license over the counter. “Sorry, I rarely wear a suit.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed,” said the security guard. A few moments later a black-and-white label rolled out of a printer. The guard peeled the wax-paper backing off the label and stuck it onto a temporary badge that said ESCORT REQUIRED in big red letters.

“Walk up the sidewalk to the main lobby and wait for your escort.”

“Thanks,” said Phil, smiling at the guard as he stepped through the turnstile. The security guard was already processing the next visitor.

The walk was quick. A small cement sidewalk skirted a perfectly manicured lawn and freshly mulched flowerbeds. The glass-and-steel office complex soared a dozen stories above the lawn and gleamed in the morning sun. Phil could see people in their offices, gathering in conference rooms, and walking across glass-enclosed sky bridges between the buildings, all preparing for a busy and productive day.

The beauty of the place seemed lost on the employees who were scurrying past, drinking coffee, checking voice mail, and typing on their BlackBerrys while juggling briefcases and messenger bags. Phil decided to pop open his cell phone and join the fun.

The welcome screen appeared on his phone and displayed his communication status:

New Text Messages: 0

New E-mail Messages: 0

Well, so much for that.

Phil flipped the phone closed as he reached the glass doors of the visitor center lobby. The lobby was a huge atrium, and sunlight radiated through the skylights, illuminating the beautiful marble floor of the visitor center. Phil looked along the wood-paneled walls where supposedly artistic and valuable sculptures were positioned in regular intervals. The rare oil paintings on the walls and benches made of beautiful wood were carefully interspersed, reminding Phil of an art gallery, not of the lair of a corporate beast that wanted to melt the Arctic.

A pleasant voice pulled Phil from his admiration of the lobby and back into reality. “Mr. Channing?”

Phil spun around and found an attractive, thirty-something woman dressed in a conservative navy business suit. She extended her hand.

“Mr. Channing, I’m Sarah Rogers, Dr. Chambers’s administrative assistant. I’ll be taking you to the conference room where the interview will be occurring today.”

“Hello,” said Phil, trying not to look like a goon. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Phil walked alongside Sarah toward an elevator at the end of the hall, passing through a gauntlet of security guards who were eyeballing badges and checking for escorts. As they walked, Phil tried to break the awkward silence.

“It sure is pretty outside. What a wonderful facility you have here.” He cleared his throat. Exactly how stupid and obvious could he sound, anyway?

They both stepped into the elevator, and Sarah pressed the button for the fourth floor. “Axcess is a wonderful place to work, Philip; they have a heart for the environment and a mind for American prosperity.” Her tone was even with no inflection, giving no indication that she knew her response was weird and sounded way too recorded.

Phil pretended to glance at the back of the elevator, but he was really looking at the back of Sarah Rogers for a pull string showing that she was, in fact, a robot.

The elevator dinged, and the door slid open, revealing a wide-open reception area surrounded by spacious conference rooms. The sprawling campus of the corporation could be seen beyond windows that wrapped around the entire floor.

“How many people work at this facility?” asked Phil, admiring the rectangles of perfectly mowed lawns and glass-and-concrete structures outside the window.

“Around five thousand. Austin is the headquarters and the largest of all Axcess’s sites. Now then, Dr. Chambers will be here in a minute. May I get you some water or anything?” Sarah said.

“No, thank you. I’m fine.”

Sarah smiled and left the conference room. Phil put his leather notepad on the enormous oval table and walked around it to gaze out over the campus. He smiled as he looked through the glass and indulged in a quick fantasy that he had worked here for ten years and this was his corner office.

“Nice view, isn’t it?” came a booming voice. Phil jumped, bumping into the windowpane. He was thankful for the safety glass; otherwise, he would have been plummeting some four stories to his doom.

“Dr. Chambers!” Phil responded as he tried to cross the space between them with some class and dignity to shake the famous scientist’s hand. The older man smiled kindly at the young, eager recruit. Chambers was tall and thin in an athletic way and slightly balding with a close-shorn salt-and-pepper beard. He was dressed all in black, with the enigmatic noir look popularized by Steve Jobs. The Apple CEO had given his most successful product launches dressed in all black, and now technologists the world over emulated his “Geek Chic” look.

“I’ve been following your academic career for a very long time, Phil. Your professors give you the highest praise,” said Chambers, inviting Phil to sit in the plush chair and taking a seat across from him. “They say you are one of the brightest minds to come through the university in quite a while. In fact, they call you the hottest data visualization specialist on the planet.”

Phil paused. He wasn’t sure how to respond to this praise. Should he look confident, or would that come across as arrogant? He managed to flash a subtle smile. Chambers’s magnetism was legendary, and here in the presence of the icon, Phil felt the man’s charisma envelop him like an energy field. Chambers instantly made you want to work for him.

The man leaned forward and focused all his attention on Phil. “So why are you bailing out now?”

Phil wasn’t exactly sure what he meant. “Excuse me?”

Chambers clarified his question without so much as a blink of an eyelash. “Why aren’t you staying to get your doctorate? With the kind of work you did in graduate school, you could be done pretty quickly.”

Time seemed to stop. Phil felt a bead of sweat roll down his face. The energy emanating from the man tangled around him. He knew the right answers, of course. Everything he should say to make him sound like a good candidate for the job. But under such pressure, he felt the strange urge to speak his mind—as if that’s what Chambers wanted.

Phil took a deep breath. “I’ve been in college and grad school for six years. I have double majors in geology and computer science and a master’s in petroleum exploration. And you’re right, I could keep going, but I want to use my education now. I want to work on great projects with people who will challenge me and make me better. I already have a master’s degree—some would say that means I’ve mastered the subject, but how can that be? I’ve never made a commercial contribution to a company, and I’ve only seen the data and situations that an academic institution can provide. Frankly, Dr. Chambers, I want more.”

Chambers beamed. It was the right answer.

“I do plan on going back to get my doctorate, but only after I have the experience that would make it valuable.” There. He had hedged his bet properly.

“One of the researchers on my team, Caleb Mosha, brought you to my attention four years ago. You went to school with his niece, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Aliya is dating one of my best friends. We double-dated a lot in school,” answered Phil. “Actually, we all did everything together.”

“All?” asked Chambers, raising his eyebrow.

“Aliya and her boyfriend and Lisa—she’s my girlfriend. She lives here in town and works for the state.”

Chambers looked at his cell phone and set it to vibrate before staring directly at Phil, taking in his every facial expression. “If it’s not completely obvious by this point, Phil, I want you to work for me, on a project that I’m certain will define both of our careers. Since you went through the technical wringer a few weeks ago with the staff, I just want to answer any questions you might have and try to help you with your decision.”

Chambers paused for a full minute, his eyes drilling into Phil’s, who responded in kind, like a corporate version of a first-one-who-blinks-is-a-rottenegg contest. Silence boomed in Phil’s ears. Suddenly his mouth was dry, and he wished he had taken the robot up on her water offer.

Here goes. Phil licked his lips. He only had one question. “Well, to be honest, Dr. Chambers, I want to know more about the project. I need to know more about the actual work I’d be doing here at Axcess.”

Chambers seemed a bit surprised. “You mean they didn’t tell you anything about our project during the technical interview?”

“No, sir, most of their questions revolved around the project I worked on a few years ago. That project involved using commodity-based computer grids to solve uncertainty around seismic data, but nothing about the actual job at Axcess was discussed.”

“Leave it to the nerds and the lawyers to goof up a good thing,” Chambers muttered.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” Chambers glanced beyond Phil for a moment, his attention lost in the sprawling campus of Axcess Energy. A smile crept across his face, and he snapped his fingers. “Do you have a passport?”

“Um, yes,” said Phil. Where is he going with this?

“I want to show you what you’ll be working on. Are you available for, say, thirty hours?” asked Chambers as he stood up and dialed his assistant. He looked back at the young recruit. “Or are you doing something more important?”

How can I argue with that? Phil asked himself.

“Sarah, please have a limousine come around front for me.” Chambers snapped the phone shut.

“Thirty hours? You mean right now?” asked Phil, glancing at his business suit and wing-tip shoes. “What do I need to bring?”

“No time like the present,” said Chambers. “We’ll stop by your apartment before the airport so you can get your stuff. We’re heading for a research rig, so dress like you’re going camping. Oh, and one more thing. It’s going to be windy.”

Stop by my apartment? How does he know—wait a minute—did he just say airport?

Chambers strode quickly from the conference room with Phil running close behind to keep up. When the elevator reached the lobby, a black limousine pulled around to the front of the complex, and Phil and Chambers jumped in.

■ ■ ■ ■

Phil opened the door of his apartment and ducked inside. The place was a mess, and he was glad Chambers hadn’t asked to come in. That would’ve been a job killer for sure.

He pulled back a curtain and looked at the limo idling in the parking lot. Chambers was on his cell phone, and he spotted Phil looking out the window. He smiled and tapped his watch.

Phil ran to the bedroom and grabbed a duffel bag from the closet. He grabbed a shaving bag from the bathroom, a toothbrush, and all the typical things for an overnight hotel stay. He threw a pair of jeans, a few T-shirts, and a sweatshirt into the duffel, cramming them down with his hands and forcing the zipper shut. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. It was dead.

There was no time to charge the battery.

He grabbed the power cord for charging his laptop and stuffed it and the computer into his backpack. Running to the kitchen, he picked up the landline and dialed Lisa’s number. Phil glanced at the refrigerator and wondered how many science experiments were growing in there. Cleaning had not been his top priority over the past few weeks. Phil’s OCD took over, and he moved the trash can in front of the refrigerator with his legs. While the phone connection was being made, he started throwing things away—eggs, milk, and a head of lettuce that was already turning brown. The trash can was filling up fast.


Phil cocked his neck to hold the phone against his shoulder and continued purging the refrigerator of its perishables.

“Lisa! You won’t believe the day I’m having.”

“You’re already back at home? Why didn’t you call me after you got out? How’d the interview go? Tell me everything!” The questions whizzed across Phil’s mind like arrows.

“Listen, hon, I’m not done with the interview. I’m at the apartment packing for an, um, a business trip.”

“A business trip? Phil, what are you talking about?” Phil could tell from Lisa’s tone that she was confused and quickly heading toward annoyed.

“Well, let’s just say they want to show me something to help me make up my mind. I think they really want me on board. It’s weird and mysterious, but I can’t say no.”

There was silence on the other end of the line before Lisa spoke up. “Okay, well, where are you going? Will you be back for dinner? We were going to celebrate your interview tonight.”

He slammed the fridge door shut. Dinner? Blast! I forgot!

“I think we’re going to have to postpone dinner, sweetheart. They told me thirty hours, and to pack jeans like I was going camping. No suits or ties.”

There was a pause on the other end.

Lisa’s disappointment was obvious, but she came through as she always did. “Okay, Phil, we’ll celebrate when you get back. I don’t like this mysterious trip—it’s not very corporate—but I trust you . . .”

“Thanks, honey. I love you!”

“I love you too. Be safe and call me when you can. Bye.”

Phil hung up the phone, grateful for an understanding girlfriend. They had dated all through college, and she really was his best friend. She trusted him and he trusted her.

Phil tied a knot at the top of the heavy trash bag and swung it over his shoulder like a homeless man’s version of Santa Claus. He grabbed the duffel and his backpack with his other hand and scanned the room quickly for anything that needed to be unplugged, turned off, or worried about while he was away. Nothing.

He ran out the front door and lobbed the overstuffed trash bag into the dumpster as he ran to the waiting limousine and a business trip that he was sure would be unusual.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Stress Relief for Life by Mike Ronsisvalle

Tour Date: 6/2/2011

When the tour date arrives, copy and paste the HTML Provided in the box. Don't forget to add your honest review if you wish! PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT ON THIS POST WHEN THE TOUR COMES AROUND!

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

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

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Stress Relief for Life

Siloam (June 7, 2011)

***Special thanks to Anna Coelho Silva | Publicity Coordinator, Charisma House | Charisma Media for sending me a review copy.***


Mike Ronsisvalle, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist and the president of the Florida Counseling Centers, a psychological services agency that serves Central and South Florida. Dr. Mike earned both a master of arts and a doctor of psychology in clinical psychology from Wheaton College. Prior to his graduate studies in psychology, he completed seminary training at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, where he received a master of theological studies.

Visit the author's website.


Is stress taking over your life?

If you feel like stress is controlling your life, you are not alone. Life is more complicated than ever before, and people are overwhelmed and overstressed. Chronic stress dramatically affects relationships, our physical health, our financial health, and our faith.

It’s not supposed to be this way!

In Stress Relief for Life, Dr. Mike Ronsisvalle helps you identify the sources of your stress and gives you the tools you need to de-stress your life. With a few simple strategies and an easy-to-follow 21-day program, he helps you build a personalized system you can implement in any stressful situation, relationship, or environment. You will discover:

The connection between your thoughts and feelings of stressLifestyle changes you can make that insulate you from stress

How to build relationships that will help you de-stress

How to control your body’s response to stress and improve your mental, physical, and spiritual health

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Siloam (June 7, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1616383577
ISBN-13: 978-1616383572


The signs are all around us, in the chatter you’ll hear in almost any living room, office, classroom, or coffeehouse:

• “I can’t believe it’s 6:30 p.m. already, and I’m not done with this proposal.”
• “Would you just shut up and listen to me? I’m not going to sit here and argue with you all night.”

• “Honey, I think Jenny is having sex with her boyfriend. I found birth control pills in her closet.”

• “I’ve got mail…again?”
• “Twelve more American soldiers were killed today at the hands of a suicide bomber…”
• “Mom, I am not too young to wear a miniskirt!”

• “The baby is up again, and I’ve got to make a presentation tomorrow morning.”
• “I just can’t take it anymore!”

Life is more complicated than ever before, and people are overwhelmed and overstressed. Just look around. People are pulsating in the pressure cooker of unbridled expectations at work and at home. Companies now pride themselves on their ability to do more with less manpower. They call it downsizing; everyone else calls it torture. And we can’t find a respite at home because the simplicity of family life has been replaced with what can be described only as chaotic over-scheduling. Children are juggling soccer games, dance classes, church activities, and tutoring—all in the same day.

Despite its modern advancements, the twenty-first century has made our lives more complex. Family configurations are morphing rapidly, and technology is only adding to the stress it was supposed to eliminate. Twenty-four-hour, five-hundred channel TV access; unlimited cell phone service; and ever present wireless Internet connections make life exciting but extremely exhausting. As a society, we are literally coming apart at the seams as we become victims of our own impossible schedules and chronically disconnected relationships. And it seems as if there is no end in sight.
During my training as a clinical psychologist, I was encouraged to look for the underlying issues behind a person’s “presenting problem” of stress. Was it a troubled childhood? How about some significant trauma suffered earlier in life or a current interpersonal crisis? As it turns out, much of my practical experience in counseling tells me that the presenting problem underneath stress often is difficulty managing what we consider normal, everyday life.

It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way!

One of my graduate school professors at Wheaton College, Dr. Mark McMinn, had a very practical way of explaining why so many people get chronically stressed. I’ll paraphrase his understanding of the root cause of stress with this illustration from the 1991 film Grand Canyon.
In the movie, a young white man played by Kevin Kline drives down a crowded interstate in Los Angeles. As he surveys what seems like miles of brake lights ahead of him, he makes a snap decision to pull off the highway and take the back roads to avoid the congestion. After some time, it becomes apparent that he is lost. He finds himself driving his late-model BMW through the slums of LA when the unthinkable happens: he has car trouble. His Beamer creeps to a stop on the side of the road, and he immediately picks up his cell phone and calls for a tow truck.

Before long his car is surrounded by what looks like a group of gang members, and what the man fears begins to unfold. The gang members pull him from his car and start to beat him up. The situation doesn’t look good at all for the young driver until his tow truck arrives. Out from the cab jumps a strapping driver played by Danny Glover, who promptly pulls the gang leader aside.
Glover’s character looks this young gang leader in the eyes and says something along these lines: “Look, I’m here to do my job. I’m just a tow truck driver, and my job is to help this guy get his car back home. And this guy”—Glover points to the driver of the BMW—”he’s just trying to get home. But here we are, and you guys are about to beat the fool out of this guy. This isn’t right. It’s just not supposed to be this way.”
It’s not supposed to be this way. Every time I watch Grand Canyon I’m shocked at how profound this statement is. Amazingly, it carries great theological weight. We are not supposed to be so stressed. Life shouldn’t feel so chaotic for so many people. God never intended this, but our world is just broken. What Danny Glover’s character confronts that day in Los Angeles and what we experience every day in our stress filled lives is a result of the brokenness of our world.

Our world is characterized by pain, marred by sin, and in many ways we are broken people. The question is, What are we to do with our brokenness? Do we embrace it? Do we live with our stress and make the best of it? I don’t think so! God has a plan to heal the brokenness of our lives in general and the brokenness of our own personal world in particular. He hasn’t left us hanging in the balance, and He has indeed provided strategies

that can help us overcome chronic stress and experience a life filled with peace.
That’s where Stress Relief for Life comes in. This program is designed to take you from the brokenness of stress to the beauty of a peace that passes all understanding. For the next twenty-one days you will be exposed to information about how to live a less-stressed life, but more importantly, you will learn practical skills that you can implement in any situation to get relief from the pressure cooker of your life.
This program is not a dissertation on the theoretical underpinnings of stress in general. Instead we will focus on what to do in the unique and specific situations that create chronic stress in your life. Each day you will be given homework assignments

that will help you identify the sources of your stress and discover new ways to respond to those triggers.

The Stress Relief for Life program is simple, practical, and based on solid research regarding the most effective techniques for managing stress. The plan works, but only if you take the time to implement it. I realize that if you had a lot of time on your hands, you probably wouldn’t be stressed. But if you are motivated to spend thirty minutes each day reading the material, completing the homework, and implementing the stress-management skills in your life, you will be considerably less stressed in twenty-one days.
It is important to note that this program will not eliminate stress from your life. It’s unrealistic to think that you can live without stress because we all need a little stress to help motivate us in life. However, it is realistic to eradicate your chronic stress and begin to live a life that feels totally different. You can experience the kind of life God intended—one that is filled with His peace even in the midst of the most stressful situations.

So, are you ready to begin?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pompeii: City on Fire by T.L. Higley

Tour Date: June 1st

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

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Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Pompeii: City on Fire

B&H Books; Original edition (June 1, 2011)

***Special thanks to T.L. Higley for sending me a review copy.***


Tracy started her first novel at the age of eight and has been hooked on writing ever since. After earning a B.A. in English Literature at Rowan University, she spent ten years writing drama presentations for church ministry before beginning to write fiction. A lifelong interest in history and mythology has led Tracy to extensive research into ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome and Persia, and shaped her desire to shine the light of the gospel into the cultures of the past.

She has traveled through Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Italy, researching her novels and falling into adventures.

Visit the author's website.


A city shadowed by a roiling volcano
A young politician running from his destiny
A Jewish slave girl with a desperate plan
Are any of them safe from harm?

Pleasure-seeking Romans find the seaside town of Pompeii the perfect getaway. But when the rich patrician Cato escapes Rome, intent on a life of leisure, he is unprepared for the hostility he encounters. In the same place, but at the opposite end of society, Ariella has disguised herself as a young boy to be sold into a gladiator troupe. Survival is her only ambition.
But evil creeps through the streets of Pompeii, and neither Ariella’s secret nor Cato’s evasion is immune to it. Political corruption, religious persecution, and family peril threaten to destroy them, even before an ominous mountain in the distance spews its fire.

As Vesuvius churns with deadly intent, Cato and Ariella must bridge their differences to save the lives of those they love—before fiery ash buries Pompeii, turning the city into a lost world.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: B&H Books; Original edition (June 1, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1433668572
ISBN-13: 978-1433668579



August 9, 70 AD

Ariella shoved through the clogged street, defying the mob of frantic citizens. Men, women, and children crowded the alleys, senseless in their panic to flee the city. They carried all they could, packed into pouches slung across their chests and clutched in sweaty hands. Soldiers ran with them, as though they had all joined a macabre stadium footrace, with participants who clubbed and slashed at each other to get ahead. Beside her, one of the district’s tax collectors tripped and fumbled a latched wooden box. It cracked against the cobbled street and spilled its meager hoard of gold. The tax collector was dead before he hit the ground, and the Roman soldier pulled his sword from the man’s gut only to scrabble for the coins.

Ariella turned her head from the gore, but felt little pity for the tax man, cheated of life by the Romans for whom he had betrayed his people. Still, concern flickered in her chest at the sudden violence in the street.

Something has happened.

The city had been under siege for months. Three days ago her mother announced that the sacrifices in the Temple had ceased. But today, today was something new. Perhaps three days of sins not atoned for had brought the wrath of the Holy One down on them all.

Unlike those who ran the streets with her, Ariella’s destination was neither Temple nor countryside. She returned to her home—if the dim tenement could be called such—from another useless excursion to secure food.

At sixteen and as eldest child, it fell on her to search the famished city for a scrap of dried beef to feed her brother, perhaps a thimbleful of milk for the baby, crumbs for her father whose eyes had gone glassy and whose skin was now the color of the clay pots he once turned on the wheel.

But there was no food to be found. Titus, the emperor’s son, had arrived in the spring with his army of eighty thousand and his siege wall served well its double function—the people were trapped and they were starving.

Not even such a wall could prevent news from seeping through its cracks, however. From Caesarea, word escaped of twenty thousand Jews slaughtered in a day. Fifty thousand killed in Alexandria. Ten thousand met the sword in Gamla. Such numbers were incomprehensible.

Here in Jerusalem, the bodies thrown outside the city were too numerous to count, piled high in rotting mounds, as though the city itself were defiled and would forever be unclean.

Yet we are not all dead. Ariella’s hands curled into tense fists as she rounded the last corner. She would cling to life as long as she had strength, and like her untiring mother, she would hold tight to that elusive thread for each member of her family.

She pushed against the rough wood of the door and slipped out of the rush of the street. The home’s tomb-like interior had the peculiar smell of starvation. In the corner, her baby sister whimpered as if in response to Ariella’s entrance. Micah met her at the door, his sunken eyes fixed on her and his lips slightly open, as though anticipating the food she might have brought. Or perhaps he simply lacked the strength to close his jaw. She shook her head and Micah turned away, hiding his disappointment as all boys of eleven do when they are threatened by tears.

Her father did not speak from his mat on the floor. Ariella scooped the listless baby Hannah into her arms and gave her a finger to suck. Small consolation.

“Where is Mother?” She scanned the room, then looked to Micah. A low groan from her father set her heart pounding. “Where is she, Micah? Where has Mother gone?”

Micah sniffed and glanced at the door. “To the Temple. She has gone to the Temple.”

Ariella growled and pushed Hannah into her brother’s arms. “She is going to get herself killed, and then where will we be?”

She bent to her father’s side. The man had been strong once. Ariella could barely remember. She touched the cool skin of his arm. “I will bring her back, Father. I promise.” Her father’s eyes sought her own, searching for reassurance. The hunger seemed to have stolen his voice. How long until it took his mind?

She turned on Micah, grabbed his shoulder. “Do not let anyone inside. The streets--” She looked to the door. “The streets are full of madness.”

He nodded, still cradling Hannah.

She kissed the baby. “Take care of them, Micah.” And then she left to retrieve her mother, whose political fervor often outpaced her common sense.

The mid-summer sun had dropped in the sky, an orange disc hazy and indistinct behind rising smoke. The city burns. She smelled it, sensed it, felt it somehow on her skin as she joined the flow toward the temple – a heat of destruction that threatened to consume them all.

Her family enjoyed the privilege of living in the shadow of the Temple Mount. A privilege that today only put them closer to folly. She twisted through the crazed mob, darted around wagons and pushcarts laden with family treasures, swatted at those who shoved against her. Already, only halfway there, her heart struck against her chest and her breathing shallowed, the weakness of slow starvation.

She reached the steps to the south of the Temple platform and was swept upward with the masses. Why were so many running to the Temple? Why had her mother?

And then she heard it. A sound that was part shrieking anger, part mournful lament, a screaming funeral dirge for the city and its people. She reached the top of the steps, pushed through the Huldah Gate, dashed under the colonnade into the Court of the Gentiles, and drew up short. The crowd pressed against her back, flowed around her and surged onward, but Ariella could not move.

The Temple is on fire.

The next moments blurred. She felt herself running, running toward the Temple as if she alone could avert this monstrous evil. Joining others who must have shared her delusion. She saw Roman legionaries club women and children, voices raised in a war cry. The yells of zealot rebels and the shrieks of those impaled by swords returned like an echo. The dead began to accumulate. Soldiers climbed heaps of bodies to chase those who fled. She tasted ashes and blood in the air, breathed the stench of burning flesh, and still some pushed forward.

She fought the smoke and blood, climbed the steps and entered the Court of Women. All around her, peaceful citizens were butchered where they stood. Ahead, a current of blood ran down the curved steps before the brass Nicanor Gate. The bodies of those who had been murdered at the top slipped to the bottom.

Ariella swayed on her feet at the carnage. That her mother was one of these dead she had no doubt. Elana’s outspoken defiance of Rome had earned her a reputation among her people, one that matched the meaning of her given name, torch.

She could go no farther. The entire Temple structure flamed now, from the Court of Israel to the Holy of Holies, its beauty and riches and sanctity defiled, raped by the Romans who even now risked their own flesh to steal its treasures.

A groan at her feet drew her attention, and she saw as if from a great distance that indeed her mother lay there, a bloody slash against her chest and a vicious purpling around her eyes. She lifted a hand, claw-like, to Ariella, who bent to kneel beside her and clasp her fingers.

Ariella had no words. What use to say good-bye, when they would all be in the same place soon?

Strange, she was very cold. With the flames so near and so fierce, still her fingers felt numb as she wrapped them around her mother’s hand.

Elana whispered only “Never forget…” before she was gone, and Ariella nodded because it was the expected thing to do. She studied her mother’s face, the eyes open and unseeing, and felt nothing. Was that right? Should she feel something?

After awhile she thought perhaps she should go home. She tried to stand, slipped in some blood that had pooled on the marble beneath her, and tried again.

The noise seemed far off now, though she could see the faces of citizens, mouths gaping as though they screamed in agony, and soldiers, feral lips drawn back over their teeth. But the sounds had somehow receded.

She weaved through the upright who still lived, stepped over the prone who had already passed, and drifted back to her house. Behind her, the Temple Mount was enveloped in flames, boiling over from its base, though there seemed to be even more blood than flames.

The stupor that had fallen over her at the Temple seemed to slough away as she traveled the streets. From open doorways she heard an occasional wail, but largely it was quiet. Too quiet. As thouh a river of violence had washed down the street while she’d been gone and swept away all that lived.

Her own street was not so peaceful. From end to end it burned.

She searched the crowd for her father, Micah, the baby. Grabbed hollow-eyed friends and wailing neighbors. One old woman shook her head and pointed a withered hand to the end of the burning street. “Only Micah.” She coughed. “Only he escaped.”

Micah. She called his name, but the word choked in her throat. Where would he have fled?

They had whispered together, one unseasonably warm night a few months ago on their roof, of running away from Jerusalem. Child’s talk, but now… Would he have tried to leave the city, to make it two hours south to family in Bethlehem?

Minutes later, she stumbled toward the Lower City. The Dung Gate would lead her south, to the valley of Hinnom and onward to Bethlehem. If she could escape.

Too many joined her. They would never be allowed to pass. She climbed crumbling steps to the rim of the city wall. Would she see a thread of refugees weaving out of Jerusalem, beyond the gates?

There was a procession of Jews, yes. But not on foot, fleeing to safety. On crosses, writhing in death throes. An endless line of them, crucified in absurd positions for the Romans’ entertainment, until they had run out of crosses, no doubt. Ariella gripped the wall. She would have retched had there been anything in her stomach.

She considered throwing herself from the wall. Was it high enough to guarantee her death? She would not want to die slowly on the ground, listening to the crucified.

The decision was made for her. From behind, a Roman soldier grabbed both her arms, laughing. She waited for the air in her face, for the spin of a freefall in her belly, that feeling she loved when her father rode the donkey cart too fast over the crest of a hill.

Instead, the soldier spun her to face him, shoved her to the stone floor, and fumbled at her tunic.

No, she was not going to die like that.

She exploded into a flailing of arms and legs, kicks and screams. She used her fingernails, used her teeth, used her knees.

From behind her head another soldier called. “That one’s a fighter, eh, Marcus?”

The soldier on top of her grunted.

“Better save her for the general. He wants the strong ones to sell off, you know.”

Ariella realized in that moment that since the siege began months ago, she had believed she would meet her death in the City of God. But as Jerusalem died without her, something far worse loomed in her future.

Life in the slave market of Rome.

Chapter 1


Nine years later

Night fell too soon, bringing its dark celebrations to the house of Valerius.

Ariella lingered at the fishpond in the center of the dusky atrium, slipping stale crusts to the hungry scorpion fish one tiny piece at a time. The brown and white striped creature snapped at its prey with precision, the venomous spines along its back bristling.

The fish food ran out. There was no delaying the inevitable.

Let the debauchery begin.

Nine years a slave in this household, nine annual tributes to Dionysius. The Greek god, embraced by the Romans and renamed Bacchus, apparently demanded every sort of drunken vice performed in his honor. And Valerius would not disappoint the god.

Indeed, Valerius flaunted his association with the mystery sect, though its practice was frowned upon by the government and disdained by most citizens.

Ariella inhaled, trying to draw strength from the deadly fish her master kept as a pet. For we are both kept as such, aren’t we? The scorpion fish’s body swayed like a piece of debris, its disguise needless in its solitary enclosure.

Within an hour Valerius’s guests poured into the town house, sloshed up most of the wine she’d placed on low tables in the triclinium, and progressed to partaking of the extract of opium poppies, tended in red-tinged fields beyond the city. The sweet, pungent smoke hung like a smothering wool toga above their heads.

A traveling guild of actors somersaulted into the room, their lewd songs and costumes an affront to decency and a delight to the guests. Ariella lowered her eyes, embarrassment still finding her even after all she had endured, and cleared the toppled cups and soiled plates. She passed Valerius, sprawled on a gold-cushioned couch, and he rubbed a hand over her calf. Her muscles twitched like the flank of a horse irritated by a fly.

Her master’s high-pitched laugh floated above the general noise of the intoxicated. Ariella winced. Valerius performed tonight for his honored guest, another politician from the south somewhere.

“Perhaps we shall make a man of you yet, Maius.” Valerius waved his slender fingers at the larger man. “I shall take you out into the city and declare to all that you are one of us.”

The politician, Maius, reddened. Ariella leaned over him to refill his cup. Clearly, he was here to humor Valerius but not align himself with the vile man.

When the actors had twirled their final dance and claimed applause, the herd of guests took their revelry to the streets. Valerius dragged Ariella through the door, always his special companion this night. Her breath caught in her throat. It was not the streets she feared. It was what would come after.

Mother, why could I not be strong like you?

The insanity built to a crescendo as they wound their torch-lit way toward the Via Appia, where the procession would climax. The Bacchanalians howled and pushed and tripped, their vacant eyes and laughing mouths like the painted frescoes of her nightmares. Hair disheveled, carrying blazing torches, they danced along the stones, uttered crazed predictions and contorted their bodies impossibly. Back in Jerusalem, her father would have said they had the demons in them. Here in Rome, Ariella rarely thought of such things.

It was enough to survive.

They passed a cluster of slaves, big men, most of them, herded into a circle amidst a few flaming torches. Strange time of day for a slave auction. Ariella met the eyes of a few, but their shared circumstance did not give them connection.

Snatches of speech reached her. A gladiator troupe. A lanista, the trainer for the troupe, called out numbers, making new purchases. A memory of home flashed, the day she had been sold to Valerius’s household manager. She had thought herself fortunate then, when so many others were sold off to entertain in the arena. Foolish child.

The unruly procession passed the men bound for death and Ariella’s gaze flitted through them. Did they feel the violent shortness of their lives press down on them? Before her stretched nothing but endless misery. Was their lot not preferable?

A muscled slave with the yellow hair of the west shifted and she glimpsed a face beyond him. Her blood turned to ice, then fire.


She yanked away from Valerius’s sweaty grip. Stood on her toes to peer into the men.

Valerius pulled away from the raucous group, wrapped a thin arm around her waist, and brought his too-red lips to her ear. “Not growing shy after all these years, are we?” His baby-sweet voice sickened her.

She leaned away. Caught another look at the boy.

Turn your head. Look this way!

Valerius tugged her toward the road, but her feet had grown roots. I must be sure.

But then he turned, the boy about to be a gladiator, and she saw that it could not be Micah. He was too young, older than she remembered her brother but not old enough to be him. Though the resemblance was so strong perhaps he was a distant cousin, she knew he was not her brother. In fact, the boy looked more like her than Micah. If she were to cut her hair, she could pass for his twin.

She let Valerius pull her back to the procession, but the moment had shaken her. Memories she had thought dead turned out to be only buried, and their resurrection was a knife-blade of pain.

She sleepwalked through the rest of the procession, until their drunken steps took them to the caves on the Via Appia, dark spots on the grassy mounds along the road where greater abuses could be carried out without reprisals.

Valerius and his guest, Maius, were arguing.

Ariella forced her attention to the men, leaving off thoughts of Micah and home. It did not pay to be ignorant of Valerius’s moods.

“And you would sully the position you’ve been given by your dissolution!” Maius’s upper lip beaded with sweat and he poked a finger into Valerius’s chest.

Valerius swiped at the meaty finger. “At least I am not a coward! Running home to pretend to be something I am not.”

“You think me a coward? Then you are a fool. I know how to hold on to power. Yours will wash away like so much spilled wine.”

Valerius cackled. “Power? Ah yes, you are a mighty man down there in your holiday town by the sea. I daresay you couldn’t put a sword to a thief if he threatened your family!”

Ariella took a step backward. Valerius misjudged Maius, she could see. The man’s eyes held a coldness that only came of cruelty.

Before Valerius could react, Maius had unsheathed a small dagger from his belt. He grabbed for a nearby slave, one of Valerius’s special boys, wrapped a meaty arm around his forehead, and in one quick move, sliced the slave’s neck. He let the boy fall. Valerius screeched.

“There.” Maius tossed the dagger at the smaller senator’s feet and glared. “I owe you for one slave. But perhaps now you will keep your pretty mouth shut!”

“What have you done?” Valerius bent to the boy and clutched at his bloody tunic. “Not Julius! Not this one!”

The moon had risen while they marched, and now it shone down on them all, most of the guests taken with their own lustful pursuits and senseless to the drama between the two men. Ariella traced the path of moonlight down to her feet, to the glint of iron in the dirt. Maius’s dagger.

She had not held a weapon for many years. Without thought she bent and retrieved it. Held it to her side, against the loose fabric of her robe.

She could not say when the idea first planted itself in her mind. Perhaps it had been back in the city when she had seen the boy who was not Micah. Perhaps it only sprang to life at this moment. Regardless, she knew what she would do.

She would not return to Valerius’s house. Not participate once more, behind closed doors, in the mystery rites that had stolen her soul. Her nine years of torture had come to an end.

No one called out, no one pursued. She simply slipped away, into the weedy fields along the Via Appia, back to the city, the dagger hidden under her robe. She unwrapped the fabric sash at her waist and wound it around her hair. A few quiet questions and she found the yard where the newly-purchased gladiators awaited their assignment. A little flirtation with the loutish guard at the gate, enough to convince him that she was one of the many Roman women obsessed with the fighters, and he let her in with a wicked grin.

She found the boy within moments. His eyes widened as though she were his first opponent. She pulled him to the shadows, to the catcalls of his fellow fighters.

The dagger was steady in her hand and sharp enough to slice through large hanks of hair. The boy watched, wide-eyed, as she disrobed in front of him, modesty ignored.

He was young enough to easily convince.

Within minutes she had donned his leathers and taken his place on the ground with the other fighters. The boy stumbled across the yard, awkward in his new robes and headscarf.

It was done.

Elana would be proud.